Rocherty UMC February 23rd, 2020
“You Have Heard It Said…”


          One of the things my wife Angela and I love to do is to play games.  I have to admit, before I met Angela, I didn’t.  But she…she grew up in a family where games were central. Uno at the community pool. Risk and monopoly with her cousin. Canasta with her parents and their friends.  Bohnanza and scrabble with her father. You should see her father’s board game collection!  And when we started dating and after we were married, games became a part of what we did together as a family.  If there was a family function, it inevitably led to a game. Anomia, Puerto Rico, Hogwarts battle, Clue, Settlers, and on and on. And even today, later this afternoon, Angela, myself, and several of my in-laws will be getting together for an afternoon of food, fellowship, and, of course, games!
          But one thing that isn’t very fun is playing a game of which you didn’t know the rules, or can’t figure them out.  Or worse yet, if the rules keep changing.  Have you ever tried playing games with a pre-schooler?  Well, from my experience, it isn’t unusual for the rules of the game to suddenly change when it benefits the child in question. 
          You see, rules help us by providing some boundaries for where to go and where not to go.  In a game, they tell you what you can and can’t do on your turn.  They tell you the way to play fairly, and they tell you the conditions for victory—in other words how you win the game.
          While it’s not always a one-to-one comparison, life can fruitfully be compared to a game. No, life is not a joke. Yes, the stakes are serious.  And no, there are no do-overs in life. But there are rules. And there are other people you can work with, or compete against. Will you team up, find a partner, or go it all alone? In fact, there are many rules, both written and unwritten in the game that we call life.  Part of the skill of this particular game is knowing who makes the rules, which rules to follow, and what to do when the different sets of rules conflict.
          You see, unlike a board game in which the rules are consistent and make sense, life is not that way.  There is a set of rules we live by when we are young, mostly set by our parents.  Then when we mature, we begin to discover other rules.  The rules of our family.  The rules of our workplace. Then we have the rules of the places we live called laws.  Then we have the rules that our social groups—our friends—make.  And of course, we can’t forget the laws set up for us by religion.
          Ah yes, the laws of religion.  If there is one thing non-religious folks like to poke fun at us religious folk, it’s the laws that are found in the Bible.  I mean, you don’t have to go much further than the first few books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) to find a huge number of rather strange laws.
          I’m not quite sure about what kinds of fabric you might be wearing today, but I confess that I’m violating one of the laws found in the Bible.  I’m wearing garments of mixed cloth.  And that whole thing about not eating shrimp, lobster, crabs, and all the other delicious seafood?  I’ve broken that too many times to count. And yet God has yet to smite me down.  How is that?  I mean, every time Israel violated one of these laws, God seemed to hammer the smite key faster than a cat when it hears me open the food container.
          In the wider culture, there is this impression that the God of the Old Testament is particularly violent and retributional.  In other words, if you don’t follow the rules---SMITE!  And often times this is placed in stark comparison with Jesus, who, according to this way of thinking, is all kind, loving, forgiveness and grace.  And so ,what happens is we get two differing portraits of God that people live by, a God of Mercy and a God of Wrath.  And depending on which model of God you were raised on, the rules of the game of life might have been very different.
A Holistic View
          So, what do we do with these two very different expressions of God?  Well, I would say that the positions I sketched just a moment ago are NOT accurate, though they are quite common in everyday thought.  The God of the Old Testament is also known for his mercy, not just his temper.  And Jesus—Jesus talked about divine justice as much, if not more, than about a blessed afterlife.  So, what is it about Christianity that makes people come to the two extremes of either a rules based legalistic view of life or an anything goes mentality?
The Answer
          I think part of it comes down to two common predilections of human beings.  First, we seek safety- in a cave, in a house, in familiar things. We claim objects, and lock doors, and build fences around ourselves to feel safe.  BUT, in contrast, we don’t like boundaries imposed on us by other people!  We like freedom.  We like choice.  We like options.
          God knows these two things about us.  God created us with a strong and powerful sense of free will.  Of agency.  Of the ability to make real decisions with real consequences.  It’s at the heart of our Methodist faith that we freely make the decision to love God.  It’s not a coerced faith.  It’s not pre-determined.  It’s a choice we make freely in response to the divine offer of love.
          As we know from the many stories we find in the Bible, choices have consequences.  The first wrong choice in the Bible—eating from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil—had consequences.  It was the separation of Adam and Eve from God, the breaking of relationships.  And these consequences weren’t secret or unknown.  That’s the whole story of the Bible: Humanity has been told what happens when we break relationships.  We become distant from God and in so doing we become distant from other people as well.  Our relationship with God is bound up in our relationship with other people and vice versa.
          I’d like to briefly focus on our three scripture passages this week.  They richly illustrate the point that I’m trying to make this morning, which I’ll get to as we wrap up.  The first passage comes from one of those first five books of the Bible, the book of Deuteronomy.  Traditionally, Deuteronomy is viewed as the last sermon of Moses to the people of Israel.  The people had completed their wilderness wanderings and were now ready to enter the land of promise.  Moses was at the end of his life and he knew it.  He knew he would die before he entered the land.  Now was his last chance to instruct the people he led out of bondage.
          And all through Deuteronomy he tells the Israelites what will lead to prosperity and a good future in their new home.  He tells them the kinds of things to do in order to thrive, to keep good relationships with family and neighbors, and he tells them the kinds of things to avoid in order to prevent the negative consequences of broken relationships.  Our passage for today is the climax of Moses’ speech given to the Israelites.
          And Moses doesn’t pull any punches in his words to Israel.  He gives them a very stark contrast between two opposite modes of life.  He presents to them the choice between life and prosperity and death and adversity.  And what are these choices predicated upon?  They are based upon the Israelites following the rules of the game.  The Law that God established and gave through Moses to Israel.  They are summarized in the Ten Commandments and focus on the love of God and the love of neighbor.  They are intended to keep the sanctuary of God and his people holy and clean.  It was intended to create an island of paradise in the midst of the desert.
          The Israelites are prodded to choose life.  They are prodded to play the game and to play the game fairly.  They have the list of rules to follow.  They’ve been given all they need to succeed.  Now, they must use their innate ability, their free will or freedom to choose, to follow after God and his ways.
          But we all know how that went.  Time after time Israel turned away from God and decided to break the rules.  Sometimes they decided to even invent rules of their own.  Sometimes, they made it up as they went along.  But all along, the promised consequences for breaking the rules came into play.  God had told the people that if they consistently broke the rules and didn’t make amends, they’d end up losing the land.  Just like mortgaging a property in Monopoly when you run out of money.  Israel lost her land in the exile.  And with the loss of the land, they lost a piece of their identity.  And even after returning to the land under the Persians, it was never really the same game they were playing.  There was always a foreign referee imposing outside restrictions on the free play that God intended.
          And that brings us back again full-circle to the teachings of Jesus found in the Sermon on the Mount.  We’ve been studying this interesting series of passages for three weeks now.  And if you remember, we’ve seen that under Jesus’ teaching, the rules of the world don’t seem to apply.  We’ve heard that the winners of the game are actually the losers.  Blessed are the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted, those who mourn.  You could add to that.  Blessed are the sick, the lame, the weak.  Things in God’s kingdom are turned upside down from the rules most people play by. Why? Well, the rules didn’t change, they were just misunderstood.
          And then we come to today’s strange passage.  Here we find Jesus speaking about the laws spoken to the ancients, the people of Israel.  And audaciously, Jesus says something like the following.  “You have heard it said, but….I say to you.  Jesus talks about some pretty heavy things here.  He talks about murder and tells us that even misdirected and misapplied anger at our neighbor is dangerous.  He talks to us about adultery and tells us that even thoughts about having the partner of another are akin to unchastity.  And he closes with an admonition not even to take an oath to tell the truth, instead living our lives in such a way that those kinds of promises are unnecessary.
          Each part of this speech of Jesus could rightfully earn a sermon of its own.  But today I want to focus on what is and isn’t going on here.  You see, some people take a look at what Jesus is doing and think he’s rewriting the rules.  They think he’s taking an eraser to the old, outdated laws of the Old Testament and making them better, more progressive, more loving.  And many of these same people then take the logical step to saying that none of that Old Testament stuff applies anymore.  Those Ten Commandments?  They’re passé.  We can do away with all that legalistic stuff.  All we need to do is love each other.
Hold It!
          But there is a big problem here.  Jesus said last week that he didn’t come to abolish the law.  In fact, he gave a great warning to those that would set aside the laws of God.  He told the people that not one letter of the law would pass away before it was all fulfilled.  And it’s to this notion of fulfillment that we need to move.
          You see, Jesus is not anti-law or anti-Old Testament.  Jesus loved the Scriptures, proclaimed the Scriptures, taught the Scriptures.  But what Jesus had no time for was that the Scriptures be manipulated in ways that kept people in power.  And he had no time for people that would use the laws of Scripture to oppress others.  That’s why some of his harshest words were for those in religious authority.  The scribes, the Pharisees, the ruling elite.
          You see, in their zeal for the law and their focus on the letter, they forgot the spirit behind the law.  Jesus called this the weightier matter of the law.  And that indeed is love.  But not some sappy romantic Hallmark kind of love.  But a love that is lived out in self-sacrifice and self-giving.  It is a love that is focused on the Great Commandments of loving God and loving neighbor. The kind of love that keeps relationships, instead of ending them. Ah, now that’s something that makes all that love and humility and forgiveness and grace stuff all make sense!
          If you look at all the laws in the Old Testament, and at the Ten Commandments in particular, you’ll see that invariably, those laws are designed for one of two very closely linked purposes.  Either they helped Israel love God better or they helped them love their neighbor better.
          And some of those strange laws?  Like the food laws and the rules about fabrics, etc.?  Those laws make sense in a pagan culture in which lots of foreign gods were “loved” with sacrifices of pigs and other animals, so Israel was forbidden to eat them.  Israel loved God by staying faithful, and not entering into relationships with other gods.
          Did you ever wonder what all those other laws were about?  Laws about skin diseases and women and men who have bodily discharges?  Laws about harvesting grain and care of the poor?  Well, all of those laws were designed for the welfare of the entire society, the entire people of Israel.  And, if you take a careful look, for those outside of Israel as well.  That’s what all those laws about the foreigner, alien, and stranger are about.
          In short, Israel was supposed to love others.  Does that sound familiar?  Jesus gave what he called a new commandment.  And that commandment?  That’s right, love one another.  How is it new if it was found in the Old Testament?  It’s new because it was so hard to follow through on!  People need the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in their midst to truly live it out.
          I want to conclude by turning to our last Scripture for the day, Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians.  We’ve seen that this church was deeply divided among those that followed various teachers.  And in our reading for today, Paul wastes no time before calling these groupies a bunch of immature people.  He says they are people of the flesh and not people of the spirit.  Instead of trying their best to play the game of life according to the One Rule that rules them all: love, they were trying to play by their own rules.  Rules that benefitted them to the exclusion of others.  Again, humans did what humans do, and the teaching of love was downgraded to a list of rules of what to do and not do, and there were disagreements, and there were arguments, and  how should you live, and who would have power, and, and, and…. And Paul has one clear instruction:  Stop It!  Enough already!
          Brothers and sisters, what kind of rules are you playing by today?  Are you playing by the rules your parents raised you by?  Are you playing by the rules that your favorite politician uses, or a famous TV preacher tells you to follow?  Are you playing by the rules of the American Dream or some other set of rules?
          There are many competing systems of rules out there and they all make promises.  They all tell us we can win.  But here’s the catch—they all define victory very differently!
          Some tell us that financial success is the be all and end all.  This says that he who dies with the most toys wins.  Or that those who died the best loved and most popular are the ones who win the game.
          But what is winning in God’s game?  It’s been running since the beginning.  What are the victory conditions and how do we get there?  What rules must we follow?
          God’s end game goal is nothing less than the redemption of all lost people and a lost world enslaved to sin and death.  The victory condition?  His name is Jesus Christ.  It’s not about rules, it’s not about law, it’s not about things.  It’s about a person, Immanuel, and about relationships: God with us, God is Love.
          Jesus, the great teacher, exposes the rules of the world for what they are: pale attempts at coming up with a facsimile of what God wants for us.  In the place of peace and wholeness comes prosperity and wealth.  In the place of love and acceptance comes popularity and cliquishness. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be!
          God essentially gives just one rule to human beings.  It’s a simple rule.  And it is to love.  Love God by loving all your neighbors.  And there is a simple test to all our actions to see whether we’re playing the game by the rule.  Is what I’m doing loving and in the best interest of the other person?  Does it lead to peace, prosperity, reconciliation, and wholeness?  If so, carry on, you’re playing the game well.  If the answer is no, it’s time to re-evaluate and change your strategy.
          Jesus invites us to live in a way that transcends the letter of the Law and leads us to the Spirit.  You have heard it said in the past that you must follow rules, but I say to you that you must love.  This isn’t a way to subvert the Old Testament but the way that Jesus was revealing its intent.  To love God and neighbor is the foundation of every other rule, law, commandment and statute.  If love is the One Rule of your life, you’ll do more than just get through the game, you’ll win.