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Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany – February 13, 2011

In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.

When my kids were small, we had some family rules – wipe your feet when you come into the house, wash your hands before dinner, clear your dishes from the table, look both ways before crossing the street.

One day I found a piece of paper hanging on the door of one of our bathrooms. It contained 8 rules that were to be followed when using the bathroom – created and monitored by my youngest daughter, Hannah who was six at the time.

Rules for Bathroom
1.   Put away close after using bathtub.
2.   Do not leave dirty water in or on sink.
3.   Do not leave towels on floor.
4.   Leave family make up or one person’s.
5.   Wipe pee drips of seat.
6.   If toilet paper is gone put more on.
7.   Rinse hair out of bathtub.
8.   Do not leave water running while brushing your teeth.

I don’t know about you, but I rarely hear the word “rule” any more. And when I do hear it, something in me begins to squirm. In general, I think we have an aversion to rules. I’m not sure if it’s because they can seem arbitrary or if it’s because they take away some of the personal freedom we so cherish – granting power and control to those who come up with the rules in the first place. Whether they take the form of Codes of Conduct, governmental regulations, or family rules, we are wary of them – wondering where they’ve come from, what their real purpose is and whether or not we really need to pay attention to them.

Yet today, the prayers we have already prayed and the scriptures we have read, all circle around the concept of rules – the commandments God gave to guide God’s people into right living.

The lesson from Ecclesiasticus suggests that the responsibility of right living falls squarely on our own shoulders. There is no getting away with the old adage, “the Devil made me do it!” We have the power to choose good or evil, life or death, according to this author.

The Psalmist seems to believe that it is possible to fully keep all of God’s laws – which strikes me as pretty amazing, given their number – a whopping 613 – and their magnitude.

Then we get to the Gospel lesson, which at first blush, sounds like Jesus is making it even more difficult to follow the rules. Now, instead of being responsible for actions only, Jesus makes it pretty clear we’ve got to be paying attention to our thoughts as well!

So why would is this so important? Why does Jesus care about the connection between our thoughts and our actions?

As is often the case in Jesus’ teaching – especially when it is directed at his closest friends – he is speaking in hyperbole. By means of rhetorical devices, Jesus often uses very disturbing images to get our attention. If we were to take this teaching literally – tearing out our eyes and cutting off our hands when we were tempted to even think about doing things that are harmful – there would be a whole population of dismembered people walking around, as one of my friends pointed out this week.

And the truth is, we often do walk around as a population of maimed and dismembered people. Some of us are scarred because of harm we’ve experienced due to the actions of others; some of us have lost important parts of who we are because of choices we’ve made ourselves.

Our actions matter. What we do makes a difference – it seems to be as simple as that. There are ways to live that are good for us and for others – ways of being in the world that encourage the best in us – that shed light into dark places and increase joy and well-being. And there are ways to live that aren’t good for us or for others – behaviors that bring pain and suffering – behaviors that we must avoid.

While it seems reasonable to think that our actions are the result of our thought processes, psychologists are quick to point out that it often goes the other way around. Instead of our thoughts determining our behavior, it turns out that our behavior often changes the way we think. Either way, there is no question about the fundamental connection and the strength of the connection between our inner and outer lives. Until we realize the truth of this connection, we are fooling ourselves.

When we work to align our thoughts and actions, we become more integrated. As individuals, we experience less cognitive dissonance, we will feel more whole, we experience more peace and our sense of personal wellbeing is enhanced – we are re-membered, put back together.

The alignment of our thoughts and actions affects those around us as well.

Communities made up of integrated individuals are powerful – providing safety and atmospheres that encourage growth. They are communities that take the business of self-examination seriously, asking forgiveness and forgiving when necessary – allowing the process of re-membering to continue and spread.

But the question of the rules we should follow and where they come from remains. Whether we reference the Ten Commandments or Jesus’ summary of the law, it is important to keep in mind that they were given by God to God’s people as a means toward wholeness – tools to keep God’s people on the right track – rules created out of love.

For those of us who have had experience with kids, or can remember what it’s like to be a kid, we know that rules are important. Realistic and thoughtful rules help kids feel safe by establishing healthy boundaries and they often actually keep kids safe.

But as children grow up and become more mature in their understanding, we realize that our language must change. Instead of rattling off a list of do’s and don’ts to our older children,
a concise reminder – perhaps a more abstract reminder – is sufficient. A simple suggestion to “Remember who you are” may be enough.

This kind of reminder only works when rules and the values on which they are based have been internalized, however. And in order for that to happen, the rules and values sometimes need to be made explicit.

I remember how easy it was for us to get behind the anti-bullying campaign, but this week I have also been thinking about how reticent we are to name behaviors that we’re more likely to engage in ourselves – and then turn a blind eye to: gossip, outbursts of anger, selfish and self-serving behaviors that break trust and sow seeds of division – behaviors that hurt others and, in turn, hurt ourselves.

As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, we are God’s servants working together – no matter what our age, no matter what our role, no matter what day of the week it is. We are God’s field, God’s building. So, let’s remember. What we do, matters; what we think counts. Let’s work for authenticity and integrity – doing our best to make sure our inner and outer lives line up. Who knows, we might be able to keep all the rooms of our lives – including the bathrooms – ready for the next person – welcoming, wholesome, real – without having to post a list of rules!   Amen.

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