Sermon preached by the Reverend Cindy Stravers
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost – October 6, 2013
In the Name of the Living God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
I was in the city last week. Now that I no longer live there – no longer have to deal with the noise, the endless crush of bustling bodies and crazy cabs on a daily basis – going there now is always a treat. One of the things I love about being in the city is the opportunity to watch people and observe the social contracts that exist between total strangers – especially underground. There are some written rules underground. You’re not supposed to stand on the yellow line painted near the tracks; you are supposed to watch the gap; you’re not allowed to simply open the Gate-door without paying; you must give the priority seats to those who need them. There are unwritten rules too – rules about where one stands, who goes first, who gets the non-priority seats, where one’s gaze should fall and for how long.
When followed, the rules allow for the relatively smooth flow of many thousands of bodies through subway stations every day. Of course there are times when the flow is interrupted. It is the interruptions – the breaking of these written and unwritten rules – that identify and clarify them. Not until you see someone shove their way from the platform into the train without waiting for passengers to exit, for example, is it obvious that the “right” way to board a train is to step to the side of the opening door and allow those who are getting off the train to do so before those getting on move in.
There are no signs telling you to wait to the side, no booming voice over the intercom, no conductor giving orders to that effect. Following that particular unwritten rule, however, makes life easier – and safer – for everyone. It’s a bit of grace; people somehow learn the rules and for the most part, abide by them. The very existence of the rules is grace. When people – ourselves included – actually obey the rules, that’s grace. And when we can find it in ourselves to trust that others will obey the rules that, too, is grace.
We don’t talk very much about obedience these days – even to our children. The idea of obedience seems outdated in our world individual rights, individual accomplishments, individual accolades. Like the thesis of Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone,” getting ahead on one’s own steam usually trumps getting there together.
Too often in our world, the ability to get ahead, to be successful, means that some fundamental rules of communal life are not obeyed. Those things that lead to the common good are often neglected. We think through situations and issues with our eyes peeled on what is best for….me. We plow through the crowds on the platform….. to commandeer a good seat…. on the uptown train.
Our faith tradition suggests something very different. From the creation stories through the stories of Abraham, the Exodus, the prophets and right on through to the teaching of Jesus, there is a clear emphasis on rules and God’s requirement that they are obeyed.
The second section of our Gospel lesson while strange to our ears – all this stuff about being slaves – speaks to the issue of obedience and the grace surrounding it. Jesus tells his disciples that they are not to expect special favors simply because they have fulfilled their obligations. Whoa! This is a far cry from merit raises and year-end bonuses we’ve come to expect. So, what have we signed on for as people of God? What are the obligations God expects us to meet?
There are the 10 commandments, of course, and there is the summary of the commandments as expressed by Jesus himself: love God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. In between, we have the prophet Micah’s voice: “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
These “laws” provide a framework, a skeleton if you will. They’re sort of like the printed rules and maps in the subway stations or the voice on the intercom. Anyone in the station can avail themselves of the signs and everyone can hear the voice that booms through the intercom. But the skeleton needs some flesh and blood to bring it to life. In many ways, the life and teachings of Jesus and the stories of the early church are the lifeblood of this whole business. Our baptismal promises – which we will renew again on All Saints’ Day in November – also provide important guidance about what it means to live as children of God. There are things we will renounce and there are things we will, with God’s help, promise to do.
And today, our Epistle lesson helps us see what this obedience to God’s laws meant for Timothy. According to the author of this letter, Timothy, in signing on to a life as a follower of Jesus Christ, has chosen a life that includes prayer, tears, sincerity, suffering, and a reliance on the power of God. He is to hold on to sound teaching, guarding the treasure that has been entrusted to him.
Like Timothy, we, too, must find what it means for us to claim and live into our lives as God’s people. We have the maps, we know some of the “rules” and we often hear the warning voices – in our consciences, if not in our ears.
This is grace, my friends.
The very existence of the rules is grace. Our obedience to the rules is grace. The faith, the trust, we have in each other as members of God’s family to obey the rules is also grace. We may not like the idea of rules or obligations, but it seems pretty clear that they’ve been an important part of our spiritual heritage and may be worth rethinking.
God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline – so that we might live the kind of lives that reflect the God who loved us into being, the God who loves us into deeper lives of faith, the God who loves us enough to provide some rules, the God who always, always offers grace. Amen.