Rules of the Road

(A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost/Proper 14  Psalm 34:1-8; Ephesians 4:25-5:2)

At our house there is an 18-year-old who has been away at school and camp playing the clarinet so much over the past two years that he hasn’t gotten his driver’s license yet. Snowman simply wasn’t home long enough at any one stretch for a Driver’s Ed class, and even though he has, in effect, three parents (a mom, a stepdad and a dad), somehow we didn’t get around to teaching him how to drive.

I will take most of the blame for this. I did not like driving with my mother when I was learning. I did not like the mask of “I’m not nervous” she wore, which communicated absolute terror. I remember my friend Ruby’s mother sitting with her foot against the dashboard, braced for impact, just in case, and I can see myself doing the same thing.

I don’t want to make my children nervous. I’m a little afraid I’ll over-explain the rules of the road, because I’m not sure where to start. So when my oldest learned to drive, my husband stepped forward. #1 Son and his stepdad went out to the Mall, to the mostly empty section of the parking lot beside J.C. Penney, and Pure Luck simply put the boy behind the wheel.

He says the first rule in teaching someone to drive is to let them get the feel for it.

Drivers ed I remember, sort of, getting behind the wheel of one of the Driver’s Ed cars at my high school outside Historic Billsburg. I remember weaving the car in and out of a course of orange traffic cones. I remember the retired gentleman who taught the class and my last drive with him on the day before I got my license. He joked about how he would be sure to stay off the road that afternoon.

I’m so used to the feel of a car now that it’s hard to remember what it was like for driving to be unfamiliar. It’s hard to remember not knowing the rules of the road.

Of course, I don’t necessarily remember the principles as they are laid out in writing. In fact, I would hate to have to take the written exam again. I just know what to do and what not to do.

At least I think so.

We tell our kids the same things our parents told us, to be careful, not to pass a school bus, not to drink and drive, and we tell them some new things, like “Don’t text while you’re driving!”

All these rules follow on the things we’ve taught them already, or hope we have, and on the things our parents and our grandparents taught us, or hoped they did.

In my family, I heard: “Pretty is as pretty does,” and “Make yourself useful as well as decorative.”  

Thumper21 When I went to see Bambi, I learned, along with Thumper, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.”

From the common culture I learned things like “God helps those who help themselves,” which isn’t in the Bible at all, and from the Bible I heard the exact opposite, to love my neighbors, especially those out of favor and in need, and even to love my enemy.

That last one is hard, but sometimes it’s no easier to love our families and our friends, especially when we forget one of the most important rules of the road, one that comes right out of today’s epistle reading:

“Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”

That’s just part of it, of course. In full, it says:

Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. (Ephesians 4:26-27)

This reminds me of two rules my mother taught me. When I was a little girl, I was *very* sensitive to teasing. Really, I was a grown-up before I took it better. My mother taught me that famous expression, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” It would be a great mantra, if only it were true.

Words can hurt us, and in this passage, intended to instruct a new faith community, the message is clear: our words matter. They matter very much. The way we communicate our anger, the way we work through our differences will reflect not only on ourselves but on our God. The way we speak expresses the way we live, and the way we love.

Love_story I needed a different rule, and I’m glad to say that through my mother, who no doubt matured in her thinking as she passed from her 30s into her 40s – as I hope I have! – I got that new rule for the road of life later. The movie “Love Story” brought Erich Segal’s book into the common culture, and the tag line appeared everywhere. “Love,” Segal’s character Jennifer insisted, “means never having to say you’re sorry.”

This made my mother cringe and with quite a lot of animation she told me, “Love means *always* having to say you’re sorry!”

One way or another, love means taking note of how your feelings and your actions and your words make impact on the people in your life.

“Be angry, but do not sin.”

When we disagree, with a friend, or in our families, or in our church, anger may stem from a frustration that we haven’t reached the same conclusions as the people who are closest to us. We don’t have the same understanding of what it means to be a Smith or a Jones, a Mainer or an American, a Congregationalist or a Christian. We wonder if the person who disagrees with us really listened in Sunday School.

We might get mad.

And then we might remember my father’s rule, which was “Don’t say ‘mad;’ say angry.”

So many rules to remember…

If we have to keep them straight in our heads, they may not come to us readily enough, but can we make them enough a part of ourselves that we can simply know them by feel?

The letter to the Ephesians goes around this rule, saying it over and over in different ways in an attempt to be sure everyone will understand it.

Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31-32)

Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us. (Ephesians 5:1-2a)

Health-care-dingell-forum These rules for the Christian road are simple and straightforward, but we read them in a world where the loudest and angriest voices seem to get the most attention. Don’t agree with something? Stand up and shout!!! Dislike a policy? Accuse the person behind it of being like Stalin or Hitler!!! Better yet, use epithets for anyone who might be on the other side of anything.

No. Be angry but do not sin. Do not make room for the devil.

It’s in that wild space created by unhinged anger that terrible things happen, that we become devils ourselves, lashing out because we feel afraid or hurt or out of control of the situation.

Imagine the Christians in Ephesus, a Greek town, a place accustomed to many gods, not one, a place where following the Jewish Messiah seemed like a very odd choice, indeed. Imagine the stress of belonging to a group shunned by your lifelong friends or your business associates. Imagine the sadness of finding what feels like your true path and having to face the disappointment or the dismay of your own relatives, people who thought they knew you better, people who feel they do not know you at all anymore.

And the people they met as they formed a new community may not have been familiar, may not have been people they would associate with for any other reason. As they began to gather together regularly, they had to learn how to get along with each other, how to care for one another and how to live into their new identities as followers of Christ.

Merge This is not a lesson we need to learn only once in our lives. If we learned them once and then forgot them, what would be the use of the rules of the road? These rules do not exist only to prepare us to drive, but to keep us doing it in way that will not endanger anyone. They exist to make it possible for us to live together in community.

This week, Snowman got behind the wheel of a car for the first time, in an empty church parking lot. There are so many things to know: how to turn on the car, how to put it in gear, how to check all the mirrors and check them again, how to release the parking break, how to press the accelerator gently and drive. All that, and we haven’t even talked yet about where we’re going.

First he needs to get the feel for it. We all need that. For people of faith the feel of it is love. In all our interactions with each other, may love be the rule of the road.

9 thoughts on “Rules of the Road”

  1. Oh the memories of teaching both my children to drive…I tried so hard not to let my terror show – but yes, it is a frightening thing…
    Anyway, I like how you lead into and out of Ephesians.

  2. this is awesome. What a word for our country these days. And, oh, for me.

  3. Good words. I enjoyed your enumeration of all those rules–and your wee reminder that one particular “biblical” aphorism is NOT biblical!
    I learned to drive quite belatedly, too, and recently learned to drive a stick-shift when we acquired our little old farm truck. I’d like to add what my truck taught me, which I’d been suspecting for some time: “reverse” is the hardest gear to get into or out of, and it’s made that way on purpose. (How many, many times I’ve wished, in life, that a nice move into “reverse” was easier!)

  4. Great sermon!
    The Kid doens’t have his license yet, either. No driver ed in school. Stick shift, me not a good teacher….not sure when he’ll get it at this point. Good luck to Snowman!

  5. What a wonderful way to think of this — rules of the road.
    One of my children’s teachers used to say, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can break my heart.”

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