(A sermon for Epiphany 5A — February 6, 2011 — Isaiah 58:9b-12; Matthew 5:17-20)
In the dark wood sanctuary of my childhood, and of dreams I still have to this day, I am sitting in a long, curved pew, next to my friend, Paige. My family has moved away and I am visiting my grandmother. It is a magnificently special treat that she allows me to sit with Paige.
It’s a Southern Baptist church where nobody misses a week, and everybody knows the rules. Sunday School happens for all ages before worship. You wouldn’t think of missing it. You know your class. It has a name, or a grade, and you go to it. Maybe you’re one of the older ladies wearing a fancy hat and white gloves and carrying a handbag with a handkerchief and a lipstick and a compact tucked inside. Maybe you’re a young businessman who goes to a men’s class, wearing your Sunday best necktie, shaking hands with the friends you see every Sunday, faithfully.
Or maybe you’re like me, in ankle socks and black patent leather shoes, eager for the lesson to be over and worship to begin, even though sitting still when your feet don’t touch makes a girl’s legs restless. Which is why you want a pencil for drawing on your bulletin.
On this day, in the curving pew, something different happens. After the minister finishes preaching, some men—just men, this was a long time ago—some men in suits go up to the front of the church and the next thing you know they are passing out trays. They are not the offering plates. You know all about the offering. You carry yours in your pocket or a little purse. But mysteriously, a silver tray is coming toward you, and you see people at the other end of the long pew taking a little cube of white bread, and the tray comes closer, and you think, “I’ll take one, too.”
But you hear someone hiss, “No!” And a hand reaches out to stop yours.
I wish I could tell you this is a nightmare. But it’s a memory, and it was a hard lesson about being excluded in a community where I had always felt loved and accepted. I just didn’t know that rule. I didn’t realize there was an invisible book that guided how we did things together.
I just didn’t know.
The scribes and the Pharisees of Jesus’ time knew everything about the rules. They had complete knowledge of their scriptures, both the Books of the Law and the words of the Prophets. They knew backwards and forward the practices of the ancestors. They knew intimately the interpretations and re-interpretations handed down over the generations.
It was nothing new to hear a re-interpretation. Let’s be clear about that. In the Jewish tradition, notes in the margins could mean as much as the words on the page. The conversations of the ancestors became part of the life of the descendants.
We’re the same way, even if we don’t recognize it. Each local church has its book to go by, seldom actually written down. Ask why something is done a certain way, and wait for the blank expressions to appear. We just know that’s how we do it.
I had moved away from my home church before I was old enough to be regularly sitting through church services. In my family’s other life in Northern Virginia, we went to an historic Presbyterian church—“Old” was even part of its name. They were careful to keep children away from Communion altogether. Sometime around 3rd grade, we got to sit in the balcony, where I drew elaborate, high-haired ladies in Marie Antoinette ball gowns on my bulletins much like the ones Lucy later drew for me at that age. (Apparently that’s in our family rule book.)
So I went on that visit to my grandmother, age 8 or 9, with no more knowledge about Communion than when I left there at age 5.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins to share his own rulebook for faith, but he doesn’t make it easy for us to understand. He uses images and metaphors, and as the gospel of Matthew goes on, he uses parables, too, to illustrate his interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. He’s clear here in chapter 5 that he has not come to overturn the old but to fulfill it.
He is offering a new understanding of things the people already know.
Sometimes I read these words and get worried.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. (Matthew 5:17-18)
It’s my experience of Jesus that when he says, “truly I tell you,” we had better pay attention.
Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19-20)
Now, if we understand the scribes and the Pharisees to be the ones who knew how to do it all right, what can it possibly mean to exceed them?
Can we hiss harder at little girls to keep them from reaching out to take the little cube of white bread from the silver tray being passed toward them?
I don’t have the heart to do that.
I hope you don’t either.
I don’t believe Jesus meant for us to be more legalistic than the Pharisees, any more than he meant for us to toss out every rule that was ever written.
I think he calls on us to actually understand the meaning of what is in the book he would write with his life.
Over and over he would stress the exact things Isaiah calls us to do and be in our lives, to lift oppression and see to the needs of others, and in doing those things to show our love for God.
In the online clergy network that brought me the friend who is visiting with us today, there was a discussion just this week about whether or not to offer Communion to children. We shared stories from many denominations, and there was a sense of movement toward openness in all of them. But in each individual church, there is an adjustment, isn’t there? Before we stop doing something the way we’ve always done it, we need to stop and think about why we did it the old way and what might be the value in a new way.
By the book, by the old rules, Communion was for baptized adults. Some people think children shouldn’t take Communion not because they haven’t been baptized, but because they don’t really understand yet what it means. But I suspect none of us would want to be examined to be sure we understand all the finer points of what happens when we break the bread and share the cup, to have to pass a test to come to the table and be part of the whole community.
The scribes and the Pharisees used the law to exclude. They built a system of rules and interpretations that put people with knowledge and resources on top of those who had nothing. They pushed away little hands and hissed “No!”
Jesus came to live among human beings to assure us that God is not hissing “no” but saying “Yes.”
Now, I feel like smiling. You may feel that way, too. I am thinking of little children into whose hands I have put the bread of life, and it is joyful to remember those moments. It’s a relief to accept God’s “yes” and feel a part of this church and the wider community of faith.
But I want to challenge us to look at our personal rules more closely and look out for the ways we still exclude people, because we all have our ways of living by the book, and it’s so often easier to define our rules by for life by saying something negative. Don’t do this, or don’t eat that, or don’t be friends with people who eat or look or think or love differently than I do, than we do.
Over and over again, Jesus will tell us, any of us who will listen, to open our hearts and lives to others, to invite them into the loving community of God. He came not to abolish the old rules but to fulfill their actual intention. Jesus came to live among human beings to assure us that God is not hissing “no” but saying “Yes.”
Yes, eat the bread, which is broken and given in love.
Yes, drink the cup, poured out in compassion and generosity to those who need it the most.
Yes, put down the book and come to the table.