In this word

(A sermon for Pentecost 13A – September 7, 2014 – Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20)

There are a lot of rules in baseball. Some of those rules are basic: the number and positions of players, the arrangement of the field, the number of innings, and the fact that you need at least one more run than your opponents to win the game. Some of those rules are very complicated: there’s an infield fly rule, and that interesting animal the ground rule double, and this year in major league ball, there’s a new rule about catchers not blocking the plate when a runner is coming home.

In Little League, kids are always discovering new rules, usually in the midst of playing the game. Some things you don’t practice for, like what to do when you are running the bases and the ball hits you. I only learned the answer to that one yesterday, when we came to Will Cole field here in New Cumberland for my 9-year-old’s game yesterday. The Upper Allen Red Birds were up to bat, and our Boy’s best friend was on 2nd base when a teammate hit the ball hard. The ground ball met the runner’s feet halfway between 2nd and 3rd, and the runner was out. The runner was out. The ball was dead. The batter was safe and got credit for the hit.

I want to tell you, the collected mothers and grandmothers were offended by this. Why is *that* a rule? He didn’t do anything wrong, after all. He ran at the right time. He didn’t ask to be hit by the ball. Other times when the ball hits you, you get to take a base! What is the logic behind it?

After we got home, just to make sure, I looked it up in the official rules of Baseball. You can find the definition of a dead ball in Rule 5, including the way it becomes dead after touching a runner, and you can follow that up with Rule 7 about the times a player is out.

It’s all covered in the rules, designed to cover all eventualities with the fairness of consistent practices.

(Well, except for the subjectivity of umpires who can’t see a strike zone the right way, but I know better than to argue balls and strikes.)

There are a lot of rules in churches, too. I spent some time this week reading your Constitution and By-Laws – no, really! I did! I made notes and underlined things that surprised me. I am coming to you after 25 years on the Congregational side of the United Church of Christ, and after serving five UCC churches in Maine as either settled or interim pastor, as well as being a lay leader and a student pastor before ordination, I have read a lot of by-laws. They lay out the rules for the local church, the ways we organize ourselves for ministry, and the expectations we have for and from one another. Maybe most people have never seen them, but they set the ground rules, offering clarity about things like terms of office and the roles of officers and what happens if someday there is no such congregation anymore.

Pastors appreciate this.
Pastors appreciate this.

Some of the churches I served in Maine had been around for 200 years. The churches and their original organizing documents dated to a time when the local Congregational Church provided town discipline. Their leaders had the power and the responsibility to discipline members of the community for drunkenness, adultery, theft and a variety of sins. But you wouldn’t find that in their by-laws today. The old rules had been revised and amended and updated and tossed out for a fresh start long before any current members were even alive. Sometimes they need new sections to cover new language, new situations or new understandings. But whether old or new, historic or modernized, by-laws are rules designed to make things clear.

(See me later and we’ll talk about some of the things I found in yours!)

There are a lot of rules in the Bible. Just like the rules of baseball or the by-laws drawn up by a church, the various commandments we read in scripture were designed to help us do a better job living together in community. We could start with the Ten Commandments, as Paul does in today’s passage from his letter to the Romans. They give us guidelines for being in relationship with God and with one another. Put God first, don’t worship other small g-gods instead, and don’t take the name or the power of God lightly. The rest of the commandments remind us to treat other people with respect, to honor their worth, to be faithful.

Jesus gives us rules, too, and in our passage from Matthew, he points to the complexities of human relationships and urges us to set things right. It’s a four point plan for relating to people who give us trouble.

1) Tell the offender in private.
2) But if that doesn’t work, have a conversation in front of witnesses.
3) But if that still doesn’t work, share it in the community that ought to matter to both of you.
4) And if that doesn’t make the other person get with the program, only then can you can stop trying.

It’s a rule of second and third chances. It’s a rule of love.

Churches have lots of rules, and the ones that lead to conflicts that need such complex untangling are often the unwritten rules. It doesn’t take 200 years or even 60 years to develop a list of things we’ve always done a certain way. It takes one Communion service that goes well, or the death of one person who means a lot to everybody, or an unexpected moment of joy when a baby laughs during a baptism or a child reads scripture in a clear voice, or even a hilarious mishap. As soon as a community feels bound together by deep feeling, the unwritten rule-making begins. I think we make the rules to re-create the feelings.

I’m almost sure to do some things differently than you’re used to, and I hope you’ll come to me and tell me how you feel about them. I want to hear what you love about this church and what you believe God wants for you. If I stand in a different place or say the prayers a different way, and it feels like trouble, employ the four part plan Jesus gave us. And if you like the changes, who knows? They may become new unwritten rules.

(I am hoping for the best here.)

Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome,

The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:9-10)

The Roman Christians were converts from pagan religion; they were just beginners at living by the rules Paul knew so well from the time he was a child. He reduces their complexities to one basic truth: if we want to live by God’s law, we need to love each other.

A view toward the table.
A view toward the table.

It doesn’t take 200 years, or even 60, for a church to become the sum of its rules, written and unwritten. I am just beginning to learn yours. Soon we will gather around Christ’s table. When I was interviewing with the Spiritual Council, and later when I met with the staff to start planning our work, people asked me what I thought about having Communion once a month. I affirmed that it was the practice in other churches I have served, and as long as that has been yours, it’s fine with me.

The conversation ended there, but I want to name the possibility that you have had many more conversations with one another about how often – or simply how – Communion is celebrated here at Faith. That is going to be true of many other things we talk about during this time of intentional interim ministry. We have many things to learn about each other, and many stories to tell, and many differences to discover. I don’t know if the exchanges were straightforward or full of hidden meaning to be uncovered later.

I do know this. The table is a place we gather, whenever we do it, to remember Christ’s great love for us.

I hope his love will be our rule of life together, spoken if unwritten. In this word, love, we find all the rules for healthy community. In this word, love, we find a guide for our interactions. We find a reason for being Christ’s people in this time and place, in this word, love.