Rules for Living
Based on Genesis 45:3-15, Psalm 37, 1Cor 15:40-49, Luke 6:27-38
Do you have a set of rules for living? You know, “truths” that you have learned over the course of life that you refer to consistently, that guide your decisions and maybe you teach to others? One of my favorite fictional TV characters is from NCIS, Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gibbs. For those of you who may not have watched the show over the years, Agent Gibbs has approximately 50 rules that guide his personal and professional life. Some are specific to his life as an investigator, but some have broader application such as: “It’s always better to ask for forgiveness than permission”, “There is no such thing as coincidence”, “Never take anything for granted”, and my personal favorite, “Sometimes you’re wrong”.
That last one is a rule that I try to keep foremost in my life as it is easy for me to slip into “decision-making” or “know-it-all” modes and believe that I have the correct answer for any situation. In my prior professional role, when I was asked a question there was always an answer or an array of choices based on what the physician thought was the problem. However, sometimes the physicians were wrong in their diagnosis and thus my answers were wrong as well. I learned over time to fall back into that Hippocratic teaching to “first do no harm” when approaching the answer to a diagnosis that was still evolving. I learned a healthy respect for the rule that sometimes I was going to be wrong – just like my colleagues were, because none of us has all the answers. This is just as true in my current role as it was in my previous role! When I forget this rule to be humble and to acknowledge my own short-comings and short sightedness, my trust in God as Almighty, my lack of insight into a person or situation, or nowadays when I forget to speak to God about people before I speak to people about God, I usually end up in a situation that I regret that was totally preventable.
Our scriptures this week are speaking to us about how to live with a set of rules from God that are life-giving and life fulfilling. They offer us a way to order our lives as we seek to live together with people who may see the world and the Word very differently than us. Before we go any further, let us ask God to speak into our worship this morning…
Our scripture from Genesis has Joseph welcoming his brothers to Egypt. The brothers haven’t seen him since they sold him into slavery. Joseph has come through that calamity and a few others and has risen to a place just below Pharaoh over all of Egypt. Joseph tells his brothers not to be afraid as he does not feel he needs to punish them for their actions. Rather he understands that the hand of God was involved in bringing him to where he is so that he could save his family and preserve the chosen people, albeit in a foreign land. Psalm 37 echoes these sentiments in that it calls us to take the long view of current situations. We do not have the foresight to know what the future will bring. We are called to trust, delight, be still and wait, and commit our way to the LORD and we are promised that we will know salvation in and through God.
Paul continues his teaching about the Christ, the Messiah, and how the resurrection of the physical body becomes a spiritual and imperishable body. His rhetoric equates Adam as first but perishable man with the Christ (the second Adam) who through resurrection put on immortality. Thus, when we become part of the Body of Christ, we too can have the full expectation that this rule of imperishability will be as true for us as it was for Jesus.
The Gospel lesson today is a continuation of the “Sermon on the Plain” which is analogous to the Sermon on the Mount from the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus is teaching the gathered and the Disciples about the unity of all of God’s creation. These rules for living are challenging for us to follow. How is it that we can put away our hurt and anger at being treated poorly and love and do good to those who curse, hate and abuse us – without becoming victims? Jesus is teaching the difficult path of forgiveness…true and complete forgiveness to those whose very presence in our lives is anathema to us. Verses 37 and 38 sum it all up, “…Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back….”
How many of you have the so called “Golden Rule” as one of your rules for living? I suspect that many, like me, try their best to adhere to this rule from Luke 6. For those not familiar with this oft cited rule, here it is from verse 31, “…Do to others as you would have them do to you….” I spoke last week in my sermon about how I interpret all of the biblical teaching through the lens of the two great commandments of Jesus; loving God with all that I am and all that I have and loving my neighbor (broadly defined) as myself. This interpretive lens challenges me to wrestle with scriptures that seem, when taken literally, to be diametrically opposed to these principles. How do I reconcile scriptures that promote war and slavery, genocide, the silencing and marginalizing of women in the church, or the exclusion of others; with scriptures that promote unity and inclusivity such as Paul’s vision of no unclean foods or the inclusion of uncircumcised Gentiles into early Christianity; scriptures that directly contradict Judaic rules for living as it had been practiced for many centuries?
The answer is that I am a Wesleyan in my theology. What this means is that I understand scripture to be divinely inspired by God yet written by fallible humans. Additionally, I believe wholeheartedly that the complete biblical witness contains all that is needed for salvation – mine and yours. Because I am a Wesleyan, I interpret scripture not literally, but within the rubric of John Wesley which lays its foundation on scripture but incorporates my reason alongside church tradition and our lived experience to understand more fully what it is that scripture is trying to teach me in today’s context. I fully understand that some do not share this method of theological interpretation. I also understand quite clearly that no matter what our preferred biblical translation or method of interpretation that all of us might be wrong. In this life we only get a partial picture of what God intends.
When I was younger I had a lot of rules that guided my life. As I have aged and possibly gotten a bit wiser, the number of rules has declined until I have just a handful that orient my choices and my life. One that has taught me much is the rule of K.I.S.S. – “Keep It Simple Silly”. It is easy for me to make things more difficult than they need to be and to lose God’s message in my attempts to make myself look smart. Simplifying is what Jesus did best in teaching his Disciples and all of us who follow how to develop a righteous relationship with God and with all of God’s creation. Because, you see, those are really the same thing. You cannot love your neighbor – not just fellow humans but all of God’s creation – with your whole heart, mind, soul and strength if you don’t first strive to love God in that same way. If you don’t love God to the exclusion of everything else, then you will create idols that you will worship – like money, power, privilege, position, politics, possessions, celebrity, what is written in the Bible versus what the Bible teaches about God.
Jesus distilled all the Torah and the prophetic teaching down to two rules that He lived by. Jesus’ teachings seem to indicate that if we could learn how to love God enough, then we could be like Joseph and forgive those who hurt us deeply – and see God’s hand in our journey of grief to blessing. Jesus knew that if we would just love God enough, then we would learn to trust God, be patient with God, delight in God and commit our lives to God’s way. Jesus knew that if we just grew to love God enough, we would lose our fear of death and live life fully. Jesus knew that if He made the rules simple that we would grow to love and trust God enough to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”. Jesus knew if we did grow to do this, that we would discover our salvation and that God’s kingdom would come to earth. Jesus knew that all we really need is two simple rules for living. Amen and amen!