Sunday, March 11, 2012

Rules and Ridiculousness (on Exodus 20:1-17)

There are debates raging on the political scene these days -- typical of a presidential election year, I suppose, although the "raging" seems to be particularly heightened. The rage and range of these debates center around rules about government, rules about rights, and rules about life.

The ongoing debate over health care, for example, questions the rules by which the federal government takes action to address an issue of national concern. Did our legislators in DC follow the rules about government when they approved health care reform, or did they disregard the balance between state and federal authority? What about our nation's rules on rights -- does the most recent health care reform promote the well-being of citizens by affirming a right to access quality health care, or does it undermine the right of people to access good health care without worrying about whether their neighbor also has that same access? In subtle ways, the health care debate also questions an assumed rule of American living: that we can choose, if we want to, to care only for ourselves.

The debate over voter fraud legislation in various states offers another example of our wrestling over rules these days. On the surface, it seems entirely within the rule and authority of a state to be sure that voters are who they say they are on Election Day. Yet government rules about voter identification make some problematic assumptions about the rules and standards of daily life. When a driver's license is required as proof of voter identity, it assumes that the American standard (rule) of living includes at least one car ... and ignores the reality that not everyone who votes has a car, that not everyone who votes has a driver's license. There is a willful neglect to calculate who is left out by voting rules that assume certain standard-of-living rules.

In the midst of all the rage and debate over rules, we find ourselves today reading one of the oldest sets of rules for a human community, the Ten Commandments: a set of rules given by an ancient god named Yahweh to an ancient wandering people who had been enslaved in Egypt; rules given to order how they lived in relationship to their god and how they lived in relationship to one another.
1. You shall have no other gods before me;
your only allegiance will be to Yahweh.
2. You shall not make idols; God the Creator
cannot be reduced to a created image.
3. You shall not use the name of the LORD falsely.
4. Remember to keep the Sabbath, and allow your family,
your servants, the immigrants in your community,
even your livestock to have a day of rest as well.
5. Honor your parents; be respectful and caring of them.
6. Do not murder.
7. Do not commit adultery.
8. Do not steal.
9. Do not tell lies about your neighbor.
10. Do not lust after what your neighbor has.
The ten rules outlined by Yahweh for the people were good rules; they were necessary regulations to help people avoid angering God and avoid angering one another.

But if you follow Biblical history and story beyond Exodus, it becomes apparent that these ten straight-forward rules cannot always answer every question and conflict that life poses. What happens, for example, when the God who says "Do not kill" sends the Israelites into war? Or, in Israel's pre-exile years as a small nation with a small army, surrounded by powerful empires with powerful armies, how could God expect Israel's king and Israel's people not to covet the sheer brawn of neighboring countries? Or another example: the rule about worshiping God alone was intricately bound up with the worship of God in a tabernacle or temple space; how could the people worship God alone when their worship space was destroyed? If we peek into the New Testament, Jesus often points out the limitations of rules, and he breaks the rule of Sabbath in order to pick grain with his disciples and to heal a man's hand.

Rules are important, but rules cannot answer every question that life poses. This was true in Biblical times and it's certainly true in modern times! But more than that: not only can rules not answer every question, rules sometimes force a black-and-white answer upon a very gray question. And when we choose to follow that black-and-white answer rather than delving into the gray possibilities, we put ourselves in a position of behaving ridiculously, just like the Pharisees behaved ridiculously when they scolded Jesus and his disciples for picking grain and healing on the Sabbath. We are often -- perhaps more than we might admit to ourselves -- willing to follow rules to the point of ridiculousness.

Take, for example, the rule that you're allowed to carry a gun. That's not even just a legislative rule buried in the stacks among legislative rules; it's a Constitutional Rule, which makes it sacred within civics. If you're following the local news, you'll know that --
in those instances when local schools and churches are used as voting sites -- the right to carry a gun in public places has come into conflict with the rights of schools and churches to create safe spaces without guns. So another debate rages, and some folks have written letters to the editor saying, "This is the rule! The rule says I can carry a gun, therefore I can carry a gun when I vote, no matter where the voting is held. And any questions about safety, any questions about the logic behind carrying a gun while voting, don't matter because the rule says I can do it!" Regardless of whether that particular argument is your personal opinion or not, it reveals that collectively we are willing to choose ridiculousness in the name of following a rule.

We do need rules for an ordered society, because we are each prone to self-interest and chaos ... and it's challenging to organize a collection of people who are all prone to self-interest and chaos! We even need religious rules (not a popular theme); we need a framework for understanding God's expectations for us, because we are fickle people who wouldn't mind naming ourselves to be God some days if God hadn't first said to us, "No, I'm God. That's the rule."

But as much as we are fickle in our selfishness and inclined toward the ridiculous, we are equally silly in our inclination toward rigid rule-following. We love rule-following when it makes us right, when it puts us in the majority, when it gives us authority. We're not particularly pleased to follow rules just because they're good for the community, if those rules don't also benefit us personally. We like rules that get us something or at least give us reason to say "I'm right." This is terribly obvious when Christians debate government and politics, because the trump card that we hear in those arguments is always "The Bible says so" or "God says so," which is just a fancy way of saying, "I'm right."

In our preference for being right, rules become a matter of power, not a matter of the collective good. To phrase it another way, the difference between rules and covenant (our Old Testament thread through Lent) is whether or not we are trying to be right.

And just to be really clear: God doesn't call us to be right, and God doesn't even call us to live by rules. God calls us to live in covenant.

There needs to be a significant change in our raging debates -- both in civic and in religious circles. Rather than making more rules or shouting over existing rules, there needs to be a change in our willingness to discuss the purpose of rules. Because in our ridiculousness over rules and our idolization of a concrete non-complicated view of the world, we have neglected to examine the purpose of rules in setting a standard of what is best for the good of the whole. Not the good of a few. Not the good of just one.

Wrestling with, working toward, the good of the whole is a question of covenant. (Covenant can be non-religious for civic discourse and faith-based within a religious community.) Covenant asks, "How are we going to related to one another?" rather than "How are we going to regulate one another?" Within the Judeo-Christian communities, the question of covenant as it is communicated through the Ten Commandments starts with the acknowledgment that nothing comes before God. And because God is our first allegiance, we don't need to dissolve into jealousy over our neighbor's things, and we don't need to neglect the Sabbath in determined pursuit to work every ounce out of life. Because God is first and above all, we don't need to always be right, we don't need to constantly covet power, we don't need to restrict others for the sake of preserving privilege.

Paul wrote (1 Corinthians 1:18-25) that our greatest wisdom -- even when we're behaving and not being fickle or greedy, even with our very best intentions and our best collective knowledge -- still our greatest wisdom is ridiculousness compared to God's wisdom. God's foolishness is sounder and truer than our rules, even our good and wise rules.

We can debate and rage endlessly, but every rule is finally ridiculous simply because we don't know it all. We cannot create enough rules to concretely resolve every situation that may arise as we live in community with one another. Which is why rules cannot be intended for rightness: we have to be willing to say that we don't have all the answers. We have to be willing to interact with one another and with all people with the active perspective that we could be wrong, with the curiosity to realize that we have so much more understanding to gain.

Most of all, riskiest of all perhaps, as people of faith: we have to be willing to engage God without believing that we know everything. Every time that we claim "This I know" or "Yes I'm right," we are asserting ridiculousness rather than faith.

But when we seek the foolishness that is God, and give up our need to be right, we may just find a bit of grain to eat along our journey and a wild dream to mark God's presence.

Sermon preached at Grace United Church of Christ, 3/11/2012.

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