Sermon preached at Eucharist on the First Sunday after Trinity by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean

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Sermon preached at Eucharist on the First Sunday after Trinity by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean

Following the Gospel reading of Jesus and the Pharisees, the Dean reflects on how we cope with rules and how we handle encounters with people with rules. 


How do you and I cope with rules? I live on a street just round the corner where vans and lorries park to deliver to local shops and businesses, and from time to time I see the drivers arguing with the traffic wardens. 

You can sometimes hear the conversations – ‘just a few minutes, where else can I park to deliver this, why can’t you help, it won’t hurt anyone’ – ‘but these are the rules, we don’t make them, we have to treat everyone the same or it’s not fair.’

It happens in every part of life – it happens to you. There are the officials who have to follow instructions and uphold the rules with little or no discretion about them, and can seem cruel and unkind; officials who have to endure the anger of people who think it’s OK for them to bend or break the rules because of what they need to do, whether it’s parking to make a delivery or trying to get benefits from the Job Centre so they and their family won’t starve. 

Rules on the one hand; what people want or need on the other: the ongoing dilemma of how justice for all can apply clear rules to different circumstances. Sometimes we’re on one side of this dilemma, sometimes on the other.

How do you and I respond to this? Sometimes we internalise rules out of fear of breaking them, and feel guilty when we do, and get angry with the people who unlike us seem to think the rules don’t apply to them.

Sometimes we treat rules as advisory because lots of other people don’t follow them either, but get angry when we’re caught out, whether for parking in the wrong place, or for being dishonest in a relationship. 

 And we may be angry with ourselves for getting caught, or angry with the rules that are obviously ridiculous. Or angry with the person who caught us out, and think it’s their fault, and hate them and others like them. Which is why wearing the uniform of a traffic warden can be a hard and vulnerable thing to do.

And even if we’re not a traffic warden, we can still make the lives of those around us difficult because we have our rules, our way of doing things which is of course the right way, which we think will justify making other people’s lives revolve around our needs, not theirs...

Today’s Gospel reading is about rules – specifically about the sabbath day. 

The idea of the sabbath in Jewish faith is to have one day a week to rest, to re-create, to celebrate the generosity of God in making the world and in freeing Israel from slavery, to set even slaves free for a day a week, to renew our lives with God.

But how do you do that with consistency? In Jesus’ time, as in ours, the Jewish people had worked out rules for knowing how to keep the sabbath in the messiness of everyday life. What did it mean not to work? Could you light a lamp, or feed your livestock, or cook a meal, or go for a walk? 

The Pharisees were people who made and internalised the rules. They’d got it all worked out, not because they were officious, but because they wanted to do what God wanted, and so they defined what that meant in the whole of life including the sabbath. But the Pharisees had defined it well beyond what they saw God had specified in the Jewish Law.

Jesus comes with a very different, radical, perspective: what are the rules for? does keeping them promote their purpose? When his disciples are hungry, doesn’t the sabbath principle mean that they should have rest from their hunger? 

When a man is enslaved by sickness on the sabbath day, shouldn’t he be set free? 

Jesus doesn’t criticise the Pharisees for wanting to follow God – he’s angry with them because, they see following the rules which they’ve made, as more important than the purpose of the sabbath, more important than making people be whole and holy. 

Keeping the rules we make for following God can end up denying the very purpose for which those rules were made.

Bishop Tom Wright the New Testament scholar writes about today’s Gospel reading in his book on Mark, and asks the question: ‘are there ways in which the church today can get so blinded by its commitment to what appear necessary rules that it fails to see God’s healing and restorative work breaking through?’ 

Yes, one has to answer: not least in relation to gender in church and to same-sex relationships, though Tom Wright might not accept that the answer was Yes for the latter issue. But what are ‘necessary rules’? and what only appear to be necessary because those with power in the Church and society have always done it that way? 

The question as Jesus puts it is, what’s the underlying purpose of the rules, and do they achieve the purposes of God’s loving salvation? 

And Jesus offers us a creative way to cut through the dilemma between keeping the rules, and meeting people in their particular circumstances. 

In our first reading from the Bible this morning, St Paul says of himself and his companions, we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. 

Paul had a love-conflict relationship with the Corinthians to whom he wrote, not least about rules, which the Corinthians didn’t like – how do you reconcile love and rules, freedom in Jesus with love for others? 

We do it, says Paul, by following Jesus as Lord of our lives and of everything, Lord even of our interpretation of the rules; and following Jesus means being slaves, servants, to those around us, working for their benefit, not ours, for them to be followers of Jesus too.

And then he writes one of the most wonderful sentences in the New Testament: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

God brings light out of darkness: God makes us new as we give our lives to Jesus Christ and ask to be made in the image of Jesus – and God inspires us to be creative as we love our way through the dilemmas of justice and mercy.

A few verses before the passage we had read today, Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom’: that is not, freedom to do what we want, but freedom to be transformed into the image of Jesus and to do what God wants. 

And this is not to be what the God of our own making wants, but what the God revealed in Jesus Christ wants, who measures our rules up against the ultimate purpose of challenging and radical love. Jesus confronts us by his focus on love, God’s costly indiscriminate love, love which as Paul says costs us almost everything, yet gives us everything worth having too.

And how can we be creative about rules? Here’s an example: I was talking a little while ago to the chaplain of an Oxford College who was concerned about how to help students with mental health issues, who felt that having a dog would be a good way for students to begin to relate to others outside themselves. But there’s a rule that no dogs are allowed in college. 

So the chaplain went and talked with the master of the college: and the outcome of the conversation is that she is successfully using her dog to relate to the students, and the dog is officially classified as a cat. 

So how are you and I going to cope this week when we run up against people with rules? Well, Stop...; take a deep breath...; call on the Spirit of Jesus...; pray for that creative moment, the light shining in the darkness...; then try loving and understanding those people – and then they might love and understand you and your difficulties with the rules – and even if they don’t, God will – the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ...

And because they have a difficult job, make sure that you love traffic wardens and all those like them – which I had to remind myself of yesterday afternoon as I sat in the car waiting to pick up the shopping, on a yellow line, and the traffic warden came by….