Last week I talked about the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector and said I would talk this morning about how we keep discovering the way of the Pharisee. Just a review on that, the way of the Pharisee is not all bad. The primary belief of this form of the Jewish religion was that anyone could live a righteous life, God had revealed what it means to be righteous in the Torah. The Pharisees studied that law and interpreted it as times changed. As Israel went from being a nomadic people to a settled, farming people, to a city people, especially around Jerusalem, to being an occupied people, the meaning of the text changed. Work means a different thing to a farming people than a city people. Most of the discussions of tithing in Leviticus are based on an animal economy, everyone has a flock and dedicates every tenth animal to God. What happens when you go to a money-based economy? The Pharisees asked these kinds of questions and helped Israel adapt their religion to changing times. Especially after the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E. it was this flexibility that allowed Judaism to continue.
They were more focused on daily life than formal Temple religion. This made them some of the more popular teachers because they talked about practical matters of faith. How should I prepare my food? How should I wash my dishes? How should I do these daily things in a way that is pleasing to God? The Pharisees offered an answer, and the people who followed their teaching had the confidence that they were living lives pleasing to God.
So that sounds good to me: a practical faith; a day to day faith. I spend a lot of effort on the on the goal that what we do here on Sunday morning will walk out the door and affect you on Monday morning. How does a group that, on the face of it, seems to be helpful and faithful, become the adversaries to Jesus? For one thing, rule-based religion tends to leave people behind. It is a lot easier to talking about tithing 10% when you have a surplus of income. It is much easier to observe a Sabbath when you know you have enough food for the day. This kind of theology also struggles to deal with tragedy. When you have been taught that righteous are rewarded and bad things happen to bad people, this kind of theology falls apart when tragedy strikes because either there is a secret sin you didn’t know about or God is unfair. But fundamentally, I think it is what happens to many religious traditions and certainly happens within Christianity. We turn a good idea into a law. We turn a way of honoring God into something you have to do and if you are not doing it, you must not be a good Christian. And at our worst, we get so attached to the rules, figuring out who is following them best, who is breaking them, that we miss the fact that Jesus came to set us free from this very line of thinking.
For example, the Sabbath is a great idea. It is a gift that reminds us that we are not made to work all the time, that we need to rest. I think everyone should find time for Sabbath, whether a day a an intentional hour. Resting on the Sabbath is a traditional way to honor God, and in Jesus’ time, people wanted to do it right. The Pharisees had long lists of Sabbath rules to help them. And Jesus comes not to disagree with the Sabbath as a good idea, but with the burden the rules could create. You don’t have to go hungry to observe the Sabbath. Pick some food if you need it. You can heal people on the Sabbath. It is a day for setting people free. The Sabbath was made for you; you were not made for the Sabbath.
It’s a beautiful message and a beautiful way of being. It is so easy to get wrapped in Christianity as a way of life, but Jesus seems to present faith much more as a way of being in the world, a way of seeing the world. Jesus presents a vision where we have been set free from the social and family structures that often bind us, told that the last will be first and the first will be last; we have been set free from the mistakes that pursue us, told by a joyful Messiah that our sins are forgiven; we have been set free from the fear of death, by a Son of God who accepts death and walks away from it leaving an empty tomb; we have been set free by the love of God to love the world and love the people God has made. It is a beautiful vision.
But you know what is easier and more practical? Following rules. Just telling people to love God is nebulous but telling people to love God by tithing 10% or telling people to love God by going to church each Sunday or telling people to love God by obeying God’s church, that’s more concrete. Once again, the Roman Catholic church of the Middle Ages was popular. It helped people feel secure in their relationship with God. It told people, “Do this list of things and God will love you, accept you and forgive you.” Of course, that open up all sorts of possibilities for abuse, but it also provides a way to say, “I am living a righteous life ; I am living a good life.”
Martin Luther was one of those folks who felt left behind in that system. Today we might call him obsessive, but he just couldn’t get behind the idea that our actions alone, no matter how frequent, no matter how holy, could free us from our mistakes, especially when it comes to the way our minds work. I go to the confessional. I do my penance. But then these thoughts creep in. I’m jealous of people. I’m selfish. I’m spiteful and hateful and now I need to confess again and the cycle never ends. The gospel only works if it is God who chooses to set me free. That’s the grace we talk about in our tradition. It only works if it is God acting and not us. This is why Romans 3 was such good news, “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are now justified by his grace as a gift.” By grace through faith apart from works for the sake of Christ.
But you know what is easier and more practical? Following rules. Oddly for our tradition that seems to have gotten much more wrapped up in rules of liturgy and organization. The greatest arguments in the churches I have served have been about the dippiest things: the shoes the acolytes were wearing, the color of the paraments, which committee makes the road sign, which mixer for the kitchen. Yet there was this sense that we had to get it right, that there was a right way to do it and that really mattered. And people were left out because traditions were too strong and new ideas were frowned upon. Others left because they were asking, “Is this really what God’s church is about? There has to be something more than the color of the pew cushions.”
In response to these deficiencies, we have seen the rise of more Bible-centered traditions. They serve as a critique, really questioning whether the things that we thought were so important actually matter. We get wrapped in the rules liturgy and they come on the scene with worship that looks nothing like ours and the world does not end. However, we are at this strange place where seemingly the most popular and growing traditions are the most rule-based. They use very positive language about it, things like “Biblical principles for successful living” or “How to live God’s way,” but subscribe to a literalism that the Bible was ever intended to have and offer a faith that is similar to what the Pharisees were promoting. Let us show you how to live a righteous life or a godly life. And again, it is not bad in and of itself. Many people are changed by it and deepen their faith through it. I am reminded of a story that one of my seminary professors, Ralph Klein, in Chicago told me. He was waiting at the airport and one of his neighbors in the terminal engaged him in conversation. When he found out that Dr. Klein taught at a Lutheran seminary he said, “I used to be a Lutheran. Now I go to Willow Creek (a nondenominational megachurch). I go to church twice a week. I help guide traffic for one of the services. I tithe my income.” And I remember Ralph said he wondered how to grow that kind of enthusiasm within Lutheranism while at the same couldn’t help but be reminded of the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector we heard last week. If you recall the Pharisee came before God bragging about what a great and faithful guy he was because of the things he did while the tax collector stood before God acknowledging his need for God’s mercy.
And people do get left behind in this model, because when you are bound up in literalism, it is very difficult to talk about things like same-sex relationships or interfaith discussions. When you are focused on personal piety, it can be very difficult to talk about social justice and advocating for those in need and seeing that as part of Christ’s message. When you think you have figured out God’s way, it can be very difficult to respect those who don’t follow it.
What I am saying is that no one gets it right on this end. As long as we think we have it right, we are missing the point. The only one who has it right, who has ever had it right, is God. Jesus, the divine one walking among us, came to show us what right looks like but not to turn right into a rulebook.
I sometimes imagine the gospel story as though Jesus comes to us and sings this marvelous song of love and life and then he says to each of us, “Go and sing your song of love and life.” And some people respond saying, “We don’t want to sing the song, but we will listen to other people sing (and then critique it).” And some people respond saying, “We will research and learn how to sing exactly the song that you sang, because that is the only way to do it right, Jesus.” And other people listen and say, “We will sing song of love and life, but we’ll include a few verses about death to our enemies.” And other people say, “We will sing the song if you agree to pay us or bless us in some fashion.”
And Jesus looks at us and loves us saying, “You don’t have to sing my song. Listen to my song but also listen to all the songs that are out there. Listen to the songs of Israel. Listen to my song but also listen to Buddha’s song and Muhammad’s song. You don’t have like the whole thing but you’ll be surprised how much beautiful music is there. Listen to the songs of the universe. Listen to the songs of Steven Hawking and Rachel Carson and Neil Degrasse Tyson. Listen to the love songs of parents and children: lullabies and silly songs and songs to make us wiggle and dance. Listen to the songs of lovers: tender songs and whispered songs and songs of promise. Listen to all these songs and then go and sing your song of life and love. Sing it because it is what you were made to do. Sing it because it is the song that is in your heart. I sang first to teach you what music sounds like, but you go and sing your song life and love. This is the kind of praise God hopes for.”
Sisters and brothers, sing your song. It doesn’t have to be on key. It doesn’t have to have perfect rhythm or compelling lyrics. It doesn’t even have to follow the conventional rules of music. Let your life be your song of life and love. Dedicate it to God who gave you breath to sing and showed what love and life mean in the first place. You have been set free to sing your song. You have been set free to be life and love for the world.