Today we are continuing the fall series, “This Changing Church” which celebrates how Church of Peace has a tradition of changing. Since we were founded in eighteen ninety-five, our language has changed, our building has changed. Even our rules have changed.
I have a theory that rules are like clothes. Rules are like clothes. They can protect us. They communicate something about us. Like clothes, rules direct how we move through the world and show respect to others. Rules foster order, and beauty, and definition. Also like clothes, there comes a time when rules need to be changed.
Look at any set of rules and you’ll see their subtext. If you ever get handed a collection of rules about an organization, you can tell what kinds of problems the organization has faced recently. Suddenly there’s a weirdly specific social media policy, or an amendment to the dress code, or sign on the break room refrigerator. Whatever it is, you can pretty much tell what went wrong.
Look at the rules, and at a visceral level you’ll pick up on their tone. We can tell the difference between rules that are passive aggressive, or friendly, or managerial, or cruel. Their tone comes through and blows their cover. Survey the rules, and you’ll see their spirit. See the spirit of the rules, and you’ll see something of the spirit of the place.
One thing I have learned about rules is they harbor a subtext; look for the substance beneath their style.
One thing I have learned about myself is that I’m a person who can be seduced rules. I am just smitten by their clear, crackling authority, and it’s taken me thirty years to figure out, this is not my best feature. This is not who I mean to be.
One summer I attended a music camp that prided itself on its military-style rigor. It was the kind of place that had uniforms, and early-morning reverie, and chores, and loads of rules. And I say this to you confessionally, I was dreadfully good at following them.
Later I worked in a transitional home for women recovering from homelessness and addiction. As you’d expect, there were loads of rules there; this time it was my job to enforce them, and I was good at it.
Looking back on both of these experiences, I can see, my zeal for the rules comes from a deeper clinging that I carry in my soul. I worry that I could sell out to it in a heartbeat. If I’m given the choice between following a list of rules for a gold star or actually doing something to help someone, I would have to stop and think about it.
I know our faith is more than a gold star for rule-following. I know that, but I don’t believe it until I get really honest with myself. The truth is my deep longing is not for the perfect score. Not really.
My deep longing is that Christ could transform my heart in his mercy. The same Jesus who speaks up for the oppressed and shames the powers of oppression; the grace of Jesus is not finished with our world. And God is not finished with me.
Imagine if the Holy Spirit could work in each of us, turning our hearts toward grace, leading us into the fullness of Christ’s compassion. Imagine if that’s exactly what we’re doing here.
Today the scripture comes from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus had just finished dinner at Levi’s house and it was quite the party! Even the scribes took notice: “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” they ask, and Jesus heard them. Next, Jesus heard the people ask him: “Why do John’s disciples and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?”
Now sure, these questions themselves have a reasonableness to them, but we can hear their subtext. “Come on Jesus, why do you eat with them —the tax collectors and sinners? Our faith teaches us to combine prayer with fasting, why don’t you fast?
Why do you insist on breaking the rules.”
So Jesus gives them a two-part answer. First, the wedding guests don’t fast while the bridegroom is with them. Know what time it is. Know the difference between the time for celebrating and the time for mourning, the time for feasting and the time for fasting.
Second, no one uses a piece of new, unshrunk fabric to patch an old coat. Otherwise the new fabric will tear away. No one pours new wine into an old wineskin. If you did that, the new wine would burst the skin, you’d lose both the wine and the wineskin.
So often when we hear about new wine and old wine, there’s the implication that of course, old wine is better than new. In fact, in Luke’s version of this scripture there’s an added sentence that goes, “No one, after drinking old wine, desires new wine… the old is good!” (Luke 5:39).
Here’s what I love: that judgement is strangely missing from our scripture. Instead, there is no blame for being old or new. It’s not the wineskin’s fault for being old. It’s not the wine’s fault for being new. Nobody is at fault.
It is simply the case that the old wineskin cannot hold the new wine. Since the harvest has produced new wine, it is simply the case that a new container is needed. Don’t mistake the wineskin for the wine. Don’t mistake the clothes for the person.
In the very next scene, Jesus gets criticized again for inappropriate eating. His disciples were snacking on wild grain they picked as they walked through the field, which was entirely allowed, but they were doing it on the sabbath! Here Jesus explains, the sabbath was made for humanity, not the other way around. The wineskin was made for the wine, not the other way around. The clothes (or the rules) were made to fit the people. Not the other way around.
It’s not wrong to have style, but beneath the style is the substance, and beneath the substance is the soul. If our soul is made new and keeps being made new, well, our style will change and keep changing. That’s just how it happens, that’s not a radical claim.
The radical claim might be, I think we want this. I think there might be something in each of us, the longing in the deep place of our soul, that really wants to be more loving, more forgiving, more compassionate —not because we were terrible before! exactly the opposite— but because we come with God’s grace imprinted in our being and we’re longing to live into it, even if this changes us. (Spoiler alert: it will change us.)
Here at Church of Peace, we are about this work of being transformed into the mercy of God. You see this in our commitment to caring for people, especially people who are vulnerable. With this caring at our core, you can understand why our substance has changed some over the years, and so has our style. Did you know, it used to be only men served communion. Nowadays women serve communion. Come May seventh, our teenagers will serve communion…
In the past twenty years, we’ve been adding to our constitution and bylaws. In two thousand two, we added a policy prohibiting sexual exploitation and harassment. In two thousand four, we adopted a safe church policy. In two thousand five, we adopted a relational covenant governing our behavior with each other during conflict. In two thousand eleven, we added a non-discrimination policy. In two thousand seventeen, we revised the bylaws, updating the purpose of the church council.
We keep changing the rules, and we will keep on changing them. If you want to know why, it’s because we follow the rules in order to follow Christ, and not the other way around.
Recently, I found this document called Guidelines for the Usher. I don’t know who wrote it. One possibility is Harry Krueger? Based on the printing, it looks maybe twenty-five years old. These days, we no longer have ushers per se. In some ways, this document is an old wineskin. It’s a collection of rules that are no longer applicable; we have outgrown them. As you’d expect, some of these rules are old-fashioned—they describe precisely where the ushers must stand when assisting with baptisms.
What really struck me about this document is its subtext. Read these “Guidelines for the Usher;” you will notice the caring spirit of our church. You can tell, this document is not out to make sure the ushers are doing it right! Not really. More than that, this list of rules is designed to help our church care for someone in need.
“If there is a medical emergency… ask for help even if it disrupts the service. Better safe than sorry.” Yes! That is exactly right.
There’s a whole section describing what to do if someone comes into the church demanding immediate assistance. It does not say, call the police. It does not say, send them away. It says, here’s what to tell them.
And I love this part: “Counting the congregation: count everyone, even the children. Don’t forget the nursery; there are little people in there.”
Read any collection of rules, you will see the spirit of the place. The spirit of Church of Peace is caring for people who are in need. It’s not just our style, not just our substance; this compassion is our soul. It is this core compassion that makes us able to change. This core harbors our deep longing to be transformed by Christ, to go further in our work for justice, to be braver in speaking up for those who are vulnerable, to be led deeper into the mercy of God.
This mercy is how the world will change. It’s also what will keep changing our church, I promise. God’s grace can still change us, even you, even me. Thank God.