Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Character of Christ: People over Policies (Luke 6:1-11)

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One Sabbath, as Jesus was going through the wheat fields, his disciples were picking the heads of wheat, rubbing them in their hands, and eating them. Some Pharisees said, “Why are you breaking the Sabbath law?”
Jesus replied, “Haven’t you read what David and his companions did when they were hungry? 4He broke the Law by going into God’s house and eating the bread of the presence, which only the priests can eat. He also gave some of the bread to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The Human One is Lord of the Sabbath.”
On another Sabbath, Jesus entered a synagogue to teach. A man was there whose right hand was withered. The legal experts and the Pharisees were watching him closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. They were looking for a reason to bring charges against him. Jesus knew their thoughts, so he said to the man with the withered hand, “Get up and stand in front of everyone.” He got up and stood there. Jesus said to the legal experts and Pharisees, “Here’s a question for you: Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 Looking around at them all, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did and his hand was made healthy. 11 They were furious and began talking with each other about what to do to Jesus.

Today we are concluding our “Character of Christ” message series.  We have spent the last several weeks looking at various aspects of the character of Jesus, recognizing that each one is like a puzzle piece that, when put together, offer us a comprehensive picture of Jesus.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this series.  I hope you’ve discovered things about Jesus you might not have known before, or seen him in a new way, and been inspired to live your life differently as a result.

Today’s character trait is that Jesus placed people over policies.  Policies are not a bad thing.  We have a number of folks in the congregation who do or have worked in law enforcement, and they’ll be the first to tell you that many rules and regulations – policies – are there to promote order and protect people.  If I’m driving down the road and I come to an intersection with a traffic light, and the light is red, what do I do?  Hopefully, I stop!  Why?  Because the law says so, and that’s there for my own protection and the protection of everyone else on the road.

In Jesus’ day, laws had a similar purpose.  God’s law, in particular, was there to facilitate a relationship between God and the people.  The Old Testament law was given as part of God’s covenant with the Hebrew people, when God said he would bless them so that though them, all peoples would be blessed.  There were aspects of that law to help the people stay focused on God, to promote order, but also to protect the weakest and most vulnerable people in their society.

Policies aren’t a bad thing, especially when they are in place to protect people, but when the policies begin to take priority over the people, then we have a problem.  That’s the problem in the ongoing conflict throughout the Gospels between Jesus and the Pharisees.   The law had started as good, God gave it, after all, but through the centuries, layers of man-made rules and regulations were added, 613 of them, to be exact.  The Pharisees developed as a religious group who saw the path to  God as a matter of following all 613 of those rules to the exact letter of each law.

Law, as you know is a matter of interpretation.  It’s not always clear cut, that’s why we have lawyers and judges.  In Jesus’ day, the Pharisees represented one school of interpretation about God’s law that centered on adherence to every detail.  Jesus, however, offered a different interpretation.

They say it’s good to have a lawyer who knows the law; it’s even better to have one who knows the judge.

Because he was God, Jesus knew God’s law better than even the Pharisees.  God’s law is a matter of the heart, and Jesus summed it up simply as “Love God, love neighbor.”  Simple to remember, but as we start to practice it, we realize it covers just about everything.  Rather than delineating a long list of “do’s” and “don’ts,” so long as what you’re doing demonstrates love toward God and neighbor, then go ahead and do it.

You can see how this would have been unsettling to the Pharisees.  If you enjoy considerable privilege by your expertise in dissecting 613 laws into the smallest little pieces, you would be threatened, too, by anyone who comes along with a different, yet compelling, interpretation.

We find Jesus and the Pharisees locked into it again today.  And the issue that precipitates the conflict in our text has to do with policies about what you can and can’t do on the Sabbath.

God gave the Sabbath as a gift – a day each week to give thanks and worship, to refrain from working, to rest, and to be renewed.  God said to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, or “set apart.”

As such, policies were put into place to help protect the Sabbath, including prohibitions against doing any sort of work, and here’s where the Pharisees are ready to nail Jesus against the wall.  Because if he’s so holy and godly as he claims, why are Jesus and his disciples boldly violating the Sabbath laws by doing work – picking grain – on the Sabbath?

Jesus reminds the Pharisees that they aren’t “working,” per se, as in, they aren’t harvesting the wheat.  They are plucking individual grains, simply satisfying their hunger as they walked along.

This particular text then picks up on another Sabbath day, where Jesus heals a man with a painfully disfigured hand in the synagogue – right there in front of God and everybody.  He knows the Pharisees will be furious at this because “healing” is obviously a form of “work,” which again, goes against the rules.  Jesus does it anyway.  Why?  Because people are more precious to God than policies.  Policies are man-made.  People are God-made.  We often make policies in our image.  People are made in God’s image.

All of that comes together for Jesus.  The law is about love of God and neighbor.  Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Really, which is more important – your precious policies, or God’s precious people?”  In their attempt to trap Jesus, they have set the trap for themselves, and in their zealous attempt to enforce God’s law, have shown how little of God they actually know.

A side note here, if the bulk of your religious activity is trying to catch other people breaking the rules or doing something wrong or something you disapprove of – God isn’t in that.  That’s just hollow posturing in the name of pious religiosity, and God has nothing to do with that.  Instead of worrying about all the wrong that other people are doing, just practice loving God and your neighbor, which is, after all, the summary of the Law according to Jesus himself.  I don’t know about you, the best thing for my spiritual well-being is to deal with my stuff and the condition of my heart rather than fixate on what I perceive to be the shortcomings of others.

I’d like to say that the Pharisees died out shortly after Jesus, but the truth is they are still alive and well.  There are still plenty of folks who love their own policies more than God’s people.  My work takes me into many church buildings, I notice things about church buildings as I drive by, and I see the signs that, in many places, policies are still taking priority over people.

What do those signs look like?  They look like chains across a parking lot during the week so people don’t turn around in the lot or simply take 20 minutes to rest or pray or eat their lunch.
They look like beautiful new basketball courts and playgrounds, and then churches go the extra mile to surround them with a chain-link fence that is always locked.  What sort of message does that send to the kids in those neighborhoods?

I know of one church that actually consistently said no to new ministries, particularly those that would engage their surrounding community, because, they were worried, and I kid you not, “that they might mess up the building.”  You know what else? – their building wasn’t even that nice! – and maybe that was all an intentional part of their plan to keep newcomers away.

Not surprisingly, that church is dying, dwindling more each year, struggling more and more just to survive, and its members are scratching their heads saying, “Why won’t our church grow?

I can tell you why – because they love their building more than they love the people around their building.  Everywhere inside and around their building were subtle and not-so-subtle signs that said, “Keep Out.”  “Stay Away.”  “Members only.”  They don’t have a church; they have a clubhouse!

They have put more of their effort into writing policies that protect and preserve that place, than into ministering to the people right around them.  You tell me why they’re not growing!  No, the Pharisees are still alive and well.  There are still those who love status-quo protecting policies more than they love the people around them.

A building is a tool for ministry to happen.  Ministry involves people.  And when people use the space, something might get damaged or broken or dirty.  A wall might get scuffed up, a floor might get scratched from moving furniture, a window broken, a carpet might get stained, a table might get glitter or marker on it.  Something might not get thrown out, or put away, or turned off, - and you know what?  That’s the cost of being in the people business.  So be it.  This is not a museum.  This is not a clubhouse.  This is the church of Jesus.

Christ Church in Hickory has grown a lot in the last few decades, which means they are always building something new to accommodate their growing family.  In the grand opening of one brand-new building, first service in the brand new place, Charles Kyker, the pastor, began the service by walking out to the middle of the room with a cup of coffee in his hand, and dumping it into the brand new carpet in their brand new building with the brand new mortgage.  Charles said, “No one needs to worry about making the first mark on this new building, because I just did.  We’re not going to worry about stains in the carpet around here.  We’re gonna focus on people, instead.”

Say what you want about Charles, his leadership style, or the congregation he leads.  What you can’t argue with is that thousands of people’s lives have been changed, people who might not have otherwise darkened the door of a church, because there is at least one church that care more about the people who make stains in the carpet, than the stains in the carpet themselves.  People’s lives are changed when we care more about them than we do about our own policies.

We don’t want to abuse the building, certainly, let’s definitely take care of it as best we can, but if an accident happens, well, that’s an accident.  I would rather have to repaint a room every few years because it’s being used by people, people who have a place to come and learn about how much God loves them and how they can live as Christ’s disciples in the world, than to have it remain pristine and unused.  The building is a tool, a tool to be used by people, people who are more precious than policies.

I’m not down on rules.  I’m not advocating complete recklessness.  Let’s just be careful that our policies are consistent with the overall character of Christ – policies that care for people as Christ would have.  Policies that look out for the least, last, and lost, the vulnerable, the marginalized, the outcast and outsider – those are policies worth pursuing.

The church, after all, belongs to Jesus.  He has every right to ask us, “Which you do love more – your policies, or my people?”

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