"Laws Are Only Signposts"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 2/14/1999
Matthew 17:1-9; Exodus 24:12-18
This morning I want us to think about our attitudes regarding the laws that govern our lives. This is a very timely topic after the historic conclusions last week in our nation's Senate. The Ten Commandments were not suggestions; they were laws. If we stay with the Biblical understanding and call them "Commandments," will their title give them any more authority over our lives than our other laws?
Historically, the Hebrews believed that obedience to these laws was part of their agreement to please God. The motivation to be obedient was to please God. From this mistaken belief came all the problems with that arrangement. Why? Because they could not spend every waking moment trying to please God. As a result of their inability to please God, the Biblical writers proclaimed that the wages of sin was death and destruction. This brief summary characterizes the tug-of-war that took place between God and the Jews throughout the Hebrew Bible.
Why was pleasing God a mistaken belief? Think how easily each one of us could have made this same mistake when we were children. Go back to your childhood. Think about the many unwritten "laws" that existed there. Some of these might have been keeping your room neat, being prompt at the supper table, getting homework assignments completed in a timely fashion, coming home from a date at the pre-arranged time, taking out the trash, or taking turns doing the dishes. All of us can remember what the laws were and are.
When we were children, we received a very clear message when we did not comply. Our parents were not pleased! In my day we were walloped, punished, scolded, put on restriction, or sent to our rooms. There was never any doubt where we stood when we broke the laws in the home.
Today when the rules are not obeyed, parents of the nineties give their children something called "a time out." I wonder how many "time outs" are needed for a child to get the message. When we were walloped there was never any doubt that our parents were into behavioral modification of some kind. Generally, our lack of judgment happened once and we became very clear on what was expected of us.
Somewhere children can mistakenly get the message that they must conform to the laws of the home to please Mom and Dad. Yet such an interpretation has never played a roll in successful parenting. Parents do not bark out their commandments so that their children will please them. Neither did God.
Parents organize their families around laws so that their children become trained in the various social skills and graces that will help them thrive in a society where people are rewarded for having skills of character, self-determination, self-initiation and skills that enable them to contribute within a team environment. Laws are not for the parents' pleasure; they are for the training and the guidance of children. Remember the Proverb that said, "Teach children how they should live, and that training will serve them for the rest of their lives." (Proverbs 22:6)
When we miss the intent of laws in the home, many of us grow up trained to be pleasers. For the rest of our lives we are pleasing Mom and Dad. For the rest of our lives we spend much of our energy living up to the expectations of other people. Somewhere in all of that, we may miss finding time for ourselves and what pleases us. When we miss understanding the purpose of laws in the home, we may suffer grave consequences as we move forward in life.
Let me illustrate the difference between learning a skill and becoming a pleaser. This Valentine's Day how many of you did something special to please someone else? Your message was, "See what a good boy I am? I bought you a lovely card or a dozen roses. I took you to dinner. I bought you a diamond tennis bracelet. After watching the Super Bowl, I was reminded to buy you these red things from Victoria's Secret." A pleaser is motivated by such an attitude.
Valentine's Day is a signpost, just like Veteran's Day, Independence Day, or Memorial Day. Such days give us an opportunity to pause in our hectic schedules to remember and give thanks. When we have learned a skill, however, today becomes a special day when we express our joy that we have someone with whom to share our lives, be that a spouse, family or friends. How they respond is up to them. Our intent was to express our gratitude, not to please. The difference is in the spirit of the giving. We should not follow the laws in our home to please anyone. We should follow them because of what they make of us.
Since this is Scout Sunday, I want to read for you the Scout Law. Listen to the image created by the words. "A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent." In essence, the Scout Law is saying, "If you want to work on polishing the diamond of life that God gave you, here are some of the benchmark qualities that you are capable of achieving."
Not everyone is motivated to be a Scout. That is fine! While God does not punish those who fail to live up to the Scout Law, there are consequences to every single human being who falls short of the benchmark qualities found there. Think about it. Creation is set up so that we enhance or diminish who we are. Such a choice is always ours.
For example, look at some of the components of the Scout Law. What is life really like when we are untrustworthy, when we cannot be loyal to anything or anyone, and when we find it difficult to be helpful. Or, think of the people to whom we refer when we say, "They always carry a chip on their shoulder." They never developed any skills of friendship. Who has done that to them? God? Not hardly. By setting aside the principles contained in the Scout Law, people demonstrate that they have not yet learned the skills that give them control over their lives.
We could travel through the Scout Law and demonstrate how easy it is for people to sabotage themselves when they choose to be less than God designed them to be. Once they make that choice, what do people tend to do next? That's right, they look around for someone or something to blame. They develop feelings of anger or helplessness. They spend energy convincing themselves that they have a right to feel the way they do because they are victims of something.
How self-deceiving! We can only be a victim if we blame our circumstances for the way we have chosen to feel about those circumstances. Another person under identical circumstances might express profound gratitude for such "boot camp" experiences, believing that those experiences helped to forge their character strengths.
The Scout Law and others like it become the foundation that creates every possibility and opens most of the doors for opportunity. The Ten Commandments received by Moses were only a negative way of expressing some very significant signposts for self-enhancement. We can become intimidated by the "Thou Shalt Nots" but if we do so, we miss their intent completely.
Listen again how Jesus characterized our observance of the law. Jesus taught, "Whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but the person who teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven." Next Jesus said, "For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven." "Exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees?" What is Jesus asking of us?
We may find such teaching very hard to grasp, but this is an easy teaching to understand. Once we learn that our observing the laws has nothing to do with pleasing God, we can turn our attention to their real function. Notice that Jesus never said that the response of people determined whether they are "in" or "out" of the kingdom. Jesus used the terms "least" and "great", indicating that we are all there. Jesus was merely affirming that it is we who must decide the kind of persons we want to be. Laws are helpful guides as we make those decisions.
When we make a commitment to honor God, we are in essence saying, "Thank you for everything you have given me. Thank you for creating the possibilities where parents, teachers, and friends have trained me and given me signposts that have led me to find and use what you have given me."
Can we sense a shift in our understanding of the purpose for our laws? Our laws are signposts designed to serve us. They were not designed to prevent us from doing anything. We are always free to break the law. Many of us may even resent our laws and set them aside any time we feel like it. The true purpose of law, however, is to guide us around the negative consequences we heap on ourselves. When we break our laws, we diminish who we are.
Remember, breaking a law does not automatically condemn people to anything. Breaking the law only reveals them. It tells them who they are. No one ever gets away with anything. We are always about the business of creating who we are, even when that process is going on privately. We cannot hide from ourselves whom we have become or are becoming.
Laws are yet another way God expresses love to us. Our laws are not designed for our punishment when we break them. They are a recipe for success. Once their purpose is thoroughly understood, there is never any debate about our identity.
For example, when we are out of money, it would not cross our minds to rob a convenience store. The law of stealing will never apply to us. We get it. Once we make that decision and realize that our laws are there to serve us, we do not have to face that tension again. We will always seek more creative alternatives to solving our money problems.
When tithing is part of who we are, there is never any inner discussion about how much we intend to give toward the work of the church. Our tithing has nothing to do with the worthiness of a church to receive our gifts. It has to do with a decision we made a long time ago. We get it! Generosity creates abundance. There is no debate. We give so that we might live.
When we have trouble obeying a law -- what a gift that law is as it stands in front of us. Think about this! There you are. No one is looking when this glorious illusion of self-deception and sabotage enters your life. You are very clear that when you sacrifice your character on the altar of gratification, no one will find out. If the particular law you are about to break could speak during that moment of decision, it would say something like this:
"I do not care if you ignore me. You may not get caught. That issue is not part of the debate. The question is, Who do you want to be when no one is watching? Because, friend, that is who you are? I am designed to be a signpost just so you would always remain clear that it is you and no one else who is determining your quality of what you experience. Remember, improving the quality of your journey is the reason you came here. God does not judge you. You do. And you will always travel at your own pace. I am merely a Law. I was designed to guide you. Making me a part of you will free you of much debate in your future. As with everything you do, allowing me to guide and protect you is your choice."
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving and ever-patient God, we come to worship today knowing that we live all over the landscape of your created order. Each of us has desires to find acceptance, to be loved, and to find meaning in our lives. Lead us to search for and find the rules which make our lives work. Help us to understand that blueprints are to a house what Jesus Christ is to life. Inspire us to understand that without a destination even the best built ships sail nowhere. Open our eyes to see that circumstances do not make or break any of us; they only reveal what we have learned. Hold the hand of each of us so we might step forth with confidence that each life experience is perfect for what we need to master within ourselves. In so doing, may the tiny pockets of resistance melt into a willingness to embrace the greatest adventure we could ever know, living in harmony with you. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for these moments of reflection. Most of us do not remember to take time for ourselves. We become wounded and move on. We end relationships and conclude that they just did not work out. We change jobs without really knowing what we want. We make decisions without thinking about their consequences to the rest of our world, and to our loved ones who must share that world. We suffer losses and do not allow time for healing. We believe that life does not wait for any one. And we hurry along believing that life really is traveling in a direction that will not wait.
Thank you, God, for these precious moments that help us focus on who you created us to be. Thank you for these moments that help us remember the meaning of giving and receiving love. Thank you, that even among the symbols of Boy Scouting, you remind us of the importance to us of character, of training, of living up to standards that were really not designed for the timid and afraid.
But, above all the awareness these moments bring to us, we thank you for each other. When we feel alone, we thank you for the feeling of human touch, for the blessings of kindness, for the healing of friendship, and for the moments of remembrance that each of us is your beloved son and daughter in whom you are well pleased. Inscribe that knowledge permanently on our minds, hearts and spirits, as we now pray the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to say . . .