Sermon: More Than Rules


When my niece Emily was coming of age, about 13 years old, it was kind of hard on my sister. Prior to adolescence, Emily used to love doing things with her mom: shopping, horseback riding, homework, practicing piano, cooking, even house-cleaning; they were BFF (Best Friends Forever), did everything together, were pretty much inseparable. Emily even looked like a `mini-me’ version of her mother.

But on one occasion, while I was over at their house, I overheard a somewhat terse mother-daughter conversation (actually it was more of a monologue by my sister Cathy): “Now, no more discussion. I want you to clean up your room, then do your homework, brush your teeth, and get right into bed. We have a big day tomorrow, church in the morning, then lunch with Papa and Grandma, then Uncle Ta ta (that’s me) wants to watch you at your riding lesson…”

Well, at the end of this somewhat Deuteronomic list of commands, Emmy broke ranks, gave a stiff salute, and stomped off to her room muttering under her breath, “Who’s life is this, anyway?!’

I gave Cathy a look as if to say, `What’s up with this attitude?’

And Cathy said, “Listen, I’m just glad she saluted.”

 

That was a rough stage of development – emotionally and relationally – for both Emily and her mother. Of course Emily matured beautifully, and is now a mother of two little boys herself. And she and her mother are, of course, once again, totally BFF.

 

Along with that process of physical/emotional/social development that we all go through, there’s also an adjacent spiritual maturation which (hopefully) occurs; development of the moral self.

As small children, we learn that there are certain laws in the universe that we must abide by, primarily because if we don’t there are ramifications: we get burned, scolded, sent to our room, or spanked.

By the time we reach 12 or 13, we’ve (more or less) internalized those rules, so that we obey them (generally speaking) without having someone constantly lord it over us. But even at that stage, rules are still just rules. Valid primarily for their own sake. And we obey them, again, not because of some highly developed internal moral/ethical code, but rather due to the visceral memory of past punishments which have taught us that life is much easier if we simply `toe-the-line’.

And, yet, as such, at that stage of moral development, rules were also meant to be broken; but only if you could break them without getting caught; because if you got caught breaking the rules, the resulting retribution could be…well…extreme.

 

When I was 13 years old at Coleman Junior High, the preferred mode of punishment was `paddling.’ Mr. Wilson, the shop teacher, made wooden paddles for all the male teachers in school, so whenever one sufficiently broke the rules one would be sent to one of said male teachers to receive “swats.” Just how many swats one received depended upon the severity of the transgression and the character of the `swat-giver.’

 

The teacher with the biggest paddle was the gym teacher, Coach Lazarus. When Coach stood in front of you he literally blocked out the sun. Everyone called him “Coach”, because he tutored the unrefined and under-educated in the school of “hard-knocks”. You did not want to get sent to Coach for swats.

That year a rather unholy alliance was formed between the eighth and ninth grade boys, a sort of secret-counter-intelligence-guerilla-force with only one perilous mission, to rob Coach of his primary weapon: to steal the infamous “Coach’s Paddle;” which we eventually successfully did, moving it from locker to locker until we were finally able to smuggle it out of the school.

The problem was that good old Mr. Wilson was more than happy to custom make Coach another paddle; this time even bigger and better than the last one.

This `Battle of the Paddle’ went on for some time.

By the time I was, shall we say, personally introduced to Coach’s paddle, it was a good two and a half feet long, with a series of holes drilled into it for aerodynamics (to ensure the greatest speed upon the down swing).

With most paddlings one would assume the position of bending over and grabbing ones knees. With Coach, one would find the sturdiest piece of furniture in the office and simply hang on and pray.

Barbaric? We thought so.

Abusive? Opinions have perhaps varied with the times.

Effective? You bet! At least in putting the `fear of Coach’ into us.

But did we ever subsequently internalize those rules as our own ethical standards by which to live? Not really. I cannot even remember the particular offense which led me to the fate of Coach’s holy retribution. And, afterward, we still got away with whatever we could get away with. After all, boys will be boys, right?

Such are the foundations for those early stages of moral development. And, say some moral developmental theorists, many never grow out that adolescent stage.

Many adults follow the rules simply out of fear punishment. Nothing more.

 

I suppose a nation, as a whole, goes through stages of moral development as well.

My junior high years were during the sixties and, perhaps, the country itself was moving through a sort of stage of rebellious adolescence; trying to find some new moral ground upon which we could stand united and into which we could grow as a nation. Those were days of rioting in city streets, deep national division and high social tension—all of which, unfortunately, funneled right down to our little Midwest junior high school. And one of the things American youth seemed to be rebelling against, at the time, was the notion of adherence to rules for the sake of rules.

The administration of my junior high school may well have thought that drastic times called for equally drastic measures. And, as the concern that widespread civil unrest would filter down to the student level increased, corporal punishment became more the norm than the exception to the rule.

Sort of a pre-emptive strike in the effort to enculturate juvenile morality.

Unfortunately, the only resolution a 13 year old mind could conceive of was to eradicate the instrument of our collective suffering: The Coach’s Paddle. And then erect the spoils of our disobedience as a monument to our (albeit brief) liberation by mounting it, in turns, upon our bedroom walls.

Of course, all this is not a new scenario.

Recall the scene that began in Exodus 20 with God saying to Moses, “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me…”

Seems simple enough, right?

The problem was that – flying in the very face of that simplicity – God then goes on in a lengthy Monologue (for several more chapters) to instruct Moses concerning a vast extrapolation of mediating circumstances regarding that basic rule, yielding a constellation of legal nuance that could rival even today’s tax code.

By Chapter 32 the Hebrew people – having previously giving Moses his due respect and pledging their everlasting allegiance to God – “When they saw that Moses was `taking a long time’ in coming down from the mountain,” declared to Aaron, “Come, make us [other] gods who will go before us.” Then turned right around to erect a god of their own, one that would be less demanding and much easier to manage: a Golden Calf.

The Hebrew people’s version of pilfering the Coach’s Paddle.

After all, human beings will be human beings, right?

 

Remember Cecil B. deMille’s four-hour-long cinematic masterpiece The Ten Commandments? I’d bet that most of you my age or older have seen it. It was intended to be much more than just a movie, you know.

Cecil B. deMille believed he was following a vision; answering a higher purpose. Cecil B. had read the cultural trends of – what he believed was – the steady moral decay of this nation, and determined that the country needed a stern reminder of its moral roots. Thus, deMille’s 1956 movie The Ten Commandments was his answer to the national crisis of declining morality.

And, as such, it was fairly effective – at least for a while back during the fifties.

Charlton Heston comes down from the mountain, his hair sticking out like he’d been struck by lightning; fairly scorched by his encounter with the Living God; bearing in his arms two huge stone tablets of the law that God had given to the newly freed people.

Etched into granite by the finger of God, it was resolute and simple. Even a child could remember these rules and assent. No whereases or therefores. No disclaimers. No safety clauses. No fine print. Just pure law blasted into cold, hard stone.

Everything I ever needed to know, one would think, I learned when I was 8 years old, right there at the Saturday matinee in the Orpheum Theatre.

I remember the kicker happens about two thirds through the movie, when Moses finally comes down from the mountain to discover a `stiff-necked people’ and their blasphemous rebellion. In a fit of raging futility, Moses throws the stone tablets to the ground, thus shattering the law both literally and symbolically.

Later in an interview, when commenting about his monumental cinematic work, Cecil B. deMille made the observation, “It is impossible for us to break the law. We can only break ourselves against or upon the law.”

In truth, we can certainly affirm that the Ten Commandments represent universal principles that govern human growth and happiness. They are irrefutable truths that are woven into the very fabric of civilized life. They make up the foundation for every successful culture and every healthy family from the beginning of history.

The Ten Commandments are God’s Word. God’s Word is Law; as enduring as time itself, as indissoluble as granite.

And, on one level or another, human beings have been breaking themselves against that Law ever since.

While Cecil B. deMille’s Academy Award winning film did have some cultural impact in reaffirming America’s moral compass, it ultimately failed in its lofty goal of reinstituting and re-enculturating our national morality.

Just as God’s Law itself, perhaps, failed to keep God’s people under the protection of God’s grace. And this is true, I would argue, because the film – as with the Book upon which it was based – did not cover the most crucial element needed for sound moral development in any individual or nation.

Enter Jesus Christ.

 

“I did not come to abolish the law,” Jesus said of himself.  “Rather I came to fulfill the law.” And he fulfilled it by turning cold, hard tablets into fragile, vulnerable flesh. What Moses – and subsequently Cecil B. deMille – failed to adequately communicate, Jesus Christ most fully embodied.

That God is Love. And God’s Love is for all people.

Love, not qualified as due reward for our feckless obedience, but love given unconditionally in the divine hope that we fickle, faint-hearted human beings would take it to heart and – at some point to some degree – return a measure of that love in response.

Perhaps that is something which both God and God’s people have learned together over the eons-long development of their often turbulent relationship: that we all respond much better to love than to fear.

 

Not long ago, I heard an aging Baby Boomer make the remark, “If you were really there in the sixties, you probably don’t remember them.” Although I guess my sister and I were still young enough, and perhaps innocent enough, to have fond memories of that time, turbulent as it was.

And, while I suppose not everything that came out of the sixties is worth remembering (platform shoes and shag haircuts come to mind), I do believe it would behoove us to take at least one page from that experience. Maybe even frame it and put it up on the wall where Coach’s Paddle used to hang. And the heading of that page would be the title to the Beatles enduring anthem: All You Need Is Love.

“Love. Love. Love. Love is all you need.”

 

Jesus himself summed it up: `Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind, and strength of soul. Then strive to love each other as you would love yourself.’

And, folks, that’s just about as simple as it gets. Because everything else – God’s Law and the Bible’s prophecy, along with all our praise, preaching and prayer – hang together on that One Foundation of LOVE. In Jesus Christ.