Good morning! I hope you enjoy this morning’s sermon …
The Rules Are Still Changing
Last Saturday we celebrated the life of Barbara Alcott, a longtime member of this congregation, the Rehoboth Congregational Church. On Wednesday evening her son sent me an email with a link to a blog post written by Linda Andrade Rodrigues. Rodrigues is the religion editor at The Standard-Times in New Bedford, Massachusetts and a nature and spirituality blogger for the Rhode Island Patch newspapers. She reflected on her visit to Rehoboth and to our church in a blog post she wrote on Sunday morning.
Driving through the dense fog and drizzle, I pass through miles of country back roads in Dighton and Rehoboth, Massachusetts.
But even under overcast skies, the vegetation is gorgeous. The trees, heavy laden with new leaves, bend across the road creating a tunnel into the Garden of Eden; and bright spots of fuchsia rhododendrons catch the eye around every bend.
The mist gives this isolated place an ethereal quality, and my slow speed navigating unfamiliar roads gives me the opportunity to pay close attention to my surroundings.
I begin to notice how many pre-Revolutionary homes sit close to the street with their barns and outhouses nestled close by.
And I imagine colonists on horseback galloping by…
Arriving for the service at Rehoboth Congregational Church, I climb the old wooden steps, and I am greeted by Pilgrims.
There is a Pilgrim with a musket over his shoulder and a Pilgrim couple on the seashore, depicted in two of the beautiful stained glass windows. Along another wall of windows, Jesus beckons.
According to their history, the congregation has been entwined with that of the town of Rehoboth since 1643. The Reverend Samuel Newman, along with others, established the settlement and erected the first meeting house on the east bank of the Ten Mile River, and called the town “Rehoboth.”
A book enshrined in a glass case at the front of the church is open to this King James passage: “So he called its name Rehoboth, because he said, ‘For now the Lord has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’” (Genesis 26:22)
Wanting to worship regularly, the Reverend David Turner, and ten founding members of the new congregation, completed a “new” meeting house on November 29, 1721.
The third meeting house, their present sanctuary, was completed in 1839 and was known as “The Church in the Barnyard.”
The stained glass windows were added in 1906.
A plaque on the wall commemorates the life of one of their members, a deacon of the church who was born in 1744 and lived for 98 years.
Sitting on the small hard bench, I pray silently, while I await the start of the service.
I smile when the lovely young minister takes the pulpit. What would our Pilgrim forefathers have thought of that?
Stepping out into the bright sunshine, I retrace my path on the winding roads; and this time I see the contemporary homes sprawled on acreage along the way.
As a New Englander, I am rooted to this land; and sometimes I feel I have one foot in the past and the other in the present.
I crank up the engine of my shiny blue sports car and glide along these now familiar roads with the words of the old hymn “In The Garden” still ringing in my ears:
“I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses; and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me I am his own, and the joy we share, as we tarry there, none other has ever known.”
There is so much about this reflection that made me smile: The quaint description of our town. The detail about a beautiful church and sanctuary that, too often, we take for granted. The reminder of where we came from and the foundation we now stand on.
And let’s face it – how many of us haven’t wondered what our Pilgrim forefathers would thought of me?
Times are a-changin’ my friends. We are not living in the same world we were living in 10 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago or 2,000 years ago. Into each generation a new way of living emerges. We, as human beings, evolve and find a way to blend our way of living into the history that came before us.
In the United States, we feel this especially here in New England, a place full of history, yet still brimming with growth and forward movement. “As a New Englander,” Rodrigues wrote, “I am rooted to this land; and sometimes I feel I have one foot in the past and the other in the present.”
So how do we circumnavigate the tension between the past and the present?
In this morning’s Gospel reading, a woman – a sinner – came to the home of one of the Pharisees, where Jesus was eating. Weeping, she washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and then anointed them with ointment. Simon, the Pharisee, watching what was happening, muttered to him himself, “Well, clearly Jesus is not a prophet; because if Jesus was a prophet, then he would know that this woman is a sinner and would not let her touch him.”
But Jesus dared to disagree.
Jesus knew, of course, that this woman was considered a sinner. And – by law and by custom in the society that he was living in – Jesus should not have let her touch him.
But he did.
Who this woman was – specifically, who people thought this woman was – did not matter to Jesus. Because she showed Jesus love. And he welcomed her into his arms because of that love.
“Therefore, I tell you,” Jesus said, “her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.”
And then Jesus said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
Jesus, too, had one foot in the past and one in the present. Before Jesus came, life and religious traditions were based on law. The law – and the rules that the law established – made life simple. There was a right way and a wrong way to live life, to practice religion, to be a member of society. Individuals were judged and defined by how they looked on the outside and by the families and the places that they were born into.
But Jesus illuminated a new path, one where faith – not law – guides your journey. Jesus tore down barriers that had been put up by societies, laws and traditions and created a space grounded in faith, hospitality and inclusivity of all. When Jesus accepted this woman – this supposed sinner – into his midst, he told the world that the rules were changing. When Jesus allowed himself to not only feel her love, but also to love her in return, he showed the world that the rules were changing.
How scary must these changes have been for those who were witnessing them? The world as they knew it – the security of the Jewish law and customs and the stability of their religious society – was being threatened. They did not know what the future might hold or what their lives might look like in the months and years to come.
I think we know exactly how scary these changes must have been. We understand this fear, because – to some extent – we feel it today. Our world is changing. Our way of life is changing. Our church is changing.
Two weeks ago, I preached on transitions. I said that this church does not look the same way that it did a few years ago. It does not; the world outside of our walls is changing and – in order to sustain our organization – we, the Rehoboth Congregational Church, have been forced to make some changes as well.
Now I will not pretend that some of these changes have not been unsettling. Even for your “lovely young minister,” who always seems to be leading the charge, the darkness of the unknown is a scary place to be walking into.
But, the rules did change when Jesus came. And the truth of the resurrection is that the rules are still changing today.
Yesterday, at the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, Conference Minister Jim Antal said, “Change is risky, but it’s also visionary.”
So let’s be honest. Acknowledging these changes is the easy part. We can look at the world around us, see that things are different and know that we need to change. But actually living out these changes? That is the hard part. That is the part that I know we all struggle with.
The Apostle Paul struggled with this. Paul founded the Christian churches of Galatia, the churches that he wrote to in this morning’s reading from the book of Galatians. But his teachings of a new kind of faith were being threatened by Jewish-Christian teachers, who were urging the Galatian people to continue to observe some of the Jewish laws and rituals.
“We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners;” Paul began. “Yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
Laws and rules are easy to understand; grace and mercy are not. But Paul was adamant in this letter that the resurrection changed the rules and they – the believers in the truth of the Gospel – had to live out those changes. Paul, too, believed that people had to keep one foot in the past and one in the present.
And we, too, are reminded today that, even when we face the darkest of the unknown, we must take that step forward. We must be living proof that change can be a good thing; that God is still creating, that Christ is still redeeming and that the Holy Spirit is still sustaining. We must be visionary.
Change is a very, very scary thing. I will never deny that.
But I will also never deny the call that each and every single one of you has to be a unique minister of the Gospel in this world. I will never deny the call that this church has today to be a relevant source of hope, compassion, education, hospitality, prayers, worship and outreach to the community. Please do not allow yourself to be confined by rituals and traditions, to be prevented from being the person God is calling you to be.
When Jesus came, the rules changed.
But the rules are still changing.
And these changes are illuminating a path full of new ministries, rich opportunities, extravagant outreach and abundant.
“And it is no longer I who live,” Paul wrote. “But it is Christ who lives in me.”
And THIS is the Good News that brings us new life.
Thanks be to God!