The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Here’s the news flash of the day: if it comes down to a choice between love and law, God will break the law.
In the story we just heard, Jesus did something that a good Jew was not supposed to do. He worked on the Sabbath. By doing the work of healing- that is, by laying his hands on a woman who had been crippled for 18 years, and by invoking the healing love of God, he, as a rabbi, was, technically speaking, working. And work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Now his disobedience may seem like a small thing to us, but it was a very big deal to the leader of the synagogue. Jesus was considered to be a rabbi, and he publicly broke religious law, in the synagogue, no less. But what is important in this story is that he broke the law in the name of mercy.
This wasn’t the only time this happened in the Bible. According to the Book of Acts, one day God gave the apostle Peter a shocking vision – that he was to eat every kind of unclean food that was forbidden by Jewish dietary law. It was a symbolic vision, leading Peter, an observant Jew, to baptize Gentiles, and not require them to become Jewish first. In the name of mercy, God swept away centuries of biblical tradition.
The supremacy of mercy over religious law is made crystal clear in a stunning passage from the prophet Amos. He speaks for God, saying I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them...Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
For God, religious tradition means absolutely nothing without mercy. And if it comes down to a choice between them, God will sweep aside scripture, tradition and law every time, in the name of mercy.
For this reason, there are those today who are calling for open communion in our church. They ask why should we place an obstacle – namely, baptism – between any seeker and the love of God that is to be found in the Eucharist? Who are we to demand that before they can have access the mercy of God, they must go through a class and assent to various beliefs? Should we break religious tradition and law in the name of love? It’s a question that today’s gospel asks of us.
As I told you in a sermon a few months ago, it was this same question that representatives of the Episcopal Church asked of the rest of the Anglican Communion a few years ago when we were called on the carpet for ordaining and blessing the unions of gay and lesbian people. When asked to explain ourselves in light of scripture and church tradition, we pointed to that story of Peter and his vision. Like Peter, we asked Who are we to stand in the way of God’s love that is, in fact, being manifested through these faithful people, who happen to be gay and lesbian?
This, of course, is what is at the heart of civil disobedience. Our country has a long and proud tradition of those who break the law in the name of mercy. The American Revolution, surely an illegal act, could be seen in this light. The Underground Railway aided runaway slaves - who were somebody’s property, according to the law. In every war when there has been a draft, Conscientious Objectors have refused to serve. People offer aid to undocumented immigrants, even when, in some states, you can get arrested for giving your cleaning lady a ride to the hospital when she’s having a heart attack. Even the very conservative Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles said he wouldn’t obey that law. And remember the illegal sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement, modeled after the civil disobedience of Gandhi.
Some say that laws are meant to be broken. Well, not every law. Just the ones that stand in the way of love. That includes religious and civil law. But it also includes laws and traditions that we hold in our families, even for ourselves.
There are families, perhaps some of yours, where it is a law to not speak the truth about alcoholism or about abuse, whether physical, emotional, or sexual. To break this law can result in real punishment: increased abuse, condemnation, or being exiled from the family forever.
In some families, it is a law to always be nice, never to disagree, and never to be personal with another in a way that might offend or embarrass them. This was a law in my family of origin. Or it might be a law to always speak your mind and emotionally vent, no matter how this may affect others. Or it might be a law to prove your self all the time, to be in competition for who is right or who is smartest.
What sort of family law did you grow up with, or what sort of law do you continue to live under? Could it be possible that by breaking this law, love might flow more freely in your family?
For when the silence is broken around an alcoholic, the love of God’s healing grace might begin to work. When the invisible wall of polite tolerance is shattered by forbidden words of truth, real intimacy might be possible. When you refuse to get into family arguments, you may create a space where real communication can happen. Sometimes the emotional laws of families must be broken, in the name of love. And this is never easy.
But it is even more difficult to learn how to break the laws we hold for ourselves, laws that stand in the way of loving ourselves and others more fully. One of my laws used to be that I would always be disciplined and productive. It was not easy for me to learn how to relax and allow loose ends. But by breaking this law, I have learned mercy towards myself.
What sort of law do you keep for yourself? That you will always get along with others, no matter how unreasonable they may be? That you will work out 6 days a week and meditate every morning, instead of sometimes enjoying a slow morning with your dog, or your loved one? That you can’t possibly risk being hurt again by love, and so you make sure that there is a distance between yourself and everyone else? That you won’t ever make mistakes and thereby incur the disapproval of your internalized parent, or of God?
It is not easy to break these kinds of laws we hold for ourselves. For when we do – when we stop living in the way we always thought we were supposed to – we enter into an unknown territory, a kind of desert landscape where nothing is familiar. In a sense, we don’t know who we are anymore. We don’t know quite how to be, how to relate to others, how to get what we need.
But in this unknown desert there are angels ready to feed us, to guide us, to help us enter a new land, where we become new people. For when we risk for God in the direction of greater love and mercy, we will be helped along the way, I am sure of that. God does not lead us down blind alleys. God is faithful, and we never have to journey through strange places alone.
Yes, there is a cost to be paid when we break the laws of the state, of the church, of the family, and of the self, even when they are broken in the name of love. But consider the alternative. Who really wants to live a life where love is kept under lock and key?
Jesus, our teacher and our window to God, is a rebel with a cause. His cause is love and mercy, and he will break any rule that stands in its way. Are you willing to join him?