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Unwritten rules – The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)

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Preacher: The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Title of sermon: Unwritten rules

Date/time/service: Sunday 5th July 2020 4th Sunday after Trinity

Passage of scripture: Deuteronomy 24.10-end & Matthew 11.16-19, 25-end

Professional cycling does not have a good reputation for having a high moral code. Most recently the confessions of Lance Armstrong revealed a huge amount of cheating in the sport by the taking of performance enhancing drugs. However, I learned recently that there are a number of unwritten rules, a kind of polite etiquette, that professional cyclists know and live by. For example, in the most famous cycle race of all, the Tour de France, it is accepted by all riders that if the race leader, the one wearing the yellow jersey, has a mechanical fault to his bike, or has to stop for what is euphemistically known as a ‘comfort break’ – he is not to be overtaken. Everyone slows down, and it is not uncommon to see a huge group of cyclists all taking a ‘comfort break’ at the same time as the race leader. These practices are not written down, professional cyclists just know them and obey them.

I thought of this when I read the passage from Deuteronomy we have heard this morning. The verses we read seem to have a similar feel, unwritten rules to help oil the wheels of society, not in favour of those in the lead, but in favour of the disadvantaged. So, if you loan something to a neighbour and they, as part of the deal, give you a cloak as a pledge or guarantee you must give it back to them at night so they will be warm when they sleep. You should always pay the wages of a poor man at sunset each day so they can get something to eat. You should treat aliens and orphans with justice. You should treat slaves well. Leave the odd sheaf of grain in your field after harvest for the alien, orphan or widow who may be starving.

It is easy for us to read such a passage and take this encouragement to be generous and thoughtful for granted. Behaving in line with these unwritten rules for us seems normal to most of us, but, we have to remember that these unwritten rules emerged maybe six or seven hundred years before Christ at a time when most tribes, nations and empires were fiercely focussed on themselves and their power – the poor, aliens, widows and orphans were of little or no worth. What we have read this morning from Deuteronomy was radical in the extreme. It is in such passages that we see the seeds of a way of living that fully bloomed in the life and teaching of Jesus and the writing of St Paul. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus teaches, ‘if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also a second mile’. In Matthew 20 we hear a parable of Jesus where a generous landowner pays all his labourers a full days wage when only a few of them have worked a full day. In Galatians 3.28 St Paul writes ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’

We should never underestimate the influence all of this has had on much of what we take for granted today. Many humanists, atheists and agnostics today would have us believe that we developed the concept of human rights ourselves, but the historian Tom Holland in his recent book ‘Dominion’ argues that concepts like human rights, equality and caring for the weak and vulnerable have only emerged through faith traditions. In the Introduction to his book he says ‘Assumptions that I had grown up with – about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles it should uphold – were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’ but very distinctively of that civilization’s Christian past. So profound has been the impact of Christianity on the development of Western civilization that it has become hidden from view’ p.xxix

It is important for us to remember this and to rejoice in it, but, of course, it is much more important that we live by the unwritten rules that began to emerge in the earliest pages of our scriptures and, we believe, found their fullest and clearest expression in the life and teaching of Jesus Christ. I would summarise the unwritten rules that should undergird our lives as disciples of Jesus as compassion, generosity and grace. We see these flickering and shimmering in the pages of Deuteronomy and other Old Testament books and we see them flowering in Jesus Christ, we see aspects of them in the best parts of our human society – the question is – as each of us seek to be obedient disciples of Jesus, do we see compassion, generosity and grace also flowering in everything we do and everything we say?

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