Ask not!

Pentecost 2, Proper 4

In the name of God: who asks only for love.  Amen.

Last week, Michael and I watched the new movie on Netflix called Unfrosted.  It was conceived by and stars Jerry Seinfeld, and I’d describe the genre as something like “historical farce” – because it is loosely based on actual events that took place, but there’s quite a bit of license taken for the sake of over-the-top, nonsensical comedy.

Unfrosted tells (and often whimsically reimagines) the story of the race during the 1960s between cereal giants Kellogg’s and Post to create a portable, hand-held breakfast pastry – a race that would eventually be won by the Kellogg’s “Pop-Tart”.

The movie takes us through all manner of trials and triumphs, but in one episode, in particular, the fate of the emerging Pop Tart is imperiled by the back room opposition of “Big Milk”.  You see, the milk industry is threatened by this breakfast innovation that would suddenly require no milk, so they work like a kind of mafia behind the scenes to try to interrupt and sabotage the progress.

At the same time, public hysteria grows and the people are clamoring for this new invention to finally be released.  The nation is on the verge of collapse from the frenzy created by their need for easier breakfasts.  Wars are threatened.  Only the as yet unnamed Pop Tart can save them!  The design team at Kellogg’s was summoned to the White House where President Kennedy impressed upon them the urgency of their work.

Answering the President’s call to action, the folks at Kellogg’s assure him that they will do everything they can to solve the impending crisis.  But, they say, “We really could use your help dealing with the pushback we’re getting from Big Milk.”  Kennedy, hearkening back to his inauguration speech reminds them – “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!”  Alright, they say, but we really need…  “Ask not!”, he interrupts.  Ask not!

I thought of that scene this week reading through this Gospel lesson.  As inspiring as President Kennedy’s words were for the nation – as important as they were for heralding national success and strength – they sort of stand in opposition to the teaching we hear in the Gospel.

It was the Sabbath, and the disciples were going through the grainfields picking grain.  The religious leaders saw this and questioned it.  It looked a lot like work on the Sabbath.  That was clearly against the rules.

But Jesus said, remember David?  He who is revered for his faithfulness and leadership?  Didn’t he do the same thing?  When he and his men were hungry, they went into the synagogue and ate the bread that only the Priests were to have eaten.  But they were hungry, and with the bread, they were fed.  These followers are hungry, too.  Following David – isn’t it okay for them to satisfy their hunger?

“The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.”  In other words, ask not what you can do for the Sabbath,  but what the Sabbath can do for you.  Time after time, Jesus teaches us that the law exists to help the people.  People don’t exist for the benefit of the law, but the law exists for the benefit of the people.

When institutions become our focus, we lose sight of their real purpose.  Sometimes we focus so much on supporting and strengthening our institutions at the expense of people, that we miss that.  We miss that the people are always more important than the institutions we have built.  And then sometimes, when we begin to recognize the power that we’ve given the institutions, that leads us to vilify them – like they’re somehow inherently bad.

But, of course, institutions can be great.  They can save us a lot of work.  We don’t all have to go out and found a new church when we want to grow in faith, because churches have been established.  We don’t have to build buildings and find and train priests, and develop new theology.  We don’t have to figure it all out from scratch, because others have set things in motion before us.

We don’t each have to go build a school when we want to learn.  We don’t have to design the curriculum or hire the teachers.  Those things have been done so we don’t have to start from nothing.  We don’t have to travel the world and privately amass collections of art and artifacts when we want to grow in our understandings of cultures.  There are museums that bring the world within reach so we don’t have to do it alone.

Established institutions help us.  And it is our responsibility to support them so they’re around when we need them, and when the generations who follow us need them, too.  But even so, that doesn’t mean that we exist for the institutions.  They exist for us.  They exists to save us work, and to give us a stronger footing for the work we’ll do.

The same is true for the laws and norms that guide our faith.  We don’t come to church each week to support the Christian faith so much as we come to church so that we can grow and use the faith to support us in our relationships with God and with each other.

In the church today we can fall into the same trap that the Pharisees fell into when they saw Jesus and the disciples on the Sabbath.  In the Episcopal Church, in particular, we often fall into that trap in our liturgies.  We do liturgy well in the Episcopal Church and we tend to take it pretty seriously.  But one of the sort of funny charisms of that seriousness is that people often tend think that the way they learned to do things is THE ONLY way to do things in church.

When we hosted one of the diocesan confirmation services recently, Michael was helping to “direct traffic” as people were coming up for communion when he was firmly corrected by one of the visiting priests because he’d let the “wrong” side for first.  I assure you, there is no right side or wrong side.  I’d bet this priest got this idea because there was probably a norm that was followed in his seminary chapel.  But I assure you, I’ve read every word of the Book of Common Prayer and there is no rule about which side of the church should go first when getting up for communion.

It reminds me of the old joke: what’s the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?  You can negotiate with a terrorist.

But the point of all of this is simple: the further we find ourselves lost in the rules the further we’ll find ourselves from Jesus.  It’s not that the rules don’t matter or don’t serve a purpose, but people are always more important than rules.  If a rule isn’t supporting the people, what good is it?  And even more so, if a rule is actually getting in the way of the people’s real needs, how can such a rule continue to be tolerated?

God cared about creation so much, that God wanted to participate in it first hand.  And God so loved humanity which was created in God’s image, that God came to occupy that image in God’s own body on earth.

That’s a God who puts people first.  Not rules, first.  Not laws.  Not traditions or expectations.  People.  That’s where the love of God lives.  That’s where the image of God lives.  That’s where the Body of Christ lives.

As we make our way through this world, we should put our focus there, too.  People are more important than any thing that people create.  Love is more important than any of our things.  To walk with Christ – to live like God – focus on love and focus on supporting this creation that God so lovingly entrusted to us.  Nothing else matters as much as that.  Amen.