Sermon: Having Rules is Good News

A sermon preached by the Revd Dr Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, October 8th 2023

Exodus 20: 1-20; Psalm 19; Matthew 21: 33-46

Watch the whole service on YouTube


How many of the ten commandments do the tenants break in Jesus’s parable?

Obviously they  break the one against murder, killing not only the landowner’s servants, but also his son and heir. Then there’s the commandment against coveting the possessions of others. This is not just about envy, but about envy which moves to intending to take from another what belongs to them because you desire it. And they desired the vineyard, which the son should inherit: ‘This is the heir, come, let us kill him and get his inheritance. (21:38) Their coveting leads to breaking the commandment against stealing as well as the one against murder.

The whole thing kicks off because the tenants withhold rent which they had previously agreed to pay the landowner. This makes their previous agreement to do so a form of false witness. I wonder if in making that agreement they invoked God’s name, which people might have done in those religious times. If so, you should add misusing, or “taking in vain” the name of the Lord to their list of broken commandments.

Such misbehaviour would bring dishonour on their family, so breaking commandment to honour one’s parents. And, given that their actions are driven by their ultimate attachment to land and money above anything or anyone else, thus supplanting God from first place, these have become little ‘gods’ that they put before God, and so another commandment bites the dust: ‘you shall have no other gods before me.’

There’s not mention of adultery. We don’t hear of them building idols of wood or stone and setting them up in the vineyard in order to worship them. There’s no indication that these events happened on the Sabbath day. So we can give the tenants a pass on these three commandments. Still, breaking seven out of the ten is hardly a cause for pride.

How useful is keeping the rules for living your life? Religion, including churches, gets a bit of a reputation as being rule-keeping, or rules-obsessed. Many people who have little to do with church but have heard of the ten commandments, even if they are hazy about their content, see churches and church folk as too caught up with keeping the rules. Given that none of us church people manage to keep all of these rules all of the time, then not only are we perceived as petty, but we’re also labelled as hypocrites.

It’s worth revisiting the role of rules today, especially as, once again, we welcome new church members at Saint Columba’s. What are Peter and Brenda getting themselves into? What’s the expectation upon them and upon those who are already members concerning keeping the rules? What would others, those who are not yet members of this church, be getting themselves into if they joined up?

Famously, or infamously, some years back, there was a publicity video for the United Reformed Church. In it, one person was said to have said that what they liked about the URC was that you could believe anything you like and still be a member of it! If you take the trouble to view the video you find that’s not quite what they said. Yet it’s taken on the status of an urban myth because it’s plausible that a URC person might say something like that! We are a denomination with a theologically liberal reputation.

That said, if you think you can believe whatever you like as a member of the United Reformed Church you would be wrong. If you think that there are no rules to follow (or fail to follow) as a church member in the URC, you would be wrong. And that’s the good news!

We might not like rules when we find them an inconvenience. I notice that the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, has received death threats as a result of Wales moving to a 20 mph speed limit in built up areas, replacing the 30 mph limit. Part of me is irritated by speed limits which prevent me from driving at the speed I might prefer. Another part, however, knows that keeping to these rules makes me safer. Not only that, if I keep to the rules then others will be safer, and if the others keep to the rules we will all benefit.

That’s how it is with the Ten Commandments. We might rail against the “you shall not” in the majority of them, but deep down everyone knows that a world where the rules permit family strife, murder, unfaithfulness, theft, lying and covetousness is NOT going to be a better place to live. And some of us would say that the world would be a better place also if we gave due weight to our relationship with God, including in what we say about God, and how we make time for God. Let’s not forget, Jesus’s parable about murderous tenants is, after all, about appropriate human relationships with God.

And that brings us back to rules and Church; rules about what we believe and rules about what we do; rules about what we don’t believe and rules what we don’t do. For just as a world or society without rules would be a dangerous place to live, so a Church without rules is unlikely to flourish.

So what are the rules about membership in the United Reformed Church? What do you have to believe and do? And what happens to you if you don’t?!  When someone becomes a member of the United Reformed Church we ask them to affirm some beliefs and make some promises.

When people become members of the Church for the first time they are asked to affirm some beliefs:

  • Do you believe and trust in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, maker of heaven and earth, giver of life, redeemer of the world?
  • Do you repent of your sins, turn away from evil, and turn to Christ?
  • Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Saviour and Lord?

Then they are asked to promise to do some things as part of the Church:

  • To continue in the ‘worship and fellowship’ of the church i.e. turn up!
  • To apply their beliefs in how they live their everyday lives
  • And along with others, ‘’to proclaim by word and action the good news of God in Christ.’

That may sound like a lot! That’s because it is a lot, especially when you try work out what it means for how you live your life. On the other hand, it’s not that complicated: believe in God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), turn away from wrong, and turn to Jesus instead; “turn up” in church life, be a seven-days-a-week Christian, and show and tell others about what you believe and do. That’s all there is to it! These are the URC rules of faith, though notice that there’s lots of space left for how you might interpret the detail of these beliefs and actions.

Easy to preach about, not so easy to believe or carry out, of course! So what happens if you can’t, or don’t keep all these rules? Are you forbidden from darkening the door of this church ever again? Of course not! If that was the case none of us would be here in church today, for none of us keep all of the rules all of the time, even the good rules. When you think about it, our failings in that regard are part of what the gospel – the good news about God’s love for us, experienced in and through Jesus Christ – is all about.

You don’t even have to be a church member to come to this church, or to take part in the life of this congregation, though there will be a few things not open to you: voting in our Church Meetings, becoming an Elder, or becoming a URC Minister. And those of us who are church members, when we don’t live up to all we have professed or promised, we know that God is gracious, always offering us a second chance; I’ve lost count of the number of “second chances” God has given me.

What happens is that we get chance after chance to explore what it means to believe in one Trinitarian Father-Son-Spirit God; to recognise sin as a complex phenomenon that goes way beyond simple rule-breaking; and how our relationship with Jesus is the antidote to that. We get to experience being part of a fellowship of people who are trying to walk the same walk we are walking. And we’re encouraged to invite others to join us on that journey together.

Yes, rules, imaginatively and positively applied, protect us all, both in society and in the church. Rules, applied in God’s way, always include the offer of a second chance, another chance, for the times when we fall short. Rules about actions and beliefs – about God, about Jesus Christ, about what it means to be Church – benefit us all. Yes, thank God for those rules of faith. Amen.

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