Billy Joel’s Bad Song 2/2
Jonathan Massey, Chandler United Methodist Church, July 16th, 2017
We all grow up with a set of expectations and rules.
Sometimes they are just presented as family rules. You know, Go to bed on time, read one chapter from your book, and then turn out the light; Eat your vegetables; Do your homework before you turn on the TV or play videogames; Be back in the house by 11:00.
Sometimes, they are presented as societal rules: Don’t smoke (at least within a public building, within 25 feet of a restaurant, or whatever); Don’t drink alcohol before you’re 21, always hang onto your drink at parties, and don’t drink and drive; Always recycle; Obey the speed limit; Use a condom; Pay your bills on time; Don’t rip the tag off of a mattress; Don’t eat GMO food; Don’t vote for Republicans; Don’t vote for Democrats.
Sometimes, they’re presented as school rules: Don’t sag your pants; Don’t wear low-cut spaghetti-strap tops; Don’t play with your cell phone in class; Study for your tests; Do your homework on time; Don’t smoke weed in the bathroom. (If I could be allowed an aside here, let me just say, as a high school teacher, that these are all perfectly reasonable, AWESOME rules, and they should be chiseled in stone for all time!)
Sometimes, they are presented as the rules of God: Don’t murder; Don’t steal; Don’t commit adultery or be promiscuous with sex; Read your Bible; Go to church; Pay your tithe.
Often, for children, “the rules” of family, society, school, and God become conflated, because, for a kid, they all seem to come from ULTIMATE AUTHORITY. Complying with the rules and meeting the expectations demonstrates honor and respect, and brings rewards; disobeying the rules brings punishment.
In the past, at least some parents, including my own, got a little bit carried away with this. My paternal family line had been Methodist about as long as there was such a thing in the United States, but when my dad married my mom, he got sucked into her small denomination, which was an offshoot of the Methodism—part of what was called the Holiness Movement. Both of my parents were already wounded from their families-of-origin, and this religious affiliation exacerbated their worst tendencies. Although this sounds strange to most people now, I was raised in an environment where the worst sins were smoking, drinking, dancing, playing cards, and going to movies—things which aren’t even listed as sins in the Bible, but which had become mortal sins in this church, due to the cultural environment in which it had developed. I was taught that God was kind of like Santa Claus—always watching to see if I was naughty or nice, and always prepared to “strike you down” (a phrase actually used by my dad)and send you to Hell, where you would burn in a literal lake of fire forever. I grew up terrified of God—always trying to please him, but never sure I’d done enough; never sure if I’d met the requirements to go to Heaven. Finally, when I was just 13 years old, I found a good reason to chuck Christianity and God in order to escape from this terror. Six years before Billy Joel’s song became a hit, I declared to my parents:
I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cause I’m alright
I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home
I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life
Go ahead with your own life leave me alone.
Now, I don’t believe that rules and expectations are a bad thing. Time may prove that some are ridiculous, but I think time also proves that some just make sense. Families, society, schools, and—of course!—God provide many rules and expectations that, if followed, will tend to provide us with longer, more prosperous, happier lives.
I don’t think I need to dwell on prohibitions against murdering, stealing, and raping. While ISIS might embrace these activities, I don’t think any of us are going to insist on our right to do such.
Let me instead mention a couple things which, in my experience as a high school teacher over the past 13 years in our cultural context, just make sense. First, an expectation that is not biblical and is decidedly not a LAW OF GOD: Don’t play with your cell phone in class. Although texting was a bit of a problem in the early 2000s, the advent of smartphones has turned a bit of a nuisance into an epidemic of screen addiction which inhibits learning in school and contributes to leading many students straight to failure. Second, an expectation and a general rule of thumb which involves a bit of the Law of God, used to involve societal expectations (but not so much anymore), and involves the expectation of many families (but, is tragically not taught by many families). It’s what’s called “The Success Sequence.” Here it is: (1) Graduate from high school; (2) Get a job; (3) Get married; (4) Have children. Some people insert “Graduate from college or trade school” right after the first step, but it’s still the same basic sequence. If you omit any of these steps (like graduating from school), or do them in a different order (such as having children before you get married or get a job), your chances of ending up in poverty skyrocket. And that problem tends to repeat itself generationally.
This is one area where Billy Joel’s song becomes very bad. I don’t need you to worry for me ‘cause I’m alright. No, you’re not! I don’t want you to tell me it’s time to come home. I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life/ Go ahead with your own life leave me alone. Okay, this is your life, but is it not okay for your parents, or your teachers, or your country, or GOD to care about you? Do you honestly believe that life doesn’t bring its rewards and punishments? When you have wrecked your life, will you be happy that everyone just let you go your own way with no instruction, no rules, no consequences—before you repeated the mistakes that people have been making FOREVER.
Okay, enough of dealing with people in general. Let’s move to Christian people specifically (and, to some degree, I guess, to Jewish people, because our reading today is from Micah, which is part of the Jewish Scriptures).
First, I think it’s wise for parents to distinguish between the Law of God and family rules. Of course, family rules should include the Law of God, but a lot of them just have to do with our current cultural context, which includes neighborhood, preferences, etc. Make sure kids know the difference. Don’t confuse practical things with ultimate things, and don’t turn God into Santa or an overzealous cop.
Second, be careful about confusing church rules with the Law of God. Church rules vary from culture to culture, and we shouldn’t try to turn time bound rules into eternal rules. Most people have no idea that John Wesley’s General Rules are still—technically, crazily—obligatory for Methodists, but almost no church member has even heard of them. Some, such as attending upon . . . The public worship of God still make sense, and most people come to church. Others, such as avoiding evil of every kind . . . such as . . . buying or selling slaves don’t have too much to do with American Methodists today (though breaking that rule led Methodists to disaster in the 1840s and helped lead the entire country to catastrophe in the 1860s—and it might actually be a helpful rule in some places in the world today). Another, doing good of every possible sort, and, as far as possible, to all men seems, at least to me, like something which we should still be doing every day.
Third, I think we should be very careful about “biblical rules,” or declaring that “THE BIBLE SAYS!” without considering where the rule is located in the Bible. The early church had a humongous controversy over whether non-Jewish people (you know, people like Greeks and Romans in that time, and most of us now) should be required to observe ALL of the laws listed in the Old Testament; laws which had been expanded even farther by the rabbis, much as case law grew out of The Constitution in the United States. Some church leaders thought that they should have to. Others, such as the Apostle Paul, seemed to think that they expressed God’s will for the Jewish people (and he himself was observant), but that they should not be incumbent on gentile Christians. Eventually, at the Jerusalem Conference, which you can read about in Acts 15, church leaders sided with Paul. In Acts 15:19-21, James says, “Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” And, that was that. Now, that decision itself is 2,000 years old, and I can tell by the look on some of your faces that it could use a little bit of explanation, but that’s beyond our scope this morning. The bottom line is this: Not every rule or law in the Bible applies to Christians today.
So, where does that leave us?
It doesn’t leave us in a lawless situation; it doesn’t leave us without expectations from God. What we DO in our lives matters! According to Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” And, in 2 Corinthians 5:10, the Apostle Paul says, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.” Belief is not the only thing which matters. At the end of the day, what we have actually DONE is what matters. You may have heard that actions speak louder than words. Jesus and Paul understood that principle. And, at the end of the day, I don’t care what you say anymore this is my life/ Go ahead with your own live and leave me alone is a hell of a way to lead your life, and any church which allows its members to boldly walk down that path isn’t doing its job.
I’ve always liked what Lieutenant Dan said to Forrest Gump and Bubba when they were choppered in to his base camp: Look, it’s pretty basic here. You stick with me, you learn from the guys who’ve been in country awhile, you’ll be right. There is one item of G.I. gear that can be the difference between a live grunt and a dead grunt. Socks, cushion, sole, O.D. green. Try and keep your feet dry when we’re out humpin’. I want you boys to remember to change your socks wherever we stop.”
It seems to me that Micah 6:8 gives us a good basic rule of life—a rule which can make the difference between a live Christian and a dead Christian—which lots of other things flow out of, depending on the times, our cultural situation, and the rest of the stuff I’ve been talking about this morning. I’m going to quote it from Eugene Peterson’s The Message translation:
But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
take God seriously.