Sermon from November 14: Remember Rule 6

Remember Rule 6
Pentecost XXV; November 14, 2021
I Peter 5

Two years ago Kathleen and I went to the Presbyterian conference center at Lake Tahoe (note: Zephyr Point, in Zephyr Cove, Nevada) for a conference (“The Art of Transitional Ministry”). The setting was beautiful and the learning was intense and extensive, but one phrase from the week has lodged in my brain and on a sign in my office: “Remember Rule 6.” Here’s the story.

The originator of Rule 6 is Benjamin Zander, a cellist, composer, and conductor. He is English, son of Germans who fled the Nazis, and is currently the Music Director of the Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. He is co-author, with Rosamund Stone Zander, of the book The Art of Possibility, which many have found encouraging to their personal and professional lives.

Anyway, we watched a story about the work he does with young musicians and how he encourages them to discover more possibilities than they thought they had. One that stands out is when a young cellist played a piece with technical precision; her execution was perfect. But it had no soul to it, no sense of joy, what some may call “musicality.” He was unflinching in his critique but he also had a solution. He moved her chair so she was in the midst of the teachers who were listening to her and he talked to her about engaging not only her head and her hands but also her heart. Above all, he said, she needed to remember Rule 6.

Rule 6 is “Don’t take yourself so damn seriously.” As I recall, he was certain that her aim for technical perfection was to maintain her dignity in the presence of all those potential critics. If you don’t take yourself so damn seriously, then you don’t need to maintain your dignity; you can engage your heart with your head and your hands to make music. After working with her for some time and her repeated attempts to play the piece, she finally played it in such a way that I not only admired her technical ability but also her joy in the playing.

Oh, and in case you should ask, there are no rules 1 to 5 in Benjamin Zander’s list; Rule 6 is the only rule. I suspect it has to do with a particular Monty Python sketch, but have no confirmation of that.

I think that’s pretty much what Peter is encouraging us to do in chapter five of his first letter: Remember Rule 6. As an elder, don’t take yourself so damn seriously that you need to remind everyone else of your position and your authority. By the way, there are a number of things in this chapter that can’t exactly be nailed down. This is one of them: “elder” can mean the office in the church, as we use it, but it can also simply mean “older person.” So whether you’re a senior citizen who thinks you should be treated with deference or a leader of the church who thinks everyone should submit to your authority, don’t take yourself so damn seriously. Remember Rule 6.

At the same time, he says that the younger folks should accept the authority of older folks… or, in the light of the ambiguity of all this, that the newer church members should accept the authority of the leaders of the Church. Don’t think that simply because you’re young you know more and better stuff than the older folks do. My generation was particularly arrogant with respect to older generations (Remember “Don’t trust anyone over 30”?), but I suspect we didn’t invent it. Peter felt compelled to write these words some 2,000 years ago. Anyway, younger (or newer) folks: don’t take yourself so damn seriously; maybe you could learn something from your grandparents. Remember Rule 6.

The reason I have that on a sign in my office is that I really need to learn to remember Rule 6. I can’t tell you how many times I have made trouble in a personal relationship because I was worried about my dignity or my reputation. I think a corollary of Rule 6 is Rule 6A: “It isn’t all about you.” A church member reported to me about my predecessor teaching her that lesson. She was complaining about something she didn’t like in the worship service. He asked her, “Whatever gave you the notion that this was about you?” As a Pastor, I especially have to remember that this isn’t about me. Not only worship but the entire life of the Church: it isn’t about me and it isn’t about you; it’s about the Lord Jesus Christ and the God we know through Christ.

I think remembering Rule 6 and, if you permit me, Rule 6A will help us with Peter’s next piece of advice: humbling ourselves before the Lord. When you come to worship, do you come with the attitude “I hope I like the sermon and the hymns” or with the attitude “I hope that I please God by what I say and do”? How do you start your day? Do you ask God to show you how to serve God during the day, how to keep God at the center of you day? I know that many of you do, that you look back on the day and notice the places where God used you for something good or God touched you with a blessing.

Maybe Rule 6 will help you and me care more about what God thinks of us than about what other people think of us. And God seems less concerned with the quality of our performance or the strength of our dignity than with our openness to God’s own love for us. “Cast all your anxiety on God, who cares for you” (5:7). Eugene Peterson’s translation (The Message) puts it this way: “Live carefree before God; he is most careful with you.” Yes. Like the young woman playing the cello, who had to learn to care more about making music than about getting every note precisely right, God’s care for you and me allows us to live before God more concerned about living in the love of God than with keeping all the rules with exactitude.

Since I’m struggling through the whole chapter with you, I’m not going to skip over Peter’s words about the devil. That’s a powerful image: the devil as a prowling lion, looking for someone to devour. Let’s ask ourselves: how does the devil devour its prey? Getting inside our heads, nagging at us, causing us to doubt ourselves, doubt God. Peter describes the devil as an “adversary,” as the one who attacks us. If you associate the devil with temptation to do bad things, that’s okay, because the way the devil tempts us is by diverting our attention away from God. I think I could talk with you for a good hour about this, frankly, because the devil is hard at work all around us.

Peter’s last piece of advice is to stand fast in the grace of God, which is the best antidote to the attacks of the devil. If I remember not to take myself so damn seriously then I am more likely to remember to stand fast in the grace of God. And so when the devil tells me I’m not good enough, the grace of God and Rule 6, either one, remind me that I don’t have to be good enough. When the devil tempts me to put my security in a social institution or wealth or my own power and dignity, Rule 6 and the grace of God remind me that I don’t need any security other than the love of God. When the devil tempts me to turn away from Jesus out of disgust or doubt or boredom, Rule 6 and the grace of God remind me that this isn’t about me; I have no cause to desert my Lord and Savior.

You may tell me I was mistaken when I said that to stand fast in the grace of God was Peter’s last piece of advice. That’s true; there is one more thing: he says that we should greet one another with a kiss of love. I do think we’d all relax a little more and be generally happier if we were a little more free with our expressions of affection. But not during a pandemic. Please. Let’s let that go for now.

Whether you’re playing the cello or serving God or trying to get through another day when you’re not sure what the heck is going on, keep Peter’s advice in mind. Be humble. Respect others. Live carefree before God, who cares about you. Stand fast in the grace of God. I still think a good summary is: Don’t take yourself so damn seriously. Remember Rule 6.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska