Church House Rules

Timothy C. Ahrens

The First Congregational Church

United Church of Christ

Columbus, Ohio

September 24, 2000

Mark 9:30-37


Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.


The 1999 film, "Cider House Rules" begins, "You only took the train to St. Cloud, Maine for one of two reasons: to bring a child or to take one home." There in St. Cloud was the St. Cloud Orphanage. Viewers come to realize early in the film that women coming to St. Cloud are there to give birth and leave the child or to have an abortion. Couples also come to adopt children, but they don't come as often. Dr. Wilbur Larch is the medical and operational director of the home. He sets the rules. He runs the operation. He is gentle and kind to the children under his care. But, none is as special to him as Homer Wells.

Homer Wells is born in St. Cloud and early in life is adopted twice and twice returned to the home. Immediately, Dr. Larch sees something very special in Homer. He raises Homer like his own son and teaches him the medical profession as Homer grows. Homer is able to care for the sick, deliver babies, and run the home, even at his young age, when Dr. Larch is unable. In his mid-20's, Homer chooses to leave St. Cloud and finds himself hitching a ride to an Apple Farm in another part of Maine where he begins to pick apples and produce Cider. There he stays in the Cider House.

The Cider House has a set of rules posted on the wall. Early on, it becomes apparent that the rules are neither read nor followed. The rules, having been written by someone outside the Cider House culture and have absolutely no bearing on the men and the woman who live within the Cider House. Some of the rules include: No Smoking in the Cider House (they do smoke there!); 2. No eating on the roof of the Cider House (the roof is the best place to relax!); 3. No staying in the Cider House when not working (but where else will they stay on a rainy day when they can't go out to the orchards?).( A special thanks to Sean Wright for his support on this information about Cider House Rules!)

It becomes apparent throughout the film, that the Cider House Rules serve as a metaphor for all rules in life among which we pick and choose; follow or recreate in new forms and formulas. There are many rules established by institutions and people who have no clue what's really going on in our daily lives. And the ways in which we interpret or live within the rules or mores, varies greatly. Dr. Larch creates rules which work for the children, staff, and women served at St. Cloud, but his rules are not always in accordance with the State Board which runs the home. There are the official and unofficial rules. There are formal and informal communication networks. There are sacred texts and sacred cows. There are standard ways of doing things and the statement "we've never done it that way before." In other words, sets of rules that function well within any group's culture, may or may not be the rules of the game.

Let me share an example - Many years ago, I presided over a wedding for two folks who were not members of my congregation in Cleveland. I had scheduled two weddings for one Saturday. One was at 2:00 pm, the other at 4:00 pm. I was young and inexperienced and believed that two hours would be enough time between the weddings. I told the 2:00 pm nonmember from the beginning, "We must start on time." "O yes, Rev. Tim, we will! " they responded. Several times I checked with them. Finally, at the rehearsal I checked one last time - "No problem," they said. The next day, 2:00 pm came and no bride. 2:45 - no bride. Finally, just before 3:00, the bride's mother comes up to me (now I am in an absolute dither!), "Rev. Ahrens, my daughter will be here at 3:00 pm. The women in my family never come to their weddings until one hour after the announced time! And we have found this works for us because none of us have been divorced!" They had their own Wedding House Rules!

We have Work House Rules. Home Rules for each one of our homes. There are State House Rules and City Hall House Rules! In many of these cases, what is announced is not what is delivered! We are currently having that problem with City Hall House Rules related to the Mayor's Housing Task Force. What the Mayor has promised and what he now says he will deliver are vastly different. We will see if the rules inside his city hall and inside our BREAD Meeting on Tuesday night will come closer to matching!

But, as you might have guessed, there are Church House Rules, too! In the church, many of the rules and mores established over time are quite unrelated to outline for the original plan of our Christian faith. The gap between the Founder of our Faith, Jesus Christ and the Followers of the Faith is often vast and disturbing. Today's Gospel lesson is example of the disconnect between God's House Rules and Church House Rules.

In Mark 9:30-37, Jesus is traveling with the disciples and stops in Capernaum. There he asks, "What were you arguing about on the way?" Their silence gives away their embarrassment. We discover from the text that they were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus calls the 12 together. He says, "Whoever wishes to be first must be last of all and servant of all." Then he dramatizes this by placing a child among them - a powerless person who in their culture ranks little above a slave (Galatians 4:1) and he says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."

Herein, Jesus offers two of God's House Rules: 1. You will become great in God's House when you lay down your life and serve other people; 2. You must welcome newcomers and the littlest ones first of all because that is like welcoming God!

Too often in the Church we follow the disciples on these points and not Jesus Christ, the Founder of Discipleship. By so doing, we are tacitly saying that Church House Rules prevail over God's House Rules. We have ordered in our own minds what will be, when these things will be, who will do them, and how long it will take. We set up traditions and ways of doing things that bear little resemblance to the original way. We set up rules in the church that supercede the rules of God.

Using rule #2 in Mark 9:37, Jesus says welcome the little children, welcome the least. But instead, we welcome certain special people and ignore certain other people. Following the rules of society, the greatest come first, we get excited when limousines pull up to the Church House, but wish the ones who come pushing their world in a shopping cart would just keep rolling down Broad Street. Church House Rules often exclude the poor and the children, while God's House Rules say they are most to be welcomed.

In the film, "Cider House Rules," we discover that, in the end, the behavior behind the rules matters most to Homer Wells, the young protagonist. At the orphanage, Homer has learned to care for others. Through the tutelage of Dr. Larch, Homer has learned medicine, but more importantly, he has learned love and compassion.

In the Cider House and in the culture outside the St. Cloud Orphanage, Homer sees that people's values are not his values. Each night at St. Cloud, when the boys go to sleep, Dr. Larch says with a smile, "Good night you Princes of Maine, You Kings of New England." In that moment each night, the boys come to know they are loved, admired and deeply respected. And although Dr. Larch bends and breaks many rules in the film, he always does so as one who cares deeply for his children.

Similarly, in God's House Rules, we come to value that our call is to care not for power and greatness in the worldly sense, rather our call is seek greatness in the eyes of God. To do so is to care for the poorest, the smallest, and the weakest of our church culture and of our societal culture. To care for them is to seek to respect them, to serve them, and to love them in the midst of their struggles. The was one of Jesus' clearest rules. He was adamant about this.

The challenge for our congregation today and for the Church Universal is to align and live out God's House Rules in the Church House. It can be done. I believe we are capable of living in alignment with the rules we find in the scriptures, because I believe we desire to do so. I believe in our inherent goodness and faithfulness and our deepest desires to follow the Founder of the Rules. And where there is desire to live by God's Rules, they will come to pass in our lives.

So, may God bless you and keep you this day as you seek to live faithfully, "you disciples of Christ, you beloved Children of the Living God!" Amen.

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