The Rector’s sermon for June 3, 2018


Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Psalm 81:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23—3:6

A group of kids was gathered one evening at a church.  Over dinner their leader asked questions to help them get to know each other:  What superpower would you like to have?  What would your superhero’s name be?  What character in the Bible would you like to be?  Then came the final question: What would you do if there were no rules?
At first the kids were dumbfounded. Perhaps they simply couldn’t imagine a world without rules.  But they began to come up with ideas. One child wanted to be able to drive.  Another wanted to have all the video-game systems in the world.  Another one wanted to become president at the age of 7.  As the kids went around the circle saying what they would do, one little girl said wisely and quietly, “I would make rules.”  The rest of the kids laughed at her, saying that was not the point. The leader quieted them down and asked the girl to explain her reasoning. She said that she would make rules because she wanted to help people, and she thought that her new rules would do that.
When she finished speaking, the kids stayed silent and thought for a moment. They took back their laughter and agreed with her. They agreed that perhaps new rules would help our world work differently. Perhaps these new rules, the children thought, would help people in need: people who were poor, hungry, sad, lonely and struggling. The leader commented later that it was uplifting to hear that in a world filled with rules, when a question was posed aboutnot having them, the children realized the importance of helping one another.
The people in Jesus’ time weren’t strangers to rules, and at times, they, too, questioned them.  In the Gospel passage for today, the law in question is about the Sabbath. The question raised in two incidents is whether the letter of the law is more important than the spirit and intent of the law.
In the first incident, some Pharisees notice that Jesus and his disciples are in the fields on the Sabbath day. Why is that an issue?  The Sabbath was a day intended for rest, and the Pharisees were upset that Jesus was not following this rule as he and his disciples plucked heads of grain to eat as they walked.  When the Pharisees questioned him, Jesus responded by referring to a story in 1 Samuel, Chapter 21, about how David entered the Holy of Holies and took the holy bread from the altar to feed himself and his companions as he fled for his life from Saul.  Jesus finished his story by saying,  “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.” 
The Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around.  For Jesus, this was the heart of the matter. Jesus wasn’t unfamiliar with the laws about the Sabbath.  He knew the tradition.  He knew that violation of the Sabbath was a big deal.  But he also knew that definitions of Sabbath and rest were less important than meeting real human need. So, he wasn’t afraid to challenge religious practices when they missed the real point behind them.
And then, in the second incident, when on a Sabbath day in a synagogue Jesus encounters a man with a withered hand, he put into practice what he had said to the Pharisees, and healed the man on the spot.  Strict Sabbath-keeping laws viewed such healing as work, a violation of the rules, and thus no one in the synagogue supported what Jesus had done. This led him to feel angry and to grieve at their hardness of heart.  I was reminded of my trip to Israel twenty years ago.  We were on a bus and we had been taken to a mountain top Jewish settlement.  At the turn where we would begin to drive up the mountainside, there was a small building to which a gate was attached.  A man came out, spoke to our guide, and manually lifted the gate so we could proceed up the mountain.  There was much to see at the settlement, and I’m guessing that the guide and the driver lost track of time.  All of a sudden, someone looked up to see exactly where the sun was…because, it was a Saturday.  We piled on the bus and made our way down the mountainside.  But as we got to the gate, the man in the building was refusing to lift the gate for us to leave because the Sabbath had begun!  Both the guide and the driver did a lot of ‘tape-dancing’ in order to get the man to lift the gate and let us be on our way.  The letter of the law vs. the intent of the law.
Both of the stories in the Gospel today and my experience remind us that Sabbath observance isn’t about what or when; it’s about why. It’s not about what we do or when we do it; it is about why we should practice and honor the Sabbath. Why is it important for humankind to rest?  Perhaps to remind us we are not God, and we need Sabbath more than we think we do.
God knows us; he knows our need for rest. Keeping the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments. Jesus wasn’t denying the importance of the commandment.  He was, however, acting in ways that showed the difference between being lawful and being faithful.  Let me say that again:  Jesus’ actions showed the difference between being lawful and being faithful.  These two incidents illustrate that the religious authorities missed the point in their legalism about the Sabbath.  They were focused on being lawful. They preserved the appearance of Sabbath-keeping by being strict and telling Jesus he was unlawful.  They didn’t consider that Jesus was actually being faithful!  Faithful to what?  To loving and caring for each other.  Faithfulness to the Sabbath can look different from following laws about the Sabbath.    
Jesus was reclaiming the original intention of the Sabbath here.  By Jesus’ actions of picking grain for eating and healing on the Sabbath, he is calling us to live the Sabbath intention.  Living the Sabbath intention helps us grow closer to God and love our neighbor as we love ourself.
I think you would agree that we need this now more than ever.  For many of us, Sabbath observance has become a thing of the past. Remember when nothing was open on Sunday, when you went to church in the morning and in the afternoon you went for a ride in the country or you visited relatives?  Not so today.  We live in a post-Christian culture where school activities for our children are scheduled on Sunday.  Just about every business is open on Sunday and therefore people have to work.  We live in a culture in which we are addicted to our technology and we’re always accessible.  We live in a culture in which our work often follows us home and the notion of rest seems ridiculous.  We live in a culture in which we are over-programmed, over-scheduled and overwhelmed.  Sabbath in the biblical sense doesn’t seem to fit our culture anymore, so perhaps it’s time to return to its original intention, just as Jesus did when he reminded the Pharisees that Sabbath was created for humankind.
Because God created Sabbath rest for us, shouldn’t we be deliberate about finding it?  We might even have to get a little more creative.  Sabbath isn’t about just doing more leisure stuff, but neither is it about just going to church. Sabbath is about worship of God, to be sure, but meeting another’s human need—even including our own.  Sabbath is less about not doing and more about spiritual practices that help us grow closer to God. Sabbath needs to be whatever helps us pause our working, consuming and spending to remember that God is at the center of our lives.  How else can we receive the blessings he extends to us unless we pause and receive. Whatever fills your soul in a godly direction can be part of Sabbath.  Whatever helps you grow closer to God is Sabbath.
Now I’m not suggesting you “invent your own Sabbath” and give up coming to worship, but we should look for what God intends the Sabbath to do for us.  In this text, Jesus empowers us to do that.  Rules and laws are important, but only when they help people.  The spirit of the Sabbath is to see God and find rest and nourishment for our souls.
Let’s take some time to discover and grow into the true meaning of Sabbath. Make it a place and time to create sacred space in your life.  Surely this includes worshiping God, but it might also include some activity that is faithful to the Sabbath intention.  Make the Sabbath the place where you feel the Spirit move in and through you. Expect the Holy Spirit to empower you to reach out to someone who might need a word from God.  And watch how you become rejuvenated as you grow even closer to God.

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