Thursday, May 31, 2018

Unfamiliar Text?


A few years ago, I made a list of all the propers on which I had never preached. Having served as a curate and as a rector, I had had the opportunity to preach on most of the Sundays of the three-year lectionary cycle, including the so-called important days like Christmas and Easter as well as the sometimes-considered derisory occasions like Trinity Sunday and the First Sunday after Christmas Day. Some of the days on the list surprised me, like a Sunday in the middle of Lent that for more than a decade I had dodged. Others made sense, like the latest possible Sunday after Epiphany, which only comes up when Easter is extremely late.

One of those Sundays that made sense is this Sunday, when we will hear the lessons for Proper 4 in Year B. Because Easter was pretty early this year, there is a relatively long season after Pentecost, which always ends with Advent. That means we get to observe one of the early propers that don't show up when Easter is later and we don't need as many Sundays after Pentecost to make it to Advent. Although I'm pretty sure Proper 4B has come up since I've been ordained, I haven't had the chance to preach on it, and, as I've said, that wasn't too surprising.

But, in another way, I was surprised. The gospel lesson in Mark 2:23-3:6 is so deeply familiar to me. How can it be that I've never preached on the plucking of the heads of grain or the healing of a man with a withered hand, both of which occur on the sabbath? At first, I wondered whether the parallel accounts in Matthew 12 or Luke 6 come up in the lectionary in other years in propers on which I may have preached, but they don't. This Sunday, Proper 4B, is the only time we hear this passage. At first, I was thinking of preaching on the treasure in clay jars that Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4, but, when Jack Alvey called me yesterday to talk about this gospel lesson and let me know that he, too, had never preached on it before, I was drawn back to it in a clearer way. I'm not sure I can let these two short stories go by without preaching on them. Who knows? It may be another 12 years before I have the chance to preach on it again.

For me, the challenge will be to preach on the depth of this passage without getting lost in the surface-matter. Clearly, it is about sabbath. That Jesus' miraculous healing of the man's withered hand is portrayed as an afterthought when compared with the Pharisee's reaction lets us know that this has less to do with a miracle and more to do with challenging the status quo. But the danger in preaching on Jesus' flaunting of sabbath rules is two-fold. First, it opens the door for an all-too-easy answer that this passage isn't seeking. If the preacher's sermon leaves the congregation thinking, "Of course we don't have to follow sabbath observances. Jesus said so!" the preacher will have missed the point. Second, and closely related, it becomes easy for the preacher and congregation to think that Jesus' breaking of the sabbath rules was a foregone conclusion. We all know who the good guy in the story is. It's Jesus. And we all know who the bad guys in the story are. They're the Pharisees. But is it that simple?

Actually, even a casual reading of the secondary literature suggests that foregoing sabbath observance wasn't as easy as we would make it. Jesus wasn't chiming in with some pearl of wisdom that everyone would agree with--like "love your neighbor as yourself" or "on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets." This is a theological bomb that Jesus drops in the middle of this synagogue. Even the disciples must have wondered whether Jesus really meant what he said.

This week in staff meeting, we tried to find the controversial teaching that a 21st-century Jesus might offer in a similar circumstance. Twenty years ago, it may have been same-sex marriage. Eighty years ago, it might have been interracial marriage. What would it be today? We couldn't think of it, but, as fun as that is to consider, a third mistake the preacher might make would be to make the sermon about that controversial thing. This passage is about sabbath, but, then again, it's not. I firmly believe that the Holy Spirit did not lead the gospel writers to include these encounters simply to teach us that it's ok to heal and do good on the sabbath. There's a deeper underlying principle at work here, and that's the preacher's challenge. What does this lesson teach us about the Son of Man who is lord even of the sabbath? Why did Mark record it for us? How does it lead us to a deeper understanding of God's will for us and the world? That is the preacher's work this week, and it seems like one I'm called to tackle. Then again, it's only Thursday...

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