June 3, 2018 – The 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 4B
© 2018 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
During the summer after my first year of seminary, I stayed in Cambridge to do a unit of CPE, clinical pastoral education, which involved ten weeks of full-time hospital chaplaincy work along with structured reflective practice that was supposed to teach me how to be a better pastor. As some of you on whom I have called in the hospital might attest, my supervisor was far more interested in having a free extra chaplain to work in his hospital than leading me through the reflective practice that was supposed to improve my bedside manner. He didn’t really have time to teach me and, instead, preferred for me to learn by serving as if I were a full member of his staff.
As a member of that staff, part of my job was to take a turn leading Sunday-morning worship in the hospital chapel. Every Sunday morning, there was some form of Protestant worship that included Communion. Two of the other chaplains were Anglicans, but Derek, my supervisor, was some brand of non-conformist—Baptist or Presbyterian, I think. When it was my turn to lead the service, he presumed I would do it by myself, but, when I said to him, “I can’t do the Communion part,” he responded by asking, “Why not?” “Because…I can’t…I’m not allowed…I’m not ordained…yet.” He looked at me and smiled, “What difference does that make? All you have to do is say the words. You think a bishop putting hands on your head gives you some sort of magic power that I don’t have?”
He had a good point. If he was going to come up to the hospital on Sunday morning just to say the Communion part and he hadn’t been ordained by a bishop in apostolic succession, what difference would it make to the congregation if I said those words? Even the Anglicans in the congregation wouldn’t be able theologically to distinguish between a Baptist minister and an Anglican seminarian reading the words of institution and asking God to bless the bread and the grape juice. Would they? He had a good point, but I had a good point, too. If I did it, my bishop might kill me or at least throw me out of the ordination process. Rules are rules, and some are meant to be broken, but some of them aren’t. Or are they?
Today’s gospel lesson is all about religious rules that seem made to be broken. In the first encounter, when Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field on the sabbath, the hungry disciples plucked heads of grain and ate them. Or, if it’s hard to imagine plucking and eating stalks of winter wheat, imagine walking down an alley on a hot summer afternoon and seeing a blackberry bush at the base of a neighbor’s fence. When it came to plucking and eating, the disciples were in the clear. Deuteronomy 23 says that, as long as they didn’t use a sickle, they could take some of their neighbor’s grain if they were hungry, but the one thing that they couldn’t do was to take it on the sabbath: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.” Every seventh day, therefore, all Jewish people, including Jesus and his disciples, were to refrain from any and all work, including plucking heads of grain. The Pharisees who saw them do it had a good point. God’s law forbade it, yet their rabbi was allowing his disciples openly to violate that law.
In the first episode, Jesus was interrogated about something he had allowed his disciples to do, but, in the second, his own actions took center stage. In a synagogue was a man with a withered hand. Since it was the sabbath, the religious authorities watched to see whether Jesus would break the rules and heal the man. If his life had been in danger, the law was clear: Jesus would have been duty-bound to save the man. But, in this case, the man had a shriveled-up hand, and it gave Jesus the perfect opportunity to push the boundaries. Taking the offensive, Jesus asked the witnesses whether, in their opinion, it was “lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Their silence spoke volumes—not only about their hardness of heart but about the confusing issue that Jesus had raised. Was it lawful? Could a healing on the sabbath be permitted? Actually, the letter of the law suggests that it wasn’t—not if the man’s life wasn’t in jeopardy. This miracle could have waited until sunset, when the sabbath was over. But Jesus wasn’t interested in waiting, nor was he interested in letting conventional wisdom rule the day. “Stretch out your hand,” Jesus said to the man. By stretching it out, the hand was restored, and immediately the religious leaders went out and conspired with their political counterparts to find a way to destroy Jesus.
What is this gospel lesson really about? The fact that the miraculous healing is portrayed almost as an afterthought suggests that, in Mark’s mind, it was more about Jesus breaking the sabbath than working a miracle. But why does that matter to us? I haven’t seriously considered keeping the sabbath since I was ten years old and trying to convince my father that it was against God’s law for me to cut the grass on a Saturday. (That didn’t work, by the way.) As Christians, we’ve long-since given up on trying to keep the sabbath. Most of us don’t even realize that the sabbath isn’t Sunday, the first day of the week, the day we set aside to commemorate our Lord’s resurrection, but Saturday, a day we reserve for ball practice, tailgating, and yard work. And why don’t we care about the fourth commandment? Partly, it’s because we’re willing to take Jesus at his word. Two thousand years later, even if we never went to Sunday school, we know who the good guy in the story is, and we know who they bad guys are. If Jesus said, “the sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath,” that’s good enough for us. But what we may not realize is that it wasn’t good enough for the people who heard him say it.
This was hugely controversial. I’ve spent all week trying to come up with a good analogy in twenty-first-century religious observance, and I still can’t think of one. For a faithful Jew in Jesus’ day, sabbath observance was fundamental. It was one of the most important ways for a Jewish person to be faithful to God. When the unholy Roman Empire tried to force Jews to become secular members of the political state, sabbath observance, along with circumcision and dietary restrictions, was one of the tried and true ways of remaining distinct. A few generations earlier, when the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV began persecuting the Jews, the rabbis taught that, on the sabbath, it was better to be slaughtered alongside one’s family than to fight back. By the time Jesus was born, the rules had relaxed a little bit, but, when he tossed aside the sabbath requirements as if they didn’t even matter as much as his disciples’ growling stomachs, he was, in effect, spitting on the graves of those martyrs. Imagine if Jesus showed up and started teaching that a fundamental religious principle that our grandparents had been willing to die for no longer mattered. How well do you think that would go down? For twenty-first-century Christians, I think this passage has to do with a lot more than keeping the seventh day of the week holy.
This is a hard story for us to wrap our minds and hearts around because of how huge it really is. Jesus teaches us that even the rules we hold most dear must be sacrificed if they stand in the way of an individual’s wholeness with God. Think about that. On the surface, it doesn’t sound too hard…as long as we are the ones who get to decide when and where and how those rules get broken. But what if it’s some radical prophet or crazy preacher or dodgy liberal who tells us what principle, what law, what tradition must be put behind the latest social concern? I think the reason that I have had so much difficulty finding a contemporary analogue is that I cannot even imagine being asked to let go of something as important as sabbath observance was in Jesus’ day.
But, as threatening as that teaching was, it reflects a transcendent truth that all of us can wholeheartedly embrace. No rule, no rubric, no law, no custom, even if it seems to come from God, can be allowed to restrict access to God’s love. Because God is love, that makes sense. At its best, sabbath observance is about reminding God’s people that they belong to their loving Creator who remains active in their lives. Yet, like any religious law, when human beings take control, they twist it into an obstacle to the very thing that it was designed to convey. What other God-given principles have we perverted in the name of religion? Whatever it is, if it is standing in the way of healing and wholeness, if it narrows someone’s access to God’s love, no matter how much we revere it, it must be swept away. God’s love and salvation cannot be governed by human precepts; human precepts must always be subject to God’s love. If we can’t find a rule or regulation that should be discarded, maybe it’s because we’ve got it all figured out. Then again, maybe not.