June 4, 2018
Proper 4, Year B
(Photo courtesy of Emery Roth II )
Look around you, First Churches. This is our sanctuary. This is our holy space. This is where we come together to worship God. As you look around this space, what does it say to you about what we value? What does it says to you about what we regard as important, worthy… dare I say, even, holy?
Music– look at that organ. That organ is not messing around. I think those pipes might be taller than my house.
Beauty -look at those stencils, all the beautiful gold leaf crosses way up there.
Art – look at these windows. Is there any light as warm as the glow that comes through that rose window, or any greens, blues and purples as rich as the ones you see in the Tiffany window when the sun hits it just right?
History – we’ve got Jonathan Edwards frozen in carbonate over there on the wall.
Awe – feel the grandness and immensity of the space, a space where your soul can expand and soar right up to God.
Community – look at these pews, row after row after row, hand carved to make room for anyone and everyone who might want to come and worship.
Education and accreditation – we have not one, not two, but three thrones up on the dais behind a very impressive pulpit to accommodate professional clergy, of which there is one standing right here.
There is the “Be the Church Banner,” the basket of non-perishables for the Survival Center, the vision statement on the front of your bulletin.
There are markers everywhere that say a lot about what we hold sacred. It is writ large and it is writ small, which is why I think I’d be very uncomfortable if Jesus were ever to show up and want to come to church with me.
That might sound like a strange thing for a pastor to say, but Jesus wasn’t easy on religious people or the things they held sacred. I don’t think there is anything wrong with this space, but I know how much I’ve come to love it and value it and think of it as holy.
I know how attached I’ve become to certain things being done certain ways. And I know how put out I would be, if Jesus were to walk in here and say something like:
“Nice organ. But you know, if you were willing to melt down all those pipes, you could probably fashion a plow and grow some food for hungry people.
Or how about busting up some of these pews for kindling and taking it down to the river to help warm the folks who tent there.”
To which I would probably sputter something like: “wait, what?!?”
“Also Sarah, are you aware that the doors to the church are locked most of the time? What, are you afraid someone’s going to sneak in and write on your pretty walls? Because this is a perfectly fine place for the homeless to lay their heads at night, especially during your long cold New England winters.”
“Well Jesus,” I’d say, “It’s like this…”
“And while we’re at it, Sarah, do they really need professional pastors when the kingdom of God is within all of them- hmmm?- when they themselves represent the priesthood of all believers? They could pay a lot of rent on your salary alone, my child.
And ooooh, look at this Window. Is that a Tiffany?”
At which point I would jump in and say, “Ha, Jesus, you can’t mess with that. The Historical Commission won’t let you. So there.”
At which point I’d feel pretty stupid and petty and materialistic and angry and unfairly yet righteously judged, which I think is how a lot of the Pharisees felt around Jesus most of the time. He wasn’t easy on religious people or the things we hold sacred.
Today’s story is a perfect example. I have got to tell you that the Pharisees are not the ones out of line in this story, they’re simply trying to tow it. Nor are they the ones stirring up conflict. Jesus is the one provoking a confrontation here. In fact, he has been from day one.
We’re only in chapter 2 of Mark, and Jesus has already kicked off his ministry – on a Sabbath day no less! Jesus begins his work on a Sabbath day by healing every last hurting person in the city of Capernaum and then from there goes on to touch and cleanse lepers, claims he has the authority to forgive people’s sins, and doesn’t just eat, but feasts – we’re talking full on partying- with tax collectors and sinners.
When we catch up with him today, Jesus is the one letting his disciples pick grain while traveling – not one, but two things you are not supposed to do on the sabbath. And it is Jesus who calls everyone’s attention to the man with the withered hand in the synagogue before posing his question.
So in all fairness to the Pharisees, they’re not exactly sneaking around trying to catch Jesus in the act of doing something out of line, they’re just trying to keep up. Jesus is on a roll here, overstepping every boundary he can find.
And this is very important to understand, because if we don’t it is all to easy to reduce this exchange to a story about a few hard-hearted, ultra-orthodox Jewish men who love their religious rules and regulations more than hungry, hurting people; a distortion and misreading of this story that has led to and fostered the sin of anti-semitism in far too many Christian hearts. We don’t want to go there, and that’s not what’s going on here.
These Pharisees know the scriptures as well as Jesus. They know the story of David feeding sacred bread to his troops. They know that it’s permissible to bend and break rules to save a life or help someone out of a jam, even on the sabbath. The problem, is that that is not what is going on here.
The Pharisees are well within their rights to call Jesus out, because no one’s life is in imminent danger. The disciples aren’t starving. In fact, as I noted before, they’d just been feasting. The man with the withered hand had probably lived with his disability for years. It wouldn’t have killed Jesus, or the man, to wait a few hours for some healing.
So what’s Jesus up to? Why is he willfully and wantonly showing such disrespect for the sabbath and for the religious practices that have helped his people understand who they are in relation to God for centuries?
After all, these are not just traditions that they have kept in obedience to God, but traditions that have kept them in relationship with God, practices that have given them a shared purpose and a communal identity for generations. Why is Jesus all of a sudden acting like the rules don’t matter?
I have to say that if you’re a good religious person, or even worse, a professional religious person like – I don’t know – me, this is terrifying to behold. About as terrifying as someone taking a blow torch to the organ.
And yet I know that Jesus would not do anything, to them or to us, that wasn’t out of love, a love that is willing to disrupt all we hold dear in order to bring us back to to what really matters. I think what Jesus is trying to communicate to all religious people, then and now, is that God doesn’t belong to us…we belong to God.
God is not one more good thing in the world: a commodity to be owned, regulated, parceled out, or controlled by some people on behalf of other people. God is God.
In the words of Nibs Stroupe, “God is not confined to our rules about God or to our way of perceiving God.”God is bigger than our religion, our practice, our traditions and God can pull rank and change the rules any time God wants. Which I know you know. And I’m sure the Pharisees knew it too.
And yet – and here’s the point of this story – there’s something in us that resents the presence of anyone, no matter how holy, who wants to mess with our religious tradition and understanding after we’ve gotten them all set up.
Our faith, our practices, our customs and creeds, even our churches and temples: they are all elaborate, beautiful boxes we construct to make sense of God, honor God, encounter God, and we don’t want anyone, least of all God, calling any of it into question.
I mean, have you ever had a house guest who with very good intentions decided to re-organize your kitchen to make it more efficient for you?
Sounds great until two days later when you can’t find the cheese grater, or the pasta is ready and you can’t find the colander. Then you kind of want to strangle that person, don’t you?
Well, the Pharisees wanted to strangle Jesus, because Jesus came to re-organize anything and everything about their religious practice that was getting in the way of God being God in their lives and our world.
This story is eternally relevant because it shows us all how good religious people in our earnest efforts to honor God can actually impede the very good that God intends. How easily, to paraphrase Jaroslav Pelikan, the living faith of the dead – the faith of our ancestors, can become the dead faith of the living.”
To quote Stroupe again, “It is one of the continuing mysterious realities of life in the church…we prefer a dormant God who is subject to our rites and rituals to the active category busting God who is ever present in our lives.”
And yet Jesus came anyway, and keeps coming, disrupting anything, no matter how sacred we may think it is, that gets in the way of right relationship with God; anything that fools us into thinking that God belongs to us.
For the Pharisees, Jesus played fast and loose with the sabbath. First, to remind them that they belonged to a living God, not a static one. And second, as a way of calling them back to God’s original intent for the sabbath.
Jesus saw how their strict observance was walling people out. He wanted them to see that their devotion to the rules was getting in the way of their devotion to a God who wants the life giving power of the sabbath to extend not just to all of God’s people, not even to all people in general, but to all of creation.
You see, the sabbath was a day for God’s people to rest from their labor, but also a day for their guests to rest, for their servants and slaves to rest, for their animals and their land to rest. It was a day for all of creation to pause and revel in the goodness of a God who loves us, not for what we do or make or accomplish, but simply for who we are, simply because we are.
It was a day to remember that we are not in charge because we are not God. It doesn’t all depend on us. The world will go on spinning even if we stop working.
Does anyone remember why the Israelites were to rest on the seventh day? What it says in Exodus and Deuteronomy. It was for two reasons:
One, because God rested on the seventh day of creation in order to contemplate the goodness of all God had made.
And two, because God had freed them from slavery in Egypt precisely so they wouldn’t have to work all the time.
The sabbath was, and still is, about rest and freedom…the freedom to rest. It was to be a day to pause and remember that this life, this world, and every last one of us were made good and for good.
The world might be broken now, but we are called to the work of helping God heal the world, re-create it, bring it back to its original wholeness. We are called to the life giving work of re-creation …recreation… in part because when we slow down to rest and play we slow down long enough to see the beauty and potential all around us, a beauty and potential God wants us to be a part of as we put the world to rights.
This is the deeper reason that Jesus healed on the sabbath. He wasn’t just trying to get people’s attention by stirring up controversy. Jesus healed on the sabbath as a sign of that re-creation, as a way to call people back to the life giving, healing, redeeming power of a God who longs to make all things new.
Somewhere along the line, in their efforts to keep the sabbath to the letter, the Pharisees lost sight of that joy filled, inclusive, life giving spirit and Jesus loved them enough to risk calling them on it even if he made them angry.
But what of us? What would Jesus say to us and our efforts to keep the sabbath?
Honestly, I think if Jesus were to come here on a Sunday, he probably wouldn’t care as much about breaking up the pews as he would about breaking our addictions to our i-phones and e-mail.
I think he’d be less concerned with how we spend our money – here and at home – and a lot more concerned with how obsessed we are with making it.
He would ask what’s getting in the way of a right relationship with God, and for a lot of us it would probably be our failure to think the sabbath is important to keep at all.
Whereas he wanted the Pharisees to tone it down when it came to observing the sabbath, I think he might want us to step it up.
I think Jesus would be out there with the Poor People’s campaign agitating for better wages, maybe even blue laws that would keep businesses closed on Sundays. Not just so people wouldn’t work on the sabbath, but so that poor people wouldn’t have to work on Sundays to make ends meet.
Jesus would remind us that we don’t belong to our work and what it provides, but to our God who never fails to provide. And we’d probably hate him for it as much as the Pharisees did, because the truth is that work and wealth and consumption are as sacred in our society as the sabbath was in theirs.
It’s a lot easier to trust in the money we make by working harder than the God who assures us it’s really ok, one day out of seven, to lay it all down and rest. He loved them enough to tip over their sacred cows, and he loves us that much too, even now, even still.
Look around you, First Churches. This is our sanctuary. This is our holy space. This is where we come together to worship God; a God who values us, not for what we can do or make or earn, but simply for who we are.
A God who made us and regards us as important, worthy, dare I say, even, holy.
A God who would be happy to let us keep all this as long as it serves to remind us that God doesn’t belong to us…we belong to God; a living, loving, life giving, still speaking God who knows even better than we do what we really need. Amen