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What's the Point

What's the Point

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Do you ever wonder what Jesus would make of all this? Do you ever wonder what Jesus would think about our big, beautiful organ and gorgeous stained glass windows? What he would make of this minister with her fancy degree and generous pay check, let alone the sheer amount of money it takes to simply keep this whole building heated and in good repair?

I do. I think about it all the time. I have often looked not just at the Tiffany window, the Steinway piano, and the Skinner organ, but at the Konica Minolta copier, the Comcast router, the Otis bill for our elevator, indeed at this whole operation and my role within it, and heard that age old question reverberate through my soul: “could not this have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor?”

Anyone else ever feel, I don’t know, a sense of misgiving about it all? As if we are maybe missing the point? In a world where people are unhoused and hungry, is maintaining and supporting a beautiful old church like this one really the best use of our resources or should we sell it all and give the money away to a more worthy cause?

But then I remember that it wasn’t Jesus who asked that question; was it? No. Who was it? It was Judas. Yeah.

Which doesn’t mean it is a bad question. It’s not. I think it just means that it’s complicated. So complicated that I think it’s good and right for religious people to stop every once and awhile and take stock. I think it is important for us to ask ourselves why we do what we do because religion, worship, all of this, is only ever supposed to be a means to an end.

And yet those of us who love it and take it seriously are way too good at making it an end in and of itself precisely because we love it and take it seriously.

Which makes us, for better or for worse, a lot like the Pharisees. I know they get a bad rap, but you need to know that back in the day, the Pharisees were well respected precisely because they loved God and took honoring God tremendously seriously, so seriously that they actually practiced what they preached right down to the letter.

They didn’t just talk the talk, they walked the walk, which is why: a. people loved them and b. they were so put off and offended by Jesus.

We’re back in the gospel of Mark now and Jesus has just kicked off his ministry - on a Sabbath day no less - by healing every last hurting person in the city of Capernaum. From there he 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 at the tail end of chapter 2, 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 he heals him.

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, breaking every rule he can find. Nor are they the ones stirring up conflict. Jesus is the one provoking a confrontation here.

And this is very important to understand because if we don’t then 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 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 ( ironically, they probably know it even better than Mark, who says it is “Abiathar,” who gives David the bread when in fact it was his father “Ahimelech.”). 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 more hours for some healing.

So what’s Jesus up to? Why is he willfully and wantonly showing such disrespect for the religious practices of his people? 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 and each other; 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 of their religion don’t matter?

Because here is the thing - THEY DO! The rules, the law, the commandments - you know the big 10 - they are all important. Call me a Pharisee if you want, but I wouldn’t want to live in this world without them. Not lying, stealing, coveting, murdering, cheating, or running after idols…. honoring God, your parents, and the sabbath - these are all good principles to live by, and honestly I don’t think Jesus wants us to ignore any of them.

But, Jesus also knows that sometimes people, especially religious people, can take a good thing and twist it around in such a way that what was meant to be a blessing somehow becomes a burden.

You see it is one thing to say you ought to remember the Sabbath, it’s another thing to explain how one should do that properly. And religious people, because we like to do things right, can get a little too particular about how things ought to be done. 

 

We tend to make rules with the best of intentions, I’m sure. But we also tend to get really attached to those rules, so much so that we end up hardening our hearts against those who don’t live up to or conform to our rules. But when the rules that were meant to help people become more important than the people they were meant to help, it’s a sure sign that we have lost our way.


I think it’s safe to say that these particular Pharisees had lost theirs and Jesus, out of love and frustration, is acting out of line in order to draw them back into line with the heart of God.


Sure the man with the withered hand could have waited a few more hours.

Sure the disciples could have endured their hunger till sunset.


But Jesus is here to remind us all that God’s commandments were never meant to be tests for us to pass or endure. These laws, if you will, are a gift to help us live life and live it abundantly. When observing the Sabbath by not doing something becomes just a burden to be borne rather than a blessing to be shared, it’s time to stop and ask ourselves what all this is really for.


“You were not made for the Sabbath;” says Jesus, “the Sabbath was made for you”(Mark 2:27).


The same can be said for religion as a whole. When keeping the faith gets in the way of us keeping one another, we’ve missed the point. Our faith should open us up to the fullness of life, the beauty of creation, the sacredness of one another, not shut us down or give us cause to shut down each other. To quote the people at SALTPROJECT:


Religious observance is valuable precisely to the extent that it helps life to thrive; and it’s destructive precisely to the extent that it doesn’t. (And if you have ever been hurt in the name of religion, listen very carefully to what they say next.) Any religious act that diminishes or inhibits healthy life isn’t just a missed opportunity; it’s a profound contradiction, an act that actually accomplishes the opposite of its genuine life-giving purpose. It's sin masked as virtue, unrighteousness masked as righteousness, toxin masked as medicine, desecration masked as consecration (https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-second-week-after-pentecost) .


To put it as simply and plainly as possible, if someone has hurt you in the name of religion, told you that they can’t love you or accept you because of their religion, or treated you as anything less than a beloved child of God because that’s what they thought their religion required them to do, that was wrong.


They were wrong.


I’m sorry you had to endure that and I want you to know that had Jesus been there with you in that moment, he would have disrupted it all to come and take your hand - just as he took the whither hand of the man in today’s story - and stand by you.


Because in the eyes of God - you, me, all of God’s children - we are what is most important. God made religion for us… for us to thrive…. not us for religion so that religion can thrive.


Which brings me back to all of this. Take a moment and look around you. It’s all beautiful…but it’s a lot.


And you know what, in this moment, I’m ok with it. Actually I’m not just okay with it, I’m deeply grateful for all of it, and I dare say that God is too. Let me tell you why.


Last Sunday, when we gathered on our sabbath with 4 other churches in this big, beautiful sanctuary for our Pride service, we began our worship with testimonies… with story after story of people telling us what it means to them to be part of a church that is open and affirming.


So many of those stories were stories of restoration and new life, stories of people finding their way back to God and themselves because they had finally found a church that welcomes and loves them for who they truly are.


Yes, this is a huge, expensive place to maintain, but as I moved through the sanctuary during and after worship, I saw so many tears..tears of joy and tears of healing. I held so many hands that reached out to squeeze mine in gratitude and affirmation. And I heard person after person say things like:


“This is nothing like the church I grew up in…”

“I don’t want this to end…”

“I have never felt so much love.”

“This doesn’t feel like church, this feels like heaven.”


The people from the trans relocation project, who are not religious at all as far as I know, told me that they felt warmly welcomed and expressed how “wonderful it was to see so many people come together to affirm the belief that everyone deserves love, and deserves the opportunity to live their authentic lives.” Our offering raised over $1376.00 to help them make God’s love and justice real in the lives of those they are serving.


The preaching, the music, taking communion together and the gentle touch of a blessing…it all felt like an in-breaking of the kingdom of God. Like God’s will was being done here on earth as it is in heaven, even if only for an hour on a Sunday.


That is why we do what we do. And that is just a snapshot, just a part of why this place and this congregation is worthy of all the resources we pour into it. You know I could go, but we are out of time, so let me close with this last thought.


When God gave us the gift of sabbath, God gave us a day to rest and contemplate the goodness of all creation including ourselves. When God gave us the gift of the sabbath, God gave us a day to recreate - to re-create - inviting us into the sacred work of healing ourselves and all of creation.


We are called to recreate in part because when we slow down to rest and play and worship 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 of calling God’s people back to the life giving, healing, redeeming power of a God who longs to make all things new, restore everything and everyone to an awareness of our proper place in the heart of God.


Last Sunday, as I watched us keep the sabbath in spirit and in truth, I didn’t feel like this church was too big or too expensive to maintain.


I simply felt deeply grateful to have a space large enough to hold all of those people in a joyful Christian community where we could listen together for the voice of our still speaking God and revel in the sacred work of making God’s love and justice real.


It felt like a gift, because it is. God’s good gift for you and for me. The gift of our faith. The gift of sabbath. The gift of church. The gift of all of you. The gifts of God for the people of God.


Thanks be to God. Amen.

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