St. John's, Centreville
June 3, 2018
Proper 4 B
Mark 2:23 - 3:6
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath." In our lesson from the gospel of Mark, Jesus questions the way things are. It was a law among the Jews that no work should be done on the Sabbath. But as humans are prone to do, they decided they needed to define "work" so everyone would know what they could and couldn't do on the Sabbath. So they came up with 39 laws regarding what should not be done on the Sabbath. For example, walking was considered work, so you could only walk a certain distance for certain reasons on the Sabbath. Cooking was work so all meals had to be prepared the day before. Plucking heads of grain in the field was considered harvesting which was work, so that was outlawed.
And that is where Jesus gets into trouble with the Pharisees, whose duty it was to be sure all the Jewish laws were being followed. They see Jesus' disciples plucking heads of grain and eating them because they are hungry. But that is work. And it's the Sabbath. So Jesus is questioned and criticized for allowing his disciples to pluck the heads of grain.
Jesus replies to the questions of the Pharisees with the story of David and some of his companions who ate the bread of the presence (what we might call communion) because they were hungry. Only the priests were authorized to eat this bread, yet David breaks this law in order to feed his hungry men.
Jesus then tells the Pharisees, "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath." In other words, the needs of people come first. Loving one another and taking care of one another come before the keeping of all the religious laws concerning the Sabbath.
Jesus then encounters a man with a withered hand in the synagogue and again it is the Sabbath. The Pharisees are watching to see if Jesus would cure him on the Sabbath so then they could accuse him of not keeping the Sabbath laws. One of the laws was that medical help could only be given to someone on the Sabbath if that person was dying. For example, if a brick wall fell on a man on the Sabbath, people could remove enough bricks to see if the man was dead or alive. If he was dead, they would leave his body there and remove it the next day. If he was alive, but not near death, there was nothing they could do until the next day.
Jesus challenges the thinking of the Pharisees and asks them, "Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?" The Pharisees did not know how to answer this without painting themselves into a corner, so they stayed silent and did not answer Jesus.
So Jesus does what we would expect Jesus to do. He heals the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. And his hand is restored. Think of how this man's life is changed because of the compassion and love of Jesus. He could now work at a trade or in the fields with two good hands, provide for his family, not be ostracized as "disabled". It's possible that the man's hand had been like that all his life. But Jesus did not make him wait one more day to be healed because it was the Sabbath. Jesus healed him right then and there. And because of that, the Pharisees conspired with the Herodians about how they could destroy Jesus. Destroy Jesus for an act of compassion.
Love verses law. That is something we continue to deal with today. What do we do when the law gets in the way of our loving and caring for our neighbor? What immediately comes to my mind is the issue of immigration. People have come from places that are engulfed in war, or poverty, or violence. People want a better life for themselves and their children. And who can blame them? As followers of Jesus Christ, we care called to serve those who are in need.
But our government has laws, as is its duty, that only a certain number of people can come to the United States from each country every year. There are waiting lists and procedures to be followed. There are laws about who can come in and who cannot, which sometimes means families are separated. It's a complex issue with no easy answers.
So what do we do when our love for one another comes up against laws that were put in place for good reasons? How do we decide what, if any, actions we should take? How can we change our cultural or government systems that don't work for those in need? I often get calls from people toward the end of the month whose money has run out, they cannot hold a job for various physical or mental disabilities, and they have children who need to be fed. How can we be Christ to them?
What do we do as followers of Jesus Christ? How do we proclaim and live out our faith in ways that matter in the public square? How do we speak and act on behalf of those who cannot speak or act on their own? Jesus calls us to take care of one another, particularly those in need. How do we try to correct laws and systems that oppress those in need? How can we be the social conscience in a world where money and power are more important than love and compassion? It's a complex problem with no easy answers. But the first step is to ask the questions.
The Sabbath day is called holy and set aside for us - for us to be in communion with God, to worship God together as a community of faith, to have time set aside for rest and for family, to build up relationships with loved ones. The Sabbath was set aside because we need it, not so we would have a list of rules as to what we cannot do. The Sabbath was meant, not to oppress people, but to enrich their lives. We need that time with God, set into our schedules. We need time for rest from the exhausting hours of work and travel that many of us have. We need "down" time with family to connect, have fun and play together. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for us, not us for the Sabbath.
When we keep a holy Sabbath, we are better able to realize our place as followers of Jesus Christ in the world. We are better able to see the needs of others and act as we are able. We are better able to connect with God, to pray for the broken systems that oppress others and to know how we can work for change. It is only by God's grace and love for us that we can be empowered for the work God has given us to do. Amen.