(a sermon for June 3, 2018, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Mark 2:23-3:6)
I think it’s probably safe to say that we don’t observe the Sabbath the way we used to.
Actually, one of the mixed blessings of having been in the ministry as long as I have is that I’m able to see the difference; and I suspect there are a lot of you who can say the same! Time was – and not so very long ago (!) – that Sundays were set aside as a true day of rest; a time for church, home, family and a bit of relaxation. As a general rule businesses were shut down, and most stores were closed for the day; school activities – sports or otherwise – were prohibited; and if you were a kid, if you had something happening on a Sunday afternoon it usually involved a church youth group activity. Depending on your own particular tradition of faith, you might not even have gone to the movies or played cards on a Sunday, because those were things that you simply did not do on the Lord’s Day (that; and because playing cards were at one time considered the “devil’s playthings!”).
Not that everyone always approached this as a wholly (and holy) Christian thing to do, or even something that was particularly religious in nature; it was simply understood that there ought to be a “Sabbath rest” from the burdens of the rest of the week’s work, all rooted in the creation story from Genesis in which God, overwhelmed from the glorious work of creation, exclaimed that “indeed, it was very good,” (1:31) and then “rested on the seventh day.” (2:2) From the very beginning, you see, the Sabbath was intended a blessing to us from God of both body and soul, and as such was to be thought of as holy.
Of course, you know what’s happened; actually a combination of things over time: the repeal of the so-called “blue laws” that allowed every mall in the country to run full tilt all day on Sunday; the encroachment of more and more Sunday sports and other activities on the weekend landscape; as well as a changing economy that has fairly well mandated the necessity of a two-income family; and this is to say nothing of a culture and life that just keeps getting busier and more convoluted with every passing generation, to the point where church has become for many, a second or third choice, if it’s a choice at all!
And the thing is, it’s all happened very gradually, almost without notice. I’ve always found it ironic that as a pastor, the Sabbath has always and ever been my busiest workday (!); but I must confess that over the years, little by little I’ve discovered that my “window of opportunity,” shall we say, for ministry on a Sunday has been slowly but steadily shrinking over the years; and that’s because there’s so much going on with people and families these days that there’s hardly room for anything else on a Sunday, much less more church activities! Like I say, pastorally speaking, the Sabbath just ain’t what it used to be!
Now, I don’t say all of this to complain (well… mostly I don’t!), but simply to point out how much things have changed; and really, in this instance, only over about the past 30 years or so. And yes, where Sundays and the life of the church are concerned, a lot of us – myself included, sometimes – feel like we’ve lost something sacred, and wish that things could go back to the way “it used to be.” But that having been said, I also have to wonder… that if in the midst of all these changes to life and living it’s not so much that we’ve lost the Sabbath, but that maybe we’ve missed the point of it.
Because friends, as scripture describes it and proclaims it to the faithful, Sabbath isn’t meant primarily to be just another day off or an opportunity for a “time out;” it’s not to be thought of as a reward for a week’s worth of a job well done; it’s not even wholly about rest, at least not in the sense of an afternoon nap. Sabbath is about much more than that: it’s about life, and within that life, faith. Sabbath is for the renewal of life – ours, yes, but also the life of all of creation – and it is for the sake of resilience so that each one of us is strengthened and empowered to do God’s work on Monday morning and every day that follows. It’s about a true ministry of life, yours and mine; and to quote Karoline Lewis, “When the Sabbath is for the sake of life, then it means getting back in there and figuring out where life needs to happen.”
This is what lay at the heart of our text for this morning, two back to back stories from the 2nd chapter of Mark’s gospel in which Jesus has already begun to run afoul of the scribes and Pharisees; specifically, regarding the proper observance of the Sabbath. First, we have Jesus and his disciples walking through “a field of ripe grain,” [The Message] and because they’re hungry and because it’s the only food available to them at the moment, the disciples start “pull[ing] off heads of grain” to eat. This, of course, was a major breach of the Law regarding the Sabbath: not only was the work of picking the grain prohibited, so was their traveling through this grain field in the first place; and if that weren’t enough, so was eating food that hadn’t been prepared the day before! Needless to say, the ancient laws of the Old Testament were quite rigid regarding how the Sabbath was to be observed; in fact, the book of Exodus points out that “everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall be put to death,” (17:14) and “whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people.” (Think about that as you go home today, friends!)
So here come the Pharisees, ever so quick to point this all out to Jesus, but Jesus is just as quick to remind them of a story about King David; how David had done something even more sacrilegious – stealing and eating bread from the temple that was reserved for the priests, and on the Sabbath, no less (!) – but how that was permissible because this was the one who was to be God’s anointed king, and the Law, however stringent, had to give way to need. Don’t you understand, Jesus says; don’t you get it? “The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the Sabbath.” [The Message again] And then, in the most cutting response of all, Jesus adds, “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
The point is brought home almost immediately afterward, as Jesus arrives at the synagogue and meets a man whose hand is withered and who desires to be healed; and immediately a decision has to be made. On the one hand, it would almost certainly be true that if the Pharisees discovered this “unclean” man in the temple, he would not be permitted to stay and would be denied any participation in worship. On the other hand, however, if Jesus were to actually heal this man’s withered hand – and on the Sabbath – he’d just as certainly be further raising the ire of the religious authorities!
In the end, the right decision was clear; because once again, “The Sabbath was made for humankind,” not the other way around! The need for love and mercy in that moment exceeded the need for the exact letter of the Law to be followed; and the opportunity for Jesus to bring this man healing was far more important than whatever chastisement would be brought upon him by the Pharisees for doing so. And with those fuming scholars of Sabbath day correctness looking on, here is what Jesus says (as translated by The Message): “What kind of action suits the Sabbath best? Doing good or doing evil? Helping people or leaving them helpless?”
And how do they respond to this? In every translation the reaction is the same: they’re angry, but even as their hearts were hardened, nonetheless “they were silent.” Because in the end, how do you dispute the wonder of a healing act? How can you squash a miracle of grace on the basis of a technicality of law? How do you argue with life?
Let us not misunderstand here; by this flagrant act of breaking the Sabbath, Jesus was not flaunting the authority of the Law. We recognize this all through the gospels: that Jesus regarded God’s law as holy and insisted that that the faithful need “to know, revere, and follow the law.” But, in words of David Lose, “as important as the law is, it is – and shall always be – a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose.” Jesus knew that following the law is not what makes us who we are as God’s children; it is meant to help us live wholly unto that identity no matter what, no matter how, and might I add in this case, no matter when.
And that’s a truth that, on this particular Sabbath day, continues on in us.
The fact is that despite the rapid pace of life as we know it in these crazy, convoluted times we have not lost the Sabbath. You and I are blessed with the invitation and opportunity – indeed, the mandate – to seek the kind of rest, resilience and renewal that is infused with holiness. But what we need to remember is that our observance of the Sabbath is not to be thought of as the end of this week’s journey of faithfulness, but rather a pause for reflection before the next week’s journey begins. From the very beginning of our creation, you and I are called to be living the Sabbath life; but ultimately that has much less to do with our stepping away from what we do than it does with getting ready for what is yet to be done! God created us to love and support one another; to extend to others the same kind of grace and mercy and encouragement as Jesus has given us; to love as fully and openly and as sacrificially we have been loved. Everything we do (or choose not to do) to keep the Sabbath is the way that we seek to be restored in this wonderful and triumphant ministry of life that we all share.
And, by the way, don’t get me wrong here; speaking both as a child of God and your pastor I do believe, with all my heart (especially now as the more leisurely summer months are getting underway!) that living the Sabbath life does include sharing in “the act and attitude of Christian worship.” Our coming together here every Sunday morning; our songs and prayers; our proclamation of God’s Word; our shared moments of laughter and tears and silence and fellowship and even the after-church refreshment: all of it combines to offer up praise and thanksgiving to God Almighty, but also to prepare our bodies and our souls for the work that awaits us as disciples of Jesus Christ. But then again, so does the time we get to spend today with our families, our friends and our other assorted loved ones; so does that opportunity that might just present itself, wherever we are this afternoon, to reach out to someone in need in any one of a multitude of ways; so does seizing a few private few moments of personal prayer and reflection while hiking, or fishing, or maybe even lounging outside in an Adirondack chair; so does, occasionally, a well-placed afternoon nap with the sound of the Red Sox playing in the background.
We were made for the Sabbath, beloved; that’s what Jesus said. So let’s make this Sabbath count for the something as we ready ourselves for the week ahead… and today, let’s start by feasting at the Lord’s table, that we might know Jesus’ presence in the bread and the wine.
Thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry