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Mark 2:23-3:6 (CEB)
Summertime and the living is easy….
Though for some of us, it isn’t. Summer is supposed to be break time, vacations and slower pace, lazy days and easy living. Sometimes it means that you work just as hard, you just sweat more. Maybe you’re in heat & air, or you own a pool. Maybe you’re a parent trying to figure out what to do with the kids every day, or a grandparent who is solution #1 to that problem. Maybe you’re one of the many teachers who just starts the next job as summer begins.
It is good to take a break. In fact, I think God wants us to take a break. It’s not something I do very well, but that doesn’t mean I don’t think I should. That’s what the sabbath is all about, a divinely-commanded, fully authorized break. It is the ultimate excuse to not mow the yard, isn’t it? GOD told me not to? I mean, Iwant to, but it’s the law…
We have to be very careful, I think, when we head into the world of Biblical law. My beginning point, and I suspect it is the same for many of you, is that the Bible is NOT inerrant. It is not the written words of God handed down from a cloud in King James’ English. It is a document produced by human beings, many of whom felt they were speaking with or even for God, and then filtered through centuries of culture and translation, sometimes from languages that are no longer even spoken. So when we say the Bible reveals a law from God, there is some work to be done…even in the summer.
When Jesus tells the Pharisees that “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath”, he is directly contradicting not only Jewish culture and tradition, but scripture itself. After all, the idea of “sabbath” is coded into the Torah, even God rests on the seventh day of creation. And Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and several other books assert multiple times that observance of the sabbath is mandatory, and not doing it is punishable, sometimes by death. They are SERIOUS about break time! So, the idea that ‘humanity was made for the Sabbath’ is pretty much status quo at Jesus’ time. Frankly, it continues to be a wildly popular theology today. Maybe not so much the sabbath part, for while we used to have “blue laws” that kept places closed on Sundays, we now have moved past even an acknowledgment of Sunday observance. Soccer tournaments, dance recitals, volleyball, gymnastics, the shift of kids’ activities, shopping, gas and movie theaters, none of those places are hands off on Sundays anymore. Maybe it’s because fewer people go to church, maybe it’s because there is growing awareness that Christianity isn’t the only religion.
So maybe the sabbath isn’t the best example, but the theology of what Jesus is up to in this passage is very clearly present in our world. The Pharisees were a particular expression of Judaism. And they went by the law. They wielded it, in fact, making sure that others were living up to it with public shaming and wooden, literal interpretations. Thatwe still know something about, especially here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. For us it goes like this – God wrote the Bible, every word of which is literally true, and God loves us somuch that humanity better live up to it…or else. In that theology, I’ll call it 90% theology because of how prevalent it is, God is chiefly known as holy, the Bible is the single arbiter of all decisions and humans have to achieve a certain levelof holiness – through following laws and clinging to justifying Biblical scriptures – to be acceptable to God.
This leaves us trying to take rules established for a certain set of people two to four thousand years ago and make them fit in our time and place, like fitting that square peg into that round hole…eventually you have to use a hammer. While it may be driven by the intention to teach morality, there are often wrong ways to do the right thing. The problem with trying to legislate morality is that you have to be very careful and precise when you write the law. In my experience, all a legalistic approach seems to do is encourage people to find loopholes. And if you don’t have them all sewn up, well…they’re off the hook. Teenagers are really good at this. Hey, you didn’t tell me to unload the dishwashertoday…you never said that I was supposed to clean up my clothes AND my shoes…you said to be home at 10pm, you never said what time zone! OK, that last one is a little far-fetched, but I promise you it has been tried. All of a sudden, instead of embracing the spiritof the law, we are bending the letter of the law and doing away with the whole intention for the effort in the first place.
Jesus actually works directly against this idea over and over again in our Gospels. It’s one of the primary reasons the religious authorities don’t like him. It’s not that Jesus is against the laws, in fact more than one Gospel has him claim, rather ominously, that he has not come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. Jesus seems to know that when we practice faith legalistically, as if it were just a set of rules to check-off, we cheapen it’s claim on us and domesticate God to a place where we can handle God. We make God’s relational and transforming love into a transaction and we cheapen God’s grace into conditionality. We don’t embrace what the law is meant to instillin us, we don’t let the laws shape and mold our hearts. So, instead of building some resiliency and discernment in ourselves, we make God a machine that works on a set of gears called “shame” and “reward.”
Jesus pushes back against this and in story after story he breaks the rules, not for the sake of breaking the rules, or because he doesn’t think that the sabbath is a good idea, or that we don’t have to live moral lives. Please note that the text says he it is with anger and grief over their intransigent hearts that he pulls the man with the withered hand up higher so that everyone can see him when he asks his provocative question that demands they weigh doing good over keeping the rule. In this even and so many others, Jesus tells almost everyone who will listen that their God is too small. If they cannot see past the Sabbath instruction far enough to know that they still need to eat, or that someone needs help, or to have compassion for a man with a withered hand who needs healing, they are missing the point. This is why I think that the lectionary missed the boat when they made their cut of the passage we heard today. They skipped the paragraphs just before this when Jesus says that you cannot put new wine into old wineskins. Perhaps we don’t hear the metaphor anymore since we don’t really use wineskins, but it is a claim that we cannot experience newness that God has for us if we think God is confined to the traditions, or the doctrines, or, one might say today, even the Bible. We need to hear that to remind us, as Jesus did those who were around him, that change only comes when we allow our hearts to be moved, when we shift the way that we seek to relate to God and to each other AND when we acknowledge, as many times as possible, that God is far bigger than our own hearts, far larger than our doctrines and theologies and certainly far more loving than we are.
When we encounter something new that feels and acts like God, even though it defies all of our old expectations, then we may need to throw out our old wineskin to make room for that new wine. That’s not to say that our old rituals are no good and we should throw them out. What I mean by that is that we have to re-imagine things, we have to infuse tradition with new life. Let’s take this table as an example. This is one of the foundational rituals of our faith, one of our sacraments. But what does it evoke in us? Is this a table of membership, only open to those who have professed and been baptized – in the “right” way, of course? Is this a table that is only for Christians, because Jesus was always so proprietary? Is this the table where the transubstantiation happens, where the bread and wine become the body and the blood?
Perhaps you see this differently in our time and place, I know I do. Because I think that where people are excluded from the church, we see this as a table of inclusion. Where some cherry-pick from a laundry list of so-called “sins” and neglect hard work of parsing out context but instead demonize a particular group of people, do we see this as a table where God reaches out and pulls up another chair, drawing the circle wider, making the table bigger? Where some have placed walls around this table, making God inaccessible to others, do we hear the inspiration of Jesus himself reminding us that God is available to everyone, that purity is not a requirement to be in the presence of the Holy and that our wounds and transgressions don’t keep us from God’s – God’s love covers them, like a soft bandage or a healing balm.
That, to me, is what we celebrate at this table. So, this morning I am here to remind you that our God is too small, too limited by our own prejudices and lack of imagination, too domesticated by our adherence to some set of rules or to the laws of rationality or reason. But here’s the Good News…the table is big. There’s a seat for you, you who are fearfully and wonderfully made. Here in this simple meal we can belong and learn how to trust again. Here with this small nourishment we can trust and learn to hope again. Here with a nibble and a sip we can hope and learn how to be in the presence of the God who passes all our understanding, the God who resides here too, ready to re-imagine with us, new wine at a time in which we might not be able to imagine how things will turn out, or how to rest, or what restoration can come when the living isn’t easy. God is bigger than that, and when we cannot see how it might happen we can trust in this – God will make a way, beyond our laws, beyond the boxes in which we have carefully placed God, beyond the limit of our own vision. God will make a way.
Thanks be to God. Amen.