The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath
The Human One is lord even of the Sabbath
The story takes place on a Sabbath day and is about actions that violate Sabbath – disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath and Jesus healing on the Sabbath – but it is about the interpretation of the law more broadly and about what authority that Jesus has over the law. It’s who dictates ethics and why. So my sermon is going to have two parts – one about the Sabbath – who and what it’s for (I’ll come to that last) and secondly about legalism and law-following
I’ve been thinking a lot more about the law lately than I usually do. Although there are numerous lawyers among who think carefully about their relationship to the law every day, I suspect that for most of us, it was a bit of a stretch to wade into the legalese waters of congregational bylaws. This structure transition proposal has been not only the opportunity to for us examine who we are and who we are called to be. We are challenged also to think about who we are as a legal entity. It’s tempting to let the legal definition of who we are become the way that we define ourselves. We get caught up in the law of church governance. Of course it’s not quite the same as the kinds of laws that Jesus and his contemporaries were dealing with. Jewish religious law was life and life was wrapped up in the law.
I don’t really think anyone could accuse this congregation of being legalistic regarding Christian moral ethical expectations, but as an overall well educated, intellectually inclined congregation, we are good at analysis and thinking through. For the most part, I think we find this our default – head processes. I have appreciated reminders throughout this process of discernment that discernment is precisely what we are doing. That we are doing Spirit work, that in fact Jesus Christ, the Son of Humanity/Son of God leads us.
When he was challenged on a point of the law – no less a law than one of the Ten Commandments, you shall honor the Sabbath and keep it holy – Jesus reminded his challengers that the Sabbath was made for humans, and not the other way around. He uses a (frankly) erroneous scripture text, because it doesn’t really have anything to do with what his disciples are doing, but he comes out in the end with this: “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath. The Son of Humanity is Lord even over the Sabbath.” What’s implied in the middle of those two sentences there is ‘The Son of Humanity/the human one is Lord is a human like humans, and lord over humanity. The Sabbath – and all the laws that the Jewish establishment had to govern and regulate the Sabbath – were given for people by the creator who made them. Jesus, the Created One, has authority over the Sabbath and all the laws that govern it.
The law too was made for humans. When I was talking with Nancy this week about the law and how it’s been used to forward and promote social justice, she said one of her professors told her when she was in law school that lawyers should never be the leaders of social justice movements – they get too caught in the way law boxes us in. But when they are inspired and pushed by the visionaries in social justice movement – for example the civil rights movement – they can be instrumental in using the law to forward the work of peace-making and justice seeking. I am also reminded that the law – our civil laws – were made by humans as well as for us, unlike Jewish religious law which was seen as given by God.
In the congregational setting, we acknowledge Jesus has precedence over the law – Mark Nyce, when he was treasurer used to remind LC often that budget reflects our mission not the other way around. We make choices about how we want our congregation to reflect God’s kingdom and our mission to love our neighbors. The budget will reflect that. I think perhaps the same could be said for the way we use the law. Jesus’ approach to the law and traditions in which he was steeped was not necessarily to get rid of them – he has been heard to say, “I come not abolish the law…” – but to remind his challengers that it is God and not humans who is
We will be challenged to continue to work in light of the Spirit’s moving and keep ourselves grounded in Christ. We will be challenged in an on-going way to make the new structural proposal serve us not the other way around – and to remember that the Human One is lord over humanity and all of creation
I feel we were, in the end, able to hold the process of agreeing to legal language lightly and with humor, even a little joy, reminded that we as a congregation are not made for the law, but the law for us. We can celebrate an affirmation of forward movement in our congregation and we can expect to continue to hold the challenge before us to remember the Human One who is one of us and yet Lord of the law.
The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath
(the Human One is a person himself, yet has authority over humanity)
The Human One is lord even of the Sabbath
What does Sabbath mean to you? The Ten Commandments prescribe Sabbath by saying, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. On six days you shall labor and shall work but the seventh day is Sabbath for YHWH.” Jewish communities, of course, still honor the Sabbath on Saturday, the last day of the week. I attended a Shabbat service at Temple Beth Am yesterday. It was truly a joyful gathering, full of song and dance and I was reminded of our own Pentecost service because the Rabbi invited us all to remember the holy breath in us as we began worship. It was especially celebratory because two young men from the congregation were being bar mitzvahed. In the worship, Adonai was given thanks repeatedly for the gift of Shabbat; Rabbi Singer called it the day to honor God’s goodness and the goodness of all creation.
At some point in the early church, in order to distinguish themselves from their Jewish neighbors, and to mark the first day of the week, resurrection day, Christians began to gather for worship on Sunday. Yet Jesus does not abolish the Sabbath; he proclaims himself Lord over it. The Christian tradition has been to choose to honor our Creator and the Risen Christ, in the company of the Holy Spirit, by dedicating a day to worship and good works.
The central ethic of Mark “Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself” – Jesus is asked by a scribe in Mark 12, “What commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answers, “The first is, Hear O Israel,: the Lord your God, the Lord is One; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” And frankly after visiting Temple Beth Am yesterday and hearing the Shema repeated and chanted again and again, I can understand how this is central to Jewish believers now and then. But Jesus goes on. He says, “The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
We do well at doing good, loving the neighbor. We have built neighborhood into our ministry, we strive to put love into action with neighbors near and far. In the gospel stories, we root for Jesus against the Pharisees in his conflicts over eating with sinner and tax collectors, and back him in healing the man’s hand. Mark wants us to.
Jesus is doing more in the healing that just healing though. Jesus begins by summoning the man to him. “Again, he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand…And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’” (NRSV) There are a couple of things going on here. When we hear that ‘again,’ that is a reminder to those who are hearing this story that this has happened before! Jesus has been in the synagogue before and he has encountered people in need of healing before. It sets up competing expectations. On the one hand there is an expectation that as an observant Jewish man, Jesus will rest from his daily work. Healing has been Jesus work. He has being going throughout the countryside preaching and healing. Now, on Sabbath, he will rest. There is also an expectation that he will heal. Healing is what he does, responding to people with maladies and illnesses comes naturally. They are watching!
But what he does, actually goes beyond those expectations – or maybe diverts from expectation. He puts the Pharisees into the position that they had so recently put him. He becomes the challenger. He says to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Well, it’s kind of a trick question, isn’t it? Because of course it is always right to do good and Sabbath has special provisions for responding to danger and saving people from imminent harm. And it is never okay to take a life or to do harm, whether on Sabbath or any other day. When the authorities do not answer, Jesus is grieved, angered. He is deeply upset and he speaks a word of healing to the man.
Jesus, who is already in trouble with authorities over whether his disciples fast appropriately, over dining with sinners and tax collectors, now has incited the religious establishment to plot his destruction – you may note the irony that although it is never lawful to do harm or to kill, these very leaders are seeking Jesus’ death. They see a rebel and he is grieved that they have not seen more – the lord over the Sabbath, honoring the God of creation by offering healing in the midst of community, on the most holy day of the week. The Sabbath was made for people, not so that we can do what we want with it, but so that we can seek healing and community and the one who is Lord over it.
No one would accuse this congregation of being legalistic or at all stringent about expectations about what and how to live. As we discussed at our congregational meeting, we have resisted various attempts at defining membership and setting up rules to follow or hoops to jump through. There’s no expectation even of attendance to church. So where does Sabbath observance fit into the picture.
Many people talk about seeing God in other settings, about worshiping in nature or going hiking as a form or worship. I talked with one member this week who said, that’s “just a bunch of bologna.”
The Sabbath was made for people…The Son of Humanity is Lord even over Sabbath. The One who’s work we do day in and day out – doing good with our lives and building communities of peace and justice – have we forgot that also with loving our neighbor we are to love God with our whole hearts, minds and souls? A rhythm of Sabbath practice that explicitly honors God with God’s community of gathered believers. Do not take it only from me. I spoke recently with someone in this congregation who, after years of considering church an option among many began to come to church in a regular weekly way – at least most weeks. And I heard that there is a different quality and depth of engagement that happens when the Sabbath practice is followed in a rhythm. I also heard that community becomes more meaningful and the feeling of connectivity to Christian community is strengthened.
Please hear me when I say that I am not discounting experiences of God in the natural work. It is almost a no-brainer in this landscape to see the Creator in Creation. But I am encouraging – even challenging us to make the naming explicit and to consciously keep a Sabbath rhythm. I say ‘us’ because, I think that I may not be the best example to follow in finding a Sabbath rest. Sunday often feels frenetic and ‘work-y’ to me and it is difficult for me to find a time in a rhythmic way to honor the Creator, the Human One and the Spirit. This is a challenge that I have before me as it is for all of us. Not only rhythm in weekly way but in life – periods of rest and reflection such as Mel and Jon are experiencing – such as Naomi and Joe and I were able to experience in our Korean venture.
As we move too into the challenge of a new structure, I pray that we will find a rhythm of being together as community that allows both the necessary work of caring for our community and loving our neighbors and that let us experience Sabbath rest together and in our own bodies.
As a response and reminder, we’ll sing our way into rest. “Guide my feet while I run this race, Give me rest while I run this race…”