Jesus and Sabbath

Beacon Heights COB, June 14th, 2015

Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5

“Beware the yeast of the Pharisees.” This is a saying internalized from a very early age for those raised in church. “I don’t wanna be a Pharisee…’cause they’re not fair you see.” The Pharisees are held as examples of how not to live one’s faith.

Anytime those Pharisees show up they are opposed to Jesus and his disciples. They become easy targets for slurs of hypocrisy, legalism, self-righteousness, and even bigotry. The Pharisees are straw men to be knocked down in theological arrogance. They represent what is disliked in those “other” people over there who do not share the same understanding of truth and God’s will for creation.

Half of my sermons this summer include Pharisees in some shape or form, so naming these associations early seems important. I do not think that I can counteract all of the baggage that comes with the label “Pharisee,” but we do need to be aware of them.

We might see “Pharisees” all around us in our world today and we don’t even have to look very hard at all. We just need to turn on the TV or log in to our favorite social media site.

As a member of the “Millennial” generation, social media is a big part of my life. This does have some benefits, but I know that if I am not careful I can become emotionally and even spiritually invested in what happens in the world of facebook.

Social media can be a chaotic marketplace full of noise and conflicting information and people in general are not afraid to share their opinions in places on the internet. Facebook can be a tinder-box that can explode with even the smallest of controversial issues. Unloving things are posted from all sides. The mud slinging takes no prisoners. The Pharisees come out in full force, leaving no good feelings on the social media sphere. Somewhere Jesus is facepalming for sheer embarrassment and people post this picture too.

I try my best not to throw my hat into the ring in these facebook explosions. More often than not, it is not worth the emotional and spiritual investment.

But it is hard not to feel it, when brothers and sisters in Christ share hurtful things out of theological arrogance and ignorance of another’s humanity. This is the yeast of the Pharisees and it is an ugly thing indeed.

While cyberspace is relatively new, public forums for the exchange of ideas, goods, and services are older than civilization. In Greco-Roman antiquity, the time period of the early church, marketplaces were full of many different ideas. Early Christians came into contact with followers of different faiths and other groups within Judaism. The Pharisees were one such group who represented competition for space in the public square.

These groups all had their own social media, ways of spreading ideas to other people both inside and outside the group. We have some of these recorded in the Christian scriptures known as the New Testament.

The four biblical Gospels in particular are constructed very much like social media sites. Pieces from other documents and from oral tradition are put together in different ways to form biographical narratives of Jesus’ life. This is especially true in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). John does the same thing, but includes some longer narrative sections. There will be more about John in another sermon.

Today we heard one story that appears in all three Synoptic Gospels. Jesus and his disciples wander through a grainfield, it happens to be the sabbath. The disciples are hungry and eat some of the grain.

Pharisees confront them for breaking the Sabbath and Jesus responds. He reminds them of a story from the life of David and makes a declaration that the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.

This same basic story is told in three very subtly different ways. Our multi-voiced reading shows where the three are the same and where they are a little different. You probably noticed that there was not much unison material. Even though all three tell the same basic story, they don’t quite harmonize. In music theory, we might call it variations on a theme. Yet, the theme is lost to us. All we have are the variations. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t quite get them to fit together without changing them or being sort of creative.

Cutting these stories apart and splicing them together sort of leaves me feeling like a mad scientist like Dr. Frankenstein or something. Yet, it does help us to see some of the similarities and some of the differences of the biblical witnesses.

Their variations contain echoes of the original theme. It is not entirely lost to us, but it is colored in different ways by different people under different circumstances. And it is a recurring theme in the Gospel narratives. The Pharisees confront and Jesus responds. They are his chief adversaries and they seem to be around every corner.

In this particular iteration, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the Pharisees appear to fancy themselves as the Sabbath police. In their eyes at least, Jesus and his disciples are breaking the Sabbath.

The disciples are hungry and eat as they pass through grainfields, as the poor in their culture are allowed to do. Following Jesus for them literally means solidarity with the vulnerable and powerless. The Pharisees, on the other hand, do not act in solidarity, but set themselves up in a position above the poor. They show theological arrogance and ignorance of the disciple’s humanity. It is as if they would rather see these poor people starve than see their personal sense of holiness violated.

Perhaps, though, it is unfair to treat the Pharisees as if they are heartless legalists in this case. They may just be curious and want to know what Jesus thinks about proper Sabbath observance.

We usually think of the Pharisees as observing Jesus and his followers from a distance, like spies or assassins, stealthily looking for opportunities to attack Jesus and his followers; bad people lurking in the shadows with a clearly malicious agenda. And there are passages in the Gospels that lend credence to such an image. Yet, we also find Pharisees who show sympathy for Jesus and his followers; among them Nicodemus, Gamaliel, and Saul of Tarsus, who became Paul, the Apostle.

In looking at this story of the disciples in the grainfield in isolation from other texts, it is unclear how the Pharisees came upon Jesus and his disciples. It is possible that the Pharisees who raise the question about the Sabbath are among Jesus’ disciples. They are hardly aggressive or malicious though they might be a little accusatory in Matthew’s version and in Luke they appear to implicate Jesus in the breaking of the Sabbath. At least we can say that their intent is ambiguous.

The question of proper Sabbath observance is a topic of discussion for any group in and around the sphere of Judaism. There must be some disagreement among these Pharisees who approach Jesus. They just might be seeking his wisdom.

By using the story of David and his companions entering the house of God and eating the bread of the Presence, Jesus reminds these Pharisees of what they already know or at least should already know. Justice is more important than Sabbath observance.

The priests in the house of God had every right to deny David and his companions, but instead they harbored these refugees that were running from king Saul. Of course, at that point, David’s gang were basically armed rebels and really stepped all over the priest’s rights. They may have simply not been able to refuse. To add to this, these priests are later killed by Saul and his men for harboring those refugees. David did claim responsibility for the consequences, but the priests were the ones who ultimately paid the price.

We might wonder why Jesus would cite this somewhat troubling story to make his point about the Sabbath, but I think that by using it Jesus basically says, “Look, it is not your responsibility for how others observe Sabbath, ‘the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath,’ and like David claims responsibility for all involved.”

There is an even deeper theme underneath all the variations of all who witness to Jesus and that theme is Jesus himself, who lays down his own life for the sake of all people in every place. Jesus just might post on Facebook, “It is not your responsibility for what others believe and how others behave. Do your best to love God and love your neighbor and leave the rest to me. It is my responsibility.” And on his Twitter account, he might just follow this post with a hashtag #thesonofmanislordofthesabbath. And Matthew, Mark, Luke, and even John, just might share this post and add some of their own flair.

But the basic message would still be the same and the underlying theme would still ring through. Jesus, the Christ, the Messiah, Anointed for all nations, takes responsibility for his people in every way,

Sabbath is a time to re-orient ourselves and our responsibilities. Our world demands a lot from us, many responsibilities (working, paying bills, cleaning house, taking care of family) these should not be abdicated. Yet, God gives us Sabbath so that we might enjoy what we have been given and take some time to realize what responsibilities belong to God and not to us.

We all need to be reminded sometimes that God is God and we are not God. True, we have responsibilities that we must attend to, but we cannot do it all all at once, let alone the responsibilities that are not ours to begin with.

Sabbath is not just another responsibility. As Mark’s Jesus puts it, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.” It should be done with joy and it should bring joy and other spiritual fruits; if not right away, in God’s time.

Sabbath should bring about awareness of what has already begun, “something greater than the temple” that is already here that Matthew witnesses to; the kin-dom of God inaugurated in the ministry (the life, death, and resurrection) of Jesus. This is a reality that Jesus shares even with his opponents, even with the staunchest Pharisee whose adherence to the law and the strictures of tradition causes a loss of wonder and awe for the glory of God’s good creation.

May this same Jesus challenge us today to discern our own responsibility in loving God and loving neighbor to the best of our ability and leave the rest up to God. May we be inspired in wonder and awe by the glory of God’s good creation and may we have faith and trust that Jesus works in places where we cannot and unites all hearts toward the purpose of God; the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of all Creation. AMEN

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Sermon 5-31: A Song of the Guardians of Sabbath Space

1 Chronicles 9:17-19; Psalm 46

Beacon Heights COB, May 31, 2015

In a classic episode of the Simpsons, Homer Simpson pledges $10,000 to PBS to end a pledge drive so that he can continue to watch a British comedy. This gets him into trouble because he obviously doesn’t have the money. He is chased through the streets of Springfield by a mob of PBS personalities.

He seeks refuge at the church building, bursting through the doors shouting, “Sanctuary! Sanctuary!” Reverend Lovejoy remarks to himself, “I knew I shouldn’t have taught him that word.”

Homer’s bumbling stupidity and blatant irreverence provide a satirical picture of white middle class privilege. He seeks refuge in his church for clearly selfish, first world problems.

Refuge is something taken for granted in white middle class privileged existence, but many people all around the world lack this basic human need. We were reminded during the Sunday school hour today of the situation in Nigeria in which Brethren in Nigeria have been forced out of their homes and safe spaces and have become refugees.

People displaced from their homes are forced to make perilous journeys across borders, both natural and artificial, in search of refuge, in search of shelter. The threats to safety and life that displace people are diverse, from terrorist organizations, drug cartels, dictatorships, famine and disease, and even natural disasters. And these are just the ones we typically think of as “refugees.”

As these people cross borders they are met with new hardships as they join the homeless and impoverished, people seeking refuge in their own land.

Even as we proclaim God as our refuge, there is a real need for shelter, a real need for safe space, that is not met for many in our neighborhoods, our country, and in our world. Even those of us privileged with adequate shelter and access to basic services can encounter threats to our safety, our livelihoods, and even our lives.

Sabbath can be a time of seeking refuge from these threats, both for ourselves and for our world, and to call upon God as the source of all refuge.

Ideally a church or other place of worship can provide space for such sabbath time to happen, a safe place that keeps peace in, that keeps threats and violence out, that provides shelter from storms; a place to truly be still and know God in an intimate way.

This is to be desired in individual and family dwellings as well. Yet, there is always a felt need for community sabbath space.

Beacon Heights is a church body with a church building and an expressed commitment to welcome and minister to all people. An open and affirming sabbath space is sought in this place, with an eye toward the welcoming and inclusive love of God. But such a vision is not without limitation and not without difficulty.

Homer Simpson might struggle to feel entirely welcome here. An average blue collar Joe, who is mostly concerned about what is for dinner and what is on TV, might not get social justice work. A person oblivious to his own privilege and social responsibility might not fit in here and might feel shamed if these things are pointed out. Homer would probably not return after visiting this church. Of course, Homer Simpson is a caricature used for satirical purposes and not a real person.

Real people are more complicated than race, socio-economic status, vocation, political affiliation, gender, sexual orientation, ability, disability, or any other distinction. These things should not matter in true sabbath time and sabbath space and they do not matter in God’s ultimate will for all things. Yet, we cannot seem to get away from them on this side of eternity.

This congregation does have a culture that is distinct in its own way. It is certainly a safe space for progressive white collar folks, highly educated professionals who also care about social justice. This is not such a bad thing. We are all naturally social creatures and want to be around those who share things in common. This is just part of the reality of seeking sabbath space together.

All that we can do, is do the best that we can with the best that we have and trust in God’s forgiveness and mercy; that even when we come up short, we still manage to live God’s will.

There is much good that comes from this gathering that seeks to make a place of refuge for all people and a body that works for peace and justice in this world. This is the lens through which we read and understand the ancient song that we know as Psalm 46. It speaks to us and informs us as people who value peacemaking.

God is our refuge and strength,

a very present[a] help in trouble.

2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;

3 though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble with its tumult.Selah

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

5 God is in the midst of the city;[b] it shall not be moved;

God will help it when the morning dawns.

6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;

he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge.[c]Selah

8 Come, behold the works of the Lord;

see what desolations he has brought on the earth.

9 He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;

he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear;

he burns the shields with fire.

10 “Be still, and know that I am God!

I am exalted among the nations,

I am exalted in the earth.”

11 The Lord of hosts is with us;

the God of Jacob is our refuge.[d]Selah

 

As I reflect on the words of this psalm that speaks of God as refuge, I think of the courage that it takes to leave places of refuge and work for peace in places of hostility. I am reminded of people like Ted Studebaker, who was killed in Vietnam while working with the people there, while using a shovel instead of a gun.

God’s refuge may not necessarily be in places where we are safe and comfortable and seeking God’s refuge might come at great personal cost. Homer Simpson finds this out as his refuge from his obligation to PBS is found in a mission trip thousands of miles away from home.

We are people that value the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of discipleship. Yet, the work of building community where we are relatively safe and comfortable is also important. Good sabbath spaces provide solid grounding and loving support for those who seek to do God’s work in this often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous world.

Building and maintaining these spaces is also an important role filled by committed disciples. In ancient Israel, it was the Levites who filled this important role. Among the Levites were the Korahites, sons of Korah, son of Izhar, son of Kohath, son of Levi. Psalm 46 is part of a collection of psalms attributed to the sons of Korah.

Korah appears in Numbers 16, where he leads an uprising against Moses and Aaron, an uprising in which he and his followers and their households are swallowed up by the earth. Later, in Numbers 26:11, is a short note that the sons of Korah did not die as a result of the uprising. These sons of Korah are given special mention in the genealogies of 1 Chronicles. They are named as guardians of the thresholds of the tent.

These are some quite obscure details from parts of the Bible that we do not read much, if at all, but they do give us some context for the psalm we are focusing on in worship today. I imagine the gatekeepers of the temple singing this song, familiar to them from childhood, as worshipers enter for prayer or for a special service, seeking sabbath time and refuge. These words serve to remind them that they are entering into sacred space, into the presence of God, the one who brings an end to war, the one who establishes peace, who wills sabbath rest for all of creation.

This speaks to the basic human need to name sabbath space and to mark out holy ground. In our culture, church buildings almost automatically have an air of being sacred. This particular building has a unique feature that speaks to what kind of sacred space this is. The rainbow bench reflects that this is a place of welcome for the LGBTQ community. This welcoming commitment does draw lines that will attract, but will also turn some people away. And this is part of seeking a sabbath space that is safe for LGBTQ folks.

It is all part of doing the best that we can with the best that we have in being true to our calling as people of God. Part of this calling involves building, maintaining, and protecting sabbath space.

Of course, the building cannot replace God and cannot contain God’s presence, but it can be a place of safety, a place to seek God’s welcoming and inclusive Love.

In Psalms for Praying: an Invitation to Wholeness, Nan C. Merrill reenvisions the language of the Psalms in a more inclusive way. This is her version of Psalm 46:

The Beloved is our refuge and our strength,

a Loving Presence in times of trouble.

Therefore we need not fear though

the earth should change,

though the mountains shake in the

heart of the sea;

Though its waters roar and foam,

though the mountains tremble

with its tumult

 

There is a river whose streams

make glad the Holy City,

the holy habitation of the Most High.

The Beloved is in the midst of it,

it shall not be moved;

Our loving Creator is an

ever-present help.

The nations may be at war,

countries left in ruins,

yet is the Voice of the Almighty

heard, slowly breaking through

hearts of stone.

The Beloved is ever with us

the infinite Heart of Love.

 

Come, behold the works of the Beloved,

how love does reign ever in

humanity’s desolation.

For the Beloved yearns for wars to cease,

shining light into fearful hearts; loving

even those who oppress the weak,

refining hearts of steel!

“Be still and know that I am Love,

Awaken! Befriend justice and mercy

Do you not know you bear my Love?

Who among you will respond?”

O Blessed One, You know all hearts,

You are ever with us;

may Love ever guide our lives!

This is how we experience God as we worship in this space, the God who is Love present to us in Jesus Christ, Emmanuel, God with us, who welcomes all God’s children.

We are all stewards and guardians of this sabbath space and all places that are sacred to us. We do the best that we can with the best that we have in service to God and neighbor. We may not always get it right and some may be convinced that we are wrong, but let us not be discouraged for God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble.