Monday, June 11, 2018

The Sabbath and the Law (6/3/18)

I am so grateful for the time I spent at Rehoboth.

On Sunday, June 3rd, we examined the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy, and the contrast between obedience to the law and true righteousness. This was my next-to-last sermon at Rehoboth Presbyterian Church.
The Sabbath and the Law (6/3/18)

          Good morning. Wow, I can’t believe we’re almost at the end of our time together. I think it was about two months ago that I decided that next Sunday would by my last day here at Rehoboth. It seemed like a lot of time to say goodbye, but really, it’s gone by like that!
          Now, last week was great because I got to spend a lot of time visiting with members of this congregation. And I plan to do more of that this week, so if you want to get coffee or lunch or just drop by and chat, please let me know. Part of the job of being a pastor is to love your congregation, and honestly, you folks have been pretty easy to love, and I will miss you.
          I wonder, do any of you remember my first Sunday in the pulpit? The texts I preached on were Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Mark 12:28-31; today’s texts are also from Deuteronomy and Mark, and they cover similar themes—in particular, the contrast between obedience to the law and true righteousness.
          In our first lesson this morning, we heard the commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. And in the Gospel lesson, we are presented with two stories in which Jesus doesn’t follow that commandment very strictly. In the first case, Jesus and the disciples are traveling on the Sabbath, when some of the disciples stop to pick grain. For the Pharisees in the story, this is a clear violation of the commandment; people are not supposed to travel or work on the Sabbath.
          In the second part of the reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus goes to the synagogue and heals a man on the Sabbath. It’s interesting, because Jesus doesn’t do anything that actually qualifies as work. He doesn’t perform surgery or set a fracture—actions that would certainly count as work. Jesus simply tells the man with the withered hand to come forward and stretch out his hand. In the instant that the man stretches out his hand, his hand is healed.
          In both parts of the story, Jesus spars with some Pharisees over the question of righteousness. What’s at stake is Jesus’ authority. The Pharisees can’t understand how someone who doesn’t strictly follow the rules of the Sabbath can have the authority to teach or heal. Jesus doesn’t fit their definition of righteousness. They know what the law says, and it doesn’t seem like Jesus is following the law.
          I heard a story this week that really made me scratch my head—it was a story about a pastor who, in my opinion, said exactly the wrong thing. To be fair, I don’t know all the details, and I’m sure there’s more to the story than what I heard, but what I heard speaks volumes about the state of our churches today, and it really seems to fit in with our Scriptures this morning, too.
          There was a woman in a congregation; she was in her late thirties or early forties. She had two daughters who were very active in youth sports; that meant that the daughters were frequently absent from church. Familiar story, right?
          One day the pastor asked to speak to the mother. The pastor told her something to the effect of, “if you don’t start bringing your daughters to church on Sunday, they’re going to end up as junkies and prostitutes.” Junkies and prostitutes. Let that sink in for a few moments.
          The mother promptly left the congregation. She wrote an angry letter to the Session; she resigned her membership. The woman had been baptized and confirmed in that church. Her children—the ones who were playing youth sports—had been baptized and confirmed in that church. To the best of my knowledge, the daughters have not become junkies or prostitutes. The pastor no longer serves that congregation, but the mother hasn’t returned, either.
          It strikes me that the pastor in this story is substituting her own judgment for God’s judgment. Also, I don’t hear a lot of love in her pronouncement. Perhaps she thought that by rebuking the mother, she could save the woman’s daughters from the deadly consequences of youth sports!
          Deadly consequences like… physical fitness! And teamwork! Good sportsmanship and great friendships! The horror, the horror!
          Of course, I want to laugh at that pastor’s arrogance; I want to laugh because I like laughing more than crying. But deep down, I want to weep. In her desire to promote holiness, the pastor drove away several members. Relationships were destroyed in the process. Sadly, these stories are quite common. It’s easy to blame the culture for the empty spaces in our pews, and it’s really easy to blame youth sports. If we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that a lot of the problems are a bit closer to home. We have to admit that we’ve created our share of problems; church members and clergy have driven people away.
          I think it’s really interesting that our Old Testament lesson is from Deuteronomy, as opposed to the version of the Ten Commandments that appears in Exodus. The name Deuteronomy can be translated as “second law.” The book is presented as a final series of speeches or sermons given by Moses to the Israelites before they enter the Land of Canaan. In that series of sermons, Moses re-tells or resets the law that was given by God to the Israelites during the Exodus.
          The situation in Deuteronomy is this: God’s chosen people, Israel, are about to enter into the Promised Land. They were delivered from slavery, but their salvation will not be complete until they enter the land of Canaan. They are on the cusp of something new, so Israel needs to be reminded of who they are and who they’re called to be.
          The wording of this commandment reminds the people that they had been slaves in Egypt; the purpose of the commandment is to provide rest. The people are restored by the Sabbath. The commandment provides for human flourishing; it prevents humans and animals from living as slaves.
          This is, essentially, the argument that Jesus makes when he responds to the Pharisees in the first part of the Gospel lesson. “He contends that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being.”[1]
          This legal sparring between Jesus and the Pharisees, these arguments over the law and Scripture, this is a common theme in the Gospel of Mark. And these arguments are still common in our churches today. That’s why I chose to preach on Mark 12:28-31 for my first sermon at Rehoboth and it’s why I chose to preach on Mark today.
          In the reading from Mark 12, a scribe asks Jesus which commandment is the greatest of all. Jesus begins by quoting from Deuteronomy, and he quotes the greatest statement of faith in the Old Testament: Shema y’israel, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai echad. That is, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Jesus also says that there is another commandment that is like it: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.”
          The law of Moses is restated in Deuteronomy and given a new interpretation because the people need to be reminded of what is most important. In the same way, Jesus reminds us that the spirit of the law is most important: love God and love your neighbor. These are the highest priorities. In the same way, we were not created for the observance of the Sabbath, the Sabbath was created so that we could live more fully into God’s love. Yes, worship should be a part of that, but the purpose of the Sabbath is to free us from earthly slavery. Sometimes a visit with the grandkids takes priority over attending worship.
          Let’s be honest, none of us walked to church this morning. We all failed the tests of the ancient rules against working and traveling on the Sabbath. Let’s stop casting stones at youth sports. Instead, let’s find other ways to reach out to the people who aren’t here on Sunday mornings. At the same time, we need to find the people who have been hurt by the church—whether it was by members of the congregation or members of the clergy—we must reach out to them and restore the relationships that have been damaged. Thanks be to God. Amen.

          Now, beloved, as you depart from this place, remember that we are called to be the Church, the body of Christ in the world today. Go forth and be instruments of God’s love and peace and reconciliation. Go forth and be witnesses to the resurrection. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!

[1] Matt Skinner, “Commentary on Mark 2:23-3:6,” retrieved from:

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