When We Are Living: Sermon from January 29, 2017
The year was 1994. I was a middler in seminary and was taking a trip through McCormick Seminary to the Middle East. We spent a week in Egypt, around Cairo. A week in Syria in the area around Damascus. And finished with a week in Israel, traveling throughout visiting several sites, some that are part of the official Holy Land tour, and others that included visiting Christians living in the Beit Sahour refugee camp turned town and the Gaza Strip. At the time, there were some areas where we were not allowed to travel and changes to our itinerary. Our trip occurred just after the Hebron massacre, when an Israeli had walked into an Islamic mosque and killed 29 individuals, injuring 125 others. Because of fear of retaliation, there was a curfew and a travel ban in place for everyone who was not registered as an Israeli Jew, or like us, a tourist. You see, if you were Arab and living within Israel, you had certain identification to carry and certain license plates on your car to identify you as Arab, not Jewish. A travel ban meant that you would not be allowed to drive through checkpoints that were placed along roads that divided certain areas one from another. I mention this, because the ban was the cause of at least a part of our changed itinerary. As part of our trip, we were to meet with a number of Christian organizations, including one interfaith organization, comprised of Jews, Christians and Muslims who were trying to work together for peaceful solutions to the political nightmare that is Israel-Palestine. However, one of the individuals we were supposed to speak to was not there. A tenured professor at Bethlehem University with a family and young ones at home, and an Arab Christian, he had been visiting his brother and parents in the Gaza Strip when the massacre had happened and the travel ban put into place. He had been petitioning for six weeks to be allowed to return to his home, his family, the classes he was supposed to be teaching at the university, his work as part of this interfaith organization, all of which were located in the West Bank, 58 miles away, six weeks – but all to no avail. As it turns out, our group did end up spending the day with him, as he became one of our travel guides when we spent a day in Gaza. We heard about his work, and about his frustration with continually being cast as the fearful other, and about his deep worry and sadness and anger about being separated from his family for so long. And we wondered about the laws that had been put into place that could cause such disruption.
In this week’s lesson Jesus continues to amaze, confound, and irritate folks with his unconventional approach to the law and his single-minded sense of purpose and ministry. He’s been run out of his hometown synagogue, he’s been healing the sick and rebuking demons, teaching the multitudes and calling disciples to come with him and fish for people, and thoroughly annoying the religious leaders by forgiving sins and in today’s text, breaking Sabbath law.
Let me provide a bit of context here. The origins of Sabbath law are found right in the middle of the 10 commandments with the instruction to “Observe the Sabbath day to make it holy, just as Yahweh your God has commanded you. Six days you shall work, and you shall do all of your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto Yahweh your God; you shall not do any work, or your son, or your daughter, or your slave, or your slave woman, or your ox, or your donkey, or any of your domestic animals, or your resident alien who is in your towns, so that your slave and your slave woman may rest as you rest.” So it begins as a day of rest, a day of refraining from work. But what is rest? And what is work? In the answering of that question, religious guidelines which over the years became religious laws cropped up to help people in their practice of the faith. There became strictures on how much distance one can travel, how one can, or I should say, cannot prepare food, what one can pick up, what actions one can take. It is actually amazingly fascinating and intricate, especially as you move into orthodox practice in modern times. So in the first part of our text, the disciples, as they casually pick grain from the fields as they pass are breaking, not a law of stealing, because people were entitled to glean from fields, but they are breaking Sabbath law by doing the work of harvesting, as they pick the grain, threshing, as they removed the outer shell, and preparing a meal, as they popped the grains into their mouth. In their desire to have some lunch…they are working and not observing Sabbath.
Now before we shake our head and say, “how arcane,” I think we have to recognize how important the practice of these various laws were to the cultural heritage and survival of the Jewish people. These were the laws that had formed them into community, made them distinctive, despite the many times they had been overrun and scattered by conquering armies. We heard so many of those stories over the summer and through the fall, Assyrians, Persians, Babylonians. And now, in the moment of this text, they have been conquered by Rome, the most powerful and overreaching foreign ruler yet. They are existing as as a marginalized people. On the edges of society and are being scattered throughout the larger empire. Is it any wonder that the Pharisees, this particular group of religious leaders, are pushing for strict adherence to the laws? They see themselves as ensuring the continuation of the Jewish faith and culture through faithful practice, and they fear the erasure of who they are as a people.
But fear can do strange things to your eyes.
We see what we want to see. Consider this study. A group of people were instructed to look at a picture and note the locations of the color red. After everyone had studied the picture for thirty seconds it was covered. The moderator then asked the members of the group to tell him what the man in the picture was wearing. No one could do it. They hadn’t seen the man because they were looking for the color red.
The Pharisees in fear are looking only for Jesus, this up and coming rabbi who seems to be pushing all the boundaries, they are only looking for any infraction of the law. An infraction that they see would be a threat to the Jewish way of life. But in doing so, in focusing on that direction, they are unable to see people who are hungry and a man in desperate need of healing. All they can see is a threat to existence and a worry that if they give an inch he’ll take a mile.
And Jesus has a problem with that.
Not a Sabbath problem, but an observance problem.
Nowhere does Jesus revoke the Sabbath, he merely reminds of its original intent. The Sabbath was meant as a gift to God’s people, a time of restoration, or re-ordering when even the slave and the work animal would have a time of refreshment and restoration. But that intent has been occluded, or obscured by a slavish attachment to the many layers of practice that have grown up around it. The gift has become a burden, the antithesis of restoration, when a person must go hungry or remain unhealed because they don’t have access to the proper avenue to navigate practice.
The Sabbath was meant to promote life, for there is always a concern for life, abundant life, at the heart of God’s law. And Jesus challenges the Pharisees. First reminding them of a time in their history when the law was set aside for human need, and David and his men were given bread to eat from the temple. And then going ahead and healing the man with the withered hand, while directly asking the Pharisees if acts of good are prohibited on the Sabbath.
Jesus is asking them to go back and reconsider what is at the heart of God’s purpose in our world, for at the heart of God’s purpose is love. As we hear in I John 4, a perfect love which casts out fear. A love which casts out the fear which can warp our vision and blind us to the humanity and need that is in another. We are at our best as a people of faith when we remember this. That our faith is not a set of rules or a list of correct beliefs, but is a relationship with God that transforms our relationships with one another.
And how are we going to live out our faith these days?
Perhaps I have had too much time on my hands these days, at odd hours in a hospital room with not much to do but read news articles and blog posts, and not enough sleep. But I am dismayed. Dismayed by some of the actions of our current administration. And dismayed by some of the personal attacks and virulent response coming from pockets of those in opposition. Neither do I feel represent the best of what Christ calls us to. Quite honestly, my thoughts represent a tangled mess that is going to take some time, some reflection and some prayer to untangle before I begin to understand best the path that I feel God is calling me to follow.
I do, however, know what I did in ’94. For at the end of our day in Gaza, having spent it with this professor, hearing about his peacemaking work and the pain he felt in separation from his family, we invited him to ride back to his home in the West Bank with us. Shielded by our Israeli plates and the sheer diversity of our Americanness, for our group was comprised of African Americans, Hispanics, a Guatemalan, Indians and a few of us Midwest, suburban whites. He fit right in as another Christian amongst the mixed bag of us.
Would I do that now?
Quite honestly I’d probably be too scared to, too fearful, too cognizant of what I might lose to take that risk for another. So I sit here with my tangled thoughts and wonder. To what is God calling me?
But yet this text reminds me, in the midst of my consideration, to not allow fear or a desire for some sort of ideological purity to chart the course of my actions, but to ask where is the abundant life – where is God’s heart of love as I interact with friends, neighbors and even those I cast as my enemies. It reminds me to enter in, as I can, where people are hungry, where people are hurting, where God’s shalom is yet to be found.
If I can do this.
If you can do this.
If we as a greater church can do this.
Then perhaps we can lead again in our fractured culture.
Imagining a way that is neither right nor left.
A third way that embraces all God’s children in love and peace.