Such a lovely room

Such a lovely room

Sunday, June 2, 2024

YEAR B 2024 pentecost 2

Pentecost 2, 2024
Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Psalm 81:1-10
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23-3:6

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.”  That’s how this morning’s first reading began.  You’re familiar with this command, I‘m sure.  It’s the third commandment . . . or the fourth, depending on whose system you follow.  Typically, for you and me, it just means that stores are sometimes closed on Sundays.  We kind of get the idea that God wants us to get some rest, and so we take Sundays off.  Unless of course you’re a priest, in which case that’s the only day you work . . .  am I right

We are disconnected by time and culture from the Jewish emphasis on the Sabbath, though.  The Ten Commandments were given to Moses on Mt. Sinai as a gift to the Hebrew people.  They lay out a list of ways that would set God’s people apart from their neighbors.  They are at the very center of Jewish identity.  They answer the question, “How do we know God loves us?”  Because God tells us not to steal—unlike our pagan neighbors.  Or, Because God tells us to rest on the sabbath, unlike those who follow false gods.  And the way to maintain that relationship and identity is through following the Law of Moses, because that’s what makes the Israelites different from those around them.  They share a new way of living in relationship with God.

So, in today’s Gospel reading, the Pharisees are critical of Jesus and his disciples for picking grain on the sabbath.  The Pharisees, as I have often told you, were not bad people.  They were, in fact, the good people.  Faithful Jews, doing their best to do what God commands.  As religious leaders, they were responsible for reminding people when they were in danger of violating God's commands.  Because, again, the Law is at the very center of Jewish identity.  For them, to work on the Sabbath isn’t like running a red light; it is more like treason.

And so, the Pharisees are right to criticize the disciples for working on the Sabbath, because they care.  And Jesus responds with the radical statement: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  And if you understand what he is saying, it changes everything.  Everything.  Because this sentence tears back the curtain and tells us why God gave the Israelites the Law: for the people’s benefit.  And it also reminds us of the crucial truth about God and the Law:  The Law was made for us; we were not made for the Law.

That sounds obvious, I know.  But I think we all secretly think it’s the other way around, even though we don’t realize it.  Somewhere along the way, we start walking through life assuming we will be punished because that’s how God wants things to be.  When things go badly, we figure we must have done something wrong to deserve it.  And, what’s worse, we have a hunch that God created the Law first, and then created people so they could exist solely to follow this collection of laws, and be punished when they don’t.

Which is like saying, my wife and I got married, and made up a bunch of rules.  But we didn’t have anyone to follow those rules, which made us sad.  So then one day we looked at each other and said, “We need someone to follow all these rule.  Let’s have a baby!”  But, of course, you don’t have children so that they can follow your rules.  The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.  People come first, and the Law does not exist without people.

One of my favorite writers is Robert Capon.  His writings actually saved my faith, but that’s a story for another time.  In one of Robert Capon’s books, he talks about “Angels.”  And he doesn’t mean angels like you and I think of them, with wings and stuff, on the Hallmark cards.  He is using the word Angel as a metaphor.  He’s talking about the things that we put above human beings, and to which we’re willing to sacrifice those human beings.  And the problem is, these metaphorical Angels are usually good things, at least in the abstract.  Powerful Angels,  like Romance, and Patriotism, and Religion.  In theory, they’re all good things.  But when one of these Angels faces off with a human being, the Angel always wins, because that’s how we do.

In the story of Romeo and Juliet, two young lovers fall hopelessly in love against their parents’ wishes and they both end up dead.  And we love it!  What are mere people when weighed against the mighty force of the Angel of Romance?  But Romance was made for humankind, and not humankind for Romance.

When someone disagrees with me over whether athletes should stand or kneel before a football game, or fly a flag upside down outside their house, I can call in the mighty Angel of Patriotism, which will quickly steamroll right over any thoughtful conversation or respectful disagreement.  Patriotism is more valuable than mere human beings, it seems.  But Patriotism was made for humankind, and not humankind for Patriotism.

And Religion?  That’s probably the scariest Angel of them all, because that metaphorical Angel must be the one that God loves more than any human being, right?.  Religion is the Angel that will get heads chopped off over Prayer Book decisions in the 1500s, and have planes flown into buildings in New York City, and demand that accused witches be burned in Massachusetts.  Religion will crush people in a heartbeat, and if it’s our religion, then we’re all for it.  But Religion was made for people, and not people for Religion.  Or, as Jesus says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.  People come first; people have always come first, and the Law and these so-called Angels do not exist without people; they exist for people.

God created people long before God declared the sabbath.  And in case you have forgotten, God loves people.  All people.  Jesus laid down his life for people.  For you.  For me.  Jesus feeds the people in the scriptures and in the mystery of Holy Communion.  (Episcopal Priests are not allowed to celebrate communion by themselves, because the Sacraments exist for the people.)  The Holy Spirit calls us together into community so that we can support one another, and so that we can serve people together.  God gives us the promise of resurrection to new life, because God cares about people.

In the second part of today’s Gospel reading, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand.  Here is an opportunity for this man to have a new lease on life.  To be rehabilitated, to have a fresh start and a new beginning, to rejoin the community.  Jesus asks the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Which raises a whole new line of questioning.

It’s like he’s asking, “Can a soldier work the sabbath, but not a doctor?  Can a thief break into a home on the sabbath, but the police not chase them down?”  And what do the good, law-abiding, upstanding Pharisees say in response?  Nothing.  They are choosing the Law over a person, and they expect Jesus to do the same.  They are choosing the Sabbath over healing.  They are choosing an Angel over a person.  God gave them the gift of the Sabbath, and they have turned it into an idol of higher worth than another human being.

And in their anger, they begin to conspire to have Jesus killed.  That’s where the Angels always lead us: to wanting others dead because of our righteous moral outrage.  If you cross an Angel, you end up dead; but if you place an Angel above people, you also wind up dead.  These metaphorical Angels always lead to suffering and death.  While Jesus offers us healing and life, because the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.  

May God give us the grace to always choose compassion over rules, to always choose people over Angels, and to always choose Jesus over everything.

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