Proper 4, Year B: Humans Being vs Human Doings--Freedom from Pharoah's Bricks
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
1 Samuel 3: 1-20; Psalm 139: 1-5; 12-17; 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12; Mark 2: 23-3:6
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
One of the first things we have to face when we encounter the stories of Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees is the long Christian tradition of casting the Pharisees in the role of representatives of all of Judaism and misreading these conflicts as somehow representative of the clash between Christianity and violent, misguided Judaism. Let’s be clear—Jews have never permitted observing Torah to override decisions to save life. The law, properly understood, is about human flourishing, and walking the path of true happiness, not simple adherence to rules handed down by a capricious depot God in a policeman’s uniform gleefully rubbing His hands together whenever we break a rule.
The law is given as gift to the people of Israel as a way to shown them how to walk in the ways of justice, mercy, and peace—to care for the widow, the orphan, and the alien in the land. It’s not meant to become another burdensome requirement that blinds us to the suffering of others. If it becomes that, which it does in the case of the Pharisees, it tells us more about what humans being do with the law than the law itself. Something that is intended to bring life gets co-opted into another justification for reinforcing the very system of insiders and outsiders, clean and unclean, the law is meant to disrupt. Paul, of course, is a powerful example of this trap. He persecutes Christians in the name of God until he realizes that it is really God in Christ he is persecuting.
In a story originally aired on National Public Radio, a Jewish man remembers being on the train to a Nazi death camp as a young child. His mother buys them food, but all that is available is nonkosher meat. Her son asks her why she is crying. She tells him that she has kept kosher all of her life, but now she is going to die, and she is crying because her children are young and have not had a chance to live. Breaking Torah was the furthest thing from her mind. She simply grieved because of the inevitability of horrors she and her children faced. This mother was not a great scholar, but she shared the wisdom of the historical Pharisees and knew that Torah is made for humanity: her children were starving, and it was her duty to feed them what she could.
The sabbath as a day of rest is not just another rule to follow as the fellow who runs the driving range I go to once and a while seems to think. Whenever I ask for a bucket of balls, he is shocked, and asks, “Aren’t you a priest? Isn’t it Sunday?” His picture of sabbath is something akin to sitting in time-out in the corner until the sun goes down dutifully, if somewhat resentfully, observing a rule that God has arbitrarily handed down to test our mettle. But sabbath is really about learning to dwell in the goodness and holiness of God’s creation.
Sabbath is a reminder of the liberation from captivity under Pharaoh and way to true freedom and peace. Sabbath is a reminder that before we’ve done anything, before we act, before we adopt a role or put on a mask, God loves us and that love is already given to us. Especially in our active, consumer culture where there seems to be less and less time to even eat dinner with our kids, or just hang out without an agenda, sabbath becomes a countercultural intervention against the idol of productivity and consumerism. Who we are is not determined by what we produce—that’s the old world Pharaoh in which our worth as human beings is determined by how many bricks we make for “the man.” Who we are is not determined by what we acquire—as if lasting happiness could come from the piling up of more stuff, from getting and spending. Sabbath is a reminder that we already have what we need. The gift has already been given. The banquet of God’s love in Christ through the Holy Spirit is already spread before us if we just stop, taste, and see. We get so seduced into the trap of thinking that we are human doings and not human beings. Sabbath is a call to simply be. To enjoy the gift of our being, the mind-boggling fact that we and all of creation is marvelously made.
Parents of new babies get this. Sure, they are sleep deprived and can’t even find time to take a shower or change their clothes, but there is something about the sheer giftedness of a newborn’s being that wakes us up to the wonder of all creation. The wide open attentive receptive pools of their blue eyes. The miracle of their tiny fingers and toes. These are Sabbath reminders as well that call us to just to be. To drop our agenda, the set aside our to-do lists and come back the sense of the gift of our own being, that everything is given. Thomas Aquinas calls this the “simple enjoyment of the truth.” That’s the sabbath—resting in the one whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light when compared with the burdensome pursuit of fame, status, wealth, and power with ourselves at the center of the universe.
When we begin to understand the restorative dimension of the sabbath and its intended purpose as something to wake us up to the gift of being and evoke gratitude from within the hardpan of our distracted hearts, the question of whether to feed someone who is hungry or heal someone who is hurting, simply never crosses our minds. We know in our hearts that the sabbath is made for human flourishing, and abundance of life, not the other way round. When we hear the question about whether it is lawful to good or do harm, save life or kill we don’t hesitate. Having known God in true depths of sabbath rest we know that God’s deepest desire is only to give life to all of God’s children. It could never be about abstract adherence to a set of rule at the expense of healing, love, mercy, kindness and justice.
But we do have to stretch out our hand. We have to want to (or even want to want to) receive the love that constantly showered upon and that dwells already in our hearts. The man with the withered hand had to stretch out his hand to encounter the healing presence of Jesus. The invitation to love, to fullness and abundance of life is already given, but it requires our consent to God’s presence and action in our lives. There is no coercion in true love, and God will not force us to love Him, or compel us to receive his love for us, against our will. That’s the little discipline that the sabbath invites us to. It’s an invitation to enjoyment of the God who is with us. It’s an invitation to pause and stop and rest in a sense of our belovedness and the belovedness of all of creation. We make a little space for the reality of God to burble up, that what is withered in our lives might be restored, that what we hunger for might be satisfied.
My prayer for us this week is that we see through Pharaoh’s illusion that who we are is dependent upon what we produce. My prayer is that this sabbath be a day when we realize that before we do anything, before we adopt a role or put on a mask, God’s rest, the peace of God that passes all understanding, has already been given to us. My prayer is that we know that rest, and be that rest for the hungry, the harried, and hopeless. My prayer is that the freedom of Israelites from bondage under Pharoah might become our freedom—the freedom of life in Christ that is the blessed assurance of knowing we are loved and held in the tender palm of God whether we’re any good at brick-making or not. My prayer is that in reaching out and offering what is withered to Jesus, we might be an outstretched hand to all that is withered, falling short of full-human flourishing, in the lives of others.
Stretch out your hand. Come forward. Answer the call and choose life. It is given freely into the palm of your hand at this altar every Sunday with those world-changing words, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven. The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”