Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost
June 03, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
I remember, I think it was in middle school, when my friend Melanie made her bat mitzvah. You might remember she was here for my celebration of new ministry six years ago; she read the reading from Numbers. But anyway, the Torah portion she had to read for her bat mitzvah was from Leviticus, and it was a series of rules which sounded picky and trivial to me.
Like a lot of Christians, I had absorbed a sort of latent anti-Semitism from hearing a lot of sermons that made Jesus look good by making Judaism look bad, even though, like most people, I don’t remember much of what people preach, but I had still absorbed the idea that the laws of the Old Testament were bad and Jesus was good for replacing them with love. Which is nonsense for multiple reasons. And one thing that helped me come to a more mature understanding was what Melanie said when she offered comments on her Torah portion. She pointed out that all those rules were evidence of God’s love. God gave them because God cares and wants God’s people to live well, to treat others well and remember their connection to God. I immediately recognized that she was absolutely right. In an instant, I went from smug and sophomoric to being grateful for wisdom’s correction. That’s one way you know you’ve encountered the love of God.
As Christians, our connection to God begins in Holy Baptism. But just what does that mean? We certainly should try to live faithful and virtuous lives in general, and to obey Jesus’s teachings to the best of our ability in particular. We’re certainly better off living in such a way. But the sacrament of baptism is inherently all about God’s unconditional love for us. When we are baptized, we are assured the grace of God’s love, which washes away all sin and connects us to God in a bond the world can never break.
In particular, baptism connects us to the death and resurrection of Jesus, a sacrifice that was necessary because human sin had damaged the relationship between God and humanity, and God’s love for us was so strong that God was determined to forgive sin, overcome death, and restore a right relationship between us and God. God’s law is good, and it absolutely has a place in that relationship, but it’s one aspect, not the whole thing, not the point. Law is subordinate to love, and therefore not in conflict with love. Law is neither the first nor the last word in the love story between God and humanity.
Or as Jesus taught, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” This isn’t as famous a teaching as “Render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar,” but it should be more famous, because our relationship with God is much more important than our relationship with Caesar. Because our relationship with God is also much more important to the world than our relationship with Caesar. And because there are so many people who call themselves Christians but take the Pharisees’ approach and insist that obeying some sort of purity code is somehow the most important thing in life.
Disputes about how we practice religion aren’t arcane or irrelevant, they’re matters of life and death. It matters whether we make God the center of our lives, and whether we understand God as loving or judgmental. Mark quotes Jesus as saying, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Which seems overwrought, but then Mark points out that after they witness a restoration of life, the Pharisees react by plotting to destroy Jesus’s life.
Knowing who God is, and how we relate to God, matters a lot because this knowledge changes how we think, what we value, how we treat others and the environment. Wrong ideas about God cause real harm. When we think God is vengeful or cruel, we implicitly give ourselves permission to be the same way. When we think God cares more about rules than about people, not only things beyond those rules lose importance, but we lose compassion for people who follow different rules, or none at all.
I practice the old tradition of the Eucharistic fast. People think I’m pretty hard on myself for observing it in its strictest way, eating nothing from midnight until after the first Mass of Sunday. Most people, anyway. When my friend Robert was staying with me, he was surprised that I would have a cup of coffee before church. I told him that taking necessary drugs is generally understood not to break a fast. He smiled and thought that was just fine, but since he’s pursuing Holy Orders, I went on and told him that on days when I feel like keeping the fast would prevent me from serving you or God to the best of my ability, I eat something, because serving people and God is simply more important than my private devotional life.
That being said, the Eucharistic fast is a Church tradition, while refusing to work on the Sabbath is a commandment from God, so more is at stake in the Biblical story. Long before giving the Law, Scripture tells us, God set the precedent of the Sabbath by resting after the six days of the Creation story. That is to emphasize that the Sabbath is not merely a rule, but a grace that’s woven into our reality. It’s kind of a big deal, so when they insist on keeping the Sabbath holy, the Pharisees have a valid point. It would take more than a clever argument for Jesus to win his dispute, so Jesus offers more.
Jesus needed the Pharisees and everyone else to see that the dispute was not some abstract, academic question but a very real, concrete, situation, with a human face, worthy of not just consideration, but compassion. He needed them to see that while sabbath obedience had brought them together, and that was good, God’s love is bigger than the law and its obligations, and God’s love can transform sickness into health, and brokenness into wholeness, in tangible, concrete, life-changing ways. So he asked a man to stretch out his withered hand, and his hand was restored. That is, Jesus didn’t do anything. He didn’t break the Sabbath. And in doing so, he showed that as important as the Sabbath is to God, love for humankind is even more important.
This same love likewise restores our hearts, and inspires us to be gracious and generous, to do more than rules might require of us, not merely to obey God, but to imitate God’s love for us. And that love has very human faces, first in Jesus himself, second in all those in need, but also in all of us, as we all are made in the image of God. So, we’re going to celebrate God’s love right now by baptizing Gracie Lynne into that love.