TEXTS: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
When I read through today’s Lectionary gospel lesson, for some reason my mind immediately flashed back to my days in seminary and specifically to an intern year spent across the river from St. Louis, Missouri in a small semi-rural town known as Columbia, Illinois. (I took two years of classes at Eden Seminary, then worked in the intern position full time for one year before returning for my final year of classes.) Columbia was a town at that time of around 4,000 people, mostly of Germanic heritage. Because of that fact, the town had two large churches, a UCC church had its history in the German Evangelical branch of the denomination, and a Roman Catholic Church.
Now, I’m not sure how the laws in the Midwest operate at this time, but back then Missouri had a set of very stringent blue laws governing what one could and could not do on Sunday. I assume that Missouri politicians were following the notion that the vast majority of the population of the state was Christian, and that somehow the Christians of Missouri had managed to shift the concept of Sabbath with all its restrictions against work, from Saturday to Sunday. So, at least in the late 70s, Missouri allowed no retail businesses to be open on Sunday except for Pharmacies. And they were open only for the purpose of filling prescriptions. (You couldn’t buy a candy bar in a pharmacy on Sunday!) Illinois had no such laws at that time.
Now you may ask what all that has to do with Columbia. Illinois? Well, Columbia sat on the east side of the Jefferson Barracks Bridge which spanned the Mississippi river from the south side of St. Louis, which meant that every Sunday there was a steady stream of people coming across that bridge so that they could shop for groceries or buy beer or pick up whatever else they thought that they needed that they couldn‘t get on Sunday in the retail wasteland of Missouri.
It didn’t take long for the Catholic Church in town to realize that they had an absolute gold mine in front of them and to set up a weekly bingo game in their fellowship hall every Sunday afternoon at 2:00. (Of course if you couldn’t even buy a loaf of bread on Sunday in Missouri, it should be pretty obvious that you couldn’t gamble either.) I do believe that the church could have filled an arena with bingo players if they had one. Their fellowship hall was always packed to the gills! And while players cruised into Columbia over a period half an hour or more as they headed for the Bingo game, when 3:30 came and Bingo shut down, Main street in Columbia became absolutely impassable for fifteen to twenty minutes as everyone jostled for their bit of asphalt back to St. Louis.
The same sort of thing happened every week about 20 miles to the north where an interstate that crossed the Mississippi from downtown St. Louis was absolutely jammed all day with motorists heading for Fairview Heights where a developer wisely built a huge shopping mall in a sparsely populated area of the Illinois countryside knowing that people would drive 30 miles and more from St. Louis in order to shop on Sunday.
Knowing that people will always find a way to skirt rules and regulations and laws, especially the ones that they see as restrictive, the question arises, “Was Jesus simply ignoring or skirting the God given law of Moses when he did not reprimand his disciples for “reaping grain” on the Sabbath and when he healed a man in the synagogue? Was he simply trying to be provocative? Was he trying to stir up trouble? Did he not care about the Sabbath laws and therefore about the Sabbath itself? Or was there something else operating behind his words and actions (or in his lack of action in the case of his failure to discipline his disciples)? And, of course, what does all this mean for us; for you and for me as we live in a world where the entire concept of Sabbath is pretty much ignored and forgotten?
In order to answer these questions I believe that we must first try our best to divorce ourselves from the Pharisaic concept of Sabbath being about rules and regulations and nothing more. To the Pharisees and to many good Jews of that age, the age of Jesus, the entire body of the commandments of God given to Moses and the people of Israel had been distilled to just that, a set of codes that must be kept. And the better you kept to the code, the holier you were, the closer to God you were, the more likely to receive the blessings of God you were. The Pharisees above all others didn’t seem to care a twit about why the laws of God were given to Moses or why God ordained what God ordained. It was simply a matter of blind obedience. If the law of Moses or later interpretations of that law indicated that a person should stick her or his finger in the left ear at the dawn of each day, then that’s what they did, no questions asked.
If we step outside this strict legalistic framework, if we try to understand why God offered the laws of Moses, then I believe we begin to move toward the camp of Jesus and his disciples. In fact, one of the biggest sources of friction between Jesus and the people Israel in general, and between Jesus and the Pharisees in particular, is that Jesus did ask questions; uncomfortable questions. Jesus did invite others to probe the whys behind the “whats” of the law. Jesus knew that God put the law of the Sabbath into place for a reason, that reason being that every person on the face of the earth needs some form of rhythm of work and rest in our lives; that there needs be a time when people have the opportunity to renew themselves, to renew their bodies and their psyches. The purpose of God’s law was to bless and benefit humankind. Humankind was not created simply to adhere to a set of laws without asking why. The Sabbath was indeed made for humankind and not the other way around.
In the synagogue we find Jesus standing in the midst of the people with the power to heal and make whole. Now to you and to me it should seem more than obvious that doing good, making a person whole was important enough that it really shouldn’t matter whether that wholeness came of the Sabbath or on any other day, on a Sunday or on a Wednesday; but to a people who had been trained their entire lives in blind obedience to the laws of Moses there was a profound difference between that wholeness happening on any of six days of the week or on the Sabbath. And so Jesus asked the question, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath; to save life or to kill?” Jesus then chose, in the midst of the people, to do good, to save life. Did any of you catch the relevance of the last verse of our passage, where we are told that the Pharisees went out and immediately (on the Sabbath) conspired to destroy Jesus – to kill? The Pharisees therefore answered Jesus’ question very clearly by showing that they believed that it was more than lawful to plot to kill on the Sabbath.
Let’s get back to “whys” of Sabbath and what that has to do with us, and to my statement about the Sabbath being a part of the realization by God that humankind needs some sort of rhythm in their lives, a rhythm of work and rest. With all our modern technology, with all our advances in science and medicine, to this day humankind still needs that rhythm. We need periods of labor and we need periods of rest. We need periods where we do something intensive and periods where we do something that is apart and different from that intensive regular activity, that work. Sometimes our non-work activity can be quite strenuous, like jogging ten miles. (I couldn’t jog one mile without falling over in a heap. But there are those who find long distance jogging restful.) As strenuous as our mode of relaxation might be, it is not same kind of work that we do other times.
My great concern about this age and about our current societal patterns is that we have not only divorced ourselves from the concept of Sabbath as a rule to be followed, but have also divorced ourselves from the entire God-given concept of Sabbath as part of a rhythm of life. We have overbooked our lives to point that we are constantly harried and worn. We have crammed our lives so cotton-pickin’ full of activities that the concept of rest itself seems like a sin. We feel shame and guilt when we take time for ourselves!
Now, a good deal of that overbooking comes from a society that constantly pressures us to advance ourselves. And while advancing myself is not a bad thing in and of itself, destroying my life in the midst of that effort to advance myself is definitely a bad thing.
Another piece of that sense of overbooking comes from the simple concept of economic survival. We pride ourselves in this country in the fact that we abolished slavery 150 years ago, yet the concept of indentured servitude due to economic inequality is alive and well to this day. For a period of about five months, while I was without a pastoral position several years ago, I actually worked for Kmart. During that time I met a lot of good people who would work 35 hours a week for Kmart. (They didn’t work 40 hours a week because retailer will not work people full time because they would then have to offer benefits.) In addition to their Kmart job they would also work one or even two other minimum wage jobs, often totaling 70-80 hours per week just to pay for food on the table, an efficiency apartment, and maybe a 12 year old car that would sometimes get them to work and back.
Now many would say that these persons should get a better education and advance themselves out of those minimum wage jobs. I ask you though, if a person is working 70 hours per week, ten hour days seven days a week just to keep food on his or her table, when does that person have the time to take classes at a community college. If these folks can’t always pay their utility bill from month to month, where do they scrape up tuition fees or even book rental?
If you look carefully at the law of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy, you will see that it says not only that the people of Israel should rest on the Sabbath, but that their male and female slaves should rest as well, as should the alien residing within their gates; and all this to remember the salvation of God who took them from lives slavery and constant work in the land of Egypt.
So I encourage you to examine your own life and the lives of those around you in light of the “whys” of the commandments of God. I realize that it is extremely difficult to escape the pressures of the society in which we live, and yet I encourage you to find your rhythm, to find time for rest – and to work for justice in the lives of those who seem to have no choice. Amen.