Saturday, September 15, 2007

Taking a Sabbath

Something is bothering me. I have a sense that the way we've interpreted scripture text relating Jesus to the Sabbath has maybe, well... missed the point.

You see, when I was a kid, at least in West Virginia, the interpretation of what "Sabbath" meant was pretty simple. On Sunday, most stores, virtually all forms of professional services, and a lot of restaurants were closed. Closed because it was Sunday, and that was the law.

But it was law that nobody has seen fit to enforce. And so the world my sons are growing up in is very different. Now, it is the business that isn't open on Sunday that makes headlines. It's the Hobby Lobby or the Chick Fillet that pastors cite now as the exception to the rule. Nationally known corporations who refuse to open on Sunday, and are clear as to why. All the rest of the world, except some professional services and banks, are open for business. Shorter hours, maybe. But open none-the less. My sons won't ever be able to remember a time that alcohol wasn't served seven days a week or you couldn't buy a frozen pizza at 3am.

The world is pretty much open for business now.... 24 hours a day, seven days week, and now in many cases, 365 days a year.

But if you think that I'll be preaching a sermon tomorrow that'll beat up companies for staying open on Sunday, or people for eating out after church you've got another thing coming. Because, personally, I think that in light of the scripture I'll be preaching on, we'd be missing the point.

For if you take a good look at the text, sermons about strict adherence to rules about a Sabbath are more becoming to Pharisees than Jesus. Isn't that true? That's what I found in Mark 2:23-3:16. Twice the Pharisees watch to see if Jesus is going to follow the strict rules that had been laid down regarding keeping the Sabbath. Do so, he would have (maybe) passed one of their own litmus tests for whether or not he was truly a holy man. The first test, Jesus fails miserably when walking with his disciples on the Sabbath, he breaks heads off of some stalks of grain to eat, which violated the religious order's rules on how to rest on the Sabbath. Then, Jesus fails the second test, by on the same day, healing a man... and not just healing him, but challenging the authority of the religious leaders in the process. Jesus, during a time of teaching and worship, asks the man to stand up where everyone could see him, and hearing the murmuring of Pharisees, asked them in front of the crowd assembled:

Is it legal to do good deeds on the sabbath, or is it a day for doing harm? Is this a day to save life, or to destroy it?

The Pharisees are, of course, both humiliated and angered that Jesus would show them in public. He had taken something that had formed part of the cornerstone and foundation of their power - the maintenance of law - and turned their attitude upside down on it's head. It had been argued that strict adherence to the Law, particularly laws like those pertaining to the Sabbath, would save Israel. Because if every Jew started following the law, no matter how unreasonable it might seem, the result would be God smiling his favor upon his faithful children, and their ultimate redemption. So what if a guy with a withered hand had to go without being healed... small price to pay to let God know you were serious about cleaning up your act. Thus explains why, for a relatively small transgression (at least in our minds), according to Mark, the religious authorities begin plotting Jesus' death.

That's why I said if I wanted to take the Pharisee's position, then I'd preach a message today blasting people for doing anything on Sunday, other than going to worship, eating a meal prepared yesterday, and sitting quietly at home with family.

For Jesus, when confronted by this narrow way of thinking, gets angry at the Pharisees for being such knuckleheads... or rather, knucklehearts, that they'd rather a man suffer another day than be healed because the day was the Sabbath day.

Or, more accurately, angry that they, themselves, had become the lords of the Sabbath. Handing down edicts and rules for people to follow on the one day a week they should have been free to worship God and rest. Their heavy handed tactics were little more than a thinly veiled oppression of others. A way to control the masses in order to get them to do what they wanted them to do every day.

Know this... in the days that the rules regarding the Sabbath were handed down, people largely only got days off if a) they were rich or powerful enough to get days off or b) the powers-that-be declared a certain day to be a holiday. What's remarkable about Israel is that in this world, it was determined that everyone, from the lowest slave to most elevated political or religious leader, would get a day to rest. This meant that for at least one day a week, everyone was on a equal level and nobody could use their power or prestige to alter what God deemed necessary. So six days a week, you might have to cook someone else's breakfast, clean their toilet, or plow their field, or vice-versa, you might have the power to determine what hundreds of others were going to do on that particular week....

but only six days of that week.

On the seventh... that day was be shared by the Lord, and yourself. That's the kind of dignity that inspires humans to be better to one another. For if the Lord fundamentally values each one of us, pauper or magnate, slave or free, male or female, part of the in-crowd or no-crowd, then that's fundamentally how we should view, and treat, one another. Maybe each day there are differences in the wages we make, the places we live, or the kind of respect we receive.... but fundamentally, everyone deserves the Lord's day, cause they are the Lord's.

You see, my sermon tomorrow will have little to do with the need to take a day off. I mean, everyone should do it. Speaking as a work-a-holic, who has already missed too much of his children's life, and chosen to come home late to eat a cold dinner, alone, I don't want to come off as saying that what Jesus was trying to do was negate the need for a day of rest. I think that would be just as egregious as beating people over the head with a Bible telling them they are going to hell cause they filled up their gas tank today.

In fact, the question I want to know is, who is the Lord of your Sabbath? Who not only owns this day, but your basic understanding of other people? Of their worth not only in the eyes of God, but in the way you think about, and treat them, in every day life.

For that's what this scripture is about. It's about Jesus challenging the assumptions we hold in regards to others. Assumptions formed with the idea that the bridegroom is with us, and we are at the wedding, and this our moment to think freshly... like a person who is putting new wine into a new wineskin. Assumptions that are different than assumptions formed around the idea that because we worked for it, or earned, that we are entitled to it, no matter what that might mean for others. Or assumptions different that those formed around the idea that we put ourself in this position because of the choices we've made, and now we're getting what we deserve when we find ourselves in work we hate because we are under the fist of others.

Jesus calls us those who are first, to choose to put themselves in position of being last, using their influence, position, talent, resources, and intelligence to bring dignity to all people. And those who feel last, to know that the greatest, most precious fruits of God's grace: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, are their's in as great, or greater abundance, than anyone else.

That's where I'll be going tomorrow.... seeking out who the Lord of your Sabbath is.

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