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The Sabbath Was Made for People

Mark 2:23 One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ 25 And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27 Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’ Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4 Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

Do you ever have those moments where you see something very obvious happening right in front of your face, and you try to tell someone, not even to inform them, but just to be like “That’s crazy, huh?” But then they’re like “What are you talking about? I find everything here completely normal.” Maybe it’s a work situation where your boss is making outrageous demands of you. Or maybe it’s a family relationship where a parent or grandparent doesn’t accept who you are, as if they have that right. Or maybe you’re trying to get medical care for some nagging issue and the doctors keep implying it’s all in your head while you’re like “no it’s very much in my body.” Or maybe you’re watching the genocide happening in Gaza and you’re like “This doesn’t seem right” but there’s a whole chorus telling you why you can’t say that. I’m talking about these situations where everything in you is screaming, “This is awful, it shouldn’t be this way” but you keep having to deal with it so after awhile you start to feel like the crazy one, wondering “Am I delusional, is everything normal and I’m the freak?”

It becomes really hard to discern what’s real when we’re constantly bombarded with the ugliness of our world and this pressure, sometimes implicit but sometimes very aggressively stated, not to disrupt it. And unfortunately, religion has been one of the crucial mechanisms placing that pressure on us. When people said, “Hey slavery seems pretty evil,” racism and capitalism justified themselves using the Bible. When workers have organized to strike against the ruling class, the ruling class has always wagged its finger and said, “Ah, those who don’t work, don’t eat.” And how many parents have gone against every natural instinct and demeaned their LGBTQ+ children, sometimes kicking them out of their homes or haranguing them until they self-harm because their church taught them to? And so people become trained to go against our instincts to care for each other in order to satisfy some abstract principle of what’s orderly and normal.

I wonder if this kind of confusion is part what’s happening in our story this morning, when Jesus tells some Pharisees that God made the Sabbath for people, not people for the Sabbath, and then in the next moment, when he heals the man with the withered hand after telling these Pharisees that of course its always lawful to do good on the Sabbath. And Jesus is appealing to an ancient Jewish principle here for how to interpret their Laws, that it is always legal to preserve life. So the issue here is not that these Pharisees are Jewish and Jesus is saying that’s bad. Jesus is interpreting the Law as a rabbi and saying these Pharisees are trying to use their shared tradition in a way that doesn’t make the most sense within that tradition. Jesus is saying that the first principle, the guiding concept animating the tradition, is that we do what’s good, we do what’s life-giving. And so a tradition is something we constantly negotiate, as we try to discern what’s life-giving in a given context. The Letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.

And the Spirit does allow for novelty. It can create new possibilities without rejecting where it comes from. The Spirit invites us to work with what we’ve received so that it’s life-giving where we are now, and this means the Spirit invites Jesus to remember the Sabbath while seeing the person right in front of him. Where some might see a contradiction between keeping the Sabbath and healing this person, Jesus sees a higher synthesis where the very purpose of the Sabbath and the very well-being of this person’s life are one in the same. The Spirit breaks in through the face of this person, demanding another interpretation of the Letter, and Jesus is “spiritual” in the way he’s responsive to that presence.

I think this is also part of what Paul was talking about in our Scripture last week. If anyone needs a refresher, in Romans 8, Paul says, For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…

Paul’s not just writing this because it sounds pretty. He’s also writing in response to a presence of other people after the very strange events of Pentecost, which people are still trying to figure out what to do with even years later. That event is the very strange fact that when Gentiles hear of Jesus’ Resurrection, they call on the God of Israel for salvation and those people now already belong in communities that had previously been made up only of Jews. This seems to be causing some tension in those communities because these Gentiles don’t keep the Sabbath. The men are not circumcised. They don’t keep kosher, which is to say they eat meat that has been dedicated to other gods. So the event of Pentecost raises some questions: in what way are these people part of the people of God? The answer that some people in the church wanted to give was: keeping the tradition by following the rituals, eating with the community, worshipping with the community, or even in some cases, by getting circumcised…as an adult…without anesthesia. But Paul’s answer is, For all who are lead by the Spirit of God are children of God.

Paul doesn’t say, now these people have to be circumcised and they’ll really be in. Paul doesn’t say, everyone belongs (once you’ve learned how to keep the Sabbath). Paul doesn’t say, hey we’re very inclusive, we love the sinner and hate the sin, (it’s just that the sin is everything you’ve eaten your entire life). Paul says, “If you’re lead by the Spirit of God, you are children of God.” That’s it. And again, Paul isn’t writing polemics against Judaism, as much as he’s sifting through his experience of belief, which is always ebbing and flowing between traditionalism and spiritual or charismatic exploration.

So when Paul says, All who are lead by the Spirit of God are children of God, he’s doing so as a Jewish interpreter of Scripture and the Law. In the same way that the rabbis prioritize protecting life, Paul is saying “Don’t set up abstract principles in such a way that they machine down the actual events that are breaking through in the actual people right in front of you.”

The Sabbath was made for people; All who are lead by the Spirit of God are children of God and guess what, the Spirit bears fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, temperance. If a person’s life demonstrates those qualities, they’re in the Spirit and they are children of God! That’s what’s real, the concrete life right in front of you bearing fruit, not some abstract principle. I’m afraid often church’s like ours or Christians who are affirming of LGBTQ+ people or are in the labor movement or whatever find ourselves on the defensive. Like traditionalism—which means capitalism and white supremacy and homophobia—is this default and even those of us who disagree have to nod to it. But when it comes to the Bible, traditionalists are like people who’ve lived in a house for fifty years but covered the hardwood floors with carpet. Like yeah, you’ve been occupying the space for awhile, but you clearly didn’t understand what you had and made it demonstrably worse.

The apostle Paul does have several one liners that I frankly wish weren’t in the New Testament. But nobody in the world would find it stranger than Paul that whole generations of people took those one liners and set them up as indisputable, abstract laws that apply in any situation without discernment. Paul’s the one who said, “The Letter kills but the Spirit gives life,” Paul’s the one who says “All things are permissible, but not all things are beneficial,” so why would we accept, as default, readings of Scripture that turn Paul into a letter? Well Paul, you said this thing about gay sex in Romans 1. Right OK, but do LGBTQ+ people bear the fruits of the Spirit? Love? Yeah! Joy? Yeah! Peace? Yeah! Patience? Oh my goodness, yeah! Kindness? Yeah! Temperance? Yeah! Then who cares what I said to the Romans! They bear the fruits of the Spirit, they’re in the Spirit, they’re children of God, Happy Pride! Right OK, but what about that thing where you told slaves to respect their masters? Do white supremacists bear the fruits of the Spirit? Love? No. Peace? No. Joy? No, no, no, no no! Their fruits’ rotten, they’re wicked, they need to repent before they belong! That’s it.

Paul, in this passage and elsewhere, and Jesus in our story this morning, give us resources to trust the Reality we see breaking through and often making itself known in our dissatisfaction with the world as it is. That’s why Paul also tells us to test everything and hold onto what is good. Test everything. Sometimes the desire for a letter, for an abstract principle, is the desire to get out of doing that work of discernment. But I think often our instincts, our intuitions, are where the Spirit speaks to us. When we don’t know what else to say, so all we can do is cry “Abba” or groan too deep for words, that is the Spirit praying with us. The powers of this world operate by quelling those groans, teaching us to ignore and be silent about what we’re noticing, using ideologies to convince us that we’re not really noticing them at all, that we’re the ones who are mistaken.

But the Spirit invites us to talk to each other, to communicate with each other about our terrors and our hopes. When the Spirit comes upon the disciples, they can’t shut up and they can’t help really hearing each other. That’s what it looks like to get caught up in the Spirit. So, my friends, I want you to hear that you’re not crazy. That gross feeling over something your boss asked you to do, that off-putting way that guy looked at you, that anger with a family member who doesn’t respect your identity, those are not things to ignore—you’re not being unreasonable to not accept being treated that way. That dissatisfaction, that longing to do things a different way because of what you’ve learned from our traditions, might just be the Spirit of God whispering to you, and so you are not wrong for noticing them or for acting on what you’re noticing. No matter how wrong the world says you are for being disruptive or deviant, all who are in the Spirit of God are children of God, that is the only thing that matters. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Amen.

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