You can listen to the sermon here. The full text is below.
Second Sunday After Pentecost — June 3, 2018 – Mark 2:23-3:6
One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 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.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 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. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 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. 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. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
If there is one subject in this world about which I know almost nothing, it is auto racing. So imagine my surprise when last Sunday, between morning worship and an afternoon funeral, I found myself immersed in an article about the Indianapolis 500.
Reading it, I discovered something about Indy cars that I never knew, something that to me seems completely counter-intuitive and more than a little terrifying. It the thing that a racer must learn to do when he or she is involved in a wreck, which is to immediately let go of the steering wheel.
At first I could not believe this, but I was able to find videos online of crashes filmed from the driver’s perspective, and sure enough, it is actually true. In each case, the car would crash, and the driver would immediately let go of the wheel. I have been in more than one automobile accident, and as such, I know the temptation in a wreck to hold the steering wheel even tighter, to lock one’s elbows in a vain attempt to keep the car under control. Yet in Indy car racing, the opposite is apparently true.
I cannot get my mind around it. To be in that tiny driver’s compartment, traveling at over 200 miles per hour, to feel yourself losing control of the vehicle as it impacts a wall, to see all of that thick smoke, to see pieces of the car flying about before you, to hear the other cars whizzing past you at amazing speeds, and to do so having let go of the steering wheel, well, it is more than I can comprehend.
Yet here is why they do it, here is why experienced drivers discipline themselves, in a crisis situation, to relinquish control of the car: in a crash, the steering wheel spins with such violent force that if the driver were to attempt to hold on, to control the situation, the wheel would, most likely break both of the driver’s wrists. As counterintuitive as it sounds, and as counterintuitive as I am sure it feels, the only hope one has of escaping the crash unscathed is to do the hard, disciplined work of letting go.
In this morning’s text, Jesus has just returned from Capernaum. It is the sabbath and Jesus is with his disciples passing through a cornfield and while so doing, they reach down and pluck some heads of grain. This act is noticed by the Pharisees, members of the Jewish sect who pride themselves in the strictest adherence to the Law. The Pharisees immediately discern that this violates the commandment against laboring on the sabbath, and they question Jesus about it. Jesus shares with them a story of David breaking the law in order to feed his hungry companions before making his pronouncement that “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
In the pericope that follows, Jesus demonstrates just what he means by this, entering the synagogue and regarding a man with a withered hand. Jesus calls him forward and then gives the Pharisees an opportunity to make a choice between a doctrine of legalism and a doctrine of compassion. He asks them, not what is right, but what is lawful, asking “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus does this as if he is hoping against hope that his detractors will make the right choice, that they will choose compassion for this disabled man, hoping perhaps that at least one person will stand before the crowd and proclaim “Of course it is lawful, Jesus!”
And yet, no one is willing to speak. No one is willing to speak, perhaps because they fear the repercussions if they do. No one is willing to speak, perhaps because they fear that there is no unassailable “right” answer. No one is willing to speak, perhaps because they feel rote obedience somehow trumps mercy. And Jesus stands there amidst the silence, his heart broken and angry, and then he breaks the silence by giving his own answer, saying to the man, “Stretch out your hand” and healing him.
Too often, contemporary preaching and Bible study treats the Pharisees as the Keystone Kops of the New Testament, bumbling autocrats, mindless legalists, people who consistently value narrow legalism over compassion, the strict religious meanies who seem so harsh in comparison to the mild and ever-loving Jesus of Nazareth. Yet here the thing: it is a pretty short walk from this kind of characterization to anti-Semitism, and there are Christians today who are more narrowly legalistic, more pharisaic than the Pharisees in their Bibles. Despite what we sometimes think, Jews never permitted the Torah to be observed in a way that overrides decisions to save a life.
Still, here is where things get complicated in today’s text: in today’s gospel reading, the disciples are not starving, and the man with the withered hand in the synagogue was not in danger of dying, and Jesus could have simply waited a few hours until sundown to heal him, and there would have been nothing for which to criticize him. And yet, this is not what Jesus does, so there must be something else at play here.
The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath. What does this mean for us, and if we are honest with ourselves, how often do we forget it? I have heard it said that the behaviors and characteristics we most harshly deride in others are actually the ones most prominent in our own lives. We Christians tend to love a good gospel story where Jesus shows mercy, where he upends the closely-held beliefs of the Pharisees, with their judgement and their legalism, and then we continue to live in our denominations, clinging to our rules and our doctrines and our discipline, all the while assuming that Jesus is greatly concerned with confronting someone else’s legalism, but never our own. Jesus regards our solemn assemblies and asks for us to hear the choice given in the synagogue in Capernaum, to speak into the silence, to cry out for mercy and compassion …only to see us say nothing, to fearfully accept the silence, to maintain the operation of the status quo.
Friends, we have seen the Pharisees, and they are us.
In Mark’s gospel, it takes exactly two chapters and six verses for Jesus’ enemies to decide to do him in, and they decide this for no other reason than the fact that Jesus chose mercy and compassion over strict legalism. Thinking about this text this week, I realized a mistake that I believe is common among Christians when we think and talk about God’s mercy, God’s compassion, and God’s grace. The mistake that we make is that we think that what God calls us to is perfectionism, and that God’s compassion is relegated to us only when we fail. In this scenario, mercy is not a doctrine of our faith as much as it is God’s way of fixing us when we fail.
Yet what if we understood God’s compassion, not as something locked away in a white box marked “IN CASE OF EMERGENCY BREAK GLASS,” something we hope God calls upon only when we fall short? What if compassion were a central doctrine of our faith? What if compassion were, not where we end, but where we begin? What if we regarded the Jesus we find in this morning’s text as the one who sends us into the world expecting that when it comes to compassion, we, his disciples will be the most compassionate; that when it comes to mercy, we will be the most merciful; that when it comes to grace, we will be the most gracious, even when others disagree, disagreeing enough to do us in?
Or to put it another way, what if religion and all its trappings were less about control, controlling God and controlling other people and how they live and love and more about letting go, releasing our lives and the terrifying situations in our lives into the crucified hands of the one who is compassion, mercy, and grace?
There are times in my life, and I imagine in your life, when it all feels like a slow-motion car crash, when parts are flying and thick, choking smoke is all around, and the other cars are whizzing by, and the race is now over. That moment when the car spirals out of control may happen when you enter an office at work, the door is closed and you hear something about “cutbacks.” It may feel like that moment when a lover begins a conversation with “We need to talk” and ends using words like “separation” or “divorce.” It may feel like that moment when after a seemingly routine examination someone in a white jacket, speaking in hushed tones drops words like “cancer,” “chemotherapy,” “radiation,” or “hospice.” It may happen when you answer the doorbell and see the uniformed officer with his hat in his hand. It may happen when the preacher at the graveside says those ancient words that reference our ancestors exile from Eden: “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
And in those moments of noise and smoke, when everything in our lives is telling us to lock our elbows and hold on for dear life to that steering wheel, it is in those moments where the only good option is the counterintuitive one, because the only good option is to let go and stop trying to control everything.
Letting go sounds like surrender. Letting go sounds like admitting defeat. Letting go sounds like admitting that the battle is no longer worth fighting and that the race is un-winnable. Letting go sounds like quitting.
Or perhaps, letting go means learning to live for awhile without our persistent addiction to our illusions of being in control.
If taking our hands off the wheel means that we truly surrender our lives, or the lives of our loved ones to the one who made and redeemed us, then it begs the question of what kind of God is it that we trust. Is our God a punitive, legalistic, judgmental god who is more concerned with our behavior, more concerned with keeping score, a god more obsessed with our ability to follow the rules than anything else, or is our God something else?
In this morning’s text, on the sabbath in the synagogue in Capernaum, Jesus provokes a fight. Given the choice between waiting a few hours to heal a man in order to follow the rules or demonstrating that compassion and mercy are more important than the rules, Jesus chooses the latter. In fact, Jesus always chooses the latter. Jesus chooses mercy and compassion, even when it results, as it did in today’s reading, in people deciding to do him in. Even then, Jesus chooses mercy and compassion. It is simply who he is.
And when the wheels have come off and the car is on fire, it is ultimately this kind of God in whose hands we have placed our situations and our lives. This is the God that we have.
In today’s reading, Jesus describes himself as the “lord of the sabbath,” and I wonder what that means for us today? Is sabbath an antiquated practice from ancient times, a luxury for people who certainly must have been less busy than we are, or is it something else? In her book Mudhouse Sabbath, Jewish convert to Christianity Lauren Winner describes sabbath-keeping with all its many blessings as also including plenty of moments of “toe-tapping boredom,” something that seems to me to be anathema to our always-on, over-stimulated minds.
But what if we could regard it another way? What if we really believed not only in the sabbath, but that Jesus himself is the lord of it, that he is the lord of our lives who wants us to take hold of the life that really is life? What if sabbath was our weekly opportunity to try letting go of the wheel for awhile, to trust that all the things we have released we have released to the God of compassion and mercy, that those things will be waiting for us when we return to them, refreshed and ready? What if sabbath was a reminder that when we think we can control everything, we just break both wrists and crash anyway?
And if Jesus Christ, the Son of God always chooses compassion and grace for our lives, who are we to offer ourselves, to those dear to us, or to this world around us anything less?
I think of all of the Saturdays I have spent in my office in Reveille House, telling myself that the sermon needed just one more going-over, or that there were just a few emails that needed my attention when the truth is that I had just bought into the hubris that I am much more important, more necessary, more indispensable to Christ’s mission on earth than I actually am. It is as if I thought that just by being on the premises, I was somehow able to control all of the variables in our life and work together, and if my wrists get broken, then so be it. The ends will justify the means.
But the truth we all know, and that the dying know best, is that they don’t. And we do not need to make golden calves. To often our idols are ourselves and our already existing sense of control and irreplaceability.
When I was a very young pastor and filled with that fear borne of persistent anxiety over my work; on a day when the world was definitely not towing my line, I asked the least anxious person I knew what her secret was. She was and is an Air Force wife who has lived all over the world, and this is what she told me: she said “I was raised on a farm in Nebraska, and I have more than once seen the year’s crop destroyed by a hailstorm a week before harvest. It taught me that there are certain things that you cannot control, that you simply have to trust God, and that more often than not, things work out.”
“And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 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. 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. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
This is the kind of God we have, one who chooses compassion, even when it is hard, even when it is expensive, even when it instigates the plot against his life. This is the length our Lord will go to in order to reveal that God’s doctrine of compassion, the doctrine that trumps all others, the doctrine time and again revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord of the Sabbath. Remember that when we let go of our persistent need to control everything, to do everything, to be everything for everyone, that this is the God who watches over us, in life, in death, and in life after death.
Gloria In Excelsis Deo.