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Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 9B)

June 2, 2024, Shepherd of the Valley Lutheran Church, West Hills, CA

The Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.

Texts: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Psalm 81:1-10; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Mark 2:23—3:6


One sabbath [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; 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.


Grace and peace from God our Creator, and our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.


I’m grateful to Pastor Jennie for inviting me to be with you this morning on the weekend of our Synod Assembly. I’m visiting from my job at United Lutheran Seminary in Pennsylvania because Bishop Brenda Bos invited me back to my old home synod so that the Assembly could give me the honorary title of “bishop emeritus.” I’m really pleased, because being your bishop for seven years was the highest honor of my whole life.


I also used to live in this neighborhood, not far from here, and I have always admired this congregation and I have liked all your pastors—and I think I have known, counting Pastor Jennie, four of them now. I came to be with you when you were wrestling with what it would mean to become a congregation that welcomed LGBT Christians. (Happy Pride month, by the way!) You were thoughtful and kind in that process, and I want you to know I believe a congregation as strong as this one has a great future yet ahead, even though times have become more challenging, and the impact of the pandemic has been great. Keep the faith; be of good hope; Jesus is with you.


In this morning’s Gospel lesson from Mark, we see Jesus and his disciples being accused of unfaithfulness to God because he and his disciples did not honor God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath holy—that they picked a few grains of wheat was a kind of work, and therefore broke the rules. Then—as though to poke his critics in the eye—the story says that Jesus then healed a man with a deformed hand on that very same Sabbath day. Now it’s on purpose: Jesus breaks God’s law—the ancient law we heard about in the first lesson from Deuteronomy, which had been cherished by God’s people for centuries.


On the face of it, this might seem like a question of how one should regard and obey the commandments of God, which we have been taught from Sunday School onward, but it’s also a deeper question of what God expects of us at all—because (as sharp-eyed readers will have observed) the sabbath observed by Jews (and Jesus) is not the same day as the one observed by Christians nowadays. Jews rest on Saturday, the seventh and last day of the week, remembering God resting at the end of the week of Creation—Christians, in contrast, observe our sabbath on Sunday, the day of Jesus’ resurrection. That right there is a huge difference—how did early Christians get away with making such a great change to an ancient religious law—one of the top ten? We really don’t exactly know. Does it matter?


I think Jesus is telling us it does, and that the message of God’s love he brings is more fundamental, more foundational, than any of the old laws. That was clearly a shocking thing for Jesus to say, in the context of the Judaism of which he was a part, and we can see that it is hard for people to hear. By setting them free from one obligation, Jesus is actually making them anxious about how they can obey God. And that anxiety paradoxically made some Christians very legalistic about observing Sunday.


There was a time, not so long ago, when it was rare for a store to be open on Sunday, and in some parts of the world that’s still the case. But we have evolved into seeing law not as an absolute, but as a tool to make human life better. Jesus doesn’t oppose laws and rules in general—in fact he gives us some new ones—but he doesn’t want us to think that obedience to laws trumps our duty to love one another.


That’s the deeper message Jesus is trying to make: not that rest isn’t important, or that setting aside a day to consider our relationship to God isn’t a good thing, but that we shouldn’t let our legalism get in the way of understanding that God’s love always comes first. In other places in scripture, Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law of God, but to fulfill it—to give God’s people a new perspective on what it means to honor and obey God for love’s sake.


And we need to hear this, even now. What started out as a sign of God’s favor became a holy duty to see and do things a certain way. Then that rule became a boundary—those who shared it were “in good with God” and those who didn’t were rejected as “not God’s people.” Then the unfortunate but natural next step is the persecution of the outsiders by those who see themselves as God’s own, superior to those who aren’t. Those are just the first steps toward separation and violence and war.


Jesus’ opponents in the Gospel of Mark are identified as Pharisees and Herodians, but those are only labels—his real opponents then as now are those who claim God’s authority for themselves, and who use that assumed power to rule the lives of others in exclusive ways. This is a deep and ugly—but unavoidable—part of the human story: that we can take an idea (like God’s love for God’s people) and turn it into a way to express disapproval for those who we don’t think are as much God’s people as we are. And even worse: this is pretty easy for us to do.


I think the story of God and God’s people that these lessons teach us is that no matter how hard God tries to be the center of our story—loving, forgiving, and freeing us—we somehow can’t resist trying to make it about us—about how God has given us authority over others. This is what Christians call “original sin”—the deeply embedded human inclination toward selfishness and tribalism. It is what turns “mine” into “not yours” from our earliest days of childhood—that as we come to an awareness of our own personhood, we cannot avoid creating a gap between ourselves and others. The laws of God—the Commandments—were not intended to create a class of superior, self-confident, obedient, godly people, but to show us how our pride and self-centeredness divide us, and put us in constant, unconscious competition for everything: status, food, space, even love.


We can almost see this story from Mark as funny: people using God’s commandment as a way to say that God (right there in front of them in Jesus) is not only wrong, but that Jesus is actually being unfaithful to God by his actions and teaching. It would be funny if it weren’t so painful. Because we do this all the time: we use our images of God, and even Jesus, to deny and obscure the God—the Christ—that’s right in front of us, that we should be seeing in one another.


We’re here today to try again to break that selfish cycle that leads us so easily from God’s love to human evil. We can interrupt it—for ourselves and for a time—but we can never end it. Every person, every generation, every nation must wrestle with the temptation to turn our own desires and fears into harm to our neighbors, and even to Creation—by projecting our wishes onto God, and declaring that what we want, God wants too—and what we fear, God hates.


We’re here today to turn ourselves around—to turn the focus back to God, and what God wants us to see, and know, and do: to see God’s love reflected in Jesus, revealed to us not in words scratched in stone but in flesh and blood. We just can’t get this right by ourselves. And it’s why God came to us in human form in Jesus—so that we would stop looking for God in the clouds and somewhere over the rainbow, and accept that the clearest face of God we get to see in this life is the human face you’re looking at. Siblings in Christ: when we look into each other’s eyes, we see the eyes of God. Let this be our joy and our hope today: to see Christ truly and clearly in one another. Amen.

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