The Lord of the Sabbath

The people at the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are spending much of 2017-2018 in an exploration of the Gospel of Mark.  On February 4 we joined with Peter in remembering the ways that Jesus confronted the power structures and pointed us towards practices that can restore our own lives.   You can check it out  for yourself, as this is recorded in Mark 2:23-3:6.   To hear this message as it was preached in worship, please use the audio player below:

If you had come upon me in the college dining hall that evening and asked me how it was that I came to be wearing that lovely collage of mashed potatoes and gravy, chocolate pudding, and coke, I might have said that I had no idea. But I’d have been lying.

A group of us were sitting around and, as often happens, began teasing one of our number. We fed on each other’s energy and wit, and failed to see that the more animated we became, the more sullen and withdrawn our victim was. I’m ashamed to say that I carried on more than most, and some of my peers were trying to get my attention – waving and gesturing to knock it off. During one interlude, the object of our jokes looked around and said, “One more time. Go ahead, say that one more time.” Would you believe me if I told you that four out of five college students were smart enough to shut up at that point?

But not me! I had to say it, one more time. And before I knew what was happening, my friend had flipped the trays off the table, covering me with the remains of his dinner, and walked out of the room.

My companions looked at me and laughed, and then said, “Come on, Dave, didn’t you see it? Man, he had the look. You gotta know that when he’s giving you that look, you better stop… or something messy could happen.”

None of you were there that day, but I think you know what I mean. Do you know someone who has “a look”? I know for a fact that some of you have “a look” – a way of glancing around the room and communicating that whatever is happening right now is serious stuff, and the rest of us had best pay attention…

The Pharisees Question Jesus (James Tissot, c. 1890)

According to one of the men who knew him best, Jesus had a “look”. We heard about it in the morning’s Gospel reading, where we’re told that Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’”

You may have been here the morning we started our exploration of the Gospel of Mark, where I suggested that even though we believe Mark to have been the writer, the source of this narrative is the Apostle Peter. When Peter is remembering this incident from Jesus’ life so many years before, he chooses a particular word. Where we have translated “look around”, the Greek uses periblepomai. It’s an unusual word, and we find that Mark uses it five times in his Gospel. Apart from one place where Luke is quoting this story, these are the only places in the New Testament where that word occurs.

My hunch is that the old fisherman didn’t remember everything, and he surely didn’t remember everything well (for instance, in our reading for today he mistakenly says that Abiathar was the High Priest, when in fact it was Ahimelek – and I have to admit, I kind of enjoy the fact that all those Old Testament names were confusing to even one of the twelve apostles…) – but Peter would never forget the way that Jesus could hold a group with his eyes and give them the look that said so much more than words could ever say. To his dying day, the disciple remembered the searching, sweeping, examination that came from Jesus to those around him.

The Man With the Withered Hand (James Tissot, 1896)

The occasion for “the look” was a worship service. Jesus had begun to engage some of the religious and political leaders of his day about the appropriate ways to honor God and the commandments – especially the command to keep the Sabbath. I think that what really gets Jesus going here is the fact that these folks who claim to be on the side of holiness and righteousness are so willing to shamelessly use a man who would have been on the fringes of society to accomplish their ends.

They’ve invited “Lefty”, the fellow from down the street with a handicapped arm – a man whose ability to provide for his family would have been seriously limited in that day and age – and they use this man as bait to see whether or not Jesus will “break” the Sabbath again and try to heal this man’s hand. There is no hint of interest in actually making this poor guy’s life any better – he’s a tool they’re using to see whether their hatred for Jesus is “justified”.

Furthermore, Jesus calls these men out for pulling this stunt on the very day that they’re claiming to honor, saying, “Is it better to heal or to kill on the Sabbath?”, knowing that they are, in fact, using the Sabbath to look for a way to destroy him (even though they’re cloaking everything in religious language).

So Jesus sees the trap that they’ve laid for him and simply glares at them, and then he goes ahead and brings healing to this man and his community. And now, these leaders have to make a choice. They could have celebrated that the man’s arm was now whole and he had a new kind of freedom. They could have asked Jesus how this sort of healing related to the Kingdom of which he spoke. They could have praised God. But you know what they did – verse six: “The Pharisees went out, and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”

I’m sure that you remember this really well, but for the sake of the person sitting next to you who’s a little fuzzy on all of these Bible names, let me remind you that the Pharisees were the religious leaders of the Jewish people. They oversaw worship and served as spiritual guides. The Herodians were a political party – they were people who were affiliated with and drew some benefit from their support of King Herod – the puppet governor that the Romans had set up to rule this part of the world.

It seems to me that this passage is just another reminder to us – and people of every age – that when the religious leaders and the political leaders get in bed with each other, it’s usually bad news for Jesus. Some things never change.

The broader context for this interchange has been set in the first part of our reading, the end of Mark 2. The disciples are walking through a field and as they do so, they grab a little fast food to munch as they walk. Immediately, the Pharisees point out that this is a violation of one of the rules – “everybody knows” that you can’t do that kind of work on the Sabbath. The “law” to which they refer isn’t found in the Bible, but rather a book of rules that humans had produced over the years to make sure that God’s rules weren’t being broken. You heard the commandment: God said to rest on the Sabbath, and use that day to remember God’s provision. This book to which the religious people point took that rule and broke it down. For instance, they said that you couldn’t walk on the grass on the Sabbath, because walking on the grass pressed it down, and pressing it down was like cutting it, and cutting it was work, and work was prohibited. A woman couldn’t look in the mirror on the Sabbath because if she did, she might see a grey hair, and then she might pluck it, and plucking a hair was work, which was not allowed. Pulling a stalk of grain and munching it as they walked was an example of this kind of violation, and the religious leaders are all over Jesus for being “soft” on the Sabbath.

Don’t we love doing that kind of thing? We take something that God has said and we put it in a box and wrap it up and say, “Well, of course, this is what God really meant to say… You know, God can be a little confusing sometimes, so don’t bother trying to figure it out on your own… just trust me. I know what God really meant – and you are wrong!”

God in a box is incredibly appealing for all sorts of reasons, not the least of which is that we will never, ever get “the look” from a God we have gotten so well figured out that he’ll fit into our little box.

The truth is, of course, that a “god” who can fit into one of my little boxes isn’t really any kind of God at all. A god in a box is a god who will not surprise us, does not ask for anything from us, and ultimately has only as much power as we ourselves do.

Jesus modeled a life that was open to – and hopeful for – God’s intrusion. Jesus taught us to look for and to welcome God’s surprising appearances in our lives. While we want to say “yes” to that kind of faith the reality is that so often our existence is so crowded and so filled with work and obsessions and toys and screens and getting and spending that there is simply no room for God to interrupt. As a result, our lives themselves become increasingly difficult to interpret and decreasingly meaningful…

Here’s an example. We believe that the Gospel of Mark was written late in the first century. It would have been written in Greek and on a scroll or a papyrus. Here’s an image of one of the earliest manuscripts of the New Testament, called Papyrus 46:

A folio from
P46 containing 2 Corinthians 11:33–12:9

Can you make heads or tails of that? You say, “Of course not, Dave, it looks like Greek or something. I can’t read that.”

OK, so here’s the same text, translated into English. How’s this? Is that any better?

Maybe a little, but it’s tough, right? It’s all capitals, and there are no spaces or punctuation. Let’s try one more time.

Here’s the same passage, this time in English with punctuation and spaces. Does this make more sense?

Of course it does.

What’s different? The final version, in addition to being in English, has more “white space”. Although we would say that all of the heavy lifting in this image is being done by the dark print, the fact of the matter is that the message is actually conveyed because there is sufficient “white space” for our minds and eyes to be able to take in the content and process it. The white spaces on the pages of our books and magazines make it possible for us to glean meaning and purpose – we can get the message that the author intended in part because of the spaces that have been left blank.

Let me suggest that the practice of Sabbath as given by the Lord and upheld by Jesus is one of the best means by which we will be able to insert some “white space” into our own lives – a way in which we can reduce some of the clutter we encounter and therefore allow God some space that is out of the box in which to help us discern how best to honor him and serve our neighbor.

Choosing to honor God’s creational intent by setting aside some time for reflection and awareness will permit us to enter into uncertainty and ambiguity trusting that God can bring order out of chaos (it’s what he does, after all).

Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the foremost Jewish theologians of the 20th century, said, “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord. Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern.”[1]

What I think that means for us is that we can get out of our own boxes by consciously setting aside some time to engage and be engaged by the Lord. Look for opportunities to wonder and to wander, and to lay down our insistence to be creating and making and spending and doing all the time.

If we do that, there’s a chance that we can get rid of our boxes as we recognize the truth that there is more to God than I can ever grasp, and there is more to life in God’s world than that of which I am currently aware.

You see, the fear that ruled the lives of the Pharisees and Herodians threatens each of us every day: what if God is bigger than we can imagine God to be?

The folks in the Synagogue that day had some idea of what God’s messiah would look like. They had it all figured out. But Jesus didn’t fit that image. And so Jesus had to die.

What about you? What about me? Am I open to God teaching me new things? I am willing to let Jesus shape me and change me? Or am I too comfortable with my own set of little beliefs and practices and I don’t really want to think about them too much, thanks all the same…

In Genesis, we learn that God created humanity in his own image. It was good. It was very good. The problem is that ever since then, we’ve been trying to create God in our own image – a god who fits in our own little boxes. And so we worship a god who has been, at times in the last couple of thousand years, a racist god, a violent god, a god who wants to make me rich, a god who tells me that I’m better than you…

Peter remembered Jesus giving “the look”. And while some of those present might have come to associate that only with the anger of Jesus, my sense is that Peter remembered it because it was so meaningful, so inviting, so searching that it changed him to his very core. May you and I this week seek to live and move and dwell in a rhythm that includes the Sabbath to the end that we might see and perceive the glance of the Savior as inviting us to new places of joy and participation. My charge for you this week is simple: find some time to sit still and allow Jesus to wrap you in his “look”. I suspect that you will be changed by that. Peter was. I know that I am. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005, p. 3)

What a Waste of Time

Thoughts on Worship and the Sabbath and wondering why in the world we have such a hard time with these concepts.  This message was preached on October 26, 2014 at the Crafton Heights church and was rooted in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23 – 3:6.  

Bill_Gates_III_20080123_068William Henry “Bill” Gates is a rich man. His estimated wealth, some $82  billion, equals the annual GDP of Ecuador, and maybe twice as much as that of Croatia. By this rather unique measuring stick, the founder of Microsoft is worth two Latvias, a Cyprus and four or five Malawis. Not bad for a college dropout.

But not only is he rich, he is generous, and you may have heard about the fact that he is on a mission to give away his money before he dies. He better get cracking, though, because even though he’s given away about $35 billion, he keeps getting richer.

I was thinking about Bill Gates as I prepared for this morning’s message because of something he once said that really jolted me: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”[1]

There it is, church. The man who has more dollar bills in the history of dollar bills has called you out, and said that you’re wasting your time here this morning.

And I’m here to tell you that I agree with him 100%. Worship is a total waste of time, and one of the most inefficient things you could ever do with yourself.

And I’m glad to be doing that with you, beloved.

What are we doing here? What’s the point of all this, anyway? We’re here to worship, I know. But what does that mean?

Worship comes from an Old English word ‘weorthscipe’, which to be honest I’m not really sure how to pronounce because it has a couple of letters in it that no longer exist. That word means ‘condition of being worthy, dignity, glory, distinction, honor, renown’, and came to be understood as a ‘sense of reverence paid to a supernatural or divine being’ about 800 years ago.[2]

We have come to this point in time at this place on the globe in order to testify to the worthiness, dignity, glory, and honor of God. And maybe you know that when we come to worship, the world itself changes (or at least it should).

Here’s what I’m getting at: a few minutes ago, the beautiful Lindsay Frick stood in front of you and led you in a “call to worship”. In that formal language, Lindsay invited you to leave your work and your hobbies behind. She gave you permission – nay, she commanded you – to forget your laundry, your shopping list, the grubs that are destroying your grass. If we are doing it right, I think that means that we’ve turned off our cell phones and put away our watches.

We’ve entered into a different space: a ‘sanctuary’. Here, the seats are designed, not for comfort, but to focus your attention on the center and the front of the room, while being curved so that you can keep an eye on each other, too. There are windows to provide light and ventilation, but they are tinted so as to reduce the distraction that whatever lies on the other side might bring.

We have entered into a different time: it is the ‘service of worship’. We use a different calendar in here than we do outside: look at your bulletin, and you’ll see that we are in the 30th week of “ordinary time”, which started, not on January 1, but on the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, of course, is the season of the year in which the church remembers the intrusion of the Creator into the Creation.

Likewise, our very understanding of ourselves has changed. We are no longer primarily neighbors, teachers, students, retirees, employees, or gardeners. You, together, have been constituted as a congregation. That is to say that you are pilgrims. People who are on the way from where they used to be and heading to where they ought to be; people who are growing from what was into who they were created to be.

Lindsay spoke a call to worship, and if we do it right, then time, space, and your understanding of self has changed. We are different people in a new time and a sacred space. Well done, Lindsay! You didn’t know you had that kind of authority, did you?

Think about it. In Genesis, we learn that we are creatures. There was God, and God alone. And then God made. We dare not confuse the Creator with the creature.

And we are not merely creatures, but creatures who have been placed in time. Do you remember how the story of creation is told? In DAYS. Seven of them, to be exact. Our lives are measured in hours and days and months and years.

And we are not only creatures of time, but creatures who have been given space. Where does the story begin? In a garden. A specific place that is ours.

So when we, the creatures of time and space, set out to recognize the worthiness, dignity, glory, and honor that characterizes God, we do so by entering into this new and different time and space.

I bring this up because this is one of the biggest problems I have with the people who say, “You know, Pastor, I don’t have to come to church to worship. I can worship God on the golf course, or at the lake, or as I run.” No, you can’t.

Sunrise at Raystown Lake, PA

Sunrise at Raystown Lake, PA

Look. If you know anything about me at all, you will understand that I have experienced the presence, majesty, beauty and power of God in the solitude of a mountain lake, laying awake at night on the Sahara Desert, watching the flight of a lilac-breasted roller, or bringing in an incredible trout. I get it. I have known God there.

But I have not worshipped God there.

Consider this: I have experienced great joy in my relationship with Sharon McCoy Carver since we were in the 9th grade together at Hanby Jr. High. We have been in many places and celebrated our love together in lots of ways.

But I only got married at 2:30 pm on Sunday May 30, 1982 at Trinity Presbyterian Church, 1120 Darley Road Wilmington DE 19703. We do not confuse the reality of being married with the act of becoming married. We do not confuse appreciation of or closeness to God with the communal worship of God.

Our worship is an intentional act by the community – never alone – in a specific place while engaged in specific actions. I do not think that a human being can worship alone – we need the community for that. Worship is a part of the rhythm of creation and the order for which we were born, and we can only do it together.

Unfortunately, we are not very good at understanding this rhythm. We find it easy to forget the intentions for which we are born. One way that I know this is true is because we have neglected the idea of Sabbath.

That’s an old word, of course, and incredibly churchy. Feel free to roll your eyes now if you’d like.

Noon - Rest From Work, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

Noon – Rest From Work, Vincent Van Gogh, 1890

You heard it in Deuteronomy, where we were commanded to observe, remember, and keep one day in seven. No work for your or your servants. No commerce. No production.

Yeah, we’re not very good at remembering, keeping, or observing that kind of stuff, are we?

And I know a lot of you, like me, often hear a lot of talk by people who wish that we’d “get back to basics” and pay more attention to the Ten Commandments. “All this country needs is to get back to the Ten Commandments,” they say. Well, it seems to me that they’re really talking about six or seven of them – many of the folks I hear talking about that are really concerned about who their neighbor is sleeping around with or which political party is lying to us than they are about actually keeping the Sabbath or avoiding covetousness. Christians in America today steamroll the fourth commandment flatter than a pancake at Pamela’s restaurant, and we feel proud about doing so.

We do not stop. We do not rest. We go and go and go.

Why? Because we are good and decent people. We’re not lazy. We are recognizing the truth of what Bill Gates has told us – that rest is not efficient and a total waste of time. And time is money. And we want more money. And so we cannot rest. We have to do more. We have to be more.

Hey, hey, hey, Pastor. That’s not fair! I’m not greedy! It’s not about money! I have a lot to do. Important stuff to do. People are counting on me to get it done. Do you know what would happen if I stopped ________? I mean, I get it, Dave. It must be nice to be you, in control of your own time, managing your own calendar, going fishing whenever you feel like it, but my life isn’t like that. I have to ___________.

Look, it’s not my commandment. I am not giving it to you; I am with you in sitting under it. And from where I sit, it seems as though the command to keep, observe, and remember the Sabbath and to worship is all about trust. We come into this special place and enter this special time and we stop doing anything important. We stop and we rest, and we dare to believe that the world will continue to turn without us. We rest, and in so doing proclaim that God, not us, is in control. We keep Sabbath because we are creatures, not the Creator.

But HOW? What does that look like in 2014?

I’m not entirely sure. And let me clear about the fact that I’m not pointing fingers at anyone. I’m having a hard enough time speaking for me right now to presume to speak for you. But this is what I know: if you flinch when you hear me say that Sunday ought to be set aside for worship and rest, then you should probably be asking God, “Lord, what needs to change in my life? And how can I change it?”

People who keep Sabbath well are people who are able to do their homework on Friday or Saturday. People who choose to shop on Tuesday or Friday. People who can turn off their email and resist the temptation to buy or sell on the Lord’s Day. We all have the same 168 hours this week. The 4th commandment reminds us that God seems to care about how we use them. You heard that commandment a few moments ago that talked about your manservant and your maidservant, and you thought, “Hey, that’s not me! I don’t have any servants.” Really? What do you call the people who will bring you your food at the Olive Garden today, or the folks who check you out at the Giant Eagle? They are your servants.

But what about work? What if you have to work on Sunday? I think the first question would be, “Why?” Why do you have to work on Sunday?   I know some people who have to work weekends because it’s a second job for them and the family. They need that money to put food on the table. They need that money to educate their children. Or maybe they’ve got jobs that require them to work on Sundays. If that’s the case, then that’s the case.

But I know a whole lot more people who choose to work on Sunday because they’ve got a credit card payment due. People who need to work on Sunday because their cable bill is too high, or their third car needs a new set of tires. And if I am neglecting the Lord on this Sabbath in order to keep my satellite dish payments current, then maybe my priorities are a little out of whack.

Look, I could talk all day about this, but if I did, that would probably be ruining any idea of Sabbath for all of us. Do I have it all figured out? Not by a long shot. But this much I know: the fourth commandment is given to us because God loves us and desires that we might know life in all of its fullness. And we are prone to accepting less than God’s best because we are seduced by a world that wants to tell us that nothing makes us complete and that we are still enslaved in the “kingdom of thingdom.”

The way to get out of this is to waste what the world treasures. In a few weeks, we’ll be talking about money, and how the only way to control its power in our lives is to give it away – to do something utterly wasteful with it like giving it to the church. But that’s a few weeks. Today, I want to encourage you to waste time. To stop producing and enjoy who God is, and how God is, and who and how God is for you.

The Man With the Withered Hand, James Tissot, 1896

The Man With the Withered Hand, James Tissot, 1896

The Gospel lesson reminds us that Jesus used the Sabbath to restore and to feed.

What if he still does that? I mean, what if by showing up here we are putting ourselves in a place and time where what is withered in our own lives might be revitalized? What if in rest, trust, and obedience the muscles that we thought were long-dead, or the faith that we’ve set aside, or the power in which we’ve become afraid to believe – what if those things could be reactivated, much as the man’s arm was in the story you heard a few moments ago?

Bill Gates is right. There are a thousand ways to use this hour more efficiently. But Jesus is righter: it’s not about efficiency. It’s about knowing who we are, and whose we are. Observe. Remember. Keep this day as your time to join with the other pilgrims in pointing to God’s glory. And as you do so, know that you are observed, remembered, and kept eternally. Thanks be to God! Amen.