Archive for June, 2018

Made for Humanity

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 3, 2018 by timtrue


Mark 2:23—3:6


Let’s do some Bible study. What is going on in today’s Gospel?

The passage begins with the words, “One sabbath”; an important detail.

The sabbath day was there in the beginning, a part of the creation story: God rested from creating on the seventh day; and thus humanity was to follow in God’s footsteps, et in saecula, saeculorum, amen.

Again, the sabbath day played an important role in the time of the exodus. The people were to gather only enough manna for each day; except on Fridays, when they were to gather twice as much so that they could rest on Saturdays, the sabbath.

And when Moses spent all that time up on Mount Sinai talking directly with God—well, one of the Ten Commandments was to remember the sabbath day and to keep it holy—you and your whole household, it commanded: dads, moms, brothers, sisters, servants, dogs, cats, livestock, aliens, strangers, and anyone else I forgot to mention!

So, “One sabbath” is a detail not to be glossed over.

Well, what happened on this particular sabbath? Two main events—and their fallout.

First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain. And the disciples are hungry. So, casually, and quite naturally, they do what you or I might do when out on a Sunday walk: they reach out and grab a small snack and nibble on it. I mean, have you ever tasted a sunflower seed directly from the flower? Delicious!

And second, Jesus enters the synagogue and a man with a withered hand is healed! How awesome is that!

But there were some present who didn’t agree: Pharisees, the Bible calls them.

And we boo and hiss, for, really, even with the importance of the sabbath being a day of rest and all that, why should anyone oppose our man Jesus?

I mean—sheesh!—reading the text closely, I’m not even sure Jesus did anything! It wasn’t Jesus picking the grains and nibbling, after all, but his disciples. And as for the man with the withered hand, all the text tells us is that he was healed; it does not say that Jesus did the actual healing!

Kind of makes you feel like the Pharisees already had their minds made up against Jesus, doesn’t it?

Ooh, ooh!—and don’t you just want to call them out for this! The very end of the passage says that they left the synagogue and went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians (whoever they are), about how they might destroy Jesus.

Destroy? As in kill? Huh. To me that sounds a lot more like a violation of permissible sabbath day activities than healing a man with a withered hand!

But I’ve skipped right over Jesus’ main point, which is, as translated in our version of today’s Gospel: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”

—though an equivalently faithful translation is this: “The sabbath day was created for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath day; so the son of humanity is lord even of the sabbath.”

We’ll come back to this point. For now, notice, Jesus never discounts the importance of observing the sabbath day; what he does say, however, is that sabbath observance is for our benefit and not the other way around.


Next, before we move on to consider what this passage means for us today, I want to point something out: a prejudice that Christianity has been guilty of for most if not all of the last two thousand years; a prejudice that arose out of Bible studies like we just did. Did you catch it?

Jesus’ opponents here are Pharisees; what image comes to your mind’s eye when you hear the word Pharisees?

Probably a self-righteous guy who likes to wear flowing robes and stand on street corners saying loud and long prayers to be heard by passersby.

Probably a guy who tries to keep all 613 commandments of the Halakah, even if that means walking by a person in terrible need lying in a ditch on the side of the road; even if that means paying his tithe to the Temple rather than paying for services for his aging parents.

Probably a guy who conspires with other like-minded guys to figure out a way to murder a radical teacher before he influences the community too much.

Well, if one of these is the image that enters your mind’s eye, don’t be too hard on yourself. For these images come to us straight out of the New Testament, our Christian scriptures.

However, to be clear, there are other images of Pharisees in the New Testament, some neutral, some even positive—like when the apostle Paul boasts of being a Pharisee among Pharisees (a good credential, in his thinking!).

But, for whatever reason, we Christians have gravitated and hung on to the negative caricatures of Pharisees, and formed stereotypes, which have become telltale prejudices.

But—what if I was to tell you?—we do in fact have a modern counterpart to the Pharisee in the Episcopal Church. Do you know who I mean?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not the priest. The Christian priest in charge of a congregation is more like a Jewish rabbi, in charge of a local synagogue.

Instead, it’s someone who has committed his life to serving God, someone who has taken vows, someone recognized by the community as being called by God to the office, someone who doesn’t get paid for what she does. Any guesses?

The vocational deacon.

That’s right! We don’t have a deacon here at St. Thomas. But if we did, that person would help at our Eucharists, preach from time to time, probably be in charge of all our pastoral care needs, maybe outreach too, and act as a liaison between the church and the bishop—all as a volunteer.

Do you know any deacons personally? The deacons I know are extremely committed to loving the Lord with their heart, soul, and mind; and to loving their neighbors as themselves. They give of themselves far and away above the call of duty, acting selflessly for the sake of the common good.

Now, if you have a clear image in your mind of a modern-day deacon, the next step is to replace your image of a Pharisee with this new image!

In other words, this ought to be the image that comes to mind of the people Jesus squares off with today: upstanding, well-respected, pious persons.

Changes things up a bit, eh?


Anyway, what does all of this mean for us today?

Isn’t really the same old story?

Jesus and the Pharisees were all members within the organized religious establishment of their day. The Pharisees in the story wanted to refine and hone the system to the point of greatest efficiency—a lot like deacons, and many others of us, do in the church today.

We have our constitution, our canons, our bylaws, and our mission statements. We create customaries for our liturgies and propose resolutions at our annual conventions. We plan, scheduling our worship services to take place at specific times in buildings we build at specific locations. We say “Blessed be God” at some times of the year and “Alleluia, Christ is risen” at others. We train our acolytes to know the secret code.

Jews have 613 laws in their Halakah, sure. But we have our laws too, lots of them, written and unwritten, because we’re doggone good Episcopalians.

And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that! In fact, I don’t think Jesus is saying there’s anything wrong with that either!

The rub comes, however, when Jesus, in their midst, points to another, and maybe even a better, way of seeing things.

The sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath. The son of all humanity, Jesus, is therefore lord of the sabbath—and not the other way around!

Jesus is in their midst and shows them another way, a better way.

But the upstanding, well-respected, pious people oppose it.


So, what happens when Jesus comes into our midst and tries to show us another, maybe even a better, way? Do our upstanding, well-respected, pious people—do we—oppose it? Have we, like the Pharisees in today’s passage, become too institutionalized to see it?

In his most recent book, Christian activist and thinker Brian McLaren writes:

Each generation faces some great work, some heroic challenge that summons its children to courage and creativity. The great work of this generation will be to respond to the quadruple threat inherited from previous generations: an ecological crisis that, left unchecked, will lead to catastrophic environmental collapse; an economic crisis of obscenely increasing inequality that exploits or excludes the world’s poor while dehumanizing the rich as well; a sociopolitical crisis of racial, ethnic, class, religious, and political conflict that could lead to catastrophic war; and a spiritual and religious crisis in which the religious institutions that should be helping us deal with the first three crises either waste our time or make matters worse.[I]

Four serious crises, according to McLaren, we are passing on to the next generation. Hmm. Quite a legacy!

Which concerns me: I want a better world for my children and grandchildren than I have known, not a worse one; but I’m not sure we’re any closer to realizing the realm of God here on earth than we were twenty-five, fifty, or a hundred years ago.

Not only do McLaren’s words ring with the sound of truth in my ears, which on its own is cause enough for concern, but also when my kids and I have discussions about the bigger things—meaning-of-life discussions—their anxieties about the future vividly reflect what McLaren says here.

Now, it’s no secret that today’s young people are leaving mainline Christianity in droves. We church leaders spend a lot of energy around the question why; and around the question of how to welcome them back in.

But I think McLaren spells it out clearly here. Young people see these crises we’ve left for them, and they’re saying, collectively, “Thanks a lot!” Young people see the church and other religious institutions and say together, “You’re not helping. And, um, actually, you might be making matters worse.”

What if this is Jesus in our midst? Through the collective voice of young people, is Jesus telling us a very important message today: that there is another way, maybe even a better way, to do church?

This time around, however, no one is conspiring to destroy Jesus. This time around, he’s simply leaving us without too much fuss. Jesus in our midst—young people—leaving the church in droves, feeling that organized Christianity is a waste of time—or, um, maybe worse.

And we just stand there, hands in our pockets, leaning up against the doorway, with a sad look on our face; and say, “Sorry to see you go; but when you’re ready to come back, we’ll welcome you with open arms.”

We’re missing the point. Jesus is trying to show us another, maybe even a better, way.

The church was made for humanity; not humanity for the church. The son of humanity, Jesus, is therefore lord of the church—and not the other way around.


[i] Brian D. McLaren, The Great Spiritual Migration: How the World’s Largest Religion is Seeking a better Way to Be Christian. Convergent, New York. 2016.