June 3, The priority of being restored

The priority of being restored

Mark 2:23-3:6


Over the next several weeks I will be preaching on a series of scriptures from Mark’s gospel. This first text, from Mark 2:23 to 3:6, is focused on sabbath and restoration. Stories to come will focus on our urge to control, the mystery of growth, the urgency of fear, and the power of faith. Each scripture story in the series offers a little lesson about the tension between the way of the world and the kingdom of heaven.

In these early chapters of Mark’s gospel we see that again and again, Jesus challenges our assumption that the way things are is the same thing as the way they should be. So, again and again he makes the case – often through confrontation with the religious authorities – that we can do better. We can do better by recognizing and valuing and supporting the humanity of others. We can do better by promoting growth rather than stifling it. We can do better by choosing not to be driven and controlled by fear. We can do better by giving others a chance at new life and at the same time seeking new life for ourselves.

It is tempting to say that the only way it seems that Jesus can move the needle on these things is through confrontation, but maybe it is better to recognize that more than being centered on confrontation, these stories are about emotional and social courage and conviction. And words as well as acts of courage and conviction will sometimes lead to confrontation.

Jesus is going to stand up for people and for principles because that’s what you do as a person of courage and conviction, even when you might experience the resistance of tradition, or when you are undermined by the authority of those with power.

So, the first in this series of stories, as I said, is about Jesus taking action on the sabbath to challenge the interpretation of religious experts and to carry out an act of restoration. That’s how I would describe it anyway. Actually, it might more literally (and more narrowly) be described as a story of Jesus breaking the rules of the sabbath.

The story goes like this: Traveling along one sabbath day (the sabbath day being the once-a-week day of rest and restoration commanded by the ten commandments handed down to Moses from God) Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field. The disciples are plucking heads of grain as they go.

The Pharisees, the religious rule-keepers, the faithful ones (as they see themselves), cast a critical eye on what is happening. In fact, they offer criticism. And while the criticism is not directly leveled at Jesus, by the way he reacts, we can guess that behind what the Pharisees actually said, was this sort of indictment of Jesus: These actions by your disciples – this work that they are doing on the sabbath – is against the rules. Surely you know that. What kind of rabbi do you think you are, letting your followers break the rules?

Jesus then responds by doing what any smart or clever person would do when confronted by religious experts: he tells a Bible story. Only this one isn’t the story of Moses receiving the commandments on Mt. Sinai. This is a story about another famous faith ancestor – David. The story is from 1 Samuel, chapter 21, and even though Jesus just sketches it out for the Pharisees, I thought you might benefit from hearing the whole thing, so here it is as it appears in the book of 1 Samuel:

David came to Nob to the priest Ahimelech. Ahimelech came trembling to meet David, and said to him, ‘Why are you alone, and no one with you?’ David said to the priest Ahimelech, ‘The king has charged me with a matter, and said to me, “No one must know anything of the matter about which I send you, and with which I have charged you.” I have made an appointment with the young men for such and such a place. Now then, what have you at hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here.’ 

The priest answered David, ‘I have no ordinary bread at hand, only holy bread—provided that the young men have kept themselves from women.’ David answered the priest, ‘Indeed, women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition; the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?’ So the priest gave him the holy bread; for there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence, which is removed from before the Lord to be replaced by hot bread on the day it is taken away.

Now, aside from the textual inconsistency between the stories in 1 Samuel and in Mark (where one casts Ahimelech as the high priest and the other names his son, Abiathar, as the high priest) it is an interesting story that Jesus tells. Hero among heroes, David misleads the priest about his situation and then takes and eats the holy bread from the temple even though it is technically against the rules (of course!) And why does he do it? Because King Saul has threatened to kill him, and is hot on his trail, and David needs the bread in order to live!

Now you could accuse David of practicing situational ethics, but seriously: his life is in danger! What would you have him do? What takes priority in such a situation? What is right and what is righteous?

So, back to the story at hand: Here’s what is gathered into this basket of contradiction in Mark’s gospel account: plucking grain on the sabbath is work, and working on the sabbath is against the commandment, but the hungry must be fed, just like eating holy bread from the temple is wrong, but when you are running for your life, nourishment is necessary.

As Jesus and the Pharisees interact, we are invited onto some uneven terrain: How do rules come in to play with regard to human need, when the rules run up against immediate, real, pressing human need? And what’s the sabbath rule meant to protect anyway? Is it meant to honor God in the face of our restlessness? Is it meant to save us from the suffering of busyness; to stop us in our tracks – long enough to remind us of our human vulnerability, and God’s creative power, and our need for rest and restoration? Is it meant to enforce a numeric rule and rhythm: six days you shall labor and the seventh you shall rest?

Or is it (maybe) rooted in something even deeper: the commitment of God to opening up the space needed to care for your deep human need. And is your deep human need the need for holy spaces? The need for rest? For renewed perspective? Is it the need for nourishment? For healing? What is your most basic need, your deep human need? Maybe that should be the guiding question – not whether you plucked the grain at the wrong moment or ate the holy bread when you were on the run.

In the second half of the scripture story for this morning, the scene shifts from plucking grain in the field to a situation in the temple. (Ah, and now isn’t it interesting to take note that prior to this temple moment Jesus has already told his audience the story of David in the temple. Coincidence? I think not!) But in this gospel story about what happens in the temple, there is a man with a withered hand. Jesus sees him and everyone watching (all these persons who heard his back and forth with the Pharisees already) look on with anticipation. Will Jesus ‘flaunt’ the sabbath yet again? Here’s what happens:

And Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them (to the Pharisees that is), ‘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. 

Huh. While the attention-grabbing part in these verses is the way that Jesus goes toe to toe with the Pharisees, and even gets right in their faces with his behavior, maybe there’s something else worth noticing in this part of the story – something other than the fact that Jesus heals on the sabbath and in so doing, solidifies his conflict with the Pharisees, and that something is this: Jesus grieves their hardness of heart.

And I think the reason he grieves their hardness of heart is because they (and we) can sometimes get locked on to the shape of something, rather than remembering its essence. That is, sometimes something looks holy, and maybe even is holy, but in our effort to keep it pure we contaminate it with our own stubbornness or selfishness or fearfulness.

The Pharisees kept the commandments – at least they tried very hard to do so, and along with that, they pressed others to do the same. And they called it holiness. And that was important to them because God is holy, and to come close to God, they figured they better be holy too.

But Jesus saw their “holiness” as hardness of heart. Why? Because Jesus believed that at the foundation of God’s agenda is this thing called restoration. God is holy, certainly, but from that holiness flows a compassion for those who are not.

And God knows, holiness can be too often expressed as hardness of heart – the kind of hardness that solidifies a contrast between my “righteousness” and your lack thereof. Hardness of heart prevents holiness from being expanded and instead emphasizes the distance between us, as if I am good and you are bad; I am right and you are wrong; I am worthy and you are unworthy; I am smart and you are dumb, I am pure and you are profane, I am accepted by God and you are not.

With hard hearts, we make only the effort to draw the lines to our own advantage, and we forget to draw a circle wide enough to include those with a different idea or a different need. We draw borders instead of bridges, and we make judgments instead of practicing healing.

No, no, no, says Jesus. God’s heart isn’t hard, and neither should your heart be hard. God’s holiness isn’t protected by rules; it’s projected in restoration. God’s agenda isn’t to say to humankind “you aren’t like me and you never will be.” Rather, God’s agenda is to say, “you have wandered away from me, and here’s the way back.” God’s holiness doesn’t scorn us, it inspires us. And for that reason, God’s agenda is always the agenda of healing, of restoration, of recovery, of forgiveness, of reconciliation, of compassion, of renewal.

My friend Dave Lose, who I spent some time with at my preaching conference last week, puts it this way in his weekly sermon blog:

The biblical witness is clear: God gives us the law to help us get the most out of life and, in particular, to help us get more out of life by helping others, by looking out for them, by taking care of them and, by extension, each other.

In this way, the law creates a level of order that makes human flourishing more likely…But as important as the law is, it is – and shall always be – a means to an end, a tool, a mechanism in service to a greater purpose. It is not an end in itself; following the law is not itself the purpose of the law, and the law is not capable of granting us identity but only helps us live into the identity of beloved child given us by God. (“In the Meantime…” Pentecost 2 B: The Heart of the Law, Posted: 01 Jun 2018)

So, keeping the sabbath? Sure. You need to keep the sabbath – pay attention to and commit to time for holy rest – but not because it’s a rule. You need to keep it, to honor it, because it can lead to your recovery, your restoration. But if the sabbath barriers get in the way of your recovery or your restoration, then go with the thing, with the path, that leads you to the center of that very need for healing; do the thing that lets you return to the heart of God, do the thing that lets you find your well-being again, do the thing that makes you whole once more, because that’s the spirit of the sabbath. And because, as Jesus says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

Perhaps we could think of it this way: that the rules – the commandments – are the lines on the road. But they aren’t always the road. And sometimes the more immediate path, the more necessary path – of healing, of recovery, of restoration, might be a road that snakes in a different direction, cutting across the ridge, taking you down along the river, winding this way and that, until it finally comes out into an open clearing and you see God’s holy space before you – the space of healing and recovery that you’ve been looking for all along.

Not every road worth taking is an interstate with double yellow lines and big green signs at every interchange. Some roads have more bends in them than you come possibly see around. The key isn’t to travel as fast as you can, as unfeelingly as you can, but rather to touch the road with your feet, and to realize: Is it smooth or rough? Can you get traction or is it too slippery? Is this road taking you on a straight path paved with judgment or is it able to sustain you on a journey toward home?

But you can imagine the Pharisees’ thoughts: If we let this Jesus get away with breaking the rules, the rules we’ve devoted ourselves to keeping, pretty soon everyone will be doing whatever they want, and then where will we be? God will be angry with us, and this man will have brought down judgment upon us all!

That was the lens through which they saw him. And too bad, because while they were defending God’s territory (as they saw it) Jesus was busy making the circle wider, and promoting healing, and helping the person no one else helped: the man with the withered hand.

Why make him wait even one more day for healing and hope? There’s no reason to wait for such things; now is always the time to act on the priority of restoration. Now is always the time to promote healing and wholeness.

So, our sabbath is this day – Sunday. It’s the day when we worship (although for that to happen, some of us must work!) But whether you are taking it all in, or helping to make it happen, here’s the question: is there a time – whether this day, or another – devoted to restoration. When is the time when your deep needs are met? Your needs for healing, wholeness, recovery, reconciliation?

Because God wants those things included in the rhythm of your life. God wants you to be restored, to be renewed, to come home, to travel a path that finally brings you to the open space, the clearing, where things are settled and safe.

So, the sabbath is for you. God’s rest, God’s peace, is for you. Restoration is God’s hope for you and God’s gift to you…on this day.





Kurt Borgmann

Manchester Church of the Brethren

June 3, 2018