Sunday, July 26, 2020

Wisdom for the Kingdom

July 26, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

1 Kings 3:5-12; Matthew 13:31-34

Solomon, one of the greatest kings of Israel, was offered a gift from God.  God came to Solomon in a dream and said “Ask what I should give you.”[1]  And Solomon in that moment didn’t seek after his own selfish desires.  He didn’t ask for long life or riches, or for the life of his enemies.  He asked for wisdom, for “an understanding mind to govern [God’s] people.”[2]

And “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this.”[3]  Solomon was given the gift of wisdom, and success followed after.  Solomon’s reign was long, prosperous, and for the most part peaceful.  “For the greater part of his 40-year reign Solomon preserved and enriched David’s kingdom without large-scale warfare”[4] through treaties, marriages, business links and trade.

“During Solomon’s reign Israel experienced a flowering of the arts.”[5]  Music, literature, and scholarship flourished.  Many of the Psalms were written during this period, and the “wisdom school” – that later produced the books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes – was formed.

Of course, Solomon is probably best known for building the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Temple was an extravagant stone building with magnificent decorations in wood gold. It was built next to the palace, surrounded by the walls of the king’s compound.

But, even Solomon, with all that he accomplished, wasn’t perfect.  The “high places” were altars to different gods, and each city would have a high place dedicated to one or more gods.  The people of Israel were supposed to offer sacrifices only to the Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem.  But Solomon was tempted to worship other gods.  “The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.”[6]

Solomon built the Temple, but he built his own palace first, an opulent structure of cedar and stone. And, “The… temple itself was an affront to some Israelites… with the temple in the king’s compound, it seemed [it] had become the personal property of the king.”[7]

The beautiful buildings were built by slaves and conscripted workers.  The people were heavily taxed to support the king’s household.  Resentment of Solomon’s harsh rule began to build.  The people grew angry with Solomon building high places dedicated to other gods.  The northern tribes began to rebel.  “Within a short time after Solomon’s death in 922 bce, Israel’s empire disintegrated and the nation was divided into two rival kingdoms.”[8]

Solomon was one of the greatest leaders in history.  No one like him came before him and no one like him arose after him.  And in the end, he fell from greatness.  His kingdom shattered; his vanity got the best of him.  He turned his back on his people and turned to serve his own selfish desires.  But there was a moment when he got it right.  There was a moment when he was truly inspired.  The Lord came to him in a dream and he responded.

In that moment he reached for his people.  He sought his duty.  He turned to the only one who could give the greatest ruler in the world what he needed most in order to be able to rule a great people with justice and righteousness.  In that moment Solomon turned to God and asked for the greatest gift ever given, the gift of wisdom, and not for his own benefit, but in order to rule God’s own people.

When we pray, and ask God for things, we often ask for health for our selves or our loved ones. We ask for what we need to get through today, or a difficult time. Lately I’ve been praying for perseverance to make it through the time of COVID. I’ve been praying for people who are struggling to make ends meet, who have lost jobs and businesses, or a breadwinner or beloved partner, or a child. Perhaps I should pray for more wisdom, or patience, or faith that God hasn’t turned away from us.

Jesus taught us to pray saying, “Lead us not into temptation…”  Jesus knew that every day we are pulled in a thousand directions by temptation.  “Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar.” But God doesn’t turn away from us.  God comes to us even when we are lost in temptation, sin and darkness.  Even though Solomon turned his back on the Lord, even as he turned away to follow other gods, the Lord did not turn away from Solomon.  God reached out to him, offering whatever he might ask.  God didn’t turn away from Solomon, and God doesn’t turn away from us.

The greatest gift…  For Solomon, the greatest gift that he could ask of God was wisdom.  And for a thousand years it was the greatest gift.  In three thousand years, only one gift has ever been given that was greater than what Lord gave to Solomon at Gibeon.

The greatest gift ever given was not asked for.  It wasn’t given for keeping the Laws of Moses. It wasn’t given to people who were perfect, never broke the law, never sinned.  Rather, the greatest gift was given to those who didn’t deserve it.  What gift could be greater than wisdom? The greatest gift ever given was grace, the grace of God revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus embodies the grace of God, and shows us how that grace becomes embodied in us.  A theologian named Grace Ji-Sun Kim wrote, “By grace people are redeemed, commissioned to serve, empowered, led, endowed with gifts, and made skillful.  The Christian life begins in grace and continues in grace.”[9]  Grace is a gift given to all those who seek it.  God offers grace so that we may live out our full humanity and stand in solidarity with all who suffer, all who are lost and broken, all who are burdened by sin and evil.

We don’t have to travel to the ruins of the second Temple in Jerusalem. We don’t have go to a high place or make a special sacrifice. God’s grace is given to us wherever we are, in any moment when we understand that we need it. And in grace we are set free to live the life shown to us in Jesus. Jesus: the bringer of good news to the poor.  Jesus: the healer, friend to tax collectors and sinners.  In Jesus we are washed clean of all of our faults, all of our temptations, all of our sin, and we become new beings.

We need not wait until we are perfect before we seek the grace of God.  We don’t need to acquire wisdom before we can seek the kingdom.  We need only begin where we are, with faith as small as a mustard seed. God accepts us with grace, just as we are, imperfect, tempted, sinners. And in the grace of God we find the wisdom needed to grow God’s kingdom. With forgiveness, compassion, and love, we spread tiny seeds of God’s grace, we mix a small amount of yeast into the bread of our communities.

May God grant unto us wisdom and courage. May God empower us with grace to seek justice and peace for all people. May God teach us to follow Jesus Christ and live in grace every day of our lives.  Amen.

[1] 1 Kings 3:5. Unless otherwise noted, the scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] 1 Kings 3:9.

[3] 1 Kings 3:10.

[4] The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., Great People of the Bible and How They Lived (Pleasantville, NY: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1974), 148.

[5] Great People, 150.

[6] 1 Kings 3:4.

[7] Great People, 192.

[8] Great People, 151.

[9] Grace Ji-Sun Kim, The Grace of Sophia: A Korean North American Women’s Christology (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002), 154.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Weeds and Wheat

July 19, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, CEB[1]

Have you ever felt like a weed? All around you are these “shiny, happy people”[2] who seem to have it all together. Like that pop song, they’re “doing all right, gettin' good grades, the future's so bright [they] gotta wear shades.”[3] You are far from all right, nothing is coming together, and the future is filled with storm clouds. You’re barely keeping your head above water as everything is falling apart. You’re a mess. You feel like a weed in a field of wheat. You know what? Me too.

Summertime throws off the routine around my house. We try to schedule some camps and other activities for our boys, but this year, with coronavirus, there’s not much to do but get bored and slowly go crazy. Felicia and I try to manage the chaos. She usually does better than me. I try to be calm, patient, and mature – a nice stalk of wheat. But I can be short tempered, especially when I’m stressed, so at times I’m more like a weed. Sure, there are plenty of shiny, happy moments like playing with a new basketball hoop or when a distant friend calls, but there are plenty of storms, too. Ask me how things are going, however, and I’ll probably just say, “Great!”

We have a tendency to project an image that everything is fine, even when it isn’t. When I ask you in passing how you’re doing, I don’t expect you to actually tell me. I expect you to say fine, good, OK. Sometimes I get a lot more, probably because of my role here in the church. Some people give more interesting answers like “unbelievable,” and I love that because it stops me for a second. But the usual exchange of pleasantries leaves the impression that everyone is doing great.

Even in church, where we try to support one another, we tend to put up a good front rather than be truly honest about the depth of our brokenness. We don’t want to talk about the weeds sown alongside the wheat in our lives. Everywhere buildings like this are filled with people who appear content and at peace, but who are screaming inside for someone to notice them, to love them just as they are. Someone here is confused, frightened, frustrated, feeling lost or guilty. Someone is having trouble communicating how they feel, even with those they love most. Someone is looking around seeing all these self-sufficient, happy people who seem to have it all together. Rarely do we have the courage to admit our deep needs before others.

That sounds a lot like me. As a church family, we talk about the big stuff – those who have died, are having surgery or cancer treatments, and the birth of babies. But we rarely mention the smaller troubles, the addictions, the stress and anxiety, the weeds that fill up our fields.

Maybe everything is wrong, and there’s no hope. We’re all a bunch of weeds, and the harvest time is coming. Is there really even any wheat in the field at all? In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “As it is written, ‘There is no righteous person, not even one.’”[4] But that can’t be. It can’t all be wrong, because I can see joy, and beauty, and kindness. I know there is truth, justice, peace, and love. I can see wheat being gathered into the barn. Even if it is hard to see good things amidst all the evils that surround us, the evidence of goodness is there.

In the parable, the householder is worried that the field hands will uproot the wheat along with the weeds. Perhaps this is because, in the early stages of growth, you can’t tell the weeds from the wheat. Outwardly, they look the same. It is only after a lifetime of growth that the wheat begins to show its golden color. It is only after the hardships, the trials, the failures, the brokenness, the awfulness of life have been experienced that the golden moments begin to shine out in comparison.

If Paul is right, there are really only weeds in the field anyway. But, ours is a faith in the resurrection, in transformation, in the ability of God to change a sinner into a saint. We all have within us the potential to be wheat as well as weeds. The good and the bad dwell within us, and they grow together until the harvest time. The good and the bad within us are there until the very end. It is only at the end that the reapers separate the good and the evil within us, toss the evil on the fire, and welcome the good part of us into glory.

As human beings we are both weeds and wheat, good and bad, right and wrong. Our world, and ourselves, are a complex mix of both. Perhaps that is why the really popular films, the “blockbusters,” are so appealing. The heroes and the villains are easily identified, the right choice is always clear, and happy endings are to be expected. Real life, unfortunately, seldom offers such clarity. But we are called to live in the real world.

We’re not all that good at weeding, as the householder in the parable knows. When we attempt to eradicate evil, we always pull up some wheat along with the weeds. The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts were an attempt to rid the towns of evildoers. Now we look on that event as a tragedy, and we use “witch-hunt” to describe a search for dissenters or scapegoats. Today, even with all of our military technology, there is always “collateral damage,” innocent victims killed in the attempt to destroy “key elements” of the enemy. Nuclear power generation, which is reliable and emission-free, produces waste that is deadly for tens of thousands of years.

It seems we can’t do this alone. There are too many weeds, and they are growing too close to the wheat within us. We must invite God into the gardens of our soul to tend our growth. In the explanation Jesus gives of the meaning of the parable, it is clear that sorting out the weeds and the wheat is not the job of human beings – the reapers in the parable are angels. David Buttrick, a professor at Vanderbilt, asks, “When will we understand; we are not God to judge, not God to purge, not God to redeem the earth. We have weeds sown in our souls, and we stand in the need of mercy.”[5]

Now this doesn’t mean we don’t need to do any weeding at all. Gardening without weeding doesn’t make sense. The weeds use up valuable nutrients, suck up energy and time, keep us from growing into our full potential. To just let the weeds grow with the wheat doesn’t make sense. Jesus didn’t make sense either. He kept breaking the rules, eating with sinners and tax collectors, forgiving sins, healing on the Sabbath. You see, Jesus didn’t come for the wheat. Jesus came for the weeds. The Pharisees said to the disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” and Jesus answered, “Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do… I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.”[6] Jesus came to weed out our souls, and just when it seems that the whole field of our lives has gone over to weeds.

God likes to put on a big show. There are many stories in the Bible of God setting people up for certain failure and then bringing about a glorious victory. In the seventh chapter of Judges, the Midianites came to battle against Gideon, with an army “spread across the valley like a swarm of locusts; their camels were too many to count, like the grains of sand on the seashore.”[7] And God said to Gideon, “You have too many people on your side. If I were to hand Midian over to them, the Israelites might claim credit for themselves rather than for me, thinking, We saved ourselves.”[8] In order for there to be no doubt that the victory will belong to God, and not Israel, Gideon sent home all but three hundred of his soldiers. Three hundred against a vast army – only God could have brought about that victory.

In Matthew, Jesus has to feed five thousand families with five loaves and two fish. But when they took up the leftovers, twelve baskets of broken pieces remained. The twelve disciples were sent out early in their training to cast out unclean spirits, cure diseases, and proclaim the good news. They were sent “as sheep among wolves.”[9] Yet they endured, and twelve returned from the mission.

One of my favorite musicians, David Wilcox, wrote about this last-minute, against-the-odds story that God likes to write.

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify what's stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage to look as if the hero came too late?
He's almost in defeat; it's looking like the evil one will win
So, on the edge of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins.[10]

And, what is the greatest act of God? Betrayed by a friend, deserted by his followers, condemned, tortured, denied, mocked, and finally crucified like a common criminal, Jesus seems to have come to a tragic end. None but God could accomplish the inconceivable, transforming death into resurrection.

Our lives may be filled with weeds, but if we trust in God to bring us to the harvest, we shall be transformed. God can take this field of weeds and fill the barns with wheat. As Christians, then, let us live as though we are the wheat. As Marianne Williamson wrote, “We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone.”[11] When you pray, ask God to come weed out your life so that the good seed that was sown in your soul may shine forth. It is to the glory of God that out of this field full of weeds, a glorious harvest will come.

[2] Michael Stipe and R.E.M., “Shiny Happy People,” Out of Time (Warner Bros., 1991).

[3] Timbuk3, "The Future's So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades," Greetings from Timbuk3 (I.R.S. Records, 1986).

[4] Romans 3:10.

[5] David Buttrick, Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 96.

[6] Matthew 9:11-13.

[7] Judges 7:12.

[8] Judges 7:2.

[9] Matthew 10:16.

[10] David Wilcox, “Show the Way” on Big Horizon, copyright © 1994 by A&M Records.

[11] Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of "A Course in Miracles", (Harper Collins, 1992), Ch. 7, Sec. 3.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Failures and Miracles

July 12, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Isaiah 40:28-31; Matthew 13:1-9

Matthew tells us that Jesus had to explain this parable to his disciples.  The text reads, “When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.  And he said to them, ‘To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.’”[1]  The disciples don’t understand the parable, so Jesus gives them the secret.  The secret is this…

The seed is the Word of God.  Those on the path hear the word, but evil takes it away from them.  Those on rocky ground hear the word, but when trouble comes, they fall away.  Those in the thorns hear the word, but the desires of the world choke them.  Those in good soil hear, accept, and bear fruit.

Matthew tells us that Jesus gave this explanation only to the disciples.  Some scholars suggest that this explanation of the parable originated with Mark.  Others suggest that it predates Mark, but that the explanation was added by the early Christians, and may not have been given by Jesus.  However the explanation originated, it doesn’t do much for those of us who aren’t in the good soil.

Have you ever felt stepped on?  Have you ever felt like you had an opportunity stolen away from you?  Have you ever been unsure of yourself, unprepared, not up to the task?  Have you ever felt like other people are pulling you away from what you love?  Have you ever been told that something you really liked was stupid, boring, or not true?  I think that more often than not I feel like I am stuck on the path, or the rocks, or surrounded by thorns.  Good soil seems harder and harder to find.

One scholar[2] suggests that this parable is a warning to those of us who are touched by the gospel.  As the seed of the word is cast out into the world, some of it will fail to grow.  This parable is as much about failure as it is about success.  Another interpreter offers a more bleak analysis.  “We preach the gospel, but the results are scarcely impressive.”[3]  Our churches are shrinking; people are going elsewhere to get their spiritual needs met.  Why bother speaking, you might ask, if no one is listening? 

In the parable, much of the seed fails to produce.  After three failures, there must be some good news.  There must be some success coming, right?  There is an expectation that there will be a harvest, and it had better be a good one.  The harvest does come.  The seed in the good soil produces fruit, thirtyfold, and sixtyfold, and a hundredfold.  But, “Is this harvest of thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and a hundredfold superabundant?  The contemporary evidence indicates that it is within the range of the normal.”[4] The seed of a grain or fruit produces a plant that has many grains or fruit, as many as a hundred.  The seed fails to grow three times, and finally the harvest comes, but it is average.  How is this a miracle? How is this the kingdom of God?

When I was a kid, Michael Jordan was still playing basketball. How many of you remember watching Jordan? Well, he was pretty good; possibly the best to ever play the game. But he also failed, a lot. On a poster in Kaleidoscoops Ice Cream in Crystal Lake there is a quote that reads, “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

A message printed once in the Wall Street Journal was entitled “Don’t Be Afraid to Fail.”  It read,

You’ve failed many times, although you may not remember.  You fell down the first time you tried to walk.  You almost drowned the first time you tried to swim, didn’t you?  Did you hit the ball the first time you swung a bat?  Heavy hitters, the ones who hit the most home runs, also strike out a lot.  R.H. Macy failed seven times before his store in New York caught on.  English novelist John Creasey got 753 rejection slips before he published 564 books.  Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times, but he also hit 714 home runs.  Don’t worry about failure.  Worry about the chances you miss when you don’t even try.[5]

Now, I know that I fell down a lot when I was learning to walk.  But I did learn.  I did finally succeed, but you know, I’m not a world champion walker, or anything.  I’m no Olympic sprinter.  I can walk, I can even run, but it’s a pretty average skill.  Is the parable suggesting that the ability to walk, something almost everyone can do, is a sign of the kingdom?

Maybe the point is that not everyone can walk.  For some people, just being able to stand unassisted would be a miracle.  Remember, Jesus went around Israel preaching and teaching, but he also healed people.  Jesus said to the paralytic, “stand up, take your bed and go to your home.”[6] A tremendous miracle for the paralytic, to be sure; and it was probably not easy to do, just get up and walk home, even having been healed by Jesus.  That person would have to learn to walk all over again, and would probably fall down a lot.  But it was a miracle to be given that chance, to be able to do something as ordinary as walking.  Even something as ordinary as walking can be a miracle.

Have any of you been tent camping? Were you in scouting? I’m pretty sure that none of you were able to pitch a tent or start a fire on your own the first time. It took practice. You had to fail before you could succeed. Those are good skills to have, and once they have been learned it is right to acknowledge the accomplishment. But there is a bigger lesson in the trying and failing.

Sometimes the miracle is in the failure. When we fail, we learn to try again. We learn to seek help from others. We learn that the best things in life don’t come easily, but require hard work, discipline, and perseverance.

And sometimes, when we fail, we learn that we can’t succeed at everything. Sometimes we learn how to move on and accept our limitations. Sometimes, when we don’t get what we want, we find that we have received what we need in spite of ourselves. Sometimes, when we don’t get what we think we need, God provides what we really need.

When you are farming, failure is inevitable.  You plant your seed, and not all of it is going to grow.  Things happen.  Not everything works out.  In fact, failure is to be expected.  However, it is possible that “In failure and everydayness lies the miracle of God’s activity.”[7] The kingdom comes, but it’s not where we expect.  The kingdom comes not in the miraculous, but in the ordinary. God is found in unexpected places, on the path, in the rocks, in the thorns.  Jesus chose his disciples, not from among the mighty, but from the ordinary.  He didn’t choose the Roman emperor, but the fishermen, James and John.  Jesus didn’t choose the chief priest, but Levi the tax collector.  Jesus chooses his followers from among the ordinary people, people like you and me.

The disciples of Jesus were people who had walked the hard-packed road of life. They were people who had found a way to move the rocks out of their fields. They were people who had managed to heal from the scratches left by the thorns. They are people who have learned to pitch a tent in the rain and build a fire to warm up by. They are people who have made serving others their goal. They are people who have made following Christ the way they live. They are ordinary people who recognize the miracles to be found in the failures.

What miracles can be found in the ordinary?  Simple water, blessed and poured over the head of an infant becomes the sign and seal of membership in the body of Christ.  Plain bread and ordinary wine, when broken and shared at the table, become a sacred remembrance of the one who died that we might have eternal life.  Ordinary elements are transformed into the holy sacraments.  A group of people gathered in a room, with a candle, and a book, find God in one another.  The message of forgiveness allows the addict to feel God’s grace, and to begin again.  The sun came up this morning.

A song called “Testify to Love” captures this feeling:

All the colors of the rainbow, all the voices of the wind,
Every dream that reaches out finds where love begins.
Every story, every star, every mountain, every sea
Every hand that reaches out in mercy and in peace
Testifies to the love of God.[8]

The miracle is there in the ordinary and the everyday.  Tell me, what miracle can you find today?

[1] Matthew 13:11.  The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable: A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989).

[3] David Buttrick, Speaking Parables: A Homiletic Guide (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 67.

[4] Scott, 357.

[5] Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen, Chicken Soup for the Soul rev. ed. (HCI, 1993), 228.

[6] Matthew 9:6.

[7] Scott, 362.

[8] “Testify to Love” by Henk Pool, Robert T. Riekerk, Paul Field, and Ralph Van Manen of Avalon. Copyright © 1998 Universal Music Publishing Group, EMI Music Publishing.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Is It Lawful to Cure on the Sabbath?

July 5, 2020

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Union, Illinois

Matthew 12:1-14[1]

The sabbath is a gift from God. For the newly forming Israelite community, it must have seemed incredibly wonderful. After long years of slavery in Egypt, to have a day dedicated to rest on which no work was to be done was a treasure. Over time, it became a signature characteristic of Jewish people, that they didn’t work on the sabbath. Taking a break from the routine, taking time to worship God and be with their families was, and still is for most, part of their identity. In the list of the commandments in Exodus 20 we read:

Remember the sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.[2]

This idea of getting a day off from work, and taking time to worship God, is precious. Certainly, this was important to a people who had just been enslaved. This precious gift from God must be protected. And so, later in Exodus, the Lord gives Moses instructions for keeping the sabbath, and says:

Keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who violates the sabbath will be put to death. Whoever does any work on the sabbath, that person will be cut off from the people.[3]

This is serious business. God really wants you to take a break. This is reiterated, with a more positive spin, in Isaiah 58:

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.[4]

Keeping sabbath, and keeping it holy, is a really big deal. Bad things happen when you work on the sabbath, and good things happen when you rest. This is why the Pharisees are so upset by what Jesus does. The disciples are hungry, so they pick some grain to eat. That’s work. Better that they should go hungry. Jesus tries to point out that this isn’t worth getting worked up about. After all, even David, the great King, broke the rules when necessary. The temple priests break the rules when necessary. What’s more important, following the letter of the law, or compassion and mercy?

The Pharisees response isn’t recorded, but they probably walked away grumbling to each other. The sabbath day is precious. If Jesus starts working on the sabbath, then his followers will start doing work on the sabbath, and pretty soon no one will get a day off ever again! Madness!

Later, they try to make their point again, this time in the synagogue where there is a man with a withered hand. “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” they ask. Surely this man can wait. Jesus responds with a sheep fallen into a pit, and declares “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” The Pharisees don’t like this answer either. The question is, do we?

Do we always value the human being more than we do our pets, or livestock, or property? Do we value compassion and mercy more than the rules? This is a larger question than just whether it is lawful to do good on the sabbath. This is greater than the temple and the rules of purity and holiness. The question raised here is whether we value mercy more than laying blame and guilt. The question is whether we value people more than we value the laws meant to control us.

I don’t think Jesus meant these stories to be a license to break any law or ignore any rule that we find inconvenient. I do think he meant to show that there is a higher law, the law of love, mercy, and compassion.

Now, I am not the most merciful or compassionate person around. I admit that I cast a lot of judgement on my neighbor who kept having parties when we were supposed to be in quarantine. I have given the stink eye to people not wearing a mask in the store. And there was that night I yelled at someone shooting off fireworks close to my house which woke up my young children. I could stand to be more compassionate and merciful. And I pray that God will make me more kind and loving.

There are good reasons for the rules and laws that we have. Laws and rules of behavior allow us to have a peaceful, civil society. They give us a standard set of expectations that help us all to live together and enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and keep us from harming one another. The commandment to keep the sabbath holy is a good law, and I’m sure under most circumstances Jesus would advocate for observing the sabbath.

But there are times when human need supersedes the rules. If my child is rushed to the hospital, I’m not going to wait for traffic lights. I will probably be ticketed, justifiably so, but it would be worth the cost to be at the side of one I love in time of great need.

It is a question at least as old as Socrates, whether there are circumstances when it is right to break the law. When does the moral supersede the legal? What goal justifies breaking the rules?

This is not a simple question, nor one that can be answered in a twenty-minute sermon. The goals of those who would disobey the law have to reach into the heart of morality before we can say that they are right to do so. This question bears on current events, and there are no easy answers. Is the moral cause more important than the law? Is the human being of more value than the sheep? Is it the right thing to do to cure on the sabbath?

For Jesus, the man with the withered hand was the right choice. Curing him would add to the charges against him, but mercy said “stretch out your hand.” The Pharisees conspired about how to destroy him, yet the Son of Man would continue to pursue love, compassion, hope, and forgiveness all the way to the end.

Enjoy your sabbath day. Seek rest, take delight in the Lord, and share love and peace. If you have to do a little work, or commit an act of kindness, I am pretty sure God will understand.  Amen.

[1] The scripture quotations contained herein are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] Exodus 20:8-11.

[3] Exodus 31:14.

[4] Isaiah 58:13-14a.