I’m tired. I’m worn out. I’m run down, and I’m stressed out. And I’m sure I’m not alone. Just as an example from my life, in the last two weeks I’ve had a friend in ICU, another friend total her car, two prayer groups, directory pictures at my church in Lexington, 15 hours of work at the daycare, countless hours of work at the church, put together 4 bulletins for the month of October, sat in class for 21 hours, been to chapel twice, studied for and taken one mid-term exam, written 5 papers, been to two elders bible studies, sat through a deacon and elders meeting, spent time with my spiritual group, had 7 class group meetings, been to a bachelorette party, sat in on a two day preaching conference, babysat my professor’s daughter, been on two plane rides, met with my field education supervisor, done 7 loads of laundry and written a sermon.
Where does the time go? Where do I fit in anything else? Where do any of us fit in anything else into our lives? Soccer practice, board meetings, bath time, kitchen remodeling, rush hour traffic, doctors visits, countless emails, deadlines, homework, business trips, dining out, selling or buying new homes, and the constant nag of our cell phones, PDA’s and Blackberries…
Not only do these things stress us out, wear us out and tire us out. But, these things also leave us all broken…out of order….defeated…. and hungering for wholeness, as still more is demanded of us and still more pulls us apart in different directions.
On average, parents are working longer hours, for less pay, than 20 years ago and the absence of family life, exhaustion, and anxiety about money is taking a toll on all our lives. We have trouble showing self-restraint, forgetting the ever so important word…NNNNOOOO… and we have trouble prioritizing our time and lives on what WE really need, rather than responding to what society is telling us we need, or need to do.
Where do we find rest? Where do we find our refuge? How do we maintain balance?
Yoga? Reading a favorite novel? Time with family? Taking a nap? Meditation? Time in prayer?
When do we find time to recover from the week? Or make ourselves ready for the next week?
We meet up with our scripture lesson for this week, in the book of Matthew, in the chapters of Matthew that specifically focus on conflict. The stories in chapters 11 and 12 focus on, and teach about CONLICT WITH THE KINGDOM OF THIS AGE. And more importantly, they focus on the radical reorientation of the lives of the disciples, and the radical reorientation of our lives, to which Jesus calls us all, in response to the conflict with the “kingdom” of this age.
The story depicts a conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees: the Pharisees were concerned with what Jesus’ disciples were doing on the Sabbath…the Pharisees were concerned with the outward things –such as not healing a man on the Sabbath – and Jesus is concerned with the heart. We have to be careful in looking at this text though. It is misleading, superficial and too simplistic to try and understand this text in terms of a conflict between Jewish legalism and Jesus, or the church’s freedom from the Law of the Old Testament. So in order to try and avoid these mistakes of treating this text superficially or simplistically, we must first get a good sense of the meaning of “Sabbath,” from where it was first used and understood.
Now at this point, I could bore you all to tears with an epistemology of the word “Sabbath” in both Greek and Hebrew, citing their first uses, root words, and various conjugations, and show you how much I’ve been studying! But something tells me that you all might be asleep by the time I am finished.
Instead, let’s just think to two very important uses of the word Sabbath, two stories that we are all aware of, that we all know, and that both have very significant implications on this story in Matthew. Observing a Sabbath day was not only commanded by God as part of the Ten Commandments, the fundamental, covenantal law of the Hebrew people, but was also observed and blessed by God at the beginning of creation. And in this sense, keeping the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath was not, and still is not a superficial or casual thing. In times of duress, faithful Hebrew people would rather die than break God’s law by misusing the Sabbath. The Sabbath was a joy, a delight, and a pleasure, not a burden.
And even still, when the Sabbath is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, the Sabbath has an ingredient, and aspect of social justice expressed in it. Servants and slaves of the day received a much needed rest, of which they could not be deprived, because it was commanded by God, and the poor and the hungry joined in eating and drinking, because a feast of eating and drinking was a huge part of observing the Sabbath. The Sabbath was just, and it was divine. Sabbath was supposed to be a radical reorientation of people’s lives. It was supposed to reorientate ALL people towards rest and rejuventation, re-creation of themselves really.
Sabbath is divine, because not only did God command that we observe the Sabbath, but because God also observed Sabbath. And we don’t observe it just because God did, on that seventh day of creation… monkey see monkey do. We don’t do it, simply because we SEE it being done. But instead we do it, we also observe Sabbath, or NEED to observe Sabbath, because we are created in the image of God. Because in God’s very image, we are created and made, and as creatures of God’s image, we too need that chance of respit. We need that chance to practice self-preservation, to say NO, to slow down and refocus ourselves. We need that chance to rebel against what the rest of society is telling us, to ignore Sunday as any other day, and to practice this thing we call… wait, what is it? This thing called….rest.
Now, as we return to the story in Matthew, we see that the religious system of that day had mainly become concerned with measuring up to a bunch of external criteria – a very long list of things to do and things not to do. The laws surrounding the keeping of the Sabbath had become extremely burdensome, and time-consuming with explicit rules about how far you were allowed to walk, what you were allowed to do around the house, even what help you were allowed to offer someone in need. They had even made a rule that you could provide aid to save someone’s life, but anything less than imminent death had to wait until the Sabbath was over. This man in Matthew with the shriveled hand was not in immediate danger, so Jesus’ healing him was a violation of the Sabbath laws.
What this tells me about this time period, is that the religious leaders had lost touch with the original purpose and calling of the Sabbath. They had become preoccupied with outward adherence to the requirements of the law without regard for the heart. Obedience to the forms of religion had become the most important thing, and the heart of the people didn’t matter. THIS is what we see Jesus confronting. God’s will in observing the Sabbath is that human good, and human mercy, is to take precedence over laws, even over those laws that concern God’s honor. In fact, setting aside these laws that concern God’s honor, in order to show human compassion and mercy, is even a way of honor God.
But, just like the Pharisees, we too are in danger of missing this purpose, the initial will of God for observing the Sabbath. There is a danger that we come to a point of just going through the motions – showing up at church week after week, singing the songs, sleeping through the sermon – without putting any heart into it without putting any thought into how this is affecting our own relationship with God. We can get lazy, take our focus off God and onto the details of our lives, and forget what it is we are really doing and why we are doing it. We sing instead of worshipping. We day-dream instead of praying. We just write a check instead of focusing on our tithing. We listen to be entertained rather than to understand and experience God. We look for “Jesus-tainment” that makes us feel good and happy, warm and fuzzy inside. And we become afraid of hearing a prophetic word about what it is that God is asking us to do in our lives and in this world. There is a danger of our relationship with God becoming nothing more than routine. We get so caught up in this routine, that we fear God breaking us out of this routine, and asking us to love God’s children, asking us to show mercy and compassion to ALL God’s children, and to do more within this community of Christ, than just coming to church once a week.
On February 11, 1962, Parade Magazine published a brief story, titled: “Still Munching Candy.” It says…
At the village church in Kalonovka, Russia, attendance at Sunday school picked up after the priest started handing out candy to the peasant children. One of the most faithful children was a pug-nosed, aggressive boy who recited his Scriptures with proper piety, pocketed his reward, then fled into the fields to munch on it. The priest took a liking to the boy, and persuaded him to attend church school. And this was preferable to doing household chores from which his devout parents excused him. By offering other incentives, the priest managed to teach the boy the four Gospels. In fact, he won a special prize for learning all four by heart and reciting them nonstop in church. Now, 60 years later, he still likes to recite Scriptures, but in a context that would horrify the old priest. For this prize pupil, who memorized so much of the Bible, is Nikita Khrushchev, the former Communist czar. Nikita Khrushchev who lightly mouthed God’s Word as a child, later declared God to be nonexistent -- because the cosmonauts had not seen God in their journeys through space. Khrushchev memorized the Scriptures for the candy, the rewards, and the bribes, rather than for the meaning it had for his life. He knew the words, but knew nothing of their meaning or of the life that comes through knowing God.
Jesus confronts that exact attitude in this story. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus gets in the face of the religious leaders, and says in verse 12 that doing good is lawful on the Sabbath. Caring for a fellow human being, actually caring and ministering to their needs, is more important that living up to some external requirements of the law.
Yet among all of this, we want to make sure and emphasize again, it would be superficial and simplistic of us to understand this conflict in terms of Jesus versus Jewish legalism. It would shallow of us to pin humanitarianism against ritual. We are doing no such thing. In the same way that the Pharisees simply needed help, and further understanding of God’s covenant, of God’s commandment, we too need that reminder. There is nothing wrong with the laws of God’s covenant, rather what is wrong is us. The problem is when we get caught up in the rules and the regulations, rather than the meaning behind them.
And this challenge is still here for us today.
Are we just going through the motions? Did we come to church today just because that is what you do on Sunday morning? Did you show up just so that others would look at you and think you are doing the right thing, that you are a moral person, when really you have spent the rest of the week doing things that you know are wrong? Have we come to practice the ritual, while forgetting the mercy we are called to embrace every day of the week? Have we come on Sunday to make up for not remembering the compassion we are called to Monday through Sunday?
Let me turn that around and phrase it positively. Did we come to worship God today?
Now like I said, one of the many things I did this week was attend a preaching conference for two days at the seminary. If you can imagine “rock stars” of preaching, then this was it. The celebrities of preaching, on America’s Preaching Idol. We jokingly called these men, the “Fab 5.” And while offering amazing insights on preaching, it was a story from one of them that stuck with me the most. As has happened many times before, this “celebrity preacher” had been “booked” to preach in a local church, and had brought out huge crowds. Hundreds had come to see their favorite celebrity preacher at this particular church service one Sunday morning. However, this celebrity preacher was unable to make it. He had been detained by some airline issues and some flights. And after realizing that he was not going to show up, one of the local ministers was going to have to announce this to “the crowds” and let them know this celebrity would be unable to make it. Of course, it was the new student minister at this local church that would draw the short stick, and was picked to announce in front of the congregation that the preacher in the bulletin would not be preaching this morning, but that worship would go on as usual. This student minister steps up into the pulpit, something she was fearful of doing in the first place, and says, “I am sorry to say that (your celebrity preacher) will not be able to be here this morning. However if you have come to worship God, worship will still begin at 10:30am. Thank you.”
Did you come because you love God, and couldn’t imagine letting an opportunity to bring the Almighty an offering of worship slip by without taking advantage of it?
Or did you come because you are hurting, and you knew that by bringing yourself here you would find strength, encouragement, and power to change the hurt into healing?
Maybe you came to dive into God’s Word, to see what message might be provided for you today?
Did you come out of love, for God and for all God’s people that are gathered here? Did you come to serve God, sharing the gifts, given to you, to share with the rest?
Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea in verse 7, saying “If you had known what these words mean, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent,” Jesus reminds the Pharisees, and us of where God had expressly told the Israelites that mercy – an action which flows out of a heart of love – is what God desires far more than an empty sacrifice. Compassion for God’s children is what God desires more than ceremonial worship. God wants our hearts. God wants mercy for fellow children of God. God wants love, regardless of race, creed, sexual persuasion, gender, age, economic standing, or doctrine. God wants forgiveness, even if it means forgoing a commandment which honors God. God wants us, when we come to worship, when we come to the Sabbath, God wants us to truly understand the words, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
For some of us, our experience of church, our upbringing, our encounters with Christianity in general have been very much like the Pharisees – lists of rules and expectations pushed upon us, which sometimes we accepted just to please those around us, with understanding them or seeking understanding of them. But that isn’t what God is asking. That is not God’s desire. God wants our love. God wants our worship as a response to God’s grace, as a result of what God has done for us. We run the risk of “cramming” God into those busy lives of ours, because it is something that must be done, just something that we have to do. But God does not want emply presence, nor an empty, meaningless slavery to ritual. Rather God wants a relationship where we interact with Him on a personal level, because we have been invited to do so on a special day, on this our Sabbath day.