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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

What The Law Lets Us Do - 06/03/2018

After twelve weeks, we have returned to our appointed Gospel in Year B of the lectionary … the Gospel of Mark. Depending on how the Easter Season falls on our church calendar, we enter back into our Mark readings at different points on this second Sunday after Pentecost.

This account from Mark we hear today is the earliest point we can enter back into the gospel and so we don’t often get to hear the story of the Sabbath Day when the hungry, traveling, newly recruited disciples of Jesus plucked ripened seed heads to fill their bellies a little bit as they passed through a golden field of grain …

… the story of this Sabbath Day when Jesus healed a suffering soul in the midst of the assembly gathered at the synagogue to pray and listen for God’s word and reflect on how God’s law took shape in their lives …

… the story of a Sabbath Day that makes us realize we are only 79 verses into this story of when God became human among us, and already the Jewish leaders are conspiring with the enemies of the Jewish people on how to destroy Jesus.

These are all points in the gospel writer’s account of Jesus that come to a question or matter or interpretation of the law – this law we both love and reject, as the saints and sinners we all are in this world.

And I think this point of law we have today is a great place to re-enter the gospel of Mark this year because it is Jesus’ framing of the law that is central to everything else that happens in this story – from the moment Jesus proclaims “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mk 1:15) to the moment the women flee in silence and terror from the empty tomb.

So first, let’s talk about what is meant by the “law.” It’s one of those words that means different things in different ears.

For instance, when I hear the word “law,” I’ll sometimes recall a song from one of the great rock bands of the 70s, Wings “…I'm running from the law … Or they'll put me inside … Baby, won't you let me have … A little time to hide?”

Somebody else might hear the word “law” and think about the need to create law that protects our environment or our most vulnerable brothers and sisters more adequately. And yet someone else may hear the word “law” and think how relieved they still feel that when came up on that highway patrol car the other day, and they were doing a little more than five over, they didn’t get pulled over and tickted – this time.

“Law” can mean a lot of different things. Obviously none of these examples are the kind of “law” at question in our gospel reading today … even though Jesus is already being chased by the “law.”

The law at question here is the law of the Torah.

The Pharisees are charged in the Jewish community with interpreting the law so the people could be more confident that they remained within the law. Well, as sometimes happens with humankind, we can complicate things. You could argue this is one of those times. In addition to the 613 laws of the Torah, which includes the 10 commandments that started all of this … In addition to all of that law, the Pharisees were continually coming up with new interpretations, new precedent, new suggestions and even new laws for how to apply the law to situations the Torah didn’t cover.

Like how to make proper sacrifices when Jerusalem was occupied by enemies. Or in some cases, it might be looking for legal loopholes, like making a way for a man to rid himself of a wife he really didn’t like anymore, but … technically … staying within the law.

So the law of the Sabbath, the Pharisees accurately understood, is just what we read in Dueteromy today. “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” (Deut 5:12-14)

Well Jesus is very deeply studied in all this law too, and he also accurately understands this law as laid out in Deuteronomy

 The difference here, I believe, is what Jesus envisions at the sound of the word “law” in his ears, compared to what the Pharisees or others who are in power envision.

Over time, and probably mostly without malice, the intervention of humankind has added so many layers to God’s law, that it is being choked off, starved, it is withering. And we have two examples of how this is playing out in ways that are hurting people rather than caring for them.

First the Pharisees try to ding Jesus for allowing his disciples to pluck the grain as they go through the field, arguing that the human need for nutrition is not outweighed by the Sabbath law that commands rest. Technically, the law here would have been broken because the disciples would have labored a bit to eat the grain … picking it from the plant and then crushing it in their palms before putting it in their mouths.

Jesus quiets the judgey Pharisees by reminding them of a similar action taken by the great King David.

And then, when Jesus enters the synagogue and sees for himself that the Pharisees’ hearts are so hardened that they can justify someone else’s suffering for their own sense of self-righteousness under the law, Jesus just boldly over rules their legal opinions and cares for the man. Then he reflects back to them what their interpretation reveals about their understanding of the Spirit of God’s law to observe Sabbath.

“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (v 3.4) They were silent. They were busted.

Jesus is pulling back all the layers and revealing the essence of God’s law, like this commandment that we observe Sabbath.

This law is Good News, my friends. This is a directive from God that we are not supposed to be at our labors, whatever they may be, every waking moment. God instead envisions a creation that finds balance and rejuvenation in making sure there is time for R&R built into our lives. And God intends that part of this time we take to rest is deeply rooted in our worship of God and time we spend lifting our prayers and listening for the Word of God; time we take to come around the table and font together to be nourished and freed of our sins by God. 

This is particularly Good News for people who do not have the power to take Sabbath at their own will – people like hired laborers, slaves, strangers and aliens. It’s like the very first labor law.

And not just people. God commands that we see to it that the creatures of this planet and the very flesh of the planet itself is given regular rest from the labors of the industrious and sometimes insatiable interventions of humankind.

This is what Jesus envisions at the word “law.” He did not come to abolish law, but to call it forward in front of God’s assembly … all starved and withered … and command it be stretched out in front of all … to see Jesus bring it back to life.

Jesus pulls back the layers of human intervention so we can see that God’s law is not about what we cannot do. God’s law is about what we can do … and even more so, what God can do through us law abiding citizens of the Kingdom of God come year.

It’s not meant to confine us, but to send us. It’s not meant to starve us, it’s meant to feed us. It is not given to us to cause our hearts and hands to wither, but rather to build and develop and free; to improve, enlarge, grow, strengthen, sometimes free from too much human intervention. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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