“Breaking the Law to Do What is Right”
A Sermon on Mark 2:23 – 3:6 for the 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B; preached June 3, 2018, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
As the story goes, there once was an ashram (as monasteries are often called in south Asian religions)… there was an ashram where a respected guru lived, with many disciples. Also living in this ashram was a cat, a wonderful cat, friendly and eager to please.
When the guru sat down to lead worship each evening, though, the ashram cat would get in the way and distract the worshippers. So the guru ordered that the cat be tied to a post in another room during evening worship.
The day came when that guru left this earthly life, and still, the cat continued to be tied during the evening worship.
Eventually, when the cat expired, another cat was brought to the ashram so that it could be duly tied during evening worship.
Centuries later, learned treatises were written by the guru’s scholarly disciples… on the liturgical significance of tying up a cat while worship is performed.
There is a danger when we hear stories like the one we just heard from the gospel of Mark this morning, a danger that plenty of Christians have fallen into over the centuries. You see, we naturally prefer to find ourselves on the supposed “good” side of a story—this is, I think, a fairly universal human tendency. And so we hear a story like this morning’s, and it all to easily turns into “Jesus good, Pharisees bad” and “freedom good, rules bad”. Of course, because we read this story as Christians, as people who claim to follow Jesus, that then quickly turns into “us good, them bad”, and we presume ourselves far more enlightened and highly-evolved than whoever we identify as “them”. This is especially a danger for us as Protestant Christians, since as a whole we Protestants tend to see Christian identity as a matter of belief rather than practice. And it’s also especially a danger for us as Americans, with the way our culture prizes individual autonomy and freedom from outside control or seemingly arbitrary rules.
Obviously, rules can be arbitrary at times. Did the monks need to continue tying up a cat after the guru who complained had gone… not to mention after the original cat was gone? Remember, though, that rule had originated from a place of good intention—of not wanting to have a cat howling, caterwauling away, probably wandering around and grooming himself while the monks were trying to chant and meditate.
The rules and practices of observing the Sabbath in Judaism come from very good roots—far better roots, even, than the merely practical concerns that led to the tying of the ashram cat. The main command that establishes the sanctity of the Sabbath comes to us from that portion of the Hebrew scriptures we call the “10 Commandments”. The more-well-known version of the 10 Commandments is the version recorded in the book of Exodus, and there we find the command about the Sabbath rooted in God’s own creative activity:
Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.
In keeping the Sabbath, the people join in the sacred rhythms of God God’s-self, reflecting in their own lives the patterns of God’s activity in the world since its very foundation.
Earlier this morning, we heard from the other place where the “10 Commandments” are recorded in the Hebrew scriptures, appearing in the 5th book of the Bible, the book of Deuteronomy. The command there is basically the same, with the only significant difference being the opening word: “observe” the Sabbath versus “remember” the Sabbath. As a side note, there’s a midrash in Jewish tradition that says God uttered these two words, “remember” and “observe,” simultaneously, reflecting the unity for God of thought and action— a unity we as humans seek to reflect, too.
Anyway, as I was saying, the command around the Sabbath is basically the same, but the reason given for it is different in Deuteronomy: as we heard, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath.” Sabbath-keeping, therefore, also stands as a practice of gratitude in thanksgiving for God’s work of liberation, and being free of work on each Sabbath is a reflection of being free from the work that was endured as slaves.
To this day, among observant Jews, the practice of keeping Sabbath is regarded as a gift, not a burden. In one of the most well-known hymns for beginning the observance of Sabbath, Sabbath is personified as a “bride” that is welcomed in, and is seen as “forever a fountain of blessing,” a place that is “broad” and “free.” The tradition sees the Sabbath as a time and space on earth where a foretaste of the heavenly realm is possible. All of this is to say, the Sabbath itself, and the practice of keeping it, these are not bad things. Moreover, the Pharisees were not wrong or bad in their quest to uphold the keeping of the Sabbath.
Even though we Christians have a tendency to caricature the Pharisees as obsessed with rules, in this case the rules were in place to try to preserve the freedom of the Sabbath. So this is not a matter of supposed Jewish legalism versus so-called Christian freedom. The reality is, the Pharisees in this story “are a stand-in for all convictions, values, traditions, commitments, doctrines, absolutes, proclivities, preferences, and essentialisms—no matter how cherished, noble, or well-intentioned—that stand between us and compassion.” We as Christians—and really any of us as human beings, regardless of our religious or cultural heritage—are just as susceptible to this tendency as anyone else. Plenty of Christian traditions and communities have fallen into that trap, something we here in a New England Congregationalist church should know pretty well, given how we and others caricature our own supposedly “rigid” Puritan ancestors. Indeed, somewhere along the line, the rigidity and restriction of our own Christian-Sabbath-keeping laws and practices became too much for our modern society, and we’ve let them go… but that’s just led to a bondage and slavery of another sort, the bondage of endless consumerism and the slavery of relentless schedules, especially for those in our society for whom economic reality forces them to work on Sabbath and weekend and holiday and evening shift, even while many of us enjoy the conveniences their labor affords us. And so the cycle continues, the pendulum swings: from one rigidity to a different rigidity, from the tyranny of unrelenting rules to the tyranny of unbounded freedom.
Wherever we are in that cycle, whatever point we are at in the pendulum swing, we are likely to be convinced of our “rightness”… how we are right to be where we are, or how we will only be right if we are at a different point. But, you see, rightness is not love. Rightness is not compassion. Rightness is not God. “Being ‘right’ will never get us to Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath. Only compassion will do that.”
The good news, though, is that in Jesus, God comes to us with the boundless compassion that even our own rightness and self-righteousness cannot box in or rule out. Jesus walks “through the sacred fields of our lives, and pluck[s] away what we hold dear” so that we don’t have anything to cling to that is “less bold, daring, scary, exhilarating, or world-altering than love.”
 Based on the telling of the story by Anthony de Mello, The Song of the Bird, reprint ed. (Image, 1984), 63; supplemented by the version of the story told by Gurumayi Chidvilasananda, http://www.siddhayoga.org/teachings/stories/gurus-cat
 Exodus 20:8-11, nrsv.
 The Rabbinical Assembly, Siddur Lev Shalem: For Shabbat & Festivals (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly, 2016), 23. The midrash cited is Mekhilta D’Rabbi Ishmael, Ba?odesh 7.
 A poem, really, by 16th century Jewish mystic Shlomo Halevi Alkabetz, titled L’chah Dodi; this poem/hymn forms the climax of Kabbalat Shabbat, the liturgy of welcoming the Sabbath that in many Jewish communities precedes the Sabbath evening service liturgy.
 Central Conference of American Rabbis, Miskhan T’Filah: A Reform Siddur – Weekdays, Shabbat, Festivals and other occasions of public worship, transliterated ed. (New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2007), 138-139. See also The Rabbinical Assembly, Siddur Lev Shalem, 23-25 (s.v. “L’kha Dodi”).
 M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 89.
 Debie Thomas, “The Lord of the Sabbath,” Journey with Jesus: A Weekly Webzine for the Global Church, Lectionary Essays, 27 May 2018; https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1795-lord-of-the-sabbath