- Parish House
Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost – Mark 2:23-3:6
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Did you hear about the pastor who asked his flock for a new private jet this week? A televangelist by the name of Jesse Duplantis told his followers that he needs about $54 million for a Falcon 7X. The luxury jet would help him more efficiently spread the gospel to as many people as possible. In an interview, he explained that if Jesus were around today, he wouldn’t be riding a donkey. “He’d be on an airplane preaching the gospel all over the world.” The Light of the World, he argued, wouldn’t exactly settle for 30 inches of legroom or getting patted down by the TSA (Washington Post). Duplantis already has three jets, but he needs this new one for a variety of reasons I couldn’t quite follow. My first thought was: wow, I’m in the wrong denomination. My second thought was outright judgment. Of all the passages in scripture about ministry, it’s hard to get a private jet out of them. Sure, the harvest is plenty and the laborers are few, and one could reach more of the harvest with a luxury jet. But it’s hard to get around the fact that Jesus sent folks out two by two and told them not to take any money or extra clothes or even a sandwich with them. I think any biblical pro-jet arguments for ministry break down pretty quickly.
It’s just so satisfying to judge someone for breaking the religious rules. But, God knows that while I cast stones at some prosperity gospel preacher, plenty of people want to cast stones at the Episcopal Church. For all of our differences, one thing we have in common across Christianity is that we take religious rules very seriously. And, we are pretty quick to point out who gets them wrong. But the rules of our faith were never meant to be the thing that occupies us the most in religious life. They are a tool, not the final destination. While we’re busy arguing about who gets them right, we can lose sight of their ultimate purpose.
Today’s gospel looks like a pretty standard fight over the rules. Jesus’ disciples walked through a wheat field and picked some food on the sabbath. And then Jesus healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue. Both acts were considered unlawful on the sabbath. The backstory is that Jesus was already getting a reputation as something of an annoying troublemaker, so the Pharisees were quick to raise a stink about these blatant violations of the rules. What gave Jesus the right to break them? Today’s scene was about minor infractions, but they must have wondered how far he would take it.
Jesus had just the right response, of course. He asked them if it was lawful to do good or to harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill? The answer was obvious, healing the man’s hand was about life, not death. The Pharisees had gotten it wrong. And in an ironic twist in the story, those rule-abiding Pharisees left and immediately conspired against Jesus. They wished him harm, which meant that they actually broke the sabbath rules. That irony should not be lost on us rule-loving people.
If today’s gospel were simply about sabbath rules and winning an argument, well it wouldn’t be all that interesting or edifying. It would reinforce the idea that there are two sides to such things, only one of which is right. That pretty well describes the world we live in, a world of polarization and division. We all assume we are on the right side of issues, like how wrong it is to ask people to fund your private jet for ministry. But if our options are always limited to binaries, black or white, republican or democrat, gun rights or gun control, liberal or
conservative, vegan or paleo, well then there isn’t much hope for progress. We would be forever stuck in self-righteous judgment of those with whom we disagree. What if this episode about sabbath rules is about something else – about a transcendent third option that can free us from how self-referential and divided we are? That’s the real wisdom in today’s gospel. It goes something like this.
Jesus said: “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” The sabbath was made for us, and Jesus is Lord of it all. We tend to think of the sabbath as a day of rest, perhaps a day to take a break from screens or commit to other personal practices of wellness. But the sabbath was always meant to remind us that whatever we think we possess, or whatever work we do, all of it belongs to God. Resting on the day that God rested is to remind us that everything in creation belongs to God. Keeping the sabbath is a profoundly humbling religious practice. It reminds us that our ultimate reference point is not our selves. Not our self-worth, or work, or possessions, or positions on issues. Our ultimate reference is the Lord. And this transcendent third option beyond our binary world asks us to order our lives on God, making amends wherever we are self-centered or self-righteous.
Do you remember the story when Jesus went into the synagogue on the sabbath day and read from the scroll of Isaiah? This is the passage he read: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” It’s such a dramatic scene, and we usually skip over the most important line in that story, the line about proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. That’s a reference to the year of jubilee. Jubilee was like the sabbath on steroids. Every seventh year amazing things happened. And every 49th or 50th year, even more remarkable things. If you had lost your house or land, it was restored to you. Debts were forgiven. Slaves were freed. All was restored, which meant that there was no need for greed or despair in the community.
The late Fred Craddock, one of the most endearing preachers of the 20th century, gave a sermon about jubilee and this episode of Jesus declaring the year of the Lord’s favor. He said that scholars have pointed out that there is no evidence that Israel ever practiced Jubilee. “You can’t have any fun if there is a scholar in the room,” Craddock pointed out. And besides, it doesn’t matter if it happened that way. It was a dream. It was a hope. It was a vision of how life could be. Jubilee was a dream in which all was restored to its proper state, everything healed and made new, like that man’s withered hand on the sabbath. The dream of jubilee touched the wheat fields and homes and prisoners and debts, and also the peach trees, the fish in the stream, the entire universe. It was a hope.
Jesus is the incarnation of that beautiful dream. He is that vision, he is that hope. He is the restored creation. He is that transcendent option for us to orient our lives to, beyond the divisions of our lives. He came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. For Jesus, it was never about breaking the rules on the sabbath just to win an argument with the Pharisees. It was probably never about luxury jets for ministry, either. It was always about bringing us closer to jubilee. It was always about helping us to see the vision. It was always about the hope of how things could be. It was always to show us jubilee.