stretch out your hand

a sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost [Year B]

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23–3:6

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As some of you may know because I’ve mentioned it before, our 4th graders planted wheat from seeds back in March as a part of their Holy Communion instruction. It was the first time any of us had ever tried growing wheat, so we didn’t know what to expect. I was thinking the stalks would grow somewhat slowly and give us some grain by mid-summer. I don’t know if it’s all the rain we’ve had or just what wheat does but, lo and behold, we’ve got amber waves of grain already. Actually, they’re still green waves, and it’s more of a ripple than a wave, but each stem is topped by 9 or 10 kernels of wheat bobbing in the wind.

The thing is: I don’t have a clue about what to do with them. We had a great time that day planting them, and I was excited to see them sprout perfectly in time for Easter, but I’ve never harvested wheat, so I don’t know when to pick them or how to do it. Therefore, I figured that maybe we planted the wheat just so that I’d have some grain to pick on a Sabbath, which is what I did this morning before I came in to worship.

I picked this grain of wheat and I doubt anyone is going to get after me for doing it, except for maybe the 4th graders, and even they wouldn’t be upset because I’m picking it on a Sunday. However, as we hear in this portion of Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus didn’t get off so easy. As he and his disciples are walking through grainfields on their way through Galilee, they begin to pick the heads of grain and, I assume, eat them. Some religious officials catch them doing this and immediately want to know why, if he is a follower of the Jewish faith, he would allow his disciples do something that is not allowed on the Sabbath Day. Why is picking grains of wheat not allowed on the Sabbath Day? Well, as far as they and their religious laws are concerned, picking wheat is one of the long list of things that qualify as work, and as any law-abiding Jewish person would know, work is strictly prohibited on the Sabbath Day.

Now, this may sound really silly to us (what is picking wheat?), even though we are still, as a culture two thousand years later, are still a bit unclear about what the days of the week are for. It wasn’t too long ago that most of the country had blue laws, restrictions about which businesses could be open and which goods and services could be sold on Sundays and weekends. Most of those have been repealed now, probably to our detriment, even though we wouldn’t like to admit it. I know most people would probably expect a religious leader like me to be in favor of blue laws because it might lead to better worship attendance, but that’s actually not my concern. I wonder more about how things like a common day of rest across a whole culture might actually strengthen families and contribute in some way to making us less divisive overall, a problem we are clearly dealing with in all kinds of ways now. I just know that whenever Chik-Fil-A decides to open on Sunday there’s going to be a lot of happy people…except for people who wear Chik-Fil-A uniforms.

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Whatever your stance on blue laws is, honoring the Sabbath Day in Jesus’ culture was not just a minorly annoying little law the religious leaders had made up. It was one of the Ten Commandments; that is, one of the ten core, foundational rules of the faith given by God for God’s people to have a life where they would flourish, the life that God intended for them. In fact, the real name for the ten commandments is actually the Ten Words. These commandments are so basic and so intrinsic to everything about life with God that they are like words are to a thought or a sentence. They speak life and hope into the life of the people of God, giving them purpose and identity, and one of the first words, depending on how you number them, is to take a break. One: You’ve got a great God and remember to obey him. Two: Take care of that God’s name because that name is directly related to God’s particular story and identity, and you don’t want to treat the name so carelessly that it gets mixed up with other gods’ identities. Three: Now you need to remember those two things, so set some time aside for it and make it a priority. Time, which is truly our only non-renewable resource, is necessary to be reminded of those first two things because we’re terribly forgetful. Too much time goes by and we’ll forget.

There’s a key in there about these ten words that the religious authorities seemed to have forgotten. The key is that these words were never meant to be viewed as restrictions, as “thou shalts” and “thou shalt nots,” but as gifts. There is an inherent promise in each of the commandments, like a kernel of grain inside a hard husk, and focusing only on what it prohibits or does not allow is actually a warping of them.

What then is the promise in keeping the Sabbath Day, of refraining from certain things that could involve work? It is to allow our attentions to focus on the life-giving work of God (who accomplishes more work for us than we ever could). It is to honor the fact that built into creation itself is renewal and restoration. It is to recognize over and over that fundamental to human creativity and ingenuity and industry is rest. Taking time away and time off is not an interruption of work. It is a part of it. Sabbath-keeping, you see, helped instill that in people’s faith, but the Pharisees had taken it to an extreme. They would not even allow feeding the hungry or healing to occur on the Sabbath day because it looked like someone was working.

Then along comes Jesus doing those things. Along comes Jesus who allows grain-picking on the Sabbath because disciples are hungry, who sees a man in need of healing and says, “Stretch out your hand” just so that the Pharisees can hear it. And it’s not because Jesus is a rebel and disliked religion. It’s not because Jesus goes around looking for ways to tick off religious leaders. It’s because Jesus, unlike anyone else, could understand what the point of that commandment was, just like he could embody what all of God’s words meant. He could see that it’s work to go through life with a withered hand, or any disability, for that matter. Or in grinding poverty. Jesus could see that holy time was not holy simply because you were following God’s rules and being good. Holy time was holy because it was blessed by the presence of God’s Word, and God’s Word has always been that which truly gives life. Keeping the Sabbath preserves a time where God’s word can be heard and seen and then let loose to do its thing, which means it makes absolute sense for someone to have their life restored and withered hand stretched out on the Sabbath. It isn’t work at all.

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That’s why when Martin Luther gives an explanation for the Third Commandment in his Small Catechism he does not relate it to taking time off, per se, but in taking time with God’s Word. He says, “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

Church and worship is not just another activity, even though pastors often make it seem like that, and there’s nothing inherently more holy about Sunday than the other days. Time with God’s Word is always life-giving, no matter when it happens. Our time here, the day the Word rose from the dead, is a weekly reminder of who and whose we really are. It’s a weekly identity check that our life depends on.

Once when I was in high school I attended a week of Rotary camp with kids from several different high schools. On one of the first days there I ran into this one girl who knew me from another camp somewhere, but she had mis-remembered my name. She walked up to me and called me “Peter,” and because I was flustered and giddy around girls at that age I was too shy to correct her right off the bat.

Well, the next time she walked up to talk to me, sure enough, she yelled out, “Hey, Peter,” and I was even more embarrassed to correct her because there were other people around. Thankfully, none of them heard her say it. For the rest of the week, however, whenever I saw that girl wanted to talk to me I would try to walk away from earshot of everyone else so I could be “Peter” to her, even though, of course, I was really Phillip.

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Here God wants to remind us of our real name each time we hear his Word, drink of the cup, eat of the bread. One study in 2015 showed that the average American is exposed to somewhere between 4000 and 10,000 ads a day. That is 4000 to 10,000 daily suggestions of who someone thinks you are or what someone thinks you need to be, essentially calling you Peter when you know you are someone else. And that’s before we factor in the messages we receive from social media that try to tell us who we are supposed to be friends with or what label we’re supposed to be comfortable with.

Youth, in particular, these days are under unbelievable stress to “form an identity” and choose a label and I worry about that pressure in their lives. It’s unfortunate this all coincides with a time when there are so many more options for activities on Sundays and every other day of the week, too.

In this city, just driving up and down Monument Avenue we find reminders of a certain identity and history that authorities want us to remember and adopt for ourselves, whether it’s true for us or not.

In this midst of all this, in the midst of the misnaming and the mistaking, we have a God who gets honest with us. He doesn’t need a monument or memorial or place for this honesty; just time with his Word. We have a God who knows we’re not perfect even when we’re pretty sure we’re “all that,” and so time with his Word will remind us of our brokenness, our need for forgiveness. We have a God who understands our inclination to turn into Pharisees, demanding holiness from everyone else, and his Word knocks us down a notch or two to where we belong.

But we also have a God who knows how to heal, who knows we’re wandering, who knows it’s hard to know who we really belong to in this world. We get to follow a God who loves us and has offered himself on the cross for us, who knows we’re worth a lot even when we don’t feel it. And in those times, when we’re not too busy, his Word gathers us in and lifts us up. In those times we realize that we get to follow a God who says, “Stretch out your hand.”  And then into our open, stretched out hand—wonder of wonders—he places his very life.

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Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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