Can't Box God In ~ Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18; Mark 2:23-3:6
When I was growing up in Arlington, Virginia back in the 60s you couldn’t get beer or wine at the grocery stores on Sunday due to “blue laws.” Mothers came home from church and the pot roast appeared. How come the Sabbath used to be sacrosanct except for the pastor and the cook of the Sunday meal? I’m just sayin.’
And if the movie theaters were open (and I am not sure they were) I wasn’t allowed to go. I didn’t go to my first Sunday movie until I was a teenager! And my mom just didn’t think that was quite right.
Maybe if we re-imposed the Sabbath rules, the world would be a better place? Maybe if there were no youth soccer or baseball or hockey or lacrosse on Sunday – if the malls were closed – we would be better off.
The Sabbath was for church and then being with family until you went back to church if that was your tradition. Sounds nice.
We yearn for Sabbath these days – time and space to collect oneself, to BE still.
But can you impose this on non-Christians? How would we feel if everything got shut down on Saturdays, Fridays to honor Jews and Muslims? What happens when rules get oppressive or unjust? Who makes sure they are followed?
It gets complicated.
And so the confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees, set on the Sabbath – is the context for something quite deep even though it seems so obscure.
How do you please God? How do you get your life in order? When do you get to break the rules? And who makes the rules?
Spoiler alert – I am not sure I have an answer for any of these questions. Unless I come up with something really quick, you may leave here more confused than clear!
I get the Pharisees in this story… up until the part that they conspire with the Herodians to “destroy Jesus.” But I may even understand that. When someone pushes too far – discomforts so deeply, challenges one’s very source of identity – something has to be done. They get fired, or re-assigned, or not hired, or imprisoned – “destruction” comes in many forms.
The Pharisees had a point – there are certain rules to follow that bind communities together, traditions that set boundaries of identity. And that is not a bad thing –as humans we want order, rules to follow, clarity, simplicity – do’s and don’ts.
We have to protect our borders, no? We have amendment rights, right? We have laws to follow. We are a nation of laws.
In the days of occupation, one of the main ways that Jews were Jews were in following Sabbath laws – it set them apart, made them special, they were seeking to follow God after all.
Jesus was coloring WAAAAY outside of the lines. He was pushing the envelope, no doubt about it. The Pharisees wanted to keep control the message, but Jesus was off the chain!
And who did Jesus think he was… challenging these traditions? The Son of God?
It is too simplistic to demonize the Pharisees. Even the Sabbath had flexibility built in. If you were a Jew, starving in first century Palestine, it was not against the Sabbath law to feed yourself or others. You could pick a piece of fruit off a tree or take grain from the field.
But Jesus and his disciples were not starving. They could have picked the grain Sunday through Friday until sundown. They should have been better prepared.
Jesus acted and wanted a reaction.
Likewise – healing in the Synagogue on the Sabbath – that man had had a withered hand his whole life – he wasn’t going to die from it. Jesus could have found him on Monday morning, set up an appointment and performed his miracle.
Jewish law was based on tradition that was OLD and just part of the way things were done: you could do all sorts of creative, helpful, hopeful, healing things six days out of the week, but you honored God on the seventh day!
But if your neighbor’s ox fell into a ditch on the Sabbath – you could help take it out.
If someone was dying, you could do all that you could do to help the person. In fact, it was against Jewish law to be a bystander when someone needed your help.
Jesus’s actions are like taking a knee at the playing of the national anthem.
It is like the Berrigan brothers throwing vials of pig blood on the nuclear submarines docked in Connecticut (for you old time activists!)
It is like Ezell Blair, Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil. Anyone know who they were? They were the four men who integrated the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.
It is like a church taking in an undocumented immigrant.
Let that percolate for a moment.
Where do you draw the line? How do you follow God? How do you please God?
Feeling the tension? Good! Tension is where the growth potential is.
Here is the tension of the Gospel, perhaps it is the tension of your life. It is a human desire to get clarity, and that is a good thing. It is a human proclivity to make and follow rules and laws – without them it is hard to be in community. We put frames around pictures, and rivers have banks – and when the river overflows there is destruction.
But when we forget the people affected by the laws – the children separated from their parents at the border. Those suffering from Jim Crow. Leonor separated from her home and family. It definitely affects our perspective. That is the way it always is: proximity to real people makes the “otherness” go away.
That is why Jesus declared, “It’s about people!” The Gospel is about the WORD made people, made flesh! Sabbath is for people, not the other way around.
Deanne and I had a friend who was a mother who once told us, “It is the parent’s job to set boundaries. It is your child’s job to push them!”
Jesus was pushing. He was countering the human desire to clarify with the divine desire to confuse; the human desire to organize with the divine desire to overturn the applecart and scatter things around; the human desire to simplify with the divine desire to get messy; the human desire to generalize, the divine desire to personalize; the human desire to box God in with the divine desire to show that God has no boundaries, the human desire to get small with the divine desire to make us get REALLY BIG.
It can make you feel uncomfortable. It can make you feel enormous.
The person who wrote Psalm 139 was big into the mystery – the bigness of God….
O Lord you have searched me and known me….
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me… it is so high I cannot attain it.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast the sum of them!
I try to count them – they are more than the sand;
I come to the end – I am still with you.
The Psalmist also reflects the shadow side of the tension. If you read on to verse 19: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God.”
“Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord. I hate them with a perfect hatred.”
This is how the Pharisees saw Jesus. That is how ISIS views the world inside the Caliphate.
Wow – now that’s big and little – there is always this tension between our desire to box God in and make HIM play by our rules – of cause and effect, of punishment for wrong doing, of hell and judgment, of God being on our side – do it our way or hit the highway.
And God’s desire it seems is to throw away the box altogether.
And that leaves me confused and anxious.
What I do know is that what I testify to is the following: Not all the time, but a lot of the time – it is only as we open ourselves to ambiguity that we make room for God; when we are lost that we are found, when we let of the answer that solutions arise, when we are blind that we see, when we are dying, we come to see eternal life.
When we forget the people, the humans – and depersonalize – and demonize – and destroy… it leads to our own destruction.
When I feel anxious, I admit, I like to go to the fridge and eat something. And today Jesus offers us a wee meal of bread made by the grains of the earth and a wee dram of juice made from the fruit of the earth.
In the midst of the muddle, he comes to all and says: come, eat and drink – the Sabbath was made for humans not the other way around.
It’s going to be OK!
Just remember the people, know you are loved and don’t box God in!