A sermon preached on Pentecost II (Proper 4) on June 3, 2018 at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Click here to read the scripture. Press play below to listen along.
Mark’s Gospel is my favorite version of Jesus’ story. It’s succinct with a focused message, yet it’s full of mystery and metaphor to unravel. Every single word seems to have meaning and purpose. There is no extra flourishes or over-explanations. Nothing more than what you need to go deeply into the mystery of Christ. It doesn’t let language get in the way of the message.
So when we read today’s passage from Mark, where Jesus is walking along in the grainfields with his disciples we don’t know exactly why Jesus and the disciples were there in the first place. And we have no idea why the Pharisees were hanging out nearby watching him. Or perhaps they were among the disciples, walking with them for some reason. We have no idea. But that’s not what matters
What does, matter is the message: the rules we make, even and especially when they are about God, can sometimes get in the way of actually serving God.
To answer the Pharisees concern about doing the work of picking on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds us of their celebrated ancestor David, who broke the rules – rules about worship, of all things – so that he could feed hungry people. It wasn’t an act of disrespect. It was an act of Love.
And what Mark offers us in this passage is that Jesus stood in contrast to the Pharisees in this way: Jesus was trying to free people from the constraints of the rules to care for each other, trying to help us understand that the God of Love would rather that love be the way, trying to teach us how to practice being loving.
While the Pharisees, who were known to be so devoted to God, were really just devoted to the rules. By contrasting Jesus and the Pharisees this way, Mark is telling us being devoted to the law is not the same as being devoted to God.
And to drive this point home, Mark quickly moves us to another scene – the synagogue. So, now Jesus is in the “territory” of the Pharisees. Again, we don’t know why or how he got there. Perhaps Jesus did this specifically to make a point, or perhaps he was there for another task. Again, we have no idea. And, again, that’s not what matters.
What does matter is that the Pharisees are waiting to catch him in the act of breaking the rules and, upon seeing someone in need of healing, in need of God’s love, be ignored by the Pharisees, Jesus becomes angry and grieved at their refusal to act in Love. At their refusal to hold the rule of Love above the rules.
What’s more, Jesus realizes what’s happening. He realizes that the Pharisees are just trying to catch him in the act of breaking the rules and he doesn’t care because what is important is love. What is important is healing. So Jesus listens for the law written on his heart and heals the man.
Why do we want to hang on to the rules? Why is the law so important to us? Why do we get ourselves hung up on why and how other people follow the rules we set in place?
I happen to love the rule about using turn signals. And I judge people who don’t use their turn signal. I believe this rule keeps us safe but, really, the reason I judge people is because it inconveniences me when a driver doesn’t use their turn signal.
How often do we do something like that? Use a rule to make judgments about someone else. Or when someone doesn’t follow a rule, we take it personally?
Most rules and laws are there to keep our selves and our neighbors safe. This is a very loving act. But what are the Pharisees doing here? They aren’t paying attention to the reason for the rules – that’s what Jesus is doing. As he says, the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
The Pharisees are using the law of the Sabbath to destroy Jesus, to destroy love, to destroy what he was doing.
When laws become more important than the people they are meant to serve, we have to stop and ask: do we value the law or do we value the life they are meant to protect? Do we worship the law or do we worship the God of Love, the God of Life? What are we practicing in our day to day lives?
Laws are good. Following rules and laws are good. But when the law is followed for the sake of itself, it becomes tyranny. The law becomes the thing we serve, instead of the law serving us.
The prophet Jeremiah speaks about the law that is written on our hearts. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me. Jeremiah 31:33-34
Paul talks about this same law in his letter to the Romans: When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; Romans 2:14-15
And this is what Jesus means when he says, “Love God. Love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
The law written on our hearts is Love. The love of God shining through us and becoming the love of Christ. A love broken open for the entire creation.
And this is what Christian formation is all about. This is why we come to worship. I mean, there’s a lot about learning about scripture and church history, etc. But our formation in Christ comes through the process of learning to obey that law written on our hearts. We learn to obey the Love – both for our neighbors and for ourselves because we love God.
And when we do that, we become a new creation.
When we talk about the love of Christ, it’s not some empty phrase. The Love of Christ forms us so that we may become more and more aware of the truth. We slowly become followers of the Gospel instead of worshippers of the law.
It’s not that we necessarily break the law on purpose, but we may have to on occasion if we find a law to be unjust, to be against the rule of law written on our hearts, which is the Love of God. And we slowly become attuned to a different frequency as we do these acts. We attune to the love of God written on our hearts.
How do we love and care for the other? How do we move in the world that manifests that? How do we offer compassion? How do we advocate for God’s justice in this world that is sorely in need of it?
This “becoming” is Christian formation. This is the love of Christ forming our hearts so that we may become what we receive at Eucharist – God’s Love broken open for God’s creation.
Are we always going to get it right? No. We may still yell and scream at the person who doesn’t use their turn signal.
The bigger question is, are we willing to practice? Are we willing to practice love instead of worshipping the law?
The church is a community of practice whose purpose is to live out the mission of Christ.
So, we practice listening for the law written on our hearts. We practice becoming more devoted to the Gospel than we are to the worldly ways of being. We practice Love and what it means to be loving. We listen and we practice and we listen and we practice some more.
This is the way Jesus gave us to follow. Because this is the way of life.