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Mark 2:23 - 3:6
Sermon for the Second Second Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon preached by The Reverend Canon Dr. David Anderson at St. Jude’s Anglican Church, Oakville, on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 2, 2024.

I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Conflict is never easy, but it is common to our human experience. As much as we might prefer to avoid conflict, the fact remains that when conflict is healthy and productive, it gives the opportunity for people to learn and grow. Conflict can be a source and resource for creativity as we seek resolution.

Our Gospel reading today is the conclusion of several stories in Mark’s Gospel that describe Jesus’ conflict with the Pharisees. It is important for us to say at the outset that as Christian readers we need to be careful about how we understand these stories. We might be tempted to use passages such as this to guide our thinking about the relationship between contemporary Christianity and Judaism, casting contemporary Judaism in the role of the misguided and violent Pharisees. This approach has contributed to Christianity’s shameful legacy of antisemitism.

So, what are we to make of today’s Gospel that begins with a story of Jesus in conflict? If St. Mark the Evangelist, the author of this Gospel, is intent on proclaiming “good news,” where are we to find that good news among incidents that are disturbing and disorienting?

This morning, we find Jesus amid conflict with the religious authorities over the matter of religious rules and regulations. It takes the form here of the disciple’s apparent breaking of Sabbath rules—walking through a grain field and picking grain for eating. But that is just the beginning. Next, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Both occasions provide the opportunity for the Pharisees to raise their eyebrows and ask their questions.

So, what is at stake in the midst of all this? Sabbath rest was, after all, a deeply significant practice that was intimately connected with Jewish identity. I can’t believe that it is appropriate for us to judge the Pharisees harshly for pointing this out. In fact, Jesus never denies or rejects the significance of the Sabbath. Jesus is not standing against Sabbath-keeping. The conflict does seem to be about what constitutes work on the Sabbath in view of humanity’s life before God. It is about the very meaning of the Sabbath itself. Jesus is claiming here that as the Son of Man he has lordship over the Sabbath. Therefore, whatever else the Sabbath means for the followers of Jesus, it will always point in the direction of the life and love of Jesus.

What was the intention of the Sabbath in the first place? It was a day of rest commanded by God related directly to the holiness and goodness of creation. It also carries with it a meaning connected with liberation from captivity and slavery. Jesus makes the point that the Sabbath was made for humanity, and not humanity for the Sabbath. Jesus is arguing for a restoration of Sabbath’s meaning, pointing to the fact that we cannot have such difficult and complicated rules and regulations that in the end our worship of God is eclipsed.

The conflict with the Pharisees deepens with Jesus’ healing of a man with a withered hand. Now this time his accusers are actually plotting and watching for a time when he would break the Sabbath. Jesus does not disappoint but heals the man in plain sight in front of the full assembly of the synagogue and for all to see. Jesus puts his point plainly, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3:4). Not only is Jesus angry with his accusers, but his question also silences them.

In many ways this conflict may seem very distant to us. It has been a long time since any of us have witnessed any conflict about Sabbath-keeping. Some of us older folk will have grown up in an era when there were laws about the stores being closed on Sundays. Some of our parents may have had strict rules about what we could and couldn’t do on a Sunday. You were not permitted to go to the movies even if the theatres were open. Fun was generally discouraged. These rules and the laws which supported them have fallen away. No longer does Sabbath-keeping play a role in defining our identity. Instead, we now have laptops, smartphones, and all kinds of technical equipment that defines our identity as members of the consumerist society we live in. At first glance, Jesus seems to endorse this stripping away of the power of the Sabbath when he proclaims, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (2:27). But was the culture we live in—free from Sabbath rules—what Jesus intended? Was Jesus dethroning the Sabbath?

Certainly, Jesus does generate a great deal of conflict in the episodes described in today’s Gospel reading and, in the end, several opposing groups are collaborating to kill him over it. I think we need to keep our eyes on the fact that it is Jesus who is provoking this conflict. What is it he is trying to do? Why is he making trouble? And why do these groups view Jesus as being so dangerous that they plot to kill him? Is it the healing of the man? This conflict is about something much deeper and more dangerous. The religious leaders are not hard-hearted men hoping to bring down God’s judgement on people even if we tend to portray them that way. What upsets these leaders is that they correctly perceive that Jesus is offering a new vision of life and a new vision of God. He is proclaiming—with his words and actions—a new way of understanding who God is. Jesus is asserting that God is not defined by our rules or our perceptions of God. Jesus is reconfiguring the relationship, and such a radical reconfiguration can be threatening.

Today’s reading ends with a reminder of the cross that waits for Jesus. The difficult truth is that we would rather kill Jesus than be transformed by his love. We have great resistance to his reconfiguration of our lives in relation to God and the Kingdom of God. It is one of the continuing mysteries of life in the church that we prefer the idea of a dormant God who is subject to our rules and rituals, to the active category-busting God who is ever present in our lives. If God gets too close to us, challenges us too much, we find ourselves all too easily ready to be done with this God. What field in our lives is Jesus walking through to pluck things up? Who is Jesus keen on healing that we would rather remain sick? What is Jesus doing in our own time that makes us wonder if maybe he is too dangerous to take seriously? These are the questions that this passage asks of us. What is it that we have made divine that should remain mortal and finite?

In calling us back to the original intent of the Sabbath commandment, Jesus is reminding us of what our lives are meant for. Our lives are meant for God, not for spending or the accumulation of stuff. In this sense, what Jesus threatens is our love of money, money that defines us and falsely promises us life.

I recall when we started with the big lotteries in Canada. It seems that there had always been the Irish Sweepstakes, illegal in Canada, but people found their ways around it. But in Canada it really started, as I recall, with the Olympic Lottery. The one-million-dollar prize was more money than most people could imagine in 1976. A fever started across the land fueled by the idea: “If only I could win the lottery, I would … (fill in the blank)” People spent an inordinate amount of time filling in the blank, dreaming about what they would do with all that money. Many people are still gripped by the lottery fever. In lifting up the Sabbath and how important it is, and how misused it is, this passage is asking us to hear the difficult truth that we cannot imagine a life not dominated by money and consumption.

But, as always, there is good news here as well. At the same time that we are threatened by Jesus, our hearts long for him. Deep down we yearn to be freed from the tyranny of our consumerist lifestyle which is actually killing us. We are reminded this morning of the reorienting power of Jesus and the kingdom that he brings. We are reminded that following Jesus does involve a cross, but resurrection awaits us as well. Jesus did not come to earth to tell us how bad we are, but to lead us to new and abundant life. There is life available to us all, greater and more abundant than we can ask or imagine.