Alton Parish—Mark 2:23–3:6, Deuteronomy 5:12-15
I heard a story on the radio a couple of weeks ago about various “what if” thought experiments. What if some particular historical event had not happened? How might that have changed things for us today? Or, what if something that might have happened, but didn’t, had actually happened? The one that caught my interest was, “What if football had remained boring like it was in the 1890s?” Which is to say, what if the forward pass had never been invented and football was 100% a ground game? The guy on the radio speculated that football would have died out, and never become the economic powerhouse and cultural force that the NFL and Division I college football are today. How would that make life different for us? Maybe, he said, we’d have more time for things like … going to church on Sundays. I immediately thought, “Really?!! That’s what you come up with? Football is the reason church attendance has fallen like a lead weight in a deep lake?” Somehow it seems to me that the decline of church attendance in our society has to do with a lot more than the popularity of football. The fact is, for a long list of reasons, to spend your Sunday morning in church is to be a cultural outlier, to stand out from the crowd. Everyone here today is swimming upstream. There is virtually zero cultural guilt cast on not being a churchgoer. An outfit called the Minnesota Ad Project once came up with a print ad that showed a photo of pallbearers carrying a casket up the steps of a church. The caption read, “Will it take six strong men to get you back into church?” That ad was kind of edgy 25 years ago, when my vestry wouldn’t let me use it (!), but, today, hardly anybody would understand it.
I was struck by a comment I saw on Facebook recently that said that Americans are “apostate Puritans.” That is, as a society, we’ve held on to the intellectual habits, the thought patterns, of Puritanism—just look at how quickly and fiercely we turn on men whose bad behavior is outed by the #metoo movement—even as we’ve let go of their moral code and religious practices. Sunday church attendance is one of those religious practices we’ve let go of. Deep in the Puritan psyche, the Puritan mind, is an obligation to “keep the Sabbath.” The first reading this morning, from Deuteronomy, is from one of the various Old Testament iterations of the Ten Commandments, all of which mention the Sabbath, and the necessity for God’s people to keep if holy.
Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work. … You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
To keep the Sabbath is to honor God as the Creator, who brought the universe into being in six days, and rested on the seventh, establishing a pattern, a principle, that human beings created in the image of that God do well to emulate. The Sabbath, though, honors not only God the Creator, but God the Redeemer, who brought Israel out of slavery in Egypt into the freedom of the Promised Land. By the time of Jesus, the Sabbath was an entrenched institution within Judaism, with centuries of interpretive tradition as to what keeps the Sabbath and what breaks the Sabbath layered over the original commandment. But the heart of keeping the Sabbath is simply to stop doing what you normally do, that is, to cease from routine work. There’s also an element of assembly, of coming together, as well as a note of festivity, public rejoicing.
So it’s in this context that we have today’s passage from the second chapter of Mark’s gospel. It beings with Jesus walking through the countryside with his disciples, and apparently also with some Pharisees. It happens to be the Sabbath Day—that is, a Saturday. As they walk along fields of ripe crops, some of the disciples break off heads of grain, presumably to eat them, though the text never says as much. The Pharisees immediately launch into Jesus, “Whoa! Breaking the Sabbath much?” Now, of course, to say this, they would have needed to interpret what the disciples were doing as “harvesting,” and, therefore, agricultural work. But Jesus is right there with a comeback zinger, and trots out an obscure story about King David, everybody’s hero, breaking the Law by raiding the Jewish equivalent of what we would call the Tabernacle or Aumbry, just because he and his men were hungry. And then there’s the takeaway line: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
Then we fast forward to later that same day. They get to whatever town they were headed for and head straight for the synagogue. There’s a man there with a paralyzed hand. Jesus decides to give the Pharisees a chance to redeem themselves, and asks them if they think it would be OK for him to do such an obviously good thing as to heal this man, right then and there, even though it’s the Sabbath. When they can’t answer, but just hem and haw, it’s one of the few times the biblical text actually says Jesus is angry. So he turns away from the Pharisees and just heals the man’s hand.
Now, how have Christians appropriated and integrated the Jewish notion of the Sabbath? That’s actually kind of a complicated question. The first Christians, of course, were Jews, so they would have simply continued doing what Jews do. But by the end of the first century, Jewish Christians had pretty much begun to walk apart from institutional Judaism. After some controversy, they had become welcoming of Gentile believers without requiring the males among them to get circumcised, and the Jewish establishment had effectively made the decision to kick them out anyway. And all of this coincided with the development of the practice of observing the first day of the week as “the Lord’s Day,” since it was the day Jesus rose from the dead. The Christian observance of the Lord’s Day—that is, Sunday—imported some of the elements of the Jewish Sabbath; namely, public assembly and celebration. But as for the notion of cessation from routine work, and rest, these continued to be important, but tended to be applied with more flexibility. (There have from time to time been Christian communities that have attempted to adopt a full-on Jewish-style Sabbath, but this has never been the mainstream.)
And as we read this rather dramatic gospel passage in the larger context of what we might call the grand narrative of the gospel, the meaning of our Christian celebration of the Lord’s Day becomes quite clear. It is the fulfillment of the Sabbath. It is not the Sabbath itself, and it’s probably not accurate to call it “the Christian Sabbath.” But it is a day for the Christian community to assemble. I recently read the newsletter of a parish in another diocese in which the rector was discussing the dark side of all the technology that tends to run our lives these days, technology that allows us to interact with one another without actually being in one another’s presence, and he made reference to his parish’s mission statement, which begins with the words “We gather …” We gather. That is a significant part of what the Lord’s Day means for us, and is the primary way we can observe the commandment to honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy.
We further honor the Sabbath on the Lord’s Day by not only gathering, assembling, coming together, but by gathering for the express purpose of rejoicing. Every Sunday is “little Easter.” Even Lenten Sundays are “in” Lent, not “of” Lent,” because they are all joyful celebrations of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead. In our Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, we allow ourselves to be taken up into the cosmic reality of reconciliation and redemption that is our destiny as adopted sons and daughters of God.
We have in the Episcopal Church a canon, a church law, entitled “On the Due Observance of Sundays.” It talks about how every member of this church is expected to be in attendance at corporate worship on the Lord’s Day “unless for good cause prevented” (and, no, to the frustration of generations of parish clergy, the canon never defines “good cause”!). I think there are three possible levels of response to this canon: One can make a weekly decision to obey it, a decision grounded in a sense of duty, of obligation. That’s certainly not all bad. One can make going to church a habit, something that you do just because … it’s what you do. That may be a little better. Or, we can learn to see keeping the Lord’s Day as an irresistible impulse that just carries us along in a stream of enjoyment of God’s presence. I had a friend who said many decades ago, “Wild horses couldn’t keep me away from Mass on Sunday.” It’s all a lot more fun, isn’t it, when we allow ourselves to grow into that third category.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.