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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Stand By Me

Proper 5B: Mark 2:20-35; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, NC 6/10/2018
Jim Melnyk: “Stand By Me”

There are some movie lines that are iconic – they’re so impactful they stick with you for years.  The movie, Stand By Me, premiered in 1986.  The film is a coming of age drama about the lives of four young boys.  It’s the last line of the movie, narrated by one of the characters, Gordy LaChance, which captures the heart. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12.  Jesus, does anyone?”  The film ends with Ben E. King singing, Stand By Me, while the credits roll.

A few years later I learned a phrase that named those types of ageless friends for me.  Family of Choice.  Families one chooses to be a part of rather than being born into them.  People we stumble upon – sometimes totally by accident – who become more than friends – who become family. Families based on something beyond the accident of birth – families based on matters of the heart rather than simply blood.

Today’s passage from Mark offers us challenges about choice.  One of the challenges is about who might be inside Jesus’ circle of followers and who chooses to stand on the outside.  Those who choose to follow Jesus understand what he’s teaching through his parables – or at least they get some remedial lessons.  For those who close themselves off to the coming kingdom of God, the parables of Jesus sound like so many riddles in the dark.

All too often we’re quick to consign the crowds around Jesus to the outside – thinking they’re the ones who just don’t get it – the ones who can’t understand his parables.  We think of his disciples, and perhaps his family – at least his mother, as those with an inside track – as the only ones who receive special teaching.

But it’s more complicated than that.  In tail end of today’s passage it’s the crowds, along with the twelve, who are seated around Jesus.  His mother, and his brothers and sisters are outside – seemingly trying to restrain him as we see in the opening verses.  You see, Jesus had been doing things like hanging around with tax collectors and sinners.  He had been challenging some of the religious leaders’ conventional wisdom about the Sabbath.  People are wondering if Jesus has lost his marbles – and so Mary and his siblings try to pull him out of a potential maelstrom.

But Jesus will have none of it.  When told his family was outside the gathering asking for him, Jesus asks his own question.  “Who are the members of my family?”  Jesus seems to be making a distinction between his blood family and what we might call his family of choice.  Jesus makes it pretty clear that he considers those who do the will of God – those who welcome his teaching about the coming kingdom of God – those are the ones who are his family. 

And so, surprisingly, through much of Mark’s gospel, the immediate family of Jesus seem to find themselves on the outside looking in – not so much antagonizing Jesus as getting in the way of his message in an attempt to protect him from harm.  Even the disciples move in and out of the circle as they struggle to understand what Jesus is teaching – what Jesus is demanding of his followers – and what the coming kingdom of God will look like as it continues to unfold in their midst.  “Jesus, we want to be top dogs with you in the kingdom!”  “Jesus, don’t even think of going to Jerusalem!”  “Jesus, we saw someone teaching in your name and casting out demons and we told him to stop!”  Even Peter’s last appearance in the gospel is a denial of his place with Jesus: “I do not know the man!”

Martyr and modern-day saint, Oscar Romero once said, “The spiritual life does not remove us from the world, but [rather, it] leads us deeper into it” (Synthesis Today, 6/4/2018).  Mark’s gospel is a prime illustration of that theological truth.  Everything about today’s lesson has to do with various attempts to challenge the teachings of Jesus.  Whether it’s those who discount his teachings because they think he’s lost his mind, or his family trying to insulate him from the consequences of his teaching, or those trying to tie the message and works of Jesus to Satan – it’s all about shutting down Jesus and disempowering his message of God’s love for all.  And Jesus just won’t stand for it. 

The easy response would be for Jesus to withdraw from the world and create a cloistered community of faith hidden away from the day-to-day struggles of this life.  Rather than that, Jesus delves even more deeply into the world – challenging both the community’s lack of faith, and its lack of action on behalf of God’s people. 

To that end Jesus tells another parable.  “No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.”  “You say that it’s by the ruler of the demons that I cast out demons,” says Jesus, and he all but laughs at the ridiculousness of their logic.  “How can Satan cast out Satan?  I’ve come,” says Jesus, “I’ve come to bind up Satan and to plunder his house.  You just don’t have eyes to see what’s happening here – you cannot see the kingdom of God breaking upon this world, and so you stand in defiance of God’s love.”

The teachings of Jesus will always confound those who close themselves off to his teachings.  His parables will always sound like riddles to those for whom the in-breaking kingdom of God is a struggle.  It has been said that Living by Jesus' truth will not dissolve our family loyalty, but it will remind us that unless we first respond to the love of God reaching out to us, we will have nothing to offer others” – including our families (H. King Oehmig, Synthesis Today, 6/8/2018).

Illustrating the love of God reaching out to us, Jesus says elsewhere, “Let the little children come to me;” (Matthew 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16) because in our children Jesus sees the face of God’s kingdom.  But when we struggle to respond to the love of God reaching out to us, children and infants find themselves separated from their families and housed in what amounts to temporary detention centers.  When people of faith stand up in defiance they get labeled as misguided – as people who have lost their minds. 

Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” but when we struggle to respond to the love of God reaching out to us, we find ourselves wringing our hands and saying there’s nothing we can do to keep them safe in their schools.  And those who stand up in defiance to our apathy are labeled as misguided – perhaps even as dangerous. 

Whenever we take a stand for those who are helpless, or for those who are hurting, or for those who are lost, there will always be someone, or some group of people, who will be standing outside trying to restrain us saying that we’ve gone out of our minds.  But Jesus comes among us proclaiming the unrelenting love of God for all people – and rather than standing back from the challenges to his sanity and his faithfulness to God, Jesus wades hip-deep into the mess – and by his sacrificial love he binds evil; and he gives us the power to wade into the mess with him, and overcome whatever stands in opposition to the kingdom of God in all its glory and love.

Brother Mark Brown of the Society of St. John the Evangelist reminds us, “We are very imperfect vehicles for the embodiment of Divine Grace. We're all driving around on at least one flat tire and with missing or malfunctioning parts. Broken as we are, the impulse is still there: Christ's desire to incarnate grace and truth” (Synthesis Today, 6/7/2018).  We have been baptized into the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.  Indeed, we are the brother, we are the sister – we are the family of Christ. 

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Proper 4B; Deut. 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6; St. Paul’s, Smithfield, 6/3/2018
Jim Melnyk: “Sabbath Keeping”

Moses said, “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you” (Deuteronomy 5:12).  In Exodus God says through Moses, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (20:8).  Author Matthew Sleeth, whose work on the sabbath we studied here at St. Paul’s during Lent back in 2014, points out it’s “the only commandment that begins with the word remember – almost as if God knew we would forget.  Well, guess what?” he asks.  “We did.”  Sleeth tells us that ever since we entered the electronic age we’ve become 24/7 people.  Many of you may recall his response to that reality – a book called 24/6.  Sleeth writes:

“In the beginning of the greatest story ever told, we find the inventor of everything taking a rest and enjoying [the] creation.  And like most of the first few chapters of Genesis, this isn’t so much an explanation of how, but of who.  The who, of course, is God.

Who spoke the light into shining and the earth into spinning and the creeping, crawling things into crawling?  God! How? That’s not the point.  Imagine an infinite God creating for six infinitely glorious days, and then on the seventh day [that same God] rests.  We don’t know the details,” explains Sleeth.  “The point is that something very important about the character of God is revealed on the seventh day.  God stops” (p. 32).

Genesis tells us that on the seventh day God finished the work the Holy One had begun, and that God “ceased,” or rested, on that day (2:2).  “And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that the Holy One had done” (2:3). 

To make something holy is to set it apart from the ordinary – to set it apart from the everyday – and to give it purpose.  Therefore, from the very beginning of time, Sabbath is “built into the very structure of the universe; it is God’s holy time… [it is meant to become] the mark of [Israel’s] covenant with God.” (The Torah: A Modern Commentary, p. 35). God gives holy purpose to the act of resting – and commands us to do the same.

But “stopping is a problem for humans,” Sleeth tells us.  Americans are especially, for the most part, not very good at keeping Sabbath time.  In fact we’re not even good at taking days off, or taking our vacations, or even taking sick leave, because too many companies either imply, or tell us outright, that they can find other workers to replace us when we do take time off.

But even that’s not just a modern day American phenomenon.  Speaking about those in Israel who just couldn’t wait for the Sabbath to end so they could go back to making money the prophet Amos cries out, “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, ‘When will the Sabbath [be over], so that we may offer wheat for sale?’” (Amos 8:5).

So our lessons for today, taken from Deuteronomy and Mark, challenge us to consider the “Who” and “what” of Sabbath and Sabbath keeping.  The “Who” of Sabbath and Sabbath keeping is first, and foremost, God.  God hallows a time set apart for appreciation of the creation and for regeneration.  Israel becomes a part of the “Who” of Sabbath time by God’s invitation and command to remember that day – to observe that day – and to keep it holy; and we, by extension, are invited into this holy time as well.  The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to the holiness of time” (Abraham Heschel).

The “what” of Sabbath and Sabbath keeping has to do with how well we keep the commandment.  The stories we heard a few minutes ago from Mark are about those who take the various oral traditions built around the Sabbath so seriously, they forget not only about God’s gift of the Sabbath, but about human relationships and human need as well. 

In our stories from Mark, Jesus does a great job of channeling his inner Anglican self – finding a via media – finding a middle way – between ignoring the importance of Sabbath and taking it so seriously that it becomes detrimental to the good of God’s people.  Jesus always reminds us that we are supposed to be faithful to the commandments God has given us.  From all the evidence before us we know that Jesus is a Torah observant Jew.  “But,” Jesus is quick to remind us, “Laws must always be reevaluated in the light of the purpose for which they were given in order to enhance human well-being and to strengthen our relationship with God and others” (Synthesis CE).

This is part of what’s going on in the second half of our gospel lesson today.  Jesus and his disciples are in the local synagogue.  Again, Jesus is taking Sabbath observance – taking Sabbath keeping – seriously.  The Pharisees from before are still keeping an eye on him – especially when Jesus and the man with a withered hand come face-to-face.  This time it’s Jesus who puts the Pharisees to the test.  “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” (3:4). The Pharisees’ silence is deafening!  They know the answer that is widely understood throughout Judaism – that it is lawful – that is even expected – to do good on the Sabbath.

This passage isn’t really about the healing.  Like the first story, it’s about challenging Jesus’ understanding of the Sabbath.  Both passages are controversy stories – stories that follow a theme beginning even earlier in Mark’s gospel with questions like, “Why does Jesus eat with tax collectors and sinners?” (2:16), or “Why aren’t your disciples fasting like John’s disciples and the Pharisees?” (2:18) Again, Jesus weighs in with another challenge. 

Why are you so concerned about ritual and not concerned about human need?  Why do you value the practice of your religion over the well-being of your sisters and brothers – especially when everything about our faith is about loving God and loving one another?  Why, in the face of this young man’s physical disability, which stops him from being able to put food on the table or keep a roof over his head, why are you so silent?  The silence of the Pharisees stands as judge and jury (Bill Brosend, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark). 

They’re so busy arguing over dogma that they never stop to talk with the man whose hand is healed!  Likewise, we get so caught up in the debate over theology that this poor guy gets relegated to the background, with no voice of his own (ibid).  It’s so easy to get caught up in power plays over doctrine that we push aside those most in need – and we can translate those power plays into all parts of our individual and corporate lives – the social, political, and religious aspects of our lives!  Humans seem able to thrive on controversy and ignore the realities of human fallout. 

The Sabbath was created by God as a time of rest so that we might reflect on the glory and love of God – and yet what better reflects that glory and love than restoring to wholeness one of God’s beloved?

So what does Sabbath keeping mean if we try to both take it seriously, but not rigidly?  Such an approach seems to leave things up in the air once we start wrestling with the traditional guidelines or laws passed down through antiquity.  One of my Doctor of Ministry professors has said, “One size of Sabbath…does not fit all” (ibid).  So, for example, if toiling away in the garden, hacking at weeds and straining our backs makes us anxious and exhausted, chances are we’re meant to take a break on the Sabbath.  If digging in the soil and bringing beauty and life to the world around us puts us in touch with our Creator and brings us deep joy, then by all means dig away!  If Sabbath keeping comes at the expense of others’ well-being – well, perhaps that should give us reason to pause and rethink our discipline.

The Sabbath command offered by God is a commandment meant to give us life – it is meant to give us rest – it is meant to nourish us, and renew us.  The question isn’t “Should we find ways of keeping Sabbath in our lives?” but rather, “How can we find ways of keeping Sabbath in our lives?”  And when we do, we will find God waiting to meet us in that moment.