Sermon- June 3, 2018 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Bruce Nickerson, Deacon
So today we will chat about Sunday, the Christian equivalent of what our Jewish brothers and sisters call Sabbath. I will be using these terms interchangeably- Sunday, Sabbath, Shabbos, and Shabbat.
Shabbat shalom. Literally, Sabbath peace. A greeting you will hear often as you put on your yarmulke when entering a Jewish temple, or synagogue.
Observing Sabbath is a Jewish tradition thousands of years old. Some commentators estimate that the 10 commandments date from somewhere around the 13th century BCE. Some commentators observe that Shabbat “is the most important ritual observance in Judaism. It is the only ritual observance instituted in the Ten Commandments. It is also the most important special day, even more important than Yom Kippur.” (http://www.jewfaq.org/shabbat.htm) Today’s readings tell us about this tradition, and Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees about it.
Now jump with me to the present:
Judy lit the candles, passing her hands over their flames and began:
“Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…
“Blessed are you, Lord our God, sovereign of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the lights of Shabbat. Oh mein.”
Michael stood, and taking a small cup of wine in his right hand, began in Hebrew: “And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day…” ending with “You have chosen us … and have willingly and lovingly given us your holy Shabbat for an inheritance. Blessed are You, who sanctifies Shabbat . Amein.”
Michael passed the cup around the table and each of us drank from, or kissed, the cup.
Then, holding a loaf of challah, he prayed “Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam…Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth (Amein).” He passed the loaf of challah around the table and we each tore off and ate a piece while handing it to the next person.
So began our many Friday evening meals at my friend Michael’s home. A ritual to welcome in the Sabbath.
Another Michael story may help us understand this tradition and Jesus’ discussion with the Pharisees.
Michael and I were undergraduate classmates at Tufts. In between classes, Michael tried valiantly to teach me Hebrew. We started with the alphabet. I have now forgotten all of it except for aleph and beth. One Shabbos Michael invited me to temple in Winthrop. I forget whether it was Friday evening or mid-day Saturday. We walked to and from temple, as Michael was much more conservative and observant then. As we were about to sit down at table, Michael looked around and asked “Where’s Peter?” his brother.
“At temple,” his sister responded.
Just then Peter bounded through the door smilingly, waving something at us.
“What’s that?” Michael asked.
“Boy scout medal!”
“Where’d you get it?”
“Forgot to get it at troop meeting last week.”
“And you carried it home from temple?”
“You were carrying a burden on Sabbath.”
“What about if I wore it home as a tie clip. Then it would be an item of clothing, not a burden.”
“Not unless you wore it out of the house before you went to temple.”
As a very conservative protestant, I thought this was an example of that Jewish Pharisaical legalism we were warned about in my Sunday School classes and which Jesus was fighting against in today’s gospel. Now years later I realize that Peter and Michael were not necessarily trying to best each other in a Jewish legalistic version of can you top this, but were having a discussion about how to keep Sabbath. Perhaps that’s what’s happening in today’s gospel? A discussion about how to keep the Sabbath? After all, keeping Sabbath was not easy with there were 39 rules listing prohibited activities on Sabbath:
Reaping Jesus and disciples have transgressed this one in the gospel reading.
Threshing Another transgression.
Making two loops
Weaving two threads
Separating two threads
Cutting hide to shape
Writing two or more letters
Erasing two or more letters
Extinguishing a fire
Kindling a fire
Putting the finishing touch on an object
Transporting an object between a private domain and the
Public domain, or for a distance of 4 cubits within the public domain. The rule that Michael’s brother Peter broke.
But the following activities are encouraged on Shabbat:
Spending Shabbat together with one’s immediate family;
Temple attendance for prayers;
Visiting family and friends (within walking distance);
Singing special songs for the Shabbat.
Reading, studying and discussing Torah and commentary.
Whew! 39 prohibited and only 6 encouraged activities.
Jesus pointed out that all these regulations obscured the basic fact that the Sabbath was given as a day of rest, not a time to be tangled in a tightly woven web of rules. Admitted that they were developed to help us understand what Deuteronomy meant when it said: “Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work— therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” These rules are guidelines to help us understand how to keep Shabbos, or Sunday, sacred.
These rules were restrictive you say. I guess. But Jewish culture of Jesus’ day was perhaps no more restrictive than what some of us remember in puritanical New England. Or the way some of us were raised to behave on Sundays. Let me read you a small passage from a sermon about Sundays from David Wilkerson . Can you notice any of these from your own childhood? http://www.tscpulpitseries.org/english/1990s/ts971215.html
“I was raised in a preacher’s home, where the Sabbath was honored religiously. The Sabbath began for us when we children were awakened early on Sunday morning for a full day in church. First came Sunday morning church, followed by lunch. And after lunch, we all had to take a nap, whether we wanted to or not. (Sometimes this seemed just awful. We had to lie down just when we felt full of life!)” He continues:
“After we rose from our naps, we were allowed to do some quiet reading or perhaps listen to gospel music. Then, on Sunday evening, we all went to church again. And after we came home, we went straight to bed.”
Wilkerson continues “This was the typical Sabbath of my growing up years. And every Sunday, all day long, we had to refrain from doing anything lively, such as playing ball or romping around. We weren’t even allowed to use scissors to cut paper for school. Our parents constantly reminded us, ‘This is the Lord’s Day, and it’s a day of rest.’ And so we kept it holy.”
Many of us remember, with Wilkerson, the “blue laws” that were in effect. No businesses were allowed to operate on Sunday, except vital ones such as hospitals. Very few stores were open at all. In fact, if a shopkeeper opened his store for some reason, people would whisper, “That man has lost his religion!” Even the rankest sinner didn’t think of buying anything on Sunday.
In my household, we added Sunday School right before church, and a midafternoon meeting of YPF, or Young Peoples’ Fellowship to Wilkerson’s Sunday activities. In addition to a midweek “Prayer, praise and testimony” meeting we were expected to attend.
In our household, and I suspect Wilkerson’s household as well, Sunday was a dreaded day of restriction.
And the Pharisees were arguing with Jesus about whether it is all right to snack when a bit hungry, or heal someone on Sabbath. The snacking involved pulling some grain and chewing it. One commentator says that it was probably barley which the disciples ate. Barley bread was a common food in that time, and it was common to chew the grains of both barley and wheat. But, the Pharisees noted that pulling barley from its stalk was actually a form of reaping and threshing, forbidden activities on the Sabbath.
And the healing of a man’s withered hand! Well! In Jewish law the saving of life takes precedence over every other law or rule, even keeping Sabbath. But this was not saving the man’s life. It was medical work, and could wait until a regular work day; therefore since it was not needed to preserve the man’s life, it was breaking the Sabbath.
In our time, as in Jesus’ time there seems to be a tendency to define basic principles with rules and regulations about those principles. And as with the discussion between the Pharisees and Jesus, and with the Blue Laws, the principles of keeping and honoring the Sabbath and recognizing it as God’s gift to us, are lost as we wrap Sundays in a dense covering of petty laws and regulations which grow to be more important than the Sabbath itself. We lose sight of the blessings Sabbath can give us and fear transgressing yet another regulation, like getting all dressed up to go to church perhaps, wearing ripped jeans to Eucharist, not buying the Sunday paper, or any of a number of other rules. These rules are intended to show us how to keep Sabbath, but when they become as important as Sunday and Eucharist themselves, we have lost the blessings of Sunday observance. A story:
Years ago I knew Ben, a young married man with 3 small children who was struggling to complete a college program, and working a full time job while carrying a full academic load. Ben belonged to a communion of a different obedience (I prefer this term to “denomination”), and observed Sunday differently than most of us. The Westminster Confession of Faith, to which Ben’s obedience adhered, admonished that the Sabbath should be taken up “…the whole time in the public and private exercises of His worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” (Westminster Confession of Faith article #VII) On Sundays, Ben and his family went to church (piety); cooked meals and washed the dishes (necessity); went to doctors or hospitals when required (mercy); and so on. Some in this obedience suggested that letting the children play baseball outside was an act of mercy- for both parents and children! As would be the healing of a withered hand. Work of most kinds was not engaged in. Unless you were a doctor or minister, and so on. But he viewed these “restrictions” as a gift of freedom from workaday concerns. For example, if a school paper was due on Monday, he did no work on it. It was not a necessity since he should have done it the week before. His habit of procrastinating things did not make them necessary. And this interpretation of Sabbath allowed Ben more time with his family and away from boring machine shop work. Of course, these were not rigid rules. At one time his regular weekly work schedule required him to begin his work week at 11pm on Sunday. It was a necessity on a three shift operation (first shift was 11pm to 7am; second shift 7am to 3pm; and third shift 3pm to 11 pm); and he did need the job. Ben prayed and talked with his pastor. He talked with his foreman, and they agreed he would begin work at 11pm Sunday, but not work overtime on the Saturday shift which would have been 11pm Saturday to 7am Sunday. His fellow workers were only too happy to fill in those hours for the extra premium pay!
Ben appreciated these gifts of freedom. It kept him and his family aware of the Sabbath when he and his family could spend the whole day together. The family loved having him home for the day, not off at school or work. He didn’t do household grocery shopping which could be done on other workdays, and so on and so on.
Sometimes I wish I had the freedom of this kind of Sabbath keeping. Perhaps this is what Jesus was trying to tell us in his interaction with the Pharisee? I’m trying. I don’t snack on freshly reaped, threshed and winnowed barley grains, but after church (piety), I go to coffee hour (is this my snacking barley grains?), then go home and make lunch (necessity); crash for an afternoon nap (mercy). Now I am trying to get rid of Sunday grocery shopping (not a necessity since I should have done it yesterday). My land and cell phone lines are left on in case of emergency. But I do want somehow to get rid of my cell phone tether.
This way of keeping Sabbath is not always easy, but it can keep us mindful of the real blessings of Shabbat, Sunday, giving us a freedom that our contemporary hurried culture does not. Deuteronomy contrasts the slavery in Egypt with the gift of Shabbos. Jesus observes that the Sabbath was made for our freedom, not for us to be enslaved by the rules of Sabbath keeping. Like my friend Michael and his brother Peter; like Jesus in today’s gospel; like Ben juggling college courses, a wife and children, but at the same time wanting to keep Sunday sacred, let’s consider what it means for us to say and practice