“Keeping Sabbath” Colchester Federated Church, June 3, 2018, (Mark 2:23-3:6) Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I spent a previous Sabbatical studying in the Holy Land for a month. Part of what attracted me to the program at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute was learning from Jews, Muslims, and Christians as we explored not just the past but present dynamics in Israel and Palestine. One of our more colorful guides was Jared, a Jewish man who’s originally from New England and immigrated to Israel years ago. Jared was our guide through Jerusalem, Masada, the Dead Sea, and Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in caves.) And Jared reflected with us that in his experience, Christians tend to argue with one another about orthodoxy—right beliefs whereas Jews tend to argue with one another about orthopraxy—right practices. He’s onto something there, and his observation stayed with us. Jared also hilariously said that if we wanted a summary of Jewish history it’s—they tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.
So to get at this idea of Jewish orthopraxy (which included eating), Jared hosted a Shabbat meal for our group at a little restaurant in his neighborhood in Jerusalem. He arranged everything and walked us through this traditional Jewish meal that is observed Friday evening to welcome in the Sabbath. There’s blessings, lighting candles, a specific blessing over two loaves of challah bread, and delicious food! It was a wonderful experience to see how another religious tradition practices their faith every week.
Keeping the Sabbath holy remains central for the practice of the Jewish faith. Jews argue with one another over how this looks though. We see in our scripture passage that these arguments aren’t new. Jesus and his disciples in the Gospel according to Mark are walking through some wheat fields on the Sabbath. The disciples walk along and pick the heads of wheat. The Pharisees see what they’re doing and say to Jesus, “Look! Why are they breaking the Sabbath law?” As a rabbi, Jesus is held responsible for the actions of his disciples. Now we might be thinking—does it really matter that they’re plucking off some heads of wheat walking through a field? Yes, it does matter within Judaism. And Jesus and his disciples and the Pharisees were all Jewish. By picking off the heads of the wheat the disciples are in effect harvesting the crop. Which means they are working on the Sabbath, which is a huge issue. The disciples are also traveling while harvesting. Therefore, two strikes right here in the proper observance of the Sabbath. That’s why they get called out.
Now before we are too hard on the Pharisees being legalistic, let’s recall that Commandment about the Sabbath from the 10 Commandments given by God to Moses: “Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, not your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
How are we doing with keeping the Sabbath holy, my friends? We’ll get to that. The point is that this Commandment from the book of Exodus remains important to practice within Judaism and Christianity! Jared shared with us during our Shabbat meal in Jerusalem that his family practices the Sabbath fairly strictly. They don’t drive, which is why we had the Shabbat meal in his neighborhood since he walked home from the restaurant. Everything that will be eaten by the family the next day has been prepared beforehand. That’s why if you find yourself in a marketplace in Israel hours before the sun goes down and the Sabbath begins on Friday night, it’s chaos! There’s so much to buy and prepare! Electricity is frowned upon by some on the Sabbath. And for sure some Jews today do not use their cell phones from Friday night to Saturday night. Jared shared with us that he loves Saturday night and waiting for the Sabbath to be complete with his family. Because they all pile into the family room together, waiting for the sun to go down and just talk with each other. That is special and sacred time for the family. There’s no technology to distract them. They aren’t hurrying to do any tasks, chores, or work because you do not work on the Sabbath. Instead, people rest and revive their spirits. Why? Because God told us to.
Lest we think that this experience of Sabbath observance and debating how to observe the Sabbath is totally foreign, it’s not. There was a time in our own country when most stores were closed on Sunday. There weren’t sports or other recreational activities on Sunday. One couldn’t buy alcohol on Sunday. When people complain about churches overflowing in the 1950s and not many people being in church today—are we surprised that everyone was in church on Sunday morning back in the day, what else was there to do? Seriously! Some states still have regulations regarding the sale of certain items on Sundays though businesses are usually open and events happening. These so-called “Blue Laws” or “Sunday Laws” have even been challenged before the United States Supreme Court multiple times in our history. Thus, arguing about how one properly observes the Sabbath has happened here too—even though we’re talking about a different Sabbath day between Jews and Christians.
That’s why it’s not crazy or disrespectful for the Pharisees to challenge Jesus. People have all sorts of interpretations about how to observe Sabbath. They are arguing about orthopraxy—right practices. We can notice that Jesus doesn’t say that the Sabbath isn’t important. He doesn’t throw the Sabbath out the window and say that it doesn’t matter. Jesus seems to be more lax than some of his contemporaries, but it doesn’t mean that Sabbath wasn’t important to him too.
Jesus pointed out that even David, when he was in need, went into the Temple and ate the bread of the presence (which only the high priests were allowed to eat) and gave bread to the people who were with him. Likewise, perhaps his disciples were seriously hungry. Jesus knows his tradition and cites this instance where David commandeered food for his people because they were hungry. That’s why Jesus says, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath.” Translation: the purpose of this law is to benefit humanity. Resting on the seventh day helps everybody, including the family, servants, animals, and foreigners (that’s the order listed in Exodus which can give us some pause.) Moreover, when the Sabbath is discussed in Deuteronomy it’s clarified, “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day.”
Now Jesus also healed on the Sabbath, healing the man with a withered hand. Again, he challenges interpretations of the Sabbath, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” The Gospel of Mark is portraying some folks who had very strict interpretations of what constitutes work on the Sabbath. In modern Judaism, it’s good to save a life every day. Could Jesus have waited to heal the man when it wasn’t the Sabbath? Yes, because the man isn’t dying from having a withered hand. Jesus is trying to prove a point and poke the bear a little bit. The man’s hand is healed and he is restored to health and wholeness. Because for Jesus the purpose of keeping the Sabbath is to benefit everybody, and healing folks is good every day of the week.
Here’s the thing, Jesus had a different interpretation of how to keep the Sabbath holy than the Pharisees who challenged him in Mark’s Gospel. But Jesus never said that the Sabbath isn’t important. It’s one of the 10 Commandments for a reason.
How do we keep Sabbath in our lives? In the midst of working, school, caring for family members, volunteer gigs, any responsibilities or obligations that take up an inordinate amount of our time—are we also taking time to rest? To observe an actual Sabbath and keep it holy as God instructed us to do? To pause and just be for a little while? To check in and spend quality time with the people with whom we share our lives?
A favorite Sabbath story that never gets old concerns an American traveler who planned a safari to Africa. He was that stereotypical Type-A American tourist traveling abroad. We do our research about our destination and have a timetable, maps, and a clear agenda of the things we need to see and do. Some local people had even been hired to carry some of the traveler’s supplies as they trekked throughout the land. On the first morning of their adventures, they all woke up early and traveled fast and covered a great distance. The second morning was the same—woke up early, traveled fast, traveled far. Third morning, same thing. But on the fourth morning, the local hired help refused to move any further. Instead, they sat by a tree resting in the shade well into the morning. The American traveler became incensed and said to his translator, “This is a waste of valuable time. Can someone tell me what’s going on here?” The translator calmly answered, “They’re waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”
May we remember to go and do likewise. Thanks be to God. Amen.
 Mark 2:24, Common English Bible.
 Exodus 20:8-11.
 Mark 2:27.
 Deuteronomy 5:15.
 Mark 3:4.
 Terry Hershey, Sacred Necessities: Gifts for Living with Passion, Purpose, and Grace, 68-69.