First Congregational Church
June 3, 2018
Second Sunday after Pentecost
“Forests and Trees”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
I read that in Florida, a woman may be fined for falling asleep under a hair dryer. And I read that in Indiana, citizens are not allowed to attend a movie within four hours after eating garlic. Apparently they can be fined, I guess. I read that in Iowa, a man with a mustache is forbidden from kissing a woman in public - or he’ll be fined? I read that in Moline, IL, ice-skating at Riverside pond during the months of June and August is strictly prohibited. So if they catch you ice skating during those months, do they get to fine you or arrest you, aside from the issue of Indiana heat in June and August? I also read that in Nicholas County, West Virginia, no member of the clergy is allowed to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit. I’ll just let that one stand by itself.
Except the Bible. We’re “supposed” to believe everything we read in the Bible; except that some of it is just so goofy. There was probably a reason for what seems goofy to us - back then, but the reasons are probably long gone.
According to charad.org, modern day Jewish practice would prohibit doing the following on the Sabbath: writing, erasing, and tearing; business transactions; driving or riding in cars or other vehicles; using the telephone; turning on or off anything which uses electricity, including lights, radios, television, computer, air-conditioners and alarm clocks, and a fair list of other activities. In Jesus’ day, besides the Big 10, there were 39 categories of activity prohibited on the Sabbath, some of which were just mentioned, but included 1. “removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth,” 2. climbing “a tree, for fear this may lead to one tearing off a branch. It was also forbidden for rabbis to ride an animal, as one may unthinkingly detach a stick (tearing) with which to hit the animal.
There is a passage from Deuteronomy 23:24-25 that is surely “interesting” and maybe even confusing, in light of the previously mentioned prohibitions. The passage says, “When you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want until you’re full, but you may not put any in your bucket or bag. And when you walk through the ripe grain of your neighbor, you may pick the heads of grain, but you may not swing your sickle there.” One could wonder how the folks with the vineyard across the road from St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church might feel about that.
Then there is the passage from Leviticus 24:5-9, where God and Moses were chatting about that Top 10 list that was to order the lives of the Hebrew people - and all people. The Bible tells us that God told Moses to “Take fine flour and bake twelve loaves of bread, using about seven pounds of flour to a loaf. (Mind you, it takes about one pound of flour to make our average loaf of bread.)
Arrange them in two rows of six each on the Table of pure gold before God. Along each row spread pure incense, marking the bread as a memorial; it is a gift to God. Regularly, every Sabbath, this bread is to be set before God, a perpetual covenantal response from Hebrew people.” Then Aaron and his sons - the other priests - could eat the holy bread - in a holy place - and this procedure was to be a perpetual decree. Other than it being a lot of flour and therefore a lot of bread, there’s not much too odd about that passage.
Then there is a passage from 1 Samuel 21:1-6 that tells a story about David being sent on a secret mission by King Saul. David was supposed to eventually meet up with a certain priest’s men, but before he left, David basically asked the priest, Abiathar, Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find.” 4 But the priest answered David, “I don’t have any ordinary bread on hand; however, there is some consecrated bread here. So David ate holy bread that was supposed to be for priests. Many people think about David and Bathsheba, or David and Goliath, but rarely to they think about the non-priest David and the holy bread.
23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grain fields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”
25 He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26 In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Jesus Heals on the Sabbath
3 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.
Thank you, John and Kathy. In the first passage, Jesus says, “Have you not read what David did?” I don’t know if you can hear that question without the underlying emotion behind it. It doesn’t get much plainer: The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath. As with many societies, we’ve gone well beyond the rules of keeping Sabbaths as specific days of rest, so we’ve sort of got the first part of that phrase “correct,” sort of.
In the second passage, the writer, Mark, clearly describes Jesus’ state “in anger, and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” for not seeing the forest for the trees - the failure to grasp the main issue because of excessive attention to details, as defined by Google.
In the first passage, the disciples were using their hands, not sickles or any other cutting implements, but they were walking - probably the distance beyond what it would take to milk a cow or feed a goat. Still, they should have been wiser and planned their snacks the day before. But then, they were tearing the grains from the stalks, so technically, they were “working” on the Sabbath. To the Pharisees, this behavior appears to deliberately neglect the mandate to observe the sabbath and keep it holy. Hair-splitting, forests and trees.
So Jesus offers a legal opinion, one he derives from scripture itself - in the bit about David and Abiathar. His point is that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being. But in so doing, it seemed as though Jesus was comparing himself to the great David and David’s calling. Blasphemy! If Jesus would have just shut his mouth, things might have been fine. Instead, he references himself as the Son of Man, and Lord of the Sabbath, and that just goes to far - presenting himself as no ordinary teacher. The gall!
Okay, so the guy from the second passage wasn’t dying, it was just a withered hand, after all. Regardless of his hand, he’d still need to be provided for or provide for himself and who knows if he had a family. It wouldn’t really matter the degree, but society would have considered him broken, and Jesus not only fixed the man but made him whole again, restoring his dignity.
Despite this big forest of restoration, there are so many trees of irony. Instead of standing in awe of a man healed right before their eyes, not to mention the healer standing right in front of them, the Pharisees can’t get that Sabbath breaking tune and Jesus’ willful disregard for the law of God tune out of their heads. Maybe if there’d been a little more glitz and pizzazz, a little more smoke or feeling the earth move under their feet, they might have noticed the miracle.
And then there is the hindsight irony - the Pharisees probably just getting out of synagogue and going on to planning - not to preserve Jesus’ life - but to take it. From the sanctuary of the life giving presence of God to the barrenness of destruction using holy laws to make the transition. If only there weren’t so many trees, one could see the forest.
And then Jesus comes along and says it’s not about the rules, but about doing the right thing. Weren’t the Pharisees doing the right thing by trying to do their job? What if the man with the withered hand was you or your child or your beloved? It’s hard to see the forest when you’re standing in the middle of the trees. And sometimes, coming out of the trees, to see the forest can be hard on the eyes, hard to be in that light, away from the seeming comfort of the darkness.
Standing in the light of Christ, surrounded by the love of God and all the grace and mercy and love that comes together in that light, it becomes easier to see that feeding the hungry and healing the soul is greater than adhering to cold, hard rules. When we stand in that holy light, it is easier to see that the healer and the Lord and Son of Man designation was a bigger deal than the sabbath issue. Focusing on a small thing causes us to lose vision of the large thing. Trying to distinguish between who is deserving and who is undeserving sees right through the abundance of servings.
That mention of David in the priest Abiathar? That was Jesus offering a legal opinion, derived from Scripture itself. It was his subtle way of contending that sometimes certain demands of the law are rightly set aside in favor of pursuing greater values or meeting greater needs, especially when those greater needs promote a person’s well-being and facilitate the arrival of divine blessings.
I would venture a guess that a great number of us could nod our head in religious silence about this whole message. And yet, we are individuals with God-given brains and personal passions and visions, so what can seem to be moral and ethical to you, maybe the polar opposite of the person sitting next to you. God has gifted us not only with the ability to think through our own morals and ethics, but has given us the free will to act on them.
So we come together this day, to sit next to people that need support as much as we do in figuring out our moral and ethical paths. We celebrate our Lord’s supper that we remember that as much as we look at the details of our lives, we remember to look at the big picture, of our lives together and eternity. With such honor, importance and responsibility, we best set our hearts to looking for the forest and the trees in the light of Christ. (turn)
Most high and holy God, help us to see the forests and the trees, the details and the large picture. Guide us that we not become myopic, soul less, black and white rule containers. Help our hearts and minds enter into the blurred and sometimes gray areas of life that can challenge our beliefs and understandings. Thank you for choosing to see the good in us, healing us, restoring us to wholeness, even when we forget or choose to ignore your vision of us. Help us to see those you have given us, next to us in the pew, next to us in our homes, even those across the world from us, as your beloved children, just as deserving of your love and grace and mercy as we are. For these most precious blessings and all your gifts to us, most especially your son, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.