Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sheep Before Ceremony

The subtitle for this sermon could be How I Learned to Rewrite an Entire Sermon Because of Tragic News.

This is a sermon I preached this morning for my homiletics class at the seminary. The text I was assigned was Luke 6:1-5.

Scripture: Luke 6:1-5

1: And it came to pass on (a) Sabbath, he passed along through grainfields and his disciples were plucking the ears and they were eating, rubbing (them) in their hands.2: But some of the Pharisees said, “Why do you do that which is not lawful on the Sabbath?”3: And answering them, Jesus said, “Did you not even read that which David did because he was hungry and those with him were too?
4: He entered into the house of God and the loaves of the presence; he took, ate and gave to those with him, which is not lawful to eat except only the Priests.5: And He said to them, “The Son of Man is the Lord of the Sabbath.”

Some of you may have noticed how I’m dressed this morning and wondered if I’d forgotten I was preaching today. You have probably all heard by now about the bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  As a marathoner myself, I have seen in the past 24 hours that the running community has been really shaken up by this event – especially those of us who are registered to run the next large marathon in this part of the country: the Pittsburgh marathon which takes place in just 3 weeks. In a show of support and prayer for all the people affected by the bombings, runners all over the world are wearing race shirts today.
            As I went to my drawer to get this shirt out. . . here’s where it gets a little girly for a minute. . . I thought, “CRAP! I bought a new outfit to preach in!” Weird glimpse into my psyche. . . I was really a little worked up about this.
At first I thought I’d just change into my race shirt when I got home.  I could still wear the clothes I had carefully chosen for today to keep up the right appearance for class and then show my solidarity later.  ​Or maybe I could put it under a button down shirt. . . kinda like Superman.
            And then in that funny way He likes to do. . . God worked up a conviction in my heart that I was doing the same silly thing I was getting ready to tell all of you not to do.  He took my own stupid sermon and preached it right on back to me!
You see, there are other runners and people from Boston here at this school and in the congregation I serve and all over Pittsburgh. Our country - especially a subculture I'm actively involved in - was shocked by this news. People i run with were there yesterday running the Boston marathon - people I have had and will again have an opportunity to minister to and pray with because I'm a part of the running community. I’m sure to run into people today who will recognize why I’m wearing this shirt and I’ll be offered an opportunity to pray and give support – an opportunity my own silly rule about my outfit would have squished.
            Preaching this message the day after a news story like yesterday’s started to feel empty to me if I didn’t- at least in this small way acknowledge the trauma that happened to some of the people around me – even if it messed with the sermon and ceremony I had already planned in my head.
When we read today’s passage from Luke, it seems easy for us to determine that the Pharisees were in the wrong. What was up with those Pharisees, anyway? Jesus and the disciples were just taking a walk through a grainfield and they grabbed a bite to eat. This wasn’t stealing according to the law.
If you’ve never walked through a grainfield, try it some day. It’s beautiful. It’s peaceful. What in this scene could possibly be labeled “work?”
In the centuries since God first mandated that the people set aside one day of every seven for rest, there had been great debate about what exactly constituted “rest” and “work.”
Out of this debate arose a legal system so complicated it could be argued that something as innocuous and restful as plucking a few heads of grain in a field could be construed as “unlawful work on the Sabbath” because the disciples were “threshing” the grain with their hands.
The Pharisees had put their human interpretations of God’s law above the human needs of the people and had instead of creating rest, created so many rules that it caused more work to follow them than to simply rest. They weren’t prepared for anything that didn’t fit into their neat little box of right and wrong.
Jesus’ answer to the pharisees was a bit unusual. It doesn't seem at first to be a direct answer to the Pharisees’ issue. Rather he harkened back to when David and his men were hungry and could find nothing but holy bread to eat.
That bread was consecrated, set aside. But the hunger, the physical need of David and his men was greater than the need to adhere to the ceremony surrounding that bread.
            Jesus, self-proclaimed Lord of the Sabbath and Son of Man did not appreciate the Pharisees’ complicated interpretations of God’s Law. If anyone had the right to be offended by too much work on the Sabbath, surely it was the Lord of the Sabbath himself! But instead, he charged that the ceremony that had come to surround the idea of Sabbath was not to be put ahead of the actual needs of people.
Just as the well-being of David and his army was more important than the consecration of the bread , the well-being of the disciples was to Jesus more important than the Sabbath ceremonies observed by the Pharisees.
This isn’t just a one-off instance of Jesus warning people to address the earthly needs around them. In Matthew 25, Jesus says that anyone who ignores the sick, the poor, the naked, the imprisoned ignores HIM.
The greatest commandments? Love the Lord your God with all your being and LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF! Nothing complicated or hard to remember. Just. . . LOVE.
Time and time again, Jesus puts love and care of the real needs of people above the rules and regulations and lists and ceremony of man.
Sabbath is goooood.  Sabbath was made for man. It is a valuable, needed rest.  But if the Sabbath is creating, rather than addressing needs and distress, something has gone very wrong.
Like the pharisees, we like rules. They make us feel safer. They make us feel secure: like we're in control.They make some of our decisions easier. When subjectivity and ambiguity are the enemy, specificity and well-defined lines are our friends. 
Before you start thinking I’m even more of a rule-hating rebel than you’d realized, please remember my silly wardrobe dilemma. I like rules and plans and ceremony. I want to know what to expect.  I have three children in my house- I would be nuts to treat the rules too carelessly. Without rules, things would go very bad very fast. But rules, my friends, are not the end all be all to living the Christian life.
People are leaving the church in droves because they are tired of hearing all rules and little love. “Don’t legalize this thing because it’s against our religious rules.” "UNlegalize this thing because it's against our religious rules." “You can come here, but here are the rules.” “Look like this.” “Dress like that.” “Talk like me.” “Vote like him.”
“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. [1]
We the church are all too often but a noisy gong in the ears of the world around us.
            We must find a way to move from being that noisy gong to being a voice of comfort: that much is clear from this passage.
And that is where it gets exciting, friends!
            We have a unique opportunity to be that voice of comfort. 
At the risk of sounding corny, I assert that WE are the future of the church!  God has called us into leadership at this very moment to help guide His people! As we enter into our ministries - or continue in them as the case may be for some of us – Let’s not forget that first and foremost we are called to care for God’s people. 
We aren't some sort of religious referees running around the field of life blowing whistles at every infraction. That’s not our calling.  Our calling is to reach out and take care of the children of God, no matter what they look like, dress like, talk like, live like or even smell like.
We are called to expect the unexpected and set aside our ceremony when it happens.
            Life is full of surprises – both joyful and devastating. In attending to the concrete needs of those around us – needs of food, comfort, brotherhood, water, shelter, love – we are often, no. . . not often. . . usually. . . called out of our comfortable rules, ceremonies and plans in order to live out a truly Christian life.
Ministry isn’t always very pretty.  It very rarely follows our rules or expectations. There will always be someone or something unexpected knocking at your door. 
And they will always matter, even if it’s not food pantry day. They will always matter, even if they are interrupting your sermon writing routine.  They will always matter, even if they are sitting during the Gloria Patri or saying something completely off the wall in Sunday school.
            Caring for the needs of the people around us must be one of our very highest priorities because it is one of Jesus’ very highest priorities and because Jesus shows us this same love and respect.
Jesus sets aside the rules and ceremony for us. Now it is our turn to do the same for others.

[1] The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (1 Co 13:1–3). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

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