Storms, Metaphors, and Adorable Humanity

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Lake Ossipee in all her glory.

This sermon was preached at the Outdoor Chapel of Camp Calumet in Freedom, NH, on June 24, 2018.

Job 38:1-11
Mark 4:35-41

There’s this Tumblr post that’s made its way around the Internet in recent years called, “Humans are adorable,” taking the tone of a scientist talking about humans the way that humans would normally talk about the cute behaviors of animals on the nature channel.

Listed as “supporting evidence” for the claim “humans are adorable”:
1. Humans say “ow” as an expression of pain, but they sometimes say it even if they haven’t been hurt. It’s just a thing they sometimes say when they think they might have been hurt, but aren’t sure yet.

2. Humans collect shiny things and decorate their nests with them. Each individual has a unique taste for style and coloring of their nest.
3. Humans visit each other’s nests for fun! It’s not their nest; they’re just visiting each other.

4. If a human sees another creature in distress, they will often try to help, even at risk to themselves. They are very compassionate creatures.
5. If a human hears a catchy tune, they will mimic it, even to the point of annoying themselves! 

6. Humans love treats! They individually love treats some more than others, and will sometimes save their treats for a time when they need extra comfort or reassurance. 

7. Humans are not aquatic or even amphibious, but they flock to bodies of water not to drink it, but just to play in it! They can’t even hold their breath for all that long, they just love to splash! 

8. They’re learning to travel in space! They can’t get very far, but they’re trying. So far they’ve made it to the end of their yard and found rocks.

I’ve added another one: humans can think about abstract ideas as well as concrete objects, but sometimes they distract themselves by doing so, making everything into a metaphor. For example, you will tell them a story about a whale and they will have an existential crisis.

Pastors, having seen and possibly had more existential crises and metaphor-ing than most, might know this even better than most people: it’s true. Humans are adorable. And one of the adorable things we do is to turn every story in the Bible into a metaphor. 

We do that so badly with this story about Jesus calming the storm that we forget that it’s not a parable. The storm, we think, is the great storms of our lives, which Jesus calms. The boat is the church or maybe your family. I think we’ve nailed down everything from the cushion Jesus fell asleep on being the church music you like the least. 

You also run up against other questions: Mark throws in this detail “Other boats were with him.” What are they? The Presbyterians and the Catholics? A press gaggle?

Point is, it’s not a parable. It’s a story about Jesus in a literal boat with his disciples. But because your preacher is a human, we also know that it’s a story about what happens when crisis comes.

Let’s review. I wish it weren’t daytime so that I could shine a flashlight into my own face and say this: it was a dark and stormy night.

What? It was. What, did you think Jesus calming the storm happened in the daytime? Nah. Sometimes the Son of God has a flair for the dramatic.

But it’s not like they planned to get caught up in a storm. First of all, they didn’t have the Accuweather app, and second, if you’ve ever been boating out on Lake Ossipee or any other body of water, you know this to be true even if you have a weather app: sometimes storms come out of nowhere on a summer day.

So there’s a sudden storm swamping this boat full of disciples, including some experienced fishermen who presumably are very good with boats, and some very freaked out tax collectors, and meanwhile, the Messiah is knocked out drooling on a cushion in the back of the boat.

And this is when I get annoyed with how poorly passed down this story probably is. Because Mark quotes the disciples as saying, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” 

Right. ‘Cause that’s what you say when you think you’re about to drown and the person who’s supposed to be in charge is asleep. 

I imagine the disciples who were fishermen doing everything they could to keep the boat afloat, while Matthew the tax collector, who just peed in his tunic a little, holding tight to the side of the boat screaming, “RABBI! WAKE UP WE’RE DYINGGGG!” 

The disciples aren’t mythical figures. They were humans, adorable and easily startled, just like us.

Jesus wakes up, almost annoyed. It doesn’t even say he stood up, so I imagine he just leans his hand over the back of the boat and says, “SHHHHH! PEACE! BE STILL! 

Suddenly the raging sea becomes like Lake Ossipee early on a clear morning: completely calm, like glass.

The disciples say, in today’s parlance: “Who even is this?!” He even controls the wind and sea! 

Humans are adorable indeed: everything is and has been a metaphor for us. Nothing is ever just the thing. For ancient people, control of the sea was a sign of super sovereign power. Large bodies of water were — and are — unpredictable and chaotic and scary, and those who knew how to navigate seas and oceans were among the bravest humans. There’s a reason we say that the Spirit of God hovered over the waters in the beginning as God brings order to chaos, or that Revelation says that in the end, God will bring peace to everything and make the sea like glass. 

In the Job reading, part of the evidence for Job of why God is powerful is that God tells the sea: come this far, and no further. Job, mind you, has been in a metaphorical storm of his own. He’s lost his entire family, his money, his property, and even his health. He’s miserable. 

Job’s friends, in case you haven’t heard, were famously horrible friends. They come to sit with him when tragedy strikes, like friends do, but in chapter after chapter after chapter, they try to get him to admit that he must have done something wrong to deserve God’s punishment. Aside from God not working that way, Job was about as good as a good guy could be. The book of Job tells us over and over that he was righteous. He didn’t deserve all that at all, as if any tragedy comes from God’s pettiness at all. 

Here we find a thing that humans do that’s not so adorable: we tend to look at the misfortune of others and assume it’s their fault. However, God comes in at the end of Job, at a time when Job must’ve thought God was sleeping or something, because God was so silent, and stretches out God’s hand and comforts Job and restores everything to him. God finally stills the voices of Job’s friends and tells Job he’s the righteous one. 

After chapters and chapters of rain and the thunder of accusations from Job’s friends, God calms the storm. God does the same thing today when we tell those who are hurting that it’s their fault — or perhaps we’ve been told that ourselves — that you must’ve done something to anger your abuser, that you must’ve done something — maybe led that guy on? — to deserve to be sexually assaulted, that immigrants are to blame for whatever happens to them when they arrive here. That if you’d just managed your money better, you wouldn’t have fallen into crippling debt, or if you’d chosen a better job or a better college, you wouldn’t be so unhappy. (1)

To all the voices of your accusers and sometimes even to us when we play Job’s friends to the rest of the world, Jesus stretches out his hand and cries “PEACE! Be still.” 

Just like Job, God’s voice is not found in the voices of the accusers. God’s voice is found in the voice that cries out over the thunderclaps of the storm just when you thought that God was asleep to say “Peace! Be still.”  

We live in an in between time. Storms in our lives still rage. But luckily, we are given places like this and people like these. We are given the gift of staring out at Lake Ossipee in the morning when it looks like glass and dreaming of a time when all the storms are calmed forever. We are brought to the table with our entire broken selves, and Jesus meets us here, not to blame us, but to give us peace in bread and wine and his very self. We are invited to touch love and see peace and taste grace. 

Humans are adorable indeed: decorating our nests, prone to make everything into a metaphor. But take heart, church: this love, this grace, is no metaphor. Christ is here in this place. And may the God who made a place this beautiful calm the storms of your heart this week, still your accusers, and grant you peace. Reach out and take grace at this table. Find rest for your soul.

May God and those around you remind you, you human you: not only are you loved, you’re kind of adorable. Amen.

1. Interpretation of Job borrowed from Dr. Anna Carter Florence’s talk at the 2018 Festival of Homiletics.

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Bots, Things That Grow, and Being Alive

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Things that grow, right here in the Pioneer Valley.
[View of the Connecticut River, Mt. Tom Range & Holyoke Range from Mt. Sugarloaf,
South Deerfield, MA]

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

I’m sometimes blown away by the amount of anxiety technology produces: whether we’re worried about kids and screen time, or other adults and screen time, we worry, we get anxious, we get angry, we feel neglected.

Places like this church, and moments like this one — religion, spirituality, and ritual — can provide a respite from technology. We read ancient texts and perform ancient rituals and put our phones away for a minute. As we talk about the kingdom of God as things that grow, we feel our anxiety ease: here, we are fully alive, without a screen in sight.

Some of us may worry about a complete technology takeover, and no wonder: artificial intelligence can do lots of things these days. “Bots” can learn, after all: they can learn our habits and speech patterns, and they can even generate speech. This has become most relevant these days in terms of political influence: bots have been trained to pose as real people on social media, and they can be trained to sound like everything from Bernie Sanders’ most far left supporter to the most conservative Republican to ever Republican and everything in between. Bots can misrepresent, intentionally, entire points of view online, making you think that your worst fears are true: there are more of those people than you think, and they’re even dumber than you imagined.

Whether your worries are primarily political or not, considering the speed at which these bots seem to be learning and posing as real people, the subject of an artificial intelligence takeover doesn’t seem quite as sci-fi-distant these days as it used to.

Well, we were put at ease about that this week when a Twitter user named @KeatonPatti posted the following.

This person writes:
“I forced a bot to watch over 1,000 hours of Olive Garden commercials then asked it to write an Olive Garden commercial of its own. Here’s the first page.”

Attached was a photo of the Olive Garden commercial script that the bot had generated, pulling together language the the bot thought humans would recognize as an Olive Garden commercial. You look like humans. See what you think.

“INT. AN OLIVE GARDEN RESTAURANT

A group of FRIENDS laughs at a dinner table. A WAITRESS comes to deliver what could be considered food.

WAITRESS: Pasta nachos for you.
We see the pasta nachos. They’re warm and defeated.
FRIEND 1: The menu is here.

WAITRESS: Lasagna wings with extra Italy.
We see the wings. There’s more Italy than necessary.
FRIEND 2: I shall eat Italian citizens.
WAITRESS: Unlimited stick!
We see the unlimited stick. It is infinite. It is all. 

FRIEND 3: Leave without me. I’m home.
WAITRESS: Gluten classico! From the kitchen.

FRIEND 4: Says nothing.

FRIEND 3: What’s wrong, Friend 4? 

FRIEND 4: Says nothing.

FRIEND 2: What is wrong, Friend 4?
Friend 4 smiles wide. Her mouth is full of secret soup.
ANNOUNCER: Olive Garden. When you’re here, you’re here.

So I think we’re safe for now.

After all, there are some things you can only know and do by being alive. Apparently writing an Olive Garden commercial is one of them.

If you hear or read the Bible for very long, you soon begin to notice that different things jump out at you at different times, depending on what’s going on in the news or what’s going on in your life at the time.

Lately, as I’ve been living in this community with abundant farmland, all the while watching people everywhere become ever-obsessed with technology, I can’t help noticing how often the Bible compares the reign of God to things that grow.

In the Ezekiel reading, God’s people are like a tender shoot that God makes into a mighty cedar. In the psalm, the righteous are like a palm tree — flexible and strong, and strong because they are flexible — and such people spread out like mighty cedars. In the Gospel reading, the reign of God is like a grain harvest: it grows, and it’s a miracle the way that it grows, and then the harvest comes, and the sickle comes out, and the grain has to die to feed the people.

In the Gospel, the reign of God is also like a mustard seed: it’s tiny, but it grows and spreads so that it offers shade and shelter to many creatures, especially those that fly.

But I always get angry at Paul for messing things up. Yes, the 2 Corinthians passage is lovely, but I wanted trees because I was getting this whole growth and life vibe. Instead, what we do get is one of the best known passages in the Bible, one I had to memorize as a teenager: [do it without notes]

“If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation! The old is gone, and behold, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

It sounds promising, but of course, there’s a lot of dying in the verses that precede it. Also, becoming new — that is, changing — is hard and painful.  

To be alive is to die. What’s more, to be alive is to change and adapt and learn.

There are things that technology cannot do because it is not alive, but there are also things that we have to do in order to be alive, literally and metaphorically. 

We have to eat. We have to drink water. We have to sleep. We have to move from time to time, to have companionship, to learn to ask for what we need. Being alive means experiencing pain and conflict, too. Being alive means change. The old has to go, and the new has to come.

This affects everything from politics to relationships. We have to get our heads around our own complicity in children being separated from their parents seeking asylum at the border. We have to be willing to really see the ways in which we make shows of honoring our military but then do not care for adequately for them when they come home. We have to really see and weigh the importance of what happened in Singapore with North Korea, while not forgetting the importance of both human rights and peace. Rather than looking away after coming to a quick conclusion, being alive means that we have to challenge ourselves to really see the results of what is happening in the world, realizing that the things I have named go far beyond partisanship and into justice. 

After all, artificially intelligent bots are able to imitate far left and far right trolls on Twitter because we’ve become so robotic in our partisanship. We all know exactly how to make our neighbors shut down with our words and catchphrases, but this doesn’t produce solutions. It doesn’t make us alive and adaptive. It harms life.

Beyond politics, in our personal relationships, we have to be able to really see our own weaknesses and insecurities. Machines are always strong. They do not fail, they are not weak. They are also not alive. To be alive is to face your stuff and feel what you feel and to have needs and to care for the needs of others. To be alive is to “give and receive comfort,” even when it’s hardest to do the latter. 

To be alive is to see and be willing to take out the old in favor of the new. To adapt. To change. To be righteous, as the psalmist says, is to be a palm tree: flexible, but rooted.

To be alive is to feel conflict and pain. But every one of our readings this morning speaks of being alive in a unique way: that change and even death are painful parts of life, but they aren’t the end of everything the way that our brains may say that they are. That God compares God’s kingdom to things that grow not because the kingdom dies, but because God has redeemed life and death and change and pain. That being alive is a struggle, but God has made the struggle holy by promising that we will not be alone — that God tends us through the struggle, sends us nourishment along the way, and watches us grow.

While being a stoic machine might mean seeming strong, and while feelings may be inconvenient and uncomfortable for entire seasons of our lives, we were created for freedom and adaptation and love and life. We were not created for robotic answers to questions political or relational. 

Because we are so much more alive when we embrace life for all that it is, realizing that even the worst of it all is redemptive, even if clouds obscure the view.

In other words, yes, you can go through life like a robot, but you won’t really be alive and your Olive Garden commercials will be terrible and that your life’s motto will simply be “When you’re here, you’re here.” 

No. Welcome to the church, where we gather around a different kind of table with the one who showed us how to really be alive. Where we challenge each other to be free and whole and adaptive, where we support each other when it’s painful, where we struggle with things like truth and justice and basic humanity, where we give and receive comfort and nourishment an grow strong together.

Because, to borrow a phrase a real human wrote, when you’re here, you’re family. Amen.

Baptism: Tying Knots for Each Other

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Lin-Manuel Miranda’s original tweet after the loss of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

With the recent spate of celebrity suicides, we’ve all been thinking a lot about how to reach out and help each other when someone’s struggling. Actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda tweeted a characteristically positive message: 

G’night. YOU ARE SO LOVED AND WE LIKE HAVING YOU AROUND.
*ties one end of this sentence to your heart, the other end to everyone who loves you in this life, even if clouds obscure your view*
*checks knots*
THERE. STAY PUT, YOU.
TUG IF YOU NEED ANYTHING.

Stay put, you. 

We worry a lot — about ourselves, our loved ones, our souls. We worry about things like blaspheming the Holy Spirit. As a kid I used to worry as many of us do — I haven’t done that, have I?

And as I was preparing for the service, I thought about changing the Gospel text, thinking, “Do we really need to talk about the devil this much?” 

Welcome to the church, Sophie! We talk about some crazy stuff here, and we still swear it’s the 21st century.

But stay put, you. We’re going somewhere. 

This past Lent, we talked about what I lovingly called the “Dark Arts” of theology: we talked about mortality, sin, and finally, Satan. We talked about how Satan, “ha-satan” in Hebrew, means “the accuser”: the voice we all hear from time to time, whether we name it Satan, one’s demons, or simply low self-esteem. It whispers things like: “You can’t do anything right. You’re a terrible parent. You’re not paying enough attention to your aging parents. You’ll always be addicted. You’re too fat. You’re too skinny. You just can’t follow through on anything, can you? Maybe you want to be depressed.” 

You get the idea. This voice is persistent, cruel, and creative. Whether or not you believe in a literal devil with a pitchfork, the voice of accusation is real, and it comes for all of us. Sometimes, it comes from a voice inside of us; other times, people speak their accusations of us out loud.

Whenever we baptize children, we do so with the knowledge that someday, they too will hear that voice: the one that tells them that they’re not good enough, not strong enough, not beautiful or talented enough. But before that ever has a chance to happen, and before the kid has ever done a thing wrong or right, we baptize those children and call them beloved of God.

We come to tie knots firmly to ourselves and to Sophie and to her family and to each other and to God. We check the knots. 

Stay put, you.

We say to Sophie and her family, as I love to quote: “God loves you, and we love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.” Before she ever has to deal with either difficult, accusatory people or her own self-doubt, we tell Sophie that we’re here for you, and God loves you — always. 

In today’s Gospel passage, with all of its devil talk, we hear those voices coming for Jesus. He’s been out there in Galilee doing some good. His family thinks he’s gone crazy, and you can’t really blame them — they live in a land occupied by a strong foreign empire, where they and their neighbors live in constant fear of persecution. Jesus is out there raising a ruckus, so what mother among us can’t say that she wouldn’t grab her Messianic son by the robes and say, “Boy, have you lost your mind?!” They will kill you if you keep drawing attention to yourself!

What’s more, some religious leaders have come out to the country to see what all the fuss was about, as word about Jesus was spreading. They don’t seem to spend much time getting to know Jesus or his healing before they accuse him of being Satan.

And that’s when Jesus lets loose of this line that has caused existential crises among the spiritually anxious — that is, most people, including me and maybe you — for centuries: “whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” (Mark 3:29). 

It’s even gone the other way: a few years ago on YouTube there was the “blasphemy challenge,” where some anti-religion-types decided to record themselves “blaspheming the Holy Spirit,” but from what I could tell, they mostly only succeeded at poorly conjugating the verb “to blaspheme.” 

Here’s what I don’t think it means: I don’t think that God is as petty as we are. I don’t think it means simply uttering bad things about the Holy Spirit, causing God to have a grudge that God never lets go of. Because here’s the thing: the Bible is full of people who got mad at God, even cursed God, and were still loved and saved by God. So nice try, militant atheists on YouTube. 

Here’s what I see in the passage: the religious leaders, the ones who claim to get what this whole God thing is all about, look at the new life that Jesus is creating and they call it evil. 

I still don’t think that makes God have a giant grudge. I think that, instead, Jesus is describing a reality: if you think that new life is really death, or evil, and that you know better about whom God loves than God does, you won’t experience new life. Jesus isn’t being prescriptive, or talking about how God will punish; he’s simply being descriptive — that is, “this is what happens when you do this.”

In short, you can put your existential worries away. Stay put, you. 

You’re just fine.

God loves you, and there’s nothing you, or the people who accuse you of not being enough, the voices in your head, or anyone else can do about it. 

This is why we are here: to remind one another that Satan — that is, those accusing voices — have no power here in the presence of the love that Jesus preached, lived, died, and rose again for.

When I was interning with a church in Atlanta, we went to the pride parade. Thanks to a stall in crowd flow, a group of parishioners and I once found ourselves between the Atlanta Pride parade and a group of protestors with bullhorns holding signs, some of which had Bible verses on them. Those signs were accusatory, insulting, and disgusting, and so were the words coming from the bullhorns — for a moment it seemed like all of them had bullhorns. They saw that we were a church group in rainbows, and they turned their ire and accusations towards us. They told us all about our church, and about how our message of love was straight from Satan. 

So we yelled too. But we did not yell at the protestors. We yelled to the crowd instead. We hollered for a full minute about God’s love, and for a good forty-five seconds of it, between us and the crowd, we drowned out the voices of hate and accusation in messages of welcome and love: “There is nothing wrong with you. Who you are is not shameful. You were wonderfully made, and God adores you.” Essentially, “STAY PUT, YOU.” 

That is why we are here: to challenge those voices that come for all of us. To say to each other and to Sophie, and to her family, that no matter what voices of accusation rise in their lives as the years ago by, they can always come here to drown those voices out in messages of love.

To say, “We love you and we love having you around. Stay put, you.” 

We say it, we pray it, and we sing it: in singing “All Are Welcome” when the service started, we sang of building a house “where love can dwell and all can safely live.” After I sit down, we’ll sing about God’s love through our whole lives in a song that we usually reserve just for baptisms. 

Because the voice of the accusers are always so strong, we never stop coming here to make sure that though those accusations are loud for all of us, God’s love is louder.

So when we renounce the devil in the next few minutes, think about those voices in your own life, and renounce them, because God’s love is, and always will be, louder.

Because I love you, and God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Stay put, you. Amen.

Laughing on the Sabbath (All the Way to the Altar)

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IN THE STOCKS FOR LAUGHING ON THE SABBATH, no doubt.
An old photo from a long-ago trip to Disney.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Mark 2:23-3:6

I get to talk about two of my favorite theological concepts today, so strap in:
the texts are about the Sabbath,
and we baked communion bread today for Rachel’s first communion.

First, Sabbath.
A short, simple church-type joke that’s been circulating for awhile goes something like this: “I once heard a pastor say that he doesn’t take any days off, because Satan certainly doesn’t. I gently suggested that he choose a better role model.” 

Deuteronomy and the fourth commandment are where we find our commandment to observe a Sabbath, which the Jewish people dubbed as Saturday and which most Christians moved to Sunday to celebrate the resurrection. Modern interpreters, myself included, have advocated for a moveable Sabbath; for me, it’s really about self-interest as well as practicality. It’s hard, you see, for a pastor to observe a real Sabbath on a Sunday, since Sundays are when we are running around making copies, proofing our sermons, checking in with everyone, and making sure that the servers are ready and that any unattended children aren’t cutting each other’s hair. So I observe my Sabbath on Friday.

When do you observe yours? How?

I like to take time to be quiet. I have one criteria for talking at length to me on Friday, and I got it from an older, much more experienced pastor than I. He would say to his congregation, “I don’t want to talk to you on my day off. You see, because that would mean that either you or someone you love is in mortal peril. And I don’t want that. I want us all to rest.” 

Deuteronomy five tells of the Sabbath this way, as it was written to the Hebrews long ago:

“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… Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.” 

Six days you shall labor. But the seventh day you shall rest. Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, but you are not slaves anymore. Now you get a whole day of rest, and so does every member of your household, right down to the animals. The Sabbath is a commandment, but it is also a gift. Because God has freed you from slavery, Israel is told, you and everyone under your roof are given the gift of rest. 

The commandment comes from Exodus and Deuteronomy, but the concept itself comes from Genesis. As the story goes, God made the world, and then God rested.

And here’s what I think about that: God doesn’t need to rest.
So why did God take a break? 

I think it’s so that we wouldn’t associate taking a day off with weakness, but with strength. 

Sabbath rest is one political issue that I am passionately convinced belongs in the pulpit. It may not seem political — all kinds of people like rest, for sure — but trust me, it is. It rubs uncomfortably right up against our society that tells us that we are only worth what we can produce. The first question we often ask each other, after all, is “What do you do?” People, even pastors, constantly praise those who never take vacation, who respond immediately and never seem to take a day off. “She’s a great doctor,” we might say, “because all she does is work.” 

We never really stop to think that maybe she’d be a better doctor if she were better rested.

If the Exodus story tells us anything, it should be that humanity was not meant to be enslaved to anything or to anyone. We were made to work hard, to produce things, to create things — and, when the work is done, to rest. We are commanded to do so.

Christians haven’t had a great track record with Sabbath, though. In fact, this whole time you’ve probably had some bad connotations running around in your mind. Me too — one of my favorite Halloween costumes entails dressing like a Puritan in the stocks with a sign that says, “FOR LAUGHING ON THE SABBATH.” 

So, yeah. Religious people have often made the Sabbath far less like a gift and far more like a burden. First, there were our New England Puritan ancestors who forbade all kinds of fun things on the Sabbath.

Scholar Walter Brueggemann (whom my seminary friends and I lovingly called Uncle Walt) wrote about how the concept of Sabbath quickly got “enmeshed in legalism and moralism and blue laws and life-denying practices that contradict the freedom-bestowing intention of the Sabbath. (1)

In other words, we took a promise from God and made it into a law with which we could control other people. In case you haven’t noticed by now, we humans are really good at that.

Case in point: today’s Gospel story.

Jesus and his disciples are walking through a field of grain. I imagine the sun shining down on them as they laugh and walk together. Jesus is only beginning to call the first disciples; he’s just picked up Levi, and he’s already taking flack from the religious leaders for hanging out with unsavory people. He’s gaining quite the reputation.

So they’re walking through a golden wheat field, and the disciples’ stomachs start to rumble until they notice, “HEY! There’s food all around us.” So they start plucking heads of grain as snacks.

This is where Mark gets a little weird, because it seems like suddenly there are Pharisees present. It’s like when you get the one “whoopwhoop” from a small town police siren for a minor infraction and you’re doubly humiliated because you know you’re not even worth a full siren.

So — in come the Sabbath police. Whoopwhoop.

They demand to know: “Why are your disciples doing what’s not lawful on the Sabbath?!” 

In response, Jesus says two things: first, he tells a story about when David and his friends, as in King David, giant of Judaism, ate bread that only priests were supposed to eat. Because Jesus is a rabbi whose arguments are always on point, he’s even able to tell them which high priest allowed it: it was Abiathar, y’all. 

Second thing he says is one of my favorite sayings of Jesus: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” 

You were not made to meet ritual and religious obligations just because. You were not created to be a slave: to this faith or to rules. This faith is yours. It is in you and for you. Religion and ritual were made to serve humankind and to help us find meaning and even God; humankind was not made to serve religion.

We live in an age where people are deeply suspicious of organized religion, and I can’t say I blame them. We have acted like people were, in fact, made to serve a set of rules. For far too long, we have used religion as a social control. We have restricted other people and scared them into thinking that they would go to hell unless they listened to us. This is the greatest sin of religion: that we have tried to make people slaves to it. That’s just us, though.

As for Jesus, he locks eyes with the Pharisees who were testing him and he heals a man who needs healing on the Sabbath.

We tie each other up in rules, but God has always been in the business of healing and freedom.

We’ve done the same thing with communion. We’ve tried to put fences and barriers around what has to be done and who can lead and who’s worthy, when all the time, God has been loose in bread and wine, inviting everyone, giving Jesus’ very body to anyone with outstretched hands. 

What a scandal of freedom Jesus is.

In my faith background and many others, there’s a practice called an altar call, when anyone who would accept Christ should come forward.

Author Matthew Paul Turner joked that as a kid he wished there were toilet-less bathroom stalls at the front of the church, because obviously meeting Jesus was a very private event, but as a five year old, he hated keeping his eyes closed like the preacher told them to. 

Some of us grew up hearing, “With every head bowed and with every eye closed…” 

While it’s very different in many ways from your typical conservative evangelical altar call, the Eucharist really is nothing short of an altar call itself. Except instead of one or two people coming forward and hearing from the pastor whisper in a low voice exactly what you have to do for God to accept you — at the altar call of the Eucharist, everyone who wants to meet Jesus comes forward with joy. And they don’t just meet the pastor: they receive Christ himself, in bread and wine, not during just one church service, but a million times. It’s not a private event for which we have to close our eyes; it’s a public event we all experience together every single Sunday.

As Paul wrote in the words that set Martin Luther on fire: “By grace you have been saved, through faith; it is not of yourselves, so that no one may boast.” 

Communion is grace. 

Sabbath is grace.

Sunshine is grace, and so is a sense of purpose, and love, and friendship, and a brand new morning.

We do not earn these things. We do not get to control them or use them to control others.

We experience and enjoy these things, not so that God will love us,
but because God already does. 

The conclusion to my sermon today is not my own words; it is the rest of the service. The service that ends with the only altar call we need: the Eucharist.

Like the Sabbath, it is a gift from God to us. It is not a burden that binds us to a bunch of rules; it is a gift that frees us. It is a gift that is God, who is always in the business of freedom.

So come, beloved people, to the altar, when it is time. This altar call will not be a private event. It is a public one, and we come not because we must, but because we may.

Let us come with joy, laughing on the Sabbath, to find the God who laughs and meets us here.

Thanks be to God for love, for the Eucharist, for Sabbath rest… and for grace. Amen.

1. Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance: Saying NO to the Culture of NOW, p. 20.