Grace Presbyterian Church
September 13, 2015
Hebrews 10:19-25; Mark 2:23-3:6
What’s the Point of Sunday?
I have particular memories of how Sundays went when I was young. Sunday lunch (often whatever roast could be purchased relatively cheaply) was cooking before I got up, so that it could be quickly heated and ready to eat when we got home from church. Since lunch was going to be a big deal, breakfast was generally simple and quick.
My job was to get myself dressed as uncomfortably as possible. (Sometimes I think that’s still the case.) Uncomfortable suit or sportcoat and slacks, uncomfortable shirt, decidedly uncomfortable tie and shoes. To this day I am rebelling against that upbringing by insisting, no matter what else I wear, that I wear comfortable shoes for Sunday mornings. Off we went to church, a largish Southern Baptist church on the edge of downtown in the small town where we lived. Sunday school first, then into worship. The latter was mostly marked by the need to get everything else out of the way quickly so the sermon could go for a solid thirty minutes or more. (I was generally lost after fifteen minutes at the maximum.)
Home for that big lunch, and then, most Sundays, a nap. At the time I thought this was just because everyone was groggy after that big meal. Early on, though, it was as likely because there was nothing else to do in that town on Sunday. If it wasn’t closed, it was frowned upon so as to be impossible to do. That began to give way over time, particularly when that small town got its first mall. And there were certain odd things, like the sight of a convenience store’s beer coolers covered over with plastic, either early on Saturday night or not yet removed on Monday. I was too young to get it at the time.
Of course, there were things that didn’t quite add up. There was always some kind of sporting event on TV on Sunday afternoons, and no one ever quite explained why it was o.k. for those football players (or baseball or basketball, depending on the season) to be playing on Sunday. It’s possible no one ever explained it because they were too busy watching the game.
The point, I suppose, is that while it seemed rather tricky to figure out exactly what you could or couldn’t do on Sundays, no one ever really explained it, to me at least, beyond you’re not supposed to do that on Sunday. You ended up being more afraid than anything, and fear, as the novelist Marilynne Robinson observes, isn’t a particularly Christian frame of mind. In that sense it was not unlike the situation in which Jesus and the disciples find themselves in today’s reading from Mark, except that for them the potential stakes were much higher and more dangerous.
For reasons unknown Jesus and the disciples are making their way through a field of grain. As they make their way, the disciples are occasionally plucking the heads of grain and grinding them up between their fingers to eat.
For reasons even less clear, there is a group of Pharisees observing this activity, and finding in it a pretext to condemn the disciples. By their understanding of the law and its many interpretations and extrapolations over the centuries, there were possibly two violations of the Sabbath at play here; grinding the grains in their hands was definitely a violation, but the very act of walking through the fields, and having to push through the grain to make a path, might have also fallen afoul of the Pharisees’ Sabbath rules. Frankly it seems that it was probably safer not to leave the house.
Jesus’s reaction is interesting; he goes straight to scripture and the history of Israel for his response, citing an obscure episode we find in 1 Samuel 21 in which David, on the run from Saul, wheedled the “bread of the presence” away from a temple priest.
Why would David do such a thing? Why would David and his men dare to eat consecrated bread, meant only to be consumed by the priests after its time in “the presence of the Lord”? Well, because…they were hungry.
From there Jesus gets to the point, a point about the Sabbath. For the Pharisees, the Sabbath had become a legal monolith, a creation with its rules and requirements that were to be obeyed at all costs. Certainly the basis for respect of the Sabbath was thoroughly scriptural—from the creation story in which God rested on the seventh day, to the Fourth Commandment, the Hebrew tradition makes clear the significance of Sabbath in the life of the people. Over time, though, the question became “what does it actually mean to keep the Sabbath holy?” Inevitably the question becomes “what can I do, and what can’t I do, on the Sabbath and still keep it holy?” or in other words, “what can I get away with on the Sabbath?” Priests and scholars and scribes worked through these scriptures and worked out these things, how much work one could do on the Sabbath, how far one could travel or whether or not one could prepare a meal. Over time, these interpretations acquired the force of law, and the Sabbath became an occasion for fear instead of joy, worry instead of hope.
This is what Jesus cries out against when he says “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.” What was meant to be a refreshment to us humans, a day for rest and rejuvenation and restoring our life in God, had become little more than a series of traps for the would-be follower.
If this moment weren’t chilling enough, what followed next, in the synagogue, made clear just how far this situation had deteriorated. Waiting there was a man with a withered hand, along with the Pharisees. The challenge did not need to be spoken to be clear. Amazing as it might seem to us, an act of healing was regarded as a breaking of Sabbath law. Therefore, for Jesus to do what he had already become famous for doing would put him irreparably against these upholders of the law.
Once again, Jesus summarizes the situation clearly: “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?
What is the point of Sabbath?
Now let’s be clear; our situation today is not quite like that of the Jews of Jesus’s day. For one thing, we don’t really observe the Sabbath, which was after all the seventh day of the week – not the first day of the week, the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection that most Christian denominations observe for worship. That changed early in the church’s history, though not without a great deal of debate and disagreement. Still, the question remains compelling for us: what is the point of Sunday? Is it lawful, is it right to do good or to do harm on Sunday? Sunday is made for humankind, and not humankind for Sunday.
Jesus’s words challenge us, even on the first day of the week. What is this day of worship good for? What good do we do on Sunday? What’s the point of Sunday?
It is not my purpose to propose a whole new or old batch of legalisms to be applied to our Sundays and how we spend them. How many hearts and lives were truly won to Christ by Sunday blue laws? What were we showing the world about Jesus with such restrictiveness and sternness? Were we doing good or doing harm?
At the same time, we are still under the command to remember Sabbath. We are not made to be on the clock twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. We are not meant to be without regeneration and refreshment, we are not meant to go without being restored and rejuvenated in our faith and reconnected to the very Source of our life. Even our Creator showed us that from the very beginning.
And to be sure, we do need time to ourselves sometimes. I of all people have to admit that I don’t do well without the occasional getaway on my own. But this day, this day of worship and praise directed towards our God and towards Jesus the Son, is something different. We aren’t just rejuvenated and rested and restored; this day, this time of worship and education and being in fellowship with one another is about something more.
It is about not just being restored, but being restored together. It is about being refreshed in the Spirit, reinforced in the Word, rejuvenated in song and prayer and all of the other pieces of worship and study and prayer, and about all of these things being not just individually experienced, but learning and singing and praying and worshiping together, as the body of Christ, all of us, youngest to oldest. All of us together, one Body in Christ. And that only happens in this coming together.
It’s not an accident that the author of Hebrews warns us against “neglecting to meet together,” which was apparently a problem already for this very young church. Rather, our coming together is to be a time of helping each other “hold fast to our confession,” to “provoke” – wow, what a word to use here! – “provoke one another to love and good deeds,” “encouraging one another” – these are things that only happen in fellowship with one another, in communion with one another. This happens here, together.
If we are not finding ways to do those things – holding fast to our confession, provoking each other to love, encouraging one another – we have to wonder why we’re here. Can we find it in ourselves, in this little corner of the church, to make that the object of our Lord’s Day?
I think we can. This is not a congregation that needs to be told how to be compassionate. We get the business of encouraging one another, provoking one another to love and good deeds. And we get that we need to extend that compassion and those good deeds outside the walls of this church. There’s a box out in the narthex that testifies to this.
But can we take that even farther? Can we extend that compassion and provoking even to the point of inviting the world out there inside these walls? Can we risk the uncomfortable, the uncertain?
I think we can.
So here’s my dare to you. I won’t even limit it to this week. Sometime this month, sometime before September is over, invite someone to join us in worship here. Yep, I’m challenging you to invite someone to church. How very un-Presbyterian of me.
But if we are to see this place and this time as something like Jesus saw the Sabbath, as the time to do good, to heal; as a time made for us to be repaired and revived; well, you’d think we’d want to share it.
So there’s your challenge. Invite someone. Be welcoming. Open your arms wide.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns: “O Day of Radiant Gladness” (PH 470); “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (PH 260); “Jesus Loves Me!” (PH 304); “We Cannot Measure How You Heal (GtG 797)
Who knew this could lead one astray so badly?