Sunday, June 29, 2008

No Laughing Matter

No Laughing Matter

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder

Genesis 22:1-14

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The word sacrifice is one that we toss around rather casually in our day. Someone is said to have sacrificed for their family, another is reported to have sacrificed a night’s sleep in order to stay up with a worried friend. I recall that in my college years, as most of us do when we are young, I had to make decisions whether to take up one thing, and in so doing, preclude the possibility that I could do another. Somewhere between high school and our mid-twenties, we are forced to realize that while all possibilities may lie open to us, they don’t stay that way, we cannot pursue all of them. We must choose. I remember choosing to join the rally squad at my college in my sophomore year. It was a fun thing to do, leading cheers, learning stunts, throwing girls in the air and then seeing about catching them. By Spring I realized that commitment would preclude trying out for a lead in a musical in the drama department. I sacrificed something I loved for something that was fun. It wasn’t a tragedy, but I still recall thinking of it as a sacrifice.

An interesting word, that word sacrifice. We seldom use it in its original sense these days. It is entirely Latin in its roots, from sacrare, meaning sacred/set apart + facere, to make or to do. The basis of this word we often tend to use rather casually is to make sacred/set apart. So when we think of animals offered up on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, we think in terms of the word sacrifice. Something done in order to make something sacred. In this case, an offering of an animal in order to set things right with God again, a sort of rebalancing of the scales.

But, as I mentioned, sacrifice is a Latin word, the Hebrew of Genesis knows nothing of Latin. The Hebrew word used in our Genesis reading is ‘ola, “burnt offering.”

Burnt offering. What can be the meaning behind such a term to modern people, when the closest we come in our use of a word like sacrifice may mean nothing more than doing without a latté or a dinner out at the end of the month? And burnt offering, well, I don’t suppose we have much of any way to understand such a concept.

Or do we?

We at least know the word offering if we have been paying any attention at all when churches talk about their stewardship emphasis. The idea of a burnt offering takes the whole idea of an offering to God to another level. An offering in an envelope, a check to pay a tithe, those are things that have utilitarian purpose. But a burnt offering? There is no utilitarian purpose in taking a perfectly good lamb or goat, killing it, and tossing it on an altar to be burned into charcoal. And the absence of a utilitarian purpose reminds us that only God has created out of nothing, that all the things we see in the world that God has made are present through the action of a creating God for God’s own purpose, and not merely for our utilitarian purposes. So at the very least, a sacrifice by means of a burnt offering is a reminder in Genesis that all gifts are of God, and those who receive them are meant to serve God and not the gifts themselves. Even a gift such as long-awaited Isaac, the son who was born to a man who waited 100 years to have a son, even this gift does not replace the call to serve God first and foremost. It seems such a hard word here, unbelievably hard, which is why many do not believe it. But sometimes artists are able to help us see more clearly when theologians and scholars cannot.

One of the many biblical stories to which the 17th century artist Rembrandt was drawn was the sacrifice of Isaac. All the elements would challenge the imagination of any artist: the terrifying command of God to Abraham to sacrifice his own son as a burnt offering, the last-minute reprieve in the form of a ram, the hand of Abraham raising a knife over his only son. During his lifetime Rembrandt depicted this story several times, and it is revealing to mark the difference between the way he portrayed the story as a young man and the way he presented it in his old age. The young Rembrandt rendered the story with dramatic intensity. Abraham has Isaac on the altar, the boy’s head pulled back and the flesh of his neck exposed and vulnerable. The knife is drawn, and Abraham’s muscular arm is prepared to strike. Abraham is a man who is confident that he knows God’s will and is prepared to do it. The angel who intercedes has to muscle the knife away from Abraham.

When he was older, however, Rembrandt returned to this story as a subject for a painting. This time, though, he painted a sadness in the countenance of Abraham as he prepared to do what he believed God had instructed him to do. He covered Isaac’s eyes so that the boy would not see what was about to happen. His arm was not flexed with determination but limp with reluctance. Abraham’s face is not fixed with fierce zeal but instead softened with grateful relief as the angel simply touches his arm gently and the knife is depicted as immediately falling away. Rembrandt had learned over the years that what we fervently believe in the heat of the moment that God demands does not always, in the end, turn out to be God’s will at all. A Jewish saying has it that the proof of a true prophet is that when he prophesies doom upon the people he prays like mad that he is wrong.1

Recent years have been rough ones for children whose parents have a religious vision, or at least a vision of life without their children. Who can forget Andrea Yates who drowned all five of her children in Houston, Texas several years ago. Trouble for children came closer to home for me at the time when former Jehovah’s Witness Christian Longo killed his wife and children on the Oregon coast and then tried to hide their bodies in the bay. There aren’t many days that go by without such accounts in the newspapers. The stories have become almost common.

These were and continue to be very disturbing stories, tragic stories, but, unfortunately, not all that remarkable. Sometimes in these cases, there is an element of religious vision, the murdering parent claiming that God directed them to do what they did, as in the case of Andrea Yates, who testified that she killed her children out of fear that if she let them live they would go to hell. What reason God gives for asking such things of people they often do not say, they just respond to some direction they believe they have received.

The world is filled with kooks and thugs who take shots at public figures or fly airplanes into buildings or plot the destruction of thousands of anonymous lives for any number of reasons, often claiming they are following some self-perceived divine command, unconfirmed by others. But the face-to-face slaughter of innocent children is probably one crime for which there is more outrage than any other.

And yet, for all our revulsion at such stories, we have right under our noses a story of such an attempted case of child violence in the Bible. It has troubled readers for centuries, Jews, Christians and Muslims, everyone from Augustine to Kafka to Kierkegaard to Karl Barth. Knowing the story ahead of time, readers and hearers of the story know from the beginning that God was merely testing Abraham, seeing if he loved the gift of his son more than he loved obeying God. But while we are privileged to know the outcome ahead of time, it’s likely that Abraham didn’t, Isaac clearly didn’t.

Novelist Frederick Buechner said, in a wry understatement, “From that day on Abraham’s relationship with Isaac was never close.”2 Small wonder. But I have come to differ with that conclusion. To be sure, the relationship was forever changed, resting from that point on absolutely and completely on God’s promise. Which is another way of saying that the relationship between Abraham and Isaac from that point on rested where all relationships should rest: in God’s benevolence and promise. Any promise of God is a gift, a pure gift. The scene of Abraham and his son, poised on the edge of an unspeakable barbarity, represents a sort of divine madness which is never totally separated from a throw-your-children-off-the-bridge kind of madness. The test for Abraham was whether he trusted the promise of God for its own sake, or only because of the gift. If the gift were removed, would the trust depart as well? Abraham proved that it would not.

The meanings of this disturbing passage are difficult, but they are not beyond our ability to understand them.

Abraham’s trial demonstrates that God’s promise to us, in whatever form, lies outside our control, that’s the bad news ... but well within God’s control, that’s the good news. We also discover that understanding God’s promise, or even believing it, is impossible apart from a radical kind of obedience which may be beyond what we are willing to give to God.

The promise of God is a promise available to those willing to endure anything in order to be faithful to that promise. This is where Abraham differed from the mad or calculatingly sociopathic people who kill their children. They have it turned around the wrong way. Abraham was willing to suffer anything for the sake of the promise of God, while deranged and misguided folks are mainly attempting to relieve their own psychic suffering by throwing away the very promise that lived in their children. Abraham – and, when you think about it, Isaac too – acted in faith. The murderous ones act either in fear or calculation.

When Isaac asked his father, “Where is the lamb for the sacrifice?” though God had provided the ram, he had to wait along with the rest of humanity for several hundred years for the ultimate answer, when John the Baptist, standing with two of his disciples, pointed out Jesus and said, “Behold! the Lamb of God!”3 God is a providing God, though we must love God more than we love his provision. That is the hardest thing. To love God more than we love his manna, his provided ram.

As we look to God’s promises in our own lives, we realize that no promise is without its danger, even suffering for the sake of the promise. And yet God’s promise is the light for our eyes of faith. For God’s ultimate promise is the gift of himself in Jesus Christ.

Copyright © 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved


1 Thanks to Tom Long for steering me to observations about Rembrandt’s work in Journal for Preachers , Easter 2001, pp. 33-40.
2 Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who's Who, by Frederick Buechner, Harper & Row, 1979.
3 John 1:36

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Dead or Alive

Dead or Alive

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder

Romans 6:1b-11

June 22, 2008

Any of you who found yourselves seated near the front when I have conducted a service of baptism here may have noticed that I believe in the liberal use of water to make baptism an observable act of the church. If we are going to carry physical elements in here — water, bread, wine — then I believe we should take advantage of the symbolism they bring by making them as visible as possible. It is the reason we use a whole loaf of bread to break at communion and pass around, the reason we pour out the wine in order to hear it was well as taste it. So I believe in using lots of water in baptism.

A couple of years ago, after I had given one youngster in my confirmation class a good sloshing, someone said to me on their way out of the church, “Too bad you spilled that water during the service, but thank goodness it doesn’t stain the carpet, so no harm was done.” I should probably have responded – especially in light of what Paul has to say in Romans 6 – that it was not a spill, not an accident; when I slosh water during baptism, we are – all of us together – engaged in an act that, while it is a happy celebration, is also very serious, and very intentional.

In our culture, many of us have grown up with some curious and even non-biblical ideas about what baptism is. I have sometimes heard it referred to by Presbyterians as “christening,” which, while I would never say that is an unacceptable term, I would share with you that that word has mostly to do with naming, which is why we use it when we christen or name ships, and why I prefer to say we baptize believers and their children.

One writer, commenting on the subject of baptism, said that it is a sacrament which demands enough water to die in.1 While it is said that people have died in an inch of water, most of us would agree that enough water to die in would demand a significant amount. Why enough to die in particularly? Because Paul has spoken of our baptism in Christ, saying, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” Have you ever thought of baptism, that sweet sacrament we celebrate so often with infants as well as youth and adults, in quite this way, as an initiation of sorts into the death of Jesus?

Culturally, baptism is often conceived as a sweet, sentimental sort of action, while the New Testament sees it as nothing of the sort. Someone once said that the knowledge of Christ imparted through baptism is the bath house variety, it is something almost too uncouth to bring up at the dinner table, because situations demanding polished social manners cannot bear too much talk of earthly things. In Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, on being informed that her two grown nephews were soon to be baptized, the noble auntie objected that such a thing must be regarded as gross and irreligious. If the bath house Christ, with sloshing pales of water down in the front of our otherwise orderly and tidy sanctuary, leaves us uncomfortable, then it could just be that that is precisely what it should do. Remember that Jesus himself had a rather consistently unsettling effect on most of his contemporaries.

So baptism, in the way Paul speaks of it here, is not so much a christening, that is, not a naming, and certainly not a modest “dampening” with a thimble full of water, not a sweet little entitlement of childhood. One other thing it clearly is not. It is not exclusively an event of the distant past. For many of us, our own baptism may be an unremembered act, performed on our behalf long before we were of an age to have any idea what was happening, by an adult who then presented our parents with what may now be a dusty certificate lying all but forgotten in the bottom of a remote drawer in a neglected cabinet somewhere. Others of us, who may have been baptized after reaching what is commonly referred to as “the age of reason,” if there could possibly ever be such a thing, may remember their baptism as a significant moment in their lives, but one that is in the past, set now among dozens of others of life’s significant moments. But this passage from Romans helps us see that baptism is a life long calling. To paraphrase Martin Luther, baptism is a once-and-for-all sacrament that takes your whole life to finish.

I have often thought that churches in other traditions have a good idea in placing water at entry points into the sanctuary. That way, every time a worshiper enters the sanctuary, he or she is immediately reminded of the fact that their baptism still stands, that they are in the midst of the household of faith that is drawn together around the baptismal bowl. On the other hand, other traditions have a good idea with their immersion tanks built right into the sanctuary. In such places there can be no mistake that baptism can require enough water to drown in.

One pastor friend of mine has settled on a method for helping members of his congregation recall their own baptism whenever the sacrament is celebrated. After the person is baptized, the congregation sings a hymn while he walks up and down the aisle of the church, dipping his hand into the bowl and flinging a light spray of water over the worshipers. The reaction of the unsuspecting at this moment is amazing to behold. Some duck for cover, some worry about the pages of their hymnal but most see the sense of it. This gives the sacrament a sense of constant presence among the people. The baptismal font in my previous congregation was given to the church in 1909 by the Steusloff family in memory of Johanna, almost 100 years ago. It was so long ago, no one remembers her or her family in the church today. No one, that is, except for the One who is the Lord of baptism. I always enjoyed reflecting on a vision of all the thousands of people presented at that font from that time to this, all lined up at that font in a line that would stretch out the door and down the street and around the block, people who had been received – one by one – as precious subjects of God’s love right at that very font. The thought reminds me of the presence of the great cloud of witnesses described in the letter to the Hebrews in the New Testament.

Some in our world think it strange that we keep a cross and a baptismal font in the sanctuary, but Paul shows us that cross and baptism are intimately related. Why should baptism demand enough water to drown in? To reveal what Paul said to us: “...we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Death to the old, giving life for the new. Paul seems to have a curious view of death. We tend to think of it as a finality, an end of the road. But Paul carries around the idea that death leads to something else, and not just a life after a physical death. Paul suggests that we go through deaths in this life, that we might be more alive, still in this life. When we baptize sweet little babies on a Sunday morning, who among us is led to thoughts of death? But in this way the Bible is realistic about life in ways that our own culture seems not to be. In a pessimistic moment, we acknowledge that all of us are born to die. Our culture would want to deny that, want to see baptism only as a sweet, quaint little rite of passage, a harmless little ritual.

The symbolism of death with Christ suggests that with him we die to so much that the world holds dear because we want to be in touch and in line with what Christ holds dear. So we die to the world that we may live to Christ.

I took part in home-building missions in Mexico for ten days every summer for almost 15 years. The world might wonder why anyone would set aside their own life for ten days of discomfort sleeping on the hard ground, with days of hard labor. But the body of Christ knows that in attending to the needs of others, and especially of the poor, we attend to that which is close to the very heart of God. We die to this tiny portion of our lives that we may live to Christ. I remembered that death to our own lives one summer when we baptized one of our church’s beautiful young people there in Mexico.

Once, during the turbulent course of the Viet Nam war, a college chaplain I know was conversing with a group of students on campus when one, thinking of that war, said, “There is nothing in the world that is worth dying for.” To that, the chaplain replied, “Well then, since we all must die, that will mean that you will one day be confronted by the absolute necessity of dying for nothing.”

It was a hard word but an honest one. If the only good any of us ever did in the world was to spend a few weekends building a Habitat house, or spending a few summer days in Mexico trying to help lift up some of those who are down-trodden, or to encourage through financial gifts or prayer those who are more able than we are to face the rigors of mission work in far-off places as well as near, if the only good any of us ever did was something like this, then ever after it could never be said of us that we had given our lives for nothing. Today we might do well to remember people in our own Presbyterian Church USA who give their lives for work in Christ’s name in Asia, South America, Africa, on reservations with Native Americans and in remote Amazon jungles. We celebrate them not just because they doo good and helpful work. We celebrate because these missions represent a baptismal reality in the church in which people literally die to their own lives for a time that they might live to the mission and ministry of Christ.

Praise be to God then who gives us his work to do in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1. Aidan Kavanaugh: The Shape of Baptism: The Rite of Christina Initiaton, Liturgical Press, 1991, Page 179.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Get Up and Follow

Get Up and Follow

© copyright 2008 Robert J. Elder

Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26
June 8, 2008

As Jesus was walking along,
he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth;
and he said to him, “Follow me.”
And he got up and followed him.

This is the sort of title that can easily be misread in the bulletin: “Get Up and Follow Pastor Elder,” it could be read. Or, “Get Up and Follow, Pastor Elder...” The second rendition, with the added comma, is better, more in line with our text for today too.

A pastor’s call, every believer’s call, is to help people learn to follow Jesus. All people, every sort of person. It is part of a pastor’s job to help believers discover that they have a calling to the faith, that it’s not just a matter of personal choice or preference like a supermarket spirituality, but rather that Jesus calls, and we respond. He is the initiator and we are the ones he moves. At least that is the way it is supposed to be.

One of the most frequent questions asked of every pastor usually has to do with our sense of calling. I can stand up here and tell you that every believer has a calling, and I believe it is true, but there exists within lots of people a sort of suspicion that pastors receive a special sense of call, a kind of high-octane summons from God. “How did you know you were called to be a minister?” people will ask, or “How did you decide to become a pastor?” How did we begin singing “Standing on the Promises,” when before we had simply been sitting on the premises?

The fact is, for many pastors, decision had little to do with it. For most of us, there has been some sort of resistance, some doubt, some question, often a question which follows us right into our ministries: “Is this what I am really supposed to be doing with my life?” And despite some appearances, for most there has been no opening of the heavens, always there remains some question, some curiosity about our own call to ministry. I suspect the same is true for most believers. It is easy for us to envy people who have what Barbara Brown Taylor once called “a spectacular sense of call.”1 She wrote,

“I once had a job that involved reading applications for admission to a Methodist seminary. One of the questions on the standard form was, ‘Why are you applying to this school of theology?’ The answers were often fantastic, many of them involving car wrecks in which the applicant’s narrow escape resulted in a call to preach...”

That would be a report of a dramatic call to ministry, like Paul’s famous blinding light when he was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christian community there. Dr. Taylor recalls once interviewing a man who was in prison for an adolescent incident in which he was involved in an armed robbery. He became a believer while in prison and had served enough of his sentence without incident and with good behavior that when he informed his parole board of his desire to pursue a call to ministry in the church, they had told him if he was accepted as a candidate for ministry, they would let him out. During his interview with the application committee, he pulled up his shirt to show his inquirers where a bullet had gone in his stomach and out his back. “That was my burning bush,” he told them. Dr. Taylor goes on,

“Sometimes I think that those spectacular call stories in the Bible do more harm than good. At the very least, I suppose, they are good reminders that the call of God tends to take you apart before it puts you back together again, but they also set the bar on divine calling so high that most people walk around feeling short...If you walk into the average Christian church to explore your purpose, chances are that you will come out with an invitation to...volunteer at the soup kitchen on Tuesdays. It is almost enough to make you envy the guy with the bullet hole.”

This is one reason I like the story of Matthew’s call to ministry so much. Unlike Paul’s story, complete with a voice from heaven and a blinding light, tantamount to a bullet hole in the belly, Matthew’s call is as simple and straightforward as can be imagined: “As Jesus was walking along,” the gospel says, “he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.”

Ta da! That’s it. Jesus called, Matthew followed. Simplicity itself. The questions Matthew may have had, any self-doubts and worries apparently were to be addressed later, if at all. The main issue is following when called.

Another reason I like the story of Matthew’s call has to do with the person Matthew was and what he represented to those around him. Matthew was what one scholar called a “prototype sinner.” Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were people who were motivated by pure self-interest. They were equated with sinfulness in the way that some say when you looked up the word in a dictionary, you’d see their picture as an illustration. The way “byzantine” has come to mean “complicated,” and “Dickensian” refers to a dark time of social injustice, “tax collector” in Jesus’ day meant really really bad sinner.

This suggests there may more to getting up and following Jesus than just getting up. There is more to our call to follow him than good intentions poorly wrought. And there is certainly more to this call business than being good people, as the story of Matthew’s call amply demonstrates. Matthew didn’t start out as a good person destined for ministry. Jesus called Matthew, and Matthew rose up and followed. That was the test for discipleship, for calling, the getting up and following. Any other necessary qualifications could apparently be added later.

That Jesus called fishermen to be his disciples and to share his work sounds lovely and rural and somehow particularly satisfying in a homespun way. Fishermen like Peter and Andrew were, after all, industrious, hardworking, productive members of their community. Easy enough to agree with Jesus’ decision to call them. But tax collectors? It’s as if Jesus chose to include in his class of disciples Mike Tyson, or the executives of Enron who were willing to sacrifice the welfare and savings of thousands to line their own pockets. The hard truth is that it’s true, Jesus does call such people. But not just such people. Jesus calls all sorts of people, and our names are on his list side by side with them, yours and mine.

It has been said that people do not volunteer to be disciples, they are called to that work. A church is not an association of volunteers, it is a congregation of people who have been called by Christ. In the gospels Jesus was known to reject people who supposed they could become disciples simply by means of their own decision;2 likewise, in our passage today Jesus calls one who would have been rejected by others.3 Rejecting the chosen, choosing the rejected. There is certainly good news for someone hidden in such a gospel story about Jesus. It must have been good news for Matthew and other sinners. He collected a house full of other tax gatherers and assorted sinners to listen to the words of the master.

I think the combination of the story of Matthew’s call with the account of the healings of the little girl and the hemorrhaging woman is insightful for this reason: Jesus responded to his critics that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Yet the hard truth is, no one is well. No one. Those who believe they are sinless thereby shield themselves from the grace of Jesus.

How did it feel to be a prototype sinner, like Matthew, despised one day, a disciple the next? How does it feel for any of us, really, to carry the name of Jesus? Probably for Matthew, as for the rest of the disciples, as for us, there is a feeling of being unequal to the task of representing Christ to the world. And still we are called.

Some of you may be familiar with the operas of the great composer, Giacomo Puccini, who wrote such works as Madam Butterfly, and La Bohème. While suffering with cancer he was working on his opera Turandot, which he continued to write at a clinic to which he had been sent in Brussels. Turandot proved to be his final, though still unfinished, work. It is said that he realized he was not going to be able to complete it and asked his students to finish it for him. He left many pages of drafts for a duet and the last scenes of the opera. The completion of the project finally was left to one of Puccini’s students, Franco Alfano, who completed the opera six months after the maestro’s death.

Soon after Puccini died in 1924, the opera opened at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. It was conducted by another of his students, his son-in-law Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini conducted the opera until he reached the point where Puccini's work had remained incomplete at his death. Toscanini stopped the orchestra and singers and put down his baton. He faced the audience and announced, “Thus far the master wrote. Then he died.”4 After a pause, he said, “But his disciples continue his work.” He raised his baton and finished the opera, which was greeted with thunderous applause.

I suppose that disciples of all times know what this sort of story means. Anyone who has ever had a mentor, a figure to whom they have looked for guidance knows the feeling of inadequacy in their presence. I recall preaching in my church once when an invited guest speaker for a renewal event at the church — one of my former seminary professors, a brilliant man who electrified students in the lecture hall at Princeton Seminary — was sitting in the pews, on one side, about three rows from the back. It was nerve-wracking, I can tell you. What a challenge it is to carry on the call to ministry in front of your master! Even so, we recall with Matthew’s story today that Jesus persistently calls disciples, all of whom are made whole through their love of that man, all of whom labor to continue his work.

And it has been this way for those who follow him ever since.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
1 “True Purpose,” by Barbara Brown Taylor, in Christian Century, February 21, 2001, p. 30.
2 Matthew 8:18-20.
3 New Interpreter’s Bible VIII, Matthew Boring, Abingdon, 1995, p. 235.
4 Source:

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Ways of God, and Some Other Ways

The Ways of God, and Some Other Ways

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder

Mountain View Presbyterian Church
Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time
June 1, 2008
Mark 2:23-3:6

The sabbath was made for humanity,
and not humanity for the sabbath;
so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.

A friend of mine, a Christian pastor, told me about an everyday sort of experience with his next door neighbor, a faithful, kosher-observant conservative Jew. My friend is what many would call — in as kindly a way as possible — mechanically-impaired. Buy him all the books about how things work that you want, he just doesn’t get it. So he generally leaves the mechanical things of life to the experts: he tries always to drive a late-model car so he won’t have to worry about mechanical breakdowns, he calls in the plumbers or electricians whenever there is a need and never tries to manage such “handyman” things himself. I don’t think he ever even watched Home Improvement or This Old House.

Early one Saturday morning, my friend’s Jewish neighbor peered out and saw him struggling with a ladder to wash the upstairs windows on their two-story home. The neighbor — whose windows were of the same make — called out to him, “Why don’t you do that from the inside?” These were the sort of windows which, by flipping a lever, you can pull into the house for easy cleaning. “I can’t figure it out,” my friend responded, apparently too proud to admit he was so mechanically klutzy he even needed to hire out this simple task.

The Jewish neighbor, resting at home on Saturday, his religious Sabbath, called out again, “I could come over tomorrow and show you. What would be a good time?”

“You know what I do tomorrow!?” my pastor friend responded. There is little time for washing windows on a Sunday for most pastors!

“Hmmm,” said the observant Jewish next-door neighbor, perhaps recalling for whom God created the Sabbath in the first place, “wait there a minute and I’ll be over.”

Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for humanity and not humanity for the Sabbath. Most of us, with our exceptionally-relaxed, early twenty-first century understanding of the Sabbath as a day when we might choose to go to church for an hour or so in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day gardening, or catching up on work at the office, or doing a thousand other things, most of us have lost sight of the strict nature of Sabbath regulations for observant Jews. Whether he would have put it this way or not, my friend’s Jewish neighbor was taking to heart Jesus’ own words in such a way as to demonstrate that he knew what it means that God established the Sabbath for the welfare and happiness of humanity, and not the other way around.

In our time-driven culture, where we find too little time for working, sleeping, nurturing relationships, playing, exercising, cleaning the house, entertaining friends, meeting social obligations, in this culture there is an increasing longing for what Jews and Christians call Sabbath, even though many do not know what name to put on it.

The command to observe the Sabbath appears in the Ten Commandments, which themselves appear in two places in the Old Testament: Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 5.1 In Exodus, the reason given for keeping to a day of rest after six days of labor is that it follows the pattern God set when creating the world, working six days, resting on the seventh. We are reminded by our own Sabbath rest that we are made in the very image of our Creator. In Deuteronomy, the reason given for Sabbath rest is that the Jews were freed slaves. Slaves cannot take a day off from labor. Free people can. No wonder, when extra hours have to be spent at our jobs, we often refer to it almost instinctively by saying, “I’ve been slaving at work for over a week!” To live without Sabbath rest is like slavery!

Now, in Jesus’ world as well as ours, while the Sabbath was defined by many things, the one thing it was not to be was a day for work. Defining what is meant by work has provided full-time employment for religious authorities through the centuries, but about the general principle there is agreement. A day of rest from work provides a weekly reminder that, in the end, it is not human effort that meets the needs of the world, but the providing love of God.

We have probably all heard too many sermons on Jesus’ strong words to the Pharisees concerning Sabbath observance which say something to the effect that the Jews of his day were not much more than a bunch of legalists who missed the spirit of the Sabbath commandment. Perhaps our too-eager embrace of this view has lead to our slovenly Sabbath practice as Christians, where a Sunday appears to be little more than another “day off” during a weekend, which may or may not be punctuated by a short worship service. True Sabbath observance, at its best, has been said to “open a space for God”2 in the middle of the times of our lives.

So what was Jesus’ problem? Why did he get into entanglements with the Pharisees over Sabbath observance? Jesus asked whether it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath, and the silence of his opponents gave him leave to let his actions give the answer. Sabbath is intended for the goodness of humanity. But any time we read a passage of scripture and easily find ourselves immediately on Jesus’ side, we have probably not read the passage correctly, or at least not fully.

Imagine Israel as an occupied country. The Romans had succeeded in subduing many other countries and cultures, and they fully intended to do the same with Israel. It was not just brute force that accomplished this, though Lord knows there was plenty of that. They had somehow understood the importance of cultural transformation. Everyone was required to honor the emperor, subtly substituting his empire-wide image on coins, flags, and statuary for the social cohesiveness formerly provided by local religious customs and practices. Countries all around the former Roman Empire speak versions of Latin to this day: French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian, all testimony to the subversive cultural success of Roman Empire building. No wonder the rabbis were adamant about the provisions of the law of Israel. To retain their uniqueness as a people tremendous effort was required to resist pressures to conform. And among their distinctive traits was the observance of Sabbath every 7th day. To give that up would be to disappear into the generic population of Roman-dominated Mediterranean peoples of the 1st century. Then along came this itinerant preacher, Jesus from Galilee, who appeared to teach that Sabbath observance was an option rather than a requirement of their faith. The opposition Jesus encountered is more understandable when we realize all this.

Yet we also need to remember what Jesus was really doing through his actions on the Sabbath. He was not saying that the Sabbath is irrelevant or even optional. He was simply issuing a reminder that God is Lord even of a religious tradition as sacred as the Sabbath. Our commitment to religious observances concerning God should never overshadow our acknowledgement that God is Lord even of our religious observances.

It is the way of God to be gracious, to work and then provide for rest, to free those who are bound. Our world is designed with such graciousness in mind. Being weak creatures, we are in need of frequent reminders about this. One day in seven is not a bad proportion for reminding us about the grace of God. But we can turn such reminders into a sort of substitute god, forgetting the graciousness of the One who gave them. For this reason, Jesus came not to change the law, but to remind us of the compassionate nature of the God whose law helps keep us gracious.

Jesus did not do away with Sabbath observance. He did not say that everyone is now free to take their Sabbath when and where and in whatever fashion they like, to follow the individualistic approach to faith expression which is one of the chief evils of our lives in the church today. Communion, which we celebrate today, reminds us that our faith is communal, something we do together in community. No, the point becomes clear that Jesus, when asked about what is lawful declared that what is lawful is not nearly so important a question as what is merciful, what is gracious, and, above all, what points to the One who is Lord even over the Sabbath itself.

In our religious obligations we are not free to enslave or starve people in order to maintain some abstract principle of law. When the contest comes to a choice between compassion, food for the hungry, freedom for the captive on the one hand, and an abstract principle on the other, it is compassion, freedom and care which are most clearly the ways of God. Any other way is just some course other than the way of the One who is Lord even of the Sabbath.

Through Jesus’ words today, we are reminded of this God who provides all we need and more. We are reminded of a whole day each week given to us for freedom from work — a tithe of a 7th of our time — by which we celebrate the gift of life itself, given back to God, it’s true possessor. This is really good news we may rely on.

© copyright 2008, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

1 I am indebted to Dorothy Bass' article, “Keeping Sabbath: Reviving a Christian Practice,” Christian Century, Jan 1-8, 1997, p. 13 for ideas in this paragraph.
2 Ibid., p. 14