This week, I was invited to preach at the weekly Eucharist at the Churchwide Office (“headquarters”) of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), where I have also recently started a position as Interim Coordinator for Global Service Events with the Global Mission Unit of the ELCA. Pictured above, from left to right, is me, the Rev. Kevin L. Strickland (Assistant to the Presiding Bishop / Executive for Worship, ELCA), Megan Brandsrud (Associate Editor, Living Lutheran), and Beau Surratt (Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Chicago).
An earlier version of this same sermon was preached this past weekend (June 2-3, 2018) at St. Stephen Lutheran Church, Midlothian, IL.
Lutheran Center Chapel (ELCA Churchwide Office)
6 June 2018 + Lectionary 9B (Pentecost 2)
Mark 2.23-3.6; Deuteronomy 5.12-15
“Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.” These are the words Barbara Brown Taylor uses to describe her childhood religious experience. For her, the Christian Sunday Sabbath observance was a day defined by “could nots”: you could not wear blue jeans, you could not play ball, you could not ride bikes, you could not go to the movies. Truthfully, it all sounds a bit more legalistic than restful: a day set aside by God for rest co-opted by human meddling, something we seem to be pretty good at — not unlike the Pharisees quibbling over Sabbath law with Jesus.
There is, however, no debate that the Sabbath was intended for promoting life and well-being. That much was universally understood, common ground between Jesus and the Pharisees. The problem comes when we, like the Pharisees, try to set limits on the divine gift of rest, to define what God has already given us freely.
The urge to limit and define what Sabbath is and isn’t, though, is understandable. We live in a world that demands much from us, with multiple things competing for our time and attention nearly 24/7: our work, the news, social media feeds, family and friends, and, of course, our phones and devices, often our most intimate of companions. The idea of stopping all work, all obligations, is radically countercultural. It might even seem impossible.
In a world of unrelenting demands, Sabbath offers us a much-needed opportunity to stop and gives us permission to rest: take in the weekend, order takeout and let someone else do the cooking, sleep in or take a nap, go for a bike ride, walk the dog, get caught up on Netflix. Hyperconnected to all the things that lay claim to our time and absorbed in the things that drain our energy, we need these moments to recharge and avoid burnout.
And yet: If this idea of personal rest is all we mean by Sabbath, we miss the larger point. Sometimes, I think when we say Sabbath, we mean self-care. Don’t get me wrong: that part is definitely important. But Sabbath is wider in scope than that.
Sabbath is about personal rest and rest for the entire community. Sabbath, for the ancient Israelites, was for their children, their slaves, foreigners living in their town, even their animals. Sabbath is concerned for the rest, life, and well-being of everyone and everything.
If Sabbath were only concerned with refraining from work and focusing on personal rest, the scenes in Mark’s gospel would have looked very differently: absolutely no grain plucking or withered hand healing. End of story.
But that’s not what happens. The disciples are hungry, and they eat, physically nourishing and giving life to their bodies. The man’s withered hand, while not an immediately life-threatening condition, deprives him of being able to work in his society, and Jesus heals him, restoring to him the ability to live and thrive. These actions, far from breaking Sabbath law, are the very embodiment of it: promoting life, restoring wholeness, proclaiming liberation.
That kind of Sabbath-keeping is also risky business. We’re barely three chapters into Jesus’s ministry in Mark’s gospel, and already the authorities are plotting to destroy Jesus. Already this is the beginning of the end, the way toward the cross, in Mark’s gospel. Mark makes it clear that Jesus’s announcement of the reign of God, his agenda of proclaiming Sabbath rest and liberation for all people, is exactly the kind of thing that will get him killed.
Following in the way of the Jesus, the way of the biblical prophets, the way of our contemporary activists and martyrs, we know that proclaiming Sabbath rest and liberation and justice isn’t always the most popular or well-received message. The late theologian James Cone once said, “If you are going to worship someone who was nailed to a tree, you must know that the life of a disciple of that person is not going to be easy.” Going to those who suffer, proclaiming good news and liberation, is risky but necessary business.
But that is exactly where Jesus goes and what Jesus does. In two Sabbath scenes, Jesus centers the experience of those who are in need of liberation: those who are hungry and those who are in need of healing and restoration to community. Time and again, Jesus’s ministry takes him to the same place: to the oppressed and marginalized. Time and again, Jesus heals and offers life and wholeness.
Jesus’s Sabbath practice is less concerned with avoiding work than it is with giving life. Like the God who gave the Sabbath to the ancient Israelites on the heels of liberation from Egypt, Jesus, too, is committed to liberation, to exposing and undoing oppressive systems that undermine life at every turn, and instead to preserving life. And this, too, is the call of the church: proclaiming liberation, proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, proclaiming that LGBTQIA+ persons have a place in this church, proclaiming that immigrants and refugees are human beings worthy of dignity and respect, proclaiming life, abundant life, for all, period.
It’s not difficult to get bogged down in details and distractions that keep us from our Sabbath rest and proclaiming this message of liberation. I’ve only been on staff here for a week, but already I know this is an interesting place to work: this strange mash-up of church-meets-corporate America. It’s not difficult to get lost in an endless swirl of emails, reports, phone calls, and meetings, and forget why we’re here.
On my first day, I attended the town hall hosted by Bishop Eaton. In response to a question I can’t remember, she told us something to the effect of: We are the church, and our mission is to proclaim the gospel. What a simple but powerful — and needed — reminder.
Before all else, we are the church. No matter our unit or office or ministry outside these walls, we are here to proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. We proclaim the good news of liberation, God’s reign of justice, Sabbath rest for all people and all creation. Sabbath gives us rest and life in order that we might give others rest and life.
We come into this space from many places, from many responsibilities, from many demands. Here, we are centered around God’s Word and Meal of love and liberation. Here, we receive God’s word of promise. Here, we taste and see that God is good. And from here, we are sent back into the world, renewed, recharged, refreshed, to serve a world so desperately in need of that same good news. Here we are given life, and from here we go forth to proclaim and share that life.