Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B. August 23, 2015 on 1 Samuel 21:1-6 and Mark 2:23-28
One sabbath he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Twice a year the congregations of the Presbytery of South Alabama come together for Presbytery Meetings.
We just had our meeting at the Government Street Presbyterian Church this past Friday evening and Saturday morning. Worship was great in both. Friday night was non-traditional, just as we do here in the early service. Saturday was more traditional style worship. Both were moving and inspiring.
A Sad Dismissal
But there was a depressing part on Saturday as we turned to the business meeting. On the agenda was the dismissal of two more of our congregations.
The primary reason for their departure is that the majority of our Presbyteries, 121 out of 168 voted to approve the changes to our Constitution allowing gay people to be married. Those changes do not force anyone to marry anyone, but the door is now open. Our constitution treats gay and straight people equally.
It saddens me that these two congregations are leaving for all kinds of reasons. I do not believe that our unity in the body of Christ is dependent on unanimity of opinion. I believe that baptism gives us our unity in Christ, and no one can add to it or undermine it.
I firmly believe that for Christians, faith is about trust, not about assent to or belief in a list of dogmas.
I am part of a growing number of people who think this way – what I hope will be a new consensus view, but I realize that we are in the minority at the moment, and have been so since 325 AD. That was the year Roman Emperor Constantine forced all of the Christian bishops to come together at Nicea and make a common creed.
Christianity was quite diverse before that. Different groups had different ways of understanding who Jesus was and how Jesus related to God.
But after Nicea, the ones whose views did not prevail were proclaimed heretics. The church then became the imperial project of the Emperor. Constantine financed salaries and buildings, and the church quickly became the chaplaincy to the Empire.
To many of us, that was a disastrous move. Faith evolved from “trust in”, to “belief that.…”
So now, when Christians end up believing different things, instead of tolerating diversity, as we did for the first 300 years, we think we need to pull away from each other.
And personally, I am sad to see them go. Not just theoretically. I believe that we need each other. I need people who disagree with me. I need them to challenge me. I need to hear other perspectives. I feel just like the professor who told his class that he knew that at least 10% of what he was teaching was wrong, he just did not know which 10%.
I need people like one of the pastors of the departing churches with whom I disagree. Here is my story about this: as you probably know, we Presbyterians have been debating our differences of opinion about LGBTQ issues for years. Well, after one Presbytery meeting, someone suggested that those pastors and elders who were interested should come together for a series of conversations about the issue.
So we did. I was a member of that group. Over the course of the next two years we meet multiple times for dialogue and a shared meals together. We got to know each other; we had some good laughs, and some great conversations.
I was supporting the view that LGBTQ people should be given equality in every respect in our church, and others argued that the bible did not allow this. At one point, after I had said something I do not recall, one of the pastors looked at me and asked me a question which I replied immediately to.
I want you to know that hearing myself answer his questions was a huge “A ha!” moment in my life. A light went on. I realized something that I had never put in to words before. His question sparked that moment of self-revelation for me.
“I want God to be good”
He simply asked,
“What is your issue with this question of gay rights?”
My immediate response was,
“I want God to be good.”
I shocked myself as I heard those words leave my lips. I had never put it so succinctly. But as I said those words, I realized what I had been thinking as I studied the issue.
For me, by then, it was clear that nobody chooses their sexual orientation. I never chose to be strait. I just woke up one day and realized girls were cute. And no gay person chose to be gay. Who would ever choose to have all the complications and challenges, even all the outright persecution that gay people have to endure?
None of us, neither you nor I, chose our sexual orientation. It is simply how we are made. We do not choose the gender of the people we fall in love with; and that is what this whole debate is about: who we fall in love with.
So, for me it is simply wrong to exclude or marginalize people for loving differently that I do. And I cannot believe that a God who is good would ever want us to marginalize or exclude people just because they are different from ourselves.
In fact, as I study Jesus’ life and teachings, I find just the opposite. I find that Jesus was constantly crossing over boundaries and walls, prejudices and traditions to welcome the marginalized and the excluded. He ate with sinners, touched lepers, crossed the sea to break bread with gentiles; he made time for women and children, even Romans themselves.
So anyway, back to that dialogue group. I need people like the pastor who asked me that question that helped me clarify my own thinking. I am sorry to see them go.
I am also sorry to see them go because I think it is so unnecessary. The teachings of Jesus themselves should, I believe, help us to look at questions like this one. The texts we read today are perfect examples.
Jesus teaches us to follow a trajectory, an arc of understanding that was started in the Hebrew bible. This trajectory moves in the direction of justice and liberation of the oppressed, and away from a rigid, exclusionary focus. It moves from legalism to compassion. From retribution to mercy.
Let is consider for a moment, the text we read. Jesus is in trouble with the purity, rule enforcers, the Pharisees. He is in trouble because he is the leader; the buck stops with him. His people, his disciples, have been breaking the law of Moses. They have been reaping grain on the Sabbath. Reaping is working. Work is explicitly forbidden on the Sabbath. This is not an obscure law, it comes right out of the Ten Commandments itself.
But Jesus excuses them. On what basis? On the basis that he knew how to read the trajectory of understanding of what is important to God. It turns out that God is good. And being good means caring about human suffering. In fact it means placing the concern for human well-being above ritual concerns.
Jesus backs up his teaching with a story from the Hebrew bible. It is about a time when David was running for his life from king Saul with his small band of supporters. They were hungry. The only bread available was consecrated bread from the house of God that only priests were allowed to eat. To make a long story short, the priest made an exception to the rule and allowed them to take the holy bread.
Then Jesus gives a clear summary of his perspective. To those who accused his group of breaking the Law by a bit of personal harvesting on the sabbath he said:
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”
When was the sabbath law made? Right after the people of Israel had escaped from being 24/7, bricks-without-straw slaves of Pharaoh. They gathered as newly freed people at Mt. Sinai and heard Moses read the law that gave them all, for the fist time in their lives, a day of rest! The sabbath law was made for humans; for their benefit; not as a burden but as a blessing.
The sabbath rest law was for the benefit of humans. That was what was important to God: human flourishing. So for Jesus, allowing people to eat is of even greater importance than keeping a rule, especially a rule made for the purpose of benefiting people.
I believe that there is something deeper going on here. Mark is using this occasion to back up what he just said in the line preceding the text we read: you do not put new wine in old wineskins or it will burst them. You put new wine in new wineskins. Jesus was bringing new wine. The old wineskins were not going to work. The old way of looking at things was going to have to be replaced by a new way.
So, unlike the folks who think that they have to leave when things change, Jesus taught us to expect change. It is ironic that the motto of the Reformed Church of which the Presbyterian church is a part is, “the church reformed, always reforming….”
We have changed, not in arbitrary ways, not willy-nilly, not changed with the wind, but we have intentionally sought the voice of the Spirit who is still at work, leading the church in to new truth, as Jesus told us the Spirit of truth would do.
We have come to the conclusion at several moments of our past that we need to follow the Jesus trajectory further than our ancestors. We changed from accepting slavery as necessary to rejecting it as immoral and dehumanizing. We changed from excluding women from ministry, which the New Testament does, to openness to the gifts of women as elders and ministers.
We are served by women elders in this church: if they all went away, we would have to close up. Their ministry is vital here. And at the Presbytery meeting, our current moderator is a woman. But it was not long ago that all those doors were shut to women.
So now we have changed again, and have finally given fully equal treatment to gay people. We are already benefiting from their participation and ministry among us. This is a cause for celebration. I am so sorry that those who disagree cannot see their way clear to stay together. We will be weaker without them.
God is Good
But this is our rock-solid core commitment: God is good. God wills the good. This is what we all take to bed every night. This is what we wake up to every morning. This is what sustains us in the really hard times.
We believe that faith is trust. It is trusting that God is good; God is with us. God is for us. God loves us. God calls us by name and wants what is best for us. And when we suffer, God also suffers with us. God is good. That is what Jesus taught us. That is our faith. Truly it is in God we trust.