hen I was in my thirties, a young single mother with a couple of jobs to make ends meet, I was overjoyed when the Blue Laws ended in MA where I was living and raising my daughter, Jen. I worked a lot, and it felt like total freedom for me to enter stores on a Sunday so that I could get a lot more done before my hectic week started again. Over the years, though it seems to have added to a more hectic life than the one in my thirties. It just seems to me that getting a quick foot into the door at the mall to take advantage of sales and promotions running full throttle has made some of us over busy. A complete day of rest sounds like a great idea, if in fact we can ever stop long enough to take one.
In Jesus’ day that was the Law—not Roman law, but the law that God handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai. God rested on the seventh day and if it was good enough for God to take a break then it was good for the Israelites. The Sabbath was for rest, not work and this was to honor God. In Mark’s gospel this morning the Pharisees waste no time in pointing out to Jesus that he and his disciples are breaking Hebrew Law as his disciples walk through a grain field, plucking heads of grain, and later as Jesus heals a man’s withered hand after he enters the synagogue. There are two points about this; one is that Jesus simply does not care…..about what ANYONE THINKS!!, and two, Jesus is not bound by any law. He challenges the Pharisees regarding their sacred texts, but there is also something else happening here—pure jealousy and insecurity on the part of the Pharisees.
Right after the planes flew into the twin towers on 9/11, things at Ground Zero were chaotic and traumatizing to say the least. There was an Episcopal Deacon who was in New York at the time. She was from Boston, and although I did not know her I had heard about her. She had a reputation for being somewhat aggressive and it didn’t sit well with some people.
When she heard about the planes hitting the towers she left what she was doing and went to see if she could help. When she got there she was shocked by the devastation. She began praying with those that were rescued from the mangled heaps of steal and debris. Then, she did something that was a no-no for Deacons—she started blessing people. When the clergy in Boston heard this, they were mortified. “That is a priests’ job! “She should be defrocked,” some said. How dare she?”
From the time we are seminarians until ordination, we are schooled in the differences between priest’s roles and deacons roles. Priests stand and provide absolution from sins, give blessings, using the word, “You” and consecrate the sacraments. Deacons proclaim the gospel, set the table and can pray a blessing kneeling and using the term, “Us.” So, when the Deacon blessed people and provided a sort of last rights ritual, some clergy were just irate.
So why were people so angry? Well, sometimes the differences in roles, schooling, and responsibilities can make one group feel a bit superior. “But, these are people of the church,” you might say. And I say yes, and sometimes the situation in a church setting can be quite challenging. Over time these roles can begin to define who we are, and sometimes to an unhealthy degree. We can lose sight of what we are called by God to do—by what we are called by God as Christians to do—mainly to love God with all our heart and soul and all our being, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And, that is despite whatever role we are in.
And that is exactly what our friend the Deacon was doing. She was praying for healing, blessing people—some of whom were drawing their last breath. She was giving final blessings on mouths, lips and heads. Would I have cared about this woman’s role in the Church at that moment? No. I know if I had been one of those dying people I would have been ecstatic to hear the soothing words of love, healing and forgiveness. This deacon threw away her title that day to act in kindness and love. She did not care about her “role” and neither did God. When you think about it, all these church roles/rules evolved from a bunch of dead white guys. God wasn’t involved.
Does that mean we should all go out and start blessing people in the name of God, providing all of the sacraments to family and friends at our next cookout? No. It doesn’t mean that at all. The vows that clergy take at their ordinations have real meaning and we take our vows with a solid commitment to God that we will live them out to the fullest that we can with God’s help. It does means, though, that if someone is in a horrible situation, and we are there, God calls us to extend our hands and provide comfort—whatever would bring comfort to that person at the time.
In Deuteronomy, we are reminded that the purpose of the Sabbath has always been to serve humankind (as opposed to making human kind serve some stern religious principle). God wanted his people, who had endured and once toiled in slavery to enjoy at least a modicum of rest. It is to promote life and extol God as liberator. The Pharisees knew that. Besides, the disciples were not working the land, they were gleaning some grain. Jesus took 30 seconds to cure a man’s withered hand—not working over him all day in the hot sun. The disciples fed themselves and Jesus restored the use of a man’s hand he probably had not been able to use for a long time. This probably allowed the man to work again, providing for his family. Jesus’ Sabbath just happened to be in his heart.
But if it’s Mark’s purpose to show us who Jesus really was, we are also shown how despised he was and how it was the beginning of the way to the cross for him. As New Testament scholar, Donald Juel put it; “For us—as for Mark—the cross ought to be a sober reminder how easily the most noble motives (meaning the Pharisees) can be perverted.”
Jesus is committed to preserving life, he does throughout all the gospels. He doesn’t check his calendar to make sure it’s not the Sabbath. He will not stand by and watch people suffer and be hungry because it’s not the right day of the week. His ministry exposes people who would allow others to suffer, ignore their needs, turn their head from the misery that people experience, all because of some ‘noble’ principle. For me, it’s reminiscent of what is going on in our world today. The principles that lie with some of our leaders allows children at the border to be torn out of their parents arms, and it is at the whim of whoever decides that certain individuals need to be in and some need to be out. Yes, these are human laws, not religious ones but they can be changed with whoever has a heart that is in the right place, whose heart is not hardened.
Oh, and if you’re wondering what happened to the Deacon who took it upon herself to administer blessings in the name of God to those dying at Ground Zero. Well, yes, she is no longer a Deacon, she has been ordained a priest. Evidently, the Diocese believed that her call from God had changed in those moments of chaos and destruction on 9/11. The Bishops believed she was doing what God called her to do, as a Christian and a Deacon.
So, let us have our Sabbaths the way we will have them. And, maybe we can add to them by remembering the loving and caring way Jesus used his. His Sabbath lay in his heart. Maybe our can too. Amen