Maybe it’s just divine intervention that as we get ready for vacations and barbeques and excursions and long weekends up north, we come to church and hear Jesus in an argument with the Pharisees about Sabbath time. “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy…a day on which you shall not do any work,” God commanded the Israelites once upon a time. A time to rest and a time to remember God’s work and God’s gifts.
Let’s try a little Sabbath experiment. This is something I’ve done with children and youth to help them slow down and release some of their stress. I invite you to take a moment right now and find your pulse on your wrist or your neck. Now close your eyes and begin to breathe slowly and deeply. After a few moments, you should feel your heartrate slow down as you relax. This is the gift of Sabbath; a time to slow down, to breathe deeply and relax in the presence of God.
Our sanctuaries are not the only places of Sabbath. Backyards, campsites, lake cottages, cabins, hotel rooms, the open road, the open water, the wilderness—all places of Sabbath—places to rest, places to catch our breath and call to mind God’s creative work and abundant gifts.
So what was it, exactly, that made the Pharisees all bent out of shape in today’s gospel reading? In just one of many confrontations with Jesus, the Pharisees accuse him and his disciples of breaking the law of the Sabbath; violating the day of rest by working, in this instance, plucking grain and healing a man’s withered hand. Even if the Pharisees were inclined to allow exceptions to the law, in emergency situations for example, harvesting grain and curing a non-life threatening deformity, you could argue, were hardly emergencies.
Yet Jesus isn’t just trying to annoy the Pharisees. As he often does, Jesus has a larger point in mind. “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath,” he says. In other words, God’s commandments—God’s law—was made for the welfare of all, for the health and wholeness of the individual, the community and their relationship with God and each other. Jesus doesn’t have a problem with Sabbath-keeping, but reminds the Pharisees that the whole point is to enhance life, to be life-giving. Things like feeding the hungry or healing the sick are worthy and life-giving endeavors that simply cannot wait, despite what time or day of the week it is.
Oh, to be a Pharisee. We could have a field day, I’m sure, offering up modern-day Pharisees—those we think are holding back the church or society with their fixation on outdated laws and practices. But before we get too carried away, we might take a look in the mirror. Don’t we, in the guise of fairness, seek our own self-interest with certain rules or practices when they really don’t contribute to life and health for our neighbor?
After all, there are neighbors of ours and folks in our communities that face challenges way beyond getting a day off or taking a vacation. Take the two issues mentioned in the gospel reading: food and health. Remarkably for a country that is so developed and has so much wealth, hundreds of thousands of people go hungry and lack access to healthcare every day—two things that have been tossed back and forth in the partisan food fight in Washington. Thousands of people are killed each year by access to guns that were lawfully purchased. And we’ve heard the heart-wrenching stories of families torn apart—children taken from their parents, children beaten and abused for being undocumented immigrants. Fairness and following the rules? Or the life and health of our neighbor? Is it possible to do both?
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us,” writes St. Paul. Clay or terracotta jars were a basic household item in Paul’s time—they were practical, fairly inexpensive, and quite breakable. We are those clay jars—fragile, cracked. Maybe this is one of the reasons God gave us a day for rest, time to piece ourselves back together, fill in the cracks. We want to be good examples of Christ-following, models of Christian living, yet more often we are no better than the dust and earth from which we came.
But here’s the good news: we are also vitally useful for God’s purposes. Our very weakness and fragility can be used by God for things way beyond anything we can imagine. We are “always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.” Our actions, guided and inspired by the wisdom of God’s Spirit, lift up that new and resurrected life for the world. Crafted into cracked clay, we are equipped to bring life right here, right now, life for all. Food for all. Health for all.
On this Sabbath, this day of rest, watered and quenched, soon fed and nourished, we take the life we receive here and carry it into the world. God gives us food and sends us to places of hunger. God gives us water and sends us to places that are parched. God heals us and sends us to places in need of health. God gives us the promise of life and sends us to share that life and good news each and every day of the week.