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The Word in Practice

clayjarsMark 2: 23 – 3:6
2 Corinthians 4: 5-11
Introduction to the reading
Today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark is one of five “controversy sections” in which we can see the tensions, conflict and outright hostility building up between Jesus and the religious leaders, which will ultimately lead to the crucifixion. Yet it is all part of God’s plan…

The issue today is Sabbath observance, a crucial question at the time the Gospel was written, when the Christian movement was still separating from the synagogue. How do the old rules and traditions apply to the newer way? It’s still a crucial question for our own time, as Sunday church-going seems to have become a thing of the past.

When I married my dear husband Peter, nearly fifty years ago, I also married into the practice of law – from the sidelines, of course. But early on, I came to realize that there is often a big difference between law and justice. Between what is lawful and what is right and good.

In the Gospel passage from Mark that we read today, Jesus shines a light on that difference. On how one of the Ten Commandments – remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy – might seem to be at odds with the greatest commandment – to love God with everything you’ve got in you and to love your neighbor as yourself.

The Pharisees attempt to apply strict constructionism as they interpret and enforce the Jewish law. “Look,” they accuse Jesus, “why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?

Likewise, Jesus’ healing the man with the withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. Jesus did just that, however, and the Pharisees played their part too.

The tension and conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders runs throughout the gospels. The Pharisees and elders and scribes have lost their spiritual foundation – the merciful grace and love of God – and their spiritual direction. As they strive to maintain their positions of power, they’ve built a superstructure of laws upon the original ten, and they are the enforcers.

Jesus laments and grieves their hardness of heart. He earnestly seeks to set them – and us - back into right relationship with God, which is why, in every Gospel, Jesus reminds them –and us – of the greatest commandment: again, to love God with everything you’ve got in you and to love your neighbor as yourself.

The story of laws and rules carried to extreme, as an end in themselves, pushing aside concerns for justice, goodness, compassion, mercy, and love, and sometimes common sense – that’s an endless human saga.
A story now as an example on this Communion Sunday… Keep in mind what we say as the invitation to the Lord’s Table: “Come to this table not because you must but because you may; not because you are worthy but because you are hungry; not because you are made ready but because you are thirsty...”

There’s an African story about a remote village called Shango Oba, whose people had a fine tradition of celebration. Always, when it was time for a feast, the whole village would gather, sitting cross-legged on the ground. The village elders would then carefully apportion the food, so everyone would have enough.

A young man from the village, named Jacob, received a rare invitation to study at an American university. He was away for many years and became steeped in Western culture. Eventually he returned home to Shango Oba. To welcome him back, the people did what they did best: they put on a feast.

Jacob, however, was troubled by what he saw: “My family, I mean no disrespect, but why are you eating your food on the ground?”

“How would you expect us to eat: standing up or sitting in a tree?” asked one of the elders.

“No. Don’t be ridiculous,” said Jacob. “Civilized people sit at a table.”

His response gave them pause to consider. If this is what wise people of America did, there must be something to it. The village elders decided to bring a table into the village.

The table was just large enough to seat eight people. At every feast thereafter, the villagers quarreled over who those eight should be. Some said it should be the young men, for they had carried the new table into the feasting grounds. The women said it should be they who sat at the table, for they had prepared the food. “Such a sense of entitlement,” thought the elders, shaking their heads. “It should be us,” they declared. “Age has its privileges.”

Something had happened at Shango Oba’s feasting grounds that had never happened before. Peace had departed the village.

Finally, Jacob’s father called him aside. “Look what you have done,” he pointed out. “In the name of civilization, there is no purpose, no unity, no community.”

Later that night, under the sliver of a moon, Jacob took an ax and chopped the table into many pieces. He picked up the pieces and laid one at the door of every house in the village. In the morning, he called the village elders together and explained what he had done. “I want to see unity and harmony return to Shango Oba.”

That very day, the elders decreed it was time for another feast: to celebrate the end of the table. (“Spirit-driven…”, 13)

Human frailty and fallibility are deep and constant. The lure of sinfulness is enticing, pride and the lust for power especially. The struggle between good and evil runs throughout Scripture, history, literature and the daily news headlines. And this struggle becomes even more pronounced and painful during times of change, old ways having to give way to new, a sense of loss laying like a wet blanket over possibility and freedom and hope and joy.

Jesus, however, is always focused on the possibility and freedom and hope, the good news of God’s grace and mercy and salvation for humankind – for us as individuals and for us as the church, for as the church we are the body of Christ.

The apostle Paul, in the piece we read from his second letter to the Corinthians, acknowledges our insecurity. We are “clay jars” he says: terra cotta, made from earth itself, adam; liable to chip, crack, break; porous, insecure, fragile, vulnerable. We carry God’s precious treasure, the good news of the gospel, in our own mortal bodies, which are subject to all those same kinds of imperfections and afflictions and vulnerabilities.

Paul reminds us of the reason for this set-up: 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…

Keeping on the steady path of Jesus’ way; seeking justice, mercy, compassion and peace buried under rules, regulations and traditions; discerning the right and the good when evil seems so attractive – this is our task as Christians. Perhaps Bishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa said it most succinctly: “We are the light bulbs. Our job is to remain screwed in.” (“Treasure…”, 44)
Amen to that…

“Spirit-driven Disruptions.” Homiletics 30.3 (2018): 8-13.
“Treasure in Plastic Bottles.” Homiletics 30.3 (2018): 41-46.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
June 3, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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