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Fr. John Allison


Deuteronomy 5:12-15

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Mark 2:23-3:6

June 2, 2024

Christ Church, Hudson


Years ago, when I served as a hospital chaplain in the city I had my first experience of what it means to keep sabbath—to really keep as it’s strictly prescribed in Jewish law and tradition. This will likely be familiar to any of you who have ever lived in an area like NYC with a significant population of Orthodox Jews but for me, at that time, it was a real revelation.

I was doing my first overnight shift on a Friday. Late that night, well after sundown and the beginning of the Jewish Sabbath I got a call to tend to an emergency on the eighth floor. I had been in the chaplain’s quarters in another building across the street. I got my things together and rushed into the hospital and as I entered I saw the elevators ahead and one was open and waiting and I hurried toward it and stepped in just before the doors closed. I pressed 8 as the doors were closing; the elevator started to move and then no sooner than it started it stopped on the 2nd floor. The doors opened but no one was there. Hmm, I thought, someone must have changed their mind. Then on the third floor the same thing: the doors opened but no one was there. And then again, and again and again—all the way to the 8th floor. I learned later that as an act of hospitality and inclusion this one elevator was set to run continually from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday, stopping on each floor so that those who strictly observed the Jewish Sabbath didn’t have to press the elevator buttons because some of the Orthodox community interpreted the pressing of a button to complete an electrical circuit as akin to kindling a fire, which is prohibited for those who have a strict interpretation of the laws governing Sabbath. 

And thus began a new way of understanding and experiencing something I thought I’d understood all my life.

I share this story because our Gospel reading today from Mark takes place on the Sabbath and concludes several stories from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry depicting his conflict with the Pharisees. These conflicts, no doubt, foreshadow his later betrayal and handing over to the authorities for crucifixion, yet, at the same time, they open for us questions of relationship: First and and foremost, what is Jesus’ relationship to the Law of Moses? As an observant Jew, why does Jesus seemingly subvert the law, in this case as it pertains to Sabbath keeping, and provoke the Pharisees? At this point in the Gospel, though he has performed several healings, Jesus’ Divine status has yet to be revealed so in some respects, to the Pharisees and Temple authorities he appears as rabble rouser, as one who intentionally flouts what is held sacred and stirs up the masses. For us, who have the benefit of knowing how the story ends, who know who Jesus really is, it’s easy to forget that for Jesus’ contemporaries, for the figures in today’s reading, what Jesus is doing is totally shocking—something completely new and outside the bounds of what is commonly understood as proper.  This story compels me to ask, as a 21st century follower of Jesus, what commonly held assumptions does Jesus turn on their head? Where does the in-breaking of God’s kingdom upset what we think we know? What cherished practices or laws does Jesus call you to reexamine, to see in a totally new way?

For the Hebrew people, of all the laws they had been given for their well-being, keeping Sabbath was perhaps the most cherished. At that time, no other ethnic group had any practice like keeping Sabbath and it was a significant mark of Jewish distinctiveness. While at its most basic, keeping Sabbath is simply refraining from work or commercial trade on the seventh day, it’s perhaps difficult for many of us to appreciate the complexity of this commandment and the various factors that contribute to it’s interpretation. In fact, by Jesus’ day, the rules surrounding the Sabbath had become increasingly demanding. There were, and are to this day, for Orthodox Jews, rules for behavior that tell people the “right” action in almost any situation. For example, one question I found especially interesting in studying this was could one eat an egg that was laid by a hen on the Sabbath? Amusing on one level, but it gets to the level or particularity of the attitudes that were part of Jesus’ world.

It’s important to realize, however, that Jesus is not questioning the sacredness of Sabbath observance or rejecting these laws that had been handed down from Moses but, rather, seeking to bring them to fulfillment. The Commandments as presented by Moses sought to bring order to human relationship to God and to neighbor, to establish a covenant that would offer peace, that would offer freedom.What Jesus offers goes further. What he questions is not the Sabbath itself but how the practice of keeping Sabbath can enlarge relationship rather than stifle it: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

We see this in the case of the first incident with the disciples plucking grain as they walk through fields; this in itself would have been fine, but for the Pharisees, because it was Sabbath work was forbidden and reaping counted as work. Jesus counters them with the story of David and his followers fleeing King Saul and eating consecrated bread from the temple because they were hungry. For Jesus, our life-giving needs are more important than rules. Whenever rules develop a life of their own and prevent flourishing, they need to be returned to their true purpose: the sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the sabbath. 

He takes this further when he enters the synagogue and heals the man with withered hand. He asks, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” We’re told the Pharisees are silent and that Jesus is angry with them, at their hardness of heart, at their inability to have compassion. You see, it would have been perfectly lawful for Jesus to heal this man on the sabbath if his life was in danger but for this, for his withered hand, it was not permitted. But this is not Jesus’ way. This is not God’s way. This man, with his withered hand, is restored. We, all of us, with our withered hands, are restored by Jesus. 

In just a few minutes, you will be called forward. You’ll come to the Communion rail. You’ll stretch out your hand. Jesus will restore you. We may not have the visible affliction of the man in this story but each of us is frail, is broken, is in need of healing, in need of being made whole in Christ. That wholeness, that healing and restoration that Jesus demonstrates in our Gospel is the very same healing that he offers each of us. 

None of us here follow the elaborate rules and prescriptions for sabbath that are the framework for Jesus’ lesson today. Even so, we have our own barriers to being able to receive God’s love in Christ. We have barriers, unspoken, or maybe spoken, conscious or unconscious, rules that get in the way of receiving God’s love. Jesus calls on us to step out from behind those attitudes that prevent us from coming forward, from being truly present to what God wants for us and for the work that God does through us. 

As you prepare to come forward today, ask God what gets in the way of me being able to really receive the love of Christ. What must I put down, as I stretch out my hands to receive the Body of Christ? It’s then, when we come forward in our brokenness, in our fragility, as clay pots, Paul might say, that we can truly be restored and refreshed. This is the fulfillment of sabbath to which Jesus leads us.  Amen.