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Sabbath of abundant life

(Sitting with the children on a large quilt)  Today I want to consult the experts: what do you think about naps?  Do you love them or hate them?  Why?  Why are naps important?  Or why do you think grown-ups force children to sleep in the afternoons? 


I want to think about these things while we do an activity together.  Making art is a way I like to pray, looking at pictures or colors and asking God “What do you want me to notice?”  And do you know what—God always answers that prayer by helping me notice something I wouldn’t otherwise notice. 


You know, I don’t remember anyone in church telling me that praying could look like this—just sitting in God’s presence, looking at pictures alongside the words of Scripture.  And the only way to learn about prayer is to practice it—to practice talking with God and listening for God’s voice. 


So I want to try this kind of prayer: meditating on Jesus’s words while adding your own colors and designs with these materials.  (And if you don’t want to stay up here on the quilt, you can take crayons with you back to your seat with your grown-up.)


One thing that came up in the Gospel reading—you know what Gospel means?  It’s a type of literature that means “good news.”  Our friend Mark wrote down the things that Jesus did and said, and he called it a gospel. 


In his gospel, Mark wrote down a story where Jesus is walking with his disciples through a field of grain, and it was a Sabbath day, so the law about honoring the Sabbath meant that faithful Jews should not walk too far or harvest grain because that is working and not resting. 


Mark says there were some Jewish teachers called the Pharisees who saw Jesus and his disciples picking grain and eating it.  Picking grain is harvesting, which is working, which is not allowed on the Sabbath because that’s disrespecting God’s law. 


So the Pharisees complained to Jesus that his disciples were breaking God’s law, the commandment about keeping the Sabbath holy.  But Jesus remembered an old story from the Torah: the great king, David, and his friends were hungry one time, so they went into the house of God—the holy place of worship—and ate the bread from the altar, which only the priests should eat.  And David didn’t get in trouble for that!  Hungry people need to eat. 


Then Mark’s gospel story tells us that sometime later, Jesus was visiting a synagogue on the Sabbath, and Jesus noticed a man in the synagogue who had a withered hand.  I’m not sure what “withered hand” means except that his hand was hurt or broken somehow.  He probably couldn’t use his hand, so maybe he couldn’t work and couldn’t earn money.  I wonder how he felt about himself. 


Have you ever broken your arm or hurt your hand?  What do you do when you hurt your hand?  You hold it really close to you, right?  Sometimes you wear a cast to keep your hand or arm still.  You might wear a sling if you need to keep your hand or arm or even your shoulder from moving around too much.  Most of the time, when you hurt your hand, it will get better with some rest. 


But this man, his hand would not get better.  It just didn’t work anymore.  I might feel sad if my hand stopped working.  How would you feel? 


Well Jesus saw him and invited him to the front.  I bet the man was surprised to be at the front in the synagogue.  Were you surprised to sit up here at the front today too?  But Jesus wasn’t just teaching from the Torah, the Jewish Scriptures.  Jesus was also healing.  He saw a man with a withered hand, and Jesus knew the man needed help, and the thing is: Jesus actually knew how to help.  That’s the amazing part. 


And Jesus also knew that there were Jewish leaders who were watching everything Jesus was doing, to see if Jesus would mess up and break the rules.  Do you ever watch other people to see if they’ll mess up?  I do.  Sometimes I laugh.  I’m not proud of that because it’s not nice but sometimes I just have to laugh.  But these leaders are not laughing—they are taking religion and the law very very seriously.  Have you ever met someone who is very very serious about following the rules? 


Why do you think people want to follow the rules?  Are rules important?  Who makes the rules?  If we’re talking about religion and the rules that come from God, are those rules more important?  Who gets to decide how those rules are followed? 


The Pharisees that we hear about in the story are people who have studied God’s law for a long time, and they take it very seriously because they love and trust God and they want to teach other people to love and trust God too. 


The law, Torah, is important—following the law is a way of life, a way to say to the world what you believe in.  For most of history, Jewish people were treated as outsiders, maybe they didn’t even have citizenship in the country where they lived.  So following God’s law is part of their identity as God’s people.  It’s important to these leaders that the people understand the law and know how to follow it. 


And even while Jesus was living, the Jewish people had this Torah from God for hundreds of years already.  It wasn’t new.  But they were always trying to figure out the best way to follow the law in the time when they were living.  So the rabbis—the teachers—were always discussing the laws.  In Jesus’s time, rabbis were discussing how to keep the Sabbath holy.  It’s the third commandment, so it’s important! 


In Deuteronomy, the book of the Torah where the commandments are written and also where we find important points about how to follow the commandments, this one commandment about the Sabbath has the longest explanation!  This was all written hundreds of years before even Jesus lived.  This whole Sabbath thing is a big deal. 


The Sabbath began with creation—do you remember what God created on the seventh day?  God rested and created the Sabbath.  Also in Deuteronomy where we read from the Bible today, this commandment is also about freedom.  God saved the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt, where Pharaoh was oppressing the Jewish people, not allowing them to rest at all. 


So when the people are set free, God tells them they should rest one day a week AND make everyone else rest, even the servants, even the animals!  Sabbath and rest are not just for faithful Jews, but for all of creation.  Even the earth is supposed to take a rest every seven years—that’s a whole other thing.[1] 


So Jewish people pretty much all agreed that if you’re going to follow this law to keep the Sabbath, then you shouldn’t work.  But what counts as work? 


Earlier in the Torah there are discussions about what counts as work—like, in Exodus, where the commandments appear first, it says you should not even start a fire for cooking.[2]  In the book of Numbers, there’s a story about a man who was gathering sticks on the Sabbath day.[3]  He got in trouble for that. 


So faithful people are always discussing how to stay faithful, and some people really enjoy these kinds of conversations about what’s the right thing to do.  Rabbis were discussing this when Jesus was living, so Jesus joined the scholarly conversation. 


And the point Jesus makes is that it’s better to save someone’s life or to heal someone than to refuse to help because it’s the Sabbath.  Jesus taught that compassion is the way to interpret the laws.  Lots of rabbis agreed with him, too, and Jewish people still talk about how to honor the Sabbath time, and Jewish scholars still debate this too. 


I got to learn from a Jewish rabbi a couple months ago. Her name is Maharat Rori Picker-Neiss. She taught our class about the ancient writings that she studies, like the Mishnah and the Gemara that make up the Talmud.  It’s a whole lot of writings about God, God’s Law the Torah, and God’s people. 


In the Talmud, which came along a few hundred years after Jesus lived, the scholars are discussing if it is disrespecting the Sabbath—Jewish people call it Shabbat—to save a child that falls into the water.  What do you think?  If you fell into a swimming pool in the deep end, do you think someone else should help pull you out of the pool? 


There weren’t exactly swimming pools back then, so when they were talking about a child falling in the water, they were thinking of a lake or an ocean.  The scholars say of course you should save the child, throw a net in the water to pull them out, and don’t stop to ask permission from a court, even if throwing a net into the water means you accidentally catch some fish on the Sabbath day, which would be working.[4] 


They said even if you’re just unsure whether someone might die, you should still stop and make sure they are okay; that is not breaking the Sabbath.  Like if a child is locked in a room, even if you think the child won’t die, you should still open the door and let the child out, and that isn’t breaking the Sabbath. 


So Jesus has had some conversations probably something like these, about how to honor the Sabbath, and for Jesus, compassion is more important than strictly following the rules.  God cares about life—saving someone’s life if they’re in trouble and also healing people so they experience abundant life. 


We always have more to learn and consider about how to follow God’s law and honor the Sabbath, and also how to honor other people.  The Pharisees are not the enemy—Jesus loved them and wanted to show them God’s love too.  Maharat Rori taught our class that Jewish people today consider the Pharisees as their ancestors.  So if we say bad things about Pharisees, that’s kinda mean against Jewish people.  If we care about God’s law then we will care about abundant life and follow Jesus’s way of compassion. 


I want to see your art work, your creations of abundant life, if you’re willing to share!  You are creating with God as a prayer, so this can stay your private conversation with God. 


Now we should probably clean all of this up.  Does cleaning up count as working on the Sabbath?  Is that fair, to not clean up and help others because you “want to honor the Sabbath”?  Yeah, that sounds like a poor excuse.  Besides, it shouldn’t be too difficult if we work together, right?  It’s more fun that way anyway. 


Well, that’s it.  That’s the sermon.  That’s the Good News.  I hope you didn’t miss it.  😉 Amen. 

Pastor Cheryl


[1] Look at Leviticus chapter 25, about Sabbath years for the land. 

[2] Exodus 35:3

[3] Numbers 15:32 Apparently he was stoned to death.

[4] Maharat Rori Picker Neiss referred to Yoma 84b when sharing this story. 


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