Through the Looking Glass

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ,
Locust Grove, PA
by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024
Second Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 2, 2024
2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

What’s right, what’s wrong? We all make these decisions every single day; how do we make them? How do we know what’s right, what’s wrong? Most of us come with menu choices: we’ve been taught what’s right, what’s wrong. But sometimes we don’t see that our ideas aren’t the whole picture. You came in here this morning, to this beautiful space, with pews, and you knew what to do. You sat down, probably where you always sit. You know how to use a church pew. But two thirds of the world doesn’t sit on chairs; they wouldn’t know what to do with a pew. If we went to their home, there wouldn’t be a chair, there would be cushions and if you’re like me, you’d face a dilemma: if I get down there, will I be able to get up? What’s right, what’s wrong? This story asks us to watch as Jesus handles just this question. Let’s see what we can learn.

Jesus has been teaching and healing, and he’s attracted a group of followers. Some of them are the ones we call the disciples, but we should always remember there was a larger group that followed Jesus: men, women, possibly children. As they walked through a field of grain on the way to worship, some of them did the most natural thing in the world: they stripped off the grain on the stalks. Mark doesn’t say they were eating it, but that’s how I imagine it. It’s like going to the grocery store when they have free samples. When they get to the synagogue, some Pharisees yell at Jesus: “Hey! How come your guys are violating the Sabbath?” There are a lot of rules about the sabbath, mostly trying to make sure God’s command to rest is observed. Some of them are obscure. Women, for example, aren’t allowed to look in a mirror because if they do, they might see a gray hair and pluck it out and picking is reaping and reaping is work. You see how this works: someone has taken God’s command and made up rules. The Pharisees are all about the rules. They aren’t bad guys; the rules are what they’re used to, how they make sense of the world. Sabbath is their identity, and they think Jesus is challenging it. 

On the face of it, this seems to be a story about Sabbath observance. Sabbath observance could be complex in Israel. There are over 600 rules in the Talmud interpreting the command to keep the sabbath holy. Those commandments had been amplified by countless specifics. The story itself is murky. It doesn’t explicitly say, for example, that the disciples were eating, so it’s not clear what the sabbath violation is here. And why were the Pharisees out there watching? Pharisees weren’t common in Galilee in this time. Were they following Jesus too? 

When Jesus replies, he misquotes a story about David but focuses on the real issue here. He says that the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. What’s important isn’t the details of being right; what’s important is the sabbath as an expression of God’s love for us.  Delmar Chilton is one of my favorite preachers, and he puts it this way.

…this text appears to be about Sabbath observance, but it’s really not. It’s about God’s love for humanity, about humanity’s habit of turning gifts into obligations, and about our oftentimes narrow-minded hardness of heart when it comes to loving others with the same kind of unconditional love with which God has loved us,

Delmar Chilton, Podcast for June 2, 2024

The Pharisees are busy catching rule breakers; God is busy breaking through the rules to love.

That’s not easy for us. Truth is, we like what we’re used to; we like the rules. I come from Congregational Churches; we’re not big on change. In one of my churches where we started to develop and had to change to serve new people, one of the long time members used to say angrily at Council meetings, “That’s just change for the sake of change,” as if this was the worst sin imaginable. But wherever Jesus goes, he brings God’s love and changes things. I like the story of Alice in Wonderland, do you know it? A girl named Alice goes through a looking glass and finds a world where everything is reversed. It’s a mirror image of our world and a reminder to me that what I think is normal is just what I’m used to, not necessarily the best way or even God’s way.

How do we let go of the rules and let God in to change things? We start by remembering what Paul says to the Corinthian Christians. They’ve been fighting over the rules, and he reminds them that they are not the source.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. 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.

[2 Cor 4:5f] 

We are not the light: God’s love is the light. We’re meant to be the lamps from which that light shines.

This church has been here a long time. Many of you have been here as part of it a long time. Now it’s time for a new time; now it’s time for a transition to a future none of us can quite see yet. I’m excited to be along with you for this time, this journey. It’s like moving: the dust gets stirred up, there are things you like that have to be left behind, you have to buy a new couch and meet new neighbors. But I am convinced that if we remember that our rules, our familiar way of doing things are just ours, and that the real purpose here is to shine out the light of God’s love, and we pursue that purpose, God will, as God always does, do things we haven’t even imagined.

At the end of this story, Jesus is in the synagogue. There’s a man with a withered hand. It doesn’t say if he had been ill or injured, but I imagine him having dealt with this for a long time. He’s gone through life for a while without that hand. I imagine he’s learned to live with it. He doesn’t know Jesus, and he must have seen and heard the angry confrontation with the Pharisees. Still, he finds the courage to present himself to Jesus. Healing on the sabbath is tricky, sometimes prohibited, in some cases not. The text says the Pharisees were watching, just waiting for Jesus to make a mistake, waiting to see if he’d heal this man. 

But he doesn’t. Did you notice that? Jesus doesn’t heal the man; we’re simply told that he is healed. The man stretches out his hand. Think how hard that must have been. Imagine how he had for years concealed that hand, kept it tucked away. Now Jesus tells him to come forward, now Jesus tells him to put out the hand that’s been so much trouble. And he is healed. In other places, Jesus says that someone’s faith has made them well or healed them. Perhaps that’s what happens here: that act of faith, that willingness to change, leaves him healed.

The poet T. S. Eliot says in one place, 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

[T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, 1943.]

If we are ready to explore, at the end we will come back to the center, which is the presence of God known in Jesus Christ. If we are willing to let go of the rules and stretch out our souls like the man in the synagogue stretched out his hand, in faith, in hope, in love, there’s just no telling what God may do with us.