Proper 4 (9), Second Sunday after Pentecost
3 June 2018
1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
There are two things we know about Jesus that seem contradictory.
The first one is that Jesus was an observant Jew who would visit temple and synagogue who loved and knew the scriptures.
The second one is that Jesus was a rule breaker. That is evident in Jesus’ excuse for his disciples picking of the heads of the grain on the Sabbath as well as his healings on the sabbath, all of this wrapped up in his statement that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
There is another piece of scripture I think of. This one is in Matthew, in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus begins each phrase with “You have heard that it was said to those of old” and ends with “But I say to you.”
When I went to seminary these sayings of Jesus were called the “Antitheses” and there was disagreement as to whether they meant that Jesus had dismissed the Old Testament law or not (some were keen to believe he had). Yet it seems to me that Matthew’s Jesus makes it clear what these sentences mean when he says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”
And Jesus does not actually lessen the law but makes it stricter. For Jesus not only murder is an offence but anger and insults, not only adultery but desire, not only swearing falsely but one’s speech being so unreliable that one has to swear. And all this leads to a higher righteousness – in the words of Matthew – namely to forgo retaliation in favour of non-violence and generosity, and to love not only one’s neighbour but also one’s enemy.
Of course, this is a tall order and it would be much easier to stick to the old rules. But while Jesus does indeed not dissolve the law and the prophets, but gives it a new interpretation, and while what he asks of us seems hard to do, it’s object is love and since it’s object is love we can be assured that there is forgiveness for us when we fail.
The pharisees were good people concerned about Israel’s covenantal faithfulness. That they eyed Jesus suspiciously is only normal since Jesus commanded a lot of authority and the pharisees just did not know what to make of him, mostly they understood him to be a threat.
Look at today’s Gospel: Not only does Jesus reinterpret the sabbath law (though you’d be hard pressed to turn this into an argument for Sunday shopping or the seven-day work week) but he also compares himself to King David. David, in the story of the temple bread (1 Sam 21), is anointed but not yet enthroned. This is who Jesus compares himself to. We who believe in Jesus know that this is a very fitting analogy, for Jesus too has been anointed but is not yet enthroned. We believe him to be the Son of David, to be our king. But for anyone to compare themselves to a legend will make people suspicious. Perhaps you remember the 1988 American vice-presidential debate. I listen to it on the radio and instantly knew that Quayle should never have compared himself with John F. Kennedy.
The pharisees, protesting the disciples’ plucking of the heads of grain, were worried about the slippery slope. If you soften the rules then how will you stop them from eroding completely, how will we call people to be faithful to our God?
The church has encountered and used that argument many times.
When we were in Winnipeg, our congregation was the last one to introduce communion of the baptized, meaning there was no longer an age or education barrier to the Lord’s Table. Of course, we did not withhold communion from Jeffrey who suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome either, or from people suffering from dementia. But I remember a couple of people saying that if children were allowed to commune before they were confirmed, why would they want to be confirmed? It was a question that worried that a small change would make all the things we had carefully devised over centuries come to an end. It was the slippery slope argument.
Of course, people have said the same thing about music, and sometimes still do. In these arguments it is not about music as a formative element of worship that helps us sing, think, and live our faith, but about retaining tradition for tradition’s sake.
Or think of the ordination of women. That is many years ago, but I remember my home pastor being against women being ordained, and a friend of mine saying the same to me in the presence of his girlfriend who was a few semesters ahead of him and serving her internship. Needless to say, the relationship did not last.
Maybe these are not the best examples for what I want you to do. What I want you to do is this: Put yourself into the shoes of the pharisees, for somewhere deep down we all want to protect what we have been given and keep it from eroding and disappearing. Maybe you want to hold on to traditional music, perhaps the music you grew up with, or maybe you remember that you weren’t convinced right away about children at the Lord’s Table, or the ordination of women.
While I communed as a child, I certainly remember wrestling with the ordination of women. I wasn’t against it but I wondered what implications it would have for other matters.
Now, Jesus does not dissolve all rules but he reinterprets them. With Jesus, rules are not stiff and unforgiving, but are for humankind, like the Sabbath, and like it was intended by God.
Jesus is the Son of David but unlike David he does not rise to the throne through military might or scheming, but he rises to the throne through suffering love in which he does not take life but gives his life that the world may live.
His life is the manifestation of God’s love and is instructive for our understanding and interpreting the things the we believe safeguard our faith. Jesus’ life is one not of holding on but of giving, and if anything should guide us it must be this giving of himself.
I had coffee with a friend last week who said that the problem with the church is that we want to control God’s grace, draw a circle and say who’s in and whose out.
But God’s grace is unmerited and consequently, I am no more deserving of it than my atheist or non-practising neighbour.
Like with the ordination of women, it took me a little while to come to terms with the inclusion of persons who identify as LBGTQ . What helped me was that I had always known people who identified as gay or lesbian, and among them some deeply devoted Christians, Christians like I hoped to be one day.
I knew that both of us were part of the family of God.
And that seemed to suggest that difference does not matter to God nearly as much as it does to us. In fact, in Christ Jesus we are all God’s beloved.
I presided at a wedding yesterday. I am not telling you to agree or disagree. We did that. This is not about winning, this is about life in the presence of God. I said to the assembly that something extraordinary and counter-cultural was taking place that day. What was extraordinary and counter-cultural was not who was marrying who, but that two people committed themselves to one another unconditionally and to the full extent of their lives. Clearly, whatever else you may think, such love mirrors the unconditional love of God, and that is why it is holy.
That is what I think went on in our story about the keeping of the Sabbath. Jesus upheld the Sabbath, and so did the church. And we continue to uphold marriage and affirm that unlike everything else in our world, it is not a commodity but a gift, a selfless gift.
Our reading from Samuel is one of the semi-continuous readings from the Old Testament as we encounter them in the time after Pentecost. In that way it is not given to match the Gospel. But there too is a story of continuity in the midst of discontinuity. And all that made possible by God’s speech and our listening, listening to God and to each other. May it be so among us so that grace may abound.