06 Jun “Getting It Right!” (Read)
June 3, 2018
Rev. Peggy O’Connor
On the first Sunday of the month I usually announce the sermon theme for the month. But, due to the hoped for but of course never certain until it is certain selection of a candidate for Senior Minister, it was impossible to pick an appropriate theme. So, we are going to follow the lectionary in June, which I know will please a few of you.
The scripture for today is made up of two passages, which were paired up because they move the story of Jesus’ early ministry forward and help to explain the resistance he faced. To help us understand them, as is often the case with lectionary readings, we need to back up a bit.
After a few healings that amazed people Jesus embarked on a preaching tour in Galilee. There he healed people, which drew attention and started attracting crowds that were amazed at what he did and said.
At the start of chapter 2 Jesus had returned home and a crowd gathered in and around his house. This is when he healed the man whose friends hacked a hole in the roof and lowered him down to Jesus. This is when, in addition to amazement, we also hear questions and criticisms from the religious leaders who ultimately issue a charge of blasphemy against him.
But this did not stop Jesus. Next he eats dinner with a tax collector and other “sinners”. The Pharisees and scribes folk ask his disciples why he eats with such people. Jesus answers that he has come for sinners…not the righteous. The Pharisees respond charging him with blaspheme. You see the progression: from amazement of the people to questions from the religious leaders to their criticism and finally a serious charge.
Now we get to our passages. In the first, the 12 pick and eat some grain…on the sabbath. A group of Pharisees express their frustration with him for continuing to do what is forbidden. In the second Jesus sees a man with a withered hand in the Synagogue…on the sabbath…and heals him. Again, the leaders are angry, but instead of voicing it, they leave and plot how to destroy Jesus.
For centuries these passages were used to condemn Jews for being so bound by in their religious laws. And we all know where this lead ultimately and the stops along the way: crusades, inquisition, pogroms, ghettos and too often death for Jews, then Muslims and over time Christians who had new ideas.
Sadly, the message of condemnation has been preached for so long that many still believe that Jews and others who do not accept our faith are evil. So surely there is another message to derive from these passages…one for 2018 that will help us live our lives of faith.
And yes there is! And it is a very apt message for this church today. But, I must warn you, it is not necessarily an easy one. For it asks us to put ourselves into the place of the Pharisees and scribes and ask how we are like them. Perhaps a more palatable way of stating this, is to ask what we can learn from the religious leaders in these stories that will help us not to fall into the same traps they succumbed to?
So what were those traps? What was the problem? Why couldn’t they listen to Jesus with less distrust…less critically? I believe that the religious leaders, who were good people, working to keep the faith and to help others do the same, fell victim to the very human response to change. They did not like it. They did not want anything or anyone to even suggest that there was another way of living faithfully…that there was a need for change.
I believe we can have empathy for the religious leaders. From their point of view Jesus appears out of nowhere and starts turning bits and pieces of well established Jewish law upside down. And when they question him about doing things on the sabbath his answers are hard to argue with, especially when the grateful crowds are applauding him. How infuriating!
Change is hard. This is the first statement that the interactions Jesus has with the Pharisees and scribes. It seems so obvious but of course change is hard…or perhaps more accurately…times of transition from what was to what will be are hard. We in the church know this intimately. The Protestant Reformation was a hard time to be a Christian. But more to the point, change in the local church is always fraught with unease. It is why we laugh when someone says, But we’ve never it done it like that. We recognize not just the universal truth but we know we have all felt this way.
Jesus showed up with new ideas. He had new ways of seeing old things. And he had a new way of preaching and teaching that included healing people. And…most importantly, he did not discriminate. He did not favor the rich, the powerful, the leaders, or their traditions. In fact, he favored the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the sinners. Like all the prophets who came before him, Jesus threatened the power bases in Jerusalem and in Herod’s courts. He told them, through his reinterpretations of scripture and law, that what they held dear was in need of adjustments. Can you blame them for balking and wishing they could get rid of him?
By now you may have guessed where I am about to go this. During my time here as your interim I have asked lots of questions and suggested and introduced some changes. That’s my job…to shake things up a bit. And it is for a good reason. Your next settled Senior Minister will come with new ideas…new interpretations…things and new ways of doing things. And I can guarantee that some of those will be hard for you to get enthusiastic about.
Certainly, your next minister will not force change. They will not be like the proverbial bull in a china shop. But they will bring new ideas and dreams for the church. And they must. To save the church from disappearing into our secular culture we must make it relevant to a population that sees no reason to even consider it. To save the church we must answer the needs and questions of people who have no religious background or experience.
These passages show us how the resistance to Jesus got started. It was by people saying…hey…we’ve always done it this way. They could not let go of their attachment to the past and engage in picturing the possibility of a new future.
I am not saying this will happen here. What I am saying is that these stories show us how easy it is to go down that road. What they do not show is how easy it is to avoid it. I once worked with a church in crisis. They were angry and upset and rumors abounded. The congregation was split into four camps that were not speaking to one another. It was a mess. I was hired to lead an intervention at their annual church retreat at Craigsville. So, on a fall day we gathered in the barn and I explained the first exercise they were to to engage in…or so I thought. No soon had I explained the activity than a hand shot up. Expecting a question, I got an angry statement. The exercise was ridiculous and would make things worse. Before I could respond three or four others let me know they agreed and would not participate. Despite my attempt to reassure everyone, the division and anger grew. It seemed we were stuck. Then another hand went up. Bracing myself I acknowledged the person, who said: This is what we always do. We have a problem we cannot solve and we hire someone to help us. Then, we tell them that we know better and refuse their help. I for one am tired of this. We have hired this woman to help us and she has given up a beautiful Saturday to be here. So, we have to make a decision. Will we do what we always do or will we take a chance and try something new?
As you prepare yourselves for the future that is opening up for you, I pray that you open yourselves to it and all of the possibilities it holds…even the changes that at first you cannot imagine and may believe that you will not like. If people had not been willing to do that with Jesus, Christianity would never have been born.