October 28, 2018
Mark 2:23 - 3:6 The first part is not printed in your bulletins.
One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
Years ago I was walking to the car after a Good Friday service with a friend who had been raised by atheist parents and had recently discovered God and Jesus. He said to me, “If I could time travel, the person I would most like to meet is Jesus.” A little surprised, I asked him “why?” He said, “Because Jesus has changed the world more than any other human being who has ever lived.” That’s quite a statement. “Because Jesus has changed the world more than any other human being who has ever lived.”
This scripture passage from Mark is from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, his mission to change the world he lived in. He has called Simon and Andrew, James and John, who left their fishing boats to follow him around Galilee as his healing powers were attracting huge crowds, and his reputation was growing.
Jesus was a deeply Jewish figure, shaped by the traditions of Israel’s heritage. Jesus scholar Marcus Borg describes him as a healer, a social prophet, a movement initiator, and a wisdom teacher, not conventional wisdom, mind you, but an alternative and sometimes subversive wisdom.
As he walked the hills of Galilee, healing and preaching, he could see that not all the laws and traditions he had been raised to follow helped to create the world he had envisioned, the kingdom of God he came to usher in. Some were meant to be broken.
And so, it wasn’t long before he started to break some of the 613 laws written in his sacred scriptures. Some didn’t make sense to him. It was unlawful for Jews to do any work on the sabbath. That included plucking heads of grain to eat if you were hungry, and curing a man with a withered hand to give him a better life. That didn’t go over well with the Pharisees, those enforcers of the law, who held tight to their laws and traditions. After all, they had lived by them for centuries.
“Who do you think you are Jesus, coming here and trying to change what we hold sacred”? I think it’s important to remember that Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion. His followers did that after he was gone. He came to reform one that he thought needed some changing. They didn’t need all of those 613 laws, just two: to love God with your whole heart, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. If someone was hungry, feed them. If someone was in need of healing, do all that you could, even on the sabbath.
This was a radical change, and Jesus was a radical in many ways. He was one of those crazy ones described by Rob Siltanen on the front of your bulletins.
“Here's to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them. Because they change things. They push the human race forward. And while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”
Jesus came to change the world. He came to create the kingdom of God right here. And as he tried, he was called crazy. Those in authority disagreed with him, vilified him. He was driven out of his home town. They tried to throw him off a cliff. And as we’re told in this passage, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” And eventually they hung him on a cross, but that didn’t stop him, or his followers, from changing the world.
As Matt Carriker chronicled, in his wonderful sermon last week, the world kept changing over the millenniums, along with the church that his disciples had started to envision sitting around their tables at home, sharing the bread and wine, the church that Constantine had made the state religion of the Roman Empire, the church we have today.
Think of how much the world has changed since you were a child. When I was growing up our phone was connected to the wall. I typed my school papers on a manual typewriter. I listened to music on vinyl records. My grandmother pumped water into the kitchen and heated it on the stove in her small Iowa town. Dad worked and mom stayed home to raise us kids. We ate dinner together every night, and talked together about our days’ activities. We were free to play outside, unsupervised, and ride our bikes around town. Sunday was a family day. We all put on our Sunday best and went to church together every week. It was a different world, in so many ways.
Change can be scary. It makes some people uncomfortable. It can carry with it a sense of loss, of grief. Think of those times in your life when you have gone through a major change, and realized life will never be quite the same again. But it can also be exciting, eye opening, a time of creativity, new beginnings. I learned that as a child. Our family moved four times before I completed high school. I remember crying myself to sleep the night before one of our moves, thinking I’ll never see friends again. I’ll never live in this house again.
Weeks later I was excited about all the new friends I was making, the new school and experiences. We were Catholic, so church was pretty much the same, although even the Catholic Church changed with Vatican II. The altar had turned around and we could see the priest’s face saying mass. I no longer needed my prayer book with Latin on one side and English on the other. I could eat meat on Friday without going to hell. That was major.
Like Jesus, I had already begun to question some of what I was being taught, including that rule about meat on Fridays. How could you equate murdering someone with eating meat on Friday? You went to hell for both of them. And what about that poor guy who ate meat last Friday, died over the weekend, and they changed the rules the following week?
Even though it came many years later, this was the beginning of a major change in my life, from Roman Catholic to the United Church of Christ. Not all changes happen overnight. Some take many years.
That is so true in churches - and denominations. We worship in a certain way. Our sanctuaries are designed in a certain way. We sing the same hymns. We have the same events year after year. We have traditions that we hold fast to.
So many of our mainline churches have remained the same, even as our world and culture has changed around us. Years ago I was leading a worship workshop for our conference. I asked them at the beginning, ‘In how many of your churches is worship pretty much the same every week, year after year?” Every hand went up, including the conference minister’s. Then I asked, “If you had a business and you were doing things the same as you did in 1957 (the year the UCC was formed), what would happen to your business?” There was no hesitation. “We would be out of business.”
Last week Carol Brown and I attended an intro to a program called “Churches Alive” at our conference center in Framingham. They work with churches on revitalization. Some of the statistics Don Remick, our interim Conference Minister presented were more than a little alarming and discouraging. Between 6,000 and 10,000 churches in the U.S. are dying each year. That means in the next 20 years we’ll have half as many congregations as now. These numbers are across denominations.
But he had good news too. Surveys show that over 80 to 95% of us in the U.S. say they believe in God - not the old man in the sky God, but some Holy Presence, or higher power, as they say in AA. The same percentage say they pray or engage in some spiritual practice.
But people’s attendance at a Christian Church on any given weekend, based on church attendance reports, averages less than 20% (with older generations being at least twice as likely to attend as younger generations. That means that nearly two thirds of the population believe in God but do not typically attend church. And that number is increasing with each new generation. They just don’t feel the need for organized religion or church.
The question for all of us is: “How do we make church relevant to their lives in the 21st century?” They say they are looking for a connection to the Holy, to community, to service around justice issues. That’s us! How do we provide that without alienating those who want things to remain the same?
This is the number 1 challenge facing Christianity in the 21st Century. These are the questions being studied and debated by those in leadership positions, not only in the U.S., but in denominations across the Northern Hemisphere, and that includes your two pastors here at Eliot. There are no easy answers. New church starts, like Agape Spiritual Community in Waltham are trying new ways of being a Christian community, but it takes years to grow a new church.
Change is hard. It makes people uncomfortable. When the world out there seems to be spinning out of control, we look to the church to be a familiar, stable, safe place to come to. Rev. Sarah Weaver, in a blog she wrote about this passage, sends out some advice to all of us:
“It is okay to be a little bit uncomfortable sometimes. It is okay to try something new. It is okay to do something that has never been done before, even if that means stepping onto a path that has never been traveled on. It is okay to walk away, even if it is just for a moment, from the rituals and traditions that we do by rote and see what else God is calling us to do in this moment.
It means being willing to compromise so that everyone feels like their voice has been heard and that their opinion is valued. It means not immediately dismissing something just because it is different, and actively listening to new ideas. It means healing someone on the Sabbath because they are sick and serving someone holy bread because they are hungry. It means listening to God’s still speaking voice guiding us along a journey that is filled with a grace and love that will exceed even our wildest imaginations.
So do not be afraid to be comfortably uncomfortable. Push your boundaries. Stretch yourself. Try something new. And be amazed at God’s potential within our community. As a church, we can and will do great things.”
Like my friend, I would love to time travel to meet Jesus, but I would also like to invite him into our world today, to hear what he would say about our world, our culture, our laws, and the church that carries his name and claims him for its head. We need his guidance right now. It’s time to listen deeply to where the Still Speaking God is calling us.