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. (Read the whole passage)
Today begins the second half of the church year, the first of Ordinary Time or Sundays after Pentecost. For the first half of the church year, we told the stories of Jesus’ life, beginning with Advent and Christ’ birth at Christmas. Than we continued on through Epiphany and Jesus’ baptism to Lent, and the story of Jesus going to the cross on Good Friday. And then there was the resurrection on Easter and Pentecost, the beginning of the Church. Today, we begin a six month period, 26 Sundays, of telling the stories of Jesus’ ministry, teachings and parables.
This year we will hear mostly from the Gospel of Mark. Mark is the oldest and first Gospel to be written. And Mark’s Jesus is perhaps the most interesting. Unlike Matthew where Jesus is like a Jewish religious authority, or Luke where Jesus is a kind healer, or John where Jesus is like a philosopher, Mark’s Jesus is a wild and untamed prophet. A cantankerous mystic who has got a mission follow yet keeps getting sidetracked by people looking for help with their issues.
And today, there is no warm up to the story… Mark throws us straight into the deep end of what Jesus is facing. It is only chapter 2 and the Pharisees are already plotting to destroy Jesus.
The disciples and Jesus are walking along, and as they walk the disciples are plucking some heads of grain from the nearby wheat fields, presumably to munch on. Yet, this almost mindless act catches the ire of Pharisees. For it is the Sabbath and plucking grain seems a lot like work. And working on the sabbath is against the 3rd commandment – Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.
And so begins the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Pharisees, who find Jesus’ constant flaunting of the rules to be infuriating.
So then Jesus enters into the local synagogue where the Pharisees are waiting for him. Waiting for him so that they can catch him breaking the rules, doing something truly offensive and awful… hoping that he might heal a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. How terrible of Jesus!
And Jesus falls for the trap… or does he, as he scolds the Pharisees for their hardness of heart.
In case it hasn’t become obvious by now, the issue isn’t what Jesus is doing on the Sabbath. Rather, it is a familiar problem to us.
It is the problem of “That’s not the way we do things around here.”
The summer following my first year of university, I got a job working as a camp counsellor at one of the Lutheran Bible Camps near to my hometown. Now, if you think churches can get stuck in ruts of holding to traditions and rules above all else, Bible Camps have this problem on steroids. Campers, both young and old, come year after year, generation after generation, and they expect everything to stay exactly the same. That they will sing the same songs, eat the same food, play the same games, paddle the same canoes, sleep in the same cabins, make the same crafts and on and on and on.
My first summer working at camp, most of the staff was new, including the Camp’s Director. Being new meant we didn’t know the old traditions and rules… and there was no way we could even try to keep them and live up to expectations. So every week, when all the campers had arrived and we gathered together for the first time, the Camp Director would begin by having everyone chant three times, “That’s not the way we used to do it.”
And then he would say, “we have heard you and we know that things are different this year. And things aren’t going to be like they used to be anymore… but this is still the camp you know and love, even if how we do camp is a little different.”
Whether we are the Pharisees or people going to bible camp or folks who go to church, it can be easy for us to hold on to the traditions and rules of how we think things should go. And sometimes we can get a bit overzealous, holding onto the traditions no matter the cost.
But usually the rules and the traditions were created in order to help us. The law of Moses and Israel was created so that God’s people could know God and God’s love and mercy. Bible camp brings far flung people together for a week of intentional Christian community, and the traditions help bind them together. Church helps communities of people like us come together and tell the story of Jesus again and again through lifetimes and generations so that it becomes part our bones, part of our families, part of our history and our future.
But when the traditions and rules and laws and practices become more important than the purpose they were created for… they begin to do the opposite. They deny access to God’s love and mercy, they create tension and divide communities, they tell different stories of community, stories of judgement and conflict, exclusion and isolation.
“That’s not the way we do things around here.”
The Pharisees think they are protecting God by making sure the rules are followed at all costs.
But then God comes traipsing into their communities in the person of Jesus… and their reaction is to plot to kill God in order to protect the laws and rules.
And likewise, we are guilty of the same, protecting the rules and traditions even as the spirit comes blowing into our midst showing us new ways of being.
Thankfully, Jesus doesn’t show up expecting something different from us. Jesus knows that we are fallible human beings, prone to clinging to things that ultimately get in our own way.
And so Jesus reminds the Pharisees that life comes first. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
Or in other words, what are these laws and rules for in the end. They are to help us know God and God’s love and mercy for us.
And that is what Jesus has come for.
To show us God’s love and mercy.
Mercy that sometimes means the rules have to be broken.
Love that sometimes means the traditions have to be adapted and changed.
Because here is the thing.
Sometimes we are the rule and law oriented Pharisees. Sometimes we are the protectors of tradition at Bible camp or church.
But sometimes we are also hungry disciples. We are also the man with the withered hand. We also people coming to camp or to church in need of God’s love and mercy. People who need a sign of God’s promise of life because we do not see it anywhere else in the world.
And so Jesus comes.
Jesus comes into our communities that cling to wrong things and try to protect the rules and laws and traditions that get in our own way.
And Jesus reaches out to us, reaches out to our hungry souls, to our withered bodies, to our tired spirits. To people tired of keeping the rules and to people tired of being crushed by the rules.
And Jesus reminds us of why we are here in the first place.
That God has brought us together and given us the tools to share God’s love and mercy to the world – laws and traditions that help us to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ. Tools that should remind us that God’s mercy is for everyone, and God’s mercy is especially for us.
And even when we loose sight that, even when we are busy trying to protect the ways we have always done it, Jesus comes to us again and again.
Jesus comes to us week after week, right in the very places where we try the hardest to hold onto the rules.
And Jesus comes to us in the waters of Baptism, in the Word we hear proclaimed and in the meal of mercy we shared. Jesus comes and takes our hands and restoring us to wholeness. Jesus grabs hold of us and welcomes us into God’s mercy and love, into God’s promise of new life.