Readings: Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
Every 7 years clergy get what is called a sabbatical. It is 3 months to take time off from active ministry to reflect, recharge and renew. Back in 1999 Rosemary and I undertook a summer course at Boston College, a Jesuit University in Boston. We were having a grand time, that was until we came to the annual baseball competition. It was, we discovered, traditional for the American students to challenge the others, the ones they called the aliens. I looked around my classmates with horror. We had several Australians who knew nothing about baseball, a rather large priest from Ireland, a Canadian who seemed to know what she was doing, and me. What made matters worse was that the College Students Association seemed to be able to ring in anyone who had ever studied at Boston College. A monster of a black man was called in. When I was introduced to him I found myself talking to his belly button. Whenever the ball came to him, he hit it right out of the park.
So what to do? The aliens needed a plan. So I rallied around a few Americans I knew to be good baseball players. I went to the organising committee. “Could I use a little bit of local talent so we have a chance?” I asked. “No,” was the quick answer. To be on the alien team they must be well – aliens; foreign nationals. So I got them together. It’s easy I said. I can make you temporarily citizens of New Zealand. At coffee and bagel break between classes I will swear you in as honorary New Zealand citizens. You just have to make an oath to the Queen and then you can play on our team. So I drew up the papers and the good humoured Americans knelt before me to take the oath. But I didn’t count on what followed. The organising committee got wind of what was happening and came and threw themselves in front of me yelling and screaming and that if I didn’t stop they would call the police. Rules are, after all, rules.
To say we got beaten was an understatement, but ours was the moral victory that day.
Once again in the Gospel reading, Jesus disciples are breaking the rules. Or rather they are breaking the pharisees interpretation of the rules. They are not playing by the ‘rules’.
Mark the Gospel writer is very careful to set the scene. He begins, “One Sabbath”. That single phase “One Sabbath” would have spoken volumes to the first audience. The Sabbath, as we read in Deuteronomy was set down as a reminder of God’s liberation of the people from slavery in Egypt. No work was to be done so that, like a sabbatical for priests, the people had a weekly time of renewal and rest and refreshment. It’s great in principal but sometimes, as we will see, the rules can get in the way of compassion.
Friends of ours host Israeli visitors to New Zealand. Our friend came out one Sabbath to discover that some sellotape had been put over the wee switch that brings on the light in the fridge. This, it was explained to him, was so that the light did no work on the Sabbath. In some countries you will find stairs to visit the sick in hospital because the lift doesn’t work on the Sabbath.
Jesus goes straight to the heart of the Sabbath. The disciples are hungry and while walking through a grain field they take some grain on the Sabbath to feed themselves. The Pharisees are outraged. They are even more outraged when Jesus reminds them that King David, the person they revere most, did exactly the same thing in his day. Jesus message is clear. The human need of hunger takes priority over ritual prohibitions. The Sabbath is made, he explains, for humans, not the other way around.
But the next encounter pushes the point even further. Mark sets the scene. It is a Sabbath and it is in a synagogue. In other words it is both a sacred day and a sacred place. Jesus calls out a man with a withered hand. Jesus puts compassion for this man, his well being, his life, ahead of all else. Is it lawful he asks to do good or ill on the Sabbath. This question disarms his listeners.
Jesus is angry that what should be life giving – a time of rest and refreshment, has become a time of distorted priorities.
Often in our world, the stories of people going beyond their own comfort and rules to help others do not make it into the news.
In late January 2011, Tahrir Square in Cairo became an area of intense protest during the Egyptian Uprising. The revolution, which ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak from power, was remarkable for its lack of violence. It also produced striking images of Egypt’s Muslims and Coptic Christians working together to create a better future for their country.
The Copts are a Christian denomination which has been in Egypt since ancient times.
In the demonstrations in Tahrir Square, there was a remarkable degree of cooperation and goodwill between the two faiths as Muslims and Christians stood together to demand a better Egypt. The most dramatic evidence of this came on Friday February 4 which protesters referred to as the Day of Departure. When Muslims spread their mats for midday prayer with the police with dogs and tear gas threatening to close in on every side, the Christian protesters joined hands to form a protective circle around them. Christians and Muslims came together to protest the government and the crescent embracing the cross became a popular symbol.
But what of us? In a country that knows no Sabbath, where many just work on and on while others find no work, what opportunity do we have to put the rules of Sabbath to one side? Maybe in our context we need to reclaim the Sabbath. To say enough is enough to people working every day. To put compassion ahead of the rule of money.
This week if we are truly awake, God will present us with opportunities to be his compassionate people. May we be like those Egyptian Christians and encircle those that need our protection.