I just love that story about Eli and Samuel in our first reading today. “Samuel, Samuel.” “What?” Over and over the Lord calls, over and over, Samuel misses it. Then old Eli helps him so that the next time the Lord calls, young Samuel stands up straight and tall and answers; “Here I am Lord!” This begs the question: How do we answer the Lord’s call?
Unlike Samuel, we have Jesus to help us answer when God calls. Jesus lives his life, giving us example after example of how to respond to God. Jesus heals, even people with dangerously infectious diseases, Jesus sits down at the table with tax collectors and He offers forgiveness and love to sinners. Jesus shows us, by his examples, how to answer God’s call.
Today, Jesus decides to show the Pharisees how to answer God’s call: Our story begins on the sabbath, with Jesus and his friends making their way through a field, snacking on the grain and in doing so, according to the Pharisees, breaking the commandment to keep the sabbath holy. Jesus disagrees because his compassion for his hungry friends trumps the law. He shares the story of David doing something similar. He reminds the Pharisees that the purpose of the sabbath, and all the commandments, has always been to help us rather than punishing us for not following these stern religious laws.
This is the longest commandment. Let me read it to you: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” We can think of this as a very early labor law, a law for everyone, including slaves and aliens, allowing one day of rest for all.
Jesus is discussing the fine points of the sabbath laws with the Pharisees. It is all too common for us to view these confrontations as Jesus VS the bad guys. The Pharisees were Jewish high priests whose job was to interpret scripture and law for the people. They spent their days sitting in the temple and arguing the fine points of rabbinic law with other rabbis. So, Jesus, a rabbi, coming in, to debate the Pharisees is not unusual…But it gets unusual when Jesus says; “The Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
Wait, did he just say he was lord of the Sabbath? Oh, oh. He’s no longer presenting himself as an ordinary rabbi enjoying a juicy theological discussion. This Jesus is claiming a whole new level of authority.
Jesus decides to get a little more ‘in your face’ now. Standing in the temple, He sees a man nearby with a withered hand. Healing on the sabbath is lawful only when it is to save a life. What will Jesus do? Standing right in front of the Pharisees, Jesus calls the man to him. He asks the Pharisees; “Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath, or to do evil? To save life or to kill?’
The Pharisees stay quiet. Jesus is upset at their hardheartedness and looks around angrily. Then, defiantly, he commands the man; “Stretch out your hand.” He stretches it out and his hand is restored! This outright defiance, in the heart of the temple, does not go down well with the Pharisees. This Jesus, who refers to himself as the lord of the sabbath, is getting carried away. They began to plot to get rid of him.
This scene is really about Jesus’ authority and his values. In these stories, He graphically illustrates his overarching message that mercy and compassion and love must trump the law. Jesus chooses to override the law so that he can heal the man.
God gave us commandments to help us, to make communal life better with rules against killing and lying and coveting each other’s wives and possessions. Attempting to follow these rules makes for a better society. But the Pharisees treat these rules as stern religious laws to live up to. Today, Jesus shines a bright light on how far the Pharisees have gotten from the original intent of the law.
I’m thinking a lot about laws these days and how they intersect with compassion. Aberdeen is in the midst of making an ordinance that prohibits sitting or lying down on the sidewalks in the downtown area. Oftentimes, because my feet hurt, Kevin drops me off at the library in Aberdeen. When I’m through there, I text him, then sit down on the sidewalk to wait for him to pick me up. With this new ordinance in Aberdeen, I can get a ticket for doing that. But do you think they’ll bother me, an old, white woman? Of course not. This ordinance is a way to criminalize people on the streets.
So, if you’re poor and your feet hurt, you are committing a crime if you sit down on the ground. How might Aberdeen bring compassion to the people on the streets instead of punishing them for sitting down?
Applying compassion to the law is complicated but here’s how we do it at St. Marks. When we see needy, hungry people in Aberdeen, we don’t try to find cold, legal methods to ‘deal’ with them. Instead, like young Samuel, in our first reading, like young Samuel says when the Lord calls him, we at St. Marks say; “Here I am, Lord!” When we hear God’s call, we say; “Here I am” as a church when we choose to dedicate the vast majority of our outreach budget to help those most in need.
When we hear God’s call, we say; “Here I am” as we labor to prepare lots of food and desserts, made with love for those hungry people. We say “Here I am” as many of us head down to Aberdeen to serve that food. When the Lord calls us, we stand up and say; “Here I am, Lord!”
But be clear: what we do when we feed the needy in Aberdeen is not about the food. It is tangible compassion we show with each delicious bite. We are saying; “Here WE are, a small church from a different town, sending you love through this food.”
We will sing a beautiful hymn that speaks to this ministry of ours, we will sing about the ‘Lord of wind and flame, tending the poor and lame, setting a feast for them.’ We will sing about the ‘Lord providing finest bread for them, til their hearts be satisfied’. We will sing; “Here I am, Lord!” So, sing it out please, so the Lord can hear you when he calls!