Sunday, June 3, 2018

From Farm to Table (Sermon)

“From Farm to Table”
Mark 2:23-3:6
Allen Huff
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church

         Mark 1 is a whirlwind introduction to Jesus. Beginning with John the Baptist, it includes Jesus’ baptism and temptation, the calling of the first disciples, three high-profile healings, and Jesus’ first preaching tour through Galilee. It closes with Jesus as a kind of reluctant celebrity. He “could no longer go into a town openly,” says Mark.
         Mark 2 walks us through a series of confrontations between Jesus and the Pharisees. With each clash, the intensity builds, and the mighty Pharisees become increasingly hobbled by righteous indignation.
         The first incident occurs in Jesus’ own home. A crowd has gathered inside and is spilling into the street. Four men who have brought a paralyzed friend climb onto Jesus’ roof. They dig a hole through it and lower their friend to the floor at Jesus’ feet.
         “Your sins are forgiven,” says Jesus.
         “Blasphemy!” cry the Pharisees.
         “Holy mackerel! Look at that!” says the crowd.
         Jesus’ radically new witness to God angers the Pharisees. More addicted to power over the masses than they are committed to authority on behalf of God’s beloved people, the legalistic Pharisees come across as pathetically mystified. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” “Why do…[Jesus’] disciples not fast?” “Why are [Jesus’ disciples] doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Why? Why? Why?
The third Why? occurs in today’s text, and Jesus’ answer draws from a story that was ancient even in the first century. He refers to an account from 1Samuel 21. David is on the run from a murderously angry King Saul. He asks the priest (Ahimelech, not Abiathar) if he has anything to eat. Only what’s holy, says Ahimelech. He’s referring to the bread of the Presence, which is bread kept out as an offering to God. It’s to be removed only when fresh bread replaces it, and only the priests can eat it. Smelling fear on Ahimelech’s breath, David, who’s on the lam all by himself, says that he and his men are hungry.
This is Yahweh’s bread, says the priest. Are you and your men clean?
Oh, sure, says David. King Saul has sent us on a secret mission. The details are classified, but my guys haven’t so much as laid eyes on women for a long time.
Ahimelech gives David the bread.
Now, the stories aren’t exactly comparing apples to apples. There’s no mention of the sabbath in 1Samuel. And while David may be hungry, his story is layered with lies. Jesus’ disciples aren’t running from anyone, and they’re not really harvesting the grain. They’re just idly noshing on it on a sabbath – the way that you and I might sit on the couch and eat popcorn on a Sunday afternoon while watching the Braves blow a big lead in the bottom of the eighth. It’s all just normal stuff.
         With the sabbath as background, Mark puts us in fourth commandment territory. The comparison is to the bread of the Presence itself – something created and set aside as a means of drawing us closer to God. Jesus’ point is that such things – the bread of the Presence, the sabbath, the law itself – exist not for their own sake, but for the sake of humankind. To the extent that human symbols and systems deepen us spiritually, they serve us well. When allowed to become equal to God, they inevitably become idols. We may even prefer them to God because we can comprehend and manipulate them. And instead of welcoming others into God’s means of grace for all creation, our inner Pharisees dole them out on the basis of merit.
         God calls us to sabbath observance for our sake, says Jesus. We don’t exist simply to populate the sabbath like ants in some glorified ant farm. And grain in the field, like the bread of the Presence, is a holy gift from God. To pick it, to feel it on the tongue, to taste it, such simple actions can be sabbath experiences when we do them mindfully, gratefully, humbly – when we recognize the Spirit renewing us through them. That’s how Jesus is lord of the sabbath, regardless of the day of the week.
         At some point after the grain-picking episode, Jesus is in the temple again. It’s the sabbath, again. He sees a man with a withered hand. If Jesus waits until sundown to heal the man, the sabbath will have ended, and he won’t offend the Pharisees. But the man and his suffering stand before Jesus now.
To everyone in general and to the Pharisees in particular, Jesus says, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath?”
The Pharisees watch with interest, but without compassion. They see the man as just another ant on the farm. His suffering is secondary to their sabbath observance. Mark says that the Pharisees’ “hardness of heart” moves Jesus to both anger and grief. While this story appears in all three synoptic gospels, only Mark includes the detail about Jesus feeling both anger and grief toward the Pharisees. And I think that pairing those two emotions has profound implications for us.
Estranged from grief, anger ignores the creation’s inherent holiness.
Estranged from grief, anger ignores our own faults and limits.
Estranged from grief, anger tills the soil of our basest, Machiavellian impulses. If the ends justify the means, it’s not the devil who makes me do it. God blesses everything from my pettiest selfishness to my most idolatrous cruelty.
Estranged from grief, anger seeks revenge in ever-escalating degrees. Feeling only anger after Jesus restores the man’s withered hand, the Pharisees, that very sabbath day, scurry away from the synagogue to conspire with political leaders about how “to destroy” Jesus.
As beneficiaries of the inequities of religious and cultural idolatries, the Pharisees hear Jesus’ good news as bad news. It challenges them – and us, because very often we are they ­– to face and confess our complicity with every kind of injustice – religious, political, social, economic, environmental. The gospel calls us to embrace the new life of the kingdom of God where, in spite of ourselves, God feeds us with the bread of eternal Presence and restores our withered lives. God helps us to choose the ambiguities of faith, the uncertainties of hope, and the demands of love over the idolatries of power and fear.
Our version of the bread of the Presence lies on the table before us. If the god it calls to mind is a god of griefless anger, a god who can only be appeased by some violent death, then we’ll most likely reduce our churches to little ant farms – idols for idle hands and minds. And we may even sacrifice others, willingly, for our own ends.
As the Bread of Life, though, Jesus reveals God at work within our theological and ecclesiastical structures not for the purpose of limiting and controlling us, and certainly not as a way of being limited and controlled by us. Indeed, our rules don’t apply to God. No, God squeezes just enough of God’s eternal self into our structures in order to tease us toward freedom from every selfish idolatry. That’s why everyone, with no exceptions, is welcome at the Lord’s Supper. We may set the table, but Jesus is Lord of the table. He is Lord of this day and all days – past, present, and future. From farm to table, the bread and the cup are his life and joy for us.
Let’s make Jesus’ joy complete. Let’s gather at his table, and be made whole, and made one.