Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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On Shouting and Harvesting: Psalm 81:1-10 and Mark 2:23-3:6
Do you remember all those covenants we learned about during Lent? All those great promises between God and humanity and the potential for goodness they hold? These covenants that promise freedom, relationship, sanctuary, and healing are the roots to God's relationship with the people of Israel. When the people lose their way, the prophets and sometimes kings... sometimes God Godself... calls the people back to their covenantal roots. People remind God of the covenant, too, sometimes. Abraham was quick to remind God of grace and compassion when it was necessary. All these covenants and the miraculous salvation stories of shelter in the wilderness, food that suddenly appeared in the morning and evening, and voices that thundered from high places, those stories should be on our mind when we read Psalm 81. It is a Psalm to remind the people of their relationship with God. It is a Psalm to remind them of their part of the promise.
This Psalm is a prayer of thanksgiving and exhortation that was written not during the time of Exodus, but during the time of exile. So much of the Hebrew Scriptures, which before the exile had been stories and prayers around campfires and in holy, wild places, were finally written down after the devastation at the hands of the Babylonians. With the leadership of their community in Babylon and the common people spread across what was left of their once-promised land, they needed shared stories to help their culture survive. This Psalm, which describes a religious festival and retells part of the salvation story of the Exodus, teaches people, again and again, how God saved them and what God asks of them.
Think of every good thing that you credit to God. The relationships that bring you joy and wholeness. The support when you've needed it most. The challenge to serve your neighbors. Mash together all of those feelings of joy and gratitude and imagine them erupting from you in song. That's the feeling the beginning of this Psalm is intended to invoke. Sing aloud to God our strength! Shout for joy to the God of Jacob! What are you so thankful for that it would make you take up a tambourine or blow a trumpet? For this Psalmist, it's the memory of the way God cared for them when they were deeply oppressed. It's the memory of God's commitment to liberation.
When we remember all that God did for Israel, the rescue from slavery and the time in the wilderness, the stories we usually call the Exodus... these are some of the most influential stories in the Hebrew Bible. In this act, the people were shown repeatedly that God wants liberation, not constraint, for God's people. And, they were invited to act as agents of God's liberation into the future. If you've had any chance to spend time with our neighbors at Temple Beth El, you may have witnessed their commitment to welcoming new immigrants. They, like many Jewish people, root their welcome to the Exodus story, a story that reminds them that they were once strangers in a strange land and were sorely mistreated. In honor of their liberation, they will welcome others. They aren't the only ones who have been inspired by the Exodus story. In US history, it is the Exodus stories that helped many African Americans survive slavery and fight for their own freedom. They heard the truth of God's liberation, even when so many Christian church's supported bondage. This truth helped them shape a more just future. It is still pointing us to a more just future.
There is this interesting turn in the Psalm after the party of the first five verses. All the sudden we shift from a leader reminding the people to give thanks to the voice of God reminding the people of their side of the covenant. Remember what we read today: God says, I'm still your only God. Remember that I brought you out of Egypt. Remember that I made sure you had food to survive in the wilderness. All those commandments the people began to receive during the Exodus... the second part of the Psalm is to remind them of the promises they made in response to liberation. The whole gist of the promises wasn't to make life more complicated for the people. Because I know that you all have memorized all of my sermons, I know that you will remember that commandments are really to help people reshape their lives so that they better reflect God's promises and God's priorities. The laws weren't just to be religious hoops to jump through. They were to be guides to shape your life into a reflection of God.
I think Jesus understood this. That's why he got in the two arguments that we heard in our reading from Mark. If we can turn to that story for a moment, we can see a difference between living a life shaped by liberation and concern for the needy, that is a life shaped by the law, and living a life that is more concerned with the letter of the law than its spirit. Jesus and his disciples were traveling. Instead of finding somewhere to stay and pre-preparing food for the Sabbath, they began to pluck heads of grain to eat as they walked. For the Pharisees, who were deeply concerned with following the law, these actions... the traveling and the harvesting... went against even the most basic ways of keeping the Sabbath. And, keeping the Sabbath was very important.
Jesus didn't think he could or should ignore the law. What he did think, like other Jewish teachers before and since him, was that sometimes some parts of the law take precedence over others. In this case, he reminded the Pharisees that the Sabbath was set aside for rest and prayer after the era of slavery, when people rarely had time for either. It is a time intended to remind people of God's generosity in liberation. He said, like Jewish teachers before and after him, Sabbath was made for humankind and not the other way around. So, if people are hungry on the Sabbath, you feed them, even if it means doing a kind of work that is usually forbidden. Jesus also pointed to King David's own life story. When he was on the run with few resources, he ate bread that was unlawful for him to eat. David needed to eat to survive to go on to fulfill his calling as king. The call to feed the hungry took precedence over the call to serve the priests in a particular way.
The second story is similar. There was already a practice of understanding that saving a life is a kind of work that was ok to do on the Sabbath. If you could work and save someone, you were not disregarding the gift of the Sabbath. But, this man whom Jesus' heals does not appear to be dying. I mean, his hand isn't working well, but he wasn't in immediate danger. His healing was the kind of healing that could have probably waited a day. Jesus' followers probably could have skipped a meal, too. But, he didn't ask any of these people to wait. Instead, he placed a value on doing the most good as quickly as possible as a sign of his dedication to the law. And, as one scholar I read this week pointed out, on what better day than the Sabbath, a day set aside for restoration, could Jesus restore a person's body to wholeness. With this healing, not only did the man's hand work correctly, but it also allowed him to work more easily, thereby better providing for himself and his family. With this action, Jesus showed that God's liberation doesn't need to wait. It can happen right now.
As followers of Jesus, we consider ourselves inheritors of this tradition of liberation. We would do well to follow Jesus in making both thanksgiving and reconnection with covenant, the two key elements of Psalm 81, part of our lives as well. So, we find ways to celebrate, I mean really celebrate what God has done for us, just as our ancient forbears remembered what God did for them. But, we also remember to shape our lives according to the greatest of God's priorities: liberation and compassion. Where are the places where you are willing to stand up to authorities to restore someone else to wholeness? Maybe you've heard about our government's practice of removing children from parents who are crossing our borders without proper documentation. Maybe these are the people who need wholeness right now. Maybe you've heard of someone else who needs liberation in another way. Where are you being led to work with God towards future liberation? What songs will you shout to guide your way?
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following sources while writing this sermon:
Robert Hoch: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3689
Diane G. Chen, "Proper 4 ," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Matt Skinner: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3667
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.