Like children in the marketplace

File:Mayan girls playing sack race on the market of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.JPG

Watching for the Morning of July 9, 2017

Year A

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 9 / Lectionary 14

There’s a sweet word coming in the Gospel text for Sunday. Jesus is going to say those familiar and comforting words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” And God knows, we are weary: Weary of the cacophony in Washington. Weary of the rush of modern life. Weary of the challenges of health. Weary of the press of finances. Weary of the drumbeats of war. Weary of the fear that seems to seep into every corner of our lives.

But before we get to that promise, there is a rebuke: we are like children in the marketplace pouting that we don’t get our way. Maybe Jesus is quoting something like a nursery rhyme. Maybe he is just acknowledging the taunts that get made when people won’t go along with the game. But it is clear Jesus is rebuking those whose excuse for not listening to John the Baptist was that he was too rigorous and demanding. But they won’t listen to Jesus because he isn’t rigorous enough. He laughs. He tells jokes. He teases. He dines with sinners and tax collectors. They mocked John because he lived on locusts and wild honey and Jesus because he didn’t.

Hypocrisy comes pretty naturally to us. Trump makes a career of denying the validity of Obama’s birth certificates and then accuses the media of being “fake news”. McConnell says his highest priority is to deny Obama a second term and then accuses the Democrats of being obstructionists. I tell my children they can only have two cookies but, when they go to bed, I help myself. Jesus did say something about not worrying about the splinter in my neighbor’s eye when I have a log in my own – but we do.

Hypocrisy is pretty natural to us. It allows us to do and say what we want without the work of self-examination or amendment of life. It’s comfortable to make excuses for ourselves but grant no grace to others. So Jesus has blunt words for the self-righteous before offering rest to the weary: If Sodom and Gomorrah had seen what you’ve seen, they would never have been destroyed.

The ‘righteous’ are hard to reach; it is the poor and burdened who can see the joy and freedom of serving Christ.

So Sunday we will hear the prophet Zechariah speak of the coming king who comes humbly on a donkey and sets prisoners free. And we will sing with the psalmist of God’s gracious deeds. And we will struggle to understand the latest section of Paul’s letter to Romans – but resonate to the word of thanks to God for delivering us from the bondages of our human condition. And we will hear Jesus welcome the weary and speak of the yoke of service that is not always simple, but lifts the heart.

The Prayer for July 9, 2017

Gracious God,
in Jesus you invite all people into the path of your teaching and life.
By your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and lives to your message,
that following your Son, we may find true rest for our souls;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 9, 2017

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12
“Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” – In the weary years after Babylon has fallen but Judah is a poor backwater of the Persian empire, comes a prophetic message from the book of Zechariah promising a king who shall arrive like the kings of old and command peace to the nations” and reign “from sea to sea.”

Psalmody: Psalm 145:8-14
“Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” – A hymn of praise to God who reigns as earth’s just and faithful king.

Second Reading: Romans 7:14-25
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?
Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” – Paul uses the image of possession (compelled to act against our own will) to expound his notion that the death of Christ has freed us from our bond-service to sin and made us servants of God.

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” – Jesus rebukes the fickle crowd (who criticized John for his asceticism and Jesus for being a libertine) and praises God for opening the eyes of the poor and marginalized to see and take up the yoke of God’s reign of grace and life.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMayan_girls_playing_sack_race_on_the_market_of_Quetzaltenango%2C_Guatemala.JPGright By Erik Albers (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons
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Rest

Wednesday

Matthew 11

File:İstanbul 5341.jpg

Fresco in Kariye Camii (Kariye Kilisesi) in Edirnekapı, Fatih, İstanbul. In his hand, Christ holds the Gospels open to Matthew 11:28

28“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

Rest is not a small word in Israel. On the seventh day God rested: the work of creation moves towards rest. The slaves God delivered from Egypt were commanded to observe a day of rest, rest not just for themselves but for their servants and animals. Even the fields were to have a Sabbath rest. Rest is in the fabric of creation and it is our salvation. The Book of Hebrews speaks of the age to come as our Sabbath rest.

The Sabbath is a unique covenantal sign of Israel, an ever-abiding command. The neglect of the Sabbath was one of the reasons for God’s judgment against Jerusalem, and honoring of the Sabbath one of the defining marks of the faithful eunuchs and foreigners God welcomes into his sanctuary.

Jews were mocked by Roman society for giving slaves a day off. The Pharisees defended it forcefully – even against Jesus’ attempts to heal and free on the Sabbath. But Jesus rebuked them for failing to understand the Sabbath. Sabbath is not a ritual obligation; it is the day of salvation, the day of new creation.

So in this simple and familiar promise, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest,” Jesus is speaking a profound word. “I will give you rest.” I bring you God’s Sabbath. I give the rest God intended for us. I give deliverance. I bring the day of salvation. I lift the burden of humanity’s weary labor by the sweat of their brow. I restore humanity to those days when God walked through the garden in the cool of the evening. I make all things new.

This is far more than a promise to weary field hands and servants. It is the invitation to enter the reign of God, into the realm of the spirit, into the world of joy and life and peace, to dwell in God’s grace and compassion, to become sons and daughters of the Most High, to live the kingdom.

Jesus does not do away with the Sabbath, he fulfills it. He brings our true rest, our healing, our wholeness, the fullness of our humanity. And he invites us to live it.

Sabbath rest

Sunday Evening

Isaiah 58

13 if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable…
14then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

We don’t worship God on the Sabbath, we worship God for his Sabbath.  The Sabbath is not a day; it’s a time.  It’s not an item on the calendar; it is a reality to be lived and enjoyed.  Christmas is not just a day; it is a state of mind and heart.  Thanksgiving is not just a date; it is – at its best – a time of family and goodness, of bounty and welcome strangers.  Sabbath is not Saturday or Sunday; it is our participation in the peace of God.  It is rest, and joy, and the treasure of God’s word of peace.

Yes, there is the commandment to observe Sabbath each week.  Yes, there is the command to rest and give rest.  But Christians gather on Sunday because it is the day of resurrection.  It is the eighth day, the day of new creation.  We come to hear the voice from heaven that does not shake the mountain but opens the grave.

We come to break the bread and sing the songs of heaven.  We come to lay our burdens down for a time, to leave the struggle of life aside for a morning, to step away from our rush.  We come to bless the LORD and forget not his benefits.

All this is lost when Sabbath is regarded as a rule rather than a gift: what must be done rather than what has been given.  Christmas can become this – the obligation of purchasing presents rather than the joy of giving.  This is why Christians center Christmas around the gift of the child rather than the paper and bows.  The presents and the tree and the meal take their spirit from the child; they are not an end in themselves.  Just so, Sabbath takes its spirit from the God who creates and redeems in love and speaks to his troubled, rebellious world a word of grace and peace.

Who would not come to Christmas dinner?  And what could keep us from this our Sunday dinner?  It is the long table set on the lawn beneath the shade with fresh corn and apple pie and children giggling as they run with cousins.  It is a remembrance of all God has given and all that is yet to come.  It is a time when God’s Sabbath draws near and burdens are lifted, the stranger welcomed, the broken embraced, the bent stand upright, and our hearts and lives are refreshed.

18You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20(For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” 21Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) 22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12).

Sabbath

Thursday

Isaiah 58

13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honorable;
… I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus &...

English: the 4th Commandment on Nash Papyrus “Remember the Sabbath” row 9, words 5-8. in Hebrew script: “zahor et yom ha’shabat”. similar to Exodus 20:7 Egypt, 2nd century CE עברית: הדיבר הרביעי מעשרת הדברות בפפירוס נאש, “זכור את יום השבת” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Keeping Sabbath is one of the ten words.  For those who would boil the rich and wonderful legal codes of the Torah down to ten commandments, the Sabbath is one of these ten essentials.  No matter how you number them, breaking Sabbath is in the same select list as murder, kidnapping, elder abuse and violating another’s marriage.

At first glance it doesn’t seem to match up.  Keeping Sabbath looks to us like a ritual obligation.  All those that follow are filled with deep ethical dimensions that affect the well being of society by governing the way we treat one another.  Keeping Sabbath seems like an obligation towards God.  In our society, such a religious obligation seems clearly secondary to the “higher” ethical norms concerning the treatment of others.  Why then does the prophet equate keeping Sabbath with such fundamental humanitarian concerns as feeding the hungry and caring for the poor?

For most of human history we have enslaved one another.  Binding another to serve one’s will seems endemic to human nature.  There have been formal institutions of slavery, encoded in law, and many informal and indirect ones.  There is a serfdom that binds you to the land, but also a serfdom that binds you with debt – the coal miners living in mining towns paid in script only good at the mining stores.  There is the slavery that binds by law, and the enslavement that binds by fear we see in human trafficking and the conscription of child soldiers (join us or we kill your family).  The bent woman before Jesus in Sunday’s gospel is spiritually enslaved.

It is easy to hear the exodus story as God’s triumph over the mighty empire of Egypt, but why then would God need ten plagues?  Wouldn’t one or two massive exercises of power have sufficed, just as the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought Japan to surrender?  Why start with a silly trick of turning your staff into a serpent?  Why begin with a few days of polluted water?  Because this is not about power; it is about redemption.  The Nile was the source of life for Egypt and God is declaring that he is the author of life.  The serpent was a symbol of royal power in Egypt and God is the one who holds Pharaoh and his kingdom in his hand.  God’s purpose was not just to save Israel, but also to save Egypt.  It didn’t take ten assaults to break Israel free; God provided ten opportunities for pharaoh to repent, to turn away from the prison of slaveholding.  Pharaoh behaved like us all: only as the price became more and more unbearable did he finally relent.

With the Sabbath command, the God who delivered Israel and Egypt from the house of bondage takes his stand against all enslavement.  The commandment isn’t just that I should rest on the Sabbath, it is that I must give rest to others.

Humans were not created for work.  In the Babylonian myth, humans were created to serve the gods.  In the Genesis narrative humans were created to walk with God.

When I “trample on the Sabbath,” I trample on my neighbor.  If I cannot turn off my wants and needs, if I cannot for one day set aside my “own interests” for the sake of others, then the life of all is degraded.

I understand the “modern economy,” but when I want to be able to go to the grocery store in the middle of the night, that choice affects not only me and my household, but all who must work in order that the store might be open at my convenience.  And when the demands of work encroach ever further into our lives, children and families and neighborhoods are undermined.  It may be the way of the world, but the way of God gives Sabbath.

So the Pharisees were right – Jesus needed to honor the Sabbath.  They just didn’t understand that is exactly what he was doing: the woman was being set free from her bondage.