Luke 6:1-16 Jesus is selecting his team. Calling them out one by one. Not haphazardly, and as we learned last week, not based on their prior experience or expertise in any kind of apostle-work. He has spent a night in prayer and is now naming the twelve. Anyone watching can tell what he is doing. Twelve is the number of tribes of Israel. He is setting up the new Team Israel. He is creating the central committee of a brand new way to relate to God. These are the founding fathers of what becomes the new faith called Christianity. Luke’s list of the twelve is not exactly the same as the lists you find in the gospels of Matthew or Mark (John has no list of disciples’ names). That is why it is hard to definitively say, “Oh, here is a list of the 12 disciples”. Some of them we know very little about from scripture. A few are fishermen. And one is a tax collector. And one will become a traitor. We all know that name! One is famous for doubting the risen Jesus. But the other 5? Another Simon, another Judas, Bartholomew, James, Philip. Maybe they are in the backfield and don’t get the recognition of those on the front lines. They don’t make the scores, but just serve as the strong defense in the backfield. But remember, the ones on the front lines can not do their job without the ones in the back. All members of the team are needed for the work at hand.
The further we delve into this gospel of Luke, the more clearly we discover that Jesus is in the process of defining a new way of life with God and new way of life together. He is healing and teaching. He chooses his team, the leaders who will be needed going forward. And, in what seems to be his common practice, he stirs up controversy. He is not going to do things in the same old traditional way. His take on Sabbath practices is provocative and even confrontational. Not that people don’t have differing views of how to interpret the Sabbath law. One of the Ten bedrock commandments, “Keeping the Sabbath holy” had already had lots of discussion in the Jewish community. In addition to sections of the Torah, or the Law, you could go to the ancient Jewish rulebooks and centuries of rabbinic interpretations of the Torah and find rationale to back up a variety of interpretations of how to “Keep the Sabbath holy.”
In the Qumran community, for example, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, there were multiple law codes in addition to the Torah which attempt to flesh out in more detail what was and was not permitted on the Sabbath. For example: “If you are passing by a pit and there is an animal that has fallen in, you can not lift it out on the Sabbath.” Hopefully the animal will still be alive when the Sabbath is over and you are allowed to get him out! And other example: “If you see a person who has fallen into a pit, you can only lift him up if you happen to be carrying a rope with you. You can’t go back home and get one, as that would be work!” I wonder if you could get around that one by telling a friend to walk by the pit with a rope in hand. There was at least one community which adhered to this kind of extreme Sabbath practice, seeming to us to place strict observance over practicality or compassion. Jesus directly contradicts this extreme definition of work on the Sabbath in the gospel of Matthew.
Jesus in no way thinks Sabbath practices should be thrown out. He is Jewish, and practicing Sabbath is a part of his identity, as it is for all of those he is teaching and debating with. Jesus would clearly agree with all of them that the Sabbath was a gift, put in place for rest, for worship, and for the building of community, all of which are essentials to being a faithful follower of God. It is the how to put that in practice which creates conflict. The conflict arises because Jesus uses a different interpretation of the Sabbath practices than the Pharisees did, one that is focused on giving life and not so focused on following a rule.
First he makes it clear that he has authority over Sabbath practices and that his reinterpretation is not only valid, but the new rule of faith and practice. The Pharisees, who had been the respected leaders in how to practice the faith, were sure that the disciples taking grain from the fields and eating it was not observing the Sabbath correctly. They were not accusing the disciples of stealing—that was an accepted practice when you were traveling, to grab a bite to eat as you went on your way. It was the idea of doing the work of opening the grain and rubbing it in your hands to remove the chaff that rubbed the Pharisees the wrong way. Jesus says—get off my back. David did the same thing. David was preparing for his kingdom, and so am I. These guys are hungry, for crying out loud!
And then he shows them that offering healing IS Sabbath practice. He invites the handicapped man to come close. He chooses not to ignore him. He makes it clear that it is never a bad day to do good. No one can argue with his rhetorical questions: What is better to do on the Sabbath: good or evil? to give life or destroy life? It is a no-brainer. I wonder if the Pharisees were using the Sabbath rules as a way to avoid seeing to the needs of those who were hungry or those who were in need of help.
We finally got to see the movie, Hidden Figures, focusing on the three brilliant African American women who were essential to the early success of the NASA space program. They broke barriers of race and gender again and again as they pushed hard against the status quo in the science world of the 1960’s. The movie makes it very clear that white people hid behind the laws which kept people apart due to the color of their skin. They didn’t want to think about it, they didn’t want to recognize the pain and humiliation they were causing to their fellow NASA employees. It was easier to just say: that’s the law of the land, we have to follow it—separate coffee pots, separate restrooms, separate schools, separate and very unequal treatment. Even something as glaring as the daily need to use the restroom. The white males did not seem to be aware of the major inconvenience it was to have to leave one office building and travel to another part of the large NASA compound to use the bathroom just because an employee was black. The mindset was—there is no need to do anything about it. It’s the law. That is just the way it is. Jesus won’t buy that. And we should not either.
The need for re-interpretation of the old traditions is ongoing throughout the history of the church. We have a tendency to get stuck in one way of doing things, failing to see that it could be time for reinterpreting an old tradition. In our denomination (and in others), we are struggling with declining membership and the inability of many small churches to support a full time seminary trained pastor. More and more Presbyteries are being forced to re-design pastoral leadership expectations, placing well trained ruling elders into pastoral positions all over the country. Richard Rohr, a Franciscan author and teacher, says that the most common temptation we face, no matter our faith tradition, is using belonging to the right group and practicing its proper rituals as a substitute for any personal or life-changing encounter with God. He points out that St. Francis was good at cutting to the chase and pointing out what was non-essential. For that matter, so was Jesus. Healing a man’s withered hand was more important than following a set of rules. We too may find that we hide behind our faith practices so we can keep everything the same, so we don’t have to be challenged.
We are finding in the gospel of Luke that Jesus always seems to be in the middle of a controversy or a conflict. I am not sure that has changed even today. I think Jesus continues to be right there when we face any conflictive situation within the community of faith. For example, this afternoon we are offering a face to face conversation around the use of our sanctuary for same gender weddings. Some say it is a no-brainer. Of course God would want this place of worship open to a wedding of any kind, so we should be ready to support those who want to make covenant promises to one another. Others say, wait a minute, that is not in keeping with the way God created us to be. Of course God would not want to support a marriage of two people of the same gender, so we should not either. We are not going to throw out all weddings because there are different interpretations of scripture, different understandings of where God comes down on the subject. That has happened in the past, however. Before pastors and sessions had the choice to support same gender weddings in our denomination, I had heard of Presbyterian pastors who decided they would officiate at no weddings at all if they were not permitted to officiate at all weddings. It was a protest. In the process, I imagine multiple couples did not get to have their pastor marry them.
Marriage is described in Scripture in various ways. Paul says it is better to stay single if you can handle it. Jesus quotes from the creation story in lifting up the value of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The relationship between Jesus and the church is described as a marriage, a covenant relationship. There is no Scriptural understanding of a loving relationship between two people of the same gender who could make covenant promises to one another. It was unheard of and even unthought of. Homosexual relationships were selfish, oppressive and harmful. They are listed in two places in Paul’s letters with all kinds of other harmful actions such as envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. Gossip, slander, arrogance and disobedience toward parents. Senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. According to Paul, the laundry list describes the kinds of behavior which result from dark hearts, idol worship. Turning away from God pushes us down all kinds of dark paths. No one wants to condone any of that behavior, whether it is between two men, two women, a man and a woman, or an adult and a child.
There is no concept of loving, faithful marriage between two people of the same gender in the Bible. So what do we do with that? What rules do we turn to? What is essential? What is the practice that is good and not bad? The practice which gives life instead of destroys life? I have to believe Jesus is right smack in the middle of this conversation (and has been for decades). He wants us to think and to ponder: How do we practice our faith in our day and time? And he expects us to pray. To take the time to seek God’s guidance, no matter what the issue is. Amen.