“Sabbath Justice” Sermon by the Rev. Jay Lawlor for June 3, 2018

Sabbath Justice”

A Sermon by the Rev. Jay Lawlor

2nd Sunday After Pentecost – Year B – June 3, 2018

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church – Richmond, IN


1 Sam. 3:1-20) | Ps. 139:1-5, 12-17 | 2 Cor. 4:5-12 | Mark 2:23-3:6


Jesus proclaims in Mark’s Gospel: “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath […].” His response to the Pharisees when they questioned why the disciples were plucking heads of grain to eat on the sabbath. Now Jesus is not trivializing the sabbath commandment – far from it. Jesus sees the bigger picture.

Jesus looks to Scripture and recounts the story of David (which appears in 1 Samuel 21:1-6) eating the bread of the Presence of God intended only for the priests. David is fleeing Saul – who has openly declared his intention to kill David. He is weary and hungry from his travels. The high priest offers David the bread of the Presence. Jesus implies the priest did nothing wrong in breaking the strict letter of the law concerning the bread because he appealed to a higher law of offering life. He literally fed David’s hunger. In so doing the high priest helped sustain the life of a traveler – David – in need of nourishment.

Jesus issues his legal brief, if you will, derived from the reading of Scripture. In so doing, Jesus tells the Pharisees that sometimes the demands of the law can be rightly set aside in favor of greater values or in meeting greater needs. This is especially true when promoting the well-being of another. Jesus is stating how the sabbath has always been to serve humankind. God originally created the sabbath so those who labored in slavery could find some rest.

The sabbath is intended to serve human need, decency, and justice. The proper role of the sabbath is to promote life and praise God as liberator. Everyone knew that. Jesus knew it. His disciples knew it. The Pharisees knew it.

How they differed was their response. Jesus chose to honor the true spirit of the sabbath by choosing life, love, and liberation. The Pharisees chose to narrowly follow a strict understanding even when it led to death, hate, and oppression.

Later in our passage from Mark we see another example of this playing itself out. When confronted with a man with a withered hand, Jesus asks the Pharisees if it is better to do good or do harm on the sabbath? To save a life or to kill? They are silent. Complicit in allowing suffering. Jesus heals the man’s hand.

Jesus sees the sabbath through the lens of healing, restoration, and life. Sabbath is resurrection – a celebration of God’s liberating humanity from suffering and death. Sabbath is resistance against hatred, violence, and oppression. Sabbath is justice where to do nothing would only serve injustice. Sabbath is choosing to make whole that which is broken. Sabbath is, as our Presiding Bishop would say, to choose love as the way.

Let’s go back to the original reason for the Sabbath: so the Israelite slaves would get a day of rest from their grueling and forced labor. That enacted a sense of God’s justice. Rest from forced labor is what was needed.

If someone is hungry, then providing nourishment from food is what is needed. If someone is sick, then healing is what is needed. If someone is being oppressed, then liberation from their oppressors is what is needed. That, my friends, is the spirit of sabbath. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find a time for rest and replenishment where we restore our bodies and souls; because that is something we all need to be well. God desires that for us. Nonetheless, the sabbath commandment is not restrictive. The sabbath is meant to be restorative. Restoration in the form of what is most needed.

I read recently about a survey of workers at Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Two-thirds reported being food insecure; one in ten reported being homeless or not having a place of their own to sleep within the last two years; and three-fourths said they did not take home enough money to pay basic monthly expenses.

The letter of the law is they be paid the minimum wage. Perfectly legal. But what would sabbath justice say? How would Jesus see the bigger picture of sabbath as life-giving, loving, and liberating? The Disneyland workers did get a pay raise after their protest, but it is not just about how Disney treats their theme park employees.

In his book, Sabbath as Resistance, biblical scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann writes the following:

I have come to think that the moment of giving the bread of Eucharist as gift is the quintessential center of the notion of Sabbath rest in Christian tradition. It is gift! We receive in gratitude. Imagine having a sacrament named “thanks”! We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification. It is a gift, and we are grateful! That moment of gift is a peaceable alternative that many who are “weary and heavy-laden, cumbered with a load of care” receive gladly. The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed.1

I love Brueggemann’s imagery of the receiving of Eucharist as sabbath. It is a gift, and we give thanks to God for the gift. And the gift is meant to heal, restore, and make us whole. It is meant to transform our very lives. The Eucharist is meant to offer life which points us toward God’s justice. According to Jesus, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath […].”

The sabbath is all about choosing love of God and love of neighbor. Yes, the sabbath is about finding rest for our well-being. But as Jesus has so clearly taught us, the sabbath is about so much more.

What does humanity most need? Meeting human need is why the sabbath was made. The sabbath is to choose: healing over pain; good over harm; love over hate; liberation over oppression; justice over injustice; and life over death. God made the sabbath for humankind so we can make goodness and wholeness our reality. God made the sabbath for humankind: for us! God made the sabbath to show us – and the words of our Presiding Bishop are worth repeating – that love is the way. Amen.

1Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Reistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now, p. xvi-xvii.