It’s not at all uncommon for me to meet un-churched people (or, occasionally, even good Episcopalians) on the street or in public who, when they see my face or my collar, look down sheepishly and say, “I don’t go to church as often as I should.” Then they look at me kind of sideways, as if in search of some sort of absolution, some reassurance that they’re going to be alright anyway, even if they’re not “church people.” And they usually get it. That is, I’ll almost always tell them that Jesus doesn’t stand at the door of the church building on Sundays taking roll of who’s there and who isn’t. I tell them that God speaks to different people in different ways and that, most of all, God wants us to know that we’re beloved and cherished and that each of us has a place in the Kingdom… if we’ll only open ourselves to God’s movement and purpose in our lives. I often go on to say that “church” is not so much a building or organization as it is a community of Christian faith that exists to build us up—individually and collectively—to become the creatures God made us to be. A school house in which we can learn about God and his ongoing plan for the redemption of the world from the powers of sin and death. A shelter where we may receive comfort and support amidst the travails of this life. And a gathering of the faithful from which we are sent forth to fulfill our vocation of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ to a world in need of hope. In short, “church” is a gift, not an obligation. Sometimes, I’ll catch a glimpse of new understanding in someone’s eyes… or sometimes just a hint of confusion and mistrust. It’s a lot to take in when you’ve been beat over the head all your life with the idea that going to church is act of appeasement to an irascible, even vengeful, God.
And I think that’s kind of what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel story today when he said, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” The disciples found themselves walking through a wheat field one sabbath and had apparently become a little peckish(hungry), so they began to pluck grain heads to munch on. And of course, the Doctors of the Law called them out for working (gleaning) on the sabbath and asked Jesus why he was not similarly offended. And so, Jesus told a story about David (before he was KingDavid) and his merry men gadding about Judea trying to avoid capture by crazy King Saul, who wanted to kill them all. David and his companions were famished and needed to eat, but the only food immediately available was the Holy Bread—the Bread of Presence—which had been in the tabernacle right alongside the Holy of Holies, no less, and which was reserved for consumption by priests alone. But David and the others availed themselves of it anyway because they were about the LORD’s business and needed sustenance in order to carry on. The bread had been prepared and set apart to help further God’s work in the world, not as some sort of “religious delicacy” to be hoarded and celebrated on its own merits. “The sabbath was made humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
But Jesus wasn’t done yet. Again, on the sabbath, maybe it was that same sabbath, Jesus reached out and healed a man with a withered hand. Now, we don’t know exactly the nature of the man’s infirmity, but it’s not unlikely that it was due to disease rather than injury. And disease, whether congenital or contracted, was often thought of as a sign of some underlying sin… and God’s resulting disfavor. And even if the man’s hand had shriveled due to some unspecified injury, it was still a blemish that tended to limit his associations with others. Certainly, it impacted his ability to earn a living. People suffering from disease and deformity were often ignored and segregated by members of polite Hebrew society in order to minimize their risk of becoming “ritually impure,” with all of the costs and inconvenience that could entail, or for fear of having some of the supposed underlying sin “rub off” on them. And we know better, right? Wrong! It’s not just the Jews of Biblical times that behaved that way. It’s pretty universal across race, creed and geography, isn’t it? From yesterday ‘til today. We humans don’t much care to be around stuff that looks ugly, or smells bad, or scares us, do we? And that was why the man probably kept his withered hand concealed under his robe. It’s even possible that he was not welcome in the synagogue on account of his deformity. But Jesus called him out… to call him in. “Come forward,” he said. And everyone held their breath because they, and Jesus,knew it was a trap—knew that the Pharisees were watching him wondering how he would split the difference between doing right (healing a man)… and doing wrong (breaking the law of the sabbath). Except that wasn’t how Jesus rolled, was it? Splitting the difference… doing the pragmatic thing—doing the safething—wasn’t Jesus’ style. And so, with anger and grief and, I believe, compassion for humanity’s wretched state, Jesus told the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And as the religious elders and the crowd looked on, the man’s withered hand was restored. On the sabbath. Because, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
I have a friend I see from time to time at the gym. He’s a former military officer turned entrepreneur, a man of the world. And, I believe, he’s also a little bit of a “God-skeptic.” It’s not that he doesn’t believe in the existence of God… not at all. He believes that, alright. It’s just that he doesn’t quite know what to makeof God… and isn’t 100% certain of what God expects of him…outside of doing his best to be a “good person,” of course, whatever that means. He rarely attends church and wonders what sort of God would require us to “worship” him, anyway, and why. He wonders if the Creator of the Universe could be that self-serving? Do any of y’all ever wonder about that? I have. And I’ve come up with an answer… perhaps not theanswer, but ananswer. And that is… that God doesn’tactually require his creatures to “worship” him, in the conventional sense. I’m thinking that the first four of the Ten Commandments spell out our duty to God pretty clearly: We’re to love the God of Abraham and none other (Exo 20:2-3). We’re not to make idols (vv. 4-6). We’re not to use God’s name in vain (v. 7). And we’re to observe the sabbath (vv. 8-11). What do y’all think about that? There’s no explicit requirement for us to worship God in the Ten Commandments. Let me hasten to add that there are plenty of other references throughout Scripture that seem to point to worship as a way of pleasing God. But, when you get right down to it, these are merely human inferences of what is pleasing to God, based upon what is pleasing to us. None of them are “set in stone.”
So why do we gather for worship? And I believe that we need to gather for worship. What if…we do it for ourselves. Perhaps we need to be reminded from time to time that we’re not the end-all, be-all…and that there is something out there that is greater than we are, someoneever-so-much-morestrong,and lovingand wisethan we can even conceive of. Maybe that’swhy we gather for worship: maybe worship was made for humankind, and not humankind for worship. And that left my friend scratching his head little bit… and in a good way!
And here’s a final thought: When we find ourselves called into Christian community to worship God and to be formed for service in God’s vineyard, we should know that we have been called there for a purpose, just as we are, warts and all. Like the man with the withered hand in today’s Gospel story, we all come with baggage, don’t we? Guilt… anger… regret… things done and left undone. Each of us has withered places in our lives. And these are not of God! But God will use them to show the depth of his love and healing grace, for us and for all of Creation. And that’s why we’ve been given the gift of “church”—a community of faith wherein all are who are weary and heavy laden are invited to step forward into the light of Christ and be restored. So, come when you can, come as you are… and bring a friend.