Scripture: Matthew 12:1-14
Given on 06/12/2016 at UPC of Amsterdam, NY
Do you ever have those times when you are stopped in your tracks by the sheer beauty of the world? Those times when the might of the ocean, or the brilliance of a sunrise cresting over the trees, or the perfection of a movement of a concerto by Bach, makes you stop and let go of all the stuff that we often cling to in our everyday lives, all the things that are going through your mind, or are weighing down your life, and you just exist in that space. I’m not saying that this is a permanent feeling of the awareness of the beauty of the world, that seems impossible to me, but rather those times when you encounter the mystical, the mighty, the sublime, those fleeting moments in which the artistry of God is on full display and nothing can, for that moment, challenge it. Those times, those melodies, those places, those are the places in which the liminal space between God and us is stretched so thin that we can begin to catch a glimpse of the beauty and the Realm of God laid out before us. And when we spend time contemplating those moments, those experiences, we can find ourselves finding hope where before there had been none, calm in the midst of the storms of life, and above all else, a peace that surpasses all understanding. In my mind, there is a place that I go to with great regularity as a means of calming myself and finding that inner peace that dwells in all of us. It is a stretch of coastline that sits on the southern side of Grand Cayman island where my family lived for three years. This stretch of beach was far enough from the cruise ships and hotels that visitors would have to rent a car to get out there and even then, you would have to know that it was there, and so, more often than not, we were able to be there completely alone. There is a small dock there that we used to walk to the end of and Jameson and I would alternate between throwing stones into the ocean and watching the fish that would gather around the pilings. In my minds eye, I can see him standing there, his long Caribbean hair flowing in the warm breeze that seemed to be ubiquitous all over the island. To the left and right of the dock are miles of coastline that seems as if you could walk forever and in my mind, the warm sun beats down on me, the sand curls around my bare toes, the water is a jewel-like azure with little glints of the sun’s rays sparkling in time with the rhythm of the waves. When I am trying to find peace, it is along that coastline that I walk in my mind. My wife holding one hand, my kid’s on the other and we just walk. Peace, is the gift that you get when you are willing to let the spirit of God overtake your own mind and soul and blow it wherever she will.
We have spent much time the last few weeks talking about an expansive Christianity, about how our call to faith in the most high is a call that has profound effects on each moment of our existence as we remain unalterably committed the unshakable truth that each person matters and that what each one does matters. This requires that we see the deep and abiding beauty in which we all share, each one a beloved child of God, all moulded in the hands of the Potter. Everything must be clay. Within creation, beauty and grace and love surround us and, when we can see that, truly see that, all the members of creation become breath-taking, awe-inspiring, little explosions of God’s grace appearing all around us. To believe that people are not cogs in a wheel but rather the conduits for God’s love and light bathing the whole of the world in grace and goodness. And when we this happens, our religion, our faith, our lives become a singular reality, a seamless existence in which the movement of our souls and the movement of the Holy Spirit flow in one direction, together. How can we not experience joy? How can we not spend every waking moment filled to the brim with wondrous excitement? How can we not spend our lives worshipping the creator of all this? And How can we not then go out and tell that message to everyone we see? In our scripture passage for this morning, this is how Jesus explained this new reality.
He and his disciples were in the midst of their travels one day and it was getting near noon and because they didn’t have a whole lot of resources, food and eating was always a bit of a challenge. And as they walked they saw a wheat field ahead in their path, the disciples’ stomachs, groaning from a lack of sustenance, let their hands pass over the healthy stalks of wheat catching on a handful of the heads of the grain and began to eat. And though the scripture does not indicate that there were others following them, the pharisees who have little else to do with their time except follow Jesus and his companions around, enter the story and immediately confront Jesus. “Aha,” you can almost hear them saying, “now we have him.” And they begin their interrogation. “Look,” they said, “your disciples are doing something that is forbidden on the Sabbath.” Now, if you aren’t used to finding some degree of humor in the Biblical witness, it is possible that you will miss that this scene is supposed to be funny, overblown, and absurd. The pharisees, who follow and enforce the rules of Judaism to the last jot and tittle, have caught the disciples engaging in the act of ;plucking “harvesting” the grain and eating it on the Sabbath. And they are correct, if taken by the letter of the law, the Jewish tradition held that during the Sabbath Jews are not supposed to tend their farms. But one’s myopia shouldn’t need to be adjusted too greatly to see that this is not really the same thing, to realize that what they are saying is that hungry folks on the road in the midst of a journey are not allowed to feed themselves with the food that is readily available. It is silly for the pharisees to expect the disciples to not feed themselves simply because it is the Sabbath, and Jesus says as much. And because Jesus is Jewish and also knows the stories, the laws, the texts to which the Pharisees are referring, he takes them and uses them to make his own point. He talks about David, the holy one of God, the founder of the royal Davidic line that the Jews want so desperately to return to the throne of Israel and Judah, he shows how,in a similar situation David and his men, go into the temple of God and because they, too, are famished from their travels, they eat the bread that dwells in the presence of God breaking about 15 different rules set forth by God. The point being that if anyone comes into the temple hungry, a wise person can see that it is more important to give a hungry man some food than it is to maintain the rules that govern life in the temple. To put a much finer point on the foolishness of the pharisees, Jesus then suggests that that which the priests have done is the same as that in which his disciples have just engaged. Priests also routinely break the Sabbath and are never found guilty in the eyes of God for doing so. Jesus expands his critique of this kind of practice by the pharisees by saying that entire purpose of undertaking religion is to find God and yet when the child of God is standing in their midst, they become so concerned about the rules that govern the faith that they cannot see him standing before them. Quoting the prophet Hosea, Jesus offers one final rebuke of a faith that is based solely on rules and not on seeing and doing the will of God. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
As is often the case in the gospels, the first part of this story serves as a set up for the second one. In the first, Matthew shows how absurd it is to call out hungry people for picking heads of grain and feeding themselves. But, in the story that follows this brief encounter, the true cost of this kind of faith is shown as Jesus immediately enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand. Again, the pharisees with little to do with their time query Jesus, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” It seems these keepers of the Jewish law have both not learned their lesson from a few minutes ago but, also, are seeking to display their faith in a world that demands allegiance not to the movement of the spirit but rather to the God of how things have always been done, are sure that they can best Jesus with their knowledge this time. But we see again, that the one who lives each moment with the spirit of the Divine leading him into new moment possesses a fair greater and more intimate knowledge of the will of God for God’s creation. “If you have a sheep who falls into a pit and it is the Sabbath, aren’t you going to take it out rather than wait until the next day? Of course, doing good is always allowed.” And with that, Jesus puts the full power of God’s love on display once again. “Stretch out your hand,” he said to the man and the man’s hand was made as good as new as the pharisees disappear from the foreground once again and, we assume, continue their efforts to end Jesus.
Throughout the Gospel telling of the story of Jesus, the Pharisees often appear as the chief challengers to the message of Jesus, until you get to the chronologically latest authored Gospel of John, in which they are Jesus’s enemies. They are often shown displaying a callousness and mean-spirit inspired by what is perceived as the demands of the Jewish law and it would be easy to dismiss them as just one of the many collections of persons in first century Palestine that didn’t understand the message of Jesus and you can do that. But the pharisaical tradition is so much more complex than that. They were honored and respected, the leaders within the Jewish world. In that era, to be educated by or have your child educated by the pharisees would be akin to having your child accepted into Harvard or Yale. It was a great honor and they held tremendous power and clout within the culture. And, if you were to witness their day-to-day activities, you would believe that they practiced sound religion and while it was sound, it was not expansive. So what does expansive faith look like?
I think back a lot to our time on the island, mostly during the winters…but I think back to that time and realize how much just living in a different culture, one that was not so pressured and fast-paced, allowed the whole of the world to slow down for me. When we first got there, this lack of pace or concern drove us crazy. We would make service appointments and they would show up 6 hours late or not until the the next day and when we would call and ask about it, no one would care that this had happened. It was just part of living on a Caribbean island where clocks were hard to find and the ocean was constantly calling. Coming from the United States, we could not begin to understand this and so the adjustment period was steep. But I remember writing an email home to a friend when we had been living there for about 6 months and describing how much the whole of creation had seemingly came to a complete stop for me. When I looked out over the water, I could see the ripple of each wave, the flicker of every palm frond moving in the wind, the beauty of children playing in the tidal pools, the brilliant color everywhere, the taste of the salt in the air, heavy and delicious all at the same time. So much of the beauty of creation, of the movement of the spirit becomes lost when we rush from one thing to the next, when we get stuck in our daily routines, when we become singularly focused on the task at hand, until we, with the Pharisees, no longer see and perceive the power of God bursting forth in our worlds. Expansive faith calls us to be more vigilant, more aware of the beauty, of tenderness, of grace. And expansive faith calls us to celebrate beauty through prayer and meditation. To allow each moment of our lives to become a prayer of thanks to God for the world and all that is in it. To be thankful for the beauty of the world through singing and worship. To challenge one another to share that beauty with all that we meet through the giving of our time, our talents, and our resources that all people might one day have the chance to see the beauty of God’s beautiful world. But expansive faith also calls on us to always have eyes that see those in our midst who need help. To see each person as the beloved child of God that they are and to have a place for each within our hearts and within our faith.
In this view of faith, all of life, for each person, becomes the quest to grow, and deep, and find better and more peaceful ways to be in the world and with one another. Of seeing, maybe for the first time, the inner beauty of your soul and the outer beauty of the world. Discovering the well of love and grace from which we have all arisen and to which we will all one day return. To practice a faith that opens hands instead of clinching fists. To practice a faith that sees each person in the world as my brother or my sister and believing that no one child is better than any other. Expansive faith is exhausting and exhilarating. It is chaotic and always in motion, it is spinning and spinning and spinning until all that you can grab ahold of, all that you can trust is the calm hand of God resting on your shoulders and saying, yes, you are my beloved, and in you I am well pleased. It is boldly stepping out in faith though you don’t know where you are going or how you will get there. It is believing that deep inside God’s very being is the desire for all God’s children to experience the loving embrace of another. To experience safety and security, sustenance and salvation. until that when all time and space collapse into one with God and we all enter into the joyous celebration of God’s love, a table set before the foundation of time was laid down. Until we know and believe that God has called all her beloved children home and we rest. Glory be to God in the highest and on earth peace amongst all God’s peoples, amen.