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Sermon – Second Sunday After Pentecost Year B

Second Sunday after Pentecost Year B

Sermon Preached by Reverend Michael Hillier on Sunday, 2 June 2024.

Samuel 3.1-10; Mark 2.23-3.6

You may not think it when initially reading our texts for today, but they are rich. A problem for us can be where to begin and on what we should focus. We can approach it from several directions. Let me begin by focusing on our Gospel reading.

The Gospel Reading seems straightforward. It is about keeping the Sabbath and not doing any form of work. It’s interesting to notice that Jesus’ ministry has hardly begun, yet He already finds Himself in strife with the authorities. And why, anyway, would the authorities bother to focus negatively on picking ripened heads of grain and then healing someone with a withered hand? It all seems so petty and inconsequential.

And surely, if someone here this morning healed one in our midst with a withered hand, we would all stop and look on in amazement and delight, for someone has been restored to health! Then, continue our service in a spirit of great thanksgiving.

There are three things going on behind the scenes that we might pay attention to. First, Jesus was someone of high intelligence, a masterful debater, possessing healing powers, a certain shrewdness, and potentially, a charismatic leader. It was early days in His ministry, so who knows where all this might lead!

Following on from this, the second thing is that all this might spell serious trouble for the Jewish nation. The Romans ruled Israel, and any sign of trouble or sedition was brutally dealt with by flogging and crucifixion. Jewish leaders did not want to upset the status quo. They were those who stood to lose most among the Jews, being themselves on top of the pile. They wanted peace and not sedition.

And so we see in the final verse of our Gospel reading that the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against Jesus. These two groups were strange bedfellows with mutual animosity between them. The Pharisees had no real authority and were deeply concerned with keeping the religious law. The Herodians were allied to King Herod and were intensely disliked by the Pharisees. But for both, their sense of being threatened by the likes of someone like Jesus overcame their hatred and allied them together to get rid of Him.

But there was a third thing. Life has always been fragile, but more so back then and even recently. If you think about it, life was very precarious for everyone. It wasn’t just wars, violence, and famines but health matters as well.

Think of it this way: That slight cough you have this morning becomes a fever by tomorrow, a serious chest infection by Tuesday, and on Wednesday, you die, and on Thursday, we bury you. That possibility was true for everyone from the Emperor down. And so, the individual was unreliable in a way that doesn’t happen today. We all expect to be alive on Thursday. And so, in pre-modern times, the group was the glue that held society together, not the individual. Society and the group were all important.

The consequence of all this was a great need to keep Society stable and cohesive and not allow any individual to cause problems that might upset this balance. The rules and the laws, whether civil or religious, were sacrosanct for the well-being of that society. And yet, here was Jesus upsetting the ‘apple cart’.

So why was Jesus doing this? The answer, I think, lies at the end of that first story in our Gospel concerning plucking the heads of grain. Jesus said, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’ (v.27).
In other words, the rules have become ends in themselves rather than a means to an end, and that end is God.

This is not to say that we don’t need rules and regulations. Every society needs these to keep functioning. Even our families have unwritten rules for the good of those families. But when the rules become ends in themselves, then we have serious problems, for we have lost our way.

For example, I remember living in America, and one lecturer was a Benedictine monk. At one point, he told how, after the War, the bell was rung every morning at 11 a.m. There seemed to be no reason for this, and so he researched why. He discovered that when the monastery was first established in the 19th century, it was surrounded by fields, and the monks worked in those fields. The purpose of that bell being rung was to let the monks know they needed to change tasks, for they had no watches.

In the postwar period, the monastery was surrounded by suburbs, and everyone had watches. Despite being armed with this knowledge of its origins, they still kept ringing the bell at 11 a.m. until the bell tower burned down!

We are all prey to this thinking in one way or another; none of us is immune to it. It is not that rules are negative, for we need them to exist. But they can become ends in themselves. We end up being there to serve the rules. They become our master or mistress.

We need to constantly remind ourselves that the Two Great Commandments, which are recited at all our Eucharistic Services: to love God and our fellow humans as ourselves, are the keys to how we live out our Faith. The world is not interested in that and never has been. You and I, along with all Christians, forget it at our peril. This is not to say that other things are not important but this is central to our Faith.

Allow me to approach this from a slightly different perspective. By focusing on the rules and regulations, these Jewish leaders were practising what we might call ‘God avoidance’. Now, the reality is that we all do this. In one way or another, we all practice ‘God avoidance’.

There are probably a million and one ways of doing this, and we probably don’t even stop to realise that we are doing this. The truth is it is hard to face the living God, our God. We can become overly busy, so we don’t have time to sit and spend with God. We can so immerse ourselves in scripture and all the ‘ins and outs’ to the extent that we don’t meet God there. We can so focus on all of the minutiae of our liturgy that we become engrossed in getting that right and don’t get to worship. We can miss God in our neighbour who is perhaps being difficult. The list could go on and on.

I encourage you to think about how you try to avoid God and face that problem in your life, just as I have to. It’s a starting point.

Then, read our Old Testament reading for today once more. It is the story of the boy Samuel and God calling him. God calls him three times before Eli realises what is happening.

I don’t have time now to develop this, but God is constantly calling you through all the moments of your life. He is reaching out to you, waiting for and wanting you to respond. Yes, you and I respond, whether frequently or occasionally, which is good. But God wants to lead you and me deeper, much deeper, to depths we cannot imagine. This morning, you were given a ‘handout’ concerning developing a passion for God. It is the first step. I encourage you to reflect on that and deepen your passion for Him. God wants a living, vital, loving relationship with you and me and as with marriage, there are always new heights to be ascended. It can be a rich, wonderful experience.