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Gotta or Getta? (June 3, 2018)

I still remember a sermon preached by my New Testament professor early in my studies at the Vancouver School of Theology. That was 40 years ago … so it must have been a humdinger of a sermon. He called it “You Don’t Gotta; You Getta”. His point was that the Christian life is not something you “gotta” do; it is a privilege in which we “getta” participate.

We getta be the people of God. We getta tell others about this good news which has touched our lives. We getta gather together to pray and worship and sing and grow and eat and drink. We getta experience God’s love in our lives, and we getta share God’s love with others.

For me, it was an “Aha moment”. It helped me understand in a whole new way what was important about Christian faith. It shaped the kind of preacher and priest I wanted to be, and the kind of work I wanted to do. It gave me a taste of the kind of freedom which we find in Jesus.

Part of the reason that sermon hit me so hard is that I grew up in a family and a church which was all about obligation. As a church member, this is what you gotta do. There were rules for everything. If you didn’t follow the rules, you’d make Dad mad, or God mad. You didn’t want to do that.

The refrain at home was, “Because I said so.” Life was made up of things you gotta do. Not surprisingly, I was always in trouble. I was the one who rebelled against the rules. I was the one who made Dad, and God, mad.

That sermon set me free to imagine faith from a completely different perspective. Faith isn’t something I gotta do. It’s something I getta do. This was exciting stuff!

It strikes me that there are lots of Christians out there for whom faith is a set of rules: you gotta do this, you gotta do that, and above all you gotta remember that you can’t ever do that.

My grandmother was like that. I think I’ve told you this story before. She visited us from Holland one year when I was 12 or so. She stayed for three weeks … and even now as I remember it as the longest… three … weeks … of my life. The worst day of each week was Sunday.

Oma was part of a very strict Dutch Reformed Church … so in order to keep the peace between Dad and his mother, we stayed in our church clothes all day long on Sundays — white shirts and dark pants. We couldn’t play games, or go outside and play. We couldn’t watch TV. We couldn’t do this or that or much of anything at all. We sat, uncomfortably, in the living room, resting on the sabbath and resenting every minute of it.

For her, that’s what it meant to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

She wasn’t the only one. In her generation, it was a fairly common attitude.

Tom Long, a Presbyterian professor of preaching writes, “My forebears were Scots Presbyterians and fierce sabbath rule keepers. My grandmother cooked her lavish sabbath feasts on Saturdays, so the stove would not be lit and no work done on the holy day. No sports, no games, no frivolities were allowed on Sunday—only worship, rest, and Bible study. (Although there is a nice family story of a strictly observant relative who spent his sabbath resting in his backyard, where he could easily overhear the radio broadcast of the Cubs baseball game coming through the window of a non–observant neighbor.)

Many people can tell that kind of story.

So it’s no wonder that I really like these two stories in Mark’s gospel about Jesus breaking the rules. I really like these stories we read today. After all, we read the gospel through the filter of our lives and our experience, so these stories are important for me.

In the first story, the disciples pluck some grain because they are hungry. In itself, that’s not a problem. After all, the Torah allows hungry people to pluck grain. The problem is that they do it on the sabbath. You’re not supposed to harvest on the sabbath. It’s supposed to be a day of rest, a day when no work is done.

So the religious leaders complain to Jesus. I can just see Jesus lifting his eyebrow at them as he reminds them about a time in the life of David to justify the behavior of his disciples. Hungry people are allowed to eat. That is the greater good. When the rules get in the way of a greater good, then the rules become a problem.

Then Jesus makes his point. “After all, the sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the sabbath.”

The second story happens a little later that day. As was his practice, Jesus goes to the synagogue. After all, it’s the sabbath. He sees a man with a withered hand. Mark notes that the leaders are watching him carefully to see what he would do.

Using the same principle about the greater good, Jesus heals the man. On the sabbath.

They were beside themselves. As a result, says Mark, “The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” We see here a foreshadowing of Jesus’ end. His whole life will be a controversy with those who want to keep the rules, no matter what.

Jesus is a troublemaker. When he doesn’t keep the rules, he upsets the apple cart. There’s no telling what else might happen. We can’t allow this to continue.

Now be clear that there’s nothing wrong with rules per se. But when the rules get in the way of a full life for all people, they become a problem.

And let’s be clear about something else as well. This isn’t a Jewish problem. This isn’t about “bad Jews” and “good Christians”. It happens everywhere in life, in every church, in every organization, in every community.

These rule–keepers miss the point. My Oma missed the point. Tom Long’s family missed the point.

Sabbath wasn’t given to us as an onerous burden. God doesn’t give us in order to test us whether we can keep the rules or not. Sabbath is a gift.

It’s a theme that runs throughout Israel’s story.

After escaping from Egypt, Israel journeys through the wilderness. They were hungry, so God provided manna. Gather enough for each day … except the day before the sabbath, when you can gather enough for two days. The gift of sabbath was that they didn’t have to work, and yet they could eat. This is the gift of freedom, to be able to rest in God’s provision.

Deuteronomy reminds Israel that they were once slaves in Egypt; therefore remember the sabbath as a gift of rest given to you by God. You are no longer slaves. You are free now, and you can make your own choices about getting stuck in the rat race or keeping the freedom which God intends for all people.

Sabbath is a day to be re–created. We don’t re–create ourselves. It is given to us as a gift, if only we have eyes to see the gift, if only we will open our hands to receive it. Sabbath is a day to be set free from “should” and “have to” and “must”. It’s a day to lie back in God’s arms and see the glory of God’s goodness. It’s a foretaste of heaven.

Now I know that there are some people who have to work long hours, often at two or three jobs, just in order to make ends meet. But that just shows us how deformed our common life has become. It doesn’t say you don’t need a sabbath. It doesn’t say we can’t afford a sabbath. It says that there’s something wrong in our lives that some people are burdened this heavily.

Rather than having to work 24/7 to make a living, sabbath is a gift which allows us to make a life. We play. We are re-created. We focus on relationships. We have time to do something which makes life good and holy. On sabbath, we gather to receive the gift of community as we join together to pray and sing and eat and drink. Sabbath is a day of freedom from everything which binds us in the six days of our workaday week so that we can dream God’s dream of a world set right, a world of justice, a world of equality and enough for all.

It’s not something we gotta do. It’s something we getta do.

The problem with institutions is that we turn gifts into rules. And rules take on a life of their own. Sooner or later, they end up sucking the joy out of life. Rules begin to think they are important all by themselves, and they lose sight of the people whom they are meant to serve.

“The sabbath was made to serve us; we weren’t made to serve the sabbath.”

As we receive this good gift of sabbath, as we begin to practice this gift God gives us, we begin to participate in God’s rest and we begin to anticipate God’s justice for all.

It takes practice. After all, we run the rat race of life 16 hours a day for 6 days a week. I have found the incredible joy of learning and using this gift of sabbath. One day a week, I don’t gotta. I getta.

And I am grateful. I am deeply grateful … and so I say,

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. YmeWoensdregt

June 3, 2018 (2nd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 9)

Mark 2:23–3:6

2 Corinthians 4: 5–12

1 Samuel 3: 1–10