Making a Way
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; June 3, 2018
2nd Sunday after Pentecost
1 Samuel 3:1-10; Mark 2:23-3:6
The Book of Samuel opens with Hannah praying with all her heart and soul for a son. Eli, the priest, believes her to be intoxicated. But after she explains that she has been pouring out her heart and soul before the Lord, Eli instructs her to go in peace. Then, he pronounces a blessing. In due time, Hannah delivers a son, Samuel, whom she gives into the service of the Lord, just as she had promised. Hannah leaves her little boy in the care of Eli, the priest, and day by day, the little boy learns to minister unto the Lord.
It just so happens that Eli has sons of his own, but Scripture tells us that they are scoundrels. They have no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priesthood. In fact, when people come to offer their sacrifices, Eli’s sons take meat from the pot for themselves—whatever their evil heart’s desire. Eli, who is very old, hears about all that his sons are doing—how they treat the offerings of the Lord with contempt—how they lay with the women who serve at the entrance of the meeting house. What does Eli do? He scolds his sons, but he does nothing more to reign in their behavior. Yahweh responds quite differently, though. Yahweh sends a messenger to Eli to prophecy the outcome of Eli honoring himself and his sons more than he honors the Lord. All the members of Eli’s household will die by the sword.
While Eli and his household move further away from the will of the Lord, Samuel grows in stature and favor until one night, God comes calling. Samuel thinks it’s just Eli wanting him to perform some temple duty. “Samuel, Samuel,” God calls. Samuel runs to Eli, “Here I am, for you called me.” After this occurs three times, Eli, realizes it is God who is calling the boy, so he tells Samuel to go and lie down and if he hears the voice again to respond, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
How ironic! For the mission at hand, God does not call upon an adult candidate—not Eli—nor his sons. No. God has more faith in a child than he does in them. It seems that God is not looking for experience or privilege. God is looking for an open heart—a vessel through which the word of God may be delivered. God will make a way where there seems to be no way. Such is the way of God.
Fast forward through time. God sends priests and prophets and kings to turn God’s chosen people back to the way of God—the way of steadfast love—the way of being a blessed people who will bless the nations. That does not happen. Instead, the people continue to make their own path. They choose other gods. They mistreat one another and fail to follow God’s laws of love. Until, once again, the word of the Lord is rare, and visions are not widespread.
But then, one night, the cry of a newborn baby is heard, and angels sing, and shepherds leave their flock to see for themselves—how God is, once again, making a way. Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, enters human history to right the wrongs than have been done, to give hope to the hopeless, to heal the sick, and to set the captives free. Sadly, his way is not met with open arms. Instead, there is skepticism, and doubt, and anger. Ultimately, the more Jesus acts like the God who sent him, the more the religious rulers want to kill him—which is exactly what happens in our reading from the Gospel of Mark.
Here, we find a two-part confrontation, a two-part wrestling match between Jesus and the Pharisees. First, Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field on a Sabbath. (Minding their own business, we might say.) When they get hungry, they pluck some grain to munch on. The Pharisees pounce—inquiring of Jesus why they are breaking the Sabbath law. But Jesus tells them that humankind was not made for the Sabbath; Sabbath was made for humankind. In other words, the Sabbath is meant to be a gift, a blessing, a day of rest—for one’s household, for one’s servants, even for one’s animals. Constant work enslaves us to our own efforts. It was true then. It is still true today.
The Pharisees are enslaved to something other than the Sabbath, though. They are enslaved by their own understanding of a set of rules and regulations—rules and regulations that mean more to them than the Sabbath—rules and regulations that mean even more to them than compassion and mercy and love. So, on another Sabbath, when Jesus enters the synagogue and meets a man with a withered hand, sadly, the Pharisees’ actions are hardly a surprise. Jesus knows full well he is being watched. Regardless, he calls the man forth and asks the Pharisees if it is lawful to do good or harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill. They refuse to answer. Heartbroken and angry, Jesus restores the man’s hand. And what do the religious leaders do? Well, they go out and immediately conspire with the Herodians to have Jesus killed. I suppose, to them, healing is not an acceptable activity for keeping the Sabbath holy—but plotting a murder is just fine.
Undeniably, we have little trouble making the Pharisees out to be evil. I mean, it’s so easy to consider their unreasonable behavior and side with the “good guy,” who usually turns out to be Jesus. But by hastily doing so, we may miss a golden opportunity for spiritual growth. For the truth is, these Pharisees are likely good people (though somewhat misguided) who are trying to preserve their laws, rituals, and traditions—things that mediate their faith for them. And isn’t it true that we are prone to behave in similar fashion when our favorite worship practices are threatened, or when someone interprets a Scripture passage much differently than we do, or when some preacher comes in who has a proclivity for trying something new—AGAIN?
The Pharisees are not wrong to uphold the Sabbath. They are wrong to allow their definition of keeping the Sabbath rightly to override the greater law of love. Nothing is more sacred than God’s love. The true spirit of the Sabbath is the spirit of love. Love that looks upon a man with a withered hand and gives thanks when he is healed—no matter what day of the week it is. Love that makes a way where there seems to be no way.
Which brings us back to the place where we began in Mark’s gospel—with Jesus and his disciples making their way through the grain fields; plucking off heads of grain to feed their growling stomachs. In other places in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are told that it is acceptable for a traveler to pick and eat if they find themselves hungry. So, plucking and eating on the Sabbath may not really be the issue. The real issue may be that they are “making a way” for it is against sabbath rules to make a road. Yet, Jesus and his disciples are traveling through the fields, forging a path, trampling wheat, making a way. And Jesus and his followers, well, they are just getting started. They will make their way to healing more people, setting more crooked paths straight. They will create a path where there is food aplenty. They will make their way to abundant life—for themselves and for all people. They will bring forth a time when healing and visions and a word from God are common—rather than rare. Through Jesus, Yahweh forges a path—a path of love. Jesus’ way is always the way of love and Jesus comes to show the religious rulers and all people how to live in love—how to choose love.
On the Sabbath and on every other day of the week, we are given choices to make. Will we choose love, or will we choose our own selfish desires? Will we stick to our own understanding, or will we be open to God giving us new eyes to see and new ears to hear? Every day, we choose. What is the path we are making for our life? Are we dining from the Table of the Lord? Are we growing in kindness and steadfast love? Or are we sticking to a set of rules and regulations that always make us out to be the good guy whenever someone disagrees with us? Are we intentional about keeping the Sabbath as a holy day—to worship and rest and spend time with family and friends? Or is it just another day of doing and grabbing and getting? On the Sabbath and on the other six days of the week, we have choices to make.
God called Samuel—a boy. God wasn’t looking for the experienced, the privileged, the all-knowing. God was searching for an open heart—a vessel through which God’s love might be delivered. Samuel was such a vessel. Christ was such a vessel. And you—you who have been baptized into the family of faith—you who are indwelled by God’s own Spirit—you are such a vessel. Go forth and make a way in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
*Cover Art “Heaven’s Highway” by Stushie; Used by subscription.