“Stretch Out Your Hand”
by Rev. Berry French
July 11, 2021
Mark 2:23 – 3:6
Hi UPC, a brief word of introduction and gratitude. I’m your Temporary Associate Pastor for Campus Ministry and I’ve been working with PCM and our young adult ministry and congregational life committee since August.
I was very involved in PCM and UPC as a college student in the early 2000s and I’m delighted to be back now as the campus minister. Though I’ll miss preaching in the woods, it will be good to be worshiping in the same space together in a few weeks. Getting a taste of our vibrant community at VBS last week was so refreshing.
I also want to say on behalf of the PCM students and the PCM Board – we remain deeply grateful for the ways UPC has faithfully and generously invested in campus ministry over the decades. Life-changing college ministry is happening at PCM.
Introduction to the text
Today’s Scripture the Gospel of Mark telling of Jesus healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Prior to hearing the text, I want to set the scene.
Our ancient Jewish Scriptures make clear that we are to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy – it’s one of the ten commandments. The people of Jesus’ day took seriously God’s call to rest on the Sabbath and keep it holy. Judaism has always held the last day of the week, the 7th day – Saturday – as Sabbath … following the Genesis Creation story that tells us that after God created creation, on the 7th day, God rested.
Christianity’s holy day has always been Sunday. That’s because every Sunday when we gather to worship, we gather to celebrate mini-Easter. Easter happened on the first day of the week, on Sunday, the day after the Jewish Sabbath. So every Sunday, we gather to celebrate that first Easter – to come together to pause from life responsibilities in order to worship and rest and re-center ourselves on God.
I probably don’t need to tell you that the days of celebrating a whole day as Sabbath once a week are not practiced by many of us anymore. Most of us struggle with Sabbath keeping in this day and age. For some, the change of pace that the pandemic afforded some of us has reminded us the value of white space in our lives. But by and large, Sabbath-keeping is something we can all strive towards. So while our trouble may be keeping any day holy, almost everyone in first century Palestine held the Sabbath holy – by not doing any work on the Sabbath.
With that background in mind, let us turn to God in prayer prior to hearing the Scripture read. Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord who is our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Let us listen to God’s word to us today from the Gospel of Mark chapters 2 and 3.
Text: Mark 2: 23 – 3:6
One sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to Jesus, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’
And Jesus said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then Jesus said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humanity, and not humanity for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And Jesus said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God
I love Jesus for lots of reasons, but right now I gotta tell you that as someone who can sometimes feel the urge to break a rule here and there, I love Jesus busting out of the box people are trying to put him in and breaking a few rules.
Did you notice it –
Pharisees jockeying to trap Jesus: “Here are the rules, clearly laid out – in Scripture, have you – no working on the Sabbath.”
And here comes Jesus – walking right towards the conflict to address it head on –
“You want to talk about Scripture, we’ll talk Scripture. Have you never read what King David did” (Of course they had, they’re Pharisees, everyone present could have quoted Book, chapter, verse: 1 Samuel 21:1-6) “Well – as you know – before he was king, David entered the Temple, and ate the Holy bread, which was illegal for anyone except the priests to eat.”
King David did it. There’s your precedent. Boom. Well, at least that’s how the rule breaker in me wants to interpret it. Problem is, we’re not King David, and we’re certainly not Jesus – who is claiming to be greater than King David which is part of what gets the Pharisees riled up. Sadly for me and my rule bending friends, I’m not sure breaking the rules is what this text is actually about.
As the pandemic lessons it’s deadly grip on our communal lives, and we transition into a more normal life, I can feel the pressure building to rush back into our hectic pre-pandemic lives paying little attention God’s commandment to keep the Sabbath holy.
The Pharisees catch the disciples in a petty Sabbath infraction. Sabbath practice demanded that you only eat food prepared the previous day. And picking grain – separating the wheat from the chaff – was considered work. Jesus defends his disciples with Scripture. But more importantly Jesus points them and he points us to the deeper intention of Sabbath: Sabbath, the command to pause and rest, was made for our well-being and to make our lives more whole and complete … Jesus tells those Pharisees and he’s telling us right through these pages of Scripture – The Sabbath was made for our well-being.
The gospel moves us to another Sabbath argument – this time in the synagogue, presumably during worship. You get the ideas the Pharisees are in the corner watching to see if they can trap Jesus. Jesus invites the man with the withered hand to come front and center before the whole gathered community. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?” Jesus asked them.
But the Pharisees were silent and Jesus was grieved at their hard hearts. But to the vulnerable Jesus says “Stretch out your hand.” And the injured man was healed and made whole. And immediately, right there on that Sabbath, the Pharisees rushed out and conspired how to destroy Jesus.
We’re meant to see the blaring difference in the Pharisees who attempt enforce the letter the law while blatantly ignoring the vulnerable man in front of them and then plotting to destroy, and Jesus, the Lord of the Sabbath, who brings forth life and wholeness and healing.
The Sabbath commandment is not some rule to burden our lives with. Sabbath was and is intended as grace and as gift. The Sabbath and the other commandments are gifts that help us live in relationship with God and in relationship with each other. Clearly, God’s intentions for the Sabbath are for healing, wholeness, restoration, renewal, and life-giving rest and relationship.
From where we sit, we might be tempted to throw stones at the Pharisees and their over-protective stance toward Sabbath regulations. But friends, that’s not our problem. While those first century Pharisees may have been following the letter of the law while missing the whole spirit of the law, most of us are nowhere in the ballpark of following the letter or the spirit of the commandment to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy.
I wonder if our problem is that we have fallen trap to the idolatry of productivity that has convinced us that our value is in what we produce, or what we acquire, or what we accomplish. The idea of pausing to rest and simply enjoy almost carries guilt that we’re not being productive – we’re not accomplishing anything.
But friends, THAT’S the point of Sabbath – to be completely free of the need to accomplish or produce anything. God didn’t create us so that we would accomplish tasks and produce things – even good things like food or books or sermons or lesson plans or advanced academic degrees. We were created to delight in God, to enjoy creation, to develop and celebrate relationships.
“Stretch out your hand” Jesus says to the man with the withered hand on that Sabbath day two thousand years ago. God says the same thing to us – STRETCH OUT YOUR HAND! Stretch out your clinched hand and let go of your need to do, and to accomplish and to produce and to consume. Stretch out both hands of control and fear and just BE – one day a week or one hour every day – just be.
Just enjoy. Celebrate life, rest, marvel at God’s good Creation,
go on a long walk in the wood, sit on the floor with your children and play, laugh with someone you love, be alone, pour yourself into your relationships, give your undivided attention to your grandchild, read a book that brings you peace, paint for the joy of painting, make music, be quite, watch the stream roll by, listen to the birds singing.
For friends, the Sabbath was created as gift for us. It’s God’s permission, God’s commandment even, to stop and rest and live and breathe deeply, and to celebrate.
The original Sabbath commandment comes to Israelites who had been slaves in Egypt and were forced to work day after day with no break, no rest, no Sabbath. And so God offers them this gift of Sabbath –
But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or any of your people or animals – so that y’all may rest.
That’s my translation from the Hebrew – for real it’s there: “so that y’all may rest.”
Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
They were slave, being forced by the taskmasters to work endlessly. And God gives them Sabbath. Friends, thankfully we are not slaves to the ancient Egyptian taskmasters, but we are enslaved by our own need for success, or our accomplishments, our productivity … and God GIVES us Sabbath. God offers us the gift of Sabbath. God graciously commands Sabbath for us.
Because Lord knows we need it. Our culture is full of noise and distraction. We are all saturated with media and overloaded with information, and many of us have lost the ability to filter. We are bombarded with constant communication. We have all but lost any sense of sacred time.
My prayer is that each in our own ways, we accept the Divine invitation to pause, to carve out sacred time and sacred space in our daily life to bring peace to our souls, meaning to our lives, and purpose to our days. And because I know how busy the rest of your day is, and that Monday is coming, I want all of us to take some time right now to think and pray over how you might accept God’s invitation to rest and reconnect.
Your preacher is inviting you to pause the sermon, find something to take notes on, and spend 60 seconds here in the space of worship, to pray over something YOU can do to add Sabbath to your weekly rhythm. For until you add it to your week, it will never become part of your life.
So hit pause, take at least 60 seconds and pray over what you might do to slow down and reconnect to our Creator. [but come back]
Thanks for coming back!
When I started as Campus Minister mid-pandemic and our students were clearly burned out I offered what I hope is a doable spiritual practice, and I’ll offer it to you. Think back over the past month of things that brought you life and helped you feel centered and connected to God. Do more of that.
Think back to the things that made you feel disconnected to God – Do less of that.
If nothing else seems to click, I encourage you to make time to spend 10 minutes a day completely unplugged. No computer, no phone, no texting, no TV, no books, no noise – just 10 minutes in silence to let God’s spirit move within you and around you.
Stretch out your hand and be FREE to be who God created you to be. Amen.