Preacher: Wellesley Chapman
Here’s a seldom quoted fact. Surgical gauze pads come in packs of ten. I didn’t fully understand that until one day I could only find nine of them. I was a newish physician working at Group Health and had just delivered a healthy baby up on Capitol Hill. As the delivery team tidied up the room afterward, I noticed the nurse counting gauze pads lined up in a row. “One two three four five six seven eight nine. Hmph. One two three four five six seven eight nine.” I asked what she was doing and she said there are ten in a pack, but she could only find nine. We couldn’t complete our work until the tenth gauze pad was found. I told her that I was sure I’d accidentally put one into the red plastic biohazard bag during the delivery and it was there.
No, she said, we had to have all ten on the tray. “It’s in the trash—I’m sure of it,” I replied. “Well then, doctor, that’ll make it easier for you to find!” She was going to win this standoff. I set aside my pride, fished around briefly in the garbage, produced the missing gauze pad and placed it in its proper place alongside its nine siblings. Voila! Without ceremony, we completed our cleanup and retreated to leave mom and baby to get acquainted.
Why do gauze pads come in packs of ten? It’s a clever safety feature meant to prevent people like me from making mistakes that could harm a patient. We want to know we don’t leave our equipment in unhelpful places, like inside our patients. We keep track with simple rules: ten in a pack, count to ten. It’s a good rule because meets some basic criteria. It is built to defend a core value (protecting people against harm), it is simple to follow (just count to ten), and reliably produces the desired outcome.
The world is full of good rules we follow every day. Wear a seat belt. Wash your hands. Look both ways before you cross the street. When good rules work, they become embedded in culture, and we engage them automatically. We click into our seatbelts by muscle memory, not doing so feels wrong. It’s easy to follow the rule without remembering about why we do it.
That’s mostly a good thing. If we had to consciously connect every action to its rational origin every time we did it we would quickly become exhausted and stop following rules.
Our brains are wired for different kinds of prorcessing, often called slow and fast thinking. Slow thinking is active problem solving, like tricky navigation. We can handle one slow thinking task at a time. Fast thinking is automatic. Get in the car: seatbelt, check mirror, lights on, hands ten and two, an elaborate sequence we don’t even think about. Do you remember every step in your route here today? Of course not. That would use a huge amount of cognitive power—and precious blood sugar. Fast thinking is the low energy pathway of the encoded behaviors, based on rules. Fast thinking can save our lives. But it can also corrupt us.
Today’s gospel is, for me, a story of culturally encoded behaviors gone wrong, a story of the tension between rules and the spiritual values they are trying to protect. Jesus and his disciples are walking through a grain field, and the disciples pluck a few heads of grain. One can imagine them deep in conversation with Jesus, a little hungry, and drawing from the abundance around them in the field. And the Pharisees point and say look, they’re breaking the rules; they are breaking the rules! And what rules were the disciples breaking? Sabbath rules.
Let’s talk a bit about the sabbath. On our own Epiphany web site, sabbath is described as “a time set aside every week for the practice of Shalom. It is a Hebrew word that means something like peace, but more so. Shalom is like being held by God, hugged by God, in a way that makes us feel whole, healthy and, maybe even holy. Sabbath is a time to know ourselves as the person that God intends us to be.”
This understanding of sabbath is aligned in many ways with the Jewish practice of sabbath, or Shabbat, of two thousand years ago.
The practice of Shabbat is prescribed in Mosaic law, arising from passages in the old testament. Observing the sabbath is the fourth commandment, and appears twice in the old testament.
In Exodus 20:8-11: “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
Deuteronomy 5:15, also commands the sabbath and adds “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.”
If it were up to you, how would you obey these commandments? How would you know you were keeping God’s law? Doing it right? Well, the rabbinical community had an answer. Thirty-nine answers, actually. In order to provide guidance to the people about proper sabbath observance, certain activities were defined as “work” and forbidden. This list included things like lighting or extinguishing a fire, cooking, sewing, tying or untying a knot, planting, reaping, and harvesting.
Here we see a good-natured effort to clarify and to guide, but with some real potential for lost fidelity. Is adhering to the rules the same thing as honoring the core values the rules mean to support? One might imagine a post-sabbath conversation:
“Brother did you observe the sabbath today and keep it holy?”
“Yes, I neither tied nor untied any knots.”
“And did you rejoice in the wonders of creation?” “I lit no fires.”
“And did you…”
“I followed all the rules, okay?”
So many rules! Theologian Walter Bruggeman in his book , describes the burdens of Sabbath as Resistance, an over-coded religious system that required endless attentiveness,” and wonders if Jesus’ invitation in Matthew 11, “Come to me all ye that are weary and carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest,” might serve as an alternative to compliance fatigue.
Worry less about the rules. Come back to the values.
Rules can go wrong in a number of ways. We can become overzealous and make too many. John Cary told me he used to write thrifty corporate contracts, but the additive nature of legal documents led over time to longer and longer agreements. If you’ve signed a mortgage document recently, you’ve experienced this.
And the ten commandments. Too many? Jesus simplified them into two—love God, love your neighbor—explaining “on these two commandments hang all the law.” That’s easier for me.
Sometimes rules just become benignly irrelevant. Consider this from Emily Post’s 1945 edition of Etiquette, describing a christening tea party: “The christening cake is generally a white ‘lady’ cake elaborately iced with garlands of pink sugar roses.
And the caudle served at christenings is a hot eggnog drunk out of little punch cups. One is supposed to eat the cake as a sign that he partakes of the baby’s hospitality, and is therefore its friend, and to drink the caudle to its health and prosperity.” Caudle cups are not exactly overflowing in the great hall after Epiphany christenings. And that’s okay. I don’t think we’ve sacrificed our values.
But sometimes rules seem to detach completely from their underlying values and become rules for their own sake. Imagine we just start counting to ten after every baby delivery without knowing why or even counting anything? The rule has lost its mooring.
An untethered rule is a dangerous thing, and I think that’s the context of today’s gospel. When questioned about eating grain from the fields, the disciples are being accused breaking the sabbath rule against reaping.
And what does Jesus do? He doesn’t dismiss or scold. He engages. He asks his accusers, do you remember David, when he and his companions were hungry, took and the sacred bread kept in the Temple in Jerusalem as an offering to God? Why did David do this? Because they were hungry, and “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”
What does that mean?
Well what, again, is the sabbath? The sabbath is the gift of time “to know ourselves as the person that God intends us to be,” to rejoice in the abundance of creation. It is a gift given to us, not a set of rules we serve. Jesus invites a discussion with his accusers about the meaning and values of Shabbat.
The invitation is not accepted. You know where this goes. Into the temple. Another challenge to an over-coded religious system, another dent in the armor of compliance, another step closer to Golgotha. For in ignoring the Pharisees’ rules, rules that appear nowhere in scripture, he knows he is challenging their power. And it is the power, not the rules, that the Pharisees most cherish.
I’ve been over and over this gospel passage a lot recently, and I’ve wondered about the ways that story might have played out. Was there anger? Shouting? Threats of violence? Was it more like a game of chess: tense and strategic?
I like to imagine that Jesus was pretty much in control of the scene, even to the extent of orchestrating it. Perhaps he noticed some Pharisees in the field and asks “Who’s hungry? Let’s take a walk, shall we?” And as the story plays out, he remains calm, welcoming, rooted in values. Maybe he’s even got love in his heart for the Pharisees. Could that be? Grace for the Pharisees.
Into this notion of grace fell a favorite poem I happened to re-read.
It’s like this:
There’s this bird And you catch it in your hands
You feel it’s softness, warmth, its heart rapidly beating
But if you keep holding it it’s no longer a bird
So you open your hands (Catch it and let it go
again and again)
Could it be that Shalom is like this little bird? That the immeasurable beauty of creation is something both available to us and so elusive that we can’t help but to try to capture and hold it in our hands. And when we do, we find it’s not than thing any more.
How can we pin down and control the experience of Shalom? Of being held by God in a way that makes us feel holy? When we experience this just a little, we want more. And we use our earthly, human skills to analyze, sequence, and codify, mistaking sabbath for a fast thinking, checklist opportunity, all the while moving further from God’s peace.
I know started today with a celebration of good rules. But we have to be careful. Once we’re down the wrong path with rules, we can get into trouble quickly. If I’m not feeling Shalom, I must not be trying hard enough. Maybe I lack the proper discipline.
And so more rules. More constraints. More punishment for non-compliance. More distance from Shalom. More suffering.
I can see myself in the story of the Pharisees: well-meaning at first, loving God and neighbor, then holding so tightly to rules, power, and ego, that fear overflows and pours outward.
But I also hear the invitation from Jesus to lay down my burdens and take up his easy yoke, and there to find rest, there to find Shalom.
I keep catching this little bird and letting go, in an endless dance. Somewhere in the dance is grace. For me. For us. Even for a Pharisee.