The bread, the law, and the Spirit

[RCL]: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20); Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:36

“During the bombing raids of World War II, thousands of children were orphaned and left to starve. The fortunate ones were rescued and placed in refugee camps where they received food and good care. But many of these children who had lost so much could not sleep at night. They feared waking up to find themselves once again homeless and without food. Nothing seemed to reassure them. Finally, someone hit upon the idea of giving each child a piece of bread to hold at bedtime. Holding their bread, these children could finally sleep in peace. All through the night, the bread reminded them, ‘Today I ate and I will eat again tomorrow.’”

I’d like to introduce you to a simple way we can begin to discern and grow a life that moves in rhythm with the Holy Spirit. It involves asking a few questions that we ask ourselves.

We start off by asking ourselves:

“Which moment am I most grateful for today?” and, “Which moment am I least grateful for today?”

Try it right now. If those initial questions are not enough, then try some more questions:

“When did I give and receive the most love today?” “When did I give and receive the least love today?” or,

“When did I feel most alive today?” “When did I most feel the life draining out of me?”

There is a reasoning for asking these questions of ourselves, and it is that, over time, patterns emerge to help us to discern how God is calling us.

In essence, when one follows this spiritual discipline, that person is sleeping with bread—truly holding on to what gives him or her life.

Most of us have asked the questions: “What am I supposed to do with my life?” “Why am I here?” “What is my purpose?”

I wonder if you may have ever wished for answers from God, like Samuel in our Old Testament lesson today, who heard God’s voice calling him directly. This theophany, or call narrative—the appearance of God or a representative of God in sound, vision, or through our other senses—also happens to Abraham, Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, and Mary, just to name a few.

In making themselves available to God, Samuel and the others’ lives are changed. They have a purpose given by God, but it may not have been what they were hoping for in their lives. Instead, the call is something they could not have asked for or even imagined, and it transforms the world.

There is a world of difference between living with the purpose given to us by God, and being the gods of our own lives. In fact, when we simply live our way, how we want to, when we desire to, God having a purpose for us may sound terrifying.

We may think we want to hear and know God’s call to us, but secretly we don’t, because we know it will change us. After all, when we are focused on living from a place of love and not fear, it does change us. The simple questions that we can ask ourselves can bring us, slowly and gently, closer to where God is beckoning.

Actually, I think the truth is that we are like Samuel, who hears God’s call but does not understand the call’s source. We need a variety of ways to help us discern whether the voice we are hearing in our lives is from God or our own desire. These questions, which may have used for a long time already, provide an excellent framework for this task.

There is another important step in this process, and that is talking with others about the answers to these questions because they help us gain a communal perspective.

In our scripture text for today, we see Samuel hearing God’s voice over and over, but at first, he mistakes it for the voice of Eli. Finally, he gets advice from Eli about it.

It is useful in our own journey of faith, to talk with a person or small group of people who are faithful and whom we trust, about where we hear God calling. That’s because receiving outside perspective can help us see things that we cannot see ourselves.

Think of it this way: we are able to say, “Here I am,” to God thoughtfully, and with an openness of heart that occurs when we are supported in our exploration of God’s voice. In actuality, this is life-giving and aids us in sleeping with bread, each in our own way.

So what is the teachable moment for us today? Let me read you some verses from the Gospel of Mark, that is related to our first scripture reading today, which was about keeping the Sabbath day holy.

Mark 2:23-3:6

Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath 23 One Sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields, and as his disciples walked along, they began to pick some ears of corn. 24 The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?’ 25 He answered, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? 26In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. 28 So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.’

Eating bread to sustain life is the teachable moment today. When the Pharisees criticise Jesus and his disciples for gleaning from the fields on the Sabbath, Jesus reminds them that when David, called by God and anointed by Samuel, was a fugitive being hunted by Saul, he stopped in the “house of God” for safety and food. The high priest gave David the consecrated bread that was reserved for priests in order to sustain the lives of David and his companions.

Jesus highlights this story and also reminds us that “the Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” because the benefits of God benefit everyone, for God created the Sabbath, and to get mired in the rigidity of human law limits the scope of any benefits it may have held.

The reason for the Sabbath was and still is to promote life and praise God as our creator and liberator. The Pharisees knew this, but they were focused on the letter of the law and not the spirit in which Jesus applies it. Jesus is directly stating that he is the Son of Man and Lord of the Sabbath, which affirms his authority and puts him in conflict with the Pharisees. Jesus is doing God’s will, while the Pharisees are focused on gathering evidence against him.

In the next few verses of Mark 2, Jesus takes this life-giving stance even further in the synagogue when he cures the man with the withered hand, restoring him to wholeness and to his community, knowing the Pharisees were watching and hoping to gather more evidence against he who was scandalously claiming to be more than a mere mortal teacher.

Human nature has not changed much in the intervening centuries. How often do we come along to Chapel with a preconceived idea of what we should see or get or feel from it? As with many things, we see or get or feel exactly what we put into an experience, and that often means we leave, like the Pharisees in this story, self-satisfied with the knowledge we were expecting—instead of just being open to God’s vision. Again, we find Jesus leading us by example, following God’s will and speaking God’s truth in the face of those who want to maintain the status quo.

These stories of Jesus bringing life and truth on the Sabbath are instructive to us today. How is the Sabbath life-giving for us? Do we keep the Sabbath with the same spirit as Jesus in these stories?

Think about it this way: we see Jesus, the Son of God, healing and giving life, while the Pharisees and Herodians seek human vengeance to destroy life. Not just to slander him or do something to complicate Jesus’ life, but to actually destroy him. How are we paying attention to the life-giving spirit of God in our own lives, and how can we support others in doing the same? When we find that we have become more legalistic about God, how do we return to simply following Jesus?

I think we make a great start when we can refocus on the new thing that God is doing in our lives. Sometimes others have to hold the Christ light for us when we do not know the path, and sometimes others must share their bread with us so we may sleep through the night, like the refugee children during the war. In turn, it is our commission to do the same for others, as Jesus did.

I think this is called discernment, and discernment is a never-ending process that is part of our lifelong Christian faith. As we engage the questions of what gives us life and what does not in this season of our lives, God will call us to another path, another way to the heart of the Sabbath at another time. Where we find our grateful moments today may be different in ten or twenty years. The most important thing is that we continue to seek and follow Jesus wherever he leads us with truth and love. AMEN.