Bending Towards Grace  

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                                                         June 3, 2018

Mark 2:23-3:6

Today’s gospel lesson used to be interpreted as Jewish law versus Christian grace. There are a number of problems with this interpretation. First of all, we must remember that Jesus was a Jew.. There were two primary schools of Jewish thought in Jesus’ time—the Hillel school that interpreted the Jewish law more leniently, while the Shammai school was more strict and literal in its interpretation. Jesus was probably of the liberal Hillel school of his day, because his teachings are similar. The Hillel school was favoured in the area of Galilee, where Jesus grew up, while the Shammai school was favoured by the Pharisees in Judea, which included Jerusalem.

And so—the debate that Jesus had with the Pharisees and the Judeans was not Christian grace versus Jewish law—it was one school of Jewish thought versus another; it was a Galilean versus a Judean. Knowing this helps us avoid anti-Semitic interpretations of the Bible.

Almost from the beginning, the Christian Church fell into this same argument of law versus grace. To be clear, it’s not as though Jesus preached against laws or rules carte blanche. We remember that he spoke highly of the commandments. He said that he came to fulfill them, not do away with them.

In order to function the church needs rules, just as every organization does. Rules and laws provide order and allow more people equal access. They counteract a brute survival of the fittest. They provide security and safety.  They help to ensure peace and prosperity. I would much rather live in a society ordered by rules and laws, than in a chaotic anarchy. Church rules have tried to uphold Jesus’ teachings of a just and equitable community.

The problem with rules and laws is that they usually privilege the people who make them, even when they are supposed to benefit all. Over the centuries, church rules, set in the name of Jesus, have shut out particular people from the leadership and from the pews, including women, people of colour, lesbian and gay people, and those with disabilities. The people then protest, also in the name of Jesus, calling for grace when the rules seem too restrictive or harsh. Our church history has swung the pendulum back and forth between law and grace.

Jesus became concerned with rules and laws when they began to suffocate instead of to serve. “The Sabbath was made for humanity,” he said,  “not humanity for the Sabbath.” So what was Jesus’ issue with the Sabbath rules? The Pharisees observed Jesus’ disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath as they walked through a field. The Pharisees considered this a breech of Sabbath rules that forbid all work, including harvesting of grain, even though there is another law in Deuteronomy which allows hungry travellers to pluck heads of grain.[1] Jesus then healed someone on the Sabbath, challenging the Pharisees on their literalistic interpretation of the Sabbath laws.

Was Jesus against the honouring of the Sabbath? Not at all. But he was against rules that did not allow any grace or compassion. The original intention of the Sabbath rules was two-fold: they protected time to worship God while remembering God’s deliverance from their Egyptian slavery. The Sabbath rules also reminded them of God’s rest on the seventh day and of humanity’s need for a day of rest. If God needed a rest, surely we do! This original intention to set aside time for worship and for rest began to change to a restrictive purification of the Sabbath itself. Instead of serving the replenishment of people, it forced them to serve and protect the sacredness of the Sabbath. Jesus was trying to swing the pendulum back to the original intention of the Sabbath.

Over the centuries, the pendulum of Church law has swung to and fro regarding Sabbath rules. When Protestants began to arrive in the New World, they brought with them strict rules of adherence to Sabbath worship and rest. The Puritans introduced what were called blue laws. These detailed the types of activity and behaviour that was prohibited on Sunday. Before I give you a few examples, we might note that laws aren’t simply created in a vacuum. If a law is there, you can be sure it was preceded by an “incident.”

In the state of Alabama, apparently there is still a blue law on the books prohibiting anyone from wearing a false moustache to church. I can only imagine the incident that prompted this law. Another blue law prohibited women from wearing false teeth in church without the permission of their husbands. Imagine that precipitating incident. Even the clergy got out of hand at times, and blue laws attempted to control their behaviour. In Marion County, Oregon, it is still illegal for ministers to eat onions or garlic before preaching. In Nicholas County, West Virginia, it is illegal for clergy to tell jokes or humorous stories from the pulpit. Into the slammer I go.

Blue laws weren’t restricted to the U.S. In the Province of Ontario, bathing on Sunday in any public place, and particularly in sight of a place of public worship, was banned. The 1905 Lord’s Day Act in Canada was finally declared unconstitutional in 1985. The pendulum was beginning to swing again.

Now, we have virtually unrestricted activity on a Sunday. The result is that few of us now preserve a day of rest. We fill every day as much as we possibly can. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far to the other side. But now, neither the church nor society will bring in rules to moderate our activities. It is up to us as individuals, to determine what best we need to rest and replenish both our bodies and our spirits.

Jesus’ questions about Sabbath rules extend to other rules in the church—both stated and assumed. Are our expectations of one another appropriate? Where do we draw the line and who are we not comfortable including in our church community? Do we truly welcome all with open arms of grace or are our unspoken rules tripping us up? What rules and expectations, traditions and practices are we willing to bend for the sake of grace?

Recently, John Longhurst wrote an article in the Free Press about truly welcoming places of worship. He found a statement of welcome that churches of various denominations are beginning to post. I have printed it as an insert in your bulletin for today. They challenge our morés about acceptable behaviour and identity—at least I’m challenged by it. Feel free to join me in now reading this:

All are welcome here. But, we extend a special welcome to those who are single, married, divorced, gay, confused, filthy rich, comfortable or dirt poor.

We extend a special welcome to wailing babies and excited toddlers.

We welcome you if you can sing like Pavarotti or just growl quietly to yourself.

You’re welcome here if you’re just browsing, just woke up or just out of prison.

We don’t care if you’re more Christian than Mother Teresa, or haven’t been in church since Christmas 1977.

We welcome those who are over 60 but not yet grown up, and teenagers who are growing up too fast.

We welcome keep-fit moms, football dads, starving artists, tree-huggers, latte-sippers, vegetarians, junk-food eaters.

We welcome those who are in recovery or still addicted. We welcome you if you’re having problems, are down in the dumps, or if you don’t like “organized religion.” (We’re not keen on it, either.)

We welcome those who think the earth is flat, work too hard, don’t work, can’t spell, or are here just because mom or grandma is in town and wanted to go to church.

We welcome those who are inked, pierced, both or neither.

We offer a prayer to those who could use a special prayer right now, had religion shoved down their throats as kids, or got lost on their way to a cottage and ended up here by mistake.

We welcome pilgrims, tourists, seekers, doubters, young, old—and you![2]


[1] Deuteronomy 23:25

[2] John Longhurst, “A Truly Welcoming Place of Worship,” The Free Press, Saturday, May26, 2018, F15.