The Federated Church of Marlborough
Marlborough, New Hampshire



Sermon - June 3, 2018
Scripture Reading: Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Mark 2:23-3:6  
Sermon Title: The Law

The Rev. Robert Vodra


     This morning the lectionary points us to the Old Testament laws of the 10 commandments and then Jesus talking about how to understand the sabbath, and by extension, all of the Jewish laws. 

     To understand this problem, I think it is helpful to have some background.  The 10 commandments, the story goes, were given to Moses by God.  These were followed by many rules, and written down.  As times have changed, experts in Judaism have written explanations.  For example, one of the commandments is to not work on the sabbath.  In the desert they didn’t have matches, so is striking a match work, how about pushing a button, driving a car?  Over the centuries rabbis have studied these laws and explained them. 

     Today there are three main groups of Jewish people. The Orthodox Jews have kept the laws as given by Moses.  They will not work on their sabbath, which is from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown.  No cooking, no cleaning, no writing, no building or fixing anything, no electronics. That day is set aside to rest and praise God. 

     The conservative Jews have divided the law into ethical and ritual laws.  The ethical laws do not change, but the ritual laws may.  Jewish must often be part of the culture they live in, so sometimes ritual laws need to be adapted to follow a modern lifestyle.  Reform Jews are similar to Conservative Jews in that laws can be divided between ethical and ritual laws, but are more willing to adapt ritual laws to fit into the modern world.  If you were Jewish and your furnace broke on the sabbath, the Orthodox Jew would wait until sundown to look at it, the Conservative Jew would probably look at it, but might wait until it got cold in the house, and the Reform Jew would probably grab the flashlight to work on it. 

     Notice for that last group it’s “reform,” not “reformed,” because the process is still going on. “Reformed” would mean that it happened and is now done. 

     Interestingly both Conservative Jews and Reform Jews say that the first 5 books of our Old Testament, should not be taken word for word.  They contain stories and passages that were written by humans and contain human influence of that time.  Most would tell us that science is correct, and the world was not created in 6 days.  They would also tell us that there was not an ark with a guy named Noah who had to collect 2 of each animal, but rather that they are stories that contain truths, not facts.  In reading about Reform Jews, they, like the UCC, believe that God is still speaking and has more to tell us. 

     It is very hard to get an accurate count of Jews, partly because in addition to a religion, it is also something that you are born as, not necessarily something you join.  Just like you can be African American and never been to Africa, you can be Jewish without ever having been in a synagogue.  And a large percentage of the Jewish people do not practice the religion.  The best research I could find was done in 1986, over 30 years ago, that estimated there were about 2.2 million strict Orthodox Jews in the world.  That is just about ¼ the population of New York City, spread all over the world.  And according to this estimate, the number of Orthodox Jews is increasing with many families having 5 or more children.  It is also hard to get an accurate count because of the political situation.  For some it is helpful to count anyone who might be Jewish as Jewish, and others, who need a smaller count for their cause, can choose only practicing Jews. 

     Imagine for a minute you are an Orthodox Jew.  There are a lot of laws you must follow.  These laws tell you what to eat and when, what you can and can not wear, how to cut, or not cut your hair, when you must cover to head, when you can work and when you cannot work.  This law establishes order.  But it is not for the benefit of the individual.  Across the Old Testament, the purpose of law is to help us get more out of life by directing us to help our neighbor. It’s important to pay attention to both halves of that sentence. Each one of us gets more out of life by looking out for each other. How does that work? Two ways.

     First, law establishes order, and order makes it easier to flourish in life. Think of the Ten Commandments – it’s really hard to flourish if it’s okay to lie, steal, and murder. But, second, law works best – it achieves its intended purpose – only when it’s directed to the need of our neighbor.

     There’s something a little counter-intuitive about that for those of us who live in a highly individualistic culture. Law, we think, is something that protects my rights. But the Israelites saw it differently. If I am looking out for my neighbors, then my neighbors are also all looking out for me. So instead of having one person look after my interests – only me – I’ve got a whole community looking out for my welfare, just as I am looking out for theirs.

     But we tend to privilege “order” over “neighbor.” That is, order makes us feel comfortable, safe, and secure, and before long we forget that the law was intended to direct us to help our neighbor and we fall into thinking it’s all about us. And that’s what’s happening here in our New Testament reading. The appeal of “law-as-order” overrides concern for neighbor. That’s what Jesus gets at with his example of King David and in his summary statement, “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

     Many of our secular laws today are for the benefit of neighbor.  Think of our traffic laws. I am perfectly capable of driving on most of Route 9 at 80 miles an hour.  And the hill on 101 coming down into town, at least at the top… I could really get moving.  But on Route 9 I am required to stay between 45 and 55.  Route 101 at the top of the hill is 50 or 55, but then gets slower and slower the closer you get to town.  We have, as a society, decided that when you get into a more populated area, or an area with narrow roads, we should go slower.  Harder to see a ball rolling out into a road followed by a child on a curvy road, and more chance of something like that happening when there are more houses.  These laws are of minimum benefit to me.  In an accident I might do better if I were going 40 rather than 80, but with no accidents, the law simply is there for order and the safety of my neighbors. 

     Many of you also know that I drive an ambulance from time to time.  The law says with appropriate caution, I can break almost all driving laws.  I can drive faster than the speed limit.  I can go through red lights and stop signs without stopping.  I can go the wrong way on a one-way street.  I cannot pass a stopped school bus that has its lights flashing.  You would be surprised to see what disorder this causes.  Cars see my red lights, or hear my siren, and they are supposed to move to the right and stop.  Many don’t.  They pull into the middle turning lane, some start to move over and other cars pull out in front of me to pass the cars that are stopping.  We have decided that breaking these laws, despite the disorder it causes, is more important for our neighbor than following the laws.

     And that is what Jesus was saying.  Most of the laws in the Torah, and most secular laws today, create order often by limiting choices.  This may not be good for me, but it is good for us.  But what do you do when you feel there are unjust laws?

     There is a movement going on now that is starting to attract attention.  It’s a continuation of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.  They have identified 4 areas in which we, as a country, are not moving forward, and in many ways moving backwards.  Systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, and the war economy and militarism.  Part of this campaign each week includes a rally at the state capitol, and an act of non-violent civil disobedience.  For the past 3 Mondays, and for the next 3 Mondays, people are gathering at over 30 state capitols and in Washington DC, participating in the rally and performing acts of non-violent civil disobedience.  The first week there were about 400 people arrested around the country, including 6 in Concord.  The number is now over 1000. 

     Far too often laws that are being passed do not benefit our neighbors.  But this is not a new thing, has been going on for many, many years, longer than I have been alive.  This is not a Republican or Democratic issue, this is not a left or right issue, it is a moral issue.  For example, our military spending now takes over half of all the discretionary spending in the federal budget, yet we have big problems supporting our veterans when they come home.  Lack of medical care, even for injuries they suffered in combat, lack of affordable housing, lack of job training for civilian jobs.  Nobody likes to talk about poverty, but it is right here.  Jobs are not paying enough, so even the working poor have trouble putting food on the table.  From 1997 until 2007 the minimum wage was stuck at $5.15 an hour, between 2007 and 2009 it was raised to $7.25, and has now been stuck there for 9 years.  A minimum wage earner today should be making over $8 an hour just to have the same purchasing power they did in 1997.  If a minimum wage earner was poor in 1997, they are worse off today.  There are some states which are trying to pass laws to restrict cities or towns in their state from raising the minimum wage on their own.  Under Obama, deportations went way up, and now there are hundreds of children, under 10, who will face a deportation judge without anyone to help them, no lawyer. 

     So what does that have to do with Jesus.  Jesus was certainly not a Democrat, or Republican, was not left or right. Jesus was a moral and religious leader, and the one we call the son of God.  When Jesus healed the man with the withered hand, he broke the law.  This was not just a human law, this was one of God’s laws, in the 10 commandments.  And it upset those who didn’t understand why laws existed.  They understood law for order, but not law for protecting your neighbors.  It is wrong to pass or even have laws that keep people in poverty by restricting raising the minimum wage.  It is wrong to take so much tax money to spend on the military industrial complex, and not have laws that protect those coming out of the military.  It is wrong, no, it is a sin, to have any child go to bed hungry in this country because their parents do not have food for them in their house. 

     And I will be honest, this is one of those areas in which politics and religion overlap.  We are talking about Jesus breaking the law to help someone.  Certainly, many laws are political, but they should also be moral.  And if we are followers of Jesus, his words and actions should drive our moral stances.  Our moral positions drive our politicians to create or eliminate laws.  It is a very small gray circle, and I believe impossible to separate what Jesus teaches us, and how we act and say when we leave this place. 

     I believe this scripture is inviting us to look at what laws are being passed, or eliminated, and why.  Who benefits and who gets hurt?  And when laws are created that benefit me, or a small us, rather than all of our neighbors, we need to check our moral compass.  Laws, religious and secular, are made for us. We are not made for them.