Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

“Roots in Love”

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church
The Reverend Bart Smith
More Light Sunday (June 3, 2018)
Mark 2:23-3:6 – “Roots in Love”

Jesus went through the wheat fields on the Sabbath. As the disciples made their way, they were picking the heads of wheat. The Pharisees said to Jesus, “Look! Why are they breaking the Sabbath law?”

He said to them, “Haven’t you ever read what David did when he was in need, when he and those with him were hungry? During the time when Abiathar was high priest, David went into God’s house and ate the bread of the presence, which only the priests were allowed to eat. He also gave bread to those who were with him.” Then he said, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Human One is Lord even over the Sabbath.”

Jesus returned to the synagogue. A man with a withered hand was there. Wanting to bring charges against Jesus, they were watching Jesus closely to see if he would heal on the Sabbath. He said to the man with the withered hand, “Step up where people can see you.” Then he said to them, “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they said nothing. Looking around at them with anger, deeply grieved at their unyielding hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he did, and his hand was made healthy. At that, the Pharisees got together with the supporters of Herod to plan how to destroy Jesus.

If you are someone conflict-avoidance tendencies, episodes likes these from the gospels might make you squirm a bit. Jesus keeps getting into debates with the Pharisees! In his interactions with them, especially when they are asking him a question about the Torah, you can almost hear Admiral Ackbar from Return of the Jedi: “it’s a trap!” Much like many debates on Facebook and Twitter these days, these are not discussions in which one party is trying to sincerely understand the point of view of another; it’s a game of “gotcha.”

On one hand, I find myself rooting for Jesus. “Ha ha! He got ‘em!” It’s kind of satisfying to see him score points in the arguments. But on the other hand, I find myself feeling sympathetic for the Pharisees. They get a bad rap in the gospels because the gospel writers, for various complicated and nuanced reasons, vilify them. Maybe I sympathize with them because, as a religious professional myself, I can relate to the bind they’re in.

As religious leaders, they are not only in positions of authority in their synagogues, but they’re also stewards of a tradition. They were trying to preserve Torah—the Law of Moses, which was their most sacred writings, God’s gift to Israel at Sinai—which was intended to help them live as liberated people. And they were trying to be good stewards of that tradition (assume positive intentions, right?) during a time in which they’re people were oppressed (again!) and their land (also sacred) was occupied by a foreign empire.

One thing that makes this episode interesting is that we’re not that far into Mark’s gospel before the Pharisees start plotting to kill Jesus. And they start collaborating with their enemies, the Herodians, the supporters of Rome’s puppet king in Judea. How’s that saying go? “The enemy of my enemy… is my friend?” As Matt Skinner put it, “Imagine the editorial staffs of both Mother Jones and National Review finding something or someone they both vehemently oppose.”

Jesus’ position, that the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the sabbath, and therefore, when people are hungry or hurting, it’s legitimate to help them, wasn’t necessarily a new idea. Other rabbis had said as much before. Nor was it that controversial; there were exceptions to Sabbath-keeping regulations in the Torah when people were in need. But when Jesus says this, it renders them speechless: “Is it legal on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”

He’s pointing them back to the core of the tradition they so zealously and scrupulously defend. And he’s revealing how easily religious traditions and institutions can be warped to defend the status quo.

Jesus is getting radical here. Do you know the origins of the word radical? It comes from the Latin radix, which means root. Jesus is calling the Pharisees back to their roots.

I believe that is what LGTBQ movements are doing for the Christian faith. They are radically pointing us back to the heart of our tradition. I mean that in the sense of the core and, quite literally, the heart. Movements for the full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersex, LGTBQIA+ people remind followers of Jesus that it is always about love.

Our faith calls us to love, “for God is love and those who abide in love abide in God and God in them.” What did Jesus say that other time when folks asked him, in another one of those traps, what the greatest commandment was? “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. And a second is like it, to love your neighbor as yourself.”

Of course, there are many people out there who disagree with me on this, vehemently. And I am tired of having to say “I’m not that kind of Christian.” So I won’t. Inspired by this event I attended in Washington, D.C. a week and a half ago, I’ve decided instead to reclaim Jesus. That’s what it was called, this vigil and procession to the White House, “Reclaiming Jesus.” Check out for the statement the leaders read that night. It calls the body of Christ back to our roots in the midst of the political and cultural crises of this moment.

I won’t apologize for others behavior, but I will speak for myself and the congregation I serve, however. God calls us to repent of the ways that we, as a community and as individuals have been perpetrators of and complicit in the oppression of others. We confess our homophobia, our transphobia, our hate, our shaming. We confess all those words, actions, and beliefs that stand as barriers to the way of love. We repent and seeks the fresh start of God’s amazing grace. We ask for the Spirit’s help to cleanse our hearts and set us again on the paths of justice.

As he did then, so he does now. Jesus is calling us back to the heart of our tradition. That’s love. Love for all. And all means all. On More Light Sunday we remember that hate shackles us all in some way or another. I like how rappers Macklemore & Ryan Lewis put it in that song “Same Love” from a few years back:

It’s the same hate that’s caused wars from religion
Gender to skin color the complexion of your pigment
The same fight that lead people to walk-outs and sit-ins,
It’s human rights for everybody
There is no difference

As Dr. King put it, “no one is free until we are all free.”

I’ll close with a story I read in Sojourners magazine this week. It’s by a person named Dani Gabriel, whose family attends an Episcopal Church in California.

After a long period of exploration, my daughter Isabel came out as a boy named Samson, and he was ecstatic. That excitement quickly faded with the arrival of awkwardness, inappropriate comments, and harassment at school. There were all kinds of discussion in the news about transgender people, the military, bathrooms… Samson was confused, hurt, and overwhelmed. As Samson’s parents, we were also overwhelmed and terrified…

By the end of March, Samson was in a deep depression. All of his sparkle and talkativeness was gone. His downhill slide ended with a four-day hospitalization. The hospital was about an hour from where we live, and I remember driving back and forth every day. I wasn’t sleeping. People brought us food, but I didn’t taste it. My little boy was hurting, and I couldn’t fix it.

The first time we visited Samson, our priest, Mother Liz, came with us. She sat on the bed with Samson. He asked her to pray for him, and she anointed him. Her presence kept me mindful of the Spirit’s presence, even there. Samson left the hospital and, bit by bit, got stronger and began to ignore the bullies, looking to his friends, family, and church family. Church was his safe space…

Sometime later, we were sitting at a cafe a few blocks from church when Samson asked Liz, “Could you rebaptize me?” She said “No, we baptized you, it worked the first time. But we can do something special.” Over the next couple of months, we shared ideas back and forth, and Liz did some hard work. She researched, talked to other clergy, and wrote a beautiful rite for Samson based on the form of commitment to Christian service in The Book of Common Prayer…

They were 100 percent willing to take the risk of publicly supporting Samson and our family in this way, but they were not going to go rogue… Our bishop… helped edit and approve the final rite, and this meant a lot to Samson. It meant that it wasn’t just our parish family that loved him. It was the church, too…

[The day of the Baptism] We stood in front of the stained glass: me, my partner Jonah, Samson’s sister Magdalene, and Samson’s godparents. Samson nodded vigorously to Liz’s question, “Samson, do you claim again your identity as a beloved child of God?” And then came the singing, and the holy water, and the crying. And then we shared communion, for real, in a way I didn’t feel like I had before. Afterward I watched parishioners, young and old, of every imaginable background, come up to Samson and tell him congratulations. I know for a fact that some of these people have very different political views than I do. I imagine some of them didn’t understand. But these are our brothers and sisters, and the love of Christ is big. Really big…

Over the months since Samson’s blessing… my LGBTQ community has felt it deeply. They are absolutely blown away, and it has started an unfolding of healing. Even my hairdresser cried when I told her. “That’s not the church I know,” she said. “Yeah, it’s not,” I said. Transgender inclusion in the church is not a political issue. It is the coming home of people who have been denied their full personhood and the recognition that they are beloved of God. It is the expansion, for all of us, of our capacity to follow Christ.

[Dani wrote] I asked Samson how he felt that day. He said, “I feel like the luckiest boy in the world.” A few weeks later, Samson told us that when he grows up, he is going to be a professional basketball player, a lawyer, or the first openly transgender bishop in the Episcopal Church.

Imagine the power of a church that has come home to its roots in love.