LUKE 6:1-11

4 Aug 2013


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          Mugwumps.  Don't you just love to say the word?  Mugwumps.  Maybe you have a vague recollection of them from your American History class.  The jocular word, "mugwump" derives from an Algonquin word referring to an important person, a kingpin or a war leader.  Over time, however, it came to refer to a "sanctimonious" or "holier-than-thou" person who held himself or herself above party politics.

            The Mugwumps were Republican political activists who bolted from the Republican Party candidate and supported the Democratic candidate Grover Cleveland in the presidential election of 1884.  They switched parties because they rejected the financial corruption associated with Republican candidate James G. Blaine.  During the campaign, they were often portrayed as "fence-sitters," with part of their body on the side of the Democrats and the other on the side of the Republicans, that is to say with their "mug" on one side of the fence, and their "wump" on the other!

            In our passage for today, Jesus comes face to face, with some first century Mugwumps.  They were not Republican political activists who held themselves above party politics, they were sanctimonious, holier-than-thou individuals who held themselves above the sinful masses.  Let's take a look at them in action.  Luke 6:1.  Now, remember that Jesus and the disciples went everywhere on foot, and when your major mode of transportation is one's feet, you tend to take shortcuts.  This particular shortcut got Jesus into hot water. 


            One sabbath while Jesus was going through the grain fields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath? Jesus answered, Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions? Then he said to them, The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.


            Picture it.  Sabbath Day.  Low humidity.  Temperatures in the mid 70's.  Slight breeze.  Blue skies with a few fluffy, cumulus clouds slowly floating by.  Synagogue services had concluded and folks were resting and relaxing with friends and family.   Then someone heard a rustle in a grain field a few hundred feet down the way.  Some "mugwumps", that is, some sanctimonious, holier-than-thou folk, happened to be nearby.  They knew the rules.  They had not only memorized the rule book, they had memorized the commas and semicolons as well.  One of the Mugwumps, I mean Phairsees, noticed that a few of the strolling ragtags in the grain field were plucking grain and eating it.  Committed to the memory of this very able onlooker was the fact that thirty-nine major occupations were forbidden on the Sabbath including harvesting and threshing. 

            Here they were, a small group of men, strolling through a field, picking a little grain to eat, and they were about to be indicted for harvesting and threshing.  It was a little like killing an ant with a cruise missile and it was an incident neither the onlookers nor Jesus would forget.  The Pharisees and scribes had met Jesus earlier, and Jesus had lodged sideways in their digestive tracts.  They didn't like what he was saying about himself and about God, and they didn't like his response here, about his being the lord of the sabbath, and like Snoopy and the Red Baron, it was obvious they would meet another day. 

            Let's turn to another day.  Of course, their next encounter happens on a Sabbath Day and it was apparently staged by Jesus to make a deliberate point with the holier-than-thou crowd ... Luke 6:6. 


            On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, Come and stand here. He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it? After looking around at all of them, he said to him, Stretch out your hand. He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.


            Whew.  Picture this scene.  Not only is it the Sabbath Day, but the scene unfolds in the synagogue during services.  Jesus had entered the synagogue to teach when he came upon a man whose right hand was withered.  The scribes and Pharisees were watching, their memory scanners poised and ready to call up the appropriate religious tenet in record time.  Jesus knew their intent, and as he called the man to him he faced them squarely and asked, "Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?"  Not waiting for an answer nor expecting one, he asked the man to stretch out his hand and it was healed.  A need had been met, a man had been healed, but the holier-than-thou crowd "were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus."  The scene ends with perfectly respectable, religious people at a loss as to what to do with this popular rule breaker.

            Let me ask a couple of questions and then let's move on to communion.  First, are we open to considering we may be going the wrong way?   

            Did you ever find yourself going the wrong way on a one way street?  That can be quite unnerving.  If so, what did you do, besides panic?  Well, the couple of times I found myself going the wrong way on a one-way street, I stopped, pulled over to the side of the road, turned around and headed in the right direction.  The Pharisees, however, never realized they were going the wrong way on Sabbath Road.

            The purpose of the laws of God, including the law about the sabbath day, is two-fold: love God and love one's neighbor.  Elsewhere in Scripture (Matthew 22:38), Jesus summed up the law of God with the words, "Love God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself."  The sabbath reminds us of Gods love for us.  God cares about our well being.  God wants us to rest, take a break, each week.  But, in addition to being a day of rest, the point of the sabbath is to get our eyes off ourselves and onto God and our neighbor in need.

            One of Jesus followers, one of the guys accused of harvesting and threshing on the sabbath, got it.  The Apostle John had watched Jesus closely, and at the end of his life John came to this conclusion (1 John 4:20):  "You can't love God whom you do not see unless you love your neighbor whom you do see."  The gospel writer Mark chimes in as well.  He adds another line to what Jesus says here in verse five.  Mark includes the line about Jesus being the Lord of the sabbath, but Mark also has Jesus saying (Mark 2:27), "The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath."

            Jesus attempted to teach the Pharisees they were going the wrong way.  He tried to teach them that the sabbath is there for us to get our eyes off ourselves and on to God and our neighbor, but they didnt believe him.  They never realized they were going the wrong way on Sabbath Road.      

            Second question.  Do we value love over legalism?  Let me pose the question another way ... Are we more spirit of the law people or letter of the law people? Or let me pose that still one more way.  Might there be a little Mugwump in us? 

            Ill be honest.  I love rules.  My wife Trudy thinks rules are suggestions.  Not me.  I think rules are rules.  They are for the good of society.  Take red lights.  If we come to a red light and no one is in sight, Trudy will not sit at that light.  I will.  The rule is stop at red lights and wait until the light turns green before you go.  That rule is in place for a reason.  It's for the good of all.  Trudy would say, "Yes, I agree, but in this case, at 11:00 at night and no one else on the horizon, why do I need to wait until the light turns green?"  Whew.  I start to hyperventilate just thinking about it.

            In other words, there is a little Mugwump in me.  Some Sundays, when the sermon is memorized and we have extra time before the Adult Sunday class, Trudy and I will stop at Starbucks on 72nd and Hwy 370 to read the paper and have a latte or a smoothie, Trudy the latte, me the smoothie.  And I know the law.  Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.  That's one of the Big Ten, that's not a minor law, that's a big one, and I look around at the other folk at Starbucks, and given how we are dressed and the other folk are dressed, well, it looks like we are the only one heading to church that day, and I feel a little superior.  A feel a little sanctimonious.  I'm heading not only on my way to church to worship, Im on my way to lead worship!             

            Legalism comes in many forms.  There are some Christians who would draw a line that excludes gays.  There are Christians who would draw a line around caffeine.  There are Christians who would draw a line around dancing.  There are other Christians who would draw a line that excludes people who drive SUVs.  Every generation draws its own lines concerning who is clean and unclean.

            Years ago, following the worship service at a small Presbyterian church, a woman lingered near the back of the sanctuary.  It was obvious she had a question.  When the pastor inquired, she confessed that her 18-year-old daughter had given birth to a child out of wedlock. She added reluctantly, "Well, it should be baptized, shouldn't it?"

            The pastor said that he would discuss the matter with the board.  After a lengthy debate, the board voted to approve the baptism. The baptism was set to take place the fourth Sunday in Advent. The church was full. This congregation had the custom of asking this question as part of the baptismal service: "Who will stand with this child?"  At this point, friends, sponsors, and the family would stand up and remain standing during the remainder of the service.  The pastor and elders were worried that no one but the young woman's mother would stand up with her. When the question was asked, it looked as if their worst fears were being realized.  Then one man stood up. It was one of the elders, a man not known for his compassion or sentimentality.  Then some of the other elders stood, followed by a young couple who had recently joined the church. Soon, a number of people were standing with the young mother.  Tears of joy coursed down her cheeks.

            These folk in this small church understood that the Gospel is not about drawing lines, but about helping people find God.  Legalism comes in many forms.  According to Jesus, none of it matters to God.  What God cares about is people.