The Second Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 4), 3 June 2018

June 3, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

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Deuteronomy 5: 12-15 Psalm 81: 1-10 2 Corinthians 4: 5-12 Mark: 2:23-3:6

Deuteronomy 5: 12-15

Since the focus is on the Sabbath this week, we’d be remiss if we didn’t give our congregations a taste of the illustrious Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. In his beautiful treatise, The Sabbath, he begins by stating words as poetic and poignant as scripture,

He who wants to enter the holiness of the day must first lay down the profanity of clattering commerce, of being yoked to toil. He must go away from the screech of dissonant days, from the nervousness and fury of acquisitiveness and the betrayal in embezzling his own life. He must say farewell to manual work and learn to understand that the world has already been created and will survive without the help of man. Six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the Sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul. The world has our hands, but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world., on the seventh day we try to dominate the self.  (Heschel, The Sabbath, 1951)

It is interesting that the commandment to take Sabbath roots itself in the experience of slavery. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Lord brought you out of there with a mighty and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” It’s almost as if the Lord is saying to the people, “Now I didn’t go through all that trouble for you to come up in here and make slaves of yourselves. Take a break!”  Heschel roots the Sabbath in ultimate freedom and paints the dichotomy starkly. What richer words are there to describe workaholism than “embezzling his own life?” It points to the beautiful fact that our lives are not our own. We have ultimate freedom over our lives, and therefore, an ultimate expression of trust in that freedom is to take a rest from our labor, from our own penchant for acquiring in order to do nothing.

In Process theology, all things are imbued with creative self-determination. For self-determination to truly be “creative,” we must allow time and space to nurture and cultivate that creativity. The Sabbath is made for such flourishing as this. Otherwise, we have the propensity toward slavery, both to work and regimentation (see Gospel text) .


Psalm 81: 1-10

As the Law harkened back to the days of slavery in Egypt in establishing the Sabbath, so the Psalm also alludes to it in one of only a few references to the Sabbath in the Psalter: “He made it a decree in Joseph, when he went out over the land of Egypt. I hear a voice I had not known: ’I relieved your shoulder of the burden; your hands were freed from the basket.’”

I like the reference to “hearing a voice I had not known.” It speaks to me of prehending the Divine Aim as something novel, which beckons us toward enjoyment.  This is a celebratory Psalm, which revels the sound and image of freedom, music, and festival. It reminds the hearer that while God beckons us to Sabbath rest, (your hands were freed from the basket), God is beckoning us toward enjoyment, which is the essence of God’s being.


2 Corinthians 4: 5-12

While the other scriptures in today’s lectionary lead the preacher to an examination of the Sabbath, the passage from Corinthians has other themes: namely suffering and how followers of God might see their suffering in relation to their commitment to higher ideals. One might choose to focus in more on Jesus alleviating suffering, even when it seemingly broke rules and provoked for his critics to plot to destroy him, than to pair with this text if one chooses to hear from or focus on the Epistle.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (7-8)

The notion of “the light shining in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” is a beautiful and scriptural way to speak about prehending the Divine Aim. The Divine Aim is fully manifest in the “face of Jesus Christ,” and the knowledge of God’s glory being the purpose of that light shining in us and through us for the benefit of others is an excellent endeavor and the aim of life in a Process mindset. As I learned about the dynamism of a persuasive God I would always tend to visualize the Divine aim as a glowing, lit orb among other white orbs in thinking about decision making in conjunction with the Divine Aim. “Having this treasure in clay jars” is a good way talk about our own free will to follow the persuasive Creative-Responsive Love, with the very strong possibility that we will not prehend the Divine Aim. Thus, free will makes it quite clear that God’s power is persuasive, not coercive.

The laundry list of afflicitons to which Paul attests show that prehending the Divine Aim does not mean life on Easy Street. Sometimes it makes us the most afflicted in a world gone mad. “So death is at work within us, but life in you.” Following in the way of the Divine Aim creates opportunities for life in others.  


Mark: 2:23-3:6

This discourse on the nature of the Sabbath and the prompt for compassion in the face of legalism is a welcome word from Jesus. Though the Sabbath is undeniably a good thing that we could certainly stand to follow more rigorously in this over-worked culture where even play has been corporatized and monetized, it would seem that Jesus offers a counter to the penchant for human beings to turn everything, even rest, into something divisive.  The dialogue reminds me of Whitehead’s diametric alluded to in Cobb and Griffin’s Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, “the contrast between order as the condition for excellence, and order as stifling the freshness of living.” (59).

I started the year in my 7th year of ministry at University United Methodist Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma with a personal and pastoral examination of Sabbath and what it might mean to us if we were to take it more seriously. Utilizing Matthew Sleeth’s 24/6: A Prescription for a Happier, Healthier Life, I offered a 4 week conversation/study on the book and the accompanying videos for a multi-Hgenerational group of people at my church in a weeknight study back in January. To my surprise and delight, some of my church-people wasted no time to making significant alterations to their schedules and lives to accommodate a more “Sabbath-friendly” lifestyle, including the cessation of grocery shopping and other “busywork” on Sunday or Saturday, whatever they chose to recognize as the Sabbath. The shift even percolated up to our administrative board and other leadership teams. In the midst of a shift to a condensed form of leadership, we also made the decision to stop meeting every third Sunday afternoon and instead meet on a Monday night. It was one of the women in the study who was being asked to serve on the Administrative Board who made the motion that was enthusiastically adopted by the rest. Sabbath taking can be contagious.

But in the context to which Jesus was speaking, it had become another litmus test to demarcate insiders from outsiders. In the text, we hear that the Pharisees even plotted to destroy Jesus because of this supposed infraction. The Law and the Prophets are clear, God is very enthusiastic about the Sabbath too. But what God is most enthusiastic about is compassion. We have the predisposition to regiment everything and rob things of their joy. What Jesus does is infuse the Sabbath with joy. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote in his beautiful book, The Sabbath, “To observe the Sabbath is to celebrate the coronation of a day in the spiritual wonderland of time, the air which we inhale when we ‘call it a delight.’ Call the Sabbath a delight: a delight to the soul and to the body. Since there are so many acts one must abstain from doing on the seventh day, ‘you might think I have given you the Sabbath for your displeasure; I have surely given you the Sabbath for your pleasure. ‘” (Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 18) In the endnote reference to the “call the Sabbath a delight,” Rabbi Heschel points to Isaiah 58:13, and to the commentary of the Zohar, “He who diminishes the delight of the Sabbath, it is as if he robbed the Shechniah, for the Sabbath is God’s only daughter.” (Tikkune Zohar 21, ed. Mantus, 1558, 59b)

It seems the Pharisees have stripped the Shechniah of her robe, and so Jesus is there to remind them that the Sabbath is for the pleasure of humankind, not another reason to look down their noses at folks. He is “grieved at their hardness of heart.” Oftentimes, the Divine Aim is best perceived by what it stands against, like hardness of heart. “Although God is the source of order, the order is derivative from novelty, and both order and novelty are good only insofar as they contribute to the enjoyment of experience.” (Cobb and Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, Westminster, 1976, 60).

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four chidren, a dog and a cat.