Welcome to the first Sunday in St. John’s summer of Sabbatical Renewal; a season of Sabbath dinners; a season to welcome guests celebrants as we have welcomed our friend The Rev. Ernie Ashcroft today.

A season to experience something, a different congregational rhythm, and ten week summer sermon series called Stories of Renewal when you will hear from preachers both familiar and new.

It is my pleasure to start the series off today.

My story of Sabbath renewal begins like this:

For several years I had both the challenge and the great joy of teaching a beginning course in Ethics to seniors at Breck School.

The challenge and the joy of introducing eager 17-18 year olds to various approaches to moral decisions making, helping them to recognize a moral dilemma and to create what I liked to call their ethical tool box of resources for the road ahead.

These students were at the point in their lives where they were ready to “fly by their own wings”, to construct their own opinions and defend their own decisions. To move beyond an position that is simply about what they felt emotionally is right and good, and craft a credo based on values, principles and experiences; to explore the ethical question that supports the rules and actions: the why.

Why do I believe what I believe? What has shaped me? What continues to influence me still? Who influences my world view? And how then do my beliefs inform my actions?

How can I possibly find my way through a moral dilemma when there are good arguments on each side and no easy answers.

What approaches or methods can assist my choices and enabling me to determine what I ought to do and why?

Perhaps Utilitarianism, a method that says basically that we ought to do whatever will promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number; the best response is the response that causes the least amount of pain for the greatest number of people.

What about Virtue Ethics with its emphasis on fostering the habits of human character such as courage, compassion, generosity, honesty, patience and tolerance?

Or Natural Law theory which says, fundamentally, that what is natural is right and good; that it’s critical to understand the rational ordered character of the world.  We ought not to violate the natural order of things and when we do we will suffer consequences such as fear, guilt or shame.

How does faith in God, the values embedded in sacred scripture and practice fit inform, direct, even mandate moral decisions?

Those who have taught or studied philosophy or moral theology well know there are many more methods and approaches to choose from.

If I were in that classroom today I choose for discussion, case studies from the news. For example: when if ever is it OK to for law enforcement to mine one’s on line genealogy  such as “23 and Me” and “Ancestry” to help solve serious crimes.

What about new video game called ACTIVE SHOOTER that was to be released June 6,  a game that lets players choose their role.? Do I want to be an active shooter terrorizing a school or a member of the SWAT team responding to the shooting? The question would be: When if ever is this OK?  And why?

What about free speech? The first amendment?

When, if ever, is it OK to separate and incarcerate very young children from undocumented parents fleeing extreme violence and poverty?

By the end of the semester many seniors were drawn to a method of moral decision-making often called contextualism.

This method asks:  What is going ?  And brings into account the context of motives, intentions, consequences.

In short, the right thing to do depends on the situation.

Some of you will remember   Joseph Fletcher’s book Situation Ethics: The New Morality. Published in 1966. Fletcher was the dean of St Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral in Cincinnati a professor of Social ethics at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MAThere was  reactivity towards his “new morality” because he disavowed all methods for moral decision making except one:

Fletcher asked two fundamental questions:

What is the situation, the context? And then…

How does the agape love of Jesus inform what one should do?

Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, who continues to be a major presence on social media and in the news, never fails to speak about the unconditional love of God for the world and the mandate, not the suggestion, but the mandate, to live that love and in so doing change not only our lives but the very life of the world itself.

Today we meet Jesus in Mark’s Gospel.

One Sabbath, the disciples passed through some fields. They were hungry, and so began to pluck the ripe grain and eat it. The Law allowed hungry travelers to help themselves in this way. But in the eyes of the religious authorities, to do it on the Sabbath was tantamount to reaping, to harvesting: e.g. work.

Harvesting was one of the 39 key activities traditionally forbidden on the Sabbath. So the authorities lodged a complaint with Jesus.

“Look! Why are you doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?

You are breaking the rules!”

Jesus responded: have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food?

How he entered the sanctuary in the temple and ate fresh bread off the altar, with the Chief Priest standing right there- holy bread that no one but priests were allowed to eat—and how David handed out this bread to his companions?

Then Jesus said: The Sabbath was made to serve us; we were not made to serve the Sabbath. The Law was made for human good.

This story in Mark and four others like, including the story of healing on the Sabbath, it are a collective of five so called conflict stories that scholars believer were a source for early Christians who as his earliest followers, looked to Jesus for setting both a precedent and a pronouncement, to help them handle their own moral conflicts.

They knew Jesus drew huge and favorable crowds in cities, villages, in the countryside and on the seaside (a dangerous thing to do in Roman occupied Palestine) interpreting God’s Law from the Hebrew scriptures. At the same time he drew hostile attention from certain religious leaders, those officially authorized to interpret and protect God’s law.

In both the harvesting and the healing on the Sabbath stories The ethic of Jesus –the why- is love plus the situation. The human need for food, or for healing, for life itself takes precedence over the law. The action –the moral- is feed the hungry and heal the sick


My story of renewal ends today with a story of moral courage, also from my time teaching at Breck.

This story was told by the Breck’s  school psychologist at  commencement. It planted itself in my own moral tool box. And remains there today.

It’s called Stranger on the Bus – a story told to Rabbi Lawrence Kushner by Shifra Penzias one of his rabbinic students.

The setting is Munich in Nazi Germany.

Shifra’s great aunt Sussie had been riding a city bus home from work when SS storm troopers suddenly stopped it and began examining the identification papers of the passengers.

Most were simply annoyed but a few were terrified.

Jews were being told to leave the bus and get into a truck around the corner.

Great aunt Sussie watched from her seat in the rear of the bus as the soldier’s systematically worked their way down the aisle. She began to tremble, tears streaming down her face. When the man next to her noticed that she was crying, he politely asked her why.

“I don’t have the papers you have. I am a Jew. They’ re going to take me”

The man exploded with disgust. He began to curse and scream at her. “Your stupid stupid idiot! He roared, “I can’t stand being near you!”

The SS men asked what all the yelling was about.

“Damn her,” the man shouted angrily. “My wife has forgotten her paper again! I’m so fed up. She always does this!”

The soldiers laughed and moved on.

[Shifra said] her great -aunt never saw the man again.

She never even knew his name.

Rabbi Kushner closes Sussie’s story with these words:

You are going about your business when you stumble onto something that has your name on it. Or, to be more accurate, a task with your name on it finds you.  Its execution requires inconvenience, self -sacrifice, even risk. You step forward and encounter your destiny. This does not mean you must do everything that lands on your doorstep, or that you should assume every risk or make every self-sacrifice. But it does mean that you must tell yourself the truth about where you have been placed and why.


Dear Friends, when you are going on about your business and you stumble onto something that has your name on it or a task with your name on it finds you…remember today’s Gospel and bring to mind the courage, compassion and priorities of Jesus. The one whose love puts human need first.

And then, be ready to act.


Mark 2.23-3.6

Invisible Lines of Connection: Sacred Stories of the Ordinary

Lawrence Kushner Jewish Lights Publishing  2004


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