A Sermon for 21 August 2016
A reading from the gospel of Luke 13:10-17. Listen for God’s word to us.
“Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Remember the Blue Laws? Some fifty or more years ago in the United States, no matter where you went on Sundays, most everything was closed. The doors of sanctuaries were open and it was expected everyone who was anyone had their entire family with them in a pew. Laws throughout the United States banned such things on Sundays as open restaurants, open department stores, open car lots, and open liquor shops. “You did not even hear the whistle of freight trains . . . on Sundays, because it was illegal to haul goods on the Sabbath” (Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World, p. 128). Sunday had become the day you did not! Radically, to this day, a county in New Jersey still bans “the sale of clothing, shoes, furniture, home supplies, and appliances on Sundays” (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blue_law). And of course, we all know that if you want to enjoy some wine over Sunday dinner or a beer for the afternoon ballgame, you better be sure to stock up before Sunday morning arrives.
Ironically, the fourth of the infamous Ten Commandments begins not with shall not but with this: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). . . . Remember the Sabbath day? Way back in Genesis 1 and 2, the Great Creator went about all the work of making this amazing world. Separating light and darkness, crafting an environment in which creation could thrive – waters above, waters below, with dry land in there too. Fruit trees and pines and, as the story was told from the perspective of the land tucked between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, certainly there were figs and pomegranates and grapes galore. The stars twinkled in the brilliant night sky and the moon waxed and waned to keep track of all the seasons. Fish and cattle and creeping things of every kind came into being until earth was mixed with the divine breath to concoct such a creature as had never been before: humankind came into this world! And then, at last – not because we wore God out in our making, though the news each day might cause us to wonder – then, the Great Creator stopped. It was finished. The Great Creator paused in delight declaring: “Ah! Very good! Very, very good indeed!” . . . Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy – because God wants everyone of us to stop too. To pause, if just from one sundown to sundown, to declare in delight: “Ah! Very good! It all is very, very good indeed!” Set apart in this way, we too make the rest holy.
That was the purpose of Sabbath, at least until the Exodus when Sabbath took on another meaning as well. Observant Jewish brothers and sisters welcome Sabbath in their homes each week with the lighting of two candles when at least three stars can be seen in the sky. One is this candle command of creation – the pause for creatures to delight. To rest. The other is the candle of freedom. Once we were enslaved by the ways of the Pharaoh. But God heard the cries of the people. The wringing of hands over if there would be enough this month to feed the children. Would we ever get a break from the boss who has been breathing down our necks these past several months over our performance on the job? Is that all it all is: toil for a paycheck and worry everything shall work out? . . . Will we ever get a break from defining ourselves by what we do and being defined by others in that way too, instead of simply being accepted for who we are – warts and all? God hears all those cries. Every wonder and weary worry. In response, once a week for a whole 24 hours; we are free! None of it matters. We are invited to put down such heavy burdens to take a walk in the park with someone we love who loves us back just as well. We can take a nap no matter the piles of dirty dishes or chores to do outside. Lay in a hammock or rock out on the front porch if only for 20 minutes just to listen and observe. Rest from the pecking order of this world at least for one whole night and one whole day and see if you wake ready to worship the next morning. Do it on a Saturday, as was first the plan; so that the next day you can gather with others in the faith to swop stories over how good it was for just one night and day this week to rest in the freedom of God.
That is what has Jesus all incensed in the story before us in the gospel of Luke. At a glance it might appear all is well, but the Sabbath command is violated. Not by the one accused of doing the healing. Rather, this particular synagogue leader failed to see the burden on the shoulders of a woman bound by her body for eighteen long years. They would untie their ox or donkey every Sabbath that the animals might get what they needed – even on the day of rest and freedom. But that synagogue leader would not have it that a child of the covenant might get a bit better treatment than beasts of burden on the weekly day to live God’s freedom and rest! . . . Notice that this woman didn’t seek out Jesus. The text says nothing of her coming to the synagogue expecting any sort of healing that day. The author gives great detail that the woman was “bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight” (Luke 13:11). So that even if she wanted to seek out Jesus, about all she’d be able to see as an identifying mark in her search would be feet. Some of you live with back problems that have hindered you to stand up tall to look another straight in the eye. You know the pain that becomes the constant companion. The desperation of wanting to be well. And if you’ve been dealing with it for nearly twenty years, you know too how crushed a spirit can get. So crushed, it would seem, this woman just goes to the synagogue – no indication she’s expecting any sort of release, even there among religious folk you might hope would be concerned enough to find a way to help. . . . Though the leader might spit in his criticism that she was in the wrong for seeking healing on the Sabbath; the story never questions her motives or throws any sort of blame her way. Jesus who has stop to rest and remember – to delight in the goodness of it all and to be free from anyone else’s expectations – while Jesus is observing this day of Sabbath in the synagogue, he sees someone who needs immediately to be set free. Likely, he saw a whole synagogue full of faithful Sabbath-keepers who desperately needed to be free. Free from law over grace. Free from rules trumping compassion. Free from external expectations over the will of God. Free from mental, emotional, and spiritual ailments that weigh heavy upon the backs of every last one –even if those burdens haven’t yet imprinted physically on the body. None of it is ok with this faithful Sabbath-keeper. Keeping his eye on the true intent of the fourth command; with one word, much like the Great Creator at the beginning of it all, Jesus releases the chains upon this woman’s back. He lays his hand upon her and in an instant she is set free. With a full body alleluia, she stands upright, for the first time in eighteen years, to praise God! . . . True Sabbath. True freedom. True joy-filled rest as a beloved child of God! In the whole room, they’re the only two rightly practicing Sabbath. The only two resting in the delightful freedom of the LORD!
In An Altar in the World, the book we’ve been reading this summer in Home Book Club, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds that Sabbath is a “’palace in time’ . . . into which human beings are invited every single week of our lives. The question is: “Why are we so reluctant to go?” (p. 127) . . . I get it. For far too long we’ve been told it’s all about thou shall not. For far too long we’ve let the world around us demand our time and attention. Maybe you’ve been taught to believe Sabbath is all about Sunday and “going to church” – which is not at all what the bible records anywhere! Sabbath is about entering the beautiful palace in time each week to sit a spell, not in an effort to do anything holy, but just to be. Just to rest and remember that we are free. Free from it all because the Great Creator hears us and loves us and commands us just to stop. That in itself is holy! . . . If one sundown to the next sundown is too long for you each week, then at least begin with an hour – preferably sometime Saturday so you at least have some bit of gratitude in your tank when you race in to worship on Sundays. Give it a try, if you don’t already. And enjoy the freedom and rest of God! It is so good. So very, very good indeed!
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)