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Sun, Aug 25, 2019

Unbent and Unbound

Duration:20 mins 18 secs


Unbent and Unbound

Sermon on Luke 13:10-17

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C

            I grew up in Louisville, Kentucky when the “blue laws” were still in effect. They were perhaps the last remnant of a culture that had been shaped at least in some ways by the teachings of the church, and the decision to repeal these laws was quite controversial. Many businesses chose to stick to their Sunday closings, but over time gave in to the pressure to remain competitive and began opening on Sunday afternoons. When the retail store where I had a part-time job during college decided to go with the flow and open their doors to Sunday shoppers, it meant that I could get paid time and a half for working those hours. I did not come from a pious family, and so like most of my co-workers, I took advantage of the opportunity. It never occurred to me that a certain way of life was passing away for good.

          I’m sure those first Sunday openings back in the 1970s were not the first nail in the coffin of Christian Sabbath observance, but they were a crucial one. The whole concept of Sunday as Sabbath has become a quaint relic of the past. For most mainline Christians, Sunday is just another day of the week – it is no longer sacred time.

          The controversies some of us can remember over the first Sunday store openings give us just a hint of what Jesus’ act of healing on the Sabbath meant to the synagogue leader in Luke’s story. To us, this religious leader seems hardhearted and legalistic, but that’s because we’ve lost the sense of what was at stake for him in honoring the Sabbath. From the synagogue leader’s perspective, what Jesus was doing was trampling on a commandment that was at the very core of Jewish identity.

  • The ancient Jews knew from the book of Genesis that the Sabbath was the day on which God rested from the work of creation; as the last day of the week, it was also the pinnacle of creation, the day for which all the others were made.
  • They knew from the book of Exodus that God ordered Sabbath rest not just for the children of Israel but also for their servants and domestic animals. The Sabbath was a day of peace and refreshment for the whole creation.
  • And finally, they knew from Deuteronomy that the Sabbath was a symbol of their status as free people, people who served no king but God: “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” Moses said to the people, “and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore, the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Later on, Sabbath observance became a sign of resistance to the Roman domination. It was a concrete practice that set the Jews apart from the pagan culture that surrounded them.

          So you can see why the synagogue leader would be so upset by anyone seeming to dishonor the Sabbath day. From his point of view, what Jesus did was irreverent and inappropriate. There was nothing wrong with healing in a synagogue; what was wrong was the time Jesus chose to do it. If we have lost the Jewish sense of sacred time, we do still recognize sacred spaces, don’t we? For example, I don’t think any of us would bring a bag of McDonald’s hamburgers into this sanctuary and start eating our lunch in the pews. We also would not think of listening to a ball game at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial or having a rock concert in a cemetery. We recognize these as sacred places, and would not want to defile or trivialize them. Well, for an observant Jew, working on the Sabbath is as offensive as lighting a cigarette in a cathedral would be to us.

          The woman in Luke’s story was probably initially just as shocked as the synagogue leader when Jesus came to lay his hands on her stooped body. Luke does not say that she came to the synagogue looking to be cured; she came to worship, just like everybody else. What happened to her there was beyond anything she could have imagined.

My guess is that this woman had given up expecting much out of life. She’d been in this bent-over condition for eighteen years. She must have all but forgotten what it was like to look up at the sky, across a meadow or out to sea. She must have all but forgotten what it was like to look into the eyes of another human being. She saw people’s feet rather than their faces. Luke says it was a “spirit,” an evil spirit, that had done this to her. That made her an outcast as well. To the rest of the world, this woman was a faceless nonentity, but Jesus called her a daughter of Abraham.  

And Jesus didn’t see any reason at all why this daughter of Abraham should have to live in this condition for even one more day. If you could show basic compassion for an ox or a donkey by taking off its harness and leading it to water on the Sabbath day, how could you refuse to set a human being free from the prison of her infirmity?  The woman was set free for real, human life, life with possibilities for beauty, pleasure, nurturing relationships. For the first time in eighteen years, she could make eye contact with other people. She could see a smile and return it. She could hold her head high, this daughter of Abraham! No wonder her first act as a free person was to praise God, and no wonder the crowd in the synagogue joined her! What could be more appropriate as a Sabbath-day celebration?

In releasing the woman from her eighteen years of bondage, Jesus reminded everyone in that synagogue that the Sabbath was meant to be a day of liberation. When he enabled a bent-over woman to stand up straight, look people in the eye, and praise God, he was enacting the words of the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah said that true worship was to “let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (58:6). “If you call the Sabbath a delight, honoring it by not pursuing your own affairs, then you shall take delight in the LORD, and [the LORD] will make you ride upon the heights of the earth” (58:13-14, paraphrased).

“If you call the Sabbath a delight…” Here’s what I want to know: Is the Sabbath a delight for you? Or is it just an extra day to catch up on all the chores that didn’t get done during the week? Is it delightful, or is it the day you crash in front of the TV out of sheer exhaustion? 

Neither of these options is what God intends for the Sabbath. One argument I’ve often heard for Sabbath-keeping is that if we don’t take one day a week to rest from our labors, we’ll be too exhausted to get any real return from our work anyway. This is true, but it utterly misses the point of the Sabbath. The point of the Sabbath is not just to give us time to recharge our batteries for six more days of bone-crushing or mind-numbing labor. The point is to share in God’s rest, to enter into the joy of God’s creation, to delight in simply being a creature made in the image of God. The Sabbath says to us, “You are a person, not a machine. You have intrinsic worth regardless of the amount of productive work you perform. You are not simply a producer of goods and services, you are a child of God.”

          If ever there was a people in need of renewing Sabbath rest, we are those people. We belong to one of the most work-oriented cultures that ever existed. There is some irony in our situation. In a post-industrial economy, we are mostly free from the conditions that oppress workers in so much of the world. We don’t have factory bosses chaining us to big, clanking machines or sweatshop overseers counting our stitches. But the demands of our affluent lifestyles drive us to be constantly doing more, achieving more, buying more. The result is that we, with all our wealth and privilege, are bent over with the care and worry of keeping so many balls in the air.

          You would think that the earth would suddenly fall out of its orbit if we stopped our ceaseless activity for one day a week.

          What would it be like for us to set aside one day a week to be and not to do? To worship God, enjoy God’s creation, and enjoy our relationships with each other? To stand up and raise our eyes to see beyond our immediate worries and take note of God’s world?

          Sabbath is about letting things go for one day a week. (That one day doesn’t have to be Sunday, by the way – some people do have to work on Sunday.)  Whatever day it may be, Sabbath is about one day to live as if all your work were done, even if it isn’t. The Sabbath is a day to leave the weeds in the garden to grow for another day, to turn off the computer and leave it off, to refuse to dwell on the stack of unsorted mail. It is a day to play with your children or pets, read a good book, walk aimlessly, let your thoughts ramble. It’s a day to watch the birds and squirrels in your yard instead of terrorizing them with the lawnmower. It’s a day to give praise to God for creating such a world and letting us live in it.

          My guess is that some of you have already learned to live this way; others of you may find the thought of such a day enticing, but don’t know whether you can pull it off; and still others of you may be thinking that a day like that would make you want to jump out of your skin. “Sabbath delight” may be something that has to grow on you.

          There is one more thing that needs to be said about the Sabbath as a celebration of freedom. In the Bible the Sabbath is inseparably tied to a vision of a just world. Isaiah talks about sabbath-keeping in the same way he talks about feeding the hungry and caring for the poor. The Sabbath is a gift for the whole creation. So if our rest and leisure exploits other people and tramples on their rest and freedom, it’s not a true Sabbath. (I’m forced to think about this every time my husband and I go to eat in a restaurant on a Sunday.)

          For the Jews, the Sabbath rest is nothing less than a sign of salvation. Sabbath may not be in our bones in quite the way it is in theirs, but we can learn to take our place as children of God, created for more than checking off boxes on our to-do lists. We were created for the worship and praise and enjoyment of God, and God has given us a day out of time to fulfill this purpose, so that we too can “call the Sabbath a delight.”

Lisa Kenkeremath

Manassas Presbyterian Church

August 25, 2019

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