First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
August 25, 2019
“What’s Up With ‘Sabbath’?”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Luke 13:10-17 (NRSV)
10Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11And 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. 12When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14But 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.” 15But 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? 16And 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?” 17When 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.
Aaaahhhh, Sunday mornings. That time of rest, renewal, re-energizing from the week that is past and for the week that is ahead. It’s that “plug in and get recharged” time of late breakfasts, long newspaper reads and maybe even a mid-morning nap.
That’s what Sunday mornings were for me as a kid growing up in a non-church-going household. It was a day to sleep in, have a full breakfast, complete with bacon and some sort of sweet, carb-laden something that was created to just soak up butter and maple syrup. It was about the only time that I saw my dad actually sit still for longer than 10 minutes as he sat and read the Sunday paper while listening to an album on the hi-fi. Something with some John Philip Sousa marches or some soaring orchestration led by Montovani. (play short section of “Charmaine” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__tm_j8FPl0) Although it was restful, I’m not sure it was quite the “holy” Sabbath mentioned in the fourth commandment (Exodus 20:8-11).
There’s a reason that keeping the Sabbath day holy is part of the big ten (commandments, that is) and part of the religious practice we inherited from our Jewish ancestors. It has to do with the part of the story where, before Israel was liberated from slavery in Egypt, they didn’t get time for renewal and rest. They were driven 24/7… and not by their choice. There would be no long, lingering, carbohydrate breakfast, no favorite music, no mid-morning nap. There would be labor and oppression because they were ruled over by someone else for that someone else’s power and gain. They were slaves. …. until there was freedom.
Freedom. It’s what’s behind Sabbath in the first place. It seems that freedom for the oppressed is one of the things that God is really good at. God seems to have this divine necessity for Israel, the sons and daughters of Abraham and Sarah, to be free because…. Long, long, long before this, God and Abraham and Sarah made this covenant… That God would be their God and they would be God’s people. It was a sacred covenant, a sacred relationship, a covenant that God intended to keep – no matter what. But, if the descendants of Abraham and Sarah weren’t free to participate in that covenant because they were forced into slavery, well, something was amiss.
So, at the beginning of the Exodus story, when Moses is serving as God’s messenger to Pharaoh and gives the command to let the people of Israel go, Pharaoh refuses. So, God goes on a holy tirade and starts sending plagues. The first was turning the Nile River into blood. When that didn’t do the trick, God sent frogs, lots and lots and lots of frogs. But before that happened, God’s plea to Pharaoh was “Let my people go so that they may worship me.” (Exodus 8:1) God wanted their freedom so they could observe the covenant, so they could be in relationship. How can you be God’s people if you can’t worship. As long as they were being held in bondage, covenant wasn’t happening, the relationship was a long distance one that just wasn’t working for either God or the people. Freedom from bondage and living in loving relationship is what Sabbath is about. It’s about freedom from being ruled over by someone who could care less about anything other than what’s in it for them. Sabbath is not just a day to kick back and chill because it’s nice to kick back and chill. Sabbath is about kicking back and chilling with God in recognition of freedom from bondage.
So, fast forward a few thousand years and watch what Jesus does when he encounters a woman in bondage to an ailment that kept her bent over for 18 years. Let’s get a sense of what that would have been like. How long is 18 years? Well, let’s go back 18 years to 2001…. George W. Bush was in the first year of his presidency. Eighteen years ago today was before the 9/11 attacks on the United States. That’s how long this woman had been bent over. That’s how long she was in bondage to whatever ailment it was that kept her looking at her feet. Eighteen years. 216 months. 6,570 days. So when Jesus met her in the Synagogue that day, he said, enough already and reached out his hand and set her free.
But, there was a problem… it was the Sabbath. And, well, work isn’t supposed to be done on the Sabbath. Or so the religious leaders of the day were saying. Just wait a day, they wanted. I suppose one more day of being bent over wouldn’t have made that much difference. I mean, what’s a day in the course of eighteen years. I’m sure for that woman it was an eternity. The religious leaders didn’t have a problem with her being healed. Just don’t do it on the Sabbath because healing takes work. But, what if it’s God doing the work? What if the work being done is the work of liberating one so that she could actually participate in Sabbath? After all, every humane soul unyokes their oxen on the Sabbath to give them rest from their burden. Why wouldn’t we do the same for a person who has been burdened and bent over for 6,570 days?
Apparently, over time, the Sabbath and religion itself became oppressive, with rules and ordinances and expectations and who can do what and who should not do what and what can and can’t be done and what can be worn and what should not be worn and who can be there and who can’t and what should be said by whom and to whom. No wonder she was bent over. Who wouldn’t be trying to carry all of that around. The religion that was once about remembering the saving and relationship-building acts of God had become a burden that weighed people down and bent them over.
It’s easy to let that happen. When something is important and meaningful, we want to make sure that it stays just that way so we try to capture it in rules and rituals and traditions and doctrine and wrap it up in statements like “It’s what we’ve always done” or even “it’s in the Bible.” Let’s not forget that animal sacrifice is in the Bible, as is polygamy, slavery, racial and gender inequality. Thank God for still speaking through the hearts and minds of those who hear not just the words but the message of God’s love and grace in holy scripture. Because without the Still-speaking God, people’s hearts are locked in chains of fear that something they say or do or even something about who they are will be wrong. It bends them over and keeps them from praising God for the liberating freedom of Grace.
When religion itself becomes the tyrant, there is no Sabbath for what is being worshipped is the religion itself and not the liberating One religion is supposed to reveal.
Religion is supposed to set people free, not imprison them. Sabbath practice is about opening wide the doors so that everyone can be part of a community as it rejoices in it’s relationship with God. Sabbath should free, not restrict. Worship is about reaching out to the God who’s divine necessity is to reach out to us. The celebration of the Gospel is about realizing that a liberating word has been laid on those who are bent over by the demands and circumstances of life. And like the healing hands of Christ frees them from their bondage. Salvation is about releasing the vulnerable from the grips of tyrants, be they religious, political, cultural, or familial.
When Jesus reached out to the woman who had been bent over for eighteen long years on the Sabbath and released her from her burden, he reached into the heart of the Sabbath. Freedom. Dignity. Respect as a child of God. He freed her from that which kept her from living into the covenant God established with her ancestors thousands of years before she drew her first breath. We, the church should do nothing less on the Sabbath and every other day of the week. Not only are we invited into the release of the burdens of that which keeps us from living into God’s covenant of love and grace, we are called, and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live into being the body of Christ to create an atmosphere of release and unburdening, a culture of respect and dignity for everyone, and a life of grace.
May the freely given love of God through Christ be expressed this Sabbath day and beyond.