Sermon for 14th Pentecost -
Keeping the “Sabbath”
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -
Regardless, blue laws, which are still in place in some parts of Europe, kept businesses closed and restaurants prohibited from opening early and serving alcohol on a Sunday. They were a rather public way of the Old Testament tradition of “keeping the Sabbath,” Saturday in Old Testament times and for the Jewish people. Jews continue to mark Saturday as their Sabbath, Muslims Friday and, of course, for we Christians, Sunday is our “Sabbath” day, our day of rest.
These “blue laws” times were simpler times for some people, times when Sunday meant church and family dinners and family gatherings. However, today, for most of us, Sunday is no longer a day of rest. Almost all businesses are open, many people have to work, youth sports activities begin early in the day, and televised sports are more popular than worship attendance.
All of these former customs originated from people's ideas about how to obey the Third Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." From the time this commandment was given by God to Moses, there has been disagreement about why we should honor the Sabbath and how we keep it holy. The book of Exodus links Sabbath observance to the creation: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it." In Deuteronomy a different reason is given: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, 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."
The Sabbath was meant to be a gift, a time of rest and restoration, a time to worship God. But quickly that gift turned into Law, and all sorts of rules grew up about what was work and what wasn't, what it was permissible to do on the Sabbath and what was not. Keeping the Sabbath holy also meant reserving that day for worship of God, and, as you might guess, people had various ideas about what constituted worship and, therefore, exactly what kept the Sabbath holy.
Jesus and his disciples were constantly getting into trouble with the religious authorities for not properly observing the Sabbath. The issue comes up four times in the Gospel of St. Luke, and three of these controversies involve healing on the Sabbath.
In today's Gospel, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he notices a woman who is so crippled that she is completely bent over. She has been suffering this way for 18 years. The woman does not approach Jesus, nor ask for anything. She doesn't have to. The minute Jesus sees her, he calls her over and says, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment," and he lays hands on her.
What Jesus does for the woman is set her free from the torture and imprisonment of her own body. Jesus gives her a new life, free from pain, free from shame, free from isolation. Jesus restores to the woman her dignity, her sense of self-worth, her place in the community, and her very identity. No longer simply a cripple, she is, as Jesus calls her, a proud daughter of Abraham, heir of God's promise, and participant in God's covenant. Jesus reaches out to this outcast, this woman whose everyday life is worse than death, touches her, and gives her the wholeness, health, and peace that God always intended people to have. And she didn't have to do anything. What Jesus does for the woman is a gift; it is pure love, God’s grace.
When Jesus touches the woman, she stands up straight and tall for the first time in 18 years, and she begins to praise God. She knows the source of her healing. So on the Sabbath she praises God for this unexpected, wonderful, unbelievable gift of life.
Not everyone, however, feels the same way. The ruler of the synagogue cannot rejoice in this mighty act or thank God for it. He can only see that Jesus has worked on the Sabbath. Rather than confront Jesus directly, however, he criticizes the waiting crowd and tells them to go away: 'There are six days on which work ought to be done," he says; "come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day."
But Jesus is not willing to let the issue rest. He accuses the ruler of hypocrisy because it was permissible for someone to untie an animal on the Sabbath to give it some water. Relieving the thirst of an animal so that it can continue to live is not a violation of the Sabbath. Why should relieving the suffering of a woman who has been tied up in knots for 18 years so that she can live be any different? Is she of less worth than an animal? The ruler's inconsistency and his lack of understanding of God's will are revealed to all. St. Luke reports, "The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things" that Jesus was doing.
I like scholar David Lose’s “take” on this text – Lose suggests that the ruler of the synagogue forgot that the law is meant to create the conditions in which we can help each other live the life of our dreams – and live into God’s dreams for us. By forgetting this, the ruler of the synagogue ended up suggesting that this woman’s dreams were less important than law and order.
Thus, in Lose’s view, God’s laws invite us to nurture, tend and keep each other’s dreams. That the law is God’s gift to help us live into God’s dream that all persons would be treated with love and respect, that all people would grow up with a robust measure of dignity, that all persons would have enough to eat and a safe place to live.
Thus, once again, this text is really about God’s profound love for us and for all people and God’s commission to us to look out for the welfare of each other. The law is good. Love is even better.
That is how we “keep the Sabbath” in 2016 – treat others with love and respect and dignity and work to be certain that others have enough to eat and a safe place to live.
Few of us would want to return to a world full of blue laws and strict rules about how to observe the Sabbath--even if we could. And, yes, it is often tempting to join the throngs of people for whom Sunday is no different from any day. Yet the very fact that we do come to worship says that we are looking for something more, that we are looking for ways to keep the Sabbath holy and to thank and praise God.
So we gather together to tell and to hear the story of God's love for us. We experience that love, given to us in the form of bread and wine, which joins us to God and to each other, and to all Christians in every time and every place. We rejoice in God's graciousness and give thanks for these gifts. We also give money for ministries here and around the globe that bring people freedom from poverty and illness and bondage. We donate to local charities. We share our time and talents on projects that demonstrate God's care for this world.
We praise God and we serve our neighbor. We thank God by loving our neighbor. As Jesus taught us, that's how we keep the Sabbath holy and that's how we worship God.
(With thanks to the Rev. Dr. Ruth Hamilton and her sermon on the Day1 radio ministry).
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Keeping the “Sabbath”
Sermon for 14th Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
August 20 & 21, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California