(a sermon for August 21, 2016, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Deuteronomy 5:12-15 and Luke 13:10-17)
I think I’ve mentioned before from this pulpit that for a couple of years while I was in college and seminary I had a job working the graveyard shift as a security guard at the Bangor Daily News. I was basically there for insurance purposes because nothing ever happened; in fact, I worked Saturday night into Sunday morning when the BDN isn’t even published, so usually there were only two of us left in the entire building: me, and whoever was answering the phones. So the nights were long, very quiet and often pretty boring!
Luckily, the young woman at the switchboard (who, like me, was another college student) always had a deck of cards, and so – thirty-five years later, I guess I can admit this now – in between my appointed rounds, we used to play a whole lot of gin rummy! That is, we’d play until just after Saturday midnight; at which time, even if we were in the middle of a game she’d pick up the cards and say, “That’s it; I’m all done.” She went on to explain that she never played cards on Sunday because her grandmother had always said to her that playing cards were “the devil’s playthings” and while it was bad enough the rest of the week, playing cards on “the Sabbath” – on Sunday – was a particularly egregious sin!
Now, being the young, liberally minded seminarian that I was at the time, I tried to dissuade her of this notion; seeking to assure her that playing cards weren’t inherently evil, that it all was a pretty old-fashioned idea to begin with and that since through Christ we are saved by grace, she certainly wasn’t going to burn for playing gin rummy in the wee hours of a Sunday morning (fired, maybe (!), but not burned!). But then she smiled and said, “Oh, I know all that. It’s just that this was how my grandmother honored God, and this is how I honor my grandmother.” And that said it all.
It was about “keeping the Sabbath,” and even back then it often seemed like an antiquated concept. Actually, I suspect that most of us in this room know the difference: because there was a time, and not so very long ago, when Sundays were made for church, for family, for rest… and in that order! Stores were all closed, it was impossible to buy alcohol, Sunday sports (at least those played in school!) was something totally unheard of, and in a lot of households there were some pretty strict rules on what you were allowed to do; you could go to youth group or confirmation class, for instance, but maybe not to the movies; you could read a book (but not comic books!), and play a game (but probably not cards!); and for some there was indeed a prohibition on what the Rev. Ruth Hamilton, a Lutheran pastor out of Atlanta, refers to as “frivolous activities.” In those days, you see, Sundays were about worship and rest, and quietly getting yourself prepared for the week ahead; but most of all, it was rooted in an effort to obey the third commandment, to “observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
Somewhere along the line, of course, all that changed. Most of the so-called “blue laws” are long gone, and so all the stores are open; Sunday sports are commonplace these days; and many people end up having to go to work on Sundays (and not just preachers!). Basically, we do everything that we’d do on any other day, and since we’re also trying to fit in everything else we want to do, consequently Sundays have now become as busy and convoluted as the other six, if not more so! And the worst part, at least in this pastor’s mind, is that all too often church and worship ends up taking a back seat to everything else. To quote Ruth Hamilton once again, “With our busy schedules, our desire to spend time with the family, and our focus on having as much fun and free time as we can, we struggle with honoring the Sabbath and using the day to worship God.”
Now, I realize August may be a bad time to talk about this, and also that I’m quite literally “preaching to the choir” on this beautiful summer morning (!), but I still have to say that this raises a very good question for us all: how do we 21st century Christians manage to truly be “keeping the Sabbath” in these times in which we live? How do we obey that third commandment, and in the process honor God by how we choose to spend this day? How do we move from the concept of “Sunday Funday,” so to speak, to actually keeping Sunday – our Sabbath day of worship and rest – a holy day and a holy endeavor?
There’s some insight to be found in our gospel reading for this morning from Luke, in which Jesus, while “teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath,” heals a woman who has been bent over and crippled for eighteen years! Now, there are a lot of interesting things about this story, but the first one for me is that this woman never actually asks for Jesus to heal her; she just shows up there at the synagogue, “Jesus notices her, calls out to her, and tells her that she is free from her ailment.” I love what pastor and author William Willimon has said about his; he writes that “Jesus doesn’t say or do much of anything to heal the sick woman; he doesn’t have to. It’s as if compassionate, merciful, healing is just who Jesus is. It’s as if the moment Jesus shows up; the mercifulness begins to overflow.”
So now we have this incredible, miraculous and abundantly joyful act of love; but what’s the very next thing that happens? That’s right, there’s the “leader of the synagogue” who, totally ignoring the woman’s loud and joyous praising of God, immediately becomes “indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath.” And he’s pretty sarcastic about it, too; what in modern parlance we might refer to as being rather “snarky,” furiously proclaiming that “’there are six days on which work ought to be done, come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’” Talk about no good deed going unpunished!
But lest we cast this synagogue leader in a wholly negative light, let’s be fair: all he was really doing there was seeking to adhere to the admonition to keep the Sabbath holy in accordance to the manifold laws contained in scripture! And at least in this one sense, he wasn’t wrong: adherence to the law was something he took very seriously, and quite literally, and now for Jesus to flaunt one of God’s commandments in such a fashion as this; well, this was just unacceptable! And I’ll be honest here, friends; I can understand that kind of attitude! The truth is, there are times I kind of miss the blue laws! I do sometimes long for those Sundays in the past when the church was the only game in town, and we didn’t have to compete with everything else going on! Those days are long gone, of course, but the thing is it didn’t happen all at once; where we are today is the result of one little change, one little compromise after another over time. But see where we’ve ended up because of it! So, yes, I can understand the synagogue leader’s vehemence regarding keeping the law, and the Sabbath tradition, intact.
But then, along with Jesus pointing out the hypocrisy of the leader’s claims (hey, you take care of your animals on the Sabbath and think nothing of it; isn’t this woman’s 18 year agony more important than that?), he goes on to get to the heart of the matter of what “keeping the Sabbath” is really all about. You see, the very idea of “the Sabbath” actually has two origins in scripture: the first comes in Genesis, and speaks of how rested on the seventh day after six days of creating the heavens and the earth; in other words, as God rested so also should we and our households. The other reference comes from our Old Testament reading this morning from Deuteronomy that links the idea of Sabbath to the Exodus; a weekly remembrance of the freedom, liberty, the release from bondage and the deliverance from captivity that God gave to his people (and that, incidentally, is why we as Christians celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday rather than Saturday, as does the Jewish tradition; for we are recalling and giving thanks for our release from the bondage of sin in the resurrection of Jesus our Lord!)
The Sabbath is meant to be a time of reflection and celebration of all that God has done and is doing; and so, says Jesus, why wouldn’t this be the appropriate, best time to set this woman free from the bondage that has left her bent and broken for so long? What we’re talking about here is love over legalism, so of course it’s permissible; in fact, what Jesus tells us here is that the Sabbath is the very day when such healing ought to happen!
So how do we 21st century Christians keep the Sabbath holy in these crazy busy times? Maybe the answer isn’t as much carving out a unobstructed 24 hour period for the church as it is each one of us devoting those 24 hours to God in the places where we live, and work, and shop, and do the errands, and run the kids and get things ready for the week ahead. Yes – and I want to be clear about this – it does begin and needs to include the “act and attitude” of worship; coming here to sing and to pray every Sunday not only represents our need for thankfulness and praise, and affirms our part in the whole community of God’s people, it is also our regular reminder to love and serve God in everything that we do in this life. And while I don’t disagree, friends, that we can worship elsewhere, say amidst the beauty of nature (I did it myself during my vacation!), this is still no substitute for what we do and who we are in this place! As people of faith, we are made to worship, beloved, and that provides us both rest and spiritual renewal, both of which are tenets of truly keeping the Sabbath; so yes, we do need to come to church on Sunday!
But all that said, keeping the Sabbath involves more than just coming to church; it also has to with recognizing, and acting upon our faith. As we affirm what God is doing for us, we embrace what it is that we can do for others. What was it that my co-worker said, that “this is how my grandmother honors God, and this is how I honor my grandmother?” Well, to put it more simply, we “pass it on.” We “pay it forward.” We seek to free others from their bondage because we have ourselves been freed. We do for one another the things that nurture and heal; we show mercy and compassion and bring justice to those who have been bent and broken by the world; we seek to love in the same great and divine manner that we have been loved.
I ask you, friends; what would our Sundays be like if you and I were to openly and fully take everything we receive “in here” in our worship and fellowship at East Church and bring it “out there” into our homes, to our families, amongst our friends and neighbors and even with strangers, and in and through the busy-ness of work and play? Think about it; are there people in your life today who stand in the need of the love, compassion and abundant life that God offers? Is there someone in your circle this afternoon who needs to be set free of the burden they’re carrying: a long held feeling of guilt, perhaps; or regret, or grief, or any one of countless other types of pain. And maybe is there a situation, a conflict, an unresolved issue with someone in your own life that might simply require you taking the first step? What if, for you today, Sunday is “one day” that can happen?
Perhaps… and in doing so, beloved, that would be “keeping the Sabbath” holy “as the LORD your God has commanded you”…while, might I add, setting the pace and creating the narrative for the other six days of the week in this ministry of love and grace we do together in Christ’s name. And for a world that’s full of hurt and suffering, this would most certainly be cause for rejoicing!
So might it be on this Sabbath day, and always.
Thanks be to God.
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry