Lectionary Texts: Luke 13: 10-17 (Hebrews 12: 18-29)
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, August 21, 2016
- Where are You Now?
So, where are you now? Oh, I know…you’re sitting here in the sanctuary ready to hear what you are hoping will be a fulfilling and, yet, fairly short sermon. But, really, where are you? What is on your mind now? Are you worried about someone? Are you concerned that you won’t get something done? Are you trying to figure out lunch? Are you thinking that you wish you were in a better financial situation to give to the flood bucket project? Are you feeling pressed for time or pressed for money or pressed for attention? Are you feeling like you’re not spending enough time on something? Are you stressed out about something? Or are you just feeling a little overwhelmed? Stop! Just stop! Stop it.
In this world that expects us to run faster and jump higher, to get high marks and work more hours, God gives us this incredible gift of allowing ourselves, no, of MAKING ourselves stop. The Sabbath is not a requirement; it’s not a rule; the Sabbath is a gift. It is a necessity. It is what God, with all the infinite wisdom of the Divine, knew that we needed. And so, we are told to “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.”[i]
As I said, it’s not a rule. We’re not going to debate whether it should happen on Saturday or Sunday and what actually constitutes taking a Sabbath. And worship is only a part of it. To “keep the Sabbath holy” means to set it apart, to remember that there is a rhythm of enslavement and freedom, of doing and ceasing. It’s about following what is, or what should be, a natural rhythm to life. So, why can’t we do that? What is it about us that thinks that it is better to be always moving, always working, always doing something? What does that say about our ability to just stop and spend time with God? One day, 1/7th of your week; 1/7th of your life. As I said, there’s nothing that says it should happen on Sunday. I will tell you that as much as I love Sundays, they are not Sabbaths for me. Somewhere, each of us has to find the 1/7th of our life. We NEED it.
- Encountering Shabbat
When I was in Israel a few years ago, we drove into Jerusalem on a Friday night just as the sun was setting. When I realized what day it was (which, as you know, is sometimes a blur when you’re traveling), it was a very powerful realization for me. Here I was entering the City of Jerusalem for the first time in my life, the city that holds so much of the history and holiness of Judaism as well as Christianity, just as the Jewish Shabbat began, just as the Sabbath that Jesus observed every Friday night of his life started. As I entered this holy city, people all through it were ceasing work, lighting candles, and ushering in the seventh day.
As part of our preparation for the trip, we had been told about the Shabbat elevators in the hotel. (And of course on this particular Friday night, that elevator was the only one working to take us and our luggage up sixteen flights.) You see, an Orthodox Jew, of which there are many in Jerusalem, takes the Sabbath “no work” thing very literally. In fact, pushing elevator buttons is considered work.
So from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, one of the elevators is designated a “Shabbat elevator”. It goes up and down the elevator bank and stops at every floor, regardless what buttons are pushed. It takes you a little longer, but, really, why does that matter? Yes, it is obvious that the Sabbath is taken much more seriously than we usually do.
It was this seriousness in how the Sabbath is observed that we encounter in the Gospel passage that we read today. And yet, the seriousness had also turned into a sort of inflexible, legalistic understanding of why the Sabbath was observed at all. Somewhere along the way the meaning of the Sabbath had been lost.
III. Remember the Sabbath to Keep it Holy
We first encounter the Sabbath at its very Creation. But many of us read the beginning of the second chapter of Genesis as sort of a pretty poetic “wrap up” to the whole Creation account. But the Sabbath is much, much more. This divine resting is part of the created order. This divine act of blessing the Sabbath is God’s act of giving power to the temporal order; it is the honoring of the cycle of work and rest that is part of the implicit rhythm of Creation. God did not stop working at Creation to take a nap. God rather created the Sabbath that we might embrace all that had been created. Essentially, the Sabbath is not the ending of creation; it is the climax; it is what God was working everything toward. God created all that was and then created the Sabbath to look back, embrace it all, and call it good. And so, we are given the commandment to “remember the Sabbath” or to “observe the Sabbath”, depending on where you’re reading, not because it’s a rule but because it’s part of who we are.
But in the Gospel passage we read, there are those who forgot this. In one of his poems, T.S. Eliot said that “we had the experience but missed the meaning.” This describes it to a tee. They were so worried about Jesus breaking the “rules” of the Sabbath that they forgot compassion; they forgot justice; they forgot who they were; they forgot what the Sabbath was really meant to be. The rules and their way of doing things had become so important that they had redefined who they were—they had become those who would be content to leave this woman bent over and suffering, bound by her own body just so that they could say that they had followed the rules. The Sabbath is not merely a list of rules. And Jesus is not merely a keeper of the rules.
The funny thing is, this woman didn’t even ask to be healed, according to the passage. And no one from her family made that request either. Jesus healed her, set her free from her affliction, because that is who Jesus was. The story essentially portrays Jesus as keeping the Sabbath because he sees it differently. If the purpose of the Sabbath is to stop and rest that we might be free to praise God, Jesus heals this woman so that she can do exactly that. It’s not about rules; it’s about freedom. Commentator Sharon Ringe makes the point that “this is not “whether” but “how” to keep the Sabbath.”
- Sabbath Renderings
So what does it mean to “keep the Sabbath”? For us, it has probably just morphed into a day off, a day when we can be with our family, maybe work in the yard, and, hopefully, attend church. But, we need to realize that it is much, much more than merely “going to church”. Conversely, the people of Jesus’ time would have had a much more profound regard for this holy day of rest. Just as those of the modern-day Jewish faith do, they would have welcomed the Sabbath into their homes as a queen would be welcomed. The Sabbath was more than just a day of rest; it was also a day of promise. It was not the first day of the week, revving us up for more work; it was the end of the week, when they looked back and embraced what God had done.
Sabbath offers a remembrance of God’s promise of peace and freedom for all of creation. It is indeed a gift from God, a gift that if we do not honor, do not remember, then we sadly do not receive. This is why it was so important to the Hebrew people, newly released from slavery. But it is important for us too. Otherwise we are choosing enslavement over freedom—enslavement to our clocks and our computers and our phones and to our commitments and to all these burdens that we are bearing that are so heavy that we, like the woman in the passage, must bend over to carry them. We refuse the freedom that is offered and we go back into slavery. It’s a self-imposed slavery, but it is still something that binds us.
I know it’s hard. Our world no longer provides a place for our Sabbath. It has affected us. It has definitely affected the church. No longer is Sunday reserved for us. I remember when I was little, they still had some of those blue laws in effect. But they never made very much sense to me. You would go in a large store and there would be some things roped off with something that looked like crime tape and others ready for purchase. But it was essentially an attempt to make us act differently. So, what now? Now it has to be our choice. We have to choose to honor the Sabbath; we have to choose to be the church even if that may look different than it did before.
The Hebrew term for Sabbath, Shabbat, “to cease and desist”. Those are not rules; those are action words. It is a call to stop—to stop work, to stop accomplishment, to stop worrying, to stop possessiveness, to stop controlling others, to stop trying to be God. It is not a legalistic commandment, but a calling to wholeness. That is what those people who objected to Jesus’ healing the bent over woman did not get. Jesus was not working to heal her; he was reaching out and giving her the gift of the freedom to live her life, he was giving her Sabbath.
You see, this Sabbath, or Shabbat, that God created, the climax of all that is created, is the culmination of all things. It is a glimpse of the holy and the sacred, a chance for us to experience the life that is to come. Nice as we all are, we do not come to this place Sunday after Sunday simply because we enjoy one another’s company. We could go sit and drink coffee somewhere and do that. We come because in the deepest part of our being is a hunger for the Kingdom of God. Sometimes that’s hard to define. Hans Kung defines the reign of God as “God’s creation healed.” That means all that we see, all that we are, body-bent and soul-starved, will be able to stand and praise and join with God.
In 1951, Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote what I think is the quintessential classic entitled The Sabbath. In it, Heschel says that “unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath while still in this world, unless one is initiated in the appreciation of eternal life, one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come. Sad,” he says, “is the lot of the one who arrives inexperienced and when led to heaven has no power to perceive the beauty of the Sabbath…”[ii]
You see, the Sabbath is to give us a taste of that freedom, of that eternal freedom that God has promised us. So, why don’t we stop and embrace it?
- Keeping the Sabbath Wholly
I must confess that I struggle with keeping Sabbath. There is too much to do; there are too many places to be; there are too many things that only I can do. (Oh, come on!) The truth is, when I am feeling overwhelmed, I tend to buy books on “Sabbath” and “Simplicity”. Needless to say, I have a lot of them. I think I am trying to create the perfect setting for my own “Sabbath-keeping”. And therein lies my problem.
You see, as odd as it may sound to us, the idea of the Shabbat elevators in Jerusalem is not a call to quit riding the elevator. It is, rather a reminder that it is time for us to cease being a Creator. By ceasing pushing buttons on the elevator, one relinquishes creating movement. By not cooking, one does not create something to eat. By stopping the act of physically turning on the lights, one gives us the ability to create a spark of electricity. These are not rules; they are invitations to freedom. That’s exactly what our Creation account implies that God did, if only for a day in time. God created Sabbath rest and then rested in the beauty and rhythm of the Creation that was already there. God quit creating and intentionally rested in what was created.
And by remembering and observing the Sabbath, we too, can enter the rhythms and cycles of Creation just as they are intended to be. Heschel contends that “The Sabbath is more than an armistice, more than an interlude, it is a profound conscious harmony of [humans] and the world, a sympathy for all things and a participation in the spirit that unites what is below and what is above. All that is Divine in the world is brought into union with God. This is Sabbath, and the true happiness of the universe.”[iii]
So, I’ll ask again. How do we observe the Sabbath? What does this say about us? We are a lot like those religious leaders that so wanted to put Jesus’ actions in a little box. It’s easier that way. After all, there’s a time and a place for everything, right? And rules are rules. But who made those rules up anyway? The only thing that we are told is to remember the Sabbath, to remember this compassionate God of all who created all there is and invites us to join with our creator in the climax of Creation. But we are probably more like that woman than the religious leaders—body-bent and soul-starved, wanting desperately to know God, to be with God. But we are so busy with our “to do lists” and our iPhones and our shrinking days off, that we forget that God created space and time for us to do just that. We forget that the Sabbath is not something we fit into our week; it is the climax of life itself. It is our taste of eternity, our way of being with God.
There is a story of an American traveler on safari in Kenya. He was loaded down with maps, and timetables, and travel agendas. Porters from a local tribe were carrying his cumbersome supplies, luggage, and “essential stuff.” On the first morning, everyone awoke early and traveled fast and went far into the bush. On the second morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went very far into the bush. On the third morning, they all woke very early and traveled very fast and went even farther into the bush. The American seemed pleased. But on the fourth morning, the porters refused to move. They simply sat by a tree. Their behavior incensed the American. “This is a waste of valuable time. Can someone tell me what is going on here?” The translator answered, “They are waiting for their souls to catch up with their bodies.”
That is what God has given us in the Sabbath—the gift of reconnecting with our soul, the gift of reconnecting with God, the gift of once again realizing what the freedom of life means. It is the chance to once again stand up straight and praise God for all that we are and all that we will become. It is the freedom to be what God intended us to be. Maybe our problem is that we don’t desire that freedom deeply enough. Maybe we’re not open enough to the newness that God will show us if we will only stop—stop planning what we will find, stop expecting what it should be, and open ourselves to the way that God releases us from ourselves.
The traditional Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown, the Christian Sabbath with morning worship. In both, Sabbath time begins with the lighting of candles and a stopping—to welcome the Sabbath in. Marcia Falk writes that “three generations back my family had only to light a candle and the world parted. Today, Friday afternoon, I disconnect clocks and phones. When night fills my house with passages, I begin saving my life.”[iv] This is the beginning of sacred time. This is the beginning of eternity. This is where we find life.
Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha’olam
Asher kidishanu b’mitz’votav v’tzivanu
L’had’lik neir shel Shabbat. Amein
Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe
Who has sanctified us with [these] commandments and commanded us
To light the lights of Shabbat. Amen.
What are you doing now? Where are you? Stop…and embrace the gift of freedom that God offers us all.
[i] Exodus 20: 8-10a (NRSV)
[ii] Abraham Heschel, The Sabbath, (New York, NY: Straus & Giroux, 1951), 74.
[iii] Ibid., 31-32
[iv] Marcia Falk, in Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in our Busy Lives, Wayne Muller (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 1999), 21.