Friday, August 26, 2016

Giving it a rest

Luke 13: 10-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
August 21, 2016

Lord Jesus,
There are times
we can see only our feet
because the world has us bent
to its pain, its burdens, its rules.
There are times we see
over the backs of others
and we only admire the view.
But you see
each one of us,
an image of God.
Raise us up
so we can stand
look you
and each other
in the eye.

            A nameless woman.  The Bible is replete with them.  They’re somebody’s wife, mother, mother-in-law, daughter, daughter-in-law, sister.  Or they’re unattached, a widow, childless, and poor, or worse, a sinful woman, harlot, whore.

            In the gospels one interpretation is the nameless woman is a symbol for Israel.  And not only Israel but the most vulnerable of God’s people:  widows, orphans, the poor, the outcast, the stranger, and those who need healing, and how they are treated by those who have power and responsibility for them.  Jesus is calling into question not only the rules around the Sabbath but also how the least of God’s children need Sabbath the most.

The division that Jesus said he would bring in last week’s reading from Luke is present in this story.  Jesus is in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath; he is at the center of the practice of his faith.  To practice the Sabbath is to practice the way of God, to participate in God’s rhythms.  A woman with, in the Greek translation, a ‘spirit of weakness’ enters, presumably to worship God.  She is unable to stand upright, only able to focus on the small square of floor her circumscribed vision will allow.  She does not call out to Jesus, she probably could not lift her head to see him, let alone know he was there.  Jesus is the one who calls out to her.  Without asking permission of anyone, without changing any laws, without organizing a committee to talk about it first, he heals her and creates a crisis for the leader of the synagogue and his colleagues but an occasion of praise for the crowd.

This healing on the Sabbath is intended to carry us back to the last time Jesus healed on the Sabbath in chapter 6 and even further to the first time we read of him teaching in the synagogue in chapter 4.  When he healed the man with the withered hand Jesus asked the scribes and the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”  When he teaches in the synagogue in Nazareth, his hometown, he reads from Isaiah and we hear echoes of the lesson from this morning:  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

By the time of Jesus’ ministry, the Sabbath had become a system of rules rather than the gift of God it was meant to be.  Jews were instructed to abstain from 39 types of labor, not to ‘legalize’ the Sabbath but so that the people of God would alter their hearts and minds from their agenda to God’s agenda.  Human beings have an apparent difficulty with an imposed communal day of rest; it does not seem to come naturally to us, especially now in our technological, individualistic age.  So laws, both religious and secular, have long been enacted to steer us toward a time of not just rest but also toward moral behavior.

In the U.S. they were called blue laws, those that govern activity on Sundays.  The former Blue Laws of Delaware, “offences against religion, morality, and decency”, prohibited more than just “worldly employment, labor, or business” on Sunday.  Laws passed in 1852 and still on the books in the mid-20th century stated it was illegal to drive or travel on Sundays, as well as sell any kind of liquor within two miles of a camp meeting for worship.  One could not hunt fowl or game, go fishing, or engage in horse racing or cock-fighting on the Sabbath.  There was also to be no dancing, playing, or organizing of games of any kind; in essence, a joyless day dedicated to the Lord.

In 1911, Delaware’s blue laws made headlines when several of Arden’s residents, along with Sinclair Lewis, were arrested for playing tennis and baseball on Sunday.  In 1941 the state attorney general, James Morford, took the blue laws to task, pointing out that it was ridiculous for someone to be a law-abiding citizen six days of the week but guilty of breaking the law on the seventh.  It also made room for graft and corruption in public office by the widespread disrespect for what most people thought of as soft laws.  He enforced the blue laws as they had never been before.  On March 2, 1941, throughout the state of Delaware, taxi and bus drivers, restaurant workers, newspaper vendors, gas station attendants, even the general manager of WDEL, were arrested; more than 500 arrests in one day.  “But 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? And 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?”

Wait a minute.  That sounds like Jesus is comparing this woman who was bent for 18 years to a beast of burden, a work animal.  Well, yes, he is but not as an insult to her.  What Jesus is saying is that these faithful people, good people, well-meaning people who want to obey God, do the right thing—they treat their work animals better than they do the least of God’s people.

Even with all our rules, even with blue laws, even when we think we’re kind enough, moral enough, we can’t legislate kindness; we can’t make people be moral.  We all suffer from a spirit of weakness of some sort that makes it difficult to be upright, that bends us to a will not our own, that puts our agenda first, that prevents us from seeing the whole picture, that constricts our ability to offer praise, to really be alive and who we really are.  Rather than sending the woman away to come back at a time when it was convenient to uphold the law, Jesus inconveniences himself, he touches her, and he bends the law that the woman might be set free, come alive, and claim her birthright as a daughter of Abraham, not to mention Sarah.

Earlier this week I asked Facebook friends what helps them feel rested, and also what restores them.  What I found most interesting is that many gave answers that involve solitude.  Which says to me that the way we are in community most of the time not only saps us of energy but that we aren’t really free to be really alive and who we really are.

            The Sabbath is not only about rest, which our competitive, look-busy-lest-you-be-judged, bucket-list, you-only-live-once culture sorely needs.  The Sabbath is about community and restoration: restoring not only our spirits, but restoring those to community who have little to none.
What of the bent backs of the Immokalee workers who pick tomatoes under Florida’s hot sun and Wendy’s 10 year refusal to participate in the Fair Food program?  What of those bent by poverty and a wage that doesn’t allow for a day off?  What of those lives bent by grief and loss, mental illness, addiction, homelessness?  Whenever we bend for one such as these, when we alter our hearts and minds from our agenda to God’s agenda, when we stretch beyond our traditions of what it means to be church, we are engaging in Sabbath, and making it the center of our practice of faith.

            We need Sabbath rest so we can do Sabbath justice, and neither is optional, but they also don’t have to take place just on Sunday.  The more we engage in Sabbath living, holy, holistic, justice-filled living, we begin to see that every day is sacred, and that life-affirming community can be created and found anywhere.  And that, my friends, is what Jesus called the kingdom of God.  Amen.


Is not this the fast, the Sabbath that we choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share our bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into our house;
when we see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide ourselves from our own kin?

Then our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; the One who upholds us shall go before us, the glory of the Lord shall have our backs. Then we shall call, and the Lord will answer; we shall cry for help, and the Holy One will say, Here I am.

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