Lectionary Reflection for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost
August 25, 2013
…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? Luke 13:16
The synagogue leader in this week’s gospel reading is having a tough time reconciling Sabbath law with Jesus’ behavior. After all, good order is important in keeping a faith community on track and maintaining right practice and orthodoxy. Can’t this visiting rabbi understand his dilemma and toe the line? Plus, keeping the Sabbath law is a commandment:
Remember the Sabbath day, 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; you shall not do any work–you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 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. Exodus 20:8-11
Christians today still struggle with the concept of Sabbath. Commandment or not, our 21st century culture looks at Sunday as just another day for commerce, sports, leisure, and work. No longer is the norm attending Sunday morning worship, participating in a Christian education hour (i.e. Sunday school) and then going home to eat, relax, and visit for the rest of the day. My 85-year-old mother, for example, remembers working long and hard on Saturday to prepare for the Lord’s Day–cleaning, cooking, and scrubbing. She lived on a farm in eastern Kentucky without running water or indoor plumbing. She recalls walking to the little country church building to sweep, dust, and clean the kerosene lamp globes. Sunday was the pinnacle of the week and a day worthy of planning and preparation. There was always, always room to pull up another chair to the dinner table for anyone who happened by and enough food for an extra mouth or two. It was a day where time was held in different light, where the ordinary and sacred met in a deep breath. The Sabbath was a time of refreshment, restoration, and release from the rigors of workaday life.
Or, as Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his book The Sabbath,
“The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time. It is a day on which we are called upon the share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world.”
Perhaps we need to help people find more grace and less law in keeping the Sabbath. What if we looked at the story of Jesus healing the woman with a crippling spirit in the broader context of the weights that keep so many of us bent and broken? In our faith communities Jesus is present to heal, to love, to redeem, and to equip each one of us to experience and live in real freedom. Maybe we can’t even comprehend the depth and breadth of what Sabbath really means until we get a taste of this freedom. And it takes a healthy dose of grace to get there, because law will drive us to our knees at the foot of the cross every time. Only when Jesus calls our name, meets us in the waters baptism, and frees us for a life truly worth living can we embrace and live into such a life.
Just how do we reclaim the Sabbath in a world that doesn’t hold it sacred? This is perhaps part of the answer to the question that keeps nagging at our declining denominations. We need again to hold an expectation of incorporating Sabbath as a pinnacle of Christian experience. No, we’re probably never going to see a return of Blue Laws, and life is likely to continue to become more complicated and precarious. The “good old days” of Mainline Christianity are more nostalgia than reality. We need to reclaim that first century sense of difference, of a community that is real, intentional, and that longs to be a difference in the world.
Begin (if you haven’t already) by setting a welcome table and opening the doors–better yet, step outside and bring the church to the world. Study the context of your community, of your immediate mission field. What ways can your community bring Sabbath freedom, love, and healing to the broken and bent ones? Do you need to add a worship service to meet the needs of the community? Maybe you start a time of worship and discussion in a brew pub or coffee shop. Maybe you gather around a community meal and jam session. Maybe you walk dogs around the neighborhood and listen and look for signs of God’s presence in the world. Maybe you meet in a local park for prayer and communion. You might begin a community that gathers the homeless. Perhaps you simply need to be more intentional about exploring and sharing the gift of Sabbath the way you currently keep it.
We have this marvelous countercultural way of being and doing and living. Jesus’ spin on keeping Sabbath–bringing healing, release, love, and hope–in a way that reinterpreted the law to meet present needs is a model for us. We don’t do away with or “break” Sabbath; instead we keep it holy, we keep it better, and we honor God’s intent and return praise and thanks to the Creator who loves us beyond all reason, all law, and all expectation. And, we work within the constraints and realities of our culture to serve God’s people and proclaim the Good News. What better way (and what better day) to proclaim freedom to a hurting and broken world?
Why not share some stories about sabbath-keeping today? What do the older members of your congregation remember about Sundays from their youth? Do any members have stories of hope, healing, or grace that happened on the sabbath? What struggles do people have with sabbath-keeping? What does it mean to really “rest” on the sabbath? Why is it important to gather to share and celebrate sabbath? How does one keep sabbath when Sunday is a work day? How can we help others experience and keep sabbath? Consider either having an informal sharing time during the sermon, or if that is not acceptable in your context, consider asking a few people to share something during a temple talk. Or, why not share your own sabbath story and/or struggles during the sermon?
Look at the Old Testament lesson for today. At the beginning of another school year, another time of newness, consider this passage about a new beginning for Israel. What parts of this lesson might have application for 21st century teens returning to school? What might it mean to be a “repairer of the breech” (see verse 12). Invite youth to ponder what challenges might lie ahead. Spend some time in prayer about these concerns. Share communion together if possible. Offer each youth a blessing. Allow them to offer a blessing for you, too!
What do you See?
How can you help children understand the story of the woman set free from her infirmity on the Sabbath? Invite them to pretend that they have to walk around bent over at the waist. They can’t look up; they must keep their eyes on the ground. It won’t take long for them to tire of being bent over. The view can be pretty boring. Tell them they are “free” to look up and stand up straight and tall. Tell them they can jump up and down look at the sky and even spin around. They are free to move at will and see whatever they can see. Now invite them to sit down with you on the floor or chancel steps. Ask them to compare the difference of being bent over with being able to stand up straight. Listen to all answers. Ask them what they saw or couldn’t see bent over. What was best about standing up and being freed to look around and move?
Remind the children that Jesus not only frees us to walk upright, but he frees us to be his people in the world. We are really, really free to become all that God intends for us. We are free to see the needs of others and free to respond and share and love. Finish with a prayer that ends “And All God’s children said, AMEN!!!”