26 August 2007

Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost - "On the Healing of the Sabbath"

The Third Commandment: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.

What does this mean?

We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and God’s Word, but consider it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.

But what does that mean?

Let us pray: You give us mercy, Lord – still our lives so that we may receive it. You give us freedom, Lord – calm our hearts sot that we may embrace it. You give us healing and peace, Lord – show us our brokenness, our bondage, all that holds us captive, so that we may be healed and believe that You are healing and peace itself. Amen

When I was in college I was a member of the choir at the Lutheran Student Center. Every Wednesday night at 7:30 we’d meet in the chapel at the Student Center for an hour of rehearsal, and most of us would hang out afterwards until it was time to go home. We sang almost every Sunday during worship and two or three times a year we’d go out to a congregation somewhere in the Nebraska Synod, usually the home church of someone in the choir. It was a great time for most of us – we got to sing, laugh and worship together, and frankly, it was good to have some ‘down time’ in the middle of the typically hectic week of a college student.

One fall, a friend of mine named Kelly decided to withdraw from the Student Center choir to focus on other things. Kelly was that rarest of sopranos: she had good pitch, a clear tone and a beautiful voice that was confident but not overpowering. So losing Kelly was a great blow to our choir. Frankly, I wasn’t all that impressed by her reasoning. In fact, I think you could safely define my reaction as a combination of ignorance and open hostility. I remember saying something to the effect of how stupid it was that someone with such gifts should refuse to offer them to the church because she felt “too busy.”

When I said this, I was a full-time student, living off-campus and working 20 hours a week taking surveys for the Gallup Organization. I also put in 20 hours a week on marching band meetings and rehearsals, had at least one concert a month for Jazz Band or Wind Ensemble, sang in the Student Center Choir, sat on the council and was an active member of two Bible study groups. I was not getting enough sleep, drinking way too much coffee, feeling short-tempered and irritated most of the time and sleepwalking my way through college, getting by on luck and instincts instead of study and intellectual passion. Now, who was the stupid one again?

At first glance it might appear that the synagogue leader in today’s gospel reading is making the same argument that my friend Kelly once made. After all, the Third Commandment does insist that the Sabbath is a day to be honored and kept holy. God does insist that we honor the seventh day of creation, the day in which God stopped working, by observing a work stoppage of our own. But there is a bondage buried beneath the synagogue leader’s loud protests; something holds him, and us, captive, and Jesus is as anxious to remove this crippling bondage as he is anxious to remove the infirmity of the woman he heals. Where is healing taking place in this reading? Is it only the woman who gets healed, or are there others? We must recognize that many of the people in the synagogue that day experienced healing through the words and actions of Jesus. Healing occurs wherever Jesus removes the burdens and barriers from human life, and there is an abundance of burdens and barriers falling away in our reading from Luke this morning.

The crippled woman would be the first to mention, of course. The healing he gives to this woman is immediate, genuine and driven by compassion. Eighteen years is an eternity to be held prisoner in your own body. We must not make the mistake of looking past the miraculous physical healing Jesus gives to the teachings that often follow upon them. Jesus did not heal as a means to the end of teaching: Jesus healed, and when people questioned the healing, then Jesus taught. The woman was in need of healing, and so Jesus healed her, and if no one had said anything, then Jesus’ work for that day would have been complete.

But the crowd also was healed that day. They were healed of their predisposition to see the bent-over woman only in terms of her infirmity. It is in our nature to see our neighbors in broad terms; to seize upon their identifying characteristics and use them to define the entire person. Thus Mr. Hartman, my elementary school principal, is forever defined in my memory by the empty sleeve that hung from his right shoulder, the result of a farming accident from his youth. Thus my dad’s best friend, Butch, is now born-again Butch, because he has come to a vibrant evangelical faith in his later years. These are only parts of the whole of these two men – but because I am human and in bondage to sin, I’ve allowed the pieces of these lives to become the entire life itself. That is a mistake from which Jesus would heal us, as he healed the crowd in that synagogue long ago from seeing a woman only in terms of her infirmity.

The Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus’ opponents were put to shame by his arguments against them. Here is another kind of healing entirely: a healing from arrogance and from wrong ideas about the Sabbath itself. This is not a gentle healing at all: this kind of healing hurts. When burn victims live through the immediate danger from their wounds, they often begin a more painful process of healing known as debridement: the dead and decaying skin is removed so that new, living tissue has a better chance to grow. It is intensely painful, but necessary for the growth and well-being of the patient. In the same way, Jesus’ strong words against the synagogue leader and his opponents are words intended to heal, though at the outset they would have been incredibly painful to bear. Jesus’ harsh words were always intended to heal, to tear away that which was slowly poisoning the people around him, so that health and wholeness might take its place and be allowed to flourish and grow. In healing the woman and then speaking out against his opponents, Jesus healed many who had wandered away from a healthy understanding of Sabbath and healing.

Our reading from the book of Isaiah offers us a vision of what Sabbath can be when it is embraced as God has intended. “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted…If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable; if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs… then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. 11The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. 12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in. then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth…” This passage comes from what we know as Third Isaiah, the section of the book that was written after the people of Israel returned from their captivity in Babylon. They were praying and fasting and they couldn’t understand why God wouldn’t bless them in their new home and in their new work. But God used Isaiah to say, “Yes, you fast, but you do it to impress Me. Yes, you pray, but you use flowery words because you think I’ll listen more closely if your prose is impressive. Meanwhile you oppress the workers in your house and you fight with one another. You’ve taken the Sabbath and turned into a means to an end – you use the Sabbath to get My favor and to oppress the people around you. Why would I listen to you when you dishonor Me like this?”

Jesus knew that the Sabbath was a day intended to give life. After six days of hard work, God took a day of rest to be rejuvenated and refreshed. Is it any coincidence that the activities we pursue for pure pleasure are often called re-creational? It is these things which give us life and joy and make the world in which we live a place of freedom and rich blessing; but we do a terrible disservice to all of it if we make any of it a burden to be carried rather than a gift to be shared.

When order and structure become things to be protected instead of a good upon which we agree, they need to be broken, and this is exactly what Jesus did in our gospel reading this morning. The leader of the synagogue was using the Sabbath as his own personal kingdom, a place where he set the rules and he determined what was right or wrong. But protecting the Sabbath because it is the Sabbath was never what God intended, and the synagogue leader committed a sin by using the Sabbath as his own personal power trip. The Sabbath has always been meant to free us from our sins, to invigorate us with joy, to equip us for ministry in God’s creation and to recharge us with passion of the Holy Spirit: how can that happen when we use the Sabbath to protect our personal interest, deny others the right to be healed, require our neighbors to meet our needs and restrict the abundance of the Sabbath by piling on rules and regulations? Isaiah’s message from God can be summed up like this: if you stop pointing fingers, you'll be healed. Isn’t it time we stopped pointing fingers and using the church as our personal kingdom and started focusing on what actually brings joy into our lives?

Jesus breaks the rules in order to heal. He breaks bonds that hold us captive to set us free. Maybe it’s time to ask the question of ourselves: is our captivity to certain behaviors or ways of being allowing injury and disability to continue? We lament that it’s hard to get visitors and young people in the doors of the church: are we creating that problem by our insistence that there is one absolute and certain way to go about honoring the Sabbath? The Sabbath is a GOOD thing, and so were the Pharisees and synagogue leaders who protected it, but they still needed a chance to break free from their bondage to “what we’ve always done.” Could the same be true for us today?

Finally, let’s look at the woman who was healed one more time. She was bent-over, incapable of anything but mere existence – thanks to Jesus, she became free, able to move and breathe and live. Do we feel the same way after hearing the words of Jesus? Has the church become just one more item on the checklist of our incredibly hectic lives? If so, is it possible that we might actually need to stop adding more church duties and simply find Sabbath again? Is it possible that saying “No.” to the church might mean saying “Yes.” to God? It could be. Whenever we get the idea that the church or our job or our family or anything else God has created wouldn’t continue without us, we’ve lost our way and forgotten the point of the Sabbath: You are not indispensable – you are God’s creation and only God is indispensable. When we think the Sabbath can’t happen without us, we need healing, and maybe healing that hurts, because we’ve traded life for a burden and made the church and its duties into an idol that takes the place of God. When anything, even the church, takes you to the point of near-exhaustion, where you’re burdened beyond your strength, remember these words of Jesus and see if maybe you’ve forgotten something: Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”

May you be healed this Sabbath. May you find your back straightened, your load lifted, your shoulders un bowed and your strength renewed. May you find rest for your soul, an easy yoke, a light burden. May you be healed. Amen.


  1. I love the indispensible quote! Especially after the night I've had. Who wrote it?

  2. Oops - sorry! That's not a quote, just a random quotation mark.

    I do have a favorite quote for an office environment, though: "If you make yourself indispensable, you also make yourself unpromotable."