A sermon by Pastor Bernt
August 21, 2022 – On Luke 13:10-17
Sabbath is connected to Exodus: the Jews were enslaved to the Pharoah; he made them work harder and harder. But God released the slaves. And God gave them a commandment: the seventh day of each week would be an “anti-slavery” day; a day of rest: Sabbath. And not just rest for you, but rest for your servants, your animals – even, at times, the land itself.
There would be lots of related laws, even including release from the slavery of financial debt. But basically the Sabbath was at least one day a week when everything could be different – and God wanted for us freedom from bondage, equality, rest and delight – always.
The rules were important. When there’s urgent work to do, employers may not give time off unless they have to. Or, cancel debt. But Sabbath wasn’t about the rules so much as the remembering: we were slaves, now we’re not! Let’s celebrate! The rules aren’t intended to constrict, but to set free. The Sabbath should be a day that’s life-giving.
The controversy in today’s gospel is between to Jewish teachers. One – Jesus – heals a woman on the Sabbath. The other teacher objects: “Isn’t healing work? Is it allowed? Are we taking a day off here or not?” Jesus is saying: “She’s healed from bondage to an oppressive spirit. Isn’t being set free from slavery what this day is all about? Isn’t that what I’m all about – and God?”
When some of us were kids, everything was closed on Sundays – and not just the restaurant Chick-fil a, but movie theaters, clothing stores. It was in part a legacy from our Puritan past. They had some very strict sabbath laws: like having to spend all day in worship or bible study. To some people the word “sabbath” could mean: “Just, stop! Shut it down. Get serious.”
Isn’t that what some people think Christianity is all about? “Settle for a strict, dutiful, dull HALF-life now so that some day when you get to heaven you can spread your wings like an angel.”
But that’s wrong. Think of the woman Jesus heals: she’s bent over – living that half-life. I like to imagine her folded forward, her face against her shins, like some kind of odd toy. More compact, so she can be stored away and shipped off to heaven.
But Jesus won’t have it. He doesn’t want her to be half-alive, constricted. On the Sabbath, he unfolds her so she can stretch out, fully alive.
And what about us?
A theme we’re introducing this year is “First Day.” At the close of the Sabbath was the First Day of the week, a new day, when Christ was raised from the dead. The First Day – Sunday – is like the Christian version of the Jewish Sabbath. Kind of like how the Jews have Passover, and around the same time every year the Christians have Easter, which they used to actually just call “Passover.” Passover, Easter, related but different.
The First Day – also called the Lord’s Day – is like our Sabbath. Only, the Puritans made it a somber day. In the early church, the First Day was joyful – I’ll get to that.
When you hear “First Day” think “first in priority.” As in, “what are our priorities in how we spend our time?” Is that the best way to put it? Priority sounds like “what I’m supposed to do.” But it is about liberty: what am I permitted to do?
I could say: “you ought to prioritize going to church, first and foremost,” but it’s bigger than that. There are so many demands being made on your time. So many claims being made on your schedule, your attention. What kind of time do you want more of? What do you want permission to do? Aren’t we like the ox Jesus describes, tied up to the fence, just wanting to get over and get a sip of water?
What binds us? Maybe we’re expected to work too many hours? Or we have this inner compulsion to work hard, to achieve? We want that straight A life – especially for our kids. So we’re shuttling them around more than we’d like. Or we have addictions. Or we just stress – as a verb; I’m stressing but I can’t find much to do about it. My question is: can we, as siblings in Christ, find more ways to support each other in these struggles? Give each other permission, to put first priorities first? I’m not sure what that would look like.
And what about captivity to social media? Imagine hearing this gospel story as a contemporary account. “A woman bent over? She must be looking at her phone. She’s doom scrolling. Or she’s refreshing her inbox. I see people walking around like that all the time.” Not that smartphones are evil. But they’ve become a symbol for all that holds our attention captive – and a symbol for the business of Silicon Valley. But Jesus sees her. He sees this woman bent over and he says to her – as to us – “You are set free from your ailment.” Ok. Now what?
But imagine the story another way. The land is – under – occupation from Rome, It’s – under – oppression from the demonic powers. The woman is bent over because she’s – under- a heavy burden. The evil spirit is basically riding on her back. Who’s carrying the heaviest loads in our society? Probably not many of us. But people all around us – who are forced to work multiple jobs just to survive. People burdened under racism. People in the criminal justice system. The incarcerated.
And Jesus sees them. He sees the people folded over and says to them – as to us – be free from your ailment. Ok. Now what?
What are we freed for? What’s the First Day for? OUR Sabbath: Sunday – and, each new day?
We can explore together this year – but start with this one woman. She’s healed in the synagogue: that word just means “house of assembly.” She stands now as an equal in the assembly: she can see their faces; they can see hers. One First Day priority and permission is just to get together. Church means assembly. But I think also of home and the custom of family gatherings, Sunday dinners: “put your phone away at the table!” After a long Covid isolation, it’s good to be with people. For children to be with the elderly and all in between. We’re also challenged to find ways to meet those carrying the heaviest burdens, across social class and race and ethnicity.
So now – we hear that when this unfolded woman stands stands straight – she praises God. Take that word “praise.” The mood is celebratory. The First Day – Sunday – is a Feast Day.
Last year when we did adult classes on these topics, I was intrigued to learn that in the early church there was a law against kneeling for prayer on Sundays. You would kneel or even go prostrate on weekdays: in a spirit of penitence and humility. But Sunday was supposed to be a festive resurrection day. So you stood to pray and sing and all the rest – yes, even during Lent. One theologian said: “don’t show signs of anxiety or deference.”
How’s that for a First Day priority or permission? That we’re festive? Maybe that means wild dancing, or maybe just a happy nap. In the New Testament, when Christians gathered, it was about feasting. There was a sharing of food and gifts, including money, with people in need. There was gladness and beauty: music and other art, enjoyment of creation – in bread, wine and water. What kind of festivity do you crave? What about people in our society? Who do we want to share our company and food and gifts with?
Finally, when the healed woman sings praise – of course it’s praise directed towards God. A First Day priority is getting to spend time with God, hearing God’s word and responding in prayer.
I imagine the woman praising God for the presence of Jesus at the synagogue that day. But also praising God for the Sabbath itself: the gift of this special day from God, one whole day every single week that’s all about being redeemed, set free.
It makes me think about religion as a whole, what it’s about. What’s Christianity about, simply put? As I was saying before, maybe it’s not about living a half-life being shuttled toward heaven.
You might say Christianity is about the moral code. It’s an ethical, spiritual way of life.
You might say Christianity is about the message: “God loves you, unconditionally. Your sins are forgiven.” And getting that message across to people.
But you might also say, it’s about the gift of a day. In more ways than one. It’s the day promised to us. The prophets were always saying: “On that day … On that day” and they’d describe a day that would come when justice would be done and people saved.
It’s about the gift of a recurring festival day. People say “if only I had one extra day!” You’re busy all week but you’ve been given this one day: the First Day of the week, for meeting and feasting and worship. Here it is – it’s yours – take it! Enjoy!
And it’s about the gift of each new day, when we wake up, alive, yet again. Including this very day. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus often says “today. On this very day, salvation has come to your house.” When he began his ministry, he read from the prophet Isaiah: “Good news to the poor. Release to the captives. The oppressed go free. The year of the Lord’s favor.” And when he finished reading, Jesus said: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” For you too. Thanks be to God.