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There are so many things we take for granted in this life - beautiful, life giving things like breathing, swallowing, hearing, seeing, walking - things we don’t even think twice about until we meet someone who can’t do them the way we can.
How many of you have ever found yourself breathing a little more deeply after talking to someone on oxygen, or talking quietly to your partner after trying to communicate at full volume with someone who is hard of hearing, or rolling your shoulders back and standing taller after seeing someone who is hunched over by age or arthritis? I know I have.
I wonder sometimes how other people, with all they have to endure, can make it through the day. I certainly wonder about this woman we meet in the gospel of Luke. It couldn’t have been easy to be her.
I mean imagine how limiting it would be to walk around your whole life like this. Imagine not being able to look up or look people in the eye. Imagine how restricted your vision would be, how difficult it would be to converse, how much your whole body would ache by the end of the day!
This is a tough position to be in, no question about it. If this was how I walked around all the time, you’d all feel sorry for me, wouldn’t you? Are you nodding? I can’t tell.
This is not how we are meant to be: bowed down by pain, bowed down by life, bowed down by circumstances beyond our control. This looks like a really tough way to live...unless of course you put one of these in my hands, (a smart phone) and then all of a sudden I look normal.
I look like just any other person doing my job or catching up on my tweets.
I look no different from all those people who walk right into you on the sidewalk because they’re too busy texting to look up.
I look just like the spouse or parent or child whose attention you just can’t seem to get because they are forever hunched over their devices reading up on the news, returning e-mails, or scanning their feeds.
Now of course I know there is a real difference between this woman’s ailment and someone’s addiction to Tiktok.
There is a real and crucial difference between the illness that bound her and the expectations, obsessions, and fears that keep far too many of us bound to our smartphones: overworking, overdoing, so over stimulated we feel like we’re going to pop.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection here; a connection between the healing Jesus offered her 2000 years ago and the healing he might yet offer us in the here and now. Because, you see, this isn’t just another miracle story - the better to make you believe in the power of Jesus, anymore than it’s just another healing on the Sabbath story– the better to teach you about the evils of legalism and the importance of grace.
No, this is a story about the healing inherent in the whole concept of Sabbath; Sabbath not just properly observed… but Sabbath properly understood.
So that is where I want to focus with you this morning. I want you to understand some of the context at work here, because if you don’t you are bound to miss the point as surely as the leader of the synagogue did, and that would be too bad.
Actually, given that he plays such a major role in this story, why don’t we start with this leader and then see where he takes us; all right? All right.
Well, the first thing you need to know about this guy is that he probably wasn’t so bad. It’s very easy to dismiss him as the sort of narrow, literal minded person who takes a perverse delight in following the rules simply for the sake of following the rules whether the rules make sense or not. And we’ve all met people like that, haven’t we?
At least we’ve all met people like that if we’ve ever had to go to the D.M.V., talk our way out of a ticket, make amends with the I.R.S., or apply for a passport, and they’re no fun at all, are they? No.
But that sort of rigid legalism is not really what’s going on here. You see as a leader of the synagogue, this man would have known full well that the rules around how to observe the Sabbath were in place because the Sabbath itself was about so much more than just observing the Sabbath.
Actually the same goes for all the rules and laws of Judaism that can seem so incomprehensible to us.
You see the people of Israel didn’t understand their observance of all these rules and laws as something to be done simply because God commanded it. All these ritual observances were set in place to remind them throughout the day, the week, the year, that they were called by God to be different; a people set apart.
They believed that God commanded these things because God had chosen them to be God’s people, a people uniquely blessed that they might be a blessing.
Keeping kosher, keeping Sabbath, keeping oneself ritually pure: it was all a means of reminding them not just who they were, but whose: children of Abraham, children of the Most High God, a people set apart to be God’s instruments, God’s witness, God’s hands and feet in the world.
For this leader of the synagogue, then, observing the Sabbath with reverence was not just about keeping everyone calm and quiet so they’d all be well rested for the week ahead. Keeping Sabbath was about being like God in the world: a living sign of who God is and what God is like.
If you look at our reading from the book of Exodus you’ll see that the people are commanded to rest on the seventh day not just because a day of rest is good for your health and productivity, but because … why? Because God rested on the seventh day of creation:
8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but God rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
According to the book of Exodus, the Israelites were to rest because God rested. They were to rest in imitation of God, and allow others to rest as well because we are all made in God’s image. Isn’t that beautiful?
But all that rest, well, let’s just say that pretty soon all that rest became pretty serious business; serious business not just because God had commanded it - so you had to do it -but because it’s actually pretty hard to just rest.
Have you ever noticed that? Has anyone here ever tried it, really tried to spend a whole day doing zipper: no e-mail, no news, no shopping, no cooking, no tinkering, no nothing?
It’s not easy.
That sort of rest has a tendency to make one…well… strangely rest-less. It’s not easy to lay your business or your busyness down for a whole day, especially when the world around you is going right along with its business as if your Sabbath was just a day like any other.
And even if you can lay your own work down, well, what do you do if your cow goes into labor, or your neighbor locks himself out of his house? Can you help or would that be work?
Buying groceries for the week sounds onerous, but does buying a book with 1-click on Amazon really count as shopping?
What if washing you car is something you enjoy or playing soccer makes you feel more alive? Is that too much activity? What if there’s nothing that calms you more than a sparkling clean bathroom or a well organized linen closet or an empty in-box? What if you find baking therapeutic or Facebook edifying and uplifting…. Ha! Just kidding, but you get the idea.
“This,” says Barbara Brown Taylor, “is how the rabbis were finally forced to spell out all the kinds of work that are forbidden on the Sabbath – because people kept trying to find ways to get to yes (yes it’s okay to do that) instead of no;” leave it for tomorrow the better to be still and know that God is God (An Altar in the World p 137).
Which is to say that being still might not be work, but it’s still really hard. So as time went on the not to do list got longer and longer and more and more detailed, and I’m sure that after awhile it was a real drag to always be the one telling people to cut it out.
“No, that’s not OK to do on the Sabbath!” “No, no that’s not OK either.”
I can well imagine how and why the synagogue leader in today’s story got so annoyed by all the excitement Jesus was causing when he healed this woman.
I think I actually understand - perhaps because I am a parent and therefore prone to repeating certain phrases myself - why he said: No, no, no. You can do this tomorrow. If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”
I’m telling you, he wasn’t such a bad guy.
But good or bad, Jesus isn’t having it. Because you see, he knows full well that as long as the not to do list for Sabbath has become, that there’s another list in the running as well; the list that says it’s ok to help your cow if she goes into labor on the Sabbath, it’s ok to step in and save a person’s life, it’s ok to untie the animals and lead them to water.
It’s okay, because the Sabbath is not just about rest, the Sabbath is also about exercising one’s freedom the better to set others free. Yeah.
You might not have known this before today and the leader of the synagogue may well have lost sight of it, but the Ten Commandments actually get listed twice in scripture – once in Exodus and once in Deuteronomy.
And the justification for remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy is different in each one. In Deuteronomy it says:
Remember that you were (once) a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
In Deuteronomy the Israelites are commanded to rest simply because they can, because God has liberated them from bondage, because God has set them free.
When they were slaves in Egypt they had to work seven days a week, but they’re not slaves any more - to that empire or any other - and therefore God instructed them to set aside a day to remember that.
God set aside a day for them to refrain from labor and refrain from making anyone else labor on their behalf; a true day of rest for them, for their households, for their animals, for their fields, for everything and everyone in their midst.
Sabbath then, is not just about saying “yes” to rest, Sabbath is also about saying “no.”
“No!” to all those other gods and masters that would drive us ever onward.
“No!” to the email marked urgent that comes in on a Saturday.
“No!” to the boss who expects you to be available on Sundays.
“No!” to the coach that schedules practice during church.
“No” to the one day only mattress sale, the 24/7 news cycle, the smart phone you can’t seem to leave behind.
You don’t have to say, “yes” to it all. In fact, God gives you a divinely sanctioned reason to say “no.” “No.” “No.” Say it with me: “NO!”
We have the freedom to say “no” to anything that robs us of the true life God offers.
Now of course, having said all that, I know it’s not always easy. Having just received the Fall sports schedule for a child who wants to join the cross country team, I know that it’s complicated. I know full well that there will be extenuating circumstances, and I do not doubt for a moment that Jesus knew that too.
He is the poster child for extenuating circumstances.
Jesus knows sometimes you have to do what you have to do. Sometimes you need to be where you need to be. God knows that’s life. God really does. You are free to exercise your own judgment and choose the highest good - as Jesus did when he healed on the sabbath.
But dear ones, I also know you can’t go down that road forever. That good reasons aren’t always right and that’s what’s right isn’t always good.
No you can’t go down that road forever, because that way lies nothing but the bricks and bitumen of Pharaoh and you, children of Abraham, are meant for so much more. You are called to something higher.
So as we gear up for another year of church and school and all the things, remember that you are free. You have been granted the freedom to abstain, opt out, resist. The freedom, for at least one day in every seven, to slow down long enough to breathe, slow down long enough to not just eat but taste, not just hear but listen, not just look but truly see and delight in all the beauty that surrounds us.
Friends, God’s people are not just to rest like God on the Sabbath, but to set themselves and others free: free from all the frenzy that surrounds us, free from all the fears and sins that bind us, free from expectations that have grown so out of hand that they enslave us.
We are called – no, we are commanded - to free ourselves and others the way Jesus set that woman free all those years ago.
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