The Rev. Melanie McCarley
Henry Ward Beecher once wrote: “A world without a Sabbath would be like a man without a smile, like summer without flowers, and like a homestead without a garden. It is the most joyous day of the week.” The prophet Isaiah would agree. In today’s lesson from the Old Testament he reminds the people of Israel (and ourselves): “If you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth…”
And yet, when many people hear the word “Sabbath” what immediately comes to mind isn’t “delight” so much as “rules”. But here is something to ponder: Is there any reason—any at all-why the two need to be mutually exclusive?
There’s a meme on Facebook that I particularly enjoy. It features a boxer hound, who is completing his test for obedience school. Perhaps you’ve seen it. You can see him verily quivering with excitement. He stays put, watching his owner walk to the other end of the arena where she instructs him to come to her and sit. You can almost see the wheels turning. He’s thinking: “I’ve got this! I’ve got this! I know what to do! I can do this!” And he runs straight to her and with supreme joy (there’s no other word for it) he leaps around twirling in the air and dancing, practically forgetting himself with delight; and then, looking at his owner, remembers where he is and sits still and at attention. Perfectly, obediently, he sits. It’s absolutely wonderful. I hope his owner was proud. His approach may not have been orthodox, but it was a splendid expression of absolute joy in having done what was expected.
Here is what I have come to understand. Rules---well, they have the capacity to liberate as well as confine. Rules can be a source of security and joy as well as a means of oppression. A child with no rules is a miserable being because a world without structure or expectations is a frightening place to be; just as a child who is bowed down by the weight of excessive regulation is equally oppressed and unhappy.
So, let’s take a look at what the Gospel has to say to us this morning. Here we discover Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. He looks up and sees a woman who has been bent over for the last eighteen years. Think of it. For eighteen years her world has been defined by the small piece of ground at her feet or what she can look at with a slant. Eighteen years without seeing birds soar in the sky, without being able to see the shapes of the clouds, without being able to look the people she loves most in the world square in the face eye-to-eye at the same level. And then, without her asking, Jesus calls her over and heals her. And this is what prompts the leader of the synagogue to remind Jesus and the congregation that no work, none at all, is to be done on the Sabbath day—surely, he reasons, this woman, who had suffered eighteen years could have lasted another day in her decrepit condition to be healed after the Sabbath had ended. Because that is the rule.
But, before we excoriate the leader of the synagogue, let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. You see, I don’t believe the religious leader is being mean-spirited. He’s trying to press his case for obedient faithfulness. And, for that matter, so is Jesus. You see, they both want to observe the Sabbath, but they don’t agree about how to keep it. Jesus says the time for salvation isn’t tomorrow; it’s right now, no matter what day it happens to be. In fact, maybe the Sabbath is the perfect time for healing. Because that woman—she was as deserving of delight and joy as was anyone else—and Jesus restored that gift.
So, the argument isn’t over the importance of keeping the Sabbath, the disagreement comes down to the definition of what to do with the Sabbath. And in this respect, I think many of us are just as conflicted as were the people in the time of Jesus.
I think of that woman, bent over and bowed down, burdened with her condition, and I don’t think her situation is all that different from some of our own. Perhaps we’re not physically impaired; but certainly we are a people pressed down and overburdened with everything from financial difficulties to physical ailments, business and family troubles, anxiety and doubt. And this extends to our children as well, burdened with schedules that leave them little time to play or simply to “be” with their families, friends and nature itself.
Sunday, for many, isn’t a Sabbath—a time to delight in the presence of God. No, it’s the day to get things done, work, homework, shopping, chores. Or, maybe it’s a day to recover from Saturday night; or a day to frantically cram in all the recreation we can before work and school begin again on Monday. And note, if you will, what is absent from all of this—the call for us to simply rest and delight in the presence of God with the people of God. Where, in all of this, is the time to be free to praise God. So, consider this—one point—perhaps, the point of today’s Gospel lesson is this—it’s not “whether” to keep the Sabbath, but “how” to keep it.
You see, the Sabbath is itself a gift. Keeping the Sabbath rescues us from the meaninglessness that can result when life is pursued without the Lord at the center of it all. But to keep the Sabbath simply as a rule, absent from joy, or the possibility of creative redemption—well, that’s a sorrow to God as well.
So, notice what Jesus is doing here. Our Lord isn’t setting aside the law—he’s not telling us the rule of keeping the Sabbath doesn’t matter—not at all. What he is doing is offering us a different interpretation. The law must always bow to mercy, to life, to freedom. The law helps us to live our lives better—true enough, but it’s grace that ultimately holds the world together. And so, of course, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. And, of course, the woman who can now lift her head to the heavens, gives thanks. And of course, the crowd rejoices—because this is what happens when grace invites us to simultaneously value the law, and at times, to suspend it out of mercy. Now, if that isn’t worth spinning around and leaping for joy before sitting down, I don’t know what is. Remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy. In Jesus’ name. Amen.