Preached Sunday, August 21 at Trinity Anglican Church, Barrie, ON.
Lectionary Readings for Sunday, August 21
Jeremiah 1:4-10 or Isaiah 58:9b-14; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13:10-17
16 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)
Today I want to talk about the Sundays and why we come here Sunday mornings. I have two points to make. The first is that our attitudes about Sunday may be linked to rules and expectations - we may be here because, at some level, we think we should be here for various reasons - our duty to God, our duty to the church, to one another. I think we all get this. The second is that we are here because we need to be here, we need the healing that only God can be give us. I wonder if we all get this. I want to suggest that when we understand the difference between should be here and need to be here, we can be more effective at convincing others to join us on Sunday.
If you don’t know this particular gospel story from St. Luke, I am sure that you know many like it. Many times in the gospels, Jesus does something on the Sabbath which offends the Jewish leaders, who insist that all work is prohibited on the Sabbath because of their religious law. Many sermons on these kinds of gospel readings follow the same line, namely that the religion of Jesus’ day was built on laws and rules, whereas Jesus is all about being true to God rather than following man-made rules. Personally, I don’t think this sort of interpretation is very helpful, because it keeps us from asking a more important question, which is what is the Sabbath, or Sunday in our context, really for?
Let me make the question more personal. Why do we come to church? When there are so many more things that we could be doing on Sunday, why do we feel the need to come here and spend the best part of the morning doing what we do? if I passed out paper and pencils and asked you to write down your own individual answer, and then asked you to pass them up to me, I am sure I would get a wide range of responses. You might be here to be with your friends, your parish family, or because you love this church. You might be here because you love the hymns and like to sing, or because you feel a sense of responsibility to keep this all going in age when fewer and fewer seem to need it. Maybe, to some degree or other, all of these things are working at different levels in us. But I wonder, how many of us are here because, like the bent-over women in the gospel, we are here because we Jesus’ help?
While you think of how you might answer the question of why you come to church on Sunday morning, it’s worth thinking about what the expectation was in Jesus’ time. The obligation to honour and keep the Sabbath was part of Jewish law, as given in the Torah. As you may remember, the fourth of the ten commandments given to Moses was to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex 20:8). This commandment formed the basis for the many laws and customs which forbade work on the Sabbath, customs which many observant Jews follow to this day. The idea behind these laws and customs was to create a way of life in which the faithful were constantly reminded of their relationship to God, and of their dependence on God. As I said earlier, sometimes when we read the gospels these laws seem petty and foolish, but when you think about it, the idea of a way of life in relationship to God sounds quite attractive.
Some people think that Jesus came along to get rid of the law, but there is no real evidence of that. What seems more likely is that Jesus had a different understanding of the Sabbath law.
The biblical scholar David Lose notes that there are two versions of the Fourth Commandment in the Old Testament. The first, from Exodus 20, “links the Sabbath to the first creation account in Genesis, where God rests after six days of labor. As God rested, so should we and all of our households and even animals rest.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1588
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But 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. 11For 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.
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were 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.
This passage conveys a very different idea of Sabbath-keeping. The Sabbath is not just a day of rest, but it is a day to remember God’s freeing his people from their captivity in liberation. The Sabbath is not just a day to take a break from work, but it is also associated with God rescuing and saving the people that he promised Abraham that he would create out of his descendants.
I agree with Lose that this second, Deuteronomy understanding of the Sabbath as liberation and salvation, may be what Jesus is thinking of here in Luke when he confronts his opponents. Jesus’ calling the woman a “daughter of Abraham” (Lk 13:16) is telling, I think. By linking her with Abraham, Jesus is reminding his opponents of God’s promise to create and bless a people that would arise out of Abraham’s descendants. By linking his healing of her physical condition with freeing her from her sin, her “bondage” to “Satan”, Jesus is linking his ministry with God’s saving of Israel in the Old Testament. Just as God led his people out of slavery in Egypt, so now will Jesus lead his followers out of their slavery to their sin.
Under Christianity, the holy day of the Sabbath (Saturday) moved to Sunday (the day associated with Christ’s resurrection). Christian’s celebrated Sunday as the day of Christ’s victory over death, the victory that points the way towards our own salvation. Over the centuries Christians assumed that the Fourth Commandment applied to Sunday, and observed Sunday as a day of rest, as a day not to work or shop or drink or whatever.
So here’s a question. What if today’s gospel is about how we as Christians should see think about Sunday and why we go to church. What if we got rid of our ideas that Sunday was a day of obligation, that we come to church because, somehow, it is where we have to be. What if, instead, we came to church because we know that we, like the bent woman in today’s Gospel, need to be healed? What if we came to church out of a sense of dependance on Jesus as the one person who can free us from sin, from all that we don’t like about ourselves and the world around us? What if church was the place where we turned to Jesus, confident that he can heal and free us? What if we came to church out of an immense sense of gratitude that Jesus has allowed us to straighten up, to unbend ourselves, and to stand free of all the burdens that have been laid on us over the years? If we had the faith to come to church for these reasons, and the belief and the courage to invite others to come to church for these reasons, then I think that we would be well on our way to revitalizing this church.