Grace, peace, and forgiveness to us all from Jesus Christ, our Lord! Amen!
The year is 2004. The Summer Olympics is being held in Athens – the last one they hosted was in 1896. The US election in November results in George W. Bush being reelected as President over John Kerry. The European Union and NATO are both expanding to include Eastern European nations like Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia. SpongeBob Square Pants: The Movie earns over $9.5 million on its opening day. Around Christmas Day an Indian Ocean tsunami crushes southeast Asia killing more than 200,000 souls. And Mark Zuckerberg launches The Facebook, later renamed Facebook, a little social networking website for Harvard University students.
It seems so long ago. We were all different then – 18 years younger – perhaps a little more innocent, a little less world-weary. Consider all the water that has spilled over the dam of life since then. Yet this nameless woman in our Gospel today “had been disabled by a spirit for 18 years.” Imagine spending those 18 years since 2004 “bent over and not being able to stand up straight.” To see the sky, the stars, even to look into another person’s face must have been hard work. She had, in a real sense, been chained by this crushing disability for 18 years and it isolated her from easily participating in community. Its burden must have been intolerable. Yet here she is – at the synagogue – fulfilling her responsibility as a Jew on the Sabbath.
As I read this story, she is one of three observant Jews that we need to consider. Let’s start with the supposed villain of the story – the leader of the Synagogue. His job was to make sure that the Torah was followed – and under his interpretation this healing met the definition of “work” and was, therefore, forbidden behavior. Before we judge him too harshly for this interpretation, let’s remember that Sabbath was a gift from God as recorded in Exodus while the people languished in slavery. Keeping the Sabbath is a distinctive mark of the Jewish identity. No other culture in their area of the world could imagine limiting work to just six days of the week. Our Synagogue leader in today’s Gospel is by far not the strictest in his interpretation of what behavior is forbidden. One group of rabbis said that if a man fell down a deep ditch it would be forbidden as “work” to bring him out and he’d just have to wait until sundown. Yes, our leader’s interpretation of Sabbath blinds him to the miracle that has just taken place in front of him… but it is his job to make these interpretations as he understands them.
The third observant Jew in the story – and we often forget this – is Jesus. It’s the Sabbath – and where is Jesus? Teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jesus does his ethical duty towards the woman. Kindness isn’t optional in Judaism: reaching out to others is a key part of working to make the world a better place. Being kind is integral to what it means to be a Jew. Simeon the Just, a high priest from around the time of Jesus, was accustomed to say: The world is based on three things – on the Torah, on the service of God, and upon acts of loving-kindness. Finally, Jesus proves that he is observant by entering into a debate with the leader of the Synagogue over the concept of Sabbath. He offers his own – broader interpretation of its obligations. “On the Sabbath you set animals free to meet their needs. I set people free to meet their needs – to live life fully and abundantly. Though we often set Jesus up in our minds in opposition to the Jews – like the bumper sticker reads – “Our boss is a Jewish carpenter.”
Finally let’s actually enter into this debate ourselves – a debate on the interpretation of Shabbat, the idea of Sabbath. First, a question for you: What weighs you down? What’s your burden today?
Perhaps it is a physical ailment, like the woman in our lesson. Perhaps it is anxiety or depression. Perhaps it is guilt over what you have done, or anger over what someone else has done to you. Perhaps it is grief, the loss of a dearly loved one. Perhaps it is keenly felt disappointment. Perhaps it is just plain weariness.
Whatever it is, whatever burden you carry, whatever is weighing you down, hear this good news: God wills abundant life for us. In and through Jesus, God sets us free from whatever binds us. God forgives our sin. God heals our diseases—of mind, body, and spirit. God loves us and lifts that terrible burden from our shoulders so that we can stand upright, so that we can take a deep breath at last and clearly see the faces of the people around us, fellow siblings in Christ.
This healing, this release, this cleansing of sin—it is not an easy or a quick process. Sometimes those burdens we carry are hard to let go of. Old resentments, long-held guilt, heavy grief—we cling to those burdens because they have been a part of us for so long and we are not sure who we would be without them.
But the Gospel speaks a new word into those old patterns. And that new word is liberation! God in Christ frees us from whatever binds us. God heals us. God gives us rest.
Let’s engage deeper in this modern interpretation – our own interpretation – of Shabbat. How refreshed would we feel if we took off one day every week? What if for 24 hours, we didn’t work, didn’t fret over cleaning or running errands, and didn’t feel the pressure to check items off our “to-do list” at the first sign of free time? What if for just one day a week, we refused to feel guilty for resting? Now I can hear you thinking: “If only I didn’t have so much to do”
I ultimately found I was worse at everything when I wasn’t taking an occasional rest. It didn’t have to be an entire day – sometimes it was only a few dedicated quiet hours. There was a time when I was constantly running on fumes as I pushed myself to the max seven days a week. I was exhausted to the point of making myself sick. I was easily irritated with the people I loved most. I felt enormous guilt any time I gave myself a few minutes off, thinking about all the productive things I should be accomplishing.
God helped His people accomplish Shabbat in the Bible. While He was sending the Israelites their daily manna in the desert, He would always send a double portion of manna on the sixth day, to allow the Israelites to rest from work on the seventh day, their sabbath. God will assist us, I believe, when we set out to honor him in our new interpretation of the Sabbath.
Howard Thurman, American civil rights icon and theologian, looked at tired old ways and new interpretations in his poem I Will Sing a New Song
The old song of my spirit has wearied itself out.
It has long ago been learned by my heart;
It repeats itself over and over,
bringing no added joy to my days or lift to my spirit.
I will sing a new song.
I must learn the new song for the new needs.
I must fashion new words born of all the new growth
of my life – of my mind – of my spirit.
I must prepare for new melodies
that have never been mine before,
that all that is within me may lift my voice unto God.
Therefore, I shall rejoice with each new day
and delight my spirit in each fresh unfolding.
I will sing, this day, a new song unto the Lord.
May our unique interpretation of sabbath bring us abundant life as Jesus teaches us. Shabbat shalom! Sabbath peace to us all!