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Transformative Sabbath

Sunday, August 25, 2019. Rev. Annamarie Groenenboom, preaching.
Scripture Readings: Psalm 71:1-6; Luke 13:10-17

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This week has been exciting, stressful, and extremely busy for me.  Sandy, Pastor Scott, and Pastor Jen were all on vacation.  The office has been uncharacteristically quiet. Because all of my collogues were on vacation, I added several activities to my schedule. In between my normal meetings and ministry work, I found myself rushing in an out of the office for talks over coffee, pastoral care visits, and preaching at LRR and Chesterbrook. The amount of emails I needed to send and respond to seemed insurmountable at one point. In the midst of this business, I felt stress, but I also felt good. I realized that while most of our lives are stressful. We are addicted to busyness. In the midst of my busy week, I found myself sitting down and writing a sermon about work and the Sabbath.

When we think of the Sabbath in the Bible, we think of the well-known prohibition against work spelled out in the fifth commandment in the Ten Commandments found in Exodus and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew word for Sabbath, Shabbat, actually means to cease or stop. The Jewish community took the Sabbath so seriously that there were actually people who studied the law and compiled lists of what was considered work on the Sabbath. For example, if we were living at the time of Jesus in the Jewish community, we would not be able to light fires, cook, clean, carry burdens, or travel long distances. There were some notable exceptions to the law such as service in the Temple, acting if life was in danger, or untying your animals so they could receive food and water.

But, the Sabbath was also precious day to the Jewish community. It was a day of rest and holiness given as a gift from God. On this day, they remembered how God rested after six days of creation and they celebrated how God rescued and brought them out the of land of Egypt when they were slaves. This day was a symbol of the covenants they kept with God. It distinguished them from all of the other gentiles. This day was reserved for holiness and special time devoted to relationship with God. Just like a tithe of gifts, God asks for a tithe of time.

The Jewish celebration and reverence for the Sabbath was so distinct and important that it was even written about by ancient historians like Josephus. Some wrote about it positively and praised the community for the reverence and commitment to the law. While others noted that the Sabbath was a hindrance and often caused Jewish people to be discharged from foreign armies because of their insistence on keeping the Sabbath.

Jesus knew the laws better than anyone. He understood the importance of the Sabbath and it was a precious time for him as well. Throughout the New Testament, he’s called the Lord of the Sabbath. So what was his purpose for healing the woman at the Synagogue on the Sabbath? He must have known it would be considered work and it make people very upset. Jesus did more than just heal the woman; he renewed what it meant to keep the Sabbath.

The woman, we never learn her name, had an illness that crippled her and she wasn’t able to stand up straight. Her illness probably caused her a lot of physical pain, but Jesus freed her from something greater than physical discomfort. He freed her from separation. The woman lived a life of constant separation. She was separated from the community because of her illness. She was separated from her family. She was separated from worship. She felt like she was separate from everyone else. It was amazing that Jesus could even see her. In a Jewish synagogue, the women and men were separated. There was another section for those who had physical illnesses and other things seen as impure. They were kept separate from the other worshippers because they were not seen as whole people. This woman would have had to sit in this completely separate section of the synagogue.

The problems with her back were seen as shameful in her community. Jewish people during that time thought that one thing that separated humans from animals was being able to stand straight up. Her physical problems took her ability to stand up straight away from her. She felt less than human. So when Jesus healed her, he healed her not just physically, but also restored the woman to being able to fully participate in the community and gave her a new identity. She could finally join in worship and view herself as worthy. She responded quite appropriately with rejoicing. Jesus gave her wholeness and dignity.

No one was more surprised at this healing than the leader of the synagogue. The leader of the synagogue, the person who organized all of the worship services, was actually annoyed. Not only was Jesus working on the Sabbath but he was disrupting a perfectly good worship service. That healing was not planned in the worship order. The woman was a member of their community who had been restored. The leader should be rejoicing too. The leader was so focused on the fact that Jesus chose to heal a woman on their holy day and missed the point completely. Jesus actually calls him a hypocrite pointing out that the leader cares more about his animals on the Sabbath than this woman who is a part of leader’s congregation.

When reading over this story, it’s possible to identify with the healed woman and the leader of the synagogue. We can identify with the woman because like her, we are broken people. Sin has broken all of us. Life experiences and losses have broken all of us. Other people have broken us. We too are in desperate need of healing and wholeness.

But, we can also identify with the synagogue leader. Most of us don’t get angry because the preacher does miraculous healings on a Sunday. But in our busy world, the idea of Sabbath easily gets lost. We get too busy with everything that goes on in our lives. Like the synagogue leader, it’s easy for us to miss the point of the Sabbath.

Today, we participate in the Sabbath in many different ways. While I was studying in Israel, people in Jerusalem held very strictly to the Sabbath laws laid out in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. The Sabbath was considered to be from 5pm on Friday night to 5pm on Saturday night. I remember a very loud buzzer sounding every Friday at 4 in the afternoon. One of my Jewish friends described it as a large community wide alarm clock that reminded people that the Sabbath was coming in one hour and they had to be home from work by then.

By my house, growing up, there was a big church with basketball hoops all over the parking lot. Every day of the week, I would see children and teens playing basketball except for Sundays. There were big signs next to the hoops that said, “No basketball on Sundays.” Sundays were for worship and contemplation.

Many participate in the Sabbath by going to Sunday school, church, and having a relaxing day off from work. Sporting events are also popular on the Sabbath. Lots of people love to go to games or spend time with family or friends. Many people in our youth group have sports practice or play rehearsals on Sundays. For some, Sabbath is just another day to sleep in.

So with all of these different views of Sabbath, what is the actual meaning of this wonderful and loving gift from God? Is it a day where we are obligated by God to do no work? Is it a day for religious observances and worship? Or is it a day to sleep in and relax?

The heart of the Sabbath lies within the gift that Jesus gave in this passage. Jesus freed the woman from her illness and she was able to rejoin her community and worship God. The Sabbath is a day of healing, wholeness, and reconnection with each other and God.

God created us with the need for Sabbath. God created us with the need and desire to be connected with each other and with God. When looking back over this story, it makes sense that Jesus would heal on the Sabbath. Jesus is enacting what it means to keep the Sabbath day holy. He restored the woman to the community and gave her the opportunity to honor and praise God. Jesus made this woman whole again.

We have the joy of being able to keep the Sabbath together as a church community. By worshipping, going to Sunday school, and having fellowship together, we are truly celebrating all that Jesus has done for us. All too often, I find that church can become a chore that has to be completed over the weekend. Really, church is the exact opposite. Being together as a community gives us a unique opportunity to embrace the purpose of the Sabbath – that Jesus has made us whole again and ready to serve and honor him. Our community gives each one of us the opportunity to rest, reconnect, and gain the wholeness we need to get us through the busyness of the rest of our week.

We reconnect with God through hearing God’s word, receiving the sacraments, affirming our faith together as one, sermon stories, Christian education, and music. And we reconnect with each other through fellowship, drinking coffee together, worshipping together, learning together, and checking in with someone you don’t usually talk to. We can even act as God’s agents of healing for others through being present, listening, offering hospitality, and using the gifts that God has given you.

Unfortunately, sometimes life gets in the way, and we can’t make it to church every Sunday. Even on those Sundays that you can’t make it to church to celebrate the Sabbath; you can still celebrate wherever you are, by taking a moment or two to just rest and remember that God is with you. The Sabbath is an important time during our week. It’s a time specially created to connect us to God and each other and to make us whole again. In our busy lives, I challenge you to just take a moment and remember that it’s OK to rest. Remember that God did not create us to be busy all of the time. We are created to be in connected with God and each other. We are reconnected to God and each other and made whole again through the Sabbath. Whether you’re at church, home, or traveling, remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Amen.