Honoring the Sabbath (Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost)

Sermons on YouTube…

One of the things I’ve been doing over the past few weeks is organizing our Confirmation program for the coming year.  As many of you know, in Confirmation we study the various parts of Luther’s Catechism.  And this coming year, we’ll be looking mostly at the 10 commandments.

One of the things I often do as I begin the study of the 10 Commandments with the Confirmation class is to ask them which commandments they remember.  Usually, they’re pretty good at remembering most of them!  But the commandments most people think of first – both the kids and the parents – are commandments like, “don’t steal”; “don’t lie”; “don’t murder”, and of course, a favorite in Confirmation – “honor your parents”!

It usually takes a while before anybody gets around to mentioning, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.”  And probably that’s because, for most Christians, we know the commandment to honor the Sabbath is there.  And we’ll probably all say it’s important.  But really, nobody gets that worked up about it.  Most Christians, if they think about this commandment at all, read it to mean, “try to get to church more often.” 

To many Christians, the commandment to honor the Sabbath is kind of the like the law that says you’re supposed to drive on the right and pass on the left.  We know why it’s there, and it would be great if more people followed it.  But in fact, few people actually drive like that, and nobody in this country gets a ticket for not doing it!  So, it’s not something that many of us lose sleep over.

And so it’s absolutely inconceivable to most of us that a debate over “honoring the Sabbath” would cause a knock-down, drag-out fight.  It’s just bizarre.  Yet that’s what’s happening in today’s Gospel reading.  And it’s not the only time that Jesus gets into trouble because of debates about what is or is not permissible on the Sabbath. In fact, it’s the most frequent subject of knock-down, drag-out fights between Jesus and the religious authorities.

Keeping the Sabbath was a big deal in Jesus’ day.  It was a big deal to the religious authorities.  It was a big deal to the common people.  And, although we sometimes miss this, it was also a big deal to Jesus.

It was a big deal, because keeping the Sabbath wasn’t simply a matter of following a bunch of rules about what you could do or not do.  Keeping the Sabbath was a big deal because keeping the Sabbath was about your identity as part of the people of God.  When somebody asked a Jew in those days what it meant to be part of the people of God, their answer was, at least in part, “I keep the Sabbath.”  And that was because keeping the Sabbath was about living in the covenant God gave to his people.  It was about focusing on the goodness of God instead of on the routine tasks of everyday life.  It was about entering into the joy of creation by participating in the rest that even God took when he finished creation.

That’s why the Sabbath wasn’t a trivial commandment.  And that’s also why I always used to invite Rabbi Jacob from Shaare Torah to come to Confirmation and talk to our confirmation students about how and why he keeps the Sabbath… (for one thing, it’s shocking to most of our kids that anybody would take their relationship with God so seriously that they’d willingly shut down their internet and social media for 24 hours every week!)

But as Rabbi Jacob explained Sabbath to us, he also pointed out that different rabbis have had different interpretations about the rules over the centuries.  Because Sabbath is such big deal, people necessarily have debates about how best to keep it.  And in fact, the Sabbath discussion was NOT unique to Jesus and the religious authorities in the synagogue that day.  Actually, Jesus was participating in a long running tradition of debating what it meant to properly keep the Sabbath … (kind of like Rabbi Reuben’s story about “tradition”…)

So in order to really understand today’s Gospel reading, or any time that Jesus gets into a debate about Sabbath, we need to understand that this is not a minor quibble about a particular rule.  We can’t just read this as though Miss Manners had walked up to Jesus and told him he was gauche for using his dessert fork to eat his salad!

Instead, we have to see past the individual rule debates to understand that this is really a debate about what it means to live as people of God.  Who are you as God’s people?  Are you making time and space in your life to have a living  relationship with God?  And what is that relationship with God all about anyway?

These are the questions Jesus is really addressing through the Sabbath debates.  And they’re questions that we shouldn’t pass over.

So what does it mean for us to live as God’s people?  What does it mean to honor God in our lives?  And how should others see us as people of God?

Jesus’ critique, after all, is NOT that the Sabbath and its rules are silly, old fashioned ideas that shouldn’t matter anymore.  Jesus’ critique is always that people aren’t keeping the Sabbath well enough, because they’re focused on the wrong things, even if some of those things are good in and of themselves.

And if all “Sabbath” means to us is taking a break from work and going to church, that’s also not what Jesus has in mind, even though those are both good things to do.

Instead, Jesus’ call to honor the Sabbath is about remembering to live as God’s people.  And in today’s story, it’s clear that living as God’s people is about:

  • Being “unbound” – unbound from fear; unbound from the past; unbound from the lurking suspicion that God hasn’t quite really forgiven us for the stuff that nobody else has ever found out about.  Are we living as “unbound” people?  Is that how we present ourselves to others as God’s people, or are we instead folks who fight over the “rules” because we’re not quite unbound from those fears…?
  • Praising God – as soon as the woman is unbound, she praises God; the problem Jesus has is that some folks ignore the praise of God in favor of fighting about the rules.  So what about us?  Do we live as people who are known as people who praise God, or are we seen by others as people who are hung up on telling other people they’re not living in the right way…?
  • Sharing freedom and praise with others – there were a lot of people in the synagogue that day who got with the program!  As soon as the woman is unbound and praises God, they’re unbound from their fear, and they start praising God, too!  So what about us?  Do we live as people who help others be unbound from their fears and failures so that they can also be people who praise God?  Is our goal to do what God does – help others be unbound so that they can give thanks and praise…?

Even though many Christians may think Jesus doesn’t consider the Sabbath a big deal, Jesus actually shows us that the Sabbath is a bigger deal than some of his opponents thought it was.  And Jesus calls us to honor the Sabbath not with fights over a bunch of rules, but by focusing on who we are as God’s people and what that means for our daily lives.

Every day, whether we call it the Sabbath or not, Jesus is unbinding us from our sins our fears and our failures.  Every day, Jesus is giving us the opportunity to praise God with our words and deeds.  And every day, Jesus calls us to share the Sabbath joy with others by helping them to be unbound and to join in the praise of God.