Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pentecost 13 - Year C

NB: With help from my lovely wife.

In Waterloo where I went to university, I’d often be stirred from my Saturday morning slumber by the clippity-clop of horses hooves; the Old Order Mennonites were on their way to market. They figured that by keeping to the way of their ancestors, they’d be less tempted by the things of the world. And better able to devote their time to God.

Since I didn’t see any horses and buggies parked by the church door, I ask: What do you do in your life to hedge away some time or some place to devote yourself to God?

Do you steal away with your bible each morning before your husband wakes up? Do you pray in your car on the way to work? Do you read a good book on the bus?

Clearly, you come to church to connect with God. Just like Jesus did.

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in church where he heals a woman on the Sabbath, a day supposed to be devoted to God. And some leader of the synagogue got his socks in a bunch over it.

Sabbath means “seventh” – the seventh day of the week, a day of rest set aside from ordinary days, a day to remember their stories and to pray.

For Jews, that day was and is Saturday. Christians switched it to Sunday to honour the day Jesus rose from the dead.

But whether it’s Saturday or Sunday, the command is the same: Honour the Sabbath.

So when preacher Jesus should have stuck to his script and distributed the pretty God-words they came to hear, Jesus had the temerity to heal someone.

“Hey there Jesus, that looks a lot like work to me,” the synagogue leader, probably the council president (sorry Herman) said, “You’ve got six days to do that healing the sick and raising the dead stuff. Today is for worship.”

The synagogue leader lays it on thick. How ‘bout it, Jesus? Do you pray enough? How much bible do you read everyday? How is your quiet time with God? You should know better. Is God that unimportant in your life?”

How would you have answered this synagogue leader? What do you do to hedge away some time or place to devote yourself to God? How do you honour the Sabbath?

And while we spit and sputter some kind of answer, Jesus is already on top of it, answering for us: “You hypocrite! Don’t you care for the people and creatures in your life that you love and depend on? Don’t you care for them even on the Sabbath?

The odd thing here is: Jesus wasn’t doing or saying anything radical. He was giving a classic Jewish response. This is what any wise Jewish person would say. What’s the 3rd Commandment? “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” And you don’t keep something holy by refusing to touch it with a 16 inch stick. You celebrate it! You refrain from working not because work is so awful that you need a day off every now and then, but because it gets in the way of a good party.

On the Sabbath, Jews would go for a picnic rather than cook up a storm. They would go to worship to sing! And even dance!

Hasidic Jews have a tradition of dancing with the Torah – the law, the first five books of the bible, literally taking up the scrolls of the bible and dancing with them in the aisles, celebrating the gift of God’s word.

(I thought about giving you a demonstration but I’ll need a few more months at the gym to be able to dance around with this 100 pound behemoth in my hands.)

The ancients believed that you also give your workers as well as yourselves a day of recovery – snoozing and relaxing. The Sabbath was the great equalizer. Everyone was supposed to get a rest. It didn’t matter if you were the lowliest grunt or the Big Boss Man. You got a day off. That’s keeping the Sabbath holy.

The synagogue leader didn’t get it. If trying to impose rules on celebrating – gotta do it right, according to the book – you end up with an awfully dull party.

And what’s worse, he forgot that there was a human being involved. This woman had been bent over in pain for 15 years. 15 YEARS! What were you doing 15 years ago? And can you imagine being in such pain that you couldn’t stand up straight for all that time?

But that didn’t matter to the synagogue leader. All that mattered to him was that a law had been broken. A rule had been transgressed. Maybe even a sin had been committed. And Jesus couldn’t believe his ears.

For Jesus, refraining from work on the Sabbath wasn’t about NOT angering the Almighty if you stopped in at the office to check your email on the way home from church.

The Sabbath was about celebrating God’s good news, so you can be restored and refreshed, so the people around you can be restored and refreshed as well.

I know what some of you are thinking, “Physician heal thyself.” This is a matter of do as I say and not as I do. As is well known, I don’t like taking a day off. I get bored and cranky. I don’t find it refreshing or restoring.

I never have. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Ontario where the Sabbath day laws were considered quaint. A throwback to a puritanical age when those crabby Presbyterians ran the show for the first thousand years. Irrelevant. Or even economically dangerous.

I was delighted when the laws changed. That meant I could work on weekends and save the weekdays for school and band practice. “Who needs a day off?” I thought. There’s a great big life to be led!

Call it a cultural condition.

So you can imagine my culture shock when I moved to the east coast. On my first Sunday in Halifax I went to pick up some groceries after church. I wanted to make my new wife a special Sunday lunch. But the doors at the SuperStore were locked and it was dark inside.

“Something must be wrong,” I muttered to myself. “The power must be out.”

So I went down the street to the Sobey’s. There too, the parking-lot was empty and the lights were out.

I thought I might have been early so I checked to see when the store opened.

Monday at 8:00.

I said a bad word.

“What kind of poe-dunk, hillbilly, backward, burg did I get stuck in?” I yelled at our dog when I got home.

“The stores aren’t open on Sunday,” Rebekah said, overhearing my conversation with the dog. “Nova Scotia is the only province that doesn’t have Sunday shopping. I think that’s a good thing.”

I rolled my sanctimonious Ontarian eyes. And mine weren’t the only eyes that rolled. Folks from Ontario and elsewhere moved into the province and demanded that the government change the laws.

The crazy thing was that the government would have changed the laws in an Alberta minute if they thought it would help the economy. They weren’t worried about folks going to church. The Sabbath wasn’t on their minds. They said there wasn’t enough money in the economy to justify a seventh shopping day. The same amount of money would be spent each week. It would just be spread out over seven days. The real losers in this fight were the small businesses who would have had to pay extra overhead costs for no profitable gain. The big boxes could more easily absorb the extra cost.

It was a nasty fight. Eventually, the government caved. And it’s meant some boarded up windows downtown on Spring Garden Avenue.

But I don’t think that a Sabbath can be legislated any more than a celebration can be governed by rules. And I think that’s what Jesus was getting at.

I began by asking what YOU do in your life to hedge away some time or some place to devote yourself to God? How do YOU keep the Sabbath holy?

But as I think of it, I wonder if that’s the wrong question. I think the only thing we can do is present ourselves to Jesus and trust that he still wants to put us back together when we break.

I wonder if Jesus is asking us this: Do you need refreshment and renewal? God is seeking out ways to surprise you with the joys of creation – a day in the mountains to marvel at their beauty. The joy of fellowship and warmth of friendship.

And even more deliberately, God pours over you the waters of baptism, washing away your sins, bringing you out of the cold, clean water, ready to begin again fresh.

Are you hungry and thirsty, tired of foraging for food and slaving in life’s hot kitchen? God invites you eat from the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, Christ’s own food to satisfy our deepest hungers

And instead of struggling to find the words you need to solve your problems, God speaks to you God’s word, God’s wisdom.

The Sabbath is a mini-resurrection. We gather as God’s people to confess our sins and receive forgiveness. We come to be fed when we are hungry. And I think we’re all hungry for something. We come to be a new creation.

Like the bent over woman maybe we come to worship asking Jesus to heal us from what has us doubled over in pain. We come looking for something to help us begin again.

And Jesus is waiting for us. His eyes may be closed in prayer but his hands are open ready to receive us.

May this be so among us. Amen.


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