Sunday, August 25, 2013

Pentecost 14C

In today’s gospel, Jesus is in worship where he heals a woman on the Sabbath, a day supposed to be devoted to God. And some church leader got his shorts 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 Jewish folks, 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: Keep the Sabbath holy.

So when preacher Jesus should have stuck to his script and preached what they came to hear, Jesus had the temerity to include healing someone.

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

How would you have answered this synagogue leader? What do to devote yourself to God? How do you honour the Sabbath? How do you keep the sabbath holy?

Well, first of all, we go to church. Well....most of us do. We focus on what God has done and is doing in our lives. We fellowship with other believers. It’s something we do on Sundays.

But some folks, like the church leader in today’s gospel forget that the sabbath wasn’t meant to be a burden, but a joy. That’s why Jesus blasted him after being hassled for not obeying the rules:

 “You hypocrite! Don’t you care for the people and all those in your life that you love and who depend on you? Don’t you care for them even on the Sabbath? So what’s the difference between YOU feeding your family and ME healing this woman?”

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, Jewish folks would go for a picnic rather than cook up a storm. They would go to worship to sing! And even dance!

Hasidic Jews, the ones with beards and side curls, 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 thought that such a display might give you more nightmares than insight into this lesson.)

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 18 years. 18 YEARS! Her pain was old enough to vote! 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 messages on the way home from church.

The Sabbath was about celebrating what God HAD done and IS doing, so people can be restored and refreshed, so the people around you can be restored and refreshed as well.

This all sounds good. But this is a challenge for me. I've only started taking a full day off. And I've had to find other activities to fill the void left by the absence of work. I've never found it easy to relax.

 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 place for the first couple hundred years. Those laws were irrelevant. Or even economically dangerous, I thought.

I was delighted when the sabbath laws changed. I was in high school, and that meant I could work on weekends and save the weekdays for school and band practice. “Who needs a day off? I’ll be mellow when I’m dead!” I thought. “There’s a great big life to be led!”

Call it a cultural condition.

And I brought that thinking to my work. I chafed at taking days off. Vacations were often more a burden than a blessing. I couldn’t sit still long enough to enjoy the stillness of the sabbath. And I paid a price for that inability to relax. I paid the price of a marriage, for my unwillingness to leave work where it should be left.

But a little while ago, I’ve tried to take Fridays off. Most weeks I succeed. Some weeks I fail. I have trouble filling the void left by the absence of work. Especially since I live where I work.

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. Taking a step away from weekly obligations can help us see our lives better, when we’re at a distance. Even if we’re surprised by that distance.

Over the past six weeks or so I have had the privilege of walking with a man in the final stages of cancer. In the hospital he called for a Lutheran pastor, and I was the first one to answer the phone.

I visited him a few times a week, gave him and his ever-present family Holy Communion a couple times, we prayed together, chatted about football, and about life. I learned about where he came from, and his work up north. I enjoyed our visits.

A life-long Lutheran, he wanted to re-connect with his faith. Some cynics might say that it was the knowledge of his expiration date that caused him to ask the BIG questions of Life and Death, and ask for God’s help in a difficult time. But I like to think that it was God calling him home.

Because over the past week, he slide downhill quite quickly. Last Thursday he told me that he could feel himself slipping away. 

And then I got a phone call on Wednesday morning that he had slipped into a coma, and the family was gathering. I had meetings in Edmonton that afternoon, but I went to see him before I went into the city.

And, sure enough, when I saw him, his breathing was laboured, and had the sadly recognizable “rattle” in his lungs that said the end was near. I sat with him for a minute or two. Said a prayer. And left.

I was in a meeting in Edmonton when the call came that he had died. And the family asked if I could come and pray with them and for him.

When I arrived he was in the bed, tubes removed, his eyes were closed. I would say he looked peaceful as he lay there, but he had a mischievous grin on his face.

I prayed with the family, and we commended him to Almighty God. After a short visit, I touched his hand to say “Good-bye” and I left.

I was glad that I didn’t have anything else that night. I don’t know how medical professionals do it, but I needed time to myself after saying Good-bye.

I needed to step back and reflect on what just happened. I needed to think about the man and his life, and what he felt it meant. 

And I needed to stop and think about MY life. Where God is calling me. What do I want MY life to look like. When I’m in his place, will I be happy with what I’ve done with this beautiful gift of life that I’ve been given.

I needed to ask myself the BIG questions of Life and Death. I needed to reconnect with the God who called ME. I needed to rest along the road.

I needed a sabbath. And I needed it to be holy.

‘Now the word of the LORD came to the prophet Jeremiah saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you...”’

Familiar words for many of us. That’s where it all starts, isn’t it? From God’s call, no matter where we begin from.

For Jeremiah, it was the call from the womb. For Peyton, it’s the call from the waters of baptism, where she is joined to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and named and claimed as a child of God.

Peyton is just beginning her journey. And God alone knows where her journey will lead. God alone knows the peaks and valleys, the joys and sadness, the births and deaths, that she will encounter in her years.

But in these waters, and in the life of the church, she’s been given a gift. 

The gift of sabbath that she will take with her. 
The gift that asks her to stop and think about where God is in her life, and celebrate all the wonderful things that God has done. 
The gift that asks her to remember the faith that has been given to her. 
The gift that asks her to stop and ponder the BIG questions of Life and Death.

That same gift that’s been given to everyone here this sabbath day. This sabbath day of rest, of remembrance, of reflection. This sabbath of healing.

May the God of the sabbath fill you with peace, as you remember who you belong to, and may you find rest along your journey, as you walk the path that God has put in front of you.

And may you celebrate all the wonderful things that God has done.

May this be so among us. Amen.

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