Blessing the Sabbath

It’s fitting that as we look forward to Michele returning from her sabbatical the lectionary gives us readings that ask us to contemplate what is a Sabbath. We first hear about the Sabbath in the first story of creation, in the book of Genesis. For the first five days of creation, God speaks light into existence, separates water from land, creates vegetation, arranges the sun and the stars, separates night from day, populates the Earth with all manner of creatures, and declares each good. On the sixth day, after creating humanity in God’s image, God looks upon everything and declares it very good. God rests on the seventh day from the work of creation, and blesses the seventh day, making it holy. It’s worth noting that the Sabbath is the first thing that is explicitly blessed and made holy in the Bible. And it’s also important to note that this Sabbath, this seventh day, is a day of rest that is directly tied to the work of creation.

Although we don’t often do a good job recognizing it, or valuing it in our own lives, it’s true that we all need rest. We need rest after we have performed a strenuous task, and we need rest to prepare for strenuous tasks that lie ahead. Thinking of rest as part of an essential part of a cycle of preparation, action, and recovery, is a good way to understand the Sabbath. Theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that the Sabbath “cannot survive in exile, a lonely stranger.. it needs the companionship of all other days.” That’s why it’s not entirely accurate to call a Sabbath, or indeed, a sabbatical, a day off, or a vacation. It is not simply the vacating of a role. Nor is it a temporary blindness or amnesia to the circumstances of the world around you. Instead, a true Sabbath is a time of reflection, of reorienting, of connecting with God. It’s a time to think about what has occurred, and also an opportunity for renewal in anticipation of what is to come.

In the Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy, Moses receives the law. Among the Commandments is the direction to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God, and you shall not do any work, you or your son or daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your town, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” The Sabbath, a sacred time to rest from labors, extends to all people, regardless of their standing in society, and even to working creatures.

Deuteronomy’s account of the Ten Commandments links the Sabbath with freedom and emancipation, calling on the faithful to “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” We hear an echo of that sense of freedom in today’s reading from Isaiah: we are invited to remove the yoke that is among us.

The words of Isaiah that we hear are lyrical, and some of the most beautiful in the scripture. Who wouldn’t want to be called a repairer of the breach, or aspire to be called a restorer of streets to live in? Speaking to all of us, Isaiah articulates what God calls us to do, and our own agency in doing it. Today’s reading offers a path for freedom: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer food to the hungry, and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness. And your gloom shall be like the noon day.” It’s up to us to remove the yoke existing among us.

Importantly, the yoke is not necessarily yours or mine. Ownership or blame aren’t important here. Instead, this yoke, this heavy burden, this limitation, this coercion, exists among and affects all of us. We’re called to remove it; as a result we carry the expectation and are given the agency to take action to do so. We are called to offer food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted. This isn’t God’s work to do alone, or someone else’s job to do for us. We are, in effect, being called into partnership with God. Isaiah tells us the rewards are great: Our light shall shine in the darkness and the gloom shall be like noon day. Isaiah frames God’s invitation in a way that recognizes our agency, that our individual efforts can bring light to darkness.

Later in Isaiah we hear: “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight, if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs, then you shall take delight in the Lord. And I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.” This provides insight on today’s Gospel. Jesus is teaching in a synagogue and a woman enters, bent over and unable to stand up straight. She is simply present in the synagogue; she is not serving her own interests or pursuing her own affairs. She doesn’t do anything that we see in many of the other accounts of healing in the Gospels. She doesn’t cry out to Jesus or ask for mercy; she doesn’t grasp for his cloak for healing. She respects the time and place where she is. Jesus is the one who disturbs things. He sees her, he calls her over, he declares her free, and he lays healing hands on her.

It’s not clear from the reading if the woman had regularly attended this synagogue; she may have been there time after time for eighteen long years and never been truly seen. Jesus sees her and he disturbs things by calling her over and freeing her from his affliction. The leader of the synagogue is upset. Jesus is, after all, a repeat offender of healing on the Sabbath. There are at least four Sabbath controversies in the Gospel of Luke alone.

The leader of the synagogue is upset because the prescribed rules had been broken. According to him, the rules around Sabbath have not been respected. It’s interesting to note that the leader of the synagogue is speaking not to Jesus, not to the woman who is healed, but to the crowd. It’s plausible to think that he is less concerned about the woman or Jesus than he is about the crowd no longer keeping the Sabbath as a time rest and free from any labor.

So what are we supposed to do? How can we balance the notion of Sabbath, of having a time for rest, built into the rhythms of our life, and with the recognition that God breaks into our lives at unexpected moments? We are to live in tension, holding fast to both. This tension is persuasive in our experience as Christians: we lead lives grounded in the temporal world, while we look toward the sacred and eternal; we follow Jesus, fully God, and fully human. As we look forward to Michele’s return, I invite you to live into the tension of building time to rest and recover into your lives, while also knowing that God breaks into our lives at unexpected moments, again and again. Amen.

The sermon can be viewed here.