Proper 16, Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Deuteronomy 5:1-15, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
This is my first sermon preached at the chapel of Christ the King, CFB Suffield. I followed the lectionary but substituted Deuteronomy 5 for the first reading at the suggestion of the participants of this week’s “Sermon Brainwave” podcast at Working Preacher, since I agree with them that this lesson helps understand the gospel lection. MP+
“And this woman, a daughter of Abraham as she is, whom Satan has bound for eighteen long years, should she not have been released from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (Lk 13:16)
This week I’ve met a lot of folks here as I began my time here as base chaplain, and during one conversation, a soldier told me that while he was pleased to meet me, I probably wouldn’t be seeing him in church. Well, that didn’t surprise me much, because soldiers aren’t famous for being churchgoers. The English poet Rudyard Kipling, who knew a thing or two about soldiers, wrote that “Single men in barracks don’t grow into plaster saints”. Fair enough, but as I looked at this Sunday’s readings, which are about the Sabbath and about what God’s people should and shouldn’t do on this holy day, I got led to thinking about these questions. Why should we as Christians go to church (especially when so many who consider themselves Christians are elsewhere on Sunday mornings?). Are we obliged to go to church because our prayers and our worship are expected of us by God? Or, is going to church something we do, not because we owe it to God, but because we owe it to ourselves?
Today’s gospel reading from St. Luke is not just a healing story. It’s also an argument about what our response to the Lord’s day, the Sabbath, should be. Jesus is in church on the Sabbath, and sees a woman who is suffering from a sickness, so he heals her. A religious official becomes upset because, as he sees it, Jesus’ action breaks the Jewish laws forbidding any work to be done on the Sabbath. In the eyes of the official, the requirement to honour the holiest day of the week comes first, whereas for Jesus, the needs of a woman whom he sees as one of God’s children, “a daughter of Abraham”, come first.
It’s tempting to think that the synagogue official is merely a fussy and petty-minded nincompoop who puts religious rules above human needs, but hold that thought for just a moment. For a long time, Christianity has taken the same view as the official. Christians, like Jews, consider ourselves bound by the Third Commandment, to “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex 20:8-11). Some churches, including the Roman Catholic church in its catechism, regard it as a “grave sin” not to go to Sunday mass, and some protestant churches will send the elders to your door if they don’t see you on Sunday. Christians have also tried to enforce the Third Commandment on society as a whole, such as in the losing fight against Sunday shopping. Militaries used to enforce the Sunday church parade, though if you read the memoirs and history books I’m not sure that anyone found these parades an uplifting experience. I’m old enough that I was taught to dress up in my Sunday best, and I still find myself uncomfortable at the sight of jeans and T-shirts in church.
There’s a word for the kind of mindset which says that we should or shouldn’t do things, and that word is called legalism. When you think about it, the word “should” is an unattractive and unhelpful word when it comes to Sunday. You aren’t likely to persuade people by telling them that they “should” come to church. If young people who always wear jeans and T-shirts show up at church and are told they “should” wear nicer clothes, they aren’t likely to come back. The word “should” won’t fill pews, nor will telling people that they owe Sunday to God. But you might get people to come to church if they were to hear that Sunday is about a loving and freedom-giving God who wants to release them from their burdens.
Think for a moment about the obligations and burdens that most people carry through the week. The unemployed carry poverty and hopelessness. The underemployed carry the crushing weight of multiple jobs to maintain a foothold in society. The employed, especially the professionals, give lavishly to their jobs, often at the expense of the families and relationships. We all go through the week carrying the burdens of our hidden, inner lives, whatever they may be. Spiritual emptiness, physical and mental illness, failed relationships, addictions, loneliness, depression are unseen but heavy weights that God never intended his people to carry. If you think about it, the woman in today’s gospel who for many years “had a sickness caused by a spirit” is more like you and I than we may care to admit.
Burdened and distracted as we are, people associate the word “Sabbath” for the ideas of rest and freedom. Our word “sabbatical”, meaning a time away from the daily routine to rest and recharge, comes from the Jewish word “Sabbath”. The author William Powers, who has written about how we are increasingly burdened and stressed by all the digitial communications technology that is supposed to make our lives easier. Powers and his family now enjoy an “Internet Sabbath” when they disconnect the internet from late Friday to early Monday to become more connected with themselves and with each other. His idea of an “internet Sabbath” captures a small part of what God intended when he gave us his gift of Sabbath time.
In our first reading, from Deuteronomy, before God gives the Third Commandment to his people, he reminds them that they were once slaves in Egypt before he brought them out to freedom. The Sabbath is a gift to former slaves, a time of freedom from work for all people, even the lowliest household servants and farmhands. Everyone is made equal by the same gift of rest from work, and so everyone, from the lowest to the highest, is reminded that they are former slaves who have been rescued and emancipated by God. When the synagogue official gets angry at Jesus for breaking the Sabbath, he misses the point because he doesn’t understand who Jesus is. Luke wants us to realize that Jesus, as God’s son, in this and other acts of healing, continues God’s work of rescuing his children. Sometimes when we read the healing stories of the gospels, we think that they are medical stories about a lucky few sick people that Jesus helped. A better way to think of these stories is that Jesus offers the same healing to all of us, the same healing rescue from sin and death. Today’s Eucharist, like the Passover meal that it arose from, is a reminder that all of us, from the lowest to the highest, are God’s children rescued from our slavery to sin and death.
One of my favourite preachers is a Texan named Stanley Hauerwas (and it seems appropriate to mention him today in my first sermon in Alberta, Canada’s Texas). Hauerwas tells a story of how, during the American Civil War, news of the Emancipation Proclamation came to Texas on June 19th. For years thereafter, African Americans in Texas observed “Juneteenth” by not showing up for work, and while the whites didn’t like it, they couldn’t do much about it. As Hauerwas notes, Sunday , the Christian Sabbath, is our Juneteenth. It’s a day when we step out of the world’s business and disorder into the peace and order that God wants, and always wanted, for us. It’s a day when we offer up prayers and hymns, not because we owe them to God, but because our prayers and hymns are the thanksgiving of people who were slaves, and who now are free. Sunday is a reminder that peace and joy and freedom are God’s great gifts to his children, it’s the day when we can fully live and experience those gifts, and if we did a better job of explaining this to a world that needs these gifts so badly, then we wouldn’t worry about our empty pews.
I have said these things in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. +