If ever there was a generation that needed sabbath, it just might be our generation. The gift of sabbath is one of the best gifts that God has ever given us – and yet, many of us have lost the practice of sabbath in our lives. We need to recover the sabbath. It’s good for us.
But we need to recover sabbath in the way that God intended, in the way that Jesus teaches in the synagogue in today’s gospel. Because unfortunately, many of us probably understand sabbath more the way that the synagogue leader understands it, and that just might explain why we’ve pretty much abandoned it.
The sabbath is meant to be life-giving. Rest is an important part of that. We all need rest as part of the rhythm of our lives. That’s the bit about sabbath that we understand best. We know the creation story in Genesis, how God created the heavens and the earth in six days, and rested on the seventh, establishing a pattern for us to follow. That’s the understanding that the synagogue leader is relying upon in today’s gospel.
Sabbath as rest is good. But here’s a surprise! Rest is not Jesus’ primary way of understanding the sabbath. There is more to it than rest. In fact, in one of Jesus’ clashes with religious authorities over the sabbath, in John’s gospel, Jesus says of the sabbath, “My Father is still working and I also am working.”
Jesus draws his understanding of sabbath from the teaching on sabbath found in the book of Deuteronomy, part of the giving of the ten commandments:
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work – you, or your son or your daughter, or your male and female slave … or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 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.”
The sabbath is the day that God brought the Hebrew people out of slavery. The sabbath is the day that God set the people free. The sabbath is the day of liberation.
When Jesus sees a woman who has been bent over for eighteen long years, bound and oppressed by an evil spirit, he doesn’t say “Let’s put the sabbath on hold for a few minutes while I heal this woman.”
No, what he says is “This is what the sabbath is for. This is the day of liberation. Woman you are set free.” And he heals her.
Isn’t this the purpose of sabbath? “And ought not this woman be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
Absolutely. And she responds by praising God, and the crowd goes wild.
Best. Sabbath. Ever.
Liberation is at the core of the sabbath. Liberation is at the core of the gospel. Liberation is at the core of our work as a church. God desires nothing more for us, nothing more for all of God’s children, than for each one of us to be set free from the things that oppress us, from all the evil spirits that bind us and weigh us down. Liberation, so that we can really live.
Now, a rhythm of life that includes rest and sets time aside for prayer and worship can be freeing. For slaves oppressed with hard labour seven days a week, a day of rest is liberating. For modern people who work too hard, who worry too much, who are stressed out, who lack community, who are on their phones too much, sabbath rest is freeing, is good for us, is restorative, is life-giving. So by all means practice sabbath by recovering a rhythm of rest and a time set aside for God and community each week.
But always keep the end in mind. Because for sabbath and for all of our religious practices, scripture interpretations and theological understandings, we have to remember what these things are for, what God intends for us. Are they liberating or oppressive? Are they merciful or judgmental? Are they generous or controlling? Are they life-giving or life-denying?
The leader in the synagogue had got caught up in an oppressive understanding of sabbath. He emphasized rest and forgot about liberation. He turned the gift of sabbath into a narrow, rule-based practice that forgot the original intent, that denied God’s mercy and failed to see the liberating power of God right in front of his own eyes when Jesus healed and freed the woman in the synagogue. How could he be so blind?
It's easy for us to see the fault of others. But how are we doing with our religious practices? This gospel text is not just about the sabbath. It’s a challenge to all of us who have settled into narrow interpretations of scripture or ungenerous theological positions. Mercy and liberation are at the heart of what God is doing in Jesus. We see it in the synagogue in today’s gospel. Do we also see it in our own religious practices and the work of the church today?
It's not hard to find more recent examples of where we’ve gone wrong. A generation ago, our church took a hard line against the remarriage of divorced people, and that was based on a certain interpretation of scripture. But it was a practice that hurt a lot of people, and made it difficult for them to move on with their lives. It wasn’t merciful. It wasn’t liberating. It wasn’t generous. Thankfully, we opened our minds and we changed our practice.
In the 19th and 20th centuries our theological understanding of what it meant to be a Christian, of salvation and of the need for conversion were at the root of our church’s involvement in Indian Residential Schools. Our church became an agent of oppression because of a religious understanding which was narrow and oppressive rather than merciful. We got it wrong, terribly and tragically wrong.
You can probably think of other examples of where we got it wrong, just like the synagogue leader in today’s gospel got it wrong. But when we read today’s text we need to resist the temptation to feel a bit smug and to think that we’re on the right side of history. Rather, it’s an opportunity for us to think about which of our religious practices and theological understandings today are merciful, generous, liberating and life-giving, and which ones are narrow, oppressive, controlling and harmful.
Our God wants to free us from everything that oppresses us, all that enslaves us, as individuals and as a community, so that we might have life in all of its abundance. That’s why Jesus came, and that’s why God is calling us to participate in the work of liberation. Liberation is the core of the gospel. Liberation must also be at the core of our work as church.
Homily: Yr C P21 August 21 2022, Trinity
Readings: Jeremiah 1.4-10; Psalm 71.1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29; Luke 13.10-17