Any time I want to get a rise out of folks my age or older all I have to ask is, “Remember when Sunday was sacred?” A massive litany of stories erupts from our memory banks. Here are some of my favorites.
“My mother would not let us play outside on Sunday. We just went to church and then sat in the living room looking at each other.” Or what about, “Movies, cards, or any kind of board games were forbidden on the Sabbath. Remember this one. “All the stores were closed on Sunday.” My favorite is, “We went to church in the morning then came back in the evening. It seemed like the whole day was church.” And of course no list would be complete without, “Remember…. not the Alamo… not the USS Maine, but, “Remember the Blue Laws.” Many believe the fall of American culture began with their removal.
The amazing thing about Sabbath stories is no one seemed to enjoy the restrictions and yet now that all the boundaries have been lifted we lament the “good old days”. We question why no one else seems to understand the importance of Sabbath like we church goers do. Maybe the problem is we don’t understand it ourselves.
In the Creation myth, the part we all remember is, “On the seventh day, God rested.” This holy siesta became sacred tradition with the introduction of the 10 Commandments. By the time Jesus arrived, observance of the Sabbath was completely out of control. Sabbath meals had to be prepared the day before. The care of crops and animals was suspended. There was a limitation to the number of steps one could take on the Sabbath and presumably they were just enough to make a round trip to the synagogue. In our gospel text, this is where we find Jesus. He was the guest preacher. The town had gathered to hear his words of wisdom. But things didn’t work out according to plan.
One of the faithful that morning was a woman who had a bad back. Most of us know what it’s like to get out of bed and not be able to straighten up. We blame it on pulling too many weeds or in my case swinging to hard on the golf course. The muscles around our spine become irritated and require some Advil, a little stretching, and a few days off from yard work or trash detail. The woman in the gospel story had suffered for eighteen years and I suspect she came to church hoping for more than just being inspired by the music or a children’s sermon. She wanted a miracle. And that is exactly what she received.
Now you might have thought the congregation would have been delighted, but instead they gasped in disbelief.
“Jesus worked on the Sabbath. Jesus broke the Fourth Commandment. Who does he think he is?” Isn’t it interesting that those folks had no better idea of how to keep the Sabbath than us. They were the descendents of the very people who invented the idea that you should work 6 days and then rest. The Romans had no such custom. It infuriated the Roman that the Hebrew people took a day off. There were roads to build, aqueducts to construct, and people to conquer. If their workers rested on the Sabbath, it made them look less like an Empire. Strangely, the complaints by the Romans defined the reason for the Sabbath much better than the folks who actually observed the day of rest. Sabbath had become one of many rites performed by a people dedicated to lifelong rituals. Many could not even remember why they rested. But Jesus knew, and Jesus responded to the ills of the woman, because his action was at the very heart of the Sabbath tradition. Jesus freed the woman from that which enslaved her.
The history of the nation of Israel began in the mud pits of Egypt. Before Egypt, they were just a bunch of folks from many different families that headed south when a draught hit. They had no permanent home. Jacob referred to himself as a “Wandering Aramean”. Eventually they all came together in a slave camp. Their captors called them by a single name, “Hebrew”, which probably meant, “Folks from the other side of the river.” There was nothing magical about the name. I was born in Georgia. Some of you were born in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, or New York. We have some remarkable cultural differences but if we all got on a plane and flew to Paris, we would be called Americans. The Egyptians didn’t care if the Hebrews ate grits or bagels for breakfast as long as they showed up for work seven days a week. That work, that slavery, dominated their lives. They feared doing anything other than making bricks would result in death. When you do something non-stop, 24/7, there is no time for family, no time for yourself, and no time for God. The Hebrews forgot the stories of Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. The Hebrews forgot the promise that God would always be with them. They forgot everything but the work that enslaved them. In desperation, in agony they cried out to anyone who might hear them. And God responded.
You know the rest of the story. Out of the very house of Pharaoh, a Hebrew boy became a Godly man. Banished to the wilderness, Moses returned to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. Once freedom was secured Moses handed the nation of Israel ten laws for righteous living. At the very center of these commandments was placed the following, “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor but the seventh is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” What a gift to a people who knew nothing but work.
Many of you might be thinking, “What does this passage have to do with me? I am retired. I put in my lifetime of answering to a boss. Now I enjoy life. I play, spend quality time with my family and neighbors, and sleep in anytime I want. On Sunday, if I am in town, I faithfully fill this pew.”
That is true and those of us who are still working are very envious. But retirement doesn’t mean you are released from the need for Sabbath time. It was not just work that enslaved the Hebrew people. It was Pharaoh. It was the idea that no matter who they were or what they did something disturbing would dominate their life. Let me tell you, not even retirement can free you from Pharaoh.
Anxiety can work on you 24/7.
Feeling inadequate can enslave you in a heartbeat.
Righteous anger about something that happened yesterday or a thousand yesterdays ago is a cancer that will ravage your soul.
Believing someone is always plotting against you will wear you out.
And then there is guilt. Is there anything more destructive than guilt? We allow ourselves to be manipulated by guilt. We manipulate others with guilt. And then we feel guilty about being guilty.
Thank God for Sabbath. Thank God there is something bigger than our anxiety and inadequacies and paranoia’s. Thank God Sabbath is the day we are commanded to kick guilt from the deep recesses of our inner most psyche. Thank God we are commanded at least once a week to let go of all that stuff that enslaves us. Thank God we are offered the opportunity to look beyond ourselves and offer praise to the Creative Genius who celebrates each new day with the words, “You are good.”
Those folks in the synagogue were working so hard making the Sabbath holy they completely lost sight of the joy Jesus was bringing into their lives. A woman was enslaved by pain and Jesus released her from a lifelong bondage. The congregation should have leapt to their feet and cried, “Thank-you Jesus. Free Us, Free Us.”
Instead, the leader of the synagogue, the one disguised as Pharaoh, pointed his finger at Jesus and said, “You have brought the wrath of God down upon us. There are six other days designated to heal the sick. Could you not have waited until tomorrow?”
Jesus responded, “Once we celebrated the Sabbath as the day we were released from bondage.” Hearing those words, everyone jumped to their feet and rejoiced.
What a gift the Sabbath can be. Once a week, we the people of God come together to celebrate we are not enslaved by Pharaoh. Sabbath can and should be a day away from the expectations of 24/7. Sabbath can be and should be a day to set aside our anxieties, guilt and anger. Sabbath can and should be a day to remember that we, the community of faith, are not alone. Sabbath can and should be an opportunity to say, “Thank you Jesus. Set us Free.”