“How (and Why) to Keep the Sabbath Holy”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
25 August, 2019
“Now [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath,” Luke tells us. “And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.”
What, I wonder, could have twisted this woman’s posture with such force that she was, as Luke describes, “quite unable to stand up straight”? What was the nature of the spirit that plagued her, rendering her hunched and stooped, powerless to make eye contact with those who encountered her? Did her contorted way of being happen in a singular, traumatic moment? Was she party to, or victim of, something so horrible that she was cowed by the shame of what she had done or experienced?
Or was it a series of words or actions that gradually beat her down? Maybe it was a lack of action—neglect, disinterest, preoccupations by others that led her to conclude she was not worth being seen or known? I have no idea. There are so many things in life that can confine us to focusing on the dirt rather than blue sky.
What I do know is that she had been effectively dehumanized. Her God-given value in the creation order had been diminished in the eyes of the community, if not completely disregarded. As she took her place in the synagogue, the bent-over woman was there but not there. We know, because she wasn’t important enough to identify with a name. She’s not called Elizabeth or Susanna. She’s identified merely as “a woman” who appeared in the synagogue where Jesus was preaching just then, “with a spiritthat had crippled herfor eighteen years.”
Did her affliction threaten that leader, or all of the people, somehow? Were they afraid that her stoop was contagious? Was it disgust that they felt, or awkwardness? Did they think shedeservedher hunched back? Shemust have wondered. For eighteen years.
Eighteen years. That’s long enough to raise a child from infancy to adulthood. Long enough to change jobs several times, long enough to move house and re-settle at least five times if my own experience is anything to go by. Long enough to learn (or unlearn) countless ways of being, to firmly establish new traditions. Certainly, it’s long enough for a community to have noticed someone who’s bent over by a crippling spirit, long enough to have reached out and tried to draw her into a circle of support and healing. It’s also long enough to convince a person that some things will never change.
This daughter of God whose suffering they had overlooked or pretended not to see for nearly two decades, wandered into the synagogue. No one seemed to notice or care. But Jesus noticed. “When Jesus saw her,” Luke says, “he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment. [And], when he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.’”
Well, that annoyed the community leaders, who shored up their own authority and power by insisting upon and enforcing laws. Apparently, by their thinking, there is no law against healing or helping people—unless it happens on the sabbath day. Because let’s face it: healing and wholeness-making takes work. If it wasn’t hard work to accomplish healing in individuals and communities, we probably wouldn’t be faced with so many of the crises we’re grappling with today.
Who knows how many times she had appeared during the workweek, and what ways she’d been granted or denied the respect of being acknowledged, much less received with a healing touch or spirit of welcome on, say, a Wednesday. In that particular Sabbath day moment, at least, the leader of the synagogue didn’t even dignify the woman’s personhood by addressing her specifically when he protested her healing. Luke says he was indignant, and “kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’”
Clearly, from the very beginning, the community that’s gathered to listen to and learn from Jesus has always struggled with including those who are different. Especially those whose need and struggle in life is obvious. Those whose plight feels awkward, maybe painful even to observe, possibly slightly overwhelming. It’s somehow easier to just ignore or push off dealing with them for another day.
“But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.”
The crowd recognized that a warped relationship had just been put to rights. A divine order had been restored. The healing wasn’t just for the woman, but for the entire congregation. Jesus perfectly demonstrated how to keep the sabbath holy, and why. His actions were consistent with the whole purpose of sabbath-keeping. Those who truly listened to and heeded the ancient preaching of Isaiah would have understood.
More than 500 years before this scene in the synagogue unfolded, Isaiah—the prophet who proclaimed both warranted judgment and merciful consolation to a beaten-down Israel—waxed poetic about how the people had betrayed their faithful God. A moment before our reading from Isaiah Chapter 58 began, in Chapter 57, Isaiah decries the idolatry and self-centered, indulgent behaviors that had driven a wedge between the people and the God who loved them. There were echoes of how they had violated the holy laws Moses had delivered on stone tablets generations ago. Laws, in the form of divine commandments, that were intended to structure the life and community of God’s people so that they could flourish and enjoy rewarding and mutual relationships.
With imagery evoking an adulterous relationship where lust and desire are indulged, followed by the inevitable and painful consequences of infidelity, the prophet serves as God’s mouthpiece, expressing understandable hurt and anger.
The audience to whom Isaiah originally preached were suffering under the weight of their poor choices, of their self-indulgent desire-driven decisions. The people of Israel were hurting, perishing even—most lamentably, the righteous law-abiding ones, whom God and individuals alike recognized was unfair. But the greed and self-centered practices of individuals who merely called themselves faithful servants of the LORD had detrimental consequences on the entire community.
It was for the sake of the righteous ones and because of all of them whom God loved (in other words, for the righteous and unrighteous alike) that, barely a moment after sounding the harsh tones of judgment and punishment for the nation’s prevailing wickedness, Isaiah declares the compassionate relenting of the LORD. Because God is confident that the people have seen, or surely will see, the futility of their ways.
Weren’t their broken temples and ancient ruins, their trampled foundations, and crumbled streets, their devastated government and shattered relationships, all visible reminders of what happens when you pursue short-sighted, selfish agendas instead of keeping faith with the covenant promises to love God and love their neighbors as themselves? As Isaiah portrays it, a hopeful God was sure they were coming to understand.
And God was, as always, reaching out. This time, with a fresh word of compassion to meet their suffering, and some explicit instructions about what they should do to enjoy the security and prosperity they longed for:
“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,” God promises through the prophet, “then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.” “If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; …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; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob.”
Isn’t it interesting that a key component to restoring their happiness and sense of security resides in how well they honor and observe the sabbath, how well they obey the Third Commandment? Why, do you suppose, should a day of rest matter so much in the scheme of things, especially when you’re trying to build (or rebuild) a nation?
Let’s think back to the origin of sabbath. In Hebrew, the word is shabbat; in Greek, it is sâbbaton, meaning “to rest.” In the very beginning, according to the first chapters of our faith narrative, God worked for six straight days at fashioning the world. At the end of it, God saw that it was very good. And then, on the seventh, God took a day to simply shabbat, to sâbbaton—to rest and appreciate it all.
It is when one rests, refrains from the distractions of activity or busyness or doing, that one can settle into a deeper recognition and appreciation of our be-ing, and how our being includes a connectedness to all other beings, to everything else that is. It is in resting that we discover room for mindfulness, for reflection on our relationships and connections. Which, hopefully, will lead to a renewed sense of perspective and appreciation: a recognition that without the healthy existence and life of everything else around us, our own life is deprived of joy, and love, and purpose. And that renewed sense of perspective helps to re-establish the balance, where self-interest no longer holds the center of gravity, but we become recommitted to the mutual flourishing of all life and relationships.
Do you remember how it felt when someone noticed and spoke confidence directly to your insecurity, saying, “You’ve got this, and I’ve got your back”? How it felt to be vindicated when the truth emerged about how you’d been misrepresented or wrongly treated? Can you recall a time when it felt like the entire world was stacked up against you, pressing you down, making you eat dirt…until Love showed up, called out to you, laid healing hands on you, and liberated you, saved you?
Do you remember when you spotted someone bent over, beaten down by life, pushed to the margins because they were different, or needy, or desperate in ways that made people uncomfortable—but you reached out with a word or gesture of healing? And do you remember that when you noticed them, and listened with compassion, how you discovered your own spirit feeling revived as you participated in the restoring a relationship to the mutuality God originally intended?
That, dear friends, is how to keep the sabbath holy, and why: It is to make plenty of space and time in our lives—a whole day’s worth in seven—to notice our connectedness to everything around us, to appreciate the beauty and strength of God’s very good creation and divine relationships, and to recommit ourselves to the proper balancing of them. Especially when that involves attending to the needs of others, so that everything can flourish. That’s why Jesus—even on the day of rest—noticed, cared, and acted on his commitment to work for the glory of God and others; it’s how he was able to restore a bent-over woman to her confident, connected, upright posture of flourishing. You and I, we are equipped and empowered to the likewise, regardless of what day we claim for our time of sabbath rest. Thanks be to God! Amen.
Isaiah 58:9-10, 13-14