Sermon for Luke 13:10-17
So, do any of you like Chik-Fil-A? It’s fast food, but I think they serve really good chicken sandwiches (they’re not paying me for that by the way). Probably, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve gotten out of church on Sunday and wanted Chik-Fil-A, I’d be rich. But unfortunately, they’re closed on Sundays. And it’s fairly unusual these days for a store or restaurant to actually be closed on Sunday. I know some of you are old enough to remember when this was common, and for me, I think I grew up on the tail end of that. But these days it’s unusual, unless you’re shopping for a car, or beer or wine. And when we do encounter it, it seems pretty inconvenient. Or at least, maybe we resent them just a little bit for not being open when we need them to be.
Our readings for today speak about the Sabbath, and about keeping it holy. The third commandment tells us that we are to hallow the day of rest. Luther’s small catechism asks us “What does this mean?” “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s Word, but instead keep that Word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” Maybe you had to memorize all of that when you were kids, but it’s probably not your first thought when someone asks you about what sabbath means. More likely you think of the day of rest part, which makes sense. We just read in Isaiah about refraining from pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day, and God will make us ride upon the heights of the earth. The lesson seems to be that if we’re obedient and rest from work, then God will give us a big reward. Besides, the commandments sound like a bunch of rules anyway. Don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t kill, don’t covet your neighbor’s donkey – now THERE’S a tough one!
So anyway, seems like taking a day of rest should be the easiest commandment of all, right? But us, we’re always plugged in in one way or another. We’ve always got something we have to do because good Christians are responsible people who do good things. Or at least that’s what we’ve probably picked up along the way. It’s a real struggle to let go of everything we should be doing, and take a day off. Because why? Because we’ll let everyone down? Because someone will think we’re lazy or selfish? Or being difficult, like those Chik-Fil-A people when I want their sandwich on Sunday? So maybe that’s what the sabbath is all about – making us stop, and rest, and rethink our priorities? Or maybe realize that we care more about what our friends think, than about what God thinks. If that makes the sabbath a challenge, then surely we’re on the right track, because the Christian life is supposed to be a challenge, right? Some of you have probably even heard other sermons about it. Maybe a really nice sermon about “healthy habits of the heart”, or how to be more centered, or maybe a little fire and brimstone that calls you out for not keeping the commandment.
After all, if it’s a commandment, that’s probably why we outlaw things on Sunday like buying cars or alcohol, or whatever else the statehouse thinks we shouldn’t do. Of course, nothing there about hearing God’s word preached – so much for Martin Luther’s catechism. It’s like the sabbath is all about avoidance and inconvenience. But if that’s what this is about, then things get tricky. Are we avoiding the right things? What’s still allowed? How inconvenienced should we feel to know that we’re doing it right? We can go a long way with that, too. I mean, it’s one thing to put off errands or chores. But you could be the plumber on call and someone’s water heater springs a leak, or you can be the one with the leaking water heater. Nurses, police, firefighters. Can you honestly say that there are exceptions? How can you be so sure? Because deep down, maybe we’re not really sure of anything, even whether we’re saved? But we can absolutely distract ourselves from all that if we just keep busy, because it’s something we can do. It might give us a little security, it might even give us a little sense of power, but it still doesn’t make those questions go away.
All this to prepare us for meeting Jesus today, in the synagogue. A woman crippled for 18 long years, bent over and unable to stand upright. It’s hard to imagine what her life was like, let alone what makes her struggle to keep coming to worship. What a struggle, but maybe it pleases God. That’s probably what the temple priests have taught her for her entire life. And they speak for God, right? The harder the struggle, the more pleasing the sacrifice, and I’ll bet you that she had strong faith, to keep on coming and hoping that God might finally relieve her of her pain, and yet, did that faith really matter? But on this day, everything changes for her. Jesus calls to her – “woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Jesus heals her, she stands up straight for the first time in years, and she begins praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, so indignant, tells the crowd – there are 6 days for work, come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.
Jesus’ healing, God’s grace, this woman’s freedom, all bound up in commandments as the leader of the synagogue, as we, understand it. Should she have suffered yet another day because of the sabbath? But for all her faithful worship, nothing ever changed. For us, as hard as we try to keep sabbath, our only reward is our guilt and stress and worry about what we’re putting off, or what other people think. But still, a commandment is a commandment. So, to talk about our failure to keep sabbath, is to talk about our lack of discipline, our uncertainty, and where is God in this? Could God be setting us up to fail? Jesus, chief of sinners – what about his decision? He chose people, and healing, and they killed him for it in the holy name of God. Because when you believe in a God of commandments, that’s the only God you have.
But despite the law and the prophets and our fear of God’s judgement, God in Jesus Christ breaks all those rules, tearing them apart just as the temple curtain rips in two. Jesus heals crippled women on sabbaths, touches lepers who must not be touched, and eats with prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners and dares to call them, and you and me, his friends. For everything that we believe God requires us to do, God comes among us as one of us, in Jesus Christ, showing us the love of God that puts an end to laws and commandments and the expectations of others, even the church. After three days, Jesus rises from the grave and shows us just what happens to law-breakers – we no longer have anything to fear. In loving kindness, God opens our eyes to see those false choices for what they really are – they do not save us, and they can no longer bind us.
Once, sabbath was yet another commandment that called us out. But as people claimed by God and made free by God’s grace and mercy, we finally realize an even deeper truth about God’s grace. God surrounds us with generosity and abundance in spite of anything we do or don’t do. Whether we perceive it or not, God sustains and cares for all people, believers and unbelievers, sinners and saints, and we are both. Speaking through scripture, God tells us of making the rain to fall, and sun to shine, upon all people, good or bad, just or unjust, deserving or undeserving. That’s the crazy thing about God in Christ that mystifies us. God doesn’t play by our rules, and we can be thankful for that. And regardless of whether you or I think we’re keeping sabbath today, we have just been brought face to face with the reality of this gracious God who blesses us anyway.
And that same reality casts aside any expectation or demand or label that the world tries to stick on us, let alone what we thought God demanded of us, or ELSE. Today, we are the woman in the synagogue, and Jesus has healed us and freed us to stand up straight after our years of living in the Gehenna of the world’s lies. You are released from all of it, and the sabbath is God’s way of driving this home for us with an exclamation point. For the world no longer defines who you are, let alone by what you do – God has defined us as God’s own children, marking and sealing us with the water of our baptism. No commandment can ever undo that.
So what happens now, in this new reality that God has brought us into? Through our reading from Hebrews, hear God promising us – “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven” Our shoulds and oughts and have tos, our own creations, other people’s creations, all shaken away, leaving us with God’s unshakable grace and mercy and forgiveness – the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Freeing us once and for all from our worries and fears. Freeing us from the fear of what others think of us. Freeing us to love others. Freeing us from wondering whether we’re keeping sabbath, for we already are. And now, our God invites us to an abundant feast. God has given you a place at the banquet table that will never be taken away. Welcome to the sabbath, and welcome to the feast. Amen.