On the Sabbath

Note: I preached a version of this sermon on August 21, 2019 (Proper 16C) at Messiah Lutheran Church in Wauconda, Illinois

Time is a scarce resource in our world. We can take almost any problem or challenge and describe it in terms of not having enough time. We can say, “I need more time” when we mean “I need more money” or “I need more patience from you” or “I need a stronger resolution to fix this problem in myself.”

Time is scarce because we work so much. It’s scarce because we don’t do enough as a society to make sure people can experience a secure retirement or spend time with a newborn child. It’s scarce because workers literally have their wages stolen by employers, forcing them to work longer. It’s scarce because we have a million possible distractions to keep us busy doing nothing in particular. It’s scarce because a lot of us live farther away from work than our parents or grandparents did, so we have to spend a lot of time in a car. 

Time is scarce. 

So a couple of years ago I decided to try something weird. I’m a preacher and a writer, so I take it seriously that the words we choose matter for how we think. What I tried to do was to stop using the word “have” when I was talking about time. No more “I don’t have enough time,” or even “I have time.” No more “time on my hands,” no more “running out of time.” 

Like most things I try to do I do not do this well. And I am most certainly not encouraging you to do it. A couple of years ago on Ash Wednesday I preached about how we should give up the word “Sorry” for Lent, and that’s not what I’m doing today.  

But my point in doing it was this: to stop thinking about time as a thing that I can possess. Because it’s an illusion. Time isn’t mine, or yours, or anybody’s. We don’t “spend time,” we just move through it. When I think “I wish I had more time for sleep,” what I really mean is “I wish my life were set up differently. I wish I worked less and watched less Netflix and slept more. I wish I made different choices. I wish my circumstances allowed me to make different choices.” 

Now believe it or not, this odd idea of mine came from the Bible. Specifically it came from the Sabbath. 

The Sabbath, of course, is the day of rest commanded by God. It shows up at the very beginning, in Genesis—God rests on the seventh day and makes that day holy. It comes up again in the Law of Moses, which says that no one—not children, not animals, not slaves, not outsiders or foreigners—no one may do any work on the seventh day. God didn’t work on that day, but instead God made that day holy, so it is holy to you.

Later on, in Deuteronomy, the law is repeated. And this time God reminds the people that they were slaves in Egypt. They had to work all the time. And now that they are free they must not work without rest, and they must not make anyone or anything work without rest either. 

The Sabbath is God’s way of telling the people, “Time is not your tool.” Time does not belong to human beings, it belongs to God. One day each week the people were commanded to let the world be a gift, not something that needed to be fixed up or improved. One day each week the people were commanded to let people and animals exist for their own sake, not to be useful for others. One day each week the people were commanded to set aside for life itself, not for their many tasks. 

And this was hard! If you grew up observing this commandment in some fashion, you know what a big deal it is. Pagans thought it was nuts. A great Roman writer of the ancient world wrote that he Jews wasted fully one-seventh of their lives in idleness.  

Even in the days of Isaiah, in our reading today, the people are sort of fudging on the Sabbath. “If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day, if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs, then you will delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth.”

People found ways to do business on the sabbath. People found ways to start working again a little bit early, get the jump on the other guy. Maybe people were ignoring it entirely. And if they are doing that, they are willing to do other things to harm their neighbor, too. They are willing to do other things to dishonor God. When the Sabbath is ignored, people get cheated of their wages. People and animals and the very land get overworked and exhausted. People become cheap. The image of God is dishonored. 

Now I can’t pretend to judge the people of Isaiah’s day. Of all the Ten Commandments, this is probably the one I’m worst at. I’m going to go home tonight and work on my book manuscript. And Jewish interpreters insist that studying the Scriptures does not count as working, so maybe I could get off on a technicality. But I know better. I’m working. Working to feel useful, working to make money, working so that I know I am making the best use of my time. Working because I think of time as my tool, not as God’s free gift to me.

This is why Sabbath observance is so important to the people in Jesus’s story. It was their weekly remembrance that God had chosen them, that God cared for them, that God did not create them to be slaves or masters. 

So when Jesus calls the bent-over woman up to the front of the synagogue on the sabbath day to heal her, he is doing something dramatic. So dramatic, in fact, that Jesus draws a rebuke from the leader of the synagogue. Six days you can heal, the man says, so heal on one of those days, but keep the sabbath holy. You can save a life on the sabbath, but anything short of that is supposed to wait.

And Jesus responds by saying, you all untie your ox or donkey and lead them to water on the sabbath—even though it wouldn’t kill them to wait. And if you can untie your animal to give it some comfort on the sabbath, how much more should you untie this daughter of Abraham, this child of the promise, from her infirmity? 

That’s the point of the Sabbath, to let your burdens be lifted. 

But I don’t want us to walk away from this story imagining that Jesus has somehow overridden the law about sabbath rest, leaving us to do whatever we think is good and right. He is upholding the law of the Sabbath. The healing grace shown to this daughter of Abraham is a gift within a gift. Just like the humane farmer who looses his donkey to be watered on the day of rest, Jesus is lifting up the power of the Sabbath for healing and wholeness and blessing. You already do this, Jesus says; you already know the goodness of God, because you can show it to your beasts. So much more should we show it to each other. God does not overlook our needs at any time. God makes the day holy in order to show how holy our own needs are—needs not for more time to do our tasks, but our needs for rest, for healing, for family, and for mercy. 

And so as we join in our song of the day today, I invite anybody who is in need of healing or restoration to enter into the power of the day, to come up to the altar rail and stand or kneel as you are able. And I will anoint you and say a prayer for healing. Because this is a day not just of rest, not just of worship, but a day to be restored to our full humanity as the people God made us to be. Amen. 

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