Saturday, August 21, 2010

Pentecost +13C

Sunday, in the house where I grew up, was a day of rest and gladness.  My dad, in particular, always used to welcome Sunday with a particular gladness, even though, as a hardworking minister, for him it was hardly a day of rest.  Dad even used to sing about it around the kitchen table, leaving me in no doubt then or now that he received Sundays as a welcome gift.  My perspective as a small boy was of course a little different.  If Sunday, I thought to myself, was such a day of rest and gladness, why did I have to go to church?  It’s a good question and one which the famous nineteenth century American poet and misfit Emily Dickinson also posed in her little poem that begins,

‘Some keep Sunday going to church,

I keep it staying at home

with a woodthrush for a chorister

and an orchard for a throne.
and ends with a salutary warning for preachers:

God preaches – a noted clergyman -

and the sermon is never long.

So instead of going to heaven at last

I’m going all along.

I wouldn’t, of course, want to encourage this sort of attitude too much!

The key, I think, to our Gospel story this morning is the question, ‘how should human beings observe the Sabbath’?  This isn’t the only time this question arises in the Gospels – five times, in fact, Jesus gets into trouble for healing on the Sabbath, once for allowing his disciples to pinch heads of corn when they were supposed to be in the synagogue.  And in today’s story Jesus is directly confronted by the leader of the synagogue who suggests, more or less, that he is being deliberately confrontational.  Nobody objects to people being made well, he points out, but do it during business hours.

Sunday, of course, isn’t the Jewish Sabbath, set aside as the seventh day of creation, the day of rest based on the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis.  Sabbath retraces the drama of creation and the cycle of the natural world, and underscores the fact that human time is interwoven with the seasons of creation and ultimately with God’s own life.  Sunday, not the seventh but the eighth day of creation, the first day of God’s new creation in the resurrection of Christ, has got a relationship with the Jewish Sabbath, but as always, we need to respect the Jewish tradition in which Jesus stands.

Jesus responds to the synagogue leader’s challenge with an argument of his own, though it’s not actually a very convincing one.  Feeding and watering animals and humans even on the Sabbath is necessary to sustain life, the synagogue leader is perfectly right that Dr Jesus could have made an appointment with the bent-over lady for the following morning.  The real point isn’t that animals mattered more than humans in the Jewish system, or that Sabbath observance is somehow hypocritical.  Even in Jesus’ day, the rabbinic tradition understood Sabbath as a divine prerogative for restoration and healing for the whole created order, and we as Christians can and should learn from the holistic Jewish understanding of Sabbath.  As writer Richard Swanson points out, ‘This scene comes out of a world that remembered that Sabbath is different. Sabbath is not just a day of rest.  It is a day of promise … Sabbath is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed. Sabbath provides a foretaste of the culmination of all things, a glimpse of God's dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time. Sabbath offers a remembrance of God's promise of peace and freedom for all of creation. It is a good thing, a gift from God…Sabbath had become a symbol of the resistance God's people offered to tyrants of every sort and every time…Sabbath is a day that lifts people's eyes to God's promise in the midst of the most unpromising circumstances’. [1]

The point, I think, is not that Jesus and the synagogue leader have different ideas on the Sabbath, but that they have different understandings of who God is.  They would have agreed with one another that we must love God with our whole heart and soul and strength, and that this needs to show itself in love for those around us. For the synagogue leader this means keeping the commandments. That makes sense. It’s based on an image of the God who created us and demands our obedience.  It’s an understanding of God that many Christians would also share, an understanding of God that says the most important thing is to get our beliefs right, to observe the right forms of worship. [2]

But what if God’s chief priority is not to be obeyed, but something else? What if God’s chief focus is love and care for people and for creation?  If this is the sort of God we imagine, then the focus of our response has to shift, we need to become less focussed on the keeping of commandments, right beliefs and the right forms of worship, and more concerned with God’s people and God’s creation.  If this is how we imagine God, then all the commandments and rules, guidelines and traditions, scriptures and beliefs are actually designed to get us to do one thing – which is to love in the same way that we understand God as loving.

We often talk about the aim of Christian living as becoming Christ-like, and I think that is it in a nut-shell.  We aim to grow into the model of human life that we see in Jesus.  But what all too often happens is not that Christians become more like Jesus, but more like what they imagine God to be.  If we imagine God to be unapproachable, authoritarian and self-obsessed, rigidly insistent that human beings keep to the letter of the Law and know their Bibles backwards, then we become narrow-minded, authoritarian and judgemental ourselves. 

But there’s another way of loving God.  Jesus is modelling in this story what seems to have been the underlying intuition and the basic message of his entire ministry.  In his actions he consistently shows us an image of God that he seems to believe matches the reality a whole lot better, that our understanding of God should not be modelled on the aloof king or the powerful, demanding father, but on the mother sweeping the floor to find a lost coin, or the father running down the road to meet a lost son.  God’s dignity and remoteness are traded in for intimacy and compassion.  And Jesus, who understands God like that, models a human life that grows from that understanding.

So, how to keep the Sabbath?  I find in this story an echo of another Sabbath, in chapter four of Luke’s Gospel, when Jesus stands up in the synagogue and announces his mission plan by quoting Isaiah, ‘God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour’.  Jesus here is very clear that right worship and the keeping of commandments means making God’s priority of compassion and care also our priority.

Another clue is to notice the woman herself, who in this story is not named, and described only by the effect of what oppresses her – she is bent over.  It doesn’t actually matter from our perspective what her medical condition was, it might even have been the cumulative effect of years of carrying heavy burdens of water or firewood.  Being bent over means not being able to see the world or other people straight-on, it means being limited in perspective, looking down, not up, isolated and confined.  The point is, we get people like that in church.  Physically bent over, emotionally or morally bent over.  People come here, all the time, hoping that this might be a place of healing, a place where, somehow, they might be able to let go of everything that has kept them imprisoned and find again the capacity for joy, to become new-born, to get a second or a third or fourth chance, to live again.  And very, very often, they leave disappointed, having found not healing but clique-ishness and competitiveness and backbiting and silly insistence on the form rather than the substance of Christian faith.

The bent-over woman might also be you, because to tell the truth we are all in various ways bent over and in need, not only of God’s love, but for that love to be offered to us in concrete form through the actions of the person sitting next to us.  How many Christian men and women come to church year in, year out, without receiving the blessing of human love which actually is the only way we have of understanding the love of God?

The purpose of Sabbath rest is of course to be free to praise God, and so Jesus sets the woman free from what oppresses her and pushes her in on herself.  The gladness of resurrection, Sunday the day of re-creation, is nothing less than the transformation of the whole created order, the celebration of all living things made whole and new, reconnected with the truth of who they are – and so the business of Sunday is to make new, to restore and to make joyful all who have been bent over by oppression or grief, all who have lost their way, all who mourn their years of failure or wasted opportunity.  To bless one another with the rest and gladness of God.


[1] Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke.

[2] I am indebted for some of the following to Bill loader, who publishes his reflections on the Sunday Gospel at