A Sermon about Keeping the Sabbath (and Why It’s So Hard)

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This Sunday, I had the opportunity to worship with the people of God at First Lutheran Church, a neighboring ELCA congregation not far from Augustana. You can read more about the ministry FLC is up to in Omaha on their website.


First Lutheran Church, Omaha, NE
21 August 2016 + Lectionary 21C
Luke 13.10-17



Some keep the Sabbath going to Church—
I keep it, staying at Home—

So begins the poem by Emily Dickinson. Exchanging a choir for the song of birds, a vaulted ceiling for the covering of trees, and even the preacher in favor of God herself. For Dickinson, sacred space is more out there than in here.

I suppose it’s probably a good thing I didn’t take Dickinson’s advice this morning—or else this would be a very quiet ten minutes… not to mention that I’d probably be going into the wrong line of work.

calmBut I must confess, even as a seminary student who deeply loves all things liturgical, some of my most sacred Sabbath experiences happen outside the four walls of a sanctuary. Living in Chicago for the past eight years, I have come to relish any sliver of urban nature I can find. Walks along Lake Michigan are my favorite, where in the mugginess of summer heat I can actually dip my feet in the cool water, or just sit along the shore and gaze out over the seemingly endless waters.

These sacred moments spent in the midst of urban beauty more often than not organically lead me to prayer and reflection on the day.

But then, I have thoughts.

Thoughts about my to-do list: There’s laundry to do, a sermon to finish, groceries to buy, meetings to attend, bills to pay.

Left alone to our thoughts, distractions creep in. It’s inevitable. And quite frankly, it makes any notion of Sabbath downtime hard to come by.

Barbara Brown Taylor traces a brief history of Sabbath-keeping in her book An Altar in the World. Growing up, Taylor recalls that the Sabbath was a day of could not: you could not wear blue jeans, you could not play ball, you could not ride bikes, you could not go to the movies. In other words, she quips, “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it boring.” [1]sabbath-sunday

But even for the most devout Sabbath-keeper, changing times brought changing attitudes toward Sunday mornings. By the 1960s, the majority of homes had TVs, and many of them would be tuned to Sunday football. More and more, shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues began to open their doors on Sundays. Suddenly, there was a newfound liberation as Americans could fill their Sabbath day with a multitude of activities.

Of course, liberation for some meant just the opposite for others. Lower-wage earners would have to choose between keeping the Sabbath or keeping their jobs to meet the demand of added business hours.

Meanwhile, for churches, all of this has meant ever-decreasing attendance, no matter the reason for a churchgoers’s absence. To be sure, Sunday worship is certainly not the only way to keep the Sabbath, but the constant swirl of activities to choose from, to-do items to check off, and smartphone notifications to respond to seems have left precious little time to just be.


To counteract this “war on Sabbath,” Taylor suggests the spiritual practice of “saying no.” She explains that those who practice Sabbath, those who say no, are more able to resist our cultural emphasis on productivity, consumerism, and consumption. Saying no insists that you are worth more than what you do or how much you produce. Saying no allows you to just be, and rest, and recharge. (And no, I don’t just mean your smartphone or tablet.)

In our gospel text this morning, I suspect Jesus is practicing what it means to say no. To heal or not to heal on the Sabbath? That is the question.

The law, it would seem, is clear: no work on the Sabbath. But hear again what Jesus says: “Does not each of you on the sabbath untie your ox or your donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?”

Your ox or your donkey. I don’t think Jesus’s word choice is coincidental. Those words appear among a litany of persons and animals in Deuteronomy’s version of the Sabbath commandment, underscoring that the Sabbath is for everyone. And it goes on to remind the Israelites of their deliverance from slavery in Egypt, rooting Sabbath rest in liberation.

christ-the-healer-big1

To heal or not to heal? then becomes something more like To allow a restrictive religious law to continue to oppress this woman and prevent her too from enjoying Sabbath rest, or to say no to all of that?

As one biblical scholar explains: When Jesus chooses to heal the bent-over woman, “his touch represents fellowship for those whose ailments may have denied them human contact; Jesus’s touch is their initial welcome back into community.” [2]

Jesus’s healing touch is indeed a liberative act. It frees the woman who has been healed so that she might praise God.

Our text reminds us that the Sabbath is about being made free. Free to be and to rest and to delight in God’s beauty. Free from distractions, and free to say no.


The Sabbath, as one blogger writes, is a gift of freedom, and it is a gift as old as creation itself. The first Sabbath, described in Genesis, is the capstone of creation, a gift from God so that we might be able to embrace all that has been created. [3]

Maybe that’s why it’s so easy to experience Sabbath rest when I’m wading in the waters of Lake Michigan in Chicago or walking down the tree-lined streets of my neighborhood here in Omaha. Because there is an intimate link between Sabbath and creation.

Creation reminds us of God’s good gifts to us and our interconnectedness with all things and all peoples. And the freedom of the Sabbath calls us to reconnect with God, with ourselves, and with the whole of creation.

When the woman who was once bent over for eighteen long years was suddenly able to stand up straight, her perspective quite literally changed. One pastor calls this text “a story of expansion, revelation, [and] vision widened by grace.” [4] Indeed, the healed woman sees more than just sunshine and fluffy clouds, but also a world in need.

Sabbath is a gift but also an invitation:

An invitation to a new way of life that says no to the things that make us bent over.

An invitation to the kind of justice-seeking Sabbath-keeping that Isaiah envisions, where the hungry are filled and the needs of the afflicted are satisfied.

An invitation to the freedom to be and to rest in God’s grace.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 127.

[2] Rodney S. Sadler, Jr., “Luke 13:10-17: Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 385.

[3] https://journeytopenuel.com/2016/08/14/proper-16c-the-sabbath-is-calling/

[4] http://christiancentury.org/article/2016-07/august-21-21st-sunday-ordinary-time

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