Sermon, June 2

The Gospels contain a good handful of stories about Jesus healing on the sabbath. There’s this one, the story of the man with the withered hand, here in the Gospel of Mark – and also told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, which use Mark as a source text. There’s another in Luke chapter 13, when Jesus heals a woman who has something wrong with her back; she is bent over and can’t stand straight, and has been living with this condition for eighteen years. In the fifth chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus sees a man who has been disabled, and living as a beggar, for thirty-eight years, and he heals him; later on he also restores sight to a young man who is blind, also on the sabbath. 

In each of these stories Jesus is challenged about these acts, which some onlookers see as violation of sabbath-keeping. And he has a number of snappy responses. He says, “Shouldn’t this woman be set free from her bondage on the Sabbath day?” He says, “My Father is still working [today], and so am I.” He says, “It is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” And in today’s Mark passage, he says, “The Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath. This is why the Son of Man is Lord even over the Sabbath.”

These many accounts make me think this is something Jesus really did. He healed and helped a lot of people, and sometimes he did it on the Sabbath, the holy day set aside to rest from work; and that upset some people, who felt that this was breaking the sabbath, or perhaps upstaging God on a holy day. 

To really understand these stories we need to pause and talk about sabbath. What does that mean? In Judaism, the Sabbath is a day, once a week, set apart for rest and worship. God practices sabbath in the Biblical day of creation – creating light, dark, earth and water, and all living things, then resting on the seventh day. 

Keeping Sabbath is mandated in the Ten Commandments, the way of life given to God’s people through Moses long ago: “Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you.” (Exodus 20:8-11, CEB).

For modern Jews who observe the sabbath, that means things like not flipping light switches or turning on the oven to cook a meal – because the Book of Exodus says, “You shall kindle no fire in your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” If you have a fancy lunch after Sabbath worship, members of your community can’t prepare it or clean it up.

It’s important for us as outsiders to understand that those practices – those restrictions – are not the heart of Sabbath. Those are outwards signs intended to move people into a way of being, a mindset of intentional rest. It’s a time of the week, Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, separated from the rest of life by a hard line – set apart as a reminder that they are a people set apart, called and chosen to honor God by their way of living. 

Many of us recently lost power for a few hours or a few days. Think about how you would organize your life if there were going to be 24 hours every week when you could not turn anything on. It would become an important rhythm in your life; you would orient much of your week around preparing for and protecting that holy time. 

So what does it mean when Jesus says that the Sabbath was created for humans; humans weren’t created for the Sabbath? 

It means, for one thing, that Sabbath isn’t something God needs. That’s a common theme in the books of the prophets from before the time of Jesus: God doesn’t need our religious observances.

The Hebrew Bibles states pretty clearly that none of the religious observances of God’s first people are set up to meet God’s needs. For example, God doesn’t ask for animal sacrifices because God is hungry. 

Rather, these practices are tools to form God’s people. That’s the reframing Jesus is doing about the sabbath – and it’s both radical, and consistent with the witness of the prophets before him. He’s saying that the point of the sabbath is to point us towards God. And if there are aspects of our sabbath-keeping that don’t point us towards God, then maybe change is needed. 

And Sabbath is also, fundamentally, explicitly, about rest – so that God’s people don’t work themselves to utter exhaustion and depletion. Which means that sabbath is also about human wholeness and flourishing. 

So there are two different ways in which the sabbath was made for humanity, as a gift: to help people turn back towards God, our loving Creator, and to provide a weekly pause, a time of rest and recovery. 

Matthew and Luke tell this story, from Mark, in their Gospels. But they don’t like this saying of Jesus! They’re comfortable saying that Jesus – the Son of Man – is Lord of the sabbath. But both of them edit out Jesus saying that the Sabbath was created for humans. I think they’re just too committed to the Judaism of their ancestors to feel OK about the idea that how we keep sabbath is less important than what sabbath does inside of us. 

For Jesus, refusing to heal someone – to offer them a physical restoration that they desire – because it happens to be the sabbath, feels like itself a violation of sabbath. He seems to feel that these leaders who are saying, “Just wait and do it tomorrow,” have a distorted sense of sabbath that’s no longer pointing towards God and God’s intentions for humanity. 

As our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry likes to say, If it’s not about love, it’s not about God. 

Let me gesture towards a couple of nuances! I want to be clear that the pushback on Jesus’ Sabbath healings seems to me like a religious leader thing, not a Jewish thing. As somebody who presides over public worship, I understand the feeling that there’s a decorum and an order and a purpose in spaces like this that can be disrupted, even by good things. I think we’ve gotten pretty good at handling joyful disruption here at St. Dunstan’s, but that has taken time and work, and it’s somewhat countercultural with respect to the wider church. Many of the people who feel called to roles like mine are people who like know what’s going on in the room and what’s going to happen next, and that’s probably true always and everywhere. 

The second nuance has to do with disability and healing. It’s not clear in every story, but I sure hope that these people approached Jesus seeking healing – and that Jesus didn’t see a withered hand or a crooked back and think, “Well, we gotta fix THAT.” There’s a big project underway, church, of shifting our understanding of human wholeness and flourishing so that it doesn’t presume bodies look or work in particular ways – or minds either, for that matter. 

There’s a book I’d like to read – maybe some people would like to read it with me – called, “My body is not a prayer request: Disability justice in the church.” There are good reasons for people to desire physical healing – especially in societies that limit and stigmatize on them. There are also good reasons for us all to come to greater respect for disabled people, and their presence, giftedness and worth. 

Okay. Back to sabbath. As Christians, we don’t keep sabbath. Just a few weeks ago we read about the early church’s active and somewhat contentious discernment process about what aspects of Jewish law should be binding for Christians. And Sabbath did not make the cut. People will sometimes talk about Sunday as our sabbath but we did not, in those early decades and centuries, take on the prohibitions and practices that would have really set apart Sunday as a true sabbath in that way. 

There are a few Christian groups that have more of a true sabbath practice, but it’s never been dominant in our faith. 

So does Jesus’ saying here – the sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the sabbath – have anything to say to us? 

We as Episcopalians are not sabbath keepers, but we can be a little particular about how we worship. We’re a few weeks out from our next General Convention, the every-three-years gathering of bishops and elected deputies from across the church to pass legislation on church matters. Which means we’re in the throes of another round of angst about liturgical revision. 

I will not get into the weeds about that here! It does not concern us much. But when we’re talking about altering our received patterns of worship – revising or editing the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, for example – we are very much talking about whether humanity was made made for the sabbath, or the sabbath for humanity. 

Are these ways of worship a requirement from Above that we must enact precisely in order to fulfill all righteousness, or are thee just tools to bring us into God’s presence, such that when they are not doing that very well, we should change them? 

As Anglicans, our way of faith BEGAN with one great big discernment that we needed to dramatically change our way of worship for it to actually bring people closer to God. 

Thomas Cranmer, charged by King Henry VIII with creating an English church, wrote in the preface of the first English Book of Common Prayer in 1549, “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so sure established, which in continuance of time hath not been corrupted…” Sometime, grab a prayer book and read that preface in full; it’s in the Historical Documents section in the back of the book. 

It’s very clear that Cranmer’s motive for advancing worship in English instead of Latin, and for simplifying worship and including more Scripture in worship, was to help ordinary people develop their own piety and spirituality. Cranmer emphatically believed that the sabbath was made for humanity, and that time-honored practices of worship could – must – be changed in order to help humans approach the Holy. And he did not think he was creating the one thing that would work forever. He anticipated continued revision. 

I’m astonished sometimes by the degree to which some Episcopalians in the larger church can lose the plot on what makes us Anglican, and start to talk as if we were made for the 1979 Prayerbook, and not the prayerbook made for us. 

The purpose of liturgy, and how best to fulfill it, is interesting to me; it may be interesting to a few of you as well. If so, let’s chat; I’m thinking of re-gathering a liturgy committee later this year and maybe you’d enjoy being part of that. But let me turn to something relevant to more of us. 

Sabbath as a word and concept has escaped its specific historical and religious context and is used somewhat more broadly, in secular contexts. 

When I hear people talk about sabbath in that more general sense, I think they mean not just a break from the pace and demands of daily life, but a time that allows some restoration of what has been worn or depleted or damaged by that pace and those demands. 

Sabbath includes rest – sleeping and napping, or down time without much agenda. Space to do things you enjoy, things you can choose freely to do – or not.

Sabbath is different from vacation, because vacation can be its own kind of work, right? Keeping up with the itinerary, dealing with logistics, checking things off the bucket list, attending to everyone’s needs and expectations. Vacation can be exhausting. 

I try to take two days off a week – usually Saturday and Monday, my “weekend,” though there is sometimes church stuff on Saturdays. Like everyone else, I have a certain quota of adulting, of small and large responsibilities to attend to, during the hours that aren’t committed to my work as rector of St. Dunstan’s. 

It does not happen every week, but it feels so good when, now and then, I have enough time that I can finish doing one thing and the next thing isn’t already cued up: checking the bank account, doing laundry, making dinner. Instead, I can ask myself, “What would I like to do now?” 

That kind of time is hard to come by. But I feel like that’s an element of sabbath. Sabbath isn’t just a day off work to do all the other work that life requires. It’s time – a lot or a little – that’s somehow spacious enough that we can follow our hearts, and truly rest. 

And because God’s agenda for us includes human wellbeing and flourishing, this is not really a secularization of the concept of sabbath. This is just … Sabbath. Returning to ourselves; having time to tend to ourselves, and to people and activities we love. 

This week brings the end of the school year for some of our kids and their families. It’s a season when patterns and rhythms change, for many households – which does NOT mean more free time, and indeed can mean more scrambling, and less of the comfort of structure and routine. 

For me summer always feels like a ten-week struggle for the right balance between taking time at work for some bigger-picture thinking and planning for the year ahead, AND trying to work less and rest and play more. It has its own kind of intensity, and sabbath can be just as elusive as during the program year. 

Here on the cusp of summer, friends, whatever your circumstances, whatever the turn of the season means or doesn’t mean for you: it’s never a bad time to think about sabbath. 

To remember that God called God’s first people to pause, and re-center, and rest… and still calls us to the same. 

To wonder about whether and where we might be able, through some strategic saying No to this or Yes to that, to open up even a little bit of sabbath spaciousness in our lives and hearts. 

And to know deeply that what God wants for us, from us, includes rest, restoration, playfulness and joy.