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What’s at the Core of the Sabbath? What’s at the Core of the Church?: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 25, 2019:
Isaiah 58:9b-14
Hebrews 12:18-29
Luke 13:10-17

Way, way back, God says to Abraham: “I will make you exceedingly fruitful… I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God’” [from Genesis 17].

This sounds really good, and you’d be foolish to turn it down. And indeed our scriptures bear witness to Abraham and Sarah becoming the mother and father of a whole nation, with more descendants than there are stars in the sky, or grains of sand on the beach. And in time we’ll come to Mary and then Jesus of Nazareth, part of this Jewish family tree, and rooted in that nation’s prophetic tradition that paints God as one who “[brings] down the powerful from their thrones, and [lifts] up the lowly” [Lk 1:52]. Who proclaims “release to the captives” and lets “the oppressed go free” [Lk 4:18]. And another person who’s shaped by the values and hopes of the people of Israel is Saul (he’s named after their first, albeit problematic King, and he eventually takes the name “Paul”). And one of Paul’s passions was to try to describe, and convince the Church, that those promises, and that partnership between God and Abraham were now being extended to people from beyond that family tree. And in grasping at language to illustrate this surprising good news, he uses imagery like a wild branch that’s been grafted on, and is now part of that that well-established tree.

But going back to that initial family tree, that arrangement between God and Abraham, it sounded great. Having a special relationship with a God; being blessed with descendants; being given a land to call your own. So we wouldn’t be blamed for being a bit surprised when we leaf through the special literature of this people and find it to be more than occasionally rather negative! And I don’t mean that it’s grouchy, though some of it is (we had that “everything is vanity” reading a few weeks ago), but the history, the experience of this family tree turns out to be as complex, and calamitous as, well, as life is. (And sometimes worse.) The downside of being given a land flowing with milk and honey is that everyone else wants to take it from you, in an ongoing cycle of greed and violence. Even living religiously, as we’d call it today, doesn’t insulate you from the intrusion of the world into our religious bubble.

And today’s first reading comes to us from a time when the people were struggling with their sense of promise and ‘chosen-ness’ held alongside the reality of failure, and tragedy, and disappointment. Maybe there’s something here for the Church! About 600 years before Jesus a significant portion of the population in the southern part of the kingdom gets captured and taken off to Babylon. And when your faith revolves around the understanding that God is specially present in a particular building in a particular city, and both of those things get destroyed, you’d be reeling from the trauma. But through this they hold on to their hope. And within two or three generations, and with the intervention of their enemy’s enemy, they return to their homeland. And this reading today probably comes a generation or so after this return; we’re about 500 years from Jesus, most likely. And while it’s good to be free, and home again, this is tempered by the reality that the city is a shadow of its former self. It’s an upward battle to rebuild the rubble and ruins. And on top of that, some other family took over your house while you were away. Even living religiously, having experienced God’s liberating character, doesn’t insulate you from the intrusion of disappointment and conflict into your religious bubble.

But this is the situation that the prophet speaks into. It’s a stressful and sad time, but it’s an opportunity to remember who they are — who they’re called to be — and what they’re called to do: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”

We might ask if God’s guidance and provision depends on the people keeping up this end of the deal, or if, maybe, living like this — sharing, caring for each other, taking care of the most vulnerable — maybe living like this alternative kind of society, maybe that in itself is God’s blessing right there? (Though that will have to be another sermon.)

And then after these ethical guidelines, there’s more: refrain from trampling the Sabbath; take delight in the Sabbath; treat it as a holy day, and honour it.

And so we fast forward 500 years, and it looks like that last bit is held up with unbending devotion, while the earlier ethical commands don’t enjoy the same favoured status. The Sabbath has been put into its own cultural and religious bubble — it’s important in that it differentiates the Jewish people of Palestine from the Roman occupiers — while that messier, hard-to-measure, this-worldly stuff that we today would associate with social service and charity and generosity and kindness is put into its own separate bubble. This compartmentalizing of course misses that the keeping of the Sabbath is an ethical injunction, too: it’s about mirroring the God who worked, but also rested; a reminder not to work ourselves to death. And it’s about mirroring the God who freed the people from slavery in Egypt. It’s about finding some freedom in one’s life each week. And using that time to recall who you are as a people, called to live differently than empires like Egypt or Babylon.

The leader of the synagogue in the gospel story wants to honour the Sabbath, but seems to have lost the core message of Sabbath as this very liberation. And contrast that character, the powerful, respected religious authority with the elderly, sick and struggling woman who comes in. “There are six days for work; come and be cured then,” he says to the woman, and to the crowd. “Don’t intrude our ideal, religious bubble. Don’t make it all sick, and needy.”

But with a choice between the puffed up leader and the hunched down old woman, Jesus chooses the latter. She, after all, is a child of Abraham, just as much as the religious leader. And Jesus, in his healing act, reminds his people that they are to be a people of liberation in the midst of life’s calamities, and stresses, and traumas. That’s at the heart of the Sabbath, and so, it’s OK, and more than that, entirely appropriate to heal on the Sabbath. It’s an example of this alternative society that God has in mind for the world; a society that God pioneers and experiments with using that family tree of Abraham and Sarah, and then calls more and more people to this way of life, by grafting on another big branch.

And sometimes we get a deeper sense of the meaning of a Bible story when we look at what the writer has put around it. And I bet it’s no accident that the gospel-writer follows this one up with a tiny but powerful parable: [“Jesus] said therefore, ‘What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches’” [Lk 13:18-19].

The mustard seed is surprising. It turns into a tree, we’re told, that’s wild, and grows, and it exists not just for itself, but for the birds: and this includes dirty birds, old birds, sick birds, and birds that inevitably are going to leave bird droppings on and around that tree. At least they will if the tree proves worth perching on. And being fed from.

Hear these comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him: “Come unto me all that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you” [BCP p. 77; BAS p. 238; Mt 11:28]. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter