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Healing on the Sabbath: The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, August 21, 2022:
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Luke 13:10-17

A friend of mine, a dual citizen living in the US recently posted on Facebook: “Few things make one realize how morally bankrupt this country is than having to think about costs when a loved one has to receive medical care. And we have ‘insurance’!”

I share this not necessarily to spur a debate about one system over another, or to gloat with easy pride over our neighbours, but because my friend’s admittedly “grumpy” observation might help us notice that for most (though not all) of our medical interventions we don’t need to check our bank balances; life-saving surgery isn’t going to bankrupt us. We’re spared the mental calculations about the value of one’s mind or body, or ultimately, the value of a person. (And having lost a different friend to cancer a few days ago, I’m perhaps more aware or ready than usual to answer that the value of a loved one is infinite, beyond price, and beyond rational discussion and decision-making, if we had our way.)

In the readings today we met a prophet ‘known before having been formed in the womb; consecrated before birth.’ And in the gospel, a woman, “crippled for eighteen years,” who is restored and set free by Jesus. Both: insights into that infinite value of the human being, the person in front of us — whether it be a gifted prophet, or just the person who comes in off the street. “And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit…” we heard. The focus of the scene quickly shifts from Jesus’s teaching in the synagogue to this unnamed, silent stranger. He has the insight (or wisdom, or power, or authority) to cut through our illusions and systems and shortsightedness. (“For now we see through a glass darkly.”)

And yet just as it would be too easy or simplistic to cast aspersions at the States and not notice whatever beams are stuck in our own eyes, obscuring our vision, it would also be too easy, simplistic, and harmful to interpret the gospel story as it and others historically have been, as “(compassionate) Christianity — good, legalistic Judaism — bad.” I’m sure that whatever critique is present in the original event or in our inherited recounting — and it’s fine if there is — well, it could also critique tendencies in us, too.

It would also be unhelpful — though some might disagree with this — to resist our attempts at simplistically throwing out any sort of effort at finding a helpful, guiding order, a healthy balancing of freedom and responsibility. Going back to my friend’s story about healthcare, he’s living in a situation where a significant proportion of the population sees taxation to fund communal healthcare as an overreach of authority, and rules, and responsibility that becomes a burden. That instinct is at play in their debates around guns. Freedom and responsibility is at the core of disagreements around pandemic life, including up here in Canada. And there are lots of other examples of order and responsibility that are perhaps less controversial, and that we take for granted. I’m glad the woman who colour-matched the paint I bought this week was trained, so that she could do her job well and give me good advice. I’m glad the other drivers I passed to and from the paint store had received driving instruction and were licensed, though of course some were infuriatingly too slow (or too fast). I’m glad that the churches we visited during my holidays had clergy and volunteers that were trained and vetted, and generally responsible to a wider community and authority. (Though of course some sermons and liturgies were more to my liking than others.) So there is always an interplay of freedom and order happening in our lives, and in our faith. The lessons and stories of scripture are lived and embodied. We interpret and apply the best we can. Similar to the various pandemic regulations that have governed much of our church life these last years need to move from the simple and sterile spreadsheet document, and need to find life when interpreted for this space and this group. Sometimes we cut some corners, sometimes we go farther, and sometimes we’re a bit confused. In the gospel both Jesus and the leader of the synagogue are engaged in interpretation, and clearly coming to different conclusions. Maybe also showing different values, character traits, methodologies, and starting points for their interpreting.

Elsewhere Jesus says of his work that he is not abandoning the Law, but “fulfills it,” and that might be useful to remember here. The issue here may not be “we” or “he” is good, and “they” or “the Sabbath” is bad. ‘Get rid of that intrusive day with its demands, and everything will be great.’ The Jesus who fulfills the Law isn’t disregarding it, but — my take — living fully into it, and what it means. The Sabbath, instituted after the Hebrews were freed from slavery in Egypt, was about [what one writer has summarized as] “God, self, and all members of the household shar[ing] in common rest.”* The Sabbath had its rules and demands, but they weren’t ends in themselves so much as meant to form a whole people into the opposite of the dehumanizing tendencies that were at play in Egypt. It was about creating a people that were free from exhaustion and anxiety, and cohesive as a community. A regular opportunity to promote mutual-flourishing, not competition in virtuosity. And ultimately all of this not done to climb that ladder of virtue, but to learn from and imitate the God who created in six days and then rested. Given human nature it is often useful for us to set some boundaries and have some rules to protect our Sabbath time (however we might understand it as Christians today), but ultimately it seems that Jesus is not seeing Sabbath observance as an end in itself, but Sabbath as an exemplar and symbol for that wholeness and health that God desires for everyone; for the whole community. The Sabbath is an important part of our health and mutual flourishing. So Jesus healing on the Sabbath, while contradicting it on one level, he actually exemplifies it at a deeper one.

All of this may most easily be exemplified in a little story, part of Arthurian legend, and part of the movie The Fisher King that a few of us watched, and then discussed over Zoom on Friday. This king has been on a lifelong quest for the holy grail, the cup Jesus used at the Last Supper. He’s grown old, weary, and sick. Close to death a fool approaches him, and the king asks for some water. The fool grabs the closest cup from the bedside table. It turns out to be the grail itself, and the king is restored to health. He asks “How could you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replies, “I don’t know, I only knew that you were thirsty.” The king, who’d been slowly worn down by his seemingly endless quest for the grail had spent his whole life unable to see what the fool, interested only in helping the person in front of him, was able to see right away, if even unconsciously. The person in need, of infinite value.

© 2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance