Damariscotta Baptist Church
Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Growing personal relationships with God and community


Jeremiah 1:4-10

Hebrews 12:18-29

Luke 13:10-17


All of us have experienced those moments in our lives when a present event triggers another from our distant past. I think of a time when our son, Ted, was in the sixth grade, and our son, Roger, in the first grade, and Bonnie and I went to one of those familiar school assemblies to watch a performance by the children of the Jefferson Grammar School in Caldwell, New Jersey. We experienced all the anxieties and all the joys of proud parents. But I also experienced what was described in the immortal words of Yogi Berra as deja vu all over again. Here is an assembly hall full of children having seen a rousing, if not flawless, performance by their peers. They have been enjoying an hour of liberation from the classroom. As they are led out of the assembly hall in procession at the end of the performance, they continue to enjoy this time of free-flowing conversation and good-natured jabbering. Soon, however, comes the all-too-familiar clapping of hands and the piercing cry of one of the teachers who shouts, “NO TALKING!” Just as immediately, the melodious roar of the children's laughter and conversation is silenced.

As a school child, I used to wonder why people went to school for so many years in order to be trained to clap their hands and shout, “NO TALKING!” As an adult, I find myself still wondering about this seemingly timeless phenomenon. While processing from the assembly hall back to the classroom needs to be done in an orderly fashion for the sake of the children's safety and the teachers' sanity, is it essential this be done in silence? Doesn't this have more to do with the teachers' control of the situation than the welfare of the children?

One Sabbath day in a synagogue in an unnamed Palestinian village, a woman came to worship. She had what the culture of her day understood as a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. This ailment, which had caused her to be bent over and unable to stand up straight, had been a persistent crippling burden for so long, it was probably hard for her to remember a time when she didn't see people's feet rather than their faces.

Jesus was teaching in the synagogue that Sabbath day. He saw her and, without any petition or request from the woman, he called her over and said, Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” After laying his hands on her, “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” We can only imagine the awed response of the crowd in the synagogue as they saw someone who was always so conspicuous because of her disease now standing and praising God. Luke tells us later, the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.

Well, not quite the entire crowd. Against that backdrop stood “the leader of the synagogue, who was indignant because Jesus had cured someone on the Sabbath day, thus infringing on the letter of the law as it relates to Sabbath observance. The fourth of what we call the Ten Commandments says: Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work . . .(Deut. 5:12-14a). The leader of the synagogue saw Jesus' healing of the woman as a grievous infraction of that law, not to mention the anxiety he must have felt at the crowd's response, and the loss of “order” in the synagogue.

Somehow, I can picture him loudly clapping his hands and shouting, “NO TALKING!” Or I can imagine the tone of voice made famous by Dana Carvey with one of his many recurring characters during his years on Saturday Night Live, where he assumed an opposite gender role and became “The Church Lady,” the snooty hostess of an ecclesiastical talk show. The Church Lady had a way of cutting through whatever festivity might have been going on around her with the rhetorical question, “Well, isn't that special?” Can't we also imagine her using that same tone of voice and saying: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day”?

Regardless of our opinion about satirizing “church ladies” everywhere with a comic exaggeration based on the few, I am convinced Dana Carvey, or whoever the writer was who invented this one, was in touch with some largely held perceptions about church and religious matters in general. “The Church Lady” would not have been such a hit if she didn't ring true from many peoples' experiences-- experiences which taught them church is meant to be ordered, reverent, austere, and rigid.

Among those experiences in our collective memory, one of the more common ones has to do with observing the Sabbath. A survey of our congregation this morning would identify a variety of memories of prohibitions related to “the Sabbath.” Our ancestors and other authority figures over several generations before us took the Fourth Commandment to heart and further translated it as meaning, Thou shalt neither work nor have any fun on Sunday. Consequently, we remember not being allowed to go to the store, to the movies, to the ball park, cut the grass, play cards, go fishing, or much of anything but go to church or to family gatherings on Sunday.

We were living out a later form of the same trends which were at work in Jesus' day. A few centuries before, the synagogue movement had grown up in an era when the temple was no longer the center of Israel's corporate life. God's presence with the people was experienced through diligent observance of “the Law.” Specific laws and procedures were developed concerning the carrying out of the commandment to observe the Sabbath day and to keep it holy. Only certain foods were allowed on the Sabbath, which were to be prepared the day before in a specified way. One could walk, but no more than a mile. That's why we sometimes find reference in Scripture to something being the distance of “a Sabbath day's journey.” An ox or a donkey could be untied and led to a source of water, but one was not allowed to lift a bucket of water to the animal's mouth. Yes, you could lead a horse to water, but you couldn't help him drink!

Such rigid preoccupation with Sabbath observance was at work in Jesus' day, and was an issue in the early Christian community to whom Luke was writing his Gospel. The church was in the early stages of a process of separation from the synagogue and from Judaism. The chiding response of the leader of the synagogue reflected a live concern in the life of the church of Luke's day. How are we to observe the Sabbath? In the midst of all the traditions, practices, and legalisms surrounding it, what is it that actually makes the Sabbath holy?

Jesus' ministry had already had the effect of challenging the established norms of the religion and the culture of his day. Already, he had come into conflict with the leaders of his religion over the issue of whether to heal on the Sabbath day. Already, he was initiating a new realm of life in which the redemptive power of God's new life was breaking into the life of the world and overcoming the forces of evil. This was what was at the heart of what happened that day in the synagogue, as a woman “whom Satan bound for eighteen years” was liberated from her bondage. To be about the glorious works of God was at the heart of what Sabbath law and all forms of the law were all about.

So, Jesus responded to the leader of the synagogue's indirect confrontation with a direct confrontation of his own. In undiplomatic but direct terms he said, “You hypocrites!,” [plural!] broadening his remarks to include all who were sympathetic to the leader of the synagogue's point of view. Jesus then proceeded to make an argument within the context of Sabbath law. If laws concerning the Sabbath permitted the loosing of a tethered animal for the purpose of watering on the Sabbath, should it not be permitted that this woman, a “daughter of Abraham,” who has been bound for eighteen years, be loosed from Satan's bondage on the Sabbath day? Jesus does not advocate any kind of rebellion against the “holiness” of the Sabbath day. He simply defines it in a new and deeper way.

We need to remember how Jesus always observed the laws of the Sabbath. Luke and the other Gospel writers tell us repeatedly that it was Jesus' custom always to be in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The fact that Jesus challenged the synagogue leader's preoccupation with some of the particulars of Sabbath law is not intended to be a case for casual observance of the Sabbath. A quick glance at the world we live in shows we don't need any more encouragement to be casual about Sabbath observance than we already have. Not only are “blue laws” rapidly becoming historic relics, we now live in an age when the church calendar is often set around sports events. .

What Jesus proposed and embodied in his life and teaching was the observance of the true spirit of the Sabbath. This is reflected in what happened in our Gospel Lesson-- On the Sabbath day, in the synagogue, at the heart of the people's corporate worship life, Jesus brought about some of the reign of God by liberating “a daughter of Abraham” from the bondage in which she had been held, and those who witnessed it responded with rejoicing and wonder.

Let us remember that dramatic moment in the story when Jesus laid his hands on the woman, and “immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.” Her response is a reminder that the observance of the law, the keeping of the Sabbath, the conduct of our life of faith-- all have their reason to exist in that simple purpose-- to praise and glorify God.

We've all heard the rationale espoused by those who consistently choose to find other things to do than come to church on Sunday-- I can worship God all by myself out at the lake, or down at the shore, or out on the golf course, or in my own back yard.” My immediate, though usually unstated, thought is, “Yes, but you probably won't.

To observe the Sabbath and keep it holy means to do those things that connect us with the redeeming powers of God which break into our world and make life new for us and for all creation. We usually don't experience that as a solitary phenomenon. We experience it when we come together around the presence of Jesus Christ in both word and sacrament. We experience it as we draw strength and support from each other in our common search for deeper faith. We experience it as we come together to praise and glorify God.

It takes something more than compliance with the rules of religion to make the Sabbath holy. Going through the motions of ritual with stern faces and stiff upper lips does not bring glory to God, or move us nearer to God's realm of love and power. Rather, it is the communal attention toward giving rest for the weary, release to those who are “bound,” comfort to those who are in pain, and hope to those who are in despair, that truly keep the Sabbath holy.

When people of faith observe the Sabbath in this way, a space is opened up, allowing the same kind of miraculous events to happen which are cited in today's Gospel Lesson. It will be said of them, as well, they stood up straight and began praising God.