Sermon: Keeping the Sabbath

August 25, 2019
Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Luke 13:10-17

by Eric Anderson

In a poem based on this text, Rachel Hackenberg writes:

Kyrie eleison,
the weight of pain has worn me down these long years
so much that I have lost my faith in sabbath rest
and the hope of healing no longer
visits my deepest dreams.

I don’t think we give this woman in the synagogue enough credit. I keep reading imaginative commentaries that concentrate on her disability. They tend to talk about the way her curved spine limited her world view, forcing her eyes to the ground. Without ever quite meaning to, they start to make her suffering into a moral failing.

When I read this story, I think of our dear friend Karl Kawahara. I think about how much I miss him, and about how much we all miss him. I also think about the resolute faithfulness he showed to get here to church week after week when Parkinson’s Disease had curved his spine as dramatically or more as this ancient woman’s.

Like Karl, this woman got to worship. Like Karl, this woman was clearly welcome in the synagogue by the community. Like Karl, this woman loved people and they loved her. Like Karl, she had a considerable burden, and she carried on with determination to worship, to share, and to love.

I simply cannot think of her as bent over with limited vision. I can think of her as suffering limits she’d prefer not to have. I can think of her as compensating for those imposed limits with every fiber of her being.

I think of Jesus saying, be freed of those limits.

I wish he’d say that more often to us.

The synagogue leader had a different set of limits. He had his own sense of what was right and wrong, good and bad, timely and untimely. As the local pastor, he had an obligation to tell people what he believed to be true, and it was true that the Sabbath was a primary obligation of the Jewish faith. This was one of the things that set them apart from the Romans and the Greeks among whom they lived, the Romans and the Greeks that had ruled over them for three and a half centuries (the Romans reasserted foreign control after a brief period of independence).

The Sabbath commandment was an ancient one, but it had taken on new importance under the control of the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. Without control over the surrounding culture, the teachers said, “Control your own spiritual life. Control when and how you do your work. Control the things you do, and offer that to God.” It was a spiritual genius that has informed and re-informed Christianity over the centuries.

And it was a joyful one. Richard W. Swanson writes (in Provoking the Gospel of Luke (Cleveland, Pilgrim Press), 2006), “Christians often (slanderously) allege that Sabbath is a day of grim abstention from work because Jews are bound by harsh prohibitions. A fascinating allegation, that; fascinating, but foolish. Sabbath is welcomed into the house as a queen would be welcomed. Sabbath provides a foretaste of the culmination of all things, a glimpse of God’s dominion, a little slice of the messianic age dropped into the midst of regular time. Sabbath offers a remembrance of God’s promise of peace and freedom for all of creation.”

The question was always, “How?” Sabbath-keeping can only be a compromise. Agricultural societies come with daily, not weekly, obligations. People need to eat. They need to dress. They need to care for the livestock. They need to stay warm. Accidents happen, and people need help.

The rabbis debated these questions over and over again, frequently in minute detail. This story of Jesus and the synagogue leader shows just how these conversations would go. The local teacher rightly notes that there are six days for work; that is the basic instruction of the Sabbath. Jesus returns, however, that an activity prohibited by rabbinic teaching – untying a knot – is permissible for the relief of livestock.

Look, said Jesus. We set animals free on the Sabbath. We can set people free.

Jesus didn’t stop there, with recent teaching. He went back to the Torah, and the way it describes the purpose of the Sabbath commandment. The Ten Commandments appear twice in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, first in Exodus and second in Deuteronomy. There’s not much difference, except in this matter of why God commanded the Sabbath. We usually remember Exodus, which associates it with God’s rest on the seventh day of Creation. But this is what Deuteronomy says:

“Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.”

“And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Keeping the Sabbath is setting people free.

Jesus set the woman free. He also set the leader of the synagogue free from a misunderstanding. We don’t know much of how he and those who supported him reacted to this; Luke describes them as “put to shame” but sometimes people learn from that.

Are we setting people free on the Sabbath?

Some of that, of course, is on me. Do I plan and lead worship in such a way that you are freed from at least some of what burdens you on this Sabbath? I’d like to think that occasionally a sermon might free you from a misunderstanding. But that’s not all we do here. Does one of the hymns give you a lift from a place of sorrow or despair? Does a prayer give you a sense of God’s presence and forgiveness? Does a moment of silence open a place in your heart? Does the music of choir, or organ, or piano, or guitar unlock something in your soul?

Are you finding some freedom on this Sabbath?

What are you doing with the rest of your Sabbath? Do you have practices that help you shed burdens, or do they place them on you? I tried for some years to keep a journal – not a diary, but a spiritual journal. What did I experience of God? What did I think and feel about the presence of the Spirit in my life? How had I followed in the footsteps of Jesus?

Some people revel in their journal-keeping. It’s the best part of their day or their week.

For me it was always a dreary task, a soul-killing trial, and an empty activity. It was a burden.

I don’t do it any more. There are far better ways to keep my soul in tune. Oddly enough, they’ve taken the form of regular writing of prayers set in poetry and publicly published.

What sets you free?

And are you setting anyone else free?

Karoline Lewis writes, “…what Jesus is trying to get the leader of the synagogue, the leaders in the church, to see — that when you are able to see how Jesus sees, it is not just another perspective but an alternative way of living and leadership.

“That’s what so many do not understand, and even seem to reject — that when God does what the nature of God is – mercy, grace, and love — then mercy, grace, and love are then how we are to be toward others.”

Or as Alice Walker put it (in In Search of our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovitch), 1983) even more briefly: “Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week.”

“Ought not this woman, this daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”

Ought not you and I, children of God, bound by habit and sin and frustration and worry and fear, ought not you and I be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

Ought not you and I, disciples of Jesus, see others bound by habit and sin and frustration and worry and fear, ought not you and I help them be free from this bondage on the sabbath day?

There is no bad time to extend the offer of help.

What happened? The woman praised God. The crowd rejoiced.

What might happen? You and I might praise God.

Let the congregation rejoice.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Pastor Eric might have preached from the prepared manuscript without deviation if the microphone hadn’t faded out and he had to switch… but probably not.

The image is a stained glass window in the Strasbourg Cathedral, France. Photo by Playing Futures: Applied Nomadology from The Netherlands – CC BY 2.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on August 25, 2019

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