A sermon for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost
Year C – August 25, 2013
David H. Knight, Priest Associate
In the Name of God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Fourth Commandment reminds us, “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.” Today’s readings raise for us the question, “How do we keep the Sabbath?” If we are to look back over time, this has been an age old question for God’s people. From the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, we heard this morning:
If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath,
from pursuing your interests on my holy day;
if you call the Sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;
then you shall take delight in the LORD,
and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
In this Sunday’s gospel we hear yet another account of Jesus performing a healing on the Sabbath. The leader of the synagogue, however, was indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath day. He kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day.”
Today’s readings present you and me with what has been an age old dilemma for God’s people, and that is, how to keep the Sabbath. How shall you and I keep the Sabbath in our own day? How well I remember when our four sons were growing up in Winchester. Our whole family was active in the local soccer league, our boys as soccer players, and Jeannie and I as soccer parents. Those were the days before SUV’s were the vehicle of choice for soccer moms but we had what was the “in” vehicle to have. We had a Dodge minivan. Soccer league was a great experience as the boys learned good sportsmanship and could expel some of their boundless energy. Many a weekday evening or Saturday morning found Jeannie and me with other parents cheering them on from the edge of the field. We always loved it when their team won, yet we supported them when their team lost. Inevitably, however, as the end of season drew near, we prayed especially that in God’s mercy their team would lose as you see the playoffs were usually held on Sunday mornings! It wasn’t just that ours were clergy kids, but that as a family we tried to keep Sunday as a day different from the rest of the week. Back in the ‘80’s it was hard enough. Today it is even more of a challenge. As our society becomes increasingly secular, and as Sunday in our culture has become just another day for so much of our society, it is hard to set time aside in our children’s schedules for Sabbath time. Yet as we look back in history there has long been an effort to preserve the Sabbath. Today’s struggle is not a new one. We hear of the Blue Laws in our country enacted to protect Sundays. A look at some of those laws is fascinating, even a bit humorous, to say the very least, and many of these laws remain on the books to this day. Did you know, for example, that George Washington was threatened with arrest in Maryland because he dared to ride his horse on Sunday? I trust you are aware that it is against the law in Connecticutto kiss your wife on Sundays, and in Massachusettsit’s illegal to eat ice cream in churches on Sundays. So much for Sunday ice cream socials up there at church. In Massachusetts, they really do strive to protect the Sabbath. Imagine this: In Marblehead, one of my favorite seacoast towns, it is illegal to cross a street on Sunday, unless it is absolutely necessary. The defense for what makes it necessary to cross a street would probably require a lawyer should one have to appear before the judge. While these laws are indeed on the books they are seldom if ever enforced as it would take more effort to repeal them than to ignore them! Oh, did I mention our ownVirginia? It is illegal to engage in business on Sundays with the exception of almost any industry, whatever that might mean. But even before our country existed there were blue laws in one form or another. Sunday laws go back as far as the Emperor Constantine some seventeen centuries ago.
Lest we be too hard on the leader in the synagogue in today’s gospel reading for being too legalistic it would be well to remember that those in leadership positions in any time and place, including the church, are supposed to care about the rules because rules are intended to maintain order and decency and to prevent chaos. Jesus, however, challenges the legalism present in his day as he would likewise challenge our abandonment of all Sabbath rules in our own day. His concern was on a much different level. Remember how Jesus answered the leader of the temple? He said, “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 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?” Of course when he said this, the crowds got it and they rejoiced at all the wonderful things he was doing. But then, not all were happy with his challenge of the status quo just as not all are today when Jesus calls us to challenge the status of things and strive for justice and peace.
It seems that God’s people have long struggled with how to keep the Sabbath day appropriately. The prophet Isaiah addressed this matter as we heard this morning as did Jesus in his day. Perhaps these readings still shed light on our path as well today. The people were caught up in pursuing their own purposes that were sometimes not consistent with God’s purposes. Both Isaiah and Jesus connect observance of the Sabbath with the matter of justice. If you and I ignore God’s purposes for Sabbath, all will not be right in our world. If you and I ignore God’s purposes for us in such things seeking justice, all will not be right in our world for as Bishop Shannon has just reminded us in these recent days, “In our Baptismal Covenant in the Episcopal Church, we promise to strive for justice and peace among all people.
So how does God call us to observe the Sabbath? If God calls us to be free from the law, what then are we free to do? We then become free to rest because as human beings we need rest, a respite from our weekly duties and routines in order to remain healthy, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. We then become free to take time to remember our dependence upon God. The Sabbath is a reminder to us that God is God and we are not God. We then become free to worship in a place and time set apart, in an activity of giving thanks that God values us, not because of what we make, or what we earn, or what we have achieved, but because God has created us and because God loves us.
Remember that woman who Jesus cured on that Sabbath day? Think of the blessings she must have received in gaining her freedom. She experienced respite finally from the physical and emotional stress of her deformity. She experienced her dependence upon God in the reminder that God, and God alone has the power to bring healing. She also experienced the beauty of a worship experience in the praise that she offered as she stood for the first time in those eighteen years and offered praise and thanksgiving not for what she had accomplished, but what God had done for her.
Never on Sunday? What are those things we might set aside for another day of the week in order for us to more faithfully observe the Sabbath? What might this day mean for us who lead busy lives in a world with demands pressing in on every side? How might this Sabbath be God’s gift to you and to me? Something that Kim Glenn said in her sermon from this pulpit last week merits our reflection once again. She asked, “What about us? . . . Do we pay more attention to our soccer or golf games than we do to prayer?” And she asked another important question: “Do we give as much time to our spiritual discipline as we give to our work or social schedule?”
Perhaps these ancient readings we have heard again this morning still have the power to shed light upon our path. How shall you and I keep the Sabbath in our own day?
Recently, I have been rereading a book written by the late Jesse M. Trotter who was the dean of Virginia Seminary when I first entered VTS. After he concluded his tenure as dean he remained on the faculty where he had a profound influence upon a whole generation of seminarians. Later, in 1982, he wrote a book titled Christian Wholeness, Spiritual Direction for today. I share with you something he wrote in that book which once again, I have found to be helpful to me. I hope this might be helpful to you as well. He writes,
“We must affirm and reaffirm our commitments. Whether our commitment begins with a leap of faith or with a suspension of disbelief, when that commitment is finally made, we must recognize a necessity which is due to our weakness. Commitment to Christ is not something done once and for all, something to which we never need return to give further attention. Quite the contrary, ever and again we find that we must reflect upon, accept afresh and reaffirm our commitment.”
These words of Jesse Trotter’s speak to many dimensions of our spiritual journeys and certainly to the matter of keeping the Sabbath. This day that you and I are given to be here for worship is one of God’s gifts to us. How will you and I accept and use this Sabbath day and the ones to come? As we pray in that Collect for Sundays found in the Prayer Book,
O God, who makest us glad with the weekly remembrance of the glorious resurrection of thy Son our Lord: Grant us this day such blessing through our worship of thee, that the days to come may be spent in thy favor; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.