“Woman you are set free from your ailment.”
When I was a young sales rep with a large company in Baltimore, I worked closely with the owner of a new business who was also a new business partner. I loved working with him. He was creative, tenacious, fiercely competitive, a terrible workaholic, and who would, on occasion, pepper our conversation with sage wisdom or a story concerning fairness, ethics, usually pointed reminders of how personal values can be challenged in the marketplace. He also enjoyed needling this WASPy, young Christian with teachings from his Jewish tradition, of what we had in common from seemingly different faith traditions.
At one point, we were pursuing a new project that would establish my fledgling career and propel his company far beyond his current realm, a project with great risk, but also rewards of revenue and, we hoped, respect. You may know the taste of a big deal, the crescendo of anxiety, and multiple parties competing for self-interests, a flurry of activity to close the deal or save it from failure. It can become visceral. We could not control the timing. It felt as though the deal acquired its own personality and took on a life of its own, controlling us. We had to just keep at it.
But, at the height of our negotiations, he was to leave for a family vacation, scheduled months ago. Everyone in the office knew his wife insisted on a trip away for uninterrupted family time and resented the energy and time he invested in their business. We all thought it was pretty selfish of her. As I watched him, I could only wonder if going on vacation would be jumping from one stressful situation to another, with equally demanding expectations and the potential for disappointment. And, quite selfishly, if he left, would this vacation jeopardize all we had worked to accomplish
When he returned, he looked—amazing. Calm. Peaceful.
I asked, “What happened?”
He said, “as I sat on the plane, I knew I had to let go. This was not about which priority—work or family—would win. I needed to go for my being. As the plane took off, I prayed ‘God, release me.’”
Release me. Simple words. I’d never heard him speak of his faith or relationship with God so intimately, or with such gravity.
Our huge deal—one we believed would change careers, business trajectory, influence, and all the stuff that got our engines revved up—I don’t remember if we won or lost. Yet, I have never forgotten witnessing what I now know of as Sabbath keeping—being released from all that we do, our burdens, our material world, and just being in time and space with those you love as a child of God.
The opening chapter of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, narrates our story of God’s creation; each day God calls into existence, first the heavens and earth, the sky and moon, water, land, animals, human beings. God calls each day and creation “good” or “very good.” After six days of work, God called one more day and rested, blessing that day. God set aside, from all the other space, material and time, the Sabbath and called it alone, holy.
One of our Ten Commandments is for us to rest in sacred time with God. It is the longest of all the commandments and the only which is twofold, one that both describes what we are to do (“observe the Sabbath and keep it holy”) and that prohibits action (“you shall not do any work and your slaves, children and livestock are not to work”).
The Sabbath is both personal (you shall rest) and communal (you shall ensure others rest, naming everyone—slaves, children, livestock).
Isn’t it ironic? At the time the command was given, all people were included to ensure the privileged would not trample on those in a lower status. Now the type of people who most need to be reminded to keep the Sabbath are the leaders who work as if the world would stop if they rested.
Before you tune out, thinking I am scolding you for playing golf on Sundays or will chastise you for your upcoming Sunday schedule with your kids’ sports or for working on Sunday mornings – let me be clear – I am lifting up the command to keep a Sabbath – sometime – somehow – get released from all the doing and just be with God. It is between you and God. My Sabbath is to be on Friday, and I am probably preaching to myself as much as anyone in this sanctuary.
The Sabbath confronts our seemingly unbreakable rhythm of work, even when our seasons or other circumstances seem to preclude the possibility of rest. Our work may have its rewards, but only if its limits, pressures, and demands are kept in check by the safeguard of a Sabbath as a sacred time to recognize God as our creator and not us (Patrick D. Miller, The Ten Commandments: Interpretation, p.121).
Abraham Joshua Hechsel, Jewish scholar and rabbi writes, “The Sabbath is meaningful to God, for without it, there would be no holiness in our world of time. Observance of the Sabbath is more than a technique for fulfilling a commandment. The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man” (Hechshel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, p. 60).
Heschel offers this Jewish rabbinic legend:
At the time when God was giving the Torah to Israel, God said to them: My children! If you accept the Torah and observe my mitzvoth [commandments], I will give you for all eternity a thing most precious that I have in my possession. And what, asked Israel, is that precious thing which thou will give us if we obey thy Torah? The world to come. Show us in this world an example of the world to come. God answered, the Sabbath is an example of the world to come. (The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, p. 73)
Apparently, as a people of God, we have had trouble through the ages observing the Sabbath. Our first reading was from Isaiah, a prophet who lived hundreds of years before Jesus. It is part of a long monologue in which he criticizes the people for thinking their rituals were righteous when, in fact, they were forgetting the true nature of worshiping God or keeping the Sabbath.
Isaiah reminds them, “You shall call, and God will answer” along with a long series of if-then statements: “If you refrain from trampling on the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you honor it . . . then you shall take delight in the Lord.” His list of behaviors underscores the Sabbath’s theology and cautions that misunderstanding can lead to misinterpretations and then create behaviors that have nothing to do with God’s desires. If we lose the connection between what we believe—our theology—and what we do – our ethics—we risk sliding into empty practices that diminish life and pull us away from God.
Jesus was an observant Jew. He read and taught from scriptures; he prayed and worshiped in the synagogue and temples. Jesus upheld biblical laws. So it is not Jewish theology he challenged, rather the false social practices that emerged and became part of religion.
When we reviewed “prior episodes” in Luke, we heard Jesus proclaim his ministry is “to bring release to the captives and let the oppressed go free.” Jesus uses the Greek word aphesis, which can be translated as to “release” or “go free.” It is found throughout the Gospel in the work he performs: releasing a man with unclean spirits on the Sabbath, freeing Simon’s mother-in-law from a fever, casting out demons, and healing people from what holds them from living a full life.
In the particular passage we read today, a woman “crippled by a spirit” is set free. Although the writer of Luke was considered a physician, the gospel is not a medical text, it is a theological portrait. This woman is described as crippled by something that prevents her from fully living.
We all have things that bind us. A taxing job. Unemployment. School. Anger at a bad marriage. Self interest. Love of shopping. Fatigue from too much work. Fear the bills will not be paid. Anxiety about kids. Concern for aging parents. Maybe we are afraid of being stripped of our social status or self-created images. We have weaknesses that bind us, consuming our time and attention. It gets to be exhausting and can be crippling.
Some biblical scholars point out that the woman never asked, verbally, to be healed. But if the effort and faith to continually get yourself, your crippled body, into the synagogue is not a plea for healing, what more would words do?
Who knows—maybe for the first eight, ten, sixteen years she sought healing from the leader, only to be shushed. The way she observed the Sabbath was an attempt to be close to God. Jesus responds to her silent plea, tells her she is set free and the crowd cheered.
We probably can see ourselves as the woman within this story, or a member of the crowd that cheers when she encounters Jesus. I’d doubt any one wants to imagine him- or herself as the religious leader, I don’t want to and yet I cannot avoid him. The religious leader also gets narrowed into a persona, as a self-righteous tyrant. But, he can also represent the status quo, a status quo to control and maintain order, which for some is great comfort and can be strangling for others. The control and obedience to rules, the devotion to getting it right may be the weakness he bears and which Jesus confronts.
Is the status quo in your personal life a rhythm of work or the same old way of encountering your family that saps your energy? In our communal life, we need to consider eight months have passed since the New Town tragedy, and yet we seem stuck with mental health practices that do not care for the ill and continue to put our children at risk. After the near-tragedy in Atlanta, I believe Jesus asks us to confront this status quo.
How often are we obedient to what was or what is expected, defending rules or hold onto ideas that bind others from a full life in God?
God never asks us to be right or to be perfect. God only asks that we stop doing and just be. Theologian Karl Barth writes “the aim of the Sabbath commandment is that man (sic) shall give and allow the omnipotent grace of God to have the first and last word at every point (III/4:52, 54).” We need the prescriptive force of the Sabbath commandment, the sense of duty and obligation, in order to receive the descriptive gift of being renewed and restored by God (Miller. 123).
“Release me.” I still think of my business partner and his prayer for release. It is now part of my prayer life. When I traveled, I often prayed for release as soon as I sat on a plane. At 1:00 a.m., when I cannot throw off the anxiety of the day to sleep —“God release me.” When I am afraid I cannot set aside my ego to do what God needs me to do—“release me.”
What is your prayer for release? What are the habits, the strains that bind you, bend you over like the woman? What are the actions and rituals you cling to that keep you from God, like the authority?
Jesus is not just a prophet or a priest. Luke portrays Jesus as God incarnate, who crashes into our world, in human flesh. God meets us in the business and messiness of life. God comes to us in the face of one who will disrupt our lives to give us life. Amen.