St. Aidan’s Episcopal Church
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Jeremiah 1: 4-10
Psalm 71: 1-6
Hebrews 12: 18-29
Luke 13: 10-17
Breaking the Rules
Usually, when we are introduced to someone new, as a way of indicating that we are, indeed, friend and not enemy, we smile and extend our hand in friendship. The gesture is usually reciprocated and an initial bond is established. We are both human and we both acknowledge the existence of the other and the ritual of welcome. I learned, however, that this is not a universal way of greeting people. If you are a deeply orthodox Jew, you are breaking an important rule by shaking the hand of a woman who is not your wife. As it happened, when I extended my hand in greeting, the orthodox Rabbi, to whom I was being introduced, accepted my hand and the shaking hands ritual was welcomed and a wonderful friendship has developed. Only later did I learn that he had made a decision to break a religious rule in order not to insult me personally and in order not to send a less friendly message. Sometimes, as the old saying goes, rules are made to be broken…..especially if you break the rules in order to enter into the holy. A welcoming moment is just that…holy.
Synagogues and churches and schools and libraries and government bureaus and commercial offices and committees and families and just about any place where two or three people gather, have rules. There are variables within each. For instance, highly orthodox religious institutions of any faith tradition, Christian, Jews, Muslim, Hindu and many more are is likely to have some very strict observances with endless lists of what one may or may not do on the Sabbath or at any other time. But when is it acceptable to break a rule and who decides that it is?
Luke’s Gospel tells the story of the day Jesus was teaching in a synagogue and a woman, who has been crippled for eighteen years, is in the synagogue at the same time. Luke tells us her spirit was crippled and I’m sure it was. She was probably completely depressed by her condition. Not only was she physically unable to look upward freely, or move easily from side to side without great difficulty, she was also dealing with a disability that many of her time would consider punishment for her sins. Regardless of her condition, however, she makes her way to the synagogue on the Sabbath. She does not seem to be seeking Jesus out nor asking him for help.
Seeing her there, struggling with her disease, Jesus makes an instant decision. To follow the rules of the synagogue by not working to assist her on the Sabbath or to break several rules by touching her and blessing her with healing on the Sabbath day. Luke makes it clear that, without hesitation, Jesus chooses to heal her. At first he simply addresses her and tells her she is set free from her ailment and then he touches her and she straightens up for the first time in eighteen years and immediately praises God. It was a holy moment.
The Pharisees, who use the Sabbath as a way to patronize the people who come to the synagogue and use their positions of power to oppress and use God’s people to emphasize their power are shamed by what they witness and by Jesus’ words. However, the greater crowd filled with people visiting the synagogue to glorify God rejoiced at this wonderful liberation and rejoiced for all the amazing healings Jesus does.
What was it that made the leader of the synagogue so outraged, outrage doubtless echoed by other synagogue leadership. Was it the fact that a simple woman, just by virtue of being near Jesus, captured his attention and his unsolicited desire to heal her…..breaking the rules of the synagogue….the orthodox teachings of not allowing any work on the Sabbath? Or was it the joyful reaction of the crowd who saw the miracle of healing, and who shared in the woman’s joy at being set free from the bondage of her crippling disease? The Pharisees would have sensed a loss of control with a crowd which has forgotten that a rule had been broken.
There are particular emphases in the Old Testament’s perception of Sabbath. One urges Israel to desist from all forms of work or any action that could be construed as work because the Sabbath is the day set aside by God for rest and for consecrating the day. A second perception is that of Deuteronomy, (5:12-15):
12 Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember 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.
The people are called to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy in recognition of their escape from bondage in Egypt and they are to uphold the practice of holiness. The people are to do holy work.
This emphasis allows for individual interpretation of just what is holy and what work in life or what requirements of life would possibly trump acting in a holy way.
The Pharisees, clearly hold to the more formal Old Testament law, identifying Jesus’ healing action as work. Yet they seem to think it’s alright to lead their oxen or donkey to water provided the animals carry no burdens. Jesus calls them on that law and on their hypocrisy. If the animals are free to drink, then why should this daughter of Abraham not be freed from bondage?
Jesus is again found in opposition to the Jewish religious authorities…the guardians of oral tradition that is foundational to the structure of the society they hold in check by their rules and laws. This healing…..this “doing good” has upset the status quo and interferes with their restrictive and oppressive laws about working on the Sabbath and is, therefore, out of order.
Yet the heart of the Deuteromic understanding of holiness, and Jesus’ interpretation of the law, is to honor God and worship only God…and not other idols that present themselves and attach themselves to us and our needs for status, success and perceived glory or, at the very least, to feel important. Further, the law calls us to love and render kindness and justice to neighbor. For Jesus, to heal a woman who prays not for glory but to be set free, to move onto holy ground.
By following this emphasis of the law, Jesus illuminates the Pharisees’ extreme need for power over the people. Perceived as being punished for her sins by a debilitating disease, a crippled woman wouldn’t stand a chance of being healed at any time, let alone on the Sabbath. Indeed, she would be avoided lest she sully the reputation of any law-abiding Pharisee. The intent of Sabbath, a day of religious observance set aside by God to uphold and honor the liberation of God’s people has become lost on the Pharisees for whom the Sabbath becomes an even stronger means of social control over the people.
There is a difference between the Pharisees need for control via the law and Jesus healing grace via the law.
The point of Luke’s story is less about how mean and uptight the Pharisees are, although the point is made, and more about Jesus’ need to free the woman from all that oppressing and holding her down. He confronts the satanic forces that oppress her spirit and liberates her into life.
Jesus was not about throwing out the traditional baby with the bathwater. He didn’t come to get rid of tradition. But he did come to show us that tradition and rules can never take the place or get in the way of expressing our genuine love for each other.
Luke’s message seems clear. Where Jesus is, all things seem to become better. The Son of God is come to bring God’s people into the Kingdom, where God reigns and all are set free from the bondage of their bodies, their minds and their spirits.
So what of us. How do we interpret rules and regulations, and to what degree of orthodoxy do we cling at the sacrifice of love or compassion?
Everyone in a leadership position has experienced the need to consider exceptions or to call the law into question when it clearly works against the right thing to do.
Do we ever impose the law of order, or insist on the law, regardless of exceptions, except when we, ourselves, need to be freed of them?
Have you ever tried to convince a city clerk to extend a due date two more days rather than pay a late fine? Have you ever tried explaining your extenuating circumstances to the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Post Office?
Would any of these have asked Jesus why he couldn’t wait until the next day to heal the woman? She was used to her condition which had been with her for eighteen years, so couldn’t Jesus have waited?
It’s a fine line we walk when called to make exceptions due to our own difficult circumstances or someone else’s. The Pharisees were probably not above throwing the odd sack over the back of a donkey if they needed to take some important articles to the synagogue which just happened to be on the way to the well.
Would the Pharisees have been more impressed by Jesus, had he not broken the law of the Sabbath? I think Jesus doubted that completely and his act was less about breaking the law and more about keeping the Sabbath holy by acting in a holy way toward the woman.
So how shall we keep the Sabbath? How shall we begin to acknowledge the discipline it will take to accomplish it? And can learning the discipline be, itself, work?
Is it possible for us to enter into honoring the Sabbath without sabotaging this holy time with exceptions to the rule? How shall we begin the holy work of recognizing the wisdom of honoring rest and contemplation of the holy?
Like the donkeys led to water without carrying burdens, yet for expediency’s sake carry a small package across town near the well to which they are led for water, will we align our schedule to go grocery shopping to or from church because the store is on the way? Do we stop to get the cookies for coffee hour on the way or, perhaps, get up early in order to make them? It depends. If we get up early to make cookies because we want the cookies to be especially enjoyable for God’s people, can we call it holy work? If we want to bake them so that our obligation is fulfilled and we get credit for the work, then have we crossed a line?
So perhaps keeping the Sabbath holy is the ultimate test for us in examining our the degree of our own holy work. Do we skip church in order to catch up on work for the office, or to get some much-needed chore completed at home? Do we leave church to run errands, pay bills, or worse, figure out our taxes?
Perhaps we can look at ways to free up the Sabbath, so that from the moment we wake up to the time we lay down to sleep at the end of the day, either silently or aloud, we can become more aware of our own gratitude for God’s guidance and God’s blessings.
We know that all life’s challenges that beset us: We know we don’t turn off cancer on Sundays. Troubled relationships, difficult people at work, unemployment, loss and pain, shock and grief, do not go away because it’s Sunday. But we can know that when we feel at our lowest, at our most vulnerable and when our faith seems fragile, just as did the Prophet Jeremiah and as did the crippled woman in today’s Gospel, we come to find God….a God who is ready at any time or in any place to bring us back to hope-filled restoration and fullness of life.
We can be mindful of our work that must satisfy the social order and we can take time from Monday to Saturday to pay our bills, to run our errands, to clean our houses, to wash our cars, to gather in the harvest, to paint the house, to fix the fence. What would it be like to know that we are unable to do any of these things on Sunday, our Sabbath, unless we perform these tasks as holy work? What makes them holy? Is it holy if we give up cleaning our own house in order to clean the house for the old couple down the street? Does cleaning a house on the Sabbath become a holy moment or is it work? What if we forego the opportunity to do our own errands in order to mow the church lawn? Is that holy work? I leave that to you to interpret!
The point is, that it doesn’t take much to slip out of mindful awareness of God’s goodness and into work mode on the Sabbath. Our society has made it easy for us to do so and, in many cases, insists that we do. So our mindfulness about what we do and where we do it and for whom becomes extraordinarily important.
We can start slowly as we enter into the coming months which lead us to Advent. As we enter into each Sabbath, we can consider every task we undertake and ask ourselves: “Is it work or is it holy?” We can begin by eliminating one work project from our Sunday agenda and replace it with one from our Sabbath agenda. For example, we can give up expecting to pay bills on Sunday afternoon, and simply sit with our family or with a friend or alone with a good book, and give thanks to God for the opportunity to do so. We can forego the pull to prepare work for the office on Monday by allowing ourselves holy time to visit or to invite someone who is sick in body, mind or spirit, or to simply take time to heal ourselves, and we can thank God for the opportunity to do so.
Whatever it is that rules you and oppresses your holy time of Sabbath, you can choose to overturn. It’s time to break some rules! Look at your agendas: Your work agenda and your Holy Sabbath agenda and make a determination about what must be accomplished before the Sabbath so that you can live in a holy way when the Sabbath day arrives.
Maybe then perhaps, you will find yourself praising God, silently and aloud, far beyond the walls of this sanctuary and far beyond Sunday, until you find yourself giving thanks even as you work to find holy time…Sabbath time in between all the demands that claim you…..a time rejoicing, a time for resting, and time for rejoicing and a time to begin to glimpse the possibilities that dwell in the Kingdom of God.
What rule does society impress upon you that shuts down your opportunity to find the healing and renewing joys of true Sabbath! Like Jesus, notice it and break it!
Written to the Glory of God
- J. R. Culver+
August 21, 2016