What is Sunday about? This isn’t a trick question! I am honestly curious about what motivates us to come to this place, at this time, to participate in this act of worship. Is it the desire to belong to a faith community? Maybe it is the longing to know we are part of something bigger? Some people might say it is to “recharge” our “spiritual batteries.”
“I suspect,” however, “that for many of us, Sunday is a day of religious obligation. It’s about what we do for God” (Lose). Before you throw up your hazard signals, give me a minute to explain! Obligation is not necessarily a bad thing. We can be or feel obligated to many things, and those obligations can be important, even fulfilling. Obligation is duty, responsibility, even commitment. All of which are very good things!
This obligation to come to church on a Sunday morning was perhaps instilled in us when we were children when we were taught the importance of committing ourselves to the worship of our God. Or perhaps we found it later in life, and we knew that something more was being required of us. Obligation can lead to service, and we are called to serve.
But “what if, however, Sunday [is] about what God can do for us and, recognizing that, what we can do for others” (Lose). The heart of our morning’s text is about Sabbath. For us, Sabbath is Sunday, the seventh (or first) day of the week that we set aside to worship God. I wonder, though, if we really understand Sabbath in its fullness and meaning.
Before we answer those questions, I want us to consider one of the most pressing questions facing the Church (that is capital “C” Church universal) today. Something like ninety percent of Americans claim they believe in God or some greater force beyond themselves. Yet according to a Pew Research study, in 2013, only 37% of Americans say they attended worship weekly or more, while 33% attend monthly or yearly. “The percentage of Americans who say they ‘seldom’ or ‘never’ attend religious services (aside from weddings and funerals) has risen modestly in the past decade” (Lipka).Raise your hand if this surprises you. No? No one?
Over the past fifty years, church attendance has been declining in a significant way. We in the Church have always found ways to blame the usual suspects: Youth sporting leagues that meet and play on Sunday mornings; Televised sporting events (I’m looking at you National Football League!); People who work six days a week who then only have Sundays to do their shopping and household chores; Stores that remain open on Sundays!
All of these are true, but the real fault is that we in the Church (again, Church universal) have failed to remain relevant and offer people what they truly desire and yearn for. I think that a major factor in this is a critical misunderstanding of what the Sabbath really is.
When we in the Church criticize people for participating in other activities, or even skipping out on worship altogether simply to have some extra sleep-in time, are we not channeling the leader of the synagogue in our gospel lesson? “Jesus routinely did things on the Sabbath that got the religious authorities hopping mad at him. And in every case, Jesus took the opportunity to remind them that despite their pious intentions, they had rather significantly misunderstood the very purpose behind the Sabbath” (Hoezee). We, too, have pious intentions when we criticize those who do not attend worship services, but perhaps we, too, have misunderstood the very purpose behind the Sabbath.
Commentator Scott Hoezee reminds us that, “The Sabbath was meant to be a day of delight, rest, enjoyment. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Ten Commandments are given twice with virtually no difference between the words in Exodus 20 and the words in Deuteronomy 5. Only the commandment on the Sabbath day shows a significant variation. Whereas Exodus 20 grounds the practice in creation (‘… for in six days the Lord God created the heavens and the earth…’) in Deuteronomy 5 it is grounded in redemption (‘… remember that you were slaves in Egypt but that the Lord your God led you out of that land…’). Sabbath has something to do with both creation and redemption.”
This is not a case of Scripture contradicting itself, but rather of Scripture finding its fullness in its wholeness. Only when we read and understand both texts, which arose from different contexts and needs, can we fully understand God’s purposes in the Sabbath? “On the creation side is that fact that after six days of creating according to the Genesis 1 account, the Lord God rested on the seventh day, not because he was exhausted and in need of an afternoon nap” (Hoezee). God is not our neighbor who works tirelessly in the garden all morning and then lazes around in the hammock the rest of the day! “No, what God did on the seventh day was the same thing Adam and Eve were to do on what constituted their first full day of existence: viz., revel in and delight over the creation” (Hoezee). This is an interesting note I had never considered before: that while creation ends in Sabbath, humanity’s existence begins in Sabbath, in rest and delight.
“On the redemption side, the Sabbath day is a reminder that God has liberated us from all that is evil and injurious to human flourishing. We take joy in remembering that God is redeeming the creation, salvaging all that evil has sullied so as to return it to the glory God intended in the beginning” (Hoezee).
The Law is good. Both God’s Law and human law, though the latter can be deeply flawed in many ways. Law helps us to flourish and grow; it orders and protects; it guides and nurtures. Yet Law can also become crippling when it is taken to the extreme (really, isn’t this true of all things in life?). Think about how paralyzed we can become by our rules and regulations when we refuse to let them be flexible?
Let’s take one “rule” we have in our church: how often we celebrate communion. In our church, as in many Reformed and Protestant churches, we celebrate communion once a month, generally the first Sunday of the month (I realize this is not an actual “rule” or “law” but I think it can illustrate my point!). Somewhere back in Reformed Church history, it was decided that once a month was a good number of times to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. Some reformers back in the 16th century feared that celebrating the sacrament every time a worship service was held would diminish the specialness and sacredness of the meal, sort of what I call the “too much cake” rule: if you eat an entire cake every night for dessert, not only will you be unhealthy, but it will begin to be ordinary, mundane, even boring (note I use cake in this analogy, not ice cream!).
An interesting note on this is that John Calvin, one of the biggest forces in Reformed theology, was a champion for celebrating communion any time worship was had; he conceded this point eventually.
However, while this was originally a guideline, it became the rule. Eventually, it just became common practice that communion would be celebrated only once a month. And eventually, it was understood that communion would never be celebrated more than (or less than) once a month! And in some churches, if it was even considered having the sacrament on a day other than the first Sunday of the month, the suggesting person was considered a heretic and burned at the stake! Well, maybe not that severe, but you get the picture…
Our laws can, over time, accumulate so many rules and regulations, that they eventually become burdensome and constricting, rather than revitalizing. “The fourth commandment lists just one Sabbath caveat: no work. But over time the devout in Israel took that one injunction and ran with it. Somewhere around 613 BC other rules and regulations were larded on top of the fourth commandment all in an effort carefully to define work and to help people avoid even a hint of performing work on the Sabbath. What was supposed to be a day of joy in both creation and redemption became a frightening day in which people worried the whole day long they might screw up and perform a deed of work after all” (Hoezee).
So by the time Jesus is teaching in the Synagogue, and this woman, bent over from an ailment (the text says “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years” and Jesus later attributes her bondage to Satan), things “had gotten so bad that an ox or donkey had a better shot at being treated well than did a human being” (Hoezee).
Somewhere in the rules and regulations added on to the Sabbath “no work” rule, “someone had long ago put in a proviso to the Sabbath day regulations that untying an animal for the purpose of getting it to a watering trough was not an act of work. But since no one had thought to add a proviso or a caveat about helping a human being on the Sabbath, what Jesus did that day to this hapless woman did not meet with approval” (Hoezee).
So Sabbath is not just about rest, or even worship, though those are good and important things!
But Sabbath is also about freedom.
“Sunday [is] about what God can do for us and… what we can do for others. What if Sunday [is] about remembering how God has freed us so that we might free others? What if Sunday is about calling to mind the mighty acts of God that we might be encouraged to dare mighty acts ourselves? And what if Sunday [is] a day to remember that God has freed us from death itself so that we don’t have to be afraid of anything so that we might share our Christian courage with others?” (Lose).
Where has God been at work, creating and liberating in our world, our community, in our very lives? Yes, there are many examples in the Scriptural narrative, but our God is alive and active, “freeing, delivering, and saving” all around us (Lose). Where have you felt God healing?
Or maybe there are places we are still “crippled, bent over and unable to stand up” (Lose). There are “very real things we are afraid of” in this world (Lose). Where do you still feel bound and crippled?
This morning, I want to encourage us to name God’s mighty acts in our lives and in our communities, but also point to the places of brokenness, “so that together we can call on God to be at work in, through, and among us for the sake of this world God loves so much” (Lose).
Let’s return the Sabbath into what it is really supposed to be: a day of delight, of rejoicing, of remembering, and of praise. Amen.
Hoezee, Scott. “Luke 13:10-17.” Center for Excellence in Preaching. Calvin Seminary, 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.
Lipka, Michael. “What Surveys Say about Worship Attendance – and Why Some Stay Home.” Pew Research Center RSS. Pew Research Center, 13 Sept. 2013. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.
Lose, David. “Sunday, Sunday.” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary, 15 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Aug. 2016.