Like many of you, I’ve been following the Rio Olympics these past two weeks. I like watching the Olympics. I like the events and the competition, and I like the stories, of the athletes and their families, stories of Brazil, the host nation. On Thursday I watched the 200m final between Andre DeGrasse and Usain Bolt, and I enjoyed not only the race but also the whole back story, the bromance between Bolt, the champion and DeGrasse, the young challenger.
I was reminded of another of the great Olympic stories, the one told in the movie Chariots of Fire. It is the story of Eric Liddell of Scotland, who after years of training is accepted to represent Great Britain in the 1924 Olympics in Paris in the 100 metres. But as he is traveling to Paris for the Olympics, he receives the news that his 100m race will be run on a Sunday. He refuses to run the race, despite strong pressure from the British Olympic Committee, because his Christian faith and convictions prevent him from running on the sabbath. Liddell delivers a sermon instead at the Paris Church of Scotland that Sunday based on the same text from Isaiah 40 that we sang in our opening song: “they that wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall run and not be weary.” There’s a good ending to Liddell’s Olympic story. One of his British teammates, who had already won a medal in the hurdles, yields his place in the 400m to Liddell, and Liddell, despite the challenge of running the much longer distance, wins the gold medal.
It is hard to imagine such a story happening today. For we have, for the most part, lost the idea of sabbath both in our church and in our culture. And that is a shame, for the sabbath is a gift, a gift from God to humanity, a gift that we very much need to be healthy and whole.
We are not the first society to lose our sense of the purpose and meaning and gift of sabbath. In today’s gospel Jesus goes into the synagogue on the sabbath to teach. There appears a woman who had been crippled for 18 years, bent over and unable to stand up straight. When Jesus sees her, he calls her over, speaks to her, lays his hands upon her and sets her free from her illness. And immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
But the leader of the synagogue became indignant because Jesus had broken the sabbath rules. He, like us, had lost track of what the sabbath is for.
Now, if I was to ask you what the meaning and purpose of the sabbath is, what the sabbath is for you, perhaps, you would probably answer that the sabbath is for rest. And you wouldn’t be wrong. But if you look at today’s gospel, if you look at it as an example, or even a metaphor for what the sabbath is for you’d see a different answer. You might instead respond that the purpose of the sabbath is to free us from those things which cripple or oppress us, to enable us to stand up straight, and to praise God. That’s what the sabbath means in today’s gospel for the woman who encounters Jesus.
We seem to have two understandings of the sabbath. And there are in fact two Jewish understandings of the sabbath, both of which are found in the Torah, both of which go back to the covenant between God and the people of Israel at the time of Moses.
The first is found in the book of Exodus, 20:8-11:
“Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work . . . . For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.”
This, I would say, is the dominant understanding of the sabbath, the sabbath as a day of rest. The sabbath laws which the synagogue leader had become so preoccupied with in today’s gospel were intended to create space for this rest, which is so important in freeing us from our daily work and preoccupations. Rest and renewal, a time of freedom from the daily grind, is important for us. Every year, I get university students coming to see me suffering from burnout, often mixed with anxiety and depression. Almost always I tell them, you need to take at least one day off, no work, no studying, just to rest. And almost invariably they tell me that they can’t, that it’s impossible, that they have too much to do. We need sabbath. Not just university students, all of us.
Sabbath as rest is good. But here’s a surprise! Rest is not Jesus primary way understanding of the sabbath. There is more to it than this. In fact, in another one of Jesus’ clashes with religious authorities over the sabbath, in John’s gospel, Jesus even says “My Father is still working and I also am working.”
Jesus draws his understanding of sabbath mainly from the second Jewish understanding of sabbath in the Torah, found in the book of Deuteronomy, 5:15:
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But 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 and female slave … or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 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.”
The sabbath is the day that God released the slaves. It is the day of release from bondage, the day you are set free. It was also the world’s first labour law, governing the treatment of slaves and servants. For slaves, to be given a day of rest is to be set free, to have a day each week when your slave master does not force you to work. For the slave people of Israel, to be set free was to be brought out of captivity in Egypt. For the crippled woman in today’s gospel, to be set free was to be freed from her ailment of 18 years and enabled to stand up straight. Picture in your minds that woman who is bent over being straightened up for the first time in 18 years, and praising God. Today’s gospel is a dramatic enactment of the meaning and purpose of sabbath.
Jesus did not go to the synagogue on the sabbath to rest. He went there to carry out the mission which God gave him, to release those who are bound, to free the slaves from captivity, to untie this woman who had been tied down by her ailment for 18 years.
You may know that the Jewish sabbath was and is the Saturday of each week. Long ago, Christians shifted the Christian sabbath to the Sunday of each week. Why did we do this? It relates to this understanding of the sabbath as the day of freedom, of release from bondage and oppression. Sunday is the day of resurrection, the day upon which humanity was set free from bondage to sin and death, the day upon which Jesus, who was bound by death, was set free to new life. That’s what the early church understood as the meaning and purpose of Sunday. It is the day upon which God’s mighty act of setting people free is remembered and continued, week after week. And our right response is one of thanksgiving and praise. That’s why we gather here.
And so the question then falls upon us, what does sabbath mean for us today? What is the meaning and purpose of Sunday for us? Why do we gather together each week? Are we here simply out of some sense of obligation, doing our best to follow the rules? Are we here to rest? Are we here to be set free? To be part of God’s mission to release others from bondage?
Sabbath was clearly important to Jesus, it comes up over and over again in the gospels. sabbath is God’s gift to humanity.
What does sabbath mean to you, and how do you practice sabbath?
Homily: Yr C P21, August 21 2016, St. Albans
Readings: Jeremiah 1.4-10; Ps 71.1-6; Hebrews 12.18-29; Luke 13.10-17