Sabbath Freedom

Preached on 21 August 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, WA
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, Year C

Sometimes it seems as though under the Puritan work ethic, Sabbath became another form of work; to be endured, not enjoyed.  The focus seemed to be on duty and obligation to God and that meant suffering – spending hours in church, sitting in hard, uncomfortable pews, listening to preachers warning them of evil and hellfire; rather than a focus on rest and refreshment and even delight.  Seriously, how many of you think that “keeping Sabbath” would be an onerous practice?  Sabbath is a gift!

Since two of our readings this morning are about the Sabbath, let’s take a little time to look at it a bit more deeply.  Let’s start in Deuteronomy, chapter 5.  Moses is speaking to the people.  They have been in the desert for 40 years and now it’s time to prepare to enter the promised land.  Moses won’t go with them and so he’s reminding them of what they have experienced, what God has taught them, who they have become as a people, and who they are in relation to God.

He gives them the ten commandments again.  This is how they start – “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of slavery in Egypt.”  When he gets to the fourth commandment, he gives them quite a bit of detail.  There is to be no work for anyone – not your servants or your slaves, men and women, the alien among you, not even the animals are to work.  Everybody gets a day off.  And he goes on, “remember, you were a slave.  This is why the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath.

The people were in had been in Egypt, they made an exodus and are now ready to enter the Promised Land.

In our reading from Isaiah, the prophet is speaking to the people who have been in exile in Babylon for 70 years.  Their exile is about to end and they will make a second Exodus, returning to the Promised Land.  Remember, the  people he’s talking to are not the same people who left Israel.  That generation has died.  These people are going back to a home they’ve never seen.  Isaiah reminds them of who they are, especially in relation to God.  He reminds them of the privileges and responsibilities that go along with freedom.  They are to do justice – remove the yoke, feed the hungry, satisfy the needs of the afflicted – and to keep Sabbath; keep it with delight and give honor to God.

Sabbath sets them apart as a people.  Everybody gets a day off.  Nobody works – men, women, slave, free, strangers, not even the animals.  Even then, it was counter-cultural.

Sabbath is a declaration of freedom and justice in the face of slavery, oppression, and every kind of bondage.  It is defiance against the powers that seek to own our bodies, our labor, our time.  Sabbath is a time to remind ourselves that ultimately, we all belong to God and we are precious in God’s sight; that God delights in us and we in God.  We would do well to consider what we do on our Sabbath that denies others theirs.  Sabbath is a gift from God – not only of rest but of freedom and justice.

Given that context, let’s look at our gospel for today.

It’s the Sabbath and Jesus is in the synagogue.  He looks around and sees a woman who is disabled.  Bent over double, she hasn’t been able to stand up straight and look someone in the eye or see the sky or even watch where she’s going for nearly two decades.  Jesus frees her from her ailment.  Notice the language used – he doesn’t heal her or cure her; he frees her.

Then the leader of the synagogue challenges him, accusing him of working on the Sabbath.  The woman should have waited and suffered a little while longer.
But it is precisely because it is the Sabbath that Jesus must free her from suffering.  It wasn’t work, it was doing justice, it was freeing her from the bondage of her affliction, freeing her to fully participate in the joy and celebration – the delight – of the Sabbath; enabling her to stand upright and praise God.  Jesus reminds them who she is – she is a daughter of Abraham.  She is fully a member of their community and Sabbath is for her, too.

Which brings me to the topic of disability.  I learned this week that the most un-churched group is people with disabilities.  In part, because many, if not most, churches are set up in such a way that makes it difficult for them to participate; or even get in the building in some cases.  But also, in part because of how passages like this one are often understood.  It’s as if she cannot worship because of her condition.  In fact, she is probably seen as somehow shameful.  Once she is freed, she can worship.  But most people aren’t freed.  They live as they are.

I wonder how her posture affects how she is perceived by others.  People who feel shame often bend over or hide their faces.  This woman was permanently in that posture.  Perhaps people around her subconsciously thought she was shamed.  I can imagine that over time, it would even affect how she viewed herself.

But have you ever thought about disability as a human construct?  We have this unwritten, subconscious set of attributes that we deem to be “normal” and anyone who has some variation from that set, is deemed not normal or disabled.  Of course, in some instances, they are deemed genius or prodigy or talented when they have an abundance of a desirable quality.

But we set up our world based on those norms; from the heights of counters to the size of letters on street signs, to the brightness of lightbulbs, to the height of stair steps.  Virtually everything is designed with norms and averages in mind.  Just think, being confined to a wheelchair is a disability only because our world is set up for people who can walk.  Now we’re not likely to change the norms – but we should be aware that they are of our own making.

Now, let’s think about what norms our worship assumes.  How do our practices or our spaces prevent some people from participating in worship?  How might we make Sabbath a practice of freedom for all people?