A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.
The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
August 25, 2013
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Hebrews 12:18-29
In preaching, ministers pick and choose about how to tackle the text. We make decisions of how to preach or teach the story based on a great number of reasons. We consider the needs of the church, the way the text speaks to us as we listen to it, and the mystery of how God speaks to us as we prepare the sermon. We also ask, “What’s the point of this story?” meaning, “What’s at the heart of the story?” and we go from there. Like life, any story can have multiple points, core truths all of which are clamoring to be explored.
This story is no different. Some who preach this text today will focus on the healing of the bent-over woman centering on both her physical ailment and her psychological or spiritual condition. Jesus’ blessing, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” is a powerful bit of healing!
But there’s more going on in this story as it deals with the enforcement of the faithful religious practice of keeping the Fourth Commandment which becomes the secondary text for the sermon: Remember the Sabbath day, to 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. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex. 20:8-11).
This story is an example of Jesus breaking the Jewish Sabbath laws. In healing her, he did something on the Sabbath that would have been applauded on any of the other days of the week but when he did this good deed on the Sabbath, he ignited a firestorm with religious consequences.
The Jewish notion of the Sabbath is likely strange to us. Let’s be honest, the word Sabbath is an archaic religious word from another time and another culture. It smacks of traditional religion that seems to no longer connect with modern culture.
But follow the roots of the Sabbath down through history and you discover that it begins back in the Creation stories of Genesis which say quite plainly, “On the seventh day God finished the work he had done, and he rested …” (Genesis 2:2, NRSV). From the very beginning a Sabbath thread runs through the Hebrew Scriptures and today we tap into its ancient meaning in this story. The principle of a six-day cycle of work interrupted by a day of rest is an ancient idea shared by people all over the world. The Jewish Shabbat has reflected the rest God took since the creation of the world.
Arthur Waskow, the director of the Shalom Center, says, “Shabbat is the time you stop doing. You study Torah, you sing, you dance, you celebrate, and you reflect on what the previous six days have been.”
He goes on to give a metaphor to help us understand how profoundly important the principle of Sabbath rest is: “Artists (have explained) to me that there’s a moment in painting when you’re laying brush stroke after brush stroke and each one’s beautiful and each one enhances the painting. Then comes the moment when you put one more brush stroke on and it would seem that that brush stroke was just as beautiful as any one before it, but suddenly you have ruined the painting.” He concludes from that observation, “You’ve got to know when to stop, when to catch your breath and say, ‘Whoosh! This one’s over! I’ll put up another canvas. But in the meantime, I have to pause long enough to digest what I’ve done. Otherwise, I’ll destroy it.’”
Waskow is right. We of the modern era have labored so diligently we stand in jeopardy of losing our souls as payment for the work we do. We add brush stroke after brush stroke and the painting of our lives becomes uglier and uglier. We work endlessly because we feel trapped by the demands of our jobs. We need to rediscover the meaning of Sabbath!
In Luke, Jesus healed a nameless woman on the Sabbath. Some would contend Jesus was merely doing the right thing on the wrong day. This was a sacred event that took place in a sacred space (the Synagogue) and on a sacred day (the Sabbath). And yet it loosened a whirlwind of contention among the sacred leaders. The beauty of the moment was marred by the response of anger it generated with the leaders of the keepers of the Law.
Jesus’ response? He did not take away anything; instead he added to its meaning by insisting the Sabbath was sacred because it was more than a place and a time and this bent-over woman’s claim to the sacred was of equal weight. He called her “a daughter of Abraham,” a daughter of the promise of God! Then he turned to his critics and lambasted them for their stingy hold on the sacred by saying to their faces, “You hypocrites!” (Luke 13:15, NRSV).
Meanwhile, Sunday has gone through a cultural conversion in our lifetime. The culture, not some monolithic anti-Christian movement, has disavowed its public support that once gave the church a sacred importance in the community. Christian believers have been complicit in this displacement by ignoring the notion of Sabbath. Never mind our culture’s totem approach to the Ten Commandments by posting them on government properties is virulently promoted while ignoring their meaning. The irony is how the church has complied and the Fourth Commandment is relegated as secondary to a world of other choices that are made in lieu of weekly worship. A church’s health and power is in direct proportion to the priority its members give to the life and vibrancy of the worship of God.
The question in Jesus’ time is the same of our own: What is your approach to Sabbath? How is it you keep the Sabbath?
The Puritans had a saying that “Good Sabbaths make good Christians.” Let me offer some practical ideas to help us foster a Sabbath-keeping practice:
- Most important would be to include joyful worship. Every Sunday is Resurrection Day to the believers in Christ. We come together to celebrate our unity in Christ and to remind ourselves of the joy of your faith. A day and a time and a place made sacred by Christ’s power over death and the grave … we would do well to keep the practice. We bear testimony to Jesus’ resurrection when we keep the practice of worship.
- Spend time with those you love. Perhaps you need to stop your busyness long enough to share a meal together. Maybe you need to catch up with what’s gone on with one another throughout the busy week. Give time and attention to those you love and build memories that will make the journey of life as you grow and as your children grow.
- Use the time doing things that enrich you and give you a break from your work. Take a walk in your neighborhood. Pay attention to the natural world around you. Study the clouds as they drift by. Take a nap. Read a good book, something that captures your imagination and feeds your soul. Find something that signifies you are in a different mode of being.
There’s an ancient tradition that when the Apostle John was pastor in Ephesus his hobby was raising pigeons. It is said that on one occasion a person passed his house as he returned from hunting and saw John “playing” with one of his birds. The man gently chided the pastor for spending his time so frivolously. John looked at the hunter’s bow and noticed that the string was loose. “Yes, I always loosen the string when it’s not in use,” the man replied. “If it stayed tight all the time it would lose its power.” John responded, “That’s exactly what I’m doing right now. I’m relaxing the bow of my mind so I will be better able to shoot the arrows of divine truth.”
Rest and worship one day a week will make a profound difference in the living of this great faith we have received through Christ. A warm and endearing Jewish blessing is to remind one another on the Sabbath: Shabbat shalom! Sabbath peace! Shabbat shalom!
 Martin Marty, “Take the World Off Its Easel,” Context, 4/15/96.
 Buckner Fanning, “Give Me a Break,” Trinity Baptist Church, San Antonio, Texas 7/26/94
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).