Dear Working Preacher,
Do you ever wonder what it’s all about? Sunday, I mean. The gathering, the worship, the singing, reading, and preaching — why do we do it? I’m serious. I sometimes wonder if we get so caught up in preparing for Sunday — after all, they come every seven days, ready or not! — that we lose sight of what Sunday is really about in the first place.
Today’s reading from Luke takes up this question head on. (Admittedly, you’ll have to swap “Sabbath” for “Sunday,” but I think the analogy works nonetheless.) On one level, we might read this story as portraying a clash between two understandings of the law. The synagogue leader takes very seriously and fairly literally the manifold laws about keeping the Sabbath contained in the Scriptures. Yet Jesus contends that beneath the surface of those laws lays a deeper intent — the welfare of those in need. You don’t keep laws for the sake of keeping laws, Jesus seems to suggest, but rather for the greater intention they serve. So if keeping the laws impedes caring for someone in need, then the choice is easy — you break the law in order to fulfill it.
But I think this is more than a clash between a conservative and liberal interpretation of law. Instead, I think the question concerns the very point of the day itself. There are, as you know, two traditions concerning the Sabbath. One, recorded in Exodus 20, links the Sabbath to the first creation account in Genesis, where God rests after six days of labor. As God rested, so should we and all of our households and even animals rest. The second tradition, in Deuteronomy 5, however, links the Sabbath to the Exodus; that is, it links Sabbath to freedom, to liberty, to release from bondage and deliverance from captivity. I think it’s this tradition that Jesus is tapping into. He reminds his listeners of other instances of when releasing, untying, and setting free is allowed by law and then characterizes the woman’s ailment as being “bound by Satan.” Of course it is permissible to set someone free on the Sabbath, Jesus seems to say, for the Sabbath is all about freedom. The Sabbath Day — whether the Jewish Sabbath on Saturday or the Christian day of rest and worship on Sunday — reminds us…all of us, that we too have been captive and were set free, and therefore invites us to look around and see who else might still be bound and waiting for release.
From this point of view, our day of worship, while called “a Sabbath to the Lord,” isn’t finally for the Lord but is for us, for all of us who need rest and release, renewal and re-creation. Little wonder that Christians moved their celebration of Sabbath to Sunday, the day on which the Lord was raised, for this, too, is release and deliverance, but in an ultimate sense, as we are released from death itself.
So Sabbath/Sunday is about freedom. But how many of our people know that? How many of us, for that matter, know that? I suspect that for many of us, Sunday is a day of religious obligation. It’s about what we do for God. What if, however, Sunday was about what God can do for us and, recognizing that, what we can do for others. What if Sunday was 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 was 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?
And when I talk about remembering and calling to mind God’s mighty acts of freeing, delivering, and saving, I don’t just mean those written in the Bible. I’d like us to look around, remember, and lift up those places in our community and congregation where God has been at work so that we can name God’s activity and by naming it be strengthened in faith. Similarly, I think we should avoid talking only about captivity and fear in general, but strive also to speak about some of the very real things we are afraid of, some of the concrete and particular things that keep us crippled, bent over and unable to stand up.
Here’s the thing, Working Preacher, you won’t really know unless you ask. So ask your people where they see God freeing and where they still feel bound. Ask them where they have felt God healing and where they still feel crippled. Ask your people to name God’s mighty acts in their lives and to point to places of brokenness, all 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 us much.
Ask them now. Really. Ask while you’re visiting folks this week, or send an email out today, or raise the question in your sermon and let the conversation you engender carry you through the fall. But make the effort to ask. Who knows, if we take the time to ask these questions we might not only learn a lot about what God is up to in our midst, but we might also reclaim Sunday not as a day of religious obligation but a day of freedom, of release, of deliverance — in a word, a day of Sabbath. Talk about cause for rejoicing!
Thanks for your good work, Working Preacher. What you do on Sunday, and all the days in between, really matters.
Yours in Christ,
PS: Matt Skinner, my colleague on Sermon Brainwave who very much shaped my thought on these matters, suggested using Deuteronomy 5:1-15 for this weeks first reading — not a bad idea!