Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, August 25, 2019
Isaiah 58:9b-14, Psalm 103:1-8, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Chinook and Naselle Lutheran Churches, WA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Barna Research Group did a study of American Christians of all denominations, trying to see what the average level of theological understanding was among church-going people. The vast majority of regularly-worshipping Christians knew almost nothing about their faith. Most of them believed only in a vague sort of wishy-washy feel-good spirituality which Barna labelled “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” Which basically means that you believe there is a God out there somewhere, but God isn’t really involved in your life or the world, and God wants you to be a good person and be happy. That’s it. That’s the sum total of what most American Christians knew or believed about God and their faith. And it’s not that that’s wrong; after all, there is a God, and God does want us to be good people who are happy. But it’s also only a tiny part of who God is and what God does in the world, and it’s only a tiny part of what God desires for us. It’s a child-like faith in the bad sense, shallow and vague.
Our God created the universe to be good, to be filled with life and joy and abundant good things, and then God saw human sin break and twist and sicken that good creation. But God has not been sitting idly by since that happened; God has not turned away, nor left us to our own devices, nor shrugged and said we get what we deserve. God has been active in creation and in our lives, working to heal and re-create and redeem. As our passage from Hebrews reminds us, God has been working to heal and purge since the days when Cain committed the first murder in human history, killing his brother Abel. God has been creating covenant after covenant, promise after promise, and asking us in return to live just and merciful lives, and create just and merciful societies based on loving God and loving our neighbor.
That redemption, that re-creation, that healing, it doesn’t happen simply or easily. It required nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ, to set it in motion; and it will re-shape the entire cosmos. In the words of our reading from Hebrews, it will “shake the heavens and the earth” and God will be a consuming fire, burning out all impurities and refining the good to make it even better. The things of this world, even the things we think are certain and right and good, will need to be purified and made better. And there are so many things we take for granted as normal that will turn out to be incompatible with the new kingdom God is building which God is planting in and around us, which will grow to fullness when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead.
So the question is, knowing all of this, how should we respond? Knowing that the world is broken by sin and death, knowing that God is at work to redeem and re-create the world and us, knowing that God is the only one in the entire universe that cannot be shaken, knowing that Christ will come again and bring God’s good kingdom with him, how should we live? How should we respond to all of this? What does God want of us? In the words of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as quoted by Jesus, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or in the words of the prophet Micah, “He has told you, human one, what is good and what the LORD requires from you: to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”
This is about morality, but it’s not about being good for the sake of being good. It’s not about following the right rules just because they’re rules. God’s law exists to help guide us into the ways to live that will grow towards God’s kingdom. It’s not about following the letter of the law, it’s about being guided by the Spirit of that law so that our lives reflect the unshakeable kingdom that is to come. And some of that is about personal morality, but a lot of that is about communal morality. It’s about creating societies that reflect God’s love, God’s justice, God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Given all of that, let’s turn to the discussion of the Sabbath which is at the heart of both our Gospel and our first reading. Why does God command us to take time for rest and worship? Most people today think Sabbath is just about going to church. But it’s not. The reason for the Sabbath is explained in several places in the Bible, most notably Genesis, Exodus and Deuteronomy. In Genesis and Exodus, the command to rest on the Sabbath is connected to creation. God created the universe, and then God rested. As God rests, so should we; no human or animal was created to work unceasingly. We were created for a balance of work and rest. Worship is a part of sabbath, but worship is not the only reason for setting the day aside and it’s only part of making the Sabbath holy. Deuteronomy expands on this, commanding us to remember being enslaved in Egypt. It’s not enough for us to choose, as individual moral choices, to respect the Sabbath. It’s easy for people with resources to choose to take time off; it’s a lot harder for poor people. And it may not be a choice for people who are being exploited. So keeping the Sabbath means not just resting ourselves, but also creating a society where everyone, including the lowest and poorest and most vulnerable people on the totem pole, have time to rest. Personal piety and personal time off are only part of the commandment. It’s also about justice. It’s about protecting those who are weak. It’s about building a society where all creation can experience God’s good gift of Sabbath time. Where all people have time and space and freedom not only to worship, but to rest and enjoy God’s good creation. This is how we remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.
Because Sabbath about more than just taking a day for worship, there are things that the law says we are supposed to do on the Sabbath. Most notably acts of mercy. If you see a person or animal in need of help on the Sabbath, and you can help them, you’re supposed to do it, even if that means working on the Sabbath. This doesn’t mean that we should give over all our Sabbath time to working at a charity instead of resting and worshipping, but rather, we should not use the Sabbath as an excuse not to help. Which the religious leader in our Gospel reading seems to have forgotten. When he criticizes Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, Jesus’ response about oxen and donkeys isn’t just random. Jesus is referring to Scripture passages which set out the sorts of things you can and should do on the Sabbath. Making sure animals don’t suffer is one. Making sure humans don’t suffer is another.
The religious leader’s response to Jesus is a perfect example of the limits of thinking of God’s commands as personal morality and piety. We’re supposed to rest and worship, so the leader wants everyone to rest and worship. The law commands exceptions for acts of mercy, but the leader is so zealous to follow the letter of the law that he doesn’t see that Jesus healing the woman follows the spirit of the law. Sure, Jesus could have waited and told her to come back the next day, and she wouldn’t have died … but she was suffering. Jesus could heal her with a touch and end her suffering right then and there, and so he did. Jesus showed the kind of compassion and love and mercy that God desires of us. The religious leader, on the other hand, was so focused on following the letter of the law that he had no room for the love and mercy and compassion the law is supposed to help us live out. He’s so focused on the letter of the law, there’s no room for the Spirit. He’s so focused on trying to be faithful and pious that he is blind to the suffering of others in his community, and complains when they are healed. He’s not the one suffering, he’s not the one in need, and so he prefers pious legalism and judgmentalism to compassion.
And the thing is, we Christians today can be just as narrowly focused, just as willfully oblivious, as the religious leader was. We think of morality as a series of personal choices, instead of as a way of participating in God’s building up of the coming kingdom. We see morality as individual rather than communal, a way of sorting out good people from bad people, instead of as a way of building up communities in which God’s love and justice and mercy guide our lives. For example, the only time I ever hear Christians talk about keeping the Sabbath, it’s in the context of shaming people who aren’t in church enough. It’s never about trying to make a better and more just society in which all people (including the working poor) have reliable and regular time to rest. And yet, the Bible spends a lot of time teaching us about the necessity and God-given right to rest and how society should be set up to promote that.
Isaiah puts it this way: “If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places…. If you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
God is at work in the world. God is at work to heal the sick, to redeem the sinful, to re-create the broken, refine what is good and purge what is harmful. God is at work shaking the foundations of that which is selfish, sinful, hateful, greedy, fearful, jealous, and any other kind of wrong, so that God can create a new and better world. And we are called to participate in God’s work in the world. May we live our lives in the light of that coming kingdom.