Sunday, August 25, 2019
Lectionary 21, Year C

Prayer of the Day
O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

Readings and Psalm
Isaiah 58:9b-14 Do not trample the sabbath, but feed the hungry
Psalm 103:1-8
Hebrews 12:18-29  You have come to the city of the living God and to Jesus
Luke 13:10-17  Jesus heals a crippled woman on the sabbath and is condemned

Sermon
Title:  Sacred Sabbath, Ignoble Institutionalism

Leave it to humans to turn a divine gift into a religious burden.  To turn a source of joyful comfort into a source of stressful legalism.  To turn an invitation to tender self-care into a set of rules to be obsessively observed.

Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.  The importance of the sabbath is right there in the Ten Commandments.  God models the behavior in the creation story.  Six days work was done, and on the seventh day God rested.  And so, lovingly, mercifully, tenderly, God says – I rested, so should you.  So, the gift of the sabbath is given.  A time for joy and refreshment is deemed essential to living into the life that God has gifted us with.  A time for the body, mind and spirit to rest and recover is deemed essential.  A time for nourishing our relationships with one another and our relationship with God is to be set apart and cherished.

And typical of humans, this gift of sabbath rest becomes institutionalized in the name of organized religion and thus we have burden where once was gift,  we have one more think to worry about rather than take a break from life’s stress, we have rules to follow where relationship-centered invitation was offered.

And so, Jesus, once again, is confronted with human institutionalization of faith – aka religion – that has become an obstacle to people seeking the divine.  This morning’s gospel reading tells a story that slaps us in the face with its blatant depiction.  There is a woman literally bent over with the weight of life.  And she is not the only one.  We understand there is a crowd who have come to Jesus seeking healing.  What better way to observe the sabbath?  To be renewed by the healing, recreating, and renewing power of God.  But the institution claims to better understand the whats and the what nots for this special day.  The religious leader is firm and directive that people will encounter God in the ways that he and other leaders have come to understand and allow.

Yes, the context of our gospel story is set in the institutionalized faith of Judaism.  But I do not speak in criticism of that tradition or their practices.  I speak instead of all institutionalized religions and what we as humans do to them, with them, and in their name.  We draw our attention as our news feeds continue to be filled with unrest between members of different religions.  As we see people being persecuted and oppressed by those who claim perfection in following the way of a God of love and mercy.  (Friday evening, I saw a play at Lincoln Center that again told the story of the harsh conditions endured and suffered by many in the LGBTQ+ community in many African nations because of brutal Christian leaders.)  And, of course in our own country and in our own faith tradition, daily we see new ways in which Christianity and Nationalism are being interwoven by those who claim to insist that they know the mind of God, that they are the truest patriots, and therefore they understand the right methods, practices, and precautions for both the rule of our democracy and the reign of our God.

It amazes me that as our nation’s self-proclaimed prophets speak to the “societal ills and failings of our nation” whenever progressive movements are made that seek to widen the inclusion and offer better care to all God’s children, these spokespeople for God never dare echo any of the numerous calls in scripture for God’s people to observe sabbath rest.  It is clearly a priority of God’s that the sabbath be observed.  Sure, our Christian sabbath is Sunday not Saturday, because we gather to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus that brings us into the reign and family of God.  The day of our re-creation.  But there was a day when it was observed quite – shall we say – religiously.  Imagine someone whose voice is listened to, who can get airtime on Fox News, imagine that person quoting Isaiah to 21st century America:

13If 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;
14then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

Oh, how the gods of capitalism and consumerism, the gods of sports and entertainment would come crashing down on that person with all the fury of…I don’t know…leaders set on silencing a rebel, even if it means crucifying him or her.  And yet, imagine the increased health of a nation when a day is set aside for families and friends to spend quality time, for non-essential workers to have time off to rest, for as many people as possible to just stop and take a collective breathe, for all workers to be treated fairly and justly.  For parents to have a break from shuttling kids to practices, rehearsals, games, and performances.  I know, never gonna happen.  But it does make you think.

So, what do we do with this story?  We who are a part of the institutionalization of faith.  We who try our best to observe the sabbath of our tradition, even in the midst of a world that heaps it on us and causes us to be as hunched over with responsibility and concerns as that woman who came to Jesus is hunched over with ill health.

Perhaps, for us, this is a story to remind and caution us that even our best intentions can stand in the way of folks who are seeking the healing touch of Jesus.  The leader of the synagogue was just trying to keep order, yes?  He was simply trying to make sure that traditions were followed.  He was just doing his job.  How can we fault him for that?  But Jesus challenges him to think beyond all that.  To think with his heart and not always with his head.

Dare to ask yourself the tough question:  What is it that we cling to that might be keeping people from reaching the healing touch of Jesus?  Maybe it’s our traditions.  Maybe it’s our tastes and preferences.  Maybe it’s our own comfort and holding on to what we find familiar.  Maybe it’s our power and our desire to maintain control.

It is an important question to explore as the ELCA – statistically the whitest Protestant denomination in the country – continues to work towards greater diversity.  It is an important question to sit with, as daily events remind us of the systemic racism that we participate in and that oppresses so many, remind us of the institutionalized white supremacy that plagues all, and remind us of the white privilege that creates injustice and discrimination.

As our nation marks 400 years since the beginning of the slave trade and we see its evil legacy continue to divide, demean, and even destroy, we must take a hard look at the power of institutionalization that creates power and control and sentences so many to powerlessness and submission.  Jesus comes confronting heartless institutions of both government and religion.  He comes with his display of power centered in compassion, not control, centered in mercy, not manipulation, centered in welcome, not warring.  Called to follow in his way, we seek the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to order our ways and our wants, our priorities and our programs, our stewardship and our centering, that nothing we do, nothing we say, nothing we value, nothing we dictate, stand in the way of God’s love reaching all who seek, Jesus’ touch healing those who hurt, and the Spirit binding us together as one.

The Rev. Mark Erson,
Pastor

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