Today’s opening sermon illustration is brought to you by a chaplain I know at a college in the United States.
At this particular college, the Jewish students each week hold a Shabbat (or Sabbath) service on Friday evenings to welcome the Sabbath. I’ve been to the Shabbat services myself, and I always find them beautiful, like a piece of our faith heritage that we’ve lost: every Friday night during the semester, the group of mostly students gathers to sing in the Sabbath, welcoming the day of rest, Saturday, like a bride. They understand what we’ve forgotten: the Sabbath (no matter when you celebrate it) is a beautiful gift sent from God to delight our souls.
At this school, the Jewish students who hold Shabbat services also hold a the fancy Seder service in the spring. Consequently, this year, the fancy Seder plate was returned to this particular chaplain’s office (which also houses Jewish student life) with the note, “Needs to go back to Shabbat people.”
It was certainly not offensive, but it was an exercise in being almost culturally competent.
Given this week’s reading about the Jewish understanding of Sabbath, “Shabbat People” really seemed like an accurate way of getting us to a more Jewish understanding of Sabbath. We inherit a lot of things from our Jewish ancestors in faith: for one thing, well over half the Bible, as any Hebrew Bible scholar will tell you. Our Jewish neighbors and ancestors in faith are also the reason we have any concept of Sabbath at all: one day a week set aside for rest and reconnection with God and each other.
Unfortunately, we Christians quickly forget the Jewish roots of our faith. Too often, Christians try to remind ourselves for no reason whatsoever that the Christian faith is somehow superior, through our roots go deep into Judaism. We wouldn’t be here without the Jewish faith, but Christians throughout history have visited terrible things on Jewish people, from casual horrid comments all the way to genocide.
But these days, in most progressive churches at least, we settle for a more casual antisemitism. I say “casual” antisemitism because it’s not formal or intentional — we don’t mean any harm, and we don’t even think of it as being harmful or hateful. We know the Holocaust happened and that genocide is ugly and horrible. We know that saying explicitly antisemitic things is wrong. But still we forget the Jewish roots of our faith. But still we forget our Jewish neighbors. We hear stories like today’s Gospel reading and we point the finger at those terrible Jewish leaders who had too many rules — and in doing so, we miss the point of the story entirely. Bible interpretation hack: if reading any story has you pointing the finger at someone else or making yourself into Jesus in the story, you’re probably reading it wrong.
The story is a familiar type of story in the Gospels: Jesus gets in trouble for breaking Sabbath rules. If you’ve even casually been attending church for more than a few years, you know that this happens a lot to Jesus. He’s always getting into trouble on the Sabbath.
Here’s a fun fact: in the Gospels, he always gets in trouble on the Sabbath for feeding someone (in one case, allowing his disciples to eat) or for healing someone. Once, in Mark, he says this profound thing: “The Sabbath was made for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath.”
This is where we lose something profound when we sit back and casually point the finger at the Jewish leaders. After all, it’s not like Christians don’t know something about sacrificing people on the altar of the rules. When I was at Camp Calumet a few weeks ago, I told the kids that a little more than fifty years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to be their chaplain simply because I’m a woman. There was an audible gasp in the room — the kids couldn’t even conceive of it, yet’s it’s part of our history.
Soon, we figured out what Jesus always knew: the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules.
All the religious leaders are doing here is pointing out what the rules of the faith are. They don’t mean to be cruel, they’re just telling you what the Bible says. Christians have done this over time with regard to, in no particular order: divorce, slavery, LGBTQ+ folk, gender, women in ministry, and a host of other issues. They didn’t mean to be cruel; they were just reminding us all of the rules.
We Christians are capable of forgetting, too — the rules were made for humanity, not humanity for the rules.
Now, don’t get me wrong. The rules are necessary; the rules were made for us. When all goes well, the rules of a religion keep us safe and at peace and remind us what the faith is really about.
The reason we have rules is obvious to the newest of kindergarteners: laws and rules keep us safe and teach us to be good humans. They tell us what’s okay and what’s not okay. They tell us what the consequences are when we hurt others. They keep us from dominating one another, from talking over one another, and from stealing from each other or hurting each other in a number of ways. Just like we need rules on the road, we need rules in our faith communities, to keep us safe and keep us productive and remind us what the point of all of this is.
In the case of the Sabbath, the rules were created to give the people a dang break. In our council discussion this week, we talked about what it means to take Sabbath: to rest, to stop working, to remember that the world can go on without us, and most of all, to delight, in both God and one another. The Sabbath rules were created to make us more human, and to remind us that we aren’t just machines who were created to work all the time. And just in case we weren’t sure that resting doesn’t make us weak, God went first. God took the first Sabbath and commanded that we do the same. This is important.
And the rules created around the Sabbath were for people, too: okay, so we can’t work. But what does “work” really mean? And immediately, someone said, “I can get away with doing just a little work, right?”
Humans need rules. We need boundaries. We need guidelines, or else, “a little work” quickly turns into just another workday, and humans are just as crippled by work as we were before, with no rest in sight.
And that is the context in which we find our story today.
“Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman” who was unable to stand up straight, and she’d been that way for eighteen years. Can you imagine? Eighteen years of being bent over, unable to fully stand. Eighteen years — the entire lifespan of a new high school graduate — bent over.
Jesus, teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, saw this lady and called her over and told her she’d been set free from her ailment. And she stood up straight and looked God in the eye.
“But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’”
It’s a thing we’ve all heard before: “The Bible says…”
Jesus’ response is simple: he says she ought to be set free on the Sabbath day. Not that he just did healed this woman on the Sabbath because it happened to be the Sabbath. But because the Sabbath is, above all things, about God setting people free. Whenever Jesus gets in trouble on the Sabbath, remember, it’s usually for feeding or healing.
What Jesus responds with is a Jewish understanding of Sabbath. The Jews, held in bondage as slaves in Egypt, relish the freedom to take Sabbath. They rest because that is what free people do. It is their God-given inheritance. The Jews, the “Shabbat people,” understand Sabbath better than Christians do, even today. It is from my Jewish friends that I learned that Sabbath is about dropping your burdens so that you can stand up straight. It’s about being healed. It’s about being fed. It’s not about what we do to keep the rules. It’s about what God does for us — namely, heals us, feeds us, and sets us free.
We rest because that is what free people do.
So when Jesus gets in trouble for violating Sabbath by healing and feeding people, he isn’t getting rid of Judaism or the Sabbath. He’s reminding the people of who they are — like the plate returned to the chaplain’s office says, they are Shabbat people.
We, too, are a free people who should take Sabbath. Truth be told, everyone should — for a day or even for an afternoon.
Drop your burdens. Be free. Let Jesus heal you and feed you. And maybe, just maybe, stand up a little straighter.
Let it begin here, at this table, where Jesus feeds us with his very self with the same elements that Jews still use at their Sabbath celebrations: candles and bread and wine, praising God, being free.
I invite you, along with the dining services of the aforementioned college, to “Return to [being] Shabbat people.” It’s not about keeping or breaking the rules. You weren’t created for the rules; the rules were created for you.
Sabbath is about what God does for us. And what Jesus does, over and over in the Gospels, is to heal and to feed and set free.
So come and be fed. Come and be healed. Come with joy. Be free.
Today as long ago, Jewish folks welcome the Sabbath as a free gift from God. In one song sometimes sung at Shabbat services, the Sabbath is welcomed as a new spouse at a wedding. I close with the translation of some of the words to that song. It goes like this:
“Come, my Beloved… we welcome the Sabbath bride, for she is the source of blessing; from the beginning, she was chosen; last in creation, first in God’s thought.”
May you welcome the Sabbath in whatever form she comes today. May God heal you, feed you, and help you stand up straight.
Let’s “go back to [being] Shabbat people,” for Shabbat people are free people. Amen.