Greetings and peace to you! Thank you in advance for patiently enduring my thoughts and reflections on today’s gospel and other ramblings. Allow me to start with a little personal story:
In September, 1982, I was a 15 year old kid just starting high school. My brother Jonathan and I did not get along particularly well during this period of adolescence. I remember well his stern warning that if I acted in school the same way I acted at home I was going to get my butt kicked. Clearly, the warning was designed to instill fear in me because to me the big high school was the great unknown and what 15 year old entering high school isn’t afraid of the stories of being stuffed in a locker by bullies looking for a laugh at the expense of some random freshman. I made peace with my fear by praying to God for protection and making a vow to just be pleasant and kind to everyone because who would harass someone who is always being kind? I made a prayer that was my mantra throughout my young adulthood when I faced a challenging situation like an athletic competition or a tryout or a play performance: I prayed that God help me just do the best that I could because that’s all anyone could ask, right? It gave me tremendous comfort knowing that God would accept me no matter what as long as I was trying my best. After all, who else would I need to worry about disappointing?
My understanding of God’s interventional role in day to day struggles has evolved since then I suppose. Whereas then I would sometimes ask for God to intervene and help me to perform well or the team I was on to win a competition, I now feel that rather than ask for a positive outcome I think it’s more important to rely on the knowledge that God accepts me for who I am and that doing the best I can is enough in the eyes of God. After all, how would one explain the outcome of a competition where both sides were praying for victory? In my opinion, this is dangerous thinking, the kind that some folks use to justify self-righteousness and their own interpretation of the law. That is, someone who subscribes to this notion might think “since I won, God is more on my side than on their side.” That could easily translate into the thinking that seems so prevalent these days that people use to justify their own privilege or point of view. The way I see it, God’s intervention is more subtle than that and is illustrated by the story in today’s gospel of Luke, the only gospel where it appears, by the way.
I think it’s a fitting passage for me as an educator because it tells a story about Jesus that opens with him “teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath.” As if teaching were not enough of a sabbath day violation, (apparently teachers were given a hard time even in Jesus’ day) he then has the audacity to heal a woman who is described as having “a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” This did not go over well with the leader of the synagogue who viewed this as a further violation of the sabbath rules. The rabbi’s rebuke of Jesus was not a quiet scolding to spare him embarrassment, it was a very public calling out that tried to invoke the anger of the crowd by announcing the sabbath day rule. Jesus is quick to shut them down and reveal their hypocrisy by saying, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman…whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
Wow! Jesus’ very practical example of how the law is not so black and white must have been vindicating for those in the crowd who themselves had probably questioned their own borderline violations of the sabbath law. The story is an excellent illustration of how rules or laws can sometimes be taken too literally with black and white thinking. More importantly, it illustrates how the Law is not something that should be used to hurt the people, but to help them - very literally healing a woman’s affliction, both physically and spiritually. What an amazing testimony for us all in the present day with our overprogrammed lives and tendency to burn the candle from both ends. I am certainly guilty of that. One could argue that the sabbath law was put in place to protect us from ourselves, that if rest isn’t mandated that people will work themselves so hard that they become spiritually and physically sick.
I think this is true of God’s commandment to remember the sabbath and keep it holy. According to biblical scholar, Yale Divinity School professor, Carolyn J. Sharp, God’s commandment is intended to be a protection for us and even a source of empowerment. God wants us to take a rest and slow down our busy selves both in mind and body. Like any law or rule, it is designed as a protection against our own tendencies to overwork ourselves (again, something I know a little bit about) and not to exert control over us and punish us in the event that we violate the commandment.
I recently downloaded a book titled, The Things You Can See Only When you Slow Down: How to Be Calm in a Busy World, written by Haemin Sunim. In the book, he shares many telling thoughts about the busy-ness predicament in which we often find ourselves. I think it is instructive about the power of slowing down and in the context of today’s gospel, I would say using the sabbath to empower us and reconnect us with what matters. Sunim writes, “We know the world only through the window of our mind. When our mind is noisy, the world is as well. And when our mind is peaceful, the world is, too. Knowing our minds is just as important as trying to change the world.” Later, he encourages the reader to “befriend your emotions” and writes, “If I had to summarize the entirety of most people’s lives in a few words, it would be endless resistance to what is. As we resist, we are in constant motion trying to adjust, and yet we still remain unhappy about what is.”
Here is a poem by Mark Doty.
Beau: Golden Retrievals
Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.
Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then
I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing. And you?
Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,
or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it? My work:
to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you. This shining bark,
a Zen master’s bronzy gong, calls you here,
entirely, now: bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow.
In closing, Sundays for me are a centering, restorative time to breathe in the quiet, to relish the rhythm of liturgical routines and repetition, to sing hymns of praise and luxuriate in the harmonies that mirror how Christ desires us to coexist with our fellow human beings and with the natural world. I want to invite you to consider the evolution of your own personal spiritual journey as it relates to creating time and space to recharge your batteries and restore your center. How does God challenge you to use the notion of the sabbath day as a self-protection and restorative practice? After all, Genesis tells us that even God needed to rest on the seventh day, a theme that repeated itself all the way to the New Testament and in today’s gospel story from Luke.
May your sabbath day be a day of restoration, peace, calm, healing, and respite from a busy world. Amen.