The Freedom of Sabbath

Sermon for Sunday, August 21, 2016 || Proper 16C || Luke 13:10-17

A month ago, Leah and I loaded the twins into the minivan and began an 853-mile road trip to my favorite place on earth. Kanuga is nestled into 1,400 acres of western North Carolina’s beautiful mountains and is the site of my family’s annual vacation; though after more than twenty years of attendance, you might call it a pilgrimage. Every year during the final week of July, my family has trekked to this wonderful Episcopal conference center. We love going because it is so peaceful and because we’ve made lifelong friends there and because — until recently — there was no cell phone reception and no wireless internet.

Over the years, this final reason has crept up the list of why I love going to Kanuga. No cell phone and no internet at Kanuga means less distraction and more time with family; less comatose web browsing and more time with a physical book in my hands; less mindless iPhone gaming and more time napping! Kanuga is a place of Sabbath for me. It is a place of rejuvenation and refreshment and freedom from that which keeps me bound.

Jesus prizes this understanding of Sabbath in today’s Gospel lesson: Sabbath as time of freedom from bondage. Because we usually think of Sabbath as a Jewish observance, we Christians don’t often talk about it. But Sabbath time is just as important for our spiritual lives as it is for our Jewish brethren. So many different things bind us, but only one sets us free. And that is God constantly breathing new life into our beings, which are crippled by our mangled priorities. Sabbath is a dedicated time to gather awareness of this new life and funnel it toward greater freedom.

I’m sure given an hour and a yellow legal pad, you could come up with a long list of things that bind you, that shackle you, that keep you from being totally free. For a millennial like me, I find myself bound by technology. I long for freedom, but it’s an addict’s longing that lasts only until the next hit. I know I’m not alone in both clinging to and lamenting this hyper-scheduled, hyperactive nation of instantaneous communication and the expectation that you can be reached no matter your location and email that still pings when you’re on vacation and social media that begs and begs and begs for you to check in. *Deep Breath* You see what I mean?

God created the Sabbath because God knew we would kill ourselves with our mangled priorities. God knew our healthy love for things could easily mutate into unhealthy bondage to things. God knew that we would be so consumed by the act of doing that we’d forget the act of simply being. When Jesus verbally spars with the leader of the synagogue, Jesus reminds him that the Sabbath means more than just a prohibition from work. Sabbath means a flourishing of freedom.

Jesus illustrates this expansive understanding of Sabbath by healing a woman bent double by a crippled back. Imagine how she must have suffered those eighteen years, always staring at the ground, unable to look people in the eye or look at the sky. “Woman, I set you free of your ailment,” says Jesus, and he lays his hands on her.* And here’s the bit our translation gets wrong, but which is so important for our understanding of Sabbath. Our translation says, “When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight.” There’s a subtle, yet vital difference in the original language, which states, “When he laid his hands on her, immediately she was straightened up.” ** My high school English teachers would have lambasted me for such grammar, but in this case, it works and it matters. “She was straightened up.” This is a “divine passive.” God is the agent here. The woman doesn’t accomplish the straightening; God does. Through Jesus, God grants this woman new life and freedom from the bondage of her physical limitation. New life and freedom: this is God’s gift of Sabbath at its purest.

Even though Kanuga now has cell phone service and wireless internet, my family treats this special place in the mountains as if neither existed. When we get there, we put the phones in airplane mode and hide the iPads. And for a week, I detox from the technology that so often shackles me. I realize again that I don’t need it to survive. I reprioritize what’s important and notice that I had let my priorities get all mangled. The practical effect of this Sabbath time for me this year was giving up a computer game that had weaseled its way too high up my list of priorities. (This is one of the big themes of my life, by the way.) This may not seem significant, but for me it is. Giving up a computer game means hours and hours of time to spend on personal projects that really bring me life, that allow me to exercise my God-given freedom to create. My Sabbath time opened up the space I needed to find where God was blessing me with new life. What could your Sabbath time open up for you?

Rabbi Abraham Heschel wrote a fabulous and influential book called The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man, which is just a pertinent for today’s modern people as it was when it was first published in 1951. Heschel says, “Strict adherence to the laws regulating Sabbath observance doesn’t suffice; the goal is creating the Sabbath as a foretaste of paradise. The Sabbath is a metaphor for paradise and a testimony to God’s presence.” ***

The woman in today’s passage felt God’s presence when she was straightened up by God. I find God’s presence whenever I’m at Kanuga, and then I try like mad to remember how to find that presence again when I’m no longer there. One way is the continued cultivation of Sabbath: a time to be rather than do; a time realign priorities after seeing where God gives you room to breath; a time to glimpse paradise.

In his argument with the leader of the synagogue, Jesus points to the healed woman and says, “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” Is not freedom from all the shackles us, granted by new life from God, the very definition of paradise? This is Sabbath. What will your observance be?

* Unfortunately, the NRSV translations commits a no-no here in translating two different Greek words both as “set free.” I would have made a bigger deal of Jesus saying “set free” twice in the passage if he had actually said “set free” twice in the passage.
** Thanks to David Schnasa Jacobsen at Working Preacher for the grammar check about the woman’s straightening.
*** Heschel, Abraham. The Sabbath.

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