Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church and Community of Faith Presbyterian Church for the twentieth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
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.”
But the Lord answered him and said, “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, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?”
When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.
A couple years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a conference called CREDO. Credo, the word, is Latin for I believe; CREDO, the conference, is a chance for pastors to take some time to intentionally reflect on what they believe—about their calling, about their faith, even about their own worth and identity. The conference culminated in each of us writing our own Rule of Life—a phrase the leaders borrowed from medieval monastic communities, like the Franciscans or Benedictines.
The leaders talked about this Rule of Life like it was something to be excited about, like it was the reward at the end of the race. But as soon as I heard about it, I froze.
It’s not because I don’t like rules. I’m Presbyterian. I love rules. But I also know, with excruciating precision, the danger that lurks in loving rules: we begin to measure our self-worth by how well we follow them.
And no matter how good my intentions, I break most of the rules I set out for myself a million times a day. And the more I break them, the more broken I feel. It’s a hideous spiral into guilt, being a person who measures their worth against how well they follow the rules.
So when I heard that we were supposed to make more rules for myself at the end of this conference, I resisted. I struggle enough with the rules I already have! I thought. No fair to make me think up more.
All of this is to say, I have a lot of sympathy for the leader of the synagogue in today’s scripture. A lot of sympathy for those who love the rules, for those who run around trying to get everyone else to follow them, too. A lot of sympathy for those who worry that breaking the rules will let all hell break loose, too.
And I want to stress that there was nothing wrong with the synagogue leader loving Sabbath, and valuing it. When I was a child, I heard this story as the wise and hardworking Jesus versus the silly, stupid “Jews” with their silly, stupid Sabbath. I’m sure no one intended it to be this way, but this story became a sort of anti-Semitic ode to the protestant work ethic: keep working, Jesus says, and God will love you.
The way this story was taught to me only replaced one set of rules with another: Sabbath rest with ceaseless pushing. It made me honestly resentful of this Jesus. Not that I wasn’t thrilled that a woman was healed, but that those of us who can’t do miracles were supposed to toil away restlessly in his wake. For most of us, never resting is a recipe for disaster, not holiness.
The problem, of course, is that the way I learned this story set up Jesus and the Jews as enemies, as two opposing teams on a field, when nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, Jesus and the leader of the synagogue share a love of the same law, the same Torah, the same God who handed those laws down: they simply interpret them in slightly different ways, like so many other faithful Jews did and do.
Most of us learned our Ten Commandments from the Book of Exodus. Those all important commandments urge us to “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”
Did you hear the why, at the end of that rule? Rest, because God rested. Because rest is a holy state, and a holy act.
It’s a good rule, and a good why.
But there’s another place where the Ten Commandments appear. They’re listed out again in Deuteronomy, with only a few words changed. Again, we are urged to observe the Sabbath day, to arrange our lives so that our work can be done in six days, to take this rest not just for ourselves but to ensure that others less privileged can rest as well. But the why at the end is different. This is what scripture says from Deuteronomy: “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”
Rest, because there was a time you weren’t allowed to. Rest, because God saved you from exhausting, back-breaking, bondaged toil. Rest, because you are free to do so.
It’s another good why, and I have to think it’s the why Jesus was thinking of when he freed the bound woman.
This woman was not simply disabled, or sick. Hers was not a condition that a doctor could take a look at on Monday, when Sabbath was over. She was bound. That’s the language scripture uses. Bound by a spirit, trapped, not free, in body or soul. So when Jesus frees her, he isn’t at cross-purposes with Sabbath. He is working right inside it. Sabbath is a day for freedom. Freedom to rest. Freedom to be. To remember that she is a daughter of Abraham, as Jesus calls her, a member of a beloved community, worthy of the same rest as everyone else. Worthy of dignity.
The synagogue leader sees Jesus’ act of healing as work, and urges his congregation not to take Jesus’ action as licensure to set up 24/7 medical practices. The funny thing is, it probably never would have occurred to them to. It is only us modern Christians who see a miracle and assume we must exhaust ourselves trying to replicate it. The congregation at the synagogue simply rejoice that the miracle occurred. They keep the Sabbath as a day of joy, of jubilee, of freedom.
I want to say this very clearly: the point of this story is not that Jesus is privileging work over rest. It’s that Jesus is the one who gives rest, to all of us who are bound.
That can be hard for us to hear. It sounds like good news, but not practical news, not doable. It’s lovely that Jesus champions rest and freedom, but maybe for someone else, not for us. We have emails to check. We have deadlines to meet. We have a boss to keep happy, a spouse to keep happy, a church to keep running. Sabbath is a nice theory, and nice for others to get, but Jesus can’t really be talking to us. We have too much to do to rest, even if it’s Jesus himself making the offer.
CREDO, that conference I went to, was primarily about rest. Enforced rest, even. We were given “free afternoons,” but told very explicitly how we could spend that freedom. Not working ahead on our sermons. Not checking in with the staff back at church. Not trying to detangle a messy pastoral care situation. We were supposed to rest. That’s what “free” really means, our leaders told us.
Many of us grumbled. Some of us broke the rules entirely, and pulled out our laptops, and squeezed in a few hours work, eyes glued to screens and headphones in our ears while the birds flew high above us. But those who were able to simply sit, to be free in their free time, came back sort of wobbly and dazed. “I can’t remember the last time I did that, they said.
And at the end of the week, when we wrote our rules of life, we were encouraged to create rules that would set us free. Now freedom, they cautioned, is different than anarchy: it’s not self-indulgence or self-seeking. Freedom is the place where you move towards God.
We read our rules aloud to each other, that last afternoon. It took a while. Our voices were slower than they had been at the start of the week. And the rules were different, so different, sometimes absolutely opposite, from each other. But the why was the same. Here are a few that I remember, from that long, slow afternoon, when we dreamed what our freedom would look like:
“I’m going to get a hobby outside of church, take my days off, my vacation.”
“This is my calling. I’ve lost sight of that. I’m going to really recommit to the work when I get back.”
“Relax, man. Grab a beer. You can’t live so uptight.”
“Put down the beer. It’s killing you, and you know it.”
“I want to spend more time with my husband. I want to strengthen on our relationship.”
“It’s time to find a divorce lawyer. This isn’t working.”
“It’s okay to take care of myself.”
“It’s okay to let others take care of me.”
“It’s okay to accept God’s care.”
A few months later, a package arrived in the mail. Our rule of life, sent to us as a reminder, a chance to try again, if we’d lost our way. I haven’t looked at mine in a few years, but it’s one of my most precious belonging. They’re the rules that set me free, like Sabbath, like prayer, like faith.
I don’t often give homework, but since it’s back to school, here’s my assignment: during the offertory, or later today, or sometime this week, I want you to make one rule of life for yourself. One rule that will set you free. One rule that will give you rest. One rule that will give you dignity. One rule that will make space for you to move closer to God, even as God is desperately reaching out for you.
It can be as simple as a commitment to 15 minutes of silence in the mornings, or as grand and complex as a road trip to reconnect with old friends. It could be a cap on your screen time, or a new relationship with the money in your wallet. Whatever it is, here are your questions:
What am I trapped by?
What could set me free?
And how is Christ offering me that freedom?
For rules that give us life, I give thanks. Amen.