Sermon for Year C, Proper 14 (On Isaiah 58:9b-14 & Luke 13:10-17)
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings both share a theme of Sabbath—the practice of intentionality, rest, and reflection, that we, as Christians, inherit from our Jewish forbearers. But they seemingly take two conflicting views. The passage from Isaiah tells us that if we refrain from trampling on the Sabbath, from pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day, then we will learn to take delight in the Lord and our lives will be like a watered garden, whose springs never fail. But in the Gospel passage, Jesus’ actions cause us to wonder whether or not he supports keeping Sabbath laws.
Unsurprisingly, today’s Christians seem collectively stumped by the confusion surrounding this gift we’ve inherited. And as such, we’ve allowed it to fall into disrepair. Like weeds in an overgrown garden, pressures for productivity and busyness have crept in, leaving our lives overcrowded and unmanageable. Today, we will look at these seemingly conflicting perspectives to try and understand just what it is that Jesus is communicating to us today. But first, I think it’d be helpful if we took a deeper look at the discipline of Sabbath.
Not long ago I heard the story of a woman named Sylvia Earle. Now 78 years old, Sylvia spent most of her career working as an oceanographer, studying the mysteries that lie hidden beneath the veil we call sea level. During a time when much attention was turned skywards for the Moon landing, Sylvia plumbed the depths of inner-space to discover a jungle of life right beneath our noses.
Slyvia’s peers know her as “Her Deepness,” a title she earned by leading the first team of women aquanauts on a dive to over 1,200 feet below sea level. There, with the aid of a small submarine trailing behind her and a now antiquated diving suit, she walked with her own two feet on the ocean floor. Her exploration lasted for over two and a half hours—about the same amount of time that Buzz Aldren spent on the Moon—but few noticed.
In that vast subterranean wilderness, Sylvia found herself surrounded by tall plants in the dark currents that shimmered with bio-lumenesant light. There were crabs and fish of all shapes, colors, and sizes. She saw creatures barely describable as creatures and patches of sand that glowed when touched. After some time, she ordered the submarine to turn off its lights, so she could be fully immersed in the wonders that surrounded her.
In many ways Sabbath can be likened to her journey, for it teaches us the importance of exploring those hidden, rarely visited corners of life—of listening for the still, small Voice. With all the noise of today’s continuous stimulation (from radios, TVs, bills, and trying to stay on top of email), rare is the person who feels they can take time away for renewal. But our spiritual… and even physical health… demands this. And like Sylvia turning off the submarine lights, taking such time gives us a chance to pause and bask in God’s goodness—a time to grow still, love those we cherish, and nurture a quiet awareness of God’s presence.
When Sylvia reflects back on her life, she’s quick to point out how much has changed. Creatures never before fathomed have been brought to light. The earth’s resources have been used in new and exciting ways, transforming life as we know it. But what began with perhaps limitless optimism, has given way to a myriad of unanticipated problems.
Now, when people ask Sylvia where she would go diving, if she could go anywhere in the world, she answers, “Oh… just about any place… 50 years ago.” She says this because of all the damage that’s recently happened to underwater ecosystems. Many species of ocean creatures have been reduced to five or ten percent of what they once were… and some have been fully eradicated. Apparently, for instance, Galveston used to have Monk Seals, a species that once stretched from here to Florida. But the last Gulf Coast Seal was seen in 1952.
This highlights another facet of Sabbath—the need to exercise restraint. Failure to set limits, by allowing time for rest and replenishment, reliably precedes burnout. God modeled rest for us on the seventh day of creation and Israel received the Sabbath as a gift, after being freed from slavery—hard things to argue against.
So why then does Jesus wind up squaring off with the synagogue leader today? Was Jesus really opposed to Sabbath? Well, if we revisit the story, we notice that the woman who was bent over didn't come to Jesus. She didn’t interrupt his teaching. She lurked quietly within the crowd and had Jesus not called out to her, she would have left unnoticed. But that’s not what happens—because Jesus had a point to make.
Now, the voice opposing Jesus was correct in saying that he could have waited until the next day to heal the woman. After all, she’d already been waiting for eighteen years. But, by moving to heal her anyway, Jesus makes a theological point about Sabbath’s purpose. In the Message translation, Jesus responds, “You frauds. Each Sabbath every one of you regularly unties your cow or donkey from its stall. You lead it out for water and think nothing of it. Why then would it be wrong for me to untie this daughter of Abraham and lead her from the stall where Satan has kept her bound?”
You see, Sabbath is about more than rest and renewal… it’s also about freedom from bondage—about grace and healing. Its rules and commandments ought to be subordinate to the greater purpose they serve—that of freeing us to walk in a fuller awareness of God’s presence and provision. Or as Jesus says in Mark, “Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”
So God’s chief concern, made known by Jesus today, is the full and unhindered flourishing of all life. But, as Sylvia and others point out, the need for Sabbath extends beyond humanity to the whole of God’s creation. Soil needs rest for the replenishment of nutrients. Groundwater needs time to recover. And when resources are overtaxed, they wither and dry up. But we do likewise.
And, in this way, we mirror today’s ecological predicament. Today’s endless chase for outward economic gain comes at a cost. We find ourselves held captive by a society that expects ever longer working hours—where families are strained and relationships sacrificed. A contagious hunger to prosper or have the greatest, most respected credentials has left us scattered and depleted. Even our self-images have fallen prey, for we never feel free to simply rest. There’s always more that can be done.
In seminary, I had the opportunity to take a class on Judaism from a local rabbi. I was surprised to learn of all the forethought it takes to keep Sabbath—to live intentionally with no work for one day. Consider eating, for example, when no cooking is allowed and neither is shopping for groceries or commerce of any kind. Such rest requires planning.
What would happen if we approached our lives with that same intentionality? If Sabbath is meant for our blessing, or as Isaiah puts it, “to make us ride upon the heights of the earth,” then surely we clear some space to listen for that still, small Voice.
Let us then cherish the gifts we’ve been given and, like Sylvia’s dazzling walk at the bottom of the sea, allow Sabbath to open up new horizons of wonderment. But we must be willing to dive deep—to clear space with intentionality. Because like tithing and loving our enemies, Sabbath requires discipline. But as Jesus reminds us, our reward can be walking in the perfect freedom God wills for us, with an ever-increasing awareness of God’s presence in all things!
When was the last time you paused to reflect on your deepest longings? Remember, God gave your heart its passions, so whatever emerges, it’s sure to bring God glory! For Sylvia, she’s turned much of her attention to raising awareness about the environment, thus joining her work to God’s desire for a thriving creation. But, this calling will look different for each of us.For some it may mean more time with family. For others it may be turning off the radio on the way to work. And for those in intractably busy seasons of life, it may mean cultivating a sense of God’s presence, throughout the busy workday. How is God calling you to listen more closely?
Jesus promises that God’s grace and care are waiting to heal and set things right, if only we will step forward when called.
Let us not be like those, during the landing of the Moon, who were so ready to focus outwards, that they neglected the mesmerizing world within…