I love the idea of Sabbath. It’s one of those Biblical laws that makes such good pragmatic sense. Take a day off, you need to rest. It’s a law that’s so important that it even made the top ten list – it’s number 4, right after not taking God’s name in vein. Of course, my appreciation of sabbath laws doesn’t mean that I’m not going to stop on my way home from church today and pick up some milk. It also doesn’t mean that I’m going to start taking Sunday’s off – I think the experience of going to church would change quite a bit if ministers obeyed sabbath laws – whether or not it would be better is up for debate.
I think when we think of sabbath, we might harken back to a simpler, more wholesome, completely fictional time, when people were more polite, the streets were safer and we all got along. Families would all get up, go to church, then go home for a day of Bible study and prayer. I don’t mean to sound cynical about this – I really do love the idea of sabbath and I wish we could have one day that most everyone rested. We would of course need emergency services and minister to continue working but everything else, closed. Then again, even the most devout Christians would object if they couldn’t fill their car with gas, buy groceries, or go out for Sunday dinner at a restaurant. Could the sabbath law be one of the more difficult or the 10 commandments? Not murdering or committing adultery – no problem. Actually taking an entire day off to rest – almost impossible.
It was no easier in Jesus’ time and here we have a conflict that, at first glance, is about what is and is not allowed on the sabbath. It’s an interesting scene. Jesus has been invited to speak at the synagogue. Why this known trouble maker has been invited is a mystery but here he is. Jesus would have been sitting on the ground surrounded by the men of the area. Along the outside walls, there were likely some women who, while not allowed to be a part of the formal assembly, would have come to be silent bystanders.
One woman in the crowd is bent over with a “spirit of infirmity” and she’s been like this for 18 years. She hasn’t come to have Jesus heal her, she’s just sitting and listening. It’s Jesus who calls her to him and she is cured.
The leader of the synagogue, who probably should have expected something like this, objects because this constitutes work on the sabbath. He points out that she’s been like this for so long, what difference would one more day have meant. She could have come back the next day, been healed, and the sabbath law would not have been broken. Actually, this is a pretty good argument. The thing is though, I think that there’s a whole bunch of other things going on here besides the healing. For one thing, Jesus has brought a woman from the fringes into the heart of their worship, a place where women were forbidden. Also, as the minister of a church, I can appreciate how this guy was maybe feeling. Here he is, doing his best to lead his congregation week after week. He’s not the most engaging teacher in the world but he puts in a good effort to be insightful and interesting. Next thing you know, here comes this guest preacher and he’s performing miracles – how can he compete with that? When ever you bring in a guest, make sure they’re not as good as you are so that people will be happy at your return.
There’s also something very symbolic going on here. Jesus has entered into the synagogue. By the time this was written, the Jewish temple had been destroyed during a revolt against the Romans and synagogues had become the new heart of the Jewish faith. Here’s Jesus in that heart and what does he find? A spirit of infirmity – something is wrong, there’s disease and he can bring healing.
This disfunction has been hidden at the back of the room and this is where it should stay. Sure, everyone knows that it’s there but maybe if they don’t acknowledge it, it’ll just fade away. Sure, it’s serious enough that they are bent over from the weight of it and they have been for a very long time, but lets just keep it hidden in the back. And this suits the spirit just fine. It’s happy to stay in the fringes, because this is where it knows it can stay safe and do the most damage.
Jesus though is having none of it. He calls forward the disease, symbolized by this bent woman and brings it into the very centre of their holy gathering for all to see and recognize. He dares to air the dirty laundry.
And the response to this? Anger. In an act that seems all to familiar, they try to hide behind tradition. You can’t banish our infirmity – it’s the sabbath! They’re using the beauty of their faith to hold onto the disease to which they’ve become so accustomed. That’s just the way it is. We don’t do things like that here. Just accept your lot in life.
Jesus though, turns their tradition against their arguments. He reminds them that they are the children of Abraham and in so doing, reminds them of their covenant. God will be their God and they will be God’s people. In this covenant is transformation – they need to become God’s people. This is to be lived out and sought. There’s no hiding away that which interferes with their covenant – the spirit of infirmity is to be brought out into the open so it can be dealt with, so that the people may be liberated.
One thing here has to be clarified before we go on. This does not imply that there’s something inherently wrong with the Jewish faith or that Jesus’ healing involves turning them all into Christians. No, Jesus was a Jew, and loved the Jewish faith. It’s just that, as often happens in any faith, denomination or church, disfunction, this spirit of infirmity can sneak in.
What is it that we have hiding on the sidelines? What infirmity do we all know exists but we’d rather not discuss? I’m sure that many of you would agree with me that this building is one of the greatest challenges we face. This leads us to an infirmity that leaves us bent over under the tremendous weight of these beautiful stones. First off, it’s simply too expensive. The way we’re going, we’ve got 4 or 5 years left before we’ve depleted all our savings. For this to change, we’d need to cut costs by 30%, do a tremendous amount of fund raising, or on average, we’d all have to increase our givings by at least $500 a year.
More than this though, this building is using up our energy. So much time and effort goes into caring for, maintaining, and repairing this building that for many people, there’s not much time and energy left for doing the work that makes a church a church. People are tired and they have every right to be.
And yes, this church is a beautiful place and it’s an important part of our heritage but isn’t that a bit like the synagogue leader using sabbath as a reason for not allowing healing? Both sabbath, and this church are beautiful blessings, but they can both be used to block the healing that is necessary. They could both be used to hide from the transformation to which God calls us.
Now I know this isn’t a topic that is the most rejuvenating on a Sunday morning but it’s important that we talk about this. It’s also important that we remember who we are. We too are the children of Abraham and are called to live into that covenant with God, the path of transformation.
What this transformation will be, I’m not sure. There are a group of people that will start meeting in September to look at our future as a congregation and how this building will fit into that future. I’d also encourage you to hold onto your faith – Jesus is here to heal our infirmities so that we may once again stand straight and follow Christ’s way. We also need to have faith that our call to be God’s people is not dependant on this building; yes, it has and may continue for many years to be a beautiful instrument in which to house our ministry, but our work does not, has not, and never will end at these walls.
Let’s remember our call, remember our faith, and be open to the transformation to which we are called. We are the Children of Abraham, we are the people of the Covenant, we are called to stand up straight so that we can look the world in the eye and lead all in the Way of Christ.