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You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Freedom from Rules; Rules for Freedom

Luke 13:10 – 17
Jennifer Browne
UUMC

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You heard the children talk about the rules at their homes. What were some of the rules you had to abide by when you were young? Find a neighbor or two and take a moment to share a story about a rule you grew up with.

Our Scripture reading this morning would appear – on first glance – to be a call to get rid of the rules. How absurd to avoid healing on one particular day of the week, just because it’s called the Sabbath. How hypocritical of the synagogue leaders who will take care of their animals, but don’t want Jesus to take care of a human being. Let’s ditch all those rules and regulations! Every one for themselves! Don’t tread on me!

Anyone who’s read the rest of the gospels knows that Jesus did talk about freedom, and he was a revolutionary, but he wasn’t an anarchist. In fact, in reference to the religious law of his community, Jesus said he’d come not to abolish it, but to fulfill it.

The question before us this morning has to do with the Sabbath and what it means to keep the Sabbath. What is Jesus telling us about Sabbath-keeping? Are we getting rid of the commandment about keeping the Sabbath? If we’re keeping it, how are we keeping it?

Let’s take a moment to look at what the Bible says about the Sabbath. It’s a pretty important concept, the Sabbath. It’s in the most fundamental part of biblical law – the Ten Commandments.

The first place we read the Ten Commandments in the Bible is in the book of Exodus. I invite you to find the book of Exodus, chapter 20 in a Bible near you.

(In the older Bibles, you will find Exodus, chapter 20, verses 8 – 11, on page 66. In the newer version, you will find the same text on page 64.)

Will someone read for us, verses 8 – 11?

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

 

  How does this text tell us to keep the Sabbath holy? (By resting from labor.)

  Why do we rest? (Because God did. Resting is part of creating.)

 

Now let’s look at the second place that the Ten Commandments are given to us in the Bible. This time we’re looking for the book of Deuteronomy, the fifth book of the Old Testament. The commandment about the Sabbath is found in Deuteronomy, chapter 5, verses 12 – 15. (Older Bibles: page 162. Newer Bibles: page 156.)

Will someone read verses 12 – 15?

Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

 How are we to keep the Sabbath holy?
 Why do we rest? (Because everyone deserves a day off, even the slaves.)

In the version of the Ten Commandments that we find in Deuteronomy, the Sabbath is about justice. The law about resting on the Sabbath is actually our first fair labor law.

So we have two reasons for resting on the Sabbath – we do it to honor God, and we do it because it’s fair.

The early Protestants distinguished themselves from the Roman Catholic Church by saying that they were getting rid of what they called “ceremonial laws” – things they thought were just empty ritual, that had been concocted by the church hierarchy and were based in tradition, not the Bible or Christian morality. We’ll keep the moral laws, they said, and we’re ditching the ceremonial laws.

But the Sabbath law is an example of something that is both ceremonial and moral. It’s set aside for the worship of God, for the preaching and teaching of the word of God – that makes it ceremonial. But it’s also moral – everyone, even the slaves and the animals, deserves a day of rest and freedom from work. Understanding the law is not as simple as we think!

Here’s another layer of complexity to add to our understanding of the Sabbath. By the time of the return of the exiled Jews back to Jerusalem – the end of the 5th C BC, about 515 BC – enforcing rest on the Sabbath wasn’t just a ceremonial thing (to honor God and remember creation), and wasn’t just a moral thing (to give everyone a day of freedom from work), it was also an identity-thing.

During the exile, when Jerusalem had been destroyed and many people had been forced out of their homeland and into Babylon, the identity of the religious community was threatened. They didn’t have their Temple, they didn’t have their Holy City, they didn’t have their Promised Land. What they had left was their Scripture, and their traditions, their laws about how to live. So the laws took on an additional importance.

Who are we, the people of God, living in this foreign land? We are the people who eat a certain way, who dress a certain way, who pray a certain way. We are the people who live according to these laws that we find in our holy writings, including the law about keeping the Sabbath.

Over time, even after the return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple there, keeping the laws and commandments carried this additional meaning – we do these things because this is what tells us who we are, and whose we are. In some cases, keeping the law took on a life of its own. Never was it against the law to act mercifully on the Sabbath, but it was not hard to focus on keeping the letter of the law instead of understanding its spirit.

It wasn’t so long ago that many of us lived with Sabbath rules, even if we didn’t know where they came from or what the reason was for them. How many of you grew up with “Blue laws,” laws that restricted shopping on Sundays? How many of you had – or maybe still have – family rules about what happens on Sundays? Take a moment to turn to your neighbors and share a story about Sunday rules.

Sometimes Sunday rules can seem silly and unnecessarily restrictive. But there were positive outcomes of rules about Sabbath rest. Who has an example to share?

I think we can agree that we’ve lost that kind of Sabbath where weekday work routine is set aside. And as much as we might wish to, we can’t put the genie back in the bottle. We are rich with freedom in this country, but we are also increasingly controlled by our jobs and areas of responsibility. We’re at the point where few people actually feel capable of taking a Sabbath day per week. This is especially true for parents of school-aged children. Soccer meets on Sunday mornings; homework takes two hours/night; safety requires that children be supervised not just sent outside to play on their own.

Or are we just rationalizing? Karl Barth was one of the best known theologians of the 20th century. He said that what human beings fear the most is liberation. No wonder we have such a hard time with the questions around Sabbath and how to keep it. Sabbath is fundamentally about liberation, or freedom.

Discussion in the pews: are we just making excuses or is it true that we don’t have time for the Sabbath?

What God wants for us is freedom – not freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want, but freedom to be the people we were created to be – whole, equal, confident in our identity as God’s children. The purpose of resting from work on the Sabbath is to keep us free from the other identities that would claim us: free from living as constricted, partial human beings, free from overwork and exploitation, free from oppression and injustice.

When we find a way to rest from our weekday roles and roles, we not only give ourselves the chance to rest and re-create, we also find the space and time to treat others more carefully. Especially those whose voices are rarely heard, those who are easily overlooked, those who have to work on the Sabbath in order to make ends meet. If we free ourselves from the roles and functions that usually define us, we can be more deliberate about how we treat others. If we are less frantic and preoccupied, it is easier to notice people, easier to be patient, easier to be loving.

Think for a moment about who the least important person (to you) in your day is. Who is easy not to notice?

 

  The other commuters on the highway?

  The person who wipes the tables at the restaurant, who bags your groceries,

who collects the trash in your office?

 

 

  The person in Bangladesh who made your clothes? The person in Costa Rica who picked the coffee beans you drank this morning? Or the banana you ate?

  Anyone we might think of as a function instead of a person.
Take a minute to identify the least important person in your day. How might you

treat them well?

 

 

  Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.

  Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. For six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you

The fact is that the Sabbath commandments only tell us what not to do --don't

work. They do not tell us what to do...except that it is time for the Lord and to

keep it holy. That leaves a lot of options! What helps you to feel whole, creative,

free? What strengthens your understanding of yourself as a beloved child of God?

 

So often we approach the idea of Sabbath as an exercise in carving out time. What if we started by figuring out what “keeping the Sabbath” means for us, then identifying the time it deserves. Erik Liddell, the Olympic athlete featured in the moving “Chariots of Fire,” said that God made him fast. And "when I run,” he said, “I feel God’s pleasure.” What can you do that would give God pleasure?

The questions listed at the bottom of the Sermon Notes are designed to help you answer that.

We’ll have a minute or two to contemplate those questions, but I hope you’ll take the bulletin home with you and spend more time with them and find a way in the coming year to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.

When I _______________________, I feel God's pleasure.
I feel God's presence when I _______________________.
I feel I am expressing my true self when I ________________.
I feel at peace when I ____________________________.
I feel a lot of joy when I __________________________________.
I lose track of time when I ____________________________.
Besides my work and other responsibilities, I feel called to __________________. It would give me great pleasure to __________________________.

References

Karoline Lewis, Rolf Jacobson, and Matt Skinner (commentators). Sermon Brainwave #309 - Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost [Audio podcast]. Posted August 18, 2013. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=431

Arden Mahlberg, “Sabbath Freedom,” “Sabbath Joy,” “Treating the Least of These.” Sabbath Keeping in Everyday Life. 2006-2007. http://keepsabbath.com