Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sermon: "Fourth Commandment People"

Luke 13:10-17 – Scripture Intro

At first glance, this passage from Luke appears to be a miracle story – because it begins with Jesus healing a woman who has been bent over for 18 years with something akin to osteoporosis.

But as you listen, notice that Luke rushes past this story of a miraculous healing and doesn’t dwell on the details - because the healing is just a set up for what come next.

Jesus heals the woman in a synagogue on the Sabbath – the day of Lord.

And in doing so, he breaks the Fourth Commandment. 

“Thou shalt not do any work on the Sabbath, keep it holy, for it belongs to God.”

The conflict that follows between Jesus and the leaders of the synagogue is one that we see played out time and time again in the Gospel of Luke.

These are the keepers of the faith, and they are rightly concerned about religious practices, and rituals, and making sure the faithful adhere to God’s law.

But for Jesus, the care of human beings is itself a religious virtue and practice.

For Jesus, the one commandment that anchors and lays the foundation for all of the others, is that we are to love God, and love our neighbor, as we love ourselves. 

The Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst, UCC
August 21, 2016 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 58:9b-14; Luke 13:10-17

“Fourth Commandment People”

Most of us have a passing familiarity with the Ten Commandments,
even if we can’t list them in order, or name all the commandments that have to do with coveting, or were not aware that some versions say “Thou shalt not kill” while others say “Thou shalt not murder” – and that there is a big difference between the two.

While these commandments, which were given to Moses some 3600 years ago, still shape and inform the ethics and morals of our world today, there is one commandment that I can almost guarantee every single one of us here in this sanctuary breaks on a regular basis, including myself.

And that is the fourth commandment:

“Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On that day you shall do no work. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

How many of us can say that we spend Sunday – the Lord’s Day – doing no work whatsoever – professional, personal, or otherwise?

If you were born into an Orthodox Jewish household, observing the Sabbath – or Shabbot as they call it – would hold a primary place in your life.
For Orthodox Jews, the Fourth Commandment is not just a suggestion –
it’s a way of life, often consuming much more than the 24 hours contained within it.

On the Jewish Shabbot - from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday - work of any kind is prohibited.
And “work” includes much more than the job we do to earn a living.

The list of prohibited Sabbath activities includes:
Business transactions, shopping, using the telephone, driving or riding in cars or other vehicles; turning on or off anything which uses electricity, including lights, radios, computers, air-conditioners, and alarm clocks.
Also forbidden are cooking, cleaning, gardening, washing dishes, mowing the lawn, and doing laundry (some of us would have no objection to taking a day off from these chores).
Even writing, erasing, or tearing of paper is prohibited.

Now those of us who are not Orthodox Jews may think that this sounds like a pretty dreary way to spend a day – requiring the faithful to eat cold meals, sit in the dark, and risk heatstroke on a hot day in August.
But an observant Jew would tell us that this is not the case at all. 
One needs only to prepare ahead of time for the Sabbath,
“to celebrate in luxury without doing any of the actual work.”1

Lights, stovetops, and air conditioners may be used as long as they’re turned on before sundown on Friday. Automatic timers may be set as well.
Cooking and baking for Sabbath meals is done on Friday during the day and can be kept warm on a stovetop, as long as the controls are covered and not touched. 
And you can open the refrigerator, as long as the little light bulb that turns on when you open the door has been removed the day before.

Some of the ways that observant Jews have devised to “function within” the rules of Sabbath may seem almost comical to those of us on the outside.

For example - certain objects cannot be moved on the Sabbath because doing so may fall under the category of work – tools, stones, plants, a pen or important papers – but while moving them directly with your hands is forbidden – they may be moved with other parts of the body –  with one's teeth or elbow, or by blowing on it.    As awkward as that may sound.

There is also a prohibition against carrying anything from a private space, like one’s home, into a public space, like the street.
This includes carrying something in your pocket; pushing a baby carriage or shopping cart, or going outside with gum or food in your mouth.
To get around this, some Jewish neighborhoods have erected fencing or simple posts that run from house to house with string connecting them, enclosing the public area into one big private – communal – domain.

And while Jews who are not Orthodox are no longer required to observe the law prohibiting driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, there are still many who will drive to a location about a mile away from the synagogue, park their car there, and walk the rest of the way, to not create the appearance that they are breaking the rules of the Sabbath.

Now if you think Christians are somehow more “evolved” because they no longer adhere to these ancient laws – you should know that many Christians around the world do observe the Sabbath in this way – albeit on Sunday, rather than Saturday.
Many of the blue laws that are still on the books in some states and cities require businesses to be closed on Sunday or dictate what they can sell.

And it wasn’t too long ago that all Christians – even hard-working Christians on the American frontier – set Sunday aside as a day to attend church, visit with family, and read scripture by candlelight.

Sunday services back then often lasted 3-4 hours – and that was just the morning service – worshipers were expected come back in the afternoon for another 3-4 hours of Bible study and Sunday School.

So you’re all getting off easy.

The concept of “Sabbath” is not completely lost on us in the modern world.
Even the most busy among us try to grab a few hours here and there or set aside a day every now and then to do as little as possible –
to go for a walk, read, meditate or pray, or just sit in a quiet space with the TV off and the phone on silent.
Taking time to go shopping or to binge watch Netflix doesn’t count.

Because Sabbath – as a way to honor and move closer to God – should be spent with as few outside distractions as possible to be effective.
Which is the whole point of the ancient practices that Orthodox Jews observe to honor the Sabbath.
Because every time they resist the urge to turn on a light switch or pick up a hammer, they’re reminded that God is the focus of Shabbot – the day of rest.

Admittedly, many of us are not in the habit of making space for rest.
For even just a few hours, let alone an entire day.
And if we have a demanding job, or young children, or we’re the caregiver for a spouse or a parent who needs near constant care – the concept of Sabbath is a luxury that we can’t even fathom having time for – as much as we may need it.

So how do we rectify this?
How do we make space for the Sabbath in our lives?
How do we become Fourth Commandment people?

Because it is a commandment.
One that is pretty high up in importance –
It comes right after “Thou shalt not have any other God’s before me and thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain.”
Even things like stealing and murder don’t rank as high on the list.
Which may lead us to believe that God wanted us to comprehend just how significant the observation of Sabbath is –
Not for God’s sake, but for our sake.

Perhaps we need to shift our understanding of the purpose of Sabbath.
Because when we see it as a day of rest – a day to do no work – something inside of us resists. 
Do no work? When there is so much that needs to be done?
Even if we’re not working at our “job” there is always some work that awaits our attention – mowing the lawn, going to the grocery store, volunteering in the community, helping those in need.

Call it the Protestant work ethic, Catholic guilt, or good old fashioned Yankee steadfastness  - many of us have it bred into us that to be idle when there is work to be done is not a good thing.
So there is no wonder that the concept of taking a Sabbath –
a full day off from doing any kind of work – is so foreign to us.

But if we look again at the text from Luke, we’ll see that Jesus didn’t encounter the old woman in the synagogue and declare that she needed a day of rest.
What he did was remove her burden.
He took her spirit that had been twisted and weakened and had left her bent over for 18 years, and he healed her.
He removed whatever it was that was weighing her down, and allowed her to stand up straight, and see the world in front of her, rather than just the ground beneath her feet.

How might our perception of the fourth commandment change if we saw the Sabbath not as a day of personal rest,  but rather as a day to release our burdens to God?

I believe more of us are looking for relief – then are looking for rest.

What brought you here this morning?

What brought you here – when you could have gone straight to the lake, or the beach, or the mountains?
What brought you here – when you could be lounging in bed – on the one day you get to wake up without an alarm, take your time eating breakfast, and read the Sunday paper out on the patio.
What brought you here -  when you could be wandering the aisles at Home Depot picking up supplies for the weekend project you’ve been meaning to get to all summer.
What brought you here when you could have been doing X number of things, rather than getting up early, putting on presentable clothes, and sitting on a hard pew in a stuffy sanctuary for an hour?

Maybe you came because you haven’t been to church all summer and you thought it was time to check back in – to catch up with people you know,
to find out what goings on you’ve missed, to get yourself back in the habit with September fast approaching.

Maybe you came because you’re new – to this town, to this church – and you were curious to see if this one would be the right fit for you –
If you’d feel welcomed, inspired, spiritually fed, and if maybe, just maybe you could see yourself coming back for a second, or third time.

Maybe you came because this is where you always come on Sunday morning. To connect with God and others, to say a prayer, to hear music or scripture or a word that moves something inside of you, to be inspired to go out and serve in the name of love, compassion, and grace as our God calls us to do.

Or maybe you came because there’s something happening in your life right now that is just too much for you to carry on your own.
And you came here seeking guidance – comfort – peace –
something or someone to lean on,
to give you the strength to move forward or to let go, as needed.

We come here for all sorts of reasons.

But few of us get up out of bed and come sit in a church sanctuary because we’re looking for rest.

We come because we’re looking for God.
The One who has the strength and the power to redeem us and heal us from whatever is weighing us done.
The One who touches our lives by working in and through the people sitting here in the pews next to us.
The One who sent us Jesus to show us how to walk upright and how to help others to do the same.

This is Sunday.
This is Sabbath.

This the day the Lord has made.
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.


1 Chabad.org – The Shabbat Laws”