Easter VI – May 1, 2016
Sabbath Healing, Sabbath Grace
A sermon preached by The Rev. Dianne Andrews at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Port Townsend, WA.
John’s story at the pool of Beth-zatha is one healing. It is also a story crime and lawlessness. There were many invalids at the pool of Beth-zatha. The afflictions were varied. The passage names the blind, the lame and the paralyzed, but that is the short list. Jesus spots a man who appears to have been ill for a very long time. We are told 38 years to be precise. Jesus asks the man: “Do you want to be made well?” The man replies: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” The man is mired in his frustration. He did not answer Jesus’ question and he did not ask Jesus for help getting into the pool. Jesus simply said to the man, “Stand up, take your mat and walk…” and the man was made well. Nothing was said about God or faith. This was a simple story of healing that ends with the words: “Now that day was the Sabbath.” What do you think happens next?
It is too bad that the lectionary doesn’t include the next 13 verses of John’s gospel because what happens next is that the man, who had been ill for 38 years, gets busted for carrying his mat on the Sabbath. Verse 10 reads: “So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the Sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’” The man answered by saying, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” Jesus is now fingered as a partner in this crime. Jesus knew well that it was against Jewish law to heal on the Sabbath. After the healing Jesus had disappeared into the crowd. Later Jesus found the man in the temple and said to him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.” …and what do you think the man did… a little ungratefully I might add… He goes to the “Sabbath police” and points out Jesus as the one who healed on the Sabbath, even though he is the one who got the full benefit of being cured. In verse 17 Jesus responds to the accusation that he is working on the Sabbath. He says, “My Father is still working, and I am also working.” Is this cryptic? Not really.
From the creation story in Genesis we know that after six days of creation, God rested on the seventh day. Does that mean that God’s creative presence is not known on the seventh day? Babies continue to be born, flowers continue to bloom, rain continues to fall, berries ripen, wounds heal… the act of creation continues even on the day that God proclaimed as time of rest.
Religious customs had grown up around the concept of Sabbath, important customs that help human beings to shift gears whatever their cultural context. The practice of Sabbath time, a time set apart, is meant to be healing and nourishing. It was the legalism of Sabbath for which Jesus had no “time.” When asked why he was doing what he was doing on the Sabbath Jesus replied “I am doing my Father’s work.” In the verse following we are told: “For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the Sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.” Today’s story of crime and healing, during which Jesus does not even touch the long-sick man, or refer to faith of any kind… leads us to a further illustration of how Jesus is viewing his work, his oneness with God, and about the anger against him that was continuing to mount.
It is to Sabbath that I want to turn our focus. Observant Jewish families take seriously this time of rest as a biblical mandate to observe Sabbath, a time of prayer, a time to study of the Torah, to rest, and time to be with family. It is the only ritual instituted in the ten commandments: “You shall remember the Sabbath, and keep it holy.” In Jewish tradition there are two mandates within Sabbath, also known as Shabbat: “to remember” and “to observe.” The first mandate is “to remember” God’s act of creation and to remember of God’s act of liberation in the freeing of the Israelites from slavery under Pharaoh. The second mandate is “to observe,” which means to refrain from working and to take rest for spiritual enrichment and renewal. In an observant Jewish household all preparations for Sabbath are done in advance… all food preparations completed, all work done. No later than 18 minutes before sunset on Friday, with the family gathered around the table, the woman of the household would welcome the Shabbat “bride” by lighting candles. A family shares a ritual meal that would include the washing of hands and breaking of bread. In strict orthodox families no shoe laces are tied or electric switches flipped during Sabbath. Even the light in a refrigerator would be unscrewed so that it would not go “on” when the fridge door is opened. Transportation by car or carriage is replaced by strolls on foot.
On a trip to Israel many years ago, four of us stayed in a kibbutz hotel outside of Jerusalem. The hotel had two cardboard clocks in the lobby. One indicated the exact time when Sabbath started on Friday, the other the time on Saturday when Sabbath ended. Of course sunset changes daily through the year. These cardboard clocks would let guests would know the time during the kitchen was closed. Food would be available, but guests would have to serve themselves. No linen would be available, and the like. During Sabbath time families talk, rest and go for walks. The Torah is studied. It is a day made for rest and renewal. It is a day that God made for humankind, not the other way around.
The Chinese character for “busy” is a combination of two characters: the character for “heart” and the character for “killing.” To be busy is to “kill the heart.” Sabbath is to take rest from busyness that distracts us from the knowledge that we live and move, all of the time, in sacred time and space. But we forget. Taking time to remember and observe Sabbath is good for the heart and for well being. Taking rest is something that many of us have a hard time doing. Wayne Muller has written an entire book on the subject of Sabbath. He says: “The ancient rabbis teach that on the seventh day, God created menuha – tranquility, serenity, peace, and repose – [God created] rest, in the deepest possible sense of fertile, healing stillness. Until the Sabbath, creation was unfinished. Only after the birth of menuha, only with the creation of tranquility and rest, was the circle of creation made full and complete.”1 “…Sabbath implies a willingness to be surprised by unexpected grace, to partake of those potent moments when creation renews itself, when what is finished inevitably recedes, and the sacred forces of healing astonish us with the unending promise of love and life.”2
The issues in our gospel lesson are about Jesus healing on the Sabbath and about the anger stirred up by the “Sabbath police” as you might call them. The question is: can Sabbath truly be Sabbath if we are shackled by laws that keep us so busy trying not to transgress, so obsessed with not to stepping on any cracks in the pavement so-to-speak, that we miss out on the promise of Sabbath rest? When Sabbath legalism takes over is it really Sabbath?
Let us go back to that quotation from Muller’s book, “…Sabbath implies a willingness to be surprised by unexpected grace, to partake of those potent moments when creation renews itself, when what is finished inevitably recedes, and the sacred forces of healing astonish us with the unending promise of love and life.” Jesus was all about creation and renewal and healing and of the unending promise of love and life… and he took Sabbath time… time apart… when he needed it. But when there was someone in front of him who needed healing, Jesus did not hesitate. He participated in God’s ongoing work of creation, whatever the moment. Such moments are of God’s time. Was Jesus trying to provoke the ire of the “Sabbath police?” Possibly. Even if he wasn’t trying to provoke he did so, and his actions at that pool at Beth-zatha moved him closer to the tree of Golgotha.
To observe Sabbath or not to observe, that is the question. We all want to… and I imagine that many of us feel like failures in some way. Beating ourselves up about it is not going to help. But just like any “holy habit” we can strive for a stretch of time each day, or a long stretch of time set aside on one day of the week, during which we turn off the outside world, stop looking at our watches, eat slowly, really taste the food, converse with loved ones and friends, study, pray, commune with God, nature, ourselves… the list could go on. The point is to pay attention, to remember and to be observant… and to remember that the Sabbath is a gift to us… a gift that promises nourishment and renewal, a gift of healing and of life.
The man who had been lame for 38 years did not respond to Jesus’ question about whether or not he wanted to be healed. Upon hear the man’s lament, Jesus simply told him to stand up and get going. That is all he did… and for that two Sabbath laws were broken… for that Jesus was made visible to the authorities.
On this seventh day we are invited to live into Sabbath time… to move from heart-killing busyness to an orientation in which we become ever more aware of God’s presence in, and through and around us. Much of the time we live like fish who aren’t aware that they live and swim in… and are fed by… the waters that envelop them. The water is so close that the fish don’t recognize that they are swimming in it. God is so close to us that we can easily forget that we move through our days in God. This is a day to pause and pay attention… for God is not simply “with” us in this moment, in this place…. God is the light, life and love in whom we live and move and have our being. It is in God that we are nourished and sustained. The gift of Sabbath is not only for this day, but it is available to us at all times, wherever we are. We can set aside a time of Sabbath within our day and, better yet, we can set aside a whole day. Most importantly, we are to live into the commandment to “remember” and “observe” Sabbath time, intentional time set apart to remember that we belong to God.
The God of life invites us to move from ways that are “heart killing” and to abide in the gift… that is the practice of paying attention… and of responding to the holy invitation to abide in God if but for a time, if but for this moment, and to do so with intention… to accept the gift that was given to us at the dawn of creation. After each day of creation God proclaimed the goodness of what had been recreated. This time of Sabbath is a gift… a good gift… a gift of immense value… a gift that continues to give…a gift for all time…
1 Wayne Muller, Sabbath, New York: Bantam Books. 1999, pg. 37. 2 Ibid.
Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5 John 5:1-9