Sermon for the Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost – August 25, 2018 (Church Picnic Service)
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This text came alive for me in a powerful way this week. You see, I’ve been visiting a woman in hospice recently. She has been estranged from our congregation for many years (for complicated reasons that I won’t go into), but now has a hunger for Word and sacrament as she comes to the end of her life. So, I’ve been bringing her communion and providing her with spiritual care. At one point she started to become very anxious and agitated. I eventually got it out of her that she was deeply concerned that she had let her membership in the congregation lapse.
I almost laughed out loud. I didn’t, because I am a professional – but I almost did! I found it so absurd that she might think that I would withhold Christ from her because her name wasn’t on some list back in the church office. First I thought it was silly that she would think that, and then I thought it was sad. I assured her that I was happy to reconnect her to Christ, regardless of her membership status back in the office.
Now, that’s not to say that membership isn’t important. As a 501c3 non-profit organization, we are legally obligated to keep an accurate account of our membership as defined by our constitution. And membership does sometimes play a role in how we steward our time and resources as a congregation. It has to! Furthermore, St. Paul talks about how important membership is in terms of being members of a body, being connected to one another. So it isn’t that membership doesn’t mean anything. It has its place. It is important. We just can’t let it become so important that it actually becomes a hindrance to Christ’s saving work.
In our gospel reading for today we meet a woman who had been bent over and unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. She didn’t just have a bad back – the scriptures describe her condition as having a “spirit of weakness,” or a “disabling spirit.” Jesus himself describes her as being held in bondage to Satan. So she was not only hurting physically – she was hurting spiritually as well. This is often the case, isn’t it? When the body is hurting, it provides an opening for those demons of despair.
Jesus was teaching in the synagogue on the sabbath day when he saw this woman. He called her over to him. He said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment!” He laid his hands on her, and immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.
This would just be another healing story were it not for the leader of the synagogue. He was indignant that Jesus would heal on the sabbath day. We like to turn this leader of the synagogue into a villain in the story, we like to mock his legalism, but he has a point. There are rules about what is supposed to happen on the sabbath. You aren’t supposed to work! Those rules are good. They help preserve the integrity of the third commandment, to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. They make sure everyone gets a chance to rest, in accordance with God’s command.
The problem isn’t with the rules themselves. The problem is that this leader of the synagogue was letting something good get in the way of something even better. In trying to preserve the integrity of the sabbath, he had forgotten what the sabbath was actually for. Those rules actually threatened to become a hindrance to God’s saving work in Christ.
Jesus doesn’t abolish the third commandment. He doesn’t abolish ANY of the Ten Commandments. He doesn’t even specifically go after the supplemental rules that help people keep the commandment. Instead, Jesus reminds the leader of the synagogue what the Sabbath is for. It is for rest. It is for restoration, for renewal, for healing. “Don’t you untie your animals on the Sabbath day in order to water them?” Jesus pointedly asks. “Isn’t that technically ‘work’?” “You hypocrite,” Jesus says, “how can you make allowances for the unbinding of livestock and then complain when I unbind this precious daughter of Abraham? This is what the sabbath is for! It is for the restoration of God’s people!”
We have “rules” and expectations about the sabbath, don’t we? We sometimes think of coming to worship as an obligation, as a “have to.” I was talking with something the other day who talked about coming to worship as being like going to the gym. It is a discipline. You might not want to at first, but you feel like you should, and you usually feel better after you do. I have “rules” for my confirmation students. They need to complete a certain number of sermon notes over the two years they’re in confirmation, and they need to be in worship in order to complete them. We have expectations about what people wear to worship. Those expectations have relaxed quite a bit over the years, but we still hope people come to worship in clothing that shows some measure of reverence and respect for God. Those rules are, generally speaking, good. They are helpful. They help us keep the third commandment. They help preserve the integrity of the sabbath, the Lord’s day.
But we cannot let what is good get in the way of what is even better. We cannot let those rules and expectations get in the way of what the sabbath is actually for. That’s what this story is about. It reminds us what the sabbath is really, truly for. It is for the restoration of God’s people!
I shared this story this past week with the woman in hospice I’ve been visiting. I told her that Jesus didn’t let the sabbath rules get in the way of his work. He cared more about the bent over woman than he did those rules, helpful as they can be. Jesus went about his work, which was to heal her, to restore her. He went about the work of giving her back her identity, calling her a daughter of Abraham. He went about the work of unbinding her and setting her free, so that she could stand up straight and give praise to God.
Then I looked her in the eye and told her that Christ was doing the same for her. I told her, “Christ isn’t concerned about your membership status. He’s concerned about you!” I told her she was a daughter of Abraham. I told her that in her baptism God had made her his own child. Then I gave her the sacrament, putting Christ’s own body and blood on her lips. After she had received Christ in the bread and wine, this woman who had been hunched over in her chair lifted her head and straightened her back and said, “Thanks be to God.”
Do you see what I mean when I said this story came to life for me in a powerful way? I was watching Christ himself at work just as he was in the story! This woman who had been hurting for so many years, who was so hunched over and anxious and afraid, now lifted her head, straightened her back, and gave praise to God. She is still dying, but she has been unbound! She is free!
This is what Christ is up to here today as well. I love our sanctuary, but we don’t need to be there for him to be at work, do we? We can be in a barn. We can be in our picnic clothes. Membership at Oak Harbor Lutheran is important and helpful for a number of reasons, but we have a lot of non-member guests here today and we rejoice in that. Know that you don’t need to have your name on a list in our church office for Christ to be at work on you today. Our usual practices and disciplines surrounding the sabbath are generally helpful and good, but we can never let them get in the way of what the sabbath is for. We can never let them become a hindrance to Christ’s saving work.
Christ comes to us on this Lord’s day, our sabbath, to restore and renew us. Christ comes to give us new life in him. This why Christians moved the sabbath day from Saturday to Sunday – the day of the resurrection! – to celebrate where this healing and restoration comes from. Christ comes to us week after week to remind us who we are, who he has made us though his saving work. We are sons and daughters of God! Christ comes to us in bread and wine to renew us in the forgiveness of sin, to set us free from our bondage, to reconnect us to him. Christ comes to us to strengthen us in faith so that we too would lift our heads, straighten our backs, and say…“Thanks be to God.”
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church