By Pastor Steven Molin
Dear friends in Christ, grace, mercy and peace, from God our Father, and His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
The story is told about a Baptist church in Texas several years ago that was upset because an adult entertainment tavern was being built right next to the Baptist sanctuary. (Adult entertainment tavern, if you know what I mean.) Negotiations with the owners went nowhere, and the city planners refused to intervene, so construction progressed. About a month before the new business was to open, the leadership began to pray that the dance hall would burn down. Wouldn’t that be a miracle? So the pastor and the board began to pray that God would torch the night club.
Well, days before the grand opening, a fire of unknown origin swept through the new facility, gutting the building and essentially destroying the plan for the adult entertainment tavern. Initially, the church was ecstatic…that is, until the tavern owner filed his lawsuit. In court, it was the tavern owner who said that the bar burned down as a result of the church’s prayers. And the church responded by saying “No, God didn’t answer our prayer. God doesn’t answer prayer.”
Sometimes, truth is revealed in the most unlikely of places. Sometimes, we find truth in exactly the opposite place where we think we would find it. Three weeks ago, I began a sermon series entitled “The Hard Sayings of Jesus.” It has to do with grappling with the things that Jesus said that are difficult to underderstand…sayings like “I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Sayings like “if you want to be my disciple, you must hate your mother and father and sister and brother.” Those statements are not consistent with the Jesus we thought we knew; that’s what makes them hard sayings. Is it possible that statements which appear to be exactly opposite of the truth can turn out to be precisely what we need to hear? That is what this sermon series is about, and that is what today’s gospel lesson also seems to say.
It is a Saturday morning in the Jewish synagogue, the Sabbath day for Jews, and Jesus is teaching the multitudes, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a crippled woman appears. Stooping at the waist, hunched over like a candy cane, she had been this way for 18 years. She doesn’t ask Jesus for anything, she doesn’t beg him for a miracle, like so many of the New Testament figures do. She just appears there, her twisted, crooked self. But Jesus felt compassion on her and calls her to come up to the front of the synagogue, and he placed his hands on her. “Woman, you are free from your ailment.” And immediately, the woman stood up straight, something she had not been able to do for 18 years, and she began to praise God.
Many of the people cheered the healing. They had witnessed a bona fide miracle, and they rejoiced with the woman. But the leader of the synagogue, the senior rabbi, if you will, was upset. Not because the woman had been healed, but because she had been healed on the Sabbath. The Jews had rules about these things. They had very strict laws about the things one could…and could not do on the Sabbath.
For example, on the Sabbath, the Jews were not allowed to carry anything. That’s why they fetched their water on Friday afternoon. And on the Sabbath, Jews were not allowed to cook anything. That’s why the housewife made the meal the day before. They could not make anything, they could not sell anything, they could not buy anything. Those were the Sabbath rules. But then came the exceptions. While the law stipulated that a Jew could not carry anything, what it meant was that you could not carry anything with your palms up, but it was allowed to carry something on the back of your hand. Or you could carry something under your arm, or in the fold of your shirt, or in the cuff of your pants.
If a pregnant woman went into labor on the Sabbath, you MIGHT be able to help her deliver her baby. MIGHT. If your child broke his arm, you could put it in a sling, but you could not run cold water over it. If your daughter cut her finger, you could put a bandage on it, but you could not apply any ointment; that would be working on the Sabbath.
Do you see how complicated life had become? All these rules, and all these exceptions, and only the local rabbi knew for sure what was forbidden, and what was allowed.
So when Jesus saw a woman who had suffered for 18 years with this chronic arthritis, or whatever it was, it never occurred to him that relieving her humiliation and pain would break some cosmic regulation. If a person is hungry, you feed them, whatever day it is. If a person is hurting, you help them. If a person is handicapped, you heal them; never mind that it is the Sabbath day.
But the rabbi disagreed. Why, pretty soon, pharmacists will be open on the Sabbath day…and supermarkets…and hardware stores…and car dealerships. We can’t have this! So the rabbi confronted the woman who had been healed and said “It would be more convenient for us if you would come on another morning for your miracle, because today is the Sabbath, and I am sure that Jesus would prefer to “remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”
But now, it was Jesus’ turn to react. “You hypocrites!” he said. “You give your donkeys water on the Sabbath. That’s work. You lift food to your mouths. That’s work. You buy and sell lambs and doves to be sacrificed in the temple on the Sabbath. That’s work. But when a poor crippled woman is freed up from a life of pain, you call that a sin?” Hypocrites, indeed!
This summer, I had a chance to see this hypocrisy up close and personal. All across Europe, everything closes down on Sunday. In fact, on Saturday afternoon at 4:00 o’clock, the shops and markets and produce stands lock their doors, and they don’t unlock them again until Monday morning. The law says they must close on the Lord’s Day – the Sabbath – and yet very few of them go to church. They run marathons on the Sabbath. They till their gardens, and drink beer, and build split-rail fences, but they don’t go to church. And yet, they have technically observed the law of not working on Sunday.
There was a time in this country when everything closed down on Sunday, too. You could not go to the mall, or buy a bathing suit at Target, or have your oil changed on Sunday; it was against the law. But then one day, in about 1965, the Target store in Roseville, said “The fine for opening on Sunday is $100, but we can do $100,000 worth of business. It’s worth it to open on Sunday.” And that was the beginning of the end of “blue laws” as we know them. Incidentally, Sunday is now the second busiest shopping day of the week, while worship attendance has declined every year since stores began opening on Sunday. Perhaps we are becoming more like Europe than we ever imagined.
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When Jesus healed the paralytic woman in the synagogue that day, he personally abolished the law of resting on the Sabbath. But just because something is not a sin doesn’t mean it isn’t stupid! Resting on the Sabbath is still a good idea, you understand; it is a wonderful idea. Even Europe knows that. But in this country, we have created a non-stop culture. Supermarkets and restaurants and gas stations are open 24 hours a day. It’s not uncommon for a business person to work 60, 70 or 80 hours in a week. Families don’t eat meals together anymore, we eat in shifts. Rich Melheim says that the four most often repeated words at dinner these days are “Get in the car!” And we have passed this frenetic pace on to our children, who now need their own Palm Pilots to keep track of piano lessons, Scout meetings, hockey practice, and confirmation class. Oh, and appointments with their therapists, because in this country our pace has also contributed to anxiety, stress, obesity, heart disease, sleep disorders, depression, prescription drug abuse, and suicide.
Who knew rest could be so important? Who knew what our society would become if we failed to set aside hours or days to let our bodies rest, and let our minds be refreshed by slowing down the pace of our lives? God knew. All along, God knew. It was He who created the cosmos in six days and rested on the seventh. If God chose to rest after six days of work, then who do we think we are? You see, God established the Sabbath as an example…a time when His creation would slow down, take a breath, and be renewed for the week ahead.
In a way, it would be easier for us if everything was closed on Sunday. If the laws of Minnesota and Wisconsin said “you have to rest.” No malls. No Cub. No Ikea. No internet. Just rest. Then it would be easy because we would have no choice. But Jesus gave us a choice, and that made it more difficult. Much more difficult. People we need to slow down. We need to take rest and leisure much more seriously. If there is one thing I learned on sabbatical, it is that. But it’s a choice, not a sin. God has called us to be responsible with the way we spend our lives. “Enough of the rules and exceptions!” Jesus said on the day that he healed the paralytic woman. The decision is now up to you. So, what are you doing for the rest of your day? Resting…I hope. I am. Thanks be to God. Amen.
— Copyright 2004, Steven Molin. Used by permission.