Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
I’ve just returned from a trip West, where among other things we moved our daughter Frannie back into her school in southern California, doing the ritual ‘Target run’ to equip her dorm room with the basics. Everything in the store promoted back to school, notebooks and supplies next to Halloween decorations and fake autumn leaves, a reminder that like it or not, fall is coming – the LA public school district has even begun their school year. Here in New York it feels like we have a little more time…but all the same, summer is coming to an end. Time to get your last hurrah in of freedom and ease, because the busy schedule is about to return. And after all the stops and starts of Covid, my hunch is that this fall is going to be especially busy.
And aligning nicely with that reality, our readings today give us some ideas about how to keep that schedule – maybe even how to keep the schedule from eating us alive. In particular, how to keep and honor the Sabbath, the day of delight, the holy day of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah calls it. Except Jesus seems to have a particular take on what keeping the Sabbath looks like, and it doesn’t totally agree with the local clergy.
I love these stories of Jesus on the Sabbath. Partly because Jesus is so punk rock in them, thumbing his nose at the establishment and its customs. Partly because they’re a great example of how he reorients us toward what really matters, something we all seem to keep losing track of too easily. But often we Christians have read them as a free pass not to bother with Sabbath, as if Jesus is chucking the whole practice out the window. But I’ve increasingly come to see that that’s not at all the case.
This story about the woman standing up straight is only in Luke. There’s another story of Jesus healing in a synagogue on the Sabbath, when he cures a man with a withered hand. That one is in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all three. But this story is just in Luke, and it’s about a woman – a clue that it’s not just about a physical healing. Luke’s gospel especially shows Jesus reversing the status quo, bringing people from the margins to the center around Jesus; often, women, and often women on their own without a man, like widows or unmarried women or prostitutes. The woman in today’s story is alone in the synagogue, without a man, bent over for 18 years – and Jesus notices her. She is bent over from age, perhaps, or her spine is crooked from disease or a childhood accident – whatever it is, she has been on the margins for 18 years, so long that she is one of the ranks of the unnoticed and disregarded. But Jesus, in the middle of his teaching, calls her over and lays hands on her, saying, ‘You are set free,’ and she stands up straight. And the first thing she does is praise God. Right there in the synagogue in the middle of worship, in a place and time when women were not to speak, not to stand, not to praise God aloud, this woman from the margins raises her voice and speaks. This is a big deal.
This is more than just a physical cure. It’s a story about real liberation – Jesus tells the woman she is set free from her ailment, and she is set free in that instant also from what has bound her to silence and life on the margins. And when the protest arises from the leaders of the synagogue about whether this is appropriate in worship, Jesus’ response is swift. You hypocrites! he says. Sabbath, Jesus is saying, is all about liberation.
Sabbath is one of the spiritual practices we’ve been talking about at church, and we’re bound to talk even more about it in the year to come. I spent my sabbatical last year reading and thinking about the practice of Sabbath, and some of us took part this spring in a Sabbath Challenge along with friends and neighbors from Ansche Chesed synagogue. In our women’s retreat in May we explored how to bring the practice into our lives. A self-selecting group of people in both cases, of course, but for the most part in our discussions, no one had much of a holdover sense of should’s and ought’s and rules about Sabbath. Maybe a few remembered a grandmother who was quite strict about it, or a childhood where the family treated Sunday differently. But mostly, the idea of Sabbath was a novel, welcome idea – a way to structure time differently, to focus more on family and matters of the spirit, to unplug and enjoy. Who wouldn’t want more of that? And yet we all acknowledged just how hard it was to set that time and keep it holy. Despite it being one of the 10 commandments, despite it being so appealing and what our spirits crave, we have a hard time keeping this practice.
In nearly every conversation I’ve had about Sabbath, though, one of the first things people realize is that they need a Sabbath from their electronic devices most of all. Not from speaking on the phone necessarily, since that now feels like a rare experience of human connection, not the interruption it once was. But from the consumption of digital news, definitely, and from social media. The relentless drumbeat of bad and disturbing news of the world, it is clear, has many people despairing and depressed; the insistent echo chamber of social media just makes it worse. My angriest, least happy friends are those who are most often on Twitter. The connection seems obvious. And yet stand in any line, wait in any airport (having just spent a day standing in line in Disney’s California Adventure, and being on a trip with multiple flights, I have fresh firsthand experience of this), you see 99% of the people there hunched over their phones, scrolling for all they’re worth. That is, you see them if you manage to look up from your own phone yourself. Everyone is bent over and quite unable to stand up straight. Sort of like the woman in today’s gospel. Remember when we all thought the Internet was the new frontier of freedom and possibility? It wasn’t long before that changed.
When Jesus heals the woman in the synagogue, he speaks of liberation: woman, you are set free. And immediately she stands up straight and begins praising God. She is no longer under the yoke of whatever it is that has bent her over. She is free to stand tall and to assume her rightful place amongst the people, and her rightful posture with God.
Our devices aren’t the only thing crippling us, of course. They are only one of the ways we capitulate to the unexamined life streaming by around us all the time. We have a tendency toward the lowest common denominator, the worn groove, the easiest way – which is not surprising. Life is hard. Of course we look for the path of fewest obstacles, just like water seeks in its course downhill. Turning freedom of choice into rules to follow is one of the ways we try to make it easier for ourselves, because it’s tiring always to think and decide.
But, ‘Come on the other six days to be cured,’ shouts the synagogue leader, a ridiculous statement when you think about it. No liberation here: let’s keep these miracles orderly, people. Following precedent and tradition is more important than miraculous cures! Follow the rules, stay in your lane, line up on cue. Somehow we turn the possibility of liberation into a burden. I suspect we can all think of ways we do that in our own lives.
But the commandment to keep the Sabbath, like the other spiritual practices we are called to, is not about following the rules and keeping miracles orderly. Spiritual disciplines, paradoxically, lead us into freedom and liberation. Richard Rohr has written about Buddhism as a religion that teaches us how to see, while Christianity focused on what to see – Buddhism spends far more time teaching the way, the practice, while Christianity has focused more on the creeds and doctrine, the what we are supposed to believe. But Christianity in the beginning was called ‘the Way,’ and its followers People of the Way, because its adherents lived differently, kept different practices. And those practices changed them, made for a life worth living, one that others wanted to emulate. That was how evangelism worked in the early church. That’s how it works best today.
Summer, soon, is ending, one time we live a little more free and easy, and step out of our routines; fall is coming soon with back to school and the promise/threat of the schedule, the routine and ritual. Why not engage with it faithfully this year, intentionally, keeping the Sabbath holy, turning off your devices once a week, or whatever it takes. Whatever it takes to help us stand up straight and tall and praise God. To be set free, and to be healed.