Ruth Hamilton: Keeping the Sabbath Holy


When I was growing up, Sundays meant church, family, and food. My extended family would gather at our congregation for worship, armed with giant Tootsie Rolls to keep us kids quiet during the sermon. Afterwards, we would head over to my grandmother's house for a quick snack of cream-filled coffee cake. Later we all drove over to the cemetery, where we would tidy up the graves of our relatives: planting, watering, weeding, and sweeping dirt off the headstones. Tired and hungry, we would return to my grandmother's house, where roast pork or roast beef waited--after table grace, of course. Finally, after games of hide-and-seek for us kids and lots of conversation, everyone would go home for bedtime prayers and sleep.

I'm guessing that your families had similar ways of spending Sundays, and that they involved church, family, and food, too. That was the norm then. Perhaps some of you came from households where frivolous activities were prohibited on Sundays. You could read the Bible on Sunday afternoons after church, maybe play quietly, and then it was time for evening services. Many of us can remember when stores were closed on Sundays. Salespeople had a day off, and no business was transacted. Perhaps you recall times and places when it was impossible to buy alcohol on Sunday.

All of these customs originated from people's ideas about how to obey the Third Commandment: "Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." From the time this commandment was given by God to Moses, there has been disagreement about why we should honor the Sabbath and how we keep it holy. The book of Exodus links Sabbath observance to the creation: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it." In Deuteronomy a different reason is given: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." The Sabbath was meant to be a gift, a time of rest and restoration, a time to worship God. But quickly that gift turned into Law, and all sorts of rules grew up about what was work and what wasn't, what it was permissible to do on the Sabbath and what was not. Keeping the Sabbath holy also meant reserving that day for worship of God, and, as you might guess, people had various ideas about what constituted worship and, therefore, exactly what kept the Sabbath holy.

Jesus and his disciples were constantly getting into trouble with the religious authorities for not properly observing the Sabbath. The issue comes up four times in the Gospel of St. Luke, and three of these controversies involve healing on the Sabbath. In today's Gospel, Jesus is teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he notices a woman who is so crippled that she is completely bent over. She has been suffering this way for 18 years. The woman does not approach Jesus, nor ask for anything. She doesn't have to. The minute Jesus sees her, he calls her over and says, "Woman, you are set free from your ailment," and he lays hands on her.

What Jesus does for the woman is set her free from the torture and imprisonment of her own body. Jesus gives her a new life, free from pain, free from shame, free from isolation. Jesus restores to the woman her dignity, her sense of self-worth, her place in the community, and her very identity. No longer simply a cripple, she is, as Jesus calls her, a proud daughter of Abraham, heir of God's promise, and participant in God's covenant. Jesus reaches out to this outcast, this woman whose everyday life is worse than death, touches her, and gives her the wholeness, health, and peace that God always intended people to have. And she didn't have to do anything. What Jesus does for the woman is a gift; it is pure grace.

When Jesus touches the woman, she stands up straight and tall for the first time in 18 years, and she begins to praise God. She knows the source of her healing. So on the Sabbath she praises God for this unexpected, wonderful, unbelievable gift of life.

Not everyone, however, feels the same way. The ruler of the synagogue cannot rejoice in this mighty act or thank God for it. He can only see that Jesus has worked on the Sabbath. Rather than confront Jesus directly, however, he criticizes the waiting crowd and tells them to go away: 'There are six days on which work ought to be done," he says; "come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day."

But Jesus is not willing to let the issue rest. He accuses the ruler of hypocrisy because it was permissible for someone to untie an animal on the Sabbath to give it some water. Relieving the thirst of an animal so that it can continue to live is not a violation of the Sabbath. Why should relieving the suffering of a woman who has been tied up in knots for 18 years so that she can live be any different? Is she of less worth than an animal? The ruler's inconsistency and his lack of understanding of God's will are revealed to all. St. Luke reports, "The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things" that Jesus was doing.

Jesus demonstrated to the crowd that keeping the Sabbath holy was not about observing rules and "thou shalt nots." Keeping the Sabbath holy was about worshiping God by releasing people from bondage and giving them new lives so that they, too, can praise God. That's what God had done for the Israelites when he led them out of Egypt. So in a very clear way, by healing the crippled woman on the Sabbath, Jesus is keeping, not breaking, the third commandment.

And that's what Jesus did for you and me when, out of love, he died on the cross and rose again, releasing all those who believe in him from the bondage of sin and giving them new lives. Like the bent-over woman, we did not even have to ask for this gift. It is pure grace. And having received the gift, we are freed to thank and praise God with so much enthusiasm that crowds cannot help but join in.

So how do we keep the Sabbath holy today? How do we worship God in the 21st century? The ways we used to keep the Sabbath are long gone. On Sundays now, we work, we shop, we play sports or watch them on television, we do everything that we do on any other day. With our busy schedules, our desire to spend time with the family, and our focus on having as much fun and free time as we can, we struggle with honoring the Sabbath and using the day to worship God.

Few of us would want to return to a world full of blue laws and strict rules about how to observe the Sabbath--even if we could. And, yes, it is often tempting to join the throngs of people for whom Sunday is no different from any day. Yet the very fact that we do come to worship says that we are looking for something more, that we are looking for ways to keep the Sabbath holy and to thank and praise God.

So we gather together to tell and to hear the story of God's love for us. We experience that love, given to us in the form of bread and wine, which joins us to God and to each other, and to all Christians in every time and every place. We rejoice in God's graciousness and give thanks for these gifts. And we also give money for ministries here and around the globe that bring people freedom from poverty and illness and bondage. We donate food for the hungry. We share our time and talents on projects that demonstrate God's care for this world.

We praise God and we serve our neighbor. We thank God by loving our neighbor. As Jesus taught us, that's how we keep the Sabbath holy and that's how we worship God. Amen.