Sabbath Lessons

Homily for Proper 16, Year C
August 25, 2019

Note: Today is both my final Sunday at Grace and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church and the commemoration of the arrival of enslaved Africans at Jamestown, VA in 1619.

Gospel Lesson:  Luke 13:10-17

Now Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

When I was away at seminary last summer, I had the opportunity to take an interfaith elective with a professor from the Center for Jewish Studies.  I hoped the course would deepen my understanding of what I thought I understood of this shared concept of Jewish tradition and our Christian faith and life.  But before I even finished the pre-class reading, I realized that I had to check my assumptions. I quickly had to confront the fact that I had started to equate an understanding of the Sabbath with our contemporary knowledge of self-care: a day off, a rest, a break from the constant motion of our lives.  And that is admittedly part of it. But, during that immersion into law, mysticism and experience in the Jewish tradition, I caught a glimpse of Sabbath as something so much more: not self-care, but God-care; not human time, but God-time. Sabbath is the gift instituted by God and into which God invites those beloved by God to participate for our benefit and our liberation from the toil of this world. Or, as spoken eloquently and prophetically by Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Inner liberty depends upon being exempt from domination of things as well as from domination of people.” [1]

And so it is that in today’s Gospel lesson, we are introduced to a Sabbath story.  The scene that unfolds begins with Jesus teaching in the temple on the sabbath. Teaching and learning, you see, are Sabbath gifts.  To study and learn and wrestle with meaning together brings us more fully into relationship with God. In today’s lesson, Jesus the Teacher is immersed in this sabbath experience within the Temple, and a woman appears on the scene.  Not just any woman: she is bent over, unable to stand upright, stricken with ailments keeping her in physical and spiritual bondage. Eighteen years is a long time to have only looked at the ground beneath your feet. Jesus calls her to come near, lays his hands on her and proclaims her liberation from disease.  And her first response upon standing upright is to praise God.  

One might think this would have been viewed as a Sabbath miracle.  But, the subsequent banter among those with power and authority was one of legalism: had Jesus’ healing action violated Sabbath law?  The details of healing in the story highlight multiple violations of cultural norms, religious traditions, and social taboos. And it reveals Jesus undoing those misconceptions without hesitation in the name of the loving, liberating life-giving God.  Jesus acts to proclaim a core truth: the Sabbath is all about liberation. Indeed, who wouldn’t liberate an animal, one of God’s creation, let alone this woman? To participate in Liberation is to participate in God. Just as Jesus heals this woman, Sabbath is God’s plan for liberating us.

Confronted with this powerful truth-telling, those gathered express two distinctly different responses: shame and rejoicing.

That’s the way it often is with liberation.  Our response is often a matter of perspective.

I want us to listen to another story of Sabbath and liberation.   This one comes about 1800 years after the lesson we just read, narrated reflectively by Frederick Douglass in his 1855 narrative, My Bondage, My Freedom. [2]  Douglass, orator and social reformer who spent much of his life enslaved as the property of white landowners in Maryland, wrestles in his narrative with the tension between two institutions: sabbath, instituted by God; and slavery, instituted by humans.  Douglass and those who bought him and owned the property he toiled on lived in a time of religious fervor. Sundays, regarded in law and practice as the Christian sabbath, were one of the few times granted to enslaved persons for rest. Perhaps that was seen as necessary; perhaps as morally justified; and perhaps we can and should look back on the juxtaposition of sabbath and slavery with shameful irony.  But that tension existed in the lives of the human beings of that time. But Douglass recognized with his God-given intellect and the holiness of his spirit the opportunity of the Sabbath to grant not only rest, but liberation.  

Early in his life, Douglass was able to attend Sabbath schools led by white sympathizers on those days of socially sanctioned rest.  Several of those early schools were interrupted by class leaders and religious officials who learned that the schools were teaching reading, writing and encouraging intellectual freedom among enslaved persons which made them less valuable commodities on the auction market. He describes how those leaders co-opted those sabbath schools and turned them into opportunities for religious indoctrination supporting the institution of slavery and to reinforce a narrative of mindless obedience.  

But God is always working.  

For a time, Douglass was in the holdings of a Mr. Freeland whom he described as making “no pretension to, or profession of, religion” which he notes as being of great advantage.  Since there was social convention around the sabbath as a day of rest “for men and for beast” [incidentally, a phrase sometimes credited to today’s Gospel lesson] Douglass saw within that smallest fragment of freedom an opportunity to establish his own Sabbath school.  Douglass organized his community, and they began meeting secretly in the home of a free African American. Douglass describes that community of men and women, enabled to “act as intellectual, moral, accountable beings” as being a true family of faith; he goes on to say “we would have died for each other.”  In their secret Sabbath school, they were free to study the holy scriptures read by those who could read, teaching those who had not yet learned. They could use the intellect given to them by God to be empowered through the Holy Spirit and the strength of their community to be emboldened to act. Douglass says in his narrative, “it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race.”  Douglass and several other members of that school subsequently escaped their enslavement and were instrumental to the abolitionist movement and the founding of African American independent churches. [3] 

Even in the darkest corners of our human history, God was working.  

Sabbath is a gift from God.  Sabbath is liberation.  

And God’s liberating work is still happening in us, and in the world.

I was sitting with this week’s lessons and this narrative offered by Frederick Douglass during the very powerful and moving Service of Lament, Reconciliation and Commitment held by our Central West Region of the Diocese of Virginia last Saturday in observance of the arrival of enslaved Africans to Virginia 400 year ago.  As I sat in that space, and as I listened to my sister in Christ, the Rev. Dr. Dorothy White, preach the loving, liberating and life-giving Gospel, I thought about today’s Gospel lesson. With others there, I was confronting the shameful history of slavery and dehumanization of others of God’s own making, and the cruel aftermath of racism and white supremacy that has followed.  In her sermon filled with hope, as several of you were able to hear, Dorothy described racism as a heart disease, and one that our Great Physician is fully capable of fixing. But it requires intervention.  I hear this echoed in today’s reading.  Like this woman, even stooped over from the weight of collective history, we need to appear before Jesus.  I think of all who gather in God’s church today carrying the weight of this world and the legacy of the sins of slavery, racism and oppression as this woman standing there before Jesus.  This ailment has inflicted us for so many years with hatred, fear, distrust: we can barely stand upright sometimes. But finally something stirs in us and we recognize our need for healing.

And when we do, we meet Jesus, still teaching on our Sabbath.  Jesus sees us. Jesus comes to us. We are not cast-aside in our shame, nor are we sent away to tend our own symptoms.  We are met by Jesus who proclaims that this ailment and its diseased spirit no longer have hold of us. We are met by the loving, liberating, life giving God of the Sabbath.  

The question in our midst this liberating Sabbath day is: how will we respond?  

Talking about racism sometimes makes people feel shame, and shame is a paralyzing emotion.  Confronted with shame, we might convince ourselves we are unworthy to appear, as individuals or as a church or as a society.  But nothing changes if we live in that shame. We might be tempted to double down and justify our presumed moral authority or distance ourselves from the past in an attempt to keep the status quo and feel better about ourselves.  That doesn’t address the shame, either. It’s just a humanly applied band-aid of ignorance and blindness; and a band-aid does nothing for a disease of the heart and the soul.  

So what will it take to rejoice?  I believe we are given this story so that we can live into the model we see from the woman in today’s lesson, who could have stayed home, could have remained in her place, could have suffered in silence, could have felt sorry for herself; could have blamed others; could have blamed God.  Instead she chose to be present exactly as she was. She chose to appear before Jesus, ailments and all. She stood in her vulnerability and received the liberating, life-giving, healing love proclaimed by Jesus and she was transformed, made to stand upright. And her first action in response was to give thanks and praise to God.

We are given the same opportunity today.  We’ve already shown up on this Sabbath. We know and recognize and on this day at 3 p.m. churches and public institutions alike will toll bells to acknowledge the history of enslaved persons who first landed in Virginia in 1619, four hundred years ago. We may feel shame in that history. I know that I do. But, we also have an invitation to healing as we approach and experience Christ.  The Holy Eucharist, our Great Thanksgiving, is God’s gift of liberation to us: to ALL of us. It frees us from shame, from bondage, from self-serving acceptance of an unjust status quo. This meal together transforms us to be the Body of Christ in this world, to seek and serve Christ in each other, to love our neighbors as ourselves. We come back again and again not of our unworthiness or our pride, but in our great thanksgiving of what has been, what is, and what is yet to come.  

I stand humbled and honored to call us to this table together today.  You’ve all been a part of bringing me to this place, of forming me for ministry to the church and to the world.  I rejoice in that, and I bring myself filled with flaws and potential to the healing hands of Christ with my own desire to go forth and continue to be the heart and hands of Christ in this world.  So, I extend this invitation to you, too, the parish that has so meaningfully helped to form me. We are all in need of healing. So, bring yourself, your own narrative, your vulnerability, your heart in need of healing.  Jesus sees us, and meets us, and heals us. And together we are transformed by that liberating love, renewed and remade together to do the work that God has called us to do.

Amen.

References:

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel (1951). The Sabbath (FSG publication reprint, 2005, p. 89).

[2] Frederick Douglass (1855) My Bondage, My Freedom.  [Online edition, Project Gutenburg] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/202/202-h/202-h.htm

[3] Emerson B. Powery and Rodney S. Sadler, Jr. (2005) “Reading Against Jesus: Nineteenth Century African Americans’ View of Sabbath Law” in SBL Forum [accessed online] https://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=403

Of note:

Our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has asked our Episcopal churches to take part in a national action to remember and honor the first enslaved Africans who landed in English North America in 1619 by tolling their bells for one minute today, Sunday, August 25, 2019 at 3:00 pm ET.  This is proclaimed as a day of healing, and I invite you to keep it in your heart…or with your own bells…tolling for the profound pain of the collective history we bear, sounding as a plea for healing, but also ringing out the defiant acts of liberation like those shown by Frederick Douglass where God’s presence was known even in the depths of oppression.  God is liberating all of God’s people, yesterday, today and in the days to come.

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About harasprice

Professor of Social Work and Priest in The Episcopal Church, parent, teacher, learner, writer, advocate, and grateful traveller along this journey through life
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