Sunday, January 31, 2021

Paula Stoltzfus: A life-giving vision of Sabbath

Luke: God’s Story Fulfilled — Jesus disturbs and heals
Luke 6:1-16

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Have you ever observed people in tension with one another?  Or had people watching you? Hushed side bar conversations. Looking out of the corner of the eye. Small groups huddled together with periodic peeks. Fidgeting hands.  Stoic face. There are social cues we pick up on when we are watching.

I imagine Jesus was absorbing cues all around him as he was beginning his ministry.  Leading up to our passage today was Jesus in the boat teaching and telling Peter where to fish.  Between that story and the one we heard this morning, Jesus was beginning to heal more, teach more, and all around gather more followers.  More eyes were on him.  More ears listening. Jesus was growing in his own authority. 

Some of these attentive eyes and ears were the Pharisees.  The past several Sundays we have been attuned to the unsettled socio-political and religious tensions of their day.   Judaism was experiencing the dis-ease and the Pharisees were working at advancing a form of Judaism that extended beyond the temple seeking ways to honor tradition while offering new ways of living out their faith.

So , this conversation we see emerging in Luke between Jesus and the Pharisees was a genuine interest in the leaders to be teaching a Jewish faith congruent with God’s commands.

What we have in Chapter 6 are two separate instances of the Pharisees questioning Jesus about Sabbath practices.  The first when Jesus’ disciples picked and ate grain on the Sabbath as they were walking through a field.  The second when Jesus healed a man’s hand in the Synagogue on the Sabbath. Each of these accounts address a different aspect of the Pharisees understanding and teaching of the sabbath.  Their concern was that Jesus was muddying the waters, confusing the Jewish people. 

So what was so threatening about Jesus’ teaching about the Sabbath?  If someone was hungry, then food should not be pushed off one day simply for the sake of the sabbath.  If someone is in need of healing, then healing should not be delayed another day. This makes sense, no?

The Pharisees were not able to see it this way.  There was a suspicion and growing fear of the young Jesus, teaching and preaching as if he had some greater authority over them.  They were losing their authority as Jesus grew in his. 

Fear and power, once in possession is hard to lose, especially if it is believed to be for the good of the faith.

I’ve had a number of conversations with area pastors discussing what church looks like now vs. what it was a year ago.  There are some discussions of what it will look like in another year.  We are being church together, sabbathing together in ways we wouldn’t have imagined, maybe would have feared would cause people to lose their faith. 

This time of pandemic has been one of shifting and changing what our daily rhythms and particularly sabbath looks like.

Fear and power can cause us to lose focus on what this time can teach us. For some us this time has opened up new times to be together as a family, exploring the mountains and the hills, time to sleep in and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea during the service, relish being in the cold outside gathering around a fire with a few people, appreciating a simple call or zoom meeting to hear and see familiar voices.

Our traditions have taken on different forms, some life-giving and others waiting to be restored.  Perhaps we are in this space of rediscovering what sabbath is in our day in age. 

What I find hopeful in this passage is that Jesus, the very form of God, was open to expressing sabbath in a way that gave life instead of withholding it. That extended God’s love and grace, especially on the sabbath.

How would Jesus imagine sabbath in a pandemic when we have varied levels of exhaustion and hunger?  Hungry for rest from the load of work, school, parenting.  Hungry for a break from the quiet loneliness.  Hungry for a hug from a caring friend.  Hungry for a full table of people with whom to share a meal. Hungry for healing and wholeness from diagnosis, illness, and grief.
Our scripture doesn’t end with Jesus talking about the sabbath. It includes Jesus experiencing his sabbath.

In verse 12 “Jesus went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer.”  

This isn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.  Jesus returns again and again to a place of prayer, of his internal place of Sabbath.  Lest we think it was simply a place of simple rest, I believe he was returning to his place of wilderness he had not long ago come from. There may have been an element of rest, but certainly there was a mixture of wrestling with his identity as God’s son, wading through the wilderness of temptation, and filling his soul with God’s wisdom.  

Whatever happened during his times of prayer, it seemed to be a moment in which he came out with clarity, purpose, and renewed life, for he chose his 12 disciples amid a growing number of followers.

Jesus exemplifies for us that Sabbath is both an individual and communal experience.  It is caring for the self and one another.
Jesus embodies a commitment to God’s intent to bring about reconciliation, restoration, and wholeness.   

What gives you life right now?  What gives your neighbor life? What gives our community life?   What are the communal practices that we lament and long for?  How might we invite God into those places to help us reimagine, breathing new life into them.

There is no doubt that uncertainties abound, but what we can hold fast to is that God is with us. Jesus’ call to sabbath is an invitation to live into God’s rhythm of rest and restoration with God, self, and each other.

Prayer of confession:
God, we come longing for the sabbath rest that you invite us into which heals our bodies and souls, which fills our every hunger.  

We lament the ways in which we have made sabbath more about following a rule or law then tending to your life-giving spirit at work with us and the world surrounding.

We confess that we so often choose practices that distract us causing us to fall into fear, anger, hate, and despair.  

Teach us how to rest in your love.  Teach us how to see with your eyes.  Teach us how to live from the depths of our souls where you offer your love and grace to be outpoured.  Teach us to live freely in your spirit.


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