Woosh! The Ways of God (and Some Other Ways)
First Presbyterian Church Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Vancouver, Washington Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time: May 19, 2013
A college and seminary friend of mine, also a pastor, told me once about an everyday sort of experience with his next door neighbor, a faithful, kosher-observant, conservative Jew. My friend is what many would call – in as kindly a way as possible – mechanically-impaired. Buy him all the books about how things work that you want, he just doesn’t get it. So he generally leaves the mechanical things of life to the experts: he tries always to drive a late-model car so he won’t have to worry about mechanical breakdowns, calls in the plumbers or electricians whenever there is a need and never tries to manage such “handyman” things himself. I don’t think he ever watched Home Improvement, if you recall that sitcom, or put up anything like a tool shed.
Early one Saturday morning, my friend’s Jewish neighbor peered out and saw him struggling with a ladder, planning wash the upstairs windows on their two-story home. The neighbor – whose windows were of the same make – called out to him, “Why don’t you do that from the inside?” These were the sort of windows which, by flipping a lever, you can pull into the house for easy cleaning. “I can’t figure it out,” my friend responded, apparently too proud to admit he was so mechanically klutzy he even needed to hire out such a simple task.
The neighbor, resting at home on Saturday, his religious sabbath, called out again, “I could come over tomorrow and show you. What would be a good time?”
“You know what I do tomorrow!?” my pastor friend responded. There is little time for washing windows on a Sunday for most pastors!
“Hmmm,” said the sabbath-observant Jewish next-door neighbor, perhaps recalling for whom God created the sabbath in the first place, “wait there a minute and I’ll be over.”
Jesus said that the sabbath was made for humanity and not humanity for the sabbath. Most of us, with our exceptionally-relaxed, 21st century understanding of the sabbath as a day when we might choose to go to church for an hour or so in the morning, and then spend the rest of the day gardening, or catching up on work at the office, or doing a thousand other things, most of us have lost sight of the strict nature of sabbath regulations for observant Jews. Whether he would have put it this way or not, my friend’s Jewish neighbor was taking to heart Jesus’ own words in such a way as to demonstrate that he knew what it means that God established the sabbath for the welfare and happiness of humanity, and not the other way around.
In our time-driven culture – where we find too little time for working, sleeping, nurturing relationships, playing, exercising, cleaning the house, entertaining friends, meeting social obligations, washing upstairs windows – in this culture there is an increasing longing for what both Jews and Christians call sabbath, even though many do not know what name to put on it.
The command to observe the sabbath appears in the Ten Commandments, which themselves appear in two places in the Old Testament: Exodus 19 and Deuteronomy 5. In Exodus, the reason given for keeping to a day of rest after six days of labor is that it follows the pattern God set when creating the world, working six days, resting on the seventh. We are reminded by our own sabbath rest that we are made in the very image of our Creator. In Deuteronomy, the reason given for sabbath rest is that the Jews were freed slaves. Slaves cannot take a day off from labor. Free people can. No wonder, when extra hours have to be spent at our jobs, we often refer to it almost instinctively by saying, “I’ve been slaving at work for over a week!” To live without sabbath rest is like slavery!
Now, in Jesus’ world as well as ours, while the sabbath was defined by many things, the one thing it was not to be was a day for work. Defining what is meant by work has provided full-time employment for religious authorities through the centuries, but about the main general principle there is agreement. And it is this: A day of rest from work provides a weekly reminder that, in the end, it is not human effort that meets the needs of the world, but rather the providing love of God.
We have probably all heard too many sermons on Jesus’ strong words to the Pharisees concerning sabbath observance sermons which say something to the effect that the Jews of his day were not much more than a bunch of legalists who missed the spirit of the sabbath commandment. Perhaps our too-eager embrace of this view has lead to our slovenly sabbath practice as Christians, where a Sunday appears to be little more than another “day off” during a weekend, which may or may not be punctuated by attendance at an hour-long worship service. True sabbath observance, at its best, has been said to “open a space for God” in the middle of the times of our lives.
So what was Jesus’ problem? Why did he get into entanglements with the Pharisees over sabbath observance? Jesus asked whether it was lawful to do good on the sabbath, and the silence of his opponents gave him leave to let his actions give the answer. Sabbath is intended for the goodness of humanity. But any time we read a passage of scripture and easily find ourselves right away on Jesus’ side, we have probably not read the passage corectly, or at least not fully.
Imagine Israel as an occupied country. The Romans had succeeded in subduing many other countries and cultures, and they fully intended to do the same with Israel. It was not just brute force which accomplished this, though Lord knows there was plenty of that. They had somehow understood the importance of cultural transformation. Everyone was required to honor the emperor, subtly substituting his empire-wide image on coins, flags, and statuary for the social cohesiveness formerly provided by local religious customs and practices. Countries all around the former Roman empire speak versions of Latin to this day: French, Spanish, Portugese, Italian, Romanian, all testimony to the subversive cultural success of Roman empire building. No wonder the rabbis were adamant about the provisions of the law of Israel. To retain their uniqueness as a people tremendous effort was required to resist pressures to conform. And among their distinctive traits was the observance of sabbath every 7th day. To give that up would be to disappear into the generic population of Roman-dominated Mediterranean peoples of the first century. Then along came this itinerant preacher, Jesus from Galilee, who appeared to teach that sabbath observance was an option rather than a requirement of their faith. The opposition Jesus encountered is more understandable when we realize all this.
Yet we also need to remember what Jesus was really doing through his actions on the sabbath. He was not saying that the sabbath is irrelevant or even optional. He was simply issuing a reminder that God is Lord even of a religious tradition as sacred as the sabbath. Our commitment to religious observances concerning God should never overshadow our acknowledgement that God is Lord even of our religious observances.
It is the way of God to be gracious, to require work and then provide for rest, to free those who are bound. Our world is designed with such graciousness in mind. Being weak creatures, we are in need of frequent reminders about this. One day in seven is not a bad proportion for reminding us about the grace of God. But we can turn such reminders into a sort of substitute god, forgetting the graciousness of the One who gave them. For this reason, Jesus came not to change the law, but to remind us of the compassionate nature of the God whose law helps keep us gracious.
Jesus did not do away with sabbath observance. He did not say that everyone is now free to take their sabbath when and where and in whatever fashion they like, to follow a sort of “everyone for themselves” approach to faith expression, which has become one of the chief shortcomings of our lives in the church today. No, the point becomes clear that Jesus, when asked about what is lawful declared that what is lawful is not nearly so important a question as what is merciful, what is gracious, and, above all, what points to the One who is Lord even over the sabbath itself.
In our religious obligations we are not free to enslave or starve people in order to maintain some lofty principle of law. When the contest comes to a choice between compassion, food for the hungry, freedom for the captive on the one hand, and some abstract principle on the other, it is compassion, freedom, and care for others which are most clearly the ways of God. Any other way is some course other than the way of the One who is Lord even of the sabbath.
As we look ahead to a new chapter in the life of our congregation, with new leadership coming with the arival of Josh Rowley, we are reminded of this God who provides all we need and more, in the way of leaderhip, resources, and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. We are reminded of a whole day each week given to us for freedom from work – a tithe of a 7th of our time – by which we celebrate the gift of life itself, given back to God, it’s true posessor. This is really good news.
And, as we look ahead, we need to remember good news is always worth sharing. So share!
Blessings to you all. And thank you for your many many kindnesses to me and my family these last 3 plus years.
 I am indebted to Dorothy Bass’ article, “Keeping Sabbath: Reviving a Christian Practice,” in Christian Century, for seminal ideas in this paragraph
 Ibid. p. 14