January 29, 2017 // Narr 24 // Epiph 4 // First Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR //
Rev. Christina Grace Kukuk // “Sabbath Saves Lives” // Luke 6:1-11; Luke 6:12-16
Jesus is preparing for a difficult journey. Last week, he picked up companions. This week, he offers the practice of Sabbath.
A fight broke out on Facebook last week. (Pause) That’s probably happened a million times in the last week. But this particular fight gave me pause, because it happened on a page where clergy share preaching ideas with each other as we try to hold the word and this world together. No surprise here: We’re all finding it excruciatingly challenging to preach right now. As people filled airport terminals last night to protest the detainment of refugees and green card holders from seven of the wrong countries, even the author Stephen King tweeted an opinion about what preachers should be preaching this morning. (No pressure.) So let me take care of the first thing: While you may support the executive orders issued this week to bar immigrants and refugees from certain countries from a policy standpoint or a political standpoint, but you can’t do it with the Bible. I’m taking a chance this morning that I don’t need to preach how the faith of Jesus, whose people followed a wandering Aramean, who were once slaves in Egypt, whose laws and prophets repeatedly call them to care for alien and stranger, can in no way be enlisted to turn away refugees. Or that Jesus Christ piled onto that deep faith and spirituality the command to “love your neighbor as you love yourself” and gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan. I’m taking a chance that I don’t have to preach about the immigration policy this morning. Refugees and immigrants are welcome here. (Pause)
A fight broke out on Facebook this week, and I’m paying attention to something else that’s going on among us. In this week bookended by marches, in which a barrage of executive orders and press conferences have disoriented and disrupted us, this Facebook fight gave me pause because one post was a preacher who asked how people could incorporate last week’s Women’s March into their preaching, and the response post was a preacher who took that opportunity to condemn the first poster for supporter those who marched for the right to kill unborn babies, calling speeches made that day pure evil. (Pause) And I watched play out on a very small scale, this disease – this dis-ease – that is afflicting us as a people. I’ve watched this past week as we have been hooked and yanked around by a media cycle that seems addicted to drama. So in the context of this debate over immigration, but also all of the other fights we are having, I want to listen really closely to Jesus this morning as we ask: How will we find a way forward from here?
“I ask you,” Jesus says. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (Pause)
It’s a time of conflict in which Jesus asks this question. Jesus is tangling with religious authorities over Sabbath. (And I think we have to give this a lot more attention than we might normally.) Sabbath originates in creation. As the Genesis story goes, the Creator works hard creating for six days. On the sixth day, God makes human beings, breathes the breath of life into them, makes them in God’s own image and gives them a job – to fill the earth and cultivate it, to be fruitful and multiply. But whereas we might wake up the next day raring to go, grabbing the hoe, ready to work and dig in, show me where. On the seventh day in our faith story, God says, “Nope.” “Our job today is to rest together. This is a day for being, with me.” Therefore God blessed the seventh day and made it holy. And the human beings, made in God’s image, are instructed to rest, too. It’s one of the Big Ten, grounded first in creation and then later in the release of God’s people from slavery in Egypt. Sabbath forms this people for freedom. It becomes more than just the 24 hours from sundown to sundown. Sabbath originates in the hallowing of one day’s span and some really specific rules about how to be in those 24 hours, but the spiritual movement of Sabbath expands to the rhythm of each day, each month, each year, sometimes years of years, as in the practice of Jubilee – that insistence that every 50th year, debts would be forgiven and land returned to families, that people would be given back their lives and livelihoods. This is the Sabbath Jesus is talking about. It’s not just a day to abstain from toil, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “The Sabbath is a day for life.” Heschel writes. It’s not just there to improve our efficiency. It’s there for the sake of our life and the life of the planet. “It is not an interlude but the climax of living.” We typically think of Sabbath practice as limited to the relationship of the human being and God, but if you look at all the rules and practices of Sabbath-keeping, so many of them relate to how the human relates to others on that day – even the animals: Untie your oxen. Let them graze wild. Release your servant. They too deserve a rest. Don’t oppress the alien and the stranger among you. Heschel describes the expansion of the Sabbath ethic as the creation of a place in time. “The seventh day is like a palace in time with a kingdom for all,” Heschel writes. “It’s not a date but an atmosphere. It is a not a different state of consciousness, but a different climate; it is as if the appearance of all things somehow changed.” Sabbath is a climate in which all things… and all people… might have life. (Pause)
It’s this deeply Jewish practice of Sabbath that carries over into our faith, the faith of the people who follow Jesus, the rabbi, the teacher. The rules and traditions we’ve come up with have varied over the years. It’s sometimes hard to find the treasure in the stories of blue laws and not being able to go to the movies on Sundays. Our Christian practices of Sabbath-keeping have varied. Some have missed the mark more than others. But one of our Christian theologians, Karl Barth, based his whole Christian ethic on Sabbath because of the way it re-orients ourselves to God and to one another. Sabbath practice reminds us who we are and who we are in relation to others. It’s a day free of compulsion. We don’t have to be or do any one thing for anyone else. We are just to be with God. Walter Brueggemann writes we have one of the keys here in Christian tradition to part of the plague that is ailing us as human beings. Sabbath, he writes, is the quintessential center of righting our relationships. “It is gift! We receive in gratitude,” he writes. “Imagine having a sacrament named ‘thanks!’ (We do. In Greek, it’s called “the Eucharist,” and it means “Thanksgiving.”) “We are on the receiving end, without accomplishment, achievement, or qualification… The offer of free gift, faithful to Judaism, might let us learn enough to halt the dramatic anti-neighborliness to which our society is madly and uncritically committed.” Sabbath could save lives. It could even save us on – or from – Facebook. (Pause)
How can we hold space that honors other human beings? How can we halt “the dramatic anti-neighborliness that plagues us? I think the challenge for us as a congregation is the same challenge for people at large on this planet. Here in this congregation we have lifelong Republicans and lifelong Democrats, we have Independents, members of the Green Party, and those who don’t think government works at all. In this congregation right here, we have deeply committed pro-life perspectives as well as passionately pro-choice voices. In this congregation here, we have people with differing convictions about our immigration policies. If we actually talked with one another, we’d find difference. And that’s just the political conviction. We also have differences in theology. In this congregation right here, we have people who came to Jesus in adulthood, and accepted him as Lord and Savior in a way that saved their lives. In this congregation, we have people raised in mainline Protestant churches who cannot use the word God anymore because of how it has been abused and used to harm them. We have people in this congregation right here who are spiritual but not religious, who find in Jesus a compelling teacher. We have people in this congregation right here who pray to be united with Christ daily, and to live and move in union with Christ, enfolded in the Trinity. In this congregation right here, we have all of this, even in the supposed bubble of Ashland, Oregon. How will we hold space that honors all humans? (Pause) Maybe it’s not space that can hold all of that, but holy time. Sabbath time.
“I ask you,” Jesus says. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?”
More than any other gospel writer, Luke shows Jesus keeping a Sabbath resistance. He begins or ends his days in prayer. He goes to synagogue. As the story progresses, Jesus often makes big decisions (choosing his team of 12, as today) or accomplishes a public healing (feeding 5,000) after going “out to the mountain” or “off to a deserted place” to pray.
That tells us that the transformation of parousia – the kin-dom of God, the Realm of God that Jesus comes to say is so close we can touch it – will not happen without Sabbath, without prayer, without spiritual practice. Because it is Sabbath, the wholeness of it that reorients us to God and to each other. It’s not a place where we collapse with exhaustion when our energy is spent, Sabbath is the place where our hearts and minds are transformed by the heart and mind of God. Sabbath helps us live in that palace in time that is a Realm for All… even my sibling who radically disagrees with my support of Planned Parenthood. (Pause)
Sabbath is anything but abstract. And if we’re going to sink into Sabbath practice, we’re going to have talk about so much more. For instance, how do we talk about Sabbath when so many of us are underemployed or unemployed? How do we talk about Sabbath in an economy where lots of people have to work crazy hours just to pay the rent? How do we talk about Sabbath for those in our 24/7 economy whose work is not limited to Monday-Friday, from 9 to 5? How do we talk about Sabbath when we are retired, when there are so many amazing things to do in this community? There’s so much more we need to talk about to make Sabbath concrete: 24 hours off social media, a day without buying, a day when we don’t have to be a consumer. But there’s an invitation in Jesus’ question this morning.
It may be George Orwell’s 1984 that has temporarily sold out in some bookstores, but I keep coming back to Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and the noise and soap opera of the screens and the way we are being yanked around by this nearly reality TV addiction to the drama of the day, and I wonder: How powerful would it be to commit to every once in a while – for a day, or 24 hours, or even just the first 10 minutes of the day – remove the “sea shells” from our ears so that we can hear the Holy speak, so that we can ask God to help us see one another the way God sees us: with tremendous love. Let’s start this week with holy time. There is plenty to do, but let’s start with holy time, time set apart – a day out of the week, an hour of the day – to abide in Divine Presence, to be a human not a consumer, to be a sister or a brother not an opponent.
“I ask you,” Jesus says. “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath,
to save life or to destroy it?”
I looked in the back of the text book. There’s only one correct answer to that question. Sabbath is for life. Sabbath is for life because God the creator is for life, and created us in that image to be for life, too, — for one another and for this world.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, p. 14.
 Heschel, p. 21.
 Walter Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p. XX.