Preached August 22, 2010 at First Presbyterian of Parkesburg
Luke 13.10-17 Now he 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 who 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.
Vacation seemed to be a hot topic in the news this past week. The President is on vacation with his family in Martha’s Vineyard for the next week or so. Many in the media have made a big deal about him taking off on vacation during hard economic times, a contentious midterm election season, and pressing domestic and international issues ensuing every day. No matter your particular political beliefs, there is something there – what does it mean to take time off, especially when we are faced with a very busy work and family schedule? There were experts interviewed who said taking vacation time, time away from the everyday pressures, is good for our health – physically and mentally, and I would contend spiritually as well. When we do not take the time away, we can suffer in so many ways.
The woman in our scripture this morning was suffering. She had been bent over, unable to stand up straight for eighteen years. Eighteen long years, she suffered without any relief. Imagine what her world looked like – her line of vision limited to the patch of ground around her feet, having to walk oh so carefully, so she didn’t trip and fall over something; not being able to make deep connections with people through looking at them when she spoke – a whole myriad of problems which set her apart from the rest of the community.
I wonder what made her come to the synagogue that day. Did she always come there? Was it a part of her normal routine? Or did she come because she knew Jesus was there? What is peculiar is she doesn’t ask him to heal her – Jesus noticed her first. He called to her and had her come over to where he was. And, Jesus unbound her from her ailment and she was finally able to stand up again, after eighteen long years. She was healed, by simply allowing herself to be in the presence of Christ.
Of course, the leader of the synagogue was quite upset with the scene they just saw between Jesus and this woman. They were operating under the tradition of Sabbath that does not include doing any kind of healing or work. He was lecturing the crowd about how they needed to come back another day to be healed – it is not proper to heal on the Sabbath. However, the Lord is quick to point out their hypocrisy of untying their animals so they could go for a drink – saying this woman was just as worthy of being unbound from her pain and suffering. Sabbath, to Jesus, is more than simply ceasing from work. It was about healing. It was about being unbound from suffering. It is about creating space to allow God’s healing presence to come to us.
Sabbath is really about freedom from bondage, from being bent down. We all have times in our lives where we feel bent down and bound up by life’s circumstances. What is keeping you bound up and bent down? And, what might it mean to allow God to heal us during our Sabbath time, rather than just simply ceasing from our work?
A friend of mine from seminary recently finished a summer Sabbath. Lucy, along with her husband Daniel, spent the last several months traveling across the United States working at farms and living in community with others as a part of the WWOOF program. She blogged1 about her experiences and shared her reflections, especially drawing inspiration from the writer Wendell Berry. In her first entry, Lucy reflected on her motivation for taking this Sabbath time – ceasing from work. She writes, “I have again come to a wall. A wall where I face exhaustion, but also an emptiness spiritually, emotionally, vocationally, and even intellectually. It is time, again, for active cessation. Time for tending to God, to Daniel, to family, and to self.”
Lucy, as so many of us often do, work and work and work, most of the time to the determent to our souls, our health, our very lives. We hit these walls, where we cannot seem to move forward, where we are emotionally, physically, mentally, spiritually empty and tired. We are bent down by the weight of our own exhaustion and emptiness. We are the bent down woman in this story. We are bring bent and pushed down by the busy pace of life, pressures we face at work, at home, in all areas of our lives. And, when we go and go at such a pace, before we know it, we are no longer able to see what is front of us or able to think clearly.
This week, I heard an interview on television of a Presidential historian who noted that several of our former Presidents were literally unable to make decisions and they were quite frustrated when they were exhausted. She said these Presidents would often head to their private estates or on vacation simply to clear their heads, to get some much needed rest and perspective. The same is true for us when we are overworked and overwhelmed. We begin to lose our way, and if we are not careful, we get struck in this place of feeling bound and bent.
So, how do we get ourselves unbound and standing up again? How do we cease work and take time away? Keeping Sabbath is not easy for us, especially given the availability of distractions such as computers, cell phones, and a myriad of ways to remain in the fast pace of our world. But, our health depends on it. Not just our physical health, but also our spiritual health. We desperately need to be released from what keeps us from living in freedom – stress, worry, exhaustion, brokenness.
Sabbath is truly a space of healing. It was for the woman. It has been for countless people. Early this morning, I received word that my friend Todd had lost his battle with cancer. He was bound up and bent down by this awful disease for over two years. He endured numerous different treatments at hospitals all around the country. In the end, he simply wanted to come home to be surrounded by family and friends in his last days. As I was reading the words of his passing, it struck me that Todd experienced a Sabbath healing. He is finally free from the pain and suffering that kept him from living into freedom. At midnight, he was released from the captive grip of cancer into a glorious freedom of resurrection life.
Life passes by too quickly, and we often lose sight in the busyness of it all. But, when we truly keep the Sabbath, when we actively cease from our work, we are able to open ourselves up for God’s healing presence to come to us. In doing so, we will be refreshed and renewed for the journey ahead of us. We can see with clear eyes, have open minds and rested bodies. Our relationship with God will deepen and we can listen for what God is trying to say to us.
I want to close with a poem that Lucy shared on her blog by Wendell Berry, a writer, who lives on a farm in Kentucky. He regularly practices Sabbath by wandering about his property in silence and writes poems about his Sabbath time. I invite you to hear his words -
Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods, where the finest blooms
Of time return, and where no path
Is worn but wears its makers out
At last, and disappears in leaves
Of fallen seasons. The tracked rut
Fills and levels; here nothing grieves
In the risen season. Past life
Lives in the living. Resurrection
Is in the way each maple leaf
Commemorates its kind, by connection
Outreaching understanding. What rises
Rises into comprehension
And beyond. Even falling raises
In praise of light. What is begun
Is unfinished. And so the mind
That comes to rest among the bluebells
Comes to rest in motion, refined
By alteration. The bud swells,
Opens, makes seed, falls, is well,
Being becoming what it is:
Miracle and parable
Exceeding thought, because it is
Immeasurable; the understander
Encloses understanding, thus
Darkens the light. We can stand under
No ray that is not dimmed by us.
The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend:
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.
Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it. 2
Let us rest in God this day. Amen.
1 Lucy Waechter Webb blogs at www.sowingsabbath.blogspot.com and is a Candidate for Ministry in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
2 Taken from Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, 1979: II)