Hebrews 13:1-8; Luke 14:1-14 September 1, 2019
“Sabbath” is an old word. It’s a Hebrew word. It’s a word that may conjure up all kinds of images for you. For those of you who are Boomers or older, it may conjure up memories of blue laws, shops being closed on Sundays, big family dinners that are rare these days. If you’ve lived elsewhere, you may have known of synagogues that are full on Friday night as Sabbath begins, and families that stay home on Saturday. If you ever had to memorize the Ten Commandments, you may even remember that keeping the sabbath is one of the ten— right up there with do not murder, do not steal, do not take the Lord’s name in vain. But while the word Sabbath may bring up for you all the things you shouldn’t do, it’s really not a list at all— it’s about relationship.
When the Hebrew people escaped out of slavery, choosing instead to follow God, the people were used to being slaves. Freedom was not something they had known for generations. And so the practice of Sabbath was extremely important. Having one day off a week— a designation that came from the creation story in which God rests on the seventh day— gave them time to remember that they were no longer slaves. It re-orient them and reminded them that they were no longer owned by Pharoah. It gave them time to center themselves in being loved by God and loving their family. Later, it even became well known that married couples should make time to make love on the Sabbath. That this is a day of delight and connection and renewal with one another and with God.
By the time Jesus was born, however, the religious leaders in our Gospel story this morning had pretty much taken the joy out of the Sabbath. As in all religions, there always seem to be some religious leaders who like the religion more than they like God. These Pharisees kept trying to trip Jesus up— kept trying to see where he would break the law and they could catch him at it. And clearly Jesus is aware of this. For as he is walking with some religious leaders, ones who have invited him to lunch, actually, they come across a man with a withered hand. Jesus sees the man and says to the Pharisees, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” But they are silent. Perhaps they think this is a rhetorical question, or maybe they know he’s chiding them. But in any case, Jesus heals the man and then quotes them one of the exceptions of working on the sabbath— if your donkey falls into a well, you can save it. So why, Jesus seems to say, why wouldn’t you extend the same grace to a fellow human?
Jesus isn’t in any way demeaning the Sabbath— he is trying to get them to see what it was intended for— to build up relationships, rather than to tear them down.
Rachael Naomi Renen, in her book, My Grandfather’s Blessings, talks about her Grandfather, who was Jewish, sharing the Sabbath with her. Her parents, who also grew up Jewish, did not embrace the religious practices themselves. So when Rachael would go to her Grandfather’s on a Friday night, as dusk began to fall, he would begin to light candles. He would begin to chant prayers and blessings. He would begin all of the rituals of keeping the Sabbath and everything else would fall away. If she had been in the middle of doing homework, it was to be forgotten; if she had questions she wanted to ask him, they would have to come later. Everything stopped as the sun set and Sabbath began.
How many things in your life, besides emergencies, cause everything else to stop?
Wayne Mueller in his book on Sabbath says, “Sabbath requires surrender. If we only stop when we are finished with all our work, we will never stop, because our work is never completely done. With every accomplishment there arises a new responsibility... Sabbath dissolves the artificial urgency of our days, because it liberates us from the need to be finished.”
The artificial urgency; the need to be finished. If you think these are things that have only become important in the 21st Century, think again. Jesus finally makes it to that dinner party that he was walking to when he stopped to heal the man. He gets to the party, and we are told that the religious leaders are watching him— and not in a good way. They’re not curious about what he will do; they are waiting for him to do the wrong thing. The funny thing is, he’s watching them too. He’s watching them jockey for position at the party. He’s watching them flatter each other, say all the right things, stroke each others’ egos. He’s watching. And in an ironic twist, as they are waiting for him to flub up and say or do the wrong thing, this country boy from Nazareth, begins to give them a little party etiquette:
“When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet,” he says with a smile, “do not sit down at the place of honor, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’
Can you see the open mouths of the guests? Who is this man to be telling us how to act at a party, when clearly he doesn’t have a clue?
But Jesus isn’t finished.
Then he turns to the host of the party, and he says to the host, “You’ve invited all the wrong people. Don’t invite people who can repay you— your rich family members, your most distinguished colleagues, the neighbor with the pool next door that you’ve been wanting to swim in. No, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed because they can’t repay you.”
I can’t even imagine their faces at this point. Most likely it was so foreign to them, they couldn’t even make sense of what he was saying. In Jesus’ culture, which was based on honor and shame, this would be unthinkable. You only invited people to your home who would increase your honor in their culture. But even in our culture, which we like to think of as highly democratic, where everyone is equal, this is still hard to imagine, isn’t it?
I hear this text, I hear Jesus’ words, and I immediately become uncomfortable. But when I stop to examine my discomfort, I realize it’s because I’ve already, in my head, distanced myself from the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. I’ve already decided that I don’t know them. That I would have to be inviting strangers. In our culture, which is so fixated on being capable and successful and independent, I have already subconsciously ruled out that I would want to invite “those” people. Until I kneel at the feet of my God and remember, by God’s good grace, that I’m not any different; that I have been in that place— that place of being put in a category; of being left out, of not being worth inviting to the table.
Maybe you’ve been there too. Maybe there have been times when you felt worthless, when the people around you made you feel like you had nothing to contribute. I can remember so many non-UMC seminaries that I wrote to in order to get information about their MDIV programs, only to be told that I wasn’t invited to the table because I’m a woman. I think of my friend Thomas, a young black man, who has constantly been overlooked for a promotion and keeps being told to wait his turn, even as those newer to him climb the ladder. I think of my parents’ friend who was born and raised in River Falls, Wisconsin, who has been told four or five times in the past three years to go back to where he came from, because his face reflects his Indian heritage. I think of Brian, a man I have come to know in Sauk Rapids, who is often turned away from using restrooms at local restaurants because he is both physically handicapped and struggles with mental illness which makes it hard for him to find and keep a job or an apt. And I wonder how often I have looked over someone, not even noticed they were near me, because in my heart I didn’t think they could do anything for me.
Who then, is crippled, blind, lame? It is all of us, isn’t it? Some of us have no money; some of us have physical disabilities; some of us can’t see. But we are all poor and blind and crippled and lame in one way or another, and the good news is, God invites us to God’s table anyway.
That’s what Sabbath does for us. It reminds us that we are not slaves. When we stop long enough to worship God and to stop being part of the rat race, to step back from the culture we live in, we begin to remember that there is no “us” and “them,” there is only all that God has created, and God. And when we stop to catch our breath a moment, to spend time with God as well as the people that God has put in our path, then we are able to see that God’s generosity is overflowing; that God’s welcome is meant for everyone; that God’s table is set for all of us. That’s what God’s Kingdom looks like.
It’s been attributed to many people, but I still think the best definition of the Gospel, is one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.
Imagine how beautiful it will be, when we recognize that there are no higher or lower seats at God’s table. When we stop wasting our time jockeying for position, and realize that there are people we need to meet that we have never even seen at the table. Imagine when we stop watching one another to see how we will screw up, and instead look into each others’ eyes and see Christ. God welcomes us all. No exceptions. Thanks be to God!
Resources Used This Week: Lewis, Karoline and Powery, Emerson. workingpreacher.org Craddock, Fred. “Luke Commentary,” Interpretation Series. Debie Thomas’ commentary on Luke 14 at WorkingwithJesus.net Remen, Rachael Naomi, My Grandfather’s Blessings Mueller, Wayne. Sabbath