Tag Archives: Sabbath Observance

Sabbath and Memorial Day; a benediction; and the lessons for Sunday, June 3, 2018

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SECOND SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Psalm 81:1-10
2 Corinthians 4:5-12
Mark 2:23—3:6

PRAYER OF THE DAY

Almighty and ever-living God, throughout time you free the oppressed, heal the sick, and make whole all that you have made. Look with compassion on the world wounded by sin, and by your power restore us to wholeness of life, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

Today is Memorial Day and I spent it the same way I have done for the the last decade. I attended and delivered the benediction at the annual Memorial Day observance in front of the town hall of Bogota, New Jersey. About one hundred of us stood under the dark pewter sky as the names of all our town’s fallen soldiers from the First World War to the present were read. There were speeches, readings, placement of wreaths and, of course, the playing of Taps. At the end of it all comes my part-the benediction.

I am never sure exactly what to say at a time like this. No brief word of comfort or hope spoken by me can heal the gaping wounds represented by the names just read. So I pray for peace. That is, after all, the hope for which these soldiers died. If anything can give meaning to the senselessness of war, it is a final end to war. If there is any comfort to be given the families of the slain, it is our God’s promise that one day all will live in the peace for which their loved ones died. That promise is encapsulated and given expression in the commandment to observe the Sabbath. For Israel, the holy day was not chiefly about worship, but about rest, refreshment and the restoration of wellbeing. Grounded as it is in God’s own rest on the seventh day after creation, the Sabbath points to a time when God’s peace will prevail. This peace is more than mere cessation of conflict. God’s peace, God’s “shalom” envisions a harmonious state of existence in which there is no hostility, competitiveness or strife. It represents the life we long for without knowing it. If I can perhaps touch that hope with my words and make an opening for God’s word that promises to vindicate it, that is at least something.

Here is my benediction for Memorial Day:

Almighty God, you make wars cease to the end of the earth; you break the bow and shatter the spear; you burn the chariots with fire and bid us be still and know that you are God. Be exalted, O God, among the nations. Be exalted in the earth. And may we, your people, learn the ways of peace; teach us to beat our swords into plowshares, our spears into pruning hooks and to learn war no more.

Bless our remembrance of these lives that have been so generously given in the cause of peace and justice. May their deaths inspire us to live in the peace for which they died. May their sacrifice move us to generosity toward our nation, toward one another and to all among us in need. May their selfless commitment to duty remind us of the sacred duty each of us has to love our neighbor as ourself. May their courage inspire us to give all in seeking to become the nation of justice, equality and freedom for which our ancestors have struggled over the generations.

And now may the God of all nations bless us and keep us, make his face to shine upon us and be gracious to us; lift up his favor upon us and give us peace. In Jesus name. Amen.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Deuteronomy is the fifth book of the “Pentateuch,” the first five books of the Bible traditionally attributed to Moses. It should be understood that, even from this traditional perspective, authorship was not understood as it is today. Modern biblical research has led to a general consensus that the Pentateuch is the product of four sources and perhaps several editors. For a brief outline of the history for the Pentateuch’s composition, see my post for January 7th. For a more thorough discussion, see this article on the Documentary Hypothesis.

The Book of Deuteronomy is thought to have originated with the reform movement undertaken during the reign of King Josiah. See II Kings 22-23. Though reportedly triggered by the rediscovery of “the book of the law” during the course of renovating Jerusalem’s temple (II Kings 22:8-13), the teachings of Deuteronomy reflect much of the preaching against idolatry and injustice found in the writings of the prophets. The Book of Deuteronomy itself therefore represents more than whatever might have been discovered in the temple. It is, in addition, a reinterpretation of the ancient Mosaic covenant with Israel in light of centuries of prophetic preaching and bitter experience of Israel’s failure to live faithfully within that covenant under the pressures and temptations of nationhood.

The decline of Assyrian influence in the near east at the end of the 7th Century gave the Southern Kingdom of Judah breathing room to rebuild and re-assert its independence from imperial control. The writers and editors of Deuteronomy saw this geopolitical development as Judah’s opportunity for a fresh start and a new beginning. Drawing upon the wisdom of the Mosaic covenant, they retold Israel’s story in such a way as to inspire hope for the dawn of this new day and to warn of the temptations they knew were lying ahead. The Book of Deuteronomy as we have it today relates Moses’ final word to the people of Israel as they are encamped on the borders of the Promised Land. Life is about to change for the people of Israel. They will no longer have Moses to lead them. Moses, of course, has been leading the people for half a century. He confronted Pharaoh, King of Egypt on their behalf speaking God’s demand for Israel’s release from slavery. He led Israel out of Egypt and to the brink of the Red Sea where God defeated Pharaoh’s armies decisively. Moses was God’s spokesperson bringing down from Mt. Sinai the words of the covenant that would shape Israel’s new life of freedom. He was with the people throughout their wanderings in the wilderness. Now Moses addresses the people for one last time before they reach their long awaited destination.

As might be expected, a recitation of the Ten Commandments is found at the beginning of Moses’ oration. These commands constitute a clarion call for a kind of human existence that is radically different from the slave culture of Egypt and the surrounding Canaanite city states. For more on that, see my  post of February 26, 2018. This Sunday’s reading contains the commandment to observe the Sabbath which, along with the commandments against covetousness and bearing false witness, are largely neglected. Sabbath observance in the protestant tradition has long been confused with worship which, in my own humble opinion, belongs under the commandment to honor God’s name. In reality, Sabbath has less to do with worship than it does with justice for working people, humane treatment of animals and preservation of the earth from exploitation. The commandment against work on the Sabbath gave all people, including servants and beasts of burden, a much needed opportunity for rest and refreshment. The season of rest to be given cultivated land every seventh year mirrors this requirement. The Sabbath, it should be remembered, was the very first commandment God instituted at the dawn of creation. To emphasize the importance of observing this day of rest, God rested on the seventh day following the completion of creation. So tell me again about how your work is so important and pressing that you just can’t find time to take a break!

Later on in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the New Testament, the Sabbath took on an eschatological dimension symbolizing the rest all creation will one day experience when God ushers in a new heaven and a new earth. One example can be found in the Letter to the Hebrews 4:6-10.

“Since therefore it remains open for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he sets a certain day—‘today’—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted,
‘Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts.’
For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not speak later about another day. So then, a sabbath rest still remains for the people of God; for those who enter God’s rest also cease from their labors as God did from his.”

The consequences of neglecting this commandment are obvious. Work is claiming increasingly more of our lives as more people are finding it necessary to work multiple jobs in order to earn sufficient incomes. E-mail, texts and cellular phones allow the office to invade what little time we have to spend with our families, in worship and at recreation. All of this places increasing stress on our personal health, the wellbeing of our marriages and our commitments to church and community. Our ruthless exploitation of the environment has pushed us to the brink of a global crisis. The commandment pleads with us to make room in our lives, in our communities and on the face of our planet for rest; for the cessation of relentless, dehumanizing and misdirected labor that is crushing us.

Psalm 81:1-10

Psalm 81 consists of two parts. The first, which constitutes the reading for Sunday, is a call to worship (vss 1-5) followed by an address from the Almighty reciting the story of Israel’s liberation from Egypt, God’s protection and provision for her during her journey through the wilderness to the Promised land (vss 6-7) and an admonition to continue trusting in the Lord and to forsake idol worship. Vss. 8-10. The remaining verses 11-16 (not included in our reading) constitute a lament by God over Israel’s stubborn refusal to listen to these admonitions and her insistence on following her own counsels.

The psalm is likely a cultic hymn used in the feast of booths. This feast, also known as “Sukkot,” is the seventh and last festival on the biblical calendar, as recorded in Leviticus 23. Israelites observed this festival by living in temporary shelters for seven days as a reminder that, when their ancestors were in the wilderness, God provided them booths in which to dwell. Although this psalm and the festival of which it is a part harkens back to the past, it is forward looking in that it includes a promise on God’s part to fill the mouths of the people. The image here is of a mother bird placing food into the open mouths of her hungry nestlings. This is a powerful and moving image of Israel’s utter dependence on God’s motherly provision.

As always, I encourage you to read Psalm 81 in its entirety.

2 Corinthians 4:5-12

Paul’s relationship with the church at Corinth deteriorated significantly between the writing of I Corinthians and II Corinthians. It appears that there were some individuals or groups within the church at Corinth that were challenging Paul’s apostolic authority, undermining his leadership and questioning his fitness as a preacher. Following his first letter, Paul made what he describes as a “painful visit” to the church. II Corinthians 2:1. This visit did not accomplish whatever it was he had intended. Not wanting to make another such visit, Paul wrote a “severe letter” to the church in Corinth out of “much affliction and anguish of heart.” II Corinthians 2:4. Though we cannot be certain, many commentators believe that at least part of this “severe” letter is contained in II Corinthians 10-13. E.g., Godspeed, Edgar J., An Introduction to the New Testament, (c. 1937 by University of Chicago Press) pp. 61-62. Whatever the case may be, it is evident that Paul was concerned about the effect his letter would have upon the church and so sent his associate, Titus, to Corinth in order to deal with the fallout. (It is also possible that Paul sent the letter along with Titus). Paul became so preoccupied with the problems at Corinth and the potential impact of his letter that he cut short a preaching tour in Troas and traveled to Macedonia in search of Titus. There Paul finally caught up with his associate who brought him a very favorable report from Corinth. II Corinthians 7:5-13. Paul’s severe letter had evidently done its work. The congregation gave its full support to Paul. Paul’s opponents were disciplined by the congregation so severely that Paul had to write and urge the church to reach out to them with forgiveness and “reaffirm” their love for these errant members. II Corinthians 2:5-11. It is this third letter from Paul to Corinth from which our lesson comes.

Paul makes the point in our lesson that the ministry of the gospel is not all about him-or any of us who minister in the name of Jesus. It is about witnessing to Jesus as Lord. The Greek word translated “Lord” is “kurios” which, in turn, translates into the Hebrew name for God, “YHWH.” Moreover, the term “kurios” in the Roman world was ordinarily reserved for the emperor, Caesar. Thus, the simple declaration, “Jesus is Lord” constituted a powerful claim under the Hebrew Scriptures as well as a seditious utterance under Roman law. Small wonder, then, Paul insists that only by the power of the Holy Spirit can one dare to make such a claim! I Corinthians 12:3.

Paul makes clear, as he does throughout his letters, that the message he preaches is grounded in the “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6. Paul did not concoct the good news he proclaims. It was revealed to him. This is a reminder to all preachers and ministers that, again, it is not about us. I have been asked over the years by people skeptical of the church and its ministry what makes me think I have the right to stand up on a Sunday morning and tell other people how they ought to live their lives. The only response I can give is that I have no such right. I have been entrusted by the community to proclaim the life to which Jesus calls us. What Jesus promises and commands has its origins in the apostolic faith that is no less binding on me than the church as a whole. The minute I depart from that faith and begin pontificating on my own, I betray my calling.

Paul describes the church and its ministers as “clay vessels” in which the treasure of the gospel resides. A lifetime of ministry in the church has only confirmed that reality for me. Ministers (yours truly included) are an egotistical lot. It is difficult to handle the holy day in and day out without letting it go to your head. With our higher degree of theological education and pastoral training, we tend to become dismissive of the rest of the church to which the ministry actually belongs. We have a tendency to forget that the Holy Spirit speaks through all members of Christ’s Body and frequently through the lips of those we regard as the most bothersome.

Churches are frail communities made up of broken, flawed and sinful people. We have to come clean with people and stop leading them to believe that we are a utopian community where everyone is treated with equal dignity and all share a common commitment to the reign of God. We need to stop peddling the idea that the church is that warm, safe family where you can be accepted and loved the way you have always longed. The church is not a place to go for care, comfort and coddling. We have spas and yoga weekends in the Poconos for that. The church does sanctification. It is where you go to have the mind of Christ formed in you. That does not happen in a relaxed setting where all your perceived needs are met. It happens in a community of people who would not otherwise choose to be together, who might not get along very well and who may not even like each other very much. That is the setting in which patience, humility, forgiveness and genuine love are cultivated. Church is not for whimps.

Mark 2:23—3:6

The gospel complements our reading from the Deuteronomy which gave us the commandment to keep the Sabbath. Jesus is criticized on two separate occasions for violating the Sabbath. We protestants have often misused these stories to dismiss the Sabbath as belonging to the “old covenant” between God and Israel. As Christians, we are free to disregard the burdensome regulations governing the seventh day and do as we please. But this is nothing close to what Jesus is saying. So far from dispensing with Sabbath observance, Jesus calls his disciples to a deeper and more profound recognition of the holy day. He does that by calling his opponents back to the reason behind the commandment.

In the first instance, the disciples are passing through a field of grain. Being hungry, they take some of the grain to shill and eat. Taking grain sufficient to satisfy one’s immediate hunger from the field of another was not considered theft. But doing so technically constituted “harvesting” which was forbidden on the Sabbath day. On the face of things, there is no question but that Jesus’ disciples were violating the requirements for Sabbath observance. Yet the Sabbath was given to ensure that human beings receive rest, refreshment and renewal. It is nearly impossible for that to occur when one his hungry. Though one might ordinarily avoid such hunger by preparing food ahead of time, that is difficult for intinereant preachers who are always on the road. Thus, this technical violation of Sabbath law opened the door for the disciples to truly enjoy their Sabbath rest.

So, too, in the second example Jesus is called out for performing an act of healing on the Sabbath. Again, healing would have been considered work that ought to be set aside during the Sabbath. But how much rest can you get with a hand that is withered, useless and probably in pain? Jesus’ act of healing opened up the possibility of true Sabbath rest for a man who for too long had known no rest from illness and deformity.

The bottom line for Jesus is that the Sabbath, like all the commandments, is never an end in itself. The law was given to serve the needs of human beings, to create an environment in which human life can flourish. But when the law is being used to frustrate human health and wellbeing, it becomes a burdensome chain rather than an instrument of liberation. When the law is so interpreted, it is being distorted no matter how technically correct its application might be. Jesus points out that Sabbath observance is not done to please God. God is not impressed with how scrupulous we are in keeping the commandments. The commandments were given to aid us in serving one another. Thus, they cannot be interpreted or enforced in such a way as to harm a neighbor or place an obstacle in the way of God’s intent to bless him or her.

Sunday, August 21st

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 58:9b–14
Psalm 103:1–8
Hebrews 12:18–29
Luke 13:10–17

Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

The Third Commandment calling us to honor the Sabbath was actually the first commandment God gave. Unlike the rest of the commandments, this one was given to all of humanity at the dawn of creation and not only to the people of Israel. At the climax of the creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis we read: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:1-3. Of course, God does not grow weary and God needs no rest. But God knows we need rest and so this provision for rest is woven into the very fabric of creation.

This statute was again repeated in the Ten Commandments given specifically to Israel, a people just liberated from slavery. God’s Sabbath honoring community called Israel was intended to be an alternative society to that of the surrounding empires in which the life of common people was characterized by never ending, back breaking, soul destroying labor-all for the benefit of the ruling class. Such was the life Israel experienced in Egypt, “the house of bondage.” In Egypt, non-Egyptians were enslaved, oppressed or driven out. Egypt was for the Egyptians-and mostly for Egyptians of the imperial household.

Life under Israel’s covenant with her God was to be a very different arrangement with a radically different view of labor. Elaborating upon the Third Commandment in Exodus 23, Moses declared: “For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” Exodus 23:12. Sabbath rest is commanded not only for people and animals, but for the land as well: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Exodus 23:10-11. Aliens and sojourners in the land of Israel were to be treated with the same consideration as citizens. Thus, Moses admonishes his people: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:33-34.

The commandment to honor the Sabbath is as relevant now as ever. It is a word spoken for the sake of men and women working three jobs at wages that barely allow them to make ends meet. It was designed for workers who are fearful of taking what little vacation they have because it might reflect poorly on their devotion to the company and hurt their chances for promotion. Sabbath was made to liberate an earth groaning under the strain of ruthless exploitation and pollution by human consumption and waste. Slavery is what happens when work gets out of hand, when a person’s right to eat and find shelter is determined by the labor market, when profits become more important than people, when the work is worth more than the workers whose lives and limbs are sacrificed to get it completed on time. Bondage to hunger, poverty and ecological ruin result when we cease to view the earth as God’s garden and instead treat it as nothing more than an inanimate ball of finite real estate and resources to be fought over and controlled by competing nation states. God gave us the Sabbath to check our human inclination toward just such bondage and slavery. We need to be reminded that the earth is the Lord’s; that it keeps on turning without our completing all of our very important projects; that labor is a gift given by God enabling us to serve our neighbors, not a tool of the rich and powerful to exploit in feeding their insatiable greed.

To observe the Sabbath in our culture of frantic busyness might be the most radical and subversive act the church can perform. No, I am not talking about reinstating the blue laws or boosting church attendance. I am suggesting that believing workers begin living as though their jobs were less important than the families they support and unite in speaking a firm “no” to the ever expanding reach of the office into all other areas of life. I am suggesting that employers who claim to be disciples of Jesus pay their workers a living wage-whether the law compels it or not. I am suggesting that discipleship involves finding ways to live gently in the land, giving back more to the biosphere than we consume. The Sabbath observance to which God called Israel and to which Jesus calls his disciples involves far more than refraining from work on a single day of the week. Sabbath observance is a way of life. Such a life honors creation, serves the neighbor and leaves behind a legacy of healing, growth and renewal instead of scars upon the land.

Here is a poem by Mary Oliver about John Chapman, the historical figure behind the legend of Johnny Appleseed. Oliver describes a beautiful life that comes as close to genuinely honoring the Sabbath as I have ever seen.

John Chapman

He wore a tin pot for a hat, in which
he cooked his supper
toward evening
in the Ohio forests. He wore
a sackcloth shirt and walked
barefoot on feet crooked as roots. And everywhere he went
the apple trees sprang up behind him lovely
as young girls.

No Indian or settler or wild beast
ever harmed him, and he for his part honored
everything, all God’s creatures! thought little,
on a rainy night,
of sharing the shelter of a hollow log touching
flesh with any creatures there: snakes,
racoon possibly, or some great slab of bear.

Mrs. Price, late of Richland County,
at whose parents’ house he sometimes lingered,
recalled: he spoke
only once of women and his gray eyes
brittled into ice. “Some
are deceivers,” he whispered, and she felt
the pain of it, remembered it
into her old age.

Well, the trees he planted or gave away
prospered, and he became
the good legend, you do
what you can if you can; whatever

the secret, and the pain,

there’s a decision: to die,
or to live, to go on
caring about something. In spring, in Ohio,
in the forests that are left you can still find
sign of him: patches
of cold white fire.

Source: American Primitive, c. 1983 by Little, Brown and Co. Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

Isaiah 58:9b–14

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile around 530 B.C.E., but before the second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E. This prophet’s oracles are found at Isaiah 56-66. The verses constituting our reading need to be set in context. This oracle begins at the head of Chapter 58 with a command for the prophet to declare to Israel her transgressions. The people complain because God does not answer their prayers for Israel’s restoration. They pray and fast to no avail. But the prophet points out that even as they fast and pray, the wealthy and powerful among the people pursue their own commercial interests and oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight among themselves even as they offer prayers. Such fasting does not reflect repentance and a change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, declares:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Isaiah 58:6-9. The reading for Sunday further develops this theme promising that if the people will show compassion to the poor and the afflicted, remove the yolk of oppression and cease their hateful quarreling, the restoration for which they pray will be given them. “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”Isaiah 58:12.

Hebrew Scriptural scholar Claus Westermann suggests that vss 13-14 of our lesson come from a different prophetic source. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd, 1969) p. 340. This conclusion is based on the fact that the prior verses all have to do with turning toward one’s neighbor, whereas verses 13 and 14 focus strictly on Sabbath observance. Ibid. However that might be, the text as we have it in the cannon clearly joins Sabbath observance to compassion for the oppressed and the afflicted. As pointed out in the introductory remarks, this is quite in keeping with the understanding of Sabbath reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Divorced from its goal of providing relief from oppression and poverty, Sabbath becomes an empty ritual that is itself oppressive. Jesus will make this very point in the gospel lesson.

Psalm 103:1–8

I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.

This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, or with a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.”  If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:

“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103New Advent.

Hebrews 12:18–29

For my take on Hebrews, see my post of Sunday, August 7th. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org.

Thus far the author of Hebrews has argued extensively that Jesus is the new Temple of God that supersedes the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. In Chapter 11 s/he compared the life of discipleship to the lives of the patriarchs and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Like them, disciples of Jesus are to live as aliens in a hostile world. They willingly forego the comfort and security that comes from having a place to call home or a temple to which they can point and assert: “there is the dwelling of God.” They must believe that Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of their faith” goes with them and before them surrounded by that invisible cloud of witnesses who have died in faith and hope. Now throughout Chapter 12 the author comes to the point: encouragement. The Hebrew disciples must run their race with perseverance knowing that their journey has an end not at the place of judgment, but with a festal gathering of angels and saints.

I am particularly moved by verse 24 in which the author tells us that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, “speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” Abel, you will recall, was the world’s first murder victim. When God confronted Abel’s murderer (his brother Cain), God told him that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground. Though the Genesis narrative does not say so specifically, we can infer that Abel was crying out for vengeance from the fact that henceforth the ground was cursed for Cain and bore nothing for him in the way of crops for harvest.

Vengeance is the natural human response to wrong. Much of the law in the Hebrew Scriptures was designed to limit or curtail vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds rather draconian to our way of thinking. But in a society where there was no police force, no judicial system as we know it and nothing to stop the endless bloodletting between feuding clans whose thirst for revenge knew no limits, this is actually a life-giving provision. It does not literally mean that you are entitled to break the tooth of anyone who breaks your tooth. Rather, it limits the remedy of the injured party to recompense from the wrongdoer. Retaliation cannot be made against the wrongdoer’s family and the wrongdoer’s responsibility is limited to restitution for the wrong done. Jesus, of course, directs his disciples to go beyond this statute to exterminate vengeance altogether.Matthew 5:38-42.

In our culture, vengeance is too often equated with justice. “Getting justice” for a victim of violent crime amounts to witnessing the perpetrator’s punishment. Victims often express their hope of getting “closure” from seeing the murderer of their loved ones die. Thanks be to God, I have never had to stand in their shoes. That being the case, I will refrain from judgment. Still and all, I find it hard to believe that punishment of the perpetrator brings any real sense of closure to the families and loved ones of victims. Execution of the murderer does not bring back the victim, heal the void left from the loss or quell the burning anger such crimes ignite. It only takes the object of that anger out of the picture. Retribution does not really heal. That is why it is not really justice. Biblical justice is concerned not merely with the adjudication of disputes and the punishment of wrongs, but with the reconciliation of the parties involved thereafter. In order to get the kind of justice God wants, he must forego retribution. That is what God does in Jesus. Instead of avenging his cruel death, God raises Jesus up and gives him back to us, his murderers, with an offer of reconciliation.

It is important to keep in focus the fact that Jesus died a violent death. If ever vengeance were justified, this would have been the case. If ever there were just cause for raising the sword in self-defense, the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been the time and place. If ever shed blood had reason to cry out for vengeance, it was the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. But herein is the victory of the cross: that God will not be goaded into vengeance. God does not need to get “closure” by witnessing the death of his Son’s murderers. Mercy triumphs over judgment. The blood of Jesus speaks mercy and so inspired the lines from the hymn: “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.” “Glory Be to Jesus,” Lutheran Book of Worship Hymn # 95.

Luke 13:10–17

The scene here opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, evidently with the permission of the ruler of the synagogue. Teaching on the Sabbath is not at all objectionable. But when Jesus encounters a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” he calls her to himself and heals her in the presence of all. Evidently wishing to avoid attacking Jesus directly, the ruler of the synagogue directs his criticism to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

This objection follows roughly word for word the instructions laid down by Moses in Exodus that we saw earlier. In light of this, the ruler’s objection does not seem unreasonable. The woman had been crippled for eighteen years. This was hardly a medical emergency. She had only to wait a few hours until the Sabbath was over. Yet those of us who experience back pain know that when it kicks in, a few hours is a very long time. You don’t get much rest when your back is hurting and rest is, after all, what the Sabbath is all about. So from Jesus’ perspective, there is no better time to give someone rest from pain than on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus puts the question this way: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” Another way to translate this would be: “Was it not necessary that this woman…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath?” As we have seen before, Luke speaks frequently of “necessity” driving Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. See, e.g. Luke 24:26Acts 2:23Acts 3:18. In view of the drawing near of God’s kingdom, it was necessary to break the yolk of bondage and allow this woman her Sabbath rest.

In addition to clarifying for us the true meaning of Sabbath, this story is also instructive for how we ought to read the Bible. If one goes by the simplistic rubric: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” then you have to side with the ruler of the synagogue. Healing is work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Game over. But if you think more deeply about what the Sabbath is for and why it was given, then I think it becomes clear that Jesus was right. How can you invoke the letter of the Sabbath law to deny Sabbath rest to a daughter of Abraham? This healing was not merely permitted, but demanded by Sabbath law. We don’t read biblical texts in a vacuum. We begin with the proposition that the Bible is God’s word because it is our most authoritative witness to the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us that any interpretation of scripture that bars a person from the Sabbath rest God offers to us through Jesus has just got to be wrong.

 

Sunday, August 25th

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Isaiah 58:9b–14
Psalm 103:1–8
Hebrews 12:18–29
Luke 13:10–17

Prayer of the Day: O God, mighty and immortal, you know that as fragile creatures surrounded by great dangers, we cannot by ourselves stand upright. Give us strength of mind and body, so that even when we suffer because of human sin, we may rise victorious through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

In Sunday’s lesson from Isaiah, the prophet admonishes his people to “call the Sabbath a delight” and to “honor it.” The gospel lesson narrates a story of how Jesus healed a woman on the Sabbath Day-technically a violation of the letter of the law. In the spirit of Sabbath, however, Jesus honors the law by relieving this woman’s life of pain and inviting her to share with everyone else the rest of the blessed seventh day.

Sometimes I wonder whether we should not reduce the number of commandments from ten to nine. The commandment to remember the Sabbath (which for us Lutherans is number three) has fallen altogether out of practice for most of us Protestant types. And let me add that when I speak of the Sabbath, I am not speaking of Sunday, the Lord’s Day on which we honor Jesus’ resurrection with our celebration of Eucharist. Yes, I know that Martin Luther treated worship and the public preaching of God’s Word under the heading of the Third Commandment in his Small Catechism. While I agree wholeheartedly with what Luther has to say about worship and preaching, I believe that his treatment of the topic belongs under the heading of the Second Commandment dealing with the appropriate use of God’s name in prayer, praise and thanksgiving. At least that is my own humble opinion. Furthermore, I wish that Luther had had more to say about the proper observance of Sabbath. There is no shortage of material in the scriptures.

While Sabbath observance comes third on the list of commandments, it was in fact the first commandment God gave us. Unlike the rest of the commandments, this one was given to all of humanity and not only to the people of Israel. At the climax of the creation story in the first two chapters of Genesis we read: “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” Genesis 2:1-3. Of course, God does not grow weary and God needs no rest. But God knows we need rest and so provision for rest is woven into the very fabric of creation.

The Sabbath, then, is not about going to church. It is about rest for all of creation. Elaborating upon that commandment in Exodus 23, Moses declared: “For six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your home-born slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.” Exodus 23:12. Work is a good thing, but it must not be allowed to reign over all of human life. That prerogative belongs to God alone. Israel had just been rescued from a life of slavery in Egypt. Slavery is what happens when work gets out of hand. God gave us the Sabbath to keep work in its place. The Sabbath was to be strictly enforced throughout Israel. Violation of Sabbath rest was a capital crime. I suspect that God was so very emphatic about Sabbath observance because God knows that if we are not specifically commanded to rest and told precisely where and when it must be done, we probably never will rest. After all, we are such very important people and our work is so very significant. How can we justify spending an entire day loafing around doing nothing? The Sabbath ending to the six days of creation is a not-so-subtle way of letting us know that even God can find time for rest in the midst of his creative life. Unless your work is more important than God’s, you should be able to set aside a day in your week for rest also.

I have to make a disclaimer here and confess that among Sabbath violators, I am chief. I was raised in a family with a hyperactive work ethic gland. I always wondered why my father was never quite as irritable as when we took a vacation. I now understand that while the rest of us were taking in the wonders of Yellowstone Park, he was fixating on all the things he should have been getting done. Dad could never quite shake the notion that all of this time spent accomplishing nothing was a colossal waste. I have followed in his footsteps to a large extent. Perhaps that is why I thrived in the law school environment and then in the practice of law. Both provided me with an endless supply of work with which to fill my days. And fill them I did. I worked twelve to fifteen hour days. I went into work on weekends. I went into work even when there was no work that had to be done. My life revolved around my work because I felt I had no right to rest until the work was done-and it never was. I expect that I have this distorted sense of my work’s importance to thank, at least in part, for my high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and near borderline diabetes. Now, at this late hour, I am trying to change a lifetime habit of ignoring the Sabbath. I am finally taking the Third Commandment seriously.

The wounds I bear from violating the Sabbath are largely self-inflicted. I did not have to work as hard or as deliberately as I did to feed myself and my family. I freely and foolishly chose that perverse lifestyle. That is not the case, however, for millions of people throughout our country and the world. I know personally of several families in which both spouses work two and sometimes three jobs just to pay the rent and put food on the table. Their labor is apparently not worth even the paltry amount it takes to keep them alive. Let us be absolutely clear about this: failure to pay a living wage to an employee is a Sabbath violation. It effectively robs the employee of his or her Sabbath rest. To my libertarian friends who insist that this is a function of the free market with which we ought not to interfere, I can only say, good luck with that argument at the Last Judgment.

Sabbath rest is commanded not only for people and animals, but for the land as well: “For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.” Exodus 23:10-11. The ravages of strip mining, deforestation and the increasing list of endangered animal and plant species testify both to the wisdom of this commandment and to the perils of ignoring it. God will not have us work our animals to death, exploit our employees with unlivable wages and working conditions or ruthlessly consume the fruits of the earth with no thought for tomorrow. It is more urgent today than ever before to “remember the Sabbath Day.”

Isaiah 58:9b–14

The reading from the Hebrew Scriptures comes from Third Isaiah, the designation given by biblical scholars to the anonymous preacher who addressed the Jewish people after their return from the Babylonian exile around 530 B.C.E., but before the second temple was completed around 515 B.C.E. This prophet’s oracles are found at Isaiah 56-66. The verses constituting our reading need to be set in context. This oracle begins at the head of Chapter 58 with a command for the prophet to declare to Israel her transgressions. The people complain because God does not answer their prayers for Israel’s restoration. They pray and fast to no avail. But the prophet points out that even as they fast and pray, the wealthy and powerful among the people pursue their own commercial interests and oppress their workers. They quarrel and fight among themselves even as they offer prayers. Such fasting does not reflect repentance and a change of heart. So the prophet, speaking on behalf of the Lord, declares:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

Isaiah 58:6-9. The reading for this Sunday further develops this theme promising that if the people will show compassion to the poor and the afflicted, remove the yolk of oppression and cease their hateful quarrelling, the restoration for which they pray will be given them. “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.” Isaiah 58:12.

Hebrew Scriptural scholar Claus Westermann suggests that vss 13-14 of our lesson come from a different prophetic source. Westermann, Claus, Isaiah 40-66, The Old Testament Library, (c. SCM Press Ltd, 1969) p. 340. This conclusion is based on the fact that the prior verses all have to do with turning toward one’s neighbor, whereas verses 13 and 14 focus strictly on Sabbath observance. Ibid. However that might be, the text as we have it in the cannon clearly joins Sabbath observance to compassion for the oppressed and the afflicted. As pointed out in the introductory remarks, this is quite in keeping with the understanding of Sabbath reflected throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Divorced from its goal of providing relief from oppression and poverty, Sabbath becomes an empty ritual that is itself oppressive. Jesus will make this very point in the gospel lesson.

Psalm 103:1–8

I frequently encounter people within the church who hold a very negative view of the Hebrew Scriptures. At the extreme end are folks (most of whom have not read extensively in the Hebrew Bible) who reject these scriptures as archaic, barbaric and contrary to “the God of love” revealed in the New Testament. In the first place, this characterization is inaccurate. The greatest biblical bloodbath with the highest body count is found not in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament book of Revelation. Moreover, the God Jesus calls “Father” is none other than the God of the Hebrew Scriptures. The New Testament does not introduce to us “a kinder, gentler” God. Moreover, the Hebrew Scriptures are filled with expressions and testimony to God’s love and compassion. The psalm for this Sunday is a testimony to God’s mercy and capacity for forgiveness as clear and beautiful as any found in the New Testament. Unfortunately, verses 9-13 are not included in our reading. They point out that “[God] does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.” “As far as the east is from the west, so far does [God] remove transgressions from us.” “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him.” The psalmist is a man or woman who has experienced firsthand God’s tender loving mercy.

This psalm begins not with an address by the psalmist to God, nor a declaration from God to the psalmist. The psalm begins with the psalmist addressing himself/herself with a command to “bless the Lord.”  If you read Psalm 103 in its entirety (which I encourage you to do), you will discover that the psalmist proceeds almost imperceptibly from his opening soliloquy to declaration of God’s eternal love contrasted with human mortality. The psalm concludes with the psalmist calling upon the very angels and the entire universe to join in his/her song of praise. This marvelous opening out of a soul to the praise and Glory of God is a wonderful paradigm for prayer. St. Augustine felt much the same way:

“Bless, is understood. Cry out with your voice, if there be a man to hear; hush your voice, when there is no man to hear you; there is never wanting one to hear all that is within you. Blessing therefore has already been uttered from our mouth, when we were chanting these very words. We sung as much as sufficed for the time, and were then silent: ought our hearts within us to be silent to the blessing of the Lord? Let the sound of our voices bless Him at intervals, alternately, let the voice of our hearts be perpetual. When you come to church to recite a hymn, your voice sounds forth the praises of God: you have sung as far as you could; you have left the church; let your soul sound the praises of God. You are engaged in your daily work: let your soul praise God. You are taking food; see what the Apostle says: Whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God. I Corinthians 10:31. I venture to say; when you sleep, let your soul praise the Lord. Let not thoughts of crime arouse you, let not the contrivances of thieving arouse you, let not arranged plans of corrupt dealing arouse you. Your innocence even when you are sleeping is the voice of your soul.” Augustine, Expositions on the Psalms, Psalm 103, New Advent.

Hebrews 12:18–29

For my take on Hebrews, see my post of August 11th. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org.

Thus far the author of Hebrews has argued extensively that Jesus is the new Temple of God that supersedes the temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. In Chapter 11 s/he compared the life of discipleship to the lives of the patriarchs and the people of Israel as they wandered in the wilderness. Like them, disciples of Jesus are to live as aliens in a hostile world. They willingly forego the comfort and security that comes from having a place to call home or a temple to which they can point and assert: “there is the dwelling of God.” They must believe that Jesus, the “pioneer and perfecter of their faith” goes with them and before them surrounded by that invisible cloud of witnesses who have died in faith and hope. Now throughout Chapter 12 the author comes to the point: encouragement. The Hebrew disciples must run their race with perseverance knowing that their journey has an end not at the place of judgment, but with a festal gathering of angels and saints.

I am particularly moved by verse 24 in which the author tells us that the blood of Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, “speaks more graciously than the blood of Abel.” Abel, you will recall, was the world’s first murder victim. When God confronted Abel’s murderer (his brother Cain), God told him that Abel’s blood was crying out to him from the ground. Though the Genesis narrative does not say so specifically, we can infer that Abel was crying out for vengeance from the fact that henceforth the ground was cursed for Cain and bore nothing for him in the way of crops for harvest.

Vengeance is the natural human response to wrong. Much of the law in the Hebrew Scriptures was designed to limit or curtail vengeance. “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” sounds rather draconian to our way of thinking. But in a society where there was no police force, no judicial system as we know it and nothing to stop the endless bloodletting between feuding clans whose thirst for revenge knew no limits, this is actually a life-giving provision. It does not literally mean that you are entitled to break the tooth of anyone who breaks your tooth. Rather, it limits the remedy of the injured party to recompense from the wrongdoer. Retaliation cannot be made against the wrongdoer’s family and the wrongdoer’s responsibility is limited to restitution for the wrong done. Jesus, of course, directs his disciples to go beyond this statute to exterminate vengeance altogether. Matthew 5:38-42.

In our culture, vengeance is too often equated with justice. “Getting justice” for a victim of violent crime amounts to witnessing the perpetrator’s punishment. Victims often express their hope of getting “closure” from seeing the murderer of their loved ones die. Thanks be to God, I have never had to stand in their shoes. That being the case, I will refrain from judgment. Still and all, I find it hard to believe that punishment of the perpetrator brings any real sense of closure to the families and loved ones of victims. Execution of the murderer does not bring back the victim, heal the void left from the loss or quell the burning anger such crimes ignite. It only takes the object of that anger out of the picture. Retribution does not really heal. That is why it is not really justice. Biblical justice is concerned not merely with the adjudication of disputes and the punishment of wrongs, but with the reconciliation of the parties involved thereafter. In order to get the kind of justice God wants, he must forego retribution. That is what God does in Jesus. Instead of avenging his cruel death, God raises Jesus up and gives him back to us, his murderers, with an offer of reconciliation.

It is important to keep in focus the fact that Jesus died a violent death. If ever vengeance were justified, this would have been the case. If ever there were just cause for raising the sword in self defense, the night of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane would have been the time and place. If ever shed blood had reason to cry out for vengeance, it was the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. But herein is the victory of the cross: that God will not be goaded into vengeance. God does not need to get “closure” by witnessing the death of his Son’s murderers. Mercy triumphs over judgment. The blood of Jesus speaks mercy and so inspired the lines from the hymn: “Abel’s blood for vengeance pleaded to the skies; but the blood of Jesus for our pardon cries.” “Glory Be to Jesus,” Lutheran Book of Worship Hymn # 95.

Luke 13:10–17

The scene here opens with Jesus teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath, evidently with the permission of the ruler of the synagogue. Teaching on the Sabbath is not at all objectionable. But when Jesus encounters a woman “with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years,” he calls her to himself and heals her in the presence of all. Evidently wishing to avoid attacking Jesus directly, the ruler of the synagogue directs his criticism to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.”

This objection follows roughly word for word the instructions laid down by Moses in Exodus that we saw earlier. In light of this, the ruler’s objection does not seem unreasonable. The woman had been crippled for eighteen years. This was hardly a medical emergency. She had only to wait a few hours until the Sabbath was over. Yet those of us who experience back pain know that when it kicks in, a few hours is a very long time. You don’t get much rest when your back is hurting and rest is, after all, what the Sabbath is all about. So from Jesus’ perspective, there is no better time to give someone rest from pain than on the Sabbath. In fact, Jesus puts the question this way: “And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” Another way to translate this would be: “Was it not necessary that this woman…be set free from bondage on the Sabbath?” As we have seen before, Luke speaks frequently of “necessity” driving Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. See, e.g. Luke 24:26; Acts 2:23; Acts 3:18. In view of the drawing near of God’s kingdom, it was necessary to break the yolk of bondage and allow this woman her Sabbath rest.

In addition to clarifying for us the true meaning of Sabbath, this story is also instructive for how we ought to read the Bible. If one goes by the simplistic rubric: “God said it. I believe it. That settles it,” then you have to side with the ruler of the synagogue. Healing is work and work is forbidden on the Sabbath. Game over. But if you think more deeply about what the Sabbath is for and why it was given, then I think it becomes clear that Jesus was right. How can you invoke the letter of the Sabbath law to deny Sabbath rest to a daughter of Abraham? This healing was not merely permitted, but demanded by Sabbath law. We don’t read biblical texts in a vacuum. We begin with the proposition that the Bible is God’s word because it is our most authoritative witness to the Incarnate Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus teaches us that any interpretation of scripture that bars a person from the Sabbath rest God offers to us through Jesus has just got to be wrong.