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Sermon Archives

Come, Sunday

Rev. Daniel A. Smith
Sun, Aug 21

Text: Luke 13: 10-17

On Wednesday, March 29, 2017, First Church will have an exciting anniversary to celebrate. It has nothing to do with the now 380 years since our founding. It has nothing to do with our Puritan forebears. On March 29, 1967, the great Duke Ellington performed his Concert of Sacred Music, right here, in this Sanctuary at First Church in Cambridge. The Steinway piano upon which the great jazz legend composed his Sacred Concerts is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Included among the catalogue of songs he played that day was one of my all-time favorites: “Come Sunday”. I love this piece so much that I asked that it be sung at my ordination service. I listened to it again yesterday, as sung by the Queen of Gospel, Mahalia Jackson. In case you don't know it already, I brought a little sample on my iphone! Close your eyes and imagine listening to it here live almost 50 years ago.

Lord, dear Lord of love, God Almighty, God above,
Please look down and see my people through.
I believe the sun and moon will shine up in the sky.
When the day is gray I know it clouds passing by.
He'll give peace and comfort to every troubled mind,
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday that's the day.

As the music builds, Jackson continues, singing Ellington’s lyrics…

Often we’ll feel weary but he knows our every care.
Go to him in secret he will hear your every prayer…
Up from dawn til sunset man work hard all the day,
Come Sunday, oh come Sunday that's the day.

I invite you to find the whole concert whether at the library or online and give it a listen when you can. It’s on an Ellington album called Black, Brown and Beige. Even without the Duke’s musical genius and the Queen’s stunning voice, his words alone articulate a profound appreciation of one of the greatest gifts of our spiritual tradition – the gift of Sabbath. Come, Sunday, oh Come Sunday, that’s the day! In those few short verses, Ellington reveals layer upon layer of why people through the ages have yearned for that sweet Sabbath day. It’s the day set apart from all work and toil, to be sure. This we know. It’s the day also to rest in awe at the wonders of creation, the day to reveal our secrets to God, the day in which our troubled minds can receive God’ mercy, peace and comfort. What’s more, when Ellington wrote, “please look down and see my people through” there’s a still deeper meaning of Sabbath: a longing for and a taste of collective liberation.

For centuries, Jews have greeted their Friday to Saturday Sabbath in Hebrew with a similar song, used in Shabbat liturgy. It’s called Lekhah Dodi. It means literally, "Come, my beloved." Sung at dusk on Fridays in shuls and in Jewish homes around the world, it’s a song that welcomes the mystery and beauty of Shabbat. The Jewish Sabbath comes to God and humanity as their "bride" and even as their “queen!”, so beloved and so revered is this tradition of stopping all work for one sacred twenty-four hours each week.

As we approach the end of another summer in New England, I can’t help but lament our contemporary American lack of imagination and appreciation of the profound rhythms of work and rest that are called forth in our scripture! We may take breaks in the summer. We may get away. We vacation if we are lucky, or staycation, or find a weekend of camping or beach time. As Labor Day approaches, we might well be reminded of the bumper sticker that two labor lawyer friends of mine proudly tout - The Labor Movement: the ones who brought you the weekend! To be sure, they can take some credit, but the original idea has been around since the very beginning, and to call it so plainly “the week end” pales in comparison— and don’t even get me started on “Labor Day Sales!”

Fortunately, both of our scriptures for today invite us to consider the meaning of Sabbath from a biblical perspective. In Isaiah, immediately following a profound and prophetic call to God’s justice, there is an equally profound and prophetic call to Sabbath observance. Apparently, when we heed the latter call we will find a sublime and selfless delight in God, a ticket to ride upon the heights of the earth. In Luke, Sabbath lies at the heart of a controversy between the temple priests, and Jesus, who heals a bent-over woman on the Sabbath day. In both texts, what we know as the day of rest is related to God’s work of justice and healing and liberation.

In the Luke text especially, we see two traditions of Sabbath that in fact can be traced to two different sources in Jewish tradition. Bear with me for a minute here. The one notion which will come as no surprise to most of you is straight from the ten commandments in Exodus 20. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God, you shall not do any work, for in six days God made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but God rested on the seventh! This tradition recalls the Sabbath of creation! Up from dawn ‘til sunset we work hard all the day, so…Come Sunday, or come Saturday if you are Jewish -- it’s the day of rest from all modes of productivity!

In Deuteronomy 5, we find a similar command to remember: Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy… Six days you shall labor but the seventh is a Sabbath to your Lord; you shall not do any work” but then it adds this: you shall not do any work…you, your family, your livestock, the resident alien in your towns so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” It goes on: “Remember that you were slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there and with a mighty hand and outstretched arm therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day!

See the difference? In Exodus, the context of Sabbath is the story of creation, and the cycle of work and rest. In, Deuteronomy the context is the story of exile, and the cycle of captivity and liberation! It’s a day to remember one’s captivity and to set all humanity and creation free! It’s a day to turn to God and say Please look down and see my people through, like Moses saying “let my people go! Imagine Mahalia’s ancestors, imagine generations of people kept in slavery and the sweet relief a Sabbath day might sometimes bring. Here, we find Sabbath as a day given to the promise of equality and to the promise of freedom from bondage! Sabbath is a taste of the Kingdom come.

In our passage from Luke, in the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees, we find both traditions, creation and liberation. Let’s be clear. The Pharisees aren’t merely some heartless sticklers for the law, nor are they those stick figure versions of bad guys some of us learned about in Church School. They are doing their best to honor a very important tradition! If the woman were dying it would be one thing, it would be allowed by Jewish law, but she’s been crippled for 18 years. Perhaps it’s not so unreasonable for them to ask Jesus to wait a day and honor the Sabbath! They are trying to remember God’s work and rest at creation, and the strict instructions that followed!

Jesus, on the other hand, is hearkening back to an alternative tradition, just as scripturally legit, the Sabbath that remembers God’s calls for equality and liberation from bondage! He even uses this language in verse 12: “Woman, you are set free!” And then later, “ought not this woman, daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day!” Seen in this light, this text might be evidence of a healthy first century intra-religious debate. It’s not unlike contemporary rabbis I know who love a good argument with colleagues about their shared sacred texts! For Jesus, you see, there is no contradiction! He wasn’t doing any human labor on the Sabbath! He was doing God’s work. He was remembering the Sabbath, remembering his ancestor’s captivity, and bringing release to one who was captive in his midst! The confirmation of the message comes in her response. She stands up straight! She walks tall, released of her burdens! She comes away, free of the pain that had kept her down or 18 years!

I wonder to what extent our cultural ideas of Sabbath or even “time off’ mirror the struggle in this text! Here we are, in the waning days of Summer, a season that is typically given to ‘getting away’ and to taking vacation. The very word vacation is rooted in the latin, vacation, which means vacancy or unoccupied! We may, if we are lucky, get away and find ourselves able to clear out and empty our minds from our daily tasks and workaday world! This begins to conjure some practice of Sabbath as God intends it for us! The brilliant Jewish scholar, Avivah Zornberg has noted in her book The Particulars of Rapture that, “Shabbat is the very enactment of ‘vacancy’– of ‘not doing’, of an apparent lethargy.” Have you been able to find some time for that kind of Sabbath rest in recent weeks or will you in the remaining days? If not, Sunday is here! Can you remain unoccupied or at least unproductive for the rest of the day? Can we take some time to let our minds wander aimlessly, time to let our senses receive and soak in the wonders of creation, to catch the sun out shining in the sky, watch the gray clouds passing by? I hope we can! God requires of us that we rest, one day for every seven! So would say those Pharisees, and they would be right!

But what of this deeper notion of Sabbath, as a liberation, and Sabbath as resistance to the burdens and bondage of our contemporary lives? Walter Brueggeman speaks powerfully about Sabbath as Resistance, and he writes specifically about Sabbath’s resistance to our workaday world’s ways of coercion! He picks up the theme that slaves, oxen, donkeys, livestock and immigrants ought to rest just like everyone else! He underscores that Sabbath, rightly understood, should be great day of equality when all are equally at rest! He notes the ways we value all of our seemingly ceaseless “doing,” our endless cycles of work and spend, of productivity and consumption. These create a social system of have’s and have not’s, rich and poor, people with access and people denied access. But Sabbath, he writes, “breaks that gradation…

On the Sabbath,
You do not have to do more.
You do not have to sell more.
You do not have to control more.
You do not have to know more.
You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer!
You do not have to be younger or more beautiful
You do not have to score more!

Because this one day breaks the pattern of gradation or inequality, all are like you, with equal worth, equal value, equal access, equal rest! He’s saying, in essence, that on the Sabbath, remember not only creation but remember the Exodus! Remember how that coercive slave-driving system of Pharaoh was disrupted by God! Do our contemporary ways of honoring the Sabbath involve this kind of systemic disruption? Are we willing to do less, buy less, know less, even be less so that we and others may simply be? Can you see the disrupting logic of Sabbath at work here? Are you ready for it?

Ultimately, the tension between Jesus and the Pharisees is a tension we carry in each of our hearts. We feel drawn by the Sabbath of creation, the commandment to rest on the 7th day. We know we need it. In the end, none of us honors it perfectly. We are all hypocrites. And yet, with Jesus and the bent over woman, we know too that our collective healing only comes through the Sabbath of liberation for all! Do we rest or do we protest? The balance is sometimes tricky, especially since we are not Jesus! We may not always have those resources to dig in and reach out to those parts of ourselves and our world that are bent over or held captive.

Still, as we begin to gear up for fall, as we worship together this Sunday, and every Sunday the commandment is clear! Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. May the great gift of our sometimes dueling Sabbath traditions inspire us even now. If the Spirit is telling you to rest, then rest up, for God’s sake! It is your duty and your command. If the Spirit is telling you instead to rise and be set free, then rise up, for God’s sake, and for the sake of God’s promise of freedom and equality for every child of God. Know that when we truly remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, God will be close no matter which way we feel called. Come, Sunday, our Lord, dear Lord of Love, is waiting, like a bride, like a queen, ready as ever to bring peace and comfort to every soul, ready as ever to see all people through! Amen.

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