COVID time is a strange time to think about Sabbath. On the one hand, it feels like we’ve been on an imposed Sabbath for about a year now—having events cancelled, isolating, not traveling, shopping less . . . On the other hand, it feels like EVERYTHING is so much work and there’s no rest in sight. What’s a preacher to do with two stories about Sabbath in the time of COVID?
It’s strikes me that this might, in fact, be an excellent time to remind people of God’s gift of Sabbath—which isn’t so much about doing nothing as it is about being in control of time rather than letting time control you. Sabbath is, at its core, about establishing a God-oriented rhythm for your life. And that sense of rhythm is exactly what we have been missing in these months of no in-person social events, meetings on screen, and (possibly, for some people) wearing pajama bottoms all day because why not.
In these stories from Luke, Jesus is accused of breaking the Sabbath, but the truth is that he is honoring it. It’s like my high school English teacher used to say: You have to know the rules before you’re allowed to break them. (Which is why Emily Dickinson could get away with sentence fragments and random capitalization and I couldn’t, I guess.)
Jesus knew the rules of Sabbath. He had observed God’s Sabbath rhythm his whole life. It is because he so faithfully lived into Sabbath that he could recognize when an action was called for—even if it might bump up against what was technically allowed.
This is a hard call—when to break the letter of the law to honor the spirit of it. The early church dealt with this question as well, in relation to eating food that was offered to idols, among other things. Paul urges the Corinthian Christians not to allow their liberty to be a stumbling block to the weak (I Cor. 8:9). I don’t mean to be too hard on Jesus here, but I do think his liberty with the Sabbath has been a bit of a stumbling block to Christians who too often take stories like these as justification for completely ignoring the commandment to observe the Sabbath. (Or maybe that’s on us, not Jesus.)
These Sabbath stories do not let us off the hook. They are not an excuse to ignore Sabbath and continue to live by the rhythms—or lack thereof—of the secular world. AND they remind us that the Sabbath is not an excuse to neglect matters of health, healing, care, and justice. Yes, to observe Sabbath is to take a day off from work—but not a day off from following Jesus.
The last section of this week’s reading seems more connected to last Sunday’s texts than to the Sabbath stories of this week. In terms of my sermon, I will likely not try to include all three sections of the reading; but I do have a “first thought” about Jesus calling the disciples.
My initial reaction to the passage was to feel inadequate because I have never in my life spent an entire night praying about a decision. But then I realized that even after all that praying, Jesus chose Judas Isacariot. And yes, some people would say Judas had to be a disciple in order to betray Jesus in order for the crucifixion . . . but I’m not one of those people. Now is not the time for a thorough discussion of my atonement theology; suffice it say I don’t believe God requires violent death for salvation, and therefore I don’t believe Judas had to be a disciple. That really didn’t turn out well for Judas or Jesus.
And so, part of what I take away from this passage is that no matter how long we spend in prayer, we’re going to get it wrong sometimes. Which isn’t to say we shouldn’t pray, or that we shouldn’t try to get it right. But to say that even Jesus made some poor choices. And there is always grace.