That Day was a Sabbath

A sermon preached at St. Francis by the Lake, Canyon Lake, Texas.
The lectionary readings for the sixth Sunday of Easter are here.

You may have noticed as I read the gospel lesson that I used the word ‘sick’ in reference to the people at the pool rather than the word the NRSV uses. The Greek word translated here means ‘in need of strength’ and most every other place this word is used the NRSV translates it ‘sick’. I’m not comfortable using the word invalid because even though we put the emphasis on a different syllable, to me it still reads in-valid. And no one is God’s Kingdom is an invalid human being.

So, now that we’ve got that disclaimer out of the way, let’s take a look at our story: A man had been ill for many years, 38 to be precise. I wonder, why not 40? What is John attempting to convey with 38? Something to ponder, hmmm? Anyway, he’d been sick a long time, unable to position himself in the healing waters of the pool of Bethsaida. Of all the people who would have been at the pool, Jesus singles this man out and asks him a peculiar question: “Do you want to get well?”

I think most of us would jump in and say “of course he does! that’s why he’s at the healing pool.” And yet, he has a list of reasons why he’s been there, on the edge of being well, for so very long. No one has helped him and other’s have cut in front of him. Instead of saying “yes, I do” he talks about why he hasn’t been able to accomplish it.

Healing at this pool was in limited supply. Tradition tells us that on occasion, an angel would stir up the waters and in these brief moments, whoever was able to make their way and be first into the pool would be healed. There was no published schedule. You just had to wait until the waters stirred and then try to be the first one in.

Jesus takes the competitive nature of the situation and makes it relational. He doesn’t help the man to the water or scold the others for not helping, he just simply heals him. Without effort or earning or payment, this man is healed on God’s terms, with God’s strength.

And everything is going to change for this man. The life he had known for the past 38 years, is completely transformed. And now, he has the choice to live in the competitive and transactional economy of this world or the relational economy of God’s Kingdom. Does he continue to live in a world where people can be labeled as invalid, made invisible, stuck in a corner by a pool and forgotten because they don’t measure up to our standards? Or in a world where everyone matters, all are healed by Love and relationship with God, where kindness and compassion are in abundant supply, and everyone is known to be a beloved child of God. This man has the choice of living a life worthy of the gift he’s received or to live as those who found it acceptable to treat him as he’d been treated for the past 38 years.

And here’s the rub – we aren’t told which economy he chooses to live in, just that he picked up his mat and walked. We aren’t told, I think, for two reasons: one is so that we don’t see this as a transaction. Jesus heals him without asking for anything from him either before or after. And two so that we can decide for ourselves how we would respond, how we DO respond to Jesus’ healing.

God’s forgiveness, God’s love is a gift freely given. It is already ours. Do we let it change everything? Do we let it change us so that we live a life worthy of the gift? Or do we just take it and go on about our business?

We may not be told what the man does, but we are told that all of this occurred on the Sabbath.

Doing things on the Sabbath got Jesus into trouble more than a few times. To be fair, God HAD commanded the Israelites to keep the Sabbath holy by not working on the Sabbath. And the religious leaders, priests and rabbis had sought over the years, to determine just what was work and what wasn’t, what was allowable on the Sabbath and what wasn’t in a good faith effort to keep folks from sinning.

Healing and carrying mats were apparently two tasks that aren’t appropriate for the Sabbath. In what comes after what we read today, the man is questioned by the Pharisees as to why he is carrying a mat on the Sabbath and he tells them that Jesus told him to. And so they turn their attention to Jesus healing on the Sabbath.

Jesus responds to their criticism by saying, “my father is still working so I am working.”
They seem to have forgotten that the command wasn’t not to work but to keep the Sabbath holy. Healing and relationship building are holy activities. The instruction to not work is not the purpose of the command but a way to keep the command. They’d turned it around backwards and made the method more important than the outcome.

So, what does it mean to keep the Sabbath holy and how does not working help us to do that?

Sabbath means ‘to stop’, not just to rest but to stop, cease all doing and trust that God will keep the world turning so that we can pay attention to what God has done and continues to do in the world around us.

Holy means dedicated to God. The command to keep the sabbath holy means to dedicate the time to God.

We have our own challenges in the 21st Century to keeping the sabbath holy. Sabbath isn’t just time off from work but an intentional ceasing of all forms of ‘doing’. Just taking a day off from work and then filling it with so called leisure activities doesn’t allow us to stop, it just keeps us busy in a different way.

To keep the Sabbath holy means that, in an intentional amount of time, we keep our focus on God, laying aside all of the tasks and activities that have distracted us from what God is doing in us and in this world and pay attention to God, remembering that all of our work, all of our doing, is done in God’s created world, so that when we resume our activities and work we are better able to center all that we are and all that we do in God’s Kingdom.

In his book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, Eugene Peterson says, “The attentiveness and adoration that Sabbath-keeping cultivates develops into a capacity for wonder under the conditions of creation that permeate the days of the week … Sabbath is a deliberate act of interference, an interruption of our work each week, a decree of no-work so that we are able to notice, to attend, to listen, to assimilate this comprehensive and majestic work of God, to orient our work in the work of God.”

Sabbath keeping is one way we respond to Jesus’ question “do you want to be made well?” It keeps us properly oriented in our life’s journey of following Jesus. In the hearing of scripture, we are made well. In our prayers, we are made well. In our joyful praise, we are made well. In giving thanks, we are made well. In our coming together around God’s table, we are made well.

Sabbath is a way we learn to rely on God and God’s strength, because like the man at the pool, we are all in need of the strength that only God can provide. Not a strength that makes us mightier than others but the strength that comes from love and compassion. The strength that enables us to live in God’s Kingdom economy in which everyone is infinitely valuable. The strength that changes everything and enables us to live on earth as in heaven. Amen.

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