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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Jesus the Law Bender - 08/25/2019

I’m a little reluctant to admit this, but I kind of get where the synagogue leader is coming from as he mutters to the crowd and passive-aggressively lets Jesus know he is not happy.

“There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” (Luke 13:14b)

My main charge in my call to this community is to make sure that we hear and consider what the scriptures are saying to the church regularly; that we are fed at this table at every opportunity; and that we are  bathed in the waters of baptism, as Everly Marguerite Davis is this weekend/today. It’s a pretty sweet gig, if you ask me.

I get to set this space and time – with the help of others, of course – to hear God’s words of forgiveness wash over us, to sing together and most often accompanied by real musicians, even if it’s the recorded Pat Erickson on Saturday nights. I get to spend time with scriptures each week and then share with you ways I believe they are connected to us, ways they feed and form our relationships with God and each other. And you have to listen to me, or at least fake it.

I get to lay my hands on you, pray with you, believe with you and grow with you. It’s a big deal to me and so sometimes … if I’m worried about a worship assistant not showing up, or I don’t like my sermon, or we’re having a baptism and there are no baptismal candles, or it’s hot as blazes in here, whatever… I might get a little itchy, like our synagogue leader here.

So while I do recoil a bit at the sound of someone trying to shame and challenge Jesus for what he has done, I also understand. I can identify with this guy who clearly takes his role as synagogue leader pretty seriously.

It helps to know just what we are talking about when we hear these stories of Jesus teaching in the synagogues, on the Sabbath and otherwise. In Jesus’ time, the gathering place we call a synagogue was kind of new on the scene. It was just starting to develop as a central place for Jewish community.

Remember that the temple in Jerusalem was still standing when Jesus was among us on earth. That was the holy place. That was where worship took place and primarily each year at Passover when Jewish families and communities from throughout the regions made the trek up to Jerusalem to make the appropriate offerings, to worship and observe the feast.

It wasn’t until the temple was destroyed some 50 years after Jesus rose from the dead that the local synagogues started becoming the central worship places.

And so, while the local synagogues that Jesus, and later Paul, would travel around to did provide gathering space on the Sabbath to read scriptures and hear teachings and, in some cases, pray together – during the rest of the week, the place was a busy community center that served the Jewish people as a school for the young boys of the area (Girls did not go to school in this time. Boys would go until they were about 10 or so and then the rabbis would decide who should go on to further education and become rabbis and teachers themselves, and who should go back home to the family biz. Jesus appeared to have gone on to further education. Most of the disciples did not), and a place of communal meals. It could be used as a hostel for travelers passing through or a court to receive expected visitors. It might at times be used as a place to collect and distribute charity like, chickens and goats, jugs of olive oil, sacks of wheat and jars of healing balm for the poor and sick. It might even serve as a place to hold political meetings.

As you can imagine, the synagogue, this central gathering place, could be a pretty busy and even chaotic place. I’m mean think about it … this is a mix of young boys being made to go to school, livestock, travelers and visitors, the most vulnerable people of the community like the widows and the orphans and the suffering looking for some help. It is also the place for meetings about hot topics the equivalent of round-a-bouts and bike lanes, low-income housing and vacation rentals. And who know what else … because wherever humanity gathers there is cosmic potential for love poured out on one another … and also ample potential for drama and chaos, right?

Except for on this one day, the Sabbath – that divinely appointed day of rest for all. It was instituted by God at creation. “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that God had done in creation.” (Gen. 2:3)

We are to understand Sabbath as a day given to us as a gift when God’s people were brought up out of Egypt with the God-promise that no creature should have to suffer under the weight of production every day. There would always be rest and rejuvenation for this God’s creation.

On this day the space of the busy synagogue/community center was set aside for what the synagogue leader was specifically tasked with … the study of God’s law. It needed to be quiet and fairly predictable. The synagogue leader would have done what he needed to let the men (again, no girls allowed) of his Sabbath assembly know how to behave, where to sit, what volunteer roles to fill and how and fulfil them.

There would be an unspoken reverence for the piety of those assembled thickening the air as they went about their customary, exquisitely planned, well-oiled Sabbath time at the synagogue/community center.

And then this hot-shot young rabbi shows up – he’s been stirring pots all over the Galilean countryside and beyond. He’s getting a lot of attention with his radical interpretation of scripture, with his healing abilities and even statements that lead the people to believe he is the Messiah – God’s Chosen One, promised for generations to come and set God’s people free from all that oppresses them.

If that weren’t enough, this woman! She’s not supposed to be there. Women observed the Sabbath, but not there at the synagogue/community center. Jesus knows this very well. Yet, instead of sending her away – maybe making arrangements to meet her same place, same time tomorrow – Jesus has the audacity not only to normalize this woman’s behavior, but to heal on the Sabbath too.

So the synagogue leader gets itchy. He just wants to fulfill his call in the way he has been instructed. This chaos and drama will not do – this is out of pocket. He starts grumbling: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”

I get it.

It is true, you know? …what the synagogue leader says. Jesus could have come on any of those others days to help this woman.

I mean this is God-stuff we’re talking about here. It is just as plausible that God as Jesus could have shown up at the synagogue/community center the day before. It is just as plausible that this woman would have felt compelled to seek Jesus out the day before.

And when you think about that, it starts to make this whole scene seem quite intentional, doesn’t it?

So … why, Jesus? Why this day and not another? It’s a good question that may lead us to realize there must be more going on here than simply a chance for Jesus to kerfuffle this very serious synagogue leader. As enjoyable as that might be, Jesus’ agenda is typically a lot deeper than that.

And I think one way to understand where Jesus is taking us here is to remember that the role of the synagogue/community center on the Sabbath was to be a place to learn about God’s law, because that is exactly what Jesus is teaching us about here – how to observe God’s law in a way that pleases God. 

It is like Jesus has taken the familiar words from Isaiah about how God differentiates between righteous and unrighteous worship and then begins acting it out with real people right in the midst of this Sabbath time at the synagogue.

In our reading from Isaiah today, the prophet was writing to Jewish exiles to let them know the Lord was not impressed with their ritual fasts, especially when they turned a blind eye to neighbors in need and worshiped other gods. What God desires from our worship and praise consistently involves deeds of the righteous that overturn the evils afflicting the downtrodden, Isaiah said.

“If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday…If you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth…,” (Isa 58:9b-10, 13-14a) this is God-promise.

This is what Jesus is bringing to life right there in the middle of the synagogue. This is the case study Jesus is setting before the people gathered there to affix God’s law in their hearts and on their foreheads. And they rejoiced in this teaching. This is the love Jesus is embodying for the woman who suffers and is not free to observe her Sabbath in any way – she’s not not even as free as the beasts of burden those assembled most certainly fed and watered before coming to the synagogue/community center that Sabbath day.

Jesus is quite clear to say that he did not come to abolish God’s law. This story shows us, however, that he did come to teach us to examine how we interpret and maintain the law and that he will come and bend it where our piety, our interpretation, our mistakes and missteps of God’s law begins to choke the Holy Spirit out of it.

This remains relevant for us today and likely all the days God gives us, because wherever humanity gathers there is cosmic potential for love poured out on one another … and also ample potential for drama and chaos.

Through this story, Jesus calls on us to consider where our laws and piety, our rules and policies and expectations, even when intended for good, are harmful and oppressive elsewhere in God’s creation. To let Jesus’ command to love God and love neighbor convict us where we turn God’s law into limitations rather than freedom; and to push us beyond thoughts and prayers to bold love and action in the name of our Risen Savior. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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