The R Word (Luke 13:10-17) Rev. Betsy Hogan
Did you know… that if you sew a button on, on Sunday, it’ll fall off on Monday? Ya, that’s not true. But it’s a saying that a former congregation member of mine was taught by her grandmother about keeping the Sabbath “holy”. I don’t know if there were other sayings like that – I did google it to try and find some – but I’d imagine there probably were.
Folk sayings, warnings – the kind of sayings you KNOW aren’t actually true, but if you happen to have had a granny who always said them, it might still feel a little risqué to pick up a needle – or anything other than a Bible, really – on a Sunday.
Keeping the Sabbath Day “holy”. Commandment number four, on the list of the Ten Commandments. For the Hebrew community to whom those Commandments were first revealed through Moses, the Sabbath – literally ‘seventh’ – day was of course actually Saturday, as it still is for the Jewish community.
But when the earliest Christians began gathering for their collective worship quietly on Sundays instead, in part to avoid riling up the Roman authorities, the commandment became associated for Christians with Sunday.
In effect, Sunday became the “sabbath” for Christians. If not technically the seventh day, still, in the sense of being the day to be kept “holy” according to the commandment. The first day of the week, the day of the resurrection, the day that began with the church community at worship.
And a Sabbath as strictly bound, overseen, and enforced with respect to the limitations of what constituted “holiness”, as ever it had been by the most observant of the Jewish community.
So when we hear the reading that Dora just read for us, from the gospel of Luke, in which Jesus is castigated by the religious authorities for “doing work” on the Sabbath – in this case, healing a woman of her crippling affliction of eighteen years – we do need to recognize in his response to those authorities…
NOT just an oldy-timey “Jesus gets annoyed at the leaders of the synagogue” story, but also a very clear message to the early Christian community for whom Luke wrote his gospel. And, of course, for us.
Because the capacity to become fixated on rules, to circumscribe faithfulness within clear and rigid boundaries, and to allow neither flexibility nor thoughtfulness in enforcing them? – well, to put it mildly, that neither began nor ended with that leader of the synagogue on that particular day.
If there’s one thing that all religious communities of every flavour have by-times been very very good at, it’s rules, rigidity, and regulation. As though all else is chaos.
And ultimately, of course, that’s why the leader of the synagogue in the passage from Luke that we heard winds up looking so ridiculous.
Because really, leader of the synagogue? Really, you’re complaining that this poor woman who’s been crippled up for eighteen years, and who has finally been healed of this affliction, was healed on the Sabbath??? Really, you’re going to make an issue of that???
It’s so patently ludicrous that Jesus barely has to break a sweat to respond to it. There’s no need for a convoluted parable, or a deep and complex theological statement –
If your donkey’s thirsty on the Sabbath, he says to the leader, you lead it to water, right? Because keeping the sabbath doesn’t preclude behaving with basic humanity, right?
And of COURSE he’s right. The rest of the crowd certainly knows it, and the fact is that the leader of the synagogue knows it too.
It’s just that – it’s his job as leader of the synagogue to help his people live faithfully. To try to make it possible, do-able, for them to live as God wants them to live.
And that’s so much easier if he can communicate clear rules that facilitate faithful living, that manifest spiritual vallues. It’s so much easier for him, it’s so much easier for them, it’s so much easier for everyone, that collectively it’s been discerned over centuries that if the spiritual value is, for example, the human need for the pause, for the rest, for the making space for connection with God, then here are the parameters, here are the rules, “no work on the sabbath”, that make that happen well.
So of COURSE Jesus is right, and of COURSE it’s perfectly “fine” with God that Jesus released this woman from her affliction on the Sabbath – it’s not that the leader of the synagogue doesn’t know that.
It’s just that once the notion of nuance, and shades of grey, and pausing to think about the general rule in relation to a particular situation, gets introduced into the mix – then suddenly “living faithfully” gets really complicated.
And the leader of the synagogue – it’s his job for his people to help it NOT be complicated for them. To help it be do-able. Possible. Set out with sufficient clarity that they can truck along day by day, within its parameters, knowing that how they’re living is how God wants them to live. Button falls off on the sabbath? Wait till tomorrow to sew it on, and you’re all good.
So is all else chaos? Well, it’s NOT. Which is why this leader of the synagogue winds up looking so ridiculous. Which to be honest, in this story, is actually pretty unfair. Because Jesus wasn’t the ONLY one in the Jewish community of the first century challenging this kind of legalism – it was actually a hallmark of the emergent rabbinical tradition in Judaism generally at this time. That exact kind of passionate and lively debate about the nature of the faithful life, and how the traditions of religion – that rigidity and those rules – could become in effect an idol being worshipped instead of a conduit for real spiritual connection with God.
It wasn’t Jesus, after all, but Rabbi Hillel, roughly his contemporary, who said that faithfulness means simply ‘Love God and Love Your Neighbour’ – and everything else is commentary. Pushing back at the ridiculousness of rigid rules, when they cease helping and start limiting, was then and it remains the best of any religious tradition. That exact wrestling and reorientation and reshaping of religious expression that’s literally embodied in the healing Jesus performs – in which a woman bent over is reshaped right smack bang in the middle of a religious service.
The sad part is, again to put it mildly, it’s not exactly what we’re famous for.
There’s much being written of late about what’s considered to be a growing trend of people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious”. Who live with a sense of spirituality, they feel a connection to God or to an Other who is holy and creative and loving – but who don’t identify with a particular religion or participate in a particular religious community. Spiritual but not religious.
And the phrase itself is often considered pretty much perfectly expressed in that confrontation between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue in our gospel passage. Jesus, with a direct and intimate connection to the holy, responding to a need spontaneously out of simple love of God and neighbour – versus the leader of the synagogue, limited and limiting in his recognition of what’s truly holy by the rules and parameters he enforces in his community.
Spirituality… versus religion. And given that perception of what the difference is, it’s no wonder that a great many people nowadays would rather consider themselves spiritual but not religious.
To be honest, though, I think there have always been that many people who considered themselves spiritual but not religious – it’s just that they always went to church or shul or temple anyway because that was the social expectation. So I don’t think it’s a new phenomenon at all, despite what my scholarly colleagues may be writing about it at present, because among other things if I had a nickel for every funeral I’ve presided at for a longtime church member who quite specifically, according to his or her family, had faith but “wasn’t churchy”, well, I’d have quite a lot of nickels.
So I think it’s always been a thing. I don’t think it’s something new and weird, I think the world and the church have always been full of people who’d call themselves spiritual but not religious, and if the world still is – and it seems to be – then to be honest I think the church still kind of is too, though presumably as social norms have given people more freedom to opt out, that’s true to much lesser extent.
But at any rate, in large measure, the reason for that desire to self-identify as spiritual, while at the same time dissociating oneself as far as possible from the “R Word”, of course has everything to do with the understanding of “religious” as being about the kind of rigidity, rules, and regulation that the leader of the synagogue in our gospel story so unattractively embodies. Religious as somehow mindless conformity to archaic teachings that the least breath of logic can shatter. Religious as inherently limited, because it connects to the spiritual through a prism of the collective, rather than one-on-one.
The way, say, Jesus connects to the spiritual. Unlike the leader of the synagogue, embodiment of the R Word.
But here’s the thing. Jesus in this gospel story is actually really quite religious. As opposed to just “spiritual”. Because what he does that day, in healing that woman of her infirmity, he does very carefully and thoughtfully not DESPITE the collectively discerned parameters of religious community, but WITHIN them.
This isn’t a private healing on a country road -- he heals her publically, in the synagogue. And he does so on the Sabbath not to cast aspersions on the fourth commandment as though it’s archaic or irrelevant, but as an expression of keeping that commandment. As his community has collectively discerned is part of a faithful life.
So what Jesus does that day in the synagogue isn’t ‘against religion’, it’s profoundly religious. Because it honours the value, the importance, not only of what’s emerged out of a community’s history of collective conversation and discernment of God’s way, but also what can continue to emerge whenever thinking about, talking about, experiencing spiritual things is not just something we do in our own heads, but it’s something we do regularly with other people.
Because think about it. Jesus publically challenged the leader of the synagogue about what it means to keep the Sabbath. And now the leader of the synagogue has something new to consider, and so does anyone else who was there.
And maybe some of them had never really thought about that Sabbath rule – they just sort of followed it. But now they find themselves thinking, what DOES it mean to keep the sabbath holy? Does it really mean I can’t sew on this button?
Which it might, for some people. Because for them, the discipline of really intentionally doing no work on a Sunday is profoundly meaningful for them, and does provoke a real difference in mindset and spiritual connection on that one day a week.
For others, maybe not so much. And so Jesus’ provocative act of healing – literally rehaping someone -- opens a door for them. In which they can have a conversation about how, say, spending the first few hours of a Sunday morning doing a great DEAL of work by making a massive amount of breakfast for people who’d otherwise be hungry, is in fact in a very real way ALSO keeping the Sabbath holy. Not just a personally spiritual but a communally religious act.
The irony, really, of this story’s often being interpreted as kind of the ultimate expression of why someone might prefer ‘spiritual but not religious’, is that in fact what it highlights is how religion – both by offering parameters of faithful living based on a shared history of collective discernment, AND by providing a community in which that collective discernment is ongoing, in challenging and broadening conversation – what this story highlights is how religion, organized religion, religious community can actually deepen spirituality.
By stretching us past just what we can think up or feel ourselves, maybe past whatever for us is spiritually comfortable, AND in a way that also has both the benefit and the corrective of firm roots in the faith history of human communities.
Because there’s value there. Jesus himself – even as he challenged the religious leaders of his day – he recognized the value of religion giving shape and roots to spirituality.
Not when it’s so rigid that either the shape or the roots become what’s worshipped, of course. Not when it’s so rigid that it can’t literally be reshaped like a woman who’s been bent over for eighteen years and is now upright. But when the parameters of religion encourage us, force us even, to consider beyond, say, a spiritually comfortable notion like loving our neighbour, to the really not very comfortable at ALL notion of loving our enemy? Or beyond the spiritually comfortable notion of forgiving people who say sorry to the really not very comfortable at ALL notion of forgiving people even when they don’t?
There’s value in being stretched, in being challenged in that way. By the developed parameters of community outside just our own selves. It deepens spirituality in a way that spirituality is rarely deepened when it’s wholly self-referential.
The fact is, and we know this, that if for many people “religious” is the R Word, there’s a reason for that. There has been much rigidity, there have been many rules, there has been much regulation. Many buttons have gone unsewn.
But Jesus throws us a challenge here: if that rigidity of religious regulation – say, of keeping the sabbath holy, recognizing the human need for a pause of reconnection with Godness – if it needs reshaping, what might that look like for us? A whole day a week, every week, of only soul food and gratitude and nothing that gets in the way of either. What would we limit and what would we make space for? Could we keep it up? Not as a rule of religion but as its gift? A discipline, a spiritual practice?
A whole day a week of only soul food and gratitude and nothing that gets in the way of either. What would that look like for you? May God guide us in our contemplation. Amen.