For reasons I can’t entirely explain, it seemed important to me recently to reiterate to colleagues a lesson I was taught as a child: that one should not receive the Blessed Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Lord more than once a day – that is, not receive communion more than once a day. I feel certain that we were taught this lesson as children (in a church school) as a way of underscoring the sanctity and other-ness of the Eucharist; to help us learn that it is a special thing to take Christ’s Body into your hands and onto your tongue, a blessing of no ordinary kind to drink his Blood. I’m sure the rule was intended to instill in us a reverence about communion, an attitude of piety. This was only really ever an issue on Sundays when, as it happened, we were in church at least twice. So this was not arbitrary: it was important! And although we had no idea what punishment we would suffer in the event of an infraction of this rule, I’m sure none of us was interested in finding out whether it was a torment to be suffered in this world or the next. It seemed really quite dangerous to us, as children, to entertain the thought of venturing close to the altar rail twice in one day. Plus, as it happens, the Roman Catholic Church had long ago codified this ban in writing. The point is that it was a rule: No seconds: communion once a day, and once only.
As I say, I can’t be certain what prompted my recent reiteration of this old rule. Of course, the Episcopal Church doesn’t really have such a rule written down anywhere (as is the case in most matters) – it’s more of a custom, borrowed (like so much else) from the old Roman Catholic rules. But even Rome changed its rules thirty years ago to allow for the possibility that the faithful could receive communion twice in a given day. So I might ask myself why it seemed important to me to keep this old rule.
And I do. Ask myself that very thing. Is it because we have so few rules in the Episcopal Church that it seems important to hang on to the few we (sort of) have? This seems unlikely. More likely is that I share something of the spirit of the leader of that synagogue who was indignant when he spied, out of the corner of his suspicious eye, Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath.
“Away, away, away,” he said to the crowd that had gathered. “The rules do not allow this! You have six days to come and be healed, but one day to keep the Sabbath. Do not fail to keep the commandment – remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Away, away, away with you!”
And turning to Jesus, I imagine, he might have been incensed:
“HOW DARE YOU!” he would have scolded, with what he would have wanted to be understood as righteous indignation. “Six days you have – six days of the week to do work: to heal, to teach, to preach, to gather your little band of disciples around you.
“Six days you have to wow them with your parables, and your healings, and your miracles, and all the other tricks you seem to have up your sleeve.
“Six days you have to wrap them around your little finger and tell them they have to give up everything to follow you. Six days for YOU!
“But God gets a day! God gets HIS day! Remember the Sabbath Day to KEEP IT HOLY!
“This is not complicated. That old woman has been stooped for years – she could wait one more day. You could wait one more day. Give God his due! Give God his day! I won’t sit by and watch you defile the Sabbath without saying anything!”
I know how the leader of the synagogue feels. I know how ready I am to share in his righteous indignation. I know what it’s like to survey the world passing by utterly oblivious to the claims of the creator upon his creatures, who have become largely disinterested in giving God his due. I know what it feels like to want to wave a commandment in the air, and point emphatically to it, and shout out in shrill indignation, “God gets his day, you know. God gets his day!”
And I know how hollow this teaching sounds to most ears these days. The entire passage we read from Luke’s Gospel this morning is really like something from a National Geographic documentary about the way things were in biblical times – because they are most certainly not that way today. To begin with, most people don’t go to synagogue or to church on the Sabbath. And we don’t say that a spirit has caused the suffering of a woman stooped with osteoporosis, or whatever. And we certainly do not come to church (or to synagogue) so that some guy in a collar can teach us the rules (that aren’t really even rules) that we are supposed to live by. To begin with, we don’t need anybody imposing his rules on us, thank you very much. This is why we became Episcopalians, isn’t it? No rules! A blessed silence when it comes to being told what you must and mustn’t do! This is why we left the Roman Church, after all: all those damned rules! But we don’t have to follow them. We are Episcopalians – hear us roar! Or not – you can’t make us roar, and you can’t make us stop: we have no rules!
And isn’t it pretty well established that Jesus – who may or may not be right about very much else – is certainly right about this: that the clergy are hypocrites: always insisting that people to keep rules that they don’t keep themselves! On this we can surely agree. Having thus agreed, can’t we quietly close our Bibles, get on with the next hymn and move a little more rapidly toward Coffee Hour?
We could, but we would be missing the chance to hear the Gospel speak to us. And we’d be missing the point if we reached the conclusion that Jesus’ message is that rules were made to be broken, that as Lord of the Sabbath he will do what he jolly well pleases.
Because, in fact, Jesus demonstrates no desire to flout the rules of faith. Jesus is deeply possessed of the tendency to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Jesus, above all, knows what this means. Jesus knew the words of the prophet before they were ever written down:
“If your refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day,
“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!”
… if you refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day…
Did you hear what Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue? He did not assert his right to work on the Sabbath. He did not say that he should be exempted from the rules and allowed to heal the woman. He did not say that he was special and should therefore be allowed to teach his followers. He did not say that time was short and he had much to accomplish, and that practicality demanded that he do as much as he could with the time that he had. No. He said this, “Don’t you, on the Sabbath, untie your ox or your donkey and lead it to water?” Don’t you untie it? Don’t you set it free so that it may drink, and live?
And what did he say to the woman? He didn’t say to her, “Your faith has made you well.” He didn’t tell her to throw down her cane and walk. He didn’t command the spirit to come out and go find a herd of swine. When he laid his hands on her he didn’t even offer a prayer for healing. He just said this: “Woman, you are set free.” You are set free!
For eighteen years her life had become a labor: just getting up in the morning, tending to the house, going about town had become what the Bible used to call “travail.” The more stooped she became, the more difficult every day was to get through. How could she keep the Sabbath? There was no rest for her… …until she was set free!
And Jesus said to her: You are set free. You are set free. You are set free.
Is there a spirit that cripples you? That prevents you from standing up straight and being the person God made you to be, living the life God made you to live. Is it something everyone can see? Or is it a secret you keep deep in your heart. Is there something that makes your life, or at least a part of it, what used to be called “travail”? Are you heavy-laden, as we used to say? Is there a burden that forces you to stoop through life as though you cannot straighten, stand up, and be the person you believe God made you to be? How can you keep the Sabbath this way? How can you find your rest in God?
How can we offer food to the hungry if we are stooped ourselves? How can we satisfy the needs of the afflicted? How will our light ever rise in the darkness if we are shooed away from God’s healing grace? How will we ever slake our thirst in parched places? How will our bones ever grow strong? How will our ancient ruins ever be rebuilt, our streets restored, our foundations raised up… … when we are stooped and stunted by so much heaviness, so much travail?
Six days of every week, burdens are piled onto our backs. Six days of every week there are worries to tend to, chores to be done, responsibilities that we dare not overlook. Six days of every week we are crippled by the demands of so much!
Why won’t we let God have his day with us? Why won’t we give him his due? Why won’t we bring our stooped and broken frames to him in all humility, and ask him to help us? Are we afraid of the rules? If they get in the way, then by all means let us reconsider them.
But the rule about keeping the Sabbath is, like all good rules, not a rule that imprisons us, it is a rule that offers to set us free:
If we refrain from trampling the Sabbath, from pursuing our own interests on God’s holy day.
If we call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord.
If we honor it, not going our own ways, serving our own interests, or pursuing our own affairs.
Then we shall take delight in the Lord, and he will make us ride upon the heights of the earth!
There is not much serious talk in the church these days about keeping the Sabbath holy. We can hardly get past the quite boring semantics of whether the Sabbath is Saturday or Sunday – as though it matters to Jesus. When what really matters to him is that we have become like so many oxen and asses: tied to the various things, duties, diversions, and inanities that prevent us even from making our way to water when we are thirsty. So he comes to us every Sabbath – at least – and he whispers in our ears as he unties the rope around our necks: “You are set free!”
And I suppose I may have to reconsider whether it is more important to reiterate the rules, than to be sure that those who have ears to hear, do in fact hear it when their Lord sings out to them: You are set free!
May God help us all to learn to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy, and then, at least one day a week, may he help us hear him proclaim that wonderful news: You are set free!
And then we shall take delight in the Lord, and he will make us ride upon the heights of the earth!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
25 August 2013
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia