Of all the issues facing the church 120 years ago, one that was considered so pressing that it was addressed by bishops throughout the Anglican Communion at the Lambeth Conference of 1888 was this: the observance of the Sabbath.
The bishops at that conference issued a report including these statements:
âThe principle of the religious observation of one day in seven is of Divine and primeval obligation, and was afterwards embodied in the Fourth Commandment. The observance of the Lordâs Day as a day of rest, of worship, and of religious teaching has been a priceless blessing in all Christian lands in which it has been maintained. The growing license in its observance threatens a grave change in its sacred and beneficent character. ... The increasing practice on the part of some of the wealthy and leisurely classes of making the day a day of secular amusement is most strongly to be deprecated. The most careful regard should be had to the danger of any encroachment upon the rest which on this day is the right of servants as well as their masters, and of the working classes as well as their employers.â
The language is a bit dated, but in 1888 we clearly see concerns that have grown in the past century or so, concerns over the Sabbath becoming a day of amusement for those with means, and concerns that people who have to work for a living are not getting a day of rest.
Although the Sabbath may not be at forefront of concerns as we head toward the next Lambeth Conference, is it still pressing enough for the bishops gathering in 2008 to address? What might they have to say now, in todayâs fast-paced, technological, consumer-driven society, about the subject of Sunday observance? What might they have to say about the keeping of any day of the week as a day set aside for rest, worship, and religious teaching? Might not this issue be more pressing in the lives of more Anglicans than some of the others that will undoubtedly capture the headlines?
In todayâs gospel lesson, Jesus argues with his opponents who criticize him for healing on a Sabbath. Jesus counters that in healing the woman, he is actually setting her free from bondage to Satan, and just as anyone would untie an animal to show it compassion, how much more appropriate is loosing someone from the powers that work against human health, wholeness, and freedom?
Well, who wouldnât agree with that? Surely showing compassion and working for the dignity of every human being is appropriate on every day of the week. We applaud Jesusâ opposition to a legal view of the Sabbath. We applaud him, and then we turn the page, thankful that weâre not weighed down by faulty and outdated interpretations of scripture that may prevent us from doing the things we really feel are important to do.
And perhaps this is where we run into trouble. Are we too quick to place a check mark by this story, thinking, âOh, Iâm so glad we donât have to worry about this subjectâ? Do we fail to engage seriously the gift that God intends in his commanding â commanding, not suggesting â a Sabbath?
In Jesus, we are set free from a legal observance of Sabbath, but what are we set free for?
Are we simply free to add ten more hours to our work week? To work every day so that those who work for us never have a day during which we have not added something to their list of things to do? Are we free simply to participate every day in our consumer culture, every day making purchases, acquiring, accumulating? Are we free so that our childrenâs lives can be structured every day, fully scheduled, so they never miss a chance to compete, excel, keep up, or add an activity to a college or scholarship application?
Of course work, the ability to acquire the things we need, our childrenâs activities, and well being are all good things in and of themselves. But is there a price we pay in never designating one day in seven, any day, as a day of Sabbath?
Apparently, people of God have long struggled with how to keep this commandment appropriately. In our first lesson, we hear the prophet pronounce these words of the Lord: âIf you 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.â
Perhaps this ancient reading still shines light on our path. The problem for Isaiahâs audience was that people were pursuing their own interests, not Godâs; honoring their own purposes, not Godâs. Itâs no accident that the prophet connects their faulty observance of Sabbath with issues of justice, such as feeding the hungry and meeting the needs of the afflicted. Sabbath, it seems, is also a justice issue. If we ignore Godâs purposes for Sabbath, just as if we ignore hungry people, all will not be right in our world.
So what does God intend for Sabbath? If weâre free from the law, what are we free for?
We are free for rest. We need it. We all need it: adults and children, executives, bus drivers, students, teachers, nurses, homemakers. All. We are mortals, and resting reminds us that we are creatures with real bodily needs to stop, replenish, and rest. This rest is a justice issue because we need an economy in which people can make a living wage, so that no one needs to work every day of the week in order to make ends meet and provide for the needs of their households.
We are free to remember our dependency on God. Sabbath reminds us that God is God and we can stop trying to be God. We can rest, worshipping the one God, and learning about the real God.
We are free to worship, to immerse ourselves in Godâs eternity: in a place and time set aside; in an activity in which we produce nothing but praise; where we are valued, not because of what we make, do, earn, deserve, know, contribute, or achieve, but because we are created by God, loved by God.
If, as our reading from Hebrews states, our God is a consuming fire, then worship gives us a place in which all that seems so needful during the rest of the week can be burned away, and we can rest, simply and wholly, in the presence of God.
The woman cured by Jesus on that Sabbath must have experienced all this in gaining her freedom. She experienced rest from the physical stress of her deformity. She experienced reliance on God in the reminder that God alone has the power to bring healing. And she experienced true worship, in praise that issued forth from her lips for what God had done, not what she had accomplished.
What about us? How shall we keep Sabbath in our own day?