Did you know...
· In Gainesville, Georgia, it is against the law to eat fried chicken with a knife and fork. I don’t know how serious they are about that, but there’s a rule.
· In Tennessee, you can’t hold public office if you’ve ever fought in a duel. There’s a rule.
· In Marion County, Oregon, there is a rule against ministers eating garlic or onions before their Sunday sermon.
· In Kentucky, it’s illegal to have reptiles in worship. There’s a rule.
· In Minnesota, It’s illegal to have more than two nights of bingo in any given week. (because that would be crazy)
· In Massachusetts, it is illegal to sing the Star Spangled Banner incorrectly... or “with embellishment”... or to use the Star Spangled Banner as dance music.
· And in Arkansas, I’ve heard that it is illegal to mispronounce Arkansas. Now, I researched that and it’s not exactly illegal, but there is an 1881 law, still in the Arkansas Code, that establishes the one true and official pronunciation – AR’-kan-SAW, and while other pronunciations – like ArkansAS – while not strictly illegal – under this law are to be strenuously discouraged. There is a rule.
We love our rules.
I sometimes wonder how rules or laws like this came into being. I imagine that someone once did the thing that the rule now prohibits – a minister ate garlic and preached, or brought a snake into worship – and someone then said, “There oughta be a rule.” Or, maybe there was disagreement, and when it was finally resolved, folks said, “This, now, is the rule – we’re not going to argue about this anymore.”
And there’s something to be said for rules. They offer clarity as to what is in bounds and what is not. There are good rules that keep people from harm. No murder. No theft. Don’t run with scissors. Stop at the red light and wait your turn.
But rules that seem clear have to be lived out in real life – that’s the point – they are there, hopefully, to make life better. But as life unfolds, a rule hits up against real life, and we wonder, “Well, what about this?” And we make another rule. And then another. Sometimes the rules can start to loom so large that they crowd out the life that we are supposed to be living. That is, after all the point: Living a good life – an imperfect life, well. Yeah.... but there’s a rule.
The folks in this morning’s Scripture live in a world where they have constructed a whole set of rules to guide and govern the Sabbath – the holy day set aside to be free from work. They have wanted to make sure they are getting it right. And to be clear – Sabbath is no small rule. Sabbath is central not only to how they were to live their lives – with a day where everyone was free from work – but also to their identity. This is one of the things that distinguishes God’s people – a day to be free – in a world that enslaves. And so, God establishes Sabbath as a command in the Ten Commandments. Christine read it just a moment ago. It is a gift – a lavish loving gift.
Remember the story – the people have just been freed from slavery – God has led them up out of Egypt – and they find themselves in the desert. And God, through Moses, gives them the gift of what we’ve come to call the Ten Commandments. We’ve talked about that moment before – God gives this gift to folks who have been living enslaved and says, here, here, “This is how free people live.” “Love God. Honor all life and your relationships with each other.” And into the rhythm of their lives – God sets the Sabbath observance – once a week – on the seventh day. Do no work. You are no longer enslaved in Egypt. You are free. Once a week, every week, remember that, embody that, enjoy that – be free. One writer says that Sabbath is a day for “enacting freedom.” And not only you – everybody – no one works – not you, not your family, not anyone you enslave, not even your donkey or ox – everyone is free. And on the Sabbath, remember that – live that. Sabbath is no small rule.
But over the centuries, they had lived that Sabbath rule out in real life – and there were the inevitable, “But what about this? Can’t I just do this?” Well, sometimes yes, sometimes no. So as a people they developed a fairly complex system of rules for keeping Sabbath – to be clear. But Sabbath, under that system of regulation – instead of being free – could sometimes be fraught.
On this Sabbath day, Jesus is teaching in the synagogue. Remember, we are in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is turning the world rightside up – proclaiming good news to the poor, helping those who are blinded see, setting the captive free. He’s traveling around preaching and teaching, and healing. He’s already healed once on the Sabbath, and declared and clarified that the purpose of the Sabbath – what is legal on the Sabbath – is to do good. (Luke 6:9-11)
And here Jesus is, on this Sabbath, teaching in the synagogue, and he sees a woman. He sees a woman who has been crippled, bent over, for 18 years. The folks gathered there – they may not have seen her – they may have stopped really seeing her years ago. But Jesus sees her; he sees her pain – and he calls her over, and says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment,” and he lays hands on her, with his tender, healing touch.
Jesus sees her and touches her. And she feels something change – that which had held her down and bound her up dissolves away – and slowly but surely – she stands up – to her full height. Now, everyone sees her – they see the weight of all she has borne these 18 years, pressing down on her – and they see the weight lift and fall away. And the woman praises God – right there, in worship, on the Sabbath.
But then – a religious leader stands up – you know there had to be one – and says, “But there’s a rule.” He says this to the congregation, not only to Jesus. “People, to be clear, there are rules – there are six days for working. Six, not seven. Come back and be healed on those days – but not today, not on the Sabbath.” We know you’re hurting, but there’s a rule.
And to that, Jesus just points them to all the rules they have built up on top of the good gift of Sabbath and says, “You hypocrites, don’t you see? Even under your rules, you are allowed to untie – to unbind – to set free even your ox and your donkey, and lead them to water? Ought not this woman also be set free on the Sabbath day?” And while the religious leader skulks away, the people... rejoice.
Jesus stands in the tension of this moment: Here is the good gift of the Sabbath; here are the rules – the ways we are trying to live this out; and here is real life – and the question arises: “How do we live this out?” We find the answer... in this moment... when Jesus sees this woman, sees her pain, touches her in their shared humanity – and all that weighs her down falls away – and she rises up – free.
My ethics teacher Carol Robb – some of you know her – taught us a three-part framework for ethics – three ethical approaches to living an imperfect life well.
1. There are rule-based ethics. Together, we decide on rules that are for the public good, and we live life out from those rules. Do this. Don’t do that.
2. There are values-based ethics. We each hold dear certain values – love, courage, compassion, loyalty, honesty. We can approach life trying to live out of those values. Given life’s particular challenge for this day, What is the courageous thing to do? What is the loving thing to do? Earlier this summer, we talked about the Fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, self-control – and wondered what it would be like to choose one of those and live it out. How can I live out of kindness today? That’s values-based ethics.
3. And then there are goal-based ethics – “teleological” ethics – what can I do here that will ultimately create the most good in the world? We begin with the end in mind. This is the end we want to reach – how do we get there?
We may not consciously think in terms of these categories – but as we move through life – we regularly tap into one or more of these approaches to living our imperfect lives well. What are the rules? What are our values? What will produce the most good?
In this Scripture this morning – Jesus lives out all three. He lives out the rule of Sabbath. You see – Jesus isn’t really breaking the central rule of Sabbath. If the rule of Sabbath is to enact freedom – to remember and live out our liberation – that’s the rule he follows – he unbinds the woman from all that holds her back. Jesus lives out the Sabbathvalues of freedom and liberation and love and dignity and healing. He does the freedom thing – the healing thing. And, he looks around on this Sabbath day and he see this woman – and he does that which sets good loose in the world. He heals and frees her and sets healing loose in the community.
Jesus does all three – and also one more. Jesus embodies Sabbath. The ethic Jesus lives out here is an embodied ethic. Remember, we are in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus is turning the world rightside up –
like Mary sang, lifting up those who have been held low –
like Jesus announced, bringing sight to those blinded
and setting the captive free.
We are on the road with Jesus, and we know that this road leads through the whole of life on into Resurrection – God is birthing a New Creation. And we see that here. The good gift of Sabbath – God’s liberation for all people – New Creation – new life – alive and embodied here – in Jesus – in this woman – in the community rejoicing that she and we are healed and made whole. In this Sabbath, Jesus enacts and embodies the rule of freedom – God’s liberating power at work healing the world. The ethic we are called to live is one that embodies the life of Jesus – that embodies Resurrection and New Creation – that embodies God’s liberating power at work in the world in the lives we live. There is a rule – that rule is freedom and healing and belonging and love and life – that rule is Christ.
Those who live in monastic communities have a way of using the word “rule” – that comes closer to this sense of an ethic integrated and woven into the whole of life. One of the best known examples of this is the Rule of St Benedict. Benedictine nuns and monks – follow as a structure for their life in community, this “Rule of St Benedict.” It’s a “handbook of sorts” – for living life together – it covers things like prayer, and relationship, and work, and meals, and chores, and mistakes, and forgiveness. Joan Chittister says that it is Wisdom literature: “It takes as its subject the meaning and manner of the well-lived life.” Remember what we talked about last year – wisdom as ways of living that lead to more life. Their “rule” describes a rhythm, a flow of life intended to embody over time – with stumbles and grace --- the life of Christ, lived out in the world God loves. St Benedict wrote that he intended to describe “a school for God’s service. “See,” he wrote, “See, how God’s love shows us the way to life.”
There’s a spiritual practice that makes that accessible to those, like us, living outside monastic orders – called a Rule of Life. It’s thinking intentionally about how we live our days – the rhythm of our days – and asking,
· “What am I doing that is making me less free? Making the world less free?” And writing those things out of your day.
· And then, “What type of activities or spaces might I build into my days that would help me and the world be more free?” And write those into your days – into the rhythm of your days.
And you write it down – your own “rule of life” – and you re-write it as life teaches you a bit more. It could look like this: Take time for prayer, meditation, and quiet. Do at least one kind thing for someone else. Take a walk outside. Participate in one justice action. Eat a family meal together. Offer a prayer of gratitude. Call someone who may be lonely. A rule of life – a rhythm for your life – centered in your identity in Christ – living each day free, in a way that sets more folks free.
I think of those folks wandering stunned in the desert after living all of their lives up till then enslaved. And God whispers in the midst of them – “Remember, you are free. No, really, remember. Build it into the rhythm of your days, weave it into the fabric of your life.”
And then I think of that moment with Jesus – the woman who comes weighed down – and how Jesus embodies the rule of Sabbath – and sets her free – how they embody the rule of Sabbath together.
Remember, it is for freedom Christ has set us free – freedom for all people – for the living of our days, for the living of these days, for the living of the New Creation, breaking forth even now.