sermons, songs, etceteras
This sermon was originally preached on August 21, 2022 on my final Sunday as pastoral intern at Oak Grove Lutheran Church in Richfield, MN.
The service may be viewed here.
Lectionary Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10 | Hebrews 12:18-29
Gospel Text (included below sermon): Luke 13:10-17
Beloved of God whom I’ve had the honor of calling family…
I am not sure where to begin on this, my last day with you, in my last sermon to you. Except, perhaps, to take you back to my first sermon which was also outside, on this very patio, last September. In that sermon, I talked about how we’re living in apocalyptic times -- that is, revelatory times -- that show us who we are at our core, and teach us how to be rooted in love in a way that yields to the needs of others when they arise, especially among the most vulnerable, regardless of how inconvenient it may be. I shared what I found to be the center of James’s point in the 3rd and 4th chapters of his letter, which is that wisdom and understanding come not from winning debates or proving ourselves better or smarter than others, but from a willingness to yield to their need to be known, to feel seen, heard, like they’re someone. He says a harvest of peace and justice awaits those who know in their deepest self that being in right relationship is always better than being right.
I think Maya Angelou encapsulated this thought well when she wrote, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
So now we’re in Luke’s gospel, and I’m asking myself how Jesus is making these people feel. Now, it might be easy to chastise the leader of the synagogue where Jesus was teaching. To view him only from the vantage point of history, knowing who Jesus was and what he accomplished and how this healing fit into the larger story of his life and the 2000+ years since.
And perhaps that’s what Luke intended to do when he wrote about Jesus putting them all to shame with this miraculous healing, which was the fourth of five healings that occurred on the Sabbath; and all of which amplified Jesus’s messianic mission as proclaimed in Luke 4, which was to see humans liberated and flourishing.
Whatever Luke’s intentions were, I suspect it wasn’t Jesus’s intention to shame or condemn anyone, not even to defend himself against false or hypocritical accusations of breaking the third commandment.
Rather, I think Jesus is showing that he knows what the Sabbath is and what it’s for, and he is beckoning his listeners to remember. Indeed, he isn’t breaking the Sabbath; he is breaking it open. Let me explain what I mean:
First of all, I want to take us to go back to the Ten Commandments and notice that while every other commandment pertains either to Loving God or Loving others, this law -- the third, which comes after the Love God laws and before the Love Others laws -- this one is the only one that pertains directly to Loving ourselves, and tells God’s people explicitly how to practice it: As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his seminal book, ‘The Sabbath’, we love ourselves by “setting aside the tyranny of things of space” which hold us captive six days a week, in order to celebrate and “become attuned to holiness in time.” He wrote that the Sabbath “comes with its own holiness” and that the question -- according to Heschel -- was not how much to observe, but how to observe.” He said, “Strict adherence to the laws regulating Sabbath observance doesn’t suffice; the goal is creating the Sabbath as a foretaste of paradise. The Sabbath is a metaphor for paradise and a testimony to God’s presence” and that “Unless [we learn] how to relish the taste of Sabbath…[we] will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come…. It was on the seventh day” -- the one where God rested -- “that God gave the world a soul, and “[the world’s -- your and my and all our --] survival depends upon the holiness of the seventh day.”
See, Rest, for the Jewish community, is sacred, divinely commanded self-care. God knew, and they know from God, that humans are not meant to toil endlessly without rest, and that doing so literally kills us. They know that “working ourselves to death” is more than a turn of phrase; it is a reality of the body. And it is not to be interrupted for anything.
More than a command, this Love of self, practiced through rest, was a reminder from God, of God’s great love for God’s people, which God expressed by liberating them from the oppression of slavery. Deuteronomy 5:13-15 spells it out so beautifully. “Remember,” verse 15 says, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to rest. For one day each week, remember the physical, psychological, emotional, and spiritual cost of toiling day in and day out, year after year, and choose life by resting. Every single week, for a whole day, remember by resting.”
This is all just to say, a more generous view of the synagogue leader here is not that he was trying to be a stickler about a rule, but that he was being intentional and diligent about remembering who he was -- who the people of God are and where they come from, and how they got free -- and he is unwilling to forsake the day of remembering liberation for anything.
So Jesus’s immediate response is just to remind all those listening that they, too, do some labor on the Sabbath: Indeed, unlike some stricter interpretations of the Law, the folks at this synagogue do, at least, lead their animals to water. And I suppose they do so from an understanding that those who cannot care for themselves must be attended to even on the day of Rest, because their liberation and rest matter too -- and a thirsty ox is a suffering one who cannot rest. So why, Jesus asks, should their sister -- a daughter of Abraham who’s been suffering the oppression of interminable back pain for 18 years; a kind of suffering which, at least in my experience, can limit if not eliminate altogether a person’s ability to rest -- why should she be left to suffer even one more day when the gift of liberation and Rest can be offered on the day of remembering liberation and Rest?
Like I said: Jesus isn’t breaking the law here, he is breaking it open -- like a door that opens to all the ways rest evades those who need it most; like a hammock that opens to hold them.
Jesus is not saying the Sabbath is unimportant and can be broken or defied whenever He wants. He’s saying it is SO important that it must be broken when doing so will give Sabbath to those who need it.
I imagine that as time passed, some may have forgotten Jesus’s exact words of liberation, or how exactly he touched the woman’s body when he spoke them, but I doubt she -- this healed, liberated, resting woman -- could forget how he made her feel. Seen. Known. Like her suffering and liberation were important. Like she mattered enough for a healer to break open the Sabbath so she could celebrate it with them.
And I would hope that the synagogue leader and all those listening left with a sense of awe and remembrance of their own liberation, and inspired by the reminder that being right or being perfectly obedient to the letter of the law will always be less important than being in right relationship with those around us.
So what does this have to do with you and me, here at Oak Grove?
What I can tell you is this: Back when I was interviewing for internships, I thought I wanted to go to another urban or inner city congregation working with the unhoused population, or doing major, deep, daily racial and Queer justice work, preferably under the supervision of a Queer Black pastor. So Oak Grove was not on my radar. In fact, I only signed up to interview with Tom because I thought I needed one more interview to fill my calendar. I almost canceled, and Thank God I didn’t. Because my conversation with Tom opened my lungs. He was a deep breath of fresh air, mostly because he told me bluntly and without any dressing, “I’m not a Black Queer person, and we aren’t any of the stuff you’re looking for.” I laughed, and I felt totally disarmed by his honesty. By the fact that he knows himself, he knows this church, and even though he knows all this church has to offer interns, he wasn’t trying to sell me anything. I thought, “this guy is chill.” And having spent the last five years at a pretty chaotic, fast-paced, not-chill church, the idea of chill sounded like heaven.
The thing about internships is that the seminary sends the seminarian where she wants to go. But, I’m a person who is terrified of making important decisions, and I was afraid to choose. So I marked Oak Grove as my number one choice -- alongside two other congregations, both of which I thought I should want to go to -- and forced the seminary to choose for me.
Praise the Spirit who sees right through me, because when I got the call that I would be placed here, I felt such profound relief. Because it had been years since I’d rested when I came to you, and my spirit knew, even if I didn’t want to say it, that this was where I wanted to be, but I was afraid to say it out loud.
What I didn’t know was what to expect from you, and so I put myself out there as fully and boldly as I could, right from the start, to test just how welcome I would be. I suspect the Spirit laughed at that, because She knows you well, and She knew that whenever I tried to break or break open the rules, you would hold me.
This year, you have taken a sacred space -- this church-- and given it to me as a playground where I can jump off swings and see how I land; as a science lab where I can experiment with songs, sermons, even fashion. You’ve given me a sanctuary for my soul which reawakened the sound of songs in me. You have given me an entire year of Sabbath. It has been a year to rest from the labor of doing all the things so I can get to know myself, to learn to love myself as freely as you have and as freely as God does.
Being entrusted to you has taught me how to trust the Spirit, and how to trust myself. You have given me freedom. Belonging. You have affirmed my call and made me want to live from the very center of it.
What I’m saying is you have been Jesus to me as He was to the bent over woman in today’s gospel. And you have made me want to be Jesus to others. For this and so much more I thank you, and I thank God for you.
And I leave you just as I met you: With a poem, by EE Cummings:
i carry your heart with me
(i carry it in my heart)
i am never without it
(anywhere i go you go;
and whatever is done
by only me is your doing)
i carry your heart with me
(i carry it in
Amen, Lord, let it be so.
**All quoted content taken from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: Originally published 1951)
GOSPEL TEXT: Luke 13:10-17 NRSVUE
10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.