"That day was a sabbath"-Sermon for Easter 6, John 5:1-9
As I have mentioned many times before, I am a huge fan of fiction. Reading theology is important. It helps form my thinking, teaching and, even, who I am as a person. But fiction, good stories…they move me. And, today, I want to share a quote from one of my favorite authors, the Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. In his most recent book, “Killing Commendatore”, he describes a conversation between an artist and young woman whose portrait he is painting. They are taking a break from painting and modeling and looking out the window of the artist’s studio. The studio is on the top of a mountain not too distant from the coast. It is a lush and lovely view…a mountain top jungle descending some distance to the sea below. The artist who is the narrator of the story recalls, “I didn’t pick up a brush that day. Instead, Mariye and I sat there in the bright studio talking about whatever crossed our minds. I kept a close eye on her, though, filing each expression and mannerism away in my mind. That stock of memories would become the flesh and blood of the portrait I wanted to paint.” Then the young woman, Mariye, says, “You didn’t draw anything today.” And the artist responds, “There are days like this. Time steals some things, but it gives us back others. Making time our ally is an important part of our work.” The artist then continues his internal musings, “Mariye said nothing, just studied my eyes. As if she was peering into a house, her face pressed against the window. She was contemplating the meaning of time.”
Our gospel lesson today from John ends quite literally with a demarcation of time. Following Jesus’ healing of the man who had been ill for thirty-eight years, John writes, “At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.” Now, as our gospel lesson today takes place, narratively speaking, more toward the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, I think, in part, John mentions that the day was a sabbath day to foreshadow Jesus’ coming conflict with his own religious leaders. A serious conflict that ultimately leads to the cross.
You see, Jesus’ own religious leaders’ strict observance of Torah forbid any sort of work on the sabbath including even healing the sick. Now, before criticizing the religious leaders, I want to say this religious observance, honoring the sabbath, is, in and of itself, a spiritually edifying and life-giving practice. For, as simply as I can say it, we all need to be more attentive to sabbath keeping. If the whole world spent a day every single week set aside for prayer, worship, contemplation and bible study…for rest and play…for gathering with loved ones with nothing to distract them from just enjoying and being present to the people standing right before us…well…I think the world would be turned upside down…meaning really right side up…that is our world and lives would be immeasurably enriched if we took more, regular and intentional, time to rest from our labors…clear our heads…rest to recharge…our lives would be profoundly blessed…if we took more, regular and intentional, time to fall more in love with God and deepen our bonds of affection with those closest to us. I think sabbath, ordained by God at the creation of all things and listed as one of the ten commandments, leads us to becoming more empathetic, more passionate, more patient, more peaceful, more generous, more intimately connected to God and each other, and, even, more productive. Just like a farmer rotates a crop…we need time to allow life-giving nutrients and minerals to resettle into our own souls and bodies, that for us are made up of things like loving on each other, resting our bodies, and connecting to God in prayer and study.
Thus, Jesus’ conflict with his religious leaders is not about the efficacy of honoring the sabbath. Instead, I believe the root of the disagreement lies in the purpose of the sabbath. Sabbath is not to be worshipped…it is not an end unto itself…keeping sabbath is not a badge we proudly wear on our chest as a demonstration of how pious and holy we really are, which seems to be the way Jesus’ religious leaders are treating it. Yet quite differently, what Jesus seems to be suggesting is that sabbath exists for our own good…it is a gift given to and for us by God…that we might be our better selves…more whole…more peace-filled, fully alive…more deeply connected to the sources of love that make life worth living…a life with purpose and direction.
So, if I can sum it up, sabbath exists, this lasting gift of God exists, for our restoration and healing. Thus, healing…whether it is just rest for our weary minds…or reconnecting with a family member that we have grown emotionally distant from…or the healing of a man who has been sick for thirty-eight years…is the exact purpose of sabbath. On the sabbath day described by John, the long-suffering man, ill for thirty-eight long years, resting on his mat encounters the living, loving, liberating God of love, in the person of Jesus, and he is healed. Surely a sabbath day of epic proportions…a full demonstration of the very purpose of sabbath…restoration and healing, again, one of God’s most lasting gifts of love set before each of us.
And we are in this very park today to keep our sabbath…to pray and play…with our family of faith…to rest in the presence of God, the great lover of our souls…to pray together…to play together…to break bread together…to fall more in love with God and each other. And, in the choice to use our time this way on this day, we are offered restoration and healing for weary hearts, minds and bodies. I hear it often…people say to me I really didn’t want to get out of bed this morning and come to church. We had a phrase for that in seminary…we called it going to the Church of the Holy Comforter…and sometime that is likely the very thing we should do on our sabbath (just not most of the time!). And, I hear people say things like…I am really behind at work and almost stayed home to respond to emails or some such. But here’s the thing, these sorts of comments are always followed by something like…but I am so glad I came…I just feel good…kind of like I have the week started on the right foot…I just feel a little more right with the world. And, if I can put those comments into a theological context, I would say…with the choice to spend your time communing with the divine…you had an encounter with the living God…you connected with friends in your family of faith who love you…and who were blessed to see you…your choice to spend this sabbath time by being here with us, maybe even in some small way, has healed and restored you.
I began with the quote from Murakami to say that how we spend our time matters. Indeed, time flies…the days may feel long but the years feel short. Time may indeed steal some things from us, our health and missed chances and relationships lost to the past…but it also gives us so much…for each new day is a gift with so many wonderful possibilities set before us in it. Thus, as Murakami writes, making time our ally…using it well…is an important part of our work.
So, my invitation as we sit in this lovely place…enjoy the view before us and the people we are sharing it with…is to consider how you use the time that has been given to you. I hope more and more regular, intentional time might be directed toward sabbath…to rest and play…to deeply connecting with God and those you love. Your time and presence directed in this way leads both to healing and restoration for both you and those you share that time with…just like Jesus and the man he healed. Further in doings so…you will find your life refreshed…more full of peace and empathy and passion and generosity and patience and, even, productivity…for the rest of the time…for all the other days…in your life, as well. Amen.