Sermon: Keeping the Sabbath (Proper 16 Year C)

11th Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16 Year C

Isaiah 58:9b-14

Psalm 103:1-8

[Hebrews 12:18-29]

Luke 13:10-17


Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God. 


Whenever I get to preach on Isaiah, I always have a hard time coming up with anything to say that Isaiah didn’t already say more poetically and forcefully than I can manage. 

“The Lord will guide you continually,

and satisfy your needs in parched places,

and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,

like a spring of water,

whose waters never fail.”

That sounds great! We live in a place where if you give it water, pretty much any plant will grow. Orchards, grape vines, vegetables, flowers. Imagine what we could grow if we had a spring of water that never failed! That’s the kind of bounty that Isaiah is describing. We’ve been in a drought or almost in a drought for about as long as I can remember. Every time I drive up 99, I see the billboards and hand-painted signs about water. “Food grows where water flows” is one that I always remember. Some are much more political than that. Calling out one side for stealing water or wasting water or destroying ecosystems or communities by mismanagement. Imagine what California might be like if water weren’t so scarce. Imagine if we were a watered garden like Isaiah says….It is almost unimaginable given the immensity of the drought, the volatile political tensions, the fragility of our lives, when the water does dry up. 

I could keep going with just reading from Isaiah:

“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;

you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,

the restorer of streets to live in.”

That sounds great too. There are so many broken things in our society now. We need a repairer of the breach. It seems so hopeless when I consider everything that needs to be restored. Rivers and reservoirs of water are just the beginning. What about housing? What about transportation? What about education? California, the central valley, when I take an honest look…our streets are not fit to live in. We need a restoration. 

The promises of God in Isaiah give me hope. What if those promises are given to us right now? We know we have good foundations. We know we have strong bones. We know the land is good for growing things, if it has water. I wonder what exactly the role of the church is in today’s world. Can we be the watered garden, where food and flowers grow? Plants also need sunlight to grow. Isaiah says: 

“your light shall rise in the darkness

and your gloom be like the noonday.”

What if the church is supposed to be the sunlight? What does it mean for our light to rise in the darkness of our society? What does it mean for us to be like the noonday sun? 

I’m just going to read straight from Isaiah again. 

“If you remove the yoke from among you,

the pointing of the finger, 

the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry

and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness”

Welp, there it is. A whole to-do list for how to be the sunlight that our society needs to grow. But that’s not really the end of it. If it’s so simple, how did we get so far off track? Why does the world seem so broken down and why is the land so parched?

These are questions society has been wrestling with since society was invented. I don’t even know why I bother with my own sermon. I’m just going to read from Isaiah again:

“If 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;

I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,”

We are supposed to keep the sabbath holy. …Isn’t that what we are doing by being here in church? What does this have to do with that to-do list of ways to be the light in the darkness from just a few verses back? What does this have to do with the restoration of society? 

I look back with nostalgia on the 1990s. I’m sure some of you can look further back than me, wishing those past days were here again. It seems like things were simpler in the past. It seems like things were easier in the past. It seems like things were less divided, less run-down. The streets were fit to live in. Kids used to play in the streets. The sunday school used to be full of children. People used to fill the church. And this brings me to the part I’m afraid to say. 

I’m afraid to say that I don’t think a restoration of those glory days is going to happen. I’m afraid to say that we worry too much pining for the glory days of church that we neglect these days we are actually living in. 

I’m afraid to say that going to church is not enough to rebuild the past. Even if we are really faithful at it. Even if we brought our kids every week, that’s no guarantee of a future for the church that looks like the past. Even if we promise to never miss a Sunday. It’s not going to bring back the days when the pews were full. It’s not going to bring back the days when the church was *the* place to be on Sundays.

Is it all hopeless? Has the church lost its light? Should we just wrap things up because it’s not going to ever be as good as it was? Those are the questions I’m afraid to ask. 

I’m afraid to say that going to church is not enough to keep the sabbath holy. Looking after our own interests in keeping the institution of the church going, that’s trampling on the sabbath. Why do we seem to care more about Sunday attendance than satisfying the needs of the afflicted?

What if restoring the glory days of church means *not* chasing after the power we had in the past? What if it were not about getting more people back in church? What if we figured out how to call the sabbath a delight? Wouldn’t that shine a brighter light than keeping up appearances of past glory?

Jesus puts this into action in our gospel passage today. He heals a woman from a physical ailment she’s had for 18 years. In his words, he “sets her free.” In the words of Isaiah, he “removes the yoke” and “satisfies the needs of the afflicted.” But some people complain that Jesus is breaking the rules, that he should be more reverent and restful on the sabbath, perform those healings on another day, any other day. Those people seem to be trying to keep up the appearance of the sabbath as a time of pure rest, and healing is too much work for the holy day of rest. 

Jesus sets them straight. Don’t they take care of their animals on the sabbath? Isn’t this woman worth more than an animal? Shouldn’t she be set free on the holy day? The holy day is a day for delight, not bondage. The holy day is a day for honoring God. Each of us is created in the image of God. Should we not honor and delight in that image of God on the holy day? 

How do we do that? We might not be able to perform miraculous healings or other signs like Jesus. We might not be able to wield the same cultural power the church had in the past. We can still be the light that the world needs. We can be the noonday sun in the gloom. I’m not going to read straight from Isaiah again. But Isaiah really did give us an answer all those centuries ago.  We can remove the yoke of society’s burdens from among us. We can stop pointing the finger of blame for things that happened in the past, we can refrain from speaking evil. We can offer food to the hungry. We can satisfy the needs of the afflicted. We can take delight in tending to people created in the image of God. We can be the sunlight that the watered garden needs to grow. Those are the actions that honor the holy day. Those are the actions that honor God.


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