“Tradition vs. Traditionalism”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
August 25, 2019
When I was growing up, Sunday meant church, family, and music. We started every Sunday the same way with breakfast at McDonald’s—me, my Mom and Dad, and my older brother. I tried to keep my Sunday clothes clean as I dug into stacks of hotcakes dripping with syrup, but inevitably some would drip down my chin onto my clip-on tie. Soon, Mom and Dad would hurry us into the car so that we could secure our usual pew for worship. I enjoyed church and its easy for me to look back now and see that God was calling me to ministry from an early age. Sunday took place during the worship service in the church where I grew up, but often I would sneak out of Sunday school and creep back into the sanctuary and up to the balcony so I could watch what the adults were doing. There were cookies and punch after church before we piled back in the car to head home.
The after-church Sunday routine was always the same. Mom made tuna salad sandwiches on toasted rye bread, salt and vinegar chips, and pickles for lunch. Then my brother and I had to spend the next three hours working on homework or practicing an instrument. I usually chose to practice my piano because even when I didn’t enjoy doing that, I enjoyed it more than doing homework. When the buzzer on the oven let us know that the three hours were up, we could do pretty much whatever we wanted—play outside, nap, run around with friends, nap, talk on the phone, nap. When dinner time came around, we ate at home or at my grandparent’s house. It rotated each week: one week dinner was at my dad’s parent’s house, then the next week it was at our house and everyone would come to us, then the next week would be at my mom’s parent’s house.
Sunday nights were pretty special growing up, starting off with baths and showers that could be as long as we wanted. Then it was time to settle in the living room for a movie accompanied by popcorn my Mom made in an antique pot on the stove. Sometimes we would lay on the floor in sleeping bags; other times we would build a fort around the sofa. I usually never made it to the end of the movie and, for a time, Mom or Dad would carry me off to bed. But when my brother and I got too big to carry to bed, Mom and Dad would just let us sleep on the sofa. I always thought that was cool. Sundays meant church, family, and music, and the Sundays of my childhood will always carry some of my greatest memories.
If I had to guess, it is likely that you and your families had similar ways of spending Sundays, or that you and your family spent Sundays in some variation of the theme I just laid out. Perhaps some of you even came from households where certain activities were prohibited on Sundays. Maybe you could read the Bible but no other books. Maybe you could listen to the radio, but no jazz or rock. Maybe you could play with your friends, but only if it was a quiet game and you didn’t mess up your Sunday clothes. Maybe you just stayed at home on Sunday because nothing was open—you couldn’t buy a car or groceries or alcohol or go out to eat. It could be that you had to go back to church on Sunday night even though you had spent most of your morning there.
All of these customs—my family’s customs and yours and those of the wider society—originated from how we have come to understand the Third Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” But from the time the commandment was given by God to Moses, there has been disagreement about why we should honor the Sabbath and how to keep it holy. The book of Exodus links the Sabbath to the creation story in Genesis. Exodus says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.” In Deuteronomy a different reason is given. There, we read, “Remember that you were slaves 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 keep the Sabbath holy.” If we were to mash these two explanations of the Sabbath together we that the Sabbath is a gift from God, a time of rest, a time of restoration in remembrance of all that God has done for us.
I think that’s interesting because Sabbath over the millennia has been weaponized. Probably right after Moses got the Sabbath law from God, all the way to this very day, folks have been at odds about what is permissible to do on the Sabbath and what is not. Keeping the Sabbath holy means reserving it as a day of worship, a day for family and rest and restoration, and as you might guess, each of us has a different idea about what constitutes worship, rest, and restoration. This means that we also have different ideas about what it means to keep the Sabbath holy. That is the sticky place where we find Jesus in the gospel lesson today. He is in one of the synagogues teaching on the sabbath—so far, so good. Jesus was widely recognized by many as a rabbi, a teacher, so it’s pretty normal that he is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath. But then Jesus sees this poor woman who has been bent over for eighteen years. Calling her over, Jesus says, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” Then Jesus laid his hands on her, and she immediately stood up straight and began praising God.
What a wonderful thing, right? Wrong. Luke says that a leader in the synagogue was indignant with Jesus and picked a fight with him and the congregation. The leader says, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” The synagogue leader is not denying Jesus’ power like so many other synagogue leaders were known to do. The leader is also not condemning Jesus or the woman. The synagogue leader is actually warning the congregation that if they wish to remain faithful, and if they wish to retain their place in synagogue membership, no one else better come forward to be healed on the Sabbath day. Do it some other day, the leader says, but not today—if you do, you’re out.
What we see happening here is a clash between tradition and traditionalism. On one side, we have Jesus who remains true to the tradition of his ancestors and Jewish heritage as he sets a woman free from terrible torture and imprisonment on the Sabbath. On the other side, we have the synagogue leader who is so blinded by traditionalism that he cannot see the wonderful miracle Jesus has just performed in front of his eyes. Tradition is using the Sabbath as a day to set captives free just as God set the Israelites free from their bondage in Egypt. Traditionalism is using the Sabbath day to oppress, control, and dominate based on ideas, biblical or not, about how the Sabbath should be observed and kept holy. One way of keeping the Sabbath holy sets a woman free from pain, from shame, and from isolation. The other way of keeping the Sabbath seeks only to maintain the status quo and the current power structure, to maintain how it has always been done.
True to form, Jesus is not willing to let the issue rest—he will not be silent in the face of the synagogue leader’s threat. He calls out the synagogue leader’s hypocrisy by pointing out that it was permissible according to the law to untie an animal and lead it to water and food on the Sabbath. Relieving the thirst and hunger of an animal so that it can continue to live is not a violation of the Sabbath, but rather a fulfillment of the God’s Sabbath commandment. So why should relieving a woman who has been tied up in knots for 18 years be any different? Is she of less worth than an animal? Jesus is demonstrating to the congregation that keeping the Sabbath holy is not about thou-shalts and thou-shalt-nots. Keeping the Sabbath holy was and is about worshipping God, and that worship is offer to God by releasing people from bondage and giving them new lives so that they, too, can praise God. That’s what God did when God lead the people out of Egypt and it is what God continues to do each day through Jesus. In a very clear way, Jesus is keeping, not breaking, the Third Commandment by healing the woman of her affliction.
In this gospel clash between tradition and traditionalism, tradition wins out and it calls us to examine the ways we are or are not being faithful to God’s sabbath commandment. The ways society used to keep the Sabbath are all but gone—stores are open on Sundays and Sunday seems to be more about preparing for the week to come instead of resting from the week that has passed. But can it be different? Can we return to a more traditional way of keeping the Sabbath? I’m not advocating that we bring back Blue Laws or that we boycott businesses that are open on Sunday. But can we return to observing the Sabbath as a day of rest and restoration and worship? I believe we can and it starts with smalls steps such as loving ourselves and loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
Traditional Sabbath practice begins by remembering that we are made for more than busy schedules, addictive devices, and general hecticness. God did not breathe the breath of life into us so that we could run ourselves ragged trying to do everything. God breathed into us and gave us life as a testimony to God’s love and faithfulness. We honor God and ourselves when we remember that we are enough, that we have enough, that our identity is grounded in God’s love and not in how full our calendar happens to be. Talk about grace! When we remember that we are and have enough, the anxiety of trying to keep up, the fear of missing something, the stress of having to do and have everything perfect simply melts away. It is a totally new way of thinking and living, based not on what is happening or going to happen but on what already is. You are loved. You are beautiful. You are capable and gifted and talented. Breathe in that good news and exhale the doubt, the fear, the stress, the anxiety. Remembering the Sabbath and keeping it holy is first about remembering who you are and whose you are, and that you are created for more!
As we take this step of remembering who we are, of drawing back and marveling in how we are created by the love of God, we very naturally start seeing each other in the same way. It is at this moment that the walls of hostility and skepticism and fear start to quickly come tumbling down, allowing us to clearly see the bent over among us who need to be lifted up. When we extend to one another the same grace we give ourselves in remembering who we are, the peace of God that passing all understanding has a chance to take hold and transform everything we know. My friend and fellow Elder, Brett, asked a question in the Ministry of Music that lingers on the lips of so many: “Who will love me for me?” Who will see that I am bent over? Who will see that I need a good word? Who will recognize that I just need to know that it’s going to be OK? The calling of Sabbath, of remembering who we are and whose we are, demands that we boldly stand up and say, “I will!” We all will. And we all can. That’s true Sabbath, where the bent over are lifted up, where the blind receive their sight, where deaf ears are opened to hear the good news of God.
The Sabbath is one day in seven set aside to be different from the rest. Today we must make a choice to go the way of Jesus or go the way of the synagogue leader. One way is restriction and laws and thou-shalt-nots, that really have nothing to do with God’s desire for us to rest, renew, and restore. The other way is freedom, freedom to bask in the love of God and freedom to share that love with as many people as we possibly can. Let today be the day you make a new commitment to Sabbath—not to traditionalism that does things the way it has always been done, but to the tradition of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who set us free in order to set others free. Let today be the day that you remember who you are, that you are rooted and grounded in the love of God, and that you have been made for more. Let today be the day that you extend that same grace to your neighbors, even the neighbors who don’t really deserve it. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. And rejoice, because God is doing some marvelous things! Amen.