Rest & Freedom

A Homily for the Second Wednesday in Lent

Text: St. John 5:1-18

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who sets us free. Amen.

What comes to your mind when I say “blue laws?” Usually, banning the sale of alcohol on Sunday, right? Maybe laws about horse racing, hunting, and car sales (and, according to one unconfirmed urban legend, sodas, which through a bizarre bit of marketing and legal loop holes, birthed the ice cream Sundae) but most of us think about those laws that kept the beer aisle in Georgia grocery stores dark on Sunday until about a decade ago (depending on which county you lived in).

These laws date back to a time when Sabbath observance was serious business – in this country, most famously in Puritan New England. Shops were closed and work was strictly prohibited. More than working, though, New England’s blue laws targeted anything that would distract from the Lord’s Day. (This even became a plot point in the novel Johnny Tremain.) The Massachusetts Bay colony enshrined in law:

That whosoever shall profane the Lords-day, by doing unnecessary servile work, by unnecessary travailing, or by sports and recreations, he or they that so transgress, shall forfeit for every such default forty shillings, or be publickly whipt: But if it clearly appear that the sin was profoundly, Presumptuously and with a high hand committed, against the known Command and Authority of the blessed God, such a person therein despising and reproaching the Lord, shall be put to death or grievously punished at the Judgement of the Court.

The situation on the ground in first century Judea was strict but not quite that strict. Nevertheless, it was a big enough deal that, at various points in the Gospels, the Pharisees confronted Jesus about different Sabbath violations, most notably of all, when our Lord would heal on the Sabbath. While rabbinic interpretation of the Mosaic law permitted the healing of a dire illness on the day of rest, healing a chronic but non-life-threatening illness was out of bounds.

There is a certain logic in this: while an urgent care clinic or emergency room is often only a short drive from most Americans, we need not look too far into the past to find a time when getting medical help meant a voyage of several hours. Suppose you found yourself without a car; even if the doctor is three miles away, that’s an hour’s walk in each direction – if the affliction were not so sever that it needed to be treated on Friday, before the Sabbath, why force the caregiver to give up their day of rest if it can wait until the first day of the week?

I suspect that many of us can learn something from this; after all, with cell phones, mobile email, and social media, how many of us are now always a phone call away? Work has become more than just a means to secure food, shelter, and a few comforts; it has become a key part of our identity. In just the three some decades I’ve been alive – roughly corresponding with the internet – work has become something that follows us home, to the dinner table, and on vacation. And with the pandemic forcing many to work from home, suddenly “back at the office” has merged with home, making it all the more difficult to walk away; the work computer is always sitting there with a to-do list, not to mention all the chores to be done around the home. Finding time to truly rest does take discipline. It means putting the phone down, closing the laptop, and ignoring that long to-do list at least for a day. It means learning to say no, even if something is important but not urgent.

The Sabbath laws that the Pharisees are trying to enforce in John’s Gospel are a way of protecting the people: put down the spade, the adze, the hammer. Take a day off. No, really, a full day. Not to do chores or catch up but to actually relax. Go rest in the Lord. Be renewed.

But as we see in the religious leaders’ response to Christ, in the old Sabbath laws of American Puritanism, and in some of the more extreme blue laws of our own history, these edicts can be taken too far. Yes, the Sabbath is freedom from work, and resting does require discipline. But while we are free from work, what are we free for?

Confronted by the Scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus roots his response in creation. tells them that while God may have rested on the seventh day, the Lord is hard at work on the Sabbath, upholding all of creation. It is only because God continues to do God things on the Sabbath that we continue to exist; if God stopped working, we would stop being. And during a similar confrontation in Saint Mark’s Gospel, Christ says, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” The sabbath is to be a source of freedom, not a burden.

Pushing beyond our verses tonight, Jesus tells the leaders that God will do “greater works than these,” raising the dead and giving life. “So also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.” We are set free not just from work to rest and to continue to survive, but we are set free to truly live in Christ.

And so, dear ones, rest in the Lord. And, sisters and brothers, live into the freedom God has granted.


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