Sermon: Sunday, August 26, 2007. Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost.

Text: Luke 13:10–17


The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where I did my Lutheran year of seminary after internship, is located in a neighborhood of Philadelphia called Mt. Airy, just north of an area of town called Germantown. Germantown was settled in the late 1600s by, no surprise, German immigrants from the Rhine Valley – mostly Mennonite and Quaker families. It’s the home of the Pennsylvania Dutch; Louisa May Alcott (author of Little Women); and later Frederick Taylor, an industrialist from the late nineteenth century famous for his ideas about “scientific management.”

Frederick Taylor, and his ideas about scientific management are often associated with Henry Ford and the rise of the assembly line as a method of mass production. What Ford did for the production of automobiles, Taylor was trying to do for the production of human labor. He was trying to maximize the amount of labor a manufacturer could squeeze out of a human being. Taylor did this mainly by pulling apart the work of the craftsmen, those men and women who knew an entire trade – whether that be weaving and sewing or woodworking and construction – and breaking those jobs down into their smallest parts. His idea was that workers could be taught these small, routine, repetitive tasks and that through specialization and mechanization efficiency would go up, and so would output, which was good for the bottom line, and thus for employers.

It wasn’t necessarily good for workers though. Specialization and, especially, mechanization was all about turning people into machines. “Scientific management” was, and still is, all about figuring out how to wring every last drop of work out of a person for the benefit of the person she or he works for. One of Frederick Taylor’s jobs, for example, was to figure out how much rest a worker should get during each work day. His observation was that without work breaks, productivity goes down, so workers obviously required breaks. Taylor would measure, down to a hundredth of a minute, how long a worker’s job took and considered any rest longer than what was required to ensure maximum productivity to be wasted potential labor.

What a sad view of humanity. To think that all our work is intended to do is to create a product as quickly and efficiently as possible, for the benefit of our employers. To neglect the intrinsic pleasure that comes from knowing a craft, from doing good work and being recognized for the value of that work. Perhaps, most sad of all, to view ourselves and one another as not much more than cogs in a machine of labor that are given rest only to make sure we keep working at our peak.

Taylor’s theories of “scientific management” are still very much in use today, taught in business schools around the world. They are quite at odds with the vision of rest and Sabbath-keeping held within the Christian tradition, and the Jewish tradition out of which we come which gave us what Lutherans call the third commandment,

“remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”[1]

Often, when we think of the Sabbath, we’ve been taught to think about it as being set aside for God, a day of worship. But to read it straight out of the bible, you can hear that Sabbath-keeping is as much about the human need for rest.

Luther, in his commentary on this commandment in the Large Catechism, his book of instruction for Christians, discussed the need for the Sabbath in a way that has everything to do with not only rest and worship, but labor. He said,

to give a Christian interpretation to the simple people of what God requires of us in this commandment, note that we do not observe holy days for the sake of intelligent and well-informed Christians, for they have no need of them. We observe them, first, because our bodies need them. Nature teaches and demands that the common people—menservants and maidservants who have gone about their work or trade all week long—should also retire for a day to rest and be refreshed. Second and most important, we observe them so that people will have time and opportunity on such days of rest, which otherwise would not be available, to attend worship services, that is, so that they may assemble to hear and discuss God’s Word and then to offer praise, song, and prayer to God.[2]

This is the proper meaning of the Sabbath. It is God’s gift to creation, God’s recognition that we are more than cogs in a wheel, and that our lives are about more than work. We were not made to live our lives bent over a conveyor belt, hunched over a keyboard, but instead to stand tall, to live with dignity, and to offer praise and thanksgiving to the One who has endowed us with a human nature made holy by our participation in the one body of Christ into which we were each baptized.

But meanings like this are always getting lost and found, and today’s story from the gospel of Luke is just such an occasion. There we heard the story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue, where he sees a woman bent over and unable to stand upright. It reminds us of so many other stories of Jesus’ healing: the man lowered through the roof, the woman with the hemorrhage. In this instance Jesus notices the woman first and calls her over to him. “Woman,” he says, “you are set free from your ailment.” He heals her and immediately she stands up and begins to praise God. But this provokes the criticism of the synagogue’s rule-keepers, those members of the household of faith concerned more concerned with good order than with the deep meaning of the Sabbath. “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath day,” says one of the leaders in the congregation.

Some regard Jesus’ action in healing on the sabbath as a sign that Jesus was disregarding the rules and the legalism of the Hebrew faith and setting a new agenda, one that placed people above policies. But that’s really not the point. Look at what Jesus calls his opponents. “You hypocrites,” he says, indicating that their words and their actions lack integrity. “Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?” Jesus isn’t asking the community to give up its rules. Instead he wants them to understand what these rules are for. Just as the temple leaders untie their animals on the Sabbath to give them rest, God wants to give rest to all creation. God provides the Sabbath to give rest and healing to all who labor and ache. Jesus calls the leaders hypocrites because the act without understanding their actions. They follow the rules for the Sabbath without understanding why, and because of this they cannot understand that when Jesus heals the woman bent over he is not breaking the Sabbath, he is being the Sabbath. Jesus Christ is the rest and the healing that God has provided for the care of creation.

Those of you who’ve been attending the Sunday morning adult education hour may hear something in all of this that sounds like law and gospel again, yes? Here the voice of the law in the commandment to rest acts to restrain us from working each other to death, to build a hedge around the Frederick Taylors of the world. The very need for a law that tells us to rest points to the realities of greed and de-humanization that draw us to view each other as tools, as means to an end. This law, in its existence, convicts us of our impulse to break the law, to disregard the need for rest and renewal – both our own and others. But there is also a word of gospel here, the realit
y that God not only commands the Sabbath, but God is our Sabbath. God does not just tell us to keep the Sabbath, God gives us the Sabbath in the healing and liberating person of Jesus who comes to give us a rest from the burden of sin, of broken bodies and bruised relationships. Who offers us unconditional belonging and acceptance and forgiveness – as well as a place and time in which we can rely to hear those words of mercy. God gives us worship, not because God needs to be worshipped, but because we need a place to encounter God over and over again, to be reassured of God’s undying love and to be set free from the lies and illusions that bind us.

The passage from Hebrews says, “you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel”[3] and we sing, in response, “we’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion. We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.”

This worship, this day of rest set aside for the healing and renewal of your lives, this bread and this cup, are all signs for us of the many ways that God is reaching out to heal and restore us to the true image of what it means to be human. It’s not about the keeping of rules, or the breaking of rules, it’s about the character of the one who is our ruler, who desires each of us to stand upright as the daughters and sons of God that we are. Rest in that promise. Be renewed by that grace. Sing the songs of Zion and know that God is working while you rest, in your rest and through your rest to bring healing and restoration to the rest of the world.


[1] Ex. 20: 8-11

[2] Robert Kolb, Timothy J. Wengert, and Charles P. Arand, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 396.

[3] Heb. 12:22-24

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