Sunday, 21 August 2016
But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day." (Luke 13:10-14)
When I moved to Lockerbie in 1985 I quickly noticed something. Everything was shut on Sundays. Even the newsagents and - as I enjoyed reading the Sunday paper and doing the crossword - I was a little put out by this. It turned out that there was a little shed in the road at the back of the police station that opened on a Sunday solely to sell the papers. Apart from that - nothing. I learned that this harked back to the old Scottish Sabbath, which I looked into. By all accounts it made Sundays a bit of a dreich day. Especially if you were a child. I gather that in parts of the country they used to chain up the swings in the parks on a Sunday. Heaven offend that children should enjoy the Sabbath.
Perhaps it’s with at least a little historical humility that we ought to reflect on the words of the leader of the synagogue. He is, after all - in his own mind at least - following the rules. In his mind he is carrying out the will of God. He is insisting on the observation of the 4th Commandment; “Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. At least, he’s insisting on it being observed in the ways in which that commandment has been interpreted through centuries of hard cases where folk have had to decide what does and what does not constitute work on the Sabbath.
Yet we feel instinctively that there is something wrong in what he says. Here comes this woman who has endured eighteen years of pain and misery. She’s come here on this day because she knows Jesus will be there - who knows where he will be tomorrow? She’s come in desperate hope and need. It is that need that Jesus responds to when he reaches out and heals her. Is this the right thing to do - to break with the tradition that the leader of the synagogue seeks to uphold. Of course it is. Not only do we see that, but the crowd at the synagogue saw it too.
Yet there's the tradition of the Sabbath in the synagogue. There’s the 4th Commandment. Do these count for nothing? There’s something the leader of the synagogue is missing - something Jesus alluded to when he picked ears of wheat for his followers. The Sabbath was made for humanity - not humanity for the Sabbath. It’s not meant to be dreich and oppressive - it’s meant, in the words of Isaiah, to be a delight. So let me be clear - I think the Sabbath is a great thing. These days we’re getting to the stage where we’re living in a “24/7” society and people are working all hours of the day and all the days of the week. We’re not meant for that. We are not evolved to do that - an by “evolved” I mean developed according to the laws of nature that God set down to achieve his will.
Jesus is right. The Sabbath is exactly the right day for this woman to be free of the bonds that have tied her down. The Sabbath is not meant to be a burden. It is meant to be a gift from God to humanity. It is meant to be God’s way of reminding us that we are not just economic units or machines. We are his children and we need time for ourselves and for our families. We need time to push our kids on the swings in the park and to rejoice in each other’s company. We need time to be human. If our traditions make the Sabbath dreich and they do not reveal the love of God; then they have become barriers to what we are meant to do.
Traditions can develop all human institutions. We can wind up, if we’re not careful, making them more important than spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ - the message that God loves his children beyond measure. That he loved the world so much that he gave his own son for our salvation. Let me give you a couple of examples that I sometimes see.
I’ll get pelters for this, but let me start with buildings. I’ve been on the Parish Reappraisal Committee for many years and there’s something I’ve noticed. When we go to visit when we’re revising the Presbytery Plan the first thing we get from congregations is “You’re not going to close our church, are you?” And I absolutely get it. I love churches - and any building where worship takes place. There is an aura to them that comes with people gathering in the presence of God. When folk have been coming to a church for years it feels like home to them and they don’t want to let go of it. And if a church is a place where people are welcome to come and hear the gospel - if it’s a place where the doors are open and folk are invited to come and find the love of God - then that’s great. If it’s a place that can be a hub in communities which can reach out to people and invite them to share in that love that’s fantastic. If it’s just a building maybe it’s just a tradition.
We cleave to our traditions. Especially our traditions of worship. A few years ago I got a congregation to use a modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer. That didn’t go down well. And I absolutely get it. The traditions of worship let us feel comfortable because we don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen next - it’ll be what’s always happened next. At least for as long as we’ve been coming. The thing is, though, that traditions change and it can be uncomfortable when they do. I remember the guy I trained with telling me that one Sunday he’d had Psalm 23 sung to Wiltshire. Several members of the congregation had muttered on the way out, “Why can’t you stick to the traditional tune?”. One elderly lady, though, had said, “Thank you for having the traditional tune”.
The thing is, though, what would someone coming into our church for the first time make of our traditions? Imagine someone who hasn’t been brought up in the church - someone who has recently come to Christ and this is their first time in church. Do these traditions we set such store by tell him anything of the love of God? Might they make him feel uncomfortable - an outsider? Where should maintaining them be on our scale of priorities?
I started talking about the Sabbath being a delight. I spoke of it being a gift from God to humanity. This is what Jesus is getting at and what the leader of the synagogue misses. Here, in this place, every week we gather in the presence of Gd. We open our hearts in prayer and trust because we believe that he loves us. We lift up our voices in song because we believe that he loves us. We open our ears to listen for him in words of scripture because we have faith that in meditating on those words he will guide us in the way that’s best for us. And people like me have the honour and the privilege of preaching the Gospel - that God loves us so much that he’s willing to forgive everything, if we’ll only accept that love.
The Sabbath is a gift from God to humanity. It’s his reminder that we are not just economic units or machines to work 24/7. We are human beings. We are his children - made by love for love to live with love for one another. If our interpretations of scripture, our buildings and traditions help us to carry that love out into the world and share it, all well and good. Nothing, though, is more important than that.
Lord you are here with us. That’s why we gather here. May we go from here rejoicing - not because this is a beautiful building or because of traditions we share - but because you love us. May we share that love with all we meet