Sharing The Sabbath

Sunday, 25 August 2019 08:30

But the leader of the synagogue kept saying to the crowd, "There are six days on which work ought to be done (Luke 13:14)

One of the most important figures in the Reformation of the Church of Scotland was John Knox. It’s a name that comes up every so often and I often find that when people talk about him you get the idea that he was this stern, glowering man, damning folk for their sinfulness and insisting on a kind of puritan approach to the Sabbath. If you look a bit deeper though, the contemporary accounts say that he was a charming man with a great sense of humour who loved to laugh. Women found him highly attractive - must have been the beard. As far as the Sabbath goes, he was happy for folk to go to the tavern and enjoy each others’ company, as long as they were in church during the time of worship.

There are few things, I think, in the Christian life that has provoked so much debate and sometimes heated argument over the years as what should and what should not be done on a Sunday. In the Isles it is still very much a hot issue. There is nothing new in that. It was going on throughout the time that the Old Testament was being composed and was still going on during the times when the Gospels were being written and Paul was writing his letters. Part of the problem is that, at its heart, God’s command to keep the Sabbath Day is really really simple; and one of the things we love to do as human beings is take really simple things and make them complicated.

At its heart the idea of the Sabbath is God’s command to observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy: “Six days shall you work and on the seventh you shall rest”. Don’t work. Rest. Sounds simple enough. “Ah!”, though, go those who tend to overthink things, “What do you mean by ‘work’”. Does it involve any kind of physical activity? Does it involve travelling? If so, how far? Does it involve cooking? Would doing the crossword count, as it involves mental effort? To be fair, that last one wasn’t a hot issue in Old Testament times. The others were, and what you wind up in books like Leviticus are whole sets of rules about what constitutes work and which, therefore, shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath.

This kind of ‘rules based’ approach to the Sabbath is what lies behind the story in our Gospel reading this morning. Jesus heals a crippled woman in the synagogue. The leader of the synagogue is incensed that Jesus has done this because he regards it as work. The response of Jesus is to point out the fact nobody in the room would hesitate to to see to it that his ox or his donkey got fed and watered on the Sabbath - and they wouldn’t: the whole issue of animal welfare had been dealt with hundreds of years ago while the Old Testament was being written. Feeding them, watering them, hauling them out of ditches, was permissible. It was within the rules. Healing crippled woman wasn’t within the rules.

There have  been times when we, as Christians, have tried to be equally strict and rules-based about the Sabbath. During the 17th Century one of the jobs of Elders was to go around, after services had finished, peering through peoples’ windows to check they were reading their Bibles. More recently, and within living memory, there were places where they’d chain up the swings in the park because Heaven forfend that children should have fun on a Sunday or that parents should smile and feel a warm glow at their laughter. I’m going to suggest to you that nothing has done more to undermine the habits of church-going or the observation of the Sabbath than the notion that they should be dreich and joyless.

Is that really what we think God intended for the Sabbath. I have a picture of my son when he was about 8 or 9 at a ‘family fun day’ organised by the church and he’s having a great time. Laughing on the Sabbath. For all that I’ve said I think that the idea of a day of rest is a brilliant one and we should, as Isaiah puts it, ‘call the Sabbath a delight’. God’s commandment is, I think, a recognition that we can have a tendency sometimes to get so caught up with the whole business of work and getting stuff that we forget that we are human. We define ourselves by the work that we do and we define success in life as getting more and more money and ever higher status and our purpose in life becomes no more than getting more and more stuff. We get caught up in what used to be called the rat-race, forgetting Jimmy Reid’s observation that the rat race is for rats - not human beings.

So let us call the Sabbath a delight and let us share it because that’s what it’s for. Let us share it with God. That’s what this time on a Sunday is for - to share this time with each other and with God; to spend time together in the loving presence of a loving Father; to take the time away from the rat race to redefine ourselves again as what we really are - human beings with all the richness and complexity that implies; to rejoice that we are made by love, in love for love. A love that is meant to be shared.

So let us call the sabbath a delight and share it because that’s what it’s for. Let us share it with the people we share our lives with - our friends and our families. That’s why time away from the rat race is important - it reminds us what a successful life really is. If we have smiled and felt a warm glow at the laughter of our children then we have been successful. If we have made another person’s life happier and more joyful then we have been successful. If there are people who matter to us and to whom we matter, then we have been successful because true success is love.

So let us call the Sabbath a delight and share it because that’s what it’s for. Let us share it with ourselves. Let’s give ourselves time just to be - to walk, perhaps, in the beautiful countryside we have around here and see that we have so much; to enjoy good food, perhaps, and see that we have so much; to think of all the things that we have in our lives that can’t be bought however fast we run in the rat race.

If folk ask you why we should keep Sunday special, don’t talk to them about rules or ‘what the Bible says’. Tell them that it gives us space and time. It’s meant to give us a breather from the business of work and buying and selling and getting. It’s meant to give us time to be human in all the richness and complexity that word implies and which the leader of the synagogue had forgotten. It’s meant to give us time to be with one another and to be with God and rejoice in being together.

If folk ask you why we should keep Sunday special this story in Luke isn’t a bad pointer. It’s a reminder that in a world that is so often driven by greed, status and wealth and power, God came into the world in the life of a poor carpenter’s son to offer kindness, love and healing to someone who needed healing on the Sabbath day. Someone who needed reminded that she was a daughter of Abraham - a beloved child of God. If you can do that for one person today, I think you’ve observed the Sabbath day and made it holy

Lord, may we share the Sabbath Day. May we make it a day when we turn to you and to those around  us and know and share your love for all your children

Preached at Gretna: St Andrew's