The Sabbath

August 26, 2007

Sermon for Trinity 11 Yr. C Isaiah 58, 9-14. Luke 13, 10-17

A verse from today’s gospel: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the Sabbath”. And another verse from St. Mark’s Gospel, chapter 2: “The Sabbath was made for Adam and Eve, not Adam and Eve for the Sabbath”.

Sabbath observance is one of those thins on which Christians are expected to have a common mind. I remember an atheist friend of mine starting a conversation with me some years ago by saying: ”What about all these shops opening on Sunday, then? I bet you don’t approve of that!”. But I was not sure what to answer, for I don’t think the situation is that simple.

The word “Sabbath’ comes from the Hebrew ‘to desist’ or ‘to break off’. This weekly day of rest from work seems to have been a custom peculiar to the Jews. It is given as one of the Ten Commandments, although different reasons are given for it’s observation: in Exodus, in memory of creation; in Deuteronomy, as a thanksgiving for release from slavery in Egypt. Whatever the reason, its effect was to separate the Jews from their neighbours who followed other religions, for you could not marry or work for any foreigner who would not allow you to observe the Sabbath.

The Jewish Sabbath lasts from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, and begins with a special meal where candles are lit and a blessing said over bread and wine. Jewish law defined 39 different actions that were forbidden on the Sabbath; but because it was seen as a time of joy, regulations were also made to enhance the joy of the day as a time for worship, spiritual and intellectual growth, and fellowship. The Sabbath was the approved time for study and for rituals such as circumcision; the rabbis encouraged people to wear their finest clothes and eat the best food on the Sabbath, and even told married couple it was the best night for making love!

Over time, however, religious legalism meant that the sense of joy was becoming lost, and by Jesus’ time the host of Sabbath regulations had become oppressive. We see from the Gospels how often Jesus came into conflict with the religious authorities over Sabbath observance. He opposed those regulations which made the lives of the poor and sick more difficult. He saw the day as one which should serve people’s deepest needs – freedom from hunger, danger, illness and exploitation – and a day when concern for people’s welfare should be given positive expression.

Christians, of course do not observe the Sabbath. But when the early Christians abandoned the Jewish Sabbath as their holy day in favour of Sunday, they did keep it as a ‘sabbath’ in something like its original form, meeting for a fellowship meal on Saturday evening and for worship at daybreak on Sunday. They did see Sunday as a day of joy, thanksgiving for the Resurrection, and fellowship. Fasting and penitential kneeling for prayer were forbidden on this day. At first, observance of Sunday was a voluntary matter for the Christian community. However, once Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, laws were passed to prevent people ( apart from farmers) from working on that day.

However, sport and recreational activities were not forbidden. In the middle Ages, Sundays and holy days were the only times people were free from work, and were times of celebration and relaxation.

Excessive Christian Sabbatarianism came with the English and Scottish reformations, in particular after Nicholas Bound published ‘The True Doctrine of the Sabbath’ in 1595, which advocated a strict enforcement of Sabbath observance along what he thought were Old Testament lines. From this followed the laws of Puritan times, which forbade not only work, but also music, dancing, sport, theatrical performance and any kind of recreation – even walking! Although Charles II did modify these laws a little, a German visitor to London in 1701 was moved to observe that a visit to see the crowds at St. James’ was the only possible entertainment to be had in London on a Sunday, since all else was forbidden, and his hostess would not even allow any musical instruments to be played. He concluded, rather sourly, that Sabbath observance was the only sign that the English were Christians at all!

Yet, Sabbath observance tended to be a privilege which only the rich could enjoy. Domestic servants and farm labourers had to work on Sundays, and, after the Industrial revolution,, many factories and mines were kept running seven days a week. Only the Factory Acts of the 19th century secured Sunday as a ‘day off’ for industrial workers; and the older ones among us can remember having deliveries of post and milk on Sundays until the latter half of the last century. It is only comparatively recently that sports venues, shops and theatres have been allowed to open on Sundays.

Given all this, what should the contemporary attitude be to Sunday observance, and to Sunday trading? And how do we decide?

The Sabbath laws of the Pentateuch see one day in seven of recreation and rest from servile labour as being part of God’s plan for the welfare of all human beings – and modern research would support that. The same laws recommend a periodic rest from work as good for animals and a rest from exploitation as being beneficial for the land – again practices which get support from more recent research. In Deuteronomy, the Sabbath rest is commanded for slaves and aliens as well as Jews – and this reminds us of our duty to protect the interests of the more vulnerable members of our society. Jesus’ miracles remind us of our duty to take action to ensure the physical and spiritual welfare of our neighbours on this day. The way this day was observed by the Early Church, as The Lord’s Day, characterised by joy, fellowship and living the ‘New Creation’ brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus, should inform the way we mark it. The writings of the Jewish rabbis, echoed nearer our own time by the poet, George Herbert, in his poem ‘Sunday’ remind us that both Sabbath and Sunday should be times for spiritual growth, and a foretaste of heaven.

Our decision will be influenced by what we know of the Scriptures and Tradition – but ultimately, the most important factor in our decision will be the practice of Jesus.

Jesus taught by example. He never imposed his views on others. This seems to me to indicate that Christians should not try to use the laws of the land to impose a so-called ‘Christian’ Sunday on everyone, regardless of their faith. In the past, this has resulted in oppression, and a view of the Body of Christ as composed of gloomy kill-joys. Today, when only a small proportion of the population attends church, even on Christmas Day, it is fundamentally undemocratic.

One day a week free of labour, for relaxation, for study, for the enjoyment of fellowship, especially with the family should be something that Christians support. So they may feel justified in supporting the Sunday opening of theatres, cinemas, concert halls and sports facilities, and also opportunities to by books, DIY supplies and garden equipment. In these days of fridges and freezers, however, there is no real need for food shops to be open seven days a week.

However, there is a need to protect the vulnerable from exploitation by their employers. Many married women work in shops from financial necessity, and it is easy for employers to demand that they work on days when they would prefer to be at home with their families, if the law gives them no protection, nor the right to choose a regular day off. But not all shop-workers are Christian. It would seem, therefore, that the loving way to protect the rights of individuals and defend the vulnerable is to enshrine in law the rights of all workers to have one day off-work each week – either the holy day of their religious community, or another day of their choice.

Christians need to take positive steps to demonstrate the character of Sunday as the Christian Sabbath. Many will feel it right not to shop or attend any sort of commercially organized activity on that day. Wearing special clothes, eating in a more formal way, with all the family, meeting with fellow Christians for worship will all mark the day as special. So would using the day for study, for activities designed to promote spiritual growth, activities with the family and enjoyment of the wonderful world God has created for us.

Some Christian will feel obliged to work on Sundays, particularly if their work is necessary for the health, welfare or safety of their fellow beings. For all Christians who follow Christ’s example, the demands of charity to the poor and vulnerable will take precedence over their own wants on this day.

But, as with other aspects of our faith, it is easy with Sabbath observance to become ‘Sunday Christians’, following Christ’s example on Sunday, but reverting to the ways of the world on all the other days of the week, The values which make Sunday ‘the gate of Heaven’ according to George Herbert are also the values which would help to bring about the Kingdom of Heaven on earth if they were applied during the other days of the week: a wish to put God’s will before ours; space to attend to our deepest spiritual needs; actions which demonstrate that we love our neighbours as ourselves.

Christians should not seek to ‘Keep Sunday Special’ by acting differently on that day from all the rest. Rather, Sunday should be the ideal towards which they strive to transform all the other days of the week. It should be the day which provides them with the spiritual energy to do this, until ultimately both Sundays and weekdays become for all humanity days of brightness and mirth, in which we can ( in George Herbert’s words) ‘fly hand in hand to Heaven’.


August 12, 2007

( Luke 12. 32-40)

This year marks the 100 anniversary of the founding of the Boy Scout movement, whose motto is “Be prepared”.

“Be prepared’ is the message of both this Sunday’s and last Sunday’s Gospel readings. Last Sunday’s reading was rather fierce, talking about the judgement which faces us after death, especially to those who misuse their worldly wealth. Today’s reading is much gentler. It tells us not to be afraid, but to trust in God our Father, who will give us the Kingdom.

There is one strand in the Bible that talks about human beings facing judgement when they meet God or Christ after death. But there is another strand which implies that we face judgement when we meet God or Christ in the encounters of our daily life, and in worship.

For churches of our tradition, one of the most important places where we meet Christ is in the Eucharist. This is a meeting place which is foreshadowed in our reading, which speaks of the encounter with our Master as a wedding banquet.

This is a favourite theme of the writer of Luke and Acts – that Christ is known in the breaking of bread.

So how prepared are we, week by week, as we come to take communion? For the Apostle Paul warns us that we face judgement if we eat and drink unworthily.

Of course there are a lot of people who make preparations for our services week by week. There is the Vicar, who chooses the hymns and the readings, and prepares the service sheets, and his secretarial assistant who finds readers and intercessors and people to administer the elements, and often prints the service sheets. There are the choir, and the organist, who prepare anthems and rehearse the music. The preacher and the person leading the prayers prepare what they want to say, and the readers read over what they have been asked to read. The sacristan makes sure that we have wafers and wine, and clean linen and candles, and sets up the altar before the service. Many people contribute to making the church look beautiful, from people who clean to those who arrange flowers. People help others to be ready by bringing them to the service and by acting as sidespeople.

But all these are externals. The really important preparations we have to make are internal and spiritual. How well do we do that?

The writers of the Book of Common Prayer in the 16th and 17th centuries thought it so important for people to prepare themselves spiritually, that they wrote exhortations to be read by the priest when he gave notice of the service. This required that you “Search and examine your own consciences, and that not lightly and after the manner of dissemblers with God”. It then goes into detail: you are to examine your lives and conversation against the standards of God’s commandments, and if you have offended by will, word or deed, you are to confess it to God and resolve to amend your future behaviour; if you have offended not only God but a neighbour by your words or actions, you are to be reconciled to them, and to make restitution and satisfaction in full for any injury you have caused; you are to forgive others who have offended you. This is to be done individually and in private, unless a person is deeply troubled, in which case they are to seek out a minister of the church and take counsel. A second exhortation warns people against letting earthly matters – like business or entertainment – come before receiving communion, quoting the parable about the guests who made excuses for not attending a wedding feast.

In some traditions, confession to a priest has to be undertaken before you can receive communion. And when I was confirmed, it was something we had to do before we took communion for the first time.

There also used to be a tradition that you fasted before taking communion, so that the bread and wine was the first food that you tasted on a Sunday. This was fine when the communion service you attended was at 8 or 9 am – not so practical when it is mid-morning.

All these disciplines are reflected in the book – Every Girl’s Confirmation Book – that I was given at my confirmation in 1960. These days fasting and individual confession are out of fashion in our church tradition, but although they are less detailed and prescriptive, books for people taking their first communion still stress the importance of proper preparation of some sort.

We confess our sins at the beginning of the communion service – but unless we have given some thought to what we are confessing, the confession can easily become something we do on autopilot. So all of us need a time of prayer or reflection some time before we come to communion to make sure that we are ‘right with God’ when we come to his table and he serves us. If you are a list maker, it might help to list the things you are going to be thinking about in the confession – and, perhaps, what needs to be done in a practical way to put things right.

The beginning of the service provides another time for reflection and preparation in the few moments of silence we have – but a time of quiet prayer before that silence would again help to ensure that we are properly ready for communion.

It doesn’t matter whether you think it is right to receive communion every day, every week or only on a limited number of occasions each year. What is important is that we reflect on our lives, and do our best to come to The Lord’s Supper in a fit state of mind – that we heed our Lord’s warning to “Be Prepared!”