Sermon for High Mass – First after Trinity Sunday Sunday 3 June 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Alan Moses, Vicar
Readings: Deuteronomy 5.12-15; Psalm 81.1-10; 2 Corinthians 4.5-12; Mark 2.23 -3.6
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy…”
“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath, so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
Two sabbath stories:
A parishioner of mine in Edinburgh grew up in a West Highland village where his father was the policeman. One of his dad’s semi-official tasks, in a community firmly in the grip of the rigorously sabbatarian Free Kirk, was to chain up the swings in the village playground on Saturday evening; lest children violate the sabbath by playing on them.
My father-in-law, grew up in the very different world of Manchester’s Cheetham Hill between the wars. In that area with its mixed population of Irish and Jewish immigrants, this Catholic boy would earn pocket money by acting as a “Fire Yekelta”; that is, on Saturday mornings he would go round to the houses of Jewish neighbours to light their fires and ovens. The doors would be left unlocked and money laid out for him. In those days before central heating, electronic timers and thermostatic controls, this was the way the prohibition of work on the sabbath and keeping warm during a Mancunian winter could be reconciled.
Sabbatarianism of the kind practiced by the purer forms of Scottish Calvinism and Welsh non-conformity – no pubs open on a Sunday, no ferries sailing in the Western Isles, – has never been very popular in England. Cromwell tried to impose it during the Commonwealth, along with abolishing Christmas, but it never caught on. The Stuart kings, for all their failings, resisted puritan attempts to stop people enjoying themselves on Sundays.
When I first came to this parish more than 20 years ago, life around here was much quieter on a Sunday. Oxford Street’s shops and stores could not open. The law which allowed Sunday trading has changed all that: Sunday afternoon has become like any other in its cathedrals and shrines of consumerism.
So this might not seem a very good time to advocate taking a fresh look at sabbath-keeping: keeping Sunday special. Anyway, does not Jesus free us from all that kind of thing in today’s gospel? Well, if we read carefully, we find that he did not abolish the sabbath; nor did he anywhere else in the gospels. What he did, like some other rabbis, was attack its distortion by those who made of it a restrictive burden rather than a liberating gift from God.
Repressive legalism about religious duties, the kind of thing which Jesus encounters in today’s Gospel – is not – as Christians have sometimes suggested – something peculiar to Jews. This kind if hard-heartedness is a temptation to which serious-minded believers of all faiths are prone to succumb.
Jesus reminds his opponents that the law of the sabbath, however important it was, was never meant to stand in the way of doing good. There were even other religious duties which took precedence over it: the ministry of the priests in the temple and the circumcision of male children on the eight day. God had, in his untidiness had not arranged it so that male children would never be born on the sabbath.
The Sabbath in Deuteronomy has two elements: rest from work and keeping the day holy.
Abstaining from work may seem negative, but it was intended to be a positive good: for humankind and even of domestic animals. In the divine scheme of things, work is not the be-all-and-end-all of human life. God himself had rested on the seventh day from the work of creation; so the pattern of work and rest was built into the life of the world itself. Deuteronomy also reminded God’s people that they had been slaves in Egypt; theirs had been a life of relentless and unremitting toil when they had no time which they could call their own.
And lest we think that this is all ancient history, we are just waking up to the forms of slavery hidden in plain sight in our society – of domestic servants exploited and abused, of people picking the fruit and veg we buy in our supermarkets, or making the clothes we buy on Oxford Street or working in nail bars; and that is before we get to the women and children trafficked for sexual abuse or to labour in cannabis farms.
Even if these evils were all to be ended tomorrow, there would still be the issue of an economy based increasingly on cheap labour and zero hours contracts and the denial of basic employment rights for workers.
So the sabbath says something to us about the common good, about the nature of a just and decent society.
But there is more.
“Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy.” To keep the sabbath holy involved not just abstinence from work but positive obligations of prayer and worship. The sabbath is a time to remember God as well as our neighbour. It is to be a day of re-creation in faith as well as recreation. It is about us being a holy people.
The Christian observance of the Lord’s Day, is of course not on the same day as the Jewish Sabbath, the last day of the week, but on the first day – whatever secular calendars and diaries might say. It is the day on which God began the work of creation and the day of the resurrection – the beginning of the new creation. It is, too, the day of the outpouring of the Spirit, the birth of the Church.
All Sundays are feasts of the resurrection. That is why in the Church’s tradition, they can never be fast days – even in Lent.
This is a day in which Christians not only look back to past events, but forward to the consummation of God’s plan for creation in the kingdom of heaven. Our celebration of the Eucharist, as the normative service of this day, does not just look back to the last Supper – but forward to the heavenly banquet which we share in anticipation in the holy sacrament in which Christ makes himself known to us in the breaking of the bread.
The Book of Deuteronomy is written as if it is Moses” parting sermon to the people of Israel as they are about to enter the Promised Land. In fact, it was almost certainly written long after that to recall their descendants to their relationship with God; to encourage them to keep the obligations of God’s covenant in order that all might be well with them in the land.
In the same way, the Gospels are not simply records of past events, but words addressed to us here and now by the risen Christ. They challenge us to live the pattern of life ordered towards God, formed by the self-giving love of God, which we see in Jesus Christ in the gospels.
The Church knew then, as we should know now, that this is not something which happens by magic. Even if we have had as dramatic a conversion as St. Paul – and most of us have not – we still need, as he did, the sanctifying habit of worship and prayer, of word and sacrament. The feast of Corpus Christi – the Body of Christ – which we celebrated on Thursday teaches us that if the Church is to be the Body of Christ, then it needs the Body of Christ. We are to become, as St. Augustine said, that which celebrate. The Church celebrates the Eucharist so that the Eucharist can make the Church. We receive the Body of Christ in order to become the Body of Christ.
Research tells us that even committed church-goers are less likely to be there every Sunday. There are so many competing demands and pressures in life; so many other things to do; some legitimate, others less so. Even in the days when there were only two TV channels to choose between, it was said that the broadcasting of “The Forsyte Saga” on Sunday evenings sounded the death knell of Sunday evensong in many parishes. In Roman Catholic parishes, the tradition of families attending Rosary and Benediction on Thursday evenings suffered the same fate at the hands of “Top of the Pops”. You have to be quite old to remember these things!
However, we do need to recognize that this decline in commitment to keeping the sabbath holy, results in a lowering of spiritual energy; a lessening of the Christian quality of our lives as individuals and communities. We become spiritually flabby; out of shape and condition. Taking Sunday seriously helps us maintain our Christian identity. Rabbis say to Jews who wanted to return to the practice of the faith: “Keep the Sabbath and the sabbath will keep you. ” The same is true for Christians and Sunday: “Keep the Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Day will keep us.”
We need to rediscover the sense of worship as work – what St. Benedict called the Opus Dei – the “Work of God.” Our word “liturgy” which we use for services – usually translated as “the work of the people “-comes from the Greek for a public work performed on behalf of the community. We worship not simply for our own benefit – our comfort or recreation – but on behalf of others, of community and country and world – for their re-creation.
In our tradition, we used to speak of Sundays and other feats as “holy days of obligation,” days when we were expected to be in church. I know this can sound legalistic, but that need not be so. We ought to want to celebrate the great days of the church’s calendar whether they fall on a Sunday or a weekday.
There is something counter-cultural about the obligation to worship with others. In an age when more and more people live in virtual worlds rather than real ones – and those virtual worlds and their relationships are often fleeting and superficial, or worse still, dark places of abuse and bullying, we need to celebrate the joy and blessing of worship as a community.
Those of you who were here on Thursday evening for Corpus Christi will recall that we heard the gospel speak to us of the disciples making preparations for the last supper, in a “large upper room furnished; ” and of Jesus taking the bread and wine to be his body and blood and giving them to his disciples. We heard Fr. Robert of St. Clement’s Notting Dale, the parish church of Grenfell Tower, speaking about the tragedy that community suffered and is still suffering, and the response of their parish church community. We received the sacrament of the new covenant; eating and drinking as his disciples today.
Then, as we processed out of Church with banners, lights and incense, the band playing as we sang our hymns, we passed a party in full swing at the posh furniture shop across the road. Music was playing there too, but no one was really listening to it, above the din of prosecco-fueled conversations, the kind in which everyone talks loudly at the same time, hardly anyone listens and few remember anything that is said. Lots of mobile phones came out to photograph and film this strange event of people walking and singing together. And so it went on as we wended our way past pubs and shops and restaurants, drinkers and diners and shoppers, on our way round the parish. For many, this was perhaps nothing more than a quaint relic from the past – but to some who may have read the leaflets handed out as we went round, – it would be evidence, that whatever the talk of decline and secularization, there are still living Christian communities in our city.
Some who saw our procession joined in and came back for the final Benediction and the party afterwards. As I was standing at the gate, two people from the other party came across to ask what was going on. They turned out to be parishioners from St. Anne’s, Hoxton and said, “If only we had known this was happening, we would have come to church first!” Wait till I see their vicar.
And if you weren’t here on Thursday evening, perhaps because you think that kind of thing is a bit over the top, even rather vulgar and ostentatious, not very Church of England, you missed not only a great celebration, a challenging and inspiring sermon, but a chance to witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.