PEOPLE ON SUNDAY..................................
A sermon preached at St.LUKE'S QUEEN'S PARK BRIGHTON on 25th August 2019. Text: Luke 13.10-17
How do you like to spend your Sundays?
Well, I suppose, since at this moment I'm talking to you in S.Luke's, one of the things you do is come to church. That's a very good start. (But then I would say that, wouldn't I?)
And then perhaps you also like washing the car, taking the dog for a walk or doing a bit of gardening or some other form of physical activity, mild or strenuous.
Or, if you're a bit of a couch potato like me, you might prefer a stiff gin and tonic (which I like to call "my thirst after righteousness") when I get home from Mass, a good lunch, a snooze and a long read of the weekend newspapers in the armchair.
Before we start talking about the need to worship God on Sunday, there is another serious issue about life these days which affects everybody - believers or non-believers. At least, all those who are still of working age.
Some people, by virtue of the very nature of their job, are obliged to work shifts based on a seven day week - health services or emergency services for example. And then again, some people are so hard up that they need to earn whatever money they can on any day of the week including Sundays. Such people deserve our support and sympathy.
But the 24/7 culture of the society we now live in pressurizes many of us into thinking that somehow we should be busy non-stop and treat Sunday as just another day of the week to be filled like any other. Supermarkets and other shops open, everything buzzing as normal.
Quite apart from religious obligation (which is an entirely separate matter), psychologists are almost unanimous in calling attention to the damage caused to us mentally and spiritually, as well as physically, but not making ONE day of the week special and different. A day when the routine is halted or varied. When we make space for the things that get crowded out on the 6 other days - spending time with family and friends, resting and relaxing.
Otherwise, there is no escape from being driven and stressed and it seems obvious to me that living an unrelentingly continuous existence without carving out 24 hours of different, "quality" time in which to calm down, reflect and take stock, contributes to the terrible atmosphere of anger and insult which has now poisoned politics and social media.
But now let's assume that, contrary to destructive social trends, we DO manage to keep one day special. How would Jesus have us spend it?
In this morning's gospel, He runs into trouble over the question of keeping the Sabbath.
The ancient Jewish religious law had always regarded the seventh day of the week i.e. Saturday as sacred. Why? The idea is probably modelled on the story in Genesis where God is described as spending six days creating the world and then resting on the seventh. [the Christian Holy Day is of course the first day of the week because that is the day on which Our Lord rose from the dead]
The basic principle of the Jewish law is a very sound one. You set aside this sacred day Shabbat and you have just two obligations:
1. To spend time worshipping God and
2. To spend the remainer of the day having a rest from work.
But the trouble is that "resting from work" was a rule that spawned petty regulations covering no less than 39 categories of activity. Here are just a few examples of the no-noes:
Planting, ploughing, reaping / cutting up fruit or vegetables / picking small bones from fish / cooking, baking / sewing / washing clothes / scraping or sanding any object (including presumably a cricket ball - Australians watch out!)
Poor Jesus was admonished for curing a woman of a painful disability because He did it on a Saturday. This was forbidden work as far as the Pharisees were concerned. But He rounded on them, accusing them of one of the two things that never failed to infuriate Him: hypocrisy.
They are quite happy to move their animals about to water them (even though this is probably prohibited on the Sabbath) but they don't want a suffering woman healed.
There are several other incidents in the gospels where Jesus attacks this nasty form of hypocrisy and in the end He is driven to make His famous and scandalous pronouncement: the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Shock, horror!
This particular rebellion against the religious establishment is just one example of the whole of Our Lord's revolutionary attitude to the old testament Judaic Law. He says He has come from God to fulfil it, to interpret it in a different, loving, practical way, and in fact to personify it (I AM the way, the truth and the life).
S.Paul cottoned on to this as soon as he was converted to following Christ on the road to Damascus.
In his 2nd letter to the Corinthians, Paul talks about a NEW covenant between God and humanity replacing the old covenant contained in the rule-books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.
This new covenant is of the Holy Spirit. The letter of the law kills, says Paul; the Spirit gives life. To fumble around trying to obey all the minutiae of the Old Testament law is a total waste of time in the light of the revelation of God's love and saving power in the life and death of the PERSON Jesus Christ.
And if WE want to come to God, to serve and honour Him, what we have to do is to follow the practical example of our incarnate saviour in His self-giving, healing, compassionate life. What we DON'T do is judge how to behave towards our neighbour by looking up the nearest rule or regulation.
The letter of the law kills. And the ironic thing is that it not only kills any warmth or mercy or imagination but it is also self-defeating. As any lawyer will tell you (and I used to be one), the more detailed your regulations become in the vain hope of covering every set of facts, the narrower the wording gets and the easier it is to find loopholes. Which is just what the hypocritical Pharisees were very slick at doing.
Jesus turns all this legalism on its head and shows us what God really wants. Remember the Sermon on the Mount with its repeated formula: You have heard it said………………….but I say
Go the extra mile
Turn the other cheek
Love you enemies.
And each time the lesson is the same. Don't do the minimum to comply with the letter of the Law and congratulate yourself on keeping your nose clean. We know that sort - we've met them and they're in the bible: Ay say my prayers, Ay give may tithes, Ay thank God that ay am not as other men.
That's never going to cut any ice with Jesus. He preferred the miserable little tax collector who just asked for mercy.
And so finally what does God want US to do on Sundays - on our Sabbath?
I suggest a combination of three things:
1. Come to church so that we can all worship God together.
2. Spend some leisure time, resting and relaxing in ways you haven't been able to for the previous six days.
3. (and I think Our Lord would rate this highest of all) Show love to all those you come into contact with in the next six days.