A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, August 25th, 2019
‘Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. For six days you shall labour and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns.’ (Exodus 20:8-10)
That’s the fourth commandment. It’s from the Book of Exodus, part of the Hebrew scriptures read aloud in the synagogues that Jesus attended. And in one such a synagogue, on a sabbath day, there was a woman who ‘for eighteen years … was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.’ (13:11)
The sabbath day was a day designed not for work but for rest and worship. As explained in the Book of Exodus, ‘in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.’ (20:11) The sabbath was both weekly holy day and holi-day. So where does Jesus’ healing of a woman who ‘was bent over and quite unable to stand up straight’ fit into all of that? Well, the indignant synagogue leader was convinced that whatever the sabbath was for, it was not for this: ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ (13:14)
It’s too easy to “write off” the synagogue leader as an overly pedantic religious fanatic who thought the life of faith was a matter of following the rules and regulations. We today think something like, “If it’s a matter of life and death then human need takes precedence over religious regulations. What sort of person would think otherwise?” After all, in an emergency, if you find yourself carted off to hospital on a Sunday, in an ambulance with blue flashing lights, when you arrive you expect people to be working there, sabbath or no sabbath.
The synagogue leader, with his knowledge of religious law that allowed for such urgent needs, would not disagree. He would point out, however, that this woman was not in that sort of situation. This was not a medical emergency, but a chronic condition she had had for eighteen whole years. What difference could a day make? It’s not that the synagogue is uncaring. In fact, it’s fully accessible; men with withered hands, women with curvature of the spine: everyone welcome, able-bodied or not.
On this one day of the week, on this sabbath day, so the synagogue leader argues, we’re here to worship, not for other work. If he was with us today, he might say that he was only doing what we do at Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church. For example, health service personnel in this congregation, whether currently working or retired, come to church on a Sunday with the reasonable expectation that they will not be approached by others during the service for a consultation on non-urgent medical matters. Also, if you want to have a one-to-one with the minister right at this moment, you will be told (politely) to wait until the service is over; the health professionals might tell you to hold on until the working week begins.
The synagogue leader’s not wrong about the religious rules and regulations, or even about what constitutes reasonable expectations. On the other hand, he can’t be exactly right either; otherwise Jesus would not be labelling him, and those who took his side, as ‘hypocrites’: ‘you hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water?’ (13:15) Or, perhaps more positively, from the woman’s point of view, give that nobody can be thrilled to have their life situation compared to that of a donkey, ‘ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham [a Jew, one of God’s people] … be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ (13:16)
So what about us? What does this event in the life of Jesus and the conversations around it say about “sabbath” and being a Christian church in the twenty-first century UK? It says that in terms of organised religion, some rules are better than no rules at all. It says that such rules are not an end in themselves. It says that sabbath rules, like other religious rules, need to be interpreted in the light of how we understand God and God’s purposes.
Some rules are better than no rules at all: Sundays in our highly secular society today are no sabbath where everyone gets to down tools to rest and enjoy creation in the company of God. Even for churches, our choice of Sunday as the day to worship has always been just that – a choice. Early Christians chose to gather on this day and that tradition that has continued, but if a congregation worships on another day of the week it will not lead to excommunication.
What won’t work, however, is if sabbath rest rules get completely ignored. Imagine what it would be like if you took away the rule that people get some shared time of rest from work every week. Society would break down quite quickly, I think. Consider the fairly short-lived experiment in the early years of the Soviet Union, where there was a seven-day working week, with all workers getting one day off, but without any reference to the rest day given to their spouse or children. Thinking about it, with our 24/7 consumer driven capitalist culture, underpinned by flexible working practices and zero hours contracts, we might not be a million miles away from that approach, and our society feels the strain.
Likewise in a shared church setting we need some religious rules and regulations. We will worship on at least one day per week. We will meet to do so at 10.30 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. on Sunday (which has sometimes been called “the sabbath”). We will worship for an hour, more or less. We will worship God, creator of the universe, made known to us in Jesus Christ, whose Spirit is present with us at this time. We will pray together. We will listen to readings from the Bible (the Protestant 66 book version) and reflect upon them. We will sing the hymns chosen by the worship leader (even if we do think their choice eccentric at times). Remove all these shared religious rules or traditions and we cease to function as a body. Some rules are better than no rules.
But rules and religious traditions must not become an end in themselves. Yes, it’s true that our society has moved to a work pattern that is very stressful and unhelpful for the people who have to live with it. We benefit by making sure that there are shared times of rest as well as work during each week. Many of us, however, will remember a time when Sunday was often referred to as “the sabbath”. This was not because as a society we were enthused by a shared vision of human flourishing achieved through “imaging” or imitating the nature of God, though. This was not about trying to make a down-to-earth reality of the instructive, imaginative genesis account where God makes rest and enjoyment the high point of creation.
No! That “sabbath”, as we experienced it, too often was about being prevented from doing certain things (often enjoyable things), because to do them would be against the (religious) rules. People could choose to spend their time in religious activities, but if not, there was not much else on offer. This approach did not lead to human flourishing and has not led to religious flourishing either. When, for example, you get so wrapped up in in keeping sabbath rules that granting a woman freedom from years of suffering becomes an occasion for complaint rather than rejoicing, then you’ve forgotten what the rules are there for in the first place, and you’ve forgotten the nature of the God you are trying to worship.
In other words, sabbath rules, like other religious rules, need to be interpreted in the light of how we understand God and God’s purposes. The synagogue ruler should have been able to do that. After all, like Jesus, he would have been an avid reader of the prophet Isaiah. In today’s reading, I’m sure he would have noted God’s demand that the people ‘refrain from trampling the sabbath.’ (58:13) For Isaiah, though – for God – it was pursuing your own interests or affairs at the expense of others, that constituted trampling the sabbath.
Looking to the interests of others is the way to ‘call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable,’ according to Isaiah. (58:13) So, the prophet talks in terms of offering food to the hungry and satisfying the needs of the afflicted. (58:10) So what, if Jesus decides to hit the “pause button” on preaching or teaching for a few moments? He does so to meet the need of one of the afflicted; a woman bent over for eighteen years. Is Jesus ignoring and breaking the normal rules and regulations for collective worship? Yes, he is. Should the synagogue ruler make such a big deal of it, keeping on telling the crowd (13:14) that this should not have happened? No, he should not.
As someone who appreciates structure and good order, and who spends time planning worship services, I feel a bit of sympathy with the synagogue ruler. There goes Jesus again, messing up carefully-made, well-intentioned plans. Perhaps the synagogue ruler should be permitted a small sigh of exasperation. Arguing forcefully against bringing relief to the afflicted, however; arguing against putting the interests of others ahead of yourself, because it’s the sabbath, makes him into a hypocrite. In fact, the very scriptures he would read in the synagogue said that doing things for others was the sort of thing that makes the sabbath delightful for God.
For us, today, members of and worshippers at a Christian church, the same principles apply. We need some rules and regulations in order to make our shared life possible. It might not hurt to write some rules into our collective life about doing things that are restful for us. We are talking about this in the context of “sabbath” after all. The rules and the regulations that we write, along with the ones that we have inherited, are there to help us, not to oppress or afflict us. As Jesus said on another occasion, ‘the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.’ (Mark 2:27)
So religious rules, including sabbath rules, need to be interpreted in the light of how we understand God and God’s purposes of love and justice. The Apostle Paul suggests that the very spirit of God is experienced and shared through love, joy and peace, through patience, kindness and generosity, in faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23) Interpret situations and rules in this light, and even our best-loved rules might get well-broken on occasion. (And finally, thank you for keeping to the rules, not interrupting the sermon … on this occasion at least.)