Sermon preached by the Reverend Anna Matthews
In January of this year, for the first time since the invention of film, the cinema in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis opened on a Sunday. Star Wars: the Last Jedi brought to an end the strict sabbath observance characteristic of this island, where not so long ago swings in playgrounds were chained up at dusk on Saturday, and even car parks and public loos would mostly be closed. The cinema took its decision for an initial three week trial. At the end of April, it was announced that this would be permanent. Church leaders denounced it as defiance of the commandment to honour the sabbath day and keep it holy.
It would be easy to characterise this as a pull between faith and freedom, or as the Church out yet again to spoil people’s fun. But I think this would be a mischaracterisation. Certainly in a multi-cultural society it’s hard to argue that one faith’s traditions should be imposed on everyone else. But the underlying question is about the purpose of the sabbath – the very same issue at stake in today’s Gospel reading.
Honouring the sabbath day and keeping it holy is one of the ten commandments. And so the Pharisees pick up on Jesus’ disciples’ breaking of the sabbath by picking heads of grain as they made their way through the cornfields. Then Jesus compounds their disapproval by healing on the sabbath. This is a threat both to the law and to the Pharisees’ authority: the episode ends with them conspiring with the Herodians about how to destroy Jesus.
In the book of the Exodus, sabbath observance is commanded because God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. And because we are made in God’s image, sabbath rest is commanded for us. Honouring the sabbath is about remembering who God is, and who we are. One Old Testament scholar has commented that the keeping of the sabbath is ‘an act of trust in the God who is confident enough to rest’ (Walter Brueggemann). It serves as a weekly reminder that life is given to us as a gift by God, and doesn’t depend on all our striving and working.
The sabbath honours work – but it honours it by putting it in its rightful place and perspective. We are more than what we do. Our value does not lie in our productivity or activity. And the sabbath is deeply egalitarian. Rest is commanded for everyone and everything – a radical commandment at a time when rest was the preserve of the ruling and wealthy elites. But the sabbath rest is for everyone: it envisages a new humanity where the poor are not oppressed; where the earth is not exploited; where the elderly and the disabled and the unlucky who can’t work are not sidelined because their economic value is low.
Deuteronomy, which is a later account than Exodus of the giving of the law, and has a different theological purpose, adds to this account of the sabbath. In our Old Testament reading we heard that the observance of the sabbath is commanded to Israel because ‘you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.’ Here, the keeping of the sabbath is linked to redemption. It is a sign of the freedom of God’s people: a freedom to rest, to trust, and to be holy as the Lord their God is holy.
Over time, rules about what was and wasn’t permitted on the sabbath multiplied, leading to the situation where the Pharisees criticise Jesus and his disciples for their behaviour on the sabbath. The commandment to rest, to do no work, is here taken to mean that the disciples should not have picked grain as they went through the fields, and that Jesus should not have healed.
But if the point of the sabbath is freedom to rest, to trust, and to be holy, then Jesus’ actions and his response show him recovering its original purpose. The sabbath is not meant as a burden for the people, a legalistic practice to secure righteousness with God. It’s given to recall them to who they are, and whose they are: they are God’s people, made in his image for relationship with him. It is given for their freedom.
We live in a culture which fetishizes busyness. And we live in a culture where many have it demanded of them: the need to be available to work whenever your employer deems it necessary, or to cover staff-shortages, or to do overtime to prove to someone you are committed and deserving of a job with more security. I know that I am an absolutely terrible example of someone who trusts in a God who is confident enough to rest. I don’t feel free: I am bound by my diary, by its demands, and by my need to prove myself to be useful or effective.
I was brought up short on this on Tuesday of last week. In morning prayer, the New Testament reading was the story of Mary and Martha. I was doing a bit of Ignatian imaginative prayer with it, and found myself taking Jesus to task for telling Martha off for her busyness. Generally speaking, I’ve found that having a row with the Son of God is a sign that something’s out of kilter. ‘It’s all very well’, I found myself saying, ‘but there are so many things that need doing. Most of which you or the Church has asked me to do.’
‘What if you didn’t do some of those things and spent some more time with me instead?’ asked Jesus.
I had no answer. I felt convicted, then I felt grateful. To not do some things would mean, possibly, that I would be less available, or not complete things quite on time. It might mean people thought less well of me. But the invitation to sabbath rest, to spending some more time with Jesus, said that none of that mattered. My worth in God’s eyes does not depend on what I do. To rest in God is not the reward for having completed the to do list, but the source from which all else flows. To rest in God is to learn – AGAIN! – that I am not saved by my striving; that the salvation of the world, or even the running of St Bene’t’s, does not depend on me. To rest in God is to discover that I am most truly free when held in the gratuity of divine love.
The deeper question about the sabbath is not whether you can pick grain, or go to the cinema, or whether I can pop into Sainsbury’s on my way home. The deeper question is about who we are, and whose we are, about what we are made for. And so rather than stifling our freedom and spoiling our fun, what might it mean if we took the sabbath seriously as an invitation to discover what it means to depend on God, not on ourselves; to learn that we are loved for who we are, not for what we do? ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath’, said Jesus. That being true, where do you still need to be set free to enjoy the sabbath rest of God?