SERMON: Reclaiming Sabbath

SERMON: Reclaiming Sabbath

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s Church (Iffley, Rose Hill and Donnington) by Clare Hayns on 2nd June 2024

Deuteronomy 5. 12-15; 2 Corinthians 4. 5-12; Mark 2. 23-3.6

When I was growing up in my mid-teens in the 80’s (you can work out my age now!), there were three big moral campaigns. A quick quiz to see if you remember any of them. (Answers at the end).

  1. who claimed that the BBC’s Director-General was “responsible for the moral collapse in this country”, and what was the name of their campaign? *
  2. Which campaign had the slogan “Just Say No” and who launched it? **
  3. Which Campaign group was set up by Dr Michael Schluter CBE in 1985?***

The Keep Sunday Special campaign lobbied against longer shop opening times and their main argument if I remember was that Sunday should be kept as a special day where workers can expect time off work, where families can have time to be together, and one day in a week which would be different to all the others. 

Today begins the long season in the church calendar called ‘Ordinary Time’. We’ve celebrated the great festivals and feasts of the church calendar, which are all weighted to fall in the winter and spring months. We’ve had Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Candlemas, Lent, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and last week, Trinity Sunday. Now we have 34 weeks of Ordinary Time, weeks that in our lectionary focus on the life, ministry, and teachings of Jesus. It’s a more spacious time, less frantic, with less changing of altar frontals and fewer special services, and perhaps more time for reflection, embedding and growth.

We begin this season of ordinary time in a very fitting way: with Sabbath.

The Old Testament reading gives a section from the Ten Commandments given to Moses which lays out the law regarding sabbath. And then the Gospel from Mark we read about a conversation between Jesus and a group of religious Jews on what is and isn’t possible to be doing on the sabbath. Jesus, as he so often does, was ‘bending the rules’, not only by travelling, but by allowing his disciples to pick grain, and this was noticed by those who were wanting to catch him out.

I’ve often found myself conflicted when considering sabbath. On the one hand I know it’s a good thing to have a day of rest, and I like the fact that Sundays are still different to other days and that there is still some regulation over trading laws. But…I’m conflicted. Sundays have always been a work day for us, not just since being an ordained person, but my husband John is a performer and his work has always been when most other people are resting, and so Sundays as Sabbath has never been something we’ve adhered to.

It could be tempting to grasp on to this account of  Jesus and his seemingly flexible attitude to sabbath as an excuse to discount the idea of sabbath as being not that important anymore, and not something we need to worry about. 

I’d like to give a few reasons this morning why we might consider taking sabbath seriously.

Firstly, the concept of Sabbath rest is embedded into the Judeo-Christian story. Life is to be a balance between activity and rest. For Jews, Sabbath was (and still is) both a command and a gift. Sabbath rest is the fourth commandment, and actually the one which is the most detailed of all of them. In the commandment the sabbath rest is for themselves, their families, their workers, their animals, the whole creation; everybody and everything is to rest for one day in every seven.

This goes back to the creation story where God created the heavens, the earth, the plants, the animals, humankind, and on the seventh day rested.  (Genesis 2.3).

I think Sabbath rest reminds us of three things:

Sabbath reminds us that God is not a task master.

We are living in an anxious world where our culture tells us that to be busy, active, and exhausted is perfectly normal and almost a badge of honour. It’s often the way amongst Christians and clergy as well, where we compare the activities of one another’s churches, and clergy compare how exhausted they are as if that in some way is a sign of a successful church or ministry. If we are stretched to capacity and fill every single hour of the week and every evening with different kinds of activities, then God will be pleased with us.

Where did we get the idea that God is delighted with our busyness? It’s not in scripture. The Israelites wandering in the wilderness at the time of Moses were not allowed to even forage for food on the Sabbath, but God provided them with what they needed by sending manna from heaven.

For Jews, Sabbath was a reminder God had released them from slavery, and it was a sign of belonging. Those who kept the Sabbath took a break from sundown on Friday to sun-up on Saturday, and this was a sign to all those around them of their belonging to God, a sign that they were free.

God is not a task master, and when we take time to rest on the sabbath we are remembering that we belong to God over and above any work or duty, a reminder that we don’t need to be productive all the time.  

Sabbath reminds us that we are human.

Sabbath reminds us we are ordinary. If we take a break, stop work for a while, take some time for ourselves, the world will still carry on revolving, and things won’t all fall apart. Sabbath puts us in our rightful place when we forget we are merely human beings. St Paul in his letter to the Corinthians says:    

‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us’. (2 Corinthians 4.7)

We are just jars of clay, vulnerable, breakable, we get sick, we crack. This is part of the human existence and is a reminder that we are ordinary.

We all know times when we’re at the end of ourselves and we are forced to take rest, so often Sabbath in our culture is imposed because we burn out, our Sabbath then becomes mental health days, time of rest for ill health or burnout. I often had to remind students that they were human beings and needed to stop working all the time. I remember one student saying ‘it would be so much easier if I were a machine’!

Sabbath rest is embedded into our way of life because taking rest is a way to restore our brokenness, our cracks, it brings healing.

Jesus was being accused of breaking the sabbath rules by religious leaders trying to catch him out, first by criticising him for being unlawful and then for healing a man whose hand was withered, which would have prevented him from living a full working life.

Jesus tells then, ‘the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath’. (Mark 2.27)

Sabbath is for restoration and healing, a gift for humans, and that’s exactly what Jesus was doing when he healed the man: he was restoring wholeness, doing good rather than harm.

Finally, Sabbath is a reminder of what is to come

Sabbath is a glimpse of heaven, of eternity, when there will be wholeness, rest, and everything will be restored.

Rabbi Abram Joshua Herschel

“unless one learns how to relish the taste of Sabbath…one will be unable to enjoy the taste of eternity in the world to come… six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on the sabbath we especially care for the seed of eternity planted in the soul.” [1]

I wonder what ‘learning to relish the taste of sabbath’ or ‘car(ing) for the seed of eternity’ might mean for us? Perhaps taking time to rest, making time to delight in the gifts we’ve been given, our families, our friends, our garden, the river, a good book. Perhaps savouring a good meal or a glass of wine.   

So, let us take sabbath seriously in whatever way we can. This doesn’t mean it has to be on Sunday, or that we need to feel guilty for buying milk this afternoon.

But let us put a sabbath into our lives.

Sabbath reminds us that God is not a task master,

Sabbath reminds us that we are human,

and Sabbath reminds us of what is to come.

*        Mary Whitehouse and Clean Up TV
**      Anti-drugs campaign, launched by Nancy Reagan
***    Keep Sunday Special

[1] Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath, 2005