Monday, 26 August 2013

Trinity 13: A true Sabbath - A sermon by Kevin Bright

Those of us tied to school terms may well have taken a holiday of some form over the summer if we are lucky. For some a holiday will have meant globetrotting for weeks on end and for others it may simply be a day or two at the coast or time in the garden.

We all have our own ideas of what a holiday is. Possibly warm sunshine, clear seas, too much food and drink, time to explore history and culture, time to play, read and think. Time to rest and recuperate.

We often come back from holidays with new ideas and ambitions, planning to create a bit of Tuscany in our back garden or resolved against falling into the same exhausting patterns of overworking. A tee shirt I saw in Cornwall summed it up with an image of 3 middle aged men staggering along the beach with surf boards under their arms and the caption ‘workaholics in rehabilitation’.  

In some ways our readings today suggest that we take a type of holiday every week, time to rest, time to think, time to worship and pray, time set aside from the routine. In Luke’s gospel there’s controversy over what should be done on this special day, known as the Sabbath, as the synagogue leader criticises Jesus for healing a lady suffering from a condition which caused her to be bent over for 18 years.

Since 1994 larger shops have legally been able to trade for a maximum of 6 hours on a Sunday and in 1995 pubs were allowed to trade all day. As patterns, hours and methods of work have changed many have welcomed more flexible retail and leisure opportunities resulting in work available to employees when they are free from childcare or education commitments. But there will also be those who would like common time set aside for rest, family and worship.
In Exodus 20:8-11God told Moses ‘Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. 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. For 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.

Some here will recall Sundays from decades ago that were very different to those we have today including expectations about standards of dress for church.
When I was a Scout monthly church parade was absolutely compulsory and had it not been I wasn’t at a point in my life when I would have chosen to attend though I admit that it did get more interesting as I grew into my teenage years and realised the same rule applied to the Girl Guides.

My father recalls very quiet Sundays in his childhood, no shops, no sport, no playing with friends… no fun. His grandfather would attend church morning and evening and sit reading the bible between the two, but then he was a minister and he didn’t hold the children to his standards.

This sort of stuff prompts us to consider why we may observe a Sabbath, is it to comply with expectations, restrictions and obligations put in place by others? If so it’s likely that we now see things differently from the Israelites when they first heard of thes. The laws given to them following their Exodus from enslavement in Egypt, including that which told them to take a day for rest would surely have been welcomed by people unused to time off for them and their hard pressed animals.

Thankfully things are not viewed in this context for most of us, we are free people living in a 24 hour society with more or less continuous communication and connectivity with each other, our work places and sources of information. My mother –in- law was on a London hospital ward recently and said that she looked forward to coming home to get some decent sleep as the hospital staff worked as hard throughout the night as they did in the day.

I’ve just had some holiday time but like most I’m never disconnected from my colleagues and clients due to all the means of mobile communication. Perhaps some other cultures have a better relationship with work, I can remember being kept waiting in a restaurant in Greece because the family was sitting down for their meal together. When I asked a local supplier if a certain floor tile was available recently I was told that we would have to wait for a response as the factory in Italy has shut down for its 6 week summer break!

I guess there are two main challenges to making ‘Sabbath time’. People with quieter lives often struggle to differentiate it from any other quiet time they have available or people with hectic lives simply struggle to set time aside.

If we chose not to have ‘Sabbath time’ on set days or in certain settings we have to ask ourselves whether we have the self-discipline to find this time elsewhere. This building and the people who gather here offer opportunities to create sacred space in a place where generations will have pondered and prayed about such issues over centuries, so we are in good company. It’s a good place not just on Sunday mornings and evenings, but also on weekdays when some take the opportunity just to sit here in peace alone and undisturbed.
Even though most of us are unlikely to feel the need to adhere to rigid rules and systems if we call ourselves Christians we do need to have some idea what Sabbath is to us. After all why did Jesus free the lady from her ailment in a synagogue on the Sabbath? She had been unwell for many years. Surely he must have known that a lot less fuss would have been made if he had done this a day later away from the synagogue.

It seems he was making a point, showing the people that the consequences of God’s love need to be shown and that by making the Sabbath a day for arguing about the law made it smaller than it was and less about our relationship with God and what he desires for us. When Jesus says ‘you are free’ to the woman it is as if a great weight has been lifted or a burden removed and her response is to be upright once again, praising God in recognition of his power. Jesus rebukes the synagogue leader’s criticism by reminding them that they untie their animals for water on the Sabbath so why would he not untie (or set free) this woman, known and loved by God.

Of course such logic goes against what suits the Jewish leaders and proved to be another step towards the inevitable final conflict.
Jane Williams suggests that ‘perhaps this is what the Sabbath is really about, worship and freedom, not endless worrying about whether you’ve broken some obscure rule without really knowing it.

We need to find enduring value in the Sabbath if we are to separate valuable time for it. Perhaps it helps to reflect on the instructions God gave to Moses regarding a sabbatical year after every six for the land. Nothing was to be grown in the seventh year, it was to be given complete rest. This way it may recover some nutrients and similarly we know that to relentlessly continue the same pattern of life without setting time aside means we also cease to yield maximum productivity and that this leads to staleness.

Isaiah points us towards a Sabbath that shifts our emphasis from our own interests to an unselfish focus which considers who we are and why we are each loved by God. If we can do this, in his words ‘then you shall take delight in the Lord’.

It follows that Sabbath may include looking around us to consider who feels unworthy of lifting their head to look up and what is broken that might be restored.

We may no longer be bound by Sabbath laws or even cultural expectations but it is clear that separating time to commune, to worship, to reflect and to rest is an essential element of our Christianity which acknowledges God’s love for us.


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Trinity 11: Look busy, the boss is coming...!

Trinity 11 13

 “Look busy, the boss is coming!” I don’t suppose there is anyone who hasn’t at some point felt at least some sort of pressure when the boss turns up, however benevolent he or she is. The fact is that our bosses have power over us - their judgement might well make a difference to our lives.

Today’s Gospel reading seems to be tapping into that sort of anxiety. “The Son of Man is coming.” The early Christians believed very strongly that the end of the world was nigh, or at least that they were approaching a turning point in history when God would show up in his world dramatically to usher in a new age and a new kingdom. Jesus seems to have shared that belief, and it was one that was common to other Jewish groups at the time. Perhaps when you live under occupation, with manifest injustice all around, it is almost inevitable that you will look forward to a time when things will be different, and as far as Luke and his readers were concerned that time was surely coming soon.

Their belief in an imminent dramatic cosmic intervention might have been mistaken, but I think the message they proclaimed still has something to say to us today. It reminds us of the truth that sudden change is always on the cards. We never know how or when our lives might be turned upside down, for good or ill. Read any newspaper, watch any TV news broadcast and that is what you will see - things happening that the people concerned weren’t expecting. Someone becomes the victim of crime, their property or even their lives snatched away without warning. A nation is thrown into chaos by civil war. A town is submerged under flood waters. Or perhaps the news is good. A lottery win raises someone from rags to riches overnight, or a scientific breakthrough brings healing to people who would otherwise have died.

If any of the people affected had known what was coming – for good or ill - they would have at least tried to prepare for it. Those overtaken by disaster would have locked their doors, sought safety, taken notice of the political tides and currents.  Even those surprised by good news might have acted differently. The lottery winner might have relaxed a bit rather than working all the hours there were to provide for their old age. The person whose illness looked as if it would cut their lives short might have chosen to invest more in the future they were now going to live to see. If we knew what was coming, we would get ready for it. The problem is that we don’t know. The only thing we can predict is that life will be unpredictable.

We can’t control life, but we do have some power over the way we deal with its surprises. I don’t believe that disasters are deliberately sent to test us – a God who would purposely hurt his children isn’t one I want to worship – but I do think that the random events of life reveal to us things about ourselves which we couldn’t find out any other way, and for that reason we can often, eventually, give thanks for them. They show us what we’re really made of, what really matters to us, where our treasure lies. They strip us of our illusions about ourselves. God may not have sent these things to us, but through them, if we have eyes to see, God comes to us. To use the language of this Gospel reading, the Son of Man appears, the boss turns up in these reality checks in our lives.

File:Stefan Lochner 006.jpg
The Last Judgment by Lochner in the 15th century.
And as I said earlier, that moment of judgement is something we might have decidedly mixed feelings about, just as we do when earthly bosses show up. For many people over the centuries, it was a terrifying prospect. Medieval churches often had vivid images painted on the walls of the day of judgement, with the blessed rising to heaven, while the damned were shovelled into the mouths of horribly imaginatively depicted demons, or tossed into seas of flame. “This could happen to you” was the message literally in your face every time you came to church. Fortunately we have moved on from those sort of ideas about God, at least officially, now. But my guess is that God as the wrathful judge still lingers in the depths of many people’s minds.. Fear once stirred up is hard to get rid of.

But not only is that image of God an unhelpful one, if we look carefully at our Gospel reading today we also find it is inaccurate.

The impression it leaves us with may be “look busy, the boss is coming” but in reality its message is not about  judgement but about generosity. It begins with words which are often repeated in the Bible, “Do not be afraid”, words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Mary and to the shepherds of Bethlehem, to the women who come to the tomb after the resurrection, and again and again through his ministry to his disciples.  “Do not be afraid”… Why? Because there is no cause to fear. “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” Jesus adds. We don’t need anxiously to strive to earn God’s favour – we have it anyway. Our only problem is that we don’t trust that. Instead we place our trust in the wealth we heap up and the possessions we acquire, hoping they will give us the security we crave. It is an illusion, of course. As Jesus points out, the problem with earthly treasure is that it is vulnerable to the wear and tear of life, and to being stolen by others who are as insecure as we are.  

This passage doesn’t promise, of course, that if we follow Christ nothing bad will happen to us. How could Luke have said that when he knew that Jesus would find himself on a cross, naked and in agony? What it promises is that whatever we face in life, God will not desert us, and in that we find security which is indestructible. This is “treasure in heaven” – not pie in the sky when we die, but the knowledge that we are held in God’s hands here and now, no matter what is happening to us. We learn that sort of trust by actively choosing to focus on justice and peace for all, by loving others, rather than anxiously building protective walls around ourselves, by investing our energy, putting the treasure of our time and talents in places that really matter, heavenly places, joining God at work in the world.

When Jesus tells his disciples that God is going to show up in their lives unexpectedly he does not mean them to fear but to rejoice. That is plain from the parable he tells them, a parable with a wonderful twist in its tale. A master returns from his wedding banquet. Blessed are the slaves who are alert and ready to let him in. Why? Because he – the master – will fasten his belt, sit them down and serve them, says Jesus. They will have a share in the banquet, be part of the rejoicing at his marriage, part of the joyful future his marriage anticipates. Weddings in the Bible aren’t about romantic love, they are symbols of a new age dawning – the next stage in the life of a family or dynasty, a new kingdom – and that is what we are being reminded of here. It is a radical, almost ridiculous image. The master becomes a servant, and the slaves, usually just ignored and irrelevant, find themselves at the centre of everything, pinching themselves to make sure it is really happening.  Who wouldn’t want a boss like this, a boss who serves, a boss who loves, a boss who heals, to turn up in their lives? Who wouldn’t want to be part of this kingdom, part of this work?

 What a tragedy it is that this generous image of God has so often been obliterated by that of the fearful, wrathful critic , looking for reasons to fail us in the tests of life. It’s a tragedy because it is a perversion of the truth of the Bible, but it is also a tragedy because it tends to paralyse us rather than motivating us. It might be an effective way of scaring people into conformity, but it has never done anything useful in building the kingdom of God, that place where the humble are lifted up, the hungry fed and the outcast welcomed. Those things take love to achieve, and you can never love fully if you are afraid. “Perfect love casts out fear” says the Bible. (1 John 4.18)

There is a prayer I often use to begin my own private evening prayer which comes from the Celtic tradition. It begins “Christ stands before me and peace is in his mind”… I love it because at the end of a day when perhaps I have struggled to get things done, worried about what I haven’t done, wondered whether I have done things well enough, those words remind me of the truth I need to hear. It’s not just that Christ stands before me – frankly that might be a bit terrifying on its own – it is that when he looks at me and what I have done that day he doesn’t do so with judgement in his mind, but with peace. “Christ stands before me and peace is in his mind”…  The day that is gone has been whatever it has been – good, bad, indifferent. My life is what it is – good, bad, indifferent.  But whatever life is like for me at that moment, Christ is in it, in its failures and broken places just as much as in its successes.   “Christ stands before me and peace is in his mind…” His intention for me is peace, not condemnation, just as it is for all of us – that healing peace that comes from knowing we are loved and ultimately secure.

Today, as Christ stands before us at this Eucharist, as the boss shows up here – what do we feel? What do we think is in his mind for us? As we put the ups and downs of the past week into his hands, do we do so with fear or with trust? Today God offers us unfailing treasure, in place of the fallible comfort blankets we try to protect ourselves with. It is his good pleasure to give us the kingdom. The only question is; will we let him?