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.