Tolpuddle and Puddletown
Sunday 3rd June 2018
Deuteronomy 5.12-15; Mark 2.23-3.6
I wonder how many of you could recite the Ten Commandments here and now, if I asked you too.
In the Book of Common Prayer, it was required that every person proceeding for confirmation learned the catechism, which included the Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer.
It may be that some of you had to learn them as a child. In the past the Commandments were often recited on Sundays. The Book of Common Prayer has them in full as part of the holy communion service. And they are there in Common Worship too, though most churches these days use the summary form, which we heard earlier.
Don’t worry – I’m not going to put you on the spot. Though if you’re not sure, you may like to look them up when you get home.
You might have some sympathy with the student who was asked in an exam to list the Ten Commandments. His answer went like this: 7, 2, 4, 1, 9, 6, 3, 5, 10, 8.
The practice of keeping the Sabbath has changed in my lifetime – today a Sunday for many is full of shopping or sport, of being busy, or even of working. And Christians have been overly caught up in this too, I think.
If we look back to our first reading, we see one version of Fourth Commandment: Observe the sabbath and keep it holy.
Looking through the Hebrew Bible – what you may call the Old Testament – it seems that two of the most important signs that someone was a Jew were to be found in circumcision and in keeping the Sabbath. There are references to Sabbath-keeping and Sabbath-breaking in Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Nehemiah and the book of Psalms.
By the time of Jesus, it is estimated that as many as 1500 rules and regulations had grown up regarding what could and couldn’t be done on this holy day. Different religious teachers interpreted the Law in different ways, but one is alleged to have said that it was OK to spit on rock on the sabbath but not on dust, since that would have resulted in making clay. An example, perhaps, of the absurdity of some of the rules.
Deuteronomy, in what we read today, is clear that the idea of sabbath – a day of rest – was to be extended beyond the reach of the Jewish people – work was to be prohibited for all – male, female, slaves, foreigners, even animals. It was to be a day of rest and re-creation for everyone.
In our Gospel reading we see a clash of values. Here we have the Pharisees berating Jesus for allowing his disciples to pick some grain on a sabbath – in their view that counted as reaping or harvesting i.e. work – and later he himself for healing someone.
Jesus’s view was clear – the sabbath was not the starting-point, but the needs of human beings were. The sabbath is a gift not an imprisonment which is what the religious leaders had made it.
(And there is perhaps some irony in the fact that the Pharisees themselves think nothing of plotting to destroy Jesus that day though they can’t cope with a man being made whole).
As far as we know, Jesus went to the synagogue on a sabbath day, but his practice was also not as strict as that of the religious elite. Where one’s heart was for him was far more important than what the rules said.
Of course, for Jesus the sabbath was a Saturday not a Sunday, and some Christians today keep Saturdays still as the sabbath – the Seventh Day Adventists, in particular.
Most Christians though through history have kept Sundays as the Sabbath Day.
Following the resurrection – which happened on a Sunday – the early Christians started meeting together as a community for prayer and worship on Sundays. It was, after all, the day on which the power of God was revealed, and therefore the best day on which to celebrate their faith. And the Spirit too came on a Sunday – at Pentecost.
What we lose in having sabbath as the first day of the week, rather than the last, is that idea that rest comes after work – the pattern that the Bible itself begins with in the work of God’s creation.
This tradition has been part of many societies and cultures for hundreds of years. People have approached it in different ways – Sundays was, until relatively recently, a common day of rest in this country, but what that meant changed over the years. For the Puritans, the rules were almost as strict as the Pharisaical ones, but most Christians these days have gone the other way.
While I certainly don’t want to revert to the very strict rules of former times, I do think that many of today’s Christians have lost the meaning and blessing of the sabbath day.
So what is sabbath all about? I think there are various aspects that we need to consider as Christians in our 21st-century so that in moving away from the strictness of some we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
First, Deuteronomy reminds us that sabbath is about redemption and freedom.
People were to keep the sabbath as a reminder of their former slavery. Slaves get no days off. Slaves have no day when their lives are not dictated to by others. The Sabbath is therefore a blessing, a day of freedom, a day in which to recall the liberation wrought by God, and for Christians the added aspect of the freedom from sin brought through the resurrection.
It is about wholeness and restoration – hence the view of Jesus that healing someone from a disease that binds and imprisons them is a perfectly legitimate activity for the sabbath.
Second, in the Exodus version of the Commandments, a different reason is given – one with which we are all familiar. God created the world in six days, and on the seventh rested and made it holy.
Sabbath is about rest, a time for restoring our energies and catching up with ourselves. No human being can work continuously without a break. Our 24/7 culture is actually not a healthy one, though we rarely stop and think about it these days.
Stress is endemic in western society and part of that is because we have lost the ability to rest, to have a day that is different, a day set aside for allowing God to re-create us though through rest.
(Use paper folding visual image – folding a piece of paper in half cannot be done more than six times. We all need a day to straighten out again before we can be refolded).
Third, it is a holy day. We keep it holy by allowing God to minister to us on that day through his gift of rest. But as Christian too we keep it holy and set aside as our day to celebrate with others the life that God gives us.
Every Sunday is a mini-Easter. It’s a day when we remind ourselves of what God for has done for us, a day when we praise and worship our Creator and Redeemer, a day when we allow ourselves to be fed by the Word and Sacrament.
It’s a day, when through our observances, we also say to the world – this is important for us. When we’re not in church on a Sunday, we are ultimately saying that we have things to do that are more important than God. How does that fulfil the Jesus’s summary of the Commandments: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength?
There is another aspect of sabbath that is important: that of community. The Jewish sabbath brought people together, families were able to spend time with each other resting and enjoying one another’s company.
That community aspect was continued in the Early Church – it was important for the Christians to come together each week, not just for them to worship.
My sadness at people no longer coming to church every Sunday is nothing to do with wanting a full church because it makes me look like a better Vicar! It is because, if you are not present, the community is not complete, the Body of Christ is no longer whole.
I’m not sure whether you see yourself as an eye, an ear, a foot or a hand, to use St Paul’s imagery, but a missing member is as detrimental to the church community as a missing hand is to a body.
I think sadly in our 21st-century the individualism, which has pervaded society and culture, is infecting the church with the attitude that faith is about God and me alone, and the corporate nature of our faith is diminishing – and in my view that is detrimental to our experience of the Christian life.
The pressure on families is immense these days – the power of having one day a week when people could come together is a principle that we have lost too easily.
Parents and children who never see each other because shift-parenting requires that one parent is at work while the other is at home.
I worry about married couples who never do anything separately – how will they cope when one or other of them dies? – but I worry more about couples and families that never have time together as a unit, enjoying rest and re-creation together.
Love needs working at and loving relationships need priority care. How many marriages and relationships break down these days, because those involved have not built in enough space for the sabbath principles of restoration, freedom, community, and holiness?
How would our lives be more godly, more joyful, more loving, if we followed Jesus’s advice to allow the sabbath to fulfil its purpose as a day “made for humankind”, a day of restoration, healing, re-creation, holiness and community?
It’s a gift from God for our blessing – let’s receive that gift with gratitude and rejoicing.