Eve

Sermon for Evensong on the Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, 7th February 2016
John 12:27-36 Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.

I was rather shocked to find out that this year the Boat Race is going to be run on Easter Sunday. Not just on a Sunday, but on Easter Sunday of all Sundays! It does seem to me to be quite shocking that the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Clubs have completely ignored the fact that there are an awful lot of people who enjoy the Boat Race, as one of our main national sporting fixtures, but who are also Christians. For us, Sunday, and not just any Sunday, but certainly Easter Sunday, is surely far more important than the Boat Race. They should not be on the same day.

Time for a letter. Dear Mr Raab – ‘Dear Mr Raab’, I want to write, to our MP. ‘I understand that Parliament has very nearly finished considering the Enterprise Bill which started in the House of Lords and which has already received its first and second readings in the House of Commons. On Tuesday the Business Secretary, Mr Javid, announced that provisions would be added – even at this late stage – to the Enterprise Bill to allow local councils to relax Sunday trading restrictions. Parliament hasn’t debated it at all so far. The bishops can’t say anything, because it has already gone through the House of Lords, without this Sunday trading proposal. I am unhappy that this is surreptitiously slipping in yet another watering-down of the idea that Sunday should be special.’ I hope he takes some notice. If only a few Conservatives vote against, this late addition to the Bill can be defeated.

Yes, I know that I often go to Waitrose after Sunday morning service, and I often have a curry from Cobham Tandoori after Evensong. But I think the time has come for us to review the need for there to be a day of rest and the need for those who, because they are doing essential jobs, are not able to rest on the day of rest, the need for them to be paid extra for their trouble, or to be assured of a substitute day of rest as a matter of right. Well, I am going to go on and finish, elegantly, my letter to our MP along those lines. I would ask you to consider writing a letter to him too.

The church is just about to embark on Lent. Lent, the lead up to the high point of the Christian year, Easter. In our Gospel lesson tonight we have heard St John’s slightly different account of the beginning of the Passion story. It’s different from the order of events in the other Gospel accounts, in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Jesus has entered Jerusalem on a donkey after he has raised Lazarus from the tomb, and some Greeks have come, saying, ‘Sir, we would see Jesus’ [John 12:21]. And Jesus starts to tell them, and his disciples, what he has to face in the coming time. That’s the context of tonight’s lesson. It leads us up to Lent.

It will be Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent, this Wednesday, and I hope that you will be able to begin your Lent devotion by coming to the 1030 service that morning. That’s the service with the imposition of ashes. If you are at work and unable to make the morning service, you can come to Saint Andrew’s in the evening for a similar service, at 8 o’clock.

Afterwards, as we pass through Lent, we will have a Lent communion service here every Wednesday morning at 10:30, and there will also be Lent study groups which are being organised ecumenically by all the churches in Churches Together. I will be helping to lead a group on Tuesday evenings. There will be other groups in various places and at various times to suit everyone. The topic which is going to be followed is a course which has been designed by the Archdiocese of York called the ‘Handing on the Torch’, which is all about being Christian in a secular society.

The question of Sunday trading is very much a case in point. Does it make any difference to be a Christian today? Should Sunday be special?

All the churches around here have to deal with the fact that a lot of young people now play sport on Sunday mornings. It can be rugby or hockey or many other sports. These children are put in a difficult position. They either drop out of the sporting activities in order to go to church with their folks, or, as happens more and more, they feel they have to keep up with their contemporaries, if they’re going to have a chance to get into school teams, through taking part in sport at the weekend. That is, not just any old time at the weekend, but very often specifically, on Sunday morning.

Some churches, for example in Great Bookham and West Molesey, have changed the time of family worship to the afternoon, so that people can take part in sporting activities in the morning, but still come to church at, say, 4 o’clock to have a ‘teatime church’. I think that’s probably fine. Otherwise, of course, slightly more grown-up people often go to 8 o’clock service in the morning and then go on to do various activities later on in the day. That’s all right as well. We are making time for God, but it doesn’t mean to say that everything else has to stop. ‘The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’, as Jesus himself said [Mark 2:27].

But as Jesus said in our Gospel reading,’Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you’. If we don’t keep spaces for the light of the Gospel to shine through, then we will be in darkness.

So going back to my letter to the MP, who does benefit from ever longer opening hours on the Sundays? Not the people who work in shops, for sure. Mr Javid, in his statement on Tuesday, made a point that the rules would be changed, so that employees who wanted to opt out of Sunday working on religious grounds would only have to give a month’s notice, instead of the current three months.

But that does not get over the point that, in many working environments, people who are unavailable, who won’t work whenever their employers want them to, limit their chances of promotion and career advancement, whatever the reason.

We have heard a lot also about the so-called ‘seven day NHS’ in the context of the junior doctors’ fight for decent conditions. As you may know, both my daughters are hospital doctors, so-called junior doctors. One is a house officer in England, at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital – and she has been on strike – and the other an ENT surgeon in Wales, at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. The one in Wales is not in dispute because of the government in Wales has not followed the policies of the Westminster government.

Both my doctor daughters, however, are equally affronted when they see the Secretary of State talking about what he calls ‘the need for doctors to accept seven day working’. Mr Hunt seems oblivious of the fact that all hospital doctors work a seven day rota already. The point is whether or not weekend working should be special. If you work on a day which most other people, including Mr Hunt himself, regard as a normal holiday, then I agree with the doctors in thinking you should be rewarded specially for giving up your holiday time. I don’t think that Mr Hunt has ever worked any of the 13-hour weekend night shifts which my daughters regularly do.

But even if he has, I think that it is very important that the principle of a sabbath, a day of rest, which was part of the law of Moses, the 10 Commandments, and which has come into Christianity on Sunday rather than on Saturday, should be preserved, should be defended. As Christians we ought to take a lead in this.

There is likely to be no real benefit to anyone, other than the owners of big shops, if opening hours on Sunday are extended. I really think that there should be a proper calculation, setting the extra convenience which we are supposed to enjoy through extended Sunday opening, against the disruption to family life it would cause, for very many shop workers, people who live in the centre of town, and small businessmen. My ability to buy a couple of AA batteries, at 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon from Sainsbury’s, frankly does not weigh very heavily against the damage to the quality of family life which is likely to result for an awful lot of people if shop hours are extended to make my trivial purchase easier.

I would suggest that, as Christians, not only is it important to us that there should be a day for God, but that also that this day should be a sabbath. It should be a day of rest and recreation, and all those people who have to give up that day, because they are, for example, doctors or other kinds of emergency workers – or indeed because they are working in some of the shops – should have it properly recognised and rewarded.

I don’t think that it is necessarily an answer that Mr Javid, or Mr Hunt, or any other politician, should have to work on a Sunday. I think that the basic principle ought to be that nobody should. Let’s stand up and be counted on this one. ‘Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you.’ Sunday is special.

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