Sermon for Mattins on the 13th Sunday after Trinity, 21st August 2016
Hebrews 12:18-end, Luke 13:1—17 

Shall I see you in Waitrose in a few minutes? Quite possibly. Sometimes it makes me smile a bit that whereas, if you were not one of the faithful, here in church – you might go and play rugby, or at least take your children to play rugby, or you might go to the garden centre and pick up a few pot plants, and then go back home, open the hefty packet containing your Sunday paper, and with a nice croissant and cup of cappuccino from your Nespresso machine, you might while away a happy hour – and then realise that there are a couple of things which you need to pick up for lunch. So off you would go to the supermarket, to Waitrose or Sainsbury’s; and about midday you’d start to bump into the people from this congregation, and perhaps also from St Andrew’s. Or you could have got up at a more civilised hour and joined us here for Mattins – but we all still tend to end up in the supermarket.

And there we all will be, picking up those last few things which we need for our Sunday lunch. It is a good gathering place: we’ll see our friends, and stop to have a little chat. How did the children get on in A Levels? Have they got the grades that they need for their university places? How is so-and-so’s baby? It’s a real community, there in the supermarket on a Sunday morning. 

We don’t seem to worry too much about the fact that it is Sunday, or that the shops are open on Sunday. The idea of the Sabbath, and Sabbath Rest, doesn’t have much traction in today’s society. Even though, a long while ago, we were brought up on what the Bible said. The Creation story. The Ten Commandments. 

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou nor thy son nor thy daughter nor thy manservant nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

That’s what the leader of the synagogue was objecting to, when Jesus healed the poor lady who had been crippled and unable to stand straight for 18 years, in this story from St Luke’s gospel. Jesus rebuked the leader of the synagogue, and the other members of the congregation, calling them hypocrites; pointing out that, if it was OK to do something, to undertake some activity, even if only to make sure some animals were adequately watered as well as fed, surely it must be all right to relieve the suffering of a person who is ill, if you can do it.

The Health Service has certainly always followed Jesus’ teaching about healing on the Sabbath. No wonder that the doctors were rather indignant when the Health Secretary suggested that there needed to be ‘seven-day health service’ so called. He apparently didn’t know that all doctors working in hospitals work on a rota, which covers all seven days of the week. (I think he’s found out now that they do.) 

We’ve perhaps found that this passage, and other passages where Jesus pointed out the difference between people who were ‘whited sepulchres’ [Matt. 23:27], people who made a show of conforming with religious commandments, rather than, perhaps, going to the real meaning of those commandments, that this teaching of Jesus is a sort of excuse, a sort of release from any obligations literally to carry out the Ten Commandments. 

We might think that all that literal stuff, God having spoken to Moses and given him tablets on which were written the Ten Commandments [Exodus 24:12 etc], is just too picturesque and, frankly, too mythical to really be taken seriously. Either God didn’t speak to Moses in that way or we have changed our understanding of what it is for God to speak to anybody. Jesus was right: the Jewish Law, the Ten Commandments, tended to lead to a sort of box-ticking approach, a literal adherence to each and every Commandment.

But Jesus pointed out that sticking rigidly to the ‘letter of the law’ could produce highly unjust consequences. Starting with the poorly lady, who was supposed to come and be healed only on weekdays. So he gave them ‘a new commandment’, ‘A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love on another.’ That looks as though it trumps any other commandment. You can treat Sunday just like any other day, if that is more practical for you. 

But – perhaps it’s not quite so simple. Remember, Jesus said he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfil it. And also, that the first of those two commandments, which between them contain ‘all the Law and the prophets’, was to love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. ‘On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.’

And the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath day can be understood as being really all about showing respect to God, the Creator and Sustainer of the world. And if that effectively makes the Shema Israel, ‘You shall love the Lord your God’, and so on, the most important prayer, then the next prayer – to love your neighbour as yourself – is subsidiary to it. So perhaps we were jumping the gun by following literally what Jesus said, that it was more important to heal a sick person than any consideration whether it was done on the Sabbath.

Can you feel the dilemma? On the one hand, all your Christian upbringing tells you that God spoke to Moses. God spoke; we must listen. But other teachers will pop up, and lead you astray. It’s so old-fashioned to worry about the shops being open on Sunday.

I think we should look at it again. I’m not suggesting that we should become like the Scottish Presbyterian ‘Wee Frees’ or the Welsh chapel men, who made Sunday rather joyless. But I think that we should try to insist on one day or another being a holiday, a sabbath, each week for each group of people. I worry about what a Christian should say to an employer who makes them work regularly on Sunday. You’re entitled not to be discriminated against on account of religion, under the Human Rights Act. But what about subtle pressures – will you get on as well, if you don’t abandon your upbringing? Will they choose you for the promotion next time? 

Perhaps there is no tension between the first and the second commandments. Perhaps loving God always leads you to love your neighbour. And yet … I wonder whether we should all rush to the supermarkets on Sunday just as we do on any other day: I nearly said, ‘Sunday, just like any other day.’ That’s wrong, surely. We need to recognise Sunday as being holy, being special. If that stops people from using the shops …. What do we say? 

One thing that I think we shouldn’t say, is that this story, this parable, is only a big let-out. Let’s keep thinking about it.