Sub Dean - Revd Canon Michael Rawson
I suspect I’m not the only person here who remembers the debates about Sunday trading in the run up to allowing shops to open on Sundays in 1994.
There were arguments that it was the thin end of the wedge and society would never recover. If this is a Christian country then shops should remain shut on Sunday, went the argument. There were the crazy anomalies that you couldn’t buy a bible on Sundays but you could buy a tin of paint. The words of our second reading from Matthew’s gospel were invoked by both sides of the debate. Today it feel like a very different world and I won’t name and shame anyone by asking who has been shopping today or bought a Sunday newspaper?
In the gospel reading we meet some hungry disciples and Jesus walking through a cornfield and eating the heads of corn. The religious people of the day, the Pharisees have been keeping a close watch on Jesus and his companions, just waiting for them to set a foot wrong. Here they have all the evidence that they need that Jesus has no respect for the Sabbath or for God. The notion of the sabbath is vital to Jewish faith and practice. It’s a day of rest and worship, recalling the rest commanded by God after the work of creation. It goes to the very heart of Jewish culture and what it means to belong to that community. I well remember observant Jewish families at my school who had timers on electrical goods around the house so that they did not break the sabbath rules and the car would remain in the garage.
At its heart the notion of sabbath rest is a very positive one, relating to the goodness and holiness of God’s creation and our share in it. For Jesus the sabbath was a time of showing mercy to others; a time of liberation and healing rather than a straitjacket in which to imprison God’s people. It is a blessing from God which allows a change in the rhythm of the working week and a time to look to things beyond ourselves. In his words and actions, Jesus was not trying to flout the sabbath or dishonouring God but rather seeking to rediscover what lies at its heart, what is the essence of the sabbath? There are strict observance Christian sects across the globe who believe that in keeping the sabbath it is important to ban all human pleasure and work - no dancing, no singing (except in church), no enjoying yourself. The Pharisees had a similar outlook. Is this really what God intended for humanity?
Whatever you feel yourself about Sunday trading I think it’s fair to say that that particular horse has now bolted. So how can we as a Christian community live and proclaim a life-giving, affirming sabbath to our world? We live in an increasingly fragmented and frantic world which often feels to be careering out of control. As people who seek to proclaim the new creation that is embodied in Christ, we can show to others a different way of looking at life and work in which our lives are truly integrated, with God at the centre. Where the rhythm of work and leisure is in balance and not segmented, where we can offer an oasis of reflective contemplation in a fast-changing world; where the well-being of both the individual and community take precedence over the slavish keeping of rules. At times - perhaps most of the time - this vision may seem pi in the sky but if we believe in a God who makes all things new, then all things can be possible in God’s economy. Amen to that.