Precentor - Revd Canon Gilly Myers
This is my first Sunday since returning from sabbatical leave; it is good to see you all again. I am very grateful to my colleagues and all who have covered for me while I have been away, and appreciate the good wishes that have greeted me on my return.
The word sabbatical is closely related to ‘sabbath’ and, as it happens, ‘sabbath’ appears in two of our Bible readings this morning.
The passage in Isaiah we heard today is the second part of a discourse. In the first part the prophet was expressing his incredulity that a people who were living rebellious and unrighteous lifestyles, and with contemptuous disregard for the principles of the Jewish Sabbath, should be puzzled by the fact that they were on the receiving end of God’s displeasure. How easy it can be to deceive ourselves into believing fantastic alternative truths about ourselves, and the world around us. That is precisely what Isaiah’s listeners were doing.
In today’s passage, Isaiah focuses on two distinct, but related aspects of his hearers’ lives: the first is about living a righteous life, and what that would look like; the second is about attitudes towards the Sabbath, and one’s practice of it.
In the Ten Commandments, of course, the first four commandments relate to our relationship with God and the rest relate to our relationship with one another.
Commandment number four is specifically about keeping the sabbath day:
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… for in six days the Lord made heaven
and earth, the sea, and all that it in them, but rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. (Exodus 20. 8-10a, 11)
The Lord resting on the seventh day refers back, of course, to the creation narrative in Genesis 2.
… So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Geneses 2.3)
Isaiah places a devotional approach to the sabbath observance hand in hand alongside holy living; the two go together. Love God and love your neighbour. The whole of chapter 58 paints a beautiful picture of how it all could be if people lived lives that attended to the needs of others and fully gave themselves to sabbath rest and attention to God. The outcome, says Isaiah, would be like light rising in the darkness (Isaiah 58.10) or being like a well-watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58.11). What a beautiful image for a hot dry day.
In Luke’s gospel we find ourselves in a synagogue one sabbath, at which Jesus has been invited to teach. Jesus goes further, for there is a healing miracle resulting in a dispute. A crippled woman who has been bent over for 18 years is healed at a command and laying on of Jesus’ hands. The leader of the synagogue denounces this to everyone around as an infringement of the sabbath rules.
This, of course, is not the only time that Jesus is criticised by religious leaders for disregarding the complex system of sabbath regulations that had developed by Jesus’ time.
But by the end of this narrative everyone ends up rejoicing in the wonderful things that Jesus was doing, and the religious leader was shamed by Jesus’ observation that what he had done was surely only in line with what they were allowed to do on the sabbath for their animals.
My own sabbatical – a sort of extended sabbath, was time to attend to the refreshment of body, mind and spirit.
Time to have a rest from work; and take on a different pace of life, with different priorities.
Space in which to have concentrated time attending to prayer and spirituality
And the chance to spend quality time with family and friends, many of whom live too far away to get to in a regular weekly day off, and whose love and friendship enriches my life.
The furthest place to which I travelled was San Francisco. I have a friend who is a Franciscan brother. I knew him first when he was a young physics teacher; we went to the same church in Farnborough. Now, many years later, he is one of the brothers living in the San Damiano Friary on Dolores Street – one of those dramatically undulating roads that leads right into the heart of San Francisco.
That trip combined all sorts of things:
· Renewal of friendship
· A glimpse of his way of life, meeting the people with whom he lives, and hearing about the work that the Franciscans are involved with in San Francisco.
· Learning new things - before I went over there, I spent some time reading about the Spanish colonisation of the west coast of California in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a strategy that included the founding of Franciscan missions in each new settlement. I also read a little about the indigenous Indian populations who were there before the European settlers, and what changes they faced during this period.
While I was in California, I was able to visit a couple of the Mission churches, and find out yet more about the story that lay behind them.
There was much on which to reflect.
Another highlight of my leave was an 8-day silent Ignation Guided Retreat – this time staying in a beautiful valley in the north Yorkshire Moors. This was an immensely moving experience, and all the better for having been preceded by some space, so that I arrived much fresher that when I usually go on retreat, and followed by space back at home, for further prayer and reflection on what I had learnt.
We can’t all have sabbaticals, I know that - and even finding a whole day is complex in our busy, frantic world, and in a city that never sleeps. What I’d like to think about for a few moments, is our regular weekly sabbatical or holy time. We all need to have times when we can get away from the every-day and spend quality time with God. It is good for us; it is what we were made for. Sunday has traditionally been the sabbath day for the church (the day of resurrection) - and you have all managed to make it to an act of worship on this particular Sunday. But it may not always be possible for you – and there will be those for whom it simply can’t be done, for all sorts of reasons.
Our readings remind us in different ways of sabbath practice. In Isaiah’s context people were abusing the sabbath, and in the rest of the week they were disregarding the needs of those around them. When Jesus healed the crippled woman, he needed to remind a religious leader to get the human-made rules and regulations that had evolved over the centuries into perspective. But in both, the principle of sabbath is a given and an expectation.
Only you/I know what difficulties you/I face in fitting it all in, or finding just the right moment, or the right place, or being in the right frame of mind… Given the complexities of our lives these days, we may have to carve out a new shape for sabbath rest and worship. Time properly to take a break from work and every day busy-ness; time to re-acquaint ourselves with the one who created and loves us.
After all - it’s in the maker’s manual; it is how we are made.
It’s my hope and prayer that we would all know the blessing of which Isaiah speaks in today’s passage:
your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday… (Isaiah 58.10)
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water, whose waters never fail (Isaiah 58.11).
Thanks be to God