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Preacher: Canon Peter Collier QC, Cathedral Reader
Date: 21st August 2022 11am
Readings: Isaiah 58: 9b-14; Hebrews 12: 18-29; Luke 13: 10-17
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
Personally, I get the sabbath stuff
As a young child – no games were allowed in our home on a Sunday, not even kicking a ball about in the garden.
That made it difficult at secondary school – I took up rowing and others in the crew wanted to train occasionally on a Sunday, but I really felt that was something I could not to do. We did reach a compromise – I would go with them occasionally if they came to church with me once.
At university I continued rowing but Sunday was not initially an issue there as the river was closed to college crews on a Sunday. But in my final year our college IV was asked to represent the university at the university championships – but the race was to be on a Sunday – it was not really such a big issue for me by then but I still had some feelings of guilt. I did row and we did win the gold medal.
So not quite Eric Liddle and Chariots of Fire!
But for me, how I should treat Sunday was an ongoing dialogue with the bible for a significant part of my early life.
The leaders of the synagogue had no need of such a dialogue – for them what you could and couldn’t do on the sabbath was clearly laid out in black and white. And their traditional interpretation had been passed down from one generation to the next and left no room for discussion.
But then Jesus turned up.
He regularly attended at synagogues and he was often asked to speak when he did; but he was also out and about, as we would say “in the public square”, where what he said and did often drew the attention of the synagogue leaders.
Luke records several instances where Jesus upset those leaders by breaking with their traditional understanding of what the bible required of the sabbath.
In Chapter 4 – he records Jesus in the synagogue at Capernaum casting a demon out of a man on a sabbath day.
In Chapter 6 – after the Pharisees had challenged him about rubbing grains of corn together in the corn field and eating them on the sabbath, he said “The Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath”; and Luke immediately follows that by telling us that on another sabbath day he went into a synagogue and healed a man with a withered hand, which made the scribes and Pharisees furious.
And when in Chapter 13 he was in another synagogue on another sabbath day he saw this woman who had been bent double for 18 years, and who was quite unable to stand up. So it is no surprise that he immediately told her that she is literally “fully freed” or “released” from her sickness. And then he laid his hands on her and immediately she stood up straight for the first time in 18 years.
The exchange that then followed with the leader of that synagogue is very instructive. The leader said that there were six days on which work should be done and so she should have come on one of those days to get cured but not on the sabbath.
Jesus answered him by referring back to Deuteronomy 5 where Moses repeated the 10 commandments. In Ex 20 Moses had said that the reason for keeping the sabbath holy – was that God had rested on the 7th day and so should we. But in Deuteronomy having said that the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord on which they should do no work, he went on to say that God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and that remembering that was what was they should be thinking about on the sabbath.
Why do I say that Jesus had Deuteronomy rather than Exodus in mind? Well, In Exodus Moses spoke about livestock not doing any work but in Deuteronomy rather than the single word “livestock” he says “your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock”.
And Jesus challenged the synagogue leader by referring to his ox and donkey saying that he would untie them and set them free so they could get water on the sabbath, (a clear reminder of the Deuteronomy passage), so he says why won’t you let this woman be set free from 18 years of being tied up with her condition.
The sabbath was a day for remembering and celebrating the freedom and liberty that God had given them. If they adopted that mindset then it would inevitably challenge their traditional interpretation of the old testament law.
Our first reading from Isaiah 58 captures something of that same celebratory spirit. The issue for Isaiah was not the sabbath but fasting. He said that in God’s mind true fasting is not about following a rigid ritual procedure and then behaving very selfishly, oppressing the workers and fighting with one another. True fasting is about loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, and bringing the homeless poor into their homes. And Isaiah says that if they live like that, they will be like a watered garden, their ruins will be rebuilt, their streets will be restored, and their sabbaths will be a delight – he paints an inviting picture of the kingdom of God, as a joyful celebratory community where everyone flourishes.
At the beginning of his ministry we read in Lk 4 that Jesus had gone into the synagogue in Nazareth and announced that he had been sent “to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And throughout his ministry he challenged all traditions and all interpretations of Scripture which tied up rather than set free. That was the core of his teaching about the kingdom of God.
And that gives me a clue as to the direction my dialogue with Scripture should always take me in.
Sunday wasn’t the only thing in the bible I had an issue with as a schoolboy. For me the seven days of creation were seven days of 24 hours. With the aid of booklets from the Evolutionary Protest Movement, I seem to remember it was called, I wrote an article in the 6th form magazine, which in my mind at least established clearly that Darwinian evolution was “fake news”. The headmaster noted on my report that term “his Philistine attitude towards science will be recorded on his UCCA form.”
Since then an understanding of science has also become a part of my dialogue with Scripture, and of course that has changed my schoolboy view about how to understand Genesis 1.
And there have been other issues where I have engaged in dialogue with the Bible as to what it meant for those who initially wrote and read it and now what it means for me today. I am sure it will be lifelong journey.
Last week at this service Canon Michael spoke about some of the contemporary issues that the bishops had been discussing at the Lambeth conference. There were several but the one that caught the headlines was their discussions about the different interpretations of what the Bible says about gender and sexuality. Catriona picked up on the same topic at Evensong last week and spoke of the need to look at our own understandings of the interweaving issues of identity, gender and sexuality.
And here we are again. And I make no apology for that. Because although the sabbath and the bible, and science and the bible have at times in the past been critical issues for me, and there have been others along the way, they are no longer.
And it probably won’t surprise you to know that I have had to engage in a dialogue with scripture on these very contemporary issues and it is a dialogue that continues. And the meeting tomorrow night will help us to begin to look at some of these issues together.
Just as I needed to let science in on my dialogue with Genesis ch 1, so I need to let it in on this dialogue also. But for me perhaps more importantly I need to allow this dialogue to be shaped by the very challenge that Jesus put to the synagogue leader – have you not understood that my kingdom is a place where captives are released, and the oppressed go free. A kingdom where what Isaiah foresaw becomes a reality – a city is rebuilt, it is a safe and happy place to live in and where God’s people celebrating the sabbath together was a delight.
I hope that with me you long for this cathedral and each church represented here today to be just that sort of place and community.
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