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‘Sabbath Time’ – The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

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Title: ‘Sabbath Time’

Preacher: The Revd Canon Maggie McLean, Canon Missioner

Readings: Exodus 5:1–6:1; Philippians 3:4b–14

Date:  3 March 2024, the Third Sunday of Lent


‘Sabbath Time’

A few years ago, I caught a bit of one of the many reality TV programmes. It was called ‘Back to the Floor’. As you might guess from the title, this saw a CEO from a major company leave the office and spend some time on the shop floor. The episode I saw had the head of one of our rail companies working in one of his railway stations. There were complaints from the public about a lack of ticket machines; customers angry at a delayed train; and the time pressures on staff to simply get all their jobs done during the course of the day. In particular, there was a point in the programme where the timetable required a train to be de-coupled and then re-coupled to another service. This train was always, always late in leaving the station. Try as he might, with all the assistance he could muster, the CEO could never get this operation completed within the available time. He had to admit defeat and take back to the directors the news that the timetable needed to change.

Making bricks without straw might seem a remote image for the ways in which work can become a tool of oppression.

We heard in our first reading that denying the Israelites the straw they needed to make bricks became a form of punishment. Instead of providing the straw, as was the custom, the Israelites are told to find their own. As Pharoah says:

“let them go and gather straw for themselves. But you shall require of them the same quantity of bricks as they have made previously; do not diminish it, for they are lazy”

In this passage from Genesis the Israelites are called lazy because they wish to go and worship God in the wilderness, to mark one of their festivals. So the disagreement about this between Pharoah, Moses and Aaron isn’t about the people going to the promised land, but about them being able to make their religious obligation.

Very often the cry ‘let my people go’ is adopted by all sorts of people as a slogan for freedom – but in this account it’s about having a week off in order to worship God.

Many years ago I was in a department store in New York. It happened to be a Sunday and I was struck by a brief exchange between the man serving me and their supervisor. The young man was asking to have a Sunday off, as soon as possible, to go to church. As he put it to his boss: ‘Jesus goin’ to be angry with me if I don’t go soon’. Perhaps the supervisor, like Pharoah, might have thought this was a fancy way of dressing up laziness. Who knows. But for this shop worker, just as for the Israelites, finding ‘Sabbath time’ was important. Finding the space to be still for the presence of the Lord, to help maintain our faith and all that it means, matters.

Ultimately, Pharoah wasn’t denying the Israelites straw, he was denying them time. It also, created destructive relationships within the people themselves. When the quantity of bricks required weren’t delivered, the Jewish overseers of the people were beaten by the taskmasters of Pharoah. It must have felt that the days were numbered for the Israelites in Egypt. Moses pleads to the Lord, and God answers that things are about to change, saying: ‘Now you shall see what I will do’.

Giving people impossible tasks is a tool of oppression. Denying people the opportunity to worship, to celebrate the festivals that define them and shape them, is oppressive. Taking away the time to rest, and to be with your family, is also a way in which – down the centuries – leaders have sought to destroy the Jewish nation.

I’ve no doubt that the CEO I mentioned earlier was unaware that his organisation had set the staff at one station an impossible task. He experienced their frustration and I’ve no doubt that things were changed as a result.

People need Sabbath time – the space to reflect, to love and to live.

Perhaps, in the tragedy and turmoil of the Middle East, we need that space now more than ever. A pause in hostilities that allows people to recollect who they are, and where the God of peace is calling us to be. Setting people up for failure, be they Jewish of Palestinian, will never build a happy or just society.

In Lent, as Christians, we are called to journey into the wilderness with Jesus, and make our Sabbath in the stories of betrayal, sacrifice, suffering and absence. To make the power of resurrection – of hope plucked out of despair – our own (to quote St Paul). Despite all that stands in our way, or seeks to oppress us, the season of Lent encourages us to ‘strain forward’ to that love and peace which Christ alone can bring.

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