A sermon for the First Sunday after Trinity
Preached at St John the Baptist, Mildenhall on Sunday 3rd June 2018
Deuteronomy 5.12–15 & Mark 2.23–3.6
It it a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon in June. I wonder what the first thing is that comes to mind you will be doing? I suspect some may immediately think of gardening – weeds always seem to grow faster than anything else. Others will have in mind a nice roast lunch with family or friends. Or maybe sit in the garden and read a good novel, or go on a walk. The first thing that comes to my mind are cycling and BBQ-ing!
Our Sunday being similar to the Jewish Sabbath, I had a quick look at what Orthodox Jews are and are not allowed to do according to their interpretation of this morning’s text from Deuteronomy, part of the Ten Commandments. Of course, shopping is out of order, and quite a few Christians still agree. Also, no driving or riding in cars or other vehicles. So a walk is fine, but no bike-ride. No cooking, no gardening, and no turning on or off anything which uses electricity. That doesn’t leave much, but of course, the Jews would be far better prepared for it than we are with food prepared and living in communities where travel can be done by foot.
However, it’s not all about a difference in religion, there is also a real difference in culture. When I lived in Germany, it was absolutely not done to mow the lawn on a Sunday or put the recycling out or have your washing on the line. It was by no means Christians who enforced this, but part of the culture in that time and place.
That is what we are challenged to think about this morning: how do we interpret these, and other, laws, and why? It is too easy to say that Jesus shows in the passage from Mark’s Gospel that the law is no longer necessary, as too often in the Gospels Jesus himself says that he is the fulfilment of the law, and did not come to abolish it.
I would like to start by suggesting that we need to understand the law, God’s law, as a gift, not a restriction. The law is there for us as a gift to help us to become the people we are meant to be, not to stop us from doing so. In that sense, the law is there to make us free, not to tie us down. Today’s readings are a perfect example to illustrate this point. Because I think the point of the Sabbath, or the Sunday, is not to stop us from doing certain things, but to give us the time to focus on what is really important: our relationship with God and our relationship with others.
Most of us, I suspect, will have had times in which life has been busy. When the days and weeks were too short to get done what we felt we needed to do, with a deadline in sight. In those cases, it is hard for priorities not to shift, and often family life, and indeed our own well-being is at risk. How liberating would it have been to live in a society where it is absolutely not-done to work for just one day a week. Where you are forced to slow down, not even making a few notes about what to do next day, but time to do nothing.
Of course, you can make that decision on your own. You can decide to make time for yourself or for your family, but it is much easier when it’s not a decision, but a law. Moreover, it is also much better to do it together.
We are also in the middle of the Muslim celebration of Ramadan. A month where Muslims only eat after dusk and before dawn. We happened to discuss this in class the other day and a few boys tried it for a week. It was very hard, because the other boys in their dorm were tempting them with sweets, and moreover, they felt had nowhere to go during break and meal times.
It was very different watching a video about two teenage boys celebrating Ramadan with their community in Britain. Yes, it was difficult at school, where others were eating, but as soon as they got home, there was time to be together, to pray together, and at night to eat and celebrate together. Especially moving I found the moment where after their meal, the whole family went to the mosque for night prayer: to pray and to give thanks.
So I think a certain obligation can give us a freedom which in other cases is hard to find. But, of course, and that is the point of the Gospel reading, that requires a certain choice at times too, the right perspective. If you see someone starving, or if you see someone suffering, these laws come into a different light.
But how do we know? How do we know when we can sit lightly to certain rules and regulations, and when do we have to adhere to them? I guess in some cases, the right decision only becomes clear after the event. And, indeed, in some cases, we will realise that we have made the wrong decision. But that is why Jesus taught us to pray ‘Forgive us our sins’, in the knowledge that there will be times we get it wrong.
However, I think there are a few principles that can point us in the right direction. The first one I already mentioned, and that is that the law is there to set us free to be children of God. So, one question we can ask ourselves is: do our actions bring us closer to God, is this what God wants us to do?
That brings us to the second principle, and that is that we need to make prayer a priority in our lives. That may sound very churchy, and may be very unpopular, but we need to continue to turn ourselves to God, not just to ask, but to listen. When we make prayer a priority, we start to see clearer and clearer that God’s law is one of love. And I think that is a good final principle to use: is what I do making God’s love known in the world? Laws are not just given to us as individuals, but also to us as a society.
Freedom, the priority of prayer and love. Three principles to approach God’s law, and three principles to approach life. Because I think when we become more confident in knowing and obeying God’s law, we also start to see more clearly if and when we need to speak out against injustice in the world, against those laws that diminish people, rather than building them up.
That is precisely what Jesus did. He didn’t criticise God’s law, but he criticised the way it was used to give power to some at the expense of others. And that is something which we still see all around us. Apartheid was of course a powerful example, but even in our society one could argue that we have institutionalised injustice. Although everyone is equal before the courts, many have no realistic means of getting the right legal representation, which leaves them at a disadvantage.
These are some thoughts on religious and civil law, and how to make the right judgement between obedience and challenge, using the principles of freedom, prayer and love. There is a lot more to be said, both in personal and public life, but I don’t want to keep you from your Sunday afternoon plans!