Sermon for the Second Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A novel which meant a great deal to me as a young man, and whose ideas continue to influence me, is Anthony Trollope’s Barchester Towers. It follows the lives and conflicts of clergy–both parish priests and diocesan prelates–in a fictional English cathedral city. While there is no single protagonist or antagonist, the most compelling conflict is between an Anglo-Catholic Rector and intellectual, Francis Arabin, and the new bishop’s oleaginous low church chaplain, Obadiah Slope, who rails against things like candles on altars and choral music and so forth. In addition to arguments about churchmanship, Arabin and Slope are also romantically interested in the same woman. So, for me anyway, Arabin is the great hero of the book and Slope the villain.

It is uncomfortable, then, for me to admit that I can identify with Chaplain Slope in one of his evangelical obsessions–namely his Sabbatarianism. Slope condemns the fact that the trains ran, that people played sports, engaged in commerce, and otherwise did anything other than worship and study the bible on Sundays. Amusingly, particularly since this is a hundred-and-fifty-year-old book, Slope constantly engages in what a twenty-first century person might call “virtue signaling” particularly in his pedantic use of language–he insists on using the term “Sabbath Day School” instead of the perfectly appropriate term “Sunday School” to remind everyone of how good he is at following the fourth commandment.

I’d certainly not go as far as Slope. Blue laws are probably inappropriate in a nonsectarian country like ours. What’s more, I can’t see anything wrong with enjoying leisure activities on the Lord’s Day so long as one has also said one’s prayers. (This issue, by the way, has a long history; King James I promulgated an anti-puritan document titled The Declaration of Sports, in which things like archery and dancing and setting up May poles were expressly permitted on Sundays (though you couldn’t engage in bear-baiting or, for some reason, bowling.)

All that said, I have been known to lament the degree to which obligations have crept into our days of rest, and the moralism which often accompanies this, productivity being more valued in our culture than the reasonable allowance for rest and recreation and prayerful contemplation which I think the Lord intended for us in commanding Sabbath observance. I could launch into a litany of complaints here. The lack of any legal provision for opening and closing hours to protect workers against greedy employers–one clear intention of the fourth commandment which even secularizing Europe maintains, much to the occasional irritation of the American tourist accustomed to Wal-Mart style convenience–is a rather inhumane aspect of our society in my opinion. Youth sport encroaching on Sunday mornings has been a perennial complaint, and I’ve been known to whinge about it myself. One could go one, but like everybody who has principles I am a hypocrite in this regard. (You may have heard me say before, that my theory is that the only people who aren’t at least occasionally guilty of hypocrisy are those who don’t have any principles to begin with, which is, needless to say, far worse.) My most recent hypocrisy w/r/t the Sabbath–obviously, I work on Sundays, and so I take Fridays off, which is nice because Annie never works Fridays. The last week for me was busy and stressful and I ended up doing quite a bit of work on Friday. Generally when this happens without their being an honest-to-God emergency, I’m able to take Saturday off instead. Well, this could have happened if I’d been more careful about prioritizing obligations earlier in the week, which I had not done. So yesterday morning, when Annie was on her way to work she asked me “what are you going to do today?” I responded “I’m going to work very hard on this Sabbath day on writing a sermon about how we shouldn’t work on the Sabbath.” I believe this is the definition of irony.

Now, we are reminded in today’s Gospel that legalism about this is unhelpful. The pharisees, you may remember, were famous in Jesus’ time for making the rules of the Old Testament stricter than they actually were in the Bible, often missing the point of why God might have commanded these things in the first place. A thoughtful rabbi could come down on either side of whether or not the disciples should be casually plucking grain on the Sabbath, as they did in the first half of the Gospel, though Jesus gives an elegant argument in their defense. The healing in the second half of the reading, though, should have struck any serious scholar of the Old Testament as an entirely licit exception to the general rule of Sabbath-keeping. Here the Pharisees have left off any reasonable argument, for Chaplain Slope’s Sabbatarian virtue-signaling.

The rubric Jesus gives us bypasses the legalism and pedantry of the Pharisees and Trollope’s villain and (I must confess) the sometimes cranky opinions of John Drymon, priest and hypocrite. He gets to the heart of the matter in one simple concept, making explicit that which the Law of Moses, given by God, surely had at its heart implicitly: the Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

We might then ask, “why did God establish the Sabbath for us?” What are its benefits? I think the reason is two-fold.

The first is perhaps the most obvious. God did not create us simply so that we could toil miserably. He wants us to enjoy him and all he’s given us in this life–not just to work until we die and only then to find any rest. This is not, I would contend, merely so that we might “recharge our batteries” so that we can be more effective in our work six days out of the week, as some may have it. This is certainly a fringe benefit, but it’s not the point. That men and women should find their labor onerous, we learn in Genesis, is an effect of the fall not God’s original intent, and an observance of the Sabbath in which we rest, recreate, and enjoy fellowship with God in prayer and study, is our brief, imperfect, though substantively real weekly return to prelapsarian Eden, which is not primarily a utilitarian compromise, but a graciously given foretaste of the perfect rest to come.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, Sabbath is a reminder that we are not saving the world. God is saving it and will save it, and though all our works done faithfully are accepted and valued by God, our weekly rest does not mean that the Kingdom will come 14% faster.

I have for some time had conversations with a relative (whom I won’t identify) about her inability to cut back on work, much less move toward the goal of retirement. This relative at least theoretically holds a more reformed theology than I, and should be more suspicious than I am of “works righteousness” or what our Articles of Religion call “works of supererogation” (that is, the idea that by being better than strictly morally required we are depositing our own Grace into some sort of treasury of merit to cover the sins of others). When pressed, I think she’d affirm that we must rely on Christ’s Grace rather than our own efforts for salvation. But in practice she has a hard time not acting as if the Kingdom depended on her efforts. Even greater than the irony of my Sabbath-day sermon writing on Sabbatarianism is the irony that the reformed recognition of our reliance on God alone should give birth to the Protestant Work Ethic, whose effect is to so obviously encourage the sort of drudgery and scrupulosity and anxiety which the Reformation began to try to free us from.

The contention that God will work his purposes out one way or another may sound fatalistic, but in the end it should be a great relief. Our efforts are not pointless; everything we do faithfully is a gift from God and may be a means by which he’s working his purposes out, but it’s not all on us, thank God. Sabbath rest gives us a reminder of this, and it helps us practice the most important thing–namely, enjoying God’s grace in this life, preparing us for the same in eternity.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.