Deut 5:12-15; Mark 2:23-3:6
1st Sunday after Trinity
St Barbara’s 03.06.18
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Worship, how we offer praise to God, arouses strong emotions.
Over the thirty years of being an adult participant in churches in this country and abroad, in a variety of denominations and traditions, I have found that worship has consistently been the area of church life that has promoted most discussion, that has generated most passion. Not how we grow in faith. Not how we live moral lives. Not how we communicate the Gospel. Not social action. Worship – how we offer praise and prayer when we gather together, especially when we do so on a Sunday.
That is true of St Barbara’s too. The way we worship matters to us. A couple of months ago I asked if you could fill in a survey about our Sunday services. The response was huge. Normally you may expect 10% return rate with a survey. Well over half of the congregation responded. And the passion, the strength of feeling, was evident in many responses.
Well, in Jesus’ day, the issue that aroused strong emotions was that of the Sabbath, the keeping of one day a week as holy, as special. The sabbath was a defining marker for the Jewish people. No other people kept it. It was part of their unique identity as a people. But what did it mean to keep the Sabbath?
The Old Testament was frustratingly vague. The Jews were told to keep the day holy and to not work on the Sabbath, but beyond that, precious little more. Neither holiness nor work were defined. Therefore a whole host of supplementary teaching began to grow up to put flesh on the bones. After all, how were you to know whether feeding your animals, or lighting a fire, or fetching water from a well, were work that should be avoided? How far could you walk before a relaxing amble became an act of labour? People wanted rules and regulations to help them do the right thing, and there was no shortage of religious experts willing to provide stipulations and direction. Before long, there were hundreds upon hundred of rules and regulations
But in this attempt to gain precision, there was a loss of clarity. In this attempt to tie down the details, the bigger picture was lost. The act of enjoying the Sabbath that should have brought unity and harmony, brought division and antagonism as people disagreed over which regulations were legitimate and which weren’t.
There is an analogy here with the church’s attitude over the centuries to communion. Jesus commanded his disciples at the last supper, to “do this in remembrance of me”, but he was remarkably sparse on the detail. Some of the New Testament letters give only a little more insight, but as the church has sought to add more detail, to define what Jesus meant, it has disputed and debated over the additions.
Did Jesus mean that they were to remember him with bread and wine whenever they ate food (as these were their staple diet) or did he mean once a year at Passover? Did he mean they should have communion in their homes or at a special service?
As the church grew, there was debate over who could oversee the breaking of bread – could it be anyone, or someone with recognised authority amidst the people? In time, that became a debate between should it be lay people or priests?
In medieval times, the debate became fixed around what exactly Jesus meant by “this is my body”. Did he mean literally his body or did he mean it symbolically. The church debated, and has fractured and splintered numerous times over the centuries. In seeking precision, it lost clarity; in seeking to tie down the detail, it lost the big picture. That which was about unity has brought division.
So how does Jesus respond when he is criticised for not keeping his disciples in check when they are accused of breaking the sabbath by picking corn, and when he is criticised for healing a man with a withered hand – an act of work – on the following Sabbath. He responds by pointing to two key principles.
Firstly, he tells them, focus on what matters, or more accurately, focus on who matters. There is a far bigger question than the rules and regulations regarding sabbath observance, and that is, who is the Lord of the Sabbath. Who is the Lord of heaven and earth? Who worked alongside the Father in creating the world, and set up the rhythm of a seventh day of rest? He is in your midst – step back and see the big picture.
For ourselves too there is the danger that we can get so caught up in the details of our worship – whether we kneel or stand to receive communion, whether we sing or say the words, whether we lift our hands in worship or keep them by our sides – that we miss the bigger picture, that we miss the most extraordinary truth of all, that Jesus, the creator of heaven and earth – is present among us. We don’t conjure him up by the quality of our experience; he is with us because he has promised that where two or three gather in his name there he will be. When we come to worship, let us not become so focused on the detail that we miss the miracle that takes place every Sunday in our midst.
The second principle that Jesus points out to his Sabbath-passionate debaters is that love matters more than correct observance. In fact, love is correct observance. If worshipping God was done by ensuring a holy sabbath, then a sabbath could only be holy if it was used for good, not evil. If it was lived with a generous, loving, compassionate heart, that put the needs of others before one’s own. If it meant healing a man’s hand rather than maintaining one’s own moral scruples.
Worship is an immensely personal thing. In a church like ours, which is a parish church, which draws Christians together from throughout the community of all different types of church tradition, musical preference and theological belief, you will not be surprised to know that there was an incredible variety of different opinions expressed in the survey on worship. It is true to say that there is no one act of worship that would please everyone.
And so we are called to live lives of love. If there is a particular aspect of our worship that you find difficult or uncomfortable, can I assure you that there will be others alongside whom you sit, for whom it is the highlight of their worship. And that the aspects of the services that you love and value most, are for others those parts which they most struggle with. So can I encourage us all to treat each other with love and grace, to value what matters to others, to do good on the sabbath, to love with compassion and generosity, and that includes how we worship.
Going forwards, we will be looking to change some of our services. Almost everyone expressed how important communion was to them. So we are going to introduce communion into all our Sunday services, including our all age service, starting next week. At that service we will have a nave altar. For many, the nave altar was a very special expression of us being one family, one body around the Lord’s table, and so introducing this into our all age service seems to be a very appropriate place to do this. You also helped us understand that the high altar remains a very special place to receive communion for many, and so three Sundays out of four, communion will be received there.
In addition, over the next few months we will gradually introduce new service books. We will be introducing Church of England liturgies that better reflect the richness of the seasons of the year – Epiphany and Easter, as well as Advent and Lent – and a greater variety of liturgy to our regular worship. We appreciate that sometimes the services can be difficult to follow in the books so we want to reduce the amount that you have to flip between pages.
But these changes are cosmetic. The biggest changes we can make to our worshipping life together are by living out those two Sabbath principles that Jesus taught: focusing on Him; loving one another.
May our focus be totally on Christ, the one who is incredibly present among us; and may we worship alongside others with love and a generous spirit, delighting in our diversity, and encouraging one another in faith.