LIKE AS WE ARE: ACCEPTANCE

Some of you will remember Harry Golden.  He was an author who became very popular in the early 1960’s, I think.  He was a journalist author whose books such as “For 2 Cents Plain” told the tale of his growing up on the east side of New York, and what it was like to be a Jew in North Carolina.  Since he disturbed the prejudices of many of his neighbors he was something of a controversial figure.  Somebody decided, therefore, to see what he could dig up out of Harry Goldman’s past.  He discovered and passed the word around that Harry Golden had spent time in prison.  He had been convicted of some crime like forgery and had gone to jail for it, and you know what people began to say about that.  But one of Harry Golden’s friends who had not known about prison, and who was probably just as surprised as anybody else, wrote him a letter.  It consisted of only six words.  It said, “So what else is new, Harry?”  Now that’s a friend.

Carmen Trippe told me the other day that he read somewhere that there are two kinds of friends.  Most of us have two kinds of friends.  There are material friends and there are emotional friends.  Material friends are those who can do something for you.  Your banker is your material friend.  Your doctor is your material friend.  And for $65 per hour the psychiatrist will be your friend.  Material friends are important.  You need people who can do things for you.   The other kind of friend is the emotional friend.  That’s the person whom, if you have some time free to spend, that’s the person you want to spend it with, and he wants to spend it with you.  That’s the person who likes you if you are rich or poor, and who if you get in jail, would come down and bail you out and say, “so what else is new, Harry.”  Most of us, if we are lucky, have two or three friends like that in a lifetime, at the most two or three.  And some of us never have a friend like that, never.  And the meaning of the story of the woman at the well is that Jesus is a friend like that, and the church is a place of friends like that.

John 4:27-42 27 Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” 28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him. 31 Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.” 32 But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” 33 Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?” 34 “My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. 35 Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. 36 Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. 37 Thus the saying ‘One sows and another reaps’ is true. 38 I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” 39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” 40 So when the Samaritans came to him, they urged him to stay with them, and he stayed two days. 41 And because of his words many more became believers. 42 They said to the woman, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world.”

Today and last Sunday we have read what seems to be the same story in two parts (editor’s note the referenced sermon was posted on March 16, 2011) I wondered about that , why not read it all together?  As I studied it, though, it seemed to me that the answer is that it is two different stories really.  The first is the story about a Samaritan woman, the second a story about the town of Samaritans.  The first is the image of water, the second the image of the harvest.

John’s Gospel is a study told in many levels, almost layers.  He has a way of slipping in little things that mean something more than they seem to mean on the surface.  If you have your Bibles look at the story with me again.  Like a good playwright who does not want too many characters on the stage at the same time, John says the disciples come back and the woman leaves.  But as she leaves, she leaves her water jar behind.  Why do you suppose she did that?  Well, we will come back to that a little later.  She goes into town, not back home, and tells the people “Come see a man who told me everything I ever did.”  The most significant thing about her encounter with Jesus was that he told her everything she ever did.  We will come back to that, too.  Now, you could easily move from that point in the story to the conclusion about the Samaritans, but there is a kind of interlude with the disciples.  And the interlude tells the same story.  If the woman didn’t understand about the water the disciples didn’t understand about the food.  They urge Jesus to eat, he tells them he has food that they don’t know anything about. He means that what keeps him alive is doing the will of God.  They think that some sort of vendor has come by selling sandwiches while they were off in town at the grocery store.  Jesus says, it is his “food” to finish the work of God.  (It is the same word as he spoke from the cross when he said. “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and died.)

There are these curious words about the harvest, and the fields white unto harvest.  We usually read them to mean that we who are in the church are harvesters and all those outside the church are the wheat just waiting for us to come gather them in.  “Bringing in the Sheaves” and all that.  In fact, there are people outside the church who see it that way too, as if the church were the grim reaper, come to do something to them, as if the church were always looking for material friends, as if the church always has something up its sleeve.  The church does not always live up to its calling, that’s true, but when it lives up to its calling, it is called to be the people who are emotional friends.  And what’s more, the story really speaks about Jesus, whose coming is itself the sign of the harvest.  He has come to be like as we are, to be our friend, to deal with our loneliness, outcast as we are, “So what else is new, Harry?” Let me point out a couple of things in this story.

I said I wanted to come back to this part about the water jar.  John says, “So the woman left her water jar and went into the city.”  Why do you suppose John puts in that detail?  It may be, of course, that somebody was there and told about it.  She was so surprised and so flustered that she just walked off and left her water jar sitting there.  Maybe she left it behind for Jesus to get a drink.  It seems more likely that John puts this detail in because it fits his purpose.  Here is a woman who had come to get water.  Jesus promises her the water of life.  She says give me this water that I may not have to come here to draw.  Jesus gives her the water of life, a well of water springing up into everlasting life, so she has no more need of the water jar and she leaves it behind.

What was the thirst that kept her coming back to the well?  It was the thirst for someone who would just love her.  She had had five husbands and five failures.  We don’t know anything at all about her except that something kept driving her, maybe this one, maybe this one, and now she was living with a man who was not her husband.

I dare say there are some of us here who know people like that, who keep looking for love and never seem to be able to find it.  I dare say there are some of us here who know what that loneliness is like.  We wish we had a friend, just one, not tow or three, just one, who really cared about us, but we only experience alienation, alienation between husband and wife, parent and child.  And we want to flee that alienation because it hurts so.  We want to go somewhere and do something.  Children want to move out and get away.  So we keep going to the well everyday with our broken water jars trying to satisfy our thirst, when what we really need is the water of life.  In Jesus, she found the love she had always been looking for, and she left her water behind.

And I said I wanted to get back to this part about “he told me everything I ever did.”  That was the most significant thing about Jesus to her.  Now, it was not that she was dazzled because he was a mind reader.  It was that she was delighted that he saw right through her, that he knew everything she ever did, and he loved her anyway.

God is like that.  He did not choose Abraham to be his friend because Abraham was a good man.  Abraham was a liar and a coward, but God chose to be his friend anyway.  He did not choose  Israel to be his material friend.  If the banker does something for you he expects you to appreciate it.  Israel never seemed to appreciate it.  If the psychiatrist befriends you he expects you to pay him for it.  God brought Israel out of the slavery of Egypt, across the Red Sea, but when they got thirsty those ungrateful people, said, “Why did you bring us out here to die of thirst in this God-forsaken place?”

Exodus 17:3-7 3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?” 4 Then Moses cried out to the LORD, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.” 5 The LORD answered Moses, “Go out in front of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah[a] and Meribah[b] because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the LORD saying, “Is the LORD among us or not?”

So you have a friend, and you transgress on that friendship and they come to get you, and put you in jail, and you don’t dare call your friend because you know it will hurt him deeply to know you are in jail, and it will give you great pain when you see him, but he finds out anyway, and he comes down and pays your bail and he says, “So what else is new, Harry?” God is like that.  He knows everything you ever did and he loves you anyway.  What a friend we have in Jesus.

Now, one more thing about his story.  This woman did not go home, did you notice?  She did not go home, she went into the city.  She had a new home.  It was among the people of the town, who came out themselves and begged Jesus to stay with them, and who said, we now know for ourselves that this is indeed the saviour of the world.  Her home was among these who had become the church.

Why does anybody go to church?  I’m not really taking a poll, but why does anybody go to church?  It is to worship, surely, to acknowledge the presence of God with us, that he is indeed the saviour of the world, my friend.  Now there are some folks who may say, “I don’t need to go to church. I can worship God just as well on the golf course, and I can in Church”. That may be, but most folks go to the golf course to play golf, not to worship God.  You don’t come to church to play golf.

Henri Nouwen

Why does anybody go to church?  It is because they also know that the church is the place of friends.  Henri Nouwen said, “You become like the group you associate yourself with.  The church is an island of friends in a sea of alienation.” The church is an oasis of living water in a desrt of people who only want to use you.  And if you say, but the church can be less than loving, even less than kind.  I say to you, do not judge the church by its human reality.  Judge the church by its intention.  Gaze not at its human face, gaze on the face of its Lord.  For he came to be a friend even to the Samaritans.

There are two kinds of friends, material friends and emotional friends.  Material friends are those people who can do something for you.  The banker is your material friend.  The doctor is your material friend, and it is important to have material friends.  The emotional friend is somebody that you just like to be with, if you have a little time to spend.  He is the one who likes you if you are rich or if you are in jail.  If we have two or three friends like that in a lifetime we are lucky.  There are some people who have no friends like that at all, like the woman at the well.  But the Bible says in Jesus,  God has become like as we are and he says to us to all Samaritans like us, “So what else is new, Harry?”

Romans 8:1-3 1 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2 because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. 3 For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh,[b] God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering.[c] And so he condemned sin in the flesh,

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on March 22, 1981 at First United Methodist Church in Denton.  It was part of a Lenten sermon series title “Like as we are”.  If you would like to receive emails of new postings from the Rumors of Angels blog, free subscription information is available at the top of the right column of the blog home page.  

 

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LIKE AS WE ARE: DEATH

Funny, isn’t it, how we can remember every detail of some things that happen to us? If someone close to us dies, we can remember the details of the last hours, last words, what we did and said and thought.  Monday afternoon, I was sitting in my office catching up on some paper work.  John Mollett was talking with Susan in the next office.  It was 1:45 when suddenly John called out that Susan reported a news bulletin being flashed on television, an attempted assassination of the President had been made in Washington.  We turned on the radio in my office and followed the course of events as they unfolded.  Funny, isn’t it, how words can bring back memories.  I dare say there were many of us who remembered at that moment precisely where we were on that November day almost eighteen years ago when the first innocent words of that Associated Press bulletin came across the radio, “Shots were fired near the President as he rode in a motorcade in Dallas today.” I remember where I had been, where I was going, I can even see in my mind’s eye the curve that I was negotiating on that road that wound along the western bank of the Hudson River.  

Ronald Reagen before assassination attempt

 As I sat and listened to the news that got worse before it got better Monday afternoon, the phone rang.  The voice on the other end of the line said, “I suppose you will be preaching about the assassination attempt?” The question came to my mind: What do you say? What does the Bible have to say about these vivid events of our history?  Today is the day that the Bishops of the United Methodist Church have called for us to set aside as a day of prayer for the children of Atlanta.  What does the scripture have to say about those atrocities?  What does it have to say about violence and death in America?  

 Like you, I am sure…I have followed the various comments of persons who have been trying to explain us to us.  I don’t intend to try to explain.  It couldn’t hurt for us to try to talk a little as a people about about causes and cures.  Maybe he is only a crazy man trying to capture attention in a world that hardly noticed him all his life.  Nobody in his high school could remember him before,  but they will surely remember him now.  Is there something about us that creates such crazies?  The talk of gun control legislation has already begun.  One of the columnists said the other day that, “the tired old cliches will be trotted out again, and let me be the first”, he said, “to trot them out.  Gun control might not do any good, but I for one would be willing to give it a try.  It might not make it impossible for crazies to get guns, but it might be just a little more difficult.”  

But that’s not really the question, it it?  An event that shakes our who perception of ourselves to the very core does not merely call for new laws.  Is our society sick?  If so, is it sickness unto death?  In the words of Ezekiel, “Can these bones live?”  

Ezekiel 37:1-3, 11-14 – 1 The hand of the LORD was on me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. 3 He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”I said, “Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”11 Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the people of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ 12 Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: My people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. 14 I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’”The meaning of the story of Lazarus is that Jesus can give life to the dead as he can give sight to the blind, the water of life to those who are thirsty and the bread of life to those who are hungry.  I want to talk with you about death and life this morning, for death is not merely a physical event.  In fact, if death were only a physical event it would not be so threatening.  Death threatens us by taking away our hope.  Is there no hope for us?  Can these bones live?  Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”  

John 11:1-451 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.”4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. 6 So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” 8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.” 11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” 12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” 16Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” 17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles[b] from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home.21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there.32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept. 36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” 38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” 40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” 41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.”45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.    

Let me tell you about Anwar el-Sadat.  He is, of course, the President of Egypt.*  His autobiography published some three years ago is called “In Search of Identity.”  He explains that the title means in search of the identity of Anwar el-Sadat, but also in search of the identity of Egypt.   He says that his identity is wrapped up in two things.  The first is the little village where he was born in upper Egypt, his little village where he could lie in bed at night and hear the sounds of the people, where he listened night after night as his grandmother talked of freedom.  He said that when he lost his sense of who he was, in all the years he always returned to his little village, to renew his roots and himself.  

The second source of his identity was Cell 54.  It was a cell in the prison where he spent a number of years.  During World War II while the British occupied Egypt, Sadat, who was an officer in the Egyptian army, was implicated in the assassination of a certain high Egyptian official who had become too much identified with the Colonial powers.  He was imprisoned in Cell 54.  It was during those years, he said, that he learned to distinguish between the inner and outer reality.  It was during those years that he learned to distinguish between the inner and the outer success.  It was the inner reality of his own identity that enabled him to survive all the volatile years under Nasser.And it was that inner reality that enabled his search for peace.  It was in 1971, shortly after he assumed the position of leader of Egypt that he proposed peace with Israel.  But he said, he realized in 1976 that no peace would be possible unless somebody changed his mind.  Egypt had always insisted that any negotiations with Israel be conducted through a third party.  They refused to sit in the same room at the same table with the Israelis.  He reached back into Cell 54, the inner reality, and shocked the whole world by declaring that he was willing to go anywhere for the sake of peace, even to Jerusalem, even to address the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset.  It was an offer that the Israelis could not refuse and the peace process began; all because somebody changed his mind – (the new testament word is conversion.)  

When they came to Jesus to tell him that Lazarus was sick he said that this sickness is not unto death.  He did not mean that it was not potentially fatal.  He meant that some sicknesses do lead to death.  The pursuit of the outer success leads to death.  The pursuit of the inner success leads to life.  Oh that all those entombed by the pursuit of outer success could hear that!  Can these bones live?  Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life.   

But let me tell you about Howard Ross.  I have his permission to tell you his story and to ask for your prayers. Howard Ross is one of our members.  He left last Thursday for TDC.  For those of you who do not know, TDC is the Texas Department of Corrections.  Howard Ross has gone to prison to serve a three year sentence for Driving While Intoxicated.  Howard came to Denton last summer and joined the church here, transferring his membership from another Methodist Church in Galveston.  He was in church almost every Sunday, well dressed, a nice man.  He is a retired school teacher.  But one day we got a call.  Howard was in the County Jail on drunk driving charges.  It was his third or fourth offense.  He was already on probation out of Dallas County.  When his trial came he pled guilty and received a second probated sentence on the condition that he would go to the State Hospital in Wichita Falls for the alcohol rehabilitation program.  While he was gone, I talked one Sunday morning to the Men’s Fellowship Class and asked them to help Howard.  They agreed and when he got back he became a member of that class, leading singing, getting involved in activities at the Senior Citizen Center with members of that class.  

Things went well for Howard.  He even got through Christmas and New Year’s without any problem at all.  Howard felt so good about getting through that difficult time that he went out and bought himself a drink.  It was Friday, January 2.  The next Sunday it appeared in the paper that Howard Ross had been arrested when his car hot another for driving while intoxicated.  Tuesday his probation was revoked.  Thursday he was transported to Huntsville.  I tell you this story only because going to prison is a kind of dying.  I tell you because he has asked for our prayers, that Jesus might raise him from the dead.  

When Jesus came to Bethany, Martha came running to him and said, “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died.”  But Jesus said to her, “Your brother will live.”  It was as if he were calling her faith for the sake of her brother.   I am calling your faith this morning for the sake of our brother Howard Ross.  Bring him back from the tomb with your prayers.  Can these bones live?  Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life.  

But now let me talk to you about us.  Daniel Boorstein the historian, Librarian of Congress, won the Pulitzer Prize for his book published in 1973, The Americans, the Democratic Experience”.  The book has been called a kind of national autobiography.  It aims at a balanced assessment of the price and the promise  of what American  civilization has done with and for and to Americans. He closes the book with an Epilogue, a long quote from William Bradford, later Governor of the Colony of Massachusetts.  Bradford reported how the Pilgrims who had taken temporary refuge in Holland debated their voyage to America.  There were many, he said, who opposed it.  They knew that America was a wild land of severe winters and devastating hardships.  They would be short of food.  Many of, if not most of them would die of hunger or hard work, from attacks of wild animals or wild savages.  

“It was answered”, he said, “that all great and honourable actions are accompanied with great difficulties, and must be both enterprised and overcome with answerable courages.” Though there were dangers and difficulties, many things to be feared. all of them might by the help of God be either borne or overcome.  They might surely expect the blessing of God in their proceeding.  Boorstein draws this conclusion: “The American Journeys never ceased.  Ever since those pilgrim landings people of this nation of New Beginnings had lived on the dangerous fertile verge between the wild and the familiar.  The large outlines of a new civilization were being drawn.  Even after centuries the continent had never become “settled”.   Would it ever be?”  

It is the very openness of our democratic society that makes us vulnerable to the crazy people.  If there is an American disease it is not so much violence as innocence.  We can lock up our presidents behind closed doors or lock up innocent people who might be a threat to our presidents, but both alternatives would somehow threaten the very freedom that is American society.  

The story of Lazarus goes on to say that it was life given to Lazarus that prompted the officials to plot the death of Jesus.  Life and death, death and life.  They seem to go together.  Is our society hopeless?  No.  Life is a risk, but our hope is not in life but in the resurrection from death.  Can these bones live?  Jesus said I am the resurrection and the life.  

The meaning of this story is that Jesus can give life to the dead, just as he can give water to the thirsty, bread to the hungry, sight to the blind.  Jesus can give life to whomever he wills.  And he wills to give it to us, to you.  Death comes in many shapes.  A violent act that shakes us to the core of our being, a prison sentence that entombs, financial disaster looks like death.  The break-up of a family threatens us with hopelessness.  What does your death look like?  

Lying there in your tomb, with the grave clothes binding your hands and feet, your life may seem hopeless.  But Jesus comes to the door of your tomb and says, Lazarus, come out.  Come out of your despair, come out of your fears, come out of your hopelessness.  Come on.  Can these bones live?  Jesus said, I am the resurrection and the life.  

Romans 8:6-116 The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. 7 The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8 Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. 9 You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ. 10 But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life[a] because of righteousness. 11 And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who li 

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas on April 5, 1981. If you would like to receive emails of new postings from the Rumors of Angels blog, free subscription information is available at the top of the right column of the blog home page.  

*Anwar el-Sadat was assassinated  six months after this sermon was preached. 

   

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LIKE AS WE ARE: BLINDNESS

At the City Council meeting last Thursday night the members of the Council simulated physical handicaps during the first part of their meeting.  It was the idea of a coalition of groups here in Denton that have been calling attention to the special needs of disabled persons for barrier free access to public places, transportation and the like.  It is part also of the observance of the International Year of the Disabled.  Here in our own church we have a task force that is working to make out facilities and our programs hospitable to disabled persons.  The mayor read a proclamation, or had it read for him, because he had on dark glasses that simulated blindness, that called on all the city to move toward a barrier free access in public places and to observe this month as a special time to recognize the problems of disabilities,  I am sure it was a good exercise for those councilmen.  When it was over the breathed a sigh of relief that they could throw away their crutches or park their wheelchairs against the wall, take the cotton of of their ears or remove the opaque glasses. 

But it was a good exercise for the rest of us as well, only observers.  We could see how difficult it was for those people to cope.  We could imagine for ourselves what it would be like.  I was a little late and did not see the difficulty that those who tried to move wheelchairs up the steps encountered.  As I watched, however, the most dramatic part of the simulation was for those who were blind.  Normally eager, leaning forward in their chairs, to be full participants in whatever the discussion, withdrawn from what was happening around them.  It occurred to me what courage it must take to refuse to be handicapped when you are disabled. 

Imagine if you will for a minute, what it would be like to be blind.  Close your eyes, or better still, put your hands over your eyes.  Imagine what it would be like if you had been blinded by accident and all you had left was the memory of what faces look like, the color of the tulips in the garden in the springtime.  Or worse still, imagine that you had been born blind and you had no way to know what people were talking about when they said that the sky was blue.  What’s blue?  You can’t touch blue or feel it on your cheek.  Or worst of all, that you spent the rest of your life with your hands over your eyes like that, refusing to see.  That’s the story of the man born blind. 

John  9:1-41 1 As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2 His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”3 “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. 4 As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5 While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6 After saying this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7“Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means “Sent”). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.8 His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some claimed that he was.  Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”    But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”10 “How then were your eyes opened?” they asked. 11He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.” 12 “Where is this man?” they asked him.    “I don’t know,” he said. 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14 Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath. 15 Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others asked, “How can a sinner perform such signs?” So they were divided. 17 Then they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”    The man replied, “He is a prophet.” 18 They still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19 “Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” 20 “We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21 But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22 His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23 That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.” 24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.” 25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” 26 Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples too?” 28 Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29 We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly person who does his will. 32 Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. 35 Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 “Who is he, sir?” the man asked. “Tell me so that I may believe in him.” 37 Jesus said, “You have now seen him; in fact, he is the one speaking with you.” 38 Then the man said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him.39 Jesus said,[a] “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” 40 Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” 41 Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. 

It is the story of Jesus who is the light of the world. so that even a blind man can see, but as for the others, neighbors, parents, religious leaders, they have their hands over their eyes, and they will remain blind.  And though this story often reads like a comedy, it is a tragedy.  I want to talk with you about the blind man who saw the light of the world, but even more I want to talk to you about those folks who are willfully blind, and why.
There were neighbors, for example, who refused to see what they saw because it didn’t fit with what they had always known.  When the blind man came back from the pool at Siloam some of the neighbors said, “Isn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Others said, “No, it looks like him but it isn’t.  It can’t be.  That man was blind.  This one is not.”  They had to figure out some way to fit this new experience into their ways of thinking about truth.  Most of us are pretty good at doing that.  If we have a fairly fixed notion of what truth is we can whittle and carve and shape what we see until it will fit into our fixed pattern of truth and it it won’t fit then we can always deny the whole thing.  That’s not the blind man, it only looks like him.  Copernicus said that the earth revolves around the sun and everybody said not, it is not true. Galileo came along and said the same thing and added, “Here, see for yourself, look through this telescope.”  And they put their hands over their eyes and said, “What telescope?” 

Somebody said the other day that status quo is a Latin phrase that means ‘the mess we are in.’  The problem with a mess is that you get used to it and it doesn’t look like a mess after awhile.  Doesn’t it worry you that our society is being systematically devalued before our very eyes?  Bishop Tschoepe, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dallas sent a letter to Catholics (it could have been to all Christians) the other day.  It called for a recognition of the Christian martyrs in Latin America.  It noted the first anniversary of the death of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador came last Tuesday.  It noted that four American missionaries died in the same country last December.  It pointed out that these are only four.  Hundreds, even thousands of Christians have been killed and their deaths have gone unnoticed.  He called attention to the fact that in Latin America the church has abandoned its traditional alliance with the rich and the powerful and has thrown in its lot with the poor and the oppressed.  There was not a political phrase in the statement but it has tremendous political implications.  If the American revolution was not the first, it was among the first to hold up the ideal of freedom from tyranny and oppression.  The Monroe Doctrine was aimed at warning against the reintroduction of oppression into the Western Hemisphere from Europe.  Those are our ideals and our values.  We cannot let them be devalued. 

Doesn’t it worry you that our whole society is being devalued  before our very eyes. 

Eartha Kitt

 

Eartha Kitt, the entertainer, was asked the other day why she was moving from the West Coast back to the East Coast.  She said, “The use of cocaine and marijuana is so widespread out there, I have no one to play with.”  Now I am sure that there are people in California who abhor the wide spread use of drugs as much as you and I do, but there is a notion abroad that the mess we are in isn’t so bad after all.  I am not an alarmist about the widespread use of drugs as much as I am about the wide spread acceptance of drugs, that our society, is being systemically devalued. 

Lies are told by people in high places when the truth would do much better.  Criminals are applauded, even counted as heroic, for their cleverness, while police are assumed to be the enemy.  In fact, it may be that one of the important contributing factors to crime is that we make folk heroes out of our great criminals, Jesse James, Bonnie and Clyde, D.B. Cooper who jumped out of the airplane over,what was it?..the mountains of Utah, after hijacking an airliner and extorting a million dollars or so. 

Television, the impact of which is almost inestimable, and which has the capacity to soar to such great heights, or plunge to such depths.  Newton Minow once called it the great wasteland.  The great wasteland has been converted into the great garbage dump.  I think I agree with Ellen Goodman who said the other day that the name of the game in television is still the ratings, and the best device for affecting television programming is the off button on your set. 

The problem, of course, is that when they keep hauling garbage into your living room night after night you may think you live in a garbage dump, and if you live in a garbage dump long enough it may dull your olfactory  nerves. 

If I may come back to the other metaphor, Jesus is the light of the world , even a blind man can see, unless he puts his hands over his eyes and willfully remains blind.  And though this story often reads like a comedy it is a tragedy, neighbors who wouldn’t see what they saw. 

Or his parents.  Now, you may excuse his parents, because they were afraid, but that’s the problem, isn’t it?  It takes a lot of courage to see what you see.  The neighbors brought this man to the Pharisees and they couldn’t believe that he was the man born blind so they called his parents in and they said, “Is this your so that you say was born blind?  How does he now see?”  My guess is that all the lawyers in the congregation this morning would applaud their answer.  They told only what they know, no more, no less.  “Yes this is our son, Yes he was born blind.  How he sees we do not know.  Ask him, he can speak for himself, don’t get us involved.”  And it is duly noted that they said what they said because they were afraid. 

Contrast that with the sort of fearlessness of the blind man.  He was willing to let Jesus do with him what he wanted, the clay, the washing at Siloam.  He had a certain boldness about him toward these rather powerful people,  In fact, you can almost see his courage growing.  What do you say about him?  He seems like an extraordinary person to me, maybe a prophet.  “Tell us again what happened?  I have told you.  Do you want to be one of his disciples?  Haw dare you suggest such a thing.  We are disciples of Moses.  We don’t even know where this man comes from.” And suddenly the blind man really sees, and his courage overcomes all his fears and he said, “You don’t know where he comes from? He opened my eyes and you don’t know where he comes from!  He comes from God, that’s where he comes from.  And they excommunicated him on the spot. 

It may read like a comedy but it is really a tragedy.  It takes courage for a little boy to see that the emperor has no clothes.  Whether in the relationships of nations or neighbors it takes courage to take our hands down from our eyes and see what we see. 

Or the Pharisees, most of all the Pharisees refused to see.  If you can see the blind man’s growing courage you can see their growing consternation.  They said he cannot be from God because he violates the Sabbath, and anyone from God would not violate the Sabbath, but that doesn’t work.  So they try to deny that he had even been blind and they check it our with his parents, but that doesn’t work.  So a third time they ask the blind man and when that doesn’t work they stop up their ears and put their hands over their eyes and say no more of this.  And Jesus says about them they have got the whole world upside down.  They think sight is blindness and blindness is sight, light is darkness and darkness is light.  And I am reminded of Joseph Conrad’s “The Heart of Darkness” and Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” and the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount when he said, “If your eye is single your whole body is full of light, but if your eye is not single your whole body is full of darkness.  And if the light that is in you be darkness, how great is the darkness.”  It is the prescription for tragedy. Jesus is the light of the world, that even a blind man can see, but as for these they stand with their hands over their eyes and call sight blindness and blindness sight. 

Tradition has it that this story was often read on the occasion of baptism and that at the words, “Lord, I believe”, the catechumens were baptised.  And that brings us back to David. Things were a mess in Israel. Saul was the king but he had gone mad.  So the Lord sent Samuel out to find another king.  It was such a dangerous mission that he told nobody where he was going or what he was doing.  He simply showed up at the house of Jesse and he said, “Bring all your sons here.”  And the Lord said, not that one, no not this one.  Until Samuel said, “Is that all?” There is one more, said Jesse, but he is just a boy, out watching the sheep.  But they brought him in anyway, and Samuel pulled the oil out from beneath his cloak and poured it over David’s head, and took off running for Ramah, and nobody knew what had happened, not Jesse, not even David.  There stood David with the oil dripping off his hair and running into his ears. 

Was he king?  You bet he was, for the power and purpose of God are undeniable.  Even a blind man could see that.  And so can you, unless you stand with your hands over your eyes and refuse to see what you see. 

1 Samuel 16:1b,6-7,10-13 1 The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.” 

6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’s anointed stands here before the LORD.”7 But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” 

10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The LORD has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”  “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”   Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” 12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.    Then the LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.” 13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the LORD came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah. 

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on March 29, 1981 at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas.  It was part of a Lenten sermon series each titled “Like as we are”.

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LIKE AS WE ARE

You know, of course, that most of us operate on one calendar, but the people whose business is Christmas operate on another, toy manufacturers, for example.  They are making toys right now, I suppose, that will be popular next Christmas.  There was a story the other day about one toy company that specializes in educational toys.  They decided that they would put out this toy that teaches children how to live in the modern world.  No matter how you put it together it won’t work.

The greatest temptation is the temptation to give up.  Dante said in his inferno that over the gates of Hell there is posted a sign that says, “Abandon hope all

Dante's Gates oye who enter here.” That’s the greatest temptation, to believe that no matter how you put it together it won’t work, that nobody can do anything about anything, not even God, and that we might as well give up.

You remember Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”  It is the story, as so many of Frost’s poems are stories, about how one day while traveling alone he stood at a fork in the road, undecided which way to take.  He does not make himself out to be a hero for the choice he made but there is something sort of heroic in these last lines:  “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Consider this poem by Stephen Crane:

The Wayfarer

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

Now that’s the greatest temptation.  It has little to do with making good and bad choices.  It has everything to do with abandoning hope, and surrendering to the devil.

It is traditional on this first Sunday in Lent to read the story of the temptation of Jesus:

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” 4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written: “‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’” 7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” 8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” 10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

Our forty days on the Lenten Season imitate his forty day test.  I do not want to call you to courage this morning, I want to offer you grace.  Where is God in this story?  Where is God in our time of temptation?  He is where he has always been, nearer than hands and feet.  He is tempted like as we are.  Our hymn this morning is not “Yield Not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial, Jesus Plead for Me.”

Let’s talk about the temptation to turn the stones into bread.  What’s wrong with that?  What’s wrong with feeding yourself when you are hungry?  Albert Outler tells the story of the biologist who tried to see if he could create a mutation in some laboratory rats.  He wanted to see if he could breed rats that had no tails.  He began cutting the tails off one pair of rats.  The next generation was born with tails, so he cut the tails off those.  When the next generation was born he cut the tails off those.  Every time a new generation was born he cut their tails off until the 239th generation was born, still with tails.  At that point he decided that no matter what he did those rats were going to be born with tails.  His conclusion was that Shakespeare was right, “There is a destiny shapes our ends, rough hewn though they be.”

What’s the harm in bread?  None that I know of.  What’s the harm in feeding ourselves when we are hungry?  None that I know of.  What’s the harm in living lavishly if we have it to live off of?  What’s the harm in 19% of the population of the world consuming 85% of the world’s resources?  The harm comes when we think it is our destiny and that we neither can nor ought to do anything about it.  The harm is in the notion that we deserve to be rich and the poor nations deserve to be poor because God has shaped it that way.

Here we are entering into the Lenten season, the season of fasting.  Our father in faith, John Wesley, recommended fasting.  Why don’t we fast?  Well, we do go on diets, but fasting is not to lose weight.  Fasting is for spiritual purposes.  Why don’t we fast?  Well, we will give up a meal occasionally and use the money to feed the poor and that’s good, but fasting is not for pragmatic purposes it is for spiritual purposes.  Why don’t we fast?  It can be only because we have decided we don’t have to, that it is not our destiny.

The story says that Jesus was out there in the wilderness forty days and forty nights, fasting.  How could he do that?  Did he just do without chocolate for forty days?  It says he fasted.  Was it really forty days?  That’s what it says.  How could he survive a forty day fast?  He said it. He answered the temptor and he said, “It is written, what keeps you alive is doing the will of God, not bread.”

I don’t want to call you to courage this morning.  I don’t want to call you to be strong and give up something for Lent.  I want to call you to grace.  For the meaning of the story is that in Christ, God has become like as we are, to deliver us from death by bread alone, as Dorothee Solee puts it.  Our Hymn is not “Yield Not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial Jesus Plead for Me”.

All right, let’s talk about the temptation of the pinnacle of the temple.  Luke closes his story of the temptation saying that the devil departed from him, until an opportune time.  My guess is that there were many opportune times when Jesus thought about the pinnacle of the temple again.  If the devil uses visual aids, can’t you imagine the video tape recorder turned on and the fantasy playing on the screen:  “Look up there. He’s not going to jump is he?  He jumped, oh my.  He’s safe! He’s unharmed.  He must be the Messiah.”  Don’t you suppose, that when they were on the road to Caesarea Philippi… you remember?  They were walking down that hot dusty road on their way to Jerusalem.  It was so quiet you could even hear the soft pad of their feet in the deep dust of the road, and Jesus said, “Who do they think I am?”  And they talked about that for awhile.  Then after another long silence he said, “Who do you think I am?”  And Peter said almost under his breath, “You are Messiah.”  So Jesus began to tell them about Jerusalem and the cross and Satan said,  I mean Peter said,  “I’ve got a better idea.  You climb up on the pinnacle of the temple and jump off and…”  Or when that cold night he stood before the Sanhedrin while they trumped up charges and finally someone said, “If you are the Son of God let’s go up to the pinnacle of the temple…”  Or when he stood before Pilate and Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Right there across the way he could see the pinnacle of the temple.  And while he hung on the cross the devil whispered in his ear, “You didn’t have to suffer like this.”

The temptation of the pinnacle is the temptation to take the easy way out.  It is the temptation to choose the appearance rather than the reality.  It is the temptation to political expediency rather than the decision that means something.  It is the temptations to pass expensive wire-tap laws instead of doing something about crime.  It is the temptation to fight in the courts rather than build the jail and juvenile detention facilities this county needs.  It is the devil that whispers in our ear, “You don’t have to suffer.  Doing the right thing won’t cost you anything.”

I don’t want to call you to courage this morning.  I want to call you to grace.  In Christ God has become like as we are not to deliver us from suffering but to deliver us from the death of the easy way out,  our hymn is not “Yield Not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial, Jesus Plead for Me”.

Now, let’s talk about the temptation to abandon God.  Does it surprise you that the devil promised Jesus that he would give him all the kingdoms of the world… as if they were his to give?  They aren’t, you know.  Do you remember the old story of  “The Devil and Daniel Webster”?  It is the story, like so many other stories with the same theme,  about a poor man on the frontier of America, whose hardships were so great that he sold his soul to the devil.  It is the story, really, about how he engages Daniel Webster to be his attorney and to plead his case so that he can get his soul back.  But it is also the story that the devil always makes promises that he can’t keep.  He promises you happiness in exchange for your soul, but he never delivers because happiness is not his to deliver.  “You will be like God”, the serpent whispered in Eve’s ear.  Any con man does that, and the devil is a con man and a liar.

The greatest temptation of all is the last, to abandon God for what looks like a better idea but isn’t.

It was one afternoon, as I recall.  Even though I grew up in the city of Dallas,  in those days there were lots of woods in easy walking distance of our house and many times we would go walking there or camping there after school or whenever we could.  So it was after school one day and there must have been half a dozen of us, maybe ten years old or twelve.  There was an old pond, a tank as we called it.  It was a beautiful warm spring day and somebody found an old boat at the edge of that tank and four of us decided to take it out on the water.  We were about half way to the other side when the leaky old boat began to fill with water faster than  we could bail.  At that point , my best friend Richard said “I’m going to get out of here and he jumped over board and swam to shore.”  Me too, I said and followed him in.  The only difference was he could swim and I couldn’t.  The water was easily over my head, and I suppose that I could have drowned if someone hadn’t pulled me out.  “Doubtless there are other ways” the poet said, “but they are the ways that lead to death.”

You see, it is not a story of courage… it is a story of grace.  Jesus did not resist temptation to show us that it can be done.  He is not like as we are just to prove how wrong we are.  We already know that.  That would be like shouting to a drowning boy, “You should have stayed in the boat!”  He already knows that.  What he needs is somebody to jump in and pull him out.  Jesus is the one who has jumped into the dangers and difficulties of our life to pull us out.

Where is God in this story?  Where is God in the temptations of your life?  Right where he has always been,  nearer than hands and feet, tempted like as we are .  God Has entered into our life to deliver us from evil.  Our hymn is not “Yield not to Temptation”, but “In the Hour of Trial Jesus Plead for Me”.

Several persons intend to join this church this morning.  I ask them to come as we sing.  But let’s talk about the invitation to Christian discipleship for a moment.  It is the invitation to cast your burdens and your temptation on Jesus, to open your life, once more to the self-giving love he gives to you.  Our hymn is ”In the Hour of Trial Jesus Plead for Me.”

  1. In the hour of trial,
  Jesus, plead for me,
    Lest by base denial,
  I depart from Thee;
    When Thou seest me waver,
  With a look recall,
    Nor for fear or favor
  Suffer me to fall.
  2. Should Thy mercy send me
  Sorrow, toil, and woe;
    Or should pain attend me
  On my path below;
    Grant that I may never
  Fail Thy hand to see;
    Grant that I may ever
  Cast my care on Thee.
  3. When the last hour cometh,
  Fraught with strife and pain,
    When Thou, Lord, returneth
  To the earth again;
    On Thy truth relying
  As that hour draws near,
    Jesus, take me, waiting,
  To Thy presence dear.

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on March 8, 1981 at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas.  The scriptures for this first Sunday of Lent were Genesis 2:7-9, 15-17, 3:1-7 – Romans 5:12-19 – Matthew 4:1-11

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THE THINGS THAT DIVIDE US

The first thing that I would like to do this morning is to ask your prayers for the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council which has convened in the Vatican this week.  The ecumenical

Second Vatican Council

Second Vatican Council

purpose of the council is the renewal of the Roman Catholic Church so that it might make a truer witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Certainly we ought to pray for its success, just as we would hope that Roman Catholics will pray that our witness to Jesus Christ might be true.  Therefore, I ask your prayers for this Council.

But it is not the Roman Catholic Ecumenical Council that I would like to talk about today.  Two weeks from today, that will be our topic, but today I would like to talk about the Ecumenical Movement.  As you know the Ecumenical Movement is a non-Roman phenomenon that involves a large number of Protestant denominations in the world, and many of the Eastern Orthodox bodies including the Russian Orthodox Church.  Over the past fifty or sixty years the people who have been involved in this movement have worked long and hard at the problem of understanding the things that divide us.  They have made great progress in this understanding, so much so that it has been said that the twentieth century will be called the ecumenical century in Church history.

I am no expert in the Ecumenical movement.  It is not my purpose this morning, therefore, to exhaust the subject in one short sermon.  Neither is it my purpose to say that this matter is a simple or easy matter.  But I would like for us to think this morning about the

Stony Point, New York

Stony Point, New York

things that divide us who are Christians from one another in Stony Point.  What is it that divides us from say the Presbyterians or the Lutherans?

If we take this question seriously, we would certainly have to begin by saying that theology divides us.  We have differences in our understanding about the sacraments, or the Bible, or about ordination, and especially in our understanding of what the Church is.  But at the same time, we would also have to say, if we take these matters seriously, that there are probably greater differences within the denominations (and certainly that is true in the Methodist Church) than there are differences between denominations.  So this morning the thing that I would like to say is that there are many non-theological matters that divide us as Christians from one another.  Plainer things like these three: history, Church government and sociology.

It is obvious, of course, that one of the things that divides us is history.  We as Methodists have a certain history, out of the Church of England in the 18th century.    The Presbyterians were founded by John Knox, one of Calvin’s students.  We all have a certain past, a certain history; we grew up that way and that past is the creator, in a sense of our present.  We have a long history of being separate denominations, and it can be said, that here in Stony Point we have a long history of being apart, and so it is that our history divides us.

We cannot, of course, deny that past.  Nor can we say that it is unimportant.  As a matter of fact, for Christian history is ultimately important.  Christianity is not grounded in some strange tale about gods who lived on a mountain in some unknown place and time.  Christianity is grounded in Jesus of Nazareth who lived and died under Pontius Pilate.  Christianity is grounded in history because that is where we live, in a place and a time, and this history, of Jesus of Nazareth is God’s sign that our place and time is holy.  We cannot say that history is unimportant, for history is ultimately important.  But we can say that while one kind of history divides us, another kind unites us.  For we claim allegiance to one Lord, this Jesus who is called Christ.  So that if history divides us as Christians it also unites us, we ought to look to the Lord of that history.

In the second place, our Church government, sometimes called our polity, divides us.  That is, we have different ways of operating the organization of the Church.  We were talking recently in the Adult Membership Class about our Methodist connectional system and that it is probably the chief Methodist contribution to the doctrine of the Church.  Our system of operating is not different in appearance to others, but it can probably be called unique in its actual operation.  The Annual Conference is the key to the whole thing and a Church has its existence as part of this whole.  Methodist Churches are not isolated units but a part of a wholeness called an Annual Conference.

This system grew up to meet certain needs, specifically the needs of the frontier.  (John

John Wesley

John Wesley

Wesley originated the idea, but it was well-adapted to the American frontier.)  The Annual Conference was a sending organization that sent its preachers wherever they were needed, sometimes as soon as people were out there.  Historians have concluded that no other pattern could have done it so well.

We take a certain pride in our polity, not because we do not know that it has faults almost too numerous to mention, but because we find this way of doing things superior to any other that we know about.  The Annual Conference continues to send their minister where they can serve best (or that is at least the ideal) we call it the appointive system.  And men are moved with some degree of regularity and that is good.  It means that a minister doesn’t depend on any congregation for his security and he can do things that need to be done and say things that need to be said without fear of reprisal.  Besides that it makes the congregation depend on itself for leadership and not one one man, its pastor.

Now I could give you a lot of other reasons why I think that the Methodist connectional system is the best that I know anything about.  But we are talking about the things that divide us, and one of those things is Church government.  Finally, we must say about it that we do not place any kind of ultimate faith in polity.  There is nothing sacred about the appointive system or any of the rest of it.  No system ought to get in the way.  Our connectional system came into being to meet very practical situations, if the situation changes then perhaps the system ought to chance too.  Our organization divides us, but it ought not.

The third thing that divides us is sociology.  Sociology, of course, is literally the study of groups, and one of the points that sociology makes is that we all belong to many groups that we never join.  We are all members of the group called males, or the group called females, and we never consciously join these groups.  And what I am saying is that our groupiness divides us.  There are racial groups, for example.  It is certainly one of the most grievous sins of the Church that only occasionally is it found to be leading in the battle for integration and true equality, instead of following, allowing the status quo to stand and hate to grow.

There are economic groups, and it is said that in any town certain income groups go to a certain Church.  To be sure, this is a generalization, but the fact is that this kind of groupiness divides us.

There are traditions, habits, family ties, and many other things that make groups and these tend to divide us.  I suppose that one of the hardest facts that we learned last year as we were talking about merging the two Methodist Churches in Stony Point was the general feeling that the two churches didn’t belong together and never would get along together.  Our groupiness divides us.

But if we regard this groupiness as ultimately important then we are denying what we profess every Sunday morning, namely, our faith in the holy catholic Church.  The Church is catholic not when it calls itself that, but when it preaches one gospel, follows one Lord, and professes its faith in the unity of the Church, for all groups, whatever their economics, their habits, their traditions and the like.  These are the things that divide us.

As I was thinking about these things that I wanted to say to you today, I had the uneasy feeling that I was oversimplifying things.  I do not want to do that.  There is no point in sliding quickly over history, and church government and sociology as if they were not important, or as if they would just disappear by our having mentioned them.  They are strong factors that divide is.  That is part of the reason why the Ecumenical movement has not moved any faster, that is why all the energy expended on merger of the Methodists in Stony Point came to nothing.  There are other ingredients in the whole problem of the things that divides us, like our pride in our accomplishments. But remember the Gospel lesson that we read this morning?

The ruler of the small town synagogue who came over to Jesus and the man that he had just healed and he said, “Why did you violate the Sabbath?”  In his concern for the law he missed the miracle.  Reprehensible, but all too common.  We see the importance of history and polity and sociology and miss the importance of the Gospel itself.  If there are things to do in obedience to the command of that Gospel then we ought to do them.  In the area of Christian education, for example, if we could do the job better by pooling our efforts with say the Presbyterians, then we ought to do it.

Finally the things that divide us from one another ought not to separate us from our Lord.  Let us consider these things that divide us.

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on October 14, 1962 at Trinity Methodist Church in Stony Point, New York.

Mark 3:1-6 1 Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. 2 Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. 3 Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” 4 Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.  5 He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. 6 Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.

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Living Waters Springing Up

                The one thing that I would want to say about the Bible, no matter what else anyone would say about it, is that the Bible is a living book, I mean that it is a book that you won’t just read and put away on the shelf like a novel about which you can say, “Well, I read that.”  It is more like a friend that you would call up, or visit, to talk with, to get his advice on something important, or to see if you could figure out a problem together.  It helps me to think in picture language, and I have always pictured the Bible as rather like a guide book that you would use if you went on a tour of a foreign country.  When you stop before some building or some ruin, then you could look it up in your guidebook and the book would tell you where you are and what you are seeing.  No one, therefore, really has learned the Bible.  What we really do is that we learn where we are by means of the Bible.

This story about the woman at the well… a great story:  John 4:7-26  7 When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” 8 (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)  9 The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.)  10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”  11 “Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his livestock?”  13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 15 The woman said to him, “Sir, give me this water so that I won’t get thirsty and have to keep coming here to draw water.”  16 He told her, “Go, call your husband and come back.”  17 “I have no husband,” she replied.    Jesus said to her, “You are right when you say you have no husband. 18 The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”  19 “Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. 20 Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”    21 “Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. 22 You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. 24 God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”  25 The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”  26 Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.”

I used to think that the way to understand it was that it was an example of a time that Jesus failed.  Here he was talking to a woman who never understood what he was saying to her.  He spoke of living water and she asked where he was going to get a bucket to draw with.  He asked her about her husband who was not her husband and she wanted to talk about where you ought to go to church.  But I have another conclusion about this story.  I see it as a very good picture of how any of us comes to receive the gift of Jesus Christ.  When we hear it, we don’t believe it.  We get confused and misunderstand what is being offered to us.  We don’t want to hear about it.  But then, maybe slowly at first, maybe haltingly, we begin to get the picture, and then, suddenly, everything is changed.  In one way or another every one of us is a woman at the well.  We need Jesus Christ just as much as she did, no matter how long we have been members of the church.  Here, then, is a guidebook to tell us where we are.  Let’s look at it again.

                The first thing to take note of, it seems to me, is the fact that Christian faith is always a gift of God, not something that we give to Christ, but that he gives to us.  Jesus and his disciples had been walking a long way.  They were on their way from Judea to Galilee, and the shortest way led through Samaria.  They came to the town on Sychar, where there was a well that Jacob had given his son Joseph.  Jesus sent his disciples into town to buy bread, while he sat down by the well to rest.  It was about noon time, and a woman came out to draw water.  And you will notice that Jesus speaks to her first, he took the initiative.  The fact is remarkable, the first place, for who she was.  She was a woman, and women were regarded in Jesus day as something less than fully human beings.  Jesus changed all that, really.  It might even be said that the whole movement for equal rights for women has Jesus as its first sponsor.  It was the first Christians who said that in Christ there is neither male nor female, and so on.  Not only was she a woman, but she was a Samaritan woman.  Now, you have heard all of your life what the Jews thought of the Samaritans.  They were, as far as the Jews were concerned, idolaters.  They practiced impure religion.  In fact, it hard for us to imagine in what kind of low esteem the Jews held the Samaritans.  We know about racial prejudice, of course, just apply that to the Samaritans, and you get some idea of it.  Not only was she a Samaritan woman, but she was a sinner, and Jesus knew all that.  What would happen if a black woman who has just escaped from the state prison showed up at church here some Sunday morning?  Would anybody speak to her?  Jesus did.

                And this woman reacted in disbelief.  Why do you ask water of me?  And Jesus turned the tables on her, he offered her water instead.  And she misunderstood, “How are you going to get this water, are you greater than our father Jacob who gave us this well?”  And of course, the answer is that he certainly is greater than Jacob.

                I see in this story a reflection, a way of seeing where we are when we are offered the gift of Christ.  In the first place, the testimony of the scripture in all its pages is that Jesus takes the initiative with us.  “It is not that you have chosen me,” he told his disciples.  “It is I who have chosen you.”  Paul said it, “While we were yet sinners Christ died for us.”  The letter to the Hebrews calls Jesus, “our pioneer and perfector.” It seems to say that wherever we go we need never be afraid, for Christ has already gone before us to prepare the way.  Even when we come to the valley of the shadow of death, we can have assurance that Jesus Christ has already passed through the valley for us and made it safe, we can even dare to face death without fear.

                And isn’t it true that when Jesus offers himself to us we often misunderstand.  We figure that preaching is just somebody trying to get us to do something that we don’t want to do or somebody trying to make us religious when we don’t feel particularly religious.

                But when Jesus Christ asks us to do something, he is in reality offering us a gift.  When he asked this woman for water, he was really offering her the living waters springing up into everlasting life.  When he told the right young ruler to give everything he had away, he was in fact offering his life.  I encourage people to tithe for just that reason.  I know from my own experience that there is nothing as great as a gift you receive when you give.  A lot of people think that tithing is a way to raise money or a way to keep books on how much you are going to give to the church.   Tithing is not that at all, it is the disciplined way of receiving Christ as he offers himself to us.  I don’t know whether anybody can understand that who does not tithe, so all I can do really is suggest that you give it a try.

                Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Christian theologian who died as a martyr in the Nazi persecution in 1945 said this about the gift of God.  “When Christ bids a man to follow him, he bids him come and die, but everybody knows that for Christians death means life.”  Jesus offered this nameless woman the water that would quench her thirst forever.  He offered her the possibility that she would never have to hide her head in shame again.  He offers us the life that never loses hope, that never has to be afraid.  And sometimes, sometimes, we begin to see what he has to give and we hold out our hands to receive.

                So did she.  She said, “Give me this water, sir, that I may not have to come here and draw again.”  Now, she still didn’t understand what he was talking about.  She thought it was some kind of labor-saving device.  So Jesus went to the heart of the matter, he said, “Go call your husband.”  She held out her hand to receive the gift of God, and he said to her, “Let me see, are your hands clean?”  For although the Gift of God is not restricted to those who deserve it, whose hands are clean and hearts are pure, the gift of God carries with it a demand for what John Wesley called a holiness of heart and life.  Christian is a label on our foreheads that makes a difference in our hearts.

                When she heard that Jesus knew all about her five husbands and the fact that the man with whom she was living was not her husband, she tried to change the subject.  She wanted to discuss religion with him, she said, “Sir I perceive that you are a prophet, tell me, should we go to church here or in Jerusalem?’  And isn’t that the way we want to do it?  Jesus starts to make demands on us and we want to turn him aside with idle speculation.  I think that there is a lot of that going on today.  A great deal of what is so popular in religion today, speaking in tongues, speculating on the end of the world, is idle speculation because it diverts our attention from what Jesus wants us to do.  Jesus calls us to root out the demons that possess us and possess our world.  Yes, I believe in demons.  Not the kind that I understand they have in the movie  “The Exorcist”, but the kind that keep us from an inward holiness of the heart, and the kind that keeps us from an outward holiness of life.  I for one, see racism as a demon that still has a hold on our lives.  Blacks and whites end up hating each other, not because they really hate each other as persons, but because they have grown up that way, because the resentments and the fears of long ages possess us like a demon.  And no idle speculation about the end of the world, about whether you ought to worship on this mountain or in Jerusalem ought to divert our attention from the fact that Jesus calls us to take notice of what is going on around us and what is a part of us.  Go call your brother, Jesus says, I don’t have a brother, we say.  Oh yes you do, says Jesus.

                You can see, though, that Jesus was not about to be diverted from pursuing this woman and claiming her for his own.  He set he question aside with these words, “The hour is coming and now is, when you will worship God not on this mountain or in Jerusalem, but in Spirit and in truth.”  True worship Jesus is set over against the idolatry of idle speculation.  For you see, true worship is worshiping Jesus and idolatry is worshiping something we have made, a place, and idea, an accomplishment.  Or to say it in in the way that the scripture says it, “We do not root sin out of our lives God does.”  Holiness of heart and life is not something that we make for ourselves; it is something that God gives us.  Our job is to be ready to receive that gift.  This woman did not change her ways, Jesus changed them.

                You can see it happening in the story, she begins to see, she says, “I know that Messiah is coming, and when he comes he will show us all things,” and Jesus says, “I am he.”  And the story says that although she came to draw from the well of Jacob, she went away and left her water jar there, for she had drunk from the water of life.  Nothing was changed, but suddenly everything was different.  And whoever receives Christ receives the whole gift, living waters, with all the demand that it lays upon us for our lives to be different, holiness of heart and lie, and grace. Sometimes the gift of Christ comes to us like that woman when we don’t want to be different, we would rather not have anything to do with him, when we would rather hide from what he had in mind for us to do, but you can be sure that the gift of Christ is food for our lives.

                One afternoon Rod called me.  I had never seen him before, but he said he had to see me right away.  I hadn’t any idea why or what for, but I agreed to meet him.  He said that since he didn’t have a car I would have to pick him up in the K-Mart parking lot.   I said that I would, and I did.  It was a long story and a long evening.  He was recently released from the prison in Huntsville.  He said that someone had told him that he was wanted by the police, but he knew that he had done nothing wrong, would I call the Sheriff to see if he was wanted.  “No,” said the Sheriff, he was not wanted.

 “Then why would my mother tell me that the police wanted me?  Would you call her and ask her?” “Is Rod there,” asked his mother.  “We have been looking for him all day. Can you keep him there until we can get someone there to pick him up?”  

 “I think so. “  I said, trying not to show the worry in my voice that was in my mind.  What if he found out?  What if he thought that I was trying to do him in?  There was considerable relief when two policemen knocked on my office door.  There found nothing but fresh needle marks on his arm.  But my fears came back when they said they couldn’t arrest him in the church.

He asked me to take him to his apartment to move his clothes to a new place he had found for the night.  Suddenly sitting there in the car I realized that I did not know what he might have by way of a weapon in his room.  My first impulse was to run, second was to pray, I said, “Well, Lord you got me into this, you will have to get me out.”  The police rolled up behind us. 

Maybe that was a foolish thing that I got myself into that night.  I have thought about it a lot, and I think the truth is that whether God gives us life or death, sickness or health, his gift is living water that spring up into everlasting life.     

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch on February 10, 1974 at both Aubrey United Methodist Church and Pilot Point United Methodist Church.    The churches comprised a two point charge in the Dallas-Denton District.  Bill Crouch was the district superintendent at the time. 

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The Waters of Darkness

Baptism is one of those events which has become rather formal in the Christian Church.  It sometimes almost has the nature of a social event rather than a religious one.  Even in the New Testament where baptism as a formal event in the Bible originated, there is something about it which assumes a great deal of those who read about it.  It assumes, for example, that we know the why of baptism and how it originated.  It is a powerful symbol that in the New Testament is explained almost in passing.  But the whole Bible is concerned with this matter of Baptism.  Paul spoke of it in the New Testament as dying and rising with Christ.  The rest of the Bible is concerned with Baptism in a much less formal sense.  It is concerned less with the symbol and more with the meaning.    

Jonah’s experience was like a baptism and so was the experience of the people of Israel at the Red Sea.  In a very obvious way the crossing of the Red Sea was like a

Red Sea

line drawn across the history of the people of Israel.  It separated very sharply the old life from the new.  And that is a part of the meaning of baptism.

Wherever we find it in the Old or the New Testaments Baptism is either symbolically or actually a difficult experience, for to be baptized is to be buried with Christ and to rise in his resurrection, to partake of his suffering and death on the cross and to rise victoriously with him again.  We generally assume two attitudes toward baptism.  Either we argue about it, especially about infant baptism, or we never think about it, treating it as a social custom.   But it is about the nature and meaning of this first Sacrament of the Christian Faith that I would like for us to think this morning. 

For the Hebrews the Red Sea might very well have had another name, the Sea of Doubt.  With the Sea before them and the Egyptians behind them what else could the people do but begin to doubt the wisdom of having come out here in the first place.  They complained to Moses, “Weren’t there enough graves in Egypt that you had to bring us out here to die ignominiously in the sands of the desert?”  The baptism of the Hebrew people began, significantly enough, with the experience of doubt.

I always hesitate to speak in absolute terms, but I do not hesitate to say that there is not a one of us who has not at some time or other, many more often than others, experienced this thing called doubt.  We call Thomas the doubter, but each of us can apply that label to himself too.  We were discussing this matter of doubt in a youth group once and we came to a general conclusion that one of the times that we experience doubt almost universally is at the time of prayer.  But just as it is true that there would have been no promised land had there been no Red Sea, there is no faith without doubt.  One philosopher has expressed it this way, that doubt is the rosy cheeks of a healthy faith.  Although doubt may be a disconcerting experience, no Christian can afford to decide to believe uncritically, because he may not be able to tell the difference between faith and foolishness.  In the book of Job, doubt itself seems to be productive of faith.  Jesus said, “Unless a seed falls into the ground and dies it will not bring forth fruit.” Unless there is doubt there is no faith.

But doubt does not always occur in this stimulating form.  Sometimes it occurs as a kind of ultimate doubt.  And the hardest doubt of all to overcome is the doubt that God can do what he has promised to do.  If the people who faced the Red Sea were concerned about proof then they didn’t need to be.  They had been in Egypt just like the Pharaoh when God visited the Seven Plagues on the Egyptians.  They had experienced the saving grace of the Passover, when the Egyptian first born sons were taken and their first born sons were left.  But still they said to Moses, wouldn’t it have been better for us to die in Egypt than to die in the wilderness? For in Egypt they could have looked after themselves, but in the wilderness at the Red Sea they were entirely dependent on God, and it is a dreadful thing to discover that you are entirely dependent on God.  All of us have a strong desire to be independent; we all believe that we can handle almost any matter that comes to us.  It can be a terrible experience to discover that you are weak and there is only God left to depend on.

On that night when they crossed the Red Sea, the Hebrew people passed through the valley of the shadow of death, with the walls of water piled up on either side of them, and that night they died to their weak selves and to their mistrust.  Baptism… a traumatic experience because it is the experience of death, dying to an old self.

The Red Sea was not only the Sea of Doubt it was the Sea of Hope as well, the the purpose of baptism is not death but life. The purpose is not to die but to rise.  For the Hebrews the Red Sea was a means to an end.   Baptism cannot fail to measure, at least symbolically, suffering and suffering itself can become an experience pointing toward a productive faith.  There is a real danger in becoming enamored with the condition of suffering that it is almost as if we revel in it, that we glory in our misery and point to ourselves and say, “Look how miserable I am.”  Perhaps it wasn’t their fault, but Egyptians make a wonderful illustration of the people who never got over their traumatic experience, they passed into the Red Sea too, but they never got to the other side, when suffering becomes a means and not an end then suffering is its own reward.  When doubt becomes its own end then doubt does not free or motivate to action, it paralyzes.

All the things that we say about the experience of the Hebrews at the Red Sea can be said equally well of Baptism.  For baptism is a kind of summary of that experience, a reminder, if you will of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but more than a reminder.  It is like a kind of participation in the event itself.  For whether we baptize an infant or an adult, baptism always is the symbol of having passed through death into life.

As was the crossing of the Red Sea, so is baptism, thirdly, the Seal of the Spirit.  Through their history the Hebrews have celebrated the Passover as the birth of the nation of Israel.  It was at the moment that they moved out of the land of Egypt that they became the people of God, but the experience of the Red Sea was like the seal on the contract, making it final and irrevocable.  Just as the Passover was a matter of God’s doing, so was the crossing of the Red Sea a matter of God’s doing.  It was not an act of faith that carried them across the Red Sea, but God’s grace.  In just such a way, Baptism is the Seal of Something which has already happened.  Deliverance came in Christ Jesus; it is made present, sealed to this one in baptism.  It is not faith that baptizes, but God.  Baptism is a matter of Grace.

Roman Empire

In the days of the Roman Empire when a man had a slave he signified his ownership of the slave by marking him with a brand on the forehead, by marking him with his seal.  Christian Baptism is the Seal of the Spirit, God’s mark which signifies to all the world that this one belongs to him.

The early Christians thought of Baptism with still another symbol in mind.  They thought of it as the badge of the Christian signifying that he was an initiated member of the Community of Christians, the Church.   We enter the names of those persons who have been baptized on the rolls of the Church as preparatory members.  Because these children have this day been made a part of the fellowship of the church, we who are the Church have the collective responsibility for their Christian nurture.  We have asked these parents and sponsors to assume that responsibility as our representatives and they have promised to do it, but we can never wash our hands of our responsibility to one another in the Church and especially of our responsibility to these little ones.

The way that we have sought to help parents to fulfill their responsibility in the matter of Christian nurture is through a Sunday School which formalizes the job of Christian education.   It is sad but true that in almost all Churches the matter of Christian education is the concern of a small number of people, those who have children, perhaps, and a few others whose devoted efforts mostly go unrewarded.  But the job of Christian education formalized in a Sunday School is an optional matter only if the Church is seeing to its responsibility to bring these up in the Christian Faith, teaching then the meaning and purpose of this Sacrament in some other way.

The Sacrament that we call Baptism is of such a profound nature that it is difficult for us to conceive of its meaning, and even more difficult to explain it.  It is easier to talk about it when we tell a story or use symbolic language.  Paul’s symbol of dying and rising with Christ has always seemed the most apt of all.  And even the often misunderstood story of the Red Sea gives us some clue.  For Baptism in the Christian Church is at least the symbolic experience of doubt, hope and the Holy Spirit.  The Red Sea was for the Children of Israel the Sea of Doubt, the Sea of Hope and the Seal of the Spirit.  Because it was what it was it signified both the beginning and the end of their struggle.  In the end Baptism abbreviates the whole Christian life.  The Christian Faith as signified in Baptism is both a comfort and a sorrow.

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch in the summer of 1959 at Trinity Methodist Church in Stony Point, New York.  This was a few weeks after arriving in Stony Point after serving three years in Missoula, Montana, as the Wesley Foundation campus minister at the University of Montana and at First Methodist Church in Missoula.  The Stony Point appointment after deciding to return to Drew University to purse a Masters in Sacred Theology.  It was also the first time to serve as the senior pastor of a church.  Throughout his career Bill Crouch refered to Stony Point as the church that taught him how to be a pastor. 

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Free to Care

 – Nehemiah 8:1-4a,5-6 , I Corinthians 12:12-30, Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21  

                Nobody has yet been able to reduce caring to a science.  That doesn’t mean it hasn’t been tried, but nobody has been yet able to do it.  When I was in Seminary , for example, they taught us about non-directive counseling.  The point of all that was sometimes people who try to help other people end up by only giving advice or that people who visit in hospitals talk too much or stay too long.  The idea in non-directive counseling was and is that the counselor listens and not try to guide the conversation.  He or she responds by simply repeating what the other person says.  So a parody of that method appeared a few years ago:

A person comes to be counseled and says, “Doc, I feel awful today.”   Counselor: “You feel awful today.” Patient: “Yes, I do, in fact, sometimes I think I will just walk over and jump out that window.”  Counselor: “You want to jump out that window.” Patient: “In fact, I am going to do it.” Counselor: “You are going to do it.” Whereupon he jumps and screams on the way down… The counselor looks after him and repeats his scream.      

I suppose that I would want to say that counselor was so committed to his method that he was not free to care. 

On the other hand there was Jesus.  One Sabbath day, in the beginning,

really, he came to Nazareth to the synagogue where he was brought up.  When they handed him the scroll to read he found the place in Isaiah which would best announce who he really was, about preaching the gospel to the poor, giving sight to the blind, setting the prisoners free.  I mean to say that this occasion was not just an announcement of his program, what he intended to do.  It was in fact an announcement of his person, who he was.

                The church has always understood that this Jesus was, in the words of the Nicene Creed, “very God of very God,” that there is nothing more to say about God than Jesus Christ.  But at the same time the church has also taught that he was very man of very man, that his Godhood did not in any way compromise or condition his manhood.  That means, of course, that in Jesus… God became one of us, like us, but it means more than that, it means that Jesus is the one who is truly human, he is the one who is truly free.

                And so we read what Paul said about the church this morning.  He said you, the church, are the Body of Christ and individually parts of members of it.

I Corinthians 12:12-30 12For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ.  13For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.  14For the body is not one member, but many.  15If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. 16And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body.  17If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be?  18But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.  19If they were all one member, where would the body be?  20But now there are many members, but one body.  21And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.”  22On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable,  24whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another.  26And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.  27Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues.  29All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they?  30All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?

And in this place and others he seems to mean, “You are literally Christ’s body on earth”. That means on the one hand that what you do when you are gathered here and when you are scattered out there… Christ does.  On the other hand it means you are heirs to all the promises to which he is heir.  You participate in the fullness of his humanity.  You have been made part of his body in baptism; you are free as he is free to care as he cared.

                If we are going to be the caring congregation it will not be because we have screwed up our courage.  It will not be because we have tapped the wells of sentiment.  It will not be because we have worked out a plan.  It will be because we have in fact been made part of his body and shared in his humanity.  It will be because we are free to care.  I want to talk with you about Jesus this morning and what it means to be free to care.

                It means first of all to be free from the need to do everything perfectly or completely.  Jesus announced in Nazareth that he had come to proclaim release to the captives, and he did.  He set people free from the prison of sin and disease.  He set them free from hatred and violence.  But not all of them.  On this very day hostages are being held in Iran, whole countries are being held hostage as in Afghanistan, and who knows what sort of hostages will be held in the draft.  Even children are sometimes held hostage to the desires and wishes of their parents.  Jesus did not complete that work and all the prisoners have not been set free.

                But the freedom from the need always to get it right is very important to our humanity.  I mean first of all the freedom to fail, of course.  I remember this little boy who was in our kindergarten program once in Garland.  That was in the days before we had public school kindergarten, so we had one in the church.  One day our teacher, Mrs. Williams, was telling me about him.  He was a bright little boy, who always made a hundred on all his papers.  She said that one day, after some sort of test; he brought a paper to her.  It was not his own, it was a paper his friend Gary had done. Now, Gary had not made a hundred, but he wanted to explain that Gary had really meant the right answer not the wrong one.  He not only had to get everything right he had to have friends who got it all right, too.   The problem was he could do most anything, but he often wouldn’t try unless he knew he could get it right.  I really do mean to say that real humanity means the freedom to fail.

                But I also mean that it includes the freedom to care and not control.  This last week The Christian Century magazine carried a remarkably sensitive article written by a pediatrician called “Morals, Medicine and Monasticism.”  In it this doctor tells his own story, the story of a man who worked in ghettos and anti-poverty programs, who served in hospitals and cared for children in many ways over many years, who time after time found his best efforts frustrated by bureaucracies and bundling, until he came to two depressing conclusions. 1) What one accomplishes, if anything, is lost in the actions of the rest of society and 2) One’s personal life goes to put in the struggle.  He finally came to the conclusion, “when I’ve done what I can, my power in the world ceases.”   He quoted Marcus Aurelius:  “Consider that men will do the same things, nevertheless, even though thou shouldst burst.”

                Isn’t it true that a lot of our caring is frustrated because we can’t control the outcome?  Parents can’t really control how their children turn out, though sometimes we would like to try.  The church cannot force conversion on anyone.  Good deeds may have no final effect, but the freedom to care, as Jesus was free to care, means the freedom from the need to make everything turn out right.  And that’s what it is to be the Body of Christ.

                And it means to be free to do what we can.  My doctor friend in this article also quoted Epicetus in the same breathe that he quoted Marcus Aurelius: “Not in our power are whatever are not our own acts.”  You and I know that.  We have said it to ourselves a hundred times.  The only acts we can control are our own.  But the positive side of that rather negative statement is that we can control our own.  Jesus came to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind.  That was surely not a program to do away with blindness, but some blind men received their sight.  The ethics of Jesus, if I may say it that way, always seemed to be responsive not programmatic.  He always seemed ready to go with him who asked him to go, to stop for him who called to him from alongside the road, to touch the one who needed to be touched.  He was free to do what he could do.

                And you are the Body of Christ, free to do what you can do.  Henri Nouwen, the Dutch priest, who has written so much about caring, tells in one of his books about the professor at Notre Dame who lived most of his life resenting the fact that students and colleagues and people were always interrupting his work until one day he discovered, “ the interruptions are my work.”  I don’t know about you, but I need to hear that.  I am a list maker, and I can make a list of all the things I am going to get done, but if I am serious, I better make a short list, for there will be other things that insert themselves into my list, and I must be free not to get around to everything.  Because I am a list maker that’s hard for me to take, but only when I grasp that freedom… do I become human.  Jesus seemed to have the freedom to respond, to care for and to love this blind man who stood before him as if he were the only one in all the world.  He was never kept from caring about a blind man just because he had no program to do away with blindness.  He was free to do what he could do.  And so are you, for you are the Body of Christ.

                And one more thing, and this may sound strange, Jesus was free to need.  He came to proclaim the good news to the poor, he said.  Now the poor were in the first century, maybe what the poor have always been.  They were those who were left out.  They were called the people of the land, not beggars, but people whose every effort was consumed in scratching out of the land their bare existence.  They clung to life with their finger nails. Like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof they would have liked to be religious, but there was no time.  When Jesus came proclaiming good news to these poor he did not set up a pulpit near some collection of the hovels they called homes and shout at them, “why don’t you stop being poor.”  He became one of them.  He willingly admitted that he needed to be cared for too.  He was free to need, and to say so.

                Caring, I am convinced, means that somebody must be willing to tell their needs.  Sometimes, maybe not all the time but sometimes, we must be willing to say to our neighbor, “I can’t do it by myself; you are going to have to help me.”  And sometimes we must, like the poor, insist on being helped.  Oh, that’s hard for ministers; just ask any one of us.  We are here because we think of ourselves as helpers.  We chaff at thinking of ourselves as helpless.

                Nouwen in another place says that Christians, and that simply means human beings, people, sometimes we are healers and sometimes we are wounded, as was Jesus, and sometimes you can’t tell who is the wounded and who is the healer for finally only the wounded can be healers.  And if you want to know where that came from, it came from the Bible, for Jesus is not some isolated and lonely macho figure who never needed anybody.  He was free to need, and so are you, for you are the Body of Christ.

                Nobody has been able to reduce caring to a science.  There is no way to reduce caring to necessity. Instead, caring is a matter of being free, free from the need to do everything right, free to do what we can do, free to admit that we need to be cared for.  Jesus was free, he was everything it means to be human, not because he cared but because he loved God.  Last week I read to you four sentences from this remarkable book “The Cloud of Unknowing“*.  I want to read just these three more:  “God shows that time is precious, for he never gives two moments of time side by side, but always in succession.  To do other side he would have to alter the whole course of creation.  Time is made for man, not man for time.”

                All you have to do to be free to care is to love God in this one moment. Christ did, and you are the Body of Christ.

Let us love God with our prayers.

                The invitation to Christian discipleship is the invitation to love God.  Will you love him and stand only on his promises?

Bill Crouch preached this sermon at First United Methodist Church in Denton, Texas on January 27, 1980. This sermon was the 3rd part of a 4 part series on caring.

*The book “The Cloud of Unknowing” was described the previous week as”… a classic of Christian mysticism, written by an anonymous English monk in the 14th century.”  The lines referenced were:

“Lift up your heart to God with humble love: and mean God himself, and not what you get out of him.  In deed, hate to think of anything but God himself, so that nothing occupies your mind or will but only God.However, the whole of mankind is wonderfully helped by what you are doing, in ways you do not understand.  Yes, the very souls in purgatory find their pain eased by virtue of your work.”

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The Temptation to Refuse Being Sent

 – Matthew 3:13-4:11   

                Sometimes when you read the newspapers or watch television you begin to say about this world we live in: “What’s the world coming to?”  Those boys killed 27 people in Houston.  Did you read what the minister said about one of them?  He was a Methodist minister.  The family were members of his church.  He had talked to the boy many times.  He said that he was sensitive and kind.  There were many good things that he would say about the boy, in fact, he said that he could not imagine that boy doing such things.  But the police say that he did and he has confessed.  He betrayed those young boys.  He betrayed his minister, his parents, his community, but most of all, he betrayed himself.

                Or if you turn to the national news.  It is hard for me not to become cynical about people in government.  I am a person who normally thinks the best of people, but I don’t know whether to believe any of them anymore.  I don’t know what is going to happen in the Watergate mess, but the most shocking piece of news to me has been the story about the vice-president’s possible indictmentWhen it first became known I said, “Now that’s too much.”  As it has gone on though, it does seem likely that he will be indicted and many witnesses are apparently ready to say that he is guilty of taking bribes.  Of course, he is innocent until proved guilty, but if all of it turns out to be true the tragedy as far as I can tell is not so much that he betrayed the trust of the people, but that he betrayed himself.  I have not always agreed with him but I am convinced that he didn’t start out in government service to do that.

                What’s the world coming to? Nothing else probably, than where it has always been.  Was it not the serpent in the Garden of Eden who tempted the man and woman to betray themselves?  God had sent them to tend the Garden, but Satan told them: “Don’t tend it for God, take it over for yourself.”  And this event that we read from the New Testament, Jesus went to the Jordan to be baptized by John, and when he came up out of the water there was a voice from heaven which said, “this is my beloved son,  I am well pleased with him.”  It was a way of announcing who this Jesus is, and immediately he was tempted in the desert to deny his calling, to deny what God had sent him to do.

Matthew 3

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”  15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

Matthew 4

1 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”  4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:

                                “He will command his angels concerning you,
                                 and they will lift you up in their hands,
                                so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”

7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test”  8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”  10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.” 11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.

                What I want to say to you this morning is simply this.  Every Christian…, no every man…, is sent.  Christians never just show up anywhere.   They are always sent.  And the greatest sin of all is to deny God has sent you to be wherever you are.  I want to talk about that this morning and the way that Satan tempted Jesus to deny God had sent him.

                So after forty days of fasting in the wilderness, Jesus was hungry, and Satan came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God then turn these stones into bread.”  And you see right away what he was trying to do, “If you are the Son of God, if you are you can prove it to me and satisfy your hunger at the same time.”  And you can imagine that the thought crossed Jesus’ mind, “I will show the devil a thing or two.”  And you can imagine that a hungry man could think easily about how satisfying it would have been to have something to eat.  But it was not enough for Jesus to satisfy his own needs, for God had sent him to do more than turn stones into bread and eat them.

                But Satan knows how much we think about satisfying our own needs, how important it is for us to be comfortable, how important to each of us it is that we look after our families.  And if I don’t worry about bread on my table or the security of my family, who will?  I don’t know how it is in Celina.  I hope it is different, but the neighborhood we live in is a place where people don’t know each other and don’t seem much to want to know.  We had a couple of houses burn near us last June.  Did the community rally round those people?  Well some, but not much.  If it doesn’t directly affect me and my family I don’t worry.  You may remember the old story about the man who dreamed that he died and went to heaven.  But before he was admitted St. Peter offered him a tour of both places so that he could be sure that he wanted in.  They started with Hell.  When they got there the first thing they saw was a long banquet table set with all kinds of good things to eat, and the man decided that was a pretty good thing.  But none of the people seated at the table seemed happy.  When he looked closer he noticed that there were no eating utensils on the table.  Instead, each person had strapped to his arm a long spoon.  It was so long that no one could get food in his mouth.  The people were quarrelsome, hungry and unhappy.  That’s not for me, he said, and St. Peter took him to heaven.  When they got there the scene was exactly the same, same long banquet table piled high with food, same long spoons tied to the arms of the people, but this time the people gathered around the table were all happy and well fed.  The difference was that in heaven every man was looking after his neighbors needs and feeding his neighbor.  Jesus told the story about a man a lot like some of us.  He devoted his life to looking after his own needs, but Jesus said, “He is a food for this night his soul is required of him and what difference will all that he has accumulated make?”  That’s not what God sent him to be.  Man shall not live by bread alone, Jesus said to Satan.  I didn’t come out to turn stones into bread.

                But Satan had a better idea.  He came to Jesus a second time and he said, “If you are the Son of God (you see the same challenge, show me, prove your power.) Then throw yourself off the top of the temple here.  You know that scripture where it said, “He will give his angels charge of you to keep you from even a stone bruise.”  (Did you notice that even Satan can quote scripture!)  If you do the crowds will come running.  Show me and the world that you can get results.  And Jesus must have seen how that just might work.  But he knew that was another betrayal of himself, and he said, “That’s not what I came out for.”

                But that’s a real temptation, isn’t it, to settle for short quick results rather than long range faithfulness to God.  It probably would have worked too, for awhile at least, this jumping off the temple.  The crowd would have come round.  They would have applauded, but crowds have a way of wanting bigger and better circuses.  Show us another trick!  Jump off another building! Will you come to my house and do that?  And that’s not what he came for.  He would have gained a short tem audience, but lost himself.

                Did you see the movie on TV the other evening, “A Man for All Seasons”?   It is the story of Sir Thomas More who was the Lord Chancellor of during the early days of Henry VIII.  He was a good man, but most of all he was an honest man, Henry wanted a divorce from his wife Cathryn.  He did not need More’s consent, but he wanted it.  More could not in good conscience give it. He was first imprisoned and then executed.  Anywhere in his long ordeal he could have saved his life with a simple compromise, a small lie to himself, but he did not.  And once during that time of imprisonment he said to his wife, “If a man loses himself what does he have left?”   If a man forgets why he was sent then what does he have left?

Sir Thomas More

 

England

                I see people all the time losing themselves because they make that little compromise or cut that little corner.  A little dishonesty never hurt anybody, they seem to say.  God won’t mind just this once.  But Jesus said to Satan, “It is written you shall not tempt the Lord your God.”  When you tempt the Lord your God, it is not God you lose, but yourself.  The words of the baptism, “You are my beloved son.”  That’s what Jesus came out for.

                But Satan still had another idea.  He took Jesus up to the high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of this world and he said, “All of these I will give to you if you will bow down and worship me.”  Now isn’t it interesting in the first place that all the kingdoms of this world were old Satan’s to give?  And isn’t it interesting how clever old Satan is?  You say, of course Jesus would have turned that down.  Didn’t come out so he could have all the kingdoms of this world?  “The kingdoms of this world have become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ,” it says over there in Revelation.  Here was a way.  But Jesus said, No, that’s not what I came out for.” 

                The church as well as its individual members is often tempted to sell its soul and worship something other than God alone.  Isn’t it often tempted to be something other than what it was sent to be, a social club rather than a redeeming community.  Isn’t it often tempted to be closed society rather than an open loving reaching out congregation?  When the church yields to that temptation and says to anyone by its words or by its deeds that they are outside the circle of our concern, then it has sold its soul to the devil, no matter how many people crowd inside its doors.  And the church like its Lord must say, “Get behind me Satan, for you shall worship the Lord God alone and him only shall you serve.”

                What does that mean?  I am convinced that it means for every church, for this church. God has put you here, called you here, sent you here, for a reason, for a purpose, and you must find that purpose, listen to him for that reason.  It may be the most important thing for you to do to ask yourself about that purpose? Why are we here?… and to listen to God for the answer.  Maybe you would put it in the words of Jesus when he announced his purpose saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.  This church is sent here for God’s purpose.  And so are each of you.  You never show up anywhere, you are always sent.

                Wherever you find yourself, you are sent with a unique unrepeatable gift of God, and you, the who that you are, are that gift.  The temptation is always to deny your baptism, to say no, I have nothing to give…. Who me?  But the truth is yes, you.  You know what Jesus said…. What will you say?  For you are also sent.

Bill Crouch preached this sermon at First UMC Celina in the Fall of 1973.  He was serving as the District Superintendent of the Dallas-Denton District at the time.  Celina was one of the churches in the district.

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The Fine Art of Shriveling

 Exodus 20:8-11  

                I am sure that you have heard that the definition of an expert that goes around with traveling experts.  An expert is anybody who has a briefcase and is more than 50 miles from home.  (I see that some of you have played expert from time to time.)   There is another definition that I like even better.  An expert is someone who knows more and more about less and less until finally he knows everything about nothing.

                Now that could be funny if it weren’t so true about most of us.  In the last days of the twentieth century we have all tried to become experts on life but we have often shrunk our ideas of what life is until there is nothing left and that’s not funny, that’s tragic.  In these days of all kinds of synthetic fabrics you can’t be sure anymore, but it used to be that if you wanted to buy a shirt that would not shrink, then you bought one with the Sanforized label in it.  If you didn’t get that label and the shirt shrank you could be sure that you bought a cheap substitute.  And it occurred to me the other day that life is like that.  The life that is guaranteed not to shrink is the one that rightfully bears the label Christian, and if your life shrinks you can be sure that have have got a hold of a cheap substitute.

                What I am talking about is nowhere better illustrated than in our idea of the Ten CommandmentsTen Commandments.  The commandments often become a kind of check list where we check off our good deeds.  They were written about the whole of life, but we make of them something religious.  We shrink them all out of shape, thinking that we can handle them better that way, and all that we have is an inferior substitute, for the commandments are about the whole of life and about faith, and that can’t be shrunk.  And there is no commandment that illustrates this reductionist heresy better than the fourth commandment.  It says, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy…” 

8 “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

Most of our discussion about this commandment misses the point completely.  I read the other day that there was this mother who complained to her minister one day that between getting the children and herself ready for Sunday School and cooking the Sunday dinner there was no way that she could avoid working on Sunday.  And the minister pointed out to her that the commandment does not mention mothers not working.  Servants, yes, but mothers, no.

                But this commandment was not meant to be treated so badly.  It was written originally in the magnificent contest of the whole creation, “In six days the Lord created the heavens and the earth and on the seventh day he rested.”   For centuries the Hebrews understood the Sabbath in those grand terms.  There were hills and the sea, men and the creatures, sun and moon and stars.  There was Moses and the Exodus, and the Sabbath celebrated it all.   The Exodus from EgyptAnd then came the period of exile, when the Jews were carried into captivity in Babylon.  Their homeland was gone, their temple was destroyed.  All that was left to them was the Sabbath.  And they tried to put the whole of their faith into a single container and it would not work.  Sabbath observance became a fine art in exile, they became experts on the Sabbath, but the wholeness of their faith shriveled and almost died.

                So Jesus came on the scene and said, “The law has become like a deflated balloon and I have not come to destroy it, but to blow up the balloon again.”  And he did.  I want us to talk about the fourth commandment this morning, but I also want us to think about our tendency to shrink the faith.  The Christian faith is guaranteed not to shrink and if yours has, or if yours is not big enough to contain the whole of creation, then what you have is not the Christian faith but a cheap substitute.

                Sabbath observance is a good place to start.  Now in the first place I think that a good word needs to be put in for the proper observance of the Lord’s Day.  I’m not about to say that you out to hang out around the church all day Sunday.  I am aware of the fact that many of you are relieved that we don’t have a Sunday evening service.  Sunday evening is the only time that you have to be together as a family.  And that’s all right.  I hope that you use it.  That’s a part of a good observance of the day.  But that makes it all the more important that you be in worship every Sunday morning.  I don’t know where we got the idea that Methodists don’t have to go every Sunday morning.  (Catholics do but Methodists don’t.)   Where did we get that idea anyway? And that’s important for us to say when we think we are so good at doing the commandments.

                But you and I are also aware that Sabbath observance can become a fine art.  I don’t mean to be picky about another denomination, but I think the Seventh Day Adventists miss the point.  It is quite all right with me for them to go to church on Saturday, and Saturday is the Sabbath Day (Sabbath literally means seventh) but the Christian faith, it seems to mean is a lot more than getting the numbers straight.

                Some people I know regarded it as a victory for God when the state legislature passed the Texas Blue Laws.  Now people ought to have a day off, and what’s more people ought to take a day off.  Some people I know get to thinking that they are so important that the job can’t rest for one day.  But we know very well that passing the blue laws doesn’t help that.

                The Pharisees in their time became such experts on the Sabbath Day that they could tell you exactly how many steps you could take before it was labor on the Sabbath.  And being experts they were sure that they could keep the Sabbath.  But Jesus came and opened the windows on the crowded attic where they practiced their religion, and let the sunshine of all creation shine in and fill the law up again with the good clean air of God’s grace. 

Victorian Marble Table

Victorian Marble Table

                For the law is not about how many steps you take but about grace and joy.  Several years ago we served this church that was, by our standards here, a very old church.  Here we are about to observe the 9th anniversary of our founding at St. Paul’s.  That church will celebrate its 88th birthday next January, The parsonage there was a big old two story house with a full basement and a big attic.  Like most attics this one was used to store all the old furniture that had been used in the house.  Well, probably not all, but there was a beautiful old Victorian marble table that just went with the house that I am sure Max Benham would appreciate that we rescued out of the dust and restored to a place of prominence.  And there was a big old wooden box up there where a lot of church records were kept, including the Ladies Aid Society minutes.  One day while we were sitting up there reading about those old records, the names of the people who had long since died, we came across a fascinating story of the faith that shrinks.  Someone had written a complete set of minutes for their meetings, including who did what for the devotion.  They used to have someone lead in prayer; they sang a hymn or two.  Someone read from the Bible, and someone brought a devotional message.  And then, you could almost see them start to cut corners.  They dropped the devotional message, then one of the hymns, then they decided to use the Lord’s Prayer for their prayer, and finally, someone brought a phonograph and instead of signing they listed to a record, until all that was left of their devotional period was a phonograph record and the Lord’s Prayer.  And you could almost see their faith shriveling and dying right along with their devotionals.  Now don’t laugh at that Ladies Aid Society unless you are willing to see yourself in it.  Isn’t it true that we would all like to get our religion down to manageable proportions?  We ask how few times we can go to church, not how many, how little we can give, not how much how many times we must forgive our brother, not how often we can.  You see the Sabbath commandment reminds us all that whenever we begin to think that we have done enough our faith has shriveled and Jesus comes to fill it up again.

                It is no wonder that religion seems to be more and more concerned about less and less.  Two weeks from today we will begin our participation in the School Lunch Program, we will take a special communion offering to feed these hungry children.      Some people no doubt will say that’s not the business of the church.  Their faith has shriveled up like a raisin in the sun.  But others will be willing to feed hungry children as long as we leave the political issue alone.  I can’t go alone with that either.  If we had no ambulance service in Garland, and one of us had an accident outside the parking lot today, we would take him to the hospital, but we would also start working for some kind of ambulance service as well.  In the same way it is not enough to feed hungry children; we must concern ourselves with something more than temporary solutions to permanent problems even if it means sending a delegation to the school board to ask why children are hungry in the first place?  Christian obedience that is shrunk is not Christian at all, for Jesus came to fill the law full.

                Finally, I have to say to you, it is not only our idea of the Sabbath and idea of obedience, but our whole idea of the faith that is shrunk.  The Christian faith is not about just some of life, it is about all of our life,  The Bible is not really a religious book at all, it is a book about everything and everyone who ever has been or ever will be.  The Bible is like baking bread in your house.  There is no place that you can go that the sweet smell of it does not penetrate.

                I do not recommend to you that you ever practice the fine art of being a Christian.  It has been done and no doubt it will be again.  Maybe you have been to the fair and seen the 10 commandments written on the head of a pin, or the Lord’s Prayer.  Or maybe you have heard that men used to argue about   how many angels could dance on the head of that same pin.  That’s reducing the faith to a fine art.  I remember hearing the story once about a woman who suffered from one form of mental illness.  She had to be locked up in a room without any of the usual comforts in it.  If you put a blanket on her bed, she would sit for hours and pick it apart thread from thread until she had a pile of threads where her blanket once had been.  It was as if she could only manage the small things, and had to reduce the big things to tiny pieces before she could deal with them.  That’s got to be a fine art.  So it was that the Pharisees had picked the laws apart until all they had was a pile of fine threads where there had once been a warm blanket.  And Jesus came not to throw it all away but to put it all together again.

                Because the commandments are God’s gift to us and therefore bigger than we are, we always want to get them reduced to manageable size.  Because Jesus Christ is the Word of God, and can never be contained in our formulas or our doctrines, we will always try to over simplify who he is, and reduce the kind of absolute demands that he makes upon us, because life itself is too big, too complex, and moves too rapidly, we will always be tempted to live in a reduced concept of life.  But Jesus is the one who comes to break up all those cramped quarters that we have gotten our lives stuffed into.  He is the one who comes not to call men to be religious experts, who know more and more about less and less, but to be men of faith whose concern is as wide as creation itself, whose obedience is as big as the world of men and who faith is equal to every need.  The fact that in the commandments and in Christ God calls us to more than we think we can do is not bad news, but good, for this Christ is both the demand and the love of God wrapped up in one, come to fill our shriveled lives up again to the full, so that we might live a life as grand as all creation itself.  Amen.

This sermon was preached by Bill Crouch in August 1971 at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Garland, Texas.  It was part of a series on each of the Ten Commandments.  The reference to the older church was to Trinity Methodist Church in Stony Point, New York which was founded in 1884.  It was not the oldest church served by Bill Crouch.  First United Methodist Church in Denton was founded in 1857.

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