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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