Keeping the Law

A sermon preached at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut, on August 22, 2010, by Christopher L. Webber

Last weekend we were having a mini family reunion, the kind of occasion when stories get told, and my wife likes to tell the story of how her father, as a little boy growing up on a Connecticut farm,  went for a walk with his brothers one Sunday afternoon and came to a stream with trout. My father-in-law’s older brother  spotted a very big trout and got down beside the pool  and reached in and tickled the trout and caught it and brought it home only to be whipped by his mother for violating the Sabbath.  Times have changed.

Yes, times have changed, but the Bible has not changed. It still calls for keeping holy the Sabbath Day.  It seemed obvious to people a hundred years ago that keeping the Sabbath holy meant not catching trout. I had a friend in college who was a Southern Baptist  and who wouldn’t study on Sunday even for a Monday test. But he was from Texas  and I doubt even in Texas today there are many people who see it that way. Certainly in this part of the country it seems obvious to most Christians today that about all the Sabbath requires of us is attendance at church when it’s convenient.

But the law is still the same.  It’s the same law that led people in Jesus’ day to think that even healing was wrong on the Sabbath Day. When Jesus challenged that law,  as he did in the gospel story we read today, some were indignant  and some decided he was evil and deserved to die.

Now, the question of the Sabbath  is part of a much larger question: What is God’s will for us  and how do we know it? We have a book called the Bible  and we have laws such as the Ten Commandments. Wouldn’t you think  that having everything  written down in a book  and summed up in Ten brief commandments would make it perfectly clear what we should do?  Why should there be a problem?

Well, but there is a problem  and I think we are all too likely  to pretend there isn’t. Life is simpler if we just don’t worry about it;  do what we want on Sunday, take God’s Name in vain,  covet whatever is trendy, and worship God when convenient.  It’s called “The Reader’s Digest Version” of the Ten Commandments or, sometimes, the Ten Suggestions, and however convenient it may be,  I’m not convinced it will do the job.  At the last judgment,  I’m not sure God will ask, “Did you serve me when it was convenient?”  I’m not sure God will compliment us  for being usually nice to people who were nice to us. I think, in fact, that the law is not a maximum standard  that most people can’t be expected to honor. I think in fact it’s more like a minimum,  s starting point, a guideline that points us in the right direction  and expects us to move far beyond simply not working on the Sabbath  and merely not stealing, not blaspheming, not committing adultery – to move toward a holiness of life  that completely transforms our use of time, our use of possessions, and all our relationships with God and our neighbor.

Look again at Jesus’ teaching in today’s Gospel reading.  His opponents have some very good points. It’s clear that you should rest on the Sabbath. It’s clear that healing is work;  ask any doctor or nurse.  It’s clear that a condition of eighteen years standing could perfectly well wait one more day. How can you argue with that?  If you begin to make excuses for breaking the law, where will it end?  Next thing you know there will be malls open on Sunday  and Little League games, and you’ll have to have services Saturday evening because people will be just too busy on Sunday even for a one hour service.

Jesus doesn’t seem to care. He seems to feel that a day set aside to honor God is dishonored by even one more day  of needless suffering. “Ought not this woman,  a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years,  be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?”  So it’s not the letter of the law that matters  but the spirit behind the law.

A few years ago, I was compiling a book about significant American Christians and I read a lot of 18th and 19th century history.  I came on a man called Samuel Hopkins  who was born in Waterbury in 1721 and ordained in the Congregational Church  in Great Barrington in 1743. When the Revolution came along, he was for it,  but he began to wonder how he could defend a battle for human freedom in a country that recognized human slavery.  He became the first abolitionist in New England and aroused a good deal of opposition  from good Christians who owned slaves. They said, Look at the Bible:  it recognizes slavery implicitly and explicitly, the Jewish people had slaves,  Christ never condemned it, it was simply part of the social order  and now, they said, it’s actually good  for the African people  because it gives them access to the Bible and the Christian faith. In response, Hopkins said, all that may be true, but the spirit of the Bible  favors liberty and the spirit is what matters.  And so it is.

So it is. But that makes our lives more complicated because it requires us to enter far more deeply into the spirit of the Bible; not to stop with a simple, “It says here” but to ask why it says it and what it means by saying it and how people would have understood it then  and how its meaning may be changed in times like ours. “The Bible says” is not an answer but a question  and it requires us to search and ponder and argue and reconsider and weigh our judgments against those of others and then in fear and trembling,  in patience and charity,  attempt to live by the guidance the Spirit gives us, not condemning others who see it differently, but reaching out always in a spirit of love to maintain the unity of the spirit  in the bond of peace.

I think today’s gospel  asks us to do some hard thinking about some basic aspects of American life. Is it possible, for example, to keep the Fourth Commandment in today’s world?  If you are on the staff at Geer, if you work in the kitchen there or serve as a nurses’ aid, and it’s your turn to work on Sunday,  that’s surely in the spirit of Jesus’ teaching.  But do you then find Sabbath time elsewhere in the week? Do you keep the spirit of the law by finding time for rest and time to honor God?

The Sabbath is for us also;  we need times of rest  and times of worship. It would take an extra bit of planning  to find that time if we work on Sunday,  but it’s not impossible.  Not impossible, but a faithful Christian needs to do that planning for his or her own sake as well as God’s.  And, of course, all this applies very much  to the whole debate about sexuality. Just as 18th ands 19th century Christians found texts to justify slavery, so 20th and 21st century Christians can find texts  to condemn same sex relationships. But is that the last word on the subject or does the spirit behind those texts  lead us on to look at things now in a different light? There are some who think the answers are simple and maybe they are,  but there are enough deeply committed Christians on both sides of the issue so that no one can simply condemn those who disagree or read them out of the church.  I can understand why people have real trouble coming to grips with this issue  or understanding the other side, but I can’t understand those who simply condemn  and who would rather divide the church than find ways to live together with others who are sincerely seeking to find God’s will for God’s church  in a new world and new circumstances.

It seemed obvious to Jesus’ opponents  that he was tearing down  important Biblical guidelines,  but they were wrong. At least, as a follower of that same Jesus,  I have to side with him. It seemed obvious to lots of people  in 18th century America  that Samuel Hopkins was tearing down  an ancient and accepted institution which the Bible accepted.  But they were wrong. Not many today would rally to the defense  of human slavery or cite the Bible in its defense.  And that perspective requires us, it seems to me, to be more open to new ideas, less quick to condemn, more patient,  more careful in our approach to issues. We could be wrong.  I could be wrong. And if that’s true,  I need to work much harder than I usually do to understand, to question what everyone else accepts,  to seek God’s will more deeply, to spend more time in prayer, to ask God’s help in being more patient, more loving, more like Jesus.  I do not want to find  either now or at the end that I have been on one side  and Jesus on the other.

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