The Rev. Neale L. Miller
Sermon for August 12, 2018
Texts: Jeremiah 1:4-10/Luke 13:10-17
Title: “Never on Sunday”
If American hymnody had an all-times “hits” list, “Take Time to Be Holy,” would certainly be on it. Beloved by generations of American Christians, the piety expressed in the hymn echoes down the corridors of nineteenth and twentieth American Protestantism.
The mood of the hymn evokes another less-congested period in history, a time before Sunday dinner became Sunday lunch, when we sat down to tables carefully laid with mother’s best china and silver, a roast, mashed potatoes, and the trimmings spread out on the table. If you are of a certain age, and most of are, you picture Clarence and Vinnie Day played by William Powell and Irene Dunne, and their children, Mary, played by Elizabeth Taylor, Clarence Jr. played by Jimmy Lydon, and John Day, played by Martin Milner, sitting down to just the sort of a dinner I am describing. “Take Time to Be Holy,” emerged out of the cinematic “Life with Father” world the Day family depicted for a past generation of moviegoers.
In the mind’s eye we can easily conger up a picture of Clarence Sr., his necktie still firmly secured around his neck, leading his brood from the dinner table, looking grand in their Sunday best, to the parlor and the piano, there to gather as Vinnie Day provided the accompaniment for a Sunday afternoon family hymn sing.
The scenario I am describing was reenacted in real life in countless American homes during a period of our history, with the possible exception of the Day’s housekeeper and piano. Sunday afternoon in the Day house, and some of you may have lived such Sunday afternoons yourselves, was enjoyed unencumbered with a lot of the things that fill a Sunday afternoon these days. There were no televised sports, no NFL football or NBA basketball. There was no automatic washing machine ready to entice the lady of the house to pop in a load. There was no neighborhood convenience store to which Clarence could dispatch Junior for a bag of charcoal or a quart of milk.
The pace of life on Sunday would hardly qualify as a pace at all. In fact, it barely qualified as a stroll. Sunday afternoon in many American homes amounted to little more than the tranquil interlude interposed between Sunday morning and Sunday evening worship services. Again, some of us remember those days.
“Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul; each thought and each motive beneath his control; thus led by his Spirit to fountains of love, thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.” The outfitting for service above that past generations received was undertaken at the unselfconsciously deliberate pace that was the Sunday norm in many households. While I am not naïve enough to suggest that all American Christians lived in a Clarence Day, “Life with Father,” world, the rhythms of Sunday life differed markedly from other days of the week, but not only for Christians, for all Americans.
“Take time to be holy.” Most worthy projects in life, of course, take time. William Longstaff, the man who wrote the words to that enduring hymn, was on to something. Holiness, which I will define as “righteousness under God,” is not something that you or I are likely to pick up on the fly. Holiness is a deliberate, deliberative activity. Holiness takes time.
This holiness or righteousness I am talking about is a seed God plants within us, a seed requiring exposure to the steady nurturing influences of God if it is to germinate and grow.
It takes time to be holy. In fact, the case could easily be made that even God himself took time to be holy. Six days hard at work creating his magnum opus, meticulously fashioning and landscaping the world, populating it with the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and the vast array of animals who share space with us on the earth, God needed a breather. Six days, hard at it from first light until the last star ascended into the sky, God afforded himself no time in those six days simply to sit back and admire what he had created.
It was God’s day of rest, a day to suspend activity and simply admire his handiwork. If ever anyone was entitled to a day of rest it was God. Allow your imaginations some liberty. I see God’s face set in a grin stretching to the breadth of the intergalactic poles themselves, as he inspects the earth and vast galaxies he created.
It was God’s day of rest, a day not to do, but simply to be; a day to enjoy all he had made, as an artist might enjoy a completed work of art resting on his easel. His inspection of his work completed, God began to entertain an idea, an idea that soon formed itself into a conviction. “I know what I will do,” God declared, “I will let the people I created in on the good thing I am enjoying. They shall have a day of rest just like mine.” And so it came to pass, God set aside one day out seven that you and I might take time to be holy.
Recall with me that the holiness day came down to us from God through Moses as a commandment that reads as follows, “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your town.” Please note that this fourth commandment of the Lord is the only one for which God supplies a rationale to justify it, “for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it.”
Sabbath keeping is one of the commandments, but it might more appropriately be viewed as an invitation to step away from the involvements that detain us six days, and enjoy a holy rest. Even God concluded that six days was sufficient to engage in worldly matters. On the seventh day he rested.
“Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul.” Of precisely what does calm in the soul consist? Several different options might come to mind. Calm in the soul might come with a week spent at the beach. It might well come with a good report from the medical laboratory that has been examining our biopsy specimen. Another source of calm for the soul might be the realization that your children are home tucked safely in bed, or that your last child has finally found a job and has left the nest. Calm in the soul, each of us have our own notion of the circumstances that produce that condition.
Calm in the soul is largely a byproduct of experiences that positively impact our lives. But God says calm in the soul doesn’t have to be a byproduct of anything. God wants us to know that calm in the soul can be our permanent state of being, a state of being obtainable when we take time to be holy, when we honor his Sabbath.
The era of the fictional Clarence Day and his clan occupied at the turn of the century is quite different from the one we occupy today. In the vast majority of households a sandwich in front of the TV has replaced the Sunday roast beef and hymns around the piano. Sunday represents for many just another day to shop or attend to accumulated errands or odd jobs. No one in my experience, keeps the Sabbath like it used to be kept. But why?
One possible reason is that we experienced the Sabbath as too constraining. Count my dad among that number. While my dad and I never discussed the Sabbath commandment per se, his views on the subject were expressed in my hearing several times. You see, my granddad kept the Sabbath, and in his household that meant that everyone kept the Sabbath. My dad, however, was not of the Sabbath-keeping mind.
Sunday in my dad’s household was church in the morning, Bible reading in the afternoon, and church in the evening. The Day brood from “Life with Father,” and the Millers of Glassport, Pennsylvania would have been right home in each other’s company. Only my dad, you see, wasn’t right home in the company of the Sabbath keepers. He wanted to be outside playing ball. He wanted to join his gang for a swim in the river. He wanted to go to a movie. He experienced the Sabbath as a weight around his neck. Needless to say, when he established his own household the only residual from his Sunday Sabbath keeping past was the roast beef dinner served Sunday noon.
Scholar Alexis McCrossen reminds us that Sabbath keeping is part of our colonial heritage. The famous blue laws, blue laws, because they were printed on blue paper, originated in colonial Connecticut. Prohibiting any form of work or play on the Lord’s Day, these blue laws, which spread with the expansion of the republic up and down the eastern seaboard and eventually west, proved to be an effective means to enforce the Bible’s Sabbath mandate. Though the blue laws encouraged what is popularly known as “family time” today, McCrossen tells us that that was not the laws’ original aim. The blue laws were intended to create time and space for the sacred, and incidentally, to provide time for procreation, life for the typical colonial couple affording few such opportunities at other times. Many of have lived in places that maintained the blue laws. Vestiges of those laws survive where prohibitions to sell alcohol on Sunday are still in force.
The state legislatures certainly played a prominent roll in helping the church preserve the Sabbath. Ultimately, however, pressure to suspend the blue laws became overwhelming. Though they survived the western expansion, a great Civil war, prohibition, the Great Depression, and two world wars, the death knell for the blue laws was sounded as an increasing number of women entered the work force. The weekday offering no opportunity for family errands and shopping, the state legislatures were forced to acknowledge this new reality.
“Never on Sunday,” so announced our Protestant forbears. But one by one the laws preserving the Sabbath have fallen, with the church itself scheduling meetings and other activities on the Sabbath that would have been prohibited a century ago.
The traditional Sabbath is a thing of the past, the church itself complicit in its passing. Yet God’s call to “take time to be holy, be calm in [our] soul[s] is no less urgent, even if we happen to ignore it.
The synagogue official chastised Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Despite Jesus’ rejoinder that the official was a hypocrite in his application of Sabbath principles, the man was seeking to preserve something worth preserving. Granted, he failed to give proper consideration to the circumstances that led Jesus to act on the Sabbath—the crippled woman needed relief— the synagogue leader did, however, speak from the heart of his tradition, a tradition sturdily enforced by the mandate of the commandments.
Life with Father” was never as idyllic as it was portrayed on the movie screen or in its television adaptation, but the storyline surrounding the Clarence Days spoke to a wide audience who in the later forties and earlier fifties were beginning to realize that America’s good old days were fast becoming history.
Many of us resort to movies, the television, plays, and books as a means of escape from the frenzy that characterizes so much of life. We take vacations, we buy things, look forward to retirement, in search of peace that always seems to elude us. In his recently published, “Searching for Home,” Reverend Craig Barnes describes our quest this way, “The soul is searching for its lost paradise where it was at home with its creator,” which is basically a paraphrase on what St. Augustine said in the fourth century, “Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they find their rest in thee.” Not to constrain us, God gave us the Sabbath to free us.
“Never on Sunday?” The day has long passed since when we in the church could force the merchant to shutter his business on Sunday. We are at a far different place culturally. Yet, that said, the restless heart will not be bought off by the variety of things we use to fill our Sunday Sabbath. We use material means to address a spiritual need, and our strategies won’t work. But what WILL work.
The counsel of the old standard is sound and worthy of our attention. “Take time to be holy, be calm in thy soul; each thought and each motive beneath his control; thus led by his Spirit to fountains of love, thou soon shalt be fitted for service above.”
It all comes down to two words, doesn’t it? Take time. Holiness, which I have defined as “righteousness under God,” is not something that you or I are likely to pick up on the fly. Holiness is a deliberate, deliberative activity, and for that you must take time. Sunday worship is certainly a beginning, but only the beginning of a Sabbath discipline that will afford the rest and restoration God invites you to have.
Even God needed a day of rest, yet we continually ignore the inner counsel of the Lord to take our rest. And to what end? To what goal do we aspire that is more worthy than oneness with God? Why not take a little time this Sabbath to ponder that question.
Holy and eternal God, the persistence of your call is no less persistent for our unwillingness to heed it. Yet we are persistent too, O God, persisting in activity we attempt to justify as being worthy of our time, when you call us to rest and draw near to you. Grant us wisdom sufficient to heed your call, to establish priorities that are consistent with your holy will.
Lord of the Sabbath, teach us to value Sabbath. We live in an on-call world, our cell phones keeping us constantly responsive to whomever and whatever that may seek our attention, while at the same time remaining unresponsive to you. We are too busy to worship, too busy to read your word, too busy to join a Bible study, and we are too busy to pray. We are unavailable. “Too busy to talk right now, Lord, I hear my cell phone ringing. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.”
“We have our busy day all mapped out, Lord. Sorry, if we haven’t found a place for you today, Lord, but we will make a special effort tomorrow.” How naïve we are to presume, O God, that you will remain on an on-call status indefinitely. How self-defeating we are to ignore you who are the source of life. We starve our spirits, but credit our good intentions, Lord; “we will get back to you tomorrow. Promise.”
The summer fast coming to an end, many have returned to school, or will soon return to school. The classroom will renew its demands on students and teachers, and we acknowledge that some students are better prepared to satisfy those demands than others. We give thanks and gratitude for the successful student eager to excel, even as we pray for those who struggle to meet the grade. Abide with teachers who are challenged by the demands of the classroom, particularly those who just beginning their careers.
We pray for those who live under the burden of depression, for the sick and the dying. We pray for all those who minister to the sick and the dying. Abide with those who devote their lives to the worlds uncared for and marginalized, and those who advocate for the oppressed and tyrannized.
O God, ever gracious, hear our prayers for national unity. Help us repair the deep divisions that exist within the nation that we might unite around common values and commitments. Abide with those who are actively seeking ways and means to heal our nation’s wounds.
We pray for all those impacted by the wildfires sweeping across the west, and for the courageous firefighters whose tireless efforts are committed to saving property and lives.
Finally, we pray for this opportunity to gather as a faith community, giving thanks for the common bond we have created here, and the opportunities for spiritual growth we have enjoyed. You alone know what the future holds for us, but in trust and thanksgiving we leave our individual welfare, and the prospects of this fellowship in your loving hands.
For this day, for each other, and for the hopes that sustain us into the week, months, and years ahead we give thanks, praying the prayer.