The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 1/28/96
Text: Matt. 12:1-20, Deut. 5:12-15
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Super Sunday. Super Bowl this afternoon. Are you going to watch? Most of us will, even those who have little interest in football. The Super Bowl, as an annual spectacle, has transcended its own sport and becomes the focus of national attention beyond reason.

Churches recognize the impact. In bulletins across America today are no doubt a zillion sermon titles similar to the one in our own. On PresbyNet last week was the description of one of last year's services on Super Bowl Sunday. The ushers were dressed in referee-stripe shirts, the pews were marked off as yard lines, and at the beginning of the service the choir director and pastor came down to the front of the chancel fully robed, then pealed off to reveal Chicago Bear and Green Bay Packer sweat shirts. The lay leader flipped a coin to see who would direct the choir and who would preach. The choir director got to direct--of course. The choir had a couple of cheers ready. At the hymn times, the ushers were equipped with yellow flags to throw at people who were not singing. And with approximately two minutes to go in the sermon, the organist blew the two minute warning whistle! (1)

Hmm. No. Not here. That is a bit much. The most I could handle would be, if Jerry McCann were here, his rendition of "Drop kick me, Jesus, through the goal posts of life." [Jerry McCann was the organizing pastor of St. Paul Presbyterian Church and served the congregation for 31 years. "Drop Kick Me..." was one of his favorite songs.]

Lots of money will be changing hands. I logged on to the Super Bowl's Internet site the other day and learned that the seating capacity at Sun Devil Stadium will be approximately 74,000, and with tickets priced at $200, $250 and $350 (and I read somewhere that scalpers are asking up to $3,500), that means they will take in, just in ticket sales, more than I make in a WEEK! And, of course, folks will spend more than just the price of a ticket. According to the Internet, last year, at Super Bowl XXIX in Miami, the average per person total amount spent while in South Florida was $1,241. By way of comparison, the average amount given by Presbyterians to their church in 1994 (the last year for which we have statistics at this moment) was just under $545. For the YEAR! Hmm.

Let me tell you a Super Sunday story. (2) It seems a young Martian was studying comparative anthropology and, in preparation for a doctoral dissertation which was long overdue, made a quick flight down to earth in his flying saucer to check on the habits of the residents of the planet. He could not get too close or make any prolonged inspection because his work had to be submitted in just a few days, so time was of the essence. He had made a fortunate choice of days and locations - a fine summer Sunday over the United States - and found the natives most obligingly coming out of their houses and spreading themselves all over the landscape for his observation.

The first thing he noted was that, like so many primitive life forms, the people of this planet were sun worshipers. Previous research had indicated that one day in seven was set aside for the adoration of their god (weather permitting). The rituals would vary, and each required a different form of dress, but most all were conducted in the open air.

What the student saw fascinated him. Some creatures gathered in vast arenas to watch strangely garbed priests perform elaborate ceremonies involving a ball (which every Martian school child knows is symbolic of the sun), some strangely-shaped pieces of wood and certain ritual expressions chanted either by certain priests (like "STEE-RIKE ONE!") and occasional responses from the worshipers (like "KILL THE UMPIRE," whatever that means). There were even appointed times during the service for the worshipers to rhythmically stand and then quickly sit creating a great human wave as if to pay homage to some unseen god of the sea (perhaps a brother or sister to the sun god).

Speaking of the sea, others stripped themselves almost naked, went down to the shore, and performed their rites there. Often they would hurl themselves into the waves with frenzied cries. Many would carry with them, as might be expected, a ball, this one brightly colored. Then after the ceremonial immersion, the devotees would anoint themselves with holy oil, stretch out full length with eyes closed, and present themselves as a soon-to-be-burnt offering to the deity.

Still other earth creatures, no doubt the mystics and solitaries of their religion, either by themselves or in groups of two or four dressed in gaily-colored liturgical garments, traveled to quiet fields for their ritual. There they would place their ball on the ground, hit it with a long stick, chase after it, and hit it again until it finally would fall into the hole of some underground animal. It struck the Martian student as a rather strange process because after striking the ball the worshiper would often chant "GO IN, GO IN," but once it went in, they would promptly get it out and repeat the process all over again.

Another group apparently had blood sacrifice as a part of their tradition. Thousands gathered in huge sanctuaries, semi-clothed, most sipping a foamy sacramental beverage from shiny cylindrical containers (which appeared to the Martian, by the way, to cross all religious lines - all righteous earthlings seemed to share this practice). This throng would watch their priests enter large and noisy wheeled cubicles called cars which they propelled round in circles at terrific speed until one of the priests would be injured or killed. The worshipers frequently mimicked the practice outside the sanctuary with their own cars, running them at high speeds until they dashed themselves to bits against other cars or stationary objects. Many, particularly after one of their religious services, would enter their cars in unison and thus be too closely packed to move. They would then allow the sun god's rays to beat down on the metal which then cooked them slowly to death.

Finally, there was a small group of dissenters or heretics which did not practice sun worship. These could be identified by their habit of clothing themselves much more soberly and completely than the sun worshipers. They too gathered in groups (albeit much SMALLER groups) but they congregated in buildings, many of which had colored windows which blocked the light making certain that there would be no temptation toward sun worship. It was not clear to the student whether these buildings were places of punishment or not, nor was it clear whether these creatures had been excommunicated from the larger worship community or were simply unbelievers. The one thing that was clear was that their faces and gestures showed none of the joyful religious frenzy with which the sun worshipers pursued their devotions. The only conclusion which the Martian felt could be legitimately drawn was that this poor group was NOT happy. And so ended one extra-terrestrial student's adventure.

One is forced to wonder: was the Martian wildly wrong or wildly right? We would have to admit that his descriptions of Sunday activities are easily recognized.

To be sure, Americans do think of Sunday as a special day, a holiday, a "holy" day, a day set apart from the rest of the week. But no longer is it "holy" or set apart as it was when many of us were growing up. We heard our preachers solemnly intone the fourth commandment:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work--you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.

By the way, those sermons we heard concerning keeping the Sabbath were not really about the Sabbath - the seventh day, Saturday - they were talking about Sunday. Granted, nowhere in the Bible is there any instruction for Christians to consider the Lord's Day as a replacement for the Jewish Sabbath, but that made no difference. The sermons came anyway.

In our New Testament lesson this morning, the Pharisees had a sermon for Jesus about his disciples gathering grain on the Sabbath. That was work, a violation of the commandment. But Jesus contended that human need was justification and cited an example from Jewish history as precedent (3) - David and his troops were famished; they went into the tabernacle and ate the ceremonial bread that only the priests were allowed to eat. Were they reproached for what they did? No. Jesus conclusion: "If you had known what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice,' you would not have condemned the guiltless" (Matt. 12:7).

Yeah, Jesus. Right on! All RIGHT!! High fives! Preach, Brother, Preach! Spike it in the end zone and do a Deion Sanders dance.

Uh huh. It is easy for us to be self-righteous in our reading and go tut-tut to those mean old Pharisees. But as one biblical scholar points out, "[A]nytime we read a given passage of scripture and find ourselves right away on Jesus' side, we have probably misread the passage."(4) Actually, what those "mean old Pharisees" wanted to do was maintain the tradition that had allowed them to survive as a nation. By not caving in to expediency, by not bowing to the pressures of surrounding society, by upholding the holy law of Israel, by insisting on being DIFFERENT, the Jewish leaders were engaging in an act of prophetic proclamation: "Our GOD set aside one day in seven to be special. In keeping that day special, we are boldly stating to all the world who we are and WHOSE we are." And no wandering rebel rabbi is going to blow that. A LOT was at stake here, and realizing that gives us a better feeling for the seriousness of the issue.

Still, Jesus would not back down. He knew all those constraints had nothing to do with God's intention in giving the law. The rules and regulations might have had value, but now were being interpreted in ways that were unnecessarily restrictive and restraining. This was social legislation, not to keep people from doing what they needed to do but to guarantee that no one would be overworked, not even slaves. The commandment says simply that there should be a day set apart - kept "holy" - for folks to take a break.

Jesus would probably have gotten into just as much trouble with church folks through the years. After all, beginning in about the eighth century, our people began that incorrect identification of the Sabbath with Sunday and ended up doing to Sunday almost as much as the orthodox Jews did to Saturday.

For awhile having Sunday thought of as different was easy. In America, for example, the traditional 11:00 AM worship hour that many churches still hold to was set to accommodate farmers who, considering morning chores and travel time by horse and wagon, could not arrive until that hour. A two-hour service might be followed by a picnic lunch on the church grounds. Then a period of Bible study (Sunday School, if you will), another time of music and worship, a picnic supper, a vesper service, and finally the long trip home. (For those who call for a return to the "Old Time Religion," this is what they would have if they got their way.) Sunday was automatically special because there was no time for anything but church. Society was geared to that, so no one planned to conduct business on that day. Everyone was otherwise occupied.

But as the rural character of the nation changed, as transportation became more efficient, people had more time to do things on Sunday beside go to church. Businesses began to operate since there were opportunities to "make a buck" that had not existed before. Sports events began to be scheduled on Sunday afternoons because folks were no longer spending that time in church.

Of course, there were raised eyebrows among the faithful. There were attempts to legislate reverence for the Lord's Day with the enactment of Blue Laws. In Puritan America, a certain Massachusetts sea captain returned home after two years away. He arrived on a Sunday, his wife met him at the gate, and he kissed her. A no-no. He was put into stocks for desecrating the Sabbath. (5)

Many of us grew up hearing that there were certain things done and not done on Sundays. Church and Sunday School were automatic, of course. But since the Lord's Day (the new Sabbath, supposedly) was a day of rest, other organized activities were ball games, no shopping, no picnics at the beach. Sundays were not much fun.

As noble in their aim as those regulations might have been, they were a mistake. No day is made special, set apart, made "holy" by making it restrictive or unpleasant or boring, by making it more like hell than heaven. People cannot be made to enjoy God by forbidding them to enjoy anything else.

Of course, some will object, "How will you get people to come to church if they do not HAVE to?" Good question. How are we doing it now? Poorly, obviously. That is why our young Martian would see so many sun worshipers. The answer is not in a legalistic approach - that does not work. Folks will come to church when they feel that doing so really does give them a break, a break from a rat race where it seems that only the rats ever win, a break from a world that does not care whether I live or die, a break from a world full of pain and suffering and hate. Men and women, boys and girls, will come when they begin to sense their need of a loving and gracious God and for the company of God' people, a God and a people who care when no one else does. When the churches of this land do a better job of communicating the love of Jesus rather than making folks feel MORE unwanted and unloved than they already do, people will come. You could not keep them away with clubs. People NEED that kind of break. The wonderful words of Matthew's gospel then are made real: "And in [Jesus'] name the Gentiles [...and indeed ALL people...] will hope" (Matt. 12:21).

"Observe the Sabbath day," says the scripture (Sunday, for you and me). "Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy"... different...special. "Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day"...ah, the seventh a gift from your loving Lord. Super Sunday.


1. From "Worship Plans," note #556 by Bob Vaughn, 1/22/96

2. Embellished from a story by Joy Davidman, Smoke on the Mountain, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1954, pp. 49-51

3.1 Samuel 21:1-6

4. James Sanders quoted by Will Willimon in "Lord of the Sabbath," The Christian Century, 5/8/91, p. 515

5. Herschel Ford, Simple Sermons on the Ten Commandments, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1956), P. 52

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