Below the sermon audio is the sermon text, basically what was preached in the pulpit! This was a moving sermon for me to reflect upon and to preach. The Gospel hymn spoke of “the heart” and I chose “Come thou fount of every blessing, tune my heart to thy accord” as the sermon response instead of the creed.
A sermon preached at Trinity Church, Newport RI; Sunday February 9th, 2020. The Reverend Alan Neale, “A Shrinkage Problem”
Psalm 112:8 “Their heart is established and will not shrink” (Coverdale Version, not in any of the traditional translation s of the Bible [I researched more than twenty!] but the Coverdale Version… but more of that anon).
Psalm 112:8 “Their heart is established and will not skrink.”
I worked in retail for only a few years in between colleges and during summer months (and somehow the UK retail industry survived; I reflect now with amazement that in one large store I was put in charge of kitchen cabinets and in a central London store I was in charge of their boating department – those poor customers, I knew nothing at all about the wares I was charged to sell).
It was during that time that I came across what is a significant problem in the retail industry – it is called the shrinkage problem. One retail magazine had this quotation: “In the retail world, shrinkage, or shrink, is the term used to describe a reduction in inventory due to shoplifting; employee theft; administrative errors such as record keeping, pricing, and cash counting; and supplier fraud. … While retailers have to factor loss into their bottom line, it is a costly problem for all.”
Well, in 1535, Myles Coverdale presented the first complete Bible in English to King Henry VIII. Friends, for no reason at all (that I can find) he introduced the word “shrink” into my text and ever since then it has been repeated in every Anglican Prayer Book including our own 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I contacted two learned clergy on Aquidneck Island and asked for their explanation; one said simply “there’s no answer to your question” and the other “it is the way it has always been”!
Well, Bishop Myles Coverdale, today I thank you for your unique translation; your decision (I pray prompted by the Spirit of God) seized my attention as I read the lengthy passages for today… your decision has caused me to reflect on the “clear and present danger” (thank you, Supreme Court) before all of us spiritual people… doing our best as we journey on our path to prevent “shrinkage of the heart”.
Looking at Psalm 118 I see three warning indicators that presage the onset of “heart shrinkage”.
A shrinking heart is limited in scope (verses 1-3)
A shrinking heart is rarely exercised (verses 4-5, 9)
A shrinking heart is self-sufficient (verses 7-8)
A shrinking heart is limited in scope. The Psalmist begins by encouraging his readers to “fear the Lord”. This is no craven, timorous, pusillanimous creeping before the Lord but an awesome awareness of the majesty of God; remember in our Eucharistic prayer we are those made bold to stand before God, to approach (Hebrews 4:16) the throne of grace with confidence. The Psalmist speaks of the vastness of God’s presence and blessing not only throughout space but also throughout time. A shrinking heart spends little time exploring the vastness of God and God’s creation, love and grace; perhaps untaught, perhaps badly taught it finds sanctuary only in the most secret corner.
Compare these words that I heard in the Senate Chamber this past week (words quoted from Oliver Wendell Holmes’s speech on May 30th, 1884): “Above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart” – a mighty heart forged in the vastness of opportunity before it.
A shrinking heart is rarely exercised. In today’s Psalm the reader is given the most bountiful of examples to follow, of patterns to emulate, of models to imitate… be merciful and compassionate (v.4), be generous and just (v.5), give freely to the poor. Perhaps through fear or memories of abuse, the shrinking heart looks not for opportunities to serve but rather opportunities to hold tightly and in that very experience of lack of generosity… it faces the challenge of heart shrinkage… more and more… and more. Years ago I remember a fairly new member to a church I served, agreed fairly readily to become stewardship chair (not the most sought after ministries in the church). I was moved not only by Richard’s willingness but also by this simple motto, adage, maxim that shaped his approach to stewardship. He said, “I believe people at best aspire to generosity.” Four decades of parish ministry have left me a little jaded and cynical but his clarion call often returns to me, “Remember at their best people aspire to generosity.” This is the stuff and experience that makes for growing hearts; its absence leading to heart shrinkage. This week I came across what I thought to be a moving quotation from St. Augustine (not found in some weighty tome but in a Richard Cornwell novel!) – “I did not love but I yearned to love.” A shrinking heart knows neither to love nor even to yearn to love.
A shrinking heart is self-sufficient. There are those shrinking, tender, feeble hearts that have been so wounded in their past that they prefer not to stretch out and ask for help; their abused vulnerability becomes now the excuse or rationale for their shrinkage. The heart that extends, the heart that expands, the heart that enlarges is the heart that accepts the vocation to ask for help, to “put trust in the Lord”, this is the heart that is established (vv. 7-8).
Recently I received a letter from a friend who not been in contact for many months, he has suffered much anguish in these past months. He realized it was time to reach out (rather like the Prodigal Son who “comes to his senses” and returns home Luke 15:17). I was intrigued by the Freudian spelling error as the letter opened, “Farther Neale” – “father” spelt “farther”. Yes, for too long we had been too far apart.
Since last April I have rarely talked at length about the “seven cardiac arrests” I suffered and the ensuing road I trudged towards recovery; I learned profoundly what I had never learned through decades of pastoral ministry and years of study – that a heart once damaged takes a long time to heal and it affects the whole person and their dearest. For weeks my world became smaller and smaller, this is the way I wanted it but it caused my heart to shrink. For weeks I teetered on the brink of self-absorption and missed opportunities to exercise my heart in acts and words of generosity. And for weeks I closed the shutters and barred the doors… so worn out by days of total dependence upon others that I, I thought, I could do it no more. Thank God for a dear and loving wife who ultimately cajoled me into inviting others to come sit, talk and walk with me.
Friends, physically or spiritually (and I sense the line is thin) we need take care to prevent heart shrinkage as people and as a community – for this the world is hungry. Let this me our prayer (Psalm 119:32) “Lord, enlarge my heart.” AMEN