Sermon
January 7, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

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Scripture Readings

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in

their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah,

16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one

who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of

his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

17 His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to

gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with

unquenchable fire."

21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been

baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened,

22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a

voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well

pleased." (NRSV)

Matthew 9:1-13

1 And after getting into a boat he crossed the sea and came to his own

town.

2 And just then some people were carrying a paralyzed man lying on a bed.

When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, son; your

sins are forgiven."

3 Then some of the scribes said to themselves, "This man is blaspheming."

4 But Jesus, perceiving their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in

your hearts?

5 For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Stand

up and walk'?

6 But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to

forgive sins" -- he then said to the paralytic -- "Stand up, take your bed

and go to your home."

7 And he stood up and went to his home.

8 When the crowds saw it, they were filled with awe, and they glorified

God, who had given such authority to human beings.

9 As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the

tax booth; and he said to him, "Follow me." And he got up and followed him.

10 And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners

came and were sitting with him and his disciples.

11 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, "Why does your

teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?"

12 But when he heard this, he said, "Those who are well have no need of a

physician, but those who are sick.

13 Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I

have come to call not the righteous but sinners." (NRSV)

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Sermon: These I Lay Down

This morning is the first Sunday of a new year, and some might say a new

century and even a new millennium. Of course, if you were Jewish you wouldn

’t say this because in the Jewish calendar we are nine months away from the

beginning of the New Year - and it will be the year 5762 old time that

begins on September 18, 2001 new time.

I’m not going to suggest we adopt the Jewish Calendar, but I would like to

begin this new year in our church by taking a page from a Jewish tradition,

a tradition associated with the celebration of the New Year, Rosh Hashanah,

and embodied in the holy day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Maybe the best way to enter into the spirit of this tradition is through a

story - a story by a writer named Kate Wenner whose first novel, Setting

Fires, was published last year. The story was printed in the New York Times

magazine last October on the weekend of Yom Kippur:

I took care of my father in the last months of, his life as he battled

stomach cancer. I slept in the bedroom next to his, monitoring every hour of

his day and night, and I treasured our closeness - in large part because it

came so late in his life. Before his illness, he always kept us all at arm's

length. He was quick to anger if we challenged him, intolerant of scrutiny

of any kind. And then, only weeks before I lost him forever, I learned why.

He had gone in eight short months from being a skiing, bike racing, dating

man of 70 to a shrunken, exhausted soul with paper thin skin, and in this

condition he revealed to my brother, sister and me the shameful secret he

had kept buried since childhood: when he was 14, his mother and sister had

deliberately set fire to their dry goods shop to collect insurance money. It

was late at night, and the couple who lived in the apartment above the store

came running out from the flames, screaming and carrying their children in

their arms. They could have easily been killed.

My father had no part in planning the arson, but he saw what happened, and

it changed his life forever.

"I came from people who were despicable," he told us through a flood of

tears. "They set this fire out of their own greed. I tried to excuse it by

telling myself that survival forced us to do these things." He looked

anguished. "Survival? We had enough to eat. We had a place to sleep. We had

our own store. Some of our neighbors considered us rich. To risk killing

children so you can make a fancier store? That's evil. I was part of evil.

Now you see why I'm ready to die?"

My brother asked, "Are you saying you deserve to die?"

"No, no," he insisted. "It's not that. It's that I'm tired of living with

shame. I've held on to it all these years. I'm exhausted from trying to

cover up, driving and driving myself. Dying is the way I can let go of it at

last." But even after he confessed, he did not forgive himself. Shame had

been his companion in life, and it went with him into death.

In search of some way to deal with the pain of losing him, I turned to

religious traditions, though my family had ignored them for two generations.

I began attending synagogue to say Kaddish. I was a neophyte, but by Yom

Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, I had learned the Hebrew word

"teshuvah." Literally, it means to return; on Yom Kippur it is used to

describe the work of remembering who you once knew yourself to be. I recited

the Vidui, a list of transgressions from A to Z: we abuse, we betray, we are

cruel, we destroy, we embitter, we falsify, we gossip, we hate, we insult

... we yield to evil. And I learned that the hardest work of atonement is

not naming your transgressions, but finding the courage to forgive yourself

for pain inflicted on others - an exercise that brings you face to face with

shame.

During Yiskor, the prayers in memory of the dead, the rabbi asked the

congregation: "If this day is about forgiveness, why do we remember people

whose lives are over? Hasn't their chance for forgiveness passed?" We waited

for his answer: "They have a new chance for forgiveness through you. You

bring them into this day through your prayers, your memories." I was sobbing

before I knew it, in agony at the memory of how my father's life had been

constricted by shame. Every day, every action, every relationship had been

defined by his efforts to cover and hide his secret - and the sin wasn't

even his, though he felt complicit in it. My father revered honesty; how

awful he must have felt concealing this horrible vision for nearly 60 years.

He treasured family and friendship; how wretched it must have been for him

to hold himself apart from people for fear of being found out. It all seemed

unbearably sad.

I followed my rabbi's direction: I brought my father into the day through my

memories, of him. I felt his presence as surely as if his hands were on my

shoulders. And then I understood the miracle of my father's confession. In

confronting yourself truthfully, you start to forgive yourself, and with

forgiveness comes the possibility of a new beginning. My father had created

a new beginning, not for himself - it was too late for that - but for us,

his children. He showed us his courage, his determination to face his shame.

Facing the truth restored my father to himself, but it also restored him to

us. In his final days, he at last allowed himself to feel loved and to give

love in return. I live every day in that love he found.

The work of confession, forgiveness, and atonement certainly are central to

both the Jewish and the Christian faith. The dynamics of Yom Kippur are

echoed in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper - the confession of sin, the

assurance of forgiveness, the reconciliation of atonement. We call this a

supper, a meal, a feast, but it is much more about forgiveness than food.

Why there is hardly any food at all here - just a crumb of bread and a sip

of juice.

And yet this meal illustrates truly what is necessary for life to thrive - a

little bit of food and a whole lot of forgiveness - not much luxury, but a

whole lot of love.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these

things shall be added unto you.

So often we get this backwards; so often we seek to fill a void in the heart

through the stomach or the stock portfolio - it doesn’t work.

What does work, what does fill the void, is atonement - that is peace and

reconciliation with God and with one another. And atonement comes through

forgiveness and forgiveness through confession. Take your burdens to the

Lord and leave them there.

That is the exercise of worship I’d like to suggest for the opening of this

new year in our church and in our lives - a time of confession followed by

the assurance of forgiveness that comes in communion followed by a

dedication in our hearts to accept and give forgiveness freely in the year -

or century - or millennium - ahead.

We do not have a prayer of confession that lists all of our transgressions

from A to Z, but I would ask you to turn with me to hymn #391: These I Lay

Down, and let us read it together as a prayer, followed by silence, followed

by our sharing of communion.

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Let us pray:

Before I take the body of my Lord,

Before I share his life in bread and wine,

I re cognize the sorry things with in:

These I lay down.

The words of hope I often failed to give,

The prayers of kindness buried by my pride,

The signs of care I argued out of sight:

These I lay down.

The narrowness of vision and of mind,

The need for other folk to serve my will,

And every word and silence meant to hurt:

These I lay down.

Of those around in whom I meet my Lord,

I ask their pardon and I grant them mine

That every contradiction to Christ's peace

Might be laid down.

Lord Jesus Christ, companion at this feast,

I empty now my heart and stretch my hands,

And ask to meet you here in bread and wine

Which you lay down. Amen

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