Sermon
January 21, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 4:14-21

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee,

and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.

15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the

synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,

17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the

scroll and found the place where it was written:

18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring

good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat

down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

21 Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled

in your hearing." (NRSV)

 

Psalm 19:1-14

1 To the leader. A Psalm of David. The heavens are telling the glory of

God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

2 Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

3 There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard;

4 yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the

end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,

5 which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a

strong man runs its course with joy.

6 Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of

them; and nothing is hid from its heat.

7 The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the

LORD are sure, making wise the simple;

8 the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment

of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eyes;

9 the fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the

LORD are true and righteous altogether.

10 More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter

also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

11 Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great

reward.

12 But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults.

13 Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have

dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great

transgression.

14 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable

to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer. (NRSV)

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Sermon

Do any of you share with me a certain fascination with maps? There are many

kinds of maps, of course, and I admit I’m not that big a fan of agricultural

product maps or vegetation maps. I like road maps and maps that tell me

where Cincinnati is. I like to have a topographic map of where I live, and

if come into my office you’ll notice that there’s a dozen or more maps

hanging on the back of my door.

One of my favorites is a reprint that Hank and Legard Waldrop had done of a

1906 map showing all the houses and building in the New Milford town center.

Another is this map of New Milford showing the hills, rivers, streams,

valleys, and streets in 1971.

Of course, you don’t really need a topographical map to get around in New

Milford, because there are so many landmarks where you can get your

bearings. A number of years ago, though, I was in a situation where a

topographical map was really a necessity - and not just a map, but some

means of orienting that map to true north was equally important.

I was down in the Linville Gorge, sometimes called the Grand Canyon on North

Carolina. It was an Outward Bound course for educators, and we were given a

map and a compass and told to find our way from point A to point B, point B

being the place where dinner was waiting for us.

In order to get from Point A to Point B, we had to know when and which way

to turn, and in order to know when and which way to turn we need to have a

map, and in order to use the map we need a compass to orient the map,

otherwise it was useless to us.

The tools seem pretty simple, a map and a compass, but in fact, at that

moment, we were depending upon the accumulated wisdom of thousands of years

of human experience. We were the beneficiaries of the courage of many

generations who adventured across land and sea and developed the tools of

navigation and the arts of mapmaking.

I suppose if we hadn’t reached our destination by dinnertime and the night

had come on and the stars had come out, we would be not that far removed

from the Egyptians or the Phoenicians or the Hebrews or any ancient people

who looked up at the night sky and saw the North Star and took from it a

bearing to lead them to their destination.

And perhaps, if it had been an especially brilliant night above the darkness

of that deep gorge, we might have been inspired to remember the words of

Psalmist as we followed our map in the sky: The heavens are telling the

glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.

There is a certain security in having a map and a compass, in knowing where

you are and where you’re going and seeing the path laid out before you. It

makes you realize that others have walked this way before you and that there

is some dependable guide to direct you to your destination.

Now I suppose that even without a map and a compass, you’ve got a pretty

good idea of the turn this sermon is about to take and where it’s headed.

Let’s stay with the Psalm for a moment. After talking about the glory of

God in the heavens, the psalmist speaks about the glory of God in the

scripture, in the torah, in the law: The law of the LORD is perfect,

reviving the soul; the decrees of the LORD are sure, making wise the simple;

Let’s think back also to the Gospel lesson this morning, to the story of

Jesus in the Synagogue in his home town Nazareth. Where does Jesus do as

the first act to orient his teaching for the people.

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the

synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and

the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll

and found the place where it was written: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon

me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent

me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."

Jesus turns to scripture. Not in this case to the Torah or the law, but to

the prophets.

My point this morning is not what Jesus found when he turned to the

scripture, or what he taught about what he found, but that even Jesus, in

seeking to map out the direction of his life and ministry, even Jesus did

not simply rely upon his own insights but turned to the word of God to be

the guide for his journey.

You know every Sunday we sit here and scattered liberally throughout the

congregation is a library of books that distill the accumulated wisdom of

thousands of years of human experience in relationship to God. Generations

have risked much to provide us with free access to this book.

For centuries the scriptures were withheld from most people. They were the

property of the rich and the powerful who used them to oppress the many and

maintain the privilege of the few. And yet when the words of scripture

became widely available, they touched off a series of revolutions that

elevated the dignity of each person and set democracy in motion as an almost

universal ethic of civilization.

Yesterday we saw some of the pageantry of that democracy as George W. Bush

was sworn in as President of the United States. There is something

significant in the fact that even after a bitterly contested and

confoundingly close election the transition was made as a matter of routine.

The power lies in the institutions and not in the inherited wealth of a few

families - that is a revolutionary shift in the course of history.

Our roots as a church are in that period of revolution and the emergence of

democracy. And our founders understood the critical place of the Bible in

that great transformation. That is why they put it right in the front and

center of their churches. That is why they required a clergy that was

schooled in it’s study. That is why they put the sermon in the place of the

Eucharist of the mass.

The scripture is our map to the future, to the future of life as it was

intended to be lived by the one who created it.

Admittedly, it is not the easiest map in the world to read. We have a unit

in our confirmation class about reading the Bible, and part of the study

includes reading a passage from Thomas Merton that talks about the

difficulty of reading scripture:

It is of the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex and astonish the

human mind. Hence, the reader who opens the Bible must be prepared for

disorientation, confusion, incomprehension, perhaps outrage.

The Bible is without question one of the most unsatisfying books ever

written - at least until the reader has come to terms with it in a very

special way.

The Bible claims to contain a message which will not merely instruct you,

not merely inform you about the distant past, not merely teach you certain

ethical principles, or map out a satisfying hypothesis to explain your place

in the universe and give your life meaning - the Bible claims to contain a

message which will be recognized as the word of God by its transforming and

liberating power. The word of God will be recognized in actual experience

because it does something to anyone who really "hears" it: it transforms

their entire existence.

Everyone is likely to have trouble with the Bible, even the believer -

perhaps especially the believer. Someone like Dietrich Bonhoeffer can

frankly admit his difficulty, and he did so even when he was facing death in

prison: "I am going through another spell of finding it difficult to read

the Bible. I trust that after wobbling a bit the compass will come to rest

in the right direction."

The truth is that the surface of the Bible is not always even interesting.

And yet when one does finally get into it, in one way or another, when one

at last catches on to the Bible’s peculiar way of saying things, and even

more to the things that are said, one finds that they are no longer simply

questioning this book but being questioned by it.

In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer

to answer but from question to question. One’s questions are answered, not

by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial

questions.

Another problem with the Bible is that so many people read it in so many

different ways coming up with so many different conclusions. If it is a map

to life, why are we all on different roads?

Part of the answer there is that we begin at different places so we will

inevitably follow different roads and different times. But another part of

the answer is that even the best map must be properly oriented before it can

be read correctly. With a topographical map we orient it by finding true

north. With the Bible we must orient with the Spirit of Christ, a spirit

the apostle Paul describes in this way:

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion,

kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.

Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another,

forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must

forgive.

Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in

perfect harmony.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were

called in the one body. And be thankful.

I believe that when the Bible is read in that a spirit of humility,

kindness, forgiveness and love, for the sake of insight and not for the sake

of argument, then and only then is it properly oriented and properly read.

When it is read to prove that I’m right and you’re wrong, that my group has

the path to heaven and your group is going to hell, that my authority is of

God and your authority is without foundation, then it is like a map read

upside down and it will yield only confusion and discord.

The Bible is our map, the spirit of Christ is our compass to orient that

map, and when map and compass are in place they direct us to true north, to

that bright star in the sky which is our future, the risen Christ, seated at

the right hand of God the Father, from thence he shall come to judge the

quick and the dead.

I’m hoping that after hearing this sermon you will look at that little red

book in front of you in the pew a little differently; that you will remember

that anytime someone stands in this pulpit that they are standing with this

book open in front of them and that whatever they say must be founded on it

and judged by it. And I’m hoping that if you have a Bible at home that is

just sitting on a shelf, that you will take it down and open it up and dig

in. If it seems confusing, give it time; ask for help, say a prayer. Turn

as we did this morning to Psalm 19 and repeat the ancient words:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to

you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

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Let us pray

We give you thanks, O God, for the privilege of gathering today

in this house of prayer, for time set aside to reflect on your word and will

for us, for time to measure our own lives by the calling we share in Christ

Jesus our Lord. If there has been truth in the words spoken and the

thoughts of our hearts, we ask you to bless it and make it fruitful in our

lives. If there has been error or deceit, we pray it will do no harm.

We give thanks also for the lives of all we love, for the sharing in their

joys and sorrows, their struggles and accomplishments. We pray for those

closest to us, and in silence lift up their names in our hearts.

We remember in our prayers today those who mourn. Especially we pray for

the families of Arline Zarr, Baby Cameryn Klye Louis Visconti, Grace Lewis,

the mother of Jane McManus, and Leon Stuber, the father of Don Stuber.

We remember those who seek your healing power.

We pray for those who need encouragement and clarity in their lives.

We pray for our President and for all in authority among us.

We pray for the people of El Salvador whose lives have been shattered by the

terrible earthquake last Saturday.

We offer you our private prayers and petitions for those we know who need a

sense of your presence and healing power.

Remind us in the week ahead, O Lord, to daily pray for ourselves, for one

another, for our church, and for all people. Help us to remember that you

listen more to our hearts than to our words, and simply bring to you an

offering of repentance, love, and openness.

Let the words of our mouth and the meditation of our heart

be acceptable to you,

O LORD, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.