Sermon
January 23, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Jonah 3:1-5, 10     The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 "Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you." 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days' walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day's walk. And he cried out, "Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!" 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. (NRSV)

 John 14:1-6     "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. 4 And you know the way to the place where I am going." 5 Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" 6 Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. (NRSV)

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Sermon

Last fall when our confirmation class was studying three basic practices of the Christian faith - namely reading the Bible, prayer, and worship - the question was asked: Is there a right way to pray? 

 Is there a right way to pray?   How do you think you would answer that one?

 In my mind, I also heard the question:  Is there a wrong way to pray?  Or maybe even the question: Are my prayers ineffectual, even insignificant in the eyes of God, because I am praying in the wrong way?

 Hearing those questions in the background, my first instinct was to say that there is no right or wrong way to pray.  The simple prayer spoken on the spur of the moment is as good as the most poetic prayer spoken in a glorious cathedral.  It is not a matter of the method of prayer, but of the heartfelt sincerity of the person who is praying.

 And I think that many would agree with that idea and would expand it beyond the matter of prayer to the matter of religion itself - there is not a right or wrong religion, but all religions are acceptable to God when they are offered in heartfelt sincerity.

 But then I remembered a story that Jesus taught about right and wrong prayer.  In it he tells of two people who go up to the temple to pray.  One of these people, a Pharisee, is very religious, very observant, very well respected, quite familiar with God and at ease in the house of prayer.  The other, a tax collector, is just the opposite - unschooled in prayer, not observant in the practices of the faith, not very respectable, approaching God with some apprehension and ill at ease in the house of prayer. 

 Jesus says that the first of the two prays like this: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’

The tax collector, meanwhile, says simply: God, be merciful to me, a sinner!

 Now the point of Jesus’ teaching is quite clear - the prayer of the tax collector is an example of the right way to pray and the prayer of the Pharisee the wrong way to pray, for “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

 Now I’m sure the Pharisee’s prayer was sincere - he sincerely felt himself better that the tax collector.  Sincerity was not the issue, but humility.  Humility was what made the prayer of the tax collector an example of the right way to pray.

 Can this sense of right and wrong prayer be broadened into a sense of right and wrong religion?

 Of course there are some for whom religion is strictly a matter or right and wrong, and usually it’s “I’m right and you’re wrong!!”

 I don’t care if they’re Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Ba’hai, Buddhist, New Age, Wiccan, or Unitarian, there’s some people who just think they’re right and if you don’t agree with them you’re wrong.  As much as they might disagree on everything else, they agree that they, and they alone, have the truth.  And I guess that is one easy way to think of right and wrong religion: I’m right and you’re wrong.

 Maybe Jonah was one of those people.  We didn’t read the whole story today, but you know that Jonah was trying as hard as he could to get out of going to Ninevah - a city whose inhabitants he thought were not worth saving.  He took a ship in the opposite direction and only after he was thrown overboard in a storm and rescued by a big fish and spit up on the shore would he even do what he was told.  Then when the people of Ninevah did repent and were spared by God, Jonah really went into a deep funk and sat himself down in the dust to die.

 Jonah’s vision was narrow.   These people of Ninevah, they’re not my people, they’re not God’s people, they don’t believe like I do, they don’t know what is true!  Why should God care, why even bother?  They are nothing but outsiders.  It’s right and wrong religion, I’m right and even God won’t convince me otherwise.

 Perhaps Jonah should have listened a little more carefully to his fellow prophet Micah who spoke the Word of the Lord familiar to us from our call to worship this morning:

Micah 6:6-8

“With what shall I come before the Lord,

and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

 Maybe this could be the basis for a different definition of right and wrong religion; not I’m right and you’re wrong, but that right religion is to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

 That’s all well and good, some might say, but aren’t you forgetting an additional element, an element that was in the other passage you read this morning - that passage from the Gospel of John, the one where Jesus says: I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

 Now when Jesus says, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” doesn’t that mean that right religion must be based on accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?  Doesn’t it mean that doing justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with God is not adequate in itself, but that only those who confess that Jesus is Lord will find their way to the Father?  Isn’t that the bedrock of what we preach in the church?

 Well, I know that there is a lot of thinking along those lines, and a lot of people worry about friends and relatives who have not come to a confession of Christ as Lord even through they were raised in the church, let alone the millions, probably billions, of people who were raised in and live in and die in other religious faiths. 

 And, of course, even within the Christian Church there are various understandings of what it means to accept Christ.  In some churches we sitting here today would probably be considered on the outside because of the lack of certain charismas, or gifts of the spirit - gifts we associate with charismatic congregations like speaking in tongues and being slain in the Spirit, healings and ecstatic dance and song. 

 Maybe we would be considered outsiders because we do not receive the sacrament of Holy Communion as the transubstantiated body and blood of Christ from the hands of a consecrated priest.  I mean, there might be a dozen reasons why those who consider themselves on the inside would look at us as being on the outside.

 So let’s go back to the source.  How does Jesus interpret this?  What does Jesus indicate is meant by having a relationship with him?  What does Jesus say about coming to the father through him? 

 He doesn’t say just one thing, but one thing he does say is this: (Matthew 25:31-40)

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

 Isn’t that odd?  Those who are invited to come to the Father through Christ are surprised and perplexed.  “When was it Lord, that we saw you!” 

 Is there anything in this parable to indicate that Jesus’ view of salvation is as narrow as the view often preached in his name.  In fact, it sounds here a lot like the basic message of the prophet Micah:

and what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God?

 Does this mean that what we believe does not matter?  Well, it matters if we make it matter; it matters if it motivates us to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

 To do justice and to love kindness means the same to every religion: to give food to the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to show hospitality to the stranger, to clothe the naked, to care for the sick, to visit the prisoner, to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

 But what about “to walk humbly with our God”; - can we also find a universal meaning for that?  Could that not mean forsaking the self-assured attitude of the Pharisee, the attitude that draws lines and puts people on the inside and on the outside, that usurps the prerogative of God to judge by things visible and invisible, things known to all and things secret to the sight of God alone?  Could it not simply mean being of the mind to pray like the tax collector: Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

 Is there a right and wrong way to pray?  Is there right and wrong religion?  I guess in the end I believe there is, but not based on doctrine or denomination, creeds or confessions, metaphysics or market share . 

for what does the Lord require of you

but to do justice, and to love kindness,

and to walk humbly with your God? Amen.

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