Sermon
January 25, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Luke 4:14-21


Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 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.”

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. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

All the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month.

He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.

So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.

Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”


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Sermon: Jumpstart!

This is not my favorite season for driving. Last week two members of our congregation totaled their cars trying to get to church, and Rev. Gail Keeney Mulligan did the same on her way to services at St. Johns. I’m fortunate to be able to walk to church, so all I have to do is make sure I don’t slip and tumble and dent my rear end or knock what less sense is left out of my head.

But it was not always so. When I was pastor of the Reformed Church in Bushkill, Pennsylvania, I was commuting to the church from Hardwick, New Jersey, east of Bushkill on the other side of the Delaware River. Hardwick is very rural and sits in the shadow of the Kittatinny Ridge; our property was just a few hundred yards off the Appalachians Trail. It got really cold there, and in order to make sure that my VW Beetle would start, I started using an electronic dipstick that kept the engine oil warm – a practice that was also very useful when we moved to Vermont. But even that didn’t always do the trick, and I grew accomplished at jumpstarting that car in the early hours of Sunday morning.

When I read the story of Ezra bringing a revival of faith to the people of Israel by reading and interpreting the Law of Moses, for some reason this image of jumpstarting a car came into my mind. Maybe that sounds like the workings of a mind that has taken a few too many tumbles on slippery streets, but think about it – your car has everything it needs to run, but it just can’t quite get started. It needs a jolt of energy from the outside, it needs a boost to turn it over, a connection to a power that gets it unstuck and send it on its way.

At first I wanted to give this sermon the title: “Jumpstart My Jalopy in the Cold Parking Lot of Life” – but I settled on just “Jumpstart” because I thought the longer title sounded too much like a country Western song – you know, those titles like “You’ve already put big old tears in my eyes, must you throw dirt in my face.”

Another title I had in mind had to do with the theme of restarting after rebuilding. There is an interesting connection between the background of our reading this morning and the current situation in our church. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah have a restoration theme – they tell the story of the rebuilding of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. The passage we read this morning takes place after the people have completed the task of rebuilding the walls.

It was no small challenge for them to finish this task. The walls had been destroyed when the Babylonians laid siege to the city in 587 BC. The leaders and educated people of the city had been deported, and it was 50 years before their children began to return. Another fifty years pass before the first attempts to rebuild walls come with the leadership of Ezra.

Ezra is working on the project with no real progress for over 10 years when Nehemiah arrives. Nehemiah makes things happen by organizing work crews, by arming them so they could defend against attack, by canceling debt and reforming the economy so people had a sense of hope and progress and by making all his government officials pay their own way and not require the people of the city to feed them.

The walls get finished and a big celebration is planned with the people gathering in front of one of the Gates. This is the build up to our story this morning, a story about the revival of the spirit of faith among the people. The task of physical rebuilding had been successfully completed, but now they had to jumpstart their spiritual life and set out on a path of faith to serve the purposes of God. It was a time to remember who they are, where they’ve been, what God has done for them, and to renew their covenant with God and with one another.

We, too, have been on a restoration theme. In our situation we did not face devastation, deportation, or even depravation. Our challenge is of a different nature, - what one author called affluenza – a culture of self-gratification so ingrained that it has even transformed the nature of the church and our view of Christ’s work and mission. This is a challenge in its own right. We have been successful in our efforts are restoring the physical plant, but does this story from scripture give us a clue about reviving a spirit of true faith and covenant with one another and with God?

One thing that is in the story and is consistent with our tradition is that the people turned to what had always been the foundation of their faith – the Law of Moses – and they listened to it attentively. For Jews the law is the touchstone of their faith, and for Christians it is the Gospel. We, like they, find a connection to God in the stories and lessons of our scriptures.

This morning we read a very important selection from the Gospel – the story of Jesus first sermon when he went to his home synagogue and began his public ministry. It is a benchmark story for the church because Jesus defines what God has sent him to accomplish:

“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.”

As it happens, today in confirmation we are going to hear parts of the very last sermon preached by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – the famous sermon that ends with: I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn't matter with me now. Because I've been to the mountaintop.

Earlier in that sermon, he turns to the Gospel passage we read this morning and says: Somehow, the preacher must say with Jesus, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to deal with the problems of the poor."

Doesn’t he take the text and give the sense, so that the people understand the reading? King is seeking to jumpstart the engine of action in the conscience of his audience. He wants their faith to be fearless in the face of danger and even death. He has seen the church and the people of the church come unstuck from their frozen immobility and become a force for justice and change in their community and in the nation. The words of scripture have connected them to the Spirit of God and they are energized to covenant and commit to the cause of the poor. Remember, King is in Memphis where he will meet his death to support a strike by sanitation workers.

He can’t tell them what will happen, he can’t tell them how long the road will be or what obstacles they will encounter along the way – but he has roused them up and revived their spirits and lifted their eyes to a higher purpose that the prophets proclaim and Jesus embodies: "Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

The church jumpstarts its true life of faith when it connects to the clear purpose of God presented in the Bible; it jumpstarts its life when it lives for something greater than itself, something that presents each member with decisions, choices, and opportunities for action. We need to take care of each other, we need to take care of our buildings and our budgets and all the day to day concerns that keep this place going – that is the foundation and the walls of our life together.

But that is the beginning, not the end, of the story. For after the time of restoration comes the time of renewal – Like Ezra at the gates of Jerusalem, like Jesus in the Synagogue at Nazareth, we too can turn to God’s word and connect to God’s purpose and feel the anointing of God’s spirit connecting us to the power that makes all things possible.  Amen.

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