Sermon
January 30, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 5:1-12 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Micah 6:1-8 Hear what the Lord says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the Lord has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised, what Balaam son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.” “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?

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Sermon: Now We Must Begin

God 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? What could be simpler? Let us consider these requirements.

Humility is well illustrated by a story the actor Tom Selleck tells on himself. You know that along Hollywood Boulevard there is a walk of fame where famous show business people are given stars in the sidewalk. Tom Selleck is there, not far from Glenn Miller and Mickey Mouse and right between Barbara Streisand and William Shatner. You can imagine that when these celebrities are out in public people often ask for their pictures, so Selleck was not surprised one day when an older couple approached him with a camera. Being in a good mood he struck up a playful pose, but was given a good dose of humility when the man said, “No, no, we want you to take a picture of us!

I have to thank Rev. Russ Gates in Proctor, Vermont for that story which was in their last newsletter.

If humility is simple to understand, certainly kindness can’t be much of a challenge.

This past couple of week there has been quite a bit of back and forth among volunteers at the homeless shelter about expanding the service to include some additional hospitality in the morning. The first year the shelter was in operation there was a light breakfast served each day – coffee, baked goods, some sandwiches. But the experience of the first year led the leadership to scale back the program – to clarify the purpose for the guests and simplify the work for the volunteers. So last year and this year the shelter closes at 6:00 AM and no food has been offered.

However, a week ago one volunteer approached the Episcopal church where she is a member and asked if they would open up to allow her to provide spot to gather and provide some breakfast. Now on the surface it sounds like a simple bit of kindness, but the jury is still out.

The people who have spent the most time with the guests at the shelter are keenly aware of the fine line between offering a helping hand to someone and becoming enablers who save people from confronting the consequences of their own choices and behavior. Jeff Chowanec from the Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury spent hours meeting with our Shelter Coalition to help us see the boundary between just enough and too much – and the benefits of keeping things simple.

Sometimes the situations people get themselves in tug at our heartstrings, and it seems like the kind thing to do is to rescue them from their immediate problem. But in the bigger picture, a rescue relieves a person from taking responsibility, and taking responsibility is the key to not repeating the same mistakes over and over again. The relief of an immediate problem is really the path to more pain, not less, and it is not always a kindness to intervene.

If kindness turns out to have a certain complexity, have pity on the person who thinks deeply about justice. A week ago I received a phone call asking if I was planning to participate in the vigil to protest the execution of Michael Ross, the first execution in the state of Connecticut in over 40 years. I declined the invitation. The United Church of Christ state leadership has taken a very public stand against this execution, and I don’t describe myself as pro-death penalty, but again it seems to me not an altogether simple matter that lends itself to placards and protests.

We ask, as a society, that people step back from their pain and suffering when they are a victim of violent crime – directly or as next of kin – and let the justice system handle the offense. There are well established cases where the wrong person has been executed for a crime they did not commit, and we know that race, gender, and wealth play a role in the likelihood of a death sentence being handed down. The system is far from perfect, but that does not relieve it of the responsibility of seeking a common good – that is justice for the victim, and a sense of proportionality - that the punishment fits the crime.

The victim should have a voice in what constitutes justice. Some may chose mercy, some may find forgiveness, but others may seek retribution, and retribution may be their due.

Also it’s hard to see how in some cases you have any proportionality without a death sentence. I heard of a case the other day when a man faced 68 years in prison because he was a tax resistor – he refused to withhold federal taxes for his employees and refused to pay taxes for himself. He was not hiding anything, in fact he was quite public about his opposition, and so he was charged with a number of crimes including conspiracy which could add up to 68 years in jail. Now lets see, how does that balance in the scales of justice – if one man faces 68 years for not paying taxes, what do you do to a man who rapes and murders eight women?

Anyway, I’m not worried that if I do not engage in some public demonstration against the death penalty that the issue will be dropped. It’s a marquee issue, in the headlines, in the courts, in the legislatures around the country. As a public policy it probably gets as much ink as any other issue on the table today. And if you want to think of public policies that cause unjust pain and suffering, there are some things far less spectacular than the death penalty that remain below the radar and yet affect our daily lives and the lives of those we love in an equally profound way.

I think more people will die unjustly in a single week as a result of this headline – buried back on page 17 - than will die unjustly from the death penalty in a ten years – it says simply “Cut in Hospitals Medicare Payments Urged – Influential Advisory Panel Also Seeks Freeze for Nursing Homes.

If you go to the website of the National Academy of Sciences, Institute of Medicine you will find an article about how many people die each year from medical errors and what kind of changes are needed to prevent these deaths. Let me read you a little from the report:

The human cost of medical errors is high. Based on the findings of one major study, medical errors kill some 44,000 people in U.S. hospitals each year. Another study puts the number much higher, at 98,000. Even using the lower estimate, more people die from medical mistakes each year than from highway accidents, breast cancer, or AIDS.

Moreover, while errors may be more easily detected in hospitals, they afflict every health care setting: day-surgery and outpatient clinics, retail pharmacies, nursing homes, as well as home care.

"These stunningly high rates of medical errors – resulting in deaths, permanent disability, and unnecessary suffering – are simply unacceptable in a medical system that promises first to 'do no harm,'" says William Richardson, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president and chief executive officer of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Battle Creek, Mich.

And anyone who has been in a nursing home or spent any time visiting a loved one who is there can tell you that it doesn’t take much of a decrease in the level of staffing or service to put frail people at greater risk for disease and death. The simple act of turning someone and cleaning their skin properly and regularly is tremendously important for their survival – think of Christopher Reeve who died from pressure wounds, more commonly called bed sores.

There are many dedicated people in the health care field who maintain the very highest standards. When my parents were in the nursing home there was a core group that was working when they entered the home and still there years later when they died. But there was also a great deal of turn-over around them, and that turn-over, I suspect, was in part related to the pay provided for such difficult work. You lower the reimbursement, you lower the pay, you increase the turn-over rate, you have people die from a lower standard of care. I’d rather the religious community look at that issue than debate whether a man who confessed to multiple murders should live or die.

I don’t mean to go through a litany of society’s woes and depress everyone who is here today. I just want react in a realistic way to the words of Micah – to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God - to point out that the paths of justice are not always big highways with lots of signs and bright lights and bumper sticker answers.

While not as famous as Tom Selleck, Dorothy Day was a major figure in American religious life and well know for her struggle to find a path of kindness, justice, and humility before God. She is not remembered by a star on Hollywood Boulevard, but places like the Dorothy Day Hospitality House in Danbury and her many writings remain a legacy of her life and faith. One passage in her book of meditations has always made great sense to me. She wrote:

We have to begin to see what Christianity really is… to think in terms of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount and have a readiness to suffer… We have not yet loved our neighbor … to the extent of laying down our life… this is a new precept, a new way, it is the man or woman we are supposed to become… I always comfort myself by saying that Christianity is only two days old, for a thousand years are as one day in the sight of God, and so it is only a couple of days that are past and now it is about time we began to take these things literally, to begin tomorrow morning and say: “Now I have begun”


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