Sermon
February 6, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Isaiah 40:21-31     Have you not known? Have you not heard?

        Has it not been told you from the beginning?

        Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?

    22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,

        and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;

    who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,

        and spreads them like a tent to live in;

    23 who brings princes to naught,

        and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.

    24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,

        scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,

    when he blows upon them, and they wither,

        and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

    25 To whom then will you compare me,

        or who is my equal? says the Holy One.

    26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:

        Who created these?

    He who brings out their host and numbers them,

        calling them all by name;

    because he is great in strength,

        mighty in power,

        not one is missing.

    27 Why do you say, O Jacob,

        and speak, O Israel,

    "My way is hidden from the LORD,

        and my right is disregarded by my God"?

    28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?

    The LORD is the everlasting God,

        the Creator of the ends of the earth.

    He does not faint or grow weary;

        his understanding is unsearchable.

    29 He gives power to the faint,

        and strengthens the powerless.

    30 Even youths will faint and be weary,

        and the young will fall exhausted;

    31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,

        they shall mount up with wings like eagles,

    they shall run and not be weary,

        they shall walk and not faint. (NRSV)

 Mark 1:29-39     As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. 30 Now Simon's mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. 31 He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

    32 That evening, at sundown, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. 33 And the whole city was gathered around the door. 34 And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons; and he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

    35 In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. 36 And Simon and his companions hunted for him. 37 When they found him, they said to him, "Everyone is searching for you." 38 He answered, "Let us go on to the neighboring towns, so that I may proclaim the message there also; for that is what I came out to do." 39 And he went throughout Galilee, proclaiming the message in their synagogues and casting out demons. (NRSV)

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Sermon

 For the Irish, this is a special time as we enter the 40 days before the feast of the great St. Patrick.  Also, although mostly unnoticed in this Anglo-secular culture, but dear to the heart of the Celt, the feast of St. Brigid came and went this past week on February 1.  Our dear Brigid is second only to St. Patrick himself in the eyes of the Irish, a woman whose parents were baptized by Patrick and who founded the first nunnery in Ireland at Kildare.  Now all this is somewhat on the edge of this mornings sermon, but I’m going to get back to St. Brigid at the end and I want to begin with an idea that the Irish have about what they call “the thin places” in the universe.

 Thin places are those where the visible and the invisible world come into their closest connection, where the spiritual and the material, the temporal and the eternal are bordering each other and where communication between the two are possible.  This might be a physical location, an ideal place for a nunnery, a shrine, a chapel.  You can see in your mind those simple Irish stone dwellings on the craggy rocks overlooking a pounding ocean surf, the sun filtering through a heavy mist, the green and gray and blue, the sound of waves and birds, and you sense the beauty, majesty, and power of nature and the smallness of humanity, and you stand at the frontier between heaven and earth.

 Or, and now we draw closer to the center of this sermon, a thin place can be an experience that takes us out of our normal routine and our known world and puts us on the threshold of the unknown, the extraordinary, the mysterious.  Perhaps this experience is one of joy, perhaps of suffering, perhaps of awe.  All these experiences, when felt deeply, have about them this element of encounter, of leaving a place that is familiar, crossing a border, and coming into a strange land where the sojourn will change us and even should we return home we will never be the same again.

 Thin places can be very scary.  To suddenly realize that the world we took for granted has forever changed - it can shake us right to the foundations.  But one thing that might comfort us is to look down at the ground and see footprints - signs that others have visited this place and gone before us.  And another thing that might comfort us is to feel that somehow, in an extraordinary way, our experience makes sense.

 To make sense - what does that phrase mean?  How does something, how does anything, make sense?

 Things make sense to us when we can put them into a context, into a bigger picture where we can know where they’ve been and see where they’re going.  Sometimes we provide the context out of our own experience, sometimes out of things our parents taught us, and sometimes out of stories, traditions, ceremonies, songs and rituals passed down from generation to generation. 

 It would not be irreverent to call the Bible the Traveler’s Guide to the Thin Places of Life, for surely in the Bible we find the stories of those who sojourned before us into this border land, who left their footprints there, who had a vision of the bigger picture and created a context in their effort to make sense of joy, suffering, and awe.

 Not only do we have the Bible as our guide, but we have the witness of how other people, people just like us, in times of extreme necessity, how they have found in the Bible a source of strength, consolation, and hope.  And hope, in the end, gave them the courage to overcome adversity and find vindication and salvation.

 During February we celebrate Black History Month, and I can’t think of a more compelling case for the power of the Bible than is found in the story of African Americans in this country. 

 In the first place it must be recognized that those who enslaved Africans and brought them to America claimed the full weight of Biblical authority for what they did.   They loved to quote Ephesians 6:5     

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ;

 Now time does not permit a through retelling of the arguments that were made for slavery, but just know that they were made from the same Bible you and I use here every Sunday, and were commonly accepted for generations.  In fact, the whole debate about slavery required a parallel debate about how to read the Bible, how to interpret what it says, and what weight of authority it carries.

 But that debate was among the whites.  African Americans had already discovered in the scriptures their guide to this thin place in life where they sojourned in slavery. 

 Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land

Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.

 Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus,

Steal away, steal away home, I ain’t got long to stay here!

 I know it was the blood,

I know it was the blood,

I know it was the blood for me.

One day when I was lost, Jesus died up on the cross.

I know it was the blood for me.

 Of course, the cross.  How the story of the cross must have sounded in the ear of the slave.  The shame of the cross, the hostility of the cross, the injustice of the cross, the suffering of the cross. 

 And who was it that died upon that cross: one who was innocent, who had done no wrong, one who was despised and rejected, a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; one from whom others hide their faces.

 The slave understood the cross, and the cross allowed the slave to make sense of  the suffering that was endured, to believe in the salvation that would reward this endurance, and to find the strength of justice and hope that would allow resistance to evil and oppression.

 One form of this resistance was the underground railroad, a network of conspirators and safe houses that allowed slaves to escape from the South to free lands in the north.  Part of this underground railroad came right through New Milford, and a way station was the old brick house that still stands on Grove Street. 

 A very interesting book came out last year called Hidden in Plain View, A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad.   It tells how quilts with common patterns that were hung from windows and clothes lines and over porch railings gave messages and signs to escaping slaves.  Is it safe to come in?  Which way to the next station?  What road should be followed on the path to freedom?

 The clues on the quilts were displayed for all to see, yet many missed the message.  The same was true to of the Spiritual songs sung at worship and in the fields.  Steal Away to Jesus would be passed from slave to slave to signify a secret meeting in the dusk of evening’s late hours.  To the slave owners it meant Christian contentment with this veil of tears and hope of eternal heaven.  To the slaves it meant resistance to evil and freedom now.

 And perhaps the same could be said of scripture and sacrament.  The clues were there for all to see, yet many missed the message.  When they went to the river for baptism, when they gathered around the table to share the bread and drink, did they not recall the same Christ who suffered as they suffered, the same Christ who triumphed over sin and death, the same Christ who proclaimed his purpose with these words from Isaiah:

“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.”

 The clues were there, in plain view, but the message was clear only to those who were sojourning in the thin places of life, to those who were seeking to make sense of suffering, joy, and awe, to those who had eyes to see and ears to hear the sounds of heaven above the din of earth.

 Well, I promised at the beginning that I would return to St. Brigid before this was done, and so I want to end this sermon with a poem attributed to her.  It too speaks of a sacramental feast of bread and drink, but with a decidedly Irish twist.  But I think the sentiment shows that all who dwell in the thin places of life speak a common language and find in song and sacrament their strength, comfort, and hope.

 Brigid’s Feast

 I should like a great lake of the finest ale

            for the King of kings.

I should like a table of the choicest food

            for the family of heaven.

Let the ale be made from the fruits of faith

            and the food be forgiving love.

 

I should welcome the poor to my feast,

            for they are God’s children.

I should welcome the sick to my feast,

            for they are God’s joy.

Let the poor sit with Jesus at the highest place,

            and the sick dance with angels.

 God bless the poor,

God bless the sick,

            and our human race.

God bless our food,

God bless our drink;

            all homes, O God, embrace.

 In the holy quiet of this hour, let us draw close to God and to one another. Let us prepare to receive the healing  and renewal that God offers us in Jesus Christ and in this feast of bread and cup.  Let us be open to the message of strength, comfort, and love that is before us now in plain view.

 We celebrate an open communion.  This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people. Amen

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