Sermon
February 7, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany - Communion Service


Scripture Reading
- Isaiah 55:1-13, 56:1

1 Ho, everyone who thirsts,

come to the waters;

and you that have no money,

come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk

without money and without price.

2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,

and delight yourselves in rich food.

3 Incline your ear, and come to me;

listen, so that you may live.

I will make with you an everlasting covenant,

my steadfast, sure love for David.

4 See, I made him a witness to the peoples,

a leader and commander for the peoples.

5 See, you shall call nations that you do not know,

and nations that do not know you shall run to you,

because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel,

for he has glorified you.

6 Seek the Lord while he may be found,

call upon him while he is near;

7 let the wicked forsake their way,

and the unrighteous their thoughts;

let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,

and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

8 For my thoughts are not your thoughts,

nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.

9 For as the heavens are higher than the earth,

so are my ways higher than your ways

and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,

and do not return there until they have watered the earth,

making it bring forth and sprout,

giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;

it shall not return to me empty,

but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,

and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy,

and be led back in peace;

the mountains and the hills before you

shall burst into song,

and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;

instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;

and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,

for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

 

1 Thus says the Lord:

Maintain justice, and do what is right,

for soon my salvation will come,

and my deliverance be revealed.

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Sermon - "We must begin"

One of the good things about working our way through the Bible year after year is that we are forced to always go back to the source of our faith and not simply build tradition upon tradition and perhaps lose sight of the basics. I was reminded of this last week when I received an email from a colleague. It told this story

In an ancient monastery, a new monk arrived to dedicate his life and to join the others copying ancient records. The first thing he noticed was that they were copying by hand, books that had already been copied by hand.

He had to speak up. "Forgive me, Father Superior, but copying other copies by hand allows many chances for error. How do we know we aren't copying someone else's mistakes? Are they ever checked against the originals?"

Father Superior was startled! No one had ever suggested that before. "Well, that is a good point, my son. I will take one of these latest books down to the vault and study it against its original document."

He went deep into the vault where no one else was allowed to enter, and started to study. The day passed, and it was getting late in the evening. The monks were getting worried about Father Superior. Finally one monk started making his way through the old vault, and as he began to think he might get lost, he heard sobbing.

"Father Superior?" he called. The sobbing was louder as he came near. He finally found the old priest sitting at a table with both the new copy and the original ancient book in front of him. It was obvious that Father Superior had been crying for a long time.

"Oh, my Lord," sobbed Father Superior, "the word is 'celebrate', not 'celibate'.......!!"

So it’s always important to go back to your sources and review the basics.

This morning’s lesson, like last week’s lesson, is from the section of the Gospel of Matthew commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount. Many Christians have viewed this Sermon as the foundation upon which all preaching and teaching in the church should be built. It has been seen, over the ages, as the source to which we must return if we want to know who Jesus was and what Jesus stood for.

And, in thinking about the basics, when I read the Gospel lesson for this morning I was, at first, drawn to the opening phrases: You are the salt of the earth; you are the light of the world. But then another phrase caught my eye, a phrase that resonated with a subject that came up a week or so ago in a workshop for the Church School teachers.

The topic of the workshop was how to read the Bible, and we were looking at the different accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus. Matthew and Mark tell basically the same story. Jesus is in agony and cries out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." In Luke, Jesus is depicted less as a person forsaken and more as a person with a spirit of compassion and forgiveness: "Forgive them, Father," he says, "for they know not what they do."

But in John’ Gospel, Jesus is neither forsaken nor forgiving. He is in control, he is doing the task he came to do. And the last words Jesus says in the Gospel of John are: "It is finished," or, more precisely, "it is accomplished."

And this echoed back, in my mind, something we read in today’s Gospel lesson:

Matthew 5:17-18

 

17 "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

The question came into my mind: What is it that needs to be accomplished? What was it that was accomplished when Jesus said, on the cross, it is accomplished?

In thinking about this question, my mind was drawn to the passage we read from Isaiah, and especially the lines where God says:

my word that goes out from my mouth; shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

God is trying to do something with this world. There is some task God wishes to accomplish, and so God sends this word, God’s own word incarnate in Jesus Christ, into the world. And, on the cross, in some special way that we must return to again and again if we are to understand it, this task is accomplished.

Now maybe I am making this more complicated than it needs to be, because I do think there is a straightforward answer to my question. The thing that God wishes to accomplish is to give us life. The task that Christ accomplished with his death was to give us life. Not fearful life, not anxious life, not angry life, not judgmental, harsh, divisive, self righteous life, but the fullness of life, abundant life, eternal life, the life that is born of the love of God.

And while I say the answer is straightforward, I do not mean to imply that it is an easy answer. It is not easy, it is challenging, difficult, even life changing. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.

Jesus often draws a distinction between life as we live it and life as God would have us live it. Sometimes this is in a puzzling form, as in: Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

Or: Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

There are many ways that people over the ages have characterized these distinctions between life and life. Today let’s think about it in terms of protected life and unprotected life.

We all struggle to protect our lives. We are trying to set up a secure future. So we pay taxes for Social Security and Medicare, we save for retirement, we put aside for the rainy day. I don’t know that there is anything wrong with that, but I don’t think it represents the quality of life that Jesus was describing as God’s greatest gift.

In the pursuit of protected life, everyday something is acquired, something is saved. But in the pursuit of the unprotected life, every day something is let go, something is given away. We can measure our progress towards the protected life with bank statements, pension projections, and all manner of accounting. We cannot point to any tangible measurement of our pilgrimage towards the unprotected life.

The legacy of protected life is also measurable and capable of being divided up - it’s the sort of thing we draw up in a will, its the concern of attorneys and courts and judges. It has a good side in providing for future generations. It has a bad side when families fight over it, sue one another, cheat one another, don’t talk to one another out of resentment and anger.

The legacy of unprotected life is not measurable and not capable of being divided up. It’s goes equally to all who are open to it and receive it. It’s nature is seen in certain miracles Jesus did, like the feeding of the five thousand. It can be shared and shared and shared and shared and yet it remains undivided and abundant.

You sit at as many funerals as I do and you hear children and families talk about their parents, and you know that the unprotected legacy is what happy families talk about. They don’t talk about the money, they talk about the gifts of love that all share equally and abundantly.

I’m not saying that a man who dies and leaves his wife and children penniless but has always been a loving kind of guy has accomplished all he should have done in this life. There should be some balance here. But our society is not in any danger of going off balance in the direction of abundant spiritual life at the expense of materialism.

Look at the people we hold up as celebrities, worthy of our time and attention - the rich and famous. There are plenty of role models for protected life. But where do we find the role models for the life Christ came to give.

Well, to borrow a turn of phrase from former Senator Dale Bumpers in his defense of President Clinton, they are here in this body. If any of you saw him, Bumpers reminded the Senate that if they wanted to know what those who fought for America’s freedoms thought of this whole mess, all they had to do was to turn to their own members, genuine American heroes like Senators Innoue, Kerry, and McCain.

Well, the same can be said here. The heroes of abundant life are here in this body. You won’t know them because of their outward appearance though. You can’t pick them out by the way they dress or the car they drive. To know them you have to know of their trials and tribulations, of their sufferings and loss, of the crosses they have carried and the love they have expended lavishly often in private and with no recognition and no regard for the cost.

It is my privilege, as a Pastor, to have shared in some of their lives and to know of their courage and accomplishments. Believe me, I may have the gift of speaking to you from the pulpit, but there are many here who have lived this abundant life of Christ in a far deeper way than I have. You will not find them out through any superficial "Hello, Good morning, How are You?" You must enter into a deeper fellowship with them to discover their strength of loving.

Now just as there is more than one kind of life, there is more than one kind of food to sustain life: as we read in Isaiah:

2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,

and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,

and delight yourselves in rich food.

Put that together with these words from the gospel of John:

John 6: 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life …33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world."34 They said to him, "Sir, give us this bread always." 35 Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never thirst.

Let’s get back to the basics. We have gathered here because we want to live an abundant life. And there is something about this abundant life that is counter intuitive -something that requires us to grasp a mystery. And the mystery is there for us in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. In the manner of his death we are given life. That is his accomplishment.

Our job is to receive that life, to embrace that life, to share that life with one another, to share that life with our world. When we focus too much on the protected life, we loose sight of the abundant life, and that is why we gather here to remind ourselves of the difference and to turn back to the source of that life which is God’s gift in Christ.

I keep seeing shows on TV about how the world is going to end in the year 2000. You know what I’m hoping. I’m hoping that the world begins in the year 2000 - begins to embrace the life for which it was created and for which Christ came and lived and died to offer. I take heart in this hope remembering the familiar words of Dorothy Day:

We have to begin to see what Christianity really is… We have to think in terms of the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount… We have not yet loved our neighbor with the kind of love that Christ teaches… We haven’t shown ourselves ready to lay down our life. This is a new teaching, a new way; it is the new person 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 begin to take these things seriously, top begin tomorrow and say, "Now, I have begun."

As we share this sacrament, let us reflect on the life of Christ, let us receive that life into our hearts, let us share that life with one another. Let us begin to live. Amen


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