February 13, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Psalm 30:1-12     A Psalm. A Song at the dedication of the temple. Of David.

    I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up,

        and did not let my foes rejoice over me.

    2 O LORD my God, I cried to you for help,

        and you have healed me.

    3 O LORD, you brought up my soul from Sheol,

        restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

    4 Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones,

        and give thanks to his holy name.

    5 For his anger is but for a moment;

        his favor is for a lifetime.

    Weeping may linger for the night,

        but joy comes with the morning.

    6 As for me, I said in my prosperity,

        "I shall never be moved."

    7 By your favor, O LORD,

        you had established me as a strong mountain;

    you hid your face;

        I was dismayed.

    8 To you, O LORD, I cried,

        and to the LORD I made supplication:

    9 "What profit is there in my death,

        if I go down to the Pit?

    Will the dust praise you?

        Will it tell of your faithfulness?

    10 Hear, O LORD, and be gracious to me!

        O LORD, be my helper!"

    11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;

        you have taken off my sackcloth

        and clothed me with joy,

    12 so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.

        O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever. (NRSV)


Mark 1:40-45     A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, "If you choose, you can make me clean." 41 Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, "I do choose. Be made clean!" 42 Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. 43 After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, 44 saying to him, "See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them." 45 But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter. (NRSV)

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This morning I would like to talk with you about Providence - not Rhode Island, not the TV show, but the almost universal religious concept that God provides.


God provides the earth on which to live

God provides the breath we breathe

God provides families to give us security and teach us love

God provides a way through the wilderness,

a dry path through the seas,

a safe harbor in the storm,

an eternal home when the fever of life is past. 


Divine providence, in religious terms, is the raw matter of the big bang of creation, for out of divine providence flows everything necessary for life.


But beyond this sort of back ground radiation of providence, there has also been a sense of a more focused providence, of a special relationship between God and those whom God chooses for this relationship.  This relationship is a covenant, a mutual agreement between God and the chosen.  


In our Christian understanding this covenant has taken many forms.  There was Adam and Eve and the requirements of obedience for the privilege of life in the garden.  There was Noah and the command to build the ark and the saving of the creatures during the great flood and the promise of the rainbow.  Then there was the covenant with Abraham, the command to leave home and sojourn to a new land and the promise of children and grandchildren, posterity and prosperity. 


This covenant became more refined through Moses and the deliverance of the people of Israel from slavery, the giving of the law, and the fulfillment of Abraham’s guarantee of a promised land.  Then there was David, the promise of a kingdom, and the prophets, with the promise of justice and equity, and finally, in the view of our tradition, the new covenant in Christ, the covenant of grace and the promise of deliverance and eternal life


In each of these covenants God is seen as having a special interest in the fate of the chosen, and with God on your side, nothing can harm.  As Jesus said to the disciples: (Matthew 10:26-31) “So have no fear of them; Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.  And even the hairs of your head are all counted.  So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

You know, there was a time when that passage meant little to me, but now, after losing more than a few, I take comfort in knowing that the hairs on my head are precious and well accounted for.


There’s a couple of stories that illustrate people’s different views of Divine Providence.  One is about a preacher who finds his house suddenly stranded by a great flood.  He climbs up on the roof and falls on his knees and prays to God for miraculous deliverance.  Then some of his parishioners come by in a rowboat, but he tells them to keep going for he is trusting in the Lord and praying for a miracle.  Then the police come by in a motor boat, but he sends them on with the same answer.  Then a helicopter from the National Guard hovers overhead but he waves them off shouting: I’m trusting in God and praying for a miracle.  Finally the flood waters rise sweeping him off his rooftop and drowning him.  At the gates of heaven he demands to speak to God, and when he has his chance he says: Lord, I trusted in you and called on you for miraculous deliverance, but you let me drown.  To which the Lord replied: No way!  What happened to the two boats and the helicopter I sent to get you!


The second story concerns a farmer and his only son.  They’re very poor, always on the edge of losing their land and livelihood.  Their only farm animal is an old mare.  One day the old mare wanders off and gets lost.  The farmer and his son search for the horse, but to avail.  A neighbor comes over that night and says to the farmer: What a terrible tragedy has befallen you - the loss of your only horse.  The farmer answers: I don’t know if this be for good or for ill; my only hope is in God’s will.


The next week, one morning, the farmer and his son wake up and look out in the yard and there is the old mare.   Only she is not alone; with her is a beautiful Arabian stallion.  The value of the horse far exceeds the pitiful wealth of the farmer, and should it sell well at the market, the farmer and his son will be secure for many years. 


The neighbor again comes over and says: What a blessing has come into your life; you must be overjoyed at the arrival of this beautiful and valuable animal.  To which the farmer answers: I don’t know if this be for good or for ill; my only hope is in God’s will.


Later that week the farmer’s son is riding the horse when it is spooked by a snake.  The son is thrown off, breaks both arms, and the horse runs away never to return.  When the neighbor hears he come over right away in great distress:  Oh, my poor friend, he says, this is tragedy upon tragedy.  You have lost both the horse and the use of your son.  Your hope is dashed and how will you survive without his help I do not know. To which the farmer answers: I don’t know if this be for good or for ill; my only hope is in God’s will.


Two days later the army of the king comes through town rounding up recruits for a desperate and dangerous war against a neighboring ruler - in fact, against the king’s own brother.  The hate between these two is so great that they will fight till one army lies destroyed in the battlefield.  All the young men of the village are conscripted into the infantry, all except the only son of the poor farmer who is considered useless by virtue of his broken arms.


Now that story - or a close version of it - was told to me by a missionary who had spent a lifetime in the Arabian Gulf, and as I understand it’s from the Sufi tradition, a tradition where Divine Providence is seen as a kind of wisdom greater than our own and where the believer must recognize that peace and deliverance will come only when we learn to submit to this greater wisdom.


The first story, about the preacher on the rooftop, is more of an Protestant American kind of story, with the point of view that the deliverance of Divine Providence often comes to us in disguise - in the help of a neighbor, in the skill of a doctor, in the organization and protection that society offers.  To ignore all that while waiting for miracles is to be blind to the presence of God in the world.


These two stories, while they offer some insight into the nature of Divine Providence, fail to answer what is for me, and perhaps for you too, the hardest question - a question is raised quite clearly in the scripture lessons today.


In the first lesson, Psalm 32, there is thanksgiving for healing from an illness.  That is the theme that has been picked up by the bulletin cover this morning, the joy of deliverance.


The second lesson is a story of Jesus healing a leper and how the leper cannot contain himself and in spite of Jesus’ admonition tells everyone that he has been made clean by this gifted healer.


Having been healed myself from serious illness, I certainly relate to these stories and this kind of Divine Providence.  Healing, deliverance, joy and witness - that is a wonderful connection to God, a wonderful spirituality.


What gives me pause, though, is the statement of the leper when he says to Jesus: "If you choose, you can make me clean."  And the Gospel tells us that moved with pity, Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him, and says, "I do choose. Be made clean!"


Does this tell us that Providence consists of an endless line of supplicants coming before the Lord and having their wishes accepted or rejected one at a time based on their sincerity or humility or some quality of presentation? 


And what happens if the answer is “NO!”  What happens if you’re fifty years old and you do die of cancer - what kind of Divine Providence can your parents, your husband, your children and friends believe in then?  Can there really be a sublime wisdom at work in that kind of death.  Is that something to which we should all just submit and chalk it up to God’s will?  What kind of spirituality arises not out of joy but out of grief, out of loss, out of unanswered prayer?


As I was thinking about this a third story came to mind - not a made up story or one from long ago, but something in our lifetime, and recently the subject of a TV show related to the celebration of Black History Month.  It was the story of Martin Luther King’s last night in Memphis, April 3, 1968. 


April 3, 1968 - Dr. King had come back to Memphis to help the garbage workers in a strike that had turned ugly, violent, and intractable.   An evening meeting had been scheduled but King wasn’t feeling well and stayed in his motel room to rest.  But when his aides arrived at the meeting and saw all the people who had gathered there they called him on the phone.  “Martin,” they said, “these people have gathered to hear you speak - not to listen to us.  You must come over.”  And so Dr. King went to the meeting.  When he stood up to speak he had no notes, no prepared sermon or script.  He spoke from his heart, and it was, of course, a moving, beautiful, and sadly prophetic talk.


Towards the end, Dr. King reflected on some of the dangers he faced - how he had been threatened, jailed, attacked, stabbed, and come within a quarter inch of losing his life.  Providence had kept him alive, and he was glad, because he had seen so much and been a part of such great events.  Then he said:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. (Amen) But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. (Yeah) [Applause] And I don’t mind. [Applause continues] Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. (Yeah) And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. (Go ahead) And I’ve looked over, (Yes, sir) and I’ve seen the promised land. (Go ahead) I may not get there with you. (Go ahead) But I want you to know tonight (Yes), that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. [Applause] (Go ahead) So I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. [Applause]


Call it chance, call it fate, but here in the last public words of Dr. King he speaks of his death and merges his personal identity into the identity of his people, his personal fate into their fate, he merges there story into the great Biblical drama of redemption and salvation.  And so even if he is not assured of his own safety and deliverance, he is assured that Divine Providence will prevail and deliver the people into the promised land.  And because of this, because he has died to self, because he has taken up his cross, no matter what happens, he, like the psalmist, is clothed with joy.


Well, that is a very unselfish, Christ-like attitude.  Perhaps many of our questions would be answered if we had such a mind, such a heart.  I think if offers us a deep insight into the moral purposes of Providence, if not the assurances we seek about our own worldly health and security.


In the end, Providence is the goodness of God and the presence and power of God in our lives.  Sometimes the presence cures, sometimes it gives comfort in the face of loss, sometimes it is nailed to the cross and becomes an unexpected companion in life’s darkest moments.  It’s not micro-management; it’s not the divine lottery; it’s not the SAT of sincerity and humility.  It’s an every present seeking of healing, justice, peace and fulfillment.  It is what gives us courage to say yes to life in spite of fate and catastrophe and the breakdown of meaning.  It is our garment of joy and our hope for deliverance. Amen

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