February 13, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Romans 5:12-19
Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned— sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law. Yet death exercised dominion from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who is a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through the one man’s trespass, much more surely have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of the one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification.

If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ. Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.

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Sermon: What’s Your Story?

I was wondering how many in our congregation – as part of their growing up – memorized the Apostles Creed? Does it still echo in your mind – could you recite the opening lines with me?

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

Very good. Now how about the Nicene Creed? I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.

Ok, then I won’t ask about The Athanasian Creed
Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith;
And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.

There’s a process in the development of the creeds of Christianity - the earliest, like the Apostle’s Creed, are little more than the retelling of the basic story. But as time goes by they become technical and obscure. I prefer the story telling style – maybe because I can understand it.

If you look for the roots of these creeds in the bible, there is one passage that jumps out from the Jewish tradition which everyone was supposed to know and repeat when they came with an annual offering of the first fruits of their harvest before the priest. It’s all explained in the book of Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy 26:1-10 When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess… you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest .. and you shall put it in a basket and go .. to the priest…and say “Today I declare to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the Lord your God, you shall make this response before the Lord your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors; the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O Lord, have given me.” You shall set it down before the Lord your God and bow down before the Lord your God.

Now, in my mind, that’s a creed that tells a story. And the point of telling that story was to remind each generation who they were – to make that story their story – to expand their sense of self to include the generations that went before and the generations yet to come. Whatever might be happening to any one individual, that was not the center or limit of their story, but they were part of a bigger story, and that bigger story was their strength.

Now that was the ritual that existed when the Temple and the Priesthood were at the center of Jewish life. When the temple was destroyed, the focus of that life shifted to the synagogue and the home, and the story was kept alive. One of the key rituals to keep that story alive still today is the annual Passover Seder celebrated in Jewish homes.

How many have been to a Seder – the ritual meal that marks the beginning of Passover? Well, then you know that there is a very particular order to the meal and different foods and readings that tell, essentially, the same story as commanded in the passage I read from Deuteronomy but in a format more suited for a family meal. In fact, once the table is set with the glasses of wine, the unleavened bread, the bitter herbs and the other elements of the meal, the ritual of the evening is set in motion when the youngest child present asks a very simple question: Why is this night different from all other nights?

I’m not going to go into every element of the Seder meal this morning, because during the course of Lent we will be bringing some of them forward to place on our communion table to remind ourselves that the events of Holy Thursday, the Last Supper, were in fulfillment of the themes of Passover and the Passover meal. Today the only thing I’m taking up is the Haggadah, or the service of story telling and prayer that is used at every Seder.

There are many versions of the Haggadah, and this is a particularly beautiful one, I think, created by the American artist Ben Shahn in 1965. I feel the book show how one person poured himself into the retelling – the calligraphy and illustrations – an act of worship to proclaim the dignity and saving power of the story.

In some ways I am sorry that our Christian creeds strayed so far from the story and got lost in disputes over speculative details. We have sliced and diced the Christian faith into many little segments with arguments about belief and practice and forgotten that we all share a common story. Our faith might find more solid footing if it was less about what we “think” and more about the road we’ve traveled - where we’ve been and where we’re going – about the big story and how we fit into it.

Paul certainly gives us a picture of headline version of the big story this morning, a sweeping view of history with just two central characters. He wrote to the church in Rome: Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death came through sin, … so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all.

Paul says there are these two human beings – Adam and Jesus - and in them you get the big picture of the history of the world past and the hope of the world future. Adam was disobedient, he grasped for power, he sought to become like God, and so he fell from grace and his reward was death. But Jesus, who was like God, did not hold on to position or privilege but emptied himself to appear in the human form, one who came as a servant, and humbled himself further in obedience by his death on the cross. And, quoting a early Christian confession before there were even enough Christians to argue over what it meant, Paul says:
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Paul asks us to evaluate our own story in terms of whether our life reflects more of Adam or more of the Lord – more of the old way of striving for position and grasping for power or the new way of sacrifice and service for the sake of justice and mercy.

It’s important for ourselves and for our children to pick our heads up above the particular circumstances of our own lives and get a glimpse of the big story and to do this in a way that shapes our sense of self and sense of purpose.

There was time when the rituals of life and the stories that were told were almost exclusively religious, but not now. Now our lives are flooded with ritual and storytelling, all working to a much different purpose. I give you last week’s Superbowl as a super example. Not only do you have the ritual of the game itself inviting millions of viewers to gather before their television sets on a Sunday evening, but once they are gathered you have the telling of incredibly crafted 30 and 60 second stories in which advertisers have spent millions of dollars to shape your view not only of their product but of yourself, your needs, your place in the world.

Today the telling of stories serves primarily as a sales tool. Day in and day out we and, more importantly, our children are being ritualized to see their story in the light of acquisition and consumption – what they have and what they’ve watched, not who they are what they’ve done. And if it is about what they’ve done, it often ritualized as a competition – making the team in sports or getting the grades in school. Not that this is bad in itself, but our society is so saturated with these rituals and messages that there is room for little else – unless, or course, we make the necessary effort to create a space where God’s story can be heard, learned, absorbed, and made the central core of our own story.

Lent is a good time to create that space, to tune out the distractions, to remember that we are not our roles, not our jobs, not our grades, not what we wear or what we buy – to escape that slavery to things and status and simply come to terms with the truth of our lives – that we are creatures of God’s making and God’s purpose for us is made clear in the story of Jesus Christ –
Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended into hell.
The third day He arose again from the dead.
He ascended into heaven
and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty,
whence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.
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