Sermon
February 21, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Matthew 4:1-11
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. 2 He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. 3 The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." 4 But he answered, "It is written,

'One does not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.' "

5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, 6 saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written,

'He will command his angels concerning you,'

and 'On their hands they will bear you up,

so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.' " 7 Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.' "

8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; 9 and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." 10 Jesus said to him, "Away with you, Satan! for it is written,

'Worship the Lord your God,

and serve only him.' "

11 Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him. (NRSV)

Genesis 2:15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. 16 And the LORD God commanded the man, "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die."

1 Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" 2 The woman said to the serpent, "We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; 3 but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.' " 4 But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; 5 for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." 6 So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. 7 Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves. (NRSV)

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Sermon - Those Irksome Internal Audits!

You might think that January would be a fun time in our church office. The rush of Christmas is over, there is a little bit of a lull in programs resuming, and the never ending stream of groups using our buildings are taking a brief respite. But there is one thing that comes along to shatter this tranquility and peace. It’s called balancing the checkbook for the previous year.

It’s been the same now for several Januarys past. Strange noises from the center computer station. Pages being rattled, files being opened and shut in quiet desperation, low groans and muffled expletives. It’s Sue doing her reconciliation.

There is a demon in our Quicken, our financial program. It has an unholy appetite for destroying transactions. You leave on Monday with a balance of $107.50 and return on Tuesday with $14,350.88. This would be good it only it were true, but its all an illusion.

This year we thought about an exorcism: Click on Start, Settings, Control Panel, Add/Remove Programs - Quicken, remove! We haven’t done it yet, but it’s time is short.

Fortunately Sue Angell, our Treasurer, doesn’t face this demon alone. She has a very able audit committee to assist her. Every month, in fact, all her work is reviewed, reconciled, balanced, and reported. It’s not that we don’t trust her, it’s just that we want to institutionalize safeguards against fraud and waste. That’s standard practice, even if sometimes this constant internal audit can become more than a little irksome.

The reconciliation of our books is one kind of audit, but there is another kind of audit that is just as important, just as necessary, and just as irksome. I’m thinking of the audit, not of our money, but of our lives.

Just as the audit practices of churches vary widely, so do the audit practices of individuals. Some never face the task. Some face it, endure it, write about it, and become well known for it.

Perhaps this most famous New England account of a personal internal audit is the book Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

Thoreau was driven by a need to slip away and take stock of his life. In Walden he explained his purpose:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

A lot of people think of Thoreau only in terms of his stay at Walden Pond, and so it seems unremarkable and only natural that such a man, such a writer, would go off for this time of reflection and solitude. But Thoreau was equal parts businessman and inventor as well as writer.

He was the inheritor of a family business - the business of making pencils. And he was deeply involved in this business and quite good at it. He was responsible for several innovations in both the design of the pencil and in the process and materials used in making the writing core - the lead, a mixture of ground graphite, clay, and other binders. In fact, Thoreau was so involved in this that he developed an industrial disease, a long battle with tuberculosis, a condition terribly exacerbated by all the graphite dust he breathed in on the job.

Thoreau’s decision to go to Walden was sparked, in no small part, by grief. He went into the woods to observe the birthday of his brother John. John had died two years earlier after cutting his finger shaving and then developing lockjaw. Three days after his brother died, his friend Ralph Waldo Emerson’s young son also died. Perhaps these events were what led him to write:

Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt and thieves break though and steal. It is a fool’s life, as thy will find when they get to the end of it, if not before.

Thoreau, I believe, was typical in this. Most of us will not undertake an irksome internal audit unless some wind of fate comes along and changes our emotional landscape. It may be a time of grief - the loss of a brother, a spouse, a friend or a child. Perhaps even the loss of a job, a sudden change of circumstances, or an accident that shakes our sense of security.

But it is not only loss that can motivate us to an internal audit. It may equally be an occasion of gain or success. Unexpected good fortune and the acclaim of others can be just as challenging in our lives as misfortune and estrangement.

I am reminded of the lines by David Byrne in the song "Once in a Lifetime"

Well you may ask yourself

Is this my beautiful house?

You may ask yourself

Is this my beautiful wife?

You may ask yourself

How did I get here?

You may ask yourself

How do I work this?

Whatever the source of motivation to take stock, those irksome internal audits can be a real struggle to complete. Think of the story from the Gospel today, the story of Jesus in the wilderness.

Three of the four gospels tell this story, and they all locate it right after Jesus has been baptized by John, and a voice from heaven has declared "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." "Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness," it says, "to be tempted by the devil."

This temptation by this devil really makes clear who Jesus is and for what purpose he has been baptized. It is an internal audit that shakes him to the foundations and lays bare the path he must follow. John has anointed Jesus to be the messiah, but what kind of messiah will he be? Will he be what people expect, what they want? Will this path bring him fame and fortune, a full belly and a good night’s sleep? Or is there something else on the horizon?

For Jesus specifically, we see these questions in terms of either being a triumphant political messiah, a King like David, or a suffering spiritual messiah, like no one, really, who had gone before. But there is a way to see this story as raising more universal questions, ones that have been with us from the beginning of time, issues raised with quite different results in the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.

If you think of it in generic categories, there are three problems which are raised both in the story of Jesus in the wilderness and the story of Adam and Eve in the garden.

The first is the issue of consumption, of satisfying physical needs:

For Adam and Eve the question is should they eat of every tree of the garden; for Jesus, should he turn stones into bread?

The second issue has to do with personal security.

Adam and Eve are told that they can eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and they will not die; Jesus is told he can toss himself from the top of the temple and he will not be hurt.

The third issue has to do with power and prestige.

Do Adam and Eve wish to become like God? Does Jesus want to possess all the kingdoms of the world?

The irony of the story, of course, is that Adam and Eve decide to take the bait and define their lives in terms of personal consumption, personal security, personal power, and the results are disastrous. They gain nothing. They lose everything. And then, if you read ahead a bit, you see that their reaction is to blame someone else for their problems. Adam blames Eve, Eve blames the snake, and the snake slithers away.

Jesus, on the other hand, does not define his life in this way, but allows himself to face hunger, allows himself to face insecurity, allows himself to be humbled and defenseless. And, taking this path, he gains it all. As an early Christian hymn declared:

Though he was in the form of God,

he did not regard equality with God

as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,

taking the form of a slave,

being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

he humbled himself

and became obedient to the point of death --

even death on a cross.

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.

Perhaps you are not at a point in your life where you feel the necessity of an internal audit. But in the church we institutionalize our audit process for the money because we know if we wait until we feel we have a need, it’s may be too late.

In a sense, the season of Lent and the reading of this story of Jesus in the wilderness is an institutional call for each of us to undertake an internal audit whether we feel like it or not.

We worry about fraud and waste with our money, shouldn’t we be equally careful with our lives? Which is worse, to be the victim of fraud and waste by another or to do it to ourselves?

It’s one thing to suffer a financial swindle as the consequence of a criminal act; it’s even worse to suffer it personally as the consequence of complacency.

Let us use this season as a time to take stock - to raise the issues of consumption, security, and power up to the light of Gospel truth - to take responsibility for our life and our relationships, to face the devil of temptation and illusion and front the essential facts of life; to see if we can not learn what life has to teach, and not, when we come to die, discover that we have not lived.

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Let us pray:

God of life, who offers to the children of this earth a richness of living that we can barely imagine, be with us in our time of prayer. Help us to grasp the gospel vision of life so abundant that it is eternal, love so full that it is overflowing, blessings so freely bestowed that they bring peace. May we truly live in the spirit of Jesus Christ, and so offer our lives in humble service for others.

Our prayers today, O God, are not only for ourselves, but for the needs of those we love and for our neighbors. We hear daily of the war and strife which oppress many people in this world, and we pray for their safety and relief.

We hear the stories of crime, of corruption, of prejudice and fear. We pray for an end to the devil of bigotry, for sensible social policies that provide for the common good, for leadership that can be trusted.

Disease and suffering touch our lives and the lives of those we love. We pray, O Great Physician, for comfort and healing. Especially we pray for: Ethel Wells, Elsa Webber,

Many among us, O God, feel the pain of grief. We recall today the death a year ago of your servant and our friend Fred Daniels. Draw close to Mary and his family, and all in need of your comfort and consolation.

You have set us in families, O Lord, that we might know your love and learn to love one another. Yet many families are in turmoil. Help us in our efforts to provide support for marriages, to counsel husbands and wives, parents and children, to bring reconciliation to broken relationships. Bless those who serve among us as teachers and counselors, and especially the work of the Interface Center.

O God of light, our Lord has encouraged us to seek the truth, for the truth will set us free. Help us to enter into the spirit of Lent, that it may be a season of learning and returning to you. May our time of worship and prayer be pleasing to you and fruitful in our lives, that we might be faithful disciples and grow in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.

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Benediction

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen


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