Sermon
March 12, 2006
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings:

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.” Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him, “As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.”

Mark 8:31-38
Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”
He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

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Sermon: There Will Be a Test!

Normally when people in the office are looking over the bulletin and the Bible readings for the coming week there isn’t a lot of talking or noise. But this week, when I handed out the first lesson for review, I actually heard some loud laughing coming from the adjacent room and two women’s voices discussing the absurd humor they found in the promise of God to make a 99 year old man “exceedingly fruitful.” I believe they were wondering what the wife might make of this.

I thought they were lucky God isn’t like the character Tommy played by Joe Pesci in Goodfellas –You think I’m funny – what’s funny about me? Funny like a clown? I amuse you? I make you laugh? I'm here to amuse you? "

But it also occurred to me that later in the story, when Sarah does overhear this promise, she has exactly the same reaction that I was hearing in the office – she laughs (Gen 18)

Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself."
Then the LORD said to Abraham, "Why did Sarah laugh and say, 'Will I really have a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too hard for the LORD? Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, "I did not laugh."
But he said, "Yes, you did laugh."

And the son that is born is called Isaac, meaning laughter.

And though God doesn’t seem to have a mean streak when he deals with Sarah’s laughter, there is something about the twists and turns of this story calls into question our modern sentimental notions of God when it comes to the tests that people face in the course of their life. In this case, the test was a commandment to kill this son, this Isaac, this innocent one whose name means laughter: (Genesis 22:1-2)

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”

Now we know that God did not let Abraham go through with this sacrifice, but at the last moment substituted an animal to take the place of Isaac, and that does relieve some of the tension of the story – but not all of it. Volumes have been written to imagine the state of mind of Abraham as he walks to the place of sacrifice; pictures have been painted to show the terror in Isaac’s eyes as his father raises a knife above him –

I’ve heard the story interpreted positively as a lesson in obedience, neutrally as an explanation of why the Jews did not practice human sacrifice, and negatively as an example of Patriarchal Pathology. But today I want to consider it as one among many stories of people who are on a journey and face difficult decisions, temptations, trials and tests along the way.

When I say many stories I mean everything from ancient epics to modern motion pictures – from Abraham and Ulysses to Frodo and Luke Skywalker – the journey of the individual to find whatever it is they seek – their grail, their home, their truth, themselves – the journey always involves temptations and tests, sometimes when they are keenly aware of it and sometimes when they least suspect it.

Consider the journey of Jesus in the wilderness. The fourth chapter of Matthew tells the story this way:

After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. The tempter came to him and said, "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread." Jesus answered, "It is written: 'Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written:
" 'He will command his angels concerning you,
and they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone."

Jesus answered him, "It is also written: 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test."

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you," he said, "if you will bow down and worship me."

Jesus said to him, "Away from me, Satan! For it is written: 'Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'

That is very dramatic and direct testing – Jesus and the devil face to face. Later Jesus must feel a similar temptation when Peter tries to dissuade him from going to Jerusalem and says: Get behind me Satan.

Another kind of test is illustrated by the story of Yudisthira at the end of the Mahabharata, the great epic poem of India. I first heard this story on the golf course –which if you think of it is a game designed as a journey with many tests, traps, and hazards – sometimes a cruel epic journey indeed – and then read a sermon where a friend pointed to a retelling that William Bennett gives in his “Book of Virtures” where he entitles it Yudisthira at Heaven's Gate":

The great king Yudhisthira had ruled over the Pandava people for many years, and, among his many achievements had waged a successful war against the forces of evil. It was time for him to withdraw from the world, and to enter the Celestial City of the Immortals. King Yudhisthira set off on the long journey into the northern mountains, along with his four brothers and his beloved wife Drapaudi. They were soon joined on their journey by a small, ill-kempt stray dog.
The journey was hard. They tired. And in the course of the journey first one brother and then another, then the third and then the fourth, fell, exhausted, and died. Unable to do anything for them, Yudhisthira and Drapaudi continued on the journey, followed by the dog.
Eventually Drapaudi, too, fell by the wayside and died. With utmost sadness, Yudhisthira turned and continued, the dog faithfully keeping pace.
At last Yudhisthira and the dog reached the gates of the Celestial City, home of the Immortals. Yudhisthira bowed humbly and asked to be admitted. The great sky God Indra arrived to meet Yudhisthira and to welcome him to heaven.
But then Yudhisthira said that without his beloved wife and his four brothers, he did not have the heart to enter. Indra replied that these loved ones were already in Heaven, they had come before him.
This lifted Yudhisthira's heart, but he had one more request.
"This dog has faithfully accompanied me on this long journey, never left my side. I cannot leave him now outside heaven's gate. My heart is full of love for him."
Indra shook his head. The earth quaked.
"You, Yudhisthira, through your goodness and courage, and by enduring this long and difficult journey, have earned your way into heaven. But you cannot bring a dog into heaven. A dog would pollute the Celestial City. Leave the dog behind Yudhisthira. It is no sin."
"But where would he go? He has given up the pleasures of the earth to be my companion. I cannot desert him now." Yudhisthira turned to leave.
Indra asked, astonished, "You would abandon heaven just for the sake of a dog?"
Yudhisthira declared that long ago he had vowed never to turn his back on anyone needing his protection and help. "And so," he concluded, "I will not abandon my loyal friend."
Yudisthira turned from heaven's gate and began to walk away.
At that moment a remarkable thing happened. The faithful dog was transformed into the god Dharma, the god of righteousness and justice.
And Indra declared, "You are a good man, Yudhisthira. You have shown loyalty and love to a small, faithful dog and compassion for all creatures, ready to renounce for yourself all the rewards of heaven for this humble dog's sake. You shall be honored in heaven!"
And so Yudhisthira entered heaven and was reunited with his wife and with brothers to enjoy eternal happiness.

Yudhisthira’s test does not come at him head on like the test faced by Abraham. And it is not obedience to a heavenly voice that enables him to pass the test- actually its resistance to that voice and adherence to inner principles of kindness, compassion, and recognition of dignity in all living things that win the day.

But not every test in the Bible involves a voice from heaven and a clear commandment either. Think of the story of the rich man and Lazarus told in the Gospel of Luke:

Luke 16:19-25 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.

I wonder if you had asked the rich man during his life what he thought were his biggest challenges, his greatest temptations, his most difficult tests he would have never even mentioned Lazarus, the poor man at his door. He would have been concerned about his graduation from college, his getting a job, a promotion - his own life, his own family, his own fortunes. He didn’t recognize the test and so how could he pass it?

Last week Leslie spoke in her sermon about Lent as a time for self-examination, a time to face our tests and temptations squarely and deal with them. I thought one for someone like me - living in comfortable circumstances, generally content with life - one of the tests is to rise above self interest and put that question into the larger picture of kindness, compassion, righteousness, and discipleship – to see how the test is transformed when we hear the words of the Lord:

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

May this Lent bring us to a deeper understanding of what God wishes to do in our lives and in the life of our community and in the community of all living things.

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