Sermon
March 21, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Luke 15:1-32

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them.

A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’

So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe-the best one-and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’

Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’

Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’ ”

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Sermon: Narcissus, Share With Your Sister!

My father liked to tell a story of an Amish farmer who was so strict that he didn’t allow photographs or mirrors in the house lest the family be accused of indulging their pride. He was also a jealous man and never allowed his wife to leave the farm without him, but on one occasion he had no choice - he was laid up with a broken leg and it was the annual county fair where they would sell their livestock and produce. So the wife got to go to the fair alone, and there she found a small mirror in a simple frame for sale, and when she looked in it she said: Mein Gott, what a wonderful picture of my dear departed mother.

She bought the mirror and brought it home and every time she gazed in it her heart was lifted by the vision of the mother she loved. Her happiness did not go unnoticed by the farmer - he knew something was up and thought that perhaps she had met someone at the fair who was more pleasing to her than himself. He noticed also that she would go into their room alone and emerge with a different look on her face, and he wondered what secret she was keeping there.

So one day he went rummaging through the bureaus and closets, and sure enough, under some blankets he felt something like a picture frame. He thought now I’ll know the truth, and held the mirror up to see who had taken his place in his wife’s affections. But his pride was not injured at all at what he saw, and he thought to himself, Ja - gut!, if she prefers this ugly old codger over me, she’s welcome to him.

I thought of this story recently when a column in the New York Times was critical of religion today as merely holding up a mirror to Americans and telling us to love ourselves - critical of the churches of promoting a culture of narcissism rather than proclaiming a sovereign God and a call for self-denial.

Narcissus, if you remember your Greek mythology, was punished for his self-centeredness and inability to care about anyone but himself - he was condemned to fall in love with his own image and he died because he could not pull himself away from his reflection in a quiet pool of water.

Today Narcissus is remembered for the flower that bloomed in his memory at the place where he lay dying, and also as a type of personality disorder: someone with a grandiose sense of self-importance who seeks excessive admiration from others and fantasizes about unlimited success or power. They believe they are special, unique, or superior to others, but, they often have very fragile self-esteem.

Hey, has somebody been reading my email!!

In this newspaper column, David Brooks questions what worries us most, the sectarian zealotry of Mel Gibson who produced and directed “The Passion” or the soft core spirituality of someone like Mitch Albom who wrote “The Five People You Meet in Heaven.”

Brooks says: All societies construct their own image of heaven. Most imagine a wondrous city or a verdant garden where human beings come face to face with God. But the heaven that is apparently popular with readers these days is nothing more than an excellent therapy session. In Albom’s book…when you go to heaven friends and helpers come and tell you how innately wonderful you are. They help you reach closure. In this heaven, God and his glory are not the center of attention. It’s all about you!

While I don’t accept the premise that audiences attracted to Mel Gibson’s film are at the opposite end of a spectrum from audiences reading sort-core spirituality, I do take seriously this assertion that there is a danger that our religion can become a form of self-worship. I think Jesus could see how easily we slip into that danger as well, otherwise why would he so often warn his disciples against it, most strongly when he said: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

Jesus also taught in parable in practice that people should seek the spirit of forgiveness and generosity in their lives that is a perfect antidote to narcissistic self-centeredness. I believe you can understand the passage that we read this morning - which we often call the parable of the prodigal son - you can understand that passage in this light.

How you would name this parable would depend upon who you consider the central character and what you think the primary lesson might be. If you think the primary character is the younger son who leaves home and spends himself into poverty through dissolute living, then the lesson would be one of repentance and the title would be the parable of the prodigal son.

If you think the primary character is the father who gives the son his freedom but rejoices when he sees him returning home, then the primary lesson would be one of love, trust, and patience, and the title would be the parable of the waiting father.

And, if you think the primary character is the older brother who cannot accept the father’s readiness to receive the younger brother back into the fold, then the primary lesson would concern the danger of resentment and envy, and the title would be the parable of the self-righteous sibling.

Given the context, that Jesus is telling this story to the Pharisees and the scribes who were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them,” this last reading of the parable may be the most accurate.

Both sons, however, present a problem to the father - both are self centered but in different ways. The younger is self-indulgent, the older is self-righteous.

For the self indulgent son, the error of his ways has brought him to his knees and he is acutely aware of his failures and so seeks forgiveness.

For the self-righteous son the task is harder; he has a tougher case to crack, and we don’t know if even the entreaties of his father will soften his heart and bring him into the banquet hall to share in the joy at the return of his brother.

The older brother must make his own decision - to withhold or to share. And making a decision to share is the key to the cure for narcissism and the antidote to church that’s all “about me.”

This morning we participated in One Great Hour of Sharing, an annual exercise in overcoming self-centeredness and focusing outward on a world that our God loves and receives and seeks to bless and heal. It is our privilege to be part of a worldwide communion of faith that multiplies our gifts and uses them in the name of Christ.

The insert in our bulletin this morning tells a little about one international mission supported through our gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing. There is also a calendar available that gives many more examples from around the world. I would also like you to know that the church provides disaster relief in the United States through these gifts. For example, substantial gifts were sent to churches in the Midwest for relief after tornadoes and to churches in California after fires. Support was provided to assist the clergy and emergency services personnel who responded to the terrible fire at that Rhode Island night club - money that allowed for counseling and care after the trauma of that event.

As individuals we are subject to all the bad news that comes through the media each day, and it can turn us inward with a feeling of powerlessness or it can turn us outward with compassion and a need to share and provide the help we can. I would just like each of you to know that when you look in the mirror tonight, that by your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing, you have made the choice - at least in this case - to overcome self-centeredness and take a step down the path that Jesus walked for the sake of the world that God loves.

May God bless us daily with opportunities to turn from ourselves and serve others in the name of Christ. Amen.

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