April 9, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Jeremiah 31:31-34      The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32 It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt -- a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34 No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

 Gospel Lesson: John 12:20-33     Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, "Sir, we wish to see Jesus." 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, "The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

    27 "Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say -- 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name." Then a voice came from heaven, "I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again." 29 The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, "An angel has spoken to him." 30 Jesus answered, "This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. 31 Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. 32 And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." 33 He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

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Most of us know of James Watt as an inventor of the steam engine, and certainly we have heard of Sir. Isaac Newton as both an inventor of calculus and formulator of the law of gravity.  But how many of us are familiar with the work of Isaac Watts?  Do you recognize the name?  You may not, but you would recognize his work.  In fact, you sang a piece of his work this morning in our opening hymn, Joy to the World.


Isaac Watts was a pastor, a poet, and a teacher.  He was also a writer of hymns.  Another of his hymn’s you’d probably recognize would be “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”  In those days most Congregational Churches, and Watts was a Congregationalist, most Congregational Churches used only the Psalms for their singing, so “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” was a bit of a departure.  Another hymn by Watts you’d probably find familiar is “Our God Our Help in Ages Past.”   But that, you see, was actually a rewriting of a psalm for singing - psalm 90.


Of course of all the hymns Watts wrote, none is more familiar than Joy to the World.  We associate it so much with Christmas that is might surprise you to know that it, like “Our God Our Help in Ages Past” is a paraphrase of a Psalm.  Watts never intended it to be a Christmas carol, in fact, the Congregationalists in his day did not celebrate Christmas.  Christmas was thought of as a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian holiday, invented by human beings and not supported in scripture and representing everything that these radical reformers were against.


Watts intended Joy to the World as a setting of Psalm 98 - the Psalm we used as our call to worship this morning.  When first published it was not well received - “How dare he take the Psalms and try and improve them” was the criticism.  In fact, it wasn’t until 100 years later when Dr. Lowell Mason took Watts’ words and put them to music based on Handel’s Messiah that the Hymn, as we now know it, came into being.   But it was worth the wait, don’t you think!?!


Now Joy to the World may seem an odd selection for a hymn during lent, but that’s only because we’ve come to associate it so strongly with Christmas.  The meaning of the words and the emotion of the tune are just as appropriate for this Sunday as for any Sunday.   And I think they may be especially appropriate for today because our theme is renewal.


We read in the book of the prophet Jeremiah that God will renew his covenant with his people - that God will plant the eternal word in their hearts and they will know the Lord.  In John we read that Christ in sacrificial death is the seed which must be planted in the soil of those who hear the word before it can sprout and bear fruit.  The people are renewed by the word of God which has taken root in their lives and which now unites them with God and with one another as branches from one vine.


In Joy to the World we hear this exquisite and challenging phrase: Let every heart prepare him room.  Isn’t this the whole meaning of Lent - to cleanse our hearts and prepare room for the proclamation of the passion and death and resurrection of Christ to find fertile soil?  We seek this both for our own redemption and for the salvation of the world. 


Yes, Joy to the World is a great hymn of renewal, and we should not confine it’s poetry and power to any single season of the year.  It speaks to us of creating an openness in our lives to the presence of God, of preparing room for God’s joy to enter our hearts, to inspire our lives, and to renew our souls.


In thinking about this topic of renewal, I admit to a bit of a struggle in coming up with a title for this sermon.  But then I remembered some work that my wife had brought home.  Part of her job at Union Carbide is to support the recruiters in bringing some diversity into the corporation.  To do this they maintain relations with many colleges and professional organizations.  One part of support is having promotional items for the recruiters to give away at career fairs and meetings.  Sometimes I get to be the guinea pig for these items - and so a T-shirt was brought home to check on the size and lettering.  It was the T-shirt for the annual meeting of NSBE,  and the theme, as I remembered, was Renew, Rejuvenate, Rise.


Actually, I got it wrong - it was Reflect, Rejuvenate, Rise, which is an even better articulation of the dynamic and purpose of the organization.  NSBE is the National Society of Black Engineers, a society which exists to support, encourage, guide, help, and empower it’s members. They also seek to mentor the next generation who will be entering a workplace that, hopefully, they have shaped for the better.  They want to make a difference on the ground, in the here and now. 


Renewal, rejuvenation and success are dependent upon their ability to maintain a clear sense of common mission and community.  In the case of NSBE it is a community of engineers who because of race and history and persistent social and economic structures share a common lot and face a common challenge.   But isn’t the same true of the church.   While we may not share a common history, we do share a common lot, we face a common culture, and we seek to maintain a community with a similar purpose: to support, encourage, guide, help, and empower one another.


All this is made quite clear this morning as we bring in new members and renew our covenant as a church.  What is the heart of our covenant?  It is our promise to:

walk together as Christians, obedient to the teachings of the Holy Scripture, and to participate in the government, worship, stewardship, and mission of this Church.  


The mission of our church is further stated this way:

The First Congregational Church of New Milford believes that God calls us to love one another.  Accepting our diversity, we unite as a church family to praise and glorify our eternal God in worship, to proclaim the Gospel by our words and actions, and to seek the guidance of the Holy Spirit as we serve others in the name of Jesus Christ.  This church strives to nurture, enable, support and challenge one another in our journeys of Christian faith.


Although we are concerned with the things of heaven, we also want to make a difference on the ground, in the here and now.  That is the dynamic of our life - that heaven has come down; that in Christ the Lord on high, the Lord of eternity is present on the earth in the here and now and has resurrection life through the fellowship of believers.


This is both the frustration and the joy of church life.  We know we are flawed, we are aware of our shortcomings, we are sometimes easily frustrated with the difficulties of getting things done.  How can we live this calling of God’s people.


And yet, things happen that amaze us.  People amaze us.  They amaze us with their kindness, they amaze us with their courage, they amaze us with their resiliency, they amaze us with their faith.


When we welcome new members as we did today we welcome a mystery.  We have almost no idea of what these people will do in this place - how will they shape us, how will they change us, whose lives will be impacted by their presence here?  Is there a life-long friendship just over the horizon?  Is there a thought, a dream, a passion that will move this congregation to a new vision, a new sense of mission?


And are we open to their presence, their gifts, their needs?  Just as our hearts must prepare room for the presence of God, so, too, with the presence of these new members.  We have welcomed them into our fellowship with words, but words are not enough.  We must make room for them in our lives and in our life together as a church.


There can be no renewal if there is no room for what is new - new life in Christ, new members in the congregation, new possibilities on the horizon.  Joy catches us by surprise, rising up out of the infinite mystery of God’s love and shaping us as instruments of peace in the image of Christ, in whose name we worship and work and pray together.  Amen

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