May 7, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

1 John 3:1-3 ( read by Hannah Martin)

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (NRSV)

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In 1986 I traveled as part of a group to visit Orthodox churches in what was then the Soviet Union.  We started out in Moscow, but then went South to be the guest of the Bishop Anthony, the Bishop of Stavralpol and Baku.  Bishop Anthony was a very generous and gracious host, and when we visited the churches there, we were warmly received.  But nothing matched the welcome we had one day.  We entered the church on a red carpet, with flowers strewn along the edges.  The sanctuary was packed and we were quickly escorted to the front.   It was wonderful, and I commented to our guide that I had never been greeted with a red carpet before.  To which he said, - it’s not for you, Bishop Anthony is going to join us here today!  It turns out that we’d been put in the front so that we wouldn’t block anyone’s view of the Bishops arrival!
When the Bishop did arrived it was quite the scene.  The choirs began to sing, a special elevated chair was placed in the center of the church where the Bishop sat as the deacons and priests brought out his vestments, candles, and crown.  Once he was fully vested he was joined in procession with acolytes, readers, priests carrying scriptures, icons, censors with incense burning, and they all made their way up to this beautiful screen of icons in the front of the church where the Bishop blessed us and the whole congregation. 


There was no question about it, the Bishop was the center of their attention, devotion, respect, and, for that day, of their liturgy and worship.  They clearly felt it was an honor to have the Bishop pay them a visit.  It was almost, in fact, as if the presence of the Bishop was what made the church the church - the Bishop was central and essential to their Christian identity; the bishop was the cornerstone of the church.


The word Bishop comes from the Bible - it is the English translation of the Greek word episkopos, or overseer, and churches that have Bishops are said to have an Episcopacy or an Episcopal form of government.  They take as their central theme of organization the saying of Jesus to Peter:

Matthew 16:18-19 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.


They are organized from the top down, and the church is where the Bishop, or Archbishop, or Cardinal, Pope or Patriarch - they’re all just various types of bishops in the Episcopacy - the church is where the Bishop is, where the Bishop rules, where the Bishop maintains true doctrine, true worship, true purity of the sacraments.


That is why on a Sunday such as this, when a group of young people are being confirmed in the faith, on a Sunday such as this it would be customary for the Bishop to arrive and do the things that Bishops do.


So where is the Bishop today?


Well, here’s the story.  Our church, the congregational church, was born in rebellion to the Episcopal church.  The Congregationalists took as their theme a different verse from the scripture:

Matthew 18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."


Congregationalists cared deeply about the purity of the church - hence the name puritans - and they saw the corruption that existed in the Episcopacy.  They had the scriptures in hand - thanks to the printing press - and when they read them for themselves they saw an early church that seemed to rely less on a hierarchy and more on community.


They wanted to turn the whole scheme on its head - to say that church was where two or three believers agreed to be the church and covenanted to be the church;  that church was built from the bottom up, that Christ was the only cornerstone, that scripture was the only rule of faith, that grace was the sole source of salvation, and that they needed neither Bishops nor Kings to tell them how to live their lives or intercede between them and God.


They chose a path that changed the world, bearing the fruits of liberty, equality, and democracy. 


They also transferred a great weight of obligation from the Episcopacy to the laity of the church.  For Bishops provided rules, Bishops exercised authority, Bishops gave orders. But by turning the scheme on its head, by making the congregation accountable for true doctrine, true worship, true purity of the sacraments we see a dramatic shift.

Now relationships takes the place of rules

authenticity takes the place of authority

faithful responsibility takes the place of following orders.


In a sense, the Bishop is here today - and it’s you, the congregation.  You have taken on this trust of commitment, faithfulness, dedication, and leadership.  And representing you today in this trust was our sponsors, the men and women who gave generously of their time and provided counsel and example for our newest members.  And those 7th graders who stood up and led us in the call to worship this morning, they will be seeking sponsors for next year.  I know that our congregation will continue to respond with the generous commitment that enables our church to fulfill its mission to honor God and serve our neighbors in the spirit of the Lord.


For in the end it is the presence of the Lord, of Christ, which makes a congregation a church.  And we celebrate Christ both in word and deed, in song and in sacrament, in the hour of our death and in the hour when we see life just on the horizon of an exciting new expression. 


That is what we have done today - celebrated the lives of our confirmation class as they step forward in faith, as they join with us to be the church, as they answer the call put in such eloquent words two thousand years ago in the first letter of Peter:


1 Peter 2:4    Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God's sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.  For it stands in scripture:

    "See, I am laying in Zion a stone,

        a cornerstone chosen and precious;

    and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame."

(For) you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.


Let us proclaim the goodness of God now as we, the church, celebrate together with our confirmation class the sacrament of Holy Communion.


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