Sermon
May 18, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”

Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

John 15:1-8

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.

You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.

Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.

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Sermon: Bird’s Eye View from Chicken Hill

Thanks to the initiative of John and Pat Owen, we had a great luncheon yesterday to honor those who have been members of our church for 50 years or longer.  Now, 50 years ago would be 1953, but as you see by the list in your bulletin, we have members who joined in the war years of the 40s, the depression years of the 30s, and the boom years of the 20s.  And memories reach back even further, as we could tell from comments made during a program of church family photographs that dated back into the last decade of the 1800s. 

Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, teachers, pastors and choir directors were recalled as formal photos of men in men in dark suits and ladies in high collars flashed up on the screen.  One picture that held a certain fascination, though, did not show the faces of familiar people but showed a bird’s eye view of the village from Chicken Hill – taken from the edge of what is now Route 67 somewhere up around Prospect Commons.

Some of you in the front may be able to see this enlarged copy of this postcard, but take my word for it there is not a tree or a house anywhere on the hillside east of East Street.  It’s all wide open fields either ready for planting or recently mowed.  The postmark on the card is 1905, and the most recognizable features you can make out in the village are the steeples of the Episcopal, Congregational, Methodist, and Catholic churches on Main and Elm streets.

How different the landscape looked at that time – could they have imagined what kind of change a century would bring – how a picture from that vantage point would look today?

And can we imagine what it was like for them?  Do you ever get a little startled when you are driving along some thickly forested road and you seen coming down a steep slope one or more of the of old stone walls that crisscross in the woods.

The land may look untouched from the first day of creation, but the stone wall gives evidence that someone worked that hillside, someone sweated against that rocky soil, someone thought that they could provide for themselves and their family on that piece of land.  And, probably, they did.  What do we truly understand of their lives?

We see both the past and the future as if from a hill top – a distant view – general shapes may be visible, but the details are obscured.

Back in the early days of this church, the ministers were settled for life and part of their pay was in land, so their families were well established as a force in the town, for town and church were one.  When the first minister, Daniel Boardman, died in 1744 there was a big fight about who would replace him.  Those who think town politics are bad now might consider that it took four years to hire the second minister and in the process the church split in two and remained split for 60 years.

Nathaniel Taylor was the minister from 1748 to his death in 1800 – 52 years.  When he was in his old age the church hired a colleague minister, Stanley Griswold, to help Taylor.  But maybe they also did it to make sure that Taylor’s replacement was ready and they could avoid another fight over the issue.

When Taylor died Griswold preached a sermon entitled: The Good Man’s Prospects in the Hour of Death.   It was on December 14, 1800, and the text was from Deuteronomy 34, the story of the last days of Moses. 

Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness.   Now all is ready for them to cross the river and enter into the Promised Land.   But Moses will not make this trip.  Instead Moses goes to a mountain top where the Lord gives him a bird’s eye view of Canaan and says to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” And the bible says: Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there at the Lord’s command.

Griswold commented: From the mountain top Moses “could stand and survey all his past life and labors, see where he had been, what he had done, where he had done well and where he had done ill… the situation also commanded an easy and extensive view of the promised land towards which all his journeyings and labors and toils had been directed.  From beneath his feet the land flowing with mild and honey stretched in beautiful prospect before him… Moses truly was not to enter the terrestrial Canaan. 

But he was to be taken to a better country.  Instead of receiving his reward in the milk and honey, the corn, wine and oil of the land in view, he was now to receive “such things as the eye had not seen, nor ear heard, neither had entered into the heart of man.”

The earthly journey for Moses, as for all of us, had a beginning and an end.  But the journey of his people, his family by birth and his family of faith, that journey continued.  If he was only concerned about his own life, then the death on the hillside overlooking the Promised Land was surely a bitter defeat.  But if his sense of self was larger than himself, if he understood his life as a small part of a bigger story, then he could drink in the scene before him with sweetness and delight, taking comfort that he had done in the best in the time he had with the tasks that were put in his hands and the responsibilities that he shouldered.

Moses could take comfort that he had done his part to provide the next generation with the instruction and culture they needed for their steps in the journey.  He did not provide them with wealth or material possessions, but he did provide them with a spiritual culture – a set of norms, values, ideals, lessons, morals, warnings, insights, and means of remembering and understanding their identity as a people.

At one point Moses said to the people: When the Lord your God has brought you into the land that he swore to your ancestors — a land with fine, large cities that you did not build, houses filled with all sorts of goods that you did not fill, vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant—and when you have eaten your fill, take care that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Moses is telling them, don’t fall into the temptation of thinking that you’ve created the life you enjoy on your own – that you are self-sufficient and self-sustaining.   Remember where you came from, remember who labored to bring you to this good place, remember the Lord whose grace the foundation of all your blessing.

We certainly have come into a land and a life where others have labored to prepare a place for us.   The presence of the steeple in the middle of the view from Chicken Hill reminds us that our spiritual home here has had a presence over time and a personality that has included a whole cast of characters who loved this place and labored for its welfare.

In a sense we have been given a vineyard that we did not plant; for a time it is ours to tend and ours to harvest and enjoy and then to pass along to another generation.  We are keepers of the vineyard and as keepers we also become woven into the fiber and strength of the vine.

Jesus said: I am the vine, you are the branches.  This speaks to our being part of a bigger story.   It also speaks to the seasonal nature of our lives.  The fruit, the leaves, the branches, they grow and live and thrive in their season; but when their season has passed and they fall to the ground and new growth takes their place.

This morning we have had to opportunity to both thank those who have been part of this church for half a century and to welcome our newest member into the family of faith through baptism.   In a sense it’s our bird’s eye view of our life as a church – we honor the past, we tend to the tasks at hand, and we ready our replacements.  Then, in the end, when we walk up the hill, we can drink in the scene behind us and sights before us with sweetness and delight.
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