Sermon
May 30, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 28:16-20
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (NRSV)

Genesis 1:1-2:4 In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3 Then God said, "Let there be light"; and there was light. 4 And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5 God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

6 And God said, "Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters." 7 So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. 8 God called the dome Sky. And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.

9 And God said, "Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear." And it was so. 10 God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. 11 Then God said, "Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it." And it was so. 12 The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.

14 And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth." And it was so. 16 God made the two great lights -- the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night -- and the stars. 17 God set them in the dome of the sky to give light upon the earth, 18 to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.

20 And God said, "Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the dome of the sky." 21 So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind. And God saw that it was good. 22 God blessed them, saying, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth." 23 And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.

24 And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. 25 God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good.

26 Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

27 So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;

male and female he created them. 28 God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." 29 God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. 31 God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

1 Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.

4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.

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 Sermon - And God Created Lilacs

We had an odd coincidence pop up in the church office a few weeks back. It was April 15 to be exact, but this had nothing to do with taxes. We were talking about different ways we might open up the front of the church here around the pulpit - maybe add some staging or make these low walls removable. I asked Jane McManus if we had any drawings of the pulpit and choir area, so she went into a closet we call "The Vault" and did a little digging. She found lots of old plans, and among them one rolled up set of papers that appeared to have been undisturbed for quite a while. So she brought them upstairs and what do you think we found? We found copies of the New York Times and The New York Herald from April 15, 1865.

Imagine that - newspapers that were one hundred and thirty four years old to the day! That was the coincidence. And can you guess what the front page story was on that day? Here’s the front page of the Herald and let me read the headlines from the Times:

Awful Event

President Lincoln Shot by an Assassin

The Deed Done at Ford’s Theatre Last Night

The Act of a Desperate Rebel

The President Still Alive at Last Account

No Hopes Entertained of His Recovery

In the Herald, as in the times, the lines between the columns of text were marked with a band of black, a band of mourning and grief. That was a Saturday newspaper, and can you imagine what the mood must have been like in this church the next day? Actually, we don’t have to imagine, because also among our archives is a printed sermon from the Sunday after that, April 23, 1865, by the Reverend David Murdoch, a minister so admired by this congregation that his portrait in bronze still hangs in this sanctuary. If you turn around you can see it on the back wall in the south west corner. It is placed very near the two small flags and the book that remembers those church members who served in the second world war.

On that April Sunday in 1865 Murdoch took as his text a passage from Amos, Chapter 8: (Amos 8:9-10)

And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord GOD, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day: And I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning of an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day.

Murdoch began his sermon with a description of the impact the news of Lincoln’s death had on this congregation:

Like a thunder clap out of a clear sky came the intelligence, a week ago yesterday morning, that Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, had been killed by the hand of an assassin. Never, probably, in the history of mankind was there such a sudden revulsion from joy to sorrow produced within so many hearts as that which was caused by those few words, which vibrated throughout the land - "The President is dead."

The nation was plunged into despair and grief. Sermons were preached, songs were composed, poems were written to express the sense of loss. Of the sermons, songs, and poems written, perhaps the most enduring remembrance has been Walt Whitman’s poem, When Lilacs last in the Dooryard Bloom'd

Whitman wrote:

When Lilacs last in the dooryard bloomed,

And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,

I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

And thought of him I love.

The loss the generation of Murdoch and Whitman felt became connected to the blooming of the lilac, the song of the thrush in the swamp, the fragrant pines and cedars, the night sky of spring, with Venus low on the horizon. All these would stir the memory as if heaven and earth conspired to renew the pain and grief and sense of loss:

Again, in the words of Whitman:

Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,

There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

In the story of creation we read this morning, the poet of Genesis writes of moon and stars placed in the night sky to guide the observance of holy days and holidays for the people of Israel.

And God said, "Let there be lights in the dome of the sky to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years,

The sacred seasons of life are reflected in the waxing and waning moon, in the stars which rise and fall in the night sky. This is because God did not simply create a universe of matter and things, but also a universe of meaning and things remembered. God created not only the lilac, but the lilac which brings remembrance.

We also create a universe of meaning. Events not only shape our lives but also our sense of life’s meaning. What can I trust, what is worthy of my time and commitment, what requires my full attention, what is a mere distraction? What must I remember - what should I forget?

The universe of meaning we create by our remembrance is a powerful spiritual reality. It shapes who we are and how we see the world. It has its own regenerative cycle, for what we remember determines what we see, and what we see determines what we remember.

As much diversity as there is in the physical universe, there is a million times more diversity in the universe of meaning. Even within families, two children growing up with the same parents in the same environment - even there you can find two different worlds of meaning. If you don’t believe me, ask my brother and I to describe our childhood.

What draws us out of these different worlds of meaning, what keeps them from colliding and exploding. What keeps us from feeling lost and alone, isolated and disconnected?

Well, the sad fact of the matter is that many times we do get lost, worlds do collide, people and nations do feel isolated and disconnected. That is why we have war and days to remember those who died in our wars. That is why we have marriages that are falling apart and families that are fragmented. We see the same things, we live in the same worlds, but we created different universes of meaning. We remember what we might better forget and lose sight of those things we should cherish and remember always.

But there is a way to remain connected and keep our universe of meaning from spinning out of control. The way to do this is to connect our remembrance, our meaning, our story to a larger story.

Henri Nouwen writes that the great vocation of the church is to continually make connections between the human story and the divine story, to proclaim the revelation that human wounds are intimately connected to the suffering of God, that our sorrow is part of a greater sorrow, our joy part of a greater joy.

Memorial Day and Remembrance Sunday is an appropriate time to do this in the life of the church. Memorial day reminds us that while grief may make us feel isolated and alone, it is, in fact, a common bond among all people, and not only among all people, but between all people and their God.

We bring our remembrance, our galaxy of moments remembered and meanings created, into the sphere of sacred story. We find our points of connection with the great themes of faith - with promises and pilgrimages, wanderings and exile, separation and reconciliation, gain and loss, with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We baptize our worlds of remembrance in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and we ask God to open our eyes to their greater meaning. We connect our past to God’s past, our future to God’s future.

When we connect our story to sacred story, our remembrance to God’s meaning, we experience a wonderful transformation. We are not alone, but stand in the midst of a great cloud of witnesses; our joys are multiplied, our sorrows are comforted, our resentments reconciled, and our pain transformed into grace.

All the world, even

Ever returning spring,

Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,

become for us reminders not of what we have lost, but of what God has promised awaits us yet.

Remembrance becomes hope, and that is God’s great gift in the faith and love of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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