Sermon
June 4, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

John 17:6-19     "I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.  Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me.  I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.  All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.  And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.  While I was with them, I protected them in your name that you have given me. I guarded them, and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the scripture might be fulfilled.  But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.  I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.  They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.  Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.  As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.   And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

 

Matthew 25:1-13     "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.  Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.  When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;  but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.  As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.  But at midnight there was a shout, 'Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.'  Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.   The foolish said to the wise, 'Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.'  But the wise replied, 'No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.'  And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.  Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, 'Lord, lord, open to us.'   But he replied, 'Truly I tell you, I do not know you.'  Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

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Sermon - "Crumbs and Candles"

It hardly seems possible to me, but it was 10 years ago that I was asked by the search committee to come to New Milford and give a sermon as their candidate for senior pastor.  The theme for that day was how the human soul is like the wick of a candle – how it must be touched by the flame of God’s presence to burn brightly and illuminate both the true purpose of the soul and the surrounding darkness of the world.

 

Before it was a candidating sermon, that was a baptism sermon, for the sacrament of baptism is another symbolic representation of the grace of God touching and transforming the life of the believer.  Now you don’t want to get these mixed up, because it would be a disaster to pour water on the candles and light the baby, but as different as they are, they point to the same reality.

 

Actually, the first sermon the search committee heard was about crumb cake theology.  That was a communion sermon based on a practice in my home church.  Every time we had communion we would have a coffee hour with huge sheets of New York crumb cake.  The children in the church would compete to serve at these coffee hours because that meant you could clean up the empty crumb cake trays.  And the first step in the clean up process was to stand over the sink and empty all the excess crumbs right down your own throat.  The point of that sermon was that learning to serve is a good introduction to church life, and a good way of understanding the meaning of communion.  Christ serves us in communion and calls on us to serve one another and our world.

 

I thought of those two sermons recently because it’s been ten years and because we are celebrating both the sacrament of baptism and of the Lord’s Supper this morning.  My thoughts on these sacraments have not changed, but something has changed in the life of this church over the years.  On most Sundays we no longer use wax candles on the communion table.  We’ve switched to oil lamps dressed up to look like candles.  We started this because we wanted to avoid the annual Advent drama where we would sit and watch the candles get lower and lower, closer and closer to the dry greens of the Advent wreath, wondering all the time if we would suddenly have a great blaze to mark the end of Advent and possibly the end of this building. 

 

The danger is no longer that the candles will grow shorter, only that they will run out of oil, and like the bridesmaids in our parable this morning, we will be made to appear foolish and possibly worse by an embarrassing case of ill preparation and bad timing.

 

This figure of the lamps that need to be filled offers a wonderful insight into the nature of worship and especially of the celebration of the sacraments of baptism and communion.  What is the light we must keep burning?  Where do we turn to find the source of oil that will refuel the lamp of our lives?

 

Thomas Merton gives a good insight into these questions.  Merton writes:

The bridesmaids whose lamps are trimmed are those who by faith, recollection, prayer, and self discipline, keep the eye of their soul clear and simple… they have taken upon themselves full responsibility for their own moral life, and they are ready to account to God and to their own conscience for the use of their freedom.

 

Freedom is a very important word here.  If the great commandment of God is to love our neighbor as our self, if the new commandment of Christ is to love as we have been loved, then all obedience rests on freedom.   Love is impossible without freedom.  Love is not love unless it is freely given.  Faith too must be freely chosen if it is to be faith and not fear.  Charity also, if it is to be charity and not compulsion. 

 

The bridesmaids whose lamps are trimmed are those who by faith, recollection, prayer, and self discipline, keep the eye of their soul clear and simple… they have taken upon themselves full responsibility for their own moral life, and they are ready to account to God and to their own conscience for the use of their freedom.

 

When I was a child I was taught that the sacraments of the church are the outward signs of an inward grace, and grace, as well as freedom, is an important word for our consideration today.  Think of grace as the oil that keeps our spiritual lamp burning.  Think of the means of grace as the source where we must freely return again and again if we are to remain ready to light our light when the time is right.

 

The sacraments direct us and connect us to the source of grace – the resurrected Christ who suffered the cross that we might live.  This direction, this communion is not the deception of magic, but the discovery of meaning, and meaning is a quality of the heart, soul, strength, and mind.  Meaning comes from meeting Christ in the moment, and sensing the door that has been opened and the grace that has been poured out.

 

How dramatically does this happen for us?  What measure of grace do we find in the sacraments?  Perhaps it doesn’t seem like much; it’s all too simple, too quiet.  But if we open ourselves to any sense of encounter with what is sacred and holy and full of truth and grace and hope, then that is enough.  It is enough if afterwards we use it, if we put it to work, if we take it with us and share it freely as we walk in faith.

 

As we focus our hearts and minds on God in sacramental worship, each of us will receive enough grace, enough oil, to take our next step.  Our prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” will be answered.

 

It’s not a lifetime supply; it will not keep our lamp trimmed for eternity.   We will have to return, we will have to refill.  But the time we spend here in prayer, in meditation upon the grace of God, in participation in the sacraments – this will be enough for our next step in the way of our Lord.  And in that step we will come to a fuller knowledge of God, a deeper sounding of our souls, and a more generous giving of ourselves to the love and service of neighbor.  To that measure of grace Christ invites you this morning.  Trim your lamps.  Come out to greet him.  Amen

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