Sermon
June 16, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

First Lesson: Genesis 18:1-15

The Lord appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, “My lord, if I find favor with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”

And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, “Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.” Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.

They said to him, “Where is your wife Sarah?” And he said, “There, in the tent.” Then one said, “I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?”

The Lord said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too wonderful for the Lord? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.” But Sarah denied, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. He said, “Oh yes, you did laugh.”


Second Lesson (based on Hebrews 11 and 12)

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval.

By faith Noah and his wife, warned by God about events as yet unseen, respected the warning and built an ark to save their household;

By faith Abraham and Sarah obeyed when called to set out for a place that they were to receive as an inheritance; By faith they stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, for they looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

By faith Moses was hidden by his parents for three months after his birth; they were not afraid of the king’s edict. By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God.

By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.

By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.

And what more should we say? For time would fail us to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, David and Samuel and the prophets; of Rachel, Leah, Deborah, Ruth, Hannah, Mary, Martha, Lydia or Priscilla.

All these died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

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Sermon: Keep Your Eye on the Prize

Before I begin the sermon I would like to conduct a quick cultural quiz.

Sometimes we take for granted that our cultural signposts are well known to all, but often that is not the fact. One college tried to overcome this problem by issuing a memo to its staff to remind them of some cultural and historical landmarks that the faculty might take for granted but would be unknown to the incoming freshmen class.

For example, and this if from 1999, the memo noted that the incoming class would not understand the expression “You sound like a broken record” since the Compact Disk was introduced when the year they were born. The Vietnam War would be ancient history to them, sort of lumped in with WW I, II, and the Civil War. They’d have no idea that Americans were held hostage in Iran, they would not remember the Cold War, McDonald’s never came in Styrofoam containers, and Michael Jackson had always been white.

So I want to give a quick cultural quiz by playing the theme songs from three very popular TV shows, and when, or if, you recognize them, please raise your hand.

(Themes from Oprah, Mr. Rogers, Howdy Doody)

I’m glad to see some hands go up for Howdy. Last year I did a wedding where the father of the bride was the third and final person to play Clarabell the Clown on the Howdy Doody show. The first Clarabell went on to become Captain Kangaroo, but he was the final Clarabell, the only one to speak when on the last show he said, tearfully, Goodbye Boys and Girls.

I found this very exciting and was telling it to one of my daughter’s teachers, who seemed to be following my story until she said: I have no idea what you are talking about – who is Clarabell the Clown?

O, that’s right – you were born a quarter of a century after me and you grew up with Sesame Street and Fred Rogers.

Well, this morning I want to tell a story about Fred Rogers, and I was glad so see so many hands go up in recognition of his theme song, because that means we share at least some cultural common ground and hopefully at the end you won’t say: I have no idea what he was talking about.

Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928. He majored in music composition in college and after graduation went to New York City to work as a floor manager for the NBC shows "Your Hit Parade" and "The Kate Smith Hour." In 1953 he and his new wife Sara moved back to Pittsburgh where he developed "The Children's Corner," a prototype for "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood"

During the run of "The Children's Corner," Mr. Rogers began taking courses in child development and attending the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. In 1962, he became the Rev. Mr. Rogers in the Presbyterian church and took his interest in nurturing both psyche and soul back to his work in children’s television. He developed "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood", which first aired in a fifteen minute version on Canadian television in 1963.

He returned to Pittsburgh and the local educational station, WQED, launched the series as a half-hour show. In 1969, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" began airing on Public Television stations across the United States.

For the thirty plus years that Mister Rogers was inviting children into his neighborhood, a lot was going on outside. There was Vietnam and Watergate, Chernobyl and Challenger, Ethiopian famine and ethnic cleansing, Oklahoma City and Littleton, Polly Klaas and JonBenet Ramsey. But inside the neighborhood there was peace and calm, familiarity and safety. Feelings and fears were gently explored; reassurance was given.

"The whole idea," Fred Rogers told CNN "is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who might feel that he or she needs it."

A neighborhood of love – could it still be that simple for children today? That was the prize that guided Mister Rogers. In spite of all the cultural changes, the people, the styles, the history and gadgetry that keeps flowing by, Mr. Rogers reasons that children's basic needs don't change with the decades. The children of 1999 are "deep down, the same" as the children of 1969,1909, and 2009: "We all long to be lovable, and capable of loving."

Perhaps that is why Mr. Rogers, in a commencement address he gave last month, spoke about the need to appreciate yourself and others for who you truly are, and not get caught up in the culture’s obsession with winning and losing, comparison, competition, and all the ways we use what is on the outside, the externals, the appearance, the accomplishments or failures to pass judgments and reinforce prejudice, fear, and feelings of superiority or inadequacy.

Mr. Rogers asked the graduates: Have you heard the story that came out of the Seattle Special Olympics? For the 100 yard dash there were nine contestants, all of them so-called physically or mentally disabled. All nine of them assembled at the starting line and at the sound of the gun, they took off. But one little boy didn’t get very far. He stumbled and fell and hurt his knee and began to cry. The other eight children heard the boy crying. They slowed down, turned around and ran back to him – Every one of them ran back to him. One little girl with Down ’s syndrome bent down and kissed the boy and said, “This will make it better.” The little boy got up, and he and the rest of the runners linked their arms together and joyfully walked to the finish line. They all finished the race at the same time. And when they did, everyone in the stadium stood up and clapped and whistled and cheered for a long, long time. People who were there are still telling the story with obvious delight. And you know why. Because deep down we know that what matters in this life is more than winning for ourselves. What really matters is helping others win, too, even if it means slowing down and changing our course now and then.

Run the race with perseverance, says the scripture, keep your eyes on the prize. But what is the prize that really counts – and what obstacles, what hurdles are between us and the finish line?

Only God knows the answer to that one, but we know we should beware judging others for their stumbles or struggles. We just can’t know what difficulties people face, what burdens they bear. The merciful heart and the helping hand may not be courses in the college curriculum, but hopefully we learn these by living in a happy home or a loving neighborhood.

Hopefully we learn enough to know that everyone needs to hear a human or heavenly voice whisper in their ear the very words we remembered today in our sacrament of baptism - You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased. Amen


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