Sermon
July 4, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 25:31-46
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (NRSV)

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 Sermon - The Comfort Zone

Thanks for coming and braving this weather. It sure is brutal. Yesterday I was worthless; the heat had me down. I had to tell my family "don’t annoy me, I’m plenty annoyed all by myself!" I really didn’t rouse out of my stupor until about 4:30 in the afternoon; that’s about the time me head cleared up. I was way outside my comfort zone in this heat.

One of the things that annoyed me yesterday was the religion section of the News Times. It seems like every day there is a another story about some religious battle. Whether it’s school books, vouchers, or prayer, churches ordaining gay men and women, votes in Congress to post the ten commandments in public places, or witches being recognized as a legitimate church by the Army, religious battles are heating up the culture, generating animosity, producing friction between neighbors, creating a climate of intolerance and leading to lack of civility and even acts of violence.

There’s no doubt that the current cultural and religious climate is challenging the comfort zone of a great number of people and the discomfort people experience is confusing, threatening, and not likely to bring out the best in their nature and character.

Much like what the weather did to me yesterday.

 

Diversity

Certainly one factor in all this is the growing diversity of our society. Take the case of the witches in the Army; Here was the story as it appeared in the News Times:

Witches in Army raise ire of congressman-

Fort Hood, Texas

Marcy Palmer paces in the shade of a post oak tree. Two dozen people listen as she teaches the tenants of an ancient religion:

"We believe in the divinity of all things."

"We believe that we are all of one life force."

"We believe that we are one with nature."

Scenes like this have rankled one congressman and triggered a debate about religious freedom within the military.

That’s because Ms. Palmer is a witch, the high priestess of a group that practices Wicca at Fort Hood at Fort Hood with the knowledge and approval of the U.S. Army. Most in her group are active duty soldiers.

Critics including some Christian groups and Rep. Bob Barr, R-Georgia, say the Army’s decision to permit Wiccan services … is wrong… "I think it brings disrepute to the military and ought not to be allowed as something on par with the Judeo-Christian beliefs on which our country was founded."

Lt. Col. Donald Troyer is the chaplain assigned as a liaison to the witches… A Seventh Day Adventist, he has championed the group’s right to exist, telling the local newspaper that "we’re responding to the first Amendment…and we’re glad to do it."

We live at a unique moment in time, when the ideals of democracy are being tested by the demands of diversity, and it challenges all of us with some difficult decisions.

 

 

Going Back to our Roots

It is interesting that in the witches controversy, both sides go back to the roots of our American way of life and appeal to certain principles that were part of the founding creed of this nation. When this nation was just beginning, these principles did not seem in opposition to each other. But the changes wrought by time and history have put us in a position where we have to figure out which principles are primary, which should rule, which hold the brightest future for our country.

Now you may think this is a political, not a religious issue, and perhaps not a suitable subject for a sermon. But I think religion and religious attitudes play a very big role in this, and it is those attitudes I’d like to examine.

But first a bit of history.

When the founders of New England came to America, they were looking for religious freedom. But it wasn’t religious freedom as an abstract concept - they were looking for their freedom to practice their religion. The idea that you would have a community where multiple and diverse religious faiths would be equals side by side was not in their picture of the world.

The world they knew had spent the past millennium divided into two warring factors - the Muslim and the Christian. The Jews were respected as ancient and either tolerated or persecuted, but basically people lived their whole lives surrounded by others who believed the same as they did, went to church the same as they did, and recognized the same religious authority as they did.

Of course this was shattered to some extent by the Reformation, and there was many wars, persecutions, expulsions, and atrocities committed in the name of the one true faith by the followers of Jesus Christ. The concern of the religious authorities through all this was not freedom - it was victory. And it was a similar concern that drove the Pilgrims and the Puritans to these shores.

How many of us have ever driven on the Hutchinson Parkway from the Whitestone Bridge up to 684? It’s named after Anne Hutchinson, who immigrated with her family in 1634 to the Massachusetts Bay Colony at Boston. Anne held meetings with other women and taught a doctrine of salvation realized through intuition of God's indwelling in grace. Her teachings were considered an attack on the rigid moral codes and the authority of the Puritan clergy. In 1637 she was tried by the General Court of Massachusetts, found guilty, excommunicated, and banished from the colony.

Anne eventually made her way to Pelham, New York, but her first stop was Rhode Island, a place that would later be established as a haven of religious freedom by Roger Williams. Williams was another good soul driven out of Massachusetts because he felt people should pay the Indians for their land and didn’t think church offenses should be punished by the state. He didn’t carry the day.

If the Protestants of New England wouldn’t tolerate diversity among their own ranks, they certainly didn’t look favorably upon other faiths trying to make inroads into their turf. And that meant other Christian faiths, like the Roman Catholic Church. Our second minister, Rev. Nathaniel Taylor, was a chaplain with the Connecticut troops that fought the French at Ticonderoga and Crown Point during the French and Indian War. At the end of that war, about fourteen years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Rev. Taylor gave a farewell sermon to the troops at Crown Point, thanking them for stemming the Catholic tide coming down out of Canada and preserving New England for the Protestant Cause.

The year before Taylor preached that sermon, his church, this church, saw one of it’s stalwart members move from New Milford to New Haven. Roger Sherman had arrived in New Milford in 1742 and was very active in the life of this church. He was our clerk, he was a deacon, he was treasurer during the building of the second meeting house which stood on the Green between the present Episcopal Church and CVS.

While I’m sure that Roger Sherman embraced many of the same tenants of faith that inspired Rev. Taylor, he was a practical man who understood the demands of democracy and devised creative solutions to overcome the diverse interests of thirteen colonies and create out of them one United States of America.

One biographer wrote: "Roger Sherman was of a grave and massive understanding, a man who looked at the most difficult questions and untied their tangled knots without having his vision dimmed or his head made dizzy."

Sherman was on the committee with Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Livingston that prepared the Declaration of Independence. Later, as a member of the Constitutional Convention, he is credited with the idea that the House should have representation based on population and the Senate two representative from each state, thus balancing the interests of the small and the large states.

It was a pretty good idea. - a creative solution that met the demands of democracy and diversity.

I don’t know what our forebears like Hutchinson, Taylor, or Sherman would make of our dilemma today. Perhaps after they heard the story of Lady Liberty, the gatekeeper of a new nation, with her torch raised high to welcome the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free; perhaps when they understood that history of hospitality they would not be surprised nor confounded but delighted.

They would see a place which may have well been founded on narrow sectarian interests, but where God had wrought a greater work. A place where God had pushed people outside their comfort zone and give them the opportunity to grow into a more perfect and complete community than they could have ever imagined.

The Gospel Lesson

In our Gospel lesson today Jesus gives us a very radical picture of the hospitality of God. He invites us to see all the nations of the world gathered together, and how God opens the door to salvation and the peoples of every color, race, creed, and tongue stream through. Christ is depicted as the gatekeeper, Lady Liberty of heaven, and who are those he lets in? What is the test he applies?

Is it a test based on your political affiliation?

On your marital status, your bank statement, your employment history?

On your church membership or confession of faith?

No, it is not based on any of these. It’s based on kindness of heart, compassion of action, warmness of welcome and generosity of spirit. "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me."

Right there is a guide for managing the demands of diversity. Our highest principle is hospitality. Do not look at the external differences between people but seek that kindness of the heart where good people of every sort find common ground. Recognize that within our tradition is this somewhat subversive subtext that allows us to break out of the old ways of thinking, that allows us to break down the old barriers that separate creeds, colors and nations, and let God do a greater work in our community.

It time to stop using our Judeo Christian heritage as a privilege, and start using it as a call to hospitality, service, and the self confidence to embrace diversity. There is, in our faith, such a possibility. Once you recognize it, you can’t help but see it in every teaching and ritual, and especially in the remembrance of Christ’s life and death we celebrate today.

The Table

The communion table is a wonderful reminder of this possibility. Here Jesus welcomed and served his disciples, even the disciple who would betray him, even the disciple who would deny him. How were they worthy of such hospitality? Yet, around this table he took the role of a slave and washed their feet and said to them: I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Some churches have a practice of using even this table as a means of exclusion, of drawing the line between us and them. But here we take a different path. Here we say, This is Christ’s table, not our own. We celebrate an open communion. This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people.

Hospitality, an open welcome, a place at the table, a share in the meal, in the good life of this land and in the eternal life of God through Christ - that’s what our faith is about; that’s what this meal is about; that’s what diversity means and what democracy demands. Let us thank God for the good people of all colors, persuasions, orientations, languages and creeds, and let us celebrate the gift of life as it opens before us in the wonderful freedom of love in Christ.  Amen

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