Sermon
July 24, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Romans 8:26-39
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Matthew 13:31
He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Matthew 13:44 “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it. “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad.

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Sermon: The Presence of God Discovered in Prayer

What do you think is the essence of religion? The other night I was watching a comic who said her mother was so religious that she could never serve on a jury – she kept telling the judge that she was guilty. The comic called the major religions of the world “guilt with different holidays.”

I have a booklet published by this church in 1838, and it contains the covenant that each person would affirm upon joining the church. It begins: Convinced of your guilt, and professing unfeigned repentance for your sins, and an humble reliance on Jesus Christ for pardon and eternal life, you do now in the presence of God and this assembly, seriously and forever give up yourselves to God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, avouching the Lord Jehovah to be your God; Jesus Christ to be your Prophet, Priest, and King; and the Holy Ghost your Sanctifier, Comforter and Guide.

Convinced of your guilt – there is a turn of phrase certain to assist in the development of self-esteem.

Karl Marx famously said that religion is the opiate of the people, meaning, in popular interpretation, that the essence of religion is a drug-like numbing of people’s senses to the injustices they suffer by substituting a vision of future happiness for organization and action in the here and now. Today I don’t think it’s the dulling effects of an opiate that is a draw in religion, but the drug-like buzz of a stimulant or a pep rally or an exciting sports event that packs the big sanctuaries and halls. For many the essence of religion is how it makes me feel – it used to make me feel real guilty, now it makes me feel real good.

Every year about this time I wrestle with the central purpose of religion as I look forward to preparing another year of confirmation lessons. The children of our church who are entering 8th grade will be meeting regularly for the next 9 months in groups and with sponsors to study and discuss the key questions of religion. The seeds of faith which have been planted by their parents and their church school teachers have got to take solid root and begin to grow as an internal source of strength and guidance at this time in their lives. Their sense of identity and moral compass will be tested in the coming years, and this a critical time to equip them for the future. We don’t want to waste the opportunity by straying off the central core issues – which means answering the question, what are those issues?

On numerous occasions I’ve asked students, parents, and sponsors what they think the core issues are. One answer I received was quite a challenge – a mother said, I just
hope when confirmation is over that my child will know how to pray.

I don’t know that prayer is the whole essence of religion, but it sure is part of the central core. By why? What is the purpose of prayer? I guess you can tell what I’m giving as the answer from the title of the sermon: The Presence of God Discovered in Prayer.

When I began as a student at Rutgers in 1963 I applied for a part time job and was sent to the home of one of the professors to do some gardening work on Saturday mornings. One of the things this professor had me work on every weekend was his compost heap. Every blade of grass I cut and every leaf I raked went in this pile at the back of his property. Now I grew up in an apartment house and had never worked on a lawn in my life, but I did know that grass clippings and leaves were bagged up and left on the curb for the garbage man. To me this compost pile was just a rotting waste heap – but to him it was a precious resource that he carefully tended even in his old age.

I didn’t know it at first, but I later learned that this professor had won the Nobel prize in microbiology for the discovery of the antibiotic streptomycin. His name was Selman Waksman and the school of microbiology at Rutgers is named in his honor. And more than the discovery of streptomycin, Dr. Waksman helped open the eyes of modern science to the abundant healing medicines which occur in the soil under our feet – substances which have been all around us for ever, but we just didn’t have the vision to see them or the imagination to understand how they could benefit us.

Where I saw rotting grass and leaves, Dr. Waksman saw a laboratory, a place of exciting discovery and enormous benefit.

James Watson and Francis Crick were also winners of the Nobel Prize – they won for the discovery of DNA. Many say that another scientist, Rosalind Franklin, should have been given equal recognition, but that’s another story for another day. My point here simply is that all the people who discovered DNA were in fact creatures of DNA – DNA was in every cell in their body – without it they would not have had life or form or function. More abundant than streptomycin and more integral to their own existence, humans none the less remained ignorant of DNA for millennia and the discovery of it was a great milestone in history.

The discovery of streptomycin or DNA was not like the discovery of American by Christopher Columbus who had to climb in a boat and journey half way across the world in 1492 on the ocean blue. No, these discoveries were made without traveling a single mile – they were made right at home, right under the noses of the scientists. In this and in other ways there is a parallel with the presence of God discovered in prayer.

God is not a stranger to us, God is not absent from us, God is not alien to our lives – God is the source and the sustenance of our life, the giver of the gift. Discovering the presence of God is like a fish discovering the water – a real eye-opener, a profound revelation, an epiphany.

There are different ways that people discover the presence of God. In the confirmation curriculum we address it as making a connection with God through prayer, through worship, through doing justice and loving kindness, and through fellowship. One thing we don’t address directly, but which came to mind in preparing this sermon, is discovering God through struggle, hardship, and suffering. Not just by them, but by the fact that they often drive us to our knees in prayer. I think we can hear some of that dynamic in the letter of Paul to the Romans we read this morning. Paul wrote:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. If God is for us, who is against us? Who is to condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In prayer Paul meditates upon the love of God made known in Christ, and even though he cannot pray as he ought, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

This awareness of God – this discovery, this connection – is what Jesus describes as the Kingdom of God. And although all the parables of the Kingdom which we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew are wonderful, the one that most applies to this sermon is “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

That’s what prayer is like – it is like the yeast that you mix into the dough and then give time to do its work.

I certainly don’t know everything about prayer – I mean if Paul says we don’t pray as we ought, how can I presume authority in the matter? But I do know that prayer requires time and space and a willingness to pray – and I believe the line from the old liturgy that was in our call to worship: Let us remember that God listens more to our hearts than to our words.

Prayer is time set aside for quiet communion with God – for discovery, for revelation of someone who is always there; it may seem like a waste of time to some, but we see it as a precious resource, our spiritual laboratory where by the mysterious workings of God’s spirit we come to know the presence of God and can affirm with the Apostle Paul that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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