Sermon
August 19, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

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Scripture Readings

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
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.
30 By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for
seven days.
31 By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were
disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
32 And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon,
Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets --
33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained
promises, shut the mouths of lions,
34 quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of
weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.
35 Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing
to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection.
36 Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
37 They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the
sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted,
tormented --
38 of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains,
and in caves and holes in the ground.
39 Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not
receive what was promised,
40 since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart
from us, be made perfect.
1 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,
2 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.
(NRSV)

Matthew 16:13-25
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi,
he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
14 And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still
others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."
15 He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
16 Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."
17 And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh
and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.
18 And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,
and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind
on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be
loosed in heaven."
20 Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the
Messiah.
21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to
Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief
priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
22 And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, "God forbid it,
Lord! This must never happen to you."
23 But he turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a
stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things
but on human things."
24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let
them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose
their life for my sake will find it.
(NRSV)

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Sermon: Some Have Suffered

I have always been suspicious of clergy who begin a sermon by talking about
a television show they saw the Saturday night before their Sunday sermon.
It makes me wonder about their prep time.  But today I propose to commit an
even more egregious sin, and begin by referring to a headline in this
morning's New York Times:

In Libraries and Cemeteries, Vacationing with Ancestors:



OMELSDORF, Pa. - This former cigar-making village in eastern Pennsylvania is
hardly a tourist site, but it gets a steady stream of summer visitors. They
stroll through the cemetery with its weather-pocked headstones, some
inscribed in German and more than 200 years old. At the edge of the
graveyard, the little Tulpehocken Settlement Historical Society is building
an addition to accommodate the rush of callers like Wayne and Beth Ilger.
"We are looking for Jacob Ilger, my father's father's father's father," said
Mr. Ilger, 45, a chemist on vacation from Abbott Laboratories, near Chicago.
The day before, the Ilgers came up dry at the state archives in Harrisburg.
Here, about 14 miles west of Reading, they were leafing through church
records, immigration records, birth records, tax records, deeds and old
newspaper files. "We know he moved to northeastern Ohio as part of the
westward march," Mr. Ilger said.
After two hours of digging, the Ilgers had one of those eureka! moments of
genealogical sleuths. In church marriage records, they discovered another
Jacob Ilger, presumably the father of the Jacob Ilger from Ohio. He had
married Catharine Weinel at the Trinity Tulpehocken Reformed Church in
Womelsdorf on Aug. 12, 1812. Next the Ilgers plan to hunt down the forebears
of the elder Jacob Ilger.
No one keeps track of the vacationing family archivists, toting cameras,
satchels of notebooks and detailed family trees as big as gas station maps,
who are prospecting for ancestors. But the nationwide boom in their numbers,
fueled by the explosion of information on the Internet, shows no signs of
abating.
Not only are people combing their family trees like never before, they are
hitting the road to do it, particularly in the summer, in search of a
physical, more personal connection to the past.

I don't know about you, but I recognize myself in this story- I have spent a
great deal of time and effort over the past decade trying to put together
the pieces of my family history, to understand better who were the
generations that left their homeland and came to America, that followed the
trail of freedom across oceans and mountains and prairie and found a place
to homestead and settle in the heartland of America.

And thanks, in part, to our scripture readings of the past two weeks, I feel
this is a worthwhile and necessary spiritual exercise.

This week our lectionary selection continues the reading from Paul's letter
to the Hebrews.  It is the passage that begins with: "Now faith is the
assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." and ends
with: 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."

In between these two thoughts, Paul gives us a genealogy of our spiritual
family.  He gives us thumbnail sketches of men and women who followed the
call of faith and left behind their familiar surroundings to be pilgrims and
sojourners on the land.  Paul says: "They confessed that they were strangers
and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear
that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land
that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But
as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one."

Last weeks reading focused on Abraham and Sarah, but this week we are
introduced to a cast of less famous family in the faith: Rahab, Gideon,
Barak, Samson, Jephthah.

And then, Paul brings to mind an unnamed group of ancestors, a group he
introduces simply by saying: Others suffered.

These who have suffered do not have a name to be remembered; yet they are
listed as the culmination of our faith family tree.  They are those who
faced mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were
stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they
went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented --
of whom the world, Paul writes, was not worthy.

Further, Paul says, all these, though they were commended for their faith,
did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better
so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

Now that, I think, is a critical thought in understanding our place in the
family of faith - a monumental insight into the meaning our life and the
rich and wonderful inheritance we all share: God had provided something
better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

This thought might not make a lot of sense if you think of the word perfect
as meaning faultless or ideal - for certainly none of us could claim to be
in that category.  But remember that we deal here with issues of translation
of Greek words to English, and the Greek word in this case can also be
translated as "complete" and completion is a far better fitting concept in
this case.

When we learn about our spiritual family - and quite probably when we learn
about our biological family as well - we learn that some have suffered, and
we confess that their suffering was for our sake.  They may not have
received what was hoped for, but it has become our inheritance, and so their
story, in ours, has been brought to completion.

Sometimes an inheritance brings privilege - not just of money, land, a place
in society, but also in the richness of love and devotion, of examples of
caring and faithful commitments.  But sometimes an inheritance also brings
an obligation.  An obligation not to forget the price that was paid for the
good things we enjoy.

It's a funny thing about human nature - or maybe not so much funny as
fallible and even unfortunate - but we can so easily fall into taking life
and life's blessings for granted.  The richest life we can imagine is but
dust on the tongue if it is lived with no sense of appreciation.  The
simplest most humble life can be abundant and glorious if it is lived in a
spirit of gratitude.  And gratitude is often born in suffering.

I'm not able to justify suffering, I'm not able to reconcile the reality of
suffering with the proclamation of a loving God, all I am able to do is to
observe a simple fact of life: appreciation for life's blessings finds a
fertile place to grow in the soil of suffering.

Perhaps that is why God chose that the Gospel story should have at its heart
a scene of suffering.  In the cross God gives strength and hope to those who
face suffering in their own lives; in the cross God gives compassion to
those who are burdened by the suffering of those they love.

And perhaps Christ bore the cross in part to give everyone with eyes to see
the gift of understanding that some have suffered for our sake, so that the
soil where appreciation and gratitude could grow would be present in our
lives without having to pay the full price ourselves.

Some of us make take the time this summer to visit cemeteries and libraries
to research our family and fit our own lives into a bigger picture that
gives us context and meaning.  I think that is a worthy endeavor.  But our
richest inheritance and our most sacred obligations are bigger even than our
families - for we are brothers and sisters, children and grandchildren in
this family of faith.

It is a family with a great story and a future full of hope.  It is a family
that has been courageous to leave behind what was familiar and follow the
call of faith into an unknown land.  It is a family where some have
suffered - and some are suffering still.  Our family story has at it's
center a gift of love made fully know in a scene of terrible affliction and
anguish - a scene brought to its completion in a miracle of love that speaks
to us of life overcoming death, joy overcoming suffering, reconciliation
overcoming separation and brokenness.

In this story, in our family of faith, I pray we find the strength to face
suffering with courage, to reach out to one another in our times of need, to
let appreciation, gratitude, and compassion flourish in the soil of our
soul, to run, as Paul writes, 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.

Amen
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