Sermon
August 24, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings


Ephesians 6:10-20

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

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Sermon - Soldiers of the Cross


As the workers on the sanctuary renovation have been moving some things around that haven’t been moved for a long time, they’ve come up with a few artifacts of days gone by in the life of the church. One pamphlet they found was the Pilgrim Quarterly, An Aid to the Study of the International Sunday School Lesson for Senior Classes, covering October 5 to December 28, 1890. That’s a surprising find since, you may know, this building was enlarged and completely redesigned in 1892 – so this little booklet must have had quite a hiding place.

Also in the nooks and crannies they found of more recent vintage a Sunday bulletin from March 1963 and a New Milford Theatre handbill from later that same year. In 1963 A. Russell Ayre was the Minister, Richard B. Hill was the student assistant, Mrs. William Murphy was the Secretary and Harold Hunt was the Organist and Choir Director. The church phone number is listed as Elgin 4-8232.

Among the movies playing in town in May and June of 1963 were “Days of Wine and Roses” starring Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick, and “To Kill a Mockingbird” starring Gregory Peck. Does anyone recall these films?

I remember those as both very powerful movies addressing important social topics – alcoholism in one and racism in the other. Probably the one that has best stood the test of time is “To Kill a Mockingbird” and certainly the racial themes it explored were very much front page news in the spring and summer of 1963.

In fact, the events of that summer have made it to the front page again as the National Park Service on Friday dedicated an engraving on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to mark the spot where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech on August 28, 1963.

There was a great mass of humanity stretched out in front of Dr. King as he spoke to those who had come for the March on Washington, but it was also the first time television had covered such an event and King spoke to a national audience as NBC and ABC cut away from the afternoon soap operas to join the live coverage CBS had been providing all afternoon. It was a culminating moment, and it will be replayed often I’m sure, as the 40th anniversary approaches this week.

What might not be remembered and replayed are some of the ugly and tragic events that led up to the march and made it possible.

I happen to have a volume of Life magazines from May and June of 1963. I graduated from high school that year – an all boys high school in Manhattan called McBurney. Our senior class had been hired to be the background crowd for a couple of Coca-Cola ads. A few years ago I was trying to find a copy of one ad and bought this set of Life magazines where it appeared on the back page of the May 10, 1963 issue.

As I leafed through the pages of these magazines to see if this picture appeared anywhere else, I couldn’t help but be struck by some of the stories that were being told week by week and the images that brought the history of that time to life.

If I just turn a few pages forward in the May 17 issue we have a headline: The spectacle of racial turbulence in Birmingham: They Fight a Fire That Won’t Go Out – with a picture of firemen using high pressure water as a weapon against “Negro demonstrators”. Turn the page and there are the attach dogs of City Police Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor ripping at the pants of an unarmed man.

If you go ahead a couple of weeks, the cover story is Gordon Cooper’s flight in space – 22 times around the earth for a new record. But back in the magazine is a profile of James Baldwin with this headline: At A Crucial Time A Negro Talks Tough: “There’s a bill due that has to be paid.” And then in the very next issue: Angry Spokesman Malcolm X Tells Off Whites.

And then finally, and unfortunately, in the last issue of June, a cover photo with the caption: Medgar Evers’ Widow Consoles Her Son At Funeral Service. Medgar Evers, field secretary with the NAACP was returning home from a meeting when he was shot in the back from a thicket across the street. He dragged himself to his doorstep as his wife and three children watched, and died within the hour. He was 37 years old and a combat veteran of World War II.

It was these events, and many others like them in the months and years and decades before, that led to the March on Washington and the optimistic oratory of Martin Luther King. And for many of us who were coming of age in those days these events defined our understanding of what a phrase like “soldier of the cross” might mean. It gave a real and visible presence to Paul’s admonition to:

be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.

The clear Christian conviction of a leader like Martin Luther King, the unbelievable courage of the freedom riders in the face of hatred and violence, the humble patience of the demonstrators who suffered humiliation and ridicule as they sat in at segregated lunch counters in the South - this standing strong was a beacon of light that illuminated the words of Paul and put the challenge of faith in the most practical and contemporary terms. Who would stand up for the rights of those oppressed? Who would stand firm when the resistance of hatred turned ugly and violent? Who would be a soldier of the cross?

Times of social turmoil surely provide a dramatic backdrop for testing our Christian convictions and bringing soldierly virtues to the fore. Isaac Watts wrote a famous hymn in which he questions his own readiness to put on the full armor of Christ and face up to the evil of his day:

Am I a soldier of the cross,

A follower of the Lamb,

And shall I fear to own His cause,

Or blush to speak His Name?

Must I be carried to the skies

On flowery beds of ease,

While others fought to win the prize,

And sailed through bloody seas?

This was written in 1724 in conjunction with a sermon he preached: “Holy Fortitude or Remedies Against Fears.” The social struggle he was engaged in was for religious freedom from the established church of England, the same struggle that led the pilgrims to leave their homes and come to this new land. Surely the virtues of a soldier - the heart, the courage, the readiness, the willingness to sacrifice – all these are tested in times of political upheaval and social change; but the test is not limited to such times.

The soldiers’ heart and courage are often seen in battlefields that are far removed from war and have nothing to do with the state of society. Sometimes we find the soldiers’ heart and the necessity of putting on the whole armor of God in the most personal struggles and the most intimate times of trial - when the concern is not freedom for a race or a religious group from oppression, but personal freedom from fear; the issue is not political righteousness but personal integrity; when what is at stake is not the direction of a society but the future of a family, the legacy left behind by a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child who has faced the worst and shown their best.

I think immediately of a couple of members of our congregation who waged courageous and extended battles with cancer over the past years, but who came to the end of the line and faced their unknown tomorrow with hope and faith and real Christian dignity.

No plaques will mark the place where they made their last stand and no monuments will be raised in their remembrance, but in the hearts of their families and their friends, in the life of this church, the in the personal battles they fought, in the private fears they faced and overcame, they stand as witnesses to the words of Paul – they put on the whole armor of God, they proved themselves soldiers of the cross, they found their sure defense as bearers of the shield of faith.

Who knows what struggles these times will bring? Who knows what turns our lives will take and what challenges we will face? Perhaps we will be spared the test or perhaps we will have to exhaust all our strength and go to the very limits of our courage. Perhaps in that test we will remember, and come to know for the first time, the full meaning of Paul’s admonition: be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power; take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
 
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