Sermon
September 5, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
Write to Rev. Moran

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Scripture Readings

Exodus 14:19-31     The angel of God who was going before the Israelite army moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from in front of them and took its place behind them. 20 It came between the army of Egypt and the army of Israel. And so the cloud was there with the darkness, and it lit up the night; one did not come near the other all night.

    21 Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea. The LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land; and the waters were divided. 22 The Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. 23 The Egyptians pursued, and went into the sea after them, all of Pharaoh's horses, chariots, and chariot drivers. 24 At the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and cloud looked down upon the Egyptian army, and threw the Egyptian army into panic. 25 He clogged their chariot wheels so that they turned with difficulty. The Egyptians said, "Let us flee from the Israelites, for the LORD is fighting for them against Egypt."

    26 Then the LORD said to Moses, "Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers." 27 So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea. 28 The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained. 29 But the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.

    30 Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the Egyptians; and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. 31 Israel saw the great work that the LORD did against the Egyptians. So the people feared the LORD and believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses. (NRSV)

 Matthew 18:21-35     Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

    23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, 'Pay what you owe.' 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, 'Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, 'You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart." (NRSV)

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 Sermon

 This morning’s sermon, like a lot of sermons for me, came into focus when I thought of the words of a song.   It’s a spiritual, and goes:

 Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?  Then why not every man?

 He delivered Daniel from the lion’s den,

Jonah from the belly of the whale,

And the Hebrew children from the fiery furnace,

Then why not every man?

 The moon run down in a purple stream,

The sun refused to shine,

Every star did disappear,

Yes, Freedom shall be mine

 I couldn’t figure out where I’d heard this song - it wasn’t to be found in my CD’s tapes and records.  Then I realized that I wasn’t hearing my own voice singing it - Praise the Lord, but the deep voice of Paul Robeson.   I had watched a PBS American Masters special about Robeson just a few weeks ago, so it was his voice that had been rumbling around in my head every since.  Luckily, I found a recording at the library - give a listen:

That recording is from an outdoor concert in 1953, where Robeson sang to a crowd of 40,000 from the back of a flat bed truck.  There’s a lot more to the story of Paul Robeson than we can go into here, but briefly he was born in Princeton New Jersey in 1898.  He father had been a slave.  He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Rutgers University where he was an All American football player.   He went on to a career on stage and in the movies that made him the most recognized Black man in America and one of the most famous singers in the world.  But during the McCarthy era after World War II he was branded a communist so no one would hire him or allow him to sing in their hall or theater.  His passport was taken away, and when he was invited to sing in Canada he wasn’t allowed to leave the United States.  So they backed up this flatbed truck to within two feet of the Canadian American border and Robeson sang there in a park to a crowd of 40,000.  And he sang: . Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?  Then why not every man?

 When Paul Robeson sang about deliverance it had deep meaning in racial, economic, political and personal terms.

 This song he sings expresses the truth that deliverance is at the center of the Bible story - the deliverance of Daniel from the lions den, of  Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the fiery furnace, of Jonah from the whale, of Moses and the people of Israel from slavery in the land of Egypt.  Listen to Paul Robeson (continue reading while it plays)

 

Do you remember the story of Daniel.  Daniel is deported from the land of Israel to Babylon.  He comes to the notice of King Nebuchadnezzar because of his skill in interpreting dreams and signs.  He foresees the end of the reign of Nebuchadnezzar and Nebuchadnezzar‘s son Belshazzar. 

 Belshazzar’s son, King Darius, sees Daniel’s abilities and gives him a leadership role in his kingdom.   He rises quickly in the service of the King, and this sparks jealousy among those he passes on the way up.  They convince Darius to pass a law that all prayers must be addressed to the King alone and to no other God.   Punishment for violation of this law is death in the lion’s den.

 Of course Daniel is a loyal Jew and every day says his prayers to his God.  He is spied on and turned in to the King, who is now trapped into punishing him.   The King’s last words to Daniel are: “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you!”  And into the den of lions goes Daniel.

 At daybreak the King returns, only to find that God has sent an angel to shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel is safe.  So the King frees Daniel and throws his accusers into the lions den.  So sad for them, for it says: “Before they reached the bottom of the den the lions overpowered them and broke all their bones in pieces.”

 Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?  Then why not everyone?

 Great tales of deliverance, freedom, liberation - these are at the center of salvation’s story.  But what does it mean for us today.

 Deliverance today can mean avoiding slaughter in East Timor.  It can mean finding a warm place to survive the winter in Turkey.  It can mean a loan to get you through a season of drought and into a new year on an American family farm. 

 It can mean a donor heart, insurance to pay for a bone marrow transplant, drugs to ease the ache of arthritis or the alienation of Alzheimer’s, hospice to provide palliative care at the end of life.

 Deliverance can have a social and psychological aspect as well.  Don’t you think it would be good if God sent angels to shut the mouths of those who devour people with malicious rumor, gossip, and slander?  How about deliverance from anxiety, depression, and fear. 

 The Gospel lesson this morning talks about the kind of deliverance that gives us the freedom to forgive. Jesus teaches us to forgive our enemies.  John Kennedy once said “Forgive your enemies but never forget their names.” 

 I may learn to forgive seventy times seven times, but that doesn’t mean I want to be a doormat more than once.

 Spiritual deliverance is a subtle and complex matter.  What is that famous line from Pogo: We have met the enemy and he is us?

 The many ways we tie ourselves into knots has been the subject of religious thought and drama for centuries.   It’s not an easy path to freedom; it doesn’t happen overnight.  And it also doesn’t happen when we become obsessively self absorbed.  We find deliverance when we engage in the work deliverance for others as well as for ourselves.

 Christ calls us to freedom.   “For freedom Christ has set us free. - where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”

 That means our walk of faith is a walk along a path of deliverance, of liberation.  We ask God to help us see the truth about ourselves, so we may let go of those beliefs and habits and hardness of heart which enslave us.  And we ask God to draw us closer to Christ in paths of service, so that our freedom is fulfilled in setting others free.

 For didn’t our Lord did deliver Daniel, and you, and me.  Then why not everyone?

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 Let us pray:

 Thank you, Holy One, for the stories of deliverance and freedom.  And thank you for those among us who are still writing new chapters in salvation’s story as they do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with you, our God.  May we, too, bear witness to your glad tidings of redemption and release.

 Our prayers today are with all who bear a heavy burden of fear, uncertainty, grief, pain, and suffering.  We cannot begin to name them all, but each, we know, is known by you.  Keep us, O Lord, from doing harm and adding to their burden.  Set us free to serve them in their need.  Remind us each day to offer our prayers for their healing and deliverance.

 We do offer before you the names of
Hilda Shaltegger
 the family of Joyce Burden
and those we name in the silence of our hearts.

 We thank you that you have blessed us with the enthusiastic service of our church school teachers who will, in word and deed, communicate your living presence and the stories of salvation to our children.   We pray that they may grow up strong in faith, hope, and love.

 We thank you for the service of our choir and all who sing the songs of faith.  May we be blessed with a song of joy and deliverance always on our lips and in our hearts.

 Keep us safe, we pray, in the week ahead, that we might gather together again to remember the sabbath day and share the good news of Jesus Christ.  For at his invitation and in his name we offer these and all our prayers.  Amen.

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