September 7, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

James 2:1-10, 14 – 17

1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

2 For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in,

3 and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,”

4 have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

5 Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

6 But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court?

7 Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

8 You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

9 But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.

10 For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?

15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food,

16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?

17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

Mark 7:24-37 (NRSV)

24 From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice,

25 but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.

26 Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter.

27 He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”

28 But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

29 Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”

30 So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

31 Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis.

32 They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him.

33 He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue.

34 Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.”

35 And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

36 Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it.

37 They were astounded beyond measure, saying, “He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.”

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Sermon - Indications and Evidence that God is Near

This morning our call to worship is a passage from Isaiah that speaks to those of a fearful heart.   Isaiah gives them some evidence to look for to know that God is near and ready to save.  He says: the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped.  Then, in the Gospel lesson we read two stories of Christ fulfilling these words of Isaiah as he heals the daughter possessed with a demon and opens the ears and loosens the tongue of the man both deaf and mute.  Mark, the Gospel writer, clearly sees in these deeds clear evidence of the near presence of God.

This summer I finally finished reading the book Sophie’s Choice.  It tells the story of Sophie, a young Polish woman who gets swept up in the terror of World War II and experiences first hand all the horror of the holocaust.  It is an experience that calls into question any sense that God is near, that God is ready to save.  Like any horrible event, from ancient times to 9/11, the reality of life sometimes seems more a testament to the absence of God than an affirmation of the words of our opening hymn: God himself is with us.

If we sometimes question the nearness of God, if our experience of God is more of absence than presence, does this cast us out of the circle of faith – does this disqualify us from the fellowship of the sacraments and the church? 

In search of an answer to this question I turned to a very learned professor of the Church, Hendrikus Berkhof, a Dutchman not that widely known but very thoughtful on all matters of the Christian faith.  Berkhof lived from 1914 to 1995, and so his faith, too, was tested by the demonic events of the Second World War

Berkhof has a very interesting description of the early history of religion – of human striving for indications and evidence that God is near. 

Berkhof says that in the beginning - there was no need for evidence of the nearness of God.   Indeed, the whole creation was experienced as the living garment of the divine and God was understood as a mirror reflection of nature – majestic and mysterious, contradictory and freakish, having many faces and taking many forms.  God was not only near, god was local – and there were many gods to match the many features and environments of nature.  God was a team of specialists – there was a god for rain, a god for crops, a god for cattle, a god for birth, a god for death.  And God was personal – every household, family, clan, tribe and kingdom had protection from its own deity.

God was fully present - The religious problem was not to find God, but to appease and influence God – to understand the rituals and sacrifices that were required to secure the good favor of the divine powers.  No one would go looking for evidence of the nearness of God, for humanity was immersed in the presence of God like a fish is immersed in the presence of the sea.

But all this changed when a Babylonian shepherd prince left his home in Mesopotamia with his family and set out for unknown lands.  He left behind the protection of his family gods and all the other familiar gods who watched over the life of the Babylonian people.  This pilgrim, named Abraham, set out with a trust in a higher, nameless God who was not bound to any locality or any people, but would watch over Abraham in his old country, his new country, and in the dangerous desert lying between them. 

This was not a God who was one with nature, but a God who existed before nature, a God above nature, a God who comes in and out of the world and makes the divine power known in actions and revelations at times that cannot be controlled by any priest, sacrifice, or ritual.   This is a God who is pleased not by religion but by righteousness – by the kind of high moral standards expressed in the words of James: You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Unlike the gods of nature, this God is not always there - there is a coming and a going – there are times of face to face revelation and times when God is hidden - and so a new concept comes into play – the concept of faith - faith as an “assurance of things not seen.”   As Berkhof writes:

The narrators of Genesis (take every) opportunity to make clear how difficult this faith was for Abraham and his followers.  For long periods they could go through life without receiving any sign of the saving nearness of their God.  Their life (was made bearable for them) because they remembered former saving encounters on which they could base expectations of help for the future.

(The Bible) views Abraham’s whole life from this perspective.  In a groping sort of way he goes from promise to fulfillment and then again to new promises, living a life of belief that exists on the brink of unbelief.

This one God who is creator of all yet not contained in the creation is the radical viewpoint of the Bible on God. 

On the other side of the coin, the Bible’s viewpoint on humanity is that even when this God does choose to enter into history and reveal the divine will, human beings resist.  The Bible gives us picture after picture of how people who are perfectly happy with the status quo fail to recognize when God speaks, and even if they recognize God’s work in the world, they will not change their ways, they will not relinquish their privilege, they will not share their wealth, they will not yield to the demands of justice; on the contrary, they will, at all costs, chose the rewards of the world and refuse the saving nearness of God. 

If any are open to the saving nearness of God it is those who are in eager anticipation of a radical transformation of the world, or at least of their circumstances in the world – the poor, the lame, the blind, the leper, the oppressed – so James writes: Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

From the Christian point of view, this story reaches a dramatic culmination and turning point when God chooses to enter into history as a human being in Jesus on Nazareth.  Yet, Jesus is met with fierce resistance, resistance that no only refused to accept what God was doing, but accused him of blasphemy against God and condemned him to death on a cross.  

Then God raised Jesus from death because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.  Jesus appeared to the disciples for a time and then ascended into heaven – that is, he disappeared from their sight, he was no longer present to them - their relationship with him went from face to face companionship and intimacy to absence, remembrance, and hope.

Henri Nouwen writes: The great mystery of the divine revelation is that God entered into intimacy with us not only by Christ’s coming, but also by his leaving.  When Jesus explains to his disciples that he will soon be crucified he says:  “Now I am going to him who sent me; (and) because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your hearts.   Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.  The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

And so, we find ourselves again in the situation of Abraham, only more of the story has been told and God has done what no mortal being could have anticipated, expected, demanded or deserved – God has appeared in the flesh, God has taken action, God has given us a memorable legacy of words and deeds of redemption. 

This life we live as people of faith is a reminder of both God’s reality and God’s absence.   That’s why it is a walk of faith – of the assurance of things not seen.  

There has always been a tendency to be dissatisfied with this situation.  People want God on call – a God’s whose presence and power can be summoned up by righteousness (that is, I do good, I deserve God to be with me) or by ritual (as in a church service with inspirational music and powerful preaching) or by some other modern magic – and magic is what it sometimes boils down to, magic or showmanship or something that if it isn’t the presence of God feels good in just the religious way we expect God to make us feel.

People want God on call – they find no peace in the human condition which Paul so elegantly described as seeing in a mirror, dimly: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. “

People want the face to face now; they want to know fully now – it’s hard to find the patience to wait for the promised future time, it’s difficult to find the faith to carry us from now until then.

There are times that you and I may sense the near presence of God and there are times when we may experience God as hidden and absent –both times are firmly within the circle of faith, and no experience of God’s absence disqualifies us from fellowship at the sacramental table of the church.

If anything, we need this time of remembering the most when our faith is tested. We need to recall the vision of a promised future most clearly when the evidence around us suggests that evil is more at work in the world than love and grace.

We do not come to this table confessing the fullness of our faith – we come confessing our hunger for assurance and help and whatever it is God can supply us to keep our spirits strong and our hope alive in this time between now and then.  That is why we celebrate an open communion.  That is why we say that this sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people.  That is why we offer to God our prayer of thanksgiving.

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