September 8, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Romans 13:8-14

Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

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Sermon: Has the Whistle Blown for the Third Quarter?

On December 12, 1968, the New York Times published the obituaries, side by side, for two of the great Christian writers and teachers of the 20th century - Karl Barth and Thomas Merton. Barth was a famous Bible and Theology teacher who published his first major work just after World War I. He was born in Switzerland but the brilliance of his writing earned him an appointment as professor at several of Germany’s great universities. His reputation as a scholar was tested as the Nazi’s came into power, and he passed the test - He refused to take an oath of allegiance to Hitler and became a leading voice of the opposition, which forced him to leave the country. When he died he was 82 but he was such a historic figure that you were simply amazed that he was still alive.

Thomas Merton, on the other hand, was a young man, only 53. The book that brought him to international attention was written just after World War II - his spiritual autobiography entitled, The Seven Story Mountain. It told the story of his journey from a self-absorbed agnostic young man at Columbia University to a convert to Catholicism to a teacher at a Harlem settlement house, to his decision to leave the active world and enter a Trappist Monastery.

Trappist Monks have a focus on the contemplative life, on poverty, simplicity, silence, manual labor, and prayer. Merton attracted a world wide audience both seekers and religious leaders; among his avid readers were Pope John XXIII and the Dalai Lama. In fact these two men figured closely in the circumstances of Merton’s death.

Trappist Monks traditionally stayed close to home, but in response to the call of the Pope John XXIII’s Second Vatican Council for greater interreligious dialogue, Merton traveled to India to meet with the Dalai Lama in 1968, and then went to Bangkok for a conference of Eastern and Western monastic leaders. It was at this conference where Merton died, apparently electrocuted by a faulty room fan.

We read Merton’s books in seminary - books like Contemplative Prayer, Thoughts in Solitude, Seeds of Contemplation, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Wisdom of the Desert, and The Non-Violent Alternative.

In his life and even more in his death Merton was an icon for those who sought quiet spirituality, which might explain my surprise when I read in the New York Times Letters to the Sports Section editor last Sunday that Thomas Merton was a football fan.

The letter writer was quoting from Merton’s personal journal from the last year of his life, August 26, 1968. Merton was spending an evening with friends in Louisville, KY, thirty miles from his Monastery in Gethsemane, and he wrote:

Finally, a crowning American ritual, sitting dead tired with a glass of buorbon in the lounge of the Franciscan Friary watching pro football on TV - at mid-night! The Packers beat the Cowboys - and it was, I must say, damn good football because it was preseason and so many contracts depended on it.

Football is one of the really valid and deep American rituals. It has a religious seriousness.. A comic, contemplative dynamism… a dependable regularity, continuity, and an ever renewed variety. Another play is decided, and that’s enough - on to the next one, until the final whistle blows - They disperse. Cosmic breakup. Final Score 31-27, is now football history. This will last forever - we saw it happen.I was thinking that this letter picked up on one of the elements that make football and other sports so attractive - it’s all so clearly structured, such a containment of chaos and surprise within the order and dependability of the rules, the clock, the whistles blowing to signify the steady progression of the game from start to finish - So tidy and so unlike our sorry experience of life.

Let me stick with my football theme a little longer. Many of you know I collect old football treasures - well, not everyone thinks these things are treasures, but in the case of this book I think there is something close to treasure. I picked up this old college yearbook, University of Nebraska, 1915, looking for a picture of the man who was my father’s first coach in professional football, Guy Chamberlain, and sure enough it was in there. But what I found really interesting was the introduction to the synopsis of the previous football season.

First recall that on June 28, 1914, a terrorist group called the Black Hand mounted an attack in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, resulting in the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand. With the perspective of history, we now look at that event as the opening whistle on World War I. But in 1915, in Lincoln, Nebraska, home of the Cornhuskers, that event seemed no more than an annoying fly buzzing on the back porch screen, a foreign distraction which, unfortunately, took people’s minds off the more serious business of the 1914 football season. Let me read what they wrote:

Had a pistol shot from the hand of a reckless Sophomore not cut short the career of a Hapsburg in Europe last summer, it would not now be necessary to inform the world that about the middle of last August, while people were speculating as to whether Belgium would have Germany licked before England could come to her assistance, things were shaping themselves in the western hemisphere for a conflict fully as important to Nebraska as the one on the other side of the wave Britannia claims to rule. The “Things” referred to were a band of football players - and so on to the story of the 1914 football season.

It would be two years before America entered the war, but I’m sure there were many of those bright eyed young men who populate that 1915 year book who went “over there” and who witnessed a horror of a war like the world had never known before. When they wrote that this terrorist incident in Sarajevo was a strictly European concern, when they humorously compared it in significance to a football season, they had no idea what history had in store for them and their generation.

This was brought to my mind lat month when at a meeting with the Mayor to discuss how the town of New Milford should commemorate the first anniversary of 9/11, some in attendance expressed the thought that over time the significance of the day would diminish and that perhaps we should keep everything very low key and let that process begin.

But the fact is, we have no idea yet the significance of that day. We’re like those Cornhuskers in 1915 - We don’t know if it was the beginning of something, the end of something, the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning. We don’t know if we’ve heard the opening whistle, the first quarter, half-time, or the quarter whistle. We know the game is not over, but that’s about all.

Well, I shouldn’t say that’s about all - we may not have historical perspective, but we do have a tremendous amount of fierce emotion still to process. If anyone saw the Frontline documentary on public television last week which examined the religious aftermath of 9/11, you saw how deep the wounds still are from the loss of life, how shaken to the foundations people’s faith has been, how some who were very disconnected from church have found great comfort in returning and rediscovering a life of prayer, and how some who were strong in their spiritual life have been left speechless in prayer and feeling abandoned by God.

9/11 has just left so many people with such gut-wrenching grief, that it’s like an emotional weather system that sends swirling clouds of darkness across the sky hiding the sun from all living creatures in the most unexpected moments.

Most of us have known grief in our lives, but fortunately a lot of that is what you might call game-plan grief. Getting back to Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, Barth died at age 82, Merton at 53. That’s a big and consequential difference.
Not that people shouldn’t live longer than 82, but Barth’s death was in the game plan. What is it the psalmist says about length of days - three score and ten, seventy or eighty if we are strong?

My father lived to be 93 and there were a couple of times when we thought we heard the final whistle only to discover that the officials had put an extra two minutes on his clock. I remember one time we even called my brother in the middle of the night to drive up from Maryland because all the vital signs indicated it was clearly the end. By morning he was sitting up eating breakfast and making jokes - there was two more minutes - actually 8 more months, on his scoreboard.

This happened more than once, although the last time it happened, it was not for the best. We felt like yelling - he’s exhausted now, take him out of the game, what’s he struggling for here, another can of ensure?

It was still hard when he died, but it, too, was game plan grief, something expected, in the normal order of things, not gut wrenching like 9/11 or like other tragic moments which individuals, families, and even communities endure.

But endure we must. We must remember, we must honor, we must take whatever imperfect understanding we have of the significance of the historical meaning of that event and add it to the emotional connection we have to the personal meaning of the day and stand before God and say: Lord, have mercy upon us. Deliver us from evil.

This morning we read a letter of encouragement that Paul wrote to the new church in Rome. They did not know what trials they faced, what repressions, persecutions, terror, and suffering they would have to endure. But they did have faith that in the struggle for good against evil, in the struggle between God’s will and man’s ways, they had seen the end of the story foretold and secured in the cross and resurrection of Christ. So Paul writes: salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near.

That may not tell us a lot about what will be required of us and our children, but it does give us faith in the final outcome. And we need that faith to give us the strength to endure. And endure we must. Lord, have mercy upon us. Deliver us from evil.

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