September 18, 2005
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Philippians 1:21-30
For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you. Since I am convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with all of you for your progress and joy in faith, so that I may share abundantly in your boasting in Christ Jesus when I come to you again. Only, live your life in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that, whether I come and see you or am absent and hear about you, I will know that you are standing firm in one spirit, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel, and are in no way intimidated by your opponents. For them this is evidence of their destruction, but of your salvation. And this is God’s doing. For he has graciously granted you the privilege not only of believing in Christ, but of suffering for him as well— since you are having the same struggle that you saw I had and now hear that I still have.

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Sermon: Cozying Up to the Big Inevitable

Woody Allen once said: It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

In a culture that worships youth and productivity, death has been called the last taboo. We are estranged from death, which is unwise, because when death is a stranger it simply lurks in the shadows – the big uneasy, the great unknown, the ever-present inevitable.

Not that even knowing death enables us to explain it. When Jesus was preparing his disciples for the events of his arrest, execution, and death, he said to them “You know the place where I am going and you know the way.” Thomas said – we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?” Thomas speaks for all of us.

It’s quite possible, from the human side, that religion was born in death -- in the emotion of loss, in the mystery of absence, in just those questions that Thomas had the courage to ask. Among the first signs of religious practice – dating back ten thousand years and more – were burial rites – the careful preparation of the mother, the father, the child in their death and their burial along with food and later bowls, cups, and a whole variety of objects that might prove useful to them in the after life.

I understand those primitive urges. When my father and mother were buried I put some money in the grave with them – just in case their was Chinese take-out in the world to come.

Of course as a minister I deal with deal quite often, and I’ve seen death be both an enemy and a friend. Timing is everything in death.

I was speaking with a Tom Olejniczak (O – La – knee–Chuck) this week after I read in the paper that his mother Sofia had died. He was kind enough to share some of her story with me and give me permission to share it with you:

She was born in Poland in 1926. She never got to meet her Mom who died during her birth. Her dad was a finish carpenter, a blacksmith, and ran a small grinding mill. During the invasion of Poland, her family helped their Jewish friends by building a safe room in their house. The Nazi’s found out about it and took their friends away and put her dad in jail. She never saw her friends again.
On a Sunday morning in 1942, an elderly woman who went to church early had noticed many Nazi soldiers waiting there. She sent a young boy to warn the families not to come to church. Sophie did not go and spent three days in the forest to avoid being taken from her family by the Nazi’s. She was 16 years old at the time.
A few days later, she was dragged from her home and put on a train to Germany. She spent the next three years working as a slave laborer for the Nazi’s. They forced her to load coal on trains by hand and to maintain the underground bunkers where the stolen war merchandise was hidden.
After witnessing the atrocities of war and living though it, she met Joseph Olejniczak (O-La-Knee-Chuck) and they were married in 1946. In 1951 they arrived in the United States with two suitcases, two children, and dreams of a better life. They lived in Brewster before moving to Danbury where they raised seven children and ten grand children. She devoted her life to her children so they could have a better life and sacrificed daily for them. 
When thinking of Sofia a saying comes to mind,    “Mother is the name of God in the eyes of all Children”  

Sofia, in her last days, was very, very sick. She had survived many perils in her life and escaped a young and untimely death during the war. At the end of her life, though, death took on a different aspect. It became her open door, a welcome escape from the ravages of disease, infirmity, and suffering.

The anticipation of death without fear is what can motivate a person like the Apostle Paul to express the thought we read in his letter to the Philippians this morning: For to me, living is Christ and dying is gain.

We do not hear this message often outside of funerals – in part, as I mentioned, because death is the last taboo in a culture that worships youth and productivity. If you compare a hymnal from 100 years ago to something published in the last five years, you realize that this taboo extends even into the worship life of the church.

Here is an old hymnal entitled “Welcome Tidings – a new collection of Sacred Songs for the Sunday School,” published in 1877. Now, mind you, this is a book for children’s worship, yet it is has many songs that deal frankly and openly with the subject of death.

When I have finished my journey on earth,
Ended my labor of love,
When I am waiting for Jesus to say,
Haste to thy mansion above:
Say, will the angels come? And to Jesus, carry me home?
Say, will the angels come? And to Jesus, carry me home?

Here’s another:
Soon will come the setting sun,
when our work will all be done,
and the weary heart at last be still.
But the Lord, with loving cry, will awake us by and by,
And we’ll meet again on Zion’s hill.

Maybe the old-timers didn’t expect as much or feel entitled to as much in life as we do, and so they seemed to cozy up to death and develop and imaginative and emotional readiness for it in a way we do not. This, I think, is a blind spot in our living and something the church, of all places, should work to correct. Towards that end, I’ve put together a medley of some hymns that Johnny Cash sang in one of his last recordings. I believe music is the better vehicle here because this is not strictly an intellectual problem – this is a matter of heart, soul, and mind.

I’ve mentioned this collection of hymns before – after his wife died, Johnny Cash took his mother’s old hymnal and his guitar out to a cabin on his property equipped for recording and simply sang the songs of his childhood. The CD is called “My Mother’s Hymnal.” In his voice, I think, you can hear something of the faith, hope, desire, and assurance that opens the eye to both the realities of life and of death. I hope it is good medicine for your soul today.
Audio - Johnny Cash Hymn Mix  Realaudio

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