September 21, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 9:30-37
They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

Genesis 28:10-22
Jacob left Beer-sheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it.

And the Lord stood beside him and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”

Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel; but the name of the city was Luz at the first.

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one-tenth to you.”

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Sermon: Surely the Lord Is In this Place!

The story of Jacob’s ladder has served many purposes in the life of the church and beyond. In its most popular usage it represents the difficult climb of spiritual, personal, and social struggle – every rung leads higher, higher. In the Benedictine Rule of the Middle Ages, the ladder was linked to Jesus words from our Gospel lesson: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all;” indicating that the way to the heavenly heights is along the steps of humility; the way up is the way down.

Others have seen in the ladder an image of Christ and of the body of Christ, the church. And so the ladder becomes a type of our worship, a moment of vision, an all too brief opening of the eyes to the glory and mercy of God. Jacob is moved to build a small altar in that spot. Not that the glory are mercy of God are confined to that space and time, but only so that the clarity of the vision will not vanish like an ordinary dream upon awakening, so that there will be a means of remembrance, a way to pass the gift along from generation to generation.

From generation to generation the human heart seeks a vision of God, an opportunity to say with Jacob: Surely God is in the place! It moves us to mission and worship; it moves us to build sanctuaries set aside for remembrance and prayer. And each generation seeks to renew its faith in ways that are meaningful and relevant to their own time and place.

About four years ago Paul Ellner first walked into my office. After three decades in teaching, Dr. Ellner had been named Professor Emeritus of Microbiology and Pathology at the College of Physicians & Surgeons, Columbia University. Fortunately, it wasn’t his interest in infectious diseases that brought him to our church; it was his love of writing and research for his first novel.

“A Separate Season” was published in 2001 and it tells the story of Daniel Rowland, “a young farmer who is mysteriously transported from Colonial Connecticut to the twentieth century. With his wife and unborn son in the distant past, Daniel lives on the fringe of society, struggling to make a life for himself. He experiences crime, murder, medical and legal complications and the frustration of rejection as an imposter.”

Because he planned to send Daniel to church, Dr. Ellner wanted to know what would be different for someone who was a Congregationalist in New England but missed the last 200 years of history. Let me read you how our discussions and his visit to this church ended up in the book.

A friend named Roger who believes Daniel’s story of having mysteriously woken up two centuries ahead of himself invites Daniel to join him for Sunday services. As they are driving into New Haven Daniel asks – “Where is the meeting house?”

“Why do you call it a meeting house?” asks Roger.

“Well, our building was used for prayer and for town meetings – truly the church is the people.”

The organ is playing as they enter and take a seat near the front.

“Methinks you must pay a goodly amount of taxes for so fair a pew,” Daniel says.

“What do you mean?”

“Is this not your seat?”

“No, you can sit anywhere you want. Were seats assigned in your meetinghouse?”

“Of a certainty. They were assigned each year by the church elders according to the tax rolls. Special seats were saved for dignified persons.”

Daniel observed the stained glass windows, the cross in front of the pulpit, and the choir dressed in burgundy robes with while collars. Two ministers, wearing white robes with multi-colored stoles, entered and took seats on the raised choir loft in the front. Daniel was amazed to see that one of them was a woman. The woman minister rose, welcomed everyone and invited them to greet the people seated nearby. All stood and shook hands.

The minister announced a hymn, which everyone seemed to know. She read a prayer of invocation and a lesson from the scripture. This was followed by an offering, and more hymns, some sung by the choir. The other minister read a scripture lesson and delivered a short sermon entitled “In my Father’s House are Many Mansions” which dealt with respecting other religions. After another hymn there was a benediction and, to Daniels surprise, the service ended. As the people left Roger shook hands with one of the ministers and introduced Daniel as a cousin from Guilford.

Reverend Michael Hutchison was a tall man in his fifties, with piercing blue eyes, gray hair, and an athletic frame. He asked, “How did our service compare with the one you are accustomed to in Guildford?”

“Well sir,” said Daniel, “I would not wish to commit an indecorum on the Sabbath but I presume that by some misunderstanding my kinsman and I have just attended a Papist service.”

The minister mouth dropped open and Roger suggested they adjourn to the study and have a little talk. He explained Daniel’s awakening and with some lingering skepticism, Rev. Hutchinson asks Daniel how the service was different from what he knew in the past.

Daniel answers: “Everything was different. Church was very stern. The meeting house was very plain; there were no ornaments, no organ music; no heat in the winter. The services lasted all day. We were fined if we failed to attend. The pastor wore a plain black suit with a white collar. Of a certainty there were no women ministers. There was no offering – we paid a tax to the church once a year. And I saw Christmas hymns in your hymn book. We did not celebrate Christmas. We knew no hymns; we san psalms but forsooth each sang to his own tune. The sermons were very long indeed. mayhap two hours or more a verily of a different slant. Our pastor taught that we were corrupt and that we must turn away from sin and be saved and that those who did not believe would be damned.

Well, said Rev. Hutchison, the congregational church has changed…..

I don’t suppose you’d need a 200 year interval to make that statement - surely even in the lifetimes of some sitting here today there have been revolutionary changes in the practice of the church. After all it was only in 1971 that women were elected to the office of Deacon here and not until 12 years ago that the first ordained woman was brought onto the staff.

Also, this physical space has changed about every 40 years – about once every generation. The position of the pulpit, the place of the choir, the change from plain glass to stained glass, the opening of the front to allow greater versatility and lay participation – all these physical changes are easy to see, but they pale in comparison to the social and psychological changes that have occurred in the life of the congregation. If anything, the outward changes lag a generation behind the transformations of the inner life.

To prepare for the historical recollections event of the Strategic Planning Committee, I’ve been reviewing some older Annual reports. Thirty years ago, Rev. A. Russell Ayre, our Senior Pastor Emeritus, wrote: Something surely must happen to the church in the next few years. Too much has happened in the world around us during the last half-century, and to the way we perceive reality, to permit the church to go on uninterruptedly conducing worship the way it has for the past three or four hundred years. Two global wars, nuclear fission, cybernetics, Freud, Stravinsky, Picasso, moon shots, wonder drugs, organ transplants, Telstar, ethnic revolutions, Kent State, the Beatles, nude theater, LSD, Jesus Christ Superstar --- how many light years are we away from the church that entered this century ---- or even the kind of God they worshipped? And what contempt the church shows for the world by going on, you know --- business as usual, as though nothing had happened, either outside its walls or in the consciousness of those who enter to worship! The world has changed and so have we.

To live is to change – change or die; this worship space we’ve opened up will signify, I hope, a new openness to change - change in our habits of worship, change in our understanding of church, change in our identity as disciples. It’s still the same vision and insight that motivates us as did Jacob – Surely God is in this place!

It doesn’t matter whether we are pouring oil over a rock in the desert or sitting all day in a cold square box of a meeting house or looking at power point presentations with surround sound stereo on giant plasma flat screen monitors – what we seek is a vision of God, an understanding of ourselves, a sense of where we have been, where we are going, what is the guiding purpose that gives meaning to our lives, and how we can take the upward path through the life of service we know in Christ.

The gift has been passed to our generation. We’ve put our mark on it and made it our own. May God bless us as we work together to be faithful disciples in this time and this place. Amen.

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