Sermon
September 29, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 21:23-32
When he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came to him as he was teaching, and said, "By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?" Jesus said to them, "I will also ask you one question; if you tell me the answer, then I will also tell you by what authority I do these things. Did the baptism of John come from heaven, or was it of human origin?" And they argued with one another, "If we say, 'From heaven,' he will say to us, 'Why then did you not believe him?' But if we say, 'Of human origin,' we are afraid of the crowd; for all regard John as a prophet." So they answered Jesus, "We do not know." And he said to them, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things.
"What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work in the vineyard today.' He answered, 'I will not'; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, 'I go, sir'; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?" They said, "The first." Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

Philippians 2:1-13
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.


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Sermon: The Bible Q & Q


Do you ever read the back of these bulletins? The bulletins are produced as a kind of sales tool for the United Church of Christ - perhaps sales is not quite the right word in this context, but nonetheless, the idea is to create a better understanding of the mission of the wider church and link congregations to one another.

This week the bulletin focuses on Christian Education, and specifically on services of teacher dedication. I was frankly a little taken aback by the opening sentence of the second paragraph - Most services of dedication are brief and artless.

Now there is some out of the box thinking when it comes to sales technique - let me insult you and then make my pitch!

But skipping over that, if we go to the bottom of the page we are given a brief reflection on the first lesson we read this morning from the Gospel of Matthew - the lesson where the chief priests and the elders pose a question to Jesus about his authority and Jesus sends it right back to them with a question about John the Baptist and then tells a parable about two sons, one who gives the dad lip service and the other who gives him lip but then does as he is told. And Jesus ends the parable with this question: Which of the two did the will of his father?

The bulletin artist writes: Struggling to sort out the right questions is just as important as arriving at answers. What are the genuine questions that challenge your faith?

How true that is - struggling to sort out the right questions is just as important as arriving at answers. Just as important, or maybe more important, because the questions you ask will certainly determine the answers you get, and a wrong headed question may produce a true answer, but it will still lead us down the wrong path.

The question of what to do with the $43 million dollars that was promised to the town of New Milford in a settlement with Waste Management has been debated for years and soon will be subject of a town wide referendum. Some of you may know that I chaired a special committee appointed by the Town Council to hold public hearings and make recommendations for the use of these funds. As chairman of this committee I sat through hours of public comment and committee debate, and it was amazing to me how the different questions that people brought to the issue led them to develop opposite conclusions and courses of action.

For example, if the question was "How can I keep my property tax bill down next year?" then the answer of what to do with the money was obviously: Spend as much as possible on the upcoming town budget.

If the question was: "How can we keep the remaining rural character of New Milford from being destroyed by pressure from development?" then the answer might be: Set the money aside for open space purchases and the acquisition of development rights from agricultural lands.

If the question was: "How can we maximize the impact of this money on the annual budget in the long term?" your answer might be: Invest the principal and use only the income for annual tax relief.

If the question was: "How can I get re-elected to another term in office?" the answer might be: Treat this money as a political football and refuse to heed the profound wisdom of the chair of the committee you appointed to give you advice.

Oh no, I'm not bitter about the whole process -

I don't mean to use this pulpit to advocate one course of action over another on this matter - just to note that the questions you bring to the table are going to profoundly affect the answer you get in return.

And this question of questions is true of issues that go far beyond the local agenda of our town. What questions, do you think, are guiding the political debate as our current administration presses the case for a war with Iraq?

If the question under debate is: "How do we avoid appeasement like we practiced with Hitler in the 1930s which only allowed him to get stronger before we were inevitably drawn into war?" then we will get one kind of answer.

If the question is: "How do we avoid the kind of entanglement we found ourselves in during the Vietnam War which led to deep division at home and abroad?" then we are going to get quite a different answer.

One thing that worries me is that so often political debate is about issues that echo the past but do not materialize in the future. I remember watching the debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon on television. It was October 7, 1960, and Frank McGee of NBC was the moderator. The most heated exchange was about Quemoy and Matsu, two Taiwan-controlled islands off the Chinese mainland. Kennedy said that the line of defense in the Far East should be drawn at Taiwan while Nixon argued that these two islands should be defended against Communism. It became the focus of Nixon's campaign after that debate and dominated the debate that followed on October 13.

It was a hot button issue, never to be heard of again. Vietnam was never mentioned.

Think back a couple of years ago to the Bush Gore debates. How much time did they spend debating what to do with the budget surplus? Where is the budget surplus as an issue today? How much time did they spend on the issue of terrorism? On Iraq? Actually, the vice presidential debate did cover Iraq at some length, but it never really got examined in the presidential debates. You can read the transcripts on the C-Span archives online.

It is the rare political debate that breaks free from the past or the immediate needs of the present to take in the big picture and focus on the future. And political debate post 9/11 is going to be more influenced by questions of protection than by matters of principal. That is a natural reaction to public fears in a situation of danger.

Hopefully, though, our questions are influenced not just by fear but also by our faith, and our faith always draws us back to questions that are larger than the present moment. Politics deals with the temporal issues that are a passing concern. Faith should deal with the principals that are of eternal concern. Faith leads us to ask a whole different set of questions.

Or perhaps to establish a different starting point for all our questions - to always ask a single question, from which flows many other questions. If there was one fundamental question that faith raises up for us to consider, what do you think that question would be?

Perhaps there is a clue in the parable Jesus used in his response to the chief priests and the elders in the Gospel lesson this morning. He told them the story of the two brothers and then asked: Which of these two sons did the will of the father?

That question of "What is the will of God?" stands as bookends at beginning and the end of the Gospel story. In the beginning, an angel comes to Mary and says she will bear a child who will redeem the people of Israel, and Mary's response is: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."

In the garden of Gethsemane before he is arrested, Jesus prays in agony to God: He said, "Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want."

And in the passage from St. Paul we read that Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death- even death on a cross.

He became obedient to the will of God - so the question was not how do I protect myself, how do I preserve my position, how do I save my life - the question was, how do I do the will of the Father.

The title of the sermon this morning is: The Bible Q & Q. There's a danger, it seems to me, in thinking of the Bible as a Q & A kind of book - that is, a question and answer format. The reader comes to it with questions and in it we find our answers. What I want to suggest today is that the authority of the bible is not based on answering our questions so much as it is on forming those questions in the first place.

In a book called Opening the Bible, Thomas Merton wrote: The truth is that the surface of the Bible is not always even interesting. And yet when one does finally get into it, one finds that they are no longer simply questioning this book but being questioned by it. In the progress toward religious understanding, one does not go from answer to answer but from question to question. One's questions are answered, not by clear, definitive answers, but by more pertinent and more crucial questions.

The questions we ask will in large part determine the answers we find. A wrong-headed question, even with the right answer, puts us on a dangerous path. And so we always, with humility, and, as Paul says, with fear and trembling, seek to discern the crucial questions. May God help us to ask the right questions and assist us in wrestling with them to find a faithful answer.
Amen

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