Sermon
October 10, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20    

Then God spoke all these words:

    2 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3 you shall have no other gods before me.

    4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

    7 You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

    8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work.

    12 Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you.

    13 You shall not murder.

    14 You shall not commit adultery.

    15 You shall not steal.

    16 You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.

    17 You shall not covet your neighbor's house; you shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.

    18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, "You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die." 20 Moses said to the people, "Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin."

 Gospel Lesson: Philippians 3:4b-14

    If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

    7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

    12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

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Sermon: Sweet Beulah Land

 Here we are, gathered together on World Wide Communion Sunday, one congregation among many reading the good news of Jesus Christ and preparing to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.  What draws us together today, together with the people right here and together with a world wide fellowship?  Do you think anyone could say it better than Paul did almost two thousand years ago:   “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”

That’s a pretty strong draw - to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.  Is that what we can hope from our gathering today, from an hour set aside on a Sunday morning, from a sacrament of the church in the sharing of bread and cup?

I think it’s safe to say that this hour is not the whole story.  It’s part of the story, but not the whole story.  The whole story is expressed in the balance of Paul’s thought, because in addition to knowing Christ and the power of his resurrection, Paul also says, “and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.”

Paul wants to share in the suffering of Christ.  Is that a draw to the Christian life - to share in suffering?  Is that what fills the churches large and small around the world?

The meal we are about to celebrate is a remembrance of suffering.  How the body was broken.  How the blood was shed - the body and blood of an innocent and righteous man.  Certainly, as we look back, that is what we must remember.

But that, too, is not the whole story.  For this suffering, this sorrow, is set within the framework of resurrection and hope of glory.  As Paul ended our reading: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

The past is the story of Christ suffering; the present is the call to service and sacrifice; the future is the hope of heaven.  Our pilgrimage of faith must embrace all these elements, and all are present when we come to this table today.

A little over three centuries ago a 32 year old Englishman sat in prison for preaching the new doctrine of congregationalism.  It seemed he would die there because prisons of those days had such unsanitary conditions.  But he was a very resourceful man, and so kind to all that sometimes his jailers allowed him to escape to visit friends and family.  He would always return in time because he didn’t want the guards to get in trouble with the warden.

This prisoner used his time behind bars well, writing nine books during his twelve year sentence.   One of those books became the second most read book in the English language, the Bible being the first.  The author was John Bunyan and the book was The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Taking various figures from life around him and from the bible, Bunyan presents the struggles of life and faith as the journey of a pilgrim from this life to the next.  He describes it as if it were a dream, and in his dream, after many trials and temptations, the pilgrims comes to a land called Beulah, a name the prophet Isaiah first gave the redeemed city of Jerusalem.  Bunyan wrote:

Now I saw in my dream, that by this time the pilgrims were got over the Enchanted Ground, and entering into the country of Beulah, whose air was very sweet and pleasant... Yea, here (the pilgrims) heard continually the singing of birds, and saw every day the flowers appear in the earth… In this country the sun shineth night and day: wherefore this was beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and also out of the reach of Giant Despair… Here they were within sight of the city they were going to; also here met them some of the inhabitants thereof; for in this land the shining ones commonly walked, because it was upon the borders of heaven.

Because of the popularity and influence of Pilgrim’s Progress, Beulah land became an important image of future hope for the Puritans, their congregational descendants here in America, and for many people of faith.

Beulah land shows up in the names of towns, of churches, of movies, books, and even, in the 1990’s, of websites.

Here it is, Beulah Land Design Services:

Beulah Land also appeared in the vocabulary of folk music and revival hymns.

The chorus of one of the best know Beulah hymns went like this:

O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land,
As on thy highest mount I stand,
I look away across the sea,
Where mansions are prepared for me,
And view the shining glory shore,
My heav'n, my home, for evermore.

This was such a popular hymn a century ago that folk singers adapted it to their favorite topics.  

I’ve reached the land of corn and wheat
Of pumpkin pies and potatoes sweet
I’ve bought my farm from Uncle Sam
And now I’m happy as a clam.

Oh Kansas Land, sweet Kansas Land,
As on the highest hill I stand,
I look the pleasant Landscape o’er,
For acres broad I’ll sigh no more,
Till Gabriel’s trump, in loud command
Says I must leave my Kansas land.

The folk songs sing of the bliss of earth, but the hymns remind us of the promised paradise of heaven, a paradise where all are welcome to the wedding feast and all have a place at the banquet table.

I was reminded of all this a few days ago when I sat with a member of our congregation whose wife had died the night before.  George and Ethel Wells have been members of this church longer than anyone alive.  This past summer they celebrated their 73rd wedding anniversary.  Perhaps, if they were song writers, they would have written a song of the bliss of living in New Milford, for it certainly was a happy home for them their whole life long. 

But on this morning Ethel was gone.  And I was sitting with George looking out the window onto a brisk, bright  and beautiful day.  And the thought came into my mind, what a good day to go to heaven.  What must it look like to pull away from the earth on such a day as this.   To see it shine like a jewel set in the darkness of space.  And to pass over the Enchanted Ground, and enter into the country of Beulah, whose air is sweet and pleasant... to hear the singing of birds, and see the flowers appear… To be in this country where the sun shines night and day; beyond the Valley of the Shadow of Death; and to meet them some of the inhabitants thereof; for in this land the shining ones commonly walk, because it is upon the borders of heaven.

When Jesus raised the last cup at the last supper, he said to his disciples: I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.

And when he was on the cross between two thieves he said to one of them: "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

A vision of hope: God’s gift to us in Christ and in this sacrament of communion.  So as we share the bread and the cup, let us bind together our remembrance of Christ’s suffering and death, our commitment to sacrifice and service in his name, and our embrace of the hope we share with all people of who live and die of a heavenly home where all are welcome at the abundant table. Amen

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