Sermon
October 21, 2001
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Jeremiah 31:31 - 34
   The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will
make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah.  It
will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took
them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt -- a covenant that
they broke, though I was their husband, says the LORD.  But this is the
covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says
the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their
hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.   No longer
shall they teach one another, or say to each other, "Know the LORD," for
they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the
LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

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Sermon: New Seeds of Freedom

One sentiment that we hear repeated again and again, from the presidential
podium down to the local pulpit, it is that the deeds that were done on
September 11 in the name of Islam do not in any way represent the true
Muslim faith.  Islam, our President told us, means Peace, and is a religion
of peace and compassion.

That the current battle is not a war against Islam is certainly true.  That
we should not see a terrorist lucking behind every Middle Eastern or South
Asian immigrant is also certainly true.  But to assert that this conflict is
not about Islam - well, of that I'm not so sure.

Certainly those who murdered thousands of people on September 11 do not
represent what is best in the Muslim faith, but do we really know enough
about the breath and depth of Islam to say that what happened is no way
connected to religious sources?

Every great religion has its flaws.  Lord knows that Christianity had a
fundamental flaw in its anti-Semitism, an antipathy to Jews that the church
allowed to smolder for 2000 years, occasionally fanning the embers to hot
flame when it suited some premeditated purpose.  Eventually, when it showed
its full ugly, evil, ferocious face in the Holocaust, we recognized
anti-Semitism as a flaw and hopefully renounced it forever.

What do we really know of Islam?  Perhaps it is a precious jewel of a faith,
but under the light of current conditions an internal flaw is being
revealed, a flaw that is fracturing under the stress of history, of
globalization and the breakdown of barriers between cultures and religions.

I'm certainly no expert on Islam, but even a cursory knowledge of its
origins brings to mind the fact that from the beginning it wove together
religious, political, and military components.  Mohammed fled Mecca in 622
AD to take up residence in Medina, some 200 miles away.  Two years later he
led his first attack on the trading caravans of Mecca and six years after
that he returned to Mecca at the head of an army of 10,000 followers.
Religious submission was coerced through military means and sustained
through political domination.  Islam, by the way, does not mean peace; it
means submission.

But if every great religion has it's fundamental flaw, it also has some
significant gift to offer - I'm not talking about conversion here, I'm
talking about learning something from another faith, another tradition,
another history of an imperfect and sometimes seriously wrongheaded people
trying to understand the nature of holiness and righteousness.

As mentioned before, Christianity certainly had a fundamental flaw, and our
little stream of Christian history that came to New England with the
Puritans certainly had a number of elements that we would no longer consider
admirable or even tolerable.  The words of bin Laden - that the world is
split into two camps, the camp of belief and the camp of unbelief - might
not have sounded strange to our Puritan ancestors, although they would have
had a different scorecard about who was standing in the inner-circle of God'
s chosen.

But also at the center of the Puritan belief and practice was a very
powerful and flexible understanding of the way God relates to people.  And
this created a revolution in the way they came to believe that people should
relate to other people.  That understanding centered on the idea that we
read about this morning in the words of the prophet Jeremiah: the words
about a new covenant.

The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant
with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the
covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to
bring them out of the land of Egypt --  But this is the covenant that I will
make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my
law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their
God, and they shall be my people.

This way of seeing the relationship of God and the believer became the
foundation for the freedom of the individual to express their own faith in
their own way and to challenge the domination of the majority.  It also
became the foundation of democracy - the American form of democracy that
began on the Mayflower when the people made a covenant that read, in part
Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian
Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first
colony in the Northerne Parts of Virginia; doe, by these Presents, solemnly
and mutually in the Presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine
ourselves together into a civill Body Politick, for our better Ordering and
Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid; And by Virtue hereof do
enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equall Laws, Ordinances, Acts,
Constitutions, and Offices, from time to time, as shall be thought most
meete and convenient for the Generall Good of the Colonie; unto which we
promise all due Submission and Obedience.

They agree to submit, but their submission is a consequence of their saying
"yes" to the covenant.  And once you admit a person has the right, the
authority, and the power to say "yes" to the covenant, you also acknowledge
that they have the right, the authority, and the power to say "no."  And on
that acknowledgement hinges a revolution.

Now all this might seem historic and obscure, but it's fresh in my mind
because last week I had the pleasure of meeting with our new member class of
20 people and the privilege of explaining to them how, in our tradition, the
church comes into being through the covenant of its members - that the
church is the church because the members agree to be the church.  It is not
the church because of the minister but because of the congregation; It is
not the church because of a Pope and Bishops, but because of a covenant.

When we meet next Sunday to vote on our business as a congregation and when
our new members stand up with us the following week to affirm our covenant
as a congregation, we are reasserting our right to live by the light of our
moral conscience and planting again new seeds of freedom.  We may have taken
this for granted in the past, but we should wake up from that complacency
after September 11.

Our covenant not only says that we choose to be the church together, but,
again, that this right, power, and authority to chose is ours - we have that
moral freedom.  And if we acknowledge that we have that moral freedom and we
choose to do this, we also admit that others have this same moral freedom
and the right to choose to do otherwise.  And this acknowledgement of right
and freedom and alternative choices forms the basis of a free and diverse
society.

If you look on the back of the bulletin today there is a wonderful opening
statement about how the words of Jeremiah deeply affect our view of God, of
humanity, of church.  It says:

God's covenant, made "new" in Christ, confirms the ancient promise that
divine love and power will prevail, as anticipated in the life and worship
of God's people.  What is divine does not reside in some higher world, but
comes alive in this world through hearts and minds touched and transformed
by God's Spirit.

I am sure that there is something of the divine that comes alive in this
world through the hearts and minds of many Muslim people.  We, no doubt,
have something to learn from their ideals of prayer and piety.  There is
further no doubt that we see something of the divine come alive in the
hearts and minds of many Jewish, many Christian, many Hindu peoples, many
people even who could not name a tradition of belief as their own.  No
religion is without its gifts and no religion is without its flaws.  But I
think if instead of just dismissing the religious question as irrelevant to
the present situation, we took a critical look at the religious issues, we
might find that our tradition has a truly crucial contribution to make to
the discussion.  For somehow, out of stern, witch-burning, Puritan New
England, a society has developed that respects the many paths to holiness,
that values diversity of religious expression, and that requires submission
only to the moral freedom of the individual conscience as it apprehends God
and seeks to covenant with others to bring what is divine alive in a world
so touched now with danger and sorrow.
  Amen.  Home