Sermon
October 24, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 11:25-30
At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Luke 18:9-14
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

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Sermon: These I Lay Down

I was recently reminded of a story that was circulating on the internet a while back, concerning Forrest Gump at the gates of heaven. St. Peter tells Forrest that he will be admitted into heaven when he answers three questions – how many days of the week have the letter T in them, how many seconds are in a year, and what is God’s first name.

I’m sure many of you have heard this story as well, but for those who haven’t, Forrest comes back and says there are two days of the week that have the letter T – today and tomorrow; there are 12 seconds in a year, January 2, February 2, etc., and God’s first name is Andy. Andy, St. Peter replies, how do you know that Forrest? Why, I learned it in church says Forrest – we sang it often: Andy walks with me, Andy talks with me…..

The image of God as a friend who walks and talks with us, accepting, forgiving, and who we can know on a first name basis is certainly a most appealing element of our faith. It is consistent with that first lesson from scripture we read this morning: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

The second lesson we read, however, gives us a somewhat different picture. Jesus tells a story which he hopes will serve as a warning, a caution, against an attitude which assumes intimacy with God and yet is in fact a barrier to God’s grace. It is a parable of estrangement, not of intimacy, of human self-deception baptized in pious righteousness, separating the Pharisee not just from his neighbor but from his God.

These two faces of God, the friend and the judge, the one who is close and the one who is enthroned high in the heavens above – these two faces have often been reflected in how the church envisions Jesus and the work of redemption in the world.

The past six months I’ve been reading slowly through a book entitled Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession. It’s a fascinating study of the ways in which Jesus has been preached in the churches and presented in the public square. It begins with the Spanish Catholic missionaries who brought Jesus into Florida and New Mexico in the fifteenth century and brings us right up to the best selling novel, the DaVinci Code. One of the sections that especially interested me concerned our Puritan ancestors in New England, and how differently they saw Jesus and the work of redemption from way we do today. Much of what we would think of as mainstream, or even conservative or fundamentalist Christianity would be radical avant-garde thinking to those early Congregationalists.

One of the more fascinating insights concerns the kind of psychological caution they took when it came to thinking about their own salvation. They were firm believers in spiritual rebirth, but they deeply distrusted any individual’s assessment of their own spiritual status - they felt that the human capacity for self-deception was vast and wide in this regard.

Let me read a little from the book:

Puritans.. all agreed that human beings, created in the image of God, had been deeply damaged by Adam's rebellion. His sin had so disordered their natural minds and appetites that they needed God's intervention even for their proper knowledge of him, not to speak of their salvation. Natural reason was not wholly warped or antithetical to faith, but it was a much less helpful resource than Catholics supposed. And it misled people into imagining that they could know or approach God through their own wellintentioned efforts. God could be met only in the saving gospel of Christ revealed in the Bible, which each believer needed to read directly. People got guidance from their ministers in grasping the meanings of Scripture, but they had to understand it, not just nod their heads. And they had to do more than understand. They had to pray for God's saving action in their hearts.

True Christians knew that their own efforts to save themselves were unavailing. Even their own desire to be close to Christ was doubleedged, since it made them exaggerate their own power to move toward him. They had to surrender this illusion of effective power residing in themselves. God could choose to "justify" them (consider them righteous) and "sanctify" them (flood them with the Holy Spirit). The initiative was his. The sign of sanctification (an ongoing process) would be a calm and joyful ardor in loving God and neighbor. Yet even sanctification, the visible sign of grace that accompanied the invisible justification, was no proof that a person was headed to heaven. Puritans had to learn to live with uncertainty, or rather with the certainty that if they felt for a moment free of sin or bound for paradise, they were quite likely deluding themselves. One could never fully know one's own heart. God was the only reader of that hidden book

As much as we might think of the Puritans as pious and self-righteous, they were people who took very seriously the warning of Christ in the story of the Pharisee at prayer. Many of their writings were striking modern in their psychological depth and insight. They understood that the Pharisee had, in a sense, painted themselves into a corner and that their religious devotion was in fact the most daunting element of their self-deception to overcome.

The Pharisees that Jesus spoke of had erected three major barriers between themselves and God. In the first place they had developed a whole range of rules and rituals which they imposed on the society and which governed every aspect of their religious and legal life. Secondly, they had become a privileged class who had devised tricky ways to cheat on their own rules while demanding strict obedience from those who did not share their privilege. And finally, they baptized this whole scheme in the name of God and considered all who challenged it as not merely questioning them but as blasphemers against the divine will.

The burdens of living under such a religious and social system were certainly on Jesus mind when he spoke the words of our first lesson: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

It is a useful warning to us, I think, to remember that religion can just as easily become a barrier to God as a bridge. Any time we feel an impulse that would put words on our lips like the words in the prayer of the Pharisee: God, I thank you that I am not like other people – any time we hear an echo of that in our own lives, then we must stop, slap ourselves around a little, come to our senses, and remember the prayer of the publican: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’

We are, I think, in a season of self-righteousness where the divisions among us on many issues make it tempting to look at each other and say: God, I thank you I am not like them. Whether it’s a matter of social, political, or religious questions, this is a time of fragmentation and hardening of views. But we must keep all this in perspective and remember that it is not the rightness of our views that will save us, it is not our faith that will redeem us, it is not our religion that is our hope – in fact is not who we are at all that will help us – it’s who God is, it is the grace of God that saves, it is the love of Christ that brings us peace.

When we come before God like that publican: ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ then we are ready to hear those comfortable words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Amen.

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