October 24, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 22:34-46     When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, 35 and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 36 "Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?" 37 He said to him, " 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets."

    41 Now while the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them this question: 42 "What do you think of the Messiah? Whose son is he?" They said to him, "The son of David." 43 He said to them, "How is it then that David by the Spirit calls him Lord, saying,

    44 'The Lord said to my Lord,

    "Sit at my right hand,

        until I put your enemies under your feet" '? 45 If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?" 46 No one was able to give him an answer, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions. (NRSV)

 Psalm 90:1-17     A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.

    Lord, you have been our dwelling place

        in all generations.

    2 Before the mountains were brought forth,

        or ever you had formed the earth and the world,

        from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

    3 You turn us back to dust,

        and say, "Turn back, you mortals."

    4 For a thousand years in your sight

        are like yesterday when it is past,

        or like a watch in the night.

    5 You sweep them away; they are like a dream,

        like grass that is renewed in the morning;

    6 in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;

        in the evening it fades and withers.

    7 For we are consumed by your anger;

        by your wrath we are overwhelmed.

    8 You have set our iniquities before you,

        our secret sins in the light of your countenance.

    9 For all our days pass away under your wrath;

        our years come to an end like a sigh.

    10 The days of our life are seventy years,

        or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;

    even then their span is only toil and trouble;

        they are soon gone, and we fly away.

    11 Who considers the power of your anger?

        Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.

    12 So teach us to count our days

        that we may gain a wise heart.

    13 Turn, O LORD! How long?

        Have compassion on your servants!

    14 Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,

        so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.

    15 Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,

        and as many years as we have seen evil.

    16 Let your work be manifest to your servants,

        and your glorious power to their children.

    17 Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,

        and prosper for us the work of our hands --

        O prosper the work of our hands! (NRSV)

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For the past two summers our family has traveled to the end of Long Island to take our vacation at Hither Hills State Park at Montauk, Long Island.  We drive out past the lovely old windmills and the busy shops of the Hamptons, past the restaurants that dot old Montauk highway, past what seems to be the very edge of civilization to this half mile strip of scrub pines, sandy soil, concrete pads and picnic tables, where a little microcosm of humanity has put down roots for a week away from work.  The draw for us was the ocean, just a stone’s throw away over the dunes from our campground.  The drawback has proven to be living in tents.

 Over the years I’ve done a lot of camping, and never much minded living in tents.   But the first year we camped at Hither Hills we spent one day in a torrential rain storm complete with thunder and lightening in a tent, and this past summer we got forced out of the tents around 8:00 every morning by the relentless sun and heat.  By the end of the week we looked swarthy liked a crew that had been kidnapped off the high seas and left stranded on a desert island.  So we may go back to Hither Hills, but I think we’ll reserve a back up motel room if we do.

 I really shouldn’t complain.  We were living in tents by choice.  Do you recall the scenes that came out of the war in Kosovo, of those massive tent cities of displaced persons, persons scattered out of their homes in the middle of the night; wives separated from husbands, parents separated from children.  For those souls there was no matter of choice, there was no home to go home to after a week at the beach.  Maybe their tent was set up by the Red Cross, or maybe it was just a single blanket given to them by Church World Service, a blanket someone might have given $5 for on Mother’s Day.

 Their tents were a sign that they had lost their permanent place of residence and that they were refugees and strangers in the land where they now lived.  Certainly their hope was to return home, but for now they were living in tents.

 In his letter to the Hebrews Paul uses this idea of living in tents as an example of faith.  In chapter 11 he writes: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.  For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God… All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth…  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.   But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them.

 For Paul, a tentmaker so we are told, living in tents is a metaphor for the life of faith, the life that is lived in the knowledge that this is an impermanent setting for us, a perishable body in an ever changing world.  If Paul alludes to this in his letter to the Hebrews, he comes right out and says it in his letter to the Corinthians:

2 Corinthians 5:1-5     For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.   For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling.. so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.

 A few weeks ago I did a survey with the confirmation class to see what topics they would be most interested in exploring.  I took the choices from a series called, “Questions of Faith,” and the questions included:

Who is God?

What good is prayer?

Who’s got the truth?

What gives you faith?

What happens after death?

Why worship?

What’s religion got to do with sex?

What are the moral dilemmas?

Whose world is it?

Why hope?

How do you pray?

 The two questions that scored equally for the top of their list were:

Who is God?

What happens after death?

 I think both inquiries are woven together in the opening verses of our scripture lesson from Psalm 90  Moses was a great leader and a practical realist.  He gives an unflinching description of the nature of life in this psalm, the only one ascribed to his authorship. 

    Lord, you have been our dwelling place

        in all generations.

     Before the mountains were brought forth,

        or ever you had formed the earth and the world,

        from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

     You turn us back to dust,

        and say, "Turn back, you mortals."

     For a thousand years in your sight

        are like yesterday when it is past,

        or like a watch in the night.

     You sweep them away; they are like a dream,

        like grass that is renewed in the morning;

 The fact is that we live in tents - this body, this life, is temporary shelter.   We may expend a tremendous amount of psychological and financial resources to obscure that reality, but it remains true nonetheless.   What does our faith have to say in the face of that?  What can it mean to say: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.

 \When we think of Eastern religions and death, we think of reincarnation, the transmigration of souls.  In Buddhist thought, death is the exception, a privilege, a thing to be desired.  As one writer said:  “Buddhism is so persuaded of survival after death as being the rule, that it grants only to rare and elect souls the privilege of at length laying down the burden of continuous life.”

 Another writer commented: If there is such a thing as reincarnation, knowing my luck, I’ll come back as me.

 Or as Woody Allen said: It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

 Western religion speaks more of beginnings and endings, of individuality and particularity: one life, one death, one fate.  Death may be a natural part of life, but death should come at the end of a long life:

 The days of our life are seventy years,

        or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;

 So if death at the end of a long life was not a spiritual problem, premature death was.   There was to be no second time around.   Each person gets but one time through to achieve greatness.  My father had a little quip about this, one he used as his quotation for his high school year book in 1920, “All great men are dead and I am feeling ill.” 

 Does it matter what we think?  Is there truth to this statement by Dag Hammarskjold: In the last analysis, it is our conception of death which decides our answers to all the questions that life puts to us.

 Maybe this is a chicken and the egg deal, but I would say just the opposite: It is our conception of life that answers all of the questions that death puts to us.  When we assume too much about life, the uncertainty of death can loom as a great fear.  When we are open to the mystery of life, the mystery of death becomes more familiar and less fearsome.

 Well, I don’t want to argue that point; in fact, I don’t want to argue any point.   I must admit a terrible uncertainty about “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”  I certainly don’t stand here as an expert, nor am I in a hurry to become an expert.  All great men may be dead, but unlike my father, I’m feeling just fine!

 Death, to me, raises more questions than it answers, and I greatly appreciate the comforting  thoughts from those wiser than myself.

 One question I have is why we would described death as “meeting our maker”?

 Do we really think we’re going to meet our maker any more in the land of the dead than we do in the land of the living?  Why wait?  Why not meet our maker today, why not say hello when we walk out of here into the sunshine with the trees and the leaves and the blue sky and the ridiculous deconstruction of the side walks on the and the world of life with all its comedy, tragedy, joy and suffering.  Why wait?

 We wait, I think,  because when we are not fully awake to life we put too much onto death.  When we haven’t cleared up our conception of life we cannot answer the question of death.

 That’s some pretty miraculous stuff going on out there, but we can miss it if we’re not mindful of it.  If we could for a minute drop the veil of complacency and not take it all for granted, who knows what insights might stir our souls. 

 There are thoughtful, wise, and artistic minds that have put this much better than I can.   Just look in the hymnal at some of the sublime expressions of peace and hope that are given to us for spiritual songs in time of grief.   One hymn that is no longer widely available is from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.  He puts together this idea of intense alertness to the world of the living with a subtle peace in the face of death:

 Now I recall my childhood when the sun

Burst to my bedside with the day’s surprise;

Faith in the marvelous bloomed a-new each dawn,

Flowers bursting fresh within my heart each day.

 Looking upon the world with simple joy,

On insects, birds, and beasts, and common weeds,

the grass and clouds had fullest wealth of awe;

My mother’s voice gave meaning to the stars.

 Now when I turn to think of coming death,

I find life’s song is star songs of the night,

In rise of curtains and new morning light,

In life reborn in fresh surprise of love.

 I believe that Jesus conveys to us a similar outlook on life and death.  He seems to say in both word and example that if you make sure you’re not spiritually dead when your physically life, you need not fear physical death.  Learning to trust in God and believing in the Good News of the Gospel gives us a bridge that carries to life beyond.  And that bridge is love.

 Let me turn again to Paul: Romans 8:31

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?         Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?        No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.    For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

 Like Abraham and Sarah, we may be living in tents.  And like Abraham and Sarah we may be sojourning in a strange land, not knowing exactly where we are going or what the journey may bring - not having every certainty of life and death wrapped up and neatly tucked away in our back pocket. 

 But in faith we confess: Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.   And in faith we affirm that the same God who prepared this place for us has gone ahead to prepare yet another, and it is to that place that we journey. 

 There will be thresholds along the way, valleys to transverse and rivers to cross.  Our lives will be transformed through joy and pain, through gain and loss, in strength and in weakness, from ashes to ashes and dust to dust.  Yet through it all we may draw ever closer to God and to one another, ever more aware of our humanity and every more amazed and God’s infinity.   Knowing that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

 Lord, you have been our dwelling place

        in all generations.  Amen.

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