Sermon
October 31, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 23:1-12     Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat; 3 therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. 6 They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. 8 But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father -- the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. (NRSV)

 Psalm 107:1 - 9, 33 - 43    

    O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;

        for his steadfast love endures forever.

    2 Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,

        those he redeemed from trouble

    3 and gathered in from the lands,

        from the east and from the west,

        from the north and from the south.

    4 Some wandered in desert wastes,

        finding no way to an inhabited town;

    5 hungry and thirsty,

        their soul fainted within them.

    6 Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,

        and he delivered them from their distress;

    7 he led them by a straight way,

        until they reached an inhabited town.

    8 Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,

        for his wonderful works to humankind.

    9 For he satisfies the thirsty,

        and the hungry he fills with good things.

 

33 He turns rivers into a desert,

        springs of water into thirsty ground,

    34 a fruitful land into a salty waste,

        because of the wickedness of its inhabitants.

    35 He turns a desert into pools of water,

        a parched land into springs of water.

    36 And there he lets the hungry live,

        and they establish a town to live in;

    37 they sow fields, and plant vineyards,

        and get a fruitful yield.

    38 By his blessing they multiply greatly,

        and he does not let their cattle decrease.

    39 When they are diminished and brought low

        through oppression, trouble, and sorrow,

    40 he pours contempt on princes

        and makes them wander in trackless wastes;

    41 but he raises up the needy out of distress,

        and makes their families like flocks.

    42 The upright see it and are glad;

        and all wickedness stops its mouth.

    43 Let those who are wise give heed to these things,

        and consider the steadfast love of the LORD. (NRSV)

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 Sermon

 Last week in confirmation class we sang a funny song that some of you may know: Father Abraham had seven sons, seven sons had Father Abraham; and they never laughed and they never cried, all they did was go like this!

 

And then you swing around an arm while you sing another verse, and then swing two arms, then a leg and your head and finally your whole body.  You know, it is a pre-school song and we looked awfully silly singing it, but it was one way to get everyone involved in the story of Abraham, the father of three of the worlds major faiths.

 

Of course, the truth is that Father Abraham of the Bible did not have seven sons, he had only two: Ishmael and Isaac.  Isaac becomes central to the Hebrew Bible narrative, while Ishmael is driven into the wilderness with his mother Hagar where he becomes the father of nomads, the people who wander over the face of the wilderness.

 

Now if we were Muslims we would have quite a different view of Ishmael, but being Christian Americans we might well know more about Ishmael through his modern incarnation as the narrator of the novel, and movie, Moby Dick, by Herman Melville.

 

This modern Ishmael is also a wanderer, who begins the story of Moby Dick by telling of his need to set sail on the high seas:

 

Call me Ishmael.  Some years ago--never mind how long precisely --having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world…   Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; --then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.

 

So Ishmael leaves New York City and goes to New Bedford, bound for Nantucket. Arriving too late to make the trip to the island, he must find a place for the night.  New Bedford is a port town, crowded with people from all parts of the world, so when Ishmael finally finds a room, he learns he must share his bed with another sailor, a harpooner.  After supper and some conversation retires to his room where, with much tossing and turning he finally falls asleep.

 

But not for long.   No sooner has he drifted off than he is awakened by the noise of his roommate coming in, and what a roommate he is: tall, dark, and tattooed over from head to foot.   He is an Indian, an South Sea Islander, a cannibal and a pagan, who sets a shrunken head on the mantel, takes a wooden idol out of his pocket and a tomahawk pipe out of his bag.   Lighting up his pipe he hops into bed where, much to his surprise, he finds our friend Ishmael. 

 

Who-e debel you? --he at last said -- you no speak-e, dam-me, I kill-e.  And so saying the lighted tomahawk began flourishing about me, in the dark. (says Ishmael) Landlord, for God's sake, Peter Coffin!  shouted I.  Landlord!

 

The owner of the Inn, Peter Coffin, bursts through the door:

Don't be afraid now, he says, grinning again.  Queequeg here wouldn't harm a hair of your head.  Stop your grinning, shouted I, and why didn't you tell me that that infernal harpooneer was a cannibal?

 

The Innkeeper tries to calm Ishmael down, and then turns to the cannibal:

Queequeg, look here –this man sleepe you --you sabbee?   Me sabbee plenty --grunted Queequeg, puffing away at his pipe and sitting up in bed.  You gettee in, he added, motioning to me with his tomahawk..  He really did this in not only a civil but a kind and charitable way.  I stood looking at him a moment.  For all his tattooings he was on the whole a clean, comely looking cannibal.   What's all this fuss I have been making about, thought I to myself --the man's a human being just as I am: he has just as much reason to fear me, as I have to be afraid of him.  Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

 

And so begins a friendship that, in the end, will be salvation to our poor wandering son of Abraham, Ishmael.

 

Moby Dick is a book that works on a lot of levels.  Strictly as an adventure it has all the elements you’d want - an engaging story with great action and fascinating characters.  That’s probably the reason it has been a successful movie more than once. But it also is an exploration of the universal human soul and of specific issues of race and religion that posed deep questions to the New England and American heart.

 

When our forebears arrived in New England there was nothing that assured their success on those shores other than their faith in God and their faith in their own place in God’s plan.  The fact that they came to a land of abundant natural resources and often hospitable native inhabitants surely helped, but I’m trying to look at if from their perspective, not from a modern point of view.  In their minds, they were leaving the corruption of the old world behind and starting out anew.  If they would prosper, it was because God willed it to be so.  And prosper they did. 

 

By the time Moby Dick is being written in 1850, there is no question about the success of the Protestant Congregational experiment.  Those who desired it could find abundant evidence that they indeed knew the way and the truth, that their plan was God’s plan, that their prosperity was God’s approval.  They had built an economy that was bursting at the seams and a society which allowed all men to prosper.

 

Well, there might have been some shadows.  Slavery was still the law of the land, Native Americans had been driven out, women had few rights, new immigrants were treated with contempt, so it really was the Anglo white men who had the open opportunity to prosper.  And in spite of the democratic and charitable teachings of Congregational Christianity, an upper class had emerged that seemed more than willing to exploit the underclass and the colored class as eagerly as any monarch or baron of Europe or the British Isles.

 

And so people of a sensitive conscience like Melville wondered about the place of Christianity and whether or not the children of the pilgrims had inherited a truly new outlook on life or if they had simply dressed up the old outlook in a new set of clothes.

 

Is it better to sleep with a sober cannibal or a drunken Christian?  Can you trust someone by virtue of what they say they are or must you see what is in the heart and learn to disregard the appearance and the place allotted in the social and religious order. What does it mean to be a religious person if it does not produce charitable attitudes and actions.

 

In some ways this is the same question or challenge that Jesus raised in our Gospel lesson this morning:

Matthew 23:1-12     Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples,  "The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses' seat;   therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.  They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.  They do all their deeds to be seen by others…  They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues,  and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi.  But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students….The greatest among you will be your servant.  All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.

 

When a religion, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, or Islam, becomes the socially accepted norm there is always the danger that the visible outward appearance of spiritual authority will become disconnected from God’s inward hidden spirit of justice and mercy.  Then religion and religious status can becomes part of an intoxicating brew of affluence and privilege.  In such a case, Ishmael’s words ring true: Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.

 

And what is true about individuals, is it not also true of institutions?  What is deserving of your trust in a church, any church, a church like this?  Is it a question of its history, its pedigree, its place in society?  What could commend this place to somebody, what could inspire their time, their interest, their involvement?

 

What does today’s Ishmael want, the wanderer, the seeker who out of some need of their soul leaves behind their normal routine and slips through the door on some Sunday morning?  Are they, like the Ishmael of our story, simply looking for a place to find a few moments sleep?   If so, I think they will be well served by my sermons.

 

No, just kidding, I hope.  I’m sure if it was sleep they sought they could stay home in bed.   But what truly brings people out on a Sunday morning? Is it not some connection to the living God, to a community full of a spirit of compassion, forgiveness, mercy, hope, gentleness, to a meaning and purpose that is bigger than the daily routine, to a sense of the nearness of what is good and eternal and life-giving?

 

A church like this has many attributes which can commend it to the Ishmael’s of this world, which can make it attractive and invite them through the door.  We have a beautiful building, we have a place at the center of the life of this town, we have a heritage and history that links us to the past and empowers us for the future. 

 

But these same attributes can work against us if we rest on them rather than build on them.  They can be a source of strength or a source of complacency and self righteousness.  In spite of the history, in spite of our place at the center, each generation still must reinvent the heart of this and every church, must reinvigorate the mission, must set sail on a sea of unknown possibility and chart a new course.

 

I see evidence that our congregation is working to do this.  I receive the newsletter and read about help being offered to new mothers, about teenagers planning programs for young children, about young children working to provide holiday meals for families, about fellowships organizing programs to serve, about committees challenging us to learn about homophobia, racism, domestic violence, about selling fruit for scholarships and alternative gifts for Christmas.

 

But I also see a group of people for whom time is very precious, people who are hard pressed to keep some space open for their personal life and their family life.  I see a social order where many of the old ways of doing church don’t seem to fit.  I look around New Milford and see experiments in Small Christian Communities at our Lady of the Lake, in alternative worship at the United Methodist Church, in youth ministry right here at First Congregational.

 

Today is our Fall Congregational Meeting.  At this meeting in we vote in a budget for the year 2000.   Then next month we will be asked to consider our pledge to the church for that same year.  All this, from every outward appearance, is business as usual.   The challenge is to make it more.

 

The challenge is to make it a renewal of creativity, of openness to the Spirit of God, of openness to the practical needs of our neighbors and the spiritual needs of today’s Ishmael’s, who find themselves growing grim about the mouth; who experience a damp, drizzly November in their soul; Who shake off their daily routine and make their way through the door of this pleasant place.

 

For God has brought us to this place and this day not only for the sake of our own souls, but for the sake of witness and service in the name of his Son, Christ our Lord.  Our greatness in Christ is measured only by our service, and exaltation only by our willingness to be humbled for his sake.  May we be neither the sober cannibal nor the drunken Christian, but disciples seeking new ways to serve in the loving spirit of our living Lord.  Amen


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