Sermon
November 2, 2003
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 12:28-34
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” Then the scribe said to him, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; and ‘to love him with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” When Jesus saw that he answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” After that no one dared to ask him any question.

Hebrews 9:11-14
But when Christ came as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation), he entered once for all into the Holy Place, not with the blood of goats and calves, but with his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, with the sprinkling of the ashes of a heifer, sanctifies those who have been defiled so that their flesh is purified, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God!

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Sermon: Sacrament, Sacrifice and Redemption

It is a well established principal of teaching that you build knowledge and understanding by constructing a bridge between the known and the unknown. I remember this as the first lesson in my Red Cross course to be certified as a swimming teacher, and if it is critical for learning practical skills like swimming, it is even more important to understanding in areas of meaning and significance.

For example, in the reading from Paul, he is trying to explain the meaning of the death of Christ to a contemporary Jewish audience by building a bridge between something they know – the temple system of sacrifice and the significance of blood – and something new – the death of Jesus of Nazareth.

The audience Paul was addressing held an understanding in common with many ancients – that divine beings, gods and angels, had special food that nourished them in the heavenly places. And that if these divine beings were to be brought close, to dwell in a sanctuary among a people, they required offerings of sanctified sustenance while on earth.

In Judaism, the sanctified food was blood, and so we get a commandment like this in Leviticus, the basis of the Kosher laws:
Leviticus 17:10-11: I will be against any citizen of Israel or foreigner living with you who eats blood. I will cut off that person from the people. This is because the life of the body is in the blood, and I have given you rules for pouring that blood on the altar to remove your sins so you will belong to the Lord. It is the blood that removes the sins, because it is life.

One of the problems I face when I read a commandment like that or hear an explanation like Paul’s to the Hebrews is that I do not share this background belief about divine powers needing special food or requiring elaborate systems of sacrifice. I may have a medical understanding of the importance of blood, but not a religious one.

Rather than taking me from the known to the unknown, any attempt to teach me the significance of the death of Jesus by reference to the cult of sacrifice and the power of blood is only building a bridge between the unbelievable and the unknown. And I don’t think that in this I am so different from many others who share a common culture and worldview.

Now it is true that sometimes special circumstances help us discover latent power in religious language that previously made no connection for us.

I was reminded of this in the past week when a friend in Vermont forwarded me an email that her cousin in California had received from her pastor, Jim Garlow, at the Skyline Church, in La Mesa, where the wildfires have burned out of control. He wrote:

Dear Church Family,
The last 3 days have been some of the most emotionally challenging and frightening days in many of our lives. I praise God for a church family during this time.

Many of you were evacuated. We, too, were evacuated from our house Sunday evening. Like many, we returned home Monday night. There are many reports where the fire burned all the way up to - and around - homes, yet the homes were spared. But, we have also heard of some who, tragically, have lost their homes.

These last three days have reminded us that life is fragile; possessions are precious, but fleeting. All who were evacuated had the same bizarre feeling: we walked out of our homes, knowing we might not see them again. Some have come back to a pile of ashes; others came home to houses intact; but all of us are being forced to evaluate what life is really all about. As we have said, life is ultimately about loving and knowing God, loving each other, and caring for each other. And we're getting to live out those purposes right now. THANK YOU for the ways you are caring for others - in ways we do not even know.

I close with a powerful old hymn:
"God Leads Us Along:"
God leads His dear children along.
Some thro' the water, some thro' the flood,
Some thro' the fire, but all thro' the blood;
Some thro' great sorrow, but God gives a song,
In the night season and all the day long.

I suspect that there were times when members of that congregation could sing those hymns and skip right over the language of fire – but no more; forever that language will be an open door to remembrance and understanding and a bridge between the known and the unknown.

If the language of blood does not speak to us in understanding the significance of communion, certainly the language of sacrifice still does. We can think of the sacrifice of the fire fighters who have battled those blazes in California, of the families who have lost a loved one there on in the sands of Iraq, or the many courageous and determined individuals who put their lives on the line for the sake of others.

Or we could think of those whose sacrifices have made up the private and personal blessings of our own lives – our parents, our spouses, our friends, teachers, and mentors. This might be especially appropriate as we celebrate All Saint’s Day. No one’s life is simply the result of personal achievement. We have all experienced the love which gives without regard, the voluntary giving of self which are the sacrifice that gives us life and redeem us when we go astray. In ways big and small, public and private, others have modeled the self-giving of God which we celebrate in this sacrament.

So I invite you to build a bridge today between those known to you and the great mystery of God’s love made known in Christ. Think of how the ones you love gave life to you and remember the promise expressed by Paul: For all who have been united with him in a death like his, will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.

Let the remembrance and appreciation of what others have sacrificed on our behalf be our spiritual food this day, linking our lives to the life of God in Christ, a life offered for our salvation.

We celebrate an open communion. This sacrament is for all who wish to know the presence of Christ and to share in the community of God's people. Christ welcomes you. Christ recognizes you. Christ invites you into the circle of fellowship in his name. Let us join together in a prayer of thanksgiving:

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