Sermon
November 19, 2000
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Mark 13:1- 8

As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look,

Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!"

Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will

be left here upon another; all will be thrown down."

When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter,

James, John, and Andrew asked him privately,

"Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these

things are about to be accomplished?"

Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray.

Many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and they will lead many

astray.

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take

place, but the end is still to come.

For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there

will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but

the beginning of the birth pangs. (NRSV)

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Sermon: The Art of Laughter

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"

Abe says "Man, you must be puttin’ me on."

God say "No." Abe say "What?"

God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but -

The next time you see me comin; you’d better run."

Well Abe says "Where do you want this killin’ done."

God says, "Out on Highway 61."

I wasn’t much of a Bible scholar when that Bob Dylan song came out in 1965,

but I sure knew the story of Abraham and Isaac. It wasn’t so much that we

had been taught about it in Sunday School, because we hadn’t. It was

because in our family Bible, Deluxe Edition, it was the subject of one of

the full color plates in the fine art section:

"These carefully selected examples of outstanding religious art will

heighten the pleasure of reading the Holy Scriptures."

There is Abraham about to plunge the knife into the bound body of his young

son Isaac.

The picture puzzled me, the song puzzled me, and I must admit, in spite of

graduate education in Bible and theology, the story puzzled me then and

puzzles me still:

Genesis 22 After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of

Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering." So Abraham rose early in

the morning, took his son Isaac, and went to the place in the distance that

God had shown him. …When they came to the place that God had shown him,

Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son

Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached

out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. But the angel of the Lord

called to him from heaven, and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" "Do not lay your

hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God,

since you have not withheld your son from me."

What is the moral? The father was rewarded because he was willing to kill

the son? I’m sorry, when I read that I was a son, and it left me cold. Now

I am a father, and it leaves me terror stricken.

So I was compelled to read when I picked up this book last summer and found

a new exploration of the story of Abraham and Isaac. I don’t say

explanation, because it’s not a story to be explained, but exploration,

because in this story we are wandering in uncharted territory.

The book is called Messengers of God, Biblical Portraits and Legends, and it

is written by Elie Wiesel - winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize and

something of a legend himself. He entitles the chapter that explores this

story: The Sacrifice of Isaac - a Survivor’s Story

Elie Wiesel knows something about being a survivor. He is 72 now, but it is

a miracle that he lived past age 15 when he was taken with his parents and

three sisters from his Hungarian hometown and sent to Auschwitz. In the

first hour there he was separated from his mother and sisters, but managed

to stay with his father. Together they survived until the following year

when his father died of starvation.

In spite of feeling that he no longer wanted to live, Wiesel did live, and

was liberated to an orphanage in France. For ten years he would not speak

of his ordeal. He said, "I wanted to be sure that the words I was going to

use about this event would be the proper words." Then he published "Night,"

a memoir of the holocaust that would make his name well known around the

world.

In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Wiesel was asked about gratitude.

Oprah: There may be no better person than you to speak about living with

gratitude. Despite all the tragedy you’ve witnessed, do you still have a

place inside you for gratefulness?

Elie Wiesel: Absolutely. Right after the war, I went around telling people,

"Thank you just for living, for being human." And to this day the words

that come most frequently from my lips are thank you. When a person doesn’t

have gratitude, something is missing in his or her humanity. A person can

almost be defined by his or her attitude toward gratitude.

O: Does having seen the worst in humanity make you more grateful for

ordinary occurrences?

EW: For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time

I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.

Gratitude is a gift of grace, and grace is a gift of experience - not

primarily the pleasant, happy, desirable experience, but quite to the

contrary as William Blake expressed so well in a poem that seems to always

rattle around my head:

What is the price of Experience Do men buy it for a song?

Or wisdom for a dance in the Streets No, it is bought with the price

Of all that a man hath, his house, his wife, his children

Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy

And in the withered field where the farmer plows for bread in vain

Grace and gratitude that come out of hardship are gold tested in the fire -

different in quality and durability from that which comes when times are

good, the easy gratitude of prosperity.

The great enemy of gratitude is not suffering and want, it is ease and

abundance - it is the assumption of entitlement and complacency - that the

bounty and blessing of life is my due, something I enjoy by right of

ownership, something I can take for granted.

I suppose that after seeing his father raise the knife over him, Isaac could

take nothing for granted ever again. The whole foundation of his life must

have shifted at that moment, and although he was spared, he certainly must

have been changed. Now he was a survivor, and what would that mean for the

rest of his life?

This is the question Elie Wiesel ponders; what is the legacy that this

survivor Isaac gives to each generation who follows him in faith and in

experience? Wiesel finds an clue in the meaning of Isaac’s name:

Genesis 21

The LORD dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah as he

had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age.

Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son. Now Sarah said, "God has made

laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me."

They named him Isaac - laughter, or he who will laugh. Why was this most

tragic figure in Biblical history given such a bizarre name? That is the

question Wiesel asks in the beginning of his exploration and the question he

returns to at the end:

Why was the most tragic of our ancestors named Isaac, a name which evokes

and signifies laughter? Here is why. As the first survivor, he had to

teach us, the future survivors, that it is possible to suffer and despair an

entire lifetime and still not give up the art of laughter.

Isaac, of course, never freed himself from the traumatizing scenes that

violated his youth; the holocaust had marked him and continued to haunt him

forever. Yet he remained capable of laughter. And in spite of everything,

he did laugh.

God has made laughter for me, said Sarah; laughter allows grace to be found

in the desolate market where none come to buy, and from grace grows

gratitude, and in gratitude we offer a life of thanksgiving to God and to

one another.

Thank you for your laughter; thank you for your smile; thank you just for

living, for being human.

Amen

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