Sermon
November 21, 1999
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Matthew 25:31-46     "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (NRSV)

 

Ezekiel 34:1-16     The word of the LORD came to me: 2 Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them -- to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord GOD: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? 3 You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. 4 You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. 5 So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them.

… 10 Thus says the Lord GOD, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

    11 For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out… I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. …I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep,…I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (NRSV)

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Sermon

This morning I want to think of some reasons we have to thankful to be citizens of this land of spacious skies and amber waves of grain, and to consider, from a biblical and spiritual point of view, what are the great challenges to faithfully live a life that is so blessed.

 

Like most of you, in fact probably all of you here, at some point in time my family immigrated to the United States.  My father’s mother’s family was here before the American Revolution, while my father’s father was first generation famine Irish, part of that great wave of immigrants who escaped death with nothing but the clothes on their backs and then used the strength of their backs to build the railroads and make a new life.

 

My mother’s family was Amish and Mennonite, possibly recruited by those same railroads to settle the lands adjacent to their rights of way across America.  The federal government would give the railroads grants of land provided they could find farmers to settle alongside these grants and stick it out over a period of time.  If the farmers quit the land, it would cost the railroads time and money.  The railroads learned that the Amish and Mennonites could thrive on these lands, that once they were settled here they were not going anywhere else.  So the railroads advertised and actively recruited whole communities from France, Alsace, Switzerland, and Germany to come to America for free land and free practice of their faith.

 

So whether early or late, fleeing famine or finding freedom, we are the descendents of wandering peoples, peoples on the move, immigrants and refugees.  While our ancestors may not have always found a welcome here, nonetheless, they made a home and called it their own.  We are the people for whom Emma Lazarus wrote her famous poem, inscribed for the generations on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor:

 

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land:

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost, to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

 

Yes, America was for us the golden door, and we were an immigrant wandering people, a reason for thanksgiving and a history we should not quickly forget.

 

This history as people on the move also makes us spiritual heirs of those Biblical tribes, the children of Abraham, who migrated down into Egypt land and there found first prosperity but later enslavement; the wandering tribes that Moses formed into a people and let out of slavery into a promised land.

 

They, too, were immigrants; they too came into a land that had long been settled by others and by trade and treaty, by force and by fortification they established a home for themselves.  There they became a mighty nation, and there they too faced the moral and spiritual challenges of being a people that were blessed in abundance. 

 

What were those challenges then?  Might they still be challenges today?  At the height of their power and prosperity a book appeared on the scene among the people of Israel.  Some say it was an ancient book, while some say it was ancient stores rewritten to reflect the needs of its contemporary audience. Whatever the case, the message does seem timeless, and certainly timely for our day as well as for the days long ago.  Here is a passage from that book, the Book of Deuteronomy:

 

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees, of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you….Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes. When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, then do not exalt yourself,…  Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.”

 

The people of Israel were called to remember who they were, where they came from, what God had given them, and so what they in turn must freely share with others.

 

No where was this clearer in their law than in the treatment of strangers: You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong….. The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.

 

So a challenge for them then and for us now, dwellers in a land of blessing and abundance and affluence, in a land of immigrants and wandering people, the challenge was and is to remember the Lord, to not exalt ourselves, and to not draw a line between the stranger and the neighbor, between the foreigner and the native born.

 

And yet these lines are drawn all the time.  It’s in the news everyday - both in blatant and in subtle ways.  Here’s are recent articles from the NY Times and from the Danbury News Times.

 

The headline in New York reads: In Cabby Bias Debate, Rifts Go Beyond Skin Color.  The article reports on a hearing held in Harlem to address the issue raised by the great black actor Danny Glover - that cab drivers won’t pick him up because of the color of his skin.  And yet these same cab drivers are mostly recent immigrants from South Asia, who in this black American setting had to dodge snickers about their long names and slippery English, and taunts about green cards and accents.

 

Although the meeting was supposed to build lines of communication, the article reports: “What transpired inside an overheated, jam-packed room was an exchange of raw, emotional volleys across a vast gulf that went far beyond the bias of taxi drivers.”

 

Raw emotions were also evident in Brewster, according to this New Times article:

A resolution introduced by Putnam Legislature Chairman Tony Hay calling for federal officials to round up illegal aliens in Brewster has brought an angry rebuttal.  About 65 people crowded into a legislature meeting to protest the lawmaker’s action, calling it inflammatory and embarrassing.

 

The lines we draw between “us” and “them“ become emotional and social fault lines, and when they shift, the earth moves.

 

In many areas we find such lines drawn even between people who even simply cross state lines:   I know because I have been down the East Coast route of despised people.  I started out in the Queens and then moved to Staten Island, where everyone blamed the general degradation of the world on the 1964 opening of  the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, which allowed people from Queens and Brooklyn to flood onto the Island.

 

From there I moved to New Jersey, which was sick and tired of all those people coming in from New York and Staten Island.

 

Then we moved to Vermont, where the whole rest of the world is simply the flat landers, people from Connecticut are blue platers, and having a New Jersey license plate is invitation to have someone shout at you to go home. 

 

I have to admit after I lived there for a few years and got my nice green Vermont license plate banged up a bit, I kind of got into that mood myself.  I was tempted but I never did buy the tee-shirt that said: “I live here and I don’t give directions!”

 

If you examine the politics of towns and villages around the region you can discern an undercurrent of this same mood.  I don’t mean one party or another, I’m talking about what percolates up as the public agenda, issues important to the community as a whole.  The question seems to be - how do we keep the big bad world out of here.  How do we keep this place the way we want it, the way we like it, the way it’s always been. 

 

Where is a discussion about fair and affordable housing, about poor children, about families without health care, about any issues that relate to basic matters of justice that would require anyone to give up or share anything of their affluent life? 

 

Do you sense, in the public agenda, a clear discernment between the moral weight of the problems of affluence and the moral weight of the problems of poverty.  These are not even on God’s scale of justice - turning a blind eye to these differences does not make for good shepherding.  Ah shepherds, says the Lord: You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost.

 

This moral discernment is a serious challenge for us, even if we do not think of ourselves as shepherds or leaders, for without that keen sense of moral discernment, affluence overwhelms.  Without a moral and spiritual foundation, abundance suffocates.  Perhaps this is the basis for a series of observations by George Carlin:

 

The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings, but  shorter tempers; wider freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less; we buy more, but enjoy it  less.

We have bigger houses and smaller families; more conveniences, but less time;  we have more degrees, but less sense; more knowledge, but less judgment; more  experts, but more problems; more medicine, but less wellness.

We have  multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values.

We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often. We've learned how to   make a living, but not a life.

 

That last lined reminded me of what Winston Churchill said: We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give. 

 

It is important to celebrate our land, our freedom, our work, our abundance at Thanksgiving.   It is also important to put all that into a spiritual context, into a faithful perspective: to remember who we are, where we came from, and for what reasons God has permitted us to be in the place we are today.

 

America is a work in progress.  Where our ancestors once stood at the golden door, people are standing still, waiting their turn to enter this land of prosperity and opportunity.  In a world that is still marked by ethnic hatred, religious intolerance, regional wars, fat shepherds and starving sheep, America remains a beacon of hope and promise.  What a challenge we face!  What an opportunity to witness to the gospel of the one who said: I was a stranger and you welcomed me!  What a blessing to have so much for thanks, so much for giving.

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Let us pray

 Bless the LORD, O my soul,

        and all that is within me,

        bless God’s holy name.

     Bless the LORD, O my soul,

        and do not forget all God’s benefits --

     who forgives all your iniquity,

        who heals all your diseases,

     who redeems your life from destruction,

        who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,

     who satisfies you with good as long as you live

 

As we join together in prayers for our church and our world, let the congregation answer the call, “Lord, in your mercy” by responding “Hear our Prayer”

 

With all our heart and our mind, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

For the peace that is from above, for the lovingkindness of God, for the salvation of the world, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

For the unity of the church of Jesus Christ and for an end to the prejudice and hatred that exists between religious communities, let us pray to the Lord.  Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

For the town of New Milford, for the greater Danbury area, for our country, our President, and all who exercise authority among us, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

For all places of work and labor, for those who manage our commerce and industry, for those who direct our economy, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

For those who are unemployed, for those who work in unsafe and unsure conditions, for those who are exploited and who do not receive a just reward for their labor, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

For people who live with injustice and fear as their constant companions, for the alien, the refugees, the homeless and the destitute, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy   .... Hear our prayer

 

For all who are struggling with illness, with disability, with the loss of a loved one, with broken relationships, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

Especially we pray for:

……………….. and those we name in the silence of our hearts.

 

Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

 

Lord, mercifully assist us in our prayers.  In all things teach us to seek your will.  Direct our lives as we walk in the Way of Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray.  Amen.

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