November 28, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Sermon: The Good Person’s Prospects in the Hour of Death

I hope everyone here had a very pleasant thanksgiving holiday. I suppose many of our congregation are away visiting family –when my wife Eileen and I were first married and moved to Vermont, Thanksgiving was a big driving holiday. The church in Proctor had a Wednesday night service and so first thing on Thanksgiving day we’d pack the car and head south to have dinner with our parents – either mine in New York City or hers in Sussex, New Jersey.

Of course, once we had children it was even a greater thrill to be on the road Thanksgiving Day. When you are trying to toilet train a child you quickly learn where every bathroom is located along your 250 mile route. And then there was the memorable thanksgiving we simply call “the year the table collapsed.” And it all began when our toddler reached for an olive – but that’s another story.

Most of us probably have some thanksgiving stories that get passed on and become part of our family lore. Family lore is an important part of our sense of self – it gives us continuity with the past, a sense of community in the present, and hope for the future. But family stories are not quite the art form now they have been in the past, and something’s been lost in that change.

A movie I enjoy greatly is an autobiographical work by Barry Levinson called Avalon - the story of his immigrant family arriving in America just after World War II. The main entertainment for adults of that generation is telling family stories. Holidays like Thanksgiving are important to this because the family sits around the table or in the living room and talks to each other. Through their family unity they have survived both the war and the move to American, but then, in the early 1950’s they encounter television and the scattering to the suburbs, and this proves to be their undoing.

One critical scene takes place on thanksgiving. Everyone is gathering at the new suburban home of a second generation son, a home where the living room is organized around the latest and largest television set on the market. The Thanksgiving dinner has been timed to be finished before a television show the children want to see. But one of the older uncles who is coming out from the city has gotten lost among the winding ways of this new suburban landscape, and he is holding up the whole meal.

Finally they start without him. When the Uncle arrives he is so incensed that they couldn’t wait that he turns on his heels and storms away, never speaking to his family again. All he can say is “you cut the turkey without me!”

In a world where people know more about the episodes of Seinfeld and Friends than they do about their own family stories, it becomes increasingly a challenge to bring people into an even larger sense of family through the stories of our faith. And that is one of the key things our religion is supposed to do - to help us see and experience our stories, whether stories of gain or loss, health or sickness, joy or sorrow, to see all that as part of God’s ongoing redemptive work in the world - to connect our little story to the big story, our family story to the sacred story.

This morning is the first Sunday in Advent, the four Sunday’s before Christmas. Advent is a season when we tell again the sacred story and get an overview of how through many circumstances and characters God prepared a people to receive the gift of his presence in Jesus Christ. The work of Advent is a bit like climbing a mountain – you want to get to a place where you can see the path behind that has been followed to arrive where you are, but you also want a view out towards the land you have not yet traveled – a view of what’s in front of you, what is yet to come.

Last week I began my sermon by showing you a sermon preached at the death of George Washington by our third minister, Stanley Griswold. Griswold was one of the most controversial and interesting characters to ever occupy this pulpit. He was the only one who was called to trial for heresy by his fellow congregational clergy and expelled from the association of ministers. And, as far as I know, he is the only one who has a main street named after him in a major American city. But those are not even the most interesting parts of his story, so let me tell you a little about him – a story from our church family here in New Milford.

Stanley Griswold was born in Torrington in 1763. His father was a captain in the Revolutionary War and Stanley, though not yet 16, served under him in several campaigns. After the war he graduated from Yale in 1786, came to New Milford in 1790, and was ordained as colleague pastor with the settled minister, Nathaniel Taylor, who was then close to 70 years old.

Griswold was very political, especially regarding the separation of church and state. The idea of separating church and state was not popular with congregational clergy in Connecticut who enjoyed great power and financial support as the established church here. So in 1897 the ministers in Litchfield County called Griswold on the carpet to explain himself, an invitation he refused. They expelled him from their association, but the members of this church stood by him and he remained the pastor here for five more years, two years beyond the death of Nathaniel Taylor.

After he left New Milford in 1802 he went to Walpole, New Hampshire, where he edited a newspaper that strongly supported Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson took notice and appointed him secretary of the newly organized territory of Michigan. He was acting Governor of Michigan in 1805 and 1806, and it is in Detroit, Michigan, that you will find Griswold Street, named in his honor.

In 1810 Griswold moved to Ohio where he was appointed to fill a vacancy in the United States Senate. When that term ended he was appointed as a United State judge for the Illinois Territory where he served until his death in 1815 at age 52 from a fever.

So here was a man present at the birth of our nation whose passionate love of freedom and revolutionary thinking led him away from the established order of his youth towards the promised land of the American frontier not just geographically, but politically and spiritually as well.

Probably among the saddest duties he performed while in New Milford was to preach at the funeral for Nathaniel Taylor. Taylor had consented to allow Griswold to be his colleague minister and had stood by him when he was expelled by the Litchfield South Association. The sermon Griswold preached was a great expression of appreciation and faith, and I took the title of my sermon this morning from it - The Good Man’s Prospects in the Hour of Death. It was on December 14, 1800, and the text was from Deuteronomy 34, the story of the last days of Moses.

Moses has led the people of Israel out of Egypt and through 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. Now all is ready for them to cross the river and enter into the Promised Land. But Moses will not make this trip. Instead Moses goes to a mountain top where the Lord gives him a bird’s eye view of Canaan and says to him, “This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants’; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there.” And the bible says: Moses, the servant of the Lord, died there at the Lord’s command.

Griswold commented: From the mountain top Moses “could stand and survey all his past life and labors, see where he had been, what he had done, where he had done well and where he had done ill… the situation also commanded an easy and extensive view of the promised land towards which all his journeyings and labors and toils had been directed. From beneath his feet the land flowing with mild and honey stretched in beautiful prospect before him…

Moses was not to enter the terrestrial Canaan, but he was to be taken to a better country. Instead of receiving his reward in the milk and honey, the corn, wine and oil of the land in view, he was now to receive “such things as the eye had not seen, nor ear heard, neither had entered into the heart of man.”

If Moses was only concerned about his own life, then his death on the hillside overlooking the Promised Land was surely a bitter defeat. But if his sense of self was larger than himself, if he understood his life as one part of a bigger story, then he could drink in the scene before him with sweetness and delight, taking comfort that he had done in the best in the time he had with the tasks that were put in his hands and the responsibilities that he shouldered.

Griswold says that this is the legacy of Nathaniel Taylor, and what more could we say about any of those we remembered this morning, those we have loved who have departed this life and have entered that city not made by human hands. We not only remember their stories, but through them we sense a connection to God’s greater story, the story of God’s love and work of redemption, the story of God preparing a people to receive his presence in spirit and in flesh. We, too, stand on a high place and look back to understand who has come before us and what hardships they have faced and what roads they have traveled. And we look out ahead and see the landscape before us. We are privileged to keep the journey going, strengthen by our sense of continuity with the past, our community in the present, and our hope for the future. May we celebrate a blessed Advent.

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