Sermon
November 29, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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(Hear todays sermon on RealAudio)

Scripture Reading

Matthew 24:36-44
"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. 37 For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 38 For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, 39 and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. 40 Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. 41 Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. 42 Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (NRSV)

This past week I went to the fall sports awards ceremony at the New Milford High School. I got to hear Bob Pearson speak, then Don Fiftal the principal, then the head of the Sports Boosters. Then each coach got about five to ten to fifteen minutes to talk. There were eight coaches in all. And about an hour into it I began to think that people get a pretty good deal here with just one sermon!

The night had a very festive mood with a lot of cheering and congratulations and recognition of accomplishment. But there was also sadness as both the cheerleaders and the cross country teams dedicated their seasons to students who had died - Katrina Cioban for the runners, and our Angie D’Aqualia for the cheerleaders. In spite of the joyful, youthful mood of the evening, the heartache was still there.

I have been able to be at peace with the death of those friends and family who have lived long and seen much and tasted all of what life has to offer. But I remain agitated and uncomforted with the death of children and teens and those whose lives seem to have chapters still to be written. I share the sentiments of Edna St. Vincent Millay in her poem Dirge Without Music.

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.

So it is and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:

Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned

With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

I felt a strange recall of that poem in the midst of all the recognition and enthusiasm of the athletic awards evening. It was a mix of joy and heartache.

Our service this morning has a little of the same mix. Two observances come together on this day - it is both our Remembrance Sunday and the first Sunday of Advent.

We sang Come Ye Thankful People, Come last Sunday when we celebrated Thanksgiving; but it would have been just as appropriate for this Sunday as well. However, I noticed that our new hymnal has slightly different words and not the same number of verses as the Pilgrim Hymnal. The older version added a theme in the last verse that the new version does not, and it is a theme that is appropriate both to Advent and to Remembrance. Let me read a little from the old version.

Come, ye thankful people, come, raise the song of harvest home;

All is safely gathered in, ere the winter’s storms begin;

God, our maker, doth provide for our wants to be supplied;

Come to God’s own temple come, raise the song of harvest home.

Well, that’s not too different from the new version. But here is the last verse, the one not included in the new version, the one I think most appropriate for this morning:

Even so, Lord, quickly come to thy final harvest home;

Gather thou thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin;

There, forever purified, In thy presence to abide;

Come, with all thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.

Advent is the season when we remember the events, the history, the characters and covenants that foretold and prepared the way for the coming of Christ into the world. But there is also a theme of anticipation of Christ’s coming again, Christ completing the work that was begun and which we have been called to carry on. In that time of completion, there will be a final harvest, an gathering and reunion of souls into the great congregation before the throne of God.

Here’s another old hymn on this theme, also not in many hymnals today:

Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness

Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;

Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,

We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,

Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;

When our weeping’s over He will bid us welcome,

We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.

I’m interested in the true religion of people’s hearts, which I think is often better reflected in the hymns of a generation than in any other way. Today’s hymnals spend precious little space on songs of sorrow and our resistance to the reality of death. I guess since we had all those books a few years back on how to mourn and the stages of grief that now it’s seen as just another process to be managed as part of good mental health.

Something tells me that’s all wrong. Observing, even understanding, a process is not the same as controlling it. We cannot always control grief, sometimes its controls us. Death and loss remain powerful and mysterious; coping with these is more than mere adjustment. In the midst of grief our hearts and souls may require more than a twelve step process - they might well require a vision of fulfillment, of completion, of hope.

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying," Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"

And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,

"Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen." (Revelation 7:9ff)

And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them." (Revelation 14:13)

Advent is a season to admit to the depth of the darkness of death and loss and to understand what it means to wait for the dawning of the light. You want to understand how deep the darkness is - go to the old hymnals. The songs of the people express the depth of their struggle. Here is the one used in this church 100 years ago. It has 50 hymns on death, 10 on the final judgment, and 60 on heaven.

Here is a typical sentiment: Hymn # 1228

How vain is all beneath the skies!

How transient every earthly bliss!

How slender all the fondest ties,

That bind us to a world like this!

But remember it’s a Christian hymnal, and it will not leave us with no hope. The last verse goes:

Then let the hope of joys to come

Dispel our cares and chase our fears;

If God be ours, we’re traveling home,

Though passing through a vale of tears.

I don’t recall who first said it, but I remember the words well: Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness. Hope is the first candle we light when all around is dark as night. Hold on to hope, for that single flame reminds us that the dawn is coming for those who wait.

Psalm 130:1-8 A Song of Ascents.

Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD.

2 Lord, hear my voice!

Let your ears be attentive

to the voice of my supplications!

3 If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities,

Lord, who could stand?

4 But there is forgiveness with you,

so that you may be revered.

5 I wait for the LORD, my soul waits,

and in God’s word I hope;

6 my soul waits for the Lord

more than those who watch for the morning,

more than those who watch for the morning.

7 O Israel, hope in the LORD!

For with the LORD there is steadfast love,

and with our God is great power to redeem.

8 It is God who will redeem Israel

from all its iniquities. (NRSV)

It is customary to light a candle in memory of those departed, but today we light our candles in anticipation. We light the first candle of our Advent wreath, the candle of hope. Though all around us make be darkness, we take comfort from this single flame. It strengthens us as we wait for the coming of the Lord, the Lord of light and glory, the Lord’s who light will shine into every shadowed corner of the human soul and turn sadness into joy, the Lord whose light will illumine every dark mystery of life and turn bewilderment and despair into understanding and fulfillment.

Even so, Lord, quickly come to thy final harvest home;

Gather thou thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin;

There, forever purified, In thy presence to abide;

Come, with all thine angels come, raise the glorious harvest home.

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Let us pray:

Almighty and everlasting God, before whom stand the spirits of the living and the dead, Light of lights, Fountain of wisdom and goodness, who lives in all pure and humble and gracious souls, We praise you and bless your Holy Name.

For all the poor in spirit, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For all who mourn, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for they will be comforted.

For all the meek, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for they will inherit the earth.

For all who hunger and thirst for righteousness, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for they will be filled.

For all the merciful, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for they will receive mercy.

For all the pure in heart, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for they will see God.

For all the peacemakers, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for they will be called children of God.

For all who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

For all we have loved, and those who have loved us, we praise you and bless your Holy Name, for blessed are the dead who die in the Lord, they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them.

Most gracious and loving God, great physician and healer of the sick, we pray to you for those who suffer with illness and disability. We ask your blessing to be upon:

Burt Munson, Catherine Devlin, Blair Arnold,

We ask your comforting grace to be with

the family of Anne Keeler, Barbara Holsten, John Westfall,

We offer our prayers for those for whom no one prays, and those who lack the hope to pray even for themselves.

May the light of your hope shine in the hearts of all who mourn, all who suffer, all who face trial, want, and difficulty. May your church be a beacon of hope in this world, a witness to the great light which came to those who lived in a land of darkness. May you increase their joy and give them gladness, that they might rejoice at your presence as those who rejoice at the harvest, the harvest of this earth and the harvest of life eternal in Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen

Amen

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