Sermon
June 21, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Responsive Reading

M: Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding,

P: For her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold.

M: She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.

P: Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace.

M: Hear, my child, your father's instruction, and do not reject your mother's teaching;

P: For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul;

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Scripture Reading

Ecclesiastes 3:9 From A Poet’s Bible by David Rosenberg

I have seen as with a long look

the best a man can make

is to create his own goodness

out of a clear image of herself

the satisfaction of simply being alive

the pleasure of her own eyes

seeing

as long as he can

as long as he lives

just to eat and drink

the fruits of your work

is a gift from your creator

the world is a gift that lasts

he gave

and nothing more can be added

no matter can be erased

the universe beyond us

came before us

and the wonder of our presence

is that we feel it all

in the awe before our own little creations

in the awe of our hearts moving

closer to their creator

as we ourselves become stiller

the grace to be still

in the flow of all creation

for a moment

and through the window of a moment

the opening of eyes within eyes

to see the ancient perspective of time

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Text -  Unexpected Lessons

I wrote this sermon before Angie’s death this week, and I thought about scrapping it but changed my mind. It really has two points - 1: that the work we are able do has it’s own value whether or not it serves as a stepping stone to something else, and 2: that we are offered lessons of wisdom from unexpected sources. After hearing the remarks at Angie’s funeral yesterday, I think her life is an affirmation of what I want to say, so I’m going to stick with the message.

In 1965 the American Catholic Monk Thomas Merton published his readings from another Monk who had lived 2,500 years earlier in China. The Chinese monk belonged to a tradition we would now call Taoist, although, as Merton says: the whole teaching of these stories, poems, and meditations, is characteristic of a certain mentality found everywhere in the world, a certain taste for simplicity, for humility, self-effacement, silence, and in general a refusal to take seriously the aggressiveness, ambition, push, and self-importance which one must display in order to get ahead in society. The title of one story in this collection which I’d like to read to you is:

CUTTING UP AN OX

Prince Wen Hui's cook Was cutting up an ox. Out went a hand, Down went a shoulder, He planted a foot, He pressed with a knee, The ox fell apart With a whisper, The bright cleaver murmured Like a gentle wind. Rhythm! Timing! Like a sacred dance, Like ancient harmonies!

"Good work!" the Prince exclaimed, "Your method is faultless!" "Method?" said the cook Laying aside his cleaver, "What I follow is Way Beyond all methods!

"When I first began To cut up oxen I would see before me The whole ox. All in one mass.

"After three years I no longer saw this mass. I saw the distinctions.

"But now, I see nothing With the eye. My whole being Apprehends. My senses are idle. The spirit Free to work without plan Follows its own instinct Guided by natural line, By the secret opening, the hidden space, My cleaver finds its own way. I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

"A good cook needs a new chopper Once a year - he cuts. A poor cook needs a new one Every month - he hacks!

"I have used this same cleaver Nineteen years. It has cut up A thousand oxen. Its edge is as keen As if newly sharpened.

"There are spaces in the joints; The blade is thin and keen: When this thinness Finds that space There is all the room you need! It goes like a breeze! Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years As if newly sharpened!

"True, there are sometimes Tough joints. I feel them coming, I slow down, I watch closely, Hold back, barely move the blade, And whump! the part falls away Landing like a clod of earth.

"Then I withdraw the blade, I stand still And let the joy of the work Sink in. I clean the blade And put it away."

Prince Wan Hui said, "This is it! My cook has shown me How I ought to live My own life!"

I feel that this little story says in another way what the writer of Ecclesiastes said in our lesson this morning:

just to eat and drink

the fruits of your work

is a gift from your creator

the wonder of our presence

is that we feel it all

in the awe before our own little creations

the grace to be still

in the flow of all creation

for a moment

A lot of the work that we accomplish in school is done of the sake of something else down the road. We learn this so we can do that; we earn this diploma or degree so we can get that job or enter that profession. This is good and this is useful, but it is not the highest good and it can not give the deepest satisfaction. A some point we need to learn the lesson of work which is an expression of our very being, work which is done for the sake of doing it and doing it well. Not in preparation for something else, but for the sheer bliss of standing back, standing still, and letting the joy of it sink in. And in the joy of our little creation to find communion with the Creator of all things great and small.

Not everyone learns this lesson in life, not everyone knows this truth. But when you meet someone who understands this, you can recognize a certain wisdom whose "income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold." And the funny thing is, you will find this wisdom and learn this lesson in the most unexpected places.

The prince in our little tale began by complimenting his cook. The prince probably thought that his high and mighty opinion would be just the reward the cook needed to make him feel good about his work. Little did he know that his cook needed no reward; rather, it was the prince who would find gain in this conversation.

I had a similar conversation just a few weeks ago. I also thought I was about to make somebody feel good with a compliment, but little did I know what was to follow. We were just talking about the repairs this contractor had done to a building, when he said to me: You see how that carpenter is fixing up that nail before it’s hammered. That something I taught him that I learned from my father. When I was young I was lucky to work with carpenters of my father’s and my grandfather’s generation - three generations of builders.

And he explained to me how the building he was working on had two parts - one a hundred years old and the other two hundred years old; and how the joints were fit and the handmade nails were cut and what needed to be done in each area to put this old structure back together again.

And we both stood back still for a moment to enjoy the work.

I left that conversation with an appreciation for the work that was being done, but even more for the spirit that was being brought to the work. This wasn’t just about a job and money. This was about lessons handed down from generation to generation. This was about maintaining a sense of craftsmanship and quality - the inner sense of who you are and what you value being expressed through the outward form of your work.

I definitely walked away from that conversation feeling, like the Prince, that I had been given a gift of insight, a gift at an unexpected moment in an unexpected place. It wasn’t just about how to fix a building, it was about how to live your life.

The accumulation of such lessons and insights is what the Bible calls wisdom, and "Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding."

May God bless each of us, and especially our graduates, with work that delights and wisdom that instructs, so that we might enjoy the satisfaction of simply being alive and

the grace to be still

in the flow of all creation

for a moment

and through the window of a moment

the opening of eyes within eyes

to see the ancient perspective of time.

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Let us pray:

Holy and Gracious God, we gather in this house of prayer today to seek a blessing for our lives and the lives of those we love. We ask this blessing on the children who have been baptized this morning and on the graduates who turn a page in their book of life and set out on new paths and new adventures. Go with them, protect them, enable them to cherish their dreams and reach their goals. And when adversity and disappointment and pain come into their lives, give them grace to persevere and never lose hope.

Our prayers today are also with the families of our congregation who are mourning: we ask the blessing of your comforting spirit to be with the families of

Lucille Mann, especially her daughter Debbie Burch and her family

Jack Baggett

Suzanne Novash

Angie D’Aquilia

We ask your healing power to strengthen and uphold

Clarence Burden

and those we name in the quiet of our hearts

We rejoice with Sue and Chris Rudolph on the celebration of their 25th anniversary and the renewal of their wedding vows.

Keep our lives and the lives of those we love in your care, and thank you for the invitation to offer our prayers in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

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