August 9, 1998
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Reading

Luke 12:32-40

"Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. 33 Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. 34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

35 "Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38 If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves.

39 "But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. 40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour." (NRSV)

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Text - In the fortunate night

Do any of you recall the movie: Night of the Hunter? It’s about a family being stalked by a dangerous con man, played by Robert Mitchum. He posing as a preacher, but he’s really trying to ingratiate himself with the wife and children of his former cell mate at the state penitentiary. He thinks they know where their father hid the money from a bank robbery. The mother, played by Shelly Winter, is eventually murdered by Mitchum, leaving her two young children to flee cross-country to escape the same fate. The children are taken in by a kind old widow, played by Lillian Gish. In a climatic scene, she is sitting on her porch, rocking; the night is dark around her. She has a shot gun in her lap and she is desperately trying to stay awake and guard the children from Mitchum’s evil intent. She struggles to keep her eyes open as Mitchum sings softly in the background a favorite hymn:

Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;

Leaning, leaning, I’m leaning on the everlasting arms.

On the cover of our bulletin this morning you see one of the more dramatic scenes from scripture as drawn by Rembrandt. In the Gospel of Mark Jesus has just left the room where he met for a final meal with his disciples; where he took the bread and broke it and gave it to them, and the cup also saying: Do this in remembrance of me.

Now he goes out to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." 33 He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. 34 And he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake." 35 And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." 37 He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? 38 Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." 39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. 41 He came a third time and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand."

Wakefulness watchfulness in the dark, alertness in the time of trial and danger - these are themes which appears again and again in both scripture and popular culture. In its obvious form it is the act of dozing off at the wrong time - physical sleep. In more its more subtle forms it is a kind of spiritual insensitivity, an inability to see what is right in front of your nose, either because we are looking for the wrong thing or we are taking too much for granted or we are distracted from what is important and significant by what is trivial and inconsequential.

Jesus says that it is God’s pleasure to give us the Kingdom. I understand this in terms of the Unison Prayer by St. Augustine which we read at the beginning or our worship this morning: O Omnipotent God, who cares for each of us as if no one else existed and for all of us as if we were but one! Blessed is the person who loves Your. To You I entrust my whole being and all I have received from you. You made me for Yourself, and my heart is restless until it rests in You.

The Kingdom of God is knowing God, trusting God, loving God. But before this happens we must meet God. It is this encounter with God that Jesus says can come at any time; it is an encounter for which we must be ready, awake, alert, and willing.

And so the call for watchfulness. And so the stories of servants who are waiting and prepared, even in the middle of the night.

The darkness of night plays an important role this teaching. If it comes to physical sleep, night is the time when we are most likely to succumb. But if we are talking about sleep of the spirit, insensitivity or distraction or taking for granted, then the physical time of day is of little importance. When it comes to matters of the soul, a dark night may be just what it takes to wake us up and require us to open our eyes.

It is this sense of night as a time of spiritual awakening that my sermon title refers to this morning. It comes from the poetry of St. John of the Cross, a Spanish mystic of the sixteenth century. His most famous works are "The Ascent of Mt. Carmel" and "The Dark Night of the Soul." These lines are from "The Ascent of Mt. Carmel" translated by Thomas Merton:

In the fortunate night

In secret, seen by none

And seeing nothing

Having no other light or guide

Than that which burned in my heart -

It guided me, this light,

More surely than the light of noon

To the place where he

Whom I knew well

Waited for me,

A place where there was

No one to be seen!

Thomas Merton translated this poem for an essay entitled "Called Out of Darkness." In this essay he is reflecting on a teaching of Jesus very much like what we read this morning. In this case it is not servants who wait for the master in the middle of the night, but bridesmaids who go forth to meet the bridegroom.

Matthew 25:1 "Then the kingdom of heaven will be like this. Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise.3 When the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them;4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.5 As the bridegroom was delayed, all of them became drowsy and slept.6 But at midnight there was a shout, ‘Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’7 Then all those bridesmaids got up and trimmed their lamps.8 The foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’9 But the wise replied, ‘No! there will not be enough for you and for us; you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.’10 And while they went to buy it, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went with him into the wedding banquet; and the door was shut.11 Later the other bridesmaids came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’12 But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I do not know you.’13 Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

Merton says that this parable tells us what the life of the Christian and the church must be. The night is the confusion, the routine, the mediocrity and inertia of everyday existence with its distractions. Those who lamps are trimmed are those who by faith, recollection, prayer, and self-discipline keep the eye of their soul clear and simple; they remember that have taken upon themselves full responsibility for their own moral life, and they are ready to account to God and to their own conscience for their use of their freedom.

The night, however, can be more than just confusion, routine, mediocrity and inertia. It can also be sorrow, loss, grief, conflict, addiction, illness, pain, oppression, hopelessness - all that Noreen sang of in Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen. The night may be something that, given the choice, we would avoid. We might pray, with our Lord, "Let this cup pass from me." Yet the night may come. In this night, especially, we need to keep awake, we need to keep the lamp of prayer trimmed, we need to be guided by the light

To the place where he

Whom I knew well

Waited for me,

A place where there was

No one to be seen!

As much as the night presents us with difficulties, it may still be a more fortunate time for spiritual wakefulness than the day - if by the day we mean the easy times of life, the times that pass with delight, or joy, or pleasant routine. The times that lull us into complacency and spiritual stupor. Yet the day has it’s opportunities as well.

A number of years ago I received a Christmas card with this printed message:

The gloom of the world is but a shadow, behind it, yet within reach, is joy.

Take Joy.

The gloom is obviously the night. Later, I found the source of this quote, and have used it frequently since, each time growing in confidence of its truth. The full quote, a Christmas letter written by Fra. Giovanni, does speak of the importance of being awake to God’s presence even in the light of day, the moments of happiness and joy.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take heaven! No peace lives in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace! The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach, is Joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see; and to see, we have only to look. I beseech you to Look. Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by their covering, cast them away as ugly or heavy or hard. Remove the covering and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power. Welcome it, grasp it, and you touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty; believe me, that angel’s hand is there; the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner Gifts. Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty - beneath its covering - that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven. Courage then, to claim it; that is all!

Claiming our encounter with God, welcoming the touch of the divine hand, receiving the gift of the Kingdom, these are the moments when our hearts find peace and joy, when our restless hearts find their rest in the Lord.

So whether it is the fortunate night or the more fortunate day - Stay awake!! Don’t doze to the presence of God who draws near. Keep the eye of your soul clear and simple through faith, prayer, and recollection. You do not know if God will be revealed in sorrow or in joy, in the summer or in September, in the songs or the sermon or the stained glass, in church or in Costco, in birth or in death, in excitement or in the plain routine of every day:

Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit, and whatever time God meets you, you will count it as fortunate, and it will be your salvation.

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Let us pray:

By your grace, O Lord, you have brought us to this new day, the beginning of a new week, and you gather us here to wake us up, to bless us with your presence and power. What this week will bring, none of us can tell. Only we know that in all things you will be God with us, and by the wonder of your love you will sustain us and bring us through every trial and difficulty. In your love you will multiply our joys and soothe our sorrows, and, if we allow, you will abide with us and grant us peace.

As we gather our thoughts in prayer, O God, we think not only of ourselves, but bring to mind also the needs of others.

In the quiet of our hearts we remember before you those we know who are in need of your healing and comfort.

We pray especially for Elizabeth Whitlock, Tom Gillespie, Gail Bradle, Doris Blackman, Barbara Holsten, Christine Kesson and Scott O’Dell, for those injured by war and terror.

We ask you to be with all who mourn the loss of those they love, especially with the family of Grace Eddy, Clarence Burden, Angie D’Aqulia, and Charlie Treat.

Thank you, God, for the happiness and hope brought into our lives by the presence of children baptized in the name of your Son, and we pray for them and their parents and all who face the challenges and joys of family life. We thank you for the safe return of our Senior High Youth Fellowship from the Heifer Project Farm and for the good work they were able to accomplish and the understanding they gained of Christian mission in this world.

Give Peace, O Lord, to all the world; guide us in a way of justice and mercy; help us to rejoice in the abundance of religious diversity in this world and to see your grace behind every impulse of prayer, compassion, and devotion.

Let not the needy be forgotten, nor the hope of the poor be taken away.

Create in us clean hearts, O God, and sustain us with your holy spirit.

Remind us daily, by your grace, to pray for one another

When we lack the words to express the depth of our prayers, may we experience the presence of your Holy Spirit with us, interceding on our behalf and bringing us your peace.

Keep our lives and the lives of those we love in your care, and thank you for the gift of yourself in the life, death, resurrection, and spirit giving presence of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen

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