What Are His References?

Gardening in the Wilderness #4

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – © 2020 All Rights Reserved

First Sunday in Lent – Year A – March 22, 2020

As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some were saying, “It is he.” Others were saying, “No, but it is someone like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.”
But they kept asking him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ Then I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.
So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.”
His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, “Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” Then they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The man answered, “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” And they drove him out.
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “Lord, I believe.” And he worshiped him. Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
ome of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.
– John 9:1-41

What are his references? That’s a question most of us ask in one way or another from time to time. Employers ask it: no one hires someone without at least trying to find out how they did previously. Today, in this present crisis, we are all presented with information every day and have to decide who to believe. One person tweeted,
“Hey guys, I’m having a tough time deciding to believe. On the one hand, the most prestigious doctors in the world are saying covid-19 is something to take very seriously. But at the same time, this guy I went to high school with says otherwise.” [anonymous tweet]

What are his references? Who should you believe? It’s a question that creeps into our relationship with Jesus in one way or another. We see his story through the glasses of our common sense, our life experience and our own individual histories. We look for the points in these histories that can connect and explain his story. These are Jesus’ references.

The story of the man whose blindness was healed is our story. We also are people who encounter Jesus and are changed by him. We look forward to a final time when we will be able to see him and be with him. Our problem is what to do in the meantime because we live in a world where his presence is not always apparent.

This is an individual challenge: remember, in the story, neither the blind man’s friends nor his parents, neither the crowds nor the Pharisees, were any help to him in understanding how to live with his new sight. There is a mystery here, a mystery that lies at the heart of the way God loves us. For in the structure of our relationship with God there is a scandalous particularity, an individuality, that shakes the foundations of every life that takes it seriously. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?”, the Psalmist asks, and the answer is always someone’s name, some particular name, some particular person.

Why one person and not someone else? Why you and not me? Why me and not you? This scandal, this particularity, lies near the heart of all our questions about suffering and meaning. Who is this blind man that he should be healed—while others remain blind. Is his moral life more faithful? Does he pray more deeply or more eloquently? Is his faith stronger or in need of strengthening? Nothing in the text answers such questions, nothing in the action of the story gives any explanation.

So it is with us, isn’t it? Since ancient times, one strand of thought held misfortune and disease to be the direct consequence of sin, sometimes a consequence carried on through generations. Part of our religious impulse always wants to quantify. So much sin, so much grace: measured out like the sugar and flour of a cake mix, balanced off like the weights on a jeweler’s scale.

But Jesus directs attention to the deeper realities of the situation. Sin is related to grace, of course, but not as the disciples think. The blind man becomes the living gospel, a person who bridges the gulf between God and human being.“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall go for us”, the Psalmist asks, and the answer is always some particular person at some particular moment of time.

Jesus came to a small village for a moment and opened a blind man’s eyes. We tend to think of such characters as special, different, not like us, but the fact is that he is precisely like us. He is a young man who has overcome the obstacles of his life, found a trade and is working industriously at it. He is just like us: pregnant with the possibility of epiphany, capable of becoming the candle by which the divine flame of God is seen to burn and give light.

The disciples want to give this man a practical explanation, almost a scientific one. “Who sinned?”, they ask, “This man or his family?” But to Jesus the man’s circumstances including his blindness are an occasion for showing God’s presence. “This happened so that the work of God”—some translations say glory of God—“might be displayed in his life.”

The Pharisees of the story are puzzled because Jesus doesn’t follow what they expect: His references are nonexistent and his behavior is scandalous. Since they don’t know who he is they concentrate on the how: their concentration on the question of how Jesus healed the man is so striking that he finally asks if they also want to become his disciples. They are seeking a clue to the who through the how: They want the regular procedures followed; they want the rules to apply to everyone. They want to know who Jesus was: where he came from, where he’s been, what schools h attended, how he learned to heal.

There is comfort in the past, in knowing someone’s references. It is predictable, it is safe, it can’t get out of hand and surprise you. “We are disciples of Moses,” they tell the man. But they’ve forgotten Moses was once a wild, free spirit on fire with God. They remember only the rules Moses left. Moses said, “Keep the sabbath holy” and they have transformed that into don’t work on the sabbath. They can’t see that healing is holy; they only see Jesus breaking a rule. Finally, they conclude, he can’t be from God. They don’t know his references and so they simply say, “As for this man, we don’t know where he comes from”.

But the blind man is amazed: he religious and political authorities of his life puzzled.
Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from yet he opened my eyes. If this man were not from God he could do nothing!

This is the ultimate testimony of a follower of Jesus Christ: that our lives have been changed, healed. Sometimes the change is remarkable and radical. Sometimes it is internal and quiet. Sometimes it leads to moments of soaring courage; more often to the simple endurance of living life hopefully each day. The blind man’s history hasn’t changed but now he lives with vision. He is healed. His future is new; as Paul said, “In Christ there is a new creation.” Christ calls us to a new creation, a creation beyond the rules we knew and lived by.

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” This blind man—this particular life, at this particular moment—is the means by which God chooses to work and call others. Who would have thought God would choose such people: an old couple named Abraham and Sarah, an ex-con named Moses, a nine or ten year old shepherd named David, a blind man sitting by the road side. You, me,: are these really the means by which the Almighty God chooses to work and become known? Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? It’s us: there isn’t anyone else.

The people of these Bible stories are not heroic figures. They are people who are busy about their lives and getting on with them. People who have their own hearts and hopes but who are changed when they become the particular way God’s work is demonstrated and moved forward.

The blind man’s story is our story as well. The blind man is not any more prepared to become the visible agent of the invisible Spirit than you or I. Through all this, the agent of his change—Jesus, the one who caused the change—is nowhere to be found. If this is, not only the story of the blind man but the story of the church and therefore our story as well, what does it suggest the task of faithful Christian people is?

Near the end of the story, after all the shouting has died down, the man meets Jesus again, though of course he doesn’t recognize him—remember, he’s never seen Jesus before. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks, and when the man asks who this is, Jesus reveals his identify: the man replies, “Lord, I believe.” What is the most important task of believers? Perhaps it is simply to be believers—to live as believers—to keep living as believers. This is, a simple and yet enormously difficult formula.

We are living through a new moment. Many years ago as a young pastor, I met my first 90 year old and I asked him once what was the most significant change he had experienced. He grew up with horses and buggies and lived to see men walking on the moon He had lived through five wars and a depression. But he didn’t mention any of these. Instead, he said the biggest change was quarantine signs. “When I was young, you saw them on houses; we didn’t know what to do about a lot of illness then, so people had to just stay home.” Here we are, just staying home, even if we don’t have a sign on the door. How do we sustain ourselves in a moment when we might not be able to meet here and worship? How do we act on faith when we’re being told don’t go out, don’t do anything?

We have some choices. Two senators did the obvious thing: they figured out how to use what they knew about the effects of a pandemic to make money. They sold some stocks, they did what the culture says: take advantage of opportunities. Contrast that with the doctors and nurses and physicians assistants and the people who just sweep the floor at the hospital. They’re facing a moment when the assurance that health technology will keep them safe has fallen apart. Because our nation didn’t prepare, they don’t have the supplies they need. But they’re still treating patients, they’re still sweeping the floors. They are an emblem of courage.

Here in our church, it’s challenging us. We mostly use old ways of staying in touch: a newsletter, weekly worship, occasional emails and letters. It’s not enough today. So our Deacons are calling around, I’m working on how to deliver a sermon online, we are all being asked to remember daily we are a community of faith and pray for each other. In the midst of a culture of hysteria, we are asked to be hopeful. Staying home is helping friends; calling and staying in touch builds hope and offers help. Our governor said yesterday, “We are all first responders.” Like those hospital workers, we are called to act out of hope.

That isn’t easy. It’s striking to realize how difficult the blind man’s life becomes after he is healed. Friends and family desert him, his trade is lost and the local authorities keep after him. Does he have moments when he wished he had his simple life back, wished the light would go out again and he could sit by the side of the road begging? Perhaps, but at the end of the story, when he knows Jesus, the text simply says, “He worshipped him”.

Christian faith is finally this: to worship Jesus because you have seen what he has done and know that if this man were not from God, he could do nothing. What are Jesus’ references? You are—I am—we all are together. “You are the Body of Christ and individually members of it”, Paul says. We are the ones he is healing; we are the ones he has taught to hope. Hope is ultimate healing. It comes not from a reference or a technique but from a decision about whom you will believe and what you will worship.

We walk in a forest throughout our lives. There are dark shadows that stretch out; there are places where the path is not clear. There are dangers and difficulties and moments when the way opens on inexpressible beauty. As we walk through this forest, we must ultimately decide whether we will trust the vision of Jesus Christ or stumble blindly, hoping on our own to avoid the pitfalls. Nothing guarantees our choice. Putting a cross on the sign does not mean we will not act like Pharisees inside. Only our decision to freely embrace Jesus as a guide can keep us on the path; only our commitment to come to him, as the blind man did, whatever our lives, whatever our history, and simply say, “Lord, I believe”.

Amen.

Water, Water Everywhere

Gardening in the Wilderness #3

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Third Sunday in Lent/A March 15, 2020

Today’s Scripture

Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink. [Rime of the Ancient Mariner, lines 120-21,

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

Water is so fundamental we often forget its importance. Creation begins with water in Genesis and later the signature of salvation of God’s people is the parting of the waters that lets them escape slavery and the violence of Pharaoh’s armies. Still later, they cross into the promised land through the parted waters of the Jordan River, the same water that will later close over Jesus when he is baptized. We turn on the faucet and have water without thinking but for most of human history and still in many places today, water had to be fetched from a central source. In many places even today it is not only fetched, it must be purchased. So as we come to these readings today, both of which center on water, we cannot imagine, we cannot think of the water in our tap but of the water that is purchased by labor and whose absence means the desperate thirst of the perishing. Desperate thirst is exactly the situation of God’s people in the story we read from the book of Exodus. Some time before, they gathered in fearful anticipation of a mass escape from slavery. In the escape, they come to the hard place of no where to run, no where to hide when Pharaoh’s army chases them to the great Reed Sea. Then, they saw God’s power saving them, a way was made and they escaped. Again, journeying through the wilderness, they come to a hard place where they’re hungry and thirsty. God sends manna as bread and provides quail for meat and water to drink. Once again they go on, this time into the wilderness around Mt. Sinai. They camp but there’s no water; they’re thirsty and angry and they ask, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?”

So once again Moses goes to the Lord; he tells the Lord that the people are ready to stone him in their anger. Can you imagine this conversation? I think all leaders come to this moment at times. Years ago, I was the pastor of a congregation that had grown rapidly. Many think it would be wonderful to have the pews full every Sunday, to set up chairs each week, but it isn’t wonderful. It makes welcome meaningless when you can’t let people in. And congregations that cannot welcome new people begin to decline. So our congregation began to think about this problem, talk about it, discuss it. Some wanted to sell the building and build a bigger one; some wanted to solve the problem in other ways. Many were scared about the money involved. So we did what Congregationalists do: we created a committee to study the problem and report back. But the committee process was badly handled and the conclusion was muddled so we didn’t get a result. I was so disappointed, so frustrated and I remember going into the sanctuary of that church the next day, sitting down on a pew and saying, praying, out loud: “Ok God, I’m done, I can’t do this anymore, I can’t push on anymore, I’m done.” It was a hard place. Moses has come to a hard place and he fears the anger of the thirsty people, he fears the stones that lie around on the ground, easy to pick up, simple to throw. It’s what he fears and perhaps in his fear and anger—he never wanted to lead this people, after all, it wasn’t his idea, he was happy herding goats, married to Zipporah perhaps in that moment, he took his staff and hit a big rock there. Perhaps he heard God in his heart telling him what to do. The story says that he’s told to speak to a rock and he does and nothing happens and then he strikes it and water flows. The people drink. The very thing that Moses feared, the rocks, the stones, the anger, has become the opportunity for a blessing that lets the next part of the exodus go on. The thing he fears becomes the window through which grace streams in. 

We see this in the history of many people. Nelson Mandela was a young lawyer in South Africa committed to justice. His faith and commitment led him to help organize against the racist white nationalist government of that nation. Arrested and jailed several times, he was ultimately imprisoned on the notorious Robben Island prison in 1962. For the next 27 years, he was held by the brutal regime. Somewhere in that time, somehow in that place, he sustained his own original vision of equality. Imprisonment became a wilderness from which he emerged committed not only to human rights for his supporters but for all. As South Africa’s apartheid regime dissolved, it was Mandela who prevented a racial civil war and who invented the Truth and Reconciliation commissions that found a way between revenge and ignoring guilt. 

Now, I want to be clear, I want to be careful. I’m not saying that God brings such terrible events on people to test them or intends harm to any person. Yet we know that every life has moments that challenge and I want to say that in that moment of challenge, we have an opportunity in our reaction, in what we choose. We’re all facing a terrible moment right now. I don’t need to recite the facts or statistics of the covid-19 pandemic to illustrate this; you know what I mean, you’re living this moment with me. So we have a choice today, we have a choice in days to come. Our lives are all going to be disrupted. There’s a good chance we will not be able to meet here in this wonderful meeting house regularly. The moment asks our response.

I’ve been thinking about this all week, listening to the dreadful news, and last night I saw something that inspired me. It was a bit of film on CBS from Italy, where they are in the grip of the hight tide of the illness. Now Italians live outside together, they endlessly gather. People are often surprised by how little Italian hotel rooms are; the reason is that they expect people will be out early and not return until late. People don’t sit in their own homes, their own living rooms, they gather in cafe’s and taverns. Now Italians have been told they can’t gather: no church worship services, no cafes, no taverns, no sitting together in a plaza, no gathering of any kind. They’re are being asked to completely change their lives. So the film was showing empty streets in Italy, empty cafes in Italy, empty plazas and then something else. People were staying home in their apartments but they had come out on balconies—still separated—until they began to sing, an entire complex of high rise apartment buildings, every balcony occupied, every voice joined together. I thought: this is it, this is what we must do, sing the song of the Lord together, sing it out, sing it loud and clear. In the days to come, we have a chance to demonstrate how seriously we take Jesus’ command to love your neighbor; we have a chance to sing the song of salvation. We do it when we call a friend to make sure they are ok, to give them a bit of contact; we do it when we resist the impulse to let our desperate overcome our kindness. We do it when we pray for each other, help each other, care for each other. 

Our psalm today said, 

O come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

Let us then indeed sing to the Lord, not only with our hymns but with our lives; let us sing the song of God’s love by living his love in this time, in this day. 

Amen.

After Pentecost 3B

Family Matters

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Pentecost • June 10, 2018
Mark 3:20-35

To hear the sermon preached, click below.

I grew up when the world was falling apart. Someone commented on Facebook recently that the 1950’s had a moral consensus. They failed to mention that the moral consensus included segregation for people of color, sexual harassment for women and blindness to poverty. But I know what they meant and I grew up in a white suburb surrounded by that consensus, that culture. Our fathers had won the great crusade against fascism and we played at being soldiers beating the bad Nazis. My mother had loaded artillery shells but the contribution of women was seldom mentioned. It was a world with threats—periodically we had disaster drills, sometimes in case of tornadoes, sometimes in case of atomic bombs. But it felt safe.

Then things changed. By the time I was beginning to look around for myself, the world was falling apart. When I signed a petition for nuclear disarmament, my mother was horrified; she told me I could be arrested. Our President was shot and killed and the whole country mourned. And more and more we watched as people were beaten in Alabama and Mississippi. A rising level of dissent said that our military, always the moral center, was wrong in Vietnam. I began to float on that tide and then to swim on it. My first speech when I was 14 was about why we should stop bombing North Vietnam; by the time I was 16, I was being called into the vice principal’s office for putting up anti-war posters in school. At church, I learned the songs of the Freedom Riders, “Aint a-scared of your jail cuz I want my freedom” and “We shall overcome”. More and more, the consensus, the culture, began to feel like an enemy, an enemy I was fighting, an enemy that was dangerous.

My family fought back. I think this is why this text has made me want to tell you this story because listening to Jesus’ family coming to claim him back from his craziness reminds me of my own family and how they tried to reclaim me. Mark tells us a series of stories in which Jesus, again and again, is in conflict with his culture and consensus. He comes back to Capernaum; people gather and the crowd is so packed that when some people try to bring a man to him for healing, they have to lower him through the roof. Jesus forgives the man his sins and heals him and is accused of blasphemy. He eats with sinners and tax collectors; the good opinion leaders, the enforcers of cultural order are horrified; he simply says, these are the people who need grace. His followers break the Sabbath rules and then he does himself, asking whether it’s good to do good even on the Sabbath and suggesting he is himself in charge of the Sabbath, Lord of the Sabbath, a messianic title.

Now he’s home again and the crowds are even bigger. It’s a diverse crowd. Some are from the local area, Galilee, some from Judea, a whole different state to the south. There are gentiles there: the text mentions “the region around Tyre and Sidon.” It’s like saying there are people from Tennessee and New Jersey, from Canada and Ohio, from all over.” In fact, the crowd is so dense he has his followers arrange for a boat so he can speak from offshore and the final blow is that the crowd is so dense “they couldn’t even eat.” Think of a subway at rush hour; think of a packed party, where you can’t get to the food or the bar. Jesus’ healing of hearts and bodies is calling people to him. Surely some are there questioning, some are believers, some are followers and some are already opposing him. Even before this moment, Mark tells us the Pharisees and Herodians are conspiring to destroy him, the same word used when he is crucified.

Now we read that his family is trying to restrain him. “He’s gone out of his mind!”, they say. The smart guys from Jerusalem, the scribes, have another explanation: “He has Beelzebul”. Once when I was in college, I was asked to speak to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches as one of four students about what had become a moral crisis in our nation. As I spoke, as I offered a Christian critique of the moral horror in Vietnam, one man stood up and walked down the center aisle yelling, “You’re nothing but a damn communist!” I don’t want to leave the impression I was Jesus-like in any way. I want to say the opposite, in fact, that what happens to Jesus here is a common cultural reaction when the moral consensus of any moment feels threatened. Our fathers and mothers in the faith left England for Massachusetts partly to escape being accused of heresy. less than 50 years later, they hung three Quakers for precisely that crime.

Jesus laughs at the scribes and points out the obvious: if he was casting out demons by the prince of demons, it would mean the Satan was divided and weakened. Instead, as he knew, Satan was strong and waiting, for what is called in Luke “an opportune time” So we come back to the family. “..his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.” A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” We’ve seen Jesus deal with opponents; how will he deal with these family members who just want him to be quiet, be the nice boy they remember from his bar mitzvah? Does his family matter to him at all?

Now we’ve already been told it was a standing room only crowd: but there are people who have sat down around him, who are listening to him. We’re being shown the signature act of Jesus, the thing for which the healings and demon casting are just a prelude. Jesus creates a community. Jesus makes a family. This business of sitting down around him occurs over and over; it’s what he commands the crowd when he means to feed them.

Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. [Mark 8:6]

See how he’s gathering them? See how he is creating a new consensus, a new culture, a new kingdom? It isn’t a large one; just before this section, Mark lists the 12 disciples he selects to train to take his message to the world.
But just now, he is doing what we often miss: he is making a family.

And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” [Mark 3:33-35]

In a culture where blood ties are everything, Jesus is creating a new basis for a relationship. In a place where family matters, Jesus is making a family out of a common vision of God’s love.

I know about this not only because Mark tells the story but because it’s my story as well. Just when my world was falling apart, when even my family was telling me I was crazy, I went to church. I started with youth group, Pilgrim Fellowship, but it was more than a little meeting once a week. There was camp, there were retreats. There were the nights when my friends and I hung out at our minister’s family home. We were always welcome. There was talk and most of all, it was just like Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners. Whatever we were, whoever we were, we knew we were loved and wanted. Family matters and that became my family and it still is, all these years later.

Now I’ve talked about how much family matters to Jesus and a bit about my own story of family. What about you? What about us? Today is our Annual Meeting and it’s always a day to ask about what we’re doing, what we have done, what we hope to do.

We do a lot of things. We house endless groups; I don’t know about you, but there are times I come into this building and have to look up on the list to see who else is here. We provide coats to the cold, food to the hungry, funds to the Southend community center, gifts for parents to give children at Christmas and Easter. We’re a place where when a gay couple calls and says they want a wedding, we say, “Congratulations! great! Happy to be the place.” We’re a church where sometimes people come who have a hard time being in church because their issues make it hard for them to sit or listen; we try to welcome everyone. We are a church of everyone else: people who in many cases got injured in a church along the way.

We do these things. We should do these things. But it’s family that matters here. What I mean is: it’s not what we do, it’s who we are together. It’s the mutual care; it’s the blessing we are to each other. There is a poem that says a family is where when you go, they have to take you in. For me, the church was a place where they took me in even when my family didn’t want me. Here I am, fifty years later, trying to perform that same miracle.

The Blues Brothers is a funny movie about Jake and Elwood, two bumbling guys in black suits, who become convinced God wants them to raise money to save an orphanage. They put their band together; they make people mad for various reason all along the way. But over and over they say one thing: “We’re on a mission from God.” This story about Jesus invites us to the live the same way, to be a part of his family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Family matters: we are invited here every day to be a part of this family, a part o the caring, a part of this mission of God’s family.

Amen.

After Pentecost 2 B

Seeming, Seeing, Saving

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 3, 2018
2 Corinthian 4:5-12

So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Cor 4:12

To hear the sermon preached, click below

Every preacher has some weaknesses. I know that one of mine is titles. Take today. I looked at this scripture reading and saw the part about being slaves, and I thought of when my older kids were eight and six. We lived in a flat in Milwaukee with no dishwasher. Every night after dinner, their job was to wash and dry the dishes and put them away. One night when they were pouting they said, “We’re slaves, we’re nothing but slaves.” Their mother and I looked at each other and said together, “You’re right, now get out there and finish up.” So I thought about calling this sermon “Nothing But Slaves”. It might be worth pointing out here that in Greek, the same word is used for children and slaves; I guess the Greeks needed dishwashers too. But I gave up on that title, it doesn’t really embrace Paul’s message.

Then I thought about the text a bit more and I was really taken by the image of the earthen vessels. I put one on the communion table today, just to illustrate this. I’ve read a couple of sermons that focused there and especially on the pots as cracked pots. There are so many crackpots in our national life today that I thought I could talk for a long time about that. We might not all have the same idea about which crackpots are the worst or funniest but still, there do seem to be a lot of them. But I read some more and realized this isn’t really the point of the passage; it’s an illustration of a larger message. So sadly I gave up on that title; I know a lot of preachers, better preachers, are happy to do something light-hearted but I know you expect to hear God’s word, not just whatever I think is funny.
After a few days reflecting, I began to think of Paul’s message here in three parts and that’s where my title today, seeming, seeing, saving, came from. It’s not as fun as cracked pots but it makes more sense of Paul’s message here, at least it did for me; let’s see if it does for you.

The Corinthian Christians were a quarrelsome bunch. We have a letter we call First Corinthians that’s full of Paul’s advice on conflicts; it’s clear there that the church has some factions. Before this letter was written, Paul sent Timothy to try to solve the problems but he failed. Then, someone we’ll call Mr. X came along who was charismatic and apparently an excellent speaker and a bunch of the church rallied around him. But as often happens, the charismatic leader’s fall was just as sudden as his rise. Now the church is in conflict again over differences about this leader and Paul and Paul is trying to get them back on the path toward Christ.

He begins with a sermon that should be preached to every pastor in America today I think:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

When I look back over my career, over 40 years of pastoral ministry, I see that one of the great changes has been the creation of what I call the entrepreneurial ministry. The model is something like this: go door to door, call on the phone, by some means get a little group together; tell them they are right. That’s right: no preacher ever started up a church confronting people about where they are wrong. Adopt their culture, wave their flags, support their politics, lift up their sports. That will make the little group a larger group; it will make them feel good about themselves. And it may work. Today all over the country there are super churches with super preachers who took and take this path. Every single one is led by some preacher who is lifted up as the voice of God.

But notice what Paul says: not ourselves but Jesus Christ. By ‘ourselves’ he means himself, Timothy, other church leaders. Here it means me, Joan, our Moderator, our other officers. We’re not the show; we’re not the heart. I’m not the heart. I’m not here to proclaim me, I’m here to preach Jesus Christ as Lord. I’ve been through a few transitions where I left a church after a long, fruitful time. Each time the same thing has happened; each time someone has come and said, “I’m leaving if you’re not going to be here.” I’ve always replied the same way: you didn’t join me, you joined a church; you didn’t follow me, you followed Jesus. So why would you leave? There’s more to do.

Paul wants us to see what an extraordinary treasure we have in God’s love. Just like many of us, he had his own particular experience of being called by Christ. In his case, it involved an intense light, so bright it blinded him. So naturally he remembers that God is the source of light, that God’s creation began with light. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He calls this a treasure, and so it is, for the greatest treasure of all is to see ourselves not as the world sees but in the light of God, in the mirror of God’s love. We may seem to be nothing to the world. We may seem to be weak in the world. But seen from God’s view, we contain a treasure: the image of God, which is our true self.

Paul knows about this difference between seeming and saying. He’s not being superficial or unrealistic. He goes on to admit that this treasure is held in an earthen vessel. In the ancient world, earthen vessels, pottery, were the everyday packaging. It’s what you put your olive oil in, it’s what your foods came in. It’s what held trade goods. Pottery was so widely spread that today archaeologists use different patterns and compositions of pottery to date cities; they dig them up in former trash mounds. Now pottery is made from clay; perhaps just as Paul is thinking of God’s creation of light, he’s also thinking of how we were created from the same clay that makes pottery. We are earthen vessels.

He’s completely realistic about our lives; they aren’t untroubled, in fact as he says, “We are hard pressed on every side,..perplexed…persecuted..struck down…We always carry in our body the death of Jesus.” Just like an earthen vessel that can be dropped at any moment and break into shards, we are terribly fragile. I think we all know this and fight the knowledge. We’re constantly defending that weakness. I was halfway through my career in ministry before I ever sat with a Board of Deacons, discussing a complaint, and simply said, “I made a mistake; I’m sorry.” I never wanted to be an earthen vessel: I wanted to be gold or silver or something shinier. It was terrible admitting I was just a clay pot. I wonder how many conflicts are caused by fear of our fragility. I wonder how many hierarchies, systems of oppression, come from the secret knowledge of the oppressor that he or she is fragile, an earthen vessel, subject to shattering.

But if we are fragile, if we are earthen vessels, we also have an amazing capacity to carry the extraordinary spirit of God. Paul sees the fragility, sees the injuries, the hurts, the times that shatter us but he also wants us to see that in Jesus Christ we have another possibility.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; 
perplexed, but not driven to despair; 
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, 
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

This last is what saves us, saves our world: that the life of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, is made visible in us. Yes, we are earthen vessels; but those vessels contain a treasure. Yes, we are fragile; but we have an eternal life in the heart of God. Yes, we are carrying death in our bodies, just like Jesus, but just like Jesus, we have the capacity to shine with the light of the Spirit of God.

When we understand we are earthen vessels containing a treasure there are two consequences. One is that we understand our own value before God. So we are set free from the world’s value systems. We can stop trying to be gold vessels or silver vessels, because the treasure is what we contain. And the second consequence is that we recognize a fundamental equality with all God’s other children. We are all earthen vessels; we are all carriers of treasure. Paul saw this himself. In Galatians 3:28 he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So our mission becomes working for justice for all, for justice simply means treating equally people who are equal.

We live in a world that seems to be one way but Christ calls us to see beyond the world to the hope and love of God. We live in a world where we get bruised, cry out, feel ourselves cast down, but if we look, we can see that even in the moment of suffering, we are invited to the arms of Jesus Christ who also suffered, who knows about suffering. This is how God is saving this world. In our moments of celebration, in our times of suffering, we are earthen vessels meant to carry the treasure of God’s glory, God’s image, God’s presence. This is the spirit that is saving the world. Whatever things seem, may we see it and share it.

Amen.

Memorial Day – All Present and Accounted For

All Present and Accounted For

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Memorial Day • May 27, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Every Sunday presents a challenge of choice: what to leave in, what to leave out, include all the scriptures read or focus on one reading, one line? Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the church, the Sunday after Pentecost when preachers are invited to explore the theology of God appearing in three persons. But in our civil calendar, it is Memorial Day weekend, a day for cookouts, visits with family and time off on Monday. It is a day most especially when veterans and their families are honored and those who have died are remembered. Faced with this choice, I’ve chosen to focus on Memorial Day; we’ll talk about the Trinity another day. I know this will disappoint some; perhaps please others. All I can say is keep coming and we’ll get there!

Last week, we read the same piece of Ezekiel read this morning, the prophet’s dream of God resurrecting a field of dry bones, the leftovers of a battle, the casualties of a war. I felt there was so much more to say about this passage that I asked to have it read today, as you heard. Now I want to add to it the conclusion of this section of Ezekiel. After the dry bones, Ezekiel has another vision of a great war and then we hear this.

Therefore thus says the Lord God: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. 26They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they live securely in their land with no one to make them afraid, 27when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have displayed my holiness in the sight of many nations. 28Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; 29and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.
[Ezekiel 39:25-29]

Let us pray that God will open to us the full gift of this passage and the full measure of the Spirit.

So, Memorial Day: where does it come from? How did it originate? Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in 1868 in the free United States of the north. The date was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of a particular battle and its focus was on remembering those who had died in the recent Civil War, fought to save the Union and free the union of slavery. During that time, Union dead were being gathered together from shallow battlefield graves into 70 nationally recognized cemeteries, mostly in the south where battles had occurred. Similar memorial day celebrations were also held in the former Confederated states, celebrations gradually blended into southern attempts to construct a romantic justification for the war and to reinstate white supremacy. The Confederate memorials were particularly centered on creating statues, symbols of resistance to the constitution and to racial justice. Today, of course, those statues are thankfully coming down. For many years the two celebrations were entirely separate.

After 1913, when former Union and Confederate soldiers came together at Gettysburg, the celebration of Decoration Day began to merge. This increased when the dead of World War 1 were included and was completed after World War 2, when Decoration Day officially became Memorial Day.

Where did Memorial Day come from? It came from graveyards. When the armies left Gettysburg on July 4, 1863, they left behind over 7,000 dead, scattered over the ground. There was no organized, national office in charge of their burial; it fell to local citizens and took until the following spring before the dead were mostly cleared. Bones are still occasionally found. Let Gettysburg stand for Antietam, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Vicksburg and so many more, all of which left the dead where they fell until someone came along to bury them.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?

This is the dream of Ezekiel; this is the nightmare of everyone who has experienced battle. In the middle of western Europe, during World War 1,  approximately one ton of explosives was fired for every square meter of ground. About a third didn’t explode. In 2013 alone, 160 tons of unexploded munitions were recovered from one section of the front. These are explosives from a century ago. About 900 tons of explosives are recovered every year. Since 1945, 630 French battlefield clearers have died. People continue to die.

Succeeding wars have all contributed to the carnage and the graves. The United States lost about 400,000 service members during World War 2; the Soviet Union lost about nine million. Germany and other places were leveled with bombs that often require evacuation today while they are defused. Each succeeding conflict adds its graves, its explosives, it’s deadly toll. Today, somewhere, a mine is being buried or a shell fired or a bomb dropped that will lie in wait. A child or a farmer, someone simple and unaware, will die from it a century from now.

How can we look out over this huge field of dry bones, dead soldiers and sailors, aircrew and marines, and so many others, and ask, first, do we remember them? Memorial Day began in memory: first of individuals for whom the wound of grief in those left behind was still fresh and pulsing. Then, recognizing the commonality of the hurt, in a shared sense of how terrible the sacrifice had been.

So the first thing for us to understand from Ezekiel’s vision is that God has remembered the fallen. Unknown, desiccated and dusty, only bones left, still the vision of Ezekiel begins with the startling fact that God has not forgotten these fallen, holds on to them, cares for them.

When a military company lines up on a drill field, they count off, attendance is taken, and there is a phrase passed forward: “all present and accounted for”. It means that even though someone might be in the hospital, someone might have been detached, every person in the company is remembered, accounted for, present in that sense.

Now Christ calls us to grow ourselves towards God. We are made in God’s image and like a child filling out, getting taller, learning new skills, becoming an adult, we are meant to fulfill that image. Part of that growth is to learn to see not as the world teaches but as God teaches. And what God teaches, what Christ showed, was that we should see everyone.

Memorial day is a reminder of this. Ezekiel lived in a moment when God’s people had been defeated in a series of wars that left dead scattered throughout the land, that left Jerusalem a shattered ruin. The leaders of the community were taken into exile. Worst of all, they came to believe their defeat was emblematic of their abandonment. by God.

Ezekiel’s startling proclamation is that they have not been abandoned, not those alive, not those dead, not those who will come to be in the future. All are still God’s people and God means to give them new life, as a people, as persons, as children of God.
The surprising word of God about all those who believe themselves lost is that God intends to find them and let them know they are found.

Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.

The graveyard of dusty bones will be transcended by God’s love into a memorial; the dead live in the love of God.

Five months after the battle of Gettysburg, when the dead still littered the ground in some places, there was a great gathering to memorialize the dead. There were bands and long speeches and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, said these words.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate-we can not consecrate-we can not hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Almost 155 years later, we are still faced with the task for which those brave ones gave their lives. We remember them best when we struggle with them against the racism that continues to be a dark strain in our national life. It’s the same with others who have fallen. How many of us have family members who fell or fought against fascism in World War II? Then shouldn’t we in our turn fight those in this country who want to bring this demonic thing here? Remember their fight: make it your own.

When we take up the cause of freedom and justice, when we fight fascists, when we insist that faith in God means full inclusion of all God’s children, that Christian is not a synonym for exclusion, then we are fulfilling God’s vision. Then we are remembering truly. Then indeed, the spirit of Memorial Day is in us, and the armies of so many who have sacrificed are in our lives all present and accounted for, then their memorial is our inspiration.

Amen.

Pentecost B – Making the Dry Bones Dance

Making the Dry Bones Dance

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Pentecost/B • May 20, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I want to begin with part of a story and then continue it throughout. I’m hoping we can use this story to tie together an understanding of how we fit with God’s plan. Here is the first of three parts of this story.

When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people were threatened by tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and asked for a miracle to save the Jews from the threat. Because of the Holy Fire and faithfulness of the prayer, the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

What can we do in the face of threats and tragedies? How can we hope when we’re afraid?
How do we change? How do we move from here to there, from this moment to a better moment? How is God making better times, new times, moving all creation toward the moment Jesus called the reign of God or the kingdom of God? Today is the day of Pentecost and we are invited into two stories of how God changes, two stories of vision that invite us to lift our hearts in hope.

Let’s begin with the Pentecost account. Once again, the disciples are met just as they were when the risen Lord came to them, passing through locked doors until they recognized him in their midst. Now in the midst of their meeting, the Holy Spirit he had promised comes in the same way, whooshing into the meeting, disrupting it, changing it. The Spirit wasn’t on the agenda; the fire wasn’t part of the plan.

Imagine the new disciple, just chosen to replace Judas, wondering if they do this every time they meet. Once when I was out of the ministry, I went to a Presbyterian church. The kids were little, and we were just a moment or two late, so we pushed past the assembled processional and had to walk all the way to the front to find seats. Next thing you know the organ is playing and a bagpiper is playing and marching up the aisle with the choir and the minister. It was quite a show. The piper was in full regalia: skirt, sweater, hat and a dagger strapped to his leg. Wow. I was impressed.

The next couple of Sundays we had sick kids, so we stayed home, but when we finally got back, I made sure we were in our seats early. I love pipes and I didn’t want to miss out. Imagine my disappointment when there was no processional, no piper, no dagger, just the call to worship and opening hymn. Later I found out we happened to have been there on St. Andrews day, a big deal to Presbyterians. The piper was a once a year thing. The tongues of fire at Pentecost are a once a lifetime thing.

One of the pastors on my preachers’ mailing list said recently,

I dread Pentecost. There, I’ve said it. Oh, at one time, it was one of my favorite Sundays. I loved inviting people to wear red, I liked using the balloons, and loved the processionals, and coming up with new ways to represent this day.
But not anymore. See, now I find Pentecost to be one massive guilt
trip. After all, I’ve never preached a sermon that made 3 people, much
less 3000 want to be baptized. I’ve never gotten folks so excited about the
good news that they suddenly wanting to share it. I’ve never (fortunately,
I think) been in a church where suddenly a multitude of languages is spoken.
So I find Pentecost makes me feel pretty guilty.
And folks in the churches feel the same way. Most of the
congregations I have served have felt burnt out; they don’t feel flames
dancing on their heads. They are lucky if one or two new folks show up once
in a while, much less multitudes.
They, like me, probably wouldn’t know what to do if the windows suddenly burst open and the Holy Spirit came racing in.

He goes on to say that part of the problem is that Pentecost has become a model for a successful church and if we don’t look like that, we don’t feel successful. But the disciples do not do Pentecost: God does. The disciples do not make Pentecost; God does. And God does not care about our success our pride.

The problem is that we are so inclined to just see what’s there and not what’s moving it. Take the business about languages. Why all these languages? Surely it is meant to remind us of the story of the Tower of Babel, part of the saga of creation stories, when the Bible imagined all the earth being split by language so people couldn’t understand each other. Now Babel is reversed: now people can understand and the thing they understand is that God is alive and calling all people together. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God says: full inclusion, everyone welcome. God is breaking the boundaries: like the piper, it’s one day, one time. Like the Baal Shem Tov in the forest, praying by his fire, God gives this miracle, this sign, of where to go, what path to take, and when we take it, we are on the way.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.

The other story we read today also invites us forward. Israel and Judah have places that are so arid, things simply remain. It’s not hard to imagine that the battles of the period that led to the defeat of God’s people and their exile left places where bones were scattered, the result of long ago battles. What’s to happen to these lost people?

“Can these bones live?” That’s the question we face in our church and our culture today. God’s answer is resurrection.

Now resurrection isn’t the same as getting something new. Notice that in the whole of Ezekiel’s vision, the emphasis is on reclaiming what was, not creating something new. Like the Maggid of Mezrich, what’s called for isn’t a new miracle but using the old way. Resurrection means taking what was and is, making it into what will be, taking what was dead, making it alive. Pentecost looks on the surface like creating the church from nothing but it’s really creating it from the resurrection of Jesus, through this community of disciples, by the reversal of the separation between people. Ezekiel’s vision is of God blowing life into what was dead, reclaiming God’s people, resurrecting the whole community of them. What God means to do is clear: make the dry bones dance, resurrect what was into what will be.

We have a hard time seeing that hope. We get so focused on our present, we forget God is doing something new. But we do need an answer to tragedy. I could offer a list but you know them already. You know that our high school kids are taking their murder for granted. The saddest most tragic thing in the most recent shooting was the kid who wasn’t surprised. What’s wrong with us, what’s wrong with all of us, when a high school kid isn’t surprised his school got shot up?

Our politicians are paralyzed by fear. I watched on the day of the Texas shooting as Senator Ted Cruz, a man who has done as much as anyone in the whole country to make guns available and facilitate school shootings, said we needed prayers. Prayers are nothing but the intention to act. God hates pious prayers that are not connected to our intention to act.

So how can we deal with tragedy? We don’t know the prayer we don’t know the place in the woods to make the fire. The final part of the story says,

When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great grandson of the Maggid of Mezrichwho, who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story. That must be enough.” And it was. [The Baal Shem Tov Lights a Fire]

This is us: the people who know the story, the story of God’s grace, the story of God’s resurrection. Go tell it; go live it. Go live like the bones are going to dance and they will.

Amen.

Easter 7B – Ascension – Next, Please?

Next, Please?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday • May 13, 2018

One day last week Jacquelyn and I toured the Alhambra, an enormous Medieval complex of palaces, gardens and fortresses overlooking the city of Granada. It was the last hold out of Muslim rulers in Spain, and its swirling walls decorated with plaster calligraphy, its pools of water, and mountain views were exhilarating.

Still, three hours of walking in such beauty, we were tired and hungry. We bought sandwiches and found a bench in some shade. Drawn by the same shade, two young couples sat across from us. Soon a small cat came over and clearly sniffed Jacquelyn’s sandwich; she was having tuna, and the cat wanted som,e so it did what always works with Jacquelyn, sat in front of her and quietly looked hungry and sad and hopeful.

We all laughed at the cat and began to talk. One of the women was obviously pregnant. We asked when she was due; she said August and I laughed and said August babies—of which I’m one—were extraordinary people. As we talked, she mentioned how scared she was about being a mother. I said being a parent was the most fun I’d ever had; Jacquelyn added comments on how wonderful it had been, having May, bringing her up. It turned out the other woman was pregnant too, and soon we were all laughing. Of course, Jacquelyn went from just dropping crumbs for the cat to breaking pieces off to feed the feline. With lunch over, we said goodbye to our friends and the cat and wandered off. I’d like to think we not only made the cat’s day but gave those two couples a bit of hope, another brighter voice than all the scary rational ones. I’d like to think we passed on a little of the love we’ve found parenting together.

Today is one of those days with many priorities. In the United States, it’s Mothers Day. 
In the past, that often meant exalting on one day out of the whole year the role of women who have children. Often we left out those who didn’t. Today I want to make it clear that as we mention this day, we honor with it those women, mothers, grandmothers and others who care for children they didn’t have to cherish and raise but do so with the same generous love. We honor as well women who have never had children but also share their care and love in so many ways.

I said it was a day of different priorities and if Mothers Day is one, the calendar of the church provides another. Today is Ascension Sunday. Long ago, the church remembered there was a time, a moment, when the direct, immediate presence of Jesus walking and talking with his friends ceased, when he returned to the Father so that his followers could, like fledging birds, learn to live out the love he had taught on their own.

The Book of Acts invites us to imagine Jesus taking his disciples out to a hill where they ask if he will at that time restore the kingdom of Israel. He replies, in effect, that the scheduled for the kingdom is none of their business and that instead their job is to go out and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. He mentions Judah and Samaria; you can substitute whatever place seems foreign and exotic to you. Brooklyn, maybe, or New Jersey or West Virginia, or Georgia or Buffalo. Buffalo is definitely one of the ends of the earth, at least it’s near the end of the turnpike so it will do as a symbol.

But my favorite story of the ascension is actually the one we heard today in Acts. Jesus has gone and now for the first time his disciples have to organize on their own. How are we going to continue? That’s a question all organizations ask. These early Christians don’t have the tools we have. Roberts Rules of Order won’t be written for centuries; there is no church constitution. They can’t even settle this question the way we settle such matters now by asking, “What did we do last year?” because this is the first year, the first time. But they understand this single important thing: they are there to continue the work of Jesus and that means continuing to create and recreate the community of Jesus. So they pick a couple of good candidates, people they’ve known, who’ve been active and nominate them and then they pray and cast lots; Matthias becomes the new disciple.

In the whole book of Acts of the Apostles, I do not know a more important moment. For in that moment, these people, who so often fumbled and misunderstood Jesus, begin to move forward in his spirit. In this moment, they begin to do what he told them, to ready themselves for continuing the ministry of Jesus on their own. The Romans thought they could kill the movement by killing Jesus; the religious leaders thought they could kill the spirit by killing the preacher. But God’s love and life were so strong that instead he overcomes death and his resurrection inspires these followers to continue to create communities of care just as he did, communities that will spread throughout the world. The light of love is shining in this moment and being passed like candle light, from one to another. We sometimes get so concerned about daily challenges we forget this is the most important challenge of all: how we can pass on the light of love each day.

That’s the point Jesus is making in the part of the prayer we heard this morning. He says about the disciples he about to release into the world like a dandelion releasing its seeds,

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. [John 17:16-19]

That’s us: that’s who we are meant to be, people sent into the world who have seen how much difference a moment of grace, a cherishing love, a boundary breaking invitation can make.

That’s the spirit in which Mothers Day originated. You can read in the bulletin article today a longer history of Mothers Day. I want simply to point out here that it began not as a day to give your mother a card but out of the boundary breaking work of bridging the gap between former Union and Confederate soldiers and families. West Virginia had become a state through the breaking of ties that inspired the war against the Union and the restoration of peace left broken bodies and broken communities there more than in most places. Anna Jarvis worked to promote peace and her daughter worked to lift up and honor that work.

There are so many stories like this. We often feel powerless but the truth is we have the power to act, as the disciples acted, and when we do amazing things happen. Let me give you one more souvenir from our vacation in Spain this year. We always visit Cathedrals and this year one that stood out to me honors St. John de Dios. It stood out because it is a soaring basilica perhaps four stories high at the front, all in figures of gold and for one euro you can turn the lights on and startle everyone there. It stood out because I’m a Congregationalist who loves the spare, plain beauty of our meeting houses which are almost undecorated. In that church, decoration assaults you at every turn and it includes that odd medieval Catholic obsession with relics of saints, so they have various skeletons in glass boxes.

All of it was over the top but it did make me look up St. John of God, the inspiration for the place. What I found was much more amazing than the gold and the skeletons. John was a poor Portuguese boy who did what boys from poor boys often do today: he enlisted in the military. He did well as a soldier, survived and went on to have a variety of experiences. At midlife, he had an experience of inspiration and began to help sick and needy people. Others joined him; the work expanded. Eventually a whole order was funded which operates hospitals around the world.

“The lot fell on Matthias,” Acts says; one person, one moment. Hundreds of years later, it fell on a former soldier and now we have hospitals. Hike up in the mountains, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, anywhere will do and if you watch a stream flowing downhill you can see it is irresistible. Blocks a path, it finds another; when a tree falls in the middle, it divides around it. It doesn’t look like much, often, just a little stream but nothing will stop that stream flowing to the river to the sea and joining the ocean. That’s how it is with God’s love. It’s flowing all the time, touching someone here, there. Like a working at a counter, calling, “Next, please?” it moves from person to person.

One of the wonderful gifts of travel is that you stop seeing news alerts. So this past week while we were in Spain, I’m sure that lots of things went on. The President did things; other people protested or agreed. Global leaders did whatever they do. Millionaires in the city got mad that someone parked a fireboat that helped rescue people on 9/11 in front of their condos, spoiling the view.

But this happened too: the Henry Street Settlement got a 6.2 million dollar donation. The Settlement started in 1893 when Lillian Ward settled in a slum in New York City among what today we would call undocumented immigrants. That another term for many of our grandparents, mine among them. Henry Street has far too many accomplishments to list but an important one today is supporting young people going to college. A lot more will be able to go because of this huge donation. Now you might think that in New York, with so many very rich people who live in rich towers, a donation would come from one of them. But it didn’t. It came from Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old woman who retired after a 67 year career as a secretary. She never had a child; thanks to her gift, hundreds of children will be nurtured and grow up in new ways.

“Next, please?” Matthias starts out as the first disciple to continue the work. Others follow. Still, the Spirit is calling: next, please? No one knows what blessings make a difference. But like the stream running down the mountain, no one can stop that stream of blessing. We are invited to make our lives part of the stream, part of the blessing, to live as the next ones to light the candle of love.

Easter 5B – The Good Sheep

The Good Sheep

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Easter/B • April 29, 2018
John 10:18-31

In 1973, I was the pastor the Seattle Congregational Church in Washington, almost as far west as you can go in the lower 48 states. But my family was in Michigan, so I’d driven between the two several times. Four days: Michigan to Wisconsin, where I also have family, then a day to Montana, and then a day that is all Montana, finally a day across Idaho and Washington. It’s a long drive and that year I decided to vary it by trying some local roads across the mountains in Wyoming. There was a little road on the map that looked like it would cut a couple hours off the trip and let me connect back up to I-90 in Montana.

So off I went in my Pinto, a little blue Ford. Up, up the mountain, uncomfortably aware there was no one around. Have you been to that sort of place? Where you feel like if something happened, no one would find you, no one would know for a long, long time? Just as I was thinking that I remember coming around a curve, meadows on both sides, and suddenly seeing like a flowing sea a flock of hundreds of sheep flowing over the road. I braked quickly and sat there, watching as they moved. There was a dog barking but no person, no one at all. And then, as the flock began to thin and I thought to get the car moving again, I saw a horse with a small man slumped in the saddle. He didn’t seem to talk; he didn’t seem to do anything. He just quietly followed the flock. He was the shepherd.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Is there any more famous verse in the whole New Testament? Haven’t we all heard this, seen pictures of Jesus as a shepherd or holding a lamb? “I am the Good Shepherd.” It’s like a sign that says: “ok, I already heard this, I can check out now”, isn’t it? Well, let me ask you to come back now if you’re already wondering what’s at coffee hour, because I want to think not only about the Good Shepherd today but about the sheep: you and I, the flock the Good Shepherd gathers and protects. That’s you: that’s me.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus defines his relationship with us. First, we are not in charge. The sheep do not decide the direction, the sheep do not decide the route. The sheep go where the shepherd directs. And the shepherd cares for the sheep.

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Why does the hired hand run away? Because he doesn’t love the sheep. This is the deep heart of our relationship with Jesus. It’s in the scene we read a few weeks ago, where he shows his wounds to Thomas. Even in resurrection, the Lord retains his wounds, is marked by his wounds, wounds he receives on our behalf. Living in the midst of resurrection means living in the presence of the wounded Christ. It is a reminder that every attempt to connect Christ to kings or presidents or nations is a lie. He comes to us wounded, not victorious, and he invites us to come to him with our wounds, imperfect, failing at times, yet still part of his flock by his decision, not our own.

This mutuality is the mystery of our lives together with the Lord. He says,

I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

Christ does not come as an individual but as part of the community we call the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And his purpose is to bring us into the mutual love, mirror the mutual love, between the Father and Son. And he does this through experience.

The verb “know” in the Bible doesn’t mean knowing the way we know someone’s name or how the Mets did at their last game. It really means to experience. It means knowing what an apple tastes like when you bite into it; it means knowing the way we know grief when someone we love dies. It means the knowing that grows between best friends or lovers so that we carry a copy of them in our head and know what they will say even when they aren’t present.

The mutuality of this knowing, this experience is a present thing. This is the heart of living with the Risen Lord: to say, “Christ is Risen!”, is to say he is in our present, not just our past. I know that a temptation I have is to spend so much time looking at the history of Jesus that I forget the presence of Christ. The resurrection experience is the re-establishment of relationships. That’s what’ happens with Thomas, that’s what happens with Mary. 
When Jesus meets Mary, she doesn’t call him by name, she says, “Rabouni”, which means “My teacher”. It’s not just his identity she recognizes: it is her relationship with him, his with her. For us to live as Easter people is to live in the faith he is here, now, not just back then.

“I am the good shepherd. My sheep know me and I know them.” Mutual recognition is the foundation of the flock. Jesus always gathers. His historical ministry begins with gathering disciples. As he walks along, he constantly gathers with others; this is one of the big complaints about him: “He eats with sinners.” At the table of Jesus, the culture of class and division is destroyed: all are welcome. Gathering is one of his distinctive actions.

Early Congregationalists recognized this gathering into covenanted community as the foundation of life with Christ. Peter Gomes makes this point about Congregational Churches. Speaking in Scotland to Episcopalians, he once said,

In New England, the ancient parishes of the seventeenth century in the Congre- gational order are not described as “founded”—if you ever look at an old sev- enteenth-century New England church, the sign will not say, “Founded in 1620,” “Founded in 1636,” “Founded in 1690″— but use a very strange nomenclature used nowhere else in the church, either in Europe or in this country: it says “Gathered in 1620,” “Gathered in 1640,” “Gathered in 1690,” and there is something very different between being founded and being gathered. The notion is that of sheep being gathered into the sheepfold.
[Peter Gomes, Good Shepherd, Good Sheep, April, 2003]

Jesus comes to us: we come to the flock, to church, to be with others who recognize him.
As we do, we should remember: we don’t get to decide who’s in or out of the flock. Jesus says,

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

 

I remember a story about an Episcopal priest whose church had become a community center, as ours has. Many of the people now filling its rooms were different than the members of the church and some members complained. He replied that he didn’t choose these people; Jesus did. They weren’t who he would have chosen but Jesus had, so what was he to do? They should blame Jesus. When we welcome someone, invite someone, we are acting like the good sheep of Christ’s flock.

“I am the good shepherd.” If Jesus is the good shepherd, we have to ask: what does it mean for us to be the good sheep?

First, it means gathering. There is a reason sheep have evolved a strong instinct to flock together. The flock protects them. When Jesus says he is the good shepherd, he also says there are danger out there. I don’t have to enumerate them, nor could I. But in our gathering, we are strengthened, we encourage each other.

I don’t think any of us really know how much our presence here means to others. Who came this morning hoping to see you? Who is strengthened by your presence here this morning, your greeting, your prayers? Coming to church is not an individual experience: it is gathering with others and although you may not realize it, your presence helps others. We have a variety of gifts, as Paul says, and when we gather the gifts are shared and make a blessing we also share.

Second, sheep produce. They are not simply existing on their own, they are a means of making something happen: wool, perhaps meat. In our case, Paul says,

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22f]

Our purpose is to bear these fruits, share them with the world. Like the sheep producing wool, we are meant to give something back, our love and joy, our kindness, and so on. Like a voice in a choir, these gifts melt together into God’s song of praise.

“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus calls us to gather together as his sheep, following him, not as a revered but dead example but as the living Lord, caring for us. Wherever we have been, whatever we have done, he calls us to follow him forward as members of his flock. Remember what he said to Peter? “Never mind all that—feed my sheep.” That’s us: thats our job. He is the shepherd; we are the flock. May we live in the love and care of the good shepherd, gathered in his flock.

Amen.

Easter 4B – Never Mind

Never Mind

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • ©2018
Fourth Sunday in Easter/B • April 22, 2018
John 21:15-19

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Isn’t it amazing how life can change in a moment? I used to be the kind of person who would carefully plan all the stages of a trip. I had my airline reservation printed, hotel, car, each of them laid in a folder in consecutive order. I got annoyed when planes were delayed; I got angry if my car or room wasn’t ready. But when Jacquelyn became a flight attendant and I started flying space available, I was introduced to traveling without any assurance. I had to learn that even though I had a plan, things could change, the world could say, “Never mind” to my plan. Of course, there are many times, may circumstances where we go along as if our lives were on rails like a train. Then something happens and suddenly it’s as if someone said, “Never mind” to our whole plan, our whole life, and we’re starting over.

It must have been like that for the disciples. For a few years, they’ve been following Jesus through the villages of Galilee, up and down the roads, then on to Jerusalem and its crowds. All along he was there; all along, they thought something great was going to happen. They saw him heal; they heard him preach. They’d been present at amazing, miraculous events.

Surely they knew what the prophets had said; one day God would send someone who would be a Messiah, who would lead a great movement to renew Israel. They must have known their history, how God inspired Moses to lead their ancestors out of Egypt, how Joshua led them to claim the promised land, how David created a kingdom among God’s people, how that kingdom though fallen had risen again and then been recaptured by Judas Maccabees.

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah!” But when Jesus connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They argue about who is going to be first in his kingdom; he tells them to serve each other. Even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they expected something great, something victorious.

Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said, “Never mind,” one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

So they do what people often do when a life plan ends. They go back where they were before it all began. They’ve gone back to Galilee, back to where it all started. They’ve gone back to what they used to do: fishing. How long have they been doing that? Doesn’t time seem to stop sometimes when your whole plan, your whole life, has run into one big “Never mind?” But it doesn’t seem to be working; they go out fishing and don’t catch a single thing. Have they lost the touch? Bad luck? Who knows? It seems the new plan, to go back to the old plan, is getting a big never mind as well.

It’s just then, when they come back to shore, hungry, depressed, quiet, the way you are when everything has failed that they meet this guy on the beach. Who is he? No one knows. He calls them children. That may seem kind but actually since the word for children and slave is about the same it may have come across as strange. Maybe it sounded like he was recognizing how hard they worked. Next thing, he’s giving directions“Cast the net on the right side.” Is it just that nothing else has worked so why not or something mysteriously compelling about him? All we know is that as the net fills up and one of them recognizes something in the man on the beach. “It is the Lord!” he says and Peter—Peter who always rushes in, whether it’s the right thing or not—Peter can’t help jumps in and wades ashore.

Once there, they discovered everything they need is already set: bread, grilled fish. I love the note that says that the net didn’t break. That detail makes this story for me: who else but someone who’s spent hours mending nets would think of it? So there they are: on the beach with the Lord, eating breakfast. Some have said that just as there was a Last Supper, this is the First Breakfast.

It must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think?

The musical Fiddler on the Roof has a scene where Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him,” and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?
But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,
Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

At the end, she says she does love him—and that it doesn’t change a thing.
“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the Messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say?

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus says. And then, I imagine Jesus looking right into his eyes, knowing as he always knew, what was behind Peter’s eyes, knowing and yet asking once again, “Do you love me?” and when Peter, perhaps crumbling now, says yes; once again, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” This is the moment Peter became an apostle. This is the moment when Jesus came to him and said: “Never mind!” All those misunderstandings along the way? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. Those times you denied me? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. The fact that you went back to your old life? Never mind! I’m giving you a new life and a new mission: feed my sheep.

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. When the Risen Lord comes to us, it isn’t to show off, it’s to show us how to rise with him.

Peter is buried in guilt; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep.

Peter is buried in grief; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep.

Peter is buried in failure; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep.

Maybe you’re buried, maybe you’ve been buried. Today Jesus is calling to you to rise with him. Today Jesus is saying to you as he did to Peter: never mind all that— feed my sheep. Today, Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”.

How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly, he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart.

Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.

Amen.