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.

Easter 3B – Mary and Manitude

Mary and Manitude

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Easter • April 15, 2018
John 20:11-18

A man with long legs gets on an airplane. The exit row seats have a bit more leg room and the helpful flight attendant suggests he sit in one of them. He replies, “Those seats don’t recline.” She says, “They do, actually.” He replies, “No they don’t.” She smiles and says, “Why don’t you sit down and explain why you think you know more about this plane than I do?” He just goes off—to a different seat, obviously secure in his rightness, even though in fact he is wrong. That’s manitude.

A woman driving a shuttle bus pulls up to a hotel with some passengers. She’s brought them to a side door. The hotel, she tells them, is being renovated; check-in is in a room through the door. The passengers get off; one couple heads around the building to the former lobby. A few minutes later, they are still wandering, as the man assures his wife that there must be a check-in somewhere and they finally get directions from a man. That’s manitude.

Some women come to the disciples and tell them they’ve been to the tomb of Jesus and it’s empty. But no one believes them. Luke says: “…they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”[Luke 21:11] Mark’s version, as we heard on Easter Sunday, says Mary didn’t even bother to tell them; as I was discussing it that week, more than one woman said, “Oh, I understand that, they wouldn’t have believed her anyway.” That’s manitude.

“Manitude” is an attitude that diminishes and deprecates the contributions of women in favor of males, especially higher status males. These are gender-based examples but the same tendency is found in other places, the tendency to value based on gender, class, race or some other category that has nothing to do with competence.

As I said last week, I want to think with you about the resurrection experience of these earliest Christians. Because the resurrection is the ultimate recommendation of Jesus. This is what we say: believe him because he overcame death, even death on a cross. Nowhere is there any account of the resurrection itself. What we have instead are accounts of people meeting the Risen Lord, encountering him. And right from the beginning, these are conditioned by culture and Manitude and the lives of the individuals involved. Yet their accounts contain the seeds that can bloom into our own spiritual lives. Last week, I talked about how sharing our wounds, as Jesus did with Thomas, can connect us. Today I want to reflect on how we can hear more clearly the voice of the Lord speaking in our midst.

All the gospels agree that Mary of Magdala is either the first or among the first to discover Jesus has left the tomb. But the church remembered that she wasn’t believed. In some versions, she doesn’t tell the disciples; in others, as I mentioned, they don’t believe her. The critical point is that these disciples who have walked with Jesus, eaten with Jesus, listened to Jesus as he told them over and over that he would go to his death and then be resurrected did not believe him and therefore didn’t believe Mary’s story.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this very comforting. It turns out the earliest Christians are just like me: they don’t believe what they can’t see and touch. Even when they hear the Lord has risen, their first reaction is, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Maybe you’ve had that reaction about some Christian ideas; maybe you just decided to set them aside. I know at times I’ve done that. Some I’ve come back to; some I never have.

But Mary’s experience isn’t just the absence of Jesus’ body; she also encounters the Risen, living Lord. As we read in the gospel of John, as she stands weeping outside the tomb, she meets three persons. Just as in other accounts, two of them are dressed in white, angels who tell her that Jesus isn’t there. But then,

14…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). [John 20:14-16]

There are some details to notice here. First, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. The same is true in other stories, including the encounter of some disciples near Emmaus. Even when you meet the Risen Lord, you may not know it. It’s a stunning idea, isn’t it? Have you met the Risen Lord and missed him because you didn’t know who he was?

It’s when Jesus addresses her directly that the situation changes. He calls her name, “Mary”. Think of it: the Son of God, the Risen Lord, the personal, image of God remembers her name. With that one word, we know that Jesus is not seeing her through the cloudy lens of her gender or class or anything else except her true self. There’s nothing in the way. She’s not a woman, she’s not a well-off merchant, she’s not a Jew, she’s simply Mary.. She is a child of God.

The second is her response. When he recognizes her, she also recognizes him and she calls out to him, not a name, but a relationship: “Rabouni,” a Hebrew word that means something like “Teacher”. But it embraces more than a vocation: she is claiming him, naming a direct relationship in which she is already agreeing to be guided by his words, taught by his sayings. 
He isn’t just a teacher: he is her teacher.

We do not come to Jesus, Jesus comes to us, and he’s most likely to come to us when we cry. Just as he uses his wounds to summon Thomas and the others, there is something about a person crying out that summons Jesus. We see that over and over in the healing stories. The modern Protestant orthodoxy we grew up with tended to minimize the healings but in fact, Mark offers healings as the first acts of Jesus’ ministry: an exorcism, and the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. It’s significant that Mary is crying when he comes to her in the garden. She is not seeking him; there is no come to Jesus moment here. Instead, he comes to her.

So the whole project of evangelistic pressure to believe what cannot be seen is illegitimate. We may be called to believe what we haven’t seen but it’s a call of the heart; no genuine faith comes from the social coercion of shame. The Lord waits to be recognized, coming to us when we are ready, calling us by name, speaking into our hearts. We do not know when this will happen to someone. And this is where the issue of manitude comes in. For when we screen out the insights and visions of someone, we may be missing a genuine vision of the Lord.

We’ve just come through Passover, when God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is remembered, an act of salvation. That story really begins with a moment when Moses sees a burning bush in the distance and decides to turn aside and see this sight. When he does, he hears the call of God. The Rabbis have asked, “How long was the bush burning?” and their answer is 400 years: it started burning when the Jews were first enslaved. “What would have happened if someone had noticed the bush burning 100 years before Moses?”—to which they answer, we would have been saved 100 years earlier. [https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/the-yearning-burning-bush/]

We cannot afford to screen out, to miss, visions and hopes; we need everyone to share because who knows which one has seen the Lord. This is a hard concept to get across. Most church organizations do not really believe it and since most of us have been somewhere else, we don’t believe it either. Early on, the church tragically adopted the Roman Empire hierarchy as its model. So it preached that there were different orders of Christians. In the west, the top guy was and is the Pope, with bishops under him, and so on. Protestants mostly took over this organization; they just replaced the pope with a king or a group of bishops. Even some Puritans, who became Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, took over the idea that somehow clergy had a special connection to inspiration.

We don’t. I don’t. I have a graduate degree in theology, mostly in the Bible. I have lots of education in administering a church, some training in counseling. I have several decades of experience leading worship. But I don’t have any more access to Jesus and to God than you do; you don’t have more than I. This is the great insight of the first Congregationalists and it is still the heart of what makes this way of doing church so important. We know each other here as equal covenant partners in this congregation. At our best, we act without manitude, we listen to everyone, we care for each one.

That leads me to ask something of you. We need to hear from each other; we need to hear about moments of inspiration, we need to hear what this church means to you. We need to hear what others in the church need, we need to hear your insights on our next steps. We’re about six weeks from our Annual Meeting. You all know how dull these often are. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone came prepared to say a word about what makes them thankful for this church? Wouldn’t it be amazing if people came and shared their vision of what we should do next year? Wouldn’t it be incredible if people volunteered to plan and create those next steps?

I want to get in the habit of making suggestions. For almost four years I’ve picked the hymns. Some you liked, some you didn’t, some you refused to sing. That’s ok. What if we shared this? In your bulletin today there’s a card that invites you to make some suggestions about worship. Please fill it out; you can drop it off in the office, you can put it in the offering plate. You can take it home, think about it and send it back. Send a letter with it, if you wish, something to share in the newsletter.

Manitude is that human tendency, often gendered, to not hear someone because you don’t respect them. It might be because of gender, or race or class or age or appearance or sexuality. We can’t afford it. The disciples missed the first reports of the resurrection because they didn’t believe them, possibly because they came from women. Every Easter we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Don’t miss him; don’t miss hearing others who have seen him. When we connect as a congregation of Christ, sharing our wounds, loving each other as he commanded, he promised to be present in our midst. He is; he always is.

Amen.

Easter 2B – The Owie Report

The Owie Report

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2018

Second Sunday in Easter/B • April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35 • John 20:19-31

Click below to hear the sermon preached

My family was never close and I moved away when I went to college. So my two younger brothers and I never really knew each other as adults. When my dad died and we gathered, it was a strange experience. But what I remember most about that time is that we were all so wounded that it overcame our midwestern male refusal to admit we were in pain. In our grief, we had a night of sharing ourselves, connecting to each other.

Now when we listen to the stories of the disciples after the Easter, we hear how those around Jesus connected, were changed and began to share their lives in the way we now call the church. They connected in a new way to Jesus; they connected to each other. These stories are meant to teach us how to do it.

I want to skip the story about the first meeting encounter between the resurrected Lord and the disciples; we’ll come back to that in a few weeks, so here’s your chance to feel you’re a little ahead on things. I want to get to Thomas. It’s an odd story, isn’t it? Thomas is a twin; he’s often referred to this way, “Thomas the twin”. And this isn’t the first time we’ve heard of him. When the word comes to Jesus that his friend Lazarus is dying and Jesus tells his disciples he’s going back to see him, the disciples are scared; they just got out of there ahead of arrest. Thomas says, “Let’s go back and die with him.” It feels like an ironic comment. Next, when Jesus is speaking about his death and resurrection and he says, “You know where I’m going,” Thomas interrupts and says, “No, we don’t: we don’t know where you are going.” He is one of the few disciples quoted and his comments are a strange mix of irony and doubt.

Now we have this story near the end of the gospel. Sometimes we collapse the story of Easter into a day but the record of the early church is that instead, it was a progressive unfolding of revelation, understanding, and vision. We can see that in this story. John tells the story of the resurrection in three stages. First, Mary encounters Jesus in the garden. We’ll come back to that story next week. Next, Jesus appears to his disciples in a locked room and literally inspires them; we read that this morning and we’ll come back to it in a few weeks. Finally, a week later, the Lord appears again, seemingly specifically for Thomas, who was absent the first time.

Where was Thomas? We don’t know. I suppose we all miss meetings sometimes; we forget the date or something comes up. We get sick, we get late. Things happen. Surely the disciples are reeling in grief after the death of Jesus. The text says they met behind a locked door in fear. Their grief is overlaid with fear for their own lives. The Romans had a habit of sweeping up the followers of a movement and killing them all. Maybe Thomas was scared to be seen with this group. After all, Peter himself—we’ll get to him in a couple weeks—was so scared even while Jesus was on trial that he denied knowing him.

Still, Thomas has missed what might seem to be the most important meeting of his life. Think of how you would feel, a week later coming and finding out that at the meeting you missed, the risen Lord made an appearance. You were busy, you were hiding, you were grieving, you were crying, you were raging at the Romans and when the time for the meeting came, you just didn’t go, you stayed home, you hid out. Later, your friends tell you what happened; they’re positively glowing, transformed. It’s enough to make your whole day sour, isn’t it? That’s how I hear his first comment. His friends tell him how the Lord appeared; he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:25]

Doesn’t Thomas stand for us? We read these stories of an empty tomb, a Risen Lord who wafts through locked doors and I wonder how we receive them? I wonder how we believe in this Risen Lord? Throughout the Easter stories, we hear hints of this problem. No one recognizes Jesus as the Risen Lord; no one makes the connection immediately. Mary of Magdala—we’ll talk about her next week—meets the Risen Lord in a garden near the empty tomb. Now if there is one part of the whole story about which the church seems to have been consistent, it is about Mary going to the tomb. Mark says so, as we read last week; Matthew also reports Mary discovering the empty tomb. Luke says, “…on the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the woman who had come with him from Galilee] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” That includes Mary.” John says, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

But the stories of encounters with the Risen Lord are much less consistent. Mary meets him in a garden; the disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem, other stories speak of a meeting in Galilee. Paul says Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the rest of the disciples, then to more than 500 others, finally to Paul himself. That last encounter with Paul would have been three or four years after the first Easter. The church remembers that they didn’t recognize or understand or believe Jesus as the Resurrected Lord immediately.

Now that may come as a stunning admission from a Christian pulpit: the first Christians didn’t immediately acclaim and believe Jesus was resurrected. Maybe you’ve had a hard time believing it as well; maybe you didn’t want to admit it. But right here in the Gospel of John Thomas admits it, Thomas proclaims it: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:25] The church remembers there was this problem at the start, at the core: not everyone believed.

What changed Thomas? In the story, Jesus shows him his wounds. Think of that for a moment, imagine it. The Son of God could certainly produce a miracle, he could awe and inspire in a thousand ways. But he doesn’t. He could show Thomas heavenly beauty, he could appear in shining white as he did at the transfiguration, but instead, he shows him his wounds. He shows him the ugliest thing imaginable: the wounds of the cross, the holes in his hands and feet, the place where his side was pierced by a spear, the places where he was hurt, the wounds that made him cry out from the cross. Jesus tells him to touch these ugly, terrible wounds. He doesn’t; “My Lord and my God,” he proclaims. Seeing the wounds changes him; seeing the wounds makes him a follower.

We don’t often talk about wounds. I attended a Baptist church for a couple of years; it seemed like half the hymns there had the word “blood” somewhere in the lyrics. I grew up in a culture that said about our wounds, “Never complain, never explain.” Crying was a failure. I wasn’t prepared to talk about wounds and as a young pastor, I was often uncomfortable when others did. So often I wish I could go back to some of those folks and apologize; I know I didn’t offer them the solace of safely sharing their wounds.

For sharing our wounds does indeed transform us. The pattern Jesus offers works in our lives as well. Connection is what gives meaning to life and allows us to fully become the persons God hoped. Remember that in the story of our creation, right from the beginning, we were made to hold God’s hand with one hand and someone else with the other. But that kind of connection comes out of vulnerability. In a sense, we’re like a hamster on a wheel, caught in a circular problem: we need connection to make us feel safe to be vulnerable but connection comes from being vulnerable. One writer said,

The longing for connection to another soul is within us all already. It is waiting for our nurturing and our willingness to embrace vulnerability. It is through this knowledge that we can move closer towards our universal goal of love.


[Melissa Wilder Joyce, Huffington Post]

In this moment with Thomas, Jesus shows, the church remembers, how to transcend the problem of vulnerability and connection, how to get off the hamster wheel. It happens when he shares his wounds.

Many of you know that I’m a step-parent. The thing about being a step-parent is—you have to earn it. You aren’t automatically mom or dad; you’re Jim. You’re an awkward pause when someone asks the child with you who that man is. When I became the step-parent of my older kids, I had no idea how to earn them. So I tried various things; some worked some didn’t.

The one I remember most we called the owie report. My daughter Amy was a runner and a jumper and she constantly got scratches and little injuries. These were bandaged with great seriousness. And then every night, when I went to kiss her good night we would examine each one. We’d start with the oldest wounds. We’d discuss whether something was still an owie and then move on to more recent ones. Sometimes we’d replace old band-aids. All this was done with great solemnity. Each wound was offered; each was kissed. I did this for years. By the end, I was her parent. I still am.

Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds; he called out, “My God and my Lord.” It wasn’t a miracle that changed him, it wasn’t the fact of the resurrection, it was the wounds. His connection to Jesus was transformed and it transformed his life. He may have written down the sayings of Jesus that he remembered; he himself was remembered as a great apostle. When we trust God with our wounds, we discover a connection we cannot find any other way. For then we begin to understand indeed, as scripture says, that Jesus’ wounds are for us: he was wounded for us. And when we know this, when we believe it, we also understand him as our Lord.

Amen.

Easter – B – Still I Rise

Still I Rise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Easter Sunday/B • April 1, 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Christmas begins with lights. On Christmas Eve, we gather here to look for the Lord, to celebrate his coming. The last thing we do is to light the candles. It’s a wonderful moment: celebrating the one who came as the light of the world, we pass the light, candle to handle, one to another until the whole room sparkles and we sing. But Easter begins in darkness. The last thing we do is on Maundy Thursday is to extinguish the candles, remembering the darkness to come on Good Friday. So we come to Easter from the darkness.

Like a stage cleared in the final act of a play, Mark tells us the crowds have cleared out, first shouting, “Hosanna” for Jesus come as king, later demanding, “Crucify him!” when the Romans and the city authorities arrest him and put him on trial as a terrorist. Peter denies him in the courtyard of the jail. Killed on a cross in the hours before the Sabbath, his followers fade away. Finally, it’s left to a sympathetic rich man to provide for his burial and the body is stashed in a cave tomb, too late for preparation before Shabbat, which starts at darkness, begins and night takes over. Only now, in the darkness of the dawn, does someone, a few women, venture to the tomb. They buy spices to prepare the body, to make the final arrangements and give some dignity to the dead. They are going to the grave and they’re worried that the stone closing it off will be too much to roll away; they’re worried they won’t be able to get into where Jesus lies dead in the darkness.

The burial caves of Jerusalem are on a cliff wall. Imagine walking along the Indian Ladder escarpment as the darkness turns into dawn, slowly, carefully negotiating the turns in the path, watching just the steps ahead, not the whole path, unable to see around the next turn. Carefully, quietly, the women walk the path, perhaps stumbling here or there, clutching each other to keep from falling, arms full of the precious spices. They know a large stone blocks the entrance to the tomb and they are already trying to think of a way to move it. You see how like us they are? They have a problem: they’ve brought the things they will need to do their job and they are discussing how to deal with the biggest obstacle of all. Isn’t that what we do?

Now they come around the last curve. Are they still talking about the stone or has the nearness of the grave silenced them? Now they pass it and look toward the grave, discovering the problem they worried so much about isn’t there: the stone is moved. Who moved it? How did they do it? The women don’t know or seem to care. The grave is open; they walk slowly toward it, silent now I’m sure, they come to the entrance and, they enter the cave and suddenly the darkness lightens and in the light there is a person sitting, dressed in white, shining with it. They’re afraid: who wouldn’t be, they came to deal with a dead man, not a live angel.

He says what angels always say: “Don’t be afraid.” He shows them where Jesus had lain, they see the grave clothes they had intended to anoint with their spices which won’t be needed after all. And he tells them what to do. “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The women run. Of course, they run: wouldn’t you? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What about you? What about me? What are we to make of this story?

Most importantly, that Easter is not only for Easter Sunday. The gospel of Mark starts, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” All that follows all the stories of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, the story of the cross, this story of Easter is a prelude, just a beginning. The good news is that it’s not the end. In the failure of the worldly events, there is a space made by faith. In the vulnerability of the cross and the tomb, there is an empty place and God works in that wilderness, God is present in that wilderness, raising Jesus. The Pharisees cannot understand him, the Romans cannot kill him, his own followers cannot follow him but God’s grace is so powerful it can overcome all of them. Go home, the angel says: go back to Galilee. He’s not gone, he’s still here: “there you will see him.” Easter is a summons to see.

Maya Angelou is a poet who has seen in the long history of oppression of black people a reason for hope, an image of resurrection. She says, in part,

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

[Maya Angelou, Still I Rise]

There he is: rising in the sweep of history, bending history to the love of God, the justice of God a little bit every day. See him there: see his power there. See his resurrection there. To the violence of the Empire, of all empires, he says: “Still I rise.”
But it’s not only in the big things that Jesus can be seen. Terry Marquardt wrote about grieving for her grandmother and remembered,

My aunt was with my grandmother during the last nights of her life, when the pain in her spine was so horrible that she hadn’t slept for two days, and the medication had stopped working, and she was beginning to lose hope. It was too much to lay down, so the two of them were sitting in the living room at 2:00 in the morning when my aunt had an idea.
“Mom, let’s have a party.”
“How could I possibly do that,” my grandmother said, motioning to her stiff body, kept awake by the sensation that it was being ground into dust.
“Let’s try,” my aunt said.
And she started to sing.
My aunt sang the Mennonite hymns my grandmother had taught her, songs from my grandmother’s childhood in a Mennonite farming community in northeastern Canada, songs that were sung in the fields, at their dinner tables, to greet the dawn, to end their day, on the way to church. My aunt and my grandmother sang all night long, until there was no pain, until my grandmother’s nurse woke up and tiptoed into the room.
“I’ve never heard such beautiful music,” she cried.
[Read the whole post here: https://medium.com/@Tanya.Marquardt/grieving-our-dead-online-3416e1918a25]

We thought the problem was how to give Jesus a decent burial, how to roll the stone away. But it turns out that the stone we worried about is already rolled away; Jesus is gone ahead. The empty tomb is God’s message to the Emperor, to the soldiers, to the world, to the followers who have scattered that in the midst of death, still I rise. This is God saying, in the midst of betrayal, whether Judas and his double crossing kiss or Peter in his fearful denial, still I rise. This is God saying to the torturers and the prison guards and the judges and the crucifiers just following orders, still I rise. This is God saying that even when I feel abandoned on a cross and cry out asking why I’m forsaken, still I rise. This is God saying, even from a tomb closed up tight, still I rise.

This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. It starts with fearful followers running away. In the days that followed, every one of them had to decide what to do about the news that he had risen; every one had to decide how to live when the tomb was empty and despite the plain sense of his death, there was this amazing experience where it was clear that he was saying, “Still I rise”. Every one of them had to decide whether to keep running or to rise with him, to go to Galilee, to look for him, follow him.

Where is Galilee? It’s where they came from, where they started. Jesus is going back to the beginning and starting over: that’s where they will see him. Their lives are about to start over because these lives are lived beyond the fear of death. The great question about the Christian movement of the first century is what powered it, what allowed it to change history. The answer is the people Jesus changed; the answer is the people who saw him rise and took his resurrection as the pattern for their own lives. Jesus was risen and they were able to say with him, still I rise.
It’s the same with us. We are prepared to go to the grave; we are good at raising the money to buy spices, we can discuss how to move the stone. But are we ready to leave the grave and go to Galilee? Can we take Easter home, can we take it wherever we go? Still I rise, he says: despite what we thought, he calls us, invites us, forgives us, commands us. Come see me: come follow me.

He’s gone ahead and when we see that, we’re ready to take the next step, to let go of our fears, accept his forgiveness and follow him. Easter isn’t a day, it’s an invitation: come see me. The gospels tell us how he appeared over and over to people, and his message is always the same: love one another, see me, follow me, because still, I rise: even when you don’t believe it, even when you don’t understand it, still I rise.

Peter denied him but it’s Peter he calls back to tend his sheep.

Mary ran in fear but it’s Mary who first meets him on the way.

Thomas won’t believe him but it’s Thomas who feels his wounds.

To the powerful who prey on the poor, his presence says: still I rise. To the hopeless who cannot find the way out of darkness, he says, “I am the light of the world”—still I rise. To us, to all of us, who come here, wondering, he says: still I rise. Come follow me. Come: because on your way, on your journey, you will see me: for still I rise.

Amen

Palm Sunday B – The Lord Has Need of It

The Lord Has Need of It

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Palm Sunday • March 25, 2018

Mark 11:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, an annual celebration with so many memories for me. In other places, other times, I’ve often spent hours planning dramatic worship services. I’ve imagined and then helped churches gather groups to parade down the aisle, bought and handed out hundreds of bits of palm leaves. I’ve encouraged people to wave them, throw them, brought clothes in to simulate the things thrown on the donkey Jesus rode. I’ve never actually bought a donkey in a sanctuary but I’ve discussed it and once I even got close to having one ready to go. So today, in this place, on this Sunday, it seems a little quiet. But in this place, on this morning, what I hope is that we can look at the real Jesus, the real events, the real meaning. What does Palm Sunday have to do with Jesus? What does it have to do with us?

The first thing to understand is the setting. Jerusalem sits on top of a small mountain with winding paths up the slopes. Its tall walls were crowned with the glittering gold of the temple pinnacle and many of the temple walls were clad with white marble that glittered in the hot, bright Near Eastern sun. It’s almost Passover and pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean world are gathering in this sacred place, returning to the City of David to remember their heritage. 
The city is packed to capacity and religious fervor rises. Several years before Jesus and in coming years, that fervor led to riots, spurts of rebellion and the inevitable Roman reaction with red blood running in the streets.

On this day, the stream of pilgrims walking up the paths is pushed aside by a parade. Representing the Son of God, a contingent of Roman soldiers are marching to Jerusalem to enforce the Roman law. “Son of God” is one of the names Romans applied to Emperor Tiberius. For about fifty years, the Romans had seen their leaders as having a kind of divinity, affirmed by their power. Power, in this case, really meant the ability to kill people. Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the ultimate Roman answer was violence. From Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman crucifixion, Roman slavery.

Now, up the western slopes of Mt. Zion, the Roman soldiers wind their way, Roman officers mounted on horses, Roman standards held high. It was a show meant to show off the threat of Rome. How the Jewish king, hated by his own people, must have loved seeing those banners. Worried rulers always love military parades.

Knowing this is going on, knowing the main event, we can turn to the other side of the city where there is also a procession. This one is small, this one is unruly, it has no standards and its leader is ridiculous. The Son of Man, a translation of a phrase that means the representative person, the humble person, is coming to Jerusalem on a donkey. It’s not even a sleek, cool donkey, this one is nursing a colt. Can you imagine it? Can you see it?

I’ve never ridden a donkey, have you? So I went online and it turns out there are directions there for riding a donkey. It says adults are too big for donkeys; so I imagine Jesus with his feet hanging down, dragging along the path. Donkeys have a slow, plodding walk; this procession isn’t going anywhere fast.

Behind Jesus, perhaps around Jesus, are the people who have followed him from Galilee. One writer says,

Jesus came into Jerusalem dragging the world in behind him. He’d spent most of his ministry with what the Pharisees regarded as all the wrong people in all the wrong places. He’d befriended women of dubious reputations, touched lepers, dined with tax collectors, done favors for despised Roman soldiers, held up Samaritans as heroes even as he turned Pharisees into villains. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he had all of these folks in tow.
[http://yardley.cs.calvin.edu/hoezee/2000/mark11PalmSun.html]

It’s a strange group and here they are, slowly walking behind Jesus, walking behind the Son of Man on a donkey. I can’t imagine anyone is paying attention. After all, on the other side of town, the Roman general is riding a horse, sitting comfortably and grandly up there, with ranks of perfectly disciplined soldiers.

Now that we have the picture in mind, we come back to the story Mark tells and immediately once again to this donkey. What is it about the donkey that’s so important? Jesus makes a huge point of giving instructions about it. There’s endless argument: does he know what will happen or has he planned it? Does he know the donkey owner? Has it been previously rented by some advance disciple? What is the deal with the donkey?
The donkey is a reminder of the hope of God’s covenant. The prophet Zechariah had said,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
[Zechariah 9:9]

There is Jesus, just as the prophet had said: this teacher comes as the Son of Man, so powerful he can look powerless. The Roman general needs his horse to look important; Jesus IS important. The hope he embodies is also in the testimony of Zechariah,

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth. 
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
   I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
   today I declare that I will restore to you double. 
[Zechariah 9:10-12]

The symbols of worldly power, the arrogance of calling a man Son of God, is marching on the other side of Jerusalem. But here comes the Son of Man, riding on a silly donkey; he can afford to be silly—for God is riding with him. The armies of Rome are marching on the other side of Jerusalem, ordered ranks, swords showing. Nervous rulers always need military parades.
But here comes the Son of Man and his followers are all kinds of people: men, women, gentiles, Jews, sinners and they are together shouting, “Hosanna!” “Hosannah!” They are what Zechariah described as the prisoners of hope and they have been released; their cry of joy echoes from the hills. The Son of Man comes on a donkey: the Spirit of the Lord renews the covenant, the new covenant that invites us all.

This is where we come to the second meaning of the donkey: the donkey is a decision. Remember what Jesus says,

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’  [Mark 11:2-3]

Someone owns that donkey. Someone pays for that donkey, pays to keep it, pays to stable it, someone uses that donkey for work and getting places. Think of it as your car; think of it as yours.

Now some guys you don’t really know who have a strange accent come and start up your donkey. They sound like they’re from Texas; definitely not from here. Perhaps you saw them when you heard that young prophet from Galilee and you vaguely remember them. When you ask what they’re doing, they say, “The Lord has need of it.” What would you do?

That’s the heart of this story: it all flows from this moment, this decision. “The Lord has need of it.” The challenge of Palm Sunday is just this: whatever you have, the Lord has need of it. Like quilter assembling bits and pieces into a beautiful tapestry, Jesus takes the hurts and hopes of these people he has dragged with him to Jerusalem and makes them a covenant community, a caring community in the new covenant in his blood.

So now we come to our Palm Sunday and like the donkey’s owner, we also are told the Lord has need of what we have: what will we do?

Are you grieving? the Lord has need of it; those who grieve shall be comforted, he says. So bring our grief—his hope is for you, shown to the world in you.
bring him your grief

Are you joyful? Can you see the Lord in your life, blessing you, showing you the beauty of creation, helping you to feel God close and present? The Lord has need of it: 
bring your joy.

Are you hungry? the Lord has need of your hunger, because hungry people are ready to be fed. He’s already fed thousands and he means to nourish us as well, with the bread of life. 
bring him your hunger

Are you doubtful? The Lord has need of your doubts: bring them to him. He never asked anyone to go beyond where their faith would take them.
bring your doubts.

Are you guilty? the Lord has need of it: he’s bringing a new covenant, where forgiveness is the gate to go into glory. 
bring him your guilt.

This one man, whose donkey the Lord needed, became the doorway to a procession we remember down the ages, that we remember when no one but historians remembers the Roman soldiers. This donkey the Lord needed is remembered when the general and his horse are just a footnote.

The Lord has need of it: someone heard, someone said yes, and the donkey became a platform from which the Son of Man proclaimed the fulfillment of God’s covenant had come to Jerusalem. Now every day, every time, we hear the Lord saying about us, about our lives, our whole selves, the good parts and the bad, the hurts and the hopes, that the Lord has need of it. When we give him the reins, the same thing happens. The cries of Hosanna are heard; the procession goes forward. And the words of the psalmist come true: the king of glory comes in.

Amen.

Lent 5 B – The Rainbow Path 5

Clean Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor ©2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent/B • March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34 • Psalm 51:1-12 • John 12:20-22

Click below to hear the sermon preached

One of the great gifts I received when I was called as the pastor of a church in Michigan was the opportunity to be present right after my youngest grand-daughter Bridget was born. There is a picture of Bridget and I, taken when she was about 30 hours old, I value beyond all the wonderful photographs hanging on all the museum walls in the world. I had just been handed her and I remember exactly what I was thinking when Jacquelyn took the shot: “She’s perfect, completely perfect.”

Of course, now I know Bridget a lot better and it turns out she isn’t perfect after all. She’s messy, for one thing; a piece of advice I’d offer is don’t stand too close when Bridget is eating chocolate cake. She has a stubborn sense of order that can drive you crazy. When she was small, one of her favorite games was to take the furniture out of the dollhouse and get me to put it back. The game goes like this: I put a piece of furniture in the dollhouse; Bridget lifts it up, says, “No, Grampa Jim, not there,” and puts it where she believes it should be. Perfect is hard to find, harder to sustain. Are you perfect?

God is perfect and working with this imperfect world. What is God doing? We’re nearing the end of Lent and it’s time to step back and ask how it all fits together. Sometimes we can miss the Word God is speaking because we get so focused on the words. A few weeks ago we read the story of Noah and God’s rainbow covenant, a promise never again to start over, wiping everything out. We read the story of how God started with Abraham and Sarah the whole long, painful promise of reclaiming the world from darkness, restoring it to a place of praise, a community of joy, a shining story of justice. We’ve read God’s attempt in the Exodus and the Ten Commandments and we know how profoundly this failed, how the community of faith God hoped went astray.

Today we read how God began again in the words of Jeremiah.

…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [Jeremiah 31:33-34]

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of the will. The verb “know” means to experience intimately, fully. To say God’s covenant will be written on their hearts is to say they will naturally want to fulfill it; to say they will know God is to say they will have a direct, immediate connection with God. No temple, no clergy, no king, nothing else needed.

Why is God doing this? Jeremiah spoke these words to a people already defeated in their hearts, people who have already acknowledged they don’t deserve anything. They were an imperfect people and they knew it. You can hear it in the words of the Psalmist: “…I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” [Psalm 51:3] If even this people know they don’t deserve another chance, what’s going on here? Why is God trying so hard?

The answer seems to be the concluding line of the Psalm we read: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” [Psalm 51:12] God is trying to bring about a joyful community which will naturally praise, naturally worship, naturally live out God’s justice. When we look at the whole sweep of the story, we discover God is bringing the perfect, heavenly life through a new covenant by working on the least perfect. Jesus is the method.

That is certainly what is happening in the Gospel reading. A group of Greeks are in the crowd around Jesus; they approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. What do you suppose they hope to see? What do they expect to find? Greeks worshipped through the images of a variety of Gods but the central theme of their spiritual life was the notion of the perfect. The Olympic games were a display in which the goal was to display perfect bodies doing athletic things perfectly. Greek philosophy suggests that everything in the world exists as a reflection of a perfect reality in a spiritual world. Even in their political life, it was important that a leader be beautiful; beautiful and perfect were equivalent.

Jewish spiritual life also focused on the perfect. There were hundreds of religious rules and spiritual life was built around trying to observe every one of them perfectly. But few people could or did live up to all the commandments. In Jesus’ preaching, the requirements become even more daunting; he tells them that the commandment against murder, for example, is violated when we get angry at someone. In one way or another, both understand God is perfect and both believe the answer to getting nearer to God is to be perfect also.

What are Jews hoping about Jesus? That he will act in perfect accord with the law. What are the Greeks hoping to see? A perfect man, whose perfection mirror’s God.

This is why Jesus confuses and angers them: he offers a completely different path to God. Jewish leaders are already angry; we hear over and over again about Jesus, “This man eats with sinners.” Perfect people only ate with other perfect people; it’s scandalous that Jesus will have lunch with anyone at all. He embraces God’s joyful provision and his disciples gather food on the Sabbath; he heals on the Sabbath and tells the leaders that Sabbath is a gift, not a burden. Now he turns to the Greeks and tells them something that must have left them gasping. He tells them he’s going to die.

Jesus answered them,

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [John 12:23-25]

We are so familiar with the story of Jesus’ death that it fails to shock us. But perfect people didn’t get crucified; perfect Sons of God didn’t die. When Jesus embraces his life and speaks of dying, they must have been stunned. When they hear this is how he is going to represent God, they must have been confused. But Jesus knows the truth. He says that this is the new covenant in his blood: by his death, he shows what covenant faithfulness looks like. This is the picture: a life freed from death through trust in a loving, forgiving creator God.

Jesus offers in place of perfections what the Psalmist calls “God’s steadfast love.” In his teaching about community, Jesus stresses something we talk about but have a hard time practicing: the role of forgiveness. The Greeks measure spirit by perfection; Jesus measures it by love. Here is how things work in the joyful community of Jesus: we’re equally brothers and sisters, we recognize in each other the image of a child of God, and when that child does something wrong, stumbles falls, even falls way down, we respond by encouraging repentance and offering forgiveness.

Jesus says that what we ought to do is stop trying to be perfect and start learning to forgive each other. How many times, his disciples ask? “Seventy times seven”, he responds, a way of saying: endlessly. The rhythm of life in Jesus is a constant sea of love where the waves peak and we are carried closer to God and the waves recede and we forgive and are forgiven.

This is what church life is supposed to look like. Of course, it often doesn’t, because we’ve often copied the world around. In this world, we increasingly hold out an image of perfection and then savagely attack those who seemed to embody it but fall short. We see it in politics, we see it in sports, we see it in the cult of celebrity. We see it in the screaming commentators on TV; we see it in the constant “gotcha” ping-pong of news. We have become Greeks and we use Jesus to help us look more perfect.

But what God hopes is that instead, we will let Jesus use us not to make the world more perfect but to teach it how to love, and how to forgive. God hopes we will teach the world the fundamental reality Jesus preaches here: that we can’t bear fruit except through an unfolding process, a process in which our imperfect seeds sprout and change and produce. That’s how God is working out this great purpose; that’s how God is perfecting the world, by teaching us that instead of being perfect, we can be loved as we are. Like a parent laughing at a child who has gotten dirty and summoning them to a bath, God knows we can always be cleaned up; God remembers who we really are underneath.

I’ve led a couple of churches with preschools and floating through the walls of my study, every day there would be a song signaling the end of the day:

Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share,

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.

Things get messy; people get dirty. I don’t honestly know that everyone does do their part; I do know I love the song. In Jesus Christ, God is singing this same song, summoning all God’s children to clean up, clean up, asking all God’s children to do their part. If Bridget isn’t perfect, she is perfectly lovable and perfectly loved. So are you: so am I. In Jesus Christ, God is offering us forgiveness, cleaning us up, and getting us ready to sing the songs of glory in our heavenly home.

Amen.

Lent 4B – Snakey! – The Rainbow Path 4

Snakey

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Lent/B • March 11, 2018

Numbers 21:4-9 • Psalm 107:1-13 • John 3:14-21

Click below to hear the sermon preached

If you could see into the minds of ministers this past week, you’d have seen all of us opening the lectionary texts and noticing that we had this great choice. On the one hand, the Gospel reading offers one of the most loved promises in Christian life: God so loved the world, that God sent the only son, to save us all. On the other hand, there is this weird, hard to explain story about snakes and a pole the obvious solution to which was offered by my daughter May when I told her about it: “Wouldn’t the easiest thing have been for God to just not send the snakes in the first place?” Just like all those others, I looked at these texts. And the easiest thing would be to just talk about God’s love, I suppose. But something in me wants to know about those snakes.

Jacquelyn’s comment was simple: “What is it about God and snakes?” Right near the beginning, in the garden, it’s a serpent that suggests to Eve the ideas that lead to the original disobedience of God’s command. Later, both Moses and Aaron have staffs that turn into snakes and we have this story in Numbers about dangerous, poisonous snakes; we’ll come back to that in a moment. In Christian scriptures, both gospel and Revelations, the serpent is identified with the Satan, the tempter. Just like Eve in the garden, Jesus meets a serpent/Satan in the wilderness; unlike Eve, he makes the right choices.

The story Numbers tells is scary if we take it seriously. God’s people have been traveling through the wilderness and the journey is difficult. Numbers 20 has them thirsty, without water, quarreling with Moses, so that Moses and Aaron have to go to God who provides water from a rock. But Moses gets too enthusiastic; he doesn’t quite trust God to do the miracle alone and proceeds to beat the rock with his staff. For this faithlessness, God says that Moses won’t get to enter the promised land. Things aren’t going well. They ask the king of Edom to let them pass through; he says no. Moses’ sister Miriam died back in the wilderness; now Aaron dies. There’s a battle with the Canaanites. They have to go the long way around Edom. You can see what a mess things are. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that when we read,
the people became impatient on the way. 

5The people spoke against God and against Moses, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food. [Numbers 21:4b-5]
I love this last line: “there is no food…and we detest this miserable food.” so there is something to eat but they don’t like it. Bad food makes a bad life and it makes them resentful and mean.

 
Then it gets worse.

Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” [Numbers 21:6]

I was telling someone about this story and their reaction was, “This is why I don’t like the Old Testament God.”

It’s bad, isn’t it? I have a wonderful niece who, along with her family, have kept a huge boa constrictor for years in their house. It’s white and yellow; it’s a pet and apparently harmless but on my brief and infrequent visits there, it scares me.

My mother feared and hated snakes. One day when I was home, I heard my mother’s startled cry, “Eddy!!!” My dad was named Ed and no one called him Eddy, no one would have thought to call him Eddy, but when my mother was scared or angry that one word would sound out like a fire alarm. “Eddy!” It turned out she had gone out the front door and there, on the front porch, in the middle of the front porch, there was, according to her, “A huge snake that could have bitten me.” 

So my dad was summoned to do his husband duty. My brothers and I, of course, not wanting to miss this, also gathered. Right away I noticed my dad didn’t seem at all surprised and I suspected something was up. He got a rake out and sure enough, after a little messing around in the shrubs and tomato plants in front o the house, he lifted up a garden snake about three feet long. We made a procession as he gently placed in some raspberry brambles on the side of the yard, mentioning that the snake had been there for three years. My mother had demanded the snake’s death but my father had an old farm boy fondness for wild creatures. For several years, despite my mother’s complaints, he tolerated a family of raccoons raising their young in our garage. He let it go, with an ancient invocation of male privilege: “Don’t tell your mother.” Then he went and reported, truthfully, but carefully, “The snake is gone.” We didn’t tell her the truth until years later after they moved out of that house. We weren’t sure mom would have ever walked out knowing a garden snake that size was looming in the bushes, just waiting.

Snakes are scary. The ancient near east had asps and other types of poisonous snakes and they figured in all the ancient religions, both as symbols and as realities. They are the death that comes in the night, the surprise of danger in nature and yet a strangely attractive danger. Out west, where I-94 crosses the Columbia River, there’s a beautiful overlook with asphalt paved walks where you can stop and rest and see the river wind for 20 or 30 miles. But the asphalt warms and rattlesnakes like to come sun themselves there. The park service that runs this place had to close the walks because people, with all the sense of a two-year-old, wouldn’t leave the snakes alone and the snakes, of course, responded the way rattlesnakes do: they made a little noise and then struck. Snakes are scary in a special way. So this story reaches down into the dark species memory of all of us and conjures up a demon: poisonous snakes all over, biting, hurting, killing. And here’s the worst part: God sent them.

I suppose at this point I could act like a presidential press person and try to explain away this bad thing. I could be moralistic: “They deserved it!” I could try a naturalistic explanation: God didn’t really send the snakes, they just happened to be there, like the snakes by the Columbia River, and if these people had left them alone, all would have been well. I could try a literary swoop and talk about how traditions take experiences and misinterpret them, endowing events with a meaning God never intended. Maybe those would all make good sermons but the truth is, the text is quite clear: God sent the snakes. God put them there: they are not an accident, they can’t be explained away.

Why is the world so dangerous? Why are there things out there that suddenly derail our lives, things that kill us or paralyze us with fear and trembling? The truth is: I don’t know; I have no idea. I used to think it was my job to explain these things when people asked, as they always do but I’ve come to realize there is no explanation, there is no understanding, there is no reasoning with the darkness. But I take some comfort in the fact that when Jesus was asked that same question, why do bad things happen, he also doesn’t explain it. In the 13th chapter of1 Luke, Jesus is asked about the death of a group of Galileans slaughtered by the Romans as they were worshipping. The questioners invite him to make a moralistic argument, that they were worse sinners, but he refuses. He goes on to mention one of those senseless construction accidents where 18 workers were killed when a tower collapsed. “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”[Luke 13:4f]

This is what he says: the issue isn’t why the dangers or the darkness is there but how do you react? How do you live knowing the snakes are out there?

The people in the story in Numbers do repent. “The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” [Number 21:7] God takes the very thing that has so frightened them, the image of the snakes that snared them, and has Moses make a pole with that image for them to come to and cling to and remember who they are: God’s covenant people. They stop their complaining, at least for the moment; they remember who they are and that they have a future with a God who cares for them.

We’ve been talking about covenants throughout this season and it may not seem that this has much to do with that. But at it’s heart, it is a story about how covenants work. Along the road to the promised land, there are some bad moments. There’s bad food and not enough of it; sometimes you get thirsty. It can be hard to remember why you started out and who got you going, why you ever left in the first place. But our covenant is a vision of the future. When I joined this church, just like many of you, I made this promise:

Sincerely repentant for your sins, in humble reliance upon divine grace, you promise that you will endeavor to be the disciple and follower of Jesus in doing the heavenly Father’s will; that you will strive to enter to the full into those blessed relationships which Jesus himself realized and enjoined upon all people, the relationship of love to God your Creator, and love to all people; and that you will give yourself unreservedly to the service of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Now the truth is, I am not sincerely repentant for my sins every day. I am not humble every day and there are days when I beep at annoying drivers in a less than loving way. I whine and fuss just like the people in this story some days. I get busy and forget about loving God; I get bruised and forget how much God loves me.

But the covenant brings me back. Just like the compass on a boat, I look at that promise and it puts me back on course. You help me get back; you bring me back. Because I’m not alone and this covenant helps me know that, believe that, live that. So when things get snakey, I have a place to go and something to cling to. Sometimes people ask me, “Does joining the church—making the promise of this covenant—make any difference?” I can only say that there are days when I’ve gone off course and it brings me back, days when I need to repent, as Jesus said. Because of this covenant, I’m not on my own; I’m part of a people, this people, and we have promises to keep.
Trying to explain the meaning of Jesus life, the writer of the gospel of John imagines Jesus saying,

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [John 3:14-17]

Our covenant is an invitation to walk this road, to faith that the God who brought those complaining people in the wilderness back to covenant faithfulness is still here, still inviting, still hoping we will walk the path of covenant love. Jesus is leading the way: won’t you come along?

Amen.

Lent 3B – Covenant Community – The Rainbow Path 3

Covenant Community

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Third Sunday in Lent/B • March 4, 2018

Exodus 17:1-17 • John 3:14-21

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Do you know what Passover is? It’s the moment when you clean the house thoroughly, you buy foods that have been especially blessed, you make a big dinner and invite people over to share it and you go through the family story. “Why is this night different from all other nights?,” the youngest child asks, and the answer is the story of how God saved your family from slavery in Egypt, fulfilled the covenant with Abraham and made a new covenant. And you eat and talk and tell the story and somehow you feel God not as a principle but as a presence.

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover. You came here this morning. Some came through the big doors at the back, some into Palmer Hall and up the stairway. It was quiet and no one got in your way. But imagine if our church was surrounded by a mall, by stores and kiosks with a food court and crowds shopping. The temple wasn’t simply a place of worship, it was a center for markets. Part of the reason for the markets was that you had to change your money. Jewish law forbade giving anything that had an image on it and Roman coins all had the emperor stamped on them; they couldn’t be used. So you had to change your money, like a tourist getting off the airplane in a foreign country. Long ago, people had figured out that the animals and grain required for offerings were hard to bring from home; it was easier to buy them there, so there are people selling doves and calves and lambs. The whole thing sounds like a big state fair, so I’m sure of one thing that isn’t actually mentioned: someone was selling fried dough.

The temple depended on the income from all these sellers and buyers; it had an interest in the marketplace. Churches are the same way: we are linked to our economy. Years ago when I lived in a tourist town, my kids would complain about the tourists; we called them fudgies because, in northern Michigan, the big tourist thing is fudge and visitors notoriously get it on their fingers and smear it on other things. One day one of the kids was wishing the fudgies would go away and never come back. So I said, look, the fudgies come here and spend money in the stores people in the church own, then those people give some of that money to the church, and the church gives some of that money to me, and I use that money to pay your allowance. There was a thoughtful silence and then a small comment: “Well, I wish they would go away and just leave their money.”

Jesus comes to the temple with all its fudgies and the religious bureaucrats and buyers and sellers and what he sees is this: the place that was meant to be the location where people felt the presence of God had become just another marketplace. All that marketplace, all those tables, all that buying and selling was in the way, it was preventing people from finding God. So he does what makes sense: like God releasing the flood to cleanse the earth, he makes a whip and starts overturning the tables. He drives out some sellers; he interrupts some buyers. He overturns tables, he pours out coins, which, while the story doesn’t tell us, I’m sure someone was eagerly picking up. He seems to be breaking the rules. He is obeying the greatest rule of all: putting God first.

What are the rules? If you think about it, from our earliest days, someone teaches us the rules. Don’t hit your brother; don’t hit girls. Come home when the street lights come on. Forks go on the left, knives and spoons go on the right; make your bed before you go to school. Clean up after yourself. I don’t remember learning those rules but I knew them before I knew anything. They are how our family got along. Later, I learned other rules: pick up your socks, put the toilet seat down, the answer to do these pants make me look fat is always no. Those make marriage life easier. Then there are rules no one tells us but we somehow learn. Looking around, I see that you are all in your assigned seats. No one said: Joan., you sit here, Eva, you are on this side, but Sunday after Sunday there you are in the same place. Every community has rules, some written, some invisible, some obvious.

So it makes sense that when God went to make a community, one of the first jobs is to write the rules. Two weeks ago, we heard how God made a covenant with all creation, never again to flood it and start over. Last week, we heard God make a covenant with the family of Abraham and Sarah, to give them a future, to permanently watch over their descendants.

Now it’s centuries later. That family has had its ups and downs. Some time ago they went to Egypt and were enslaved. God stirred them up and saved them out of slavery, and set them on a journey into the wilderness. Now they are camped together at the base of a mountain, waiting to hear what comes next. While they wait, Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God and God tells Moses the rules of community life.

You know these, I’m sure. The first few are about putting God at the center of life: no other Gods, no images of God to limit our understanding of God. Keep a sabbath: remember God every week. The rest of the rules have to do with living with other people. Take care of your parents; they’re part of the family. Don’t murder anyone, don’t violate covenants, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff.

It’s easy to float on the surface of these rules but if we peer into them there is something amazing at work here. Just as God made a permanent place with the rainbow covenant, just as God made a permanent people with the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, with this covenant, God is creating s community. this is how it’s possible for us to live together. In each covenant, God’s work as creator is evident.

The Rainbow Covenant is how God re-created the world. The Abraham covenant is how God created a connection to our history. This covenant, these commandments, are explicitly linked to God’s creative presence. Why keep Sabbath? Because that’s what God did.”For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” When we keep Sabbath, we are living as the image of God, just as God meant from the beginning. When Jesus breaks the rules, when Jesus scatters the markets, he’s calling people back to the covenant connection the rules were supposed to make.

These covenants we’ve been hearing about, taken together, are a path and the path leads to the presence of God. It doesn’t stop with Noah, it doesn’t stop with Abraham, it doesn’t stop with Moses, it continues on and on.

Now I want to invite you to a covenant. Hundreds of years ago, our fathers and mothers in the faith looked up from church life that had become so cluttered by politics and ritual that God could hardly be seen. Like Jesus clearing the temple, they embraced a new and clearer vision. For them, churches were established by the government. They imagined a church as a group of believers, bound together in a covenant, just as God created a community through covenant. That’s what Congregationalism meant, it’s still what it means: the vision that we can covenant together to form a church, a congregation, free of any other authority. No bishop, no government, no denominational executive has any authority in a Congregational Church. We are free to come to God directly.

This church has a covenant and its members jointly share its responsibilities and joys. I know that many here have been coming to church and sharing together and all are welcome. But today I want to ask you to consider becoming a covenant member of the church, to take the step of saying, “Yes, I will be responsible for sharing the covenant of this congregation.”
This past week I attended an interfaith prayer breakfast. Afterward, we were invited to a reception at the Governor’s Mansion and Governor Cuomo spoke to all of us. There in that house where so many powerful people have lived, this powerful man spoke about his weakness. The governor of New York asked us, as clergy, as leaders in congregations, to speak up for the rules of the community, the vision of a community that cares for all. He said what we all know: that faith in our political leaders is at an all-time low. And he said that more than ever, the community needed us, all of us, who speak for the conscience of the community.

When we covenant together, we speak that conscience. When we covenant together, we walk the path of the covenant, the rainbow path. That path leads to one place, to the place where our lives are the image of God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” the psalmist says. Our covenant is a way of singing with them. Shouldn’t our voice join that chorus? Shouldn’t our lives sing that song? Shouldn’t our conscience, shared in covenant, speak the hope of God’s presence, speak the reality of God’s grace, until the whole world sings together?
Amen.

Lent 2 B – No Turning Back – The Rainbow Path of Covenant 2

No Turning Back

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Second Sunday in Lent/B • February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 • Mark 8:31-38

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Chopped is one of my favorite television shows. It works like this: four cooks are given a basket of various ingredients and compete to make a dish out of them. The problem is that the ingredients are sometimes strange: liverwurst and jelly beans have appeared in baskets along with things I’ve never heard about before.

I wonder if God feels like that sometimes: making something out of ingredients that don’t always work together. Think about the stories of Genesis. God makes a person, notes that the person is lonely and makes a partner. But faced with a choice about their own desires and God’s command, they choose themselves. So they lose their special place in God’s garden; God stitches them up some winter clothes and send them out. Pretty soon things degenerate into violence when one of their sons kills the other. The violence spreads until God has to start over.

There is the flood; God chooses Noah and his family, as we read last week, and makes a covenant with creation, a promise, to sustain it forever. But human beings soon go their own way again; pretty soon we read about people trying to be god-like again and God scatters them. So God starts over, not with a flood but with a family: Abram and Sarai. This is the story of how God started saving us; this is the story of God starting over with a covenant.

What is a covenant? It started as a mutual promise. One guy was bigger and tougher than another but at the same time big tough guys can’t constantly look over their shoulder. So as cities and kingdoms developed, agreements began to be made. All kingdoms, after all, are a kind of protection racket. Covenants began as promises between stronger and weaker kings where the weaker one promised to faithfully serve the stronger and the stronger promised to protect the weaker one.

Now, Torah imagines God doing something similar. Look, the story says—imagine the unimaginable powerful God starting over again, but this time with a particular family, this time not with mythic strides and swirling water, but with history itself. God reaches into history and chooses a particular person, a particular family a particular people. You: Abram! Sarai—you and your family, because no one then or now is alone—I choose you, and here’s the choice: I make a covenant with you.

What does it feel like to be chosen? It’s a mix, isn’t it? I’ve mentioned before I think what a bad baseball player I was growing up when the New York Yankees shone like the heavenly court over the lives of little boys in New Jersey. Still, I did get chosen, usually last. And I remember walking out to the inevitable outfield position worrying, hoping I wouldn’t mess up again.

Later on, as a minister, I’ve gone through the process several times of having a church choose me. That, after all, is how I came to be here, this morning: you chose me to be the pastor of this church. For better or worse, you said, “Come here and preach, come here and care for us, come here and lead our church.” And we covenanted together, pastor and people, church and minister.
Look at the covenant God makes with Abram and Sarai.

You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
[Genesis 17:5-7]

It’s all about the future. Here is the problem of human life: what’s coming next? What’s tomorrow and the day after and the week and month and year after that? Covenants are a way to look into the future and tame it. Here is God saying, “This is your future: you’re going to have descendants and they’re going to be communities, nations; you’re going to have a future that will include kings.” And most important of all, I’m going to be your God and their God forever.

Let that word just echo in you for a moment: forever. It’s scary, isn’t it? I think there is some moment in the lives of most of us when it dawns on us that we have some time but we don’t have forever. Maybe it’s when you read about the guy from high school you didn’t know too well but was always in your homeroom who suddenly died. Maybe it’s when you start paying attention to all the ads about aging. Maybe it’s something physical or spiritual or emotional. I call it the obituary moment. When we’re young, none of us read the obituaries; when we are seniors, we all read them, sometimes first.

Forever: it’s the question mark that hangs over us and we have lots of ways of dealing with it. I suppose the most common is to pile up a lot of stuff, whether we call it money or property or something else. Our church building is full of memorials: most of the pews have brass plaques and they are scattered all over. We name rooms: Palmer Hall, Hampton Lounge. But honestly? I suspect most of this is useless. We move on. Most of the newer members in this church have no idea who Ray Palmer was.

But here’s God offering another answer: forever is assured because of this covenant, not because of anything any of these people can do or will do. In fact, Abram and Sarai are not particularly exemplary people; Abram’s already had some shady dealings with the Pharaoh in Egypt and there’s the whole business of Hagar and his son Ishmael. But the covenant doesn’t depend on Abram; it depends on God. And God’s covenant is so overwhelming, so important that it changes anything, even his name, even Sarai’s name. From now on, they will be Abraham and Sarah.

Simone Weil, a writer who began life as a Jew and converted to Christianity, said,

If there is a God, it not an insignificant fact, but something that requires radical rethinking of every little thing. Your knowledge of God can’t be considered as one fact among many. You have to bring all the other facts into line with the fact of God.

Now I want you to notice another thing about this covenant: there are no particular guarantees. God doesn’t say, “I’m going to make you rich, or help the arthritis in your hands, or prevent you from being hurt or humbled.” God simply says: I”m always going to be your God—forever.

This covenant, this guarantee of the future, is behind Jesus’ life. Just before the section we read today, he explains to his disciples for the first time what it means to be the Christ: not the acclaim and world power of a prince but the cross of a man suffering as an outcast. Now he invites his followers to the same life: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is the new covenant he offers, and he offers it in the most profound way possible, with his very life itself. Later he will say, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” He walks a way that sheds everything, even the claim of connection to God—on the cross, he will cry out, feeling forsaken even by God. But God is faithful to the covenant and raises him on Easter.

This is what Jesus is trying to tell people. “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, the church is looking back and imagining him saying this, years later when people have turned back, when people have turned away, when people have refused to listen. 
But the answer he offers to the ultimate problem of life itself and its limitation is still there Our lives are meant to be lived with God at the center, God’s covenant firmly in mind, faith in God’s presence and providence as constant as our breath.

The covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah changes their lives. It sets them in motion. Whether in the right direction or wrong, whether doing the right thing or wrong, they are never the same. There is no turning back for them. To walk in the rainbow path of covenant is the same for us: there is no turning back, there is no reason to fear the future. We can’t assure the future with our stuff, we can’t assure the future with our accomplishments, we can’t assure the future with our fame. Only God’s everlasting covenant can assure future and we can only walk in that assurance when it becomes the guiding faith of our lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up as a young prince of the church in Atlanta. His father was a renowned preacher, seldom remembered today. He went to seminary in Pennsylvania and got his doctorate at the Boston University School of Theology. Almost by accident, he became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement but that movement became not only the greatest moral lens of the last century but his own legacy. Today we often forget that the movement and the man had their ups and downs. In April 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennesee, leading a struggle for justice for sanitation workers. He said at the conclusion of his speech one night,

…we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end…I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.

The next day he was murdered. And yet who wouldn’t say that his life has gone on, who does justice today and doesn’t feel his spirit? He knew who controlled his future: his faith was in that God who is everlasting. So for him, there was no turning back.

This is the call of Christ: knowing God as the ultimate foundation of our future, no turning back. Knowing God as the ultimate light of love, no turning back. Knowing God as the ultimate faithful one, no turning back. Covenanted in Christ, forward in faith, no turning back.

Amen.

The title of this sermon was inspired by the song I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.

Lent 1 B – The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1

The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1: I Promise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Lent/B • February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17

Mark 1:9-15

Click Below to Listen to the Sermon Preached

Before he goes anywhere, before he preaches anything, before he heals anyone, Jesus goes to the wilderness.

Now, I’ve gotten ready for the wilderness. I’ve gotten out the REI catalogs and dreamed of palatial tents, shoes that could easily see me up and down Mt. Washington, jackets good enough for freezing temperature which God knows I could have used this winter, tiny, tiny little stoves with gourmet freeze-dried meals. Of course, as I thought about these things, it wasn’t really the wilderness I was preparing for; it was camping. Jacquelyn and I discussed camping once. She explained another vision: a little lodge sort of place where they had cable TV and a microwave and mentioned she wasn’t going camping where you couldn’t take a shower.

We have lost our sense of the wilderness. We talk about camping in the wilderness—with a boat, camper and RV and a generator to run the microwave and hairdryer. The wilderness is not that place. The wilderness is not anything you can get ready for. It is precisely the point of the wilderness that you cannot get ready for it because you do not know it. The wilderness is where you are lost, where you lose yourself, where you do not know yourself.

In the last few days, we have been eavesdroppers as the wilderness consumed a community in Florida. In a place labeled one of the safest in the state, a young man bought a semi-automatic rifle, a gun designed for soldiers on the field of battle with no legitimate use off battlefields and shot and killed 17 high school kids and teachers. I can’t imagine the wilderness of the parents and family members of those killed kids and those staff people. All of us who have had high school kids know the drill: you send them off in the morning, sometimes easily, sometimes not; sometimes there has been a fight, sometimes it’s just a fuzzy tired “luv ya see ya tonight oh I’ve got practice, can you pick me up?”. We always assume we will be able to; I can’t imagine how lonely and terrible it must be for those who waited and wondered and finally had terrible news God didn’t make this wilderness. We did.

The temptation here is to talk about how we can make a path out of it but I want to stay with the wilderness because the wilderness is various and this is only one part. The wilderness comes in many ways, in many places. There is the wilderness of a doctor’s office and a frightening diagnosis; there is the wilderness of grief, there is the wilderness of depression. The wilderness is not geography, it is theology. The wilderness is where we feel abandoned, lost, wandering, in danger. There are so many more wildernesses. The wilderness is where we are alone and overwhelmed. How can we deal with the wilderness? How can we live in the wilderness?

Jesus is thrown into the wilderness. The text says, “…sent him into the wilderness” but ‘sent’ is a little word, we speak of having sent someone to the store, the real meaning is that he is thrown into the wilderness.

Let’s leave him there for a moment and look at another wilderness experience: Noah and the flood. Genesis traces a history of violence and human self-seeking that leads God to decide to start over, to recreate the world. It reminds me of my neighbor who loves her lawn. A couple years ago, though, she felt it had gotten so out of control, she took a rototiller and tore it up and then replanted the whole thing. The flood is God recreating and at the center of the story, at the center of all stories about God, is a person who is asked to have faith and do what God says. Noah is told to build a craft to save the world. The instructions are as precise as a set of boat plans ordered online. He builds it; it floats, his family and the animals with him survive. At the end of their voyage, there is a rainbow and the rainbow is a symbol of a promise God makes, a covenant.

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 
[Genesis 9:11-13]

We read these stories and argue about whether they are true or not true. We do TV specials about finding the ark as if it’s waiting to be found, as if it’s sitting somewhere just waiting for someone to pay the yard bill. This isn’t an event, this is an experience: the event has been overwhelmed by the experience. The experience is that there are moments when we feel wiped out, there are moments when we feel overwhelmed, drowned by a flood we cannot resist, there are moments when we feel God has given up on us.

What threatened your very existence? That is the flood. You don’t have to go look for it in Turkey, it’s here, it’s in your memory. What threatened to wipe you out? Maybe it was a death or divorce, maybe it was a disaster, maybe it was an illness. My grandfather was wiped out by the failure of a bank in the 1930s and he never trusted a bank again. My whole generation grew up with stories of the flood, only it was called a depression. Sometimes the flood is a divorce, especially if it comes upon you unexpectedly. Your whole life is changed, your home is gone, you can never go back to who you were, what you were. And you can never go back. The whole community reminds you. Every time you fill out a form there are those boxes: Married-Single-Widowed-Divorced. Which are you? I’m married—but I’ve been divorced—which one should I check?

Whatever experience, whatever flood, brings you to the wilderness, eventually, we are all confronted with how to live there.

Now the whole point of these stories is to give us tools to live right now, not to argue about what happened long ago. The whole purpose of these stories is to teach us to live God’s way. After the flood, in the wilderness, there is a promise. And this is God’s promise: I am never going to give up on you—I am NEVER going to give up on you.

It doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter how bad you are, it doesn’t matter how bad things get, I am never going to give up on you: I promise. You may give up on your lawn; you may give up on yourself; I am never giving up on you. I promise.

Now we’re ready to go back and look at Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus has three encounters there. He is tempted by the Satan, he is with the wild animals, he is waited on by angels. That sounds to me like a description of many of the experiences of life in which we suddenly find ourselves, places where we are brought without preparation, without experience, without signposts, places where we are afraid. Temptation is always present: it is the possibility of choosing to live on our own, to believe we can be enough ourselves, that we can live apart from God’s purpose and blessing. But what sustains Jesus in the wilderness isn’t his own power, it is the natural web of life—the wild animals—and the angels who wait on him. It’s worth noting that the word used for ‘waiting’ is the same used later in the gospel for those who minister to others.

This is how God is arching over the world, this is how God is giving us a foundation for our future. It begins with a promise and a covenant. The rainbow is a symbol of that covenant. Out there in the wilderness there are terrors but there are angels too. They are people who remind us that God has made a covenant, a promise, and God’s hope is that we will have the faith to recognize them and wait for them, that we will know they are there because God has not given up on us.

Lent’s often a time for doing deals. I’ve sometimes quoted Anne Lamott who says one of three main forms of prayer is, “Help me help me help me.” Lent prayers are often help me prayers. If I give up M&M’s, will you help me? If I give up Hershey kisses, will you help me? If I give up bacon—no, I’m not giving up bacon. You see what I mean. Lent is often thought of as a time for giving things up. It really is a time not for giving something up but simply for giving. Giving God some space and time to act, giving God some space and time to live in your heart.

The promise is a gift and a covenant. A good response is to make the promise we can make. In this church, when we join we make a covenant. We say, in part,
Sincerely repentant for your sins, in humble reliance upon divine grace, you promise that you will endeavor to be the disciple and follower of Jesus in doing the heavenly Father’s will.

It continues but I hope you see the point. Covenant is how God makes a path from the wilderness to the promised land, from the loneliness of the wilderness to the community of Christ. This year, thought the season of Lent, I want to walk with you through some of the promises of God the Covenants God makes. I call these collectively “the Rainbow Path,” for this first covenant.

This week, this season, as we wander through the wilderness together, God hopes for us we will walk simply believing God is there, taking God’s promise seriously, leaning on God’s promise instead of doing a deal with the darkness. This week, whether you walk familiar paths or places in a strange wilderness, remember what God has said: I will never give up on you. I promise. And if you remember, your steps will be steps along the rainbow path.

Amen