Lent 4B – Snakey! – The Rainbow Path 4


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?


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?

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.


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.


Epiphany – Transfiguration B – Shine, Jesus, Shine

Shine, Jesus, Shine

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Transfiguration Sunday • February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9

After two months in the season of Epiphany, we come back here, where we remembered the stable, to the mystery of God in the world. All these Sundays, we have been populating the crèche, adding to it, the bandaids that symbolize the people Jesus healed, the figures that represent ourselves, the Wise Ones who came from far away, Gentiles whom no one had thought were part of the story, the shepherds, the angel, the animals, each a part of our world, each a part of us. But today we come back, back to this single experience, this single moment: God born into the world, vulnerable, watching, hoping.

Think of yourself in this scene. You walk in, seeing the young mother with that special look of both exhaustion and fierce pride new mothers have. You greet the father and give your flower¡s, admire the baby in her arms and then as she turns to you, looks into your eyes, smiles and asks, “Do you want to hold him?” and not knowing what else to say, you say sure, and the child is handed to you. There: in your arms, you hold the mystery of God in the world.

We’ve been reading the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The assigned readings have jumped ahead. Since the first days we’ve been reading about the last couple of weeks, they have been up and down Galilee and over the border to Tyre, they have seen him heal, seen him amaze the villagers and they have been amazed. Perhaps what amazes them most is that they are here, that their one out of the blue “Yes” to his call has turned into a commitment that grows every day. But they have seen more than the ecstasy of healing; they have seen the growing anger of the officials and the clergy. And just before this trip up the mountain, he told them something they admit only to themselves, only at night, only alone: at the end of this road, there is a cross instead of a throne. They have come to the mountain, where he goes alone to pray. They have come to the mountain as we go to the stable, hoping for something new, expecting something familiar.

Now they stand there and the text tells us that on that mountain, in that place which can’t help reminding everyone of all the other mountain tops. It reminds us of Sinai, where the little tribe of refugees from Egypt God had amazingly defended and called out of slavery to service gathered, and just in case we miss the point Moses is there.

It reminds us of Horeb, where Elijah fled after God reclaimed that people through his Word and action, bringing down the full fury of Queen Jezebel, that representative of pagan, consumer culture so that in the very moment of victory, Elijah has to flee and ends up in a cave. There on that mountain, he heard God’s call, God’s blessing, and confirmation, in a still small voice. And just in case we miss the point, Elijah is there.

Now these followers of Jesus come to their own mountain top And they see Jesus shine. There he is: do you see it too? “Jesus was transfigured,” the text says. I’ve been studying this text and preaching it for more than 40 years and I still don’t know what it really means. The disciples see Jesus shining in a new and amazing way. ‘Transfiguration’ means transformed, so we have to ask: what is being transformed? Not Jesus: he is the same as he always has been. What is being changed here is the disciple’s understanding. They are getting a glimpse of who Jesus really is and it amazes them and burns in their memory for years afterward.

It’s so rare for us to really see someone for who they really are. My mother was 30 when I was born, an older mother for 1951. Of course, I never thought of that fact and what it might have meant to her. Over the years we had our ups and downs but one thing was constant: she was always and in some sense just my mom. I was in my 40’s one day when I met up with her at the airport in Tampa after we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. She took one look and said, “Oh, Jim, you need a haircut.” Only your mom says this. I just saw this one dimension, saw here in reference to myself. In 1995, when she was in her 70’s, my father died and in the process of cleaning things out somehow I ended up with her college scrapbook. It was stunning to page through it and see my mother as a young woman, dating, getting called to the dean’s office for violating her curfew. Who was this woman?

A few years later, a friend of mine who was into genealogy encouraged me to dig into my own family history. When I asked my mother for information, she offered a glimpse of life growing up during the depression in the 1930’s. She told me about being angry when her family took in other family members and she lost her room to them; about her grandmother knitting the wool caps that made her feel ashamed because they were homemade. Somewhere in those talks, she also told me about fighting with my father when I was a kid and she wanted to work; he wanted a wife who stayed home. She told me about how hard it was to go back to college in her 40’s and get her Master of Library Science degree.

Bit by bit, my mother began to emerge as a person, not just my mother. When she was in her last days, I sat with her and heard more stories and when she died, she left a letter and talked about the conflicted time of my adolescence. I don’t believe I nearly know the whole woman she was but I am so thankful that I got to know her not as a mom but as a real person, a whole person.

I think something like that happened to the disciples. Just before that, Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter responds famously, “The Christ.” We like that; we want to think of ourselves as Peter. We often skip the next part where Jesus explains this means a cross, Peter argues with him and Jesus rebukes him, the same word used to cast out demons. Peter, the emblem of the faithful disciple, the founder of the church begins as someone Jesus sees holding him back when Jesus has a mission, Jesus has a call, Jesus has a way.
Thom Shuman, says about this,

…most of us have had some sort of mountaintop experience, even if it is in the back of a taxi, or walking down a hospital hallway, or reading to a bunch of kids.  Most of us know what it is like to want to build great reminders of who we are or where we have been, only to be pointed to those down in the valleys we are called to serve.  Most folks have experienced that desire to stay where they are, rather than venture into the unknown, whatever and wherever that is.  Most of us are reluctant to take off the comfortable and scuffed loafers of the past and leave it behind while putting on the new, stiff, blister-causing shoes of the future.

We’re like Peter, standing there without a clue, hoping we do the right thing or say the right thing in Jesus’ eyes, while Jesus is looking past us at the next step to take, the next person to serve, the next neighborhood to clean up, the next task to undertake, the next mountaintop that is waiting for us down in the valley.

What does transfiguration mean? Perhaps just this: that it’s time for us to stop putting our own pictures of the past up and labeling them with his name and see him for who he really is. Perhaps it’s time for us to stop thinking of him as just another man, a good one, an important one, who does good things: exorcises, heals, preaches love. Perhaps it’s time for us to see him for who he really is: the shining, embodied, the light of the love of God.

Of course, we are here too; we are in the picture and honestly? God is gently making fun of us, like a parent laughing about a child’s fumbling efforts. Look closely: see us? We’re the ones with Peter. The whole glory of God is on display and all Peter can say is, “It’s a good thing we’re here!—let’s put up some huts, get some shelter from all this, make a place to hide.”

The text says he was terrified. Isn’t this us? Isn’t this what we do: we see everything in reference to ourselves and our first thought when the world scars us is to put up some sheds, find some shelter. But God won’t have it; God ignores Peter and shifts the whole point back to Jesus. This is what God says on the mountain, this is the whole point of the mountaintop moment: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
There it is, there’s all of it. At the baptism, where we began two months ago when heaven opened, we got the first part—“This is my Son, the Beloved”—now we get the consequence, the invitation he represents: “Listen to him.”

This is the choice we make as a church and as Christians every day. We can build sheds and celebrate the fact that we’re here or we can listen to the beloved son of God. When we listen, we can’t help but hear his call. When we listen, we can’t help but see him shine, as he shone in their hearts. Shine Jesus: shine.


Epiphany 5 B – On the Breath of Dawn

On the Breath of Dawn

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/B • February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

John Claypool was pastor to the congregation of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky when his ten-year-old daughter, Laura Lue, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Only eighteen months and ten days after the diagnosis, she died. The sermon John preached two weeks later to reflect on that experience was based on the same reading we have heard today from Isaiah 40. He titled the sermon “Strength Not to Faint.”

Here I am this morning, John Claypool says at the end of his sermon, sad, broken-hearted, still bearing in my spirit the wounds of this darkness. 
I confess to you honestly that I have no wings with which to fly or even any legs on which to run – but listen, by the grace of God, I am still on my feet! 
I have not fainted yet. I have not exploded in the anger of presumption, nor have I keeled over into the paralysis of despair. 
All I am doing is walking and not fainting, hanging in there, enduring with patience what I cannot change but have to bear.

We have been reading through the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and we must never forget that the readers of this gospel, as we ourselves, know the end of this story. We know this will end at the cross; we know as Jesus apparently knew that there is a terminal moment of fear and suffering and death. We know where he is going: every step asks, can we believe he is coming back?

Here is Jesus again, as we have read the past weeks, apparently running forward. Our English text doesn’t show this quite as well as the original Greek but one word runs throughout these stories, one word is repeated over and over again: “immediately”. Immediately Jesus goes from his baptism to the wilderness. Immediately Jesu goes from the wilderness to meeting the men who will follow him. Immediately he goes home with them and speaks in the synagogue, encountering a man caged by demons and freeing him. Immediately he goes from there to Peter’s home.

That’s where we find him today. It’s a familiar scene, isn’t it? I know that we’ve often invited people home to brunch. So Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James and John and perhaps others go to Peter’s home. A crowd follows and gathers outside. I imagine that at other times the food would be ready: bagels toasted, smoked salmon, perhaps some eggs. It’s a Jewish home so no bacon, of course. Perhaps some fried fish—that’s the family business, after all. The scents of the food would have greeted the group as they entered, probably still discussing the amazing events at the synagogue that morning.

But there’s a problem here: the matron of the household, Peter’s mother-in-law, is sick in bed. So I wonder if everything was ready. I wonder what she was thinking, feeling. On other days, it would have been her job to preside at the feast; she would have gloried, I’m sure, in doing the preparations, from cleaning (in our home we call it “mom-clean”) to kneading the bread the night before. But today she is in bed with a fever, seriously sick. Was she ashamed? Was she asleep? I know that when I was too sick to preach a few weeks ago, I felt I had let you all down even though I knew I couldn’t get up. I imagine the woman must have felt something like that. She stays upstairs, away from the party, in her sick room, hearing I’m sure the noises of the party downstairs, unable to join them, hiding out as we all do at such moments.

But Jesus won’t have it; Jesus insists on mounting the stairs, coming to her in her sick bed. Here is a significant theological point. American cultural religion translates our cultural value of individual choice and commitment into something called “coming to Jesus”. It’s worth noting that in all these stories so far, people do not come to Jesus; Jesus comes to them. Jesus goes to John at the Jordan. He goes to Galilee and passes by Andrew and Peter, calling them to join him, and the same with James and John. Now he won’t stay downstairs and be the guest of honor; he goes to this woman in her bed, in her shame, in her illness and takes her hand.

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand

I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone

Doesn’t that song we sing portray this moment?

Our culture hides the significance of this act; we want to jump immediately to the healing but stay here with me and consider the moment in its context. Jesus is a faithful, observant Jewish man in a culture where it’s unthinkable for a man to touch a woman who is not his wife or a close relation. Yet here he is reaching out to her: “Precious Lord, take my hand.” Jesus is a worship leader who is ritually clean; to touch a sick person is to make himself unclean. Yet here he is taking her hand: “Precious Lord, take my hand.” Jesus is not part of the family in this home yet here he is in the private part of it, visiting a woman, touching her. And she is healed. One final point: she is healed on the Sabbath, something that will come back to haunt Jesus in days to come.

We are so used to technical explanations that we want to ask, “How is she healed?” There are no answers to that here. Our culture blinds us to what’s really going on here. We want to know the method of the cure; the gospel is interested in the fact of the healing. Healing sets people free, healing helps put us back on the path of our lives. Mark sees through to the more important point: that it is done at all. This woman is healed and “immediately she began to serve them.” Now some have criticized this text; they don’t like the image of this woman serving but my own hunch is that she was very happy to do it, to reclaim her role, to join the party. Once again, as at the synagogue, Jesus sets someone free.

When the Sabbath ends at sundown, we read that sick people are brought to Jesus and he heals many of them. Again, notice they are not “coming to Jesus” the way it’s spoken of in our culture; they are being brought there by others. Connection to Jesus, healing by Jesus, comes through the invitation and efforts of others. We don’t know who these are. In fact, we will never again hear about Peter’s mother-in-law again directly. Did she go on to become part of the group of women who apparently sustained the ministry of Jesus? We don’t know. We only know that in that moment, when she needed a hand, his was there reaching out to her, taking her hand, lifting her up.

Finally, we read that at the end of it all, Jesus slips away. It’s almost comical, isn’t it? All those people, all that crowd, looking for him, pressing on him, wanting him to do what they want and he’s nowhere to be found.

Peter and the others have to go hunt him up and when they find him, he’s outside the circle, alone, praying, finding his strength as he did when he was alone in the desert, in his connection with the one he calls his father: our God.

Over the last few weeks we’ve read through these stories of the opening of Jesus’ ministry and it’s worth asking: where are you in all of this? where am I? Are you someone Jesus has come to, someone called by him to follow? Are you one of those bringing others to Jesus for healing, to be set free to live and give the gifts God has given them? Are you being healed?

For isn’t that our purpose as a congregation, to be a place where healing happens? I don’t mean cures, I mean the healing that sets hope in hearts again. The passage from Isaiah we read is addressed to a people beaten down, carried into exile, cut off from hope and they believed from heaven. Yet here the prophet speaks God’s Word and that Word begins, “Comfort, comfort” and continues on with the words we read this morning.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

Wisdom does not always come from the wise; in fact, the Bible says over and over again, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” What we translate fear really means taking God seriously, believing in God not only in the past or the future but right now, today, in this moment, this present moment. This is the time when God loves you. This is the time when God seeks you. This is the time when God seeks to comfort and heal and restore your hope.
And what is that hope? John Claypool again, facing the most difficult crisis of his life said,

I have not exploded in the anger of presumption, nor have I keeled over into the paralysis of despair. All I am doing is walking and not fainting, hanging in there, enduring with patience what I cannot change but have to bear.
This may not sound like much to you, but to me it is the most appropriate and most needful gift of all [from God.] My religion has been the difference in the last two weeks; it has given me the gift of patience, the gift of endurance, the strength to walk and not faint. And I am here to give God thanks for that!
And who knows, if I am willing to accept this gift, and just hang in there and not cop out, maybe the day will come that Laura Lue and I will run again and not be weary, that we may even soar some day, and rise up with wings as eagles! But until then – to walk and not faint, that is enough. O God, that is enough!

If we look for God in this present moment, if we believe in this present moment, if we pray in this present moment, then indeed Jesus will come to us. We may not be able to soar with the eagles yet; we may not be able to run yet but we can learn to walk with Jesus, to walk and not faint. And that is enough, that is everything.

In a moment, we’re going to sing a song that takes its images from this passage in Isaiah: On Eagles Wings. The words express the feeling of doing just this: taking this immediate, present time, and living it in the faith of God’s presence. So many of us live at sunset: God invites us today, this moment, to see that we are living “on the breath of dawn”. So we are meant to live as people being healed, giving hope, inviting others to come and see how they also can find this hope.


Epiphany 4 B – Take Off the Devil Suit

Take Off the Devil Suit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany/B • January 28, 2018

Mark 1:21-28

One day when I lived on 29th Street in Milwaukee, the Devil came to my house. He was a garish shade of red, had horns, a tail and carried a pitchfork and stood about four feet high.

I was sitting in the living room when the Devil came out of my son Jason’s room with a wild look and I knew we were in for trouble. A few minutes later, after some now forgotten bad behavior, a bit of parental yelling, and some tears I exorcised the devil, who returned to the bedroom. Minutes later Jason emerged and we were reconciled and agreed no more devil—at least for the moment.

It’s a true story: Jason had a devil costume for Halloween one year and for a while when he was going to be bad, he would put on the suit first. We learned to recognize the devil and the impending behavior and deal with it—partly by telling him to go back and take off the devil suit. Eventually, he outgrew the suit. I can only wish we all had outgrown bad behavior; obviously, we haven’t. This week again we heard in the news about gun violence at schools and the stories of an amazing number of women abused by a man meant to care for them at Michigan State University. Depending on your view, I’m sure you could add to this list. We cannot escape the men—and women—in the devil suit. How can we get them to take it off?

This story we read in Mark is amazingly appropriate. Last week we heard how Jesus created a community of disciples. His invitation to follow him is so authoritative that the text tells us they immediately left what they were doing and followed him. Now they have come to Capernaum, the home of those disciples. Jesus enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a sanctuary of worship but also a place of conversation where the whole community meets to gossip, greet, trade, and connect.

Jesus sits in the seat of the preacher; someone, perhaps he himself, reads a portion of Torah and Jesus begins to speak. The text says that he spoke as one with authority and not like the scribes, that is, the regular teachers. Now the usual method of preaching there was to discuss what Moses meant or what another prophet said. But the congregation there recognizes something unique in Jesus: his words, his teaching, he himself, have an amazing authority. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” the text says.

Just as a great guitar player, can make our hearts vibrate simply by running his fingers over a few strings, the words of Jesus move the hearts of the people there so that they are astounded, amazed.

This sense of being astounded is not necessarily positive; it doesn’t mean they applauded. Preaching can make people angry. We all have a set of boundaries that make us feel safe. Like a fence at the edge of a precipice, like a barrier in front of a danger, boundaries keep us secure in a dangerous world. Anything that forces us beyond the boundaries destabilizes us, it threatens, and we react.

Years ago in Connecticut when the issue of full inclusion of gay folks was being fiercely debated in churches, I attended a clergy meeting where people on both sides spoke. Afterwards, we were feeling pretty good; the meeting had been mostly civil and no one had left in anger. There we were, a group of overweight middle-aged straight men sitting at a table in a church hall. One by one each was asked to say something about the meeting and when it was my time, I said that really, this topic had very little to do with our lives. Then I said, “But you know, here we are with pastries, and we’re all overweight. Maybe we should be discussing the sin of overeating.” That’s when the meeting got angry and a few moments later one of the guys said he wasn’t going to sit for this and left. “They were astounded.”

At least one person there cries out and disrupts the moment. There is a man there with what the text calls “an unclean spirit”. Perhaps he stands up, there is a disruption. “Have you come to destroy us?” the demons in him ask. And then he says what some must have been thinking: “We know who you are, the Holy One of God.” What happens when the unworthy, the unclean, washes up like the ocean against the rock of God’s holiness? What happens when the demonic runs into the holy?

Notice how the text carefully distinguishes between the man himself and the unclean spirit: he is not a bad man, he is a man controlled by something unclean. “Unclean” means unfit for worship, unfit to come before God. Jewish religion carefully distinguished between the clean or pure and the unclean, between what was fit for God and what was not. The text tells us nothing about the man himself. Like Jason in the devil suit, he has been put into something other than himself. One writer likens this to addiction and points out that addiction is not the person: it is the cage with which the person lives. Like a devil suit, the cage of the unclean spirit is separate from the person, controlling but not the same as that person.

Now there are all kinds of cages. I confess that in the past, I often compared this cage, this unclean spirit, to mental illness with its hallucinations and altered sense of reality. I realize now I wanted to keep my own boundaries intact. I wasn’t mentally ill so thinking about it that way meant it wasn’t me. But what I see now is that there are in fact all kinds of cages, big and small, and some of them enclose me as well. And when the cage is threatened, we all ask the question the unclean spirit asks: “Have you come to destroy us?”

This fear is, I believe, behind the anger that fuels so much of our national life. Cages are being broken. We are living through an enormous cultural transformation.What happens when the cage is broken and the person is released? We know that when Jesus walks in, demons walk out. The solution to our cages lies in the connection Jesus calls love: a compassion that refuses to let boundaries stand between us and invites us to see each other as equal children of God.

I mentioned addiction earlier as an example of a cage that controls a person. Today we are facing a terrible epidemic of addiction-fueled not only by drugs but by our misconception about the nature of addiction. So often we have forgotten Jesus’ distinction between the cage and the person so we see addicts as bad people who should simply start acting better. The truth is that addiction is only partly about chemical dependence. Those who are finding the most success at treating addiction have learned to treat it as a disease, not a moral failure, and to make human connection part of the solution. The problem isn’t the person; the problem is the cage.

In the same way, there are larger cultural cages. One of them is the fear of people who come from other places. Almost all of us have immigrants in our background. But we’ve forgotten that and today’s immigrants often have different colored skin. How do we solve the anger that comes from breaking this cage? Perhaps we do it by simple connection.

Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a 300 member congregation that is one of 32 congregations housing people who are at risk of deportation. After studying and meeting about the issue last July, the church voted in September, 89-5, to invite an undocumented person to their meeting house. Eliseo Jimenez and his family came to stay in the church’s youth activity room. The church organized volunteers and worked with five other congregations, including a synagogue. Now we might think this would be a terrible burden and a drain on the church. In fact, one of the volunteer hosts says, the church has found renewed energy. “I’m really proud we’re doing this,” one of the members said.

At the center of this story in Mark today is this: “What have you to do with us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It’s a question for all of us who say we are the body of Christ.

In a culture of cages, what has Jesus to do with all those caged? Isn’t it to invite them out of the cage; isn’t it to say, “Take off the devil suit” and come out? Isn’t it to see the child of God in each person and invite that child out? That’s what Jesus does: “Be silent and come out of him,” Jesus says. At the end of the story, the crowd is amazed. And indeed, whenever, wherever, we as the Jesus people, invite the child of God caged up, imprisoned, out to play—it’s still amazing. This is our calling in Christ: to invite the caged out, to invite everyone in, into the community of Christ, into the circle of those who recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God. For when we recognize others in this way, we find we ourselves are also recognized in that circle.


Epiphany 3 B – The Urgency of Now

The Urgency of Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Third Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • January 21, 2018

Mark 1:14-20

It was a cold day in December; I imagine someone had to get here early to get the heat going. The church was probably decorated for Christmas and I imagine Rev. Lee Fletcher, the still new pastor, led songs of Advent and Christmas. At 2:30 PM the radio announced that the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been bombed; the nation had been attacked and was at war. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a rainy Friday in November. Everyone was waiting for the weekend, some preparing, some watching the clock. Suddenly, like that moment when a wind sweeps ahead of a storm, teachers were rushing about, some of them crying, some of the male teachers crying—unthinkable! President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas, Texas. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a sunny Tuesday morning in September, a busy time for ministers. I was in an office with no media, trying to put together worship and a sermon for the coming Sunday. I was newly married and unlike my family, where no one ever called the office, my new wife had a habit of calling me mid-morning, interrupting whatever I was doing. Later, much later, we’d deal with that but on this day when she called I was irritable and put it off and then she told me: an airplane had flown into a tower in New York City and it was on fire. Moments later we heard about the second crash. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

Like an old man telling the story of how his life was suddenly changed, we’re hearing someone’s memory, Peter’s perhaps, of how things suddenly changed. What stuns me today about the story we read in Mark, what has always stunned me, is its rush. “…immediately they left their nets and followed him,” the text says. Immediately: now, right now, they drop everything and go with Jesus. Much of the whole gospel of Mark is written in the present, in a slangy language our translation fails to convey. From start to end, it’s as if the whole text is saying, “Right now, right here, immediately.”

But I don’t live immediately; I live routinely—what about you? What I mean is that I have a regular set of things I do. I get up, get dressed, l make the bed, let the dog out, feed her, turn on CNN, let the dog out, go to the café, get coffee, read the New York Times and some other news. I drink my coffee, eat something. Tuesday I study the scripture text, write the liturgy: call to worship, prayer, pick the hymns. Wednesday I try to draft the sermon. Thursdays Jacquelyn often goes to work, so after I drop her off, I go to the bookstore and read. I finish the sermon. Sometimes I come down here when no one is around and practice. Fridays are off; Saturday mornings May and I go out for breakfast. Of course not every week is the same but you see what I mean? There is a routine to it all.

We do the same thing in most churches. When we consider a problem, when we think of a program, when we look at the next month, one question always pops up, one question must always be answered: “What did we do last year?” We look for what is routine; we say, “we always…” and fill in the blank with what we did last time and the time before. I don’t think we are much different in this way then others. I’m sure the Baptists plan pretty much the same way, they just do it with longer prayers. Catholics don’t make a move without consulting church tradition and Lutherans feel better if they can pin a Luther quote to whatever they are doing and the Methodists—well the very word “Methodist” comes from being methodical, from observing routines.

Contrast that with this scene in Mark. John the Baptist is arrested; there is a crisis. We have no notes about Jesus meeting with top advisors; no campaign plan is written. He simply says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Now repent means: change direction. To Jesus, the arrest of John means the same thing those events I mentioned at the beginning meant: everyone’s life needs to change and the time for change is now.

Next thing you know, he’s passing by some guys working, fishing. I’m pretty sure they’re just following their routine; I’m certain they got up that morning, put on their fishing clothes, got some coffee and pushed off into the cold morning without a thought about Jesus. They are doing what is routine and suddenly, with no explanation, no preface, no plan, Jesus appears, tells them to follow him, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” A little farther on he sees James and John working on nets and it says, “Immediately he called them”; they follow him too. The urgency of the call grasps them; the urgency of now overrides everything and they become disciples of Jesus.

What are we to make of these calls? They look nothing like the calm, ordered church life we practice. I hear this story and I think, ok: a mission. But where’s the follow-up plan? What’s the budget? What are the demographics? I see Jesus coming to the disciples and I wonder if he wouldn’t be better of as part of a team ministry with a music person and someone to handle administrative stuff. Is there a graphic designer? Where are the cards with colorful pictures and the website prominently displayed? What’s the budget for this project? Are there reserves in case he runs a deficit? Would it be better, perhaps, to set out some interim goals? Suppose, instead of saving the world, we just save Galilee this year and work on Judah next year. Wouldn’t that let us focus our energies more effectively?

I know these stories are the poetry of God’s Spirit and we live in the prose of the world but I see here also something deep and profound. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the midst of a time of crisis and war, “we are confronted by the fierce urgency of now.” God’s call does not come as one of many possibilities; God’s call is immediate, urgent and absolute. “Immediately they followed him”: the words are stark and precise and challenge us today.

We meet together in the shadows of a transitional time. Our church has struggled through the high waves and winds of economic adversity as so many of us are struggling. Like a boat thrusting forward with its passengers splashed by spray, we have had moments when we wondered if we would be overwhelmed. Yet we are here today, and the question we must address is how we can go forward together in the cause of Christ. Deep in our fears is the lurking dread that our beloved church could die. To those who fear this, I say: don’t worry—don’t worry because we are already dead. Paul himself, writing to the Corinthian church, said as much: “The present form of this world is passing away.”

The urgency Jesus meets head-on is precisely this: that we are dead in our sins and that death is urgent. So I am not fearing the death of the church today. The only question is: will we hear Christ calling us to resurrection. We are already in the grave: the only question is, are we ready to walk out like Lazarus, are we ready to live now in the living Lord?

To live this way, means to live as part of the community of Christ. We’ve now read twice, once last week, once today, how he worked: not alone, not by himself, not on his own, but by connecting a community together, calling together others. We have already accepted the challenge of welcoming; now we must move further and at his command take up the mission of inviting.

The purpose of this invitation is simple: people need a purpose. So now is the time for us to invite others to find their purpose by following Christ with us.

We have this moment. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the jail in Birmingham to white ministers who urged him to go slower,

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Now is the time for us, to listen to the call of Christ, to hear his call to proclaim good news, to learn to make the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiveness and welcome the very fiber of our daily life.

Now is the time for us to understand we are not here for ourselves or because of ourselves; we have been bought with a price and we are not our own, we are the body of Christ.

Now is the time for us to stop asking what did we do last year and start wondering what is God doing this year, for us to live in the urgency of now, peering by the light of God’s love into the darkness of this world.

Now: now, now. There is indeed, a fierce urgency to now. Now is the time for us to embrace the call of Christ and keep our eyes on the prize of his upward call.


Christmas Eve Meditation 2017

Christmas Eve Meditation

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Christmas Eve/B • December 24, 2017

Most of the last 45 years, I have stood before a church, as I do tonight, as a pastor, often in a preaching robe, to lead in prayer and listening to God’s Word. It’s so common that some new members in our church who came to see me one weekday when I was wearing regular clothes remarked on it: “We’re not used to seeing you like this.” I assured them that I was the same person. But my first appearance before a church took place long before the robe and stole, when I was selected to play the little angel in a Christmas Pageant called, The Littlest Angel. Perhaps you know this story and if you do, you know that this angel has two characteristics: he’s little and he’s not very well behaved. I qualified on both points.

When we read the Christmas story, it’s striking to see how much of it concerns little things. It takes place in Bethlehem, a place the prophet Micah described as “..one of the little clans of Judah”. It’s main characters are small as well. Joseph is a tool maker forced to make a journey at the worst time of all. Can you imagine how worried and harried he is, helping his pregnant wife to travel, trying to find space for them to stay? Then there is Mary herself, a teenager who enters the story as an unwed mother, a woman in a culture that is overwhelmingly patriarchal, young in a culture that favors age, about to give birth in a time and place where birthing is a very dangerous business.

Mary defines small in the story. So does her reaction to all this. Faced with an angelic visitor, she summons the courage to say,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
And she goes on to remember all the other small ones.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Listen: because this ought to scare us just a bit. It ought to make us ask, “Are we the proud ones? Are we the enthroned powerful?” Because Mary is speaking for God here and the message is—I love the little.

This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about the smallest present of all, a baby, the birth of Jesus. Have you seen a newborn? Can you remember how small she was, how tiny and perfect his fingers were, how small and helpless the little person was? Think of Jesus that way: think of him as small and vulnerable. And then remember: so are we before God.

This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about little things. I don’t remember anything about playing the Littlest Angel—my mother never tired of reminding me that I had embarrassed her by yawning widely in front of the whole church during the singing—but I know the story and I know how it ends: it ends when the littlest angel brings little things to the baby.

…a butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nets in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. Yet, and two white stones found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small, brown beavers, and at the bottom the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute love and infinite devotion.

And out of those, out of those little things, he summons this: the laughter of God. And in the story at least, it is the box of the littlest angel’s gifts that becomes the star over the stable where the Song of God is born, where the love of God begins again, as it does every day.

This is Christmas Eve: with the little things of Christmas, let us also summon the laughter of God who indeed, does great things, and gives the greatest of things: the gift of love.