Finding Peace

Cannon firing

British 3 pounder cannon fired at Fort Ticonderoga

Jacquelyn and I visited Fort Ticonderoga this week. I remember reading about the fort when I was eight or so and being excited about the story of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys taking the fort by surprise.

Today the fort is a forbidding castle of grey stone with cannon pointing out from the walls and people in 18th century period costumes. I’ve had a chance to dig further into the fort’s history and I’m struck by a strange fact: the fort was never the center of a great battle.

First built by the French, Fort Carillon, as it was named then, was abandoned to the British in the mid 1700’s. American colonial forces surprised a small British garrison in 1775 and took it without a fight. They in turn surrendered the fort two years later when the British returned and mounted cannon on an overlooking mountain. The British ultimately abandoned the site.

This is a kind of metaphor for fear. Forts, after all, are built because an enemy is feared, just as we often live in anxiety over something we fear. But often the fear and anxiety don’t help us; they may in fact paralyze us.

We’ve been reading through the book of Jonah in worship this summer. It has three movements.

  1. God sends a word to Jonah, commanding him to go to Ninevah and proclaim doom due to Ninevah’s evil. Jonah fears what will happen so goes another direction. But his disobedience is stopped when God sends a storm. He is saved by a miraculous great fish that brings him back to his start.
  2. God sends a word to Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim their destruction due to Ninevahs’ evil. Jonah goes, preaches, and everyone from the king to the animals repents. God miraculously repents the intended punishment and the city is saved.
  3. Jonah becomes angry at God’s repentance. So God sends a word to Jonah in the form of parable: a tree that sheltered him is parched and dies. At Jonah’s complaint, God surprises Jonah by asking whether God shouldn’t be concerned about all the people at Ninevah.

What’s common to these three parts of the story is that each begins with some kind of fear or frustration. Each one proceeds to a surprise that makes the original fear irrelevant. The final surprise for the book’s original audience and in some sense for us is that God even cares about Those People.

Those People are the ones outside our boundary, for we all create boundaries. The direction of this whole book is to come to this conclusion: God’s boundary is bigger than we ever thought.

There is a bigger point to this story, however. It is simply that beyond the fear of each movement is the moving God whose purpose is being fulfilled, whose purpose is pursued regardless of what else happens. Jonah delays it; God keeps going on. Surprise! What we feared? God embraces.

The old fort stands there today, more solid than at any time in its history. It looks solid; it looks powerful. Here’s the thing to know: it never worked. What has always worked is finding God’s purpose and getting on board that journey, not holing up in a fort.

Summer Season

Ocean view

During the summer, we take a break from formal preaching at First Congregational Church. In July, we have informal worship in Hampton Lounge. This year our focus is on the story of Jonah and how it helps us interpret our lives. These are not sermons as much as conversations. Here’s the schedule.

1. July 3 – Hearing God’s Call – And Running the Other Way! (Jonah 1:1-3)

2. July 10 – When the Big Fish Bites: Occasional Disaster (Jonah 1:4-17)

3. July 17 – Words from the Belly: In the Hour of Darkness (Jonah 2)

4. July 24 – Tell It to Ninevah: Sharing God’s Word in the City (Jonah 3)

5. July 31 – When the Wrong People Do Right – (Jonah chapter 4)

Freedom Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/C • June 26, 2016

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Galatians 5:1]

Pictures

All photographs are the remainder of a story, like shells or seaweed left on a beach. This week I saw a picture that struck me and I can’t escape. It was a little girl, standing on top of a toilet. The girl’s mother explained she thought it was cute and funny so she snapped the shot and posted it to Facebook. Then she discovered what was going on: the girl was practicing for what to do if there was a shooter in her school. She’d been taught this drill in response to the fear of violence. So, far from cute it was an emblem of our slavery to violence. “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” How can we stay free when the world seeks to ensnare us every day? How can we stay free when the price of living is slavery to fears?

Today we read how the journey of Jesus and his followers changes. What must have seemed an aimless wandering through the villages of Galilee acquires a destination: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where he will he be crucified, as he will begin to teach them. Jerusalem is where he will ascend to heaven, according to Luke. Jerusalem is where it will all end—and where it will all begin. I wonder how frightening that was. I wonder how scared he was; we get a glimpse of Jesus’ fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. What gives him the freedom from fear to go? What makes Jesus free is that he lives every moment conscious of the loving power of God, conscious of it in a way that makes each moment an urgent call to live God’s love.

Being Right

So, the text says, “he set his face to go toward Jerusalem” but to get there, he has to go through Samaria. Samaria is foreign; Samaria is a place where Jews aren’t welcome, just as Jews don’t welcome Samaritans. But it’s on the way, in the way. So a couple of his followers go on ahead to get things ready. Today politicians have advance people; long before a Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump gets to a city, someone has rented a place, provided for security, set up water bottles and made arrangements, hired a band, scouted things out. That’s what these two are doing.

But two of the villages say no thanks. These guys are giving their all, they are totally committed to Jesus the Messiah, the man who is going to save the world. They get into a village and the local chief of police says sorry, we can’t provide security; the Holiday Inn Express declines to give them a special rate, they can’t find a place for him to speak. They’re going to have to go back to Jesus and admit their failure. Then unbelievably when they go to the next place it happens again. No wonder they’re angry, no wonder they’re resentful. And apparently they are because they go back to Jesus and suggest that he rain balls of fire on these villages. “These people are terrible, Jesus, let’s just wipe them out!” “[James and John] said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” [Luke 9:54] It’s frightening how wrong we can be; but we are most frightening when we are right.

Being Wrong When We’re Right

When we are right, we can’t stand the ones who are wrong. There’s a long continuum to it. At one end there’s the person who can’t drive right. To get to our home from the airport, we come off Route 85 onto Krumkill Road, follow a bumpy road around a curve and come to New Scotland and turn left. Now driving east on New Scotland is an obstacle course. You have to stay in the right lane because left lane must turn left light a couple blocks up but people park in the right lane sometimes so you have to dodge them. Then right after the light, you have to get in the left lane because the right lane by the hospital at Manning is right turn only. It took me a while to learn this zig zagging course but once I learned it, I got good at it. And it’s intolerable, annoying, to see people who don’t know what they’re doing, trying to drive up New Scotland, suddenly realizing they’re in the wrong lane and darting over in front of me. So I get angry; some days the love of Christ just gets left behind because I’m right and if I could, I would call down the fire on those stupid drivers. So I get where James and John are going with this.

We are dangerous when we are right. We’re going through a moment when for various reasons many Islamic people are so convinced they are right that they can’t wait for fire from heaven to punish everyone else so they’re doing it with bombs and assault rifles and terrible acts of violence. It’s scary; it’s frightening. But in our fear, we ought to remember we are not so far from the same violence. Before we are too condescending about violence in Islam, we should remember that a few centuries ago European Christians fought a series of wars in the 1600’s that left a third of Germany depopulated. Think of it: people killed over the difference between being Catholic and Lutheran, a difference probably most of us here couldn’t even define let alone fight about.

Our own tradition shows the same violence. Henry Barrowe was an early Congregationalist hung for his faith in April of 1593 and those who came after were persecuted until they left England, ultimately settling in Massachusetts. We call them the Pilgrims and we love to celebrate them. We seldom remember that the descendants of those Pilgrims and others subsequently were so right and so angry at the wrongness of others that they hung three members of the Society of Friends, often called the Quakers, on Boston Common within a century of Barrowe’s death. We are scariest when we are right. [source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_martyrs]

Being Right With Jesus

So Jesus’ disciples want to hit back at those who are refusing to see how right he is, how right they are. What does Jesus say? “He rebuked them.” Simple but stunning. ‘Rebuke’ is the English word for what he says to demons; rebuke is what he says to Peter when he says he is acting like a tempter, like a Satan. It is a small word that offers this picture: Jesus turning in anger at the wrong rightness of his followers. Being right with Jesus means more than just helping him forward, it means following his way and the way is the urgent call of love to live free of hatred, free of violence, free of fear, free from all the worldly things that seek to enslave us. It is loving God so you trust God with your life. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem where he will demonstrate this love in the most ultimate way, on a cross.

This isn’t love as an emotion, a nice feeling, this is love as a way of life. When I was doing marriage counseling, I frequently had a husband or wife in conflict say, “But I love my husband! I love my wife!” I learned to ask: “As evidenced by what?” If we say we love God, it’s fair to ask: as evidence by what? The real reason we are so dangerous when we are right is that deep down, we often act as if we are the final power. Think of those two disciples; think of those villagers they are so willing to blast. The disciples want to use their power because they are right and they haven’t learned to trust that God will deal with the village. In fact, in other stories, in a later time, we’re going to hear about Samaritans being among the first to embrace the risen Christ. God is at work there but like a farmer growing a field, God’s work takes time to bear fruit.

Loving God

So loving God means giving up our belief in our own power and rightness and righteousness and living in the light of God’s righteousness, God’s power. The urgency of that life changes us and until we are ready to embrace that change, we are not ready to love God. That’s what happens in the three short stories that make up the rest of this story in Luke. Jesus encounters a succession of people who want to fit their faith into their normal lives. One wants to follow him but only in comfort; another wants to follow but has some things to do first. And one has his hand on a plow but is constantly looking back instead of forward. To all of these, to each of these, Jesus preaches the urgency of love right now. We cannot embrace the kingdom with one arm; the call of Jesus is right now to all of us.

Someone suggested last week that I wasn’t being specific enough. I decided he was right so let me be specific. What does it mean be on the way with Jesus? It means I have to stop beeping at people on New Scotland Road right now. I hate this conclusion because when I beep at someone it’s because I’m right and I want them to get out of the way so I can get somewhere. But the yoke of slavery is my rightness; I’m compelled by it, enslaved by it. Paul has a whole list of things that enslave us:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. [Galatians 5:20ff]

Any of these are enough to forge chains of slavery. But he also gives us something more helpful: a sort of check off list so we can know when we are in fact living out the love of God.

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.

He doesn’t explicitly say no beeping on New Scotland but I’m sure he would have if he had driven here. What about you? We all know about being enslaved by things that are wrong: the addict, the criminal and so on. But when has being right enslaved you, made you do things that didn’t embody the love of God? What if today you stopped doing just one of them?

Freedom Now!

These things tend to spread. Stop beeping on New Scotland and it might occur that we don’t need assault weapons in homes out of a fear of others so there’s no reason to have them available. So we could agree to stop arming civilians like soldiers and ban assault weapons. It will lead us to understand that violence often comes from people who can’t get the basic needs of life, food, shelter and so on, so we should work to feed people and shelter them.

The urgency of love is that once we take off the yoke, we can’t help but want to help others take it off too. That’s just what Jesus does. It’s not our job to call down fire, it’s not our mission to make people right. It is our mission to lift the yoke of slavery to fear, to help that little girl with whom I began down from the fear that put her on that toilet. It is to celebrate the freedom for which Christ set us free by sharing it.

Amen.

Are We Pigs or People?

Click Here to Listen to the Sermon Being Preached

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/C • June 19, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

It’s always the details in these stories that make me wonder. I read about the Germane demoniac, our gospel reading today and at the end I think, “What about the pigs? Who cleaned up that mess?” I think: what about the man’s family. My dad didn’t have a demon but he did have a hobby which was going to school. He went to school through my early teen years until he got a Masters of Business degree. Then he was out. It was a disaster. He didn’t know our evening routines, he didn’t know how we did dinner. We were glad to have him around but it was hard to adjust because he’d been gone for so long. After about six months, he started going to law school.

Thinking About the Details

So I’m wondering about this family. They must have had a hard, heart breaking time. Demons don’t show up all at once and I suspect he didn’t start out with so many; maybe one or two, enough to knock him off center like a top starting to lose it’s spin. Then more; surely they tried to help, took him to a doctor, tried to care for him themselves but the rages and the destruction were too much. As more and more demons moved in, he moved out, out of town, out to the solitary silence of the cemetery. I wonder how relieved that family was; I wonder if they hadn’t gotten on with things. And I wonder what they said, when he suddenly showed up, calm, hopefully clean by then, at their door. He was himself again but did they even remember who that was? Their whole family life is going to change again. I wonder if they did.

Jesus’ Journey

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forget the details for a moment. Forget the story itself, let’s see the shape of Jesus’ journey. He’s been walking a path with a series of strange encounters. Perhaps you remember hearing about these the last few weeks but in case you don’t, here’s a list of them. He healed the slave of a Roman Centurion, possibly a gentile, certainly someone to make you uneasy. He comes to another village and while they wait for a funeral processional, he raises a widow’s son; everyone is astonished, it’s not clear whether the funeral director provided a refund. His friend Simon the Pharisee invites him to dinner; while he’s there, a disreputable woman—of course to Pharisees, most women were disreputable!—touches him, actually touches him, kisses him, pours ointment on him, wipes his feet; he forgives her sins, all of them, every single one. Have you ever gotten all your sons forgive all at once?

So if you’re keeping count, that’s a healing, a raising, a forgiving all in the space of one trip. He goes on a boat ride; there’s a storm and his disciples get scared, really scared, the way only serious sailors get when they see the sea overwhelming the boat. Jesus calms the storm and the disciples; add that to the list. When they make land, they’re in Gerasa.

Welcome to Gerasa

Gerasa is a part of an area thickly settled by gentiles, outside of Israel, which explains the pig farming. The pigs are probably a cash crop; the area was known for exports. Outside of town there’s a cemetery and that’s where Jesus encounters…well, that’s the question isn’t it? What is he meeting here? Who is he meeting?

The first actual dialogue in the story coms from a demonic presence. “What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?” Isn’t it odd how a demon knows Jesus’ name, first and last both, but people routinely ask in the gospels “who is this man?” We argue about who Jesus is; the demon knows. The demon obviously senses the power of Jesus’ presence; the greeting appears occasioned by Jesus calling out the demon, exorcising the man, a detail we only now learn about. Then there’s the moment of the demon pleading, whining, not to be tormented. Jesus asks the name of the demon and it doesn’t reply; Legion isn’t a name, it’s a number, about 5,000 Roman troops, it’s like saying “Battalion, for we are many”.

The demons enter pigs that are there and they drive the pigs run off a cliff and die because of the demons; the swineherds run away, realizing their jobs are over and someone is going to be very angry the herd is gone. Cemetery, pigs, all these details have one purpose: pigs are unclean animals, cemeteries are unclean places, gentiles are unclean people, all of this is to say that Jesus goes into the least godly place ever and reclaims someone’s life and then hands it back to him. Isn’t that what Jesus always does? Is that what he’s done, is that what he’s doing, for you?

Encountering the Demonic

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about this demon? Most of you don’t believe in demons, so it’s hard to talk about them, easy to dismiss them. Yet there are the demons in the story and a good deal of Jesus’ work is casting out demons. What I can say about them is that they are a shorthand, personal way of speaking about something we do believe because we know it, we see it: the evil that comes into a life and twists it into something awful and dark and dangerous. This week we all saw the effect of the demonic when a young man walked into a club in Orlando and using a gun meant for soldiers on a battlefield killed 49 people, wounded so many others, including at least emotionally all of us. This was evil and in that sense it was demonic.

This person Jesus encounters in the cemetery is a man whose life has been horribly twisted by some evil grown like a thistle bush choking a garden until when a name is demanded, it can only say that it is legion, it is many. Indeed, the demonic has many faces and they scare us. Demagogues tell us, “Yes, there are real demons and they are in them,” pointing to some group easily identifiable and offer us safety if we will only get rid of them.

But the truth is the demons are in us, all of us. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the better angels of our nature and surely there are these but just as certainly we have this terrible capacity to harbor and to be consumed by demonic forces that destroy lives, sometimes violently.

Encountering Jesus

What does Jesus say? In every case, whether it is someone he heals, someone he forgives, someone he exorcises, his whole focus is to reclaim the person for the purpose God intended. That’s the result of each of the stories I mentioned, it is certainly the result here. At the end of the story, the man wants to come with Jesus; instead, Jesus tells him to go home and tell people what God has done for him. This is a gentile place; how stunning, how surprising, to imagine that this man who didn’t even have a name will now be a proclaimer of the God he didn’t know. For that is God’s purpose for each of us: that we will remember, celebrate, share, God’s goodness. At our creation, we were made to appreciate God’s handiwork. When we do that, we are most clearly, most deeply God’s people.

People or Pigs?

That’s the question the story asks us: are we going to live as people proclaiming the power and the goodness of God—or as pigs rushing off a cliff? The pigs have no power in the story; they just get used up, become vehicles for the demons who drive them to their deaths. For the final destination of the demonic is always death, just as the final destination of God’s people is life.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. Paul recognizes this stunning inclusion in the passage we read today: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Think of the sweeping breadth of this. We all make distinctions between people. We see their clothing; we see their color, we see their age and how they’re dressed and we make judgements: approach, avoid, smile, frown, one of us, one of them. But here Paul preaches this mystery: that to God none of these things matter, none of them exist. The things he lists are the most basic differences his culture recognizes. None of them matter to God.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. That’s the meaning of love your neighbor; that’s the meaning of his healing, his exorcisms. Now just a few verses on from this story he takes this work, this work of restoring people, healing people, freeing people from demons, and he gives the power to do this to his people. His people: that’s us!

Seeing Like Jesus

Is There Any More?

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For six years, I lived in Michigan, in an area where there are great, flat, fertile, fields and you can see for miles. One day as I drove home the whole world seemed to be grey. It was dark ahead, the glowering face of an onrushing thunderstorm. Off to the southwest, distant rain was already falling and thunder moved like a heavenly rolling-pin while the occasional flash of lighting made everyone in the car just a little tense. It was the second or third day of rain in a row and I mourned for the absent sun and I said, “Of course, this is Michigan, so someone will always say, ‘We needed the rain’; I’m sure in Noah’s day, there was a Michigander standing there, while the water’s rose, saying, “Well, we needed the rain”.

I thought as we drove into the storm: this is one of the pictures of creation in the Bible. Chapter two of Genesis imagines a great desert, a pitiless, flat, sun blasted place without anything to sustain life until God sends rain and mist and the land sprouts, grows a cover of green and produces an oasis with a garden where there are good things to eat and beautiful things to see. Only then does God breathe life into humans, charging them to care for the garden. So right from the beginning, there is enough to eat, to appreciate, to do. That’s heaven: a wonderful oasis with God walking around, talking to us in the afternoon.

Elijah and the Drought

Today we read a story about Elijah that takes place far from heaven. Before the section we read, Ahab became king in Israel, the worst of kings. It might be fun to describe in lurid detail all the bad things Ahab did but that could take all my time, so I’ll leave them to your imagination. God speaks to Elijah and sends him to Ahab. This is what Elijah says, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except by my word.” [1 Kings 17:1]. It isn’t just drought, it is the reversal of the very rhythm of creation itself. Ahab has reversed justice: God is shutting down creation. The worst thing Ahab did was to encourage people to worship Baal, a Canaanite rain god. So the occasion and the background for this story is a great, grinding, dispiriting, drought. The fertile fields die; the olive trees dry up and can’t even give shade, much less olives. The fig trees shrivel. The grains that are the stuff of life simply disappear. The brown fields turn grey and refuse to produce.

Elijah gets out-of-town. He camps by a little brook but the brook dries up. I wonder if Elijah, seeing the brook gone, and his own life threatened, wondered what God was up to. The answer comes when God tells him to go to Zarephath, a town outside Israel, where a widow will help him out. So he goes, and he finds a widow gathering sticks. The text is blunt: “He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’…And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” Just like that: in the land of the thirsty and hungry, get me a drink, get me a meal.

Elijah and the Widow

What did the widow think? I tried to imagine her this week. I think of her wrapped in the faded black robe widows wear there now and did then. She’s dirty; there’s no water in which to wash. Perhaps once she wore finer things, once she loved a husband, and delighted in dinner with her family. Maybe they worked together, making a life, and sat on the porch in the evening, talking, laughing quietly. What was her wedding like? Once at least she had that special moment when she knew she was pregnant; I think of her telling her husband, looking, hoping, to see joy leap in his eyes. They made a life together but now he is gone, dead, passed away, and all that life is gone. She gets by as she can, always finding a little less. She’s gathering sticks for a fire; she can’t afford the fuel bill. She has come through that moment when a spouse dies and asked, I’m sure, “Is there any more life for me?” and somehow she went on.

Now the means of supporting life itself has dried up, even as her love did. The heavens are shut. Still, she has a son depending on her; she can’t even find the small comfort of just collapsing into her own depression. She is at the end of her rope. She says as much to Elijah: “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.” [1 Kings 17:12] She is almost at the end and here is a stranger asking, “Got anything good?” and everything in her answers: no, no, no, there is no more.

Living in the Drought

We live with many griefs. Like the widow in the story, our lives are blasted by the death of a husband, a wife, a child, that cuts us off from any promise of growth as surely as Elijah’s drought. Sometimes it is the death of a dream. Every divorce has circles of grief that widen out as partners part and children grieve for their families. Indeed, as we are fond of saying, “We needed the rain”—we need something to stop the drought and promise new growth, new hope that we can be sustained. Like the widow in this story, we sometimes find ourselves gathering sticks, feeling at the end of our resources, asking, “Is there any more?” and hearing only a hollow echo. Even our economic life brings us grief. We live with a great sense today that somehow there is not as much. I hear the stories of people with good and important gifts who can’t find work; I see the tears of foreclosures or illness that spiral a family to financial ruin. We have somehow come to a great economic drought; like the widow, we often feel, no, no, no, there is no more.

So if you have lived in the drought, if you are living in the drought, this story is especially important. Elijah responds simply to the woman: “…this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.” [1 Kings 17:14] Now the widow has a decision to make; we watch her eyes as she listens to this impossible promise, this strange man’s simple words.

The question, it seems, is not as she thought, “Is there any more?” but: “Is there enough?” She has a little flour, a bit of oil, a few sticks. Are they enough? It’s the question we all face, in politics, in life, in church. All around are voices stridently saying, “No!”. We hear them in the debate over how to deal with immigrants to our country, the voices of those who say “Keep them out! There isn’t enough!” We hear those voices in our own lives, as we anxiously try to pay our bills, wrestle with spiraling demands for our time, our energy. A friend told me this week, “My daughter was diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes two years ago. Since then, we’ve been on a strict schedule. I haven’t slept all night in two years.” She feels there isn’t enough, not enough of her. We hear the same question when we wonder about the future of our church.

“The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.” [1 Kings 17:14] It’s a simple, flat statement, and I imagine the woman standing in her dusty black robe, arms full of dead sticks, staring at the strange man in front of her. After a moment, something moves within her. She turns, hearing him follow her, goes home, takes the flour from the jar, wondering I’m sure even as she acts in faith if she can trust it. She bakes the bread; she offers the water. She feeds Elijah, and her son, and herself. She gets up the next day and does it again. And the next, and the next, and the next.

Believing in God’s Providence

Perhaps someone s thinking, “Great, all we need is a miracle.” But what is the miracle here? Is it that somehow the flour and oil hold out? Isn’t the real miracle this poor woman’s decision, in her poverty, in her weakness, in her drought, to act on the faith that there is enough, that God will provide enough? Sometime later, the woman’s son becomes ill, so ill that he stops breathing. Because she had sustained him in his need, Elijah is there and he prays and her son is healed. There is enough grace, enough love, enough life, it seems for him to rise up again. And the woman, seeing the life, seeing the effect her own miraculous decision led to, finally understands that God’s promises are true.

God’s promise is that there is enough and our lives, whether we live in the drought or at ease, are an invitation to live on the basis of that promise. The way in which God gives enough is by drawing us together into communities of care. God doesn’t care for Elijah alone; instead, Elijah is sent to a widow. The widow cannot care for her son alone; instead, Elijah is present to heal him in a moment of need. We are meant to share ourselves in a community of care.

How to See Jesus in the Drought

“You are the body of Christ,” the Apostle Paul says. If you want to see Jesus, don’t rent a movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told; Christ isn’t in the movie. If you want to see Jesus, don’t go to a re-enactment of the passion or the nativity; Christ isn’t in the play. If you want to see Jesus, find someone you can sustain, someone you can help through the drought. If you want to see Jesus, stop asking if there is anymore, believe there is enough even if it doesn’t feel like it and act from that faith. If you want to Jesus, look around: he’s here, in the faces of this community of care. In the midst of our grief, in the midst of our fear, in the midst of our drought, God gives us each other, sends us to each other, so that we will have enough.
Our problem is that we are so busy wondering, “Is there any more?” that we forget to faithfully act as if there is enough. The Biblical term for this faith is “waiting for the Lord”. There are many ways to wait. There is the anxious waiting, wondering if someone will show up. There is the angry waiting: “This is so rude, he treats me like my time is worthless!” And there is waiting like a lover, full of expectant joy, with absolute faith the other will come, looking forward already to their presence.
When we wait for God like this, God has promised there will always be enough. As it says in Psalm 40,

Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted; 
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint”.

It’s usual to invite people near the end of sermon to go out and do something. This is my hope today: not that we may do, but that we may learn to wait, to wait for the Lord, to wait believing there is enough, to wait for joy to overcome us as we sustain all who come here. Amen.

Portions of this sermon were originally preached in 2007 in a sermon entitled, “Is There Any More?”

Choosing Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost • May 29, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

Click Here to Listen to the Sermon Being Preached

Sh’ma Yisra’eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad.
Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
[Deuteronomy 6:4]
————
I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house of slavery;
you shall have no other gods before me. [Exodus 20:2-3]
————
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. [Deuteronomy 6:5]
————

Together, these are the three great commandments for our relationship with God. Like a three way mirror, they show a full picture of a single, shining, absolute principle: that faithfulness consists in the authentic worship of the one God who is the Lord. Blessed be the name of the Lord! This is the question Elijah is asking in our reading today, this is the question God is asking every day: will you worship the Lord or go after other gods?

It’s summer: finally! Perhaps it seems like too nice a day to think in such cosmic terms, we want to kick back a bit, enjoy the late arriving warmth, say something nice about service members, sing some good songs and let it go with that. Why bring up something that seems so remote, so big and yet so theoretical? Perhaps because it is Memorial Day weekend: what is bigger than the long line of legions of those who gave up lives for the causes that underlay our way of life? What choices are we making that honor that choice? What choice can we make that makes a difference?

Elijah and Ba’alism

Elijah is a mysterious figure, called out by God for a unique role. Things have fallen apart; Elijah is the builder putting them back together. From Abraham to Solomon, the story of God’s people is a rising curve of grace punctuated with covenants in which God freely promises to be the God this people and inviting their faithfulness in return. Like a groom at a wedding, God has made a promise: the people, like a Bride, are asked to make it mutual. And they mostly do. Then something human happens, violent disagreement breaks up the Kingdom of David after his son and in the northern half, a series of kings rule who turn increasingly away from the Lord to the local gods, the Baals.

Baalism is an attractive religion because it promises a neat transaction resulting where you buy what you want. It’s rituals are fun: they involve wine and sex and a good time. It has a system too where you purchase a sort of charm, a little statue of Baal, and use it for what you want. If your north field just isn’t producing, you buy a Baal, bury it and the promise is that things will go well. If you can’t have a child, buy a Baal, put it under the bed. So it goes. It’s a popular religion; still is. Oh, did you think Baalism went away? Not at all: today we call it prosperity religion. It’s cash for service religion. I remember once watching a late night preacher explaining that if people would just send in a donation they would get back a prayer rug and a promise that God would give them 10 times what they donated. “So if you only need $1,000,” he said, “Only send in a hundred bucks; don’t send $500 unless you need $5,000.” The rugs were made in China, it was later revealed. That’s ok: I’m sure the Baals weren’t manufactured onsite.

Now Baalism had taken over Israel. King Ahab had married a young celebrity princess named Jezebel a while before and she was a big believer in Baal. So she had shrines set up, she encouraged Baal prophets, I’m sure there were hats that said “Be Bold With Baal” or something similar. Prosperity has its rewards—for those on top. Israel had been a community where most were more or less equal; now it separated into a small group of rich at the top and many more poor at the bottom. Jezebel and Ahab built a new palace: who do you think paid for it? And God saw it all, God I think must have grieved for it all. This was the promised land but oppressing the poor was not the promise.

So God does what God always does: sent a prophet, a man named Elijah. God did something else: at Elijah’s word, God stopped the careful ordering of nice days and rainy days; the rain stopped and there was drought. And so did the prosperity. Everyone agrees it’s time for a change; now Elijah presents the problem to the people: “”How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” [1 Kings 18:21]. No one says a word.

Making a Choice

What do you do when you offer the most important choice ever and no one speaks up? What Elijah does is propose a contest. He invites the 450 prophets of Baal to show what they can do so they build a nice pile of wood, add a side of beef as an offering and start calling on Baal to light the fire. All day they call; they dance, they sing, they holler, they limp around, as the text says. No fire; no nothing. More and more the point becomes clear: Baal is nothing. They cut themselves with swords; Baalism often involved blood sacrifice. Nothing happens. Finally, exhausted, they fall back. In the midst of a drought, Elijah makes a trench, prepares his sacrifice, sets up 12 stones to represent the tribes of Israel, and then stands back. I imagine everyone getting quiet; I imagine the Baal prophets rolling their eyes, snickering. Now Elijah offers a simple prayer; now the winds gather, the clouds darken and suddenly in a moment there is lightning, there is thunder, the sacrifice is consumed, the trench fills with water. The Lord is God; the one who separated the land and water, the Creator God, acts and restores the balance. Wow! The people cheer and choose God. It’s a great win for the home team.

But is it? The reading we heard leaves out the aftermath, perhaps because it’s not very pretty. Elijah has the Baal prophets arrested and he kills them in an act of violent vengeance; oppression stores up violence and now it bursts forth. Queen Jezebel, when she hears about it, promises to have Elijah killed; he ends up running for his life. It’s a lesson for all preachers who secretly wish we could call down such cataclysm: be careful what you wish. We’ll hear more about the aftermath another week but at the end, the drought ends and a battle is won, it’s clear the struggle to restore the worship of the one God is not over.

Memorial Day

We can see the same thing in our own history. Memorial Day began as Decoration Day, a time to decorate the graves of the thousands who died in the Civil War. It’s origin history is so various that it seems to have risen from a common desire to honor those who had given their lives. Now raising the Civil War still brings up controversy but what is clear from the diaries and documents of ordinary soldiers is that there was an animating ideal for which they fought: the end of slavery and the restoration of a democratic Republican often referred to as “the Union”. Many volunteered; many chose and their choice came from the preaching of churches like ours that led the way in changing the understanding of slavery, moving a nation to understand it as a sin instead of a particular kind of prosperity.

Memorial Day acquired a special significance again in the last century when a great struggle against authoritarianism led to wars that killed millions. It’s opening conflict was the Spanish Civil War, when Americans joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight fascism; the last survivor died this past week. Most of us who are my generation had parents who joined this fight later and we were surrounded by its memories, from movies to parades. Fascism is a simple system that proposes we should let one great leader have power; it’s always backed by rich people who believe they are better, better able to make decisions because they are better at getting money. It’s a political form of Baalism and it always leads to oppression that has to be supported by violence.

Choosing Up

Baalism, fascism: they’re attractive. They promise we can get ahead; they promise to make us great or great again. God offers a different vision, not our greatness, but the greatness of God. God invites us to choose but to choose up: that is to say, to choose a higher value, a greater vision, than our own prosperity: to choose the greatness of God instead of making ourselves great. We all hear the invitation to make our own previous prosperity the goal of our choices: Memorial Day challenges us to choose up and choose a finer, better vision, of justice for all. We all hear the invitation to make ourselves bigger, better; Elijah and this story challenge us to choose up and choose the Lord.

Amen

All Together Now!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016
Trinity Sunday/C • May 22, 2016

Click Here to Hear the Sermon Being Preached

When I was 15, I played the trumpet and my band director was Mr. Tilton. Mr. Tilton was a graduate of the University of Michigan and its marching band, the finest marching band in the world, as he constantly reminded us. We were not the finest marching band but we did try to play and walk at the same time. Eventually we would get out-of-order and Mr. Tilton would stop us, make biting comments about people who wanted to be soloists instead of part of a band, and then gather us again with the words, “All together now.” I imagine that God is a bit like Mr. Tilton, always trying to make the lines straight and the music sweet, occasionally frustrated by our wandering off out of step.

Trinity

Today is Trinity Sunday and I hope to explore this with you for a few moments, because this is the heart of God’s all together now. I have to admit: the idea of talking about the trinity makes me nervous. The first time I tried, I was asked to leave a church. I was 12 and a member of a confirmation class at a Methodist church. The minister was following some outline and told us God was three in one, a trinity. This didn’t make sense to me and I said so. He said it was a matter of faith. I told him I didn’t understand it; he said it was a mystery. I said, “You don’t understand it either.” My mother was invited not to bring me to confirmation again. That’s part of how I became a Congregationalist.

Now that I’m a minister with grey hair of my own, I’m embarrassed to realize I put that poor man in such a position. What I realize is that I was probably right; he probably didn’t understand it any better than I do. Since then, I’ve learned lots of tricky ways of talking about how something can occur in three states. There’s the ice-water-steam one; there’s the fact that we all have different roles. But all those do is say what we all know, that we have different names for different occasions. How can it be that God is not just differently named but is different? And why would we care?

The Presence of God

When we look at the God of the Bible, there is such passion, such power, that it can be embarrassing. We show up and smile at each other; Jesus shows up and demons bark and groan, people get healed, governors get angry. We show up when there is trouble and say, “I’ll do what I can”; the Father shows up and slaves go free, prophets convict kings, the world is remade. We show up and hope to feel better; the Holy Spirit shows up and people there are tongues of fire and people change in amazing ways.. The trinity is important because it’s what God is doing and what God is doing is always passionate, always restless, always creative.

How should we understand this trinity? It’s common to offer one of those little metaphors I mentioned earlier to suggest all three persons of the trinity, father, son and holy spirit, are really the same thing. But a better idea of the trinity is the church itself. We are a noisy, shuffling lot. We have different opinions, other stuff gets in our way, we move forward at a pace that can seem agonizing. There is an old TV series called Seventh Heaven that centers on a Protestant minister and his family. It always makes our family roll our eyes. The minister on the show hangs around his house a lot and when someone, anyone, has a problem, he says, “We need to talk about that.” He does different things but one thing he almost never does is go to a committee meeting.

We are Congregationalists; we are all about our meetings. There are the Boards, the church council, Congregational meetings—it’s each one with a group of people, sitting around, minutes, agenda, and discussion. But that’s who we are together. And there is a personality to the whole; there is a great and wonderful loving personality to this whole church that is more than any of us together yet without each of us, it is less. God is like that, I think: a constant, eternal conversation, a constant, eternal example of loving engagement.

God Is a Talker

Why should God appear in three different persons? If we search the scriptures, the very first thing we learn is that God is a talker. God speaks: creation results. “And God said…” rolls like thunder through the opening verses of Genesis and the effect flashes like lightning on the roiling waters of chaos, turning it into a world of order where life is possible. God speaks and what was darkness becomes the ordered progression of light and night and time is the result; God speaks and what was slurry of water and dirt turns into places and farms; God speaks and the wilderness becomes a garden. From the very beginning, God is talking and all talkers want an audience. The passionate preaching of the father speaks to the spirit and the son and we overhear the conversation. And conversation takes partners. So God exists in the conversation of father, son and Holy Spirit.

Conversation and Connection

The goal of the conversation is connection. At the heart of the mystery of God is a loving, passionate pursuit of another so that God is only known through the exchange back and forth of persons. Christian faith has never been about a set of principles. Buddhism has its eight-fold path of principles; we have these three persons, father, son, Holy Spirit. Jesus did not come announcing a philosophy and he did not preach a principle: he offered himself, he presented himself. He didn’t say, look, here is a set of directions for finding your way, he said, “I AM the way.” It’s personal: it’s particular. What we have to learn over and over again is that approaching God is approaching a person, knowing a person, being known as persons ourselves.

Like all ongoing relationships, the conversation has some constant themes. One theme is the determination of the father to gather the whole world back into a garden of perfect concord and the way the son demonstrates what this looks like. Jesus is not just the bringer of a message: he is the message, you can’t get the message without living his life. And the means of that life is the invisible power of the Spirit that moves like a wind, invisible yet powerful, filling the sails of all who seek it.

Imagining the Trinity

What does the trinity look like? It looks like communion, I think. When we gather around the communion table, we remember that lives are lived in the drama of bodies and promises. We are not only creatures of spirit; we hurt, we hunger, we hope. We come as individual persons, seeking connection, and in these common elements, we join into one body. We sit silent and alone but we turn to each other and say, “the peace of God be with you, and also with you.” We know we have failures in our past but we lift the cup and promise our future faithfulness.

This is God, in us, with us, and its power is unfathomable. It is a power that breaks slavery; it is a power that does miracles. It is a power profound in its pursuit of a connection so deep, so complete, that indeed the three are one; so deep, so complete, that we ourselves, all of us, become one and in that one the love of God is bursting forth. All together now: God is a community of persons, father, son, spirit calling to us to say: you also—all together now. March!

Amen.

Children’s Time

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 – All Rights Reserved
Pentecost Sunday • May 15, 2016

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
[William B. Yeats / The Second Coming]

It would be easy to imagine Yeats writing those words today instead of 1919. He captured the feeling of a culture so shattered there was no where to turn. So many feel that way today. One reaction is to fortify old values. Fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish have this in common: they’re building castles to defend the past by preventing change. Of course, all castle walls can eventually be breached. So a better solution is to go back and find among the jumble of our past those things that truly made life vibrant and rich. I think that’s what Luke was doing when he wrote his gospel and the book we call Acts. He wrote fifty years or so after the events. Christians were in conflict in many places, some with local authorities, many with Jewish friends and family. Their world was changing. In the midst of change, Luke wanted to remind them how they started, where they started, why they started.

Birth stories can do that. It’s customary in our family to tell the story of your birth on your birthday. On our anniversary, Jacquelyn and I get out our wedding pictures and our wedding service and talk about it and laugh. So Luke tells this story about the moment the church got up and got going: Pentecost—POW!

Remember the story? The Christians are met in a room. Suddenly there a rushing, wind sound. Suddenly there are tongues of fire. Suddenly—there is the Holy Spirit and they’re full, full to the brim, with the Spirit and they begin to do something almost unimaginable: they talk to outsiders. I want to congratulate our liturgist today because this is the reading liturgists hate to get, the one with all those hard names.

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.

Who are all these people? They’re everyone: everyone Luke can think of, every sort of everyone and these first Christians are talking to all of them and the Christians are talking their language. POW! Surprise: isn’t it always a surprise when someone speaks yours language, really gets you, and you get them?

Wait

There’s a lot to learn here about taking a church from a little group meeting in a room to the crowds outside. The first thing, maybe the most important thing, is that it starts with waiting, not doing. Before Pentecost, before Christ’s Ascension, Jesus tells his friends to wait until the Spirit comes. There’s an old Supremes song that says, “You can’t hurry love, you just have to wait” [The Supremes/1966] Moses didn’t immediately lead the Exodus after running away from Egypt; he had to wait until the Spirit came to him. Isaiah and Jeremiah both tell stories of an experience that called them out as prophets, they didn’t start out that way. So the first thing to learn about what creates a vibrant church life is to wait: wait, prayerfully, expectantly, for the Spirit to move.

Wake Up

But waiting isn’t napping. Jesus says in many places we are meant to wait expectantly. Have you ever counted down to something? Have you ever had to deal with someone counting down? Maybe it was a special day: Christmas or your wedding or a birthday; maybe it was the birth of a child. I remember a friend who was hugely pregnant and ready to deliver once getting impatient. Holding her belly after church one day, she looked down and said, “Out! It’s time to come out!” We’re meant to wait like a runner at the start line: ready to explode into action. We’re meant to wait like a kid waiting for the parents on Christmas morning: certain something wonderful is just about to happen. We’re meant to wait like a traveler coming home, smiling already anticipating the hugs of home.

If the first lesson of the Pentecost story is Wait, the second is—Wake up! Wake up to God’s call, wake up to Christ’s command to go to all nations, all people, wake up to the Spirit blowing through your life.

That group in the room? They’ve been waiting. This is the moment they wake up and they walk out. That’s the third lesson here: Wait, Wake up, Walk out.

Walk Out

We were never meant to sit inside sanctuaries repeating Jesus’ words to ourselves. That’s not what he does, what he does is go, what he does is walk out into the world. Before Christians were called Christians, they called their new faith “The Way”. Now ‘way’ meant not a way of doing things, it meant a road, a path, a journey forward, onward. The Pentecost story moves from a little room where Jesus’ people are huddled together out into the market place where there are all kinds of people and these Christians, these first Christians, talk to them in their own language. That means they have to translate, they have to help them understand with things they already know, that God is not up there on the judgement seat but walking with them like a parent holding onto a kid doing their first bike ride, wanting them to learn, trying to prevent the worst falls, ready to bandage up skinned knees.

Wait – Wake – Walk

This story of Pentecost is a Children’s Time story. It’s a reminder in a few words, a few symbols, of the fire at the heart of Christian life. You can’t kindle it on your own: you have to wait for the Spirit to do that. It calls us to wake up and then to walk out in the world. That takes some courage; doesn’t every good thing? Today, we’re meeting in a room, just like them. Today, we’re sharing communion, just like them. Today, we’re waiting for the Spirit to kindle us, just like them. And the sign of that kindling will be when we begin to walk out and talk to people about the love of God and the immeasurable value of knowing Jesus Christ and invite them to come worship with you, right here. Wait for the Spirit: wake up to God’s call. Walk out there into your world and share God’s love this week. It’s children’s time and you and I are the children of God.

Amen.

Enlightened Hearts

Dawn at Taghanic State Park

Dawn at Taghanic State Park

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday/C • May 8, 2016

Click here to listen to the sermon being preached

Morning Has Broken

“Morning has broken, like the first morning…” Singing that song this morning, I think of what a various experience waking up is. My first morning in Albany, waking up was a shock. We’d gotten in late, improvised a bed on a blow up mattress while we waited for the movers, gone to bed exhausted and excited, expecting to sleep late. We hadn’t counted on the dog walker at 5:30 AM, causing our dog to bark like a maniac. We hadn’t counted on the movers arriving early of the so we were dragged into the morning suddenly, abruptly. That’s one kind of morning. Of course, there are the slow mornings; the ones you wake up before your eyes open. If you are beyond a certain age, you take inventory before admitting morning has broken. There are the happy, excited mornings: Christmas, perhaps, or a special day. There are the mornings you dread because something you worried about is imminent.

The record of the first Christians includes a morning they woke up, like the first morning: a moment when they felt Jesus present but gone, when his ministry began to be through them, when they looked inward instead of outward for him. This is Ascension Sunday and Ascension means morning has broken, like the first morning, like a new day. What are we to do with this new time?

Ascension

We read in Luke’s story of the ascension how Jesus gathered his disciples outside the city, walking and talking with him, appearing long after he had been crucified, and then leaving them, just as Elijah had left. While they are still staring, heaven asks: why are you standing around? Jesus is gone; he will return in power and glory, just as he told you. It’s a new day: morning has broken and this is the first day of the rest of your discipleship.

Many years later, Paul, or someone writing in his name, wrote to churches around the city of Ephesus. I can’t help imagining him writing to us. What would he say? What he says to them first is: thank God for you! Who gives thanks for us, for this church, this congregation? I think it is so easy for us to take this church for granted. Perhaps the first and most important responsibility of membership s to thank God for our church, for the brothers and sisters in Christ here, with us, worshipping, sharing, caring.

I know there are many others who give thanks for this church as well. Every week a long list of groups meet here, from small gatherings to the ones that fill Palmer Hall. How often someone stops me from one of the groups to say, “Thank you for letting us be here.”

Invitation

Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians because they are emblems of faith and love; their love is Christ’s invitation, just as our is as well. All ll churches advertise in some way. We put things on Facebook, we occasionally put an ad in the newspaper. We invite people in a general way.

But nothing is more inviting than personal testimony. Think of yourself: what’s the difference between seeing a commercial and having a friend say, “Hey, you have to try this…”? One study years ago suggested 80% of first time visitors at churches went because someone invited them. It went on to say that invitations from lay people were far more effective than those from pastors. It may be that those of us in the profession are just not good at inviting but I think the reality is that pastors are seen as people doing their job, another kind of commercial, while a friend, a lay person, is seen as more authentic.

So as the power of Christ begins to work in churches, the first effect is that it transforms Christians into people who are known for their faith and love. It’s not an invitation to something immediate and final, it’s an invitation to a journey.

The Eyes of Our Hearts

The second point made here has made me think all week about how faith and love work, how Christ works in us. It’s a long sentence so let’s listen to it again.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. [Ephesians 1:17-19]

An Ongoing Process

Notice that the writer imagines there is an ongoing process at work here. He’s praying that these folks in Ephesus will get a spirit of wisdom, will get a revelation, will get to know Jesus. They aren’t done. They don’t have it all; there’s more to come. Isn’t there a message here for all of us? For how often we act as if we’re finished: we know what we know. How often we’ve acted as if there are hard lines in faith life: now we are converted, now we are a church member, now we know. Instead, Ephesians asks us to imagine a series of mornings breaking, over and over, offering new days each day in which we more fully know Christ, more fully receive the wisdom that helps us understand and see God working in the world.

Anne Lamott alludes to this in her book, Stitches. She says,

“Many people did help me to stand up in July 1986 when I stopped drinking.
it turned out that some of the sober people who mentored me through sobriety’s monkey mazes had not been housebroken for long… They taught me that I would often not get my way, which was good for me but would feel terrible, and that life was erratic, beautiful and impossible. They taught me that maturity was the ability to live with unresolved problems. They taught me—or tried to teach me—humility. This was not my strong suit.[Excerpt From: Anne Lamott. “Stitches.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/XS2IN.l]

Humility is the doorway to understanding God as the streak of light in the unfolding morning breaking of each day.

This is what Ephesians means by saying, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you”. So often we have imagined God in some hierarchy: the man—or woman!—upstairs, while we work out our lives here. Ephesians invites us to a different look, to know God instead of knowing about God. It’s a critical difference. Knowing about God is a bunch of ideas and statements that try to give us some certainty; creeds that try to define a boundary of belief. Knowing God is an experience. It is opening our eyes to the new day, imagining its possibilities. This is the hope the writer mentions: the hope to which we are called.

Knowing God Day by Day

What does this look like? A friend of mine described it well, speaking about her grandparents.

the world of my father’s parent’s was an island of calm anchored in a deep and abiding faith and I loved to go visit them. They lived in a Victorian house that had a sun porch with a swing and a view of a street lined with Maple and Chestnut trees. Even their view of the world seen from that swing seemed totally peaceful. …They faced a multitude of challenges in life, but they faced them all with a sense of peace and calm.
They lost one of their sons, and two grandchildren. One of their daughters-in-law had suffered a debilitating stroke in childbirth leaving her without the ability to speak and severely impaired. An adopted grandchild was removed from his parent’s home until the courts worked out what was best for him after the birth mother, who had put him up for adoption, changed her mind after two years and decided she wanted him back. He returned to the family, confused and hesitant to trust. Through it all the family trusted God to work it all out. [quoted from a Sermon by Nancy Bresette]

This is real hope: knowing God’s presence by seeing in each day a new day with the possibility of experiencing God’s presence in a new way.

Choosing Unfolding Hope

That doesn’t mean the day will be easy; it means that we choose, we can choose, each day between living from ourselves or from, as Ephesians says, “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe”. Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding promise of hearts that are enlightened, lit by the call of Jesus Christ to love each other, to love God. Each day, everyday, invites us to become more full emblems of faith and love

Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding hope of knowing God, just as each day offers moments of beauty that appear and then disappear. We have this choice: we can open the eyes of our heart or blindly blunder through the day. As our hearts are enlightened, as our eyes are opened, we cannot fail to see the process of God’s presence. This is the true reality of Ascension: Christ is risen, Christ is present, no longer with a few, now with all of us. May the power of his call, may the grace of his healing, fill our lives so that indeed we may be an occasion for thanksgiving.

Amen.