The Long Haul

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The Long Haul

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor
22nd Sunday After Pentecost • October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34 • Luke 18:1-8

“The time is coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”—Jeremiah 31:31

How much will we do?

Recently our Jewish brothers and sisters observed Yom Kippur, a day of reflection on failings through the past year accompanied by fasting. All faith communities have special observances and rituals. Muslims, for example, pray five times a day.

An Islamic story explains how Muslims came to pray five times a day. It says that when the prophet Mohammed was ascending to the seventh heaven to receive the holy Qu’ran from Allah, he met Moses on his way. They chatted and immediately liked each other and when Mohammed was returning he stopped off to visit Moses. “What did Allah say we must do?,” Moses asked. Mohammed replied: “We must pray 50 times every day.” “They’ll never do it!”, Moses replied, and he told Mohammed to go back and tell Allah and beg for a smaller number. So Mohammed returned to Allah and when he met Moses again, he told him that Allah had agreed to limit the number of prayers to 40 per day. “They won’t do that,” Moses replied; “Go to Allah again.” Mohammed returned a third time to Allah and this time Allah agreed to limit the number of prayers to just five each day. “Well, I know this people,” Moses said, “even five may be too much for some.” How many times a day will we pray? How long will we keep praying?

How much persistence is in us? How long can we be patient, how long can we keep keeping on? We have not been to the seventh heaven with Mohammed; we have not been to the mountaintop with Moses. We weren’t there in the upper room when the Resurrected Jesus walked through the door. We live in the streets and houses of this world where sometimes God seems distant and silent.

How faithful?

Luke is talking to us and the topic seems to be what we will do for and keep doing for our faith. How faithful will we be? Luke is speaking to a congregation which wonders when God will come and right wrongs, when the great banquet of the heavenly kingdom will begin. He is speaking to Christians who are fraying at the edges, whose faithfulness is beginning to fail.
So he imagines Jesus telling this story we’ve read. A widow seeks justice. What a wealth of detail is contained in that simple statement! Women could not go into the courts of the time. Who is this woman? She is powerless; she is poor. She doesn’t have powerful friends to pressure the system for her, she doesn’t have money to grease the wheels. She can’t afford a lawyer; she can’t force a judgement. She has nothing, no lever, no means, no way to get justice from her adversary.

We know this woman

We know this woman. She lines up every week outside the magistrate court, trying to get her former husband to pay the child support a judge so serenely ordered. She comes in quietly to ask for a recommendation: the man who deserted her is now trying to take her children and the Department of Children and Families is acting in that disinterested way that takes no account of how she has struggled to keep a family together. She struggles with incomprehensible forms because she has no one to help her; she misses work and sees the tight lipped look of her boss when she has to go to court or see the social worker.

We know this woman. She has a history. She is one of the mothers de mayo: women whose children were disappeared by the military in Argentina. We called it anti-communism but to her it was a boot breaking down a door, masked men stealing her children and blank stares at the police station when she asked questions. So she joined others and for years she risked her life marching in the capital plaza asking for an answer.

We know this woman. She is a woman of intelligence and wit who cannot vote and is laughed at and called names when she joins others chaining herself in public, making a scene, asking only for the same rights men so solemnly declared in the great documents of her nation.
We know this woman: she is everyone who has persevered, who has persisted, whose faith in ultimate justice has been so strong that she kept keeping on.

And we know this judge. Remember the judge? The story says the widow kept coming to him. It describes him as a man who feared neither God nor men. Now “the fear of the Lord” is the general description the Bible has for those who act according to God’s ways. The judge is not a Godly man. He has a position of authority that allows him to act with complete freedom. He doesn’t care about God; he doesn’t care what others say. He is accountable only to himself. He is powerful, in other words, powerful in a way that almost defies description. I imagine him surrounded by aides who tell him how smart he is, how right he is, how his judgments are so perfect, so apt. I imagine him going to lunch, surrounded by such people. “That was a great session this morning, Judge,” they say, and laugh at the people who come before him. So there we have the two of them: the powerless widow, the powerful judge.


Luke is remembering the questions of all those people in churches who wonder how long it will take for God to come to them. How long will it take for the widow to get justice? Remember the woman: the poor woman, the powerless woman. She can’t go to court but every day she is there outside the judge’s door when he leaves for work in the morning. She follows him to the coffee shop, she puts papers in his hand as he is walking into the court. She waits for him at lunch time, oh, she gets jostled aside of course by his friends but her face is there in the crowd. She waits for him at the end of the day. Perhaps he puts her off: “Yes, well, you should file these”, he says. Later he gets more abrupt when she persists: “I really can’t talk about this now.” But she keeps coming, and after a while he realizes he is looking for her, her face in the street as he goes back and forth, always that said faith, always that same request, made so often he can hear it even when she isn’t present, “Give me justice, vindicate me.” And one day he does: not because of her cause, not because it is just, but just to get her off his back.

Now Jewish sermons often used an argument that moves from the lesser to the greater, from the smaller to the larger. Here the argument is clear: if even an unjust Judge can do justice for a powerless widow if she is persistent, how much more will God who is righteous bring justice to faithful Christians. It is a reason to keep praying, a sermon in a story about faithful persistence. Luke lived when Christians were beginning to fall away, believing God had forgotten them. Do you believe God has forgotten? Do you believe God doesn’t care? Hear this: if even we here on earth can be moved by faith, how much more can God. That is the sermon: that is the lesson.

Turn it arond

But there is another lesson here as well, a surprise. We get used to identifying God with the powerful person in parables but I wonder about this story. Imagine for a moment that it is not the Judge who represents God’s position; suppose it is the woman. Suppose we are the Judge. Isn’t the judge more like us? Surely we live lives in which often it seems we don’t fear God, we don’t take God seriously.

Imagine that God is like this widow. The deep faith of every Christian is that God has come into the world in the person of someone who has given up everything, every power, to live in the world with us and for us. Isn’t the figure of this woman, this woman who is so like us in her frustration, her struggle, her feeling that she isn’t heard just such a person? Suppose the widow is meant to represent God. Now the story is turned around.

Oh, it’s a story about faithfulness still. But it is a story about God’s faithfulness. Here we are, fearing neither God nor men, going about our lives. But God keeps coming, God persists, God keeps calling us back to righteousness. Do you remember the word of the Lord we read from the prophet Jeremiah? Jeremiah lived in a time when God’s people knew they had failed, had broken their covenant. God knew: God had said so over and over again, called them over and over for hundreds of years. The prophet Hosea described God drawing the people with “cords of compassion”, an image of the leather straps with which Jewish mothers would bind their babies while they worked in the fields. What is God to do with such a faithless people? What will God do with such a faithless people? This: “I will make a new covenant with them.” God will not give up even when the cause is hopeless: God makes new hope, God makes a new covenant. Like the widow in the story, God keeps coming over and over and over.

What is it that God hopes for us? The widow wants vindication. Vindication means admitting someone is right. God wants us to prove God was right to keep trying, right to keep loving, right to endlessly, eternally imagine us living from our best selves. God hopes we will become people who faithfully live our lives as good stewards. God hopes we will create families and communities where care is given to all, widows, children, every single one, every child of God. God hopes we will make our gifts a blessing. That was God’s plan from the beginning; God’s first covenant with Abraham and Sarah was to make them a blessing to the whole world. And that is still God’s purpose, to bless the whole world.

God doesn’t seek consumers: God seeks covenant partners. Patiently, persistently, faithfully God keeps seeking us, hoping to find in us people who joyfully give, who bless the world by their gifts, as God blesses us. The last question in the story is for us: will the Song of God find our faith in God has last as long, persisted as long, as God’s faith in us?

Heaven’s Door

Heaven’s Door

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

21st Sunday After Pentecost/C • October 9, 2016

The border between the United States and Canada runs for 3,900 miles, not counting Alaska. Some runs through small towns like Standstead, Quebec; some through desolate, unpopulated country. Where it runs through towns, neighbors sometimes have to stay in their own yards to avoid breaking the law by not going through a border crossing station. But even there, in places almost never visited by human beings, a wide area has been cut back to mark the border, an area known as “the trace”. There hasn’t been a war between the two countries in over 200 years. But we mark the border. We are always conscious of boundaries. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that today’s scripture reading is all about boundaries—and crossing them.

“On the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.” [Luke 17:11] How packed with meaning is that simple statement. Jerusalem is the capital of Judah, the center of Jewish history and hope, the city of faith and the site of the temple where God is present. Galilee is a rural area up in the north, home to Jesus and his disciples, and an area where many gentiles have settled, soldiers retired from the Roman arm, others who liked it’s hills and valleys. Samaria sticks out between the two. Almost 800 years before, the Assyrians conquered the area and deported thousands, bringing in other people they had conquered. Already separated from Judah by politics, the area had a different history and developed a different pattern of worship, including a competing sanctuary. Samaritans and Jews developed a bitter rivalry.

A journey from Galilee through Samaria to Jerusalem is a journey across some of the most difficult borders the people around Jesus could imagine. Yet there are tantalizing clues through the gospels that Jesus had an impact in Samaria. Luke tells a story about the conversion of Samaritans in chapter eight of the Book of Acts. Jesus crosses the boundary: so does the gospel, so does the love of God.

Crossing Boundaries at Church

This is a significant point because one of our great problems in church life is the ability to cross boundaries, to lower the threshold that guard our doors, so people can get in. Of course, our boundaries are not always national: there are cultural boundaries as well, our way of doing things, our shared history which we imagine will become the future.

Congregational meeting houses built in the 1600’s and 1700’s often had seating that included walls with gates; perhaps you’ve visited a church like that. The reason was simple: they were cold; there was no heat and the buildings were drafty. The end of the 1700’s brought the Franklin stove, and some churches began to install them. So of course there were church fights about this: whether you could be holy if you had heat. Bitter words were said, but the heat came on and today, if the church is cold, we hear about it.

There are so many things like this, things we take for granted but which are just how we do them. These mark a set of boundaries and sometimes the boundaries can be tough to cross. Most of us here, for example, know how to use a church bulletin. No one has to tell us to find the songs in the hymnal, to read the parts in bold print, and follow along. But what if you didn’t grow up in a church? What if you came from a church where they don’t have hymnals, where the words of songs are projected on a screen? You won’t know what to do; it’s a boundary and if the boundary is high enough to embarrass you, you won’t come back there. The boundary will be marked and keep you out.

Healing On the Boundary

Jesus is crossing boundaries and helping others across. Along his journey, he comes near a village and like many villages, there are lepers on the outskirts. Once again, he’s on a boundary, between the countryside and the village. Out there in the wild are a group of people who have been cast out. Although they’re called lepers, their disease is most likely not what we know as leprosy today but instead some sort of skin infection. Torah provides for the separation of people with this and that’s what we have here: ten who have been pushed across a boundary, who are living with a boundary around them that says “do not approach.”

The lepers are careful about the boundary: “Keeping their distance, they called out, saying, ‘Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!’” [Luke 17:13] Isn’t this the sum of all prayers to Jesus? Doesn’t this sum up what we all hope, that the love of God, expressed in Jesus, will result in a mercy that accepts us beyond anything we deserve?

So they cry out, there on the boundary, and Jesus, crossing the boundary, speaks to them, comes to them and tells them to do exactly what Torah says: go show yourself to a priest. Leviticus 13 makes the priest the one who diagnoses a leper and also can certify that he has recovered and can return to the community.

What happens next is a miracle. But the miracle isn’t the healing; it is that these lepers believe Jesus. What faith, what conviction, makes them go on their way to the priest? The story doesn’t say they are healed immediately; they don’t suddenly get better standing there. No, the text says they were healed on the way. It’s when they start to make their own journey that they find healing; it’s when they cross the boundary back to their community that they get better.

This is what Jesus does: he heals people and sends them out, crossing boundaries on their own. When you make a cake, it takes a long time. You have to get the ingredients, mix them up, pour them into pans, turn on the oven, bake the batter, perhaps take it out, let it cool, frost it. Now you have a chocolate cake. But isn’t the real experience sharing the cake? Isn’t a cake made to celebrate with someone, to lift others, to share?

The lepers are healed on the way: isn’t that our story as well? I spent some time studying this scripture, drawing together information and reflections from others, thinking about it. But its effect won’t be immediate; it depends on whether we together lower the thresholds, as Jesus does, cross boundaries, like Jesus does. It depends on what happens on our journey. Maya Angelou said,

“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal someone else.” That’s what Jesus hopes; that’s what Jesus expects, that having healed and forgiven us, we will in turn cross the boundaries and heal others.

Coming to Jesus

Now the end of the story brings a final set of boundary crossings. One of the healed lepers is not a Jew; he can’t go to the Jewish priest. He can’t complete his healing. He has nowhere to go so he goes to Jesus. Now often when this text is preached, the emphasis is on his gratitude, his act of devotion: “He prostrated himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him” [Luke 17:16] Certainly there is gratitude here but there is something else. This Samaritan goes to Jesus because he has nowhere else to go. He can’t go to a Jewish priest, he can’t go to a Samaritan priest and say a Jew healed him. He has nowhere to go so he goes to Jesus.

Nowhere Else to Go

This is my image of our church: we are a place where people often come because they need healing and have nowhere else to go. They can’t go to churches that won’t accept their lifestyle or sexuality or clothing or that they can’t sit for ten minutes in a row. The thing I love about this church is that we take them in and often take them to heart. It’s one reason I am so proud to be a member here, to be a part of this congregation. It genuinely is a place where “everyone is welcome”. That’s what we say; that’s what we believe.

Yet even here there are boundaries; even here there are borders. This story should remind us that Jesus means to cross all the boundaries, ignore all the borders. This story should remind us that the embrace of Jesus will never stop at some invisible line and ours shouldn’t either. This story should remind us that in the heart of Jesus, there are no boundaries, there are no borders, there is only compassion for all the children of God.

Welcome Someone

This story should call us to go out on our journey like Jesus intent on breaking down the boundaries that separate and the borders that confine. It starts with simple acts. Find someone at the end of worship who is visiting some Sunday, go up to them and say, “Hi, I’m so glad you’re here today.” That’s a step over a boundary. Sit with someone you don’t know at coffee hour; that’s a step over a boundary. Invite someone to church with you. That’s a step over a tough boundary for many. There are so many acts, so many things we can do to walk with Jesus. It just takes the faith to follow and the courage to act.

Decision and Discipleship

It takes decision to be a disciple. We all are good at waiting, at finding reasons to delay. But sometimes the chance to cross a boundary only comes once. A friend posted something online that made me laugh this week. It was a picture of a cake, and it said, “How to keep a chocolate cake from drying out—eat it!” How do you fulfill Jesus mission of a wider embrace? Welcome someone.

I called this sermon “heaven’s door” today because I think we all stand at the door of heaven though we don’t always know it. I mean by heaven that place where we know ourselves loved by God, forgiven, embraced. We stand at the border, at heaven’s door. And Jesus says, “Knock and the door will open.”. Knock: come across the boundary. Bring someone along.


The Gift of Jesus

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

20th Sunday After Pentecost • October 2, 2016

A group of thin, raggedy boys file into a room with tables, singing a song with the refrain “Food, glorious food”, lamenting their hunger. Instead of the wonderful things they imagine in the song, they are served a small bowl of gruel. An imposing man in a blue uniform with a wooden staff stands at the front commanding. After a few moments of frenzied eating, one boy gets up; one boy walks forward, obviously fearful, yet driven by his hunger to say, “Could I have some more please?” That scene from the musical, Oliver!, came to mind this week as I opened the scripture and read the disciples’ request of Jesus: “Increase our faith!”What would you ask from Jesus? What do you ask in your prayers? What do you want Jesus to do for you?

More Forgiveness

The disciples ask for more faith. Perhaps the reason is in the context. Jesus has been speaking about forgiveness. He lives in a culture where honor and shame are key values and there are rules for how you treat family. But in his teaching, a son who treats his father shamefully is received home and feasted, forgiven, the father simply saying, “This my son was dead and is alive again.” Just before the section we read today, he says,

If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Matthew’s version of a similar saying says,

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Just as the elder brother reacts to the amazing forgiveness of the father in the story of the prodigal son, this seems to be more forgiveness than the disciples are prepared to imagine.

The Hard Part

Forgiveness is tough. Part of what helps us function in the world is our ability to remember and act from previous experiences. Touch a hot stove: you learn never to do it again. Pour out some milk and drink it and discover it’s soured and you learn to sniff the container next time. I’m sure you have your own list of life lessons, many earned at the cost of a scar. We bring the same process to our relationships: hurt me and I remember and do whatever it takes to avoid being hurt again. So the process goes on and on, in our individual lives, in the lives of communities.

Our scripture lessons, as you know, are drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary, chosen in some sense by the whole church for churches everywhere. I almost always follow these. But today’s Psalm was too terrible for us to share responsively. It is Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, threw down its walls and temple, took its sacred things and thousands of captives, holding them in captivity in Babylon. In this sad song we hear, decades later, the pain and problem of the exiles. The Psalm ends with terrible words, indicting the Edomites, neighbors who joined the enemy:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

What anger, what pain, what hurt could call up such a terrible vision of violence?

Voting for Peace

Colombia has been the scene of a violent civil war for about 50 years. Think what that means: what were you doing in 1966? How old were you? Were you even born? Throughout that time, both guerrillas and government troops have made war on civilians. Yolanda Perea was 11 in 1997 what guerrillas attacked her home. A few days later, they came again and shot her mother. Now she’s facing a vote on a referendum designed to bring peace by providing amnesty. She is planning a “yes” vote for the referendum. She says,

“I don’t win anything if I continue to hate,” she said. “I have to vote yes because peace depends on each of us. There are more of us who are good, and we simply have to keep fighting for a quiet country for our children and grandchildren.”

What Jesus Says

This is what Jesus understands, this is what Jesus knows: we cannot enter the coming Kingdom of God chained to a past of division and hatred. Forgiveness unlocks us so we can follow him.

So Jesus responds to the disciples in two ways. First, he tells them to open their imagination. Even a little faith opens the door to a world of possibility. Only a little faith is needed to make amazing changes. The mulberry tree is famous for putting out tough roots that make it impossible to move. If all it takes is a tiny faith to create such change, what would it create in human life? Could it move them to the same forgiveness as the father in the story? Second, Jesus reminds them of their relationship. They are there as servants, disciples, followers of a Lord. Servants do not turn to the Lord for resources, the Lord gives them what they need and sends them out to do the job he sets. So also, followers of Jesus are not free to wander off on their own; they have a Lord to follow, a Master to serve.

What Jesus Gives

Most of all, Jesus gives them each other. We often become so focused on Jesus himself, we forget to see the people around him. There they are, people who would never have met without him: a tax collector, fishermen, and others as well, women, gentiles, all together, all brought together, at the table of the Lord. This fellowship is his gift to them.

The gift we mean to give is not always the one received. Maybe you remember a Christmas when you gave a little child a present, only to discover they were more enthralled with the box in which it was wrapped then the present you so carefully purchased.

O Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi, imagines two young married lovers, so poor they cannot afford Christmas gifts for each other. She has one great thing she values: her long, beautiful hair; he prizes a gold watch, an inheritance from his father. But her love is so strong, she sells her hair to purchase a gold watch chain that will perfectly set off his watch. When he returns, she is excited to give him the gift but mystified by his behavior, because he seems to draw back. She’s afraid her shorn head makes him no longer want her. But then he gives her his present: a set of combs, meant to complement her hair; he explains, he pawned the watch in order to buy them. Both have given up what was most important, most valued, to give a gift to the other. The gifts cannot serve the purpose they meant but the larger gift, the gift of love, is imperishable.

Giving Us To Each Other

Jesus gives his disciples a precious gift, though not the one they ask. By teaching them to forgive, to reach over boundaries, to embrace each other, he creates a fellowship that endures. It lasts beyond his death and it is in that fellowship, he is recognized as risen. It lasts beyond that moment and becomes the life of all who follow him. Now we are a part of that fellowship.

Today is world communion Sunday. All over the world today, Christians, despite 500 years of division, remember today we are meant to forgive, to embrace each other, to live as one family of God. Like Yolanda Perea, we are reminded, “Peace depends on us.”

When we act like Jesus, we find the faith Jesus meant us to have. When We act like Jesus, forgiving and loving, we become the disciples he meant us to be. When we act like Jesus, we receive the gift he meant to give: practicing loving each other, we know ourselves loved by God.


Pay Attention

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

19th Sunday After Pentecost • September 30, 2016

“Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” It’s a line from an old union organizing song; in my head I hear Pete Seeger singing it. But it’s also an ancient question it seems people have always asked. As far back as we can know, our stories, our sagas, our poetry speaks of sides. Homer’s Iliad, the great story of a war between Greeks and Trojans imagines sides and the Bible is full of them: Hebrews and Egyptians, Israelites and Canaanites. Genesis traces our division all the way to the first brothers, Cain and Able, with one being murdered. Which side are you on?

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The story we read from Luke is the Jesus version of a much older parable. It was always obvious that life had immense inequities. Some are rich; some are poor; some live out in the couch of comfort while others huddle on cold cement.

The situation imagined in the parable is common. There is a rich man: there is a poor man. The rich man has good food, good friends, good everything. He feasts every day; he dresses like a king, for only kings could afford clothes made with the expensive purple dye. The poor man has nothing. He’s hungry and sick, he has the first century version of no health insurance: he lies in the street with sores unable to even fend off the dogs.

But, we’re told, at death things reverse. The poor man is carried to heaven by angels. The rich man? The text simply says: “He died”. In the afterlife, they find their fortunes reversed. The poor man cuddles in the lap of Father Abraham, the revered patriarch and companion of God; the rich man is in a place of torment.

Long before Jesus, similar stories were told of a profound reversal of fortune. “Remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony,” Abraham says in response to the rich man’s complaint. The moral seems to be that God seeks a kind of even keel, a balance, and that the more unbalanced we are, the more we should look for reversal in the future. Be careful if your side is up: in the cycle of life, up comes just before down.

Beyond the Story

Other ancient Near Eastern versions of this story end here, with balance restored and the positions of the men reversed. What’s truly curious about this story is how Jesus has used the story to go on and make a profound point about our relationship with God. Consider the conversation in the afterlife.

What’s clear almost immediately is that the rich man has learned nothing. He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to get him a drink, as if he still were in charge, as if even there, his comfort was the most important priority. When he is refused, he still doesn’t understand the new state of things; then send Lazarus to warn my brothers, he tells Abraham. Abraham replies that his brothers have Moses and the prophets, a way of saying, they have the scriptures. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent,” the rich man says.

But will they? What will it take to get some attention, some attention for God, some attention for God’s purpose and rules? This story is being remembered and told in a church with amazing similarities to ours. The first century was a time of cultural ferment. All around the people for whom Luke’s gospel were written was a rich cultural buffet with many options. Philosophers and preachers held forth on street corners. It was a prosperous time and some were rich; many were poor. Rome made peace throughout the Mediterranean world and trade thrives in peace time. We know that in the time Luke’s gospel was first read, items from Spain were found in Palestine, Egyptian wheat was eaten in Rome, British goods traveled to Iran and the world was full of choices. But in a world of choices, a noisy world full of the clamor of the market, how is it possible to hear God’s voice and God’s word?

Pay Attention Please

Paul makes the same point in a letter to Timothy. Perhaps the most misquoted verse in the entire Bible is Paul’s statement that “…the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…” [1 Timothy 6:10] Sometimes we say, “Money is the root of all evil,” but that’s not what Paul has in mind. He knows that money itself has no moral value, it’s just a way of keeping score. Money is a energy stored: so much work, so much sold, so much earned. It isn’t money that’s evil; the evil comes from fixing our focus on money.

What Paul knows is that anything in this world that so occupies us, so consumes us, so captures us, takes our attention from God. That’s what he means to address and that’s what Jesus is lifting up as well. God wants our attention. The ministry of Jesus, the preaching of the prophets, all are a way of God saying to us, “Pay attention please!”

Here is the issue, presented at the end of the parable: if someone comes back from the dead, will even that be enough to get our attention? This is a Christian scripture; this is a Christian question. We gather every Easter to say, “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed,” but is even that enough to get our attention? But then we look at our calendar, we look at our checkbook, we hear the voices of all those who wants us to do something and we begin to respond. Someone needs a ride; someone needs a job done. We make their approval or material things or some other worldly thing become our goal and it draws us like the North Pole draws a compass. In the midst of it, the voice of God is often lost.

Even our religious life can become a part of the noise. American religion increasingly is about what we do. In many churches, the whole emphasis is on getting saved, saying the right formula. Our prayers become to do lists for God, delegated duties that are beyond our ability.

But what is God saying in the midst of all this noise? God is saying pay attention. And we will never hear the rest until we do pay attention. The first act of faith is not to memorize a catechism or believe something, it is to take God seriously enough to stop doing, stop saying, and start paying attention. The first act of faith is not to say your prayers; it is to stop and listen The first act of prayer is not to ask, it is to listen.

Jesus Listened

Jesus listened and the amazing thing is that he heard both Lazarus and Abraham. He heard God erasing the sides, refusing the sides: he saw that to God they were one people, regarded with one love. He heard the suffering of the Lazaruses of this world, of course, and all the accounts of his ministry include healing. But he also heard the desperation of the rich ones too. He never stopped listening to the Pharisees, even when they opposed him. He invited them to stop choosing sides and follow God in choosing to share with each other, forgive each other, embrace each other.

Which side are you on? It’s second nature for us to choose sides. We do it in sports, we do it in music, clothing, style. When I bought a Nikon camera years ago, I discovered I hadn’t just bought a camera, I had become a part of the Nikon tribe; there were people who got angry at me because I had that brand of camera. We do it in our politics. This year’s Presidential election has been particularly nasty. And I see people losing friendships because of it. Now I love politics, I’ve been involved as a volunteer and sometimes a professional for years. But this year, in the interest of not choosing sides, I’ve made a conscious decision not to engage in the war of the sides.

Following Jesus

The reason is simple: I want to follow Jesus. Following Jesus means first of all paying attention to God. When I pay attention to God, what I see is that God is beyond the sides. God is beyond the divisions. Our God is the God of all: rich and poor, alike. So the more we can do to live as binders together, stepping over the division of sides, the more we will find ourselves following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s why our church continuously offers a chances to do things that recognize people. We do it individually when we baptize someone like Olivia. We do it when we act in mission together, as we’ve done with the South Side Community Center. We do it individually when we bring a coat or some food for the food pantry. All these are ways of paying attention to God’s call in Jesus Christ to mutual care.

Which side are you on? Only when we realize the sides are just human inventions will we finally find ourselves where God has been all the time: beyond them, caring for all, listening to all, loving all. And it is when we know how God has loved all that we also come to the most powerful realization of all: that God loves each of us.

Face Forward

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Face Forward
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
18th Sunday After Pentecost/C • September 18, 2016

What’s your favorite recipe? Most of us have one: a set of steps we go through to make something we like. We have recipes for the way we live, too, patterns that tell us how to do things from weddings to funerals. We live, in fact, with a great store of patterns that whisper with the voices of the past. How do planning sessions usually start?—“What did we do last year.” These voices are like ghosts, telling us how to do things, what we should do. But the ghosts can blind us to new possibilities. Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, traces the downfall of an entire family because they are controlled by their past. Which way are you looking: are you seeing only where you’ve been or looking forward to new possibilities?

Living With Change

Jesus lived in the midst of great economic changes. For centuries the villages of Galilee had functioned with a few very poor and even fewer very rich people. The hillsides were terraced and full of small farms and olive groves. The villages themselves were home to craftspeople like Jesus’ father, a maker of wooden tools. History focuses on the blood and fire of battles and kings; in the Galilee, life went on, day to day, year to year, in the same way for hundreds of years. People were born, lived, died. New settlers moved in, others left. Not much changed.

But after a long period of civil wars and wars of conquest, the Roman Emperor Augustus had created a settled system of rule. Rich Romans and others, benefitting from trade and Imperial preferment, began to buy up the small farms and turn them into larger businesses. Of course, these people didn’t want to live out in the rural areas; having pushed small farmers off the land, they hired managers, stewards, who had the authority to act on their behalf, while the owners themselves lived in luxury in cities. Often the former farm owners worked for the new landowner but now as a kind of sharecropper, owing a portion of the produce to the new owner. These loans were written with owed amount including interest payments, often large ones; after all the sharecropper had no choice but to accept the terms.

The Situation of the Steward

I’ve taken this detour into economics, hoping you’ve stayed with me, so you will understand the situation behind the parable we read. Imagine the man called the steward in the story. Perhaps he grew up on one of the little family farms that no long exist. Perhaps his family had lived there for generations, passing the land down. But the chain has broken; things have changed. Imagine how happy he must have been when he got the job as the steward for the big landowner. No more trying to scratch out a living; no more worry about the bills. His position would make him a big man in a small town.

So he makes deals, loans; after all, that’s his job. Some of these are large. The amounts in the story are tremendous: the oil amounts to 900 gallons of olive oil. The steward himself works on a commission; the more he squeezes the farmers, the more he makes. So while he may have been a leading citizen, I imagine he was someone people more feared than liked. When he walked into the local tavern, conversations quieted, people looked away, perhaps someone behind on his loan left.

When someone got hurt by his pursuit of profit, I imagine him saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Perhaps he crosses some lines; perhaps he makes a few shady deals, perhaps his accounting is off or perhaps he just openly steals. There are complaints, maybe there is an investigation. We don’t know how things came to a head, but there is a crisis. He’s about to be fired.

Now imagine the night after this message. He’s about to go from a big man in a small town to unemployed. This crisis isn’t just business: now it’s him and it’s personal. He considers the alternatives, rejecting them one by one: ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” [Luke 16:3] Shame, strength, these things limit his alternatives. But he has one thing going for him: he’s a smart, crafty guy. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place; now he uses it to find a way forward. He uses it to change things.

Making a Change: Facing Forward

The change he makes is to put relationships first. His only hope is to create a situation where he will, as he says, be welcomed into the homes of people in the town. So one by one he calls them in. One by one, he cancels the interest on their loans.

Can you imagine their reaction? Suppose your mortgage company called and said, “We’ve reviewed your account and decided to give you the title, free and clear.” Suppose your credit card company said, “We’ve decided to cancel your remaining balance. Thanks for being a customer.” Imagine it: can you? It’s hard isn’t it, because these things don’t happen. It’s hard to imagine the joy of those people in the story. It’s hard to believe that joy. Change is like that. We are so used to living from where we’ve been, we forget to face forward.

Jesus tells this story about an amazing change, and it takes your breath away. What happens here is wrong, what happens here is illegal. This steward has no business using his client’s business to improve his relationships, to set himself up for the future.

Reacting to the Parable

This story is so wrong that even before Luke wrote it into his gospel, preachers were trying to figure out why Jesus told it. The parable itself is just the first seven or so verses of the reading; the other lines are a series of interpretations. One commentator said, “You can almost see the sermon notes here.” We can even hear an echo of the disciples at verse eight, where it says, “The master commended the dishonest manager..” The word that’s used there for ‘master’ is usually translated, ‘Lord’; it’s the same term used for Jesus. Imagine Jesus telling his disciples this story, see them waiting for him to condemn such dishonest, money grubbing, cheating stewards and then see the surprise on their faces when Jesus ends the story with the dishonest steward coming out great at the end after cheating his employer, just as he had cheated others. What can the Lord have in mind?

What Is Jesus Saying?

Perhaps it is meant to show the disciples how to face forward. The crisis of discipleship cannot be met with old recipes and his disciples must face a new world where they find new ways. We see this all over the preaching of Jesus. “Forgive,” he says, and what is forgiveness but the decision to cut the chains of past hurts and face forward into a future without the dead weight of old anger, old resentment, old fear? In his ultimate moment, at the last supper, he will remind them of Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant, not like the old covenant. His whole life, his death, his resurrection are meant to show God breaking into our lives in a new way.

An Example of Facing Forward

The movie Scully is a simple story of a 208-second long flight that began as an ordinary trip from LaGuardia airport to Charlottesville, VA. I’m sure the passengers were full of everyday thoughts as they waited to board, found their seats, stowed their luggage. I can almost say the speeches of the flight attendants as the flight got underway. “Please make sure your seatbelt are securely fastened…The cabin door is now closed, cellphones must be turned off or placed in airport mode for the duration of the flight…” The aircraft backs away from the terminal, taxis into position, the pilots are given clearance and there is that exhilarating moment when they are rushing down the runway, jumping into the air in a moment that still seems magical.

The flight departed at 3:25 PM. Three minutes into the flight, when the airplane was still under 10,000 feet, the magic ended. Hit by a flock of birds, both engines died. The airplane was powerless; decisions had to be made. The recipe said to return to the airport and land the plane.

At first, Captain Sulzberger, the pilot announced he was taking this option but within seconds he realized it wouldn’t work. Moments later he committed to landing the aircraft on the Hudson River off Manhattan. Water landings are extremely difficult but Sulzberger believed that although this wasn’t the right answer, it was the right course of action.

At 3:30, less than five minutes after departing, he successfully landed in the Hudson; flight attendants evacuated the passengers onto the wings, some going into the river. All were rescued, along with the flight crew, by police and ferry boats. Sulzberger saved 155 lives that day by facing the future in seconds. The movie focuses on the FAA investigation and attempts to show the old recipes would have worked: it ends with the understanding that it was Sulzberger’s capacity to face forward in seconds that saved those people’s lives.

Facing Forward With Jesus

“On the way…” is the most frequent comment about Jesus. He always faced forward and it’s significant that this shocking story of change beyond normal boundaries is addressed explicitly to his disciples.

Every day brings occasions that ask whether we will follow the recipes we’ve been given or face forward and find new answers. I wonder: what blessings would you plant facing forward? I wonder: Jesus mentioned even a small seed, a tiny one, like a mustard seed, might just grow into a huge, unexpected tree, might have an effect we never imagined.


Finding Joy

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
19th Sunday After Pentecost • September 11, 2016


What was the last thing you lost? Losing things is a constant struggle for me. My ability to misplace keys, glasses, wallet, phone is a commonplace in my family. They’re all used to getting ready to go somewhere and then waiting while I say, “I can’t find my…”, then waiting while I frantically look through the various places I put things. I deal with this by putting my stuff in one place near the door. This doesn’t always work; things get moved, things seem to drift on their own. And once they have, they’re lost. Lost isn’t just something that happens to keys, of course; it can happen to persons as well. Some sociologists say almost half the people in this country are one paycheck away from poverty. That means one paycheck from getting lost economically. Whole groups can get lost; we’re seeing this in the Middle East now as thousands of refugees eek out day to day in camps and thousands more try to move to places where they can make new lives. A whole generation of children are being lost to violence there.

Jesus lives with the lost; his society was full of them. Just as I keep things found by putting them in their place, in Jesus’ time, people were sorted based on whether they were lost or found. Perhaps you were a well to do trader who went to worship, gave your offering, paid your vows, said your prayers, made sure the kitchen in your house was kosher, never came into contact with Gentiles or women or others who were lost: good for you, you were found, that is you were pure. Pure is like my keys being on the shelf where they belong: everything just as it should be.

Giving Up on Some

But not everyone was pure, just as the keys don’t always stay on the shelf. All kinds of things could knock you off. Gender, ethnicity, even what you did for a living. If you worked with leather, for example, no amount of prayer or paying vows would make you pure. If you collected tolls for the Judah Turnpike Authority, you were right out of it—that’s the people described as tax collectors. If you ate food that wasn’t kosher—off the list. All these are what are described in the Gospel of Luke as ‘sinners’. We have to keep this in mind because to us sinners sounds like people who do bad things. These are people who have just gotten lost, according to the Pharisees, lost to God, outside God’s care, outside God’s compassion. So it makes sense to just give up on them, just as, according to some of the preachers in Jesus’ time, God has done.

That’s the background to the complaint we read today in Luke. “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “’This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Most of the teaching of Jesus, the parts we love to remember like “Love your neighbor as yourself” weren’t new; most were applications of things already in Torah, in God’s Word. One thing was new and different: the people Jesus invited to dinner. One of the ways the Pharisees kept straight who was lost and found was by making sure they only ate with the found. Now Jesus and his disciples are messing up the categories, eating with sinners, eating with the lost. It’s like someone moving your carefully sorted keys.

Parable of the Lost Sheep

Jesus doesn’t answer directly; instead he invites these critics into an experience. “Look, think of a shepherd who counts the flock and discovers one is missing; he leaves it and goes and looks for the lost sheep.” Everyone there knows this is true; shepherds are accountable for the flock. A stray dog or a cat that wanders off may come home. When a sheep gets lost, it just lays down and bleats. So shepherds go out looking, listening, and when the sheep is found, it still won’t do anything so it has to be carried. Maybe some of the people listening started out as shepherds and remember those anxious searches.

But the point Jesus is making isn’t about sheep; it’s something deeper. When Jacquelyn and I were dating, I once took May to a bookstore with me. The books for her were at one end of the store; my magazines were at the other. Now I knew Jacquelyn always kept close to May but I’d been a parent and I thought I knew what worked. I told May she could look around and I’d be over by the magazines. So off I went, looking up every once in a while to make sure she was there. This went fine until a moment when I looked up and couldn’t see her. I moved: still no May. I moved some more: nothing. So I quickly walked over to the young reader books, and that’s when I really started to worry: no May. Up one aisle, down another, more and more frantic. Finally, there she was; May was petite and she’d found a nice nook meant as an under counter storage area. I was overjoyed; I was so happy I remember it to this day.

Finding Joy

Have you lost something? Do you remember the joy of finding? This is what Jesus wants his listeners to remember: how much fun it is to find. He wants them to understand this is what God does, this is what makes God smile and laugh. Just like the shepherd finding the sheep, God’s joy leaps at finding the lost. And joy is shared. When the shepherd finds the sheep isn’t just happy himself, he comes home and tells his friends, tells the other shepherds. Can’t you imagine him doing it? I guess it might have been smart to keep the story of losing May quiet but I was so happy about finding her, I couldn’t resist telling her mother. I’m not sure this was a great recommendation for stepfather: that I had lost her daughter. But she couldn’t resist how happy I was about finding her.

Finding the lost isn’t free. Another church I served helped start a program to feed anyone who was hungry on Sundays four times a year. Now every church has one or two big events that have gone on for years and everyone enjoys; ours was a Thanksgiving dinner. We did the usual things church people do, held planning meetings and so on even though everyone always knew who would cook and the menu. The year we started the feeding program as it happened our turn to host the program coincided with our Thanksgiving dinner. This was a church with about the same number of people we have; the feeding program drew over a hundred each time.

No Turkey Dinner!

But our Deacons decided to go ahead and combine them, so we bought extra food and set extra places and when the Sunday of the thanksgiving dinner came, we had a line even before we opened the doors. A group of our long time members carefully found places at one end of the fellowship hall but as it turned out, that end was the last to be called up to be served. They did what people do: they complained to their pastor, me, about the time it was taking and I assured them all would be fine. I was wrong. By the time that group got up to the kitchen, we’d pretty much run out of turkey. There was a lot of criticism of this and along with some other church officers, I apologized endlessly. But then when I was back in the kitchen, one of our newer members came up and said, “Wasn’t that incredible? Wasn’t it amazing? One of those guys told me he’d never had a thanksgiving dinner like this.” Others talked about conversations with people they would never have met otherwise. It changed some hearts. I’m not sure who got found; I do know for certain, there was a lot of joy among some. But it did cost some people their turkey dinner.

Finding the lost, eating with them, is going to cost Jesus his whole life. It might cost yours. Here’s what he says: finding the lost is so wonderful, it’s worth it. Finding the lost is finding joy. Maybe you’ve lost something, like the woman in the other story. Have you ever had your engagement ring go down the drain? Have you ever put your wedding ring in a drawer and forgotten you did it? She’s a poor woman; we know this because she only has ten coins, ten drachmas. Now a Palestinian house is dark, no windows, so of course she needs to light a light. I think though it may also be that she’s doing what Jacquelyn does when she loses something; she cleans. Perhaps the light glints on the coin; perhaps it shows up in the sweeping. Like the shepherd, not only is she overwhelmed by joy, she just can’t help sharing it with others. “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”

This is the experience Jesus wants to share: how to find joy, how to be part of a community of joy. Look for the lost, find the lost, embrace the lost. While the Pharisees are judging everyone, Jesus is creating a community of joy, inviting us to join him in finding the lost. We so love to make projects and work at them but look at these stories. The sheep doesn’t come to the shepherd, the shepherd comes to the sheep. The coin doesn’t come to the woman, the woman finds the coin. Finding joy doesn’t come from getting someone to work harder, to come to Jesus, even to come to church. It comes from finding someone, touching them with God’s love, being the means, like Jesus, of assuring them they are not lost to God, no one is lost to God.

A Community of Joy

I’ve been trying for a few weeks to think of a single slogan, a single phrase, that might serve as a theme for us. I realized as I thought about these stories that I was making it too complex. Jesus makes it simple: find joy by finding the lost. That makes God smile; that creates a community of joy. And isn’t that what we are meant to be as a church? It’s the reason we do collect coats, white goods, food, and other things. We are not a store for survival goods; these things are really a way of saying to someone, “You’re not lost: we found you!” And in finding the lost, we find joy. We are meant to be a community of such joy.

There are so many who feel lost. Every single one is cherished by God. What would you do if someone you loved was lost? A child, perhaps or even a pet. Think how people plaster neighborhoods with posters when a cat wanders away. God so loves the lost that God came in the person of Jesus Christ to find the lost. Do you remember being found? Do you remembering that joy, that feeling that finally you were found? Now we are followers of Jesus most when we find the lost, when we open our doors so wide, they can’t be mistaken for  something closed, when we make a way so there is no threshold, no barrier to anyone, when we like Jesus, find the lost. As we set out on another year together, let us be clear, let us share this one mission: we are here to find the lost and bring them home to the God who loves us all.

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]


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:]

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.