19th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Hidden Treasure

Hidden Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017

19th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 15, 2017

Matthew 22:1-14

Click below to hear the sermon preached

[Jesus said} The kingdom of heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son.
— Matthew 22:1 (NIV, used by permission)

When I was eight or so, I went to a church where the greatest value was silence. “Sit still,” my mother would say, and on the few occasions when children were allowed into the sanctuary, the very air seemed full of quiet. My friends and I were restless little boys and knew we didn’t belong in there.

We longed to be in the Good Room. The Good Room was the Kindergarten Sunday School room and it was full of big wooden toys. It had a wooden bus you could sit on and ride, blocks and puzzles and a rug. But then we were told we were too big for the Good Room.

Our room did not have a rug. Our room did not have toys. We had the Bad Room. Our room had a picture of Jesus with long hair. We all had crew cuts which on Sunday had a special wax applied to the front to make our hair stand straight up. Our room had confusing colored maps; these same maps are still sold by church supply stores today.

Mostly our room had little wooden chairs. The wooden chairs were usually pulled into a circle and a teacher would sit on one of them and hand out Sunday School papers. We were supposed to be quiet and read the papers. Then she would ask us questions and we were supposed to be quiet while good kids answered the questions quietly.

We were not good kids and on top of that, we itched. We itched from the moment our mothers made us put on the special Church Clothes until we got home and put on real clothes. It is impossible to sit in a wooden chair and itch quietly and we didn’t. Furthermore, we were endlessly fascinated by the possibilities of wooden chairs. They could be tipped back, for example, and we never tired of trying to discover just how far. A Ph.D. in Engineering would say we were trying to determine the limit case experimentally. We just knew it was incredibly funny when someone fell over. Our Sunday School was a constant battle between Quiet and Noise, which our teacher seemed to think translated into a battle between God and Satan. Satan was Noisy and so were we.

I mention all this because knowing that I grew up among people who believed silent children sitting in a circle of wooden chairs was the ultimate Goodness may help you understand how surprising it was when I discovered God loves a party. It’s true: read the scriptures and over and over again there are parties. Noisy parties. After creation, God gives the first people things that are good to eat and things that are beautiful; apparently, God cares about the decorations.

When God renews the promise of descendants to Abraham and Sarah, it’s at a dinner party. Later, when God tells the Hebrews they are going to get out of Egypt and go free, they’re told, “But before you go, have a party, a Passover seder,” gives directions for the food and makes sure everyone has enough and then God so enjoys the party that it becomes an annual festival. Later on, the ark of the covenant comes to Jerusalem and King David dances in the streets and embarrasses his wife. So it goes: on and on, party after party, down to Jesus, who explains the Kingdom of Heaven by saying it’s like the biggest, noisiest party his friends know about, a wedding celebration.

Jesus seems to like parties too. They’re all over the Gospels: John starts with a wedding at which Jesus supplies the wine; along the way to Jerusalem, he has time to stop for a dinner party at the home of a tax collector. One of the main complaints about him is that he eats with sinners: in other words, he has too good a time. Now he’s near the end, still trying to explain what life is like in lives that God governs and he tells this story about the biggest party anyone there can imagine, a royal wedding.

“The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a wedding banquet for his son”, Jesus says. Weddings were a bit different then. First, you sent out an invitation, letting your friends know you were planning the party. but the invitation didn’t include a date or time. When the party was ready, you sent servants to tell everyone to come right away. A King’s wedding banquet would be the ultimate version of the biggest party. Now imagine the King, party prepared, oxen and cattle being barbecued, beer and wine all cool, special cakes baked, everything ready to go sending word to his friendly nobles. “Come to the wedding banquet!” But the invited guests don’t show up. They’re busy, they’re involved. They treat the king’s servants shamefully.

It’s always a temptation with a parable to start pinning labels on the characters and often this story gets read as if the king equals God and so on. That’s a mistake that’s likely to lose the point so let’s try not to do that. A parable is about an experience: so what’s being experienced here? What’s being compared? First: there’s the king, of course. Have you ever had a party? Sent invitations, cleaned and cleaned, made the food, decorated the house and then—waited. There’s that long moment when you wonder: will anyone come? So I imagine the King has that moment. This is an important occasion; maybe you remember watching a royal wedding in Britain. But now the King waits and waits to see what will happen, the aroma of the barbecue and the clink of the glasses being set wafting through.

There there’s the experience of the invited guests. In those days, party invitations were a two-part process: you got the invitation without a date, then when it was time to go, someone came and told you. Now I imagine that when these people got the original invitation, they noted it, stuck it on the refrigerator, discussed it with spouses: “Hey, you want to go to this wedding?”—and then went on with their lives. Those lives got busy. In this version of the story, it’s a king doing the inviting and the people who decided not to come are nobles; in other versions, the inviter is just a rich guy and the people invited are his friends. They don’t mean to brush him off; they just got busy, too busy to go.

What do you do when you meant to have a party and no one comes? Well, generally you get embarrassed, you send the food to the food pantry, you put away the decorations, you get annoyed with the people who were too busy. But see what happens here: the king does none of these things. Instead, he pursues his purpose. He has other people, poor people, people who have never been to a party, invited in, people off the streets and street people.

I imagine that was some party, don’t you? We’re left to imagine their experience. What is it like when you are poor to be treated like you are rich? What is it like when the world turns upside down, when the last really do become first?

Jesus tells this story just before he’s arrested and I think he means us to understand that when God reigns in us, we will understand this amazing, wonderful thing: nothing can stop the purpose of God. Like water running downhill, if you try to contain it, it finds another way; if it runs into a boulder, it will wear that boulder down, nothing can stop it flowing to the sea. Nothing can stop the purposes of God.

We are the means by which God does that. We are God’s treasure, sometimes hidden, always loved. The original guests invited to the party are used to good things but imagine the reaction of those who are brought in from the streets. Think how loud, how joyful, the party becomes with their surprise at being there. It turns out they are a treasure, one that had been hidden. Now that treasure is revealed and the party goes on, just as the king had hoped.

Now the church is meant to show what it looks like when God reigns. What does it look like? It looks like a party. You can’t do a party all by yourself. Soon, we’re all going to get an invitation to estimate what we will give in the coming year to this church. It’s really an invitation to a party: our mission is to make the party of God’s kingdom available and evident and open here and now, in this place, in this time. In the parable of the party, many of those invited look at their calendars and decide they have other, more important things. Some are doing business deals; some have family commitments. They miss the importance of the invitation the king has offered. Now in the Matthew version of this story that we read there’s a great huff and puff of angry reaction. But isn’t the real problem with missing the invitation that you miss the party?
This is the same problem the man who is thrown out of the wedding banquet has: he isn’t wearing a wedding garment. This is a symbol for his failure to act appropriately, to make a full commitment. What Jesus seems to be saying is that even if you come to the banquet, you have to do something. It isn’t all invitation; it’s also response.

The Kingdom of God is a party and you are invited, we are invited, each one of us, every one of us—everyone welcome. But the invitation isn’t everything. It takes some response, it takes some decision, it takes changing the way you look and the way you live. You can’t come to the party wearing the same old armor you wear out in the world—you have to put on a wedding garment. You can’t live out your faith in the same old behavior of yesterday—you have to make a daily decision, “Yes, I’m going to live out of the love of God.”

Come to the party: that’s God’s invitation. Our God is a nearby God, a God who invites us to a celebration, a God who cries when we cry, who laughs when we laugh. But living with God is not automatic, it takes your decision to put on the wedding garment of love, it takes your faith that God will be present, providing, trustworthy. Your contribution of you. God invites you to the party: get dressed and go!

Amen

18th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Tarnished Treasure

Tarnished Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

18th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 8, 2017

Matthew 21:34-46

To Hear the sermon preached, click below

Have you ever found a treasure? Maybe your grandparents had a house with an attic or a basement where you went and pored through things you sometimes could hardly understand. Maybe your mother draped you with costume jewelry or your father handed you a baseball and gruffly said, “Look at the signature on that, now that was a ballplayer.” Every church meeting house contains a treasure along with its congregation. Look around: many of us here think of the stained glass windows of this house as a treasure and people come to see what we see every Sunday. One congregation I served had a building that had stood since ten years before the Civil War and like a house where things accumulate, it was full of closets that held treasures.

But of all the closet treasures, the greatest was the Victorian silver. It was rarely mentioned; only once in a while someone would allude to “the valuables.” One day when I was avoiding working on the sermon and investigating closets, I found it. A full double size, floor to ceiling closet, overflowing with little soft bags which, when I opened them, contained a treasure trove of silver. There were cream pitchers and sugar bowls, large bowls for food and serving utensils. There were things I didn’t even know how to name: one I later learned was designed to hold and dispense salad dressing.

Like a child on Christmas, I shuttled back and forth, unwrapping and taking out each piece until the next door kitchen counter was full of old silver. That presented a problem, of course; it’s always more fun to take things out then to put them back. Somehow I knew that like Peter Rabbit, I had slipped into a forbidden garden and that if the farmer came along, I’d be in trouble. So I carefully wrapped each piece, put it back, closed the closet and determined to leave it alone.

I couldn’t, of course. Not long after, at a church council meeting, I mentioned as casually as I could that I happened to have found the church silver and that I thought at our next celebration we should get it out; it was too pretty to stay in a closet. Of course, I pursued the matter and when I did, I learned this: the silver was, in fact, a treasure, very valuable, very beautiful—everyone agreed—but it could not be used because it was tarnished.

For those who don’t know much about silver, as I didn’t, let me simply say that when silver sits, it acquires a dull layer of oxide, some places it turns black, and that’s called tarnished. More importantly, those in charge of the silver had pronounced it tarnished and didn’t understand why I was so dumb, so obtuse, not to realize that tarnished silver could not be shown, could not be used, could not be anything but in the closet. It was over; it was tarnished, unfit, worthless for use.

Now you and I are God’s treasure, creatures meant to reflect God’s glory. But often, just as the bright silver stops reflecting when it’s tarnished, we get tarnished and think our days of reflecting God are over. We’re not up to it; we’re not worthy to do it. Sometimes it’s something we’ve done, sometimes it’s something we’ve been; sometimes it’s something we’ve lost or added. We may be treasure but we are tarnished treasure and like the silver, we assume off in a dark closet is the appropriate place.

So Jesus tells this story, this shocking story, that we read this morning. He lived in a restless, violent world where unscrupulous bankers took advantage of people and many people worked for large farms that didn’t offer health insurance, pensions or anything else but a bare minimum wage. Restless, hungry poor people sometimes get violent and there were many instances of small peasant revolts. He tells this story. Some tenant farmers work in a vineyard and the owner lives far away; when he sends a slave to collect the profits, the tenants beat him up, in fact, they beat up several servants. Ultimately, the owner sends his son and heir, thinking this will make the tenants take the demand seriously. Instead, they beat the son up and murder him. I imagine Jesus telling this story, and brows knitting, frowns forming in the ring of listeners as he comes to his final question: “what will the owner do?”

We all know the answer, don’t we? We know what we’d do. The listeners know what the owner will do, he’ll do what owners always do: get the police, in this case, the Romans, come and get those murdering tenants and string them up. A life for a life, the judge will say, and justice will be done. “What will the owner do?”—why even ask? We all know how this ends.

The world’s answer to problems is violence. The tenants feel the injustice of sharecropping and see no way out except to kill the owner’s son. Surely the owner will reply with the authorized violence of the police forces. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Last week I watched a documentary on the Vietnam War. One of the most moving moments was watching a former North Vietnamese soldier say that in war there is only death and destruction, right and wrong don’t matter.
We’ve all seen this deadly dance. We can imagine the people hearing Jesus tell this story. Some are tenant farmers, surely, or come from that world: they know, perhaps they remember when an owner came and killed everyone after a revolt. Others are authorities, owners, and their agents. They’re already mad; Matthew sets this story in the Temple precinct, where not long before Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.“What will the owner do?” We all know, don’t we?

Except—except Jesus is about to demonstrate the most stunning, amazing answer to his own question. In the crowd around him, there are people already plotting his death. This story is told in the days just before the crucifixion. His friends will remember the story precisely because only a few days later, just like the son in the story, the owner of the vineyard-—for hundreds of years, Israel has been described as “a vineyard of the Lord’s”-—the owner of this vineyard is God. What God does is astonishing: God does not punish the killers, God saves them.

Here is the great mystery of God’s love—that when we are tarnished treasure, even when the most tarnished among us, God yet is trying, seeking, looking for a way to love us back into acting like the treasures God made us. Maybe you don’t feel worthwhile; maybe you feel tarnished. God doesn’t care what you feel—God cares for you.

Because God cares, we are called to care. This church is a community of care. Two nights this week I was here when the whole building was full with people healing in some groups, sharing in others. I know that this week all of us have been held rapt by the violence in Las Vegas. There is no way to disconnect this violence from the violent culture in which we live and the river of guns that flows through it. To the question of violence, God offers this answer: God’s love. And the expression of that love through the way we use our lives and our treasure to extend that love.

The tarnished treasure at that church did eventually come out of its bags and back to a dinner table. A couple of years after I found it, I got tired of arguing about it. We were planning to mark Maundy Thursday communion, with a full dinner, a seder, the traditional Passover celebration. Passover remembers when God saved a people who had become slaves, a reminder of the first communion, in all its passion, darkness, hope and grace. Part of the seder tradition is that you set the table with your best stuff, best china, best cups, best silver.

We pulled the tarnished treasure out of its closet. We didn’t have the time or people to polish the silver but we set it out nevertheless, on white table clothes, with the best church china we owned. We sat down to dinner, to a dinner at the Lord’s Table, someone turned the lights down, and then the candles were lit. Suddenly, the treasure shined, reflecting the light of that moment, reflecting the love shared by a small congregation as we joined together to remember how God had first loved us. The tarnish didn’t matter; only the treasure did. In the light of the candles, in the gathering of people around the Lord’s Table, only the reflected light of God’s love mattered. It just took seeing the silver in the right light to appreciate its beauty.

That’s how it is with us. We are tarnished; God uses us anyway. We are God’s treasure. What matters isn’t our perfection but our persistence, our persistent willingness to choose love over hate, to see others as brothers and sisters, to seek to live as God’s blessing. Maybe you are tarnished; God still sees you as a treasure.

The choir is going to sing a song in a few minutes about a simple blessing. That’s us: that’s how we are meant to live, understanding that we are stewards of God’s gifts, not their owners, giving thanks for the simple blessings which sustain our lives. In turn, we have the possibility to become a simple blessing to others, to give our gifts as well. The kingdom of heaven is not fulfilled by any act of violence or domination. It is fulfilled in this exchange of blessing, bearing the fruit of the spirit.

What will the owner of the vineyard do? The ultimate answer is Easter; the answer is the resurrection. When the vineyard owner is God, the owner will look to the original purpose of the vineyard: to grow grapes and make wine. And the owner will do whatever it takes to make sure the grapes are harvested, the wine is made, the cup of the covenant is filled until it overflows, even if it takes forgiving and reusing the tarnished tenants.

Amen.

World Communion Sunday – Thinking Like Jesus

Thinking Like Jesus

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017

World Communion Sunday • October 1, 2017

Philippians 2:1-13

To hear the sermon preached, click below

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself – Philippians 2:1-13

What’s on your mind today? I went to a seminar once where the widely known lecturer, an expert at preaching and a professor began speaking to a room full of preachers by saying something like this: “I know that you are preachers and most of you have to go back and create a sermon this week. So I know a lot of you are thinking great thoughts, your mind is already full of what you want to say. But I want to speak today about the real question you should be asking: what’s on the mind of your listeners?” So I start out every week trying to think about that question.

Some people have taken it to a new level; they let their listeners text them questions during the sermon. I’m not quick enough to do that and while I use my iPhone to record the sermon, I put it on airplane mode. Of course, I really don’t know what’s going on in your mind today. Some I imagine are thinking about what comes next: lunch maybe or things to do, some are worrying, some are drifting off.

One thing on the mind of many of us is the damage done by hurricanes. How can we watch pictures of people, first in Florida and Texas, now in Puerto Rico, whose whole lives have been reduced to simply life itself. No possessions, no homes, just the basics of survival: food, shelter, water. At the same time, I can’t help but notice our Congress is focusing on creating a tax cut for corporations and wealthy people with the delight of a child writing a Christmas list. I notice the contrast in value: the emphasis on riches for the richest, the desperation of people for water that flows from our taps as easily as the twist of a wrist.

The contrast raises the question of value: what makes it worth it to a billionaire to make one more million dollars? What is life worth when you lose things, perhaps everything? What do we value? I lost my Tilley hat this week: a canvas sailing hat with a wide brim that could be bent to just the angle to keep a low sun out of your eyes and sweat stains from 30 years of sailing. It flew off in a gust of wind while I was sailing in gusty conditions with big waves and I knew there was no way to retrieve it. Jacquelyn hated that hat; she wouldn’t let me wear it off the boat. I loved it because I’d had it so long. Do you have things you love because you’ve had them a long time? What really IS valuable after all?

Roman culture was not so different than ours. Back then, as now, rich people drove culture, set an example and they did it by having expensive, valuable things. They filled houses with them; archaeologists dig them up today, mostly broken, because an archaeologist’s idea of a good time is digging in a landfill. But we know from pictures and written accounts and the occasional well preserved home that Roman lives were lived in a culture that clearly connected wealth and prosperity for honor and goodness.
So it must have seemed strange to the Christians in the Roman city of Philippi to hear Paul’s letter to them with its stunning message about Christ losing everything. This is how he summarizes the life of Jesus

…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

No riches; no list of victories won, challenges met, games sponsored, statues erected, not even a list of charities he supported. But this stunning declaration: equal to God, yet emptying himself.

It’s an amazing thought. Jacquelyn and I are at that point in life where we are getting rid of things, and it’s hard. The wind and water took my Tilley hat; I didn’t have the heart to get rid of it. Selling stuff online or even in person takes letting go. And here Paul tells us that Christ let go of everything, without even ebaying any of it.

The Philippians knew slaves, saw them every day, Roman society was full of them, some of the Christians there may have been slaves. Everyone knew they were nothing, no one to emulate; no one saw a slave and said, “I want to become like him.”

What Paul is preaching is the action part of Christian faith, the day to day business of doing it, being it. And the key is: thinking like Jesus. Paul says, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus“, and he explains what this means: letting go of your own ambition, humility, serving others. The Book of Eli is a movie about a world after a total break down of civilization and its central character is a man who carries the last Bible. When someone asks him what it says, he replies, “Do a little more for everyone else than you ask them to do for you.”

Now today is World Communion Sunday; we celebrate today sharing in being the body of Christ with all other churches around the world. But what is the body of Christ without the mind of Christ? Sadly, today in some churches, people are being told that prosperity is the real treasure; in some, that it’s ok to exclude people because of who they love or how they love or how they look. But here Paul, here the scripture itself tells us what’s on Christ’s mind: loving others, seeking the genuine humility of serving others until life itself becomes just another Tilley hat that can be given back.

[Christ] he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.

Today we will share the sacrament of communion, and it’s always important to remember the context of communion. Jesus knows where things are going; the gospel accounts unite in suggesting that he understood the betrayal Judas was enacting. He knows he is about to be arrested; he knows he will die. So what does he do? He throws a party.

It reminds me of my mother. For her 85th birthday, my mother suddenly asked my brothers and I to have a party for her. She had gotten word from her doctor a while before that her cancer seemed cured and she was feeling better. She wanted it at the same place my father’s funeral reception had been held, she wanted fancy food and music. So we put together the party, we had Frank Sinatra music—my mother never got over her girlhood crush on Sinatra—and it was only years later that I understood. My mother knew she was coming toward the end; she was giving things up, her house, most of her possessions, and she knew it couldn’t be too long before what she gave up included her life. She knew there would be a funeral; she knew there would be a party. She didn’t want to miss it.

Communion is the party celebrating Jesus’ final act of humility: he’s about to give up his life, for others, a final act of emptying. Now in this church we share communion by passing it hand to hand in the pews. That means every one of us serves someone else, hands them the plates of bread and the cups. As we serve others, we are reminded that serving others is what the mind of Christ means. Like children practicing setting the table, we practice here serving others so that as we go out from here, we will not go out simply with what was on our mind but with the mind of Christ. What’s on your mind now? May we go forward with the mind of Christ.

Amen.

16th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Living Wage

Living Wage

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

September 24, 2017 • 16th Sunday After Pentecost-A

Matthew 20:1-16

September always reminds me of the time three years ago when our family first arrived in Albany and I became your pastor. We were, all of us, out of breath. Like a sprinter completing a race, we came here from a rushed, hard-working summer of moving. We lived in a larger house in Michigan with lots of storage. So we accumulated things. Now we knew that meant getting rid of things. So day by day, we cleaned and packed up. As the time shortened, we became more and more frantic. We hired a man to help us and he filled his pickup truck over and over with stuff for the dump. We took so many loads to the Salvation Army that they asked us to stop coming, stop donating. Always looming was that day in August when the movers would arrive to load everything and bring it here.

I thought about that experience this week as I read the parable of the workers in the vineyard. Harvest is a frantic time. Grape picking is handwork and there’s far too much for this vineyard owner and his family. So the next morning, early, he gets up, hurries out of the house to where the day laborers gather. Every city then, every city now, has such a place. He looks around, he hires enough to get the job done, offering to pay them the daily rate, one denarius. I imagine some of the men smiling: a denarius is a living wage. No one gets rich on it but it’s enough to get you through to tomorrow and maybe the day after and who knows what will happen then? These men live day to day. So they hurry off to the field and begin picking grapes. But the owner can see it’s not going fast enough so he goes back, and hires more, telling them he will pay them what is right. In other words, he’ll be fair.

Even as the day begins to cool, as the workday begins to close, he is still hiring more workers, desperately trying to get the harvest in. By now, he recognizes some of those he passed over earlier. “Why are you waiting,” he asks, and of course they reply with the obvious: they haven’t been hired. Imagine the desperation of those men. All day long, they’ve watched as others left to work on farms; all day long they’ve been hungry; with no job, they have nothing to buy lunch. All day long, each time someone came to hire, they hoped to be chosen but they haven’t been. They face going home to tell their families there won’t be a wage today, perhaps there won’t be supper, or bread tomorrow. So to those left at the end of the day, his hiring must have been especially happy. They know they won’t make much; after all, the sun is already setting! Still, something is better than nothing and I think they must have been glad to go, glad to make even a few pennies, to make something for the day.

Finally, the sun is down; the workday ends. The hired men drift in to the area around the sheds, ready to be paid, already tasting the dinner they’ll buy. They’re hot and tired; so is the owner. So far, this whole story is so commonplace it’s boring. It happens hundreds of times. The people hearing Jesus know it, they live it, they must have wondered, “What’s the point?” Perhaps some of them are day laborers; all of them know how hard harvest is, how frantic, how everyone works and works to get it done. So perhaps they are beginning to drift off, their attention wandering. He’s telling them what they know and then suddenly he isn’t.

The owner breaks the workers into groups, starting with those hired last. Everyone knows they will receive less than a day’s wage; after all, they only worked a couple of hours. Fair is fair. So imagine how stunned they are when they are given a full day’s wage. Imagine the surprised looks, too tired to even celebrate. Group after group are paid, all the same: a full day’s wage, regardless of how long they worked. At first, the early hires, seeing what’s going on must have thought: oh, great, we’ll get a bonus but they don’t—they get the same as everyone else: a day’s wage. So, of course, they begin to grumble. It isn’t fair, is it?

Wouldn’t you grumble? And then Jesus drops the conclusion on them. The owner says that it’s none of their business if he decides to pay everyone the same; they agreed to work for a day’s wage, they got their wage, the contract is fulfilled, the debt paid. I imagine these workers leaving, also, but with a different attitude, still grumbling, still saying, “Not fair”. Wouldn’t you?

Jesus is asking us to imagine acting out something he apparently said many times: the last will be first, the first last; the Kingdom’s arrival means a reversal. Well, we’re all in favor of that but we seldom ask what it really means. Now he’s imagining it: what if the last really are first; what if you—all of you, all of us—who are first get paid last and no more than everyone else? Ouch!

A key issue of this story is the notion of a living wage. The standard daily wage for a worker in Jesus’ time is a denarius. it’s enough to buy food for the day or two; in that sense, it’s a living wage. So if you fall below that, if you don’t make the days’ wage, you don’t have enough to eat, enough to get through the next day. Today, a swelling movement including the United Church of Christ is building support for raising the minimum wage so that it will be a true living wage. I imagine in many pulpits today, that’s what’s being preached and it’s a good and worthy cause.

But I don’t think it’s the point of this parable. Every parable invites us to experience something and this one invites us to experience the workers. It asks us to imagine their hope of being hired, their hope of being paid and their sense of fairness, of justice. “I’ll pay you what is right,” the owner says when he hires them and this seems to be an agreed daily wage, a living wage. When the owner pays those hired last the same as the others, the parable compares their grumbling with the owner’s generosity.

Where does that generosity originate? Perhaps it is in the compassion that comes from noticing the condition of the workers themselves. This is, after all, how some great movements have begun. The movement to abolish slavery began in this country in 1789 among the Society of Friends and soon spread to others. One of those was a free African American who had gone to Sunday School at the Second Congregational Church in Norwich, CT. David Ruggles moved to New York City where he helped lead abolitionist efforts. Others were also working to end slavery. Still, the movement grew slowly until the 1850’s when Harriet Beecher Stowe, another Congregationalist, published Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It’s a sentimental novel but it reached beyond the intellectual arguments of the abolitionists and made people feel the horror of slavery. President Lincoln, himself, is said to have believed the book was a major reason for the passions that ignited into the Civil War, when southern states seceded in order to defend slavery.

Well, abolitionism is a big issue and we are mostly day to day people. Does this have anything to do with us? Erik Reitan in an article responding to an evangelical Christian condemnation of LBGTQ people said, “The first act of Christian love is compassionate, empathetic attention.” What Stowe did was to focus compassionate attention on slavery. What happens if we bring compassionate attention into our own lives and focus on someone we need to forgive? I’m often asked, “Ok, I know I should forgive, but how do I do it?” Last week I talked about taking the first step, which is to embrace our own forgiveness. The second step in forgiveness is compassionate attention to another.

In 1993, Mary Johnson’s son was murdered by another young man, Oshea Israel.

Israel was arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned for the crime. I’m sure Johnson didn’t think it was enough; I can only imagine the restless anger she must have felt. She talks about seeing Israel in court and wanting to hurt him. She continued to be obsessed with him and made repeated requests to meet him when he was in prison. Finally, he agreed. It had been 16 years since the murder. Israel, a 16-year-old boy when he committed the crime, had grown into a man in his early 30’s.
“I wanted to know if you were in the same mindset of what I remembered from court, where I wanted to go over and hurt you,” Johnson tells Israel. “But you were not that 16-year-old. You were a grown man. I shared with you about my son.”
“And he became human to me,” Israel says.
At the end of their meeting at the prison, Johnson was overcome by emotion.
“The initial thing to do was just try and hold you up as best I can,” Israel says, “just hug you like I would my own mother.”
Johnson says, “After you left the room, I began to say, ‘I just hugged the man that murdered my son.’
“And I instantly knew that all that anger and the animosity, all the stuff I had in my heart for 12 years for you — I knew it was over, that I had totally forgiven you.”

Johnson set down the burden of anger. She forgave this man who had so terribly injured her. She went on to help other mothers of murdered children as well.

Now what Johnson did isn’t fair, is it? I know some are thinking, “I could never do that”; I know it because it’s what I thought when I first read it. Yet that’s the destination Jesus is leading us toward: a place where, as he says, burdens are light because he takes them up; where forgiveness is the rule.
This is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like: it’s not fair because we could never survive fair.

No, the Kingdom is where the principle isn’t fair, the principle isn’t what we earn, the principle isn’t what we deserve: it’s what we need. This is how God works: giving what we need, hoping we will accept it, use it, share it. That is indeed a living wage, it is what we need to live in the light of the love of God, it is meant to be shared.

Amen.

15th Sunday After Pentecost/A – The Forgiveness Dance

The Forgiveness Dance

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017

15th Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Click below to hear the sermon preached

“I’ve told you a million times…” Have you ever said this? It’s what gets said about those little things someone does out of habit that annoy us until it boils over. “I’ve told you a million times…” I’ll let you fill in the detail.

Once I was talking to a couple planning their wedding. They’d both been married before and we talked about those relationships and what had made them end. She was quiet at first, reticent, but as she talked about her marriage, she said, “It was little things. His socks: he never picked up his socks. It sounds silly but it became a big issue.” We were talking about their wedding vows, at least I thought we were, and as we moved back to that topic she brought up the socks again. So it was that on their wedding day, as part of the ceremony, her groom stood before a whole congregation and said solemnly along with promises to love and cherish her that he would always pick up his socks.

“I’ve told you a million times..” Of course, no one says something a million times. We exaggerate and this scripture begins with Jesus doing the same thing.

Forgiveness: How Much?

Last week we began to talk about forgiveness as the path to Jesus. Now Matthew imagines Peter stewing about this and trying to get a fix on just how much forgiveness is required. That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not forgiving the one big hurt that hangs us up; it’s the million times bump, the thing that happens over and over again. “Do I have to forgive as many as seven times?” he asks. Jesus replies with something hard to translate; sometimes it comes across as 77 times, sometimes 70 times seven. The meaning, though, is clear: there is no limit to this forgiveness.

Does that make any sense? At some point, don’t you have to just say, “Look, this person is never going to do the right thing,”? I imagine Peter and the others looking with that disbelieving, “I can’t believe you said that” look people get about Jesus. So he tells them a story, a parable, about forgiveness.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Imagine a rich, Gentile King. Maybe it’s the Persian King; maybe it’s the Roman emperor. We know it’s not a Jewish king because the things that happen in the story are not according to Jewish law. Imagine the Emperor, the King, having one of his key administrators arrested, brought before him, because the taxes he was supposed to pay aren’t paid.

We don’t know what happened. Did he embezzle them, was it a bad year, is it simple theft? No details. We just know he is brought before the King. This isn’t the oval office; this would be a palace full of people, guards in armor with sharp swords. Surely this man, this servant knows some these people, was friends with some of them. Now they look away, now no one reaches out to help when he stumbles as the guards roughly bring him in.

A richly dressed guy stands by the king with a document recording the debt: 10,000 talents. Do you know what 10,000 talents is? It’s all the money in the world. Literally: a talent is the largest unit of money Jesus and his world knows. Ten thousand is the largest number they use. So it’s the largest number of the largest amount of money. It’s huge.

No one could ever pay it off; no one could ever work it off. You could work your whole life and not make a dent in it. So the King orders a punishment that takes his whole life: selling his wife and children, something so awful, so terrible, Jewish law forbade it. But Gentiles did it, Kings did it. Now the debtor stands there quaking, fearing, losing everything. What would you do?

What he does is the only thing he can do. Flinging himself on the floor the way they do in Eastern courts, he begs for mercy. He makes a promise everyone knows is ridiculous that he will eventually pay it off. There must have been a moment of silence. Think of the embarrassment of his former friends; think of the tension in the room, the fear of the debtor. As he lies there, something comes into the King, some impulse. He pities the man; he knows he’ll never get his money. Suddenly he does something no one would have expected. He tells the man to get up, to get out and he forgives the debt.

Wow. Can you imagine that moment? Can you imagine that man, lying there on the floor, on the cold stone floor, afraid for his life, afraid for his family, barely able to believe what he’s just heard. “Get up and get out, I forgive you and your debt.” It’s more than he asked. The best he hoped was to stay out of jail; instead, he’s just been given a whole new life, like someone born again. “The Lord released him and forgave the debt.”

Imagine having your biggest problem something you’ve worried about, something that kept you up nights, suddenly solved. Imagine having all your debts paid off; imagine having whatever scares you solved. Imagine being given a whole new life. Don’t you think that’s what this guy must have felt? How incredible would that feel? How new? How different?

So there is this stunned, amazing moment and then he must have gotten up. The King and his advisors are already going on to the next thing. Before the King can change his mind, I imagine the man walking out, still afraid of the guards that only a moment before had been a threat, now ignoring him. Perhaps slowly at first, not wanting to attract attention, he begins to back up, to move out of the crowd, and then faster. Smiling now, feeling the joy of it, the release of it. Everything paid off; everything taken care of, solved. He moves back through the crowd, mind whirling and then settling down, wanting to tell his wife, his family everything is ok, everything will be ok. He moves out of the crowd, down the corridor, outside into the market. What would you do? Where would you go? How would you feel?

Leaving the Moment

There he is, coming down the steps, there he is, jostling in the crowd, and just as he walks through the last people in the palace crowd, he bumps into someone he knows, someone who owes him a little money: a hundred denarii, that is to say about three months salary. It’s nothing, compared to what he’s just been forgiven. It’s pocket change.

Yet in that moment, all the new life, all the possibility of his forgiveness seems to fall away. He grabs the guy by the throat, calls for a guard, demands immediate payment.
Now this man makes exactly the same plea the first man had made to the king, word for word the same plea. Did you get that when I read it?

Just like the first man before the king, he’s caught short of funds; just like that man, he’s about to go to jail. Just like the first man before the king, he begs for time to pay. That first man has just been forgiven all the money in the world and now he’s being asked to forgive a trifling amount but he hasn’t learned anything. Instead of passing on the forgiveness, he refuses and has him thrown into prison. Stunning, isn’t it? He was forgiven everything; he forgives nothing.

What happens next is a cascading disaster. People from the court see this performance and tell the King. The King is offended, angered, and he has the first man arrested, brought back. The new life is over before it began. He’s sent off to be imprisoned, tortured, the point is clear: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ [Matt 18:32] I imagine the disciples leaning in, listening, trying to follow this story, trying to follow Jesus, just as we are doing and suddenly he looks up at them, his eyes searching, and says quietly, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Wow: ouch! How did we get from more forgiveness than Peter could imagine to such a disaster?

What is Jesus teaching?

To see what Jesus teaches, we have to let go of trying to reduce it to a set of lessons and let ourselves experience what he asks us to imagine. If we take seriously the experience of this parable, what we find is that the unmerciful servant was confronted by the possibility of new life. That’s what it really means to take our own forgiveness seriously. It’s what Peter missed when he asked his question. Peter was still focused on how much forgiveness he has to dole out: seven times? Seventy-seven times?

Jesus wants him to realize the issue isn’t how much forgiveness he does, it’s how much he has received. Forgiveness isn’t first about what we do: it’s first about what we receive. It’s suddenly understanding that despite all our flaws and failures, the one Jesus calls our father in heaven has forgiven us and still loves us. It’s realizing we are, each one of us, just like that debtor before the King: failed at times, yet loved beyond failure.

Feeling Our Forgiveness

That’s the experience he wants them to have. And to see also: that our forgiveness invites us to be transformed. Until we know ourselves forgiven, we will never be able to fully forgive, we will always be grabbing someone else, demanding payment.

The final note about torture isn’t a moral, it’s a fact. If we don’t learn to accept our forgiveness, we don’t learn to forgive others. The burdens that pile up from that torture us, imprison us, like the old cartoon of the prisoner with the ball and chain.

Jesus means us to experience this embrace, this forgiveness and then live it out day to day. For the way of Jesus isn’t a doctrine, it isn’t a set of directions you follow, it’s love itself.

The Kiss of Christ

Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov contains a long section imagining a Grand Inquisitor questioning Christ, like a Communist or Fascist or CIA interrogation. At the end of all the questions, at the end of all the darkness and threats and fear, Christ replies. And the reply is simple, wordless: Christ kisses the Inquisitor.

Lord Have Mercy On Me

There is a spiritual discipline that can help move us toward this. It’s very simple, a short prayer: “Lord have mercy on me.” That’s it, the whole prayer. It’s meant to be prayed over and over; some teachers suggest synchronizing it with your breath or your heartbeat. “Lord have mercy on me.” Over and over. You can pray this in the car, at a stoplight; you can sit quietly and say it over and over. What this prayer does is to focus us on our own forgiveness. It opens the door of the soul and lets things out.

We need this because so many of us owe so much, are burdened by so much. What are you carrying around that needs forgiving? What would you like to lay down, what would you give to get rid of the bonds of that burden?

Forgiveness isn’t about what we do for someone else; it’s what we experience through Christ from God. And if we live in that experience, we will stop asking how often to forgive others because we can’t focus on limiting forgiveness if we are living in the fullness of it.

That’s the tragedy of this unmerciful servant. He has the greatest prize of all given to him and he lets it slip through his fingers in the moment when those fingers grasp his own debtor. Just as Jesus says: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive others.” We say that every week, perhaps you say it at other times. Forgiveness is a dance, a rhythm of receiving and giving. We can’t do one without the other; the dance is both or neither.

Lord have mercy on me: this week, may you feel the embrace, the kiss of Christ in your life. May the forgiveness and new life he offers overflow like a wine glass poured too full until you have no choice but to share it.

Amen.

14th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Come See Jesus

Come See Jesus

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017

14th Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

Hear the sermon preached by clicking below

One of the big issues in my life is that I lose stuff. Do you find this? Keys, cellphone, little things: I misplace them. Last week on my boat I lost my phone. The boat is a small area. I knew the phone was there somewhere. Half an hour later, I resorted to begging a dock worker to call me so I could find it. I lose things all the time. Now if you lose things too, you can feel the problem of the people to whom Matthew is speaking in today’s scripture reading. He’s writing to a group of Jewish Christians about fifty years or so after Jesus left his earthly ministry and here’s their problem: they’ve lost Jesus.

Where Is Jesus?

How do you find Jesus? Where is he? How can we get him back? How can they find the assurance that he is present? How can they talk to him, walk with him, hear him. Where do you go to find Jesus? What are the directions that will allow us to come see Jesus?

The classic way to deal with this is simple: you make a statue of Jesus and hang him on the wall. All great Roman Catholic cathedrals have these; European art museums are full of pictures of Jesus, hanging there, easy to find. Of course, the problem is you have to go there to find him; that’s not much help if you want him with you, walking with you, where you are.

Another solution is just to make up a picture of Jesus. That’s what prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen do. They give people a picture of someone with all the problems solved and tell them well that’s Jesus, be like him. They live like rich people which in our culture looks like living successfully. Their problem, of course, is that it isn’t Jesus they are portraying, it’s just living like a rich guy.

But how do you find the real Jesus? This scripture lesson is all about finding Jesus, it’s a sign that says, “Come see Jesus.” Listening to it is like reading a map, like someone saying, “Come see Jesus, he’s over here.”

“…where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matt 18:20).

I know you’ve heard this saying of Jesus before; it’s frequently quoted, especially by Congregationalists. I wonder if we’ve really taken it seriously enough. Every time you and a friend get together and treat each other like Jesus treats people, every time you have compassion on a stranger the way Jesus has compassion on strangers, every time you treat someone like a child of God, the way Jesus treats everyone as a child of God—there he is. Every time we gather here in his name to worship, here he is. Every time one of our Boards or committees gets together and thinks about how to help people in his name, there he is. “…where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there…,” he says. Every time I visit with one of you in the hospital and we pray, there he is. All it takes is two or three of us, gathering in his name, for him to appear.

So where do you go to find Jesus? The answer is specific: you go to others. And one sure place is to the gathered congregation of his followers. One of the jobs of pastors is to listen to excuses for not going to church. I learned early not to tell people on airplanes I’m a pastor, for example, because they would tell me why they didn’t go to church last Sunday. High on the list of excuses is, “I find God in nature.” Sometimes nature means the golf course, sometimes another place. And, of course, we’ve all felt the stirring of inspiration seeing God’s creation. Sometimes that may work; often that is inspiring. But it’s a chancy thing. If you want to be sure Jesus will come along, if you want to be sure about finding Jesus, you need a congregation, you need two or three or more other followers.

The second thing it’s important to notice here is the number required. Jewish scribes had settled on ten men as the minimum number to get God to be present. The book of Genesis records a wonderful conversation between Abraham and the Lord. The Lord is angry at Sodom and decides to wipe them out. Abraham asks whether the Lord will wipe out the righteous with the sinners. Abraham asks if 50 righteous people would be enough; God agrees 50 would be plenty. Abraham goes for 40; God says ok, 40 is enough. Finally, Abraham gets the Lord down to ten: ten righteous men will be enough to stop the destruction. From this, Rabbis deduced the requirement that ten righteous men are needed.

Now Jesus reduces this. Notice that he doesn’t specify gender: it’s not just men, it’s any followers of Jesus, and it only takes two or three. This is the foundation for our church order. Where some believe that it requires a whole structure of bishops and officers to constitute a church, Congregationalists believe it only takes a congregation, meeting in covenant for worship. How big a congregation?—two or three.

So if you want to see Jesus, come to the congregation; where faithful followers gather, he promises presence. The verse before this makes it clear: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The reason is that what we are doing is what Jesus is doing: we are literally the body of Christ in the world because he is present here with us, in us. Christ is present here and this is our destination: to go where he is, to be with him, to walk with him.

But it’s not enough to have a destination, you also need directions on how to get there. Navigation can be tricky. When I’m sailing, I write down the buoys I’ll pass, the courses to take. I still make mistakes. Last week, I was coming back from a little cove and I suddenly realized I’d misread one of the buoys that marked a big shoal and I was about to run aground; I had to change direction fast to be safe.

What are the directions to Jesus?

The directions are in the part just before his statement about presence. One of the issues the early church faced is what to do about people who hurt each other in the church. So here it is, laid out in detail: first you tell them they hurt you—-you say ouch!-—and if they repent, you forgive them. If that doesn’t work, you get some other folks to mediate between you, and when they repent, you forgive them. And if that doesn’t work, you get the whole congregation involved and if they repent, you forgive them. Finally, if even that doesn’t work, you treat them like outsiders; in other words, following Jesus, you give them special love and care.

Now if you listened closely to these directions, you heard the same word over and over: “you forgive them.” The directions to Jesus are to forgive; the directions from Jesus are to forgive. The first step on the way to Jesus is forgiving others and accepting forgiveness ourselves.

Nelson Mandela was a young lawyer leading a revolution in South Africa when he was arrested in 1962. Beaten, imprisoned, he might easily have become hardened and bitter. Instead, he let the love of God bloom in his heart. He learned to forgive. In 1990, after 27 years, he was finally freed. Desmond Tutu, a bishop in South Africa said this.

Before Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, relatively young man. He founded the ANC’s military wing. When he was released, he surprised everyone because he was talking about reconciliation and forgiveness and not about revenge.

Mandela became the first President of a new South Africa. Many had predicted a racial civil war. Thanks to his efforts and example of forgiveness, his nation sought instead reconciliation and became a model for this.

It’s no accident that this section on forgiveness is connected to encountering Jesus: forgiveness is the path to gathering in his name, to his presence.

For the next few Sundays, we’re going to think about this theme, see what Jesus says, imagine what it means to live out forgiveness in our daily lives. Perhaps in your life, there is someone you need to forgive; perhaps you need to seek someone’s forgiveness. Perhaps you need to feel God’s forgiveness.

The farther we walk on the path to forgiveness, in our prayer life, in our daily life, the closer we come to Jesus. “Come see Jesus”, is the gospel invitation: come see him here, come see him in the light of the forgiving love he shares and that we share in his name.

Amen.

Third Sunday After Pentecost – A

Small, Swift Birds

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Third Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 25, 2017

Matthew 10:24-39

Click below to hear the sermon preached

If we were asked the most important thing in our lives, I suspect many of us would reply, “My family.” Families in the best sense are where we learn love: where we are accepted, where we are nurtured, where we are accepted even when we are unacceptable. In The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost imagines someone saying,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, 
They have to take you in.’ 
‘I should have called it 
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve. 

That’s our dream of family. It’s a good dream and a wonderful reality when it happens.

Of course, we know not all families are like this. Families are where we are meant to love but where sadly sometimes there is violence, sometimes there is oppression. Not all families accept each other. So many of people have stories about being fearful coming out to family. My own family included a deep story about my mother’s upbringing and she never lost her bitterness and feeling that in the gendered values of her family, she was less important, less valuable, than her brother. So families are a mixed bag. And today we’ve heard Jesus say some shocking things about causing division in family. What does he mean? What does he intend us to get from this?

Putting Jesus’ Words in Context

We need to put these sayings in context. When we say, ‘family’, we really mean a mother, father, kids, perhaps a few close relatives. But the family of Roman times was a much larger unit, a whole household. It was usually headed by a senior male and included adult sons and their wives, their children, perhaps other relatives, the senior male’s wife and slaves. In well to do families or households all these would live together; in poorer households, they might occupy an apartment building.

Roman religion and Jewish practice all centered on this pyramid of power. Women were not allowed to eat with men or talk to them at meals in most places. Slaves were an intimate part of the household but had no power. Babies could be exposed and killed at birth; children were not always prized. The decision, as in all household matters, was left to the head of the family. So when we hear family here, we need to think of this pyramid of power, this household with slaves and children at the bottom, women a little higher up, sons higher still, and finally at the top an older man.

Contrast this with Jesus. We hear almost nothing about his father and he disregards his mother and brothers and sisters at various points in the gospel stories, reuniting with his mother at his death. Instead, Jesus constructs a household. When his own family tries to bring him back from preaching and healing, he says,

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 
[Mark 3:34-35]

He invites a group of men and—shockingly!—women to come with him on his journey of healing and preaching. The gospels focus on 12 men but Luke mentions 70 people and lists a group of women that traveled with him. John has a set of stories that focus on Mary and Martha and makes it clear that he has a prior relationship with them. We know from a wide variety of stories that Jesus’ practice was a source of constant criticism. Over and over again, we read, “He eats with sinners”, a category that includes women, gentiles, and people who don’t observe the codes of family and religious life.

Jesus himself relates this here: he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”. Beelzebul is a demonic figure. He understands that if he is criticized, those who follow him will be as well. His solution is simple: everything will be revealed. His solution is to give away being part of this new family: show it and share it.

…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. [Matthew 10:26f]

Everything is going to be revealed, everything is an open invitation.

This Is Invitation!

That is the most important thing to understand about this text: it is invitation. Just before today’s reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to go out and spread the good news of this new household he is creating. Their mission, he says, is to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. He tells them some places won’t let them do this; just go on, he says. He tells them some people will oppose them; just go on, he says. Here in what we read, he focuses on the fact that even some members of their own families will oppose them. Just go on: make this new way the most import fact of your life, make this new household, the most important relationship in your life.

Why follow Jesus, if it’s going to cause such division and heartache? Because where we follow him is into a relationship with God so loving, so intimate, so particular that nothing else compares. He says, “…even the hairs of your head are counted.” Think of this: think what it would take to count the hairs of your head, think how intimate you would have to be with someone to do that, to sit with them, listen to them talk, through that process. That’s the way Jesus is God with; that’s how Jesus invites us to be with God. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? Yet this what gives life, he says. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Following Jesus

It’s not an easy way because it means changing yourself. It means learning a new way of looking at the world. Years ago, I was the pastor of a church much like this one, a big old building needing constant cleaning. We hired an organization that employed differently abled people and every day their crew would come in. The one I remember most was a young guy with some mental challenges who liked to engage me. I wore shoes with laces in those days and when he would see me, he would say, “Tie shoe!” and then laugh hysterically. At first I would politely smile, and go on with whatever I was doing. But this was a constant thing and it began to make me wonder and to be honest, annoy me a little, because he wasn’t satisfied to just let it go; he wanted me to laugh too. Finally I mentioned it to the supervisor. He said, “Oh, he had a problem learning to tie his shoes, so we used to tease him about tying his shoes. Somewhat chastened, reminded I was supposed to be a loving Christian, the next time he said it, I forced myself to laugh too. I learned to be more patient; I learned to laugh. Finally, one day, I discovered: I got the joke. I laughed, real laughter. He had taught me to stop, laugh, be there with him for a moment. I was healed.

This is what we are about: healing people. There’s a lot of talk here about growing the church and I’m just like you, I love it when the pews fill up. Now the 1950’s model of church growth was to find a place where people were moving, open up there, and they will come. That worked—in the 1950’s. It’s not going to work here.

A more modern way of growing a church is to market it like a new kind of toothpaste, or bread or anything else. The model of these large mega churches is Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels didn’t start out by figuring out what Jesus said; he started out going around to people in an area outside Chicago and listening to what they wanted and then creating a church that would tell them what they wanted to hear. Today you do this by finding someone who will use great music, great pictures, and great words to tell people they are right and good just as they are. That might work; I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.

Because Jesus doesn’t say one word about getting a lot of people together. He says: go out and heal. And that’s what we are doing, what we are meant to do. Most of the people who visit here and come here have been hurt; some are sick. They come here with scars, they come here with the hope that we can offer something that will help them. And we can.

At the center of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is this:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10:2-31]

Small, Swift Birds

Two sparrows: this is the food of the poor, this is the common bird no one notices, this is the little bit of almost nothing that flits and isn’t appreciated. Yet here is Jesus telling us that God cares about the sparrows. If we really believe that, if we act like it, if we live it, how can we help caring for others too? How can we not learn to laugh with the “Tie shoe!” joke? How can we not help and heal?

One of my favorite bands has a song called, Small, Swift Birds. It uses this image to teach us to appreciate how important every encounter is, to teach us to appreciate each moment.

I have heard about the lives of small swift birds.
They dazzle with their colour and their deftness through the air.
Just a simple glimpse will keep you simply standing there….
And then there’s the day we look for them and can’t find them anywhere.

The song reminds us of the value of each small moment. Each day, every day, Jesus invites us to live as members of his household. He knows it will cost us but he knows that what he offers is priceless. Each of you is so precious to God. Each other person out there is just as precious. He gathered us to share God’s love; he sends out to heal God’s people. This week, this month, every day: remember that you are on a mission from God to be the image of God’s love.

Amen.

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A

Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 18, 2017

Genesis 18:1-15

This is a season of announcements. Graduation announcements suddenly open our eyes to the fact that a person we thought was still safely a child has a new address in the adult world. Wedding announcements invite us to share the joy in lighting the hearth fire of a new family and birth announcements that let us know the candle of a new life has been lit. Usually we know these people and the announcements make us nod. But suppose we received an announcement that a senior woman had just had a baby; imagine getting a message that someone in her 80’s or 90’s had just birthed a child. That would be a shock—probably most of all to her! This story has just such a moment at its core and a question: do we believe God is serious about fulfilling promises?

Abraham and his family are relaxing in the heat of the day,. There is a moment on hot days when the heat itself becomes a presence, when things in the distance tremble, when mirages appear, when the world almost seems to melt. It is just then that Abraham, dozing under some oaks, trying to find a tiny bit of shade, opens his eyes for a moment and sees three strangers approaching in the distance. At first they would have that shimmering, liquid look heat causes; at first, I think, he might assume he was dreaming.

Yet from the first, I imagine Abraham waking, the way we wake if car lights flash and someone pulls in the drive unexpectedly at midnight. I imagine him watching just long enough to confirm this is no dream, no mirage, and then stirring. Strangers are dangerous in the desert. At the same time, desert culture then and now has a code of hospitality. So Abraham stirs; I think of him kicking his foreman, napping next to him, the man waking and looking, seeing the look of concern, getting up, waking the next person down the line in the pecking order and the whole camp stirring, so that by the time the strangers can be solidly seen, the camp is up. Abraham meets the strangers at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality: what do they want? must be on everyone’s mind.

Feast Time!

Abraham offers hospitality and he offers it in humble language we understand. “Don’t get above yourself” is one of our cardinal virtues. Don’t ever announce you are the best cook, the best anything. “Let me bring a little bread,” Abraham says—and then goes back to the camp and orders a banquet. Imagine the rushing around, the measures of meal that kneaded by women sweating and straining, the cooking in the heat of the day, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a whole feast. If it were here, there would be deviled eggs and table decorations. If it were here, there would be sputtering about what does he expect us to do on such short notice—and then a determination to do more than anyone thought possible.

All this takes time and that’s fine. Even today in the Middle East, it’s customary to sit and drink coffee or tea and chat before doing business. So I imagine that when the feast is finally served, it is hours later. The strangers have relaxed; the people in the camp are exhausted. As is customary, women are excluded from the tent where the food is served and Abraham himself does not recline with the guests; he acts as the server of food. Still, people are people; this is a camp with many people. There are girls calculating the cuteness of the strangers, there is curiosity, and among the curious there is Sarah, who listens just outside, who wonders just outside.

A Child?

Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behaviors for guests. When the stranger suddenly asks about Abraham’s wife, it is a shocking violation of manners. “Where is your wife, Sarah?”, the guest asks and Abraham tries to cover it by saying she’s off in the tent. The storyteller reminds us in delicate language that Sarah is well past menopause. And then the stranger announces, as if commenting on the unusual heat this year, in an offhand way, “I’ll be back this way one day and Sarah will have a son.”

It’s a birth announcement for a woman in her 90’s. I imagine all conversation stopping; I imagine a deadly silence, a conversational period occurring. In a moment this stranger has brought up the most painful, difficult, dark, private reality of life here. Long ago, this family, this couple, set out on a life journey pushed by the promise of God that there would be children. No children have come; no babies have been born. Year after year, they waited; season after season they hoped. Time after time they must have prayed—and cried; raged, even sometimes at each other. Yet there was no child.

Finally, there was no escaping the reality: the promise was broken, the time had run out. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women,” the text says. No child: no child ever. They must have grieved until their grief became one of those sadness scars one puts away; too painful to visit often, too important not to visit sometimes. So here they are, two people who have finally relaxed with the failure of the promise. And here is this stranger throwing their hope in their face, opening their most painful wound. For the scar of hope turning into hopelessness always leaves a scar.

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

Hope is a scary thing. Hope makes us laugh and the laughter makes us vulnerable. Sarah and Abraham have stopped laughing about their hope. When the stranger makes his announcement, Sarah laughs, but it’s not the laughter of hope, it’s the laughter of derision; the deep belly laugh of all women in all times at the silliness of men who simply don’t understand things, don’t understand about women and babies. Sarah laughs, laughs so hard that in the stillness of that moment, her laughter must have echoed in the tent. “Oh my God,” I hear her saying, “Me, pregnant!” The stranger hears her and asks this simple question: Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It’s a good question: what do you think? Is anything too hard for the Lord? The truth is most of the time we are a lot like Sarah. We think lots of things are too hard for the Lord, so we do them ourselves, best we can. But our best isn’t always enough and our best comes with the certain knowledge that there’s only so much we can do. When Sarah gets too old for children, she knows it, she admits it, and she gets a young maidservant to have a child by Abraham so at least there will be an heir. We reel from a setback and try to make a new plan, we pound on the closed-door of a dream until our knuckles hurt and then we give up. Sarah laughs, not in laughter, but in the silliness of believing.

Here is another plan: here is another hope. The hope is that there are more possibilities than we know. It’s never practical to announce this; practical people, people like you and I, always say to such hope, “Well, what do you have in mind?” and there is no answer because it is the point of such hope that it is not in the mind, it is not rational at all. It is the simple, deep, conviction that nothing indeed is too hard for the Lord; it is the willingness to stop knocking and wait for God to fulfill the promise. An Peter, Paul and Mary song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.”

Yet we have that possibility; we have that capability: to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. The core of this, the path to it, is to understand that God does indeed deal in fulfillment. God promises and always makes good on the promise; our problem is that we assume God will do it the way we want and the way we expect and on our time-table. But a look at the Bible show is that God’s fulfillment is always more exuberant, bigger, wilder, than anything we had imagined. It doesn’t happen when we expect: it comes as a surprise.
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Believing in God’s Fulfillment

It’s not easy to believe in such fulfillment. We are much more comfortable with limits. I used to have a three-year old friend named Leah Miller whose mother owned a café. Leah liked to play cook and she had a little plastic kitchen. A standard meal at Leah’s kitchen consisted of pancakes, french fries and ketchup. Usually the pancakes had sprinkles on them; in fact, it was usual in ordering food at Leah’s kitchen to have the pancakes served and then to say, “May I have sprinkles please?”. If you didn’t ask, she would prompt: “You forgot to ask for sprinkles.” But the one day, when Leah was imagining cooking pancakes and french fries for her grandmother, and I was watching, something strange happened. Leah held out her hands—”there you go”—and served the pancakes. But when her nana asked for sprinkles, Leah looked at her sadly and said, “We don’t have any sprinkles, we’re out.” No imaginary sprinkles today.

We need to imagine more sprinkles. We need a bigger imagination; we need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need to imagine more and more than imagining, we need to simply believe this: that nothing is too hard for the Lord. We need to get up each day not full of what we are going to do but prepared, alert, ready to see, to really see, off in the distance, God approaching, ready to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed, living as faithful people, laughing people, will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow.

Amen.

Trinity Sunday/A

The Fruit of All Creation

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Trinity Sunday • June 11, 2017

Click below to hear the sermon preached

“I am groot”. It’s a line from the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. A cast of strange creatures from different places includes a being who looks like a tree, has branches for arms and says this one phrase over and over, in answer to any question, as a comment on any situation: “I am groot”. After many adventures, Groot saves them, at the cost of his own life. But Groot sends out a seed that grows into a little Groot who then goes on to the sequel.

I am Groot. Who are you? This past week I submitted an article for a magazine and I had to write an author bio: three or four sentences to capture my whole life. Have you ever done this? It’s a good exercise. I started like this: Jim Eaton lives in Albany, NY. Location defines us in many ways: who we are is partly a product of where we are. Now today we’ve read the long, majestic, litany of creation and it asks us to reflect on who we are, where we are, and why we are.

Creation

The beginning is dark: creation begins in chaos. I think the Hebrew makes this even more clear than the translation. The Hebrew word we translate “formless void” is Tohu wa Bohu. It sounds like chaos doesn’t it? Think of a junkyard; think of a kitchen after a big dinner, think of a house when everything has been moved in and nothing put away. How do you begin? Where do you begin? 

Creation begins and moves forward as a process of ordering. In darkness, light: the light separated from the darkness. If you listened carefully, you heard this process over and over. Creation moves forward by separating things and naming them: “God called the light Day and the darkness God called Night.” A dome of land appears, separating the waters below from the waters above: sky and sea, and then the sea is defined by shores and there is earth as well. Bit by bit it’s coming together.

Like a family arranging the couch, chairs, end tables and lamps in a living room, God makes a place. It’s not all a singular effort, either. Once the land is made, it begins to participate in the process. The earth produces vegetation; the earth is a partner in creation now. The lights in the sky, moon and sun, are set to regulate times and seasons: partners in creation. The creatures of the sky and the seas are created and told to be fruitful: they are partners in creation. The same is true of animals, including the creeping things. 

Finally, of course, creation comes to us. 

Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. [Genesis 1:27f] 

Like the earth, like the plants, like the lights in the sky, like all the others, there we are: we have an address and we are also partners in creation. 

Now if you’re looking for some discussion here of how this all fits or doesn’t fit with the science of origins, you’re going to be disappointed. This isn’t a scientific explanation and opposing science and the Bible is as silly as arguing that Frank Sinatra singing, It had to be you is a psychologist’s explanation of mate selection. The story of creation, like a song, is meant to speak to our soul, not our science. 

Cooperative Creation

If we listen with our souls, what we hear is the careful ordering of a place. Light and Dark: dry and wet, vegetable and animal, each is given a place in a peaceful, ordered, intricate system that together makes a world. No piece alone is the world: it is the whole ordered creation, interacting together, working together that is creation’s result.

God doesn’t make everything: the earth produces, the plants produce, the animals produce. Creation is cooperative and it’s a process. My neighbor Andrea is an amazing gardener. Recently she’s been replanting some raspberry bushes. But others she’s leaving alone. She said that those have another year to produce, explaining that raspberries produce for a couple of years and then die but as they die they put out new shoots. There is a rhythm to the process: growth and fruit and death and new shoots. Just like Groot, with whom I began, we serve a purpose and we come to an end. Our purpose is the fruit of all creation. The earth produces; the bushes produce. Creation is dynamic.

Now I mentioned at the beginning this is a meditation on where we are, who we are and why we are. Where we are is here: in the center of a dynamic, cooperative creation. Why are we here? Genesis has something to say about that as well. The word in our English translation is dominion. That sounds like being in charge; it sounds like we’re the boss. Is that what it really means? We’ve often treated it this way and even today, there are preachers and politicians who rely on this Bible verse to justify the exploitation of creation for profit. But what does the Bible really say?

Dominion Means Caring

The Hebrew word we translate dominion is ‘radah’. This word carries the idea of being in charge, but it’s being in charge the same way someone might say, “Take care”. Have you ever been told this? I grew up with two younger brothers. Like everyone who’s ever been the oldest of a bunch of siblings, every once in a while, my parents would go out and leave me in charge with these words: “Take care of your brothers, we’ll be back later.” We do this in other ways, don’t we? Perhaps you have a cat or dog and when you go away, you find someone and ask them to take care of your dog or cat; perhaps when you go on a trip you ask someone to take care of your house. That’s radah; that’s dominion.

But I can assure you, based on experience, that my parents did not intend for me to use my brothers as unpaid labor, for example, just to imagine something that might or might not have happened, to make them do my chores. When you ask someone to take care of your cat or dog, you don’t expect them to exploit them; when you ask someone to take care of your house, you’d be angry and upset if you came home and discovered the house had been sold and the care taker had pocketed the profits. To have dominion is to take care.

Created in the Image of God

We can also find a clue to who we are in the act of our creation: we are created in the image of God. What is that image? Over and over, scripture makes clear God is love. So we are created in the image of love, meant to love, meant to care and create communities of care. This is what Jesus did. Remember how right from the beginning he gathered up disciples? Remember how even at the end on the cross, he gives his mother and his friend John to each other? Those are the concrete instances of this larger process. Here in creation, God cares for the needs of each. Every plant yielding seed and every fruit is provided not by accident but as a source of food and not only for us—we’re meant to share with the rest of creation as well. God knows we need to eat, so God creates a structure to fulfill our needs.

What is the reason for creation? Why are we here? The final chapter of the story is the creation of sabbath. On the seventh day God rests. Is God just tired? Does God have the pains we all get after a hard day working in the yard? I think a better explanation is in the story itself. As each chapter of creation is created, God names it’s value. Over and over again, something is said to be good, as we heard. Now and only now does God appreciate all of creation as a whole and pronounce that is is very good. Only about all of creation together is it said to be very good.

Where we are is God’s creation; who we are is creatures in God’s image. Why we are emerges from this: like God we are meant to be appreciators. If we don’t take the time to look, if we don’t take the time to wait until we feel the very goodness of creation, we have failed our most important task. Made in God’s image, we are meant to embrace sabbath, as God does. Now politicians can argue about environmental policies and agreements. But most of us learn to take care of a cat or dog when we’re young; a lot of learned to babysit pretty early too. So when they argue, when they destroy the very creation we are meant to sustain, our job remains the same: to care for creation, to care for others, to appreciate the loving God who hopes we will reflect the same care and creativity that made us and made us a place.

Sending Out Seeds

Appreciation includes preserving and protecting.Fifty years ago, the Hudson River was a long swamp of sewage and industrial pollution. Pete Seeger was a folk singer dedicated to bringing the songs of justice to people and he and his wife organized to create a 106 foot sloop to sail on the Hudson and raise people’s consciousness about the river. Today the river is so much cleaner, so beautiful. But here’s the important thing. Just like Groot, Clearwater sent out seeds. One of them landed in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Thanks to the efforts of Tom Kelly, Ellen Nordsieck and many others, an 88 foot schooner was built and an educational program created on Traverse Bay. Today, the lake is cleaner and other seeds are being sent out.

There’s a whole movement today that wants you to believe you can’t make a difference. It’s a lie; you can and do. Most of the difference humans have made has been negative. Because of our industry, because we have used the energy of fossil fuels, we’ve raised the temperature of our planet. It’s like a babysitter turning the heat way up in a home.

We can make a difference. The Paris Accords and agreements like it are based on sound science. Climate change isn’t a theory, it’s a fact; climate change isn’t a partisan political point, it’s a theological challenge, a faith challenge. It asks us whether we are indeed living in God’s image, as God’s people, caring for God’s creation. Our responsibility is to appreciate and sustain creation so that the fruit of all creation can ripen just as God intended.

I mentioned Groot at the beginning. Throughout the movie, regardless of the question asked or the situation, Groot says the same thing over and over and over: “I am Groot.” At first it’s mysterious but then it acquires a meaning: sometimes said with sympathy, sometimes as a challenge. When we read the story of creation, when we read the stories of Jesus, when we read the stories of the Spirit inspiring the church, what we find is that in the same way, God is saying the same thing over and over: you are a reflection of me. Act like it. Tend my creation; care for the garden I’ve made, help it produce the fruit of all creation an appreciate that fruit.
Amen.

Third Sunday in Easter/A

Break Thou the Bread of Life

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton • © 2017

Third Sunday of Easter • April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-25

A Man All Alone

A man is traveling, all alone. He happens to be walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus but he could be traveling anywhere, any time. He could be a poor man in a bus terminal: hard seats, harsh lights and a scratchy PA system. Over there, a family is rapidly speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. Down the row, an old man is staring straight ahead. Loud, angry music and choking bus exhaust come in every time the door opens and a woman is arguing over the price of a ticket to Omaha with the agent. He could be a rich man waiting in an airport terminal, sitting at a bar with a drink he isn’t really drinking in front of him. Perhaps his shirt collar is irritating his neck and as he tries to adjust it he thinks he really needs to lose a little weight. Maybe he’s lost in thought about a meeting later in the day or maybe he’s thinking that he wished he had something sweet like he meant to his wife instead of just “See you Thursday I think” when he left this morning.

A man is traveling, all alone. And on the way he bumps against two people ahead of him. You know how this happens? Traveling down the grocery store aisle, a small old woman stops and you realize she needs help reaching something on a high shelf. Maybe you’re standing in a line and just to pass the time you smile at a child’s antics or talk to a stranger.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he comes upon two other men traveling; he walks into a conversation. They’re discussing the news over the weekend, arguing about the meaning of the death of Jesus. They don’t know the man traveling alone but as strangers on the same trajectory do, they include him in the conversation. He’s trying to catch the sense of it and he asks them what they’re discussing.

Now there are two sorts of people in the world: those who keep up with the news and those who don’t. Newsy people turn on CNN when they come home, newsy people watch six o’clock and the eleven o’clock news both and read the paper. Newsy people are always amazed when they run into the other sort. They are newsy guys so when he asks, they answer with some combination of smugness and incredulity, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in Jerusalem this weekend?”. He doesn’t so they fill him in, they explain that Jesus of Nazareth was a mighty prophet who was put to death over the weekend by the power structure.

Sharing Together

They tell him their hopes: that he would redeem Israel. I imagine they tell him their fear as well, at least their eyes tell him, and the fact that they’re putting as much distance between themselves and Jerusalem as they can. They fear that the same thing could happen to them, of course, but perhaps even more, they fear that the death of Jesus is the death of hope. They tell him about the women who found an empty tomb. But their steps speak too and tell him that though they once believed Jesus, they have used up their hope and don’t have any left for this strange report from the women at the tomb. After all, they are on their way away from Jerusalem.

The stranger holds up his end of the conversation. Perhaps to their amazement, once he’s got the gist of it, he has a lot to say. He tells them they’re foolish and he speaks about their faint hearts, the same faint hearts that have set them on the path out of Jerusalem, off to Emmaus. It turns out that he may not know much about the news but he has a lot to say about Moses and the other prophets.

God’s Powerful Love

What does he tell them? No one knows, exactly. But I think he must have told them this: God’s love is so wonderful, so powerful, so unlimited, it can’t be stopped by the City Council any more than the tide. That’s what you get when you start reading Moses and the prophets: over and over again they tell the story of how God loved and loved beyond loving, even when God’s people were faithless and mean and small spirited. There’s Moses wailing about the whining of the people, and God calmly ordering up manna and quail; there’s Hosea talking about the sins of the people and God using the tender language of mother love to ask, “How can I give you up?” There’s Isaiah promising a new covenant and Jeremiah proclaiming a new day. There’s Jonah sitting on a hill side smug and waiting for God to blast a bunch of Gentile Ninevites and complaining because when God has mercy and grants a stay of execution.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he talks to two other men who are also lonely, because fear is a lonely business. We hope together but we’re each frightened in our own way. All day long they talk about Jesus and the prophets and things that Jesus did and said and Moses and the love of God until it’s getting near sunset. Now the roads out of Jerusalem are dangerous after dark and so, though the man who is traveling all alone doesn’t have a reservation, the two he’s met ask him to stay with them, tell him don’t worry, we’ll get the motel to set up a trundle bed or something, just stay with us, walk with us tomorrow.

That evening after they freshen up they all get together for supper. A simple meal: some bread, some wine. They’ve been talking about Jesus all day and I suppose that they must have told the man who is traveling all alone about how Jesus would invite strangers and the lonely to his table, how he would bless the bread and break it, how he would give thanks and pour everyone some wine. And suddenly as the man who was traveling all alone is doing just these very things their eyes are opened and they see something they’ve missed all day long: Jesus is risen; Jesus has been with them all along.

Who Is The Man?

Now you listened carefully, I’m sure, to the story when I read it, so you knew it was Jesus all along. We all snicker a little at these silly people. We want to yell when they are talking on the road, “Hey, don’t you know you’re talking to Jesus?”. Some of us are thinking: “Idiots!”. Every year in Bible class someone asks, “Why don’t they recognize him? Did he look different?” I suppose death does change a person.

But that’s not why they don’t recognize him. I’m not at all certain that the man on the road with them has the earthly form of Jesus.

I think the real clue to this text is back where Jesus tells the story of people on Judgment Day. Remember them? He gathers a group of folks and says about the kingdom: “You’re in! When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was imprisoned you visited me!” and they look at each other in amazement and say, “When did we see you in such a bad way, Lord?” He answers, “When you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

They didn’t recognize Jesus; they simply acted as Jesus would have acted, they acted as love instructed them to act. And the same is true here. These men have experienced the Risen Christ by welcoming someone, by feeding him, by sharing the cup of the new covenant with him. The man traveling all alone disappears; he becomes a part of a community. Together, they have learned to embrace new selves. Together, they have become the Body of Christ because they recognized Christ in their midst: in each other. “Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me,” we sing; we forget that in the process, we’re meant to recognize Jesus present.

Now, I used to think this meant social action—give out food, clothes, fuel, get the government to do the same. I still think those are good things to do. But I’ve come to believe there is something deeper, something more wonderful. We can give stuff out to strangers but what God really hopes is that we will become a blessing to the people where we are, that we will do what God does, which is to make up little communities of care.

Communities of Care

That seems to be how God works. When God set out to save the world, for example, God did not create a new program, offer a policy proposal or hold an election, God went and whispered to Abram: “Come be a blessing”. When God gets to the next act and decides to come into the world, there’s no processional, no entourage and no advance at all, just a baby and a family. And even when Jesus is on the cross, he can’t help making one more family; among his last words, he turns to his mom and says, “Here’s your son”, to a disciple and says, “Treat her like your mother.”

Yes: even on the cross Jesus was making connections. That’s what happens in this story: strangers meet, share a conversation and then communion and discover he’s present and they are connected after all. So a bit of social action will not, I think, fulfill his hope for us. What he really hopes is that we will discover him in our midst, in each other. And, that by coming together, we will come to him. Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies,

When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home—that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, “You come back now.”

That’s what the resurrection means to me. The resurrection is what happens when we see Jesus walking, talking and realize he’s right next to us. The resurrection happens when we take care of each other the way we would take care of him. The resurrection happens when we recognize Jesus.

Now, you can’t get this on your own schedule and you can’t get it being a consumer. I mean: if you come to church the way you go to the grocery store, picking things off the shelves and then figuring you did your bit if you pay. It’s not hard to feel sorry for strangers but it’s very difficult to see Jesus in the people nearby because they are so annoying. They fail in the same way over and over. They don’t take good advice. They don’t follow directions. It’s so easy to see how wrong they are and it’s satisfying in a way too, until somebody brings up that darn proverb of Jesus about being able to see the flyspeck in your brother’s eye but not the log in your own.

Fixed for Blessing

But there’s a reason we are here together and the reason is to get fixed up so we can be the kind of people God hoped we’d become. We don’t start out that way and along the way, we tend to wander off the path and find all kinds of ways to avoid our true identity. I’m not going to catalog all the ways we go bad because the ones that don’t affect you personally would just make you smug and the ones that did would make you mad that I’d mentioned them. The important point isn’t that we make mistakes, it’s that when we do, God is right there trying to clean up the mess and put us back together.

That’s in this story too. Remember where the guys are going when the stranger first meets them? They’re walking away from Jerusalem; they are, from the standpoint of Christians, going the wrong way. But what does Jesus do? He walks with them. He goes the wrong way in order to bring them around. He hangs in there, hangs out, until they figure it out. He’s willing to go the wrong way round, to get to the right place.

What about us? Where’s Jesus here? Look around: take a very good look. Because the whole thrust of this story is that he is right here, waiting to be discovered. He will be discovered when we take up our vocation to care the way he does. A playwright once said, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. God’s grace is glue.”

If we take up the vocation of mending each other’s hopes and lives, comforting each other’s fears and hurts, I believe we will see Jesus, I believe we will see him right here and it won’t matter that we went the wrong way round because where he is will be our home and our heaven. It’s just what he said: “Lo, I am with you always.”
Amen.