All Together Now

All Together Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Pentecost Sunday/A • Mary 31, 2020

Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost, a Greek word that means ’50’, a special day 50 days after Easter that was in part a Christian response to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, marking the day when God gave the Torah to Israel assembled on Mt. Sinai. It is sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Churches; it’s when Jesus’ followers began to act themselves, inspired by the presence of the Holy Spirit. You’ve just heard the story and often what gets the most attention are the fireworks: tongues of fire, whirling wind. But if we read it closely, it’s part of a longer theme we’ve been following at least since Palm Sunday, a meditation of the them of presence and absence. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was present and acclaimed as the heir of King David, the Messiah coming to reestablish a worldly kingdom. Days later, he was absent when he was crucified and killed by the Romans. On Easter he was present as the resurrected Christ. He was present to his friends for a time and then absent again, as we talked about last Sunday, after the Ascension. Presence, absence: see how they alternate? Now he’s absent but the Spirit becomes present, just as he said. It becomes present, the text tells us, when, “…they were all together in one place.” [Acts 2:1]

Just reading those words, proclaiming that message, feels ironic today when we can’t be all together in one place in our normal way. So like the story, we’re grappling with the issue of presence and absence. Some watching this will remember and perhaps wish they were present here in our beautiful worship area, as they were, as we were until a few months ago. Others have never been here and are sharing a different presence in this time. Are we present together? Are we absent?

Surely those followers of Jesus were wrestling with the same question. They’ve been through the whiplash of Jesus present, Jesus absent, Jesus back and now absent again, but absent after a promise: that they would experience a moment of feeling a spirit come upon them. It’s a holiday weekend, Shavuot, as I said. Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival, like Passover, so Jerusalem would have been full of strangers, Jews who had come from all over to celebrate. It would be noisy, crowded, perhaps the sounds of the crowds and the smells of the food wafting into the room where they  are all together. You know what those weekends are like; we all do. The smell of the neighbor’s barbecue on Memorial Day weekend, the sound of someone setting off fireworks over a block, a parade where you u get jostled and buy a balloon for a little kid. Got it in mind? That’s the setting when they are all together in one place. 

Then there is an experience we never hear about again:

…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [Acts 2:2-4]

Suddenly, they are present with the living presence of God. They know it, they feel it, they picture it and they express it in this fiery language and in what comes next. But what was that really like? What is absence, what is presence?

I’ve been thinking about that question this whole season, thinking about my own experiences of absence and presence. Some seem routine. Most of you know Jacquelyn is a flight attendant so before the pandemic, our life was full of absence and presence: most weeks she would leave, we’d patch our absence with phone calls and then after three days come home: present again. 

But one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever felt of presence was the days just before my mother died. My mother and I were never close; I think she’d secretly hoped to have daughters and having three sons was a kind of joke on her. But as the one set of friends who knew us both said, she always worked to make sure I had what I needed. One day when Jacquelyn and May and I were having a casual dinner, I got a rushed phone call from my brother: mom was in hospice, not expected to live long, I should come quickly.  So I did: off to Florida, a quick trip to her hospice, where I sat with her for two days while her presence in this life gradually faded, alternating between consciousness and sleep. But before you wonder why I’m telling a sad story, let me say it wasn’t sad: it was glorious. Because in those times she was awake, for the first time, my mother told me about her life, her real life, growing up in the depression, having other family members come to live with them when they lost their own homes, going to college and working at a time when it wasn’t usual for women to have careers. My mother became present to me as a real person, a whole person, for the first time. When she died, she wasn’t absent; she was more present than she had ever been.

That’s what’s happening at Pentecost. Throughout Jesus’ life, Jesus’ gathered usually separate people at his table, all together. It is one of the most striking things of his ministry and perhaps the one most often criticized since it ran against the customs of his time. But Jesus gathered them all together and that happens in three other particular events. At the Last Supper, his disciples, we’re told are with him; John tells us that his friends were also together in a room when he came to them after the resurrection. Finally, the story of his ascension begins, “..when they had come together.” [Acts 1:6] In all these events, Jesus is obviously present; here, at Pentecost he isn’t. If we stop being distracted by the tongues of fire and the noise of the wind, what’s clear is that the disciples and the friends of Jesus suddenly feel the same divine presence they felt with him, just as when my mother died, I felt her presence more clearly. Pentecost is the advent of presence, not in a person but through persons, through all persons.

The “all persons” part gets lost sometimes because we are more interested in the languages than its meaning. Long ago, in Genesis, the Bible explains how ethnicity and division came to be. In their pride, human beings determined to become God like and built a tower, called the tower of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9]. When God frustrated their plans, different languages were the symbol of their failure. Now the Tower of Babel is being reversed. The amazing thing isn’t that t he disciples become multi-lingual, it’s that they speak in a way that everyone understands. What they do with that is simple and powerful: they tell people about the life of Christ and the love of God.  That’s Pentecost: in the grief of absence, they have felt the empowering, inspiring presence of God he promised and they tell people about it.

Isn’t that what we need most today —to recognize God’s presence? We’re here, all together, not in a physical way but a spiritual way. Just as our Pilgrim fathers and mothers brought about a new way of worship, we’re forging one together. The spirit of Pentecost is what the prophet Joel said centuries before Jesus, that God would pour out the Spirit on all people, even old men will have new dreams, even those marginalized will be heard. The life of Christ is present; the love of God is present. What should we do about it?

Shouldn’t we follow those first disciples and do what they did? Over the last few weeks, we’ve found a surprising fact: our in person services usually average 25 to 30 people but this online service is viewed by more than twice that number most weeks. Wow! Now there’s something you can do if it’s important to you to share the good news of a church where all people are welcome and cherished. Like the disciples going out to the crowds, you have a crowd to which you can speak by clicking on the share button on your screen. Share this service, share all the services. Do it as part of your Pentecost celebration. 

But clicking a share button isn’t the most important thing we can do. The most important thing we can do is to take seriously the Pentecost message: that God is present right now, right here, wherever here is, whoever’s life ‘here’ is. We can look at others as children of God. We can reject the division so fundamental to our culture and demand that we be treated as all together now, all children of God. For that long list of nations, you could substitute all those things that divide us up: race doesn’t matter to God, gender doesn’t matter to God, age doesn’t matter to God, party doesn’t matter to God, language doesn’t matter to God, nationality  doesn’t matter to God. We know where these divisions lead, they lead to violence. In the recent past, we’ve seen a black man lynched in Georgia and another murdered in Minnesota and an EMT killed in her home. We’ve heard about a public official in Texas saying that the only good Democrat is a good Democrat. What he really means is that he can’t stand someone different. Divisions lead to death. God’s all together now love leads to life. When the divisions don’t matter to us, we draw closer to the presence of God.

Many years ago, I was a young minister serving as a counselor at a youth camp. Someone who didn’t know me well gave me the job of leading singing at the campfire. Now, I can tie a bowline upside down lying on my back, I can preach, I can do many things. But singing isn’t one of them. Nevertheless, at the time, I got up and tried to get everyone to sing; it was a complete failure. My tuneless attempts weren’t just flat, they fell flat. Then a smart senior with some stood up and  yelled, “All together now!” The guitar player struck up “Do Lord”, and people sang and it blended together and it swelled and we were all together, and we were all together, and God was present as surely as at Pentecost and we were all together and present and the presence gave us peace. You can have that peace: God wants you to have that peace. All together now: living in the love of God.  Amen. 

Don’t Wait for Jesus

Don’t Wait for Jesus

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Ascension Sunday/A • May 24, 2020

Acts 1:1-11 • Psalm 47 • Ephesians 1:15-23 • Luke 24:44-53

We’re near the end of a four part story. The first part was the amazing entrance of God into the world in the person of a vulnerable baby born to two peasants in a small town. The second part was his life preaching that the reign of God was beginning to bear fruit, healing people, inspiring people, opening eyes, opening hearts, joining them together across lines of gender, class and nationality. Among those, 12 were chosen as emblems of a larger congregation. They splintered in the third part when he was crucified and died. His absence killed their kinship but they’ve come back, called back, by his resurrection and the every day miracle of his presence. Now they’re milling around, waiting for the next part to begin, like people waiting for the curtain to go up at a theater, waiting for Jesus to take the stage. When he does, they have one question: “What’s next?” In many ways, we’re in a similar situation today. Our church goes through a cycle every year and it climaxes on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection. This year of course, that cycle has been disrupted. We stayed home on Easter; we’ve struggled to learn to share worship through video. Now we’re wondering, like the disciples, “What’s next?”

Luke wrote both a gospel and the book we call the Acts of the Apostles and he gives us two stories of this moment. If we pull back from the stories and see the whole context, we see how like us Jesus’ first followers were. Some left after the crucifixion; most didn’t believe the first reports of the resurrection. A few Sundays ago, we read the portion of scripture in which Thomas stoutly says, “Unless I see the marks on his body, I won’t believe it.” Some of the followers apparently went home to Galilee or other places. We read about two who encountered Jesus as they were leaving Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus. Some stayed in Jerusalem and these are the ones we hear about in the story today. Luke says, “After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” [Acts 1:3]

What did he teach them? The gospel says, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” [Luke 24:45] Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere; comes as the fulfillment of the whole tradition stretching back to Moses and Abraham, his life is the embodiment of God’s promises from the beginning. That’s why our worship focuses so fully on the Bible. That’s what Jesus does, over and over, teaching from the scripture, helping people understand how God has worked all along to make love present in the world. The fruit of that love that Jesus presents is a call to repentance and a promise of forgiveness. He says, 

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. [Luke 24:46f]

Notice that everyone is welcome here: all nations, all people are included. Notice that there is no set of rules here, instead the forgiveness is unconditional. Repentance—changing your ways—is there, but it’s connected to forgiveness, not punishment. And forgiveness is all about the future.

The future is very much on everyone’s minds in the scene with which Luke begins Acts. The disciples are together, Luke says. Jesus is present. They ask the question on everyone’s minds: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” [Acts 1:6]. That’s what everyone assumed the Messiah would do. After all, he’s supposed to be the fulfillment of King David who had pulled the tribes together and created a great kingdom, a kingdom that had not been the same since. It wasn’t the same in Jesus’ time; it was governed by people appointed by the Roman emperor and occupied by Roman troops. It’s precisely the fear that Jesus would lead a movement to violently throw out the Romans and restore the kingdom that led the Romans to crucify him. So now that he’s back, now that he’s resurrected, now that he’s present, everyone’s waiting for him to get on with it. To all these questions, he simply says, “Not your business”—“It is not for you to now the times or periods that the Father has set…” [Acts 1:7] and then, as if to make the point, POOF, he disappears into a cloud. Gone: absent, just like after the cross, just like after the crucifixion. 

I said at the beginning that we were in a similar place and I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the discussion about reopening. We are used to worshipping in a particular way. We get up, we get ready, we walk or drive to a place, a building, this building. We go in, someone greets us, gives us a bulletin, we see others and greet them. For the past few weeks, my friend Remy has been coming in to do the liturgy, and it takes a conscious effort not to hug him, because that’s a Remy greeting. I still find myself looking over to my right, to where Eva sits, back to where Joan is settled, and Joyce, wanting to greet the choir behind me. We gather; we greet, we listen to God’s Word, we pray, and then we gather for coffee and treats and more greeting. It all takes place here, in this building and that’s what church has meant. 

But now we don’t. Now we’re absent from each other. You’re at home, I can’t see you. I have to imagine your presence. I’m not in front of you, I’m on a screen and you’re probably doing other things as well; maybe having some coffee, maybe talking to someone else there. When we started this live streaming, the background assumption was that somehow we would all watch together at the same time but as I talk to people, that’s not how it works. Some watch at other times; some don’t watch at all, they just listen. It can all leave us with the same impatience: “Will you at this time, Lord, restore the kingdom?” The disciples want to go back to the past. So do we. That’s where they felt God’s presence, in the preparation for restoring the kingdom; that’s where we felt God’s presence, in the building, greeting, worshipping, meeting together. We long to restore it as they longed to restore the kingdom.

But Jesus has something bigger and more wonderful than a restored kingdom in mind: inviting all people to a loving relationship with God and with each other, a relationship founded on a mutual forgivingness and repentance that changes them, takes the grasping, jealous, angry present and turns it into a place where the fruits of the spirit—“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” [Galatians 5:22f]—are the normal reality every day. Jesus isn’t going back to David’s kingdom, he’s going forward to the kingdom of God. He leaves the disciples there, standing, feeling his absence, but with a message as well.

So, too, if we have a feeling of absence because we can’t meet here, we should listen to the message. Long ago, I became part of the Clark family. Harry was my minister, Nora was my Sunday school teacher, their daughters were my friends. In time we shared so much and loved so much that we became family. Now in the Clark family, goodbyes take a long time. They start when I go have everything packed and Nora kisses me and sometimes gets teary. Then there’s taking the stuff to the car, more goodbyes, good wishes. And I’ve never driven away from the Clarks that I didn’t see in the rear view mirror, Nora and Harry, standing in the driveway, watching, waving. When Jesus has left, ascended, the disciples remain and I think of them just like that, standing there, staring, as if their staring could call him back. They felt his absence.

That’s when two angels appear. Remember these guys? They always show up at a critical moment. One showed up to tell Mary she was going to have Jesus; others told the shepherds about the birth and they show up again at the tomb, after Jesus’ resurrection. They’re the ones that tell the women what’s happened, they’re the ones that tell them that the absence of Jesus, his death, was a moment and that they should look for his presence. 

Now the disciples are staring, now the angels appear, now they say simply, 

“…why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way…” [Acts 1:11]

In other words, don’t stand around, looking where Jesus was; look where he’s going. He’s told them that: Just wait, he said, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” That’s where he’s going, they just haven’t seen him there yet. They need to look in a new place. That’s the story of Pentecost, and we’ll talk about it next week.

But this week there is an important message for us. We are all talking bout reopening; we should be talking about renewal. When we talk about reopening, the assumption seems to be, “back to normal”. But simply reopening an in-person worship service will not be back to normal. We know we need to wear masks; we know we can’t do coffee hour, we know other things need to change. We know that we now have people coming to worship through the live stream for inspiration regularly and we won’t abandon this or all of you who do that. 

The message of the angels is one we need to hear as well: don’t stand around waiting for Jesus. Renewal comes from moving to make his vision a reality. Don’t wait for Jesus; don’t stand around. Wait for the power of the Spirit and when you feel it, live it. Don’t wait for Jesus, share the news that we can live for him today, loving God, living from God, loving others, letting that love blossom into those fruits of the spirit today. Our future isn’t just reopening, it’s a renewal of our life as the body of Christ. Don’t wait for Jesus: he’s already going ahead, making the way for us, loving us, inspiring us. 

Amen.

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21

There’s an old story about a church that called a new minister with a reputation as a fine preacher. Sure enough, on his first Sunday he gave an amazing sermon. People cried, people laughed at the funny parts, and many were deeply stirred. The members of the pulpit committee were roundly congratulated and everyone felt this was a great start. The next Sunday there were smiles as people arrived and quiet as the pastor began. Everyone was startled when his opening turned out to be exactly the same. In fact, the whole sermon was the same. Some people hadn’t been there the first week, and they thought it was a fine sermon, some said they were glad to be reminded of some of his points. But on the whole, there was a bit less reaction. There was even less the third week when he again gave the same sermon, some said word for word.

The Board of Deacons met that week and, of course, someone asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Pastor, that was a fine sermon you gave last Sunday and the Sunday before that and the first Sunday but do you have any others?” After a moment, the pastor quietly said, “I have lots of them and as soon as I see you are doing what I preached in this sermon, I’ll go on to the next.” How do we connect God’s Word to life? How does what is said turn into what is done? How does the vision of God’s way turn into every day decisions?

That’s the problem Jesus is facing in the passage from John we read. He knows his time with his friends is almost over and he’s teaching them about the time to come. How will what he has taught turn into how they live? How can his life and his message extend into their lives and the message those lives carry on? Over the years, along the way, he has built a relationship with them. They’ve seen him heal, heard him preach, watched him deal with individuals. They’ve learned to love him; felt him love them. Now that love becomes a bridge to the future. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says.

What are these commandments? Jesus isn’t Moses, he doesn’t give his followers a tablet with a nice set of bulleted commandments, he doesn’t hand them an operator’s manual. Yet according to the gospel writers, he does explicitly command some things. First and foremost, love God with your whole self and then as well, love your neighbor. Forgive endlessly. And there is the implicit command of his practice, the way he includes people his culture calls sinners, women, poor people, rich people, everyone, into the community of care at his table. There is the promise of abundance he preaches in the parable of the sower and by feeding the multitude and his own statement that he came to give abundant life. So we do have a set of commands and his own command is that living from these is the test of loving him.

This is what Christians often miss because we confuse Christ with culture. There is a content to Christ’s commands and we can see it, hear it, act on it. Racism is never Christian because it contradicts Christ’s inclusion of all people. Excluding people because of who they are, because they are gay or female or transgender is never Christian because it contradicts Christ’s inclusion of all people. Oppressing people for gain is never Christian because it contradicts Christ and destroys the abundance God gives. So when Christian churches and Christian people endorse and live this way, it’s a sign they don’t love Christ, they love the culture that supports such things.

What happens when we do live out his commands? The first thing to know is: you can succeed. We often speak of love as if it were an object or a hole in the  ground; we speak of ‘”falling in love” or being blindsided by love. But love can be an intention, a decision that we will, every day, deal with everyone we encounter with kindness. Love is a commitment to kindness and just as exercising changes our physical body, practicing love changes our spiritual self so that as we do it, we are transformed. We come to see it as natural, as needed. Paul says in Second Corinthians that he is compelled by the love of Christ. All Christians know this feeling: because we love Christ, we must love others, even when we don’t want to or it’s inconvenient. 

We can succeed at this. Years ago I led a weekly chapel service for preschool kids, I was struggling to figure out how to condense the theology of love into something three year olds could understand. I came up with this idea: one nice thing. So I started talking to them about doing one nice thing each day. I gave little stars for reports of a nice thing; I had them chant it with me: ‘”One nice thing! One nice thing!”

It probably sounds silly and simplistic. But a few months after I started the one nice thing campaign, a mother who didn’t go to church came to me and asked to talk. She said that she and her husband weren’t church people and she had been unhappy when we announced the chapel services. Her little boy liked the preschool there, though, so they kept him in class. And then she paused and said, “I hate to admit this. I don’t want to admit this. But I have to: you have made my child better.” She went on to say that suddenly he was coming to her and asking what he could do for a nice thing. He was changing. So whether you are three or 93 or somewhere in between, you can do one nice thing; you can succeed at keeping Christ’s commands. And if you try, you will.

There is another thing that will happen if you intentionally set out to keep Christ’s commands: you will fail. Maybe it’s a bad day, you didn’t sleep well, you’re growls and you’ll encounter someone who annoys you. Maybe you’re just not feeling well; maybe you’re feeling under appreciated. We all have those days. You beep at the guy in front of you who is taking two seconds too long to move after the light turns green; you say something unkind under your breath. You let your doubts dominate your thinking at a meeting.

We all fail at living out Christ’s commands. The first disciples did. One of the mysteries I’ve been thinking about most of my life is that the gospel accounts depict the first disciples as such bumblers. At the feeding of the multitude, they are worried about the budget. When Jesus announces he is the Christ, they argue with him. They fight to make a hierarchy within their ranks instead of accepting equality with Jesus. They don’t believe in his resurrection; they run away when he’s arrested. They fail.

It is when we fail that we discover the importance of forgiveness. And it’s when we experience forgiveness that we begin to give it. Forgiveness is the key, according to Jesus, and it’s endless. “How many times must I forgive?” The disciples ask. Endlessly, Jesus answers. And he demonstrates this. When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies him three times; what’s worse is that Jesus had predicted as much. Think about the shame he must have felt when he met Jesus after the resurrection. Yet what does Jesus say? “Feed my sheep”. Jesus forgives him, embraces him, sends him on a mission. He means to do the same with you, and with me.

When I was teaching Sociology, we spent a lot of time on the concept of norms. Norms are simply the invisible rules which guide our behavior moment to moment. Go into a room with a table and chairs, you know to sit on the chair. That’s normal here. Two thirds of the world doesn’t use chairs but here we do. It’s normal. We have rules for all kinds of things. Now what I love about this church most of all is that love is normal, inclusion is normal. A young woman who doesn’t speak English shows up at the door on a snowy night; what’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to take her in, spend endless hours figuring out how to talk to her, feed her, help her.

A young man shows up one Sunday, a college student, who tells us he’s headed for the ministry. What’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to embrace him. People drive him to church every Sunday; we give him a chance to try out his preaching. We celebrate his graduation. This is from a letter I received from Bryan’s mother about the impact of this normal love.
Thank you so much for all that you and the entire Albany congregation have done for Bryan during his three years at Sienna. Your love, support and and caring have ben overwhelming.

This weekend that saame young man graduated from seminary. He’s taking the blessing and love of this congregation and others with him and who knows how many it will touch? What I love about this church is that love is normal here.

We’re in a difficult moment. Each week I call people just to check in, to say, “How are you doing?” This week I sensed a rising tide of people who said the same thing, that they were so tired of staying in where unmistakeable. I feel it too. I know I look forward to when we gather again here, in this space.

But whether we gather here or in our homes, we can still live from the commands of Christ. Sometimes Jesus’ first disciples failed; sometimes they succeeded. But they gave the world this wonderful gift: his vision of love made normal. And in that gift, they found a spirit. As Jesus said, they weren’t alone and they discovered that in that Spirit, miracles were possible. Making love normal always does this: it always draws the Spirit and incubates miracles.

I hope this week you feel that Spirit. I hope it moves you to prayer, I hope it moves you to wonder, I hope it moves you to act out the commands of Christ. I hope you see not just what’s here but what’s coming here, see the impact of normal love, see the vision of Christ. For wherever we go, we will be on the right path when we go where Christ compels us, where Christ leads us, where Christ’s love becomes our gift to the world for whom Christ gave his life.

Amen.

Where Are You Staying?

Where Are You Staying?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Easter/A • May 10, 2020

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5,15-16John 14:1-10

I suspect one of the little noticed casualties of the pause is the name tag. You know these: they say, “Hello” in big letters and you print your name on it so people will know who you are. At church meetings, they always make me wonder: should I put the ‘Reverend’ in front? James or Jim? What about the church name? These are bits of information that help say who I am. We all assemble a picture of a person from different aspects.

Sometimes something new surprises us. One day one of our members dropped in at the church office. I was wearing jeans and it threw her; she was used to seeing me in a robe on Sunday. “I never knew you wore jeans,” she said. Like a picture puzzle, we know someone from the things we learn about them. Now today, in the lesson from the Gospel of John, Jesus is giving his followers—the ones right there and us as well—the pictures we need to understand who he is.

The lesson is set during the last supper. Jesus has washed his followers’ feet and given them the signature command for his followers: “love one another.” The shadows are gathering; it’s Maundy Thursday. We’ve been told his spirit is troubled and perhaps his friends are as well because he begins, “Let not your heart be troubled” But they are troubled. Their journey with Jesus always potted toward Jerusalem.. Now they’ve arrived but darkness is closing in and they must have wondered, “What now?” They’re about to face the great problem all Christians face: how do we stay with Jesus no matter what the world dishes out?

He begins by telling them that in his Father’s house there are many dwellings. I know many of us grew up hearing, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” But that Seventeenh Century phrase doesn’t accurately represent what John says because today ‘mansion’ means a big, palatial house for one family. ‘Mansion’ originally meant any dwelling, a house or a hotel along a road, not an especially ornate, expensive place. What Jesus wants us to imagine is something like a condominium, a home with many places arranged around a courtyard. I know that may give you a sense of loss. The first time Jacquelyn heard me explain this, she said, “Hey, I thought I was getting a mansion and now you tell me it’s just a condo?”

But I want you to understand what Jesus is really saying here. The dwelling places he’s talking about aren’t separate; it’s not a spiritual subdivision. This is a community and the very togetherness is part of what he means to say. Jesus begins from an intimate togetherness with the Father and now he’s telling his friends he intends to include them in the community, give them a place in the community, with him and with the Father. He goes on to say: “…if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am, there you will be also.” [John 14:3] Jesus is giving his friends—Jesus is giving us—instructions on how to stay with him and it begins with believing he’s going to make a home for us.

This home is crucial to our faith life because it’s how we stay with Jesus and it’s how we hold fast to our journey with him. As we heard, Psalm 31 says,

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

Don’t we all need a refuge sometimes? Remember building a fort when you were a kid?—piling up pillow or chairs or boxes to make a castle and hiding inside? We build refuges as adults out of bits and pieces the same way. Sometimes it’s our possessions, sometimes it’s a house or job or sometimes it’s simply working to make sure we are in control.

But all those refuges eventually fail, just like our pillow forts came tumbling down. One of the reasons people are so stressed today is that our home built, self-built refuges are falling apart. When our refuge falls apart, it’s scary. But Jesus is offering a permanent refuge, a permanent place with him. As he said, his mission now is to prepare a place for us. The two questions in the text are questions we ask as well. “How do we get there?” and, “What’s the Father like?”

Thomas is blunt. Jesus says, “You know the place where I am going”; Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going.” How do we get to this dwelling with Jesus and the Father? How do we find the refuge? Have you ever stopped for directions and gotten something that didn’t help? Jesus is going and Thomas wants to come along—he wants directions. And what Jesus says is simply: “I am the way.” Last week we heard him say, “I am the gate—the way in”, and “I am the good shepherd”. Just like assembling the pieces of a picture puzzle I mentioned earlier, these “I am” statements show us Jesus’ identity. They are the clues staying with Jesus.

By saying, “I am the way,” Jesus is saying that living like him is the way to dwelling with the Father and him. That’s why it’s so important to read the gospels. They tell us the story of his life, they give us the pieces to help us understand who he is. When we do that, what we find at the center is a man with an unstoppable love that always embraces, always heals, always helps. He tells us directly how to know if we’re on the right track. Just before this reading, he’s said, “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another…” So walking the way of Jesus is determining to make love the persistent, every day energy of your life.

Now when someone says, “I love you,” a good question to ask is, “As evidenced by what?” When we talk about loving someone, many of the details cluster around what some call appreciation. That means, making a conscious, dedicated effort to consider each other person as a gift from God and to praise God for that person. It can begin with a simple prayer of thanks for someone. “Thank you, God, for Jacquelyn,” is something I pray every day. I like to name the people here in our congregation consciously in my prayers with the same prayer; I thank God for each of you.

It measures me and it will measure you. It’s hard to thank God for someone if you’re angry with them; at the same time, it can help you remember why you’re friends or partners in the first place. It can connect us. Try it out in the prayer time in a few minutes. When we’re silent, think of someone in the congregation or someone you know and simply consciously in your mind picture them and thank God for them.

This isn’t going to solve all problems. But it’s a step and it’s a step along the way with Jesus. It’s a step that helps keep us connected with him by connecting with each other. If you keep up with this prayer, if you keep up walking along the way toward Jesus, he will walk with you. And you’ll know what he teaches Philip.

Remember Philip?—Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father. It’s like saying, “Hey, this is all fine but just give me the GPS coordinates for God.” Jesus simply says that if he doesn’t know the Father is in Jesus, he doesn’t know Jesus. This is what it means to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It was the great celebration of an early community that yes, they had discovered how to stay with Jesus, yes, they had discovered how to find the Father, yes, they had found the refuge of faith, the truth . Professor Gail O’Day said about this passage,

Jesus doesn’t say “no one comes to God except through me” but no one comes to the Father except through me.” God is not a generic deity but the Father recognized in the life of Jesus. [John] is not concerned with the fate… of Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity… These verses are a confession a celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation. [New Interpreters Bible, p. 745]

We can have that same joy when we make our refuge a dwelling place in the Father’s house with Jesus.

So the question for us is, “Where are you staying?” Are you staying in a fort you’ve built that will never survive the winds of the world?—or are you staying with Jesus in the place prepared for you, walking the way of Jesus and seeing the Father in him? That’s our hope; that’s our reason for being together.

Our church’s purpose statement says that our purpose

…is to celebrate God’s love and to build a vibrant and vital church through worship, fellowship, education, service and outreach in an inclusive and diverse community,

Just like the church of John’s gospel, we are meant to be a people walking the way of Jesus by connecting and loving others, appreciating others, hoping with others. That is the way to dwelling with God. That is the true refuge that has sustained Christians just like us in every time and place, in every condition, regardless of the storms and disasters.

That can be your refuge; I know it is mine. Where are you staying? Come stay in the dwelling place Jesus prepared for you, for me, for all of us, come stay with God.

Amen

Green Pastures

Green_Pastures

A_Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany_NY

by Rev James Eaton_Pastor – © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Fourth Sunday in Easter • May 3, 2020

Acts 2:42-47 – Psalm23John 10:1-10

We’ve all had about a month or so on pause here in New York. What are you doing with the time? One of our long time members posts accounts of her day most days. There is a poetic valuing of the ordinary there that often makes me smile. One thing I’ve been doing is watching videos online and I’ve stumbled across videos of guys—and they are all guys so far—making plastic models. Did you do this when you were a kid? A lot of our childhood play involves modeling, whether it’s building them, or dressing up or playing with dolls. Even as adults, we look to models. A woman who decides to change her hair will look through a book of hairstyles. So a good question to ask is, “What is our spiritual model?” What do we want to look like, what do we want to show in our daily life?

Today we read a portion of the gospel of John with a famous verse we’ve all heard: Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” Now the word that’s translated ‘good’ in this passage means more than just what we mean by good. It really means: “I am the ideal shepherd”, a way of saying, in effect, I am the model shepherd. Jesus hopes to be our model and he models life in his way with his disciples.

Israel had a long history with shepherds. Abraham was a herdsman so right from the beginning, God’s people had this picture in front of them of a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Sheep aren’t raised in towns, they are raised up on the arid, rocky hillsides. In ancient times, wilderness places were full of dangers: lions, wolves, and the simple possibility of falling down and injuring yourself. Add to that the bandits who frequently roamed and you can see that being a shepherd was difficult and dangerous.

So when Jesus says, “I am the model shepherd,” he’s invoking an image that has meaning for those listening. It’s as if someone said, “I am the model cowboy”. The meanings cluster around three things. First, a shepherd and the sheep have a relationship of mutual care. The shepherd is sustained by the sheep; the sheep are nurtured and protected by the shepherd. We see these images in the what has become perhaps the most famous psalm in o ur Bible, Psalm 23. Now I know as soon as you heard this, you recognized it and may have thought, “Oh! Funeral psalm.” But it’s only recently and in our culture that the psalm became associated with funerals. It began as a song of praise.

Right from the start, the psalm establishes the singer’s relationship: “The Lord is my shepherd”, and immediately he follows that with praise for the shepherd’s fulfillment: “I shall not want” is to say that the shepherd is the source of everything the singer needs. He does this, according to the psalm, by leading to green pastures. Now I grew up where there are lawns, every house had a pasture. That, after all, is how lawns began: a bit of pasture set aside for beauty. I’ve been around cow pastures, too, and maybe you have. So what we often imagine when it comes to green pastures is that sort of expanse of grass, green, flourishing, lush.

But that’s not where sheep grazed in Israel. They were moved to high, dry, rocky slopes. On those slopes, bits of grass grow mostly around rocks because the rocks condense water out of the breeze of the Mediterranean Sea. Grass grows in the crevices and sheep feed by going from one rock to another, eating what’s there, moving on to the next. That’s the job of the shepherd: to keep them moving. The green pastures are nothing like a lawn; they are a place where you can continue to find what you need but only if you keep moving. That’s part of the shepherd’s job: to keep the sheep moving.

The other part is to keep them safe. What does safety mean? Jesus teaches that our enemy isn’t death, it is the fear of death. The psalm takes this on too. “Even in the darkest valley,” he says—more poetically but less accurately, “the shadow of death”—I will fear no evil.

The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t have to worry about where we will get what we need—he will provide it. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t need to worry about the darkness of evil—he’ protecting us. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, is there so we don’t have to fear anything at all.

Jesus is the good shepherd and this is the psalm of the shepherd, a psalm we need to hear. Because this is a time when our lives are being bounded by fear. One way people are dealing with it is to deny it. The people gathered in groups on the beach in Florida yesterday, opened because of the fear of politicians, believe they can ignore a virus. The people who assaulted the capitol of Michigan with automatic weapons this week believe they can assault a virus. They’re fearful people, acting out of fear.

But the good shepherd, the model shepherd, has a different way. His way is to seek a fearless life by following him, moving at his command, living in his model. That’s what’s going on in the section we heard from Acts today. Written about 50 years later, the church is looking back to an earlier, ideal time for a model. We know that conflict existed in Christian congregations from the beginning. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are all about church fights. But here the church is looking back and remembering a different a model, a model of a church where they are all together and mutually sustain each other so that no one lacks anything. They’re looking back to a time when the church was closer to the model of the good shepherd.

So we have this model: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, we are the flock. How do we use it to help us construct our lives day to day? Because we are in different places, different situations. One writer said,>

I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.Your ship could be shipwrecked, and mine might not be. For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflections, of re-connection, easy in flip-flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial and family crisis. For some that live alone, they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest, and time with their mother, father, sons and daughters. Others want to kill those who break quarantine. Some are at home spending two to three hours a day, helping their child with online schooling, while others are doing the same on top of a 10–12 hour workday. Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe this is a big deal. We are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different. Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing. We are all on different ships during this storm, experiencing a very different journey. — Unknown Author

We are in the same storm but in different boats.
But if we are in the same storm, we also have the same model to turn to, a single point of reference for how we should act, how we should live, how we should believe. It’s simple: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd. So each day, every day, a good way to begin, a good way to end, is with the shepherd prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

We are in the same storm, but in different boats. But we all seek the same harbor, we all seek the green pasture that will sustain us, we all seek safety. So in this time, in this storm, let us build lives modeled not on some common sense or made up idea but rather on the model of the good shepherd, who comes to give us life abundantly.

Amen.

Break Thou the Bread of Life

Break Thou the Bread of Life

A sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Third Sunday in Easter/A • April 26, 2020

Luke 24:13-25

Watch the Sermon on Youtube

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.

Locked Down Hope

Locked Down Hope

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 19, 2020

John 19:20-31

Do you remember the story of the Three Pigs? It seems like a fable for this time. Three pigs go off to seek their fortune and build houses. Not long after, a hungry wolf comes by and blows down the house of the first and then the second. The pigs run to their brother who has built out of brick and hide, safe for the moment. When the wolf fails to blow down the house, he comes down the chimney but falls into a pot of boiling water the thoughtful third pig has placed in the fire. Three pigs locked down, scared of a wolf: it seems an appropriate image of where we are today, hoping that if the wolf does come down the chimney, scientists will have discovered a vaccine, a pot of boiling water, to stop the virus threatening us. It also mirror the situation of the disciples in the portion of John’s gospel we read today. Just like the pigs, just like us, they’re locked down, hoping the closed door can keep the danger outside.

I know you can imagine them but we’re in the same place these days. They’re afraid the same authorities who killed Jesus will come after them. With us, the fear is that somehow someone will cough or sneeze or simply breathe and an invisible enemy will invade us, sicken us. I don’t know about you but we have several friends who are sick. It gives all of us a lurking anxiety: “Am I next?” Like the disciples, we heard about the resurrection, but has it really changed us? They’ve heard the same report we did. A few women have come back raving about an experience at the tomb, claiming to have seen an angel, claiming to have seen Jesus alive. Clearly they don’t believe them. Do we?

So we should pay particular attention to this story today. John sets it in the evening. The disciples are locked in. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” [John 20:19b] That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Then something amazing happens. Jesus appears to them, coming through the door as if wasn’t there. Locked doors can’t keep Jesus out. “He stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” [John 20:19c], the common, customary greeting, the “hey there”, the “sup”, the “hello” of his time. It’s as if he’s just been out on an errand, as if the terrible days of arrest and trial and crucifixion and tomb never happened. “Hiya”: I’m here. The disciples make sure it’s really him and then they rejoice.

I think, for me, that would have been enough. Would it for you? Think: you’re grieving and suddenly you don’t have to grieve. You’re crying and suddenly you don’t have to cry. You’re angry and suddenly you don’t have to be angry. I think for me, I would have been happy to just stay in that moment of recognition. I would have wanted to get out the leftovers from the funeral dinner, I would have wanted to just celebrate and stay there and stay happy and feel glorious and not ask too many questions. What about you?

But Jesus isn’t staying there. He never does. Last week we heard Matthew’s version of more or less the same story and if you listened to that you may remember the first thing he said to the women who found him alive after “Don’t be afraid” was go. It’s pretty much the same here; it always is with Jesus. He’s got a mission and it’s why he’s there. It’s why he gathered them; it’s why he calls us. So in the next moment, before there’s even time to serve, much less eat, any cake, he says,

As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. [John 20:21-23]

He’s handing out the Holy Spirit like peeps on Easter: just like that. You know, if it was us, we’d have a procedure, we’d have a form to fill out, we’d have a disclosure agreement to sign. Not Jesus: no one has to be interviewed by the Board of Deacons to get the Holy Spirit, no one has to agree to pledge or volunteer, just like that: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. And then: your mission is to forgive sins.

There’s a lot of talk right now about starting up the country. I think most of us are getting tired of being home, tired of the same walls, tired of the inconveniences of life. Of course, the people who are sick and the ones dying and the ones grieving aren’t tired of it. They’re too busy suffering to worry about the economy. Dr. Oz cheerfully said we could sacrifice two or three percent of our children to get back to making money. The lieutenant governor of Texas said we can sacrifice grandparents. I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, I’m not sure any of those families who were crying thought it would be ok to sacrifice someone they loved. It’s wrong and it’s not the approach Christians take. We believe everyone is a child of God.

So we’re talking about starting up. But Jesus has something much more fundamental in mind: he’s talking about restarting our lives. That’s what forgiveness really means, it means recovering your life. Guilt and shame are like a terrible tomb in which we bury parts of ourselves and when we truly know ourselves forgiven, we come out of that grave like Lazarus. It’s the same for us when we forgive, because holding onto anger and resentment sucks up our energy, saps our lives, and when we forgive, we have that energy, we have that life again. Jesus comes to give life: this is one way he means to give it and we are the instruments he’s using. That’s what the part about “retaining the sins of any” really means; it means if we don’t do this, furtiveness doesn’t happen. What we do makes a difference. What he means for us to do is nurture joy by practicing forgiveness.

This time is a unique moment we’ve been given. Locked down, we have the space in our lives to listen. It’s hard to listen today. We’re so plugged into our mental to do lists, our devices, our contact inputs that we usually don’t have real quiet time. One writer said,

Noise is an inevitable aspect of civilization…Stores and restaurants pip in background music, the ceaseless rumble of traffic reverberates…Our cell phones regularly startle us with insistent bleeping and the prattle of television shoves our thoughts into oblivion.
[Rebeccas Burg, Sail With Me: Two People, Two Boars, One Adventure]

The lockdown time is offering a cure, if we will take it. Most of the errands that fill our lives are waiting. We’re no longer in the stores she mentions and the traffic is less.
Glennon Doyle talks about learning to listen. Going through a difficult time, a friend sent her a card that said, “Be still and know.” [Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” So after her kids went to school, she sat down on a towel in a closet and tried to be still. She says,

I checked my phone every few moments, planned my grocery lists and mentally redecorated my living room..” [Glenon Doyle, Untamed, p. 56]

But she kept at it: ten minutes a day. Eventually, she felt herself slip down into the silence.

Since the chaos stills in this deep, I could sense something that I was not able to sense on the surface. It was like that quiet chamber in Denmark…where people can actually hear and feel their own blood circulating. ..It was a knowing. [ibid]
She learned to listen and the listening helped her know herself as a child of God.

Are you listening? It doesn’t happen in a moment; it takes a little faith, it takes a little patience, it takes some courage to be quiet. But if we are quiet, when we are quiet, then truly we hear the spirit in the breeze of our soul. “Receive the Spirit,” Jesus says. He means you; he means me. What is the purpose? So that forgiveness can spread. It starts with us, it starts with forgiving ourselves. When we listen for God, what we will first hear is this: “Don’t be afraid.” I know this because it’s what every single angel says first thing. Every time God sends someone, that’s the message. When Jesus is raised, the first thing he says is, “Don’t be afraid.” We don’t have to be afraid because when we truly listen, we hear God loving us. We hear we are children of God.

So there’s a great hope for this time. We started out locked down because we were afraid, afraid of a virus, afraid a disease was going to overwhelm all our technology, all our noise, all our smarts. It still may. But there is hope in this locked down time, great hope. It is an opportunity to go into your closet and be still; it’s a chance to be silent and know. That’s the whole verse from the card Doyle’s friend sent: ““Be still, and know that I am God!”

When we hear God, when we know God, then we can hope. Then the lockdown is something we’re doing not in fear but as a gift, a way to help others. Then it’s passing on the hope and help of God. Yes, Lord, I’m willing to change how my life is lived because I know just as I’m a child of God, so are all the others. That’s locked down hope
I hope you will find a way to be silent this week. I hope you will find a way to see the hope beyond the fear. I hope you will be still and know and in the knowing, receive the spirit Jesus means to give, a spirit of love, a spirit of forgiveness.

Amen.

Resurrection Now

Resurrection Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All rights reserved

Easter Sunday/A • April 12, 2020

Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 28:1-10

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you did last time. You do it whether it worked or not; you do it whether it makes sense or not. Most of our life is cooked up from a series of recipes. What should we do? Look at your handbook; look at what worked before, ask someone what worked for them. This is why this is such a difficult time: we don’t have a recipe for a pandemic. We’re trying to do the same thing but under different conditions. I understand the pastors of churches in other areas who insist on having in person services today. They’re wrong, they’re listening to the past instead of what Jesus is saying today, but I understand it. Every pastor looks forward to Easter, prepares for Easter; we all do. What do you do when something prevents you doing what you have always done? You try to do it anyway. You go back to your recipes.

No Handbook for Easter

But there’s no handbook for Easter, no cookbook for resurrection. We’ve just heard the story of two women in the midst of something unimaginable; one of those stories you read in the newspaper and wince about, one of those tales you hear and think, “Thank God that’s not me”. Their friend, their leader, the man who guided their lives and gave those lives light has been crucified. It’s a horrible, tortuous death. They don’t know what to do so they do what they did the last time someone died: they’re on the way to bury him properly. But they’re about to experience an earthquake, they’re about to come face to face with the real Easter. This is the Easter story: you start out to bury Jesus and end up proclaiming his life. You lose your friend and find the Lord.

Can you see them on the way to the tomb? They’ve come to properly bury Jesus. They wonder about the difficulty; they’ve brought the things they’ll need. Ancient Palestinian tombs were cave like places where families gathered for picnics, where they went to remember and they are going to get everything ready. They are following a map from the past, as we do. We look at its ways, we check off its steps. They are not prepared for Jesus’ death; nothing prepares us for death. But they are prepared for him to be dead. They know what to do: they do what they did last time. Matthew tells the story with care. Everything is just as expected. It’s early, just after dawn; the soldiers are guarding the tomb, the world is quiet, Jesus is dead and buried. They are doing what they did last time.

On the Way

Then everything changes. Matthew says there is an earthquake; perhaps the true earthquake is the stunning surprise when their map suddenly disappears, when last time is no guide to right now. Jesus isn’t there. None of the gospel accounts tell the details of the resurrection; all the accounts agree that the women went to a tomb, expecting the dead Jesus, and found he wasn’t there. What they did last time, what they believed from their past, what they knew about things staying the same suddenly didn’t apply. Instead, they meet a strange angelic figure; instead, they are told three things: don’t be afraid, go tell what you’ve seen, meet me in Galilee, back home. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus is not done with them; Jesus is not done with us.

New things scare us. Think of the first day in a new school, first day on new job—all the firsts of life. These women were prepared to bury Jesus, they’re not prepared to have a conversation with him. Yes, they are scared and notice how the first thing he does is care for them. There is a great lesson for us in these words. Because we are scared. We’ve encountered something new and we don’t know how to control it. When we lose control, it’s frightening so first like those women we need to hear from Jesus these words this Easter: “Don’t be afraid!” There’s a summons to faith. They ask: can you believe even in this time of quarantines and lockdowns and people sickening and dying that our lives are in the hands of God? Can we believe that God’s care really is beyond life and death and anything else in all creation? If we do and we believe God is in charge, then we really can leave our fear behind even in the face of this new challenge.

Making Sense of Go in Lockdown

When their fear is calmed, Jesus tells the women to, “Go tell my disciples to go to Galilee…” What is Christian life? Is it sitting in a pew? All the gospels speak of a Jesus who is constantly on the move, from Galilee to Samaria, from Samaria to Jerusalem, from one healing to another, from one moment to another. So following him means moving with him. Now the question is: how do we make sense of “Go” when we’re in lockdown?

The answer is to stop letting it be someone else’s job and make it yours. We all have many ways to go to others: we have telephones, we have email, we have a call across the street to a neighbor. One of problems of these days without the usual structure of work is how to make an agenda. Our family is doing that with a set of questions for each day. One of them is, “Who am I checking in with today?” Who are you calling today who needs to know through you that they are a beloved child of God? That’s how you go, that’s how you tell someone Jesus is alive.

The last thing he says to the women is that he’ll meet them in Galilee, back home. This may be the strangest thing of all. Jesus isn’t done with them. They came to a tomb. They came to bury him. They are already grieving for him because they thought he was in the past. But he isn’t; he’s out there, already on the way and hoping they will follow him. And he’s hoping the same thing about us.

This living Jesus in the world always surprises us. Think of Peter, perhaps a few years later, speaking to the same sort of Roman official who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, saying this amazing thing: that God doesn’t show any partiality. God doesn’t love Americans better than anyone else, God doesn’t love the rich better than anyone else, God doesn’t love you any better than anyone else.

This is a new time. I don’t mean the pandemic, I don’t mean a virus, I mean Easter. This may be the truest Easter of all. We’re used to cooking up Easter from a set of recipes. What does Easter mean? Does it mean Easter baskets full of candy, colored eggs, special music in church and a great service of celebration? Does it mean lilies and a full church and an egg hunt? We can all cook from this recipe and we don’t like changing it. That’s why I understand, as I said at the outset, those who want to follow the recipe as much as they can.

But Easter doesn’t mean going to brunch and decorating eggs: it means going to the tomb. It means being so scared because things have changed that even the Lord has to tell you, only the Lord can tell you, “Do not be afraid”. It means recognizing that this is a new time and there is no going back, that the old recipes won’t work anymore and we have to find new ways. Those recipes are for how to get along in the world as it was. But the world is a tomb and our call is not of this world, our call is not in this world. We are called like the women of this story to get up and get going. Jesus is not here; Jesus is gone, Jesus is gone to Galilee, Jesus is gone to glory.

And this is what he says to us: don’t be afraid, get moving. If he could escape the tomb so can you; if he can live again, so can you, you don’t have to fear death. Get up: you’re not done, you’re not finished but you aren’t here to do what you thought, he has a new purpose and a different mission for you. Get up: go find him.

Resurrection Now!

Jesus is not done with us; Jesus is not done with you. Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. He’s not in the past; he’s not only in the future. Resurrection is not about the past or the future it is about the present. Resurrection is now. We should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow today, where he is going today. In a way, the pandemic has done us an accidental favor. It’s stripped away all the Easter decorations so we can see the real Easter. The real Easter is embracing the new reality that Jesus is risen and setting out to find him.

We will find him where he said: in the eyes of the homeless, in the service of the hungry. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” We will find him when we make the resurrection of those around us more important than our own customs. We will find him when we are more interested in following him than finding our own way. We will find him when, as Paul says, we have the mind of Christ in our own mind.

Then, then indeed, Easter will come not only for us, but from us. Then, our church, our lives, will proclaim this glad news, “He is risen!” for he will be risen, risen in us, and we will have found him. All the decorations, all the baskets and other customs won’t matter. For we will be busy following him, and just like the women at the tomb on that first Easter, worshipping him.

Amen.

Who Is This?

Gardening in the Wilderness #6

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Palm Sunday/A • April 5, 2020

Matthew 21:1-11

Puxsutawny Phil is a Pennsylvania groundhog who is supposed to signal spring. But in my world, it’s Next Door Neighbor Andrea. Andrea loves working ground, making things grow. She cuts our lawn because she likes lawn mowing and hers just isn’t enough. Andrea has a garden next to our driveway and she’s out there getting plants going, when I’m still avoiding the open air because of the cold. That means it’s spring.

Except this year, of course, it isn’t. Andrea is a physician’s assistant, a courageous woman who’s working and risking to help people who are sick. Nothing is the same this spring; we’re all being rearranged like rocks falling down a mountain in a landslide. I hardly know what to pray except perhaps the oldest prayer of all: “Save us”.

Today is Palm Sunday. a curious celebration that remembers Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. In North American churches, we wave palm leaves. We do that despite the fact that palms don’t actually grow around Jerusalem; if, as some gospel accounts say, people cut ranches and laid them down, they were cutting some other kind of branch. But we do palms. Sometimes we just hold onto them; like to throw them around, I like to get people to wave them. I insist that everyone shout “Hosanna!”. More than once, when I didn’t feel the shouting was loud enough, I’ve made people do it again, sometimes even a third time, just to get the volume up. You could do it now; in fact I’m going to pause while you do it. Ok: now louder: “Hosanna!”.

‘Hosanna’ isn’t a word that often comes up in conversation. When someone shoves their phone in front of you with a YouTube video and says, “Look at this”; most of us don’t yell, “Wow, Hosanna!” No, ‘Hosanna’ is pretty much saved up for this one day, one morning, every year. So let’s make the most of it. One more time, this time really loud, stand up, put your arms up and shout, “Hosanna!” We don’t need palms: Matthew says, “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road,” so you could take off your shirt or sweater and toss it on the ground and shout “Hosanna!”.

What does it mean? If you’ve been going to church for a while, this isn’t the first time you said it, first time you heard it. What does Hosanna mean? What are they shouting? Simple: “Hosanna means “Save us”. The crowds are shouting the very prayer many of us are praying today: “Save us!” Shouting it at Jesus means you know he’s your savior.

The whole story is shaped around this prayer. It starts out at the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives was believed to be where the Messiah would appear. The part about the donkey and the colt is also from Zechariah; he said,

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

So Jesus starts from the place of salvation and acts like a savior and people are shouting, “Save us! Save us! Hosanna”. It’s a parade of salvation.

Imagine this parade It’s hard to be anything but silly on a donkey. And Jesus certainly isn’t wearing expensive clothes. It’s almost Passover; people from all over are streaming into Jerusalem for the celebration. The paths up to the city are crowded. Jesus and his followers and friends aren’t the only ones on the road. Those are the ones seeing him for the first time, those are the ones throwing shirts—“cloaks—down and cutting branches. It’s a sign you recognize this man as something special.

But this isn’t the only parade that day. There’s a much bigger one on the other side of the city. There, a Roman army contingent is entering the city. They’re preparing for Passover too, but in a different way. Passover is a time of high passion in the city, the whole story is about liberation from foreigners and some people are going to get inspired enough to make trouble.

So an army contingent is marching in to keep order. At the head of that parade is a leader on a horse, looking regal; after all, he represents the emperor, the Lord of the known world, whose title is “Son of God”. That’s right: ‘Son of God’ wasn’t just used about Jesus, in fact, using this term for Jesus is one of the things that got Christians in trouble. So over there is a much more impressive parade. I’m sure they had people cheering, I’m sure they had people selling souvenirs and food and it was a good time.

You have to choose: you can’t be a part of both parades; which one are you part of today? Are you still impressed with the trappings of power?—or are you ready to shout Hosanna—save us—to the one who comes in the name of the Lord. There are always people riding high horses, looking regal. Jesus doesn’t look like that. But he’s the one coming to save us. That’s what people saw that day. At the end, it says, “…the whole city was in turmoil, asking, “Who is this?” The crowds were saying, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.” [Matthew 21:10f]

The gospel of Matthew is dominated by one question: Jesus ask, “Who is Jesus” Palm Sunday is an answer. Who do you say Jesus is? Are you ready to say he is truly the one come to save us, the one God sent? You don’t need a palm for that, you just need your heart; you don’t need to go to a parade, you just need to follow on the way with him.

Right now, many of us feel overwhelmed. We know what makes sense: stay home. At our house, we’ve had a pesky squirrel coming in our garage and crawling up in the overhead; I didn’t need experts to tell me to shut the door and keep her out. But some religious leaders and some politicians amazingly don’t seem to understand that just because it’s fun to get together, we need to stay home. I don’t know how they’d ever manage a pesky squirrel.

But I know this: staying home doesn’t make us feel better because we feel out of control. Isn’t that the best time to turn to God and simply pray, “Save us”? —and then determine to be part of that salvation.

Out on the water, there is a word that gets immediate attention: “Mayday”. When you hear Mayday on the radio, you stop what you’re doing, everyone does, and you listen. It’s actually a legal requirement but that’s not why you do it; you do it because you’re human and out there another person needs help. Maybe it’s someone close by, so you look, if you actually see them, you go help out. Maybe it’s distant, so you stay off the radio, because staying off the radio, doing nothing, is how you help.

When we stay home, we help. When we stay home and pray for others and let them know, we help even more.

“Hosanna!”—that’s today’s word—that’s today’s prayer. Some are like Andrea, called to go do things. Some help by staying home. Palm Sunday is a parade. When we join in praying, “Save us” and then become part of the answer to that prayer, we join the parade, we answer the question, “Who is this?” How are you answering it today?

Amen.

What Now, Lord?

Gardening in the Wilderness #5:

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Lent/A • March 29, 2020 • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Luke 11:1-45

Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. Today we’re invited into this final moment before Jesus comes to Jerusalem, today we are invited to face the darkness of death and see the possibilities of resurrection. Today we are asked to stop in this moment and consider our own lives in the light of these other lives. What then? What now?

See how carefully John invites us into the scene. Bethany is a suburb of Jerusalem. Mary and Martha are gathered there; Lazarus, their brother, is deathly ill. I know this scene and perhaps you do as well. It’s played out in hospital waiting rooms every day. Right now, at Albany Med, at St. Peters, some family is gathered, waiting, talking, worrying. Nothing has changed; nothing is different, then, now. Their brother has been sick, perhaps for a long time. Everything has been tried; nothing has worked.

Now they try one more thing. Jesus has a reputation for healing and he’s their friend. So someone, another friend perhaps, is sent to get him. Imagine their hope, their last hope, that Jesus will swoop in and save the day.

But he doesn’t. In fact, after the messenger arrives with his frantic plea, Jesus doesn’t rush off, Jesus doesn’t interrupt whatever he’s doing, Jesus stays where he is, the text says, two more days. The story invites us into an irony that reflects our own fears.

When the messenger arrives, asking, begging Jesus to come to Bethany, his disciples are afraid. “The last time we were down there, people rioted and we barely got out with our lives!”, they remind him; that’s what it means when it says they were stoned. At the moment Jesus is asked to intervene and prevent Lazarus’ death, the disciples urge him not to go because they’re afraid of death. Here’s one response to death: avoid it, stay safe. Before death, use your mind to escape death.

Jesus doesn’t listen to them. When his disciples were discussing the man born blind, he told them, “I am the light of the world.” Now he gives them an example of living in the light and makes his way to Bethany.

There he encounters first Martha and later Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, and each one confronts him with an accusation: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are grieving, they are hurt, they are angry and their anger and faith have mixed into a bitter blindness. Swirling around this entire conversation is a group of other mourners as well and emotions run high. Jesus is himself caught up in the moment; the text tells us “Jesus wept.” So here we have a second response to death: weep, mourn, grieve. If the rational process of avoiding death fails, the emotional process of grieving offers a path.

We’ve all been to a funeral and probably to that time before the service, calling hours, wake, different names for the same moment. Usually there is a casket or an urn at the front of the room and a line leading to it with a grieving family off to one side. I don’t know what you think of as you wait in that line but for many, it’s what to say to the family. What comfort can you bring?

So I imagine this scene like that: the family and friends gathered around as Jesus, Lazarus’ great friend, comes forward through the crowd. See him walking slowly? See him weeping? Now he comes to the opening, he tells them to roll away the stone and they object: the odor of death will escape. But the grave is opened and suddenly he speaks, he says what no one imagined or expected, what none of us would say:

“Lazarus, come out.”

Jesus shouts: “Lazarus, come out,” the word for ‘shout’ is the same word is used at his entrance to Jerusalem when the crowds shout “Hosanna!”. The same word is used days later when the same crowd shouts, “Crucify!” The crowd changes; Jesus never does. His voice doesn’t come from an impulse. This is what we often miss about Jesus. I don’t believe he suddenly decided to talk to Nicodemus or give vision to heal the man born blind. And he doesn’t just call Lazarus out of the tomb because they are friends. Jesus lives from who he is. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” He doesn’t act like resurrection, he is resurrection; he doesn’t act like he loves, he is love.

Now there is a faint noise from inside the tomb, now there is the sound of stumbling feet, now there is a shadow moving, moving toward the light from the darkness, just as the man born blind moved from blindness to sight. “Come out, Lazarus!”

Lazarus stumbles forward, wrapped still in the linen cloths with which bodies were bound in that time. Jesus offers a new command: “Unbind him and let him go.” Notice that in each command, Jesus invites others to take action. He tells others to move the stone; he doesn’t pull Lazarus out of the tomb, he calls him out; he doesn’t unbind him, he asks the whole group there to do this. Jesus works through a community around him, commanding, inspiring, calling, showing them what to do and inviting them to do it.

We’ve seen two ways to deal with death: avoidance and acceptance. Jesus offers a third—faith in the resurrection, faith in the power of life, faith in the love of God so that even in the midst of death, we remain alive to God, as Paul will say later, transformed.

That faith can bind us together into a resurrection people, inspired to live our lives in the image of Jesus. Just being a church doesn’t guarantee that; there are plenty of churches who are gathered around a shared culture or a determination to preserve the past.

I called this series of sermons, “Gardening in the Wilderness” because Lent began with these two images: the Garden as an emblem of God’s intention for creation, the Wilderness as the empty place we often live. The fundamental Christian mission is to go to where the power of death is working and call God’s children to life, to go to darkness and bring light, to be gardeners in the wilderness.
When we act out of hope, it can make a life saving difference.

Holland was overwhelmed by a German assault in 1940. Soon the Nazi focus on murdering Jews made itself felt. In Amsterdam, a large theater was gutted and used as a detention center and and used to gather Jewish children so they could be killed. Ironically, it was called “the Creche”, a word usually used about the stable where Jesus was born. A small group of Dutch resisters, both Christians and Jews, began to work to save these children. Despite the increasing risks, for the next three years they organized smuggled children out of the creche to homes in northern Holland and other places where families would hide and help them. The creche was meant to be a tomb for these children. But thanks to the efforts of these who walked into that tomb and spirited them out, hundreds of children were saved.

But it’s not simply a story of heroes and happy children. Many of the group were lost to the Gestapo, arrested, tortured, murdered. Darkness is powerful; death does not give up. The only power greater than death is resurrection, the only thing that can keep the light alive is the power of God’s love.

All along his journey, Jesus has faced conflict and threats. We saw the anger of the Pharisees last week when he healed the man born blind. We know that the charge, “He eats with sinners,” was frequently used and that included people like the woman at the well certainly. Beyond the reading for today, John tells us that the raising of Lazarus leads directly to the plot to arrest and execute Jesus.

Remember how Jesus’ conversation with Satan ended. Satan did not say, “I give up”; instead, we’re told, he left him for a more opportune time. Now that time is coming. The darkness is closing around him even as he himself brings light. I wonder in that moment what his followers thought; I wonder what we would have thought, what I would have thought. I read this story and I want to rejoice but it scares me as well. I wonder: what now Lord?

For the story of Jesus calling someone to life from death isn’t just history; it is the present too. Over and over in my ministry I have seen this happen. Some person, nurtured by a congregation, comes alive. Perhaps it was a woman whose life had been bound by walls of oppression; perhaps it is a man who turns a life around.

Perhaps it is someone who only comes to church for a little while and then moves on. This is what sustains me on my journey. I’ve seen Jesus call people to life. I’ve felt Jesus call me to life.

Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. As we go out each day, we have to choose among those possibilities. How will we choose? The power of resurrection comes into our lives when we face the day, face the possibilities, face the choices with this question first: what now Lord? What now? If we ask, surely he will answer; if we ask, surely he will show us how to walk in the light, how to live following the one who is life. Amen.

Note: The account of the Resistance group working to save children is found in The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage