Face Forward

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

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

Living With Change

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

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

The Situation of the Steward

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

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

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

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

Making a Change: Facing Forward

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

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

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

Reacting to the Parable

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

What Is Jesus Saying?

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

An Example of Facing Forward

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

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

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

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

Facing Forward With Jesus

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

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

Amen.

Finding Joy

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

Lost

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

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

Giving Up on Some

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

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

Parable of the Lost Sheep

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

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

Finding Joy

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

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

No Turkey Dinner!

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

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

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

A Community of Joy

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

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

Finding Peace

Cannon firing

British 3 pounder cannon fired at Fort Ticonderoga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summer Season

Ocean view

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom Now

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

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

Pictures

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

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

Being Right

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

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

Being Wrong When We’re Right

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

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

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

Being Right With Jesus

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

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

Loving God

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedom Now!

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

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

Amen.

Are We Pigs or People?

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

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

Thinking About the Details

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

Jesus’ Journey

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

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

Welcome to Gerasa

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

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

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

Encountering the Demonic

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

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

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

Encountering Jesus

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

People or Pigs?

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

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

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

Seeing Like Jesus

Is There Any More?

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

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

Elijah and the Drought

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

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

Elijah and the Widow

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

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

Living in the Drought

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

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

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

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

Believing in God’s Providence

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

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

How to See Jesus in the Drought

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

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

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

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

Choosing Up

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

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

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

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

Elijah and Ba’alism

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

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

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

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

Making a Choice

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

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

Memorial Day

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

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

Choosing Up

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

Amen

All Together Now!

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

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

Trinity

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

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

The Presence of God

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

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

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

God Is a Talker

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

Conversation and Connection

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

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

Imagining the Trinity

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

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

Amen.