Lent 1 B – The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1

The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1: I Promise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Lent/B • February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17

Mark 1:9-15

Click Below to Listen to the Sermon Preached

Before he goes anywhere, before he preaches anything, before he heals anyone, Jesus goes to the wilderness.

Now, I’ve gotten ready for the wilderness. I’ve gotten out the REI catalogs and dreamed of palatial tents, shoes that could easily see me up and down Mt. Washington, jackets good enough for freezing temperature which God knows I could have used this winter, tiny, tiny little stoves with gourmet freeze-dried meals. Of course, as I thought about these things, it wasn’t really the wilderness I was preparing for; it was camping. Jacquelyn and I discussed camping once. She explained another vision: a little lodge sort of place where they had cable TV and a microwave and mentioned she wasn’t going camping where you couldn’t take a shower.

We have lost our sense of the wilderness. We talk about camping in the wilderness—with a boat, camper and RV and a generator to run the microwave and hairdryer. The wilderness is not that place. The wilderness is not anything you can get ready for. It is precisely the point of the wilderness that you cannot get ready for it because you do not know it. The wilderness is where you are lost, where you lose yourself, where you do not know yourself.

In the last few days, we have been eavesdroppers as the wilderness consumed a community in Florida. In a place labeled one of the safest in the state, a young man bought a semi-automatic rifle, a gun designed for soldiers on the field of battle with no legitimate use off battlefields and shot and killed 17 high school kids and teachers. I can’t imagine the wilderness of the parents and family members of those killed kids and those staff people. All of us who have had high school kids know the drill: you send them off in the morning, sometimes easily, sometimes not; sometimes there has been a fight, sometimes it’s just a fuzzy tired “luv ya see ya tonight oh I’ve got practice, can you pick me up?”. We always assume we will be able to; I can’t imagine how lonely and terrible it must be for those who waited and wondered and finally had terrible news God didn’t make this wilderness. We did.

The temptation here is to talk about how we can make a path out of it but I want to stay with the wilderness because the wilderness is various and this is only one part. The wilderness comes in many ways, in many places. There is the wilderness of a doctor’s office and a frightening diagnosis; there is the wilderness of grief, there is the wilderness of depression. The wilderness is not geography, it is theology. The wilderness is where we feel abandoned, lost, wandering, in danger. There are so many more wildernesses. The wilderness is where we are alone and overwhelmed. How can we deal with the wilderness? How can we live in the wilderness?

Jesus is thrown into the wilderness. The text says, “…sent him into the wilderness” but ‘sent’ is a little word, we speak of having sent someone to the store, the real meaning is that he is thrown into the wilderness.

Let’s leave him there for a moment and look at another wilderness experience: Noah and the flood. Genesis traces a history of violence and human self-seeking that leads God to decide to start over, to recreate the world. It reminds me of my neighbor who loves her lawn. A couple years ago, though, she felt it had gotten so out of control, she took a rototiller and tore it up and then replanted the whole thing. The flood is God recreating and at the center of the story, at the center of all stories about God, is a person who is asked to have faith and do what God says. Noah is told to build a craft to save the world. The instructions are as precise as a set of boat plans ordered online. He builds it; it floats, his family and the animals with him survive. At the end of their voyage, there is a rainbow and the rainbow is a symbol of a promise God makes, a covenant.

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 
[Genesis 9:11-13]

We read these stories and argue about whether they are true or not true. We do TV specials about finding the ark as if it’s waiting to be found, as if it’s sitting somewhere just waiting for someone to pay the yard bill. This isn’t an event, this is an experience: the event has been overwhelmed by the experience. The experience is that there are moments when we feel wiped out, there are moments when we feel overwhelmed, drowned by a flood we cannot resist, there are moments when we feel God has given up on us.

What threatened your very existence? That is the flood. You don’t have to go look for it in Turkey, it’s here, it’s in your memory. What threatened to wipe you out? Maybe it was a death or divorce, maybe it was a disaster, maybe it was an illness. My grandfather was wiped out by the failure of a bank in the 1930s and he never trusted a bank again. My whole generation grew up with stories of the flood, only it was called a depression. Sometimes the flood is a divorce, especially if it comes upon you unexpectedly. Your whole life is changed, your home is gone, you can never go back to who you were, what you were. And you can never go back. The whole community reminds you. Every time you fill out a form there are those boxes: Married-Single-Widowed-Divorced. Which are you? I’m married—but I’ve been divorced—which one should I check?

Whatever experience, whatever flood, brings you to the wilderness, eventually, we are all confronted with how to live there.

Now the whole point of these stories is to give us tools to live right now, not to argue about what happened long ago. The whole purpose of these stories is to teach us to live God’s way. After the flood, in the wilderness, there is a promise. And this is God’s promise: I am never going to give up on you—I am NEVER going to give up on you.

It doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter how bad you are, it doesn’t matter how bad things get, I am never going to give up on you: I promise. You may give up on your lawn; you may give up on yourself; I am never giving up on you. I promise.

Now we’re ready to go back and look at Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus has three encounters there. He is tempted by the Satan, he is with the wild animals, he is waited on by angels. That sounds to me like a description of many of the experiences of life in which we suddenly find ourselves, places where we are brought without preparation, without experience, without signposts, places where we are afraid. Temptation is always present: it is the possibility of choosing to live on our own, to believe we can be enough ourselves, that we can live apart from God’s purpose and blessing. But what sustains Jesus in the wilderness isn’t his own power, it is the natural web of life—the wild animals—and the angels who wait on him. It’s worth noting that the word used for ‘waiting’ is the same used later in the gospel for those who minister to others.

This is how God is arching over the world, this is how God is giving us a foundation for our future. It begins with a promise and a covenant. The rainbow is a symbol of that covenant. Out there in the wilderness there are terrors but there are angels too. They are people who remind us that God has made a covenant, a promise, and God’s hope is that we will have the faith to recognize them and wait for them, that we will know they are there because God has not given up on us.

Lent’s often a time for doing deals. I’ve sometimes quoted Anne Lamott who says one of three main forms of prayer is, “Help me help me help me.” Lent prayers are often help me prayers. If I give up M&M’s, will you help me? If I give up Hershey kisses, will you help me? If I give up bacon—no, I’m not giving up bacon. You see what I mean. Lent is often thought of as a time for giving things up. It really is a time not for giving something up but simply for giving. Giving God some space and time to act, giving God some space and time to live in your heart.

The promise is a gift and a covenant. A good response is to make the promise we can make. In this church, when we join we make a covenant. We say, in part,
Sincerely repentant for your sins, in humble reliance upon divine grace, you promise that you will endeavor to be the disciple and follower of Jesus in doing the heavenly Father’s will.

It continues but I hope you see the point. Covenant is how God makes a path from the wilderness to the promised land, from the loneliness of the wilderness to the community of Christ. This year, thought the season of Lent, I want to walk with you through some of the promises of God the Covenants God makes. I call these collectively “the Rainbow Path,” for this first covenant.

This week, this season, as we wander through the wilderness together, God hopes for us we will walk simply believing God is there, taking God’s promise seriously, leaning on God’s promise instead of doing a deal with the darkness. This week, whether you walk familiar paths or places in a strange wilderness, remember what God has said: I will never give up on you. I promise. And if you remember, your steps will be steps along the rainbow path.

Amen

Epiphany – Transfiguration B – Shine, Jesus, Shine

Shine, Jesus, Shine

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Transfiguration Sunday • February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9

After two months in the season of Epiphany, we come back here, where we remembered the stable, to the mystery of God in the world. All these Sundays, we have been populating the crèche, adding to it, the bandaids that symbolize the people Jesus healed, the figures that represent ourselves, the Wise Ones who came from far away, Gentiles whom no one had thought were part of the story, the shepherds, the angel, the animals, each a part of our world, each a part of us. But today we come back, back to this single experience, this single moment: God born into the world, vulnerable, watching, hoping.

Think of yourself in this scene. You walk in, seeing the young mother with that special look of both exhaustion and fierce pride new mothers have. You greet the father and give your flower¡s, admire the baby in her arms and then as she turns to you, looks into your eyes, smiles and asks, “Do you want to hold him?” and not knowing what else to say, you say sure, and the child is handed to you. There: in your arms, you hold the mystery of God in the world.

We’ve been reading the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The assigned readings have jumped ahead. Since the first days we’ve been reading about the last couple of weeks, they have been up and down Galilee and over the border to Tyre, they have seen him heal, seen him amaze the villagers and they have been amazed. Perhaps what amazes them most is that they are here, that their one out of the blue “Yes” to his call has turned into a commitment that grows every day. But they have seen more than the ecstasy of healing; they have seen the growing anger of the officials and the clergy. And just before this trip up the mountain, he told them something they admit only to themselves, only at night, only alone: at the end of this road, there is a cross instead of a throne. They have come to the mountain, where he goes alone to pray. They have come to the mountain as we go to the stable, hoping for something new, expecting something familiar.

Now they stand there and the text tells us that on that mountain, in that place which can’t help reminding everyone of all the other mountain tops. It reminds us of Sinai, where the little tribe of refugees from Egypt God had amazingly defended and called out of slavery to service gathered, and just in case we miss the point Moses is there.

It reminds us of Horeb, where Elijah fled after God reclaimed that people through his Word and action, bringing down the full fury of Queen Jezebel, that representative of pagan, consumer culture so that in the very moment of victory, Elijah has to flee and ends up in a cave. There on that mountain, he heard God’s call, God’s blessing, and confirmation, in a still small voice. And just in case we miss the point, Elijah is there.

Now these followers of Jesus come to their own mountain top And they see Jesus shine. There he is: do you see it too? “Jesus was transfigured,” the text says. I’ve been studying this text and preaching it for more than 40 years and I still don’t know what it really means. The disciples see Jesus shining in a new and amazing way. ‘Transfiguration’ means transformed, so we have to ask: what is being transformed? Not Jesus: he is the same as he always has been. What is being changed here is the disciple’s understanding. They are getting a glimpse of who Jesus really is and it amazes them and burns in their memory for years afterward.

It’s so rare for us to really see someone for who they really are. My mother was 30 when I was born, an older mother for 1951. Of course, I never thought of that fact and what it might have meant to her. Over the years we had our ups and downs but one thing was constant: she was always and in some sense just my mom. I was in my 40’s one day when I met up with her at the airport in Tampa after we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. She took one look and said, “Oh, Jim, you need a haircut.” Only your mom says this. I just saw this one dimension, saw here in reference to myself. In 1995, when she was in her 70’s, my father died and in the process of cleaning things out somehow I ended up with her college scrapbook. It was stunning to page through it and see my mother as a young woman, dating, getting called to the dean’s office for violating her curfew. Who was this woman?

A few years later, a friend of mine who was into genealogy encouraged me to dig into my own family history. When I asked my mother for information, she offered a glimpse of life growing up during the depression in the 1930’s. She told me about being angry when her family took in other family members and she lost her room to them; about her grandmother knitting the wool caps that made her feel ashamed because they were homemade. Somewhere in those talks, she also told me about fighting with my father when I was a kid and she wanted to work; he wanted a wife who stayed home. She told me about how hard it was to go back to college in her 40’s and get her Master of Library Science degree.

Bit by bit, my mother began to emerge as a person, not just my mother. When she was in her last days, I sat with her and heard more stories and when she died, she left a letter and talked about the conflicted time of my adolescence. I don’t believe I nearly know the whole woman she was but I am so thankful that I got to know her not as a mom but as a real person, a whole person.

I think something like that happened to the disciples. Just before that, Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter responds famously, “The Christ.” We like that; we want to think of ourselves as Peter. We often skip the next part where Jesus explains this means a cross, Peter argues with him and Jesus rebukes him, the same word used to cast out demons. Peter, the emblem of the faithful disciple, the founder of the church begins as someone Jesus sees holding him back when Jesus has a mission, Jesus has a call, Jesus has a way.
Thom Shuman, says about this,

…most of us have had some sort of mountaintop experience, even if it is in the back of a taxi, or walking down a hospital hallway, or reading to a bunch of kids.  Most of us know what it is like to want to build great reminders of who we are or where we have been, only to be pointed to those down in the valleys we are called to serve.  Most folks have experienced that desire to stay where they are, rather than venture into the unknown, whatever and wherever that is.  Most of us are reluctant to take off the comfortable and scuffed loafers of the past and leave it behind while putting on the new, stiff, blister-causing shoes of the future.

We’re like Peter, standing there without a clue, hoping we do the right thing or say the right thing in Jesus’ eyes, while Jesus is looking past us at the next step to take, the next person to serve, the next neighborhood to clean up, the next task to undertake, the next mountaintop that is waiting for us down in the valley.

What does transfiguration mean? Perhaps just this: that it’s time for us to stop putting our own pictures of the past up and labeling them with his name and see him for who he really is. Perhaps it’s time for us to stop thinking of him as just another man, a good one, an important one, who does good things: exorcises, heals, preaches love. Perhaps it’s time for us to see him for who he really is: the shining, embodied, the light of the love of God.

Of course, we are here too; we are in the picture and honestly? God is gently making fun of us, like a parent laughing about a child’s fumbling efforts. Look closely: see us? We’re the ones with Peter. The whole glory of God is on display and all Peter can say is, “It’s a good thing we’re here!—let’s put up some huts, get some shelter from all this, make a place to hide.”

The text says he was terrified. Isn’t this us? Isn’t this what we do: we see everything in reference to ourselves and our first thought when the world scars us is to put up some sheds, find some shelter. But God won’t have it; God ignores Peter and shifts the whole point back to Jesus. This is what God says on the mountain, this is the whole point of the mountaintop moment: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
There it is, there’s all of it. At the baptism, where we began two months ago when heaven opened, we got the first part—“This is my Son, the Beloved”—now we get the consequence, the invitation he represents: “Listen to him.”

This is the choice we make as a church and as Christians every day. We can build sheds and celebrate the fact that we’re here or we can listen to the beloved son of God. When we listen, we can’t help but hear his call. When we listen, we can’t help but see him shine, as he shone in their hearts. Shine Jesus: shine.

Amen.

Epiphany 5 B – On the Breath of Dawn

On the Breath of Dawn

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/B • February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

John Claypool was pastor to the congregation of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky when his ten-year-old daughter, Laura Lue, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Only eighteen months and ten days after the diagnosis, she died. The sermon John preached two weeks later to reflect on that experience was based on the same reading we have heard today from Isaiah 40. He titled the sermon “Strength Not to Faint.”

Here I am this morning, John Claypool says at the end of his sermon, sad, broken-hearted, still bearing in my spirit the wounds of this darkness. 
I confess to you honestly that I have no wings with which to fly or even any legs on which to run – but listen, by the grace of God, I am still on my feet! 
I have not fainted yet. I have not exploded in the anger of presumption, nor have I keeled over into the paralysis of despair. 
All I am doing is walking and not fainting, hanging in there, enduring with patience what I cannot change but have to bear.

We have been reading through the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and we must never forget that the readers of this gospel, as we ourselves, know the end of this story. We know this will end at the cross; we know as Jesus apparently knew that there is a terminal moment of fear and suffering and death. We know where he is going: every step asks, can we believe he is coming back?

Here is Jesus again, as we have read the past weeks, apparently running forward. Our English text doesn’t show this quite as well as the original Greek but one word runs throughout these stories, one word is repeated over and over again: “immediately”. Immediately Jesus goes from his baptism to the wilderness. Immediately Jesu goes from the wilderness to meeting the men who will follow him. Immediately he goes home with them and speaks in the synagogue, encountering a man caged by demons and freeing him. Immediately he goes from there to Peter’s home.

That’s where we find him today. It’s a familiar scene, isn’t it? I know that we’ve often invited people home to brunch. So Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James and John and perhaps others go to Peter’s home. A crowd follows and gathers outside. I imagine that at other times the food would be ready: bagels toasted, smoked salmon, perhaps some eggs. It’s a Jewish home so no bacon, of course. Perhaps some fried fish—that’s the family business, after all. The scents of the food would have greeted the group as they entered, probably still discussing the amazing events at the synagogue that morning.

But there’s a problem here: the matron of the household, Peter’s mother-in-law, is sick in bed. So I wonder if everything was ready. I wonder what she was thinking, feeling. On other days, it would have been her job to preside at the feast; she would have gloried, I’m sure, in doing the preparations, from cleaning (in our home we call it “mom-clean”) to kneading the bread the night before. But today she is in bed with a fever, seriously sick. Was she ashamed? Was she asleep? I know that when I was too sick to preach a few weeks ago, I felt I had let you all down even though I knew I couldn’t get up. I imagine the woman must have felt something like that. She stays upstairs, away from the party, in her sick room, hearing I’m sure the noises of the party downstairs, unable to join them, hiding out as we all do at such moments.

But Jesus won’t have it; Jesus insists on mounting the stairs, coming to her in her sick bed. Here is a significant theological point. American cultural religion translates our cultural value of individual choice and commitment into something called “coming to Jesus”. It’s worth noting that in all these stories so far, people do not come to Jesus; Jesus comes to them. Jesus goes to John at the Jordan. He goes to Galilee and passes by Andrew and Peter, calling them to join him, and the same with James and John. Now he won’t stay downstairs and be the guest of honor; he goes to this woman in her bed, in her shame, in her illness and takes her hand.

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand


I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone

Doesn’t that song we sing portray this moment?

Our culture hides the significance of this act; we want to jump immediately to the healing but stay here with me and consider the moment in its context. Jesus is a faithful, observant Jewish man in a culture where it’s unthinkable for a man to touch a woman who is not his wife or a close relation. Yet here he is reaching out to her: “Precious Lord, take my hand.” Jesus is a worship leader who is ritually clean; to touch a sick person is to make himself unclean. Yet here he is taking her hand: “Precious Lord, take my hand.” Jesus is not part of the family in this home yet here he is in the private part of it, visiting a woman, touching her. And she is healed. One final point: she is healed on the Sabbath, something that will come back to haunt Jesus in days to come.

We are so used to technical explanations that we want to ask, “How is she healed?” There are no answers to that here. Our culture blinds us to what’s really going on here. We want to know the method of the cure; the gospel is interested in the fact of the healing. Healing sets people free, healing helps put us back on the path of our lives. Mark sees through to the more important point: that it is done at all. This woman is healed and “immediately she began to serve them.” Now some have criticized this text; they don’t like the image of this woman serving but my own hunch is that she was very happy to do it, to reclaim her role, to join the party. Once again, as at the synagogue, Jesus sets someone free.

When the Sabbath ends at sundown, we read that sick people are brought to Jesus and he heals many of them. Again, notice they are not “coming to Jesus” the way it’s spoken of in our culture; they are being brought there by others. Connection to Jesus, healing by Jesus, comes through the invitation and efforts of others. We don’t know who these are. In fact, we will never again hear about Peter’s mother-in-law again directly. Did she go on to become part of the group of women who apparently sustained the ministry of Jesus? We don’t know. We only know that in that moment, when she needed a hand, his was there reaching out to her, taking her hand, lifting her up.

Finally, we read that at the end of it all, Jesus slips away. It’s almost comical, isn’t it? All those people, all that crowd, looking for him, pressing on him, wanting him to do what they want and he’s nowhere to be found.

Peter and the others have to go hunt him up and when they find him, he’s outside the circle, alone, praying, finding his strength as he did when he was alone in the desert, in his connection with the one he calls his father: our God.

Over the last few weeks we’ve read through these stories of the opening of Jesus’ ministry and it’s worth asking: where are you in all of this? where am I? Are you someone Jesus has come to, someone called by him to follow? Are you one of those bringing others to Jesus for healing, to be set free to live and give the gifts God has given them? Are you being healed?

For isn’t that our purpose as a congregation, to be a place where healing happens? I don’t mean cures, I mean the healing that sets hope in hearts again. The passage from Isaiah we read is addressed to a people beaten down, carried into exile, cut off from hope and they believed from heaven. Yet here the prophet speaks God’s Word and that Word begins, “Comfort, comfort” and continues on with the words we read this morning.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

Wisdom does not always come from the wise; in fact, the Bible says over and over again, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” What we translate fear really means taking God seriously, believing in God not only in the past or the future but right now, today, in this moment, this present moment. This is the time when God loves you. This is the time when God seeks you. This is the time when God seeks to comfort and heal and restore your hope.
And what is that hope? John Claypool again, facing the most difficult crisis of his life said,

I have not exploded in the anger of presumption, nor have I keeled over into the paralysis of despair. All I am doing is walking and not fainting, hanging in there, enduring with patience what I cannot change but have to bear.
This may not sound like much to you, but to me it is the most appropriate and most needful gift of all [from God.] My religion has been the difference in the last two weeks; it has given me the gift of patience, the gift of endurance, the strength to walk and not faint. And I am here to give God thanks for that!
And who knows, if I am willing to accept this gift, and just hang in there and not cop out, maybe the day will come that Laura Lue and I will run again and not be weary, that we may even soar some day, and rise up with wings as eagles! But until then – to walk and not faint, that is enough. O God, that is enough!

If we look for God in this present moment, if we believe in this present moment, if we pray in this present moment, then indeed Jesus will come to us. We may not be able to soar with the eagles yet; we may not be able to run yet but we can learn to walk with Jesus, to walk and not faint. And that is enough, that is everything.

In a moment, we’re going to sing a song that takes its images from this passage in Isaiah: On Eagles Wings. The words express the feeling of doing just this: taking this immediate, present time, and living it in the faith of God’s presence. So many of us live at sunset: God invites us today, this moment, to see that we are living “on the breath of dawn”. So we are meant to live as people being healed, giving hope, inviting others to come and see how they also can find this hope.

Amen

Epiphany 4 B – Take Off the Devil Suit

Take Off the Devil Suit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany/B • January 28, 2018

Mark 1:21-28

One day when I lived on 29th Street in Milwaukee, the Devil came to my house. He was a garish shade of red, had horns, a tail and carried a pitchfork and stood about four feet high.

I was sitting in the living room when the Devil came out of my son Jason’s room with a wild look and I knew we were in for trouble. A few minutes later, after some now forgotten bad behavior, a bit of parental yelling, and some tears I exorcised the devil, who returned to the bedroom. Minutes later Jason emerged and we were reconciled and agreed no more devil—at least for the moment.

It’s a true story: Jason had a devil costume for Halloween one year and for a while when he was going to be bad, he would put on the suit first. We learned to recognize the devil and the impending behavior and deal with it—partly by telling him to go back and take off the devil suit. Eventually, he outgrew the suit. I can only wish we all had outgrown bad behavior; obviously, we haven’t. This week again we heard in the news about gun violence at schools and the stories of an amazing number of women abused by a man meant to care for them at Michigan State University. Depending on your view, I’m sure you could add to this list. We cannot escape the men—and women—in the devil suit. How can we get them to take it off?

This story we read in Mark is amazingly appropriate. Last week we heard how Jesus created a community of disciples. His invitation to follow him is so authoritative that the text tells us they immediately left what they were doing and followed him. Now they have come to Capernaum, the home of those disciples. Jesus enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a sanctuary of worship but also a place of conversation where the whole community meets to gossip, greet, trade, and connect.

Jesus sits in the seat of the preacher; someone, perhaps he himself, reads a portion of Torah and Jesus begins to speak. The text says that he spoke as one with authority and not like the scribes, that is, the regular teachers. Now the usual method of preaching there was to discuss what Moses meant or what another prophet said. But the congregation there recognizes something unique in Jesus: his words, his teaching, he himself, have an amazing authority. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” the text says.

Just as a great guitar player, can make our hearts vibrate simply by running his fingers over a few strings, the words of Jesus move the hearts of the people there so that they are astounded, amazed.

This sense of being astounded is not necessarily positive; it doesn’t mean they applauded. Preaching can make people angry. We all have a set of boundaries that make us feel safe. Like a fence at the edge of a precipice, like a barrier in front of a danger, boundaries keep us secure in a dangerous world. Anything that forces us beyond the boundaries destabilizes us, it threatens, and we react.

Years ago in Connecticut when the issue of full inclusion of gay folks was being fiercely debated in churches, I attended a clergy meeting where people on both sides spoke. Afterwards, we were feeling pretty good; the meeting had been mostly civil and no one had left in anger. There we were, a group of overweight middle-aged straight men sitting at a table in a church hall. One by one each was asked to say something about the meeting and when it was my time, I said that really, this topic had very little to do with our lives. Then I said, “But you know, here we are with pastries, and we’re all overweight. Maybe we should be discussing the sin of overeating.” That’s when the meeting got angry and a few moments later one of the guys said he wasn’t going to sit for this and left. “They were astounded.”

At least one person there cries out and disrupts the moment. There is a man there with what the text calls “an unclean spirit”. Perhaps he stands up, there is a disruption. “Have you come to destroy us?” the demons in him ask. And then he says what some must have been thinking: “We know who you are, the Holy One of God.” What happens when the unworthy, the unclean, washes up like the ocean against the rock of God’s holiness? What happens when the demonic runs into the holy?

Notice how the text carefully distinguishes between the man himself and the unclean spirit: he is not a bad man, he is a man controlled by something unclean. “Unclean” means unfit for worship, unfit to come before God. Jewish religion carefully distinguished between the clean or pure and the unclean, between what was fit for God and what was not. The text tells us nothing about the man himself. Like Jason in the devil suit, he has been put into something other than himself. One writer likens this to addiction and points out that addiction is not the person: it is the cage with which the person lives. Like a devil suit, the cage of the unclean spirit is separate from the person, controlling but not the same as that person.

Now there are all kinds of cages. I confess that in the past, I often compared this cage, this unclean spirit, to mental illness with its hallucinations and altered sense of reality. I realize now I wanted to keep my own boundaries intact. I wasn’t mentally ill so thinking about it that way meant it wasn’t me. But what I see now is that there are in fact all kinds of cages, big and small, and some of them enclose me as well. And when the cage is threatened, we all ask the question the unclean spirit asks: “Have you come to destroy us?”

This fear is, I believe, behind the anger that fuels so much of our national life. Cages are being broken. We are living through an enormous cultural transformation.What happens when the cage is broken and the person is released? We know that when Jesus walks in, demons walk out. The solution to our cages lies in the connection Jesus calls love: a compassion that refuses to let boundaries stand between us and invites us to see each other as equal children of God.

I mentioned addiction earlier as an example of a cage that controls a person. Today we are facing a terrible epidemic of addiction-fueled not only by drugs but by our misconception about the nature of addiction. So often we have forgotten Jesus’ distinction between the cage and the person so we see addicts as bad people who should simply start acting better. The truth is that addiction is only partly about chemical dependence. Those who are finding the most success at treating addiction have learned to treat it as a disease, not a moral failure, and to make human connection part of the solution. The problem isn’t the person; the problem is the cage.

In the same way, there are larger cultural cages. One of them is the fear of people who come from other places. Almost all of us have immigrants in our background. But we’ve forgotten that and today’s immigrants often have different colored skin. How do we solve the anger that comes from breaking this cage? Perhaps we do it by simple connection.

Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a 300 member congregation that is one of 32 congregations housing people who are at risk of deportation. After studying and meeting about the issue last July, the church voted in September, 89-5, to invite an undocumented person to their meeting house. Eliseo Jimenez and his family came to stay in the church’s youth activity room. The church organized volunteers and worked with five other congregations, including a synagogue. Now we might think this would be a terrible burden and a drain on the church. In fact, one of the volunteer hosts says, the church has found renewed energy. “I’m really proud we’re doing this,” one of the members said.

At the center of this story in Mark today is this: “What have you to do with us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It’s a question for all of us who say we are the body of Christ.

In a culture of cages, what has Jesus to do with all those caged? Isn’t it to invite them out of the cage; isn’t it to say, “Take off the devil suit” and come out? Isn’t it to see the child of God in each person and invite that child out? That’s what Jesus does: “Be silent and come out of him,” Jesus says. At the end of the story, the crowd is amazed. And indeed, whenever, wherever, we as the Jesus people, invite the child of God caged up, imprisoned, out to play—it’s still amazing. This is our calling in Christ: to invite the caged out, to invite everyone in, into the community of Christ, into the circle of those who recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God. For when we recognize others in this way, we find we ourselves are also recognized in that circle.

Amen.

Epiphany 3 B – The Urgency of Now

The Urgency of Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Third Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • January 21, 2018

Mark 1:14-20

It was a cold day in December; I imagine someone had to get here early to get the heat going. The church was probably decorated for Christmas and I imagine Rev. Lee Fletcher, the still new pastor, led songs of Advent and Christmas. At 2:30 PM the radio announced that the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been bombed; the nation had been attacked and was at war. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a rainy Friday in November. Everyone was waiting for the weekend, some preparing, some watching the clock. Suddenly, like that moment when a wind sweeps ahead of a storm, teachers were rushing about, some of them crying, some of the male teachers crying—unthinkable! President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas, Texas. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a sunny Tuesday morning in September, a busy time for ministers. I was in an office with no media, trying to put together worship and a sermon for the coming Sunday. I was newly married and unlike my family, where no one ever called the office, my new wife had a habit of calling me mid-morning, interrupting whatever I was doing. Later, much later, we’d deal with that but on this day when she called I was irritable and put it off and then she told me: an airplane had flown into a tower in New York City and it was on fire. Moments later we heard about the second crash. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

Like an old man telling the story of how his life was suddenly changed, we’re hearing someone’s memory, Peter’s perhaps, of how things suddenly changed. What stuns me today about the story we read in Mark, what has always stunned me, is its rush. “…immediately they left their nets and followed him,” the text says. Immediately: now, right now, they drop everything and go with Jesus. Much of the whole gospel of Mark is written in the present, in a slangy language our translation fails to convey. From start to end, it’s as if the whole text is saying, “Right now, right here, immediately.”

But I don’t live immediately; I live routinely—what about you? What I mean is that I have a regular set of things I do. I get up, get dressed, l make the bed, let the dog out, feed her, turn on CNN, let the dog out, go to the café, get coffee, read the New York Times and some other news. I drink my coffee, eat something. Tuesday I study the scripture text, write the liturgy: call to worship, prayer, pick the hymns. Wednesday I try to draft the sermon. Thursdays Jacquelyn often goes to work, so after I drop her off, I go to the bookstore and read. I finish the sermon. Sometimes I come down here when no one is around and practice. Fridays are off; Saturday mornings May and I go out for breakfast. Of course not every week is the same but you see what I mean? There is a routine to it all.

We do the same thing in most churches. When we consider a problem, when we think of a program, when we look at the next month, one question always pops up, one question must always be answered: “What did we do last year?” We look for what is routine; we say, “we always…” and fill in the blank with what we did last time and the time before. I don’t think we are much different in this way then others. I’m sure the Baptists plan pretty much the same way, they just do it with longer prayers. Catholics don’t make a move without consulting church tradition and Lutherans feel better if they can pin a Luther quote to whatever they are doing and the Methodists—well the very word “Methodist” comes from being methodical, from observing routines.

Contrast that with this scene in Mark. John the Baptist is arrested; there is a crisis. We have no notes about Jesus meeting with top advisors; no campaign plan is written. He simply says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Now repent means: change direction. To Jesus, the arrest of John means the same thing those events I mentioned at the beginning meant: everyone’s life needs to change and the time for change is now.

Next thing you know, he’s passing by some guys working, fishing. I’m pretty sure they’re just following their routine; I’m certain they got up that morning, put on their fishing clothes, got some coffee and pushed off into the cold morning without a thought about Jesus. They are doing what is routine and suddenly, with no explanation, no preface, no plan, Jesus appears, tells them to follow him, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” A little farther on he sees James and John working on nets and it says, “Immediately he called them”; they follow him too. The urgency of the call grasps them; the urgency of now overrides everything and they become disciples of Jesus.

What are we to make of these calls? They look nothing like the calm, ordered church life we practice. I hear this story and I think, ok: a mission. But where’s the follow-up plan? What’s the budget? What are the demographics? I see Jesus coming to the disciples and I wonder if he wouldn’t be better of as part of a team ministry with a music person and someone to handle administrative stuff. Is there a graphic designer? Where are the cards with colorful pictures and the website prominently displayed? What’s the budget for this project? Are there reserves in case he runs a deficit? Would it be better, perhaps, to set out some interim goals? Suppose, instead of saving the world, we just save Galilee this year and work on Judah next year. Wouldn’t that let us focus our energies more effectively?

I know these stories are the poetry of God’s Spirit and we live in the prose of the world but I see here also something deep and profound. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the midst of a time of crisis and war, “we are confronted by the fierce urgency of now.” God’s call does not come as one of many possibilities; God’s call is immediate, urgent and absolute. “Immediately they followed him”: the words are stark and precise and challenge us today.

We meet together in the shadows of a transitional time. Our church has struggled through the high waves and winds of economic adversity as so many of us are struggling. Like a boat thrusting forward with its passengers splashed by spray, we have had moments when we wondered if we would be overwhelmed. Yet we are here today, and the question we must address is how we can go forward together in the cause of Christ. Deep in our fears is the lurking dread that our beloved church could die. To those who fear this, I say: don’t worry—don’t worry because we are already dead. Paul himself, writing to the Corinthian church, said as much: “The present form of this world is passing away.”

The urgency Jesus meets head-on is precisely this: that we are dead in our sins and that death is urgent. So I am not fearing the death of the church today. The only question is: will we hear Christ calling us to resurrection. We are already in the grave: the only question is, are we ready to walk out like Lazarus, are we ready to live now in the living Lord?

To live this way, means to live as part of the community of Christ. We’ve now read twice, once last week, once today, how he worked: not alone, not by himself, not on his own, but by connecting a community together, calling together others. We have already accepted the challenge of welcoming; now we must move further and at his command take up the mission of inviting.

The purpose of this invitation is simple: people need a purpose. So now is the time for us to invite others to find their purpose by following Christ with us.

We have this moment. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the jail in Birmingham to white ministers who urged him to go slower,

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Now is the time for us, to listen to the call of Christ, to hear his call to proclaim good news, to learn to make the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiveness and welcome the very fiber of our daily life.

Now is the time for us to understand we are not here for ourselves or because of ourselves; we have been bought with a price and we are not our own, we are the body of Christ.

Now is the time for us to stop asking what did we do last year and start wondering what is God doing this year, for us to live in the urgency of now, peering by the light of God’s love into the darkness of this world.

Now: now, now. There is indeed, a fierce urgency to now. Now is the time for us to embrace the call of Christ and keep our eyes on the prize of his upward call.

Amen

Christmas Eve Meditation 2017

Christmas Eve Meditation

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Christmas Eve/B • December 24, 2017

Most of the last 45 years, I have stood before a church, as I do tonight, as a pastor, often in a preaching robe, to lead in prayer and listening to God’s Word. It’s so common that some new members in our church who came to see me one weekday when I was wearing regular clothes remarked on it: “We’re not used to seeing you like this.” I assured them that I was the same person. But my first appearance before a church took place long before the robe and stole, when I was selected to play the little angel in a Christmas Pageant called, The Littlest Angel. Perhaps you know this story and if you do, you know that this angel has two characteristics: he’s little and he’s not very well behaved. I qualified on both points.

When we read the Christmas story, it’s striking to see how much of it concerns little things. It takes place in Bethlehem, a place the prophet Micah described as “..one of the little clans of Judah”. It’s main characters are small as well. Joseph is a tool maker forced to make a journey at the worst time of all. Can you imagine how worried and harried he is, helping his pregnant wife to travel, trying to find space for them to stay? Then there is Mary herself, a teenager who enters the story as an unwed mother, a woman in a culture that is overwhelmingly patriarchal, young in a culture that favors age, about to give birth in a time and place where birthing is a very dangerous business.

Mary defines small in the story. So does her reaction to all this. Faced with an angelic visitor, she summons the courage to say,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
And she goes on to remember all the other small ones.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Listen: because this ought to scare us just a bit. It ought to make us ask, “Are we the proud ones? Are we the enthroned powerful?” Because Mary is speaking for God here and the message is—I love the little.

This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about the smallest present of all, a baby, the birth of Jesus. Have you seen a newborn? Can you remember how small she was, how tiny and perfect his fingers were, how small and helpless the little person was? Think of Jesus that way: think of him as small and vulnerable. And then remember: so are we before God.

This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about little things. I don’t remember anything about playing the Littlest Angel—my mother never tired of reminding me that I had embarrassed her by yawning widely in front of the whole church during the singing—but I know the story and I know how it ends: it ends when the littlest angel brings little things to the baby.

…a butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nets in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. Yet, and two white stones found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small, brown beavers, and at the bottom the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute love and infinite devotion.

And out of those, out of those little things, he summons this: the laughter of God. And in the story at least, it is the box of the littlest angel’s gifts that becomes the star over the stable where the Song of God is born, where the love of God begins again, as it does every day.

This is Christmas Eve: with the little things of Christmas, let us also summon the laughter of God who indeed, does great things, and gives the greatest of things: the gift of love.

Amen

Bee Dances – Baptism of the Lord

Bee Dances

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Baptism of the Lord Sunday • January 7, 2018

How do we find things? How do we get where we hope to go? Many of us rely on some form of GPS program today, maps on our phone or some other device. But what if the destination isn’t an address? What if the place is God’s kingdom, what if the destination is somewhere God’s peace reigns? Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and it reminds us to think about our own baptism. Today we share the sacrament of communion, the last supper reminding us that we are included at the table of the Lord. What do these two acts mean?

Both are rooted in ancient Jewish practices. The desert culture which influenced Hebrew worship saw something sacred in water. Their story of creation imagined water, not light, as the first act of God’s creativity: a rain is made to fall and everything comes from it. During the Exodus, it was the Lord’s ability to provide water that sealed the promise of presence. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the rituals prescribed for God’s people, washing played a prominent role. A variety of things, from illnesses to natural life events, could put a person in a state they believed made them unfit for worship. The solution involved sacred washing, called t’vila, often done in a mikva bath, a bath of blessing. In the period before Jesus, this ritual of washing played a central role in the ritual and life of the Qumran community; they may have influenced John, whom we call the Baptist. In his hands, the ritual washing was connected to the sacred moment when God’s people crossed from the wilderness to the promised land. His preached repentance and newness: the passage between these two states was symbolized by baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus himself came to John for this baptism.

Early Christians took over many Jewish customs. Remembering this event in the life of Jesus, they made baptism a key moment in a Christian’s life: it was when they joined the circle of God’s people. They probably originally immersed people but early on began to use other forms. Still, the act retained this essential meaning: union with the body of Christ, the church of Christ. Once joined to Christ, the church believed Christ would never desert a child of God, so baptism was and is a once for all act.

Every journey has definite marks along the way. We use these to know we are on the path, we tell others about them to help them follow. A sailor looks for buoys; a driver looks for road signs. We give directions by noting special features: “Stay to the right as you go by the state capitol.” Sometimes these marks can change. Years ago, I was often asked how to get to the local high school. “Go down a long block and turn right at the Highway Department,” I’d say. Then someone heard me one day and pointed out that the Highway Department had moved out of that place a year before; my directions were useless.

There are marks along the way of Christian life, marks that can surely turn us toward Christ and we call them sacraments. They are moments in which we act out in a public, visible way our inner spiritual meeting with God’s Spirit. We call these moments sacraments and baptism is surely one. When someone ordained by a Christian Church takes in their arms any person, infant, child, adult, and acts out the ritual of pouring water, we are in that moment also acting out the embrace of God and answering God’s call to become new people. It is a sacrament.

Another such moment is communion. Communion is also rooted in ancient Jewish practice, the rite of Passover. Passover is a story of salvation celebrated with a special meal. Within the meal, there is a progression of matzoh, a special bread, and cups of wine. The gospel accounts put Jesus celebrating Passover just before his arrest and crucifixion: we call it the Last Supper.

Just like baptism, early Christians took up this ritual they knew and fused it with the story of Jesus. First Corinthians gives us a little glimpse of communion about 20 years after Jesus; it looks more like a potluck dinner than our symbolic cups and bites of bread. Yet we can recognize in their act the same act we do, the same purpose of acting out Jesus presence in our own lives.

Over the centuries, Christians changed how they did these two acts, baptism and communion as well as how they understood them. The organized church often traded its spiritual life for worldly power and wealth and part of that added on acts which had no roots in the life of Jesus or the gospel story. By the 1600’s, the Roman Catholic church had seven different sacraments. When our fathers and mothers in the faith set out to create churches that more clearly embodied God’s Word, they trimmed this back to the original two sacraments, baptism and communion. Baptism they understood to be a moment of repentance that recognizes Christ’s intention to embrace us as a child is embraced by a mother; communion reminds us that we are a community on the way to the cross, believing in the resurrection.

This is a lot of history on a Sunday morning. But it’s important to know where we came from, to look back and see that when we pour water over someone here, we are participating in something that touches Jesus and reaches behind him hundreds of years. It’s important to know where we came from, to look back and see that when we share in communion, we are sharing with the Exodus people who first shared a quick Passover meal, with Jesus and his disciples on the last night of his earthly life. This is where we have been: this is where we are coming from.

But, of course, the most important question is: where are we going? This is the season of Epiphany, a word that means showing. It refers to the star that led the wise ones from the East to Jesus. Early Christians would have seen what we do not: that these are strangers, gentiles, people who have no earthly right to a place in the story of God’s people. But here they are, led by a star. Let all the astronomical questions go and listen with your heart. Imagine how important it must be to God to invite these wise ones to the Christ child, so important that just as at creation light was created, God makes a new light, a star, to say, “This way! Come this way!”

Where are we going? Everything we’ve talked about today, from the wise ones following the star to communion to baptism makes up what I call a bee dance. Have you ever wondered how bees find flowers? How do they know where to go from the hive to find the stuff they gather? It works like this: a few bees go out, flying around more or less randomly. They search; they sniff. When one finds a good place, some lush flowers, she flies back to the hive. Now the problem is how to give the others directions. They don’t have a GPS, they don’t have google maps but they do have a dance, called a waggle dance. They move forward, backward, to the side. The dance tells the others where to fly, how to get where they are going, how to find the flowers.

These acts—baptism, communion—are bee dances. When we act them out, we are showing how to find God’s presence. Not everyone knows this— but you do: you know how to do the dance. You know how to smile when a little girl like Olivia is baptized and I carry her to you and say, “Please welcome our sister,” and when you do, you are showing everyone—this is how you get to God, you smile at a child. Jesus says welcome a child and you welcome him, I’m not making this up, it’s right there in his book. It’s a bee dance, it’s directions.

You know how to serve communion. There are lots of ways to share this sacrament but I’ve always loved the way we do it here, passing the plates hand to hand. Because that’s how Jesus is shared: hand to hand, person to person. It’s the invitation that matters, it’s saying, “Here, have this bit of Jesus’ story, let me fix you a plate”—well if not a whole plate, at least a little bit of bread. “Here, have this invitation to a whole new life.” It may look like a little thimble full of grape juice but when you hand it to someone, it’s God saying, “Come on in”.

These are bee dances: they are directions on how to find God. Today, this morning, what we are doing is learning the bee dance that leads to God’s Spirit. So watch, learn, if that’s where you are in the journey; take up the movement if you can. Dance!—Share the invitation, help someone find the path and walk along the way that leads to life. It’s epiphany: we’re not meant to sit still, we are being called to walk in the light of God’s love and share the journey. So do a bee dance: invite someone with your directions to know God’s love.

Amen.

The Garden of Advent 4: O Christmas Tree!

The Garden of Advent 4: O Christmas Tree!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY>/h2>

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Advent • December 24, 2017

When I was a boy, Christmas began at a department store. Other children may have looked forward to Santa Claus; the high moment for me was seeing the new Lionel Trains layout for the first time. There, in the midst of the toy section, would be the loud clatter of wheels on tracks, the shrill whistle of the engine, the acrid smell of electric motors and simulated smoke. I never tired of watching the trains flash by, bright boxcars, shiny coal hoppers and, of course, the red caboose. Every year, there would the surprise of a new building. There was the log dump, where a car stopped and as if by magic, dropped off round brown sticks of wood which moved into a plastic building while model lumber came out the other side. There was the station with the little man in a blue suit who endlessly shot out of the station and waved and many others. Each year I’d go home, visions of trains in my head and Christmas magic in my heart.

So some years, I still set up a train around our Christmas tree. Not a Lionel train, not a large layout, just a circle of track, an engine, a couple cars, a caboose. I want to feel again that child’s faith in Christmas; I want to experience again the peace of knowing what Julian of Norwich said: “All is well, all is well and all shall be well,” or what we so quickly and casually say to each other sometimes: 
the peace of the Lord.

The peace of the Lord: it’s where we start every Sunday, it’s where we turn for that great inner stillness which smiles from inside and gives real rest. Where shall we look for that peace which bears fruit in true joy, in a character expressed in kindness? Isn’t it from souls nurtured in the confidence and experience of God’s providence? Isn’t it from knowing ourselves to be seeds growing in the soil of God’s love? Isn’t it from believing there is a power beyond our power that cares for us as a gardener cares for a garden? In one way or another, the message of today’s readings is simply this: if we allow our roots to dig down into the soil of God’s love, our souls will grow and bear fruit in the peace God planned.

Perhaps this need to feel rooted is why the Christmas Tree is so central to our celebration of Christmas today. It’s actually a recent import. Four or five hundred years ago, about the time German Lutherans were renewing their faith, they began to bring evergreen trees into their homes at Christmas and decorated them with roses made of colored paper and edible treats: apples, wavers, sweetmeats. They illuminated them with candles. From Germany, the custom-made its way to England in the 19th century, when the English monarchy was closely related to Germany. Christmas trees were introduced to America by Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution and became common in the 1800’s. Windsor Locks, CT, claims to have had the first Christmas Tree in the United States but several others challenge this. The first tree with electric lights was in New York City in 1882. The custom grew and in the 1920’s, it became an official national tradition with the lighting of a tree at the White House. Wherever the tree, they all draw on the same symbolism: the permanence of the evergreen tree.

Permanence is at the heard of the situation of David in the story we read. Here he is in the years of accomplishment, mortgage paid off, enemies defeated, security assured. “After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.”

Have you known such moments? Then perhaps you have known as well what David feels: he’s not ready to rest. He decides to undertake another great project, to build a temple for the Lord. Even his head prophet, Nathan, agrees this would be a wonderful thing. But in the night, Nathan receives a word from the Lord, and the Word is this: God does not need or want David’s temple, Instead of thanking David, the Lord discloses an even greater work: David’s line will be established forever. What a contrast! David thought up the biggest building project he could imagine, a huge temple built out of cedar; God sweeps it away with a brush of eternity. David hoped the temple would stand for a long time; God deals in forever.

But forever is a long time; we live day to day. What has this great broad canvas of eternity to do with day to day? How can it help us get through the crowd at the mall, the backache that makes just sitting short-tempered, the feeling of being burdened instead of lightened by Christmas?
Perhaps it will help to look at the Gorski’s, the family at the center of the play Greetings. In the play, Phil and Emily are middle-aged folks, living in a house where fuses blow, with dreams that didn’t pan out. One of those dreams is a son named Mickey who has never spoken. Their other son Andy comes home on Christmas Eve and introduces Randi-with-an-i, his fiancé, a woman who is Jewish and atheist and as far from their values as could be imagined. Then amidst one of those Christmas eves when everyone is tense and pretending to be happy someone else drops by, a visitor from eternity named Lucius who takes over Mickey’s body and begins to speak. What would you do if you were visited by an angel? What would you do if you walked down the street and witnessed a miracle?
What the Gorski’s do is fight and fuss and fume for a while but somehow the light of the miracle begins to change them. They learn to draw together; they learn there is more to life than they thought. At a pivotal moment, Lucius says,

Why do you suppose so many people in your world lead mixed up lives? I’ll tell you. It is because they look at the mixed up mess that’s all around them and they say, “There now. See? That’s reality. That’s what I’m about.” That’s not what you’re about. Reality is right in there. (points to her heart) That is where you’ll find your answers. And if you can’t hear them it is because you have allowed everyone else’s clatter to drown them out.

David let the clatter of his own accomplishments drown out the pure song of God in his heart he heard when he was a shepherd boy. Reality is not the marble of an imperial palace but the kingdom of God.

What about us: what clatter goes on in our lives? When will we listen to the quiet voice of God in our heart instead of the clatter of the world around, when will we seek the true peace of the Lord? It doesn’t take much: Moses only got to see God’s back rushing away, but it was enough, he shown with the light of that moment the rest of his life. Jesus preached for three years or so but people drew such power from him their lives were changed forever. They stopped letting the clatter drown out God’s Word; they lived as God’s people, in the power of eternal life—forever life. Forever: that’s the canvas on which God works, that’s the soil in which God means our souls to be rooted.

So we have this story: Mary, a young woman, recently betrothed, is going about her day and in that day from nowhere with no warning, an angel drops in. A messenger from eternity stops by and quiets her fears. He tells her of great events about to be born and what does she say? Just what Lucius predicted; she explains reality to the one who created reality. And the angel replies: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

This is the point of celebrating Christmas. Because day to day, where we live, we forget forever and assume things will stay pretty much the same. But out there is something being born, something new, something wonderful, something powerful. When will we see it? When will we believe it? When will we embrace it?

We know the day to day reality; we know the world is old that things stay pretty much the same. When will we know it is at the same time new? Annie Dillard says,

That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it.

The surprise that the world can be new: that is the reason for Christmas.µ When we see God recreating, when we know God’s renewal, then we see Christ born not only in our world but in us. And then indeed, as Dillard says, everything else is governed by this knowledge. Everything else is known with a peace that knows forever is assured; day to day is only day to day.

Jesus said: Unless you are born again, unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of God. I take this to be not a summons to one particular spiritual experience but rather a comment on the facts of spiritual life, an invitation to stop listening to the clatter around us, as Lucius says in Greetings, to stop pointing at what is and triumphantly saying, “See, that’s reality!”, and to believe in the possibility of surprise and the promise of newness. So God has given us this gift: a greeting wrapped in Christmas, a message to say, “Nothing is impossible — there is no one and nothing I can’t make new.”

What will you do? This is what I do: I get out the electric trains, I know it makes no sense, who plays with trains in their 60’s? I give my oldest daughter, who is 41 a Barbie just to remind her of when she was nine, I refuse to ask people what they want for Christmas because I am much more interested in surprising them than getting them what they want. I want that surprise: I want that moment of wide eyes, of pure joy, of hearing through the clatter the notes of eternity’s song. I want to see not by the headlights of the cars on errands but by the star of eternity. I want to see through to this great, inexpressible true thing: that as John says, the true light is coming into the world. I don’t know where your trains are or what will make that light shine for you.

I hope, I pray that this Christmas, that light will light your life and you will hear not the clatter of this day but the song of the angels which is the music of the peace of the Lord. May the peace of the Lord be with you this and every day.

Amen.

The Garden of Advent 3:
Rejoice Always

The Garden of Advent 3:
Rejoice Always

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 17, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…” You know this song, probably. It’s often sung around campfires; I learned it at church camp in August, maybe you did too. It’s easy to sing around the campfire, in the midst of that adolescent mix of exhausted, energized, ecstatic about friendships and crushes. Yet today ought to be the real day for this song; this is the Sunday in Advent when the theme is joy and the candle is pink. It’s a little harder to sing it today, isn’t it? No campfire, no warm days, and a Christmas coming that for so many is an ambivalent presence, lurking just off stage. For those grieving, for those lonely, for those in the darkness of depression, the relentless demand of this season to be happy can become a barrier to even going out. Yet if we look at the meaning of the joy of Christmas, we will find it is quite different than the happy faces our culture puts on Christmas
I usually draw from the gospel reading for inspiration but today’s reading again offers John the Baptist. We’re going to come to him in a few weeks, so I’d like to turn with you to the reading from First Thessalonians. Just the word is hard to say! The letter from which we drew is actually the oldest document in the New Testament, earlier than any of the gospels, earlier than any other epistle. Paul wrote it about 51 CE, less than 20 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Thessaloniki is a city in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece; today it is the second largest city in Greece. In the first century, it was a port that sat on a major highway. The city had a great diversity of religious groups and participated in the cult of the Roman Emperor. Because it was a port, people from many nations passed through. Doesn’t such a richly diverse cultural diversity sound like our city? The people of the church to whom Paul writes are mostly new Christians, former pagans. In this section of the letter, Paul is teaching them—and us!—the basics of Christian life and he begins with these three principles: Rejoice always,
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances.

There are some things to notice about these things. First, they are all things we do sometimes; Paul is expanding them to all the time. Second, they are not a creed, they are a program for mindfulness. Mindfulness means noticing our internal conversation; mindfulness means consciousness of what’s going on inside as well as outside us. Our yoga instructor always begins instructions with one word: “Notice” and frequently goes on to say, “Notice the breath”. Now to talk about mindfulness, we must talk about the one for whom it is a pillar principle, the Buddha.

These past few weeks in Advent, we’ve been using other religious practices and faiths to hold a mirror to our own. Surely Buddhism does this. Like Islam and Christianity, Buddhism comes from a historical individual, a man named Siddhartha. Born about 600 years before Jesus in Nepal, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury in a princely family. Just as we have a cycle of stories about Mary and the special birth of Jesus, Buddhists look back to a special birth for Siddhartha. His mother died seven days after his birth and his father received a prophecy that he would become a religious leader. For this reason, it is said, his father kept him isolated in the palace. Still, Siddhartha managed to go on a trip to the village where he was profoundly affected by the suffering he saw. At 29, he left his sheltered life, determined to seek a solution to the suffering he had seen by seeking enlightenment.

Siddhartha followed the path of his culture in living a life of extreme asceticism. That means he sought to free his spirit by disregarding and torturing his body. He is said to have lived on a grain of rice a day and he soon gathered a group of disciples. But he didn’t find enlightenment in his practice and one day when a little girl offered him a bowl of rice, he ate it. His disciples were shocked and scandalized and soon left. Siddhartha, for his part, had come to an insight: neither the relaxed life of the palace not the extreme discipline of fasting had produced enlightenment; another path was needed. He called this the Middle Way. Soon after this, Siddhartha sat under a large Bodhi Tree and determined to meditate until he found enlightenment or died. After a long struggle in his mind and soul with temptation, he awakened to find that he had become an enlightened soul, now called the Buddha. He had a new awareness. He announced a set of truths and principles and began to preach them. The former disciples returned to him and became the foundation of a community of monks that also admitted women and was open to other classes and races.

The heart of Buddhism is solving the problem of human suffering. Buddhism’s foundational ideas are called “The Four Noble Truths” and they say that there is suffering, that suffering is caused by our desire, suffering has an end, and that there is a path to that end. The path for Buddha begins by understanding that we live in an illusory world; in that world, our lives revolve around desires for both things and happiness. Instead, Buddhism invites each person to an intense focus on what is happening inside us. Called mindfulness, it means watching ourselves be ourselves; it means listening to our internal conversation. “Notice the breath”, a Buddhist says and means: start with the littlest, most common thing. Give thanks for it; be conscious of it.

This is what Paul means as well when he says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” To give thanks in all circumstances may seem impossible or flippant. How am I to give thanks when things are falling apart? How am I to give thanks when I’m angry or hurt? The first step is often to stop: stop what you’re doing, stop the rush to the next thing. Notice the breath; notice where you are, why you are angry, what wound hurts. In that moment, notice other things, things that don’t hurt—and give thanks for them. Surely this letter came from Paul’s experience. He was a man beset by so many troubles. In one of his letters, he lists the number of times he has been arrested, beaten, dragged before magistrates. Yet he’s also the one who never stopped preaching the love of God in Christ, never stopped opening doors to new Christians, never stopped giving thanks.

Eugene Kelly was an aggressive CEO of a major corporation when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he had only a few months to live. He says,

Before the diagnosis, my last thought every night before falling asleep usually concerned something that was to happen one month to six months later. After the diagnosis, my last thought before falling asleep was…the next day.

Kelly goes on to say that he attained a new level of awareness. It’s strikingly like Siddhartha: his life is enlightened by a clear understanding that desire and the next thing are not sufficient.
If we truly begin to consistently give thanks, surely it will lead us to a different kind of prayer. Annie LaMott famously said there are two kinds of prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help me, help me, help me”. If we make the first our constant prayer, it produces a growing appreciation of simple things and then of those around and then of all of creation. And in that appreciation is joy. “Rejoice always”, Paul says: the path to joy leads from noticing to appreciating, to giving thanks. Walking the path, we find the joy God intended.

That joy waits to become an exuberant presence in us when we stop seeking happiness through our own desires. David Grayson says in his poem, Mornings Like This,

Mornings like this: I look
about the earth and the heavens:
There is not enough to believe—
Morning like this. How heady
The morning air! How sharp
And sweet and clear the morning air!
Authentic winter! The odor of campfire!
Beans eighteen inches long!
A billion chances—and I am here!

Mornings like this: rejoice always!

Amen