Second Sunday After Pentecost/A

Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 18, 2017

Genesis 18:1-15

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

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

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

Feast Time!

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

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

A Child?

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

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

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

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

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

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

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

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

Believing in God’s Fulfillment

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

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


Trinity Sunday/A

The Fruit of All Creation

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Trinity Sunday • June 11, 2017

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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


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

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

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

Finally, of course, creation comes to us. 

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

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

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

Cooperative Creation

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

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

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

Dominion Means Caring

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

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

Created in the Image of God

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

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

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

Sending Out Seeds

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

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

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

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

Third Sunday in Easter/A

Break Thou the Bread of Life

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton • © 2017

Third Sunday of Easter • April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-25

A Man All Alone

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

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

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

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

Sharing Together

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

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

God’s Powerful Love

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

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

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

Who Is The Man?

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

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

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

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

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

Communities of Care

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

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

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

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

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

Fixed for Blessing

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

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

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

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

Pentecost Sunday

Use Your Words

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2017

Pentecost Sunday/A • June 4, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

“Use your words.” That’s a phrase we’ve said to our grandchildren when they were at that between pointing at what they wanted and asking for it by name. Isn’t language amazing? May’s first word was ‘Joy’; she liked the song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…down in my heart.” So her first word was more like this: “Joy-joy-joy-joy.” Think how language can change us, lift us up, cast us down. The Biblical story imagines God creating with language, creation by the Word. “Let there be light—and there was light.” Now today, in this story where language and words are so important, it’s clear that what God means to say is this: ‘ahabak [Arabic}, Wǒ ài nǐ [Chinese], te amo [Spanish] or in English: I love you.


The story we read in Acts invites us into a gathering of the first Christians after Jesus has left. It’s Shavuot, a Jewish festival fifty days after Passover that celebrated the giving of the Torah as well as the wheat harvest in Israel. In the Christian story, it’s also some time after the Ascension; we talked about that last week. Jesus had gathered his followers, told them to stay put until they received the Holy Spirit, and then was enfolded by a cloud and left them. So his followers have been doing what we do when we grieve: retreating, I imagine, but also gathering together at times, praying, healing. Now they are gathered together. Nothing in the text prepares us or them for what happens next.

What happens next, of course is amazing, incredible: tongues of fire! the sound of a rushing wind!—remember that Spirit and Wind are the same word in Greek and Hebrew—it all must have been amazing and stunning. Sometimes I’ve been in worship when we’ve tried to illustrate this. I remember one Sunday morning when we’d brought in three big fans; some people who had hairdos blown around were not amused. And of course there are various things you can do with fire; and no, we’re not going to do them here. This building is almost a hundred years old and I am not going to be the pastor who burned it down. But you get the idea.

When was the last time you were amazed? Think of that moment, hold on to it for just a second. Here are these people still grieving, they’ve come together, told stories of Jesus, probably sung some songs and suddenly it’s all blowing up. God has spoken. Like Genesis, the Spirit of the Lord is moving and making and it is amazing.

Creation by the Word is always amazing and mysterious. I know this because I’ve done it and so have many of you. You stand before your friends in a dress that cost more than you spent the whole year on clothes and that you will probably never wear again; you put on a tux for the first time since prom. Someone speaks and asks if you will marry, if you promise to be married and you say, “I do!”—and just like that you’ve created a new family, a married couple. You stand before a congregation you’ve been attending for a while, a place that’s helped you feel God’s nearness and presence and we speak the words of the church covenant together—and just like that, you’re a member of the church, we’ve created a new moment in the church’s history, no matter how old or young that church is.

Pentecost is When the Church Begins

So here is the Spirit, here is God, doing the same thing: creating something new. That something is us: the church. Pentecost is the moment Jesus’ followers become the church, become his body in the world, caring for the world, as he cared. And of course they are so excited they can’t keep it in the house, they go out in the street. There are things that have to be told and this is one of them. So we have this incredible scene of the first church members in the streets, speaking to people in a way they understand. This isn’t “speaking in tongues”, they way it’s practiced in pentecostal churches; they is speaking to people in a language they understand.

Now the Bible takes language seriously and it tells the story of the Temple of Babel to explain why there are so many languages. Long ago, the story says, human beings were so full of pride they built a temple, imagining they could build it high enough to enter heaven through their own efforts. Taller than tall it reached until God saw their pride, saw the tower and cast it down and at the same time, created the variety of languages so that never again would humans cooperate in such a thing. At Pentecost, the speaking is a way of saying that ancient curse has been reversed: God is now speaking to all people in ways they understand. One writer said,

Pentecost is a unification of the separated families of humanity. This unification isn’t accomplished through the will and power of empires and their rulers, but through the sending of the Spirit of Christ, poured out like life-giving rain on the drought-ridden earth. In place of only one holy—Hebrew—tongue, the wonderful works of God are spoken in the languages and dialects of many peoples. The multitude of languages is preserved—a sign of the goodness of human diversity—and human unity is achieved, not in the dominance of a single human empire, or in the collapsing of cultural difference, but in the joyful worship of God.- Alistair Roberts ,

Use Your Words

You can do this. Use your Words. We’ve had some folks here over the last few years who came to church even though they couldn’t speak English. Yet over and over again, because someone smiled at them, spoke to them, they understood this: you’re welcome here. This is how God speaks: in whatever language is needed to say, “I love you.” When you welcome someone, you create this welcome, you create this presence.

That’s what happens at Pentecost. The special effects, the tongues of fire, the rushing wind, the enthusiasm of the Jesus followers are all just prelude. The real event is what happens when they get out there in the world.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Creation by the words: these followers of Jesus are creating an invitation by their words.

Of course, words are interpreted and the first interpretation is that these people are nuts or in a kinder way, drunk. I think the fear that we will be seen this way often holds us back from sharing about our spiritual life. I learned long ago it’s a lot easier to ask Congregationalists to donate to a cause than to tell someone about their faith. We often miss the power of that conversation. Remember what Jesus said about his followers: that they were to be witnesses. Now what does a witness do? Tell what they’ve seen. These first Christians aren’t asking the people they meet to join the church they aren’t asking them to sign a petition, or anything else. They simply tell them about the power of God’s love.hat’s

That’s the thrust of Peter’s speech. He uses his words to say: first of all, these people aren’t drunk. They’re just amazed. And then to say that this outpouring of Spirit has been coming for a long time. Long ago, the prophet Joel described it and said it would embrace everyone.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

We talk about radical inclusion here, we use the phrase “Everyone welcome” but God has already gone beyond us, gone beyond our imagination, gone beyond our ideas of who is in the circle of care. “All flesh”: that’s you and I, that’s you and everyone you meet, that’s you and the whole world. There are no walls in the love of God. There are no outsiders in the love of God. There are no illegal immigrants, because all flesh is included. There are no racial lines here; the kingdom of God is not gerrymandered, it is not a gated community: the spirit is being poured out on all flesh. There are no gender lines here, no lines that say, straight people enter here, LBGTQ people stand over there: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.

This is creation by the words, creation when you use your words to tell someone about God’s love in your life. It is creating a new reality, it is making a new heaven and a new earth. and there they are, those few followers of Jesus, off to change the world. How will they work? What will they do? Simple: use their words, be witnesses, tell people what they’ve seen, what they’ve felt, what they’ve experienced. This is Easter: “didn’t our hearts bun within us?”—the testimony of the people who met the Risen Lord at Emmaus.
Our witness is how God’s love is braided with our lives, together turned into a life line.

Today is Pentecost

Today is Pentecost. Pentecost is not just a moment hundreds of years ago: today is Pentecost. Today is the birthday of the church because the church is born new every day that we plant the seeds of the spirit. We plant them when we use our words to share what we’ve seen about the love of God. What will happen? Well, someone might think you’re drunk; someone might think you’re crazy. But what will surely happen is that some of those seeds will grow up. And the fruit of the spirit, as Paul says, is as obvious as a field of corn planted in the spring. It doesn’t look like much at first but eventually it covers the ground. It’s the same with this spirit. You may not see much at first but God promises that if we use our words to witness, the result will be amazing.


Ascension Sunday

What Now?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Ascension Sunday/A • May 28, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

You sit in the dark, tears still drying on your cheek, the kind you don’t want to admit to having cried, just a little ashamed that something as simple as a movie could move you so. But it has moved you and now you sit still, not wanting it all to end, and everyone sits still in the darkness, as the credits roll by, still staring, as if genuinely wondering who the second grip was. You are too moved to move.

Maybe for you it was a concert: music that made your soul soar and you stand at your seat with hundreds of others cheering and clapping, hoping for a second encore, hoping the whole thing can play on just a little more because you are too moved to move toward the exits. Perhaps for you it was standing on a train platform or at the airport, catching that last glimpse of someone. We all have these moments, I think, moments that hold us and prevent us from moving on because they are too perfect, or too deep or too precious.

Too Moved to Move

So it shouldn’t be hard to understand the disciples at the Ascension. If you grew up in a church like this one, you probably didn’t grow up with this story; Protestants didn’t talk much about the Ascension for a long time. But here it is: the last stop on the trip from Easter to Pentecost.

Can you imagine the scene Luke paints? The thunder and lightning of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by the Romans with the Jewish authorities collaborating. The fear of the disciples and then the unimaginable joy of his resurrection. Luke provides more stories of the risen Lord than any other gospel; he couldn’t get enough of them, apparently. There he is: in the upper room, walking through the door. There he is: on the way to Emmaus. There he is over and over. I imagine the disciples must have thought this time would go on and on and on.

Our family has lives that scatter sometimes, so it’s hard for us to celebrate things that happen on a particular day sometimes. We’ve solved that by extending days like birthdays. One day you get a present, another day someone has sent a card—”sorry it’s late I sent it on time”—and then there is dinner a third day. We call this Birthday Extravaganza. I wonder if the disciples thought this was Easter Extravaganza.
Clearly they expected more; they ask, for example, in the midst of the whole thing, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” like a supervisor asking of a project has been finished, knowing it isn’t but using that subtle way to remind Jesus to get busy and do what they want.

There they are, altogether again, just like the old days. I wonder if they thought Jesus would preach or perform some sign or miracle, maybe heal someone—just like the old days. I wonder if they expected him to say something inspiring to lift them up, help them see God at work after all—just like the old days. They’re far enough from Good Friday that the harsh cutting edge of the cross is dull; far enough from Easter so that what once seemed miraculous is now everyday. Gathering with Jesus on a mountain isn’t new for them; it’s just like the old days.

A New Moment

But this is a new day and the Ascension is a new moment. So in the midst of asking about the restoration of the kingdom, of hoping the old days can come back, suddenly Jesus is gone. Whoosh! It’s usually imagined as ascended into the clouds, but actually that’s not what Luke says: he simply says Jesus disappeared into a cloud. We don’t have to accept Luke’s directions to understand Jesus’ intention. That is clear, unmistakable. He’s been telling them all along he means to send them out and now he tells them again. Their job is simple: go be witnesses.

When the whole scene is over, they’re left standing there, all of them, wondering, I imagine, “What now?” It takes a couple of angels to come and ask the obvious question: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why are you standing still standing around: Jesus has left.

Looking in the Mirror of the Story

This story is a mirror for us. And I want, I hope, you’ll take a moment to look into it with me. I want you to see here the tension between the tenses. Throughout the story, the followers of Jesus are concerned about the past. They want Jesus to restore the past; they want the old kingdom back. That’s natural; don’t we all want our best days back?

I’ve spent most of my career helping churches develop and grow and in every single congregation, I’ve asked about the best days of the church. The answer is nearly always some moment in the past and often the real hope of the church is less about growing into the future than re-enacting that past. I suspect every generation of Christians has been like this and here we see it for the for the first time: restoration Christians who just want to go back.

But all the tenses in Jesus’ preaching are future.

“You will receive power,” he tells them. It’s not here today but you will receive it.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” It’s not here today but you will receive it.

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They haven’t been to the ends of the earth yet but they will go.

The new church is all about the restoring the past: Jesus is all about the future.

Living Now

Now the problem is we don’t live in the future or the past, we live in the present. We live connecting the past and the future. I think the key to learning to live that way is first what Jesus teaches: an abundant forgiveness. He comes back to this theme over and over and another day we will come back to it as well. Forgiveness stands where we are, at that connecting point between past and future. Forgiveness takes the past and unlocks it so that our future can be the new life, the abundant life, Jesus means to give. Forgiveness connects our past lives to a new life in Christ.

The second clue to connecting to this future is prayer. This story of Jesus’ ascension is part 1 of a two part story. They haven’t received power yet; they haven’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They aren’t ready to be witnesses yet. There is preparation required and that preparation is prayer. We are so much about doing, it’s easy for us to forget being, so much about preparing for events, it’s easy for us to forget the power of prayer. The disciples leave this moment and begin to pray together and it’s in the place of prayer that they receive power, inc the place of prayer they receive the Holy Spirit, in the place of prayer they become witnesses.

The third thing that connects the future here is faith. I wonder what these people were thinking when Jesus was lost to sight. Eventually, we do go home from that powerful movie; we do return from that ringing concert, and they are going to have to go home from this moment. Can we go home with faith in the future of Jesus? For that’s what they’re summoned to do. The angel doesn’t just ask why they’re still standing around; the angel also says—again, future tense—that Jesus will come again.

Hope is powerful. In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy DuFresne, a man wrongly convicted of murder serving a life sentence, is talking to his friend Red, another lifer. Red has been his guide to surviving life in prison and now Red tells him that hope can kill a man inside. But Andy replies, “Remember, Red hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The power of hope flows through Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise” which says, in part,

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Today is Ascension Sunday. It offers us two choices: we can come to the end of the Easter Extravaganza and ask, well what shall we do now that that’s over—or we can hear the powerful testimony of the resurrection, the concrete evidence of Jesus: still I rise! and ask not just what now, but what now, Lord?


Sixth Sunday in Easter

Normal Love

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 21, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached<

There’s an old story about a church that called a new minister with a reputation as a fine preacher. Sure enough, on his first Sunday he gave an amazing sermon. People cried, people laughed at the funny parts, and many were deeply stirred. The members of the pulpit committee were roundly congratulated and everyone felt this was a great start.

The next Sunday there were smiles as people arrived and quiet as the pastor began. Everyone was startled when his opening turned out to be exactly the same. In fact, the whole sermon was the same. Some people hadn’t been there the first week, and they thought it was a fine sermon, some said they were glad to be reminded of some of his points. But on the whole, there was a bit less reaction. There was even less the third week when he again gave the same sermon, some said word for word.

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

If you love me, keep my commandments

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

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

Culture versus Christ

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

What happens when we do live out his commands? The first thing to know is: you can succeed. We often speak of love as if it were an object or a hole in the  ground; we speak of “falling in love” or being blindsided by love. But love can be an intention, a decision that we will, every day, deal with everyone we encounter with kindness. Love is a commitment to kindness and just as exercising changes our physical body, practicing love changes our spiritual self so that as we do it, we are transformed. We come to see it as natural, as needed. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians that he is compelled by the love of Christ. All Christians know this feeling: because we love Christ, we must love others, even when we don’t want to or it’s inconvenient. 

Succeeding at Keeping Christ’s Commandments

We can succeed at this. Years ago I led a weekly chapel service for preschool kids, I was struggling to figure out how to condense the theology of love into something three year olds could understand. I came up with this idea: one nice thing. So I started talking to them about doing one nice thing each day. I gave little stars for reports of a nice thing; I had them chant it with me: “One nice thing! One nice thing!” It probably sounds silly and simplistic. But a few months after I started the one nice thing campaign, a mother who didn’t go to church came to me and asked to talk. She said that she and her husband weren’t church people and she had been unhappy when we announced the chapel services. Her little boy liked the preschool there, though, so they kept him in class. And then she paused and said, “I hate to admit this. I don’t want to admit this. But I have to: you have made my child better” She went on to say that suddenly he was coming to her and asking what he could do for a nice thing. He was doing things; he was changing. So whether you are three or 93 or somewhere in between, you can do one nice thing; you can succeed at keeping Christ’s commands. And if you try, you will.

Failing at Keeping Christ’s Commandments

There is another thing that will happen if you intentionally set out to keep Christ’s commands: you will fail. Maybe it’s a bad day, you didn’t sleep well, you’re growls and you’ll encounter someone who annoys you. Maybe you’re just not feeling well; maybe you’re feeling under appreciated. We all have those days. You beep at the guy in front of you who is taking two seconds too long to move after the light turns green; you say something unkind under your breath. You let your doubts dominate your thinking at a meeting. We all fail at living out Christ’s commands. The first disciples did. One of the mysteries I’ve been thinking about most of my life is that the gospel accounts depict the first disciples as such bumblers. At the feeding of the multitude, they are worried about the budget. When Jesus announces he is the Christ, they argue with him. They fight to make a hierarchy within their ranks instead of accepting equality with Jesus. They don’t believe in his resurrection; they run away when he’s arrested. They fail.

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

Normal Love

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

A young man shows up one Sunday, a college student, who tells us he’s headed for the ministry. What’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to embrace him. People drive him to church every Sunday; we give him a chance to try out his preaching. We celebrate his graduation. This is from a letter I received from Bryan’s mother about the impact of this normal love.

Thank you so much for all that you and the entire Albany congregation have done for Bryan during his three years at Sienna. Your love, support and and caring have ben overwhelming.

What I love about this church is that love is normal here.

When Christ Compels Us

Now today is a special day: our Annual Meeting. It’s a moment to look around, size up where we’ve been, celebrate it and more importantly think about where we’re going together. Like the minister with whom I began, I want to simply say about that journey what I said on my first time in this pulpit.

Some may look around and see what isn’t here, see small numbers, think it means small potential. But Jesus did not send out a multitude; he sent out just 12 people, about half the number who gather here most Sundays. Sometimes they failed; sometimes they succeeded. But they gave the world this wonderful gift: his vision of love made normal. And in that gift, they found a spirit. As Jesus said, they weren’t alone and they discovered that in that Spirit, miracles were possible. Making love normal always does this: it always incubates miracles.

So as we look forward, make sure you see not just what’s here but what’s coming here, see the impact of normal love, see the vision of Christ. For wherever we go, we will be on the right path when we go where Christ compels us, where Christ leads us, where Christ’s love becomes our gift to the world For whom Christ gave his life.


Mothers Day Sermon

Cords of Compassion

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2017

Mothers Day • May 14, 2017

To Hear the sermon preached, click below

The desert gives up its heat at night as fast as darkness consumes a windowless room when the light switch is turned off. In the shadow of a bush, a child, a boy on the edge of manhood lies crying and a little way off his mother is bent in anguish, crying as well. In that moment, for the first time in the Biblical story, something unimaginable happens: from heaven itself, the voice of an angel, a messenger of the Most High, speaks to the woman and asks, “What troubles you?” The cries of mother and child have been heard in heaven. They’re dying of thirst; she’s perishing from grief. In that moment, this Egyptian woman, a person who has no part in the inheritance of God’s people, is heard and for the first time in the whole Bible story, an angel opens her eyes and she sees, miraculously, an oasis: a garden with water, a place where life can be sustained. Her name is Hagar; her son is Ishamael. God loves them; God saves them.

Mothers Day

Today is Mothers Day in our nation, a celebration begun in 1905 by Anna Jarvis, who began by memorializing her own mother and then campaigned to make the day a national holiday. By 1914, the day was proclaimed by President Wilson and celebrated all over the country. Ironically, Jarvis herself became so angry at commercialization of the day that she campaigned against it and was arrested for disturbing the peace. For people who grew up singing, Faith of Our Fathers and other songs that exclusively portray God’s love in patriarchal terms, it’s hard at times to realize that the Bible has no gender barriers in communicating God’s love. So I thought this would be a good day to speak about three unusual mothers whose stories are like a series of lenses, focusing God’s love through their lives to make it visible to us.

The Story of Hagar: God Hears Her Cry

Take Hagar, for example. We celebrate God’s covenant with Abram and Sarai in which God promised land and blessing and descendants as numerous as the stars. At this promise, they leave the settled place of their origin and live on a pilgrimage with no certain destination. Throughout the journey, the promise of a child remains unfulfilled. At last, seeking to bring about by human means what God doesn’t seem to be doing any other way, Sarai turns to the best reproductive technology of her time. She takes an Egyptian slave named Hagar to her husband, gives her to him as a wife and bluntly tells him to sleep with her and produce a child. This kind of surrogate child bearing was common the ancient near east and in this case it’s effective. Hagar conceives, a child is born, named Ishmael and all seems well.

But it isn’t well; it never is when we try to substitute our own time and trouble for God’s plan. Fertility, child bearing, are the ultimate means of value in that world. Sarai’s childlessness makes her envious of Hagar; Hagar’s success at having a son makes her despise Sarai. It doesn’t take much imagination to think how long and awful that quiet war must have been. Finally, Hagar runs away. But she returns after God speaks to her in the desert. For years thereafter, she lives a twilight life: as to Abraham, a second wife, as to Sarah, a despised slave. The boy Ishmael grows. Finally,, in the fullness of Gods’ time, Sarah does conceive; she also bears a son and names him Isaac. Now there is a new problem: Sarah is determined her son will not share the inheritance with Ishmael. So she bluntly tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar. Upon a day, he does so, giving her the barest minimum, a sack of meal, a skin of water, to survive for a time in the desert. It’s a way of killing someone out of sight. When the meal and water run out, Hagar knows the time is up; she puts the boy under a tree, hoping not to see him die. That’s the scene with which we began. Realize who these people are: Egyptians, slaves, people outside the care of the community. But not outside God’s care. It’s a mother’s cry for her son that first calls forth an angel.

The Story of Bathsheba: Sustaining Love Leads to Blessing

Let me share the story of another mother. She’s not a great example; she’s not a character we often talk about in church. More than a thousand years after Hagar, God’s people have created a kingdom, raised up a king, seen him cast down, replaced by another man named David. It’s the dawn of a golden age remembered ever since for David becomes the focus of a new covenant when God again promises permanent presence with God’s people. But David’s virtue is God’s favor, not his own moral character. One day he sees a young woman, desires her, and they have an affair. David arranges to have her husband killed; the woman, named Bathsheba, becomes pregnant but loses the child. In his grief, David loses himself for a time. Yet he comes back; together, David and Bathsheba have another child and name him Solomon.

Solomon is not the obvious heir but his mother maneuvers him into becoming king after David and his rule becomes an almost mythic golden age. The Talmud calls him a prophet, so too does the Quran. It is Solomon who begins the process of writing down what we call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. But without Bathsheba, there would be no Solomon: it is her perseverance and faith the lead to his life. Without it, we would have no Genesis, no Exodus, no record of how God saved God’s people and covenanted with them. It is Bathsheba, often depicted as an evil temptress, who laid this foundation for us.

The Story of Gomer: God’s Mother Love

Let me tell one more story. Three centuries or so after Solomon, his kingdom has split in two. The northern half, called Israel, has become a place where the rich get richer by oppressing the poor. They have failed to keep God’s covenant and God responds as God always does by calling forth a prophet, a person to speak God’s word. His name is Hosea and his call is to speak about the nations’ faithlessness. Like many prophets, he uses vivid pictures. This is a tough picture to present, so I’m just going to read exactly what it says in the Book of Hosea.
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”

The wife he takes his named Gomer and she has two children. It’s not a pretty story; it’s like describing an operation to remove a tumor. We hope the result is good but the details are difficult. Gomer’s story and the prophecy of Hosea are a terrible indictment of Israel and it’s faithlessness. Over and over again, the rich have violated God’s commands. Over and over again, Israel has failed to live out God’s rules for a community of care.

Yet in that story this light shines out. After all the terrible words of indictment, after all the lists of reasons to punish Israel, after God offers the awful image of an unfaithful wife, God comes back to the core problem of love. Just as Hosea loves Gomer, God loves Israel.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

Now cords of compassion are very simple. I know that every parent here can remember how toddlers run away at the slightest inattention. Israelite mothers, working in the fields, came up with the same solution sometimes used by parents today: a sort of leash to limit how far the child could go, how much trouble he could find. The name for this mother’s leash is a cord or compassion.

Stories of Mothers Showing God’s Love

These are stories of women who do not fit the mold of mothers. I suppose somewhere today someone is talking about Mary the Mother of Jesus or perhaps Sarah, Abraham’s covenant partner whose child Isaac is the sign of covenant fulfillment. I wanted to share these stories because they are not just Biblical stories, they are emblems of how God uses the most unusual mothers as well as the ones we more often remember to let some love in. Gomer becomes a mother precisely to demonstrate faithlessness but in the demonstration, the surprising insight is given that God is not limited by some rule of rewards and punishments in dealing with us; God does not give up even when we are given over to faithlessness. Bathsheba is often a symbol of temptation and adultery but she is also the gateway to the golden age of Solomon when God’s Word is written and wisdom is given. Hagar is an Egyptian slave. Hundreds of years later, the tables will turn, the Hebrews will be enslaved by Egyptians and God will hear the cries of those mothers but here God hears this mother and for the first time sends an angel. Who would have thought someone so outside the boundaries would be the gateway for God’s messenger and God’s message?

These stories are meant to break our boundaries as well. Somewhere today, Syrian mothers are crying; can you imagine heaven hearing them? What should we believe then, when someone tells us they are outside the boundaries of compassion? Somewhere today, some woman is trying to put a life back together after a faithless marriage; is it really enough to say what goes around comes around or is there more, is there some way we can enact God’s surprising love that stops the merry go round and lets people off?

This is Mothers Day; it’s become a day to honor women and that’s a noble, and worthwhile thing. Shouldn’t it be more? Shouldn’t it be a day when we hear in the image of mother love, the voice of God saying, “I drew you with cords of compassion; I could never let you go?” For surely, in covenant, in faith, we are the people bound by cords of compassion; we are the people meant to make those cords clear to those who have not understood they are God’s children. In the love of God, there are no boundaries, there is only the endless grace of trying to raise up the children of God to celebrate God’s love by becoming a blessing every day.

Second Sunday in Easter

A New Song

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – ©2017

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

What Do You Know?

“I know what I know if you know what I mean.” It’s a line in a song by Neil Diamond, recorded some years ago by Edie Brickell that has rattled around in my mind ever since. How do I know what I know? What do you know? How do you know it? 

I asked the ushers to hand out objects today so you’d have something to touch while we thought about this. After all, a basic way we know things is through our senses. So take a moment: touch what you have, feel it, is it sharp, smooth, what does it feel like? What does it smell like? I won’t ask you to taste it but if you’ve ever cared for a small child you know that we start out with no inhibitions about putting things in our mouths; is there any parent who hasn’t had to run at least once yelling, “Take that out of your mouth”? 

So we know what we know because we touch it or taste it or smell it. We connect those things with memories. If I walk into the house on a day Jacquelyn is home and smell garlic, I know we are having something Italian for dinner and I smile: not only because of the future food but because I remember how nice it is to have dinner with the family. Just the scent of the garlic is enough to bring on a whole raft of memories: I know what this time will be like in some way. 
Pictures can do the same thing sometimes.

The last few years have seen an explosion of photographs. There was a time when a standard 35 mm camera shot a roll of film with 36 exposures. So if you were out taking pictures you had to think: is this scene worth one of those frames? Now it’s common to shoot 36 exposures of the same scene just to make sure you got the shot. Why are pictures so important? Because they remind us of what we know. This past week, I went to see Taxi Driver, an old 1970’s movie about a lost soul in New York City in 1973. Sitting there in the dark, with the pictures of bell bottoms and vaguely Indian hippy clothes and the tawdry culture of pre-Giuliani New York, I felt as well my own memories, I remembered experiences of those times. I think that’s why our ancestors drew pictures of hunting on cave walls: it was their photography.  What do you know? How do you know it?

I’m asking this question today because it’s a core problem of the resurrection. Of all the things we know, one of the most basic is that dead is dead. Benjamin Franklin said in a letter to a friend once, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The resurrection flies in the face of that certainty. What are we to do with it? What are we to do about it? What are we to believe?

The Disciples and the Resurrection

This isn’t a new problem. The gospels depict Jesus telling his disciples several times that he would be crucified, die and then rise again. John has him saying,

So the Jews answered and said to him, ‘What sign do you show to us, since you do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:18-22)


Matthew quotes this saying:

An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:39-40).

and then again,

From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day (Matthew 16:21).

One might have thought there would have been a crowd of witnesses at the tomb if his disciples had believed him. Evidently they didn’t since only the women go and they go to prepare a corpse, not acclaim a risen Lord. It’s only in the moment of finding the tomb empty and meeting Jesus again that the women believe in the resurrection and when they do, they tell the disciples, disciples who apparently don’t believe them. So if in your heart of hearts, you don’t believe the women, the Easter story, take heart: neither did the first people to hear it.

We Are Toddlers

The problem we have is the same as the one Thomas the Twin has. Remember him? In the reading today, he says,”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Doesn’t that describe most of us? We want to see: we want to touch. Like a toddler with a toy, we only know what we can get our hands around, we only believe what we can get in our mouths. The resurrection flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been told or known or seen. “I know what I know,” we say to it, like Thomas. Want me to change? Show me something. I wonder if that isn’t the same problem many of us have with the resurrection. We are toddlers too: before we believe in something impossible, we want to see it, touch it.

Of course, no one saw the resurrection. Search the scriptures, there’s not a single eyewitness account, not one. Instead, what we have accounts, many accounts, of the experience of encountering the risen Lord. Paul says more than 500 people, both men and women, had such experiences. So the key to understanding what John is telling us may not be Thomas’ question but the earlier experience of the disciples. Remember that moment? They are locked in a room. Now there’s one reason we lock rooms: we’re afraid of something. The leader of this movement has been executed for a political crime; surely the authorities will be after his followers. They’re afraid, meeting secretly behind a locked door and suddenly there he is, the Lord, coming through the door. No grave can keep him down; no door can keep him out. “Peace be with you,” he says. And it is.

“I know what I know.” What these followers of Jesus know is simple: that when they get together, he’s still present with them. When they sit down to dinner, as they did with him, he’s still present with them. When they love each other, he’s still present with them. When they share his love with others, he’s still present with them. They feel it; they know it. Perhaps for Thomas it is seeing this acted out that matters. Perhaps for you it is and if that’s true, look around, look for him: he comes and goes wherever people live in love and remember him.

There is a game small children play at a particular moment: it’s called peek-a-boo. You’ve played it, we all have. You know how it works. You cover your eyes, say, “Where’s Maggie? Where’s Andy?” and then open your eyes or uncover them and there they are. The child does the same thing.

Peek a Boo

Peek-a-boo, it turns out, is a very important game. We don’t come believing the world is permanent; we don’t come believing things stay here when we are asleep or close our eyes. That’s one reason children cry so inconsolably at bedtime. Wouldn’t you cry if you thought the whole world would end when you closed your eyes? So we teach them. Look: it’s still here, I’m still here. Peek-a-boo. Close your eyes: it’s safe. Open them: still here. Over and over again, until they know it, believe it, until we don’t remember not knowing it.

It’s like learning a new song. One of the first times I went to my church youth group, Harry Clark, our minister sang a cool song called, “Dem Bones”. It has endless verses and no one ever wrote them down. It has a chorus: “Dem Bones gonna rise again: I knotted it, knowed it, knowed it, Dem bones gonna rise again!” I didn’t know that song but gradually, over years of listening to Harry, I began to learn it. I learned the verses and even though I’m not much of a singer, I learned to lead it. I knew I had it one day when I was a newly minted youth minister and I had to lead a song at a retreat and I started it up. “Dem bones gonna rise again”.

Learning resurrection life isn’t about pretending to believe some event hundreds of years ago. It is about learning to move to a new rhythm, sing a new song. It is like being a child who has discovered that just as the world doesn’t go away when you shut your eyes, God’s love doesn’t go away when you die. Peek-a-boo: still there, always there, permanently there.


Easter Sunday

Lost & Found

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Easter Sunday/A • April 16, 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

A few years ago, our family was driving from Omaha to Kansas City to attend a convention. When we got to the hotel, we settled in. For Jacquelyn, that means unpacking clothes; for me it means setting up the computer, getting online, setting up my iPod for music. I had one of the first iPod and it was a prized possession. So you can imagine how I felt when I discovered it wasn’t there—not there in the bag, not there in the car. What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you know. I knew I’d had it on my belt in the car and I searched and searched, moved the seat back and forth until finally it dawned on me that somehow my iPod was gone. Then I remembered something. At a rest area where we’d stopped, there was an odd little thunk noise I’d ignored. With a sick realization, I suddenly knew the iPod was gone: left an hour or more up the road, gone for good. It was lost and all I could do was rant at my thoughtlessness and sputter in anger. I didn’t know what to do so that’s what I did.

When You Don’t Know What to Do

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you did last time. You do it whether it worked or not; you do it whether it makes sense or not. Most of our life is cooked up from a series of recipes. What should we do? Look at your handbook; look at your cookbook. But there’s no handbook for Easter, no cookbook for resurrection. We’ve just heard the story of two women in the midst of something unimaginable; one of those stories you read in the newspaper and wince about, one of those tales you hear and think, “thank God that’s not me”. Their friend, their leader, the man who guided their lives and gave those lives light has been crucified. They don’t know what to do so they do what they did the last time someone died: they’re on the way to bury him properly. But they’re about to experience an earthquake, they’re about to come face to face with the real Easter. This is the Easter story: you start out to bury Jesus and end up proclaiming his life. You lose your friend and find the Lord.

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

At the Tomb

But at the tomb, everything changes. Matthew says there is a kind of earthquake; perhaps the true earthquake is the stunning surprise when their map suddenly disappears, when last time is no guide to this moment. For Jesus isn’t there. None of the gospel accounts tell the details of the resurrection; all the accounts agree on this stunning surprise: that the women went to a tomb, expecting the dead Jesus and found he wasn’t there. What they did last time, what they believed from their past, what they knew about things staying the same suddenly didn’t apply. Instead, they meet this strange angelic figure; instead, they are told three things: go, tell, see. Go tell his disciples he is going to Galilee, going home, and there you will see him. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus is not done with them; Jesus is not done with us.

It was, we are told, in the breaking of the bread that Jesus was seen. It is when we together believe and act from the faith that Jesus is not done with us that we will see him. Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. Instead, we should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow, where he is going next.

An Easter Story

One of the great bedrock proverbs of our culture, a saying we hear in our heads and recite to each other is, “People don’t change.” But in fact people do change, people change every day and that is resurrection. In his book, New Mercies I See, Stan Purdum tells about a little baby that would not have survived if he had not had the right people in the nick of time.

Lucille Brennan had lived a hard life, but found faith in Christ in her mid-fifties and turned her life around. As a way of making up for being such a poor parent to her own illegitimate son, Lucille became a foster parent. The director of the Department of Children’s Services considered Lucille one of their best foster parents and asked her to take one of their sadder cases.
Little Jimmy, five months old, had been beaten unmercifully by his mother’s live in boyfriend whenever he cried. Jimmy had been so emotionally damaged that now he wouldn’t cry even when he was hungry or wet or cold. Everyone was afraid that the damage was permanent. Lucille determined that Jimmy needed to be held, and held a lot. So for weeks, Lucille did everything one-handed. Her other arm was busy cradling Jimmy, who remained silent as ever.
Jimmy wouldn’t cry to tell her he was hungry, so Lucille made it a point to feed him on a regular schedule. Lucille would get up in the middle of the night and check on him. Sometimes he was asleep, but other times he just lay there awake and quiet. When she found him like that, she picked him up and rocked him until he drifted back to sleep.
Of course Jimmy went to church with Lucille and the entire congregation heard the sad story of this baby who was too afraid to cry. On the fifth Sunday after Jimmy had been placed in Lucille’s home, the pastor was well into his sermon when he heard something and stopped talking. It was a little cry. And when people turned to look, they saw Lucille with a big smile on her face and tears pouring out of her eyes. But the crying sound wasn’t coming from her, it came from the bundle she held in her arms.
Eileen, who was sitting next to Lucille, stared as the little boy took a deep breath and started crying louder. Finally, Eileen couldn’t contain herself and in an action unusual for a bunch of quiet Lutherans, she exclaimed, “Praise the Lord.” At that same time the entire congregation broke into an enthusiastic applause – probably the first time in history that worshipers had applauded because a child cried in church.

Do you see that this story is the Easter story? A woman, a person, finds resurrection and lives her life from it, giving life to others. She embraces a baby who’s silent and dying. Through her embrace, Jimmy learns to cry. Now if you search the scripture, you will find this ever present reality: God hears cries. Whether it’s Hagar in the wilderness, or Jimmy in church, God hears cries and makes them the occasion for grace. Someone changed: someone loved, someone was saved by which we mean able to grow up into the person God hoped.

Resurrection Is Where We Are

We come to the tomb today. It’s important to recognize where we are today. It’s important to know this place. This is the tomb. This is the cemetery. This is the world. It may be pretty. It may be familiar. It may look nice and smell sweet but this is the tomb. The world is a tomb and our call is not of this world, our call is not in this world. We are called like the women of this story to get up and get going. Jesus is not here; Jesus is gone, Jesus is gone to Galilee, Jesus is gone to glory. Where is Galilee? It’s back where he came from; it’s back where we come from, it’s home. Resurrection is where we are, not some other time or place. So get up: don’t be afraid, if he could escape the tomb so can you. Get up: you’re not done, you’re not finished but you aren’t here to do what you thought, he has a new purpose and a different mission for you. Get up: go where he told you. Get up: go find him.

It was, we are told, in the breaking of the bread that Jesus was seen. It is when we together believe and act from the faith that Jesus is not done with us that we will see him. This is why we’re here together. It’s not just Lucille that taught Jimmy to cry; it was a whole congregation who loved and nurtured. Jesus never works alone; he always gathers people together. We are among the people he gathers. So in our going, we go together, helping each other, nurturing each other.

Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. Instead, we should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow, where he is going next.

Finding Jesus

We will find him where he said: in the eyes of the homeless, in the service of the hungry. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” he says. We will find him when we make the resurrection of those around us as important the decoration of our tables. We will find him when we are more interested in following him than finding our own way. We will find him when, as Paul says, we have the mind of Christ in our own mind. Then,, then indeed, Easter will come not only for us, but from us. Then, our church, our lives, will proclaim this glad news, “He is risen!” for he will be risen, risen in us, and we will have found him.

We’ve been thinking about conversations with Jesus for six weeks. We’ve heard them, I’ve preached about them, we’ve imagined them. It’s time for our own conversation with Jesus. For if we believe he is alive, wouldn’t he still be talking with us, sharing with us, meeting with us? And here is the question we ought to be asking, all of us, every day: what now, Lord?


Right Here, Right Now

Conversations Before the Cross #5:What Now, Lord?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Lent/A • April 2, 2017

John 11:1-45

Most mornings at our house begin the same. Waking up, getting out of bed, dressed while an excited dog runs back and forth, urging me on. We go downstairs, hook up the leash, out the door and then open the garage door to reveal the day. This past week, several of those openings have revealed a cold, rainy backyard. Now Lucy hates rain, hates being wet. There she is, straining at the leash, pulling me forward until she comes to the rain. I see her look out, recognize the situation and then she just stops, as if to say, “I’m not going out there in this.” Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. Today we’re invited into this final moment before Jesus comes to Jerusalem, today we are invited to face the darkness of death and see the possibilities of resurrection. Today we are asked to stop in this moment and consider our own lives in the light of these other lives. What then? What now?

Conversations Before the Cross

Throughout this season of Lent, we’ve been overhearing Jesus’ conversations. We heard him talk to Satan, responding to each temptation to live from his own needs with God’s Word and a determination to live that Word. We heard him tell Nicodemus about new life by being born from above, from living as a child of heaven. We heard him offer a woman at a well in Samaria living water, flowing from the love of God, baptizing her in a way that opened the way to new life. We saw him heal a man born blind and the conflict it caused when his eyes were opened and he believed in Jesus. Now we come to this story and there are so many people, so many conversations going on that it’s hard to hear Jesus directly. What do you hear in the story?

Dealing With Death: Avoidance

See how carefully John invites us into the scene. Bethany is a suburb of Jerusalem. Mary and Martha are gathered there; Lazarus, their brother, is deathly ill. I know this scene and perhaps you do as well. It’s played out in hospital waiting rooms every day. Right now, at Albany Med, at St. Peters, some family is gathered, waiting, talking, worrying. Nothing has changed; nothing is different, then, now. Their brother has been sick, perhaps for a long time. Everything has been tried; nothing has worked. Now they try one more thing. Jesus has a reputation for healing and he’s their friend. So someone, another friend perhaps, is sent to get him. Imagine their hope, their last hope, that Jesus will swoop in and save the day.

But he doesn’t. In fact, after the messenger arrives with his frantic plea, Jesus doesn’t rush off, Jesus doesn’t interrupt whatever he’s doing, Jesus stays where he is, the text says, two more days. The story invites us into an irony that reflects our own fears. When the messenger arrives, asking, begging Jesus to come to Bethany, his disciples are afraid. “The last time we were down there, people rioted and we barely got out with our lives!”, they remind him; that’s what it means when it says they were stoned. At the moment Jesus is asked to intervene and prevent Lazarus’ death, the disciples urge him not to go because they’re afraid of death. Here’s one response to death: avoid it, stay safe. Before death, use your mind to escape death.

Jesus doesn’t listen to them. When his disciples were discussing the man born blind, he told them, “I am the light of the world.” Now he gives them an example of living in the light and makes his way to Bethany. There he encounters first Martha and later Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, and each one confronts him with an accusation: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are grieving, they are hurt, they are angry and their anger and faith have mixed into a bitter blindness. Swirling around this entire conversation is a group of other mourners as well and emotions run high. Jesus is himself caught up in the moment; the text tells us “Jesus wept.” So here we have a second response to death: weep, mourn, grieve. If the rational process of avoiding death fails, the emotional process of grieving offers a path.

Jesus at the Grave

Now I imagine we’ve all been to a funeral and probably to that time before the service, calling hours, wake, different names for the same moment. Usually there is a casket or an urn at the front of the room and a line leading to it with a grieving family off to one side. I don’t know what you think of as you wait in that line but for many, it’s what to say to the family. What comfort can you bring? What story can you share? So I imagine this scene like that: the family and friends gathered around as Jesus, Lazarus’ great friend, comes forward through the crowd. See him walking slowly? See him weeping? Now he comes to the opening, he tells them to roll away the stone and they object: the odor of death will escape. But the grave is opened and suddenly he speaks, he says what no one imagined or expected, what none of us would say: 
“Lazarus, come out.”

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

Now he calls Lazarus: “Come out!” And now there is a faint noise from inside the tomb, now there is the sound of stumbling feet, now there is a shadow moving, moving toward the light from the darkness, just as the man born blind moved from blindness to sight, just as the woman at the well moved from her loneliness to love. “Come out, Lazarus!” And Lazarus stumbles forward, wrapped still in the linen cloths with which bodies were bound in that time. Jesus offers a new command: “Unbind him and let him go.” And they do. Notice that in each command, Jesus invites others to take action. He tells others to move the stone; he doesn’t pull Lazarus out of the tomb, he calls him out; he doesn’t unbind him, he asks the whole group there to do this. Jesus works through a community around him, commanding, inspiring, calling, showing them what to do and inviting them to do it.

A Third Way: Calling People to Life

We’ve seen two ways to deal with death: avoidance and acceptance. Jesus offers a third—faith in the resurrection, faith in the power of life, faith in the love of God so that even in the midst of death, we remain alive to God, as Paul will say later, transformed. That faith can bind us together into a people gathered in the name of Jesus. Just being a church doesn’t guarantee that; there are plenty of churches who are gathered around a shared culture or a determination to preserve the past.

The fundamental Christian mission: to go to where the power of death is working and call God’s children to life, to go to darkness and bring light. Perhaps a story from almost two thousand years ago is so distant it seems irrelevant. But there are still times when Christians are called to go into tombs and bring life. In 1940, Holland was overwhelmed by a German assault and captured almost in a few days. Soon the Nazi focus on eliminating Jews made itself felt. In Amsterdam, a large theater was gutted and used as a detention center and nearby another called the Creche, was used to gather Jewish children. A small group of Dutch resisters, both Christians and Jews, began to work to save these children. Despite the increasing risks, for the next three years they organized networks to smuggle children out of the creche to homes in northern Holland and other places where families would hide them and help them. The creche was meant to be the first stage of a tomb for these children and so it was for thousands. But thanks to the efforts of these who walked into that tomb and spirited them out, hundreds of children were saved.

Facing the Darkness

But it’s not simply a story of heroes and happy children. Many of the group were lost to the Gestapo, arrested, tortured, murdered. Darkness is powerful; death does not give up. The only power greater than death is resurrection, the only thing that can keep the light alive is the power of God’s love. All along his journey, Jesus has faced conflict and threats. We saw the anger of the Pharisees last week when he healed the man born blind. We know that the charge, “He eats with sinners,” was frequently used and that included people like the woman at the well certainly. Beyond the reading for today, John tells us that the raising of Lazarus leads directly to the plot to arrest and execute Jesus. Remember how Jesus’ conversation with Satan ended. Satan did not say, “I give up”; instead, we’re told, he left him for a more opportune time. Now that time is coming. The darkness is closing around him even as he himself brings light. I wonder in that moment what his followers thought; I wonder what we would have thought, what I would have thought. I read this story and I want to rejoice but it scares me as well. I wonder: what now Lord?

Called by Jesus

For the story of Jesus calling someone to life from death isn’t just history; it is the present too. Over and over in my ministry I have seen this happen. Some person, nurtured by a congregation, comes alive. Perhaps it was a woman whose life had been bound by walls of oppression; perhaps it is a man who turns a life around. Perhaps it is someone who only comes to church for a little while and then moves on. This is what sustains me on my journey. I’ve seen Jesus call people to life. I’ve felt Jesus call me to life.

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

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