A Pillow In the Wilderness

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19

Hear the sermon being preached

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

—Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

There aren’t many stories that have two great songs about them. The story of Jacob and his dream has an old camp song, Jacob’s Ladder, which we’ll sing later and the Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven. We can enjoy the songs but what can we learn from the story?

To really hear the story means knowing where we are in the larger story of God’s people. Take Jacob, for example. Today we meet him in the wilderness, camping alone with a stone for a pillow. We heard the story of Isaac earlier this summer. Isaac married Rebekah and she had twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau was swarthy, hairy guy from the beginning, an outdoorsy hunter; Jacob was born second, grasping his brother’s heel, with a prophecy that he would supplant his brother. The name ‘Jacob’ literally means “The supplanter” and while Isaac loved Esau, Rebekah loved Jacob.

Early on, on a day when Esau came in hungry from hunting, Jacob was cooking but insisted his brother sell his birthright in exchange for food. Later, when Isaac is near the end of life, Rebekah helped Jacob fool Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Jacob, so Jacob became the next in the line of patriarchs. Esau threatened to kill Jacob and Rebekah sent Jacob away to protect him. Now he’s returning from that journey. Think how he must feel; think how tense and worried he must be about what kind of reception he will receive.

Just as we look back to a line of heroic people we call the Founders, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others, Israel had a series of patriarchs whose encounters with God were touchstones of God’s purpose. Abraham was the first, followed by Isaac, the child of promise, and now we come to the third, Jacob. The striking thing about these legendary figures is that not one of them shows up as a particularly morally upright figure.

We like to make up stories that show our founders in an idealized way—is there anyone who didn’t grow up hearing the story of George Washington and the cherry tree?—Israel remembered the good and the bad about their patriarchs. Abraham believed God but often wavered from the path of promise. Isaac is not portrayed as someone who ever understands what’s going on. Now we come to Jacob, the trickster, the supplanter, who always has an eye on getting ahead, even refusing to feed his brother until he sells his birthright, even cooperating in a fraud to fool his father and gain the inheritance.

There’s an important message here: God doesn’t just work with the good. Later this summer we’re going to hear that what God wants is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have in common, what sets them apart, is that whatever their lapses, whatever their failures, they always listen to God, always pursue God’s purpose when it becomes plain. That’s grace: that’s God’s love. And it isn’t just for the perfect, it’s for all.

Later in the story, we’ll see the principle again and again. Moses is a convicted murderer but he becomes the prophet who defines God’s next chapter with God’s people. David, King David, has so many lapses it’s hard to really tell his story without embarrassment but he always loved God and God always loved him. This is the first and most important thing to take from this story: God meets us not because of who we were, but because of who we can become. You don’t need fancy clothes or a great resumé to come to God’s party, God sees our hearts and embraces us when we hope in humility.

The story begins with Jacob setting up camp in the evening. He puts a stone under his head for a pillow. Even in the wilderness, we all seek some comfort. He has a dream. In the dream, he sees something where figures are going back and forth from heaven. It’s come to be called “Jacob’s Ladder” but the figure is actually what we would call a ramp. Long ago, human beings decided God must be up above and so with that way we have of trying to use the mechanical to accomplish the spiritual, they built huge buildings with ramps so that you could literally get closer to heaven, closer to God. In the Ancient Near East, these were called ziggurats. Priests went up them to lead worship at the top; later they came down to speak about what God wanted. In Jacob’s dream, figures, angels, are ascending and descending. Stop there for a moment; think how we often imagine God as inaccessible, we even have a song that describes God as, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes…” But here God is accessible and if we follow the Bible text with its ramp instead of the folk song with its ladder, heaven is even barrier free.

In his dream, Jacob sees God standing with him, and God recalls the history of the promise. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and your father and the God of Isaac, [Genesis 28:13a]” This isn’t a sudden intrusion; this is God reminding Jacob of the history of God’s promise. What comes next is a renewal of that promise and that purpose. Just as God promised Abraham, God promises to be with Jacob, to give him a place and descendants an to make his family a blessing to the whole earth. A lot has changed since God first announced this purpose to Abraham. People have lived, people have died; some have been faithful, some have not, there have been wars and new babies and treaties and discoveries. God’s purpose hasn’t changed; God’s purpose never changes. So if the free, forgiving embrace of God is the first lesson here, surely the second is the peace of God’s permanent purpose. 

We talk a lot these days about “getting back to normal” as if our memory of a time when schools were open, sports were played in crowded stadiums, and going to a restaurant was the way things always were. But the truth is, all that was a moment, a nice moment perhaps, but a moment. If we want to be a part of what is truly permanent, it doesn’t mean trying to get back to normal, it means going forward pursuing God’s purpose.

Jacob reacts to all this in such a human way. If you read it seriously, you have to laugh. When he wakes, the first thing he does is to say that God is in this place and name it “Bethel”, which means God’s house. Then he takes the stone, as if any of this has to do with the stone, and sets it up as a marker. Isn’t this just like us? How many things do you have that you can’t get bear to lose? We’re doing a lot of cleaning up and tossing out this summer. I have some boxes I’ve moved more than 20 times that contain notes from my high school girlfriend. I don’t know why I’ve kept them. We parted long ago, I’m sure I wouldn’t even recognize her today if we met on the street. But there they are.

It’s the same with churches. We become attached to stuff in our churches. Just like Jacob setting up his stone, we think we need things because they’ve always been here. Years ago when I was working with a committee on furnishing a new worship space, we had a long discussion about chairs versus pews. The chairs were promising, more comfortable, more flexible. But the issue was denied when most of the committee said, “It’s not church without pews.” I honor and value the historic things here. But I know this: it’s just furniture. The communion table is just a table. The baptismal font is just a baptismal font. This pulpit is just a wooden pulpit. What’s important isn’t the furniture, what’s important is the spirit. Without the people of this church, without our working together, without God’s spirit, there would be no church. Without the table and the font and the pulpit, we would still be a church. 

The final moment of this story may be the most important of all. It’s beyond what we read today but in the next verses, Jacob chooses to take his place as a patriarch, he promises to serve God, to follow God’s purpose. The stone he sets up is just a stone; the choice he makes will set his course for a lifetime. He will become the father of the tribes of Israel; his youngest son Joseph will have a dream of his own that will make the next chapter of God’s people.

What about us? So often we are like the lady in the song, trying to buy with our goods or our goodness a stairway to heaven. Jacob’s dream is here to remind us the way to God is free and waits only for us to walk humbly with God, for us to seek God’s purpose. This is a wilderness time: we’re all going through unfamiliar things. In this wilderness, instead of lashing out in anger or holding on to a memory of normal, perhaps we should find a pillow, lay down, and wait for God to come to us, so that we too, in our time, may understand how we can serve God as part of God’s purpose. For indeed, as Jacob said of Bethel, if we look closely not at this building alone but at the people it embraces, we will say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”

Amen.

Places! Action!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

July 12, 2020 • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Matthew 14:13-21

Places! Action! If you’ve ever been in a play or movie, you’ll recognize those commands immediately. A stage is a strange and wonderful place from behind. As an actor, you stand to the side, often hidden just behind hanging curtains, familiar props and sets arranged just over there. Then the director speaks: “Places”—and you hurry to find the exact spot from which you begin. A second command—Action!—and everything begins. Of course, the real beginning was long before. Perhaps months before you heard about the show, you noted the audition time, you showed up, read something, answered questions and then waited, the long wait until finally the list is posted and you discover you are playing—whoever. “It’s not a lead,” you tell your friend, but all the while you’re thinking how to make the part shine as if it were. You gather at the first rehearsal, read through the play, and then there comes the first day on stage, a bare stage, just a dirty, dusty stage, and it seems to take forever to get everyone sorted out. When it’s done, you gather to get directions. Then the first real rehearsal, and it begins with the director saying, “Places!  Action!” Long before those words on opening night, long before the first curtain, you have been practicing, practicing, practicing, finding the place—”Places!”—rehearsing the steps, the motions, the words  Action!”—so that when it counts, when it really counts, all it takes is those two commands to set you in motion, to create the wonderful experience of drama. Now reading the story of the feeding of the five thousand this week, what occurred to me is that this is really Jesus doing the same thing. He’s rehearsing his followers, he’s showing them their place, he’s calling them to action. Jesus is rehearsing us so we’ll be ready for our parts.

The story of feeding of the crowd is the only miracle story in all four gospels. Matthew sets it in loneliness.  Jesus’ friend and mentor John the Baptist has been killed, executed by the king after a lurid conspiracy. Imagine the fear and grief that death must have inspired. So Jesus does what we sometimes do, he withdraws. The text says that he went to a lonely place. He means to get away, to pray, certainly to grieve, clearly to think about his next steps.

But the crowd won’t let him get away. He takes a boat; they run along the shore. Finally, the text says, “He had compassion on them,” and he begins to heal and the day becomes full of touching and celebrating and people pushing and pressing. We’ve ll heard this story before and it’s easy to rush past this introduction. But stay there a moment, feel that moment. You’re tired, you’re sad, you’re overwhelmed and yet others demand your attention, your care. What do you do when you’re empty? Isn’t this the first miracle of this story, that at a low point in his life, Jesus sees the very people he meant to avoid and had compassion on them? 

Finally, late in the afternoon, his followers—you and I!—approach him. We’re good staff; we know he’s stayed too long. “Send these people away,” the disciples say. They’re smart; a hungry crowd can turn dangerous. Maybe they’re exercising some compassion too, doing it by way of planning. “Send them away to buy food.” In other words, tell them to go, and make their own way, feed themselves. 

Now Jesus, turns to his disciples, looks over their heads at the crowd, the empty crowd, and simply says to his friends, “You give them something to eat.” Think of it: imagine a crowd here, staying too long, imagine if we hadn’t planned food, hadn’t made phone calls, hadn’t assigned who would bring what, when, just imagine if I stood here and gathered the council and said, “You give them something to eat.” Wouldn’t we be like the disciples? They immediately make excuses: “we don’t have the money, we don’t have the food, we don’t have enough.” If it was now, we’d add, our insurance won’t cover this. This is the excuse of the church in every generation, in every place, “We don’t have enough.”

Of course, you know what happens. Someone—according to a different account of the same event, a small boy—someone offers up some bread and some fish and it turns into the first fish fry; French fries hadn’t been invented yet, so all they have is good rough peasant bread, the flat bread common in the area, and small fish, like chubs or sardines. I see this as the beginning of fish tacos. Somehow, everyone is fed. All week long, preachers on a mailing list to which I belong have been arguing: is it a miracle? Did they share? Was it something supernatural? If it isn’t supernatural, can it still be a miracle—is sharing itself a miracle? You’ve heard both sides I’m sure at various times. Here’s my question: does it matter? Here’s what happens: the crowd is hungry, they share what they have, Jesus blesses it, breaks it and it turns out to be not just enough but more than enough. Miracles happen when we do what Jesus commands even though we don’t understand it. He blesses what we do and it is enough.

Don’t take my word for it: look for yourself. Here’s an example. Any out three months ago, this terrible pandemic meant we had to suspend having worship services here in our beautiful building. It’s how we’d always done things since 1919 except in August when we did nothing. But   we thought, we experimented, Dave Petty contributed expertise and some equipment, Jim Dennehey found enough money in the accounts to buy a video camera and we set out to stream an online worship service. We’re still figuring it out, to be honest. But one thing is clear. Every week, this service is watched about 100 people, about four times our previous average worship attendance. Is that a miracle? 

We never think about what the disciples did after Jesus told them to feed the crowd. But what they did was simple. They went to work anyway. They hoped anyway. They had faith anyway.  They found someone with five loaves and a couple fish. These knew as well as you or I that five loaves and a couple of fish aren’t going to feed a crowd that size. But they took what they had and they began to distribute it. They hoped, they believed, they worked. That’s what happened here. We hoped, we believed it was important, we worked. We made changes, some of them difficult, and we held our breath. Today, our church is growing in ways we never imagined. For the first time in memory, we’re going to offer services in August. It’s a miracle.

What’s the point of the story we read  today? What does it have for us? This, I think: Jesus is rehearsing his followers and that includes you and I. He’s saying to them, “Places!”— “Action!”. Jesus never intended to do all the work of ministry. God didn’t set out to save the world in one strait jacket supernatural burst; instead, God starts with a family, Abraham and Sarah, as we heard last month, and history, growing them up, just the way we slowly help children to grown. Jesus doesn’t do it all himself; what he does is to teach his followers the rhythm of sharing, the rhythm of ministry, the method of being the body of Christ. This is the principle he teaches: miracles happen when we say yes to Jesus’ command, offer all we have, receive his blessing and generously share.How does it start? It starts with Jesus’ compassion. Where do you think that compassion is today? When have you felt that compassion? How does it continue? It continues when we hear him turn something over to us. What is he turning over today? What need is he telling us to meet: where is he saying, “You give them something to eat!” today? It goes on when we share what we have in faith. Faith doesn’t mean we think it’s enough; faith means we offer it believing he can make it enough. It goes on when we act at his command to share what he has blessed. Where is Jesus in your life? How is that blessing shared?

The feeding of the crowd isn’t a final event; it’s a rehearsal. “Places! Action!” didn’t stop there and it hasn’t stopped yet. Today, as then, tomorrow as today: Jesus turns to us, in his compassion, to say, “You give them something”. May we do it, Lord, may we do it in faith, in hope, in love.

Amen.

Bound for Glory

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 020

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year A • June 28, 2020

Genesis 22:1-14

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That thought occurs at least five times explicitly in the Bible and the concept of the fear of the Lord occurs many more. What is fear? What is wisdom? For us, wisdom might mean being smart; for scripture, wisdom is the practical guide to how you live your life. For us, fear is being scared, concern about imminent danger; for scripture, it isn’t about something scary but about taking something seriously. We wear masks because we take the threat of spreading a virus seriously. So another way to translate this verse might be, “Taking God seriously is the guide to living your life.” We’ve been reading the stories of Abraham and Sarah the last few weeks and today we finish this series by hearing a story that challenges us. Rabbis call it “The binding of Isaac,” Christians usually call it “The sacrifice of Isaac” and Muslims can’t agree on whether it’s Isaac or Ishmael being sacrificed. Moreover, if we stand back from the story and look at it as a whole, Isaac is hardly there; this is a story of Abraham. My title would be, the test of Abraham.

Remember that Abraham and Sarah have lived their life moved by God’s promise to give them land, children and make them a blessing to all nations. When the promise seemed to be failing, they arranged to have a child by an Egyptian slave named Hagar; last week we read how Hagar and her son Ishmael were exiled and doomed until God heard their cries and sent an angel to nurture them and give them hope. We read how the promise of a child mad Sarah laugh because she was too old for child-bearing, so when the child was born, she named him Isaac, which means laughter. He must have been a great joy and from the beginning he was understood to be a child of God’s promise.

What’s been happening since is life. You know what I mean: all those daily things we hardly remark. It’s spring and the lambs come. The dryer breaks down and you have to get a new one. The rains come and the basement floods. Someone gets sick, hopefully they recover. Kids grow up. Abraham was already old when Isaac was born; so was Sarah. They’re older now, maybe thinking about turning things over to Isaac, retiring.  

Suddenly, in the midst of his day, there’s God again: “Abraham!” His response is immediate: “Here I am, Lord,” just like the song we sing. Was it like hearing from an old friend, someone who isn’t on Facebook so you lost track of them? Then they show up somehow, maybe a class reunion or a chance encounter and you’re glad to see them. But surely he isn’t glad in what follows. “After these things,” the text says, “God tested Abraham.” 

Notice how the story focuses on the relationship between Abraham and Isaac: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love…” Isaac is the late in life child of  promise. He actually isn’t Abraham’s only son but Abraham thinks he is because Abraham thinks he’s already sent his son Ishmael to death in the desert. Isaac is his last chance to fulfill the promise his life has been built around. So it’s hard to imagine the terror of the next words.

…go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. [Gen. 22:2]

This is Abraham’s understanding. He lives in a culture where child sacrifice is common, so it’s easy to think that he would imagine sacrificing Isaac as a test of his faithfulness.

What would you think? I asked my friend Andrea, a mother of two sons and a faithful Jewish woman, what she would do and she said, “No way.” I thought about the time my son Jason had to have an operation that used a tiny video camera, how I couldn’t watch the video, I couldn’t watch them cutting my son. I’m with Andrea: no way. So if that’s what you thought, you’re in good company. It’s a curious because God’s Word elsewhere is horrified by human sacrifice. Centuries later, Leviticus will prescribe stoning for this. Still later, Micah will say, 

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:7f]

So I wonder: is sacrificing Isaac what God wants?—or is Abraham running ahead of God, as he has often done, as we sometimes do.

What happens next is a journey. Notice how the journey is also a series of subtractions. Abraham starts out with Isaac, two servants, a donkey, and a pile of firewood. They walk three days and when Abraham sees the place, he leaves the servants and the donkey; Isaac has to carry the wood. There is an insight about tests here: we take them alone. Now the father and son “walk on together”; now they climb the mountain. Isaac begins to suspect something is up. He knows about sacrifices, you roast a lamb, one of the most valuable things they own, as a way of giving it to God. But there’s no lamb, just fire and a knife and wood and the Abraham and the son he loves. So they walk on until they find the place; Abraham builds an altar, lays the wood in readiness and then he ties up Isaac: “He bound his son”—see the stress on the relationship even here?—and he gets ready with a knife. “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took a knife to kill his son.” [Gen 22:10]

Have you been to the place of testing? Many of us have. Maybe it was in a time of grief; maybe it was in a time of sadness or depression. Maybe the darkness closed in and you didn’t believe it would ever go away. This is Abraham’s test and he passes it when he doesn’t kill Isaac, when he sees the sacrifice God provides, when he lets God provide. Abraham is bound for glory because from the first moment God called him in Ur he has been willing to change his understanding of what God wants and what God is doing. What Abraham learns is that God has a bigger possibility than he had realized. There is a message here and it’s simple: don’t stop believing on Good Friday because Easter’s coming. Don’t stop believing in the darkness because the glory of the Lord is going to light up the world in a way you haven’t imagined yet. Don’t sit down and give up because we have a way to go, we are bound for that light, that glory.

Woody Guthrie sang a song called Bound for Glory. It’s an old mountain spiritual, I guess it didn’t appeal to the more urban, middle class people of Congregational Churches, because it’s not in any of our hymnals. It’s not a hymnal sort of song, it’s the sort you just know and you sing without a book. The song says,  

This train is bound for glory, this train
This train is bound for glory, this train
This train is bound for glory

But riding that train takes some faith. That’s the thing about trains, you have to give up some control. You can’t steer the train, you can’t make the train stop or go, you have to have a little faith in the engineer. Abraham had faith in God and his faith carried him to a terrible place. After this place, Genesis doesn’t record Sarah or Isaac ever speaking to him again. 

But in that place, he realized God had provided. Throughout the story of Abraham, he tries to accomplish God’s purpose instead of waiting for God to provide. Finally, here, on this mountain, he does let God provide. That’s the real test of faith: can we believe God will provide.s Abraham’s faith became an emblem and his son, Isaac, became the next generation in the story of God’s promise, a story that goes on today, a story of which we are a part, a people a story of people bound for glory. 

We pray at least once a week, “Lead us not into temptation..” The original words of this prayer literally say, “Lead us not to the place of testing.” We don’t seek tests and we hope we will never face the sort of test Abraham faces. Yet we do face events and things that challenge us. In those moments, we want to do something; often what we need most is to wait. 

 I used to sing a song with kids and sometimes in church that went something like this: 

God gives us not just water, not just air not just land
but everything we need
Not just lions, not just dogs, not just cats
but everything we need.

It goes on and sometimes we’d make up lines: “God gives us not just sandwiches, not just potato chips, not just pickles but everything we need”. Two Sundays ago, we read how God came to Abraham and Sarah and provided the child promised when they had given up. Last week we read how God sent an angel to point out a well to Hagar and Ishmael when they had given up. Now we read how God provides the sacrifice when Abraham has given up and is about to do something terrible. God gives us not just Sarah, not just Isaac, not just Ishmael but everyone we need. God gives us not just you, not just me,  but everyone we need. 

The chorus of the song after however many verses you want to make up—and I warn you, if you do this with four year olds that will be a LOT of verses—the last line is simple: “So praise God, praise God, sing praise for God is wonderful.” 

Jewish legend says that the mountain in the land of Moriah where this all took place is the mountain on which Jerusalem is built. Jerusalem: where Jesus was crucified. Jerusalem: where Jesus rose. I don’t know if the legend is true; I do know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I know that the glory of the Lord shines and the darkness never overcomes it. I know that we are bound for that glory, meant to make it shine in our whole lives. Amen.

LOL – Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational church of Albany, NY

By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15

Many years ago, when computers began to connect to each other, someone invented a way to have a conversation online. Of course, it wasn’t a regular conversation, there were no voices, just text that was typed in. The problem was that conversation is more than words: it’s feelings, as well. But we tend to share some of the same feelings over and over and it would be difficult to type them out each time.

Thus was born L-O-L, a term for “laughing out loud”. When your friend said something funny, you could type in LOL; when someone said something surprising, you could respond with LOL. LOL became an internet way of expressing that thing we do when someone surprises us in way that is good beyond expectation. Now, many of you know all this, and maybe you’re thinking, why are you wasting my time? I wanted to explain about LOL because I want us to all be together as we set out to understand the story we read from Genesis. You see, it’s all about an LOL moment.

In the heat of the day, Abraham and all his family are relaxing. There is a moment on really 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. Abraham is dozing under some oaks, trying to find any bit of shade, He 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, getting ready for strangers. 

Strangers are dangerous in the desert. They might be raiders; they might be guests. 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 them at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality. “What do they want?” must be on everyone’s mind. 

Abraham offers hospitality in a 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 preparations. Imagine the rushing around, the cooking in the heat of the day, the measures of meal  that must be kneaded by women sweating and straining, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a 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. it must be hours later when the feast is finally served,.

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. 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 the tent.

Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behavior for guests. “Don’t talk about politics or religion,” we know and it’s the same here. “Don’t bring up anything personal.” It’s the same here.  When the stranger   asks, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” it is a shocking violation of manners. Abraham tries to cover the rudeness 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 in a year or so 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. 

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: o 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 dashed hope in their face.

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 certainly 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 and real faith depends on the answer. 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, the laughter of despair

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” What do you think? A folk song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.” Practical people ask, “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 often involves waiting when we want to act; it often means listening when we want to speak. Yet our whole faith is precisely believing in possibilities we haven’t seen. And sometimes they happen.

About 20 years ago, I was the pastor of a church with an old building enclosing lots of space and very few children. We had a large endowment; of course, the point of a large endowment is not to use it. So when a couple of new families suggested we create a Montessori preschool, everyone knew we couldn’t afford it. I knew it wouldn’t happen; I knew that despite all the meetings and plannings, the bedrock members of the church, who were closer in age to Sarah than to the two or three young moms wouldn’t agree to use the endowment for such a thing. But we went through the process and ended up, as Congregationalists always do, at a meeting, a meeting most of us expected to turn thumbs down. Then something surprising happened. One of the oldest, most bedrock women in the whole church got up to speak. She never said much, so this alone was new. What she said was even more surprising. She said she didn’t see what the fuss was about. The church had always had schools for children, and she talked about the 19th century school the church had founded. She pointed out that the local high school was started by that church. Finally she said that she guessed we’d have to vote but she didn’t see any reason not to use the money for God’s children; that’s why it had been given. There was silence when she sat down and when the Moderator called the vote, it was unanimous. The school opened; the school grew. Some of those kids from the first classes graduated high school this year. It had to make you laugh: LOL.

Now we’re being challenged as a culture and a nation to take up the hardest, darkest hurt in our history, our fundamental racism. We know it was wrong to work Jews to death so we don’t have Nazi flags or schools named for Auschwitz. But we haven’t always understood there’s not a lot of difference between what happened there and  what happened to slaves on American plantations. Some wonder whether we can actually make progress on racism. Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is this? The thing that gives me hope is that in our history, I know that every once in a while we lurch forward. The slaves were freed and when they were re-enslaved in segregation, that fell as well. God’s justice isn’t immediate but it is relentless and like a glacier slowly moving down a mountain, it finally finely grades down everything that resists it. The violence of racism may look like a mountain but it is a mountain being turned into pebbles

Is anything too hard for the Lord? We have the capability to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. Somewhere today, a baby will be born. Maybe his forebears were slaves; maybe they came from Africa or Haiti or Santo Domingo. His mother will laugh, like Sarah laughed but she’ll worry, too. What will life be like for him? Somewhere today a black baby will be born and I hope and I believe that by the time he is grown, he will walk without fear, he will live out his promise without being bound by the bonds of prejudice. His life will matter because black lives matter. That isn’t a slogan; it is the word of God. When we hear it, we ought to hear it as a reminder from God and act like it. And if we do, the promise of the gospel and the promise of that life will be fulfilled. I have that hope; I hold onto that promise because nothing is too hard for the Lord.

I read this story of Abraham and Sarah and this laughter and I want to add something. I want to type something in at the end: LOL. Because this is a story of laughter, a story of how the laughter of despair became the laughter of hope. We need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need the LOL of Sarah’s moment. 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. We need to listen for God to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed,  our laughter will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow, echoing God’s delight.

Amen.

After Pentecost 2 B

Seeming, Seeing, Saving

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 3, 2018
2 Corinthian 4:5-12

So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Cor 4:12

To hear the sermon preached, click below

Every preacher has some weaknesses. I know that one of mine is titles. Take today. I looked at this scripture reading and saw the part about being slaves, and I thought of when my older kids were eight and six. We lived in a flat in Milwaukee with no dishwasher. Every night after dinner, their job was to wash and dry the dishes and put them away. One night when they were pouting they said, “We’re slaves, we’re nothing but slaves.” Their mother and I looked at each other and said together, “You’re right, now get out there and finish up.” So I thought about calling this sermon “Nothing But Slaves”. It might be worth pointing out here that in Greek, the same word is used for children and slaves; I guess the Greeks needed dishwashers too. But I gave up on that title, it doesn’t really embrace Paul’s message.

Then I thought about the text a bit more and I was really taken by the image of the earthen vessels. I put one on the communion table today, just to illustrate this. I’ve read a couple of sermons that focused there and especially on the pots as cracked pots. There are so many crackpots in our national life today that I thought I could talk for a long time about that. We might not all have the same idea about which crackpots are the worst or funniest but still, there do seem to be a lot of them. But I read some more and realized this isn’t really the point of the passage; it’s an illustration of a larger message. So sadly I gave up on that title; I know a lot of preachers, better preachers, are happy to do something light-hearted but I know you expect to hear God’s word, not just whatever I think is funny.
After a few days reflecting, I began to think of Paul’s message here in three parts and that’s where my title today, seeming, seeing, saving, came from. It’s not as fun as cracked pots but it makes more sense of Paul’s message here, at least it did for me; let’s see if it does for you.

The Corinthian Christians were a quarrelsome bunch. We have a letter we call First Corinthians that’s full of Paul’s advice on conflicts; it’s clear there that the church has some factions. Before this letter was written, Paul sent Timothy to try to solve the problems but he failed. Then, someone we’ll call Mr. X came along who was charismatic and apparently an excellent speaker and a bunch of the church rallied around him. But as often happens, the charismatic leader’s fall was just as sudden as his rise. Now the church is in conflict again over differences about this leader and Paul and Paul is trying to get them back on the path toward Christ.

He begins with a sermon that should be preached to every pastor in America today I think:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

When I look back over my career, over 40 years of pastoral ministry, I see that one of the great changes has been the creation of what I call the entrepreneurial ministry. The model is something like this: go door to door, call on the phone, by some means get a little group together; tell them they are right. That’s right: no preacher ever started up a church confronting people about where they are wrong. Adopt their culture, wave their flags, support their politics, lift up their sports. That will make the little group a larger group; it will make them feel good about themselves. And it may work. Today all over the country there are super churches with super preachers who took and take this path. Every single one is led by some preacher who is lifted up as the voice of God.

But notice what Paul says: not ourselves but Jesus Christ. By ‘ourselves’ he means himself, Timothy, other church leaders. Here it means me, Joan, our Moderator, our other officers. We’re not the show; we’re not the heart. I’m not the heart. I’m not here to proclaim me, I’m here to preach Jesus Christ as Lord. I’ve been through a few transitions where I left a church after a long, fruitful time. Each time the same thing has happened; each time someone has come and said, “I’m leaving if you’re not going to be here.” I’ve always replied the same way: you didn’t join me, you joined a church; you didn’t follow me, you followed Jesus. So why would you leave? There’s more to do.

Paul wants us to see what an extraordinary treasure we have in God’s love. Just like many of us, he had his own particular experience of being called by Christ. In his case, it involved an intense light, so bright it blinded him. So naturally he remembers that God is the source of light, that God’s creation began with light. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He calls this a treasure, and so it is, for the greatest treasure of all is to see ourselves not as the world sees but in the light of God, in the mirror of God’s love. We may seem to be nothing to the world. We may seem to be weak in the world. But seen from God’s view, we contain a treasure: the image of God, which is our true self.

Paul knows about this difference between seeming and saying. He’s not being superficial or unrealistic. He goes on to admit that this treasure is held in an earthen vessel. In the ancient world, earthen vessels, pottery, were the everyday packaging. It’s what you put your olive oil in, it’s what your foods came in. It’s what held trade goods. Pottery was so widely spread that today archaeologists use different patterns and compositions of pottery to date cities; they dig them up in former trash mounds. Now pottery is made from clay; perhaps just as Paul is thinking of God’s creation of light, he’s also thinking of how we were created from the same clay that makes pottery. We are earthen vessels.

He’s completely realistic about our lives; they aren’t untroubled, in fact as he says, “We are hard pressed on every side,..perplexed…persecuted..struck down…We always carry in our body the death of Jesus.” Just like an earthen vessel that can be dropped at any moment and break into shards, we are terribly fragile. I think we all know this and fight the knowledge. We’re constantly defending that weakness. I was halfway through my career in ministry before I ever sat with a Board of Deacons, discussing a complaint, and simply said, “I made a mistake; I’m sorry.” I never wanted to be an earthen vessel: I wanted to be gold or silver or something shinier. It was terrible admitting I was just a clay pot. I wonder how many conflicts are caused by fear of our fragility. I wonder how many hierarchies, systems of oppression, come from the secret knowledge of the oppressor that he or she is fragile, an earthen vessel, subject to shattering.

But if we are fragile, if we are earthen vessels, we also have an amazing capacity to carry the extraordinary spirit of God. Paul sees the fragility, sees the injuries, the hurts, the times that shatter us but he also wants us to see that in Jesus Christ we have another possibility.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; 
perplexed, but not driven to despair; 
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, 
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

This last is what saves us, saves our world: that the life of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, is made visible in us. Yes, we are earthen vessels; but those vessels contain a treasure. Yes, we are fragile; but we have an eternal life in the heart of God. Yes, we are carrying death in our bodies, just like Jesus, but just like Jesus, we have the capacity to shine with the light of the Spirit of God.

When we understand we are earthen vessels containing a treasure there are two consequences. One is that we understand our own value before God. So we are set free from the world’s value systems. We can stop trying to be gold vessels or silver vessels, because the treasure is what we contain. And the second consequence is that we recognize a fundamental equality with all God’s other children. We are all earthen vessels; we are all carriers of treasure. Paul saw this himself. In Galatians 3:28 he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So our mission becomes working for justice for all, for justice simply means treating equally people who are equal.

We live in a world that seems to be one way but Christ calls us to see beyond the world to the hope and love of God. We live in a world where we get bruised, cry out, feel ourselves cast down, but if we look, we can see that even in the moment of suffering, we are invited to the arms of Jesus Christ who also suffered, who knows about suffering. This is how God is saving this world. In our moments of celebration, in our times of suffering, we are earthen vessels meant to carry the treasure of God’s glory, God’s image, God’s presence. This is the spirit that is saving the world. Whatever things seem, may we see it and share it.

Amen.

Reign of Christ Sunday – Yes Lord!

Yes, Lord!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Reign of Christ/A • November 26, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

Click below to hear the sermon preached

I love weddings and I used to officiate at a lot of them. There’s all the fuss and planning and then on the day itself, little details that seem so important. I usually enter with the men and they’re always nervous. We stand at the front, face the back and the bridesmaids sweep up the aisle, more or less as I rehearsed them the night before. I remember one whispering as she walked past, “Was that ok?” Then the organ changes, often getting louder, people stand and a woman in a dress she will never wear again sweeps into the sanctuary, walks up the aisle. It’s regal, it’s that moment which fulfills every time someone called her, “princess”. So when I think about the opening of today’s scripture reading, “”When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him..”, that’s how I imagine it. I know that doesn’t match the text, I know it’s the church that gets called “the bride of Christ”, but still, I imagine that kind of regal entrance, light and music and everyone standing in awe. “Open the gates that the King of glory may come in”, a Psalm we read on Palm Sunday begins: today is Reign of Christ Sunday—open the doors, that the Lord of glory may come in.

Now the scene shifts: once the Lord takes the throne, it’s time for business and the most important business of any Lord is judgement. So Matthew imagines everyone—all the nations of the world—in one herd before him. What a crowd! We often say, “Everyone welcome”, around here but the truth is, we’re not prepared for everyone; we’re prepared for about 35 or 40 people. What would happen if everyone came? What would happen if one Sunday, we opened the doors and people flooded in, rushed in, so many that some sat even in the pews where no one ever sits and which therefore don’t have visitor cards or even hymnals?

All the nations, gathered. There are people who don’t get along, there are different races, nationalities, black, white, asian, Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, None of the above, Republicans, Democrats,. The word ‘nation’ is Matthew’s usual term for Gentiles so for once, he means you and I. “All the nations” means everybody. He means Jews and Gentiles, Romans, Carthagenians, and as we’ll discover on Pentecost Sunday, the people from Cyrene, wherever that is. We’ll learn from Matthew later that he means the people at the ends of the earth, wherever that is; I think it’s near Buffalo. They’re all there, everyone, all the nations, standing up, watching the great processional of the king of glory. I like to imagine there’s an organist. I’ve never been to a big assembly like this without an organist, so I assume there is one. If you prefer piano music or a full orchestra, feel free to imagine that, the text isn’t clear. 

All processionals come to an end eventually. The king reaches the throne, the followers file into the seats with the “RESERVED” sign taped to them and the last bit of the organ piece ring out and then fade and I imagine the liturgist, in the silence, saying, as i do every morning, “The peace of the Lord be with you” and then everyone sitting down. I know this is entirely culturally defined but it’s how I imagine it, my imagination only goes so far. 

Now the king speaks, everyone strains to listen and this is what he says: move. Now, if I had been advising on this liturgy, the details of this gathering, I would have advised against this. It’s always difficult to ask people in a congregation to move. One of the first things someone said to me when I came here was that they were not moving where they sat. Look at us today. There’s no doubt we’d all be warmer, we’d all sound better, we’d all feel better if we sat near each other but we don’t. We’re scattered all over. We’re in our familiar seats. But that’s what the king says. He has them divide up into two groups, like a herdsman separating the sheep and goats in a herd. Sheep and goats are herded together during the day but at night they are separated and the same thing happens here. Sheep on the left, goats on the right. Which are you? Which am I? 

Now he turns to the sheep and tells them they are going to enter into his kingdom for reasons they don’t understand. They fed him when he was hungry, they clothed him when he was naked, and so on. They don’t remember doing it. They don’t remember these acts of charity, they don’t remember their donations to the food pantry, they don’t remember being kind or doing these things. They did them but they were clueless at the time. They still are. Then he turns to the goats and the mirror image thing happens. They don’t get into the kingdom because they didn’t do these things. But they don’t remember not doing them. They don’t remember seeing him and refusing him food or clothing or the rest. They were clueless at the time. They still are. When it comes to what they knew at the time, the sheep and the goats here are just the same. The difference isn’t what they knew, it’s what they did. It’s how they responded in moments when they didn’t know what they were doing. The stunning fact about this judgement is that no one understood beforehand what would make a difference.

There is an old song with the refrain, “Where are you going, my little one? Where are you going my little one? Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four”. It expresses that wondrous, sad, joyful truth that the paths of our lives wind in unpredictable ways. One day in 1964, my mother took me to a new church, Pine Hill Congregational. I met Nora Clark, a Sunday School teacher, the wife of the minister, Harry Clark. No one knew these two people would shape my life profoundly or that 53 years later, we would still be sharing our lives. Nora became for me a conscience. Whenever I’m not being the best me, I hear her voice in my head saying, “Now Jim…”

What is true of individual lives is true as well of our life together. Today is the last day of the church’s liturgical year, the calendar of worship. It’s called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday and it ask: where are you going? What do you hope to accomplish? What is your goal? And the truth is, we don’t know where we are going, we only know that along the way are these occasions when we can say “Yes, Lord” or “No, Lord”. We don’t know what we are doing; we don’t know how it will turn out. But we know what Jesus has said: feed the hungry, heal the sick, bind up wounds. Love your neighbor; love God. The challenge of Christian life is these little moments, day by day, when we can say yes, Lord, yes Lord, by doing what he says.

Almost fifty years ago, I was an awkward sixteen year old at church camp, a shy kid with a little gift for lifting up poetry and drama in a way that brought my friends together in worship. I lived in books; I read plays. My heroes were writers and playwrights and I thought it would be an amazing, incredible thing to move to New York and be a writer. At the same time, I was beginning to be part of the movement for peace that focused first on the Vietnam War and racial injustice. I thought we could save the world and i wanted to be part of it. In that moment, lying on a dock in Northern Michigan where you can see stars hidden in the city, where the universe seems close, I heard in my heart the call of God to become not a writer or an activist but a minister. It wasn’t a suggestion: it wasn’t a command. It was a confidence that this was what would shape and define my life. It has ever since.

Perhaps because it’s so long ago, perhaps because this is almost certainly the last church where I will ever bear the title of pastor, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I’ve done, what I’ve tried to do, successes and failures, what I want to do still. This image, this parable, is it: this is where we are going, this is our goal. If the reign of Christ is our hope, this is what it looks like, and it turns out that it isn’t about what we believed, it’s about what we did. Our theology doesn’t matter as much as our practical ministry. We don’t know what difference giving a coat to someone or inviting them to come worship where they will be accepts and welcomed will make. But the surprise of this parable is that it does make a difference. Sometimes a lot is made about the ultimate fates of the sheep and goats in this story: some going to paradise, some to hell. But I think what’s really at the heart here is the surprise of how much difference what they did when they didn’t know what they were doing made. “When did we…Lord?” They ask over and over: both sorts ask. “If you did it to one of the least of these… you did it for me.”

Reign of Christ is often celebrated with pageants and processionals. But the real processional is when Christ comes into us and we say, “Yes Lord”. “Open the gates that the king of glory may come in”—they open when we look and see the face of Christ in others. They open when we hear him say, “You give them something to eat,” and do it. They open when we hear him say, “Love one another,” and we do it. They open when do what he says.

Amen.

Thanksgiving Sermon – Now Don’t Forget

Now, Don’t Forget

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Thanksgiving Sunday • November 19, 2017

Deuteronomy 8:11-20

Click below to hear the sermon preached

It was a fall day in 1975; I was the newly called minister of the Seattle Congregational Church, not even ordained yet. Standing in the coffee hour crowd, I was fumbling toward conversation with a man in the church I’d only just met. He was in his 90’s, a new experience for me. Thinking about such a long life, so much history, I said something about how he had lived from horse and buggies to the jets. He gravely agreed and mentioned having been a horse doctor in Kentucky when he was young. I asked him what he thought the most important change had been over the course of his lifetime. He thought for a moment, and then quietly said, “No more quarantine signs.” He explained that when he was young, it was common to have epidemics and all that could be done was to quarantine families and he told me about his memory of the yellow signs. I’d never seen one; I’d never thought about one. Yet here he was remembering a wonderful progress that had made something I never knew vanish. He remembered a blessing I’d forgotten.

What do you remember from this past week? this past month? this past year? The morning, John has helped us to remember an event we didn’t witness: the moment when this home where we worship first began to take shape. Now I’ve been part of a big church building project so even though he didn’t mention it, I know this: before that shovel ever turned over, there were meetings. There were long meetings, endless meetings. Someone had to convene the first meeting to discuss moving the church’s home and I’m guessing it wasn’t a popular idea at first. Someone had to argue the point; Congregationalists don’t change easily. Someone had to come up with numbers, costs, benefits, and the church must have voted. I imagine that memory stuck around for years. Probably some people got mad, some were joyful, some just remembered all the hard work. Now we come here every Sunday. Hundreds come here for concerts and events. We don’t remember the vote; we don’t remember the work. But if we don’t remember that it took those things, 
we miss the full memory of the blessing. Thank God we have John to remind us!

The author if Deuteronomy is doing the same thing for an ancient people “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments…,” [Deut 8:11], he says. Here you are in the Promise Land; remember how you got here, remember who brought you here. You didn’t do it on your own; it took more than your effort, more than your hard work, it took the inspiration and blessing of God. But the truth is they do forget. They become prosperous and oppress the poor. They envy the accomplishments of other peoples and demand a king, despite God’s warning of the terrible things a monarchy will bring. They make hierarchies: rich and poor, righteous and despised. They violate God’s covenant over and over and finally are destroyed because of it. The first third of the Hebrew Scriptures is all about God’s faithful work to create a covenant community; the second third is prophets preaching about the need to return to the covenant the people have forgotten.

Memory leads to thankfulness. When we forget, we forget God’s blessing and we’re left with the idea that we did it, we accomplished it, and then we are left with ourselves and we are a poor substitute for God. This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving, for Congregationalists, our family story. In 1620, a small group of our fathers and mothers in the faith landed in Massachusetts after a difficult voyage. Half of the 103 settlers were there because of their faith, our faith. The others had been recruited because of their skills. Almost none were farmers; almost none knew how to trap and fish and do the things that would be required to survive. At first they got along by stealing corn from abandoned Indian storages; a measles epidemic had swept through the area before their arrival, leaving much of it abandoned. They built shacks, they learned to plant corn. Many of them sickened, others starved. By the end of the first year, the few that were left, however, seeing in their survival the blessing of God held a harvest feast: the first thanksgiving. The settlement survived; others arrived and settled on Cape Ann and then in Boston. The new colony grew and though it remembered and observed thanksgiving, it forgot the principles and blessing which had inspired it. With a couple of generations, these Puritans were fighting the same native communities which had nurtured their fathers and mothers and persecuting others, just as they had been persecuted in England. They forgot the blessing with which they began.

Memory leads to thankfulness. We gather here, warm and safe in this wonderful home; we must never forget its source. For its source is the blessing of God. If we forget its purpose, if we forget our purpose, then like others, we will fail. We may look great failing. Success in fact often leads to forgetting. When we succeed, we like to think we are the ones who succeeded; its easy to see our own efforts, harder to remember God’s inspiration. But if we miss the lesson of Deuteronomy, we can never truly succeed.

That message is clear, he message is simple: remember where you came from, remember who you are, remember who brought you here. We live from the blessing of God; we live in the river of purpose which is to invite all into the covenant of love which is God’s purpose. When we do this, when we live this, remembering how God has blessed us, we hope for the future, because God is not only in the past but guarantees the future as well. At many tables this week, people will be invited to share something they are thankful for, something from the past. Here’s a suggestion: share something you hope as well. For memory leads to thankfulness and thankfulness leads to hope.

For many years, my mother lived in Florida and my visits were necessarily short and infrequent. Now, you know, when you are a mother, you never stop being a mother. So my mother never stopped trying to improve me. It’s an endless task, as my wife could also tell you. Nevertheless, my mother never quit. Before I left, she would have a variety of suggestions for what I should do. And just before I left, she would tell me again and add these words, “Now don’t forget”.

Thanksgiving is meant for us to remember God’s blessing and invite us to live in hope.

Thanksgiving is meant for us to remember to be a blessing and invite others to hope.

Thanksgiving is meant to share again the story of how God has blessed our fathers and mothers and intends to bless us. Now don’t forget, thanksgiving says: don’t forget how much God loves you.

Amen.

23rd Sunday After Pentecost – Choose Me!

Choose Me

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

26th Sunday After Pentecost Sunday/A • November 12, 2017

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

To hear the sermon preached, click below

In a few minutes, we’re going to sing “Lord, I want to be more Christian in my heart. I like the song, I like the feeling but the truth is that Christian life is about behavior as well as heart. Once when Jesus was confronted by opponents about people around him not washing their hands before eating, he said, “…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” [Matthew 15:11]; this is what he had in mind. The real announcement of our commitment to Christ is behavior and behavior is a matter of choices.

Today we are surrounded by more choices than ever before. A server at a restaurant doesn’t just give you a glass of water; they ask, “Do you want lemon?” We used to go to a travel agent to get an airline ticket; now we go online and choose from long list of options. Choices we make along the way turn out to have enormous impact and the story we read today is right on target if we want to learn to choose to be more Christian not only in our heart but in our daily lives.

The setting is dramatic. After a generation of wandering the wilderness and having taken the first steps into the promised land, after the death of Moses, the man who led them out of Egypt, his successor has taken up leadership of the tribes. Now Joshua gathers the tribes on a mountain side at a place called Shechem in northern Israel. Some are old and laughing quietly to themselves about this new, young leader. “Well, he’s nice enough, but he’s no Moses,” I imagine them saying. Others opposed him, perhaps, and come with faces set in stony smiles that betray their discomfort, already thinking of procedural irregularities, and bringing along their Roberts Rules of Order manuals, just in case they need them for reference. Still others are supporters of Joshua; inspired by his leadership, they believe that finally all the troubles of the past will be over, that he will be the one who finally Gets It Done. They are not sure what “It” is; but they believe they will see it. Some complain he doesn’t have much experience; some advocate for change. All of them gather now, a crowd of faces, a sea of hopes and fears. What new program will he propose? What new law will he make? What new policy will he announce?

But Joshua begins not with what is new but with what is ancient.

Long ago your ancestors… served other Gods… I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac… [Joshua 24:3]

What follows is a long history lesson, the same history lesson we’ve been walking through this fall, the history of how God took a few individuals, a family, and made them a people who could be a channel of blessing to the world. Joshua reminds them where they came from and how far they’ve come; he brings up the miracle at the sea, when God saved them from annihilation when they had given up. He lists the many ways God has been a helpful presence along their way.
finally, he summons them to a choice

Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. [Joshua 24:14f]

“Choose today, choose whom you will serve,” Joshua says. It’s a direct, no weasel room choice. In fact, the people are so moved they respond immediately with an enthusiastic yes, as people do to a good sermon. Joshua is wise enough to know this choice will take more than a moment of energy and he points out to them that choosing God will mean making choices about their behavior. He doesn’t invite them to feelings; he doesn’t ask them to come forward for prayer, he tells them to do something: “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” [Joshua 24:23] What are those foreign Gods? They are the ground of their security, they are the things that make them feel good and safe. They are visible idols, charms against life’s challenges and dangers. It is a scary thing to put away these gods and choose one God who is not visible, who is too large to be held in your hand, who is too powerful to be told what to do.

This his challenge is for us as well. For this is the scene in every age, this is God’s appeal in every time: choose me! We were created in a unique way, for a unique purpose, to give God company, to praise God’s work as God’s people. To do that requires a likeness of God and God’s fundamental characteristic is freedom. So the all-powerful, world creating God did this: like a parent letting a child go on a date about which they have misgivings, God said: “Ok, now you choose, please choose well.”

This is what God does in every time, with each of us. We imagine God in many ways; we should imagine God in this way. I know this experience, and perhaps you do as well. It is the experience of your first dance, hoping someone will choose you. It is the experience of a student with the right answer, hoping to get the teacher’s attention.

One of the images the Bible uses for our relationship with God is marriage. Always in this image, God’s people, you and I, are the bride; God is the husband. So when I think about this, I remember what it was like to ask Jacquelyn to marry me. We knew we were in love; we knew we wanted to be married. She picked out a ring with a blue stone and I bought it. So it might seem as if this was a sure thing. I got the ring secretly and took it with me when we went on a trip to Paris. I’d asked a more knowledgeable friend about churches with blue stained glass and he said the place to go was Sainte Chapelle, the Saints Chapel, a cathedral built in the 1100’s with huge vaulting blue windows. So I suggested this as a first stop and off we went. All that morning, I remember being nervous and keyed up and when we got in the cathedral itself, I couldn’t stop talking; I do that when I’m nervous. There was a sign that said, “Quiet Please”; Jacquelyn pointed it out, clearly embarrassed by my behavior. I just said I was ordained and entitled to talk in a church. There was a row of chairs around the sides and she walked over and sat down so I sat next to her; she turned away, hoping to shut me up. And the moment was there, I slipped off the chair, onto my knee, and said words I had practiced, asking her to choose me. This is how God comes to us: not overwhelming but asking. This is why Jesus is born in a stable, not a palace; this is why God’s appeal is from a cross, not a throne. God asks simply this: choose me.

Our choices make a difference. Every Sunday, we choose whether to get up and come here. Your presence has an impact beyond what you may know. We never know just who will walk through the door, who will sit down next to you; we do know that God seems to invite us to places where we will be able to become blessings if we choose to go. A Congregational Church is in some ways more sensitive to the choices of its members than other ways of organizing. Friends of mine from other traditions are amazed when I explain that in a Congregational Church, all major choices are in the hands of the members. “What if they make the wrong choices?”, one asked me recently. I said, “Yes—but what’s amazing is how often they make the right choices!”

We choose whether to invite others to come with us. Years ago, someone did a study and discovered that 80% of the people who visited a church did so because someone invited them. Think about it: what if we all began to regularly invite someone to church? Someone will say, well, I don’t get that chance but frankly we all have it. I remember inviting someone in a wine store one day; how unlikely was that? Yet there he was a few days later, in worship. Churches like ours benefited from a long time by a cultural push that filled pews. That’s over and our future depends on the choices we make.

The first way we express this choice is by insisting on the power of God as our ground of hope. We are not here for an earthly purpose; we are not going to an earthly destination. We are not on this journey for an earthly reason; we cannot make it based on earthly resources alone. So when we face difficulties, when we feel doubts, we should not be downcast, we should choose to hope in God. When we have come to the end of ourselves, we should not stop because we are not the end. One thing is certain: there is no end, there is no defeat, there is no stopping the purpose of God. If we have chosen to be a part of that purpose, God will provide the means to accomplish it.

For we are the means. God has already chosen us and our mission should unfold from those choices. Here’s a picture of what this looks like. In another church one day, one of the OutreachTeams came up with an idea: stand outside a local grocery store and ask for donations for the food pantry. She didn’t ask for a budget or a meeting or anything—she just shared the idea and then went out and did it. The next Saturday there they were, three people from my church, asking for help to feed people, and I couldn’t help think of Jesus’ words to the disciples when he was confronted by hungry people: “You give them something to eat.” There they were, doing just what he said.

“Choose me!”—God making an appeal. The choices we make are our response. What mission will you choose? What will you do? The song with which I began, says Lord I want to be more Christian in my heart… also has a verse that says, “Lord I want to be more holy”. To be holy is a to choose God, to choose God in the morning, to choose God at lunch, to choose God in the evening. For in all the places we visit, in all the situations where we live, there is God also, moment to moment, simply saying, “Choose me”.

Amen.

All Saints Sunday – Ultimate Treasure

Ultimate Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

All Saints Sunday • November 5, 2017

1 John 3:1-3

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Hasn’t it been an amazing week? Like the view riding a carousel, things flashed by, sometimes so fast it was hard to see them. There was Halloween and its parade of children in costumes. There was the process of pursuing criminals from last year’s Presidential election. And of course in the middle of the week, the terrible terrorists attack close to home in New York City. Now we’re here, in this quiet place, and it’s time for the carousel to stop and let us catch our breath, consider the way forward. For a few weeks I’ve been lifting up the theme of stewardship, by which I mean the conscious decision to treat everything we have as a gift from God. Today’s scripture reading from the first letter of John is a wonderful summary of this theme. 

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” it begins. Stop and listen carefully to this sentence. Breathe it in; let it resonate within you. John begins with the reminder we all need every single day: the love of God is the bedrock reality of creation. “See what love the Father has given us…” Last week I talked about the time when the church set a price on a ticket to heaven. That kind of pay for play religion has always gone on; we hear it echoed in an oracle by the prophet Micah

‘With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? 
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, 
 with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, 
 the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 

This is the heartfelt cry of a person who wants to know what it will cost to come to God. Ticket to heaven religion still goes on; it’s the base of the prosperity preaching, it’s the temptation of every church. To this heresy, to this great falsehood, John says: “See with love the Father has given us…” No payment, no ticket, just gift: God is all gift.

He goes on to say, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What does it look like? Perhaps we’ll understand if we turn to one of my favorite children’s stories: the story of Eeyore’s birthday.

Eeyore is one of the characters in the Winnie the Pooh stories, a dolorous, grey donkey, given to deep sighs and pessimistic views. Pooh encounters him on his birthday and he is feeling sorry for himself, so Pooh decides to make a birthday party. He goes home and finds Piglet; together they ponder presents. Then Pooh has an idea: he has a jar of honey. Now to a bear like Pooh, there is no gift as wonderful as a jar of honey. So he climbs up on the counter and gets the jar and sets off for Eeyore’s house. Meanwhile, Piglet has a hard time deciding; finally he remembers a big red balloon he received on his birthday, and happily he gets that. Because he’s taken so long deciding, he’s late and he runs and runs and as often happens when we run, he trips and falls and there is a tremendous POW! Piglet wonders what happened and then realizes the balloon is no longer there; instead there are just bits of red stuff. He picks those up, not nearly as happy now and sets out again.

Meanwhile, Pooh is also on his way to Eeyore’s when he gets tired and hungry. So he sits down and has a little of the honey. And then he has a little more and…well you can tell where this is going. Soon the jar is empty. Pooh contemplates the jar and then has this idea: it is now a Useful Jar for Putting Things In. So he washes it out, and sets off again.

Piglet and Pooh arrive at Eeyore’s and give him the Useful Jar for Putting Things In and the bits of red balloon. And then, while they argue a bit about the presents they suddenly realize that Eeyore is overjoyed: over and over again, he’s putting the red bits in the jar, taking them out, putting them in. The kindness of the friends somehow has taken these doubtful presents and turned them into treasure.

“See what love the Father has given us…” We all receive the gift of those who went before us in this church. This wonderful space, like a greenhouse, has grown many into spiritual flowering and it continues to nurture not only we who are its members but so many groups, from the Soul Rebel Theatre to the Recovery group. We benefit from their contributions in a direct way as well; our invested funds are a key part of what makes it possible to pay for our life as a church. The other key part is the gifts we give, both financial and in service.

Just like Pooh and Eeyore and Piglet, we are meant to go to a party. What gift will you bring? Every party needs gifts. Think of the communion party we are about to share. Someone had to get the juice, the bread, prepare them, set them out. Someone will bring you the elements; you will pass them to someone else. What makes the party is the shared spirit, the shared gifts. For when we give gifts of love, it is the image of God shining in us.

Maybe you brought a balloon that’s broken; maybe you brought an empty jar. Maybe you brought something none of us has ever seen. Whatever gift you share, we share, when we share, we share our lives as children of God. And isn’t that the ultimate treasure?—to know indeed that in our giving, every moment, is a gift from the God who loves us. “See what love the Father has given us..” See indeed and reflect that love, reflect the gift giving, as we share the ultimate treasure of the love of God, binding us together.

Amen.

Reformation Day – Finding Treasure

Finding Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

Reformation Day • October 29, 2017

Click below to hear the sermon preached

What does it cost to get in? I guess we’ve all asked that somewhere, sometime. How much are the tickets? There’s some connection between cost and value we calculate. When one of the Planet of the Apes movies was $12 a few months ago, it wasn’t worth it to me; when it was $5 at the Madison Theater, it was. Jacquelyn and I spend lots of time about a 20 minute walk from one of the best aquariums in the country. We’ve never been; it’s $30 and neither of us wants to spend that much to look at fish that you can’t eat. There are less tangible tickets too. What does it cost to have a happy marriage? I talk about that with couples sometimes; I explain it’s not a 50-50 situation, it’s 100%/100%. What does it cost to develop a church? Change: and not the sort in the bottom of your purse. What does it cost to live with God? What’s the ticket to heaven and where do you buy it? People have asked that question for centuries and 500 years this month it remember the answer and it seemed new. 

Right from the beginning, Jesus’ followers tried to set up boundaries. When a crowd gathers to hear Jesus, the disciples advise Jesus to leave them; he tells the disciples to feed them. Someone does healings in his name, the disciples object; Jesus tells them to accept that person. The earliest Christian churches were consumed by the question of what to do about Gentile members: should they be circumcised? should they be required to keep kosher? Throughout the letters of Paul, we find these boundary questions, questions designed to create walls and different levels of Christians. To all of these, the apostle Paul says, nothing counts except faith in Jesus, nothing matters except loving Jesus, nothing matters except following Jesus.

We hear it in the part of Paul’s Romans we read today. Some Christians have been boasting about their spiritual credentials. Paul’s response is absolute.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

No distinction: no difference, all equal before God, in the love of God. Jesus Christ lived and died for all. And finally, the thing that makes this effective in us is our faith. In fact, as Paul goes on to say, we are justified with God, restored to God, through our faith.

Of course, Paul’s word wasn’t enough. The part of us that wants distinction, wants walls, kept building. Over the next centuries, Christians built a series of intricate walls that made many distinctions. They believed in power instead of grace and made the church into a bank. It’s a great advantage to say to people, “Your eternal salvation depends on what you give, what you do.” And that’s what they did. By the 1400’s, the church was actually selling indulgences, a sort of ticket to heaven.

That’s when a passionate monk named Martin Luther objected. Five hundred years ago this month, Luther publicly preached against the walls the church had erected and reminded them that salvation was by grace and justification by faith.

Over the next century, others joined him, including some like John Calvin, a French Protestant, who designed a new kind of church with the Bible at its center. English Protestants took this lesson back to England and refined it. They imagined a church as a covenanted group of equal Christians. They were our fathers and mothers in the faith and eventually this way of doing church would be called Congregationalism.

Still, the impulse to build walls continued. Congregationalists, who had been on the outside of the walls at their start, built them as well, trying to keep out Quakers and Baptists and others.

But the power of Jesus was irresistible and gradually many of those walls have come down. One of the great joys of my life and perhaps yours has been watching this process. I entered seminary in 1972, when women were still discouraged from training to be pastors; by the time I left, half the seminarians were women and today it’s unusual to have a clergy meeting without several women pastors present. I came into the ministry when gay marriage was almost unthinkable; today we rejoice when any couple invite us as a church to participate in witnessing a loving covenant.

This is our job, this is our role: to tear down the walls. Not every Christian communion has come as far in understanding there is no distinction in the love of God, so it is vital that we are here. We have a purpose, we have a plan: to be one place where no matter who you are, what you are, who you love, what you believe, you are welcome to come into the embrace of a corrugation inspired by the embrace of God. We want everyone to discover they are God’s treasure. Often when someone finds us, they are amazed at the openness of the welcome.

There is a reason the pews of so many churches are empty. It is because we were so busy building walls, we forgot to build up people. The true treasure of the open welcome of Jesus Christ is made concrete in the welcome you offer every day.

Today is Reformation day. In many pulpits, there will be a sermon about the past, one far more detailed and descriptive than the little sketch I offered. I kept the history short because I believe the real Reformation is in the future. I honor Luther’s work tearing down the walls; I honor the Pilgrims tearing down the walls. But I am inspired even more by the great future we have in making the promise of the Reformation come true.

The truth is, God loves us all. When we act like that and believe it, the walls come down and we are free. For just as Jesus said, the truth does set us free.

So today, this Reformation Day, is a moment not just to look back at the mighty fortress of Luther and Calvin and the heroes and heroines of Congregational history but forward. What walls remain? What are we doing that prevents people from fully experiencing God’s welcome here? How can we tear down those walls? What changes challenge us as we take our place in the dance of Reformation?
Robert Frost has a wonderful poem that imagines two neighbors rebuilding a stone wall. 
It begins,

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
[Robert Frost, Mending Wall]

They are rebuilding the wall because, as the neighbor remarks, “good fences make good neighbors”. Today, all over the world, Protestant congregations will mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by singing a hymn to walls, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Martin Luther’s song of triumph, perhaps written while he himself hid behind the walls of a German castle.

So with all this talk of walls, it’s an important moment to say: the work of Jesus Christ is to tear down walls and open gates and invite all of us to fulfill our original purpose: living together as God’s children, praising God’s creative love.