Easter 3B – Mary and Manitude

Mary and Manitude

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Easter • April 15, 2018
John 20:11-18

A man with long legs gets on an airplane. The exit row seats have a bit more leg room and the helpful flight attendant suggests he sit in one of them. He replies, “Those seats don’t recline.” She says, “They do, actually.” He replies, “No they don’t.” She smiles and says, “Why don’t you sit down and explain why you think you know more about this plane than I do?” He just goes off—to a different seat, obviously secure in his rightness, even though in fact he is wrong. That’s manitude.

A woman driving a shuttle bus pulls up to a hotel with some passengers. She’s brought them to a side door. The hotel, she tells them, is being renovated; check-in is in a room through the door. The passengers get off; one couple heads around the building to the former lobby. A few minutes later, they are still wandering, as the man assures his wife that there must be a check-in somewhere and they finally get directions from a man. That’s manitude.

Some women come to the disciples and tell them they’ve been to the tomb of Jesus and it’s empty. But no one believes them. Luke says: “…they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”[Luke 21:11] Mark’s version, as we heard on Easter Sunday, says Mary didn’t even bother to tell them; as I was discussing it that week, more than one woman said, “Oh, I understand that, they wouldn’t have believed her anyway.” That’s manitude.

“Manitude” is an attitude that diminishes and deprecates the contributions of women in favor of males, especially higher status males. These are gender-based examples but the same tendency is found in other places, the tendency to value based on gender, class, race or some other category that has nothing to do with competence.

As I said last week, I want to think with you about the resurrection experience of these earliest Christians. Because the resurrection is the ultimate recommendation of Jesus. This is what we say: believe him because he overcame death, even death on a cross. Nowhere is there any account of the resurrection itself. What we have instead are accounts of people meeting the Risen Lord, encountering him. And right from the beginning, these are conditioned by culture and Manitude and the lives of the individuals involved. Yet their accounts contain the seeds that can bloom into our own spiritual lives. Last week, I talked about how sharing our wounds, as Jesus did with Thomas, can connect us. Today I want to reflect on how we can hear more clearly the voice of the Lord speaking in our midst.

All the gospels agree that Mary of Magdala is either the first or among the first to discover Jesus has left the tomb. But the church remembered that she wasn’t believed. In some versions, she doesn’t tell the disciples; in others, as I mentioned, they don’t believe her. The critical point is that these disciples who have walked with Jesus, eaten with Jesus, listened to Jesus as he told them over and over that he would go to his death and then be resurrected did not believe him and therefore didn’t believe Mary’s story.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this very comforting. It turns out the earliest Christians are just like me: they don’t believe what they can’t see and touch. Even when they hear the Lord has risen, their first reaction is, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Maybe you’ve had that reaction about some Christian ideas; maybe you just decided to set them aside. I know at times I’ve done that. Some I’ve come back to; some I never have.

But Mary’s experience isn’t just the absence of Jesus’ body; she also encounters the Risen, living Lord. As we read in the gospel of John, as she stands weeping outside the tomb, she meets three persons. Just as in other accounts, two of them are dressed in white, angels who tell her that Jesus isn’t there. But then,

14…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). [John 20:14-16]

There are some details to notice here. First, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. The same is true in other stories, including the encounter of some disciples near Emmaus. Even when you meet the Risen Lord, you may not know it. It’s a stunning idea, isn’t it? Have you met the Risen Lord and missed him because you didn’t know who he was?

It’s when Jesus addresses her directly that the situation changes. He calls her name, “Mary”. Think of it: the Son of God, the Risen Lord, the personal, image of God remembers her name. With that one word, we know that Jesus is not seeing her through the cloudy lens of her gender or class or anything else except her true self. There’s nothing in the way. She’s not a woman, she’s not a well-off merchant, she’s not a Jew, she’s simply Mary.. She is a child of God.

The second is her response. When he recognizes her, she also recognizes him and she calls out to him, not a name, but a relationship: “Rabouni,” a Hebrew word that means something like “Teacher”. But it embraces more than a vocation: she is claiming him, naming a direct relationship in which she is already agreeing to be guided by his words, taught by his sayings. 
He isn’t just a teacher: he is her teacher.

We do not come to Jesus, Jesus comes to us, and he’s most likely to come to us when we cry. Just as he uses his wounds to summon Thomas and the others, there is something about a person crying out that summons Jesus. We see that over and over in the healing stories. The modern Protestant orthodoxy we grew up with tended to minimize the healings but in fact, Mark offers healings as the first acts of Jesus’ ministry: an exorcism, and the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. It’s significant that Mary is crying when he comes to her in the garden. She is not seeking him; there is no come to Jesus moment here. Instead, he comes to her.

So the whole project of evangelistic pressure to believe what cannot be seen is illegitimate. We may be called to believe what we haven’t seen but it’s a call of the heart; no genuine faith comes from the social coercion of shame. The Lord waits to be recognized, coming to us when we are ready, calling us by name, speaking into our hearts. We do not know when this will happen to someone. And this is where the issue of manitude comes in. For when we screen out the insights and visions of someone, we may be missing a genuine vision of the Lord.

We’ve just come through Passover, when God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is remembered, an act of salvation. That story really begins with a moment when Moses sees a burning bush in the distance and decides to turn aside and see this sight. When he does, he hears the call of God. The Rabbis have asked, “How long was the bush burning?” and their answer is 400 years: it started burning when the Jews were first enslaved. “What would have happened if someone had noticed the bush burning 100 years before Moses?”—to which they answer, we would have been saved 100 years earlier. [https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/the-yearning-burning-bush/]

We cannot afford to screen out, to miss, visions and hopes; we need everyone to share because who knows which one has seen the Lord. This is a hard concept to get across. Most church organizations do not really believe it and since most of us have been somewhere else, we don’t believe it either. Early on, the church tragically adopted the Roman Empire hierarchy as its model. So it preached that there were different orders of Christians. In the west, the top guy was and is the Pope, with bishops under him, and so on. Protestants mostly took over this organization; they just replaced the pope with a king or a group of bishops. Even some Puritans, who became Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, took over the idea that somehow clergy had a special connection to inspiration.

We don’t. I don’t. I have a graduate degree in theology, mostly in the Bible. I have lots of education in administering a church, some training in counseling. I have several decades of experience leading worship. But I don’t have any more access to Jesus and to God than you do; you don’t have more than I. This is the great insight of the first Congregationalists and it is still the heart of what makes this way of doing church so important. We know each other here as equal covenant partners in this congregation. At our best, we act without manitude, we listen to everyone, we care for each one.

That leads me to ask something of you. We need to hear from each other; we need to hear about moments of inspiration, we need to hear what this church means to you. We need to hear what others in the church need, we need to hear your insights on our next steps. We’re about six weeks from our Annual Meeting. You all know how dull these often are. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone came prepared to say a word about what makes them thankful for this church? Wouldn’t it be amazing if people came and shared their vision of what we should do next year? Wouldn’t it be incredible if people volunteered to plan and create those next steps?

I want to get in the habit of making suggestions. For almost four years I’ve picked the hymns. Some you liked, some you didn’t, some you refused to sing. That’s ok. What if we shared this? In your bulletin today there’s a card that invites you to make some suggestions about worship. Please fill it out; you can drop it off in the office, you can put it in the offering plate. You can take it home, think about it and send it back. Send a letter with it, if you wish, something to share in the newsletter.

Manitude is that human tendency, often gendered, to not hear someone because you don’t respect them. It might be because of gender, or race or class or age or appearance or sexuality. We can’t afford it. The disciples missed the first reports of the resurrection because they didn’t believe them, possibly because they came from women. Every Easter we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Don’t miss him; don’t miss hearing others who have seen him. When we connect as a congregation of Christ, sharing our wounds, loving each other as he commanded, he promised to be present in our midst. He is; he always is.

Amen.

Easter 2B – The Owie Report

The Owie Report

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2018

Second Sunday in Easter/B • April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35 • John 20:19-31

Click below to hear the sermon preached

My family was never close and I moved away when I went to college. So my two younger brothers and I never really knew each other as adults. When my dad died and we gathered, it was a strange experience. But what I remember most about that time is that we were all so wounded that it overcame our midwestern male refusal to admit we were in pain. In our grief, we had a night of sharing ourselves, connecting to each other.

Now when we listen to the stories of the disciples after the Easter, we hear how those around Jesus connected, were changed and began to share their lives in the way we now call the church. They connected in a new way to Jesus; they connected to each other. These stories are meant to teach us how to do it.

I want to skip the story about the first meeting encounter between the resurrected Lord and the disciples; we’ll come back to that in a few weeks, so here’s your chance to feel you’re a little ahead on things. I want to get to Thomas. It’s an odd story, isn’t it? Thomas is a twin; he’s often referred to this way, “Thomas the twin”. And this isn’t the first time we’ve heard of him. When the word comes to Jesus that his friend Lazarus is dying and Jesus tells his disciples he’s going back to see him, the disciples are scared; they just got out of there ahead of arrest. Thomas says, “Let’s go back and die with him.” It feels like an ironic comment. Next, when Jesus is speaking about his death and resurrection and he says, “You know where I’m going,” Thomas interrupts and says, “No, we don’t: we don’t know where you are going.” He is one of the few disciples quoted and his comments are a strange mix of irony and doubt.

Now we have this story near the end of the gospel. Sometimes we collapse the story of Easter into a day but the record of the early church is that instead, it was a progressive unfolding of revelation, understanding, and vision. We can see that in this story. John tells the story of the resurrection in three stages. First, Mary encounters Jesus in the garden. We’ll come back to that story next week. Next, Jesus appears to his disciples in a locked room and literally inspires them; we read that this morning and we’ll come back to it in a few weeks. Finally, a week later, the Lord appears again, seemingly specifically for Thomas, who was absent the first time.

Where was Thomas? We don’t know. I suppose we all miss meetings sometimes; we forget the date or something comes up. We get sick, we get late. Things happen. Surely the disciples are reeling in grief after the death of Jesus. The text says they met behind a locked door in fear. Their grief is overlaid with fear for their own lives. The Romans had a habit of sweeping up the followers of a movement and killing them all. Maybe Thomas was scared to be seen with this group. After all, Peter himself—we’ll get to him in a couple weeks—was so scared even while Jesus was on trial that he denied knowing him.

Still, Thomas has missed what might seem to be the most important meeting of his life. Think of how you would feel, a week later coming and finding out that at the meeting you missed, the risen Lord made an appearance. You were busy, you were hiding, you were grieving, you were crying, you were raging at the Romans and when the time for the meeting came, you just didn’t go, you stayed home, you hid out. Later, your friends tell you what happened; they’re positively glowing, transformed. It’s enough to make your whole day sour, isn’t it? That’s how I hear his first comment. His friends tell him how the Lord appeared; 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.” [John 20:25]

Doesn’t Thomas stand for us? We read these stories of an empty tomb, a Risen Lord who wafts through locked doors and I wonder how we receive them? I wonder how we believe in this Risen Lord? Throughout the Easter stories, we hear hints of this problem. No one recognizes Jesus as the Risen Lord; no one makes the connection immediately. Mary of Magdala—we’ll talk about her next week—meets the Risen Lord in a garden near the empty tomb. Now if there is one part of the whole story about which the church seems to have been consistent, it is about Mary going to the tomb. Mark says so, as we read last week; Matthew also reports Mary discovering the empty tomb. Luke says, “…on the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the woman who had come with him from Galilee] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” That includes Mary.” John says, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

But the stories of encounters with the Risen Lord are much less consistent. Mary meets him in a garden; the disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem, other stories speak of a meeting in Galilee. Paul says Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the rest of the disciples, then to more than 500 others, finally to Paul himself. That last encounter with Paul would have been three or four years after the first Easter. The church remembers that they didn’t recognize or understand or believe Jesus as the Resurrected Lord immediately.

Now that may come as a stunning admission from a Christian pulpit: the first Christians didn’t immediately acclaim and believe Jesus was resurrected. Maybe you’ve had a hard time believing it as well; maybe you didn’t want to admit it. But right here in the Gospel of John Thomas admits it, Thomas proclaims it: “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.” [John 20:25] The church remembers there was this problem at the start, at the core: not everyone believed.

What changed Thomas? In the story, Jesus shows him his wounds. Think of that for a moment, imagine it. The Son of God could certainly produce a miracle, he could awe and inspire in a thousand ways. But he doesn’t. He could show Thomas heavenly beauty, he could appear in shining white as he did at the transfiguration, but instead, he shows him his wounds. He shows him the ugliest thing imaginable: the wounds of the cross, the holes in his hands and feet, the place where his side was pierced by a spear, the places where he was hurt, the wounds that made him cry out from the cross. Jesus tells him to touch these ugly, terrible wounds. He doesn’t; “My Lord and my God,” he proclaims. Seeing the wounds changes him; seeing the wounds makes him a follower.

We don’t often talk about wounds. I attended a Baptist church for a couple of years; it seemed like half the hymns there had the word “blood” somewhere in the lyrics. I grew up in a culture that said about our wounds, “Never complain, never explain.” Crying was a failure. I wasn’t prepared to talk about wounds and as a young pastor, I was often uncomfortable when others did. So often I wish I could go back to some of those folks and apologize; I know I didn’t offer them the solace of safely sharing their wounds.

For sharing our wounds does indeed transform us. The pattern Jesus offers works in our lives as well. Connection is what gives meaning to life and allows us to fully become the persons God hoped. Remember that in the story of our creation, right from the beginning, we were made to hold God’s hand with one hand and someone else with the other. But that kind of connection comes out of vulnerability. In a sense, we’re like a hamster on a wheel, caught in a circular problem: we need connection to make us feel safe to be vulnerable but connection comes from being vulnerable. One writer said,

The longing for connection to another soul is within us all already. It is waiting for our nurturing and our willingness to embrace vulnerability. It is through this knowledge that we can move closer towards our universal goal of love.


[Melissa Wilder Joyce, Huffington Post]

In this moment with Thomas, Jesus shows, the church remembers, how to transcend the problem of vulnerability and connection, how to get off the hamster wheel. It happens when he shares his wounds.

Many of you know that I’m a step-parent. The thing about being a step-parent is—you have to earn it. You aren’t automatically mom or dad; you’re Jim. You’re an awkward pause when someone asks the child with you who that man is. When I became the step-parent of my older kids, I had no idea how to earn them. So I tried various things; some worked some didn’t.

The one I remember most we called the owie report. My daughter Amy was a runner and a jumper and she constantly got scratches and little injuries. These were bandaged with great seriousness. And then every night, when I went to kiss her good night we would examine each one. We’d start with the oldest wounds. We’d discuss whether something was still an owie and then move on to more recent ones. Sometimes we’d replace old band-aids. All this was done with great solemnity. Each wound was offered; each was kissed. I did this for years. By the end, I was her parent. I still am.

Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds; he called out, “My God and my Lord.” It wasn’t a miracle that changed him, it wasn’t the fact of the resurrection, it was the wounds. His connection to Jesus was transformed and it transformed his life. He may have written down the sayings of Jesus that he remembered; he himself was remembered as a great apostle. When we trust God with our wounds, we discover a connection we cannot find any other way. For then we begin to understand indeed, as scripture says, that Jesus’ wounds are for us: he was wounded for us. And when we know this, when we believe it, we also understand him as our Lord.

Amen.

Easter – B – Still I Rise

Still I Rise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Easter Sunday/B • April 1, 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Christmas begins with lights. On Christmas Eve, we gather here to look for the Lord, to celebrate his coming. The last thing we do is to light the candles. It’s a wonderful moment: celebrating the one who came as the light of the world, we pass the light, candle to handle, one to another until the whole room sparkles and we sing. But Easter begins in darkness. The last thing we do is on Maundy Thursday is to extinguish the candles, remembering the darkness to come on Good Friday. So we come to Easter from the darkness.

Like a stage cleared in the final act of a play, Mark tells us the crowds have cleared out, first shouting, “Hosanna” for Jesus come as king, later demanding, “Crucify him!” when the Romans and the city authorities arrest him and put him on trial as a terrorist. Peter denies him in the courtyard of the jail. Killed on a cross in the hours before the Sabbath, his followers fade away. Finally, it’s left to a sympathetic rich man to provide for his burial and the body is stashed in a cave tomb, too late for preparation before Shabbat, which starts at darkness, begins and night takes over. Only now, in the darkness of the dawn, does someone, a few women, venture to the tomb. They buy spices to prepare the body, to make the final arrangements and give some dignity to the dead. They are going to the grave and they’re worried that the stone closing it off will be too much to roll away; they’re worried they won’t be able to get into where Jesus lies dead in the darkness.

The burial caves of Jerusalem are on a cliff wall. Imagine walking along the Indian Ladder escarpment as the darkness turns into dawn, slowly, carefully negotiating the turns in the path, watching just the steps ahead, not the whole path, unable to see around the next turn. Carefully, quietly, the women walk the path, perhaps stumbling here or there, clutching each other to keep from falling, arms full of the precious spices. They know a large stone blocks the entrance to the tomb and they are already trying to think of a way to move it. You see how like us they are? They have a problem: they’ve brought the things they will need to do their job and they are discussing how to deal with the biggest obstacle of all. Isn’t that what we do?

Now they come around the last curve. Are they still talking about the stone or has the nearness of the grave silenced them? Now they pass it and look toward the grave, discovering the problem they worried so much about isn’t there: the stone is moved. Who moved it? How did they do it? The women don’t know or seem to care. The grave is open; they walk slowly toward it, silent now I’m sure, they come to the entrance and, they enter the cave and suddenly the darkness lightens and in the light there is a person sitting, dressed in white, shining with it. They’re afraid: who wouldn’t be, they came to deal with a dead man, not a live angel.

He says what angels always say: “Don’t be afraid.” He shows them where Jesus had lain, they see the grave clothes they had intended to anoint with their spices which won’t be needed after all. And he tells them what to do. “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The women run. Of course, they run: wouldn’t you? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What about you? What about me? What are we to make of this story?

Most importantly, that Easter is not only for Easter Sunday. The gospel of Mark starts, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” All that follows all the stories of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, the story of the cross, this story of Easter is a prelude, just a beginning. The good news is that it’s not the end. In the failure of the worldly events, there is a space made by faith. In the vulnerability of the cross and the tomb, there is an empty place and God works in that wilderness, God is present in that wilderness, raising Jesus. The Pharisees cannot understand him, the Romans cannot kill him, his own followers cannot follow him but God’s grace is so powerful it can overcome all of them. Go home, the angel says: go back to Galilee. He’s not gone, he’s still here: “there you will see him.” Easter is a summons to see.

Maya Angelou is a poet who has seen in the long history of oppression of black people a reason for hope, an image of resurrection. She 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.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

[Maya Angelou, Still I Rise]

There he is: rising in the sweep of history, bending history to the love of God, the justice of God a little bit every day. See him there: see his power there. See his resurrection there. To the violence of the Empire, of all empires, he says: “Still I rise.”
But it’s not only in the big things that Jesus can be seen. Terry Marquardt wrote about grieving for her grandmother and remembered,

My aunt was with my grandmother during the last nights of her life, when the pain in her spine was so horrible that she hadn’t slept for two days, and the medication had stopped working, and she was beginning to lose hope. It was too much to lay down, so the two of them were sitting in the living room at 2:00 in the morning when my aunt had an idea.
“Mom, let’s have a party.”
“How could I possibly do that,” my grandmother said, motioning to her stiff body, kept awake by the sensation that it was being ground into dust.
“Let’s try,” my aunt said.
And she started to sing.
My aunt sang the Mennonite hymns my grandmother had taught her, songs from my grandmother’s childhood in a Mennonite farming community in northeastern Canada, songs that were sung in the fields, at their dinner tables, to greet the dawn, to end their day, on the way to church. My aunt and my grandmother sang all night long, until there was no pain, until my grandmother’s nurse woke up and tiptoed into the room.
“I’ve never heard such beautiful music,” she cried.
[Read the whole post here: https://medium.com/@Tanya.Marquardt/grieving-our-dead-online-3416e1918a25]

We thought the problem was how to give Jesus a decent burial, how to roll the stone away. But it turns out that the stone we worried about is already rolled away; Jesus is gone ahead. The empty tomb is God’s message to the Emperor, to the soldiers, to the world, to the followers who have scattered that in the midst of death, still I rise. This is God saying, in the midst of betrayal, whether Judas and his double crossing kiss or Peter in his fearful denial, still I rise. This is God saying to the torturers and the prison guards and the judges and the crucifiers just following orders, still I rise. This is God saying that even when I feel abandoned on a cross and cry out asking why I’m forsaken, still I rise. This is God saying, even from a tomb closed up tight, still I rise.

This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. It starts with fearful followers running away. In the days that followed, every one of them had to decide what to do about the news that he had risen; every one had to decide how to live when the tomb was empty and despite the plain sense of his death, there was this amazing experience where it was clear that he was saying, “Still I rise”. Every one of them had to decide whether to keep running or to rise with him, to go to Galilee, to look for him, follow him.

Where is Galilee? It’s where they came from, where they started. Jesus is going back to the beginning and starting over: that’s where they will see him. Their lives are about to start over because these lives are lived beyond the fear of death. The great question about the Christian movement of the first century is what powered it, what allowed it to change history. The answer is the people Jesus changed; the answer is the people who saw him rise and took his resurrection as the pattern for their own lives. Jesus was risen and they were able to say with him, still I rise.
It’s the same with us. We are prepared to go to the grave; we are good at raising the money to buy spices, we can discuss how to move the stone. But are we ready to leave the grave and go to Galilee? Can we take Easter home, can we take it wherever we go? Still I rise, he says: despite what we thought, he calls us, invites us, forgives us, commands us. Come see me: come follow me.

He’s gone ahead and when we see that, we’re ready to take the next step, to let go of our fears, accept his forgiveness and follow him. Easter isn’t a day, it’s an invitation: come see me. The gospels tell us how he appeared over and over to people, and his message is always the same: love one another, see me, follow me, because still, I rise: even when you don’t believe it, even when you don’t understand it, still I rise.

Peter denied him but it’s Peter he calls back to tend his sheep.

Mary ran in fear but it’s Mary who first meets him on the way.

Thomas won’t believe him but it’s Thomas who feels his wounds.

To the powerful who prey on the poor, his presence says: still I rise. To the hopeless who cannot find the way out of darkness, he says, “I am the light of the world”—still I rise. To us, to all of us, who come here, wondering, he says: still I rise. Come follow me. Come: because on your way, on your journey, you will see me: for still I rise.

Amen

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.”
Amen.

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.

Pentecost

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 , http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-pentecost-acts-11-21/

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.

Amen.

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?

Amen.

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.

Amen.

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.
Amen.

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.

Amen.

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?

Amen.