Pentecost B – Making the Dry Bones Dance

Making the Dry Bones Dance

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Pentecost/B • May 20, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I want to begin with part of a story and then continue it throughout. I’m hoping we can use this story to tie together an understanding of how we fit with God’s plan. Here is the first of three parts of this story.

When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people were threatened by tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and asked for a miracle to save the Jews from the threat. Because of the Holy Fire and faithfulness of the prayer, the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

What can we do in the face of threats and tragedies? How can we hope when we’re afraid?
How do we change? How do we move from here to there, from this moment to a better moment? How is God making better times, new times, moving all creation toward the moment Jesus called the reign of God or the kingdom of God? Today is the day of Pentecost and we are invited into two stories of how God changes, two stories of vision that invite us to lift our hearts in hope.

Let’s begin with the Pentecost account. Once again, the disciples are met just as they were when the risen Lord came to them, passing through locked doors until they recognized him in their midst. Now in the midst of their meeting, the Holy Spirit he had promised comes in the same way, whooshing into the meeting, disrupting it, changing it. The Spirit wasn’t on the agenda; the fire wasn’t part of the plan.

Imagine the new disciple, just chosen to replace Judas, wondering if they do this every time they meet. Once when I was out of the ministry, I went to a Presbyterian church. The kids were little, and we were just a moment or two late, so we pushed past the assembled processional and had to walk all the way to the front to find seats. Next thing you know the organ is playing and a bagpiper is playing and marching up the aisle with the choir and the minister. It was quite a show. The piper was in full regalia: skirt, sweater, hat and a dagger strapped to his leg. Wow. I was impressed.

The next couple of Sundays we had sick kids, so we stayed home, but when we finally got back, I made sure we were in our seats early. I love pipes and I didn’t want to miss out. Imagine my disappointment when there was no processional, no piper, no dagger, just the call to worship and opening hymn. Later I found out we happened to have been there on St. Andrews day, a big deal to Presbyterians. The piper was a once a year thing. The tongues of fire at Pentecost are a once a lifetime thing.

One of the pastors on my preachers’ mailing list said recently,

I dread Pentecost. There, I’ve said it. Oh, at one time, it was one of my favorite Sundays. I loved inviting people to wear red, I liked using the balloons, and loved the processionals, and coming up with new ways to represent this day.
But not anymore. See, now I find Pentecost to be one massive guilt
trip. After all, I’ve never preached a sermon that made 3 people, much
less 3000 want to be baptized. I’ve never gotten folks so excited about the
good news that they suddenly wanting to share it. I’ve never (fortunately,
I think) been in a church where suddenly a multitude of languages is spoken.
So I find Pentecost makes me feel pretty guilty.
And folks in the churches feel the same way. Most of the
congregations I have served have felt burnt out; they don’t feel flames
dancing on their heads. They are lucky if one or two new folks show up once
in a while, much less multitudes.
They, like me, probably wouldn’t know what to do if the windows suddenly burst open and the Holy Spirit came racing in.

He goes on to say that part of the problem is that Pentecost has become a model for a successful church and if we don’t look like that, we don’t feel successful. But the disciples do not do Pentecost: God does. The disciples do not make Pentecost; God does. And God does not care about our success our pride.

The problem is that we are so inclined to just see what’s there and not what’s moving it. Take the business about languages. Why all these languages? Surely it is meant to remind us of the story of the Tower of Babel, part of the saga of creation stories, when the Bible imagined all the earth being split by language so people couldn’t understand each other. Now Babel is reversed: now people can understand and the thing they understand is that God is alive and calling all people together. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God says: full inclusion, everyone welcome. God is breaking the boundaries: like the piper, it’s one day, one time. Like the Baal Shem Tov in the forest, praying by his fire, God gives this miracle, this sign, of where to go, what path to take, and when we take it, we are on the way.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.

The other story we read today also invites us forward. Israel and Judah have places that are so arid, things simply remain. It’s not hard to imagine that the battles of the period that led to the defeat of God’s people and their exile left places where bones were scattered, the result of long ago battles. What’s to happen to these lost people?

“Can these bones live?” That’s the question we face in our church and our culture today. God’s answer is resurrection.

Now resurrection isn’t the same as getting something new. Notice that in the whole of Ezekiel’s vision, the emphasis is on reclaiming what was, not creating something new. Like the Maggid of Mezrich, what’s called for isn’t a new miracle but using the old way. Resurrection means taking what was and is, making it into what will be, taking what was dead, making it alive. Pentecost looks on the surface like creating the church from nothing but it’s really creating it from the resurrection of Jesus, through this community of disciples, by the reversal of the separation between people. Ezekiel’s vision is of God blowing life into what was dead, reclaiming God’s people, resurrecting the whole community of them. What God means to do is clear: make the dry bones dance, resurrect what was into what will be.

We have a hard time seeing that hope. We get so focused on our present, we forget God is doing something new. But we do need an answer to tragedy. I could offer a list but you know them already. You know that our high school kids are taking their murder for granted. The saddest most tragic thing in the most recent shooting was the kid who wasn’t surprised. What’s wrong with us, what’s wrong with all of us, when a high school kid isn’t surprised his school got shot up?

Our politicians are paralyzed by fear. I watched on the day of the Texas shooting as Senator Ted Cruz, a man who has done as much as anyone in the whole country to make guns available and facilitate school shootings, said we needed prayers. Prayers are nothing but the intention to act. God hates pious prayers that are not connected to our intention to act.

So how can we deal with tragedy? We don’t know the prayer we don’t know the place in the woods to make the fire. The final part of the story says,

When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great grandson of the Maggid of Mezrichwho, who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story. That must be enough.” And it was. [The Baal Shem Tov Lights a Fire]

This is us: the people who know the story, the story of God’s grace, the story of God’s resurrection. Go tell it; go live it. Go live like the bones are going to dance and they will.

Amen.

Easter 7B – Ascension – Next, Please?

Next, Please?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday • May 13, 2018

One day last week Jacquelyn and I toured the Alhambra, an enormous Medieval complex of palaces, gardens and fortresses overlooking the city of Granada. It was the last hold out of Muslim rulers in Spain, and its swirling walls decorated with plaster calligraphy, its pools of water, and mountain views were exhilarating.

Still, three hours of walking in such beauty, we were tired and hungry. We bought sandwiches and found a bench in some shade. Drawn by the same shade, two young couples sat across from us. Soon a small cat came over and clearly sniffed Jacquelyn’s sandwich; she was having tuna, and the cat wanted som,e so it did what always works with Jacquelyn, sat in front of her and quietly looked hungry and sad and hopeful.

We all laughed at the cat and began to talk. One of the women was obviously pregnant. We asked when she was due; she said August and I laughed and said August babies—of which I’m one—were extraordinary people. As we talked, she mentioned how scared she was about being a mother. I said being a parent was the most fun I’d ever had; Jacquelyn added comments on how wonderful it had been, having May, bringing her up. It turned out the other woman was pregnant too, and soon we were all laughing. Of course, Jacquelyn went from just dropping crumbs for the cat to breaking pieces off to feed the feline. With lunch over, we said goodbye to our friends and the cat and wandered off. I’d like to think we not only made the cat’s day but gave those two couples a bit of hope, another brighter voice than all the scary rational ones. I’d like to think we passed on a little of the love we’ve found parenting together.

Today is one of those days with many priorities. In the United States, it’s Mothers Day. 
In the past, that often meant exalting on one day out of the whole year the role of women who have children. Often we left out those who didn’t. Today I want to make it clear that as we mention this day, we honor with it those women, mothers, grandmothers and others who care for children they didn’t have to cherish and raise but do so with the same generous love. We honor as well women who have never had children but also share their care and love in so many ways.

I said it was a day of different priorities and if Mothers Day is one, the calendar of the church provides another. Today is Ascension Sunday. Long ago, the church remembered there was a time, a moment, when the direct, immediate presence of Jesus walking and talking with his friends ceased, when he returned to the Father so that his followers could, like fledging birds, learn to live out the love he had taught on their own.

The Book of Acts invites us to imagine Jesus taking his disciples out to a hill where they ask if he will at that time restore the kingdom of Israel. He replies, in effect, that the scheduled for the kingdom is none of their business and that instead their job is to go out and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. He mentions Judah and Samaria; you can substitute whatever place seems foreign and exotic to you. Brooklyn, maybe, or New Jersey or West Virginia, or Georgia or Buffalo. Buffalo is definitely one of the ends of the earth, at least it’s near the end of the turnpike so it will do as a symbol.

But my favorite story of the ascension is actually the one we heard today in Acts. Jesus has gone and now for the first time his disciples have to organize on their own. How are we going to continue? That’s a question all organizations ask. These early Christians don’t have the tools we have. Roberts Rules of Order won’t be written for centuries; there is no church constitution. They can’t even settle this question the way we settle such matters now by asking, “What did we do last year?” because this is the first year, the first time. But they understand this single important thing: they are there to continue the work of Jesus and that means continuing to create and recreate the community of Jesus. So they pick a couple of good candidates, people they’ve known, who’ve been active and nominate them and then they pray and cast lots; Matthias becomes the new disciple.

In the whole book of Acts of the Apostles, I do not know a more important moment. For in that moment, these people, who so often fumbled and misunderstood Jesus, begin to move forward in his spirit. In this moment, they begin to do what he told them, to ready themselves for continuing the ministry of Jesus on their own. The Romans thought they could kill the movement by killing Jesus; the religious leaders thought they could kill the spirit by killing the preacher. But God’s love and life were so strong that instead he overcomes death and his resurrection inspires these followers to continue to create communities of care just as he did, communities that will spread throughout the world. The light of love is shining in this moment and being passed like candle light, from one to another. We sometimes get so concerned about daily challenges we forget this is the most important challenge of all: how we can pass on the light of love each day.

That’s the point Jesus is making in the part of the prayer we heard this morning. He says about the disciples he about to release into the world like a dandelion releasing its seeds,

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. [John 17:16-19]

That’s us: that’s who we are meant to be, people sent into the world who have seen how much difference a moment of grace, a cherishing love, a boundary breaking invitation can make.

That’s the spirit in which Mothers Day originated. You can read in the bulletin article today a longer history of Mothers Day. I want simply to point out here that it began not as a day to give your mother a card but out of the boundary breaking work of bridging the gap between former Union and Confederate soldiers and families. West Virginia had become a state through the breaking of ties that inspired the war against the Union and the restoration of peace left broken bodies and broken communities there more than in most places. Anna Jarvis worked to promote peace and her daughter worked to lift up and honor that work.

There are so many stories like this. We often feel powerless but the truth is we have the power to act, as the disciples acted, and when we do amazing things happen. Let me give you one more souvenir from our vacation in Spain this year. We always visit Cathedrals and this year one that stood out to me honors St. John de Dios. It stood out because it is a soaring basilica perhaps four stories high at the front, all in figures of gold and for one euro you can turn the lights on and startle everyone there. It stood out because I’m a Congregationalist who loves the spare, plain beauty of our meeting houses which are almost undecorated. In that church, decoration assaults you at every turn and it includes that odd medieval Catholic obsession with relics of saints, so they have various skeletons in glass boxes.

All of it was over the top but it did make me look up St. John of God, the inspiration for the place. What I found was much more amazing than the gold and the skeletons. John was a poor Portuguese boy who did what boys from poor boys often do today: he enlisted in the military. He did well as a soldier, survived and went on to have a variety of experiences. At midlife, he had an experience of inspiration and began to help sick and needy people. Others joined him; the work expanded. Eventually a whole order was funded which operates hospitals around the world.

“The lot fell on Matthias,” Acts says; one person, one moment. Hundreds of years later, it fell on a former soldier and now we have hospitals. Hike up in the mountains, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, anywhere will do and if you watch a stream flowing downhill you can see it is irresistible. Blocks a path, it finds another; when a tree falls in the middle, it divides around it. It doesn’t look like much, often, just a little stream but nothing will stop that stream flowing to the river to the sea and joining the ocean. That’s how it is with God’s love. It’s flowing all the time, touching someone here, there. Like a working at a counter, calling, “Next, please?” it moves from person to person.

One of the wonderful gifts of travel is that you stop seeing news alerts. So this past week while we were in Spain, I’m sure that lots of things went on. The President did things; other people protested or agreed. Global leaders did whatever they do. Millionaires in the city got mad that someone parked a fireboat that helped rescue people on 9/11 in front of their condos, spoiling the view.

But this happened too: the Henry Street Settlement got a 6.2 million dollar donation. The Settlement started in 1893 when Lillian Ward settled in a slum in New York City among what today we would call undocumented immigrants. That another term for many of our grandparents, mine among them. Henry Street has far too many accomplishments to list but an important one today is supporting young people going to college. A lot more will be able to go because of this huge donation. Now you might think that in New York, with so many very rich people who live in rich towers, a donation would come from one of them. But it didn’t. It came from Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old woman who retired after a 67 year career as a secretary. She never had a child; thanks to her gift, hundreds of children will be nurtured and grow up in new ways.

“Next, please?” Matthias starts out as the first disciple to continue the work. Others follow. Still, the Spirit is calling: next, please? No one knows what blessings make a difference. But like the stream running down the mountain, no one can stop that stream of blessing. We are invited to make our lives part of the stream, part of the blessing, to live as the next ones to light the candle of love.

Easter 5B – The Good Sheep

The Good Sheep

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Easter/B • April 29, 2018
John 10:18-31

In 1973, I was the pastor the Seattle Congregational Church in Washington, almost as far west as you can go in the lower 48 states. But my family was in Michigan, so I’d driven between the two several times. Four days: Michigan to Wisconsin, where I also have family, then a day to Montana, and then a day that is all Montana, finally a day across Idaho and Washington. It’s a long drive and that year I decided to vary it by trying some local roads across the mountains in Wyoming. There was a little road on the map that looked like it would cut a couple hours off the trip and let me connect back up to I-90 in Montana.

So off I went in my Pinto, a little blue Ford. Up, up the mountain, uncomfortably aware there was no one around. Have you been to that sort of place? Where you feel like if something happened, no one would find you, no one would know for a long, long time? Just as I was thinking that I remember coming around a curve, meadows on both sides, and suddenly seeing like a flowing sea a flock of hundreds of sheep flowing over the road. I braked quickly and sat there, watching as they moved. There was a dog barking but no person, no one at all. And then, as the flock began to thin and I thought to get the car moving again, I saw a horse with a small man slumped in the saddle. He didn’t seem to talk; he didn’t seem to do anything. He just quietly followed the flock. He was the shepherd.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Is there any more famous verse in the whole New Testament? Haven’t we all heard this, seen pictures of Jesus as a shepherd or holding a lamb? “I am the Good Shepherd.” It’s like a sign that says: “ok, I already heard this, I can check out now”, isn’t it? Well, let me ask you to come back now if you’re already wondering what’s at coffee hour, because I want to think not only about the Good Shepherd today but about the sheep: you and I, the flock the Good Shepherd gathers and protects. That’s you: that’s me.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus defines his relationship with us. First, we are not in charge. The sheep do not decide the direction, the sheep do not decide the route. The sheep go where the shepherd directs. And the shepherd cares for the sheep.

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Why does the hired hand run away? Because he doesn’t love the sheep. This is the deep heart of our relationship with Jesus. It’s in the scene we read a few weeks ago, where he shows his wounds to Thomas. Even in resurrection, the Lord retains his wounds, is marked by his wounds, wounds he receives on our behalf. Living in the midst of resurrection means living in the presence of the wounded Christ. It is a reminder that every attempt to connect Christ to kings or presidents or nations is a lie. He comes to us wounded, not victorious, and he invites us to come to him with our wounds, imperfect, failing at times, yet still part of his flock by his decision, not our own.

This mutuality is the mystery of our lives together with the Lord. He says,

I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

Christ does not come as an individual but as part of the community we call the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And his purpose is to bring us into the mutual love, mirror the mutual love, between the Father and Son. And he does this through experience.

The verb “know” in the Bible doesn’t mean knowing the way we know someone’s name or how the Mets did at their last game. It really means to experience. It means knowing what an apple tastes like when you bite into it; it means knowing the way we know grief when someone we love dies. It means the knowing that grows between best friends or lovers so that we carry a copy of them in our head and know what they will say even when they aren’t present.

The mutuality of this knowing, this experience is a present thing. This is the heart of living with the Risen Lord: to say, “Christ is Risen!”, is to say he is in our present, not just our past. I know that a temptation I have is to spend so much time looking at the history of Jesus that I forget the presence of Christ. The resurrection experience is the re-establishment of relationships. That’s what’ happens with Thomas, that’s what happens with Mary. 
When Jesus meets Mary, she doesn’t call him by name, she says, “Rabouni”, which means “My teacher”. It’s not just his identity she recognizes: it is her relationship with him, his with her. For us to live as Easter people is to live in the faith he is here, now, not just back then.

“I am the good shepherd. My sheep know me and I know them.” Mutual recognition is the foundation of the flock. Jesus always gathers. His historical ministry begins with gathering disciples. As he walks along, he constantly gathers with others; this is one of the big complaints about him: “He eats with sinners.” At the table of Jesus, the culture of class and division is destroyed: all are welcome. Gathering is one of his distinctive actions.

Early Congregationalists recognized this gathering into covenanted community as the foundation of life with Christ. Peter Gomes makes this point about Congregational Churches. Speaking in Scotland to Episcopalians, he once said,

In New England, the ancient parishes of the seventeenth century in the Congre- gational order are not described as “founded”—if you ever look at an old sev- enteenth-century New England church, the sign will not say, “Founded in 1620,” “Founded in 1636,” “Founded in 1690″— but use a very strange nomenclature used nowhere else in the church, either in Europe or in this country: it says “Gathered in 1620,” “Gathered in 1640,” “Gathered in 1690,” and there is something very different between being founded and being gathered. The notion is that of sheep being gathered into the sheepfold.
[Peter Gomes, Good Shepherd, Good Sheep, April, 2003]

Jesus comes to us: we come to the flock, to church, to be with others who recognize him.
As we do, we should remember: we don’t get to decide who’s in or out of the flock. Jesus says,

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

 

I remember a story about an Episcopal priest whose church had become a community center, as ours has. Many of the people now filling its rooms were different than the members of the church and some members complained. He replied that he didn’t choose these people; Jesus did. They weren’t who he would have chosen but Jesus had, so what was he to do? They should blame Jesus. When we welcome someone, invite someone, we are acting like the good sheep of Christ’s flock.

“I am the good shepherd.” If Jesus is the good shepherd, we have to ask: what does it mean for us to be the good sheep?

First, it means gathering. There is a reason sheep have evolved a strong instinct to flock together. The flock protects them. When Jesus says he is the good shepherd, he also says there are danger out there. I don’t have to enumerate them, nor could I. But in our gathering, we are strengthened, we encourage each other.

I don’t think any of us really know how much our presence here means to others. Who came this morning hoping to see you? Who is strengthened by your presence here this morning, your greeting, your prayers? Coming to church is not an individual experience: it is gathering with others and although you may not realize it, your presence helps others. We have a variety of gifts, as Paul says, and when we gather the gifts are shared and make a blessing we also share.

Second, sheep produce. They are not simply existing on their own, they are a means of making something happen: wool, perhaps meat. In our case, Paul says,

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22f]

Our purpose is to bear these fruits, share them with the world. Like the sheep producing wool, we are meant to give something back, our love and joy, our kindness, and so on. Like a voice in a choir, these gifts melt together into God’s song of praise.

“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus calls us to gather together as his sheep, following him, not as a revered but dead example but as the living Lord, caring for us. Wherever we have been, whatever we have done, he calls us to follow him forward as members of his flock. Remember what he said to Peter? “Never mind all that—feed my sheep.” That’s us: thats our job. He is the shepherd; we are the flock. May we live in the love and care of the good shepherd, gathered in his flock.

Amen.

Easter 4B – Never Mind

Never Mind

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • ©2018
Fourth Sunday in Easter/B • April 22, 2018
John 21:15-19

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Isn’t it amazing how life can change in a moment? I used to be the kind of person who would carefully plan all the stages of a trip. I had my airline reservation printed, hotel, car, each of them laid in a folder in consecutive order. I got annoyed when planes were delayed; I got angry if my car or room wasn’t ready. But when Jacquelyn became a flight attendant and I started flying space available, I was introduced to traveling without any assurance. I had to learn that even though I had a plan, things could change, the world could say, “Never mind” to my plan. Of course, there are many times, may circumstances where we go along as if our lives were on rails like a train. Then something happens and suddenly it’s as if someone said, “Never mind” to our whole plan, our whole life, and we’re starting over.

It must have been like that for the disciples. For a few years, they’ve been following Jesus through the villages of Galilee, up and down the roads, then on to Jerusalem and its crowds. All along he was there; all along, they thought something great was going to happen. They saw him heal; they heard him preach. They’d been present at amazing, miraculous events.

Surely they knew what the prophets had said; one day God would send someone who would be a Messiah, who would lead a great movement to renew Israel. They must have known their history, how God inspired Moses to lead their ancestors out of Egypt, how Joshua led them to claim the promised land, how David created a kingdom among God’s people, how that kingdom though fallen had risen again and then been recaptured by Judas Maccabees.

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah!” But when Jesus connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They argue about who is going to be first in his kingdom; he tells them to serve each other. Even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they expected something great, something victorious.

Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said, “Never mind,” one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

So they do what people often do when a life plan ends. They go back where they were before it all began. They’ve gone back to Galilee, back to where it all started. They’ve gone back to what they used to do: fishing. How long have they been doing that? Doesn’t time seem to stop sometimes when your whole plan, your whole life, has run into one big “Never mind?” But it doesn’t seem to be working; they go out fishing and don’t catch a single thing. Have they lost the touch? Bad luck? Who knows? It seems the new plan, to go back to the old plan, is getting a big never mind as well.

It’s just then, when they come back to shore, hungry, depressed, quiet, the way you are when everything has failed that they meet this guy on the beach. Who is he? No one knows. He calls them children. That may seem kind but actually since the word for children and slave is about the same it may have come across as strange. Maybe it sounded like he was recognizing how hard they worked. Next thing, he’s giving directions“Cast the net on the right side.” Is it just that nothing else has worked so why not or something mysteriously compelling about him? All we know is that as the net fills up and one of them recognizes something in the man on the beach. “It is the Lord!” he says and Peter—Peter who always rushes in, whether it’s the right thing or not—Peter can’t help jumps in and wades ashore.

Once there, they discovered everything they need is already set: bread, grilled fish. I love the note that says that the net didn’t break. That detail makes this story for me: who else but someone who’s spent hours mending nets would think of it? So there they are: on the beach with the Lord, eating breakfast. Some have said that just as there was a Last Supper, this is the First Breakfast.

It must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think?

The musical Fiddler on the Roof has a scene where Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him,” and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?
But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,
Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

At the end, she says she does love him—and that it doesn’t change a thing.
“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the Messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say?

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus says. And then, I imagine Jesus looking right into his eyes, knowing as he always knew, what was behind Peter’s eyes, knowing and yet asking once again, “Do you love me?” and when Peter, perhaps crumbling now, says yes; once again, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” This is the moment Peter became an apostle. This is the moment when Jesus came to him and said: “Never mind!” All those misunderstandings along the way? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. Those times you denied me? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. The fact that you went back to your old life? Never mind! I’m giving you a new life and a new mission: feed my sheep.

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. When the Risen Lord comes to us, it isn’t to show off, it’s to show us how to rise with him.

Peter is buried in guilt; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep.

Peter is buried in grief; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep.

Peter is buried in failure; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep.

Maybe you’re buried, maybe you’ve been buried. Today Jesus is calling to you to rise with him. Today Jesus is saying to you as he did to Peter: never mind all that— feed my sheep. Today, Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”.

How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly, he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart.

Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.

Amen.

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.