Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21

There’s an old story about a church that called a new minister with a reputation as a fine preacher. Sure enough, on his first Sunday he gave an amazing sermon. People cried, people laughed at the funny parts, and many were deeply stirred. The members of the pulpit committee were roundly congratulated and everyone felt this was a great start. The next Sunday there were smiles as people arrived and quiet as the pastor began. Everyone was startled when his opening turned out to be exactly the same. In fact, the whole sermon was the same. Some people hadn’t been there the first week, and they thought it was a fine sermon, some said they were glad to be reminded of some of his points. But on the whole, there was a bit less reaction. There was even less the third week when he again gave the same sermon, some said word for word.

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

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

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

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

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

We can succeed at this. Years ago I led a weekly chapel service for preschool kids, I was struggling to figure out how to condense the theology of love into something three year olds could understand. I came up with this idea: one nice thing. So I started talking to them about doing one nice thing each day. I gave little stars for reports of a nice thing; I had them chant it with me: ‘”One nice thing! One nice thing!”

It probably sounds silly and simplistic. But a few months after I started the one nice thing campaign, a mother who didn’t go to church came to me and asked to talk. She said that she and her husband weren’t church people and she had been unhappy when we announced the chapel services. Her little boy liked the preschool there, though, so they kept him in class. And then she paused and said, “I hate to admit this. I don’t want to admit this. But I have to: you have made my child better.” She went on to say that suddenly he was coming to her and asking what he could do for a nice thing. He was changing. So whether you are three or 93 or somewhere in between, you can do one nice thing; you can succeed at keeping Christ’s commands. And if you try, you will.

There is another thing that will happen if you intentionally set out to keep Christ’s commands: you will fail. Maybe it’s a bad day, you didn’t sleep well, you’re growls and you’ll encounter someone who annoys you. Maybe you’re just not feeling well; maybe you’re feeling under appreciated. We all have those days. You beep at the guy in front of you who is taking two seconds too long to move after the light turns green; you say something unkind under your breath. You let your doubts dominate your thinking at a meeting.

We all fail at living out Christ’s commands. The first disciples did. One of the mysteries I’ve been thinking about most of my life is that the gospel accounts depict the first disciples as such bumblers. At the feeding of the multitude, they are worried about the budget. When Jesus announces he is the Christ, they argue with him. They fight to make a hierarchy within their ranks instead of accepting equality with Jesus. They don’t believe in his resurrection; they run away when he’s arrested. They fail.

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

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

A young man shows up one Sunday, a college student, who tells us he’s headed for the ministry. What’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to embrace him. People drive him to church every Sunday; we give him a chance to try out his preaching. We celebrate his graduation. This is from a letter I received from Bryan’s mother about the impact of this normal love.
Thank you so much for all that you and the entire Albany congregation have done for Bryan during his three years at Sienna. Your love, support and and caring have ben overwhelming.

This weekend that saame young man graduated from seminary. He’s taking the blessing and love of this congregation and others with him and who knows how many it will touch? What I love about this church is that love is normal here.

We’re in a difficult moment. Each week I call people just to check in, to say, “How are you doing?” This week I sensed a rising tide of people who said the same thing, that they were so tired of staying in where unmistakeable. I feel it too. I know I look forward to when we gather again here, in this space.

But whether we gather here or in our homes, we can still live from the commands of Christ. Sometimes Jesus’ first disciples failed; sometimes they succeeded. But they gave the world this wonderful gift: his vision of love made normal. And in that gift, they found a spirit. As Jesus said, they weren’t alone and they discovered that in that Spirit, miracles were possible. Making love normal always does this: it always draws the Spirit and incubates miracles.

I hope this week you feel that Spirit. I hope it moves you to prayer, I hope it moves you to wonder, I hope it moves you to act out the commands of Christ. I hope you see not just what’s here but what’s coming here, see the impact of normal love, see the vision of Christ. For wherever we go, we will be on the right path when we go where Christ compels us, where Christ leads us, where Christ’s love becomes our gift to the world for whom Christ gave his life.

Amen.

Where Are You Staying?

Where Are You Staying?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Easter/A • May 10, 2020

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5,15-16John 14:1-10

I suspect one of the little noticed casualties of the pause is the name tag. You know these: they say, “Hello” in big letters and you print your name on it so people will know who you are. At church meetings, they always make me wonder: should I put the ‘Reverend’ in front? James or Jim? What about the church name? These are bits of information that help say who I am. We all assemble a picture of a person from different aspects.

Sometimes something new surprises us. One day one of our members dropped in at the church office. I was wearing jeans and it threw her; she was used to seeing me in a robe on Sunday. “I never knew you wore jeans,” she said. Like a picture puzzle, we know someone from the things we learn about them. Now today, in the lesson from the Gospel of John, Jesus is giving his followers—the ones right there and us as well—the pictures we need to understand who he is.

The lesson is set during the last supper. Jesus has washed his followers’ feet and given them the signature command for his followers: “love one another.” The shadows are gathering; it’s Maundy Thursday. We’ve been told his spirit is troubled and perhaps his friends are as well because he begins, “Let not your heart be troubled” But they are troubled. Their journey with Jesus always potted toward Jerusalem.. Now they’ve arrived but darkness is closing in and they must have wondered, “What now?” They’re about to face the great problem all Christians face: how do we stay with Jesus no matter what the world dishes out?

He begins by telling them that in his Father’s house there are many dwellings. I know many of us grew up hearing, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” But that Seventeenh Century phrase doesn’t accurately represent what John says because today ‘mansion’ means a big, palatial house for one family. ‘Mansion’ originally meant any dwelling, a house or a hotel along a road, not an especially ornate, expensive place. What Jesus wants us to imagine is something like a condominium, a home with many places arranged around a courtyard. I know that may give you a sense of loss. The first time Jacquelyn heard me explain this, she said, “Hey, I thought I was getting a mansion and now you tell me it’s just a condo?”

But I want you to understand what Jesus is really saying here. The dwelling places he’s talking about aren’t separate; it’s not a spiritual subdivision. This is a community and the very togetherness is part of what he means to say. Jesus begins from an intimate togetherness with the Father and now he’s telling his friends he intends to include them in the community, give them a place in the community, with him and with the Father. He goes on to say: “…if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am, there you will be also.” [John 14:3] Jesus is giving his friends—Jesus is giving us—instructions on how to stay with him and it begins with believing he’s going to make a home for us.

This home is crucial to our faith life because it’s how we stay with Jesus and it’s how we hold fast to our journey with him. As we heard, Psalm 31 says,

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

Don’t we all need a refuge sometimes? Remember building a fort when you were a kid?—piling up pillow or chairs or boxes to make a castle and hiding inside? We build refuges as adults out of bits and pieces the same way. Sometimes it’s our possessions, sometimes it’s a house or job or sometimes it’s simply working to make sure we are in control.

But all those refuges eventually fail, just like our pillow forts came tumbling down. One of the reasons people are so stressed today is that our home built, self-built refuges are falling apart. When our refuge falls apart, it’s scary. But Jesus is offering a permanent refuge, a permanent place with him. As he said, his mission now is to prepare a place for us. The two questions in the text are questions we ask as well. “How do we get there?” and, “What’s the Father like?”

Thomas is blunt. Jesus says, “You know the place where I am going”; Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going.” How do we get to this dwelling with Jesus and the Father? How do we find the refuge? Have you ever stopped for directions and gotten something that didn’t help? Jesus is going and Thomas wants to come along—he wants directions. And what Jesus says is simply: “I am the way.” Last week we heard him say, “I am the gate—the way in”, and “I am the good shepherd”. Just like assembling the pieces of a picture puzzle I mentioned earlier, these “I am” statements show us Jesus’ identity. They are the clues staying with Jesus.

By saying, “I am the way,” Jesus is saying that living like him is the way to dwelling with the Father and him. That’s why it’s so important to read the gospels. They tell us the story of his life, they give us the pieces to help us understand who he is. When we do that, what we find at the center is a man with an unstoppable love that always embraces, always heals, always helps. He tells us directly how to know if we’re on the right track. Just before this reading, he’s said, “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another…” So walking the way of Jesus is determining to make love the persistent, every day energy of your life.

Now when someone says, “I love you,” a good question to ask is, “As evidenced by what?” When we talk about loving someone, many of the details cluster around what some call appreciation. That means, making a conscious, dedicated effort to consider each other person as a gift from God and to praise God for that person. It can begin with a simple prayer of thanks for someone. “Thank you, God, for Jacquelyn,” is something I pray every day. I like to name the people here in our congregation consciously in my prayers with the same prayer; I thank God for each of you.

It measures me and it will measure you. It’s hard to thank God for someone if you’re angry with them; at the same time, it can help you remember why you’re friends or partners in the first place. It can connect us. Try it out in the prayer time in a few minutes. When we’re silent, think of someone in the congregation or someone you know and simply consciously in your mind picture them and thank God for them.

This isn’t going to solve all problems. But it’s a step and it’s a step along the way with Jesus. It’s a step that helps keep us connected with him by connecting with each other. If you keep up with this prayer, if you keep up walking along the way toward Jesus, he will walk with you. And you’ll know what he teaches Philip.

Remember Philip?—Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father. It’s like saying, “Hey, this is all fine but just give me the GPS coordinates for God.” Jesus simply says that if he doesn’t know the Father is in Jesus, he doesn’t know Jesus. This is what it means to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It was the great celebration of an early community that yes, they had discovered how to stay with Jesus, yes, they had discovered how to find the Father, yes, they had found the refuge of faith, the truth . Professor Gail O’Day said about this passage,

Jesus doesn’t say “no one comes to God except through me” but no one comes to the Father except through me.” God is not a generic deity but the Father recognized in the life of Jesus. [John] is not concerned with the fate… of Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity… These verses are a confession a celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation. [New Interpreters Bible, p. 745]

We can have that same joy when we make our refuge a dwelling place in the Father’s house with Jesus.

So the question for us is, “Where are you staying?” Are you staying in a fort you’ve built that will never survive the winds of the world?—or are you staying with Jesus in the place prepared for you, walking the way of Jesus and seeing the Father in him? That’s our hope; that’s our reason for being together.

Our church’s purpose statement says that our purpose

…is to celebrate God’s love and to build a vibrant and vital church through worship, fellowship, education, service and outreach in an inclusive and diverse community,

Just like the church of John’s gospel, we are meant to be a people walking the way of Jesus by connecting and loving others, appreciating others, hoping with others. That is the way to dwelling with God. That is the true refuge that has sustained Christians just like us in every time and place, in every condition, regardless of the storms and disasters.

That can be your refuge; I know it is mine. Where are you staying? Come stay in the dwelling place Jesus prepared for you, for me, for all of us, come stay with God.

Amen

Green Pastures

Green_Pastures

A_Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany_NY

by Rev James Eaton_Pastor – © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Fourth Sunday in Easter • May 3, 2020

Acts 2:42-47 – Psalm23John 10:1-10

We’ve all had about a month or so on pause here in New York. What are you doing with the time? One of our long time members posts accounts of her day most days. There is a poetic valuing of the ordinary there that often makes me smile. One thing I’ve been doing is watching videos online and I’ve stumbled across videos of guys—and they are all guys so far—making plastic models. Did you do this when you were a kid? A lot of our childhood play involves modeling, whether it’s building them, or dressing up or playing with dolls. Even as adults, we look to models. A woman who decides to change her hair will look through a book of hairstyles. So a good question to ask is, “What is our spiritual model?” What do we want to look like, what do we want to show in our daily life?

Today we read a portion of the gospel of John with a famous verse we’ve all heard: Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” Now the word that’s translated ‘good’ in this passage means more than just what we mean by good. It really means: “I am the ideal shepherd”, a way of saying, in effect, I am the model shepherd. Jesus hopes to be our model and he models life in his way with his disciples.

Israel had a long history with shepherds. Abraham was a herdsman so right from the beginning, God’s people had this picture in front of them of a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Sheep aren’t raised in towns, they are raised up on the arid, rocky hillsides. In ancient times, wilderness places were full of dangers: lions, wolves, and the simple possibility of falling down and injuring yourself. Add to that the bandits who frequently roamed and you can see that being a shepherd was difficult and dangerous.

So when Jesus says, “I am the model shepherd,” he’s invoking an image that has meaning for those listening. It’s as if someone said, “I am the model cowboy”. The meanings cluster around three things. First, a shepherd and the sheep have a relationship of mutual care. The shepherd is sustained by the sheep; the sheep are nurtured and protected by the shepherd. We see these images in the what has become perhaps the most famous psalm in o ur Bible, Psalm 23. Now I know as soon as you heard this, you recognized it and may have thought, “Oh! Funeral psalm.” But it’s only recently and in our culture that the psalm became associated with funerals. It began as a song of praise.

Right from the start, the psalm establishes the singer’s relationship: “The Lord is my shepherd”, and immediately he follows that with praise for the shepherd’s fulfillment: “I shall not want” is to say that the shepherd is the source of everything the singer needs. He does this, according to the psalm, by leading to green pastures. Now I grew up where there are lawns, every house had a pasture. That, after all, is how lawns began: a bit of pasture set aside for beauty. I’ve been around cow pastures, too, and maybe you have. So what we often imagine when it comes to green pastures is that sort of expanse of grass, green, flourishing, lush.

But that’s not where sheep grazed in Israel. They were moved to high, dry, rocky slopes. On those slopes, bits of grass grow mostly around rocks because the rocks condense water out of the breeze of the Mediterranean Sea. Grass grows in the crevices and sheep feed by going from one rock to another, eating what’s there, moving on to the next. That’s the job of the shepherd: to keep them moving. The green pastures are nothing like a lawn; they are a place where you can continue to find what you need but only if you keep moving. That’s part of the shepherd’s job: to keep the sheep moving.

The other part is to keep them safe. What does safety mean? Jesus teaches that our enemy isn’t death, it is the fear of death. The psalm takes this on too. “Even in the darkest valley,” he says—more poetically but less accurately, “the shadow of death”—I will fear no evil.

The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t have to worry about where we will get what we need—he will provide it. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t need to worry about the darkness of evil—he’ protecting us. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, is there so we don’t have to fear anything at all.

Jesus is the good shepherd and this is the psalm of the shepherd, a psalm we need to hear. Because this is a time when our lives are being bounded by fear. One way people are dealing with it is to deny it. The people gathered in groups on the beach in Florida yesterday, opened because of the fear of politicians, believe they can ignore a virus. The people who assaulted the capitol of Michigan with automatic weapons this week believe they can assault a virus. They’re fearful people, acting out of fear.

But the good shepherd, the model shepherd, has a different way. His way is to seek a fearless life by following him, moving at his command, living in his model. That’s what’s going on in the section we heard from Acts today. Written about 50 years later, the church is looking back to an earlier, ideal time for a model. We know that conflict existed in Christian congregations from the beginning. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are all about church fights. But here the church is looking back and remembering a different a model, a model of a church where they are all together and mutually sustain each other so that no one lacks anything. They’re looking back to a time when the church was closer to the model of the good shepherd.

So we have this model: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, we are the flock. How do we use it to help us construct our lives day to day? Because we are in different places, different situations. One writer said,>

I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.Your ship could be shipwrecked, and mine might not be. For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflections, of re-connection, easy in flip-flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial and family crisis. For some that live alone, they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest, and time with their mother, father, sons and daughters. Others want to kill those who break quarantine. Some are at home spending two to three hours a day, helping their child with online schooling, while others are doing the same on top of a 10–12 hour workday. Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe this is a big deal. We are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different. Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing. We are all on different ships during this storm, experiencing a very different journey. — Unknown Author

We are in the same storm but in different boats.
But if we are in the same storm, we also have the same model to turn to, a single point of reference for how we should act, how we should live, how we should believe. It’s simple: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd. So each day, every day, a good way to begin, a good way to end, is with the shepherd prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

We are in the same storm, but in different boats. But we all seek the same harbor, we all seek the green pasture that will sustain us, we all seek safety. So in this time, in this storm, let us build lives modeled not on some common sense or made up idea but rather on the model of the good shepherd, who comes to give us life abundantly.

Amen.

Break Thou the Bread of Life

Break Thou the Bread of Life

A sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Third Sunday in Easter/A • April 26, 2020

Luke 24:13-25

Watch the Sermon on Youtube

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.

Locked Down Hope

Locked Down Hope

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 19, 2020

John 19:20-31

Do you remember the story of the Three Pigs? It seems like a fable for this time. Three pigs go off to seek their fortune and build houses. Not long after, a hungry wolf comes by and blows down the house of the first and then the second. The pigs run to their brother who has built out of brick and hide, safe for the moment. When the wolf fails to blow down the house, he comes down the chimney but falls into a pot of boiling water the thoughtful third pig has placed in the fire. Three pigs locked down, scared of a wolf: it seems an appropriate image of where we are today, hoping that if the wolf does come down the chimney, scientists will have discovered a vaccine, a pot of boiling water, to stop the virus threatening us. It also mirror the situation of the disciples in the portion of John’s gospel we read today. Just like the pigs, just like us, they’re locked down, hoping the closed door can keep the danger outside.

I know you can imagine them but we’re in the same place these days. They’re afraid the same authorities who killed Jesus will come after them. With us, the fear is that somehow someone will cough or sneeze or simply breathe and an invisible enemy will invade us, sicken us. I don’t know about you but we have several friends who are sick. It gives all of us a lurking anxiety: “Am I next?” Like the disciples, we heard about the resurrection, but has it really changed us? They’ve heard the same report we did. A few women have come back raving about an experience at the tomb, claiming to have seen an angel, claiming to have seen Jesus alive. Clearly they don’t believe them. Do we?

So we should pay particular attention to this story today. John sets it in the evening. The disciples are locked in. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” [John 20:19b] That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Then something amazing happens. Jesus appears to them, coming through the door as if wasn’t there. Locked doors can’t keep Jesus out. “He stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” [John 20:19c], the common, customary greeting, the “hey there”, the “sup”, the “hello” of his time. It’s as if he’s just been out on an errand, as if the terrible days of arrest and trial and crucifixion and tomb never happened. “Hiya”: I’m here. The disciples make sure it’s really him and then they rejoice.

I think, for me, that would have been enough. Would it for you? Think: you’re grieving and suddenly you don’t have to grieve. You’re crying and suddenly you don’t have to cry. You’re angry and suddenly you don’t have to be angry. I think for me, I would have been happy to just stay in that moment of recognition. I would have wanted to get out the leftovers from the funeral dinner, I would have wanted to just celebrate and stay there and stay happy and feel glorious and not ask too many questions. What about you?

But Jesus isn’t staying there. He never does. Last week we heard Matthew’s version of more or less the same story and if you listened to that you may remember the first thing he said to the women who found him alive after “Don’t be afraid” was go. It’s pretty much the same here; it always is with Jesus. He’s got a mission and it’s why he’s there. It’s why he gathered them; it’s why he calls us. So in the next moment, before there’s even time to serve, much less eat, any cake, he says,

As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. [John 20:21-23]

He’s handing out the Holy Spirit like peeps on Easter: just like that. You know, if it was us, we’d have a procedure, we’d have a form to fill out, we’d have a disclosure agreement to sign. Not Jesus: no one has to be interviewed by the Board of Deacons to get the Holy Spirit, no one has to agree to pledge or volunteer, just like that: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. And then: your mission is to forgive sins.

There’s a lot of talk right now about starting up the country. I think most of us are getting tired of being home, tired of the same walls, tired of the inconveniences of life. Of course, the people who are sick and the ones dying and the ones grieving aren’t tired of it. They’re too busy suffering to worry about the economy. Dr. Oz cheerfully said we could sacrifice two or three percent of our children to get back to making money. The lieutenant governor of Texas said we can sacrifice grandparents. I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, I’m not sure any of those families who were crying thought it would be ok to sacrifice someone they loved. It’s wrong and it’s not the approach Christians take. We believe everyone is a child of God.

So we’re talking about starting up. But Jesus has something much more fundamental in mind: he’s talking about restarting our lives. That’s what forgiveness really means, it means recovering your life. Guilt and shame are like a terrible tomb in which we bury parts of ourselves and when we truly know ourselves forgiven, we come out of that grave like Lazarus. It’s the same for us when we forgive, because holding onto anger and resentment sucks up our energy, saps our lives, and when we forgive, we have that energy, we have that life again. Jesus comes to give life: this is one way he means to give it and we are the instruments he’s using. That’s what the part about “retaining the sins of any” really means; it means if we don’t do this, furtiveness doesn’t happen. What we do makes a difference. What he means for us to do is nurture joy by practicing forgiveness.

This time is a unique moment we’ve been given. Locked down, we have the space in our lives to listen. It’s hard to listen today. We’re so plugged into our mental to do lists, our devices, our contact inputs that we usually don’t have real quiet time. One writer said,

Noise is an inevitable aspect of civilization…Stores and restaurants pip in background music, the ceaseless rumble of traffic reverberates…Our cell phones regularly startle us with insistent bleeping and the prattle of television shoves our thoughts into oblivion.
[Rebeccas Burg, Sail With Me: Two People, Two Boars, One Adventure]

The lockdown time is offering a cure, if we will take it. Most of the errands that fill our lives are waiting. We’re no longer in the stores she mentions and the traffic is less.
Glennon Doyle talks about learning to listen. Going through a difficult time, a friend sent her a card that said, “Be still and know.” [Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” So after her kids went to school, she sat down on a towel in a closet and tried to be still. She says,

I checked my phone every few moments, planned my grocery lists and mentally redecorated my living room..” [Glenon Doyle, Untamed, p. 56]

But she kept at it: ten minutes a day. Eventually, she felt herself slip down into the silence.

Since the chaos stills in this deep, I could sense something that I was not able to sense on the surface. It was like that quiet chamber in Denmark…where people can actually hear and feel their own blood circulating. ..It was a knowing. [ibid]
She learned to listen and the listening helped her know herself as a child of God.

Are you listening? It doesn’t happen in a moment; it takes a little faith, it takes a little patience, it takes some courage to be quiet. But if we are quiet, when we are quiet, then truly we hear the spirit in the breeze of our soul. “Receive the Spirit,” Jesus says. He means you; he means me. What is the purpose? So that forgiveness can spread. It starts with us, it starts with forgiving ourselves. When we listen for God, what we will first hear is this: “Don’t be afraid.” I know this because it’s what every single angel says first thing. Every time God sends someone, that’s the message. When Jesus is raised, the first thing he says is, “Don’t be afraid.” We don’t have to be afraid because when we truly listen, we hear God loving us. We hear we are children of God.

So there’s a great hope for this time. We started out locked down because we were afraid, afraid of a virus, afraid a disease was going to overwhelm all our technology, all our noise, all our smarts. It still may. But there is hope in this locked down time, great hope. It is an opportunity to go into your closet and be still; it’s a chance to be silent and know. That’s the whole verse from the card Doyle’s friend sent: ““Be still, and know that I am God!”

When we hear God, when we know God, then we can hope. Then the lockdown is something we’re doing not in fear but as a gift, a way to help others. Then it’s passing on the hope and help of God. Yes, Lord, I’m willing to change how my life is lived because I know just as I’m a child of God, so are all the others. That’s locked down hope
I hope you will find a way to be silent this week. I hope you will find a way to see the hope beyond the fear. I hope you will be still and know and in the knowing, receive the spirit Jesus means to give, a spirit of love, a spirit of forgiveness.

Amen.

Resurrection Now

Resurrection Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All rights reserved

Easter Sunday/A • April 12, 2020

Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 28:1-10

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you did last time. You do it whether it worked or not; you do it whether it makes sense or not. Most of our life is cooked up from a series of recipes. What should we do? Look at your handbook; look at what worked before, ask someone what worked for them. This is why this is such a difficult time: we don’t have a recipe for a pandemic. We’re trying to do the same thing but under different conditions. I understand the pastors of churches in other areas who insist on having in person services today. They’re wrong, they’re listening to the past instead of what Jesus is saying today, but I understand it. Every pastor looks forward to Easter, prepares for Easter; we all do. What do you do when something prevents you doing what you have always done? You try to do it anyway. You go back to your recipes.

No Handbook for Easter

But there’s no handbook for Easter, no cookbook for resurrection. We’ve just heard the story of two women in the midst of something unimaginable; one of those stories you read in the newspaper and wince about, one of those tales you hear and think, “Thank God that’s not me”. Their friend, their leader, the man who guided their lives and gave those lives light has been crucified. It’s a horrible, tortuous death. They don’t know what to do so they do what they did the last time someone died: they’re on the way to bury him properly. But they’re about to experience an earthquake, they’re about to come face to face with the real Easter. This is the Easter story: you start out to bury Jesus and end up proclaiming his life. You lose your friend and find the Lord.

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

On the Way

Then everything changes. Matthew says there is an earthquake; perhaps the true earthquake is the stunning surprise when their map suddenly disappears, when last time is no guide to right now. Jesus isn’t there. None of the gospel accounts tell the details of the resurrection; all the accounts agree that the women went to a tomb, expecting the dead Jesus, and found he wasn’t there. What they did last time, what they believed from their past, what they knew about things staying the same suddenly didn’t apply. Instead, they meet a strange angelic figure; instead, they are told three things: don’t be afraid, go tell what you’ve seen, meet me in Galilee, back home. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus is not done with them; Jesus is not done with us.

New things scare us. Think of the first day in a new school, first day on new job—all the firsts of life. These women were prepared to bury Jesus, they’re not prepared to have a conversation with him. Yes, they are scared and notice how the first thing he does is care for them. There is a great lesson for us in these words. Because we are scared. We’ve encountered something new and we don’t know how to control it. When we lose control, it’s frightening so first like those women we need to hear from Jesus these words this Easter: “Don’t be afraid!” There’s a summons to faith. They ask: can you believe even in this time of quarantines and lockdowns and people sickening and dying that our lives are in the hands of God? Can we believe that God’s care really is beyond life and death and anything else in all creation? If we do and we believe God is in charge, then we really can leave our fear behind even in the face of this new challenge.

Making Sense of Go in Lockdown

When their fear is calmed, Jesus tells the women to, “Go tell my disciples to go to Galilee…” What is Christian life? Is it sitting in a pew? All the gospels speak of a Jesus who is constantly on the move, from Galilee to Samaria, from Samaria to Jerusalem, from one healing to another, from one moment to another. So following him means moving with him. Now the question is: how do we make sense of “Go” when we’re in lockdown?

The answer is to stop letting it be someone else’s job and make it yours. We all have many ways to go to others: we have telephones, we have email, we have a call across the street to a neighbor. One of problems of these days without the usual structure of work is how to make an agenda. Our family is doing that with a set of questions for each day. One of them is, “Who am I checking in with today?” Who are you calling today who needs to know through you that they are a beloved child of God? That’s how you go, that’s how you tell someone Jesus is alive.

The last thing he says to the women is that he’ll meet them in Galilee, back home. This may be the strangest thing of all. Jesus isn’t done with them. They came to a tomb. They came to bury him. They are already grieving for him because they thought he was in the past. But he isn’t; he’s out there, already on the way and hoping they will follow him. And he’s hoping the same thing about us.

This living Jesus in the world always surprises us. Think of Peter, perhaps a few years later, speaking to the same sort of Roman official who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, saying this amazing thing: that God doesn’t show any partiality. God doesn’t love Americans better than anyone else, God doesn’t love the rich better than anyone else, God doesn’t love you any better than anyone else.

This is a new time. I don’t mean the pandemic, I don’t mean a virus, I mean Easter. This may be the truest Easter of all. We’re used to cooking up Easter from a set of recipes. What does Easter mean? Does it mean Easter baskets full of candy, colored eggs, special music in church and a great service of celebration? Does it mean lilies and a full church and an egg hunt? We can all cook from this recipe and we don’t like changing it. That’s why I understand, as I said at the outset, those who want to follow the recipe as much as they can.

But Easter doesn’t mean going to brunch and decorating eggs: it means going to the tomb. It means being so scared because things have changed that even the Lord has to tell you, only the Lord can tell you, “Do not be afraid”. It means recognizing that this is a new time and there is no going back, that the old recipes won’t work anymore and we have to find new ways. Those recipes are for how to get along in the world as it was. But the world is a tomb and our call is not of this world, our call is not in this world. We are called like the women of this story to get up and get going. Jesus is not here; Jesus is gone, Jesus is gone to Galilee, Jesus is gone to glory.

And this is what he says to us: don’t be afraid, get moving. If he could escape the tomb so can you; if he can live again, so can you, you don’t have to fear death. Get up: you’re not done, you’re not finished but you aren’t here to do what you thought, he has a new purpose and a different mission for you. Get up: go find him.

Resurrection Now!

Jesus is not done with us; Jesus is not done with you. Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. He’s not in the past; he’s not only in the future. Resurrection is not about the past or the future it is about the present. Resurrection is now. We should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow today, where he is going today. In a way, the pandemic has done us an accidental favor. It’s stripped away all the Easter decorations so we can see the real Easter. The real Easter is embracing the new reality that Jesus is risen and setting out to find him.

We will find him where he said: in the eyes of the homeless, in the service of the hungry. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” We will find him when we make the resurrection of those around us more important than our own customs. We will find him when we are more interested in following him than finding our own way. We will find him when, as Paul says, we have the mind of Christ in our own mind.

Then, then indeed, Easter will come not only for us, but from us. Then, our church, our lives, will proclaim this glad news, “He is risen!” for he will be risen, risen in us, and we will have found him. All the decorations, all the baskets and other customs won’t matter. For we will be busy following him, and just like the women at the tomb on that first Easter, worshipping him.

Amen.

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.