Sixth Sunday in Easter

Normal Love

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 21, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached<

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

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

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

If you love me, keep my commandments

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

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

Culture versus Christ

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

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

Succeeding at Keeping Christ’s Commandments

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

Failing at Keeping Christ’s Commandments

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

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

Normal Love

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

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

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

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

When Christ Compels Us

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

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

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

Amen.

Mothers Day Sermon

Cords of Compassion

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2017

Mothers Day • May 14, 2017

To Hear the sermon preached, click below

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

Mothers Day

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

The Story of Hagar: God Hears Her Cry

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

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

The Story of Bathsheba: Sustaining Love Leads to Blessing

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

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

The Story of Gomer: God’s Mother Love

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

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

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

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

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

Stories of Mothers Showing God’s Love

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

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

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

Second Sunday in Easter

A New Song

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – ©2017

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

What Do You Know?

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

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

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

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

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

The Disciples and the Resurrection

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

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

.

Matthew quotes this saying:

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

and then again,

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

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

We Are Toddlers

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

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

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

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

Peek a Boo

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

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

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

Amen.

Easter Sunday

Lost & Found

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Easter Sunday/A • April 16, 2017

Matthew 28:1-10

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

When You Don’t Know What to Do

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

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

At the Tomb

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

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

An Easter Story

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

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

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

Resurrection Is Where We Are

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

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

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

Finding Jesus

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

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

Amen.

Children’s Time

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 – All Rights Reserved
Pentecost Sunday • May 15, 2016

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
[William B. Yeats / The Second Coming]

It would be easy to imagine Yeats writing those words today instead of 1919. He captured the feeling of a culture so shattered there was no where to turn. So many feel that way today. One reaction is to fortify old values. Fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish have this in common: they’re building castles to defend the past by preventing change. Of course, all castle walls can eventually be breached. So a better solution is to go back and find among the jumble of our past those things that truly made life vibrant and rich. I think that’s what Luke was doing when he wrote his gospel and the book we call Acts. He wrote fifty years or so after the events. Christians were in conflict in many places, some with local authorities, many with Jewish friends and family. Their world was changing. In the midst of change, Luke wanted to remind them how they started, where they started, why they started.

Birth stories can do that. It’s customary in our family to tell the story of your birth on your birthday. On our anniversary, Jacquelyn and I get out our wedding pictures and our wedding service and talk about it and laugh. So Luke tells this story about the moment the church got up and got going: Pentecost—POW!

Remember the story? The Christians are met in a room. Suddenly there a rushing, wind sound. Suddenly there are tongues of fire. Suddenly—there is the Holy Spirit and they’re full, full to the brim, with the Spirit and they begin to do something almost unimaginable: they talk to outsiders. I want to congratulate our liturgist today because this is the reading liturgists hate to get, the one with all those hard names.

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.

Who are all these people? They’re everyone: everyone Luke can think of, every sort of everyone and these first Christians are talking to all of them and the Christians are talking their language. POW! Surprise: isn’t it always a surprise when someone speaks yours language, really gets you, and you get them?

Wait

There’s a lot to learn here about taking a church from a little group meeting in a room to the crowds outside. The first thing, maybe the most important thing, is that it starts with waiting, not doing. Before Pentecost, before Christ’s Ascension, Jesus tells his friends to wait until the Spirit comes. There’s an old Supremes song that says, “You can’t hurry love, you just have to wait” [The Supremes/1966] Moses didn’t immediately lead the Exodus after running away from Egypt; he had to wait until the Spirit came to him. Isaiah and Jeremiah both tell stories of an experience that called them out as prophets, they didn’t start out that way. So the first thing to learn about what creates a vibrant church life is to wait: wait, prayerfully, expectantly, for the Spirit to move.

Wake Up

But waiting isn’t napping. Jesus says in many places we are meant to wait expectantly. Have you ever counted down to something? Have you ever had to deal with someone counting down? Maybe it was a special day: Christmas or your wedding or a birthday; maybe it was the birth of a child. I remember a friend who was hugely pregnant and ready to deliver once getting impatient. Holding her belly after church one day, she looked down and said, “Out! It’s time to come out!” We’re meant to wait like a runner at the start line: ready to explode into action. We’re meant to wait like a kid waiting for the parents on Christmas morning: certain something wonderful is just about to happen. We’re meant to wait like a traveler coming home, smiling already anticipating the hugs of home.

If the first lesson of the Pentecost story is Wait, the second is—Wake up! Wake up to God’s call, wake up to Christ’s command to go to all nations, all people, wake up to the Spirit blowing through your life.

That group in the room? They’ve been waiting. This is the moment they wake up and they walk out. That’s the third lesson here: Wait, Wake up, Walk out.

Walk Out

We were never meant to sit inside sanctuaries repeating Jesus’ words to ourselves. That’s not what he does, what he does is go, what he does is walk out into the world. Before Christians were called Christians, they called their new faith “The Way”. Now ‘way’ meant not a way of doing things, it meant a road, a path, a journey forward, onward. The Pentecost story moves from a little room where Jesus’ people are huddled together out into the market place where there are all kinds of people and these Christians, these first Christians, talk to them in their own language. That means they have to translate, they have to help them understand with things they already know, that God is not up there on the judgement seat but walking with them like a parent holding onto a kid doing their first bike ride, wanting them to learn, trying to prevent the worst falls, ready to bandage up skinned knees.

Wait – Wake – Walk

This story of Pentecost is a Children’s Time story. It’s a reminder in a few words, a few symbols, of the fire at the heart of Christian life. You can’t kindle it on your own: you have to wait for the Spirit to do that. It calls us to wake up and then to walk out in the world. That takes some courage; doesn’t every good thing? Today, we’re meeting in a room, just like them. Today, we’re sharing communion, just like them. Today, we’re waiting for the Spirit to kindle us, just like them. And the sign of that kindling will be when we begin to walk out and talk to people about the love of God and the immeasurable value of knowing Jesus Christ and invite them to come worship with you, right here. Wait for the Spirit: wake up to God’s call. Walk out there into your world and share God’s love this week. It’s children’s time and you and I are the children of God.

Amen.

Enlightened Hearts

Dawn at Taghanic State Park

Dawn at Taghanic State Park

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday/C • May 8, 2016

Click here to listen to the sermon being preached

Morning Has Broken

“Morning has broken, like the first morning…” Singing that song this morning, I think of what a various experience waking up is. My first morning in Albany, waking up was a shock. We’d gotten in late, improvised a bed on a blow up mattress while we waited for the movers, gone to bed exhausted and excited, expecting to sleep late. We hadn’t counted on the dog walker at 5:30 AM, causing our dog to bark like a maniac. We hadn’t counted on the movers arriving early of the so we were dragged into the morning suddenly, abruptly. That’s one kind of morning. Of course, there are the slow mornings; the ones you wake up before your eyes open. If you are beyond a certain age, you take inventory before admitting morning has broken. There are the happy, excited mornings: Christmas, perhaps, or a special day. There are the mornings you dread because something you worried about is imminent.

The record of the first Christians includes a morning they woke up, like the first morning: a moment when they felt Jesus present but gone, when his ministry began to be through them, when they looked inward instead of outward for him. This is Ascension Sunday and Ascension means morning has broken, like the first morning, like a new day. What are we to do with this new time?

Ascension

We read in Luke’s story of the ascension how Jesus gathered his disciples outside the city, walking and talking with him, appearing long after he had been crucified, and then leaving them, just as Elijah had left. While they are still staring, heaven asks: why are you standing around? Jesus is gone; he will return in power and glory, just as he told you. It’s a new day: morning has broken and this is the first day of the rest of your discipleship.

Many years later, Paul, or someone writing in his name, wrote to churches around the city of Ephesus. I can’t help imagining him writing to us. What would he say? What he says to them first is: thank God for you! Who gives thanks for us, for this church, this congregation? I think it is so easy for us to take this church for granted. Perhaps the first and most important responsibility of membership s to thank God for our church, for the brothers and sisters in Christ here, with us, worshipping, sharing, caring.

I know there are many others who give thanks for this church as well. Every week a long list of groups meet here, from small gatherings to the ones that fill Palmer Hall. How often someone stops me from one of the groups to say, “Thank you for letting us be here.”

Invitation

Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians because they are emblems of faith and love; their love is Christ’s invitation, just as our is as well. All ll churches advertise in some way. We put things on Facebook, we occasionally put an ad in the newspaper. We invite people in a general way.

But nothing is more inviting than personal testimony. Think of yourself: what’s the difference between seeing a commercial and having a friend say, “Hey, you have to try this…”? One study years ago suggested 80% of first time visitors at churches went because someone invited them. It went on to say that invitations from lay people were far more effective than those from pastors. It may be that those of us in the profession are just not good at inviting but I think the reality is that pastors are seen as people doing their job, another kind of commercial, while a friend, a lay person, is seen as more authentic.

So as the power of Christ begins to work in churches, the first effect is that it transforms Christians into people who are known for their faith and love. It’s not an invitation to something immediate and final, it’s an invitation to a journey.

The Eyes of Our Hearts

The second point made here has made me think all week about how faith and love work, how Christ works in us. It’s a long sentence so let’s listen to it again.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. [Ephesians 1:17-19]

An Ongoing Process

Notice that the writer imagines there is an ongoing process at work here. He’s praying that these folks in Ephesus will get a spirit of wisdom, will get a revelation, will get to know Jesus. They aren’t done. They don’t have it all; there’s more to come. Isn’t there a message here for all of us? For how often we act as if we’re finished: we know what we know. How often we’ve acted as if there are hard lines in faith life: now we are converted, now we are a church member, now we know. Instead, Ephesians asks us to imagine a series of mornings breaking, over and over, offering new days each day in which we more fully know Christ, more fully receive the wisdom that helps us understand and see God working in the world.

Anne Lamott alludes to this in her book, Stitches. She says,

“Many people did help me to stand up in July 1986 when I stopped drinking.
it turned out that some of the sober people who mentored me through sobriety’s monkey mazes had not been housebroken for long… They taught me that I would often not get my way, which was good for me but would feel terrible, and that life was erratic, beautiful and impossible. They taught me that maturity was the ability to live with unresolved problems. They taught me—or tried to teach me—humility. This was not my strong suit.[Excerpt From: Anne Lamott. “Stitches.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/XS2IN.l]

Humility is the doorway to understanding God as the streak of light in the unfolding morning breaking of each day.

This is what Ephesians means by saying, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you”. So often we have imagined God in some hierarchy: the man—or woman!—upstairs, while we work out our lives here. Ephesians invites us to a different look, to know God instead of knowing about God. It’s a critical difference. Knowing about God is a bunch of ideas and statements that try to give us some certainty; creeds that try to define a boundary of belief. Knowing God is an experience. It is opening our eyes to the new day, imagining its possibilities. This is the hope the writer mentions: the hope to which we are called.

Knowing God Day by Day

What does this look like? A friend of mine described it well, speaking about her grandparents.

the world of my father’s parent’s was an island of calm anchored in a deep and abiding faith and I loved to go visit them. They lived in a Victorian house that had a sun porch with a swing and a view of a street lined with Maple and Chestnut trees. Even their view of the world seen from that swing seemed totally peaceful. …They faced a multitude of challenges in life, but they faced them all with a sense of peace and calm.
They lost one of their sons, and two grandchildren. One of their daughters-in-law had suffered a debilitating stroke in childbirth leaving her without the ability to speak and severely impaired. An adopted grandchild was removed from his parent’s home until the courts worked out what was best for him after the birth mother, who had put him up for adoption, changed her mind after two years and decided she wanted him back. He returned to the family, confused and hesitant to trust. Through it all the family trusted God to work it all out. [quoted from a Sermon by Nancy Bresette]

This is real hope: knowing God’s presence by seeing in each day a new day with the possibility of experiencing God’s presence in a new way.

Choosing Unfolding Hope

That doesn’t mean the day will be easy; it means that we choose, we can choose, each day between living from ourselves or from, as Ephesians says, “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe”. Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding promise of hearts that are enlightened, lit by the call of Jesus Christ to love each other, to love God. Each day, everyday, invites us to become more full emblems of faith and love

Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding hope of knowing God, just as each day offers moments of beauty that appear and then disappear. We have this choice: we can open the eyes of our heart or blindly blunder through the day. As our hearts are enlightened, as our eyes are opened, we cannot fail to see the process of God’s presence. This is the true reality of Ascension: Christ is risen, Christ is present, no longer with a few, now with all of us. May the power of his call, may the grace of his healing, fill our lives so that indeed we may be an occasion for thanksgiving.

Amen.

Thinking Toward Sunday: Ascension May 8

Ascension Sunday

Texts for Ascension Sunday

The focus on this Sunday is the moment when Christ begins to work by being present spiritually in the church. Last year on this Sunday, I spoke from the text in Acts that describes that moment; this year I want to lift up a reflection on this in Ephesians. The text for the sermon is given below.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Questions About this Text

As I begin to think about this text, the first question the occurs to me is: who are you praying for? what are you praying for them?

Process

Paul seems to be focusing here on a process by which Christ grows in us. “As you come to know him” implies to me a process that could take a lifetime to fully embody.
I’m also wondering: what does it mean to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened”?
Finally, I am wondering about the nature of “the hope to which he has called you..”.
So three questions just to begin.

Exaltation

We have in the past few weeks talked a lot about a sense of Christ enacting the passion: death —> resurrection. Now a third term is added: ascension. The meaning of ascension here seems to connect with something often called exaltation. Exaltation means becoming the ultimate power. What does it mean for our lives today if Christ is the ultimate power? How is that power expressed?

Body Talk

At the end of the passage, Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ. In what sense are we then as part of the church part of the exaltation of Christ?

Exegetical Notes

  1. There is considerable disagreement among Biblical scholars about the authorship of Ephesians and therefore its date. More seem to date this toward the end of the first century which would mean that it was written by someone using Paul’s style and authority.
  2. Markus Borg (Anchor Bible commentary) points to the role of light in Plato, Philo, and other ancient sources as a symbol of growing understanding. It’s interesting that Buddhists also see “enlightenment” as seeing the world for what it is in reality.
  3. P Perkins (New Interpreters Bible Commentary) notes that exaltation is a political act and should be understood in the context of other powers over which Christ is exalted.

What Do You Want?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday of Easter/C • May 1, 2016 • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

Click here to listen to the sermon being preached.

Sermon writing is a strange business. You sit down with thoughts buzzing, some about things here and now, some from things you’ve read, some from the scripture you’re preaching and comments on it. Then there are all the things going on in your own life and events in the church and practical issues. Today, for example, it’s the sixth Sunday of Easter, we’re drawing away from Easter Sunday morning, we’re not reading about Jesus appearing in the glory of the resurrection, we’re reading a story of him as a man, as it was summarized by Peter last week, who went about healing and doing good. It’s also the Silver Tea, the day we honor those who have been members here 50 years and more, lifting up their stories of doing good and healing as well. It’s a busy weekend for us at home. Out of all of this, in the midst of all this, I want to catch a glimpse of Jesus with you. I want to hear him. I want to feel him, know what he’s doing, hear what he’s asking me. I’m going to focus on the reading from the Gospel of John we just heard. Hearing it, I can’t help hearing the echo of Jesus asking me as in effect he asks a stranger at a pool in Jerusalem, “What do you want?”.

Seeing Jesus

Jesus is in town for a festival and it’s a sabbath day. We might expect he’d be at someone’s home, taking the day off, enjoying a little down time with his friends. He’s been to Samaria where they’re talking about him after he healed a woman he met at a well; he’s been to Galilee where he healed the son of a Royal official in Cana, the same place he turned water into wine, something I’m sure is till being discussed; never underestimate the value of a guy who brings the wine to the party.

Now he appears in Jerusalem, walking around the city. Up past the temple, there’s a pool near the gate where they bring sheep into the city. Bathing is private for us; we go somewhere all by ourselves, turn on the water, do it alone. If someone asks a question while we’re in there, it’s a little annoying, it interrupts. But the ancient world saw bathing as a social time, as it is even today in Japan and some other places. Roman baths were like our golf courses or Starbucks, places where people met and business was done. Baths were often ornate structures. This one has columns on four sides and a partition down the middle with a fifth column. It may have been fed by a natural spring. Every once in a while the water is roiled by some mysterious force; many think an angel stirs the water and it’s said if you get in the water right away, if you’re the first one in, you’ll get healed.

So there are people around the edges, maybe grouped at the corners, where there were steps. Some are sick; some are healing form injuries. Some have family or friends with them, I imagine there are people selling stuff the way they do at any public event. Maybe someone has a cart full of tacky souvenirs: jars of Pool of Bethesda water, T shirts that say “I GOT WET AT BETHESDA”; surely someone is selling some version of fried dough. The whole place smells vaguely of sheep—it’s near the sheep gate—and cooking oil and water.

What Do You Want?

Is Jesus there alone?—the story doesn’t tell us; it mentions a crowd. So there he is, just one more guy from Galilee, like someone in the park at the tulip festival or Lark Street days. There are sick people laying there and Jesus focuses on a paralyzed man, somehow learns he’s been sick 38 years. That’s a long time, that’s a lifetime. Thirty eight years ago it was 1978. What were you doing? What were you wearing? How much has your life changed in that time?

This man has had 38 years of being paralyzed, perhaps begging for his existence, for his food. He’s alone; whether he was or his family abandoned him the text doesn’t tell us. Somehow he’s gotten himself to this pool. Perhaps it’s his last hope; perhaps it’s his only hope. Now Jesus stands next to him; now he speaks to him, asking just this one question: “Do you want to be made well?” It’s a strange question to ask, isn’t it? Isn’t the answer obvious?. Yet Jesus is peering here into this man’s soul and ours as well, making no demands, inviting an answer to this question: “What do you want?”

You’d think the answer would be quick, concise: “heal me”. You’d think anyone who’d been sick so long, would know exactly what he wanted. Instead, the man says, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” How should we hear this? Is it an excuse for 38 years of suffering? Is it an explanation from someone who no longer believes in the possibility of healing? He doesn’t know Jesus, the story makes that clear later; he has no idea this man asking can make him well. He doesn’t know who he’s talking to and all he can think about is his isolation.

That’s the point he raises with Jesus: there’s no one to help. That’s the door he opens; Jesus walks through. Stunningly, his problem in his own eyes isn’t his paralysis, his illness, it’s his lack of anyone to help him. Jesus reacts, but not in the way the man expects. Jesus says: rise, take your mat, walk. Imagine saying to someone in a wheel chair, “Stand up”. The man can’t do that, he knows that. He didn’t ask for that, he just complained about his isolation, about not having anyone to get him in the pool, about the way others cut in line.

Doing the Impossible

Now he’s being asked to do what he knows he can’t do. More, Jesus doesn’t just tell him to stand up but to pick up his mat; you’d think at such a moment, after 38 years of being paralyzed, the guy would just want to leave that mat and whatever else was there right where it was. No: Jesus knows we all carry a life with us, walking means taking it along. He wants all of us, our history as well as our future. The man stands up; he picks up his mat, he walks and, although it doesn’t say this in the text, I can’t help thinking, turns to look for this stranger, Jesus. But Jesus is gone; faded into the crowd. He’s on his own with this new life.

There’s a lot to learn here. One piece is: Jesus doesn’t force us to get well. We have to want that, we have to ask for that. “Do you want to be made well?”—“What do you want?” In another place, he tells his disciples to ask for what the want. This is where things start, always. This is why we spent six weeks going through the Lord’s Prayer because the most important thing we can do here isn’t some new program or project, its to focus ourselves on prayerfully listening for Jesus when he comes, it’s so we can build a relationship with him through prayer and devotion. Jesus never forces anyone to do anything. He only invites. When he invites, though, it’s almost always to something we never thought possible. “Stand up!”, he says to a paralytic; “Come out!”, he says to Lazarus dead and buried. “Believe!” he says to Thomas who can’t imagine his crucified Lord has come back from the tomb. “Feed my sheep” he says to Peter when all Peter can remember is the last time he betrayed him.

This healing is an emblem for us. We are meant to heal people too and we do. Some evangelists make a caricature of healing with piles of crutches and people rising out of wheel chairs. Healing is more than that; it is the moment someone hears God’s love so fully in their heart that they can stand up, they can gather up their mat, they can go forward, walk on, walk out.
We’ve heard two powerful testimonies in the last few weeks here about members right here in this church who felt healed through our presence, our ministry of the love of God. Last year many of us remember how we joined together to redeem a young woman who had been bought and kept in an abusive relationship. Today we’re celebrating the long, long record of folks who have quietly, faithfully, shared in the ministry of Jesus Christ here, in this church, for 50 years and more. We have a job to do; we have a ministry to perform. We are meant to bear fruit and we are. Don’t ever underestimate the importance of this congregation: remember that Jesus over and over again tells parables in which seeds become the means of God’s abundance.

Live in the Presence of God

To do that, we have to do some things we think are impossible. Here’s the most important: live in the presence of God. Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor who talks about an experience in her training where she learned her role in healing. She was doing an internship in a hospital. Hospitals are hard for clergy; everyone else has a job. She says,

Inside the trauma room, a man was cutting the clothes off a motionless man in his fifties on the table….Doctors started doing things to him not meant for my eyes,…Another nurse was hooking things up to him while a doctor put on gloves and motioned for paddles. A nurse stepped back to where I was standing, and I leaned over to her .”Everyone seems to have a job, but what am I doing here?” She looked at my badge and said, “Your job is to be aware of God’s presence in the room while we do our jobs.” [Ibid, p. 80]

This is us, this is our job: to be a place where people are aware of the presence of God and share that awareness, helping people to heal.

The Path of Eternal Life

There’s one final point to remember about this story: Jesus disappears at the end. The man doesn’t even know who helped him, who healed him. He goes on in the next few verses to encounter a storm of criticism: it’s a violation of sabbath law to walk around carrying your mattress. He says what’s happened to him; they get madder. It later becomes known that it was Jesus who did this and John says that this is one of the reasons his opponents set out to destroy him. It isn’t easy being healed; when you do impossible things, some people get healed, some get angry. It isn’t easy walking a path lit by God’s light. Yet one thing is clear: that path is the one that leads to eternal life.

Amen.

The Pool of Bethesda

The Pool of Bethesda now

The Pool of Bethesda as it may have appeared in Jesus' time

Thinking Toward Sunday – May 1 – John 5:1-9 – Part 3

One More Thought

As I’m starting to draft the sermon, I had this thought: Jesus appears and disappears.

Appearing

In John 4, Jesus is in Samaria, in the north, where he has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well that astonishes his disciples and leads to a kind of healing for her. The disciples explicitly do not say to her, “What do you want?”

Then Jesus goes to Galilee, where he heals the son of a Royal official. It’s not clear whether the official is a Jew or a Gentile but he certainly is not the sort of supporter we’ve seen around Jesus.

Finally, he goes down to Jerusalem for an unnamed festival, where he has the encounter at the Pool of Bethesda with the paralytic.

Disappearing

After the healing, Jesus disappears into the crowd; the healed man doesn’t know who he is and has a controversy with some Jews. This same pattern is found in the story of the man born blind healed by Jesus at John 9.

Jesus finds the man in the temple, the man testifies subsequently about the healing and Jesus and the sabbath violation becomes part of the reason for Jesus’ arrest.

Thinking Toward Sunday – May 1, 2016 – Part 2

Time to go back to the questions I had when I first read this passage.

What jumps out at me is that on his day off—it’s the sabbath of a festival after all!-Jesus is visiting a pool where a bunch of sick people gather.What would that look like? Smell like? Feel like?

Imagining the Pool at Bethesda

Bathing for us is a private experience; in the ancient world, it was not. Roman social life centered on baths, they were the Starbucks of their time. Jews also ritualized bathing. Jewish women were (and still are) required to undergo a ritual bath monthly called a mikvah. Jewish meals include a prayer and ritual for hand washing. Again, note the difference from our practice: when I was growing up, my mother would say to my brothers and I, “Go wash your hands” before dinner. Last weekend at a seder, there was a moment where we all got up from the table, went to a sink one after the other and poured water over our hands and offered a prayer. Some healing required a ritual washing to make it complete. So washing and healing are intimately connected and take place in a social context.

With this background, we can go on to imagine the pool at Bethesda. It’s located in an area of Jerusalem near where sheep where brought into the city so there again, like last week’s passage, we have to imagine it as overlaid with the smell of sheep. The pool has been excavated and is trapezoidal, about 20 feet by 300 feet with a central partition. There are columns all around the edges and along the partition and stairways at the corners to descend into the pool.

I suspect the pool would have been crowded. Imagine the buzz of conversation and also people begging for help. This is the last chance for many. It is a hospital ward, it is a place you go when everything has failed. The implication of the man in the story is that others have friends and family there with them as well, so if we looked around, I imagine we would see groups of concerned people with many of those who are ill. So there are people groaning in pain; there are people praying, people encouraging, people just talking. Crows always make an opportunity for people to sell things, so I imagine stands with food for sale and patent medicines.

Sabbath

A key piece of the background here is that it’s the sabbath. The rules for sabbath keeping are strict and detailed. No work can be one and work can be defined as almost every activity in daily life. Healing that is not dealing with an emergency is prohibited. Clearly a part of the focus for John is that this healing violates the sabbath rules. By healing this man, Jesus implicitly proclaims himself Lord of the Sabbath.

Why pick out this particular guy?

There is no clue in the passage why this particular man is chosen. It’s important to point out that the hearings told in the Gospels are representative, not exhaustive. The gospel writers acknowledge they don’t tell the whole story. The healings described are meant as signs of the character and nature of Jesus.

A summary of all (31) individual healing by Jesus can be found here. It’s clear that John reports significantly fewer of these events (Mark 15, Matthew 16, Luke 18, John 5). Although strictly speaking, this healing story occurs only in John, it seems to have connections with a story in the synoptic tradition as noted in the previous post (A healing of a paralytic is recorded at Mark 2:1-12. Parallels are at Matthew 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17-26.)

The Dialogue

The dialogue is short and exists in a chiastic structure

  1. Jesus: Do you want to be made well?
  2. Paralytic: Answers that he has no one to put him in the pool and others get ahead.
  3. Jesus: Rise/Take up your mat/Walk

The issue raised by the man connects to the understanding of the way the pool operates. Apparently, the pool occasionally was spontaneously disturbed and bubbled. It was thought at such times that an angel was invisibly stirring the pool and the first person to get in after this would be healed. So if the crowd as a whole is quietly passing the day, we should imagine that when the pool is disturbed, there is a sudden rush to get in the water. Friends and family put their sick person in the pool; the man here is on his own and has no one to help him.

Generally, such a structure points to the middle term. So in thinking about this passage, it’s important to focus there. When we do, the man’s answer reveals two issues: he is alone, others push ahead of him. In preaching this, I find in the past I’ve often run past the man’s reply as an excuse but thinking about it today, I find it asks questions about our understanding of how healing takes place. How important is the helping community? What’s the role of desire of “rationed healing”?

If John is telling a story from an existing tradition linked to the idea of forgiving sins, why has he changed it to focus on sabbath?

I’m not sure he has. It may be that between the formulation of the original story and John, the important question is not the connection of sin and sickness but the controversies over Jesus. In the subsequent encounter with the man, the issue does become sin when the man is told to go and sin no more.

Why does Jesus slip away and return secretly?

John uniquely records the following healing stories.
John 4:46-54 – Healing of a Royal official’s son
John 5:1-15 – The healing of the paralytic at the pool of Bethesda (this story)
John 9:1-54 – Healing of a blind man
John 11:29-57 – Healing of Lazarus

The healing of Lazarus seems to represent a different genre; there the healed person is actually resurrected, named, and has a previous relationship with the healed.

In the first case, the Royal official leaves before the healing is announced. In the healing of the man born blind, Jesus has the same pattern of leaving and then secretly contacting him. Here again, Jesus leaves. In both the story of the healing of the man born blind from birth and here, there is a controversy with Jewish authorities intervening between the healing and the reconnection of Jesus.

Preaching the Passage

Connecting from our setting

We are a small, fairly liberal church, rationalist in orientation. I suspect many are uncomfortable with the tradition of miraculous healing. We go to doctors and hospitals, not evangelists and revivals. So at first glance, I suspect there will be a reluctance to confront this part of Jesus’ ministry. Yet we need to hear it: one of the most consistent testimonies about Jesus is that he went about healing.

Listening to the passage

We need to hear about healing especially because I’ve become more and more aware recently that one of the big motivators for people visiting our church is a longing for the healing of long term hurts. Some of these are physical, many are spiritual or emotional. One man recently came to our church for the first time and was so overcome that he simply wept all the way through the service. Another recently took a moment to offer a testimony of how he had gone through a year of personal struggle over a court case none of us knew about and that the congregation was key to him hanging on.

Points to lift up

We need to hear Jesus’ question because it’s what we need to ask about every person who comes to worship here: “What do you want me to do for you?” What assumptions do we make about the answer to this question? How can we ask it in worship, how can we ask it in other ways?

I’m also intrigued by Jesus’ question because it involves the issue of desire. Buddhists locate the origin of dis-ease in desire.

We need to hear the reply and ask: what does healing mean and what are the barriers to healing?

We need to hear Jesus’ reply because healing is more than just getting well: it also involves picking up your mattress and may involve the person in new struggles.

My sermon on this is entitled, What Do You Want?.