Epiphany – Transfiguration B – Shine, Jesus, Shine

Shine, Jesus, Shine

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Transfiguration Sunday • February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9

After two months in the season of Epiphany, we come back here, where we remembered the stable, to the mystery of God in the world. All these Sundays, we have been populating the crèche, adding to it, the bandaids that symbolize the people Jesus healed, the figures that represent ourselves, the Wise Ones who came from far away, Gentiles whom no one had thought were part of the story, the shepherds, the angel, the animals, each a part of our world, each a part of us. But today we come back, back to this single experience, this single moment: God born into the world, vulnerable, watching, hoping.

Think of yourself in this scene. You walk in, seeing the young mother with that special look of both exhaustion and fierce pride new mothers have. You greet the father and give your flower¡s, admire the baby in her arms and then as she turns to you, looks into your eyes, smiles and asks, “Do you want to hold him?” and not knowing what else to say, you say sure, and the child is handed to you. There: in your arms, you hold the mystery of God in the world.

We’ve been reading the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The assigned readings have jumped ahead. Since the first days we’ve been reading about the last couple of weeks, they have been up and down Galilee and over the border to Tyre, they have seen him heal, seen him amaze the villagers and they have been amazed. Perhaps what amazes them most is that they are here, that their one out of the blue “Yes” to his call has turned into a commitment that grows every day. But they have seen more than the ecstasy of healing; they have seen the growing anger of the officials and the clergy. And just before this trip up the mountain, he told them something they admit only to themselves, only at night, only alone: at the end of this road, there is a cross instead of a throne. They have come to the mountain, where he goes alone to pray. They have come to the mountain as we go to the stable, hoping for something new, expecting something familiar.

Now they stand there and the text tells us that on that mountain, in that place which can’t help reminding everyone of all the other mountain tops. It reminds us of Sinai, where the little tribe of refugees from Egypt God had amazingly defended and called out of slavery to service gathered, and just in case we miss the point Moses is there.

It reminds us of Horeb, where Elijah fled after God reclaimed that people through his Word and action, bringing down the full fury of Queen Jezebel, that representative of pagan, consumer culture so that in the very moment of victory, Elijah has to flee and ends up in a cave. There on that mountain, he heard God’s call, God’s blessing, and confirmation, in a still small voice. And just in case we miss the point, Elijah is there.

Now these followers of Jesus come to their own mountain top And they see Jesus shine. There he is: do you see it too? “Jesus was transfigured,” the text says. I’ve been studying this text and preaching it for more than 40 years and I still don’t know what it really means. The disciples see Jesus shining in a new and amazing way. ‘Transfiguration’ means transformed, so we have to ask: what is being transformed? Not Jesus: he is the same as he always has been. What is being changed here is the disciple’s understanding. They are getting a glimpse of who Jesus really is and it amazes them and burns in their memory for years afterward.

It’s so rare for us to really see someone for who they really are. My mother was 30 when I was born, an older mother for 1951. Of course, I never thought of that fact and what it might have meant to her. Over the years we had our ups and downs but one thing was constant: she was always and in some sense just my mom. I was in my 40’s one day when I met up with her at the airport in Tampa after we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. She took one look and said, “Oh, Jim, you need a haircut.” Only your mom says this. I just saw this one dimension, saw here in reference to myself. In 1995, when she was in her 70’s, my father died and in the process of cleaning things out somehow I ended up with her college scrapbook. It was stunning to page through it and see my mother as a young woman, dating, getting called to the dean’s office for violating her curfew. Who was this woman?

A few years later, a friend of mine who was into genealogy encouraged me to dig into my own family history. When I asked my mother for information, she offered a glimpse of life growing up during the depression in the 1930’s. She told me about being angry when her family took in other family members and she lost her room to them; about her grandmother knitting the wool caps that made her feel ashamed because they were homemade. Somewhere in those talks, she also told me about fighting with my father when I was a kid and she wanted to work; he wanted a wife who stayed home. She told me about how hard it was to go back to college in her 40’s and get her Master of Library Science degree.

Bit by bit, my mother began to emerge as a person, not just my mother. When she was in her last days, I sat with her and heard more stories and when she died, she left a letter and talked about the conflicted time of my adolescence. I don’t believe I nearly know the whole woman she was but I am so thankful that I got to know her not as a mom but as a real person, a whole person.

I think something like that happened to the disciples. Just before that, Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter responds famously, “The Christ.” We like that; we want to think of ourselves as Peter. We often skip the next part where Jesus explains this means a cross, Peter argues with him and Jesus rebukes him, the same word used to cast out demons. Peter, the emblem of the faithful disciple, the founder of the church begins as someone Jesus sees holding him back when Jesus has a mission, Jesus has a call, Jesus has a way.
Thom Shuman, says about this,

…most of us have had some sort of mountaintop experience, even if it is in the back of a taxi, or walking down a hospital hallway, or reading to a bunch of kids.  Most of us know what it is like to want to build great reminders of who we are or where we have been, only to be pointed to those down in the valleys we are called to serve.  Most folks have experienced that desire to stay where they are, rather than venture into the unknown, whatever and wherever that is.  Most of us are reluctant to take off the comfortable and scuffed loafers of the past and leave it behind while putting on the new, stiff, blister-causing shoes of the future.

We’re like Peter, standing there without a clue, hoping we do the right thing or say the right thing in Jesus’ eyes, while Jesus is looking past us at the next step to take, the next person to serve, the next neighborhood to clean up, the next task to undertake, the next mountaintop that is waiting for us down in the valley.

What does transfiguration mean? Perhaps just this: that it’s time for us to stop putting our own pictures of the past up and labeling them with his name and see him for who he really is. Perhaps it’s time for us to stop thinking of him as just another man, a good one, an important one, who does good things: exorcises, heals, preaches love. Perhaps it’s time for us to see him for who he really is: the shining, embodied, the light of the love of God.

Of course, we are here too; we are in the picture and honestly? God is gently making fun of us, like a parent laughing about a child’s fumbling efforts. Look closely: see us? We’re the ones with Peter. The whole glory of God is on display and all Peter can say is, “It’s a good thing we’re here!—let’s put up some huts, get some shelter from all this, make a place to hide.”

The text says he was terrified. Isn’t this us? Isn’t this what we do: we see everything in reference to ourselves and our first thought when the world scars us is to put up some sheds, find some shelter. But God won’t have it; God ignores Peter and shifts the whole point back to Jesus. This is what God says on the mountain, this is the whole point of the mountaintop moment: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
There it is, there’s all of it. At the baptism, where we began two months ago when heaven opened, we got the first part—“This is my Son, the Beloved”—now we get the consequence, the invitation he represents: “Listen to him.”

This is the choice we make as a church and as Christians every day. We can build sheds and celebrate the fact that we’re here or we can listen to the beloved son of God. When we listen, we can’t help but hear his call. When we listen, we can’t help but see him shine, as he shone in their hearts. Shine Jesus: shine.

Amen.

Epiphany 5 B – On the Breath of Dawn

On the Breath of Dawn

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/B • February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

John Claypool was pastor to the congregation of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky when his ten-year-old daughter, Laura Lue, was diagnosed with acute leukemia. Only eighteen months and ten days after the diagnosis, she died. The sermon John preached two weeks later to reflect on that experience was based on the same reading we have heard today from Isaiah 40. He titled the sermon “Strength Not to Faint.”

Here I am this morning, John Claypool says at the end of his sermon, sad, broken-hearted, still bearing in my spirit the wounds of this darkness. 
I confess to you honestly that I have no wings with which to fly or even any legs on which to run – but listen, by the grace of God, I am still on my feet! 
I have not fainted yet. I have not exploded in the anger of presumption, nor have I keeled over into the paralysis of despair. 
All I am doing is walking and not fainting, hanging in there, enduring with patience what I cannot change but have to bear.

We have been reading through the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and we must never forget that the readers of this gospel, as we ourselves, know the end of this story. We know this will end at the cross; we know as Jesus apparently knew that there is a terminal moment of fear and suffering and death. We know where he is going: every step asks, can we believe he is coming back?

Here is Jesus again, as we have read the past weeks, apparently running forward. Our English text doesn’t show this quite as well as the original Greek but one word runs throughout these stories, one word is repeated over and over again: “immediately”. Immediately Jesus goes from his baptism to the wilderness. Immediately Jesu goes from the wilderness to meeting the men who will follow him. Immediately he goes home with them and speaks in the synagogue, encountering a man caged by demons and freeing him. Immediately he goes from there to Peter’s home.

That’s where we find him today. It’s a familiar scene, isn’t it? I know that we’ve often invited people home to brunch. So Jesus, Peter, Andrew, James and John and perhaps others go to Peter’s home. A crowd follows and gathers outside. I imagine that at other times the food would be ready: bagels toasted, smoked salmon, perhaps some eggs. It’s a Jewish home so no bacon, of course. Perhaps some fried fish—that’s the family business, after all. The scents of the food would have greeted the group as they entered, probably still discussing the amazing events at the synagogue that morning.

But there’s a problem here: the matron of the household, Peter’s mother-in-law, is sick in bed. So I wonder if everything was ready. I wonder what she was thinking, feeling. On other days, it would have been her job to preside at the feast; she would have gloried, I’m sure, in doing the preparations, from cleaning (in our home we call it “mom-clean”) to kneading the bread the night before. But today she is in bed with a fever, seriously sick. Was she ashamed? Was she asleep? I know that when I was too sick to preach a few weeks ago, I felt I had let you all down even though I knew I couldn’t get up. I imagine the woman must have felt something like that. She stays upstairs, away from the party, in her sick room, hearing I’m sure the noises of the party downstairs, unable to join them, hiding out as we all do at such moments.

But Jesus won’t have it; Jesus insists on mounting the stairs, coming to her in her sick bed. Here is a significant theological point. American cultural religion translates our cultural value of individual choice and commitment into something called “coming to Jesus”. It’s worth noting that in all these stories so far, people do not come to Jesus; Jesus comes to them. Jesus goes to John at the Jordan. He goes to Galilee and passes by Andrew and Peter, calling them to join him, and the same with James and John. Now he won’t stay downstairs and be the guest of honor; he goes to this woman in her bed, in her shame, in her illness and takes her hand.

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand


I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone

Doesn’t that song we sing portray this moment?

Our culture hides the significance of this act; we want to jump immediately to the healing but stay here with me and consider the moment in its context. Jesus is a faithful, observant Jewish man in a culture where it’s unthinkable for a man to touch a woman who is not his wife or a close relation. Yet here he is reaching out to her: “Precious Lord, take my hand.” Jesus is a worship leader who is ritually clean; to touch a sick person is to make himself unclean. Yet here he is taking her hand: “Precious Lord, take my hand.” Jesus is not part of the family in this home yet here he is in the private part of it, visiting a woman, touching her. And she is healed. One final point: she is healed on the Sabbath, something that will come back to haunt Jesus in days to come.

We are so used to technical explanations that we want to ask, “How is she healed?” There are no answers to that here. Our culture blinds us to what’s really going on here. We want to know the method of the cure; the gospel is interested in the fact of the healing. Healing sets people free, healing helps put us back on the path of our lives. Mark sees through to the more important point: that it is done at all. This woman is healed and “immediately she began to serve them.” Now some have criticized this text; they don’t like the image of this woman serving but my own hunch is that she was very happy to do it, to reclaim her role, to join the party. Once again, as at the synagogue, Jesus sets someone free.

When the Sabbath ends at sundown, we read that sick people are brought to Jesus and he heals many of them. Again, notice they are not “coming to Jesus” the way it’s spoken of in our culture; they are being brought there by others. Connection to Jesus, healing by Jesus, comes through the invitation and efforts of others. We don’t know who these are. In fact, we will never again hear about Peter’s mother-in-law again directly. Did she go on to become part of the group of women who apparently sustained the ministry of Jesus? We don’t know. We only know that in that moment, when she needed a hand, his was there reaching out to her, taking her hand, lifting her up.

Finally, we read that at the end of it all, Jesus slips away. It’s almost comical, isn’t it? All those people, all that crowd, looking for him, pressing on him, wanting him to do what they want and he’s nowhere to be found.

Peter and the others have to go hunt him up and when they find him, he’s outside the circle, alone, praying, finding his strength as he did when he was alone in the desert, in his connection with the one he calls his father: our God.

Over the last few weeks we’ve read through these stories of the opening of Jesus’ ministry and it’s worth asking: where are you in all of this? where am I? Are you someone Jesus has come to, someone called by him to follow? Are you one of those bringing others to Jesus for healing, to be set free to live and give the gifts God has given them? Are you being healed?

For isn’t that our purpose as a congregation, to be a place where healing happens? I don’t mean cures, I mean the healing that sets hope in hearts again. The passage from Isaiah we read is addressed to a people beaten down, carried into exile, cut off from hope and they believed from heaven. Yet here the prophet speaks God’s Word and that Word begins, “Comfort, comfort” and continues on with the words we read this morning.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God”?
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable.

Wisdom does not always come from the wise; in fact, the Bible says over and over again, “the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.” What we translate fear really means taking God seriously, believing in God not only in the past or the future but right now, today, in this moment, this present moment. This is the time when God loves you. This is the time when God seeks you. This is the time when God seeks to comfort and heal and restore your hope.
And what is that hope? John Claypool again, facing the most difficult crisis of his life said,

I have not exploded in the anger of presumption, nor have I keeled over into the paralysis of despair. All I am doing is walking and not fainting, hanging in there, enduring with patience what I cannot change but have to bear.
This may not sound like much to you, but to me it is the most appropriate and most needful gift of all [from God.] My religion has been the difference in the last two weeks; it has given me the gift of patience, the gift of endurance, the strength to walk and not faint. And I am here to give God thanks for that!
And who knows, if I am willing to accept this gift, and just hang in there and not cop out, maybe the day will come that Laura Lue and I will run again and not be weary, that we may even soar some day, and rise up with wings as eagles! But until then – to walk and not faint, that is enough. O God, that is enough!

If we look for God in this present moment, if we believe in this present moment, if we pray in this present moment, then indeed Jesus will come to us. We may not be able to soar with the eagles yet; we may not be able to run yet but we can learn to walk with Jesus, to walk and not faint. And that is enough, that is everything.

In a moment, we’re going to sing a song that takes its images from this passage in Isaiah: On Eagles Wings. The words express the feeling of doing just this: taking this immediate, present time, and living it in the faith of God’s presence. So many of us live at sunset: God invites us today, this moment, to see that we are living “on the breath of dawn”. So we are meant to live as people being healed, giving hope, inviting others to come and see how they also can find this hope.

Amen

Epiphany 4 B – Take Off the Devil Suit

Take Off the Devil Suit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany/B • January 28, 2018

Mark 1:21-28

One day when I lived on 29th Street in Milwaukee, the Devil came to my house. He was a garish shade of red, had horns, a tail and carried a pitchfork and stood about four feet high.

I was sitting in the living room when the Devil came out of my son Jason’s room with a wild look and I knew we were in for trouble. A few minutes later, after some now forgotten bad behavior, a bit of parental yelling, and some tears I exorcised the devil, who returned to the bedroom. Minutes later Jason emerged and we were reconciled and agreed no more devil—at least for the moment.

It’s a true story: Jason had a devil costume for Halloween one year and for a while when he was going to be bad, he would put on the suit first. We learned to recognize the devil and the impending behavior and deal with it—partly by telling him to go back and take off the devil suit. Eventually, he outgrew the suit. I can only wish we all had outgrown bad behavior; obviously, we haven’t. This week again we heard in the news about gun violence at schools and the stories of an amazing number of women abused by a man meant to care for them at Michigan State University. Depending on your view, I’m sure you could add to this list. We cannot escape the men—and women—in the devil suit. How can we get them to take it off?

This story we read in Mark is amazingly appropriate. Last week we heard how Jesus created a community of disciples. His invitation to follow him is so authoritative that the text tells us they immediately left what they were doing and followed him. Now they have come to Capernaum, the home of those disciples. Jesus enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a sanctuary of worship but also a place of conversation where the whole community meets to gossip, greet, trade, and connect.

Jesus sits in the seat of the preacher; someone, perhaps he himself, reads a portion of Torah and Jesus begins to speak. The text says that he spoke as one with authority and not like the scribes, that is, the regular teachers. Now the usual method of preaching there was to discuss what Moses meant or what another prophet said. But the congregation there recognizes something unique in Jesus: his words, his teaching, he himself, have an amazing authority. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” the text says.

Just as a great guitar player, can make our hearts vibrate simply by running his fingers over a few strings, the words of Jesus move the hearts of the people there so that they are astounded, amazed.

This sense of being astounded is not necessarily positive; it doesn’t mean they applauded. Preaching can make people angry. We all have a set of boundaries that make us feel safe. Like a fence at the edge of a precipice, like a barrier in front of a danger, boundaries keep us secure in a dangerous world. Anything that forces us beyond the boundaries destabilizes us, it threatens, and we react.

Years ago in Connecticut when the issue of full inclusion of gay folks was being fiercely debated in churches, I attended a clergy meeting where people on both sides spoke. Afterwards, we were feeling pretty good; the meeting had been mostly civil and no one had left in anger. There we were, a group of overweight middle-aged straight men sitting at a table in a church hall. One by one each was asked to say something about the meeting and when it was my time, I said that really, this topic had very little to do with our lives. Then I said, “But you know, here we are with pastries, and we’re all overweight. Maybe we should be discussing the sin of overeating.” That’s when the meeting got angry and a few moments later one of the guys said he wasn’t going to sit for this and left. “They were astounded.”

At least one person there cries out and disrupts the moment. There is a man there with what the text calls “an unclean spirit”. Perhaps he stands up, there is a disruption. “Have you come to destroy us?” the demons in him ask. And then he says what some must have been thinking: “We know who you are, the Holy One of God.” What happens when the unworthy, the unclean, washes up like the ocean against the rock of God’s holiness? What happens when the demonic runs into the holy?

Notice how the text carefully distinguishes between the man himself and the unclean spirit: he is not a bad man, he is a man controlled by something unclean. “Unclean” means unfit for worship, unfit to come before God. Jewish religion carefully distinguished between the clean or pure and the unclean, between what was fit for God and what was not. The text tells us nothing about the man himself. Like Jason in the devil suit, he has been put into something other than himself. One writer likens this to addiction and points out that addiction is not the person: it is the cage with which the person lives. Like a devil suit, the cage of the unclean spirit is separate from the person, controlling but not the same as that person.

Now there are all kinds of cages. I confess that in the past, I often compared this cage, this unclean spirit, to mental illness with its hallucinations and altered sense of reality. I realize now I wanted to keep my own boundaries intact. I wasn’t mentally ill so thinking about it that way meant it wasn’t me. But what I see now is that there are in fact all kinds of cages, big and small, and some of them enclose me as well. And when the cage is threatened, we all ask the question the unclean spirit asks: “Have you come to destroy us?”

This fear is, I believe, behind the anger that fuels so much of our national life. Cages are being broken. We are living through an enormous cultural transformation.What happens when the cage is broken and the person is released? We know that when Jesus walks in, demons walk out. The solution to our cages lies in the connection Jesus calls love: a compassion that refuses to let boundaries stand between us and invites us to see each other as equal children of God.

I mentioned addiction earlier as an example of a cage that controls a person. Today we are facing a terrible epidemic of addiction-fueled not only by drugs but by our misconception about the nature of addiction. So often we have forgotten Jesus’ distinction between the cage and the person so we see addicts as bad people who should simply start acting better. The truth is that addiction is only partly about chemical dependence. Those who are finding the most success at treating addiction have learned to treat it as a disease, not a moral failure, and to make human connection part of the solution. The problem isn’t the person; the problem is the cage.

In the same way, there are larger cultural cages. One of them is the fear of people who come from other places. Almost all of us have immigrants in our background. But we’ve forgotten that and today’s immigrants often have different colored skin. How do we solve the anger that comes from breaking this cage? Perhaps we do it by simple connection.

Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a 300 member congregation that is one of 32 congregations housing people who are at risk of deportation. After studying and meeting about the issue last July, the church voted in September, 89-5, to invite an undocumented person to their meeting house. Eliseo Jimenez and his family came to stay in the church’s youth activity room. The church organized volunteers and worked with five other congregations, including a synagogue. Now we might think this would be a terrible burden and a drain on the church. In fact, one of the volunteer hosts says, the church has found renewed energy. “I’m really proud we’re doing this,” one of the members said.

At the center of this story in Mark today is this: “What have you to do with us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It’s a question for all of us who say we are the body of Christ.

In a culture of cages, what has Jesus to do with all those caged? Isn’t it to invite them out of the cage; isn’t it to say, “Take off the devil suit” and come out? Isn’t it to see the child of God in each person and invite that child out? That’s what Jesus does: “Be silent and come out of him,” Jesus says. At the end of the story, the crowd is amazed. And indeed, whenever, wherever, we as the Jesus people, invite the child of God caged up, imprisoned, out to play—it’s still amazing. This is our calling in Christ: to invite the caged out, to invite everyone in, into the community of Christ, into the circle of those who recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God. For when we recognize others in this way, we find we ourselves are also recognized in that circle.

Amen.

Bee Dances – Baptism of the Lord

Bee Dances

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Baptism of the Lord Sunday • January 7, 2018

How do we find things? How do we get where we hope to go? Many of us rely on some form of GPS program today, maps on our phone or some other device. But what if the destination isn’t an address? What if the place is God’s kingdom, what if the destination is somewhere God’s peace reigns? Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and it reminds us to think about our own baptism. Today we share the sacrament of communion, the last supper reminding us that we are included at the table of the Lord. What do these two acts mean?

Both are rooted in ancient Jewish practices. The desert culture which influenced Hebrew worship saw something sacred in water. Their story of creation imagined water, not light, as the first act of God’s creativity: a rain is made to fall and everything comes from it. During the Exodus, it was the Lord’s ability to provide water that sealed the promise of presence. So it shouldn’t surprise us that in the rituals prescribed for God’s people, washing played a prominent role. A variety of things, from illnesses to natural life events, could put a person in a state they believed made them unfit for worship. The solution involved sacred washing, called t’vila, often done in a mikva bath, a bath of blessing. In the period before Jesus, this ritual of washing played a central role in the ritual and life of the Qumran community; they may have influenced John, whom we call the Baptist. In his hands, the ritual washing was connected to the sacred moment when God’s people crossed from the wilderness to the promised land. His preached repentance and newness: the passage between these two states was symbolized by baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus himself came to John for this baptism.

Early Christians took over many Jewish customs. Remembering this event in the life of Jesus, they made baptism a key moment in a Christian’s life: it was when they joined the circle of God’s people. They probably originally immersed people but early on began to use other forms. Still, the act retained this essential meaning: union with the body of Christ, the church of Christ. Once joined to Christ, the church believed Christ would never desert a child of God, so baptism was and is a once for all act.

Every journey has definite marks along the way. We use these to know we are on the path, we tell others about them to help them follow. A sailor looks for buoys; a driver looks for road signs. We give directions by noting special features: “Stay to the right as you go by the state capitol.” Sometimes these marks can change. Years ago, I was often asked how to get to the local high school. “Go down a long block and turn right at the Highway Department,” I’d say. Then someone heard me one day and pointed out that the Highway Department had moved out of that place a year before; my directions were useless.

There are marks along the way of Christian life, marks that can surely turn us toward Christ and we call them sacraments. They are moments in which we act out in a public, visible way our inner spiritual meeting with God’s Spirit. We call these moments sacraments and baptism is surely one. When someone ordained by a Christian Church takes in their arms any person, infant, child, adult, and acts out the ritual of pouring water, we are in that moment also acting out the embrace of God and answering God’s call to become new people. It is a sacrament.

Another such moment is communion. Communion is also rooted in ancient Jewish practice, the rite of Passover. Passover is a story of salvation celebrated with a special meal. Within the meal, there is a progression of matzoh, a special bread, and cups of wine. The gospel accounts put Jesus celebrating Passover just before his arrest and crucifixion: we call it the Last Supper.

Just like baptism, early Christians took up this ritual they knew and fused it with the story of Jesus. First Corinthians gives us a little glimpse of communion about 20 years after Jesus; it looks more like a potluck dinner than our symbolic cups and bites of bread. Yet we can recognize in their act the same act we do, the same purpose of acting out Jesus presence in our own lives.

Over the centuries, Christians changed how they did these two acts, baptism and communion as well as how they understood them. The organized church often traded its spiritual life for worldly power and wealth and part of that added on acts which had no roots in the life of Jesus or the gospel story. By the 1600’s, the Roman Catholic church had seven different sacraments. When our fathers and mothers in the faith set out to create churches that more clearly embodied God’s Word, they trimmed this back to the original two sacraments, baptism and communion. Baptism they understood to be a moment of repentance that recognizes Christ’s intention to embrace us as a child is embraced by a mother; communion reminds us that we are a community on the way to the cross, believing in the resurrection.

This is a lot of history on a Sunday morning. But it’s important to know where we came from, to look back and see that when we pour water over someone here, we are participating in something that touches Jesus and reaches behind him hundreds of years. It’s important to know where we came from, to look back and see that when we share in communion, we are sharing with the Exodus people who first shared a quick Passover meal, with Jesus and his disciples on the last night of his earthly life. This is where we have been: this is where we are coming from.

But, of course, the most important question is: where are we going? This is the season of Epiphany, a word that means showing. It refers to the star that led the wise ones from the East to Jesus. Early Christians would have seen what we do not: that these are strangers, gentiles, people who have no earthly right to a place in the story of God’s people. But here they are, led by a star. Let all the astronomical questions go and listen with your heart. Imagine how important it must be to God to invite these wise ones to the Christ child, so important that just as at creation light was created, God makes a new light, a star, to say, “This way! Come this way!”

Where are we going? Everything we’ve talked about today, from the wise ones following the star to communion to baptism makes up what I call a bee dance. Have you ever wondered how bees find flowers? How do they know where to go from the hive to find the stuff they gather? It works like this: a few bees go out, flying around more or less randomly. They search; they sniff. When one finds a good place, some lush flowers, she flies back to the hive. Now the problem is how to give the others directions. They don’t have a GPS, they don’t have google maps but they do have a dance, called a waggle dance. They move forward, backward, to the side. The dance tells the others where to fly, how to get where they are going, how to find the flowers.

These acts—baptism, communion—are bee dances. When we act them out, we are showing how to find God’s presence. Not everyone knows this— but you do: you know how to do the dance. You know how to smile when a little girl like Olivia is baptized and I carry her to you and say, “Please welcome our sister,” and when you do, you are showing everyone—this is how you get to God, you smile at a child. Jesus says welcome a child and you welcome him, I’m not making this up, it’s right there in his book. It’s a bee dance, it’s directions.

You know how to serve communion. There are lots of ways to share this sacrament but I’ve always loved the way we do it here, passing the plates hand to hand. Because that’s how Jesus is shared: hand to hand, person to person. It’s the invitation that matters, it’s saying, “Here, have this bit of Jesus’ story, let me fix you a plate”—well if not a whole plate, at least a little bit of bread. “Here, have this invitation to a whole new life.” It may look like a little thimble full of grape juice but when you hand it to someone, it’s God saying, “Come on in”.

These are bee dances: they are directions on how to find God. Today, this morning, what we are doing is learning the bee dance that leads to God’s Spirit. So watch, learn, if that’s where you are in the journey; take up the movement if you can. Dance!—Share the invitation, help someone find the path and walk along the way that leads to life. It’s epiphany: we’re not meant to sit still, we are being called to walk in the light of God’s love and share the journey. So do a bee dance: invite someone with your directions to know God’s love.

Amen.

Climbing Up the Mountain Children

Climbing Up the Mountain

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – © 2017 All Rights Reserved

Transfiguration Sunday/A • February 26, 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

“After six days…” Six days: so much can happen in a short time. What’s happened in your life in the last six days: six dawns, six days, six dinners. Life is such a mix of random events and plans pursued. What plans did you pursue this week? What did you make happen; what happened to you? What was unexpected?

Now think of the disciples: What have they been doing in the last week? Perhaps recovering from the crisis Matthew tells us occurs when Jesus reveals his mission and identity. “Who do you say I am?” he asks and after Peter answers, “the Christ, the Song of the Living God”, he shocks them by explaining he’s going to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. They argue; he persists. That’s what they’ve been doing for six days.

We have been listening to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians; today we return to the gospel. When we left Jesus, we were still glowing from the story of Epiphany with its star and sages and bits of Christmas paper still littering the corners of the house. When we last saw Jesus, he was emerging from the waters of baptism where he had gone to John to become ready to take up his own ministry. Six days: so much longer than that along the way!

Meeting Jesus

Now we meet him again and he is on a path that will lead to the cross, to the grave, to the glory of his resurrection. He has been preaching and healing, teaching what Matthew condenses into a sermon on the mountain. He has been sharing his life with his disciples and this is what he has said to them: 

Those who want to come after me should deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me! Remember those who try to save their own life are going to lose it; but those who lose their own life for my sake are going to find it. 
[Matthew 16:24-25]

He’s begun to make it clear to his disciples where this journey is going, the destination of the path he’s walking. They aren’t happy about it; Peter argues with him. Yet it’s also Peter who sees through to his real self: the Christ, the Son of the Living God. All that has gone on and now, six days later, Jesus takes Peter and James and John up a mountain where they will see even more clearly.

Climbing Up the Mountains

Mountains punctuate the Biblical story like chapter headings: they are a signal—pay attention! Something important is about to happen!

Abraham goes up Mount Moriah, later the site of Jerusalem, when God tells him to take Isaac, his only son, and bind him as a sacrifice. On the mountain he obeys God and his token of faithfulness becomes a transcendent moment when God’s covenant is reaffirmed and he receives the promise of blessing through all generations.

Moses goes up Mount Sinai alone, leaving his people, his helpers, his brothers and there sees the glory of the Lord pass by and receives from God the Torah, the teaching, what we call the Ten Commandments, God’s Word on how to live as God’s people.

Elijah goes to Mount Carmel and God demonstrates a faithful presence that defeats the idolatry of the prophets of Baal. And later on a mountain, Elijah hears the small, still voice of God.

To go to a mountain with Jesus is to go where the covenant was given, where the Torah was given, where the prophet receives God’s Word. These together—Torah and Prophets—are everything known about God to the people of Jesus’ time.

So they climb the mountain with Jesus. Have you done this, hiked up a mountain? I wonder what the trail was like: was it rocky, was it hard? Did they take enough bottles of water along? Did they bring trail mix? Scripture is silent. We simply hear, “Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”

I imagine them huffing and puffing a bit; mountain hiking is hard work. I imagine them wondering inside where they are going and whether someone thought to bring lunch. Whatever they wonder, what’s clear is this: they keep walking, keep following, Jesus going ahead, the three of them after. We sometimes sing a hymn called “I want Jesus to walk with me” but isn’t the real call of faith for us to walk with Jesus?

Transfigured

Sometimes hiking up a mountain trail you walk and walk in the shade of trees, so focused on where you’re stepping, looking down, choosing the next step that coming out to a clearing, being hit by the sun takes your breath away. I remember a day hiking in Thatcher Park when Jacquelyn and got lost. Wandering among the trees, we thought we were on a trail but the markers petered out and we kept going. At some point, we knew we’d lost the trail and we began to just go toward where we thought the road might be. We walked a long time through the woods there and then suddenly there was an opening: we’d come to one of the access parking lots and the light flooded in like a dam had burst.

Peter and James and John follow Jesus and I think, I imagine, him walking just ahead of them, coming before them to the top or to a clearing at any rate and standing there, in the light, so that as they come into the clearing light shines through him and they see him in a new light suddenly. All the things he has been saying are suddenly clear. He is transfigured, that is to say, he is lit up from the inner light of God and they see that about him, they know that about him, they understand that about him in a way that will never leave them.

On the Mountain with Jesus: Is this My Jesus?

Just to make the point clear, because God knows we so often miss the point, Jesus isn’t alone. There with him are Moses and Elijah, as I said earlier, persons who have been to the mountain and who represent all that is known about God, Torah and Prophets, the whole of what we call the Bible, God’s Word in the flesh. And Jesus is standing with them.

I love the next part of this story because it is so real, so us, isn’t it? There he is, Jesus transfigured, Jesus according to many commentators as he will appear to them when he is resurrected. It’s a miracle, it’s a vision and this is what they say: “It’s a good thing we’re here.” Is there any limit to our ability to turn from Jesus back to ourselves? There’s a popular praise song that begins, “My Jesus, my savior…” Well, it’s a good song, fun to sing, but if we are serious about what Jesus actually says and what scripture says about him, it’s wrong. He isn’t my Jesus. He isn’t your Jesus. The question the gospel asks isn’t “Does Jesus belong to me?”, but “Do I belong to Jesus?”.

Here’s Peter with Jesus transfigured, Moses and Elijah back from heaven, you’d think that would be enough to inspire anyone, wouldn’t you? All he can think to do is form a building committee, to say it’s a good thing he’s there, to enclose Jesus and the others in some structure. Isn’t this us: boxing Jesus up just when he threatens to get out of hand?
God won’t have it. Just then, when Peter and John and James are discussing who will chair the committee, creation stirs up and a cloud comes in and God speaks: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.” Now if you have been coming here religiously and listening, that ought to sound familiar because it’s exactly what God said when Jesus was baptized. We talked about it weeks ago. This is the fundamental identity of Jesus: the beloved child of God.

What we don’t hear is the context. In that time, this was a political statement. “Son of God” is one of the titles that the Roman Emperor Augustus and following him others including Tiberius, the emperor in this moment, claim. It’s almost as if God said, “This is the President, with whom I’m well pleased.” It’s God pointing out who we should follow, who we should look to for direction. And that’s just what God says. For there’s one more thing that wasn’t said at the baptism, one more Word of God for this moment: “Listen to him”

Listening to Jesus

That’s the key to keeping Jesus out of the box: listening to him. It’s no surprise that Word knocks the disciples flat. “When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown on the ground,” terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, “Get up,” he said, “Don’t be afraid.” For this moment of transfiguration is meant to warn them but also to help them. And it’s meant to help us understand that following Jesus, listening to Jesus, living with Jesus creates an imperishable relationship There is a spiritual, a song, that says,

Climbing up the mountain, children,

We didn’t come here for to stay.

And if I nevermore see you again, 

going to see you on the Judgement Day

Coming Down the Mountain

We are not meant to stay on the mountain and they don’t. But having been to the mountain, we come down to lives permanently changed, connected to Jesus in a way that will never end.
“This is my son…listen to him.” In that command, in that Word is the challenge of faith and all the inspiration we need to reflect the light of God and give God joy. Bernard Moitessier was a French sailor and one of the first to sail around the world by himself, single-handed, in the Golden Globe race. Thousands of miles into the race, after months by himself alone on a small boat, as he was passing New Zealand, he went to sleep with his boat on autopilot headed east to pass a reef off to the north.

When he woke, he found the boat surrounded by a huge group of porpoises. They kept doing a strange maneuver where a group would swim ahead, and then suddenly turn right, right in front of his boat. After watching this for a while, the sleepy sailor thought to check his course and discovered that while he slept, the boat had shifted from sailing east to sailing north, right for the reef. The porpoises seemed to be warning him. He changed his course. He goes on to say:
…then something wonderful [happened]: a big black and white porpoise jumps ten or twelve feet

in the air in a fantastic somersault, with two complete rolls. And he lands flat, tail, forward. Three times he does his double roll, bursting with a tremendous joy, as if he were shouting to me and all the other porpoises: ‘The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right . . . you understood . . . you understood . . . keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!’
[Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way]

Jesus takes a few disciples up the mountain. There, transfigured, they go from thinking they can enclose him in a box to people listening and following him in a new way. There they know indeed, it’s all clear ahead. the message of transfiguration: “This is my son, listen to hm, listen to him.” And when we do I think god must leap with joy like the porpoise.
Amen.

Foundation Faith

Foundation Faith

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/A • February 19, 2017
© 2017 All Rights Reserved

Click below to hear the sermon preached

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 
[1 Corinthians 3:10]

I grew up around builders: in my home, in my neighborhood. As far back as I can remember, there were blocks to play with and stack, wooden blocks that would come tumbling down if not carefully balanced. Trips to the beach meant building sand castles that became more and more elaborate the longer we sat there in the hot sun. Later, living in that post-war moment when Americans were building homes, my friends and I never lacked for the source material to build endless tree houses and forts. The forests were little subdivisions where we industriously nailed bits of wood to create our own vacation homes with precarious ladders that let us climb up and hide, at least until the street lights went on and summoned us home. I may not have been a master builder but I have been a builder and perhaps so have you. Maybe your building used different materials; perhaps you built a family, nurtured it with a thousand dinners, an endless set of trips to school events, late nights up with a child who just wouldn’t sleep. That kind of building is harder than the tree houses but so much more important. What have you built? What are you building? What are we building together?

We have been walking through the first chapters of Paul’s First Corinthians and it’s important to remember the topic he’s addressing. He wants to point the church forward. Just as he helped them gather and get started, now he is showing them a path forward because they’ve wandered off the path of Christ and into division. Paul sets this conflict up as between the human wisdom of the Corinthians and the way of the Cross. By human wisdom, he means that great collection of ideas we glean from our experience. It is the way we do things, the way we have done things; it is what we did last time. There is also attached to this something he talks about as “secret wisdom,” the mystical vision of heaven some preachers speak about even today so wonderfully and beautifully. Paul, for his part, says he has decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except the cross of Christ. He goes on to say that their very conflict shows they are still babies in the faith; he calls them to put aside conflict and come to the Cross to grow up into Christ.

Dynamic Building

Now he offers them an insight built around the act of building. Paul was the founding pastor of this church. He laid a good foundation; now someone else is building. He wants the Corinthians to understand that all of God’s work is dynamic, changing, constantly evolving. Usually we focus on the pronouncement that Paul laid a foundation like a master builder. What interested me more was his immediate transition: someone else is building on it. We usually think of buildings as staying in place. But Paul is summoning the Corinthian Christians, and us, to imagine their future.

It’s hard to imagine the future. When I was in seminary, I lived in an old farm house owned by a family that had settled Chelmsford, Massachusetts in the 1600’s. The woman in charge of the farm divided people into those who came before the war and after the war; it took me a while to realize she meant the Revolutionary War. The same family had owned this farmhouse since it was built. Now most of us know how moving out of a house forces us to take stock of what we have, what’s worth moving, what to give away or throw away. When Jacquelyn and I moved here, we sent truck loads to the land fill and so much stuff to the Goodwill they asked not to bring anymore. Perhaps you’ve done the same thing: looked at things that had hidden out somewhere and said, “We don’t need that anymore,” consigned it to some fate. It’s how we trim our households. This house had never been through that; the family had never moved.

It was built in the 1820’s across from Baptist Pond, a little pond where the local Baptist church used to immerse people. Unfortunately, that end of the pond had silted up and was rumored to have snakes, so the Baptists had moved their immersing to a public beach. The town of Chelmsford needed a blacksmith, and they lured one there with the promise of the house, which was built for him. His tools and his shed were still on the property. The blacksmith had two sons who served in the Civil War. One of the son’s discharge papers hung in the room I used for a study. After the Civil War, they came back to Chelmsford, and cut the house off it’s foundation, raised it up a full story and built more space so they could both live there with their families. So they did, raised families of their own, cut ice on Baptist Pond, raised crops and had a little dairy operation that included churning butter. I know these things because they left all the stuff in the house and the sheds. It was a great house, strong, secure and it just lacked one thing: electrical outlets. The house had been wired around 1910 and no one thought anyone would need more than one electrical outlet per floor. Who would have thought anyone would need more than one outlet? What would you use them for?

Well, we learned to live with one outlet. We constantly plugged and unplugged thing. But that wasn’t the only challenge. In the living room, there was a fireplace and some logs, neatly tied up, ready for a fire to be laid. When we moved in, the family member who was in charge pointed out the logs and explained that the father of the lady who actually owned the house had put those logs there in 1919 and then had a heart attack and died. The logs were the last thing he’d ever done and they had been there ever since. She didn’t have to make her point: if we wanted a fire, we needed different logs.

I was a youth minister in those days and one of the great things about the house was being able to have the dozen or so senior high kids in my youth group meet there. Now senior high kids haven’t quite grown up so sometimes they revert to being two year olds. We all do. One day, while I was off getting snacks from the kitchen, they got to wrestling around. I heard the noise of it but when you’re a youth minister, you get used to noise, so I didn’t worry until I went back in the living room and everything was quiet. Quiet always concerns youth ministers. I looked around and asked, “What happened?” And then I followed their eyes to the logs. The logs were no longer tied; the logs were scattered. The logs that had been tied up since 1919. “We’re really sorry,” the kids said. So was I. We tried to tied up the logs but it didn’t look quite right; it didn’t look quite the same. The next time the land lady came over, I confessed to what had happened. We stood in the living room and I tried to explain about the youth group and the logs and how we had tied them up. She said, “I noticed they had been changed.” That’s the worst indictment a real New Englander can deliver. I said, yes, they had. There was a long moment and she said, “Well, there’s no point to them now. You might as well use them up, burn them.” It turned out that whatever we had feared from changing the logs didn’t happen. They were, after all, just logs.

We all become used to things in churches. Somehow, what’s there becomes what should be there, what has always been there. But the truth is? Most if it is just logs; most of what we do is just what we have done. What we need to do, what we must do, is to distinguish what’s just things we’re used to doing from the real foundation. “… like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it, “ Paul says. The foundation is important but it’s also important to see that God can do new things, that God does do new things, and to watch for them, celebrate them, make a space for them.

What Is the Foundation?

What Are We Just Used To? What is the foundation? It’s the compassion that flows from the mind of Christ, from thinking about others with the mind of Christ, thinking about ourselves with the mind of Christ. That is the foundation faith of the church.

It’s a challenge. I’ve only built one church meeting house. Around 1990, I was serving the Suttons Bay Congregational Church in northwestern Michigan. We were growing; the church was packed. We needed more space. After a long, long bit of soul searching, the church decided to gut the building and completely redo it. Part of that involved the downstairs area we used for Sunday School. It was a terrible space. For one thing, many years before fuel oil had spilled all over and the response had been to cover it up with rugs. When the oil seeped through, more rugs were put down.

So we were going to tear the whole place up and start over, in a church with lots of kids. Everyone on the Building Committee had ideas about how many rooms to divide this space up into and how big the rooms should be and what color and where we would make storage. So we did what Congregationalists do: we argued and put off decisions until finally the architect said you can’t wait anymore. Given a deadline, some of the arguments got more heated. Then one night, I remember it the way you remember coming out of the Christmas Eve service, when the candles are still lighting up your soul and the warmth of the moment fends off the cold, someone said, I have a new idea. Well, we were so involved in all the ideas already proposed, to be honest, no one really wanted a new idea. But we were polite people so we said go ahead. And this was the proposal: that we have no rooms at all. “Right now, we have lots of kids, but we don’t know how that room will need to be used in the future. Let’s leave it as one big room with movable dividers. Let’s assume we don’t know what God will do in the future here.”

Well, neither the 6 small room people nor the 4 big room people thought that was a good idea but it grew on us and that’s just what we did. We left the whole room open, with some dividers that could make sort of rooms and furniture that rolled around. Ten months later, we moved in. Two months after that, the local Rotary Club came and said, “You have this big room, could we meet there on Mondays?” We realized something: we never thought of the Rotary Club but because we could roll back the dividers and the furniture we could do this. It paid for the dividers; it made the church grow even more. Who would have thought?

It pays to work smart. I think our church ought to get the best advice, use the best practices, do the best job we can. We ought to constantly learn from the wisdom of people who study churches and try out their lessons here. But that’s not the foundation; that’s the furniture. The foundation can’t change; the foundation is permanent. What is that foundation? We need to distinguish it from the furniture because we can always move the furniture around in different ways and furniture sometimes wears out and needs replacement. Paul is clear: the only foundation that can sustain what we are building is the Cross and the only sure guide to the future is the mind of Christ. To think with the mind of Christ is to realize that our own wisdom, our own ideas about how to do things, are temporary; only the ongoing compassionate love of Christ is permanent.

Now we are building here, together, a great church. The foundations of this building are a hundred years old; the foundations of the church itself are even older, they are the great mission to create a free church here in Albany that expresses the love of Christ, that shines the light of God’s love. The most important question we can ask isn’t, “What are we going to do?” but “What is God doing?” The most important answers can’t be found from our own wisdom; they came from prayer and asking, “How can we make God’s love concrete?” The most important things we do may not be exactly what we used to do. God does new things; so should we. Whenever the mind of Christ calls us to new ways of loving, we must listen and not be so concerned about keeping the furniture that we forget the foundation. The love of God, the mind of Christ, is the foundation faith that undergirds us. Build on it, and we can together in God’s time, in God’s way, build a church.

Amen.

Growing Up, Building UP

Growing Up, Building Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany/A • February 12, 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

© 2017 All Rights Reserved

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Where is your mind right now? Are you thinking about something that happened earlier this morning or during the week? Are you in the past? Are you in the future: thinking about what will happen next, what your day will hold? Are you here?—or somewhere else? I think the greatest change in our time has been the way our minds are asked to focus on so many different places at once. Have you seen people out together, perhaps at dinner or a coffee shop, clearly together and yet both engaged with others because they are busy texting on mobile phones or taking photos for Instagram or doing something else that calls their mind to another place, another person? Where is your mind right now? Buddhists especially raise the issue of mindfulness: simply, consciously, disciplining your mind to be right here, right now. The question of your mind, my mind, is one we heard Paul raise last week when he spoke about the mind of Christ.

Division in the Church and the Mind of Christ

Remember that Paul is dealing here with the problems of human division, especially within the church at Corinth. The congregation has divided into factions, some looking to Paul as their leader, some to a man named Apollos, perhaps others to Cephas. The issues are not clear, but we don’t have to go far to imagine the result. We know what division looks like and many have experienced it, if not in church, then perhaps somewhere else. We are hearing this season a connected series of readings so it’s important to remember this background. Last week, we heard Paul deal with division in a general way. He advanced this principle: Christ crucified as an emblem of the mind of Christ. That is, the emblem of ultimate compassion animated, lit, by the love of God, like a lamp flaring up and burning brightly. The mind of Christ always cares, always fills with compassion, always sacrifices like a parent giving up something for a child.

Getting Personal

Now Paul is applying this principle to the people in the church, that is to say: to us. Now, I’ve always found this is where things get sticky. It’s one thing to announce a great principle; it’s another to make it personal. Every week I try to share a reflection on the great principles in the Bible. I know my own life doesn’t always reflect these. I know that Jesus says that the commandment not to murder really means not to be angry with someone but I do get angry. I know that Jesus says that we are required to forgive those who hurt us but I have been hurt and I have had a hard time forgiving. Do you find this? Do you struggle to live with the mind of Christ in your mind? Then this is for you—and me.

The first thing Paul says is that these people are babies. I remember ‘baby’ as an insult. I grew up with two younger brothers. Allan was four years younger and I don’t remember a time before him. But my brother David is ten years younger than me so I do remember him as a baby. He always wanted to join in with Allan and I but of course he was too little for some things. We would climb up to a treehouse and leave him behind, we would get on the top bunk of the bed and leave him behind and he would cry. And we would say: “Don’t be such a baby”. Paul says to the Corinthian Christians: you were being babies. 

What are babies like? Well, of course they are wonderful and inspiring and the make us smile and we track each advance in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Rosie to be big enough to come to children’s time. But if we are honest, we can admit there is another side to babies. Babies are selfish. They don’t care how tired you are when they want to eat; they don’t care that your’e doing something when they want to be changed. They don’t care that you just need a quiet moment when they feel like being rocked. Babies are totally self-centered. In the same way, Paul says the Corinthian Christians are acting like babies, self-centered, and that leads them to be jealous and quarreling.

Dealing With Babies

Now notice something about the way Paul responds to these baby Christians: he doesn’t throw them out, he doesn’t work to overcome them, he doesn’t maneuver to make his faction winners. What Paul does is to simply assess where they are, who they are, when they are in the process of development. They’re babies; fair enough ,give them baby food. “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,” he says. This is the piece we miss about being church members: we never ask where people are in their spiritual development. I wonder what it would be like if when our Deacons met with new members, we had a conversation about where that person is in their development as a Christian. Even more important, we need to have this conversation within ourselves. Where are you in your own development? Are you a baby? Are you able to walk but need a little help? Are you grown up but needing some guidance? How much better we could nurture each other as Christians if we asked and answered these questions personally.

So Paul is dealing with babies. How do you grow babies up? You feed them appropriate food, cuddle them and teach them. Some of the teaching is formal but the most important teaching any of us get is what happens around us, what people show us is the right way to do things. I learned to take care of myself at school; but my mother taught me to make my bed. I learned to read from a teacher; my family provided a whole library and an example of people who read. 
When Paul wants to teach, he does it by contrasting the smallness of their leaders with the greatness of God. 

For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. [1 Cor 3:4-7]

What Matters?

What matters? Does Paul? Does Apollos? Casablanca is a movie from the moment when people were asked to choose sides between fighting fascism and cooperating with it. Humphrey Bogart plays a man named Rick who says over and over, “I stick my head out for no one”. But Rick has a past, a past that includes a love affair with Ilse that ended bitterly in Paris when she failed to join him in escaping the advancing Nazis. When Ilse shows up at his cafe, he learns she is married to the leader of the Resistance. Rick has two passes to get people out of Casablanca, where fascism is increasingly becoming more violent. At first it appears Ilse and her husband will be trapped: Rick refuses when she begs for his help. But finally, at the end of the movie, Rick, gives the coveted exit visas to Ilse and her husband so they can continue their Resistance works. He says, 

 …it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
[http://thoughtcatalog.com/oliver-miller/2013/05/50-quotes-from-casablanca-in-order-of-awesomeness/]

He summons her to a greater vision, a bigger vision.

We’ve all seen this process at work. We grow up in a place, maybe move a few times, travel some and see a few places. Isn’t it always surprising how different customs can be? When I moved to Boston after college, I remember going into a little diner and asking for a cup of coffee. The counter guy said, “Regular?” This was before the age of espresso and Starbucks, I’d never heard of anything but regular coffee, so I said “yes”. Now I’ve always drunk my coffee black but what he put in front of me was light brown; it had cream in it and when I tasted it, sugar. So I said, “hey, I wanted my coffee black”. He looked at me like I was out of my head and said, “You said regular”. So we encounter other customs.
 

Seeing the Greater Vision

Every once in a while, something really shakes us though, something makes us see a much larger picture. For me, one of those moments was when the astronauts broadcast the first picture of the whole earth. Do you remember seeing that for the first time? One thing that was clear: none of the boundary lines on the atlas at school were on the earth. So as we move to a larger view, what we thought was important becomes less so.

Now Paul is asking the Corinthian Christians—and us!—to see this fundamental huge principle: that we are not here for ourselves, on our own, but part of a larger weaving. We are God’s field he says. And what is a field? It isn’t just a piece of ground; it’s a place where things are grown, a place that bears fruit. We are God’s field and God is growing a harvest here, we are meant to produce that harvest. We are God’s building, Paul says. What is the building? Isn’t it a meeting house where God’s people can come to praise God and embrace in imitation of the God who embraces us?

Growing Up

We do these things by growing up spiritually. We do them be growing from babies into servants, who can cultivate and care for the field, who can maintain and share the building. Where is your mind right now? Is it open to the mind of Christ. It was the mind of Christ that prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God, as any human might, to ease a time of trouble, but then moving on to say, “Not my will be done Lord but yours—to embrace the purpose and providence of God even in that moment of darkness. How often do we pray that prayer? how would it change us if we did? How would making it our center change our church?

Amen
 

You Children Mind!

You Children Mind!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/A • February 5, 2017

Click on the link below to hear the sermon preached

Someday, God willing, a long time in the future, I will retire. I know many of you know more than I do about that moment, and hope you’ll share your wisdom. I imagine I sitting on a boat in a quiet little cove, watching the sun go down, with a cup of coffee that has on it the image of this church’s building and the words, “First Congregational Church 1850-2000 150 years of returning God’s love.” You’ve seen these cups; we use them at coffee hour. Maybe your home is like ours, with cupboards that accumulate the bits and pieces of where you’ve been. Jacquelyn has a cup from Southwest Airlines, I have wine glasses marked “US House of Representatives” from when I worked there and cups from many different churches and group with whom I’ve had the good fortune to be associated. Like the glasses and cups, we accumulate as well bits and pieces of wisdom along the way. Sometimes they are formulated as little sayings: “a stitch in time saves nine, “when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop shoveling” and so on. We learn, bit by bit, and we pass these things on. Long ago, when I was an intern and got into a bruising fight over church supplies, the wise senior Pastor for whom I worked said, “Never mess with the tissue in the ladies room.” All these sayings and experiences are a sort of wisdom and from them we take our course day to day. For what does it mean to be wise? Isn’t it to choose each day, every day, a path that leads forward?

Where is Wisdom?

“Where is the wise one?”, Paul asks just before the section of First Corinthians we read this morning. It’s a good question, isn’t it? Surely we want to find ourselves following someone wise, someone who can help us choose the best path. Bookstores, television and the web are full of people eager to lead us, to tell us what to eat, what to wear, how to do makeup, how to exercise, how to pray, how to live. But what does Paul mean by wisdom? Paul comes from a tradition that knows two kinds of wisdom. One is the common sense stuff I’ve mentioned, the accumulation of human experiences, distilled by history, from which we take daily decisions. Scripture has a whole category of such sayings called Wisdom Literature; the book of Proverbs is an example and you can find similar pieces throughout the Psalms. There is a common folk wisdom and yet it may not always be reliable.

A Secret Wisdom

 
What wisdom can go beyond daily experience and speak to our hearts and minds and lift them from the visible things of the day to the invisible? In Paul’s time, an emerging philosophy focused on what is sometimes called “secret knowledge.” The concept is that there is an invisible, rational system to the universe that can only be known by someone initiated into the mystery of this secret knowledge. Some Christians had begun to teach and talk about a secret wisdom that only some understand. Some Christian preachers were claiming to have secret revelations. We shouldn’t be surprised because such teachers have always appeared. Right here in New York, Joseph Smith was such a person. Claiming to have had an encounter with an angel who showed him golden tablets, he founded the group often called Mormons. There are a great number of similar people throughout Christian history who have claimed a secret wisdom. This leads to a problem: how do we know which wisdom to follows? How do we know which teacher to believe?
Notice that Paul explicitly says he does not have a special wisdom.

I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom.

If he doesn’t have a special wisdom, a unique insight, what does he offer? Just this: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Christ Crucified

Now this is a curious statement. Paul is an apostle and the foundation claim of an apostle is an encounter with the Risen Christ. Paul didn’t follow Jesus through Galilee or make the journey to Jerusalem; Paul wasn’t at the last supper or in the garden, he didn’t weep at the foot of the cross. But according to his own account, the Risen Christ appeared to him and called him to preach. So we might expect that Paul would say something like, “I decided to know nothing among you but the Risen Christ, Jesus resurrected and alive again.” But he doesn’t. He rests his claim not on common wisdom or the special experience of the Risen Christ but on the public event of Christ crucified.  What is it about Christ crucified that Paul believes can lead us? There on the cross we find not the shining light of special wisdom, secret wisdom, but a public display of ultimate humility. The cross is an emblem of ultimate love: a man laying down his life, giving up his dignity and power out of love for all humankind. All common wisdom comes down ultimately to this one principle: stay safe. “Once burned, twice shy,” we say, and so many other things that all have the common purpose of keeping us safe. We learn what’s dangerous; we learn how far out on a limb we can go and still survive. But the cross is not safe, the cross is not a limb from which retreat is possible. It is the contradiction of human wisdom: it is the act of embodying the love of God. So Paul offers wisdom, but not human wisdom, as he says; he offers instead the cross, the wisdom of God, the sacrificing, love of God that overcomes division, overcomes hatred, overcomes safety to transform human life into love.

The Mind of Christ

So Paul preaches that we should let go of our human wisdom and instead offers what he calls “the mind of Christ.” Now the amazing thing about thinking with the mind of Christ is that we already know how to do it. To live from the mind of Christ is to take seriously the language of Christ about God as our parent and each person as a child of God and carry it forward into action. Do you know how to care for a child? Isn’t the first lesson of parenting to put another’s needs first? Did you stay up when you were exhausted with your child, sacrifice things so they could have something, did you feel your very being stretched to learn to love a child? Of course you did; all parents do. To think with the mind of Christ is to project that experience onto the wider screen of our whole lives. To think with the mind of Christ is to think of others first.

Missions and the Mind of Christ

One of my favorite missions around here is the coats. We don’t often talk about the coats but it’s a simple mission. It gets cold here; we all know that. So we all have coats to keep us warm. This isn’t as obvious as it seems. I remember years ago when I lived in northern Michigan welcoming a new pastor named Paul and his family to our town. They’d lived in tropical Brazil for years and then in Florida. They knew Michigan would be colder so they bought coats: what we would call windbreakers. They arrived on a day when we got two and a half feet of snow, the temperatures were in the 20’s and their moving truck was stuck in the drifts. Watching him and his wife and their two kids, it didn’t take more than a moment to get them inside and start rummaging through the closet to get them some real northern Michigan coats.

We do the same thing here. We know there are people in our area who are just like my friend Paul. They aren’t prepared for the cold and they need coats. Many of us have spare ones and sometimes it’s possible to buy an extra coat on sale. So we collect them up; every once in a while Jim Dennehey takes them to the South End Community Center, where they are given to people. It’s simple. Haven’t we all seen a kid about to go out the door and said, “Put on your coat, it’s cold out there”? The coat collection is the same thing: it is the mind of Christ to recognize that there are others, equally children of God, who need coats and to share them.

If I think with my own mind, if I rely on my own accumulated wisdom, it tells me to keep safe and keep what I have. But when I think with the mind of Christ, I am led to risk and share. The coats are an example; so is the mission we announced today, to collect toothbrushes for kids in Nicaragua. Who are these kids? I don’t know them. They aren’t mine. That’s what my own mind might say. But the mind of Christ tells me that they are my brothers and sisters; that we are equally God’s children, so I have a responsibility for them and to them.

Thinking with the Mind of Christ

Thinking with the mind of Christ can make for difficult questions. This week Governor Cuomo proposed cutting visitation at maximum security prisons to weekends only. The reason given was saving money. Well, my mind, my wisdom tells me that’s a good thing. But what about the mind of Christ? What does the mind of Christ think about a policy that hurts the children and wives of prisoners, and prisoners themselves, the most vulnerable people, to save money? I leave that question for you; it’s not my intent to suggest political points but to invite you to think about everything, from daily life to politics with the mind of Christ.

You Children Mind!

When I was small, before I had accumulated much in the way of things or wisdom, my brother and I were sometimes left with my grandmother. She was a woman always busy, too busy often to monitor two small boys. So we would get into things and do things she didn’t want done and I remember how in an exasperated voice, she would sometimes say, “You boys mind now!” She didn’t have to say what “minding” meant or what rule we had broken; we knew. What Paul is saying to the Corinthian Christians, what he is saying to us, is simple: “You people mind!” We have the mind of Christ: if we use it to guide us, rather than our own wisdom, our own traditions, surely we will come back to Christ’s way. If we live from the mind of Christ, knowing him crucified, surely the love of Christ will shine from us.
Amen.

Not to Regular Readers

You may have noticed, no sermon was posted last week. The reason is that our church was blessed to have a guest preacher and this preacher was blessed to sit with his wife in worship! Our Guest Preacher was Bryan Niebank, and you can read his sermon here.

Foolish Gospel

Foolish Gospel

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 22, 2017
I Corinthians 1:10-18

Have you ever thought about how many decisions there are when you go out to eat at a restaurant? I don’t know about your family, but in ours, this is always a discussion. We’re lucky to have May; she’s a big reader of restaurant reviews. We have our own preferences, of course, favorite places we’ve been to and go back to over and over again. Once you get seated at the restaurant, they hand you a set of choices, a menu, that lays out your choices. This is where it gets interesting. Some menus have pictures and the pictures never match the food delivered? I used to be a food photographer and I’ll tell you a secret: the reason is that the stuff for photography often isn’t real: it gets sprayed with things and it’s fixed up in ways never part of anyone’s order. Maybe you’re an optimizer; that means someone who has been there before and figured out their best choice and automatically orders it. That’s me: every morning I go to the same coffee house, get a small coffee made from Nicaraguan dark roast beans and an everything bagel toasted with cream cheese. Out of the dozens of coffees and teas and the various pastries, I’ve settled on this as my best choice. Maybe, on the other hand, you look over the whole menu and choose something that looks good. And finally, there are those wonderful people—none in my immediate family but I’ve seen this—who just say, “Bring me whatever looks good.” I mention all this because today I want to talk about choices and how we make them. That’s the heart of First Corinthians.

Who to Follow?

These Christians are trying to figure out issues that range from how to do a potluck dinner to how to serve communion; from how to deal with misbehaving members to how to keep themselves together. Remember that this is a diverse congregation. Priscilla and Aquilla, who hosted Paul, were refugees from Rome, driven out by persecution; others members are lifelong Jews, some are former pagans, some are well to do, some are poor. Now they have all chosen to live in Christ, like people going into a restaurant. How will they make choices on the menu of daily life?
In their brief history, these Corinthian Christians have had several pastors. Paul is the church’s founding pastor. Cephas, the apostle we know as Peter in the gospel stories, also spent some time preaching there as well as a man named Apollos. One of the issues this brings up is different ideas. This often happens in churches. I’m always aware that in this church there is a big brass plaque with the names of my predecessors; I kid Joan Dennehey sometimes that my goal is to last long enough here to get my name on the plaque. I know from my own experience how a new pastor can change things and how relationships change.

My mother was mostly a Methodist and Methodists have a culture of changing pastors after five or six years. Mom had a predictable cycle. She always hated having a new pastor. She’d sputter and complain to me over the phone about “the new guy” even when I pointed out to her that I often was “the new guy” in churches. Time would go on. She’d get to know the new guy and he would get older. When it came time to change, she’d be up in arms again about how much she loved her pastor and busy being mad at “the new guy.” My mother died in June of 2014, a few days before a new pastor, a new guy, became the pastor of her church. When I talked to him about her memorial service, he apologetically said he hadn’t had a chance to meet her; I replied, “That’s ok, she wouldn’t have liked you,” and explained about the new guy thing; we laughed, we’d both been there. So Paul is a founding pastor writing back to people who have dealt with some new guys. And as always happens, some of the people liked the new guys better. Some liked Apollos; some liked Cephas. Some preferred Paul. There are people here who would rather have Ray Palmer still in charge; I appreciate that and try to accommodate them.

Finding Unity

What does Paul say? Well, first he calls them to their essential unity. He wants them united in the same mind and the same purpose. I remember reading this at a Bible Study years ago and one of the long time members sniffed and said, “Obviously these people aren’t Congregationalists; no one would say that to us.” We celebrate diversity; we encourage difference of opinion. So how should we receive this command to be of one mind? What Paul seems to be doing here is moving the Corinthians from making decisions based on the “I” to the “We”. This is a hard shift. Over and over when I meet with church committees over the years, I hear people speaking from their own desires exclusively rather than from a sense of the larger we.

Paul goes on to move them even further. He gives this marvelous gift to all of us pastors who are less than great at record keeping. Here’s a stunning fact: Paul has no record of whom he has baptized, no list, no report. He says no one then he has to go back and mention the house of Stephanas. I think what he’s doing is gently pointing out by sharing his own weakness as an administrator the weakness of claims by leaders.

Who’s In Charge?

For when we make decisions, one of the great temptations is to listen to others. We do it in small things. Our family orders lots of things on Amazon; I always read the reviews. May reads restaurant reviews for us, as I mentioned. It’s natural to ask someone else’s experience. But when one person dominates decisions, there are problems. Every autocrat begins with the premise that if we just trust them, they will do great things, the right things. Apocalypse Now is one of the great movies of the last generation. At its heart is the story of one of the best and brightest military officers in the US Army in Vietnam. Frustrated with the inefficiency and lies of his chain of command, he goes off on his own to demonstrate how the war should be fought. But at the end he’s left in darkness, mumbling over and over again, “The horror, the horror.” All autocrats end like this: confronted by ultimate failure, confronted by horror. No one is enough.
Contrast this with Christ. Paul is clear: he was sent by Christ to preach Christ, to let Christ show through him. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” [1 Cor 1:17] What he seems to mean is that his actions as a pastor aren’t the main thing: the main thing is the one he points toward, the image of Christ, the power of Christ to transform lives through love. Later on in the letter he will explain this love, saying,

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Here is the opposite of autocrat: a love that doesn’t claim, but instead invites. We often focus on the stories of people Christ calls in the gospels but there are just as many stories of someone he heals or calls who doesn’t respond, doesn’t follow him. I often wonder: was he annoyed? was he disappointed? was he angry? The gospels are mostly silent: he simply moves on. Love doesn’t command; love invites. Love doesn’t compel; love offers.
A friend on one of my preacher’s lists said recently,

I can understand someone who has had a terrible life ending up being miserable and bitter. I can sympathize with that. And I have learned that, often, folk who seem to have everything going for them but are still not happy, and who find life terribly hard, are actually carrying trauma and griefs hidden from the rest of us. I understand that.
What I don’t understand is the miracle of the person who lives a stellar life. The person for whom things have been really tough, who… you would expect… would be soured and bitter, but who has turned adversity, trauma, poverty… into triumph. What sets such a person free to fly in life? [https://onemansweb.org]

The Cross and The Gospel

The ultimate example of this, of course, is the cross. Suffering for all, even on the cross we’re told Jesus could still think of others, still find compassion for others. Whether it is comforting those crucified with him, connecting his mother and his disciple John or speaking even about his executioner to say, “They don’t know what they are doing.” Part of the lesson of the cross is to move away from I to the ultimate we, to the vision of God of the whole of creation and of every person as a child of God, a member of the family.

Paul is calling the Corinthians to this compassion; Paul is lighting the candle of this love. And in our church, in our congregation, we are meant to listen and love in the same way. It doesn’t matter what I want here; honestly, it doesn’t matter what you want. What matters is what God wants. When the Roman armies won a victory, the news of it was called “gospel”; that’s where the word comes from. Christians used it to refer to the story of Jesus because that story is how the wisdom of the world—that some person can through smarts or violence or power bring us life—was vanquished by the ultimate victory of God in Jesus Christ. When we come to our own cross, when we take up our own cross, when we ultimately know that what matters is what God wants, then indeed this foolish gospel is kindled and the world is lit. And the darkness cannot overcome that light.
Amen.
© 2017 James Eaton • All Rights Reserved

Together In Every Place

Together In Every Place

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 15, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Hear the Sermon Preached

When my brother David was born, he wasn’t like us. I already had a brother, Allan, and we both had brown eyes; so did my mom and dad. David had blue eyes. We all had dark hair; David had light hair. He wasn’t like us. Then, my parents took us to visit my father’s family back in Michigan. My grandmother, my father’s mother, took one look at David and said, “Oh! Little Elmer!” Elmer was my father’s brother but long ago my father and Uncle Elmer had fought over a shotgun and never made up; we didn’t know Uncle Elmer. Nevertheless, with that one declaration, my grandmother had done something permanent. David was one of us, after all. We were family. We still are. How do we connect to each other? How are we together? We sing, “Bind us together, Lord”, but what’s the glue?

The Corinthian Church

The little church in Corinth, Greece, was just a few years old when Paul wrote the letter we know as First Corinthians. It’s not really first; later on, we learn this is Paul’s second letter to them. He was their founding pastor, the Ray Palmer of the place, and in his letter we get a picture of one of the first Christian churches struggling with many of the issues we face today. So over the next few weeks, we’re going to hear a series of readings from this letter as a way to think about our own life as a church together. The letter itself was written about 20 years after the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Paul will say later in the letter, some of the people who were present for the resurrection are still alive.

Corinth itself is a bit like Albany. The great center of culture, Athens, is not too far away but Corinth has its own history. It sits on a narrow peninsula and has a bit of a reputation as a party town. It’s Greek but it’s also full of people from all over, different cultures mixing, not always matching.

How Do We Share God’s Love?

How do you share the love of God in such a place? How do you do it here?
It’s important because if we are going to move forward and move our community forward, we have to stay together. We know that when politicians want to distract us from the truth, the first thing they do is divide us. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking for the last time in Memphis, Tennessee, he began by saying,

…we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm]

We know that just as my grandmother looked at that baby David and saw the connection we had missed and said he was one of us, God is looking at us, seeing beyond what we see and calling every single person a child of God.

Paul Has a Partner

Listen to what Paul says to that church in Corinth where the demons of division has begun to take hold. He begins by reminding them about the how important bonds are. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…”, he begins. It’s easy to rush past this greeting but an important point is being made right here. Paul is an apostle, a man who has seen the Risen Lord himself and yet he isn’t alone; he doesn’t work alone, he doesn’t preach alone, he does nothing alone. Sosthenes is his partner in his work.
He goes on to describe the congregation in Corinth as “…those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”, and then he notes that they are not alone either; they are, “…together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” He wants them to remember, as we should remember, that they are not alone. Just as he has partners in preaching Jesus Christ, this church has partners also: “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All of these, in every place, are together. Together, in every place, they are a family, related and bonded together by the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we are part of that family as well; right here, centuries before we were born, already Paul was speaking about us.

So what he says to the Corinthian church applies to us also. This is what he says:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. [ 1 Cor 1:4-7]

Now he’s speaking to a small church; he’s speaking to a church roiled by divisions, arguing questions, wondering how they can go forward together as a little congregation in a big city.

All the Gifts We Need

I know that feeling. Like every person, I have a mental list of things I’m good at and things I am not. I can’t speak Spanish or Italian or French. I can’t catch a ball reliably which when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of the great New York Yankees baseball teams with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris was a serious disability And I can’t sing well. I’m not a very musical person. In ninth grade, they held a competition in band to determine who could hear differences in pitch; I came in last. Normally, it doesn’t matter; I try to keep my voice down when we’re singing hymns, so what comes through are the beautiful voices of those who sing well. They inspire me and I know the beauty of their music pleases God. When I worked in a church where we recorded the entire worship service, I turned my microphone off when there was singing; sometimes I’d forget, and there it would be on the recording, the voice of a man singing without a tune. My family always enjoyed those tapes, laughing with me at my failure.

I’ve been blessed over the years as I am today with some fine music leaders. One of them shared in leadership at a Wednesday chapel service for preschool kids. I’d do the prayers and the talking; she led the singing and it was great singing. Then one day she became ill with one of those long term illnesses and suddenly I had to do the whole thing every week. It was me that had to stand there and get them started on “This Little light of Mine”; me that had to start up “Oh What a Miracle”; thankfully that one had an electronic version I could hide behind. I had to lead the singing and every Wednesday I was like a bird that flies into a window, crashing into what I couldn’t do. Have you ever felt like that? But then I came up with a solution: I’d call a few of the kids up front and you know they had these beautiful voices and they would start up and we would all sing and you could just feel God smiling. You see, the solution was simple: we had all the gifts to praise God, we just had to share them. We had to act like people together.

Everyone Needs a Helper

When we think of the whole cast of characters that make up the sacred story of spiritual progress, it’s important to remember they didn’t always look like the best ones to accomplish God’s purpose. Sarah laughed when God announced she would bear a child; she was too old. Moses was a terrible public speaker. When Esther is afraid to go to the Persian King to prevent a pogrom, a massacre. Jeremiah complains God deceived him. Just like me with my inability to sing, every one of these people thinks they can’t do something. Just like us, they often are so aware of their limits they almost miss God’s call to lead the spiritual parade of progress. The way forward comes from faith that as Paul says God will strengthen us to the end. One way God strengthens us is by giving us each other. Sarah isn’t alone, she has Abraham; God sends Moses’ brother Aaron with him. Esther is strengthened by her uncle Mordechai, Jeremiah has an assistant. Together, we have every spiritual gift needed to do what God hopes.

Sailing on the Chesapeake, it’s common to look off into the distance and see the dark gathering clouds of a storm. We have been through a long political campaign that has among other things darkened our national life by lifting the voices of the demons of division. It’s tempting at such a moment to look around, see how small we are, see how great the challenge of living into God’s justice is and act like the chipmunk that lives in our garage. The chipmunk has one response to every threat: run and hide.

No Hiding!

But God will not accept hiding; God hopes we will be like a city set on a hill, like a star with to the light of God to the grace of Jesus Christ. All those people I mentioned, and so many others, shared that light because they were together in sharing God’s love and God’s Word. They lived from this faith: that together with all God’s children, together with all God’s love, God would go from victory to victory. So though they feared, they persevered; though they knew their limits, their lives went beyond the limits.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the words I quoted earlier, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, not home in Birmingham, Alabama. He was there to help with the struggle for justice of a group of sanitation workers he’d never met. He was there because despite the fact these were not his immediate neighbors, he knew they were his neighbors in the landscape of God. To get there, he flew on an airplane that had to be reinspected because of the hatred of some threatened the safety of all. He was threatened every day. Yet he could say, “Tonight, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory.” The next day he was killed in an act of violence that shocked a whole nation. It seemed as if the power of darkness was victorious.

Yet his work, his light, have continued to shine. His work, his light, continue to show us the path forward. It was not his strength that made the difference; it was the light of God’s love shining in him that allowed him to sing, and others with him, “We shall over come.” We shall overcome: not me, not you, not one of us, not a few of us, but all of us. We shall overcome.

We Shall Overcome

Now I look around this church, as I know you do. Just like Paul, I give thanks for every one of you and sometimes I wonder what we can do. I know we are small in number. How can we overcome? And I believe the answer is right there before us: it is when we learn to look at others the way my grandmother looked at David and see our connection, see that though they may look different, we are one family. We are, together in every place, as Paul said, God’s children. The demons of division may be loud but our faith in God’s love can bind us together. The demons of division may be visible but the invisible grace of God in Jesus Christ can bind us together. The demons of division may seem victorious but if we live with the simple prayer that our lives may be dedicated to letting God’s love shine, they will be defeated. That’s the faith that allows us to sing, “We shall overcome.” We sing it not because it is true today but because we know in the fullness of God’s time, it will be true and in that time we will, in every place, together, see the glory of God and the justice of God pour down like mighty waters.
Amen.

Hear it: Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome