Palm Sunday B – The Lord Has Need of It

The Lord Has Need of It

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Palm Sunday • March 25, 2018

Mark 11:1-11

Today is Palm Sunday, an annual celebration with so many memories for me. In other places, other times, I’ve often spent hours planning dramatic worship services. I’ve imagined and then helped churches gather groups to parade down the aisle, bought and handed out hundreds of bits of palm leaves. I’ve encouraged people to wave them, throw them, brought clothes in to simulate the things thrown on the donkey Jesus rode. I’ve never actually bought a donkey in a sanctuary but I’ve discussed it and once I even got close to having one ready to go. So today, in this place, on this Sunday, it seems a little quiet. But in this place, on this morning, what I hope is that we can look at the real Jesus, the real events, the real meaning. What does Palm Sunday have to do with Jesus? What does it have to do with us?

The first thing to understand is the setting. Jerusalem sits on top of a small mountain with winding paths up the slopes. Its tall walls were crowned with the glittering gold of the temple pinnacle and many of the temple walls were clad with white marble that glittered in the hot, bright Near Eastern sun. It’s almost Passover and pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean world are gathering in this sacred place, returning to the City of David to remember their heritage. 
The city is packed to capacity and religious fervor rises. Several years before Jesus and in coming years, that fervor led to riots, spurts of rebellion and the inevitable Roman reaction with red blood running in the streets.

On this day, the stream of pilgrims walking up the paths is pushed aside by a parade. Representing the Son of God, a contingent of Roman soldiers are marching to Jerusalem to enforce the Roman law. “Son of God” is one of the names Romans applied to Emperor Tiberius. For about fifty years, the Romans had seen their leaders as having a kind of divinity, affirmed by their power. Power, in this case, really meant the ability to kill people. Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the ultimate Roman answer was violence. From Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman crucifixion, Roman slavery.

Now, up the western slopes of Mt. Zion, the Roman soldiers wind their way, Roman officers mounted on horses, Roman standards held high. It was a show meant to show off the threat of Rome. How the Jewish king, hated by his own people, must have loved seeing those banners. Worried rulers always love military parades.

Knowing this is going on, knowing the main event, we can turn to the other side of the city where there is also a procession. This one is small, this one is unruly, it has no standards and its leader is ridiculous. The Son of Man, a translation of a phrase that means the representative person, the humble person, is coming to Jerusalem on a donkey. It’s not even a sleek, cool donkey, this one is nursing a colt. Can you imagine it? Can you see it?

I’ve never ridden a donkey, have you? So I went online and it turns out there are directions there for riding a donkey. It says adults are too big for donkeys; so I imagine Jesus with his feet hanging down, dragging along the path. Donkeys have a slow, plodding walk; this procession isn’t going anywhere fast.

Behind Jesus, perhaps around Jesus, are the people who have followed him from Galilee. One writer says,

Jesus came into Jerusalem dragging the world in behind him. He’d spent most of his ministry with what the Pharisees regarded as all the wrong people in all the wrong places. He’d befriended women of dubious reputations, touched lepers, dined with tax collectors, done favors for despised Roman soldiers, held up Samaritans as heroes even as he turned Pharisees into villains. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he had all of these folks in tow.
[http://yardley.cs.calvin.edu/hoezee/2000/mark11PalmSun.html]

It’s a strange group and here they are, slowly walking behind Jesus, walking behind the Son of Man on a donkey. I can’t imagine anyone is paying attention. After all, on the other side of town, the Roman general is riding a horse, sitting comfortably and grandly up there, with ranks of perfectly disciplined soldiers.

Now that we have the picture in mind, we come back to the story Mark tells and immediately once again to this donkey. What is it about the donkey that’s so important? Jesus makes a huge point of giving instructions about it. There’s endless argument: does he know what will happen or has he planned it? Does he know the donkey owner? Has it been previously rented by some advance disciple? What is the deal with the donkey?
The donkey is a reminder of the hope of God’s covenant. The prophet Zechariah had said,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
[Zechariah 9:9]

There is Jesus, just as the prophet had said: this teacher comes as the Son of Man, so powerful he can look powerless. The Roman general needs his horse to look important; Jesus IS important. The hope he embodies is also in the testimony of Zechariah,

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth. 
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
   I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit. 
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
   today I declare that I will restore to you double. 
[Zechariah 9:10-12]

The symbols of worldly power, the arrogance of calling a man Son of God, is marching on the other side of Jerusalem. But here comes the Son of Man, riding on a silly donkey; he can afford to be silly—for God is riding with him. The armies of Rome are marching on the other side of Jerusalem, ordered ranks, swords showing. Nervous rulers always need military parades.
But here comes the Son of Man and his followers are all kinds of people: men, women, gentiles, Jews, sinners and they are together shouting, “Hosanna!” “Hosannah!” They are what Zechariah described as the prisoners of hope and they have been released; their cry of joy echoes from the hills. The Son of Man comes on a donkey: the Spirit of the Lord renews the covenant, the new covenant that invites us all.

This is where we come to the second meaning of the donkey: the donkey is a decision. Remember what Jesus says,

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’  [Mark 11:2-3]

Someone owns that donkey. Someone pays for that donkey, pays to keep it, pays to stable it, someone uses that donkey for work and getting places. Think of it as your car; think of it as yours.

Now some guys you don’t really know who have a strange accent come and start up your donkey. They sound like they’re from Texas; definitely not from here. Perhaps you saw them when you heard that young prophet from Galilee and you vaguely remember them. When you ask what they’re doing, they say, “The Lord has need of it.” What would you do?

That’s the heart of this story: it all flows from this moment, this decision. “The Lord has need of it.” The challenge of Palm Sunday is just this: whatever you have, the Lord has need of it. Like quilter assembling bits and pieces into a beautiful tapestry, Jesus takes the hurts and hopes of these people he has dragged with him to Jerusalem and makes them a covenant community, a caring community in the new covenant in his blood.

So now we come to our Palm Sunday and like the donkey’s owner, we also are told the Lord has need of what we have: what will we do?

Are you grieving? the Lord has need of it; those who grieve shall be comforted, he says. So bring our grief—his hope is for you, shown to the world in you.
bring him your grief

Are you joyful? Can you see the Lord in your life, blessing you, showing you the beauty of creation, helping you to feel God close and present? The Lord has need of it: 
bring your joy.

Are you hungry? the Lord has need of your hunger, because hungry people are ready to be fed. He’s already fed thousands and he means to nourish us as well, with the bread of life. 
bring him your hunger

Are you doubtful? The Lord has need of your doubts: bring them to him. He never asked anyone to go beyond where their faith would take them.
bring your doubts.

Are you guilty? the Lord has need of it: he’s bringing a new covenant, where forgiveness is the gate to go into glory. 
bring him your guilt.

This one man, whose donkey the Lord needed, became the doorway to a procession we remember down the ages, that we remember when no one but historians remembers the Roman soldiers. This donkey the Lord needed is remembered when the general and his horse are just a footnote.

The Lord has need of it: someone heard, someone said yes, and the donkey became a platform from which the Son of Man proclaimed the fulfillment of God’s covenant had come to Jerusalem. Now every day, every time, we hear the Lord saying about us, about our lives, our whole selves, the good parts and the bad, the hurts and the hopes, that the Lord has need of it. When we give him the reins, the same thing happens. The cries of Hosanna are heard; the procession goes forward. And the words of the psalmist come true: the king of glory comes in.

Amen.

Lent 5 B – The Rainbow Path 5

Clean Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor ©2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent/B • March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34 • Psalm 51:1-12 • John 12:20-22

Click below to hear the sermon preached

One of the great gifts I received when I was called as the pastor of a church in Michigan was the opportunity to be present right after my youngest grand-daughter Bridget was born. There is a picture of Bridget and I, taken when she was about 30 hours old, I value beyond all the wonderful photographs hanging on all the museum walls in the world. I had just been handed her and I remember exactly what I was thinking when Jacquelyn took the shot: “She’s perfect, completely perfect.”

Of course, now I know Bridget a lot better and it turns out she isn’t perfect after all. She’s messy, for one thing; a piece of advice I’d offer is don’t stand too close when Bridget is eating chocolate cake. She has a stubborn sense of order that can drive you crazy. When she was small, one of her favorite games was to take the furniture out of the dollhouse and get me to put it back. The game goes like this: I put a piece of furniture in the dollhouse; Bridget lifts it up, says, “No, Grampa Jim, not there,” and puts it where she believes it should be. Perfect is hard to find, harder to sustain. Are you perfect?

God is perfect and working with this imperfect world. What is God doing? We’re nearing the end of Lent and it’s time to step back and ask how it all fits together. Sometimes we can miss the Word God is speaking because we get so focused on the words. A few weeks ago we read the story of Noah and God’s rainbow covenant, a promise never again to start over, wiping everything out. We read the story of how God started with Abraham and Sarah the whole long, painful promise of reclaiming the world from darkness, restoring it to a place of praise, a community of joy, a shining story of justice. We’ve read God’s attempt in the Exodus and the Ten Commandments and we know how profoundly this failed, how the community of faith God hoped went astray.

Today we read how God began again in the words of Jeremiah.

…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [Jeremiah 31:33-34]

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of the will. The verb “know” means to experience intimately, fully. To say God’s covenant will be written on their hearts is to say they will naturally want to fulfill it; to say they will know God is to say they will have a direct, immediate connection with God. No temple, no clergy, no king, nothing else needed.

Why is God doing this? Jeremiah spoke these words to a people already defeated in their hearts, people who have already acknowledged they don’t deserve anything. They were an imperfect people and they knew it. You can hear it in the words of the Psalmist: “…I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” [Psalm 51:3] If even this people know they don’t deserve another chance, what’s going on here? Why is God trying so hard?

The answer seems to be the concluding line of the Psalm we read: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” [Psalm 51:12] God is trying to bring about a joyful community which will naturally praise, naturally worship, naturally live out God’s justice. When we look at the whole sweep of the story, we discover God is bringing the perfect, heavenly life through a new covenant by working on the least perfect. Jesus is the method.

That is certainly what is happening in the Gospel reading. A group of Greeks are in the crowd around Jesus; they approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. What do you suppose they hope to see? What do they expect to find? Greeks worshipped through the images of a variety of Gods but the central theme of their spiritual life was the notion of the perfect. The Olympic games were a display in which the goal was to display perfect bodies doing athletic things perfectly. Greek philosophy suggests that everything in the world exists as a reflection of a perfect reality in a spiritual world. Even in their political life, it was important that a leader be beautiful; beautiful and perfect were equivalent.

Jewish spiritual life also focused on the perfect. There were hundreds of religious rules and spiritual life was built around trying to observe every one of them perfectly. But few people could or did live up to all the commandments. In Jesus’ preaching, the requirements become even more daunting; he tells them that the commandment against murder, for example, is violated when we get angry at someone. In one way or another, both understand God is perfect and both believe the answer to getting nearer to God is to be perfect also.

What are Jews hoping about Jesus? That he will act in perfect accord with the law. What are the Greeks hoping to see? A perfect man, whose perfection mirror’s God.

This is why Jesus confuses and angers them: he offers a completely different path to God. Jewish leaders are already angry; we hear over and over again about Jesus, “This man eats with sinners.” Perfect people only ate with other perfect people; it’s scandalous that Jesus will have lunch with anyone at all. He embraces God’s joyful provision and his disciples gather food on the Sabbath; he heals on the Sabbath and tells the leaders that Sabbath is a gift, not a burden. Now he turns to the Greeks and tells them something that must have left them gasping. He tells them he’s going to die.

Jesus answered them,

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [John 12:23-25]

We are so familiar with the story of Jesus’ death that it fails to shock us. But perfect people didn’t get crucified; perfect Sons of God didn’t die. When Jesus embraces his life and speaks of dying, they must have been stunned. When they hear this is how he is going to represent God, they must have been confused. But Jesus knows the truth. He says that this is the new covenant in his blood: by his death, he shows what covenant faithfulness looks like. This is the picture: a life freed from death through trust in a loving, forgiving creator God.

Jesus offers in place of perfections what the Psalmist calls “God’s steadfast love.” In his teaching about community, Jesus stresses something we talk about but have a hard time practicing: the role of forgiveness. The Greeks measure spirit by perfection; Jesus measures it by love. Here is how things work in the joyful community of Jesus: we’re equally brothers and sisters, we recognize in each other the image of a child of God, and when that child does something wrong, stumbles falls, even falls way down, we respond by encouraging repentance and offering forgiveness.

Jesus says that what we ought to do is stop trying to be perfect and start learning to forgive each other. How many times, his disciples ask? “Seventy times seven”, he responds, a way of saying: endlessly. The rhythm of life in Jesus is a constant sea of love where the waves peak and we are carried closer to God and the waves recede and we forgive and are forgiven.

This is what church life is supposed to look like. Of course, it often doesn’t, because we’ve often copied the world around. In this world, we increasingly hold out an image of perfection and then savagely attack those who seemed to embody it but fall short. We see it in politics, we see it in sports, we see it in the cult of celebrity. We see it in the screaming commentators on TV; we see it in the constant “gotcha” ping-pong of news. We have become Greeks and we use Jesus to help us look more perfect.

But what God hopes is that instead, we will let Jesus use us not to make the world more perfect but to teach it how to love, and how to forgive. God hopes we will teach the world the fundamental reality Jesus preaches here: that we can’t bear fruit except through an unfolding process, a process in which our imperfect seeds sprout and change and produce. That’s how God is working out this great purpose; that’s how God is perfecting the world, by teaching us that instead of being perfect, we can be loved as we are. Like a parent laughing at a child who has gotten dirty and summoning them to a bath, God knows we can always be cleaned up; God remembers who we really are underneath.

I’ve led a couple of churches with preschools and floating through the walls of my study, every day there would be a song signaling the end of the day:

Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share,

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.

Things get messy; people get dirty. I don’t honestly know that everyone does do their part; I do know I love the song. In Jesus Christ, God is singing this same song, summoning all God’s children to clean up, clean up, asking all God’s children to do their part. If Bridget isn’t perfect, she is perfectly lovable and perfectly loved. So are you: so am I. In Jesus Christ, God is offering us forgiveness, cleaning us up, and getting us ready to sing the songs of glory in our heavenly home.

Amen.

Lent 3B – Covenant Community – The Rainbow Path 3

Covenant Community

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Third Sunday in Lent/B • March 4, 2018

Exodus 17:1-17 • John 3:14-21

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

“The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.” Do you know what Passover is? It’s the moment when you clean the house thoroughly, you buy foods that have been especially blessed, you make a big dinner and invite people over to share it and you go through the family story. “Why is this night different from all other nights?,” the youngest child asks, and the answer is the story of how God saved your family from slavery in Egypt, fulfilled the covenant with Abraham and made a new covenant. And you eat and talk and tell the story and somehow you feel God not as a principle but as a presence.

Jesus goes up to Jerusalem for Passover. You came here this morning. Some came through the big doors at the back, some into Palmer Hall and up the stairway. It was quiet and no one got in your way. But imagine if our church was surrounded by a mall, by stores and kiosks with a food court and crowds shopping. The temple wasn’t simply a place of worship, it was a center for markets. Part of the reason for the markets was that you had to change your money. Jewish law forbade giving anything that had an image on it and Roman coins all had the emperor stamped on them; they couldn’t be used. So you had to change your money, like a tourist getting off the airplane in a foreign country. Long ago, people had figured out that the animals and grain required for offerings were hard to bring from home; it was easier to buy them there, so there are people selling doves and calves and lambs. The whole thing sounds like a big state fair, so I’m sure of one thing that isn’t actually mentioned: someone was selling fried dough.

The temple depended on the income from all these sellers and buyers; it had an interest in the marketplace. Churches are the same way: we are linked to our economy. Years ago when I lived in a tourist town, my kids would complain about the tourists; we called them fudgies because, in northern Michigan, the big tourist thing is fudge and visitors notoriously get it on their fingers and smear it on other things. One day one of the kids was wishing the fudgies would go away and never come back. So I said, look, the fudgies come here and spend money in the stores people in the church own, then those people give some of that money to the church, and the church gives some of that money to me, and I use that money to pay your allowance. There was a thoughtful silence and then a small comment: “Well, I wish they would go away and just leave their money.”

Jesus comes to the temple with all its fudgies and the religious bureaucrats and buyers and sellers and what he sees is this: the place that was meant to be the location where people felt the presence of God had become just another marketplace. All that marketplace, all those tables, all that buying and selling was in the way, it was preventing people from finding God. So he does what makes sense: like God releasing the flood to cleanse the earth, he makes a whip and starts overturning the tables. He drives out some sellers; he interrupts some buyers. He overturns tables, he pours out coins, which, while the story doesn’t tell us, I’m sure someone was eagerly picking up. He seems to be breaking the rules. He is obeying the greatest rule of all: putting God first.

What are the rules? If you think about it, from our earliest days, someone teaches us the rules. Don’t hit your brother; don’t hit girls. Come home when the street lights come on. Forks go on the left, knives and spoons go on the right; make your bed before you go to school. Clean up after yourself. I don’t remember learning those rules but I knew them before I knew anything. They are how our family got along. Later, I learned other rules: pick up your socks, put the toilet seat down, the answer to do these pants make me look fat is always no. Those make marriage life easier. Then there are rules no one tells us but we somehow learn. Looking around, I see that you are all in your assigned seats. No one said: Joan., you sit here, Eva, you are on this side, but Sunday after Sunday there you are in the same place. Every community has rules, some written, some invisible, some obvious.

So it makes sense that when God went to make a community, one of the first jobs is to write the rules. Two weeks ago, we heard how God made a covenant with all creation, never again to flood it and start over. Last week, we heard God make a covenant with the family of Abraham and Sarah, to give them a future, to permanently watch over their descendants.

Now it’s centuries later. That family has had its ups and downs. Some time ago they went to Egypt and were enslaved. God stirred them up and saved them out of slavery, and set them on a journey into the wilderness. Now they are camped together at the base of a mountain, waiting to hear what comes next. While they wait, Moses goes up the mountain to talk to God and God tells Moses the rules of community life.

You know these, I’m sure. The first few are about putting God at the center of life: no other Gods, no images of God to limit our understanding of God. Keep a sabbath: remember God every week. The rest of the rules have to do with living with other people. Take care of your parents; they’re part of the family. Don’t murder anyone, don’t violate covenants, don’t steal, don’t lie, don’t covet your neighbor’s stuff.

It’s easy to float on the surface of these rules but if we peer into them there is something amazing at work here. Just as God made a permanent place with the rainbow covenant, just as God made a permanent people with the covenant with Abraham and Sarah, with this covenant, God is creating s community. this is how it’s possible for us to live together. In each covenant, God’s work as creator is evident.

The Rainbow Covenant is how God re-created the world. The Abraham covenant is how God created a connection to our history. This covenant, these commandments, are explicitly linked to God’s creative presence. Why keep Sabbath? Because that’s what God did.”For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” When we keep Sabbath, we are living as the image of God, just as God meant from the beginning. When Jesus breaks the rules, when Jesus scatters the markets, he’s calling people back to the covenant connection the rules were supposed to make.

These covenants we’ve been hearing about, taken together, are a path and the path leads to the presence of God. It doesn’t stop with Noah, it doesn’t stop with Abraham, it doesn’t stop with Moses, it continues on and on.

Now I want to invite you to a covenant. Hundreds of years ago, our fathers and mothers in the faith looked up from church life that had become so cluttered by politics and ritual that God could hardly be seen. Like Jesus clearing the temple, they embraced a new and clearer vision. For them, churches were established by the government. They imagined a church as a group of believers, bound together in a covenant, just as God created a community through covenant. That’s what Congregationalism meant, it’s still what it means: the vision that we can covenant together to form a church, a congregation, free of any other authority. No bishop, no government, no denominational executive has any authority in a Congregational Church. We are free to come to God directly.

This church has a covenant and its members jointly share its responsibilities and joys. I know that many here have been coming to church and sharing together and all are welcome. But today I want to ask you to consider becoming a covenant member of the church, to take the step of saying, “Yes, I will be responsible for sharing the covenant of this congregation.”
This past week I attended an interfaith prayer breakfast. Afterward, we were invited to a reception at the Governor’s Mansion and Governor Cuomo spoke to all of us. There in that house where so many powerful people have lived, this powerful man spoke about his weakness. The governor of New York asked us, as clergy, as leaders in congregations, to speak up for the rules of the community, the vision of a community that cares for all. He said what we all know: that faith in our political leaders is at an all-time low. And he said that more than ever, the community needed us, all of us, who speak for the conscience of the community.

When we covenant together, we speak that conscience. When we covenant together, we walk the path of the covenant, the rainbow path. That path leads to one place, to the place where our lives are the image of God. “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” the psalmist says. Our covenant is a way of singing with them. Shouldn’t our voice join that chorus? Shouldn’t our lives sing that song? Shouldn’t our conscience, shared in covenant, speak the hope of God’s presence, speak the reality of God’s grace, until the whole world sings together?
Amen.

Lent 2 B – No Turning Back – The Rainbow Path of Covenant 2

No Turning Back

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Second Sunday in Lent/B • February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 • Mark 8:31-38

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Chopped is one of my favorite television shows. It works like this: four cooks are given a basket of various ingredients and compete to make a dish out of them. The problem is that the ingredients are sometimes strange: liverwurst and jelly beans have appeared in baskets along with things I’ve never heard about before.

I wonder if God feels like that sometimes: making something out of ingredients that don’t always work together. Think about the stories of Genesis. God makes a person, notes that the person is lonely and makes a partner. But faced with a choice about their own desires and God’s command, they choose themselves. So they lose their special place in God’s garden; God stitches them up some winter clothes and send them out. Pretty soon things degenerate into violence when one of their sons kills the other. The violence spreads until God has to start over.

There is the flood; God chooses Noah and his family, as we read last week, and makes a covenant with creation, a promise, to sustain it forever. But human beings soon go their own way again; pretty soon we read about people trying to be god-like again and God scatters them. So God starts over, not with a flood but with a family: Abram and Sarai. This is the story of how God started saving us; this is the story of God starting over with a covenant.

What is a covenant? It started as a mutual promise. One guy was bigger and tougher than another but at the same time big tough guys can’t constantly look over their shoulder. So as cities and kingdoms developed, agreements began to be made. All kingdoms, after all, are a kind of protection racket. Covenants began as promises between stronger and weaker kings where the weaker one promised to faithfully serve the stronger and the stronger promised to protect the weaker one.

Now, Torah imagines God doing something similar. Look, the story says—imagine the unimaginable powerful God starting over again, but this time with a particular family, this time not with mythic strides and swirling water, but with history itself. God reaches into history and chooses a particular person, a particular family a particular people. You: Abram! Sarai—you and your family, because no one then or now is alone—I choose you, and here’s the choice: I make a covenant with you.

What does it feel like to be chosen? It’s a mix, isn’t it? I’ve mentioned before I think what a bad baseball player I was growing up when the New York Yankees shone like the heavenly court over the lives of little boys in New Jersey. Still, I did get chosen, usually last. And I remember walking out to the inevitable outfield position worrying, hoping I wouldn’t mess up again.

Later on, as a minister, I’ve gone through the process several times of having a church choose me. That, after all, is how I came to be here, this morning: you chose me to be the pastor of this church. For better or worse, you said, “Come here and preach, come here and care for us, come here and lead our church.” And we covenanted together, pastor and people, church and minister.
Look at the covenant God makes with Abram and Sarai.

You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.
I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.
I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.
[Genesis 17:5-7]

It’s all about the future. Here is the problem of human life: what’s coming next? What’s tomorrow and the day after and the week and month and year after that? Covenants are a way to look into the future and tame it. Here is God saying, “This is your future: you’re going to have descendants and they’re going to be communities, nations; you’re going to have a future that will include kings.” And most important of all, I’m going to be your God and their God forever.

Let that word just echo in you for a moment: forever. It’s scary, isn’t it? I think there is some moment in the lives of most of us when it dawns on us that we have some time but we don’t have forever. Maybe it’s when you read about the guy from high school you didn’t know too well but was always in your homeroom who suddenly died. Maybe it’s when you start paying attention to all the ads about aging. Maybe it’s something physical or spiritual or emotional. I call it the obituary moment. When we’re young, none of us read the obituaries; when we are seniors, we all read them, sometimes first.

Forever: it’s the question mark that hangs over us and we have lots of ways of dealing with it. I suppose the most common is to pile up a lot of stuff, whether we call it money or property or something else. Our church building is full of memorials: most of the pews have brass plaques and they are scattered all over. We name rooms: Palmer Hall, Hampton Lounge. But honestly? I suspect most of this is useless. We move on. Most of the newer members in this church have no idea who Ray Palmer was.

But here’s God offering another answer: forever is assured because of this covenant, not because of anything any of these people can do or will do. In fact, Abram and Sarai are not particularly exemplary people; Abram’s already had some shady dealings with the Pharaoh in Egypt and there’s the whole business of Hagar and his son Ishmael. But the covenant doesn’t depend on Abram; it depends on God. And God’s covenant is so overwhelming, so important that it changes anything, even his name, even Sarai’s name. From now on, they will be Abraham and Sarah.

Simone Weil, a writer who began life as a Jew and converted to Christianity, said,

If there is a God, it not an insignificant fact, but something that requires radical rethinking of every little thing. Your knowledge of God can’t be considered as one fact among many. You have to bring all the other facts into line with the fact of God.

Now I want you to notice another thing about this covenant: there are no particular guarantees. God doesn’t say, “I’m going to make you rich, or help the arthritis in your hands, or prevent you from being hurt or humbled.” God simply says: I”m always going to be your God—forever.

This covenant, this guarantee of the future, is behind Jesus’ life. Just before the section we read today, he explains to his disciples for the first time what it means to be the Christ: not the acclaim and world power of a prince but the cross of a man suffering as an outcast. Now he invites his followers to the same life: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is the new covenant he offers, and he offers it in the most profound way possible, with his very life itself. Later he will say, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” He walks a way that sheds everything, even the claim of connection to God—on the cross, he will cry out, feeling forsaken even by God. But God is faithful to the covenant and raises him on Easter.

This is what Jesus is trying to tell people. “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” Years after Jesus’ earthly ministry, the church is looking back and imagining him saying this, years later when people have turned back, when people have turned away, when people have refused to listen. 
But the answer he offers to the ultimate problem of life itself and its limitation is still there Our lives are meant to be lived with God at the center, God’s covenant firmly in mind, faith in God’s presence and providence as constant as our breath.

The covenant God makes with Abraham and Sarah changes their lives. It sets them in motion. Whether in the right direction or wrong, whether doing the right thing or wrong, they are never the same. There is no turning back for them. To walk in the rainbow path of covenant is the same for us: there is no turning back, there is no reason to fear the future. We can’t assure the future with our stuff, we can’t assure the future with our accomplishments, we can’t assure the future with our fame. Only God’s everlasting covenant can assure future and we can only walk in that assurance when it becomes the guiding faith of our lives.

Martin Luther King, Jr., grew up as a young prince of the church in Atlanta. His father was a renowned preacher, seldom remembered today. He went to seminary in Pennsylvania and got his doctorate at the Boston University School of Theology. Almost by accident, he became a leader in the Civil Rights Movement but that movement became not only the greatest moral lens of the last century but his own legacy. Today we often forget that the movement and the man had their ups and downs. In April 1968, King was in Memphis, Tennesee, leading a struggle for justice for sanitation workers. He said at the conclusion of his speech one night,

…we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end…I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will.

The next day he was murdered. And yet who wouldn’t say that his life has gone on, who does justice today and doesn’t feel his spirit? He knew who controlled his future: his faith was in that God who is everlasting. So for him, there was no turning back.

This is the call of Christ: knowing God as the ultimate foundation of our future, no turning back. Knowing God as the ultimate light of love, no turning back. Knowing God as the ultimate faithful one, no turning back. Covenanted in Christ, forward in faith, no turning back.

Amen.

The title of this sermon was inspired by the song I Have Decided to Follow Jesus.

Lent 1 B – The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1

The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1: I Promise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Lent/B • February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17

Mark 1:9-15

Click Below to Listen to the Sermon Preached

Before he goes anywhere, before he preaches anything, before he heals anyone, Jesus goes to the wilderness.

Now, I’ve gotten ready for the wilderness. I’ve gotten out the REI catalogs and dreamed of palatial tents, shoes that could easily see me up and down Mt. Washington, jackets good enough for freezing temperature which God knows I could have used this winter, tiny, tiny little stoves with gourmet freeze-dried meals. Of course, as I thought about these things, it wasn’t really the wilderness I was preparing for; it was camping. Jacquelyn and I discussed camping once. She explained another vision: a little lodge sort of place where they had cable TV and a microwave and mentioned she wasn’t going camping where you couldn’t take a shower.

We have lost our sense of the wilderness. We talk about camping in the wilderness—with a boat, camper and RV and a generator to run the microwave and hairdryer. The wilderness is not that place. The wilderness is not anything you can get ready for. It is precisely the point of the wilderness that you cannot get ready for it because you do not know it. The wilderness is where you are lost, where you lose yourself, where you do not know yourself.

In the last few days, we have been eavesdroppers as the wilderness consumed a community in Florida. In a place labeled one of the safest in the state, a young man bought a semi-automatic rifle, a gun designed for soldiers on the field of battle with no legitimate use off battlefields and shot and killed 17 high school kids and teachers. I can’t imagine the wilderness of the parents and family members of those killed kids and those staff people. All of us who have had high school kids know the drill: you send them off in the morning, sometimes easily, sometimes not; sometimes there has been a fight, sometimes it’s just a fuzzy tired “luv ya see ya tonight oh I’ve got practice, can you pick me up?”. We always assume we will be able to; I can’t imagine how lonely and terrible it must be for those who waited and wondered and finally had terrible news God didn’t make this wilderness. We did.

The temptation here is to talk about how we can make a path out of it but I want to stay with the wilderness because the wilderness is various and this is only one part. The wilderness comes in many ways, in many places. There is the wilderness of a doctor’s office and a frightening diagnosis; there is the wilderness of grief, there is the wilderness of depression. The wilderness is not geography, it is theology. The wilderness is where we feel abandoned, lost, wandering, in danger. There are so many more wildernesses. The wilderness is where we are alone and overwhelmed. How can we deal with the wilderness? How can we live in the wilderness?

Jesus is thrown into the wilderness. The text says, “…sent him into the wilderness” but ‘sent’ is a little word, we speak of having sent someone to the store, the real meaning is that he is thrown into the wilderness.

Let’s leave him there for a moment and look at another wilderness experience: Noah and the flood. Genesis traces a history of violence and human self-seeking that leads God to decide to start over, to recreate the world. It reminds me of my neighbor who loves her lawn. A couple years ago, though, she felt it had gotten so out of control, she took a rototiller and tore it up and then replanted the whole thing. The flood is God recreating and at the center of the story, at the center of all stories about God, is a person who is asked to have faith and do what God says. Noah is told to build a craft to save the world. The instructions are as precise as a set of boat plans ordered online. He builds it; it floats, his family and the animals with him survive. At the end of their voyage, there is a rainbow and the rainbow is a symbol of a promise God makes, a covenant.

I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 
[Genesis 9:11-13]

We read these stories and argue about whether they are true or not true. We do TV specials about finding the ark as if it’s waiting to be found, as if it’s sitting somewhere just waiting for someone to pay the yard bill. This isn’t an event, this is an experience: the event has been overwhelmed by the experience. The experience is that there are moments when we feel wiped out, there are moments when we feel overwhelmed, drowned by a flood we cannot resist, there are moments when we feel God has given up on us.

What threatened your very existence? That is the flood. You don’t have to go look for it in Turkey, it’s here, it’s in your memory. What threatened to wipe you out? Maybe it was a death or divorce, maybe it was a disaster, maybe it was an illness. My grandfather was wiped out by the failure of a bank in the 1930s and he never trusted a bank again. My whole generation grew up with stories of the flood, only it was called a depression. Sometimes the flood is a divorce, especially if it comes upon you unexpectedly. Your whole life is changed, your home is gone, you can never go back to who you were, what you were. And you can never go back. The whole community reminds you. Every time you fill out a form there are those boxes: Married-Single-Widowed-Divorced. Which are you? I’m married—but I’ve been divorced—which one should I check?

Whatever experience, whatever flood, brings you to the wilderness, eventually, we are all confronted with how to live there.

Now the whole point of these stories is to give us tools to live right now, not to argue about what happened long ago. The whole purpose of these stories is to teach us to live God’s way. After the flood, in the wilderness, there is a promise. And this is God’s promise: I am never going to give up on you—I am NEVER going to give up on you.

It doesn’t matter what you do, it doesn’t matter how bad you are, it doesn’t matter how bad things get, I am never going to give up on you: I promise. You may give up on your lawn; you may give up on yourself; I am never giving up on you. I promise.

Now we’re ready to go back and look at Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus has three encounters there. He is tempted by the Satan, he is with the wild animals, he is waited on by angels. That sounds to me like a description of many of the experiences of life in which we suddenly find ourselves, places where we are brought without preparation, without experience, without signposts, places where we are afraid. Temptation is always present: it is the possibility of choosing to live on our own, to believe we can be enough ourselves, that we can live apart from God’s purpose and blessing. But what sustains Jesus in the wilderness isn’t his own power, it is the natural web of life—the wild animals—and the angels who wait on him. It’s worth noting that the word used for ‘waiting’ is the same used later in the gospel for those who minister to others.

This is how God is arching over the world, this is how God is giving us a foundation for our future. It begins with a promise and a covenant. The rainbow is a symbol of that covenant. Out there in the wilderness there are terrors but there are angels too. They are people who remind us that God has made a covenant, a promise, and God’s hope is that we will have the faith to recognize them and wait for them, that we will know they are there because God has not given up on us.

Lent’s often a time for doing deals. I’ve sometimes quoted Anne Lamott who says one of three main forms of prayer is, “Help me help me help me.” Lent prayers are often help me prayers. If I give up M&M’s, will you help me? If I give up Hershey kisses, will you help me? If I give up bacon—no, I’m not giving up bacon. You see what I mean. Lent is often thought of as a time for giving things up. It really is a time not for giving something up but simply for giving. Giving God some space and time to act, giving God some space and time to live in your heart.

The promise is a gift and a covenant. A good response is to make the promise we can make. In this church, when we join we make a covenant. We say, in part,
Sincerely repentant for your sins, in humble reliance upon divine grace, you promise that you will endeavor to be the disciple and follower of Jesus in doing the heavenly Father’s will.

It continues but I hope you see the point. Covenant is how God makes a path from the wilderness to the promised land, from the loneliness of the wilderness to the community of Christ. This year, thought the season of Lent, I want to walk with you through some of the promises of God the Covenants God makes. I call these collectively “the Rainbow Path,” for this first covenant.

This week, this season, as we wander through the wilderness together, God hopes for us we will walk simply believing God is there, taking God’s promise seriously, leaning on God’s promise instead of doing a deal with the darkness. This week, whether you walk familiar paths or places in a strange wilderness, remember what God has said: I will never give up on you. I promise. And if you remember, your steps will be steps along the rainbow path.

Amen

Right Here, Right Now

Conversations Before the Cross #5:What Now, Lord?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Lent/A • April 2, 2017

John 11:1-45

Most mornings at our house begin the same. Waking up, getting out of bed, dressed while an excited dog runs back and forth, urging me on. We go downstairs, hook up the leash, out the door and then open the garage door to reveal the day. This past week, several of those openings have revealed a cold, rainy backyard. Now Lucy hates rain, hates being wet. There she is, straining at the leash, pulling me forward until she comes to the rain. I see her look out, recognize the situation and then she just stops, as if to say, “I’m not going out there in this.” Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. Today we’re invited into this final moment before Jesus comes to Jerusalem, today we are invited to face the darkness of death and see the possibilities of resurrection. Today we are asked to stop in this moment and consider our own lives in the light of these other lives. What then? What now?

Conversations Before the Cross

Throughout this season of Lent, we’ve been overhearing Jesus’ conversations. We heard him talk to Satan, responding to each temptation to live from his own needs with God’s Word and a determination to live that Word. We heard him tell Nicodemus about new life by being born from above, from living as a child of heaven. We heard him offer a woman at a well in Samaria living water, flowing from the love of God, baptizing her in a way that opened the way to new life. We saw him heal a man born blind and the conflict it caused when his eyes were opened and he believed in Jesus. Now we come to this story and there are so many people, so many conversations going on that it’s hard to hear Jesus directly. What do you hear in the story?

Dealing With Death: Avoidance

See how carefully John invites us into the scene. Bethany is a suburb of Jerusalem. Mary and Martha are gathered there; Lazarus, their brother, is deathly ill. I know this scene and perhaps you do as well. It’s played out in hospital waiting rooms every day. Right now, at Albany Med, at St. Peters, some family is gathered, waiting, talking, worrying. Nothing has changed; nothing is different, then, now. Their brother has been sick, perhaps for a long time. Everything has been tried; nothing has worked. Now they try one more thing. Jesus has a reputation for healing and he’s their friend. So someone, another friend perhaps, is sent to get him. Imagine their hope, their last hope, that Jesus will swoop in and save the day.

But he doesn’t. In fact, after the messenger arrives with his frantic plea, Jesus doesn’t rush off, Jesus doesn’t interrupt whatever he’s doing, Jesus stays where he is, the text says, two more days. The story invites us into an irony that reflects our own fears. When the messenger arrives, asking, begging Jesus to come to Bethany, his disciples are afraid. “The last time we were down there, people rioted and we barely got out with our lives!”, they remind him; that’s what it means when it says they were stoned. At the moment Jesus is asked to intervene and prevent Lazarus’ death, the disciples urge him not to go because they’re afraid of death. Here’s one response to death: avoid it, stay safe. Before death, use your mind to escape death.

Jesus doesn’t listen to them. When his disciples were discussing the man born blind, he told them, “I am the light of the world.” Now he gives them an example of living in the light and makes his way to Bethany. There he encounters first Martha and later Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, and each one confronts him with an accusation: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They are grieving, they are hurt, they are angry and their anger and faith have mixed into a bitter blindness. Swirling around this entire conversation is a group of other mourners as well and emotions run high. Jesus is himself caught up in the moment; the text tells us “Jesus wept.” So here we have a second response to death: weep, mourn, grieve. If the rational process of avoiding death fails, the emotional process of grieving offers a path.

Jesus at the Grave

Now I imagine we’ve all been to a funeral and probably to that time before the service, calling hours, wake, different names for the same moment. Usually there is a casket or an urn at the front of the room and a line leading to it with a grieving family off to one side. I don’t know what you think of as you wait in that line but for many, it’s what to say to the family. What comfort can you bring? What story can you share? So I imagine this scene like that: the family and friends gathered around as Jesus, Lazarus’ great friend, comes forward through the crowd. See him walking slowly? See him weeping? Now he comes to the opening, he tells them to roll away the stone and they object: the odor of death will escape. But the grave is opened and suddenly he speaks, he says what no one imagined or expected, what none of us would say: 
“Lazarus, come out.”

Jesus shouts: “Lazarus, come out”, the same word is used at his entrance about the way the crowds shout “Hosanna!”, the same word is used days later when the same crowd shouts, “Crucify!” The crowd changes from moment to moment; Jesus never does. His voice doesn’t come from an impulse. This is what we often miss about Jesus. I don’t believe he suddenly decided to talk to Nicodemus or the woman at the well; I don’t believe he suddenly decided to heal the man born blind. And he doesn’t just call Lazarus out of the tomb because they are friends. Jesus lives from who he is. He says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” This is the quality of his life that inspired and continues to inspire: he doesn’t act like resurrection, he is resurrection; he doesn’t act like he loves, he is love.

Now he calls Lazarus: “Come out!” And now there is a faint noise from inside the tomb, now there is the sound of stumbling feet, now there is a shadow moving, moving toward the light from the darkness, just as the man born blind moved from blindness to sight, just as the woman at the well moved from her loneliness to love. “Come out, Lazarus!” And Lazarus stumbles forward, wrapped still in the linen cloths with which bodies were bound in that time. Jesus offers a new command: “Unbind him and let him go.” And they do. Notice that in each command, Jesus invites others to take action. He tells others to move the stone; he doesn’t pull Lazarus out of the tomb, he calls him out; he doesn’t unbind him, he asks the whole group there to do this. Jesus works through a community around him, commanding, inspiring, calling, showing them what to do and inviting them to do it.

A Third Way: Calling People to Life

We’ve seen two ways to deal with death: avoidance and acceptance. Jesus offers a third—faith in the resurrection, faith in the power of life, faith in the love of God so that even in the midst of death, we remain alive to God, as Paul will say later, transformed. That faith can bind us together into a people gathered in the name of Jesus. Just being a church doesn’t guarantee that; there are plenty of churches who are gathered around a shared culture or a determination to preserve the past.

The fundamental Christian mission: to go to where the power of death is working and call God’s children to life, to go to darkness and bring light. Perhaps a story from almost two thousand years ago is so distant it seems irrelevant. But there are still times when Christians are called to go into tombs and bring life. In 1940, Holland was overwhelmed by a German assault and captured almost in a few days. Soon the Nazi focus on eliminating Jews made itself felt. In Amsterdam, a large theater was gutted and used as a detention center and nearby another called the Creche, was used to gather Jewish children. A small group of Dutch resisters, both Christians and Jews, began to work to save these children. Despite the increasing risks, for the next three years they organized networks to smuggle children out of the creche to homes in northern Holland and other places where families would hide them and help them. The creche was meant to be the first stage of a tomb for these children and so it was for thousands. But thanks to the efforts of these who walked into that tomb and spirited them out, hundreds of children were saved.

Facing the Darkness

But it’s not simply a story of heroes and happy children. Many of the group were lost to the Gestapo, arrested, tortured, murdered. Darkness is powerful; death does not give up. The only power greater than death is resurrection, the only thing that can keep the light alive is the power of God’s love. All along his journey, Jesus has faced conflict and threats. We saw the anger of the Pharisees last week when he healed the man born blind. We know that the charge, “He eats with sinners,” was frequently used and that included people like the woman at the well certainly. Beyond the reading for today, John tells us that the raising of Lazarus leads directly to the plot to arrest and execute Jesus. Remember how Jesus’ conversation with Satan ended. Satan did not say, “I give up”; instead, we’re told, he left him for a more opportune time. Now that time is coming. The darkness is closing around him even as he himself brings light. I wonder in that moment what his followers thought; I wonder what we would have thought, what I would have thought. I read this story and I want to rejoice but it scares me as well. I wonder: what now Lord?

Called by Jesus

For the story of Jesus calling someone to life from death isn’t just history; it is the present too. Over and over in my ministry I have seen this happen. Some person, nurtured by a congregation, comes alive. Perhaps it was a woman whose life had been bound by walls of oppression; perhaps it is a man who turns a life around. Perhaps it is someone who only comes to church for a little while and then moves on. This is what sustains me on my journey. I’ve seen Jesus call people to life. I’ve felt Jesus call me to life.

Every moment is a gate between the past and the future; every moment comes with a context and holds possibilities. As we go out each day, we have to choose among those possibilities. How will we choose? The power of resurrection comes into our lives when we face the day, face the possibilities, face the choices with this question first: what now Lord? What now? If we ask, surely he will answer; if we ask, surely he will show us how to walk in the light, how to live following the one who is life. Amen.

Note: The account of the Resistance group working to save children is found in The Heart Has Reasons: Holocaust Rescuers and Their Stories of Courage

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Communion Table First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

Right Here, Right Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Palm Sunday/A • April 9, 2017

Matthew 26:1-11

To Hear the Sermon Preached, Click Below

“I love a parade”. It’s a comic line in the movie Life of Brian, sung as the bloody procession to the cross goes on. It’s a thought many of us have at times. I grew up going to parades on Memorial Day; the route passed in front of my grandparents’ house and it was always a big day; ranks of soldiers, some fresh from wars, marching, bands, military vehicles and the Trenton fire trucks, notable because unlike normal fire trucks, theirs were painted a sort of grayish beige. Later there would be a picnic and the men would play horse shoes and drink beer and eat oysters.

Do you love parades? For years many of us have come to Palm Sunday like crowds to a parade, waving bits of greenery, anxious for the happy sermon of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem after all the dark Lenten texts. We love the parade: but what is the purpose of the parade?

The Palm Sunday Parade

Perhaps if we pull back and see the parade in context we’ll understand it better. Jesus and his followers have mostly moved through small villages on their journey. Last week we followed him to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem and into Judea where he has already encountered opposition. Now he’s going up to Jerusalem: up, because Jerusalem sits on a small mountain, Jerusalem because it is the capital city, the center of Jewish life.

Along the winding path are crowds of other pilgrims because it’s Passover. Well, parades always mean crowds, don’t they? They are singing the songs of Passover, of pilgrimage, they are looking forward to the celebration and the holiday and running underneath it all is the reminder of how God once defeated a mighty military power, Egypt, for that is the heart of the Passover story. Who knows when God might act against the Romans? We know that Passover often led to riots. Three thousand were killed in a Passover riot near the time of Jesus and these crowds are restless.

For this is not the only parade going on. At almost exactly the same time, Pilate is also coming to Jerusalem. Just like our parades of soldiers and military vehicles, the Romans used parades to show off their might. So on the other side of Jerusalem, there is another parade going on, Pilate and his Roman soldiers, banners in the breeze, swords at their sides, shields and spears held high, are marching into Jerusalem as well, a vivid demonstration of the power of the Emperor and the King he has appointed here, Herod Antipas.

The people around Jesus know about this other parade but they also know God has promised a King on David’s throne, not a puppet like Herod. They remember the words of Zechariah,

Tell Zion’s daughter,
 “Look, your king’s on his way, poised and ready, mounted 
On a donkey, on a colt, foal of a pack animal.”

Hosanna!

So when Jesus appears, riding a donkey, surely a shout goes up. “Hosanna!” Hosanna is a cheer; throwing your garments and greenery down is like putting out the red carpet, it is saying that this person is so important, even their donkey must not touch the ground. Hosanna to the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Now to us, this doesn’t sound so awful; often Palm Sunday celebrations include the shout. But to the Romans, to Herod, to the Temple Priests, it is treason. No Kingdom has two kings. Inevitably, one gets rid of the other. If Jesus comes as king, the reigning king will surely seek to kill him. Already, even before he arrives, there is a plot to arrest Jesus; even as he is acclaimed, others are seeking to destroy him.

The Lord Has Need of It

So here we are: crowds happily shouting, police plotting, Jesus riding, the disciples smiling, all moving slowly up the paths to Jerusalem. But how did we get here? We have to back up in the story to understand and perhaps to understand the whole story. There is Jesus, riding on a donkey. Where did that donkey come from? How does a man who owns nothing suddenly get a donkey?

Of course if you were listening as we read the story, you remember Jesus told two of his disciples to go to a village and get a donkey. Just like that: go to the village, you’ll find a donkey with a foal tied up, go untie them and bring them along. Now donkeys are the cars of the first century. So just imagine if I said to one of you on a Saturday night, “Hey, we need a car for church tomorrow. Go out to Slingerlands to this address and get one.” What would you say? How hard would you laugh? I wonder how the disciples reacted. Even more, I wonder about the owner of the donkey and the colt. These represent a substantial investment. I imagine somehow Jesus must have talked to him. There must have been a moment when he told this guy, “Hey, I need your donkey.” What would you say? What did he say?

“The Lord has need of it.” That’s what the disciples are told to say. It’s a simple phrase. “The Lord has need of it.” Think of the money in your purse or your wallet right now, right here. Imagine someone saying, “The Lord has need of it.” Now think of something more valuable. You know, we have a boat in Baltimore. I love that little sloop. Thirty five feet of classic water lines with a wood interior, sails like she knows the way with hardly any help. She’s a better sailor than I am, I just try to keep up with her. Now I tried to imagine hearing, “The Lord has need of it” about my boat this week. And I confess, I don’t know what I would say, how I would respond.

So I think about that donkey owner and I wonder if he had a bad night. I wonder if he was up early, peeking out, hoping against hope that the call wouldn’t come, that what he had been told wouldn’t happen. I imagine a quiet early morning as he looks out and sees the moving shadows the disciples, hopes they are going somewhere else, knows they are not. Finally they are at his gate; he opens it, they look at each other and say what they’ve been told: “The Lord has need of it.” It’s just the three of them and the animals and he has to make a choice. Right here, right now he has to decide.

“I have decided to follow Jesus,” we sometimes sing. But what about when it’s a decision right here, right now? Of course, in the story, he turns over the donkey and her foal and the disciples go off with them to Jesus and the rest, well, we’ve already talked about the rest: the parade, the entrance, the shouts as Jesus rides that donkey that he has because someone when it counted, right here, right now, said yes, met Jesus without Jesus even being present, met him in the decision to do what the Lord needed.

For the story of Holy Week, all the stories of Holy Week, from this parade to the other parade, the one that goes to Golgotha, are all about people meeting Jesus. We’ve been talking about the conversations before the cross and now it’s coming near and all these meetings, all these conversations, ask us about our own conversation with Jesus, about whether we are ready to meet him ourselves.

Meeting Jesus

Joanna Williams is a retired Presbyterian minister, who shared this story of meeting Jesus.

In the years that I’ve been a minister, I have known some winning churches and lots of winners in them. One who comes to mind is a young man in my first congregation, an advertising executive on the rise in his profession. Every Tuesday night he volunteered at the foot clinic for the homeless people who made their home in our church gymnasium. Robert was his name. He was the nattiest dresser I had ever seen. I can picture him now in my mind’s eye, wearing a crisp shirt, red suspenders.
I see him sitting on a stool before the chair on which one of our homeless guests is sitting. He takes the guest’s feet and places them in a basin of warm water. He takes a towel and dries the feet. He applies ointment to their sores. The ritual ends with the gift of a clean, white pair of socks.
I see the man in the chair, as he slips his socks on, brush a tear from his own cheek-a tough guy whom no one has touched with tenderness in a very long time.
I once asked Robert, the advertising executive on the move, why he came to the foot clinic every week. He brushed me aside, saying, “I figure I have a better chance of running into Jesus here than most places. That’s all.”
I watched him week after week. I realized as I watched him that I was developing my own sort of double vision. I was seeing Christ in the stranger that he served. I was also seeing Christ in the one who was finding deep meaning in his life through serving others.

Jesus comes to Palm Sunday riding a donkey but more importantly he comes because some disciple had the faith to say when the call came, “Yes, Lord!”

Right here, right now, we are being asked to meet Jesus, to follow him, to go with him throughout this week. We all have schedules to keep, things to do but this is what this story tells us about our time: “The Lord has need of it.” You’ve heard the conversations before the cross: now it’s time for your own conversation. Jesus has come to Jerusalem: has he come to you? Can you hear him say about your own time, your own life, right here, right now, “The Lord has need of it”?

Amen

Conversations Before the Cross 3: Samaritan Woman

Conversations Before the Cross 3: Samaritan Woman<

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Third Sunday in Lent/A • March 19, 2017

John 4:5-42

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
– Emily Dickinson

Those words were written in the nineteenth century by Emily Dickinson but I wonder if they might not stand for the thoughts of the Samaritan Woman as she trudged down the hot dirt path to Jacob’s Well and saw a strange man sitting there. One more man who would by his averted glance, his sitting aside, demonstrate his contempt for her and all she was. One more person who would demonstrate indeed that he believed she was nobody.

She’s walking down the path at the middle of the day, the sixth hour. It’s an odd time to fetch water; water is usually fetched at the beginning and end of the day by young women who gather happily at the well. This woman has set herself aside and comes at the middle of the day for reasons about which we can only wonder. She is a minority in a culture of disdain. She is nameless even here in the Gospel. She is a woman in a patriarchal society, she is a casualty of relationships.

Boundaries

All these things are like boundaries around her. The boundary of Samaria: as much a psychological boundary as a national one, one of those boundaries human beings create which seems to outsiders artificial and yet to those who observe it is crucial to identity. How many years have we heard about the troubles in Ireland and yet which of us could distinguish between an Irish Catholic and an Irish Protestant? But the distinction is life and death there.

Years ago the television program Star Trek had a show in which the crew of the Enterprise visited a world of enormous conflict between two races who were half starkly white and half deeply black. Captain Kirk, trying to make peace, arranges a meeting between the leaders of the two factions. He says, “I don’t understand, you’re both half white, half black.” But both combatants look at him in amazement. “But Captain!”, one replies, “He’s white on the right and black on the left; I’m black on the right and white on the left!”. Jesus asks the woman for a drink and she’s amazed!

How Would You Respond to a Stranger?

“You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?” There she is with all her boundaries and someone enters her space. What do you think she expected? What do you expect when you, as a woman, walk into a public place and there is a strange and threatening man? I asked this question in Bible Class and every woman there said the same thing: “I’d avoid him”. She expects to avoid him, she expects to endure his silent contempt, she expects to be nobody. But he asks for a drink. And before he’s done, she’s begging him for living water.

There’s nothing more basic than a drink of water. Jesus asks for a drink and the woman asks for living water, the woman who was nobody, the woman who was nobody. The church is looking back and this is what they are remembering: once I was nobody. “I once was lost and now am found”, we sing. I once was nobody and I had living water poured on me and I became someone. One by one Jesus crosses the boundaries that have isolated this woman. He asks for water as if she were a friend; he offers living water as if she were family. He makes the well again a place to share for her, though she had been alone. Jew, Samaritan—we’re both thirsty, he seems to say. She wants to talk theology: a way to put the boundaries back. “What about where we worship”, she asks; “worship in spirit wherever”, he replies—that’s what God really wants.

Getting Personal

Finally, something happens that saves this from being theoretical and that’s the moment when he asks about her husband; that’s the moment when it becomes concrete, there’s a moment when it becomes personal. There’s a story about a woman in an evangelical church who was very judgmental. One day she got the Deacons to invite a noted fire and brimstone preacher to visit. He said, “God is going to judge everyone! Everyone who has take the Lord’s name in vain, you’re going to have God’s judgment!” “Amen!”, the woman shouted. “Everyone who has looked with lust is going to have God’s judgment!” he shouted. “Amen! Preach it!”, she said, rocking in her pew with her enthusiasm. “Everyone who gambles and plays bingo is going to have God’s judgment!”, he yelled. And the woman stopped rocking and said to her neighbor, the one who had won $5 just last night with her at bingo, “Well, now he’s stopped preaching and gone to meddling.” It’s one thing to talk about theology; it’s another thing to talk about personal things, private things.

“Call your husband”, Jesus says. That’s personal. “I don’t have a husband”, the woman replies. Whatever this woman’s history, and the church has imagined all kinds of histories for her, we know this: she has been dumped. We know it because the text says she has had five husbands and under the law of the time, she couldn’t divorce anyone, women couldn’t divorce their husbands, so five men husbands have left her. What does Jesus say to her? We don’t know; the text doesn’t t tell us but it is clear that whatever he says, she comes away from the encounter with a tremendous sense of acceptance, a deep feeling of having been heard and cared for, because her response is to ask, “Can this be the Christ?” He knows her: from his knowledge, she takes the courage to know him

When the Lost Are Found

It is the experience Paul talks about:

You see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrated God’s own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

God didn’t wait for us to get right, God came when we were sinners, when we were a mess. God already knew us.

That affirmation about God is at the core of what it means to be Christian. Christian life doesn’t start when we know God nor is it founded on what we say about God. Christian life begins when we know God already knows us and loves us
.

The church has all too often forgotten that we come from God’s knowledge of us to our knowledge of God. We have fenced the communion table, we have created boundaries which kept people like this woman out.

I want to say this one thing about the communion table: the invitation is for sinners. This table is a symbol that God is coming to us where we are, to give us the possibility of going to what God hopes for us. This table is a place to receive the food that can nurture us. And what is that food? Not just bread and grape juice. These are just symbols. They are symbols of God’s nurture, they are symbols of God’s call to move beyond the boundaries, beyond what we are, to what we can become.

Who Do You Meet?

Just like Jesus with the Samaritan Woman, every day we encounter people who don’t expect much from us. They don’t know you are a Christian; they don’t know you at all. In every one of those encounters, there is the possibility of someone being nurtured. In every one of those encounters, there is the possibility to share the well, to share the living water.

God has for each one of us, for me, for you, this plan: that you will be a blessing. And everything you need to be a blessing is right there if you will look around and see it. That looking around begins with the woman’s question. When she leaves Jesus, she says, “Can this be the Christ?” What do you think? Can it? Can you believe this is a Christ who can care for you despite all the boundaries?

What this finally means is: can you believe in hope? It’s frightening to believe in hope sometimes; it’s scary to believe in a hope beyond reason.

The movie Shakespeare in Love is the story of the young Will Shakespeare writing a new play he calls Romeo and Ethel, which you may know more familiarly as Romeo and Juliet. The movie has a romantic subplot and several conspiracies which all gather momentum near the end, as the play is put on stage. There are all kinds of obstacles and as they occur people keep rushing up to the stage manager and wringing their hands. To each in turn he replies, “It will all work out”. “How”, they ask. “I don’t know” he says. It will all work out—How?—I don’t know: over and over again.

That’s the hope Paul talks about; not a hope founded on reason, a hope founded on the faith that there is a God whose love is so powerful it can break the boundaries, there is a God whose love is so powerful it can call out of nothing creation, there is a God whose love is so powerful it called Jesus Christ from death back to live, there is a God whose love is so powerful it can call you to the same life. Share it, live it, offer it, as living water, as you share the well this week.
Amen

Conversations Before the Cross 2: Nicodemus

Conversations Before the Cross 2: Nicodemus

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

Second Sunday in Lent, Year A • March 12, 2017

John 3:1-17

Nicodemus Speaks – A Monologue

I know you must be thinking, is it really him? Yes, it’s me: Nicodemus. My name isn’t in any of the lists of disciples, it isn’t on the board with those who understood right away, those he called that came. But I came to him too—only I couldn’t stay. I couldn’t understand him, not then and sometimes, not now. He was a strange man, Jesus was, strange in a way no words can describe. It wasn’t the way he looked, it was the way he looked into you, the way his eyes saw down deep into the soul. I’ve never forgotten his look, I’ve never doubted he saw through me, into me. Has anyone ever looked through you, really looked?

I was younger then. I worked hard and made a place for myself in the community. Some called me a ruler and many consulted me, I wasn’t rich like a Roman but we did ok; my family never wanted for anything. When they asked for help at the synagogue, I was glad to have my name right up there on the list of the “Angels” who built the place. When the school needed scrolls, I helped out, and I sat on the Board of Trustees for a while and later the City Council.

People respected me and it felt powerful. Yet, with all the good things, all the powerful things, I sensed there was something more. I was successful at business—but that only made money. The shekels flowed but my soul was still restless. Then I searched for something more in the respect of others—but that only meant people nodded to me in the market and I got a better seat in the synagogue.

One day I heard about this rabbi. Some said he was a revolutionary; some said he was a healer. Some said he was dangerous and others said he was just a disciple of John the Baptist who had set out on his own. There was a whisper too, a whisper never openly mentioned but there nonetheless that he was the Messiah.

Do you know about the Messiah? The Messiah is really a story for children. Someday, it is said, God will send someone like Moses and David who will—what? It’s never clear, never concrete. Someday a Messiah will come and lead a revolt against the Romans, some say, or perhaps the Messiah will come and everyone will be rich, or perhaps the Messiah will come and we’ll all go on another exodus out in the wilderness. Who knows? But this man—this Jesus—he didn’t seem to be raising an army like some did, he certainly wasn’t getting rich, and as for leading, he seemed more bent on getting to Jerusalem than out back in the desert. But the whispers came, again and again, and my soul was restless and somehow, in some way that made no sense, I wanted to meet him.

It was impossible, of course. The scandal would have been too much; I could have lost not only the respect of the others on the council but a hefty bit of business too. Still, I wanted to see him. I heard he was traveling with a group and I wondered what it would be like to be part of that group. Finally, I knew I couldn’t resist; I had to see him. One night, when it was dark, when no one would know, I snuck out.

Finally I found him. I don’t know what I expected: someone bigger, certainly, someone grander. The truth is, he was just a man, like you or me. Except: he had those eyes, those eyes that looked through you. His eyes held me while someone who didn’t seem to be a slave washed my feet. We’d never met, but he wasn’t interested in all the things I usually say, the things we all say, when we meet someone for the first time. Things that would let him know…well, who I am…how important I am. I tried being very polite, called him Rabbi although he didn’t look like he was educated. “We know you’re from God,” I said, and complimented him on his work: gotta be God to do healing.

But he wasn’t impressed. He said the strangest thing: that you had be born from above, from heaven, to see God. I stood there, thinking, this is it? this is the great Messiah? this is his best shot?—born from heaven? I tried to point it out: “How can anyone be born again,” I said, and I said you can’t go back, you can never go back. It’s that way with all of life: there’s no going back. One chance, that’s all you get, one, no more, no do-overs, no second chances. People say they forgive and forget but they really never forget they forgave. Born again from heaven indeed! It was ridiculous.

He sat there…quiet, quiet like a dark night when you sit alone, quiet like a morning before the day starts. He sat there and finally simply said, “Don’t be astonished.”
How could I not be astonished? How could anyone? He began to talk about the spirit, the breath of life, blowing this way and that, blowing where it will, as if God is as aimless as a toddler at play.

He didn’t just talk either, suddenly he began to move, almost like a dance and it seemed as if I was dancing. Only for a moment but there it was that moment, and in that moment I remembered when I was young and we used to dance and play in the square, when we were children and I caught the spirit of it. And then it was gone, gone like the light from a candle snuffed out, just the smell of smoke to remind you it ever was.

That was it. We argued a little more. He acted like he was the one who knew things and that I was—what? a child? I’m wasn’t a child then. I went home and when the door slave asked how my night went, I told him to shut up or get sold and the next day I snipped at my wife. I thought it had been a waste of time, all of it, the walk, the visit, the conversation.

But somehow I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I’d remember bits of it at odd times. One day a guy that’s rented some fields from me for years came to see me. Behind in his rent, of course, he always is, and he stood there with his hat in hand, cringing and suddenly, mumbling how he knew me, knew what I would say, what I would do, suddenly I started to laugh, I laughed so hard and I said, “Go in peace, friend, go in peace, you owe nothing this year: payment for the laugh.” I don’t know why I laughed, my accountant was stunned when I told him about the whole thing. But it felt good: new, that was it, it felt new, like I was new—just for a moment. There were other days like that, and, to be honest, a lot where I was the same old me. It seemed like there was something in me, something I couldn’t explain, something I could only express.

My wife said after a while that she didn’t know me anymore, it was like some stranger had been born in me and immediately I thought of his words, born from above. I began to lose money in the business; I couldn’t bear to throw anyone out of their home, and word got out, rents stopped coming in. They threw me off the council at the synagogue after a meeting where I suggested we leave the building open in case someone needed a place to sleep at night.

My kids are furious: they say I’ve spent their inheritance on the food pantry I helped start. I don’t know, I’m not sure what’s happening. I only know that my life has changed. It’s what he said, it’s a new birth. And every day I get up now and—I’m like a kid again. Like a child!— perhaps just childish some days.

Is he the Messiah? I don’t know—I only know I met him one night—I only know, it’s like I’ve been born again.

Conversations Before the Cross 2:

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

The black and white flickering picture on the screen highlights the dark points of farm implements, makes the wrinkles on faces stand out, tells us the movie is sometimes long ago. It’s the beginning of the Wizard of Oz, but it begins with the dust and dreary farm and the harsh black and white light. We’re in Kansas in the depression. Dark clouds forming a funnel, an image burned on everyone who’s ever lived in tornado country as disaster in motion, and suddenly the house is lifted, Dorothy with it, whirling through the air. When it lands and she opens the door suddenly the world is transformed: it’s now in color. Perhaps you know the story, how Dorothy sets off to find the wizard and a way home. Along the way she meets the Scarecrow, who wants a brain, the Tin Man, who desires a heart and the Cowardly Lion who begs for courage. Each is invited to come along and each has to ask the same question this conversation asks us: do you believe in the possibility of transformation? Can the world change color, can the leopard change his spots, can the whole world change—can you change?

Nicodemus Comes to Jesus

That’s the question Nicodemus is left pondering. He comes to Jesus at night, when good Jewish men are locked up in their gated homes. He is a substantial man, well off, presumably married with kids at home. He’s respected, a leader in his community and his synagogue. Yet something brings him out, some need, some emptiness. Long after Nicodemus, St. Augustine would write, “Lord, you have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” [Augustine, Confessions 1.1.1] Perhaps he has a restless heart. Perhaps he’s just curious.

He comes to Jesus with courtesy, calling him Rabbi, a term of respect, roughly comparable to “Reverend” or “Teacher”, and he says that he knows Jesus “came from God”. He’s been impressed by the signs Jesus has done. Presumably, he means the healing which was an important part of Jesus’ ministry. He doesn’t ask a question; he simply comes. What would you have asked? What do you want to know from Jesus?

Perhaps Jesus is used to such seekers; perhaps he simply sees the restless heart before him. He says, simply, directly: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”

What do you hear Jesus saying? We are so used to American cultural religion with its emphasis on what we do, on the gospel of achievement applied to salvation, that we may hear the familiar phrase, “You must be born again.” But that’s not what Jesus says. First, he doesn’t command anything. There’s no imperative here. It’s a simple, flat statement: “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.”

I think Nicodemus must have heard the born again part, as we often do. Because he immediately focuses on the physical: no one can be born again he says. We apply the same thought, often, to ourselves. Nicodemus makes the obvious argument: grown up, grown old, we can’t go back ad start over. “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

Can We Change?

Isn’t this really what most of us think? You are born, you grow up, you learn things, you experience things. You have some tough times; you have some good times. At times you prosper, at other times you don’t. Through it all you accumulate all those bits and pieces that make you, you. And among them are some scars, some injuries that left a mark. Maybe it was a marriage that didn’t work out; maybe it was a loss, maybe it was a friend who isn’t a friend any longer. Maybe you never quite lived out some dream you had earlier on. How do you go back and restart after all that?

I’ll tell you a secret only two people in the world know: I wasn’t that great a parent to my oldest child. I didn’t know how to be a parent, I certainly didn’t know how to parent a girl. I didn’t tell her how proud she made me nearly enough, and I wasn’t kind enough, and I didn’t know how when she raged to think, “Well, she’s 13, it’s just hormones,” and walk away, so I yelled back. I’d give a lot to go back and change that. But I can’t.

Maybe you have something like that, something you wish had been different but never will be. So maybe you agree with Nicodemus: you can’t go back. If you do, then it’s so important that you listen closely to what Jesus says. Because you and I and Nicodemus have all misunderstood Jesus if we thought he was talking about going back. He says,

’You must be born from above.’
The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [Matthew 3:8]

Born Again or Born from Above?

Jesus isn’t talking about being born again at all. He’s talking about being born of the Spirit: being reborn. Jesus isn’t talking about undoing the past: he’s asking about the future. The wind blows where it will: it’s hard to predict, it’s hard to see. So is the future, and the question isn’t what about the past, but what are you going to do about the future? Can you live as someone born new today from God’s Spirit?

This starts with seeing. How many of God’s blessings do you see each day? How do you see other people. We are being asked today by a great political movement to see people of other faiths, Muslims particularly, as fearful. Do you see others, strangers, as children of God, the same God who loves you? Can you see this way? Can you start, not over, but fresh each day, freshly looking out for what God is doing. There was a moment when Western surgeons learned to treat cataracts which were often the cause of people being blind from birth. Annie Dillard talks about some of these people in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, concluding with this case.

…a twenty-two-year-old girl was dazzled by the world’s brightness and kept her eyes shut for two weeks. When at the end of that time she opened her eyes again, she did not recognize any objects, but ‘the more she now directed her gaze upon everything about her, the more it could be seen how an expression of gratification and astonishment overspread her features. She repeatedly exclaimed, 
‘O God! How beautiful!’ [Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 30f]

Jesus invites Nicodemus to a new life, not to a do over of his old life; not to be born again but to be born from above, into a new spiritual life.

This, he says, is his purpose:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The first step is to believe and begin the journey.

What happened to Nicodemus? We don’t know; the gospel never mentions him again. But sometimes it takes a while for the seeds of the spirit to sprout and blossom and bear fruit. There is a moment when the Tin Man, the Scare Crow and the Cowardly Lion think the gifts they seek, the new life they hoped to find, will never happen. What happens then? The wizard gives them each a gift to recognize the gifts they already have. The Scarecrow gets a degree, the Tin Man a heart and the Lion a medal for courage. What about you? What would it take to change your life? What would it take for you to believe that’s possible, that you can be born from above?

Perhaps it is to simply to see God’s love, the way that girl saw the world. Maybe one of your wounds is that somewhere along the way, someone suggested God was sitting like a judge, writing up everything you’d ever done wrong. Maybe your list is long. Then listen: God is here, not to judge, but to love; God is here, not to judge, but to save. God is here, inviting you to start fresh today. God is here: how beautiful.

Amen.

Conversations Before the Cross 1: Sermon

Conversations Before the Cross #1:
Satan Speaks

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Lent/A • March 5, 2017

Matthew 4:1-11

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

The Best and Worst Day of Your Life

What was the best day of your life? Go there for a moment: remember it. Was there a party? Were you with a few people, family, a crowd or were you alone? Was there cake? There’s often cake on the best day of your life. What did it smell like? How did it taste? Did you know then it would be the best day of your life? I mention all this because Jesus’ baptism must have been about the best day of his life, even though there is no report about cake. I don’t think chocolate cake had been invented yet, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But there was a crowd, his friend John and wow: a voice from heaven! Even when Jacquelyn and I were married, there was no voice from heaven, though she looked like an angel. “You are my beloved child, I’m pleased with you.” Some of us live our whole lives waiting to hear that; it must have been amazing.

All of this is a prelude, it turns out, because no one gets to live in the best day of their life forever and for Jesus, the next day is terrible. It’s like living in Albany, having it hit 70 degrees one day and then a couple days later barely making 16. Ouch: things sure can turn around. In the life of Jesus, the turnaround is to go from heaven opening to being driven into the wilderness and going hungry for 40 days. No cake; no food at all. Just the dangerous, daunting, desert wilderness where all you can hear is your empty stomach begging to be filled. This is the site of temptation: this is where temptation always occurs, when we are empty. How can I get what I need? Isn’t that the question that leads to temptation?

Temptation in the Wilderness

“Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” Matthew, Mark and Luke all include this story, apparently using two different versions they combine. Since no one else is present, we an only conclude they are relying on Jesus’ own account of his time in the wilderness. Geography is theology in the gospel. To go from the Jordan River into the wilderness is to go backward on the journey of God’s people. There, just as they did, Jesus is hungry, thirsty, and there he faces temptation. He faces it alone: the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove has flown off; the voice from heaven is silent. Jesus, as the song says, has to walk this lonesome valley by himself.

Alone, hungry, vulnerable, Jesus fasts for forty days and nights. Here is the first thing to learn about temptation: it often comes when we are most vulnerable. Today we rarely practice the spiritual discipline of fasting in Protestant churches but our fathers and mothers in the faith did. We took over Thanksgiving from the Pilgrims; seldom mentioned and almost never included in Thanksgiving is the fast that preceded it. Today, the Lenten discipline of giving something up has fallen into disfavor but giving something up, taking something off the table of possibility induces temptation. It walks us into the valley where Jesus walked.

Imagine him there in the desert. He’s lost but beyond worrying about direction. There is a moment when you become so focused on your hunger that nothing else matters. This is the moment he hears the voice of temptation; this is the moment, alone, hungry, vulnerable he is like us, on his own, facing temptation alone. Three temptations are mentioned but in a sense, they are the same temptation. All of them circle back to this simple principle: who’s in charge here?

If you are the Son of God

“If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread.” This is the first test. 
A few days before, he is acclaimed as Son of God, but what does that mean? The first temptation is to use who he is to sustain himself on his own, to feed himself. God fed the people of Israel with manna, bread, in the wilderness; why shouldn’t the Son of God feed himself by making bread appear? It is a test: if you are the Son of God—the question suggests that perhaps he is not the Son of God after all. Does he believe in what’s been said? Does he believe in his own call? And can that call, that power, be used for himself, to meet his own needs? The second temptation, to recklessly throw himself out into the air, depending on the angels to save him is like it. Both ask: do you believe who you are? Show it by using the gifts of God not for God’s purpose but for your own.

The Wizard of Earthsea is a long story about a young wizard who becomes so proud of his gifts that he uses them to show off. But in showing off, a dark side of him splits off and the rest of the tale is a story of how that darkness darkens the world until finally the wizard, Sparrowhawk, must confront the darkness. Along the way, he learns this most important lesson: that all gifts are given with a purpose and the purpose is to serve others and serve the larger unfolding, blossoming purpose of the creator. The challenge of the temptation to Jesus asks whether he will serve his own needs or stand in humility and serve the unfolding purpose of God. Why am I hungry, he must have wondered: the answer is so that in hunger, he can learn humility.

The final temptation in the wilderness sums all temptation up because it asks who Jesus is serving. All the kingdoms of the world are offered, a way of summing up worldly success; only serve me, the tempter says.

Jesus Facing Temptation

How does Jesus face these temptations? He faces them by living from God’s Word. Today we live in such a self-regarding culture that worship is often judged by the standards of entertainment. “I really enjoyed that,” someone will say, and there are endless advertisements for preachers to help us make worship more fun, more interesting, more light-hearted. But worship is really a way to come back to the Word of God. This is what finally answers temptation and it is the only thing that answers it. Three times Jesus is tempted; three times he quotes back God’s Word to the tempter.

We all walk through times of temptation. We all walk through wildernesses. We all face questions. Tracy Cochran writes,

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. “[Quoted byTracy Cochran, In the midst of Winter, an Invincible Spring, Parabola, Spring 2017, p. 26]

If we want to find the adventure, we have to walk through the temptation and answer the question of who we are serving.
This year, this season, this Lent, I hope to walk with you, listen to God’s Word, listen to the characters in the story, listen to their questions. Here is the first and most important and the tempter is asking it every single day: who are you serving? Ranier Rilke, a German poet said in a letter to a young friend,

I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” [Rainier Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, 1903.]

This season, we are challenged to live the questions God’s Word asks, to confront them, to wonder with them, to let them live in us and change us.
Amen.