Memorial Day – All Present and Accounted For

All Present and Accounted For

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Memorial Day • May 27, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Every Sunday presents a challenge of choice: what to leave in, what to leave out, include all the scriptures read or focus on one reading, one line? Today is Trinity Sunday in the calendar of the church, the Sunday after Pentecost when preachers are invited to explore the theology of God appearing in three persons. But in our civil calendar, it is Memorial Day weekend, a day for cookouts, visits with family and time off on Monday. It is a day most especially when veterans and their families are honored and those who have died are remembered. Faced with this choice, I’ve chosen to focus on Memorial Day; we’ll talk about the Trinity another day. I know this will disappoint some; perhaps please others. All I can say is keep coming and we’ll get there!

Last week, we read the same piece of Ezekiel read this morning, the prophet’s dream of God resurrecting a field of dry bones, the leftovers of a battle, the casualties of a war. I felt there was so much more to say about this passage that I asked to have it read today, as you heard. Now I want to add to it the conclusion of this section of Ezekiel. After the dry bones, Ezekiel has another vision of a great war and then we hear this.

Therefore thus says the Lord God: Now I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. 26They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practiced against me, when they live securely in their land with no one to make them afraid, 27when I have brought them back from the peoples and gathered them from their enemies’ lands, and through them have displayed my holiness in the sight of many nations. 28Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; 29and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.
[Ezekiel 39:25-29]

Let us pray that God will open to us the full gift of this passage and the full measure of the Spirit.

So, Memorial Day: where does it come from? How did it originate? Memorial Day began as Decoration Day in 1868 in the free United States of the north. The date was chosen because it wasn’t the anniversary of a particular battle and its focus was on remembering those who had died in the recent Civil War, fought to save the Union and free the union of slavery. During that time, Union dead were being gathered together from shallow battlefield graves into 70 nationally recognized cemeteries, mostly in the south where battles had occurred. Similar memorial day celebrations were also held in the former Confederated states, celebrations gradually blended into southern attempts to construct a romantic justification for the war and to reinstate white supremacy. The Confederate memorials were particularly centered on creating statues, symbols of resistance to the constitution and to racial justice. Today, of course, those statues are thankfully coming down. For many years the two celebrations were entirely separate.

After 1913, when former Union and Confederate soldiers came together at Gettysburg, the celebration of Decoration Day began to merge. This increased when the dead of World War 1 were included and was completed after World War 2, when Decoration Day officially became Memorial Day.

Where did Memorial Day come from? It came from graveyards. When the armies left Gettysburg on July 4, 1863, they left behind over 7,000 dead, scattered over the ground. There was no organized, national office in charge of their burial; it fell to local citizens and took until the following spring before the dead were mostly cleared. Bones are still occasionally found. Let Gettysburg stand for Antietam, Chancellorsville, Chickamauga, Shiloh, Vicksburg and so many more, all of which left the dead where they fell until someone came along to bury them.

The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?

This is the dream of Ezekiel; this is the nightmare of everyone who has experienced battle. In the middle of western Europe, during World War 1,  approximately one ton of explosives was fired for every square meter of ground. About a third didn’t explode. In 2013 alone, 160 tons of unexploded munitions were recovered from one section of the front. These are explosives from a century ago. About 900 tons of explosives are recovered every year. Since 1945, 630 French battlefield clearers have died. People continue to die.

Succeeding wars have all contributed to the carnage and the graves. The United States lost about 400,000 service members during World War 2; the Soviet Union lost about nine million. Germany and other places were leveled with bombs that often require evacuation today while they are defused. Each succeeding conflict adds its graves, its explosives, it’s deadly toll. Today, somewhere, a mine is being buried or a shell fired or a bomb dropped that will lie in wait. A child or a farmer, someone simple and unaware, will die from it a century from now.

How can we look out over this huge field of dry bones, dead soldiers and sailors, aircrew and marines, and so many others, and ask, first, do we remember them? Memorial Day began in memory: first of individuals for whom the wound of grief in those left behind was still fresh and pulsing. Then, recognizing the commonality of the hurt, in a shared sense of how terrible the sacrifice had been.

So the first thing for us to understand from Ezekiel’s vision is that God has remembered the fallen. Unknown, desiccated and dusty, only bones left, still the vision of Ezekiel begins with the startling fact that God has not forgotten these fallen, holds on to them, cares for them.

When a military company lines up on a drill field, they count off, attendance is taken, and there is a phrase passed forward: “all present and accounted for”. It means that even though someone might be in the hospital, someone might have been detached, every person in the company is remembered, accounted for, present in that sense.

Now Christ calls us to grow ourselves towards God. We are made in God’s image and like a child filling out, getting taller, learning new skills, becoming an adult, we are meant to fulfill that image. Part of that growth is to learn to see not as the world teaches but as God teaches. And what God teaches, what Christ showed, was that we should see everyone.

Memorial day is a reminder of this. Ezekiel lived in a moment when God’s people had been defeated in a series of wars that left dead scattered throughout the land, that left Jerusalem a shattered ruin. The leaders of the community were taken into exile. Worst of all, they came to believe their defeat was emblematic of their abandonment. by God.

Ezekiel’s startling proclamation is that they have not been abandoned, not those alive, not those dead, not those who will come to be in the future. All are still God’s people and God means to give them new life, as a people, as persons, as children of God.
The surprising word of God about all those who believe themselves lost is that God intends to find them and let them know they are found.

Then they shall know that I am the Lord their God because I sent them into exile among the nations, and then gathered them into their own land. I will leave none of them behind; and I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God.

The graveyard of dusty bones will be transcended by God’s love into a memorial; the dead live in the love of God.

Five months after the battle of Gettysburg, when the dead still littered the ground in some places, there was a great gathering to memorialize the dead. There were bands and long speeches and the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, said these words.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate-we can not consecrate-we can not hallow-this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us-that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion-that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain-that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom-and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Almost 155 years later, we are still faced with the task for which those brave ones gave their lives. We remember them best when we struggle with them against the racism that continues to be a dark strain in our national life. It’s the same with others who have fallen. How many of us have family members who fell or fought against fascism in World War II? Then shouldn’t we in our turn fight those in this country who want to bring this demonic thing here? Remember their fight: make it your own.

When we take up the cause of freedom and justice, when we fight fascists, when we insist that faith in God means full inclusion of all God’s children, that Christian is not a synonym for exclusion, then we are fulfilling God’s vision. Then we are remembering truly. Then indeed, the spirit of Memorial Day is in us, and the armies of so many who have sacrificed are in our lives all present and accounted for, then their memorial is our inspiration.

Amen.

Pentecost B – Making the Dry Bones Dance

Making the Dry Bones Dance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Pentecost Sunday

Use Your Words

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2017

Pentecost Sunday/A • June 4, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

“Use your words.” That’s a phrase we’ve said to our grandchildren when they were at that between pointing at what they wanted and asking for it by name. Isn’t language amazing? May’s first word was ‘Joy’; she liked the song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…down in my heart.” So her first word was more like this: “Joy-joy-joy-joy.” Think how language can change us, lift us up, cast us down. The Biblical story imagines God creating with language, creation by the Word. “Let there be light—and there was light.” Now today, in this story where language and words are so important, it’s clear that what God means to say is this: ‘ahabak [Arabic}, Wǒ ài nǐ [Chinese], te amo [Spanish] or in English: I love you.

Pentecost

The story we read in Acts invites us into a gathering of the first Christians after Jesus has left. It’s Shavuot, a Jewish festival fifty days after Passover that celebrated the giving of the Torah as well as the wheat harvest in Israel. In the Christian story, it’s also some time after the Ascension; we talked about that last week. Jesus had gathered his followers, told them to stay put until they received the Holy Spirit, and then was enfolded by a cloud and left them. So his followers have been doing what we do when we grieve: retreating, I imagine, but also gathering together at times, praying, healing. Now they are gathered together. Nothing in the text prepares us or them for what happens next.

What happens next, of course is amazing, incredible: tongues of fire! the sound of a rushing wind!—remember that Spirit and Wind are the same word in Greek and Hebrew—it all must have been amazing and stunning. Sometimes I’ve been in worship when we’ve tried to illustrate this. I remember one Sunday morning when we’d brought in three big fans; some people who had hairdos blown around were not amused. And of course there are various things you can do with fire; and no, we’re not going to do them here. This building is almost a hundred years old and I am not going to be the pastor who burned it down. But you get the idea.

When was the last time you were amazed? Think of that moment, hold on to it for just a second. Here are these people still grieving, they’ve come together, told stories of Jesus, probably sung some songs and suddenly it’s all blowing up. God has spoken. Like Genesis, the Spirit of the Lord is moving and making and it is amazing.

Creation by the Word is always amazing and mysterious. I know this because I’ve done it and so have many of you. You stand before your friends in a dress that cost more than you spent the whole year on clothes and that you will probably never wear again; you put on a tux for the first time since prom. Someone speaks and asks if you will marry, if you promise to be married and you say, “I do!”—and just like that you’ve created a new family, a married couple. You stand before a congregation you’ve been attending for a while, a place that’s helped you feel God’s nearness and presence and we speak the words of the church covenant together—and just like that, you’re a member of the church, we’ve created a new moment in the church’s history, no matter how old or young that church is.

Pentecost is When the Church Begins

So here is the Spirit, here is God, doing the same thing: creating something new. That something is us: the church. Pentecost is the moment Jesus’ followers become the church, become his body in the world, caring for the world, as he cared. And of course they are so excited they can’t keep it in the house, they go out in the street. There are things that have to be told and this is one of them. So we have this incredible scene of the first church members in the streets, speaking to people in a way they understand. This isn’t “speaking in tongues”, they way it’s practiced in pentecostal churches; they is speaking to people in a language they understand.

Now the Bible takes language seriously and it tells the story of the Temple of Babel to explain why there are so many languages. Long ago, the story says, human beings were so full of pride they built a temple, imagining they could build it high enough to enter heaven through their own efforts. Taller than tall it reached until God saw their pride, saw the tower and cast it down and at the same time, created the variety of languages so that never again would humans cooperate in such a thing. At Pentecost, the speaking is a way of saying that ancient curse has been reversed: God is now speaking to all people in ways they understand. One writer said,

Pentecost is a unification of the separated families of humanity. This unification isn’t accomplished through the will and power of empires and their rulers, but through the sending of the Spirit of Christ, poured out like life-giving rain on the drought-ridden earth. In place of only one holy—Hebrew—tongue, the wonderful works of God are spoken in the languages and dialects of many peoples. The multitude of languages is preserved—a sign of the goodness of human diversity—and human unity is achieved, not in the dominance of a single human empire, or in the collapsing of cultural difference, but in the joyful worship of God.- Alistair Roberts , http://www.politicaltheology.com/blog/the-politics-of-pentecost-acts-11-21/

Use Your Words

You can do this. Use your Words. We’ve had some folks here over the last few years who came to church even though they couldn’t speak English. Yet over and over again, because someone smiled at them, spoke to them, they understood this: you’re welcome here. This is how God speaks: in whatever language is needed to say, “I love you.” When you welcome someone, you create this welcome, you create this presence.

That’s what happens at Pentecost. The special effects, the tongues of fire, the rushing wind, the enthusiasm of the Jesus followers are all just prelude. The real event is what happens when they get out there in the world.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Creation by the words: these followers of Jesus are creating an invitation by their words.

Of course, words are interpreted and the first interpretation is that these people are nuts or in a kinder way, drunk. I think the fear that we will be seen this way often holds us back from sharing about our spiritual life. I learned long ago it’s a lot easier to ask Congregationalists to donate to a cause than to tell someone about their faith. We often miss the power of that conversation. Remember what Jesus said about his followers: that they were to be witnesses. Now what does a witness do? Tell what they’ve seen. These first Christians aren’t asking the people they meet to join the church they aren’t asking them to sign a petition, or anything else. They simply tell them about the power of God’s love.hat’s

That’s the thrust of Peter’s speech. He uses his words to say: first of all, these people aren’t drunk. They’re just amazed. And then to say that this outpouring of Spirit has been coming for a long time. Long ago, the prophet Joel described it and said it would embrace everyone.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

We talk about radical inclusion here, we use the phrase “Everyone welcome” but God has already gone beyond us, gone beyond our imagination, gone beyond our ideas of who is in the circle of care. “All flesh”: that’s you and I, that’s you and everyone you meet, that’s you and the whole world. There are no walls in the love of God. There are no outsiders in the love of God. There are no illegal immigrants, because all flesh is included. There are no racial lines here; the kingdom of God is not gerrymandered, it is not a gated community: the spirit is being poured out on all flesh. There are no gender lines here, no lines that say, straight people enter here, LBGTQ people stand over there: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.

This is creation by the words, creation when you use your words to tell someone about God’s love in your life. It is creating a new reality, it is making a new heaven and a new earth. and there they are, those few followers of Jesus, off to change the world. How will they work? What will they do? Simple: use their words, be witnesses, tell people what they’ve seen, what they’ve felt, what they’ve experienced. This is Easter: “didn’t our hearts bun within us?”—the testimony of the people who met the Risen Lord at Emmaus.
Our witness is how God’s love is braided with our lives, together turned into a life line.

Today is Pentecost

Today is Pentecost. Pentecost is not just a moment hundreds of years ago: today is Pentecost. Today is the birthday of the church because the church is born new every day that we plant the seeds of the spirit. We plant them when we use our words to share what we’ve seen about the love of God. What will happen? Well, someone might think you’re drunk; someone might think you’re crazy. But what will surely happen is that some of those seeds will grow up. And the fruit of the spirit, as Paul says, is as obvious as a field of corn planted in the spring. It doesn’t look like much at first but eventually it covers the ground. It’s the same with this spirit. You may not see much at first but God promises that if we use our words to witness, the result will be amazing.

Amen.

The Architecture of Blessing

The Architecture of Blessing
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
All Saints Day • November 6, 2016

Some here today have an amazing history: they have been members for more than 50 years. We recognize and honor such long-term commitment and bless you for your steady, sure faithfulness. Then there are those of us who are newer members, who came here for a whole host of different reasons and have become part of this historic congregation. And of course, there is Rosemary, our newest participant: Rosie’s never been to another church. God blends us together, bakes us in the day to day of living our faith, and makes something wonderful: the bread of life.

Blessed by Our Building

One of the many things that bind us together is this building. Take a moment to look around; if you can, look over the side of your pew and see if there isn’t a plaque there remembering someone. Next year will mark 100 years since the groundbreaking for this building. But I’m sure it began long before that moment. The architect of the building was Albert W. Fuller. Fuller started training in 1873, 44 years before that ground-breaking. When did Fuller first imagine the building that became our church: did he always have the idea or did it come to him after he was commissioned? No one can really know. But surely long before he drew the plans, long before he showed the committee, he must have had a vision in his mind. Fuller imagined something unique and wonderful. “Greek Revival,” the style of the building, was not an obvious choice. He specified steel beams which allowed us to have this great, open area, at the time the largest open space in a building in Albany. He designed the pillars out front and I’m sure many other parts of the building. And when the building was constructed, I suspect Fuller inspected each step. The result is this wonderful space in which we worship. I never met Fuller; he died in 1934. I suspect none of you met him either. But every Sunday, we benefit from his imagination, his vision. We gather and we are blessed by what he did. He is an essential part of what we do, whether we always remember that or not. His vision blesses us with this wonderful place to meet.

All Saints Sunday

Today is a special day in our worship calendar, called “All Saints Sunday”. What is a saint? It translates a word in the Bible that means “chosen”. Saints are people chosen to accomplish a mission for God’s people. Some church traditions name their saints in particular and even have a bureaucratic process for identifying them. Our fathers and mothers in the faith believed, and we believe, all God’s people are saints: all have a purpose, a vocation, from God. One way to describe that vocation is to simply say: we are meant to be a blessing, every single one of us. Our purpose is to be a mutual blessing.
This was God’s plan from the beginning. Right in Genesis, right at creation, it says that God blessed the first human beings. Later, when God began to work in history through Abram and Sarai, God’s said, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Genesis 12:3] Today we read one of the most familiar parts of the Gospel, often called the Beatitudes, the blessings. Both Matthew and Luke record similar sets of blessings, as does the Gospel of Thomas. When I first learned them, I thought them quite strange because the people teaching at the time suggested they were prescriptions, things we should do. But who wants to do this?

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, 
and when they exclude you, revile you, 
and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Wow. Who wants to be hungry? Who wants to weep? Who wants to be excluded, hated, reviled? This is what we should do? This is what Christ wants us to do? No thanks, not me.

The Beatitudes: Descriptive

Only later did I recognize that these blessings—and woes!—aren’t a prescription, a set of duties; they are a description. Just as Fuller imagined the architecture of this meeting house, Jesus is asking us to imagine what life looks like when we live with God ruling our lives. Jesus is describing the architecture of spiritual life. The word itself means an inner joy, a soul lit up and shining. God means to light the world in a way that makes our souls lift with praise and joy.

Those are great moments; I hope you’ve had many. But we also know not every moment is like that. There are hard moments as well, dark moments, times when the cold wind of depression blows through us like a damp November moving in. So Jesus is describing those realities here and imagining with the disciples how blessing works. Blessing happens when there is nothing in the way, when we aren’t distracted by things: in other words when we are poor. Just as hunger moves us to eat and, if we are fortunate, find sustenance, when we are empty we are thankful for being filled. That’s a spiritual reality as well as a physical one. So when we feel empty, we should live in the confidence that God we will be filled. There is a rhythm to spiritual life, times of vision and blindness, times of blessing—and woe. Jesus mentions these as well.
If this is a description of the architecture of blessing, what is Jesus teaching his disciples to do? What does he hope we will do. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, says, “You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings.” How do we participate? That’s the function of the final section in this reading. Jesus says five things.

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you want to understand these, imagine a parent with a child.

Doing Blessing

My older daughter, Amy, thought it was fun when she was little to surprise me by running and jumping into my arms. It was fun when she was little; as she got older and bigger it was harder. The last time she did it she was about 11, she took a couple steps of running, leaped, and I just caught her, at which point she knocked me over and I hit my head. There was a moment of silence until she said, “Are you ok?” and I waited for the stars I was seeing to go away and said, “Yes but I think we need to stop doing this.” Now I know everyone who has a child eventually has bruises: would you hit the child back? Of course not. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” You can see where this is going: when did your child take your coat and leave you shivering? When did they take something—and it never would have occurred to you to ask for it back.

What Jesus is offering is the architecture of blessing: this is what it looks like, this is how it works, because this is how God is with us. This is what makes blessing take hold, grow, blossom and bear fruit. It begins when we choose to imagine the best in each other; it grows as we practice appreciating others and seeing each one as God’s blessing. It blossoms as we every day do unto others as we would have them do to us—a way of recognizing that we are both God’s children, both called to be a means of blessing here.
I asked our church historian, John Dennehey, to help me with this sermon because he’s so knowledgeable. I asked him about the building but he wrote back something I didn’t know that was so much more inspiring. He said,

the original plan wasn’t to leave the downtown. The church had a membership made up of the well-to-do in the city nd the church owned its own building which was prominently located near Albany’s City Hall and the “new” State Capital Building…
However the church was contacted by residents in this area because residents were running a Sunday school on Ontario Street and wanted to “connect” with an actual church. All the other churches turned them down. Our church not only agreed to affiliate, but also made it our mission to send the minster and a deacon (sometimes more) to lead the Sunday School. 
At this time, the neighborhood was outside the city limits and the only Trolley stopped by Lake Avenue and the CDPC requiring a bit of a trek ..(especially while hauling Sunday School books).
Eventually, the discussion among church members led to the proposal to develop a satellite “chapel” in this neighborhood where services could be held following the services downtown. …it was evident that the community here needed a real commitment and an actual “church” rather than an informal “chapel.” 
Church leaders had many discussions about the pros and cons of relocation. One of the big “cons” was that the “well to do” members wouldn’t find the new church as easily accessible, even with the best of intentions, to attend as frequently as possible. Hence, the huge risk involved (no church likes to lose prominent members with deep pockets).

Those church members had to make a choice and they chose to bless future generations, people they didn’t know, future saints. Who are these future saints? Us: you and I, fifty-year members all the way to people like Rosie and I who are pretty new. They did what Jesus said: treated us the way they would want to be treated. Now it’s up to us to continue that blessing. We also are called on to make choices; we also have the opportunity to bless the future as they did.

For All the Saints

This morning, as you came in, you were invited to note the name of someone who especially blessed your life, some saint who helped you and perhaps helped you find faith. Living faith is not something you can order online or buy at a store; it is not something that comes gift wrapped like a sweater at Christmas. It is something given hand to hand, passed on person to person. It is the blessing that comes from imagining what hasn’t happened. It is the blessing of saying “thank you”, appreciating what has been done to allow us to be here, to do what we do, to go forward together. It is remembering in our imagination those past Saints and imagining the ones to come. The most important imagining is when we imagine someone as a child of God. It’s easy to get annoyed at someone, especially if you don’t know them. It’s easy to look away or ignore them, or rant in your head. It’s harder to see them as Jesus sees them, as God sees them, as a blessing waiting to blossom. But each one is exactly that. You are; I am. And together, with all the others, past and present—and future!—we are “All Saints”. Together, we can be the architects of blessing.
Amen.

Thank you!

A special thanks to John Dennehey, church historia at First Congregational Church of Albany, for his help with this sermon.

Jesus Visits

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Jesus Visits
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • October 30, 2016

Jesus said to [Zaccheus], “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.
— Luke 19:9-10

Visiting Jericho

“Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” Did you grow up with that song? I did; I can’t help it running through my head when I read about him. So many of the Bible characters are overlain by songs and stories we’ve heard, made up over the years. How did you imagine Zaccheus when I read the story? How did you imagine the scene?

There are some things in the story Luke would have known we may not. Jericho is an ancient city that was the last stop on the way to Jerusalem. In fact, this story marks the end of a long section in the gospel, the section we’ve been reading through with its parables and stories of lost people being forgiven and reclaimed by Jesus. Jericho is a way station; it’s on the way to Jerusalem and Luke knows what will happen there, as we do, don’t we? It’s fall here, a long way from Palm Sunday in our calendar, but in the gospel, we’re right on the edge of arriving at Jerusalem.

Jesus has collected a crowd around him and the approaches to the city are full of stalls where people are selling all kinds of things. Over there is brightly dyed cloth and someone else has pottery. There are jewelers and someone selling used donkeys. Now bazaar sellers are great marketers. They don’t wait for you to come to their stall, they grab your arm, they thrust their pots and tunics and camels right at you. “Here, see this blanket, I should ask 5 denarii for it, but today I’m feeling crazy and, for some reason, I’ll let it go for three!”, one says, while another is pushing fresh bread, “Just try it, try one bite, you won’t be able to resist!” Jesus and his friends make their way through this crowd. The smells of food cooking, the donkey smells too, the conversations in many languages, the pushing, the jostling. the beggars and of course the constant wariness about pickpockets, all this is going on. What is it like to be in a crowd? We’ve all been there; maybe you went to a festival, Lark Street or somewhere, maybe you’ve gone to a parade. There are the colors, music, people, pushing, jostling. Not much has changed about this, so it shouldn’t be hard for us to feel what it’s like.

Jesus in Jericho

Jesus is a minor celebrity. They’ve heard he’s a healer, a teacher, maybe someone who is coming to do something about the Romans. He’s a parade waiting to happen, an event always about to occur. You can’t stay home and watch it on CNN because television won’t be invented for a few hundred years, so you have to go yourself. And of course you go with friends. There they are: all together, the ones who believe him, the ones who jeer, the ones who just want to sell “Jesus for Messiah” tunics, the hopeful ones, the dirty ones, the followers, the curious, all making a crowd in this bazaar.

But one of them isn’t there with friends. His name is Zaccheus and he doesn’t have friends, just clients, and angry ones at that. Zaccheus is a little man who does the dirty work for Herod, collecting taxes, enforcing payment. People say he cheats and maybe he does; he’s a sharp competitor. He’s probably rich; not many are. Just like we aren’t as familiar with the geography that Luke knows, we aren’t as tuned into the politics. But we can understand it. After all, we are in the midst of an amazingly divisive political campaign. It isn’t partisan to comment people are losing friends and deleting them on Facebook over backing different candidates.

Zaccheus

Zaccheus is a rich collaborator with the Roman-backed government. He’s not the kind of man you invite home to dinner or buy a drink for in the local tavern. Zaccheus may have a nice house but no one visits there, no one drops by and says, “I was just wondering how you were doing, Zach.” What does such a man think about at the end of the day? What does he hope? What does he wish? I think of him as a man who has become isolated. He has lots of things; he may not have lots of fun.

Zaccheus is curious like everyone else. But he isn’t big enough to bull his way through the crowd and anyway I imagine most crowds around there included some people who would have been happy to see him knocked around a bit. So he climbs a tree, a sycamore tree. It’s not a big tree, but it has lots of branches and there he sits, all alone, up in his tree, waiting for this Jesus to come past, waiting for a glimpse of…what? What exactly did Zaccheus hope to see? The story says, “He wanted to see who Jesus was”. Isn’t that in a sense what we all want? Sunday after Sunday we come here hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus. All over this community, all over everywhere, Christians are in churches where they will hear stories they’ve heard before, just like us, hoping to see Jesus.

A Child of God

Whatever Zaccheus hoped, up there in his tree, surely he wasn’t prepared for what happened. Jesus is walking past, the center of this crowd, people are yelling prices, people are calling questions, people are asking for healing, it’s a noisy crowd and suddenly he stops and the noise must have stopped too. Just that moment of stillness, right there, right under the tree, and Jesus looks up and sees this man, this lonely little man, up in a tree. And right there, right then, he smiles and speaks.

We don’t really know what was said; did he greet him: “Shalom”? Luke says he called out, “Zaccheus, come down, I must stay at your house today” . What went on in Zaccheus in that moment? What went on in you when someone called you out of your tree? There’s a low murmur from the crowd; they know there are a lot of people in Jericho who deserve this special recognition more than this tax collector. He’s not one of us, he’s not a good man, he doesn’t go to worship, he doesn’t pay his tithe, he doesn’t do right. “Jesus! Some Messiah! Look, off to have dinner with that sinner!”, they say. The crowd looks at Zaccheus and sees just this: the difficult little man who doesn’t fit in. But Jesus sees something else. To Jesus, Zaccheus is a son of Abraham. That is—a child of God, a person God meant to make a blessing. This is how Jesus sees Zaccheus; whatever Zaccheus sees, this is what Jesus sees in him.

Jesus Visits

Zaccheus comes down and makes promises about helping the poor and changing his life. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t; who knows if he paid his pledge? But for that moment, at least for that moment, his life changed, not because he saw Jesus, but because he saw Jesus seeing him. Because Jesus came to him and called him out of his tree. “Come down, Zaccheus”.

This is what Jesus does: he comes to people, some are lost, some are waiting to be found. He comes to them and sees them and helps them see themselves in a new way. He sees the child of God in them.

Now we all come to see Jesus but what we really need is to see others as Jesus sees. This is the deep challenge he makes, every day: can we look at others as Jesus sees them? WE have so many categories for people: friends, enemies, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers. Even in the church, we do it: visitors, regulars, members, pastors, officers. Jesus has one category: child of God. When we look at someone that way, Jesus visits them too, just as he did with Zaccheus.

Someone Who Blessed Me

Let me tell you about someone who helped me by seeing me that way. Mercedes Carlson was an older lady in 1995 when I began preaching here. She was short and round, just like Zaccheus. She had one of those smiles that suggested she knew there was a great party somewhere and just might tell you about it. We all choose pews that become our regular place and Mercedes’ pew was down in front to my left. Those were difficult days for me. My father had recently died, I’d moved alone to a new community and a new church. I was used to preaching to a full congregation. My former church was full every week; my new one had lots of empty space and I found those rows of empty pews intimidating. People here weren’t too sure about the new pastor; like most churches, it was tough to make the transition.

But every Sunday, as I stood greeting at the back of the church, Mercedes would come and smile and say, “Thank you, Pastor, that was a terrific sermon!” In fact, she was so consistent in her enthusiasm for my sermons that after a few Sundays I began to suspect that maybe she did not have a critical facility. I soon learned, however, that it wasn’t a lack of critical facility; it was just that Mercedes couldn’t hear. When I first found this out, I was a little dismayed, to be honest; I’d relied a bit on the emotional satisfaction of knowing that someone really liked my preaching—it was tough to realize she hadn’t heard a word of it! But she did something much better than all the sermon evaluators of all time: she had gave me a unique and special grace. She didn’t have to hear my words; she only had to know I was God’s child and doing my best.

We all have this capability, to look at someone the way Jesus looked, to give them the grace they need to come down out of their tree. God didn’t put us here just to watch. We have a mission. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” That’s what he hopes we will do: that’s what he does with us. Every time we look at someone with the eyes of Jesus, every time we give someone the grace they need to come down out of their tree, Jesus visits. Go with God: be the blessing God intended.

Amen.

How Clarence Came Fully Alive

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

How Clarence Came Fully Alive

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
23rd Sunday After Pentecost • October 23, 2016

Why were these men at the temple that day? We all have reasons to come to worship. Perhaps it’s a habit, perhaps it’s a hope. Something got us up, something made us do all the get ready things and come here today. So I wonder about these two men, I wonder why they are there. The most frustrating thing about the stories of Jesus to me is all the questions they raise.
Take the second man in this story. He doesn’t sound like a regular worshipper. What’s he doing visiting this day?

Tax Collectors

Tax collectors had a bad reputation in that time. The term itself doesn’t really translate the reality. Taxes weren’t collected directly by the government. The collection system was privatized; a business would buy the right to collect the taxes for a certain area, a county perhaps or even a whole state, a province. Some things don’t change: buy low, sell high is one and in this case what it means is that once you’ve paid for the right to tax, you make money by squeezing every last nickel out of every last person. In Jesus’ time, that’s just what was happening. Old, obscure taxes were being brought up; new ones were being thought up. Small timers and the poor who had escaped in the past were being pressed. All governments use force to collect taxes eventually and in this case, the force was the sword of the Roman legion. The Romans were very fussy about paying your taxes, they made our IRS look like fairy godmothers. The connection between threats from the Romans and taxes meant that tax collectors were seen as occupiers, also, traitors to the always simmering cause of Jewish independence. No good Jew would eat with a tax collector or invite him to their home or say hi in the street. If the tax collector sat down in a coffee shop, no one waved, no one cam by his table to ask how his day was going.

Lord Have Mercy

Yet here he is, a tax collector, at the temple. Watch him go in: he’s the one wearing the slightly worn suit, last year’s cut, serviceable but not stylish. He’s shaved; the Romans don’t like beards. He doesn’t look around as he goes in; he isn’t expecting any friends and he won’t find any either. Now he goes up to the place where you put your offering. No one really knows what it looks like but I like to imagine one of those banks of candles they have in European cathedrals. Each candle represents a prayer. But the prayers aren’t free. You have to pay. Go to Notre Dame and there’s a box where you’re expected to put in a 1 euro coin before you pray. I imagine him doing something like that, putting in his coin, standing there, head uplifted in the Jewish manner of prayer and saying nothing, noting at all.

I know the text quotes him, and perhaps his voice carries his thoughts or perhaps Jesus put the words in his mouth, words evident from his look. “Lord God, have mercy on me,” his prayer, isn’t simple or usual. It’s not a prayer you choose, it chooses you. I look at this man, praying this prayer and I think: this is a man who is dead and cries out to come alive. Maybe he couldn’t find any other job when he got out of school, maybe he was ambitious and hoped he’d advance under the Romans, the reasons don’t matter, somehow he’s come to a moment when he can’t stand himself and knows no one else can either and he’s wondering if God can. Have you ever wondered that? Have you ever prayed this prayer? Have you ever wanted to come alive again?

The Pharisee

He’s not alone. There’s another man standing there, a Pharisee. He’s dressed for worship, finest robes, perhaps a leather pouch tied to his head containing a bit of the Torah—it’s a religious custom, observed only by the very careful. He puts his offering in too, he lights a candle too, and he prays. But notice how different his prayer is. The tax collector’s prayer is all about hoping God will do something: “Lord God, have mercy on me.” The Pharisee’s prayer is all about what he is doing: “Look at me, I thank you, I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of my income.” He’s not a secular man, he’s very religious. He’s doing everything he can. Imagine what would happen if we made these things a requirement for membership here. I can just see the conversation with a prospective member: “Now, in addition to agreeing to our church covenant, there are just a couple of other matters that we do ask of all members. First thing, we ask that you fast, not eat anything, two days a week. You choose the days, and you can indicate them right here on this pledge card. Oh, and by the way, you will, of course, be expected to contribute a full tenth of your income.” Now there’s a program for a membership drive!

The Pharisee in this story doesn’t get much approval, but it’s worth pointing out that he is there, he is at worship. Something brought him there too. Maybe it was the chance to show off his righteousness, but that wears thin pretty quickly. I wonder if he isn’t struggling also, just like the tax collector. Self-inflicted righteousness can get awfully lonely. All those ‘I’s’—so little space for God. Most of us were brought up on a diet of these stories in Sunday School, so I know right away when you heard the word ‘Pharisee’ you knew that wasn’t you and it certainly isn’t me—or is it? The Pharisees have gotten some pretty bad press but the truth, the uncomfortable truth, is that they were more like us than we often want to admit. They were the good people, the law abiding, worship going people, of their time. Many of them seem to have followed Jesus around, which makes me wonder: what were they looking for? Were they hoping to come alive too, just like the tax collector?

The Story of Clarence

Garrison Keillor tells a wonderful story about a day when a man named Clarence came alive.

One day Clarence was standing in the shower when he felt something that could have been a heart attack. It wasn’t a heart attack but for 10 seconds or so it might have been and it made Clarence think that life could be very short. It was Sunday and Clarence thought if life was short, maybe there wasn’t time to sit through a sermon. But he got dressed anyway and went downstairs and when someone asked later how he was feeling, he said “I’m fine.” Clarence is Norwegian and Midwestern. Norwegians and Midwesterners could be torn to a bloody pulp and gasping their last but if asked, say, “I’m fine.” At church, he checked out of the sermon fairly early because it was one of those where you really don’t need to listen, you can just pick up the last two or three sentences and get the whole thing, and when the pastor’s voice sounded like it might be near the end, Clarence took out his wallet and saw he had no cash. So he got out his checkbook and wrote a check for thirty dollars. Of course, he didn’t want anyone to see him writing while the pastor was still talking so he tried to do it without actually looking at the check.

Then came the hard part: how to get the thing out without making that awful ripping noise but he folded the thing back and forth over and over until Mrs. Tollefson frowned at him and it slipped out. When Elmer passed the plate, he put the check in and kept it moving and just after he handed it along, he realized he had written a check not for thirty dollars but for three hundred. What to do? Can you sneak in where the Deacons are counting and say, “Hey, there’s been a little mistake, I meant to write 30 and I wrote 300, it could happen to anyone.”? How do you say, “I gave more than I meant to”? Was there even that much in the account? At this moment, Clarence felt terrifically awake, totally aware, completely and fully alive.

Fully Alive

Isn’t this the key?—we come fully alive when we have given more than we meant to, more than we can afford. This isn’t about amounts of money; it’s about giving ourselves. We’ve all heard the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector before, maybe heard it many times before. But what’s the difference here? Why does one go away with what he sought and one without? No one can afford to pray, “Lord have mercy on me”—it’s a prayer you come to when you are spiritually bankrupt, empty, nothing left. It’s the last prayer, the prayer when you can’t do anything else, can’t pray anything else. The tax collector is beyond what he can afford. The Pharisee still thinks there’s something he can do, that it is in fact just about him and what he does when the truth is, fully alive, abundant life, is God’s gift. Clarence is a Norwegian and a Midwesterner and he’s lived his whole life from what he can afford. But he comes fully alive when he goes beyond it.

In a few weeks, we’re going to meet as a church to decide on a plan for next year. In a few days, we’re going to have to decide what to give to support that plan. There’s a terrific urge at such times to consider what we can afford and to plan the same way we do in a good business. Good business practice is fine but we ought to remember that we aren’t a business. We are a church, a church of Jesus Christ, and no one comes here because of our great business skills. They come here, we come here, because Jesus Christ offers life fully alive, life beyond death. His life, lived in us; his life, living in us.

Come Fully Alive

I don’t know what happened to that Tax Collector when he left the temple; I don’t know what happened to the Pharisee. I don’t even know what happened to Clarence. But I do know that whenever someone has come fully alive and lived from that excitement, it began when they moved beyond what they could afford. That’s how Clarence came fully alive; how are we going to do it?

Amen
Note: The story of Clarence and the collection is told as Collection in Leaving Home, by Garrison Keillor, p. 22.

The Long Haul

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

The Long Haul

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor
22nd Sunday After Pentecost • October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34 • Luke 18:1-8

“The time is coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”—Jeremiah 31:31

How much will we do?

Recently our Jewish brothers and sisters observed Yom Kippur, a day of reflection on failings through the past year accompanied by fasting. All faith communities have special observances and rituals. Muslims, for example, pray five times a day.

An Islamic story explains how Muslims came to pray five times a day. It says that when the prophet Mohammed was ascending to the seventh heaven to receive the holy Qu’ran from Allah, he met Moses on his way. They chatted and immediately liked each other and when Mohammed was returning he stopped off to visit Moses. “What did Allah say we must do?,” Moses asked. Mohammed replied: “We must pray 50 times every day.” “They’ll never do it!”, Moses replied, and he told Mohammed to go back and tell Allah and beg for a smaller number. So Mohammed returned to Allah and when he met Moses again, he told him that Allah had agreed to limit the number of prayers to 40 per day. “They won’t do that,” Moses replied; “Go to Allah again.” Mohammed returned a third time to Allah and this time Allah agreed to limit the number of prayers to just five each day. “Well, I know this people,” Moses said, “even five may be too much for some.” How many times a day will we pray? How long will we keep praying?

How much persistence is in us? How long can we be patient, how long can we keep keeping on? We have not been to the seventh heaven with Mohammed; we have not been to the mountaintop with Moses. We weren’t there in the upper room when the Resurrected Jesus walked through the door. We live in the streets and houses of this world where sometimes God seems distant and silent.

How faithful?

Luke is talking to us and the topic seems to be what we will do for and keep doing for our faith. How faithful will we be? Luke is speaking to a congregation which wonders when God will come and right wrongs, when the great banquet of the heavenly kingdom will begin. He is speaking to Christians who are fraying at the edges, whose faithfulness is beginning to fail.
So he imagines Jesus telling this story we’ve read. A widow seeks justice. What a wealth of detail is contained in that simple statement! Women could not go into the courts of the time. Who is this woman? She is powerless; she is poor. She doesn’t have powerful friends to pressure the system for her, she doesn’t have money to grease the wheels. She can’t afford a lawyer; she can’t force a judgement. She has nothing, no lever, no means, no way to get justice from her adversary.

We know this woman

We know this woman. She lines up every week outside the magistrate court, trying to get her former husband to pay the child support a judge so serenely ordered. She comes in quietly to ask for a recommendation: the man who deserted her is now trying to take her children and the Department of Children and Families is acting in that disinterested way that takes no account of how she has struggled to keep a family together. She struggles with incomprehensible forms because she has no one to help her; she misses work and sees the tight lipped look of her boss when she has to go to court or see the social worker.

We know this woman. She has a history. She is one of the mothers de mayo: women whose children were disappeared by the military in Argentina. We called it anti-communism but to her it was a boot breaking down a door, masked men stealing her children and blank stares at the police station when she asked questions. So she joined others and for years she risked her life marching in the capital plaza asking for an answer.

We know this woman. She is a woman of intelligence and wit who cannot vote and is laughed at and called names when she joins others chaining herself in public, making a scene, asking only for the same rights men so solemnly declared in the great documents of her nation.
We know this woman: she is everyone who has persevered, who has persisted, whose faith in ultimate justice has been so strong that she kept keeping on.

And we know this judge. Remember the judge? The story says the widow kept coming to him. It describes him as a man who feared neither God nor men. Now “the fear of the Lord” is the general description the Bible has for those who act according to God’s ways. The judge is not a Godly man. He has a position of authority that allows him to act with complete freedom. He doesn’t care about God; he doesn’t care what others say. He is accountable only to himself. He is powerful, in other words, powerful in a way that almost defies description. I imagine him surrounded by aides who tell him how smart he is, how right he is, how his judgments are so perfect, so apt. I imagine him going to lunch, surrounded by such people. “That was a great session this morning, Judge,” they say, and laugh at the people who come before him. So there we have the two of them: the powerless widow, the powerful judge.

Vindicated

Luke is remembering the questions of all those people in churches who wonder how long it will take for God to come to them. How long will it take for the widow to get justice? Remember the woman: the poor woman, the powerless woman. She can’t go to court but every day she is there outside the judge’s door when he leaves for work in the morning. She follows him to the coffee shop, she puts papers in his hand as he is walking into the court. She waits for him at lunch time, oh, she gets jostled aside of course by his friends but her face is there in the crowd. She waits for him at the end of the day. Perhaps he puts her off: “Yes, well, you should file these”, he says. Later he gets more abrupt when she persists: “I really can’t talk about this now.” But she keeps coming, and after a while he realizes he is looking for her, her face in the street as he goes back and forth, always that said faith, always that same request, made so often he can hear it even when she isn’t present, “Give me justice, vindicate me.” And one day he does: not because of her cause, not because it is just, but just to get her off his back.

Now Jewish sermons often used an argument that moves from the lesser to the greater, from the smaller to the larger. Here the argument is clear: if even an unjust Judge can do justice for a powerless widow if she is persistent, how much more will God who is righteous bring justice to faithful Christians. It is a reason to keep praying, a sermon in a story about faithful persistence. Luke lived when Christians were beginning to fall away, believing God had forgotten them. Do you believe God has forgotten? Do you believe God doesn’t care? Hear this: if even we here on earth can be moved by faith, how much more can God. That is the sermon: that is the lesson.

Turn it arond

But there is another lesson here as well, a surprise. We get used to identifying God with the powerful person in parables but I wonder about this story. Imagine for a moment that it is not the Judge who represents God’s position; suppose it is the woman. Suppose we are the Judge. Isn’t the judge more like us? Surely we live lives in which often it seems we don’t fear God, we don’t take God seriously.

Imagine that God is like this widow. The deep faith of every Christian is that God has come into the world in the person of someone who has given up everything, every power, to live in the world with us and for us. Isn’t the figure of this woman, this woman who is so like us in her frustration, her struggle, her feeling that she isn’t heard just such a person? Suppose the widow is meant to represent God. Now the story is turned around.

Oh, it’s a story about faithfulness still. But it is a story about God’s faithfulness. Here we are, fearing neither God nor men, going about our lives. But God keeps coming, God persists, God keeps calling us back to righteousness. Do you remember the word of the Lord we read from the prophet Jeremiah? Jeremiah lived in a time when God’s people knew they had failed, had broken their covenant. God knew: God had said so over and over again, called them over and over for hundreds of years. The prophet Hosea described God drawing the people with “cords of compassion”, an image of the leather straps with which Jewish mothers would bind their babies while they worked in the fields. What is God to do with such a faithless people? What will God do with such a faithless people? This: “I will make a new covenant with them.” God will not give up even when the cause is hopeless: God makes new hope, God makes a new covenant. Like the widow in the story, God keeps coming over and over and over.

What is it that God hopes for us? The widow wants vindication. Vindication means admitting someone is right. God wants us to prove God was right to keep trying, right to keep loving, right to endlessly, eternally imagine us living from our best selves. God hopes we will become people who faithfully live our lives as good stewards. God hopes we will create families and communities where care is given to all, widows, children, every single one, every child of God. God hopes we will make our gifts a blessing. That was God’s plan from the beginning; God’s first covenant with Abraham and Sarah was to make them a blessing to the whole world. And that is still God’s purpose, to bless the whole world.

God doesn’t seek consumers: God seeks covenant partners. Patiently, persistently, faithfully God keeps seeking us, hoping to find in us people who joyfully give, who bless the world by their gifts, as God blesses us. The last question in the story is for us: will the Song of God find our faith in God has last as long, persisted as long, as God’s faith in us?
Amen.

The Gift of Jesus

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

20th Sunday After Pentecost • October 2, 2016

A group of thin, raggedy boys file into a room with tables, singing a song with the refrain “Food, glorious food”, lamenting their hunger. Instead of the wonderful things they imagine in the song, they are served a small bowl of gruel. An imposing man in a blue uniform with a wooden staff stands at the front commanding. After a few moments of frenzied eating, one boy gets up; one boy walks forward, obviously fearful, yet driven by his hunger to say, “Could I have some more please?” That scene from the musical, Oliver!, came to mind this week as I opened the scripture and read the disciples’ request of Jesus: “Increase our faith!”What would you ask from Jesus? What do you ask in your prayers? What do you want Jesus to do for you?

More Forgiveness

The disciples ask for more faith. Perhaps the reason is in the context. Jesus has been speaking about forgiveness. He lives in a culture where honor and shame are key values and there are rules for how you treat family. But in his teaching, a son who treats his father shamefully is received home and feasted, forgiven, the father simply saying, “This my son was dead and is alive again.” Just before the section we read today, he says,

If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Matthew’s version of a similar saying says,

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Just as the elder brother reacts to the amazing forgiveness of the father in the story of the prodigal son, this seems to be more forgiveness than the disciples are prepared to imagine.

The Hard Part

Forgiveness is tough. Part of what helps us function in the world is our ability to remember and act from previous experiences. Touch a hot stove: you learn never to do it again. Pour out some milk and drink it and discover it’s soured and you learn to sniff the container next time. I’m sure you have your own list of life lessons, many earned at the cost of a scar. We bring the same process to our relationships: hurt me and I remember and do whatever it takes to avoid being hurt again. So the process goes on and on, in our individual lives, in the lives of communities.

Our scripture lessons, as you know, are drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary, chosen in some sense by the whole church for churches everywhere. I almost always follow these. But today’s Psalm was too terrible for us to share responsively. It is Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, threw down its walls and temple, took its sacred things and thousands of captives, holding them in captivity in Babylon. In this sad song we hear, decades later, the pain and problem of the exiles. The Psalm ends with terrible words, indicting the Edomites, neighbors who joined the enemy:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

What anger, what pain, what hurt could call up such a terrible vision of violence?

Voting for Peace

Colombia has been the scene of a violent civil war for about 50 years. Think what that means: what were you doing in 1966? How old were you? Were you even born? Throughout that time, both guerrillas and government troops have made war on civilians. Yolanda Perea was 11 in 1997 what guerrillas attacked her home. A few days later, they came again and shot her mother. Now she’s facing a vote on a referendum designed to bring peace by providing amnesty. She is planning a “yes” vote for the referendum. She says,

“I don’t win anything if I continue to hate,” she said. “I have to vote yes because peace depends on each of us. There are more of us who are good, and we simply have to keep fighting for a quiet country for our children and grandchildren.”

What Jesus Says

This is what Jesus understands, this is what Jesus knows: we cannot enter the coming Kingdom of God chained to a past of division and hatred. Forgiveness unlocks us so we can follow him.

So Jesus responds to the disciples in two ways. First, he tells them to open their imagination. Even a little faith opens the door to a world of possibility. Only a little faith is needed to make amazing changes. The mulberry tree is famous for putting out tough roots that make it impossible to move. If all it takes is a tiny faith to create such change, what would it create in human life? Could it move them to the same forgiveness as the father in the story? Second, Jesus reminds them of their relationship. They are there as servants, disciples, followers of a Lord. Servants do not turn to the Lord for resources, the Lord gives them what they need and sends them out to do the job he sets. So also, followers of Jesus are not free to wander off on their own; they have a Lord to follow, a Master to serve.

What Jesus Gives

Most of all, Jesus gives them each other. We often become so focused on Jesus himself, we forget to see the people around him. There they are, people who would never have met without him: a tax collector, fishermen, and others as well, women, gentiles, all together, all brought together, at the table of the Lord. This fellowship is his gift to them.

The gift we mean to give is not always the one received. Maybe you remember a Christmas when you gave a little child a present, only to discover they were more enthralled with the box in which it was wrapped then the present you so carefully purchased.

O Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi, imagines two young married lovers, so poor they cannot afford Christmas gifts for each other. She has one great thing she values: her long, beautiful hair; he prizes a gold watch, an inheritance from his father. But her love is so strong, she sells her hair to purchase a gold watch chain that will perfectly set off his watch. When he returns, she is excited to give him the gift but mystified by his behavior, because he seems to draw back. She’s afraid her shorn head makes him no longer want her. But then he gives her his present: a set of combs, meant to complement her hair; he explains, he pawned the watch in order to buy them. Both have given up what was most important, most valued, to give a gift to the other. The gifts cannot serve the purpose they meant but the larger gift, the gift of love, is imperishable.

Giving Us To Each Other

Jesus gives his disciples a precious gift, though not the one they ask. By teaching them to forgive, to reach over boundaries, to embrace each other, he creates a fellowship that endures. It lasts beyond his death and it is in that fellowship, he is recognized as risen. It lasts beyond that moment and becomes the life of all who follow him. Now we are a part of that fellowship.

Today is world communion Sunday. All over the world today, Christians, despite 500 years of division, remember today we are meant to forgive, to embrace each other, to live as one family of God. Like Yolanda Perea, we are reminded, “Peace depends on us.”

When we act like Jesus, we find the faith Jesus meant us to have. When We act like Jesus, forgiving and loving, we become the disciples he meant us to be. When we act like Jesus, we receive the gift he meant to give: practicing loving each other, we know ourselves loved by God.

Amen.

Freedom Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/C • June 26, 2016

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Galatians 5:1]

Pictures

All photographs are the remainder of a story, like shells or seaweed left on a beach. This week I saw a picture that struck me and I can’t escape. It was a little girl, standing on top of a toilet. The girl’s mother explained she thought it was cute and funny so she snapped the shot and posted it to Facebook. Then she discovered what was going on: the girl was practicing for what to do if there was a shooter in her school. She’d been taught this drill in response to the fear of violence. So, far from cute it was an emblem of our slavery to violence. “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” How can we stay free when the world seeks to ensnare us every day? How can we stay free when the price of living is slavery to fears?

Today we read how the journey of Jesus and his followers changes. What must have seemed an aimless wandering through the villages of Galilee acquires a destination: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where he will he be crucified, as he will begin to teach them. Jerusalem is where he will ascend to heaven, according to Luke. Jerusalem is where it will all end—and where it will all begin. I wonder how frightening that was. I wonder how scared he was; we get a glimpse of Jesus’ fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. What gives him the freedom from fear to go? What makes Jesus free is that he lives every moment conscious of the loving power of God, conscious of it in a way that makes each moment an urgent call to live God’s love.

Being Right

So, the text says, “he set his face to go toward Jerusalem” but to get there, he has to go through Samaria. Samaria is foreign; Samaria is a place where Jews aren’t welcome, just as Jews don’t welcome Samaritans. But it’s on the way, in the way. So a couple of his followers go on ahead to get things ready. Today politicians have advance people; long before a Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump gets to a city, someone has rented a place, provided for security, set up water bottles and made arrangements, hired a band, scouted things out. That’s what these two are doing.

But two of the villages say no thanks. These guys are giving their all, they are totally committed to Jesus the Messiah, the man who is going to save the world. They get into a village and the local chief of police says sorry, we can’t provide security; the Holiday Inn Express declines to give them a special rate, they can’t find a place for him to speak. They’re going to have to go back to Jesus and admit their failure. Then unbelievably when they go to the next place it happens again. No wonder they’re angry, no wonder they’re resentful. And apparently they are because they go back to Jesus and suggest that he rain balls of fire on these villages. “These people are terrible, Jesus, let’s just wipe them out!” “[James and John] said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” [Luke 9:54] It’s frightening how wrong we can be; but we are most frightening when we are right.

Being Wrong When We’re Right

When we are right, we can’t stand the ones who are wrong. There’s a long continuum to it. At one end there’s the person who can’t drive right. To get to our home from the airport, we come off Route 85 onto Krumkill Road, follow a bumpy road around a curve and come to New Scotland and turn left. Now driving east on New Scotland is an obstacle course. You have to stay in the right lane because left lane must turn left light a couple blocks up but people park in the right lane sometimes so you have to dodge them. Then right after the light, you have to get in the left lane because the right lane by the hospital at Manning is right turn only. It took me a while to learn this zig zagging course but once I learned it, I got good at it. And it’s intolerable, annoying, to see people who don’t know what they’re doing, trying to drive up New Scotland, suddenly realizing they’re in the wrong lane and darting over in front of me. So I get angry; some days the love of Christ just gets left behind because I’m right and if I could, I would call down the fire on those stupid drivers. So I get where James and John are going with this.

We are dangerous when we are right. We’re going through a moment when for various reasons many Islamic people are so convinced they are right that they can’t wait for fire from heaven to punish everyone else so they’re doing it with bombs and assault rifles and terrible acts of violence. It’s scary; it’s frightening. But in our fear, we ought to remember we are not so far from the same violence. Before we are too condescending about violence in Islam, we should remember that a few centuries ago European Christians fought a series of wars in the 1600’s that left a third of Germany depopulated. Think of it: people killed over the difference between being Catholic and Lutheran, a difference probably most of us here couldn’t even define let alone fight about.

Our own tradition shows the same violence. Henry Barrowe was an early Congregationalist hung for his faith in April of 1593 and those who came after were persecuted until they left England, ultimately settling in Massachusetts. We call them the Pilgrims and we love to celebrate them. We seldom remember that the descendants of those Pilgrims and others subsequently were so right and so angry at the wrongness of others that they hung three members of the Society of Friends, often called the Quakers, on Boston Common within a century of Barrowe’s death. We are scariest when we are right. [source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_martyrs]

Being Right With Jesus

So Jesus’ disciples want to hit back at those who are refusing to see how right he is, how right they are. What does Jesus say? “He rebuked them.” Simple but stunning. ‘Rebuke’ is the English word for what he says to demons; rebuke is what he says to Peter when he says he is acting like a tempter, like a Satan. It is a small word that offers this picture: Jesus turning in anger at the wrong rightness of his followers. Being right with Jesus means more than just helping him forward, it means following his way and the way is the urgent call of love to live free of hatred, free of violence, free of fear, free from all the worldly things that seek to enslave us. It is loving God so you trust God with your life. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem where he will demonstrate this love in the most ultimate way, on a cross.

This isn’t love as an emotion, a nice feeling, this is love as a way of life. When I was doing marriage counseling, I frequently had a husband or wife in conflict say, “But I love my husband! I love my wife!” I learned to ask: “As evidenced by what?” If we say we love God, it’s fair to ask: as evidence by what? The real reason we are so dangerous when we are right is that deep down, we often act as if we are the final power. Think of those two disciples; think of those villagers they are so willing to blast. The disciples want to use their power because they are right and they haven’t learned to trust that God will deal with the village. In fact, in other stories, in a later time, we’re going to hear about Samaritans being among the first to embrace the risen Christ. God is at work there but like a farmer growing a field, God’s work takes time to bear fruit.

Loving God

So loving God means giving up our belief in our own power and rightness and righteousness and living in the light of God’s righteousness, God’s power. The urgency of that life changes us and until we are ready to embrace that change, we are not ready to love God. That’s what happens in the three short stories that make up the rest of this story in Luke. Jesus encounters a succession of people who want to fit their faith into their normal lives. One wants to follow him but only in comfort; another wants to follow but has some things to do first. And one has his hand on a plow but is constantly looking back instead of forward. To all of these, to each of these, Jesus preaches the urgency of love right now. We cannot embrace the kingdom with one arm; the call of Jesus is right now to all of us.

Someone suggested last week that I wasn’t being specific enough. I decided he was right so let me be specific. What does it mean be on the way with Jesus? It means I have to stop beeping at people on New Scotland Road right now. I hate this conclusion because when I beep at someone it’s because I’m right and I want them to get out of the way so I can get somewhere. But the yoke of slavery is my rightness; I’m compelled by it, enslaved by it. Paul has a whole list of things that enslave us:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. [Galatians 5:20ff]

Any of these are enough to forge chains of slavery. But he also gives us something more helpful: a sort of check off list so we can know when we are in fact living out the love of God.

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.

He doesn’t explicitly say no beeping on New Scotland but I’m sure he would have if he had driven here. What about you? We all know about being enslaved by things that are wrong: the addict, the criminal and so on. But when has being right enslaved you, made you do things that didn’t embody the love of God? What if today you stopped doing just one of them?

Freedom Now!

These things tend to spread. Stop beeping on New Scotland and it might occur that we don’t need assault weapons in homes out of a fear of others so there’s no reason to have them available. So we could agree to stop arming civilians like soldiers and ban assault weapons. It will lead us to understand that violence often comes from people who can’t get the basic needs of life, food, shelter and so on, so we should work to feed people and shelter them.

The urgency of love is that once we take off the yoke, we can’t help but want to help others take it off too. That’s just what Jesus does. It’s not our job to call down fire, it’s not our mission to make people right. It is our mission to lift the yoke of slavery to fear, to help that little girl with whom I began down from the fear that put her on that toilet. It is to celebrate the freedom for which Christ set us free by sharing it.

Amen.

Are We Pigs or People?

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/C • June 19, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

It’s always the details in these stories that make me wonder. I read about the Germane demoniac, our gospel reading today and at the end I think, “What about the pigs? Who cleaned up that mess?” I think: what about the man’s family. My dad didn’t have a demon but he did have a hobby which was going to school. He went to school through my early teen years until he got a Masters of Business degree. Then he was out. It was a disaster. He didn’t know our evening routines, he didn’t know how we did dinner. We were glad to have him around but it was hard to adjust because he’d been gone for so long. After about six months, he started going to law school.

Thinking About the Details

So I’m wondering about this family. They must have had a hard, heart breaking time. Demons don’t show up all at once and I suspect he didn’t start out with so many; maybe one or two, enough to knock him off center like a top starting to lose it’s spin. Then more; surely they tried to help, took him to a doctor, tried to care for him themselves but the rages and the destruction were too much. As more and more demons moved in, he moved out, out of town, out to the solitary silence of the cemetery. I wonder how relieved that family was; I wonder if they hadn’t gotten on with things. And I wonder what they said, when he suddenly showed up, calm, hopefully clean by then, at their door. He was himself again but did they even remember who that was? Their whole family life is going to change again. I wonder if they did.

Jesus’ Journey

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forget the details for a moment. Forget the story itself, let’s see the shape of Jesus’ journey. He’s been walking a path with a series of strange encounters. Perhaps you remember hearing about these the last few weeks but in case you don’t, here’s a list of them. He healed the slave of a Roman Centurion, possibly a gentile, certainly someone to make you uneasy. He comes to another village and while they wait for a funeral processional, he raises a widow’s son; everyone is astonished, it’s not clear whether the funeral director provided a refund. His friend Simon the Pharisee invites him to dinner; while he’s there, a disreputable woman—of course to Pharisees, most women were disreputable!—touches him, actually touches him, kisses him, pours ointment on him, wipes his feet; he forgives her sins, all of them, every single one. Have you ever gotten all your sons forgive all at once?

So if you’re keeping count, that’s a healing, a raising, a forgiving all in the space of one trip. He goes on a boat ride; there’s a storm and his disciples get scared, really scared, the way only serious sailors get when they see the sea overwhelming the boat. Jesus calms the storm and the disciples; add that to the list. When they make land, they’re in Gerasa.

Welcome to Gerasa

Gerasa is a part of an area thickly settled by gentiles, outside of Israel, which explains the pig farming. The pigs are probably a cash crop; the area was known for exports. Outside of town there’s a cemetery and that’s where Jesus encounters…well, that’s the question isn’t it? What is he meeting here? Who is he meeting?

The first actual dialogue in the story coms from a demonic presence. “What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?” Isn’t it odd how a demon knows Jesus’ name, first and last both, but people routinely ask in the gospels “who is this man?” We argue about who Jesus is; the demon knows. The demon obviously senses the power of Jesus’ presence; the greeting appears occasioned by Jesus calling out the demon, exorcising the man, a detail we only now learn about. Then there’s the moment of the demon pleading, whining, not to be tormented. Jesus asks the name of the demon and it doesn’t reply; Legion isn’t a name, it’s a number, about 5,000 Roman troops, it’s like saying “Battalion, for we are many”.

The demons enter pigs that are there and they drive the pigs run off a cliff and die because of the demons; the swineherds run away, realizing their jobs are over and someone is going to be very angry the herd is gone. Cemetery, pigs, all these details have one purpose: pigs are unclean animals, cemeteries are unclean places, gentiles are unclean people, all of this is to say that Jesus goes into the least godly place ever and reclaims someone’s life and then hands it back to him. Isn’t that what Jesus always does? Is that what he’s done, is that what he’s doing, for you?

Encountering the Demonic

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about this demon? Most of you don’t believe in demons, so it’s hard to talk about them, easy to dismiss them. Yet there are the demons in the story and a good deal of Jesus’ work is casting out demons. What I can say about them is that they are a shorthand, personal way of speaking about something we do believe because we know it, we see it: the evil that comes into a life and twists it into something awful and dark and dangerous. This week we all saw the effect of the demonic when a young man walked into a club in Orlando and using a gun meant for soldiers on a battlefield killed 49 people, wounded so many others, including at least emotionally all of us. This was evil and in that sense it was demonic.

This person Jesus encounters in the cemetery is a man whose life has been horribly twisted by some evil grown like a thistle bush choking a garden until when a name is demanded, it can only say that it is legion, it is many. Indeed, the demonic has many faces and they scare us. Demagogues tell us, “Yes, there are real demons and they are in them,” pointing to some group easily identifiable and offer us safety if we will only get rid of them.

But the truth is the demons are in us, all of us. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the better angels of our nature and surely there are these but just as certainly we have this terrible capacity to harbor and to be consumed by demonic forces that destroy lives, sometimes violently.

Encountering Jesus

What does Jesus say? In every case, whether it is someone he heals, someone he forgives, someone he exorcises, his whole focus is to reclaim the person for the purpose God intended. That’s the result of each of the stories I mentioned, it is certainly the result here. At the end of the story, the man wants to come with Jesus; instead, Jesus tells him to go home and tell people what God has done for him. This is a gentile place; how stunning, how surprising, to imagine that this man who didn’t even have a name will now be a proclaimer of the God he didn’t know. For that is God’s purpose for each of us: that we will remember, celebrate, share, God’s goodness. At our creation, we were made to appreciate God’s handiwork. When we do that, we are most clearly, most deeply God’s people.

People or Pigs?

That’s the question the story asks us: are we going to live as people proclaiming the power and the goodness of God—or as pigs rushing off a cliff? The pigs have no power in the story; they just get used up, become vehicles for the demons who drive them to their deaths. For the final destination of the demonic is always death, just as the final destination of God’s people is life.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. Paul recognizes this stunning inclusion in the passage we read today: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Think of the sweeping breadth of this. We all make distinctions between people. We see their clothing; we see their color, we see their age and how they’re dressed and we make judgements: approach, avoid, smile, frown, one of us, one of them. But here Paul preaches this mystery: that to God none of these things matter, none of them exist. The things he lists are the most basic differences his culture recognizes. None of them matter to God.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. That’s the meaning of love your neighbor; that’s the meaning of his healing, his exorcisms. Now just a few verses on from this story he takes this work, this work of restoring people, healing people, freeing people from demons, and he gives the power to do this to his people. His people: that’s us!

Seeing Like Jesus