Lent 1 B – The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1

The Rainbow Path of Covenant 1: I Promise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Lent/B • February 18, 2018

Genesis 9:8-17

Mark 1:9-15

Click Below to Listen to the Sermon Preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Epiphany – Transfiguration B – Shine, Jesus, Shine

Shine, Jesus, Shine

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Transfiguration Sunday • February 11, 2018

Mark 9:2-9

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Epiphany 5 B – On the Breath of Dawn

On the Breath of Dawn

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/B • February 4, 2018

Mark 1:29-39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone

Doesn’t that song we sing portray this moment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Epiphany 4 B – Take Off the Devil Suit

Take Off the Devil Suit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany/B • January 28, 2018

Mark 1:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Reign of Christ Sunday – Yes Lord!

Yes, Lord!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Reign of Christ/A • November 26, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

Click below to hear the sermon preached

I love weddings and I used to officiate at a lot of them. There’s all the fuss and planning and then on the day itself, little details that seem so important. I usually enter with the men and they’re always nervous. We stand at the front, face the back and the bridesmaids sweep up the aisle, more or less as I rehearsed them the night before. I remember one whispering as she walked past, “Was that ok?” Then the organ changes, often getting louder, people stand and a woman in a dress she will never wear again sweeps into the sanctuary, walks up the aisle. It’s regal, it’s that moment which fulfills every time someone called her, “princess”. So when I think about the opening of today’s scripture reading, “”When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him..”, that’s how I imagine it. I know that doesn’t match the text, I know it’s the church that gets called “the bride of Christ”, but still, I imagine that kind of regal entrance, light and music and everyone standing in awe. “Open the gates that the King of glory may come in”, a Psalm we read on Palm Sunday begins: today is Reign of Christ Sunday—open the doors, that the Lord of glory may come in.

Now the scene shifts: once the Lord takes the throne, it’s time for business and the most important business of any Lord is judgement. So Matthew imagines everyone—all the nations of the world—in one herd before him. What a crowd! We often say, “Everyone welcome”, around here but the truth is, we’re not prepared for everyone; we’re prepared for about 35 or 40 people. What would happen if everyone came? What would happen if one Sunday, we opened the doors and people flooded in, rushed in, so many that some sat even in the pews where no one ever sits and which therefore don’t have visitor cards or even hymnals?

All the nations, gathered. There are people who don’t get along, there are different races, nationalities, black, white, asian, Catholic, Protestant, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, None of the above, Republicans, Democrats,. The word ‘nation’ is Matthew’s usual term for Gentiles so for once, he means you and I. “All the nations” means everybody. He means Jews and Gentiles, Romans, Carthagenians, and as we’ll discover on Pentecost Sunday, the people from Cyrene, wherever that is. We’ll learn from Matthew later that he means the people at the ends of the earth, wherever that is; I think it’s near Buffalo. They’re all there, everyone, all the nations, standing up, watching the great processional of the king of glory. I like to imagine there’s an organist. I’ve never been to a big assembly like this without an organist, so I assume there is one. If you prefer piano music or a full orchestra, feel free to imagine that, the text isn’t clear. 

All processionals come to an end eventually. The king reaches the throne, the followers file into the seats with the “RESERVED” sign taped to them and the last bit of the organ piece ring out and then fade and I imagine the liturgist, in the silence, saying, as i do every morning, “The peace of the Lord be with you” and then everyone sitting down. I know this is entirely culturally defined but it’s how I imagine it, my imagination only goes so far. 

Now the king speaks, everyone strains to listen and this is what he says: move. Now, if I had been advising on this liturgy, the details of this gathering, I would have advised against this. It’s always difficult to ask people in a congregation to move. One of the first things someone said to me when I came here was that they were not moving where they sat. Look at us today. There’s no doubt we’d all be warmer, we’d all sound better, we’d all feel better if we sat near each other but we don’t. We’re scattered all over. We’re in our familiar seats. But that’s what the king says. He has them divide up into two groups, like a herdsman separating the sheep and goats in a herd. Sheep and goats are herded together during the day but at night they are separated and the same thing happens here. Sheep on the left, goats on the right. Which are you? Which am I? 

Now he turns to the sheep and tells them they are going to enter into his kingdom for reasons they don’t understand. They fed him when he was hungry, they clothed him when he was naked, and so on. They don’t remember doing it. They don’t remember these acts of charity, they don’t remember their donations to the food pantry, they don’t remember being kind or doing these things. They did them but they were clueless at the time. They still are. Then he turns to the goats and the mirror image thing happens. They don’t get into the kingdom because they didn’t do these things. But they don’t remember not doing them. They don’t remember seeing him and refusing him food or clothing or the rest. They were clueless at the time. They still are. When it comes to what they knew at the time, the sheep and the goats here are just the same. The difference isn’t what they knew, it’s what they did. It’s how they responded in moments when they didn’t know what they were doing. The stunning fact about this judgement is that no one understood beforehand what would make a difference.

There is an old song with the refrain, “Where are you going, my little one? Where are you going my little one? Turn around and you’re two, turn around and you’re four”. It expresses that wondrous, sad, joyful truth that the paths of our lives wind in unpredictable ways. One day in 1964, my mother took me to a new church, Pine Hill Congregational. I met Nora Clark, a Sunday School teacher, the wife of the minister, Harry Clark. No one knew these two people would shape my life profoundly or that 53 years later, we would still be sharing our lives. Nora became for me a conscience. Whenever I’m not being the best me, I hear her voice in my head saying, “Now Jim…”

What is true of individual lives is true as well of our life together. Today is the last day of the church’s liturgical year, the calendar of worship. It’s called, “Reign of Christ” Sunday and it ask: where are you going? What do you hope to accomplish? What is your goal? And the truth is, we don’t know where we are going, we only know that along the way are these occasions when we can say “Yes, Lord” or “No, Lord”. We don’t know what we are doing; we don’t know how it will turn out. But we know what Jesus has said: feed the hungry, heal the sick, bind up wounds. Love your neighbor; love God. The challenge of Christian life is these little moments, day by day, when we can say yes, Lord, yes Lord, by doing what he says.

Almost fifty years ago, I was an awkward sixteen year old at church camp, a shy kid with a little gift for lifting up poetry and drama in a way that brought my friends together in worship. I lived in books; I read plays. My heroes were writers and playwrights and I thought it would be an amazing, incredible thing to move to New York and be a writer. At the same time, I was beginning to be part of the movement for peace that focused first on the Vietnam War and racial injustice. I thought we could save the world and i wanted to be part of it. In that moment, lying on a dock in Northern Michigan where you can see stars hidden in the city, where the universe seems close, I heard in my heart the call of God to become not a writer or an activist but a minister. It wasn’t a suggestion: it wasn’t a command. It was a confidence that this was what would shape and define my life. It has ever since.

Perhaps because it’s so long ago, perhaps because this is almost certainly the last church where I will ever bear the title of pastor, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what I’ve done, what I’ve tried to do, successes and failures, what I want to do still. This image, this parable, is it: this is where we are going, this is our goal. If the reign of Christ is our hope, this is what it looks like, and it turns out that it isn’t about what we believed, it’s about what we did. Our theology doesn’t matter as much as our practical ministry. We don’t know what difference giving a coat to someone or inviting them to come worship where they will be accepts and welcomed will make. But the surprise of this parable is that it does make a difference. Sometimes a lot is made about the ultimate fates of the sheep and goats in this story: some going to paradise, some to hell. But I think what’s really at the heart here is the surprise of how much difference what they did when they didn’t know what they were doing made. “When did we…Lord?” They ask over and over: both sorts ask. “If you did it to one of the least of these… you did it for me.”

Reign of Christ is often celebrated with pageants and processionals. But the real processional is when Christ comes into us and we say, “Yes Lord”. “Open the gates that the king of glory may come in”—they open when we look and see the face of Christ in others. They open when we hear him say, “You give them something to eat,” and do it. They open when we hear him say, “Love one another,” and we do it. They open when do what he says.

Amen.

Thanksgiving Sermon – Now Don’t Forget

Now, Don’t Forget

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Thanksgiving Sunday • November 19, 2017

Deuteronomy 8:11-20

Click below to hear the sermon preached

It was a fall day in 1975; I was the newly called minister of the Seattle Congregational Church, not even ordained yet. Standing in the coffee hour crowd, I was fumbling toward conversation with a man in the church I’d only just met. He was in his 90’s, a new experience for me. Thinking about such a long life, so much history, I said something about how he had lived from horse and buggies to the jets. He gravely agreed and mentioned having been a horse doctor in Kentucky when he was young. I asked him what he thought the most important change had been over the course of his lifetime. He thought for a moment, and then quietly said, “No more quarantine signs.” He explained that when he was young, it was common to have epidemics and all that could be done was to quarantine families and he told me about his memory of the yellow signs. I’d never seen one; I’d never thought about one. Yet here he was remembering a wonderful progress that had made something I never knew vanish. He remembered a blessing I’d forgotten.

What do you remember from this past week? this past month? this past year? The morning, John has helped us to remember an event we didn’t witness: the moment when this home where we worship first began to take shape. Now I’ve been part of a big church building project so even though he didn’t mention it, I know this: before that shovel ever turned over, there were meetings. There were long meetings, endless meetings. Someone had to convene the first meeting to discuss moving the church’s home and I’m guessing it wasn’t a popular idea at first. Someone had to argue the point; Congregationalists don’t change easily. Someone had to come up with numbers, costs, benefits, and the church must have voted. I imagine that memory stuck around for years. Probably some people got mad, some were joyful, some just remembered all the hard work. Now we come here every Sunday. Hundreds come here for concerts and events. We don’t remember the vote; we don’t remember the work. But if we don’t remember that it took those things, 
we miss the full memory of the blessing. Thank God we have John to remind us!

The author if Deuteronomy is doing the same thing for an ancient people “Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments…,” [Deut 8:11], he says. Here you are in the Promise Land; remember how you got here, remember who brought you here. You didn’t do it on your own; it took more than your effort, more than your hard work, it took the inspiration and blessing of God. But the truth is they do forget. They become prosperous and oppress the poor. They envy the accomplishments of other peoples and demand a king, despite God’s warning of the terrible things a monarchy will bring. They make hierarchies: rich and poor, righteous and despised. They violate God’s covenant over and over and finally are destroyed because of it. The first third of the Hebrew Scriptures is all about God’s faithful work to create a covenant community; the second third is prophets preaching about the need to return to the covenant the people have forgotten.

Memory leads to thankfulness. When we forget, we forget God’s blessing and we’re left with the idea that we did it, we accomplished it, and then we are left with ourselves and we are a poor substitute for God. This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving, for Congregationalists, our family story. In 1620, a small group of our fathers and mothers in the faith landed in Massachusetts after a difficult voyage. Half of the 103 settlers were there because of their faith, our faith. The others had been recruited because of their skills. Almost none were farmers; almost none knew how to trap and fish and do the things that would be required to survive. At first they got along by stealing corn from abandoned Indian storages; a measles epidemic had swept through the area before their arrival, leaving much of it abandoned. They built shacks, they learned to plant corn. Many of them sickened, others starved. By the end of the first year, the few that were left, however, seeing in their survival the blessing of God held a harvest feast: the first thanksgiving. The settlement survived; others arrived and settled on Cape Ann and then in Boston. The new colony grew and though it remembered and observed thanksgiving, it forgot the principles and blessing which had inspired it. With a couple of generations, these Puritans were fighting the same native communities which had nurtured their fathers and mothers and persecuting others, just as they had been persecuted in England. They forgot the blessing with which they began.

Memory leads to thankfulness. We gather here, warm and safe in this wonderful home; we must never forget its source. For its source is the blessing of God. If we forget its purpose, if we forget our purpose, then like others, we will fail. We may look great failing. Success in fact often leads to forgetting. When we succeed, we like to think we are the ones who succeeded; its easy to see our own efforts, harder to remember God’s inspiration. But if we miss the lesson of Deuteronomy, we can never truly succeed.

That message is clear, he message is simple: remember where you came from, remember who you are, remember who brought you here. We live from the blessing of God; we live in the river of purpose which is to invite all into the covenant of love which is God’s purpose. When we do this, when we live this, remembering how God has blessed us, we hope for the future, because God is not only in the past but guarantees the future as well. At many tables this week, people will be invited to share something they are thankful for, something from the past. Here’s a suggestion: share something you hope as well. For memory leads to thankfulness and thankfulness leads to hope.

For many years, my mother lived in Florida and my visits were necessarily short and infrequent. Now, you know, when you are a mother, you never stop being a mother. So my mother never stopped trying to improve me. It’s an endless task, as my wife could also tell you. Nevertheless, my mother never quit. Before I left, she would have a variety of suggestions for what I should do. And just before I left, she would tell me again and add these words, “Now don’t forget”.

Thanksgiving is meant for us to remember God’s blessing and invite us to live in hope.

Thanksgiving is meant for us to remember to be a blessing and invite others to hope.

Thanksgiving is meant to share again the story of how God has blessed our fathers and mothers and intends to bless us. Now don’t forget, thanksgiving says: don’t forget how much God loves you.

Amen.

23rd Sunday After Pentecost – Choose Me!

Choose Me

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

26th Sunday After Pentecost Sunday/A • November 12, 2017

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

To hear the sermon preached, click below

In a few minutes, we’re going to sing “Lord, I want to be more Christian in my heart. I like the song, I like the feeling but the truth is that Christian life is about behavior as well as heart. Once when Jesus was confronted by opponents about people around him not washing their hands before eating, he said, “…it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” [Matthew 15:11]; this is what he had in mind. The real announcement of our commitment to Christ is behavior and behavior is a matter of choices.

Today we are surrounded by more choices than ever before. A server at a restaurant doesn’t just give you a glass of water; they ask, “Do you want lemon?” We used to go to a travel agent to get an airline ticket; now we go online and choose from long list of options. Choices we make along the way turn out to have enormous impact and the story we read today is right on target if we want to learn to choose to be more Christian not only in our heart but in our daily lives.

The setting is dramatic. After a generation of wandering the wilderness and having taken the first steps into the promised land, after the death of Moses, the man who led them out of Egypt, his successor has taken up leadership of the tribes. Now Joshua gathers the tribes on a mountain side at a place called Shechem in northern Israel. Some are old and laughing quietly to themselves about this new, young leader. “Well, he’s nice enough, but he’s no Moses,” I imagine them saying. Others opposed him, perhaps, and come with faces set in stony smiles that betray their discomfort, already thinking of procedural irregularities, and bringing along their Roberts Rules of Order manuals, just in case they need them for reference. Still others are supporters of Joshua; inspired by his leadership, they believe that finally all the troubles of the past will be over, that he will be the one who finally Gets It Done. They are not sure what “It” is; but they believe they will see it. Some complain he doesn’t have much experience; some advocate for change. All of them gather now, a crowd of faces, a sea of hopes and fears. What new program will he propose? What new law will he make? What new policy will he announce?

But Joshua begins not with what is new but with what is ancient.

Long ago your ancestors… served other Gods… I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him and made his offspring many. I gave him Isaac… [Joshua 24:3]

What follows is a long history lesson, the same history lesson we’ve been walking through this fall, the history of how God took a few individuals, a family, and made them a people who could be a channel of blessing to the world. Joshua reminds them where they came from and how far they’ve come; he brings up the miracle at the sea, when God saved them from annihilation when they had given up. He lists the many ways God has been a helpful presence along their way.
finally, he summons them to a choice

Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. [Joshua 24:14f]

“Choose today, choose whom you will serve,” Joshua says. It’s a direct, no weasel room choice. In fact, the people are so moved they respond immediately with an enthusiastic yes, as people do to a good sermon. Joshua is wise enough to know this choice will take more than a moment of energy and he points out to them that choosing God will mean making choices about their behavior. He doesn’t invite them to feelings; he doesn’t ask them to come forward for prayer, he tells them to do something: “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the Lord, the God of Israel.” [Joshua 24:23] What are those foreign Gods? They are the ground of their security, they are the things that make them feel good and safe. They are visible idols, charms against life’s challenges and dangers. It is a scary thing to put away these gods and choose one God who is not visible, who is too large to be held in your hand, who is too powerful to be told what to do.

This his challenge is for us as well. For this is the scene in every age, this is God’s appeal in every time: choose me! We were created in a unique way, for a unique purpose, to give God company, to praise God’s work as God’s people. To do that requires a likeness of God and God’s fundamental characteristic is freedom. So the all-powerful, world creating God did this: like a parent letting a child go on a date about which they have misgivings, God said: “Ok, now you choose, please choose well.”

This is what God does in every time, with each of us. We imagine God in many ways; we should imagine God in this way. I know this experience, and perhaps you do as well. It is the experience of your first dance, hoping someone will choose you. It is the experience of a student with the right answer, hoping to get the teacher’s attention.

One of the images the Bible uses for our relationship with God is marriage. Always in this image, God’s people, you and I, are the bride; God is the husband. So when I think about this, I remember what it was like to ask Jacquelyn to marry me. We knew we were in love; we knew we wanted to be married. She picked out a ring with a blue stone and I bought it. So it might seem as if this was a sure thing. I got the ring secretly and took it with me when we went on a trip to Paris. I’d asked a more knowledgeable friend about churches with blue stained glass and he said the place to go was Sainte Chapelle, the Saints Chapel, a cathedral built in the 1100’s with huge vaulting blue windows. So I suggested this as a first stop and off we went. All that morning, I remember being nervous and keyed up and when we got in the cathedral itself, I couldn’t stop talking; I do that when I’m nervous. There was a sign that said, “Quiet Please”; Jacquelyn pointed it out, clearly embarrassed by my behavior. I just said I was ordained and entitled to talk in a church. There was a row of chairs around the sides and she walked over and sat down so I sat next to her; she turned away, hoping to shut me up. And the moment was there, I slipped off the chair, onto my knee, and said words I had practiced, asking her to choose me. This is how God comes to us: not overwhelming but asking. This is why Jesus is born in a stable, not a palace; this is why God’s appeal is from a cross, not a throne. God asks simply this: choose me.

Our choices make a difference. Every Sunday, we choose whether to get up and come here. Your presence has an impact beyond what you may know. We never know just who will walk through the door, who will sit down next to you; we do know that God seems to invite us to places where we will be able to become blessings if we choose to go. A Congregational Church is in some ways more sensitive to the choices of its members than other ways of organizing. Friends of mine from other traditions are amazed when I explain that in a Congregational Church, all major choices are in the hands of the members. “What if they make the wrong choices?”, one asked me recently. I said, “Yes—but what’s amazing is how often they make the right choices!”

We choose whether to invite others to come with us. Years ago, someone did a study and discovered that 80% of the people who visited a church did so because someone invited them. Think about it: what if we all began to regularly invite someone to church? Someone will say, well, I don’t get that chance but frankly we all have it. I remember inviting someone in a wine store one day; how unlikely was that? Yet there he was a few days later, in worship. Churches like ours benefited from a long time by a cultural push that filled pews. That’s over and our future depends on the choices we make.

The first way we express this choice is by insisting on the power of God as our ground of hope. We are not here for an earthly purpose; we are not going to an earthly destination. We are not on this journey for an earthly reason; we cannot make it based on earthly resources alone. So when we face difficulties, when we feel doubts, we should not be downcast, we should choose to hope in God. When we have come to the end of ourselves, we should not stop because we are not the end. One thing is certain: there is no end, there is no defeat, there is no stopping the purpose of God. If we have chosen to be a part of that purpose, God will provide the means to accomplish it.

For we are the means. God has already chosen us and our mission should unfold from those choices. Here’s a picture of what this looks like. In another church one day, one of the OutreachTeams came up with an idea: stand outside a local grocery store and ask for donations for the food pantry. She didn’t ask for a budget or a meeting or anything—she just shared the idea and then went out and did it. The next Saturday there they were, three people from my church, asking for help to feed people, and I couldn’t help think of Jesus’ words to the disciples when he was confronted by hungry people: “You give them something to eat.” There they were, doing just what he said.

“Choose me!”—God making an appeal. The choices we make are our response. What mission will you choose? What will you do? The song with which I began, says Lord I want to be more Christian in my heart… also has a verse that says, “Lord I want to be more holy”. To be holy is a to choose God, to choose God in the morning, to choose God at lunch, to choose God in the evening. For in all the places we visit, in all the situations where we live, there is God also, moment to moment, simply saying, “Choose me”.

Amen.

All Saints Sunday – Ultimate Treasure

Ultimate Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

All Saints Sunday • November 5, 2017

1 John 3:1-3

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Hasn’t it been an amazing week? Like the view riding a carousel, things flashed by, sometimes so fast it was hard to see them. There was Halloween and its parade of children in costumes. There was the process of pursuing criminals from last year’s Presidential election. And of course in the middle of the week, the terrible terrorists attack close to home in New York City. Now we’re here, in this quiet place, and it’s time for the carousel to stop and let us catch our breath, consider the way forward. For a few weeks I’ve been lifting up the theme of stewardship, by which I mean the conscious decision to treat everything we have as a gift from God. Today’s scripture reading from the first letter of John is a wonderful summary of this theme. 

“See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are,” it begins. Stop and listen carefully to this sentence. Breathe it in; let it resonate within you. John begins with the reminder we all need every single day: the love of God is the bedrock reality of creation. “See what love the Father has given us…” Last week I talked about the time when the church set a price on a ticket to heaven. That kind of pay for play religion has always gone on; we hear it echoed in an oracle by the prophet Micah

‘With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt-offerings, with calves a year old? 
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, 
 with tens of thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, 
 the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?’ 

This is the heartfelt cry of a person who wants to know what it will cost to come to God. Ticket to heaven religion still goes on; it’s the base of the prosperity preaching, it’s the temptation of every church. To this heresy, to this great falsehood, John says: “See with love the Father has given us…” No payment, no ticket, just gift: God is all gift.

He goes on to say, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.” What does it look like? Perhaps we’ll understand if we turn to one of my favorite children’s stories: the story of Eeyore’s birthday.

Eeyore is one of the characters in the Winnie the Pooh stories, a dolorous, grey donkey, given to deep sighs and pessimistic views. Pooh encounters him on his birthday and he is feeling sorry for himself, so Pooh decides to make a birthday party. He goes home and finds Piglet; together they ponder presents. Then Pooh has an idea: he has a jar of honey. Now to a bear like Pooh, there is no gift as wonderful as a jar of honey. So he climbs up on the counter and gets the jar and sets off for Eeyore’s house. Meanwhile, Piglet has a hard time deciding; finally he remembers a big red balloon he received on his birthday, and happily he gets that. Because he’s taken so long deciding, he’s late and he runs and runs and as often happens when we run, he trips and falls and there is a tremendous POW! Piglet wonders what happened and then realizes the balloon is no longer there; instead there are just bits of red stuff. He picks those up, not nearly as happy now and sets out again.

Meanwhile, Pooh is also on his way to Eeyore’s when he gets tired and hungry. So he sits down and has a little of the honey. And then he has a little more and…well you can tell where this is going. Soon the jar is empty. Pooh contemplates the jar and then has this idea: it is now a Useful Jar for Putting Things In. So he washes it out, and sets off again.

Piglet and Pooh arrive at Eeyore’s and give him the Useful Jar for Putting Things In and the bits of red balloon. And then, while they argue a bit about the presents they suddenly realize that Eeyore is overjoyed: over and over again, he’s putting the red bits in the jar, taking them out, putting them in. The kindness of the friends somehow has taken these doubtful presents and turned them into treasure.

“See what love the Father has given us…” We all receive the gift of those who went before us in this church. This wonderful space, like a greenhouse, has grown many into spiritual flowering and it continues to nurture not only we who are its members but so many groups, from the Soul Rebel Theatre to the Recovery group. We benefit from their contributions in a direct way as well; our invested funds are a key part of what makes it possible to pay for our life as a church. The other key part is the gifts we give, both financial and in service.

Just like Pooh and Eeyore and Piglet, we are meant to go to a party. What gift will you bring? Every party needs gifts. Think of the communion party we are about to share. Someone had to get the juice, the bread, prepare them, set them out. Someone will bring you the elements; you will pass them to someone else. What makes the party is the shared spirit, the shared gifts. For when we give gifts of love, it is the image of God shining in us.

Maybe you brought a balloon that’s broken; maybe you brought an empty jar. Maybe you brought something none of us has ever seen. Whatever gift you share, we share, when we share, we share our lives as children of God. And isn’t that the ultimate treasure?—to know indeed that in our giving, every moment, is a gift from the God who loves us. “See what love the Father has given us..” See indeed and reflect that love, reflect the gift giving, as we share the ultimate treasure of the love of God, binding us together.

Amen.

Reformation Day – Finding Treasure

Finding Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

Reformation Day • October 29, 2017

Click below to hear the sermon preached

What does it cost to get in? I guess we’ve all asked that somewhere, sometime. How much are the tickets? There’s some connection between cost and value we calculate. When one of the Planet of the Apes movies was $12 a few months ago, it wasn’t worth it to me; when it was $5 at the Madison Theater, it was. Jacquelyn and I spend lots of time about a 20 minute walk from one of the best aquariums in the country. We’ve never been; it’s $30 and neither of us wants to spend that much to look at fish that you can’t eat. There are less tangible tickets too. What does it cost to have a happy marriage? I talk about that with couples sometimes; I explain it’s not a 50-50 situation, it’s 100%/100%. What does it cost to develop a church? Change: and not the sort in the bottom of your purse. What does it cost to live with God? What’s the ticket to heaven and where do you buy it? People have asked that question for centuries and 500 years this month it remember the answer and it seemed new. 

Right from the beginning, Jesus’ followers tried to set up boundaries. When a crowd gathers to hear Jesus, the disciples advise Jesus to leave them; he tells the disciples to feed them. Someone does healings in his name, the disciples object; Jesus tells them to accept that person. The earliest Christian churches were consumed by the question of what to do about Gentile members: should they be circumcised? should they be required to keep kosher? Throughout the letters of Paul, we find these boundary questions, questions designed to create walls and different levels of Christians. To all of these, the apostle Paul says, nothing counts except faith in Jesus, nothing matters except loving Jesus, nothing matters except following Jesus.

We hear it in the part of Paul’s Romans we read today. Some Christians have been boasting about their spiritual credentials. Paul’s response is absolute.

For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.

No distinction: no difference, all equal before God, in the love of God. Jesus Christ lived and died for all. And finally, the thing that makes this effective in us is our faith. In fact, as Paul goes on to say, we are justified with God, restored to God, through our faith.

Of course, Paul’s word wasn’t enough. The part of us that wants distinction, wants walls, kept building. Over the next centuries, Christians built a series of intricate walls that made many distinctions. They believed in power instead of grace and made the church into a bank. It’s a great advantage to say to people, “Your eternal salvation depends on what you give, what you do.” And that’s what they did. By the 1400’s, the church was actually selling indulgences, a sort of ticket to heaven.

That’s when a passionate monk named Martin Luther objected. Five hundred years ago this month, Luther publicly preached against the walls the church had erected and reminded them that salvation was by grace and justification by faith.

Over the next century, others joined him, including some like John Calvin, a French Protestant, who designed a new kind of church with the Bible at its center. English Protestants took this lesson back to England and refined it. They imagined a church as a covenanted group of equal Christians. They were our fathers and mothers in the faith and eventually this way of doing church would be called Congregationalism.

Still, the impulse to build walls continued. Congregationalists, who had been on the outside of the walls at their start, built them as well, trying to keep out Quakers and Baptists and others.

But the power of Jesus was irresistible and gradually many of those walls have come down. One of the great joys of my life and perhaps yours has been watching this process. I entered seminary in 1972, when women were still discouraged from training to be pastors; by the time I left, half the seminarians were women and today it’s unusual to have a clergy meeting without several women pastors present. I came into the ministry when gay marriage was almost unthinkable; today we rejoice when any couple invite us as a church to participate in witnessing a loving covenant.

This is our job, this is our role: to tear down the walls. Not every Christian communion has come as far in understanding there is no distinction in the love of God, so it is vital that we are here. We have a purpose, we have a plan: to be one place where no matter who you are, what you are, who you love, what you believe, you are welcome to come into the embrace of a corrugation inspired by the embrace of God. We want everyone to discover they are God’s treasure. Often when someone finds us, they are amazed at the openness of the welcome.

There is a reason the pews of so many churches are empty. It is because we were so busy building walls, we forgot to build up people. The true treasure of the open welcome of Jesus Christ is made concrete in the welcome you offer every day.

Today is Reformation day. In many pulpits, there will be a sermon about the past, one far more detailed and descriptive than the little sketch I offered. I kept the history short because I believe the real Reformation is in the future. I honor Luther’s work tearing down the walls; I honor the Pilgrims tearing down the walls. But I am inspired even more by the great future we have in making the promise of the Reformation come true.

The truth is, God loves us all. When we act like that and believe it, the walls come down and we are free. For just as Jesus said, the truth does set us free.

So today, this Reformation Day, is a moment not just to look back at the mighty fortress of Luther and Calvin and the heroes and heroines of Congregational history but forward. What walls remain? What are we doing that prevents people from fully experiencing God’s welcome here? How can we tear down those walls? What changes challenge us as we take our place in the dance of Reformation?
Robert Frost has a wonderful poem that imagines two neighbors rebuilding a stone wall. 
It begins,

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
[Robert Frost, Mending Wall]

They are rebuilding the wall because, as the neighbor remarks, “good fences make good neighbors”. Today, all over the world, Protestant congregations will mark the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation by singing a hymn to walls, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, Martin Luther’s song of triumph, perhaps written while he himself hid behind the walls of a German castle.

So with all this talk of walls, it’s an important moment to say: the work of Jesus Christ is to tear down walls and open gates and invite all of us to fulfill our original purpose: living together as God’s children, praising God’s creative love.

20th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Living Treasure

Living Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

20th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 22, 20117

Matthew 22:15- 22

To hear the sermon preached, click below

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” – Matthew 22:21b

A couple is breaking up a household, going their separate ways. He hands her a book: “I gave you this,” he says, and they gently argue about who owns books and other things. It’s a scene from the movie Annie Hall but one enacted over and over again. Things get mingled, jumbled. What’s yours? What’s mine?

Sometimes the question is easy; often it’s hard. I remember when I was divorced from my first wife and we were separating. I remember fighting over who owned the silver ware, who owned the knives, so many little things. What’s mine? What’s yours? It was hard to say so we fought and made silly rules: you take half the silverware, I’ll take the other half.

Ever since human beings settled down in places, they’ve had to ask this question. Ancient records record with meticulous detail land transactions, including one by the prophet Jeremiah in Jerusalem. The records also show us human greed at work; Proverbs s22:28 says, “Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors.” Some unscrupulous people were moving the boundaries of what they owned. King Ahab and later King David both get in trouble when power leads them to overreach and claim for themselves what isn’t theirs. I’m sure everyone here could tell a story about it. What’s yours? What’s mine? — and then finally: what is God’s?

That’s the issue Jesus raises in the story we read today. Some enemies are hoping to trap him, the way politicians do to each other.

What’s gone on in their country in the last few years has caused division and hatred and even violence. A few years before, the Romans had taken over Judea and installed Herod as King. He was widely hated and depended on Roman support just to stay alive, let alone in power. Partly to pay the cost of this, the Romans introduced a head tax, called a census. But this census wasn’t like the counting we do, it was a tax on every person. In fact, in just a few weeks, when we read the story of Jesus’ birth, we’ll hear about this tax again because it was precisely to be counted for the tax that Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem.

The tax had to be paid in a Roman coin called a denarius, worth about a day’s pay and with an image of the emperor on one side and an inscription saying he was divine on the other. Now for a people whose deepest heartfelt religious expression was the Shema Yisrael, the prayer that says, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” and who believed there were no other Gods and who further had been explicitly told not to make images—well, it was unthinkable to have such a coin. So there was division: the Zealots who refused to pay, the establishment who wanted to overlook religious issues and pay up, the Pharisees in between.

Now they set a trap for Jesus by asking a question with no obvious easy answer. “Tell us, is it lawful to pay this tax?” If he says, “No!”—he will be arrested branded an outlaw, though a popular one; no one likes taxes and this tax was particularly hated. It’s the answer his followers want to hear and the answer the crowd hopes to hear. If on the other hand he says, “Yes, pay the tax,” he will be seen as a coward who compromises with power, afraid of the Romans, and he will lose the faith of his followers.

Now there is quiet as the question hangs in the air, a moment while he thinks, and then, his answer, which obviously surprises them: “Show me the coin”. He’s caught them at their own game—because they produce the coin, showing they have already violated Torah, just by having such an image.

Now he takes the coin, looks at it, perhaps turns it over and looks up, asking, “Whose image is on the coin?”—everyone knows the answer: Caesar. And finally: his answer: “Them give Caesar what is Caesar’s—and render to God, what is God’s.”

What is God’s? What belongs to God? Early in the history of the church, a great theologian recognized that since we bear the image of God, Jesus means each one of us. The coin bear’s Caesar’s image—give it to Caesar. We bear God’s image—so we belong to God. “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it,” Psalm 24:1 says. So the question of what is yours has a surprising answer: what is yours is yours isn’t yours, it’s God’s, because you yourself are God’s living treasure. What is God’s?—we are, every single one of us.

What is yours? What is God’s? If we take this seriously, it becomes the gateway to living as stewards. Now stewardship has come to mean giving money to the church. But it really means a much deeper, wider embrace of a way of life. What is God’s? This moment, and all the moments to come. So if we are on God’s time, shouldn’t we act like it by living as God’s people? What is God’s: this earth and its marvelously complex web of life. So shouldn’t we live in a way that honors that life? What is God’s? All of creation—so if we are stewards, we are stewards of creation. Everything we are, everything we own, everything we do is meant to be a part of this stewardship.

We are God’s and one of the ways we express this is by though sharing the work of God’s church. All the ministries of this church are enabled by our giving. Let me say that again: all the ministries of this church are enabled by our giving. Nothing happens here, nothing can happen here, unless someone gives something. I think we forget that principle sometimes. We take things for granted, as if they were always here, will always be here. That pew you’re sitting in; this pulpit from which I’m preaching. They had to be bought, someone had to pay for them.

But we just figure they’ll be there. We’re like the waiter a friend of mine met in the south. She’d never had grits but of course in the south, grits just come with breakfast. So she asked the waiter, “What exactly ARE grits?” He looked at her as if she was crazy and replied, “Well, ma’am, grits is grits.” Trying to make herself clear, she pushed on: “Well where do grits come from?” He thought for a moment and then said, “They come from the kitchen.” The truth is: everything comes from somewhere and the activities of this church, its ministries, it’s mission, do not come from the kitchen or the Church Council or some other place; they come from us, from each one of us. They come from our answer to the question, “What is God’s?”

Notice I didn’t say they come from the answer, “What should I give?” That’s the wrong question; giving here isn’t a donation to a cause or an organization; we don’t want what’s yours, in fact. Keep it: it’s yours. No, what makes this place go is when someone recognizes they belong to God and decides to use what they have for God. It could be a talent. We need the gifts and talents of every person. We have some people with great musical talents they recognize as gifts from God and thank God they share them here, because we’d have a lot tougher time praising God and singing alleluia without them. We have bakers and people who are great at greeting. We have painters, photographers; we have people who just come and appreciate it all, cooks, teachers, and people who know how to organize a work party.

What makes all those go together, what blends it like a good cook making a wonderful stew, is the spirit of God and the open hearted recognition that we belong to God and therefore everything we have, everything we are, belongs to God.

Of course, part of this is our money. What is money? It’s really a kind of battery, a stored up energy, an ability to get something done. What happens when you give the church a dollar? Nothing miraculous, really. We buy stuff and we pay people. Some of the money buys paper, some buys toner, and we use that to turn out the bulletin you hold in your hand each Sunday. Some of the money pays me, and because you pay me, I am available when someone needs a visit in the hospital, when a funeral is needed, when you need a calm, thoughtful person to talk to that you can trust. A good deal of it allows me to plan the sermon and worship that the bulletin describes. A good part of the money pays to make sure we have this beautiful, historic building in which to worship; the money pays to maintain it, heat it or cool it, and keep it up.

None of that’s a miracle but what is truly miraculous is what comes out of all that process. When we respond by freely, joyfully giving what is God’s, God takes that, inspires it and works in it. So the sermon and the singing becomes worship. The teams meet and a potluck dinner gets planned or a quilt gets made or people learn about the Bible. Children grow up, feeling welcomed and learning about the wonderful love of God. Others in the community find a welcoming place to meet, so that the building almost bursts with activity. That’s what happens when we give God what is God’s.

Soon, every member of this church and some who aren’t members will be invited to estimate their giving for next year. Over the next two weeks, we’ll have more information about this and I hope you’ll read it. On November 5, there will be a luncheon after church so you can hear from the Trustees and ask questions. What we hope today is that you will pray about this process. There’s a tendency we all have to do what we have done. This is a critical moment: we need, all of us, to think about what it means to be a steward and consider how we can help.

Now I don’t know how much you should give but I do know this: God knows. So what I want to say about pledging is very simple, very direct: please pray about it. Don’t ask what you gave last year, don’t ask what you should give, ask God what God wants. Start with the idea that it all belongs to God—start with the idea that you belong to God, that you are God’s living treasure.

Give God what is God’s: that’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the disciples and it’s what he says to us today. Give God what is God’s. And what is God’s? You—me—we are God’s living treasure. If we will faithfully, prayerfully, hopefully give God what is God’s, I know that God will work with it like a baker making bread; that God’s spirit will come into it like yeast and raise it up until all God’s children are fed and realize the wonderful love of God.

Amen.