After Pentecost 2 B

Seeming, Seeing, Saving

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 3, 2018
2 Corinthian 4:5-12

So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Cor 4:12

To hear the sermon preached, click below

Every preacher has some weaknesses. I know that one of mine is titles. Take today. I looked at this scripture reading and saw the part about being slaves, and I thought of when my older kids were eight and six. We lived in a flat in Milwaukee with no dishwasher. Every night after dinner, their job was to wash and dry the dishes and put them away. One night when they were pouting they said, “We’re slaves, we’re nothing but slaves.” Their mother and I looked at each other and said together, “You’re right, now get out there and finish up.” So I thought about calling this sermon “Nothing But Slaves”. It might be worth pointing out here that in Greek, the same word is used for children and slaves; I guess the Greeks needed dishwashers too. But I gave up on that title, it doesn’t really embrace Paul’s message.

Then I thought about the text a bit more and I was really taken by the image of the earthen vessels. I put one on the communion table today, just to illustrate this. I’ve read a couple of sermons that focused there and especially on the pots as cracked pots. There are so many crackpots in our national life today that I thought I could talk for a long time about that. We might not all have the same idea about which crackpots are the worst or funniest but still, there do seem to be a lot of them. But I read some more and realized this isn’t really the point of the passage; it’s an illustration of a larger message. So sadly I gave up on that title; I know a lot of preachers, better preachers, are happy to do something light-hearted but I know you expect to hear God’s word, not just whatever I think is funny.
After a few days reflecting, I began to think of Paul’s message here in three parts and that’s where my title today, seeming, seeing, saving, came from. It’s not as fun as cracked pots but it makes more sense of Paul’s message here, at least it did for me; let’s see if it does for you.

The Corinthian Christians were a quarrelsome bunch. We have a letter we call First Corinthians that’s full of Paul’s advice on conflicts; it’s clear there that the church has some factions. Before this letter was written, Paul sent Timothy to try to solve the problems but he failed. Then, someone we’ll call Mr. X came along who was charismatic and apparently an excellent speaker and a bunch of the church rallied around him. But as often happens, the charismatic leader’s fall was just as sudden as his rise. Now the church is in conflict again over differences about this leader and Paul and Paul is trying to get them back on the path toward Christ.

He begins with a sermon that should be preached to every pastor in America today I think:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

When I look back over my career, over 40 years of pastoral ministry, I see that one of the great changes has been the creation of what I call the entrepreneurial ministry. The model is something like this: go door to door, call on the phone, by some means get a little group together; tell them they are right. That’s right: no preacher ever started up a church confronting people about where they are wrong. Adopt their culture, wave their flags, support their politics, lift up their sports. That will make the little group a larger group; it will make them feel good about themselves. And it may work. Today all over the country there are super churches with super preachers who took and take this path. Every single one is led by some preacher who is lifted up as the voice of God.

But notice what Paul says: not ourselves but Jesus Christ. By ‘ourselves’ he means himself, Timothy, other church leaders. Here it means me, Joan, our Moderator, our other officers. We’re not the show; we’re not the heart. I’m not the heart. I’m not here to proclaim me, I’m here to preach Jesus Christ as Lord. I’ve been through a few transitions where I left a church after a long, fruitful time. Each time the same thing has happened; each time someone has come and said, “I’m leaving if you’re not going to be here.” I’ve always replied the same way: you didn’t join me, you joined a church; you didn’t follow me, you followed Jesus. So why would you leave? There’s more to do.

Paul wants us to see what an extraordinary treasure we have in God’s love. Just like many of us, he had his own particular experience of being called by Christ. In his case, it involved an intense light, so bright it blinded him. So naturally he remembers that God is the source of light, that God’s creation began with light. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He calls this a treasure, and so it is, for the greatest treasure of all is to see ourselves not as the world sees but in the light of God, in the mirror of God’s love. We may seem to be nothing to the world. We may seem to be weak in the world. But seen from God’s view, we contain a treasure: the image of God, which is our true self.

Paul knows about this difference between seeming and saying. He’s not being superficial or unrealistic. He goes on to admit that this treasure is held in an earthen vessel. In the ancient world, earthen vessels, pottery, were the everyday packaging. It’s what you put your olive oil in, it’s what your foods came in. It’s what held trade goods. Pottery was so widely spread that today archaeologists use different patterns and compositions of pottery to date cities; they dig them up in former trash mounds. Now pottery is made from clay; perhaps just as Paul is thinking of God’s creation of light, he’s also thinking of how we were created from the same clay that makes pottery. We are earthen vessels.

He’s completely realistic about our lives; they aren’t untroubled, in fact as he says, “We are hard pressed on every side,..perplexed…persecuted..struck down…We always carry in our body the death of Jesus.” Just like an earthen vessel that can be dropped at any moment and break into shards, we are terribly fragile. I think we all know this and fight the knowledge. We’re constantly defending that weakness. I was halfway through my career in ministry before I ever sat with a Board of Deacons, discussing a complaint, and simply said, “I made a mistake; I’m sorry.” I never wanted to be an earthen vessel: I wanted to be gold or silver or something shinier. It was terrible admitting I was just a clay pot. I wonder how many conflicts are caused by fear of our fragility. I wonder how many hierarchies, systems of oppression, come from the secret knowledge of the oppressor that he or she is fragile, an earthen vessel, subject to shattering.

But if we are fragile, if we are earthen vessels, we also have an amazing capacity to carry the extraordinary spirit of God. Paul sees the fragility, sees the injuries, the hurts, the times that shatter us but he also wants us to see that in Jesus Christ we have another possibility.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; 
perplexed, but not driven to despair; 
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, 
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

This last is what saves us, saves our world: that the life of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, is made visible in us. Yes, we are earthen vessels; but those vessels contain a treasure. Yes, we are fragile; but we have an eternal life in the heart of God. Yes, we are carrying death in our bodies, just like Jesus, but just like Jesus, we have the capacity to shine with the light of the Spirit of God.

When we understand we are earthen vessels containing a treasure there are two consequences. One is that we understand our own value before God. So we are set free from the world’s value systems. We can stop trying to be gold vessels or silver vessels, because the treasure is what we contain. And the second consequence is that we recognize a fundamental equality with all God’s other children. We are all earthen vessels; we are all carriers of treasure. Paul saw this himself. In Galatians 3:28 he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So our mission becomes working for justice for all, for justice simply means treating equally people who are equal.

We live in a world that seems to be one way but Christ calls us to see beyond the world to the hope and love of God. We live in a world where we get bruised, cry out, feel ourselves cast down, but if we look, we can see that even in the moment of suffering, we are invited to the arms of Jesus Christ who also suffered, who knows about suffering. This is how God is saving this world. In our moments of celebration, in our times of suffering, we are earthen vessels meant to carry the treasure of God’s glory, God’s image, God’s presence. This is the spirit that is saving the world. Whatever things seem, may we see it and share it.

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.

Easter 7B – Ascension – Next, Please?

Next, Please?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday • May 13, 2018

One day last week Jacquelyn and I toured the Alhambra, an enormous Medieval complex of palaces, gardens and fortresses overlooking the city of Granada. It was the last hold out of Muslim rulers in Spain, and its swirling walls decorated with plaster calligraphy, its pools of water, and mountain views were exhilarating.

Still, three hours of walking in such beauty, we were tired and hungry. We bought sandwiches and found a bench in some shade. Drawn by the same shade, two young couples sat across from us. Soon a small cat came over and clearly sniffed Jacquelyn’s sandwich; she was having tuna, and the cat wanted som,e so it did what always works with Jacquelyn, sat in front of her and quietly looked hungry and sad and hopeful.

We all laughed at the cat and began to talk. One of the women was obviously pregnant. We asked when she was due; she said August and I laughed and said August babies—of which I’m one—were extraordinary people. As we talked, she mentioned how scared she was about being a mother. I said being a parent was the most fun I’d ever had; Jacquelyn added comments on how wonderful it had been, having May, bringing her up. It turned out the other woman was pregnant too, and soon we were all laughing. Of course, Jacquelyn went from just dropping crumbs for the cat to breaking pieces off to feed the feline. With lunch over, we said goodbye to our friends and the cat and wandered off. I’d like to think we not only made the cat’s day but gave those two couples a bit of hope, another brighter voice than all the scary rational ones. I’d like to think we passed on a little of the love we’ve found parenting together.

Today is one of those days with many priorities. In the United States, it’s Mothers Day. 
In the past, that often meant exalting on one day out of the whole year the role of women who have children. Often we left out those who didn’t. Today I want to make it clear that as we mention this day, we honor with it those women, mothers, grandmothers and others who care for children they didn’t have to cherish and raise but do so with the same generous love. We honor as well women who have never had children but also share their care and love in so many ways.

I said it was a day of different priorities and if Mothers Day is one, the calendar of the church provides another. Today is Ascension Sunday. Long ago, the church remembered there was a time, a moment, when the direct, immediate presence of Jesus walking and talking with his friends ceased, when he returned to the Father so that his followers could, like fledging birds, learn to live out the love he had taught on their own.

The Book of Acts invites us to imagine Jesus taking his disciples out to a hill where they ask if he will at that time restore the kingdom of Israel. He replies, in effect, that the scheduled for the kingdom is none of their business and that instead their job is to go out and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. He mentions Judah and Samaria; you can substitute whatever place seems foreign and exotic to you. Brooklyn, maybe, or New Jersey or West Virginia, or Georgia or Buffalo. Buffalo is definitely one of the ends of the earth, at least it’s near the end of the turnpike so it will do as a symbol.

But my favorite story of the ascension is actually the one we heard today in Acts. Jesus has gone and now for the first time his disciples have to organize on their own. How are we going to continue? That’s a question all organizations ask. These early Christians don’t have the tools we have. Roberts Rules of Order won’t be written for centuries; there is no church constitution. They can’t even settle this question the way we settle such matters now by asking, “What did we do last year?” because this is the first year, the first time. But they understand this single important thing: they are there to continue the work of Jesus and that means continuing to create and recreate the community of Jesus. So they pick a couple of good candidates, people they’ve known, who’ve been active and nominate them and then they pray and cast lots; Matthias becomes the new disciple.

In the whole book of Acts of the Apostles, I do not know a more important moment. For in that moment, these people, who so often fumbled and misunderstood Jesus, begin to move forward in his spirit. In this moment, they begin to do what he told them, to ready themselves for continuing the ministry of Jesus on their own. The Romans thought they could kill the movement by killing Jesus; the religious leaders thought they could kill the spirit by killing the preacher. But God’s love and life were so strong that instead he overcomes death and his resurrection inspires these followers to continue to create communities of care just as he did, communities that will spread throughout the world. The light of love is shining in this moment and being passed like candle light, from one to another. We sometimes get so concerned about daily challenges we forget this is the most important challenge of all: how we can pass on the light of love each day.

That’s the point Jesus is making in the part of the prayer we heard this morning. He says about the disciples he about to release into the world like a dandelion releasing its seeds,

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. [John 17:16-19]

That’s us: that’s who we are meant to be, people sent into the world who have seen how much difference a moment of grace, a cherishing love, a boundary breaking invitation can make.

That’s the spirit in which Mothers Day originated. You can read in the bulletin article today a longer history of Mothers Day. I want simply to point out here that it began not as a day to give your mother a card but out of the boundary breaking work of bridging the gap between former Union and Confederate soldiers and families. West Virginia had become a state through the breaking of ties that inspired the war against the Union and the restoration of peace left broken bodies and broken communities there more than in most places. Anna Jarvis worked to promote peace and her daughter worked to lift up and honor that work.

There are so many stories like this. We often feel powerless but the truth is we have the power to act, as the disciples acted, and when we do amazing things happen. Let me give you one more souvenir from our vacation in Spain this year. We always visit Cathedrals and this year one that stood out to me honors St. John de Dios. It stood out because it is a soaring basilica perhaps four stories high at the front, all in figures of gold and for one euro you can turn the lights on and startle everyone there. It stood out because I’m a Congregationalist who loves the spare, plain beauty of our meeting houses which are almost undecorated. In that church, decoration assaults you at every turn and it includes that odd medieval Catholic obsession with relics of saints, so they have various skeletons in glass boxes.

All of it was over the top but it did make me look up St. John of God, the inspiration for the place. What I found was much more amazing than the gold and the skeletons. John was a poor Portuguese boy who did what boys from poor boys often do today: he enlisted in the military. He did well as a soldier, survived and went on to have a variety of experiences. At midlife, he had an experience of inspiration and began to help sick and needy people. Others joined him; the work expanded. Eventually a whole order was funded which operates hospitals around the world.

“The lot fell on Matthias,” Acts says; one person, one moment. Hundreds of years later, it fell on a former soldier and now we have hospitals. Hike up in the mountains, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, anywhere will do and if you watch a stream flowing downhill you can see it is irresistible. Blocks a path, it finds another; when a tree falls in the middle, it divides around it. It doesn’t look like much, often, just a little stream but nothing will stop that stream flowing to the river to the sea and joining the ocean. That’s how it is with God’s love. It’s flowing all the time, touching someone here, there. Like a working at a counter, calling, “Next, please?” it moves from person to person.

One of the wonderful gifts of travel is that you stop seeing news alerts. So this past week while we were in Spain, I’m sure that lots of things went on. The President did things; other people protested or agreed. Global leaders did whatever they do. Millionaires in the city got mad that someone parked a fireboat that helped rescue people on 9/11 in front of their condos, spoiling the view.

But this happened too: the Henry Street Settlement got a 6.2 million dollar donation. The Settlement started in 1893 when Lillian Ward settled in a slum in New York City among what today we would call undocumented immigrants. That another term for many of our grandparents, mine among them. Henry Street has far too many accomplishments to list but an important one today is supporting young people going to college. A lot more will be able to go because of this huge donation. Now you might think that in New York, with so many very rich people who live in rich towers, a donation would come from one of them. But it didn’t. It came from Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old woman who retired after a 67 year career as a secretary. She never had a child; thanks to her gift, hundreds of children will be nurtured and grow up in new ways.

“Next, please?” Matthias starts out as the first disciple to continue the work. Others follow. Still, the Spirit is calling: next, please? No one knows what blessings make a difference. But like the stream running down the mountain, no one can stop that stream of blessing. We are invited to make our lives part of the stream, part of the blessing, to live as the next ones to light the candle of love.

Easter 5B – The Good Sheep

The Good Sheep

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Easter/B • April 29, 2018
John 10:18-31

In 1973, I was the pastor the Seattle Congregational Church in Washington, almost as far west as you can go in the lower 48 states. But my family was in Michigan, so I’d driven between the two several times. Four days: Michigan to Wisconsin, where I also have family, then a day to Montana, and then a day that is all Montana, finally a day across Idaho and Washington. It’s a long drive and that year I decided to vary it by trying some local roads across the mountains in Wyoming. There was a little road on the map that looked like it would cut a couple hours off the trip and let me connect back up to I-90 in Montana.

So off I went in my Pinto, a little blue Ford. Up, up the mountain, uncomfortably aware there was no one around. Have you been to that sort of place? Where you feel like if something happened, no one would find you, no one would know for a long, long time? Just as I was thinking that I remember coming around a curve, meadows on both sides, and suddenly seeing like a flowing sea a flock of hundreds of sheep flowing over the road. I braked quickly and sat there, watching as they moved. There was a dog barking but no person, no one at all. And then, as the flock began to thin and I thought to get the car moving again, I saw a horse with a small man slumped in the saddle. He didn’t seem to talk; he didn’t seem to do anything. He just quietly followed the flock. He was the shepherd.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Is there any more famous verse in the whole New Testament? Haven’t we all heard this, seen pictures of Jesus as a shepherd or holding a lamb? “I am the Good Shepherd.” It’s like a sign that says: “ok, I already heard this, I can check out now”, isn’t it? Well, let me ask you to come back now if you’re already wondering what’s at coffee hour, because I want to think not only about the Good Shepherd today but about the sheep: you and I, the flock the Good Shepherd gathers and protects. That’s you: that’s me.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus defines his relationship with us. First, we are not in charge. The sheep do not decide the direction, the sheep do not decide the route. The sheep go where the shepherd directs. And the shepherd cares for the sheep.

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Why does the hired hand run away? Because he doesn’t love the sheep. This is the deep heart of our relationship with Jesus. It’s in the scene we read a few weeks ago, where he shows his wounds to Thomas. Even in resurrection, the Lord retains his wounds, is marked by his wounds, wounds he receives on our behalf. Living in the midst of resurrection means living in the presence of the wounded Christ. It is a reminder that every attempt to connect Christ to kings or presidents or nations is a lie. He comes to us wounded, not victorious, and he invites us to come to him with our wounds, imperfect, failing at times, yet still part of his flock by his decision, not our own.

This mutuality is the mystery of our lives together with the Lord. He says,

I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

Christ does not come as an individual but as part of the community we call the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And his purpose is to bring us into the mutual love, mirror the mutual love, between the Father and Son. And he does this through experience.

The verb “know” in the Bible doesn’t mean knowing the way we know someone’s name or how the Mets did at their last game. It really means to experience. It means knowing what an apple tastes like when you bite into it; it means knowing the way we know grief when someone we love dies. It means the knowing that grows between best friends or lovers so that we carry a copy of them in our head and know what they will say even when they aren’t present.

The mutuality of this knowing, this experience is a present thing. This is the heart of living with the Risen Lord: to say, “Christ is Risen!”, is to say he is in our present, not just our past. I know that a temptation I have is to spend so much time looking at the history of Jesus that I forget the presence of Christ. The resurrection experience is the re-establishment of relationships. That’s what’ happens with Thomas, that’s what happens with Mary. 
When Jesus meets Mary, she doesn’t call him by name, she says, “Rabouni”, which means “My teacher”. It’s not just his identity she recognizes: it is her relationship with him, his with her. For us to live as Easter people is to live in the faith he is here, now, not just back then.

“I am the good shepherd. My sheep know me and I know them.” Mutual recognition is the foundation of the flock. Jesus always gathers. His historical ministry begins with gathering disciples. As he walks along, he constantly gathers with others; this is one of the big complaints about him: “He eats with sinners.” At the table of Jesus, the culture of class and division is destroyed: all are welcome. Gathering is one of his distinctive actions.

Early Congregationalists recognized this gathering into covenanted community as the foundation of life with Christ. Peter Gomes makes this point about Congregational Churches. Speaking in Scotland to Episcopalians, he once said,

In New England, the ancient parishes of the seventeenth century in the Congre- gational order are not described as “founded”—if you ever look at an old sev- enteenth-century New England church, the sign will not say, “Founded in 1620,” “Founded in 1636,” “Founded in 1690″— but use a very strange nomenclature used nowhere else in the church, either in Europe or in this country: it says “Gathered in 1620,” “Gathered in 1640,” “Gathered in 1690,” and there is something very different between being founded and being gathered. The notion is that of sheep being gathered into the sheepfold.
[Peter Gomes, Good Shepherd, Good Sheep, April, 2003]

Jesus comes to us: we come to the flock, to church, to be with others who recognize him.
As we do, we should remember: we don’t get to decide who’s in or out of the flock. Jesus says,

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

 

I remember a story about an Episcopal priest whose church had become a community center, as ours has. Many of the people now filling its rooms were different than the members of the church and some members complained. He replied that he didn’t choose these people; Jesus did. They weren’t who he would have chosen but Jesus had, so what was he to do? They should blame Jesus. When we welcome someone, invite someone, we are acting like the good sheep of Christ’s flock.

“I am the good shepherd.” If Jesus is the good shepherd, we have to ask: what does it mean for us to be the good sheep?

First, it means gathering. There is a reason sheep have evolved a strong instinct to flock together. The flock protects them. When Jesus says he is the good shepherd, he also says there are danger out there. I don’t have to enumerate them, nor could I. But in our gathering, we are strengthened, we encourage each other.

I don’t think any of us really know how much our presence here means to others. Who came this morning hoping to see you? Who is strengthened by your presence here this morning, your greeting, your prayers? Coming to church is not an individual experience: it is gathering with others and although you may not realize it, your presence helps others. We have a variety of gifts, as Paul says, and when we gather the gifts are shared and make a blessing we also share.

Second, sheep produce. They are not simply existing on their own, they are a means of making something happen: wool, perhaps meat. In our case, Paul says,

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22f]

Our purpose is to bear these fruits, share them with the world. Like the sheep producing wool, we are meant to give something back, our love and joy, our kindness, and so on. Like a voice in a choir, these gifts melt together into God’s song of praise.

“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus calls us to gather together as his sheep, following him, not as a revered but dead example but as the living Lord, caring for us. Wherever we have been, whatever we have done, he calls us to follow him forward as members of his flock. Remember what he said to Peter? “Never mind all that—feed my sheep.” That’s us: thats our job. He is the shepherd; we are the flock. May we live in the love and care of the good shepherd, gathered in his flock.

Amen.

Easter 3B – Mary and Manitude

Mary and Manitude

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Easter • April 15, 2018
John 20:11-18

A man with long legs gets on an airplane. The exit row seats have a bit more leg room and the helpful flight attendant suggests he sit in one of them. He replies, “Those seats don’t recline.” She says, “They do, actually.” He replies, “No they don’t.” She smiles and says, “Why don’t you sit down and explain why you think you know more about this plane than I do?” He just goes off—to a different seat, obviously secure in his rightness, even though in fact he is wrong. That’s manitude.

A woman driving a shuttle bus pulls up to a hotel with some passengers. She’s brought them to a side door. The hotel, she tells them, is being renovated; check-in is in a room through the door. The passengers get off; one couple heads around the building to the former lobby. A few minutes later, they are still wandering, as the man assures his wife that there must be a check-in somewhere and they finally get directions from a man. That’s manitude.

Some women come to the disciples and tell them they’ve been to the tomb of Jesus and it’s empty. But no one believes them. Luke says: “…they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”[Luke 21:11] Mark’s version, as we heard on Easter Sunday, says Mary didn’t even bother to tell them; as I was discussing it that week, more than one woman said, “Oh, I understand that, they wouldn’t have believed her anyway.” That’s manitude.

“Manitude” is an attitude that diminishes and deprecates the contributions of women in favor of males, especially higher status males. These are gender-based examples but the same tendency is found in other places, the tendency to value based on gender, class, race or some other category that has nothing to do with competence.

As I said last week, I want to think with you about the resurrection experience of these earliest Christians. Because the resurrection is the ultimate recommendation of Jesus. This is what we say: believe him because he overcame death, even death on a cross. Nowhere is there any account of the resurrection itself. What we have instead are accounts of people meeting the Risen Lord, encountering him. And right from the beginning, these are conditioned by culture and Manitude and the lives of the individuals involved. Yet their accounts contain the seeds that can bloom into our own spiritual lives. Last week, I talked about how sharing our wounds, as Jesus did with Thomas, can connect us. Today I want to reflect on how we can hear more clearly the voice of the Lord speaking in our midst.

All the gospels agree that Mary of Magdala is either the first or among the first to discover Jesus has left the tomb. But the church remembered that she wasn’t believed. In some versions, she doesn’t tell the disciples; in others, as I mentioned, they don’t believe her. The critical point is that these disciples who have walked with Jesus, eaten with Jesus, listened to Jesus as he told them over and over that he would go to his death and then be resurrected did not believe him and therefore didn’t believe Mary’s story.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this very comforting. It turns out the earliest Christians are just like me: they don’t believe what they can’t see and touch. Even when they hear the Lord has risen, their first reaction is, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Maybe you’ve had that reaction about some Christian ideas; maybe you just decided to set them aside. I know at times I’ve done that. Some I’ve come back to; some I never have.

But Mary’s experience isn’t just the absence of Jesus’ body; she also encounters the Risen, living Lord. As we read in the gospel of John, as she stands weeping outside the tomb, she meets three persons. Just as in other accounts, two of them are dressed in white, angels who tell her that Jesus isn’t there. But then,

14…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). [John 20:14-16]

There are some details to notice here. First, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. The same is true in other stories, including the encounter of some disciples near Emmaus. Even when you meet the Risen Lord, you may not know it. It’s a stunning idea, isn’t it? Have you met the Risen Lord and missed him because you didn’t know who he was?

It’s when Jesus addresses her directly that the situation changes. He calls her name, “Mary”. Think of it: the Son of God, the Risen Lord, the personal, image of God remembers her name. With that one word, we know that Jesus is not seeing her through the cloudy lens of her gender or class or anything else except her true self. There’s nothing in the way. She’s not a woman, she’s not a well-off merchant, she’s not a Jew, she’s simply Mary.. She is a child of God.

The second is her response. When he recognizes her, she also recognizes him and she calls out to him, not a name, but a relationship: “Rabouni,” a Hebrew word that means something like “Teacher”. But it embraces more than a vocation: she is claiming him, naming a direct relationship in which she is already agreeing to be guided by his words, taught by his sayings. 
He isn’t just a teacher: he is her teacher.

We do not come to Jesus, Jesus comes to us, and he’s most likely to come to us when we cry. Just as he uses his wounds to summon Thomas and the others, there is something about a person crying out that summons Jesus. We see that over and over in the healing stories. The modern Protestant orthodoxy we grew up with tended to minimize the healings but in fact, Mark offers healings as the first acts of Jesus’ ministry: an exorcism, and the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. It’s significant that Mary is crying when he comes to her in the garden. She is not seeking him; there is no come to Jesus moment here. Instead, he comes to her.

So the whole project of evangelistic pressure to believe what cannot be seen is illegitimate. We may be called to believe what we haven’t seen but it’s a call of the heart; no genuine faith comes from the social coercion of shame. The Lord waits to be recognized, coming to us when we are ready, calling us by name, speaking into our hearts. We do not know when this will happen to someone. And this is where the issue of manitude comes in. For when we screen out the insights and visions of someone, we may be missing a genuine vision of the Lord.

We’ve just come through Passover, when God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is remembered, an act of salvation. That story really begins with a moment when Moses sees a burning bush in the distance and decides to turn aside and see this sight. When he does, he hears the call of God. The Rabbis have asked, “How long was the bush burning?” and their answer is 400 years: it started burning when the Jews were first enslaved. “What would have happened if someone had noticed the bush burning 100 years before Moses?”—to which they answer, we would have been saved 100 years earlier. [https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/the-yearning-burning-bush/]

We cannot afford to screen out, to miss, visions and hopes; we need everyone to share because who knows which one has seen the Lord. This is a hard concept to get across. Most church organizations do not really believe it and since most of us have been somewhere else, we don’t believe it either. Early on, the church tragically adopted the Roman Empire hierarchy as its model. So it preached that there were different orders of Christians. In the west, the top guy was and is the Pope, with bishops under him, and so on. Protestants mostly took over this organization; they just replaced the pope with a king or a group of bishops. Even some Puritans, who became Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, took over the idea that somehow clergy had a special connection to inspiration.

We don’t. I don’t. I have a graduate degree in theology, mostly in the Bible. I have lots of education in administering a church, some training in counseling. I have several decades of experience leading worship. But I don’t have any more access to Jesus and to God than you do; you don’t have more than I. This is the great insight of the first Congregationalists and it is still the heart of what makes this way of doing church so important. We know each other here as equal covenant partners in this congregation. At our best, we act without manitude, we listen to everyone, we care for each one.

That leads me to ask something of you. We need to hear from each other; we need to hear about moments of inspiration, we need to hear what this church means to you. We need to hear what others in the church need, we need to hear your insights on our next steps. We’re about six weeks from our Annual Meeting. You all know how dull these often are. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone came prepared to say a word about what makes them thankful for this church? Wouldn’t it be amazing if people came and shared their vision of what we should do next year? Wouldn’t it be incredible if people volunteered to plan and create those next steps?

I want to get in the habit of making suggestions. For almost four years I’ve picked the hymns. Some you liked, some you didn’t, some you refused to sing. That’s ok. What if we shared this? In your bulletin today there’s a card that invites you to make some suggestions about worship. Please fill it out; you can drop it off in the office, you can put it in the offering plate. You can take it home, think about it and send it back. Send a letter with it, if you wish, something to share in the newsletter.

Manitude is that human tendency, often gendered, to not hear someone because you don’t respect them. It might be because of gender, or race or class or age or appearance or sexuality. We can’t afford it. The disciples missed the first reports of the resurrection because they didn’t believe them, possibly because they came from women. Every Easter we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Don’t miss him; don’t miss hearing others who have seen him. When we connect as a congregation of Christ, sharing our wounds, loving each other as he commanded, he promised to be present in our midst. He is; he always is.

Amen.

Easter – B – Still I Rise

Still I Rise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Easter Sunday/B • April 1, 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Christmas begins with lights. On Christmas Eve, we gather here to look for the Lord, to celebrate his coming. The last thing we do is to light the candles. It’s a wonderful moment: celebrating the one who came as the light of the world, we pass the light, candle to handle, one to another until the whole room sparkles and we sing. But Easter begins in darkness. The last thing we do is on Maundy Thursday is to extinguish the candles, remembering the darkness to come on Good Friday. So we come to Easter from the darkness.

Like a stage cleared in the final act of a play, Mark tells us the crowds have cleared out, first shouting, “Hosanna” for Jesus come as king, later demanding, “Crucify him!” when the Romans and the city authorities arrest him and put him on trial as a terrorist. Peter denies him in the courtyard of the jail. Killed on a cross in the hours before the Sabbath, his followers fade away. Finally, it’s left to a sympathetic rich man to provide for his burial and the body is stashed in a cave tomb, too late for preparation before Shabbat, which starts at darkness, begins and night takes over. Only now, in the darkness of the dawn, does someone, a few women, venture to the tomb. They buy spices to prepare the body, to make the final arrangements and give some dignity to the dead. They are going to the grave and they’re worried that the stone closing it off will be too much to roll away; they’re worried they won’t be able to get into where Jesus lies dead in the darkness.

The burial caves of Jerusalem are on a cliff wall. Imagine walking along the Indian Ladder escarpment as the darkness turns into dawn, slowly, carefully negotiating the turns in the path, watching just the steps ahead, not the whole path, unable to see around the next turn. Carefully, quietly, the women walk the path, perhaps stumbling here or there, clutching each other to keep from falling, arms full of the precious spices. They know a large stone blocks the entrance to the tomb and they are already trying to think of a way to move it. You see how like us they are? They have a problem: they’ve brought the things they will need to do their job and they are discussing how to deal with the biggest obstacle of all. Isn’t that what we do?

Now they come around the last curve. Are they still talking about the stone or has the nearness of the grave silenced them? Now they pass it and look toward the grave, discovering the problem they worried so much about isn’t there: the stone is moved. Who moved it? How did they do it? The women don’t know or seem to care. The grave is open; they walk slowly toward it, silent now I’m sure, they come to the entrance and, they enter the cave and suddenly the darkness lightens and in the light there is a person sitting, dressed in white, shining with it. They’re afraid: who wouldn’t be, they came to deal with a dead man, not a live angel.

He says what angels always say: “Don’t be afraid.” He shows them where Jesus had lain, they see the grave clothes they had intended to anoint with their spices which won’t be needed after all. And he tells them what to do. “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The women run. Of course, they run: wouldn’t you? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What about you? What about me? What are we to make of this story?

Most importantly, that Easter is not only for Easter Sunday. The gospel of Mark starts, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” All that follows all the stories of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, the story of the cross, this story of Easter is a prelude, just a beginning. The good news is that it’s not the end. In the failure of the worldly events, there is a space made by faith. In the vulnerability of the cross and the tomb, there is an empty place and God works in that wilderness, God is present in that wilderness, raising Jesus. The Pharisees cannot understand him, the Romans cannot kill him, his own followers cannot follow him but God’s grace is so powerful it can overcome all of them. Go home, the angel says: go back to Galilee. He’s not gone, he’s still here: “there you will see him.” Easter is a summons to see.

Maya Angelou is a poet who has seen in the long history of oppression of black people a reason for hope, an image of resurrection. She says, in part,

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

[Maya Angelou, Still I Rise]

There he is: rising in the sweep of history, bending history to the love of God, the justice of God a little bit every day. See him there: see his power there. See his resurrection there. To the violence of the Empire, of all empires, he says: “Still I rise.”
But it’s not only in the big things that Jesus can be seen. Terry Marquardt wrote about grieving for her grandmother and remembered,

My aunt was with my grandmother during the last nights of her life, when the pain in her spine was so horrible that she hadn’t slept for two days, and the medication had stopped working, and she was beginning to lose hope. It was too much to lay down, so the two of them were sitting in the living room at 2:00 in the morning when my aunt had an idea.
“Mom, let’s have a party.”
“How could I possibly do that,” my grandmother said, motioning to her stiff body, kept awake by the sensation that it was being ground into dust.
“Let’s try,” my aunt said.
And she started to sing.
My aunt sang the Mennonite hymns my grandmother had taught her, songs from my grandmother’s childhood in a Mennonite farming community in northeastern Canada, songs that were sung in the fields, at their dinner tables, to greet the dawn, to end their day, on the way to church. My aunt and my grandmother sang all night long, until there was no pain, until my grandmother’s nurse woke up and tiptoed into the room.
“I’ve never heard such beautiful music,” she cried.
[Read the whole post here: https://medium.com/@Tanya.Marquardt/grieving-our-dead-online-3416e1918a25]

We thought the problem was how to give Jesus a decent burial, how to roll the stone away. But it turns out that the stone we worried about is already rolled away; Jesus is gone ahead. The empty tomb is God’s message to the Emperor, to the soldiers, to the world, to the followers who have scattered that in the midst of death, still I rise. This is God saying, in the midst of betrayal, whether Judas and his double crossing kiss or Peter in his fearful denial, still I rise. This is God saying to the torturers and the prison guards and the judges and the crucifiers just following orders, still I rise. This is God saying that even when I feel abandoned on a cross and cry out asking why I’m forsaken, still I rise. This is God saying, even from a tomb closed up tight, still I rise.

This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. It starts with fearful followers running away. In the days that followed, every one of them had to decide what to do about the news that he had risen; every one had to decide how to live when the tomb was empty and despite the plain sense of his death, there was this amazing experience where it was clear that he was saying, “Still I rise”. Every one of them had to decide whether to keep running or to rise with him, to go to Galilee, to look for him, follow him.

Where is Galilee? It’s where they came from, where they started. Jesus is going back to the beginning and starting over: that’s where they will see him. Their lives are about to start over because these lives are lived beyond the fear of death. The great question about the Christian movement of the first century is what powered it, what allowed it to change history. The answer is the people Jesus changed; the answer is the people who saw him rise and took his resurrection as the pattern for their own lives. Jesus was risen and they were able to say with him, still I rise.
It’s the same with us. We are prepared to go to the grave; we are good at raising the money to buy spices, we can discuss how to move the stone. But are we ready to leave the grave and go to Galilee? Can we take Easter home, can we take it wherever we go? Still I rise, he says: despite what we thought, he calls us, invites us, forgives us, commands us. Come see me: come follow me.

He’s gone ahead and when we see that, we’re ready to take the next step, to let go of our fears, accept his forgiveness and follow him. Easter isn’t a day, it’s an invitation: come see me. The gospels tell us how he appeared over and over to people, and his message is always the same: love one another, see me, follow me, because still, I rise: even when you don’t believe it, even when you don’t understand it, still I rise.

Peter denied him but it’s Peter he calls back to tend his sheep.

Mary ran in fear but it’s Mary who first meets him on the way.

Thomas won’t believe him but it’s Thomas who feels his wounds.

To the powerful who prey on the poor, his presence says: still I rise. To the hopeless who cannot find the way out of darkness, he says, “I am the light of the world”—still I rise. To us, to all of us, who come here, wondering, he says: still I rise. Come follow me. Come: because on your way, on your journey, you will see me: for still I rise.

Amen

Palm Sunday B – The Lord Has Need of It

The Lord Has Need of It

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Palm Sunday • March 25, 2018

Mark 11:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Lent 5 B – The Rainbow Path 5

Clean Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Fifth Sunday in Lent/B • March 18, 2018

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

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus answered them,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share,

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.

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

Amen.

Lent 3B – Covenant Community – The Rainbow Path 3

Covenant Community

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Third Sunday in Lent/B • March 4, 2018

Exodus 17:1-17 • John 3:14-21

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No Turning Back

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Second Sunday in Lent/B • February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 • Mark 8:31-38

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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