Reign of Christ Sunday – Yes Lord!

Yes, Lord!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Reign of Christ/A • November 26, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Thanksgiving Sermon – Now Don’t Forget

Now, Don’t Forget

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Thanksgiving Sunday • November 19, 2017

Deuteronomy 8:11-20

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

23rd Sunday After Pentecost – Choose Me!

Choose Me

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

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

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

To hear the sermon preached, click below

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

20th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Living Treasure

Living Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

Matthew 22:15- 22

To hear the sermon preached, click below

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

15th Sunday After Pentecost/A – The Forgiveness Dance

The Forgiveness Dance

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017

15th Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Click below to hear the sermon preached

“I’ve told you a million times…” Have you ever said this? It’s what gets said about those little things someone does out of habit that annoy us until it boils over. “I’ve told you a million times…” I’ll let you fill in the detail.

Once I was talking to a couple planning their wedding. They’d both been married before and we talked about those relationships and what had made them end. She was quiet at first, reticent, but as she talked about her marriage, she said, “It was little things. His socks: he never picked up his socks. It sounds silly but it became a big issue.” We were talking about their wedding vows, at least I thought we were, and as we moved back to that topic she brought up the socks again. So it was that on their wedding day, as part of the ceremony, her groom stood before a whole congregation and said solemnly along with promises to love and cherish her that he would always pick up his socks.

“I’ve told you a million times..” Of course, no one says something a million times. We exaggerate and this scripture begins with Jesus doing the same thing.

Forgiveness: How Much?

Last week we began to talk about forgiveness as the path to Jesus. Now Matthew imagines Peter stewing about this and trying to get a fix on just how much forgiveness is required. That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not forgiving the one big hurt that hangs us up; it’s the million times bump, the thing that happens over and over again. “Do I have to forgive as many as seven times?” he asks. Jesus replies with something hard to translate; sometimes it comes across as 77 times, sometimes 70 times seven. The meaning, though, is clear: there is no limit to this forgiveness.

Does that make any sense? At some point, don’t you have to just say, “Look, this person is never going to do the right thing,”? I imagine Peter and the others looking with that disbelieving, “I can’t believe you said that” look people get about Jesus. So he tells them a story, a parable, about forgiveness.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Imagine a rich, Gentile King. Maybe it’s the Persian King; maybe it’s the Roman emperor. We know it’s not a Jewish king because the things that happen in the story are not according to Jewish law. Imagine the Emperor, the King, having one of his key administrators arrested, brought before him, because the taxes he was supposed to pay aren’t paid.

We don’t know what happened. Did he embezzle them, was it a bad year, is it simple theft? No details. We just know he is brought before the King. This isn’t the oval office; this would be a palace full of people, guards in armor with sharp swords. Surely this man, this servant knows some these people, was friends with some of them. Now they look away, now no one reaches out to help when he stumbles as the guards roughly bring him in.

A richly dressed guy stands by the king with a document recording the debt: 10,000 talents. Do you know what 10,000 talents is? It’s all the money in the world. Literally: a talent is the largest unit of money Jesus and his world knows. Ten thousand is the largest number they use. So it’s the largest number of the largest amount of money. It’s huge.

No one could ever pay it off; no one could ever work it off. You could work your whole life and not make a dent in it. So the King orders a punishment that takes his whole life: selling his wife and children, something so awful, so terrible, Jewish law forbade it. But Gentiles did it, Kings did it. Now the debtor stands there quaking, fearing, losing everything. What would you do?

What he does is the only thing he can do. Flinging himself on the floor the way they do in Eastern courts, he begs for mercy. He makes a promise everyone knows is ridiculous that he will eventually pay it off. There must have been a moment of silence. Think of the embarrassment of his former friends; think of the tension in the room, the fear of the debtor. As he lies there, something comes into the King, some impulse. He pities the man; he knows he’ll never get his money. Suddenly he does something no one would have expected. He tells the man to get up, to get out and he forgives the debt.

Wow. Can you imagine that moment? Can you imagine that man, lying there on the floor, on the cold stone floor, afraid for his life, afraid for his family, barely able to believe what he’s just heard. “Get up and get out, I forgive you and your debt.” It’s more than he asked. The best he hoped was to stay out of jail; instead, he’s just been given a whole new life, like someone born again. “The Lord released him and forgave the debt.”

Imagine having your biggest problem something you’ve worried about, something that kept you up nights, suddenly solved. Imagine having all your debts paid off; imagine having whatever scares you solved. Imagine being given a whole new life. Don’t you think that’s what this guy must have felt? How incredible would that feel? How new? How different?

So there is this stunned, amazing moment and then he must have gotten up. The King and his advisors are already going on to the next thing. Before the King can change his mind, I imagine the man walking out, still afraid of the guards that only a moment before had been a threat, now ignoring him. Perhaps slowly at first, not wanting to attract attention, he begins to back up, to move out of the crowd, and then faster. Smiling now, feeling the joy of it, the release of it. Everything paid off; everything taken care of, solved. He moves back through the crowd, mind whirling and then settling down, wanting to tell his wife, his family everything is ok, everything will be ok. He moves out of the crowd, down the corridor, outside into the market. What would you do? Where would you go? How would you feel?

Leaving the Moment

There he is, coming down the steps, there he is, jostling in the crowd, and just as he walks through the last people in the palace crowd, he bumps into someone he knows, someone who owes him a little money: a hundred denarii, that is to say about three months salary. It’s nothing, compared to what he’s just been forgiven. It’s pocket change.

Yet in that moment, all the new life, all the possibility of his forgiveness seems to fall away. He grabs the guy by the throat, calls for a guard, demands immediate payment.
Now this man makes exactly the same plea the first man had made to the king, word for word the same plea. Did you get that when I read it?

Just like the first man before the king, he’s caught short of funds; just like that man, he’s about to go to jail. Just like the first man before the king, he begs for time to pay. That first man has just been forgiven all the money in the world and now he’s being asked to forgive a trifling amount but he hasn’t learned anything. Instead of passing on the forgiveness, he refuses and has him thrown into prison. Stunning, isn’t it? He was forgiven everything; he forgives nothing.

What happens next is a cascading disaster. People from the court see this performance and tell the King. The King is offended, angered, and he has the first man arrested, brought back. The new life is over before it began. He’s sent off to be imprisoned, tortured, the point is clear: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ [Matt 18:32] I imagine the disciples leaning in, listening, trying to follow this story, trying to follow Jesus, just as we are doing and suddenly he looks up at them, his eyes searching, and says quietly, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Wow: ouch! How did we get from more forgiveness than Peter could imagine to such a disaster?

What is Jesus teaching?

To see what Jesus teaches, we have to let go of trying to reduce it to a set of lessons and let ourselves experience what he asks us to imagine. If we take seriously the experience of this parable, what we find is that the unmerciful servant was confronted by the possibility of new life. That’s what it really means to take our own forgiveness seriously. It’s what Peter missed when he asked his question. Peter was still focused on how much forgiveness he has to dole out: seven times? Seventy-seven times?

Jesus wants him to realize the issue isn’t how much forgiveness he does, it’s how much he has received. Forgiveness isn’t first about what we do: it’s first about what we receive. It’s suddenly understanding that despite all our flaws and failures, the one Jesus calls our father in heaven has forgiven us and still loves us. It’s realizing we are, each one of us, just like that debtor before the King: failed at times, yet loved beyond failure.

Feeling Our Forgiveness

That’s the experience he wants them to have. And to see also: that our forgiveness invites us to be transformed. Until we know ourselves forgiven, we will never be able to fully forgive, we will always be grabbing someone else, demanding payment.

The final note about torture isn’t a moral, it’s a fact. If we don’t learn to accept our forgiveness, we don’t learn to forgive others. The burdens that pile up from that torture us, imprison us, like the old cartoon of the prisoner with the ball and chain.

Jesus means us to experience this embrace, this forgiveness and then live it out day to day. For the way of Jesus isn’t a doctrine, it isn’t a set of directions you follow, it’s love itself.

The Kiss of Christ

Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov contains a long section imagining a Grand Inquisitor questioning Christ, like a Communist or Fascist or CIA interrogation. At the end of all the questions, at the end of all the darkness and threats and fear, Christ replies. And the reply is simple, wordless: Christ kisses the Inquisitor.

Lord Have Mercy On Me

There is a spiritual discipline that can help move us toward this. It’s very simple, a short prayer: “Lord have mercy on me.” That’s it, the whole prayer. It’s meant to be prayed over and over; some teachers suggest synchronizing it with your breath or your heartbeat. “Lord have mercy on me.” Over and over. You can pray this in the car, at a stoplight; you can sit quietly and say it over and over. What this prayer does is to focus us on our own forgiveness. It opens the door of the soul and lets things out.

We need this because so many of us owe so much, are burdened by so much. What are you carrying around that needs forgiving? What would you like to lay down, what would you give to get rid of the bonds of that burden?

Forgiveness isn’t about what we do for someone else; it’s what we experience through Christ from God. And if we live in that experience, we will stop asking how often to forgive others because we can’t focus on limiting forgiveness if we are living in the fullness of it.

That’s the tragedy of this unmerciful servant. He has the greatest prize of all given to him and he lets it slip through his fingers in the moment when those fingers grasp his own debtor. Just as Jesus says: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive others.” We say that every week, perhaps you say it at other times. Forgiveness is a dance, a rhythm of receiving and giving. We can’t do one without the other; the dance is both or neither.

Lord have mercy on me: this week, may you feel the embrace, the kiss of Christ in your life. May the forgiveness and new life he offers overflow like a wine glass poured too full until you have no choice but to share it.

Amen.

What Are His References?

Conversations Before The Cross 4:

What Are His References?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Lent/A • March 26, 2017

John 9:1-41

What are his references? That’s a question most of us ask in one way or another from time to time. Employers ask it: no one hires someone without at least trying to find out how they did previously. And the answer doesn’t always have to be positive! I was fired from my first job as a ministerial intern in seminary after a long period of conflict with the senior minister. A while later I began looking for a new job and found a church and minister that really excited me. I told them about my experience, trying to be objective, not trying to hide any of the details; I remember the minister interviewing me saying, “So, you resigned from your last job? I said: No, I was fired. The minister said he didn’t feel a need to check my references, but of course he did, so he did something ministers do under the circumstances: he called a friend in a church nearby. So not long afterward I was called into the senior minister’s office to hear him say, well I decided to do a little checking on you after we talked, so I called a friend who knows the situation in the church where you worked…and he said the guy you worked for is crazy and being fired there is an honor!

Jesus’ References

What are his references? It’s a question that creeps into our relationship with Jesus in one way or another. We see his story through the glasses of our common sense, our life experience and our own individual histories. We look for the points in these histories that can connect and explain his story. These are Jesus’ references. There’s nothing new about this process, the earliest Christians did the same thing. They were in many cases Jews who looked for a special person from God, just as God had sent Abraham, Moses, Elijah, David and Elijah. In many ways Jesus met these expectations, but in others he did not. The story about the man born blind from birth was remembered because it spoke to the questions of Christians trying to live their daily lives in harmony with God’s intention—trying to understand whether Jesus of Nazareth was a part of that intention.

This story matches the story of the church. It is our story. We also are people who encountered Jesus, were changed by him and now live in a world where his presence is not always apparent. We look forward to a final time when our Lord will appear beside us and we will be able to see him and touch him. Our problem is what to do in the meantime.

This is finally an individual challenge: remember, neither the blind man’s friends nor his parents, neither the crowds nor the Pharisees, were any help to him in understanding how to live with his new sight.

There is a mystery here, a mystery that lies at the heart of the way God loves us. For in the structure of our relationship with God there is a scandalous particularity, an individuality, that shakes the foundations of every life that takes it seriously. “Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?”, the Psalmist asks, and the answer is always someone’s name, some particular name, some particular person.

One Particular Person

Think of the anointing of David: Samuel comes to one particular village and one specific family where one by one the sons, the hope of the clan, are brought before him. Think of the father, Jesse standing there. It’s a time of devastating civil war. Is he proud? Afraid? Does he think that one son or the other is best for this mission, is he impatient to have Samuel make his choice and get on his way. Does part of him hope that none of his sons are chosen? It’s a dangerous thing to accept leadership in such times. Finally the choice falls on David, the youngest, the son of his middle years we suppose, a boy not yet old enough to even take a part in officially offering a sacrifice. Here is the scandal of this particularity: suppose that someone from our national church office came here, to Albany, and chose one nine year old child to do something that might be dangerous and must be kept secret—is there any parent here that wouldn’t wonder, just for a moment, his heart, “Why my child, Lord?”

Why one person and not someone else? Why you and not me? Why me and not you? This scandal, this particularity, lies near the heart of all our questions about suffering and meaning. Who is this blind man that he should be healed—while others remain blind. Is his moral life more faithful? Does he pray more deeply or more eloquently? Is his faith stronger or in need of strengthening? Nothing in the text answers such questions, nothing in the action of the story gives any explanation.

So it is with us, isn’t it? Since ancient times, one strand of thought in Israel held misfortune and disability and disease to be the direct consequence of sin, sometimes a consequence carried on through generations. There is a part of our religious impulse that always wants to quantify. So much sin, so much grace: measured out like the sugar and flour of a cake mix, balanced off like the weights on a jeweler’s scale. But Jesus directs attention away from the surface to the deeper realities of the situation. Sin is related to grace, of course, but not as the disciples think. The man’s life is not a result only of his own action but is part of the structure of God’s revelation. The blind man is about to become the living gospel, the person who bridges the gulf between God and human being.

Making God’s Glory Obvious

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord and who shall go for us”, the Psalmist asks, and the prophet too, and the answer is always some particular person at some particular moment of time. So Jesus came to a small village for a moment and opened a blind man’s eyes. We tend to think of such characters as special, different, not like us, but the fact is that he is precisely like us. He is a young man who has overcome the obstacles of his life, found a trade and is working industriously at it. He is just like us: pregnant with the possibility of epiphany, capable of becoming the candle by which the divine flame of God is seen to burn and give light. The disciples want to give this man a practical explanation, almost a scientific one. “Who sinned?”, they ask, “This man or his family?” But to Jesus the man’s circumstances including his blindness are an occasion for showing God’s presence. “This happened so that the work of God”—some translations say glory of God—“might be displayed in his life.”

The Pharisees of the story are puzzled because Jesus doesn’t follow what they expect: His references are nonexistent and his behavior is scandalous. Since they don’t know who he is they concentrate on the how: their concentration on the question of how Jesus healed the man is so striking that he finally asks if they also want to become his disciples. They are seeking a clue to the who through the how: They want the regular procedures followed; they want the rules to apply to everyone. They want to know who Jesus was: where he came from, where he’s been, what schools h attended, how he learned to heal. There is comfort in the past: it is predictable, it is safe, it can’t get out of hand and surprise you. “We are disciples of Moses,” they tell the man.

But they’ve forgotten Moses was once a wild, free spirit on fire with God. They’ve forgotten the Moses who asked to see God, though that was against all rules. They remember only the rules Moses left. Moses said, “Keep the sabbath holy” and they have transformed that into something else entirely: don’t work on the sabbath. They can’t see that healing is holy; they only see Jesus breaking a rule. Finally, they conclude, he can’t be from God. They don’t know his references and so they simply say, “As for this man, we don’t know where he comes from”.

But the blind man is amazed at this: here are the religious and political authorities of his life puzzled.

Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from yet he opened my eyes. If this man were not from God he could do nothing!

Believer Testimony

This is the ultimate testimony of the believer, the follower of Jesus Christ: that our lives have been changed, healed. And that this is so, regardless of how the world may see or understand that change. Sometimes the change is remarkable and radical. Sometimes it is internal and quiet. Sometimes it leads to moments of soaring courage; more often to the simple endurance of living life hopefully each day. The blind man’s history hasn’t changed but now he lives with vision. He is healed. His future is new; as Paul said, “In Christ there is a new creation.” Christ calls us to a new creation, a creation beyond the rules we knew and lived by.

“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?” This blind man—this particular life, at this particular moment—is the means by which God chooses to work and call others. Who would have thought God would choose such people: a nine or ten year old shepherd, a blind man sitting by the road side. You, me, the person sitting in the pew next to you: are these really the means by which the Almighty God chooses to work and become known? Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? It’s us: there isn’t anyone else.

The people of these Bible stories are not the heroic figures we romantically assume. They are people who are busy about their lives and getting on with them. People who have their own hearts and hopes but who are changed when they become the particular way God’s work is demonstrated and moved forward.

The blind man’s story is our story as well, if we are the followers of this Jesus of Nazareth. The blind man is not any more prepared to become the visible agent of the invisible Spirit than you or I, and the whole event causes considerable disruption in his life. Friends desert him. His parents refuse to defend him. The religious and political authorities of the village and the area cross-examine him and threaten him and are finally puzzled by him. Through all this, the agent of his change—Jesus, the one who caused the change—is nowhere to be found. If this is, as I suggested, intended to be not only the story of the blind man but the story of the church and therefore our story as well, what does it suggest the task of faithful Christian people is?

Do You Believe?

The clue to the answer is near the end of the story. After all the shouting has died down the man meets Jesus again, though of course he doesn’t recognize him—remember, he’s never seen Jesus before. “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks, and when the man asks who this is, Jesus reveals his identify: the man replies, “Lord, I believe.” What is the most important task of believers? Perhaps it is simply to be believers—to live as believers—to keep living as believers.

This is, a simple and yet enormously difficult formula. Our culture, like the culture of the first century Christians who remembered this story, is hostile to Christian faith and seeks to erase it by a concentration on the technological question, the question of how things are to occur, how life is to be lived. So our culture constantly offers us formulas: take control of your own life, read this book, listen to this speaker, see this therapist, try this diet.

In this culture, our faith offers not a how but a who: Jesus of Nazareth, God’s anointed, the Christ who comes into the world. We offer an invitation: not to take control of your own life but to offer your life to God who is known in this man.

To respond in this way is anything but easy. It’s striking to realize how difficult the blind man’s life becomes after he is healed. His friends and family desert him, his trade is lost and the local authorities keep after him. Does he have moments when he wished he had his simple life back, wished the l light would go out again and he could sit by the side of the road begging? Perhaps, but what the story suggests is a man so transformed by this experience that he can hardly imagine his former life.

At the end of the story, when he knows Jesus, the text simply says “he worshipped him”. Christian faith is finally this: the ability to worship Jesus, not because you have been given satisfactory references but because you have seen what he has done and know that if this man were not from God, he could do nothing. What are Jesus’ references? You are—I am—we all are together. “You are the Body of Christ and individually members of it”, Paul says. We are the ones he is healing; we are the ones he has taught to hope. Hope is ultimate healing. It comes not from a reference or a technique but from a decision about whom you will believe and what you will worship.

Nowhere is that decision more clearly defined than at the end of this story. There finally we have the alternatives we also face. The blind man responds to Jesus simply when Jesus reveals his identity: “‘Lord I believe’..and he worshipped him”. The Pharisees are still fussing, still asking, “What are his references?”. By the end of the story, the blind man has a vision that lights his life; the Pharisees are blind.

Can We Trust Jesus?

We walk in a forest throughout our lives. There are dark shadows that stretch out; there are places where the path is not clear. There are dangers and difficulties and moments when the way opens on inexpressible beauty. As we walk through this forest, we must ultimately decide whether we will trust the vision of Jesus Christ or stumble blindly, hoping on our own to avoid the pitfalls. Nothing guarantees our choice. Putting a cross on the sign does not mean we will not act like Pharisees inside. Only our decision to freely embrace Jesus as a guide can keep us on the path; only our commitment to come to him, as the blind man did, whatever our lives, whatever our history, and simply say, “Lord, I believe”.
Amen.

Conversations Before the Cross: An Introduction

Conversations Before the Cross: Introduction

A Series by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

In the beginning was the Word, the Bible says.

God speaks—everything else results.

God speaks: chaos is tamed, light and dark separated, places appear, creation happens.

God speaks: we are here, we are there, we are together in wonder and worship. Conversations are fundamental to God’s dealing with us.

God speaks: people go free, learn their purpose, pursue their destiny, write the Word they read on their hearts onto tablets and scrolls and into history.

People hope, rulers ask, God sends prophets and God speaks and kingdoms crumble and new communities come to be. God speaks: there is a baby, and a light, and a call to follow Christ.

In this season of Lent, our hope is to hear God’s Word and measure our walk by Christ’s way. That way leads to the cross but before the cross, we hear Christ speaking, we see him in conversation with his disciples, with Satan, with a ruler, with a woman at the well, with friends, with the crowds. In these conversations before he comes to the cross, we learn to know him and that too is our hope in this time—to know the savior who means to deliver us.

So in this season, all season long, each Sunday, we will imagine the conversations before the cross, the conversations with the characters of the gospel stories. My hope is that these conversations before the cross will lead you to your own conversation before the cross, your own conversation with Christ. For when we hear Christ speak, when we share his conversation, we will surely hear his call.

Foolish Gospel

Foolish Gospel

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

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

Who to Follow?

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

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

Finding Unity

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

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

Who’s In Charge?

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

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

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

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

The Cross and The Gospel

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

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

Come This Way! – Advent 2

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Come This Way, This Way Out

Advent Directions 2
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Advent/A • December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10

“Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” I hope never to hear those words because they are what flight attendants say during the evacuation of an airplane. If you’ve ever flown, you know how long it takes to board an airplane: the stop and go of the line down the jet bridge, the search for a place for your bag, stowing things and settling into your seat. It takes about half an hour to get a 143 seat airplane boarded and ready to go. It takes 90 seconds to evacuate it; that’s the FAA standard.

Who can say, “Come this way, this way out?

I can only imagine how confusing and frightening a landing that requires evacuation must be. As soon as the plane stops, flight attendants open the doors, blow the slides and then, despite their own fears, they stand by those doors loudly yelling, “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” In fact, they are tested every year on their ability to do this, with a critique if they aren’t loud enough. “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” Reading this scripture today, imagining the situation in which it was preached, thinking about our own situation today, makes me long sometimes for someone who can say: “Come this way, this way out!”

Who can give hope?

Here’s the background. God’s people have been defeated. Maybe you know what that feels like; maybe you’ve been part of a political campaign that lost, maybe you’ve been fired from a job or suddenly had your direction changed because of a defeat. This defeat of God’s people was violent and unexpected and at its end, King Zedekiah and thousands of Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians and forced into exile near what is today Baghdad. They felt, in the language of the scripture, “clean cut off”. Their sense of defeat deepened when King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, died. Who would lead them? Who would stand as the symbol of their nation? Who would give them hope?—hope they might return, hope they might have a future? That’s the moment into which Isaiah announces,

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [Isaiah 11:1]

Coming Out of the Present and Into God’s Future

“Who’s Jesse? What kind of hope is this, based on someone I’ve never even heard of!” That takes a bit of explanation. Long ago, God’s people were ruled by a king who veered off God’s path. So God did what God always does when there’s a roadblock, what we do when there’s a detour: God backed up and tried again, took a different route. God sent Samuel to anoint someone who would be a new king, a righteous king. Samuel was sent to a man named Jesse and his son, David, was chosen. David wasn’t perfect but somehow God loved David and he became the emblem of God’s favor. So to say that a shoot would come out from the stump of Jesse is to say, “Don’t stop hoping, don’t stop believing: even an old stump can send out new growth.” And if there is new growth, if God can send up a new shoot out of the tree of covenant and care, there will indeed be someone to say to the people in exile, “Come this way, this way out.”

It’s hard to identify new growth. It’s hard to know who to believe when you’re desperate and looking for a way out. I once heard Tony Campolo talk about the difference between leadership and demagogues. He said that the problem of liberal churches is that for so many years we said there are no demons when people often felt defeated by them. So demagogues, false leaders, false prophets attract attention by saying, “Yes, there are real demons.” The problem is that demagogues go on to say, “The demons are in them!” So they lead attacks on some them: Jews, immigrants, anyone who can be defined as different. True leaders, on the other hand, know there are demons out there. But what they say is: the demons are in us and we need to change. We need to come out of our present and into God’s future.

Change isn’t something that occurs easily. One of the things that always makes me laugh is that here we are, Congregationalists, proud of our Pilgrim heritage, and yet who were the Pilgrims? People who gave their lives to changing their society. Bit by bit, they invented many of the democratic institutions we take for granted, from a written constitution—the Mayflower Compact—to the town meetings that originated as the Annual Meeting of Congregational Churches.

Coming Out and Changing

Here we are, Congregational Christians with this heritage and more importantly the emblem of the cross before us at all times, an emblem that reminds us Jesus gave up his life to change the whole world. Yet every time I’ve become the new pastor of a church, I’ve heard the same thing early on: “Please, don’t ask us to change where we sit.” Well, I understand that. I am sympathetic to that. I like where I sit, I like doing things the way I’ve always done them.

Traditions are rich for me. There’s a prayer I often share for the offering that begins,

“We offer here our treasure and our goods, and some of it is gold, and some is myrrh and some is frankincense.”

You’ve all heard me share this prayer. I learned it sitting in the Pine Hill Congregational Church listening to Harry Clark, who became my mentor, my friend, my spiritual father. Sunday after Sunday he shared it. When I became in my turn a pastor, I shared it every Sunday for years and then later as one among the offering prayers. I asked him about the prayer’s source once; he told me he had no idea, it was something his pastor said every Sunday and he just picked it up. It’s a tradition; it’s comforting. It’s where I sit.

Following Jesus

But there are real demons loose. And if I just sit comfortably, I am not following Jesus, who never sat anywhere long. We focus on the stories of Jesus; maybe we should pay more attention to the spaces between the story where we read over and over again, “Jesus was on the way.” But which way? What way out? Isaiah’s prophecy isn’t just that there will be someone to tell us, “Come this way, this way out,” it also tells us how to recognize this person.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. [Isaiah 11:6-9]

The sign is peace; the sign is safety. When we make safe places, we follow Jesus.

Sometimes this is a personal moment. We know the demons of division are loose in our land. Recently, two Asian women went to an event in Brooklyn and then did what we all often do, they stopped at a cafe for something to eat. There a man began to loudly attack them. Apparently, he thought he could depend on others; that no one would stand up for people who looked different, for women. He was wrong. When the police were called, they refused to back him up. A man confronted the racist and the racist sprayed him with pepper spray and got arrested. There have been a number of similar incidents. It’s why many people are wearing safety pins today, a sign that says, “I’m safe and I will make a safe place for you.”

Making a Difference

Does this make a difference? It can make all the difference. The Jewish Foundation for the righteous lists many stories of people who rescued Jews during the holocaust. I was especially struck by something one said in response to a child’s question. He was asked if he considered himself a hero. Knud Dyby was a Dane and a member of the King’s Guard. When the Nazi’s conquered Denmark in 1940 and attempted to raise their flag over the capital, he helped take it down. He was a sailor and knew the best routes out of Copenhagen. In 1943, when the Germans ordered the round up of Danish Jews, he participated in the effort that helped over 7,000 Jews escape to Sweden. Asked, “Why did you risk your life to save total strangers?”, he said,

It was our duty, it was just something one did; …there was a sense of outrageous indignation that anyone would harm their fellow compatriots, their neighbor humans – their neighbor kids, their grandmothers, members of their community, no matter what religion they espoused. [https://jfr.org/rescuer-asked/knud-dyby/]

Perhaps these two incidents don’t seem connected. But the demons of the holocaust grew powerful years before. They grew when no one stopped the first Nazi from abusing a Jew in a cafe; when people looked away from the little violence of small moments.

Come This Way, This Way Out

It doesn’t happen often but it does happen: an airplane is stopped, the doors flung open, the chutes deployed and brave flight attendants stand at the door yelling, “Come this way, this way out, come this way, this way out.” So too, our mission is to say to those whose hope is dissolving like a sunny day overcome by clouds, “Come this way, this way out—out of the darkness of division, out of the darkness of hatred, out of the darkness of conflict and hate.

“Come this way, this way out”—there is hope and the emblem of that hope is Jesus, a man who offered his life as a picture of what it looks like to live in the experience of God’s love, the emblem of that hope is Christ, who invites us to make his life our lives. This is the invitation, the same with which we begin every worship service: “The peace of the Lord be with you.” It is a way of saying to the darkness, to the violence, “Come this way, this way out.”

Amen.

You can read more stories about rescuers by clicking here

Do Over, Do Now

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Do Over, Do Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25

“I want a do over.” I was standing in the cockpit of my boat, trying to back out of the slip. There were two things different about this time. First, we had an audience; some friends had come over to say goodbye. Second, it had gone totally wrong. Jacquelyn cast off the lines at the front perfectly. I put the boat in reverse, all 17,000 pounds started to move backward and then it stuck and swung the wrong way. Everyone hurried to help, but the boat didn’t respond. Finally I figured out that I had left one of the lines on the stern tying us to the dock connected; as soon as I untied it, we were fine. But I had looked ridiculous and created a dangerous situation and all in front of our friends. I wanted a do over.

“I want a do over.” The first time I remember hearing the phrase was from my son. We were playing with a basketball; some game where we took turns throwing it at a basket, trying to get to a score. He would miss and say, “I want a do over” and come up with some excuse, some reason: he was off balance, the ball had slipped: something. Later on, I came to the same feeling on my own, mostly as a parent. No one prepared me for the fact that parenting was so arbitrary, so make-it-up-as-you-go. There were so many times I wanted a do over. Have you ever felt that way? I wonder if that is how God feels about the world: “I want a do over”. In English, we have “Behold I make a new creation” but the Hebrew really says, “Look at me, I’m making a new heaven and earth. “I’m having a do over.”

Understanding Isaiah’s Word

We have to understand the setting to which Isaiah brought the word we heard this morning. God’s people had been disastrously defeated 80 years or so before, a defeat that shook their souls as well as destroying their nation. Thousands became refugees and many were taken into captivity in the foreign city of Babylon. Ever since, God’s people have listened to their grand parents tell them, “In Jerusalem, the gardens were better…in Jerusalem, the weather was better…in Jerusalem, the temple was better”. Now the Persian king has released the Jews and some have returned to Jerusalem. But they’ve gone home to something like Berlin in 1945 or Aleppo today: a wiped out city with ruined buildings. This is the moment in which Isaiah speaks this Word from God and he speaks it to people who must have thought, “We need a do over.”

Our Destination

So we have this Word and the Word really is about where we’re going. What is our ultimate destination? I’ve lived most of my life along the great parallel defined by I-90, a road that begins in Boston, runs through New York, loops south to take account of the Great Lakes, runs through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, up through Wisconsin and Minnesota, then across South Dakota and Montana, where it rises into the mountains and snakes through the passes of Idaho before it flows out into the desert of Eastern Washington, jumps the Columbia River and ends in Seattle. I’ve lived in Seattle, I’ve lived in Boston, and no matter which I was in, I never forgot the one at the other end. I knew the road had a destination; I knew where it was going. God is offering a vision here of where we are going. I’m making new heavens and earth and this is what it’s like: you’re going to enjoy it, you’re going to build houses and live in them, have a vineyard and enjoy its wine. It takes a long time for vineyards to bear fruit but you’ll still be there. I’m going to be there and I’m going to anticipate your every want. Thirdly, the wolf and the lamb are going to lie down: in other words, there is going to be peace, even the natural world is going to be at peace. That’s where we’re going; that’s what the do over is for: that’s our destination. Don’t worry about the trip: God knows where we are going.

Jesus: Endure

The same faith flows through what Jesus says in the reading from Luke. Jesus is a rural person and so are most of his followers. Think how they must have been dazzled by Jerusalem; think how the big buildings, the sights, the sounds, the smells must have impressed them. They must have felt this was a permanent place. Yet now Jesus tells them it’s all going to be destroyed, desolated: “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Just 35 years or so after Jesus said this, it came true, and Luke’s readers know it’s true. Like the shock of Pearl Harbor or the towers falling on September 11, they are living in a moment of shocked grief when it must have seemed, as the poet Yeats said,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

He goes on to warn them about the immediate aftermath: violent times, demagogues, false preachers, persecution. All these things have happened in the life and experience of the Luke’s audience. Yet at the end Jesus invites them to this one faith: that in the love of God, there is a permanent place: “…not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Our future is in the hands of a God who loves us.

What About Now?

So: we know where we are going—what about now? What do we do now? Because we know it’s not like that now. The wolves and lambs are not lying down together now. What we are doing is living between the past and that vision. These readings have two ideas about what to do now.

Work Here, Work Now

The first is to work here and now toward that vision. Someone said the Puritans were so effective because they believed everything depended on God but they acted like everything depended on them. They believed God’s faithfulness; they lived faithfully to God. Our nation has come through a long and divisive campaign. Some are triumphant today; many are despondent. But our future is in God’s hands. Our mission remains the same: to sustain here a community of care, where God’s love is evident in the embrace of people who have been embraced by Christ. The Rabbis say: if the Messiah comes, still finish your Torah study for the day. Work is the creative activity by which we are carrying out God’s will in the world. So we are called to work now, we are called to work here, for justice, for the embodiment of peace. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of forgiveness. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of finding the lost. We change the world when we do this now.

Witness

The second thing to do is witness. Luke is writing about 15 years after everything he says in this section has already happened. The temple is already destroyed; people are already being arrested for being Christian. What Luke understands to be our job in the present is to witness. Don’t worry about how you do it either, Luke says. This part always makes me smile at books on how to witness. How do you witness? Live your life: that’s your witness. Live your life in a way that allows Christ to make a difference. A number of social researchers have looked at Christians and others in terms of their behavior; what they find is being Christian often makes little difference. Your witness is to let Christ make a difference in your life now.

Because Christ can make a difference, in good times, in bad times. In 1945, just before his execution by the Nazis for resistance, a German soldier wrote these words to his mother.

Dear Mother: Today, together with Jorgen, Nils and Ludwig, I was arraigned before a Military tribunal. We were condemned to death. I know that you are a courageous woman, and that you will bear this, but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it, you must also understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere— in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile. You will encounter that something which perhaps had value in me, you will cherish it and you will not forget me. And so I shall have a chance to grow, to become large and mature.

Amazing Grace

God’s work in the world through people who endure in faith is amazing.
The people that went into exile in Babylon did return and rebuild Jerusalem but they did something far more significant. While they were in exile, the stories, the teachings, the books that now know as the Hebrew Scriptures were brought together and given their final form. The kings and armies and politics of that time are just obscure footnotes read by historians today. The scriptures they brought together have inspired three great faiths and people ever since.
The little group, not as many as are here today, who heard Jesus and endured in their faith in him and his teaching and his vision of God’s reign did see the temple fall, did see the persecution but they endured. They kept his memory; they became his body. Through all our stumbling history, that faith continues today and we are their inheritors. In our lives, in our witness, it has, as the resistance either said, “..a chance to grow, to become large and mature.”

So grieve, celebrate, take a moment to bind up wounds and see where you are. But remember that where we are is not where we are going. Where we are going is in the hands of a God beyond our vision of greatness or defeat. When we grieve, we should not do it as people without hope, as Paul says, but as people who have put their hope in the God who doesn’t fail. The creative God who when all seems dark still can say: “I’ll have a do over: behold, a new creation.” Let us give thanks to God as we work, as we witness, as we wait for God to make the new creation.
Amen