After Pentecost 3B

Family Matters

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Pentecost • June 10, 2018
Mark 3:20-35

To hear the sermon preached, click below.

I grew up when the world was falling apart. Someone commented on Facebook recently that the 1950’s had a moral consensus. They failed to mention that the moral consensus included segregation for people of color, sexual harassment for women and blindness to poverty. But I know what they meant and I grew up in a white suburb surrounded by that consensus, that culture. Our fathers had won the great crusade against fascism and we played at being soldiers beating the bad Nazis. My mother had loaded artillery shells but the contribution of women was seldom mentioned. It was a world with threats—periodically we had disaster drills, sometimes in case of tornadoes, sometimes in case of atomic bombs. But it felt safe.

Then things changed. By the time I was beginning to look around for myself, the world was falling apart. When I signed a petition for nuclear disarmament, my mother was horrified; she told me I could be arrested. Our President was shot and killed and the whole country mourned. And more and more we watched as people were beaten in Alabama and Mississippi. A rising level of dissent said that our military, always the moral center, was wrong in Vietnam. I began to float on that tide and then to swim on it. My first speech when I was 14 was about why we should stop bombing North Vietnam; by the time I was 16, I was being called into the vice principal’s office for putting up anti-war posters in school. At church, I learned the songs of the Freedom Riders, “Aint a-scared of your jail cuz I want my freedom” and “We shall overcome”. More and more, the consensus, the culture, began to feel like an enemy, an enemy I was fighting, an enemy that was dangerous.

My family fought back. I think this is why this text has made me want to tell you this story because listening to Jesus’ family coming to claim him back from his craziness reminds me of my own family and how they tried to reclaim me. Mark tells us a series of stories in which Jesus, again and again, is in conflict with his culture and consensus. He comes back to Capernaum; people gather and the crowd is so packed that when some people try to bring a man to him for healing, they have to lower him through the roof. Jesus forgives the man his sins and heals him and is accused of blasphemy. He eats with sinners and tax collectors; the good opinion leaders, the enforcers of cultural order are horrified; he simply says, these are the people who need grace. His followers break the Sabbath rules and then he does himself, asking whether it’s good to do good even on the Sabbath and suggesting he is himself in charge of the Sabbath, Lord of the Sabbath, a messianic title.

Now he’s home again and the crowds are even bigger. It’s a diverse crowd. Some are from the local area, Galilee, some from Judea, a whole different state to the south. There are gentiles there: the text mentions “the region around Tyre and Sidon.” It’s like saying there are people from Tennessee and New Jersey, from Canada and Ohio, from all over.” In fact, the crowd is so dense he has his followers arrange for a boat so he can speak from offshore and the final blow is that the crowd is so dense “they couldn’t even eat.” Think of a subway at rush hour; think of a packed party, where you can’t get to the food or the bar. Jesus’ healing of hearts and bodies is calling people to him. Surely some are there questioning, some are believers, some are followers and some are already opposing him. Even before this moment, Mark tells us the Pharisees and Herodians are conspiring to destroy him, the same word used when he is crucified.

Now we read that his family is trying to restrain him. “He’s gone out of his mind!”, they say. The smart guys from Jerusalem, the scribes, have another explanation: “He has Beelzebul”. Once when I was in college, I was asked to speak to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches as one of four students about what had become a moral crisis in our nation. As I spoke, as I offered a Christian critique of the moral horror in Vietnam, one man stood up and walked down the center aisle yelling, “You’re nothing but a damn communist!” I don’t want to leave the impression I was Jesus-like in any way. I want to say the opposite, in fact, that what happens to Jesus here is a common cultural reaction when the moral consensus of any moment feels threatened. Our fathers and mothers in the faith left England for Massachusetts partly to escape being accused of heresy. less than 50 years later, they hung three Quakers for precisely that crime.

Jesus laughs at the scribes and points out the obvious: if he was casting out demons by the prince of demons, it would mean the Satan was divided and weakened. Instead, as he knew, Satan was strong and waiting, for what is called in Luke “an opportune time” So we come back to the family. “..his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.” A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” We’ve seen Jesus deal with opponents; how will he deal with these family members who just want him to be quiet, be the nice boy they remember from his bar mitzvah? Does his family matter to him at all?

Now we’ve already been told it was a standing room only crowd: but there are people who have sat down around him, who are listening to him. We’re being shown the signature act of Jesus, the thing for which the healings and demon casting are just a prelude. Jesus creates a community. Jesus makes a family. This business of sitting down around him occurs over and over; it’s what he commands the crowd when he means to feed them.

Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. [Mark 8:6]

See how he’s gathering them? See how he is creating a new consensus, a new culture, a new kingdom? It isn’t a large one; just before this section, Mark lists the 12 disciples he selects to train to take his message to the world.
But just now, he is doing what we often miss: he is making a family.

And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” [Mark 3:33-35]

In a culture where blood ties are everything, Jesus is creating a new basis for a relationship. In a place where family matters, Jesus is making a family out of a common vision of God’s love.

I know about this not only because Mark tells the story but because it’s my story as well. Just when my world was falling apart, when even my family was telling me I was crazy, I went to church. I started with youth group, Pilgrim Fellowship, but it was more than a little meeting once a week. There was camp, there were retreats. There were the nights when my friends and I hung out at our minister’s family home. We were always welcome. There was talk and most of all, it was just like Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners. Whatever we were, whoever we were, we knew we were loved and wanted. Family matters and that became my family and it still is, all these years later.

Now I’ve talked about how much family matters to Jesus and a bit about my own story of family. What about you? What about us? Today is our Annual Meeting and it’s always a day to ask about what we’re doing, what we have done, what we hope to do.

We do a lot of things. We house endless groups; I don’t know about you, but there are times I come into this building and have to look up on the list to see who else is here. We provide coats to the cold, food to the hungry, funds to the Southend community center, gifts for parents to give children at Christmas and Easter. We’re a place where when a gay couple calls and says they want a wedding, we say, “Congratulations! great! Happy to be the place.” We’re a church where sometimes people come who have a hard time being in church because their issues make it hard for them to sit or listen; we try to welcome everyone. We are a church of everyone else: people who in many cases got injured in a church along the way.

We do these things. We should do these things. But it’s family that matters here. What I mean is: it’s not what we do, it’s who we are together. It’s the mutual care; it’s the blessing we are to each other. There is a poem that says a family is where when you go, they have to take you in. For me, the church was a place where they took me in even when my family didn’t want me. Here I am, fifty years later, trying to perform that same miracle.

The Blues Brothers is a funny movie about Jake and Elwood, two bumbling guys in black suits, who become convinced God wants them to raise money to save an orphanage. They put their band together; they make people mad for various reason all along the way. But over and over they say one thing: “We’re on a mission from God.” This story about Jesus invites us to the live the same way, to be a part of his family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Family matters: we are invited here every day to be a part of this family, a part o the caring, a part of this mission of God’s family.

Amen.

Lent 4B – Snakey! – The Rainbow Path 4

Snakey

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Lent/B • March 11, 2018

Numbers 21:4-9 • Psalm 107:1-13 • John 3:14-21

Click below to hear the sermon preached

If you could see into the minds of ministers this past week, you’d have seen all of us opening the lectionary texts and noticing that we had this great choice. On the one hand, the Gospel reading offers one of the most loved promises in Christian life: God so loved the world, that God sent the only son, to save us all. On the other hand, there is this weird, hard to explain story about snakes and a pole the obvious solution to which was offered by my daughter May when I told her about it: “Wouldn’t the easiest thing have been for God to just not send the snakes in the first place?” Just like all those others, I looked at these texts. And the easiest thing would be to just talk about God’s love, I suppose. But something in me wants to know about those snakes.

Jacquelyn’s comment was simple: “What is it about God and snakes?” Right near the beginning, in the garden, it’s a serpent that suggests to Eve the ideas that lead to the original disobedience of God’s command. Later, both Moses and Aaron have staffs that turn into snakes and we have this story in Numbers about dangerous, poisonous snakes; we’ll come back to that in a moment. In Christian scriptures, both gospel and Revelations, the serpent is identified with the Satan, the tempter. Just like Eve in the garden, Jesus meets a serpent/Satan in the wilderness; unlike Eve, he makes the right choices.

The story Numbers tells is scary if we take it seriously. God’s people have been traveling through the wilderness and the journey is difficult. Numbers 20 has them thirsty, without water, quarreling with Moses, so that Moses and Aaron have to go to God who provides water from a rock. But Moses gets too enthusiastic; he doesn’t quite trust God to do the miracle alone and proceeds to beat the rock with his staff. For this faithlessness, God says that Moses won’t get to enter the promised land. Things aren’t going well. They ask the king of Edom to let them pass through; he says no. Moses’ sister Miriam died back in the wilderness; now Aaron dies. There’s a battle with the Canaanites. They have to go the long way around Edom. You can see what a mess things are. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that when we read,
the people became impatient on the way. 

5The people spoke against God and against Moses, Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we detest this miserable food. [Numbers 21:4b-5]
I love this last line: “there is no food…and we detest this miserable food.” so there is something to eat but they don’t like it. Bad food makes a bad life and it makes them resentful and mean.

 
Then it gets worse.

Then the Lord sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died.” [Numbers 21:6]

I was telling someone about this story and their reaction was, “This is why I don’t like the Old Testament God.”

It’s bad, isn’t it? I have a wonderful niece who, along with her family, have kept a huge boa constrictor for years in their house. It’s white and yellow; it’s a pet and apparently harmless but on my brief and infrequent visits there, it scares me.

My mother feared and hated snakes. One day when I was home, I heard my mother’s startled cry, “Eddy!!!” My dad was named Ed and no one called him Eddy, no one would have thought to call him Eddy, but when my mother was scared or angry that one word would sound out like a fire alarm. “Eddy!” It turned out she had gone out the front door and there, on the front porch, in the middle of the front porch, there was, according to her, “A huge snake that could have bitten me.” 

So my dad was summoned to do his husband duty. My brothers and I, of course, not wanting to miss this, also gathered. Right away I noticed my dad didn’t seem at all surprised and I suspected something was up. He got a rake out and sure enough, after a little messing around in the shrubs and tomato plants in front o the house, he lifted up a garden snake about three feet long. We made a procession as he gently placed in some raspberry brambles on the side of the yard, mentioning that the snake had been there for three years. My mother had demanded the snake’s death but my father had an old farm boy fondness for wild creatures. For several years, despite my mother’s complaints, he tolerated a family of raccoons raising their young in our garage. He let it go, with an ancient invocation of male privilege: “Don’t tell your mother.” Then he went and reported, truthfully, but carefully, “The snake is gone.” We didn’t tell her the truth until years later after they moved out of that house. We weren’t sure mom would have ever walked out knowing a garden snake that size was looming in the bushes, just waiting.

Snakes are scary. The ancient near east had asps and other types of poisonous snakes and they figured in all the ancient religions, both as symbols and as realities. They are the death that comes in the night, the surprise of danger in nature and yet a strangely attractive danger. Out west, where I-94 crosses the Columbia River, there’s a beautiful overlook with asphalt paved walks where you can stop and rest and see the river wind for 20 or 30 miles. But the asphalt warms and rattlesnakes like to come sun themselves there. The park service that runs this place had to close the walks because people, with all the sense of a two-year-old, wouldn’t leave the snakes alone and the snakes, of course, responded the way rattlesnakes do: they made a little noise and then struck. Snakes are scary in a special way. So this story reaches down into the dark species memory of all of us and conjures up a demon: poisonous snakes all over, biting, hurting, killing. And here’s the worst part: God sent them.

I suppose at this point I could act like a presidential press person and try to explain away this bad thing. I could be moralistic: “They deserved it!” I could try a naturalistic explanation: God didn’t really send the snakes, they just happened to be there, like the snakes by the Columbia River, and if these people had left them alone, all would have been well. I could try a literary swoop and talk about how traditions take experiences and misinterpret them, endowing events with a meaning God never intended. Maybe those would all make good sermons but the truth is, the text is quite clear: God sent the snakes. God put them there: they are not an accident, they can’t be explained away.

Why is the world so dangerous? Why are there things out there that suddenly derail our lives, things that kill us or paralyze us with fear and trembling? The truth is: I don’t know; I have no idea. I used to think it was my job to explain these things when people asked, as they always do but I’ve come to realize there is no explanation, there is no understanding, there is no reasoning with the darkness. But I take some comfort in the fact that when Jesus was asked that same question, why do bad things happen, he also doesn’t explain it. In the 13th chapter of1 Luke, Jesus is asked about the death of a group of Galileans slaughtered by the Romans as they were worshipping. The questioners invite him to make a moralistic argument, that they were worse sinners, but he refuses. He goes on to mention one of those senseless construction accidents where 18 workers were killed when a tower collapsed. “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? 5No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”[Luke 13:4f]

This is what he says: the issue isn’t why the dangers or the darkness is there but how do you react? How do you live knowing the snakes are out there?

The people in the story in Numbers do repent. “The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you; pray to the Lord to take away the serpents from us.” [Number 21:7] God takes the very thing that has so frightened them, the image of the snakes that snared them, and has Moses make a pole with that image for them to come to and cling to and remember who they are: God’s covenant people. They stop their complaining, at least for the moment; they remember who they are and that they have a future with a God who cares for them.

We’ve been talking about covenants throughout this season and it may not seem that this has much to do with that. But at it’s heart, it is a story about how covenants work. Along the road to the promised land, there are some bad moments. There’s bad food and not enough of it; sometimes you get thirsty. It can be hard to remember why you started out and who got you going, why you ever left in the first place. But our covenant is a vision of the future. When I joined this church, just like many of you, I made this promise:

Sincerely repentant for your sins, in humble reliance upon divine grace, you promise that you will endeavor to be the disciple and follower of Jesus in doing the heavenly Father’s will; that you will strive to enter to the full into those blessed relationships which Jesus himself realized and enjoined upon all people, the relationship of love to God your Creator, and love to all people; and that you will give yourself unreservedly to the service of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Now the truth is, I am not sincerely repentant for my sins every day. I am not humble every day and there are days when I beep at annoying drivers in a less than loving way. I whine and fuss just like the people in this story some days. I get busy and forget about loving God; I get bruised and forget how much God loves me.

But the covenant brings me back. Just like the compass on a boat, I look at that promise and it puts me back on course. You help me get back; you bring me back. Because I’m not alone and this covenant helps me know that, believe that, live that. So when things get snakey, I have a place to go and something to cling to. Sometimes people ask me, “Does joining the church—making the promise of this covenant—make any difference?” I can only say that there are days when I’ve gone off course and it brings me back, days when I need to repent, as Jesus said. Because of this covenant, I’m not on my own; I’m part of a people, this people, and we have promises to keep.
Trying to explain the meaning of Jesus life, the writer of the gospel of John imagines Jesus saying,

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. [John 3:14-17]

Our covenant is an invitation to walk this road, to faith that the God who brought those complaining people in the wilderness back to covenant faithfulness is still here, still inviting, still hoping we will walk the path of covenant love. Jesus is leading the way: won’t you come along?

Amen.

Epiphany 3 B – The Urgency of Now

The Urgency of Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Third Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • January 21, 2018

Mark 1:14-20

It was a cold day in December; I imagine someone had to get here early to get the heat going. The church was probably decorated for Christmas and I imagine Rev. Lee Fletcher, the still new pastor, led songs of Advent and Christmas. At 2:30 PM the radio announced that the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been bombed; the nation had been attacked and was at war. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a rainy Friday in November. Everyone was waiting for the weekend, some preparing, some watching the clock. Suddenly, like that moment when a wind sweeps ahead of a storm, teachers were rushing about, some of them crying, some of the male teachers crying—unthinkable! President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas, Texas. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a sunny Tuesday morning in September, a busy time for ministers. I was in an office with no media, trying to put together worship and a sermon for the coming Sunday. I was newly married and unlike my family, where no one ever called the office, my new wife had a habit of calling me mid-morning, interrupting whatever I was doing. Later, much later, we’d deal with that but on this day when she called I was irritable and put it off and then she told me: an airplane had flown into a tower in New York City and it was on fire. Moments later we heard about the second crash. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

Like an old man telling the story of how his life was suddenly changed, we’re hearing someone’s memory, Peter’s perhaps, of how things suddenly changed. What stuns me today about the story we read in Mark, what has always stunned me, is its rush. “…immediately they left their nets and followed him,” the text says. Immediately: now, right now, they drop everything and go with Jesus. Much of the whole gospel of Mark is written in the present, in a slangy language our translation fails to convey. From start to end, it’s as if the whole text is saying, “Right now, right here, immediately.”

But I don’t live immediately; I live routinely—what about you? What I mean is that I have a regular set of things I do. I get up, get dressed, l make the bed, let the dog out, feed her, turn on CNN, let the dog out, go to the café, get coffee, read the New York Times and some other news. I drink my coffee, eat something. Tuesday I study the scripture text, write the liturgy: call to worship, prayer, pick the hymns. Wednesday I try to draft the sermon. Thursdays Jacquelyn often goes to work, so after I drop her off, I go to the bookstore and read. I finish the sermon. Sometimes I come down here when no one is around and practice. Fridays are off; Saturday mornings May and I go out for breakfast. Of course not every week is the same but you see what I mean? There is a routine to it all.

We do the same thing in most churches. When we consider a problem, when we think of a program, when we look at the next month, one question always pops up, one question must always be answered: “What did we do last year?” We look for what is routine; we say, “we always…” and fill in the blank with what we did last time and the time before. I don’t think we are much different in this way then others. I’m sure the Baptists plan pretty much the same way, they just do it with longer prayers. Catholics don’t make a move without consulting church tradition and Lutherans feel better if they can pin a Luther quote to whatever they are doing and the Methodists—well the very word “Methodist” comes from being methodical, from observing routines.

Contrast that with this scene in Mark. John the Baptist is arrested; there is a crisis. We have no notes about Jesus meeting with top advisors; no campaign plan is written. He simply says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Now repent means: change direction. To Jesus, the arrest of John means the same thing those events I mentioned at the beginning meant: everyone’s life needs to change and the time for change is now.

Next thing you know, he’s passing by some guys working, fishing. I’m pretty sure they’re just following their routine; I’m certain they got up that morning, put on their fishing clothes, got some coffee and pushed off into the cold morning without a thought about Jesus. They are doing what is routine and suddenly, with no explanation, no preface, no plan, Jesus appears, tells them to follow him, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” A little farther on he sees James and John working on nets and it says, “Immediately he called them”; they follow him too. The urgency of the call grasps them; the urgency of now overrides everything and they become disciples of Jesus.

What are we to make of these calls? They look nothing like the calm, ordered church life we practice. I hear this story and I think, ok: a mission. But where’s the follow-up plan? What’s the budget? What are the demographics? I see Jesus coming to the disciples and I wonder if he wouldn’t be better of as part of a team ministry with a music person and someone to handle administrative stuff. Is there a graphic designer? Where are the cards with colorful pictures and the website prominently displayed? What’s the budget for this project? Are there reserves in case he runs a deficit? Would it be better, perhaps, to set out some interim goals? Suppose, instead of saving the world, we just save Galilee this year and work on Judah next year. Wouldn’t that let us focus our energies more effectively?

I know these stories are the poetry of God’s Spirit and we live in the prose of the world but I see here also something deep and profound. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the midst of a time of crisis and war, “we are confronted by the fierce urgency of now.” God’s call does not come as one of many possibilities; God’s call is immediate, urgent and absolute. “Immediately they followed him”: the words are stark and precise and challenge us today.

We meet together in the shadows of a transitional time. Our church has struggled through the high waves and winds of economic adversity as so many of us are struggling. Like a boat thrusting forward with its passengers splashed by spray, we have had moments when we wondered if we would be overwhelmed. Yet we are here today, and the question we must address is how we can go forward together in the cause of Christ. Deep in our fears is the lurking dread that our beloved church could die. To those who fear this, I say: don’t worry—don’t worry because we are already dead. Paul himself, writing to the Corinthian church, said as much: “The present form of this world is passing away.”

The urgency Jesus meets head-on is precisely this: that we are dead in our sins and that death is urgent. So I am not fearing the death of the church today. The only question is: will we hear Christ calling us to resurrection. We are already in the grave: the only question is, are we ready to walk out like Lazarus, are we ready to live now in the living Lord?

To live this way, means to live as part of the community of Christ. We’ve now read twice, once last week, once today, how he worked: not alone, not by himself, not on his own, but by connecting a community together, calling together others. We have already accepted the challenge of welcoming; now we must move further and at his command take up the mission of inviting.

The purpose of this invitation is simple: people need a purpose. So now is the time for us to invite others to find their purpose by following Christ with us.

We have this moment. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the jail in Birmingham to white ministers who urged him to go slower,

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Now is the time for us, to listen to the call of Christ, to hear his call to proclaim good news, to learn to make the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiveness and welcome the very fiber of our daily life.

Now is the time for us to understand we are not here for ourselves or because of ourselves; we have been bought with a price and we are not our own, we are the body of Christ.

Now is the time for us to stop asking what did we do last year and start wondering what is God doing this year, for us to live in the urgency of now, peering by the light of God’s love into the darkness of this world.

Now: now, now. There is indeed, a fierce urgency to now. Now is the time for us to embrace the call of Christ and keep our eyes on the prize of his upward call.

Amen

Reign of Christ Sunday – Yes Lord!

Yes, Lord!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Reign of Christ/A • November 26, 2017

Matthew 25:31-46

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Thanksgiving Sermon – Now Don’t Forget

Now, Don’t Forget

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Thanksgiving Sunday • November 19, 2017

Deuteronomy 8:11-20

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

23rd Sunday After Pentecost – Choose Me!

Choose Me

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

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

Joshua 24:1-3, 14-25

To hear the sermon preached, click below

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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.