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

No Turning Back

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2018

Second Sunday in Lent/B • February 25, 2018

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16 • Mark 8:31-38

Click below to hear the sermon preached

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

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

Climbing Up the Mountain Children

Climbing Up the Mountain

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – © 2017 All Rights Reserved

Transfiguration Sunday/A • February 26, 2017

Matthew 17:1-9

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

“After six days…” Six days: so much can happen in a short time. What’s happened in your life in the last six days: six dawns, six days, six dinners. Life is such a mix of random events and plans pursued. What plans did you pursue this week? What did you make happen; what happened to you? What was unexpected?

Now think of the disciples: What have they been doing in the last week? Perhaps recovering from the crisis Matthew tells us occurs when Jesus reveals his mission and identity. “Who do you say I am?” he asks and after Peter answers, “the Christ, the Song of the Living God”, he shocks them by explaining he’s going to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. They argue; he persists. That’s what they’ve been doing for six days.

We have been listening to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians; today we return to the gospel. When we left Jesus, we were still glowing from the story of Epiphany with its star and sages and bits of Christmas paper still littering the corners of the house. When we last saw Jesus, he was emerging from the waters of baptism where he had gone to John to become ready to take up his own ministry. Six days: so much longer than that along the way!

Meeting Jesus

Now we meet him again and he is on a path that will lead to the cross, to the grave, to the glory of his resurrection. He has been preaching and healing, teaching what Matthew condenses into a sermon on the mountain. He has been sharing his life with his disciples and this is what he has said to them: 

Those who want to come after me should deny themselves, pick up their cross and follow me! Remember those who try to save their own life are going to lose it; but those who lose their own life for my sake are going to find it. 
[Matthew 16:24-25]

He’s begun to make it clear to his disciples where this journey is going, the destination of the path he’s walking. They aren’t happy about it; Peter argues with him. Yet it’s also Peter who sees through to his real self: the Christ, the Son of the Living God. All that has gone on and now, six days later, Jesus takes Peter and James and John up a mountain where they will see even more clearly.

Climbing Up the Mountains

Mountains punctuate the Biblical story like chapter headings: they are a signal—pay attention! Something important is about to happen!

Abraham goes up Mount Moriah, later the site of Jerusalem, when God tells him to take Isaac, his only son, and bind him as a sacrifice. On the mountain he obeys God and his token of faithfulness becomes a transcendent moment when God’s covenant is reaffirmed and he receives the promise of blessing through all generations.

Moses goes up Mount Sinai alone, leaving his people, his helpers, his brothers and there sees the glory of the Lord pass by and receives from God the Torah, the teaching, what we call the Ten Commandments, God’s Word on how to live as God’s people.

Elijah goes to Mount Carmel and God demonstrates a faithful presence that defeats the idolatry of the prophets of Baal. And later on a mountain, Elijah hears the small, still voice of God.

To go to a mountain with Jesus is to go where the covenant was given, where the Torah was given, where the prophet receives God’s Word. These together—Torah and Prophets—are everything known about God to the people of Jesus’ time.

So they climb the mountain with Jesus. Have you done this, hiked up a mountain? I wonder what the trail was like: was it rocky, was it hard? Did they take enough bottles of water along? Did they bring trail mix? Scripture is silent. We simply hear, “Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves.”

I imagine them huffing and puffing a bit; mountain hiking is hard work. I imagine them wondering inside where they are going and whether someone thought to bring lunch. Whatever they wonder, what’s clear is this: they keep walking, keep following, Jesus going ahead, the three of them after. We sometimes sing a hymn called “I want Jesus to walk with me” but isn’t the real call of faith for us to walk with Jesus?

Transfigured

Sometimes hiking up a mountain trail you walk and walk in the shade of trees, so focused on where you’re stepping, looking down, choosing the next step that coming out to a clearing, being hit by the sun takes your breath away. I remember a day hiking in Thatcher Park when Jacquelyn and got lost. Wandering among the trees, we thought we were on a trail but the markers petered out and we kept going. At some point, we knew we’d lost the trail and we began to just go toward where we thought the road might be. We walked a long time through the woods there and then suddenly there was an opening: we’d come to one of the access parking lots and the light flooded in like a dam had burst.

Peter and James and John follow Jesus and I think, I imagine, him walking just ahead of them, coming before them to the top or to a clearing at any rate and standing there, in the light, so that as they come into the clearing light shines through him and they see him in a new light suddenly. All the things he has been saying are suddenly clear. He is transfigured, that is to say, he is lit up from the inner light of God and they see that about him, they know that about him, they understand that about him in a way that will never leave them.

On the Mountain with Jesus: Is this My Jesus?

Just to make the point clear, because God knows we so often miss the point, Jesus isn’t alone. There with him are Moses and Elijah, as I said earlier, persons who have been to the mountain and who represent all that is known about God, Torah and Prophets, the whole of what we call the Bible, God’s Word in the flesh. And Jesus is standing with them.

I love the next part of this story because it is so real, so us, isn’t it? There he is, Jesus transfigured, Jesus according to many commentators as he will appear to them when he is resurrected. It’s a miracle, it’s a vision and this is what they say: “It’s a good thing we’re here.” Is there any limit to our ability to turn from Jesus back to ourselves? There’s a popular praise song that begins, “My Jesus, my savior…” Well, it’s a good song, fun to sing, but if we are serious about what Jesus actually says and what scripture says about him, it’s wrong. He isn’t my Jesus. He isn’t your Jesus. The question the gospel asks isn’t “Does Jesus belong to me?”, but “Do I belong to Jesus?”.

Here’s Peter with Jesus transfigured, Moses and Elijah back from heaven, you’d think that would be enough to inspire anyone, wouldn’t you? All he can think to do is form a building committee, to say it’s a good thing he’s there, to enclose Jesus and the others in some structure. Isn’t this us: boxing Jesus up just when he threatens to get out of hand?
God won’t have it. Just then, when Peter and John and James are discussing who will chair the committee, creation stirs up and a cloud comes in and God speaks: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him, I am well pleased.” Now if you have been coming here religiously and listening, that ought to sound familiar because it’s exactly what God said when Jesus was baptized. We talked about it weeks ago. This is the fundamental identity of Jesus: the beloved child of God.

What we don’t hear is the context. In that time, this was a political statement. “Son of God” is one of the titles that the Roman Emperor Augustus and following him others including Tiberius, the emperor in this moment, claim. It’s almost as if God said, “This is the President, with whom I’m well pleased.” It’s God pointing out who we should follow, who we should look to for direction. And that’s just what God says. For there’s one more thing that wasn’t said at the baptism, one more Word of God for this moment: “Listen to him”

Listening to Jesus

That’s the key to keeping Jesus out of the box: listening to him. It’s no surprise that Word knocks the disciples flat. “When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown on the ground,” terrified. But Jesus came and touched them, “Get up,” he said, “Don’t be afraid.” For this moment of transfiguration is meant to warn them but also to help them. And it’s meant to help us understand that following Jesus, listening to Jesus, living with Jesus creates an imperishable relationship There is a spiritual, a song, that says,

Climbing up the mountain, children,

We didn’t come here for to stay.

And if I nevermore see you again, 

going to see you on the Judgement Day

Coming Down the Mountain

We are not meant to stay on the mountain and they don’t. But having been to the mountain, we come down to lives permanently changed, connected to Jesus in a way that will never end.
“This is my son…listen to him.” In that command, in that Word is the challenge of faith and all the inspiration we need to reflect the light of God and give God joy. Bernard Moitessier was a French sailor and one of the first to sail around the world by himself, single-handed, in the Golden Globe race. Thousands of miles into the race, after months by himself alone on a small boat, as he was passing New Zealand, he went to sleep with his boat on autopilot headed east to pass a reef off to the north.

When he woke, he found the boat surrounded by a huge group of porpoises. They kept doing a strange maneuver where a group would swim ahead, and then suddenly turn right, right in front of his boat. After watching this for a while, the sleepy sailor thought to check his course and discovered that while he slept, the boat had shifted from sailing east to sailing north, right for the reef. The porpoises seemed to be warning him. He changed his course. He goes on to say:
…then something wonderful [happened]: a big black and white porpoise jumps ten or twelve feet

in the air in a fantastic somersault, with two complete rolls. And he lands flat, tail, forward. Three times he does his double roll, bursting with a tremendous joy, as if he were shouting to me and all the other porpoises: ‘The man understood that we were trying to tell him to sail to the right . . . you understood . . . you understood . . . keep on like that, it’s all clear ahead!’
[Bernard Moitessier, The Long Way]

Jesus takes a few disciples up the mountain. There, transfigured, they go from thinking they can enclose him in a box to people listening and following him in a new way. There they know indeed, it’s all clear ahead. the message of transfiguration: “This is my son, listen to hm, listen to him.” And when we do I think god must leap with joy like the porpoise.
Amen.

Foundation Faith

Foundation Faith

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/A • February 19, 2017
© 2017 All Rights Reserved

Click below to hear the sermon preached

According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 
[1 Corinthians 3:10]

I grew up around builders: in my home, in my neighborhood. As far back as I can remember, there were blocks to play with and stack, wooden blocks that would come tumbling down if not carefully balanced. Trips to the beach meant building sand castles that became more and more elaborate the longer we sat there in the hot sun. Later, living in that post-war moment when Americans were building homes, my friends and I never lacked for the source material to build endless tree houses and forts. The forests were little subdivisions where we industriously nailed bits of wood to create our own vacation homes with precarious ladders that let us climb up and hide, at least until the street lights went on and summoned us home. I may not have been a master builder but I have been a builder and perhaps so have you. Maybe your building used different materials; perhaps you built a family, nurtured it with a thousand dinners, an endless set of trips to school events, late nights up with a child who just wouldn’t sleep. That kind of building is harder than the tree houses but so much more important. What have you built? What are you building? What are we building together?

We have been walking through the first chapters of Paul’s First Corinthians and it’s important to remember the topic he’s addressing. He wants to point the church forward. Just as he helped them gather and get started, now he is showing them a path forward because they’ve wandered off the path of Christ and into division. Paul sets this conflict up as between the human wisdom of the Corinthians and the way of the Cross. By human wisdom, he means that great collection of ideas we glean from our experience. It is the way we do things, the way we have done things; it is what we did last time. There is also attached to this something he talks about as “secret wisdom,” the mystical vision of heaven some preachers speak about even today so wonderfully and beautifully. Paul, for his part, says he has decided to know nothing among the Corinthians except the cross of Christ. He goes on to say that their very conflict shows they are still babies in the faith; he calls them to put aside conflict and come to the Cross to grow up into Christ.

Dynamic Building

Now he offers them an insight built around the act of building. Paul was the founding pastor of this church. He laid a good foundation; now someone else is building. He wants the Corinthians to understand that all of God’s work is dynamic, changing, constantly evolving. Usually we focus on the pronouncement that Paul laid a foundation like a master builder. What interested me more was his immediate transition: someone else is building on it. We usually think of buildings as staying in place. But Paul is summoning the Corinthian Christians, and us, to imagine their future.

It’s hard to imagine the future. When I was in seminary, I lived in an old farm house owned by a family that had settled Chelmsford, Massachusetts in the 1600’s. The woman in charge of the farm divided people into those who came before the war and after the war; it took me a while to realize she meant the Revolutionary War. The same family had owned this farmhouse since it was built. Now most of us know how moving out of a house forces us to take stock of what we have, what’s worth moving, what to give away or throw away. When Jacquelyn and I moved here, we sent truck loads to the land fill and so much stuff to the Goodwill they asked not to bring anymore. Perhaps you’ve done the same thing: looked at things that had hidden out somewhere and said, “We don’t need that anymore,” consigned it to some fate. It’s how we trim our households. This house had never been through that; the family had never moved.

It was built in the 1820’s across from Baptist Pond, a little pond where the local Baptist church used to immerse people. Unfortunately, that end of the pond had silted up and was rumored to have snakes, so the Baptists had moved their immersing to a public beach. The town of Chelmsford needed a blacksmith, and they lured one there with the promise of the house, which was built for him. His tools and his shed were still on the property. The blacksmith had two sons who served in the Civil War. One of the son’s discharge papers hung in the room I used for a study. After the Civil War, they came back to Chelmsford, and cut the house off it’s foundation, raised it up a full story and built more space so they could both live there with their families. So they did, raised families of their own, cut ice on Baptist Pond, raised crops and had a little dairy operation that included churning butter. I know these things because they left all the stuff in the house and the sheds. It was a great house, strong, secure and it just lacked one thing: electrical outlets. The house had been wired around 1910 and no one thought anyone would need more than one electrical outlet per floor. Who would have thought anyone would need more than one outlet? What would you use them for?

Well, we learned to live with one outlet. We constantly plugged and unplugged thing. But that wasn’t the only challenge. In the living room, there was a fireplace and some logs, neatly tied up, ready for a fire to be laid. When we moved in, the family member who was in charge pointed out the logs and explained that the father of the lady who actually owned the house had put those logs there in 1919 and then had a heart attack and died. The logs were the last thing he’d ever done and they had been there ever since. She didn’t have to make her point: if we wanted a fire, we needed different logs.

I was a youth minister in those days and one of the great things about the house was being able to have the dozen or so senior high kids in my youth group meet there. Now senior high kids haven’t quite grown up so sometimes they revert to being two year olds. We all do. One day, while I was off getting snacks from the kitchen, they got to wrestling around. I heard the noise of it but when you’re a youth minister, you get used to noise, so I didn’t worry until I went back in the living room and everything was quiet. Quiet always concerns youth ministers. I looked around and asked, “What happened?” And then I followed their eyes to the logs. The logs were no longer tied; the logs were scattered. The logs that had been tied up since 1919. “We’re really sorry,” the kids said. So was I. We tried to tied up the logs but it didn’t look quite right; it didn’t look quite the same. The next time the land lady came over, I confessed to what had happened. We stood in the living room and I tried to explain about the youth group and the logs and how we had tied them up. She said, “I noticed they had been changed.” That’s the worst indictment a real New Englander can deliver. I said, yes, they had. There was a long moment and she said, “Well, there’s no point to them now. You might as well use them up, burn them.” It turned out that whatever we had feared from changing the logs didn’t happen. They were, after all, just logs.

We all become used to things in churches. Somehow, what’s there becomes what should be there, what has always been there. But the truth is? Most if it is just logs; most of what we do is just what we have done. What we need to do, what we must do, is to distinguish what’s just things we’re used to doing from the real foundation. “… like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it, “ Paul says. The foundation is important but it’s also important to see that God can do new things, that God does do new things, and to watch for them, celebrate them, make a space for them.

What Is the Foundation?

What Are We Just Used To? What is the foundation? It’s the compassion that flows from the mind of Christ, from thinking about others with the mind of Christ, thinking about ourselves with the mind of Christ. That is the foundation faith of the church.

It’s a challenge. I’ve only built one church meeting house. Around 1990, I was serving the Suttons Bay Congregational Church in northwestern Michigan. We were growing; the church was packed. We needed more space. After a long, long bit of soul searching, the church decided to gut the building and completely redo it. Part of that involved the downstairs area we used for Sunday School. It was a terrible space. For one thing, many years before fuel oil had spilled all over and the response had been to cover it up with rugs. When the oil seeped through, more rugs were put down.

So we were going to tear the whole place up and start over, in a church with lots of kids. Everyone on the Building Committee had ideas about how many rooms to divide this space up into and how big the rooms should be and what color and where we would make storage. So we did what Congregationalists do: we argued and put off decisions until finally the architect said you can’t wait anymore. Given a deadline, some of the arguments got more heated. Then one night, I remember it the way you remember coming out of the Christmas Eve service, when the candles are still lighting up your soul and the warmth of the moment fends off the cold, someone said, I have a new idea. Well, we were so involved in all the ideas already proposed, to be honest, no one really wanted a new idea. But we were polite people so we said go ahead. And this was the proposal: that we have no rooms at all. “Right now, we have lots of kids, but we don’t know how that room will need to be used in the future. Let’s leave it as one big room with movable dividers. Let’s assume we don’t know what God will do in the future here.”

Well, neither the 6 small room people nor the 4 big room people thought that was a good idea but it grew on us and that’s just what we did. We left the whole room open, with some dividers that could make sort of rooms and furniture that rolled around. Ten months later, we moved in. Two months after that, the local Rotary Club came and said, “You have this big room, could we meet there on Mondays?” We realized something: we never thought of the Rotary Club but because we could roll back the dividers and the furniture we could do this. It paid for the dividers; it made the church grow even more. Who would have thought?

It pays to work smart. I think our church ought to get the best advice, use the best practices, do the best job we can. We ought to constantly learn from the wisdom of people who study churches and try out their lessons here. But that’s not the foundation; that’s the furniture. The foundation can’t change; the foundation is permanent. What is that foundation? We need to distinguish it from the furniture because we can always move the furniture around in different ways and furniture sometimes wears out and needs replacement. Paul is clear: the only foundation that can sustain what we are building is the Cross and the only sure guide to the future is the mind of Christ. To think with the mind of Christ is to realize that our own wisdom, our own ideas about how to do things, are temporary; only the ongoing compassionate love of Christ is permanent.

Now we are building here, together, a great church. The foundations of this building are a hundred years old; the foundations of the church itself are even older, they are the great mission to create a free church here in Albany that expresses the love of Christ, that shines the light of God’s love. The most important question we can ask isn’t, “What are we going to do?” but “What is God doing?” The most important answers can’t be found from our own wisdom; they came from prayer and asking, “How can we make God’s love concrete?” The most important things we do may not be exactly what we used to do. God does new things; so should we. Whenever the mind of Christ calls us to new ways of loving, we must listen and not be so concerned about keeping the furniture that we forget the foundation. The love of God, the mind of Christ, is the foundation faith that undergirds us. Build on it, and we can together in God’s time, in God’s way, build a church.

Amen.

Growing Up, Building UP

Growing Up, Building Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Sixth Sunday After Epiphany/A • February 12, 2017

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

© 2017 All Rights Reserved

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Where is your mind right now? Are you thinking about something that happened earlier this morning or during the week? Are you in the past? Are you in the future: thinking about what will happen next, what your day will hold? Are you here?—or somewhere else? I think the greatest change in our time has been the way our minds are asked to focus on so many different places at once. Have you seen people out together, perhaps at dinner or a coffee shop, clearly together and yet both engaged with others because they are busy texting on mobile phones or taking photos for Instagram or doing something else that calls their mind to another place, another person? Where is your mind right now? Buddhists especially raise the issue of mindfulness: simply, consciously, disciplining your mind to be right here, right now. The question of your mind, my mind, is one we heard Paul raise last week when he spoke about the mind of Christ.

Division in the Church and the Mind of Christ

Remember that Paul is dealing here with the problems of human division, especially within the church at Corinth. The congregation has divided into factions, some looking to Paul as their leader, some to a man named Apollos, perhaps others to Cephas. The issues are not clear, but we don’t have to go far to imagine the result. We know what division looks like and many have experienced it, if not in church, then perhaps somewhere else. We are hearing this season a connected series of readings so it’s important to remember this background. Last week, we heard Paul deal with division in a general way. He advanced this principle: Christ crucified as an emblem of the mind of Christ. That is, the emblem of ultimate compassion animated, lit, by the love of God, like a lamp flaring up and burning brightly. The mind of Christ always cares, always fills with compassion, always sacrifices like a parent giving up something for a child.

Getting Personal

Now Paul is applying this principle to the people in the church, that is to say: to us. Now, I’ve always found this is where things get sticky. It’s one thing to announce a great principle; it’s another to make it personal. Every week I try to share a reflection on the great principles in the Bible. I know my own life doesn’t always reflect these. I know that Jesus says that the commandment not to murder really means not to be angry with someone but I do get angry. I know that Jesus says that we are required to forgive those who hurt us but I have been hurt and I have had a hard time forgiving. Do you find this? Do you struggle to live with the mind of Christ in your mind? Then this is for you—and me.

The first thing Paul says is that these people are babies. I remember ‘baby’ as an insult. I grew up with two younger brothers. Allan was four years younger and I don’t remember a time before him. But my brother David is ten years younger than me so I do remember him as a baby. He always wanted to join in with Allan and I but of course he was too little for some things. We would climb up to a treehouse and leave him behind, we would get on the top bunk of the bed and leave him behind and he would cry. And we would say: “Don’t be such a baby”. Paul says to the Corinthian Christians: you were being babies. 

What are babies like? Well, of course they are wonderful and inspiring and the make us smile and we track each advance in their lives. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for Rosie to be big enough to come to children’s time. But if we are honest, we can admit there is another side to babies. Babies are selfish. They don’t care how tired you are when they want to eat; they don’t care that your’e doing something when they want to be changed. They don’t care that you just need a quiet moment when they feel like being rocked. Babies are totally self-centered. In the same way, Paul says the Corinthian Christians are acting like babies, self-centered, and that leads them to be jealous and quarreling.

Dealing With Babies

Now notice something about the way Paul responds to these baby Christians: he doesn’t throw them out, he doesn’t work to overcome them, he doesn’t maneuver to make his faction winners. What Paul does is to simply assess where they are, who they are, when they are in the process of development. They’re babies; fair enough ,give them baby food. “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready,” he says. This is the piece we miss about being church members: we never ask where people are in their spiritual development. I wonder what it would be like if when our Deacons met with new members, we had a conversation about where that person is in their development as a Christian. Even more important, we need to have this conversation within ourselves. Where are you in your own development? Are you a baby? Are you able to walk but need a little help? Are you grown up but needing some guidance? How much better we could nurture each other as Christians if we asked and answered these questions personally.

So Paul is dealing with babies. How do you grow babies up? You feed them appropriate food, cuddle them and teach them. Some of the teaching is formal but the most important teaching any of us get is what happens around us, what people show us is the right way to do things. I learned to take care of myself at school; but my mother taught me to make my bed. I learned to read from a teacher; my family provided a whole library and an example of people who read. 
When Paul wants to teach, he does it by contrasting the smallness of their leaders with the greatness of God. 

For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. [1 Cor 3:4-7]

What Matters?

What matters? Does Paul? Does Apollos? Casablanca is a movie from the moment when people were asked to choose sides between fighting fascism and cooperating with it. Humphrey Bogart plays a man named Rick who says over and over, “I stick my head out for no one”. But Rick has a past, a past that includes a love affair with Ilse that ended bitterly in Paris when she failed to join him in escaping the advancing Nazis. When Ilse shows up at his cafe, he learns she is married to the leader of the Resistance. Rick has two passes to get people out of Casablanca, where fascism is increasingly becoming more violent. At first it appears Ilse and her husband will be trapped: Rick refuses when she begs for his help. But finally, at the end of the movie, Rick, gives the coveted exit visas to Ilse and her husband so they can continue their Resistance works. He says, 

 …it doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. Someday you’ll understand that.
[http://thoughtcatalog.com/oliver-miller/2013/05/50-quotes-from-casablanca-in-order-of-awesomeness/]

He summons her to a greater vision, a bigger vision.

We’ve all seen this process at work. We grow up in a place, maybe move a few times, travel some and see a few places. Isn’t it always surprising how different customs can be? When I moved to Boston after college, I remember going into a little diner and asking for a cup of coffee. The counter guy said, “Regular?” This was before the age of espresso and Starbucks, I’d never heard of anything but regular coffee, so I said “yes”. Now I’ve always drunk my coffee black but what he put in front of me was light brown; it had cream in it and when I tasted it, sugar. So I said, “hey, I wanted my coffee black”. He looked at me like I was out of my head and said, “You said regular”. So we encounter other customs.
 

Seeing the Greater Vision

Every once in a while, something really shakes us though, something makes us see a much larger picture. For me, one of those moments was when the astronauts broadcast the first picture of the whole earth. Do you remember seeing that for the first time? One thing that was clear: none of the boundary lines on the atlas at school were on the earth. So as we move to a larger view, what we thought was important becomes less so.

Now Paul is asking the Corinthian Christians—and us!—to see this fundamental huge principle: that we are not here for ourselves, on our own, but part of a larger weaving. We are God’s field he says. And what is a field? It isn’t just a piece of ground; it’s a place where things are grown, a place that bears fruit. We are God’s field and God is growing a harvest here, we are meant to produce that harvest. We are God’s building, Paul says. What is the building? Isn’t it a meeting house where God’s people can come to praise God and embrace in imitation of the God who embraces us?

Growing Up

We do these things by growing up spiritually. We do them be growing from babies into servants, who can cultivate and care for the field, who can maintain and share the building. Where is your mind right now? Is it open to the mind of Christ. It was the mind of Christ that prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking God, as any human might, to ease a time of trouble, but then moving on to say, “Not my will be done Lord but yours—to embrace the purpose and providence of God even in that moment of darkness. How often do we pray that prayer? how would it change us if we did? How would making it our center change our church?

Amen
 

You Children Mind!

You Children Mind!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/A • February 5, 2017

Click on the link below to hear the sermon preached

Someday, God willing, a long time in the future, I will retire. I know many of you know more than I do about that moment, and hope you’ll share your wisdom. I imagine I sitting on a boat in a quiet little cove, watching the sun go down, with a cup of coffee that has on it the image of this church’s building and the words, “First Congregational Church 1850-2000 150 years of returning God’s love.” You’ve seen these cups; we use them at coffee hour. Maybe your home is like ours, with cupboards that accumulate the bits and pieces of where you’ve been. Jacquelyn has a cup from Southwest Airlines, I have wine glasses marked “US House of Representatives” from when I worked there and cups from many different churches and group with whom I’ve had the good fortune to be associated. Like the glasses and cups, we accumulate as well bits and pieces of wisdom along the way. Sometimes they are formulated as little sayings: “a stitch in time saves nine, “when you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop shoveling” and so on. We learn, bit by bit, and we pass these things on. Long ago, when I was an intern and got into a bruising fight over church supplies, the wise senior Pastor for whom I worked said, “Never mess with the tissue in the ladies room.” All these sayings and experiences are a sort of wisdom and from them we take our course day to day. For what does it mean to be wise? Isn’t it to choose each day, every day, a path that leads forward?

Where is Wisdom?

“Where is the wise one?”, Paul asks just before the section of First Corinthians we read this morning. It’s a good question, isn’t it? Surely we want to find ourselves following someone wise, someone who can help us choose the best path. Bookstores, television and the web are full of people eager to lead us, to tell us what to eat, what to wear, how to do makeup, how to exercise, how to pray, how to live. But what does Paul mean by wisdom? Paul comes from a tradition that knows two kinds of wisdom. One is the common sense stuff I’ve mentioned, the accumulation of human experiences, distilled by history, from which we take daily decisions. Scripture has a whole category of such sayings called Wisdom Literature; the book of Proverbs is an example and you can find similar pieces throughout the Psalms. There is a common folk wisdom and yet it may not always be reliable.

A Secret Wisdom

 
What wisdom can go beyond daily experience and speak to our hearts and minds and lift them from the visible things of the day to the invisible? In Paul’s time, an emerging philosophy focused on what is sometimes called “secret knowledge.” The concept is that there is an invisible, rational system to the universe that can only be known by someone initiated into the mystery of this secret knowledge. Some Christians had begun to teach and talk about a secret wisdom that only some understand. Some Christian preachers were claiming to have secret revelations. We shouldn’t be surprised because such teachers have always appeared. Right here in New York, Joseph Smith was such a person. Claiming to have had an encounter with an angel who showed him golden tablets, he founded the group often called Mormons. There are a great number of similar people throughout Christian history who have claimed a secret wisdom. This leads to a problem: how do we know which wisdom to follows? How do we know which teacher to believe?
Notice that Paul explicitly says he does not have a special wisdom.

I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, 5so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom.

If he doesn’t have a special wisdom, a unique insight, what does he offer? Just this: “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”

Christ Crucified

Now this is a curious statement. Paul is an apostle and the foundation claim of an apostle is an encounter with the Risen Christ. Paul didn’t follow Jesus through Galilee or make the journey to Jerusalem; Paul wasn’t at the last supper or in the garden, he didn’t weep at the foot of the cross. But according to his own account, the Risen Christ appeared to him and called him to preach. So we might expect that Paul would say something like, “I decided to know nothing among you but the Risen Christ, Jesus resurrected and alive again.” But he doesn’t. He rests his claim not on common wisdom or the special experience of the Risen Christ but on the public event of Christ crucified.  What is it about Christ crucified that Paul believes can lead us? There on the cross we find not the shining light of special wisdom, secret wisdom, but a public display of ultimate humility. The cross is an emblem of ultimate love: a man laying down his life, giving up his dignity and power out of love for all humankind. All common wisdom comes down ultimately to this one principle: stay safe. “Once burned, twice shy,” we say, and so many other things that all have the common purpose of keeping us safe. We learn what’s dangerous; we learn how far out on a limb we can go and still survive. But the cross is not safe, the cross is not a limb from which retreat is possible. It is the contradiction of human wisdom: it is the act of embodying the love of God. So Paul offers wisdom, but not human wisdom, as he says; he offers instead the cross, the wisdom of God, the sacrificing, love of God that overcomes division, overcomes hatred, overcomes safety to transform human life into love.

The Mind of Christ

So Paul preaches that we should let go of our human wisdom and instead offers what he calls “the mind of Christ.” Now the amazing thing about thinking with the mind of Christ is that we already know how to do it. To live from the mind of Christ is to take seriously the language of Christ about God as our parent and each person as a child of God and carry it forward into action. Do you know how to care for a child? Isn’t the first lesson of parenting to put another’s needs first? Did you stay up when you were exhausted with your child, sacrifice things so they could have something, did you feel your very being stretched to learn to love a child? Of course you did; all parents do. To think with the mind of Christ is to project that experience onto the wider screen of our whole lives. To think with the mind of Christ is to think of others first.

Missions and the Mind of Christ

One of my favorite missions around here is the coats. We don’t often talk about the coats but it’s a simple mission. It gets cold here; we all know that. So we all have coats to keep us warm. This isn’t as obvious as it seems. I remember years ago when I lived in northern Michigan welcoming a new pastor named Paul and his family to our town. They’d lived in tropical Brazil for years and then in Florida. They knew Michigan would be colder so they bought coats: what we would call windbreakers. They arrived on a day when we got two and a half feet of snow, the temperatures were in the 20’s and their moving truck was stuck in the drifts. Watching him and his wife and their two kids, it didn’t take more than a moment to get them inside and start rummaging through the closet to get them some real northern Michigan coats.

We do the same thing here. We know there are people in our area who are just like my friend Paul. They aren’t prepared for the cold and they need coats. Many of us have spare ones and sometimes it’s possible to buy an extra coat on sale. So we collect them up; every once in a while Jim Dennehey takes them to the South End Community Center, where they are given to people. It’s simple. Haven’t we all seen a kid about to go out the door and said, “Put on your coat, it’s cold out there”? The coat collection is the same thing: it is the mind of Christ to recognize that there are others, equally children of God, who need coats and to share them.

If I think with my own mind, if I rely on my own accumulated wisdom, it tells me to keep safe and keep what I have. But when I think with the mind of Christ, I am led to risk and share. The coats are an example; so is the mission we announced today, to collect toothbrushes for kids in Nicaragua. Who are these kids? I don’t know them. They aren’t mine. That’s what my own mind might say. But the mind of Christ tells me that they are my brothers and sisters; that we are equally God’s children, so I have a responsibility for them and to them.

Thinking with the Mind of Christ

Thinking with the mind of Christ can make for difficult questions. This week Governor Cuomo proposed cutting visitation at maximum security prisons to weekends only. The reason given was saving money. Well, my mind, my wisdom tells me that’s a good thing. But what about the mind of Christ? What does the mind of Christ think about a policy that hurts the children and wives of prisoners, and prisoners themselves, the most vulnerable people, to save money? I leave that question for you; it’s not my intent to suggest political points but to invite you to think about everything, from daily life to politics with the mind of Christ.

You Children Mind!

When I was small, before I had accumulated much in the way of things or wisdom, my brother and I were sometimes left with my grandmother. She was a woman always busy, too busy often to monitor two small boys. So we would get into things and do things she didn’t want done and I remember how in an exasperated voice, she would sometimes say, “You boys mind now!” She didn’t have to say what “minding” meant or what rule we had broken; we knew. What Paul is saying to the Corinthian Christians, what he is saying to us, is simple: “You people mind!” We have the mind of Christ: if we use it to guide us, rather than our own wisdom, our own traditions, surely we will come back to Christ’s way. If we live from the mind of Christ, knowing him crucified, surely the love of Christ will shine from us.
Amen.

Not to Regular Readers

You may have noticed, no sermon was posted last week. The reason is that our church was blessed to have a guest preacher and this preacher was blessed to sit with his wife in worship! Our Guest Preacher was Bryan Niebank, and you can read his sermon here.

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

Together In Every Place

Together In Every Place

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 15, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Hear the Sermon Preached

When my brother David was born, he wasn’t like us. I already had a brother, Allan, and we both had brown eyes; so did my mom and dad. David had blue eyes. We all had dark hair; David had light hair. He wasn’t like us. Then, my parents took us to visit my father’s family back in Michigan. My grandmother, my father’s mother, took one look at David and said, “Oh! Little Elmer!” Elmer was my father’s brother but long ago my father and Uncle Elmer had fought over a shotgun and never made up; we didn’t know Uncle Elmer. Nevertheless, with that one declaration, my grandmother had done something permanent. David was one of us, after all. We were family. We still are. How do we connect to each other? How are we together? We sing, “Bind us together, Lord”, but what’s the glue?

The Corinthian Church

The little church in Corinth, Greece, was just a few years old when Paul wrote the letter we know as First Corinthians. It’s not really first; later on, we learn this is Paul’s second letter to them. He was their founding pastor, the Ray Palmer of the place, and in his letter we get a picture of one of the first Christian churches struggling with many of the issues we face today. So over the next few weeks, we’re going to hear a series of readings from this letter as a way to think about our own life as a church together. The letter itself was written about 20 years after the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Paul will say later in the letter, some of the people who were present for the resurrection are still alive.

Corinth itself is a bit like Albany. The great center of culture, Athens, is not too far away but Corinth has its own history. It sits on a narrow peninsula and has a bit of a reputation as a party town. It’s Greek but it’s also full of people from all over, different cultures mixing, not always matching.

How Do We Share God’s Love?

How do you share the love of God in such a place? How do you do it here?
It’s important because if we are going to move forward and move our community forward, we have to stay together. We know that when politicians want to distract us from the truth, the first thing they do is divide us. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking for the last time in Memphis, Tennessee, he began by saying,

…we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm]

We know that just as my grandmother looked at that baby David and saw the connection we had missed and said he was one of us, God is looking at us, seeing beyond what we see and calling every single person a child of God.

Paul Has a Partner

Listen to what Paul says to that church in Corinth where the demons of division has begun to take hold. He begins by reminding them about the how important bonds are. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…”, he begins. It’s easy to rush past this greeting but an important point is being made right here. Paul is an apostle, a man who has seen the Risen Lord himself and yet he isn’t alone; he doesn’t work alone, he doesn’t preach alone, he does nothing alone. Sosthenes is his partner in his work.
He goes on to describe the congregation in Corinth as “…those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”, and then he notes that they are not alone either; they are, “…together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” He wants them to remember, as we should remember, that they are not alone. Just as he has partners in preaching Jesus Christ, this church has partners also: “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All of these, in every place, are together. Together, in every place, they are a family, related and bonded together by the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we are part of that family as well; right here, centuries before we were born, already Paul was speaking about us.

So what he says to the Corinthian church applies to us also. This is what he says:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. [ 1 Cor 1:4-7]

Now he’s speaking to a small church; he’s speaking to a church roiled by divisions, arguing questions, wondering how they can go forward together as a little congregation in a big city.

All the Gifts We Need

I know that feeling. Like every person, I have a mental list of things I’m good at and things I am not. I can’t speak Spanish or Italian or French. I can’t catch a ball reliably which when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of the great New York Yankees baseball teams with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris was a serious disability And I can’t sing well. I’m not a very musical person. In ninth grade, they held a competition in band to determine who could hear differences in pitch; I came in last. Normally, it doesn’t matter; I try to keep my voice down when we’re singing hymns, so what comes through are the beautiful voices of those who sing well. They inspire me and I know the beauty of their music pleases God. When I worked in a church where we recorded the entire worship service, I turned my microphone off when there was singing; sometimes I’d forget, and there it would be on the recording, the voice of a man singing without a tune. My family always enjoyed those tapes, laughing with me at my failure.

I’ve been blessed over the years as I am today with some fine music leaders. One of them shared in leadership at a Wednesday chapel service for preschool kids. I’d do the prayers and the talking; she led the singing and it was great singing. Then one day she became ill with one of those long term illnesses and suddenly I had to do the whole thing every week. It was me that had to stand there and get them started on “This Little light of Mine”; me that had to start up “Oh What a Miracle”; thankfully that one had an electronic version I could hide behind. I had to lead the singing and every Wednesday I was like a bird that flies into a window, crashing into what I couldn’t do. Have you ever felt like that? But then I came up with a solution: I’d call a few of the kids up front and you know they had these beautiful voices and they would start up and we would all sing and you could just feel God smiling. You see, the solution was simple: we had all the gifts to praise God, we just had to share them. We had to act like people together.

Everyone Needs a Helper

When we think of the whole cast of characters that make up the sacred story of spiritual progress, it’s important to remember they didn’t always look like the best ones to accomplish God’s purpose. Sarah laughed when God announced she would bear a child; she was too old. Moses was a terrible public speaker. When Esther is afraid to go to the Persian King to prevent a pogrom, a massacre. Jeremiah complains God deceived him. Just like me with my inability to sing, every one of these people thinks they can’t do something. Just like us, they often are so aware of their limits they almost miss God’s call to lead the spiritual parade of progress. The way forward comes from faith that as Paul says God will strengthen us to the end. One way God strengthens us is by giving us each other. Sarah isn’t alone, she has Abraham; God sends Moses’ brother Aaron with him. Esther is strengthened by her uncle Mordechai, Jeremiah has an assistant. Together, we have every spiritual gift needed to do what God hopes.

Sailing on the Chesapeake, it’s common to look off into the distance and see the dark gathering clouds of a storm. We have been through a long political campaign that has among other things darkened our national life by lifting the voices of the demons of division. It’s tempting at such a moment to look around, see how small we are, see how great the challenge of living into God’s justice is and act like the chipmunk that lives in our garage. The chipmunk has one response to every threat: run and hide.

No Hiding!

But God will not accept hiding; God hopes we will be like a city set on a hill, like a star with to the light of God to the grace of Jesus Christ. All those people I mentioned, and so many others, shared that light because they were together in sharing God’s love and God’s Word. They lived from this faith: that together with all God’s children, together with all God’s love, God would go from victory to victory. So though they feared, they persevered; though they knew their limits, their lives went beyond the limits.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the words I quoted earlier, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, not home in Birmingham, Alabama. He was there to help with the struggle for justice of a group of sanitation workers he’d never met. He was there because despite the fact these were not his immediate neighbors, he knew they were his neighbors in the landscape of God. To get there, he flew on an airplane that had to be reinspected because of the hatred of some threatened the safety of all. He was threatened every day. Yet he could say, “Tonight, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory.” The next day he was killed in an act of violence that shocked a whole nation. It seemed as if the power of darkness was victorious.

Yet his work, his light, have continued to shine. His work, his light, continue to show us the path forward. It was not his strength that made the difference; it was the light of God’s love shining in him that allowed him to sing, and others with him, “We shall over come.” We shall overcome: not me, not you, not one of us, not a few of us, but all of us. We shall overcome.

We Shall Overcome

Now I look around this church, as I know you do. Just like Paul, I give thanks for every one of you and sometimes I wonder what we can do. I know we are small in number. How can we overcome? And I believe the answer is right there before us: it is when we learn to look at others the way my grandmother looked at David and see our connection, see that though they may look different, we are one family. We are, together in every place, as Paul said, God’s children. The demons of division may be loud but our faith in God’s love can bind us together. The demons of division may be visible but the invisible grace of God in Jesus Christ can bind us together. The demons of division may seem victorious but if we live with the simple prayer that our lives may be dedicated to letting God’s love shine, they will be defeated. That’s the faith that allows us to sing, “We shall overcome.” We sing it not because it is true today but because we know in the fullness of God’s time, it will be true and in that time we will, in every place, together, see the glory of God and the justice of God pour down like mighty waters.
Amen.

Hear it: Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome

Heaven Knows

Heaven Knows
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Baptism of the Lord/A • January 8, 2017
Matthew 3:13-17

Click on the ling below to hear the sermon preached

We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
We are making a passage that is straight and true
[Bill Staines, “Crossing the Water”]

Those lines from a folk song by Bill Staines remind us about the long arc of our lives, how we live on a passage often mysterious in detail but whose destination is our home with God. We are crossing the water indeed: water flows through our stories and our lives like a cascading stream that never stops. Most of our bodies and most of our world is water. From the water we drink and wash with in the morning, to the water for coffee or tea, we are part of a stream with a passing flow that never ceases. Like waves on the water, we rise at times and then fall back but we are always part of a larger ocean. So it isn’t surprising that when we come here today, to learn what God was doing in bringing Jesus to the world, in taking on the form of a person just like us, the story starts with water.

Water and Spirit

Right from the beginning, water is central to the Bible story. Genesis says,

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1f]

This is the beginning; this is what it looks like. I know this scene, do you? I have stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, on a boat in the Chesapeake, on the sands of a beach and watched the sky darken and the winds move the water and the pleasant playful water turn dark and threatening. Surely this is what the storytellers of Genesis imagined at the beginning: creation like a thunderstorm over a great water, light splitting the sky, and separating the waters, organizing them, so that a place could be made for a garden where we might live and praise our God.

Crossing the Water to Salvation

Water is also the scene at two of the most important events in salvation history. When the people of God came out from slavery and were threatened by their oppressors with violence, their backs were to the sea and God opened the sea, and they crossed over. Again, when they came to the land God promised, the waters, this time the River Jordan, were opened so they could safely cross. These waters—ocean, Reed Sea, River Jordan—are not just geography, they are theology as well.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that water played a part in the rituals of ancient Judaism. A great many things could keep a person from being what we call “ritually pure”. This is simply a term for someone who is not allowed to come into the presence of God. But if there was a careful description of who must be excluded, there was also a gateway back and the gateway included a special sort of washing, called a mikvah. Centuries before Christ, the mikvah was described in Leviticus and washing rituals played an important part in the life of some religious communities. It was a ritual of restoration.

John the Baptist and Jesus

Perhaps this is why John chose water as the symbol and sign of repentance. His message is simple: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Like a walled city with a gate, heaven’s door is opening and it’s time to wash up and get ready. Certainly the place he chose was not an accident. Gathering people by the River Jordan, the border of the promised land, the water whose crossing marked a fulfillment of God’s promise, is a powerful sermon itself. Matthew is clear: Jesus doesn’t just happen on John, he sets out on a passage that takes him to John first and once there on the shores of the waters of the River Jordan, he seeks baptism. It is not an accident, it is not arbitrary, it is an intentional act. Jesus chooses to go to John, to seek baptism there on the banks of the River Jordan.

Later, the church would be embarrassed by this act. Why would the sinless Son of God come to be baptized? Surely he does not need forgiveness, surely he does not need to repent. We hear the echo of this in the conversation Matthew records.

John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ [Matthew 3:14-17]

The cryptic phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness”, means first to be in perfect accord with God’s hope. Like a music student playing perfectly at their first recital, like an athlete doing exactly what the coach taught, Jesus seeks baptism because it is the pattern of God.
What is this pattern? It is first a choice to identify with the outsider, the sinner, the stranger. Jesus lives in a religious culture that sets a stark boundary between the good people and the bad and like a wall forbids any crossing. In his baptism, Jesus demolishes the wall, invites everyone in, opens heaven to those outside. To fulfill all righteousness is to break down the walls that separate the children of God from each other and gather them into one family. Over and over again he will live this identification with the lost and it is one of the reasons he will die. God is coming to us, to all of us, and Jesus opens the door. With his life, through the symbol of this baptism, he opens the door to all and gives all a taste of God’s future. For in the final victory of God, all are known as God’s children, Gentile and Jew alike, men, women, everyone.

Fulfill All Righteousness

In the moment of fulfilling all righteousness, as the baptism concludes, Matthew tells us that creation itself mirrors the event. Heaven opens, the text says, and the Holy Spirit, imagined as a dove, comes to Jesus to ordain him for his ministry. The message is clear and unequivocal: “‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ This is literally the Word of the Lord, the same Word by which the waters were divided and creation took place. This is the child of God who stands for all us and invites us to remember we are children of God.

From his baptism, Jesus’ passage goes on into the wilderness and we’ll meet him again there at the beginning of Lent. John is arrested; when Jesus hears about it, he takes up the same message John preached. It’s striking that as he begins the part of his passage that includes preaching and teaching and healing, he begins by saying, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In him, through him, there is always this amazing, wonderful possibility, that heaven will open, that we will be invited in.

Our Baptism

Jesus’ baptism invites us to think about our own passages and our own baptism. Long ago, some church bureaucrats set up a stall at the door of heaven and began to charge admission. Baptism, they said, would save you from hell. This is not God’s Word; this is not God’s intention or hope. But it’s comforting in a way. Some people would rather buy a ticket than trust there will be a place for them. Our destination, however, is not something we can purchase; it is the gift of God. Like a parent driving the car on a trip, God controls, God assures our destination. So let me be clear: I do not believe, we do not believe, Congregationalists do not believe that anyone has ever been saved by the ordinance of baptism. There is nothing we can do, no act, no water that can save a single soul. Saving souls is the act of God, not clergy or churches. Heaven is God’s home and only the housekeeper can open the door.

Instead, baptism for us is a symbol that remembers our identification with Jesus. We come to the waters of baptism to be reminded that we are children, whatever our age. Over the years, I’m sometimes asked if it wouldn’t be better to let children grow up to the age of understanding before they are baptized. Usually, this means 12 or 13 or so. Obviously, such people have never taught a confirmation class full of kids this age. I have been honored over the years to hold many infants and small children as they were baptized; I have never thought for one instant that they understood less than I did, with my seminary degree, about the love of God. There, at the baptismal fount, we have always been equals, equally children of the one loving God.

Jesus begins his passage with baptism and we have a passage to make as well. A passage is not an errand, a quick trip somewhere, always with the return in mind. A passage takes you somewhere and changes you. Passages take preparation. When I was small, our family lived near Trenton, New Jersey; each summer, my father would spend an entire day packing the car for the passage to Wildwood, to the ocean shore, where we’d spend a week. Have you prepared a passage: packed a car, loaded a back pack, set out for some other place distant not only in time but in spirit? Baptism is preparation for our passage, a passage whose arc must be the recovery of that child of God within us that lives without fear and embraces God’s other children.
If he lives in us, his baptism is our as well, and the ringing affirmation of that moment is for us as well. Bernard Eppard, a Congregational minister in Connecticut, says,
Today, the divine affirmation – you are my beloved – pertains to each and all of us. The ethic of baptism is aspirational and inclusive, inviting us to see all creation, including the non-human world as God’s beloved.

There is in each of us, a child of God that seeks to be known. When my grandmother would correct me, pointing out some obvious flaw, she often began by saying, “Heaven knows….” Heaven knows you: heaven knows that child in you. And heaven invites that child home: “the kingdom of heaven is near”. In baptism, Jesus crosses the water on his passage as the Son of God, seeking to save the lost. We also have a passage to make:
We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
.We are making a passage that is straight and true
Amen