A Pillow In the Wilderness

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19

Hear the sermon being preached

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

—Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

There aren’t many stories that have two great songs about them. The story of Jacob and his dream has an old camp song, Jacob’s Ladder, which we’ll sing later and the Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven. We can enjoy the songs but what can we learn from the story?

To really hear the story means knowing where we are in the larger story of God’s people. Take Jacob, for example. Today we meet him in the wilderness, camping alone with a stone for a pillow. We heard the story of Isaac earlier this summer. Isaac married Rebekah and she had twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau was swarthy, hairy guy from the beginning, an outdoorsy hunter; Jacob was born second, grasping his brother’s heel, with a prophecy that he would supplant his brother. The name ‘Jacob’ literally means “The supplanter” and while Isaac loved Esau, Rebekah loved Jacob.

Early on, on a day when Esau came in hungry from hunting, Jacob was cooking but insisted his brother sell his birthright in exchange for food. Later, when Isaac is near the end of life, Rebekah helped Jacob fool Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Jacob, so Jacob became the next in the line of patriarchs. Esau threatened to kill Jacob and Rebekah sent Jacob away to protect him. Now he’s returning from that journey. Think how he must feel; think how tense and worried he must be about what kind of reception he will receive.

Just as we look back to a line of heroic people we call the Founders, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others, Israel had a series of patriarchs whose encounters with God were touchstones of God’s purpose. Abraham was the first, followed by Isaac, the child of promise, and now we come to the third, Jacob. The striking thing about these legendary figures is that not one of them shows up as a particularly morally upright figure.

We like to make up stories that show our founders in an idealized way—is there anyone who didn’t grow up hearing the story of George Washington and the cherry tree?—Israel remembered the good and the bad about their patriarchs. Abraham believed God but often wavered from the path of promise. Isaac is not portrayed as someone who ever understands what’s going on. Now we come to Jacob, the trickster, the supplanter, who always has an eye on getting ahead, even refusing to feed his brother until he sells his birthright, even cooperating in a fraud to fool his father and gain the inheritance.

There’s an important message here: God doesn’t just work with the good. Later this summer we’re going to hear that what God wants is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have in common, what sets them apart, is that whatever their lapses, whatever their failures, they always listen to God, always pursue God’s purpose when it becomes plain. That’s grace: that’s God’s love. And it isn’t just for the perfect, it’s for all.

Later in the story, we’ll see the principle again and again. Moses is a convicted murderer but he becomes the prophet who defines God’s next chapter with God’s people. David, King David, has so many lapses it’s hard to really tell his story without embarrassment but he always loved God and God always loved him. This is the first and most important thing to take from this story: God meets us not because of who we were, but because of who we can become. You don’t need fancy clothes or a great resumé to come to God’s party, God sees our hearts and embraces us when we hope in humility.

The story begins with Jacob setting up camp in the evening. He puts a stone under his head for a pillow. Even in the wilderness, we all seek some comfort. He has a dream. In the dream, he sees something where figures are going back and forth from heaven. It’s come to be called “Jacob’s Ladder” but the figure is actually what we would call a ramp. Long ago, human beings decided God must be up above and so with that way we have of trying to use the mechanical to accomplish the spiritual, they built huge buildings with ramps so that you could literally get closer to heaven, closer to God. In the Ancient Near East, these were called ziggurats. Priests went up them to lead worship at the top; later they came down to speak about what God wanted. In Jacob’s dream, figures, angels, are ascending and descending. Stop there for a moment; think how we often imagine God as inaccessible, we even have a song that describes God as, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes…” But here God is accessible and if we follow the Bible text with its ramp instead of the folk song with its ladder, heaven is even barrier free.

In his dream, Jacob sees God standing with him, and God recalls the history of the promise. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and your father and the God of Isaac, [Genesis 28:13a]” This isn’t a sudden intrusion; this is God reminding Jacob of the history of God’s promise. What comes next is a renewal of that promise and that purpose. Just as God promised Abraham, God promises to be with Jacob, to give him a place and descendants an to make his family a blessing to the whole earth. A lot has changed since God first announced this purpose to Abraham. People have lived, people have died; some have been faithful, some have not, there have been wars and new babies and treaties and discoveries. God’s purpose hasn’t changed; God’s purpose never changes. So if the free, forgiving embrace of God is the first lesson here, surely the second is the peace of God’s permanent purpose. 

We talk a lot these days about “getting back to normal” as if our memory of a time when schools were open, sports were played in crowded stadiums, and going to a restaurant was the way things always were. But the truth is, all that was a moment, a nice moment perhaps, but a moment. If we want to be a part of what is truly permanent, it doesn’t mean trying to get back to normal, it means going forward pursuing God’s purpose.

Jacob reacts to all this in such a human way. If you read it seriously, you have to laugh. When he wakes, the first thing he does is to say that God is in this place and name it “Bethel”, which means God’s house. Then he takes the stone, as if any of this has to do with the stone, and sets it up as a marker. Isn’t this just like us? How many things do you have that you can’t get bear to lose? We’re doing a lot of cleaning up and tossing out this summer. I have some boxes I’ve moved more than 20 times that contain notes from my high school girlfriend. I don’t know why I’ve kept them. We parted long ago, I’m sure I wouldn’t even recognize her today if we met on the street. But there they are.

It’s the same with churches. We become attached to stuff in our churches. Just like Jacob setting up his stone, we think we need things because they’ve always been here. Years ago when I was working with a committee on furnishing a new worship space, we had a long discussion about chairs versus pews. The chairs were promising, more comfortable, more flexible. But the issue was denied when most of the committee said, “It’s not church without pews.” I honor and value the historic things here. But I know this: it’s just furniture. The communion table is just a table. The baptismal font is just a baptismal font. This pulpit is just a wooden pulpit. What’s important isn’t the furniture, what’s important is the spirit. Without the people of this church, without our working together, without God’s spirit, there would be no church. Without the table and the font and the pulpit, we would still be a church. 

The final moment of this story may be the most important of all. It’s beyond what we read today but in the next verses, Jacob chooses to take his place as a patriarch, he promises to serve God, to follow God’s purpose. The stone he sets up is just a stone; the choice he makes will set his course for a lifetime. He will become the father of the tribes of Israel; his youngest son Joseph will have a dream of his own that will make the next chapter of God’s people.

What about us? So often we are like the lady in the song, trying to buy with our goods or our goodness a stairway to heaven. Jacob’s dream is here to remind us the way to God is free and waits only for us to walk humbly with God, for us to seek God’s purpose. This is a wilderness time: we’re all going through unfamiliar things. In this wilderness, instead of lashing out in anger or holding on to a memory of normal, perhaps we should find a pillow, lay down, and wait for God to come to us, so that we too, in our time, may understand how we can serve God as part of God’s purpose. For indeed, as Jacob said of Bethel, if we look closely not at this building alone but at the people it embraces, we will say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”

Amen.

Prophetic Patriotism

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor ©2020

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 5. 2020

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Most of us know the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, a group of English Separatists who settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and serve as one of the foundations of the Congregation Way. Less well known is the story of the Arbella and its fleet which carried a thousand Puritans and landed in Massachusetts Bay nine years later. Yet it was their colony that shaped Massachusetts, eventually incorporating the settlement at Plymouth. 

Imagine for a moment that you were the leader of this group. It’s been a long voyage; some have been seasick ever since they left England. Many have been frightened, many are missing home and its comforts. Now land is sighted; now the great ship comes into the natural harbor of what will become Salem. What would you want to say? How would you inspire them? What would you tell them about the purpose of this great and dangerous voyage? 

John Winthrop was the leader and Winthrop chose to speak about charity, a word that translates the Bible word for love that cares for others. Winthrop’s sermon lifted up Christian love as a practical principle for governing. He quoted the sermon the mount to describe the purpose of the settlement.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,

Matthew 5:14-16

Winthrop was explicit about the need to support the poor and make sure each had what their needs met. Infused in his sermon is a principle that underlay the Congregational Way and ultimately the American Way: that there is a fundamental dignity, a fundamental promise, inherent in each person; that each person represents a gift of God and it is the responsibility of the whole community and especially the church to allow that gift to unfold and serve God’s purpose.

When Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, two sons of the Massachusetts colony Winthrop founded, set out with Thomas Jefferson to define a new nation in the Declaration of Independence, they went back to this founding principle, that all are created equal, all have a human dignity under God, a purpose and a claim on the freedom needed to live out their purpose. This weekend, we celebrate that moment when our fathers and mothers said such things and we must ask, as the historic source of this faith, how can we renew it, how can we make it again a light for all?

Jesus also preached the profound value of each person. He summoned those he met, those who heard him, to remember and renew the living light of God’s word that they had heard from scripture all their lives. He himself said that he didn’t come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. In this, he was doing what prophets do: seeking the vibrant core of God’s Spirit and making it live again. Of course, many of his contemporaries couldn’t see this. 

We heard his frustration in the story from Matthew today. Jewish children, like our own, made the rituals of their parents into games. We do weddings; children play with Wedding Barbie. We cook; children work in imaginary kitchens. We dress for success; children love to dress up. But what to do with someone who won’t play? 

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’…

Jesus has summoned all who hear him but they refuse to play. They don’t respond; they don’t dance to the music. They cannot remember the original vision; they cannot see the original hope. The “wise and intelligent” are the worst of all; they are too busy compromising to see the goodness of God. Only those who can come as children receive his gift: the peace that makes it possible to lay down burdens and find rest for the soul, the rest that will allow them to fulfill their purpose in God.

We celebrated Independence Day this weekend. But in the midst of our red, white and blue feeling, have we reached back to touch the bright vision with which our nation began? It is a vision that believes all have gifts and its genius was always that we offered a place to express those gifts, to make a life by doing the work of expressing those gifts. Where other societies chose to make birth a qualification, we made hard work the important factor. Where other societies were built like a pyramid with some kind of aristocracy at the top, we said from the beginning, from Winthrop on, that everyone, rich or poor, had a responsibility for everyone. Where other societies glorified a gifted few, we claimed a fundamental dignity for all. This is not simply a political issue; it was, it is, always, a religious issue. For the real task of churches to lift up a prophetic patriotism. That is, a patriotism that remembers we are founded on a vision of God’s purpose in our community. We do that most effectively when we demonstrate what such a community looks like.

Perhaps we could learn a lesson from our history and make it our vision for the future.

In the fifth or sixth century, a monk named Dubhan led a group to Hooks Head, a remote corner of Ireland, and set up a monastery. Soon the monks noticed that the bodies of sailors were washing up on their pristine beach: they had perished when their ships hit the rocky coastline. The monks decided to set up a beacon and operated it for the next thousand years.

This is a concrete expression of Winthrop’s summons to be a city set on a hill, a light to all. Every shoal, every reef, needs  a light. Lighthouses are built by people on land for sailors they don’t know, to provide a guide, to help them make a safe passage. What lighthouses do we need to be building? We know there are dark and dangerous currents in our culture; how can we provide guidance to those caught in them? We know there are rocks on which lives shatter; how can we be ready to rescue the endangered? 

Sometimes when we think of patriotism, it’s simply a matter of cheering for our country, in a sense, our team. But real patriotism is prophetic. What prophets did was to  remind everyone about God’s purpose and summon the whole community to return to that purpose. Prophetic patriotism has nothing to do with parties. It remembers God’s purpose, it remember the vision with which we began. It is a patriotism that takes up the call of the prophets to hear God’s call to make justice a living reality, to make care for the widow, the orphan and the immigrant our concern, to make justice our bedrock. This is a patriotism that takes the love of neighbor Jesus taught and intends to make our community a city set on a hill, giving light to all, as Winthrop said,.

Jesus has come dancing; we are summoned and if we don’t know the steps, it’s time to learn. We must look to his example and learn his steps. When we do, we will certainly see that he spent his life on the way, seeking the lost, healing the hurt, restoring the ability of those who had thought they were dead to live again. To dance this way, to live this way, we will have to go out, as a light goes out, into the darkness, to show the way, to offer the love of God. Jesus is an invitation: lift up, light u,p the love of God.

None of us can do this alone. Jesus did not live alone; his first act is to gather a community around him and we are the successors of that community, it’s children. So we are meant to be a light here not simply as individuals but all together. Like a band, like a choir, I hear Jesus calling us to this dance and his first words are surely: “All together now!”

Amen.

Call Me Ishmael

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Third Sunday After Pentecost/A
June 21, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21

This weekend has so many themes associated with it, I hardly know where to start. There’s Fathers Day today and this is the weekend we normally wold be having the Pride Parade in Albany. So we’re celebrating that even though not by parading. Last Friday was Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the final freeing of the slaves in this country. In connection with that, I have been amazed to read the stories about what’s going on in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have you? I don’t mean political rallies. I mean the way  the city is literally digging up its history and facing it. In 1921, Tulsa had become a center for Black enterprise, sometimes called the Black Wall Street. Then in three days of violence that year, whites rampaged through the streets, burning and killing. Now steps are being taken there to identify and honor mass graves as part of a wider community effort at reconciliation. And setting right what has been wrong is central to the story we read today in Genesis.

We read bits of stories every Sunday and try to understand God’s Word in them. It’s like understanding someone’s life from a dozen snapshots. One picture doesn’t tell a whole story, yo have to look at the whole group. It’s the same with these stories. So as we think about this story, let’s remember its context. Long before, Sara and Abram were called by God from their life in one of the first great cities of the ancient world, called to go forth, with the promise that God would give them a place to live and generations and that they would be a blessing to the whole world. They went, they traveled, and God confirmed the promise in a covenant that changed their lives: they became Sarah and Abraham and God covenanted to provide a child. 

But like we often do, they became impatient with God’s pace. Just like us, they decided to act instead of waiting, so they used the best technology of the time to get a baby. That was buying a servant for Sarah, in this case an Egyptian woman named Hagar, and having Abraham have a child with her. Hagar was a kind of surrogate mother and the child was meant to be the inheritor of the promise and the family. He was named Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

Then, God’s Word came again, as we heard last week, promising a child within a year. Remember the story of the feast, and the announcement and Sarah laughing, laughing because she knew it was too late for her to have a baby. Yet she did, and she named him for that moment: Isaac, which means laughter.

That catches up to the story we read today. Ishmael is 15; Hebrew mothers often weaned children at about three, so Isaac is still a toddler. Once again, like the story last week, there’s a feast, this time in honor of Isaac. The story says the boys were playing but the Hebrew word means more than a good time, it also covers teasing. Whatever the event, clearly there is a problem: who’s going to inherit? Sarah has a simple, cold blooded solution: get rid of Hagar and her son.” Notice how she phrases it: “Cast out this slave woman and her son…” The first step toward treating someone is to depersonalize them. We strip someone of their name and label them with a group or a color. That’s what Sarah does. In fact, we should notice that in this whole story, Ishmael’s name is never mentioned once. 

We all have  greeting rituals and one of the hardest parts for me of the pandemic reality has been losing those. When we see someone we know, we smile, shake hands or hug and say their name—hi Joan, hi Eva, hi Arvilla; when we meet a stranger, we do the same thing. In fact, if you want to learn to remember names, one of the best techniques is to immediately say the person’s name—“Hi John, Hi Mary”—when you meet them. Now we need to wear masks, an important protection and something that says we care about others. And we can’t shake hands or hug. We will have to invent new rituals, new ways of personalizing as we go. But here in this story it’s quite striking that from the first moment, Hagar, the alien, the Egyptian but also the once upon a time partner in the goal of getting a child for Abraham is now just the unnamed slave woman.

But the part that’s always bothered me about this story is what comes next. We’re used to people acting selfishly as Sarah does and we know she is because even Abraham is troubled about it What’s strange here is that God gives the ok. Did you hear that when it was read? Did it startle you? Did you expect God to speak up for Hagar and say, “Hey, no way, you can’t just dump Hagar and Ishmael, they’re my children too!” But that’s not what happens. God says, in effect, do what Sarah says. Then God says don’t worry; I have a plan for the boy.

So Abraham does this awful thing: he abandons Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, leaving them just enough supplies to help his conscience. Soon the water is gone, and Hagar, like every mother in every time who sees and fears the death of her child, weeps. Ishmael is a ways off and he may have been praying too, because suddenly in this scene of impending disaster, an angel is heard. God has heard the cries; an angel, which is a way of saying God in the world, asks her why she’s crying, telling her about God’s will and suddenly she sees a well of water. Was it there all the time but unseen? Did the angel make it happen? We’re not told. We only know that there, in the wilderness that can’t support life, there, in the wilderness of grief that can’t support hope, Hagar finds hope, finds water, lifts her son up and they go forward together. He grows up; he becomes the namesake forbear of a whole nation. Remember God’s original promise?—to make Abraham a blessing to all nations. Isaac may be the forbear of the Israelites but God’s blessing is too big, too huge, for just one people or one time.

This is astonishing in fact this whole story is full of surprises. Last week, we heard Sarah’s surprise in her laughter. Now we learn that people we thought could be disregarded and used for our own purposes have a place in God’s plan. The most troubling part of the story for me has always been God’s approval of Sarah’s plan to exile Hagar. Listening to this story today, I see that this was needed to get Hagar and Ishmael to a place where they could be heard. There’s another story of these same events and in that version, it’s clear that Sarah was already oppressing Hagar and making her life miserable. Now she is seen as the mother of a nation equally part of God’s plan, equally blessed. In fact, this appearance of an angel is the first time in the Bible an angel appears—and it appears in response to the cries of an oppressed, exiled, broken hearted people.

The first thing to learn here is that Black Lives Matter. Our history of racism is  this country is built on the backs of slaves who labored to create wealth others used. They even pulled quotes from the Bible to justify this violence. What we learn here is that God is guiding the destiny of all people. Jessica Grimes writes about Hagar as an emblem of colonized people.

Hagar is sent away destitute, with a child, destined to perish. As a representative of how later colonized people were treated, she has been dismissed, dispossessed, humiliated…the dismissal is like experiencing divorce without any child support….

Hagar is free, free to pursue her own calling as a child of God. 

The end of this story is a new beginning: Hagar, we’re told, got a wife for her son. This is the beginning of the next chapter of God’s plan for blessing all nations. It reminds s to notice something else in this story. The whole story results from Sarah trying to do for herself what God meant to do. But even though Sarah and Abraham didn’t follow God’s path in this way, God used their action to further God’s plan. That doesn’t justify wrong; it doesn’t mean it’s ok to sin because God will fix it. Sin, and the sin of violent oppression have consequences.

What we learn here, though, is that even when people make mistakes, God can weave their mistakes into God’s purpose. Like a potter fixing a clay vessel, like a weaver using the wrong color and then making a marvelous pattern, God’s purpose goes on. Our challenge is to understand that purpose and then, in God’s time, to have the courage to pursue it.

This story isn’t over. Ishmael will marry and become the patriarch of a new family. But things have changed. No longer will he be the son of that slave woman. From now on, when he meets someone, he will say, “Peace be unto you…call me Ishmael.”

Amen.

LOL – Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational church of Albany, NY

By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15

Many years ago, when computers began to connect to each other, someone invented a way to have a conversation online. Of course, it wasn’t a regular conversation, there were no voices, just text that was typed in. The problem was that conversation is more than words: it’s feelings, as well. But we tend to share some of the same feelings over and over and it would be difficult to type them out each time.

Thus was born L-O-L, a term for “laughing out loud”. When your friend said something funny, you could type in LOL; when someone said something surprising, you could respond with LOL. LOL became an internet way of expressing that thing we do when someone surprises us in way that is good beyond expectation. Now, many of you know all this, and maybe you’re thinking, why are you wasting my time? I wanted to explain about LOL because I want us to all be together as we set out to understand the story we read from Genesis. You see, it’s all about an LOL moment.

In the heat of the day, Abraham and all his family are relaxing. There is a moment on really hot days when the heat itself becomes a presence, when things in the distance tremble, when mirages appear, when the world almost seems to melt. Abraham is dozing under some oaks, trying to find any bit of shade, He opens his eyes for a moment and sees three strangers approaching in the distance. At first they would have that shimmering, liquid look heat causes; at first, I think, he might assume he was dreaming. Yet from the first, I imagine Abraham waking, the way we wake if car lights flash and someone pulls in the drive unexpectedly at midnight. I imagine him watching just long enough to confirm this is no dream, no mirage, and then stirring, getting ready for strangers. 

Strangers are dangerous in the desert. They might be raiders; they might be guests. Desert culture then and now has a code of hospitality. So Abraham stirs; I think of him kicking his foreman, napping next to him, the man waking and looking, seeing the look of concern, getting up, waking the next person down the line in the pecking order and the whole camp stirring, so that by the time the strangers can be solidly seen, the camp is up. Abraham meets them at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality. “What do they want?” must be on everyone’s mind. 

Abraham offers hospitality in a humble language we understand. “Don’t get above yourself” is one of our cardinal virtues. Don’t ever announce you are the best cook, the best anything. “Let me bring a little bread,” Abraham says—and then goes back to the camp and orders preparations. Imagine the rushing around, the cooking in the heat of the day, the measures of meal  that must be kneaded by women sweating and straining, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a feast. If it were here, there would be deviled eggs and table decorations. If it were here, there would be sputtering about what does he expect us to do on such short notice—and then a determination to do more than anyone thought possible. it must be hours later when the feast is finally served,.

The strangers have relaxed; the people in the camp are exhausted. As is customary, women are excluded from the tent where the food is served and Abraham himself does not recline with the guests; he acts as the server. Still, people are people; this is a camp with many people. There are girls calculating the cuteness of the strangers, there is curiosity, and among the curious there is Sarah, who listens just outside, who wonders just outside the tent.

Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behavior for guests. “Don’t talk about politics or religion,” we know and it’s the same here. “Don’t bring up anything personal.” It’s the same here.  When the stranger   asks, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” it is a shocking violation of manners. Abraham tries to cover the rudeness by saying she’s off in the tent. The storyteller reminds us in delicate language that Sarah is well past menopause. And then the stranger announces, as if commenting on the unusual heat this year, in an offhand way, “I’ll be back this way in a year or so and Sarah will have a son.” It’s a birth announcement for a woman in her 90’s. I imagine all conversation stopping; I imagine a deadly silence, a conversational period occurring. 

This stranger has brought up the most painful, difficult, dark, private reality of life here. Long ago, this family, this couple set out on a life journey pushed by the promise of God that there would be children. No children have come; no babies have been born. Year after year, they waited; season after season they hoped. Time after time they must have prayed—and cried; raged, even sometimes at each other. Yet there was no child. Finally, there was no escaping the reality: the promise was broken, the time had run out. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women,” the text says: o child: no child ever. They must have grieved until their grief became one of those sadness scars one puts away; too painful to visit often, too important not to visit sometimes. So here they are, two people who have finally relaxed with the failure of the promise. And here is this stranger throwing their dashed hope in their face.

Hope is a scary thing. Hope makes us laugh and the laughter makes us vulnerable. Sarah and Abraham have stopped laughing about their hope. When the stranger makes his announcement, Sarah laughs, but it’s not the laughter of hope, it’s the laughter of derision; the deep belly laugh of all women in all times at the silliness of men who simply don’t understand things, don’t understand certainly about women and babies. Sarah laughs, laughs so hard that in the stillness of that moment, her laughter must have echoed in the tent.  “Oh my God”, I hear her saying, “Me, pregnant!” The stranger hears her and asks this simple question: Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It’s a good question and real faith depends on the answer. The truth is most of the time we are a lot like Sarah. We think lots of things are too hard for the Lord, so we do them ourselves, best we can. But our best isn’t always enough and our best comes with the certain knowledge that there’s only so much we can do. When Sarah gets too old for children, she knows it, she admits it, and she gets a young maidservant to have a child by Abraham so at least there will be an heir. We reel from a setback and try to make a new plan, we pound on the closed door of a dream until our knuckles hurt and then we give up. Sarah laughs, the laughter of despair

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” What do you think? A folk song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.” Practical people ask, “Well, what do you have in mind?” and there is no answer because it is the point of such hope that it is not in the mind, it is not rational at all. It often involves waiting when we want to act; it often means listening when we want to speak. Yet our whole faith is precisely believing in possibilities we haven’t seen. And sometimes they happen.

About 20 years ago, I was the pastor of a church with an old building enclosing lots of space and very few children. We had a large endowment; of course, the point of a large endowment is not to use it. So when a couple of new families suggested we create a Montessori preschool, everyone knew we couldn’t afford it. I knew it wouldn’t happen; I knew that despite all the meetings and plannings, the bedrock members of the church, who were closer in age to Sarah than to the two or three young moms wouldn’t agree to use the endowment for such a thing. But we went through the process and ended up, as Congregationalists always do, at a meeting, a meeting most of us expected to turn thumbs down. Then something surprising happened. One of the oldest, most bedrock women in the whole church got up to speak. She never said much, so this alone was new. What she said was even more surprising. She said she didn’t see what the fuss was about. The church had always had schools for children, and she talked about the 19th century school the church had founded. She pointed out that the local high school was started by that church. Finally she said that she guessed we’d have to vote but she didn’t see any reason not to use the money for God’s children; that’s why it had been given. There was silence when she sat down and when the Moderator called the vote, it was unanimous. The school opened; the school grew. Some of those kids from the first classes graduated high school this year. It had to make you laugh: LOL.

Now we’re being challenged as a culture and a nation to take up the hardest, darkest hurt in our history, our fundamental racism. We know it was wrong to work Jews to death so we don’t have Nazi flags or schools named for Auschwitz. But we haven’t always understood there’s not a lot of difference between what happened there and  what happened to slaves on American plantations. Some wonder whether we can actually make progress on racism. Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is this? The thing that gives me hope is that in our history, I know that every once in a while we lurch forward. The slaves were freed and when they were re-enslaved in segregation, that fell as well. God’s justice isn’t immediate but it is relentless and like a glacier slowly moving down a mountain, it finally finely grades down everything that resists it. The violence of racism may look like a mountain but it is a mountain being turned into pebbles

Is anything too hard for the Lord? We have the capability to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. Somewhere today, a baby will be born. Maybe his forebears were slaves; maybe they came from Africa or Haiti or Santo Domingo. His mother will laugh, like Sarah laughed but she’ll worry, too. What will life be like for him? Somewhere today a black baby will be born and I hope and I believe that by the time he is grown, he will walk without fear, he will live out his promise without being bound by the bonds of prejudice. His life will matter because black lives matter. That isn’t a slogan; it is the word of God. When we hear it, we ought to hear it as a reminder from God and act like it. And if we do, the promise of the gospel and the promise of that life will be fulfilled. I have that hope; I hold onto that promise because nothing is too hard for the Lord.

I read this story of Abraham and Sarah and this laughter and I want to add something. I want to type something in at the end: LOL. Because this is a story of laughter, a story of how the laughter of despair became the laughter of hope. We need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need the LOL of Sarah’s moment. We need to imagine more and more than imagining, we need to simply believe this: that nothing is too hard for the Lord. We need to get up each day not full of what we are going to do but prepared, alert, ready to see, to really see, off in the distance, God approaching. We need to listen for God to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed,  our laughter will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow, echoing God’s delight.

Amen.

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21

There’s an old story about a church that called a new minister with a reputation as a fine preacher. Sure enough, on his first Sunday he gave an amazing sermon. People cried, people laughed at the funny parts, and many were deeply stirred. The members of the pulpit committee were roundly congratulated and everyone felt this was a great start. The next Sunday there were smiles as people arrived and quiet as the pastor began. Everyone was startled when his opening turned out to be exactly the same. In fact, the whole sermon was the same. Some people hadn’t been there the first week, and they thought it was a fine sermon, some said they were glad to be reminded of some of his points. But on the whole, there was a bit less reaction. There was even less the third week when he again gave the same sermon, some said word for word.

The Board of Deacons met that week and, of course, someone asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Pastor, that was a fine sermon you gave last Sunday and the Sunday before that and the first Sunday but do you have any others?” After a moment, the pastor quietly said, “I have lots of them and as soon as I see you are doing what I preached in this sermon, I’ll go on to the next.” How do we connect God’s Word to life? How does what is said turn into what is done? How does the vision of God’s way turn into every day decisions?

That’s the problem Jesus is facing in the passage from John we read. He knows his time with his friends is almost over and he’s teaching them about the time to come. How will what he has taught turn into how they live? How can his life and his message extend into their lives and the message those lives carry on? Over the years, along the way, he has built a relationship with them. They’ve seen him heal, heard him preach, watched him deal with individuals. They’ve learned to love him; felt him love them. Now that love becomes a bridge to the future. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says.

What are these commandments? Jesus isn’t Moses, he doesn’t give his followers a tablet with a nice set of bulleted commandments, he doesn’t hand them an operator’s manual. Yet according to the gospel writers, he does explicitly command some things. First and foremost, love God with your whole self and then as well, love your neighbor. Forgive endlessly. And there is the implicit command of his practice, the way he includes people his culture calls sinners, women, poor people, rich people, everyone, into the community of care at his table. There is the promise of abundance he preaches in the parable of the sower and by feeding the multitude and his own statement that he came to give abundant life. So we do have a set of commands and his own command is that living from these is the test of loving him.

This is what Christians often miss because we confuse Christ with culture. There is a content to Christ’s commands and we can see it, hear it, act on it. Racism is never Christian because it contradicts Christ’s inclusion of all people. Excluding people because of who they are, because they are gay or female or transgender is never Christian because it contradicts Christ’s inclusion of all people. Oppressing people for gain is never Christian because it contradicts Christ and destroys the abundance God gives. So when Christian churches and Christian people endorse and live this way, it’s a sign they don’t love Christ, they love the culture that supports such things.

What happens when we do live out his commands? The first thing to know is: you can succeed. We often speak of love as if it were an object or a hole in the  ground; we speak of ‘”falling in love” or being blindsided by love. But love can be an intention, a decision that we will, every day, deal with everyone we encounter with kindness. Love is a commitment to kindness and just as exercising changes our physical body, practicing love changes our spiritual self so that as we do it, we are transformed. We come to see it as natural, as needed. Paul says in Second Corinthians that he is compelled by the love of Christ. All Christians know this feeling: because we love Christ, we must love others, even when we don’t want to or it’s inconvenient. 

We can succeed at this. Years ago I led a weekly chapel service for preschool kids, I was struggling to figure out how to condense the theology of love into something three year olds could understand. I came up with this idea: one nice thing. So I started talking to them about doing one nice thing each day. I gave little stars for reports of a nice thing; I had them chant it with me: ‘”One nice thing! One nice thing!”

It probably sounds silly and simplistic. But a few months after I started the one nice thing campaign, a mother who didn’t go to church came to me and asked to talk. She said that she and her husband weren’t church people and she had been unhappy when we announced the chapel services. Her little boy liked the preschool there, though, so they kept him in class. And then she paused and said, “I hate to admit this. I don’t want to admit this. But I have to: you have made my child better.” She went on to say that suddenly he was coming to her and asking what he could do for a nice thing. He was changing. So whether you are three or 93 or somewhere in between, you can do one nice thing; you can succeed at keeping Christ’s commands. And if you try, you will.

There is another thing that will happen if you intentionally set out to keep Christ’s commands: you will fail. Maybe it’s a bad day, you didn’t sleep well, you’re growls and you’ll encounter someone who annoys you. Maybe you’re just not feeling well; maybe you’re feeling under appreciated. We all have those days. You beep at the guy in front of you who is taking two seconds too long to move after the light turns green; you say something unkind under your breath. You let your doubts dominate your thinking at a meeting.

We all fail at living out Christ’s commands. The first disciples did. One of the mysteries I’ve been thinking about most of my life is that the gospel accounts depict the first disciples as such bumblers. At the feeding of the multitude, they are worried about the budget. When Jesus announces he is the Christ, they argue with him. They fight to make a hierarchy within their ranks instead of accepting equality with Jesus. They don’t believe in his resurrection; they run away when he’s arrested. They fail.

It is when we fail that we discover the importance of forgiveness. And it’s when we experience forgiveness that we begin to give it. Forgiveness is the key, according to Jesus, and it’s endless. “How many times must I forgive?” The disciples ask. Endlessly, Jesus answers. And he demonstrates this. When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies him three times; what’s worse is that Jesus had predicted as much. Think about the shame he must have felt when he met Jesus after the resurrection. Yet what does Jesus say? “Feed my sheep”. Jesus forgives him, embraces him, sends him on a mission. He means to do the same with you, and with me.

When I was teaching Sociology, we spent a lot of time on the concept of norms. Norms are simply the invisible rules which guide our behavior moment to moment. Go into a room with a table and chairs, you know to sit on the chair. That’s normal here. Two thirds of the world doesn’t use chairs but here we do. It’s normal. We have rules for all kinds of things. Now what I love about this church most of all is that love is normal, inclusion is normal. A young woman who doesn’t speak English shows up at the door on a snowy night; what’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to take her in, spend endless hours figuring out how to talk to her, feed her, help her.

A young man shows up one Sunday, a college student, who tells us he’s headed for the ministry. What’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to embrace him. People drive him to church every Sunday; we give him a chance to try out his preaching. We celebrate his graduation. This is from a letter I received from Bryan’s mother about the impact of this normal love.
Thank you so much for all that you and the entire Albany congregation have done for Bryan during his three years at Sienna. Your love, support and and caring have ben overwhelming.

This weekend that saame young man graduated from seminary. He’s taking the blessing and love of this congregation and others with him and who knows how many it will touch? What I love about this church is that love is normal here.

We’re in a difficult moment. Each week I call people just to check in, to say, “How are you doing?” This week I sensed a rising tide of people who said the same thing, that they were so tired of staying in where unmistakeable. I feel it too. I know I look forward to when we gather again here, in this space.

But whether we gather here or in our homes, we can still live from the commands of Christ. Sometimes Jesus’ first disciples failed; sometimes they succeeded. But they gave the world this wonderful gift: his vision of love made normal. And in that gift, they found a spirit. As Jesus said, they weren’t alone and they discovered that in that Spirit, miracles were possible. Making love normal always does this: it always draws the Spirit and incubates miracles.

I hope this week you feel that Spirit. I hope it moves you to prayer, I hope it moves you to wonder, I hope it moves you to act out the commands of Christ. I hope you see not just what’s here but what’s coming here, see the impact of normal love, see the vision of Christ. For wherever we go, we will be on the right path when we go where Christ compels us, where Christ leads us, where Christ’s love becomes our gift to the world for whom Christ gave his life.

Amen.

Where Are You Staying?

Where Are You Staying?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Easter/A • May 10, 2020

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5,15-16John 14:1-10

I suspect one of the little noticed casualties of the pause is the name tag. You know these: they say, “Hello” in big letters and you print your name on it so people will know who you are. At church meetings, they always make me wonder: should I put the ‘Reverend’ in front? James or Jim? What about the church name? These are bits of information that help say who I am. We all assemble a picture of a person from different aspects.

Sometimes something new surprises us. One day one of our members dropped in at the church office. I was wearing jeans and it threw her; she was used to seeing me in a robe on Sunday. “I never knew you wore jeans,” she said. Like a picture puzzle, we know someone from the things we learn about them. Now today, in the lesson from the Gospel of John, Jesus is giving his followers—the ones right there and us as well—the pictures we need to understand who he is.

The lesson is set during the last supper. Jesus has washed his followers’ feet and given them the signature command for his followers: “love one another.” The shadows are gathering; it’s Maundy Thursday. We’ve been told his spirit is troubled and perhaps his friends are as well because he begins, “Let not your heart be troubled” But they are troubled. Their journey with Jesus always potted toward Jerusalem.. Now they’ve arrived but darkness is closing in and they must have wondered, “What now?” They’re about to face the great problem all Christians face: how do we stay with Jesus no matter what the world dishes out?

He begins by telling them that in his Father’s house there are many dwellings. I know many of us grew up hearing, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” But that Seventeenh Century phrase doesn’t accurately represent what John says because today ‘mansion’ means a big, palatial house for one family. ‘Mansion’ originally meant any dwelling, a house or a hotel along a road, not an especially ornate, expensive place. What Jesus wants us to imagine is something like a condominium, a home with many places arranged around a courtyard. I know that may give you a sense of loss. The first time Jacquelyn heard me explain this, she said, “Hey, I thought I was getting a mansion and now you tell me it’s just a condo?”

But I want you to understand what Jesus is really saying here. The dwelling places he’s talking about aren’t separate; it’s not a spiritual subdivision. This is a community and the very togetherness is part of what he means to say. Jesus begins from an intimate togetherness with the Father and now he’s telling his friends he intends to include them in the community, give them a place in the community, with him and with the Father. He goes on to say: “…if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am, there you will be also.” [John 14:3] Jesus is giving his friends—Jesus is giving us—instructions on how to stay with him and it begins with believing he’s going to make a home for us.

This home is crucial to our faith life because it’s how we stay with Jesus and it’s how we hold fast to our journey with him. As we heard, Psalm 31 says,

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

Don’t we all need a refuge sometimes? Remember building a fort when you were a kid?—piling up pillow or chairs or boxes to make a castle and hiding inside? We build refuges as adults out of bits and pieces the same way. Sometimes it’s our possessions, sometimes it’s a house or job or sometimes it’s simply working to make sure we are in control.

But all those refuges eventually fail, just like our pillow forts came tumbling down. One of the reasons people are so stressed today is that our home built, self-built refuges are falling apart. When our refuge falls apart, it’s scary. But Jesus is offering a permanent refuge, a permanent place with him. As he said, his mission now is to prepare a place for us. The two questions in the text are questions we ask as well. “How do we get there?” and, “What’s the Father like?”

Thomas is blunt. Jesus says, “You know the place where I am going”; Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going.” How do we get to this dwelling with Jesus and the Father? How do we find the refuge? Have you ever stopped for directions and gotten something that didn’t help? Jesus is going and Thomas wants to come along—he wants directions. And what Jesus says is simply: “I am the way.” Last week we heard him say, “I am the gate—the way in”, and “I am the good shepherd”. Just like assembling the pieces of a picture puzzle I mentioned earlier, these “I am” statements show us Jesus’ identity. They are the clues staying with Jesus.

By saying, “I am the way,” Jesus is saying that living like him is the way to dwelling with the Father and him. That’s why it’s so important to read the gospels. They tell us the story of his life, they give us the pieces to help us understand who he is. When we do that, what we find at the center is a man with an unstoppable love that always embraces, always heals, always helps. He tells us directly how to know if we’re on the right track. Just before this reading, he’s said, “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another…” So walking the way of Jesus is determining to make love the persistent, every day energy of your life.

Now when someone says, “I love you,” a good question to ask is, “As evidenced by what?” When we talk about loving someone, many of the details cluster around what some call appreciation. That means, making a conscious, dedicated effort to consider each other person as a gift from God and to praise God for that person. It can begin with a simple prayer of thanks for someone. “Thank you, God, for Jacquelyn,” is something I pray every day. I like to name the people here in our congregation consciously in my prayers with the same prayer; I thank God for each of you.

It measures me and it will measure you. It’s hard to thank God for someone if you’re angry with them; at the same time, it can help you remember why you’re friends or partners in the first place. It can connect us. Try it out in the prayer time in a few minutes. When we’re silent, think of someone in the congregation or someone you know and simply consciously in your mind picture them and thank God for them.

This isn’t going to solve all problems. But it’s a step and it’s a step along the way with Jesus. It’s a step that helps keep us connected with him by connecting with each other. If you keep up with this prayer, if you keep up walking along the way toward Jesus, he will walk with you. And you’ll know what he teaches Philip.

Remember Philip?—Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father. It’s like saying, “Hey, this is all fine but just give me the GPS coordinates for God.” Jesus simply says that if he doesn’t know the Father is in Jesus, he doesn’t know Jesus. This is what it means to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It was the great celebration of an early community that yes, they had discovered how to stay with Jesus, yes, they had discovered how to find the Father, yes, they had found the refuge of faith, the truth . Professor Gail O’Day said about this passage,

Jesus doesn’t say “no one comes to God except through me” but no one comes to the Father except through me.” God is not a generic deity but the Father recognized in the life of Jesus. [John] is not concerned with the fate… of Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity… These verses are a confession a celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation. [New Interpreters Bible, p. 745]

We can have that same joy when we make our refuge a dwelling place in the Father’s house with Jesus.

So the question for us is, “Where are you staying?” Are you staying in a fort you’ve built that will never survive the winds of the world?—or are you staying with Jesus in the place prepared for you, walking the way of Jesus and seeing the Father in him? That’s our hope; that’s our reason for being together.

Our church’s purpose statement says that our purpose

…is to celebrate God’s love and to build a vibrant and vital church through worship, fellowship, education, service and outreach in an inclusive and diverse community,

Just like the church of John’s gospel, we are meant to be a people walking the way of Jesus by connecting and loving others, appreciating others, hoping with others. That is the way to dwelling with God. That is the true refuge that has sustained Christians just like us in every time and place, in every condition, regardless of the storms and disasters.

That can be your refuge; I know it is mine. Where are you staying? Come stay in the dwelling place Jesus prepared for you, for me, for all of us, come stay with God.

Amen

Green Pastures

Green_Pastures

A_Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany_NY

by Rev James Eaton_Pastor – © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Fourth Sunday in Easter • May 3, 2020

Acts 2:42-47 – Psalm23John 10:1-10

We’ve all had about a month or so on pause here in New York. What are you doing with the time? One of our long time members posts accounts of her day most days. There is a poetic valuing of the ordinary there that often makes me smile. One thing I’ve been doing is watching videos online and I’ve stumbled across videos of guys—and they are all guys so far—making plastic models. Did you do this when you were a kid? A lot of our childhood play involves modeling, whether it’s building them, or dressing up or playing with dolls. Even as adults, we look to models. A woman who decides to change her hair will look through a book of hairstyles. So a good question to ask is, “What is our spiritual model?” What do we want to look like, what do we want to show in our daily life?

Today we read a portion of the gospel of John with a famous verse we’ve all heard: Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” Now the word that’s translated ‘good’ in this passage means more than just what we mean by good. It really means: “I am the ideal shepherd”, a way of saying, in effect, I am the model shepherd. Jesus hopes to be our model and he models life in his way with his disciples.

Israel had a long history with shepherds. Abraham was a herdsman so right from the beginning, God’s people had this picture in front of them of a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Sheep aren’t raised in towns, they are raised up on the arid, rocky hillsides. In ancient times, wilderness places were full of dangers: lions, wolves, and the simple possibility of falling down and injuring yourself. Add to that the bandits who frequently roamed and you can see that being a shepherd was difficult and dangerous.

So when Jesus says, “I am the model shepherd,” he’s invoking an image that has meaning for those listening. It’s as if someone said, “I am the model cowboy”. The meanings cluster around three things. First, a shepherd and the sheep have a relationship of mutual care. The shepherd is sustained by the sheep; the sheep are nurtured and protected by the shepherd. We see these images in the what has become perhaps the most famous psalm in o ur Bible, Psalm 23. Now I know as soon as you heard this, you recognized it and may have thought, “Oh! Funeral psalm.” But it’s only recently and in our culture that the psalm became associated with funerals. It began as a song of praise.

Right from the start, the psalm establishes the singer’s relationship: “The Lord is my shepherd”, and immediately he follows that with praise for the shepherd’s fulfillment: “I shall not want” is to say that the shepherd is the source of everything the singer needs. He does this, according to the psalm, by leading to green pastures. Now I grew up where there are lawns, every house had a pasture. That, after all, is how lawns began: a bit of pasture set aside for beauty. I’ve been around cow pastures, too, and maybe you have. So what we often imagine when it comes to green pastures is that sort of expanse of grass, green, flourishing, lush.

But that’s not where sheep grazed in Israel. They were moved to high, dry, rocky slopes. On those slopes, bits of grass grow mostly around rocks because the rocks condense water out of the breeze of the Mediterranean Sea. Grass grows in the crevices and sheep feed by going from one rock to another, eating what’s there, moving on to the next. That’s the job of the shepherd: to keep them moving. The green pastures are nothing like a lawn; they are a place where you can continue to find what you need but only if you keep moving. That’s part of the shepherd’s job: to keep the sheep moving.

The other part is to keep them safe. What does safety mean? Jesus teaches that our enemy isn’t death, it is the fear of death. The psalm takes this on too. “Even in the darkest valley,” he says—more poetically but less accurately, “the shadow of death”—I will fear no evil.

The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t have to worry about where we will get what we need—he will provide it. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t need to worry about the darkness of evil—he’ protecting us. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, is there so we don’t have to fear anything at all.

Jesus is the good shepherd and this is the psalm of the shepherd, a psalm we need to hear. Because this is a time when our lives are being bounded by fear. One way people are dealing with it is to deny it. The people gathered in groups on the beach in Florida yesterday, opened because of the fear of politicians, believe they can ignore a virus. The people who assaulted the capitol of Michigan with automatic weapons this week believe they can assault a virus. They’re fearful people, acting out of fear.

But the good shepherd, the model shepherd, has a different way. His way is to seek a fearless life by following him, moving at his command, living in his model. That’s what’s going on in the section we heard from Acts today. Written about 50 years later, the church is looking back to an earlier, ideal time for a model. We know that conflict existed in Christian congregations from the beginning. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are all about church fights. But here the church is looking back and remembering a different a model, a model of a church where they are all together and mutually sustain each other so that no one lacks anything. They’re looking back to a time when the church was closer to the model of the good shepherd.

So we have this model: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, we are the flock. How do we use it to help us construct our lives day to day? Because we are in different places, different situations. One writer said,>

I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.Your ship could be shipwrecked, and mine might not be. For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflections, of re-connection, easy in flip-flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial and family crisis. For some that live alone, they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest, and time with their mother, father, sons and daughters. Others want to kill those who break quarantine. Some are at home spending two to three hours a day, helping their child with online schooling, while others are doing the same on top of a 10–12 hour workday. Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe this is a big deal. We are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different. Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing. We are all on different ships during this storm, experiencing a very different journey. — Unknown Author

We are in the same storm but in different boats.
But if we are in the same storm, we also have the same model to turn to, a single point of reference for how we should act, how we should live, how we should believe. It’s simple: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd. So each day, every day, a good way to begin, a good way to end, is with the shepherd prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

We are in the same storm, but in different boats. But we all seek the same harbor, we all seek the green pasture that will sustain us, we all seek safety. So in this time, in this storm, let us build lives modeled not on some common sense or made up idea but rather on the model of the good shepherd, who comes to give us life abundantly.

Amen.

Break Thou the Bread of Life

Break Thou the Bread of Life

A sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Third Sunday in Easter/A • April 26, 2020

Luke 24:13-25

Watch the Sermon on Youtube

A man is traveling, all alone. He happens to be walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus but he could be traveling anywhere, any time. He could be a poor man in a bus terminal: hard seats, harsh lights and a scratchy PA system. Over there, a family is rapidly speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. Down the row, an old man is staring straight ahead. Loud, angry music and choking bus exhaust come in every time the door opens and a woman is arguing over the price of a ticket to Omaha with the agent. He could be a rich man waiting in an airport terminal, sitting at a bar with a drink he isn’t really drinking in front of him. Perhaps his shirt collar is irritating his neck and as he tries to adjust it he thinks he really needs to lose a little weight. Maybe he’s lost in thought about a meeting later in the day or maybe he’s thinking that he wished he had something sweet like he meant to his wife instead of just “See you Thursday I think” when he left this morning.

A man is traveling, all alone. And on the way he bumps against two people ahead of him. You know how this happens? Traveling down the grocery store aisle, a small old woman stops and you realize she needs help reaching something on a high shelf. Maybe you’re standing in a line and just to pass the time you smile at a child’s antics or talk to a stranger.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he comes upon two other men traveling; he walks into a conversation. They’re discussing the news over the weekend, arguing about the meaning of the death of Jesus. They don’t know the man traveling alone but as strangers on the same trajectory do, they include him in the conversation. He’s trying to catch the sense of it and he asks them what they’re discussing.

Now there are two sorts of people in the world: those who keep up with the news and those who don’t. Newsy people turn on CNN when they come home, newsy people watch six o’clock and the eleven o’clock news both and read the paper. Newsy people are always amazed when they run into the other sort. They are newsy guys so when he asks, they answer with some combination of smugness and incredulity, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in Jerusalem this weekend?”. He doesn’t so they fill him in, they explain that Jesus of Nazareth was a mighty prophet who was put to death over the weekend by the power structure.

Sharing Together

They tell him their hopes: that he would redeem Israel. I imagine they tell him their fear as well, at least their eyes tell him, and the fact that they’re putting as much distance between themselves and Jerusalem as they can. They fear that the same thing could happen to them, of course, but perhaps even more, they fear that the death of Jesus is the death of hope. They tell him about the women who found an empty tomb. But their steps speak too and tell him that though they once believed Jesus, they have used up their hope and don’t have any left for this strange report from the women at the tomb. After all, they are on their way away from Jerusalem.

The stranger holds up his end of the conversation. Perhaps to their amazement, once he’s got the gist of it, he has a lot to say. He tells them they’re foolish and he speaks about their faint hearts, the same faint hearts that have set them on the path out of Jerusalem, off to Emmaus. It turns out that he may not know much about the news but he has a lot to say about Moses and the other prophets.

God’s Powerful Love

What does he tell them? No one knows, exactly. But I think he must have told them this: God’s love is so wonderful, so powerful, so unlimited, it can’t be stopped by the City Council any more than the tide. That’s what you get when you start reading Moses and the prophets: over and over again they tell the story of how God loved and loved beyond loving, even when God’s people were faithless and mean and small spirited. There’s Moses wailing about the whining of the people, and God calmly ordering up manna and quail; there’s Hosea talking about the sins of the people and God using the tender language of mother love to ask, “How can I give you up?” There’s Isaiah promising a new covenant and Jeremiah proclaiming a new day. There’s Jonah sitting on a hill side smug and waiting for God to blast a bunch of Gentile Ninevites and complaining because when God has mercy and grants a stay of execution.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he talks to two other men who are also lonely, because fear is a lonely business. We hope together but we’re each frightened in our own way. All day long they talk about Jesus and the prophets and things that Jesus did and said and Moses and the love of God until it’s getting near sunset. Now the roads out of Jerusalem are dangerous after dark and so, though the man who is traveling all alone doesn’t have a reservation, the two he’s met ask him to stay with them, tell him don’t worry, we’ll get the motel to set up a trundle bed or something, just stay with us, walk with us tomorrow.

That evening after they freshen up they all get together for supper. A simple meal: some bread, some wine. They’ve been talking about Jesus all day and I suppose that they must have told the man who is traveling all alone about how Jesus would invite strangers and the lonely to his table, how he would bless the bread and break it, how he would give thanks and pour everyone some wine. And suddenly as the man who was traveling all alone is doing just these very things their eyes are opened and they see something they’ve missed all day long: Jesus is risen; Jesus has been with them all along.

Who Is The Man?

Now you listened carefully, I’m sure, to the story when I read it, so you knew it was Jesus all along. We all snicker a little at these silly people. We want to yell when they are talking on the road, “Hey, don’t you know you’re talking to Jesus?”. Some of us are thinking: “Idiots!”. Every year in Bible class someone asks, “Why don’t they recognize him? Did he look different?” I suppose death does change a person.

But that’s not why they don’t recognize him. I’m not at all certain that the man on the road with them has the earthly form of Jesus.

I think the real clue to this text is back where Jesus tells the story of people on Judgment Day. Remember them? He gathers a group of folks and says about the kingdom: “You’re in! When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was imprisoned you visited me!” and they look at each other in amazement and say, “When did we see you in such a bad way, Lord?” He answers, “When you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

They didn’t recognize Jesus; they simply acted as Jesus would have acted, they acted as love instructed them to act. And the same is true here. These men have experienced the Risen Christ by welcoming someone, by feeding him, by sharing the cup of the new covenant with him. The man traveling all alone disappears; he becomes a part of a community. Together, they have learned to embrace new selves. Together, they have become the Body of Christ because they recognized Christ in their midst: in each other. “Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me,” we sing; we forget that in the process, we’re meant to recognize Jesus present.

Now, I used to think this meant social action—give out food, clothes, fuel, get the government to do the same. I still think those are good things to do. But I’ve come to believe there is something deeper, something more wonderful. We can give stuff out to strangers but what God really hopes is that we will become a blessing to the people where we are, that we will do what God does, which is to make up little communities of care.

Communities of Care

That seems to be how God works. When God set out to save the world, for example, God did not create a new program, offer a policy proposal or hold an election, God went and whispered to Abram: “Come be a blessing”. When God gets to the next act and decides to come into the world, there’s no processional, no entourage and no advance at all, just a baby and a family. And even when Jesus is on the cross, he can’t help making one more family; among his last words, he turns to his mom and says, “Here’s your son”, to a disciple and says, “Treat her like your mother.”

Yes: even on the cross Jesus was making connections. That’s what happens in this story: strangers meet, share a conversation and then communion and discover he’s present and they are connected after all. So a bit of social action will not, I think, fulfill his hope for us. What he really hopes is that we will discover him in our midst, in each other. And, that by coming together, we will come to him. Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies,

When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home—that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, “You come back now.”

That’s what the resurrection means to me. The resurrection is what happens when we see Jesus walking, talking and realize he’s right next to us. The resurrection happens when we take care of each other the way we would take care of him. The resurrection happens when we recognize Jesus.

Now, you can’t get this on your own schedule and you can’t get it being a consumer. I mean: if you come to church the way you go to the grocery store, picking things off the shelves and then figuring you did your bit if you pay. It’s not hard to feel sorry for strangers but it’s very difficult to see Jesus in the people nearby because they are so annoying. They fail in the same way over and over. They don’t take good advice. They don’t follow directions. It’s so easy to see how wrong they are and it’s satisfying in a way too, until somebody brings up that darn proverb of Jesus about being able to see the flyspeck in your brother’s eye but not the log in your own.

Fixed for Blessing

But there’s a reason we are here together and the reason is to get fixed up so we can be the kind of people God hoped we’d become. We don’t start out that way and along the way, we tend to wander off the path and find all kinds of ways to avoid our true identity. I’m not going to catalog all the ways we go bad because the ones that don’t affect you personally would just make you smug and the ones that did would make you mad that I’d mentioned them. The important point isn’t that we make mistakes, it’s that when we do, God is right there trying to clean up the mess and put us back together.

That’s in this story too. Remember where the guys are going when the stranger first meets them? They’re walking away from Jerusalem; they are, from the standpoint of Christians, going the wrong way. But what does Jesus do? He walks with them. He goes the wrong way in order to bring them around. He hangs in there, hangs out, until they figure it out. He’s willing to go the wrong way round, to get to the right place.

What about us? Where’s Jesus here? Look around: take a very good look. Because the whole thrust of this story is that he is right here, waiting to be discovered. He will be discovered when we take up our vocation to care the way he does. A playwright once said, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. God’s grace is glue.”

If we take up the vocation of mending each other’s hopes and lives, comforting each other’s fears and hurts, I believe we will see Jesus, I believe we will see him right here and it won’t matter that we went the wrong way round because where he is will be our home and our heaven. It’s just what he said: “Lo, I am with you always.”

Amen.

Locked Down Hope

Locked Down Hope

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 19, 2020

John 19:20-31

Do you remember the story of the Three Pigs? It seems like a fable for this time. Three pigs go off to seek their fortune and build houses. Not long after, a hungry wolf comes by and blows down the house of the first and then the second. The pigs run to their brother who has built out of brick and hide, safe for the moment. When the wolf fails to blow down the house, he comes down the chimney but falls into a pot of boiling water the thoughtful third pig has placed in the fire. Three pigs locked down, scared of a wolf: it seems an appropriate image of where we are today, hoping that if the wolf does come down the chimney, scientists will have discovered a vaccine, a pot of boiling water, to stop the virus threatening us. It also mirror the situation of the disciples in the portion of John’s gospel we read today. Just like the pigs, just like us, they’re locked down, hoping the closed door can keep the danger outside.

I know you can imagine them but we’re in the same place these days. They’re afraid the same authorities who killed Jesus will come after them. With us, the fear is that somehow someone will cough or sneeze or simply breathe and an invisible enemy will invade us, sicken us. I don’t know about you but we have several friends who are sick. It gives all of us a lurking anxiety: “Am I next?” Like the disciples, we heard about the resurrection, but has it really changed us? They’ve heard the same report we did. A few women have come back raving about an experience at the tomb, claiming to have seen an angel, claiming to have seen Jesus alive. Clearly they don’t believe them. Do we?

So we should pay particular attention to this story today. John sets it in the evening. The disciples are locked in. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” [John 20:19b] That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Then something amazing happens. Jesus appears to them, coming through the door as if wasn’t there. Locked doors can’t keep Jesus out. “He stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” [John 20:19c], the common, customary greeting, the “hey there”, the “sup”, the “hello” of his time. It’s as if he’s just been out on an errand, as if the terrible days of arrest and trial and crucifixion and tomb never happened. “Hiya”: I’m here. The disciples make sure it’s really him and then they rejoice.

I think, for me, that would have been enough. Would it for you? Think: you’re grieving and suddenly you don’t have to grieve. You’re crying and suddenly you don’t have to cry. You’re angry and suddenly you don’t have to be angry. I think for me, I would have been happy to just stay in that moment of recognition. I would have wanted to get out the leftovers from the funeral dinner, I would have wanted to just celebrate and stay there and stay happy and feel glorious and not ask too many questions. What about you?

But Jesus isn’t staying there. He never does. Last week we heard Matthew’s version of more or less the same story and if you listened to that you may remember the first thing he said to the women who found him alive after “Don’t be afraid” was go. It’s pretty much the same here; it always is with Jesus. He’s got a mission and it’s why he’s there. It’s why he gathered them; it’s why he calls us. So in the next moment, before there’s even time to serve, much less eat, any cake, he says,

As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. [John 20:21-23]

He’s handing out the Holy Spirit like peeps on Easter: just like that. You know, if it was us, we’d have a procedure, we’d have a form to fill out, we’d have a disclosure agreement to sign. Not Jesus: no one has to be interviewed by the Board of Deacons to get the Holy Spirit, no one has to agree to pledge or volunteer, just like that: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. And then: your mission is to forgive sins.

There’s a lot of talk right now about starting up the country. I think most of us are getting tired of being home, tired of the same walls, tired of the inconveniences of life. Of course, the people who are sick and the ones dying and the ones grieving aren’t tired of it. They’re too busy suffering to worry about the economy. Dr. Oz cheerfully said we could sacrifice two or three percent of our children to get back to making money. The lieutenant governor of Texas said we can sacrifice grandparents. I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, I’m not sure any of those families who were crying thought it would be ok to sacrifice someone they loved. It’s wrong and it’s not the approach Christians take. We believe everyone is a child of God.

So we’re talking about starting up. But Jesus has something much more fundamental in mind: he’s talking about restarting our lives. That’s what forgiveness really means, it means recovering your life. Guilt and shame are like a terrible tomb in which we bury parts of ourselves and when we truly know ourselves forgiven, we come out of that grave like Lazarus. It’s the same for us when we forgive, because holding onto anger and resentment sucks up our energy, saps our lives, and when we forgive, we have that energy, we have that life again. Jesus comes to give life: this is one way he means to give it and we are the instruments he’s using. That’s what the part about “retaining the sins of any” really means; it means if we don’t do this, furtiveness doesn’t happen. What we do makes a difference. What he means for us to do is nurture joy by practicing forgiveness.

This time is a unique moment we’ve been given. Locked down, we have the space in our lives to listen. It’s hard to listen today. We’re so plugged into our mental to do lists, our devices, our contact inputs that we usually don’t have real quiet time. One writer said,

Noise is an inevitable aspect of civilization…Stores and restaurants pip in background music, the ceaseless rumble of traffic reverberates…Our cell phones regularly startle us with insistent bleeping and the prattle of television shoves our thoughts into oblivion.
[Rebeccas Burg, Sail With Me: Two People, Two Boars, One Adventure]

The lockdown time is offering a cure, if we will take it. Most of the errands that fill our lives are waiting. We’re no longer in the stores she mentions and the traffic is less.
Glennon Doyle talks about learning to listen. Going through a difficult time, a friend sent her a card that said, “Be still and know.” [Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” So after her kids went to school, she sat down on a towel in a closet and tried to be still. She says,

I checked my phone every few moments, planned my grocery lists and mentally redecorated my living room..” [Glenon Doyle, Untamed, p. 56]

But she kept at it: ten minutes a day. Eventually, she felt herself slip down into the silence.

Since the chaos stills in this deep, I could sense something that I was not able to sense on the surface. It was like that quiet chamber in Denmark…where people can actually hear and feel their own blood circulating. ..It was a knowing. [ibid]
She learned to listen and the listening helped her know herself as a child of God.

Are you listening? It doesn’t happen in a moment; it takes a little faith, it takes a little patience, it takes some courage to be quiet. But if we are quiet, when we are quiet, then truly we hear the spirit in the breeze of our soul. “Receive the Spirit,” Jesus says. He means you; he means me. What is the purpose? So that forgiveness can spread. It starts with us, it starts with forgiving ourselves. When we listen for God, what we will first hear is this: “Don’t be afraid.” I know this because it’s what every single angel says first thing. Every time God sends someone, that’s the message. When Jesus is raised, the first thing he says is, “Don’t be afraid.” We don’t have to be afraid because when we truly listen, we hear God loving us. We hear we are children of God.

So there’s a great hope for this time. We started out locked down because we were afraid, afraid of a virus, afraid a disease was going to overwhelm all our technology, all our noise, all our smarts. It still may. But there is hope in this locked down time, great hope. It is an opportunity to go into your closet and be still; it’s a chance to be silent and know. That’s the whole verse from the card Doyle’s friend sent: ““Be still, and know that I am God!”

When we hear God, when we know God, then we can hope. Then the lockdown is something we’re doing not in fear but as a gift, a way to help others. Then it’s passing on the hope and help of God. Yes, Lord, I’m willing to change how my life is lived because I know just as I’m a child of God, so are all the others. That’s locked down hope
I hope you will find a way to be silent this week. I hope you will find a way to see the hope beyond the fear. I hope you will be still and know and in the knowing, receive the spirit Jesus means to give, a spirit of love, a spirit of forgiveness.

Amen.

Christmas Eve Meditation 2017

Christmas Eve Meditation

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Christmas Eve/B • December 24, 2017

Most of the last 45 years, I have stood before a church, as I do tonight, as a pastor, often in a preaching robe, to lead in prayer and listening to God’s Word. It’s so common that some new members in our church who came to see me one weekday when I was wearing regular clothes remarked on it: “We’re not used to seeing you like this.” I assured them that I was the same person. But my first appearance before a church took place long before the robe and stole, when I was selected to play the little angel in a Christmas Pageant called, The Littlest Angel. Perhaps you know this story and if you do, you know that this angel has two characteristics: he’s little and he’s not very well behaved. I qualified on both points.

When we read the Christmas story, it’s striking to see how much of it concerns little things. It takes place in Bethlehem, a place the prophet Micah described as “..one of the little clans of Judah”. It’s main characters are small as well. Joseph is a tool maker forced to make a journey at the worst time of all. Can you imagine how worried and harried he is, helping his pregnant wife to travel, trying to find space for them to stay? Then there is Mary herself, a teenager who enters the story as an unwed mother, a woman in a culture that is overwhelmingly patriarchal, young in a culture that favors age, about to give birth in a time and place where birthing is a very dangerous business.

Mary defines small in the story. So does her reaction to all this. Faced with an angelic visitor, she summons the courage to say,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
And she goes on to remember all the other small ones.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

Listen: because this ought to scare us just a bit. It ought to make us ask, “Are we the proud ones? Are we the enthroned powerful?” Because Mary is speaking for God here and the message is—I love the little.

This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about the smallest present of all, a baby, the birth of Jesus. Have you seen a newborn? Can you remember how small she was, how tiny and perfect his fingers were, how small and helpless the little person was? Think of Jesus that way: think of him as small and vulnerable. And then remember: so are we before God.

This is Christmas Eve: and it’s all about little things. I don’t remember anything about playing the Littlest Angel—my mother never tired of reminding me that I had embarrassed her by yawning widely in front of the whole church during the singing—but I know the story and I know how it ends: it ends when the littlest angel brings little things to the baby.

…a butterfly with golden wings, captured one bright summer day on the hills above Jerusalem, and a sky-blue egg from a bird’s nets in the olive tree that stood to shade his mother’s kitchen door. Yet, and two white stones found on a muddy river bank, where he and his friends had played like small, brown beavers, and at the bottom the box, a limp, tooth-marked leather strap, once worn as a collar by his mongrel dog, who had died as he had lived, in absolute love and infinite devotion.

And out of those, out of those little things, he summons this: the laughter of God. And in the story at least, it is the box of the littlest angel’s gifts that becomes the star over the stable where the Song of God is born, where the love of God begins again, as it does every day.

This is Christmas Eve: with the little things of Christmas, let us also summon the laughter of God who indeed, does great things, and gives the greatest of things: the gift of love.

Amen