The Garden of Advent 2:
Planting Peace

The Garden of Advent 2:
Planting Peace

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Second Sunday in Advent/B • December 10, 2017

Many of you know I love sailing. I grew up reading sailing magazines that always featured beautiful boats and tanned, short-haired, smiling men who were clean cut and had great sunglasses. Last summer, I went sailing for five days on my own, At the end, I was exhausted, tanned, hadn’t eaten much in a couple of days and hadn’t shaved in a week. My hair was dirty and grey and wild and I took a selfie. It was at least disappointing. I didn’t look anything like those intrepid young men in the sailing magazines with $300 sunglasses and perfect hair. So I put the two together with the heading, “What sailors think they look like…and what they really look like.” Just a joke, but one with some truth. We all have a picture in our minds of what we look like and it may not be accurate. Since we don’t really know, we all use mirrors to get a reality check. Of course, there are the ones that simply reflect light but people can be mirrors as well, they make comments, they tell us things about ourselves. Institutions need mirrors too, ways to take a real look at themselves. I’ve always thought one of the great things we learn from studying other religions is how to see our own better. So today I want to hold up Islam as a mirror to help us understand deeper the coming of God into the world.

Just as Christianity comes from a specific individual named Jesus, Islam comes from Mohammed, who was born almost about 1,500 years ago. Even as a child, he sought out a unique connection to the divine. When he was 40, he had an encounter he described as a visitation from the angel Gabriel and received a series of visions. A few years later he began to preach these. The core of this teaching was simple. To the pagan people of the time who believed in many gods, he proclaimed that Allah, God, was one, and that right action consisted simply in complete surrender to God; ‘Islam” literally means “surrender”. He said he was a prophet. This occurred in the city of Mecca and, like many prophets, Mohammed was met with resistance and hostility; soon he fled with his followers to Medina. There he organized a community and a war band that conquered his former city and within a few years spread this new faith throughout the Arabian peninsula.

The Qu’ran contains the text of the revelations that Mohammed received, summarized by this fundamental creedal statement that every Muslim proclaims: ”I testify that there is no god but God, and I testify that Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” In practice, Islam focuses on life as a struggle to conform the self to submission to God; this process is the real meaning of the word ‘jihad’. This is done through acts of mercy and charity and through a discipline of five prayers daily. Submission to Allah leads to ultimate peace and the Qu’ran spends a great deal of time detailing the difference between the fate of those who succeed at this and those who reject it. Muhammed saw and understood his connection to older sources of inspiration, calling Jews and Christians people of the book. He believed Moses, and the other prophets known through the Hebrew scriptures along with Jesus were also prophets; he saw himself as the final prophet, completing their work of revelation. In that sense, like Jesus, Mohammed is a prophet of the gospel of God and the goal of that gospel is peace.

Both Jesus and Mohammed are part of a response to the human ache to see God coming into the world. We heard another prophet, Isaiah, say,

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. [Isaiah 40:9-11]

“Here is your God”—How do we proclaim that with our lives?

Our scripture lesson today starts with this line: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It’s actually a poor translation of the original line; there is no “The” at the start, the line actually reads simply: “Beginning the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.” So we gather today and the text asks us: how will you begin the gospel?

What is gospel? It literally means ‘good news’. The term had a specific political history before Mark used it here; it’s the term that was used when the Roman armies reported battlefield victories. It’s the term the Roman Emperor Augustus used about his successes. So first, we should understand that when Mark chose these words, he was making a political statement: that good news came from God, not from the empire. Second, is making a claim with his statement: we are at the beginning, we are beginning, the good news brought by this child of God, Jesus.

One thing Islam can contribute is the series of disciplines which form the core of its practice. Consider the discipline of five prayers a day. Could we do that? Could we stop what we’re doing, five times each day, and intentionally, seriously pray, seek God’s presence? There is a force to external disciplines. Christian practice has them as well, of course, and Islam reminds us to go look in our own closet. When we do, one that we might find is the Advent Calendar. These come in so many shapes and sizes and often today they’ve been taken over by the notion of a little gift or reward each day. But the real Advent Calendar is simple: a specific list of something to do each day that will begin the gospel in your own life. It’s a list of seeds to plant in the garden of Advent.

One of those is certainly peace. We are living through a moment when the dark clouds of war threaten and it’s more important today than perhaps ever before for us to say this: Christian faith leads to peace. Today so many Christians are taking up the sword of the Crusades; one Alabama preacher talked recently about “the Christian God” as if God was not one, as if there was somehow a unique God for Christians. That’s heresy; that’s a lie.

In Deuteronomy, Moses teaches, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one”; Jesus teaches that loving God is the ultimate path and as we saw Mohammed proclaims the one-ness of God. There is no Christian God, there is no Jewish or Moslem God, there is only the one God and creator of all. And in that unity, we are called to find unity and peace, to become channels of peace in our acts, in our lives.

Last week, I talked about the symbol of the Tree of Life as a way of understanding God’s love. Mohammed is also interested in trees and one that has particular significance in his testimony is the date palm. Planting a date palm is a special act of charity in Islam, a sign of hope in the goodness of God, of submission to God’s goodness. What are the ways we are proclaiming in action the goodness of God in our lives? What trees are we planting?
We have so often focused on belief in churches; it’s time for us to focus on what we do. Today we read the story of John the Baptist and it’s important to hear in that story one word that rings out like the bell in the morning: “Repent”. Now repent means changing direction: changing behavior.. Taken with the opening of Marks’ book, it means to get ready for something new, something wonderful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not that good at new. When I start to plan a new season of worship, I often look back at what we did last time. When I come to Christmas, I expect things to be put where they were last year. I value the security of tradition. But I hear these words: repent—begin the gospel. And I know it means me. Does it mean you?
Amen.

The Garden of Advent 1: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Advent/B • December 3, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, in one of those sprawls of postwar houses that turned farms on the edge of a city into communities of families. The builders knocked down the trees but there was a little wood lot a few blocks away. I call it a little wood lot now but in those days, to small boys, it seemed an endless primeval forest where trees loomed and shadows held secrets. Later, I moved to Michigan, with its rolling hills and trees and still later to Massachusetts and then Washington, places where trees were as common as grains of sand,, part of the canvas on which lives were painted. Perhaps you also grew up where hills define a horizon and trees are scattered, so you may understand the shock of my first encounter with the desert. A few years ago, Jacquelyn and I flew to New Mexico and drove north through the great southwestern desert and I was overcome by the space and light. Flat, reddish ground spread out and neither sight nor sun were limited. Wherever you looked, the trees were small and struggling or absent. It was shocking, it was stunning, to be without towering trees and when we finally reached the forests of the Colorado mountains, I was happy to embrace them again.

All this is simply introduction, an invitation to the vision of Genesis we heard this morning. Because it may be that you also have taken trees for granted, have passed green gardens without noticing. But the people for whom Genesis was written were desert people, people more familiar with the flat, treeless wastes of wilderness where the presence of an oasis and a garden was not only remarkable but miraculous. Come listen to Genesis with their ears; come see its story with their eyes.

Genesis means origins or beginnings: it’s the story of where we come from, told with a purpose: so we will understand better where we are going. Long ago, according to Genesis, the Lord God made a misty rain fall on the desert and, as deserts do, parched and waiting forever, the desert bloomed and everything that is was created. There were flowers and fruits and bugs and bunnies and things we can hardly name. And God, wanting to share creation, made a human being, breathed in the soul of life. Then, seeing the human was lonely, God made another, and created the possibility of love, mirroring the way God loved the creation and the beings. God placed them in the garden, in a garden where the central feature was a wonderful, huge tree, the tree of life.

The Genesis story wanders off to another tree, the tree of the experience of good and evil and its choices but I want to stay with the tree of life today. Do you know about trees? Have you ever laid in the shade of a tree in the summer? Have you climbed a tree, making the branches into a ladder that becomes ever more precarious the higher you climb until someone stands at the bottom and calls, “Come down from there!” Genesis says the garden was full of things that were beautiful to look at and good to eat: trees produce both.

For eight years, I lived in a part of northern Michigan were the principle business is growing trees, cherry trees mostly. All of life revolves around those trees: when they are pruned, when they blossom, when they are sprayed, when they bear, when they are picked, how well they are doing. A cherry orchard takes about five years to reach maturity and then it bears for another five years and begins to die off. Cherry farmers pluck the trees then and burn them and plant new trees. I left that place in 1995 and it’s amazing to think that none of the orchards I used to see and enjoy both for their beauty and their fruit still exist. In 20 years, they have borne and died and been plucked and new ones planted who in turn are perhaps now being plucked.

For gardens have a rhythm and so does creation. It’s easy for us, gathered in cities, to forget this; it’s easy to imagine the monuments we have built, unlike the garden’s trees, are permanent and everlasting. Jesus’ disciples are from small, rural places, and Jerusalem is the first great city they have ever seen. They are dazzled by its towers and the shining, golden dome of the temple King Herod had recently built. Yet its narrow streets and its plazas were a simmering cauldron of conflict. Less than a decade after this gospel was written, Jerusalem was destroyed and its people scattered after a great war.

In today’s reading, Jesus has describes the terrible violence he sees coming, the destruction of this great city, the suffering of its people. He goes on to offer this image about a tree.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. [Mark 13:28-30]

We live in a rhythm of creation; we look to creation to tell us where we are, in the season of blossoms, in the time of harvest, in the season when we, like trees, seem to lose life. Yet even in that time, there is something permanent, something that can sustain our roots and it is the tree of life, which is the word of life he brings.
God creates a garden, a place: we are meant to care for it and learn to care for each other. Robert Frost says in his poem Birches,

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

If earth is the place for love to flower like a fruit tree blossoming, then indeed we should take our cue from the tree, just as Jesus said. The Shakers, one of the great spiritual communities of Christian history, were captured by the image of an arching tree. For the Shakers, the Tree of Life reminded them that we are sheltered by God’s love like a traveler pausing to sit under a tree. The Shakers believed passionately in the nearness of God, in the presence of God in moments. They knew God the way a cherry farmer knows trees: not as a distant principle but as a living presence. The United Church of Christ has a slogan that God is still speaking; the Shakers lived that reality.

Jesus invites us to something much harder than action. To act, to do something, that’s always our instinct isn’t it? Fix the problem, right the wrong, fight the good fight. But see what Jesus says at the end of this long story of violence. There is no call to take up arms in a fight, even a fight for justice. Instead, he calls us to awakened waiting. He doesn’t tell his followers to hide or choose a side; he tells them to live in the rhythm of creation. Like someone watching a fig tree get ready to blossom, he says, the collapse of the world in violence is a time for awakened waiting because God is near.

Awakened waiting means living day to day aware that we are sheltered by the tree of life. It means listening to God each day, hoping to hear God’s direction, believing that God has cared for us, will care for us but most importantly cares for us today. This is the hardest, I think. It’s easy to look back and see where we’ve been; it’s harder but still possible to chart a course forward. But now, right now, what about now? Can we live in faith right now, this day, this moment? Can we remember to appreciate how our lives are lived in the shelter of the tree of life?

This is Advent faith: to believe we live in the shelter of the tree of life, to believe we live in the arms of a loving God, to believe that even in death we are held firmly by a love that will not let us go. This is the word of life: like a tree that blossoms and then gives up its leaves, yet continues to give life, we are living in the shade of the tree of life, in the creation of the loving God. This is the season of Advent, a time when we are invited to live like the tree of life, getting ready to blossom, getting ready to wake, waiting in faith for the cry of a baby as God comes into our lives anew.

Amen.