A’int No Mountain High Enough

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Trinity Sunday/A • June 7, 2020

Genesis 1:1-2:4aMatthew 28:16-20

Climbing up the mountain children
I didn’t come here for to stay
If I never more see you again,
Gonna see you on the Judgement Day

Do you know this song? It’s in the style of a spiritual. Spirituals used religious metaphors to signal slaves and call them to take the risks of seeking freedom. It’s striking how often mountains figure in our faith tradition. Ancient people looked up and believed they were looking toward God. So to get higher was to get closer to God, draw nearer divinity. Isn’t that our hope? Isn’t that why we come to worship? Today, let’s listen to these two stories from scripture and let them help us climb the mountain toward God.

Take that long, long story that open Genesis, the book of beginnings. Did you follow it as we read it this morning? When you listen to a song, there are two parts: you listen to the lyrics and you also listen to the music. It’s the same way with this story. The words are the lyrics; the rhythm and balance is the music. It starts out with what our translation calls “the formless void”; in Hebrew, the “Tohu Bohu”, absence of anything and then—light. The light is divided—night and day. There’s a place: now it’s divided, above, below—sky and world. It’s divided: Earth and seas. On the earth, plants, in the sky lights—time and fruitfulness. In the sea, creatures of every kind, in the air, birds of every kind. On the land, animals and cattle, which is to say animals that live mutually with humanity. Finally: us—humankind, gendered and made in the image of God. What we hear if we listen more to the music than the lyrics is an amazing, ultimate ordering, a place for everything, everything in its place. 

It reminds me of being a boy in the room I shared with my brother. We had closets, desks, and some storage areas. And we had, almost always, an amazing mess of toys, dirty clothes, books, magazines, half-built plastic models and what I can only describe as “Interesting Stuff”—a special rock, some shell brought back from a beach. My mom would tell us to clean up and we would, in the way boys clean up, which is to say we’d dump stuff into the closets and push it under the bed. But every once in a while, often on a summer day, my mother, in the way of mothers who are never fooled and knew exactly what we’d done, would appear in our room and tell us that today we were going to really clean. We knew what really clean meant: everything came out from under the beds, everything came out from the closet and then, bit by bit, my mother would help us put it all away, dirty clothes to the laundry, beds made without lumps, toys and models on shelves, trash thrown out and Interesting Things examined and put into a box. She brought order and even though we whined about the process, at the end we loved it. She’d stand in the doorway, arms crossed and say, “Now that’s the way this room should be. Try to keep it this way, at least for a little while.”

That’s what this story in Genesis is about. People who want to argue about it as a scientific description of how things came to be are missing the song it means to sing. This isn’t about how things came to be, it’s about how things are meant to be, all in order: night, day, animals, cattle, human beings, ordered by a loving God, everything in its place, everything dancing together to the music of God’s order, just as a choir sings together to the music of the organ. Now there are various names for this order. When it comes to everything, we call it creation; when it comes to human beings, we call it justice. It’s where God is always trying to move us, and the pathway there is the mountain we are meant to climb.

We have to climb it because, just like my brother and I, on the whole we are messy children. We are meant to be caretakers of creation; we wander off and become consumers instead. We are meant to live in the equality of mutually, equally being made in the image of God, recognizing that image in each other. Instead, we create hierarchies, we compete to be better than others and, in our pride, we use our strength to create systems that oppress some and benefit others. Hierarchy always involves coercion and coercion is violence. Violence disorders the balance, the order, God created and like the pressure under a volcano, it gets stored up until finally the coerced erupt against it.

That’s what’s going on right now. The violence of American racism has built up to a breaking point. What’s stunning isn’t that a black man was killed by a policeman kneeling on his neck, it’s that the police officer assumed he could get away with it. What’s stunning is that this wasn’t isolated but part of a a pattern that went on before and after and continues. What’s different today, this week, isn’t the violence of oppression, it is the reaction against it. The volcano has erupted but the eruption was a long time coming and it won’t be solved by better containment. No matter how many demonstrators are beaten, no matter how many people are tear gassed, no matter how many soldiers are deployed, there won’t be peace until there is justice. 

A long time ago, when May was small, she had a problem and needed to help. She seriously and carefully explained the problem and then came to what she wanted and said, “That’s where you come in.” Clearly today we need someone to stand, like a mother at the doorway of a messy room, to clean things up. And that’s where you come in. Yes: we are meant to be part of the solution to putting things back in order. Just like my mother, God has a plan and the plan is in the other story we read this morning. It begins with God seeing the disorder of the world and coming to us, like my mother coming into the room. The signature act of God in Jesus is resurrection. Resurrection is God transcending violence. The cross is all the world’s violence, all the police on someone’s neck, all the politicians refusing to help the needy and helping friends get the benefits of God’s creation. The cross is domination; the resurrection is the solution.

The other story we read today pictures Jesus with his disciples on a mountain. “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” [Matthew 28:16]. Jesus tells them to do three things: make disciples, baptize, teach his commandments. Those commandments start with the power of forgiveness and what is forgiveness? It’s the intentional act of saying, “Let’s start new.” It’s the do-over after a missed opportunity, it’s the refusal to store up grievance and let it become resentment. Baptism is the symbol of this, the symbolic washing that gets rid of the dirt of the past. His ultimate command is love, loving the image of God where ever it’s found, whether in God or in God’s image, the person you meet, the person you haven’t met. To make disciples simply means to help someone else start to live this way, usually because they’ve been inspired by the example you set.

This is a disordered moment. The regular rhythms of life are off because of the pandemic and the measures we are all taking to defend against it. We can’t choose whether to live in a time of pandemic; we can choose how we live. We can understand that wearing a mask is a way of saying to others, to strangers in a store, “I care about you—you’re a child of God, I’m keeping you safe, honoring your health.” We can’t choose whether we live in a racist culture but we can choose how we live in it. We can use our politics, our money, our social media, our lives to say, to others, “I care about you—you’re a child of God, I’m going to do what I can to keep you safe.” That’s being a disciple; that’s teaching Jesus way of love by example.

Somewhere, someone is rolling their eyes at this, I’m sure. Somewhere, someone is thinking it will never work. I imagine some days my mother stood in the doorway and thought, “How will they ever clean this up?” Jesus started with 12 disciples; here he is, just a short time later, and already he’s lost one—there are only 11 left to gather in Galilee. But it doesn’t stop him. He knows the truth that our politics always forgets, the one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently voiced when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In all the time since that moment in Galilee, there have been plenty of failures. Christians have busily built their own systems of domination and others have had to fight to restore justice. But God never stops trying, never stops coming to clean up. There’s another mountain song that reminds me of this. It’s meant to be a love song but I think of it as God’s love song for us and it begins, “A’int no mountain high enough, a’int no river wide enough, to keep me from you.” That’s the message of the resurrection: there is no power, no principality, nothing that can ultimately overcome God’s hope. When we live in justice, care for creation and each other, appreciate the image of God in creation and and all people, then we are part of God’s plan. Isn’t it time to clean up today?

Amen. 

Easter 5B – The Good Sheep

The Good Sheep

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Easter/B • April 29, 2018
John 10:18-31

In 1973, I was the pastor the Seattle Congregational Church in Washington, almost as far west as you can go in the lower 48 states. But my family was in Michigan, so I’d driven between the two several times. Four days: Michigan to Wisconsin, where I also have family, then a day to Montana, and then a day that is all Montana, finally a day across Idaho and Washington. It’s a long drive and that year I decided to vary it by trying some local roads across the mountains in Wyoming. There was a little road on the map that looked like it would cut a couple hours off the trip and let me connect back up to I-90 in Montana.

So off I went in my Pinto, a little blue Ford. Up, up the mountain, uncomfortably aware there was no one around. Have you been to that sort of place? Where you feel like if something happened, no one would find you, no one would know for a long, long time? Just as I was thinking that I remember coming around a curve, meadows on both sides, and suddenly seeing like a flowing sea a flock of hundreds of sheep flowing over the road. I braked quickly and sat there, watching as they moved. There was a dog barking but no person, no one at all. And then, as the flock began to thin and I thought to get the car moving again, I saw a horse with a small man slumped in the saddle. He didn’t seem to talk; he didn’t seem to do anything. He just quietly followed the flock. He was the shepherd.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Is there any more famous verse in the whole New Testament? Haven’t we all heard this, seen pictures of Jesus as a shepherd or holding a lamb? “I am the Good Shepherd.” It’s like a sign that says: “ok, I already heard this, I can check out now”, isn’t it? Well, let me ask you to come back now if you’re already wondering what’s at coffee hour, because I want to think not only about the Good Shepherd today but about the sheep: you and I, the flock the Good Shepherd gathers and protects. That’s you: that’s me.

“I am the Good Shepherd.” Jesus defines his relationship with us. First, we are not in charge. The sheep do not decide the direction, the sheep do not decide the route. The sheep go where the shepherd directs. And the shepherd cares for the sheep.

The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.

Why does the hired hand run away? Because he doesn’t love the sheep. This is the deep heart of our relationship with Jesus. It’s in the scene we read a few weeks ago, where he shows his wounds to Thomas. Even in resurrection, the Lord retains his wounds, is marked by his wounds, wounds he receives on our behalf. Living in the midst of resurrection means living in the presence of the wounded Christ. It is a reminder that every attempt to connect Christ to kings or presidents or nations is a lie. He comes to us wounded, not victorious, and he invites us to come to him with our wounds, imperfect, failing at times, yet still part of his flock by his decision, not our own.

This mutuality is the mystery of our lives together with the Lord. He says,

I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.

Christ does not come as an individual but as part of the community we call the Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And his purpose is to bring us into the mutual love, mirror the mutual love, between the Father and Son. And he does this through experience.

The verb “know” in the Bible doesn’t mean knowing the way we know someone’s name or how the Mets did at their last game. It really means to experience. It means knowing what an apple tastes like when you bite into it; it means knowing the way we know grief when someone we love dies. It means the knowing that grows between best friends or lovers so that we carry a copy of them in our head and know what they will say even when they aren’t present.

The mutuality of this knowing, this experience is a present thing. This is the heart of living with the Risen Lord: to say, “Christ is Risen!”, is to say he is in our present, not just our past. I know that a temptation I have is to spend so much time looking at the history of Jesus that I forget the presence of Christ. The resurrection experience is the re-establishment of relationships. That’s what’ happens with Thomas, that’s what happens with Mary. 
When Jesus meets Mary, she doesn’t call him by name, she says, “Rabouni”, which means “My teacher”. It’s not just his identity she recognizes: it is her relationship with him, his with her. For us to live as Easter people is to live in the faith he is here, now, not just back then.

“I am the good shepherd. My sheep know me and I know them.” Mutual recognition is the foundation of the flock. Jesus always gathers. His historical ministry begins with gathering disciples. As he walks along, he constantly gathers with others; this is one of the big complaints about him: “He eats with sinners.” At the table of Jesus, the culture of class and division is destroyed: all are welcome. Gathering is one of his distinctive actions.

Early Congregationalists recognized this gathering into covenanted community as the foundation of life with Christ. Peter Gomes makes this point about Congregational Churches. Speaking in Scotland to Episcopalians, he once said,

In New England, the ancient parishes of the seventeenth century in the Congre- gational order are not described as “founded”—if you ever look at an old sev- enteenth-century New England church, the sign will not say, “Founded in 1620,” “Founded in 1636,” “Founded in 1690″— but use a very strange nomenclature used nowhere else in the church, either in Europe or in this country: it says “Gathered in 1620,” “Gathered in 1640,” “Gathered in 1690,” and there is something very different between being founded and being gathered. The notion is that of sheep being gathered into the sheepfold.
[Peter Gomes, Good Shepherd, Good Sheep, April, 2003]

Jesus comes to us: we come to the flock, to church, to be with others who recognize him.
As we do, we should remember: we don’t get to decide who’s in or out of the flock. Jesus says,

I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

 

I remember a story about an Episcopal priest whose church had become a community center, as ours has. Many of the people now filling its rooms were different than the members of the church and some members complained. He replied that he didn’t choose these people; Jesus did. They weren’t who he would have chosen but Jesus had, so what was he to do? They should blame Jesus. When we welcome someone, invite someone, we are acting like the good sheep of Christ’s flock.

“I am the good shepherd.” If Jesus is the good shepherd, we have to ask: what does it mean for us to be the good sheep?

First, it means gathering. There is a reason sheep have evolved a strong instinct to flock together. The flock protects them. When Jesus says he is the good shepherd, he also says there are danger out there. I don’t have to enumerate them, nor could I. But in our gathering, we are strengthened, we encourage each other.

I don’t think any of us really know how much our presence here means to others. Who came this morning hoping to see you? Who is strengthened by your presence here this morning, your greeting, your prayers? Coming to church is not an individual experience: it is gathering with others and although you may not realize it, your presence helps others. We have a variety of gifts, as Paul says, and when we gather the gifts are shared and make a blessing we also share.

Second, sheep produce. They are not simply existing on their own, they are a means of making something happen: wool, perhaps meat. In our case, Paul says,

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. [Galatians 5:22f]

Our purpose is to bear these fruits, share them with the world. Like the sheep producing wool, we are meant to give something back, our love and joy, our kindness, and so on. Like a voice in a choir, these gifts melt together into God’s song of praise.

“I am the good shepherd.” Jesus calls us to gather together as his sheep, following him, not as a revered but dead example but as the living Lord, caring for us. Wherever we have been, whatever we have done, he calls us to follow him forward as members of his flock. Remember what he said to Peter? “Never mind all that—feed my sheep.” That’s us: thats our job. He is the shepherd; we are the flock. May we live in the love and care of the good shepherd, gathered in his flock.

Amen.