Lent 5 B – The Rainbow Path 5

Clean Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Fifth Sunday in Lent/B • March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34 • Psalm 51:1-12 • John 12:20-22

Click below to hear the sermon preached

One of the great gifts I received when I was called as the pastor of a church in Michigan was the opportunity to be present right after my youngest grand-daughter Bridget was born. There is a picture of Bridget and I, taken when she was about 30 hours old, I value beyond all the wonderful photographs hanging on all the museum walls in the world. I had just been handed her and I remember exactly what I was thinking when Jacquelyn took the shot: “She’s perfect, completely perfect.”

Of course, now I know Bridget a lot better and it turns out she isn’t perfect after all. She’s messy, for one thing; a piece of advice I’d offer is don’t stand too close when Bridget is eating chocolate cake. She has a stubborn sense of order that can drive you crazy. When she was small, one of her favorite games was to take the furniture out of the dollhouse and get me to put it back. The game goes like this: I put a piece of furniture in the dollhouse; Bridget lifts it up, says, “No, Grampa Jim, not there,” and puts it where she believes it should be. Perfect is hard to find, harder to sustain. Are you perfect?

God is perfect and working with this imperfect world. What is God doing? We’re nearing the end of Lent and it’s time to step back and ask how it all fits together. Sometimes we can miss the Word God is speaking because we get so focused on the words. A few weeks ago we read the story of Noah and God’s rainbow covenant, a promise never again to start over, wiping everything out. We read the story of how God started with Abraham and Sarah the whole long, painful promise of reclaiming the world from darkness, restoring it to a place of praise, a community of joy, a shining story of justice. We’ve read God’s attempt in the Exodus and the Ten Commandments and we know how profoundly this failed, how the community of faith God hoped went astray.

Today we read how God began again in the words of Jeremiah.

…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [Jeremiah 31:33-34]

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of the will. The verb “know” means to experience intimately, fully. To say God’s covenant will be written on their hearts is to say they will naturally want to fulfill it; to say they will know God is to say they will have a direct, immediate connection with God. No temple, no clergy, no king, nothing else needed.

Why is God doing this? Jeremiah spoke these words to a people already defeated in their hearts, people who have already acknowledged they don’t deserve anything. They were an imperfect people and they knew it. You can hear it in the words of the Psalmist: “…I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” [Psalm 51:3] If even this people know they don’t deserve another chance, what’s going on here? Why is God trying so hard?

The answer seems to be the concluding line of the Psalm we read: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” [Psalm 51:12] God is trying to bring about a joyful community which will naturally praise, naturally worship, naturally live out God’s justice. When we look at the whole sweep of the story, we discover God is bringing the perfect, heavenly life through a new covenant by working on the least perfect. Jesus is the method.

That is certainly what is happening in the Gospel reading. A group of Greeks are in the crowd around Jesus; they approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. What do you suppose they hope to see? What do they expect to find? Greeks worshipped through the images of a variety of Gods but the central theme of their spiritual life was the notion of the perfect. The Olympic games were a display in which the goal was to display perfect bodies doing athletic things perfectly. Greek philosophy suggests that everything in the world exists as a reflection of a perfect reality in a spiritual world. Even in their political life, it was important that a leader be beautiful; beautiful and perfect were equivalent.

Jewish spiritual life also focused on the perfect. There were hundreds of religious rules and spiritual life was built around trying to observe every one of them perfectly. But few people could or did live up to all the commandments. In Jesus’ preaching, the requirements become even more daunting; he tells them that the commandment against murder, for example, is violated when we get angry at someone. In one way or another, both understand God is perfect and both believe the answer to getting nearer to God is to be perfect also.

What are Jews hoping about Jesus? That he will act in perfect accord with the law. What are the Greeks hoping to see? A perfect man, whose perfection mirror’s God.

This is why Jesus confuses and angers them: he offers a completely different path to God. Jewish leaders are already angry; we hear over and over again about Jesus, “This man eats with sinners.” Perfect people only ate with other perfect people; it’s scandalous that Jesus will have lunch with anyone at all. He embraces God’s joyful provision and his disciples gather food on the Sabbath; he heals on the Sabbath and tells the leaders that Sabbath is a gift, not a burden. Now he turns to the Greeks and tells them something that must have left them gasping. He tells them he’s going to die.

Jesus answered them,

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [John 12:23-25]

We are so familiar with the story of Jesus’ death that it fails to shock us. But perfect people didn’t get crucified; perfect Sons of God didn’t die. When Jesus embraces his life and speaks of dying, they must have been stunned. When they hear this is how he is going to represent God, they must have been confused. But Jesus knows the truth. He says that this is the new covenant in his blood: by his death, he shows what covenant faithfulness looks like. This is the picture: a life freed from death through trust in a loving, forgiving creator God.

Jesus offers in place of perfections what the Psalmist calls “God’s steadfast love.” In his teaching about community, Jesus stresses something we talk about but have a hard time practicing: the role of forgiveness. The Greeks measure spirit by perfection; Jesus measures it by love. Here is how things work in the joyful community of Jesus: we’re equally brothers and sisters, we recognize in each other the image of a child of God, and when that child does something wrong, stumbles falls, even falls way down, we respond by encouraging repentance and offering forgiveness.

Jesus says that what we ought to do is stop trying to be perfect and start learning to forgive each other. How many times, his disciples ask? “Seventy times seven”, he responds, a way of saying: endlessly. The rhythm of life in Jesus is a constant sea of love where the waves peak and we are carried closer to God and the waves recede and we forgive and are forgiven.

This is what church life is supposed to look like. Of course, it often doesn’t, because we’ve often copied the world around. In this world, we increasingly hold out an image of perfection and then savagely attack those who seemed to embody it but fall short. We see it in politics, we see it in sports, we see it in the cult of celebrity. We see it in the screaming commentators on TV; we see it in the constant “gotcha” ping-pong of news. We have become Greeks and we use Jesus to help us look more perfect.

But what God hopes is that instead, we will let Jesus use us not to make the world more perfect but to teach it how to love, and how to forgive. God hopes we will teach the world the fundamental reality Jesus preaches here: that we can’t bear fruit except through an unfolding process, a process in which our imperfect seeds sprout and change and produce. That’s how God is working out this great purpose; that’s how God is perfecting the world, by teaching us that instead of being perfect, we can be loved as we are. Like a parent laughing at a child who has gotten dirty and summoning them to a bath, God knows we can always be cleaned up; God remembers who we really are underneath.

I’ve led a couple of churches with preschools and floating through the walls of my study, every day there would be a song signaling the end of the day:

Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share,

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.

Things get messy; people get dirty. I don’t honestly know that everyone does do their part; I do know I love the song. In Jesus Christ, God is singing this same song, summoning all God’s children to clean up, clean up, asking all God’s children to do their part. If Bridget isn’t perfect, she is perfectly lovable and perfectly loved. So are you: so am I. In Jesus Christ, God is offering us forgiveness, cleaning us up, and getting us ready to sing the songs of glory in our heavenly home.

Amen.

15th Sunday After Pentecost/A – The Forgiveness Dance

The Forgiveness Dance

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017

15th Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 17, 2017

Matthew 18:21-35

Click below to hear the sermon preached

“I’ve told you a million times…” Have you ever said this? It’s what gets said about those little things someone does out of habit that annoy us until it boils over. “I’ve told you a million times…” I’ll let you fill in the detail.

Once I was talking to a couple planning their wedding. They’d both been married before and we talked about those relationships and what had made them end. She was quiet at first, reticent, but as she talked about her marriage, she said, “It was little things. His socks: he never picked up his socks. It sounds silly but it became a big issue.” We were talking about their wedding vows, at least I thought we were, and as we moved back to that topic she brought up the socks again. So it was that on their wedding day, as part of the ceremony, her groom stood before a whole congregation and said solemnly along with promises to love and cherish her that he would always pick up his socks.

“I’ve told you a million times..” Of course, no one says something a million times. We exaggerate and this scripture begins with Jesus doing the same thing.

Forgiveness: How Much?

Last week we began to talk about forgiveness as the path to Jesus. Now Matthew imagines Peter stewing about this and trying to get a fix on just how much forgiveness is required. That’s the problem, isn’t it? It’s not forgiving the one big hurt that hangs us up; it’s the million times bump, the thing that happens over and over again. “Do I have to forgive as many as seven times?” he asks. Jesus replies with something hard to translate; sometimes it comes across as 77 times, sometimes 70 times seven. The meaning, though, is clear: there is no limit to this forgiveness.

Does that make any sense? At some point, don’t you have to just say, “Look, this person is never going to do the right thing,”? I imagine Peter and the others looking with that disbelieving, “I can’t believe you said that” look people get about Jesus. So he tells them a story, a parable, about forgiveness.

The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant

Imagine a rich, Gentile King. Maybe it’s the Persian King; maybe it’s the Roman emperor. We know it’s not a Jewish king because the things that happen in the story are not according to Jewish law. Imagine the Emperor, the King, having one of his key administrators arrested, brought before him, because the taxes he was supposed to pay aren’t paid.

We don’t know what happened. Did he embezzle them, was it a bad year, is it simple theft? No details. We just know he is brought before the King. This isn’t the oval office; this would be a palace full of people, guards in armor with sharp swords. Surely this man, this servant knows some these people, was friends with some of them. Now they look away, now no one reaches out to help when he stumbles as the guards roughly bring him in.

A richly dressed guy stands by the king with a document recording the debt: 10,000 talents. Do you know what 10,000 talents is? It’s all the money in the world. Literally: a talent is the largest unit of money Jesus and his world knows. Ten thousand is the largest number they use. So it’s the largest number of the largest amount of money. It’s huge.

No one could ever pay it off; no one could ever work it off. You could work your whole life and not make a dent in it. So the King orders a punishment that takes his whole life: selling his wife and children, something so awful, so terrible, Jewish law forbade it. But Gentiles did it, Kings did it. Now the debtor stands there quaking, fearing, losing everything. What would you do?

What he does is the only thing he can do. Flinging himself on the floor the way they do in Eastern courts, he begs for mercy. He makes a promise everyone knows is ridiculous that he will eventually pay it off. There must have been a moment of silence. Think of the embarrassment of his former friends; think of the tension in the room, the fear of the debtor. As he lies there, something comes into the King, some impulse. He pities the man; he knows he’ll never get his money. Suddenly he does something no one would have expected. He tells the man to get up, to get out and he forgives the debt.

Wow. Can you imagine that moment? Can you imagine that man, lying there on the floor, on the cold stone floor, afraid for his life, afraid for his family, barely able to believe what he’s just heard. “Get up and get out, I forgive you and your debt.” It’s more than he asked. The best he hoped was to stay out of jail; instead, he’s just been given a whole new life, like someone born again. “The Lord released him and forgave the debt.”

Imagine having your biggest problem something you’ve worried about, something that kept you up nights, suddenly solved. Imagine having all your debts paid off; imagine having whatever scares you solved. Imagine being given a whole new life. Don’t you think that’s what this guy must have felt? How incredible would that feel? How new? How different?

So there is this stunned, amazing moment and then he must have gotten up. The King and his advisors are already going on to the next thing. Before the King can change his mind, I imagine the man walking out, still afraid of the guards that only a moment before had been a threat, now ignoring him. Perhaps slowly at first, not wanting to attract attention, he begins to back up, to move out of the crowd, and then faster. Smiling now, feeling the joy of it, the release of it. Everything paid off; everything taken care of, solved. He moves back through the crowd, mind whirling and then settling down, wanting to tell his wife, his family everything is ok, everything will be ok. He moves out of the crowd, down the corridor, outside into the market. What would you do? Where would you go? How would you feel?

Leaving the Moment

There he is, coming down the steps, there he is, jostling in the crowd, and just as he walks through the last people in the palace crowd, he bumps into someone he knows, someone who owes him a little money: a hundred denarii, that is to say about three months salary. It’s nothing, compared to what he’s just been forgiven. It’s pocket change.

Yet in that moment, all the new life, all the possibility of his forgiveness seems to fall away. He grabs the guy by the throat, calls for a guard, demands immediate payment.
Now this man makes exactly the same plea the first man had made to the king, word for word the same plea. Did you get that when I read it?

Just like the first man before the king, he’s caught short of funds; just like that man, he’s about to go to jail. Just like the first man before the king, he begs for time to pay. That first man has just been forgiven all the money in the world and now he’s being asked to forgive a trifling amount but he hasn’t learned anything. Instead of passing on the forgiveness, he refuses and has him thrown into prison. Stunning, isn’t it? He was forgiven everything; he forgives nothing.

What happens next is a cascading disaster. People from the court see this performance and tell the King. The King is offended, angered, and he has the first man arrested, brought back. The new life is over before it began. He’s sent off to be imprisoned, tortured, the point is clear: “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ [Matt 18:32] I imagine the disciples leaning in, listening, trying to follow this story, trying to follow Jesus, just as we are doing and suddenly he looks up at them, his eyes searching, and says quietly, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” Wow: ouch! How did we get from more forgiveness than Peter could imagine to such a disaster?

What is Jesus teaching?

To see what Jesus teaches, we have to let go of trying to reduce it to a set of lessons and let ourselves experience what he asks us to imagine. If we take seriously the experience of this parable, what we find is that the unmerciful servant was confronted by the possibility of new life. That’s what it really means to take our own forgiveness seriously. It’s what Peter missed when he asked his question. Peter was still focused on how much forgiveness he has to dole out: seven times? Seventy-seven times?

Jesus wants him to realize the issue isn’t how much forgiveness he does, it’s how much he has received. Forgiveness isn’t first about what we do: it’s first about what we receive. It’s suddenly understanding that despite all our flaws and failures, the one Jesus calls our father in heaven has forgiven us and still loves us. It’s realizing we are, each one of us, just like that debtor before the King: failed at times, yet loved beyond failure.

Feeling Our Forgiveness

That’s the experience he wants them to have. And to see also: that our forgiveness invites us to be transformed. Until we know ourselves forgiven, we will never be able to fully forgive, we will always be grabbing someone else, demanding payment.

The final note about torture isn’t a moral, it’s a fact. If we don’t learn to accept our forgiveness, we don’t learn to forgive others. The burdens that pile up from that torture us, imprison us, like the old cartoon of the prisoner with the ball and chain.

Jesus means us to experience this embrace, this forgiveness and then live it out day to day. For the way of Jesus isn’t a doctrine, it isn’t a set of directions you follow, it’s love itself.

The Kiss of Christ

Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov contains a long section imagining a Grand Inquisitor questioning Christ, like a Communist or Fascist or CIA interrogation. At the end of all the questions, at the end of all the darkness and threats and fear, Christ replies. And the reply is simple, wordless: Christ kisses the Inquisitor.

Lord Have Mercy On Me

There is a spiritual discipline that can help move us toward this. It’s very simple, a short prayer: “Lord have mercy on me.” That’s it, the whole prayer. It’s meant to be prayed over and over; some teachers suggest synchronizing it with your breath or your heartbeat. “Lord have mercy on me.” Over and over. You can pray this in the car, at a stoplight; you can sit quietly and say it over and over. What this prayer does is to focus us on our own forgiveness. It opens the door of the soul and lets things out.

We need this because so many of us owe so much, are burdened by so much. What are you carrying around that needs forgiving? What would you like to lay down, what would you give to get rid of the bonds of that burden?

Forgiveness isn’t about what we do for someone else; it’s what we experience through Christ from God. And if we live in that experience, we will stop asking how often to forgive others because we can’t focus on limiting forgiveness if we are living in the fullness of it.

That’s the tragedy of this unmerciful servant. He has the greatest prize of all given to him and he lets it slip through his fingers in the moment when those fingers grasp his own debtor. Just as Jesus says: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive others.” We say that every week, perhaps you say it at other times. Forgiveness is a dance, a rhythm of receiving and giving. We can’t do one without the other; the dance is both or neither.

Lord have mercy on me: this week, may you feel the embrace, the kiss of Christ in your life. May the forgiveness and new life he offers overflow like a wine glass poured too full until you have no choice but to share it.

Amen.

14th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Come See Jesus

Come See Jesus

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2017

14th Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 10, 2017

Matthew 18:15-20

Hear the sermon preached by clicking below

One of the big issues in my life is that I lose stuff. Do you find this? Keys, cellphone, little things: I misplace them. Last week on my boat I lost my phone. The boat is a small area. I knew the phone was there somewhere. Half an hour later, I resorted to begging a dock worker to call me so I could find it. I lose things all the time. Now if you lose things too, you can feel the problem of the people to whom Matthew is speaking in today’s scripture reading. He’s writing to a group of Jewish Christians about fifty years or so after Jesus left his earthly ministry and here’s their problem: they’ve lost Jesus.

Where Is Jesus?

How do you find Jesus? Where is he? How can we get him back? How can they find the assurance that he is present? How can they talk to him, walk with him, hear him. Where do you go to find Jesus? What are the directions that will allow us to come see Jesus?

The classic way to deal with this is simple: you make a statue of Jesus and hang him on the wall. All great Roman Catholic cathedrals have these; European art museums are full of pictures of Jesus, hanging there, easy to find. Of course, the problem is you have to go there to find him; that’s not much help if you want him with you, walking with you, where you are.

Another solution is just to make up a picture of Jesus. That’s what prosperity gospel preachers like Joel Osteen do. They give people a picture of someone with all the problems solved and tell them well that’s Jesus, be like him. They live like rich people which in our culture looks like living successfully. Their problem, of course, is that it isn’t Jesus they are portraying, it’s just living like a rich guy.

But how do you find the real Jesus? This scripture lesson is all about finding Jesus, it’s a sign that says, “Come see Jesus.” Listening to it is like reading a map, like someone saying, “Come see Jesus, he’s over here.”

“…where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matt 18:20).

I know you’ve heard this saying of Jesus before; it’s frequently quoted, especially by Congregationalists. I wonder if we’ve really taken it seriously enough. Every time you and a friend get together and treat each other like Jesus treats people, every time you have compassion on a stranger the way Jesus has compassion on strangers, every time you treat someone like a child of God, the way Jesus treats everyone as a child of God—there he is. Every time we gather here in his name to worship, here he is. Every time one of our Boards or committees gets together and thinks about how to help people in his name, there he is. “…where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there…,” he says. Every time I visit with one of you in the hospital and we pray, there he is. All it takes is two or three of us, gathering in his name, for him to appear.

So where do you go to find Jesus? The answer is specific: you go to others. And one sure place is to the gathered congregation of his followers. One of the jobs of pastors is to listen to excuses for not going to church. I learned early not to tell people on airplanes I’m a pastor, for example, because they would tell me why they didn’t go to church last Sunday. High on the list of excuses is, “I find God in nature.” Sometimes nature means the golf course, sometimes another place. And, of course, we’ve all felt the stirring of inspiration seeing God’s creation. Sometimes that may work; often that is inspiring. But it’s a chancy thing. If you want to be sure Jesus will come along, if you want to be sure about finding Jesus, you need a congregation, you need two or three or more other followers.

The second thing it’s important to notice here is the number required. Jewish scribes had settled on ten men as the minimum number to get God to be present. The book of Genesis records a wonderful conversation between Abraham and the Lord. The Lord is angry at Sodom and decides to wipe them out. Abraham asks whether the Lord will wipe out the righteous with the sinners. Abraham asks if 50 righteous people would be enough; God agrees 50 would be plenty. Abraham goes for 40; God says ok, 40 is enough. Finally, Abraham gets the Lord down to ten: ten righteous men will be enough to stop the destruction. From this, Rabbis deduced the requirement that ten righteous men are needed.

Now Jesus reduces this. Notice that he doesn’t specify gender: it’s not just men, it’s any followers of Jesus, and it only takes two or three. This is the foundation for our church order. Where some believe that it requires a whole structure of bishops and officers to constitute a church, Congregationalists believe it only takes a congregation, meeting in covenant for worship. How big a congregation?—two or three.

So if you want to see Jesus, come to the congregation; where faithful followers gather, he promises presence. The verse before this makes it clear: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” The reason is that what we are doing is what Jesus is doing: we are literally the body of Christ in the world because he is present here with us, in us. Christ is present here and this is our destination: to go where he is, to be with him, to walk with him.

But it’s not enough to have a destination, you also need directions on how to get there. Navigation can be tricky. When I’m sailing, I write down the buoys I’ll pass, the courses to take. I still make mistakes. Last week, I was coming back from a little cove and I suddenly realized I’d misread one of the buoys that marked a big shoal and I was about to run aground; I had to change direction fast to be safe.

What are the directions to Jesus?

The directions are in the part just before his statement about presence. One of the issues the early church faced is what to do about people who hurt each other in the church. So here it is, laid out in detail: first you tell them they hurt you—-you say ouch!-—and if they repent, you forgive them. If that doesn’t work, you get some other folks to mediate between you, and when they repent, you forgive them. And if that doesn’t work, you get the whole congregation involved and if they repent, you forgive them. Finally, if even that doesn’t work, you treat them like outsiders; in other words, following Jesus, you give them special love and care.

Now if you listened closely to these directions, you heard the same word over and over: “you forgive them.” The directions to Jesus are to forgive; the directions from Jesus are to forgive. The first step on the way to Jesus is forgiving others and accepting forgiveness ourselves.

Nelson Mandela was a young lawyer leading a revolution in South Africa when he was arrested in 1962. Beaten, imprisoned, he might easily have become hardened and bitter. Instead, he let the love of God bloom in his heart. He learned to forgive. In 1990, after 27 years, he was finally freed. Desmond Tutu, a bishop in South Africa said this.

Before Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962, he was an angry, relatively young man. He founded the ANC’s military wing. When he was released, he surprised everyone because he was talking about reconciliation and forgiveness and not about revenge.

Mandela became the first President of a new South Africa. Many had predicted a racial civil war. Thanks to his efforts and example of forgiveness, his nation sought instead reconciliation and became a model for this.

It’s no accident that this section on forgiveness is connected to encountering Jesus: forgiveness is the path to gathering in his name, to his presence.

For the next few Sundays, we’re going to think about this theme, see what Jesus says, imagine what it means to live out forgiveness in our daily lives. Perhaps in your life, there is someone you need to forgive; perhaps you need to seek someone’s forgiveness. Perhaps you need to feel God’s forgiveness.

The farther we walk on the path to forgiveness, in our prayer life, in our daily life, the closer we come to Jesus. “Come see Jesus”, is the gospel invitation: come see him here, come see him in the light of the forgiving love he shares and that we share in his name.

Amen.

Never Mind

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 All rights reserved

Third Sunday in Easter/C • April 10, 2016

Click here for an audio version of this sermon being preached

Isn’t it amazing how life can change in a moment? I used to be the kind of person who would carefully plan all the stages of a trip. I had my airline reservation printed, hotel, car, each of them laid in a folder in consecutive order. I got annoyed when planes were delayed; I got angry if my car or room wasn’t ready. But when Jacquelyn became a flight attendant and I started flying space available, I was introduced to traveling without any assurance. I had to learn that even though I had a plan, things could change, the world could say “Never mind” to my plan. Of course, there are many times, may circumstances where we go along as if our lives were on rails like a train. Then something happens and suddenly it’s as if someone said “never mind” to our whole plan, our whole life, and we’re starting over.

Life After the Cross – Never Mind

It must have been like that for the disciples. For a few years, they’ve been following Jesus through the villages of Galilee, up and down the roads, then on to Jerusalem and its crowds. All along he was there; all along, they thought something great was going to happen. They saw him heal; they heard him preach. They’d been present at amazing, miraculous events.

Surely they knew what the prophets had said; one day God would send someone who would be a Messiah, who would lead a great movement to renew Israel. They must have known their history, how God inspired Moses to lead their ancestors out of Egypt, how Joshua led them to claim the promised land, how David created a kingdom among God’s people, how that kingdom though fallen had risen again and then been recaptured by Judas Maccabeus.

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “the Messiah”. But when he connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They themselves are found arguing about who is going to be first in his kingdom, a moment he uses to teach them servanthood. So even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they must have expected something great, something victorious.
Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said “Never mind”, one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

Back to the Old Plan

So they do what people often do when a life plan ends. They go back where they were before it all began. They’ve gone back to Galilee, back to where it all started. They’ve gone back to what they used to do: fishing. How long have they been doing that? Doesn’t time seem to stop sometimes when your whole plan, your whole life, has run into one big “Never mind?” But it doesn’t seem to be working; they go out fishing and don’t catch a single thing. Have they lost the touch? Bad luck? Who knows? It seems the new plan, to go back to the old plan, is getting a big never mind as well.

It’s just then, when they come back to shore, hungry, depressed, quiet the way you are when everything has failed that they meet this guy on the beach. Who is he? No one knows. He calls them children. That may seem kind but actually since the word for children and slave is about the same it may have come across as strange. Maybe it sounded like he was recognizing how hard they worked. Next thing, he’s giving directions and somehow they feel compelled to do what he says: “Cast the net on the right side.” Is it just that nothing else has worked so why not or something mysteriously compelling about him? All we know is that as the net fills up and one of them recognizes something in the man on the beach. “It is the Lord!” he says and Peter—Peter who always rushes in, whether it’s the right thing or not—Peter can’t help jumping in and wading ashore.

Once there, they discovered everything they need is already set: bread, grilled fish. I love the note that says that the net didn’t break. That detail makes this story for me: who else but someone who’s spent hours mending nets would think of it? So there they are: on the beach with the Lord, eating breakfast. Some have said that just as there was a Last Supper, this is the First Breakfast.

On the Beach

So there they are: in some ways it must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think? Last week I talked about the song, Tradition! from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. There’s another song in the same show when Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him”, and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?
But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,
Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

At the end, she says she does love him—and that it doesn’t change a thing.

Do You Love Me?

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say?
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble, when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

“Feed my sheep”, Jesus says. And then, I imagine Jesus looking right into his eyes, knowing as he always knew, what was behind Peter’s eyes, knowing and yet asking once again, “Do you love me?” and when Peter, perhaps crumbling now, says yes; once again, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” This is the moment Peter became an apostle. This is the moment when Jesus came to him and said: “Never mind!” All those misunderstandings along the way? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. Those times you denied me? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. The fact that you went back to your old life? Never mind! I’m giving you a new life and a new mission: feed my sheep.

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. And today, this day, this very day,

Never mind: feed my sheep

Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”. How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart. Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.

Amen.

De Nada: Learning the Lord’s Prayer 4


A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Lent • March 6, 2016

The summer I turned 14, I had an operation to remove most of my thyroid. When I woke up, I hurt every time I lifted my chin; it took all summer to heal. I was left with a bright red raised scar of which I was painfully conscious. I made up stories about it: that I’d been in a knife fight, and I wore a lot of turtle neck shirts. The scar faded but I still saw it every morning, first thing, in the mirror. I still explained about it, increasingly as I got olde,r to people who hadn’t noticed it. It’s still there. Do you have scars? Don’t we all? What would it take to heal them?

“Forgive us as we forgive,”Jesus says. Let’s start with the problem. I’m sure you noticed when I quoted Jesus, I left something out. In both versions of the Lord’s prayer, he doesn’t say “Forgive us…” He says, “Forgive us…” and then there’s a word. If you grew up Methodist or Catholic it’s trespass; if you grew up Congregational, it’s debts. If you have been around Lutherans, chances are you say ‘sins’, which is also popular in a lot of newer churches. Forgive us our debts. Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive us our sins. What does he have in mind?

This is the point where there is a temptation to wander off and show you what I know about Greek, the language the New Testament is written in. I could talk about this for a long time, long enough for you to snatch a nap. But I’m not going to. For one thing, it’s too early for a nap and for another, Jesus didn’t say the Greek word either. Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, not Greek. And he used an Aramaic word here. What does it mean? That’s hard to say. Say trespass and you think, or at least I do, of going to a construction site and taking lumber to build a tree house. But I’m not sure Jesus was worried about lumber or boys or tree houses. Say debt and I think of my credit card bills; did Jesus care about credit scores? Probably not.

So we’re left with sins. That’s a tough one. Congregational ministers don’t talk about sins much anymore; we leave that to Baptists. When we do, we tend to like to talk about sins we don’t do. I remember once sitting with a bunch of ministers at a meeting. This was quite a while ago, when “a bunch of ministers” meant middle aged men who are a little too jolly and can tell you to a decimal point the average attendance at their church and who tend to be a bit fluffy. It’s not their fault. Every church has someone like Arvilla or Joanne who makes cakes and things and it would be rude not to eat them. We grow out of concern for their feelings.

So we are sitting there, munching on pieces of cake some woman in the church had prepared. It was long enough ago that the big issue was gay folks in church. I always thought this was a weird issue; I mean we’ve always had gay folks in church, the real issue wasn’t about having them it was about letting them be honest about who they were without fear. So they were discussing this and gay marriage and most of them were against it. They could really talk about the sin of homosexuality, Bible verses and all. It was impressive. I didn’t have much to say. So I just sat there eating cake and I looked around and realized every one of us was married to a woman. And every one of us was overweight.

So when it was my turn to talk, I said that I thought the cake was really good and since we were all straight there, and all overweight, maybe we should talk about the sin of gluttony, of eating too much. Then I shut up and tried to think how I could get another slice of cake and the table erupted. They did not think this was appropriate; they thought I was making fun of them. We’d all rather talk about someone else’s sins than our own. But we all have them, just like we all have scars.

What does Jesus mean? The word he uses certainly means doing wrong. In our culture, we tend to associate sin with sexual stuff but Jesus actually talks more about economic sins, that is, the sin of letting money get in our way. The word he uses also means “foolishness”. Now that’s something because throughout the Hebrew scriptures there’s a constant play between the notion of being wise—doing what God wants—and being foolish—doing whatever we want, regardless of what God says.

In fact, the original sin had nothing to do with sex, it rose out of the desire to be God like. The serpent says to Eve that she can be like God and she goes for it, inviting Adam along with her. It’s the choice of self over God that makes her stumble.

In fact, The same word also means stumble. That’s something I can understand: I stumble frequently. I mean, I’m walking along and not paying attention and POOF! ouch. Something brings me to a halt. So foolishness, stumbling. Those are part of what he’s talking about, along with scars from injuries and things that make us cover up what we’ve done because we’re ashamed. So from here on out I’m going to use the word ‘sins’ but I trust you to remember it means all these things: scars, selfishness, stumbling.

What he says then is this: Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others. Look what he does here: he connects these two. That is to say, the experience of forgiveness—being forgiven—is linked to the expression of forgiving: forgiving someone else. You get both or you get neither one. Think of the story of the prodigal we read this morning. You know, I have to admit right here that there is such a temptation for me to preach on this text instead of going along with the Lord’s Prayer. I’m trying to resist but if this sermon goes over 45 minutes, you’ll know I failed. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m going to try to resist; come back in three years, when the text comes up again, and hear a sermon on it then.

I just want you to notice one thing in the story. When the son returns, his father embraces him. Wow: would you do that? Think how angry the father must have been when the son left. That dad knew just what would happen, parents always do. And it did. So the son comes back; there must have been a temptation to say, “Ok, fine you’re home, I’ll give you one more chance.” There must have been a temptation to set a condition on that love but he never once does: he just embraces him. That’s forgiveness. We usually talk about it as the father forgiving the son but there must have been something between them, some ugliness for the son to want to leave and what his bad experience helped him do was forgive his father. The father embraces his son; but the son also embraces his father. It’s the mutuality of the moment that inspires. We can’t experience forgiveness without expressing forgiveness; we can’t express forgiveness without experiencing it.

Forgiveness is a key part of Jesus’ mission. One of the things that angers his opponents is forgiving sins. When his own disciples ask for a rule on just how much forgiveness they have to do, when they want a church policy on forgiveness, he tells them 70 times 7, meaning—unlimited, unlimited forgiveness. The reason is something we talked a bit about last week: Jesus wants us here and now, in the present, in the presence of God. We can’t get there without forgiveness, which means we can’t get there without forgiving, since the two are so tightly linked together.

We can’t get there because of what I call “the ghosts”. The ghosts are all those things in our past that influence our behavior in the present. Maybe someone hurt you in the past; you’re not going to talk to them again. Maybe someone made you angry in the past; you’re not going to have lunch with them again. Maybe someone betrayed your trust; you’re not going to trust them again. We could go on and on but here’s what Jesus knows: all these ghosts in our past are whispering in our ear who not to talk to, who not have lunch with, who not to trust. Look at the story of the prodigal again: all the elder brother at the end talks about is the past, the past where he worked, while his brother went off to play. All our stumbles, all our scars, all our sins are still there, all our past is still there, all our hurts are still there, until they are forgiven. All our guilt about the times we made someone stumble, the time we injured someone, the times we sinned against someone are still there, until they are forgiven. It’s all about the past but as William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As long as all that past is still influencing us, it’s here and we’re living in the past.

How do we do this? I think many of us just assume somehow it will happen, like grass growing, like geese returning in the spring. Jesus calls us to choose forgiveness and t these are some of the choices we can make. One is simply to focus ourselves on the present and future. I mentioned last week how hard it can be to choose the present sometimes. Nevertheless, hard choices train us spiritually. When we live in the present, we choose what’s here, not what was here. A second thing we can do is to control our own internal conversation. A woman I know who was terribly hurt through the betrayal of some people she trusted said, “I wanted to stop reading the obituaries with hopeful anticipation. That turned out to be too much. So I started with just not reading the obituaries.” One person I know said about forgiveness, “Every time I got angry, I would just pray. Sometimes the prayers were angry but they were still prayers.”Prayer turns us toward God and God is love. When we let that love in, we heal.

If you are serious about praying, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, as we talked about a couple weeks ago, there’s no option, there’s no choice: you have to learn to forgive; you have to learn to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness, forgiving: they mean to put the past in the past. They mean to embrace the present; they mean to let us feel God’s embrace. Neither is easy.

Forgiveness comes in many flavors, from dealing with little bumps and scratches to a full on, long term process. Either one begins with a choice: I’m not going to live in the past, I’m going to choose to walk forward with Jesus, and shoo away those ghosts. Like my friend said, stop reading the obituaries, if that’s the one step you can take. Refuse to remember the hurt. Of course you will remember it—at first. But what we refuse to bring back, subsides. Like the scar on my neck, things fade and if we let them fade, we are free to move forward. We’re still going to stumble and that’s where the dailiness of this prayer comes in: every day, we need to forgive to move forward, every day we need to be forgiven, to move forward along the way of Jesus.

We can do it because we’re following Jesus; we can do it because it’s where he’s going. Remember what he said on the cross? “Forgive them.” He hopes we will do the same, when we stumble, when we sin, when we believe our scars are so obvious no one could love us. He wants to heal those scars; he wants us to feel forgiveness for our sins. He means to make us over into the people God intended. So we can choose to keep stumbling along on our own, keeping track of every hurt, every failure of hope, every time someone wronged us. We can live in that past—or we can get up, get going with Jesus, asking forgiveness and accepting it as well.

I don’t really speak Spanish but there’s a Spanish expression I love. You say it when someone says “thank you” or “I’m sorry”: de nada. It means something like “It’s nothing”. When we come to God, with all our scars, all our stumbles, all our sins, Jesus wants us to know God says, “De nada”—and embraces us. He wants us to practice that by doing it for each other. “Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive our debtors, trespassers, those who sin against us.” If we pray it, if we do it, if we learn it, one day we discover: we know that God is hears the prayer, and we can go home to our true home.

Amen