Easter – B – Still I Rise

Still I Rise

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Easter Sunday/B • April 1, 2018

Mark 16:1-8

Click below to hear the sermon preached

Christmas begins with lights. On Christmas Eve, we gather here to look for the Lord, to celebrate his coming. The last thing we do is to light the candles. It’s a wonderful moment: celebrating the one who came as the light of the world, we pass the light, candle to handle, one to another until the whole room sparkles and we sing. But Easter begins in darkness. The last thing we do is on Maundy Thursday is to extinguish the candles, remembering the darkness to come on Good Friday. So we come to Easter from the darkness.

Like a stage cleared in the final act of a play, Mark tells us the crowds have cleared out, first shouting, “Hosanna” for Jesus come as king, later demanding, “Crucify him!” when the Romans and the city authorities arrest him and put him on trial as a terrorist. Peter denies him in the courtyard of the jail. Killed on a cross in the hours before the Sabbath, his followers fade away. Finally, it’s left to a sympathetic rich man to provide for his burial and the body is stashed in a cave tomb, too late for preparation before Shabbat, which starts at darkness, begins and night takes over. Only now, in the darkness of the dawn, does someone, a few women, venture to the tomb. They buy spices to prepare the body, to make the final arrangements and give some dignity to the dead. They are going to the grave and they’re worried that the stone closing it off will be too much to roll away; they’re worried they won’t be able to get into where Jesus lies dead in the darkness.

The burial caves of Jerusalem are on a cliff wall. Imagine walking along the Indian Ladder escarpment as the darkness turns into dawn, slowly, carefully negotiating the turns in the path, watching just the steps ahead, not the whole path, unable to see around the next turn. Carefully, quietly, the women walk the path, perhaps stumbling here or there, clutching each other to keep from falling, arms full of the precious spices. They know a large stone blocks the entrance to the tomb and they are already trying to think of a way to move it. You see how like us they are? They have a problem: they’ve brought the things they will need to do their job and they are discussing how to deal with the biggest obstacle of all. Isn’t that what we do?

Now they come around the last curve. Are they still talking about the stone or has the nearness of the grave silenced them? Now they pass it and look toward the grave, discovering the problem they worried so much about isn’t there: the stone is moved. Who moved it? How did they do it? The women don’t know or seem to care. The grave is open; they walk slowly toward it, silent now I’m sure, they come to the entrance and, they enter the cave and suddenly the darkness lightens and in the light there is a person sitting, dressed in white, shining with it. They’re afraid: who wouldn’t be, they came to deal with a dead man, not a live angel.

He says what angels always say: “Don’t be afraid.” He shows them where Jesus had lain, they see the grave clothes they had intended to anoint with their spices which won’t be needed after all. And he tells them what to do. “Go tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” The women run. Of course, they run: wouldn’t you? “They went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” What about you? What about me? What are we to make of this story?

Most importantly, that Easter is not only for Easter Sunday. The gospel of Mark starts, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” All that follows all the stories of Jesus’ ministry and teaching, the story of the cross, this story of Easter is a prelude, just a beginning. The good news is that it’s not the end. In the failure of the worldly events, there is a space made by faith. In the vulnerability of the cross and the tomb, there is an empty place and God works in that wilderness, God is present in that wilderness, raising Jesus. The Pharisees cannot understand him, the Romans cannot kill him, his own followers cannot follow him but God’s grace is so powerful it can overcome all of them. Go home, the angel says: go back to Galilee. He’s not gone, he’s still here: “there you will see him.” Easter is a summons to see.

Maya Angelou is a poet who has seen in the long history of oppression of black people a reason for hope, an image of resurrection. She says, in part,

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.

[Maya Angelou, Still I Rise]

There he is: rising in the sweep of history, bending history to the love of God, the justice of God a little bit every day. See him there: see his power there. See his resurrection there. To the violence of the Empire, of all empires, he says: “Still I rise.”
But it’s not only in the big things that Jesus can be seen. Terry Marquardt wrote about grieving for her grandmother and remembered,

My aunt was with my grandmother during the last nights of her life, when the pain in her spine was so horrible that she hadn’t slept for two days, and the medication had stopped working, and she was beginning to lose hope. It was too much to lay down, so the two of them were sitting in the living room at 2:00 in the morning when my aunt had an idea.
“Mom, let’s have a party.”
“How could I possibly do that,” my grandmother said, motioning to her stiff body, kept awake by the sensation that it was being ground into dust.
“Let’s try,” my aunt said.
And she started to sing.
My aunt sang the Mennonite hymns my grandmother had taught her, songs from my grandmother’s childhood in a Mennonite farming community in northeastern Canada, songs that were sung in the fields, at their dinner tables, to greet the dawn, to end their day, on the way to church. My aunt and my grandmother sang all night long, until there was no pain, until my grandmother’s nurse woke up and tiptoed into the room.
“I’ve never heard such beautiful music,” she cried.
[Read the whole post here: https://medium.com/@Tanya.Marquardt/grieving-our-dead-online-3416e1918a25]

We thought the problem was how to give Jesus a decent burial, how to roll the stone away. But it turns out that the stone we worried about is already rolled away; Jesus is gone ahead. The empty tomb is God’s message to the Emperor, to the soldiers, to the world, to the followers who have scattered that in the midst of death, still I rise. This is God saying, in the midst of betrayal, whether Judas and his double crossing kiss or Peter in his fearful denial, still I rise. This is God saying to the torturers and the prison guards and the judges and the crucifiers just following orders, still I rise. This is God saying that even when I feel abandoned on a cross and cry out asking why I’m forsaken, still I rise. This is God saying, even from a tomb closed up tight, still I rise.

This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. It starts with fearful followers running away. In the days that followed, every one of them had to decide what to do about the news that he had risen; every one had to decide how to live when the tomb was empty and despite the plain sense of his death, there was this amazing experience where it was clear that he was saying, “Still I rise”. Every one of them had to decide whether to keep running or to rise with him, to go to Galilee, to look for him, follow him.

Where is Galilee? It’s where they came from, where they started. Jesus is going back to the beginning and starting over: that’s where they will see him. Their lives are about to start over because these lives are lived beyond the fear of death. The great question about the Christian movement of the first century is what powered it, what allowed it to change history. The answer is the people Jesus changed; the answer is the people who saw him rise and took his resurrection as the pattern for their own lives. Jesus was risen and they were able to say with him, still I rise.
It’s the same with us. We are prepared to go to the grave; we are good at raising the money to buy spices, we can discuss how to move the stone. But are we ready to leave the grave and go to Galilee? Can we take Easter home, can we take it wherever we go? Still I rise, he says: despite what we thought, he calls us, invites us, forgives us, commands us. Come see me: come follow me.

He’s gone ahead and when we see that, we’re ready to take the next step, to let go of our fears, accept his forgiveness and follow him. Easter isn’t a day, it’s an invitation: come see me. The gospels tell us how he appeared over and over to people, and his message is always the same: love one another, see me, follow me, because still, I rise: even when you don’t believe it, even when you don’t understand it, still I rise.

Peter denied him but it’s Peter he calls back to tend his sheep.

Mary ran in fear but it’s Mary who first meets him on the way.

Thomas won’t believe him but it’s Thomas who feels his wounds.

To the powerful who prey on the poor, his presence says: still I rise. To the hopeless who cannot find the way out of darkness, he says, “I am the light of the world”—still I rise. To us, to all of us, who come here, wondering, he says: still I rise. Come follow me. Come: because on your way, on your journey, you will see me: for still I rise.

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.

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday Communion Table First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

Right Here, Right Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Palm Sunday/A • April 9, 2017

Matthew 26:1-11

To Hear the Sermon Preached, Click Below

“I love a parade”. It’s a comic line in the movie Life of Brian, sung as the bloody procession to the cross goes on. It’s a thought many of us have at times. I grew up going to parades on Memorial Day; the route passed in front of my grandparents’ house and it was always a big day; ranks of soldiers, some fresh from wars, marching, bands, military vehicles and the Trenton fire trucks, notable because unlike normal fire trucks, theirs were painted a sort of grayish beige. Later there would be a picnic and the men would play horse shoes and drink beer and eat oysters.

Do you love parades? For years many of us have come to Palm Sunday like crowds to a parade, waving bits of greenery, anxious for the happy sermon of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem after all the dark Lenten texts. We love the parade: but what is the purpose of the parade?

The Palm Sunday Parade

Perhaps if we pull back and see the parade in context we’ll understand it better. Jesus and his followers have mostly moved through small villages on their journey. Last week we followed him to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem and into Judea where he has already encountered opposition. Now he’s going up to Jerusalem: up, because Jerusalem sits on a small mountain, Jerusalem because it is the capital city, the center of Jewish life.

Along the winding path are crowds of other pilgrims because it’s Passover. Well, parades always mean crowds, don’t they? They are singing the songs of Passover, of pilgrimage, they are looking forward to the celebration and the holiday and running underneath it all is the reminder of how God once defeated a mighty military power, Egypt, for that is the heart of the Passover story. Who knows when God might act against the Romans? We know that Passover often led to riots. Three thousand were killed in a Passover riot near the time of Jesus and these crowds are restless.

For this is not the only parade going on. At almost exactly the same time, Pilate is also coming to Jerusalem. Just like our parades of soldiers and military vehicles, the Romans used parades to show off their might. So on the other side of Jerusalem, there is another parade going on, Pilate and his Roman soldiers, banners in the breeze, swords at their sides, shields and spears held high, are marching into Jerusalem as well, a vivid demonstration of the power of the Emperor and the King he has appointed here, Herod Antipas.

The people around Jesus know about this other parade but they also know God has promised a King on David’s throne, not a puppet like Herod. They remember the words of Zechariah,

Tell Zion’s daughter,
 “Look, your king’s on his way, poised and ready, mounted 
On a donkey, on a colt, foal of a pack animal.”

Hosanna!

So when Jesus appears, riding a donkey, surely a shout goes up. “Hosanna!” Hosanna is a cheer; throwing your garments and greenery down is like putting out the red carpet, it is saying that this person is so important, even their donkey must not touch the ground. Hosanna to the King who comes in the name of the Lord. Now to us, this doesn’t sound so awful; often Palm Sunday celebrations include the shout. But to the Romans, to Herod, to the Temple Priests, it is treason. No Kingdom has two kings. Inevitably, one gets rid of the other. If Jesus comes as king, the reigning king will surely seek to kill him. Already, even before he arrives, there is a plot to arrest Jesus; even as he is acclaimed, others are seeking to destroy him.

The Lord Has Need of It

So here we are: crowds happily shouting, police plotting, Jesus riding, the disciples smiling, all moving slowly up the paths to Jerusalem. But how did we get here? We have to back up in the story to understand and perhaps to understand the whole story. There is Jesus, riding on a donkey. Where did that donkey come from? How does a man who owns nothing suddenly get a donkey?

Of course if you were listening as we read the story, you remember Jesus told two of his disciples to go to a village and get a donkey. Just like that: go to the village, you’ll find a donkey with a foal tied up, go untie them and bring them along. Now donkeys are the cars of the first century. So just imagine if I said to one of you on a Saturday night, “Hey, we need a car for church tomorrow. Go out to Slingerlands to this address and get one.” What would you say? How hard would you laugh? I wonder how the disciples reacted. Even more, I wonder about the owner of the donkey and the colt. These represent a substantial investment. I imagine somehow Jesus must have talked to him. There must have been a moment when he told this guy, “Hey, I need your donkey.” What would you say? What did he say?

“The Lord has need of it.” That’s what the disciples are told to say. It’s a simple phrase. “The Lord has need of it.” Think of the money in your purse or your wallet right now, right here. Imagine someone saying, “The Lord has need of it.” Now think of something more valuable. You know, we have a boat in Baltimore. I love that little sloop. Thirty five feet of classic water lines with a wood interior, sails like she knows the way with hardly any help. She’s a better sailor than I am, I just try to keep up with her. Now I tried to imagine hearing, “The Lord has need of it” about my boat this week. And I confess, I don’t know what I would say, how I would respond.

So I think about that donkey owner and I wonder if he had a bad night. I wonder if he was up early, peeking out, hoping against hope that the call wouldn’t come, that what he had been told wouldn’t happen. I imagine a quiet early morning as he looks out and sees the moving shadows the disciples, hopes they are going somewhere else, knows they are not. Finally they are at his gate; he opens it, they look at each other and say what they’ve been told: “The Lord has need of it.” It’s just the three of them and the animals and he has to make a choice. Right here, right now he has to decide.

“I have decided to follow Jesus,” we sometimes sing. But what about when it’s a decision right here, right now? Of course, in the story, he turns over the donkey and her foal and the disciples go off with them to Jesus and the rest, well, we’ve already talked about the rest: the parade, the entrance, the shouts as Jesus rides that donkey that he has because someone when it counted, right here, right now, said yes, met Jesus without Jesus even being present, met him in the decision to do what the Lord needed.

For the story of Holy Week, all the stories of Holy Week, from this parade to the other parade, the one that goes to Golgotha, are all about people meeting Jesus. We’ve been talking about the conversations before the cross and now it’s coming near and all these meetings, all these conversations, ask us about our own conversation with Jesus, about whether we are ready to meet him ourselves.

Meeting Jesus

Joanna Williams is a retired Presbyterian minister, who shared this story of meeting Jesus.

In the years that I’ve been a minister, I have known some winning churches and lots of winners in them. One who comes to mind is a young man in my first congregation, an advertising executive on the rise in his profession. Every Tuesday night he volunteered at the foot clinic for the homeless people who made their home in our church gymnasium. Robert was his name. He was the nattiest dresser I had ever seen. I can picture him now in my mind’s eye, wearing a crisp shirt, red suspenders.
I see him sitting on a stool before the chair on which one of our homeless guests is sitting. He takes the guest’s feet and places them in a basin of warm water. He takes a towel and dries the feet. He applies ointment to their sores. The ritual ends with the gift of a clean, white pair of socks.
I see the man in the chair, as he slips his socks on, brush a tear from his own cheek-a tough guy whom no one has touched with tenderness in a very long time.
I once asked Robert, the advertising executive on the move, why he came to the foot clinic every week. He brushed me aside, saying, “I figure I have a better chance of running into Jesus here than most places. That’s all.”
I watched him week after week. I realized as I watched him that I was developing my own sort of double vision. I was seeing Christ in the stranger that he served. I was also seeing Christ in the one who was finding deep meaning in his life through serving others.

Jesus comes to Palm Sunday riding a donkey but more importantly he comes because some disciple had the faith to say when the call came, “Yes, Lord!”

Right here, right now, we are being asked to meet Jesus, to follow him, to go with him throughout this week. We all have schedules to keep, things to do but this is what this story tells us about our time: “The Lord has need of it.” You’ve heard the conversations before the cross: now it’s time for your own conversation. Jesus has come to Jerusalem: has he come to you? Can you hear him say about your own time, your own life, right here, right now, “The Lord has need of it”?

Amen

Face Forward

Click Below to Listen to the Sermon Being Preached

Face Forward
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
18th Sunday After Pentecost/C • September 18, 2016

What’s your favorite recipe? Most of us have one: a set of steps we go through to make something we like. We have recipes for the way we live, too, patterns that tell us how to do things from weddings to funerals. We live, in fact, with a great store of patterns that whisper with the voices of the past. How do planning sessions usually start?—“What did we do last year.” These voices are like ghosts, telling us how to do things, what we should do. But the ghosts can blind us to new possibilities. Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, traces the downfall of an entire family because they are controlled by their past. Which way are you looking: are you seeing only where you’ve been or looking forward to new possibilities?

Living With Change

Jesus lived in the midst of great economic changes. For centuries the villages of Galilee had functioned with a few very poor and even fewer very rich people. The hillsides were terraced and full of small farms and olive groves. The villages themselves were home to craftspeople like Jesus’ father, a maker of wooden tools. History focuses on the blood and fire of battles and kings; in the Galilee, life went on, day to day, year to year, in the same way for hundreds of years. People were born, lived, died. New settlers moved in, others left. Not much changed.

But after a long period of civil wars and wars of conquest, the Roman Emperor Augustus had created a settled system of rule. Rich Romans and others, benefitting from trade and Imperial preferment, began to buy up the small farms and turn them into larger businesses. Of course, these people didn’t want to live out in the rural areas; having pushed small farmers off the land, they hired managers, stewards, who had the authority to act on their behalf, while the owners themselves lived in luxury in cities. Often the former farm owners worked for the new landowner but now as a kind of sharecropper, owing a portion of the produce to the new owner. These loans were written with owed amount including interest payments, often large ones; after all the sharecropper had no choice but to accept the terms.

The Situation of the Steward

I’ve taken this detour into economics, hoping you’ve stayed with me, so you will understand the situation behind the parable we read. Imagine the man called the steward in the story. Perhaps he grew up on one of the little family farms that no long exist. Perhaps his family had lived there for generations, passing the land down. But the chain has broken; things have changed. Imagine how happy he must have been when he got the job as the steward for the big landowner. No more trying to scratch out a living; no more worry about the bills. His position would make him a big man in a small town.

So he makes deals, loans; after all, that’s his job. Some of these are large. The amounts in the story are tremendous: the oil amounts to 900 gallons of olive oil. The steward himself works on a commission; the more he squeezes the farmers, the more he makes. So while he may have been a leading citizen, I imagine he was someone people more feared than liked. When he walked into the local tavern, conversations quieted, people looked away, perhaps someone behind on his loan left.

When someone got hurt by his pursuit of profit, I imagine him saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Perhaps he crosses some lines; perhaps he makes a few shady deals, perhaps his accounting is off or perhaps he just openly steals. There are complaints, maybe there is an investigation. We don’t know how things came to a head, but there is a crisis. He’s about to be fired.

Now imagine the night after this message. He’s about to go from a big man in a small town to unemployed. This crisis isn’t just business: now it’s him and it’s personal. He considers the alternatives, rejecting them one by one: ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” [Luke 16:3] Shame, strength, these things limit his alternatives. But he has one thing going for him: he’s a smart, crafty guy. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place; now he uses it to find a way forward. He uses it to change things.

Making a Change: Facing Forward

The change he makes is to put relationships first. His only hope is to create a situation where he will, as he says, be welcomed into the homes of people in the town. So one by one he calls them in. One by one, he cancels the interest on their loans.

Can you imagine their reaction? Suppose your mortgage company called and said, “We’ve reviewed your account and decided to give you the title, free and clear.” Suppose your credit card company said, “We’ve decided to cancel your remaining balance. Thanks for being a customer.” Imagine it: can you? It’s hard isn’t it, because these things don’t happen. It’s hard to imagine the joy of those people in the story. It’s hard to believe that joy. Change is like that. We are so used to living from where we’ve been, we forget to face forward.

Jesus tells this story about an amazing change, and it takes your breath away. What happens here is wrong, what happens here is illegal. This steward has no business using his client’s business to improve his relationships, to set himself up for the future.

Reacting to the Parable

This story is so wrong that even before Luke wrote it into his gospel, preachers were trying to figure out why Jesus told it. The parable itself is just the first seven or so verses of the reading; the other lines are a series of interpretations. One commentator said, “You can almost see the sermon notes here.” We can even hear an echo of the disciples at verse eight, where it says, “The master commended the dishonest manager..” The word that’s used there for ‘master’ is usually translated, ‘Lord’; it’s the same term used for Jesus. Imagine Jesus telling his disciples this story, see them waiting for him to condemn such dishonest, money grubbing, cheating stewards and then see the surprise on their faces when Jesus ends the story with the dishonest steward coming out great at the end after cheating his employer, just as he had cheated others. What can the Lord have in mind?

What Is Jesus Saying?

Perhaps it is meant to show the disciples how to face forward. The crisis of discipleship cannot be met with old recipes and his disciples must face a new world where they find new ways. We see this all over the preaching of Jesus. “Forgive,” he says, and what is forgiveness but the decision to cut the chains of past hurts and face forward into a future without the dead weight of old anger, old resentment, old fear? In his ultimate moment, at the last supper, he will remind them of Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant, not like the old covenant. His whole life, his death, his resurrection are meant to show God breaking into our lives in a new way.

An Example of Facing Forward

The movie Scully is a simple story of a 208-second long flight that began as an ordinary trip from LaGuardia airport to Charlottesville, VA. I’m sure the passengers were full of everyday thoughts as they waited to board, found their seats, stowed their luggage. I can almost say the speeches of the flight attendants as the flight got underway. “Please make sure your seatbelt are securely fastened…The cabin door is now closed, cellphones must be turned off or placed in airport mode for the duration of the flight…” The aircraft backs away from the terminal, taxis into position, the pilots are given clearance and there is that exhilarating moment when they are rushing down the runway, jumping into the air in a moment that still seems magical.

The flight departed at 3:25 PM. Three minutes into the flight, when the airplane was still under 10,000 feet, the magic ended. Hit by a flock of birds, both engines died. The airplane was powerless; decisions had to be made. The recipe said to return to the airport and land the plane.

At first, Captain Sulzberger, the pilot announced he was taking this option but within seconds he realized it wouldn’t work. Moments later he committed to landing the aircraft on the Hudson River off Manhattan. Water landings are extremely difficult but Sulzberger believed that although this wasn’t the right answer, it was the right course of action.

At 3:30, less than five minutes after departing, he successfully landed in the Hudson; flight attendants evacuated the passengers onto the wings, some going into the river. All were rescued, along with the flight crew, by police and ferry boats. Sulzberger saved 155 lives that day by facing the future in seconds. The movie focuses on the FAA investigation and attempts to show the old recipes would have worked: it ends with the understanding that it was Sulzberger’s capacity to face forward in seconds that saved those people’s lives.

Facing Forward With Jesus

“On the way…” is the most frequent comment about Jesus. He always faced forward and it’s significant that this shocking story of change beyond normal boundaries is addressed explicitly to his disciples.

Every day brings occasions that ask whether we will follow the recipes we’ve been given or face forward and find new answers. I wonder: what blessings would you plant facing forward? I wonder: Jesus mentioned even a small seed, a tiny one, like a mustard seed, might just grow into a huge, unexpected tree, might have an effect we never imagined.

Amen.