Where Are You Staying?

Where Are You Staying?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Easter/A • May 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our church’s purpose statement says that our purpose

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

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

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

Amen

Got Anything Good? – Learning the Lord’s Prayer 3


A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Lent • February 28, 2016

What do you need every day? I suppose most of us have a daily routine: clean up, something to drink, something to eat, something to do. Most of this is a matter of choice: what do you really need? We can go about three minutes without air; more if you are a trained diver. The average person can go three days without water, although some have survived longer. We can go about three weeks without food; Mahatma Gandhi survived a 21 day fast. We can go a long time without light but it disorients us and distorts our time sense. Solo sailors on long voyages often report hallucinations; Joshua Slocum, the first person we know to have survived a solo circumnavigation, reported a period when he believed someone else was on board, helping him navigate. Simon and Garfunkel famously sang, “I am a rock, I am an island” but in fact we can’t survive in isolation: we need things, we need each other.

The first human experience is a fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer. An infant must be fed, must be cleaned, must be held or the child will not survive. An infant can’t provide these things. Instead, as we all know, babies develop a complex way of signaling their needs and making life unpleasant for unresponsive parents. “Give me” is in that sense our very first prayer, and if it isn’t for bread, it is the same prayer. Give me what I need. The need is supplied: the supply is gift and in the gift a bond of love is formed. “Give us our daily bread.” Last Sunday we talked about the first request of the Lord’s Prayer: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Just as that prayer turns to the heavenly father, this prayer asks the heavenly father toward us, toward our needs. Like an infant asking for milk, like a child hungry for dinner, we come to God: “Give us our daily bread.”

Bread was both symbol and fact of daily life in Jesus’ time. Surely he means to remind us of Israel’s time in the wilderness, when the cry for bread was answered by manna, a bread like substance on which the people fed and which came as the gift of God. Surely he means to remind us of the great feast Isaiah imagined. Bread there is what sustains, and the feast itself is the gift of God, a gift to be given to everyone: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” Surely he means as well to remind them of the great time when they believed a crowd would go away hungry and miraculously all were fed.

On their return the apostles told Jesus all they had done. He took them with him and withdrew privately to a city called Bethsaida. 1When the crowds found out about it, they followed him; and he welcomed them, and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed to be cured. 12The day was drawing to a close, and the twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away, so that they may go into the surrounding villages and countryside, to lodge and get provisions; for we are here in a deserted place.

There they are, in a deserted place, a place that must have felt to them like a wilderness. No McDonalds, no Stewarts, no Dunkin Donuts, not even a gas station in sight. Yet even there, bread is provided. They bring what they have to Jesus, intending obviously for him to get the message: five loaves, a couple of fish, not enough, not nearly enough. Yet when he blesses what they have, somehow everyone is fed and there are 12 baskets of leftovers. “Give us this day our daily bread” reminds us that our source is not ourselves but the gift of God.

The importance of the gift is part of the story of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. Do you remember the story? Jesus is baptized; immediately, he is called into the wilderness. Some versions say he was led there; some that he literally “thrown into the wilderness”. The wilderness is more than geography or climate, it is the place where Israel met God, where God formed the people and gave the covenant. Jesus is in the wilderness, according to the story 40 days, a Biblical number that really means “complete”.

While he’s there, he’s hungry, and the tempter comes. Jesus has just been embraced and heard the Spirit call him the son of God; now the tempter takes this great blessing, this wonderful moment, and turns it around: “If you are the song of God, command this stone to become bread.” You know this temptation, don’t you? You’re at home; there’s food in the fridge you could make, but you’re hungry and there are potato chips so… What would it mean to be hungry and told you could easy as waving turn stones to bread? Stop relying on God and God’s way: just do it yourself. Most of us know this temptation because so often we’ve given into it. We substitute things we make for bread that satisfies: the list is endless, from career success to how we look, how much we make, how many likes we have on Facebook. Jesus replies to the temptation by turning to God’s Word, saying that we do not live by bread alone.

“Give us this day our daily bread.” Bread is easy for us to get today. We stop into a store, pick some up off a rack, the only difficulty all the choices: white, whole wheat, rye, whole grain, cinnamon, so many types. But in Jesus’ day, bread had to be made, then as now, from basic ingredients: flour, oil, yeast, baked in an oven. Most people didn’t have these things on their own. You might raise the grain; but it had to be milled, and for that you traded grain. You might have olives to make oil, but you needed a press, and you might trade for that. Ovens weren’t individual, they were a community resource, a place where people gathered together to bake together. They were a focus of community life, like the village well, a place to go and talk and laugh and share and gossip and finally take the hot loaf of bread from the oven. So when Jesus speaks of being given our daily bread, surely he has in mind this sort of community. You can raise lentils and make lentil stew on your own but it takes a whole community to make bread. This is the effect of bread. So it is with us. We sing, “One bread, one body, one Lord of all”, at communion, reminding ourselves that sharing the bread of communion binds us into the body of Jesus Christ. For as the Apostle Paul said, “The bread which we break, does it not mean [that in eating it] we participate in and share a fellowship (a communion) in the body of Christ?”

So: packed into this one prayer we remember and acknowledge we live not alone as a result of our own efforts but within a community, where so much of what we need comes not as reward but as gift. There is one more thing this prayer has to teach: it says, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Jesus teaches here as he does elsewhere a focus on the dailyness of life, the nowness of our lives. I’ve been going to the yoga class here on Tuesday nights for a little over a year, off and on. I’m not very good at yoga; I have trouble keeping up with the poses. I struggle along, better some weeks than others. But the hardest thing for me at yoga isn’t the poses or the effort or the stretching it is the constant encouragement to be present, to focus on that moment and not let my mind wander off to other places. I live with a constant future tug; there’s always next Sunday’s sermon, next month’s worship, next year’s strategy. So given the chance, my mind will happily go off there, thinking about what’s going to happen Sunday, what’s going to happen Easter. Jesus means to bring me back, I think, as he does with each of us. The manna in the desert was a daily thing; in fact, only on the day before sabbath could more than today’s need be gathered, anything over would go bad. “Give us this day our daily bread” means to bring us back to today: what do we need today to live as God’s people?

We have seen already how Jesus’ prayer means to turn us to a relationship of loving intimacy with God when he begins, “Our father”, or as I suggested, “Hiya Dad”. Then he moves to inviting God’s rule in our lives: “Thy kingdom come”. Now in the prayer he asks us each day to focus on today, to remember thankfully how we are sustained by God’s gifts; to remember that live from God’s gifts. So this week, each day, every day: let us indeed pray with Jesus, seeking to live as the body of christ, sustained by the bread of life.

Amen.

Hiya Dad – Learning the Lord’s Prayer 1

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This past week New Hampshire conducted its presidential primary and the thing that struck me most was not the results but the process: individuals going to candidates at forums, meetings, even on the street and asking questions. It made me wonder: what would you like to ask Jesus? Suppose he appeared to you as he did to Peter, to John, to Mary, to Paul. Suppose you had just a moment, as they had, what would you ask?
The gospels are full of questions. Rabbinic teaching to this day is a dialogue: a question is posed, the rabbi, the teacher, ponders the question in the light of Torah and tradition. So the greatest prayer in our worship comes, not as a teaching from nowhere, but as a response to a question.

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus answers, according to Luke, with what we now call, The Lord’s Prayer, beginning, “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

But this prayer comes not only as a response to the disciple’s question, it comes as a response to God. The sailor in a storm, the soldier in a battle, the spouse in a hospital waiting room, pray in response to something larger, some great event that moves their spirit. In the same way, our prayers are evoked, our prayers come in response to God’s great creative work. Wherever we go, there are moments of beauty that call to us, that speak to us, and the response is a prayer.

Surely the disciple asking the question knows how to pray. Prayer has a long history, so long we can’t mark it’s origin. Anne Lamott famously said there are just two real prayers: “Help me help me help me” and “thank you thank you thank you”. Surely in the dawn of human consciousness, both prayers were offered. For in that dawn, living on the edge of survival, humans must have felt the same fear we feel when we are threatened. And in that fear, their souls must surely have cried out for help, help from some power greater, some force stronger, some actor who could change things in their favor: “help me help me help me”. So too, in times of satisfaction, when the hunt was successful or perhaps appreciating the beauty of a moment, of a scene they had come upon, their hearts opened like ours and they said, as we do, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Over centuries, those simple prayers became ritualized, formalized into specific words. Humans imagined a rich former time when gods walked and they invoked them with prayers and worship they believed would benefit their communities and themselves.

In Jesus’ time, prayers were public performances. Ancient near eastern religion included the adoration of statues meant to symbolize gods and ceremonies that were intended to mimic their actions. In Babylon, for example, a New Year’s festival involved leveling the great dirt road outside the city, constructing a platform on which the king rode into a stadium where he slew a lion, replicating one of the stories of the god Marduk. Roman religion was practiced at great temples, through a system of sacrifices of animals. Much of the ancient near east practiced such prayer. We have a reflection of those ceremonies in Jesus’ teaching. Matthew’s gospel precedes the Lord’s Prayer with Jesus’ condemnation of ceremonies his disciples must have seen. He speaks of a procession of prayer, with a trumpet going first; he speaks of people standing in synagogues and on street corners, loudly proclaiming their prayers. Instead, he tells his followers, go to some place private and offer a prayer that looks like this—and then he teaches the Lord’s Prayer.

With this history of ritualized, public prayer, where the words of the prayer themselves are specified, where the point is the effect on the crowd, and the honor the prayer receives, the prayer Jesus teaches and its context is striking. First, he teaches that prayer is private: its location is in the quiet room of the soul. Prayer is not a public ceremony, it’s a private conversation.

Second, he begins his prayer with a shocking statement of intimacy: “Our Father”. It doesn’t sound that intimate in English, does it? We miss the effect. In Jesus’ original language, however, the opening word is “Abba”. Now Abba is a term of intimacy; it doesn’t so much mean, “our Father”, as “Daddy” or “Poppa”; you can supply another word if you wish. The Bible is perfectly comfortable with images of God that imagine a mother’s love, in fact the prophet Hosea pictures God like a woman working in a field, drawing us with what are called cords of compassion. What the text really means is a sort of leather leash mothers used to keep track of children while they worked. In loving families, parents are often called by some word, some name, that is less a name than a claim of relationship. Instead of saying, “our father”, I think sometimes we should begin this prayer, “Hiya, Dad”.

Imagine that; try it out in your head: “Hiya Dad”. It claims something about God, and at the same time it says something about you too, doesn’t it? It claims a relationship imperishable, unbreakable. It speaks not only the identity of the one addressed but also our own place. For no equal calls someone Daddy, no other power speaks this name; it is a child thing, to say it is not only to say who God is, it is to say that we are children of God. This is the meaning of “our Father”: that we have an imperishable, intimate, unbreakable relationship with God defined by God’s care for us and God’s intention to help us grow up. It is to say that we are before God children, who may at times run off, get into trouble, but ultimately are called back and cared for by a power greater than we can imagine, nurtured by a love we cannot escape. Calvinists have a name for this love, they call it “violent grace”. It means simply that God can save us even when we don’t want to be saved. So indeed, to pray, “our father”, abba, is to recognize God loves us even when we don’t want to be loved, even when we, like an angry adolescent, say to God, “You’re not going to walk with me, are you?”

“Hiya Dad” claims a relationship and the relationship precedes anything else. There is no thank you here, no request for help, nothing but that one shocking claim: you and God together are bonded in some way that is beyond any earthly attempts to break the bond. Perhaps that’s why he immediately locates this parent “Our father who art in heaven.” Where is heaven? Another time thought of the universe as layered, earth here, heaven above, some kind of underworld below. But heaven is much more than geography. Heaven is the place where God’s intention is fully realized, where God’s rule, God’s will, is fully expressed. To say “who art in heaven” is also to claim a relationship, it is to say that we have a home there, we have a home in heaven with this dad, this parent, this mom. For part of the heart of the relationship is to say, this is who our people are, this is where we come from. One of my favorite camp songs says, “I’ve got a home in glory land that out shines the sun…” Maybe you know it. Heaven is home, a true home, and like home, we come home through this prayer. It’s meant to transport us, remind us who we are: children in the home of the loving God.

So the final part of the opening of the prayer shouldn’t surprise us: “hallowed be your name.” I guess more misunderstanding comes from this than any other part. When I was a kid, I didn’t know the word ‘hallowed’, I thought it meant ‘hollowed’. I didn’t understand why God’s name would be hollowed out, like a gourd. Hallowed is actually, of course, just an old English way of saying, “Great!” or “Praised!” It is a reminder, right form the beginning, of God’s greatness.

“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” Hi dad, I remember home, and how great you are. Perhaps Lamott is right in general about prayer but this prayer does not begin with anything God has done for us, or anything we hope God will do. It isn’t about doing at all at the opening. Before the doing, before the hope, there is just this great, ringing affirmation of relationship. Hiya dad—I’m yours, I’m your child; I know you’re in heaven—I know you are my home. Hallowed be thy name—I know your greatness, your goodness, and I live within it. This is the beginning of Jesus’ prayer and it’s meant to be prayed as the beginning. Right from the beginning, before we ask, before we are asked, we are meant to remember: whose we are, who we are.

This week, I want to give you an assignment, and it’s simple. Just prayer this one line, this one sentence, each day as a prayer. Do it right: go somewhere private, alone, no cell phone, no TV, no screens at all, just you and the quiet. Breathed, wait until you are calm and then pray the prayer. And then, see if you can find your own words. What word expresses the intimate caretaker for you? Where is the home of that one? What praise would you give? “Our father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” We are meant to pray this in our homes, in our hearts. Let us indeed claim our relationship and our home with God for we do indeed, have a home in glory land that outshines the sun.
Amen.