Easter 3B – Mary and Manitude

Mary and Manitude

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Easter • April 15, 2018
John 20:11-18

A man with long legs gets on an airplane. The exit row seats have a bit more leg room and the helpful flight attendant suggests he sit in one of them. He replies, “Those seats don’t recline.” She says, “They do, actually.” He replies, “No they don’t.” She smiles and says, “Why don’t you sit down and explain why you think you know more about this plane than I do?” He just goes off—to a different seat, obviously secure in his rightness, even though in fact he is wrong. That’s manitude.

A woman driving a shuttle bus pulls up to a hotel with some passengers. She’s brought them to a side door. The hotel, she tells them, is being renovated; check-in is in a room through the door. The passengers get off; one couple heads around the building to the former lobby. A few minutes later, they are still wandering, as the man assures his wife that there must be a check-in somewhere and they finally get directions from a man. That’s manitude.

Some women come to the disciples and tell them they’ve been to the tomb of Jesus and it’s empty. But no one believes them. Luke says: “…they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”[Luke 21:11] Mark’s version, as we heard on Easter Sunday, says Mary didn’t even bother to tell them; as I was discussing it that week, more than one woman said, “Oh, I understand that, they wouldn’t have believed her anyway.” That’s manitude.

“Manitude” is an attitude that diminishes and deprecates the contributions of women in favor of males, especially higher status males. These are gender-based examples but the same tendency is found in other places, the tendency to value based on gender, class, race or some other category that has nothing to do with competence.

As I said last week, I want to think with you about the resurrection experience of these earliest Christians. Because the resurrection is the ultimate recommendation of Jesus. This is what we say: believe him because he overcame death, even death on a cross. Nowhere is there any account of the resurrection itself. What we have instead are accounts of people meeting the Risen Lord, encountering him. And right from the beginning, these are conditioned by culture and Manitude and the lives of the individuals involved. Yet their accounts contain the seeds that can bloom into our own spiritual lives. Last week, I talked about how sharing our wounds, as Jesus did with Thomas, can connect us. Today I want to reflect on how we can hear more clearly the voice of the Lord speaking in our midst.

All the gospels agree that Mary of Magdala is either the first or among the first to discover Jesus has left the tomb. But the church remembered that she wasn’t believed. In some versions, she doesn’t tell the disciples; in others, as I mentioned, they don’t believe her. The critical point is that these disciples who have walked with Jesus, eaten with Jesus, listened to Jesus as he told them over and over that he would go to his death and then be resurrected did not believe him and therefore didn’t believe Mary’s story.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this very comforting. It turns out the earliest Christians are just like me: they don’t believe what they can’t see and touch. Even when they hear the Lord has risen, their first reaction is, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Maybe you’ve had that reaction about some Christian ideas; maybe you just decided to set them aside. I know at times I’ve done that. Some I’ve come back to; some I never have.

But Mary’s experience isn’t just the absence of Jesus’ body; she also encounters the Risen, living Lord. As we read in the gospel of John, as she stands weeping outside the tomb, she meets three persons. Just as in other accounts, two of them are dressed in white, angels who tell her that Jesus isn’t there. But then,

14…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). [John 20:14-16]

There are some details to notice here. First, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. The same is true in other stories, including the encounter of some disciples near Emmaus. Even when you meet the Risen Lord, you may not know it. It’s a stunning idea, isn’t it? Have you met the Risen Lord and missed him because you didn’t know who he was?

It’s when Jesus addresses her directly that the situation changes. He calls her name, “Mary”. Think of it: the Son of God, the Risen Lord, the personal, image of God remembers her name. With that one word, we know that Jesus is not seeing her through the cloudy lens of her gender or class or anything else except her true self. There’s nothing in the way. She’s not a woman, she’s not a well-off merchant, she’s not a Jew, she’s simply Mary.. She is a child of God.

The second is her response. When he recognizes her, she also recognizes him and she calls out to him, not a name, but a relationship: “Rabouni,” a Hebrew word that means something like “Teacher”. But it embraces more than a vocation: she is claiming him, naming a direct relationship in which she is already agreeing to be guided by his words, taught by his sayings. 
He isn’t just a teacher: he is her teacher.

We do not come to Jesus, Jesus comes to us, and he’s most likely to come to us when we cry. Just as he uses his wounds to summon Thomas and the others, there is something about a person crying out that summons Jesus. We see that over and over in the healing stories. The modern Protestant orthodoxy we grew up with tended to minimize the healings but in fact, Mark offers healings as the first acts of Jesus’ ministry: an exorcism, and the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. It’s significant that Mary is crying when he comes to her in the garden. She is not seeking him; there is no come to Jesus moment here. Instead, he comes to her.

So the whole project of evangelistic pressure to believe what cannot be seen is illegitimate. We may be called to believe what we haven’t seen but it’s a call of the heart; no genuine faith comes from the social coercion of shame. The Lord waits to be recognized, coming to us when we are ready, calling us by name, speaking into our hearts. We do not know when this will happen to someone. And this is where the issue of manitude comes in. For when we screen out the insights and visions of someone, we may be missing a genuine vision of the Lord.

We’ve just come through Passover, when God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is remembered, an act of salvation. That story really begins with a moment when Moses sees a burning bush in the distance and decides to turn aside and see this sight. When he does, he hears the call of God. The Rabbis have asked, “How long was the bush burning?” and their answer is 400 years: it started burning when the Jews were first enslaved. “What would have happened if someone had noticed the bush burning 100 years before Moses?”—to which they answer, we would have been saved 100 years earlier. [https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/the-yearning-burning-bush/]

We cannot afford to screen out, to miss, visions and hopes; we need everyone to share because who knows which one has seen the Lord. This is a hard concept to get across. Most church organizations do not really believe it and since most of us have been somewhere else, we don’t believe it either. Early on, the church tragically adopted the Roman Empire hierarchy as its model. So it preached that there were different orders of Christians. In the west, the top guy was and is the Pope, with bishops under him, and so on. Protestants mostly took over this organization; they just replaced the pope with a king or a group of bishops. Even some Puritans, who became Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, took over the idea that somehow clergy had a special connection to inspiration.

We don’t. I don’t. I have a graduate degree in theology, mostly in the Bible. I have lots of education in administering a church, some training in counseling. I have several decades of experience leading worship. But I don’t have any more access to Jesus and to God than you do; you don’t have more than I. This is the great insight of the first Congregationalists and it is still the heart of what makes this way of doing church so important. We know each other here as equal covenant partners in this congregation. At our best, we act without manitude, we listen to everyone, we care for each one.

That leads me to ask something of you. We need to hear from each other; we need to hear about moments of inspiration, we need to hear what this church means to you. We need to hear what others in the church need, we need to hear your insights on our next steps. We’re about six weeks from our Annual Meeting. You all know how dull these often are. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone came prepared to say a word about what makes them thankful for this church? Wouldn’t it be amazing if people came and shared their vision of what we should do next year? Wouldn’t it be incredible if people volunteered to plan and create those next steps?

I want to get in the habit of making suggestions. For almost four years I’ve picked the hymns. Some you liked, some you didn’t, some you refused to sing. That’s ok. What if we shared this? In your bulletin today there’s a card that invites you to make some suggestions about worship. Please fill it out; you can drop it off in the office, you can put it in the offering plate. You can take it home, think about it and send it back. Send a letter with it, if you wish, something to share in the newsletter.

Manitude is that human tendency, often gendered, to not hear someone because you don’t respect them. It might be because of gender, or race or class or age or appearance or sexuality. We can’t afford it. The disciples missed the first reports of the resurrection because they didn’t believe them, possibly because they came from women. Every Easter we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Don’t miss him; don’t miss hearing others who have seen him. When we connect as a congregation of Christ, sharing our wounds, loving each other as he commanded, he promised to be present in our midst. He is; he always is.

Amen.

Easter 2B – The Owie Report

The Owie Report

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2018

Second Sunday in Easter/B • April 8, 2018

Acts 4:32-35 • John 20:19-31

Click below to hear the sermon preached

My family was never close and I moved away when I went to college. So my two younger brothers and I never really knew each other as adults. When my dad died and we gathered, it was a strange experience. But what I remember most about that time is that we were all so wounded that it overcame our midwestern male refusal to admit we were in pain. In our grief, we had a night of sharing ourselves, connecting to each other.

Now when we listen to the stories of the disciples after the Easter, we hear how those around Jesus connected, were changed and began to share their lives in the way we now call the church. They connected in a new way to Jesus; they connected to each other. These stories are meant to teach us how to do it.

I want to skip the story about the first meeting encounter between the resurrected Lord and the disciples; we’ll come back to that in a few weeks, so here’s your chance to feel you’re a little ahead on things. I want to get to Thomas. It’s an odd story, isn’t it? Thomas is a twin; he’s often referred to this way, “Thomas the twin”. And this isn’t the first time we’ve heard of him. When the word comes to Jesus that his friend Lazarus is dying and Jesus tells his disciples he’s going back to see him, the disciples are scared; they just got out of there ahead of arrest. Thomas says, “Let’s go back and die with him.” It feels like an ironic comment. Next, when Jesus is speaking about his death and resurrection and he says, “You know where I’m going,” Thomas interrupts and says, “No, we don’t: we don’t know where you are going.” He is one of the few disciples quoted and his comments are a strange mix of irony and doubt.

Now we have this story near the end of the gospel. Sometimes we collapse the story of Easter into a day but the record of the early church is that instead, it was a progressive unfolding of revelation, understanding, and vision. We can see that in this story. John tells the story of the resurrection in three stages. First, Mary encounters Jesus in the garden. We’ll come back to that story next week. Next, Jesus appears to his disciples in a locked room and literally inspires them; we read that this morning and we’ll come back to it in a few weeks. Finally, a week later, the Lord appears again, seemingly specifically for Thomas, who was absent the first time.

Where was Thomas? We don’t know. I suppose we all miss meetings sometimes; we forget the date or something comes up. We get sick, we get late. Things happen. Surely the disciples are reeling in grief after the death of Jesus. The text says they met behind a locked door in fear. Their grief is overlaid with fear for their own lives. The Romans had a habit of sweeping up the followers of a movement and killing them all. Maybe Thomas was scared to be seen with this group. After all, Peter himself—we’ll get to him in a couple weeks—was so scared even while Jesus was on trial that he denied knowing him.

Still, Thomas has missed what might seem to be the most important meeting of his life. Think of how you would feel, a week later coming and finding out that at the meeting you missed, the risen Lord made an appearance. You were busy, you were hiding, you were grieving, you were crying, you were raging at the Romans and when the time for the meeting came, you just didn’t go, you stayed home, you hid out. Later, your friends tell you what happened; they’re positively glowing, transformed. It’s enough to make your whole day sour, isn’t it? That’s how I hear his first comment. His friends tell him how the Lord appeared; he says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:25]

Doesn’t Thomas stand for us? We read these stories of an empty tomb, a Risen Lord who wafts through locked doors and I wonder how we receive them? I wonder how we believe in this Risen Lord? Throughout the Easter stories, we hear hints of this problem. No one recognizes Jesus as the Risen Lord; no one makes the connection immediately. Mary of Magdala—we’ll talk about her next week—meets the Risen Lord in a garden near the empty tomb. Now if there is one part of the whole story about which the church seems to have been consistent, it is about Mary going to the tomb. Mark says so, as we read last week; Matthew also reports Mary discovering the empty tomb. Luke says, “…on the first day of the week, at early dawn, [the woman who had come with him from Galilee] came to the tomb, taking the spices that they had prepared.” That includes Mary.” John says, “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb.”

But the stories of encounters with the Risen Lord are much less consistent. Mary meets him in a garden; the disciples in an upper room in Jerusalem, other stories speak of a meeting in Galilee. Paul says Jesus appeared first to Peter, then to the rest of the disciples, then to more than 500 others, finally to Paul himself. That last encounter with Paul would have been three or four years after the first Easter. The church remembers that they didn’t recognize or understand or believe Jesus as the Resurrected Lord immediately.

Now that may come as a stunning admission from a Christian pulpit: the first Christians didn’t immediately acclaim and believe Jesus was resurrected. Maybe you’ve had a hard time believing it as well; maybe you didn’t want to admit it. But right here in the Gospel of John Thomas admits it, Thomas proclaims it: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” [John 20:25] The church remembers there was this problem at the start, at the core: not everyone believed.

What changed Thomas? In the story, Jesus shows him his wounds. Think of that for a moment, imagine it. The Son of God could certainly produce a miracle, he could awe and inspire in a thousand ways. But he doesn’t. He could show Thomas heavenly beauty, he could appear in shining white as he did at the transfiguration, but instead, he shows him his wounds. He shows him the ugliest thing imaginable: the wounds of the cross, the holes in his hands and feet, the place where his side was pierced by a spear, the places where he was hurt, the wounds that made him cry out from the cross. Jesus tells him to touch these ugly, terrible wounds. He doesn’t; “My Lord and my God,” he proclaims. Seeing the wounds changes him; seeing the wounds makes him a follower.

We don’t often talk about wounds. I attended a Baptist church for a couple of years; it seemed like half the hymns there had the word “blood” somewhere in the lyrics. I grew up in a culture that said about our wounds, “Never complain, never explain.” Crying was a failure. I wasn’t prepared to talk about wounds and as a young pastor, I was often uncomfortable when others did. So often I wish I could go back to some of those folks and apologize; I know I didn’t offer them the solace of safely sharing their wounds.

For sharing our wounds does indeed transform us. The pattern Jesus offers works in our lives as well. Connection is what gives meaning to life and allows us to fully become the persons God hoped. Remember that in the story of our creation, right from the beginning, we were made to hold God’s hand with one hand and someone else with the other. But that kind of connection comes out of vulnerability. In a sense, we’re like a hamster on a wheel, caught in a circular problem: we need connection to make us feel safe to be vulnerable but connection comes from being vulnerable. One writer said,

The longing for connection to another soul is within us all already. It is waiting for our nurturing and our willingness to embrace vulnerability. It is through this knowledge that we can move closer towards our universal goal of love.


[Melissa Wilder Joyce, Huffington Post]

In this moment with Thomas, Jesus shows, the church remembers, how to transcend the problem of vulnerability and connection, how to get off the hamster wheel. It happens when he shares his wounds.

Many of you know that I’m a step-parent. The thing about being a step-parent is—you have to earn it. You aren’t automatically mom or dad; you’re Jim. You’re an awkward pause when someone asks the child with you who that man is. When I became the step-parent of my older kids, I had no idea how to earn them. So I tried various things; some worked some didn’t.

The one I remember most we called the owie report. My daughter Amy was a runner and a jumper and she constantly got scratches and little injuries. These were bandaged with great seriousness. And then every night, when I went to kiss her good night we would examine each one. We’d start with the oldest wounds. We’d discuss whether something was still an owie and then move on to more recent ones. Sometimes we’d replace old band-aids. All this was done with great solemnity. Each wound was offered; each was kissed. I did this for years. By the end, I was her parent. I still am.

Thomas saw Jesus’ wounds; he called out, “My God and my Lord.” It wasn’t a miracle that changed him, it wasn’t the fact of the resurrection, it was the wounds. His connection to Jesus was transformed and it transformed his life. He may have written down the sayings of Jesus that he remembered; he himself was remembered as a great apostle. When we trust God with our wounds, we discover a connection we cannot find any other way. For then we begin to understand indeed, as scripture says, that Jesus’ wounds are for us: he was wounded for us. And when we know this, when we believe it, we also understand him as our Lord.

Amen.

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

Second Sunday in Easter

A New Song

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – ©2017

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 23, 2017

John 20:19-31

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

What Do You Know?

“I know what I know if you know what I mean.” It’s a line in a song by Neil Diamond, recorded some years ago by Edie Brickell that has rattled around in my mind ever since. How do I know what I know? What do you know? How do you know it? 

I asked the ushers to hand out objects today so you’d have something to touch while we thought about this. After all, a basic way we know things is through our senses. So take a moment: touch what you have, feel it, is it sharp, smooth, what does it feel like? What does it smell like? I won’t ask you to taste it but if you’ve ever cared for a small child you know that we start out with no inhibitions about putting things in our mouths; is there any parent who hasn’t had to run at least once yelling, “Take that out of your mouth”? 

So we know what we know because we touch it or taste it or smell it. We connect those things with memories. If I walk into the house on a day Jacquelyn is home and smell garlic, I know we are having something Italian for dinner and I smile: not only because of the future food but because I remember how nice it is to have dinner with the family. Just the scent of the garlic is enough to bring on a whole raft of memories: I know what this time will be like in some way. 
Pictures can do the same thing sometimes.

The last few years have seen an explosion of photographs. There was a time when a standard 35 mm camera shot a roll of film with 36 exposures. So if you were out taking pictures you had to think: is this scene worth one of those frames? Now it’s common to shoot 36 exposures of the same scene just to make sure you got the shot. Why are pictures so important? Because they remind us of what we know. This past week, I went to see Taxi Driver, an old 1970’s movie about a lost soul in New York City in 1973. Sitting there in the dark, with the pictures of bell bottoms and vaguely Indian hippy clothes and the tawdry culture of pre-Giuliani New York, I felt as well my own memories, I remembered experiences of those times. I think that’s why our ancestors drew pictures of hunting on cave walls: it was their photography.  What do you know? How do you know it?

I’m asking this question today because it’s a core problem of the resurrection. Of all the things we know, one of the most basic is that dead is dead. Benjamin Franklin said in a letter to a friend once, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” The resurrection flies in the face of that certainty. What are we to do with it? What are we to do about it? What are we to believe?

The Disciples and the Resurrection

This isn’t a new problem. The gospels depict Jesus telling his disciples several times that he would be crucified, die and then rise again. John has him saying,

So the Jews answered and said to him, ‘What sign do you show to us, since you do these things?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.’ Then the Jews said, ‘It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?’ But he was speaking of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this; and they believed the Scripture, and the word which Jesus had spoken (John 2:18-22)

.

Matthew quotes this saying:

An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign shall be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so shall the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth (Matthew 12:39-40).

and then again,

From that time Jesus began to show to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day (Matthew 16:21).

One might have thought there would have been a crowd of witnesses at the tomb if his disciples had believed him. Evidently they didn’t since only the women go and they go to prepare a corpse, not acclaim a risen Lord. It’s only in the moment of finding the tomb empty and meeting Jesus again that the women believe in the resurrection and when they do, they tell the disciples, disciples who apparently don’t believe them. So if in your heart of hearts, you don’t believe the women, the Easter story, take heart: neither did the first people to hear it.

We Are Toddlers

The problem we have is the same as the one Thomas the Twin has. Remember him? In the reading today, he says,”Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Doesn’t that describe most of us? We want to see: we want to touch. Like a toddler with a toy, we only know what we can get our hands around, we only believe what we can get in our mouths. The resurrection flies in the face of everything we’ve ever been told or known or seen. “I know what I know,” we say to it, like Thomas. Want me to change? Show me something. I wonder if that isn’t the same problem many of us have with the resurrection. We are toddlers too: before we believe in something impossible, we want to see it, touch it.

Of course, no one saw the resurrection. Search the scriptures, there’s not a single eyewitness account, not one. Instead, what we have accounts, many accounts, of the experience of encountering the risen Lord. Paul says more than 500 people, both men and women, had such experiences. So the key to understanding what John is telling us may not be Thomas’ question but the earlier experience of the disciples. Remember that moment? They are locked in a room. Now there’s one reason we lock rooms: we’re afraid of something. The leader of this movement has been executed for a political crime; surely the authorities will be after his followers. They’re afraid, meeting secretly behind a locked door and suddenly there he is, the Lord, coming through the door. No grave can keep him down; no door can keep him out. “Peace be with you,” he says. And it is.

“I know what I know.” What these followers of Jesus know is simple: that when they get together, he’s still present with them. When they sit down to dinner, as they did with him, he’s still present with them. When they love each other, he’s still present with them. When they share his love with others, he’s still present with them. They feel it; they know it. Perhaps for Thomas it is seeing this acted out that matters. Perhaps for you it is and if that’s true, look around, look for him: he comes and goes wherever people live in love and remember him.

There is a game small children play at a particular moment: it’s called peek-a-boo. You’ve played it, we all have. You know how it works. You cover your eyes, say, “Where’s Maggie? Where’s Andy?” and then open your eyes or uncover them and there they are. The child does the same thing.

Peek a Boo

Peek-a-boo, it turns out, is a very important game. We don’t come believing the world is permanent; we don’t come believing things stay here when we are asleep or close our eyes. That’s one reason children cry so inconsolably at bedtime. Wouldn’t you cry if you thought the whole world would end when you closed your eyes? So we teach them. Look: it’s still here, I’m still here. Peek-a-boo. Close your eyes: it’s safe. Open them: still here. Over and over again, until they know it, believe it, until we don’t remember not knowing it.

It’s like learning a new song. One of the first times I went to my church youth group, Harry Clark, our minister sang a cool song called, “Dem Bones”. It has endless verses and no one ever wrote them down. It has a chorus: “Dem Bones gonna rise again: I knotted it, knowed it, knowed it, Dem bones gonna rise again!” I didn’t know that song but gradually, over years of listening to Harry, I began to learn it. I learned the verses and even though I’m not much of a singer, I learned to lead it. I knew I had it one day when I was a newly minted youth minister and I had to lead a song at a retreat and I started it up. “Dem bones gonna rise again”.

Learning resurrection life isn’t about pretending to believe some event hundreds of years ago. It is about learning to move to a new rhythm, sing a new song. It is like being a child who has discovered that just as the world doesn’t go away when you shut your eyes, God’s love doesn’t go away when you die. Peek-a-boo: still there, always there, permanently there.

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.