All Together Now!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016
Trinity Sunday/C • May 22, 2016

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When I was 15, I played the trumpet and my band director was Mr. Tilton. Mr. Tilton was a graduate of the University of Michigan and its marching band, the finest marching band in the world, as he constantly reminded us. We were not the finest marching band but we did try to play and walk at the same time. Eventually we would get out-of-order and Mr. Tilton would stop us, make biting comments about people who wanted to be soloists instead of part of a band, and then gather us again with the words, “All together now.” I imagine that God is a bit like Mr. Tilton, always trying to make the lines straight and the music sweet, occasionally frustrated by our wandering off out of step.

Trinity

Today is Trinity Sunday and I hope to explore this with you for a few moments, because this is the heart of God’s all together now. I have to admit: the idea of talking about the trinity makes me nervous. The first time I tried, I was asked to leave a church. I was 12 and a member of a confirmation class at a Methodist church. The minister was following some outline and told us God was three in one, a trinity. This didn’t make sense to me and I said so. He said it was a matter of faith. I told him I didn’t understand it; he said it was a mystery. I said, “You don’t understand it either.” My mother was invited not to bring me to confirmation again. That’s part of how I became a Congregationalist.

Now that I’m a minister with grey hair of my own, I’m embarrassed to realize I put that poor man in such a position. What I realize is that I was probably right; he probably didn’t understand it any better than I do. Since then, I’ve learned lots of tricky ways of talking about how something can occur in three states. There’s the ice-water-steam one; there’s the fact that we all have different roles. But all those do is say what we all know, that we have different names for different occasions. How can it be that God is not just differently named but is different? And why would we care?

The Presence of God

When we look at the God of the Bible, there is such passion, such power, that it can be embarrassing. We show up and smile at each other; Jesus shows up and demons bark and groan, people get healed, governors get angry. We show up when there is trouble and say, “I’ll do what I can”; the Father shows up and slaves go free, prophets convict kings, the world is remade. We show up and hope to feel better; the Holy Spirit shows up and people there are tongues of fire and people change in amazing ways.. The trinity is important because it’s what God is doing and what God is doing is always passionate, always restless, always creative.

How should we understand this trinity? It’s common to offer one of those little metaphors I mentioned earlier to suggest all three persons of the trinity, father, son and holy spirit, are really the same thing. But a better idea of the trinity is the church itself. We are a noisy, shuffling lot. We have different opinions, other stuff gets in our way, we move forward at a pace that can seem agonizing. There is an old TV series called Seventh Heaven that centers on a Protestant minister and his family. It always makes our family roll our eyes. The minister on the show hangs around his house a lot and when someone, anyone, has a problem, he says, “We need to talk about that.” He does different things but one thing he almost never does is go to a committee meeting.

We are Congregationalists; we are all about our meetings. There are the Boards, the church council, Congregational meetings—it’s each one with a group of people, sitting around, minutes, agenda, and discussion. But that’s who we are together. And there is a personality to the whole; there is a great and wonderful loving personality to this whole church that is more than any of us together yet without each of us, it is less. God is like that, I think: a constant, eternal conversation, a constant, eternal example of loving engagement.

God Is a Talker

Why should God appear in three different persons? If we search the scriptures, the very first thing we learn is that God is a talker. God speaks: creation results. “And God said…” rolls like thunder through the opening verses of Genesis and the effect flashes like lightning on the roiling waters of chaos, turning it into a world of order where life is possible. God speaks and what was darkness becomes the ordered progression of light and night and time is the result; God speaks and what was slurry of water and dirt turns into places and farms; God speaks and the wilderness becomes a garden. From the very beginning, God is talking and all talkers want an audience. The passionate preaching of the father speaks to the spirit and the son and we overhear the conversation. And conversation takes partners. So God exists in the conversation of father, son and Holy Spirit.

Conversation and Connection

The goal of the conversation is connection. At the heart of the mystery of God is a loving, passionate pursuit of another so that God is only known through the exchange back and forth of persons. Christian faith has never been about a set of principles. Buddhism has its eight-fold path of principles; we have these three persons, father, son, Holy Spirit. Jesus did not come announcing a philosophy and he did not preach a principle: he offered himself, he presented himself. He didn’t say, look, here is a set of directions for finding your way, he said, “I AM the way.” It’s personal: it’s particular. What we have to learn over and over again is that approaching God is approaching a person, knowing a person, being known as persons ourselves.

Like all ongoing relationships, the conversation has some constant themes. One theme is the determination of the father to gather the whole world back into a garden of perfect concord and the way the son demonstrates what this looks like. Jesus is not just the bringer of a message: he is the message, you can’t get the message without living his life. And the means of that life is the invisible power of the Spirit that moves like a wind, invisible yet powerful, filling the sails of all who seek it.

Imagining the Trinity

What does the trinity look like? It looks like communion, I think. When we gather around the communion table, we remember that lives are lived in the drama of bodies and promises. We are not only creatures of spirit; we hurt, we hunger, we hope. We come as individual persons, seeking connection, and in these common elements, we join into one body. We sit silent and alone but we turn to each other and say, “the peace of God be with you, and also with you.” We know we have failures in our past but we lift the cup and promise our future faithfulness.

This is God, in us, with us, and its power is unfathomable. It is a power that breaks slavery; it is a power that does miracles. It is a power profound in its pursuit of a connection so deep, so complete, that indeed the three are one; so deep, so complete, that we ourselves, all of us, become one and in that one the love of God is bursting forth. All together now: God is a community of persons, father, son, spirit calling to us to say: you also—all together now. March!

Amen.

De Nada: Learning the Lord’s Prayer 4


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Who’s In Charge Here? – Learning to Pray the Lord’s Prayer, Lent 2

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by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Lent • February 21, 2016

A fisherman and his wife lived in an old dirty hut alongside a lake in Bavaria. Every day the fisherman went out to the lake and every day he returned with his catch. One day, the fisherman’s net caught a golden fish. The fish spoke to him and said, “If you throw me back, I will grant you any wish you desire.”
The fisherman thought about it, and being of simple means he could think of no want, so he let the fish go. Upon returning to the dirty old hut that night, he told the tale to his wife.

“You should have asked him for a nice cottage,” she said. “I would love to move out of this filthy hovel.”
So the next morning, the fisherman approached the lake and called out for the fish. The water bubbled and the fish surfaced. It asked, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She would like a nice cottage to live in.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough their filthy hut was replaced with a nice cottage.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our nice cottage by the lake.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was choppy. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the cottage was replaced with a castle. There were battlements and guard towers and soldiers all around. His wife greeted him splendidly dressed as a princess.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our Bavarian castle.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was boiling and turbulent. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the castle was replaced with a grand palace. It was larger, with more soldiers, more battlements, and more guard towers.
He went in to see his wife and said, “Surely you are happy now. There is nothing greater than being the Empress of Prussia, and no palace greater for you to live in.”
She said, “We shall see. I want to sleep on it and discuss it on the morrow.”
In the morning, she roused the fisherman and said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Pope, and live in the grandest palace of all.”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing.”
She said, “Why not?”
“Well, for one thing, they only let men become popes.”
But his wife insisted and persisted. He said, “Let us be happy in our Prussian palace!”

But she said, “I want to become like God, and order Nature to do my bidding, and tell the sun and moon when to rise and command the stars in the sky above!”
She extolled and cajoled, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was dark and roiling. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wants to become like God.”
“Go home. She is sitting in your filthy old hut.”

So the fisherman returned home, and all was as before. He and his wife cleaned the old hut, and lived out their days in peace.
There are many versions of this story, the one here was taken from
The Story of the Golden Fish

What did you think while you heard this story? Did you sympathize with the fisherman or the wife? Can you imagine just wanting more, like she did, more space, finer things, more power? Did you know from the beginning how it would end? I went searching for stories of people who wanted to be in charge this week and there were so many I was overwhelmed. I knew from the beginning in each how it would end. So did you, I expect. Here’s my question: if we know how it will end, why do we keep doing it?

The Bible has stories of people like this. One is right near the beginning, but we often remember it wrong. Adam and Eve are newly created, without anything covered. They live in a beautiful garden doing a little weeding here and there, taking care of it and in the middle of the garden there’s a tree they’ve been told not to touch. One day a serpent points out the tree to Eve and Eve, who is the first theologian, expounds God’s Word regarding the tree. But at the end, Eve takes the fruit from the tree and shares it with Adam. Why? It’s not clear from the story exactly. But we all know don’t we? I told this story to a group of children once. One of them said, “Why did God tell them not to take that fruit, it just makes you want it more when someone says don’t eat it.” Yeah: she had it right—we just want more, until like the woman in the story we have so much that we have nothing. We fall. We live in the midst of the storms of life, and we think if we just had more, more power, more money, more something we could still the storm and sail safe.

Theologians have names for this: “original sin” is one, “total depravity” is another. Those are deep dark concepts, caves that take some time to explore, you need to put on a head light and have some equipment to go spelunking there. But you don’t need all that to know what we’re talking about; you really just have to look in your own heart. You just have to think about why we buy powerball tickets when the prize gets over a hundred million dollars. You just have to look at how we run things when we’re given the chance. Look at our own history. The Puritans are kicked around England until they finally leave and come to Massachusetts. “They came for freedom!”, our happy history teaches us. Truth is, once they got settled in, they turned around and started kicking other people out, sent them to Rhode Island. Yes, we want to be king and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Jesus lived in a highly structured society, a hierarchy where wealth and gender and where you came from mattered. It mattered that you were male; it mattered that you had money. It mattered whether you were Roman or Jewish or Samaritan. All these things and many more were set against the human desire for more and the competition was often bloody and violent. It was a time of peasant revolts, it was a moment when Roman soldiers crucified thousands up and down the roads around Jerusalem. So we read these words in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come”, calmly, quietly. But to Jesus and to the ones who first heard them, these were fiery words, fighting words, scary words. For kingdom is a political term and kings that will tolerate wandering preachers take action when the preaching turns to kingdom.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to be raising a political movement. Instead, as he does so often, Jesus is speaking beyond politics to the deeper reality of human souls. Living in a moment when the Roman empire was worshipped as a God, he calls his people back to this one fundamental reality: we are here to serve God, praise God, worship God. All the human agencies, all the human divisions, everything human is nothing compared to the majesty of God’s rule. That’s part of the lesson in the story of the fisherman. A poor couple are given an unbelievable chance to better themselves. Imagine them waking up in the nice cottage described at the beginning: running water, a beautiful setting. But it doesn’t satisfy. So the places get bigger and better: a castle, a palace. The drive focuses on power, as it always does. What is more? Be a queen, be an empress, until finally it ends with the desire to be God. We are back to the garden at that point: seeking the thing that will make us not just more but most.

Jesus calls us back from this journey to destruction. “Who’s in charge here?”, he implicitly asks. Is it the relentless drive for more?—or can we choose to understand ourselves in a different way? “Thy kingdom come” says first and foremost that we are not living on our own; we are living in the realm of a greater power, subject to a greater command than our own desires. To honestly pray “Thy will be done” is to say my own will, my own desire is not the most important. And in that moment, all those human things matter less than that one fact, that one will, God’s will. What is God’s will? That’s easy, it’s written all over the scriptures, all over the religious traditions of thousand years. “Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.” All the human categories of Jesus’ time and ours fall apart before this great command. Gender, money, celebrity, race and where you came from—they mean nothing compared to this one great command and the desire to live not from our own wills but from the will of God. It’s hard to live this way. Yet this is the choice Jesus puts before us: live from yourself, in the world where differences matter and the great drive is more, or live in the realm of God’, the kingdom of God, asking every day, “Thy will be done.”

This week I saw a movie that expressed this thought fully. It’s called The Finest Hours and it tells the story of a group of four young Coast Guardsmen in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, who were charged in a great storm to go out into the North Atlantic and rescue men on a ship that was sinking. I’m a sailor; I stay home when the waves mound up, when the wind blows beyond a certain point. “Small craft warning” means stay in port. But I’m just sailing for myself; these men had a higher calling. So knowing they are risking their lives, they go out into the terror of the sea to redeem the lives of strangers they’ve never met. “They say you have to go out, you don’t have to come back”, is an old Coast Guard mantra. These are people living from a greater ethic than more; they know what it is to give your life to a greater cause. In the event, they were successful; 32 men were saved that day. They were saved because four men lived not from what they wanted but from what they were called to do.

“Thy kingdom come,” Jesus prays and invites us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The transition is clear and critical. For it is when we live from God’s will, when this prayer condenses into lives that bits of heaven become evident on earth. When we lives out this prayer, we are making heaven on earth. For the true heaven comes not from miracle fishes or bigger and better palaces, not from more, not from us at all. Heaven comes when the kingdom of God appears. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Mark says it all:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ [Mark 1.14bf]

Jesus comes to bring heaven to earth by proclaiming God’s rule, living from God’s rule. And his words and his life confront us with this choice: will we make his prayer our lives? This morning we read the story of a storm he stills. We all face storms; they blow into our lives and challenge us and ask, “Who’s in charge here?” When we pray, when we live, saying indeed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, the storms are stilled; heaven is brought to earth.
Amen.

Wonder Wonders – Epiphany Sunday – Jan 3, 2016

You can hear this sermon preached by clicking here

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
Epiphany Sunday/C • January 3, 2016

Among the figures that populated my grandmother’s nativity scene, none were more impressive than the Three Kings. Made of carved wood and painted in bright colors, the Kings sat on camels linked together by gold colored chains and they had little treasure boxes that fitted behind them, boxes which opened and could be made to contain real treasures: bits of gold from the chocolate coins my grandfather gave us or some other thing that became a treasure just by being secret. I never cared much about the cattle or the sheep or the fat little shepherd boys but my brother and I played with the Kings until their chains broke and one of the camels lost a leg. Even broken, their gold almost rubbed off, the Three Kings seemed to contain the real wonder of the nativity just as they contained our treasures. Obviously we weren’t alone in our fascination. The fascination and emphasis we put on Christmas is unique to our culture; Eastern Christianity, most European Christians and the rest of the world spend far more time on the celebration of Epiphany than on Christmas. It is their moment for gift giving and reflecting on God’s gifts. Too often for us, Epiphany comes as an after thought to Christmas: a time to finish vacuuming the pine needles and get back to normal. Today I want to call you out from the normal to a story that promises to let your heart swell with joy and invites us to wonder.
Perhaps it’s best to begin by putting the creche figures back, letting go of the stories that people have made up, and seeing what Matthew tells us about the Magi. Magi means “Wise Ones”—and that’s what they are; only later did a legend grow up that named them and called them kings. The Magi were astrologers: watchers of the sky who look for meaning in the stars, relating patterns in the planets to prophecies. Suddenly one night they see some conjunction, some stellar event in a region of the sky called the House of the Hebrews and their prophetic books tell them that there is a special king expected in the land of Judah. So they go: packing up, joining a caravan, just as settlers once crossed this continent by waiting in St. Louis for a wagon train. They take the ancient caravan route, the route that Abraham would have traveled, the route traveled by merchants and slaves and conquerors for thousands of years and about a year or so later they come to Jerusalem.
What does it feel like when you get somewhere after a long trip? Maybe you were in the car for days and the wrappers from old hamburgers and drink cups litter the back seat. Maybe your airplane finally lands and you impatiently wait for the aisle to clear, grab your stuff and hurry into the airport only to realize you’re not sure which way to go. Once arrived in Jerusalem, surely the Magi would have found rooms in some tavern, cleaned up, hired a translator, made an appointment to see King Herod. This is a small country they’re visiting, after all; they themselves are from a richer, older capital. Stil,l visiting a King is serious business. They are there, but not all the way there yet. Last October, Jacquelyn and I went to Spain. We flew for what seemed an endless time until we landed in Barcelona. But Barcelona wasn’t where we were really going; that was a little town somewhere up the coast. We just assumed we could get directions but the directions were in Spanish. Thank God for the kind woman who spoke Spanish and told us how to find the train station!
The Magi need directions for the birth place and they just assume that since this is such an important event, the King will know all about it, will know how to get there. I imagine them putting on their best robes, their finest first century version of a power tie and business suit, eager to get the final directions to complete their long trip. Now they wind through the narrow streets of the city, fending off beggars and peddlers; now they come to the palace and various staff pass them from one to another until finally they are part of a line to see King Herod. Finally they are there, called forward. There must have been some ritual greetings, like the President and a foreign leader doing a photo op. Finally, they ask: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”Silence. Herod looks at his advisors, who turn away. Some meaningless greeting, some vague words, must have been said to put them off. “Please enjoy our hospitality while I consider this question.” All we have is Matthew’s comment that Herd was frightened and called his smartest advisors together to ask the same question: where is this child? They read the prophets and tell him Bethlehem’s the place. So Herod calls the Magi back in, this time secretly. He tells them Bethlehem, tells them to find the child and come back and report.
The story offers two reactions to the birth of Jesus. The Magi come to pay homage. They don’t know Jesus, they don’t know anything about him. They just know that something about him makes heaven shine in a new way. Something about him lights up life. They want to see more of this light; they want to give thanks for it. They’re come in wonder; they come with gratitude symbolized by gifts. The most important detail about them isn’t the robes or the crowns or even the gifts. Matthew’s readers would have passed right by those things that grab us and seized on something we miss: they are gentiles. They are outsiders, people from outside the covenant of Moses, people who don’t eat kosher or observe any of the customs of good Jews. They’re outsiders and yet they come in wonder, simply seeking the light God’s shining on this moment.
Herod can think only of securing his own position. He wants to know where Jesus is so he can pursue his own plan, his own goals. The conflict that will bring Jesus to the cross is already in motion right here, right from the beginning: cross and crown are at war right from the start.Just outside the boundary of this story, Herod will do what the powerful always do: use violence to prevent change. Power always seeks to remain powerful. Herod is the ultimate insider, just as the Magi are outsiders. So right from the beginning, God is using outsiders, visitors, to shake the foundations of God’s people, to change them, to open them so God’s purpose of spreading the light of love can move on, move forward, move outward.
This story asks us the same question the old spiritual asks: Which side are you on? Put another way, What light lights your life? The word Epiphany means manifestation or showing forth, as a light shines. The light in which we walk, the light that lights our lives, does show and it does make a difference. We know this about color and light: sit in a red room, psychologists tells us, and you somehow become more aggressive. The same is true of your life: the light in which you see things is a matter of decision. One camp song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus”. What have you decided? What purpose drives your journey? The Magi and Herod both go to Bethlehem but only the Magi come in wonder, seeking God’s wonder; only the Magi see Jesus. Herod comes with soldiers, power, violence but Jesus is gone by then, escaped by God’s hand. Now today lots of people show Jesus’ name around for their own purposes. Like Herod, they have their own agenda and only see how he might fit their needs. But still, now as then, there are people, often excluded, who come in wonder, who see the light of God’s love. And God wonders: where are we going? where will we go? Amen.