So Much, So Little

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ York, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost/B • July 14, 2024

Mark 6:14-29

Who is Jesus? That’s the question that ties together the bits of Mark’s Gospel we’ve been reading this summer. We read these like a serial, as individual episodes, but together they are meant to form a longer story and to invite us into that story. Let’s remember where we were at the end of last week’s reading: Jesus, after being rejected at Nazareth, sends out his 12 disciples with specific instructions. Next Sunday, we’re going to read about their return and how the crowds gather, hoping to find healing with him. Last week we heard Jesus’ neighbors ask, “Who is this that teaches with authority?” Next week, he tries to go off privately with the disciples but people who’ve never met him recognize him and gather around him. Who is this Jesus? He heals, but he also does something unique: he authorizes others to heal, he creates a community of healing and hope.

The Story So Far

So let me start today by going back to last week’s reading and picking up one of the threads: the sending out of the disciples. He sends them out in pairs; no one goes alone. He tells them to pack light. I think I’m a pretty good packer and I pride myself on traveling light. On our last trip, I needed clothes for about 10 days, toiletries, chargers for my earphones, phone and iPad, special converters to let me use Spanish plugs, a jacket, a tie in case we went out fancy, a couple of pairs of shoes. I take a bottle of water and toss in some snacks for the airplane ride.      It took a suitcase and a backpack to hold it. But listen again to Jesus’ instructions. 

He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

Wow! Now that’s traveling light. The staff is a walking stick and tool and in a pinch a defense against wild animals. But they have no airplane snacks. They don’t have any money, no bag, not even a clean shirt.

You see what he’s done? Many of the disciples come from prosperous families; they own boats, they own nets, they fish, one is a tax collector, which means he’s kind of an accountant. But he’s making them weak; he’s making them vulnerable. When they get hungry, they can’t stop at McDonald’s; they have to ask for food. When they get cold, they can’t just get a hotel room; they have to ask for hospitality. He strips them of everything but the clothes on their back, the sandals on their feet and a staff and says, “Ok, now go share the good news.”  

Next he gives them instructions for dealing with people they meet. They’re going to have to find places to stay and when they do, he wants them to appreciate that place. So no hoping they get a better offer! And he gives the best advice ever for dealing with those moments when someone turns them down, or they fail: “dust off your feet.” As a pastor of churches, I’ve seen so many people offer ideas, only to have them shut down by someone who says, “Oh, we tried that; it didn’t work.” That person never dusted off their feet. They are still carrying the dust of that failure, and they can’t see this is a new time, new people.

So that’s where we were last week. Jesus had sent these people out and what’s coming next week is the return of these disciples. They’re going to come back and tell Jesus everything they’ve been doing and there going to be a great gathering of people who need Jesus and the disciples to heal them. That’s where we’re going.

Today’s Reading: John and Herod

So we know where we’ve been, we know where we’re going. How does this week’s reading fit It starts with the same question, “Who is Jesus?” We’re given a list of the possibilities: Elijah, the prophet it was thought would return some day, a prophet like the old ones or John the Baptist, returned from the dead. Wait a minute: what’s this about John? Remember John the Baptist? He was a preacher who was baptizing people at the Jordan, including Jesus. Just like Jesus, John gathered a following proclaiming the Kingdom of God was near. Just like Jesus, he made the authorities nervous. He made some real enemies at Herod’s palace because Herod got himself into a twisted situation. He divorced his wife, the daughter of another king, which causes a small war. Then he takes his brother’s wife as his. John has been preaching that this is wrong, that it’s sinful, and that rulers who commit adultery and sin before God shouldn’t be obeyed. That got him arrested; that will pretty much get you arrested in any time.

Now I’ve wrestled all week with how much about to say about Herod and this court. Herod was not supposed to be king; he had to out conspire four older brothers and his father to get there, probably getting some of them murdered along the way. He’s king because the Romans made him king and the Romans made him king so he’d keep taxes flowing to them. He’s doing that and using his share to build a whole new city up near Galilee called Tiberius, where almost as an afterthought, he’s throwing small farmers off the land. As to the court, I’m going to assume we’ve all seen enough of some version of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” to let our imaginations supply the details. You can bet everyone there has more than two tunics, most have a closet full. They have money in their belt, they not only have a bag, they have a set with designer labels. They’re not worrying about hospitality, they’re worrying about how to get ahead of whoever is just above them. 

The social life of these people is parties, where they can snipe at each other behind their backs, eat, plot, make deals. At one of these parties, Herod’s step-daughter does an amazing dance and Herod’s so pleased—or so drunk—he tells her he’ll give her anything she wants. She’s a smart girl; Mark calls her Herodias, but her name is really Salome. She asks her mom what she should ask for. Now remember, her mom is Herod’s former sister-in-law who’s now become his wife; she’s the one John the Baptist was complaining about. So she tells Salome, ask for John’s head on a platter; the girl goes back, asks for that, and Herod decides to give it to her.

 What’s interesting is how Herod responds. Marks says, “The king was deeply grieved; yet out of regard for his oaths and for the guests, he did not want to refuse her.” Think what that means. Herod respects John. We’ve already been told, 

Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he protected him. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.

John is Herod’s conscience. But Herod has other worries: he needs to look strong. He isn’t really; he’s only as strong as people think he is. They need to know he means business, so he has John executed, to prove how tough he is, how strong, how much in charge. The story ends, “When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” We’re going to hear much the same thing after Jesus is crucified.

Who Is Jesus?

Who is Jesus? When he is crucified, there’s a sign over him that says, “King of the Jews”. The people that crucify him can’t think bigger than someone like Herod. They think having so much means greatness. But even on a cross, Jesus embodies a kind of glory kings don’t understand. There, it’s the power of a king condemning him; there, it’s the power of the love of God forgiving them. Herod eventually loses out in a power struggle and ends up exiled in the south of France. His life becomes so little. Jesus rises from the dead and gives hope for centuries, to us today; his life means so much. 

Who is Jesus? I was struck by a post on Facebook recently that said,

We want the war horse – Jesus rides a donkey.

We want the eagle – The Holy Spirit descends as a dove.

We want to take up swords – Jesus takes up a cross.

We want the roaring lion – God comes as a slaughtered lamb.

We keep trying to arm God = God keeps trying to disarm us.

Herod the king is in his palace. He has so much, but he’s afraid, so he kills a righteous man. 

Jesus is in a village. He has so little, but he’s so confident of the power of God, he sends out his followers without a change of clothes.

Who is Jesus?

Who is Herod?

Which one are you following? 


Falling Forward

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor ©2024

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/B • July 7, 2024

Mark 6:1-13

Jacquelyn and I like to travel to Spain. One of the benefits of her being a flight attendant is that we can fly inexpensively, so once a year we pick out a new place and pre-see it. What I mean is, Jacquelyn watches travel videos about the place, I look at suggested things to see. We get a sense of what it’s like to walk around before we ever set foot in the place. I mention all this because we’ve been reading through the first chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and that’s what he’s doing: giving us a tour, a preview, of what it looks like to walk with Jesus. So far, we’ve been to Capernaum, which is a bit like going from York to Harrisburg, we’ve been across Lake Galilee to an area that’s mostly Gentile and back again. We’ve seen him attract crowds, heal people in amazing ways, we’ve been amazed as he stilled a storm, so amazed we had to ask, with his friends, “Who is this?” Now he’s come home; now he’s back in Nazareth, where everyone knows him and his family lives. What can we learn about our life following him from this moment?

I wonder what it’s like for him to go home. Is he tired after his trip? Your mother is always glad to see you, so there’s that. It turns out he has a big family: four brothers, some sisters. Are some of them married with little kids running around? Moms always have some special thing they make for returning sons; my mother’s was coconut cream pie. The story says on the sabbath, he gets up and preaches at the synagogue. That was hard, I’m sure. I’ll let you in on a little preacher secret: it’s a lot easier to preach to a crowd of strangers than a little group who know you. I remember my first sermon at my home church. I was just 18 and they all knew me, I’d been leading the youth group and speaking in worship for years. They were proud to have one of their own going into the ministry. Everyone was very nice afterward but I heard someone say to my mother, “You must be so proud of Jim”, to which my mother replied more or less, “Well yes but you know it’s hard to listen to someone preach when you remember changing his diapers.”

So Jesus preaches in the synagogue; this is actually the last time in Mark we hear about him in a synagogue. It’s not clear what sort of reaction he gets. “Where did this man get all this?” Commentaries are divided on whether we should read this as praise or sarcasm. I think the latter and I think that because of what follows. Remember where we’ve been with Jesus: to the neighborhood, where he healed a man with a withered hand, though a storm he stilled, across the lake to Gersa, where he exorcised demons, to Capernaum where a woman was healed by just touching his clothes, and where he raised a little girl who had been thought dead. One amazing moment after another, but here at home, it says simply, “He could do no deed of power there…” Jesus is amazing until he gets home, where he fails. Right there, in front of the home town crowd, in front of all those family members, all those people he grew up with: nothing, fails, can’t do anything.

I know what that feels like. I worked in a growing church during seminary and when I graduated, I went out to a little Congregational church in Seattle that said they wanted to grow. There were about 25 of us most Sundays, a group that had split off from a large church downtown and bought a small building in the northern suburbs. I knew what to do; I’d read all the books on how to grow a church, I had the technique down. It took me a year but I convinced the church we should go out and call on people in the neighborhood. Now our neighborhood was a strange mix of everyone from single moms to retired folks to up-and-coming workers. I was sure this would work. It took hours and hours of planning, we printed up a really nice brochure, rehearsed what to say and finally off we all went one day. Our little group made about a hundred visits. I had calculated that we should expect to get a ten percent return, so figuring some of the visits would produce whole families, we got ready for 20 or 30 new people. We made sure there was extra food for coffee hour and waited. Nothing happened. No one came: not one visitor showed up on Sunday. The only immediate result was that some woman called me during the week and asked if we could help take care of her mother. It was a total failure. I was depressed for months. 

Jesus fails; we all fail. Are we failing as a church? Are we failing as churches? Last year, about 4,500 Protestant churches closed in the US. I could go on and cite statistics about church attendance and other measures, but that would just be even more depressing. What can we take from Jesus’ failure? What does he do? What Jesus does is keep teaching. “He was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about the villages teaching.” The other thing he does is send out the twelve in pairs. He gives them authority, he gives them directions. I’ll say more about that next week but for now, notice that what Jesus does about failure is to expand his ministry by sending out six pairs of healers. Notice when he sends them. It’s not after a mighty work; it’s when he fails. Jesus fails but he fails forward because of his faith in God.

That doesn’t look like failure, does it? Maybe the problem is our definition of success and failure. In Seattle, our definition of success was a lot more people sitting in pews. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, was smaller and harder to track. The people in that church didn’t come from the neighborhood and had never cared much about it. But after some time walking around there, meeting people, they started to care. We changed some rules about membership; we learned to be grateful and welcoming when someone did show up and a few of those people stuck. We had a small choir you had to audition to join; we got rid of the audition and just let anyone sing, including a woman who couldn’t read a note of music but had a beautiful voice. The church building was next to an elementary school. We had discovered there were a lot of single parent families and after talking to the school social worker, we discovered there were a lot of kids who went home to empty houses, so we created the first latch key program in Seattle, an after school program where volunteers helped kids do homework, played games and fed them a snack. 

I’d love to say that the church took off and grew into a big, strong place, but it didn’t. When I left a couple of years later, it was still small, but it was a different place. It was a congregation where people were busy with various ways of helping in that neighborhood. At the end of this story in Mark, no deeds of power have been done. Except this one: those twelve guys who have just been following Jesus around are now off, practicing what Jesus preached. Is that success? What do you think? What is success following Jesus? Is it looking rich and powerful, or listening to him and doing what he says? This is what he says: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’  [Mark 1:15]. Every day,, we hear bad news: Jesus says, “Believe in the good news.” This is the good news: you are a child of God; so is everyone you meet. Living in the kingdom means acting like it. So does living in the neighborhood. Amen.


A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 30, 2024

Mark 5:21-43

We’ve just heard two stories about healings, and it’s tempting to just say, “Oh, that’s great, everything worked out.” But to really understand these stories, we’ve got to dig a little deeper and understand something about what’s called ritual purity in Jesus’ time. Let me explain it with a a story I heard this week about growing up in Appalachia on a farm. Sunday mornings, the storyteller and his four brothers all had a bath before church. Now keeping four boys clean while you wash the fifth had to be a chore, and his mother’s solution was to have all have them one by one as they got clean go sit on the couch. Ritual purity rules had to do with getting and staying clean in a way that made physical things an emblem of spiritual ones. These stories we read from Mark have a background we may not be aware of but would’ve been immediately obvious to any of the early Christians, all of whom were Jews. These aren’t just stories about healing—they’re also pictures of how Jesus dealt with those ritual purity rules. Those rules excluded many, many people. So let’s see how Jesus deals with these rules and these people and see what we can learn about how our lives as well.

Last week talked about Jesus crossing over to the gentile side of the Lake Galilee and this week we find him back on the Jewish side. For whatever reason, the lectionary has left out the story this year about what happened over there, but what happened is that he was casting out demons. 

Now he’s back and as he comes into town, there’s a crowd of people. Someone comes up, falls on their knees and begs Jesus to come to Jairus’ house, a leader in the synagogue. His daughter is ill, and Jesus is a well-known healer. So, Jesus and his disciples are pushing through the crowd when suddenly he stops. Have you ever done this, stopped in a crowd that’s moving? There must’ve been a bunch of them bumping into him. He turns to Peter and John and James and Andrew and says someone touched me. I think they must have rolled their eyes: they say, 5″You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

But this wasn’t just someone bumping into him. A woman who has had a hemorrhage, we’re told, for 12 years has touched his clothing. Can you imagine her? Can you feel her desperation.? Surely she had been to healers; surely she had tried everything. If it was today, she would have gone on the web, searched for a cure. There’s another underlying piece here, too. In this time, her hemorrhage made her ritually unsure. Anyone who touched her, especially a man, would become impure as well. Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t just ask Jesus. Can you see her in the crowd? I think of her as an older woman, determined, brave. Now she’s moving through the crowd, now she’s closer to this Jesus, now she reaches out her hand and touches his cloak. And the story says she is healed. Imagine her shock; imagine her surprise. 

Then Jesus wheels around. “Someone touched me.” Was she afraid? Would he take it back, could he take it back? You know, in my family, when someone said that someone had done something, especially if it was my mom or dad, my brothers and I always had one response: “It wasn’t me!” The crowd seems to be doing that: they pull back, leaving her alone, on her knees. What do you think? The story says she was fell down before him in fear and trembling. But he doesn’t take it back; he tells her to go be healed. Perhaps you heard this and thought, “What? I thought she was already healed!” The healing he means is actually like a hospital discharge; it’s a certification that she’s now pure again, it’s the gateway back to her friends and family. There’s detail here you might have mixed. So far in this story, the woman is nameless; she’s just a woman with a disease. But when Jesus talks to her, he calls her daughter. Instead of her making him impure, he’s made her pure again, part of the family. This is what Jesus does. This is what Jesus’ touch does. It heals and brings us into the family. 

Touch is a switchy thing, isn’t it? My dad was a snuggler when I was little. Those were the days of one TV in the house. He’d lie on the floor in front of it, my brother and I on either side. But when I grew up, we had a hard time touching. I didn’t see him often and when I did, we didn’t know what to do. Shaking hands didn’t seem to be enough; hugging was not in our playbook. My mother used to laugh at us, she said we were like two bears, trying not to get too close. Of course, we’ve all been through the COVID pandemic when touch was dangerous. We didn’t worry before that. In most of my pastorates, I went to the back after the benediction and everyone shook my hand. Suddenly, we couldn’t do that. Suddenly, I couldn’t touch someone in a hospital bed. We learned the fist bump. Our family says grace before dinner; we used to hold hands, but now we don’t quite know what to do: some nights it’s holding on, some nights it’s bumps.

This story goes on to Jairus’ house. People tell Jesus not to bother; the girl is too far gone, but when he gets there, he touches her and tells her to get up. This is important: touching a corpse will definitely make you impure under the rules. But Jesus never hesitates; he says that she’s sleeping and goes right on. 

Think of what that home must have been like: people weeping, people trying to hold it together, people at the end of their rope. The text says there was a commotion. There would have been food; someone always brings food. No one wants to eat, but the food is there. Jesus goes to the girl, never hesitates, touches her, and says, “Talitha cumi.” That’s an Aramaic phrase; Aramaic was the common spoken language of the time. It’s often translated, “Little girl, get up”, but that doesn’t really convey the meaning. ‘Talitha’ is a term of endearment; ‘cumi’ means get up or come on. So it’s more like saying, “Come on, sweetie”. And she does; he says, “Give her something to eat,” which might have been to show she wasn’t a ghost. Personally? I think he just thought she needed a snack. It’s also a way of saying, “You’re back to being part of the family.”

This is what Jesus does: he touches people and brings them back to life in their community. He never seems to worry about ritual purity; he never seems to pay attention to the rules of ritual purity. What seems to happen is that instead of the impurity flowing to Jesus, his purity, his love, makes people pure and heals them. The gospels have at least nine stories of healing and several summary statements where he heals everyone brought to him. All have in common Jesus touching someone and healing them. Most of the time, he sends them back to families, to communities, to their lives. It isn’t just about physical touch, either; there are people he touches by casting out their demons, people he touches with parables, people he touches by feeding them.

Now, this is a time for this church to think about its mission in the next chapter. Where do we want to go? What do we want to see happen? Every church I’ve ever served generally said, “We want to grow” but that’s not what Jesus does. Over and over in Mark, the big crowd is in the way; sometimes it’s hostile. The crowd is not the goal. What Jesus does is touch people and give them back heir lives. So if we’re going to walk with Jesus, if we’re going to live as disciples of Jesus, we’re going to have to figure out how to touch people like Jesus did, with the love of God, the love that heals souls.

I took a class on being an Interim Pastor a while back. One of the things the teacher said is that pastors are supposed to provide answers, but interim pastors are supposed to ask questions. So today, I want to leave you with some questions. How can this church touch people with the love and grace of Jesus Christ? How can we make sure our traditions aren’t barriers for others? How can we, like Jesus, leave people sure they are spotless before God, ready to share their God given gifts in loving ways?


The Farthest Shore

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 23, 2024

Mark 4:35-41

“Let us go across to the other side.” That’s how this story begins. Remember where we are: Jesus’ home territory, Galilee, up in the north, next to the Sea of Galilee. Remember where we were last week with him: the crowds pressing so tight, he and his disciples couldn’t even eat. “Let’s get out of here,” he seems to be saying—and also—he’s always pressing onward, forward. Peter and Andrew have a boat, James and John are sailors too, so the easiest way out is to get in the boat, sail off. 

Remember how I keep saying that everything in Mark happens immediately? It’s the same here. You know, when I go somewhere, I have to get my phone, maybe pack up my computer and a couple cords and chargers, find my keys, get my hat, find where I parked the car. If May and Jacquelyn are coming along, I need to wait for them to change outfits, get a purse, fix their hair, get a treat for the dog to distract her while we go out the door. It’s a process; is it that way for you? One of the commentators I read this week said the line that says, “They took him just as he was” is a mystery. It isn’t to me; it means, they didn’t wait to fix up, find keys, get phones, they just piled in the boat and left.

It’s an open boat. A few years ago, someone found a Galilee fishing boat from the same period, so we think we know what it might have been like. It would have been stinky: it’s a fishing boat, after all, and fishing boats have a certain aroma. It would have been a little leaky; wooden work boats tend to let a bit of water in through the seams, so there’s always a puddle in the bottom. These boats were rowed so, you can imagine the disciples shifting out the oars; some know what to do, some don’t. They had a short mast they could rig up and a sail, so perhaps they did that. Not all of them are sailors, so I’m guessing some were nervous. Some were in their element. They cast off and set out for the far shore.

It’s about seven miles across the Sea of Galilee, maybe two hours or just a little more. They’re setting out at evening, which is often calm. Jesus is exhausted, and who knows? Maybe a little seasick? The first thing that happens when you get seasick is being drowsy. In any event, he falls asleep. Have you got this pictured? A little open sailboat, raggedy sail catching the wind, bunch of guys sitting around, Jesus asleep, someone steering, someone keeping watch in the bow. That’s when the storm hits. 

I wince every time I read this story because I know just what that feels like. One moment you’re sailing along peacefully, the sails trimmed, the boat burbling along, the pressure on the tiller just enough to hold it steady. Suddenly there’s a bang, suddenly the boat tips, suddenly someone’s shouting to get the sail down, suddenly there’s water coming over the side. Now, my boat is a keel boat, which means it’s going to come back up. My boat has a cabin and a deck, and the water will run off. But this boat, this Galilee fishing boat, is an open boat: no deck, no cabin, no keel. It’s a bit crowded, not everyone there is a sailor, and they must have been bailing furiously, and yelling, and finally they wake up Jesus.

Now, when I thought of this sermon originally, I thought this is the place where I’d describe some time I was sailing and got hit by a squall and got scared. But I think Gordon Lightfoot said it better than I could. In his song, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, he describes the storm that took down that big Great Lakes freighter, asking “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?” That’s what’s happening here. Whether on a boat or in life, haven’t we all felt this, haven’t we all been hit by a squall? Maybe it’s the death of someone loved, maybe it’s a dread diagnosis, maybe it’s some other event that threatens to overturn your boat like this boat is threatened.

The story says Jesus wakes up, looks around, tells the sea and the wind to knock it off. Just like that, everything is calm, just like that, it’s ok. Wouldn’t that be great when we hit a storm in life? Wake Jesus up, have him say Stop! to whatever is threatening us and just go on? Is that what’s happening here? 

I think what’s actually going on is something deeper, something more profound. Jesus’ healings, Jesus’ exorcisms, the things we call miracles are actually meant to be signs, signals to show us what we can hardly understand, that in Jesus we are meant to encounter not just a miracle worker but the very presence of God. There’s one other place in scripture where the roiling, restless seas are calmed: at creation 

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

Genesis 1:1

God is acting here: God is stilling the waters. 

The disciples get it. English translations usually say something like, “…they were filled with great awe.” What the original text actually says is, “They feared a great fear.” It’s interesting that in this story, when they think they are perishing, we’re not told they were afraid. It’s only when Jesus stills the storm that they get scared. And it makes them ask the question that’s going to occupy the rest of this gospel: “who is this?”

We’d like to be able to wake Jesus up whenever there’s a storm, whenever we feel like we might be overwhelmed. There’s an old song that says, “I want Jesus to walk with me.” It’s a great song, bad theology because the point is not for Jesus to walk with me, it’s for me to walk with Jesus. What the gospel shows us is that if I want to walk with Jesus, I’m going to have to go places where it feels stormy, I’m going to have to cross to other shores, I’m going to have to change in ways that feel uncomfortable. He says, “Let us go across to the other side,” and the truth is, I’m comfortable right here—he wants me to go to another shore, a new place, a new way, a new creation. 

“Who is this?” The disciples ask: we should ask too. When we figure it out, then indeed, like those disciples much later, we can cross with him. And our destination will be the farthest shore. And we’ll find that as long as we are with him, we are home.


Homeward Bound

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ of Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 16, 2024

Mark 3:20-35

Every journey has a moment when it turns back toward home. If the journey is fun and exciting, it may be a moment of disappointment; if the journey has been difficult and included missed loved ones, it can be hopeful and inspiring. There’s a Simon and Garfunkel song called home-ward bound that describes this feeling. And I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt at the beginning of the story we read today in Mark. As I said last week, one of the most important words for Mark is “Immediately!” That’s how the first few chapters run. Jesus is baptized, goes out into the wilderness, John his arrested and Jesus comes back to Galilee, preaching “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” He calls some disciples; others also follow him. He heals, he casts out demons, and he does something shocking for the time: he eats with sinners. Sinners is a big class: it includes Gentiles and people who don’t follow Torah and women. His practice of an open, forgiving, healing community shocks some; already he’s attracting opposition as well as people who believe in him and his message. 

“Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so they could not even eat.” That’s how today’s text begins. Jesus has come home and the whole passage takes place right there, in the place where he started. It’s a small place: some estimates put the population of Nazareth at about 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town? Everyone knows everyone; everyone watches everyone else’s kids grow up. So they all knew Jesus, knew him from when he was just a little guy. He’s been out preaching and healing and exorcising, but now he’s come home and I wonder what they thought. I used to live in a small town in northwestern Michigan, About 800 people lived there but in the summer there was an art festival that drew thousands. So when it says that the crowd was so big they couldn’t eat, I know just what that means. That’s the setting for this story: Jesus at home, crowds of people, lots of strangers, all in this little village.

Mark tells this story in a way that can be hard to understand. The beginning and end are about Jesus’ family, but in the middle there’s a different story about the scribes from Jerusalem. I want to talk about the scribes first, but it’s important to remember that this whole story is set off by Jesus’ family coming to restrain him because they think he’s acting crazy. So: crazy Jesus and the Jerusalem scribes.

Now, one thing I know about small towns is that they tend to be suspicious of the bit city. Big city people dress differently, they talk differently. I imagine everyone knows the scribes are in town. The scribes have already discovered there’s no decent inn and the food isn’t what they’re used to and on the whole they’d just like to get back to their comfortable villas in Jerusalem. But they’re apparently on a mission. These guys are religious authorities, not clergy exactly but lawyers whose job it is to find out and determine what’s going on out there in Galilee. We read a story two weeks ago where already some people were grumbling that Jesus violated some of the religious rules. But he’s attracting crowds. The scribes have done some investigating, heard about the healings and the exorcisms, and they’ve formed an opinion. They don’t discount the miracles, but they explain them by saying, “He’s doing black magic by the power of Satan.” That’s another name for Beelzebub. Some call this figure the devil, there are lots of names but in essence what they mean is personified evil. 

It’s a reasonable argument. We know that many people, especially elderly people, are victimized today by scams. Those scams always start with, “Let me help you.” In effect, the Jerusalem scribes are saying, “Look, this Jesus is doing things for an evil purpose.” But Jesus’ reply is simple: if I was doing things for an evil purpose, the power of evil would be divided. But what I’m doing frees people, brings them home to God. The image of restraining a strong man—remember we started with Jesus’ family wanting to restrain him?—is especially striking. Jesus is breaking the power of evil so those excluded can come home to God. What he says about his ministry is that it’s the turning point: the kingdom is near, respond appropriately. 

Every great struggle has a turning point. Just a few days ago, we remembered the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the enormous battle when the Allies from all over the world gathered together and fought onto the beaches of Normandy. At the end of those June days, the battle against fascism and the Nazis wasn’t over, it wouldn’t be over for almost a year. Yet clear eyed observers could see: the victory was a matter of time. It was being won. Jesus’ earthly ministry is a decisive time in making a new way to come home to God. The war isn’t over on this day in Nazareth, but his ministry, his life, is the decisive battle. The language of the time calls being at home with God a kingdom. That’s language people in the first century understood. But many are now calling it instead a kin-dom, an understanding we are all children of God. Remember what we heard Paul say last week?— he no longer regards anyone from an earthly point of view. 

God is acting in Jesus, acting just as the prophet Jeremiah said, to create a new covenant, a new opening, a new way home to God. In the middle of this, Jesus says that all sins will be forgiven, except blaspheming the Holy Spirit. That verse has sparked all kinds of guilt and judgement. What is blaspheming? Another translation is ‘insulting”. What is insulting the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is the name for God acting in the world, so what Jesus seems to be saying is, if you don’t accept and believe in forgiveness, you can’t be forgiven.

The story doesn’t say what happened to the Jerusalem scribes. But it does bring us back to Jesus’ family: they’re standing outside the circle. Remember them? They came to restrain him for acting crazy. When he’s asked about them, he says simply, “Look, we are all family here.”

 Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Apparently, his family does come to understand this. All the disciples desert him at the cross, but his mother is there, and his brother James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church, the first congregation of his followers.

Jesus means to bring us to the kin-dom of God. Everyone is invited. Later, Paul will say, 

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:23]

So we know who is speaking the truth of Christ, those who bring all of us together. 

We haven’t always known this. Our history shows we’ve often given in to the world’s divisions. Jacquelyn can remember seeing water fountains marked “Colored” and “White” growing up in Texas. We all remember. Many in Congregational and UCC churches started preaching the full inclusion of gay and lesbian and transgender people and nine years ago our legal system caught up and allowed them to marry, something we celebrate during Pride Month. For years, we were told about all the awful things that would happen if gay folks married. Recently, a 20-year study of gay marriage found what many suspected all along: nothing bad has happened, it’s simply that many more people are now in loving, committed marriages.

Today is Father’s Day, an especially poignant day in our family. I don’t have any biological children. I always thought that meant I wasn’t a father. But along the way, I raised three children, my daughter Amy, my son Jason, my daughter May. It wasn’t always easy—on them or me! But we managed. They are legally what people call stepchildren. But long ago we all dropped the step part because it didn’t describe how we loved each other. In our own little way, without thinking it through, just doing what seemed right, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we learned to love each other. We stopped making decisions. In effect, we said, “Who are my parents? Who are my children? Who is my family?”—all of us who love each other. We learned to make a family; we learned it’s love that makes a family.

Jesus came proclaiming the kin-dom of God. Some couldn’t understand and thought he was crazy; some were inspired. Some insisted on all the usual divisions, gender, politics, class, race.
But Jesus came proclaiming the kin-dom of God: that all are God’s children. He’s still proclaiming it. All he asks is that we see each other as God sees us: as children of God. 


Ohh! Woo! Wow!

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ of Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor @ 2024

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 9, 2024

Mark 4:26-34

“A man went out to sow.” It’s simple, isn’t it? Up in Galilee, where Jesus is speaking, most of the people are farmers. I imagine, just like us, they all have their morning ritual. What’s yours? Three mornings a week my version of going to sow is to get up early, take my daughter to a coffee place called Lil Amps. I buy her a latte, or whatever she wants; I get black coffee. We sit and talk for five minute and then announces, “Well, it’s time.” I wish her a good day, remind her I love her, and she walks off to her office in downtown Harrisburg. I take my coffee and go home, read the news, read my email and look at the scripture for the week. Jesus asks us to imagine a farmer, a regular guy, starting out his day: “A man goes out to sow.” Nothing special, nothing momentous, nothing out of the ordinary. But remember what he says first: this is an image, a parable, of the most momentous thing of all, the kingdom of God. Want to see God present? Look here, watch: a man goes out to sow.

My dad grew up on a farm, so we always had a garden. Each person grew their own crop. My job was sweet corn, and he taught me to make a little mound of dirt, put some fertilizer in the middle, then poke five holes around the edges; each one got a kernel of corn. Maybe you have a garden, and you have your own way of sowing, so let’s be clear what happens when a man in Galilee goes out to sow. He doesn’t carefully put down each seed; he doesn’t plow first and sow in the furrows. Grain was sown by walking through the field with a bag on your hip, reaching in, taking a handful and scattering it over the field In another parable, Jesus describes this. It’s what we should imagine here. A man goes out to sow, scattering the precious grain this way and that. Maybe he’s a poor man, and he’s calculated just how much he can afford to take away from the family as seed; maybe he’s worried about the harvest, maybe he’s hopeful it will be a good year. This is the kingdom, and it begins with seeds that hold a secret.

Not knowing is hard for us, I think. I had a class in biology in high school. One of the projects was to grow beans. Beans are usually pretty easy to grow but in my case, I was assigned to grow them in what was a new way, called hydroponics. Hydroponics is growing in water with nutrients dissolved. So I set it all up in a long half-tube, seeds and water and nutrients. And I waited. I waited about two days. Then I got impatient; the people who had been given little cups of dirt were seeing tiny sprouts, but I wasn’t. So I pulled the seeds up just to check. No sprouts. A couple of days later, I did the same thing. I kept pulling them out and I never saw a single sprout. At the end of the project, everyone else had little bean plants; I had seeds that had gotten stinky and molded. The teacher asked if I had any idea what happened. I told him how I’d pulled them up every day and I still remember how his eyes got wide, and he said, “Jim, you can’t force it, you have to wait.” I flunked. That’s one reason I’m here today instead of doing biology.

A man goes out to sow, and then he does—nothing. This is the part that always gets me in trouble with gardeners. “What? What about weeding? What about fertilizing? What about all the hard work?” Sorry, I don’t know. I just know what Jesus said: he sleeps and rises, night and day; he waits. He just waits. He doesn’t pull up the plants like I did; he waits. And Jesus points this out: “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” There is a process, there is a creative, God given process and the best the sower can do is wait. Waiting is hard, isn’t it? I’ve been to hundreds of church conferences over the years, times when clergy gather along with active lay people and talk about their year in the church. There are stories of successful stewardship campaigns, programs that turned out great, and things to try. I have never been to a single conference in almost 50 years when someone said, “Oh, we slept and rose, slept and rose; we waited.” 

Mark’s gospel is the closest of all the gospels to Jesus, and it alternates between two times. One is “Immediately!” When Jesus is baptized, immediately, the spirit drives him into the wilderness. When he calls his disciples, immediately they respond. When he heals, immediately the person is whole. ‘Immediately’ occurs 28 times in this short gospel, more than in Matthew and Luke put together. The other time that happens over and over again is that Jesus tells his disciples not to talk about the amazing things they see, the healings, the time on the mountain when he shines with a heavenly glow. It isn’t time to tell these things. Just like the man who went out to sow, they have to wait; they have to sleep and rise and let the unseen work of the Spirit go on, trust that God is working. 

Of course, the parable tells us, eventually the harvest comes. No sleeping then! I’ve lived in a couple of rural communities, and harvest is a time when nothing else matters. You rush and work as late as there’s light because once the crop is ripe, you only have so much time to get it in. Then, like Jesus in Mark’s gospel, everything is “Immediately!” What does the man who went out to sow do when it’s harvest time? He puts in the sickle, in other words, he uses everything he has to harvest the crop that was sown. 

What is the kingdom like? It’s a harvest, but it’s also these other times: sowing and waiting as well.  And one of the most important questions to ask in a church is: what time is it? It’s a question our consistory ought to be asking, it’s a question for the search committee, it’s a question for all of us: what time is it here? Is it time for sowing? Is it time for waiting? Is it time for harvest? Because if we wait when it’s time for sowing, we’ll never get anywhere; if we try to harvest when it’s time for waiting, we just end up with moldy beans.

Perhaps this is what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthian Christians. He says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” That sounds like someone who understands the Spirit’s work is not always visible, like the sower who sleeps and rises while the earth produces of itself. And finally, he comes to the harvest moment.

5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
[ 2 Corinthians 5:16-17]

Wow! God isn’t just improving things, God is making a whole new creation!

Jesus doesn’t want us to miss that wow. So we have this other parable about a mustard seed. I used to think of this as a story about gradual growth, from little to big, but I’ve become convinced that it’s not about growth at all. It’s about wow. You know the wow moment? In a couple of weeks we’re going to celebrate the fourth of July and most places will have fireworks. We have a boat in a slip in Baltimore that’s just across a little water from Fort McHenry, where the “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” actually happened almost 210 years ago. Every year there’s the same conversation. A colored rocket shoots up giving off sparks and someone says “oooh!!!” And then another, sometimes bigger and there’s a “woooo” and finally at the end when all the rockets shoot off, someone will always say “wow!” 

Christ invites us to the same “oooh! Wooo! Wow!” With the story of the mustard seed. All over Galilee, mustard was a plant that grew wild in the ditches and along roads. Left alone, it spreads and grows up in the summer to big bushes. But this growth isn’t the point: the point is that looking at tiny mustard seeds, you’d never expect a big shrub. Look at Jesus: you’d never expect a resurrection. Look at us: you’d never expect a new creation. But there he is; here we are. The last part about the birds making nests isn’t just artistic license; it’s actually a reference to a story in the book of Daniel. The nesting birds are a symbol of God’s New Creation. They’re meant to make us go, “Wow!”

What does the kingdom of God look like? It looks like someone sowing, someone waiting, someone harvesting, each at the right time. What time is it here? 

What does the kingdom of God feel like? It feels like the unbelievable surprise of something tiny becoming the means of a whole new creation. Something small: like you, like me. 



Through the Looking Glass

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ,
Locust Grove, PA
by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024
Second Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 2, 2024
2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

What’s right, what’s wrong? We all make these decisions every single day; how do we make them? How do we know what’s right, what’s wrong? Most of us come with menu choices: we’ve been taught what’s right, what’s wrong. But sometimes we don’t see that our ideas aren’t the whole picture. You came in here this morning, to this beautiful space, with pews, and you knew what to do. You sat down, probably where you always sit. You know how to use a church pew. But two thirds of the world doesn’t sit on chairs; they wouldn’t know what to do with a pew. If we went to their home, there wouldn’t be a chair, there would be cushions and if you’re like me, you’d face a dilemma: if I get down there, will I be able to get up? What’s right, what’s wrong? This story asks us to watch as Jesus handles just this question. Let’s see what we can learn.

Jesus has been teaching and healing, and he’s attracted a group of followers. Some of them are the ones we call the disciples, but we should always remember there was a larger group that followed Jesus: men, women, possibly children. As they walked through a field of grain on the way to worship, some of them did the most natural thing in the world: they stripped off the grain on the stalks. Mark doesn’t say they were eating it, but that’s how I imagine it. It’s like going to the grocery store when they have free samples. When they get to the synagogue, some Pharisees yell at Jesus: “Hey! How come your guys are violating the Sabbath?” There are a lot of rules about the sabbath, mostly trying to make sure God’s command to rest is observed. Some of them are obscure. Women, for example, aren’t allowed to look in a mirror because if they do, they might see a gray hair and pluck it out and picking is reaping and reaping is work. You see how this works: someone has taken God’s command and made up rules. The Pharisees are all about the rules. They aren’t bad guys; the rules are what they’re used to, how they make sense of the world. Sabbath is their identity, and they think Jesus is challenging it. 

On the face of it, this seems to be a story about Sabbath observance. Sabbath observance could be complex in Israel. There are over 600 rules in the Talmud interpreting the command to keep the sabbath holy. Those commandments had been amplified by countless specifics. The story itself is murky. It doesn’t explicitly say, for example, that the disciples were eating, so it’s not clear what the sabbath violation is here. And why were the Pharisees out there watching? Pharisees weren’t common in Galilee in this time. Were they following Jesus too? 

When Jesus replies, he misquotes a story about David but focuses on the real issue here. He says that the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. What’s important isn’t the details of being right; what’s important is the sabbath as an expression of God’s love for us.  Delmar Chilton is one of my favorite preachers, and he puts it this way.

…this text appears to be about Sabbath observance, but it’s really not. It’s about God’s love for humanity, about humanity’s habit of turning gifts into obligations, and about our oftentimes narrow-minded hardness of heart when it comes to loving others with the same kind of unconditional love with which God has loved us,

Delmar Chilton, Podcast for June 2, 2024

The Pharisees are busy catching rule breakers; God is busy breaking through the rules to love.

That’s not easy for us. Truth is, we like what we’re used to; we like the rules. I come from Congregational Churches; we’re not big on change. In one of my churches where we started to develop and had to change to serve new people, one of the long time members used to say angrily at Council meetings, “That’s just change for the sake of change,” as if this was the worst sin imaginable. But wherever Jesus goes, he brings God’s love and changes things. I like the story of Alice in Wonderland, do you know it? A girl named Alice goes through a looking glass and finds a world where everything is reversed. It’s a mirror image of our world and a reminder to me that what I think is normal is just what I’m used to, not necessarily the best way or even God’s way.

How do we let go of the rules and let God in to change things? We start by remembering what Paul says to the Corinthian Christians. They’ve been fighting over the rules, and he reminds them that they are not the source.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

[2 Cor 4:5f] 

We are not the light: God’s love is the light. We’re meant to be the lamps from which that light shines.

This church has been here a long time. Many of you have been here as part of it a long time. Now it’s time for a new time; now it’s time for a transition to a future none of us can quite see yet. I’m excited to be along with you for this time, this journey. It’s like moving: the dust gets stirred up, there are things you like that have to be left behind, you have to buy a new couch and meet new neighbors. But I am convinced that if we remember that our rules, our familiar way of doing things are just ours, and that the real purpose here is to shine out the light of God’s love, and we pursue that purpose, God will, as God always does, do things we haven’t even imagined.

At the end of this story, Jesus is in the synagogue. There’s a man with a withered hand. It doesn’t say if he had been ill or injured, but I imagine him having dealt with this for a long time. He’s gone through life for a while without that hand. I imagine he’s learned to live with it. He doesn’t know Jesus, and he must have seen and heard the angry confrontation with the Pharisees. Still, he finds the courage to present himself to Jesus. Healing on the sabbath is tricky, sometimes prohibited, in some cases not. The text says the Pharisees were watching, just waiting for Jesus to make a mistake, waiting to see if he’d heal this man. 

But he doesn’t. Did you notice that? Jesus doesn’t heal the man; we’re simply told that he is healed. The man stretches out his hand. Think how hard that must have been. Imagine how he had for years concealed that hand, kept it tucked away. Now Jesus tells him to come forward, now Jesus tells him to put out the hand that’s been so much trouble. And he is healed. In other places, Jesus says that someone’s faith has made them well or healed them. Perhaps that’s what happens here: that act of faith, that willingness to change, leaves him healed.

The poet T. S. Eliot says in one place, 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

[T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, 1943.]

If we are ready to explore, at the end we will come back to the center, which is the presence of God known in Jesus Christ. If we are willing to let go of the rules and stretch out our souls like the man in the synagogue stretched out his hand, in faith, in hope, in love, there’s just no telling what God may do with us. 


Ready, Set, Go!

A Sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ

by Rev. James Eaton • © 2024 All Rights Reserved
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • February 4, 2024
Mark 1:29-39

Ready, set, go! It’s how children’s games often start: hide and seek for example. It’s also how races start. I was a track parent years ago: my older daughter ran sprints and relay races. Being a track parent means you sit in the stands on cold, rainy days, waiting, waiting until someone says, “Oh, Amy’s lining up,” and then you stop your conversation, look down and hear “Ready, set, go!” And watch for a minute or two while your kid and some others run around a track. It’s a rhythm of wait, wait, get ready and then an explosive start and rush to the finish. 

This image captures for me the Gospel of Mark. Especially here in this first chapter, Jesus seems to be on a race. Over and over, we hear the word, “Immediately!”. Jesus is baptized: immediately the Spirit throws him into the wilderness. Jesus invites people to become his disciples; immediately they follow him. Jesus preaches at a synagogue, defeats an evil spirit; immediately his fame spreads. It’s one thing after another and sometimes I read these stories and want to say to Mark, “Slow down! Let me ask some questions, like Pastor Sue did a couple weeks ago.” Jesus goes on: encounters a man with leprosy and immediately he was made clean and Jesus is off to other places.

The Urgency of Now

The urgency comes from the importance the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the urgency of now and said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” This is the time, Jesus says, right now, right here, the reign of God is happening. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Everyone hearing this story knows how it ends. “After John was arrested…”, Mark begins and we already know the destination is the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus himself. Mark is inviting us in between the arrest of John and the death of Jesus and there’s no time to waste. Immediately: get ready, get set, go. 

Last week we heard the story of Jesus casting out a demonic spirit. He’s been to the synagogue, he’s been to worship, just like we’re gathered here. In the midst of the service, someone possessed by a spirit caused a commotion and Jesus casts the spirit out. Now the service is over and they go out, across the street, to Peter’s house: “Immediately!” Now I suspect you’ve all had a preacher drop in so you know there’s a bit of preparation involved. In our house, it means cleaning and straightening and making sure there’s a bite to eat. If it’s Pastor Sue, it means having tea on. But here, Jesus and a bunch of his friends are coming over and the matriarch is sick; Peter’s mother in law has a fever,. Jesus goes to her and takes her by the hand. It’s easy to rush by this detail but it’s important. Good Jewish men don’t touch women in Jesus’ time. Women are in the background, working but not seen, certainly not touched. Yet when he encounters this woman he touches her, takes her by the hand, just like in the song Joe sang, “Precious Lord, take my hand…” and lifts her up. The word here for being lifted up is the same one translated elsewhere as ‘resurrection’. This is the first resurrection, this is the model for our call to grace, that Jesus lifts us up, raises us. Just as Paul says: “…if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” [Romans 6:8]

Call and Service

We’ve been talking about calling for a few weeks and I want to notice this woman’s call. It doesn’t look like what we’ve often been taught. This woman doesn’t comes to Jesus, he comes to her. The effect of being raised by Jesus is to make her well, to liberate her from the fever, just as the man with the demon was liberated. When God calls us, God makes us ready, gets us set. And finally, there is the “go!” Jesus raises the woman and she gets up and serves. Mark doesn’t tell us how she serves. Does she prepare a meal? Does she fix him a plate? Does she help him prepare sermons? We don’t know. We simply know she serves. The same word is used by Mark to describe the angels who care for Jesus in the wilderness. When we serve, we become then angels. 

The call of service can change the course of lives. Robert Coles is psychiatrist whose life has spanned an amazing group of people. His aunt was Anna Freud, he grew up during the depression and later in life he had the opportunity to interview and talk to a great number of people involved in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s.  He became fascinated with people who felt what he called “the call of service”: privileged college kids who went to poor people to teach children to read. One of those children later said this about the difference one of those teachers had on her own life.

He was a frail-looking Jewish kid with thick glasses, and at first I didn’t know what we’d even talk about. Bt I’ll tell you he saved me, that’s the word, saved. He was kind and thoughtful and he loved reading and he taught me to love reading. He was the one who said to me, “You can get out of all this, you can…” 

What that kid with the thick glasses did was simple: he healed her, he freed her, to hear her own call to service. She grew up, went to college and Harvard Law and then gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars so that she in turn could tutor children in Roxbury, a poor area of Boston.

Robert Coles, Call of Service, p. 176.

I hear this call to serve in my own life here with you. For most of the last 48 years, I’ve served as a pastor of a church. Then I retired and moved to Harrisburg and had to do something I’d only done once before in my whole life: find a church not as a prospective pastor but as a member. I wandered in here at Salem, thinking it would be one stop on a tour of local churches and you all said “Welcome! We hope you come back!” And I did. It wasn’t easy: I’ve had to learn a whole new set o skills. I’m used to preaching sermons, not listening to them. My wife likes decorating; she’s a flight attendant and in a different hotel room two or three nights a week. She imagines rearranging them. The same way, I automatically imagine rearranging the liturgy. It wasn’t easy to not be able to do that. It wasn’t easy to sit in a pew. But I knew I needed to find a place to serve and you gave me one. 

Your Own Call

What about you? What about me? What is your call? How does that call turn into serving? The story in Mark doesn’t stop with raising Peter’s mother-in-law. When the sabbath ends at sundown, people from all over town are brought to Jesus so he can heal them and liberate them from the things that are holding them back. That’s the meaning of healing, isn’t it? We focus on Jesus and the healing but we ought to notice the crowd that brings people: they also serve. This is the real church, this is who we are when we are truly servants of Jesus Christ. When someone asks me about Salem, the temptation is to describe the beautiful building or the wonderful organ. But that’s not Salem; that’s not the church. The real church is you and I serving together. The real church is you and I helping each other find our call, get ready, get set, and then going. It’s not always as immediate as Mark’s gospel would have it yet there is a faithfulness that lasts. When Jesus is on the cross, the disciples are all absent. It’s the women who are there, perhaps this very woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, serving to the end. Jesus raises her and she serves. This is our call as well: to serve with others, bringing those who need healing to Jesus. Ready, set, go: listen for the call, find the way you can serve.


Where To?

A sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ

Second Sunday in Lent/A • March 5, 2023

Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 •John 3:1-17 

The internet has discovered I’m retired. Every day, I get offers of how to make money in retirement, how to travel in retirement, how to deal with the stress of retirement. The best advice I’ve gotten is to try something new. I’ve decided to take up sewing. It might not seem like a predictable choice but it sounds better than driving for Uber and considering the cost of boat cushions, it would save me a lot of money to be able to make new ones myself. So I asked around among some friends who sew, looking for advice. The best advice of all was someone who said, “You’re going to make a lot of mistakes at first. Don’t worry. The thing about sewing is, you can always rip it out and start over.” I like that idea: starting over. Have you ever had to start over? 

Starting over is just what God is doing in the passage we read from Genesis. In the beginning, God created and the purpose was a mutually blessing community of appreciation. Everything was good; you’ve read it, you’ve heard this, God creates and it is good. But then human pride slips in and things go wrong and it ends up in violence and a complete mess. In just a few generations, we’re told, “…the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. [Gen 6:6]. So God starts over, gives Noah directions on how to build a boat, wipes the slate clean, sets a rainbow to mark the occasion. You’d think this time it would go better but it doesn’t. Years pass, people grow up, settle down, forget to give thanks and their pride gets working again, until they decide they can reach heaven on their own. They build a tower at Babel and it’s not good, not good at all. God scatters them and they end up speaking different languages. It’s a mess.

So God is starting over with Abram and, although she isn’t mentioned here, his wife Sarai. If you’re counting, this is the third time. God still has the same design, a community of mutual blessing and appreciation. It just hasn’t worked out. Creating wasn’t enough; the rainbow covenant wasn’t enough. So God decides to start out with just one couple, make them a family, and grow from there. 

The first thing God says is, “Go!” Now, if you’re like me, when someone says, “Go!”, I immediately ask, “Where to?” We have one of those cars now with a screen that displays a map. But to make it work right, you have to put in a place; the car wants to know where we’re going. The car wants a destination and it’s nice to know where to. Most weeks I drive Jacquelyn to the airport in Baltimore. I know how to get there, but I still put in the destination because it’s comforting to know how close to our destination we’re getting. But listen to what God says to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” [Gen 12:1a] This isn’t a destination that will work with the GPS. The GPS wants an address, a particular place, not just “somewhere” 

Notice also how God goes out of the way to emphasize the going. There’s a three-fold description of what going means: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” These are all the things that make life normal and comfortable for Abram. We all like the familiar. Look where you’re sitting; I bet you sat there the last time you were here. I sit over there about four rows back because it’s close to the front without being right in front and it’s easy to get in and out. Some Sundays I think, “Well, let’s sit over there by Bob,” but you know somehow I don’t. It’s not my place. 

It’s hard to leave the familiar isn’t it? Have you had to do that? When we moved to Harrisburg two years ago, we came from a home Jacquelyn had made a beacon of warmth and welcome, with great neighbors, a coffee shop I loved and a job I really liked. It was during the pandemic, so we couldn’t visit here much and get comfortable. We bought a house we saw mostly on phone video. We didn’t know anyone. We found the Wegmans out in Mechanicsburg somehow and for a while that was the only grocery store we knew about. Now Abram is being told Go from everything you’ve ever known, your country, your family, the house where you grew up and he never gets to ask, “Where to?”

If you’re like me, you’ve heard someone talk about how great Abram is because he has the faith to answer God’s call. But the more I thought about this passage this week, the more it occurred to me that it isn’t about Abram and his response—that comes later—it’s all about God and what God is doing. What God is doing is starting over to create that mutually blessing place creation was meant to be. Listen to what God says:

I will make of you a great nation, and
I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse;
and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

[Gen 12:2-3]

It’s all about what God is doing. It’s all blessing; even the part about cursing is really a kind of protection. It’s all “I” statements, it’s all promise, it’s all about God’s care and that care is for everyone: “…in you all the families the earth will be blessed.” This isn’t about Abram; this is about what God is doing for all of us, everyone, the whole world. 

Now, that’s great, hat’s wonderful, that’s something to celebrate. Except: it starts with that “Go”. And that’s hard for us, isn’t it? We like the familiar; we like what we know. I was the pastor of a church in New England for many years. The meeting house was built in 1848, it sat 300 on the main floor and still had the wrap around balcony called galleries; lots of space for the 25 of us who worshipped there. The pews were numbered because in the old days, people rented their pew. The galleries were originally for servants and children and poor people. They weren’t safe to go up in, but we kept them. We had a lot of furniture from the Victorian era and sometimes I liked to move it around, create a different space. One of the members would sneer about this with the ultimate New England condemnation: “This is change for the sake of change.” We still use that phrase in our family, it became our private joke. Jacquelyn likes to redecorate; I like things the way they are. Once in a while she improves something and I’ve been known to say, “This is just change for the sake of change.”

The problem is that God doesn’t deal in permanent places. The whole Bible story is about journeys, from Adam and Eve leaving the garden to Abram and Sarai leaving their home to Moses leading God’s people on the Exodus. God is constantly, restlessly, trying to move us toward the fulfillment of that vision of mutual blessing with which creation began. But we like where we are, we like what we know, we like what’s familiar.  

That’s the problem in the Gospel reading. Nicodemus is a settled man, a prominent man, a teacher of Israel. He’s courageous enough to come at night to Jesus, trying to figure out what Jesus is up to. But he can’t quite let go of what he thinks he knows, what’s familiar. So Jesus says, “You have to be born from above.” Now, we’ve translated that into “being born again”; we’ve made it about what we do, some phrase we say. That’s not what the text says. What Jesus seems to have in mind isn’t some action but starting over. And the purpose of that starting over? “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [John 3:17] That’s not the verse that gets put on signs but that’s the real purpose here, the same purpose God has had from the beginning.

We’re all concerned about the future of churches today. I heard this week that in 2019, the last year for which numbers are available, about 4,500 churches closed. That’s before the pandemic with all its terrible effects. I’m convinced that a part of the reason is that we’ve become so comfortable, we’ve forgotten who we are meant to be, people who are starting over to realize God’s vision of justice and love in a community of mutual blessing and appreciation. We like our familiar places and we’ve made those our destination instead of embracing like, Abram, an unknown future whose hope isn’t its familiarity but God’s promise. We’ve learned to depend on our traditions instead of listening to Psalm 121. There, the psalmist looks to the hills, but says, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:2] 

My mother in law, Marylyn Welling, has gone home to God. When she was with us, she had a little saying we all teased her about. Whenever she went somewhere, on arrival, she would announce, as if in surprise, “Well, we’re here.” We will have found the right path, we will be following Jesus, we will be God’s people when we can embrace a journey to share God’s blessing and feel that in those changes, in those challenges, we’re here. We will get somewhere when the answer to the question, “Where to?” Is, “God knows.”


Rise, Shine, Give God Your Glory

A Sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ, Harrisburg, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, © 2023

Epiphany Sunday • January 8, 2023

Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12

Rise, shine, give god your glory. I can’t help hearing the old camp song when I say this; do you know it? Rise, shine, give God your glory. Today is Epiphany Sunday here, two days after the actual day, January 6. Sometimes it’s called Three Kings day and in the rest of the world, it’s when gifts are given and the promise of Christmas celebrated. ‘Epiphany’ is a Greek word meaning manifestation. I said that once and after the service someone said: great you explained one word I didn’t understand with another I don’t get. It means seeing suddenly some flash of God’s presence. It’s as if the whole world is lit up, it’s like a dark night split by the instant flash of lightning. Epiphany is God’s light shining into the world and as John said, as we read in our call to worship, the darkness has not overcome it.

I grew up with the Three Kings: did you? My grandmother had a small nativity scene, little wooden figures like the ones we have here but much smaller. Every year we’d set it out on a low end table. When she wasn’t around, my brother and I would take the figures down and play with them. I liked making sailboats out of a pointy board and a dowel mast; Joseph and the shepherds became crew. Mary and the baby were passengers; the animals came on board too, like the ark. But the kings on their camels weren’t meant for shipboard life; they galloped on the shore. Originally they were joined by a chain but that got broken; so did one of the camel’s legs. We saw them as toys and didn’t understand when my grandmother got angry at us for playing with them. That’s what the Three Kings are for many of us event today: the last toys of Christmas. No other Christmas characters have had so many stories made up about them; no others are so richly embellished with fantasies and made up things nowhere in the Bible. Today, I want to put away the toys, stop playing with the figures, and see how this story in Matthew can help us rise, shine and give God the glory.

Who are the these three? They are Magi. The word gets translated “Wise Men”—although the text says nothing about gender—or ‘Kings”—although the Greek text doesn’t call them kings. In the area that’s now Iraq and Iran, schools of magicians and astrologers and dream interpreters existed for hundreds of years. They were called Magi, from the same root word that gives us ‘magic’. We have such people. They are the talking heads on TV, who guess about the future, they are the therapists who help you look forward, they are the people who magically make Alexa work for you. They aren’t kings, and sadly even the camels that were so much fun in the crèche aren’t in the story. There is  something else to understand about the Magi: they are rich Gentiles.

We’re all Gentiles, so we often miss how important this is. Yet in that time and place, no more fundamental distinction existed. So it’s surprising to see them here in this Jewish story. Matthew gives us a long, detailed genealogy of Jesus, connecting him with Abraham, detailing how he is descended from King David. Then he tells us about Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy, and how it takes an angel visit to get the two together. Not a word from Mary but isn’t that just like a patriarchal culture to tell us about a birth by telling how hard it is for the father without mentioning the mom? After the story we read today, we hear about Herod’s slaughter of young male children which is so like Pharaoh in the time of Moses. When Herod dies, the whole family goes home to Nazareth and we pass to John the Baptist. These are all good Jewish stories and yet here, right here, smack in the middle, is this strange story of these rich Gentiles, the Magi.

They know what they are doing; they’ve seen a star, read the ancient Jewish prophecies, risen up from their daily lives and gone on a long journey. Now they’re near the end; they go to the Jewish king, supposing he will know what’s happening. Yet here is Herod and his advisors without a clue. Bethlehem is about five miles away but the Magi who have come over a thousand miles know more than Herod. They are the emblem of what the Apostle Paul will later call a mystery; that, “…the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” [Ephesians 3:6] No more fundamental distinctions exist in that time than Gentile and Jew, rich and poor. But here is God breaking boundaries, bringing rich Gentiles to poor peasants. 

Why are they here? To give gifts. The one part of the creche Magi that is in the story are the gifts. A lot of stories have been made up about the gifts but the truth is these gifts are the working tools of Magi. Incense is burned when mysterious things are done; myrrh is used for magical tattoos. And gold always comes in handy. The other thing in the real story which often isn’t in the creche is a star. To all who had to navigate before GPS and maps, stars were a real gift. Since ancient times, humans have used the stars to mark a path. The story tells us the Magi saw a star and it leads them to Mary, Joseph and Jesus; they give their gifts and then a dream tells them to go home a different way. No names, no genders, no kings; instead, a story of the gift of a star, the gifts to the child, the gift of direction. This is a story about gifts.

Gifts aren’t always easy. Sometimes we don’t recognize them. One father told this story about a special gift.

I was cleaning my 6y.o. son’s room, and doing my annual purge of crap he’s managed to hoard. I have this big pile of stuff to throw out in the living room, when he comes in, pulls some stupid paper butterfly out of the trash pile and tells me I can’t throw this away because it was a present.

He goes to a lot of birthday parties and gets a lot of goodie bags with this sort of thing, so I tell him it’s junk and it’s going in the trash. Besides, it’s all bent up and I tell him…that if he values things he should take care of them.

He leaves, and some 5 minutes later he returns, visibly distraught (he’s clearly been thinking hard about this). He says “It was a present…for you.”

“For father’s day.”

I swear at that moment I heard every angel in heaven slow clapping.


What is a gift? Is it the stupid paper butterfly or is the butterfly a pedestal for the time and care given to make a connection with someone? We make up stories about these gifts when the truth is staring us in the face: God has given a gift of presence—the Magi rise up from their homes, go following the shining light of that gift before they even know where they’re going. And they give God not just gifts but their witness of God’s glory. Rise, shine, give God your glory.

Isn’t this what we mean to do every Sunday during the offering? Passing around plates is not an effective way to raise money. Someone has to hunt through her purse; someone else pulls out his wallet and considers which bill to give. I know personally, it’s the one check I write all month, all our bills are handled electronically. Sometimes I forget on my way out the door and then there’s nothing to put in the plate. All our pews are numbered and the reason is that once upon a time the church raised money less by passing a plate for a collection but more efficiently by renting our the pews. Anyone who knows about fundraising today would tell us to use email and a web service that does subscriptions so our offering is automatically deducted from our bank accounts just like Netflix. No, we don’t do the offering because it’s efficient, we do it to act out this mysterious thing: giving gifts.

Christmas is not about toys and the real Magi are not toys. They are an emblem and a guide to how we should react to God’s gift of presence in the world. That gift is for all people and it’s fitting that here in this story, in the midst of these Jewish stories, it’s Gentiles, not local leaders who recognize the gift and respond by bringing their own gifts. Rise, shine, give God your glory, indeed. That’s what they are doing: giving gifts that may be strange to us but are their stock in trade, giving what they use, giving what they have, giving who they are. For them the “Joy to the World” about which we sing has become real. And, as one writer said, 

…when joy to the world becomes real, it breaks chains, topples hierarchies, knocks over our carefully laid out game and says: Start over, start new, start now. This is the message of the story of the sages, this is the message of Christmas; joy to the world, the savior reigns. 

Diana Butler Yeats

Rise, shine, give God your glory. Isn’t your glory the gifts God has given you? Isn’t that what we are meant to be as a church?—people who give themselves, give their gifts, imitating God’s gift giving in Jesus Christ. When we do this, when we rise up and become part of that great giving, then indeed God’s presence shines, then we give God glory. And then, how wonderfully, then indeed: Joy to the world.