How Bud Became a Hero

Second Sunday After Pentecost/B

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

June 6, 2021

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1  •  Mark 3:20-35

My family and I recently moved to new city: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. One of the rituals of meeting people is answering the question, “What do you do?” That’s never been a problem for me because I have been working since I was 14. But in January I retired. So it first, I wasn’t sure just how to answer this question. And then it occurred to me one day to simply say, “I’m retired.” Most people let it go with that, which I find interesting, since it really says nothing other than I don’t work for money. Some people ask some people ask, “What are you retired from?” To which I reply, “Well, I used to be a pastor.” Now the community in which we live is very diverse but on the whole it’s a pretty liberal place and of course more and more today being a Christian is seen as a conservative flag wave. So to avoid putting people off, I immediately tell them well I was a pastor of a Congregational Church. The problem is most people here don’t know what a Congregational Church is; this is Presbyterian and Catholic territory and evangelicals. Those are the three choices: Presbyterian Catholic evangelical, so I have to then explain, “Well it’s something like the UCC or like Unitarians, although I myself am not a Unitarian. Seeing this process has made me realize how carefully we divide people into categories. What’s your category? 

Modern life is built on what’s called micro targeting. Micro targeting is a process by which we are all divided up into more and more and more categories. The categories are used to sell things including politics. You can see this process at work. Search the web for a product or information: retirement activities in Harrisburg, for example. The next thing you know, you get a slew of ads that promise retirement income, dates for people over 50, and medical ads I’d rather not mention. Our categories are also part of our identity. Because we have allowed ourselves to participate and to embrace the targeting, we have divided ourselves into categories, there is inevitable conflict.

We see it in our politics where elections are supposed to solve conflicts. Now that basic principle is being denied by a Big Lie and efforts to discourage voting. We see it in social lives where the business of wearing a mask or getting vaccinated has become a battleground. Even churches are divided. 

So it’s a good day to read from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian Christians. Division in the church is the reason he wrote them and what we call Second Corinthians is actually pieced together from several letters. The Corinthians are divided because some are following a new leader and refusing to listen to Paul. What’s Paul’s solution? 

First, he points them back from their own party spirit to the one Spirit given by Christ. 

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.

2 Corinthians 4:13f

For Christians, our first principle is always the Risen Lord. This is our source although, as Paul says elsewhere, “…we have this treasure in clay jars…” 2 Cor 4:7 What matters is the treasure, not the jar that contains it. 

So what can we learn by turning to Jesus? Today’s Gospel reading is all about conflict. The culture of Galilee was full of categories. Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, free and slave, peasant and rich, city dweller, farmer, Roman, and so many others. Within these categories were others: Jews who were Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and people like tax collectors who were generally looked down upon. All the categories of our time—gender, class, race, ethnicity—existed then as well as now. So perhaps we can learn from this moment how to live in our moment.

Jesus has just started his ministry. John the Baptist has been arrested; Jesus began preaching the arrival of God’s rule. He begins to attract crowds and he chooses disciples. He casts out demons, he heals people. He also attracts conflict; scribes—we would call them lawyers—claim what he’s doing is wrong. But he continues and continues to attract crowds. Things come to a head over healing on the sabbath and the scandalous fact that he eats with sinners and women.

Finally, his mother and brothers come and send for him, apparently to get him to stop. This is his reply.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Now, in all the culture of the Roman world, in all the culture of the Judea at the time, the most fundamental category of all was family. Roman heads of household—fathers—could settle disputes within a family with the force of law. So this is astonishing: Jesus is taking this family value and stretching it to include everyone “who does the will of God”. 

This is the signature act of Jesus: he breaks boundaries, he creates community. The scribes who oppose him aren’t enemies, they are family—if they do the will of God. The outcasts in the communities he visits aren’t outcast from him—they are family, if they do the will of God. Everyone isn’t just welcome, everyone is welcome. Everyone matters. Everyone is a child of God. In Jesus, the categories which conflict are transformed into communities of care.

This isn’t my insight, this isn’t a bright idea I had thinking about these readings, this is how Christian Churches spread. Historians tell us that it wasn’t mass conversions that led to the spread of the church, it was two great leaps forward, both of which occurred during pandemics. Lyman Stone is an historian who notes that during a great pandemic in the Roman Empire in the second century AD, as many as a quarter of the population died. The culture of the time cast out the sick but Christians cared for the sick, whether church folks or not. A century later, another pandemic struck and he notes,

It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”

What will historians say about us in this moment? Will they remember how we crossed boundaries to create communities of care? It starts with individuals, it starts with people like Bud. Bud’s in his 80’s. I’m guessing he’s retired, too. He recently flew on an airplane for the first time. That meant that he had to solve the problem a lot of us have had: how to open the door to the lavatory on the plane. It’s not obvious, and for some reason, the FAA doesn’t require that flight attendants provide directions in the safety briefing. 

Now as an elder man, I can tell you, it’s hard to admit that you don’t know how to do something as basic as open a door. But Bud didn’t. The thing is, admitting you don’t know what you’re doing is tough. It feels like everyone else knows—like the world is divided between the cool people who know how to do something and you. Fortunately, Bud had the humility to admit to his fight attendant, my wife Jacquelyn, that he needed help. So she opened the door, talked to him and treated him the way we’d all want to be treated in such a moment: with dignity. She learned it was his first flight, so she got out a set of wings they keep for first time flyers, she got the pilot to announce over the PA that But was flying for the first time and had everyone applaud him. She got the pilot to take a picture with Bud after they landed. She made Bud a hero. 

I’m sure that airplane had all kinds of people: children, adults, people nervous about flying, people anxious to get somewhere for something fun or important. Everyone was on their own until Bud became a hero. But in the process, the whole group also became something new: just for a moment, a community of care, a group applauding Bud and in their approval, accepting him.

Now today, tomorrow, the day after, this sermon is going to go in a file. In a moment it will be over. But what about you? What will you take with you? We can’t avoid the categories and conflicts of this time. We have this choice, though: we can accept them or we can follow Christ and break the boundaries. How Bud became a hero is simple: someone cared enough to see him not as a clueless old man but as a child of God and treat him that way. That’s how Bud became a hero. You can do that: you can do that every day. 

Amen.

No Loitering

A Sermon by The Rev. James E. Eaton ©2021

Ascension Sunday • May 16, 2021

Acts 1:1-11

I suppose every parent acquires little verbal exclamations that really mean, “You’re about to be in trouble”. My father’s was to stand, hands on his hips, and thunder, “What do you think you’re doing?” This worked on me for 14 years and on my middle brother for 10 years but when my youngest brother was four and my father delivered his line, “What do you think you’re doing?””, David replied sweetly, “I have no idea” and walk away scot free. When I think about the scene from Acts we read today, I can’t help thinking of my father standing over us with that line, “What do you think you’re doing?”, because when I imagine the scene and I think of the disciples standing there, staring into the sky, where Jesus has gone, I visualize the heavenly visitor saying loudly, “What do you think you’re doing”—”Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?”. I can’t help wondering if a similar heavenly visitor wouldn’t say the same to us: why are you standing around? what do you think you’re doing?

What do you think you’re doing? Most churches have a great diversity of people. Some have worshipped there all of long lives; some are newly beginning to worship. Some have come from other churches, some have never been involved in a church.  How many of us know what we’re doing when we come to church? 

All the gospels agree there was a moment when the disciples had to face life without Jesus present in an earthly body. Imagine what church life would be like if this were not so: suppose you had Jesus Christ leading the church instead of a minister. He would never go to the dry cleaner because his clothes  would always shine. He wouldn’t need health care, because he would be self- healing. He would be infinitely patient, endlessly forgiving, always understanding. You wouldn’t have to wonder whether he had the right idea because he’s Jesus Christ—who are you to argue? You wouldn’t have to wonder if he got the Bible right because what is the Bible but what he says? But of course that’s not what church life is and church life has never been that. All the accounts agree that a few weeks after his resurrection, Jesus left, and when he left, there was a period when his followers didn’t know what to do.

Luke sets the scene just outside Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples are impatient; maybe they are just curious. One of the disciples asks, “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” This is as big as their vision is: all they expect is for Jesus to be a super hero, a super David, a new Judas Maccabeus, the leader who threw out the descendants of Alexander the Great. All they want is for him to overthrow the Romans, get rid of the Herodians, set himself up as king and them as his assistants and run a nice new kingdom. “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel, Lord?” They are getting impatient. They’ve asked before and he’s told them: not yet. Not now: we’re on the way to Jerusalem. That made sense. In fact, they get to Jerusalem and you remember what happens: everyone parades into town. Surely the disciples were thinking, “This is good, this is good, this is going to work, he’s going to do it now”. But it doesn’t work and the next thing you know he’s hanging on a cross, they’re running for their lives, and wondering no doubt, “What happened to restoring the Kingdom?” But then he is resurrected; well, for someone who has come back from death, restoring a Kingdom would be small beans. 

But he doesn’t do anything about the Kingdom. What does he do? Well, he eats with people. He has a fish dinner, he holds a breakfast. He shows up when the disciples are gathered for dinner. But he doesn’t get to work, he does not restore the Kingdom. The Romans are still in charge, the Herodians are still collecting taxes, nothing has changed. Naturally, the disciples are a little concerned: “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”. You can hear their impatience. This is what Jesus says: “None of your business—it is not for you to know the times or the seasons.” The disciples have this little vision in mind, restoring the Kingdom, but what Jesus tells them is don’t worry about that, you’re going to be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, to the ends of the earth. 

Now let’s review who these people are: small businessmen, fishermen, farmers, who have never been out of town before until he brought them to Jerusalem. They’ve never been anywhere but he’s talking about sending them to the ends of the earth. In 1971, I worked in a church in northern Idaho and there was an old woman who had never been out of the county. Ninety miles south, where Idaho gets wide, there’s a beautiful resort area with a lake called Coueur d’Alene. One day I visited this woman and she wanted to hear about the rest of the world. She said, “have you ever been to Coueur d’Alene?” I said “Sure”—to me, Coueur d’Alene was a backwater. But to her it was the ends of the earth. In New England, the ends of the earth is Los Angeles. But if you live in Los Angeles, the east coast is the ends of the earth. The ends of the earth is where you haven’t been and it’s hard to imagine going.

Jesus tells the disciples, first, I’m going to make you a witness. And I’m going to send you to Jerusalem—that’s scary to begin with!—and secondly to Judea, back home, third to Samaria, to a bad neighborhood that scares you and finally to the ends of the earth, to some place you never thought of going. And that is exactly what happens. Every one of these men whose story we know ends up at the ends of the earth. Take Peter; he’s a fisherman. Fisherman know tides and currents and depths and where to find fish in one place. They know that one place deeply and well, they know how to find what’s hidden in one place. I’m willing to bet Peter had never been off that one body of water before Jesus came along. Peter ends up in Rome, the biggest city of his day, hundreds of miles away from home, among Gentiles. Nothing would have predicted he would go to Rome. Why do you think Peter ended up there? Because Jesus sent him as a witness.

This is what we are intended to do, be a witness. It’s simple and it consists of two parts: seeing and reporting, seeing and reporting. It means going out and looking for where God is working and reporting what you’ve seen. It means looking where God is loving and sharing that, looking for where God’s grace is active and telling someone about it. That is what we are doing when we are the people Christ intended.

Now we could spend days talking about how to do it. But the first and most important way is quietly, simply, with your own life. In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, two seniors cut class and go to Chicago. Ferris Bueller is a kid who decides to show his best friend a good day. So he takes him to the Chicago Art Institute, to a fancy restaurant, to a baseball game and to a parade. At the end of this ideal day, Ferris says to his friend, “What did you see?” and the friend replies, “Nothing good.” Ferris lists off one by one the great things they have seen. It is not whether there is something to see, it quickly becomes evident, but whether you choose to see its goodness. There is no lack of sights; there is occasionally a lack of vision. 

Once when Jacquelyn was visiting North Carolina, she found a beautiful small town park. The grass was green, there were flowers and benches; it was like a picture from the North Carolina Board of Tourism. Tired from walking, she could easily imagine just sitting down on the little bench and resting. Then she saw the sign: “No Loitering”. No Loitering in the park—we’ve all laughed about that sign since; after all, isn’t that the whole point of a park? You go there to loiter; you go there to slow down, stop, appreciate. Drive by appreciation doesn’t really work; you have to loiter, wait before wonder kicks in. A park where you can’t loiter? It’s like a pool where you can’t swim, ice cream you can’t lick or a church where you can’t find God.

Let’s not be a park with a no loitering sign or a church that forgot how good the God we’ve seen is. Right from the beginning, from the moment Jesus left this stage, his followers have been faced with two choices: stand around gazing into heaven waiting for him to come backs or look around and see the world here, see the people around, and go tell them about God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace. Tell them by living like it’s true. Tell them by showing them it is possible. Tell them by continuing to make this church the body of Christ, moved at his command, healing and teaching his way. That’s being a witness, and that’s just what Jesus told us to do. Who knows where it may lead?

Amen.

Next, please!

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Mothers Day • May 9, 2021

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”
So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”
And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

One day a few years ago Jacquelyn and I toured the Alhambra, an enormous Medieval complex of palaces, gardens and fortresses overlooking the city of Granada. It was the last hold out of Muslim rulers in Spain, and its swirling walls decorated with plaster calligraphy, its pools of water, and mountain views were exhilarating.

After three hours of walking in such beauty, we were tired and hungry. We bought sandwiches and found a bench in some shade. Drawn by the same shade, two young couples sat across from us. Soon a small cat came over and clearly sniffed Jacquelyn’s sandwich; she was having tuna, and the cat wanted some, so it did what always works with Jacquelyn, sat in front of her and quietly looked hungry and sad and hopeful.

We all laughed at the cat and began to talk. One of the women was obviously pregnant. We asked when she was due; she said August and I smiled and said August babies—of which I’m one—were extraordinary people. As we talked, she mentioned how scared she was about being a mother. I said being a parent was the most fun I’d ever had; Jacquelyn added comments on how wonderful it had been, having May, bringing her up. It turned out the other woman was pregnant too, and soon we were all laughing. Of course, Jacquelyn went from just dropping crumbs for the cat to breaking pieces off to feed the feline. With lunch over, we said goodbye to our friends and the cat and wandered off. I’d like to think we not only made the cat’s day but gave those two couples a bit of hope, another brighter voice than all the scary rational ones. I’d like to think we passed on a little of the love we’ve found parenting together.

Today is Mothers Day in the United States. In the past, that often meant exalting on one day out of the whole year the role of women who have children. Often we left out those who didn’t. Today I want to make it clear that as we mention this day, we honor with it those women, mothers, grandmothers and others who care for children they didn’t have to cherish and raise but do so with the same generous love. We honor as well women who have never had children but also share their care and love in so many ways, who pass on love to people who began as strangers.

Long ago, the church remembered there was a time, a moment, when the direct, immediate presence of Jesus walking and talking with his friends ceased, when he returned to the Father so that his followers could, like fledging birds, learn to live out the love he had taught on their own.

One of my favorite stories ois the moment when Jesus’ followers meet to Jesus organize  a way forward on their own. How are we going to continue? That’s a question all organizations ask. These early Christians don’t have the tools we have. Roberts Rules of Order won’t be written for centuries; there is no church constitution. They can’t even settle this question the way we settle such matters now by asking, “What did we do last year?” because this is the first year, the first time. But they understand this single important thing: they are there to continue the work of Jesus and that means continuing to create and recreate the community of Jesus. So they pick a couple of good candidates, people they’ve known, who’ve been active and nominate them and then they pray and cast lots; Matthias becomes the new disciple.

In the whole book of Acts of the Apostles, I do not know a more important moment. For in that moment, these people, who so often fumbled and misunderstood Jesus, begin to move forward in his spirit. In this moment, they begin to do what he told them, to ready themselves for continuing the ministry of Jesus on their own. The Romans thought they could kill the movement by killing Jesus; the religious leaders thought they could kill the spirit by killing the preacher. But God’s love and life were so strong that instead he overcomes death and his resurrection inspires these followers to continue to create communities of care just as he did, communities that will spread throughout the world. The light of love is shining in this moment and being passed like candle light, from one to another. We sometimes get so concerned about daily challenges we forget this is the most important challenge of all: how we can pass on the light of love each day.

That’s the point when Jesus prays about the future. He says about the disciples he about to release into the world like a dandelion releasing its seeds,

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17:16-19

That’s us: that’s who we are meant to be, people sent into the world who have seen how much difference a moment of grace, a cherishing love, a boundary breaking invitation can make.

That’s the spirit in which Mothers Day originated. It began not as a day to give your mother a card but out of the boundary breaking work of bridging the gap between former Union and Confederate soldiers and families. It began in West Virginia, a state that began through the breaking of ties that inspired the war against the Union . The restoration of peace left broken bodies and broken communities. Anna Jarvis, its originator, worked to promote peace and her daughter worked to lift up and honor that work.

There are so many stories like this. We often feel powerless but the truth is we have the power to act, as the disciples acted, and when we do amazing things happen. Let me give you one more souvenir from Spain. We always visit Cathedrals and one that stood out to me honors St. John de Dios. It stood out because it is a soaring basilica perhaps four stories high at the front, all in figures of gold and for one euro you can turn the lights on and startle everyone there. It stood out because I’m a Congregationalist who loves the spare, plain beauty of our meeting houses which are almost undecorated. In that church, decoration assaults you at every turn and it includes that odd medieval Catholic obsession with relics of saints; hey have various skeletons in glass boxes.

All of it was over the top but it did make me look up St. John of God, the inspiration for the place. What I found was much more amazing than the gold and the skeletons. John was a poor Portuguese boy who did what boys from poor boys often do today: he enlisted in the military. He did well as a soldier, survived and went on to have a variety of experiences. At midlife, he had an experience of inspiration and began to help sick and needy people. Others joined him; the work expanded. Eventually a whole order was funded which operates hospitals around the world.

“The lot fell on Matthias,” Acts says; one person, one moment. Hundreds of years later, it fell on a former soldier and now we have hospitals.

Hike up in the mountains, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, anywhere will do and if you watch a stream flowing downhill you can see it is irresistible. Blocks a path, it finds another; when a tree falls in the middle, it divides around it. It doesn’t look like much, often, just a little stream but nothing will stop that stream flowing to the river to the sea and joining the ocean. That’s how it is with God’s love. It’s flowing all the time, touching someone here, there. Like a worker at a counter, calling, “Next, please?” it moves from person to person.

A few years ago the Henry Street Settlement got a 6.2 million dollar donation. The Settlement started in 1893 when Lillian Ward settled in a slum in New York City among what today we would call undocumented immigrants. That’s another term for many of our grandparents, mine among them. Henry Street has far too many accomplishments to list but an important one today is supporting young people going to college. A lot more will be able to go because of this huge donation. Now you might think that in New York, with so many very rich people who live in rich towers, a donation would come from one of them. But it didn’t. It came from Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old woman who retired after a 67 year career as a secretary. She never had a child; thanks to her gift, hundreds of children will be nurtured and grow up in new ways. So today I want to lift up, I want to honor Sylvia Bloom. This Mothers Day, I honor a woman who birthed a blessing, whose care will 

“Next, please?” Matthias starts out as the first disciple to continue the work. Others follow. Still, the Spirit is calling: next, please? No one knows what blessings make a difference. But like the stream running down the mountain, no one can stop that stream of blessing. We are invited to make our lives part of the stream, part of the blessing, to live as the next ones to light the candle of love.

Amen.

Well, We’re Here

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton `© 2021

Fifth Sunday in Easter/B • May 2, 2021

Acts 16:16-34

“Well, we’re here”. My late mother in law Marilyn said this more or less every time she arrived somewhere. It could be driving here all the way from Texas; it could be down the street to a restaurant. “Well, we’re here”. It’s become a tag line in our family. Drive home, finish the long drive back from Baltimore, chances are someone will say, “Well, we’re here”. It’s a touchstone. We got through that last little bit safely; we’re ready for the next part. 

I wonder what Paul and Silas said when they landed in jail. I wonder what I would say.  They’re not strangers to conflict. In fact, their journey has been full of arguments, often with their own folks. John Mark, who legend says later wrote the Gospel of Mark, started out with them but they couldn’t all get along so he left. The mother church back in Jerusalem doesn’t think much of what they’re doing, converting Gentiles. The synagogue authorities where they preach think they are annoying. Now they’ve gotten in trouble with the law and trouble with the law is serious in the Roman world.  

Life in ancient cities was mostly lived outside in the hustle and bustle of the market place. Think of the mall at Christmas time or a crowded farmers market. The market is full of scents: hot olive oil, garlic and good things cooking, animals and all those people, always all those people. There are people selling cloth and pottery and jewelry. These sellers aren’t like the ones at our mall. Even today in the markets of that world, sales begin with someone grabbing your arm, talking to you, “Look, have you ever seen anything so fine? Here, touch, feel, really I’ve been waiting for someone who could really appreciate this, I can see you are a collector, a connoisseur. It’s a shame to let it go, I only offer it because I think you’ll appreciate it, here, just 22 drachmas.” There are no price tags; everything is barter. It takes some getting used to but it’s a required part of the sale. 

One night when Jacquelyn and I were in Italy for dinner, I failed to argue over the bill. Arguing over the bill is a standard part of  dinner in Italy, in fact routinely the maitre’d offers a glass of grappa, which smells like kerosene and tastes like moonshine, while the bill is discussed. I barely knew enough Italian to order the meal, let alone argue about it and anyway food in Italy is cheap, so I was happy. We’d been out to a fancy dinner, the bill was about 30 bucks, which translated into about 50,000 lire. No problem. But the waiter saw a problem: I wasn’t arguing, I was just shuffling through my billboard sized Italian currency, looking for a 50,000 lire note. So he began to argue on my behalf. The maitre’d said something back and within moments they were off and running, the Italian was flowing hot and fast, we were ready to go, so I put down an extra bill for the tip, said goodbye and we left as they continued. 

That’s how I imagine that marketplace: full of talk, full of bartering. Among all the people, there are entertainers. One of the best gambits for earning money has always been predicting the future. It’s still in use today. Every newspaper has a horoscope column. Miss an editorial and no one notices; miss the daily horoscope and the paper gets lots of calls. Go to a Chinese restaurant and they give you a little cookie with your fortune inside. We may not take these seriously; but we read them. 

This story starts with a girl who has a gift for telling people’s futures. Like most workers, she’s a slave. She’s just strange enough to get people to believe she has a special gift. Today we’d diagnose her; in that time, they just say, “She has a spirit”. Every day Paul and his friends are in the marketplace, preaching, and every day she is there, heckling them, yelling at them, making noise, disrupting whatever crowd they gather. All preachers hate that. Most of us tolerate babies talking back but we really expect the rest of you to behave and shut up. But she won’t shut up. One day, Paul gets so annoyed, he turns and snaps of an exorcism. It works; she shuts up. But of course her owner is now angry: who wants a silent prophetess? So he gets Paul and Silas arrested for theft of services. They end up before a magistrate and as the song says, no money to go their bail, so now they’re in prison. What did they say? What did they think?

I’m sure they were scared; I’m sure they were frightened. But there is a great mystery here: what is it that allows some of us to do things that risk everything for a gain only dimly perceived, a gain not to ourselves but the whole world? Nothing in the world compelled Paul, a successful lawyer, to leave his practice and go off to preach. Nothing in the world compelled Paul to stand up to the church in Jerusalem. Nothing in the world compelled Paul to free that girl that day. But Paul is not living from the things in this world. He has seen a bigger place: he has had a greater vision. I don’t know a better description than the one we read today in the book of Revelations. It’s the end of time, it’s the end of the world and the Lord God is present. This is God’s introduction: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” 

It’s like being lost and suddenly having someone point out your exact location on a map. Paul knows where he is, he is sure. He is in the hands of God. It’s that simple. Nothing can change that any more than saying the sky is falling changes the day. It is the basic reality. First and last: God is present, persistent. In that crowd around Paul there must have been people who had seen that slave girl abused for a long time. In that crowd there must have been people who’d seen her owner beat her, heard her cries.. There must have been people who wanted to say something, do something, but they didn’t, they were scared, or embarrassed or they just didn’t want to get involved. There must have been people there that day who were horrified when Paul was arrested, who shuddered at the idea of what would happen. There must have been people who wanted to help. But they didn’t. Paul and Silas are led off to jail, beaten and left in pain in the darkness. 

Now here’s the interesting part to me. That night there is an earthquake. The jail doors spring open. Wow! Imagine the luck! Freedom is just a step away. Even an atheist might thank God at such a moment. The jailer doesn’t have any doubt what’s going to happen. Roman law holds him responsible with his life for these prisoners; he will take their place if they escape. He cries out that he’s lost but in the echoing silence after the earthquake, the only sound is Paul’s voice, calling back, don’t worry, we’re still here. Still here: can you imagine? They could have made a run for it, gotten clean free in the confusion. But there they are, there they stay. You see, Paul is not in jail: he’s in the hands of God. He always was and ever since his heart was opened to God, he has known it. So wherever he goes, whatever he does, it’s with God. We’re here, he calls out. We’re here.

Where are you? Where are you going? John Newton is the author of a favorite song, Amazing Grace. Newton was a sailor who worked his way up through the brutal British naval life of the 1700’s. Sometime around 1744 he went to sea on a slave ship, transporting slaves from Sierra Leone to the slave camps of the Caribbean. He worked his way up to be master of the vessel. One night during a violent storm, his heart opened and he experienced the love of God. He wrote in his journal that he had experienced a great deliverance, that when all seemed lost, and he was sure the ship would sink, he had called out, ‘Lord have mercy on us’, and believed that God indeed had mercy on him.” He continued in the slave trade but he began to treat the slaves more humanely. Finally he couldn’t face the suffering he helped cause and left the sea altogether. He became a Methodist preacher and a voice in the early British anti-slavery movement. 

The history of the movement against slavery is full of such people. Pete Seeger told of going down to Alabama in 1964 where children had dogs set on them and people just like the ones who put Paul and Silas in jail bombed churches just like this one. He said,  “I guess no one who hasn’t actually faced those police men can  know exactly how much bravery it takes to be cheerful in the face of all kinds of things. Then he shared a song: Ain’t a scared of your jail cuz I want my freedom.

What courage made those children sing? What purpose made Newton give up his success? What faith made Paul stay in that cell? It isn’t a formula or a creed, it was knowing they are in the hands of God every day, everywhere. To live in that faith is to live alert to the possibilities of each day, convinced that God is accomplishing a great and wonderful purpose in your life. To live in that faith is to be able to face whatever circumstance, whatever event, with an openness and a joy. It is to say indeed, as Marilyn does, “Well, we’re here,” and see that God is here also, always here. 

So we are not alone and we are not without purpose. God is our beginning and end: we are in the middle and nothing in the world can come between us and the love of God.

Amen

Never Mind

A Sermon for the by Rev. James Eaton • © 2021

Fourth Sunday in Easter/B • April 25, 2021

Luke 24:36b-48

Isn’t it amazing how life can change in a moment? I used to be the kind of person who would carefully plan all the stages of a trip. I had my airline reservation printed, hotel, car, each of them laid in a folder in consecutive order. I got annoyed when planes were delayed; I got angry if my car or room wasn’t ready. But when Jacquelyn became a flight attendant and I started flying space available, I was introduced to  traveling without any assurance. I had to learn that even though I had a plan, things could change, the world could say, “Never mind” to my plan. Of course, there are many times, may circumstances where we go along as if our lives were on rails like a train. Then something happens and suddenly it’s as if someone said ,“Never mind” to our whole plan, our whole life, and we’re starting over.

It must have been like that for the disciples. For a few years, they’ve been following Jesus through the villages of Galilee, up and down the roads, then on to Jerusalem and its crowds. All along he was there; all along, they thought something great was going to happen. They saw him heal; they heard him preach. They’d been present at amazing, miraculous events. 

Surely they knew what the prophets had said; one day God would send someone who would be a Messiah, who would lead a great movement to renew Israel. They must have known their history, how God inspired Moses to lead their ancestors out of Egypt, how Joshua led them to claim the promised land, how David created a kingdom among God’s people, how that kingdom though fallen had risen again and then been recaptured by Judas Maccabees. 

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah!” But when Jesus connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They argue about who is going to be first in his kingdom; he tells them to serve each other. Even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they expected something great, something victorious. 

Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty  tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said, “Never mind,” one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

So they do what people often do when a life plan ends. They go back where they were before it all began. They’ve gone back to Galilee, back to where it all started. They’ve gone back to what they used to do: fishing. How long have they been doing that? Doesn’t time seem to stop sometimes when your whole plan, your whole life, has run into one big “Never mind?” But it doesn’t seem to be working; they go out fishing and don’t catch a single thing. Have they lost the touch? Bad luck? Who knows? It seems the new plan, to go back to the old plan, is getting a big never mind as well.

It’s just then, when they come back to shore, hungry, depressed, quiet the way you are when everything has failed that they meet this guy on the beach. Who is he? No one knows. He calls them children. That may seem kind but actually since the word for children and slave is about the same it may have come across as strange. Maybe it sounded like he was recognizing how hard they worked. Next thing, he’s giving directions“Cast the net on the right side.” Is it just that nothing else has worked so why not or something mysteriously compelling about him? All we know is that as the net fills up and one of them recognizes something in the man on the beach. “It is the Lord!” he says and Peter—Peter who always rushes in, whether it’s the right thing or not—Peter can’t help jumps in and wades ashore. 

Once there, they discovered everything they need is already set: bread, grilled fish. I love the note that says that the net didn’t break. That detail makes this story for me: who else but someone who’s spent hours mending nets would think of it? So there they are: on the beach with the Lord, eating breakfast. Some have said that just as there was a Last Supper, this is the First Breakfast. 

It must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think? The musical Fiddler on the Roof has a scene where Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him,” and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,  

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?

But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,

Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

At the end, she says she does love him—and that it doesn’t change a thing. 

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say? 

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble, when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus says. And then, I imagine Jesus looking right into his eyes, knowing as he always knew, what was behind Peter’s eyes, knowing and yet asking once again, “Do you love me?” and when Peter, perhaps crumbling now, says yes; once again, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” This is the moment Peter became an apostle. This is the moment when Jesus came to him and said: “Never mind!” All those misunderstandings along the way? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. Those times you denied me? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. The fact that you went back to your old life? Never mind! I’m giving you a new life and a new mission: feed my sheep.

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened  that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. When the Risen Lord comes to us, it isn’t to show off, it’s to show us how to rise with him. Peter is buried in guilt; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep. Peter is buried in grief; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep. Peter is buried in failure; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep. 

Maybe you’re buried, maybe you’ve been buried. Today Jesus is calling to you to rise with him. Today Jesus is saying to you as he did to Peter: never mind all that— feed my sheep. Today, Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”. How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart. 

Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.

Amen.

Sorry Saints

A Sermon by The Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Third Sunday in Easter/B • April 18, 2021

Acts 3:12-19• Psalm 4 • 1 John 3:1-7 • Luke 24:36b-48

It’s Easter: the third Sunday. The church life I grew up in had one  Easter Sunday and there were beautiful flowers and special anthems. But the liturgical year has Easter as a season, not a day, spilling over like a caramel sundae into seven Sundays. Celebrating Easter season lets us hear more stories of people encountering the risen Lord. Their stories help us tell our stories. What’s your story?

We heard one of those stories this morning. Two people encounter Jesus near Emmaus, a few miles outside Jerusalem. Christian life always begins with the real person of Jesus. Christian life is real human life, not a fantasy. Today I want to see if we can learn something about living that real life by bringing together two pieces of scripture and a real life story.

Here’s the real life story. Anne LaMott is speaking.

There is a coastal town of about 1,500 people [near San Francisco], where one of my first memories took place, of splashing with my parents and older brother in warm water that had pooled and warmed after the tide had receded. We used to go to the town fairly often for seafood dinners. It was artsy, hidden away, with gulls and pelicans overhead. We would have picnics there with friends and lots of wine, and elderberry hunts in the fall….There are sheltered beaches, tiled in shells and beach glass; and boats and fishermen, shaded lanes and towering trees; and a few overpriced places to eat (“Would you like a croissant? . . . That will be one hundred dollars”). Many of the townspeople go back generations; others came in the sixties…The colors there—of the water, the rushes, the impossibly rich vegetation—drive people to ecstasy and madness.
In 1995, there was a huge and devastating fire on the long, majestic ridge that runs for miles out to the bay. Four older teenage boys from the town had camped at Mount Vision overnight, illegally, had built a campfire, buried it under dirt when they left in the morning, and caused a fire that destroyed 12,000 acres of wilderness area and nearly fifty homes.”
Helicopters saved the town with water from the bay; the water was dropped on the pine forest between the town and the burning ridge. But the loss of wildlife was unimaginable: birds, deer, coyote, bobcats, mountain lions, beavers. It was as if a bomb had fallen.
The four teenage boys who had accidentally started the fire turned themselves in early on, with their parents beside them.

Imagine you live in this town. Imagine you lived other places, and then found this beautiful, wonderful place and moved there, and then one day it’s gone, the beauty is completely destroyed. Thank God you and the cat got out but now you have to rebuild and rebuilding is hard. You find out four boys caused it all. They didn’t quite put out a campfire. They did take precautions but the precautions weren’t enough. Your home is changed, your life is shattered, because four boys made a mistake putting out a campfire. What would you want done?

I’ll leave that question hanging and come back to it later. Time to move on now, move with me. Listen to this from the epistle this morning: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”[1 John 3:1] What comes to mind when you think of children? For me it’s smiles and noise. One week I was walking through a parking lot and there was a Japanese woman with a little girl, maybe two or so, and the little girl was singing so beautifully, right there, in public. I had to stop and listen. On the whole, we love children in our culture. So it sounds warm and fuzzy to hear that we are children of God. 

But that’s not really the meaning of this verse. When this was written, there was a different approach to children. They weren’t valued in the same way; they weren’t treated in the same way. In our culture, when a child is expected, there may be some worries but there is usually a great deal of joy as well. There is hope for a healthy, happy baby. 

But listen to this letter from the first century. It was discovered on the west bank of the Nile about 120 miles south of Cairo in an excavated garbage dump. The worker Hilarion writes to his wife, Alis, addressed in Egyptian fashion as sister, on 18 June in the year 1 BCE. Alis is expecting. 

Hilarion to his sister Alis many greetings, likewise to my lady Berous [his mother-in-law?] and to Apollonarion [their first and male child]. Know that we are even yet in Alexandria. Do not worry if they all come back and I remain in Alexandria. I urge and entreat you, be concerned about the child and I should receive my wages soon, I will send them up to you. If by chance you bear a son, if it is a boy, let it be, if it is a girl, cast it out [to die].

John Crossan, Jesus

In the same voice that a spouse might send directions for what to do about a garage door that doesn’t work, the fate of a child, a baby, is dictated. New born babies were commonly killed, often by exposing them. A child’s future wasn’t secured until it was received officially by the father. To be a child was to be nothing, life dependent totally on the pleasure of a more powerful person. This is why Jesus’ statement that we need to become like children to enter the Kingdom of God is a problem for those who hear it: it’s a summons to a radical shift in power, an invitation to powerlessness.

So this statement, that we should be called children of God, is both problem and solution. On the one hand, it proposes that we are going to begin without any of the things that give us a platform in life. Our social standing, our insurance, our history, our accomplishments; none count if we become children. To be a child is to be stripped of everything, even a claim to life itself, entirely dependent on someone more powerful. To say we are children of God is to put God in the place of that parent who accepts us and guarantees life. So then truly, God is our surety.

The signature act of taking care of a child is feeding them. An infant is entirely dependent on being nursed; a baby has to have foods prepared and fed to them and it’s a messy process. Most of us try letting them do it on their own at some point, often with hilarious results. So when Jesus, who is in the full glory of the resurrection, allows someone to feed him, he is becoming child like. He is showing us how it’s done: freely choosing to come to them not in overwhelming power but without power, without glory, as a person with the same needs every person has. That’s a second meaning of feeding Jesus in the resurrection: the rejection of power in relationships so that love flourishes, so that mutual care becomes the connection. 

Mutual care, genuine love, are about our choices going forward. But what about the past? Jesus’ solution to the past is forgiveness. The mission the risen Lord gives his followers is to go forgive sins.

… he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,  and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

Luke 24:25ff

The same thing is true in the appearance we heard about on Easter from the gospel of John: “If you forgive anyone their sins, they are forgiven.” [John 20:21] Jesus gives the spirit precisely to empower forgiveness. Jesus called his disciples to forgiveness during his life. They consistently try to put a boundary on this forgiveness; he consistently rejects their attempts. “Love your neighbor”, he says; who is my neighbor, they ask. “how many times must I forgive? they ask; he multiplies their generous estimate to make forgiveness infinite.

This is not how we usually deal with the past or with sins or wrong doing. We deal with it by separating. If someone offends us, we stop talking to them; we unfriend them on Facebook. As a community, we put them in jail. The United States has a higher proportion of our population in prison today than any other modern society. We punish people for doing bad things but mostly we get rid of them, we get them out of our lives.

What does Jesus hope? That we will understand we can only come to the resurrection reality by giving up everything that makes us powerful, becoming like children with no burden of past injuries, past hurts. The name for such people is saints. ‘Saint’ means simply the elect of God, that is: God’s children. Congregationalists used the word to refer to all covenant members of the church. That’s right: you are saints, we are saints.

But what kind of saints? We come to this reality through forgiveness. That begins with learning ourselves to say, “I’m sorry,” to put ourselves in the place where we can receive forgiveness. We are saints but not spiritual superstars; we are meant to be sorry saints, saints who know how to say, “I’m sorry,” and who forgive when someone says that to them. It begins with a process similar to what Buddhists call mindfulness; that is, paying attention to  this moment right now. Begin with realizing no one hurt you right now; perhaps no one hurt you today. If we begin right there, with today, with now, the process can spread. When it spreads, we are ready to deal with the results of yesterday. If it spreads we will deal with the past in forgiveness.

It’s time to come back to the story of the burned out community and the four boys. Remember them? Here’s how the story ends.

There is one action all grateful and grieving communities take: holding a picnic where speeches are given, tears shed, sighs heaved, everyone overeats, and all that sneaky extra breath helps people start to breathe deeply again. A picnic was held to honor the firefighters. The whole town turned out. The president of the board of firefighters gave a speech, but at the end, he digressed from what you might have expected him to say.
He talked about how in ancient times, people who did damage to a town were sent to live outside its walls, beyond the pale, or boundary, beyond community, beyond inclusion and protection. He mentioned the four young men who had started the Mount Vision fire, and that he had heard that their families were thinking of moving away. He thought the town should make it clear to the families that they should “stay, that they were wanted, that they were needed.
There was sustained applause. People whose houses had burned down came up to the speaker to say they agreed with this plan. The town wanted these young men inside the pale, inside the ring of protection…“So what seems to me to be happening is that this community, which has just fought so stubbornly to save itself from a holocaust, has turned, almost without missing a beat, to try to save the future of four young men. 

We know what Easter looks like. But Easter is a season: it isn’t just flowers, it’s also planting a promise that can grow into new life. We’ve been through a difficult season and we need now most of all to remember to enact Easter every day. We are meant to be the people who forgive, we are meant to be the people who know each person is a child of God—and act like it. Every voyage starts with goodbye; Easter invites us to say goodbye to past hurts, past hostilities and look for ways to embrace each child of God.

One day Jacquelyn and I drove up to Lake George before the season there; most places were closed. The lake was frozen except for a strip of water about five yards wide around the edge. It wasn’t the warm, beautiful resort it is in the summer. But I knew this, that the lake was going to unfreeze, it was going to be blue and beautiful and people were going to sail on it and go for cruises and fish and swim and remember what a great job God does with creation.

The same is true of human hearts. They freeze up. But that’s not how God made them. God made us to live together in love. Jesus came to teach us that we should feed each other and forgive each other and love each other. Then like a child blowing a dandelion gone to seed, he blew us into the world to show the world it can be done. Every time we forgive, every time we see our saint hood as an occasion to say, :I’m sorry,: trusting God will forgive, the edge of ice shrinks and the world becomes just a little more full of resurrection.

Amen.

Broken for You

This sermon can be seen online during a video of the worship service at the Suttons Bay Congregational Church on April 11, 2021

A Sermon for the Suttons Bay Congregational Church

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor © 2021

Second Sunday in Easter/B • April 11,2021

John 20:19-31

…it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…

John 20:19

Sounds like they were quarantined, doesn’t it? We’ve spent a lot of time this past year confined by fear of a virus. Last winter, my wife Jacquelyn had COVID-19. I remember how she stayed in our room upstairs; I stayed downstairs. I remember texting between floors, I remember leaving her food outside the closed door and calling out that it was there. Fear makes us hide.

In states where tornadoes are common, homes have shelters and every family knows the drill. It’s stormy and there are dark clouds and you keep an ear out. You listen to the radio or the TV. Sirens go off and someone says, “I guess we should go downstairs”. You huddle in the basement or you go to the tornado shelter and light the storm lights. You listen and you talk nervously, which is what I imagine the disciples were doing. We go to the closed, locked room when we are scared, when things we don’t understand take over our lives. And we sit hoping the walls and the door will keep the dangerous world outside. 

Do you know this room? Anne Frank was a young, teenage girl when the Nazi’s started rounding up Jews in her Dutch community. In July of 1942, Anne and her family fled to a place that had been prepared.

Miep took us quickly upstairs and into the “Secret Annexe”. She closed the door behind us and we were alone. Our living room and all the other rooms were chock full of rubbish…

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, p. 19

Anne and her family lived hidden there until September, 1944, when they were arrested and deported. It is believed Anne died in a concentration camp early in 1945. Aleha ha-shalom: peace be unto her.

The disciples are sitting in a familiar place. Only a few days before, they had celebrated Passover there, a noisy, festival where you eat and tell a story and argue and wonder about old miracles. They were there when Jesus added something to the Haggadah, speaking of the bread: “This is my body, broken for you.” I imagine the disciples tried to ignore it; that’s what we do when someone says something uncomfortable at dinner, after all. Now they’ve witnessed the cross, they’ve seen Jesus die, and surely they are hoping no one will come looking for them. So they’re back in the room but this time the doors are locked and I’m sure the conversation is quiet. Some people are missing: Judas and Thomas. There is a strange story about the tomb and Mary claims to have seen the Lord. No one believes her. Better to rely on a good solid locked door.

The disciples are hoping the door will hold up but Jesus passes right through it. Who is Jesus? He’s someone who passes through locked doors, enters locked rooms. American cultural religion makes much of “coming to Jesus” but the gospel suggests what really happens is that Jesus comes to us, even when the door is locked, even when we push him away. Anne Lamott talks about her conversion as a process she fought tooth and nail. She remembers feeling like Jesus was following her for days. She would come home and shut the door, shutting him out. Finally one night, she says she finally said to him, “You might as well come in”

So here he is: Jesus in person. He’s passed through the door and the disciples are staring. He says simply, “Peace to you,” a common greeting but also the blessing for someone who has died. Here he is: the man they thought dead, addressing them as if they were dead. Who is Jesus? Someone who gives peace.

But then he goes on; his peace isn’t an escape, it’s preparation. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you….receive the Holy Spirit.” I imagine everyone there, certainly everyone here, had a lot of questions about what’s happened: “what’s it like to die?” “how did you get past the grave?” But he isn’t answering those questions. He’s answering this question: what now? What he does is a new creation story. When God set out to create a companion creature, God took bits of earth and formed a shape but it was when God breathed life—spirit—that a human was created. In just the same way, Jesus gives these disciples, the first church, the same gift: the breath, the spirit, of the living God. He gives his life not only for them but to them. “As I was sent, you are sent. Who is Jesus? Someone who gives life and purpose.

What now? Go forgive sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”. He’s recreating them and now he’s sending them out to do the same thing in the world. Sins doesn’t mean that list of things we shouldn’t have done, like the fact that I at bacon the other day in defiance of my doctor’s warning about high cholesterol. Sin is that ongoing tendency to substitute our own judgement for God’s way. God’s way is grace and peace; our is rules and winning. But winners and losers divides the family of God. It leaves us with an ongoing burden. “How can you say I’ve never forgiven you,” someone once said, adding, “I remember every time I’ve forgiven you.” What Jesus means is the forgiveness that removes the burden of keeping score. How do you do this? The best way I know is simple. Every time you think of someone with whom you have a grudge, pray for them. If you turn from the scoreboard to God, the burden lightens, forgiveness becomes a natural practice.

Finally we come to the story of Thomas, a week later. Thomas missed the meeting. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus found the disciples. Maybe he was less scared and thought he’d better hide on his own. Maybe he was hungry and had gone out for a snack. He missed meeting Jesus and refuses to believe Jesus is alive; he can’t imagine there is any continuity between whatever vision the disciples had and the terrible, wounded, crucified Jesus he last saw on the cross. He says as much: he will only believe what he can see and touch with his own eyes, his own hands.

Jesus doesn’t argue; Jesus doesn’t quote a creed or preach, he simply shows Thomas his wounds and invites him to touch them. This is finally who Jesus is: someone wounded, just like us, someone who shares his wounds. Richard Rohr is a theologian who said, 

Jesus dies for us not in the sense of a substitute but much more in solidarity of all humanity since the beginning of time. The first is merely a heavenly translation of sorts; the second is a transformation of our very soul and the trajectory of history. That’s atonement, that’s the power of realizing our sin, confessing our sin, getting right with God and one another… It is a solidarity with all humanity.

Lectionary Lab Live for April 11, 2021

Churches on the whole don’t like Thomas. He makes us uncomfortable. He says things we would never say. “Unless I touch the holes in his hands…”, Thomas says; we’d like to offer some gloves to cover them up. In this moment, as Thomas speaks his doubts, Jesus lets Thomas touch him; he lets Thomas feel his wounds. Jesus doesn’t argue: he just shares his wounds. Who is Jesus here? The one broken for us.

Notice the details of this story. First, Thomas is there; the community doesn’t exclude him, doesn’t disfellowship him, they include him. This is a signature reality of the new community of Jesus: everyone welcome. When Acts depicts this community, it says, 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them

Acts 4:32-34

Later, one of the first baptisms will be an Ethiopian eunuch who everyone knows has no business being in the church according to the rules but is so important, angels stage the encounter.  We like rules, we like doors; Jesus walks right through them every time.

Jesus is one who gives peace, gives life and gives a purpose. The purpose is to lift the burdens of others, to live in solidarity with them, to share our wounds and make it possible for others to share theirs. That’s what he says: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is just a statement of fact; burdens linger and wear us down. Jesus is broken for us so that we will know how to receive others who are broken. Jesus is broken for us so that we will know that peace doesn’t come from better locks or stronger doors, it comes from sharing our wounds and living his life in ours. 

It’s ok to be afraid; the disciples were and that’s when Jesus came to them.

It’s ok to come with doubts, Thomas did. 

It’s ok to come with wounds; Jesus did. 

Wounds and doubts and fear make a place for encountering Jesus.

This is who Jesus is: peace giver, life giver, one whose wounds became a means of new life, who calls us as one broken for us and asks us to share our wounds, share forgiveness and come out of the tomb with him.

Amen

Still I Rise

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A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Easter Sunday/B • April 4, 2021

Mark 16:1-8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don’t you take it awful hard
‘Cause I laugh like I’ve got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise. 

[Maya Angelou, Still I Rise]

There he is: rising in the sweep of history, bending history to the love of God, the justice of God a little bit every day. See him there: see his power there. See his resurrection there. To the violence of the Empire, of all empires, he says: “Still I rise.” 

But it’s not only in the big things that Jesus can be seen. Terry Marquardt wrote about grieving for her grandmother and offered this memory,

My aunt was with my grandmother during the last nights of her life, when the pain in her spine was so horrible that she hadn’t slept for two days, and the medication had stopped working, and she was beginning to lose hope. It was too much to lay down, so the two of them were sitting in the living room at 2:00 in the morning when my aunt had an idea.

“Mom, let’s have a party.”

“How could I possibly do that,” my grandmother said, motioning to her stiff body, kept awake by the sensation that it was being ground into dust.

“Let’s try,” my aunt said.

And she started to sing.

My aunt sang the Mennonite hymns my grandmother had taught her, songs from my grandmother’s childhood in a Mennonite farming community in northeastern Canada, songs that were sung in the fields, at their dinner tables, to greet the dawn, to end their day, on the way to church. My aunt and my grandmother sang all night long, until there was no pain, until my grandmother’s nurse woke up and tiptoed into the room.

“I’ve never heard such beautiful music,” she cried.

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

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

Where is Galilee? It’s where they came from, where they started. Jesus is going back to the beginning and starting over: that’s where they will see him. Their lives are about to start over because these lives are lived beyond the fear of death. The great question about the Christian movement of the first century is what powered it, what allowed it to change history. The answer is the people Jesus changed; the answer is the people who saw him rise and took his resurrection as the pattern for their own lives. Jesus was risen and they were able to say with him, still I rise.

It’s the same with us. We are prepared to go to the grave; we are good at raising the money to buy spices, we can discuss how to move the stone. But are we ready to leave the grave and go to Galilee? Can we take Easter home, can we take it wherever we go? Still I rise, he says: despite what we thought, he calls us, invites us, forgives us, commands us. Come see me: come follow me. 

He’s gone ahead and when we see that, we’re ready to take the next step, to let go of our fears, accept his forgiveness and follow him. Easter isn’t a day, it’s an invitation: come see me. The gospels tell us how he appeared over and over to people, and his message is always the same: love one another, see me, follow me, because still, I rise: even when you don’t believe it, even when you don’t understand it, still I rise. Peter denied him but it’s Peter he calls back to tend his sheep. Mary ran in fear but it’s Mary who first meets him on the way. Thomas won’t believe him but it’s Thomas who feels his wounds. To the powerful who prey on the poor, his presence says: still I rise. To the hopeless who cannot find the way out of darkness, he says, “I am the light of the world”—still I rise. To us, to all of us, who come here, wondering, he says: still I rise. Come follow me. Come: because on your way, on your journey, you will see me: for still I rise. 

Amen

The Lord Has Need of It

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Palm Sunday • March 28, 2021

Mark 11:1-11

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Today is Palm Sunday, an annual celebration with so many memories. In other times, I’ve spent hours planning dramatic worship services. I’ve helped churches gather to parade down the aisle, bought and handed out hundreds of palm leaves. I’ve encouraged people to wave them, throw them, brought clothes in to simulate the things thrown on the donkey Jesus rode. I’ve never actually brought a donkey into a sanctuary but I’ve discussed it and once I even got close to having one ready to go. So today seems a little quiet. But this morning I hope we can look at the meaning and not just the props. Often Palm Sunday seems to be about cheering and greenery. What does Palm Sunday have to do with Jesus? What does it have to do with us?

Image the scene. Jerusalem sits on top of a small mountain with winding paths up the slopes, so it’s the kind of walk that makes you breathe harder. Jerusalem’s walls were crowned with the glittering gold of the temple pinnacle and the white marble temple walls glittered in the hot, bright Near Eastern sun. It’s almost Passover and pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean world are gathering in this sacred place, returning to the City of David to remember their heritage. The city is packed to capacity and religious fervor rises. That fervor often led to riots, spurts of rebellion and the inevitable violent Roman reaction with blood running in the streets.

On this day, the stream of pilgrims walking up the paths is pushed aside by a parade. But it’s not the one we envision with a palm parade. A contingent of Roman soldiers is marching to Jerusalem to enforce the Roman law. They are there to proclaim Emperor Tiberius as the Son of God. For about fifty years, the Romans had seen their leaders as divinities affirmed by their power. Power meant the ability to kill people. Get in the way of Rome, violate Roman law, fail to pay your taxes, and the Roman answer was violence. From Persia to Spain, Roman law was built on the threat of Roman swords, Roman slavery, Roman crucifixion.

Now, up the western slopes of Mt. Zion, the Roman soldiers wind their way with a Roman officer mounted on a big horse and Roman standards held high. It was meant to show off the power of Rome.

Knowing this is going on, knowing this is the main event, we can turn to the other side of the city where there is also a procession. This one is small, this one is unruly, it has no standards and its leader is ridiculous. The Son of Man, a translation of a phrase that means the representative person, the humble person, is coming to Jerusalem on a donkey. Can you imagine it? Can you see it?

I’ve never ridden a donkey, have you? I went online and found directions there for riding a donkey. It says adults are too big for donkeys; so I imagine Jesus with his feet hanging down, dragging along the path. Donkeys have a slow, plodding walk; this procession isn’t going anywhere fast.

Behind Jesus, perhaps around Jesus, are the people who have followed him from Galilee. What were Jesus’ people like? One writer said,,

Jesus came into Jerusalem dragging the world in behind him. He’d spent most of his ministry with what the Pharisees regarded as all the wrong people in all the wrong places. He’d befriended women of dubious reputations, touched lepers, dined with tax collectors, done favors for despised Roman soldiers, held up Samaritans as heroes even as he turned Pharisees into villains. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday, he had all of these folks in tow.

[http://yardley.cs.calvin.edu/hoezee/2000/mark11PalmSun.html]

It’s a strange group and here they are, slowly walking with Jesus, walking behind the Son of Man on a donkey. On the other side of town, the Roman general is riding a horse, sitting comfortably and grandly up there, with ranks of perfectly disciplined soldiers. Here is Jesus with on a ridiculous donkey with a milling mob of people.

Now that we have the picture in mind, we come back to the story Mark tells and immediately once again to this donkey. What is it about the donkey that’s so important? Jesus makes a point of giving instructions about it. There’s endless argument: does he know what will happen or has he planned it? Does he know the donkey owner? Has it been previously rented by some advance disciple? What is the deal with the donkey?

The donkey is a reminder of the hope of God’s covenant. The prophet Zechariah had said,

Rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion!
   Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem!
Lo, your king comes to you;
   triumphant and victorious is he,
humble and riding on a donkey,
   on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
[Zechariah 9:9]

There is Jesus, just as the prophet had said: this teacher comes as the Son of Man, so powerful he can look powerless. The Roman general needs his horse to look important; Jesus IS important. The hope he embodies is also in the testimony of Zechariah,

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
   and the warhorse from Jerusalem;
and the battle-bow shall be cut off,
   and he shall command peace to the nations;
his dominion shall be from sea to sea,
   and from the River to the ends of the earth.
As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you,
   I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope;
   today I declare that I will restore to you double.
[Zechariah 9:10-12]

The symbols of worldly power, the arrogance of calling a man Son of God, is marching on the other side of Jerusalem with the Romans. But here comes the Son of Man, riding on a silly donkey; he can afford to be silly—for God is riding with him. The armies of Rome are marching on the other side of Jerusalem, ordered ranks, swords showing. Nervous rulers always need military parades.

But here comes the Son of Man and his followers are all kinds of people: men, women, gentiles, Jews, sinners and they are together shouting, “Hosanna!” “Hosannah!” They are what Zechariah described as the prisoners of hope and they have been released; their cry of joy echoes from the hills. The Son of Man comes on a donkey: the Spirit of the Lord renews the covenant, the new covenant that invites us all.

This is where we come to the second meaning of the donkey: the donkey is a decision. Remember what Jesus says,

Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. 3If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’ 

Mark 11:2-3

Someone owns that donkey. Someone pays for that donkey, pays to keep it, pays to stable it, someone uses that donkey for work and getting places. Think of it as your car; think of it as yours.

Now some strangers who have a strange accent come and start up your donkey. They have an accent; definitely not from here. Perhaps you saw them when you heard that young prophet from Galilee and you vaguely remember them. When you ask what they’re doing, they say, “The Lord has need of it.” What would you do?

That’s the heart of this story: it all flows from this moment, this decision. “The Lord has need of it.” The challenge of Palm Sunday is this: whatever you have, the Lord has need of it. Like a  quilter assembling bits and pieces into a beautiful tapestry, Jesus takes the hurts and hopes of these people he has dragged with him to Jerusalem and makes them a covenant community, a caring community in the new covenant in his blood.

So now we come to our Palm Sunday and like the donkey’s owner, we also are told the Lord has need of what we have: what will we do?

Are you grieving? the Lord has need of it; those who grieve shall be comforted, he says. So bring our grief—his hope is for you, shown to the world in you.
bring him your grief

Are you joyful? Can you see the Lord in your life, blessing you, showing you the beauty of creation, helping you to feel God close and present? The Lord has need of it:
bring him your joy; 

Are you guilty? the Lord has need of it: he’s bringing a new covenant, where forgiveness is the gate to go into glory. The Lord has need of it:
bring him your guilt.

Are you doubtful? The Lord has need of your doubts: bring them to him. He never asked anyone to go beyond where their faith would take them. The Lord has need of it:
bring your doubts.

Are you hungry? the Lord has need of your hunger, because hungry people are ready to be fed. He’s already fed thousands and he means to nourish us as well, with the bread of life. The Lord has need of it:
bring him your hunger

This one man, whose donkey the Lord needed, became the doorway to a procession we remember down the ages. No one but historians remembers the Roman soldiers. This donkey the Lord needed is remembered when the general and his horse are just a footnote.

The Lord has need of it: someone heard, someone said yes, and the donkey became a platform from which the Son of Man proclaimed the fulfillment of God’s covenant had come to Jerusalem. Every day time, the Lord says about us, about our lives, our whole selves, the good parts and the bad, the hurts and the hopes, that the Lord has need of it. When we give him the reins, the same thing happens. The cries of Hosanna are heard; the procession goes forward. And the words of the psalmist come true: the king of glory comes in.

Amen.

Shine, Jesus, Shine

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2021

Shine, Jesus, Shine

Transfiguration Sunday • February 14, 2021

Mark 9:2-9

After two months in the season of Epiphany, we come back here, where we remembered the stable, to the mystery of God in the world. All these Sundays, we have been populating the crèche, adding to it, the bandaids that symbolize the people Jesus healed, the figures that represent ourselves, the Wise Ones who came from far away, Gentiles whom no one had thought were part of the story, the shepherds, the angel, the animals, each a part of our world, each a part of us. But today we come back, back to this single experience, this single moment: God born into the world, vulnerable, watching, hoping. 

Think of yourself in this scene. You walk in, seeing the young mother with that special look of both exhaustion and fierce pride new mothers have. You greet the father and give your flowers, admire the baby in her arms and then as she turns to you, looks into your eyes, smiles  and asks, “Do you want to hold him?” and not knowing what else to say, you say sure, and the child is handed to you. There: in your arms, you hold the mystery of God in the world.

We’ve been reading the stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The assigned readings have jumped ahead. Jesus has stood up in the synagogue and read, he’s preached, his neighbors have seen him heal and they have been amazed. He’s called out to the souls of some so that they followed him and they, too, are amazed. Perhaps what amazes them most is that they are here, that their one out of the blue “Yes” to his call has turned into a commitment that grows every day. But they have seen more than the ecstasy of healing; they have seen the growing anger of the officials and the clergy. Just before this trip up the mountain, he told them something they admit only to themselves, only at night, only alone: at the end of this road, there is a cross instead of a throne. They have come to the mountain, where he goes alone to pray. They have come to the mountain as we go to the stable, hoping for something new, expecting something familiar.

Now they stand there and the text tells us that on that mountain, in that place which can’t help reminding everyone of all the other mountain tops. It reminds us of Sinai, where the little tribe of refugees from Egypt God had amazingly defended and called out of slavery to service gathered, and just in case we miss the point Moses is there. 

It reminds us of Horeb, where Elijah fled after God reclaimed that people through his Word and action, brining down the full fury of Queen Jezebel, that representative of pagan, consumer culture, so that in the very moment of victory, Elijah haas to flee and ends up in a cave. There, on that mountain, he heard God’s call, God’s blessing and confirmation, in a still small voice. And just in case we miss the point, there’s Elijah. 

Now these followers of Jesus come to their own mountain top They see Jesus shine. There he is: do you see him? “Jesus was transfigured,” the text says. I’ve been studying this text and preaching it for more than 40 years and I still don’t know what that really means. The disciples see Jesus shining in a new and amazing way. ‘Transfiguration’ means transformed, so we have to ask: what is being transformed? Not Jesus: he is the same as he always has been. What is being changed here is the disciple’s understanding. They are getting a glimpse of who Jesus really is and it amazes them and burns in their memory for years afterward. 

It’s so rare for us to really see someone for who they really are. My mother was 30 when I was born, an older mother for 1951. Of course, I never thought of that fact and what it might have meant to her. Over the years we had our ups and downs but one thing was constant: she was always and in some sense just my mom. I was in my 40’s one day when I met up with her at the airport in Tampa after we hadn’t seen each other in almost a year. She took one look and said, “Oh, Jim, you need a haircut.” Only your mom says this. I just saw this one dimension, saw her in reference to myself. In 1995, when she was in her 70’s, my father died and in the process of cleaning things out somehow I ended up with her college scrapbook. It was stunning to page through it and see my mother as a young woman, dating, getting called to the dean’s office for violating her curfew. Who was this woman? 

A few years later, a friend of mine who was into genealogy encouraged me to dig into my own family history. When I asked my mother for information, she offered a glimpse of life growing up during the depression in the 1930s. She told me about being angry when her family took in other family members and she lost her room to them; about her grandmother knitting her wool caps that made her feel ashamed because they are home made. Somewhere in those talks, she also told me about fighting with my father when I was a kid and she wanted to work; he wanted a wife who stayed home. She told me about how hard it was to go back to college in her 40s and get her Master of Library Science degree. Bit by bit, my mother began to emerge as a person, not just my mother. When she was in her last days, I sat with her and heard more stories and when she died, she left a letter and talked about the conflicted time of my adolescence. I don’t believe I nearly know the whole woman she was but I am so thankful that I got to know her not just as mom but as a real person, a whole person.

I think something like that happened to the disciples. Just before that, Jesus asks, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter responds famously, “The Christ.” We like that; we want to think of ourselves as Peter. We often skip the next part where Jesus explains this means a cross, Peter argues with him and Jesus rebukes him, the same word used to cast out demons. Peter, the emblem of the faithful disciple, the founder of the church begins as someone Jesus sees holding him back when Jesus has a mission, Jesus has a call, Jesus has a way.

Thom Shuman, says about this,

…most of us have had some sort of mountaintop experience, even if it is in the back of a taxi, or walking down a hospital hallway, or reading to a bunch of kids.  Most of us know what it is like to want to build great reminders of who we are or where we have been, only to be pointed to those down in the valleys we are called to serve.  Most folks have experienced that desire to stay where they are, rather than venture into the unknown, whatever and wherever that is.  Most of us are reluctant to take off the comfortable and scuffed loafers of the past and leave it behind while putting on the new, stiff, blister-causing shoes of the future.

We’re like Peter, standing there without a clue, hoping we do the right thing or say the right thing in Jesus’ eyes, while Jesus is looking past us at the next step to take, the next person to serve, the next neighborhood to clean up, the next task to undertake, the next mountaintop that is waiting for us down in the valley.

What does transfiguration mean? Perhaps just this: that it’s time for us to stop putting our own pictures of the past up and labeling them with his name and see him for who he really is. It’s time for us to stop thinking of him as just another man, a good one, an important one, who does good things: exorcises, heals, preaches love. It’s time for us to see him for who he really is: the shining, embodied, light of the love of God.

Of course, we are here too; we are in the picture and honestly? God is gently making fun of us, like a parent laughing about a child’s fumbling efforts. Look closely: see us? We’re the ones with Peter. The whole glory of God is on display and all Peter can say is, “It’s a good thing we’re here!—let’s put up some huts, get some shelter from all this, make a place to hide.” The text says he was terrified. Isn’t this us? Isn’t this what we do: we see everything in reference to ourselves and our first thought when the world scars us is to put up some sheds, find some shelter. But God won’t have it; God ignores Peter and shifts the whole point back to Jesus. This is what God says on the mountain, this is the whole point of the mountain top moment: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” There it is, there’s all of it. At the baptism, where we began two months ago, when heaven opened, we got the first part—“This is my Son, the Beloved”—now we get the consequence, the invitation he represents: “Listen to him.” 

This is the choice we make as Christians every day. We can build sheds and celebrate the fact that we’re here or we can listen to the beloved son of God. When we listen, we can’t help but hear his call. When we listen, we can’t help but see him shine, as he shone in their hearts. Shine Jesus: shine.

Amen.