The Unperishing Spring

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

21st Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 25, 2020

Deuteronomy 34:1-12Matthew 22:34-46

“Winter is coming.” That opening theme from the “Game of Thrones” appeared so obvious when I first read it that I was puzzled. I’m a northern boy; I’ve lived through 68 winters and the falls that preceded them. Fall to me means occasional harsh storms like the one that brought down a tree big enough to cover the entire backyard at the parsonage. It meant raking leaves and, when I was growing up, the smell of burning as piles of fire happened throughout my neighborhood. Summer was fun, fall wasn’t fun; it was a depressing end. Then I married Jacquelyn. She didn’t grow up with fall, so to her fall was an ever opening series of wonderful surprises. She loves the changing colors and I introduced her to cider mills and crisp days with a cup of sweet apple and a doughnut. Winter is coming meant something dark to me; to her, it means doughnuts and colors. How do you see winter coming?

A Spiritual Winter

A spiritual winter is coming in the story we read from Matthew about Jesus. The gospels remember that when he began to move toward Jerusalem, it was with the knowledge that there would be an end not only of a journey but of his life. At the beginning of the journey, 

…Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Matthew 16:21

Again, along the way,

As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

Matthew 17-21-23

So the journey is a spiritual fall, a time preparing for the spiritual winter of the cross.

The Great Commandment

Today’s reading is part of a series of controversy stories. We read one last week about taxes. Now a group of Pharisees confront him and ask which is the greatest commandment. What do you think? One of the Ten Commandments? A particular rule in Torah? Something your mother told you?. “Which is the greatest commandment?” It’s a preacher’s challenge: summarize all the teaching you’ve brought, Jesus, tell us, what you think. How strange to hear him teach something very old, something from Torah, something they should have known: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Deuteronomy 6:5. And then: Leviticus 18:19: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There it is, the whole program of Jesus, the whole preaching of Jesus, the whole treasure of Jesus and they had it all along, just as we do: love God, love your neighbor. It’s what has led him to preach, what has led him to heal, what will lead him to the cross.

Do Bad to Do Good?

Winter is coming. We are living through a moment when to many it seems that the only way to do good is to do bad. This summer we watched as protests of police killings left cities on fire. Just recently, we heard how a group of men plotted to kidnap and kill the governor of Michigan and then from Wisconsin the terrible story of a young man, a man too young to vote, who used an assault rifle to shoot protesters. We are on the doorstep of a division elections seem unlikely to dispel; already, hundreds of lawsuits are filed, already there is talk of how to overturn its results. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve been here. I watched a movie the other night that had a profound impact on me because it reminded me of the the late 1960’s. “Chicago 7,” is a movie about the trial of New Left leaders after the police riot in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Some of you will remember that time; for others, it’s vague history. So let me remind you it was a moment of shattering violence. Frustration was leading many to question the strategy of non-violence and democratic change. Over a hundred thousand of our troops were in Vietnam; thousands protested the war at home. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated were assassinated. In the movie, Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party, is leaving to speak in Chicago and A friend reminds him about the power of nonviolence and Martin Luther King; he responds, “Dr. King is dead.” 

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

Just like Jesus, King was killed for daring to preach this one Great Commandment: “Love God, love your neighbor.” And he did not go blindly to his death. On the last night of his life, he closed his speech with these words.

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop

He walked on, he loved on, until he couldn’t walk anymore. But his vision went on and still does today.

That mountain top is just where we found Moses in the portion read today. Winter is coming there too. Think of his story. Rescued as a child, brought up in the luxury and safety of Pharaoh’s household while his people were enslaved and used to build up the wealth and power of others. When he finally found his true identity and became angry, he killed a man and had to run for his life: no more luxury, no more power. A fugitive from justice, he was taken in by another people, made another life with a wife and a family. Called by God, he went back to that same power structure, that same household he had fled, with God’s word that they should let God’s people go. Ten times he watched the plagues of Egypt stun that nation until the Pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.

Moses led them out into the wilderness and then, as power always does, the powerful couldn’t let go, and used violence to enslave. So Moses and God’s people faced the armored might of the greatest military in the world at that time. But God was greater, and God’s people fond a way through the muddy Reed Sea when the wind of God blew the water away for a moment, and the army of Pharaoh perished in the marshes. Moses might have thought they were safe and all was well. 

But when we read the story of the Exodus, all is not well. Time after time, Moses is challenged. People argue, people complain. When he stays on the mountain receiving the commandments of God, his brother and the others build up an idol out of gold so that once again there is a terrible reckoning. For 40 years he leads them through the wilderness. For 40 years he listens to them complain. For 40 years he bears the terrible burden of believing God, of loving God with his whole heart and mind and self. Now, winter is coming; his winter, his death is coming. 

We Have a Destination

So he goes up on a mountain to see the way forward. Now, you know that in the Bible, geography is always theology. So what he sees isn’t just a place, it is God’s performance of a promise. Long ago, Abraham and Sarah were promised a place to live and raise generations of God’s people so they might be a blessing to the whole world. Long ago, Moses set out with God’s people to see this place. Now, he sees it. Like King, he might have said,  “…as a people, will get to the promised land…Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” For 40 years, we read they wandered in the wilderness. But that’s not right; they didn’t wander, they had a destination.

So do we. Ursula Le Guin wove through many of her stories a theme that speaks to our purpose. She imagined a man who grew up as a person of integrity, strong and intelligent, owning slaves, living in a culture that devalued women. When he is forced to live in a world where the slaves have been freed, where women have become equals, he hates it at first but then falls in love with a woman who teaches him how wonderful sharing with equals can be. He becomes her husband and love animates their life. Learning to love his neighbor, he has learned to love God. When he is near his end, he says, “I have given my love to what is worthy of love.”

The Unperishing Spring

Are you giving your love to what is worthy of love? This is the question of Jesus’ commandment. For surely the ultimate one worthy of love is God. Le Guin goes on to say that this is “the unperishing spring”: to give your love to what is worth of love.

Winter is coming; but so is spring. Good Friday is coming, but so is Easter. Faith is not hoping for some particular election result; faith is giving your love to what is worth of love, faith is loving God with all your heart and mind and soul until finally, in God’s time, you too can say, “I have been to the mountain top.” Faith is what leads to hope and hope leads to the unperishing spring.

Walk on, Love on

I remember the hope of 1969 and how it was dashed in later events. I remember the hope of other times and how they sometimes didn’t come true. But I don’t remember the unperishing spring; I’m living for it, I’m grateful for it, because I have seen the glory of the Lord and I know that no matter how great the armies of the night, God is more powerful; no matter how many times winters comes, there is an unperishing spring. Just wait, just walk on, just love and you will live in the unperishing spring.

Amen.

Living Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

20th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 18, 2011

Matthew 22:15- 22

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=470022615

What’s yours? What’s mine? As far back as we historians and archaeologists can peer, people have argued about this. In the Ten Commandments, we’re told not to steal things and not to covet something that belongs to someone else. Torah, the original law for God’s people, contains endless specific rules about ownership. Some historians believe writing originated as accounting for stored grain, a way to keep straight what belonged to who. But what’s yours and what’s mine takes on an even greater importance when we ask the fundamental question: what’s God’s?

The Real Issue

That’s the issue Jesus raises in the story we read today. The issue is very partisan, very political and some enemies are hoping to trap him, the way politicians do to each other. What’s gone on in their country in the last few years has caused division, hatred and even violence. Years before, the Romans had taken over Judea and installed Herod as King. He was widely hated and depended on Roman support just to stay alive, let alone in power. The Romans had introduced a head tax, called a census. But this census wasn’t like the counting we do, it was a tax on every person. In just a few weeks when we read the story of Jesus’ birth, we’ll hear about this tax again because it was precisely to be counted for the tax that Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem.  The tax had to be paid in a Roman coin called a denarius. A denarius was worth about a day’s pay and it had an image of the emperor on one side and an inscription saying he was divine on the other. 

For a people whose deepest heartfelt religious expression was the Shema Yisrael, the prayer that says, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, and who believed there were no other Gods and who further had been explicitly told in the commandments not to make images—well, it was unthinkable to have such a coin. So there was division: the Zealots who refused to pay, the establishment who wanted to overlook the religious issues and pay up, the Pharisees who were in between. 

Now they set a trap for Jesus by asking a question with no obvious easy answer. “Tell us, is it lawful to pay this tax?” If he says, “No!”—he will be arrested, branded an outlaw, though a popular one; no one likes taxes and this tax was particularly hated. It’s the answer his followers want to hear, it’s the answer the crowd hopes to hear. But in giving the answer he will convict himself. If he says, “Yes,” he will be seen as a coward who compromises with power, afraid of the Romans, and he will lose the faith of his followers. “Just another appeaser,” they’ll say. 

Now there is quiet as the question hangs in the air and then, his answer, which obviously surprises  them: “Show me the coin”. He’s caught them at their own game—because they produce the coin, showing they have already violated Torah, just by having such an image. Now he takes the coin, looks at it, perhaps turns it over and looks up, asking, “Whose image is on the coin?”—everyone knows the answer: Caesar. And finally: his answer: “Then give Caesar what is Caesar’s—and render to God, what is God’s.” 

We Belong to God

What’s yours? What’s God’s? We bear God’s image—we belong to God: that’s the view of the whole Bible. One of the Psalms says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” [Psalm 24:1]. At the other end of the Bible, when Paul writes to Philemon and asks Philemon for a favor, he points out that Philemon owes his various life to the same God Paul represents. So the question of what is yours has a surprising answer: what is yours is yours as a steward for God since you yourself, each one of us, belongs to God. We are God’s living treasure. What’s God’s?—we are, every single one of us.

What’s Caesar’s? We don’t live alone, we live in a community and we need its assets. Water, power, sewer: our lives together are unthinkable here without them. Many of you know Jacquelyn and I have a sailboat and we sometimes cruise on it. When you live and sleep on a boat for days at a time, you learn just how many services you take for granted. Power?—it comes through a wire from a battery, and if you don’t charge it, there isn’t any. Water?—it comes from a tank that has to be filled periodically. Sewer?—well, yes there is that and we’d probably rather not think about it. 

What’s Caesar’s?

Taxes have become a partisan issue, with one party endlessly claiming to want to lower them, one wanting to provide better services which may cost more. Surely we owe something to our community. All the things we use, all the things we need, don’t magically appear, they are bought and through our taxes we buy them. We forget that often and take those things for granted. We’re like the waiter a friend talked to once in the south. She’d never had grits but of course in the south, grits just come with breakfast. So she asked the waiter, “What exactly ARE grits?” He looked at her as if she was crazy and replied, “Well, ma’am, grits is grits.” Trying to make herself clear, she pushed on: “Well, where do grits come from?” He thought for a moment and then said, “They come from the kitchen.”  Of course, grits, like everything else, do not magically appear in the kitchen. Everything comes from somewhere and everything from your the water you drink to the light you turn on depends on a whole community sharing the cost together through their taxes. 

Politics is  the name for how we make decisions about how to balance community needs with individual payments. “No politics in the church!, is a tradition here. But historically, Congregationalists have been deeply invested in politics. Some of the first Congregationalists were imprisoned because the idea of a covenant community where people voted threatened England’s monarchy. Later, another generation of Congregationalists and Puritans led a civil war in England that ended with the execution of the king. Congregational Churches in New England were a school for civic participation and the tradition of a town meeting comes from Church Annual Meetings like the one we’ll hold today. Later, following the lead of the Society of Friends, Congregationalists became heavily involved in the movement to abolish slavery, one reason you’ll find few of our church in the south.

Politics!

So trying to avoid politics, most preachers veer off at this point and focus on what we owe God. But it’s fair to ask here: what do we owe Caesar? What do we owe our community? Notice how Jesus connects what we owe our community—what is Caesar’s—to what we owe God. “Give Caesar, give God what is God’s.” Now the Psalms and the Torah are clear: the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. We are made in the image of God, we are God’s and from the beginning, Genesis says, we were given a mission of caring for creation, including our community. In fact, we are the point at which earthly things like empire and nature meet God. We are the bearing on which the two mate and rub against each other. Our task then, is to take to God the needs of creation and bring to our community God’s Word.

Bringing Our Community to God

We bring our community to God through prayer. So many of us have experienced recently the bitter divisions of a politics driven by a secular push for power. I wonder how things would be different if instead of scoring points, we offered prayers. I wonder how things would change if instead of shouting insults we said a prayer. Of course, a prayer isn’t just words. If you pray for the terrible pandemic to stop, wearing a mask, staying apart, are ways of making your prayer concrete. If you pray for someone insulting you instead of conjuring a better insult, you can’t post your response on Facebook or Twitter. It takes faith to pray and the results aren’t always evident; faith is not faith that demands immediate visibility.

We bring God to our community through our lives, through living in the light of the Gospel. That means sharing ourselves in the community. Voting, for sure; after all, what is a vote except you sharing your best thought toward the advancement of our whole community. Demonstrating the mind of Christ, as we’ve been talking about, living in a humility that listens to others, values others, and refuses to let the world’s boundaries keep love from spreading. 

“Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”—  that’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the disciples and it’s what he says to us today. We are God’s living treasure. If we bring our community in faithful prayer, the whole testimony of the gospel is that God will hear and heal. If we will faithfully, prayerfully, hopefully give God what is God’s, God will work with it like a baker making bread; that God’s spirit will come into it like yeast and raise it up until all God’s children are fed and realize the wonderful love of God. 

Amen.

What Are You Wearing?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor * © 2020 All Rights Reserved

19th Sunday After Pentecost * October 11, 2020

Philippians 4:1–9Matthew 22:1–14

“Saturday I have to take Lucy for her rabbi shot.” It was a simple text from Jacquelyn; most of you know Lucy is our little seven pound endlessly barking dog. What you may not know is that our best friends in Albany beyond the church are our neighbors who are Orthodox Jews. So we hear a bit about rabbis and we’re very conscious about Saturday being their sabbath. But why would Lucy need a shot to protect against a rabbi? I looked at the text again and then it hit me: the demonic spell checker had hit again and converted ‘rabies’ to ‘rabbi’. I laughed, I laughed and laughed again. The spell checker failed but in failing made me laugh. We are a society frantic to succeed; what if going forward means failing? 

Wrong Shirt, Wrong Time

Today’s gospel reading contains two parables. One is about a great banquet; that occurs in a slightly different form in the Gospel of Luke as well. The other is this strange, last part about the a guest at a wedding who gets thrown out, all the way out, into the outer darkness, because they wore the wrong thing. I guess we all wear the wrong thing sometimes. One day, I put on a nice shirt with pink stripes only to have Jacquelyn take one look, make the face, the one that says,  “Oh no!” and inform me that it was a spring shirt. I didn’t know shirts had seasons. So I had to find one what went with fall for reasons I didn’t understand and put that on.

This unfortunate guest has made the same mistake: he’s mistaken the time. Clothing rules are really about showing respect, a way of acting by wearing. When my daughter Amy was married, I did what ministers do: I wore a suit. Jacquelyn had many things to navigate: what was the mother of the bride wearing? what were the bridesmaids wearing? Would it be hot or cold? Did it call for heels? Coming up with the right outfit wasn’t as much about style as about showing respect to her new stepdaughter and the rest of the family.

The issue here isn’t style, it’s whether we are responding to God’s call in Christ. Clothing is a symbol for who you are and who you are following. Paul knows this. In a culture where the symbol of power was the armored Roman soldier, he says to Christians, “…be strong in the Lord and in God’s mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. [Ephesians 2:10f]” The guest with the wrong garment failed to grasp the moment; he failed to honor the king. The punishment is to be left out of the kingdom, for the kingdom is the place of light; the outer darkness mentioned is its opposite. 

Are You Ready for the King?

So the critical issue here is this: are you ready for the king? The best way to understand this story is to look at the context. If we look a little farther back, we find that Jesus tells a series of three parables about people who miss out on the kingdom. We read one two weeks ago: a man tells two sons to go work in the vineyard; one replies, “I go!” but doesn’t, one replies, “I will not,” but goes. “Which did the will of the father?,” Jesus asks. 

The second is also about a vineyard. A householder plants a vineyard and then lets it out to tenants. At harvest, the tenants beat his servants and kill one. He sends more servants; same result. Finally, he sends his son; they cast him out of the vineyard and kill him. What will the owner do when he comes? The answer is obvious and the disaster that befalls the tenants comes from their failure to remember the vineyard doesn’t belong to them. 

Finally, we have the parable of the great supper, in this version is a marriage feast. Once again, this is a story where someone loses out because they don’t grasp the moment. That’s a common thread in these stories. The son who doesn’t go into the vineyard, the vineyard workers who kill the owner’s son, the guests who don’t come to the feast are images of people who should have known better and didn’t. They are images about Israel’s spiritual life; the vineyard is an ancient image for God’s people. The stories take place in a setting of conflict with religious leaders and just before the parable of the great supper, we read that the Pharisees and Chief Priests knew he was speaking about them and are plotting to arrest Jesus.

The structure of this parable is simple. A king invites several subjects to a wedding feast; each refuses, giving as a reason some concern of his own. In response, the king wipes out the things they thought were important and, left with an empty banquet hall, invites strangers instead. The feast goes on but those first invited aren’t present. They weren’t ready for the king and their failure destroys them. 

Two stories of failure; two stories of rejection: that’s a lot for a Sunday morning! What is Jesus saying? What can we learn about following him from these failures? Perhaps the most important thing is the urgency of now.

The Urgent Now

A wedding is a unique moment. That’s what the invited guests miss. “…they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business,” [Matthew 22:5] They missed this most important part of the invitation: “Everything is ready.” 

From the beginning, Jesus has been saying the same thing. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins to work when John is arrested and he begins to preach with this simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God heaven is at hand.” [Matthew 4:17] He lifts up the tradition of God’s people; he talks about the future of God’s people. But he begins with the urgent now: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”—right here, right now.

“Now is the time,” was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite phrase. The gospels’s give us two patterns of calls to discipleship. The first is the call of Peter and Andrew. In their case, the signature is the immediate response: “He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.’” The same pattern is repeated with John and James. They’re mending nets, working with their father when Jesus comes to them and Matthew tells us, “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” [Matthew 4:20–22] But later, when a scribe offers to follow him, he’s discouraged when Jesus tells him that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another follower who wants to wait to begin following him while he buries his father is told to leave the dead to bury their own dead.

“Now is the time.” The great irony in the story is the violence. Those invited were concerned about their farms and businesses; the king destroys them both. What they thought was so important is gone. What now? What will they do now? 

This is a parable for this moment. How often were we told that we lived in the most advanced country in the world? When the pandemic first began, it was easy for many to believe the promises of leaders that we had nothing to worry about. After all, we had resources, we had the Center for Disease Control, the CDC, why worry, why wear a mask or close a business or stay home? We missed the urgency of the moment and just as in this story, disaster has resulted.

“Now is the time.” Jesus preaches the urgency of now: the kingdom is at hand. It’s not tomorrow, it’s not yesterday, it’s right now, right here. What are we going to do? 

Living from the Mind of Christ Now

That’s the question each day: what are we going to do now? what are we going to do today? It’s certainly the question Paul presses on the church in Philippi. In the part we read this morning, he gets personal. 

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life

Philippians 4:1–3

The church is divided; these two women lead factions. You know how strong feelings must be running for it to threaten the life of the church. It’s easy to love your enemy as long as your enemy is abstract; when it’s that annoying Syntyche, when it’s that awful Euodia, it’s harder, isn’t it? I’ve always thought there was great insight in Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. The world is easy to love; a neighbor, someone close by is harder.

So we’re back to what we talked about two weeks ago, also from this letter to the Philippians: have this mind among yourselves that was the mind of Christ. Except now it’s focused, now it’s harder because now it’s now. Now is the time: now is the time we’re called to live from the mind of Christ. We’ve talked about how humility can lead us to this; Paul says, 

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Now he offers a standard:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It’s hard to fight a church fight when you are thinking about things that are honorable, just, pure, commendable. It’s hard to rant in your head about someone and think about what is pleasing, worth of praise and so on. Everyone who hikes learns to watch for trail markers; everyone who drives watches the signs. These are signs of the mind of Christ and if they aren’t part of your journey, it’s time to stop now, and do exactly what Jesus said: repent—for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom is right here, right now, and if you aren’t living from the mind of Christ, you’re wearing the wrong outfit. 

What Are You Wearing?

This is finally the message of these parables: following Christ is a series of moments, not a one time commitment that needs no follow up. Now is the time—each day, each moment, each interaction. Now is the time to put on Christ; now is the moment to live from the mind of Christ. Today is the day we’re invited to the kingdom. What are you wearing?

Amen.

Who’s There?

World Communion Sunday

18th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 4, 2020

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Psalm 19 • Philippians 3:4-14 

You’re in the house; you hear a noise. You listen: silence, broken by the question, “Who’s there?” That’s common at our house. It’s two stories, three with the basement. If someone comes in and you’re upstairs, if someone is doing laundry in the basement, and you didn’t know anyone else was home, you call out, “Who’s there?” 

That question is a fundamental one, isn’t it? We’re social creatures; we may like some time to ourselves but we all want eventually to know someone else is there, that we’re with someone else. So we fling out this question to the universe, to creation: “Who’s there?”

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” Psalm 19 declares, “the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.” This is the great poetic imagining of creation’s conversation. The subject is the glory of God; the audience is everyone listening. Are you listening? Who’s there?, we ask and creation flings back this answer: “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” Listen up. 

Surely we don’t listen to this conversation nearly enough. In worship, in work, we focus on ourselves: what are we going to do, what should we do. But listen to God’s Word closely and there are an amazing amount of words that have nothing to do with us, they are about creation itself. Genesis begins with light and dark, land and sea, and only at the end comes to human beings, almost as an afterthought. When God decides to start over, the means is a flood, a literal undoing of the ordering of the waters from which creation proceeded and human beings are saved so they can save the animal kingdom. When God intervenes in history in the Hebrew scriptures, again and again it’s through great natural, creation centered events: a reversal of waters that lets the people of God escape their oppressors, a drought that brings forward a prophet. Who’s there?—the heavens are telling the glory of God and all we have to do is listen to hear the answer.

“Who’s there?” We’re social creatures, we need each other, so we create communities.  

when Sociologist Margeret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. She reversed the question back to her students. They offered examples of when humans formed tools like shovels, fish hooks, cookware, and grinding stones.

She listened patiently and then said, “These were important advancements, but they do not speak to civilization, our ability to live together in authentic community.”

She went on to say that she considered the first signs of civilization in an ancient culture to be a femur (thighbone) that had broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal world if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger. You can’t find food. You can’t access water. You become the prey. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed suggests that someone has taken the time to stay with the fallen one, has bound and treated the wound, has carried that person to safety, and has cared for that person during recovery.

Healing someone through difficulty is the beginning of a civilized culture. It means someone was there, someone helped.

Healing communities is one answer; another is teams. By teams, I mean all those groups who identify together. I’m from Michigan and the two most important teams among Michigan colleges are Michigan State, whose team colors are green and white, and the University of Michigan, blue and gold. Years ago, Jacquelyn bought me a lovely winter coat. It was warm, had lots of pockets, fit perfectly but there was just one thing: it was blue with gold accents. I went to Michigan State. I can’t wear blue and gold. Of course, I did wear it for years; we were in Connecticut, it was safe, no one knew about the teams. But sure enough, when we moved to Michigan, as soon as it got cold and I put on my winter coat, someone asked me what I was doing wearing blue and gold. Wrong team, wrong colors. I had to wear something else.

Paul is telling us his team in this part of the Philippians. His terms may be just as obscure as green and white, blue and gold, to someone out of Michigan but the people there would have understood him. Listen to what he says.

  1. circumcised on the eighth day, – he had a bris,
    the signature ritual of inclusion for Jewish men
  2. a member of the people of Israel – this is his nationality
  3. of the tribe of Benjamin – this is his tribe, like saying he’s a New Yorker. Benjamin is one of the two tribes that formed the Jewish nation.
  4. a Hebrew born of Hebrews – he’s not a convert, he’s second generation
  5. as to the law, a Pharisee – this is a religious tribe within Judaism,
    it’s like saying he’s an evangelical 
  6. as to zeal, a persecutor of the church – Paul started out as a district attorney, prosecuting Christians
  7. as to righteousness under the law, blameless – no sins on his permanent record

Seven signs to draw his identity. Paul is speaking to a church that divided into tribes. Some follow one person, some another. Possibly some grew up Jewish; some grew up Gentile. Some are Greek, some are from other places.  

He’s giving his resume, his tribe. Haven’t we all done this? “Where are you from?” “I went to school at Harvard”, “We’ve been going to this church over 50 years”, and so on and so on. Paul is a remarkable man. It’s an amazing list, really, someone everyone would respect and admire.

So his next statement is shocking: 

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Wow: all rubbish, his pedigree, his upbringing, he degrees, his accomplishments, his membership and position in the religious world. It’s all something to throw away.—t’s all rubbish.

Now we’re met on World Communion Sunday, a celebration that began as a reaction to Christian tribalism. For centuries, Christians divided up over all kinds of issues: power, liturgy, what kind of instruments to use in worship, what kind of clothing clergy should wear, whether there should be clergy, what kind of furniture to have in the church, who could be a church member, race, gender, who people love. You name it, Christians have divided over it. Most of this has nothing to do with Jesus Christ; most of it makes as much difference as whether your hat is green and white or blue and gold. This is the testimony of the Bible: it’s rubbish. What’s important is being found in Christ, living from the mind of Christ, loving in the name of Christ. That’s what Paul means by “gaining Christ”. He means making Christ more important than all the rubbish, more important than your tribe, more important even than you.

We haven’t always done that. Fred Craddock talks about his first church, a little church in a rural area. When a highway was built nearby, a trailer park sprung up for the workers and their families. He was a young minister and I guess he didn’t understand about tribes because he suggested to his deacons that they should do something to invite those people. After he pushed on the issue, the church met to discuss it. They voted on it, they voted to require that anyone own property in the county before they became a member of the church. Craddock moved on. Many years later, after he retired, he was in the area and he went looking for that church. He found it and the parking lot was full, there was a neon sign and a crowd of people. The church had closed long before; it was a barbecue restaurant. I guess the owners didn’t care who bought from them, what tribe they belonged to.

Communion reminds us of this one fact: Jesus Christ loved so much he suffered betrayal and crucifixion to inspire love in others. He didn’t care about their tribe; he didn’t care about their hat color. He didn’t care what kind of furniture they used; he didn’t care whether they had a degree or not or whether they were Jews or Gentiles or men or women. He just cared for them. When we receive communion, we’re trading our hats for his cross. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul says. Can we say it with him? Can we live it with him?

There’s nothing wrong with being part of a tribe. I’m a Congregationalist; I love our traditions, our history, our way of worship. But it’s not Christ. It’s like my hat. Do you have a favorite hat? I do—or I should say, I did. Last summer was sailing one day, I looked up as the wind gusted and my hat flew off my head, into Curtis Bay. I tried to do hat overboard but no luck; it was gone. I was a little sad for a moment but then—it’s just a hat. And the wind was fine and the water was beautiful. The heavens were telling the glory of God. That’s what was important: hearing that, feeling it.  

Who’s there? You are—I am—Christ is. Together we are meant to be that healing community that Jesus preached and Mead mentioned,. Today is World Communion Sunday. Today we listen to the world saying, “Who’s there?” Today we forget our tribes, today we remember our furniture and our differences are rubbish next to the surpassing value of being found in Jesus Christ. Today we lift him up, his cross, his life, his invitation to us to live in the community of the kingdom of God where when we ask, “Who’s there?” He answers: I am. 

Amen.

What’s On Your Mind?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 27, 2020

Philippians 2:1-13

What’s on your mind? Without being able to go around and ask each person, I have to guess and my guess this morning is that health is on the mind of many. This week our country passed the 200,000 deaths mark from the pandemic. The upcoming election is on the mind of many, I’m sure, and so this the sadness of the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose life lightened and liberated so many. Maybe individual things are on your mind: something hurts or you’re worried about catching Covid-19 or there’s a nagging problem in your life.

Asking, “What’s on your mind?”, is a little like going up to the attic isn’t it? At least at our house, the attic is full of stuff we didn’t know what to do with, so we stuck it up there. Go up to the attic and you quickly get overwhelmed by different things; I usually just end up going back downstairs. Come downstairs with me and let’s ask another question: what’s on the Apostle Paul’s mind and how can it help us?

What’s on Paul’s mind, when he writes to the Philippian Christians, is the future of the church  They’re going through a tough time. The local authorities have been persecuting them; Paul himself has been beaten by the police and jailed. So have some of the others. What makes it even worse is that their church is divided between two groups. What’s on Paul’s mind is division and conflict; doesn’t that sound familiar? That’s on the minds of a lot of us as well.

He starts out with one of the longest sentences in the whole New Testament and it’s hard to get it all when it’s read once. He asks four questions: if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any incentive of love, if there is any participation in the Spirit, if there is any affection and sympathy. Notice how these link love and spiritual life: encouragement in Christ is connected to love, participation in the Spirit is linked to affection and sympathy. Love is the mission. Sometimes we get so involved with what we are doing that we forget what we are trying to do. When I go out, I have to find my keys, find my wallet, find my glasses, find my mask. It’s easy in all that to forget I was going out on an errand. In church life, we sometimes get so involved with the details, we forget the mission is God’s love expressed through us. 

Paul doesn’t want anyone to forget what they are trying to do, the mission they’re on. Spiritual life is a rhythm of feeling and acting. He goes on to make this point by embodying these things with a ringing call to action: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than yourself.” [Philippians 2:3] Spiritual life for a Christian always has a “Do” attached to it, it’s always a motivation that leads to action.  

But we can only act from what’s on our mind. So he comes back to that explicitly: “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 2:5] What Paul is saying is that we are meant to live from the mind of Christ. 

What’s on your mind? What’s on the mind of Christ? What’s on your mind when you think with the mind of Christ? He’s already given us a suggestion about this and now he makes it explicit by quoting what many believe was a Christian hymn:

Christ Jesus, Though he was in the form of God,
Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant
Being born in the likeness of humanity
And being found in human form
He humbled himself
And became obedient unto death
Even death on a cross

Philippians 2:5-8

This is the mind of Christ: instead of grasping for greatness, helping with humility, healing with humility. To think with the mind of Christ means to live in a hopeful humility.

This is hard, isn’t it? Because what’s on our mind is often little details. Fred Craddock, one of the most widely known preachers of my lifetime, was baptized in a Baptist church, where you don’t just get a couple drops of water, you get completely dunked. He says,

When I was baptized, I was fourteen years old. I know the minister was saying a lot of wonderful things about being buried with Christ and all —I’m sure he was; he was a good minister. But I was just thinking, Do I hold the handkerchief? Does he hold the handkerchief? Uh, I wonder if it’s cold…and I bet it’s deep too.

Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 30

So here we are, hearing about the mind of Christ—but wondering if it’s going to be cold or deep or what they have to eat at coffee hour and when the preacher will be done.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” That’s the mind of Christ, that’s not how we think. We grasp for more. We think if we just had the resources, which is to say enough power, we could do a lot of good. A friend of mine, one of the most genuinely loving and Christian men I’ve ever known, used to be in charge of helping churches and ministers find each other. He’s a bedrock Congregationalist. He really believes the best way to be a church is by having all the members involved and voting on important things. One day he got so frustrated with the petty, dumb things churches do in the search and call process, he yelled, “I want to be a bishop!”

I know that feeling, I’ve had it. Sometimes, I let myself have a little daydream about starting up a church, a church where there are no Boards or committees, where I can just do everything right because I know what’s right better than they do. The church of Jim: what do you think? Oh, wait: I’m a minister of the church of Christ. Any time one of us stops trying to run things and listens to all the others, we have the mind of Christ.

In the church of Christ, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a church member, it matters whether you have the mind of Christ and the mind of Christ always thinks about others first. I used to be the pastor of a church that had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Sunday every year. We also had Sunday dinners once a month; we rotated with some other churches on where they were held. One year it was our turn to host on Thanksgiving Sunday. After a little arguing and fussing, we decided to go ahead and do it and just make more than usual. This was a church like this one, where we endlessly agonized about not having enough people. 

So the day came, the whole building smelled like turkey dinner and after worship we all went down to eat. A lot of our homeless and hungry guests came, so instead of the 30 or so church folks, we had over 200. It was a crowd and bless their hearts, our church folks thought with the mind of Christ and let those people go first. That meant the last church folks, a group of long time members, senior ladies, didn’t get any turkey. I found out and you know I didn’t much have the mind of Christ, I had the minister mind that thinks, “I’m going to be in trouble over this.” So I went to over to see them, and they were so much better than me. One of them said, “Well, we didn’t get any turkey but thank God there was plenty of potatoes.” She was thanking God for potatoes when I was worried about power. I think she had the mind of Christ.

In the church of Christ, it doesn’t matter how powerful and important you are, it matters whether you can get down off your high horse and welcome a child. Years ago, it became a fad to have children’s sermons in church, mostly little object lessons. I wasn’t very good at it. But the church wanted something, so I started doing my version, which was to get down on the carpet with some kids and just ask, “Did anything special happen this week?” One Sunday I was going to be away and the church got a minister to preach who had a reputation for great children’s sermons. After I got back, he called me. He said he’d done what he usually does, gathered the children in the front pew but when he started the lesson, the kids interrupted. One said, “This isn’t how you do children’s time, you’re supposed to get down on the floor and ask us what happened this week.” He said he’d thought about that ever since, and wished he’d done that. And he asked me to thank the kids for preaching to him. 

Are you thinking with the mind of Christ? Are you putting others first? There is so much division in our country right now and it’s seeping over into churches. A friend of mine, another minister, who is an ardent liberal was afraid her politics was seeping into her preaching. So she decided to go back to a tradition and pray for the President every Sunday. The first Sunday, during the pastoral prayer, she said, “Let us pray for our President, Donald J. Trump.” She got two calls that week: one complaining that she had prayed for President Trump at all, one complaining because they were a Trump supporters and they thought she was being praying for him as an anti-Trump message. I guess they were thinking with their political minds.

What’s on your mind? What are you thinking? Paul was thinking about division in that church in Philippi and his solution was simple: division comes when we let our own minds take charge; unity comes from thinking with the mind of Christ. That’s still true today. 

Are you thinking with the mind of Christ? A couple weeks ago, we read a parable about a guy who received forgiveness and lost it when he didn’t practice forgiveness. I said then that forgiveness was the way to deal with our past, to stop letting our past be a burden. Last week, we read a parable about some workers who grumbled and didn’t get to laugh when they got paid and I said then that gratitude was the way to deal with our present, finding something to appreciate and thank God for in each day. Now we have this letter from Paul to Christians just like us, people with a lot on their mind and he wants to help them face the future. How do you face the future as follower of Christ? You think with the mind of Christ, you live from the mind of Christ, you act from the mind of Christ. 

What’s on your mind? “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” God is at work in us, God is at work in you and me. We may not know it; we may not see it. Earlier, I mentioned the story of Fred Craddock’s baptism and what was on his mind while it took place. But you know, that fourteen year old boy grew up to be a man who inspired thousands, who helped so many find the forgiving, grateful spirit Christ invites us to share. He did it because he learned to think with the mind of Christ. What will we do when we let the mind of Christ control us?

Amen.

Serious Laughter and the Evil Eye

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-17

I want to begin this morning with something I read that expresses where I am, where I think so many of us are today.

I watch the news some nights, and I listen to reports about COVID…I also watch our beautiful western states burn. I watch Black lives and blue lives being taken unjustly. I watch fear-mongering and listen to … brazen lies.

It’s all so…heartbreaking.

Cameron Trible, ‘Piloting Faith”, email on September 16, 2020

Here’s my question: in these days of heartbreak, how do we find joy? How do we respond to whatever the day brings? Every day is a basket of occasions; every day has threats and opportunities and invitations to praise. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers is about a day when some grumbled, and some laughed. Can we join the laughter?

Let’s start with the end and work back to the beginning. Imagine these workers going home; what do you think the conversations were like? Think of the last first. All day long these sat around the dusty corner where day laborers gather. They talked, hoped, gradually gave up. They saw friends get work but they never did. Then, at the last moment, at the moment when they were hopeless and just avoiding home where there wouldn’t be anything to eat, this amazing chance. Five o’clock!—and a guy comes looking for help picking grapes. Who cares what he was offering to pay? Something is better than nothing, anything is better than nothing. So off they went to the vineyard, hoping for just a little, maybe some gleaned grapes. Imagine their surprise, imagine their “it can’t be true” joy when they walk to the pay table and the manager hands them a whole drachma, a day’s wage. I wonder if their eyes widened, I wonder if one by one they slunk away, thinking the guy must have made a mistake, wanting to get away before he figured it out. Think of them grinning as they walk in the door at home and someone looks up, eyes questioning. Think of the grin as they hold out a whole drachma, enough to pay for dinner and breakfast tomorrow both. Imagine the hug and the laughter, the serious laughter.

Now think of the first hired. Tired, hot, dirty after a long day in the fields. Farm work started then as it does not at dawn. They were smart to get down to the corner early, and their smarts was rewarded. A full day’s work but more importantly a full day’s pay, just as agreed. I wonder if they felt a little smug, seeing others who didn’t get to work until noon or later, knowing they wouldn’t get full pay. So imagine their anger, their grumbling, when—impossible!—the manger starts handing out drachmas to everyone. “How was your day?”, their families ask, and the answer is grumbling about the unfairness of the vineyard owner and the pay tossed on the table. Which home do you want to live in? Can we choose?

Go back to the beginning. It’s September; well, I know it’s September here but in this story it’s September too: that’s the grape harvest. You know what September is like? One bright, warm sunny day immediately followed by thrashing rains and cold temperatures. Harvest is a crisis because grapes all get ripe at once, the vineyard is ready now, and if you wait, even a day or two can mean you missed the moment. So this vineyard owners goes out at daybreak to hire some day laborers. Every farming community has a corner where these guys hang out. He finds a group, he contracts to hire them for a day’s wage, a denarius, paid as a drachma, a standard coin. So they go to work. Imagine the owner working with them, correcting some of them, helping and realizing it’s not going to be enough, there aren’t enough of them. So at noon he goes and hires more. The same thing happens. He’s getting more frantic so he goes at mid-afternoon, hires more and as the evening starts still more. These others don’t have a contract, he just tells them to trust him, he’ll pay what’s fair. They know they aren’t working a whole day, they’re glad to at least get a few hours.

At the end of the day, the owner’s tired but he’s happy; the grapes are picked, the vineyard is harvested and he makes a decision. He tells his manager to pay everyone, and to start with the last hired first. This is really the central point of this parable and it’s why Matthew, the only one to tell this story, has it here. It’s connected to the spiritual facts Jesus preaches, that God doesn’t play by our rules and that the last are going to be first. So the laborers line up, just as ordered. And the manager starts paying them: one drachma for you, one drachma for you, one drachma for you.

It doesn’t take long for them to figure out what’s going on. I wonder what the guys at the end of the line, the ones hired first, who worked all day, thought as they saw these others get paid. Day laborers lived day to day and a day’s pay meant just that, they got through the day, they had enough to eat for the day. One day for you, one day for you, one day for you, on and on the pay goes until the first hired, the ones who had a contract finally get to the head of the line. Did they assume they would get more? Wouldn’t that be fair? What do you think? They worked all day, they bore the heat of the day; on the other hand, they agreed to work for—one drachma, one day’s pay. And that is exactly what they get.

Around and Around

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

Hear the sermon preached

Wow: that’s a hard parable isn’t it? Here we are back after a long recess, after the summer, after months of lives disrupted by a virus. Isn’t it time for something cheerful, something uplifting? Like a movie with a sad ending, this story ends in disaster. Two of the characters are in prison; the king is disappointed. We might just say, “What goes around, comes around,” and let it go at that, move on to something happier. But often if we stay with Jesus’ difficult sayings, we come to something profound. What can we hear in this parable that can light our way?

This is a kingdom parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”, it begins, so right away we know we’re talking about the essential order of creation, the way God intends things to be. Ancient rulers operated through servant, here called ‘slaves’, today we call them cabinet heads: Secretary of State, Interior, and others. The amount mentioned in the story is fantastic, huge, almost a parody. The servant owes 10,000 talents; King Herod’s entire annual income, as a point of reference, was 900 talents. This is a debt that can never be repaid. Did the man embezzle funds? Was he just caught out in a boom/bust economic cycle? The story only tells us he owes the debt and pictures his plea. Notice he doesn’t ask for mercy, he doesn’t question the debt, he just asks for more time to pay. He doesn’t question the system, he just hopes to avoid its consequences. He knows what goes around, comes around, he just hopes he can delay it a bit. 

But the king does something unimaginable: “…out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave the debt.” [Matt 18:27] It’s a miraculous moment. Think how the man must have worried about his debt, how frantic he was when he was summoned to account, how he must have tried to figure out something, anything. Now, in a moment, it doesn’t matter. The Lord has broken the rules: the debt is extinguished. He’s free to go. What will he do? What do you do when your biggest problem is solved? What do you feel when the thing you’ve been worrying about for moths is suddenly gone? Do you just numbly stumble out, not quite believing what just happened? Do you sing, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last??” Shout? Celebrate? Call your spouse?  

What he does is get back to business. On his way out he comes across on of his own debtors. The debt is a hundred days wages; nothing compared to what he has just been forgiven. Yet he responds with violence and has the man thrown into prison. He’s still in the system of debt and collection. The man owed him the money, the debt was good. What goes around comes around.  

But when the king hears about the incident, has him brought back, reminds him of how much he had owed and hands him over to be tortured. What a way to end: two men in prison, a disappointed king: disaster all around. What does Jesus mean by such a difficult story?

Clearly, we’re meant to understand something about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a core of Jesus message. Just before this, as we read, his disciples ask how much forgiveness, giving a large number; Jesus in effect replies, as much as it takes. In his model prayer, what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus points to the mutuality of forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive out debtors.” If we set this story against that prayer, we begin to understand it. The problem here is that the man who owed so much doesn’t forgive his debtor and loses his own forgiveness.

Why is forgiveness so important to Jesus? He’s preaching new life and forgiveness is the gate. Debts, sins, all of these are a system of accounting. You owe so much, you pay so much, on a schedule. It’s a contract. We all know how contracts work between us; how often do we import that into our spiritual lives? Have you ever come to a moment when you sought a bargain with God? “If you just do this for me, God, I’ll go to church, be a better person, pay my pledge,” whatever we think God wants. But as long as we deal only from contracts, we’re caught in a cycle: what goes around, comes around. Borrow more, owe more; misbehave, carry the guilt forever. How do we break out? How do we stop going around in circles and go forward? Forgiveness is the gate to going forward.

Imagine a different end to the story. What if the man with the huge debt was so stunned by the grace of the Lord that he was changed, that he stopped thinking in terms of debts and debtors? Suppose he went out, encountered his debtor as the story says and in that uncomfortable moment when they made eye contact and his debtor looked away, he said, “Hey, I know you’re having a tough time, I’ve had some good fortune recently so let’s do this: forget the debt, just consider it a gift.” No one ends up in prison; no one ends up tortured. Everyone gets to go forward with their lives. Isn’t that a better ending?

Why doesn’t Jesus tell the story this way? I think there’s a good reason. Jesus isn’t speaking about economics, he’s speaking about the whole system of contracts, the whole system of owing. And what he wants us to understand is that God’s free grace invites us to share grace ourselves. That’s when it’s truly surprising. In fact, we can only fully find our own forgiveness when we let go of the burden of things we haven’t forgiven. We all carry a bag of things with us: experiences, memories, hurts and hopes. If we let the things we are owed fill our bag, it weighs us down. If we carry resentments about hurts we’ve endured fester, we can’t be healed. One writer said, “No one was ever killed by a snake bite; it’s letting the venom circulate that does the real damage.” Our sense of what we’re owed and the anger over it keeps us frozen in past resentments.

A number of years ago, a member of a church where I was the pastor asked me to loan him $10.00. I thought it would be mean to refuse so I opened my wallet, discovered I only had a $20 and mentioned this; he said that would be fine and he’d pay me back. The next Sunday nothing was said about it; the next after, he said he was a little short but he would pay me. It went on like this and it made me angry. I started being tense before I ever got to church, knowing I’d see him, knowing he’d have a new excuse. Then Jacquelyn—who I think was tired of hearing about it—said, “Look, this isn’t worth the stress, just tell him it’s a gift.” So I did. I immediately felt better. I’d been caught in the debts and contract system; I’d found my way out. But the sad thing is that it took me so long to do it.

We like to operate from rules. They make us feel safe, they make us feel like we’re in control. But Jesus teaches God doesn’t operate from our rules. We see it everywhere in the Biblical story. Not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter was summoned by a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Imagine his fears; these are the people who recently crucified his Lord. Imagine how he must have hated the Romans. But he has a dream that the rules about who is fit for God are off. He goes and God moves and at the end, he baptizes the gentile Cornelius. Peter tells him about Jesus, and then the Holy Spirit comes on the whole group, gentile and Jew alike, male and female alike, rich and poor, and Acts tells us,

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’

Acts 10:45-47

The greatest surprise in the whole story of salvation is the resurrection itself. We know death is certain; but in Jesus Christ, God breaks the rules of life and death and gives life where all the rules people thought they had delivered the final word with his death.

We don’t have to look far to see what happens when forgiveness blooms. Today we read another story also, the end of the saga of Joseph. Remember how Joseph’s brothers resented him and in their resentment beat him and sold him into slavery when they were all young? Remember how they told their father he’d been killed, treated him as nothing. But Joseph rose up from slavery, made a life and became an administrator in Egypt. His family fell on hard times and came begging for help. At first, they didn’t recognize him; now they have. How do you think they felt in that moment? What goes around comes around, after all. Surely they must have feared his revenge. Instead, he treats them like brothers, part of his family: “So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” [Genesis 50:21]

What goes around, comes around. But Jesus offers forgiveness as way to stop going around in circles and go forward. I think that’s why he tells this terrible story. This is the the result of going around and around, this is the story of what goes around comes around. But we don’t have to let this story be our story. The choice is clear: we can lock ourselves into circles that lead to disaster or follow him to life in the kingdom of heaven. He asks us to stop going around, holds out his hand and says, “Stop going around and around, come along with me.”  Amen.

Hide and Seek

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Eighth Sunday After Pentecost • July 26,6 2020

Matthew 13:44-52

Allie Allie In free. Do you remember those words ringing out on a hot summer evening as the mosquitos gave way to lightning bugs? Hide and seek was the game we played after the street lights came on, when roaming was limited to a couple of adjacent yards. It’s an endless sequence of hiding away and then the thrill of someone finding, followed by a race back to the home base. So much play revolves around this experience doesn’t it? I still remember one day when Jacquelyn and I went hiking in Thatcher Park and lost the trail. One moment we were walking from marker to marker along a clear path the next the path had disappeared and so had the markers. We weren’t lost in a threatening way, of course, still, when we finally found our way back to a groomed, park area, we celebrated: we were found. Today we’ve heard some of Jesus’ parables that revolve around losing and finding and the joy of finding. Listen to them with me. 

The first has a kind of amoral quality, doesn’t it? Someone goes out to look at some property, a field. He digs around in it; knowing farmers, I imagine him tasting the dirt. He probably knows the history of this field, what it has produced, and he imagines it full of a crop ready for harvest. As he kicks around he makes a discovery: treasure! Much of Israel has been fought over for centuries. There must have been thousands of treasures buried at various times. In our own time, to this day, northern France and Belgium has crews removing unexploded bombs from wars a century ago and there are whole Youtube channels devoted to finding bits and pieces of left equipment, silent reminders of forgotten desperate struggles. So it’s not surprising that he finds a treasure. What’s surprising is what happens next. He hides the treasure: he conceals it! He buys the field. There’s a kind of dishonesty here, isn’t there? Yet Jesus tells the story. I suppose because he can’t wait to get to the end where the person sells all that he has—risks everything!—buys the field in his joy. What’s being compared here? What’s the point, what’s Jesus saying? Surely it is the joy of finding the most important, the best, something that makes you give everything. What made you give everything? 

Let’s try another. Imagine a merchant spends his career buying and selling jewelry, chiefly pearls. He acquires over years a special expertise. You and I just see a couple of white orbs, he instantly sees value, notes differences we can hardly see even when they’re pointed out. Birders are like this, people who watch birds for a living. Have you ever encountered one? They watch and watch and then suddenly get excited, grab field glasses, make notes when you just barely saw another dot in the sky if you saw anything at all. They can describe the color, the beak, the shape; it’s amazing. The pearl merchant is like that about pearls and then one day, he finds something he can hardly believe. It’s a pearl so beautiful, so wonderful he has never seen its equal. What does he do? He sells all that he has—risks everything—buys the pearl. 

What seems to be the point here isn’t a lesson in real estate or the jewelry business but rather the experience of joy. We haven’t talked much about joy lately, we’ve been too busy arguing about masks and whether singing is safe. We’ve been locked up alone thinking about how things used to be. I wonder if the people Jesus is teaching are any different? Peasants in every era had hard, grinding l ives. Never far from hunger, always on the edge of survival, they look more like homeless people today. I’m talking about the guy at the grocery store with an elephant sized bag of bottles and cans depending on getting the deposits to eat that day. 

We haven’t talked a lot about joy but perhaps we should—we would if we listened to Jesus. Here’s the mystery of the Kingdom of God: it’s an overwhelming joy, like following in love, like seeing your baby for the first time. The people in these parables have their lives changed and we can too if we pay attention.

The key is finding. That’s what happens with the farmer and the field, that’s what happens with the pearl merchant and in another way it’s what happens in the third parable we read this morning. Jesus pictures fisherfolk doing what they do every day. They fish with nets and nets just scoop up everything so you have to have a sharp eye and quick fingers to go through and find the fish you want. Annie Dillard is a poet and writer who years ago spent a year at Tinker Creek just looking around, paying attention, trying to find what was going on. She says at one point about the creek,

I am prying into secrets again and taking my chances. i might see anything happen; i might see nothing but light on the water. I wail home exhilarated or becalmed, but always changed, alive. [Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p.1]

Are you paying attention? Perhaps that’s what set the farmer apart. The owner of the field could have fond the treasure at any time but he didn’t. He didn’t see the field as a place of treasure so he missed it. The owner of the pearl of great price could have retired with it at any time but he didn’t, he sold it. He didn’t see it’s unique value. The fishing folk have to pay attention to their nets to get the good fish and cast out the throwaways. In fact, just going on the water requires attention. 

Jesus is teaching us to pay attention. Perhaps this is the reason he teaches in parables. Parables are riddles, you have to think about them to get them. You have to turn them around, look at them over and over to get them. You have to dig around in them to get the treasure. 

There are two parts to these parables. One I the joy of finding; the other is what to do with what you’ve found. The farmer and the pearl merchant give everything; that’s a key part of both stories, perhaps less so in the story of the fish. And what are they giving themselves to? Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God, Matthew the Kingdom of heaven, today it’s often translate the reign of God. What it means has to do with giving yourself to a life that revolves around one thing alone. When you find you are living in the kingdom of God, that changes your life. That is the one thing worth giving everything to and for. If we give ourselves this way, we can’t help looking forward instead of backward. We can’t help giving thank for what we’ve found.

This way of life is one of the theme in many of Ursula Le Guin’s novels. She calls it giving yourself or giving your love to what is worthy of love. Are you doing this? Are we? I leave you with that question today: are you giving yourself to what is worthy of love..

 In a little more than  month, God willing, I’ll see you again here on September 13. I mean that seriously: God willing. Our lives are like the electrons physicists study, whose future is always unsure, always a guess. But the one true, certain, predictable thing are the forces that move them and that’s true of us as well. Today we began with a passage from Paul’s letter to the Roman church in which he says that nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God. That is indeed a treasure worth finding. That is indeed something worthy of giving your life to. May you find that love and feel it every day. May you share it and the joy it gives.. 

Amen. 

A Pillow In the Wilderness

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19

Hear the sermon being preached

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

—Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

There aren’t many stories that have two great songs about them. The story of Jacob and his dream has an old camp song, Jacob’s Ladder, which we’ll sing later and the Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven. We can enjoy the songs but what can we learn from the story?

To really hear the story means knowing where we are in the larger story of God’s people. Take Jacob, for example. Today we meet him in the wilderness, camping alone with a stone for a pillow. We heard the story of Isaac earlier this summer. Isaac married Rebekah and she had twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau was swarthy, hairy guy from the beginning, an outdoorsy hunter; Jacob was born second, grasping his brother’s heel, with a prophecy that he would supplant his brother. The name ‘Jacob’ literally means “The supplanter” and while Isaac loved Esau, Rebekah loved Jacob.

Early on, on a day when Esau came in hungry from hunting, Jacob was cooking but insisted his brother sell his birthright in exchange for food. Later, when Isaac is near the end of life, Rebekah helped Jacob fool Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Jacob, so Jacob became the next in the line of patriarchs. Esau threatened to kill Jacob and Rebekah sent Jacob away to protect him. Now he’s returning from that journey. Think how he must feel; think how tense and worried he must be about what kind of reception he will receive.

Just as we look back to a line of heroic people we call the Founders, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others, Israel had a series of patriarchs whose encounters with God were touchstones of God’s purpose. Abraham was the first, followed by Isaac, the child of promise, and now we come to the third, Jacob. The striking thing about these legendary figures is that not one of them shows up as a particularly morally upright figure.

We like to make up stories that show our founders in an idealized way—is there anyone who didn’t grow up hearing the story of George Washington and the cherry tree?—Israel remembered the good and the bad about their patriarchs. Abraham believed God but often wavered from the path of promise. Isaac is not portrayed as someone who ever understands what’s going on. Now we come to Jacob, the trickster, the supplanter, who always has an eye on getting ahead, even refusing to feed his brother until he sells his birthright, even cooperating in a fraud to fool his father and gain the inheritance.

There’s an important message here: God doesn’t just work with the good. Later this summer we’re going to hear that what God wants is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have in common, what sets them apart, is that whatever their lapses, whatever their failures, they always listen to God, always pursue God’s purpose when it becomes plain. That’s grace: that’s God’s love. And it isn’t just for the perfect, it’s for all.

Later in the story, we’ll see the principle again and again. Moses is a convicted murderer but he becomes the prophet who defines God’s next chapter with God’s people. David, King David, has so many lapses it’s hard to really tell his story without embarrassment but he always loved God and God always loved him. This is the first and most important thing to take from this story: God meets us not because of who we were, but because of who we can become. You don’t need fancy clothes or a great resumé to come to God’s party, God sees our hearts and embraces us when we hope in humility.

The story begins with Jacob setting up camp in the evening. He puts a stone under his head for a pillow. Even in the wilderness, we all seek some comfort. He has a dream. In the dream, he sees something where figures are going back and forth from heaven. It’s come to be called “Jacob’s Ladder” but the figure is actually what we would call a ramp. Long ago, human beings decided God must be up above and so with that way we have of trying to use the mechanical to accomplish the spiritual, they built huge buildings with ramps so that you could literally get closer to heaven, closer to God. In the Ancient Near East, these were called ziggurats. Priests went up them to lead worship at the top; later they came down to speak about what God wanted. In Jacob’s dream, figures, angels, are ascending and descending. Stop there for a moment; think how we often imagine God as inaccessible, we even have a song that describes God as, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes…” But here God is accessible and if we follow the Bible text with its ramp instead of the folk song with its ladder, heaven is even barrier free.

In his dream, Jacob sees God standing with him, and God recalls the history of the promise. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and your father and the God of Isaac, [Genesis 28:13a]” This isn’t a sudden intrusion; this is God reminding Jacob of the history of God’s promise. What comes next is a renewal of that promise and that purpose. Just as God promised Abraham, God promises to be with Jacob, to give him a place and descendants an to make his family a blessing to the whole earth. A lot has changed since God first announced this purpose to Abraham. People have lived, people have died; some have been faithful, some have not, there have been wars and new babies and treaties and discoveries. God’s purpose hasn’t changed; God’s purpose never changes. So if the free, forgiving embrace of God is the first lesson here, surely the second is the peace of God’s permanent purpose. 

We talk a lot these days about “getting back to normal” as if our memory of a time when schools were open, sports were played in crowded stadiums, and going to a restaurant was the way things always were. But the truth is, all that was a moment, a nice moment perhaps, but a moment. If we want to be a part of what is truly permanent, it doesn’t mean trying to get back to normal, it means going forward pursuing God’s purpose.

Jacob reacts to all this in such a human way. If you read it seriously, you have to laugh. When he wakes, the first thing he does is to say that God is in this place and name it “Bethel”, which means God’s house. Then he takes the stone, as if any of this has to do with the stone, and sets it up as a marker. Isn’t this just like us? How many things do you have that you can’t get bear to lose? We’re doing a lot of cleaning up and tossing out this summer. I have some boxes I’ve moved more than 20 times that contain notes from my high school girlfriend. I don’t know why I’ve kept them. We parted long ago, I’m sure I wouldn’t even recognize her today if we met on the street. But there they are.

It’s the same with churches. We become attached to stuff in our churches. Just like Jacob setting up his stone, we think we need things because they’ve always been here. Years ago when I was working with a committee on furnishing a new worship space, we had a long discussion about chairs versus pews. The chairs were promising, more comfortable, more flexible. But the issue was denied when most of the committee said, “It’s not church without pews.” I honor and value the historic things here. But I know this: it’s just furniture. The communion table is just a table. The baptismal font is just a baptismal font. This pulpit is just a wooden pulpit. What’s important isn’t the furniture, what’s important is the spirit. Without the people of this church, without our working together, without God’s spirit, there would be no church. Without the table and the font and the pulpit, we would still be a church. 

The final moment of this story may be the most important of all. It’s beyond what we read today but in the next verses, Jacob chooses to take his place as a patriarch, he promises to serve God, to follow God’s purpose. The stone he sets up is just a stone; the choice he makes will set his course for a lifetime. He will become the father of the tribes of Israel; his youngest son Joseph will have a dream of his own that will make the next chapter of God’s people.

What about us? So often we are like the lady in the song, trying to buy with our goods or our goodness a stairway to heaven. Jacob’s dream is here to remind us the way to God is free and waits only for us to walk humbly with God, for us to seek God’s purpose. This is a wilderness time: we’re all going through unfamiliar things. In this wilderness, instead of lashing out in anger or holding on to a memory of normal, perhaps we should find a pillow, lay down, and wait for God to come to us, so that we too, in our time, may understand how we can serve God as part of God’s purpose. For indeed, as Jacob said of Bethel, if we look closely not at this building alone but at the people it embraces, we will say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”

Amen.

Places! Action!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

July 12, 2020 • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Matthew 14:13-21

Places! Action! If you’ve ever been in a play or movie, you’ll recognize those commands immediately. A stage is a strange and wonderful place from behind. As an actor, you stand to the side, often hidden just behind hanging curtains, familiar props and sets arranged just over there. Then the director speaks: “Places”—and you hurry to find the exact spot from which you begin. A second command—Action!—and everything begins. Of course, the real beginning was long before. Perhaps months before you heard about the show, you noted the audition time, you showed up, read something, answered questions and then waited, the long wait until finally the list is posted and you discover you are playing—whoever. “It’s not a lead,” you tell your friend, but all the while you’re thinking how to make the part shine as if it were. You gather at the first rehearsal, read through the play, and then there comes the first day on stage, a bare stage, just a dirty, dusty stage, and it seems to take forever to get everyone sorted out. When it’s done, you gather to get directions. Then the first real rehearsal, and it begins with the director saying, “Places!  Action!” Long before those words on opening night, long before the first curtain, you have been practicing, practicing, practicing, finding the place—”Places!”—rehearsing the steps, the motions, the words  Action!”—so that when it counts, when it really counts, all it takes is those two commands to set you in motion, to create the wonderful experience of drama. Now reading the story of the feeding of the five thousand this week, what occurred to me is that this is really Jesus doing the same thing. He’s rehearsing his followers, he’s showing them their place, he’s calling them to action. Jesus is rehearsing us so we’ll be ready for our parts.

The story of feeding of the crowd is the only miracle story in all four gospels. Matthew sets it in loneliness.  Jesus’ friend and mentor John the Baptist has been killed, executed by the king after a lurid conspiracy. Imagine the fear and grief that death must have inspired. So Jesus does what we sometimes do, he withdraws. The text says that he went to a lonely place. He means to get away, to pray, certainly to grieve, clearly to think about his next steps.

But the crowd won’t let him get away. He takes a boat; they run along the shore. Finally, the text says, “He had compassion on them,” and he begins to heal and the day becomes full of touching and celebrating and people pushing and pressing. We’ve ll heard this story before and it’s easy to rush past this introduction. But stay there a moment, feel that moment. You’re tired, you’re sad, you’re overwhelmed and yet others demand your attention, your care. What do you do when you’re empty? Isn’t this the first miracle of this story, that at a low point in his life, Jesus sees the very people he meant to avoid and had compassion on them? 

Finally, late in the afternoon, his followers—you and I!—approach him. We’re good staff; we know he’s stayed too long. “Send these people away,” the disciples say. They’re smart; a hungry crowd can turn dangerous. Maybe they’re exercising some compassion too, doing it by way of planning. “Send them away to buy food.” In other words, tell them to go, and make their own way, feed themselves. 

Now Jesus, turns to his disciples, looks over their heads at the crowd, the empty crowd, and simply says to his friends, “You give them something to eat.” Think of it: imagine a crowd here, staying too long, imagine if we hadn’t planned food, hadn’t made phone calls, hadn’t assigned who would bring what, when, just imagine if I stood here and gathered the council and said, “You give them something to eat.” Wouldn’t we be like the disciples? They immediately make excuses: “we don’t have the money, we don’t have the food, we don’t have enough.” If it was now, we’d add, our insurance won’t cover this. This is the excuse of the church in every generation, in every place, “We don’t have enough.”

Of course, you know what happens. Someone—according to a different account of the same event, a small boy—someone offers up some bread and some fish and it turns into the first fish fry; French fries hadn’t been invented yet, so all they have is good rough peasant bread, the flat bread common in the area, and small fish, like chubs or sardines. I see this as the beginning of fish tacos. Somehow, everyone is fed. All week long, preachers on a mailing list to which I belong have been arguing: is it a miracle? Did they share? Was it something supernatural? If it isn’t supernatural, can it still be a miracle—is sharing itself a miracle? You’ve heard both sides I’m sure at various times. Here’s my question: does it matter? Here’s what happens: the crowd is hungry, they share what they have, Jesus blesses it, breaks it and it turns out to be not just enough but more than enough. Miracles happen when we do what Jesus commands even though we don’t understand it. He blesses what we do and it is enough.

Don’t take my word for it: look for yourself. Here’s an example. Any out three months ago, this terrible pandemic meant we had to suspend having worship services here in our beautiful building. It’s how we’d always done things since 1919 except in August when we did nothing. But   we thought, we experimented, Dave Petty contributed expertise and some equipment, Jim Dennehey found enough money in the accounts to buy a video camera and we set out to stream an online worship service. We’re still figuring it out, to be honest. But one thing is clear. Every week, this service is watched about 100 people, about four times our previous average worship attendance. Is that a miracle? 

We never think about what the disciples did after Jesus told them to feed the crowd. But what they did was simple. They went to work anyway. They hoped anyway. They had faith anyway.  They found someone with five loaves and a couple fish. These knew as well as you or I that five loaves and a couple of fish aren’t going to feed a crowd that size. But they took what they had and they began to distribute it. They hoped, they believed, they worked. That’s what happened here. We hoped, we believed it was important, we worked. We made changes, some of them difficult, and we held our breath. Today, our church is growing in ways we never imagined. For the first time in memory, we’re going to offer services in August. It’s a miracle.

What’s the point of the story we read  today? What does it have for us? This, I think: Jesus is rehearsing his followers and that includes you and I. He’s saying to them, “Places!”— “Action!”. Jesus never intended to do all the work of ministry. God didn’t set out to save the world in one strait jacket supernatural burst; instead, God starts with a family, Abraham and Sarah, as we heard last month, and history, growing them up, just the way we slowly help children to grown. Jesus doesn’t do it all himself; what he does is to teach his followers the rhythm of sharing, the rhythm of ministry, the method of being the body of Christ. This is the principle he teaches: miracles happen when we say yes to Jesus’ command, offer all we have, receive his blessing and generously share.How does it start? It starts with Jesus’ compassion. Where do you think that compassion is today? When have you felt that compassion? How does it continue? It continues when we hear him turn something over to us. What is he turning over today? What need is he telling us to meet: where is he saying, “You give them something to eat!” today? It goes on when we share what we have in faith. Faith doesn’t mean we think it’s enough; faith means we offer it believing he can make it enough. It goes on when we act at his command to share what he has blessed. Where is Jesus in your life? How is that blessing shared?

The feeding of the crowd isn’t a final event; it’s a rehearsal. “Places! Action!” didn’t stop there and it hasn’t stopped yet. Today, as then, tomorrow as today: Jesus turns to us, in his compassion, to say, “You give them something”. May we do it, Lord, may we do it in faith, in hope, in love.

Amen.