One More Thing

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany • January 31, 2016

“Jesus is Lord!” Two weeks ago, we heard Paul explaining to the Corinthian Christians, a divided church that this is more important than all their differences. Differences of opinion, differences of gender, culture, even belief, none of these compare to the unity of living with one Lord. We heard him compare this life to being a body, the body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Last Sunday we heard how just as the body needs different parts for different functions—an eye to see, an ear to hear and so on—we need as one body different gifts. This is a core part of being a Congregational Church because we believe we are a complete church in Christ. We believe God has given everything we need here to do what God hopes. Surely among those hopes are that we will remember members not here; so we have members who are gifted at staying in touch. Surely among those hopes is that we will sing God’s praise; so we have members who play and sing and lead us in that way. Surely we need people to organize our missions, serve communion, and we have people who are gifted at these things. Each of us has gifts given by God and together, in the sharing of our gifts, God’s work is done, Christ is present, for we are the body of Christ.
“Jesus is Lord!” That is our faith and mission. How can we turn that faith into mission? How can we live it day to day? That’s Paul’s intention in this part of his letter to the Corinthians. After answering the Corinthians, after explaining how much more important their unity in Christ is than their differences, he comes to this moment. Steve Jobs used to stand on a stage each year and explain the great things the Apple corporation had done and various new products. But he was famous for saving his announcement of really ground breaking things like the iPhone for the send and introducing them with the phrase, “One more thing…” Now Paul comes to the end and says in effect, “one more thing: love”.
It’s a chapter often read in the context of marriage: at weddings, anniversary celebrations, recommittals. I once was asked to read it at the funeral of a beloved spouse. It’s one of the most familiar parts of the whole Bible. But if we know it by heart, if in your head you were saying the words as they were read, do we do it in life? Jesus said, “Love your neighbor” and his life is a parable of love. Paul has told the Corinthians to love; now he teaches them, and us, how to take that principle and turn it into verbs. He sets the issue squarely right at the beginning.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. [1 Cor 13:1-2]

Now Paul knows, as we may not that in fact many of the pagan ceremonies his audience remembers did indeed involve cymbals and gongs other instrument, symbolic ways of getting God’s attention. He also knows some of the Corinthians claim to have more faith than others and finally, then as now, the ultimate sign of Christian commitment was being martyred; these are people who know people who have died for their faith. How could their sacrifice mean nothing?
But love is not an emotion, love is not a pretty poem, and Paul proceeds to describe it a series of verbs. They’re like a mirror. Just listen to them, let them roll around in you for a moment: love is patient; love is kind; love bears all things, love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Paul teaches by telling us what love is not as well: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful. None of these things are part of love. The toughest one for me is this one: love does not insist on its own way. That’s tough. You know, I work hard at being right about things. And when I’m right, when I’m sure I’m right? I know I tend to insist on my own way. I know I’ve insisted on it even when it wasn’t loving. God forgive me. I’m not the only one who does this, either. In fact, when we were first married, Jacquelyn got so tired of people, me in particular, insisting on their own way that she created a sort of rule. It works like this. If you insist on your own way, and someone else insists on a different way and it turns out you were wrong, you have to turn around three times to the right and say, “You were right, you were right, you were right” and then turn around three times to the left and say, “I was wrong, I was wrong, I was wrong.” We call it doing the dance. And honestly? I hate doing the dance. But when you do the dance, you discover something; you can’t do it without laughing. The other person laughs and somehow things are better; love is restored. Love does not insist on its own way.
One of my favorite movies is Harvey. It’s is an old black and white movie with Jimmy Stewart and the premise is simple. Elwood P. Dowd has a good friend who is a pookah, a sort of six foot tall rabbit with magical powers. Oh, one more thing: Harvey, the pookah? He’s invisible and given to hanging out in bars. It’s a comedy in which a simple, happy man is sent to a psychiatric hospital for being happy, for not living by the world’s values. He explains it this way, “”In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart…or oh, so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” Love doesn’t insist on its own way; it’s not smart, it’s pleasant.
Now if we are honest when we truly look in the mirror of these verbs, most of us will see our own flaws. Paul has a reply. He says that now we see in a mirror darkly and the we live as children who are still growing. So if we haven’t fully grown into this vision of love, it’s ok; we are meant to keep pressing on, keeping the prize in mind, keeping the vision alive. And this is the most important function of a church. We are a school for love. We are meant to learn here how to be patient, how to be kind. We are meant to learn how we can be together without insisting on our own way. We are not these things now; we do not always work together this way now. We insist on our own way, we measure our differences. But we are learning, we are learning to love.
The most important step is simply to decide to live this love. In Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd is seen by a psychiatrist named Dr. Chumley. Over the corse of the story, Dr. Chumley comes to believe in Harvey and near the end of the story he says, “Flyspecks! Flyspecks! I’ve been living my life among flyspecks while miracles were hanging out downtown.” Dr. Chumley has come to a realization; love trumps smart, love trumps being right, love trumps everything.
When Paul has held up the mirror of love, he says one more thing. The Corinthians are doing things day to day. Paul wants them to see that everything they are doing is temporary. Isn’t it the same with us? My father taught me lots of wonderful things but he also taught one thing that was wrong. He taught all of us, “Work comes first.” He taught us that our value was our profession. That’s our culture; that’s our way.
But Paul is teaching something beyond our culture, Paul is preaching something beyond our world. Paul is teaching and preaching the love of God in Jesus Christ and the final thing he says ought to be part of every thing we do here. He says this: “Love never ends” and he says that in all the world, only three things ultimately remain: hope, faith and love. Now we live day to day; we try to make a difference day to day. That’s a good and important thing. We are making a difference; we are making things better for some. But the most important thing we can do is be a school for learning to love because all these other things we do, all our work, our efforts—only the parts that have to do with faith, hope and love will last.
Jesus is Lord! Indeed: and our Lord has said love one another. We are meant to be his body, we are meant to live our lives as his, loving and loved, growing in love, sharing his love until the light of the love of God shines in every darkness every day.

Body Talk

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Epiphany,C • January 24, 2016
© James Eaton 2016

Have you ever wondered how sermons begin? This one started in a noisy coffee shop. There was a meeting going on a few feet away, perhaps ten people gathered at a long table. One guy was talking loudly and a lot to dominate the group; one was simply smiling and not saying much; I wondered what he was thinking. Past them, a couple of ministers planning worship. Lots of people were talking, there was music playing. I sat at a table that could have come from IKEA with coffee and my computer, reading these scriptures, trying to see them just for themselves, just as they are, listening for them over the din of everything, and it dawned on me that these are noisy scriptures.

Think of the Psalm: “The heavens are telling the glory of God”: cue the thunder. “Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.”The writer is asking us to imagine the day itself speaking, night itself, preaching God’s goodness. The writer knows this is poetry; he says, “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.” This is the song of creation praising the creator and if we don’t hear it, still it’s going on: 

…yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy.

There is the theme: the joy of praising God. It’s big, it’s irresistible, it’s joyful and it’s noisy. Creation is singing: sing along.
The reading from Nehemiah is a big public meeting. It’s a crowd, it’s a speaker, they read Torah, they read the whole book of Deuteronomy, they preach it—the text says that Ezra gave the sense of it— and then there’s a huge street party. I’m sure someone is playing the 6th century BC Hebrew equivalent of Born in the USA. We’re used to worship that lasts about an hour with a 15 to 20 minute sermon; this goes on all day. It must have been a loud, amazing celebration. At the end they don’t just have coffee hour. The people are told, 

Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.

The joy of the Lord is your strength. Creation sings with joy God’s goodness; God’s people take up the song, locating their strength in the joy of God’s presence.

Sometimes we forget about joy. Most of my career, progressive churches and their leaders have been shaking their heads over the rise of big, evangelical churches. Recently I agreed to be a reference for a friend so I’ve been getting calls from a number of churches that tell the same story. They used to have full Sunday Schools; they used to have lots of families. Now they don’t. But there’s a big, growing church on the edge of town that does Why is this? I think one reason is that so many of us in progressive churches have forgotten the joy of the Lord. I’ve been to worship from that pattern and it’s fun. People have a good time; they may not get a lot of sound theology, but they experience the joy of the Lord and that feels strong. Where does the joy come from? It comes from connection. I knew Jacquelyn had attended some more conservative churches earlier in her life and I asked her about it, about the appeal. She said, “They may not make you think, but they sure take care of you.”

Maybe you found connection at church camp. You start out lonely and missing home, you make a few friends and at campfire they sing songs you don’t know but you kind of murmur along. Another night you start to get some of it and you start to sing and by the end of the week you’re hugging people you didn’t know when you started. Nehemiah is preaching a noisy, joyful celebration. What people are hearing connects them to each other and to God The next thing you know, they are celebrating, drinking wine and eating food that isn’t on any list of healthy diets and taking a a long time to praise the Lord.
At the other end of the readings, Jesus is preaching and reading scripture too. He’s gone on a trip to Judah, he got baptized as we read a couple weeks ago. We skipped the part after that, where he goes out in the wilderness and encounters temptation. We’ll come back to that in a few weeks but for now, he’s just back in the area, preaching in area synagogues. Their worship wasn’t so different than ours. There were familiar hymns and a pattern of readings. Today he’s back home. He’s gotten some notice and the leaders asked him to speak. So he stands up and he reads this from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” There it is again: the joy of the Lord. He’s there to announce it, his ministry begins with it, good news. There’s an old song we used to sing at camp, “Good news, chariot’s a’coming, good news, chariot’s a’coming, good news, chariot’s a’coming and I don’t want it to leave me behind.” In other words, I want to be part of the kingdom, I want a piece of heaven in my home.

So where does the joy come from? This week I needed new tires for my car; I looked up where to buy tires and found lots of places. We know where to go for groceries, for a mop, for all kinds of things. Where does this joy creation is singing come from? Where does the joy that is our strength come from? How can we bring a piece of heaven home with us?

The key is what Paul tells the Corinthians. We talked a bit about this last week but in case you don’t remember, he’s talking to a congregation that’s dividing. Some are gentiles, some are Jews; some are rich, some poor, some men, some women, some think they are more spiritual, some less so. He’s already told them all Christians share an essential union when they believe Jesus is Lord. Now he goes on to say that we are meant to be joined together like the parts of a body.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

We’re used to playing the game of categories: age, income, gender and so many others. Paul wants us to look at each other and see all of us as part of the whole, one body with one Lord, joined together so carefully that we can’t separate.

That same spirit runs through the Jesus’ announcement of his ministry.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

We’re not alone; we are joined by God inextricably to all the others. Those who are sent away, the captives? The good news is for them too. Those who are blind, and certainly as we will see he means spiritually blind as well as physically? They’re meant to recover their sight. Those who are oppressed? They are meant to be freed to express fully the gifts God has given them, gifts given because they are needed.

Where does the joy come from? It comes from this joining together, this identification with one another. It comes from knowing that everyone around us is a child of God and that we ourselves are children of the same God. This is the great vision of Jesus Christ, this is the his message: at the table of the Lord, there’s a place for every single one because every single one is part of the whole body of Christ, every single one is a child of God, meant to sing out the joy of expressing God’s gifts, praising the one God.
Our problem isn’t that we are too small; our problem is that our churches have thought small. Something floated across Facebook this week that made me laugh and pointed up this problem. 
It said,

if someone from the 1950’s suddenly appears today, what would be the most difficult thing to explain about life today? It’s that I possess a device, in my pocket, that is capable of accessing the entire of information known to humanity. I use it to post pictures of pets get in arguments with strangers.

We are meant to be members of the greatest choir of all, the choir of creation. We didn’t come here to make money or make lives, we were created, we came here, to praise the Lord. To do that we have to remember that we are connected to each other, we are meant to sing together.

How do we do this? What’s the plan? Talk. “Day to day pours forth speech”. Look around when you get up today: see your friends as strangers you need to know better; see the people you don’t know as friends waiting to happen. Greet a visitor; it took a lot for them to get up and come here today. Don’t let the chance to greet someone get away, it may never come back. Take it with you; look for someone this week to give good news. Ministry is the old name for this but when we hear the word, too often we think of it as the job for a church pastor. Ministry is what we do when we connect to each other celebrating God. Ministry is what we do when we care for each other. Ministry is what we do when we see our connection and act on it.

This week, I was at the tire place, I’d gone back because there was a problem with one of the new tires. I had to wait an hour and a half while they fixed it. When I went to check out, the guy behind the counter clearly thought I’d be mad and was braced for my explosion as he apologized. The truth is, I was pretty annoyed when I went in. But I’d spent the time writing this sermon, so I felt pretty good about it by then and I said, “You know what? It’s ok; I wrote a whole sermon about finding joy by connecting to your neighbor while you worked on the tire. You can hear it Sunday, 10:30, on Quail Street at First Congregational if you’re curious. Anyway, thanks for taking care of the car and making sure we’ll be safe. He just smiled. I’d like to think I gave him a little good news; I’d like to think he got a bit of the joy of the Lord. Who can you give some to this week?


The Importance of ReGifting

The Importance of ReGifting
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/C• January 17, 2016

“Tradition!” — that’s how the wonderful musical, Fiddler on the Roof, begins, a story of life in a shtetl, a close knit Russian Jewish village, challenged as the larger world with all its diversity seeps in and seeks change. I couldn’t help thinking of that song this week as I read Paul’s words to the Corinthian Christians. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a description of how to live together as a church. Now, for the last two Sundays, we’ve been hearing about how the light of God’s opening heaven has come into the world. Today and for the next two Sundays, I’d like to think with you about Paul’s description of how to take that light and make it shine in a way that lights up the world. Jesus said, “No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lamp stand so that those who enter may see the light.” [Luke 11:33] How do we take the light of God’s love in Jesus and light up the world?
Paul is trying to keep the flickering light of the Corinthian Church shining. It’s about 20 years after Jesus and the church is about ten years old. It’s old enough that the initial exuberance of just being a church is gone and they’re starting to argue among themselves. Who are these people? Some are life long Jews who got kicked out of Italy; they grew up with Passover and candles and hymns and stories about Abraham. Now they’re putting these things in a new context, understanding them in new ways. Some of them are pagans, people who grew up worshipping different gods. We don’t really have anything like that in our culture. In ancient Corinth, you went to a different god depending on what you needed: one for prosperity, one for wisdom, one for healing and so on. They didn’t grow up with the Jewish stories, but they’re learning them. They do know what feels spiritual, though, that’s a current that runs through all religions. And of course there are all the usual human differences: some are older, some younger, some married, some single, some are richer or poorer.
All those things are making them separate out in the church. Paul’s whole letter is about finding unity in the light of God’s love. So far he’s talked about several topics and now he’s turning to one of the most important: gifts.  We’ve just come through a season of gift giving, so when I say that word, you might think immediately of something in a box wrapped with pretty paper and maybe a bow. Put that gift back; the gifts we’re talking about here are something inside, something we all have already. Let me start with someone you’ve never heard of: Bill Benish. Bill was a classmate of mine in high school. We were part of the geeky bunch; for me it was word, for Bill it was math. In Algebra, he would get up at the blackboard and something just took over. He had a gift; he saw how the numbers and the variables and all of it went together, I guess. I didn’t particularly, but I could see him and it was like seeing a beautiful dance. He got me through Algebra; I helped get him through English. I lost track of him over the years. But I still remember that sense of the gift.
Do you have a gift? Is there something that gives you an amazing joy to do and always has? There are a wide variety of places online that will let you answer a bunch of questions and then suggest what your gift is. Maybe sometime, somewhere, someone did what used to be called vocational testing and said here you go, this is what you should be. Often someone simply recognizes our gift. When I was in ninth grade, our English teacher gave us an assignment to take a simple story and re-write it in some way. I wrote it as a play. I spent hours at my mother’s typewriter and after I turned it in, she called me up to her desk. Now that was a scary thing; it usually didn’t mean something good. She had my paper and she looked at me and said, “I’ve been trying to figure out who you are here and now I see: you’re a writer.” I don’t know that at the time what she said fully registered; I was just grateful I wasn’t in trouble. But her comment did make a difference and the truth is, I’ve earned my living my whole adult life writing and speaking.
Now the Corinthian church is like any church, like this church. There are people who do things, people who say things, some lead worship, some are better singers, some are good cooks, some are seen as spiritual leaders. One thing they have that we don’t is people who speak in tongues. What are tongues? In all religions, there have been people who experienced a kind of ecstasy that makes them move or speak in ways that are passionate and often hard to understand. It’s not unique to Christian churches; there are Hindu ecstatics, Muslim ecstatics, Jewish, Buddhist, all kinds. In Corinth, there are some people who have this gift and they are acting as if it means they are more spiritual, more in contact with Christ, better in some Godly way than others. And that, of course, is leading to division.
So Paul is speaking to this issue. He starts with a breath taking statement of inclusion: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Wow: think of the meaning of this—doesn’t matter if you’re straight, gay, male, female, rich, poor, Jewish, Gentile, whatever, if you are saying “Jesus is Lord” we have to acknowledge you, include you, as part of the family of Christians. That’s likely to be uncomfortable because there are people who affirm this that I don’t agree with about other things.
Once Paul announces this threshold, this equality, he goes on to talk about the places where we aren’t equal: the matter of gifts. He acknowledges there are a variety of gifts, of activities, of ways of being.

To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit,to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues.

Then announces a fundamental equality in them: all are given by God and all are given for one reason: the common good.
Most of us have some sense of having gifts, but do you know the purpose of your gift? 
Eric Liddell was a Scottish runner in the early 20th century but also a committed Christian leader. Born at a mission station in China, he returned to Scotland to study and run. His emphasis on running didn’t always sit well with the strict Scottish Presbyterians. The move Chariots of Fire is in part his biography and he says, defending his desire to compete as a runner,

I believe that God made me for a purpose, for China. But he also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure. To give it up would be to hold him in contempt. You were right, it’s not just fun. To win is to honor him…

To use our gift is to honor the giver. Nowhere is there more joy, more energy, than in fully realizing God’s gifts for then we indeed become what God hoped. Paul lists off various gifts and affirms this, sees them each as something come from God, with a purpose. 
For every gift contains a purpose. The first part is recognizing that it is a gift. There is something in us, a kind of pride, that often whispers we are our own, that what we are is solely because of our own accomplishment. When we recognize who we are is not simply ours but a result of the gift of God, the door opens to gratitude. When have you thanked God for your gifts? When have you simply quietly said to God in prayer, thank you for the exuberance of this spirit? When we know ourselves as the result of God’s gifts, we come to know ourselves as well as the vehicles of God’s gift. The second part of that process unfolds when we take up the purpose of the gift. Paul says: for the common good. Our gifts are not meant simply for us, they are part of God’s provision, God’s plan. One of the fundamental beliefs of Congregationalists is that each church is completely empowered by Christ to do the work Christ intends. The means of that empowerment, that energy, are the gifts of its members. So when we use our gifts knowing them as gifts, in gratitude, for God’s purpose, we build up the energy and mission of Christ. Giving our gifts gives God pleasure and fulfills God’s plan.
This is what I call regifting. Have you done this? Someone gives you something for Christmas and it doesn’t fit, it doesn’t work for you, you don’t need it or want it. But you know someone who might like it. So you wrap it up, you give the gift to them. I used to go to a party after Christmas every year where people brought something to regift. What Paul seems to be saying is that your gift is meant to be regifted, that is shared, with the larger world, and in particular the whole church. That’s why you were given the gift; that’s it’s purpose and when gifts are regifted, they expand, they grow.
Every person here, each one of us, has a gift to give. Every visitor, everyone who walks in our doors is full of gifts waiting to be discovered, used, expressed. Today we’ve read several pieces of scripture. I’ve chosen to speak principally about the reading from First Corinthians. But I want to remind you finally of the Gospel reading. In that reading, according to John, Jesus performs the first sign that he is indeed the Christ. The sign is turning water into wine at a wedding. I want to close with this thought for you to carry home. There must have been many, many guests at the wedding at Cana. Yet of all of them, all the invited guests, perhaps dignitaries, the bride’s parents, the grooms, the bridal couple themselves—all of them!—only the servants see the miracle, know the miracle, experience the power and presence of Christ. When we ourselves give our gifts, knowing Jesus as Lord, then we too are servants and then indeed, we shall, we do, experience the power and presence of Christ and the exuberant joy of regifting what the Spirit has given us.
© James Eaton 2016

All Washed Up

All Washed Up
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Baptism of the Lord Sunday/C • January 10, 2016

“How have I ever deserved such love?”

 A woman asks this question near the end of The Danish Girl and I wonder if it is Jesus’ question at the end of his baptism.
I imagine it as a hot day; this is desert country after all. The stories about John tell us there were crowds but what’s a crowd? Twenty people? A couple hundred? Thousands? We don’t know. John is a striking figure, a man evidently filled with the Spirit of God, who speaks a fierce message, calling people to repentance. He’s on the shore of the Jordan River. This is the river that had to be crossed centuries before by God’s people to enter the promised land. This is the water that had to be waded, this is the stream that stood between them and the fulfillment in history of God’s love and covenant. Is there a line to be baptized? Did Jesus stand behind others as one after another they came to John, talked to John, heard him pray and then felt him forcefully plunge them into the water, let the water cover them like someone drowning, and then lift them up, wet, wondering what comes next, clean, ready for the next chapter. Now Jesus comes; now he looks at John, now their eyes make a private space only they understand. Now John is taking Jesus in his arms, as he has with all the others, now Jesus is plunged into the water, there is perhaps that instant of fear so instinctive when we are underwater, now he is lifted up and heaven opens, Jesus hears what we all want to hear, “You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” This is baptism.
Baptism is rare here and in church life, we’ve become fussy about the rituals that surround We have considerable evidence for baptism, both of children and adults, in the early church. The Didache, a collection of sayings and teachings probably written about the same time as the New Testament says this about baptism.
Concerning baptism, you should baptize this way:

After first explaining all things, baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, in flowing water. But if you have no running water, baptize in other water; and if you cannot do so in cold water, then in warm. If you have very little, pour water three times on the head in the name of Father and Son and Holy Spirit. Before the baptism, both the baptizer and the candidate for baptism, plus any others who can, should fast. The candidate should fast for one or two days beforehand.

This is great news if you’re one of those people who think details aren’t important; bad news if you’re a ritual maker. What says is that the form of applying the water, the part that most interests us, doesn’t really matter. Use running water—if you’ve got it. Use a few drops if that’s all you’ve got. 
The formula, the amount of water, the exact things we do—really don’t matter. And by the way: the last line, about fasting? That clear direction is almost universally ignored. But it’s the details that most interest us. As one writer says,

Baptism has become its customs, once meant to celebrate its meaning, but now the only meaning of the celebration: a time for dressing the baby in something outlandish, an occasion of presents and promises and family.   And none of this has anything to do with profound and dangerous journeys of the spirit.   The danger of water and demons,  the spirit journey, the profundity, have gotten lost in ritual huzzahs, so much so that most Christians, in their own profound journeys, do not think of them as part of their baptism. 

I know from my own experience how true this is. Once, years ago, in the midst of pronouncing the formula, “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit”, my voice caught and the last phrase wasn’t heard. The next day I got a phone call from the church moderator; a person had called him claiming the baptism was invalid and the child’s immortal soul was in danger because I had supposedly left out the full phrase. I didn’t know how to treat seriously the idea that someone’s salvation could be determined by whether I coughed in the midst of claiming it.
But if the details don’t matter, what does? The clues are in the scripture we read this morning and they have nothing to do with measuring out water. Isaiah says,

But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.

This word is addressed to people who feel themselves lost. Every day the news shows us pictures of refugees from Syria and other places. Israel had become refugees and this is God saying, “You’re not forgotten: you’re still mine.” There’s a reason every baptism begins with a question: “What name is given this child?” We name a person at baptism in a way that honors them uniquely but also connects them with a family, a heritage. Whose are you? You are God’s own child, regardless of your age. Baptism is a reminder we’re not on our own; we belong and we belong to someone, to God. In the visible church, here, we are meant to be the emblem of that belonging. Baptism is first, then belonging.
But it’s also a response to fear. Swimming is taught to children these days and we forget that for most of history and still today in many places, people fear water. In fact, that primal fear is deep within us. Water is dangerous. Once my son was teasing me about not playing sports; he talked about having the courage to go out on the soccer field, knowing he might get bruised. I pointed out that I sailed and commented, “Every year, some sailors die when they drown.” It was a poor joke yet it had a truth: water is dangerous. Baptism began as a way of making sacred what we feared. In John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp, a family retreats to a home on the ocean shore in New Hampshire. There’s a beach and the children are warned about an undertow that can suck them down. Misunderstanding, the way children do, they call it “the undertoad”. I know about the undertoad. Once, long ago, I was on a beach in New Jersey, swimming while my parents watched a few yards away. The undertow—the undertoad!—caught me, swirled me around and I’ve never forgotten the fear of that moment. “When you pass the waters,” God says, “I will be with you”. When the undertow grabs you, you will still be God’s.
But it’s not all water; baptism is more than being washed up and set down fresh and fancy. Acts tells the story of an early church mission. Someone has gone up to Samaria and baptized some folks there. They didn’t ask the Deacons, they didn’t follow the ritual, they just went ahead and did it. But somehow, the baptism wasn’t effective and the disciples know this because there has been no evidence of the Holy Spirit among these folks. We don’t know what this means; we only have this little testimony. Yet clearly the early church knew that baptism wasn’t simply a human act of applying water; it had a deeper, transforming significance. Today, baptism has become about the water; God meant it to be about the Spirit, the breath, the wind that blows through life. In the beginning, Genesis says, the Spirit of God blew on the face of the waters and it’s from this ordering that creation follows. Baptism is meant to be a sign of a deeper spiritual blowing in us that causes us to live out the gentle, loving, forgiving way of Jesus. No amount of water can do that; it takes the Holy Spirit. Our task as baptized Christians is to nurture the presence and experience of that Spirit in those who come here, those God sends.
The final clue I want to call attention to this morning is simple and direct. At the end of the account of Jesus’ baptism, it says, “heaven opened”. We live in a world caught up in the details of earthly life: what to wear, eat, how to get through the day. What we miss if we forget our baptism is that heaven is open; God is calling. The question with which I began, “How have I deserved such love?” has a simple answer: you don’t, you can’t. We don’t deserve love: it is pure gift, the gift of the God to whom we belong, whose children we are. If we believe we are indeed, God’s people, if God has given us the Spirit to bind us and energize us in living out love, if we know heaven is open to us, then indeed, we are loved in a way beyond deserving. You are my beloved, God says to Jesus: you are my beloved, God says to you.
The movie I mentioned earlier, The Danish Girl, is a fictionalized account of a real person, a man named Einar Wegener, married to Gerda, who discovered within himself a female identity he named Lili. It was a time and place with little understanding about such things and as Lili emerged and his life became living as Lili, as Einar receded and this woman became fully alive, he faced the conflict of being a woman living in a man’s body. At first treating this as a problem to be solved, Lili and Gerda struggled to find a way forward. Ultimately, Lili became the first person known to have undergone a series of operations to remake the body to match the identity as a woman. What’s clear from the real history, not as clear in the movie, is that there were years during which Lili faced the conflict of hiding her real self, living in shame, keeping the secret. Finally, near the end of the movement, Lili sees how loved she is, asks the question with which I began, “How have I deserved such love?”, and answers it in the only way it can be answered. 

“Last night I had the most beautiful dream…I dreamed I was a baby in my mother’s arms…and she looked down at me…and called me Lili.”

The dream is being called by your true name: known in your true self. And loved. Like the mother in the dream, like our father in heaven, God is calling out to us, loving us, loving us beyond anything we can or ever will deserve. In the moment we see this, in the moment we know this, heaven does indeed open. And that is baptism. 

Wonder Wonders – Epiphany Sunday – Jan 3, 2016

You can hear this sermon preached by clicking here

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

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