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?