Where’s Jesus?


by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Easter Sunday/C • March 27, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

An Audio Version of the sermon may be heard here

Easter began with a hunt in my childhood home. Christmas presents were eagerly displayed under a tree but Easter baskets were hidden, secreted and had to be found. Sometimes the search went on so long that my mom would start giving huge hints so we’d find them and get ready for church. Once, I remember searching fruitlessly for my basket, behind the couch, under the piano, everywhere I could think to look. Finally my mother said, have you looked up? When I did, there it was, hanging in plain view from the curtain rod. Have you looked? It’s a good question for Easter because the heart of Easter is learning to answer the question, where’s Jesus?

Where’s Jesus?: On the Cross?

Where’s Jesus? Not on the cross. That doesn’t astonish us as much as it should. We are used to executions that take place in sterile, hidden places, with a sort of macabre medical motif. The Romans—and it’s the Romans who executed Jesus, make no mistake, the Jewish authorities had no authority to crucify anyone—took a different tack. They made execution public, using its terror to enforce discipline. Crucifixion doesn’t kill from the direct injury of the nails, it kills over a long time as the unsupported diaphragm gives out and the victim drowns even in the sea of air, gasping, dying, crying out. Exposure adds to the process and the death usually took days. The crucified were left hanging there, an lesson in the violence waiting to destroy anyone who opposed the power of Rome. “Where’s Jesus?” Anyone who knew he had been crucified would have assumed he was on a cross, dying, crying, gasping out his last breath.

But the gospel accounts unite in telling us that Jesus died quickly. While his friends hid, he pronounced a final prayer and, according to the gospel, “breathed his last”. It’s near the sabbath, which begins at sunset on Friday. His friends go to the Roman governor and ask for the body; after expressing his surprise at how quickly he died, Pilate lets them take the body down. They quickly stash it in one of the cave tombs around Jerusalem. These tombs were excavated as mausoleums. Typically, a corpse would be wrapped in linens, anointed with oils, and placed on a platform. Later, they would be put into a niche in the wall. Families would gather at the tomb at times to remember their departed, as we might walk in a cemetery. Apparently Joseph of Arimathea owned such a tomb and when Jesus is taken down, he’s placed there hurriedly, no time to finish preparing the body since the sabbath is beginning.

Where’s Jesus? In a tomb sealed by a stone, then. The earliest Christian tradition about Easter includes this detail. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Christians about 20 years after the events and quoted a tradition that included Jesus being buried. All the accounts of Easter include the tomb. Later tradition will embellish the story, adding guards and a gardener. But the earliest answer to the question of where’s Jesus is harsh and simple: buried, in a tomb, shut up in the darkness, like a doll that used to mean something but is now stored away in a box in the attic.

Where’s Jesus?: In the Tomb?

Where’s Jesus? The women making their way through the almost dawn darkness of the first Easter are sure they know. When the sabbath ended the night before, it was too dangerous to go out in the dark. Now as first light breaks, they are on their way. Imagine them getting up before sunup, dressing in sadness, hardly having needed to plan because they know what’s needed. There’s a song by the Cowboy Junkies with the line, “It’s the daughter who’s left to clean up the mess.” Where are Peter and John and James and all the other disciples? We don’t know; later we’ll hear about them hiding behind locked doors. It’s the women who followed Jesus, it’s Mary of Magdala, reviled by some, lifted by Jesus, who rises above her grief, gathers the spices to anoint the body and moves through the dawn darkness, perhaps with others at her side. It must have been a quiet walk; dawn does that. What do they talk about? Not about where’s Jesus; they know the answer. Their only question is how to get to him, how to roll back the heavy stone that imprisons him.

So they walk out of the city, sure they know what’s coming, certain of where Jesus is. Yet the story tells us that when they came to the tomb, the stone was rolled back already. Like Christians in every age, they were worried about the wrong problem. Now they come near; now they see the tomb, now they go in. They discover the tomb is empty. Where’s Jesus?

The women are perplexed; it’s such a odd, simple word isn’t it? Suppose you went to a funeral home to say goodbye to a good friend, signed the book, stood in the greeting line, walked finally to the casket, it’s ornate top raised, looked in and saw—nothing. Would you be startled? Would you gasp? Would you wonder what happened? The women are at a tomb, knowing Jesus is there—but he isn’t. I wonder what they said, I wonder at the looks between them as they stood in the musky, damp smelling tomb, holding a basket of spices that are now useless, ready to do a job that will never be done. Where’s Jesus? Not here: not where they expected, knew he would be.

“Why do you seek the living among the dead?”

Where’s Jesus? According to Luke, the women encounter two men in dazzling clothes; Matthew says they met an angel, while Mark simply pictures a young man sitting where Jesus’ body should have been. Luke says they were terrified; Mark that they were amazed. Isn’t it always so when we encounter angels? The first thing angels usually say is, “Don’t be afraid.” It’s hard when you think you’re walking along, knowing where you’re going, and you walk into something God is doing. They are amazed, terrified, perplexed. Have you ever had something happen that changed you forever? They are changed: they are in a tomb, ready to deal with the dead, and in the next moment they are amazed by the living. “Why do you seek the living among the dead?”, the visitor asks and it’s a good question, a question we might ask today. What are you seeking? Did you come to see the resurrection explained, justified, proved? That’s asking for the dead among the living. The gospels have no proofs, no explanations. All they have is this absolute account: Jesus was dead and buried—and came back to his friends, met his friends, inspired his friends. They were living and suddenly there he was, living with them.

We have some experience of this. In The Grapes of Wrath, we hear the story of Tom Joad, a man who takes up the cause of poor people as his own. When he leaves his family, he says,

…maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one…’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there…I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’—I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build—why, I’ll be there.…. [John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath]

Where’s Jesus Today?

Where’s Jesus? Ever since Easter, Christians have had to answer and their answers take them to different places. I used to go to a church where we sang a lot about blood and the cross. They were most comfortable talking about Jesus on a cross; they wanted him to stay there, I think, and leave running the world to politicians whose programs take no account of the generosity and openness Jesus preached. Jesus on the cross is safe: he’s busy suffering for us so we don’t have to do anything about suffering ourselves.

Where’s Jesus? I’ve spent most of my life with Christians who are happy to leave him in the tomb. “A great teacher”, they say, as if we can extract from him a set of principles alone, separate from Jesus himself, a bunch of moral maxims that can keep us from having to wonder about a power that can actually raise someone from the dead. Moral maxims can live comfortably in a rational world; resurrection can’t. Resurrection says all our plans, all our rationality, don’t begin to encompass God’s power. We think it all stops with a tomb but can’t answer what happens when the stone is rolled away.

Where’s Jesus? Not on the cross: so we don’t have to fear the cross, live on the cross, forever. Where’s Jesus?

Not in the tomb: so we don’t have to fear the tomb, live in the tomb, live with the tomb as our destination.

Where’s Jesus? He’s where he always was: where people hurt, healing them, where people despair, giving hope, where people pray, hearing them. This is why we spent six weeks slowly working through his prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, learning to pray with him. For when we truly pray with him, he is present with us, his healing, his hope, his call become ours and we become his. This is an important distinction. A lot of Christian imagery, a lot of Christian songs speak of “My Jesus”. The Christian story is not how Jesus becomes mine but how I become his.

Finding Jesus

Mary and the others came back to the disciples with their tale of an empty tomb. And it would be a great happy ending if the disciples had fallen down, praising God, believing. But that’s not what happened. As Luke says, “they thought it was an idle tale.” Only in the following days and weeks did they find an answer to the question, “Where’s Jesus?” So if you are wondering, if you can’t believe the women today, this morning, don’t worry, don’t turn away. Neither did Peter, neither did John; neither did Matthew or James or the others. They had to go on farther to find Jesus. Come back next week and the weeks to come because we are going to be thinking about how they answered the question and how we can find our own answer. More importantly, we’re going to think about how they found Jesus and how we can.

Where’s Jesus? One thing is clear: if you want to find Jesus, if you want to go where Jesus is, the path is simple. Go where he’s going: find someone hurting, help heal them, Go where he is: somewhere private and quiet, praying the Lord’s prayer. Go where he is: where hope is sown, believing in God for the growth, for the harvest. Where’s Jesus? Go look: you’ll find him. He’s where the gospel so often tell us: on the way. Go look; go find, go follow.


Maundy Thursday Communion Meditation

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Maundy Thursday • March 24, 2016

“How is this night different than all other nights?” That’s the question that begins the celebration of Passover at Jewish seders. It’s asked by the youngest male child present and it’s a good question for us to ask. When we speak of Jesus at the Last Supper, we are telling the story of a seder service, a Passover celebration, that took on a new significance.

“How is this night different than all other nights?” The questions, following the seder tradition might be: at all other services of worship, we gather upstairs, in the worship area; tonight we are down here in the hall; at all other services of worship, we light the room and decorate with flowers; tonight we might in dimness, lit only by candles; at all other services of worship, we sit in pews; tonight we gather around a table.

Passover is among the oldest of all worship traditions. It remembers a moment when an enslaved group of God’s people, hopeless before the power and violence of the Egyptian Pharaoh, decided to hope in the Lord and trust God with their lives. Their leaders had demanded they be let go; the Egyptians refused, as the powerful always refuse to give up domination. At Passover, the violence of the powerful comes home when their first born children die; the children of the slaves are saved, passed over.Only then do the powerful bend their knee to the all powerful, almighty God and let God’s people go.

This dark, violent moment is what Jesus and his friends remember at the Last Supper. The parallels must have been obvious. Like Moses, Jesus has demanded the powerful of his time let go of the souls of God’s people. Like the Hebrew slaves, a great empire ruled with violence and refused. Like Passover, Jesus asks his followers to put their hope in the power of God to make a way in the wilderness of the future. Here are all the symbols of Passover, of Exodus: bread for the journey, a cup whose sharing symbolizes a covenant commitment to the God who makes covenants.

Now we gather in these shadows, as Jesus and his friends did. Like them we are reminded: our fathers and mothers in the faith were slaves in Egypt, set free by the power of God. Our fathers and mothers in the faith were hunted criminals in the Roman Empire, inspired by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Our fathers and mothers in the faith in every generation lifted their eyes from the violence and fears that surrounded them and believed in the power of God to give new life even in the empire of death.

How is this night different than all other nights? Tonight we are in this plain place, reminded all God’s people really need to worship are repentant, open hearts, not the decoration of sanctuaries. Tonight we gather in shadows because there is real darkness in our world and sometimes the light is dim and flickers.

Yet God’s light is never wholly gone, never vanquished, never extinguished. Tonight we gather around a table, remembering what Jesus said: where two or three gather in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

So gathered in his name, certain of his presence, tonight we come in the shadows seeking light. May the light that shines in the darkness shine in us. May we remember what the gospel says, even in our darkest moment: the darkness has not, cannot, overcome it.


Thine Is the Glory – Learning the Lord’s Prayer 6


A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Palm Sunday • March 20, 2016

Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever and ever, amen.

We are drawing near the end of the Lord’s Prayer and the beginning of Holy Week, a time we remember the story of the final days of Jesus’ earthly presence, the days when he was first acclaimed, then reviled, then arrested, tortured, and crucified, executed as a criminal. Sometimes church tradition divides, like the Hudson flowing around an island. One stream of worship tradition celebrates today as Passion Sunday, reading and reflecting on this whole store of Jesus’ final days in Jerusalem. Another, and the one we follow today, focuses on his entry to Jerusalem, riding on a donkey.

Going Up to Jerusalem

So let us imagine that scene for a moment. The dusty trails have converged into a winding road, the road is filled with pilgrims going up to Jerusalem. The city shines before them quite literally: Herod Antipas rebuilt the temple with a golden dome that so brightly reflected the sun, it was said to be hard to look directly at it. The city is surrounded by imposing walls with towers at the gates and streams of people crowd together on their way to the city. Among them, Jesus’ followers are simply one group among many.

While the gospel accounts united in telling us Jesus comes in a kind of procession, there are various accounts. Matthew and Mark speak of branches being cut and laid down along with garments, which is the the reason we decorate with palms; Luke doesn’t mention these at all. I was brought up with a picture of Jesus parading, like the soldiers and bands on Memorial Day, with crowds standing aside and perhaps that’s how you imagine this scene. More likely, his followers are simply part of a larger crowd, noisy, happy, like spring breakers on the way to a holiday.

Jesus is not the only leader on his way to Jerusalem. Potius Pilate is also making a processional at the same time. Perhaps he comes in a sedan chair, carried by slaves; perhaps he rides a war horse, we’re not sure. Certainly he is followed by ranks and ranks of Roman legionnaires, their swords sheathed for now but a visible reminder that Rome’s rule, like all empires, is founded on violence.

Surely in the crowd there are other rabbis, like Jesus, and their followers as well and of course, more than leaders, military or religious there are simple people, people like you and I, going to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, going to a festival, going to a party. Have you been to Lark Street festival, have you been to Fourth of July in a busy place, perhaps the streets of Lake George on a prime summer afternoon? Then you know what this crowd is like, it’s like all crowds. Yet within the crowd, something unique is about to happen. The glory of the Lord is about to shine and no one has any idea.

The Story of the Donkey

Did you listen to the part about the donkey? It’s an odd little parenthesis in the story. We’re marching to the Jerusalem, you know, I know, we’re on the way and it’s frustrating to stop for this little detail. “Go get me a donkey,” Jesus tells his disciples, explaining where to go, and just to say this one simple phrase if asked: “The Lord has need of it.” So they go, they get asked, they say what they were told and they come back with the donkey.

That must have been quite a little trip: have you ever tried to lead an unbroken donkey? I wonder how many times they got kicked, cursed, had to stop and quiet the animal. Yet they do as they’re told: the Lord has need of it. Now Luke is anxious to connect this story to a prophecy from Zechariah that says,

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

Yet in the story is an amazing challenge for us as well. Imagine being asked for something with this simple explanation: “The Lord has need of it”. Suppose it is something you value, something you planned to use, hoped to have for some time. Now the request comes: now you have to decide. The Lord has need of it. What would you give?
We don’t think much of donkeys but the donkey is a symbol: throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, riding a donkey is a symbol of royal entrance. One writer, in fact, suggests that if Jesus had indeed come as Luke portrays, he would immediately have been arrested. Surely the people present understand the symbolism: it is the reason he is acclaimed, it is the reason he is cheered, it is the reason for the acclamation. For Jesus comes as a king to announce his kingdom, as he has from his beginning. Just like his beginning, according to Luke, it starts in the stable, with the owner of the donkey, giving it up, handing it over because, “The Lord has need of it.”

Now they bring the donkey to Jesus; someone no doubt is worried. What will happen when he mounts it? Will he get thrown? Somehow the one who stilled the seas quiets the donkey and suddenly, like a king, he’s riding at their head. Suddenly for a moment they can see: the kingdom is literally coming in the person of the king. The glory of the Lord is in that moment, when someone simply gives what they have because the Lord has need of it.

Thine Is the Glory

We’ve been following the Lord’s prayer line by line for weeks now, all through Lent. Today we reach the last line: “Thine is the kingdom, and the power and the glory forever and ever.” The first question we might ask about this line of the prayer is why we say it at all. If you look, you’ll quickly find that neither Matthew nor Luke who give us versions of the Lord’s Prayer have this line. Our Bibles are translations of translations, documents handed down over generations, and the gospels come in two different flavors. One flavor had the line but the one from which the King James Bible and all subsequent English Bibles did not. Yet, we know from other documents that the early church added this line to the prayer early in its life. “Thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.”

What does it mean to speak of the glory of the Lord? What does it mean to take seriously God’s power and acknowledge God’s reign? It begins from the first thing God told us to do in the garden, at our creation: to appreciate. The poet Mary Oliver says somewhere”Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Palm 29 says,

The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; The LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. 9The voice of the LORD makes the deer to calve And strips the forests bare; And in His temple everything says, “Glory!” 10The LORD sat as King at the flood; Yes, the LORD sits as King forever.…[Psalm 29:8-10]

It is a poor life that has no moment which is not touched by some appreciation for larger forces, something bigger, something we know is spiritual even if we don’t have the words to say what we have felt. The truth is, there are no words: there is only the experience, the act itself, the moment in which the glory of the Lord shines in your life. Theologians write whole books and preachers craft sermons but the true glory of God is glimpsed in the moment when God chooses, God acts, God comes to play.

God’s Glory Shines

This was such a moment and it’s the reason the story is told and retold and acted out and remembered all these years later. And the donkey? He’s not a parenthesis, he’s not an incidental detail. For the glory of the Lord comes enabled by some nameless person who owned a donkey and when told, “The Lord has need of it”, gladly gave.

We are together here the Body of Christ: we are the concrete expression of his life in this community, this place, this world. Our challenge isn’t to fill up these pews, it isn’t to make our budget balance, it isn’t to make the wheels go round in our organization. Our challenge is to help people see the glory of the Lord, feel the power of God’s love, see what it looks like when God reigns.

So when we pray, surely it’s right for us to ask this, say this, hope this: “Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.” How will we open the door to this prayer? Just like this story. For each of has talents, each of us has gifts. When we hear, as we each shall, “The Lord has need of it,” and we share those talents and gifts, then indeed, the prayer is fulfilled. Then indeed the reign of God is acclaimed. The need the power of God is obvious. Then indeed, the glory of the Lord shines forth. Then indeed, as the hymn says, “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Lord.”


Just a Little – Learning the Lord’s Prayer #5

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Lent • March 13, 2016
Copyright 2016 James Eaton, All Rights Reserved

This year we’ve been slowly walking through the Lord’s prayer and today we read: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

Now here’s a little professional secret about clergy: most of us work on our sermons all week but end up writing at least some of them on Saturday night. That’s right, all over in homes, church offices, coffee houses, wherever ministers work, sermons are feverishly composed on Saturday night every week. My goal is to be done on Thursday, but I didn’t make it this week so Saturday night I went to a coffee house to write and when a guitar player set up and it became clear the place was about to get noisy, I drove here, got out of my car in the dark parking lot and heard a man say, “Hey, you wanna go to a party?”

Now it’s a little daunting to be hailed in the dark by a stranger. But when he walked up, he introduced himself as Mark, the guy from across the street who does our snow plowing. I said I’d love to go but I had to work. We chatted and he renewed the invitation; I said I had to write a sermon. He laughed and said oh come on. I declined again, he walked off, I came up the stairs and I couldn’t help but think: wow, I’m going to write a sermon on temptation and there was one!

Lead us not into temptation

It’s hard to make sense of this. Kindergarten teachers don’t intentionally get their kids to do bad things. Why would God lead us into temptation? I think the way to illustrate this is to say something my Old Testament professor occasionally said out of the blue: today there will be a test. See? How did that make you feel? I can see just looking out who has test anxiety here. The thing to know about temptation is that what it means is a test. Temptation is a term for testing our life with God.
Now the Bible gives us several stories of temptation but among them the most important are two we read today: Adam and Eve in the Garden; Jesus in the Wilderness. The first thing to see about these stories is they begin the same way. In each story, temptation occurs when God is absent. God finishes Creation, celebrates the sabbath and Adam and Eve are left in the garden with instructions: take care of the place and don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the middle of the garden. God leaves; they are on their own. Jesus is baptized and embraced that he is uniquely God’s child and beloved. Immediately he goes off to the wilderness, a place desolate of others, whose blankness and emptiness is an image of abandonment. The Spirit that lifted him at the Jordan leaves him alone, on his own, without any direction forward.

Temptation in the Garden

Now consider what happens in the garden. The serpent, we’re told, is the most crafty creature and it begins a dialogue with Eve: “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” So what we have here is the first theological discussion. Eve correctly quotes God’s word: “We may eat fruit form the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’” What Eve does here is to expand the command; God did not say, “You must not touch it”, that part Eve has added on. The serpent continues: “You will not surely die” and suggests that eating the fruit will open her eyes and she will become god-like. The heart of this is the meaning of the tree. Hebrew uses the word ‘know’ to mean “intimate experience”. To eat the fruit of this tree is to take on yourself the burden of moral choice, the experience of good and evil. This is what happens: the text tells us that she saw the fruit was good for food and pleasing to the eye and desirable for gaining wisdom, she takes some, eats it and gives some to her husband. When they hear God returning, they hide; suddenly, the people who had lived unashamed have something to be ashamed about and the result is the death of their life in the garden.

The story invites us to reflect on our own lives. When have we felt the temptation to be god-like? When have we felt we were so right in our judgement that we could use our power to take on the burdens of deciding what is right and wrong? When have we put ourselves in the place of God? For that is the real test here: who’s in charge? Near the beginning of this series on the Lord’s Prayer, I pointed out that to pray, “Thy will be done” is to affirm ourselves servants of God, citizens of a realm where God rules. Temptation is the moment when this claim is tested, our faithfulness to ourselves as God’s people is tested.

Temptation in the Wilderness

The other story of temptation, Jesus in the wilderness, lifts the same themes but with a very different outcome. Once again, God withdraws. Once again, an agent comes whispering and creating an occasion for temptation. Luke tells us Jesus was 40 days without food; he really means a complete time. Have you been hungry? Have you come to that moment when all you can think about is your next meal? Can you imagine Jesus, completely empty, hungry, hearing the whisper of his power. He’s just been told he’s the son of God; surely the son of God can turn a stone in to bread. Who will notice? Who will know? “If you are the song of God, tell this stone to become bread,” the tempter whispers. And Jesus replies with a quote from Torah, from Deuteronomy: “Man does not live on bread alone.” In other versions of the story, he quotes the whole verse, continuing, “…but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” Successively, the tempter continues, offering him power, offering celebrity. In each case, Jesus replies with God’s Word. Significantly, Jesus doesn’t seek anything for himself in this encounter. Hungry, he doesn’t see to be fed; weak, he doesn’t seek power, alone, he doesn’t seek to be the center of attention. He simply lives from God’s Word. Finally, we’re told, the tempter withdraws for a more opportune time. That too is significant: temptation, the testing of faith, is never permanently over; there will always comes another moment of temptation.

Temptation in Our Lives

These are two stories of temptation but there are more because there are more people in the Bible and more particularly because there are all of us. I suspect each of us has a story of temptation to tell and not always ones we’ve survived as well as Jesus. Faithful life is often lived in the wilderness, alone, hungry, feeling abandoned. Mother Theresa was a young woman on fire to serve Christ and live faithfully when, at the age of 18, she left her home in Macedonia to go to Ireland and become a nun. She went to India a year later and became a fully professed nun three years later in 1931. Living among people of abject poverty in Calcutta, she taught at a school for over 10 years until she received what she believed was a call to serve the poor. She traded her habit for a simple white sari. She wrote in her diary,

Our Lord wants me to be a free nun covered with the poverty of the cross. Today, I learned a good lesson. The poverty of the poor must be so hard for them. While looking for a home I walked and walked till my arms and legs ached. I thought how much they must ache in body and soul, looking for a home, food and health. Then, the comfort of Loreto [her former congregation] came to tempt me. ‘You have only to say the word and all that will be yours again,’ the Tempter kept on saying … Of free choice, my God, and out of love for you, I desire to remain and do whatever be your Holy will in my regard. I did not let a single tear come

She founded a new order, serving lepers first, then others as well, living among them, becoming an emblem of Christian faith.

But only after her death, when her letters were published did we learn this astonishing fact: having determined to live in the light of Christ, she felt herself alone and in darkness most of her life. Mother Theresa, one of the most Christ like persons of the last century, lived out a life in which she acutely, painfully, felt the absence of God. She wrote to her spiritual advisor in 1961,

Darkness is such that I really do not see—neither with my mind nor with my reason—the place of God in my soul is blank—There is no God in me—when the pain of longing is so great—I just long & long for God. …

She made in her wilderness a garden for others; she stopped hearing the voice of Jesus which had been so vibrant in her when she was young and spoke his love with her own life.

Meeting the Test of Temptation

Now there will be a test, as I said, and perhaps it will come today, perhaps it will come tomorrow or another day. How will we face the test of temptation? What are the tools that help us face it? One is certainly knowing God’s Word. Jesus responds to his temptations out of the deep foundations of the Torah, the teaching God gave into the hands of God’s people, the centuries long experience of God we know in the first five books of the Bible. Yet God’s Word alone is not enough; it takes as well, a profound humility to pass the test of temptation. Both Eve and Jesus quote God’s Word; Eve, however, goes beyond it, judges it, and finally decides her own judgement is more worth more than God’s command. Jesus simply lets the Word guide his actions. He proves himself God’s son not by turning stones into bread but by resisting the invitation to use his power for himself. What are we using ours for?

A few moments ago, we sang, “Jesus had to walk this lonesome valley, he had to walk it by himself.” The lonesome valley is the time of temptation and like Jesus, we also must walk it by ourselves. We walk it pacing hospital corridors, waiting for someone to come out of surgery; we walk it when the very things we felt were secure and powerful enough to keep us safe are ripped away. In those moments, just a little humility, just a little faith, just a little of God’s Word can make all the difference. Jesus doesn’t preach a whole sermon: he simply offers his humility and God’s Word.

Early in my ministry, a powerful, accomplished man who was a leader in my church asked to meet me at my office one night. When I got there, he told me he had been fired that day. He began to cry as he told me about the experience, he said he no longer knew who he was, everything was over. I reached over to touch his shoulder, wanted to console him, and said, “I understand, I feel for you”, or something similar, some cliché, and he looked at me and said, “How could you? you have an office. I don’t even have an office anymore.” He was a faithful, Christian man and he was facing a test of that faith. He did go on to live from that faith; he made a new life and his office became a beat up brief case he carried as he went on to lead Congregational ministries.

I said earlier there would be a test and there will be, whether it comes today or another day. In fact, every day asks us: who are you? We say we love the Lord: as evidenced by what? That’s our test, that’s our temptation. Every day invites us to speak God’s Word to the world. Every day invites us to lives as God’s beloved children. Today, may we avoid the test just for this day yet today, may we live so that when we are tested, we will indeed hear God’s joyful affirmation, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”



The biographical information about Mother Theresa was gleaned from many sources but a good source online where it is collected is https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mother_Teresa#Early_life. The quote from the letter is from http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2007/augustweb-only/135-43.0.html. I asked the man whose story I told many years ago for permission to share this story which he graciously granted.

De Nada: Learning the Lord’s Prayer 4

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Lent • March 6, 2016

The summer I turned 14, I had an operation to remove most of my thyroid. When I woke up, I hurt every time I lifted my chin; it took all summer to heal. I was left with a bright red raised scar of which I was painfully conscious. I made up stories about it: that I’d been in a knife fight, and I wore a lot of turtle neck shirts. The scar faded but I still saw it every morning, first thing, in the mirror. I still explained about it, increasingly as I got olde,r to people who hadn’t noticed it. It’s still there. Do you have scars? Don’t we all? What would it take to heal them?

“Forgive us as we forgive,”Jesus says. Let’s start with the problem. I’m sure you noticed when I quoted Jesus, I left something out. In both versions of the Lord’s prayer, he doesn’t say “Forgive us…” He says, “Forgive us…” and then there’s a word. If you grew up Methodist or Catholic it’s trespass; if you grew up Congregational, it’s debts. If you have been around Lutherans, chances are you say ‘sins’, which is also popular in a lot of newer churches. Forgive us our debts. Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive us our sins. What does he have in mind?

This is the point where there is a temptation to wander off and show you what I know about Greek, the language the New Testament is written in. I could talk about this for a long time, long enough for you to snatch a nap. But I’m not going to. For one thing, it’s too early for a nap and for another, Jesus didn’t say the Greek word either. Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, not Greek. And he used an Aramaic word here. What does it mean? That’s hard to say. Say trespass and you think, or at least I do, of going to a construction site and taking lumber to build a tree house. But I’m not sure Jesus was worried about lumber or boys or tree houses. Say debt and I think of my credit card bills; did Jesus care about credit scores? Probably not.

So we’re left with sins. That’s a tough one. Congregational ministers don’t talk about sins much anymore; we leave that to Baptists. When we do, we tend to like to talk about sins we don’t do. I remember once sitting with a bunch of ministers at a meeting. This was quite a while ago, when “a bunch of ministers” meant middle aged men who are a little too jolly and can tell you to a decimal point the average attendance at their church and who tend to be a bit fluffy. It’s not their fault. Every church has someone like Arvilla or Joanne who makes cakes and things and it would be rude not to eat them. We grow out of concern for their feelings.

So we are sitting there, munching on pieces of cake some woman in the church had prepared. It was long enough ago that the big issue was gay folks in church. I always thought this was a weird issue; I mean we’ve always had gay folks in church, the real issue wasn’t about having them it was about letting them be honest about who they were without fear. So they were discussing this and gay marriage and most of them were against it. They could really talk about the sin of homosexuality, Bible verses and all. It was impressive. I didn’t have much to say. So I just sat there eating cake and I looked around and realized every one of us was married to a woman. And every one of us was overweight.

So when it was my turn to talk, I said that I thought the cake was really good and since we were all straight there, and all overweight, maybe we should talk about the sin of gluttony, of eating too much. Then I shut up and tried to think how I could get another slice of cake and the table erupted. They did not think this was appropriate; they thought I was making fun of them. We’d all rather talk about someone else’s sins than our own. But we all have them, just like we all have scars.

What does Jesus mean? The word he uses certainly means doing wrong. In our culture, we tend to associate sin with sexual stuff but Jesus actually talks more about economic sins, that is, the sin of letting money get in our way. The word he uses also means “foolishness”. Now that’s something because throughout the Hebrew scriptures there’s a constant play between the notion of being wise—doing what God wants—and being foolish—doing whatever we want, regardless of what God says.

In fact, the original sin had nothing to do with sex, it rose out of the desire to be God like. The serpent says to Eve that she can be like God and she goes for it, inviting Adam along with her. It’s the choice of self over God that makes her stumble.

In fact, The same word also means stumble. That’s something I can understand: I stumble frequently. I mean, I’m walking along and not paying attention and POOF! ouch. Something brings me to a halt. So foolishness, stumbling. Those are part of what he’s talking about, along with scars from injuries and things that make us cover up what we’ve done because we’re ashamed. So from here on out I’m going to use the word ‘sins’ but I trust you to remember it means all these things: scars, selfishness, stumbling.

What he says then is this: Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others. Look what he does here: he connects these two. That is to say, the experience of forgiveness—being forgiven—is linked to the expression of forgiving: forgiving someone else. You get both or you get neither one. Think of the story of the prodigal we read this morning. You know, I have to admit right here that there is such a temptation for me to preach on this text instead of going along with the Lord’s Prayer. I’m trying to resist but if this sermon goes over 45 minutes, you’ll know I failed. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m going to try to resist; come back in three years, when the text comes up again, and hear a sermon on it then.

I just want you to notice one thing in the story. When the son returns, his father embraces him. Wow: would you do that? Think how angry the father must have been when the son left. That dad knew just what would happen, parents always do. And it did. So the son comes back; there must have been a temptation to say, “Ok, fine you’re home, I’ll give you one more chance.” There must have been a temptation to set a condition on that love but he never once does: he just embraces him. That’s forgiveness. We usually talk about it as the father forgiving the son but there must have been something between them, some ugliness for the son to want to leave and what his bad experience helped him do was forgive his father. The father embraces his son; but the son also embraces his father. It’s the mutuality of the moment that inspires. We can’t experience forgiveness without expressing forgiveness; we can’t express forgiveness without experiencing it.

Forgiveness is a key part of Jesus’ mission. One of the things that angers his opponents is forgiving sins. When his own disciples ask for a rule on just how much forgiveness they have to do, when they want a church policy on forgiveness, he tells them 70 times 7, meaning—unlimited, unlimited forgiveness. The reason is something we talked a bit about last week: Jesus wants us here and now, in the present, in the presence of God. We can’t get there without forgiveness, which means we can’t get there without forgiving, since the two are so tightly linked together.

We can’t get there because of what I call “the ghosts”. The ghosts are all those things in our past that influence our behavior in the present. Maybe someone hurt you in the past; you’re not going to talk to them again. Maybe someone made you angry in the past; you’re not going to have lunch with them again. Maybe someone betrayed your trust; you’re not going to trust them again. We could go on and on but here’s what Jesus knows: all these ghosts in our past are whispering in our ear who not to talk to, who not have lunch with, who not to trust. Look at the story of the prodigal again: all the elder brother at the end talks about is the past, the past where he worked, while his brother went off to play. All our stumbles, all our scars, all our sins are still there, all our past is still there, all our hurts are still there, until they are forgiven. All our guilt about the times we made someone stumble, the time we injured someone, the times we sinned against someone are still there, until they are forgiven. It’s all about the past but as William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As long as all that past is still influencing us, it’s here and we’re living in the past.

How do we do this? I think many of us just assume somehow it will happen, like grass growing, like geese returning in the spring. Jesus calls us to choose forgiveness and t these are some of the choices we can make. One is simply to focus ourselves on the present and future. I mentioned last week how hard it can be to choose the present sometimes. Nevertheless, hard choices train us spiritually. When we live in the present, we choose what’s here, not what was here. A second thing we can do is to control our own internal conversation. A woman I know who was terribly hurt through the betrayal of some people she trusted said, “I wanted to stop reading the obituaries with hopeful anticipation. That turned out to be too much. So I started with just not reading the obituaries.” One person I know said about forgiveness, “Every time I got angry, I would just pray. Sometimes the prayers were angry but they were still prayers.”Prayer turns us toward God and God is love. When we let that love in, we heal.

If you are serious about praying, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, as we talked about a couple weeks ago, there’s no option, there’s no choice: you have to learn to forgive; you have to learn to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness, forgiving: they mean to put the past in the past. They mean to embrace the present; they mean to let us feel God’s embrace. Neither is easy.

Forgiveness comes in many flavors, from dealing with little bumps and scratches to a full on, long term process. Either one begins with a choice: I’m not going to live in the past, I’m going to choose to walk forward with Jesus, and shoo away those ghosts. Like my friend said, stop reading the obituaries, if that’s the one step you can take. Refuse to remember the hurt. Of course you will remember it—at first. But what we refuse to bring back, subsides. Like the scar on my neck, things fade and if we let them fade, we are free to move forward. We’re still going to stumble and that’s where the dailiness of this prayer comes in: every day, we need to forgive to move forward, every day we need to be forgiven, to move forward along the way of Jesus.

We can do it because we’re following Jesus; we can do it because it’s where he’s going. Remember what he said on the cross? “Forgive them.” He hopes we will do the same, when we stumble, when we sin, when we believe our scars are so obvious no one could love us. He wants to heal those scars; he wants us to feel forgiveness for our sins. He means to make us over into the people God intended. So we can choose to keep stumbling along on our own, keeping track of every hurt, every failure of hope, every time someone wronged us. We can live in that past—or we can get up, get going with Jesus, asking forgiveness and accepting it as well.

I don’t really speak Spanish but there’s a Spanish expression I love. You say it when someone says “thank you” or “I’m sorry”: de nada. It means something like “It’s nothing”. When we come to God, with all our scars, all our stumbles, all our sins, Jesus wants us to know God says, “De nada”—and embraces us. He wants us to practice that by doing it for each other. “Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive our debtors, trespassers, those who sin against us.” If we pray it, if we do it, if we learn it, one day we discover: we know that God is hears the prayer, and we can go home to our true home.