Never Mind

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 All rights reserved

Third Sunday in Easter/C • April 10, 2016

Click here for an audio version of this sermon being preached

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

Life After the Cross – Never Mind

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

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

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “the Messiah”. But when he connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They themselves are found arguing about who is going to be first in his kingdom, a moment he uses to teach them servanthood. So even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they must have expected something great, something victorious.
Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said “Never mind”, one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

Back to the Old Plan

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

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

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

On the Beach

So there they are: in some ways it must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think? Last week I talked about the song, Tradition! from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. There’s another song in the same show when Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him”, and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?
But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,
Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

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

Do You Love Me?

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say?
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble, when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

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

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. And today, this day, this very day,

Never mind: feed my sheep

Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”. How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart. Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.


Chris Is Risen

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

Second Sunday in Easter • April 3, 2016

Chris Is Risen – Click Here to listen to this sermon Easter 2C – April 3, 2016

Anything Special?

For years I’ve been asking kids at Children’s Time, “Did anything special happen this week?” The responses never cease to amaze me—both the ones I get and the ones I don’t. Years ago, for example, one of the active families in our church spent three weeks touring the west. They visited the Grand Canyon and many national parks. It was the trip of a lifetime. On their return, I asked Katie, their six year old daughter, if she had seen anything special in the last week. Now Katie was a bit shy and seldom said much at Children’s Time; I thought for once she’d have lots to contribute. But she scrunched her nose for a moment and then said, “Not really.” Even from my perch on the chancel steps I could see her parents weren’t pleased but no amount of prompting could shake Katie: nothing had impressed her. Are you like Katie? I know I am at times, I confess it. Every day God gets up early and puts on an amazing creation. But I know there are days, sometimes whole weeks, when I just pass it by without a thought, like Katie.

What did you see this week?

What did you see this week? All of the scripture readings this week revolve around the act of seeing the power of God. They offer a series of snapshots of Easter visions. The first is the disciples gathered after the resurrection. The shocking memory preserved in the gospels is that the disciples didn’t believe the first reports of the empty tomb. They couldn’t imagine Jesus was up and moving still, that the ultimate bounds of human life had been broken. So here they are, meeting in a locked room, voices hushed, afraid the same thing will happen to them. There, in the midst of them, the risen Christ appears. Even then, they don’t believe; the story says he has to show them his hands and feet—they need to see his wounds. Some still don’t believe; they have to touch. This is how we go forward in church, a bit at a time: we don’t all get the vision at the same time, we don’t all see the same thing and sometimes when we do, we need convincing.

Snapshot: The disciples on trial

The second snapshot is from a few weeks later. Some of the disciples have started telling people what happened and preaching in Jesus’ name. The same council that arrested him arrests them and thinks to scare them. But how do you scare people who have seen a man back from the grave? Isn’t it interesting to see what the disciples say? They don’t quote a creed; they just report what they’ve seen:

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32And we are witnesses to these things,
John 19:30ff

The Council has them flogged; but at the end, clearly it’s the Council that’s scared. The Council puts them out because one leader, Gamaliel, warns the council members they could end up opposing God, as indeed they have. The disciples don’t just offer Jesus: they offer a view of him located in the tradition of Torah, of scripture.
The third snapshot comes from the end of time. John has a vision of what the end of creation will look like and he describes it this way,

Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen. 8“I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty. [Revelation 1:7f]

The clouds are just scenery, like the mountains in a John Wayne movie or Manhattan in one of Woody Allen’s. These people don’t drive, let alone fly, and the clouds are there to make the hearers imagine someone more powerful, higher, than anything they have ever seen. The one who was raised is raised so high that we see him in the clouds. And the power of his coming overwhelms even those who thought to oppose him.
What have you seen? These are all snapshots, reports of what someone has seen. Jesus up and around, Jesus getting his disciples , simple men, to stand up to the powers of their city, Jesus coming in clouds of power.

These are not ideas; none of the reporters offers a philosophy about Jesus. This is the family album and these are people showing the family pictures. When we look out at the world, when we look around, there is a great tendency to answer the question, “What do Christians think?” More and more, I am convinced Christian life has more to do with seeing than thinking—and then telling people what you saw.

Show Me Your Resurrection

We live in a culture that seems to have adopted Kurt Vonnegut’s phrase as its response to evil. “So it goes”. What else can we say? A Buddhist monk posed this question to Christians: “Show me your resurrection.” When I look for the power of irresistible, eternal life, when I search for Christ, I see people, people who touch his light and lift it. Written on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where Jews were hidden these words were written: “I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I do not feel it. I believe in God even when God is silent.” If God is silent, maybe the silence is there so we can speak up, so we can tell what we’ve seen.

Chris is risen

Like a lot of churches, we put an Easter banner on the front this year. It just takes a few minutes to order these things but you do have to proof read them. That’s a lesson someone got powerfully wrong this year; John sent me a funny picture of a white Easter banner that said in big, bold, red letter CHRIS IS RISEN: not Christ, which was surely intended, but Chris. So I laughed about this, somewhat ruefully because over the years I’ve made many proofreading mistakes. And then I thought about it and this was my question: who’s Chris? Was I wrong, was I being short sighted? Did Chris rise just like the sign said? And what about us: surely Easter is meant to be more than a nice day with special music and pretty flowers; surely it is meant to remind us we are called to rise with Christ. What if we put your name where Chris is: Jim is risen, Eva is risen, Deb, Amy, Ken, and so on.

The disciples didn’t debate; they didn’t write a systematic theology. They told what they’d seen, they lived from the love of Christ and were raised by it to new lives, lives they told about and shared with such power that soon the little group of 11 or so was growing so fast it couldn’t be contained any more than the tomb could contain Jesus. Like Jesus, they shared their wounds; like Jesus, they shared their faith in the ultimate power of God whether seen or not at that moment. Like Jesus, they lived the resurrection.

Try it out: maybe the sign printer knew something important. Chris is risen: so are we. Show it, tell it, this week.