Freedom Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/C • June 26, 2016

“For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” [Galatians 5:1]


All photographs are the remainder of a story, like shells or seaweed left on a beach. This week I saw a picture that struck me and I can’t escape. It was a little girl, standing on top of a toilet. The girl’s mother explained she thought it was cute and funny so she snapped the shot and posted it to Facebook. Then she discovered what was going on: the girl was practicing for what to do if there was a shooter in her school. She’d been taught this drill in response to the fear of violence. So, far from cute it was an emblem of our slavery to violence. “For freedom, Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” How can we stay free when the world seeks to ensnare us every day? How can we stay free when the price of living is slavery to fears?

Today we read how the journey of Jesus and his followers changes. What must have seemed an aimless wandering through the villages of Galilee acquires a destination: Jerusalem. Jerusalem is where he will he be crucified, as he will begin to teach them. Jerusalem is where he will ascend to heaven, according to Luke. Jerusalem is where it will all end—and where it will all begin. I wonder how frightening that was. I wonder how scared he was; we get a glimpse of Jesus’ fear in the Garden of Gethsemane. What gives him the freedom from fear to go? What makes Jesus free is that he lives every moment conscious of the loving power of God, conscious of it in a way that makes each moment an urgent call to live God’s love.

Being Right

So, the text says, “he set his face to go toward Jerusalem” but to get there, he has to go through Samaria. Samaria is foreign; Samaria is a place where Jews aren’t welcome, just as Jews don’t welcome Samaritans. But it’s on the way, in the way. So a couple of his followers go on ahead to get things ready. Today politicians have advance people; long before a Hilary Clinton or Donald Trump gets to a city, someone has rented a place, provided for security, set up water bottles and made arrangements, hired a band, scouted things out. That’s what these two are doing.

But two of the villages say no thanks. These guys are giving their all, they are totally committed to Jesus the Messiah, the man who is going to save the world. They get into a village and the local chief of police says sorry, we can’t provide security; the Holiday Inn Express declines to give them a special rate, they can’t find a place for him to speak. They’re going to have to go back to Jesus and admit their failure. Then unbelievably when they go to the next place it happens again. No wonder they’re angry, no wonder they’re resentful. And apparently they are because they go back to Jesus and suggest that he rain balls of fire on these villages. “These people are terrible, Jesus, let’s just wipe them out!” “[James and John] said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” [Luke 9:54] It’s frightening how wrong we can be; but we are most frightening when we are right.

Being Wrong When We’re Right

When we are right, we can’t stand the ones who are wrong. There’s a long continuum to it. At one end there’s the person who can’t drive right. To get to our home from the airport, we come off Route 85 onto Krumkill Road, follow a bumpy road around a curve and come to New Scotland and turn left. Now driving east on New Scotland is an obstacle course. You have to stay in the right lane because left lane must turn left light a couple blocks up but people park in the right lane sometimes so you have to dodge them. Then right after the light, you have to get in the left lane because the right lane by the hospital at Manning is right turn only. It took me a while to learn this zig zagging course but once I learned it, I got good at it. And it’s intolerable, annoying, to see people who don’t know what they’re doing, trying to drive up New Scotland, suddenly realizing they’re in the wrong lane and darting over in front of me. So I get angry; some days the love of Christ just gets left behind because I’m right and if I could, I would call down the fire on those stupid drivers. So I get where James and John are going with this.

We are dangerous when we are right. We’re going through a moment when for various reasons many Islamic people are so convinced they are right that they can’t wait for fire from heaven to punish everyone else so they’re doing it with bombs and assault rifles and terrible acts of violence. It’s scary; it’s frightening. But in our fear, we ought to remember we are not so far from the same violence. Before we are too condescending about violence in Islam, we should remember that a few centuries ago European Christians fought a series of wars in the 1600’s that left a third of Germany depopulated. Think of it: people killed over the difference between being Catholic and Lutheran, a difference probably most of us here couldn’t even define let alone fight about.

Our own tradition shows the same violence. Henry Barrowe was an early Congregationalist hung for his faith in April of 1593 and those who came after were persecuted until they left England, ultimately settling in Massachusetts. We call them the Pilgrims and we love to celebrate them. We seldom remember that the descendants of those Pilgrims and others subsequently were so right and so angry at the wrongness of others that they hung three members of the Society of Friends, often called the Quakers, on Boston Common within a century of Barrowe’s death. We are scariest when we are right. [source:]

Being Right With Jesus

So Jesus’ disciples want to hit back at those who are refusing to see how right he is, how right they are. What does Jesus say? “He rebuked them.” Simple but stunning. ‘Rebuke’ is the English word for what he says to demons; rebuke is what he says to Peter when he says he is acting like a tempter, like a Satan. It is a small word that offers this picture: Jesus turning in anger at the wrong rightness of his followers. Being right with Jesus means more than just helping him forward, it means following his way and the way is the urgent call of love to live free of hatred, free of violence, free of fear, free from all the worldly things that seek to enslave us. It is loving God so you trust God with your life. Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem where he will demonstrate this love in the most ultimate way, on a cross.

This isn’t love as an emotion, a nice feeling, this is love as a way of life. When I was doing marriage counseling, I frequently had a husband or wife in conflict say, “But I love my husband! I love my wife!” I learned to ask: “As evidenced by what?” If we say we love God, it’s fair to ask: as evidence by what? The real reason we are so dangerous when we are right is that deep down, we often act as if we are the final power. Think of those two disciples; think of those villagers they are so willing to blast. The disciples want to use their power because they are right and they haven’t learned to trust that God will deal with the village. In fact, in other stories, in a later time, we’re going to hear about Samaritans being among the first to embrace the risen Christ. God is at work there but like a farmer growing a field, God’s work takes time to bear fruit.

Loving God

So loving God means giving up our belief in our own power and rightness and righteousness and living in the light of God’s righteousness, God’s power. The urgency of that life changes us and until we are ready to embrace that change, we are not ready to love God. That’s what happens in the three short stories that make up the rest of this story in Luke. Jesus encounters a succession of people who want to fit their faith into their normal lives. One wants to follow him but only in comfort; another wants to follow but has some things to do first. And one has his hand on a plow but is constantly looking back instead of forward. To all of these, to each of these, Jesus preaches the urgency of love right now. We cannot embrace the kingdom with one arm; the call of Jesus is right now to all of us.

Someone suggested last week that I wasn’t being specific enough. I decided he was right so let me be specific. What does it mean be on the way with Jesus? It means I have to stop beeping at people on New Scotland Road right now. I hate this conclusion because when I beep at someone it’s because I’m right and I want them to get out of the way so I can get somewhere. But the yoke of slavery is my rightness; I’m compelled by it, enslaved by it. Paul has a whole list of things that enslave us:

Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. [Galatians 5:20ff]

Any of these are enough to forge chains of slavery. But he also gives us something more helpful: a sort of check off list so we can know when we are in fact living out the love of God.

the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.

He doesn’t explicitly say no beeping on New Scotland but I’m sure he would have if he had driven here. What about you? We all know about being enslaved by things that are wrong: the addict, the criminal and so on. But when has being right enslaved you, made you do things that didn’t embody the love of God? What if today you stopped doing just one of them?

Freedom Now!

These things tend to spread. Stop beeping on New Scotland and it might occur that we don’t need assault weapons in homes out of a fear of others so there’s no reason to have them available. So we could agree to stop arming civilians like soldiers and ban assault weapons. It will lead us to understand that violence often comes from people who can’t get the basic needs of life, food, shelter and so on, so we should work to feed people and shelter them.

The urgency of love is that once we take off the yoke, we can’t help but want to help others take it off too. That’s just what Jesus does. It’s not our job to call down fire, it’s not our mission to make people right. It is our mission to lift the yoke of slavery to fear, to help that little girl with whom I began down from the fear that put her on that toilet. It is to celebrate the freedom for which Christ set us free by sharing it.


Are We Pigs or People?

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/C • June 19, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

It’s always the details in these stories that make me wonder. I read about the Germane demoniac, our gospel reading today and at the end I think, “What about the pigs? Who cleaned up that mess?” I think: what about the man’s family. My dad didn’t have a demon but he did have a hobby which was going to school. He went to school through my early teen years until he got a Masters of Business degree. Then he was out. It was a disaster. He didn’t know our evening routines, he didn’t know how we did dinner. We were glad to have him around but it was hard to adjust because he’d been gone for so long. After about six months, he started going to law school.

Thinking About the Details

So I’m wondering about this family. They must have had a hard, heart breaking time. Demons don’t show up all at once and I suspect he didn’t start out with so many; maybe one or two, enough to knock him off center like a top starting to lose it’s spin. Then more; surely they tried to help, took him to a doctor, tried to care for him themselves but the rages and the destruction were too much. As more and more demons moved in, he moved out, out of town, out to the solitary silence of the cemetery. I wonder how relieved that family was; I wonder if they hadn’t gotten on with things. And I wonder what they said, when he suddenly showed up, calm, hopefully clean by then, at their door. He was himself again but did they even remember who that was? Their whole family life is going to change again. I wonder if they did.

Jesus’ Journey

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forget the details for a moment. Forget the story itself, let’s see the shape of Jesus’ journey. He’s been walking a path with a series of strange encounters. Perhaps you remember hearing about these the last few weeks but in case you don’t, here’s a list of them. He healed the slave of a Roman Centurion, possibly a gentile, certainly someone to make you uneasy. He comes to another village and while they wait for a funeral processional, he raises a widow’s son; everyone is astonished, it’s not clear whether the funeral director provided a refund. His friend Simon the Pharisee invites him to dinner; while he’s there, a disreputable woman—of course to Pharisees, most women were disreputable!—touches him, actually touches him, kisses him, pours ointment on him, wipes his feet; he forgives her sins, all of them, every single one. Have you ever gotten all your sons forgive all at once?

So if you’re keeping count, that’s a healing, a raising, a forgiving all in the space of one trip. He goes on a boat ride; there’s a storm and his disciples get scared, really scared, the way only serious sailors get when they see the sea overwhelming the boat. Jesus calms the storm and the disciples; add that to the list. When they make land, they’re in Gerasa.

Welcome to Gerasa

Gerasa is a part of an area thickly settled by gentiles, outside of Israel, which explains the pig farming. The pigs are probably a cash crop; the area was known for exports. Outside of town there’s a cemetery and that’s where Jesus encounters…well, that’s the question isn’t it? What is he meeting here? Who is he meeting?

The first actual dialogue in the story coms from a demonic presence. “What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?” Isn’t it odd how a demon knows Jesus’ name, first and last both, but people routinely ask in the gospels “who is this man?” We argue about who Jesus is; the demon knows. The demon obviously senses the power of Jesus’ presence; the greeting appears occasioned by Jesus calling out the demon, exorcising the man, a detail we only now learn about. Then there’s the moment of the demon pleading, whining, not to be tormented. Jesus asks the name of the demon and it doesn’t reply; Legion isn’t a name, it’s a number, about 5,000 Roman troops, it’s like saying “Battalion, for we are many”.

The demons enter pigs that are there and they drive the pigs run off a cliff and die because of the demons; the swineherds run away, realizing their jobs are over and someone is going to be very angry the herd is gone. Cemetery, pigs, all these details have one purpose: pigs are unclean animals, cemeteries are unclean places, gentiles are unclean people, all of this is to say that Jesus goes into the least godly place ever and reclaims someone’s life and then hands it back to him. Isn’t that what Jesus always does? Is that what he’s done, is that what he’s doing, for you?

Encountering the Demonic

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about this demon? Most of you don’t believe in demons, so it’s hard to talk about them, easy to dismiss them. Yet there are the demons in the story and a good deal of Jesus’ work is casting out demons. What I can say about them is that they are a shorthand, personal way of speaking about something we do believe because we know it, we see it: the evil that comes into a life and twists it into something awful and dark and dangerous. This week we all saw the effect of the demonic when a young man walked into a club in Orlando and using a gun meant for soldiers on a battlefield killed 49 people, wounded so many others, including at least emotionally all of us. This was evil and in that sense it was demonic.

This person Jesus encounters in the cemetery is a man whose life has been horribly twisted by some evil grown like a thistle bush choking a garden until when a name is demanded, it can only say that it is legion, it is many. Indeed, the demonic has many faces and they scare us. Demagogues tell us, “Yes, there are real demons and they are in them,” pointing to some group easily identifiable and offer us safety if we will only get rid of them.

But the truth is the demons are in us, all of us. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the better angels of our nature and surely there are these but just as certainly we have this terrible capacity to harbor and to be consumed by demonic forces that destroy lives, sometimes violently.

Encountering Jesus

What does Jesus say? In every case, whether it is someone he heals, someone he forgives, someone he exorcises, his whole focus is to reclaim the person for the purpose God intended. That’s the result of each of the stories I mentioned, it is certainly the result here. At the end of the story, the man wants to come with Jesus; instead, Jesus tells him to go home and tell people what God has done for him. This is a gentile place; how stunning, how surprising, to imagine that this man who didn’t even have a name will now be a proclaimer of the God he didn’t know. For that is God’s purpose for each of us: that we will remember, celebrate, share, God’s goodness. At our creation, we were made to appreciate God’s handiwork. When we do that, we are most clearly, most deeply God’s people.

People or Pigs?

That’s the question the story asks us: are we going to live as people proclaiming the power and the goodness of God—or as pigs rushing off a cliff? The pigs have no power in the story; they just get used up, become vehicles for the demons who drive them to their deaths. For the final destination of the demonic is always death, just as the final destination of God’s people is life.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. Paul recognizes this stunning inclusion in the passage we read today: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Think of the sweeping breadth of this. We all make distinctions between people. We see their clothing; we see their color, we see their age and how they’re dressed and we make judgements: approach, avoid, smile, frown, one of us, one of them. But here Paul preaches this mystery: that to God none of these things matter, none of them exist. The things he lists are the most basic differences his culture recognizes. None of them matter to God.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. That’s the meaning of love your neighbor; that’s the meaning of his healing, his exorcisms. Now just a few verses on from this story he takes this work, this work of restoring people, healing people, freeing people from demons, and he gives the power to do this to his people. His people: that’s us!

Seeing Like Jesus

Is There Any More?

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For six years, I lived in Michigan, in an area where there are great, flat, fertile, fields and you can see for miles. One day as I drove home the whole world seemed to be grey. It was dark ahead, the glowering face of an onrushing thunderstorm. Off to the southwest, distant rain was already falling and thunder moved like a heavenly rolling-pin while the occasional flash of lighting made everyone in the car just a little tense. It was the second or third day of rain in a row and I mourned for the absent sun and I said, “Of course, this is Michigan, so someone will always say, ‘We needed the rain’; I’m sure in Noah’s day, there was a Michigander standing there, while the water’s rose, saying, “Well, we needed the rain”.

I thought as we drove into the storm: this is one of the pictures of creation in the Bible. Chapter two of Genesis imagines a great desert, a pitiless, flat, sun blasted place without anything to sustain life until God sends rain and mist and the land sprouts, grows a cover of green and produces an oasis with a garden where there are good things to eat and beautiful things to see. Only then does God breathe life into humans, charging them to care for the garden. So right from the beginning, there is enough to eat, to appreciate, to do. That’s heaven: a wonderful oasis with God walking around, talking to us in the afternoon.

Elijah and the Drought

Today we read a story about Elijah that takes place far from heaven. Before the section we read, Ahab became king in Israel, the worst of kings. It might be fun to describe in lurid detail all the bad things Ahab did but that could take all my time, so I’ll leave them to your imagination. God speaks to Elijah and sends him to Ahab. This is what Elijah says, “As the Lord, the God of Israel lives, whom I serve, there will be neither dew nor rain in the next few years except by my word.” [1 Kings 17:1]. It isn’t just drought, it is the reversal of the very rhythm of creation itself. Ahab has reversed justice: God is shutting down creation. The worst thing Ahab did was to encourage people to worship Baal, a Canaanite rain god. So the occasion and the background for this story is a great, grinding, dispiriting, drought. The fertile fields die; the olive trees dry up and can’t even give shade, much less olives. The fig trees shrivel. The grains that are the stuff of life simply disappear. The brown fields turn grey and refuse to produce.

Elijah gets out-of-town. He camps by a little brook but the brook dries up. I wonder if Elijah, seeing the brook gone, and his own life threatened, wondered what God was up to. The answer comes when God tells him to go to Zarephath, a town outside Israel, where a widow will help him out. So he goes, and he finds a widow gathering sticks. The text is blunt: “He called to her and asked, ‘Would you bring me a little water in a jar so I may have a drink?’…And bring me, please, a piece of bread.” Just like that: in the land of the thirsty and hungry, get me a drink, get me a meal.

Elijah and the Widow

What did the widow think? I tried to imagine her this week. I think of her wrapped in the faded black robe widows wear there now and did then. She’s dirty; there’s no water in which to wash. Perhaps once she wore finer things, once she loved a husband, and delighted in dinner with her family. Maybe they worked together, making a life, and sat on the porch in the evening, talking, laughing quietly. What was her wedding like? Once at least she had that special moment when she knew she was pregnant; I think of her telling her husband, looking, hoping, to see joy leap in his eyes. They made a life together but now he is gone, dead, passed away, and all that life is gone. She gets by as she can, always finding a little less. She’s gathering sticks for a fire; she can’t afford the fuel bill. She has come through that moment when a spouse dies and asked, I’m sure, “Is there any more life for me?” and somehow she went on.

Now the means of supporting life itself has dried up, even as her love did. The heavens are shut. Still, she has a son depending on her; she can’t even find the small comfort of just collapsing into her own depression. She is at the end of her rope. She says as much to Elijah: “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug. I am gathering a few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.” [1 Kings 17:12] She is almost at the end and here is a stranger asking, “Got anything good?” and everything in her answers: no, no, no, there is no more.

Living in the Drought

We live with many griefs. Like the widow in the story, our lives are blasted by the death of a husband, a wife, a child, that cuts us off from any promise of growth as surely as Elijah’s drought. Sometimes it is the death of a dream. Every divorce has circles of grief that widen out as partners part and children grieve for their families. Indeed, as we are fond of saying, “We needed the rain”—we need something to stop the drought and promise new growth, new hope that we can be sustained. Like the widow in this story, we sometimes find ourselves gathering sticks, feeling at the end of our resources, asking, “Is there any more?” and hearing only a hollow echo. Even our economic life brings us grief. We live with a great sense today that somehow there is not as much. I hear the stories of people with good and important gifts who can’t find work; I see the tears of foreclosures or illness that spiral a family to financial ruin. We have somehow come to a great economic drought; like the widow, we often feel, no, no, no, there is no more.

So if you have lived in the drought, if you are living in the drought, this story is especially important. Elijah responds simply to the woman: “…this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: “The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.” [1 Kings 17:14] Now the widow has a decision to make; we watch her eyes as she listens to this impossible promise, this strange man’s simple words.

The question, it seems, is not as she thought, “Is there any more?” but: “Is there enough?” She has a little flour, a bit of oil, a few sticks. Are they enough? It’s the question we all face, in politics, in life, in church. All around are voices stridently saying, “No!”. We hear them in the debate over how to deal with immigrants to our country, the voices of those who say “Keep them out! There isn’t enough!” We hear those voices in our own lives, as we anxiously try to pay our bills, wrestle with spiraling demands for our time, our energy. A friend told me this week, “My daughter was diagnosed with insulin dependent diabetes two years ago. Since then, we’ve been on a strict schedule. I haven’t slept all night in two years.” She feels there isn’t enough, not enough of her. We hear the same question when we wonder about the future of our church.

“The jar of flour will not be used up and the jug of oil will not run dry until the day the Lord gives rain on the land.” [1 Kings 17:14] It’s a simple, flat statement, and I imagine the woman standing in her dusty black robe, arms full of dead sticks, staring at the strange man in front of her. After a moment, something moves within her. She turns, hearing him follow her, goes home, takes the flour from the jar, wondering I’m sure even as she acts in faith if she can trust it. She bakes the bread; she offers the water. She feeds Elijah, and her son, and herself. She gets up the next day and does it again. And the next, and the next, and the next.

Believing in God’s Providence

Perhaps someone s thinking, “Great, all we need is a miracle.” But what is the miracle here? Is it that somehow the flour and oil hold out? Isn’t the real miracle this poor woman’s decision, in her poverty, in her weakness, in her drought, to act on the faith that there is enough, that God will provide enough? Sometime later, the woman’s son becomes ill, so ill that he stops breathing. Because she had sustained him in his need, Elijah is there and he prays and her son is healed. There is enough grace, enough love, enough life, it seems for him to rise up again. And the woman, seeing the life, seeing the effect her own miraculous decision led to, finally understands that God’s promises are true.

God’s promise is that there is enough and our lives, whether we live in the drought or at ease, are an invitation to live on the basis of that promise. The way in which God gives enough is by drawing us together into communities of care. God doesn’t care for Elijah alone; instead, Elijah is sent to a widow. The widow cannot care for her son alone; instead, Elijah is present to heal him in a moment of need. We are meant to share ourselves in a community of care.

How to See Jesus in the Drought

“You are the body of Christ,” the Apostle Paul says. If you want to see Jesus, don’t rent a movie like The Greatest Story Ever Told; Christ isn’t in the movie. If you want to see Jesus, don’t go to a re-enactment of the passion or the nativity; Christ isn’t in the play. If you want to see Jesus, find someone you can sustain, someone you can help through the drought. If you want to see Jesus, stop asking if there is anymore, believe there is enough even if it doesn’t feel like it and act from that faith. If you want to Jesus, look around: he’s here, in the faces of this community of care. In the midst of our grief, in the midst of our fear, in the midst of our drought, God gives us each other, sends us to each other, so that we will have enough.
Our problem is that we are so busy wondering, “Is there any more?” that we forget to faithfully act as if there is enough. The Biblical term for this faith is “waiting for the Lord”. There are many ways to wait. There is the anxious waiting, wondering if someone will show up. There is the angry waiting: “This is so rude, he treats me like my time is worthless!” And there is waiting like a lover, full of expectant joy, with absolute faith the other will come, looking forward already to their presence.
When we wait for God like this, God has promised there will always be enough. As it says in Psalm 40,

Even youths will faint and be weary,
   and the young will fall exhausted; 
but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
   they shall walk and not faint”.

It’s usual to invite people near the end of sermon to go out and do something. This is my hope today: not that we may do, but that we may learn to wait, to wait for the Lord, to wait believing there is enough, to wait for joy to overcome us as we sustain all who come here. Amen.

Portions of this sermon were originally preached in 2007 in a sermon entitled, “Is There Any More?”