Pay Attention

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

19th Sunday After Pentecost • September 30, 2016

“Which side are you on? Which side are you on?” It’s a line from an old union organizing song; in my head I hear Pete Seeger singing it. But it’s also an ancient question it seems people have always asked. As far back as we can know, our stories, our sagas, our poetry speaks of sides. Homer’s Iliad, the great story of a war between Greeks and Trojans imagines sides and the Bible is full of them: Hebrews and Egyptians, Israelites and Canaanites. Genesis traces our division all the way to the first brothers, Cain and Able, with one being murdered. Which side are you on?

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus

The story we read from Luke is the Jesus version of a much older parable. It was always obvious that life had immense inequities. Some are rich; some are poor; some live out in the couch of comfort while others huddle on cold cement.

The situation imagined in the parable is common. There is a rich man: there is a poor man. The rich man has good food, good friends, good everything. He feasts every day; he dresses like a king, for only kings could afford clothes made with the expensive purple dye. The poor man has nothing. He’s hungry and sick, he has the first century version of no health insurance: he lies in the street with sores unable to even fend off the dogs.

But, we’re told, at death things reverse. The poor man is carried to heaven by angels. The rich man? The text simply says: “He died”. In the afterlife, they find their fortunes reversed. The poor man cuddles in the lap of Father Abraham, the revered patriarch and companion of God; the rich man is in a place of torment.

Long before Jesus, similar stories were told of a profound reversal of fortune. “Remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony,” Abraham says in response to the rich man’s complaint. The moral seems to be that God seeks a kind of even keel, a balance, and that the more unbalanced we are, the more we should look for reversal in the future. Be careful if your side is up: in the cycle of life, up comes just before down.

Beyond the Story

Other ancient Near Eastern versions of this story end here, with balance restored and the positions of the men reversed. What’s truly curious about this story is how Jesus has used the story to go on and make a profound point about our relationship with God. Consider the conversation in the afterlife.

What’s clear almost immediately is that the rich man has learned nothing. He tells Abraham to send Lazarus to get him a drink, as if he still were in charge, as if even there, his comfort was the most important priority. When he is refused, he still doesn’t understand the new state of things; then send Lazarus to warn my brothers, he tells Abraham. Abraham replies that his brothers have Moses and the prophets, a way of saying, they have the scriptures. “But if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent,” the rich man says.

But will they? What will it take to get some attention, some attention for God, some attention for God’s purpose and rules? This story is being remembered and told in a church with amazing similarities to ours. The first century was a time of cultural ferment. All around the people for whom Luke’s gospel were written was a rich cultural buffet with many options. Philosophers and preachers held forth on street corners. It was a prosperous time and some were rich; many were poor. Rome made peace throughout the Mediterranean world and trade thrives in peace time. We know that in the time Luke’s gospel was first read, items from Spain were found in Palestine, Egyptian wheat was eaten in Rome, British goods traveled to Iran and the world was full of choices. But in a world of choices, a noisy world full of the clamor of the market, how is it possible to hear God’s voice and God’s word?

Pay Attention Please

Paul makes the same point in a letter to Timothy. Perhaps the most misquoted verse in the entire Bible is Paul’s statement that “…the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil…” [1 Timothy 6:10] Sometimes we say, “Money is the root of all evil,” but that’s not what Paul has in mind. He knows that money itself has no moral value, it’s just a way of keeping score. Money is a energy stored: so much work, so much sold, so much earned. It isn’t money that’s evil; the evil comes from fixing our focus on money.

What Paul knows is that anything in this world that so occupies us, so consumes us, so captures us, takes our attention from God. That’s what he means to address and that’s what Jesus is lifting up as well. God wants our attention. The ministry of Jesus, the preaching of the prophets, all are a way of God saying to us, “Pay attention please!”

Here is the issue, presented at the end of the parable: if someone comes back from the dead, will even that be enough to get our attention? This is a Christian scripture; this is a Christian question. We gather every Easter to say, “Christ is risen, he is risen indeed,” but is even that enough to get our attention? But then we look at our calendar, we look at our checkbook, we hear the voices of all those who wants us to do something and we begin to respond. Someone needs a ride; someone needs a job done. We make their approval or material things or some other worldly thing become our goal and it draws us like the North Pole draws a compass. In the midst of it, the voice of God is often lost.

Even our religious life can become a part of the noise. American religion increasingly is about what we do. In many churches, the whole emphasis is on getting saved, saying the right formula. Our prayers become to do lists for God, delegated duties that are beyond our ability.

But what is God saying in the midst of all this noise? God is saying pay attention. And we will never hear the rest until we do pay attention. The first act of faith is not to memorize a catechism or believe something, it is to take God seriously enough to stop doing, stop saying, and start paying attention. The first act of faith is not to say your prayers; it is to stop and listen The first act of prayer is not to ask, it is to listen.

Jesus Listened

Jesus listened and the amazing thing is that he heard both Lazarus and Abraham. He heard God erasing the sides, refusing the sides: he saw that to God they were one people, regarded with one love. He heard the suffering of the Lazaruses of this world, of course, and all the accounts of his ministry include healing. But he also heard the desperation of the rich ones too. He never stopped listening to the Pharisees, even when they opposed him. He invited them to stop choosing sides and follow God in choosing to share with each other, forgive each other, embrace each other.

Which side are you on? It’s second nature for us to choose sides. We do it in sports, we do it in music, clothing, style. When I bought a Nikon camera years ago, I discovered I hadn’t just bought a camera, I had become a part of the Nikon tribe; there were people who got angry at me because I had that brand of camera. We do it in our politics. This year’s Presidential election has been particularly nasty. And I see people losing friendships because of it. Now I love politics, I’ve been involved as a volunteer and sometimes a professional for years. But this year, in the interest of not choosing sides, I’ve made a conscious decision not to engage in the war of the sides.

Following Jesus

The reason is simple: I want to follow Jesus. Following Jesus means first of all paying attention to God. When I pay attention to God, what I see is that God is beyond the sides. God is beyond the divisions. Our God is the God of all: rich and poor, alike. So the more we can do to live as binders together, stepping over the division of sides, the more we will find ourselves following in the footsteps of Jesus. That’s why our church continuously offers a chances to do things that recognize people. We do it individually when we baptize someone like Olivia. We do it when we act in mission together, as we’ve done with the South Side Community Center. We do it individually when we bring a coat or some food for the food pantry. All these are ways of paying attention to God’s call in Jesus Christ to mutual care.

Which side are you on? Only when we realize the sides are just human inventions will we finally find ourselves where God has been all the time: beyond them, caring for all, listening to all, loving all. And it is when we know how God has loved all that we also come to the most powerful realization of all: that God loves each of us.

Face Forward

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Face Forward
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
18th Sunday After Pentecost/C • September 18, 2016

What’s your favorite recipe? Most of us have one: a set of steps we go through to make something we like. We have recipes for the way we live, too, patterns that tell us how to do things from weddings to funerals. We live, in fact, with a great store of patterns that whisper with the voices of the past. How do planning sessions usually start?—“What did we do last year.” These voices are like ghosts, telling us how to do things, what we should do. But the ghosts can blind us to new possibilities. Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, traces the downfall of an entire family because they are controlled by their past. Which way are you looking: are you seeing only where you’ve been or looking forward to new possibilities?

Living With Change

Jesus lived in the midst of great economic changes. For centuries the villages of Galilee had functioned with a few very poor and even fewer very rich people. The hillsides were terraced and full of small farms and olive groves. The villages themselves were home to craftspeople like Jesus’ father, a maker of wooden tools. History focuses on the blood and fire of battles and kings; in the Galilee, life went on, day to day, year to year, in the same way for hundreds of years. People were born, lived, died. New settlers moved in, others left. Not much changed.

But after a long period of civil wars and wars of conquest, the Roman Emperor Augustus had created a settled system of rule. Rich Romans and others, benefitting from trade and Imperial preferment, began to buy up the small farms and turn them into larger businesses. Of course, these people didn’t want to live out in the rural areas; having pushed small farmers off the land, they hired managers, stewards, who had the authority to act on their behalf, while the owners themselves lived in luxury in cities. Often the former farm owners worked for the new landowner but now as a kind of sharecropper, owing a portion of the produce to the new owner. These loans were written with owed amount including interest payments, often large ones; after all the sharecropper had no choice but to accept the terms.

The Situation of the Steward

I’ve taken this detour into economics, hoping you’ve stayed with me, so you will understand the situation behind the parable we read. Imagine the man called the steward in the story. Perhaps he grew up on one of the little family farms that no long exist. Perhaps his family had lived there for generations, passing the land down. But the chain has broken; things have changed. Imagine how happy he must have been when he got the job as the steward for the big landowner. No more trying to scratch out a living; no more worry about the bills. His position would make him a big man in a small town.

So he makes deals, loans; after all, that’s his job. Some of these are large. The amounts in the story are tremendous: the oil amounts to 900 gallons of olive oil. The steward himself works on a commission; the more he squeezes the farmers, the more he makes. So while he may have been a leading citizen, I imagine he was someone people more feared than liked. When he walked into the local tavern, conversations quieted, people looked away, perhaps someone behind on his loan left.

When someone got hurt by his pursuit of profit, I imagine him saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Perhaps he crosses some lines; perhaps he makes a few shady deals, perhaps his accounting is off or perhaps he just openly steals. There are complaints, maybe there is an investigation. We don’t know how things came to a head, but there is a crisis. He’s about to be fired.

Now imagine the night after this message. He’s about to go from a big man in a small town to unemployed. This crisis isn’t just business: now it’s him and it’s personal. He considers the alternatives, rejecting them one by one: ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” [Luke 16:3] Shame, strength, these things limit his alternatives. But he has one thing going for him: he’s a smart, crafty guy. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place; now he uses it to find a way forward. He uses it to change things.

Making a Change: Facing Forward

The change he makes is to put relationships first. His only hope is to create a situation where he will, as he says, be welcomed into the homes of people in the town. So one by one he calls them in. One by one, he cancels the interest on their loans.

Can you imagine their reaction? Suppose your mortgage company called and said, “We’ve reviewed your account and decided to give you the title, free and clear.” Suppose your credit card company said, “We’ve decided to cancel your remaining balance. Thanks for being a customer.” Imagine it: can you? It’s hard isn’t it, because these things don’t happen. It’s hard to imagine the joy of those people in the story. It’s hard to believe that joy. Change is like that. We are so used to living from where we’ve been, we forget to face forward.

Jesus tells this story about an amazing change, and it takes your breath away. What happens here is wrong, what happens here is illegal. This steward has no business using his client’s business to improve his relationships, to set himself up for the future.

Reacting to the Parable

This story is so wrong that even before Luke wrote it into his gospel, preachers were trying to figure out why Jesus told it. The parable itself is just the first seven or so verses of the reading; the other lines are a series of interpretations. One commentator said, “You can almost see the sermon notes here.” We can even hear an echo of the disciples at verse eight, where it says, “The master commended the dishonest manager..” The word that’s used there for ‘master’ is usually translated, ‘Lord’; it’s the same term used for Jesus. Imagine Jesus telling his disciples this story, see them waiting for him to condemn such dishonest, money grubbing, cheating stewards and then see the surprise on their faces when Jesus ends the story with the dishonest steward coming out great at the end after cheating his employer, just as he had cheated others. What can the Lord have in mind?

What Is Jesus Saying?

Perhaps it is meant to show the disciples how to face forward. The crisis of discipleship cannot be met with old recipes and his disciples must face a new world where they find new ways. We see this all over the preaching of Jesus. “Forgive,” he says, and what is forgiveness but the decision to cut the chains of past hurts and face forward into a future without the dead weight of old anger, old resentment, old fear? In his ultimate moment, at the last supper, he will remind them of Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant, not like the old covenant. His whole life, his death, his resurrection are meant to show God breaking into our lives in a new way.

An Example of Facing Forward

The movie Scully is a simple story of a 208-second long flight that began as an ordinary trip from LaGuardia airport to Charlottesville, VA. I’m sure the passengers were full of everyday thoughts as they waited to board, found their seats, stowed their luggage. I can almost say the speeches of the flight attendants as the flight got underway. “Please make sure your seatbelt are securely fastened…The cabin door is now closed, cellphones must be turned off or placed in airport mode for the duration of the flight…” The aircraft backs away from the terminal, taxis into position, the pilots are given clearance and there is that exhilarating moment when they are rushing down the runway, jumping into the air in a moment that still seems magical.

The flight departed at 3:25 PM. Three minutes into the flight, when the airplane was still under 10,000 feet, the magic ended. Hit by a flock of birds, both engines died. The airplane was powerless; decisions had to be made. The recipe said to return to the airport and land the plane.

At first, Captain Sulzberger, the pilot announced he was taking this option but within seconds he realized it wouldn’t work. Moments later he committed to landing the aircraft on the Hudson River off Manhattan. Water landings are extremely difficult but Sulzberger believed that although this wasn’t the right answer, it was the right course of action.

At 3:30, less than five minutes after departing, he successfully landed in the Hudson; flight attendants evacuated the passengers onto the wings, some going into the river. All were rescued, along with the flight crew, by police and ferry boats. Sulzberger saved 155 lives that day by facing the future in seconds. The movie focuses on the FAA investigation and attempts to show the old recipes would have worked: it ends with the understanding that it was Sulzberger’s capacity to face forward in seconds that saved those people’s lives.

Facing Forward With Jesus

“On the way…” is the most frequent comment about Jesus. He always faced forward and it’s significant that this shocking story of change beyond normal boundaries is addressed explicitly to his disciples.

Every day brings occasions that ask whether we will follow the recipes we’ve been given or face forward and find new answers. I wonder: what blessings would you plant facing forward? I wonder: Jesus mentioned even a small seed, a tiny one, like a mustard seed, might just grow into a huge, unexpected tree, might have an effect we never imagined.


Finding Joy

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
19th Sunday After Pentecost • September 11, 2016


What was the last thing you lost? Losing things is a constant struggle for me. My ability to misplace keys, glasses, wallet, phone is a commonplace in my family. They’re all used to getting ready to go somewhere and then waiting while I say, “I can’t find my…”, then waiting while I frantically look through the various places I put things. I deal with this by putting my stuff in one place near the door. This doesn’t always work; things get moved, things seem to drift on their own. And once they have, they’re lost. Lost isn’t just something that happens to keys, of course; it can happen to persons as well. Some sociologists say almost half the people in this country are one paycheck away from poverty. That means one paycheck from getting lost economically. Whole groups can get lost; we’re seeing this in the Middle East now as thousands of refugees eek out day to day in camps and thousands more try to move to places where they can make new lives. A whole generation of children are being lost to violence there.

Jesus lives with the lost; his society was full of them. Just as I keep things found by putting them in their place, in Jesus’ time, people were sorted based on whether they were lost or found. Perhaps you were a well to do trader who went to worship, gave your offering, paid your vows, said your prayers, made sure the kitchen in your house was kosher, never came into contact with Gentiles or women or others who were lost: good for you, you were found, that is you were pure. Pure is like my keys being on the shelf where they belong: everything just as it should be.

Giving Up on Some

But not everyone was pure, just as the keys don’t always stay on the shelf. All kinds of things could knock you off. Gender, ethnicity, even what you did for a living. If you worked with leather, for example, no amount of prayer or paying vows would make you pure. If you collected tolls for the Judah Turnpike Authority, you were right out of it—that’s the people described as tax collectors. If you ate food that wasn’t kosher—off the list. All these are what are described in the Gospel of Luke as ‘sinners’. We have to keep this in mind because to us sinners sounds like people who do bad things. These are people who have just gotten lost, according to the Pharisees, lost to God, outside God’s care, outside God’s compassion. So it makes sense to just give up on them, just as, according to some of the preachers in Jesus’ time, God has done.

That’s the background to the complaint we read today in Luke. “the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “’This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’” Most of the teaching of Jesus, the parts we love to remember like “Love your neighbor as yourself” weren’t new; most were applications of things already in Torah, in God’s Word. One thing was new and different: the people Jesus invited to dinner. One of the ways the Pharisees kept straight who was lost and found was by making sure they only ate with the found. Now Jesus and his disciples are messing up the categories, eating with sinners, eating with the lost. It’s like someone moving your carefully sorted keys.

Parable of the Lost Sheep

Jesus doesn’t answer directly; instead he invites these critics into an experience. “Look, think of a shepherd who counts the flock and discovers one is missing; he leaves it and goes and looks for the lost sheep.” Everyone there knows this is true; shepherds are accountable for the flock. A stray dog or a cat that wanders off may come home. When a sheep gets lost, it just lays down and bleats. So shepherds go out looking, listening, and when the sheep is found, it still won’t do anything so it has to be carried. Maybe some of the people listening started out as shepherds and remember those anxious searches.

But the point Jesus is making isn’t about sheep; it’s something deeper. When Jacquelyn and I were dating, I once took May to a bookstore with me. The books for her were at one end of the store; my magazines were at the other. Now I knew Jacquelyn always kept close to May but I’d been a parent and I thought I knew what worked. I told May she could look around and I’d be over by the magazines. So off I went, looking up every once in a while to make sure she was there. This went fine until a moment when I looked up and couldn’t see her. I moved: still no May. I moved some more: nothing. So I quickly walked over to the young reader books, and that’s when I really started to worry: no May. Up one aisle, down another, more and more frantic. Finally, there she was; May was petite and she’d found a nice nook meant as an under counter storage area. I was overjoyed; I was so happy I remember it to this day.

Finding Joy

Have you lost something? Do you remember the joy of finding? This is what Jesus wants his listeners to remember: how much fun it is to find. He wants them to understand this is what God does, this is what makes God smile and laugh. Just like the shepherd finding the sheep, God’s joy leaps at finding the lost. And joy is shared. When the shepherd finds the sheep isn’t just happy himself, he comes home and tells his friends, tells the other shepherds. Can’t you imagine him doing it? I guess it might have been smart to keep the story of losing May quiet but I was so happy about finding her, I couldn’t resist telling her mother. I’m not sure this was a great recommendation for stepfather: that I had lost her daughter. But she couldn’t resist how happy I was about finding her.

Finding the lost isn’t free. Another church I served helped start a program to feed anyone who was hungry on Sundays four times a year. Now every church has one or two big events that have gone on for years and everyone enjoys; ours was a Thanksgiving dinner. We did the usual things church people do, held planning meetings and so on even though everyone always knew who would cook and the menu. The year we started the feeding program as it happened our turn to host the program coincided with our Thanksgiving dinner. This was a church with about the same number of people we have; the feeding program drew over a hundred each time.

No Turkey Dinner!

But our Deacons decided to go ahead and combine them, so we bought extra food and set extra places and when the Sunday of the thanksgiving dinner came, we had a line even before we opened the doors. A group of our long time members carefully found places at one end of the fellowship hall but as it turned out, that end was the last to be called up to be served. They did what people do: they complained to their pastor, me, about the time it was taking and I assured them all would be fine. I was wrong. By the time that group got up to the kitchen, we’d pretty much run out of turkey. There was a lot of criticism of this and along with some other church officers, I apologized endlessly. But then when I was back in the kitchen, one of our newer members came up and said, “Wasn’t that incredible? Wasn’t it amazing? One of those guys told me he’d never had a thanksgiving dinner like this.” Others talked about conversations with people they would never have met otherwise. It changed some hearts. I’m not sure who got found; I do know for certain, there was a lot of joy among some. But it did cost some people their turkey dinner.

Finding the lost, eating with them, is going to cost Jesus his whole life. It might cost yours. Here’s what he says: finding the lost is so wonderful, it’s worth it. Finding the lost is finding joy. Maybe you’ve lost something, like the woman in the other story. Have you ever had your engagement ring go down the drain? Have you ever put your wedding ring in a drawer and forgotten you did it? She’s a poor woman; we know this because she only has ten coins, ten drachmas. Now a Palestinian house is dark, no windows, so of course she needs to light a light. I think though it may also be that she’s doing what Jacquelyn does when she loses something; she cleans. Perhaps the light glints on the coin; perhaps it shows up in the sweeping. Like the shepherd, not only is she overwhelmed by joy, she just can’t help sharing it with others. “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’”

This is the experience Jesus wants to share: how to find joy, how to be part of a community of joy. Look for the lost, find the lost, embrace the lost. While the Pharisees are judging everyone, Jesus is creating a community of joy, inviting us to join him in finding the lost. We so love to make projects and work at them but look at these stories. The sheep doesn’t come to the shepherd, the shepherd comes to the sheep. The coin doesn’t come to the woman, the woman finds the coin. Finding joy doesn’t come from getting someone to work harder, to come to Jesus, even to come to church. It comes from finding someone, touching them with God’s love, being the means, like Jesus, of assuring them they are not lost to God, no one is lost to God.

A Community of Joy

I’ve been trying for a few weeks to think of a single slogan, a single phrase, that might serve as a theme for us. I realized as I thought about these stories that I was making it too complex. Jesus makes it simple: find joy by finding the lost. That makes God smile; that creates a community of joy. And isn’t that what we are meant to be as a church? It’s the reason we do collect coats, white goods, food, and other things. We are not a store for survival goods; these things are really a way of saying to someone, “You’re not lost: we found you!” And in finding the lost, we find joy. We are meant to be a community of such joy.

There are so many who feel lost. Every single one is cherished by God. What would you do if someone you loved was lost? A child, perhaps or even a pet. Think how people plaster neighborhoods with posters when a cat wanders away. God so loves the lost that God came in the person of Jesus Christ to find the lost. Do you remember being found? Do you remembering that joy, that feeling that finally you were found? Now we are followers of Jesus most when we find the lost, when we open our doors so wide, they can’t be mistaken for  something closed, when we make a way so there is no threshold, no barrier to anyone, when we like Jesus, find the lost. As we set out on another year together, let us be clear, let us share this one mission: we are here to find the lost and bring them home to the God who loves us all.