Come On Up! – Advent 1

Advent Directions 1:
Come On Up
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Advent 1/A • November 27, 2016

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Advent is an Interruption

Today I suppose many of us are turning from gatherings at which we celebrated the last great moment of fall, thanksgiving, toward the holiday season. In our house, that will mean brining boxes of decorations down from the attic, sorting through them, telling the stories that go with each one and putting them out. It will mean cleaning and making lists of things to do. Jacquelyn will be working on airplanes full of people traveling for the first time; I will be busy as well, considering our church has something planned for each weekend in December. We’ll all be busy. But here and now, today, God is calling in the midst of our lists and memories and decorating: stop! look! listen!—pay attention. God intends to interrupt us. Advent is an interruption.

The oracle we heard this morning is an interruption. We tend to take the Bible for granted, rarely remembering that somewhere, somehow, someone took bits and pieces, some written, some sung, some remembered and put them together into the books we know today. The Book of Isaiah starts out with a dark word of condemnation and then suddenly, out of nowhere, that Word is interrupted by this prophecy. The same prophecy also occurs in Micah; it’s as if God was saying, “This is so important, I want to make sure you get it so I’m going to repeat it!”.

The Lord’s Mountain is a Beacon

The oracle starts out with something strange because it’s not true today: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains…” [Isaiah 2:2] Now anyone who knows the geography of Judah can tell you that Mt. Zion, where the Lord’s house is located, where Jerusalem is and has been for more than 30 centuries, is not by any means the highest mountain. It’s not the highest in the world; it’s not the highest in that area. What does Isaiah mean? What does God mean by saying that it shall be raised up? One image of what we raise up is the beacon. Since ancient times, people have raised up beacons along shorelines; we call them light houses. Groping along in the fog, sailing in a storm, light houses, beacons, raised up and shining forth are not only a guide but a source of comfort. All sailors know their home light house. Isaiah is asking us to imagine that in the future, Jerusalem is raised up like a beacon, like a lighthouse.

Now a beacon has a purpose and the purpose is to draw travelers. But this vision of Isaiah is astonishing because the travelers it imagines drawing include…well, everyone! “Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.’” Who does Isaiah have in mind, who are these “many”? Only a moment later, Isaiah pictures the Lord judging between nations, making clear who the many are: all of us. Amazingly, surprisingly, it’s not just the nation of Judah, it’s not just the children of Abraham, it’s everyone, everyone is being summoned to walk in the light of the Lord.

Together-And Divided

All of us together, all of us walking together: that’s not our best thing as people. What we are best at is figuring out how different we are. In this culture, that often has to do with skin color. In other cultures, it has often has to do with religion. In some cultures it’s a matter of birth. Jacquelyn and I have been watching a series about Queen Elizabeth II, and the British royal family and it’s made me wonder what it must be like to have your whole life dictated by the family into which you are born. India has a system of castes and even today, though legally banned, the caste into which you are born influences your life. We mark differences by clothing, food, custom. When we come to a meeting, for example, we assume we will sit in chairs; two thirds of the world’s people don’t use chairs. How can we meet with them?

God’s Future: Inclusive

So when God asks us to imagine all of us together, walking together, it is an interruption; it is not what we normally do, it is not what we ever do. When will this be? “In days to come…” So now you know: now we know, this is where we are going, this is God’s vision of our future. This vision has three parts. First, it is inclusive: many come, nations come, peoples come and when they come, they are coming up from where they are to a higher understanding. This is not just a trip, it’s a pilgrimage, a place to experience God’s Word as a living reality: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” [Isaiah 2:3b] God means to interrupt our journey and invite us to a pilgrimage. Like a mariner anxiously wandering who suddenly sees the loom of a light house and knows his or her position, God is creating a beacon to show us where to go.

God’s Vision: Peace

Second, this is a vision of peace. “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” [Isaiah 2:4b] Did you catch the last part: war forgotten—“neither shall they learn war any more.” Rick Atkinson has written a series of books with a painfully detailed account of World War II. His account focuses on the individual experience of people caught in the war and in his first volume, An Army at Dawn, he traces how plain American men had to learn to become killers in order to win battles.

War is not natural; it is learned. Yet thinking over my life, I can’t think of a time we weren’t at war. I grew on stories from World War II and was born as the Korean War ended. I loved playing with toy soldiers and my friends and I endlessly acted out little battles. Perhaps like you, I remember the fears of nuclear war and atom bomb drills in schools. I was formed intellectually in the antiwar movement of the 1960’s and ordained as the Vietnam War ended. Much of my adult life has been lived with the rhetoric of a war on terror. What if that were interrupted: what if we stopped learning war?

God’s Vision: Walking Together in the Light

The third part of this vision is simple: walking together in the light. Isn’t this what we do when we are with someone we love? Early on in my relationship with Jacquelyn, I remember vividly how she told me, “I want someone to hold my hand.” We all want someone to walk beside. Bruce Springsteen’s song, Land of Hopes and Dreams, imagines a great train on the way to a land of hopes and dreams. He sings,
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
And then he goes on to describe the passengers on the train,
This train…Carries saints and sinners
This train…Carries losers and winners
All of us: saints and sinners, winner and losers, all children of God, all together, all on a pilgrimage.

Today and Tomorrow

This is not where we are today. We are still divided into groups. We are still learning war. We are still walking so often in darkness. That is our present. What Isaiah preaches, what God means to do is to interrupt that present with a hope about our future, a vision of that future.

Have you seen glimpses of this? I have and often the glimpses come in a particular circumstance. The Snow Goose is the story of a hump-backed man with a hand shaped like a claw so hurt by the way others draw away that he himself retreats. He’s a painter and a photographer and a sailor; he buys a lighthouse and a salt marsh in England and there he lives alone, sailing the shore and caring for birds. His name is Philip Rhyader, but no one calls him that; to the villagers who whisper about the ogre out by the lighthouse, he’s “that odd looking chap” or simply “Rhyader”.

But one day a girl from the fishing village comes to him, holding something: a wounded goose. She’s desperately afraid of the ogre by the lighthouse but she’s heard he has healing powers. So she goes to him, shows him the goose. Together, they work to splint the bird’s wing, together they nurse it back to health. Her name is Frith and one day, he hears something strange and wonderful. The goose is almost healed; she’s happy. And she calls him Philip. In the act of healing, Philip and Frith have become friends.

Advent is an Interruption

Isaiah’s vision is a reality meant to interrupt the reality we take for granted. Today as we begin the season of Advent, God means to interrupt us, interrupt our shopping, interrupt our plans, interrupt our lists to remind us that we are not people of the present: we are people of hope. I have seen the present but I have seen this vision sometimes, I have caught glimpses of it, and those most often when, like Philip and Frith, people share together in some healing, some peace making, some gathering. Then indeed, then quiet as a breeze or the beam of a lighthouse, everything is interrupted and I hear, we hear, the call to come up, up from where we are, to the hope of God’s vision; to come up and walk in the light of the Lord.

Rejoice All Ways

Rejoice All Ways

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Thanksgiving Sunday • November 20, 2016
Philippians 4:7-25

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, “Rejoice!” -Philippians 4:7

Times to Rejoice

On a cold December night in Michigan, my granddaughter Maggie was first slipped into my arms and I was so happy: that moment defined the word ‘Rejoice’. A couple days before, her husband had called and told me my daughter, Amy, had complications from the delivery. Jacquelyn, May and I piled in the car and drove through a snow night to Michigan. When we got there, the crisis had passed and we had the joy of this beautiful baby girl. We rejoiced.

Of course, I can think of other things that have made me rejoice: the simple, honest purity of a good breeze on the water filling the sails and the boat lifting, making the special music of a perfectly trimmed sailboat as she burbles forward. There is the moment, captured in my memory like a diamond on a girl’s finger, when I looked up the aisle of my church and saw Jacquelyn glowing at the other end, beginning to walk toward me at our wedding. I know you have a list of such moments and today would be a great day to share some with others at coffee hour.

Julie Andrews famously sang in The Sound of Music about “…a few of my favorite things”. We all have them. They make us happy, they give us joy, and I suppose that feeling, those things, are the first things that come to mind when we hear Paul’s command to rejoice. But he isn’t content with happy: he expands the thought to say, “Rejoice always.” How can we rejoice always? Because we do not live only in our favorite happy moments: there are all the other ones as well. How can we rejoice in those?

Paul’s Call to Rejoice

Paul is not having a happy moment. He was in prison when he wrote this letter; historians disagree on whether he was in Rome or Ephesus, but there’s no disagreement that he had been imprisoned and probably, as he says in other places, beaten. Paul was a disturber of Jewish synagogues and communities. More than that, the language he and Luke were starting to use about Jesus was a direct confrontation of the Roman Emperor. It’s always important to remember Jesus was executed for political crimes, for proclaiming the rule of God. Now, Paul and Luke and others are using the language of the emperor to speak about him. So it’s especially curious in that setting that in his final summary to the church at Philippi, he calls on them to rejoice. What does he have to be happy about? What do they? What do we?

Doesn’t rejoicing often come from telling stories? We gather perhaps for dinner, we tell stories of other dinners, other times and the stories help us understand who we are together, how much we are cared for in the circle of that gathering. Now we have a story as Congregationalists as well. It’s the story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving.

The Story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving

There are many moments since Paul when the light of the love of God has become muddy with human rules and practices. Five centuries ago, a group of people in England just like us were searching for that light. They gathered, a few at a time, listened to the Bible, discussed it, prayed and began to imagine the churches they heard about there. They lived in a moment when churches had been hollowed out by human greed and jealousy. Bit by bit, they imagined and dreamed of a church that was purified and their opponents called them Puritans. Because the new church they imagined would have no bishops, it threatened the whole English establishment. So King James responded by arresting some, executing a few and pushing the others to emigrate. They moved to Holland, to Leyden. But the foreign customs and language there made them long for a new place, their own place and almost exactly 400 years ago, they began to arrange to create such a place in the new world.

Finally, in 1620, a group of them left their pastor and church, returned to England and made ready to sail. There were only 50 or so Puritans on board and another 50 people were recruited because they were carpenters or had other needed skills. They departed at the beginning of September; a sister ship, the Speedwell, went too but had to return when it was too leaky. They were at sea for 66 days. Two months, most of it spent below decks, with their goats and other animals. Two months where anyone over five feet tall had to bend because the ceiling was low; two months of the boat moving and rolling. They expected to land in Virginia; instead, they made landfall on Cape Cod in early November. Although they weren’t where they were expected, they rejoiced and their Deacon, William Bradford, led them in singing Psalm 100, the same Psalm we shared today.

After some exploration, they settled in the area we now call Plymouth, partly because it’s wide tidal beach made landing easy and it appeared vacant. In January—January in Massachusetts!—they began building houses, joining the single men with the 19 families to form groups. Over the next month, they built their community—and 31 of them died, a third of the company. By the end of that first winter, almost half the original community were gone. Did they have a reason to rejoice? Yet we find in their writing, a curious faith, a deep joy. Its source is their absolute conviction that, as Paul says, “The Lord is near”. Living near the Lord, despite the cold, the hunger, the sickness, they continued to rejoice. They made friends with local native people; they learned to plant corn. Children were born.

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving

That fall, with the harvest in, they set a day of community thanksgiving. They did what Puritans often did then, a tradition Congregationalists have mostly dropped: they held a day of fasting and humiliation. But at the end of it they had a party. And they did what we do with parties, they invited their friends and neighbors, in this case the local native chief. Much to their surprise, not only did he come, he brought 103 men with him. Now the Puritans, the people later generations would call Pilgrims, didn’t have a lot. They hadn’t figured out cranberries were good to eat but they had blueberries. They had corn prepared in various ways. Turkeys they had: these could be caught by hand. The native men looked around and realized that these people didn’t know about deer season; they left and brought several back with them. Perhaps that’s where the tradition of bringing something with you to thanksgiving dinner originated. After the feast, the native men did something else: they taught them a game we call lacrosse, a game that contributed to the beginning of football. So you see, even then they watched the game.

What Are We Celebrating?

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving was not the first by Europeans in America. But it spread throughout New England and then into places like Ohio and Michigan and across the north. During the Civil War, when President Lincoln was looking for a symbol of national unity, he was the first President to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national day, a day of unity, time to set aside political and social conflicts and celebrate our common gratitude for God’s blessings.

But what are we celebrating? At many tables this week, everyone will be encouraged to say something for which they are thankful. It’s a wonderful custom and I recommend it to you. But if our joy is measured by our prosperity alone, we will have missed the spiritual message. For thanksgiving is not pay back: get good stuff from God, say thank you like your grandmother taught you. Thanksgiving is a way to say, we know you are near God, we see you sustain us God, we know whatever happens, we can depend on you, we can believe in you, we can have faith in you. That’s why we can rejoice always: in prison, in freedom, in hunger, in prosperity: the Lord is near.

Paul points the way to make this thanksgiving a central part of our lives. He lists marks of Christian life: “..whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise”. And then in a part beyond the set reading for today he says,

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Phil. 4:11b-13]

God’s Presence: a Reason to Rejoice

It is his consciousness of God’s presence, a consciousness honed in all the ways of life, in prosperity and in need, in fear and in triumph, that allows him to rejoice.
So also let us give thanks, not as repayment, but as rejoicing, rejoicing in all ways, in all the ways God has led us. Let us share the stories that lead us to thanksgiving; let us remember the stories of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving. They set a table but had no idea who would show up; so also, our table is always left open, always has room. From their little community would grow a great tradition of freedom, of thanksgiving, of rejoicing in all ways. Today we are their inheritors; today we also are called to rejoice always.


Do Over, Do Now

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Do Over, Do Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25

“I want a do over.” I was standing in the cockpit of my boat, trying to back out of the slip. There were two things different about this time. First, we had an audience; some friends had come over to say goodbye. Second, it had gone totally wrong. Jacquelyn cast off the lines at the front perfectly. I put the boat in reverse, all 17,000 pounds started to move backward and then it stuck and swung the wrong way. Everyone hurried to help, but the boat didn’t respond. Finally I figured out that I had left one of the lines on the stern tying us to the dock connected; as soon as I untied it, we were fine. But I had looked ridiculous and created a dangerous situation and all in front of our friends. I wanted a do over.

“I want a do over.” The first time I remember hearing the phrase was from my son. We were playing with a basketball; some game where we took turns throwing it at a basket, trying to get to a score. He would miss and say, “I want a do over” and come up with some excuse, some reason: he was off balance, the ball had slipped: something. Later on, I came to the same feeling on my own, mostly as a parent. No one prepared me for the fact that parenting was so arbitrary, so make-it-up-as-you-go. There were so many times I wanted a do over. Have you ever felt that way? I wonder if that is how God feels about the world: “I want a do over”. In English, we have “Behold I make a new creation” but the Hebrew really says, “Look at me, I’m making a new heaven and earth. “I’m having a do over.”

Understanding Isaiah’s Word

We have to understand the setting to which Isaiah brought the word we heard this morning. God’s people had been disastrously defeated 80 years or so before, a defeat that shook their souls as well as destroying their nation. Thousands became refugees and many were taken into captivity in the foreign city of Babylon. Ever since, God’s people have listened to their grand parents tell them, “In Jerusalem, the gardens were better…in Jerusalem, the weather was better…in Jerusalem, the temple was better”. Now the Persian king has released the Jews and some have returned to Jerusalem. But they’ve gone home to something like Berlin in 1945 or Aleppo today: a wiped out city with ruined buildings. This is the moment in which Isaiah speaks this Word from God and he speaks it to people who must have thought, “We need a do over.”

Our Destination

So we have this Word and the Word really is about where we’re going. What is our ultimate destination? I’ve lived most of my life along the great parallel defined by I-90, a road that begins in Boston, runs through New York, loops south to take account of the Great Lakes, runs through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, up through Wisconsin and Minnesota, then across South Dakota and Montana, where it rises into the mountains and snakes through the passes of Idaho before it flows out into the desert of Eastern Washington, jumps the Columbia River and ends in Seattle. I’ve lived in Seattle, I’ve lived in Boston, and no matter which I was in, I never forgot the one at the other end. I knew the road had a destination; I knew where it was going. God is offering a vision here of where we are going. I’m making new heavens and earth and this is what it’s like: you’re going to enjoy it, you’re going to build houses and live in them, have a vineyard and enjoy its wine. It takes a long time for vineyards to bear fruit but you’ll still be there. I’m going to be there and I’m going to anticipate your every want. Thirdly, the wolf and the lamb are going to lie down: in other words, there is going to be peace, even the natural world is going to be at peace. That’s where we’re going; that’s what the do over is for: that’s our destination. Don’t worry about the trip: God knows where we are going.

Jesus: Endure

The same faith flows through what Jesus says in the reading from Luke. Jesus is a rural person and so are most of his followers. Think how they must have been dazzled by Jerusalem; think how the big buildings, the sights, the sounds, the smells must have impressed them. They must have felt this was a permanent place. Yet now Jesus tells them it’s all going to be destroyed, desolated: “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Just 35 years or so after Jesus said this, it came true, and Luke’s readers know it’s true. Like the shock of Pearl Harbor or the towers falling on September 11, they are living in a moment of shocked grief when it must have seemed, as the poet Yeats said,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

He goes on to warn them about the immediate aftermath: violent times, demagogues, false preachers, persecution. All these things have happened in the life and experience of the Luke’s audience. Yet at the end Jesus invites them to this one faith: that in the love of God, there is a permanent place: “…not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Our future is in the hands of a God who loves us.

What About Now?

So: we know where we are going—what about now? What do we do now? Because we know it’s not like that now. The wolves and lambs are not lying down together now. What we are doing is living between the past and that vision. These readings have two ideas about what to do now.

Work Here, Work Now

The first is to work here and now toward that vision. Someone said the Puritans were so effective because they believed everything depended on God but they acted like everything depended on them. They believed God’s faithfulness; they lived faithfully to God. Our nation has come through a long and divisive campaign. Some are triumphant today; many are despondent. But our future is in God’s hands. Our mission remains the same: to sustain here a community of care, where God’s love is evident in the embrace of people who have been embraced by Christ. The Rabbis say: if the Messiah comes, still finish your Torah study for the day. Work is the creative activity by which we are carrying out God’s will in the world. So we are called to work now, we are called to work here, for justice, for the embodiment of peace. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of forgiveness. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of finding the lost. We change the world when we do this now.


The second thing to do is witness. Luke is writing about 15 years after everything he says in this section has already happened. The temple is already destroyed; people are already being arrested for being Christian. What Luke understands to be our job in the present is to witness. Don’t worry about how you do it either, Luke says. This part always makes me smile at books on how to witness. How do you witness? Live your life: that’s your witness. Live your life in a way that allows Christ to make a difference. A number of social researchers have looked at Christians and others in terms of their behavior; what they find is being Christian often makes little difference. Your witness is to let Christ make a difference in your life now.

Because Christ can make a difference, in good times, in bad times. In 1945, just before his execution by the Nazis for resistance, a German soldier wrote these words to his mother.

Dear Mother: Today, together with Jorgen, Nils and Ludwig, I was arraigned before a Military tribunal. We were condemned to death. I know that you are a courageous woman, and that you will bear this, but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it, you must also understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere— in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile. You will encounter that something which perhaps had value in me, you will cherish it and you will not forget me. And so I shall have a chance to grow, to become large and mature.

Amazing Grace

God’s work in the world through people who endure in faith is amazing.
The people that went into exile in Babylon did return and rebuild Jerusalem but they did something far more significant. While they were in exile, the stories, the teachings, the books that now know as the Hebrew Scriptures were brought together and given their final form. The kings and armies and politics of that time are just obscure footnotes read by historians today. The scriptures they brought together have inspired three great faiths and people ever since.
The little group, not as many as are here today, who heard Jesus and endured in their faith in him and his teaching and his vision of God’s reign did see the temple fall, did see the persecution but they endured. They kept his memory; they became his body. Through all our stumbling history, that faith continues today and we are their inheritors. In our lives, in our witness, it has, as the resistance either said, “..a chance to grow, to become large and mature.”

So grieve, celebrate, take a moment to bind up wounds and see where you are. But remember that where we are is not where we are going. Where we are going is in the hands of a God beyond our vision of greatness or defeat. When we grieve, we should not do it as people without hope, as Paul says, but as people who have put their hope in the God who doesn’t fail. The creative God who when all seems dark still can say: “I’ll have a do over: behold, a new creation.” Let us give thanks to God as we work, as we witness, as we wait for God to make the new creation.

The Architecture of Blessing

The Architecture of Blessing
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
All Saints Day • November 6, 2016

Some here today have an amazing history: they have been members for more than 50 years. We recognize and honor such long-term commitment and bless you for your steady, sure faithfulness. Then there are those of us who are newer members, who came here for a whole host of different reasons and have become part of this historic congregation. And of course, there is Rosemary, our newest participant: Rosie’s never been to another church. God blends us together, bakes us in the day to day of living our faith, and makes something wonderful: the bread of life.

Blessed by Our Building

One of the many things that bind us together is this building. Take a moment to look around; if you can, look over the side of your pew and see if there isn’t a plaque there remembering someone. Next year will mark 100 years since the groundbreaking for this building. But I’m sure it began long before that moment. The architect of the building was Albert W. Fuller. Fuller started training in 1873, 44 years before that ground-breaking. When did Fuller first imagine the building that became our church: did he always have the idea or did it come to him after he was commissioned? No one can really know. But surely long before he drew the plans, long before he showed the committee, he must have had a vision in his mind. Fuller imagined something unique and wonderful. “Greek Revival,” the style of the building, was not an obvious choice. He specified steel beams which allowed us to have this great, open area, at the time the largest open space in a building in Albany. He designed the pillars out front and I’m sure many other parts of the building. And when the building was constructed, I suspect Fuller inspected each step. The result is this wonderful space in which we worship. I never met Fuller; he died in 1934. I suspect none of you met him either. But every Sunday, we benefit from his imagination, his vision. We gather and we are blessed by what he did. He is an essential part of what we do, whether we always remember that or not. His vision blesses us with this wonderful place to meet.

All Saints Sunday

Today is a special day in our worship calendar, called “All Saints Sunday”. What is a saint? It translates a word in the Bible that means “chosen”. Saints are people chosen to accomplish a mission for God’s people. Some church traditions name their saints in particular and even have a bureaucratic process for identifying them. Our fathers and mothers in the faith believed, and we believe, all God’s people are saints: all have a purpose, a vocation, from God. One way to describe that vocation is to simply say: we are meant to be a blessing, every single one of us. Our purpose is to be a mutual blessing.
This was God’s plan from the beginning. Right in Genesis, right at creation, it says that God blessed the first human beings. Later, when God began to work in history through Abram and Sarai, God’s said, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Genesis 12:3] Today we read one of the most familiar parts of the Gospel, often called the Beatitudes, the blessings. Both Matthew and Luke record similar sets of blessings, as does the Gospel of Thomas. When I first learned them, I thought them quite strange because the people teaching at the time suggested they were prescriptions, things we should do. But who wants to do this?

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, 
and when they exclude you, revile you, 
and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Wow. Who wants to be hungry? Who wants to weep? Who wants to be excluded, hated, reviled? This is what we should do? This is what Christ wants us to do? No thanks, not me.

The Beatitudes: Descriptive

Only later did I recognize that these blessings—and woes!—aren’t a prescription, a set of duties; they are a description. Just as Fuller imagined the architecture of this meeting house, Jesus is asking us to imagine what life looks like when we live with God ruling our lives. Jesus is describing the architecture of spiritual life. The word itself means an inner joy, a soul lit up and shining. God means to light the world in a way that makes our souls lift with praise and joy.

Those are great moments; I hope you’ve had many. But we also know not every moment is like that. There are hard moments as well, dark moments, times when the cold wind of depression blows through us like a damp November moving in. So Jesus is describing those realities here and imagining with the disciples how blessing works. Blessing happens when there is nothing in the way, when we aren’t distracted by things: in other words when we are poor. Just as hunger moves us to eat and, if we are fortunate, find sustenance, when we are empty we are thankful for being filled. That’s a spiritual reality as well as a physical one. So when we feel empty, we should live in the confidence that God we will be filled. There is a rhythm to spiritual life, times of vision and blindness, times of blessing—and woe. Jesus mentions these as well.
If this is a description of the architecture of blessing, what is Jesus teaching his disciples to do? What does he hope we will do. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, says, “You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings.” How do we participate? That’s the function of the final section in this reading. Jesus says five things.

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you want to understand these, imagine a parent with a child.

Doing Blessing

My older daughter, Amy, thought it was fun when she was little to surprise me by running and jumping into my arms. It was fun when she was little; as she got older and bigger it was harder. The last time she did it she was about 11, she took a couple steps of running, leaped, and I just caught her, at which point she knocked me over and I hit my head. There was a moment of silence until she said, “Are you ok?” and I waited for the stars I was seeing to go away and said, “Yes but I think we need to stop doing this.” Now I know everyone who has a child eventually has bruises: would you hit the child back? Of course not. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” You can see where this is going: when did your child take your coat and leave you shivering? When did they take something—and it never would have occurred to you to ask for it back.

What Jesus is offering is the architecture of blessing: this is what it looks like, this is how it works, because this is how God is with us. This is what makes blessing take hold, grow, blossom and bear fruit. It begins when we choose to imagine the best in each other; it grows as we practice appreciating others and seeing each one as God’s blessing. It blossoms as we every day do unto others as we would have them do to us—a way of recognizing that we are both God’s children, both called to be a means of blessing here.
I asked our church historian, John Dennehey, to help me with this sermon because he’s so knowledgeable. I asked him about the building but he wrote back something I didn’t know that was so much more inspiring. He said,

the original plan wasn’t to leave the downtown. The church had a membership made up of the well-to-do in the city nd the church owned its own building which was prominently located near Albany’s City Hall and the “new” State Capital Building…
However the church was contacted by residents in this area because residents were running a Sunday school on Ontario Street and wanted to “connect” with an actual church. All the other churches turned them down. Our church not only agreed to affiliate, but also made it our mission to send the minster and a deacon (sometimes more) to lead the Sunday School. 
At this time, the neighborhood was outside the city limits and the only Trolley stopped by Lake Avenue and the CDPC requiring a bit of a trek ..(especially while hauling Sunday School books).
Eventually, the discussion among church members led to the proposal to develop a satellite “chapel” in this neighborhood where services could be held following the services downtown. …it was evident that the community here needed a real commitment and an actual “church” rather than an informal “chapel.” 
Church leaders had many discussions about the pros and cons of relocation. One of the big “cons” was that the “well to do” members wouldn’t find the new church as easily accessible, even with the best of intentions, to attend as frequently as possible. Hence, the huge risk involved (no church likes to lose prominent members with deep pockets).

Those church members had to make a choice and they chose to bless future generations, people they didn’t know, future saints. Who are these future saints? Us: you and I, fifty-year members all the way to people like Rosie and I who are pretty new. They did what Jesus said: treated us the way they would want to be treated. Now it’s up to us to continue that blessing. We also are called on to make choices; we also have the opportunity to bless the future as they did.

For All the Saints

This morning, as you came in, you were invited to note the name of someone who especially blessed your life, some saint who helped you and perhaps helped you find faith. Living faith is not something you can order online or buy at a store; it is not something that comes gift wrapped like a sweater at Christmas. It is something given hand to hand, passed on person to person. It is the blessing that comes from imagining what hasn’t happened. It is the blessing of saying “thank you”, appreciating what has been done to allow us to be here, to do what we do, to go forward together. It is remembering in our imagination those past Saints and imagining the ones to come. The most important imagining is when we imagine someone as a child of God. It’s easy to get annoyed at someone, especially if you don’t know them. It’s easy to look away or ignore them, or rant in your head. It’s harder to see them as Jesus sees them, as God sees them, as a blessing waiting to blossom. But each one is exactly that. You are; I am. And together, with all the others, past and present—and future!—we are “All Saints”. Together, we can be the architects of blessing.

Thank you!

A special thanks to John Dennehey, church historia at First Congregational Church of Albany, for his help with this sermon.

Jesus Visits

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Jesus Visits
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • October 30, 2016

Jesus said to [Zaccheus], “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.
— Luke 19:9-10

Visiting Jericho

“Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” Did you grow up with that song? I did; I can’t help it running through my head when I read about him. So many of the Bible characters are overlain by songs and stories we’ve heard, made up over the years. How did you imagine Zaccheus when I read the story? How did you imagine the scene?

There are some things in the story Luke would have known we may not. Jericho is an ancient city that was the last stop on the way to Jerusalem. In fact, this story marks the end of a long section in the gospel, the section we’ve been reading through with its parables and stories of lost people being forgiven and reclaimed by Jesus. Jericho is a way station; it’s on the way to Jerusalem and Luke knows what will happen there, as we do, don’t we? It’s fall here, a long way from Palm Sunday in our calendar, but in the gospel, we’re right on the edge of arriving at Jerusalem.

Jesus has collected a crowd around him and the approaches to the city are full of stalls where people are selling all kinds of things. Over there is brightly dyed cloth and someone else has pottery. There are jewelers and someone selling used donkeys. Now bazaar sellers are great marketers. They don’t wait for you to come to their stall, they grab your arm, they thrust their pots and tunics and camels right at you. “Here, see this blanket, I should ask 5 denarii for it, but today I’m feeling crazy and, for some reason, I’ll let it go for three!”, one says, while another is pushing fresh bread, “Just try it, try one bite, you won’t be able to resist!” Jesus and his friends make their way through this crowd. The smells of food cooking, the donkey smells too, the conversations in many languages, the pushing, the jostling. the beggars and of course the constant wariness about pickpockets, all this is going on. What is it like to be in a crowd? We’ve all been there; maybe you went to a festival, Lark Street or somewhere, maybe you’ve gone to a parade. There are the colors, music, people, pushing, jostling. Not much has changed about this, so it shouldn’t be hard for us to feel what it’s like.

Jesus in Jericho

Jesus is a minor celebrity. They’ve heard he’s a healer, a teacher, maybe someone who is coming to do something about the Romans. He’s a parade waiting to happen, an event always about to occur. You can’t stay home and watch it on CNN because television won’t be invented for a few hundred years, so you have to go yourself. And of course you go with friends. There they are: all together, the ones who believe him, the ones who jeer, the ones who just want to sell “Jesus for Messiah” tunics, the hopeful ones, the dirty ones, the followers, the curious, all making a crowd in this bazaar.

But one of them isn’t there with friends. His name is Zaccheus and he doesn’t have friends, just clients, and angry ones at that. Zaccheus is a little man who does the dirty work for Herod, collecting taxes, enforcing payment. People say he cheats and maybe he does; he’s a sharp competitor. He’s probably rich; not many are. Just like we aren’t as familiar with the geography that Luke knows, we aren’t as tuned into the politics. But we can understand it. After all, we are in the midst of an amazingly divisive political campaign. It isn’t partisan to comment people are losing friends and deleting them on Facebook over backing different candidates.


Zaccheus is a rich collaborator with the Roman-backed government. He’s not the kind of man you invite home to dinner or buy a drink for in the local tavern. Zaccheus may have a nice house but no one visits there, no one drops by and says, “I was just wondering how you were doing, Zach.” What does such a man think about at the end of the day? What does he hope? What does he wish? I think of him as a man who has become isolated. He has lots of things; he may not have lots of fun.

Zaccheus is curious like everyone else. But he isn’t big enough to bull his way through the crowd and anyway I imagine most crowds around there included some people who would have been happy to see him knocked around a bit. So he climbs a tree, a sycamore tree. It’s not a big tree, but it has lots of branches and there he sits, all alone, up in his tree, waiting for this Jesus to come past, waiting for a glimpse of…what? What exactly did Zaccheus hope to see? The story says, “He wanted to see who Jesus was”. Isn’t that in a sense what we all want? Sunday after Sunday we come here hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus. All over this community, all over everywhere, Christians are in churches where they will hear stories they’ve heard before, just like us, hoping to see Jesus.

A Child of God

Whatever Zaccheus hoped, up there in his tree, surely he wasn’t prepared for what happened. Jesus is walking past, the center of this crowd, people are yelling prices, people are calling questions, people are asking for healing, it’s a noisy crowd and suddenly he stops and the noise must have stopped too. Just that moment of stillness, right there, right under the tree, and Jesus looks up and sees this man, this lonely little man, up in a tree. And right there, right then, he smiles and speaks.

We don’t really know what was said; did he greet him: “Shalom”? Luke says he called out, “Zaccheus, come down, I must stay at your house today” . What went on in Zaccheus in that moment? What went on in you when someone called you out of your tree? There’s a low murmur from the crowd; they know there are a lot of people in Jericho who deserve this special recognition more than this tax collector. He’s not one of us, he’s not a good man, he doesn’t go to worship, he doesn’t pay his tithe, he doesn’t do right. “Jesus! Some Messiah! Look, off to have dinner with that sinner!”, they say. The crowd looks at Zaccheus and sees just this: the difficult little man who doesn’t fit in. But Jesus sees something else. To Jesus, Zaccheus is a son of Abraham. That is—a child of God, a person God meant to make a blessing. This is how Jesus sees Zaccheus; whatever Zaccheus sees, this is what Jesus sees in him.

Jesus Visits

Zaccheus comes down and makes promises about helping the poor and changing his life. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t; who knows if he paid his pledge? But for that moment, at least for that moment, his life changed, not because he saw Jesus, but because he saw Jesus seeing him. Because Jesus came to him and called him out of his tree. “Come down, Zaccheus”.

This is what Jesus does: he comes to people, some are lost, some are waiting to be found. He comes to them and sees them and helps them see themselves in a new way. He sees the child of God in them.

Now we all come to see Jesus but what we really need is to see others as Jesus sees. This is the deep challenge he makes, every day: can we look at others as Jesus sees them? WE have so many categories for people: friends, enemies, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers. Even in the church, we do it: visitors, regulars, members, pastors, officers. Jesus has one category: child of God. When we look at someone that way, Jesus visits them too, just as he did with Zaccheus.

Someone Who Blessed Me

Let me tell you about someone who helped me by seeing me that way. Mercedes Carlson was an older lady in 1995 when I began preaching here. She was short and round, just like Zaccheus. She had one of those smiles that suggested she knew there was a great party somewhere and just might tell you about it. We all choose pews that become our regular place and Mercedes’ pew was down in front to my left. Those were difficult days for me. My father had recently died, I’d moved alone to a new community and a new church. I was used to preaching to a full congregation. My former church was full every week; my new one had lots of empty space and I found those rows of empty pews intimidating. People here weren’t too sure about the new pastor; like most churches, it was tough to make the transition.

But every Sunday, as I stood greeting at the back of the church, Mercedes would come and smile and say, “Thank you, Pastor, that was a terrific sermon!” In fact, she was so consistent in her enthusiasm for my sermons that after a few Sundays I began to suspect that maybe she did not have a critical facility. I soon learned, however, that it wasn’t a lack of critical facility; it was just that Mercedes couldn’t hear. When I first found this out, I was a little dismayed, to be honest; I’d relied a bit on the emotional satisfaction of knowing that someone really liked my preaching—it was tough to realize she hadn’t heard a word of it! But she did something much better than all the sermon evaluators of all time: she had gave me a unique and special grace. She didn’t have to hear my words; she only had to know I was God’s child and doing my best.

We all have this capability, to look at someone the way Jesus looked, to give them the grace they need to come down out of their tree. God didn’t put us here just to watch. We have a mission. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” That’s what he hopes we will do: that’s what he does with us. Every time we look at someone with the eyes of Jesus, every time we give someone the grace they need to come down out of their tree, Jesus visits. Go with God: be the blessing God intended.