Light One Candle

Light One Candle

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Christmas Eve • December 24, 2016

What did you bring with you tonight? Who did you bring? I am so aware that especially on Christmas Eve, we come here with so many memories. Some here are in a place that has served as a lighthouse in the sometimes troubled seas of life: a constant point of reference, a place that is familiar and comforting. Others haven’t crossed the threshold of a church in a while and may be a bit nervous; to you we especially say, welcome, we promise, you’ll get out of here unhurt, safe and sound.

We all bring memories. Perhaps you remember being a child, bundled up, taken to a church, made to sit still, hushed when everything in you is vibrating with expectancy. Maybe you sat with family later on as an adult or you came to church hoping to recover that joy, that hope, that light. Of course, we come here as well with more recent experiences. Things happened this week; there are victims of violence today who were happily getting ready for Christmas last Saturday. There are refugees today who are traveling, just as Mary and Joseph traveled. And there are babies. A picture of a baby that moved me this week showed a baby in Aleppo, Syria, sleeping in a cardboard box. And tonight we read Luke’s story of another refugee baby named Jesus.

The Story of Jesus’ Birth

We all know this story, or think we do. But if we delve into the details of the Bible story instead of the greeting card version, we may be surprised. The story starts with big, threatening people: Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius. They are the Donald Trump, the Andrew Cuomo of their moment. They’ve ordered a census, a count, and the reason as Luke’s readers know is so they can tax people. This story starts with people on the road, forced there by a government of the great and powerful.

But it’s mostly a family story. Just before the section we read, Mary finds out she’s pregnant. What does she do? She runs off to Aunt Elizabeth’s house: she goes to family. There she finds the strength and faith to return and bear the child. The journey to Bethlehem is caused by Joseph’s family connection. His line goes back to David and comes from there, it’s their ancestral home.. Joseph is going home and taking his fiancée with him. It’s the family that sustains them; it’s the family that lasts. Long ago, God said to Abraham and Sarah, “I’m going to make your family a blessing to the whole earth.” The great and powerful parade; the family endures, the blessing blossoms from them.

So this family, just at its beginning, slowly moves in the darkness of the winter toward the old family home. I’m sure they hope they can get settled before the baby comes; I’m sure they hope to find a warm, safe place for their first child.

But babies don’t wait, babies don’t care about convenience, so along the way, we read that the baby comes. Most of us have watched Christmas pageants that imagine a Holiday Inn with a No Vacancy sign but that’s not actually what Luke says. Big houses in Palestinian villages had a room called a ‘kataluma’, sometimes translated an upper room. It’s where you put guests; it’s where Jesus will someday gather his followers for the last supper. It’s this room that’s full and so these travelers do what travelers have always done, they sleep in a barn. The baby is born; they wrap him in swaddling clothes. The Syrian mother I mentioned put her baby in a cardboard box; Mary puts Jesus in the first century equivalent, a manger, a sort of box for feeding grain.

God works through babies

Do you remember the seeing a newborn baby? One of the first churches I served had lots of families having babies and I still remember the wonder of those hospital calls. I wasn’t a parent yet but I could still see something earth-shaking had happened. Later on, as a pastor in my own church, there were times I felt overwhelmed and defeated. One of the ways I learned to find God’s love again after hospital calls was to go to the nursery and just see the new babies there. Lasts summer, I came home from vacation when Rosemary was born. She was so tiny. She was born prematurely and I remember her stretched out, naked to the world, so vulnerable. Yet this is how God changes the world. Like lighting candles in a dark room, God works through babies born to bless us all.

The story of Jesus moves on. We started with the power people of the time, we end with the powerless: shepherds, a group of rascally boys everyone rolls their eyes over. But they have something the powerful people will never have: they have a vision, a light, a visitation from angels. This is a truly amazing thing: God is moving into the world but no one tells the powerful; the angels do not sing to them, do not visit them. Herod, the local king, in fact, according to Matthew, is going to have to ask some foreign wise men where all this happens. The powerful have no idea what’s going on; the shepherds are already on their way to the stable. God is working here but it’s not the powerful who get it, it’s the ones who are watching, who have room in their lives for the light of God. Do you have room? We have so much: this story asks if we will make room for God.

Light One Candle

In a moment, we’re going to light candles, beginning with the Christ Candle. The candles remind us that God began with the smallest of lights, a baby, a family, one cry in a barn, one child being born. I began by asking what you brought with you; now I want to ask what you will take with you. I want to suggest this: take the candle. Tonight, tomorrow, we celebrate the birth of Jesus; tonight, tomorrow, we remember God is in the world, God’s kingdom is within us, waiting and wanting to burst out. We are, each one, a light.

So take the candle home. It’s not a big candle; God doesn’t need big, God is great. Take the candle home: set it up. Light one candle. Peter, Paul and Mary have a wonderful song that says,

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago

Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart

And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts 
Don’t let the light go out!

It’s lasted for so many years!

Don’t let the light go out!

Let it shine through our hope and our tears. (2)

Take the candle, set it up, light it up. It’s a small candle. But then, we’re celebrating the birth of a small baby tonight and this is what he says about small. 

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches…

Light one candle: one small candle, one small light. See how God, who came to us in the person of a little baby, who created the light, can make the light a beacon of love. Let the candle remind you of that light, that love; let it remind you to shine, to become yourself a candle, shining with the light of Christmas, the light of God’s love.


Come, Emmanuel

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Advent Directions 4:

Come, Emmanuel

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Advent/A • December 18, 2016

Jacquelyn and I are both historians, which means we see things and remember stuff no one else cares about. Jacquelyn wrote an award-winning paper on Britain during World War One. When Downton Abbey portrayed the beginning of that war as a time of somber foreboding, she went nuts: she knew that was wrong and she told everyone who would listen. Now maybe you’re an historian too but maybe you’re not. What’s important in the present often recedes in the past: I’m pretty certain that 2,800 years from now, no one will be talking about Donald Trump. That’s how long ago King Ahaz ruled. And I’m guessing somewhere someone is wondering, “I thought this was Christmas Sunday, why are we hearing about some old king?”

Ahaz and Faith

Ahaz is a descendant of King David, a much larger figure. The kingdom David ruled has been split in half; Israel, the northern half, has gotten together with some other small nations and they’re threatening to make war on Judah, the southern kingdom Ahaz rules. If you thought the confusing, violent world of the Mideast was a recent phenomenon, surprise: it’s been this way for 2,800 years. Ahaz is scared and the Lord is trying to give him some confidence, some faith. Have you ever had those moments, moments when you felt like everything was piling up, that difficulties and barriers and threats were falling too fast, like someone trying to shovel a walk in a snowstorm?

In the midst of this storm of threats, Isaiah brings a message from the Lord: do not fear [Isaiah 7:4]. But Ahaz does fear. Ahaz is looking around at his own troops, his own resources, and they aren’t nearly enough. So Isaiah comes again, trying to get him to look up instead of around. “Ask a sign of the Lord,” he says. But Ahaz, ah, Ahaz: he covers his fear with piety and refuses to ask, refuses to believe, refuses to rely on God’s providence. We’ve all heard the prophetic question, often quoted in sermons: “Who is on the Lord’s side?” The challenge Ahaz faces is opposite: “Is God on my side?” Ahaz doesn’t believe it, really. He’s like a hiker in the woods looking at an old rickety wooden bridge and thinking, “No thanks, I’m not going to try that.”

How God Works

How to respond to such smallness of faith, such blindness? Some people argue, some people push, some people demand but God has this other, amazing answer: a baby.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman[e] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.[Isaiah 7:14f]

A young woman with child, a baby, a son named Immanuel.


Who is this child? ‘Immanuel’ means “God with us”. God is sending a sign, the same sign God has sent over and over: a child who reminds us that in the winding way of the future, God is going to be present. And that God is present now. Ahaz doesn’t see that; Ahaz doesn’t feel that. Perhaps we don’t, certainly there are moments when God feels absent. Thomas Merton, one of the great spirits of the last century, said about this feeling,

“God, Who is everywhere, never leaves us. Yet He seems sometimes to be present, sometimes to be absent. If we do not know Him well, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when He is absent than when He is present.” Thomas Merton, “No Man is an island”

We might miss God; no one can miss hearing a child. They cry; they demand attention. They teach us to put someone before ourselves, they teach us to laugh in a whole new way. They teach us about faith in the future.

We act like we know the future but do we really? Many of you know Ken Winston, who has been coming to church here for a while now. Ken’s off this year to India, for a wedding. He’s been through a tough time and he’s spoken about it publicly here. Recently he wrote to me something that inspired me. I asked and got his permission to share it with you. Ken said,

This will, of course, be a very special Christmas for me, especially when I think of my frame of mind last year around the same time. I was off from work last Christmas. Not knowing if I would ever spend Christmas in a church again I tried to find a church that was open – any church – that had an evening service. After checking online I went to one in downtown Albany, but it was closed. I guess it must have been an old notice online. I drove around that winter evening trying to find a church to attend. I tried four, but they were all closed. So, I went back home alone, and to work the next day.

This Christmas will be so different, surrounded by family and friends and a wedding to attend to. When I think of it all, I am overwhelmed with gratitude especially to so many people that uplifted me and they didn’t even know it at the time, and probably not even today. Chief among them were all of you at First Congregational, who will always have a special place in my heart.

God’s Sign, Joseph’s Faith

God is giving a sign: and the sign challenges our faith in the future. Can you believe God’s love is working now? This is the failure of Ahaz. He knows the stories of how God worked a long time ago. He goes to the temple, he attends the services. But he can’t bring himself to believe God is working in his present, through him. He doesn’t trust God now: he doesn’t believe God can make a new future.

Look at the story of Joseph and compare it with Ahaz. Joseph is a young toolmaker who fell in love with a girl. Do you remember that? Do you remember how you couldn’t take your eyes off her, how he just seemed the center of the universe? Joseph is engaged to Mary. Maybe he’s family isn’t entirely pleased, maybe his mom thinks he could have done better. But they’re ready to accept her. Then she tells Joseph something fearful: she’s pregnant. Can you imagine the fear in Mary when she goes to Joseph, when he laughs and pulls her close for a kiss and she has to push him back and tell him? Can you see the confused, wondering look in his eyes as she tries to explain what the angel had said to her? She’s going to bear a child, a child of the Holy Spirit and his name is going to be Yeshua, in English: Jesus. It means “Deliverer”.

Mary leaves; Joseph has a decision: what to do? He’s a good man, a righteous man. Today righteous often means someone who is rule oriented and judgmental but here it means something like, “has a good heart”. So he decides to do what is kind: he obviously can’t marry her. He’s not going to make a big deal about it; he’ll do it quietly. But obviously, the wedding is off. Decision made, he goes to sleep. And while he sleeps he has a dream; an angel comes to him and says, “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Do you remember what God said to Ahaz?—Don’t be afraid. Isn’t it striking how God says the same thing over and over? “Do not be afraid.” Here’s the difference: Ahaz, a king who has benefitted his whole life from God’s providence is very much afraid, afraid of losing his palace, his lifestyle, his life itself. But Joseph gets up and bets his life on a dream: he believes the angel. He marries Mary. He brings up Jesus.

O Come Emmanuel!

Every year at Advent, Christians sing the ancient carol, “O come, O come Emmanuel.” It’s a song that originated about 1,400 years ago. Think of it: see it, 1,400 years of Christians saying, come to us God, come Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us”. We still sing it today. It is the ultimate pull of every human heart, to feel the presence of God’s love. We have a very fine purpose statement for our congregation but honestly?—here’s our real purpose: to keep believing, keep singing, keep demonstrating God’s presence; to keep opening the doors, so people like Ken, people like you, people like me, can come in and find a place where indeed, Emmanuel, God with us, is present, alive and working, loving, welcoming. We sing it in hope; we act on it when we, like Joseph, live from the dream of its fulfillment. We fulfill it when we treat every person we meet as a child, for it is precisely in the lives of children of God, whether they are infants or elders, whether they are young or old, male or female, that God is with us, today, tomorrow, forever.


Come to Christmas – Advent 3

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Advent Directions 3:

Come to Christmas

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Advent/A • December 11, 2016

The question is stark and pointed, coming from a friend and mentor in a dark prison cell: John sends to ask Jesus,
“Are you the one?”—the one who was to come, the one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been hoping would appear and save us. It’s a very practical question to a man in a dungeon. Jesus replies in a way John must have understood; he refers to Isaiah, to a passage John would surely have known:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

Jesus tells John that a time of transformation has come. Jesus is making a difference.

Does Jesus Make a Difference?

Does Jesus make a difference in your life? Does God make a difference in your life? The central claim of our faith isn’t intangible, it is the practical historical claim that God makes a difference in the world. When Isaiah preached the word of God we heard this morning, he wasn’t taking off in rhetorical flights of abstract theology; he didn’t describe in dense philosophical language an other worldly reality. He talked about the things that were around, the stuff of every day, the places everyone knew. His audience was the exiles in Babylon. Defeated and depressed, they felt God had abandoned them. But Isaiah says in effect, look around: God is not absent, God is going to work in your future in a way that is going to transform everything you see. The desert that stands between you and home—it’s going to be a garden; it’s going to blossom. The lame—they’re going to dance. And there will be a way home, a way out of exile, a way out of defeat, a way out of depression, a way back to living with the experience of blessing.

Now his audience may have been Jewish exiles, but this is a message we should take to heart as well. “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way, say to those with fearful hearts, Be strong, do not fear: your God will come” Doesn’t that sound like us? I don’t know about you, but my knees get pretty shaky some days. And don’t we all have nights of fearful hearts? We fret, we worry, we grumble. We see the way things are and wonder: will it ever change? what could make it change? what would make a difference? And the grumbling and the fretting is like spiritual sandpaper: it wears us down, it wears us out. Even Christmas becomes a burden. I once heard a parody of the Twelve Days of Christmas with the refrain, “The first day of Christmas was such a pain to me.” Christmas is notorious as a time of crisis for those who are depressed, for the lonely, in other words for those Isaiah addresses: those with fearful hearts. If your heart is fearful, if you get shaky knees, this is God’s word: Be strong, be patient—I can make a difference—I will make a difference.

What Difference Is Jesus Making?

As we walk through the advent season, we ought to ask what difference Jesus is making here, among us, here, in our community. The scriptures tell us over and over again that God specializes in transformation. Isaiah offers God’s word that even nature is transformed by God: deserts become gardens. James calls on the grumpy members of his church to stop doing the natural business of grumbling about each other and learn to wait patiently—that may have taken more transformation than turning the desert green! Christmas is an emblem of transformation and within the Christmas story, the angels are the ones who announce the joy of that new creation. Of course, the Christmas angels are various. Matthew’s version of the story tells of an angel who comes to Joseph; Luke tells us about Mary’s angel. The word ‘angel’ means messenger—I once suggested to the UPS man he was an angel in this sense but he looked at me like I was crazy—and though painters focus on the details of their appearance, faith focuses on the effect of their work. Over and over again, the scriptures symbolize God’s active, transforming presence by speaking of the angel of the Lord.

Christmas Angels

The Christmas angel is pictured in many ways. Sometimes the nativity sets give us a chubby baby with a little hook to hang over the arch of the stable. Other angels stand on their own and have long robes. Some have wings, some trumpets. The shepherds are easy to picture, everyone has seen unruly boys. The angels are harder to imagine. But the angels of Christmas are the spirit of its joy, of its promise, of its presence in our lives as more than a day of parties and presents. The angels of Christmas transform the desert into a garden, the lost into the found, the hopeless into the expectant, the disconsolate into the comforted, the lame into dancers. Sometimes it only takes a moment, a quick word, an unexpected kindness, a hand helping the helpless.
Notice that the vision of joy is not just for you and I and others people. It imagines renewing all creation.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. [Isaiah 35:1-2]

God’s joy is for all creation, it includes all creation. So often we have settled for a small joy. Coming to Christmas means lifting our eyes from what is immediately here to the whole of creation. Coming to Christmas means lifting our vision from what has been and what is to what can be, to a future in which God’s presence bursts out like trees budding in the spring. Coming to Christmas means embracing the transformation of creation and that transformation begins by believing in the possibility of our own transformation, embracing transformation is Christ.

Transformation at the Table of the Lord

Peter Storey is a former Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, now retired. For forty years, he was part of sustained opposition to the apartheid government and its oppressive racist policies. He also served as chaplain to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island. He is white. When a black clergyman named Ike was arrested by the secret police in a very racist town, Peter went to the prison and was taken to Ike’s cell by a white Afrikaner guard. Peter said to the guard, “We are going to have Communion,” and he took out his portable Communion elements and set them up.
When it was time to give the Invitation, he said to the guard, “This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.” Peter said, “This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. Story says,

I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike, because we always give communion first to the ones that are hurting the most—and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to know too much about South Africa to under­stand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips-touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, “In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,” and very stiffly, the ward reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.”. . .
From that moment, the power equation between that guard and Ike was changed forever. God’s shalom had broken through at that makeshift Table.” [Peter Storey, “Table Manners for Peacebuilders,” Conflict and Communion, pp. 61–62.]

Real Angels

There are real Christmas angels. Some are sitting right here. They don’t have hooks in their back to be hung on the stable and they don’t carry trumpets or wear wings most of the time. They may not go in procession on Christmas morning but they are the storage house of wonder. Because of them, children at the homeless shelter will feel the joy of Christmas. Because of them, an older member will receive a special Christmas card. There is our whole work as a church in mission. There is the card sent from to a sick member. There is the homeless man who will be housed through our leadership. Isn’t this who we strive to be: messengers of God’s love. And when we are, when we are the best of ourselves, truly we are the Christmas angels.

Are you the one?

“Are you the one?”, John asks Jesus. And Jesus replies: see for yourself, see what happens when I’m around. People who can’t see the hurt around them get their eyes opened—the blind receive sight. People who can’t hear learn to listen. Good news is preached to the poor. Wherever Jesus comes, the angels of Christmas go, for the angels of Christmas are those who live in the light of the love of God. The angels of Christmas are not simply chubby babies over a rough stable: they are you and I and everyone else in whom Jesus dwells. This is what he said: love one another, love one another and you are mine. The scripture calls us the Body of Christ and so when we act in him, we are the messengers of God’s love. We are called to embody the evidence that God cares, that indeed there are angels watching over all. The old Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, says that every time a Christmas bell rings, an angel gets their wings. It is more Biblical to say that every time we embody the Christmas angel, the bells of heaven ring in celebration. For God delights in our love, God celebrates our efforts, like a parent praising a child’s successes.

Come to Christmas

The season is full of questions: what to get someone, where to go Christmas Eve, should we mail them a card? But all of these are nothing compared to this: will you be an angel of Christmas? Will you be the sign that God’s love is present, will you be a message of Christ’s presence? Will you make that presence shine in the line at Wal-Mart, in the aisles of Toys R Us, in the halls of the mall? The season of Advent asks: will you come to Christmas? John asked Jesus, “Are you the one”—Jesus replied: Look at the difference my presence makes. Today the whole world watches and wonders: what difference does he make to you?


Come This Way! – Advent 2

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Come This Way, This Way Out

Advent Directions 2
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Advent/A • December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10

“Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” I hope never to hear those words because they are what flight attendants say during the evacuation of an airplane. If you’ve ever flown, you know how long it takes to board an airplane: the stop and go of the line down the jet bridge, the search for a place for your bag, stowing things and settling into your seat. It takes about half an hour to get a 143 seat airplane boarded and ready to go. It takes 90 seconds to evacuate it; that’s the FAA standard.

Who can say, “Come this way, this way out?

I can only imagine how confusing and frightening a landing that requires evacuation must be. As soon as the plane stops, flight attendants open the doors, blow the slides and then, despite their own fears, they stand by those doors loudly yelling, “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” In fact, they are tested every year on their ability to do this, with a critique if they aren’t loud enough. “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” Reading this scripture today, imagining the situation in which it was preached, thinking about our own situation today, makes me long sometimes for someone who can say: “Come this way, this way out!”

Who can give hope?

Here’s the background. God’s people have been defeated. Maybe you know what that feels like; maybe you’ve been part of a political campaign that lost, maybe you’ve been fired from a job or suddenly had your direction changed because of a defeat. This defeat of God’s people was violent and unexpected and at its end, King Zedekiah and thousands of Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians and forced into exile near what is today Baghdad. They felt, in the language of the scripture, “clean cut off”. Their sense of defeat deepened when King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, died. Who would lead them? Who would stand as the symbol of their nation? Who would give them hope?—hope they might return, hope they might have a future? That’s the moment into which Isaiah announces,

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [Isaiah 11:1]

Coming Out of the Present and Into God’s Future

“Who’s Jesse? What kind of hope is this, based on someone I’ve never even heard of!” That takes a bit of explanation. Long ago, God’s people were ruled by a king who veered off God’s path. So God did what God always does when there’s a roadblock, what we do when there’s a detour: God backed up and tried again, took a different route. God sent Samuel to anoint someone who would be a new king, a righteous king. Samuel was sent to a man named Jesse and his son, David, was chosen. David wasn’t perfect but somehow God loved David and he became the emblem of God’s favor. So to say that a shoot would come out from the stump of Jesse is to say, “Don’t stop hoping, don’t stop believing: even an old stump can send out new growth.” And if there is new growth, if God can send up a new shoot out of the tree of covenant and care, there will indeed be someone to say to the people in exile, “Come this way, this way out.”

It’s hard to identify new growth. It’s hard to know who to believe when you’re desperate and looking for a way out. I once heard Tony Campolo talk about the difference between leadership and demagogues. He said that the problem of liberal churches is that for so many years we said there are no demons when people often felt defeated by them. So demagogues, false leaders, false prophets attract attention by saying, “Yes, there are real demons.” The problem is that demagogues go on to say, “The demons are in them!” So they lead attacks on some them: Jews, immigrants, anyone who can be defined as different. True leaders, on the other hand, know there are demons out there. But what they say is: the demons are in us and we need to change. We need to come out of our present and into God’s future.

Change isn’t something that occurs easily. One of the things that always makes me laugh is that here we are, Congregationalists, proud of our Pilgrim heritage, and yet who were the Pilgrims? People who gave their lives to changing their society. Bit by bit, they invented many of the democratic institutions we take for granted, from a written constitution—the Mayflower Compact—to the town meetings that originated as the Annual Meeting of Congregational Churches.

Coming Out and Changing

Here we are, Congregational Christians with this heritage and more importantly the emblem of the cross before us at all times, an emblem that reminds us Jesus gave up his life to change the whole world. Yet every time I’ve become the new pastor of a church, I’ve heard the same thing early on: “Please, don’t ask us to change where we sit.” Well, I understand that. I am sympathetic to that. I like where I sit, I like doing things the way I’ve always done them.

Traditions are rich for me. There’s a prayer I often share for the offering that begins,

“We offer here our treasure and our goods, and some of it is gold, and some is myrrh and some is frankincense.”

You’ve all heard me share this prayer. I learned it sitting in the Pine Hill Congregational Church listening to Harry Clark, who became my mentor, my friend, my spiritual father. Sunday after Sunday he shared it. When I became in my turn a pastor, I shared it every Sunday for years and then later as one among the offering prayers. I asked him about the prayer’s source once; he told me he had no idea, it was something his pastor said every Sunday and he just picked it up. It’s a tradition; it’s comforting. It’s where I sit.

Following Jesus

But there are real demons loose. And if I just sit comfortably, I am not following Jesus, who never sat anywhere long. We focus on the stories of Jesus; maybe we should pay more attention to the spaces between the story where we read over and over again, “Jesus was on the way.” But which way? What way out? Isaiah’s prophecy isn’t just that there will be someone to tell us, “Come this way, this way out,” it also tells us how to recognize this person.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. [Isaiah 11:6-9]

The sign is peace; the sign is safety. When we make safe places, we follow Jesus.

Sometimes this is a personal moment. We know the demons of division are loose in our land. Recently, two Asian women went to an event in Brooklyn and then did what we all often do, they stopped at a cafe for something to eat. There a man began to loudly attack them. Apparently, he thought he could depend on others; that no one would stand up for people who looked different, for women. He was wrong. When the police were called, they refused to back him up. A man confronted the racist and the racist sprayed him with pepper spray and got arrested. There have been a number of similar incidents. It’s why many people are wearing safety pins today, a sign that says, “I’m safe and I will make a safe place for you.”

Making a Difference

Does this make a difference? It can make all the difference. The Jewish Foundation for the righteous lists many stories of people who rescued Jews during the holocaust. I was especially struck by something one said in response to a child’s question. He was asked if he considered himself a hero. Knud Dyby was a Dane and a member of the King’s Guard. When the Nazi’s conquered Denmark in 1940 and attempted to raise their flag over the capital, he helped take it down. He was a sailor and knew the best routes out of Copenhagen. In 1943, when the Germans ordered the round up of Danish Jews, he participated in the effort that helped over 7,000 Jews escape to Sweden. Asked, “Why did you risk your life to save total strangers?”, he said,

It was our duty, it was just something one did; …there was a sense of outrageous indignation that anyone would harm their fellow compatriots, their neighbor humans – their neighbor kids, their grandmothers, members of their community, no matter what religion they espoused. []

Perhaps these two incidents don’t seem connected. But the demons of the holocaust grew powerful years before. They grew when no one stopped the first Nazi from abusing a Jew in a cafe; when people looked away from the little violence of small moments.

Come This Way, This Way Out

It doesn’t happen often but it does happen: an airplane is stopped, the doors flung open, the chutes deployed and brave flight attendants stand at the door yelling, “Come this way, this way out, come this way, this way out.” So too, our mission is to say to those whose hope is dissolving like a sunny day overcome by clouds, “Come this way, this way out—out of the darkness of division, out of the darkness of hatred, out of the darkness of conflict and hate.

“Come this way, this way out”—there is hope and the emblem of that hope is Jesus, a man who offered his life as a picture of what it looks like to live in the experience of God’s love, the emblem of that hope is Christ, who invites us to make his life our lives. This is the invitation, the same with which we begin every worship service: “The peace of the Lord be with you.” It is a way of saying to the darkness, to the violence, “Come this way, this way out.”


You can read more stories about rescuers by clicking here