Foolish Gospel

Foolish Gospel

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 22, 2017
I Corinthians 1:10-18

Have you ever thought about how many decisions there are when you go out to eat at a restaurant? I don’t know about your family, but in ours, this is always a discussion. We’re lucky to have May; she’s a big reader of restaurant reviews. We have our own preferences, of course, favorite places we’ve been to and go back to over and over again. Once you get seated at the restaurant, they hand you a set of choices, a menu, that lays out your choices. This is where it gets interesting. Some menus have pictures and the pictures never match the food delivered? I used to be a food photographer and I’ll tell you a secret: the reason is that the stuff for photography often isn’t real: it gets sprayed with things and it’s fixed up in ways never part of anyone’s order. Maybe you’re an optimizer; that means someone who has been there before and figured out their best choice and automatically orders it. That’s me: every morning I go to the same coffee house, get a small coffee made from Nicaraguan dark roast beans and an everything bagel toasted with cream cheese. Out of the dozens of coffees and teas and the various pastries, I’ve settled on this as my best choice. Maybe, on the other hand, you look over the whole menu and choose something that looks good. And finally, there are those wonderful people—none in my immediate family but I’ve seen this—who just say, “Bring me whatever looks good.” I mention all this because today I want to talk about choices and how we make them. That’s the heart of First Corinthians.

Who to Follow?

These Christians are trying to figure out issues that range from how to do a potluck dinner to how to serve communion; from how to deal with misbehaving members to how to keep themselves together. Remember that this is a diverse congregation. Priscilla and Aquilla, who hosted Paul, were refugees from Rome, driven out by persecution; others members are lifelong Jews, some are former pagans, some are well to do, some are poor. Now they have all chosen to live in Christ, like people going into a restaurant. How will they make choices on the menu of daily life?
In their brief history, these Corinthian Christians have had several pastors. Paul is the church’s founding pastor. Cephas, the apostle we know as Peter in the gospel stories, also spent some time preaching there as well as a man named Apollos. One of the issues this brings up is different ideas. This often happens in churches. I’m always aware that in this church there is a big brass plaque with the names of my predecessors; I kid Joan Dennehey sometimes that my goal is to last long enough here to get my name on the plaque. I know from my own experience how a new pastor can change things and how relationships change.

My mother was mostly a Methodist and Methodists have a culture of changing pastors after five or six years. Mom had a predictable cycle. She always hated having a new pastor. She’d sputter and complain to me over the phone about “the new guy” even when I pointed out to her that I often was “the new guy” in churches. Time would go on. She’d get to know the new guy and he would get older. When it came time to change, she’d be up in arms again about how much she loved her pastor and busy being mad at “the new guy.” My mother died in June of 2014, a few days before a new pastor, a new guy, became the pastor of her church. When I talked to him about her memorial service, he apologetically said he hadn’t had a chance to meet her; I replied, “That’s ok, she wouldn’t have liked you,” and explained about the new guy thing; we laughed, we’d both been there. So Paul is a founding pastor writing back to people who have dealt with some new guys. And as always happens, some of the people liked the new guys better. Some liked Apollos; some liked Cephas. Some preferred Paul. There are people here who would rather have Ray Palmer still in charge; I appreciate that and try to accommodate them.

Finding Unity

What does Paul say? Well, first he calls them to their essential unity. He wants them united in the same mind and the same purpose. I remember reading this at a Bible Study years ago and one of the long time members sniffed and said, “Obviously these people aren’t Congregationalists; no one would say that to us.” We celebrate diversity; we encourage difference of opinion. So how should we receive this command to be of one mind? What Paul seems to be doing here is moving the Corinthians from making decisions based on the “I” to the “We”. This is a hard shift. Over and over when I meet with church committees over the years, I hear people speaking from their own desires exclusively rather than from a sense of the larger we.

Paul goes on to move them even further. He gives this marvelous gift to all of us pastors who are less than great at record keeping. Here’s a stunning fact: Paul has no record of whom he has baptized, no list, no report. He says no one then he has to go back and mention the house of Stephanas. I think what he’s doing is gently pointing out by sharing his own weakness as an administrator the weakness of claims by leaders.

Who’s In Charge?

For when we make decisions, one of the great temptations is to listen to others. We do it in small things. Our family orders lots of things on Amazon; I always read the reviews. May reads restaurant reviews for us, as I mentioned. It’s natural to ask someone else’s experience. But when one person dominates decisions, there are problems. Every autocrat begins with the premise that if we just trust them, they will do great things, the right things. Apocalypse Now is one of the great movies of the last generation. At its heart is the story of one of the best and brightest military officers in the US Army in Vietnam. Frustrated with the inefficiency and lies of his chain of command, he goes off on his own to demonstrate how the war should be fought. But at the end he’s left in darkness, mumbling over and over again, “The horror, the horror.” All autocrats end like this: confronted by ultimate failure, confronted by horror. No one is enough.
Contrast this with Christ. Paul is clear: he was sent by Christ to preach Christ, to let Christ show through him. “For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” [1 Cor 1:17] What he seems to mean is that his actions as a pastor aren’t the main thing: the main thing is the one he points toward, the image of Christ, the power of Christ to transform lives through love. Later on in the letter he will explain this love, saying,

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Here is the opposite of autocrat: a love that doesn’t claim, but instead invites. We often focus on the stories of people Christ calls in the gospels but there are just as many stories of someone he heals or calls who doesn’t respond, doesn’t follow him. I often wonder: was he annoyed? was he disappointed? was he angry? The gospels are mostly silent: he simply moves on. Love doesn’t command; love invites. Love doesn’t compel; love offers.
A friend on one of my preacher’s lists said recently,

I can understand someone who has had a terrible life ending up being miserable and bitter. I can sympathize with that. And I have learned that, often, folk who seem to have everything going for them but are still not happy, and who find life terribly hard, are actually carrying trauma and griefs hidden from the rest of us. I understand that.
What I don’t understand is the miracle of the person who lives a stellar life. The person for whom things have been really tough, who… you would expect… would be soured and bitter, but who has turned adversity, trauma, poverty… into triumph. What sets such a person free to fly in life? []

The Cross and The Gospel

The ultimate example of this, of course, is the cross. Suffering for all, even on the cross we’re told Jesus could still think of others, still find compassion for others. Whether it is comforting those crucified with him, connecting his mother and his disciple John or speaking even about his executioner to say, “They don’t know what they are doing.” Part of the lesson of the cross is to move away from I to the ultimate we, to the vision of God of the whole of creation and of every person as a child of God, a member of the family.

Paul is calling the Corinthians to this compassion; Paul is lighting the candle of this love. And in our church, in our congregation, we are meant to listen and love in the same way. It doesn’t matter what I want here; honestly, it doesn’t matter what you want. What matters is what God wants. When the Roman armies won a victory, the news of it was called “gospel”; that’s where the word comes from. Christians used it to refer to the story of Jesus because that story is how the wisdom of the world—that some person can through smarts or violence or power bring us life—was vanquished by the ultimate victory of God in Jesus Christ. When we come to our own cross, when we take up our own cross, when we ultimately know that what matters is what God wants, then indeed this foolish gospel is kindled and the world is lit. And the darkness cannot overcome that light.
© 2017 James Eaton • All Rights Reserved

Together In Every Place

Together In Every Place

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 15, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

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When my brother David was born, he wasn’t like us. I already had a brother, Allan, and we both had brown eyes; so did my mom and dad. David had blue eyes. We all had dark hair; David had light hair. He wasn’t like us. Then, my parents took us to visit my father’s family back in Michigan. My grandmother, my father’s mother, took one look at David and said, “Oh! Little Elmer!” Elmer was my father’s brother but long ago my father and Uncle Elmer had fought over a shotgun and never made up; we didn’t know Uncle Elmer. Nevertheless, with that one declaration, my grandmother had done something permanent. David was one of us, after all. We were family. We still are. How do we connect to each other? How are we together? We sing, “Bind us together, Lord”, but what’s the glue?

The Corinthian Church

The little church in Corinth, Greece, was just a few years old when Paul wrote the letter we know as First Corinthians. It’s not really first; later on, we learn this is Paul’s second letter to them. He was their founding pastor, the Ray Palmer of the place, and in his letter we get a picture of one of the first Christian churches struggling with many of the issues we face today. So over the next few weeks, we’re going to hear a series of readings from this letter as a way to think about our own life as a church together. The letter itself was written about 20 years after the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Paul will say later in the letter, some of the people who were present for the resurrection are still alive.

Corinth itself is a bit like Albany. The great center of culture, Athens, is not too far away but Corinth has its own history. It sits on a narrow peninsula and has a bit of a reputation as a party town. It’s Greek but it’s also full of people from all over, different cultures mixing, not always matching.

How Do We Share God’s Love?

How do you share the love of God in such a place? How do you do it here?
It’s important because if we are going to move forward and move our community forward, we have to stay together. We know that when politicians want to distract us from the truth, the first thing they do is divide us. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking for the last time in Memphis, Tennessee, he began by saying,

…we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. []

We know that just as my grandmother looked at that baby David and saw the connection we had missed and said he was one of us, God is looking at us, seeing beyond what we see and calling every single person a child of God.

Paul Has a Partner

Listen to what Paul says to that church in Corinth where the demons of division has begun to take hold. He begins by reminding them about the how important bonds are. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…”, he begins. It’s easy to rush past this greeting but an important point is being made right here. Paul is an apostle, a man who has seen the Risen Lord himself and yet he isn’t alone; he doesn’t work alone, he doesn’t preach alone, he does nothing alone. Sosthenes is his partner in his work.
He goes on to describe the congregation in Corinth as “…those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”, and then he notes that they are not alone either; they are, “…together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” He wants them to remember, as we should remember, that they are not alone. Just as he has partners in preaching Jesus Christ, this church has partners also: “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All of these, in every place, are together. Together, in every place, they are a family, related and bonded together by the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we are part of that family as well; right here, centuries before we were born, already Paul was speaking about us.

So what he says to the Corinthian church applies to us also. This is what he says:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. [ 1 Cor 1:4-7]

Now he’s speaking to a small church; he’s speaking to a church roiled by divisions, arguing questions, wondering how they can go forward together as a little congregation in a big city.

All the Gifts We Need

I know that feeling. Like every person, I have a mental list of things I’m good at and things I am not. I can’t speak Spanish or Italian or French. I can’t catch a ball reliably which when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of the great New York Yankees baseball teams with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris was a serious disability And I can’t sing well. I’m not a very musical person. In ninth grade, they held a competition in band to determine who could hear differences in pitch; I came in last. Normally, it doesn’t matter; I try to keep my voice down when we’re singing hymns, so what comes through are the beautiful voices of those who sing well. They inspire me and I know the beauty of their music pleases God. When I worked in a church where we recorded the entire worship service, I turned my microphone off when there was singing; sometimes I’d forget, and there it would be on the recording, the voice of a man singing without a tune. My family always enjoyed those tapes, laughing with me at my failure.

I’ve been blessed over the years as I am today with some fine music leaders. One of them shared in leadership at a Wednesday chapel service for preschool kids. I’d do the prayers and the talking; she led the singing and it was great singing. Then one day she became ill with one of those long term illnesses and suddenly I had to do the whole thing every week. It was me that had to stand there and get them started on “This Little light of Mine”; me that had to start up “Oh What a Miracle”; thankfully that one had an electronic version I could hide behind. I had to lead the singing and every Wednesday I was like a bird that flies into a window, crashing into what I couldn’t do. Have you ever felt like that? But then I came up with a solution: I’d call a few of the kids up front and you know they had these beautiful voices and they would start up and we would all sing and you could just feel God smiling. You see, the solution was simple: we had all the gifts to praise God, we just had to share them. We had to act like people together.

Everyone Needs a Helper

When we think of the whole cast of characters that make up the sacred story of spiritual progress, it’s important to remember they didn’t always look like the best ones to accomplish God’s purpose. Sarah laughed when God announced she would bear a child; she was too old. Moses was a terrible public speaker. When Esther is afraid to go to the Persian King to prevent a pogrom, a massacre. Jeremiah complains God deceived him. Just like me with my inability to sing, every one of these people thinks they can’t do something. Just like us, they often are so aware of their limits they almost miss God’s call to lead the spiritual parade of progress. The way forward comes from faith that as Paul says God will strengthen us to the end. One way God strengthens us is by giving us each other. Sarah isn’t alone, she has Abraham; God sends Moses’ brother Aaron with him. Esther is strengthened by her uncle Mordechai, Jeremiah has an assistant. Together, we have every spiritual gift needed to do what God hopes.

Sailing on the Chesapeake, it’s common to look off into the distance and see the dark gathering clouds of a storm. We have been through a long political campaign that has among other things darkened our national life by lifting the voices of the demons of division. It’s tempting at such a moment to look around, see how small we are, see how great the challenge of living into God’s justice is and act like the chipmunk that lives in our garage. The chipmunk has one response to every threat: run and hide.

No Hiding!

But God will not accept hiding; God hopes we will be like a city set on a hill, like a star with to the light of God to the grace of Jesus Christ. All those people I mentioned, and so many others, shared that light because they were together in sharing God’s love and God’s Word. They lived from this faith: that together with all God’s children, together with all God’s love, God would go from victory to victory. So though they feared, they persevered; though they knew their limits, their lives went beyond the limits.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the words I quoted earlier, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, not home in Birmingham, Alabama. He was there to help with the struggle for justice of a group of sanitation workers he’d never met. He was there because despite the fact these were not his immediate neighbors, he knew they were his neighbors in the landscape of God. To get there, he flew on an airplane that had to be reinspected because of the hatred of some threatened the safety of all. He was threatened every day. Yet he could say, “Tonight, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory.” The next day he was killed in an act of violence that shocked a whole nation. It seemed as if the power of darkness was victorious.

Yet his work, his light, have continued to shine. His work, his light, continue to show us the path forward. It was not his strength that made the difference; it was the light of God’s love shining in him that allowed him to sing, and others with him, “We shall over come.” We shall overcome: not me, not you, not one of us, not a few of us, but all of us. We shall overcome.

We Shall Overcome

Now I look around this church, as I know you do. Just like Paul, I give thanks for every one of you and sometimes I wonder what we can do. I know we are small in number. How can we overcome? And I believe the answer is right there before us: it is when we learn to look at others the way my grandmother looked at David and see our connection, see that though they may look different, we are one family. We are, together in every place, as Paul said, God’s children. The demons of division may be loud but our faith in God’s love can bind us together. The demons of division may be visible but the invisible grace of God in Jesus Christ can bind us together. The demons of division may seem victorious but if we live with the simple prayer that our lives may be dedicated to letting God’s love shine, they will be defeated. That’s the faith that allows us to sing, “We shall overcome.” We sing it not because it is true today but because we know in the fullness of God’s time, it will be true and in that time we will, in every place, together, see the glory of God and the justice of God pour down like mighty waters.

Hear it: Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome

Heaven Knows

Heaven Knows
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Baptism of the Lord/A • January 8, 2017
Matthew 3:13-17

Click on the ling below to hear the sermon preached

We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
We are making a passage that is straight and true
[Bill Staines, “Crossing the Water”]

Those lines from a folk song by Bill Staines remind us about the long arc of our lives, how we live on a passage often mysterious in detail but whose destination is our home with God. We are crossing the water indeed: water flows through our stories and our lives like a cascading stream that never stops. Most of our bodies and most of our world is water. From the water we drink and wash with in the morning, to the water for coffee or tea, we are part of a stream with a passing flow that never ceases. Like waves on the water, we rise at times and then fall back but we are always part of a larger ocean. So it isn’t surprising that when we come here today, to learn what God was doing in bringing Jesus to the world, in taking on the form of a person just like us, the story starts with water.

Water and Spirit

Right from the beginning, water is central to the Bible story. Genesis says,

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1f]

This is the beginning; this is what it looks like. I know this scene, do you? I have stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, on a boat in the Chesapeake, on the sands of a beach and watched the sky darken and the winds move the water and the pleasant playful water turn dark and threatening. Surely this is what the storytellers of Genesis imagined at the beginning: creation like a thunderstorm over a great water, light splitting the sky, and separating the waters, organizing them, so that a place could be made for a garden where we might live and praise our God.

Crossing the Water to Salvation

Water is also the scene at two of the most important events in salvation history. When the people of God came out from slavery and were threatened by their oppressors with violence, their backs were to the sea and God opened the sea, and they crossed over. Again, when they came to the land God promised, the waters, this time the River Jordan, were opened so they could safely cross. These waters—ocean, Reed Sea, River Jordan—are not just geography, they are theology as well.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that water played a part in the rituals of ancient Judaism. A great many things could keep a person from being what we call “ritually pure”. This is simply a term for someone who is not allowed to come into the presence of God. But if there was a careful description of who must be excluded, there was also a gateway back and the gateway included a special sort of washing, called a mikvah. Centuries before Christ, the mikvah was described in Leviticus and washing rituals played an important part in the life of some religious communities. It was a ritual of restoration.

John the Baptist and Jesus

Perhaps this is why John chose water as the symbol and sign of repentance. His message is simple: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Like a walled city with a gate, heaven’s door is opening and it’s time to wash up and get ready. Certainly the place he chose was not an accident. Gathering people by the River Jordan, the border of the promised land, the water whose crossing marked a fulfillment of God’s promise, is a powerful sermon itself. Matthew is clear: Jesus doesn’t just happen on John, he sets out on a passage that takes him to John first and once there on the shores of the waters of the River Jordan, he seeks baptism. It is not an accident, it is not arbitrary, it is an intentional act. Jesus chooses to go to John, to seek baptism there on the banks of the River Jordan.

Later, the church would be embarrassed by this act. Why would the sinless Son of God come to be baptized? Surely he does not need forgiveness, surely he does not need to repent. We hear the echo of this in the conversation Matthew records.

John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ [Matthew 3:14-17]

The cryptic phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness”, means first to be in perfect accord with God’s hope. Like a music student playing perfectly at their first recital, like an athlete doing exactly what the coach taught, Jesus seeks baptism because it is the pattern of God.
What is this pattern? It is first a choice to identify with the outsider, the sinner, the stranger. Jesus lives in a religious culture that sets a stark boundary between the good people and the bad and like a wall forbids any crossing. In his baptism, Jesus demolishes the wall, invites everyone in, opens heaven to those outside. To fulfill all righteousness is to break down the walls that separate the children of God from each other and gather them into one family. Over and over again he will live this identification with the lost and it is one of the reasons he will die. God is coming to us, to all of us, and Jesus opens the door. With his life, through the symbol of this baptism, he opens the door to all and gives all a taste of God’s future. For in the final victory of God, all are known as God’s children, Gentile and Jew alike, men, women, everyone.

Fulfill All Righteousness

In the moment of fulfilling all righteousness, as the baptism concludes, Matthew tells us that creation itself mirrors the event. Heaven opens, the text says, and the Holy Spirit, imagined as a dove, comes to Jesus to ordain him for his ministry. The message is clear and unequivocal: “‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ This is literally the Word of the Lord, the same Word by which the waters were divided and creation took place. This is the child of God who stands for all us and invites us to remember we are children of God.

From his baptism, Jesus’ passage goes on into the wilderness and we’ll meet him again there at the beginning of Lent. John is arrested; when Jesus hears about it, he takes up the same message John preached. It’s striking that as he begins the part of his passage that includes preaching and teaching and healing, he begins by saying, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In him, through him, there is always this amazing, wonderful possibility, that heaven will open, that we will be invited in.

Our Baptism

Jesus’ baptism invites us to think about our own passages and our own baptism. Long ago, some church bureaucrats set up a stall at the door of heaven and began to charge admission. Baptism, they said, would save you from hell. This is not God’s Word; this is not God’s intention or hope. But it’s comforting in a way. Some people would rather buy a ticket than trust there will be a place for them. Our destination, however, is not something we can purchase; it is the gift of God. Like a parent driving the car on a trip, God controls, God assures our destination. So let me be clear: I do not believe, we do not believe, Congregationalists do not believe that anyone has ever been saved by the ordinance of baptism. There is nothing we can do, no act, no water that can save a single soul. Saving souls is the act of God, not clergy or churches. Heaven is God’s home and only the housekeeper can open the door.

Instead, baptism for us is a symbol that remembers our identification with Jesus. We come to the waters of baptism to be reminded that we are children, whatever our age. Over the years, I’m sometimes asked if it wouldn’t be better to let children grow up to the age of understanding before they are baptized. Usually, this means 12 or 13 or so. Obviously, such people have never taught a confirmation class full of kids this age. I have been honored over the years to hold many infants and small children as they were baptized; I have never thought for one instant that they understood less than I did, with my seminary degree, about the love of God. There, at the baptismal fount, we have always been equals, equally children of the one loving God.

Jesus begins his passage with baptism and we have a passage to make as well. A passage is not an errand, a quick trip somewhere, always with the return in mind. A passage takes you somewhere and changes you. Passages take preparation. When I was small, our family lived near Trenton, New Jersey; each summer, my father would spend an entire day packing the car for the passage to Wildwood, to the ocean shore, where we’d spend a week. Have you prepared a passage: packed a car, loaded a back pack, set out for some other place distant not only in time but in spirit? Baptism is preparation for our passage, a passage whose arc must be the recovery of that child of God within us that lives without fear and embraces God’s other children.
If he lives in us, his baptism is our as well, and the ringing affirmation of that moment is for us as well. Bernard Eppard, a Congregational minister in Connecticut, says,
Today, the divine affirmation – you are my beloved – pertains to each and all of us. The ethic of baptism is aspirational and inclusive, inviting us to see all creation, including the non-human world as God’s beloved.

There is in each of us, a child of God that seeks to be known. When my grandmother would correct me, pointing out some obvious flaw, she often began by saying, “Heaven knows….” Heaven knows you: heaven knows that child in you. And heaven invites that child home: “the kingdom of heaven is near”. In baptism, Jesus crosses the water on his passage as the Son of God, seeking to save the lost. We also have a passage to make:
We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
.We are making a passage that is straight and true



Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Epiphany Sunday/A • January 1, 2017
Matthew 2:1-12

Falling in Love

“When you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start right now.” That’s how the movie When Harry Met Sally ends. It’s less a love story than a friendship story: two college graduates move to New York city, have an off and on relationship, marry, divorce, live and finally discover they’ve fallen in love. I suppose many of us here have a story of falling in love. For years I’ve been trying to understand the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and what I’ve come to believe is this: it’s his story of falling in love, of how he came to give his life to Jesus, to make his life about the life of Jesus, to let Jesus live in him. Now in everyone’s story, the hardest part of all is to explain why this person, out of all the people in the world, all the people in your life, is the one.

Matthew’s gospel starts with two stories about Jesus meant to explain this. We’re going to be living with Matthew’s gospel throughout this year, so first we need to understand that it wasn’t written for us. We’re reading someone else’s mail. This is a gospel account meant for Jewish Christians and Gentiles who are trying to understand how Jesus fits in the history of God’s love. So Matthew uses pictures both audiences will understand.

First, he gives us a long genealogy of Jesus. There are still places where the important question is not who you are but who your people are. This is who Jesus’ people are. There’s Abraham, first person of God’s work in history, Isaac and Judah: this is a family story and these are great great something parents. This is a family that is fully and completely Jewish. But there are Gentiles in the story too: Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the ancestor of David. David is there too: one of Jesus’ family. Fourteen generations to the great time of exile; fourteen more since, right down to Joseph. If you are Jewish, this tells you exactly who Jesus is, from Abraham to David to Joseph, and then of course Matthew tells us the story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus’ birth.

Now he turns from the Jewish audience to Gentiles, to us. We may not know the whole family history; we’re new in the neighborhood. So he tells us a funny, ironic, story about how Gentiles came to recognize and celebrate Jesus, just as we have done. He tells us about the most amazing baby shower ever.

King Herod

This is a comic story, if we understand it. Let’s start with someone who isn’t in the Nativity scene: King Herod. Herod was a leader of one faction of Jews during the Roman civil war. He got his position partly because Judah—Palestine—was so insignificant. He backed the wrong guy but was left in office anyway. It was a kind of gift; part of the defeated forces of Mark Antony, he went to the victorious Octavian, prostrated himself, begged for mercy and got it. He was good at pursuing Roman interests and procuring Roman taxes but his one goal is simply to stay in power. Herod represents one way of approaching the world. He sees it as a pyramid and he’s always scrambling to be on top. Along the way, of course, he’s made compromises and he’s been ruthless. He’s also done some showy things; he rebuilds the temple and gives part of it a covering of gold, he builds a fortress nearby. He is King of the Jews but he knows that his position is never secure. He isn’t part of David’s line; his power is based on threats and violence.

The Wise Ones

So imagine the impact of having some experts from another country show up and explain that they have evidence a new King of the Jews has been born. They want directions to his birth place and they assume everyone will know about this in the capital. Herd isn’t just surprised; he’s afraid. It’s one thing to stand up to all the humans claiming his throne but how to take on a divine appointment? He meets with his own advisors and finally they send these experts on their way to Bethlehem. He has them followed; he tells them to come back. Meanwhile, he plots murder. To him, the birth of this new King of the Jews is a threat.

Let’s imagine these “Wise Men”. Since the text doesn’t actually call them men, I’m going to go with a more modern translation and call them sages. These are the first century equivalent of the people you see on CNN, the talking heads, the experts. They’re from “the East”. Now what we may not know is that in this context “the east” means the older civilizations in what is now Iran and Iraq, the Persians, Babylonians and others. These all had a rich tradition in which divinity often came in human form. They believed god was often revealed in a person. And they watched for signs of such people. So the story starts with this: some eastern experts have seen a sign in the part of the sky called “the house of the Hebrews”, which leads them to Judah. They are Gentiles; they don’t know much about this place and they don’t have a gps, so they do the logical thing, they go to the King of the Jews, Herod, sometimes called Herod the Great.

Gentiles Coming to Jesus

This is shocking, in a way. Jews always assumed the messiah would be Jewish; and so he is. But who knows about him? Who looks for him? Who seeks him? Not the priests in the temple, not the King of the Jews, Herod, but these gentiles. From far away, from the distant East, they see the world changing; they recognize the signs that God is doing something new and wonderful. They pack up, buy tickets on a caravan and go. Isn’t this remarkable?

We all know about excuses for not going to church. It’s snowing, it’s too hot, it’s been a busy week, someone said something last Sunday that annoyed me. These sages represent the other side: outsiders who instead of looking for excuses, look for reasons to go. And the reason is the light of a star, a symbol of God’s love. It’s not an easy journey; it would have taken them weeks to get there. When they do get to Jerusalem, they must have sensed the underlying hostility at the court of Herod.

It’s interesting that in the whole story, we don’t hear of them doing what is almost always done when you meet a king: giving gifts. They have gifts with them; they see no reason to give them to Herod.

Gifts for a king

They find Jesus eventually, they give him gifts that have been the cue to imagine all sorts of things over the years. What’s clear about the gifts is that they are useless to babies and new parents. Honestly, who gives a new mother frankincense? Who brings myrrh to a shower? These people live in a rather stinky time period; frankincense at least puts a nice perfume over it. Myrrh is used to prepare bodies for burial; it’s rare and costly. God, that would have been the most useful of all, I suppose. These gifts don’t have individual points, despite all the imagining over the years.

But taken together, they are the sort of thing you give a king. They are a recognition that Jesus is indeed the real King of the Jews, that he is the chosen one of God, just as David was, just as Abraham was. These aren’t gifts you give a baby: they are gifts you give royalty. These aren’t gifts to use; they are gifts that say, “Your majesty”.

That’s why Herod wanted them to come back; he’s afraid that’s exactly what the child will evoke. He’s afraid of the competition because in the world of Herod, then and now, there is only one top person. Everything is a pyramid and the ones at the top are always trying to climb higher; that’s how they got there in the first place. Herod is afraid. That’s the true comedy of this story. Look at Herod in his palace, with his army, his priests, the whole religious establishment—look at Jesus in his manger, nothing but a baby with poor parents. But there in the stable, there is love: God’s love, flowing out, lighting the world. The star is a symbol. Stars are only seen at night, in darkness. John will say later, “[His] life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It’s so obvious, so clear, that the wise ones know who to give their gifts to. Think of it: they brought the gifts all the way from the East. They met with Herod. But they didn’t give the gifts to Herod. Now, in the presence of Jesus, they do. They give their gifts.

God offers life

Herod’s power is real. But God’s power is deeper. The wise ones are warned in a dream, just as Joseph was; they go home a different way, perhaps with tales of what they’ve seen. By the time Herod’s troops get to Bethlehem, Jesus, the real king of the Jews is gone. Babies are murdered anyway; that’s what kings like Herod do, their ultimate threat is death. But God’s ultimate offer is life and in Jesus, he’s offering it to all of us, giving it away, gifting us, just as the wise ones gifted Jesus.
This is a story about falling in love.

This is a story about the day you recognize Jesus for who he really is. This is a story for everyone who has or will ever come to Jesus, see who he is and respond by giving their own gifts. We are at the beginning of a new year. So it’s a good time to ask: what gift are we bringing? What gift can we give? Can we, like the wise ones there, reach over the boundaries of Jew and Gentile, male and female, and all the others and see that the only thing that matters is this: in Him is the light of all people; in him is the gift of God’s love. Receiving it, what can we do but give the gift of our own lives?