Sixth Sunday in Easter

Normal Love

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 21, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached<

There’s an old story about a church that called a new minister with a reputation as a fine preacher. Sure enough, on his first Sunday he gave an amazing sermon. People cried, people laughed at the funny parts, and many were deeply stirred. The members of the pulpit committee were roundly congratulated and everyone felt this was a great start.

The next Sunday there were smiles as people arrived and quiet as the pastor began. Everyone was startled when his opening turned out to be exactly the same. In fact, the whole sermon was the same. Some people hadn’t been there the first week, and they thought it was a fine sermon, some said they were glad to be reminded of some of his points. But on the whole, there was a bit less reaction. There was even less the third week when he again gave the same sermon, some said word for word.

As it happened, the Board of Deacons was meeting that week and of course someone asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Pastor, that was a fine sermon you gave last Sunday and the Sunday before that and the first Sunday but do you have any others?” The Deacons were quiet as they waited for his answer. After a moment, the pastor quietly said, “I have lots of them and as soon as I see you are doing what I preached in this sermon, I’ll go on to the next.” How do we connect God’s Word to life? How does what is said turn into what is done? How does imagined world of God’s way turn into the every day decisions we all make?

If you love me, keep my commandments

That’s the problem Jesus is facing in the passage from John we read. He knows his time with them is almost over and he’s teaching them about the time to come. How will what he has taught turn into how they live? How can his life and his message extend into their lives and the message those lives carry on? Over the years, along the way, he has built a relationship with them. They’ve seen him heal, heard him preach, watched him deal with individuals. They’ve learned to love him; felt him love them. Now that love becomes a bridge to the future. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says.

What are these commandments? Jesus isn’t Moses: he doesn’t give his followers a tablet with a nice set of bulleted commandments, he doesn’t hand them an operator’s manual. Yet according to the gospel writers, he does explicitly command some things. First and foremost, love god with your whole self and then as well, love your neighbor. Forgive endlessly. And there is the implicit command of his practice, the way he includes people his culture calls sinners, women, poor people, rich people, everyone, into the community of care at his table. There is the promise of abundance he preaches in the parable of the sower and by feeding the multitude and his own statement that he came to give abundant life. So we do have a set of commands and his own command is that living from these is the test of loving him.

Culture versus Christ

This is what Christians often miss because we confuse Christ with culture. There is a content to Christ’s commands and we can see it, hear it, act on it. Racism is never Christian because it contradicts Christ. Excluding people because of who they are, because they are gay or female or transgender is never Christian because it contradicts Christ. Oppressing people for gain is never Christian because it contradicts Christ and destroys the abundance God gives. So when Christian churches and Christian people endorse and live this way, it’s a sign they don’t love Christ, they love the culture that supports such sin.

What happens when we do live out his commands? The first thing to know is: you can succeed. We often speak of love as if it were an object or a hole in the  ground; we speak of “falling in love” or being blindsided by love. But love can be an intention, a decision that we will, every day, deal with everyone we encounter with kindness. Love is a commitment to kindness and just as exercising changes our physical body, practicing love changes our spiritual self so that as we do it, we are transformed. We come to see it as natural, as needed. Paul says in 2nd Corinthians that he is compelled by the love of Christ. All Christians know this feeling: because we love Christ, we must love others, even when we don’t want to or it’s inconvenient. 

Succeeding at Keeping Christ’s Commandments

We can succeed at this. Years ago I led a weekly chapel service for preschool kids, I was struggling to figure out how to condense the theology of love into something three year olds could understand. I came up with this idea: one nice thing. So I started talking to them about doing one nice thing each day. I gave little stars for reports of a nice thing; I had them chant it with me: “One nice thing! One nice thing!” It probably sounds silly and simplistic. But a few months after I started the one nice thing campaign, a mother who didn’t go to church came to me and asked to talk. She said that she and her husband weren’t church people and she had been unhappy when we announced the chapel services. Her little boy liked the preschool there, though, so they kept him in class. And then she paused and said, “I hate to admit this. I don’t want to admit this. But I have to: you have made my child better” She went on to say that suddenly he was coming to her and asking what he could do for a nice thing. He was doing things; he was changing. So whether you are three or 93 or somewhere in between, you can do one nice thing; you can succeed at keeping Christ’s commands. And if you try, you will.

Failing at Keeping Christ’s Commandments

There is another thing that will happen if you intentionally set out to keep Christ’s commands: you will fail. Maybe it’s a bad day, you didn’t sleep well, you’re growls and you’ll encounter someone who annoys you. Maybe you’re just not feeling well; maybe you’re feeling under appreciated. We all have those days. You beep at the guy in front of you who is taking two seconds too long to move after the light turns green; you say something unkind under your breath. You let your doubts dominate your thinking at a meeting. We all fail at living out Christ’s commands. The first disciples did. One of the mysteries I’ve been thinking about most of my life is that the gospel accounts depict the first disciples as such bumblers. At the feeding of the multitude, they are worried about the budget. When Jesus announces he is the Christ, they argue with him. They fight to make a hierarchy within their ranks instead of accepting equality with Jesus. They don’t believe in his resurrection; they run away when he’s arrested. They fail.

It is when we fail that we discover the importance of forgiveness. And it’s when we experience forgiveness that we begin to give it. Forgiveness is the key, according to Jesus, and it’s endless. “How many times must I forgive?” The disciples ask. Endlessly, Jesus answers. And he demonstrates this. When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies him three times; what’s worse is that Jesus had predicted as much. Think about the shame he must have felt when he met Jesus after the resurrection. Yet what does Jesus say? “Feed my sheep”. Jesus forgives him, embraces him, sends him on a mission. He means to do the same with you, and with me.

Normal Love

When I was teaching Sociology, we spent a lot of time on the concept of norms. Norms are simply the invisible rules which guide our behavior moment to moment. Go into a room with a table and chairs, you know to sit on the chair. That’s normal here. Two thirds of the world doesn’t use chairs but here we do. It’s normal. We have rules for all kinds of things. Now what I love about this church most of all is that love is normal, inclusion is normal. A young woman who doesn’t speak English shows up at the door on a snowy night; what’s the normal reaction? Here it’s to take her in, spend endless hours figuring out how to talk to her, feed her, help her.

A young man shows up one Sunday, a college student, who tells us he’s headed for the ministry. What’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to embrace him. People drive him to church every Sunday; we give him a chance to try out his preaching. We celebrate his graduation. This is from a letter I received from Bryan’s mother about the impact of this normal love.

Thank you so much for all that you and the entire Albany congregation have done for Bryan during his three years at Sienna. Your love, support and and caring have ben overwhelming.

What I love about this church is that love is normal here.

When Christ Compels Us

Now today is a special day: our Annual Meeting. It’s a moment to look around, size up where we’ve been, celebrate it and more importantly think about where we’re going together. Like the minister with whom I began, I want to simply say about that journey what I said on my first time in this pulpit.

Some may look around and see what isn’t here, see small numbers, think it means small potential. But Jesus did not send out a multitude; he sent out just 12 people, about half the number who gather here most Sundays. Sometimes they failed; sometimes they succeeded. But they gave the world this wonderful gift: his vision of love made normal. And in that gift, they found a spirit. As Jesus said, they weren’t alone and they discovered that in that Spirit, miracles were possible. Making love normal always does this: it always incubates miracles.

So as we look forward, make sure you see not just what’s here but what’s coming here, see the impact of normal love, see the vision of Christ. For wherever we go, we will be on the right path when we go where Christ compels us, where Christ leads us, where Christ’s love becomes our gift to the world For whom Christ gave his life.


Mothers Day Sermon

Cords of Compassion

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2017

Mothers Day • May 14, 2017

To Hear the sermon preached, click below

The desert gives up its heat at night as fast as darkness consumes a windowless room when the light switch is turned off. In the shadow of a bush, a child, a boy on the edge of manhood lies crying and a little way off his mother is bent in anguish, crying as well. In that moment, for the first time in the Biblical story, something unimaginable happens: from heaven itself, the voice of an angel, a messenger of the Most High, speaks to the woman and asks, “What troubles you?” The cries of mother and child have been heard in heaven. They’re dying of thirst; she’s perishing from grief. In that moment, this Egyptian woman, a person who has no part in the inheritance of God’s people, is heard and for the first time in the whole Bible story, an angel opens her eyes and she sees, miraculously, an oasis: a garden with water, a place where life can be sustained. Her name is Hagar; her son is Ishamael. God loves them; God saves them.

Mothers Day

Today is Mothers Day in our nation, a celebration begun in 1905 by Anna Jarvis, who began by memorializing her own mother and then campaigned to make the day a national holiday. By 1914, the day was proclaimed by President Wilson and celebrated all over the country. Ironically, Jarvis herself became so angry at commercialization of the day that she campaigned against it and was arrested for disturbing the peace. For people who grew up singing, Faith of Our Fathers and other songs that exclusively portray God’s love in patriarchal terms, it’s hard at times to realize that the Bible has no gender barriers in communicating God’s love. So I thought this would be a good day to speak about three unusual mothers whose stories are like a series of lenses, focusing God’s love through their lives to make it visible to us.

The Story of Hagar: God Hears Her Cry

Take Hagar, for example. We celebrate God’s covenant with Abram and Sarai in which God promised land and blessing and descendants as numerous as the stars. At this promise, they leave the settled place of their origin and live on a pilgrimage with no certain destination. Throughout the journey, the promise of a child remains unfulfilled. At last, seeking to bring about by human means what God doesn’t seem to be doing any other way, Sarai turns to the best reproductive technology of her time. She takes an Egyptian slave named Hagar to her husband, gives her to him as a wife and bluntly tells him to sleep with her and produce a child. This kind of surrogate child bearing was common the ancient near east and in this case it’s effective. Hagar conceives, a child is born, named Ishmael and all seems well.

But it isn’t well; it never is when we try to substitute our own time and trouble for God’s plan. Fertility, child bearing, are the ultimate means of value in that world. Sarai’s childlessness makes her envious of Hagar; Hagar’s success at having a son makes her despise Sarai. It doesn’t take much imagination to think how long and awful that quiet war must have been. Finally, Hagar runs away. But she returns after God speaks to her in the desert. For years thereafter, she lives a twilight life: as to Abraham, a second wife, as to Sarah, a despised slave. The boy Ishmael grows. Finally,, in the fullness of Gods’ time, Sarah does conceive; she also bears a son and names him Isaac. Now there is a new problem: Sarah is determined her son will not share the inheritance with Ishmael. So she bluntly tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar. Upon a day, he does so, giving her the barest minimum, a sack of meal, a skin of water, to survive for a time in the desert. It’s a way of killing someone out of sight. When the meal and water run out, Hagar knows the time is up; she puts the boy under a tree, hoping not to see him die. That’s the scene with which we began. Realize who these people are: Egyptians, slaves, people outside the care of the community. But not outside God’s care. It’s a mother’s cry for her son that first calls forth an angel.

The Story of Bathsheba: Sustaining Love Leads to Blessing

Let me share the story of another mother. She’s not a great example; she’s not a character we often talk about in church. More than a thousand years after Hagar, God’s people have created a kingdom, raised up a king, seen him cast down, replaced by another man named David. It’s the dawn of a golden age remembered ever since for David becomes the focus of a new covenant when God again promises permanent presence with God’s people. But David’s virtue is God’s favor, not his own moral character. One day he sees a young woman, desires her, and they have an affair. David arranges to have her husband killed; the woman, named Bathsheba, becomes pregnant but loses the child. In his grief, David loses himself for a time. Yet he comes back; together, David and Bathsheba have another child and name him Solomon.

Solomon is not the obvious heir but his mother maneuvers him into becoming king after David and his rule becomes an almost mythic golden age. The Talmud calls him a prophet, so too does the Quran. It is Solomon who begins the process of writing down what we call the Old Testament or the Hebrew Scriptures. But without Bathsheba, there would be no Solomon: it is her perseverance and faith the lead to his life. Without it, we would have no Genesis, no Exodus, no record of how God saved God’s people and covenanted with them. It is Bathsheba, often depicted as an evil temptress, who laid this foundation for us.

The Story of Gomer: God’s Mother Love

Let me tell one more story. Three centuries or so after Solomon, his kingdom has split in two. The northern half, called Israel, has become a place where the rich get richer by oppressing the poor. They have failed to keep God’s covenant and God responds as God always does by calling forth a prophet, a person to speak God’s word. His name is Hosea and his call is to speak about the nations’ faithlessness. Like many prophets, he uses vivid pictures. This is a tough picture to present, so I’m just going to read exactly what it says in the Book of Hosea.
When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, “Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.”

The wife he takes his named Gomer and she has two children. It’s not a pretty story; it’s like describing an operation to remove a tumor. We hope the result is good but the details are difficult. Gomer’s story and the prophecy of Hosea are a terrible indictment of Israel and it’s faithlessness. Over and over again, the rich have violated God’s commands. Over and over again, Israel has failed to live out God’s rules for a community of care.

Yet in that story this light shines out. After all the terrible words of indictment, after all the lists of reasons to punish Israel, after God offers the awful image of an unfaithful wife, God comes back to the core problem of love. Just as Hosea loves Gomer, God loves Israel.

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of compassion, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.

Now cords of compassion are very simple. I know that every parent here can remember how toddlers run away at the slightest inattention. Israelite mothers, working in the fields, came up with the same solution sometimes used by parents today: a sort of leash to limit how far the child could go, how much trouble he could find. The name for this mother’s leash is a cord or compassion.

Stories of Mothers Showing God’s Love

These are stories of women who do not fit the mold of mothers. I suppose somewhere today someone is talking about Mary the Mother of Jesus or perhaps Sarah, Abraham’s covenant partner whose child Isaac is the sign of covenant fulfillment. I wanted to share these stories because they are not just Biblical stories, they are emblems of how God uses the most unusual mothers as well as the ones we more often remember to let some love in. Gomer becomes a mother precisely to demonstrate faithlessness but in the demonstration, the surprising insight is given that God is not limited by some rule of rewards and punishments in dealing with us; God does not give up even when we are given over to faithlessness. Bathsheba is often a symbol of temptation and adultery but she is also the gateway to the golden age of Solomon when God’s Word is written and wisdom is given. Hagar is an Egyptian slave. Hundreds of years later, the tables will turn, the Hebrews will be enslaved by Egyptians and God will hear the cries of those mothers but here God hears this mother and for the first time sends an angel. Who would have thought someone so outside the boundaries would be the gateway for God’s messenger and God’s message?

These stories are meant to break our boundaries as well. Somewhere today, Syrian mothers are crying; can you imagine heaven hearing them? What should we believe then, when someone tells us they are outside the boundaries of compassion? Somewhere today, some woman is trying to put a life back together after a faithless marriage; is it really enough to say what goes around comes around or is there more, is there some way we can enact God’s surprising love that stops the merry go round and lets people off?

This is Mothers Day; it’s become a day to honor women and that’s a noble, and worthwhile thing. Shouldn’t it be more? Shouldn’t it be a day when we hear in the image of mother love, the voice of God saying, “I drew you with cords of compassion; I could never let you go?” For surely, in covenant, in faith, we are the people bound by cords of compassion; we are the people meant to make those cords clear to those who have not understood they are God’s children. In the love of God, there are no boundaries, there is only the endless grace of trying to raise up the children of God to celebrate God’s love by becoming a blessing every day.