Third Sunday After Pentecost – A

Small, Swift Birds

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Third Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 25, 2017

Matthew 10:24-39

Click below to hear the sermon preached

If we were asked the most important thing in our lives, I suspect many of us would reply, “My family.” Families in the best sense are where we learn love: where we are accepted, where we are nurtured, where we are accepted even when we are unacceptable. In The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost imagines someone saying,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, 
They have to take you in.’ 
‘I should have called it 
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve. 

That’s our dream of family. It’s a good dream and a wonderful reality when it happens.

Of course, we know not all families are like this. Families are where we are meant to love but where sadly sometimes there is violence, sometimes there is oppression. Not all families accept each other. So many of people have stories about being fearful coming out to family. My own family included a deep story about my mother’s upbringing and she never lost her bitterness and feeling that in the gendered values of her family, she was less important, less valuable, than her brother. So families are a mixed bag. And today we’ve heard Jesus say some shocking things about causing division in family. What does he mean? What does he intend us to get from this?

Putting Jesus’ Words in Context

We need to put these sayings in context. When we say, ‘family’, we really mean a mother, father, kids, perhaps a few close relatives. But the family of Roman times was a much larger unit, a whole household. It was usually headed by a senior male and included adult sons and their wives, their children, perhaps other relatives, the senior male’s wife and slaves. In well to do families or households all these would live together; in poorer households, they might occupy an apartment building.

Roman religion and Jewish practice all centered on this pyramid of power. Women were not allowed to eat with men or talk to them at meals in most places. Slaves were an intimate part of the household but had no power. Babies could be exposed and killed at birth; children were not always prized. The decision, as in all household matters, was left to the head of the family. So when we hear family here, we need to think of this pyramid of power, this household with slaves and children at the bottom, women a little higher up, sons higher still, and finally at the top an older man.

Contrast this with Jesus. We hear almost nothing about his father and he disregards his mother and brothers and sisters at various points in the gospel stories, reuniting with his mother at his death. Instead, Jesus constructs a household. When his own family tries to bring him back from preaching and healing, he says,

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 
[Mark 3:34-35]

He invites a group of men and—shockingly!—women to come with him on his journey of healing and preaching. The gospels focus on 12 men but Luke mentions 70 people and lists a group of women that traveled with him. John has a set of stories that focus on Mary and Martha and makes it clear that he has a prior relationship with them. We know from a wide variety of stories that Jesus’ practice was a source of constant criticism. Over and over again, we read, “He eats with sinners”, a category that includes women, gentiles, and people who don’t observe the codes of family and religious life.

Jesus himself relates this here: he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”. Beelzebul is a demonic figure. He understands that if he is criticized, those who follow him will be as well. His solution is simple: everything will be revealed. His solution is to give away being part of this new family: show it and share it.

…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. [Matthew 10:26f]

Everything is going to be revealed, everything is an open invitation.

This Is Invitation!

That is the most important thing to understand about this text: it is invitation. Just before today’s reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to go out and spread the good news of this new household he is creating. Their mission, he says, is to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. He tells them some places won’t let them do this; just go on, he says. He tells them some people will oppose them; just go on, he says. Here in what we read, he focuses on the fact that even some members of their own families will oppose them. Just go on: make this new way the most import fact of your life, make this new household, the most important relationship in your life.

Why follow Jesus, if it’s going to cause such division and heartache? Because where we follow him is into a relationship with God so loving, so intimate, so particular that nothing else compares. He says, “…even the hairs of your head are counted.” Think of this: think what it would take to count the hairs of your head, think how intimate you would have to be with someone to do that, to sit with them, listen to them talk, through that process. That’s the way Jesus is God with; that’s how Jesus invites us to be with God. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? Yet this what gives life, he says. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Following Jesus

It’s not an easy way because it means changing yourself. It means learning a new way of looking at the world. Years ago, I was the pastor of a church much like this one, a big old building needing constant cleaning. We hired an organization that employed differently abled people and every day their crew would come in. The one I remember most was a young guy with some mental challenges who liked to engage me. I wore shoes with laces in those days and when he would see me, he would say, “Tie shoe!” and then laugh hysterically. At first I would politely smile, and go on with whatever I was doing. But this was a constant thing and it began to make me wonder and to be honest, annoy me a little, because he wasn’t satisfied to just let it go; he wanted me to laugh too. Finally I mentioned it to the supervisor. He said, “Oh, he had a problem learning to tie his shoes, so we used to tease him about tying his shoes. Somewhat chastened, reminded I was supposed to be a loving Christian, the next time he said it, I forced myself to laugh too. I learned to be more patient; I learned to laugh. Finally, one day, I discovered: I got the joke. I laughed, real laughter. He had taught me to stop, laugh, be there with him for a moment. I was healed.

This is what we are about: healing people. There’s a lot of talk here about growing the church and I’m just like you, I love it when the pews fill up. Now the 1950’s model of church growth was to find a place where people were moving, open up there, and they will come. That worked—in the 1950’s. It’s not going to work here.

A more modern way of growing a church is to market it like a new kind of toothpaste, or bread or anything else. The model of these large mega churches is Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels didn’t start out by figuring out what Jesus said; he started out going around to people in an area outside Chicago and listening to what they wanted and then creating a church that would tell them what they wanted to hear. Today you do this by finding someone who will use great music, great pictures, and great words to tell people they are right and good just as they are. That might work; I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.

Because Jesus doesn’t say one word about getting a lot of people together. He says: go out and heal. And that’s what we are doing, what we are meant to do. Most of the people who visit here and come here have been hurt; some are sick. They come here with scars, they come here with the hope that we can offer something that will help them. And we can.

At the center of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is this:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10:2-31]

Small, Swift Birds

Two sparrows: this is the food of the poor, this is the common bird no one notices, this is the little bit of almost nothing that flits and isn’t appreciated. Yet here is Jesus telling us that God cares about the sparrows. If we really believe that, if we act like it, if we live it, how can we help caring for others too? How can we not learn to laugh with the “Tie shoe!” joke? How can we not help and heal?

One of my favorite bands has a song called, Small, Swift Birds. It uses this image to teach us to appreciate how important every encounter is, to teach us to appreciate each moment.

I have heard about the lives of small swift birds.
They dazzle with their colour and their deftness through the air.
Just a simple glimpse will keep you simply standing there….
And then there’s the day we look for them and can’t find them anywhere.

The song reminds us of the value of each small moment. Each day, every day, Jesus invites us to live as members of his household. He knows it will cost us but he knows that what he offers is priceless. Each of you is so precious to God. Each other person out there is just as precious. He gathered us to share God’s love; he sends out to heal God’s people. This week, this month, every day: remember that you are on a mission from God to be the image of God’s love.


Second Sunday After Pentecost/A

Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 18, 2017

Genesis 18:1-15

This is a season of announcements. Graduation announcements suddenly open our eyes to the fact that a person we thought was still safely a child has a new address in the adult world. Wedding announcements invite us to share the joy in lighting the hearth fire of a new family and birth announcements that let us know the candle of a new life has been lit. Usually we know these people and the announcements make us nod. But suppose we received an announcement that a senior woman had just had a baby; imagine getting a message that someone in her 80’s or 90’s had just birthed a child. That would be a shock—probably most of all to her! This story has just such a moment at its core and a question: do we believe God is serious about fulfilling promises?

Abraham and his family are relaxing in the heat of the day,. There is a moment on hot days when the heat itself becomes a presence, when things in the distance tremble, when mirages appear, when the world almost seems to melt. It is just then that Abraham, dozing under some oaks, trying to find a tiny bit of shade, opens his eyes for a moment and sees three strangers approaching in the distance. At first they would have that shimmering, liquid look heat causes; at first, I think, he might assume he was dreaming.

Yet from the first, I imagine Abraham waking, the way we wake if car lights flash and someone pulls in the drive unexpectedly at midnight. I imagine him watching just long enough to confirm this is no dream, no mirage, and then stirring. Strangers are dangerous in the desert. At the same time, desert culture then and now has a code of hospitality. So Abraham stirs; I think of him kicking his foreman, napping next to him, the man waking and looking, seeing the look of concern, getting up, waking the next person down the line in the pecking order and the whole camp stirring, so that by the time the strangers can be solidly seen, the camp is up. Abraham meets the strangers at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality: what do they want? must be on everyone’s mind.

Feast Time!

Abraham offers hospitality and he offers it in humble language we understand. “Don’t get above yourself” is one of our cardinal virtues. Don’t ever announce you are the best cook, the best anything. “Let me bring a little bread,” Abraham says—and then goes back to the camp and orders a banquet. Imagine the rushing around, the measures of meal that kneaded by women sweating and straining, the cooking in the heat of the day, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a whole feast. If it were here, there would be deviled eggs and table decorations. If it were here, there would be sputtering about what does he expect us to do on such short notice—and then a determination to do more than anyone thought possible.

All this takes time and that’s fine. Even today in the Middle East, it’s customary to sit and drink coffee or tea and chat before doing business. So I imagine that when the feast is finally served, it is hours later. The strangers have relaxed; the people in the camp are exhausted. As is customary, women are excluded from the tent where the food is served and Abraham himself does not recline with the guests; he acts as the server of food. Still, people are people; this is a camp with many people. There are girls calculating the cuteness of the strangers, there is curiosity, and among the curious there is Sarah, who listens just outside, who wonders just outside.

A Child?

Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behaviors for guests. When the stranger suddenly asks about Abraham’s wife, it is a shocking violation of manners. “Where is your wife, Sarah?”, the guest asks and Abraham tries to cover it by saying she’s off in the tent. The storyteller reminds us in delicate language that Sarah is well past menopause. And then the stranger announces, as if commenting on the unusual heat this year, in an offhand way, “I’ll be back this way one day and Sarah will have a son.”

It’s a birth announcement for a woman in her 90’s. I imagine all conversation stopping; I imagine a deadly silence, a conversational period occurring. In a moment this stranger has brought up the most painful, difficult, dark, private reality of life here. Long ago, this family, this couple, set out on a life journey pushed by the promise of God that there would be children. No children have come; no babies have been born. Year after year, they waited; season after season they hoped. Time after time they must have prayed—and cried; raged, even sometimes at each other. Yet there was no child.

Finally, there was no escaping the reality: the promise was broken, the time had run out. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women,” the text says. No child: no child ever. They must have grieved until their grief became one of those sadness scars one puts away; too painful to visit often, too important not to visit sometimes. So here they are, two people who have finally relaxed with the failure of the promise. And here is this stranger throwing their hope in their face, opening their most painful wound. For the scar of hope turning into hopelessness always leaves a scar.

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

Hope is a scary thing. Hope makes us laugh and the laughter makes us vulnerable. Sarah and Abraham have stopped laughing about their hope. When the stranger makes his announcement, Sarah laughs, but it’s not the laughter of hope, it’s the laughter of derision; the deep belly laugh of all women in all times at the silliness of men who simply don’t understand things, don’t understand about women and babies. Sarah laughs, laughs so hard that in the stillness of that moment, her laughter must have echoed in the tent. “Oh my God,” I hear her saying, “Me, pregnant!” The stranger hears her and asks this simple question: Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It’s a good question: what do you think? Is anything too hard for the Lord? The truth is most of the time we are a lot like Sarah. We think lots of things are too hard for the Lord, so we do them ourselves, best we can. But our best isn’t always enough and our best comes with the certain knowledge that there’s only so much we can do. When Sarah gets too old for children, she knows it, she admits it, and she gets a young maidservant to have a child by Abraham so at least there will be an heir. We reel from a setback and try to make a new plan, we pound on the closed-door of a dream until our knuckles hurt and then we give up. Sarah laughs, not in laughter, but in the silliness of believing.

Here is another plan: here is another hope. The hope is that there are more possibilities than we know. It’s never practical to announce this; practical people, people like you and I, always say to such hope, “Well, what do you have in mind?” and there is no answer because it is the point of such hope that it is not in the mind, it is not rational at all. It is the simple, deep, conviction that nothing indeed is too hard for the Lord; it is the willingness to stop knocking and wait for God to fulfill the promise. An Peter, Paul and Mary song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.”

Yet we have that possibility; we have that capability: to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. The core of this, the path to it, is to understand that God does indeed deal in fulfillment. God promises and always makes good on the promise; our problem is that we assume God will do it the way we want and the way we expect and on our time-table. But a look at the Bible show is that God’s fulfillment is always more exuberant, bigger, wilder, than anything we had imagined. It doesn’t happen when we expect: it comes as a surprise.

Believing in God’s Fulfillment

It’s not easy to believe in such fulfillment. We are much more comfortable with limits. I used to have a three-year old friend named Leah Miller whose mother owned a café. Leah liked to play cook and she had a little plastic kitchen. A standard meal at Leah’s kitchen consisted of pancakes, french fries and ketchup. Usually the pancakes had sprinkles on them; in fact, it was usual in ordering food at Leah’s kitchen to have the pancakes served and then to say, “May I have sprinkles please?”. If you didn’t ask, she would prompt: “You forgot to ask for sprinkles.” But the one day, when Leah was imagining cooking pancakes and french fries for her grandmother, and I was watching, something strange happened. Leah held out her hands—”there you go”—and served the pancakes. But when her nana asked for sprinkles, Leah looked at her sadly and said, “We don’t have any sprinkles, we’re out.” No imaginary sprinkles today.

We need to imagine more sprinkles. We need a bigger imagination; we need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need to imagine more and more than imagining, we need to simply believe this: that nothing is too hard for the Lord. We need to get up each day not full of what we are going to do but prepared, alert, ready to see, to really see, off in the distance, God approaching, ready to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed, living as faithful people, laughing people, will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow.


Trinity Sunday/A

The Fruit of All Creation

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Trinity Sunday • June 11, 2017

Click below to hear the sermon preached

“I am groot”. It’s a line from the movie, Guardians of the Galaxy. A cast of strange creatures from different places includes a being who looks like a tree, has branches for arms and says this one phrase over and over, in answer to any question, as a comment on any situation: “I am groot”. After many adventures, Groot saves them, at the cost of his own life. But Groot sends out a seed that grows into a little Groot who then goes on to the sequel.

I am Groot. Who are you? This past week I submitted an article for a magazine and I had to write an author bio: three or four sentences to capture my whole life. Have you ever done this? It’s a good exercise. I started like this: Jim Eaton lives in Albany, NY. Location defines us in many ways: who we are is partly a product of where we are. Now today we’ve read the long, majestic, litany of creation and it asks us to reflect on who we are, where we are, and why we are.


The beginning is dark: creation begins in chaos. I think the Hebrew makes this even more clear than the translation. The Hebrew word we translate “formless void” is Tohu wa Bohu. It sounds like chaos doesn’t it? Think of a junkyard; think of a kitchen after a big dinner, think of a house when everything has been moved in and nothing put away. How do you begin? Where do you begin? 

Creation begins and moves forward as a process of ordering. In darkness, light: the light separated from the darkness. If you listened carefully, you heard this process over and over. Creation moves forward by separating things and naming them: “God called the light Day and the darkness God called Night.” A dome of land appears, separating the waters below from the waters above: sky and sea, and then the sea is defined by shores and there is earth as well. Bit by bit it’s coming together.

Like a family arranging the couch, chairs, end tables and lamps in a living room, God makes a place. It’s not all a singular effort, either. Once the land is made, it begins to participate in the process. The earth produces vegetation; the earth is a partner in creation now. The lights in the sky, moon and sun, are set to regulate times and seasons: partners in creation. The creatures of the sky and the seas are created and told to be fruitful: they are partners in creation. The same is true of animals, including the creeping things. 

Finally, of course, creation comes to us. 

Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. [Genesis 1:27f] 

Like the earth, like the plants, like the lights in the sky, like all the others, there we are: we have an address and we are also partners in creation. 

Now if you’re looking for some discussion here of how this all fits or doesn’t fit with the science of origins, you’re going to be disappointed. This isn’t a scientific explanation and opposing science and the Bible is as silly as arguing that Frank Sinatra singing, It had to be you is a psychologist’s explanation of mate selection. The story of creation, like a song, is meant to speak to our soul, not our science. 

Cooperative Creation

If we listen with our souls, what we hear is the careful ordering of a place. Light and Dark: dry and wet, vegetable and animal, each is given a place in a peaceful, ordered, intricate system that together makes a world. No piece alone is the world: it is the whole ordered creation, interacting together, working together that is creation’s result.

God doesn’t make everything: the earth produces, the plants produce, the animals produce. Creation is cooperative and it’s a process. My neighbor Andrea is an amazing gardener. Recently she’s been replanting some raspberry bushes. But others she’s leaving alone. She said that those have another year to produce, explaining that raspberries produce for a couple of years and then die but as they die they put out new shoots. There is a rhythm to the process: growth and fruit and death and new shoots. Just like Groot, with whom I began, we serve a purpose and we come to an end. Our purpose is the fruit of all creation. The earth produces; the bushes produce. Creation is dynamic.

Now I mentioned at the beginning this is a meditation on where we are, who we are and why we are. Where we are is here: in the center of a dynamic, cooperative creation. Why are we here? Genesis has something to say about that as well. The word in our English translation is dominion. That sounds like being in charge; it sounds like we’re the boss. Is that what it really means? We’ve often treated it this way and even today, there are preachers and politicians who rely on this Bible verse to justify the exploitation of creation for profit. But what does the Bible really say?

Dominion Means Caring

The Hebrew word we translate dominion is ‘radah’. This word carries the idea of being in charge, but it’s being in charge the same way someone might say, “Take care”. Have you ever been told this? I grew up with two younger brothers. Like everyone who’s ever been the oldest of a bunch of siblings, every once in a while, my parents would go out and leave me in charge with these words: “Take care of your brothers, we’ll be back later.” We do this in other ways, don’t we? Perhaps you have a cat or dog and when you go away, you find someone and ask them to take care of your dog or cat; perhaps when you go on a trip you ask someone to take care of your house. That’s radah; that’s dominion.

But I can assure you, based on experience, that my parents did not intend for me to use my brothers as unpaid labor, for example, just to imagine something that might or might not have happened, to make them do my chores. When you ask someone to take care of your cat or dog, you don’t expect them to exploit them; when you ask someone to take care of your house, you’d be angry and upset if you came home and discovered the house had been sold and the care taker had pocketed the profits. To have dominion is to take care.

Created in the Image of God

We can also find a clue to who we are in the act of our creation: we are created in the image of God. What is that image? Over and over, scripture makes clear God is love. So we are created in the image of love, meant to love, meant to care and create communities of care. This is what Jesus did. Remember how right from the beginning he gathered up disciples? Remember how even at the end on the cross, he gives his mother and his friend John to each other? Those are the concrete instances of this larger process. Here in creation, God cares for the needs of each. Every plant yielding seed and every fruit is provided not by accident but as a source of food and not only for us—we’re meant to share with the rest of creation as well. God knows we need to eat, so God creates a structure to fulfill our needs.

What is the reason for creation? Why are we here? The final chapter of the story is the creation of sabbath. On the seventh day God rests. Is God just tired? Does God have the pains we all get after a hard day working in the yard? I think a better explanation is in the story itself. As each chapter of creation is created, God names it’s value. Over and over again, something is said to be good, as we heard. Now and only now does God appreciate all of creation as a whole and pronounce that is is very good. Only about all of creation together is it said to be very good.

Where we are is God’s creation; who we are is creatures in God’s image. Why we are emerges from this: like God we are meant to be appreciators. If we don’t take the time to look, if we don’t take the time to wait until we feel the very goodness of creation, we have failed our most important task. Made in God’s image, we are meant to embrace sabbath, as God does. Now politicians can argue about environmental policies and agreements. But most of us learn to take care of a cat or dog when we’re young; a lot of learned to babysit pretty early too. So when they argue, when they destroy the very creation we are meant to sustain, our job remains the same: to care for creation, to care for others, to appreciate the loving God who hopes we will reflect the same care and creativity that made us and made us a place.

Sending Out Seeds

Appreciation includes preserving and protecting.Fifty years ago, the Hudson River was a long swamp of sewage and industrial pollution. Pete Seeger was a folk singer dedicated to bringing the songs of justice to people and he and his wife organized to create a 106 foot sloop to sail on the Hudson and raise people’s consciousness about the river. Today the river is so much cleaner, so beautiful. But here’s the important thing. Just like Groot, Clearwater sent out seeds. One of them landed in Suttons Bay, Michigan. Thanks to the efforts of Tom Kelly, Ellen Nordsieck and many others, an 88 foot schooner was built and an educational program created on Traverse Bay. Today, the lake is cleaner and other seeds are being sent out.

There’s a whole movement today that wants you to believe you can’t make a difference. It’s a lie; you can and do. Most of the difference humans have made has been negative. Because of our industry, because we have used the energy of fossil fuels, we’ve raised the temperature of our planet. It’s like a babysitter turning the heat way up in a home.

We can make a difference. The Paris Accords and agreements like it are based on sound science. Climate change isn’t a theory, it’s a fact; climate change isn’t a partisan political point, it’s a theological challenge, a faith challenge. It asks us whether we are indeed living in God’s image, as God’s people, caring for God’s creation. Our responsibility is to appreciate and sustain creation so that the fruit of all creation can ripen just as God intended.

I mentioned Groot at the beginning. Throughout the movie, regardless of the question asked or the situation, Groot says the same thing over and over and over: “I am Groot.” At first it’s mysterious but then it acquires a meaning: sometimes said with sympathy, sometimes as a challenge. When we read the story of creation, when we read the stories of Jesus, when we read the stories of the Spirit inspiring the church, what we find is that in the same way, God is saying the same thing over and over: you are a reflection of me. Act like it. Tend my creation; care for the garden I’ve made, help it produce the fruit of all creation an appreciate that fruit.

Third Sunday in Easter/A

Break Thou the Bread of Life

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton • © 2017

Third Sunday of Easter • April 30, 2017

Luke 24:13-25

A Man All Alone

A man is traveling, all alone. He happens to be walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus but he could be traveling anywhere, any time. He could be a poor man in a bus terminal: hard seats, harsh lights and a scratchy PA system. Over there, a family is rapidly speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. Down the row, an old man is staring straight ahead. Loud, angry music and choking bus exhaust come in every time the door opens and a woman is arguing over the price of a ticket to Omaha with the agent. He could be a rich man waiting in an airport terminal, sitting at a bar with a drink he isn’t really drinking in front of him. Perhaps his shirt collar is irritating his neck and as he tries to adjust it he thinks he really needs to lose a little weight. Maybe he’s lost in thought about a meeting later in the day or maybe he’s thinking that he wished he had something sweet like he meant to his wife instead of just “See you Thursday I think” when he left this morning.

A man is traveling, all alone. And on the way he bumps against two people ahead of him. You know how this happens? Traveling down the grocery store aisle, a small old woman stops and you realize she needs help reaching something on a high shelf. Maybe you’re standing in a line and just to pass the time you smile at a child’s antics or talk to a stranger.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he comes upon two other men traveling; he walks into a conversation. They’re discussing the news over the weekend, arguing about the meaning of the death of Jesus. They don’t know the man traveling alone but as strangers on the same trajectory do, they include him in the conversation. He’s trying to catch the sense of it and he asks them what they’re discussing.

Now there are two sorts of people in the world: those who keep up with the news and those who don’t. Newsy people turn on CNN when they come home, newsy people watch six o’clock and the eleven o’clock news both and read the paper. Newsy people are always amazed when they run into the other sort. They are newsy guys so when he asks, they answer with some combination of smugness and incredulity, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in Jerusalem this weekend?”. He doesn’t so they fill him in, they explain that Jesus of Nazareth was a mighty prophet who was put to death over the weekend by the power structure.

Sharing Together

They tell him their hopes: that he would redeem Israel. I imagine they tell him their fear as well, at least their eyes tell him, and the fact that they’re putting as much distance between themselves and Jerusalem as they can. They fear that the same thing could happen to them, of course, but perhaps even more, they fear that the death of Jesus is the death of hope. They tell him about the women who found an empty tomb. But their steps speak too and tell him that though they once believed Jesus, they have used up their hope and don’t have any left for this strange report from the women at the tomb. After all, they are on their way away from Jerusalem.

The stranger holds up his end of the conversation. Perhaps to their amazement, once he’s got the gist of it, he has a lot to say. He tells them they’re foolish and he speaks about their faint hearts, the same faint hearts that have set them on the path out of Jerusalem, off to Emmaus. It turns out that he may not know much about the news but he has a lot to say about Moses and the other prophets.

God’s Powerful Love

What does he tell them? No one knows, exactly. But I think he must have told them this: God’s love is so wonderful, so powerful, so unlimited, it can’t be stopped by the City Council any more than the tide. That’s what you get when you start reading Moses and the prophets: over and over again they tell the story of how God loved and loved beyond loving, even when God’s people were faithless and mean and small spirited. There’s Moses wailing about the whining of the people, and God calmly ordering up manna and quail; there’s Hosea talking about the sins of the people and God using the tender language of mother love to ask, “How can I give you up?” There’s Isaiah promising a new covenant and Jeremiah proclaiming a new day. There’s Jonah sitting on a hill side smug and waiting for God to blast a bunch of Gentile Ninevites and complaining because when God has mercy and grants a stay of execution.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he talks to two other men who are also lonely, because fear is a lonely business. We hope together but we’re each frightened in our own way. All day long they talk about Jesus and the prophets and things that Jesus did and said and Moses and the love of God until it’s getting near sunset. Now the roads out of Jerusalem are dangerous after dark and so, though the man who is traveling all alone doesn’t have a reservation, the two he’s met ask him to stay with them, tell him don’t worry, we’ll get the motel to set up a trundle bed or something, just stay with us, walk with us tomorrow.

That evening after they freshen up they all get together for supper. A simple meal: some bread, some wine. They’ve been talking about Jesus all day and I suppose that they must have told the man who is traveling all alone about how Jesus would invite strangers and the lonely to his table, how he would bless the bread and break it, how he would give thanks and pour everyone some wine. And suddenly as the man who was traveling all alone is doing just these very things their eyes are opened and they see something they’ve missed all day long: Jesus is risen; Jesus has been with them all along.

Who Is The Man?

Now you listened carefully, I’m sure, to the story when I read it, so you knew it was Jesus all along. We all snicker a little at these silly people. We want to yell when they are talking on the road, “Hey, don’t you know you’re talking to Jesus?”. Some of us are thinking: “Idiots!”. Every year in Bible class someone asks, “Why don’t they recognize him? Did he look different?” I suppose death does change a person.

But that’s not why they don’t recognize him. I’m not at all certain that the man on the road with them has the earthly form of Jesus.

I think the real clue to this text is back where Jesus tells the story of people on Judgment Day. Remember them? He gathers a group of folks and says about the kingdom: “You’re in! When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was imprisoned you visited me!” and they look at each other in amazement and say, “When did we see you in such a bad way, Lord?” He answers, “When you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

They didn’t recognize Jesus; they simply acted as Jesus would have acted, they acted as love instructed them to act. And the same is true here. These men have experienced the Risen Christ by welcoming someone, by feeding him, by sharing the cup of the new covenant with him. The man traveling all alone disappears; he becomes a part of a community. Together, they have learned to embrace new selves. Together, they have become the Body of Christ because they recognized Christ in their midst: in each other. “Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me,” we sing; we forget that in the process, we’re meant to recognize Jesus present.

Now, I used to think this meant social action—give out food, clothes, fuel, get the government to do the same. I still think those are good things to do. But I’ve come to believe there is something deeper, something more wonderful. We can give stuff out to strangers but what God really hopes is that we will become a blessing to the people where we are, that we will do what God does, which is to make up little communities of care.

Communities of Care

That seems to be how God works. When God set out to save the world, for example, God did not create a new program, offer a policy proposal or hold an election, God went and whispered to Abram: “Come be a blessing”. When God gets to the next act and decides to come into the world, there’s no processional, no entourage and no advance at all, just a baby and a family. And even when Jesus is on the cross, he can’t help making one more family; among his last words, he turns to his mom and says, “Here’s your son”, to a disciple and says, “Treat her like your mother.”

Yes: even on the cross Jesus was making connections. That’s what happens in this story: strangers meet, share a conversation and then communion and discover he’s present and they are connected after all. So a bit of social action will not, I think, fulfill his hope for us. What he really hopes is that we will discover him in our midst, in each other. And, that by coming together, we will come to him. Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies,

When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home—that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, “You come back now.”

That’s what the resurrection means to me. The resurrection is what happens when we see Jesus walking, talking and realize he’s right next to us. The resurrection happens when we take care of each other the way we would take care of him. The resurrection happens when we recognize Jesus.

Now, you can’t get this on your own schedule and you can’t get it being a consumer. I mean: if you come to church the way you go to the grocery store, picking things off the shelves and then figuring you did your bit if you pay. It’s not hard to feel sorry for strangers but it’s very difficult to see Jesus in the people nearby because they are so annoying. They fail in the same way over and over. They don’t take good advice. They don’t follow directions. It’s so easy to see how wrong they are and it’s satisfying in a way too, until somebody brings up that darn proverb of Jesus about being able to see the flyspeck in your brother’s eye but not the log in your own.

Fixed for Blessing

But there’s a reason we are here together and the reason is to get fixed up so we can be the kind of people God hoped we’d become. We don’t start out that way and along the way, we tend to wander off the path and find all kinds of ways to avoid our true identity. I’m not going to catalog all the ways we go bad because the ones that don’t affect you personally would just make you smug and the ones that did would make you mad that I’d mentioned them. The important point isn’t that we make mistakes, it’s that when we do, God is right there trying to clean up the mess and put us back together.

That’s in this story too. Remember where the guys are going when the stranger first meets them? They’re walking away from Jerusalem; they are, from the standpoint of Christians, going the wrong way. But what does Jesus do? He walks with them. He goes the wrong way in order to bring them around. He hangs in there, hangs out, until they figure it out. He’s willing to go the wrong way round, to get to the right place.

What about us? Where’s Jesus here? Look around: take a very good look. Because the whole thrust of this story is that he is right here, waiting to be discovered. He will be discovered when we take up our vocation to care the way he does. A playwright once said, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. God’s grace is glue.”

If we take up the vocation of mending each other’s hopes and lives, comforting each other’s fears and hurts, I believe we will see Jesus, I believe we will see him right here and it won’t matter that we went the wrong way round because where he is will be our home and our heaven. It’s just what he said: “Lo, I am with you always.”

Pentecost Sunday

Use Your Words

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2017

Pentecost Sunday/A • June 4, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

“Use your words.” That’s a phrase we’ve said to our grandchildren when they were at that between pointing at what they wanted and asking for it by name. Isn’t language amazing? May’s first word was ‘Joy’; she liked the song, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…down in my heart.” So her first word was more like this: “Joy-joy-joy-joy.” Think how language can change us, lift us up, cast us down. The Biblical story imagines God creating with language, creation by the Word. “Let there be light—and there was light.” Now today, in this story where language and words are so important, it’s clear that what God means to say is this: ‘ahabak [Arabic}, Wǒ ài nǐ [Chinese], te amo [Spanish] or in English: I love you.


The story we read in Acts invites us into a gathering of the first Christians after Jesus has left. It’s Shavuot, a Jewish festival fifty days after Passover that celebrated the giving of the Torah as well as the wheat harvest in Israel. In the Christian story, it’s also some time after the Ascension; we talked about that last week. Jesus had gathered his followers, told them to stay put until they received the Holy Spirit, and then was enfolded by a cloud and left them. So his followers have been doing what we do when we grieve: retreating, I imagine, but also gathering together at times, praying, healing. Now they are gathered together. Nothing in the text prepares us or them for what happens next.

What happens next, of course is amazing, incredible: tongues of fire! the sound of a rushing wind!—remember that Spirit and Wind are the same word in Greek and Hebrew—it all must have been amazing and stunning. Sometimes I’ve been in worship when we’ve tried to illustrate this. I remember one Sunday morning when we’d brought in three big fans; some people who had hairdos blown around were not amused. And of course there are various things you can do with fire; and no, we’re not going to do them here. This building is almost a hundred years old and I am not going to be the pastor who burned it down. But you get the idea.

When was the last time you were amazed? Think of that moment, hold on to it for just a second. Here are these people still grieving, they’ve come together, told stories of Jesus, probably sung some songs and suddenly it’s all blowing up. God has spoken. Like Genesis, the Spirit of the Lord is moving and making and it is amazing.

Creation by the Word is always amazing and mysterious. I know this because I’ve done it and so have many of you. You stand before your friends in a dress that cost more than you spent the whole year on clothes and that you will probably never wear again; you put on a tux for the first time since prom. Someone speaks and asks if you will marry, if you promise to be married and you say, “I do!”—and just like that you’ve created a new family, a married couple. You stand before a congregation you’ve been attending for a while, a place that’s helped you feel God’s nearness and presence and we speak the words of the church covenant together—and just like that, you’re a member of the church, we’ve created a new moment in the church’s history, no matter how old or young that church is.

Pentecost is When the Church Begins

So here is the Spirit, here is God, doing the same thing: creating something new. That something is us: the church. Pentecost is the moment Jesus’ followers become the church, become his body in the world, caring for the world, as he cared. And of course they are so excited they can’t keep it in the house, they go out in the street. There are things that have to be told and this is one of them. So we have this incredible scene of the first church members in the streets, speaking to people in a way they understand. This isn’t “speaking in tongues”, they way it’s practiced in pentecostal churches; they is speaking to people in a language they understand.

Now the Bible takes language seriously and it tells the story of the Temple of Babel to explain why there are so many languages. Long ago, the story says, human beings were so full of pride they built a temple, imagining they could build it high enough to enter heaven through their own efforts. Taller than tall it reached until God saw their pride, saw the tower and cast it down and at the same time, created the variety of languages so that never again would humans cooperate in such a thing. At Pentecost, the speaking is a way of saying that ancient curse has been reversed: God is now speaking to all people in ways they understand. One writer said,

Pentecost is a unification of the separated families of humanity. This unification isn’t accomplished through the will and power of empires and their rulers, but through the sending of the Spirit of Christ, poured out like life-giving rain on the drought-ridden earth. In place of only one holy—Hebrew—tongue, the wonderful works of God are spoken in the languages and dialects of many peoples. The multitude of languages is preserved—a sign of the goodness of human diversity—and human unity is achieved, not in the dominance of a single human empire, or in the collapsing of cultural difference, but in the joyful worship of God.- Alistair Roberts ,

Use Your Words

You can do this. Use your Words. We’ve had some folks here over the last few years who came to church even though they couldn’t speak English. Yet over and over again, because someone smiled at them, spoke to them, they understood this: you’re welcome here. This is how God speaks: in whatever language is needed to say, “I love you.” When you welcome someone, you create this welcome, you create this presence.

That’s what happens at Pentecost. The special effects, the tongues of fire, the rushing wind, the enthusiasm of the Jesus followers are all just prelude. The real event is what happens when they get out there in the world.

Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Creation by the words: these followers of Jesus are creating an invitation by their words.

Of course, words are interpreted and the first interpretation is that these people are nuts or in a kinder way, drunk. I think the fear that we will be seen this way often holds us back from sharing about our spiritual life. I learned long ago it’s a lot easier to ask Congregationalists to donate to a cause than to tell someone about their faith. We often miss the power of that conversation. Remember what Jesus said about his followers: that they were to be witnesses. Now what does a witness do? Tell what they’ve seen. These first Christians aren’t asking the people they meet to join the church they aren’t asking them to sign a petition, or anything else. They simply tell them about the power of God’s love.hat’s

That’s the thrust of Peter’s speech. He uses his words to say: first of all, these people aren’t drunk. They’re just amazed. And then to say that this outpouring of Spirit has been coming for a long time. Long ago, the prophet Joel described it and said it would embrace everyone.

I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.

We talk about radical inclusion here, we use the phrase “Everyone welcome” but God has already gone beyond us, gone beyond our imagination, gone beyond our ideas of who is in the circle of care. “All flesh”: that’s you and I, that’s you and everyone you meet, that’s you and the whole world. There are no walls in the love of God. There are no outsiders in the love of God. There are no illegal immigrants, because all flesh is included. There are no racial lines here; the kingdom of God is not gerrymandered, it is not a gated community: the spirit is being poured out on all flesh. There are no gender lines here, no lines that say, straight people enter here, LBGTQ people stand over there: I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh.

This is creation by the words, creation when you use your words to tell someone about God’s love in your life. It is creating a new reality, it is making a new heaven and a new earth. and there they are, those few followers of Jesus, off to change the world. How will they work? What will they do? Simple: use their words, be witnesses, tell people what they’ve seen, what they’ve felt, what they’ve experienced. This is Easter: “didn’t our hearts bun within us?”—the testimony of the people who met the Risen Lord at Emmaus.
Our witness is how God’s love is braided with our lives, together turned into a life line.

Today is Pentecost

Today is Pentecost. Pentecost is not just a moment hundreds of years ago: today is Pentecost. Today is the birthday of the church because the church is born new every day that we plant the seeds of the spirit. We plant them when we use our words to share what we’ve seen about the love of God. What will happen? Well, someone might think you’re drunk; someone might think you’re crazy. But what will surely happen is that some of those seeds will grow up. And the fruit of the spirit, as Paul says, is as obvious as a field of corn planted in the spring. It doesn’t look like much at first but eventually it covers the ground. It’s the same with this spirit. You may not see much at first but God promises that if we use our words to witness, the result will be amazing.


Ascension Sunday

What Now?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Ascension Sunday/A • May 28, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

You sit in the dark, tears still drying on your cheek, the kind you don’t want to admit to having cried, just a little ashamed that something as simple as a movie could move you so. But it has moved you and now you sit still, not wanting it all to end, and everyone sits still in the darkness, as the credits roll by, still staring, as if genuinely wondering who the second grip was. You are too moved to move.

Maybe for you it was a concert: music that made your soul soar and you stand at your seat with hundreds of others cheering and clapping, hoping for a second encore, hoping the whole thing can play on just a little more because you are too moved to move toward the exits. Perhaps for you it was standing on a train platform or at the airport, catching that last glimpse of someone. We all have these moments, I think, moments that hold us and prevent us from moving on because they are too perfect, or too deep or too precious.

Too Moved to Move

So it shouldn’t be hard to understand the disciples at the Ascension. If you grew up in a church like this one, you probably didn’t grow up with this story; Protestants didn’t talk much about the Ascension for a long time. But here it is: the last stop on the trip from Easter to Pentecost.

Can you imagine the scene Luke paints? The thunder and lightning of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by the Romans with the Jewish authorities collaborating. The fear of the disciples and then the unimaginable joy of his resurrection. Luke provides more stories of the risen Lord than any other gospel; he couldn’t get enough of them, apparently. There he is: in the upper room, walking through the door. There he is: on the way to Emmaus. There he is over and over. I imagine the disciples must have thought this time would go on and on and on.

Our family has lives that scatter sometimes, so it’s hard for us to celebrate things that happen on a particular day sometimes. We’ve solved that by extending days like birthdays. One day you get a present, another day someone has sent a card—”sorry it’s late I sent it on time”—and then there is dinner a third day. We call this Birthday Extravaganza. I wonder if the disciples thought this was Easter Extravaganza.
Clearly they expected more; they ask, for example, in the midst of the whole thing, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” like a supervisor asking of a project has been finished, knowing it isn’t but using that subtle way to remind Jesus to get busy and do what they want.

There they are, altogether again, just like the old days. I wonder if they thought Jesus would preach or perform some sign or miracle, maybe heal someone—just like the old days. I wonder if they expected him to say something inspiring to lift them up, help them see God at work after all—just like the old days. They’re far enough from Good Friday that the harsh cutting edge of the cross is dull; far enough from Easter so that what once seemed miraculous is now everyday. Gathering with Jesus on a mountain isn’t new for them; it’s just like the old days.

A New Moment

But this is a new day and the Ascension is a new moment. So in the midst of asking about the restoration of the kingdom, of hoping the old days can come back, suddenly Jesus is gone. Whoosh! It’s usually imagined as ascended into the clouds, but actually that’s not what Luke says: he simply says Jesus disappeared into a cloud. We don’t have to accept Luke’s directions to understand Jesus’ intention. That is clear, unmistakable. He’s been telling them all along he means to send them out and now he tells them again. Their job is simple: go be witnesses.

When the whole scene is over, they’re left standing there, all of them, wondering, I imagine, “What now?” It takes a couple of angels to come and ask the obvious question: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why are you standing still standing around: Jesus has left.

Looking in the Mirror of the Story

This story is a mirror for us. And I want, I hope, you’ll take a moment to look into it with me. I want you to see here the tension between the tenses. Throughout the story, the followers of Jesus are concerned about the past. They want Jesus to restore the past; they want the old kingdom back. That’s natural; don’t we all want our best days back?

I’ve spent most of my career helping churches develop and grow and in every single congregation, I’ve asked about the best days of the church. The answer is nearly always some moment in the past and often the real hope of the church is less about growing into the future than re-enacting that past. I suspect every generation of Christians has been like this and here we see it for the for the first time: restoration Christians who just want to go back.

But all the tenses in Jesus’ preaching are future.

“You will receive power,” he tells them. It’s not here today but you will receive it.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” It’s not here today but you will receive it.

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They haven’t been to the ends of the earth yet but they will go.

The new church is all about the restoring the past: Jesus is all about the future.

Living Now

Now the problem is we don’t live in the future or the past, we live in the present. We live connecting the past and the future. I think the key to learning to live that way is first what Jesus teaches: an abundant forgiveness. He comes back to this theme over and over and another day we will come back to it as well. Forgiveness stands where we are, at that connecting point between past and future. Forgiveness takes the past and unlocks it so that our future can be the new life, the abundant life, Jesus means to give. Forgiveness connects our past lives to a new life in Christ.

The second clue to connecting to this future is prayer. This story of Jesus’ ascension is part 1 of a two part story. They haven’t received power yet; they haven’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They aren’t ready to be witnesses yet. There is preparation required and that preparation is prayer. We are so much about doing, it’s easy for us to forget being, so much about preparing for events, it’s easy for us to forget the power of prayer. The disciples leave this moment and begin to pray together and it’s in the place of prayer that they receive power, inc the place of prayer they receive the Holy Spirit, in the place of prayer they become witnesses.

The third thing that connects the future here is faith. I wonder what these people were thinking when Jesus was lost to sight. Eventually, we do go home from that powerful movie; we do return from that ringing concert, and they are going to have to go home from this moment. Can we go home with faith in the future of Jesus? For that’s what they’re summoned to do. The angel doesn’t just ask why they’re still standing around; the angel also says—again, future tense—that Jesus will come again.

Hope is powerful. In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy DuFresne, a man wrongly convicted of murder serving a life sentence, is talking to his friend Red, another lifer. Red has been his guide to surviving life in prison and now Red tells him that hope can kill a man inside. But Andy replies, “Remember, Red hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The power of hope flows through Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise” which says, in part,

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Today is Ascension Sunday. It offers us two choices: we can come to the end of the Easter Extravaganza and ask, well what shall we do now that that’s over—or we can hear the powerful testimony of the resurrection, the concrete evidence of Jesus: still I rise! and ask not just what now, but what now, Lord?