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.”