After Pentecost 3B

Family Matters

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday After Pentecost • June 10, 2018
Mark 3:20-35

To hear the sermon preached, click below.

I grew up when the world was falling apart. Someone commented on Facebook recently that the 1950’s had a moral consensus. They failed to mention that the moral consensus included segregation for people of color, sexual harassment for women and blindness to poverty. But I know what they meant and I grew up in a white suburb surrounded by that consensus, that culture. Our fathers had won the great crusade against fascism and we played at being soldiers beating the bad Nazis. My mother had loaded artillery shells but the contribution of women was seldom mentioned. It was a world with threats—periodically we had disaster drills, sometimes in case of tornadoes, sometimes in case of atomic bombs. But it felt safe.

Then things changed. By the time I was beginning to look around for myself, the world was falling apart. When I signed a petition for nuclear disarmament, my mother was horrified; she told me I could be arrested. Our President was shot and killed and the whole country mourned. And more and more we watched as people were beaten in Alabama and Mississippi. A rising level of dissent said that our military, always the moral center, was wrong in Vietnam. I began to float on that tide and then to swim on it. My first speech when I was 14 was about why we should stop bombing North Vietnam; by the time I was 16, I was being called into the vice principal’s office for putting up anti-war posters in school. At church, I learned the songs of the Freedom Riders, “Aint a-scared of your jail cuz I want my freedom” and “We shall overcome”. More and more, the consensus, the culture, began to feel like an enemy, an enemy I was fighting, an enemy that was dangerous.

My family fought back. I think this is why this text has made me want to tell you this story because listening to Jesus’ family coming to claim him back from his craziness reminds me of my own family and how they tried to reclaim me. Mark tells us a series of stories in which Jesus, again and again, is in conflict with his culture and consensus. He comes back to Capernaum; people gather and the crowd is so packed that when some people try to bring a man to him for healing, they have to lower him through the roof. Jesus forgives the man his sins and heals him and is accused of blasphemy. He eats with sinners and tax collectors; the good opinion leaders, the enforcers of cultural order are horrified; he simply says, these are the people who need grace. His followers break the Sabbath rules and then he does himself, asking whether it’s good to do good even on the Sabbath and suggesting he is himself in charge of the Sabbath, Lord of the Sabbath, a messianic title.

Now he’s home again and the crowds are even bigger. It’s a diverse crowd. Some are from the local area, Galilee, some from Judea, a whole different state to the south. There are gentiles there: the text mentions “the region around Tyre and Sidon.” It’s like saying there are people from Tennessee and New Jersey, from Canada and Ohio, from all over.” In fact, the crowd is so dense he has his followers arrange for a boat so he can speak from offshore and the final blow is that the crowd is so dense “they couldn’t even eat.” Think of a subway at rush hour; think of a packed party, where you can’t get to the food or the bar. Jesus’ healing of hearts and bodies is calling people to him. Surely some are there questioning, some are believers, some are followers and some are already opposing him. Even before this moment, Mark tells us the Pharisees and Herodians are conspiring to destroy him, the same word used when he is crucified.

Now we read that his family is trying to restrain him. “He’s gone out of his mind!”, they say. The smart guys from Jerusalem, the scribes, have another explanation: “He has Beelzebul”. Once when I was in college, I was asked to speak to the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches as one of four students about what had become a moral crisis in our nation. As I spoke, as I offered a Christian critique of the moral horror in Vietnam, one man stood up and walked down the center aisle yelling, “You’re nothing but a damn communist!” I don’t want to leave the impression I was Jesus-like in any way. I want to say the opposite, in fact, that what happens to Jesus here is a common cultural reaction when the moral consensus of any moment feels threatened. Our fathers and mothers in the faith left England for Massachusetts partly to escape being accused of heresy. less than 50 years later, they hung three Quakers for precisely that crime.

Jesus laughs at the scribes and points out the obvious: if he was casting out demons by the prince of demons, it would mean the Satan was divided and weakened. Instead, as he knew, Satan was strong and waiting, for what is called in Luke “an opportune time” So we come back to the family. “..his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him.” A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” We’ve seen Jesus deal with opponents; how will he deal with these family members who just want him to be quiet, be the nice boy they remember from his bar mitzvah? Does his family matter to him at all?

Now we’ve already been told it was a standing room only crowd: but there are people who have sat down around him, who are listening to him. We’re being shown the signature act of Jesus, the thing for which the healings and demon casting are just a prelude. Jesus creates a community. Jesus makes a family. This business of sitting down around him occurs over and over; it’s what he commands the crowd when he means to feed them.

Then he ordered the crowd to sit down on the ground; and he took the seven loaves, and after giving thanks he broke them and gave them to his disciples to distribute; and they distributed them to the crowd. [Mark 8:6]

See how he’s gathering them? See how he is creating a new consensus, a new culture, a new kingdom? It isn’t a large one; just before this section, Mark lists the 12 disciples he selects to train to take his message to the world.
But just now, he is doing what we often miss: he is making a family.

And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 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 3:33-35]

In a culture where blood ties are everything, Jesus is creating a new basis for a relationship. In a place where family matters, Jesus is making a family out of a common vision of God’s love.

I know about this not only because Mark tells the story but because it’s my story as well. Just when my world was falling apart, when even my family was telling me I was crazy, I went to church. I started with youth group, Pilgrim Fellowship, but it was more than a little meeting once a week. There was camp, there were retreats. There were the nights when my friends and I hung out at our minister’s family home. We were always welcome. There was talk and most of all, it was just like Jesus with the tax collectors and sinners. Whatever we were, whoever we were, we knew we were loved and wanted. Family matters and that became my family and it still is, all these years later.

Now I’ve talked about how much family matters to Jesus and a bit about my own story of family. What about you? What about us? Today is our Annual Meeting and it’s always a day to ask about what we’re doing, what we have done, what we hope to do.

We do a lot of things. We house endless groups; I don’t know about you, but there are times I come into this building and have to look up on the list to see who else is here. We provide coats to the cold, food to the hungry, funds to the Southend community center, gifts for parents to give children at Christmas and Easter. We’re a place where when a gay couple calls and says they want a wedding, we say, “Congratulations! great! Happy to be the place.” We’re a church where sometimes people come who have a hard time being in church because their issues make it hard for them to sit or listen; we try to welcome everyone. We are a church of everyone else: people who in many cases got injured in a church along the way.

We do these things. We should do these things. But it’s family that matters here. What I mean is: it’s not what we do, it’s who we are together. It’s the mutual care; it’s the blessing we are to each other. There is a poem that says a family is where when you go, they have to take you in. For me, the church was a place where they took me in even when my family didn’t want me. Here I am, fifty years later, trying to perform that same miracle.

The Blues Brothers is a funny movie about Jake and Elwood, two bumbling guys in black suits, who become convinced God wants them to raise money to save an orphanage. They put their band together; they make people mad for various reason all along the way. But over and over they say one thing: “We’re on a mission from God.” This story about Jesus invites us to the live the same way, to be a part of his family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Family matters: we are invited here every day to be a part of this family, a part o the caring, a part of this mission of God’s family.


After Pentecost 2 B

Seeming, Seeing, Saving

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 3, 2018
2 Corinthian 4:5-12

So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Cor 4:12

To hear the sermon preached, click below

Every preacher has some weaknesses. I know that one of mine is titles. Take today. I looked at this scripture reading and saw the part about being slaves, and I thought of when my older kids were eight and six. We lived in a flat in Milwaukee with no dishwasher. Every night after dinner, their job was to wash and dry the dishes and put them away. One night when they were pouting they said, “We’re slaves, we’re nothing but slaves.” Their mother and I looked at each other and said together, “You’re right, now get out there and finish up.” So I thought about calling this sermon “Nothing But Slaves”. It might be worth pointing out here that in Greek, the same word is used for children and slaves; I guess the Greeks needed dishwashers too. But I gave up on that title, it doesn’t really embrace Paul’s message.

Then I thought about the text a bit more and I was really taken by the image of the earthen vessels. I put one on the communion table today, just to illustrate this. I’ve read a couple of sermons that focused there and especially on the pots as cracked pots. There are so many crackpots in our national life today that I thought I could talk for a long time about that. We might not all have the same idea about which crackpots are the worst or funniest but still, there do seem to be a lot of them. But I read some more and realized this isn’t really the point of the passage; it’s an illustration of a larger message. So sadly I gave up on that title; I know a lot of preachers, better preachers, are happy to do something light-hearted but I know you expect to hear God’s word, not just whatever I think is funny.
After a few days reflecting, I began to think of Paul’s message here in three parts and that’s where my title today, seeming, seeing, saving, came from. It’s not as fun as cracked pots but it makes more sense of Paul’s message here, at least it did for me; let’s see if it does for you.

The Corinthian Christians were a quarrelsome bunch. We have a letter we call First Corinthians that’s full of Paul’s advice on conflicts; it’s clear there that the church has some factions. Before this letter was written, Paul sent Timothy to try to solve the problems but he failed. Then, someone we’ll call Mr. X came along who was charismatic and apparently an excellent speaker and a bunch of the church rallied around him. But as often happens, the charismatic leader’s fall was just as sudden as his rise. Now the church is in conflict again over differences about this leader and Paul and Paul is trying to get them back on the path toward Christ.

He begins with a sermon that should be preached to every pastor in America today I think:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

When I look back over my career, over 40 years of pastoral ministry, I see that one of the great changes has been the creation of what I call the entrepreneurial ministry. The model is something like this: go door to door, call on the phone, by some means get a little group together; tell them they are right. That’s right: no preacher ever started up a church confronting people about where they are wrong. Adopt their culture, wave their flags, support their politics, lift up their sports. That will make the little group a larger group; it will make them feel good about themselves. And it may work. Today all over the country there are super churches with super preachers who took and take this path. Every single one is led by some preacher who is lifted up as the voice of God.

But notice what Paul says: not ourselves but Jesus Christ. By ‘ourselves’ he means himself, Timothy, other church leaders. Here it means me, Joan, our Moderator, our other officers. We’re not the show; we’re not the heart. I’m not the heart. I’m not here to proclaim me, I’m here to preach Jesus Christ as Lord. I’ve been through a few transitions where I left a church after a long, fruitful time. Each time the same thing has happened; each time someone has come and said, “I’m leaving if you’re not going to be here.” I’ve always replied the same way: you didn’t join me, you joined a church; you didn’t follow me, you followed Jesus. So why would you leave? There’s more to do.

Paul wants us to see what an extraordinary treasure we have in God’s love. Just like many of us, he had his own particular experience of being called by Christ. In his case, it involved an intense light, so bright it blinded him. So naturally he remembers that God is the source of light, that God’s creation began with light. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He calls this a treasure, and so it is, for the greatest treasure of all is to see ourselves not as the world sees but in the light of God, in the mirror of God’s love. We may seem to be nothing to the world. We may seem to be weak in the world. But seen from God’s view, we contain a treasure: the image of God, which is our true self.

Paul knows about this difference between seeming and saying. He’s not being superficial or unrealistic. He goes on to admit that this treasure is held in an earthen vessel. In the ancient world, earthen vessels, pottery, were the everyday packaging. It’s what you put your olive oil in, it’s what your foods came in. It’s what held trade goods. Pottery was so widely spread that today archaeologists use different patterns and compositions of pottery to date cities; they dig them up in former trash mounds. Now pottery is made from clay; perhaps just as Paul is thinking of God’s creation of light, he’s also thinking of how we were created from the same clay that makes pottery. We are earthen vessels.

He’s completely realistic about our lives; they aren’t untroubled, in fact as he says, “We are hard pressed on every side,..perplexed…persecuted..struck down…We always carry in our body the death of Jesus.” Just like an earthen vessel that can be dropped at any moment and break into shards, we are terribly fragile. I think we all know this and fight the knowledge. We’re constantly defending that weakness. I was halfway through my career in ministry before I ever sat with a Board of Deacons, discussing a complaint, and simply said, “I made a mistake; I’m sorry.” I never wanted to be an earthen vessel: I wanted to be gold or silver or something shinier. It was terrible admitting I was just a clay pot. I wonder how many conflicts are caused by fear of our fragility. I wonder how many hierarchies, systems of oppression, come from the secret knowledge of the oppressor that he or she is fragile, an earthen vessel, subject to shattering.

But if we are fragile, if we are earthen vessels, we also have an amazing capacity to carry the extraordinary spirit of God. Paul sees the fragility, sees the injuries, the hurts, the times that shatter us but he also wants us to see that in Jesus Christ we have another possibility.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; 
perplexed, but not driven to despair; 
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, 
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

This last is what saves us, saves our world: that the life of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, is made visible in us. Yes, we are earthen vessels; but those vessels contain a treasure. Yes, we are fragile; but we have an eternal life in the heart of God. Yes, we are carrying death in our bodies, just like Jesus, but just like Jesus, we have the capacity to shine with the light of the Spirit of God.

When we understand we are earthen vessels containing a treasure there are two consequences. One is that we understand our own value before God. So we are set free from the world’s value systems. We can stop trying to be gold vessels or silver vessels, because the treasure is what we contain. And the second consequence is that we recognize a fundamental equality with all God’s other children. We are all earthen vessels; we are all carriers of treasure. Paul saw this himself. In Galatians 3:28 he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So our mission becomes working for justice for all, for justice simply means treating equally people who are equal.

We live in a world that seems to be one way but Christ calls us to see beyond the world to the hope and love of God. We live in a world where we get bruised, cry out, feel ourselves cast down, but if we look, we can see that even in the moment of suffering, we are invited to the arms of Jesus Christ who also suffered, who knows about suffering. This is how God is saving this world. In our moments of celebration, in our times of suffering, we are earthen vessels meant to carry the treasure of God’s glory, God’s image, God’s presence. This is the spirit that is saving the world. Whatever things seem, may we see it and share it.