A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • ©2020 All Rights Reserved
Trinity Sunday/A • June 7, 2020
Climbing up the mountain children
I didn’t come here for to stay
If I never more see you again,
Gonna see you on the Judgement Day
Do you know this song? It’s in the style of a spiritual. Spirituals used religious metaphors to signal slaves and call them to take the risks of seeking freedom. It’s striking how often mountains figure in our faith tradition. Ancient people looked up and believed they were looking toward God. So to get higher was to get closer to God, draw nearer divinity. Isn’t that our hope? Isn’t that why we come to worship? Today, let’s listen to these two stories from scripture and let them help us climb the mountain toward God.
Take that long, long story that open Genesis, the book of beginnings. Did you follow it as we read it this morning? When you listen to a song, there are two parts: you listen to the lyrics and you also listen to the music. It’s the same way with this story. The words are the lyrics; the rhythm and balance is the music. It starts out with what our translation calls “the formless void”; in Hebrew, the “Tohu Bohu”, absence of anything and then—light. The light is divided—night and day. There’s a place: now it’s divided, above, below—sky and world. It’s divided: Earth and seas. On the earth, plants, in the sky lights—time and fruitfulness. In the sea, creatures of every kind, in the air, birds of every kind. On the land, animals and cattle, which is to say animals that live mutually with humanity. Finally: us—humankind, gendered and made in the image of God. What we hear if we listen more to the music than the lyrics is an amazing, ultimate ordering, a place for everything, everything in its place.
It reminds me of being a boy in the room I shared with my brother. We had closets, desks, and some storage areas. And we had, almost always, an amazing mess of toys, dirty clothes, books, magazines, half-built plastic models and what I can only describe as “Interesting Stuff”—a special rock, some shell brought back from a beach. My mom would tell us to clean up and we would, in the way boys clean up, which is to say we’d dump stuff into the closets and push it under the bed. But every once in a while, often on a summer day, my mother, in the way of mothers who are never fooled and knew exactly what we’d done, would appear in our room and tell us that today we were going to really clean. We knew what really clean meant: everything came out from under the beds, everything came out from the closet and then, bit by bit, my mother would help us put it all away, dirty clothes to the laundry, beds made without lumps, toys and models on shelves, trash thrown out and Interesting Things examined and put into a box. She brought order and even though we whined about the process, at the end we loved it. She’d stand in the doorway, arms crossed and say, “Now that’s the way this room should be. Try to keep it this way, at least for a little while.”
That’s what this story in Genesis is about. People who want to argue about it as a scientific description of how things came to be are missing the song it means to sing. This isn’t about how things came to be, it’s about how things are meant to be, all in order: night, day, animals, cattle, human beings, ordered by a loving God, everything in its place, everything dancing together to the music of God’s order, just as a choir sings together to the music of the organ. Now there are various names for this order. When it comes to everything, we call it creation; when it comes to human beings, we call it justice. It’s where God is always trying to move us, and the pathway there is the mountain we are meant to climb.
We have to climb it because, just like my brother and I, on the whole we are messy children. We are meant to be caretakers of creation; we wander off and become consumers instead. We are meant to live in the equality of mutually, equally being made in the image of God, recognizing that image in each other. Instead, we create hierarchies, we compete to be better than others and, in our pride, we use our strength to create systems that oppress some and benefit others. Hierarchy always involves coercion and coercion is violence. Violence disorders the balance, the order, God created and like the pressure under a volcano, it gets stored up until finally the coerced erupt against it.
That’s what’s going on right now. The violence of American racism has built up to a breaking point. What’s stunning isn’t that a black man was killed by a policeman kneeling on his neck, it’s that the police officer assumed he could get away with it. What’s stunning is that this wasn’t isolated but part of a a pattern that went on before and after and continues. What’s different today, this week, isn’t the violence of oppression, it is the reaction against it. The volcano has erupted but the eruption was a long time coming and it won’t be solved by better containment. No matter how many demonstrators are beaten, no matter how many people are tear gassed, no matter how many soldiers are deployed, there won’t be peace until there is justice.
A long time ago, when May was small, she had a problem and needed to help. She seriously and carefully explained the problem and then came to what she wanted and said, “That’s where you come in.” Clearly today we need someone to stand, like a mother at the doorway of a messy room, to clean things up. And that’s where you come in. Yes: we are meant to be part of the solution to putting things back in order. Just like my mother, God has a plan and the plan is in the other story we read this morning. It begins with God seeing the disorder of the world and coming to us, like my mother coming into the room. The signature act of God in Jesus is resurrection. Resurrection is God transcending violence. The cross is all the world’s violence, all the police on someone’s neck, all the politicians refusing to help the needy and helping friends get the benefits of God’s creation. The cross is domination; the resurrection is the solution.
The other story we read today pictures Jesus with his disciples on a mountain. “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” [Matthew 28:16]. Jesus tells them to do three things: make disciples, baptize, teach his commandments. Those commandments start with the power of forgiveness and what is forgiveness? It’s the intentional act of saying, “Let’s start new.” It’s the do-over after a missed opportunity, it’s the refusal to store up grievance and let it become resentment. Baptism is the symbol of this, the symbolic washing that gets rid of the dirt of the past. His ultimate command is love, loving the image of God where ever it’s found, whether in God or in God’s image, the person you meet, the person you haven’t met. To make disciples simply means to help someone else start to live this way, usually because they’ve been inspired by the example you set.
This is a disordered moment. The regular rhythms of life are off because of the pandemic and the measures we are all taking to defend against it. We can’t choose whether to live in a time of pandemic; we can choose how we live. We can understand that wearing a mask is a way of saying to others, to strangers in a store, “I care about you—you’re a child of God, I’m keeping you safe, honoring your health.” We can’t choose whether we live in a racist culture but we can choose how we live in it. We can use our politics, our money, our social media, our lives to say, to others, “I care about you—you’re a child of God, I’m going to do what I can to keep you safe.” That’s being a disciple; that’s teaching Jesus way of love by example.
Somewhere, someone is rolling their eyes at this, I’m sure. Somewhere, someone is thinking it will never work. I imagine some days my mother stood in the doorway and thought, “How will they ever clean this up?” Jesus started with 12 disciples; here he is, just a short time later, and already he’s lost one—there are only 11 left to gather in Galilee. But it doesn’t stop him. He knows the truth that our politics always forgets, the one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently voiced when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In all the time since that moment in Galilee, there have been plenty of failures. Christians have busily built their own systems of domination and others have had to fight to restore justice. But God never stops trying, never stops coming to clean up. There’s another mountain song that reminds me of this. It’s meant to be a love song but I think of it as God’s love song for us and it begins, “A’int no mountain high enough, a’int no river wide enough, to keep me from you.” That’s the message of the resurrection: there is no power, no principality, nothing that can ultimately overcome God’s hope. When we live in justice, care for creation and each other, appreciate the image of God in creation and and all people, then we are part of God’s plan. Isn’t it time to clean up today?