No Loitering

A Sermon by The Rev. James E. Eaton ©2021

Ascension Sunday • May 16, 2021

Acts 1:1-11

I suppose every parent acquires little verbal exclamations that really mean, “You’re about to be in trouble”. My father’s was to stand, hands on his hips, and thunder, “What do you think you’re doing?” This worked on me for 14 years and on my middle brother for 10 years but when my youngest brother was four and my father delivered his line, “What do you think you’re doing?””, David replied sweetly, “I have no idea” and walk away scot free. When I think about the scene from Acts we read today, I can’t help thinking of my father standing over us with that line, “What do you think you’re doing?”, because when I imagine the scene and I think of the disciples standing there, staring into the sky, where Jesus has gone, I visualize the heavenly visitor saying loudly, “What do you think you’re doing”—”Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?”. I can’t help wondering if a similar heavenly visitor wouldn’t say the same to us: why are you standing around? what do you think you’re doing?

What do you think you’re doing? Most churches have a great diversity of people. Some have worshipped there all of long lives; some are newly beginning to worship. Some have come from other churches, some have never been involved in a church.  How many of us know what we’re doing when we come to church? 

All the gospels agree there was a moment when the disciples had to face life without Jesus present in an earthly body. Imagine what church life would be like if this were not so: suppose you had Jesus Christ leading the church instead of a minister. He would never go to the dry cleaner because his clothes  would always shine. He wouldn’t need health care, because he would be self- healing. He would be infinitely patient, endlessly forgiving, always understanding. You wouldn’t have to wonder whether he had the right idea because he’s Jesus Christ—who are you to argue? You wouldn’t have to wonder if he got the Bible right because what is the Bible but what he says? But of course that’s not what church life is and church life has never been that. All the accounts agree that a few weeks after his resurrection, Jesus left, and when he left, there was a period when his followers didn’t know what to do.

Luke sets the scene just outside Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples are impatient; maybe they are just curious. One of the disciples asks, “Lord, will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” This is as big as their vision is: all they expect is for Jesus to be a super hero, a super David, a new Judas Maccabeus, the leader who threw out the descendants of Alexander the Great. All they want is for him to overthrow the Romans, get rid of the Herodians, set himself up as king and them as his assistants and run a nice new kingdom. “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel, Lord?” They are getting impatient. They’ve asked before and he’s told them: not yet. Not now: we’re on the way to Jerusalem. That made sense. In fact, they get to Jerusalem and you remember what happens: everyone parades into town. Surely the disciples were thinking, “This is good, this is good, this is going to work, he’s going to do it now”. But it doesn’t work and the next thing you know he’s hanging on a cross, they’re running for their lives, and wondering no doubt, “What happened to restoring the Kingdom?” But then he is resurrected; well, for someone who has come back from death, restoring a Kingdom would be small beans. 

But he doesn’t do anything about the Kingdom. What does he do? Well, he eats with people. He has a fish dinner, he holds a breakfast. He shows up when the disciples are gathered for dinner. But he doesn’t get to work, he does not restore the Kingdom. The Romans are still in charge, the Herodians are still collecting taxes, nothing has changed. Naturally, the disciples are a little concerned: “Will you at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”. You can hear their impatience. This is what Jesus says: “None of your business—it is not for you to know the times or the seasons.” The disciples have this little vision in mind, restoring the Kingdom, but what Jesus tells them is don’t worry about that, you’re going to be my witnesses, in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, to the ends of the earth. 

Now let’s review who these people are: small businessmen, fishermen, farmers, who have never been out of town before until he brought them to Jerusalem. They’ve never been anywhere but he’s talking about sending them to the ends of the earth. In 1971, I worked in a church in northern Idaho and there was an old woman who had never been out of the county. Ninety miles south, where Idaho gets wide, there’s a beautiful resort area with a lake called Coueur d’Alene. One day I visited this woman and she wanted to hear about the rest of the world. She said, “have you ever been to Coueur d’Alene?” I said “Sure”—to me, Coueur d’Alene was a backwater. But to her it was the ends of the earth. In New England, the ends of the earth is Los Angeles. But if you live in Los Angeles, the east coast is the ends of the earth. The ends of the earth is where you haven’t been and it’s hard to imagine going.

Jesus tells the disciples, first, I’m going to make you a witness. And I’m going to send you to Jerusalem—that’s scary to begin with!—and secondly to Judea, back home, third to Samaria, to a bad neighborhood that scares you and finally to the ends of the earth, to some place you never thought of going. And that is exactly what happens. Every one of these men whose story we know ends up at the ends of the earth. Take Peter; he’s a fisherman. Fisherman know tides and currents and depths and where to find fish in one place. They know that one place deeply and well, they know how to find what’s hidden in one place. I’m willing to bet Peter had never been off that one body of water before Jesus came along. Peter ends up in Rome, the biggest city of his day, hundreds of miles away from home, among Gentiles. Nothing would have predicted he would go to Rome. Why do you think Peter ended up there? Because Jesus sent him as a witness.

This is what we are intended to do, be a witness. It’s simple and it consists of two parts: seeing and reporting, seeing and reporting. It means going out and looking for where God is working and reporting what you’ve seen. It means looking where God is loving and sharing that, looking for where God’s grace is active and telling someone about it. That is what we are doing when we are the people Christ intended.

Now we could spend days talking about how to do it. But the first and most important way is quietly, simply, with your own life. In the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, two seniors cut class and go to Chicago. Ferris Bueller is a kid who decides to show his best friend a good day. So he takes him to the Chicago Art Institute, to a fancy restaurant, to a baseball game and to a parade. At the end of this ideal day, Ferris says to his friend, “What did you see?” and the friend replies, “Nothing good.” Ferris lists off one by one the great things they have seen. It is not whether there is something to see, it quickly becomes evident, but whether you choose to see its goodness. There is no lack of sights; there is occasionally a lack of vision. 

Once when Jacquelyn was visiting North Carolina, she found a beautiful small town park. The grass was green, there were flowers and benches; it was like a picture from the North Carolina Board of Tourism. Tired from walking, she could easily imagine just sitting down on the little bench and resting. Then she saw the sign: “No Loitering”. No Loitering in the park—we’ve all laughed about that sign since; after all, isn’t that the whole point of a park? You go there to loiter; you go there to slow down, stop, appreciate. Drive by appreciation doesn’t really work; you have to loiter, wait before wonder kicks in. A park where you can’t loiter? It’s like a pool where you can’t swim, ice cream you can’t lick or a church where you can’t find God.

Let’s not be a park with a no loitering sign or a church that forgot how good the God we’ve seen is. Right from the beginning, from the moment Jesus left this stage, his followers have been faced with two choices: stand around gazing into heaven waiting for him to come backs or look around and see the world here, see the people around, and go tell them about God’s love, God’s forgiveness, God’s grace. Tell them by living like it’s true. Tell them by showing them it is possible. Tell them by continuing to make this church the body of Christ, moved at his command, healing and teaching his way. That’s being a witness, and that’s just what Jesus told us to do. Who knows where it may lead?


Next, please!

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Mothers Day • May 9, 2021

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (together the crowd numbered about one hundred twenty persons) and said, “Friends, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas, who became a guide for those who arrested Jesus — for he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us–one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection.”
So they proposed two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also known as Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which one of these two you have chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.”
And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

One day a few years ago Jacquelyn and I toured the Alhambra, an enormous Medieval complex of palaces, gardens and fortresses overlooking the city of Granada. It was the last hold out of Muslim rulers in Spain, and its swirling walls decorated with plaster calligraphy, its pools of water, and mountain views were exhilarating.

After three hours of walking in such beauty, we were tired and hungry. We bought sandwiches and found a bench in some shade. Drawn by the same shade, two young couples sat across from us. Soon a small cat came over and clearly sniffed Jacquelyn’s sandwich; she was having tuna, and the cat wanted some, so it did what always works with Jacquelyn, sat in front of her and quietly looked hungry and sad and hopeful.

We all laughed at the cat and began to talk. One of the women was obviously pregnant. We asked when she was due; she said August and I smiled and said August babies—of which I’m one—were extraordinary people. As we talked, she mentioned how scared she was about being a mother. I said being a parent was the most fun I’d ever had; Jacquelyn added comments on how wonderful it had been, having May, bringing her up. It turned out the other woman was pregnant too, and soon we were all laughing. Of course, Jacquelyn went from just dropping crumbs for the cat to breaking pieces off to feed the feline. With lunch over, we said goodbye to our friends and the cat and wandered off. I’d like to think we not only made the cat’s day but gave those two couples a bit of hope, another brighter voice than all the scary rational ones. I’d like to think we passed on a little of the love we’ve found parenting together.

Today is Mothers Day in the United States. In the past, that often meant exalting on one day out of the whole year the role of women who have children. Often we left out those who didn’t. Today I want to make it clear that as we mention this day, we honor with it those women, mothers, grandmothers and others who care for children they didn’t have to cherish and raise but do so with the same generous love. We honor as well women who have never had children but also share their care and love in so many ways, who pass on love to people who began as strangers.

Long ago, the church remembered there was a time, a moment, when the direct, immediate presence of Jesus walking and talking with his friends ceased, when he returned to the Father so that his followers could, like fledging birds, learn to live out the love he had taught on their own.

One of my favorite stories ois the moment when Jesus’ followers meet to Jesus organize  a way forward on their own. How are we going to continue? That’s a question all organizations ask. These early Christians don’t have the tools we have. Roberts Rules of Order won’t be written for centuries; there is no church constitution. They can’t even settle this question the way we settle such matters now by asking, “What did we do last year?” because this is the first year, the first time. But they understand this single important thing: they are there to continue the work of Jesus and that means continuing to create and recreate the community of Jesus. So they pick a couple of good candidates, people they’ve known, who’ve been active and nominate them and then they pray and cast lots; Matthias becomes the new disciple.

In the whole book of Acts of the Apostles, I do not know a more important moment. For in that moment, these people, who so often fumbled and misunderstood Jesus, begin to move forward in his spirit. In this moment, they begin to do what he told them, to ready themselves for continuing the ministry of Jesus on their own. The Romans thought they could kill the movement by killing Jesus; the religious leaders thought they could kill the spirit by killing the preacher. But God’s love and life were so strong that instead he overcomes death and his resurrection inspires these followers to continue to create communities of care just as he did, communities that will spread throughout the world. The light of love is shining in this moment and being passed like candle light, from one to another. We sometimes get so concerned about daily challenges we forget this is the most important challenge of all: how we can pass on the light of love each day.

That’s the point when Jesus prays about the future. He says about the disciples he about to release into the world like a dandelion releasing its seeds,

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.

John 17:16-19

That’s us: that’s who we are meant to be, people sent into the world who have seen how much difference a moment of grace, a cherishing love, a boundary breaking invitation can make.

That’s the spirit in which Mothers Day originated. It began not as a day to give your mother a card but out of the boundary breaking work of bridging the gap between former Union and Confederate soldiers and families. It began in West Virginia, a state that began through the breaking of ties that inspired the war against the Union . The restoration of peace left broken bodies and broken communities. Anna Jarvis, its originator, worked to promote peace and her daughter worked to lift up and honor that work.

There are so many stories like this. We often feel powerless but the truth is we have the power to act, as the disciples acted, and when we do amazing things happen. Let me give you one more souvenir from Spain. We always visit Cathedrals and one that stood out to me honors St. John de Dios. It stood out because it is a soaring basilica perhaps four stories high at the front, all in figures of gold and for one euro you can turn the lights on and startle everyone there. It stood out because I’m a Congregationalist who loves the spare, plain beauty of our meeting houses which are almost undecorated. In that church, decoration assaults you at every turn and it includes that odd medieval Catholic obsession with relics of saints; hey have various skeletons in glass boxes.

All of it was over the top but it did make me look up St. John of God, the inspiration for the place. What I found was much more amazing than the gold and the skeletons. John was a poor Portuguese boy who did what boys from poor boys often do today: he enlisted in the military. He did well as a soldier, survived and went on to have a variety of experiences. At midlife, he had an experience of inspiration and began to help sick and needy people. Others joined him; the work expanded. Eventually a whole order was funded which operates hospitals around the world.

“The lot fell on Matthias,” Acts says; one person, one moment. Hundreds of years later, it fell on a former soldier and now we have hospitals.

Hike up in the mountains, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, anywhere will do and if you watch a stream flowing downhill you can see it is irresistible. Blocks a path, it finds another; when a tree falls in the middle, it divides around it. It doesn’t look like much, often, just a little stream but nothing will stop that stream flowing to the river to the sea and joining the ocean. That’s how it is with God’s love. It’s flowing all the time, touching someone here, there. Like a worker at a counter, calling, “Next, please?” it moves from person to person.

A few years ago the Henry Street Settlement got a 6.2 million dollar donation. The Settlement started in 1893 when Lillian Ward settled in a slum in New York City among what today we would call undocumented immigrants. That’s another term for many of our grandparents, mine among them. Henry Street has far too many accomplishments to list but an important one today is supporting young people going to college. A lot more will be able to go because of this huge donation. Now you might think that in New York, with so many very rich people who live in rich towers, a donation would come from one of them. But it didn’t. It came from Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old woman who retired after a 67 year career as a secretary. She never had a child; thanks to her gift, hundreds of children will be nurtured and grow up in new ways. So today I want to lift up, I want to honor Sylvia Bloom. This Mothers Day, I honor a woman who birthed a blessing, whose care will 

“Next, please?” Matthias starts out as the first disciple to continue the work. Others follow. Still, the Spirit is calling: next, please? No one knows what blessings make a difference. But like the stream running down the mountain, no one can stop that stream of blessing. We are invited to make our lives part of the stream, part of the blessing, to live as the next ones to light the candle of love.


Well, We’re Here

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton `© 2021

Fifth Sunday in Easter/B • May 2, 2021

Acts 16:16-34

“Well, we’re here”. My late mother in law Marilyn said this more or less every time she arrived somewhere. It could be driving here all the way from Texas; it could be down the street to a restaurant. “Well, we’re here”. It’s become a tag line in our family. Drive home, finish the long drive back from Baltimore, chances are someone will say, “Well, we’re here”. It’s a touchstone. We got through that last little bit safely; we’re ready for the next part. 

I wonder what Paul and Silas said when they landed in jail. I wonder what I would say.  They’re not strangers to conflict. In fact, their journey has been full of arguments, often with their own folks. John Mark, who legend says later wrote the Gospel of Mark, started out with them but they couldn’t all get along so he left. The mother church back in Jerusalem doesn’t think much of what they’re doing, converting Gentiles. The synagogue authorities where they preach think they are annoying. Now they’ve gotten in trouble with the law and trouble with the law is serious in the Roman world.  

Life in ancient cities was mostly lived outside in the hustle and bustle of the market place. Think of the mall at Christmas time or a crowded farmers market. The market is full of scents: hot olive oil, garlic and good things cooking, animals and all those people, always all those people. There are people selling cloth and pottery and jewelry. These sellers aren’t like the ones at our mall. Even today in the markets of that world, sales begin with someone grabbing your arm, talking to you, “Look, have you ever seen anything so fine? Here, touch, feel, really I’ve been waiting for someone who could really appreciate this, I can see you are a collector, a connoisseur. It’s a shame to let it go, I only offer it because I think you’ll appreciate it, here, just 22 drachmas.” There are no price tags; everything is barter. It takes some getting used to but it’s a required part of the sale. 

One night when Jacquelyn and I were in Italy for dinner, I failed to argue over the bill. Arguing over the bill is a standard part of  dinner in Italy, in fact routinely the maitre’d offers a glass of grappa, which smells like kerosene and tastes like moonshine, while the bill is discussed. I barely knew enough Italian to order the meal, let alone argue about it and anyway food in Italy is cheap, so I was happy. We’d been out to a fancy dinner, the bill was about 30 bucks, which translated into about 50,000 lire. No problem. But the waiter saw a problem: I wasn’t arguing, I was just shuffling through my billboard sized Italian currency, looking for a 50,000 lire note. So he began to argue on my behalf. The maitre’d said something back and within moments they were off and running, the Italian was flowing hot and fast, we were ready to go, so I put down an extra bill for the tip, said goodbye and we left as they continued. 

That’s how I imagine that marketplace: full of talk, full of bartering. Among all the people, there are entertainers. One of the best gambits for earning money has always been predicting the future. It’s still in use today. Every newspaper has a horoscope column. Miss an editorial and no one notices; miss the daily horoscope and the paper gets lots of calls. Go to a Chinese restaurant and they give you a little cookie with your fortune inside. We may not take these seriously; but we read them. 

This story starts with a girl who has a gift for telling people’s futures. Like most workers, she’s a slave. She’s just strange enough to get people to believe she has a special gift. Today we’d diagnose her; in that time, they just say, “She has a spirit”. Every day Paul and his friends are in the marketplace, preaching, and every day she is there, heckling them, yelling at them, making noise, disrupting whatever crowd they gather. All preachers hate that. Most of us tolerate babies talking back but we really expect the rest of you to behave and shut up. But she won’t shut up. One day, Paul gets so annoyed, he turns and snaps of an exorcism. It works; she shuts up. But of course her owner is now angry: who wants a silent prophetess? So he gets Paul and Silas arrested for theft of services. They end up before a magistrate and as the song says, no money to go their bail, so now they’re in prison. What did they say? What did they think?

I’m sure they were scared; I’m sure they were frightened. But there is a great mystery here: what is it that allows some of us to do things that risk everything for a gain only dimly perceived, a gain not to ourselves but the whole world? Nothing in the world compelled Paul, a successful lawyer, to leave his practice and go off to preach. Nothing in the world compelled Paul to stand up to the church in Jerusalem. Nothing in the world compelled Paul to free that girl that day. But Paul is not living from the things in this world. He has seen a bigger place: he has had a greater vision. I don’t know a better description than the one we read today in the book of Revelations. It’s the end of time, it’s the end of the world and the Lord God is present. This is God’s introduction: “I am the Alpha and Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” 

It’s like being lost and suddenly having someone point out your exact location on a map. Paul knows where he is, he is sure. He is in the hands of God. It’s that simple. Nothing can change that any more than saying the sky is falling changes the day. It is the basic reality. First and last: God is present, persistent. In that crowd around Paul there must have been people who had seen that slave girl abused for a long time. In that crowd there must have been people who’d seen her owner beat her, heard her cries.. There must have been people who wanted to say something, do something, but they didn’t, they were scared, or embarrassed or they just didn’t want to get involved. There must have been people there that day who were horrified when Paul was arrested, who shuddered at the idea of what would happen. There must have been people who wanted to help. But they didn’t. Paul and Silas are led off to jail, beaten and left in pain in the darkness. 

Now here’s the interesting part to me. That night there is an earthquake. The jail doors spring open. Wow! Imagine the luck! Freedom is just a step away. Even an atheist might thank God at such a moment. The jailer doesn’t have any doubt what’s going to happen. Roman law holds him responsible with his life for these prisoners; he will take their place if they escape. He cries out that he’s lost but in the echoing silence after the earthquake, the only sound is Paul’s voice, calling back, don’t worry, we’re still here. Still here: can you imagine? They could have made a run for it, gotten clean free in the confusion. But there they are, there they stay. You see, Paul is not in jail: he’s in the hands of God. He always was and ever since his heart was opened to God, he has known it. So wherever he goes, whatever he does, it’s with God. We’re here, he calls out. We’re here.

Where are you? Where are you going? John Newton is the author of a favorite song, Amazing Grace. Newton was a sailor who worked his way up through the brutal British naval life of the 1700’s. Sometime around 1744 he went to sea on a slave ship, transporting slaves from Sierra Leone to the slave camps of the Caribbean. He worked his way up to be master of the vessel. One night during a violent storm, his heart opened and he experienced the love of God. He wrote in his journal that he had experienced a great deliverance, that when all seemed lost, and he was sure the ship would sink, he had called out, ‘Lord have mercy on us’, and believed that God indeed had mercy on him.” He continued in the slave trade but he began to treat the slaves more humanely. Finally he couldn’t face the suffering he helped cause and left the sea altogether. He became a Methodist preacher and a voice in the early British anti-slavery movement. 

The history of the movement against slavery is full of such people. Pete Seeger told of going down to Alabama in 1964 where children had dogs set on them and people just like the ones who put Paul and Silas in jail bombed churches just like this one. He said,  “I guess no one who hasn’t actually faced those police men can  know exactly how much bravery it takes to be cheerful in the face of all kinds of things. Then he shared a song: Ain’t a scared of your jail cuz I want my freedom.

What courage made those children sing? What purpose made Newton give up his success? What faith made Paul stay in that cell? It isn’t a formula or a creed, it was knowing they are in the hands of God every day, everywhere. To live in that faith is to live alert to the possibilities of each day, convinced that God is accomplishing a great and wonderful purpose in your life. To live in that faith is to be able to face whatever circumstance, whatever event, with an openness and a joy. It is to say indeed, as Marilyn does, “Well, we’re here,” and see that God is here also, always here. 

So we are not alone and we are not without purpose. God is our beginning and end: we are in the middle and nothing in the world can come between us and the love of God.