Journey to Joy 1: Let God Out!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • ©2020 All Rights Reserved

First Sunday in Advent/B • November 29, 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9Mark 13:24-37

One day last summer, when Jacquelyn and I were on vacation, we got up to a beautiful day that seemed to promise the plans we made would be perfect. The sun was out but it wasn’t too hot, there was a nice breeze blowing, we were rested and ready to enjoy the day. We were staying at a friend’s house, so we packed up, cleaned the kitchen, left a little thank you note and went out to the car, impatient to get started. I turned the key as we talked and…nothing. Not the sound of the engine, not even a click. I thought I’d done something wrong, so I did what we all do, I tried again; still nothing. No horn; no lights—the battery was dead. Over the next three hours or so, we called for help, got a new battery, he weather worsened and by noon, when we finally got the car going, we were two tired, disappointed people. I guess we’ve all been disappointed at one time or another. We hoped something, we wanted something, we looked forward to something and it didn’t happen. What do you do when things fall apart?

I usually try to begin sermons with a positive illustration but these scripture readings today are from disappointed people. So it’s important for us to remember our disappointment. Both these stories are stories of disappointed, dispirited people; both these readings have a background of hope denied, delayed, destroyed. Today, in a time when we all face fears and sometimes feel overwhelmed, it’s important to learn from them. They found hope even as they lamented—and so we can we.

Isaiah is speaking to a people who have the spiritual equivalent of my experience with the car. A century before, they had been defeated, exiled, lost hope in God’s power to save them. Then they began to hope again; they learned to sing the Lord’s song in foreign lands, they learned God was bigger than they had imagined. They looked forward to a time when God would save them and return them to their home. 

Now that time has come and many have returned to Jerusalem after a long exile. But the vibrant, hopeful, inspired community they had expected God to create hasn’t happened. They’ve returned to ruins; they’ve camped out in their despair. And so we hear this lament, this cry for God to come to them as God came in the past.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

They’ve failed at going to God and now they are remembering that their inspiration wasn’t their own doing. They remember the wilderness, they remember how God saved them at the Reed Sea and they begin to understand that what’s needed isn’t something they can do: they beg God to come to them.

Our culture glorifies our efforts. From the basic story of someone working hard and making good to the spiritual version of getting saved by giving your life to Jesus, going to church, pledging gifts, all of it is about what we do, what we achieve. But the stark reality in the midst of despair is that the prophet tells us it isn’t our effort that makes a difference; it’s God’s. They want God to come to them: “tear open the heavens and come down”. Isn’t that the ultimate cry of all our hearts?—that having come as far as we can, God will come to us, enfold us, save us. 

One writer has shared a personal experience of this.

When my son, Christopher, was a boy, I took him to Toys-R-Us, and he got detached from me.

Christopher being my first child, my fatherly instincts caused me to panic. Yet, because I could see the doors, I knew that he had not exited the building. I paced up one corridor and down another… around a corridor… around another aisle… peeping… looking to find him amidst a crowd of people in the Christmas rush – but I could not find my son. I found a security guard and asked him, “Do you have surveillance in the store?” He said, “Yes.” I then asked, “Do you have a monitor?” “Yes.” “Can I look at the monitor?” “Yes.” “Can you scan the floor?” “Yes.”

The guard began to scan up and down the aisles, and there I saw my son, surrounded by toys, yet crying.  He was clearly in a state of panic. My son was all by himself among people he did not know. My son was feeling lost and alone, and I did not know what to do. I asked the guard, “Do you have an intercom?” He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Keep the camera on him.” Then I got on the intercom and said, “Christopher.” My son looked around because he recognized my voice. I continued, “Stay where you are.” He started looking around. “It’s Daddy,” I said. “Don’t move. I see you although you can’t see me. Stay where you are. I’m coming.”

That’s what this lament hopes. It imagines us sitting and crying and hoping God will come find us. It’s no accident that the prophet goes on to see the solution to despair in God remembering who we are: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

That’s the spirit of Advent and that’s the hope of Advent: that God is coming, no matter how lost we feel, now matter how absent God feels. The Gospel of Mark was written for people who faced persecution, wars and a dark disappointment that everything they had hoped was in vain because Jesus hadn’t come on their schedule. Jesus imagines a violent time, a world ending time, and they says in such moments, “Keep awake.” Why keep awake? Because God is coming—and we don’t want to miss the moment. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard several parables that lift this theme as well: hope isn’t about what you see, it’s what you can’t see but believe. Keep awake: God is coming, tearing open heaven, coming into the world.

Why is staying awake so important? Because of something Isaiah says: “…you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down…” God’s coming is a surprise. Abram wasn’t looking for God when God found him. Moses wasn’t looking for a life mission when he went to look at burning bush. Jesus didn’t come and do what people expected of the Messiah. God’s coming always surprises, never fulfills our expectations because our expectations aren’t big enough, creative enough. I’ve spent most of my life working in churches and what I’ve seen, what I know, is that we never imagined big enough, never thought big enough. We were so busy making sure we sang familiar hymns, we often missed the chance to praise God in new ways. We were so busy doing what we’d always done, we often didn’t hear God say, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” [Isaiah 43:19] So we missed it.

Advent is a time to wake up and wait. Do those sound like opposites? They aren’t, they are the bedrock of spiritual life. Think of the lost child in the story: the child hears the father’s voice, and may want to run toward it. But what’s important is for that child to stay right there, wait right there, so the father can come and to watch for the father. That’s Isaiah’s message: hope because like a father coming to a lost child, God is coming to us. That’s Jesus’ message: hope because if you stay awake, God will send messengers—angels—to help you. That should be the inspiration of this time: hope because God is coming.

What do we do with this hope? What do we do while we wait? Listen, watch and one more thing: let God out. Isaiah pleaded for God to tear open the heavens and come down. Today, our problem isn’t the forbidding height of heaven, it is the boxes in which we’ve enclosed God. Let God out! Let God come into our whole lives, the life of our church, the lives we live at home, the life we live when no one is looking.

This is a moment pregnant with possibility. Over the last few days, we’ve been doing something at our house you may have experienced. We brought the Christmas decorations down from the attic, we’ve unboxed them. They haven’t changed; they were there all the time. But the joy of their beauty was put away, the inspiration of their presence wasn’t visible. One by one as they are put out, they bring memories of hope, memories of love, memories of what has sustained us through times of despair and happiness. 

It’s the same with God. Let God out! Stay awake: this is a time when God can come at any moment. Stay awake and you might hear the sound of the heavens tearing open, and a baby crying as he’s born.

Amen.

The Sheep Look Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Reign of Christ/Thanksgiving/A • November 22, 2020

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24Matthew 25:31-46 

When I was 11 or so, I got my first pair of glasses. I didn’t know I couldn’t see things at a distance; I thought they were a little blurry to everyone. It was an amazing thing to suddenly have everything sharp. If you wear glasses, you probably know what I mean. We all wear glasses of some sort; maybe you’ve worn them at a 3D movie, maybe you wear sunglasses. There are other glasses too, the ones created from our culture, our experiences, our lives. When we try to understand a Bible text, it’s important to be aware of what glasses we are wearing. And it’s important to know what sort of glasses, what experience, the writer had and the audience for which they wrote. Our scripture readings today come from two times when God’s people were facing defeat and wondering how to go forward, how to hope. So let’s put those glasses on and see how these texts helped them find their way. Let’s see if they can help us find ours way.

Since ancient times, Israel found itself in the image of sheep and sheep herding. Abraham was a herdsman and before he was king, David was a sheep herder too. Groups of sheep were common sights in villages and surely many men got their first taste of responsibility when they were sent into the hills to watch over a herd of sheep. Now sheep herding was dangerous in ancient Israel. You could fall and get hurt and you were expected to defend the sheep from predators: wolves and other things. Sheep on the whole are pretty defenseless; they really know just one tactic, gather up, so you look big and run away. David got good with a sling defending his sheep and others had what must have been wild, formative experiences doing it. So everyone knew what it meant to talk about a shepherd caring for a flock. The image of a flock of sheep was commonly used to represent God’s people.

Now God’s people are living in the ruins. A few years before they pinned their hope on Israelite Exceptionalism, the idea that God would never let them be defeated. But they were defeated, Jerusalem was destroyed and many of its people carried into exile. We hear their despair in many places, including a Psalm where it asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” These are the glasses they’re wearing, this is how they see their situation. Just before the part we read, the prophet Ezekiel brings a Word from the Lord that condemns their former leaders as bad shepherds, shepherds who cared more for themselves than the flock. Then he turns to the sheep and brings this astonishing Word: “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” [Ezekiel 34:11] There are two things to notice here. One is that God is not pretending; the sheep are lost, they’re scattered all over. The second is: these sheep belong to God. These sheep have a shepherd and it isn’t dependent on some human leader, it is God directly. The sheep have a reason to look up and when they look, they find they belong to God.

Our longing to belong is deep and strong. We see it in politics: red and blue. We see it in sports: Yankees or Mets? And we see it in churches. Long ago, in one of the first churches, the Apostle Paul mentions, 

…each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.”

1 Corinthians 1:12f

So even in the church, people are searching for someone to whom they belong, creating little teams of belonging that sometimes prevent them from seeing the whole body of Christ.

Huckleberry Finn is a novel about a boy free boy who is adopted by a widow who tries to do what he calls civilizing him. He runs away along with a slave named Jim. Now Huck has grown up with and adopted the values of the slave south. He is surprised at how human Jim is, that he misses his family, that he cares for others. At a critical moment, Huck faces a choice: he has been preparing to do what his culture tells him is right, to return Jim to his owner. He believes that not doing that is stealing and it will mean he will go to hell for breaking a commandment. But he’s come to see Jim as a human  being, come to see they belong to each other so he tears up the letter informing the owner and says

I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: “All right then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up. It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said.

Many see this as the moral crux of the book: the moment Huck understands he and Jim belong to each other and neither is owned. He’s come to see himself in Jim, to see his connection to Jim as more important. He’s put on new glasses; he sees a new world.

A new way of seeing is also the theme of the story we read in Matthew. Matthew’s audience also faced defeat and despair. They had expected Jesus return in glory to defeat their enemies. That hadn’t happened and many had fallen away, others had suffered from persecution. Matthew alone tells this vision of God putting everything right. Sheep and goats are familiar to them and they know they can’t be kept together; they have different needs and sheep tend to crowd out goats. So Jesus takes the familiar figure and invites them to imagine a final scene of judgement.

But there’s no victorious king here, no defeated people sold into slavery. Instead, it’s the familiar scene of sheep and goats being divided. He came to all of them, he says: hungry, naked, in prison. Some fed him, some helped him, but no one recognized him. Then the great judgement is pronounced; then the two groups are separated and the principle is who helped and who didn’t. This is the answer to the question we’ve been circling around for weeks, ever since he explained the great commandment to love God and love your neighbor. You love your neighbor as the image of the God you love.

Everyone is stunned; no one remembers seeing him. He explains that when someone fed a stranger, they were feeding him. Notice it isn’t that they are feeding someone like him; they were feeding him, and so on for all the other conditions. Each person they encountered was him; each time they did or didn’t do something for that person, they did or didn’t do it for him. And those who did are gathered into his herd, his sheep fold, just as Ezekiel had said. They are children of God because they cared for the Song of God.

Now the name for this is simple: providence. It means simply believing each person is a child of God and that God will provide for God’s children, like a shepherd caring for a sheep herd. Providence isn’t simply a principle: it’s a decision, a decision to hope, a moment when the sheep look up from whatever their condition to see the shepherd caring for them. To look up in this way is to put on new glasses, to see the world as full of possibilities even if the situation is bleak.

That’s the real foundation of Thanksgiving. This is the 400th Anniversary of the landing of the people we call the Pilgrims in Massachusetts. After a long, stormy passage to Virginia, they were blown off course and made landfall on Cape Cod, near what is now Providence. We all know what November is like and it wasn’t any easier for them. After a few weeks exploring, they settled on a place with a creek and a tidal flat and named it Plimoth and started to build houses. The voyage had taken much longer than they planned; their provisions were exhausted. They robbed caches of corn left by indigenous people and they tried to fish. In the terrible conditions, many starved, many grew sick and death stalked them daily.

That isn’t the happy Thanksgiving picture we paint but it was their reality. Understanding that reality can help us see through to the real Thanksgiving. That first summer, they made friends with some indigenous people who showed them how to plant and raise corn; they made a small harvest. They learned to trap and fish and hunt and sustain themselves. A year after their landfall, they revived the English custom of a harvest festival with three days of giving thanks.

It may have seemed they had little for which to give thanks but their faith led them to trust God’s providence. They treated the local people with kindness, they mended their own internal squabbles. They gave thanks because they understood the good gifts that sustained them were blessings from God. They gave thanks because they understood they were children of God, part of God’s flock, and they were determined to live that identity. They had put on new glasses; they saw a new creation in a new world, and indeed, it was marvelous in their eyes.

Today in the church’s calendar is Reign of Christ Sunday, a fairly new festival, begun about a hundred years ago, in the midst of the rise of fascism and the darkening clouds of war. Roman Catholics needed to be reminded that despite the news of dictators and violence, their ultimate shepherd was Christ. Gradually, it has become a part of the whole church and today perhaps more than ever we need that reminder.

It’s also the Sunday before Thanksgiving, a day with special meaning for Congregationalists like us, for this is the beginning of our story: that a group of our fathers and mothers in the faith saw a new possibility in the new world and determined despite obstacles to embrace life as God’s people, determined to live from the hope of God’s providence.

So this year we may be separated and unable to gather as we have in the past; but we are not separate, we are gathered as God’s flock, God’s people, because we belong to God. This year we may be sick, but we know that sick or well, we belong to God. This year we may be tense and torn by the tides of politics and questions about who will lead us but we know that our true King is Jesus Christ because we belong to God.

This year, like every year, like every time, this day, every day, offers us the chance to put on our glasses and see that we belong to God, we belong to Christ’s flock, and we can trust the providence of God. This year, like every year, Thanksgiving is an invitation to hope.

Amen.

What Day Is It?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved

24th Sunday After Pentecost/A • November 15, 202

Matthew 25:14-30

“How will I know I’m in love?” Every parent gets that question and I suspect we all answer it the same way: “You’ll know”. How do you explain something so great but so invisible? Jesus had the same problem trying to explain what it’s like to live so intimately with god that God reigns in every moment, every place, every occasion, every corner of your life. Just like us, he doesn’t try to explain it directly. Instead, he tells parables. Parables are stories meant to share an experience, to make us feel the experience. Listen as he tells the parable we read in Matthew.

He’s coming out of the. temple, his disciples following along. There are crowds swirling around, people on errands who weave through the mass of people, ignoring everyone except the ones in their way. There are animals: bleating sheep, hooting donkeys, chickens flustering. There are the smells of the animals and the marketplace and the always present urging threat of violence. His disciples are from small towns; they’re impressed by the city. Maybe you’ve always lived in a city but if you haven’t, it’s overwhelming the first time you go. The masses of people, who all seem to know where they’re going, the tall buildings, the prices, and they’re gossiping about it all. As they talk, Jesus steps aside, sits down and begins to talk. First he tells them nothing from the temple will last. The he tells them about the final judgement and finally he tells them a story about to help them feel the kingdom of God.

This is the story. A man goes on a journey, a rich man, with slaves and servants to manage his property an he makes arrangements for them in his absence. One receives five talents one gets two, another just a single talent. It’s not entirely sure how much a talent would be worth today; perhaps a few thousand dollars. It’s the largest currency available and the point here is that even the last one is given a great deal of money: metal coins in a small sack, perhaps.

Now each of these servants has a problem: what to do with the money? There are a complex set of overlapping rules. Long ago, the law said a servant owed a 10% return on such trusts; rabbis, on the other hand, taught that burying the money in the ground is all the law requires and looked down on moneylending. Think of it: you’ve just been given a fortune, perhaps more money than you’ve ever seen. But it’s not yours, it will have to be returned. What do you do with it? Invest it in the stock market? Double it and you get to keep the excess; lose it and you get sold into slavery to make up the difference. Maybe municipal bonds, those are safer and tax return. Then, of course, there’s your backyard: just dig a hole and bury it, keep it safe. What would you do?

Can you imagine what they thought, what they felt? I imagine they were all scared. We’ll get to the hole burying guy but let’s think about the middle guy for a minute; he got less than half the first one got. Still, he has a lot to manage. How tense is he? Is he excited at the opportunity?—or is he just afraid of failing? Does he know what to do right away or does he spend time researching possibilities. This is a big chance. How many nights does he lay awake worrying? I suppose the same applies to the rust man in the story. Was he more confident, ore experienced, is that why he got more?—or is he more scared?

Then there’s the last one. He’s scared for sure. When he’s called to account, he says, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid…” He does what is safest: he his the talent, he secures the money. I imagine he slept better once it was safely away.

When the owner returns, the first two servants bring out the talents entrusted to them—and the profit they made. The owner is pleased. Their risk becomes the reason for the Master’s joy and he shares the joy with them. The last servant who refused to risk anything has no profit to show and he’s cast out, with the owner saying he should have realized a return on the money would be expected. Once again, we’re left with a servant who is cast to the outer darkness

What makes a difference in this story is the decision of the first two servants to take a risk. They must have know what the third servant knew about the master, they must have been scared by the risk, but they took it anyway. What allows us to risk? The deepest antidote to fear is faith in God. I’ve been reading an exhaustive study of the people who sail boats around the world all by themselves. Inevitably, they encounter storms and conditions that overwhelm them and scare them. The author discovered one common element among those who serve and shish their voyage: a deep religious faith. One said, 

Ten months of solitude I some of the loneliest areas of the world strengthened every part of me, deepened every perception and gave a new awareness of the power outside man which we call God. I am quite certain that without God’s help many and many a time I could not have survived to complete my circumnavigation.

Chay Blyth, quoted in Richard Henderson, Singlehanded Sailing, p. 71

It’s the failure to take a risk that condemns the third servant. There are three places in the Gospel of Matthew where this figure of throwing someone into the outer darkness occurs. Once is the parable we read recently about the wedding feast where one person comes unready, another is a story in which the good religious people of a town are angry that Jesus heals a gentile.

Jesus intends us to understand life in the Kingdom of God is a constant risk, a voyage that always feeling like it’s teetering on the edge of failure. Our sure and certain guides, our traditions that comfort from familiarity, cannot help us. We cannot always see how things will work out. Risk makes us afraid and fear makes us seek safety. Fear is powerful; it is actually possible to be scared to death. We’ve just come through a national election campaign conducted where appeals to fear were a major theme and we all live day to day with the fear of a raging pandemic. Life is scary and it can cause us to bury ourselves in the ground but that is a kind of death and Jesus is proclaiming everlasting life.

All three of the servants were faced with the fact of the future and the question of what to do with what they have been given. All three are afraid. Jesus tells this story to illustrate a deeper reality: the kingdom, his term for knowing and deciding to live in the hand of God, lets us hope. Living in the hand of God is an invitation to hope but it takes a decision. I wonder if the reason so many mainline churches have declined is that having been successful, built our buildings, created our structures, we are afraid to take risks, to embrace new lights and new ways. 

Today we heard from the Prophet Zephaniah and the part that struck me most deeply was the description of God going through the city, finding people who believe God makes no difference so that they are not prepared for God to come, not prepared for God to act, not prepared to live in God’s kingdom. They are not prepared to hope.

But “hope is the best of things”; that’s a line from the movie Shawshank Redemption. Andy DeFresne has been falsely convicted of killing his wife and in prison he’s beaten and humiliated. But he continues to hope. His best friend, another man with a life sentence, tells him hope is dangerous; that it can kill a man. But Andy tells him that there is a decision to make: get busy living or get busy dying. Hope is what allows us to get busy living.

Fred Craddock tells a story about a man living from hope. He works on Concourse A at the Atlanta airport, a place with a huge food court and swirling crowds of people. Some are in uniforms, some are children, some don’t speak English, some are confused or tense about the whole business of flying. One day Craddock sat down with a cup of coffee and heard something.

…this marvelous male voice, deep and resonant and obviously well-trained. Singing. I noticed the song because it was “Lara’s Theme” from Dr. Zhivago..and it was done so well. And then there was silence. I was about to finish and then that same ice came again, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”. Beautiful.
I went to the counter and said to the person there, “Is that singing coming from over here?”
She said, “That’s Albert in the ditch.
I said, “Can I speak to Albert?”
She said, “Well, yeah, Albert! Man out her wants to tan to you.”
And he came out, this big, robust, smiling guy, who said, “Yes, sir?”
I introduced myself, he introduced himself. “Albert, I said, I want to thank you for the singing it’s marvelous.”
He said, “You know what I’m doing, don’t you?”
I said, “No, what are you doing?”
He said, “I’m auditioning”
“You’re auditioning?”
He said, “Yeah, as many folks go through here all the time, there’s bound to be one that’s going to come along and going to take me out of this kitchen.”
And then he went back, humming, into the kitchen and I just thought, “There’s not five percent of the population of Atlanta as happy as that guy in the kitchen.”

.Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, p.123

Albert’s waiting, but he’s not waiting in place, he’s hoping, he’s holding on to a vision of where he’s going, he’s ready, he knows the right moment is coming and he’s ready and singing.

Zephaniah calls the moment of God’s coming the Day of the Lord. Are you ready? Are we? Are we doing what we can with what we’ve been given, using them with hope, less worried about whether we’l succeed than whether we’ll please the master?

Every day is a decision Every day we audition for the Lord. Every day we decide whether to let fear fix us in place or to hope. One day we will understand that the resurrection is a reason to hope every day. One day, we’ll sing like Albert, sing the song of the love of God and we won’t care about our performance, we’ll only care about the joy of living in the kingdom of God.

Amen

Choosing Up!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Twenty Third Sunday After Pentecost/A • November 8, 2020

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25Matthew 25:1-13

Choices: we make them every day, from small things to large ones. Much of this week has been consumed by the election of a new President, Senators, Representatives, and a host of others. I’d like this morning to turn, if we can, from that choice to others. This morning you chose to come to church; some of you chose to watch online. I’ve spent much of my career helping churches develop and I used to spend a lot of time and energy getting people to make that choice. Eventually, I realized people choose what they want and my job was simply to make sure every Sunday had something important, something valuable. How do you make choices? 

The story in Joshua is a crucial moment that calls for a choice. Last week we read the story of the last vision of Moses, how the promise of God’s covenant with Abraham and Sarah was on the edge of fulfillment, with Joshua taking over leadership. Now we’re at the end of Joshua’s life. There have been some great days; God’s people have indeed settled into the promised land, they have begun new lives and the wilderness is a rapidly fading time. But living among other people who worship other Gods, they’ve begun to lose their devotion to the Lord. Some of the other gods are more fun; some of them married into families and converted.

Now Joshua calls the tribes together; he reminds them of the long history in which God has been their providence and savior. He says,

…it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed;

Joshua 24:17

Then he summons them to a covenant, a renewal of the ancient covenant. When the people say they will serve the God, he says,  

He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your hearts to the LORD, the God of Israel.”

The people said to Joshua, “The LORD our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”

So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and made statutes and ordinances for them at Shechem.

Joshua 34:22-23

Worship the Lord is not a given, it’s not automatic. It’s a choice and the whole story of the Torah is the story of how God chose this people and they chose God. The whole story of the New Testament is how Jesus taught God was choosing everyone else as well, including us, and how some, sometimes including us, chose God as well, just like the people at Shechem. 

just as the Joshua story is about a covenant, we make covenants. A covenant is a public, formal profession of a choice. One kind is marriage. A wedding is a formalization of a choice in a sacred covenant, The parable of the bridesmaids in Matthew has a wedding at its center, just off stage. 

One of the great joys of my life has been the ability to be with couples as they make this important choice. Sometimes a couple will come to church to check me out first; sometimes they grew up there and I know them already. Sometimes they call or drop by my office. There’s always a kind of special energy to these couples. We make an appointment, sit down, talk. I ask them to tell me how they met. Almost all say the same thing: “It was really funny…” and then tell a story about an unexpected meeting that grew into love. I ask them what they have in mind. Brides often have a plan; grooms almost never do. They ask about my requirements; I always smile and say, you have to have a license, you have to show up. Then I offer them a few meetings for pre-marital preparation. We used to call it counseling but it isn’t really counseling, it’s a time to talk about marriage because at that moment, most have spent a lot of time thinking about being in love, quite a bit about getting married and almost none about being married.

It’s as if we think that having made the one choice of who to marry, said yes and formalized this at a wedding the choices are over. All of us who have been married a while know they are just beginning. For example, what to do with dirty clothes after you take them off at night. There are two sorts of people: one that immediately puts these in the wash or hangs them up and the other kind, my kind, which drops them next to the bed. So now you have another choice in the morning: pick these up and deal with them? When I was single, I had a simple laundry system. I wore clothes; I dropped them on the floor next to the bed. The next morning I got clothes out of closet; same thing, over and over. Eventually the floor was covered and it was time to do laundry. I never tried this system out on Jacquelyn because I was pretty sure that a peaceful home depended on my learning to choose to pick up after myself.

In the parable, some choices have been made. Think about the context: a couple have chosen to get married. Parents, friends, teachers all watched them grow up and probably knew they had a mutual crush before they did. Nothing escapes notice in a small village. They seem to be well to do folks; ten bridesmaids is a lot. What I think is that this happened: she couldn’t decide who to choose. There’s her two sisters, they have to be bridesmaids, and his sister, and then there’s her best friend from sixth grade and the two girls she got to be friends with when she took that class in the city. You know how this goes: leave someone out and there will be hard feelings, so she includes them all.

Weddings are among the most rigidly tradition governed things we do and it’s no different here. When Jacquelyn and I were married, she was coming off exams, I was coming off Lent and Easter, her best friend had just died, we were really looking forward to the honeymoon, to time together alone. So we planned a simple morning service with a short reception. Our friends had other ideas; I remember when it was time for the cake, someone said, “We have to sing the song!” And they sang along I’d never heard but everyone seemed to know. Now in this story, in ancient Palestine, apparently the custom is for the groom to bring the bride to his family home, be met by the bridesmaids and then have an afterparty.

So the bridesmaids wait. Batteries haven’t been invented yet; they’re waiting with oil lamps, little bowls with a wick into which you pour olive oil as fuel to light the way. Now I can tell you as someone who has been to a lot of weddings—they almost never run on time. Things happen; a dress has to be unexpectedly refitted, someone in the wedding party is late, the clergy person has to put batteries in the microphone. Once a junior bridesmaid who hadn’t eaten all day collapsed and hit her head on the communion table and had to go to the hospital. The list is endless. Something happened here and the bridegroom is delayed. So the bridesmaids wait. And they wait. And they wait. 

When I thought about this sermon, I intended to have an illustration here to remind us about waiting but after this week, waiting for election results, I think we’ve all had more than enough recent experience waiting so I’m just going to move on. What I want to move on to is: the first audience for this parable, the Christians late in the first century. They had expected Jesus to return long before; we know there was a spiritual crisis over the waiting. So we have this parable to  guide us and what it compares isn’t always clear. The bridesmaids wait and some get worried about not having enough oil; it’s like forgetting your cellphone charger and realizing you don’t have a battery to help. They ask for help but don’t get it; in the moment they make a decision; they leave, they go into town.They get the oil but when they get back—POW!—they’ve missed the moment. The bridegroom came; the others went in, the door was closed. They’re left out. Wanting to do their job, they failed at their mission, welcoming the bridegroom

What makes them foolish? Preachers have been talking about that for centuries. Some think they should have brought more oil, some things they shouldn’t have fallen asleep; but the other bridesmaids fall asleep too. I think the problem here is that they made a bad choice. They’re so concerned about their performance, they forget their mission. They’re so concerned about what they’re doing that they forget why they’re doing it The moment when the bridegroom comes is a unique instance: it happens, it’s over. They missed it. The story reminds us that the choice to act out of our Christian faith is a matter of moments, moments that ask for a decision. How often do are we foolishly concerned about details that we forget our mission: love God, love our neighbor, heal, share God’s Word, be God’s light.

There is a wonderful song I’ve always loved that contains the verse, “Lord, I want to be more Christian in my heart, in my heart, Lord I want to be more Christian in my heart.” I like the song, I like the feeling. But Christian life is not only a matter of the heart, it is a matter of behavior and behavior is a series of choices. So if we are making our lives a joyful journey along the way with Jesus, if we are following the Lord, it means choosing him every day, every place. Every day offers a choices. We can choose ourselves, choose down in the world, or we can, as Paul says, press on toward the upward call of Jesus Christ. That is indeed choosing, choosing up.

Amen.

All My Children

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

All Saints Sunday • November 1, 2020

1 John 3:1-3Matthew 23:1-12

All My Children was a long running soap opera; before you ask me about Susan Lucci or her character, let me say that I really know nothing about the TV show. Last week, we thought about how to relate to God and remembered what Jesus said: “Love God with all your heart and mind and soul.” I was still hearing that in my head and thought, “But how does God see us?” That phrase—all my children—immediately leaped to mind. So I looked it up and found this summary of the show by Agnes Nixon, its originator

The Rich and the Poor, The Weak and the Strong,
In Sickness and in Health, In Joy and Sorrow,
In Tragedy and Triumph.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/All_My_Children

I thought that summed up how God sees us: we see all our various conditions, our poverty, our riches, our styles, our failures, successes, problems, hopes, fears; God sees all God’s children.

This is how scripture says it in the first letter of John:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.

1 John 3:1

Roman society, the culture in which this letter was written had the relationship of children and father at its center. Roman fathers were not just emotionally powerful in families as they are today, they were empowered by the law to govern the family.. Adoption legally as well as emotionally brought someone into the family and was common. So John is invoking the most powerful structure he knows to describe how God sees us: as a father sees children. 

It’s not a bounded, limited circle; others can be adopted in and the Apostle Paul makes that point. After a long discussion of the place of Abraham and Sarah’s descendants as children of promise, he says, 

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 1For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Romans 8:14-16 – http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471232722

See how once again he describes us as children of God. ‘Abba’ is not simply a word for ‘father” it’s an intimate term. It’s the word Jesus uses in what we call the Lord’s Prayer and it’s the words he uses on the cross. It is less ‘father’ and more “daddy’, less general and more loving. 

Now there are some things that flow from this. The first one is that no one ever goes away. Parents know how this works. When kids grow up, we see that but we also see the child, we remember the child. I drive May to work mornings when she goes to her office. I’ve been doing it off and on since she was in high school. She picks the music and when Fall Out Boy comes on or Panic at the Disco or God help me Wake me up when September ends plays, I remember those days. I have—or had!—brown hair and brown eyes. So did my mother, father, and my brother Allan. Six years later, my brother David came along. He didn’t look like us; he had blue eyes and light colored hair. Everyone commented on how different he looked until my dad’s mother saw him. She took one look and said, “Oh my, little Elmer!” Elmer was my Dad’s older brother. She remembered her child and saw him continued in my brother. Scripture tells us God is ageless and changeless, so like a parent, no one goes away to God, not ever. There’s all there, just like Uncle Elmer was there for my grandmother.

There’s a second group God sees that we often forget: those who aren’t here yet. This is the thing all growing churches know. Growing churches constantly plan for people who aren’t here yet, people God will bring here. So they work on welcoming, they treat each visitor as someone special, sent for a purpose they can’t wait to understand. They don’t get bound up in brass chains. Do you know about these? Brass chains are when we let honoring the past hobble the future. It’s the point in the joke about how many Congregationalists it takes to change a light bulb. Change a light bulb? No way: my grandfather gave that light bulb. We  make room for those not here yet s parents and grandparents. When we bought a house in Michigan, my daughter Amy and my son in law Nick had two children with a third on the way; Bridget was born a month or so after we got there.But even before Bridget appeared, Jacquelyn picked out a house with room for all and a crib for her. She saw the ones who weren’t there yet.

So God’s children includes those who aren’t present here any more; they’re still present to God. God’s children includes those who aren’t present here yet; they’re still present to God. I know you’ve noticed I left someone out.: those of us here now— that’s us! What about us? We’re children of God too, and God has in mind a way for us to be present to each other just as we’re present to God. Now if you have siblings like I do, I know a secret: that sometimes you’ve wondered or hoped your mom or dad liked you best. But if you ask a parent, they will always tell you the same thing: “I love all my children equally.” It’s the same with God.

That’s why Jesus gives the instructions we read in Matthew to his followers, to us. He lives in a rigidly hierarchical society. That means everyone is part of a pyramid. The emperor and kings are at the top, then there are officials, rulers, rich people and so on down the line to the peasants, which is what he is, and finally, the servants and slaves. In Jerusalem, there are religious authorities, called scribes and priests, who are high, there are Pharisees who are high and when you are high up on the pyramid you show it by, as he says, sitting in the high seats, making rules for others, having the place of honor at banquets. But to us, to all his followers, he says instead,

But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father–the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted. The greatest among you will be your servant. 

Matthew 23:8-11 http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=471233063

What he clearly has in mind is a radical equality among his followers. You demonstrate devotion to Jesus by serving others, not by having servants. It’s the image of a family gathered in love, equally sharing burdens and joys.

Let’s be honest: we haven’t always done this. Congregationalists started out with radical equality as a principle. They got rid of bishops, they functioned in Plymouth without a minister for decades. But we’ve back slid. In the United Church of Christ, we have Conference Ministers. We hear leaders in church talk about being in control.

But my mother in law, Marilyn Welling, had the right idea. She had five children. There were divorces and separations and remarriages and births and the family grew and grew. Some of them have never met; some aren’t that fun to be around. But to Marilyn, they were all family. She had a whole wall of pictures to remind her. Anne Lamott talks about this kind of wall.

There are pictures of the people in my family where we look like the most awkward and desperate folk you ever saw, poster children for the human condition. But I like that, when who we are shows. Everything is usually so masked or perfumed or disguised in the world, and it’s so touching when you get to see something real and human. I think that’s why most of us stay close to our families, son matter how neurotic the members, how deeply annoying or ill—because when people have been you at your worst, you don’t have to put on the mask so much. And that gives us license to try on that radical hat of liberation.

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 215

The radical hat of liberation is just what Jesus came to give, it’s why he wore the crown of thorns, it’s the purpose of the cross: to set us free from the high places and low places to be children together, children of God.

Now along with children of God, there’s another word for all of us. In the original language of the Bible, it’s often translated ‘elect’ and it means chosen. But it also is translated ‘Saints’. So this is who we are, God’s children, all the saints. You, me: those who came before, those who are coming later, all of us here now, all the saints. This is how God sees us: all my children, equally loved, equally called, whether past, future or present. “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are.”

Amen.

The Unperishing Spring

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

21st Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 25, 2020

Deuteronomy 34:1-12Matthew 22:34-46

“Winter is coming.” That opening theme from the “Game of Thrones” appeared so obvious when I first read it that I was puzzled. I’m a northern boy; I’ve lived through 68 winters and the falls that preceded them. Fall to me means occasional harsh storms like the one that brought down a tree big enough to cover the entire backyard at the parsonage. It meant raking leaves and, when I was growing up, the smell of burning as piles of fire happened throughout my neighborhood. Summer was fun, fall wasn’t fun; it was a depressing end. Then I married Jacquelyn. She didn’t grow up with fall, so to her fall was an ever opening series of wonderful surprises. She loves the changing colors and I introduced her to cider mills and crisp days with a cup of sweet apple and a doughnut. Winter is coming meant something dark to me; to her, it means doughnuts and colors. How do you see winter coming?

A Spiritual Winter

A spiritual winter is coming in the story we read from Matthew about Jesus. The gospels remember that when he began to move toward Jerusalem, it was with the knowledge that there would be an end not only of a journey but of his life. At the beginning of the journey, 

…Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.

Matthew 16:21

Again, along the way,

As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands, 23and they will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised.” And they were greatly distressed.

Matthew 17-21-23

So the journey is a spiritual fall, a time preparing for the spiritual winter of the cross.

The Great Commandment

Today’s reading is part of a series of controversy stories. We read one last week about taxes. Now a group of Pharisees confront him and ask which is the greatest commandment. What do you think? One of the Ten Commandments? A particular rule in Torah? Something your mother told you?. “Which is the greatest commandment?” It’s a preacher’s challenge: summarize all the teaching you’ve brought, Jesus, tell us, what you think. How strange to hear him teach something very old, something from Torah, something they should have known: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Deuteronomy 6:5. And then: Leviticus 18:19: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” There it is, the whole program of Jesus, the whole preaching of Jesus, the whole treasure of Jesus and they had it all along, just as we do: love God, love your neighbor. It’s what has led him to preach, what has led him to heal, what will lead him to the cross.

Do Bad to Do Good?

Winter is coming. We are living through a moment when to many it seems that the only way to do good is to do bad. This summer we watched as protests of police killings left cities on fire. Just recently, we heard how a group of men plotted to kidnap and kill the governor of Michigan and then from Wisconsin the terrible story of a young man, a man too young to vote, who used an assault rifle to shoot protesters. We are on the doorstep of a division elections seem unlikely to dispel; already, hundreds of lawsuits are filed, already there is talk of how to overturn its results. 

This isn’t the first time we’ve been here. I watched a movie the other night that had a profound impact on me because it reminded me of the the late 1960’s. “Chicago 7,” is a movie about the trial of New Left leaders after the police riot in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Some of you will remember that time; for others, it’s vague history. So let me remind you it was a moment of shattering violence. Frustration was leading many to question the strategy of non-violence and democratic change. Over a hundred thousand of our troops were in Vietnam; thousands protested the war at home. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., assassinated were assassinated. In the movie, Bobby Seale, national chairman of the Black Panther Party, is leaving to speak in Chicago and A friend reminds him about the power of nonviolence and Martin Luther King; he responds, “Dr. King is dead.” 

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

Just like Jesus, King was killed for daring to preach this one Great Commandment: “Love God, love your neighbor.” And he did not go blindly to his death. On the last night of his life, he closed his speech with these words.

I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

https://www.afscme.org/about/history/mlk/mountaintop

He walked on, he loved on, until he couldn’t walk anymore. But his vision went on and still does today.

That mountain top is just where we found Moses in the portion read today. Winter is coming there too. Think of his story. Rescued as a child, brought up in the luxury and safety of Pharaoh’s household while his people were enslaved and used to build up the wealth and power of others. When he finally found his true identity and became angry, he killed a man and had to run for his life: no more luxury, no more power. A fugitive from justice, he was taken in by another people, made another life with a wife and a family. Called by God, he went back to that same power structure, that same household he had fled, with God’s word that they should let God’s people go. Ten times he watched the plagues of Egypt stun that nation until the Pharaoh agreed to let the Hebrews go.

Moses led them out into the wilderness and then, as power always does, the powerful couldn’t let go, and used violence to enslave. So Moses and God’s people faced the armored might of the greatest military in the world at that time. But God was greater, and God’s people fond a way through the muddy Reed Sea when the wind of God blew the water away for a moment, and the army of Pharaoh perished in the marshes. Moses might have thought they were safe and all was well. 

But when we read the story of the Exodus, all is not well. Time after time, Moses is challenged. People argue, people complain. When he stays on the mountain receiving the commandments of God, his brother and the others build up an idol out of gold so that once again there is a terrible reckoning. For 40 years he leads them through the wilderness. For 40 years he listens to them complain. For 40 years he bears the terrible burden of believing God, of loving God with his whole heart and mind and self. Now, winter is coming; his winter, his death is coming. 

We Have a Destination

So he goes up on a mountain to see the way forward. Now, you know that in the Bible, geography is always theology. So what he sees isn’t just a place, it is God’s performance of a promise. Long ago, Abraham and Sarah were promised a place to live and raise generations of God’s people so they might be a blessing to the whole world. Long ago, Moses set out with God’s people to see this place. Now, he sees it. Like King, he might have said,  “…as a people, will get to the promised land…Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” For 40 years, we read they wandered in the wilderness. But that’s not right; they didn’t wander, they had a destination.

So do we. Ursula Le Guin wove through many of her stories a theme that speaks to our purpose. She imagined a man who grew up as a person of integrity, strong and intelligent, owning slaves, living in a culture that devalued women. When he is forced to live in a world where the slaves have been freed, where women have become equals, he hates it at first but then falls in love with a woman who teaches him how wonderful sharing with equals can be. He becomes her husband and love animates their life. Learning to love his neighbor, he has learned to love God. When he is near his end, he says, “I have given my love to what is worthy of love.”

The Unperishing Spring

Are you giving your love to what is worthy of love? This is the question of Jesus’ commandment. For surely the ultimate one worthy of love is God. Le Guin goes on to say that this is “the unperishing spring”: to give your love to what is worth of love.

Winter is coming; but so is spring. Good Friday is coming, but so is Easter. Faith is not hoping for some particular election result; faith is giving your love to what is worth of love, faith is loving God with all your heart and mind and soul until finally, in God’s time, you too can say, “I have been to the mountain top.” Faith is what leads to hope and hope leads to the unperishing spring.

Walk on, Love on

I remember the hope of 1969 and how it was dashed in later events. I remember the hope of other times and how they sometimes didn’t come true. But I don’t remember the unperishing spring; I’m living for it, I’m grateful for it, because I have seen the glory of the Lord and I know that no matter how great the armies of the night, God is more powerful; no matter how many times winters comes, there is an unperishing spring. Just wait, just walk on, just love and you will live in the unperishing spring.

Amen.

Living Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

20th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 18, 2011

Matthew 22:15- 22

Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=470022615

What’s yours? What’s mine? As far back as we historians and archaeologists can peer, people have argued about this. In the Ten Commandments, we’re told not to steal things and not to covet something that belongs to someone else. Torah, the original law for God’s people, contains endless specific rules about ownership. Some historians believe writing originated as accounting for stored grain, a way to keep straight what belonged to who. But what’s yours and what’s mine takes on an even greater importance when we ask the fundamental question: what’s God’s?

The Real Issue

That’s the issue Jesus raises in the story we read today. The issue is very partisan, very political and some enemies are hoping to trap him, the way politicians do to each other. What’s gone on in their country in the last few years has caused division, hatred and even violence. Years before, the Romans had taken over Judea and installed Herod as King. He was widely hated and depended on Roman support just to stay alive, let alone in power. The Romans had introduced a head tax, called a census. But this census wasn’t like the counting we do, it was a tax on every person. In just a few weeks when we read the story of Jesus’ birth, we’ll hear about this tax again because it was precisely to be counted for the tax that Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem.  The tax had to be paid in a Roman coin called a denarius. A denarius was worth about a day’s pay and it had an image of the emperor on one side and an inscription saying he was divine on the other. 

For a people whose deepest heartfelt religious expression was the Shema Yisrael, the prayer that says, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, and who believed there were no other Gods and who further had been explicitly told in the commandments not to make images—well, it was unthinkable to have such a coin. So there was division: the Zealots who refused to pay, the establishment who wanted to overlook the religious issues and pay up, the Pharisees who were in between. 

Now they set a trap for Jesus by asking a question with no obvious easy answer. “Tell us, is it lawful to pay this tax?” If he says, “No!”—he will be arrested, branded an outlaw, though a popular one; no one likes taxes and this tax was particularly hated. It’s the answer his followers want to hear, it’s the answer the crowd hopes to hear. But in giving the answer he will convict himself. If he says, “Yes,” he will be seen as a coward who compromises with power, afraid of the Romans, and he will lose the faith of his followers. “Just another appeaser,” they’ll say. 

Now there is quiet as the question hangs in the air and then, his answer, which obviously surprises  them: “Show me the coin”. He’s caught them at their own game—because they produce the coin, showing they have already violated Torah, just by having such an image. Now he takes the coin, looks at it, perhaps turns it over and looks up, asking, “Whose image is on the coin?”—everyone knows the answer: Caesar. And finally: his answer: “Then give Caesar what is Caesar’s—and render to God, what is God’s.” 

We Belong to God

What’s yours? What’s God’s? We bear God’s image—we belong to God: that’s the view of the whole Bible. One of the Psalms says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” [Psalm 24:1]. At the other end of the Bible, when Paul writes to Philemon and asks Philemon for a favor, he points out that Philemon owes his various life to the same God Paul represents. So the question of what is yours has a surprising answer: what is yours is yours as a steward for God since you yourself, each one of us, belongs to God. We are God’s living treasure. What’s God’s?—we are, every single one of us.

What’s Caesar’s? We don’t live alone, we live in a community and we need its assets. Water, power, sewer: our lives together are unthinkable here without them. Many of you know Jacquelyn and I have a sailboat and we sometimes cruise on it. When you live and sleep on a boat for days at a time, you learn just how many services you take for granted. Power?—it comes through a wire from a battery, and if you don’t charge it, there isn’t any. Water?—it comes from a tank that has to be filled periodically. Sewer?—well, yes there is that and we’d probably rather not think about it. 

What’s Caesar’s?

Taxes have become a partisan issue, with one party endlessly claiming to want to lower them, one wanting to provide better services which may cost more. Surely we owe something to our community. All the things we use, all the things we need, don’t magically appear, they are bought and through our taxes we buy them. We forget that often and take those things for granted. We’re like the waiter a friend talked to once in the south. She’d never had grits but of course in the south, grits just come with breakfast. So she asked the waiter, “What exactly ARE grits?” He looked at her as if she was crazy and replied, “Well, ma’am, grits is grits.” Trying to make herself clear, she pushed on: “Well, where do grits come from?” He thought for a moment and then said, “They come from the kitchen.”  Of course, grits, like everything else, do not magically appear in the kitchen. Everything comes from somewhere and everything from your the water you drink to the light you turn on depends on a whole community sharing the cost together through their taxes. 

Politics is  the name for how we make decisions about how to balance community needs with individual payments. “No politics in the church!, is a tradition here. But historically, Congregationalists have been deeply invested in politics. Some of the first Congregationalists were imprisoned because the idea of a covenant community where people voted threatened England’s monarchy. Later, another generation of Congregationalists and Puritans led a civil war in England that ended with the execution of the king. Congregational Churches in New England were a school for civic participation and the tradition of a town meeting comes from Church Annual Meetings like the one we’ll hold today. Later, following the lead of the Society of Friends, Congregationalists became heavily involved in the movement to abolish slavery, one reason you’ll find few of our church in the south.

Politics!

So trying to avoid politics, most preachers veer off at this point and focus on what we owe God. But it’s fair to ask here: what do we owe Caesar? What do we owe our community? Notice how Jesus connects what we owe our community—what is Caesar’s—to what we owe God. “Give Caesar, give God what is God’s.” Now the Psalms and the Torah are clear: the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. We are made in the image of God, we are God’s and from the beginning, Genesis says, we were given a mission of caring for creation, including our community. In fact, we are the point at which earthly things like empire and nature meet God. We are the bearing on which the two mate and rub against each other. Our task then, is to take to God the needs of creation and bring to our community God’s Word.

Bringing Our Community to God

We bring our community to God through prayer. So many of us have experienced recently the bitter divisions of a politics driven by a secular push for power. I wonder how things would be different if instead of scoring points, we offered prayers. I wonder how things would change if instead of shouting insults we said a prayer. Of course, a prayer isn’t just words. If you pray for the terrible pandemic to stop, wearing a mask, staying apart, are ways of making your prayer concrete. If you pray for someone insulting you instead of conjuring a better insult, you can’t post your response on Facebook or Twitter. It takes faith to pray and the results aren’t always evident; faith is not faith that demands immediate visibility.

We bring God to our community through our lives, through living in the light of the Gospel. That means sharing ourselves in the community. Voting, for sure; after all, what is a vote except you sharing your best thought toward the advancement of our whole community. Demonstrating the mind of Christ, as we’ve been talking about, living in a humility that listens to others, values others, and refuses to let the world’s boundaries keep love from spreading. 

“Give Caesar what is Caesar’s and God what is God’s”—  that’s what Jesus said to the Pharisees and the disciples and it’s what he says to us today. We are God’s living treasure. If we bring our community in faithful prayer, the whole testimony of the gospel is that God will hear and heal. If we will faithfully, prayerfully, hopefully give God what is God’s, God will work with it like a baker making bread; that God’s spirit will come into it like yeast and raise it up until all God’s children are fed and realize the wonderful love of God. 

Amen.

What Are You Wearing?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor * © 2020 All Rights Reserved

19th Sunday After Pentecost * October 11, 2020

Philippians 4:1–9Matthew 22:1–14

“Saturday I have to take Lucy for her rabbi shot.” It was a simple text from Jacquelyn; most of you know Lucy is our little seven pound endlessly barking dog. What you may not know is that our best friends in Albany beyond the church are our neighbors who are Orthodox Jews. So we hear a bit about rabbis and we’re very conscious about Saturday being their sabbath. But why would Lucy need a shot to protect against a rabbi? I looked at the text again and then it hit me: the demonic spell checker had hit again and converted ‘rabies’ to ‘rabbi’. I laughed, I laughed and laughed again. The spell checker failed but in failing made me laugh. We are a society frantic to succeed; what if going forward means failing? 

Wrong Shirt, Wrong Time

Today’s gospel reading contains two parables. One is about a great banquet; that occurs in a slightly different form in the Gospel of Luke as well. The other is this strange, last part about the a guest at a wedding who gets thrown out, all the way out, into the outer darkness, because they wore the wrong thing. I guess we all wear the wrong thing sometimes. One day, I put on a nice shirt with pink stripes only to have Jacquelyn take one look, make the face, the one that says,  “Oh no!” and inform me that it was a spring shirt. I didn’t know shirts had seasons. So I had to find one what went with fall for reasons I didn’t understand and put that on.

This unfortunate guest has made the same mistake: he’s mistaken the time. Clothing rules are really about showing respect, a way of acting by wearing. When my daughter Amy was married, I did what ministers do: I wore a suit. Jacquelyn had many things to navigate: what was the mother of the bride wearing? what were the bridesmaids wearing? Would it be hot or cold? Did it call for heels? Coming up with the right outfit wasn’t as much about style as about showing respect to her new stepdaughter and the rest of the family.

The issue here isn’t style, it’s whether we are responding to God’s call in Christ. Clothing is a symbol for who you are and who you are following. Paul knows this. In a culture where the symbol of power was the armored Roman soldier, he says to Christians, “…be strong in the Lord and in God’s mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. [Ephesians 2:10f]” The guest with the wrong garment failed to grasp the moment; he failed to honor the king. The punishment is to be left out of the kingdom, for the kingdom is the place of light; the outer darkness mentioned is its opposite. 

Are You Ready for the King?

So the critical issue here is this: are you ready for the king? The best way to understand this story is to look at the context. If we look a little farther back, we find that Jesus tells a series of three parables about people who miss out on the kingdom. We read one two weeks ago: a man tells two sons to go work in the vineyard; one replies, “I go!” but doesn’t, one replies, “I will not,” but goes. “Which did the will of the father?,” Jesus asks. 

The second is also about a vineyard. A householder plants a vineyard and then lets it out to tenants. At harvest, the tenants beat his servants and kill one. He sends more servants; same result. Finally, he sends his son; they cast him out of the vineyard and kill him. What will the owner do when he comes? The answer is obvious and the disaster that befalls the tenants comes from their failure to remember the vineyard doesn’t belong to them. 

Finally, we have the parable of the great supper, in this version is a marriage feast. Once again, this is a story where someone loses out because they don’t grasp the moment. That’s a common thread in these stories. The son who doesn’t go into the vineyard, the vineyard workers who kill the owner’s son, the guests who don’t come to the feast are images of people who should have known better and didn’t. They are images about Israel’s spiritual life; the vineyard is an ancient image for God’s people. The stories take place in a setting of conflict with religious leaders and just before the parable of the great supper, we read that the Pharisees and Chief Priests knew he was speaking about them and are plotting to arrest Jesus.

The structure of this parable is simple. A king invites several subjects to a wedding feast; each refuses, giving as a reason some concern of his own. In response, the king wipes out the things they thought were important and, left with an empty banquet hall, invites strangers instead. The feast goes on but those first invited aren’t present. They weren’t ready for the king and their failure destroys them. 

Two stories of failure; two stories of rejection: that’s a lot for a Sunday morning! What is Jesus saying? What can we learn about following him from these failures? Perhaps the most important thing is the urgency of now.

The Urgent Now

A wedding is a unique moment. That’s what the invited guests miss. “…they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business,” [Matthew 22:5] They missed this most important part of the invitation: “Everything is ready.” 

From the beginning, Jesus has been saying the same thing. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus begins to work when John is arrested and he begins to preach with this simple message: “Repent, for the kingdom of God heaven is at hand.” [Matthew 4:17] He lifts up the tradition of God’s people; he talks about the future of God’s people. But he begins with the urgent now: “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”—right here, right now.

“Now is the time,” was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite phrase. The gospels’s give us two patterns of calls to discipleship. The first is the call of Peter and Andrew. In their case, the signature is the immediate response: “He said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Immediately they left their nets and followed him.’” The same pattern is repeated with John and James. They’re mending nets, working with their father when Jesus comes to them and Matthew tells us, “Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him.” [Matthew 4:20–22] But later, when a scribe offers to follow him, he’s discouraged when Jesus tells him that foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Another follower who wants to wait to begin following him while he buries his father is told to leave the dead to bury their own dead.

“Now is the time.” The great irony in the story is the violence. Those invited were concerned about their farms and businesses; the king destroys them both. What they thought was so important is gone. What now? What will they do now? 

This is a parable for this moment. How often were we told that we lived in the most advanced country in the world? When the pandemic first began, it was easy for many to believe the promises of leaders that we had nothing to worry about. After all, we had resources, we had the Center for Disease Control, the CDC, why worry, why wear a mask or close a business or stay home? We missed the urgency of the moment and just as in this story, disaster has resulted.

“Now is the time.” Jesus preaches the urgency of now: the kingdom is at hand. It’s not tomorrow, it’s not yesterday, it’s right now, right here. What are we going to do? 

Living from the Mind of Christ Now

That’s the question each day: what are we going to do now? what are we going to do today? It’s certainly the question Paul presses on the church in Philippi. In the part we read this morning, he gets personal. 

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life

Philippians 4:1–3

The church is divided; these two women lead factions. You know how strong feelings must be running for it to threaten the life of the church. It’s easy to love your enemy as long as your enemy is abstract; when it’s that annoying Syntyche, when it’s that awful Euodia, it’s harder, isn’t it? I’ve always thought there was great insight in Jesus’ command to love your neighbor. The world is easy to love; a neighbor, someone close by is harder.

So we’re back to what we talked about two weeks ago, also from this letter to the Philippians: have this mind among yourselves that was the mind of Christ. Except now it’s focused, now it’s harder because now it’s now. Now is the time: now is the time we’re called to live from the mind of Christ. We’ve talked about how humility can lead us to this; Paul says, 

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.”

Now he offers a standard:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

It’s hard to fight a church fight when you are thinking about things that are honorable, just, pure, commendable. It’s hard to rant in your head about someone and think about what is pleasing, worth of praise and so on. Everyone who hikes learns to watch for trail markers; everyone who drives watches the signs. These are signs of the mind of Christ and if they aren’t part of your journey, it’s time to stop now, and do exactly what Jesus said: repent—for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom is right here, right now, and if you aren’t living from the mind of Christ, you’re wearing the wrong outfit. 

What Are You Wearing?

This is finally the message of these parables: following Christ is a series of moments, not a one time commitment that needs no follow up. Now is the time—each day, each moment, each interaction. Now is the time to put on Christ; now is the moment to live from the mind of Christ. Today is the day we’re invited to the kingdom. What are you wearing?

Amen.

Who’s There?

World Communion Sunday

18th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 4, 2020

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Psalm 19 • Philippians 3:4-14 

You’re in the house; you hear a noise. You listen: silence, broken by the question, “Who’s there?” That’s common at our house. It’s two stories, three with the basement. If someone comes in and you’re upstairs, if someone is doing laundry in the basement, and you didn’t know anyone else was home, you call out, “Who’s there?” 

That question is a fundamental one, isn’t it? We’re social creatures; we may like some time to ourselves but we all want eventually to know someone else is there, that we’re with someone else. So we fling out this question to the universe, to creation: “Who’s there?”

“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” Psalm 19 declares, “the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge.” This is the great poetic imagining of creation’s conversation. The subject is the glory of God; the audience is everyone listening. Are you listening? Who’s there?, we ask and creation flings back this answer: “The heavens are telling the glory of God.” Listen up. 

Surely we don’t listen to this conversation nearly enough. In worship, in work, we focus on ourselves: what are we going to do, what should we do. But listen to God’s Word closely and there are an amazing amount of words that have nothing to do with us, they are about creation itself. Genesis begins with light and dark, land and sea, and only at the end comes to human beings, almost as an afterthought. When God decides to start over, the means is a flood, a literal undoing of the ordering of the waters from which creation proceeded and human beings are saved so they can save the animal kingdom. When God intervenes in history in the Hebrew scriptures, again and again it’s through great natural, creation centered events: a reversal of waters that lets the people of God escape their oppressors, a drought that brings forward a prophet. Who’s there?—the heavens are telling the glory of God and all we have to do is listen to hear the answer.

“Who’s there?” We’re social creatures, we need each other, so we create communities.  

when Sociologist Margeret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. She reversed the question back to her students. They offered examples of when humans formed tools like shovels, fish hooks, cookware, and grinding stones.

She listened patiently and then said, “These were important advancements, but they do not speak to civilization, our ability to live together in authentic community.”

She went on to say that she considered the first signs of civilization in an ancient culture to be a femur (thighbone) that had broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal world if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger. You can’t find food. You can’t access water. You become the prey. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed suggests that someone has taken the time to stay with the fallen one, has bound and treated the wound, has carried that person to safety, and has cared for that person during recovery.

Healing someone through difficulty is the beginning of a civilized culture. It means someone was there, someone helped.

Healing communities is one answer; another is teams. By teams, I mean all those groups who identify together. I’m from Michigan and the two most important teams among Michigan colleges are Michigan State, whose team colors are green and white, and the University of Michigan, blue and gold. Years ago, Jacquelyn bought me a lovely winter coat. It was warm, had lots of pockets, fit perfectly but there was just one thing: it was blue with gold accents. I went to Michigan State. I can’t wear blue and gold. Of course, I did wear it for years; we were in Connecticut, it was safe, no one knew about the teams. But sure enough, when we moved to Michigan, as soon as it got cold and I put on my winter coat, someone asked me what I was doing wearing blue and gold. Wrong team, wrong colors. I had to wear something else.

Paul is telling us his team in this part of the Philippians. His terms may be just as obscure as green and white, blue and gold, to someone out of Michigan but the people there would have understood him. Listen to what he says.

  1. circumcised on the eighth day, – he had a bris,
    the signature ritual of inclusion for Jewish men
  2. a member of the people of Israel – this is his nationality
  3. of the tribe of Benjamin – this is his tribe, like saying he’s a New Yorker. Benjamin is one of the two tribes that formed the Jewish nation.
  4. a Hebrew born of Hebrews – he’s not a convert, he’s second generation
  5. as to the law, a Pharisee – this is a religious tribe within Judaism,
    it’s like saying he’s an evangelical 
  6. as to zeal, a persecutor of the church – Paul started out as a district attorney, prosecuting Christians
  7. as to righteousness under the law, blameless – no sins on his permanent record

Seven signs to draw his identity. Paul is speaking to a church that divided into tribes. Some follow one person, some another. Possibly some grew up Jewish; some grew up Gentile. Some are Greek, some are from other places.  

He’s giving his resume, his tribe. Haven’t we all done this? “Where are you from?” “I went to school at Harvard”, “We’ve been going to this church over 50 years”, and so on and so on. Paul is a remarkable man. It’s an amazing list, really, someone everyone would respect and admire.

So his next statement is shocking: 

Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.

Wow: all rubbish, his pedigree, his upbringing, he degrees, his accomplishments, his membership and position in the religious world. It’s all something to throw away.—t’s all rubbish.

Now we’re met on World Communion Sunday, a celebration that began as a reaction to Christian tribalism. For centuries, Christians divided up over all kinds of issues: power, liturgy, what kind of instruments to use in worship, what kind of clothing clergy should wear, whether there should be clergy, what kind of furniture to have in the church, who could be a church member, race, gender, who people love. You name it, Christians have divided over it. Most of this has nothing to do with Jesus Christ; most of it makes as much difference as whether your hat is green and white or blue and gold. This is the testimony of the Bible: it’s rubbish. What’s important is being found in Christ, living from the mind of Christ, loving in the name of Christ. That’s what Paul means by “gaining Christ”. He means making Christ more important than all the rubbish, more important than your tribe, more important even than you.

We haven’t always done that. Fred Craddock talks about his first church, a little church in a rural area. When a highway was built nearby, a trailer park sprung up for the workers and their families. He was a young minister and I guess he didn’t understand about tribes because he suggested to his deacons that they should do something to invite those people. After he pushed on the issue, the church met to discuss it. They voted on it, they voted to require that anyone own property in the county before they became a member of the church. Craddock moved on. Many years later, after he retired, he was in the area and he went looking for that church. He found it and the parking lot was full, there was a neon sign and a crowd of people. The church had closed long before; it was a barbecue restaurant. I guess the owners didn’t care who bought from them, what tribe they belonged to.

Communion reminds us of this one fact: Jesus Christ loved so much he suffered betrayal and crucifixion to inspire love in others. He didn’t care about their tribe; he didn’t care about their hat color. He didn’t care what kind of furniture they used; he didn’t care whether they had a degree or not or whether they were Jews or Gentiles or men or women. He just cared for them. When we receive communion, we’re trading our hats for his cross. “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” Paul says. Can we say it with him? Can we live it with him?

There’s nothing wrong with being part of a tribe. I’m a Congregationalist; I love our traditions, our history, our way of worship. But it’s not Christ. It’s like my hat. Do you have a favorite hat? I do—or I should say, I did. Last summer was sailing one day, I looked up as the wind gusted and my hat flew off my head, into Curtis Bay. I tried to do hat overboard but no luck; it was gone. I was a little sad for a moment but then—it’s just a hat. And the wind was fine and the water was beautiful. The heavens were telling the glory of God. That’s what was important: hearing that, feeling it.  

Who’s there? You are—I am—Christ is. Together we are meant to be that healing community that Jesus preached and Mead mentioned,. Today is World Communion Sunday. Today we listen to the world saying, “Who’s there?” Today we forget our tribes, today we remember our furniture and our differences are rubbish next to the surpassing value of being found in Jesus Christ. Today we lift him up, his cross, his life, his invitation to us to live in the community of the kingdom of God where when we ask, “Who’s there?” He answers: I am. 

Amen.

What’s On Your Mind?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 27, 2020

Philippians 2:1-13

What’s on your mind? Without being able to go around and ask each person, I have to guess and my guess this morning is that health is on the mind of many. This week our country passed the 200,000 deaths mark from the pandemic. The upcoming election is on the mind of many, I’m sure, and so this the sadness of the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose life lightened and liberated so many. Maybe individual things are on your mind: something hurts or you’re worried about catching Covid-19 or there’s a nagging problem in your life.

Asking, “What’s on your mind?”, is a little like going up to the attic isn’t it? At least at our house, the attic is full of stuff we didn’t know what to do with, so we stuck it up there. Go up to the attic and you quickly get overwhelmed by different things; I usually just end up going back downstairs. Come downstairs with me and let’s ask another question: what’s on the Apostle Paul’s mind and how can it help us?

What’s on Paul’s mind, when he writes to the Philippian Christians, is the future of the church  They’re going through a tough time. The local authorities have been persecuting them; Paul himself has been beaten by the police and jailed. So have some of the others. What makes it even worse is that their church is divided between two groups. What’s on Paul’s mind is division and conflict; doesn’t that sound familiar? That’s on the minds of a lot of us as well.

He starts out with one of the longest sentences in the whole New Testament and it’s hard to get it all when it’s read once. He asks four questions: if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any incentive of love, if there is any participation in the Spirit, if there is any affection and sympathy. Notice how these link love and spiritual life: encouragement in Christ is connected to love, participation in the Spirit is linked to affection and sympathy. Love is the mission. Sometimes we get so involved with what we are doing that we forget what we are trying to do. When I go out, I have to find my keys, find my wallet, find my glasses, find my mask. It’s easy in all that to forget I was going out on an errand. In church life, we sometimes get so involved with the details, we forget the mission is God’s love expressed through us. 

Paul doesn’t want anyone to forget what they are trying to do, the mission they’re on. Spiritual life is a rhythm of feeling and acting. He goes on to make this point by embodying these things with a ringing call to action: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than yourself.” [Philippians 2:3] Spiritual life for a Christian always has a “Do” attached to it, it’s always a motivation that leads to action.  

But we can only act from what’s on our mind. So he comes back to that explicitly: “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 2:5] What Paul is saying is that we are meant to live from the mind of Christ. 

What’s on your mind? What’s on the mind of Christ? What’s on your mind when you think with the mind of Christ? He’s already given us a suggestion about this and now he makes it explicit by quoting what many believe was a Christian hymn:

Christ Jesus, Though he was in the form of God,
Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant
Being born in the likeness of humanity
And being found in human form
He humbled himself
And became obedient unto death
Even death on a cross

Philippians 2:5-8

This is the mind of Christ: instead of grasping for greatness, helping with humility, healing with humility. To think with the mind of Christ means to live in a hopeful humility.

This is hard, isn’t it? Because what’s on our mind is often little details. Fred Craddock, one of the most widely known preachers of my lifetime, was baptized in a Baptist church, where you don’t just get a couple drops of water, you get completely dunked. He says,

When I was baptized, I was fourteen years old. I know the minister was saying a lot of wonderful things about being buried with Christ and all —I’m sure he was; he was a good minister. But I was just thinking, Do I hold the handkerchief? Does he hold the handkerchief? Uh, I wonder if it’s cold…and I bet it’s deep too.

Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 30

So here we are, hearing about the mind of Christ—but wondering if it’s going to be cold or deep or what they have to eat at coffee hour and when the preacher will be done.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” That’s the mind of Christ, that’s not how we think. We grasp for more. We think if we just had the resources, which is to say enough power, we could do a lot of good. A friend of mine, one of the most genuinely loving and Christian men I’ve ever known, used to be in charge of helping churches and ministers find each other. He’s a bedrock Congregationalist. He really believes the best way to be a church is by having all the members involved and voting on important things. One day he got so frustrated with the petty, dumb things churches do in the search and call process, he yelled, “I want to be a bishop!”

I know that feeling, I’ve had it. Sometimes, I let myself have a little daydream about starting up a church, a church where there are no Boards or committees, where I can just do everything right because I know what’s right better than they do. The church of Jim: what do you think? Oh, wait: I’m a minister of the church of Christ. Any time one of us stops trying to run things and listens to all the others, we have the mind of Christ.

In the church of Christ, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a church member, it matters whether you have the mind of Christ and the mind of Christ always thinks about others first. I used to be the pastor of a church that had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Sunday every year. We also had Sunday dinners once a month; we rotated with some other churches on where they were held. One year it was our turn to host on Thanksgiving Sunday. After a little arguing and fussing, we decided to go ahead and do it and just make more than usual. This was a church like this one, where we endlessly agonized about not having enough people. 

So the day came, the whole building smelled like turkey dinner and after worship we all went down to eat. A lot of our homeless and hungry guests came, so instead of the 30 or so church folks, we had over 200. It was a crowd and bless their hearts, our church folks thought with the mind of Christ and let those people go first. That meant the last church folks, a group of long time members, senior ladies, didn’t get any turkey. I found out and you know I didn’t much have the mind of Christ, I had the minister mind that thinks, “I’m going to be in trouble over this.” So I went to over to see them, and they were so much better than me. One of them said, “Well, we didn’t get any turkey but thank God there was plenty of potatoes.” She was thanking God for potatoes when I was worried about power. I think she had the mind of Christ.

In the church of Christ, it doesn’t matter how powerful and important you are, it matters whether you can get down off your high horse and welcome a child. Years ago, it became a fad to have children’s sermons in church, mostly little object lessons. I wasn’t very good at it. But the church wanted something, so I started doing my version, which was to get down on the carpet with some kids and just ask, “Did anything special happen this week?” One Sunday I was going to be away and the church got a minister to preach who had a reputation for great children’s sermons. After I got back, he called me. He said he’d done what he usually does, gathered the children in the front pew but when he started the lesson, the kids interrupted. One said, “This isn’t how you do children’s time, you’re supposed to get down on the floor and ask us what happened this week.” He said he’d thought about that ever since, and wished he’d done that. And he asked me to thank the kids for preaching to him. 

Are you thinking with the mind of Christ? Are you putting others first? There is so much division in our country right now and it’s seeping over into churches. A friend of mine, another minister, who is an ardent liberal was afraid her politics was seeping into her preaching. So she decided to go back to a tradition and pray for the President every Sunday. The first Sunday, during the pastoral prayer, she said, “Let us pray for our President, Donald J. Trump.” She got two calls that week: one complaining that she had prayed for President Trump at all, one complaining because they were a Trump supporters and they thought she was being praying for him as an anti-Trump message. I guess they were thinking with their political minds.

What’s on your mind? What are you thinking? Paul was thinking about division in that church in Philippi and his solution was simple: division comes when we let our own minds take charge; unity comes from thinking with the mind of Christ. That’s still true today. 

Are you thinking with the mind of Christ? A couple weeks ago, we read a parable about a guy who received forgiveness and lost it when he didn’t practice forgiveness. I said then that forgiveness was the way to deal with our past, to stop letting our past be a burden. Last week, we read a parable about some workers who grumbled and didn’t get to laugh when they got paid and I said then that gratitude was the way to deal with our present, finding something to appreciate and thank God for in each day. Now we have this letter from Paul to Christians just like us, people with a lot on their mind and he wants to help them face the future. How do you face the future as follower of Christ? You think with the mind of Christ, you live from the mind of Christ, you act from the mind of Christ. 

What’s on your mind? “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” God is at work in us, God is at work in you and me. We may not know it; we may not see it. Earlier, I mentioned the story of Fred Craddock’s baptism and what was on his mind while it took place. But you know, that fourteen year old boy grew up to be a man who inspired thousands, who helped so many find the forgiving, grateful spirit Christ invites us to share. He did it because he learned to think with the mind of Christ. What will we do when we let the mind of Christ control us?

Amen.