Homeward Bound

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ of Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 16, 2024

Mark 3:20-35

Every journey has a moment when it turns back toward home. If the journey is fun and exciting, it may be a moment of disappointment; if the journey has been difficult and included missed loved ones, it can be hopeful and inspiring. There’s a Simon and Garfunkel song called home-ward bound that describes this feeling. And I wonder if that’s how Jesus felt at the beginning of the story we read today in Mark. As I said last week, one of the most important words for Mark is “Immediately!” That’s how the first few chapters run. Jesus is baptized, goes out into the wilderness, John his arrested and Jesus comes back to Galilee, preaching “The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news.” He calls some disciples; others also follow him. He heals, he casts out demons, and he does something shocking for the time: he eats with sinners. Sinners is a big class: it includes Gentiles and people who don’t follow Torah and women. His practice of an open, forgiving, healing community shocks some; already he’s attracting opposition as well as people who believe in him and his message. 

“Then he went home, and the crowd came together again, so they could not even eat.” That’s how today’s text begins. Jesus has come home and the whole passage takes place right there, in the place where he started. It’s a small place: some estimates put the population of Nazareth at about 400 people. Have you ever lived in a small town? Everyone knows everyone; everyone watches everyone else’s kids grow up. So they all knew Jesus, knew him from when he was just a little guy. He’s been out preaching and healing and exorcising, but now he’s come home and I wonder what they thought. I used to live in a small town in northwestern Michigan, About 800 people lived there but in the summer there was an art festival that drew thousands. So when it says that the crowd was so big they couldn’t eat, I know just what that means. That’s the setting for this story: Jesus at home, crowds of people, lots of strangers, all in this little village.

Mark tells this story in a way that can be hard to understand. The beginning and end are about Jesus’ family, but in the middle there’s a different story about the scribes from Jerusalem. I want to talk about the scribes first, but it’s important to remember that this whole story is set off by Jesus’ family coming to restrain him because they think he’s acting crazy. So: crazy Jesus and the Jerusalem scribes.

Now, one thing I know about small towns is that they tend to be suspicious of the bit city. Big city people dress differently, they talk differently. I imagine everyone knows the scribes are in town. The scribes have already discovered there’s no decent inn and the food isn’t what they’re used to and on the whole they’d just like to get back to their comfortable villas in Jerusalem. But they’re apparently on a mission. These guys are religious authorities, not clergy exactly but lawyers whose job it is to find out and determine what’s going on out there in Galilee. We read a story two weeks ago where already some people were grumbling that Jesus violated some of the religious rules. But he’s attracting crowds. The scribes have done some investigating, heard about the healings and the exorcisms, and they’ve formed an opinion. They don’t discount the miracles, but they explain them by saying, “He’s doing black magic by the power of Satan.” That’s another name for Beelzebub. Some call this figure the devil, there are lots of names but in essence what they mean is personified evil. 

It’s a reasonable argument. We know that many people, especially elderly people, are victimized today by scams. Those scams always start with, “Let me help you.” In effect, the Jerusalem scribes are saying, “Look, this Jesus is doing things for an evil purpose.” But Jesus’ reply is simple: if I was doing things for an evil purpose, the power of evil would be divided. But what I’m doing frees people, brings them home to God. The image of restraining a strong man—remember we started with Jesus’ family wanting to restrain him?—is especially striking. Jesus is breaking the power of evil so those excluded can come home to God. What he says about his ministry is that it’s the turning point: the kingdom is near, respond appropriately. 

Every great struggle has a turning point. Just a few days ago, we remembered the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the enormous battle when the Allies from all over the world gathered together and fought onto the beaches of Normandy. At the end of those June days, the battle against fascism and the Nazis wasn’t over, it wouldn’t be over for almost a year. Yet clear eyed observers could see: the victory was a matter of time. It was being won. Jesus’ earthly ministry is a decisive time in making a new way to come home to God. The war isn’t over on this day in Nazareth, but his ministry, his life, is the decisive battle. The language of the time calls being at home with God a kingdom. That’s language people in the first century understood. But many are now calling it instead a kin-dom, an understanding we are all children of God. Remember what we heard Paul say last week?— he no longer regards anyone from an earthly point of view. 

God is acting in Jesus, acting just as the prophet Jeremiah said, to create a new covenant, a new opening, a new way home to God. In the middle of this, Jesus says that all sins will be forgiven, except blaspheming the Holy Spirit. That verse has sparked all kinds of guilt and judgement. What is blaspheming? Another translation is ‘insulting”. What is insulting the Holy Spirit? The Spirit is the name for God acting in the world, so what Jesus seems to be saying is, if you don’t accept and believe in forgiveness, you can’t be forgiven.

The story doesn’t say what happened to the Jerusalem scribes. But it does bring us back to Jesus’ family: they’re standing outside the circle. Remember them? They came to restrain him for acting crazy. When he’s asked about them, he says simply, “Look, we are all family here.”

 Here are my mother and my brothers!
Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.

Apparently, his family does come to understand this. All the disciples desert him at the cross, but his mother is there, and his brother James becomes the leader of the Jerusalem church, the first congregation of his followers.

Jesus means to bring us to the kin-dom of God. Everyone is invited. Later, Paul will say, 

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. [Galatians 3:23]

So we know who is speaking the truth of Christ, those who bring all of us together. 

We haven’t always known this. Our history shows we’ve often given in to the world’s divisions. Jacquelyn can remember seeing water fountains marked “Colored” and “White” growing up in Texas. We all remember. Many in Congregational and UCC churches started preaching the full inclusion of gay and lesbian and transgender people and nine years ago our legal system caught up and allowed them to marry, something we celebrate during Pride Month. For years, we were told about all the awful things that would happen if gay folks married. Recently, a 20-year study of gay marriage found what many suspected all along: nothing bad has happened, it’s simply that many more people are now in loving, committed marriages.

Today is Father’s Day, an especially poignant day in our family. I don’t have any biological children. I always thought that meant I wasn’t a father. But along the way, I raised three children, my daughter Amy, my son Jason, my daughter May. It wasn’t always easy—on them or me! But we managed. They are legally what people call stepchildren. But long ago we all dropped the step part because it didn’t describe how we loved each other. In our own little way, without thinking it through, just doing what seemed right, prompted by the Holy Spirit, we learned to love each other. We stopped making decisions. In effect, we said, “Who are my parents? Who are my children? Who is my family?”—all of us who love each other. We learned to make a family; we learned it’s love that makes a family.

Jesus came proclaiming the kin-dom of God. Some couldn’t understand and thought he was crazy; some were inspired. Some insisted on all the usual divisions, gender, politics, class, race.
But Jesus came proclaiming the kin-dom of God: that all are God’s children. He’s still proclaiming it. All he asks is that we see each other as God sees us: as children of God. 


Ohh! Woo! Wow!

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ of Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor @ 2024

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 9, 2024

Mark 4:26-34

“A man went out to sow.” It’s simple, isn’t it? Up in Galilee, where Jesus is speaking, most of the people are farmers. I imagine, just like us, they all have their morning ritual. What’s yours? Three mornings a week my version of going to sow is to get up early, take my daughter to a coffee place called Lil Amps. I buy her a latte, or whatever she wants; I get black coffee. We sit and talk for five minute and then announces, “Well, it’s time.” I wish her a good day, remind her I love her, and she walks off to her office in downtown Harrisburg. I take my coffee and go home, read the news, read my email and look at the scripture for the week. Jesus asks us to imagine a farmer, a regular guy, starting out his day: “A man goes out to sow.” Nothing special, nothing momentous, nothing out of the ordinary. But remember what he says first: this is an image, a parable, of the most momentous thing of all, the kingdom of God. Want to see God present? Look here, watch: a man goes out to sow.

My dad grew up on a farm, so we always had a garden. Each person grew their own crop. My job was sweet corn, and he taught me to make a little mound of dirt, put some fertilizer in the middle, then poke five holes around the edges; each one got a kernel of corn. Maybe you have a garden, and you have your own way of sowing, so let’s be clear what happens when a man in Galilee goes out to sow. He doesn’t carefully put down each seed; he doesn’t plow first and sow in the furrows. Grain was sown by walking through the field with a bag on your hip, reaching in, taking a handful and scattering it over the field In another parable, Jesus describes this. It’s what we should imagine here. A man goes out to sow, scattering the precious grain this way and that. Maybe he’s a poor man, and he’s calculated just how much he can afford to take away from the family as seed; maybe he’s worried about the harvest, maybe he’s hopeful it will be a good year. This is the kingdom, and it begins with seeds that hold a secret.

Not knowing is hard for us, I think. I had a class in biology in high school. One of the projects was to grow beans. Beans are usually pretty easy to grow but in my case, I was assigned to grow them in what was a new way, called hydroponics. Hydroponics is growing in water with nutrients dissolved. So I set it all up in a long half-tube, seeds and water and nutrients. And I waited. I waited about two days. Then I got impatient; the people who had been given little cups of dirt were seeing tiny sprouts, but I wasn’t. So I pulled the seeds up just to check. No sprouts. A couple of days later, I did the same thing. I kept pulling them out and I never saw a single sprout. At the end of the project, everyone else had little bean plants; I had seeds that had gotten stinky and molded. The teacher asked if I had any idea what happened. I told him how I’d pulled them up every day and I still remember how his eyes got wide, and he said, “Jim, you can’t force it, you have to wait.” I flunked. That’s one reason I’m here today instead of doing biology.

A man goes out to sow, and then he does—nothing. This is the part that always gets me in trouble with gardeners. “What? What about weeding? What about fertilizing? What about all the hard work?” Sorry, I don’t know. I just know what Jesus said: he sleeps and rises, night and day; he waits. He just waits. He doesn’t pull up the plants like I did; he waits. And Jesus points this out: “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” There is a process, there is a creative, God given process and the best the sower can do is wait. Waiting is hard, isn’t it? I’ve been to hundreds of church conferences over the years, times when clergy gather along with active lay people and talk about their year in the church. There are stories of successful stewardship campaigns, programs that turned out great, and things to try. I have never been to a single conference in almost 50 years when someone said, “Oh, we slept and rose, slept and rose; we waited.” 

Mark’s gospel is the closest of all the gospels to Jesus, and it alternates between two times. One is “Immediately!” When Jesus is baptized, immediately, the spirit drives him into the wilderness. When he calls his disciples, immediately they respond. When he heals, immediately the person is whole. ‘Immediately’ occurs 28 times in this short gospel, more than in Matthew and Luke put together. The other time that happens over and over again is that Jesus tells his disciples not to talk about the amazing things they see, the healings, the time on the mountain when he shines with a heavenly glow. It isn’t time to tell these things. Just like the man who went out to sow, they have to wait; they have to sleep and rise and let the unseen work of the Spirit go on, trust that God is working. 

Of course, the parable tells us, eventually the harvest comes. No sleeping then! I’ve lived in a couple of rural communities, and harvest is a time when nothing else matters. You rush and work as late as there’s light because once the crop is ripe, you only have so much time to get it in. Then, like Jesus in Mark’s gospel, everything is “Immediately!” What does the man who went out to sow do when it’s harvest time? He puts in the sickle, in other words, he uses everything he has to harvest the crop that was sown. 

What is the kingdom like? It’s a harvest, but it’s also these other times: sowing and waiting as well.  And one of the most important questions to ask in a church is: what time is it? It’s a question our consistory ought to be asking, it’s a question for the search committee, it’s a question for all of us: what time is it here? Is it time for sowing? Is it time for waiting? Is it time for harvest? Because if we wait when it’s time for sowing, we’ll never get anywhere; if we try to harvest when it’s time for waiting, we just end up with moldy beans.

Perhaps this is what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthian Christians. He says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” That sounds like someone who understands the Spirit’s work is not always visible, like the sower who sleeps and rises while the earth produces of itself. And finally, he comes to the harvest moment.

5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
[ 2 Corinthians 5:16-17]

Wow! God isn’t just improving things, God is making a whole new creation!

Jesus doesn’t want us to miss that wow. So we have this other parable about a mustard seed. I used to think of this as a story about gradual growth, from little to big, but I’ve become convinced that it’s not about growth at all. It’s about wow. You know the wow moment? In a couple of weeks we’re going to celebrate the fourth of July and most places will have fireworks. We have a boat in a slip in Baltimore that’s just across a little water from Fort McHenry, where the “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” actually happened almost 210 years ago. Every year there’s the same conversation. A colored rocket shoots up giving off sparks and someone says “oooh!!!” And then another, sometimes bigger and there’s a “woooo” and finally at the end when all the rockets shoot off, someone will always say “wow!” 

Christ invites us to the same “oooh! Wooo! Wow!” With the story of the mustard seed. All over Galilee, mustard was a plant that grew wild in the ditches and along roads. Left alone, it spreads and grows up in the summer to big bushes. But this growth isn’t the point: the point is that looking at tiny mustard seeds, you’d never expect a big shrub. Look at Jesus: you’d never expect a resurrection. Look at us: you’d never expect a new creation. But there he is; here we are. The last part about the birds making nests isn’t just artistic license; it’s actually a reference to a story in the book of Daniel. The nesting birds are a symbol of God’s New Creation. They’re meant to make us go, “Wow!”

What does the kingdom of God look like? It looks like someone sowing, someone waiting, someone harvesting, each at the right time. What time is it here? 

What does the kingdom of God feel like? It feels like the unbelievable surprise of something tiny becoming the means of a whole new creation. Something small: like you, like me. 



Through the Looking Glass

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ,
Locust Grove, PA
by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024
Second Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 2, 2024
2 Corinthians 4:5-12, Mark 2:23-3:6

What’s right, what’s wrong? We all make these decisions every single day; how do we make them? How do we know what’s right, what’s wrong? Most of us come with menu choices: we’ve been taught what’s right, what’s wrong. But sometimes we don’t see that our ideas aren’t the whole picture. You came in here this morning, to this beautiful space, with pews, and you knew what to do. You sat down, probably where you always sit. You know how to use a church pew. But two thirds of the world doesn’t sit on chairs; they wouldn’t know what to do with a pew. If we went to their home, there wouldn’t be a chair, there would be cushions and if you’re like me, you’d face a dilemma: if I get down there, will I be able to get up? What’s right, what’s wrong? This story asks us to watch as Jesus handles just this question. Let’s see what we can learn.

Jesus has been teaching and healing, and he’s attracted a group of followers. Some of them are the ones we call the disciples, but we should always remember there was a larger group that followed Jesus: men, women, possibly children. As they walked through a field of grain on the way to worship, some of them did the most natural thing in the world: they stripped off the grain on the stalks. Mark doesn’t say they were eating it, but that’s how I imagine it. It’s like going to the grocery store when they have free samples. When they get to the synagogue, some Pharisees yell at Jesus: “Hey! How come your guys are violating the Sabbath?” There are a lot of rules about the sabbath, mostly trying to make sure God’s command to rest is observed. Some of them are obscure. Women, for example, aren’t allowed to look in a mirror because if they do, they might see a gray hair and pluck it out and picking is reaping and reaping is work. You see how this works: someone has taken God’s command and made up rules. The Pharisees are all about the rules. They aren’t bad guys; the rules are what they’re used to, how they make sense of the world. Sabbath is their identity, and they think Jesus is challenging it. 

On the face of it, this seems to be a story about Sabbath observance. Sabbath observance could be complex in Israel. There are over 600 rules in the Talmud interpreting the command to keep the sabbath holy. Those commandments had been amplified by countless specifics. The story itself is murky. It doesn’t explicitly say, for example, that the disciples were eating, so it’s not clear what the sabbath violation is here. And why were the Pharisees out there watching? Pharisees weren’t common in Galilee in this time. Were they following Jesus too? 

When Jesus replies, he misquotes a story about David but focuses on the real issue here. He says that the sabbath was made for people, not people for the sabbath. What’s important isn’t the details of being right; what’s important is the sabbath as an expression of God’s love for us.  Delmar Chilton is one of my favorite preachers, and he puts it this way.

…this text appears to be about Sabbath observance, but it’s really not. It’s about God’s love for humanity, about humanity’s habit of turning gifts into obligations, and about our oftentimes narrow-minded hardness of heart when it comes to loving others with the same kind of unconditional love with which God has loved us,

Delmar Chilton, Podcast for June 2, 2024

The Pharisees are busy catching rule breakers; God is busy breaking through the rules to love.

That’s not easy for us. Truth is, we like what we’re used to; we like the rules. I come from Congregational Churches; we’re not big on change. In one of my churches where we started to develop and had to change to serve new people, one of the long time members used to say angrily at Council meetings, “That’s just change for the sake of change,” as if this was the worst sin imaginable. But wherever Jesus goes, he brings God’s love and changes things. I like the story of Alice in Wonderland, do you know it? A girl named Alice goes through a looking glass and finds a world where everything is reversed. It’s a mirror image of our world and a reminder to me that what I think is normal is just what I’m used to, not necessarily the best way or even God’s way.

How do we let go of the rules and let God in to change things? We start by remembering what Paul says to the Corinthian Christians. They’ve been fighting over the rules, and he reminds them that they are not the source.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.

[2 Cor 4:5f] 

We are not the light: God’s love is the light. We’re meant to be the lamps from which that light shines.

This church has been here a long time. Many of you have been here as part of it a long time. Now it’s time for a new time; now it’s time for a transition to a future none of us can quite see yet. I’m excited to be along with you for this time, this journey. It’s like moving: the dust gets stirred up, there are things you like that have to be left behind, you have to buy a new couch and meet new neighbors. But I am convinced that if we remember that our rules, our familiar way of doing things are just ours, and that the real purpose here is to shine out the light of God’s love, and we pursue that purpose, God will, as God always does, do things we haven’t even imagined.

At the end of this story, Jesus is in the synagogue. There’s a man with a withered hand. It doesn’t say if he had been ill or injured, but I imagine him having dealt with this for a long time. He’s gone through life for a while without that hand. I imagine he’s learned to live with it. He doesn’t know Jesus, and he must have seen and heard the angry confrontation with the Pharisees. Still, he finds the courage to present himself to Jesus. Healing on the sabbath is tricky, sometimes prohibited, in some cases not. The text says the Pharisees were watching, just waiting for Jesus to make a mistake, waiting to see if he’d heal this man. 

But he doesn’t. Did you notice that? Jesus doesn’t heal the man; we’re simply told that he is healed. The man stretches out his hand. Think how hard that must have been. Imagine how he had for years concealed that hand, kept it tucked away. Now Jesus tells him to come forward, now Jesus tells him to put out the hand that’s been so much trouble. And he is healed. In other places, Jesus says that someone’s faith has made them well or healed them. Perhaps that’s what happens here: that act of faith, that willingness to change, leaves him healed.

The poet T. S. Eliot says in one place, 

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time

[T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, 1943.]

If we are ready to explore, at the end we will come back to the center, which is the presence of God known in Jesus Christ. If we are willing to let go of the rules and stretch out our souls like the man in the synagogue stretched out his hand, in faith, in hope, in love, there’s just no telling what God may do with us. 


Ready, Set, Go!

A Sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ

by Rev. James Eaton • © 2024 All Rights Reserved
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • February 4, 2024
Mark 1:29-39

Ready, set, go! It’s how children’s games often start: hide and seek for example. It’s also how races start. I was a track parent years ago: my older daughter ran sprints and relay races. Being a track parent means you sit in the stands on cold, rainy days, waiting, waiting until someone says, “Oh, Amy’s lining up,” and then you stop your conversation, look down and hear “Ready, set, go!” And watch for a minute or two while your kid and some others run around a track. It’s a rhythm of wait, wait, get ready and then an explosive start and rush to the finish. 

This image captures for me the Gospel of Mark. Especially here in this first chapter, Jesus seems to be on a race. Over and over, we hear the word, “Immediately!”. Jesus is baptized: immediately the Spirit throws him into the wilderness. Jesus invites people to become his disciples; immediately they follow him. Jesus preaches at a synagogue, defeats an evil spirit; immediately his fame spreads. It’s one thing after another and sometimes I read these stories and want to say to Mark, “Slow down! Let me ask some questions, like Pastor Sue did a couple weeks ago.” Jesus goes on: encounters a man with leprosy and immediately he was made clean and Jesus is off to other places.

The Urgency of Now

The urgency comes from the importance the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the urgency of now and said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” This is the time, Jesus says, right now, right here, the reign of God is happening. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Everyone hearing this story knows how it ends. “After John was arrested…”, Mark begins and we already know the destination is the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus himself. Mark is inviting us in between the arrest of John and the death of Jesus and there’s no time to waste. Immediately: get ready, get set, go. 

Last week we heard the story of Jesus casting out a demonic spirit. He’s been to the synagogue, he’s been to worship, just like we’re gathered here. In the midst of the service, someone possessed by a spirit caused a commotion and Jesus casts the spirit out. Now the service is over and they go out, across the street, to Peter’s house: “Immediately!” Now I suspect you’ve all had a preacher drop in so you know there’s a bit of preparation involved. In our house, it means cleaning and straightening and making sure there’s a bite to eat. If it’s Pastor Sue, it means having tea on. But here, Jesus and a bunch of his friends are coming over and the matriarch is sick; Peter’s mother in law has a fever,. Jesus goes to her and takes her by the hand. It’s easy to rush by this detail but it’s important. Good Jewish men don’t touch women in Jesus’ time. Women are in the background, working but not seen, certainly not touched. Yet when he encounters this woman he touches her, takes her by the hand, just like in the song Joe sang, “Precious Lord, take my hand…” and lifts her up. The word here for being lifted up is the same one translated elsewhere as ‘resurrection’. This is the first resurrection, this is the model for our call to grace, that Jesus lifts us up, raises us. Just as Paul says: “…if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” [Romans 6:8]

Call and Service

We’ve been talking about calling for a few weeks and I want to notice this woman’s call. It doesn’t look like what we’ve often been taught. This woman doesn’t comes to Jesus, he comes to her. The effect of being raised by Jesus is to make her well, to liberate her from the fever, just as the man with the demon was liberated. When God calls us, God makes us ready, gets us set. And finally, there is the “go!” Jesus raises the woman and she gets up and serves. Mark doesn’t tell us how she serves. Does she prepare a meal? Does she fix him a plate? Does she help him prepare sermons? We don’t know. We simply know she serves. The same word is used by Mark to describe the angels who care for Jesus in the wilderness. When we serve, we become then angels. 

The call of service can change the course of lives. Robert Coles is psychiatrist whose life has spanned an amazing group of people. His aunt was Anna Freud, he grew up during the depression and later in life he had the opportunity to interview and talk to a great number of people involved in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s.  He became fascinated with people who felt what he called “the call of service”: privileged college kids who went to poor people to teach children to read. One of those children later said this about the difference one of those teachers had on her own life.

He was a frail-looking Jewish kid with thick glasses, and at first I didn’t know what we’d even talk about. Bt I’ll tell you he saved me, that’s the word, saved. He was kind and thoughtful and he loved reading and he taught me to love reading. He was the one who said to me, “You can get out of all this, you can…” 

What that kid with the thick glasses did was simple: he healed her, he freed her, to hear her own call to service. She grew up, went to college and Harvard Law and then gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars so that she in turn could tutor children in Roxbury, a poor area of Boston.

Robert Coles, Call of Service, p. 176.

I hear this call to serve in my own life here with you. For most of the last 48 years, I’ve served as a pastor of a church. Then I retired and moved to Harrisburg and had to do something I’d only done once before in my whole life: find a church not as a prospective pastor but as a member. I wandered in here at Salem, thinking it would be one stop on a tour of local churches and you all said “Welcome! We hope you come back!” And I did. It wasn’t easy: I’ve had to learn a whole new set o skills. I’m used to preaching sermons, not listening to them. My wife likes decorating; she’s a flight attendant and in a different hotel room two or three nights a week. She imagines rearranging them. The same way, I automatically imagine rearranging the liturgy. It wasn’t easy to not be able to do that. It wasn’t easy to sit in a pew. But I knew I needed to find a place to serve and you gave me one. 

Your Own Call

What about you? What about me? What is your call? How does that call turn into serving? The story in Mark doesn’t stop with raising Peter’s mother-in-law. When the sabbath ends at sundown, people from all over town are brought to Jesus so he can heal them and liberate them from the things that are holding them back. That’s the meaning of healing, isn’t it? We focus on Jesus and the healing but we ought to notice the crowd that brings people: they also serve. This is the real church, this is who we are when we are truly servants of Jesus Christ. When someone asks me about Salem, the temptation is to describe the beautiful building or the wonderful organ. But that’s not Salem; that’s not the church. The real church is you and I serving together. The real church is you and I helping each other find our call, get ready, get set, and then going. It’s not always as immediate as Mark’s gospel would have it yet there is a faithfulness that lasts. When Jesus is on the cross, the disciples are all absent. It’s the women who are there, perhaps this very woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, serving to the end. Jesus raises her and she serves. This is our call as well: to serve with others, bringing those who need healing to Jesus. Ready, set, go: listen for the call, find the way you can serve.


Where To?

A sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ

Second Sunday in Lent/A • March 5, 2023

Genesis 12:1-4a • Psalm 121 •John 3:1-17 

The internet has discovered I’m retired. Every day, I get offers of how to make money in retirement, how to travel in retirement, how to deal with the stress of retirement. The best advice I’ve gotten is to try something new. I’ve decided to take up sewing. It might not seem like a predictable choice but it sounds better than driving for Uber and considering the cost of boat cushions, it would save me a lot of money to be able to make new ones myself. So I asked around among some friends who sew, looking for advice. The best advice of all was someone who said, “You’re going to make a lot of mistakes at first. Don’t worry. The thing about sewing is, you can always rip it out and start over.” I like that idea: starting over. Have you ever had to start over? 

Starting over is just what God is doing in the passage we read from Genesis. In the beginning, God created and the purpose was a mutually blessing community of appreciation. Everything was good; you’ve read it, you’ve heard this, God creates and it is good. But then human pride slips in and things go wrong and it ends up in violence and a complete mess. In just a few generations, we’re told, “…the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. [Gen 6:6]. So God starts over, gives Noah directions on how to build a boat, wipes the slate clean, sets a rainbow to mark the occasion. You’d think this time it would go better but it doesn’t. Years pass, people grow up, settle down, forget to give thanks and their pride gets working again, until they decide they can reach heaven on their own. They build a tower at Babel and it’s not good, not good at all. God scatters them and they end up speaking different languages. It’s a mess.

So God is starting over with Abram and, although she isn’t mentioned here, his wife Sarai. If you’re counting, this is the third time. God still has the same design, a community of mutual blessing and appreciation. It just hasn’t worked out. Creating wasn’t enough; the rainbow covenant wasn’t enough. So God decides to start out with just one couple, make them a family, and grow from there. 

The first thing God says is, “Go!” Now, if you’re like me, when someone says, “Go!”, I immediately ask, “Where to?” We have one of those cars now with a screen that displays a map. But to make it work right, you have to put in a place; the car wants to know where we’re going. The car wants a destination and it’s nice to know where to. Most weeks I drive Jacquelyn to the airport in Baltimore. I know how to get there, but I still put in the destination because it’s comforting to know how close to our destination we’re getting. But listen to what God says to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” [Gen 12:1a] This isn’t a destination that will work with the GPS. The GPS wants an address, a particular place, not just “somewhere” 

Notice also how God goes out of the way to emphasize the going. There’s a three-fold description of what going means: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house.” These are all the things that make life normal and comfortable for Abram. We all like the familiar. Look where you’re sitting; I bet you sat there the last time you were here. I sit over there about four rows back because it’s close to the front without being right in front and it’s easy to get in and out. Some Sundays I think, “Well, let’s sit over there by Bob,” but you know somehow I don’t. It’s not my place. 

It’s hard to leave the familiar isn’t it? Have you had to do that? When we moved to Harrisburg two years ago, we came from a home Jacquelyn had made a beacon of warmth and welcome, with great neighbors, a coffee shop I loved and a job I really liked. It was during the pandemic, so we couldn’t visit here much and get comfortable. We bought a house we saw mostly on phone video. We didn’t know anyone. We found the Wegmans out in Mechanicsburg somehow and for a while that was the only grocery store we knew about. Now Abram is being told Go from everything you’ve ever known, your country, your family, the house where you grew up and he never gets to ask, “Where to?”

If you’re like me, you’ve heard someone talk about how great Abram is because he has the faith to answer God’s call. But the more I thought about this passage this week, the more it occurred to me that it isn’t about Abram and his response—that comes later—it’s all about God and what God is doing. What God is doing is starting over to create that mutually blessing place creation was meant to be. Listen to what God says:

I will make of you a great nation, and
I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse;
and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

[Gen 12:2-3]

It’s all about what God is doing. It’s all blessing; even the part about cursing is really a kind of protection. It’s all “I” statements, it’s all promise, it’s all about God’s care and that care is for everyone: “…in you all the families the earth will be blessed.” This isn’t about Abram; this is about what God is doing for all of us, everyone, the whole world. 

Now, that’s great, hat’s wonderful, that’s something to celebrate. Except: it starts with that “Go”. And that’s hard for us, isn’t it? We like the familiar; we like what we know. I was the pastor of a church in New England for many years. The meeting house was built in 1848, it sat 300 on the main floor and still had the wrap around balcony called galleries; lots of space for the 25 of us who worshipped there. The pews were numbered because in the old days, people rented their pew. The galleries were originally for servants and children and poor people. They weren’t safe to go up in, but we kept them. We had a lot of furniture from the Victorian era and sometimes I liked to move it around, create a different space. One of the members would sneer about this with the ultimate New England condemnation: “This is change for the sake of change.” We still use that phrase in our family, it became our private joke. Jacquelyn likes to redecorate; I like things the way they are. Once in a while she improves something and I’ve been known to say, “This is just change for the sake of change.”

The problem is that God doesn’t deal in permanent places. The whole Bible story is about journeys, from Adam and Eve leaving the garden to Abram and Sarai leaving their home to Moses leading God’s people on the Exodus. God is constantly, restlessly, trying to move us toward the fulfillment of that vision of mutual blessing with which creation began. But we like where we are, we like what we know, we like what’s familiar.  

That’s the problem in the Gospel reading. Nicodemus is a settled man, a prominent man, a teacher of Israel. He’s courageous enough to come at night to Jesus, trying to figure out what Jesus is up to. But he can’t quite let go of what he thinks he knows, what’s familiar. So Jesus says, “You have to be born from above.” Now, we’ve translated that into “being born again”; we’ve made it about what we do, some phrase we say. That’s not what the text says. What Jesus seems to have in mind isn’t some action but starting over. And the purpose of that starting over? “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” [John 3:17] That’s not the verse that gets put on signs but that’s the real purpose here, the same purpose God has had from the beginning.

We’re all concerned about the future of churches today. I heard this week that in 2019, the last year for which numbers are available, about 4,500 churches closed. That’s before the pandemic with all its terrible effects. I’m convinced that a part of the reason is that we’ve become so comfortable, we’ve forgotten who we are meant to be, people who are starting over to realize God’s vision of justice and love in a community of mutual blessing and appreciation. We like our familiar places and we’ve made those our destination instead of embracing like, Abram, an unknown future whose hope isn’t its familiarity but God’s promise. We’ve learned to depend on our traditions instead of listening to Psalm 121. There, the psalmist looks to the hills, but says, “My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:2] 

My mother in law, Marylyn Welling, has gone home to God. When she was with us, she had a little saying we all teased her about. Whenever she went somewhere, on arrival, she would announce, as if in surprise, “Well, we’re here.” We will have found the right path, we will be following Jesus, we will be God’s people when we can embrace a journey to share God’s blessing and feel that in those changes, in those challenges, we’re here. We will get somewhere when the answer to the question, “Where to?” Is, “God knows.”


Rise, Shine, Give God Your Glory

A Sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ, Harrisburg, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, © 2023

Epiphany Sunday • January 8, 2023

Isaiah 60:1-6 • Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 • Ephesians 3:1-12 • Matthew 2:1-12

Rise, shine, give god your glory. I can’t help hearing the old camp song when I say this; do you know it? Rise, shine, give God your glory. Today is Epiphany Sunday here, two days after the actual day, January 6. Sometimes it’s called Three Kings day and in the rest of the world, it’s when gifts are given and the promise of Christmas celebrated. ‘Epiphany’ is a Greek word meaning manifestation. I said that once and after the service someone said: great you explained one word I didn’t understand with another I don’t get. It means seeing suddenly some flash of God’s presence. It’s as if the whole world is lit up, it’s like a dark night split by the instant flash of lightning. Epiphany is God’s light shining into the world and as John said, as we read in our call to worship, the darkness has not overcome it.

I grew up with the Three Kings: did you? My grandmother had a small nativity scene, little wooden figures like the ones we have here but much smaller. Every year we’d set it out on a low end table. When she wasn’t around, my brother and I would take the figures down and play with them. I liked making sailboats out of a pointy board and a dowel mast; Joseph and the shepherds became crew. Mary and the baby were passengers; the animals came on board too, like the ark. But the kings on their camels weren’t meant for shipboard life; they galloped on the shore. Originally they were joined by a chain but that got broken; so did one of the camel’s legs. We saw them as toys and didn’t understand when my grandmother got angry at us for playing with them. That’s what the Three Kings are for many of us event today: the last toys of Christmas. No other Christmas characters have had so many stories made up about them; no others are so richly embellished with fantasies and made up things nowhere in the Bible. Today, I want to put away the toys, stop playing with the figures, and see how this story in Matthew can help us rise, shine and give God the glory.

Who are the these three? They are Magi. The word gets translated “Wise Men”—although the text says nothing about gender—or ‘Kings”—although the Greek text doesn’t call them kings. In the area that’s now Iraq and Iran, schools of magicians and astrologers and dream interpreters existed for hundreds of years. They were called Magi, from the same root word that gives us ‘magic’. We have such people. They are the talking heads on TV, who guess about the future, they are the therapists who help you look forward, they are the people who magically make Alexa work for you. They aren’t kings, and sadly even the camels that were so much fun in the crèche aren’t in the story. There is  something else to understand about the Magi: they are rich Gentiles.

We’re all Gentiles, so we often miss how important this is. Yet in that time and place, no more fundamental distinction existed. So it’s surprising to see them here in this Jewish story. Matthew gives us a long, detailed genealogy of Jesus, connecting him with Abraham, detailing how he is descended from King David. Then he tells us about Joseph’s reaction to Mary’s pregnancy, and how it takes an angel visit to get the two together. Not a word from Mary but isn’t that just like a patriarchal culture to tell us about a birth by telling how hard it is for the father without mentioning the mom? After the story we read today, we hear about Herod’s slaughter of young male children which is so like Pharaoh in the time of Moses. When Herod dies, the whole family goes home to Nazareth and we pass to John the Baptist. These are all good Jewish stories and yet here, right here, smack in the middle, is this strange story of these rich Gentiles, the Magi.

They know what they are doing; they’ve seen a star, read the ancient Jewish prophecies, risen up from their daily lives and gone on a long journey. Now they’re near the end; they go to the Jewish king, supposing he will know what’s happening. Yet here is Herod and his advisors without a clue. Bethlehem is about five miles away but the Magi who have come over a thousand miles know more than Herod. They are the emblem of what the Apostle Paul will later call a mystery; that, “…the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” [Ephesians 3:6] No more fundamental distinctions exist in that time than Gentile and Jew, rich and poor. But here is God breaking boundaries, bringing rich Gentiles to poor peasants. 

Why are they here? To give gifts. The one part of the creche Magi that is in the story are the gifts. A lot of stories have been made up about the gifts but the truth is these gifts are the working tools of Magi. Incense is burned when mysterious things are done; myrrh is used for magical tattoos. And gold always comes in handy. The other thing in the real story which often isn’t in the creche is a star. To all who had to navigate before GPS and maps, stars were a real gift. Since ancient times, humans have used the stars to mark a path. The story tells us the Magi saw a star and it leads them to Mary, Joseph and Jesus; they give their gifts and then a dream tells them to go home a different way. No names, no genders, no kings; instead, a story of the gift of a star, the gifts to the child, the gift of direction. This is a story about gifts.

Gifts aren’t always easy. Sometimes we don’t recognize them. One father told this story about a special gift.

I was cleaning my 6y.o. son’s room, and doing my annual purge of crap he’s managed to hoard. I have this big pile of stuff to throw out in the living room, when he comes in, pulls some stupid paper butterfly out of the trash pile and tells me I can’t throw this away because it was a present.

He goes to a lot of birthday parties and gets a lot of goodie bags with this sort of thing, so I tell him it’s junk and it’s going in the trash. Besides, it’s all bent up and I tell him…that if he values things he should take care of them.

He leaves, and some 5 minutes later he returns, visibly distraught (he’s clearly been thinking hard about this). He says “It was a present…for you.”

“For father’s day.”

I swear at that moment I heard every angel in heaven slow clapping.

1 https://www.reddit.com/r/tifu/comments/4bpzmj/tifu_by_cleaning_my_sons_room/

What is a gift? Is it the stupid paper butterfly or is the butterfly a pedestal for the time and care given to make a connection with someone? We make up stories about these gifts when the truth is staring us in the face: God has given a gift of presence—the Magi rise up from their homes, go following the shining light of that gift before they even know where they’re going. And they give God not just gifts but their witness of God’s glory. Rise, shine, give God your glory.

Isn’t this what we mean to do every Sunday during the offering? Passing around plates is not an effective way to raise money. Someone has to hunt through her purse; someone else pulls out his wallet and considers which bill to give. I know personally, it’s the one check I write all month, all our bills are handled electronically. Sometimes I forget on my way out the door and then there’s nothing to put in the plate. All our pews are numbered and the reason is that once upon a time the church raised money less by passing a plate for a collection but more efficiently by renting our the pews. Anyone who knows about fundraising today would tell us to use email and a web service that does subscriptions so our offering is automatically deducted from our bank accounts just like Netflix. No, we don’t do the offering because it’s efficient, we do it to act out this mysterious thing: giving gifts.

Christmas is not about toys and the real Magi are not toys. They are an emblem and a guide to how we should react to God’s gift of presence in the world. That gift is for all people and it’s fitting that here in this story, in the midst of these Jewish stories, it’s Gentiles, not local leaders who recognize the gift and respond by bringing their own gifts. Rise, shine, give God your glory, indeed. That’s what they are doing: giving gifts that may be strange to us but are their stock in trade, giving what they use, giving what they have, giving who they are. For them the “Joy to the World” about which we sing has become real. And, as one writer said, 

…when joy to the world becomes real, it breaks chains, topples hierarchies, knocks over our carefully laid out game and says: Start over, start new, start now. This is the message of the story of the sages, this is the message of Christmas; joy to the world, the savior reigns. 

Diana Butler Yeats

Rise, shine, give God your glory. Isn’t your glory the gifts God has given you? Isn’t that what we are meant to be as a church?—people who give themselves, give their gifts, imitating God’s gift giving in Jesus Christ. When we do this, when we rise up and become part of that great giving, then indeed God’s presence shines, then we give God glory. And then, how wonderfully, then indeed: Joy to the world. 


Funeral Meditation for Harry W. Clark

by Rev. James Eaton

October 15,2022

Harry loved stories. So let’s hear a story. Jesus told this one, it’s in the Gospel of Mark.

> …“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 

– Mark 4:26-29

The Sermon of Harry’s Life

I wanted to read this scripture today not because I intend to preach a sermon but because I want to reflect on the sermon Harry preached with his life, a life that has so profoundly shaped my own. Because you have gathered here, many at some expense and traveling far, I know your life has also been affected by the sermon of Harry’s life. Usually we start with scripture and work toward the sermon; today we have the sermon, the life; what Word informs it? The Bible frequently uses images of growing to describe God’s purpose flowing in us. From Genesis, where we are told our purpose is to tend the garden of creation to Paul where we are encouraged to bear the fruits of the Spirit, it’s one lesson after another in agriculture. When I thought of how to speak about the sermon of Harry’s life, this parable surfaced because it combines the elements I see, I hear, I remember and will carry forward.

Someone sows a field. Jesus has already described the wild, hopeful sowing he means: seed scattered without plan, only hope. Isn’t that just like Harry? Never counting the cost of the moments he shared. As a young minister, he worked with youth. But with Harry, it wasn’t work, it was a constant, encouraging, loving attention. I remember how our youth group would simply drop in at the Clark’s home, never wondering whether we’d be welcome—we always were. I remember riding my bike to Pine Hill Church, dropping in on him in the office, long talks where I always had his full attention. At 15 it never occurs to you that maybe the man was busy and I was interrupting. Harry never suggested he was. 

Later, he scattered seeds even more widely. He brought people together in seminars in Boston, in England, he endlessly encouraged ministers  working to knit churches and clergy together. He never stopped sowing; he never stopped hoping. It cost him time and effort; we say ‘spiritual’ as if it’s an ethereal thing, but it’s actually time spent, effort expended, waiting for a crop to grow. It takes a lot of effort to organize a canoe trip, take a group along up the wilderness, give them the space and time for growth to happen.

All these things are seeds he scattered, just like the man in the story. What does the sower do next? He waits. Jesus says: “…sleep and rise night and day…” This is a thing about Harry it took me years and years to appreciate, his stubborn, patient hope. Harry never gave up; I know he never gave up on me. He waited for me to grow, he waited for all of us to grow, always insisting quietly, always pressing gently, so that we would become better people. If there are indeed better angels in our nature, they were angels apparent to Harry that he hoped we would make evident in our lives. He always seemed to see the gift in a person and encourage that gift . He didn’t tell you how to do it; he listened while you struggled and figured it out.

It isn’t that he wasn’t practical; he was. When I came to him, telling him I planned to become a minister, I had visions of leading a church the way he did, standing the pulpit, preaching. Harry’s response was, “Well, ok, why don’t you type up the bulletin.” Later in life, when he was busy helping with McFadden Farm, the NA sent out a letter asking how they could help retired ministers and suggesting some churchy things. Harry wrote back: “If you want to help me, do something about the price of hay! It’s outrageous!” 

Stubborn Patience

The deep spiritual genius of this man is that he was more stubbornly patient than anyone I’ve ever known. Think of the story: the man waits—he sleeps and rises. How hard is it to wait? Harry waited. Patient, hopeful, always available to listen. In 60 years of friendship, he never said, “Hey, I’m busy today, I’ll talk to you another time.” He waited, he listened. The parable says: God gives the growth. Church and clergy are always talking about purpose statements and action plans and programs, things we do. Harry waited for God to grow us.

I know it wasn’t easy. I remember when he worked at the NA, he got so frustrated one day about ministers and churches trying and failing to find each other that he yelled, “I want to be a bishop!” That’s as close to swearing as a Congregationalist gets. But if he got impatient, as we all do, he did something many of us fail to do: he waited anyway. He waited for God to give the growth, he believed what we all say, “God is good” but for him, faith was action, faith was lived. Harry’s pulpit wasn’t just in a church; it was as much a table after breakfast with coffee, as much sitting with a beer on the deck, overlooking the creek, listening, encouraging, with that smile when you finally offered the right answer.  

Harry knew what took me years to learn from him: that God’s love is inexorable, inescapable, like a river cutting a channel, flowing of itself. One of our friends, Cliff Shutjer, once said, “I never met a fad I didn’t love.” Most of us are like that: we have an idea of what to plan, what to do, we want to make something happen. But look at the farmer in the story: he waits for God. Look at Harry: he waited for God. We often measure accomplishment in medals and plaques; Harry certainly earned many of those. But he measured in relationships, friendships, with Dick Buchman, with too many to name. He set us an example in his love and devotion to Nora and the family; he invited us to see God’s love flowing without being fussy about the words and theology.  

 Somewhere up in Fond Du Lac county, the rain and dew gather into a stream that becomes the Milwaukee River. South it flows, around rocks, past bends it has carved over centuries, gathering water from West Bend and later Cedar Creek, past the deck Harry loved, until it becomes a broad stream, a river powerful and determined. Past farms, past the riverwalk, it flows into the heart of the city and then out into Lake Michigan, moving on through Huron and Erie and Ontario, it flows out the St. Lawrence and reaches the great oceans of the world. 

In just the same way, Harry’s heart flowed out in streams that washed and nurtured all of us, joining with Nora and later Terry and Laury and Amy, still later with me, with Roc and Dane, with Theresa and Kivi, with Bill Trump and Rob Fredrickson and Beth Bingham and too many others to name. His heart became a part of our hearts and now that same stream joins the ocean of God’s love, both its source and its destination. Harry loved canoeing and I think he’d understand this, how drops and streams and rivers form and flow, join together, roll on and on.     I think it would make him smile.

So today, this day, and days to come, remember that smile and the way his love flows through us, how it touches others. We are not alone; we are part of a great stream that flows that joins us together. That is his gift: joining all of us in love, flowing that love outward until it finally is one. That is the harvest and if we would for ourselves have delayed it, the harvest has come: now we go on to share its gift, the gift of this great life, knowing our own lives have been shaped by him, and that he has indeed done what every minister hopes: moved us closer by his love to the great love of God.



The Rev. Dr. Harry Wilbur Clark died at home on October 5, 2022. Born in East Chicago, IN, on December 24, 1927. He found his love, friend and companion for over 71 years, Eleanora (“Nora”) while attending Indiana University. He found calling in Christian ministry early and was ordained in 1955. Harry earned a BA at Indiana University, an MDiv at Colgate Rochester seminary and an MA in Theatre Arts at Wayne State University. He received honorary doctorates from Olivet College and Piedmont College. His love of theater was deep and he wrote and directed may chancel dramas. Harry served in a pastoral role in four churches and for ten years as the Associate Executive Secretary of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches. In that role, he became a mentor and inspiration to uncountable ministers. 

He leaves a legacy of love and grace that has profoundly inspired many. He is survived by his wife, Eleanora Clark, daughters Terry Clark Bauman, Laury Clark, Amy Clark, son-in-law Rick Bauman, grandson Dane Bauman, grand daughter-in-law Theresa and great grand daughter Kivi, grandson Roc Bauman. He leaves a legacy of love and grace that has profoundly inspired and uplifted many. 

A funeral service will be held at the Ozaukee Congregational Church, 1142 Lakefield Road, Grafton, WI, on Saturday, October 15, at 11:00 AM. Memorial contributions Because of Harry’s love for music and his appreciation for the church’s outreach, donations  may be made to Ozaukee Congregational Church in support of its music program and benevolence fund.

How Bud Became a Hero

Second Sunday After Pentecost/B

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

June 6, 2021

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1  •  Mark 3:20-35

My family and I recently moved to new city: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. One of the rituals of meeting people is answering the question, “What do you do?” That’s never been a problem for me because I have been working since I was 14. But in January I retired. So it first, I wasn’t sure just how to answer this question. And then it occurred to me one day to simply say, “I’m retired.” Most people let it go with that, which I find interesting, since it really says nothing other than I don’t work for money. Some people ask some people ask, “What are you retired from?” To which I reply, “Well, I used to be a pastor.” Now the community in which we live is very diverse but on the whole it’s a pretty liberal place and of course more and more today being a Christian is seen as a conservative flag wave. So to avoid putting people off, I immediately tell them well I was a pastor of a Congregational Church. The problem is most people here don’t know what a Congregational Church is; this is Presbyterian and Catholic territory and evangelicals. Those are the three choices: Presbyterian Catholic evangelical, so I have to then explain, “Well it’s something like the UCC or like Unitarians, although I myself am not a Unitarian. Seeing this process has made me realize how carefully we divide people into categories. What’s your category? 

Modern life is built on what’s called micro targeting. Micro targeting is a process by which we are all divided up into more and more and more categories. The categories are used to sell things including politics. You can see this process at work. Search the web for a product or information: retirement activities in Harrisburg, for example. The next thing you know, you get a slew of ads that promise retirement income, dates for people over 50, and medical ads I’d rather not mention. Our categories are also part of our identity. Because we have allowed ourselves to participate and to embrace the targeting, we have divided ourselves into categories, there is inevitable conflict.

We see it in our politics where elections are supposed to solve conflicts. Now that basic principle is being denied by a Big Lie and efforts to discourage voting. We see it in social lives where the business of wearing a mask or getting vaccinated has become a battleground. Even churches are divided. 

So it’s a good day to read from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian Christians. Division in the church is the reason he wrote them and what we call Second Corinthians is actually pieced together from several letters. The Corinthians are divided because some are following a new leader and refusing to listen to Paul. What’s Paul’s solution? 

First, he points them back from their own party spirit to the one Spirit given by Christ. 

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.

2 Corinthians 4:13f

For Christians, our first principle is always the Risen Lord. This is our source although, as Paul says elsewhere, “…we have this treasure in clay jars…” 2 Cor 4:7 What matters is the treasure, not the jar that contains it. 

So what can we learn by turning to Jesus? Today’s Gospel reading is all about conflict. The culture of Galilee was full of categories. Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, free and slave, peasant and rich, city dweller, farmer, Roman, and so many others. Within these categories were others: Jews who were Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and people like tax collectors who were generally looked down upon. All the categories of our time—gender, class, race, ethnicity—existed then as well as now. So perhaps we can learn from this moment how to live in our moment.

Jesus has just started his ministry. John the Baptist has been arrested; Jesus began preaching the arrival of God’s rule. He begins to attract crowds and he chooses disciples. He casts out demons, he heals people. He also attracts conflict; scribes—we would call them lawyers—claim what he’s doing is wrong. But he continues and continues to attract crowds. Things come to a head over healing on the sabbath and the scandalous fact that he eats with sinners and women.

Finally, his mother and brothers come and send for him, apparently to get him to stop. This is his reply.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Now, in all the culture of the Roman world, in all the culture of the Judea at the time, the most fundamental category of all was family. Roman heads of household—fathers—could settle disputes within a family with the force of law. So this is astonishing: Jesus is taking this family value and stretching it to include everyone “who does the will of God”. 

This is the signature act of Jesus: he breaks boundaries, he creates community. The scribes who oppose him aren’t enemies, they are family—if they do the will of God. The outcasts in the communities he visits aren’t outcast from him—they are family, if they do the will of God. Everyone isn’t just welcome, everyone is welcome. Everyone matters. Everyone is a child of God. In Jesus, the categories which conflict are transformed into communities of care.

This isn’t my insight, this isn’t a bright idea I had thinking about these readings, this is how Christian Churches spread. Historians tell us that it wasn’t mass conversions that led to the spread of the church, it was two great leaps forward, both of which occurred during pandemics. Lyman Stone is an historian who notes that during a great pandemic in the Roman Empire in the second century AD, as many as a quarter of the population died. The culture of the time cast out the sick but Christians cared for the sick, whether church folks or not. A century later, another pandemic struck and he notes,

It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”

What will historians say about us in this moment? Will they remember how we crossed boundaries to create communities of care? It starts with individuals, it starts with people like Bud. Bud’s in his 80’s. I’m guessing he’s retired, too. He recently flew on an airplane for the first time. That meant that he had to solve the problem a lot of us have had: how to open the door to the lavatory on the plane. It’s not obvious, and for some reason, the FAA doesn’t require that flight attendants provide directions in the safety briefing. 

Now as an elder man, I can tell you, it’s hard to admit that you don’t know how to do something as basic as open a door. But Bud didn’t. The thing is, admitting you don’t know what you’re doing is tough. It feels like everyone else knows—like the world is divided between the cool people who know how to do something and you. Fortunately, Bud had the humility to admit to his fight attendant, my wife Jacquelyn, that he needed help. So she opened the door, talked to him and treated him the way we’d all want to be treated in such a moment: with dignity. She learned it was his first flight, so she got out a set of wings they keep for first time flyers, she got the pilot to announce over the PA that But was flying for the first time and had everyone applaud him. She got the pilot to take a picture with Bud after they landed. She made Bud a hero. 

I’m sure that airplane had all kinds of people: children, adults, people nervous about flying, people anxious to get somewhere for something fun or important. Everyone was on their own until Bud became a hero. But in the process, the whole group also became something new: just for a moment, a community of care, a group applauding Bud and in their approval, accepting him.

Now today, tomorrow, the day after, this sermon is going to go in a file. In a moment it will be over. But what about you? What will you take with you? We can’t avoid the categories and conflicts of this time. We have this choice, though: we can accept them or we can follow Christ and break the boundaries. How Bud became a hero is simple: someone cared enough to see him not as a clueless old man but as a child of God and treat him that way. That’s how Bud became a hero. You can do that: you can do that every day. 


No Loitering

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

Ascension Sunday • May 16, 2021

Acts 1:1-11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next, please!

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Mothers Day • May 9, 2021

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

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John 17:16-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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