This Is The Day

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 13, 2020

Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-111 Thessalonians 5:16-24John 1:6-8, 19-28

“There came a man who was sent from God; his name was John.” I wonder how often we consider the wonder of this simple phrase. We sit down to hear the gospel story; we anticipate with eagerness the whole great song of celebration in which God is recreating the world and us right along with it. This is God at work, the God Archibald MacLeish describes as 

God the Creator of the Universe!
God who hung the world in time!…
God the maker: God Himself!
Remember what he says? —
the hawk Flies by his Wisdom! 

Archibald MacLeish, JB

We come like anyone comes to a familiar comedy: for the Greeks defined a comedy: a play where everything turns out happily. God the Creator the protagonist and then: a person—a man named John. 

What a wonder!— over and over again, the same beginning. If fairy tales start, “once upon a time”, Gospel begins: “there was a person sent from God”. Always someone, always some one person, always some individual endowed with God’s spirit, who cannot contain the laughter of God’s love. So it was then; so it is today: there was a man sent from God, there was a person sent whose heart quickened, whose spirit soared because they could truly say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Say it with me: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. 

This is the heart of Christmas, and it’s why the details of the creche are so important. Long ago, Pogo said, “We have met the enemy and he is us”— at the manger, we meet the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and they are us, they are ordinary people who bear an extraordinary grace because the Spirit of the Lord is upon them. I’m not jumping ahead, but see, look: it’s always the same, it’s ordinary people, shepherds, teachers, young women, old men, a man sent to baptize, you and I and Isaiah over and over: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me. Say it with me: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. It’s what our baptism means; it’s what our presence here means. The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. 

What is the result? What is the hope? What is the reason for God’s spirit to come and wash over us like a wave rolling off the Sound when we’re wading? Isaiah says:

 the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor….
…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor 

Good news to the poor, healing for the brokenhearted, freedom for captives, release for prisoners, these are the reasons God anoints people like us with the Spirit. Isn’t that where joy lives, in doing just these things?

One evangelist described his mother as love personified. He said that once he found her sitting at a table with a poor man, a homeless man, She’d seen him when she was out shopping and invited him home for a meal. He said, “I wish there were more people like you in the world”, and she replied, “Oh there are, but you must look for them”. And he shook his head and said, “Lady, I didn’t need to look for you, you were looking for me.” We spend hours looking for presents; God calls us to look for the lost, as God looked for us, and to be gospel to them.

This is how Gospel begins: there was a person sent from God. Isaiah says, 

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion —
to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

“The oil of gladness”: that phrase captured me this week. Ancient sailors learned that in a choppy, confused sea, pouring out oil would sometimes calm the sea. Later, in a land like Israel where water was scarce, perfumed oil was rubbed on the skin as preparation for celebration. This passage is imagining a complete transformation of a life. It’s picturing someone wrapped in the black cloths of mourning, taking them off, taking t he black headdress off, and being washed clean with the oil of gladness, ready for a crown, ready for a garment of praise.

How do we learn to do such things? We begin by choosing which Jesus we will follow. It’s Advent season, it’s almost Christmas and we are entranced with the baby Jesus. We sing songs about him; we display an image of him, we talk about him. We are comfortable with babies: they lay in our arms and most of us have figured out some things to do that comfort them. We like baby Jesus; we enjoy his smile, we sing about his laugh and one song even says he doesn’t cry. If the song is wrong, of course, we know we can always stick a pacifier in his mouth and shut him up. Baby Jesus is safe; baby Jesus demands only that we cuddle him before we get on with the real business of life. Like doting aunts and uncles, we can visit baby Jesus at this time of year, ooh and ahh over him, get him something nice and then leave. Baby Jesus is the end. 

But the gospel is not about baby Jesus;. The gospel is about God entering the world and inviting us, anointing us, calling us, through the man Jesus. The man Jesus is the visible symbol of that call and he has this to say: “Follow me”. Baby Jesus lies there waiting for us to come; the man Jesus marches on and hopes we will trail after. We come to baby Jesus at the end of a long journey, like the three kings of the orient in the song; the man Jesus is always starting us over, first as disciples, then as apostles and evangelists.

Baby Jesus is a visit to a stable; the man Jesus is a life in the world, challenged by all the darkness, endlessly lighting the candles of love. Baby Jesus is a moment; the man Jesus is a lifetime, a life lived from the simple word Isaiah said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me.” Jesus is a summons to go out and pour the oil of gladness on the troubled waters of a dark world. Jesus is an invitation to take seriously God’s purpose for you; to live understanding that you are not your own, that you have a Lord and a Creator who made you for something, some purpose that you and only you can fulfill. 

There it is again: the same theme over and over, one person, you, me, anyone, prayerfully living, anointed with God Spirit, becomes the means of comfort, becomes the seed that grows into a great and fierce joy. Here is where Christmas starts; here is where Christ comes in. It is when we realize Christmas is the beginning of the story of the man Jesus. It is  when we prayerfully live day to day, looking for ways to share God’s love, hoping for ways to share God’s grace. It is when we take seriously the single, stunning, surprise that it is not someone else, prophet, priest, or king, not pastor or deacon, not neighbor or stranger alone but ourselves who are anointed, ourselves who are the bearers of God’s spirit. It is when our lives say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.”

How do we find that voice? How do we hear it? It comes from the fierce joy of the coming Christmas. It’s the voice with which Paul says in his letter to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always.” This is a hard time to rejoice. We all I’ve in the shadow of a great threat. Many have friends who are sick, family members who have died. We constantly calculate safety: can I have lunch with a friend? What do we do about gathering for Christmas? The key is what he says next:

Rejoice always,
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances

1 Thessalonians 5:17ff

Gratitude gives God a way into our heart. 

For weeks, we’ve been hearing Jesus say in one way or another, “Watch!” Now many are suggesting a sort of generalized gratitude as a way of finding peace. But Paul doesn’t have something general in mind, he understands that gratitude needs a recipient. When we give thanks to God, our hearts open to the Spirit of God. Some do this in words; some write a gratitude journal. Sometimes simply being honest when you don’t feel grateful can be liberating. A friend wrote in a memoir about how his father always offered a prayer at beginning  “This is the day that the Lord has made.” One day when he was a boy, he said he looked at dinner, didn’t like it and said out loud, “This is the day that the skunks have made!” This may be the day that the skunks have made but when we look within it, we can find little joys.

Anne Sexton’s poem, “Welcome Morning” expresses this perfectly. She says,

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

 All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds. 

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken. 

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.


This is the day: the day for us to say thanks, the day for us to watch for God moving toward us, the day to say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Let us rejoice and give thanks. Let us follow the man Jesus, God’s gift, God’s sign, God’s invitation to live new lives.


Begin the Beginning – Journey to Joy 2

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Advent/B • December 6, 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11Mark 1:1-8

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together

Isaiah 40:5

Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Sometimes it isn’t where we expected. Years ago, Jacquelyn and I visited the Louvre Art Museum in Paris. We were so happy; we’d just gotten engaged, we were in love and we were in Paris. Now when you go to the Louvre, everyone goes to see the Mona Lisa because it’s glorious. So we went to see it. Here we were, in the presence of one of the most famous paintings in all Western Culture, seeing something the master Leonardo da Vinci himself created and peering over someone’s shoulder, all I could think was, “It’s so small.” I don’t know what I imagined but the picture is barely as big as a good sized photograph: no inspiration—no glory.

“…the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” [Isaiah 40:5a] Have you seen the glory of the Lord? Have you been inspired? What do you imagine when you hear this? Some great natural event, a shooting star lighting the sky, a dark thunderstorm cracking lightning and shutting out the world with a curtain of rain? Isaiah imagined: a parade.

Just before this, he says,

A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

This prophet lives in a strange and divided time. God’s people had been in exile in Babylon, God’s people had been living among other God’s in another culture with other customs. One of those customs was the big New Years Festival in Babylon.

It worked something like this. Months before, workers, slaves probably, perhaps some of them Israelis, were taken out into the rough country surrounding Babylon. They built a magnificent image of the God Marduke, the patron of the city. Like a float in the Rose Bowl parade or Macy’s Thanksgiving, this float towered up and on its top, the King of Babylon would sit. Now, you can’t move something like that easily so they would clear the area all the way into the city. That way, it could be rolled in on logs. Little dips and valleys were filled in; rises and hills were leveled off, rough places were smoothed out, a road was built, level, safe, smooth so the processional could go forward to the great New Years ceremony where the king would come off the throne and kill a carefully drugged lion.

So when Isaiah speaks about making straight a highway in the desert, he’s not imagining, he’s remembering; he’s thinking about what that processional was like. When he talks about hills leveled and valleys lifted, he’s remembering this great festival and how the people of Babylon, the biggest, greatest place he’s ever been, celebrate their God. But he’s not in Babylon; he’s I Jerusalem. Jerusalem isn’t a big city anymore, it’s a refugee camp. Some time before, Jews had been allowed to return from exiled but what they returned to wasn’t the shining city of David, it was ruins that looked more like Berlin in 1945. Not much glory there.

But if he’s remembering Babylon, he’s also remembering that there was a time when God’s glory was obviously present. That time was when God saved this people in the wilderness, there was a time when God led them on the Exodus in the wilderness, there was a time when God brought them out of the wilderness into a promised land. It’s not an accident that then herald begins, “In the wilderness…” The wilderness is where you have to tell people what’s coming, the wilderness is where you announce the future before someone gets there.

You need that herald in the wilderness because it’s scarey in the wilderness. You may not see God there, you may not see anything familiar, you may not seed anything comforting. You may be alone, you may feel overwhelmed because that’s what the wilderness means: that place where you feel lost.

I had a friend, a mother, once whose little boy was going through one of those moments where he had decided to assert his four year old independence. So every day was a struggle, every day was a fight. He would get mad and tell her she was a bad mommy and he was going to run away. One day, she was so fed up, so tired of it, that when he said that, she said, “No you’re not; I’m running away.” She went up to her room, got out a suitcase, threw clothes in it, came down and said, “I’m running away, goodbye,” and slammed the door behind her. And then she just sat down on the step. She calmed down and she heard her child crying inside. You see, without his mom, his house became a wilderness and he was scared. So, like all good mothers, she sighed and opened the door and went back in, took him in her arms. She comforted him.

That’s just what Isaiah is imagining. He’s sitting in the ruins of Jerusalem and he’s imagining it’s the wilderness and he knows they are in the wilderness because they walked away from God until it felt like God ran away from them. He thinks God ran away and he’s imagining that moment when God comes back, proclaims comfort to Jerusalem.
“Say Comfort, Comfort to Jerusalem.”

He’s remembering the great processional festivals in Babylon and thinking it might look like that: straight road, valleys lifted up, hills pushed down until everyone, all peoples, see the glory of God.

This is a wilderness moment for many. Every day we hear about deaths mounting nd nothing is the same. Simple things like meeting a friend for coffee are off the table. We miss normal, don’t we? We missed the people we didn’t see this year at Thanksgiving and it’s beginning to dawn on us that on Christmas we’re going to miss them again. So what do we do here in the wilderness?

This is what Isaiah says;

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!”

Get up and look for the glory of God. Consider that it might not be where you expected. I expected amazing art when I went to the Mona Lisa but I was distracted by something as silly as size. What do you think the glory of God looks like? It looks like someone proclaiming comfort because God is coming.

The glory of God isn’t fireworks; it’s every time someone acts like the love of God makes a difference, it’s every time someone acts out what Jesus said: “Love your neighbor.” This is a story of one of those moments. Dave, age 16, acting out his frustrations, broke a window of a car a few blocks from his home. He didn’t know Mrs. Weber, the elderly owner, and she had not known any teenagers personally for years. So after years of absorbing society’s negative stereotypes about teenagers, this experience made her acutely fearful.

The typical criminal justice system would have punished Dave and ignored Mrs. Weber. Instead, a restorative justice program enabled the parties to meet with a mediator and address the problem constructively. Their meeting helped Dave recognize for the first time that he had financially and emotionally hurt a real, live human being, and so he sincerely apologized. In turn, Mrs. Weber, whose fears had escalated and generalized to an entire generation, was able to gain a realistic perspective and feel compassion for this one individual.

They agreed that Dave would compensate her loss by mowing her lawn weekly until September and performing a few heavy yard chores. Each day while Dave worked, Mrs. Weber baked cookies which they shared when he finished. They actually came to appreciate each other.

No fireworks; no streaking star. But this is the glory of the Lord.

The glory of the Lord shines forth in the missions of this church because the mittens and the coats and the Christmas presents and the gifts we bring make a real difference, make a loving difference. We’re not saving the world, that’s not our job, that’s God’s job. We’re like the little sparrow in the famous story. A farmer was walking along and saw a sparrow lying on the ground, legs stuck straight up. “What are you doing?” He asked and the sparrow said, I heard the sky was falling, so I’m holding it up. The farmer laughed and said, “Are you strong enough to hold up the whole sky?” And the sparrow replied, “One does what one can.”

When we do what we can, we are the ones proclaiming God’s coming because we’re acting as followers of Jesus Christ. When we do what we can, we are proclaiming the comfort of God, we are saying, here’s a way out of the wilderness, just like Isaiah said. We’re smoothing the path, we’re lifting the valleys, we’re making a way for someone. We are the heralds of good tidings.

That’s what John was doing out baptizing in the wilderness: he was making a way home for people who’d become so burdened by their own sins and failings that their lives had become a wilderness, the geography was just what fit. But he took up the challenge;; he became a herald of good tidings. He proclaimed the coming of the Lord and so can we.

This is not the end; it’s a wilderness time between. The oldest account of Jesus, the first Gospel, starts, “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s time to begin the beginning of God’s coming. It’s time to proclaim the good tidings of God’s love. It’s time to do what we can to make a way from the wilderness so that all people can indeed see the glory of God, not hanging on a wall, no up in the sky, not only in the past but coming, coming now, coming here, coming today. Get you up, herald of good tidings, say with your own life, the light and love of God is coming into this place, this time. Begin the beginning of the good news, the gospel, of Jesus Christ.

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.


The Garden of Advent 4: O Christmas Tree!

The Garden of Advent 4: O Christmas Tree!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY>/h2>

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Advent • December 24, 2017

When I was a boy, Christmas began at a department store. Other children may have looked forward to Santa Claus; the high moment for me was seeing the new Lionel Trains layout for the first time. There, in the midst of the toy section, would be the loud clatter of wheels on tracks, the shrill whistle of the engine, the acrid smell of electric motors and simulated smoke. I never tired of watching the trains flash by, bright boxcars, shiny coal hoppers and, of course, the red caboose. Every year, there would the surprise of a new building. There was the log dump, where a car stopped and as if by magic, dropped off round brown sticks of wood which moved into a plastic building while model lumber came out the other side. There was the station with the little man in a blue suit who endlessly shot out of the station and waved and many others. Each year I’d go home, visions of trains in my head and Christmas magic in my heart.

So some years, I still set up a train around our Christmas tree. Not a Lionel train, not a large layout, just a circle of track, an engine, a couple cars, a caboose. I want to feel again that child’s faith in Christmas; I want to experience again the peace of knowing what Julian of Norwich said: “All is well, all is well and all shall be well,” or what we so quickly and casually say to each other sometimes: 
the peace of the Lord.

The peace of the Lord: it’s where we start every Sunday, it’s where we turn for that great inner stillness which smiles from inside and gives real rest. Where shall we look for that peace which bears fruit in true joy, in a character expressed in kindness? Isn’t it from souls nurtured in the confidence and experience of God’s providence? Isn’t it from knowing ourselves to be seeds growing in the soil of God’s love? Isn’t it from believing there is a power beyond our power that cares for us as a gardener cares for a garden? In one way or another, the message of today’s readings is simply this: if we allow our roots to dig down into the soil of God’s love, our souls will grow and bear fruit in the peace God planned.

Perhaps this need to feel rooted is why the Christmas Tree is so central to our celebration of Christmas today. It’s actually a recent import. Four or five hundred years ago, about the time German Lutherans were renewing their faith, they began to bring evergreen trees into their homes at Christmas and decorated them with roses made of colored paper and edible treats: apples, wavers, sweetmeats. They illuminated them with candles. From Germany, the custom-made its way to England in the 19th century, when the English monarchy was closely related to Germany. Christmas trees were introduced to America by Hessian soldiers during the American Revolution and became common in the 1800’s. Windsor Locks, CT, claims to have had the first Christmas Tree in the United States but several others challenge this. The first tree with electric lights was in New York City in 1882. The custom grew and in the 1920’s, it became an official national tradition with the lighting of a tree at the White House. Wherever the tree, they all draw on the same symbolism: the permanence of the evergreen tree.

Permanence is at the heard of the situation of David in the story we read. Here he is in the years of accomplishment, mortgage paid off, enemies defeated, security assured. “After the king was settled in his palace and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him.”

Have you known such moments? Then perhaps you have known as well what David feels: he’s not ready to rest. He decides to undertake another great project, to build a temple for the Lord. Even his head prophet, Nathan, agrees this would be a wonderful thing. But in the night, Nathan receives a word from the Lord, and the Word is this: God does not need or want David’s temple, Instead of thanking David, the Lord discloses an even greater work: David’s line will be established forever. What a contrast! David thought up the biggest building project he could imagine, a huge temple built out of cedar; God sweeps it away with a brush of eternity. David hoped the temple would stand for a long time; God deals in forever.

But forever is a long time; we live day to day. What has this great broad canvas of eternity to do with day to day? How can it help us get through the crowd at the mall, the backache that makes just sitting short-tempered, the feeling of being burdened instead of lightened by Christmas?
Perhaps it will help to look at the Gorski’s, the family at the center of the play Greetings. In the play, Phil and Emily are middle-aged folks, living in a house where fuses blow, with dreams that didn’t pan out. One of those dreams is a son named Mickey who has never spoken. Their other son Andy comes home on Christmas Eve and introduces Randi-with-an-i, his fiancé, a woman who is Jewish and atheist and as far from their values as could be imagined. Then amidst one of those Christmas eves when everyone is tense and pretending to be happy someone else drops by, a visitor from eternity named Lucius who takes over Mickey’s body and begins to speak. What would you do if you were visited by an angel? What would you do if you walked down the street and witnessed a miracle?
What the Gorski’s do is fight and fuss and fume for a while but somehow the light of the miracle begins to change them. They learn to draw together; they learn there is more to life than they thought. At a pivotal moment, Lucius says,

Why do you suppose so many people in your world lead mixed up lives? I’ll tell you. It is because they look at the mixed up mess that’s all around them and they say, “There now. See? That’s reality. That’s what I’m about.” That’s not what you’re about. Reality is right in there. (points to her heart) That is where you’ll find your answers. And if you can’t hear them it is because you have allowed everyone else’s clatter to drown them out.

David let the clatter of his own accomplishments drown out the pure song of God in his heart he heard when he was a shepherd boy. Reality is not the marble of an imperial palace but the kingdom of God.

What about us: what clatter goes on in our lives? When will we listen to the quiet voice of God in our heart instead of the clatter of the world around, when will we seek the true peace of the Lord? It doesn’t take much: Moses only got to see God’s back rushing away, but it was enough, he shown with the light of that moment the rest of his life. Jesus preached for three years or so but people drew such power from him their lives were changed forever. They stopped letting the clatter drown out God’s Word; they lived as God’s people, in the power of eternal life—forever life. Forever: that’s the canvas on which God works, that’s the soil in which God means our souls to be rooted.

So we have this story: Mary, a young woman, recently betrothed, is going about her day and in that day from nowhere with no warning, an angel drops in. A messenger from eternity stops by and quiets her fears. He tells her of great events about to be born and what does she say? Just what Lucius predicted; she explains reality to the one who created reality. And the angel replies: “Nothing is impossible with God.”

This is the point of celebrating Christmas. Because day to day, where we live, we forget forever and assume things will stay pretty much the same. But out there is something being born, something new, something wonderful, something powerful. When will we see it? When will we believe it? When will we embrace it?

We know the day to day reality; we know the world is old that things stay pretty much the same. When will we know it is at the same time new? Annie Dillard says,

That the world is old and frayed is no surprise; that the world could ever become new and whole beyond uncertainty was, and is, such a surprise that I find myself referring all subsequent kinds of knowledge to it.

The surprise that the world can be new: that is the reason for Christmas.µ When we see God recreating, when we know God’s renewal, then we see Christ born not only in our world but in us. And then indeed, as Dillard says, everything else is governed by this knowledge. Everything else is known with a peace that knows forever is assured; day to day is only day to day.

Jesus said: Unless you are born again, unless you become like a child, you will never enter the kingdom of God. I take this to be not a summons to one particular spiritual experience but rather a comment on the facts of spiritual life, an invitation to stop listening to the clatter around us, as Lucius says in Greetings, to stop pointing at what is and triumphantly saying, “See, that’s reality!”, and to believe in the possibility of surprise and the promise of newness. So God has given us this gift: a greeting wrapped in Christmas, a message to say, “Nothing is impossible — there is no one and nothing I can’t make new.”

What will you do? This is what I do: I get out the electric trains, I know it makes no sense, who plays with trains in their 60’s? I give my oldest daughter, who is 41 a Barbie just to remind her of when she was nine, I refuse to ask people what they want for Christmas because I am much more interested in surprising them than getting them what they want. I want that surprise: I want that moment of wide eyes, of pure joy, of hearing through the clatter the notes of eternity’s song. I want to see not by the headlights of the cars on errands but by the star of eternity. I want to see through to this great, inexpressible true thing: that as John says, the true light is coming into the world. I don’t know where your trains are or what will make that light shine for you.

I hope, I pray that this Christmas, that light will light your life and you will hear not the clatter of this day but the song of the angels which is the music of the peace of the Lord. May the peace of the Lord be with you this and every day.


The Garden of Advent 3:
Rejoice Always

The Garden of Advent 3:
Rejoice Always

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 17, 2017

1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart…” You know this song, probably. It’s often sung around campfires; I learned it at church camp in August, maybe you did too. It’s easy to sing around the campfire, in the midst of that adolescent mix of exhausted, energized, ecstatic about friendships and crushes. Yet today ought to be the real day for this song; this is the Sunday in Advent when the theme is joy and the candle is pink. It’s a little harder to sing it today, isn’t it? No campfire, no warm days, and a Christmas coming that for so many is an ambivalent presence, lurking just off stage. For those grieving, for those lonely, for those in the darkness of depression, the relentless demand of this season to be happy can become a barrier to even going out. Yet if we look at the meaning of the joy of Christmas, we will find it is quite different than the happy faces our culture puts on Christmas
I usually draw from the gospel reading for inspiration but today’s reading again offers John the Baptist. We’re going to come to him in a few weeks, so I’d like to turn with you to the reading from First Thessalonians. Just the word is hard to say! The letter from which we drew is actually the oldest document in the New Testament, earlier than any of the gospels, earlier than any other epistle. Paul wrote it about 51 CE, less than 20 years after Jesus’ earthly ministry. Thessaloniki is a city in Macedonia, the northern part of Greece; today it is the second largest city in Greece. In the first century, it was a port that sat on a major highway. The city had a great diversity of religious groups and participated in the cult of the Roman Emperor. Because it was a port, people from many nations passed through. Doesn’t such a richly diverse cultural diversity sound like our city? The people of the church to whom Paul writes are mostly new Christians, former pagans. In this section of the letter, Paul is teaching them—and us!—the basics of Christian life and he begins with these three principles: Rejoice always,
pray without ceasing,
give thanks in all circumstances.

There are some things to notice about these things. First, they are all things we do sometimes; Paul is expanding them to all the time. Second, they are not a creed, they are a program for mindfulness. Mindfulness means noticing our internal conversation; mindfulness means consciousness of what’s going on inside as well as outside us. Our yoga instructor always begins instructions with one word: “Notice” and frequently goes on to say, “Notice the breath”. Now to talk about mindfulness, we must talk about the one for whom it is a pillar principle, the Buddha.

These past few weeks in Advent, we’ve been using other religious practices and faiths to hold a mirror to our own. Surely Buddhism does this. Like Islam and Christianity, Buddhism comes from a historical individual, a man named Siddhartha. Born about 600 years before Jesus in Nepal, Siddhartha lived a life of luxury in a princely family. Just as we have a cycle of stories about Mary and the special birth of Jesus, Buddhists look back to a special birth for Siddhartha. His mother died seven days after his birth and his father received a prophecy that he would become a religious leader. For this reason, it is said, his father kept him isolated in the palace. Still, Siddhartha managed to go on a trip to the village where he was profoundly affected by the suffering he saw. At 29, he left his sheltered life, determined to seek a solution to the suffering he had seen by seeking enlightenment.

Siddhartha followed the path of his culture in living a life of extreme asceticism. That means he sought to free his spirit by disregarding and torturing his body. He is said to have lived on a grain of rice a day and he soon gathered a group of disciples. But he didn’t find enlightenment in his practice and one day when a little girl offered him a bowl of rice, he ate it. His disciples were shocked and scandalized and soon left. Siddhartha, for his part, had come to an insight: neither the relaxed life of the palace not the extreme discipline of fasting had produced enlightenment; another path was needed. He called this the Middle Way. Soon after this, Siddhartha sat under a large Bodhi Tree and determined to meditate until he found enlightenment or died. After a long struggle in his mind and soul with temptation, he awakened to find that he had become an enlightened soul, now called the Buddha. He had a new awareness. He announced a set of truths and principles and began to preach them. The former disciples returned to him and became the foundation of a community of monks that also admitted women and was open to other classes and races.

The heart of Buddhism is solving the problem of human suffering. Buddhism’s foundational ideas are called “The Four Noble Truths” and they say that there is suffering, that suffering is caused by our desire, suffering has an end, and that there is a path to that end. The path for Buddha begins by understanding that we live in an illusory world; in that world, our lives revolve around desires for both things and happiness. Instead, Buddhism invites each person to an intense focus on what is happening inside us. Called mindfulness, it means watching ourselves be ourselves; it means listening to our internal conversation. “Notice the breath”, a Buddhist says and means: start with the littlest, most common thing. Give thanks for it; be conscious of it.

This is what Paul means as well when he says, “Give thanks in all circumstances.” To give thanks in all circumstances may seem impossible or flippant. How am I to give thanks when things are falling apart? How am I to give thanks when I’m angry or hurt? The first step is often to stop: stop what you’re doing, stop the rush to the next thing. Notice the breath; notice where you are, why you are angry, what wound hurts. In that moment, notice other things, things that don’t hurt—and give thanks for them. Surely this letter came from Paul’s experience. He was a man beset by so many troubles. In one of his letters, he lists the number of times he has been arrested, beaten, dragged before magistrates. Yet he’s also the one who never stopped preaching the love of God in Christ, never stopped opening doors to new Christians, never stopped giving thanks.

Eugene Kelly was an aggressive CEO of a major corporation when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he had only a few months to live. He says,

Before the diagnosis, my last thought every night before falling asleep usually concerned something that was to happen one month to six months later. After the diagnosis, my last thought before falling asleep was…the next day.

Kelly goes on to say that he attained a new level of awareness. It’s strikingly like Siddhartha: his life is enlightened by a clear understanding that desire and the next thing are not sufficient.
If we truly begin to consistently give thanks, surely it will lead us to a different kind of prayer. Annie LaMott famously said there are two kinds of prayer: “Thank you, thank you, thank you” and “Help me, help me, help me”. If we make the first our constant prayer, it produces a growing appreciation of simple things and then of those around and then of all of creation. And in that appreciation is joy. “Rejoice always”, Paul says: the path to joy leads from noticing to appreciating, to giving thanks. Walking the path, we find the joy God intended.

That joy waits to become an exuberant presence in us when we stop seeking happiness through our own desires. David Grayson says in his poem, Mornings Like This,

Mornings like this: I look
about the earth and the heavens:
There is not enough to believe—
Morning like this. How heady
The morning air! How sharp
And sweet and clear the morning air!
Authentic winter! The odor of campfire!
Beans eighteen inches long!
A billion chances—and I am here!

Mornings like this: rejoice always!


The Garden of Advent 2:
Planting Peace

The Garden of Advent 2:
Planting Peace

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Second Sunday in Advent/B • December 10, 2017

Many of you know I love sailing. I grew up reading sailing magazines that always featured beautiful boats and tanned, short-haired, smiling men who were clean cut and had great sunglasses. Last summer, I went sailing for five days on my own, At the end, I was exhausted, tanned, hadn’t eaten much in a couple of days and hadn’t shaved in a week. My hair was dirty and grey and wild and I took a selfie. It was at least disappointing. I didn’t look anything like those intrepid young men in the sailing magazines with $300 sunglasses and perfect hair. So I put the two together with the heading, “What sailors think they look like…and what they really look like.” Just a joke, but one with some truth. We all have a picture in our minds of what we look like and it may not be accurate. Since we don’t really know, we all use mirrors to get a reality check. Of course, there are the ones that simply reflect light but people can be mirrors as well, they make comments, they tell us things about ourselves. Institutions need mirrors too, ways to take a real look at themselves. I’ve always thought one of the great things we learn from studying other religions is how to see our own better. So today I want to hold up Islam as a mirror to help us understand deeper the coming of God into the world.

Just as Christianity comes from a specific individual named Jesus, Islam comes from Mohammed, who was born almost about 1,500 years ago. Even as a child, he sought out a unique connection to the divine. When he was 40, he had an encounter he described as a visitation from the angel Gabriel and received a series of visions. A few years later he began to preach these. The core of this teaching was simple. To the pagan people of the time who believed in many gods, he proclaimed that Allah, God, was one, and that right action consisted simply in complete surrender to God; ‘Islam” literally means “surrender”. He said he was a prophet. This occurred in the city of Mecca and, like many prophets, Mohammed was met with resistance and hostility; soon he fled with his followers to Medina. There he organized a community and a war band that conquered his former city and within a few years spread this new faith throughout the Arabian peninsula.

The Qu’ran contains the text of the revelations that Mohammed received, summarized by this fundamental creedal statement that every Muslim proclaims: ”I testify that there is no god but God, and I testify that Muhammad is a Messenger of God.” In practice, Islam focuses on life as a struggle to conform the self to submission to God; this process is the real meaning of the word ‘jihad’. This is done through acts of mercy and charity and through a discipline of five prayers daily. Submission to Allah leads to ultimate peace and the Qu’ran spends a great deal of time detailing the difference between the fate of those who succeed at this and those who reject it. Muhammed saw and understood his connection to older sources of inspiration, calling Jews and Christians people of the book. He believed Moses, and the other prophets known through the Hebrew scriptures along with Jesus were also prophets; he saw himself as the final prophet, completing their work of revelation. In that sense, like Jesus, Mohammed is a prophet of the gospel of God and the goal of that gospel is peace.

Both Jesus and Mohammed are part of a response to the human ache to see God coming into the world. We heard another prophet, Isaiah, say,

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. [Isaiah 40:9-11]

“Here is your God”—How do we proclaim that with our lives?

Our scripture lesson today starts with this line: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” It’s actually a poor translation of the original line; there is no “The” at the start, the line actually reads simply: “Beginning the gospel of Jesus Christ, son of God.” So we gather today and the text asks us: how will you begin the gospel?

What is gospel? It literally means ‘good news’. The term had a specific political history before Mark used it here; it’s the term that was used when the Roman armies reported battlefield victories. It’s the term the Roman Emperor Augustus used about his successes. So first, we should understand that when Mark chose these words, he was making a political statement: that good news came from God, not from the empire. Second, is making a claim with his statement: we are at the beginning, we are beginning, the good news brought by this child of God, Jesus.

One thing Islam can contribute is the series of disciplines which form the core of its practice. Consider the discipline of five prayers a day. Could we do that? Could we stop what we’re doing, five times each day, and intentionally, seriously pray, seek God’s presence? There is a force to external disciplines. Christian practice has them as well, of course, and Islam reminds us to go look in our own closet. When we do, one that we might find is the Advent Calendar. These come in so many shapes and sizes and often today they’ve been taken over by the notion of a little gift or reward each day. But the real Advent Calendar is simple: a specific list of something to do each day that will begin the gospel in your own life. It’s a list of seeds to plant in the garden of Advent.

One of those is certainly peace. We are living through a moment when the dark clouds of war threaten and it’s more important today than perhaps ever before for us to say this: Christian faith leads to peace. Today so many Christians are taking up the sword of the Crusades; one Alabama preacher talked recently about “the Christian God” as if God was not one, as if there was somehow a unique God for Christians. That’s heresy; that’s a lie.

In Deuteronomy, Moses teaches, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one”; Jesus teaches that loving God is the ultimate path and as we saw Mohammed proclaims the one-ness of God. There is no Christian God, there is no Jewish or Moslem God, there is only the one God and creator of all. And in that unity, we are called to find unity and peace, to become channels of peace in our acts, in our lives.

Last week, I talked about the symbol of the Tree of Life as a way of understanding God’s love. Mohammed is also interested in trees and one that has particular significance in his testimony is the date palm. Planting a date palm is a special act of charity in Islam, a sign of hope in the goodness of God, of submission to God’s goodness. What are the ways we are proclaiming in action the goodness of God in our lives? What trees are we planting?
We have so often focused on belief in churches; it’s time for us to focus on what we do. Today we read the story of John the Baptist and it’s important to hear in that story one word that rings out like the bell in the morning: “Repent”. Now repent means changing direction: changing behavior.. Taken with the opening of Marks’ book, it means to get ready for something new, something wonderful.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not that good at new. When I start to plan a new season of worship, I often look back at what we did last time. When I come to Christmas, I expect things to be put where they were last year. I value the security of tradition. But I hear these words: repent—begin the gospel. And I know it means me. Does it mean you?

The Garden of Advent 1: The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

First Sunday in Advent/B • December 3, 2017

Mark 13:24-37

I grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, in one of those sprawls of postwar houses that turned farms on the edge of a city into communities of families. The builders knocked down the trees but there was a little wood lot a few blocks away. I call it a little wood lot now but in those days, to small boys, it seemed an endless primeval forest where trees loomed and shadows held secrets. Later, I moved to Michigan, with its rolling hills and trees and still later to Massachusetts and then Washington, places where trees were as common as grains of sand,, part of the canvas on which lives were painted. Perhaps you also grew up where hills define a horizon and trees are scattered, so you may understand the shock of my first encounter with the desert. A few years ago, Jacquelyn and I flew to New Mexico and drove north through the great southwestern desert and I was overcome by the space and light. Flat, reddish ground spread out and neither sight nor sun were limited. Wherever you looked, the trees were small and struggling or absent. It was shocking, it was stunning, to be without towering trees and when we finally reached the forests of the Colorado mountains, I was happy to embrace them again.

All this is simply introduction, an invitation to the vision of Genesis we heard this morning. Because it may be that you also have taken trees for granted, have passed green gardens without noticing. But the people for whom Genesis was written were desert people, people more familiar with the flat, treeless wastes of wilderness where the presence of an oasis and a garden was not only remarkable but miraculous. Come listen to Genesis with their ears; come see its story with their eyes.

Genesis means origins or beginnings: it’s the story of where we come from, told with a purpose: so we will understand better where we are going. Long ago, according to Genesis, the Lord God made a misty rain fall on the desert and, as deserts do, parched and waiting forever, the desert bloomed and everything that is was created. There were flowers and fruits and bugs and bunnies and things we can hardly name. And God, wanting to share creation, made a human being, breathed in the soul of life. Then, seeing the human was lonely, God made another, and created the possibility of love, mirroring the way God loved the creation and the beings. God placed them in the garden, in a garden where the central feature was a wonderful, huge tree, the tree of life.

The Genesis story wanders off to another tree, the tree of the experience of good and evil and its choices but I want to stay with the tree of life today. Do you know about trees? Have you ever laid in the shade of a tree in the summer? Have you climbed a tree, making the branches into a ladder that becomes ever more precarious the higher you climb until someone stands at the bottom and calls, “Come down from there!” Genesis says the garden was full of things that were beautiful to look at and good to eat: trees produce both.

For eight years, I lived in a part of northern Michigan were the principle business is growing trees, cherry trees mostly. All of life revolves around those trees: when they are pruned, when they blossom, when they are sprayed, when they bear, when they are picked, how well they are doing. A cherry orchard takes about five years to reach maturity and then it bears for another five years and begins to die off. Cherry farmers pluck the trees then and burn them and plant new trees. I left that place in 1995 and it’s amazing to think that none of the orchards I used to see and enjoy both for their beauty and their fruit still exist. In 20 years, they have borne and died and been plucked and new ones planted who in turn are perhaps now being plucked.

For gardens have a rhythm and so does creation. It’s easy for us, gathered in cities, to forget this; it’s easy to imagine the monuments we have built, unlike the garden’s trees, are permanent and everlasting. Jesus’ disciples are from small, rural places, and Jerusalem is the first great city they have ever seen. They are dazzled by its towers and the shining, golden dome of the temple King Herod had recently built. Yet its narrow streets and its plazas were a simmering cauldron of conflict. Less than a decade after this gospel was written, Jerusalem was destroyed and its people scattered after a great war.

In today’s reading, Jesus has describes the terrible violence he sees coming, the destruction of this great city, the suffering of its people. He goes on to offer this image about a tree.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. [Mark 13:28-30]

We live in a rhythm of creation; we look to creation to tell us where we are, in the season of blossoms, in the time of harvest, in the season when we, like trees, seem to lose life. Yet even in that time, there is something permanent, something that can sustain our roots and it is the tree of life, which is the word of life he brings.
God creates a garden, a place: we are meant to care for it and learn to care for each other. Robert Frost says in his poem Birches,

I’d like to get away from earth awhile

And then come back to it and begin over.

May no fate willfully misunderstand me

And half grant what I wish and snatch me away

Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:

I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.

If earth is the place for love to flower like a fruit tree blossoming, then indeed we should take our cue from the tree, just as Jesus said. The Shakers, one of the great spiritual communities of Christian history, were captured by the image of an arching tree. For the Shakers, the Tree of Life reminded them that we are sheltered by God’s love like a traveler pausing to sit under a tree. The Shakers believed passionately in the nearness of God, in the presence of God in moments. They knew God the way a cherry farmer knows trees: not as a distant principle but as a living presence. The United Church of Christ has a slogan that God is still speaking; the Shakers lived that reality.

Jesus invites us to something much harder than action. To act, to do something, that’s always our instinct isn’t it? Fix the problem, right the wrong, fight the good fight. But see what Jesus says at the end of this long story of violence. There is no call to take up arms in a fight, even a fight for justice. Instead, he calls us to awakened waiting. He doesn’t tell his followers to hide or choose a side; he tells them to live in the rhythm of creation. Like someone watching a fig tree get ready to blossom, he says, the collapse of the world in violence is a time for awakened waiting because God is near.

Awakened waiting means living day to day aware that we are sheltered by the tree of life. It means listening to God each day, hoping to hear God’s direction, believing that God has cared for us, will care for us but most importantly cares for us today. This is the hardest, I think. It’s easy to look back and see where we’ve been; it’s harder but still possible to chart a course forward. But now, right now, what about now? Can we live in faith right now, this day, this moment? Can we remember to appreciate how our lives are lived in the shelter of the tree of life?

This is Advent faith: to believe we live in the shelter of the tree of life, to believe we live in the arms of a loving God, to believe that even in death we are held firmly by a love that will not let us go. This is the word of life: like a tree that blossoms and then gives up its leaves, yet continues to give life, we are living in the shade of the tree of life, in the creation of the loving God. This is the season of Advent, a time when we are invited to live like the tree of life, getting ready to blossom, getting ready to wake, waiting in faith for the cry of a baby as God comes into our lives anew.


Light One Candle

Light One Candle

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Christmas Eve • December 24, 2016

What did you bring with you tonight? Who did you bring? I am so aware that especially on Christmas Eve, we come here with so many memories. Some here are in a place that has served as a lighthouse in the sometimes troubled seas of life: a constant point of reference, a place that is familiar and comforting. Others haven’t crossed the threshold of a church in a while and may be a bit nervous; to you we especially say, welcome, we promise, you’ll get out of here unhurt, safe and sound.

We all bring memories. Perhaps you remember being a child, bundled up, taken to a church, made to sit still, hushed when everything in you is vibrating with expectancy. Maybe you sat with family later on as an adult or you came to church hoping to recover that joy, that hope, that light. Of course, we come here as well with more recent experiences. Things happened this week; there are victims of violence today who were happily getting ready for Christmas last Saturday. There are refugees today who are traveling, just as Mary and Joseph traveled. And there are babies. A picture of a baby that moved me this week showed a baby in Aleppo, Syria, sleeping in a cardboard box. And tonight we read Luke’s story of another refugee baby named Jesus.

The Story of Jesus’ Birth

We all know this story, or think we do. But if we delve into the details of the Bible story instead of the greeting card version, we may be surprised. The story starts with big, threatening people: Emperor Augustus, Governor Quirinius. They are the Donald Trump, the Andrew Cuomo of their moment. They’ve ordered a census, a count, and the reason as Luke’s readers know is so they can tax people. This story starts with people on the road, forced there by a government of the great and powerful.

But it’s mostly a family story. Just before the section we read, Mary finds out she’s pregnant. What does she do? She runs off to Aunt Elizabeth’s house: she goes to family. There she finds the strength and faith to return and bear the child. The journey to Bethlehem is caused by Joseph’s family connection. His line goes back to David and comes from there, it’s their ancestral home.. Joseph is going home and taking his fiancée with him. It’s the family that sustains them; it’s the family that lasts. Long ago, God said to Abraham and Sarah, “I’m going to make your family a blessing to the whole earth.” The great and powerful parade; the family endures, the blessing blossoms from them.

So this family, just at its beginning, slowly moves in the darkness of the winter toward the old family home. I’m sure they hope they can get settled before the baby comes; I’m sure they hope to find a warm, safe place for their first child.

But babies don’t wait, babies don’t care about convenience, so along the way, we read that the baby comes. Most of us have watched Christmas pageants that imagine a Holiday Inn with a No Vacancy sign but that’s not actually what Luke says. Big houses in Palestinian villages had a room called a ‘kataluma’, sometimes translated an upper room. It’s where you put guests; it’s where Jesus will someday gather his followers for the last supper. It’s this room that’s full and so these travelers do what travelers have always done, they sleep in a barn. The baby is born; they wrap him in swaddling clothes. The Syrian mother I mentioned put her baby in a cardboard box; Mary puts Jesus in the first century equivalent, a manger, a sort of box for feeding grain.

God works through babies

Do you remember the seeing a newborn baby? One of the first churches I served had lots of families having babies and I still remember the wonder of those hospital calls. I wasn’t a parent yet but I could still see something earth-shaking had happened. Later on, as a pastor in my own church, there were times I felt overwhelmed and defeated. One of the ways I learned to find God’s love again after hospital calls was to go to the nursery and just see the new babies there. Lasts summer, I came home from vacation when Rosemary was born. She was so tiny. She was born prematurely and I remember her stretched out, naked to the world, so vulnerable. Yet this is how God changes the world. Like lighting candles in a dark room, God works through babies born to bless us all.

The story of Jesus moves on. We started with the power people of the time, we end with the powerless: shepherds, a group of rascally boys everyone rolls their eyes over. But they have something the powerful people will never have: they have a vision, a light, a visitation from angels. This is a truly amazing thing: God is moving into the world but no one tells the powerful; the angels do not sing to them, do not visit them. Herod, the local king, in fact, according to Matthew, is going to have to ask some foreign wise men where all this happens. The powerful have no idea what’s going on; the shepherds are already on their way to the stable. God is working here but it’s not the powerful who get it, it’s the ones who are watching, who have room in their lives for the light of God. Do you have room? We have so much: this story asks if we will make room for God.

Light One Candle

In a moment, we’re going to light candles, beginning with the Christ Candle. The candles remind us that God began with the smallest of lights, a baby, a family, one cry in a barn, one child being born. I began by asking what you brought with you; now I want to ask what you will take with you. I want to suggest this: take the candle. Tonight, tomorrow, we celebrate the birth of Jesus; tonight, tomorrow, we remember God is in the world, God’s kingdom is within us, waiting and wanting to burst out. We are, each one, a light.

So take the candle home. It’s not a big candle; God doesn’t need big, God is great. Take the candle home: set it up. Light one candle. Peter, Paul and Mary have a wonderful song that says,

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago

Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart

And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts 
Don’t let the light go out!

It’s lasted for so many years!

Don’t let the light go out!

Let it shine through our hope and our tears. (2)

Take the candle, set it up, light it up. It’s a small candle. But then, we’re celebrating the birth of a small baby tonight and this is what he says about small. 

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches…

Light one candle: one small candle, one small light. See how God, who came to us in the person of a little baby, who created the light, can make the light a beacon of love. Let the candle remind you of that light, that love; let it remind you to shine, to become yourself a candle, shining with the light of Christmas, the light of God’s love.


Come, Emmanuel

Hear the Sermon Preached

Advent Directions 4:

Come, Emmanuel

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Advent/A • December 18, 2016

Jacquelyn and I are both historians, which means we see things and remember stuff no one else cares about. Jacquelyn wrote an award-winning paper on Britain during World War One. When Downton Abbey portrayed the beginning of that war as a time of somber foreboding, she went nuts: she knew that was wrong and she told everyone who would listen. Now maybe you’re an historian too but maybe you’re not. What’s important in the present often recedes in the past: I’m pretty certain that 2,800 years from now, no one will be talking about Donald Trump. That’s how long ago King Ahaz ruled. And I’m guessing somewhere someone is wondering, “I thought this was Christmas Sunday, why are we hearing about some old king?”

Ahaz and Faith

Ahaz is a descendant of King David, a much larger figure. The kingdom David ruled has been split in half; Israel, the northern half, has gotten together with some other small nations and they’re threatening to make war on Judah, the southern kingdom Ahaz rules. If you thought the confusing, violent world of the Mideast was a recent phenomenon, surprise: it’s been this way for 2,800 years. Ahaz is scared and the Lord is trying to give him some confidence, some faith. Have you ever had those moments, moments when you felt like everything was piling up, that difficulties and barriers and threats were falling too fast, like someone trying to shovel a walk in a snowstorm?

In the midst of this storm of threats, Isaiah brings a message from the Lord: do not fear [Isaiah 7:4]. But Ahaz does fear. Ahaz is looking around at his own troops, his own resources, and they aren’t nearly enough. So Isaiah comes again, trying to get him to look up instead of around. “Ask a sign of the Lord,” he says. But Ahaz, ah, Ahaz: he covers his fear with piety and refuses to ask, refuses to believe, refuses to rely on God’s providence. We’ve all heard the prophetic question, often quoted in sermons: “Who is on the Lord’s side?” The challenge Ahaz faces is opposite: “Is God on my side?” Ahaz doesn’t believe it, really. He’s like a hiker in the woods looking at an old rickety wooden bridge and thinking, “No thanks, I’m not going to try that.”

How God Works

How to respond to such smallness of faith, such blindness? Some people argue, some people push, some people demand but God has this other, amazing answer: a baby.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman[e] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.[Isaiah 7:14f]

A young woman with child, a baby, a son named Immanuel.


Who is this child? ‘Immanuel’ means “God with us”. God is sending a sign, the same sign God has sent over and over: a child who reminds us that in the winding way of the future, God is going to be present. And that God is present now. Ahaz doesn’t see that; Ahaz doesn’t feel that. Perhaps we don’t, certainly there are moments when God feels absent. Thomas Merton, one of the great spirits of the last century, said about this feeling,

“God, Who is everywhere, never leaves us. Yet He seems sometimes to be present, sometimes to be absent. If we do not know Him well, we do not realize that He may be more present to us when He is absent than when He is present.” Thomas Merton, “No Man is an island”

We might miss God; no one can miss hearing a child. They cry; they demand attention. They teach us to put someone before ourselves, they teach us to laugh in a whole new way. They teach us about faith in the future.

We act like we know the future but do we really? Many of you know Ken Winston, who has been coming to church here for a while now. Ken’s off this year to India, for a wedding. He’s been through a tough time and he’s spoken about it publicly here. Recently he wrote to me something that inspired me. I asked and got his permission to share it with you. Ken said,

This will, of course, be a very special Christmas for me, especially when I think of my frame of mind last year around the same time. I was off from work last Christmas. Not knowing if I would ever spend Christmas in a church again I tried to find a church that was open – any church – that had an evening service. After checking online I went to one in downtown Albany, but it was closed. I guess it must have been an old notice online. I drove around that winter evening trying to find a church to attend. I tried four, but they were all closed. So, I went back home alone, and to work the next day.

This Christmas will be so different, surrounded by family and friends and a wedding to attend to. When I think of it all, I am overwhelmed with gratitude especially to so many people that uplifted me and they didn’t even know it at the time, and probably not even today. Chief among them were all of you at First Congregational, who will always have a special place in my heart.

God’s Sign, Joseph’s Faith

God is giving a sign: and the sign challenges our faith in the future. Can you believe God’s love is working now? This is the failure of Ahaz. He knows the stories of how God worked a long time ago. He goes to the temple, he attends the services. But he can’t bring himself to believe God is working in his present, through him. He doesn’t trust God now: he doesn’t believe God can make a new future.

Look at the story of Joseph and compare it with Ahaz. Joseph is a young toolmaker who fell in love with a girl. Do you remember that? Do you remember how you couldn’t take your eyes off her, how he just seemed the center of the universe? Joseph is engaged to Mary. Maybe he’s family isn’t entirely pleased, maybe his mom thinks he could have done better. But they’re ready to accept her. Then she tells Joseph something fearful: she’s pregnant. Can you imagine the fear in Mary when she goes to Joseph, when he laughs and pulls her close for a kiss and she has to push him back and tell him? Can you see the confused, wondering look in his eyes as she tries to explain what the angel had said to her? She’s going to bear a child, a child of the Holy Spirit and his name is going to be Yeshua, in English: Jesus. It means “Deliverer”.

Mary leaves; Joseph has a decision: what to do? He’s a good man, a righteous man. Today righteous often means someone who is rule oriented and judgmental but here it means something like, “has a good heart”. So he decides to do what is kind: he obviously can’t marry her. He’s not going to make a big deal about it; he’ll do it quietly. But obviously, the wedding is off. Decision made, he goes to sleep. And while he sleeps he has a dream; an angel comes to him and says, “‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Do you remember what God said to Ahaz?—Don’t be afraid. Isn’t it striking how God says the same thing over and over? “Do not be afraid.” Here’s the difference: Ahaz, a king who has benefitted his whole life from God’s providence is very much afraid, afraid of losing his palace, his lifestyle, his life itself. But Joseph gets up and bets his life on a dream: he believes the angel. He marries Mary. He brings up Jesus.

O Come Emmanuel!

Every year at Advent, Christians sing the ancient carol, “O come, O come Emmanuel.” It’s a song that originated about 1,400 years ago. Think of it: see it, 1,400 years of Christians saying, come to us God, come Emmanuel. Emmanuel means “God with us”. We still sing it today. It is the ultimate pull of every human heart, to feel the presence of God’s love. We have a very fine purpose statement for our congregation but honestly?—here’s our real purpose: to keep believing, keep singing, keep demonstrating God’s presence; to keep opening the doors, so people like Ken, people like you, people like me, can come in and find a place where indeed, Emmanuel, God with us, is present, alive and working, loving, welcoming. We sing it in hope; we act on it when we, like Joseph, live from the dream of its fulfillment. We fulfill it when we treat every person we meet as a child, for it is precisely in the lives of children of God, whether they are infants or elders, whether they are young or old, male or female, that God is with us, today, tomorrow, forever.


Come to Christmas – Advent 3

Hear the Sermon Preached

Advent Directions 3:

Come to Christmas

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Advent/A • December 11, 2016

The question is stark and pointed, coming from a friend and mentor in a dark prison cell: John sends to ask Jesus,
“Are you the one?”—the one who was to come, the one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been hoping would appear and save us. It’s a very practical question to a man in a dungeon. Jesus replies in a way John must have understood; he refers to Isaiah, to a passage John would surely have known:

Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.

Jesus tells John that a time of transformation has come. Jesus is making a difference.

Does Jesus Make a Difference?

Does Jesus make a difference in your life? Does God make a difference in your life? The central claim of our faith isn’t intangible, it is the practical historical claim that God makes a difference in the world. When Isaiah preached the word of God we heard this morning, he wasn’t taking off in rhetorical flights of abstract theology; he didn’t describe in dense philosophical language an other worldly reality. He talked about the things that were around, the stuff of every day, the places everyone knew. His audience was the exiles in Babylon. Defeated and depressed, they felt God had abandoned them. But Isaiah says in effect, look around: God is not absent, God is going to work in your future in a way that is going to transform everything you see. The desert that stands between you and home—it’s going to be a garden; it’s going to blossom. The lame—they’re going to dance. And there will be a way home, a way out of exile, a way out of defeat, a way out of depression, a way back to living with the experience of blessing.

Now his audience may have been Jewish exiles, but this is a message we should take to heart as well. “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way, say to those with fearful hearts, Be strong, do not fear: your God will come” Doesn’t that sound like us? I don’t know about you, but my knees get pretty shaky some days. And don’t we all have nights of fearful hearts? We fret, we worry, we grumble. We see the way things are and wonder: will it ever change? what could make it change? what would make a difference? And the grumbling and the fretting is like spiritual sandpaper: it wears us down, it wears us out. Even Christmas becomes a burden. I once heard a parody of the Twelve Days of Christmas with the refrain, “The first day of Christmas was such a pain to me.” Christmas is notorious as a time of crisis for those who are depressed, for the lonely, in other words for those Isaiah addresses: those with fearful hearts. If your heart is fearful, if you get shaky knees, this is God’s word: Be strong, be patient—I can make a difference—I will make a difference.

What Difference Is Jesus Making?

As we walk through the advent season, we ought to ask what difference Jesus is making here, among us, here, in our community. The scriptures tell us over and over again that God specializes in transformation. Isaiah offers God’s word that even nature is transformed by God: deserts become gardens. James calls on the grumpy members of his church to stop doing the natural business of grumbling about each other and learn to wait patiently—that may have taken more transformation than turning the desert green! Christmas is an emblem of transformation and within the Christmas story, the angels are the ones who announce the joy of that new creation. Of course, the Christmas angels are various. Matthew’s version of the story tells of an angel who comes to Joseph; Luke tells us about Mary’s angel. The word ‘angel’ means messenger—I once suggested to the UPS man he was an angel in this sense but he looked at me like I was crazy—and though painters focus on the details of their appearance, faith focuses on the effect of their work. Over and over again, the scriptures symbolize God’s active, transforming presence by speaking of the angel of the Lord.

Christmas Angels

The Christmas angel is pictured in many ways. Sometimes the nativity sets give us a chubby baby with a little hook to hang over the arch of the stable. Other angels stand on their own and have long robes. Some have wings, some trumpets. The shepherds are easy to picture, everyone has seen unruly boys. The angels are harder to imagine. But the angels of Christmas are the spirit of its joy, of its promise, of its presence in our lives as more than a day of parties and presents. The angels of Christmas transform the desert into a garden, the lost into the found, the hopeless into the expectant, the disconsolate into the comforted, the lame into dancers. Sometimes it only takes a moment, a quick word, an unexpected kindness, a hand helping the helpless.
Notice that the vision of joy is not just for you and I and others people. It imagines renewing all creation.

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. [Isaiah 35:1-2]

God’s joy is for all creation, it includes all creation. So often we have settled for a small joy. Coming to Christmas means lifting our eyes from what is immediately here to the whole of creation. Coming to Christmas means lifting our vision from what has been and what is to what can be, to a future in which God’s presence bursts out like trees budding in the spring. Coming to Christmas means embracing the transformation of creation and that transformation begins by believing in the possibility of our own transformation, embracing transformation is Christ.

Transformation at the Table of the Lord

Peter Storey is a former Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, now retired. For forty years, he was part of sustained opposition to the apartheid government and its oppressive racist policies. He also served as chaplain to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island. He is white. When a black clergyman named Ike was arrested by the secret police in a very racist town, Peter went to the prison and was taken to Ike’s cell by a white Afrikaner guard. Peter said to the guard, “We are going to have Communion,” and he took out his portable Communion elements and set them up.
When it was time to give the Invitation, he said to the guard, “This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.” Peter said, “This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. Story says,

I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike, because we always give communion first to the ones that are hurting the most—and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to know too much about South Africa to under­stand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips-touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, “In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,” and very stiffly, the ward reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.”. . .
From that moment, the power equation between that guard and Ike was changed forever. God’s shalom had broken through at that makeshift Table.” [Peter Storey, “Table Manners for Peacebuilders,” Conflict and Communion, pp. 61–62.]

Real Angels

There are real Christmas angels. Some are sitting right here. They don’t have hooks in their back to be hung on the stable and they don’t carry trumpets or wear wings most of the time. They may not go in procession on Christmas morning but they are the storage house of wonder. Because of them, children at the homeless shelter will feel the joy of Christmas. Because of them, an older member will receive a special Christmas card. There is our whole work as a church in mission. There is the card sent from to a sick member. There is the homeless man who will be housed through our leadership. Isn’t this who we strive to be: messengers of God’s love. And when we are, when we are the best of ourselves, truly we are the Christmas angels.

Are you the one?

“Are you the one?”, John asks Jesus. And Jesus replies: see for yourself, see what happens when I’m around. People who can’t see the hurt around them get their eyes opened—the blind receive sight. People who can’t hear learn to listen. Good news is preached to the poor. Wherever Jesus comes, the angels of Christmas go, for the angels of Christmas are those who live in the light of the love of God. The angels of Christmas are not simply chubby babies over a rough stable: they are you and I and everyone else in whom Jesus dwells. This is what he said: love one another, love one another and you are mine. The scripture calls us the Body of Christ and so when we act in him, we are the messengers of God’s love. We are called to embody the evidence that God cares, that indeed there are angels watching over all. The old Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, says that every time a Christmas bell rings, an angel gets their wings. It is more Biblical to say that every time we embody the Christmas angel, the bells of heaven ring in celebration. For God delights in our love, God celebrates our efforts, like a parent praising a child’s successes.

Come to Christmas

The season is full of questions: what to get someone, where to go Christmas Eve, should we mail them a card? But all of these are nothing compared to this: will you be an angel of Christmas? Will you be the sign that God’s love is present, will you be a message of Christ’s presence? Will you make that presence shine in the line at Wal-Mart, in the aisles of Toys R Us, in the halls of the mall? The season of Advent asks: will you come to Christmas? John asked Jesus, “Are you the one”—Jesus replied: Look at the difference my presence makes. Today the whole world watches and wonders: what difference does he make to you?