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?


Come This Way! – Advent 2

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Come This Way, This Way Out

Advent Directions 2
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Advent/A • December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11:1-10

“Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” I hope never to hear those words because they are what flight attendants say during the evacuation of an airplane. If you’ve ever flown, you know how long it takes to board an airplane: the stop and go of the line down the jet bridge, the search for a place for your bag, stowing things and settling into your seat. It takes about half an hour to get a 143 seat airplane boarded and ready to go. It takes 90 seconds to evacuate it; that’s the FAA standard.

Who can say, “Come this way, this way out?

I can only imagine how confusing and frightening a landing that requires evacuation must be. As soon as the plane stops, flight attendants open the doors, blow the slides and then, despite their own fears, they stand by those doors loudly yelling, “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” In fact, they are tested every year on their ability to do this, with a critique if they aren’t loud enough. “Come this way, this way out! Leave everything, come this way, this way out.” Reading this scripture today, imagining the situation in which it was preached, thinking about our own situation today, makes me long sometimes for someone who can say: “Come this way, this way out!”

Who can give hope?

Here’s the background. God’s people have been defeated. Maybe you know what that feels like; maybe you’ve been part of a political campaign that lost, maybe you’ve been fired from a job or suddenly had your direction changed because of a defeat. This defeat of God’s people was violent and unexpected and at its end, King Zedekiah and thousands of Jews were taken captive by the Babylonians and forced into exile near what is today Baghdad. They felt, in the language of the scripture, “clean cut off”. Their sense of defeat deepened when King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, died. Who would lead them? Who would stand as the symbol of their nation? Who would give them hope?—hope they might return, hope they might have a future? That’s the moment into which Isaiah announces,

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. [Isaiah 11:1]

Coming Out of the Present and Into God’s Future

“Who’s Jesse? What kind of hope is this, based on someone I’ve never even heard of!” That takes a bit of explanation. Long ago, God’s people were ruled by a king who veered off God’s path. So God did what God always does when there’s a roadblock, what we do when there’s a detour: God backed up and tried again, took a different route. God sent Samuel to anoint someone who would be a new king, a righteous king. Samuel was sent to a man named Jesse and his son, David, was chosen. David wasn’t perfect but somehow God loved David and he became the emblem of God’s favor. So to say that a shoot would come out from the stump of Jesse is to say, “Don’t stop hoping, don’t stop believing: even an old stump can send out new growth.” And if there is new growth, if God can send up a new shoot out of the tree of covenant and care, there will indeed be someone to say to the people in exile, “Come this way, this way out.”

It’s hard to identify new growth. It’s hard to know who to believe when you’re desperate and looking for a way out. I once heard Tony Campolo talk about the difference between leadership and demagogues. He said that the problem of liberal churches is that for so many years we said there are no demons when people often felt defeated by them. So demagogues, false leaders, false prophets attract attention by saying, “Yes, there are real demons.” The problem is that demagogues go on to say, “The demons are in them!” So they lead attacks on some them: Jews, immigrants, anyone who can be defined as different. True leaders, on the other hand, know there are demons out there. But what they say is: the demons are in us and we need to change. We need to come out of our present and into God’s future.

Change isn’t something that occurs easily. One of the things that always makes me laugh is that here we are, Congregationalists, proud of our Pilgrim heritage, and yet who were the Pilgrims? People who gave their lives to changing their society. Bit by bit, they invented many of the democratic institutions we take for granted, from a written constitution—the Mayflower Compact—to the town meetings that originated as the Annual Meeting of Congregational Churches.

Coming Out and Changing

Here we are, Congregational Christians with this heritage and more importantly the emblem of the cross before us at all times, an emblem that reminds us Jesus gave up his life to change the whole world. Yet every time I’ve become the new pastor of a church, I’ve heard the same thing early on: “Please, don’t ask us to change where we sit.” Well, I understand that. I am sympathetic to that. I like where I sit, I like doing things the way I’ve always done them.

Traditions are rich for me. There’s a prayer I often share for the offering that begins,

“We offer here our treasure and our goods, and some of it is gold, and some is myrrh and some is frankincense.”

You’ve all heard me share this prayer. I learned it sitting in the Pine Hill Congregational Church listening to Harry Clark, who became my mentor, my friend, my spiritual father. Sunday after Sunday he shared it. When I became in my turn a pastor, I shared it every Sunday for years and then later as one among the offering prayers. I asked him about the prayer’s source once; he told me he had no idea, it was something his pastor said every Sunday and he just picked it up. It’s a tradition; it’s comforting. It’s where I sit.

Following Jesus

But there are real demons loose. And if I just sit comfortably, I am not following Jesus, who never sat anywhere long. We focus on the stories of Jesus; maybe we should pay more attention to the spaces between the story where we read over and over again, “Jesus was on the way.” But which way? What way out? Isaiah’s prophecy isn’t just that there will be someone to tell us, “Come this way, this way out,” it also tells us how to recognize this person.

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. [Isaiah 11:6-9]

The sign is peace; the sign is safety. When we make safe places, we follow Jesus.

Sometimes this is a personal moment. We know the demons of division are loose in our land. Recently, two Asian women went to an event in Brooklyn and then did what we all often do, they stopped at a cafe for something to eat. There a man began to loudly attack them. Apparently, he thought he could depend on others; that no one would stand up for people who looked different, for women. He was wrong. When the police were called, they refused to back him up. A man confronted the racist and the racist sprayed him with pepper spray and got arrested. There have been a number of similar incidents. It’s why many people are wearing safety pins today, a sign that says, “I’m safe and I will make a safe place for you.”

Making a Difference

Does this make a difference? It can make all the difference. The Jewish Foundation for the righteous lists many stories of people who rescued Jews during the holocaust. I was especially struck by something one said in response to a child’s question. He was asked if he considered himself a hero. Knud Dyby was a Dane and a member of the King’s Guard. When the Nazi’s conquered Denmark in 1940 and attempted to raise their flag over the capital, he helped take it down. He was a sailor and knew the best routes out of Copenhagen. In 1943, when the Germans ordered the round up of Danish Jews, he participated in the effort that helped over 7,000 Jews escape to Sweden. Asked, “Why did you risk your life to save total strangers?”, he said,

It was our duty, it was just something one did; …there was a sense of outrageous indignation that anyone would harm their fellow compatriots, their neighbor humans – their neighbor kids, their grandmothers, members of their community, no matter what religion they espoused. []

Perhaps these two incidents don’t seem connected. But the demons of the holocaust grew powerful years before. They grew when no one stopped the first Nazi from abusing a Jew in a cafe; when people looked away from the little violence of small moments.

Come This Way, This Way Out

It doesn’t happen often but it does happen: an airplane is stopped, the doors flung open, the chutes deployed and brave flight attendants stand at the door yelling, “Come this way, this way out, come this way, this way out.” So too, our mission is to say to those whose hope is dissolving like a sunny day overcome by clouds, “Come this way, this way out—out of the darkness of division, out of the darkness of hatred, out of the darkness of conflict and hate.

“Come this way, this way out”—there is hope and the emblem of that hope is Jesus, a man who offered his life as a picture of what it looks like to live in the experience of God’s love, the emblem of that hope is Christ, who invites us to make his life our lives. This is the invitation, the same with which we begin every worship service: “The peace of the Lord be with you.” It is a way of saying to the darkness, to the violence, “Come this way, this way out.”


You can read more stories about rescuers by clicking here

Come On Up! – Advent 1

Advent Directions 1:
Come On Up
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Advent 1/A • November 27, 2016

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Advent is an Interruption

Today I suppose many of us are turning from gatherings at which we celebrated the last great moment of fall, thanksgiving, toward the holiday season. In our house, that will mean brining boxes of decorations down from the attic, sorting through them, telling the stories that go with each one and putting them out. It will mean cleaning and making lists of things to do. Jacquelyn will be working on airplanes full of people traveling for the first time; I will be busy as well, considering our church has something planned for each weekend in December. We’ll all be busy. But here and now, today, God is calling in the midst of our lists and memories and decorating: stop! look! listen!—pay attention. God intends to interrupt us. Advent is an interruption.

The oracle we heard this morning is an interruption. We tend to take the Bible for granted, rarely remembering that somewhere, somehow, someone took bits and pieces, some written, some sung, some remembered and put them together into the books we know today. The Book of Isaiah starts out with a dark word of condemnation and then suddenly, out of nowhere, that Word is interrupted by this prophecy. The same prophecy also occurs in Micah; it’s as if God was saying, “This is so important, I want to make sure you get it so I’m going to repeat it!”.

The Lord’s Mountain is a Beacon

The oracle starts out with something strange because it’s not true today: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established as the highest of the mountains…” [Isaiah 2:2] Now anyone who knows the geography of Judah can tell you that Mt. Zion, where the Lord’s house is located, where Jerusalem is and has been for more than 30 centuries, is not by any means the highest mountain. It’s not the highest in the world; it’s not the highest in that area. What does Isaiah mean? What does God mean by saying that it shall be raised up? One image of what we raise up is the beacon. Since ancient times, people have raised up beacons along shorelines; we call them light houses. Groping along in the fog, sailing in a storm, light houses, beacons, raised up and shining forth are not only a guide but a source of comfort. All sailors know their home light house. Isaiah is asking us to imagine that in the future, Jerusalem is raised up like a beacon, like a lighthouse.

Now a beacon has a purpose and the purpose is to draw travelers. But this vision of Isaiah is astonishing because the travelers it imagines drawing include…well, everyone! “Many people shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.’” Who does Isaiah have in mind, who are these “many”? Only a moment later, Isaiah pictures the Lord judging between nations, making clear who the many are: all of us. Amazingly, surprisingly, it’s not just the nation of Judah, it’s not just the children of Abraham, it’s everyone, everyone is being summoned to walk in the light of the Lord.

Together-And Divided

All of us together, all of us walking together: that’s not our best thing as people. What we are best at is figuring out how different we are. In this culture, that often has to do with skin color. In other cultures, it has often has to do with religion. In some cultures it’s a matter of birth. Jacquelyn and I have been watching a series about Queen Elizabeth II, and the British royal family and it’s made me wonder what it must be like to have your whole life dictated by the family into which you are born. India has a system of castes and even today, though legally banned, the caste into which you are born influences your life. We mark differences by clothing, food, custom. When we come to a meeting, for example, we assume we will sit in chairs; two thirds of the world’s people don’t use chairs. How can we meet with them?

God’s Future: Inclusive

So when God asks us to imagine all of us together, walking together, it is an interruption; it is not what we normally do, it is not what we ever do. When will this be? “In days to come…” So now you know: now we know, this is where we are going, this is God’s vision of our future. This vision has three parts. First, it is inclusive: many come, nations come, peoples come and when they come, they are coming up from where they are to a higher understanding. This is not just a trip, it’s a pilgrimage, a place to experience God’s Word as a living reality: “For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” [Isaiah 2:3b] God means to interrupt our journey and invite us to a pilgrimage. Like a mariner anxiously wandering who suddenly sees the loom of a light house and knows his or her position, God is creating a beacon to show us where to go.

God’s Vision: Peace

Second, this is a vision of peace. “…they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” [Isaiah 2:4b] Did you catch the last part: war forgotten—“neither shall they learn war any more.” Rick Atkinson has written a series of books with a painfully detailed account of World War II. His account focuses on the individual experience of people caught in the war and in his first volume, An Army at Dawn, he traces how plain American men had to learn to become killers in order to win battles.

War is not natural; it is learned. Yet thinking over my life, I can’t think of a time we weren’t at war. I grew on stories from World War II and was born as the Korean War ended. I loved playing with toy soldiers and my friends and I endlessly acted out little battles. Perhaps like you, I remember the fears of nuclear war and atom bomb drills in schools. I was formed intellectually in the antiwar movement of the 1960’s and ordained as the Vietnam War ended. Much of my adult life has been lived with the rhetoric of a war on terror. What if that were interrupted: what if we stopped learning war?

God’s Vision: Walking Together in the Light

The third part of this vision is simple: walking together in the light. Isn’t this what we do when we are with someone we love? Early on in my relationship with Jacquelyn, I remember vividly how she told me, “I want someone to hold my hand.” We all want someone to walk beside. Bruce Springsteen’s song, Land of Hopes and Dreams, imagines a great train on the way to a land of hopes and dreams. He sings,
You’ll need a good companion now
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine
And all this darkness past
And then he goes on to describe the passengers on the train,
This train…Carries saints and sinners
This train…Carries losers and winners
All of us: saints and sinners, winner and losers, all children of God, all together, all on a pilgrimage.

Today and Tomorrow

This is not where we are today. We are still divided into groups. We are still learning war. We are still walking so often in darkness. That is our present. What Isaiah preaches, what God means to do is to interrupt that present with a hope about our future, a vision of that future.

Have you seen glimpses of this? I have and often the glimpses come in a particular circumstance. The Snow Goose is the story of a hump-backed man with a hand shaped like a claw so hurt by the way others draw away that he himself retreats. He’s a painter and a photographer and a sailor; he buys a lighthouse and a salt marsh in England and there he lives alone, sailing the shore and caring for birds. His name is Philip Rhyader, but no one calls him that; to the villagers who whisper about the ogre out by the lighthouse, he’s “that odd looking chap” or simply “Rhyader”.

But one day a girl from the fishing village comes to him, holding something: a wounded goose. She’s desperately afraid of the ogre by the lighthouse but she’s heard he has healing powers. So she goes to him, shows him the goose. Together, they work to splint the bird’s wing, together they nurse it back to health. Her name is Frith and one day, he hears something strange and wonderful. The goose is almost healed; she’s happy. And she calls him Philip. In the act of healing, Philip and Frith have become friends.

Advent is an Interruption

Isaiah’s vision is a reality meant to interrupt the reality we take for granted. Today as we begin the season of Advent, God means to interrupt us, interrupt our shopping, interrupt our plans, interrupt our lists to remind us that we are not people of the present: we are people of hope. I have seen the present but I have seen this vision sometimes, I have caught glimpses of it, and those most often when, like Philip and Frith, people share together in some healing, some peace making, some gathering. Then indeed, then quiet as a breeze or the beam of a lighthouse, everything is interrupted and I hear, we hear, the call to come up, up from where we are, to the hope of God’s vision; to come up and walk in the light of the Lord.