What Day Is It?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

Matthew 25:14-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

All My Children

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

All Saints Sunday • November 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 215

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

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

Amen.

The Unperishing Spring

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

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

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

A Spiritual Winter

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

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

Matthew 16:21

Again, along the way,

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

Matthew 17-21-23

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

The Great Commandment

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

Do Bad to Do Good?

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

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

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have a Destination

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

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

The Unperishing Spring

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

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

Walk on, Love on

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

Amen.

Living Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

Matthew 22:15- 22

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

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

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

The Real Issue

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

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

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

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

We Belong to God

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

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

What’s Caesar’s?

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

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

Politics!

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

Bringing Our Community to God

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

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

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

Amen.

What Are You Wearing?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

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

19th Sunday After Pentecost * October 11, 2020

Philippians 4:1–9Matthew 22:1–14

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

Wrong Shirt, Wrong Time

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

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

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

Are You Ready for the King?

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

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

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

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

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

The Urgent Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living from the Mind of Christ Now

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

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

Philippians 4:1–3

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

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

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

Now he offers a standard:

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

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

What Are You Wearing?

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

Amen.

What’s On Your Mind?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 27, 2020

Philippians 2:1-13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philippians 2:5-8

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

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

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

Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

A Pillow In the Wilderness

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19

Hear the sermon being preached

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

—Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

There aren’t many stories that have two great songs about them. The story of Jacob and his dream has an old camp song, Jacob’s Ladder, which we’ll sing later and the Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven. We can enjoy the songs but what can we learn from the story?

To really hear the story means knowing where we are in the larger story of God’s people. Take Jacob, for example. Today we meet him in the wilderness, camping alone with a stone for a pillow. We heard the story of Isaac earlier this summer. Isaac married Rebekah and she had twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau was swarthy, hairy guy from the beginning, an outdoorsy hunter; Jacob was born second, grasping his brother’s heel, with a prophecy that he would supplant his brother. The name ‘Jacob’ literally means “The supplanter” and while Isaac loved Esau, Rebekah loved Jacob.

Early on, on a day when Esau came in hungry from hunting, Jacob was cooking but insisted his brother sell his birthright in exchange for food. Later, when Isaac is near the end of life, Rebekah helped Jacob fool Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Jacob, so Jacob became the next in the line of patriarchs. Esau threatened to kill Jacob and Rebekah sent Jacob away to protect him. Now he’s returning from that journey. Think how he must feel; think how tense and worried he must be about what kind of reception he will receive.

Just as we look back to a line of heroic people we call the Founders, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others, Israel had a series of patriarchs whose encounters with God were touchstones of God’s purpose. Abraham was the first, followed by Isaac, the child of promise, and now we come to the third, Jacob. The striking thing about these legendary figures is that not one of them shows up as a particularly morally upright figure.

We like to make up stories that show our founders in an idealized way—is there anyone who didn’t grow up hearing the story of George Washington and the cherry tree?—Israel remembered the good and the bad about their patriarchs. Abraham believed God but often wavered from the path of promise. Isaac is not portrayed as someone who ever understands what’s going on. Now we come to Jacob, the trickster, the supplanter, who always has an eye on getting ahead, even refusing to feed his brother until he sells his birthright, even cooperating in a fraud to fool his father and gain the inheritance.

There’s an important message here: God doesn’t just work with the good. Later this summer we’re going to hear that what God wants is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have in common, what sets them apart, is that whatever their lapses, whatever their failures, they always listen to God, always pursue God’s purpose when it becomes plain. That’s grace: that’s God’s love. And it isn’t just for the perfect, it’s for all.

Later in the story, we’ll see the principle again and again. Moses is a convicted murderer but he becomes the prophet who defines God’s next chapter with God’s people. David, King David, has so many lapses it’s hard to really tell his story without embarrassment but he always loved God and God always loved him. This is the first and most important thing to take from this story: God meets us not because of who we were, but because of who we can become. You don’t need fancy clothes or a great resumé to come to God’s party, God sees our hearts and embraces us when we hope in humility.

The story begins with Jacob setting up camp in the evening. He puts a stone under his head for a pillow. Even in the wilderness, we all seek some comfort. He has a dream. In the dream, he sees something where figures are going back and forth from heaven. It’s come to be called “Jacob’s Ladder” but the figure is actually what we would call a ramp. Long ago, human beings decided God must be up above and so with that way we have of trying to use the mechanical to accomplish the spiritual, they built huge buildings with ramps so that you could literally get closer to heaven, closer to God. In the Ancient Near East, these were called ziggurats. Priests went up them to lead worship at the top; later they came down to speak about what God wanted. In Jacob’s dream, figures, angels, are ascending and descending. Stop there for a moment; think how we often imagine God as inaccessible, we even have a song that describes God as, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes…” But here God is accessible and if we follow the Bible text with its ramp instead of the folk song with its ladder, heaven is even barrier free.

In his dream, Jacob sees God standing with him, and God recalls the history of the promise. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and your father and the God of Isaac, [Genesis 28:13a]” This isn’t a sudden intrusion; this is God reminding Jacob of the history of God’s promise. What comes next is a renewal of that promise and that purpose. Just as God promised Abraham, God promises to be with Jacob, to give him a place and descendants an to make his family a blessing to the whole earth. A lot has changed since God first announced this purpose to Abraham. People have lived, people have died; some have been faithful, some have not, there have been wars and new babies and treaties and discoveries. God’s purpose hasn’t changed; God’s purpose never changes. So if the free, forgiving embrace of God is the first lesson here, surely the second is the peace of God’s permanent purpose. 

We talk a lot these days about “getting back to normal” as if our memory of a time when schools were open, sports were played in crowded stadiums, and going to a restaurant was the way things always were. But the truth is, all that was a moment, a nice moment perhaps, but a moment. If we want to be a part of what is truly permanent, it doesn’t mean trying to get back to normal, it means going forward pursuing God’s purpose.

Jacob reacts to all this in such a human way. If you read it seriously, you have to laugh. When he wakes, the first thing he does is to say that God is in this place and name it “Bethel”, which means God’s house. Then he takes the stone, as if any of this has to do with the stone, and sets it up as a marker. Isn’t this just like us? How many things do you have that you can’t get bear to lose? We’re doing a lot of cleaning up and tossing out this summer. I have some boxes I’ve moved more than 20 times that contain notes from my high school girlfriend. I don’t know why I’ve kept them. We parted long ago, I’m sure I wouldn’t even recognize her today if we met on the street. But there they are.

It’s the same with churches. We become attached to stuff in our churches. Just like Jacob setting up his stone, we think we need things because they’ve always been here. Years ago when I was working with a committee on furnishing a new worship space, we had a long discussion about chairs versus pews. The chairs were promising, more comfortable, more flexible. But the issue was denied when most of the committee said, “It’s not church without pews.” I honor and value the historic things here. But I know this: it’s just furniture. The communion table is just a table. The baptismal font is just a baptismal font. This pulpit is just a wooden pulpit. What’s important isn’t the furniture, what’s important is the spirit. Without the people of this church, without our working together, without God’s spirit, there would be no church. Without the table and the font and the pulpit, we would still be a church. 

The final moment of this story may be the most important of all. It’s beyond what we read today but in the next verses, Jacob chooses to take his place as a patriarch, he promises to serve God, to follow God’s purpose. The stone he sets up is just a stone; the choice he makes will set his course for a lifetime. He will become the father of the tribes of Israel; his youngest son Joseph will have a dream of his own that will make the next chapter of God’s people.

What about us? So often we are like the lady in the song, trying to buy with our goods or our goodness a stairway to heaven. Jacob’s dream is here to remind us the way to God is free and waits only for us to walk humbly with God, for us to seek God’s purpose. This is a wilderness time: we’re all going through unfamiliar things. In this wilderness, instead of lashing out in anger or holding on to a memory of normal, perhaps we should find a pillow, lay down, and wait for God to come to us, so that we too, in our time, may understand how we can serve God as part of God’s purpose. For indeed, as Jacob said of Bethel, if we look closely not at this building alone but at the people it embraces, we will say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”

Amen.

Places! Action!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

July 12, 2020 • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Matthew 14:13-21

Places! Action! If you’ve ever been in a play or movie, you’ll recognize those commands immediately. A stage is a strange and wonderful place from behind. As an actor, you stand to the side, often hidden just behind hanging curtains, familiar props and sets arranged just over there. Then the director speaks: “Places”—and you hurry to find the exact spot from which you begin. A second command—Action!—and everything begins. Of course, the real beginning was long before. Perhaps months before you heard about the show, you noted the audition time, you showed up, read something, answered questions and then waited, the long wait until finally the list is posted and you discover you are playing—whoever. “It’s not a lead,” you tell your friend, but all the while you’re thinking how to make the part shine as if it were. You gather at the first rehearsal, read through the play, and then there comes the first day on stage, a bare stage, just a dirty, dusty stage, and it seems to take forever to get everyone sorted out. When it’s done, you gather to get directions. Then the first real rehearsal, and it begins with the director saying, “Places!  Action!” Long before those words on opening night, long before the first curtain, you have been practicing, practicing, practicing, finding the place—”Places!”—rehearsing the steps, the motions, the words  Action!”—so that when it counts, when it really counts, all it takes is those two commands to set you in motion, to create the wonderful experience of drama. Now reading the story of the feeding of the five thousand this week, what occurred to me is that this is really Jesus doing the same thing. He’s rehearsing his followers, he’s showing them their place, he’s calling them to action. Jesus is rehearsing us so we’ll be ready for our parts.

The story of feeding of the crowd is the only miracle story in all four gospels. Matthew sets it in loneliness.  Jesus’ friend and mentor John the Baptist has been killed, executed by the king after a lurid conspiracy. Imagine the fear and grief that death must have inspired. So Jesus does what we sometimes do, he withdraws. The text says that he went to a lonely place. He means to get away, to pray, certainly to grieve, clearly to think about his next steps.

But the crowd won’t let him get away. He takes a boat; they run along the shore. Finally, the text says, “He had compassion on them,” and he begins to heal and the day becomes full of touching and celebrating and people pushing and pressing. We’ve ll heard this story before and it’s easy to rush past this introduction. But stay there a moment, feel that moment. You’re tired, you’re sad, you’re overwhelmed and yet others demand your attention, your care. What do you do when you’re empty? Isn’t this the first miracle of this story, that at a low point in his life, Jesus sees the very people he meant to avoid and had compassion on them? 

Finally, late in the afternoon, his followers—you and I!—approach him. We’re good staff; we know he’s stayed too long. “Send these people away,” the disciples say. They’re smart; a hungry crowd can turn dangerous. Maybe they’re exercising some compassion too, doing it by way of planning. “Send them away to buy food.” In other words, tell them to go, and make their own way, feed themselves. 

Now Jesus, turns to his disciples, looks over their heads at the crowd, the empty crowd, and simply says to his friends, “You give them something to eat.” Think of it: imagine a crowd here, staying too long, imagine if we hadn’t planned food, hadn’t made phone calls, hadn’t assigned who would bring what, when, just imagine if I stood here and gathered the council and said, “You give them something to eat.” Wouldn’t we be like the disciples? They immediately make excuses: “we don’t have the money, we don’t have the food, we don’t have enough.” If it was now, we’d add, our insurance won’t cover this. This is the excuse of the church in every generation, in every place, “We don’t have enough.”

Of course, you know what happens. Someone—according to a different account of the same event, a small boy—someone offers up some bread and some fish and it turns into the first fish fry; French fries hadn’t been invented yet, so all they have is good rough peasant bread, the flat bread common in the area, and small fish, like chubs or sardines. I see this as the beginning of fish tacos. Somehow, everyone is fed. All week long, preachers on a mailing list to which I belong have been arguing: is it a miracle? Did they share? Was it something supernatural? If it isn’t supernatural, can it still be a miracle—is sharing itself a miracle? You’ve heard both sides I’m sure at various times. Here’s my question: does it matter? Here’s what happens: the crowd is hungry, they share what they have, Jesus blesses it, breaks it and it turns out to be not just enough but more than enough. Miracles happen when we do what Jesus commands even though we don’t understand it. He blesses what we do and it is enough.

Don’t take my word for it: look for yourself. Here’s an example. Any out three months ago, this terrible pandemic meant we had to suspend having worship services here in our beautiful building. It’s how we’d always done things since 1919 except in August when we did nothing. But   we thought, we experimented, Dave Petty contributed expertise and some equipment, Jim Dennehey found enough money in the accounts to buy a video camera and we set out to stream an online worship service. We’re still figuring it out, to be honest. But one thing is clear. Every week, this service is watched about 100 people, about four times our previous average worship attendance. Is that a miracle? 

We never think about what the disciples did after Jesus told them to feed the crowd. But what they did was simple. They went to work anyway. They hoped anyway. They had faith anyway.  They found someone with five loaves and a couple fish. These knew as well as you or I that five loaves and a couple of fish aren’t going to feed a crowd that size. But they took what they had and they began to distribute it. They hoped, they believed, they worked. That’s what happened here. We hoped, we believed it was important, we worked. We made changes, some of them difficult, and we held our breath. Today, our church is growing in ways we never imagined. For the first time in memory, we’re going to offer services in August. It’s a miracle.

What’s the point of the story we read  today? What does it have for us? This, I think: Jesus is rehearsing his followers and that includes you and I. He’s saying to them, “Places!”— “Action!”. Jesus never intended to do all the work of ministry. God didn’t set out to save the world in one strait jacket supernatural burst; instead, God starts with a family, Abraham and Sarah, as we heard last month, and history, growing them up, just the way we slowly help children to grown. Jesus doesn’t do it all himself; what he does is to teach his followers the rhythm of sharing, the rhythm of ministry, the method of being the body of Christ. This is the principle he teaches: miracles happen when we say yes to Jesus’ command, offer all we have, receive his blessing and generously share.How does it start? It starts with Jesus’ compassion. Where do you think that compassion is today? When have you felt that compassion? How does it continue? It continues when we hear him turn something over to us. What is he turning over today? What need is he telling us to meet: where is he saying, “You give them something to eat!” today? It goes on when we share what we have in faith. Faith doesn’t mean we think it’s enough; faith means we offer it believing he can make it enough. It goes on when we act at his command to share what he has blessed. Where is Jesus in your life? How is that blessing shared?

The feeding of the crowd isn’t a final event; it’s a rehearsal. “Places! Action!” didn’t stop there and it hasn’t stopped yet. Today, as then, tomorrow as today: Jesus turns to us, in his compassion, to say, “You give them something”. May we do it, Lord, may we do it in faith, in hope, in love.

Amen.

Bound for Glory

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 020

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year A • June 28, 2020

Genesis 22:1-14

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” That thought occurs at least five times explicitly in the Bible and the concept of the fear of the Lord occurs many more. What is fear? What is wisdom? For us, wisdom might mean being smart; for scripture, wisdom is the practical guide to how you live your life. For us, fear is being scared, concern about imminent danger; for scripture, it isn’t about something scary but about taking something seriously. We wear masks because we take the threat of spreading a virus seriously. So another way to translate this verse might be, “Taking God seriously is the guide to living your life.” We’ve been reading the stories of Abraham and Sarah the last few weeks and today we finish this series by hearing a story that challenges us. Rabbis call it “The binding of Isaac,” Christians usually call it “The sacrifice of Isaac” and Muslims can’t agree on whether it’s Isaac or Ishmael being sacrificed. Moreover, if we stand back from the story and look at it as a whole, Isaac is hardly there; this is a story of Abraham. My title would be, the test of Abraham.

Remember that Abraham and Sarah have lived their life moved by God’s promise to give them land, children and make them a blessing to all nations. When the promise seemed to be failing, they arranged to have a child by an Egyptian slave named Hagar; last week we read how Hagar and her son Ishmael were exiled and doomed until God heard their cries and sent an angel to nurture them and give them hope. We read how the promise of a child mad Sarah laugh because she was too old for child-bearing, so when the child was born, she named him Isaac, which means laughter. He must have been a great joy and from the beginning he was understood to be a child of God’s promise.

What’s been happening since is life. You know what I mean: all those daily things we hardly remark. It’s spring and the lambs come. The dryer breaks down and you have to get a new one. The rains come and the basement floods. Someone gets sick, hopefully they recover. Kids grow up. Abraham was already old when Isaac was born; so was Sarah. They’re older now, maybe thinking about turning things over to Isaac, retiring.  

Suddenly, in the midst of his day, there’s God again: “Abraham!” His response is immediate: “Here I am, Lord,” just like the song we sing. Was it like hearing from an old friend, someone who isn’t on Facebook so you lost track of them? Then they show up somehow, maybe a class reunion or a chance encounter and you’re glad to see them. But surely he isn’t glad in what follows. “After these things,” the text says, “God tested Abraham.” 

Notice how the story focuses on the relationship between Abraham and Isaac: “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love…” Isaac is the late in life child of  promise. He actually isn’t Abraham’s only son but Abraham thinks he is because Abraham thinks he’s already sent his son Ishmael to death in the desert. Isaac is his last chance to fulfill the promise his life has been built around. So it’s hard to imagine the terror of the next words.

…go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you. [Gen. 22:2]

This is Abraham’s understanding. He lives in a culture where child sacrifice is common, so it’s easy to think that he would imagine sacrificing Isaac as a test of his faithfulness.

What would you think? I asked my friend Andrea, a mother of two sons and a faithful Jewish woman, what she would do and she said, “No way.” I thought about the time my son Jason had to have an operation that used a tiny video camera, how I couldn’t watch the video, I couldn’t watch them cutting my son. I’m with Andrea: no way. So if that’s what you thought, you’re in good company. It’s a curious because God’s Word elsewhere is horrified by human sacrifice. Centuries later, Leviticus will prescribe stoning for this. Still later, Micah will say, 

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” 8He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:7f]

So I wonder: is sacrificing Isaac what God wants?—or is Abraham running ahead of God, as he has often done, as we sometimes do.

What happens next is a journey. Notice how the journey is also a series of subtractions. Abraham starts out with Isaac, two servants, a donkey, and a pile of firewood. They walk three days and when Abraham sees the place, he leaves the servants and the donkey; Isaac has to carry the wood. There is an insight about tests here: we take them alone. Now the father and son “walk on together”; now they climb the mountain. Isaac begins to suspect something is up. He knows about sacrifices, you roast a lamb, one of the most valuable things they own, as a way of giving it to God. But there’s no lamb, just fire and a knife and wood and the Abraham and the son he loves. So they walk on until they find the place; Abraham builds an altar, lays the wood in readiness and then he ties up Isaac: “He bound his son”—see the stress on the relationship even here?—and he gets ready with a knife. “Then Abraham reached out his hand and took a knife to kill his son.” [Gen 22:10]

Have you been to the place of testing? Many of us have. Maybe it was in a time of grief; maybe it was in a time of sadness or depression. Maybe the darkness closed in and you didn’t believe it would ever go away. This is Abraham’s test and he passes it when he doesn’t kill Isaac, when he sees the sacrifice God provides, when he lets God provide. Abraham is bound for glory because from the first moment God called him in Ur he has been willing to change his understanding of what God wants and what God is doing. What Abraham learns is that God has a bigger possibility than he had realized. There is a message here and it’s simple: don’t stop believing on Good Friday because Easter’s coming. Don’t stop believing in the darkness because the glory of the Lord is going to light up the world in a way you haven’t imagined yet. Don’t sit down and give up because we have a way to go, we are bound for that light, that glory.

Woody Guthrie sang a song called Bound for Glory. It’s an old mountain spiritual, I guess it didn’t appeal to the more urban, middle class people of Congregational Churches, because it’s not in any of our hymnals. It’s not a hymnal sort of song, it’s the sort you just know and you sing without a book. The song says,  

This train is bound for glory, this train
This train is bound for glory, this train
This train is bound for glory

But riding that train takes some faith. That’s the thing about trains, you have to give up some control. You can’t steer the train, you can’t make the train stop or go, you have to have a little faith in the engineer. Abraham had faith in God and his faith carried him to a terrible place. After this place, Genesis doesn’t record Sarah or Isaac ever speaking to him again. 

But in that place, he realized God had provided. Throughout the story of Abraham, he tries to accomplish God’s purpose instead of waiting for God to provide. Finally, here, on this mountain, he does let God provide. That’s the real test of faith: can we believe God will provide.s Abraham’s faith became an emblem and his son, Isaac, became the next generation in the story of God’s promise, a story that goes on today, a story of which we are a part, a people a story of people bound for glory. 

We pray at least once a week, “Lead us not into temptation..” The original words of this prayer literally say, “Lead us not to the place of testing.” We don’t seek tests and we hope we will never face the sort of test Abraham faces. Yet we do face events and things that challenge us. In those moments, we want to do something; often what we need most is to wait. 

 I used to sing a song with kids and sometimes in church that went something like this: 

God gives us not just water, not just air not just land
but everything we need
Not just lions, not just dogs, not just cats
but everything we need.

It goes on and sometimes we’d make up lines: “God gives us not just sandwiches, not just potato chips, not just pickles but everything we need”. Two Sundays ago, we read how God came to Abraham and Sarah and provided the child promised when they had given up. Last week we read how God sent an angel to point out a well to Hagar and Ishmael when they had given up. Now we read how God provides the sacrifice when Abraham has given up and is about to do something terrible. God gives us not just Sarah, not just Isaac, not just Ishmael but everyone we need. God gives us not just you, not just me,  but everyone we need. 

The chorus of the song after however many verses you want to make up—and I warn you, if you do this with four year olds that will be a LOT of verses—the last line is simple: “So praise God, praise God, sing praise for God is wonderful.” 

Jewish legend says that the mountain in the land of Moriah where this all took place is the mountain on which Jerusalem is built. Jerusalem: where Jesus was crucified. Jerusalem: where Jesus rose. I don’t know if the legend is true; I do know that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I know that the glory of the Lord shines and the darkness never overcomes it. I know that we are bound for that glory, meant to make it shine in our whole lives. Amen.

LOL – Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational church of Albany, NY

By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15

Many years ago, when computers began to connect to each other, someone invented a way to have a conversation online. Of course, it wasn’t a regular conversation, there were no voices, just text that was typed in. The problem was that conversation is more than words: it’s feelings, as well. But we tend to share some of the same feelings over and over and it would be difficult to type them out each time.

Thus was born L-O-L, a term for “laughing out loud”. When your friend said something funny, you could type in LOL; when someone said something surprising, you could respond with LOL. LOL became an internet way of expressing that thing we do when someone surprises us in way that is good beyond expectation. Now, many of you know all this, and maybe you’re thinking, why are you wasting my time? I wanted to explain about LOL because I want us to all be together as we set out to understand the story we read from Genesis. You see, it’s all about an LOL moment.

In the heat of the day, Abraham and all his family are relaxing. There is a moment on really hot days when the heat itself becomes a presence, when things in the distance tremble, when mirages appear, when the world almost seems to melt. Abraham is dozing under some oaks, trying to find any bit of shade, He opens his eyes for a moment and sees three strangers approaching in the distance. At first they would have that shimmering, liquid look heat causes; at first, I think, he might assume he was dreaming. Yet from the first, I imagine Abraham waking, the way we wake if car lights flash and someone pulls in the drive unexpectedly at midnight. I imagine him watching just long enough to confirm this is no dream, no mirage, and then stirring, getting ready for strangers. 

Strangers are dangerous in the desert. They might be raiders; they might be guests. Desert culture then and now has a code of hospitality. So Abraham stirs; I think of him kicking his foreman, napping next to him, the man waking and looking, seeing the look of concern, getting up, waking the next person down the line in the pecking order and the whole camp stirring, so that by the time the strangers can be solidly seen, the camp is up. Abraham meets them at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality. “What do they want?” must be on everyone’s mind. 

Abraham offers hospitality in a humble language we understand. “Don’t get above yourself” is one of our cardinal virtues. Don’t ever announce you are the best cook, the best anything. “Let me bring a little bread,” Abraham says—and then goes back to the camp and orders preparations. Imagine the rushing around, the cooking in the heat of the day, the measures of meal  that must be kneaded by women sweating and straining, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a feast. If it were here, there would be deviled eggs and table decorations. If it were here, there would be sputtering about what does he expect us to do on such short notice—and then a determination to do more than anyone thought possible. it must be hours later when the feast is finally served,.

The strangers have relaxed; the people in the camp are exhausted. As is customary, women are excluded from the tent where the food is served and Abraham himself does not recline with the guests; he acts as the server. Still, people are people; this is a camp with many people. There are girls calculating the cuteness of the strangers, there is curiosity, and among the curious there is Sarah, who listens just outside, who wonders just outside the tent.

Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behavior for guests. “Don’t talk about politics or religion,” we know and it’s the same here. “Don’t bring up anything personal.” It’s the same here.  When the stranger   asks, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” it is a shocking violation of manners. Abraham tries to cover the rudeness by saying she’s off in the tent. The storyteller reminds us in delicate language that Sarah is well past menopause. And then the stranger announces, as if commenting on the unusual heat this year, in an offhand way, “I’ll be back this way in a year or so and Sarah will have a son.” It’s a birth announcement for a woman in her 90’s. I imagine all conversation stopping; I imagine a deadly silence, a conversational period occurring. 

This stranger has brought up the most painful, difficult, dark, private reality of life here. Long ago, this family, this couple set out on a life journey pushed by the promise of God that there would be children. No children have come; no babies have been born. Year after year, they waited; season after season they hoped. Time after time they must have prayed—and cried; raged, even sometimes at each other. Yet there was no child. Finally, there was no escaping the reality: the promise was broken, the time had run out. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women,” the text says: o child: no child ever. They must have grieved until their grief became one of those sadness scars one puts away; too painful to visit often, too important not to visit sometimes. So here they are, two people who have finally relaxed with the failure of the promise. And here is this stranger throwing their dashed hope in their face.

Hope is a scary thing. Hope makes us laugh and the laughter makes us vulnerable. Sarah and Abraham have stopped laughing about their hope. When the stranger makes his announcement, Sarah laughs, but it’s not the laughter of hope, it’s the laughter of derision; the deep belly laugh of all women in all times at the silliness of men who simply don’t understand things, don’t understand certainly about women and babies. Sarah laughs, laughs so hard that in the stillness of that moment, her laughter must have echoed in the tent.  “Oh my God”, I hear her saying, “Me, pregnant!” The stranger hears her and asks this simple question: Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It’s a good question and real faith depends on the answer. The truth is most of the time we are a lot like Sarah. We think lots of things are too hard for the Lord, so we do them ourselves, best we can. But our best isn’t always enough and our best comes with the certain knowledge that there’s only so much we can do. When Sarah gets too old for children, she knows it, she admits it, and she gets a young maidservant to have a child by Abraham so at least there will be an heir. We reel from a setback and try to make a new plan, we pound on the closed door of a dream until our knuckles hurt and then we give up. Sarah laughs, the laughter of despair

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” What do you think? A folk song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.” Practical people ask, “Well, what do you have in mind?” and there is no answer because it is the point of such hope that it is not in the mind, it is not rational at all. It often involves waiting when we want to act; it often means listening when we want to speak. Yet our whole faith is precisely believing in possibilities we haven’t seen. And sometimes they happen.

About 20 years ago, I was the pastor of a church with an old building enclosing lots of space and very few children. We had a large endowment; of course, the point of a large endowment is not to use it. So when a couple of new families suggested we create a Montessori preschool, everyone knew we couldn’t afford it. I knew it wouldn’t happen; I knew that despite all the meetings and plannings, the bedrock members of the church, who were closer in age to Sarah than to the two or three young moms wouldn’t agree to use the endowment for such a thing. But we went through the process and ended up, as Congregationalists always do, at a meeting, a meeting most of us expected to turn thumbs down. Then something surprising happened. One of the oldest, most bedrock women in the whole church got up to speak. She never said much, so this alone was new. What she said was even more surprising. She said she didn’t see what the fuss was about. The church had always had schools for children, and she talked about the 19th century school the church had founded. She pointed out that the local high school was started by that church. Finally she said that she guessed we’d have to vote but she didn’t see any reason not to use the money for God’s children; that’s why it had been given. There was silence when she sat down and when the Moderator called the vote, it was unanimous. The school opened; the school grew. Some of those kids from the first classes graduated high school this year. It had to make you laugh: LOL.

Now we’re being challenged as a culture and a nation to take up the hardest, darkest hurt in our history, our fundamental racism. We know it was wrong to work Jews to death so we don’t have Nazi flags or schools named for Auschwitz. But we haven’t always understood there’s not a lot of difference between what happened there and  what happened to slaves on American plantations. Some wonder whether we can actually make progress on racism. Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is this? The thing that gives me hope is that in our history, I know that every once in a while we lurch forward. The slaves were freed and when they were re-enslaved in segregation, that fell as well. God’s justice isn’t immediate but it is relentless and like a glacier slowly moving down a mountain, it finally finely grades down everything that resists it. The violence of racism may look like a mountain but it is a mountain being turned into pebbles

Is anything too hard for the Lord? We have the capability to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. Somewhere today, a baby will be born. Maybe his forebears were slaves; maybe they came from Africa or Haiti or Santo Domingo. His mother will laugh, like Sarah laughed but she’ll worry, too. What will life be like for him? Somewhere today a black baby will be born and I hope and I believe that by the time he is grown, he will walk without fear, he will live out his promise without being bound by the bonds of prejudice. His life will matter because black lives matter. That isn’t a slogan; it is the word of God. When we hear it, we ought to hear it as a reminder from God and act like it. And if we do, the promise of the gospel and the promise of that life will be fulfilled. I have that hope; I hold onto that promise because nothing is too hard for the Lord.

I read this story of Abraham and Sarah and this laughter and I want to add something. I want to type something in at the end: LOL. Because this is a story of laughter, a story of how the laughter of despair became the laughter of hope. We need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need the LOL of Sarah’s moment. We need to imagine more and more than imagining, we need to simply believe this: that nothing is too hard for the Lord. We need to get up each day not full of what we are going to do but prepared, alert, ready to see, to really see, off in the distance, God approaching. We need to listen for God to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed,  our laughter will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow, echoing God’s delight.

Amen.