Rejoice All Ways

Rejoice All Ways

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Thanksgiving Sunday • November 20, 2016
Philippians 4:7-25

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, “Rejoice!” -Philippians 4:7

Times to Rejoice

On a cold December night in Michigan, my granddaughter Maggie was first slipped into my arms and I was so happy: that moment defined the word ‘Rejoice’. A couple days before, her husband had called and told me my daughter, Amy, had complications from the delivery. Jacquelyn, May and I piled in the car and drove through a snow night to Michigan. When we got there, the crisis had passed and we had the joy of this beautiful baby girl. We rejoiced.

Of course, I can think of other things that have made me rejoice: the simple, honest purity of a good breeze on the water filling the sails and the boat lifting, making the special music of a perfectly trimmed sailboat as she burbles forward. There is the moment, captured in my memory like a diamond on a girl’s finger, when I looked up the aisle of my church and saw Jacquelyn glowing at the other end, beginning to walk toward me at our wedding. I know you have a list of such moments and today would be a great day to share some with others at coffee hour.

Julie Andrews famously sang in The Sound of Music about “…a few of my favorite things”. We all have them. They make us happy, they give us joy, and I suppose that feeling, those things, are the first things that come to mind when we hear Paul’s command to rejoice. But he isn’t content with happy: he expands the thought to say, “Rejoice always.” How can we rejoice always? Because we do not live only in our favorite happy moments: there are all the other ones as well. How can we rejoice in those?

Paul’s Call to Rejoice

Paul is not having a happy moment. He was in prison when he wrote this letter; historians disagree on whether he was in Rome or Ephesus, but there’s no disagreement that he had been imprisoned and probably, as he says in other places, beaten. Paul was a disturber of Jewish synagogues and communities. More than that, the language he and Luke were starting to use about Jesus was a direct confrontation of the Roman Emperor. It’s always important to remember Jesus was executed for political crimes, for proclaiming the rule of God. Now, Paul and Luke and others are using the language of the emperor to speak about him. So it’s especially curious in that setting that in his final summary to the church at Philippi, he calls on them to rejoice. What does he have to be happy about? What do they? What do we?

Doesn’t rejoicing often come from telling stories? We gather perhaps for dinner, we tell stories of other dinners, other times and the stories help us understand who we are together, how much we are cared for in the circle of that gathering. Now we have a story as Congregationalists as well. It’s the story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving.

The Story of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving

There are many moments since Paul when the light of the love of God has become muddy with human rules and practices. Five centuries ago, a group of people in England just like us were searching for that light. They gathered, a few at a time, listened to the Bible, discussed it, prayed and began to imagine the churches they heard about there. They lived in a moment when churches had been hollowed out by human greed and jealousy. Bit by bit, they imagined and dreamed of a church that was purified and their opponents called them Puritans. Because the new church they imagined would have no bishops, it threatened the whole English establishment. So King James responded by arresting some, executing a few and pushing the others to emigrate. They moved to Holland, to Leyden. But the foreign customs and language there made them long for a new place, their own place and almost exactly 400 years ago, they began to arrange to create such a place in the new world.

Finally, in 1620, a group of them left their pastor and church, returned to England and made ready to sail. There were only 50 or so Puritans on board and another 50 people were recruited because they were carpenters or had other needed skills. They departed at the beginning of September; a sister ship, the Speedwell, went too but had to return when it was too leaky. They were at sea for 66 days. Two months, most of it spent below decks, with their goats and other animals. Two months where anyone over five feet tall had to bend because the ceiling was low; two months of the boat moving and rolling. They expected to land in Virginia; instead, they made landfall on Cape Cod in early November. Although they weren’t where they were expected, they rejoiced and their Deacon, William Bradford, led them in singing Psalm 100, the same Psalm we shared today.

After some exploration, they settled in the area we now call Plymouth, partly because it’s wide tidal beach made landing easy and it appeared vacant. In January—January in Massachusetts!—they began building houses, joining the single men with the 19 families to form groups. Over the next month, they built their community—and 31 of them died, a third of the company. By the end of that first winter, almost half the original community were gone. Did they have a reason to rejoice? Yet we find in their writing, a curious faith, a deep joy. Its source is their absolute conviction that, as Paul says, “The Lord is near”. Living near the Lord, despite the cold, the hunger, the sickness, they continued to rejoice. They made friends with local native people; they learned to plant corn. Children were born.

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving

That fall, with the harvest in, they set a day of community thanksgiving. They did what Puritans often did then, a tradition Congregationalists have mostly dropped: they held a day of fasting and humiliation. But at the end of it they had a party. And they did what we do with parties, they invited their friends and neighbors, in this case the local native chief. Much to their surprise, not only did he come, he brought 103 men with him. Now the Puritans, the people later generations would call Pilgrims, didn’t have a lot. They hadn’t figured out cranberries were good to eat but they had blueberries. They had corn prepared in various ways. Turkeys they had: these could be caught by hand. The native men looked around and realized that these people didn’t know about deer season; they left and brought several back with them. Perhaps that’s where the tradition of bringing something with you to thanksgiving dinner originated. After the feast, the native men did something else: they taught them a game we call lacrosse, a game that contributed to the beginning of football. So you see, even then they watched the game.

What Are We Celebrating?

The Pilgrim Thanksgiving was not the first by Europeans in America. But it spread throughout New England and then into places like Ohio and Michigan and across the north. During the Civil War, when President Lincoln was looking for a symbol of national unity, he was the first President to proclaim Thanksgiving as a national day, a day of unity, time to set aside political and social conflicts and celebrate our common gratitude for God’s blessings.

But what are we celebrating? At many tables this week, everyone will be encouraged to say something for which they are thankful. It’s a wonderful custom and I recommend it to you. But if our joy is measured by our prosperity alone, we will have missed the spiritual message. For thanksgiving is not pay back: get good stuff from God, say thank you like your grandmother taught you. Thanksgiving is a way to say, we know you are near God, we see you sustain us God, we know whatever happens, we can depend on you, we can believe in you, we can have faith in you. That’s why we can rejoice always: in prison, in freedom, in hunger, in prosperity: the Lord is near.

Paul points the way to make this thanksgiving a central part of our lives. He lists marks of Christian life: “..whatever is honourable, 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”. And then in a part beyond the set reading for today he says,

I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me. [Phil. 4:11b-13]

God’s Presence: a Reason to Rejoice

It is his consciousness of God’s presence, a consciousness honed in all the ways of life, in prosperity and in need, in fear and in triumph, that allows him to rejoice.
So also let us give thanks, not as repayment, but as rejoicing, rejoicing in all ways, in all the ways God has led us. Let us share the stories that lead us to thanksgiving; let us remember the stories of the Pilgrim Thanksgiving. They set a table but had no idea who would show up; so also, our table is always left open, always has room. From their little community would grow a great tradition of freedom, of thanksgiving, of rejoicing in all ways. Today we are their inheritors; today we also are called to rejoice always.


Do Over, Do Now

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Do Over, Do Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • November 13, 2016
Isaiah 65:17-25

“I want a do over.” I was standing in the cockpit of my boat, trying to back out of the slip. There were two things different about this time. First, we had an audience; some friends had come over to say goodbye. Second, it had gone totally wrong. Jacquelyn cast off the lines at the front perfectly. I put the boat in reverse, all 17,000 pounds started to move backward and then it stuck and swung the wrong way. Everyone hurried to help, but the boat didn’t respond. Finally I figured out that I had left one of the lines on the stern tying us to the dock connected; as soon as I untied it, we were fine. But I had looked ridiculous and created a dangerous situation and all in front of our friends. I wanted a do over.

“I want a do over.” The first time I remember hearing the phrase was from my son. We were playing with a basketball; some game where we took turns throwing it at a basket, trying to get to a score. He would miss and say, “I want a do over” and come up with some excuse, some reason: he was off balance, the ball had slipped: something. Later on, I came to the same feeling on my own, mostly as a parent. No one prepared me for the fact that parenting was so arbitrary, so make-it-up-as-you-go. There were so many times I wanted a do over. Have you ever felt that way? I wonder if that is how God feels about the world: “I want a do over”. In English, we have “Behold I make a new creation” but the Hebrew really says, “Look at me, I’m making a new heaven and earth. “I’m having a do over.”

Understanding Isaiah’s Word

We have to understand the setting to which Isaiah brought the word we heard this morning. God’s people had been disastrously defeated 80 years or so before, a defeat that shook their souls as well as destroying their nation. Thousands became refugees and many were taken into captivity in the foreign city of Babylon. Ever since, God’s people have listened to their grand parents tell them, “In Jerusalem, the gardens were better…in Jerusalem, the weather was better…in Jerusalem, the temple was better”. Now the Persian king has released the Jews and some have returned to Jerusalem. But they’ve gone home to something like Berlin in 1945 or Aleppo today: a wiped out city with ruined buildings. This is the moment in which Isaiah speaks this Word from God and he speaks it to people who must have thought, “We need a do over.”

Our Destination

So we have this Word and the Word really is about where we’re going. What is our ultimate destination? I’ve lived most of my life along the great parallel defined by I-90, a road that begins in Boston, runs through New York, loops south to take account of the Great Lakes, runs through Pennsylvania and Ohio, Indiana, Chicago, up through Wisconsin and Minnesota, then across South Dakota and Montana, where it rises into the mountains and snakes through the passes of Idaho before it flows out into the desert of Eastern Washington, jumps the Columbia River and ends in Seattle. I’ve lived in Seattle, I’ve lived in Boston, and no matter which I was in, I never forgot the one at the other end. I knew the road had a destination; I knew where it was going. God is offering a vision here of where we are going. I’m making new heavens and earth and this is what it’s like: you’re going to enjoy it, you’re going to build houses and live in them, have a vineyard and enjoy its wine. It takes a long time for vineyards to bear fruit but you’ll still be there. I’m going to be there and I’m going to anticipate your every want. Thirdly, the wolf and the lamb are going to lie down: in other words, there is going to be peace, even the natural world is going to be at peace. That’s where we’re going; that’s what the do over is for: that’s our destination. Don’t worry about the trip: God knows where we are going.

Jesus: Endure

The same faith flows through what Jesus says in the reading from Luke. Jesus is a rural person and so are most of his followers. Think how they must have been dazzled by Jerusalem; think how the big buildings, the sights, the sounds, the smells must have impressed them. They must have felt this was a permanent place. Yet now Jesus tells them it’s all going to be destroyed, desolated: “the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” Just 35 years or so after Jesus said this, it came true, and Luke’s readers know it’s true. Like the shock of Pearl Harbor or the towers falling on September 11, they are living in a moment of shocked grief when it must have seemed, as the poet Yeats said,

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
 Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

He goes on to warn them about the immediate aftermath: violent times, demagogues, false preachers, persecution. All these things have happened in the life and experience of the Luke’s audience. Yet at the end Jesus invites them to this one faith: that in the love of God, there is a permanent place: “…not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.” Our future is in the hands of a God who loves us.

What About Now?

So: we know where we are going—what about now? What do we do now? Because we know it’s not like that now. The wolves and lambs are not lying down together now. What we are doing is living between the past and that vision. These readings have two ideas about what to do now.

Work Here, Work Now

The first is to work here and now toward that vision. Someone said the Puritans were so effective because they believed everything depended on God but they acted like everything depended on them. They believed God’s faithfulness; they lived faithfully to God. Our nation has come through a long and divisive campaign. Some are triumphant today; many are despondent. But our future is in God’s hands. Our mission remains the same: to sustain here a community of care, where God’s love is evident in the embrace of people who have been embraced by Christ. The Rabbis say: if the Messiah comes, still finish your Torah study for the day. Work is the creative activity by which we are carrying out God’s will in the world. So we are called to work now, we are called to work here, for justice, for the embodiment of peace. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of forgiveness. We have been hearing this fall about the world changing effect of finding the lost. We change the world when we do this now.


The second thing to do is witness. Luke is writing about 15 years after everything he says in this section has already happened. The temple is already destroyed; people are already being arrested for being Christian. What Luke understands to be our job in the present is to witness. Don’t worry about how you do it either, Luke says. This part always makes me smile at books on how to witness. How do you witness? Live your life: that’s your witness. Live your life in a way that allows Christ to make a difference. A number of social researchers have looked at Christians and others in terms of their behavior; what they find is being Christian often makes little difference. Your witness is to let Christ make a difference in your life now.

Because Christ can make a difference, in good times, in bad times. In 1945, just before his execution by the Nazis for resistance, a German soldier wrote these words to his mother.

Dear Mother: Today, together with Jorgen, Nils and Ludwig, I was arraigned before a Military tribunal. We were condemned to death. I know that you are a courageous woman, and that you will bear this, but, hear me, it is not enough to bear it, you must also understand it. I am an insignificant thing, and my person will soon be forgotten, but the thought, the life, the inspiration that filled me will live on. You will meet them everywhere— in the trees at springtime, in people who cross your path, in a loving little smile. You will encounter that something which perhaps had value in me, you will cherish it and you will not forget me. And so I shall have a chance to grow, to become large and mature.

Amazing Grace

God’s work in the world through people who endure in faith is amazing.
The people that went into exile in Babylon did return and rebuild Jerusalem but they did something far more significant. While they were in exile, the stories, the teachings, the books that now know as the Hebrew Scriptures were brought together and given their final form. The kings and armies and politics of that time are just obscure footnotes read by historians today. The scriptures they brought together have inspired three great faiths and people ever since.
The little group, not as many as are here today, who heard Jesus and endured in their faith in him and his teaching and his vision of God’s reign did see the temple fall, did see the persecution but they endured. They kept his memory; they became his body. Through all our stumbling history, that faith continues today and we are their inheritors. In our lives, in our witness, it has, as the resistance either said, “..a chance to grow, to become large and mature.”

So grieve, celebrate, take a moment to bind up wounds and see where you are. But remember that where we are is not where we are going. Where we are going is in the hands of a God beyond our vision of greatness or defeat. When we grieve, we should not do it as people without hope, as Paul says, but as people who have put their hope in the God who doesn’t fail. The creative God who when all seems dark still can say: “I’ll have a do over: behold, a new creation.” Let us give thanks to God as we work, as we witness, as we wait for God to make the new creation.

The Architecture of Blessing

The Architecture of Blessing
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
All Saints Day • November 6, 2016

Some here today have an amazing history: they have been members for more than 50 years. We recognize and honor such long-term commitment and bless you for your steady, sure faithfulness. Then there are those of us who are newer members, who came here for a whole host of different reasons and have become part of this historic congregation. And of course, there is Rosemary, our newest participant: Rosie’s never been to another church. God blends us together, bakes us in the day to day of living our faith, and makes something wonderful: the bread of life.

Blessed by Our Building

One of the many things that bind us together is this building. Take a moment to look around; if you can, look over the side of your pew and see if there isn’t a plaque there remembering someone. Next year will mark 100 years since the groundbreaking for this building. But I’m sure it began long before that moment. The architect of the building was Albert W. Fuller. Fuller started training in 1873, 44 years before that ground-breaking. When did Fuller first imagine the building that became our church: did he always have the idea or did it come to him after he was commissioned? No one can really know. But surely long before he drew the plans, long before he showed the committee, he must have had a vision in his mind. Fuller imagined something unique and wonderful. “Greek Revival,” the style of the building, was not an obvious choice. He specified steel beams which allowed us to have this great, open area, at the time the largest open space in a building in Albany. He designed the pillars out front and I’m sure many other parts of the building. And when the building was constructed, I suspect Fuller inspected each step. The result is this wonderful space in which we worship. I never met Fuller; he died in 1934. I suspect none of you met him either. But every Sunday, we benefit from his imagination, his vision. We gather and we are blessed by what he did. He is an essential part of what we do, whether we always remember that or not. His vision blesses us with this wonderful place to meet.

All Saints Sunday

Today is a special day in our worship calendar, called “All Saints Sunday”. What is a saint? It translates a word in the Bible that means “chosen”. Saints are people chosen to accomplish a mission for God’s people. Some church traditions name their saints in particular and even have a bureaucratic process for identifying them. Our fathers and mothers in the faith believed, and we believe, all God’s people are saints: all have a purpose, a vocation, from God. One way to describe that vocation is to simply say: we are meant to be a blessing, every single one of us. Our purpose is to be a mutual blessing.
This was God’s plan from the beginning. Right in Genesis, right at creation, it says that God blessed the first human beings. Later, when God began to work in history through Abram and Sarai, God’s said, “…in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” [Genesis 12:3] Today we read one of the most familiar parts of the Gospel, often called the Beatitudes, the blessings. Both Matthew and Luke record similar sets of blessings, as does the Gospel of Thomas. When I first learned them, I thought them quite strange because the people teaching at the time suggested they were prescriptions, things we should do. But who wants to do this?

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, 
and when they exclude you, revile you, 
and defame you on account of the Son of Man.

Wow. Who wants to be hungry? Who wants to weep? Who wants to be excluded, hated, reviled? This is what we should do? This is what Christ wants us to do? No thanks, not me.

The Beatitudes: Descriptive

Only later did I recognize that these blessings—and woes!—aren’t a prescription, a set of duties; they are a description. Just as Fuller imagined the architecture of this meeting house, Jesus is asking us to imagine what life looks like when we live with God ruling our lives. Jesus is describing the architecture of spiritual life. The word itself means an inner joy, a soul lit up and shining. God means to light the world in a way that makes our souls lift with praise and joy.

Those are great moments; I hope you’ve had many. But we also know not every moment is like that. There are hard moments as well, dark moments, times when the cold wind of depression blows through us like a damp November moving in. So Jesus is describing those realities here and imagining with the disciples how blessing works. Blessing happens when there is nothing in the way, when we aren’t distracted by things: in other words when we are poor. Just as hunger moves us to eat and, if we are fortunate, find sustenance, when we are empty we are thankful for being filled. That’s a spiritual reality as well as a physical one. So when we feel empty, we should live in the confidence that God we will be filled. There is a rhythm to spiritual life, times of vision and blindness, times of blessing—and woe. Jesus mentions these as well.
If this is a description of the architecture of blessing, what is Jesus teaching his disciples to do? What does he hope we will do. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love, says, “You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestation of your own blessings.” How do we participate? That’s the function of the final section in this reading. Jesus says five things.

If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also
From anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.
Give to everyone who begs from you;
If anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.

If you want to understand these, imagine a parent with a child.

Doing Blessing

My older daughter, Amy, thought it was fun when she was little to surprise me by running and jumping into my arms. It was fun when she was little; as she got older and bigger it was harder. The last time she did it she was about 11, she took a couple steps of running, leaped, and I just caught her, at which point she knocked me over and I hit my head. There was a moment of silence until she said, “Are you ok?” and I waited for the stars I was seeing to go away and said, “Yes but I think we need to stop doing this.” Now I know everyone who has a child eventually has bruises: would you hit the child back? Of course not. “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” You can see where this is going: when did your child take your coat and leave you shivering? When did they take something—and it never would have occurred to you to ask for it back.

What Jesus is offering is the architecture of blessing: this is what it looks like, this is how it works, because this is how God is with us. This is what makes blessing take hold, grow, blossom and bear fruit. It begins when we choose to imagine the best in each other; it grows as we practice appreciating others and seeing each one as God’s blessing. It blossoms as we every day do unto others as we would have them do to us—a way of recognizing that we are both God’s children, both called to be a means of blessing here.
I asked our church historian, John Dennehey, to help me with this sermon because he’s so knowledgeable. I asked him about the building but he wrote back something I didn’t know that was so much more inspiring. He said,

the original plan wasn’t to leave the downtown. The church had a membership made up of the well-to-do in the city nd the church owned its own building which was prominently located near Albany’s City Hall and the “new” State Capital Building…
However the church was contacted by residents in this area because residents were running a Sunday school on Ontario Street and wanted to “connect” with an actual church. All the other churches turned them down. Our church not only agreed to affiliate, but also made it our mission to send the minster and a deacon (sometimes more) to lead the Sunday School. 
At this time, the neighborhood was outside the city limits and the only Trolley stopped by Lake Avenue and the CDPC requiring a bit of a trek ..(especially while hauling Sunday School books).
Eventually, the discussion among church members led to the proposal to develop a satellite “chapel” in this neighborhood where services could be held following the services downtown. …it was evident that the community here needed a real commitment and an actual “church” rather than an informal “chapel.” 
Church leaders had many discussions about the pros and cons of relocation. One of the big “cons” was that the “well to do” members wouldn’t find the new church as easily accessible, even with the best of intentions, to attend as frequently as possible. Hence, the huge risk involved (no church likes to lose prominent members with deep pockets).

Those church members had to make a choice and they chose to bless future generations, people they didn’t know, future saints. Who are these future saints? Us: you and I, fifty-year members all the way to people like Rosie and I who are pretty new. They did what Jesus said: treated us the way they would want to be treated. Now it’s up to us to continue that blessing. We also are called on to make choices; we also have the opportunity to bless the future as they did.

For All the Saints

This morning, as you came in, you were invited to note the name of someone who especially blessed your life, some saint who helped you and perhaps helped you find faith. Living faith is not something you can order online or buy at a store; it is not something that comes gift wrapped like a sweater at Christmas. It is something given hand to hand, passed on person to person. It is the blessing that comes from imagining what hasn’t happened. It is the blessing of saying “thank you”, appreciating what has been done to allow us to be here, to do what we do, to go forward together. It is remembering in our imagination those past Saints and imagining the ones to come. The most important imagining is when we imagine someone as a child of God. It’s easy to get annoyed at someone, especially if you don’t know them. It’s easy to look away or ignore them, or rant in your head. It’s harder to see them as Jesus sees them, as God sees them, as a blessing waiting to blossom. But each one is exactly that. You are; I am. And together, with all the others, past and present—and future!—we are “All Saints”. Together, we can be the architects of blessing.

Thank you!

A special thanks to John Dennehey, church historia at First Congregational Church of Albany, for his help with this sermon.

Jesus Visits

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

Jesus Visits
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
24th Sunday After Pentecost • October 30, 2016

Jesus said to [Zaccheus], “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.
— Luke 19:9-10

Visiting Jericho

“Zaccheus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he…” Did you grow up with that song? I did; I can’t help it running through my head when I read about him. So many of the Bible characters are overlain by songs and stories we’ve heard, made up over the years. How did you imagine Zaccheus when I read the story? How did you imagine the scene?

There are some things in the story Luke would have known we may not. Jericho is an ancient city that was the last stop on the way to Jerusalem. In fact, this story marks the end of a long section in the gospel, the section we’ve been reading through with its parables and stories of lost people being forgiven and reclaimed by Jesus. Jericho is a way station; it’s on the way to Jerusalem and Luke knows what will happen there, as we do, don’t we? It’s fall here, a long way from Palm Sunday in our calendar, but in the gospel, we’re right on the edge of arriving at Jerusalem.

Jesus has collected a crowd around him and the approaches to the city are full of stalls where people are selling all kinds of things. Over there is brightly dyed cloth and someone else has pottery. There are jewelers and someone selling used donkeys. Now bazaar sellers are great marketers. They don’t wait for you to come to their stall, they grab your arm, they thrust their pots and tunics and camels right at you. “Here, see this blanket, I should ask 5 denarii for it, but today I’m feeling crazy and, for some reason, I’ll let it go for three!”, one says, while another is pushing fresh bread, “Just try it, try one bite, you won’t be able to resist!” Jesus and his friends make their way through this crowd. The smells of food cooking, the donkey smells too, the conversations in many languages, the pushing, the jostling. the beggars and of course the constant wariness about pickpockets, all this is going on. What is it like to be in a crowd? We’ve all been there; maybe you went to a festival, Lark Street or somewhere, maybe you’ve gone to a parade. There are the colors, music, people, pushing, jostling. Not much has changed about this, so it shouldn’t be hard for us to feel what it’s like.

Jesus in Jericho

Jesus is a minor celebrity. They’ve heard he’s a healer, a teacher, maybe someone who is coming to do something about the Romans. He’s a parade waiting to happen, an event always about to occur. You can’t stay home and watch it on CNN because television won’t be invented for a few hundred years, so you have to go yourself. And of course you go with friends. There they are: all together, the ones who believe him, the ones who jeer, the ones who just want to sell “Jesus for Messiah” tunics, the hopeful ones, the dirty ones, the followers, the curious, all making a crowd in this bazaar.

But one of them isn’t there with friends. His name is Zaccheus and he doesn’t have friends, just clients, and angry ones at that. Zaccheus is a little man who does the dirty work for Herod, collecting taxes, enforcing payment. People say he cheats and maybe he does; he’s a sharp competitor. He’s probably rich; not many are. Just like we aren’t as familiar with the geography that Luke knows, we aren’t as tuned into the politics. But we can understand it. After all, we are in the midst of an amazingly divisive political campaign. It isn’t partisan to comment people are losing friends and deleting them on Facebook over backing different candidates.


Zaccheus is a rich collaborator with the Roman-backed government. He’s not the kind of man you invite home to dinner or buy a drink for in the local tavern. Zaccheus may have a nice house but no one visits there, no one drops by and says, “I was just wondering how you were doing, Zach.” What does such a man think about at the end of the day? What does he hope? What does he wish? I think of him as a man who has become isolated. He has lots of things; he may not have lots of fun.

Zaccheus is curious like everyone else. But he isn’t big enough to bull his way through the crowd and anyway I imagine most crowds around there included some people who would have been happy to see him knocked around a bit. So he climbs a tree, a sycamore tree. It’s not a big tree, but it has lots of branches and there he sits, all alone, up in his tree, waiting for this Jesus to come past, waiting for a glimpse of…what? What exactly did Zaccheus hope to see? The story says, “He wanted to see who Jesus was”. Isn’t that in a sense what we all want? Sunday after Sunday we come here hoping to get a glimpse of Jesus. All over this community, all over everywhere, Christians are in churches where they will hear stories they’ve heard before, just like us, hoping to see Jesus.

A Child of God

Whatever Zaccheus hoped, up there in his tree, surely he wasn’t prepared for what happened. Jesus is walking past, the center of this crowd, people are yelling prices, people are calling questions, people are asking for healing, it’s a noisy crowd and suddenly he stops and the noise must have stopped too. Just that moment of stillness, right there, right under the tree, and Jesus looks up and sees this man, this lonely little man, up in a tree. And right there, right then, he smiles and speaks.

We don’t really know what was said; did he greet him: “Shalom”? Luke says he called out, “Zaccheus, come down, I must stay at your house today” . What went on in Zaccheus in that moment? What went on in you when someone called you out of your tree? There’s a low murmur from the crowd; they know there are a lot of people in Jericho who deserve this special recognition more than this tax collector. He’s not one of us, he’s not a good man, he doesn’t go to worship, he doesn’t pay his tithe, he doesn’t do right. “Jesus! Some Messiah! Look, off to have dinner with that sinner!”, they say. The crowd looks at Zaccheus and sees just this: the difficult little man who doesn’t fit in. But Jesus sees something else. To Jesus, Zaccheus is a son of Abraham. That is—a child of God, a person God meant to make a blessing. This is how Jesus sees Zaccheus; whatever Zaccheus sees, this is what Jesus sees in him.

Jesus Visits

Zaccheus comes down and makes promises about helping the poor and changing his life. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t; who knows if he paid his pledge? But for that moment, at least for that moment, his life changed, not because he saw Jesus, but because he saw Jesus seeing him. Because Jesus came to him and called him out of his tree. “Come down, Zaccheus”.

This is what Jesus does: he comes to people, some are lost, some are waiting to be found. He comes to them and sees them and helps them see themselves in a new way. He sees the child of God in them.

Now we all come to see Jesus but what we really need is to see others as Jesus sees. This is the deep challenge he makes, every day: can we look at others as Jesus sees them? WE have so many categories for people: friends, enemies, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers. Even in the church, we do it: visitors, regulars, members, pastors, officers. Jesus has one category: child of God. When we look at someone that way, Jesus visits them too, just as he did with Zaccheus.

Someone Who Blessed Me

Let me tell you about someone who helped me by seeing me that way. Mercedes Carlson was an older lady in 1995 when I began preaching here. She was short and round, just like Zaccheus. She had one of those smiles that suggested she knew there was a great party somewhere and just might tell you about it. We all choose pews that become our regular place and Mercedes’ pew was down in front to my left. Those were difficult days for me. My father had recently died, I’d moved alone to a new community and a new church. I was used to preaching to a full congregation. My former church was full every week; my new one had lots of empty space and I found those rows of empty pews intimidating. People here weren’t too sure about the new pastor; like most churches, it was tough to make the transition.

But every Sunday, as I stood greeting at the back of the church, Mercedes would come and smile and say, “Thank you, Pastor, that was a terrific sermon!” In fact, she was so consistent in her enthusiasm for my sermons that after a few Sundays I began to suspect that maybe she did not have a critical facility. I soon learned, however, that it wasn’t a lack of critical facility; it was just that Mercedes couldn’t hear. When I first found this out, I was a little dismayed, to be honest; I’d relied a bit on the emotional satisfaction of knowing that someone really liked my preaching—it was tough to realize she hadn’t heard a word of it! But she did something much better than all the sermon evaluators of all time: she had gave me a unique and special grace. She didn’t have to hear my words; she only had to know I was God’s child and doing my best.

We all have this capability, to look at someone the way Jesus looked, to give them the grace they need to come down out of their tree. God didn’t put us here just to watch. We have a mission. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” That’s what he hopes we will do: that’s what he does with us. Every time we look at someone with the eyes of Jesus, every time we give someone the grace they need to come down out of their tree, Jesus visits. Go with God: be the blessing God intended.


How Clarence Came Fully Alive

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

How Clarence Came Fully Alive

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
23rd Sunday After Pentecost • October 23, 2016

Why were these men at the temple that day? We all have reasons to come to worship. Perhaps it’s a habit, perhaps it’s a hope. Something got us up, something made us do all the get ready things and come here today. So I wonder about these two men, I wonder why they are there. The most frustrating thing about the stories of Jesus to me is all the questions they raise.
Take the second man in this story. He doesn’t sound like a regular worshipper. What’s he doing visiting this day?

Tax Collectors

Tax collectors had a bad reputation in that time. The term itself doesn’t really translate the reality. Taxes weren’t collected directly by the government. The collection system was privatized; a business would buy the right to collect the taxes for a certain area, a county perhaps or even a whole state, a province. Some things don’t change: buy low, sell high is one and in this case what it means is that once you’ve paid for the right to tax, you make money by squeezing every last nickel out of every last person. In Jesus’ time, that’s just what was happening. Old, obscure taxes were being brought up; new ones were being thought up. Small timers and the poor who had escaped in the past were being pressed. All governments use force to collect taxes eventually and in this case, the force was the sword of the Roman legion. The Romans were very fussy about paying your taxes, they made our IRS look like fairy godmothers. The connection between threats from the Romans and taxes meant that tax collectors were seen as occupiers, also, traitors to the always simmering cause of Jewish independence. No good Jew would eat with a tax collector or invite him to their home or say hi in the street. If the tax collector sat down in a coffee shop, no one waved, no one cam by his table to ask how his day was going.

Lord Have Mercy

Yet here he is, a tax collector, at the temple. Watch him go in: he’s the one wearing the slightly worn suit, last year’s cut, serviceable but not stylish. He’s shaved; the Romans don’t like beards. He doesn’t look around as he goes in; he isn’t expecting any friends and he won’t find any either. Now he goes up to the place where you put your offering. No one really knows what it looks like but I like to imagine one of those banks of candles they have in European cathedrals. Each candle represents a prayer. But the prayers aren’t free. You have to pay. Go to Notre Dame and there’s a box where you’re expected to put in a 1 euro coin before you pray. I imagine him doing something like that, putting in his coin, standing there, head uplifted in the Jewish manner of prayer and saying nothing, noting at all.

I know the text quotes him, and perhaps his voice carries his thoughts or perhaps Jesus put the words in his mouth, words evident from his look. “Lord God, have mercy on me,” his prayer, isn’t simple or usual. It’s not a prayer you choose, it chooses you. I look at this man, praying this prayer and I think: this is a man who is dead and cries out to come alive. Maybe he couldn’t find any other job when he got out of school, maybe he was ambitious and hoped he’d advance under the Romans, the reasons don’t matter, somehow he’s come to a moment when he can’t stand himself and knows no one else can either and he’s wondering if God can. Have you ever wondered that? Have you ever prayed this prayer? Have you ever wanted to come alive again?

The Pharisee

He’s not alone. There’s another man standing there, a Pharisee. He’s dressed for worship, finest robes, perhaps a leather pouch tied to his head containing a bit of the Torah—it’s a religious custom, observed only by the very careful. He puts his offering in too, he lights a candle too, and he prays. But notice how different his prayer is. The tax collector’s prayer is all about hoping God will do something: “Lord God, have mercy on me.” The Pharisee’s prayer is all about what he is doing: “Look at me, I thank you, I fast twice a week, I give a tenth of my income.” He’s not a secular man, he’s very religious. He’s doing everything he can. Imagine what would happen if we made these things a requirement for membership here. I can just see the conversation with a prospective member: “Now, in addition to agreeing to our church covenant, there are just a couple of other matters that we do ask of all members. First thing, we ask that you fast, not eat anything, two days a week. You choose the days, and you can indicate them right here on this pledge card. Oh, and by the way, you will, of course, be expected to contribute a full tenth of your income.” Now there’s a program for a membership drive!

The Pharisee in this story doesn’t get much approval, but it’s worth pointing out that he is there, he is at worship. Something brought him there too. Maybe it was the chance to show off his righteousness, but that wears thin pretty quickly. I wonder if he isn’t struggling also, just like the tax collector. Self-inflicted righteousness can get awfully lonely. All those ‘I’s’—so little space for God. Most of us were brought up on a diet of these stories in Sunday School, so I know right away when you heard the word ‘Pharisee’ you knew that wasn’t you and it certainly isn’t me—or is it? The Pharisees have gotten some pretty bad press but the truth, the uncomfortable truth, is that they were more like us than we often want to admit. They were the good people, the law abiding, worship going people, of their time. Many of them seem to have followed Jesus around, which makes me wonder: what were they looking for? Were they hoping to come alive too, just like the tax collector?

The Story of Clarence

Garrison Keillor tells a wonderful story about a day when a man named Clarence came alive.

One day Clarence was standing in the shower when he felt something that could have been a heart attack. It wasn’t a heart attack but for 10 seconds or so it might have been and it made Clarence think that life could be very short. It was Sunday and Clarence thought if life was short, maybe there wasn’t time to sit through a sermon. But he got dressed anyway and went downstairs and when someone asked later how he was feeling, he said “I’m fine.” Clarence is Norwegian and Midwestern. Norwegians and Midwesterners could be torn to a bloody pulp and gasping their last but if asked, say, “I’m fine.” At church, he checked out of the sermon fairly early because it was one of those where you really don’t need to listen, you can just pick up the last two or three sentences and get the whole thing, and when the pastor’s voice sounded like it might be near the end, Clarence took out his wallet and saw he had no cash. So he got out his checkbook and wrote a check for thirty dollars. Of course, he didn’t want anyone to see him writing while the pastor was still talking so he tried to do it without actually looking at the check.

Then came the hard part: how to get the thing out without making that awful ripping noise but he folded the thing back and forth over and over until Mrs. Tollefson frowned at him and it slipped out. When Elmer passed the plate, he put the check in and kept it moving and just after he handed it along, he realized he had written a check not for thirty dollars but for three hundred. What to do? Can you sneak in where the Deacons are counting and say, “Hey, there’s been a little mistake, I meant to write 30 and I wrote 300, it could happen to anyone.”? How do you say, “I gave more than I meant to”? Was there even that much in the account? At this moment, Clarence felt terrifically awake, totally aware, completely and fully alive.

Fully Alive

Isn’t this the key?—we come fully alive when we have given more than we meant to, more than we can afford. This isn’t about amounts of money; it’s about giving ourselves. We’ve all heard the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector before, maybe heard it many times before. But what’s the difference here? Why does one go away with what he sought and one without? No one can afford to pray, “Lord have mercy on me”—it’s a prayer you come to when you are spiritually bankrupt, empty, nothing left. It’s the last prayer, the prayer when you can’t do anything else, can’t pray anything else. The tax collector is beyond what he can afford. The Pharisee still thinks there’s something he can do, that it is in fact just about him and what he does when the truth is, fully alive, abundant life, is God’s gift. Clarence is a Norwegian and a Midwesterner and he’s lived his whole life from what he can afford. But he comes fully alive when he goes beyond it.

In a few weeks, we’re going to meet as a church to decide on a plan for next year. In a few days, we’re going to have to decide what to give to support that plan. There’s a terrific urge at such times to consider what we can afford and to plan the same way we do in a good business. Good business practice is fine but we ought to remember that we aren’t a business. We are a church, a church of Jesus Christ, and no one comes here because of our great business skills. They come here, we come here, because Jesus Christ offers life fully alive, life beyond death. His life, lived in us; his life, living in us.

Come Fully Alive

I don’t know what happened to that Tax Collector when he left the temple; I don’t know what happened to the Pharisee. I don’t even know what happened to Clarence. But I do know that whenever someone has come fully alive and lived from that excitement, it began when they moved beyond what they could afford. That’s how Clarence came fully alive; how are we going to do it?

Note: The story of Clarence and the collection is told as Collection in Leaving Home, by Garrison Keillor, p. 22.

The Long Haul

Listen to the sermon being preached at the link below

The Long Haul

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor
22nd Sunday After Pentecost • October 16, 2016
Jeremiah 31:27-34 • Luke 18:1-8

“The time is coming”, declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.”—Jeremiah 31:31

How much will we do?

Recently our Jewish brothers and sisters observed Yom Kippur, a day of reflection on failings through the past year accompanied by fasting. All faith communities have special observances and rituals. Muslims, for example, pray five times a day.

An Islamic story explains how Muslims came to pray five times a day. It says that when the prophet Mohammed was ascending to the seventh heaven to receive the holy Qu’ran from Allah, he met Moses on his way. They chatted and immediately liked each other and when Mohammed was returning he stopped off to visit Moses. “What did Allah say we must do?,” Moses asked. Mohammed replied: “We must pray 50 times every day.” “They’ll never do it!”, Moses replied, and he told Mohammed to go back and tell Allah and beg for a smaller number. So Mohammed returned to Allah and when he met Moses again, he told him that Allah had agreed to limit the number of prayers to 40 per day. “They won’t do that,” Moses replied; “Go to Allah again.” Mohammed returned a third time to Allah and this time Allah agreed to limit the number of prayers to just five each day. “Well, I know this people,” Moses said, “even five may be too much for some.” How many times a day will we pray? How long will we keep praying?

How much persistence is in us? How long can we be patient, how long can we keep keeping on? We have not been to the seventh heaven with Mohammed; we have not been to the mountaintop with Moses. We weren’t there in the upper room when the Resurrected Jesus walked through the door. We live in the streets and houses of this world where sometimes God seems distant and silent.

How faithful?

Luke is talking to us and the topic seems to be what we will do for and keep doing for our faith. How faithful will we be? Luke is speaking to a congregation which wonders when God will come and right wrongs, when the great banquet of the heavenly kingdom will begin. He is speaking to Christians who are fraying at the edges, whose faithfulness is beginning to fail.
So he imagines Jesus telling this story we’ve read. A widow seeks justice. What a wealth of detail is contained in that simple statement! Women could not go into the courts of the time. Who is this woman? She is powerless; she is poor. She doesn’t have powerful friends to pressure the system for her, she doesn’t have money to grease the wheels. She can’t afford a lawyer; she can’t force a judgement. She has nothing, no lever, no means, no way to get justice from her adversary.

We know this woman

We know this woman. She lines up every week outside the magistrate court, trying to get her former husband to pay the child support a judge so serenely ordered. She comes in quietly to ask for a recommendation: the man who deserted her is now trying to take her children and the Department of Children and Families is acting in that disinterested way that takes no account of how she has struggled to keep a family together. She struggles with incomprehensible forms because she has no one to help her; she misses work and sees the tight lipped look of her boss when she has to go to court or see the social worker.

We know this woman. She has a history. She is one of the mothers de mayo: women whose children were disappeared by the military in Argentina. We called it anti-communism but to her it was a boot breaking down a door, masked men stealing her children and blank stares at the police station when she asked questions. So she joined others and for years she risked her life marching in the capital plaza asking for an answer.

We know this woman. She is a woman of intelligence and wit who cannot vote and is laughed at and called names when she joins others chaining herself in public, making a scene, asking only for the same rights men so solemnly declared in the great documents of her nation.
We know this woman: she is everyone who has persevered, who has persisted, whose faith in ultimate justice has been so strong that she kept keeping on.

And we know this judge. Remember the judge? The story says the widow kept coming to him. It describes him as a man who feared neither God nor men. Now “the fear of the Lord” is the general description the Bible has for those who act according to God’s ways. The judge is not a Godly man. He has a position of authority that allows him to act with complete freedom. He doesn’t care about God; he doesn’t care what others say. He is accountable only to himself. He is powerful, in other words, powerful in a way that almost defies description. I imagine him surrounded by aides who tell him how smart he is, how right he is, how his judgments are so perfect, so apt. I imagine him going to lunch, surrounded by such people. “That was a great session this morning, Judge,” they say, and laugh at the people who come before him. So there we have the two of them: the powerless widow, the powerful judge.


Luke is remembering the questions of all those people in churches who wonder how long it will take for God to come to them. How long will it take for the widow to get justice? Remember the woman: the poor woman, the powerless woman. She can’t go to court but every day she is there outside the judge’s door when he leaves for work in the morning. She follows him to the coffee shop, she puts papers in his hand as he is walking into the court. She waits for him at lunch time, oh, she gets jostled aside of course by his friends but her face is there in the crowd. She waits for him at the end of the day. Perhaps he puts her off: “Yes, well, you should file these”, he says. Later he gets more abrupt when she persists: “I really can’t talk about this now.” But she keeps coming, and after a while he realizes he is looking for her, her face in the street as he goes back and forth, always that said faith, always that same request, made so often he can hear it even when she isn’t present, “Give me justice, vindicate me.” And one day he does: not because of her cause, not because it is just, but just to get her off his back.

Now Jewish sermons often used an argument that moves from the lesser to the greater, from the smaller to the larger. Here the argument is clear: if even an unjust Judge can do justice for a powerless widow if she is persistent, how much more will God who is righteous bring justice to faithful Christians. It is a reason to keep praying, a sermon in a story about faithful persistence. Luke lived when Christians were beginning to fall away, believing God had forgotten them. Do you believe God has forgotten? Do you believe God doesn’t care? Hear this: if even we here on earth can be moved by faith, how much more can God. That is the sermon: that is the lesson.

Turn it arond

But there is another lesson here as well, a surprise. We get used to identifying God with the powerful person in parables but I wonder about this story. Imagine for a moment that it is not the Judge who represents God’s position; suppose it is the woman. Suppose we are the Judge. Isn’t the judge more like us? Surely we live lives in which often it seems we don’t fear God, we don’t take God seriously.

Imagine that God is like this widow. The deep faith of every Christian is that God has come into the world in the person of someone who has given up everything, every power, to live in the world with us and for us. Isn’t the figure of this woman, this woman who is so like us in her frustration, her struggle, her feeling that she isn’t heard just such a person? Suppose the widow is meant to represent God. Now the story is turned around.

Oh, it’s a story about faithfulness still. But it is a story about God’s faithfulness. Here we are, fearing neither God nor men, going about our lives. But God keeps coming, God persists, God keeps calling us back to righteousness. Do you remember the word of the Lord we read from the prophet Jeremiah? Jeremiah lived in a time when God’s people knew they had failed, had broken their covenant. God knew: God had said so over and over again, called them over and over for hundreds of years. The prophet Hosea described God drawing the people with “cords of compassion”, an image of the leather straps with which Jewish mothers would bind their babies while they worked in the fields. What is God to do with such a faithless people? What will God do with such a faithless people? This: “I will make a new covenant with them.” God will not give up even when the cause is hopeless: God makes new hope, God makes a new covenant. Like the widow in the story, God keeps coming over and over and over.

What is it that God hopes for us? The widow wants vindication. Vindication means admitting someone is right. God wants us to prove God was right to keep trying, right to keep loving, right to endlessly, eternally imagine us living from our best selves. God hopes we will become people who faithfully live our lives as good stewards. God hopes we will create families and communities where care is given to all, widows, children, every single one, every child of God. God hopes we will make our gifts a blessing. That was God’s plan from the beginning; God’s first covenant with Abraham and Sarah was to make them a blessing to the whole world. And that is still God’s purpose, to bless the whole world.

God doesn’t seek consumers: God seeks covenant partners. Patiently, persistently, faithfully God keeps seeking us, hoping to find in us people who joyfully give, who bless the world by their gifts, as God blesses us. The last question in the story is for us: will the Song of God find our faith in God has last as long, persisted as long, as God’s faith in us?

The Gift of Jesus

Click to hear the sermon being preached

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

20th Sunday After Pentecost • October 2, 2016

A group of thin, raggedy boys file into a room with tables, singing a song with the refrain “Food, glorious food”, lamenting their hunger. Instead of the wonderful things they imagine in the song, they are served a small bowl of gruel. An imposing man in a blue uniform with a wooden staff stands at the front commanding. After a few moments of frenzied eating, one boy gets up; one boy walks forward, obviously fearful, yet driven by his hunger to say, “Could I have some more please?” That scene from the musical, Oliver!, came to mind this week as I opened the scripture and read the disciples’ request of Jesus: “Increase our faith!”What would you ask from Jesus? What do you ask in your prayers? What do you want Jesus to do for you?

More Forgiveness

The disciples ask for more faith. Perhaps the reason is in the context. Jesus has been speaking about forgiveness. He lives in a culture where honor and shame are key values and there are rules for how you treat family. But in his teaching, a son who treats his father shamefully is received home and feasted, forgiven, the father simply saying, “This my son was dead and is alive again.” Just before the section we read today, he says,

If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. 4And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

Matthew’s version of a similar saying says,

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Just as the elder brother reacts to the amazing forgiveness of the father in the story of the prodigal son, this seems to be more forgiveness than the disciples are prepared to imagine.

The Hard Part

Forgiveness is tough. Part of what helps us function in the world is our ability to remember and act from previous experiences. Touch a hot stove: you learn never to do it again. Pour out some milk and drink it and discover it’s soured and you learn to sniff the container next time. I’m sure you have your own list of life lessons, many earned at the cost of a scar. We bring the same process to our relationships: hurt me and I remember and do whatever it takes to avoid being hurt again. So the process goes on and on, in our individual lives, in the lives of communities.

Our scripture lessons, as you know, are drawn from the Revised Common Lectionary, chosen in some sense by the whole church for churches everywhere. I almost always follow these. But today’s Psalm was too terrible for us to share responsively. It is Psalm 137.

By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

In 587 BCE, the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, threw down its walls and temple, took its sacred things and thousands of captives, holding them in captivity in Babylon. In this sad song we hear, decades later, the pain and problem of the exiles. The Psalm ends with terrible words, indicting the Edomites, neighbors who joined the enemy:

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

What anger, what pain, what hurt could call up such a terrible vision of violence?

Voting for Peace

Colombia has been the scene of a violent civil war for about 50 years. Think what that means: what were you doing in 1966? How old were you? Were you even born? Throughout that time, both guerrillas and government troops have made war on civilians. Yolanda Perea was 11 in 1997 what guerrillas attacked her home. A few days later, they came again and shot her mother. Now she’s facing a vote on a referendum designed to bring peace by providing amnesty. She is planning a “yes” vote for the referendum. She says,

“I don’t win anything if I continue to hate,” she said. “I have to vote yes because peace depends on each of us. There are more of us who are good, and we simply have to keep fighting for a quiet country for our children and grandchildren.”

What Jesus Says

This is what Jesus understands, this is what Jesus knows: we cannot enter the coming Kingdom of God chained to a past of division and hatred. Forgiveness unlocks us so we can follow him.

So Jesus responds to the disciples in two ways. First, he tells them to open their imagination. Even a little faith opens the door to a world of possibility. Only a little faith is needed to make amazing changes. The mulberry tree is famous for putting out tough roots that make it impossible to move. If all it takes is a tiny faith to create such change, what would it create in human life? Could it move them to the same forgiveness as the father in the story? Second, Jesus reminds them of their relationship. They are there as servants, disciples, followers of a Lord. Servants do not turn to the Lord for resources, the Lord gives them what they need and sends them out to do the job he sets. So also, followers of Jesus are not free to wander off on their own; they have a Lord to follow, a Master to serve.

What Jesus Gives

Most of all, Jesus gives them each other. We often become so focused on Jesus himself, we forget to see the people around him. There they are, people who would never have met without him: a tax collector, fishermen, and others as well, women, gentiles, all together, all brought together, at the table of the Lord. This fellowship is his gift to them.

The gift we mean to give is not always the one received. Maybe you remember a Christmas when you gave a little child a present, only to discover they were more enthralled with the box in which it was wrapped then the present you so carefully purchased.

O Henry’s story, The Gift of the Magi, imagines two young married lovers, so poor they cannot afford Christmas gifts for each other. She has one great thing she values: her long, beautiful hair; he prizes a gold watch, an inheritance from his father. But her love is so strong, she sells her hair to purchase a gold watch chain that will perfectly set off his watch. When he returns, she is excited to give him the gift but mystified by his behavior, because he seems to draw back. She’s afraid her shorn head makes him no longer want her. But then he gives her his present: a set of combs, meant to complement her hair; he explains, he pawned the watch in order to buy them. Both have given up what was most important, most valued, to give a gift to the other. The gifts cannot serve the purpose they meant but the larger gift, the gift of love, is imperishable.

Giving Us To Each Other

Jesus gives his disciples a precious gift, though not the one they ask. By teaching them to forgive, to reach over boundaries, to embrace each other, he creates a fellowship that endures. It lasts beyond his death and it is in that fellowship, he is recognized as risen. It lasts beyond that moment and becomes the life of all who follow him. Now we are a part of that fellowship.

Today is world communion Sunday. All over the world today, Christians, despite 500 years of division, remember today we are meant to forgive, to embrace each other, to live as one family of God. Like Yolanda Perea, we are reminded, “Peace depends on us.”

When we act like Jesus, we find the faith Jesus meant us to have. When We act like Jesus, forgiving and loving, we become the disciples he meant us to be. When we act like Jesus, we receive the gift he meant to give: practicing loving each other, we know ourselves loved by God.


Face Forward

Click Below to Listen to the Sermon Being Preached

Face Forward
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
18th Sunday After Pentecost/C • September 18, 2016

What’s your favorite recipe? Most of us have one: a set of steps we go through to make something we like. We have recipes for the way we live, too, patterns that tell us how to do things from weddings to funerals. We live, in fact, with a great store of patterns that whisper with the voices of the past. How do planning sessions usually start?—“What did we do last year.” These voices are like ghosts, telling us how to do things, what we should do. But the ghosts can blind us to new possibilities. Henrik Ibsen’s play, Ghosts, traces the downfall of an entire family because they are controlled by their past. Which way are you looking: are you seeing only where you’ve been or looking forward to new possibilities?

Living With Change

Jesus lived in the midst of great economic changes. For centuries the villages of Galilee had functioned with a few very poor and even fewer very rich people. The hillsides were terraced and full of small farms and olive groves. The villages themselves were home to craftspeople like Jesus’ father, a maker of wooden tools. History focuses on the blood and fire of battles and kings; in the Galilee, life went on, day to day, year to year, in the same way for hundreds of years. People were born, lived, died. New settlers moved in, others left. Not much changed.

But after a long period of civil wars and wars of conquest, the Roman Emperor Augustus had created a settled system of rule. Rich Romans and others, benefitting from trade and Imperial preferment, began to buy up the small farms and turn them into larger businesses. Of course, these people didn’t want to live out in the rural areas; having pushed small farmers off the land, they hired managers, stewards, who had the authority to act on their behalf, while the owners themselves lived in luxury in cities. Often the former farm owners worked for the new landowner but now as a kind of sharecropper, owing a portion of the produce to the new owner. These loans were written with owed amount including interest payments, often large ones; after all the sharecropper had no choice but to accept the terms.

The Situation of the Steward

I’ve taken this detour into economics, hoping you’ve stayed with me, so you will understand the situation behind the parable we read. Imagine the man called the steward in the story. Perhaps he grew up on one of the little family farms that no long exist. Perhaps his family had lived there for generations, passing the land down. But the chain has broken; things have changed. Imagine how happy he must have been when he got the job as the steward for the big landowner. No more trying to scratch out a living; no more worry about the bills. His position would make him a big man in a small town.

So he makes deals, loans; after all, that’s his job. Some of these are large. The amounts in the story are tremendous: the oil amounts to 900 gallons of olive oil. The steward himself works on a commission; the more he squeezes the farmers, the more he makes. So while he may have been a leading citizen, I imagine he was someone people more feared than liked. When he walked into the local tavern, conversations quieted, people looked away, perhaps someone behind on his loan left.

When someone got hurt by his pursuit of profit, I imagine him saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just business.” Perhaps he crosses some lines; perhaps he makes a few shady deals, perhaps his accounting is off or perhaps he just openly steals. There are complaints, maybe there is an investigation. We don’t know how things came to a head, but there is a crisis. He’s about to be fired.

Now imagine the night after this message. He’s about to go from a big man in a small town to unemployed. This crisis isn’t just business: now it’s him and it’s personal. He considers the alternatives, rejecting them one by one: ‘What will I do, now that my master is taking the position away from me? I am not strong enough to dig, and I am ashamed to beg.” [Luke 16:3] Shame, strength, these things limit his alternatives. But he has one thing going for him: he’s a smart, crafty guy. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place; now he uses it to find a way forward. He uses it to change things.

Making a Change: Facing Forward

The change he makes is to put relationships first. His only hope is to create a situation where he will, as he says, be welcomed into the homes of people in the town. So one by one he calls them in. One by one, he cancels the interest on their loans.

Can you imagine their reaction? Suppose your mortgage company called and said, “We’ve reviewed your account and decided to give you the title, free and clear.” Suppose your credit card company said, “We’ve decided to cancel your remaining balance. Thanks for being a customer.” Imagine it: can you? It’s hard isn’t it, because these things don’t happen. It’s hard to imagine the joy of those people in the story. It’s hard to believe that joy. Change is like that. We are so used to living from where we’ve been, we forget to face forward.

Jesus tells this story about an amazing change, and it takes your breath away. What happens here is wrong, what happens here is illegal. This steward has no business using his client’s business to improve his relationships, to set himself up for the future.

Reacting to the Parable

This story is so wrong that even before Luke wrote it into his gospel, preachers were trying to figure out why Jesus told it. The parable itself is just the first seven or so verses of the reading; the other lines are a series of interpretations. One commentator said, “You can almost see the sermon notes here.” We can even hear an echo of the disciples at verse eight, where it says, “The master commended the dishonest manager..” The word that’s used there for ‘master’ is usually translated, ‘Lord’; it’s the same term used for Jesus. Imagine Jesus telling his disciples this story, see them waiting for him to condemn such dishonest, money grubbing, cheating stewards and then see the surprise on their faces when Jesus ends the story with the dishonest steward coming out great at the end after cheating his employer, just as he had cheated others. What can the Lord have in mind?

What Is Jesus Saying?

Perhaps it is meant to show the disciples how to face forward. The crisis of discipleship cannot be met with old recipes and his disciples must face a new world where they find new ways. We see this all over the preaching of Jesus. “Forgive,” he says, and what is forgiveness but the decision to cut the chains of past hurts and face forward into a future without the dead weight of old anger, old resentment, old fear? In his ultimate moment, at the last supper, he will remind them of Jeremiah’s vision of a new covenant, not like the old covenant. His whole life, his death, his resurrection are meant to show God breaking into our lives in a new way.

An Example of Facing Forward

The movie Scully is a simple story of a 208-second long flight that began as an ordinary trip from LaGuardia airport to Charlottesville, VA. I’m sure the passengers were full of everyday thoughts as they waited to board, found their seats, stowed their luggage. I can almost say the speeches of the flight attendants as the flight got underway. “Please make sure your seatbelt are securely fastened…The cabin door is now closed, cellphones must be turned off or placed in airport mode for the duration of the flight…” The aircraft backs away from the terminal, taxis into position, the pilots are given clearance and there is that exhilarating moment when they are rushing down the runway, jumping into the air in a moment that still seems magical.

The flight departed at 3:25 PM. Three minutes into the flight, when the airplane was still under 10,000 feet, the magic ended. Hit by a flock of birds, both engines died. The airplane was powerless; decisions had to be made. The recipe said to return to the airport and land the plane.

At first, Captain Sulzberger, the pilot announced he was taking this option but within seconds he realized it wouldn’t work. Moments later he committed to landing the aircraft on the Hudson River off Manhattan. Water landings are extremely difficult but Sulzberger believed that although this wasn’t the right answer, it was the right course of action.

At 3:30, less than five minutes after departing, he successfully landed in the Hudson; flight attendants evacuated the passengers onto the wings, some going into the river. All were rescued, along with the flight crew, by police and ferry boats. Sulzberger saved 155 lives that day by facing the future in seconds. The movie focuses on the FAA investigation and attempts to show the old recipes would have worked: it ends with the understanding that it was Sulzberger’s capacity to face forward in seconds that saved those people’s lives.

Facing Forward With Jesus

“On the way…” is the most frequent comment about Jesus. He always faced forward and it’s significant that this shocking story of change beyond normal boundaries is addressed explicitly to his disciples.

Every day brings occasions that ask whether we will follow the recipes we’ve been given or face forward and find new answers. I wonder: what blessings would you plant facing forward? I wonder: Jesus mentioned even a small seed, a tiny one, like a mustard seed, might just grow into a huge, unexpected tree, might have an effect we never imagined.


Finding Peace

Cannon firing

British 3 pounder cannon fired at Fort Ticonderoga

Jacquelyn and I visited Fort Ticonderoga this week. I remember reading about the fort when I was eight or so and being excited about the story of Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys taking the fort by surprise.

Today the fort is a forbidding castle of grey stone with cannon pointing out from the walls and people in 18th century period costumes. I’ve had a chance to dig further into the fort’s history and I’m struck by a strange fact: the fort was never the center of a great battle.

First built by the French, Fort Carillon, as it was named then, was abandoned to the British in the mid 1700’s. American colonial forces surprised a small British garrison in 1775 and took it without a fight. They in turn surrendered the fort two years later when the British returned and mounted cannon on an overlooking mountain. The British ultimately abandoned the site.

This is a kind of metaphor for fear. Forts, after all, are built because an enemy is feared, just as we often live in anxiety over something we fear. But often the fear and anxiety don’t help us; they may in fact paralyze us.

We’ve been reading through the book of Jonah in worship this summer. It has three movements.

  1. God sends a word to Jonah, commanding him to go to Ninevah and proclaim doom due to Ninevah’s evil. Jonah fears what will happen so goes another direction. But his disobedience is stopped when God sends a storm. He is saved by a miraculous great fish that brings him back to his start.
  2. God sends a word to Jonah to go to Ninevah and proclaim their destruction due to Ninevahs’ evil. Jonah goes, preaches, and everyone from the king to the animals repents. God miraculously repents the intended punishment and the city is saved.
  3. Jonah becomes angry at God’s repentance. So God sends a word to Jonah in the form of parable: a tree that sheltered him is parched and dies. At Jonah’s complaint, God surprises Jonah by asking whether God shouldn’t be concerned about all the people at Ninevah.

What’s common to these three parts of the story is that each begins with some kind of fear or frustration. Each one proceeds to a surprise that makes the original fear irrelevant. The final surprise for the book’s original audience and in some sense for us is that God even cares about Those People.

Those People are the ones outside our boundary, for we all create boundaries. The direction of this whole book is to come to this conclusion: God’s boundary is bigger than we ever thought.

There is a bigger point to this story, however. It is simply that beyond the fear of each movement is the moving God whose purpose is being fulfilled, whose purpose is pursued regardless of what else happens. Jonah delays it; God keeps going on. Surprise! What we feared? God embraces.

The old fort stands there today, more solid than at any time in its history. It looks solid; it looks powerful. Here’s the thing to know: it never worked. What has always worked is finding God’s purpose and getting on board that journey, not holing up in a fort.

Summer Season

Ocean view

During the summer, we take a break from formal preaching at First Congregational Church. In July, we have informal worship in Hampton Lounge. This year our focus is on the story of Jonah and how it helps us interpret our lives. These are not sermons as much as conversations. Here’s the schedule.

1. July 3 – Hearing God’s Call – And Running the Other Way! (Jonah 1:1-3)

2. July 10 – When the Big Fish Bites: Occasional Disaster (Jonah 1:4-17)

3. July 17 – Words from the Belly: In the Hour of Darkness (Jonah 2)

4. July 24 – Tell It to Ninevah: Sharing God’s Word in the City (Jonah 3)

5. July 31 – When the Wrong People Do Right – (Jonah chapter 4)