Together In Every Place

Together In Every Place

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Epiphany/A • January 15, 2017
1 Corinthians 1:1-9

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When my brother David was born, he wasn’t like us. I already had a brother, Allan, and we both had brown eyes; so did my mom and dad. David had blue eyes. We all had dark hair; David had light hair. He wasn’t like us. Then, my parents took us to visit my father’s family back in Michigan. My grandmother, my father’s mother, took one look at David and said, “Oh! Little Elmer!” Elmer was my father’s brother but long ago my father and Uncle Elmer had fought over a shotgun and never made up; we didn’t know Uncle Elmer. Nevertheless, with that one declaration, my grandmother had done something permanent. David was one of us, after all. We were family. We still are. How do we connect to each other? How are we together? We sing, “Bind us together, Lord”, but what’s the glue?

The Corinthian Church

The little church in Corinth, Greece, was just a few years old when Paul wrote the letter we know as First Corinthians. It’s not really first; later on, we learn this is Paul’s second letter to them. He was their founding pastor, the Ray Palmer of the place, and in his letter we get a picture of one of the first Christian churches struggling with many of the issues we face today. So over the next few weeks, we’re going to hear a series of readings from this letter as a way to think about our own life as a church together. The letter itself was written about 20 years after the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Paul will say later in the letter, some of the people who were present for the resurrection are still alive.

Corinth itself is a bit like Albany. The great center of culture, Athens, is not too far away but Corinth has its own history. It sits on a narrow peninsula and has a bit of a reputation as a party town. It’s Greek but it’s also full of people from all over, different cultures mixing, not always matching.

How Do We Share God’s Love?

How do you share the love of God in such a place? How do you do it here?
It’s important because if we are going to move forward and move our community forward, we have to stay together. We know that when politicians want to distract us from the truth, the first thing they do is divide us. When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was speaking for the last time in Memphis, Tennessee, he began by saying,

…we’ve got to stay together. We’ve got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery. [http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlkivebeentothemountaintop.htm]

We know that just as my grandmother looked at that baby David and saw the connection we had missed and said he was one of us, God is looking at us, seeing beyond what we see and calling every single person a child of God.

Paul Has a Partner

Listen to what Paul says to that church in Corinth where the demons of division has begun to take hold. He begins by reminding them about the how important bonds are. “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes…”, he begins. It’s easy to rush past this greeting but an important point is being made right here. Paul is an apostle, a man who has seen the Risen Lord himself and yet he isn’t alone; he doesn’t work alone, he doesn’t preach alone, he does nothing alone. Sosthenes is his partner in his work.
He goes on to describe the congregation in Corinth as “…those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”, and then he notes that they are not alone either; they are, “…together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” He wants them to remember, as we should remember, that they are not alone. Just as he has partners in preaching Jesus Christ, this church has partners also: “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” All of these, in every place, are together. Together, in every place, they are a family, related and bonded together by the love of God in Jesus Christ. And we are part of that family as well; right here, centuries before we were born, already Paul was speaking about us.

So what he says to the Corinthian church applies to us also. This is what he says:

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. [ 1 Cor 1:4-7]

Now he’s speaking to a small church; he’s speaking to a church roiled by divisions, arguing questions, wondering how they can go forward together as a little congregation in a big city.

All the Gifts We Need

I know that feeling. Like every person, I have a mental list of things I’m good at and things I am not. I can’t speak Spanish or Italian or French. I can’t catch a ball reliably which when I was a boy growing up in New Jersey in the shadow of the great New York Yankees baseball teams with Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris was a serious disability And I can’t sing well. I’m not a very musical person. In ninth grade, they held a competition in band to determine who could hear differences in pitch; I came in last. Normally, it doesn’t matter; I try to keep my voice down when we’re singing hymns, so what comes through are the beautiful voices of those who sing well. They inspire me and I know the beauty of their music pleases God. When I worked in a church where we recorded the entire worship service, I turned my microphone off when there was singing; sometimes I’d forget, and there it would be on the recording, the voice of a man singing without a tune. My family always enjoyed those tapes, laughing with me at my failure.

I’ve been blessed over the years as I am today with some fine music leaders. One of them shared in leadership at a Wednesday chapel service for preschool kids. I’d do the prayers and the talking; she led the singing and it was great singing. Then one day she became ill with one of those long term illnesses and suddenly I had to do the whole thing every week. It was me that had to stand there and get them started on “This Little light of Mine”; me that had to start up “Oh What a Miracle”; thankfully that one had an electronic version I could hide behind. I had to lead the singing and every Wednesday I was like a bird that flies into a window, crashing into what I couldn’t do. Have you ever felt like that? But then I came up with a solution: I’d call a few of the kids up front and you know they had these beautiful voices and they would start up and we would all sing and you could just feel God smiling. You see, the solution was simple: we had all the gifts to praise God, we just had to share them. We had to act like people together.

Everyone Needs a Helper

When we think of the whole cast of characters that make up the sacred story of spiritual progress, it’s important to remember they didn’t always look like the best ones to accomplish God’s purpose. Sarah laughed when God announced she would bear a child; she was too old. Moses was a terrible public speaker. When Esther is afraid to go to the Persian King to prevent a pogrom, a massacre. Jeremiah complains God deceived him. Just like me with my inability to sing, every one of these people thinks they can’t do something. Just like us, they often are so aware of their limits they almost miss God’s call to lead the spiritual parade of progress. The way forward comes from faith that as Paul says God will strengthen us to the end. One way God strengthens us is by giving us each other. Sarah isn’t alone, she has Abraham; God sends Moses’ brother Aaron with him. Esther is strengthened by her uncle Mordechai, Jeremiah has an assistant. Together, we have every spiritual gift needed to do what God hopes.

Sailing on the Chesapeake, it’s common to look off into the distance and see the dark gathering clouds of a storm. We have been through a long political campaign that has among other things darkened our national life by lifting the voices of the demons of division. It’s tempting at such a moment to look around, see how small we are, see how great the challenge of living into God’s justice is and act like the chipmunk that lives in our garage. The chipmunk has one response to every threat: run and hide.

No Hiding!

But God will not accept hiding; God hopes we will be like a city set on a hill, like a star with to the light of God to the grace of Jesus Christ. All those people I mentioned, and so many others, shared that light because they were together in sharing God’s love and God’s Word. They lived from this faith: that together with all God’s children, together with all God’s love, God would go from victory to victory. So though they feared, they persevered; though they knew their limits, their lives went beyond the limits.

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke the words I quoted earlier, he was in Memphis, Tennessee, not home in Birmingham, Alabama. He was there to help with the struggle for justice of a group of sanitation workers he’d never met. He was there because despite the fact these were not his immediate neighbors, he knew they were his neighbors in the landscape of God. To get there, he flew on an airplane that had to be reinspected because of the hatred of some threatened the safety of all. He was threatened every day. Yet he could say, “Tonight, I’m not fearing any man, mine eyes have seen the glory.” The next day he was killed in an act of violence that shocked a whole nation. It seemed as if the power of darkness was victorious.

Yet his work, his light, have continued to shine. His work, his light, continue to show us the path forward. It was not his strength that made the difference; it was the light of God’s love shining in him that allowed him to sing, and others with him, “We shall over come.” We shall overcome: not me, not you, not one of us, not a few of us, but all of us. We shall overcome.

We Shall Overcome

Now I look around this church, as I know you do. Just like Paul, I give thanks for every one of you and sometimes I wonder what we can do. I know we are small in number. How can we overcome? And I believe the answer is right there before us: it is when we learn to look at others the way my grandmother looked at David and see our connection, see that though they may look different, we are one family. We are, together in every place, as Paul said, God’s children. The demons of division may be loud but our faith in God’s love can bind us together. The demons of division may be visible but the invisible grace of God in Jesus Christ can bind us together. The demons of division may seem victorious but if we live with the simple prayer that our lives may be dedicated to letting God’s love shine, they will be defeated. That’s the faith that allows us to sing, “We shall overcome.” We sing it not because it is true today but because we know in the fullness of God’s time, it will be true and in that time we will, in every place, together, see the glory of God and the justice of God pour down like mighty waters.
Amen.

Hear it: Pete Seeger singing We Shall Overcome

Heaven Knows

Heaven Knows
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Baptism of the Lord/A • January 8, 2017
Matthew 3:13-17

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We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
We are making a passage that is straight and true
[Bill Staines, “Crossing the Water”]

Those lines from a folk song by Bill Staines remind us about the long arc of our lives, how we live on a passage often mysterious in detail but whose destination is our home with God. We are crossing the water indeed: water flows through our stories and our lives like a cascading stream that never stops. Most of our bodies and most of our world is water. From the water we drink and wash with in the morning, to the water for coffee or tea, we are part of a stream with a passing flow that never ceases. Like waves on the water, we rise at times and then fall back but we are always part of a larger ocean. So it isn’t surprising that when we come here today, to learn what God was doing in bringing Jesus to the world, in taking on the form of a person just like us, the story starts with water.

Water and Spirit

Right from the beginning, water is central to the Bible story. Genesis says,

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. [Genesis 1:1f]

This is the beginning; this is what it looks like. I know this scene, do you? I have stood on the shores of Lake Michigan, on a boat in the Chesapeake, on the sands of a beach and watched the sky darken and the winds move the water and the pleasant playful water turn dark and threatening. Surely this is what the storytellers of Genesis imagined at the beginning: creation like a thunderstorm over a great water, light splitting the sky, and separating the waters, organizing them, so that a place could be made for a garden where we might live and praise our God.

Crossing the Water to Salvation

Water is also the scene at two of the most important events in salvation history. When the people of God came out from slavery and were threatened by their oppressors with violence, their backs were to the sea and God opened the sea, and they crossed over. Again, when they came to the land God promised, the waters, this time the River Jordan, were opened so they could safely cross. These waters—ocean, Reed Sea, River Jordan—are not just geography, they are theology as well.

So it shouldn’t surprise us that water played a part in the rituals of ancient Judaism. A great many things could keep a person from being what we call “ritually pure”. This is simply a term for someone who is not allowed to come into the presence of God. But if there was a careful description of who must be excluded, there was also a gateway back and the gateway included a special sort of washing, called a mikvah. Centuries before Christ, the mikvah was described in Leviticus and washing rituals played an important part in the life of some religious communities. It was a ritual of restoration.

John the Baptist and Jesus

Perhaps this is why John chose water as the symbol and sign of repentance. His message is simple: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” Like a walled city with a gate, heaven’s door is opening and it’s time to wash up and get ready. Certainly the place he chose was not an accident. Gathering people by the River Jordan, the border of the promised land, the water whose crossing marked a fulfillment of God’s promise, is a powerful sermon itself. Matthew is clear: Jesus doesn’t just happen on John, he sets out on a passage that takes him to John first and once there on the shores of the waters of the River Jordan, he seeks baptism. It is not an accident, it is not arbitrary, it is an intentional act. Jesus chooses to go to John, to seek baptism there on the banks of the River Jordan.

Later, the church would be embarrassed by this act. Why would the sinless Son of God come to be baptized? Surely he does not need forgiveness, surely he does not need to repent. We hear the echo of this in the conversation Matthew records.

John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ 15But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ [Matthew 3:14-17]

The cryptic phrase, “to fulfill all righteousness”, means first to be in perfect accord with God’s hope. Like a music student playing perfectly at their first recital, like an athlete doing exactly what the coach taught, Jesus seeks baptism because it is the pattern of God.
What is this pattern? It is first a choice to identify with the outsider, the sinner, the stranger. Jesus lives in a religious culture that sets a stark boundary between the good people and the bad and like a wall forbids any crossing. In his baptism, Jesus demolishes the wall, invites everyone in, opens heaven to those outside. To fulfill all righteousness is to break down the walls that separate the children of God from each other and gather them into one family. Over and over again he will live this identification with the lost and it is one of the reasons he will die. God is coming to us, to all of us, and Jesus opens the door. With his life, through the symbol of this baptism, he opens the door to all and gives all a taste of God’s future. For in the final victory of God, all are known as God’s children, Gentile and Jew alike, men, women, everyone.

Fulfill All Righteousness

In the moment of fulfilling all righteousness, as the baptism concludes, Matthew tells us that creation itself mirrors the event. Heaven opens, the text says, and the Holy Spirit, imagined as a dove, comes to Jesus to ordain him for his ministry. The message is clear and unequivocal: “‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’ This is literally the Word of the Lord, the same Word by which the waters were divided and creation took place. This is the child of God who stands for all us and invites us to remember we are children of God.

From his baptism, Jesus’ passage goes on into the wilderness and we’ll meet him again there at the beginning of Lent. John is arrested; when Jesus hears about it, he takes up the same message John preached. It’s striking that as he begins the part of his passage that includes preaching and teaching and healing, he begins by saying, “Repent, the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” In him, through him, there is always this amazing, wonderful possibility, that heaven will open, that we will be invited in.

Our Baptism

Jesus’ baptism invites us to think about our own passages and our own baptism. Long ago, some church bureaucrats set up a stall at the door of heaven and began to charge admission. Baptism, they said, would save you from hell. This is not God’s Word; this is not God’s intention or hope. But it’s comforting in a way. Some people would rather buy a ticket than trust there will be a place for them. Our destination, however, is not something we can purchase; it is the gift of God. Like a parent driving the car on a trip, God controls, God assures our destination. So let me be clear: I do not believe, we do not believe, Congregationalists do not believe that anyone has ever been saved by the ordinance of baptism. There is nothing we can do, no act, no water that can save a single soul. Saving souls is the act of God, not clergy or churches. Heaven is God’s home and only the housekeeper can open the door.

Instead, baptism for us is a symbol that remembers our identification with Jesus. We come to the waters of baptism to be reminded that we are children, whatever our age. Over the years, I’m sometimes asked if it wouldn’t be better to let children grow up to the age of understanding before they are baptized. Usually, this means 12 or 13 or so. Obviously, such people have never taught a confirmation class full of kids this age. I have been honored over the years to hold many infants and small children as they were baptized; I have never thought for one instant that they understood less than I did, with my seminary degree, about the love of God. There, at the baptismal fount, we have always been equals, equally children of the one loving God.

Jesus begins his passage with baptism and we have a passage to make as well. A passage is not an errand, a quick trip somewhere, always with the return in mind. A passage takes you somewhere and changes you. Passages take preparation. When I was small, our family lived near Trenton, New Jersey; each summer, my father would spend an entire day packing the car for the passage to Wildwood, to the ocean shore, where we’d spend a week. Have you prepared a passage: packed a car, loaded a back pack, set out for some other place distant not only in time but in spirit? Baptism is preparation for our passage, a passage whose arc must be the recovery of that child of God within us that lives without fear and embraces God’s other children.
If he lives in us, his baptism is our as well, and the ringing affirmation of that moment is for us as well. Bernard Eppard, a Congregational minister in Connecticut, says,
Today, the divine affirmation – you are my beloved – pertains to each and all of us. The ethic of baptism is aspirational and inclusive, inviting us to see all creation, including the non-human world as God’s beloved.

There is in each of us, a child of God that seeks to be known. When my grandmother would correct me, pointing out some obvious flaw, she often began by saying, “Heaven knows….” Heaven knows you: heaven knows that child in you. And heaven invites that child home: “the kingdom of heaven is near”. In baptism, Jesus crosses the water on his passage as the Son of God, seeking to save the lost. We also have a passage to make:
We are crossing the water, our whole lives through,
.We are making a passage that is straight and true
Amen

Gifting

Gifting

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Epiphany Sunday/A • January 1, 2017
Matthew 2:1-12

Falling in Love

“When you meet the person you want to spend the rest of your life with, you want the rest of your life to start right now.” That’s how the movie When Harry Met Sally ends. It’s less a love story than a friendship story: two college graduates move to New York city, have an off and on relationship, marry, divorce, live and finally discover they’ve fallen in love. I suppose many of us here have a story of falling in love. For years I’ve been trying to understand the beginning of Matthew’s gospel and what I’ve come to believe is this: it’s his story of falling in love, of how he came to give his life to Jesus, to make his life about the life of Jesus, to let Jesus live in him. Now in everyone’s story, the hardest part of all is to explain why this person, out of all the people in the world, all the people in your life, is the one.

Matthew’s gospel starts with two stories about Jesus meant to explain this. We’re going to be living with Matthew’s gospel throughout this year, so first we need to understand that it wasn’t written for us. We’re reading someone else’s mail. This is a gospel account meant for Jewish Christians and Gentiles who are trying to understand how Jesus fits in the history of God’s love. So Matthew uses pictures both audiences will understand.

First, he gives us a long genealogy of Jesus. There are still places where the important question is not who you are but who your people are. This is who Jesus’ people are. There’s Abraham, first person of God’s work in history, Isaac and Judah: this is a family story and these are great great something parents. This is a family that is fully and completely Jewish. But there are Gentiles in the story too: Ruth, the Moabite woman who became the ancestor of David. David is there too: one of Jesus’ family. Fourteen generations to the great time of exile; fourteen more since, right down to Joseph. If you are Jewish, this tells you exactly who Jesus is, from Abraham to David to Joseph, and then of course Matthew tells us the story of Joseph and Mary and Jesus’ birth.

Now he turns from the Jewish audience to Gentiles, to us. We may not know the whole family history; we’re new in the neighborhood. So he tells us a funny, ironic, story about how Gentiles came to recognize and celebrate Jesus, just as we have done. He tells us about the most amazing baby shower ever.

King Herod

This is a comic story, if we understand it. Let’s start with someone who isn’t in the Nativity scene: King Herod. Herod was a leader of one faction of Jews during the Roman civil war. He got his position partly because Judah—Palestine—was so insignificant. He backed the wrong guy but was left in office anyway. It was a kind of gift; part of the defeated forces of Mark Antony, he went to the victorious Octavian, prostrated himself, begged for mercy and got it. He was good at pursuing Roman interests and procuring Roman taxes but his one goal is simply to stay in power. Herod represents one way of approaching the world. He sees it as a pyramid and he’s always scrambling to be on top. Along the way, of course, he’s made compromises and he’s been ruthless. He’s also done some showy things; he rebuilds the temple and gives part of it a covering of gold, he builds a fortress nearby. He is King of the Jews but he knows that his position is never secure. He isn’t part of David’s line; his power is based on threats and violence.

The Wise Ones

So imagine the impact of having some experts from another country show up and explain that they have evidence a new King of the Jews has been born. They want directions to his birth place and they assume everyone will know about this in the capital. Herd isn’t just surprised; he’s afraid. It’s one thing to stand up to all the humans claiming his throne but how to take on a divine appointment? He meets with his own advisors and finally they send these experts on their way to Bethlehem. He has them followed; he tells them to come back. Meanwhile, he plots murder. To him, the birth of this new King of the Jews is a threat.

Let’s imagine these “Wise Men”. Since the text doesn’t actually call them men, I’m going to go with a more modern translation and call them sages. These are the first century equivalent of the people you see on CNN, the talking heads, the experts. They’re from “the East”. Now what we may not know is that in this context “the east” means the older civilizations in what is now Iran and Iraq, the Persians, Babylonians and others. These all had a rich tradition in which divinity often came in human form. They believed god was often revealed in a person. And they watched for signs of such people. So the story starts with this: some eastern experts have seen a sign in the part of the sky called “the house of the Hebrews”, which leads them to Judah. They are Gentiles; they don’t know much about this place and they don’t have a gps, so they do the logical thing, they go to the King of the Jews, Herod, sometimes called Herod the Great.

Gentiles Coming to Jesus

This is shocking, in a way. Jews always assumed the messiah would be Jewish; and so he is. But who knows about him? Who looks for him? Who seeks him? Not the priests in the temple, not the King of the Jews, Herod, but these gentiles. From far away, from the distant East, they see the world changing; they recognize the signs that God is doing something new and wonderful. They pack up, buy tickets on a caravan and go. Isn’t this remarkable?

We all know about excuses for not going to church. It’s snowing, it’s too hot, it’s been a busy week, someone said something last Sunday that annoyed me. These sages represent the other side: outsiders who instead of looking for excuses, look for reasons to go. And the reason is the light of a star, a symbol of God’s love. It’s not an easy journey; it would have taken them weeks to get there. When they do get to Jerusalem, they must have sensed the underlying hostility at the court of Herod.

It’s interesting that in the whole story, we don’t hear of them doing what is almost always done when you meet a king: giving gifts. They have gifts with them; they see no reason to give them to Herod.

Gifts for a king

They find Jesus eventually, they give him gifts that have been the cue to imagine all sorts of things over the years. What’s clear about the gifts is that they are useless to babies and new parents. Honestly, who gives a new mother frankincense? Who brings myrrh to a shower? These people live in a rather stinky time period; frankincense at least puts a nice perfume over it. Myrrh is used to prepare bodies for burial; it’s rare and costly. God, that would have been the most useful of all, I suppose. These gifts don’t have individual points, despite all the imagining over the years.

But taken together, they are the sort of thing you give a king. They are a recognition that Jesus is indeed the real King of the Jews, that he is the chosen one of God, just as David was, just as Abraham was. These aren’t gifts you give a baby: they are gifts you give royalty. These aren’t gifts to use; they are gifts that say, “Your majesty”.

That’s why Herod wanted them to come back; he’s afraid that’s exactly what the child will evoke. He’s afraid of the competition because in the world of Herod, then and now, there is only one top person. Everything is a pyramid and the ones at the top are always trying to climb higher; that’s how they got there in the first place. Herod is afraid. That’s the true comedy of this story. Look at Herod in his palace, with his army, his priests, the whole religious establishment—look at Jesus in his manger, nothing but a baby with poor parents. But there in the stable, there is love: God’s love, flowing out, lighting the world. The star is a symbol. Stars are only seen at night, in darkness. John will say later, “[His] life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” It’s so obvious, so clear, that the wise ones know who to give their gifts to. Think of it: they brought the gifts all the way from the East. They met with Herod. But they didn’t give the gifts to Herod. Now, in the presence of Jesus, they do. They give their gifts.

God offers life

Herod’s power is real. But God’s power is deeper. The wise ones are warned in a dream, just as Joseph was; they go home a different way, perhaps with tales of what they’ve seen. By the time Herod’s troops get to Bethlehem, Jesus, the real king of the Jews is gone. Babies are murdered anyway; that’s what kings like Herod do, their ultimate threat is death. But God’s ultimate offer is life and in Jesus, he’s offering it to all of us, giving it away, gifting us, just as the wise ones gifted Jesus.
This is a story about falling in love.

This is a story about the day you recognize Jesus for who he really is. This is a story for everyone who has or will ever come to Jesus, see who he is and respond by giving their own gifts. We are at the beginning of a new year. So it’s a good time to ask: what gift are we bringing? What gift can we give? Can we, like the wise ones there, reach over the boundaries of Jew and Gentile, male and female, and all the others and see that the only thing that matters is this: in Him is the light of all people; in him is the gift of God’s love. Receiving it, what can we do but give the gift of our own lives?

Amen.

What Happens?


A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Transfiguration Sunday/C • February 7, 2016

“You are my beloved”. Twice, the gospels tell us, heaven opened and Jesus heard in his deepest soul God speaking these words. Once at his baptism; again, late in his ministry, when he took his closest friends up a mountain and they saw how like the great prophets Moses and Elijah he was. Because we aren’t reading these stories in order, we miss some of the context. Before this, he has healed and offered hope; before this he has taught his friends his path will lead to a cross. They have argued with him, feared for him, followed him. Now he shines with the vision of this mission, now he is transfigured, altered, like the wick of a candle, as the love of God burns and sheds light in the world. What happens on the mountain? How many have asked this? Yet if we truly look, we will know what happen because we see it ourselves at times. We have been thinking about how to live together in the covenant community of Christ and last week we heard the most important principle of all: to live from the permanent love of God. What happens on the mountain? What happens when we live in the love of God?

Let me tell you a story. There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a picturesque forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul.
In recent years, however, fewer and fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited. The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to his good friend Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.”

Jeremiah said that he had received a vision, and the vision was this: the messiah was among the ranks of the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Who could it be? He knew it wasn’t himself, but who? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks. The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Was this one the Messiah?

From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Joseph and Ivan started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Pierre and Naibu left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offense had been given.

As one traveler, then another, found their way to the monastery word soon spread about the remarkable spirit of the place. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed and transformed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them.

Let me tell you another story. Almost 16 years ago, I stood in the chancel of another church, a church where I had been the pastor for five years, a place I knew well. But on that day, another minister was at the center, directing our worship, a man who is like a father to me. And as I stood there and looked out at the congregation, Jacquelyn appeared in a white dress at the back and there was a light around her. In moments she was next to me, a few moments later we were married. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

One more story. Two years ago, I was still healing from a wound from which I thought I’d never recover. I was only just beginning to believe the astonishing sense I’d received from God that I wasn’t finished, that God had more for me to do. I read the information about this church and set it aside; Jacquelyn insisted I read it again, contact the committee and I did. A few months later I came here for the first time, stood in this pulpit and addressed you and, just like the day with Jacquelyn, we made a new covenant. We were changed, changed by love, and that has made all the difference.

What happened on the mountain?. In those moments, those disciples saw Jesus in a new way and a new covenant began. We often live in the past. We use it to draw lessons, we use it to guide us, to help us avoid hurts. But the gospel wants us to see ahead, not just behind. Transfiguration is a glimpse of the future, of where we are going, of a moment when we can see that God has been doing the same thing all along, in Moses, in Elijah, now in Jesus: reaching out to embrace us, inviting us to embrace each other.

I tell these stories this morning because transfiguration doesn’t just happen on a mountain far away, it happens in our lives, it happens when we open ourselves to God’s love, when we take a moment to look up from our wounds and let God’s love embrace us. John Sumwalt tells of a friend who had a powerful experience of the holy. She wasn’t sure who she could tell. She couldn’t think of anyone in the church and ended up sharing it with a Buddhist priest. He told her “not to try to dissect it for meaning, pick away at it or anything else – but just to let it sit. His words were “Hold it in your heart. It may be years before you even catch a glimmer of understanding.” Whenever heaven opens and God’s love is so evidently, clearly, showered down, a difference is made; all the difference is made.

What happens on the mountain is that the disciples see Jesus in a new way. They see him as the child of God, embraced, loved. What happens when we see each other that way? We gather in the name of Jesus who was transfigured on the mountain and as the continuing expression of that covenant community of disciples. Like them, I think we often misunderstand him; like them, we aren’t always ready to follow immediately where he’s going. But when we do, when we ourselves hope in that love, have faith in that love, practice that love, what happens? Christ comes; God blesses. And the kingdom is here, right here, among us. Today I want to close with a poem from Malcom Guide.

For that one moment, ‘in and out of time’,
On that one mountain where all moments meet,
The daily veil that covers the sublime
In darkling glass fell dazzled at his feet.
There were no angels full of eyes and wings
Just living glory full of truth and grace.
The Love that dances at the heart of things
Shone out upon us from a human face
And to that light the light in us leaped up,
We felt it quicken somewhere deep within,
A sudden blaze of long-extinguished hope
Trembled and tingled through the tender skin.
Nor can this this blackened sky, this darkened scar
Eclipse that glimpse of how things really are.

What happens on the mountain can happen, does happen.
May it happen in your life this week.
Amen.

Your turn!

One More Thing

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany • January 31, 2016

“Jesus is Lord!” Two weeks ago, we heard Paul explaining to the Corinthian Christians, a divided church that this is more important than all their differences. Differences of opinion, differences of gender, culture, even belief, none of these compare to the unity of living with one Lord. We heard him compare this life to being a body, the body of Christ. “Now you are the body of Christ, and individually members of it.” Last Sunday we heard how just as the body needs different parts for different functions—an eye to see, an ear to hear and so on—we need as one body different gifts. This is a core part of being a Congregational Church because we believe we are a complete church in Christ. We believe God has given everything we need here to do what God hopes. Surely among those hopes are that we will remember members not here; so we have members who are gifted at staying in touch. Surely among those hopes is that we will sing God’s praise; so we have members who play and sing and lead us in that way. Surely we need people to organize our missions, serve communion, and we have people who are gifted at these things. Each of us has gifts given by God and together, in the sharing of our gifts, God’s work is done, Christ is present, for we are the body of Christ.
“Jesus is Lord!” That is our faith and mission. How can we turn that faith into mission? How can we live it day to day? That’s Paul’s intention in this part of his letter to the Corinthians. After answering the Corinthians, after explaining how much more important their unity in Christ is than their differences, he comes to this moment. Steve Jobs used to stand on a stage each year and explain the great things the Apple corporation had done and various new products. But he was famous for saving his announcement of really ground breaking things like the iPhone for the send and introducing them with the phrase, “One more thing…” Now Paul comes to the end and says in effect, “one more thing: love”.
It’s a chapter often read in the context of marriage: at weddings, anniversary celebrations, recommittals. I once was asked to read it at the funeral of a beloved spouse. It’s one of the most familiar parts of the whole Bible. But if we know it by heart, if in your head you were saying the words as they were read, do we do it in life? Jesus said, “Love your neighbor” and his life is a parable of love. Paul has told the Corinthians to love; now he teaches them, and us, how to take that principle and turn it into verbs. He sets the issue squarely right at the beginning.

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. [1 Cor 13:1-2]

Now Paul knows, as we may not that in fact many of the pagan ceremonies his audience remembers did indeed involve cymbals and gongs other instrument, symbolic ways of getting God’s attention. He also knows some of the Corinthians claim to have more faith than others and finally, then as now, the ultimate sign of Christian commitment was being martyred; these are people who know people who have died for their faith. How could their sacrifice mean nothing?
But love is not an emotion, love is not a pretty poem, and Paul proceeds to describe it a series of verbs. They’re like a mirror. Just listen to them, let them roll around in you for a moment: love is patient; love is kind; love bears all things, love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Paul teaches by telling us what love is not as well: envious, boastful, arrogant, rude, irritable, resentful. None of these things are part of love. The toughest one for me is this one: love does not insist on its own way. That’s tough. You know, I work hard at being right about things. And when I’m right, when I’m sure I’m right? I know I tend to insist on my own way. I know I’ve insisted on it even when it wasn’t loving. God forgive me. I’m not the only one who does this, either. In fact, when we were first married, Jacquelyn got so tired of people, me in particular, insisting on their own way that she created a sort of rule. It works like this. If you insist on your own way, and someone else insists on a different way and it turns out you were wrong, you have to turn around three times to the right and say, “You were right, you were right, you were right” and then turn around three times to the left and say, “I was wrong, I was wrong, I was wrong.” We call it doing the dance. And honestly? I hate doing the dance. But when you do the dance, you discover something; you can’t do it without laughing. The other person laughs and somehow things are better; love is restored. Love does not insist on its own way.
One of my favorite movies is Harvey. It’s is an old black and white movie with Jimmy Stewart and the premise is simple. Elwood P. Dowd has a good friend who is a pookah, a sort of six foot tall rabbit with magical powers. Oh, one more thing: Harvey, the pookah? He’s invisible and given to hanging out in bars. It’s a comedy in which a simple, happy man is sent to a psychiatric hospital for being happy, for not living by the world’s values. He explains it this way, “”In this world, Elwood, you must be oh, so smart…or oh, so pleasant. Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” Love doesn’t insist on its own way; it’s not smart, it’s pleasant.
Now if we are honest when we truly look in the mirror of these verbs, most of us will see our own flaws. Paul has a reply. He says that now we see in a mirror darkly and the we live as children who are still growing. So if we haven’t fully grown into this vision of love, it’s ok; we are meant to keep pressing on, keeping the prize in mind, keeping the vision alive. And this is the most important function of a church. We are a school for love. We are meant to learn here how to be patient, how to be kind. We are meant to learn how we can be together without insisting on our own way. We are not these things now; we do not always work together this way now. We insist on our own way, we measure our differences. But we are learning, we are learning to love.
The most important step is simply to decide to live this love. In Harvey, Elwood P. Dowd is seen by a psychiatrist named Dr. Chumley. Over the corse of the story, Dr. Chumley comes to believe in Harvey and near the end of the story he says, “Flyspecks! Flyspecks! I’ve been living my life among flyspecks while miracles were hanging out downtown.” Dr. Chumley has come to a realization; love trumps smart, love trumps being right, love trumps everything.
When Paul has held up the mirror of love, he says one more thing. The Corinthians are doing things day to day. Paul wants them to see that everything they are doing is temporary. Isn’t it the same with us? My father taught me lots of wonderful things but he also taught one thing that was wrong. He taught all of us, “Work comes first.” He taught us that our value was our profession. That’s our culture; that’s our way.
But Paul is teaching something beyond our culture, Paul is preaching something beyond our world. Paul is teaching and preaching the love of God in Jesus Christ and the final thing he says ought to be part of every thing we do here. He says this: “Love never ends” and he says that in all the world, only three things ultimately remain: hope, faith and love. Now we live day to day; we try to make a difference day to day. That’s a good and important thing. We are making a difference; we are making things better for some. But the most important thing we can do is be a school for learning to love because all these other things we do, all our work, our efforts—only the parts that have to do with faith, hope and love will last.
Jesus is Lord! Indeed: and our Lord has said love one another. We are meant to be his body, we are meant to live our lives as his, loving and loved, growing in love, sharing his love until the light of the love of God shines in every darkness every day.
Amen.