Ready, Set, Go!

A Sermon for the Salem United Church of Christ

by Rev. James Eaton • © 2024 All Rights Reserved
Fifth Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • February 4, 2024
Mark 1:29-39

Ready, set, go! It’s how children’s games often start: hide and seek for example. It’s also how races start. I was a track parent years ago: my older daughter ran sprints and relay races. Being a track parent means you sit in the stands on cold, rainy days, waiting, waiting until someone says, “Oh, Amy’s lining up,” and then you stop your conversation, look down and hear “Ready, set, go!” And watch for a minute or two while your kid and some others run around a track. It’s a rhythm of wait, wait, get ready and then an explosive start and rush to the finish. 

This image captures for me the Gospel of Mark. Especially here in this first chapter, Jesus seems to be on a race. Over and over, we hear the word, “Immediately!”. Jesus is baptized: immediately the Spirit throws him into the wilderness. Jesus invites people to become his disciples; immediately they follow him. Jesus preaches at a synagogue, defeats an evil spirit; immediately his fame spreads. It’s one thing after another and sometimes I read these stories and want to say to Mark, “Slow down! Let me ask some questions, like Pastor Sue did a couple weeks ago.” Jesus goes on: encounters a man with leprosy and immediately he was made clean and Jesus is off to other places.

The Urgency of Now

The urgency comes from the importance the time. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke of the urgency of now and said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” This is the time, Jesus says, right now, right here, the reign of God is happening. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” Everyone hearing this story knows how it ends. “After John was arrested…”, Mark begins and we already know the destination is the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus himself. Mark is inviting us in between the arrest of John and the death of Jesus and there’s no time to waste. Immediately: get ready, get set, go. 

Last week we heard the story of Jesus casting out a demonic spirit. He’s been to the synagogue, he’s been to worship, just like we’re gathered here. In the midst of the service, someone possessed by a spirit caused a commotion and Jesus casts the spirit out. Now the service is over and they go out, across the street, to Peter’s house: “Immediately!” Now I suspect you’ve all had a preacher drop in so you know there’s a bit of preparation involved. In our house, it means cleaning and straightening and making sure there’s a bite to eat. If it’s Pastor Sue, it means having tea on. But here, Jesus and a bunch of his friends are coming over and the matriarch is sick; Peter’s mother in law has a fever,. Jesus goes to her and takes her by the hand. It’s easy to rush by this detail but it’s important. Good Jewish men don’t touch women in Jesus’ time. Women are in the background, working but not seen, certainly not touched. Yet when he encounters this woman he touches her, takes her by the hand, just like in the song Joe sang, “Precious Lord, take my hand…” and lifts her up. The word here for being lifted up is the same one translated elsewhere as ‘resurrection’. This is the first resurrection, this is the model for our call to grace, that Jesus lifts us up, raises us. Just as Paul says: “…if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him.” [Romans 6:8]

Call and Service

We’ve been talking about calling for a few weeks and I want to notice this woman’s call. It doesn’t look like what we’ve often been taught. This woman doesn’t comes to Jesus, he comes to her. The effect of being raised by Jesus is to make her well, to liberate her from the fever, just as the man with the demon was liberated. When God calls us, God makes us ready, gets us set. And finally, there is the “go!” Jesus raises the woman and she gets up and serves. Mark doesn’t tell us how she serves. Does she prepare a meal? Does she fix him a plate? Does she help him prepare sermons? We don’t know. We simply know she serves. The same word is used by Mark to describe the angels who care for Jesus in the wilderness. When we serve, we become then angels. 

The call of service can change the course of lives. Robert Coles is psychiatrist whose life has spanned an amazing group of people. His aunt was Anna Freud, he grew up during the depression and later in life he had the opportunity to interview and talk to a great number of people involved in the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960’s.  He became fascinated with people who felt what he called “the call of service”: privileged college kids who went to poor people to teach children to read. One of those children later said this about the difference one of those teachers had on her own life.

He was a frail-looking Jewish kid with thick glasses, and at first I didn’t know what we’d even talk about. Bt I’ll tell you he saved me, that’s the word, saved. He was kind and thoughtful and he loved reading and he taught me to love reading. He was the one who said to me, “You can get out of all this, you can…” 

What that kid with the thick glasses did was simple: he healed her, he freed her, to hear her own call to service. She grew up, went to college and Harvard Law and then gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars so that she in turn could tutor children in Roxbury, a poor area of Boston.

Robert Coles, Call of Service, p. 176.

I hear this call to serve in my own life here with you. For most of the last 48 years, I’ve served as a pastor of a church. Then I retired and moved to Harrisburg and had to do something I’d only done once before in my whole life: find a church not as a prospective pastor but as a member. I wandered in here at Salem, thinking it would be one stop on a tour of local churches and you all said “Welcome! We hope you come back!” And I did. It wasn’t easy: I’ve had to learn a whole new set o skills. I’m used to preaching sermons, not listening to them. My wife likes decorating; she’s a flight attendant and in a different hotel room two or three nights a week. She imagines rearranging them. The same way, I automatically imagine rearranging the liturgy. It wasn’t easy to not be able to do that. It wasn’t easy to sit in a pew. But I knew I needed to find a place to serve and you gave me one. 

Your Own Call

What about you? What about me? What is your call? How does that call turn into serving? The story in Mark doesn’t stop with raising Peter’s mother-in-law. When the sabbath ends at sundown, people from all over town are brought to Jesus so he can heal them and liberate them from the things that are holding them back. That’s the meaning of healing, isn’t it? We focus on Jesus and the healing but we ought to notice the crowd that brings people: they also serve. This is the real church, this is who we are when we are truly servants of Jesus Christ. When someone asks me about Salem, the temptation is to describe the beautiful building or the wonderful organ. But that’s not Salem; that’s not the church. The real church is you and I serving together. The real church is you and I helping each other find our call, get ready, get set, and then going. It’s not always as immediate as Mark’s gospel would have it yet there is a faithfulness that lasts. When Jesus is on the cross, the disciples are all absent. It’s the women who are there, perhaps this very woman, Peter’s mother-in-law, serving to the end. Jesus raises her and she serves. This is our call as well: to serve with others, bringing those who need healing to Jesus. Ready, set, go: listen for the call, find the way you can serve.

Amen.

How Bud Became a Hero

Second Sunday After Pentecost/B

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

June 6, 2021

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1  •  Mark 3:20-35

My family and I recently moved to new city: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, so we’re meeting a lot of new people. One of the rituals of meeting people is answering the question, “What do you do?” That’s never been a problem for me because I have been working since I was 14. But in January I retired. So it first, I wasn’t sure just how to answer this question. And then it occurred to me one day to simply say, “I’m retired.” Most people let it go with that, which I find interesting, since it really says nothing other than I don’t work for money. Some people ask some people ask, “What are you retired from?” To which I reply, “Well, I used to be a pastor.” Now the community in which we live is very diverse but on the whole it’s a pretty liberal place and of course more and more today being a Christian is seen as a conservative flag wave. So to avoid putting people off, I immediately tell them well I was a pastor of a Congregational Church. The problem is most people here don’t know what a Congregational Church is; this is Presbyterian and Catholic territory and evangelicals. Those are the three choices: Presbyterian Catholic evangelical, so I have to then explain, “Well it’s something like the UCC or like Unitarians, although I myself am not a Unitarian. Seeing this process has made me realize how carefully we divide people into categories. What’s your category? 

Modern life is built on what’s called micro targeting. Micro targeting is a process by which we are all divided up into more and more and more categories. The categories are used to sell things including politics. You can see this process at work. Search the web for a product or information: retirement activities in Harrisburg, for example. The next thing you know, you get a slew of ads that promise retirement income, dates for people over 50, and medical ads I’d rather not mention. Our categories are also part of our identity. Because we have allowed ourselves to participate and to embrace the targeting, we have divided ourselves into categories, there is inevitable conflict.

We see it in our politics where elections are supposed to solve conflicts. Now that basic principle is being denied by a Big Lie and efforts to discourage voting. We see it in social lives where the business of wearing a mask or getting vaccinated has become a battleground. Even churches are divided. 

So it’s a good day to read from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthian Christians. Division in the church is the reason he wrote them and what we call Second Corinthians is actually pieced together from several letters. The Corinthians are divided because some are following a new leader and refusing to listen to Paul. What’s Paul’s solution? 

First, he points them back from their own party spirit to the one Spirit given by Christ. 

But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—“I believed, and so I spoke” —we also believe, and so we speak, 14because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.

2 Corinthians 4:13f

For Christians, our first principle is always the Risen Lord. This is our source although, as Paul says elsewhere, “…we have this treasure in clay jars…” 2 Cor 4:7 What matters is the treasure, not the jar that contains it. 

So what can we learn by turning to Jesus? Today’s Gospel reading is all about conflict. The culture of Galilee was full of categories. Jew and Gentile, Male and Female, free and slave, peasant and rich, city dweller, farmer, Roman, and so many others. Within these categories were others: Jews who were Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests, and people like tax collectors who were generally looked down upon. All the categories of our time—gender, class, race, ethnicity—existed then as well as now. So perhaps we can learn from this moment how to live in our moment.

Jesus has just started his ministry. John the Baptist has been arrested; Jesus began preaching the arrival of God’s rule. He begins to attract crowds and he chooses disciples. He casts out demons, he heals people. He also attracts conflict; scribes—we would call them lawyers—claim what he’s doing is wrong. But he continues and continues to attract crowds. Things come to a head over healing on the sabbath and the scandalous fact that he eats with sinners and women.

Finally, his mother and brothers come and send for him, apparently to get him to stop. This is his reply.

“Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

Now, in all the culture of the Roman world, in all the culture of the Judea at the time, the most fundamental category of all was family. Roman heads of household—fathers—could settle disputes within a family with the force of law. So this is astonishing: Jesus is taking this family value and stretching it to include everyone “who does the will of God”. 

This is the signature act of Jesus: he breaks boundaries, he creates community. The scribes who oppose him aren’t enemies, they are family—if they do the will of God. The outcasts in the communities he visits aren’t outcast from him—they are family, if they do the will of God. Everyone isn’t just welcome, everyone is welcome. Everyone matters. Everyone is a child of God. In Jesus, the categories which conflict are transformed into communities of care.

This isn’t my insight, this isn’t a bright idea I had thinking about these readings, this is how Christian Churches spread. Historians tell us that it wasn’t mass conversions that led to the spread of the church, it was two great leaps forward, both of which occurred during pandemics. Lyman Stone is an historian who notes that during a great pandemic in the Roman Empire in the second century AD, as many as a quarter of the population died. The culture of the time cast out the sick but Christians cared for the sick, whether church folks or not. A century later, another pandemic struck and he notes,

It triggered the explosive growth of Christianity. Cyprian’s sermons told Christians not to grieve for plague victims (who live in heaven), but to redouble efforts to care for the living. His fellow bishop Dionysius described how Christians, “Heedless of danger … took charge of the sick, attending to their every need.”

What will historians say about us in this moment? Will they remember how we crossed boundaries to create communities of care? It starts with individuals, it starts with people like Bud. Bud’s in his 80’s. I’m guessing he’s retired, too. He recently flew on an airplane for the first time. That meant that he had to solve the problem a lot of us have had: how to open the door to the lavatory on the plane. It’s not obvious, and for some reason, the FAA doesn’t require that flight attendants provide directions in the safety briefing. 

Now as an elder man, I can tell you, it’s hard to admit that you don’t know how to do something as basic as open a door. But Bud didn’t. The thing is, admitting you don’t know what you’re doing is tough. It feels like everyone else knows—like the world is divided between the cool people who know how to do something and you. Fortunately, Bud had the humility to admit to his fight attendant, my wife Jacquelyn, that he needed help. So she opened the door, talked to him and treated him the way we’d all want to be treated in such a moment: with dignity. She learned it was his first flight, so she got out a set of wings they keep for first time flyers, she got the pilot to announce over the PA that But was flying for the first time and had everyone applaud him. She got the pilot to take a picture with Bud after they landed. She made Bud a hero. 

I’m sure that airplane had all kinds of people: children, adults, people nervous about flying, people anxious to get somewhere for something fun or important. Everyone was on their own until Bud became a hero. But in the process, the whole group also became something new: just for a moment, a community of care, a group applauding Bud and in their approval, accepting him.

Now today, tomorrow, the day after, this sermon is going to go in a file. In a moment it will be over. But what about you? What will you take with you? We can’t avoid the categories and conflicts of this time. We have this choice, though: we can accept them or we can follow Christ and break the boundaries. How Bud became a hero is simple: someone cared enough to see him not as a clueless old man but as a child of God and treat him that way. That’s how Bud became a hero. You can do that: you can do that every day. 

Amen.

Never Mind

A Sermon for the by Rev. James Eaton • © 2021

Fourth Sunday in Easter/B • April 25, 2021

Luke 24:36b-48

Isn’t it amazing how life can change in a moment? I used to be the kind of person who would carefully plan all the stages of a trip. I had my airline reservation printed, hotel, car, each of them laid in a folder in consecutive order. I got annoyed when planes were delayed; I got angry if my car or room wasn’t ready. But when Jacquelyn became a flight attendant and I started flying space available, I was introduced to  traveling without any assurance. I had to learn that even though I had a plan, things could change, the world could say, “Never mind” to my plan. Of course, there are many times, may circumstances where we go along as if our lives were on rails like a train. Then something happens and suddenly it’s as if someone said ,“Never mind” to our whole plan, our whole life, and we’re starting over.

It must have been like that for the disciples. For a few years, they’ve been following Jesus through the villages of Galilee, up and down the roads, then on to Jerusalem and its crowds. All along he was there; all along, they thought something great was going to happen. They saw him heal; they heard him preach. They’d been present at amazing, miraculous events. 

Surely they knew what the prophets had said; one day God would send someone who would be a Messiah, who would lead a great movement to renew Israel. They must have known their history, how God inspired Moses to lead their ancestors out of Egypt, how Joshua led them to claim the promised land, how David created a kingdom among God’s people, how that kingdom though fallen had risen again and then been recaptured by Judas Maccabees. 

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “You are the Messiah!” But when Jesus connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They argue about who is going to be first in his kingdom; he tells them to serve each other. Even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they expected something great, something victorious. 

Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty  tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said, “Never mind,” one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

So they do what people often do when a life plan ends. They go back where they were before it all began. They’ve gone back to Galilee, back to where it all started. They’ve gone back to what they used to do: fishing. How long have they been doing that? Doesn’t time seem to stop sometimes when your whole plan, your whole life, has run into one big “Never mind?” But it doesn’t seem to be working; they go out fishing and don’t catch a single thing. Have they lost the touch? Bad luck? Who knows? It seems the new plan, to go back to the old plan, is getting a big never mind as well.

It’s just then, when they come back to shore, hungry, depressed, quiet the way you are when everything has failed that they meet this guy on the beach. Who is he? No one knows. He calls them children. That may seem kind but actually since the word for children and slave is about the same it may have come across as strange. Maybe it sounded like he was recognizing how hard they worked. Next thing, he’s giving directions“Cast the net on the right side.” Is it just that nothing else has worked so why not or something mysteriously compelling about him? All we know is that as the net fills up and one of them recognizes something in the man on the beach. “It is the Lord!” he says and Peter—Peter who always rushes in, whether it’s the right thing or not—Peter can’t help jumps in and wades ashore. 

Once there, they discovered everything they need is already set: bread, grilled fish. I love the note that says that the net didn’t break. That detail makes this story for me: who else but someone who’s spent hours mending nets would think of it? So there they are: on the beach with the Lord, eating breakfast. Some have said that just as there was a Last Supper, this is the First Breakfast. 

It must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think? The musical Fiddler on the Roof has a scene where Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him,” and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,  

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?

But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,

Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

At the end, she says she does love him—and that it doesn’t change a thing. 

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say? 

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble, when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

“Feed my sheep,” Jesus says. And then, I imagine Jesus looking right into his eyes, knowing as he always knew, what was behind Peter’s eyes, knowing and yet asking once again, “Do you love me?” and when Peter, perhaps crumbling now, says yes; once again, Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.” This is the moment Peter became an apostle. This is the moment when Jesus came to him and said: “Never mind!” All those misunderstandings along the way? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. Those times you denied me? Never mind! Go feed my sheep. The fact that you went back to your old life? Never mind! I’m giving you a new life and a new mission: feed my sheep.

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened  that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. When the Risen Lord comes to us, it isn’t to show off, it’s to show us how to rise with him. Peter is buried in guilt; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep. Peter is buried in grief; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep. Peter is buried in failure; Jesus says never mind—feed my sheep. 

Maybe you’re buried, maybe you’ve been buried. Today Jesus is calling to you to rise with him. Today Jesus is saying to you as he did to Peter: never mind all that— feed my sheep. Today, Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”. How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart. 

Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.

Amen.

Broken for You

This sermon can be seen online during a video of the worship service at the Suttons Bay Congregational Church on April 11, 2021

A Sermon for the Suttons Bay Congregational Church

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor © 2021

Second Sunday in Easter/B • April 11,2021

John 20:19-31

…it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…

John 20:19

Sounds like they were quarantined, doesn’t it? We’ve spent a lot of time this past year confined by fear of a virus. Last winter, my wife Jacquelyn had COVID-19. I remember how she stayed in our room upstairs; I stayed downstairs. I remember texting between floors, I remember leaving her food outside the closed door and calling out that it was there. Fear makes us hide.

In states where tornadoes are common, homes have shelters and every family knows the drill. It’s stormy and there are dark clouds and you keep an ear out. You listen to the radio or the TV. Sirens go off and someone says, “I guess we should go downstairs”. You huddle in the basement or you go to the tornado shelter and light the storm lights. You listen and you talk nervously, which is what I imagine the disciples were doing. We go to the closed, locked room when we are scared, when things we don’t understand take over our lives. And we sit hoping the walls and the door will keep the dangerous world outside. 

Do you know this room? Anne Frank was a young, teenage girl when the Nazi’s started rounding up Jews in her Dutch community. In July of 1942, Anne and her family fled to a place that had been prepared.

Miep took us quickly upstairs and into the “Secret Annexe”. She closed the door behind us and we were alone. Our living room and all the other rooms were chock full of rubbish…

Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl, p. 19

Anne and her family lived hidden there until September, 1944, when they were arrested and deported. It is believed Anne died in a concentration camp early in 1945. Aleha ha-shalom: peace be unto her.

The disciples are sitting in a familiar place. Only a few days before, they had celebrated Passover there, a noisy, festival where you eat and tell a story and argue and wonder about old miracles. They were there when Jesus added something to the Haggadah, speaking of the bread: “This is my body, broken for you.” I imagine the disciples tried to ignore it; that’s what we do when someone says something uncomfortable at dinner, after all. Now they’ve witnessed the cross, they’ve seen Jesus die, and surely they are hoping no one will come looking for them. So they’re back in the room but this time the doors are locked and I’m sure the conversation is quiet. Some people are missing: Judas and Thomas. There is a strange story about the tomb and Mary claims to have seen the Lord. No one believes her. Better to rely on a good solid locked door.

The disciples are hoping the door will hold up but Jesus passes right through it. Who is Jesus? He’s someone who passes through locked doors, enters locked rooms. American cultural religion makes much of “coming to Jesus” but the gospel suggests what really happens is that Jesus comes to us, even when the door is locked, even when we push him away. Anne Lamott talks about her conversion as a process she fought tooth and nail. She remembers feeling like Jesus was following her for days. She would come home and shut the door, shutting him out. Finally one night, she says she finally said to him, “You might as well come in”

So here he is: Jesus in person. He’s passed through the door and the disciples are staring. He says simply, “Peace to you,” a common greeting but also the blessing for someone who has died. Here he is: the man they thought dead, addressing them as if they were dead. Who is Jesus? Someone who gives peace.

But then he goes on; his peace isn’t an escape, it’s preparation. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you….receive the Holy Spirit.” I imagine everyone there, certainly everyone here, had a lot of questions about what’s happened: “what’s it like to die?” “how did you get past the grave?” But he isn’t answering those questions. He’s answering this question: what now? What he does is a new creation story. When God set out to create a companion creature, God took bits of earth and formed a shape but it was when God breathed life—spirit—that a human was created. In just the same way, Jesus gives these disciples, the first church, the same gift: the breath, the spirit, of the living God. He gives his life not only for them but to them. “As I was sent, you are sent. Who is Jesus? Someone who gives life and purpose.

What now? Go forgive sins: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them”. He’s recreating them and now he’s sending them out to do the same thing in the world. Sins doesn’t mean that list of things we shouldn’t have done, like the fact that I at bacon the other day in defiance of my doctor’s warning about high cholesterol. Sin is that ongoing tendency to substitute our own judgement for God’s way. God’s way is grace and peace; our is rules and winning. But winners and losers divides the family of God. It leaves us with an ongoing burden. “How can you say I’ve never forgiven you,” someone once said, adding, “I remember every time I’ve forgiven you.” What Jesus means is the forgiveness that removes the burden of keeping score. How do you do this? The best way I know is simple. Every time you think of someone with whom you have a grudge, pray for them. If you turn from the scoreboard to God, the burden lightens, forgiveness becomes a natural practice.

Finally we come to the story of Thomas, a week later. Thomas missed the meeting. Thomas wasn’t there when Jesus found the disciples. Maybe he was less scared and thought he’d better hide on his own. Maybe he was hungry and had gone out for a snack. He missed meeting Jesus and refuses to believe Jesus is alive; he can’t imagine there is any continuity between whatever vision the disciples had and the terrible, wounded, crucified Jesus he last saw on the cross. He says as much: he will only believe what he can see and touch with his own eyes, his own hands.

Jesus doesn’t argue; Jesus doesn’t quote a creed or preach, he simply shows Thomas his wounds and invites him to touch them. This is finally who Jesus is: someone wounded, just like us, someone who shares his wounds. Richard Rohr is a theologian who said, 

Jesus dies for us not in the sense of a substitute but much more in solidarity of all humanity since the beginning of time. The first is merely a heavenly translation of sorts; the second is a transformation of our very soul and the trajectory of history. That’s atonement, that’s the power of realizing our sin, confessing our sin, getting right with God and one another… It is a solidarity with all humanity.

Lectionary Lab Live for April 11, 2021

Churches on the whole don’t like Thomas. He makes us uncomfortable. He says things we would never say. “Unless I touch the holes in his hands…”, Thomas says; we’d like to offer some gloves to cover them up. In this moment, as Thomas speaks his doubts, Jesus lets Thomas touch him; he lets Thomas feel his wounds. Jesus doesn’t argue: he just shares his wounds. Who is Jesus here? The one broken for us.

Notice the details of this story. First, Thomas is there; the community doesn’t exclude him, doesn’t disfellowship him, they include him. This is a signature reality of the new community of Jesus: everyone welcome. When Acts depicts this community, it says, 

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common…There was not a needy person among them

Acts 4:32-34

Later, one of the first baptisms will be an Ethiopian eunuch who everyone knows has no business being in the church according to the rules but is so important, angels stage the encounter.  We like rules, we like doors; Jesus walks right through them every time.

Jesus is one who gives peace, gives life and gives a purpose. The purpose is to lift the burdens of others, to live in solidarity with them, to share our wounds and make it possible for others to share theirs. That’s what he says: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” This is just a statement of fact; burdens linger and wear us down. Jesus is broken for us so that we will know how to receive others who are broken. Jesus is broken for us so that we will know that peace doesn’t come from better locks or stronger doors, it comes from sharing our wounds and living his life in ours. 

It’s ok to be afraid; the disciples were and that’s when Jesus came to them.

It’s ok to come with doubts, Thomas did. 

It’s ok to come with wounds; Jesus did. 

Wounds and doubts and fear make a place for encountering Jesus.

This is who Jesus is: peace giver, life giver, one whose wounds became a means of new life, who calls us as one broken for us and asks us to share our wounds, share forgiveness and come out of the tomb with him.

Amen

The First Resurrection

Mark 1:29-39

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Epiphany/B • February 7, 2021

© 2021 All Rights Reserved 

Lost and Found

For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, 4and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…

1Corinthians 15:3f

Not long after I moved to Albany, Jacquelyn and I got lost. We’d gotten the parsonage transformed from a house to a home and it was time to explore, so we went to Thatcher Park, out near the mountains, where you can see for miles and miles. It was a great trip and as we came down the mountain we were excited about our new home, talking, and taking what turned out to be the wrong turn.

Of course, we didn’t know it was the wrong turn, so we kept going. We had a GPS on the cell phone, after all. But soon it became clear we weren’t where we thought and the phone lost its signal and we had no idea how to get home. We finally did the most important thing to do when you’re lost: stop. When you’re lost, the most important thing you can do is stop getting more lost and figure out where you’ve been so you can get back to where you are going.

I thought of that recently as we moved again, this time to a new home in Harrisburg. One of the good things about moving is that you pull out all the old pictures you packed away and look at them before you put them away again. It reminds you of where you’ve been. So we’ve been seeing snapshots of the past, our past. There’s Paris, where we got engaged, our wedding, endless pictures of May when she was a cute little girl and more as she became a wonderful young woman. There’s Amy graduating from college and holding Maggie, her first chid, my first grandchild. There’s Jason as a boy, long before he had boys of his own. This is a time when so many of us feel lost; it’s good to stop and remember where we’ve been and it reminds me this is a moment that will not last, that we have somewhere still to go.

Jesus On the Way

Today’s Gospel reading is about Jesus on the way, Jesus just beginning his journey. He’s been baptized by John, he’s spent time in the wilderness. He’s started his mission, proclaiming, 

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. 

Mark 1:15

He’s begun to gather disciples in the port town of Capernaum. He preached his first sermon there and cast out a demon. Now Jesus and his friends have gone to Peter and Andrew’s home. But there’s trouble there; Peter’s mother-in-law is sick. I’ve always been fascinated with this brief narrative because it raises all kinds of questions. Think about it: your son-in-law, his brother, some friends and a new preacher all come to your house and you’re in bed with a fever. 

In the last few months, many of us have learned to be efficient at quarantines and distancing.  Last March, Jacquelyn was very sick for three weeks. We never knew if she had Covid-19 but we were careful. She stayed in the bedroom; I slept in a guest room. I brought her meals and left them outside the door; she texted to warn me if she was going to use the bathroom to shower. We know how this goes and along with the aches and pains of the fever, I know she must have had the crushing loneliness of a sickness that confines you. 

So it’s strange to find Jesus going to this woman’s bed side. When we add on the barriers of gender, it becomes even stranger. Men in Jesus’ culture simply don’t have anything to do with women they don’t know. We see this gender conflict several times in the story of Jesus, from his encounter at a well with a Samaritan woman to the story of a woman washing his feet with perfume. But Jesus banishes barriers: between sick and well, men and women, clean and unclean, righteous and sinner.

He goes to her and Mark says he took her by the hand and raised her up. It’s important to pay attention to the language here, to every single word. Because the word we read in English as “raised her up” is the same verb used for Jesus’ resurrection. Here he is, fresh off his first sermon, not long after making his first disciple, and now: the first resurrection. 

Resurrection has become a term we only use about Easter, about Jesus himself, but that’s not the way the New Testament uses it. Resurrection is a reality meant for all to share, according to Paul. He says about his own life, 

The First Resurrection

I want to know Christ* and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, 11if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal;  but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.

Philippians 3:10ff

Peter’s mother-in-law is the first resurrection and an invitation to all of us to live in a resurrection reality. The gateway is knowing that Jesus has taken your hand and taking his, recognizing in his resurrection the possibility of your own.

Finding Jesus

But how do you find Jesus? He says that in the final reckoning, we will be called together.

“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Matthew 25:39-40

There’s a story floating around Facebook that illustrates this. A man went out riding a nice bike one day. He’s practiced at this: it’s an expensive bike, he’s wearing the proper pants for riding and he puts his earphones in and has some great music playing while he rides. But something on the path punctured a tire; a piece of glass, a sharp stone, something, and he left his patch kit home. So instead of enjoying a swift, exhilarating ride, he’s forced to walk the bike, limping along, grumbling in his head. Along the way, the path goes under a bridge and there he encounters a guy who’s dirty and perhaps homeless. The guy says something but the bike rider doesn’t hear him, he just wants to get by. But he can’t, so finally he takes the earphones out and brusquely says, “What is it you want?

At that point, the homeless guy says, “I was trying to tell you I have a patch and some glue for your tire if you want to fix your bike.” They fix the bike; the rider goes on his way. But he can’t get over the encounter. He gets some food and clothing together and goes back to the bridge and gives the things to the man. Perhaps they talk; \you can imagine the rest. The bike rider experienced a resurrection that day. But he didn’t get it until he started listening. 

Paying Attention

We’ve come through a hard time and it’s not over yet. There’s sickness and grief and the threat of more. We’ve been passing through a wilderness. Even our life as a community has become sick. This past week, we saw the spectacle of a member of Congress having to be told that yes, children were really murdered in a school in Connecticut and yes, 9/11 really happened. We are hearing more and more about a conspiracy that sought to overturn an election through violence and lies. It’s a difficult time, a wilderness time. 

There are some lessons here for us. One is: Jesus raises up, Jesus intends resurrection. Over the last fifty years, we’ve seen an amazing decline in many churches. One reason is our fascination with guilt. It’s a paradox: Jesus preaches forgiveness but many churches encourage guilt. But guilt beats us down. Jesus intends to raise us up. 

A second lesson is that when Peter’s mother-in-law is raised, the text says that she served. Actually, the word used is the root of the word we use for Deacon, a common office in churches. Our own raising isn’t the end of the story, it’s the beginning. We are meant to go out, we are meant to go on, as Jesus sent his disciples, to raise others, heal others, give hope to others.

This is a wilderness time but we are not meant to live in the wilderness; we are meant to keep moving in hope, keep moving on the way toward God’s promise, keep following the star of Bethlehem with which the season of Epiphany began. 

Jesus says at several points, let those who have ears to hear, hear. That’s all the bike rider  had to do: listen. When you are lost, the first thing to do is to stop so you don’t get even more lost. The second thing is to remember you have ears to hear and listen for directions. We are not meant to live lost in the wilderness. Open your ears: hear the news of resurrection. Press on, press on to make it your own, Look for Jesus: he’s looking for you.

Amen

Take Off the Devil Suit

by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany/B • January 31, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

One day when I lived on 29th Street in Milwaukee, the Devil came to my house. He was a garish shade of red, had horns, a tail and carried a pitchfork and stood about four feet high.

I was sitting in the living room when the Devil came out of my son Jason’s room with a wild look and I knew we were in for trouble. A few minutes later, after some now forgotten bad behavior, a bit of parental yelling, and some tears I exorcised the devil, who returned to the bedroom. Minutes later Jason emerged and we were reconciled and agreed no more devil—at least for the moment.

It’s a true story: Jason had a devil costume for Halloween one year and for a while when he was going to be bad, he would put on the suit first. We learned to recognize the devil and the impending behavior and deal with it—partly by telling him to go back and take off the devil suit. Eventually, he outgrew the suit. I can only wish we all had outgrown bad behavior; obviously, we haven’t. The past few weeks have brought scenes of violence in our nation’s capital and a member of Congress threatening to kill other leaders. I’m sure you could add to this list. We cannot escape the men—and women—in the devil suit. How can we get them to take it off?

The story we read in Mark is amazingly appropriate. Last week we heard how Jesus created a community of disciples. His invitation to follow him is so authoritative that the text tells us they immediately left what they were doing and followed him. Now they have come to Capernaum, the home of those disciples. Jesus enters a synagogue on the sabbath, a sanctuary of worship but also a place of conversation where the whole community meets to gossip, greet, trade, and connect.

Jesus sits in the seat of the preacher; someone, perhaps he himself, reads a portion of Torah and Jesus begins to speak. The text says that he spoke as one with authority and not like the scribes, that is, the regular teachers. Now the usual method of preaching there was to discuss what Moses meant or what another prophet said. But the congregation recognizes something unique in Jesus: his words, his teaching, he himself, have an amazing authority. “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes,” the text says.

Just as a great guitar player, can make our hearts vibrate simply by running his fingers over a few strings, the words of Jesus move the hearts of the people there so that they are astounded, amazed. This sense of being astounded is not necessarily positive; it doesn’t mean they applauded. Preaching can make people angry. We all have a set of boundaries that make us feel safe. Like a fence at the edge of a precipice, like a barrier in front of a danger, boundaries keep us secure in a dangerous world. Anything that forces us beyond the boundaries destabilizes us, it threatens, and we react.

Years ago in Connecticut when the issue of full inclusion of gay folks was being fiercely debated in churches, I attended a clergy meeting where people on both sides spoke. Afterwards, we were feeling pretty good; the meeting had been mostly civil and no one had left in anger. There we were, a group of overweight middle-aged straight men sitting at a table in a church hall. One by one each was asked to say something about the meeting and when it was my time, I said that really, this topic had very little to do with our lives. Then I said, “But you know, here we are with pastries, and we’re all overweight. Maybe we should be discussing the sin of overeating.” That’s when the meeting got angry and a few moments later one of the guys said he wasn’t going to sit for this and left. “They were astounded.”

At least one person in Capernaum cries out and disrupts the moment. There is a man there with what the text calls “an unclean spirit”. Perhaps he stands up, there is a disruption. “Have you come to destroy us?” the demons in him ask. And then he says what some must have been thinking: “We know who you are, the Holy One of God.” What happens when the unworthy, the unclean, washes up like the ocean against the rock of God’s holiness? What happens when the demonic runs into the holy?

Notice how the text carefully distinguishes between the man himself and the unclean spirit: he is not a bad man, he is a man controlled by something unclean. “Unclean” means unfit for worship, unfit to come before God. Jewish religion carefully distinguished between the clean or pure and the unclean, between what was fit for God and what was not. The text tells us nothing about the man himself. Like Jason in the devil suit, he has been put into something other than himself. One writer likens this to addiction and points out that addiction is not the person: it is the cage with which the person lives. Like a devil suit, the cage of the unclean spirit is separate from the person, controlling but not the same as that person.

Now there are all kinds of cages. I confess that in the past, I often compared this cage, this unclean spirit, to mental illness with its hallucinations and altered sense of reality. I realize now I wanted to keep my own boundaries intact. I wasn’t mentally ill so thinking about it that way meant it wasn’t me. But what I see now is that there are all kinds of cages, big and small, and some of them enclose me as well. And when the cage is threatened, we all ask the question the unclean spirit asks: “Have you come to destroy us?”

This fear is, I believe, behind the anger that fuels so much of our national life. Cages are being broken. We are living through an enormous cultural transformation.What happens when the cage is broken and the person is released? We know that when Jesus walks in, demons walk out. The solution to our cages lies in the connection Jesus calls love: a compassion that refuses to let boundaries stand between us and invites us to see each other as equal children of God.

I mentioned addiction earlier as an example of a cage that controls a person. Today we are facing a terrible epidemic of addiction-fueled not only by drugs but by our misconception about the nature of addiction. So often we have forgotten Jesus’ distinction between the cage and the person so we see addicts as bad people who should simply start acting better. The truth is that addiction is only partly about chemical dependence. Those who are finding the most success at treating addiction have learned to treat it as a disease, not a moral failure, and to make human connection part of the solution. The problem isn’t the person; the problem is the cage.

In the same way, there are larger cultural cages. One of them is the fear of people who come from other places. Almost all of us have immigrants in our background. But we’ve forgotten that and today’s immigrants often have different colored skin. How do we solve the anger that comes from breaking this cage? Perhaps we do it by simple connection.

Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh, North Carolina, is a 300 member congregation that is one of 32 congregations housing people who are at risk of deportation. After studying and meeting about the issue last July, the church voted in September, 89-5, to invite an undocumented person to their meeting house. Eliseo Jimenez and his family came to stay in the church’s youth activity room. The church organized volunteers and worked with five other congregations, including a synagogue. Now we might think this would be a terrible burden and a drain on the church. In fact, one of the volunteer hosts says, the church has found renewed energy. “I’m really proud we’re doing this,” one of the members said.

At the center of this story in Mark today is this: “What have you to do with us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” It’s a question for all of us who say we are the body of Christ.

In a culture of cages, what has Jesus to do with all those caged? Isn’t it to invite them out of the cage; isn’t it to say, “Take off the devil suit” and come out? Isn’t it to see the child of God in each person and invite that child out? That’s what Jesus does: “Be silent and come out of him,” Jesus says. At the end of the story, the crowd is amazed. And indeed, whenever, wherever, we as the Jesus people, invite the child of God caged up, imprisoned, out to play—it’s still amazing. This is our calling in Christ: to invite the caged out, to invite everyone in, into the community of Christ, into the circle of those who recognize each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, children of God. For when we recognize others in this way, we find we ourselves are also recognized in that circle.

Amen.

A Crown of Beauty

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

First Sunday in Christmas/B • December 27, 2020

Luke 2:22-40

When I was growing up, basket weaving was my father’s favorite example of something totally useless. I’d take a course in art and he’d ask, “So, what are you studying these days, basket weaving?” Only later did I learn from historians that baskets and basket weaving in fact were critical to ancient communities. Baskets were the basic dry storage container, the Tupperware of their time. Weaving baskets is a complex, community project. Some gather reeds and slim sticks, some soak them while skilled weavers combine them into something useful for the community, something others will fill with beans and corn and food to get them through the winter. Learning about baskets made me realize how much we depend on on our community. Today’s gospel reading is all about community. It was in a community that Jesus was recognized.

The first Christians never saw Jesus alone. Mark doesn’t have a story of his birth, neither does John. Our Christmas story is woven together from a few verses of Luke and a few more in Matthew. Early Christians didn’t look to what we call the Christmas story, they looked to their scripture, what we sometimes call the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, and they saw him as part of God’s continuing coming to the community. 

Early on, a tradition that put Jesus in the picture with Abraham, Moses and Elijah developed; it’s the story of the transfiguration and we read it every year. Most importantly, as we read recently, God promised David eternal presence and the early Christians saw Jesus as the continuation of this promise. It wasn’t Jesus alone; it was Jesus as part of a long line of God coming into lives, historical lives. It was a new explosion of the same God, the God who formed a community through Abraham and Sarah, saved it through Moses, established it through David and then announced forgiveness and recall through the prophets.

Today’s gospel reading is the story of the community present in Jesus’ time recognizing him. You’ve seen this, though you may not recognize it. Every community has a moment, a ritual, by which a new person is recognized and welcomed into the community. We do it as a nation with the process of becoming a citizen. We do it in here when someone owns the church covenant and becomes a member. Most importantly, we do it through baptism. In our tradition, when a child is born, it’s common for the parents and family to bring the child to church where the minister of the church on behalf of the community welcomes the child to the community of all Christians and especially that congregation and the congregation promises to support the child.

Now we know that not everyone does it this way. Baptism has always had a dual identity. Part of it is the involuntary thing God is doing in choosing a child; part of it is the choice we make to choose God. So Christians have emphasized different aspects. But it’s interesting that even so, most have found a way to recognize there are two moments that need a ritual, need a public blessing. One is at the beginning of life. In our tradition, in most Western traditions, we do this by baptizing a child. In some traditions, they introduce and recognize the child. In those traditions, baptism often takes place when the child is 12 or 13. In our tradition, we also know that’s an important time and we have a service where the young person confirms the baptismal vows, the choices, previously made for them.

But what matters isn’t so the specifics of the ritual but the meaning of the moment. You see that same meaning here. Mary and Joseph have brought their child to Jerusalem. We aren’t told exactly how old he is. But the purpose is clear: it’s presentation, a ritual to certify him as a member of the people of God, a Jewish person, part of the Jewish community. But they don’t do this alone. The event has book ends in the reaction of people who are part of the community.

Think of Simeon. We’re not told his role but it seems to be official. Perhaps he’s a rabbi; perhaps he’s a Deacon. He’s looking forward to “the consolation of Israel”—that is for a clear sign of the presence of God. When Jesus is brought and the service is performed, , we’re told that he embraced Jesus, literally “took him into his arms.” He sees in Jesus the continuation of the presence of God and it’s the Holy Spirit that has guided him to this encounter. He’s not an uncle, he’s not a friend of the family, he’s a part of the large community in which Jesus will live and preach and work. And he sees Jesus as a sign of God’s presence. 

At the other end of the story, we have Anna, an 84 year old widow who practically lives in the temple, devoting herself to prayer and worship. Jesus becomes for her a reason to praise god and to encourage those looking for hope and redemption.

Jesus is not alone and neither are you. We live in a vast network of communities and if we fail to see them, it’s our lack of vision, not their lack of presence. We are all coming through a difficult time and a great part of the difficulty is the loneliness so many feel. I wonder how many didn’t feel like Christmas came because no one came to visit. It’s one thing to realize Santa really is not coming down your chimney, another to not have family members or friends come by, not see anyone, not touch anyone. I honestly believe it’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of right wing terrorist groups like the Proud Boys and others. They feed on the loneliness, they feed on feeling left out of community.

But there is a way to reconnect with a sense of community and you can do it as part of your prayer life. We are good at giving thanks for things; we need to pay more attention to giving thanks for people. A. J. Jacobs is a writer who set out to do this by giving thanks for everyone involved in his morning cup of coffee. He started to consciously thank people for some of his food. Jacobs made a point of getting the names of people. He thanked Chung, the barista, and Ed, the coffee taster who selects the coffee, and named and contacted many, many others, all to say thank you. He went on to thank the trucker who brought the coffee to the store. But then there was also the people who built the truck and carved the highway out on which the truck drove. There were the people who bought large sacks of coffee beans and roasted them, there were the people who packaged it. There were the people who grew the coffee of course. He called his project, “Thanks a thousand,’ because he ended up thanking over a thousand people. 

We try to do something like this at our home and we have for a long time. On Christmas, for example, we had roast chicken for dinner. So when Jacquelyn prayed over the meal, she thanked the farmer who raised the chicken and the chicken for giving its life for our dinner. We do this normally; I’ve noticed it sometimes throws guests a little. That’s ok; perhaps it makes them think.

You can try this, you can do this, and it will lift you up. Pick something simple: Jacobs picked coffee, we do it with dinner. Think of the network of people who worked to bring it to you, the community that is upholding your life. It makes you pay attention; it makes you grateful.

Mary Oliver expressed this same feeling of attentive gratitude in her poem, “Invitation”

Invitation
by Mary Oliver
Oh do you have time
to linger
for just a little while
out of your busy
and very important day
for the goldfinches
that have gathered
in a field of thistles
for a musical battle,
to see who can sing
the highest note,
or the lowest,
or the most expressive of mirth,
or the most tender?

Their strong, blunt beaks
drink the air
as they strive
melodiously
not for your sake
and not for mine
and not for the sake of winning
but for sheer delight and gratitude –
believe us, they say,
it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.

I beg of you,
do not walk by
without pausing
to attend to this
rather ridiculous performance.
It could mean something.
It could mean everything.
It could be what Rilke meant, when he wrote:
You must change your life.

-https://wordsfortheyear.com/2017/08/28/invitation-by-mary-oliver/

Jesus is not alone, neither are we. We are called together as a church community because that’s how God works. It’s significant that when Jesus did set out to preach and heal, he didn’t just preach, he didn’t just heal, he first created a community of disciples. A church is not a building, it’s not a club, it’s an expression of what Jesus was doing when he created that community, a new community of his followers. When we are at out best, we are, as the scripture says, a crown of beauty. When we are a community of Christians, we are an inspiration, as Jesus inspired Anna. 

This week, I hope you will think of the community and give thanks. This week, I hope you will be a reason for someone else to praise God, I hope we all will. For we are meant indeed to be the crown of beauty by which God is seen present in this place, in this community.

Amen.

This Is The Day

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 13, 2020

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

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

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

Archibald MacLeish, JB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:17ff

Gratitude gives God a way into our heart. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Amen.

Begin the Beginning – Journey to Joy 2

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY


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


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

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

Isaiah 40:5


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


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


Just before this, he says,


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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


This is what Isaiah says;


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Journey to Joy 1: Let God Out!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

First Sunday in Advent/B • November 29, 2020

Isaiah 64:1-9Mark 13:24-37

One day last summer, when Jacquelyn and I were on vacation, we got up to a beautiful day that seemed to promise the plans we made would be perfect. The sun was out but it wasn’t too hot, there was a nice breeze blowing, we were rested and ready to enjoy the day. We were staying at a friend’s house, so we packed up, cleaned the kitchen, left a little thank you note and went out to the car, impatient to get started. I turned the key as we talked and…nothing. Not the sound of the engine, not even a click. I thought I’d done something wrong, so I did what we all do, I tried again; still nothing. No horn; no lights—the battery was dead. Over the next three hours or so, we called for help, got a new battery, he weather worsened and by noon, when we finally got the car going, we were two tired, disappointed people. I guess we’ve all been disappointed at one time or another. We hoped something, we wanted something, we looked forward to something and it didn’t happen. What do you do when things fall apart?

I usually try to begin sermons with a positive illustration but these scripture readings today are from disappointed people. So it’s important for us to remember our disappointment. Both these stories are stories of disappointed, dispirited people; both these readings have a background of hope denied, delayed, destroyed. Today, in a time when we all face fears and sometimes feel overwhelmed, it’s important to learn from them. They found hope even as they lamented—and so we can we.

Isaiah is speaking to a people who have the spiritual equivalent of my experience with the car. A century before, they had been defeated, exiled, lost hope in God’s power to save them. Then they began to hope again; they learned to sing the Lord’s song in foreign lands, they learned God was bigger than they had imagined. They looked forward to a time when God would save them and return them to their home. 

Now that time has come and many have returned to Jerusalem after a long exile. But the vibrant, hopeful, inspired community they had expected God to create hasn’t happened. They’ve returned to ruins; they’ve camped out in their despair. And so we hear this lament, this cry for God to come to them as God came in the past.

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
so that the mountains would quake at your presence–
as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil–
to make your name known to your adversaries,
so that the nations might tremble at your presence!
When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect,
you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence.

They’ve failed at going to God and now they are remembering that their inspiration wasn’t their own doing. They remember the wilderness, they remember how God saved them at the Reed Sea and they begin to understand that what’s needed isn’t something they can do: they beg God to come to them.

Our culture glorifies our efforts. From the basic story of someone working hard and making good to the spiritual version of getting saved by giving your life to Jesus, going to church, pledging gifts, all of it is about what we do, what we achieve. But the stark reality in the midst of despair is that the prophet tells us it isn’t our effort that makes a difference; it’s God’s. They want God to come to them: “tear open the heavens and come down”. Isn’t that the ultimate cry of all our hearts?—that having come as far as we can, God will come to us, enfold us, save us. 

One writer has shared a personal experience of this.

When my son, Christopher, was a boy, I took him to Toys-R-Us, and he got detached from me.

Christopher being my first child, my fatherly instincts caused me to panic. Yet, because I could see the doors, I knew that he had not exited the building. I paced up one corridor and down another… around a corridor… around another aisle… peeping… looking to find him amidst a crowd of people in the Christmas rush – but I could not find my son. I found a security guard and asked him, “Do you have surveillance in the store?” He said, “Yes.” I then asked, “Do you have a monitor?” “Yes.” “Can I look at the monitor?” “Yes.” “Can you scan the floor?” “Yes.”

The guard began to scan up and down the aisles, and there I saw my son, surrounded by toys, yet crying.  He was clearly in a state of panic. My son was all by himself among people he did not know. My son was feeling lost and alone, and I did not know what to do. I asked the guard, “Do you have an intercom?” He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Keep the camera on him.” Then I got on the intercom and said, “Christopher.” My son looked around because he recognized my voice. I continued, “Stay where you are.” He started looking around. “It’s Daddy,” I said. “Don’t move. I see you although you can’t see me. Stay where you are. I’m coming.”

That’s what this lament hopes. It imagines us sitting and crying and hoping God will come find us. It’s no accident that the prophet goes on to see the solution to despair in God remembering who we are: “Yet, O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”

That’s the spirit of Advent and that’s the hope of Advent: that God is coming, no matter how lost we feel, now matter how absent God feels. The Gospel of Mark was written for people who faced persecution, wars and a dark disappointment that everything they had hoped was in vain because Jesus hadn’t come on their schedule. Jesus imagines a violent time, a world ending time, and they says in such moments, “Keep awake.” Why keep awake? Because God is coming—and we don’t want to miss the moment. Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard several parables that lift this theme as well: hope isn’t about what you see, it’s what you can’t see but believe. Keep awake: God is coming, tearing open heaven, coming into the world.

Why is staying awake so important? Because of something Isaiah says: “…you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down…” God’s coming is a surprise. Abram wasn’t looking for God when God found him. Moses wasn’t looking for a life mission when he went to look at burning bush. Jesus didn’t come and do what people expected of the Messiah. God’s coming always surprises, never fulfills our expectations because our expectations aren’t big enough, creative enough. I’ve spent most of my life working in churches and what I’ve seen, what I know, is that we never imagined big enough, never thought big enough. We were so busy making sure we sang familiar hymns, we often missed the chance to praise God in new ways. We were so busy doing what we’d always done, we often didn’t hear God say, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” [Isaiah 43:19] So we missed it.

Advent is a time to wake up and wait. Do those sound like opposites? They aren’t, they are the bedrock of spiritual life. Think of the lost child in the story: the child hears the father’s voice, and may want to run toward it. But what’s important is for that child to stay right there, wait right there, so the father can come and to watch for the father. That’s Isaiah’s message: hope because like a father coming to a lost child, God is coming to us. That’s Jesus’ message: hope because if you stay awake, God will send messengers—angels—to help you. That should be the inspiration of this time: hope because God is coming.

What do we do with this hope? What do we do while we wait? Listen, watch and one more thing: let God out. Isaiah pleaded for God to tear open the heavens and come down. Today, our problem isn’t the forbidding height of heaven, it is the boxes in which we’ve enclosed God. Let God out! Let God come into our whole lives, the life of our church, the lives we live at home, the life we live when no one is looking.

This is a moment pregnant with possibility. Over the last few days, we’ve been doing something at our house you may have experienced. We brought the Christmas decorations down from the attic, we’ve unboxed them. They haven’t changed; they were there all the time. But the joy of their beauty was put away, the inspiration of their presence wasn’t visible. One by one as they are put out, they bring memories of hope, memories of love, memories of what has sustained us through times of despair and happiness. 

It’s the same with God. Let God out! Stay awake: this is a time when God can come at any moment. Stay awake and you might hear the sound of the heavens tearing open, and a baby crying as he’s born.

Amen.