The Unperishing Spring

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

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

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

A Spiritual Winter

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

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

Matthew 16:21

Again, along the way,

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

Matthew 17-21-23

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

The Great Commandment

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

Do Bad to Do Good?

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

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

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have a Destination

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

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

The Unperishing Spring

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

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

Walk on, Love on

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

Amen.

Living Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

Matthew 22:15- 22

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

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

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

The Real Issue

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

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

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

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

We Belong to God

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

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

What’s Caesar’s?

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

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

Politics!

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

Bringing Our Community to God

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

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

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

Amen.

What Are You Wearing?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

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

19th Sunday After Pentecost * October 11, 2020

Philippians 4:1–9Matthew 22:1–14

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

Wrong Shirt, Wrong Time

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

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

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

Are You Ready for the King?

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

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

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

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

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

The Urgent Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living from the Mind of Christ Now

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

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

Philippians 4:1–3

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

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

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

Now he offers a standard:

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

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

What Are You Wearing?

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

Amen.

A Pillow In the Wilderness

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19

Hear the sermon being preached

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

—Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Places! Action!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

July 12, 2020 • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Matthew 14:13-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Prophetic Patriotism

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor ©2020

Fifth Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 5. 2020

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Most of us know the story of the Mayflower Pilgrims, a group of English Separatists who settled at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and serve as one of the foundations of the Congregation Way. Less well known is the story of the Arbella and its fleet which carried a thousand Puritans and landed in Massachusetts Bay nine years later. Yet it was their colony that shaped Massachusetts, eventually incorporating the settlement at Plymouth. 

Imagine for a moment that you were the leader of this group. It’s been a long voyage; some have been seasick ever since they left England. Many have been frightened, many are missing home and its comforts. Now land is sighted; now the great ship comes into the natural harbor of what will become Salem. What would you want to say? How would you inspire them? What would you tell them about the purpose of this great and dangerous voyage? 

John Winthrop was the leader and Winthrop chose to speak about charity, a word that translates the Bible word for love that cares for others. Winthrop’s sermon lifted up Christian love as a practical principle for governing. He quoted the sermon the mount to describe the purpose of the settlement.

You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others,

Matthew 5:14-16

Winthrop was explicit about the need to support the poor and make sure each had what their needs met. Infused in his sermon is a principle that underlay the Congregational Way and ultimately the American Way: that there is a fundamental dignity, a fundamental promise, inherent in each person; that each person represents a gift of God and it is the responsibility of the whole community and especially the church to allow that gift to unfold and serve God’s purpose.

When Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, two sons of the Massachusetts colony Winthrop founded, set out with Thomas Jefferson to define a new nation in the Declaration of Independence, they went back to this founding principle, that all are created equal, all have a human dignity under God, a purpose and a claim on the freedom needed to live out their purpose. This weekend, we celebrate that moment when our fathers and mothers said such things and we must ask, as the historic source of this faith, how can we renew it, how can we make it again a light for all?

Jesus also preached the profound value of each person. He summoned those he met, those who heard him, to remember and renew the living light of God’s word that they had heard from scripture all their lives. He himself said that he didn’t come to destroy the law but to fulfill it. In this, he was doing what prophets do: seeking the vibrant core of God’s Spirit and making it live again. Of course, many of his contemporaries couldn’t see this. 

We heard his frustration in the story from Matthew today. Jewish children, like our own, made the rituals of their parents into games. We do weddings; children play with Wedding Barbie. We cook; children work in imaginary kitchens. We dress for success; children love to dress up. But what to do with someone who won’t play? 

“But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’…

Jesus has summoned all who hear him but they refuse to play. They don’t respond; they don’t dance to the music. They cannot remember the original vision; they cannot see the original hope. The “wise and intelligent” are the worst of all; they are too busy compromising to see the goodness of God. Only those who can come as children receive his gift: the peace that makes it possible to lay down burdens and find rest for the soul, the rest that will allow them to fulfill their purpose in God.

We celebrated Independence Day this weekend. But in the midst of our red, white and blue feeling, have we reached back to touch the bright vision with which our nation began? It is a vision that believes all have gifts and its genius was always that we offered a place to express those gifts, to make a life by doing the work of expressing those gifts. Where other societies chose to make birth a qualification, we made hard work the important factor. Where other societies were built like a pyramid with some kind of aristocracy at the top, we said from the beginning, from Winthrop on, that everyone, rich or poor, had a responsibility for everyone. Where other societies glorified a gifted few, we claimed a fundamental dignity for all. This is not simply a political issue; it was, it is, always, a religious issue. For the real task of churches to lift up a prophetic patriotism. That is, a patriotism that remembers we are founded on a vision of God’s purpose in our community. We do that most effectively when we demonstrate what such a community looks like.

Perhaps we could learn a lesson from our history and make it our vision for the future.

In the fifth or sixth century, a monk named Dubhan led a group to Hooks Head, a remote corner of Ireland, and set up a monastery. Soon the monks noticed that the bodies of sailors were washing up on their pristine beach: they had perished when their ships hit the rocky coastline. The monks decided to set up a beacon and operated it for the next thousand years.

This is a concrete expression of Winthrop’s summons to be a city set on a hill, a light to all. Every shoal, every reef, needs  a light. Lighthouses are built by people on land for sailors they don’t know, to provide a guide, to help them make a safe passage. What lighthouses do we need to be building? We know there are dark and dangerous currents in our culture; how can we provide guidance to those caught in them? We know there are rocks on which lives shatter; how can we be ready to rescue the endangered? 

Sometimes when we think of patriotism, it’s simply a matter of cheering for our country, in a sense, our team. But real patriotism is prophetic. What prophets did was to  remind everyone about God’s purpose and summon the whole community to return to that purpose. Prophetic patriotism has nothing to do with parties. It remembers God’s purpose, it remember the vision with which we began. It is a patriotism that takes up the call of the prophets to hear God’s call to make justice a living reality, to make care for the widow, the orphan and the immigrant our concern, to make justice our bedrock. This is a patriotism that takes the love of neighbor Jesus taught and intends to make our community a city set on a hill, giving light to all, as Winthrop said,.

Jesus has come dancing; we are summoned and if we don’t know the steps, it’s time to learn. We must look to his example and learn his steps. When we do, we will certainly see that he spent his life on the way, seeking the lost, healing the hurt, restoring the ability of those who had thought they were dead to live again. To dance this way, to live this way, we will have to go out, as a light goes out, into the darkness, to show the way, to offer the love of God. Jesus is an invitation: lift up, light u,p the love of God.

None of us can do this alone. Jesus did not live alone; his first act is to gather a community around him and we are the successors of that community, it’s children. So we are meant to be a light here not simply as individuals but all together. Like a band, like a choir, I hear Jesus calling us to this dance and his first words are surely: “All together now!”

Amen.

Bound for Glory

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 020

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

Genesis 22:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After Pentecost 2 B

Seeming, Seeing, Saving

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 3, 2018
2 Corinthian 4:5-12

So death is at work in us, but life in you. – 2 Cor 4:12

To hear the sermon preached, click below

Every preacher has some weaknesses. I know that one of mine is titles. Take today. I looked at this scripture reading and saw the part about being slaves, and I thought of when my older kids were eight and six. We lived in a flat in Milwaukee with no dishwasher. Every night after dinner, their job was to wash and dry the dishes and put them away. One night when they were pouting they said, “We’re slaves, we’re nothing but slaves.” Their mother and I looked at each other and said together, “You’re right, now get out there and finish up.” So I thought about calling this sermon “Nothing But Slaves”. It might be worth pointing out here that in Greek, the same word is used for children and slaves; I guess the Greeks needed dishwashers too. But I gave up on that title, it doesn’t really embrace Paul’s message.

Then I thought about the text a bit more and I was really taken by the image of the earthen vessels. I put one on the communion table today, just to illustrate this. I’ve read a couple of sermons that focused there and especially on the pots as cracked pots. There are so many crackpots in our national life today that I thought I could talk for a long time about that. We might not all have the same idea about which crackpots are the worst or funniest but still, there do seem to be a lot of them. But I read some more and realized this isn’t really the point of the passage; it’s an illustration of a larger message. So sadly I gave up on that title; I know a lot of preachers, better preachers, are happy to do something light-hearted but I know you expect to hear God’s word, not just whatever I think is funny.
After a few days reflecting, I began to think of Paul’s message here in three parts and that’s where my title today, seeming, seeing, saving, came from. It’s not as fun as cracked pots but it makes more sense of Paul’s message here, at least it did for me; let’s see if it does for you.

The Corinthian Christians were a quarrelsome bunch. We have a letter we call First Corinthians that’s full of Paul’s advice on conflicts; it’s clear there that the church has some factions. Before this letter was written, Paul sent Timothy to try to solve the problems but he failed. Then, someone we’ll call Mr. X came along who was charismatic and apparently an excellent speaker and a bunch of the church rallied around him. But as often happens, the charismatic leader’s fall was just as sudden as his rise. Now the church is in conflict again over differences about this leader and Paul and Paul is trying to get them back on the path toward Christ.

He begins with a sermon that should be preached to every pastor in America today I think:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.

When I look back over my career, over 40 years of pastoral ministry, I see that one of the great changes has been the creation of what I call the entrepreneurial ministry. The model is something like this: go door to door, call on the phone, by some means get a little group together; tell them they are right. That’s right: no preacher ever started up a church confronting people about where they are wrong. Adopt their culture, wave their flags, support their politics, lift up their sports. That will make the little group a larger group; it will make them feel good about themselves. And it may work. Today all over the country there are super churches with super preachers who took and take this path. Every single one is led by some preacher who is lifted up as the voice of God.

But notice what Paul says: not ourselves but Jesus Christ. By ‘ourselves’ he means himself, Timothy, other church leaders. Here it means me, Joan, our Moderator, our other officers. We’re not the show; we’re not the heart. I’m not the heart. I’m not here to proclaim me, I’m here to preach Jesus Christ as Lord. I’ve been through a few transitions where I left a church after a long, fruitful time. Each time the same thing has happened; each time someone has come and said, “I’m leaving if you’re not going to be here.” I’ve always replied the same way: you didn’t join me, you joined a church; you didn’t follow me, you followed Jesus. So why would you leave? There’s more to do.

Paul wants us to see what an extraordinary treasure we have in God’s love. Just like many of us, he had his own particular experience of being called by Christ. In his case, it involved an intense light, so bright it blinded him. So naturally he remembers that God is the source of light, that God’s creation began with light. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” He calls this a treasure, and so it is, for the greatest treasure of all is to see ourselves not as the world sees but in the light of God, in the mirror of God’s love. We may seem to be nothing to the world. We may seem to be weak in the world. But seen from God’s view, we contain a treasure: the image of God, which is our true self.

Paul knows about this difference between seeming and saying. He’s not being superficial or unrealistic. He goes on to admit that this treasure is held in an earthen vessel. In the ancient world, earthen vessels, pottery, were the everyday packaging. It’s what you put your olive oil in, it’s what your foods came in. It’s what held trade goods. Pottery was so widely spread that today archaeologists use different patterns and compositions of pottery to date cities; they dig them up in former trash mounds. Now pottery is made from clay; perhaps just as Paul is thinking of God’s creation of light, he’s also thinking of how we were created from the same clay that makes pottery. We are earthen vessels.

He’s completely realistic about our lives; they aren’t untroubled, in fact as he says, “We are hard pressed on every side,..perplexed…persecuted..struck down…We always carry in our body the death of Jesus.” Just like an earthen vessel that can be dropped at any moment and break into shards, we are terribly fragile. I think we all know this and fight the knowledge. We’re constantly defending that weakness. I was halfway through my career in ministry before I ever sat with a Board of Deacons, discussing a complaint, and simply said, “I made a mistake; I’m sorry.” I never wanted to be an earthen vessel: I wanted to be gold or silver or something shinier. It was terrible admitting I was just a clay pot. I wonder how many conflicts are caused by fear of our fragility. I wonder how many hierarchies, systems of oppression, come from the secret knowledge of the oppressor that he or she is fragile, an earthen vessel, subject to shattering.

But if we are fragile, if we are earthen vessels, we also have an amazing capacity to carry the extraordinary spirit of God. Paul sees the fragility, sees the injuries, the hurts, the times that shatter us but he also wants us to see that in Jesus Christ we have another possibility.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; 
perplexed, but not driven to despair; 
persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 
always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, 
so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies. 

This last is what saves us, saves our world: that the life of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, is made visible in us. Yes, we are earthen vessels; but those vessels contain a treasure. Yes, we are fragile; but we have an eternal life in the heart of God. Yes, we are carrying death in our bodies, just like Jesus, but just like Jesus, we have the capacity to shine with the light of the Spirit of God.

When we understand we are earthen vessels containing a treasure there are two consequences. One is that we understand our own value before God. So we are set free from the world’s value systems. We can stop trying to be gold vessels or silver vessels, because the treasure is what we contain. And the second consequence is that we recognize a fundamental equality with all God’s other children. We are all earthen vessels; we are all carriers of treasure. Paul saw this himself. In Galatians 3:28 he writes, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” So our mission becomes working for justice for all, for justice simply means treating equally people who are equal.

We live in a world that seems to be one way but Christ calls us to see beyond the world to the hope and love of God. We live in a world where we get bruised, cry out, feel ourselves cast down, but if we look, we can see that even in the moment of suffering, we are invited to the arms of Jesus Christ who also suffered, who knows about suffering. This is how God is saving this world. In our moments of celebration, in our times of suffering, we are earthen vessels meant to carry the treasure of God’s glory, God’s image, God’s presence. This is the spirit that is saving the world. Whatever things seem, may we see it and share it.

Amen.

Pentecost B – Making the Dry Bones Dance

Making the Dry Bones Dance

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Pentecost/B • May 20, 2018
Ezekiel 37:1-14

I want to begin with part of a story and then continue it throughout. I’m hoping we can use this story to tie together an understanding of how we fit with God’s plan. Here is the first of three parts of this story.

When Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, saw that the Jewish people were threatened by tragedy, he would go to a particular place in the forest where he lit a fire, recited a particular prayer, and asked for a miracle to save the Jews from the threat. Because of the Holy Fire and faithfulness of the prayer, the miracle was accomplished, averting the tragedy.

What can we do in the face of threats and tragedies? How can we hope when we’re afraid?
How do we change? How do we move from here to there, from this moment to a better moment? How is God making better times, new times, moving all creation toward the moment Jesus called the reign of God or the kingdom of God? Today is the day of Pentecost and we are invited into two stories of how God changes, two stories of vision that invite us to lift our hearts in hope.

Let’s begin with the Pentecost account. Once again, the disciples are met just as they were when the risen Lord came to them, passing through locked doors until they recognized him in their midst. Now in the midst of their meeting, the Holy Spirit he had promised comes in the same way, whooshing into the meeting, disrupting it, changing it. The Spirit wasn’t on the agenda; the fire wasn’t part of the plan.

Imagine the new disciple, just chosen to replace Judas, wondering if they do this every time they meet. Once when I was out of the ministry, I went to a Presbyterian church. The kids were little, and we were just a moment or two late, so we pushed past the assembled processional and had to walk all the way to the front to find seats. Next thing you know the organ is playing and a bagpiper is playing and marching up the aisle with the choir and the minister. It was quite a show. The piper was in full regalia: skirt, sweater, hat and a dagger strapped to his leg. Wow. I was impressed.

The next couple of Sundays we had sick kids, so we stayed home, but when we finally got back, I made sure we were in our seats early. I love pipes and I didn’t want to miss out. Imagine my disappointment when there was no processional, no piper, no dagger, just the call to worship and opening hymn. Later I found out we happened to have been there on St. Andrews day, a big deal to Presbyterians. The piper was a once a year thing. The tongues of fire at Pentecost are a once a lifetime thing.

One of the pastors on my preachers’ mailing list said recently,

I dread Pentecost. There, I’ve said it. Oh, at one time, it was one of my favorite Sundays. I loved inviting people to wear red, I liked using the balloons, and loved the processionals, and coming up with new ways to represent this day.
But not anymore. See, now I find Pentecost to be one massive guilt
trip. After all, I’ve never preached a sermon that made 3 people, much
less 3000 want to be baptized. I’ve never gotten folks so excited about the
good news that they suddenly wanting to share it. I’ve never (fortunately,
I think) been in a church where suddenly a multitude of languages is spoken.
So I find Pentecost makes me feel pretty guilty.
And folks in the churches feel the same way. Most of the
congregations I have served have felt burnt out; they don’t feel flames
dancing on their heads. They are lucky if one or two new folks show up once
in a while, much less multitudes.
They, like me, probably wouldn’t know what to do if the windows suddenly burst open and the Holy Spirit came racing in.

He goes on to say that part of the problem is that Pentecost has become a model for a successful church and if we don’t look like that, we don’t feel successful. But the disciples do not do Pentecost: God does. The disciples do not make Pentecost; God does. And God does not care about our success our pride.

The problem is that we are so inclined to just see what’s there and not what’s moving it. Take the business about languages. Why all these languages? Surely it is meant to remind us of the story of the Tower of Babel, part of the saga of creation stories, when the Bible imagined all the earth being split by language so people couldn’t understand each other. Now Babel is reversed: now people can understand and the thing they understand is that God is alive and calling all people together. “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh,” God says: full inclusion, everyone welcome. God is breaking the boundaries: like the piper, it’s one day, one time. Like the Baal Shem Tov in the forest, praying by his fire, God gives this miracle, this sign, of where to go, what path to take, and when we take it, we are on the way.

Later, when the Baal Shem Tov’s disciple, the Maggid of Mezrich, had to intervene with heaven for the same reason, he went to the same place in the forest where he told the Master of the Universe that while he did not know how to light the fire, he could still recite the prayer, and again, the miracle was accomplished.

The other story we read today also invites us forward. Israel and Judah have places that are so arid, things simply remain. It’s not hard to imagine that the battles of the period that led to the defeat of God’s people and their exile left places where bones were scattered, the result of long ago battles. What’s to happen to these lost people?

“Can these bones live?” That’s the question we face in our church and our culture today. God’s answer is resurrection.

Now resurrection isn’t the same as getting something new. Notice that in the whole of Ezekiel’s vision, the emphasis is on reclaiming what was, not creating something new. Like the Maggid of Mezrich, what’s called for isn’t a new miracle but using the old way. Resurrection means taking what was and is, making it into what will be, taking what was dead, making it alive. Pentecost looks on the surface like creating the church from nothing but it’s really creating it from the resurrection of Jesus, through this community of disciples, by the reversal of the separation between people. Ezekiel’s vision is of God blowing life into what was dead, reclaiming God’s people, resurrecting the whole community of them. What God means to do is clear: make the dry bones dance, resurrect what was into what will be.

We have a hard time seeing that hope. We get so focused on our present, we forget God is doing something new. But we do need an answer to tragedy. I could offer a list but you know them already. You know that our high school kids are taking their murder for granted. The saddest most tragic thing in the most recent shooting was the kid who wasn’t surprised. What’s wrong with us, what’s wrong with all of us, when a high school kid isn’t surprised his school got shot up?

Our politicians are paralyzed by fear. I watched on the day of the Texas shooting as Senator Ted Cruz, a man who has done as much as anyone in the whole country to make guns available and facilitate school shootings, said we needed prayers. Prayers are nothing but the intention to act. God hates pious prayers that are not connected to our intention to act.

So how can we deal with tragedy? We don’t know the prayer we don’t know the place in the woods to make the fire. The final part of the story says,

When it was the turn of Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn, the great grandson of the Maggid of Mezrichwho, who was named after the Baal Shem Tov, to avert the threat, he sat in his armchair, holding his head in his hands, and said to God: “I am unable to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is to tell the story. That must be enough.” And it was. [The Baal Shem Tov Lights a Fire]

This is us: the people who know the story, the story of God’s grace, the story of God’s resurrection. Go tell it; go live it. Go live like the bones are going to dance and they will.

Amen.

Easter 7B – Ascension – Next, Please?

Next, Please?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday • May 13, 2018

One day last week Jacquelyn and I toured the Alhambra, an enormous Medieval complex of palaces, gardens and fortresses overlooking the city of Granada. It was the last hold out of Muslim rulers in Spain, and its swirling walls decorated with plaster calligraphy, its pools of water, and mountain views were exhilarating.

Still, three hours of walking in such beauty, we were tired and hungry. We bought sandwiches and found a bench in some shade. Drawn by the same shade, two young couples sat across from us. Soon a small cat came over and clearly sniffed Jacquelyn’s sandwich; she was having tuna, and the cat wanted som,e so it did what always works with Jacquelyn, sat in front of her and quietly looked hungry and sad and hopeful.

We all laughed at the cat and began to talk. One of the women was obviously pregnant. We asked when she was due; she said August and I laughed and said August babies—of which I’m one—were extraordinary people. As we talked, she mentioned how scared she was about being a mother. I said being a parent was the most fun I’d ever had; Jacquelyn added comments on how wonderful it had been, having May, bringing her up. It turned out the other woman was pregnant too, and soon we were all laughing. Of course, Jacquelyn went from just dropping crumbs for the cat to breaking pieces off to feed the feline. With lunch over, we said goodbye to our friends and the cat and wandered off. I’d like to think we not only made the cat’s day but gave those two couples a bit of hope, another brighter voice than all the scary rational ones. I’d like to think we passed on a little of the love we’ve found parenting together.

Today is one of those days with many priorities. In the United States, it’s Mothers Day. 
In the past, that often meant exalting on one day out of the whole year the role of women who have children. Often we left out those who didn’t. Today I want to make it clear that as we mention this day, we honor with it those women, mothers, grandmothers and others who care for children they didn’t have to cherish and raise but do so with the same generous love. We honor as well women who have never had children but also share their care and love in so many ways.

I said it was a day of different priorities and if Mothers Day is one, the calendar of the church provides another. Today is Ascension Sunday. Long ago, the church remembered there was a time, a moment, when the direct, immediate presence of Jesus walking and talking with his friends ceased, when he returned to the Father so that his followers could, like fledging birds, learn to live out the love he had taught on their own.

The Book of Acts invites us to imagine Jesus taking his disciples out to a hill where they ask if he will at that time restore the kingdom of Israel. He replies, in effect, that the scheduled for the kingdom is none of their business and that instead their job is to go out and be witnesses to the ends of the earth. He mentions Judah and Samaria; you can substitute whatever place seems foreign and exotic to you. Brooklyn, maybe, or New Jersey or West Virginia, or Georgia or Buffalo. Buffalo is definitely one of the ends of the earth, at least it’s near the end of the turnpike so it will do as a symbol.

But my favorite story of the ascension is actually the one we heard today in Acts. Jesus has gone and now for the first time his disciples have to organize on their own. How are we going to continue? That’s a question all organizations ask. These early Christians don’t have the tools we have. Roberts Rules of Order won’t be written for centuries; there is no church constitution. They can’t even settle this question the way we settle such matters now by asking, “What did we do last year?” because this is the first year, the first time. But they understand this single important thing: they are there to continue the work of Jesus and that means continuing to create and recreate the community of Jesus. So they pick a couple of good candidates, people they’ve known, who’ve been active and nominate them and then they pray and cast lots; Matthias becomes the new disciple.

In the whole book of Acts of the Apostles, I do not know a more important moment. For in that moment, these people, who so often fumbled and misunderstood Jesus, begin to move forward in his spirit. In this moment, they begin to do what he told them, to ready themselves for continuing the ministry of Jesus on their own. The Romans thought they could kill the movement by killing Jesus; the religious leaders thought they could kill the spirit by killing the preacher. But God’s love and life were so strong that instead he overcomes death and his resurrection inspires these followers to continue to create communities of care just as he did, communities that will spread throughout the world. The light of love is shining in this moment and being passed like candle light, from one to another. We sometimes get so concerned about daily challenges we forget this is the most important challenge of all: how we can pass on the light of love each day.

That’s the point Jesus is making in the part of the prayer we heard this morning. He says about the disciples he about to release into the world like a dandelion releasing its seeds,

They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth. [John 17:16-19]

That’s us: that’s who we are meant to be, people sent into the world who have seen how much difference a moment of grace, a cherishing love, a boundary breaking invitation can make.

That’s the spirit in which Mothers Day originated. You can read in the bulletin article today a longer history of Mothers Day. I want simply to point out here that it began not as a day to give your mother a card but out of the boundary breaking work of bridging the gap between former Union and Confederate soldiers and families. West Virginia had become a state through the breaking of ties that inspired the war against the Union and the restoration of peace left broken bodies and broken communities there more than in most places. Anna Jarvis worked to promote peace and her daughter worked to lift up and honor that work.

There are so many stories like this. We often feel powerless but the truth is we have the power to act, as the disciples acted, and when we do amazing things happen. Let me give you one more souvenir from our vacation in Spain this year. We always visit Cathedrals and this year one that stood out to me honors St. John de Dios. It stood out because it is a soaring basilica perhaps four stories high at the front, all in figures of gold and for one euro you can turn the lights on and startle everyone there. It stood out because I’m a Congregationalist who loves the spare, plain beauty of our meeting houses which are almost undecorated. In that church, decoration assaults you at every turn and it includes that odd medieval Catholic obsession with relics of saints, so they have various skeletons in glass boxes.

All of it was over the top but it did make me look up St. John of God, the inspiration for the place. What I found was much more amazing than the gold and the skeletons. John was a poor Portuguese boy who did what boys from poor boys often do today: he enlisted in the military. He did well as a soldier, survived and went on to have a variety of experiences. At midlife, he had an experience of inspiration and began to help sick and needy people. Others joined him; the work expanded. Eventually a whole order was funded which operates hospitals around the world.

“The lot fell on Matthias,” Acts says; one person, one moment. Hundreds of years later, it fell on a former soldier and now we have hospitals. Hike up in the mountains, the Adirondacks, the Catskills, anywhere will do and if you watch a stream flowing downhill you can see it is irresistible. Blocks a path, it finds another; when a tree falls in the middle, it divides around it. It doesn’t look like much, often, just a little stream but nothing will stop that stream flowing to the river to the sea and joining the ocean. That’s how it is with God’s love. It’s flowing all the time, touching someone here, there. Like a working at a counter, calling, “Next, please?” it moves from person to person.

One of the wonderful gifts of travel is that you stop seeing news alerts. So this past week while we were in Spain, I’m sure that lots of things went on. The President did things; other people protested or agreed. Global leaders did whatever they do. Millionaires in the city got mad that someone parked a fireboat that helped rescue people on 9/11 in front of their condos, spoiling the view.

But this happened too: the Henry Street Settlement got a 6.2 million dollar donation. The Settlement started in 1893 when Lillian Ward settled in a slum in New York City among what today we would call undocumented immigrants. That another term for many of our grandparents, mine among them. Henry Street has far too many accomplishments to list but an important one today is supporting young people going to college. A lot more will be able to go because of this huge donation. Now you might think that in New York, with so many very rich people who live in rich towers, a donation would come from one of them. But it didn’t. It came from Sylvia Bloom, a 96 year old woman who retired after a 67 year career as a secretary. She never had a child; thanks to her gift, hundreds of children will be nurtured and grow up in new ways.

“Next, please?” Matthias starts out as the first disciple to continue the work. Others follow. Still, the Spirit is calling: next, please? No one knows what blessings make a difference. But like the stream running down the mountain, no one can stop that stream of blessing. We are invited to make our lives part of the stream, part of the blessing, to live as the next ones to light the candle of love.