A Crown of Beauty

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

First Sunday in Christmas/B • December 27, 2020

Luke 2:22-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

This Is The Day

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Third Sunday in Advent/B • December 13, 2020

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

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

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

Archibald MacLeish, JB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 Thessalonians 5:17ff

Gratitude gives God a way into our heart. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Amen.

Begin the Beginning – Journey to Joy 2

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY


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


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

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

Isaiah 40:5


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


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


Just before this, he says,


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


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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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


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


This is what Isaiah says;


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

Journey to Joy 1: Let God Out!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

First Sunday in Advent/B • November 29, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One writer has shared a personal experience of this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

What Day Is It?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

Matthew 25:14-30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

All My Children

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

All Saints Sunday • November 1, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 John 3:1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies, p. 215

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

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

Amen.

The Unperishing Spring

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

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

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

A Spiritual Winter

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

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

Matthew 16:21

Again, along the way,

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

Matthew 17-21-23

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

The Great Commandment

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

Do Bad to Do Good?

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

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

“I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Have a Destination

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

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

The Unperishing Spring

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

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

Walk on, Love on

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

Amen.

Living Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

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

Matthew 22:15- 22

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

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

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

The Real Issue

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

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

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

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

We Belong to God

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

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

What’s Caesar’s?

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

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

Politics!

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

Bringing Our Community to God

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

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

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

Amen.

What Are You Wearing?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

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

19th Sunday After Pentecost * October 11, 2020

Philippians 4:1–9Matthew 22:1–14

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

Wrong Shirt, Wrong Time

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

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

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

Are You Ready for the King?

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

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

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

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

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

The Urgent Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living from the Mind of Christ Now

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

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

Philippians 4:1–3

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

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

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

Now he offers a standard:

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

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

What Are You Wearing?

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

Amen.

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.