The First Resurrection

Mark 1:29-39

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Epiphany/B • February 7, 2021

© 2021 All Rights Reserved 

Lost and Found

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

1Corinthians 15:3f

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

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

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

Jesus On the Way

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

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

Mark 1:15

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

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

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

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

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

The First Resurrection

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

Philippians 3:10ff

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

Finding Jesus

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

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

Matthew 25:39-40

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

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

Paying Attention

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

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

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

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

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

Amen

Take Off the Devil Suit

by Rev. James Eaton © 2021

Fourth Sunday After Epiphany/B • January 31, 2021

Mark 1:21-28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

The Urgency of Now

A Sermon by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor © 2021 Al Rights Reserved

Third Sunday After Epiphany/Year B • January 24, 2021

Mark 1:14-20 

It was a cold day in December; I imagine someone had to get there early to get the heat going. The church was probably decorated for Christmas and I imagine led songs of Advent and Christmas. At 2:30 PM the radio announced that the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, had been bombed; the nation had been attacked and was at war. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a rainy Friday in November. Everyone was waiting for the weekend, some preparing, some watching the clock. Suddenly, like that moment when a wind sweeps ahead of a storm, teachers were rushing about, some of them crying, some of the male teachers crying—unthinkable! President John F. Kennedy had been murdered in Dallas, Texas. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

It was a sunny Tuesday morning in September, a busy time for ministers. I was in an office with no media, trying to put together worship and a sermon for the coming Sunday. I was newly married and unlike my new wife had a habit of calling me mid-morning, interrupting whatever I was doing. Later, much later, we’d deal with that but on this day when she called I was irritable and put it off and then she told me: an airplane had flown into a tower in New York City and it was on fire. Moments later we heard about the second crash. Everyone’s life changed in a moment.

Like an old man telling the story of how his life was suddenly changed, we’re hearing someone’s memory, Peter’s perhaps, of how things suddenly changed. What stuns me today about the story we read in Mark, what has always stunned me, is its rush. “…immediately they left their nets and followed him,” the text says. Immediately: now, right now, they drop everything and go with Jesus. Much of the whole gospel of Mark is written in the present, in a slangy language our translation fails to convey. From start to end, it’s as if the whole text is saying, “Right now, right here, immediately.” 

But I don’t live immediately; I live routinely—what about you? What I mean is that I have a regular set of things I do. I get up, get dressed, l make the bed, let the dog out, feed her, turn on CNN, let the dog out, go to the café, get coffee, read the New York Times and some other news. I drink my coffee, eat something. Tuesday I study the scripture text, write the liturgy: call to worship, prayer, pick the hymns. Wednesday I try to draft the sermon. Thursdays Jacquelyn often goes to work, so after I drop her off, I go to the bookstore and read. I finish the sermon. I practice. Fridays are off; Saturday mornings May and I go out for breakfast. Of course, not every week is the same but you see what I mean? There is a routine to it all. 

We do the same thing in most churches. When we consider a problem, when we think of a program, when we look at the next month, one question always pops up, one question must always be answered: “What did we do last year?” We look for what is routine; we say, “we always…” and fill in the blank with what we did last time and the time before. I don’t think we are much different in this way then others. I’m sure the Baptists plan pretty much the same way, they just do it with longer prayers. Catholics don’t make a move without consulting church tradition and Lutherans feel better if they can pin a Luther quote to whatever they are doing and the Methodists—well the very word “Methodist” comes from being methodical, from observing routines. 

Contrast that with this scene in Mark. John the Baptist is arrested; there is a crisis. We have no notes about Jesus meeting with top advisors; no campaign plan is written. He simply says, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is near; repent, and believe in the good news.” Now repent means: change direction. To Jesus, the arrest of John means the same thing those events I mentioned at the beginning meant: everyone’s life needs to change and the time for change is now.

 Next thing you know, he’s passing by some guys working, fishing. I’m pretty sure they’re just following their routine; I’m certain they got up that morning, put on their fishing clothes, got some coffee and pushed off into the cold morning without a thought about Jesus. They are doing what is routine and suddenly, with no explanation, no preface, no plan, Jesus appears, tells them to follow him, “And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” A little farther on he sees James and John working on nets and it says, “Immediately he called them”; they follow him too. The urgency of the call grasps them;  the urgency of now overrides everything and they become disciples of Jesus.

What are we to make of these calls? They look nothing like the calm, ordered church life we practice. I hear This story and I think, ok: a mission. But where’s the follow up plan? What’s the budget? What are the demographics? I see Jesus coming to the disciples and I wonder if he wouldn’t be better of as part of a team ministry with a music person and someone to handle administrative stuff. Is there a graphic designer? Where are the cards with colorful pictures and the website prominently displayed? What’s the budget for this project? Are there reserves in case he runs a deficit? Would it be better, perhaps, to set out some interim goals? Suppose, instead of saving the world, we just save Galilee this year and work on Judah next year. Wouldn’t that let us focus our energies more effectively? 

I know these stories are the poetry of God’s Spirit and we live in the prose of the world but I see here also something deep and profound. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said in the midst of a time of crisis and war, “we are confronted by the fierce urgency of now.” God’s call does not come as one of many possibilities; God’s call is immediate, urgent and absolute. “Immediately they followed him”: the words are stark and precise and challenge us today. 

We meet together in the shadows of a transitional time. Churches are struggling through the high waves and winds of economic adversity as so many of us are struggling. We are all living with the lurking threat of a virus that uses our very routines to defeat us. We are used to getting together; many did at the holidays and the result was a spike in sickness. We are used to a medical establishment that overcomes illness; so we can’t understand why this goes on because we’re tired of it. 

 Like a boat thrusting forward with its passengers splashed by spray, we have had moments when we wondered if we would be overwhelmed. Yet we are here today, and the question we must address is how we can go forward together in the cause of Christ. Deep in our fears is the lurking dread that our beloved church could die, that we could die. To those who fear this, I say: don’t worry—don’t worry because we are already dead. Paul himself, writing to  the Corinthian church, said as much: “The present form of this world is passing away.” The urgency Jesus meets head on is precisely this: that we are dead in our sins and that death is urgent. So I am not fearing the death of the church, I am not fearing the end of things, even my own end today. The only question is: will we hear Christ calling us to resurrection? We are already in the grave: the only question is, are we ready to walk out like Lazarus, are we ready to live now in the living Lord?

To live this way, means to live as part of the community of Christ. We’ve now read twice, once last week, once today, how he worked: not alone, not by himself, not on his own, but by connecting a community together, calling together others. We have already accepted the challenge of welcoming; now we must move further and at his command take up the mission of inviting. The purpose of this invitation is simple: people need purpose. So now is the time for us to invite others to find their purpose by following Christ with us. 

We have this moment. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote from the jail in Birmingham to white ministers who urged him to go slower,

We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.

Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Now is the time for us, to listen to the call of Christ, to hear his call to proclaim good news, to learn to make the gospel, the good news of God’s forgiveness and welcome the very fiber of our daily life. 

Now is the time for us to understand we are not here for ourselves or because of ourselves; we have been bought with a price and we are not our own, we are the body of Christ. 

Now is the time for us to stop asking what did we do last year and start wondering what is God doing this year, for us to live in the urgency of now, peering by the light of God’s love into the darkness of this world.

Now: now, now. There is indeed, a fierce urgency to now. Now is the  time for us to embrace the call of Christ and keep our eyes on the prize of his upward call. Now is the time to let go of the dead past and embrace the living Christ and life he offers. Now is the time to begin our new life. 

Amen.

Are Your Ears Tingling?

A Sermon by Rev. James Eaton • © 2021

January 27, 2021 • Second Sunday After Epiphany    

1 Samuel 3:1-10 (11-20) • 1 Corinthians 6:12-20John 1:43-51

We have a small, blond dog we call Lucy; opinions differ on whether that’s short for Lucille or Lucifer. She’s a mix of terrier and small poodle. The idea was that she would be perky like a terrier and smart like a poodle and not shed. She’s not that smart, she sheds most of the time and she barks at everyone and everything. This wasn’t so much an issue when we lived on a big lot. It became an issue in Albany the first morning the garbage guys arrived at 5:30 AM and Lucy decided to warn us by barking loudly and endlessly. Lucy doesn’t do any tricks, she doesn’t come on command. She has one talent but she has it in abundance. Lucy has big pointy ears and she can hear things no one else can. 

What do you hear? Today we read the story of Samuel’s call. It’s a lesson in hearing your own call. It’s a slack time in Israel’s history. The great days of Moses and Joshua are over; King David isn’t on the radar screen yet. The text says, “The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.” Samuel is a kid, the son of Hannah, who conceived him after praying desperately and has, the Bible says, “lent him” to the Lord. So he’s helping out at the sanctuary, assisting Eli. Think of him as an intern. 

He’s sleeping when he hears this: “Samuel! and he goes running off to Eli, assuming the boss was calling. Eli tells him to go lie down. Again: “Samuel!” It happens again. I’m guessing by now Eli was getting tired of this game; he tells Samuel, “Well, if it happens again, pretend it’s God and tell God you’re listening.” Amazingly enough, it is God indeed calling and God says, “I’m going to do something that will make everyone’s ears tingle.” Just to start, he certainly makes Samuel’s tingle; he tells him he’s going to throw Eli and his son’s down because of all the bad things they’ve done. This isn’t a great message to take to your boss; at first, Samuel says nothing but of course God’s Word always gets out and it does and Eli is overthrown, Samuel becomes renowned as a prophet. Later on, he’s going to be the one who has the courage to do God’s bidding and anoint David as God’s chosen to rule God’s people.

Are your ears tingling? Have you heard God calling your name? Is there a moral purpose at the center of your life based on a call from God? Today I want to offer a way to seek God’s call in this time, in every time. 

That process begins with the same advice parents gave us about crossing the street: “Stop, look, listen”. Perhaps you remember the story of Moses’ call. He had been an exalted leader in Egypt who had to run for his life when he murdered someone in a fight over mistreatment of Hebrew slaves. He hides out in the wilderness of Sinai; he makes a new life there. One day, off in the distance, he sees a bush burning without being consumed. “I will turn aside to see this sight”, he says and does. There, turned aside, after he has stopped, when he looks, as he listens, he hears God calls his voice. There is an ancient Rabbinic tradition in fact that there had been many burning bushes before but no one bothered to stop and look at them. 

One of the most important prayers of my life was, “I give up, Lord.” As a pastor of a growing church in Suttons Bay, Michigan, I had been going to meetings, talking to church leaders and trying to get a building project going. The congregation needed space but was divided on what to do, whether to build new or try to expand our existing building. Finally, we held a Congregational Meeting to make a decision. But the meeting fall into an inconclusive process and nothing was done. All that work went down the drain. Discouraged and depressed, I sat in the little sanctuary a day or so later and told God I was giving up. And I did. One day a few months later, a young woman who was new to the congregation came up with a solution that had never occurred to any of us. I believe now, as I have believed for years, that God was just waiting for me, and our church leaders, to stop trying to do it on our own and listen for God’s call.

The first step toward hearing your call is to stop living from your to do list and listen for God’s call. Look around: see to what God puts in front of you. God often uses what is simple, what is there, to teach. When Jesus taught, he didn’t construct long logical paragraphs, he told stories about the simple realities everyone hearing already knew. Sowing seeds; keeping watch, everyone knew about those things. He taught them to see these things with great seriousness. 

Part of this looking and listening is paying attention to others. Assume everyone you meet might be a text from God. In the story we read from the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t call Nathaniel. Jesus asks Philip to go with him; it’s Philip who goes to Nathaniel and invites him to come along as well. Every Christian leader I know has a story, often many stories, of a person or people who were the means of God’s calling to them

Listening means learning to pray slowly. I find this is a great challenge. When I sit down to pray, I want to get to it. I want to start right up but is that how we talk to good friends? “Hey, yeah, hi listen here’s what I want you to do, Lord.” When I was being taught to do counseling, I was nervous about how I would start a conversation. The professor listened to me and said, “Why don’t you just say, ‘How are things?” and then shut up?” Perhaps the best prayer is one that simply begins, “Hello God” and  then… shuts up, listens.  You can see this process in the final part of the story of Samuel. What does Samuel say to God? “Speak, Lord, your servant listens.” Notice there are no petitions here, no requests, no list of things for God to do. Just a slow prayer: your servant listens. 

Stop look and listen, pray slowly, assuming others might be a text from God are three steps toward hearing God’s call. We can’t all hear as well as Lucy our dog does. That’s ok; over and over we find that in the stories of God calling, God is persistent. God calls Samuel three times before Samuel understands it’s God calling. God calls Moses and confirms that call several times. 

Paul said in First Corinthians, “…you were bought with a price.” Now even we have a purpose when we buy things. I don’t randomly buy spinach; I buy it because Jacquelyn is coming home and she eats it for breakfast. I don’t randomly buy dog food; I buy the cans of chicken for small seven year old dogs because that’s what Lucy likes. If we act with such purpose, isn’t it certain God does? So if we have been bought with a price, it must mean God has a purpose for your life, a call to which you’re invited to respond. Are your ears tingling? If they aren’t, maybe the answer is to take Lucy as an example and stop, look and listen. 

Amen.

Mission Accomplished?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2021 All Rights Reserved

Epiphany Sunday • January 3, 2021

Matthew 2:1-12

Today is a unique and special day. It is for me the conclusion of a long career as a pastor and minister of churches from Boston to Seattle, in six different states, sometimes in cities, sometimes in small towns. It is as well my last day here with you as a pastor. For though it may be that I will come back some time, see you some time, it will not be the same, it will not be as your pastor or the minister of this church. Something is being put away, something I have savored and enjoyed and for which I have knelt here in this same room so many times and thanked God. So there is a temptation to simply bathe in the warm waters of memories, share them, shape them into a message. But it is also the day we celebrate the final story of Christmas, the visit of the Magi to the stable, and join together in communion. For over 45 years, I have focused my life, my mind, my talents on connecting the scripture to the life of a church, the life of people with whom I shared a church, as I do with you. So let me today, one last time, set aside the backward pull of memories and look with you once again at the strange and wonderful story of the Wise Ones who came so far and see how it calls us forward to follow the star ourselves.

The first problem with the gospel story is that we’ve already heard it. We have little statues of the Wise ones, we have a song, We Three Kings, there is a kings cake,  and a whole festival day dedicated to  them, Epiphany, January 6. In many countries, that’s the day you give and receive presents and eat special foods—did I mention the cake? With a new story, we pay attention to the details, we figure out the plot, learn the characters. With an old story, we tune out. It’s like listening to your dad telling you how many miles he had to walk to school. So our problem is how to pay attention. We can do that by treating the story like a white board, erasing it, and starting with the same questions we’d have about any story. Who’s involved? What’s their mission? Are they successful? Why is this story here?

Let’s start with the characters in the story. Who do we meet? First of all: Herod, the Roman appointed king of the Jews, a man almost universally despised by contemporaries and historians. Behind him stands the emperor and the might of Rome. The second character we meet is the people of Jerusalem; they’re a walk on part, we’re just told they are sort of a chorus for King Herod, frightened as he is. I’m going to skip the wise ones for the moment and go to the end. There, we meet Mary and, “the child”—isn’t it interesting that the story doesn’t call Jesus by name?

In between are the wise ones, called “magioi” in the original text. That’s a Greek word, a plural, that usually refers to intellectual religious authorities from Persia. They might be priests, they are certainly astrologers. They are Gentiles. The text in our translation reads “Wise Men” but the actual text doesn’t call them wise men, it says nothing about gender, it says nothing about wisdom. It also doesn’t say there are three. That tradition probably came about because of the three gifts.

Now that we’ve met everyone, consider what happens. The wise ones come to Jerusalem, to King Herod, tell him they’ve seen a predicted star—which simply means a particular bright light in the sky—and that there is a prophecy that a new king of the Jews has been born. 

It’s interesting to contrast the missions of Herod and the Magi. Herod is all about power. He’s scared; all kings get scared when their successor is talked about. He helps the Magi by getting his experts to send them to Bethlehem but later we learn it’s so he can accomplish his own mission, getting rid of the new king. In the next story, in fact, he is so afraid of this new king that he orders all boys born during the period killed; Mary and Joseph have to take the baby and flee to Egypt for a time to avoid this murderous mission of power.

The Magi, on the other hand, are on a mission to pay homage to the new king. They also give three gifts, often thought to have symbolic significance. Gold, the traditional tribute for kings, myrrh, a very costly ointment used for embalming and frankincense, used as a symbolic upwelling of something good to God, a tangible symbol of prayer. Notice they didn’t give Herod gifts; they didn’t give Herod anything. After they give the gifts, they depart by another way. 

Why does Matthew want us to know this story? He’s the only one who tells it. The context  can help us understand. Matthew starts out with a long genealogy almost never read in churches that connects Joseph to Abraham and King David. Matthew wants us to know Jesus is part of the continuing story of God’s promise of presence to Abraham. Matthew wants us to know Jesus is born of a royal line, a king in waiting. But the only ones who are going to know this are Jews; no Gentile is going to see Jesus as royal because of David. The implication that the baby will be royal is made specific by the second story. There, an angel connects Joseph to Marry and goes on to say that Jesus is going to fulfill a scripture promise of God’s presence so that he will be called Emmanuel, meaning Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God with us.”

So before the story of the wise ones, Jews have been given a reason to believe Jesus is the Lord. But Matthew is seeing a larger vision. By his time, Christians had stopped being a Jewish sect and included Gentiles. Now he tells this story of the wise ones and the message seems to be that even the Gentiles recognize Jesus as king, and they do it even if the Jewish authorities like Herod don’t. Matthew wants us to know what Herod couldn’t understand: Jesus is Lord.

Jesus is king: Jesus is Lord, Jesus is God with us. That’s the message of this story and we have to ask: so what? What will we do about it? Matthew is telling us about the past: what difference does it make that Jesus is Lord to our future? The first time I preached here, I said that the problem of faith was whether you believed Jesus was here to stay. It’s still the greatest question. Because if he’s here, if he’s staying, if he’s Lord, shouldn’t we do what he says? And what he says is, “Go make disciples.”

What is a disciple? Is it someone who gives to the church, serves on a committee or Board, comes regularly?Look at the disciples in the gospels. There’s James and John, who snap and snark about who’s number one, Judas who betrays Jesus, Thomas who doesn’t believe in the resurrection and Peter who seems to get everything wrong all along but is the first disciples to understand the message of the Magi and call Jesus the Christ. So in a way, the bar is pretty low. But in another way, it’s very high. Because discipleship is giving your whole self, sharing your whole self, in the service and following Jesus Christ. To be a disciple is to know Jesus is Lord and act on it, live from it.

Long ago, the prophet Isaiah said, 

The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…

Isaiah 61:1-2

When Jesus first began his mission in Galilee, he began with this same text: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me.. [Luke 4:18f] Anointing is what you do with kings: it signals someone who leads. Matthew’s message is the same: here is the king, here is the Lord. 

Now when I was ordained to the ministry at the Seattle Congregational church, when a group of Deacons of that church and clergy laid hands on me, this same text was read. It’ a mission statement and the mission is to show God’s presence in the world by bringing God’s light to darkness, to show God’s presence in the world by bringing God’s love to the unloved, to follow where Jesus leads as his disciple and invite others to come along. 

Today is my last Sunday as a pastor, though not the end of my ordination. It’s fair to ask: did you accomplish the mission? I’ve started two preschools, nurtured another, helped four churches grow their membership, baptized a lot of people, including Jacquelyn and all five of my grandchildren. I helped start a food pantry in one place, a coat ministry here. But the mission isn’t a list of what you’ve done: it’s a challenge about whether you’ve made disciples and that’s harder to know.

When I came here, it was clear this would be a different kind of ministry, one exclusively about preaching and praying. At times it’s been hard for me to give up trying to program things; I think I wanted to build things here. But like Peter stumbling along, you have wonderfully let me learn. Sometimes we’ve prayed in hospital rooms, sometimes here. I learned the answer to conflict wasn’t to win but to go pray for those who disagreed. I learned to do something ancient: to walk humbly with God, inviting others along. Has that made disciples? 

The first time I preached here, almost seven years ago, I said the church was intended to be a school for discipleship. So the same question applies to all of us: have we accomplished the mission? We’ve done some amazing things in the last few years. We helped a young woman get free of bondage, we have brightened Christmas for many, many children through the mitten tree, we’ve gladdened the heart of homeless folks through the Capital Latinos, we’ve praised God, worshipped God, listened to God’s word together for six and a half years. But have we made disciples?

It’s a hard question. So much of what we do in churches is just like home: maintenance. There we is always a tendency to polish old furniture rather than finding new missions. There is always a pull to measure attendance instead of discipleship. But people who come here, visit here, are looking for a new vision, not a photograph of the past.

I’m about to do something rare in my life: find a new church where I’ll worship in the pews. And my hope is that I can find a church making disciples. This is what I look at when I visit a church: how many pictures on the wall are people praising the Lord recently, how many announcements in the bulletin are about helping others rather than committee meetings, how many voices are heard in worship. So it ’s not a question just for me, it’s a question for all of us in churches: are we accomplishing our mission, making disciples by sharing the light of God’s love?

The Magi came to signal that the new King of the Jews, the Lord, was also here for the whole world. Great churches are built by being a community open to all, where all take responsibility for the worship and mission of the church. We must constantly fight the tendency to let a church be run by one person or family or an inner circle. We must constantly fight our human tendency to listen to our own wisdom instead of the wisdom of God, which is the Cross of Christ. We must constantly ask: mission accomplished?

So I leave you with that question. I ask it of myself. When two boats meet on a voyage, perhaps both in a strange harbor, the crews will talk, share stories, give advice about the next harbor or a hazard or opportunity ahead. But then there’s a moment when they both untie the lines, leave the dock, depart and watch each other as their courses diverge, finally out of sight. This is the day we untie the lines. But even out of sight, we will remember, we will share a hope and a mutual concern.

I remember laying on a dock in northern Michigan when I first felt the stirring of the Spirit, when I learned to listen to the gospel. I remember all the ways, all the years, I’ve tried to tell what I heard there. I remember the first time I stood in this pulpit, called here by God, chosen by you, to share the call of Christ to discipleship, to ask again and again, “Are we accomplishing our mission?” It’s still my question, it’s answer is still the star that can guide us on our separate ways. May your journey lead you to the Lord;.

Amen

A Crown of Beauty

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

First Sunday in Christmas/B • December 27, 2020

Luke 2:22-40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Light One Candle

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Christmas Eve • December 24, 2020

One of my favorite Christmas time songs isn’t a Christmas carol at all; it’s a Hanukkah carol called Light One Candle by Peter, Paul and Mary. I love it because lighting candles is so much a part of my Christmas memories and traditions. A menorah is lit during Hanukkah; in the Advent season, we light four candles, candles that remind us to prepare with hope, peace, joy and love. 

The song says, 

Light one candle for the strength that we need
To never become our own foe
And light one candle for those who are suffering
Pain we learned so long ago
Light one candle for all we believe in
That anger not teaser us apart
And light one candle to find us together
With peace as the song in our hearts.

Peter Paul & Mary, Light One Candle

What is the song in your heart this evening?

There’s a funny video on YouTube that imagines Satan using a dating service and matching with a woman named “2020”. Satan says, “I filtered out joy, happiness, toilet paper and reason.” 2020 happily points to herself and says, “Boom!” The video is comic; the time has been tragic. 

We have been in a war against a virus. In the background has been the shelling and lightning of a political war as well. But we are not the only ones to come to Christmas in a time of war. So I thought tonight we should hear the story of the 1914 Christmas truce. That year found German, Belgian, French and British troops exhausted and dug in on a series of trenches that ran from the Channel to the Swiss border. Battles through the fall had shocked everyone with their violence. It was the first time 20th century technology was brought to the business of killing and it was very, very effective.

Yet as Christmas came to the trenches, the terrible, mud filled trenches, where just to let your head be above ground could result in death, a silence came over the battlefield in many places. Captain Robert Miles of the Royal Irish Rifles said ,

We are having the most extraordinary Christmas Day imaginable. A sort of unarranged and quite unauthorized but perfectly understood and scrupulously observed truce exists between us and our friends in front. The funny thing is it only seems to exist in this part of the battle line – on our right and left we can all hear them firing away as cheerfully as ever. The thing started last night – a bitter cold night, with white frost – soon after dusk when the Germans started shouting ‘Merry Christmas, Englishmen’ to us. Of course our fellows shouted back and presently large numbers of both sides had left their trenches, unarmed, and met in the debatable, shot-riddled, no man’s land between the lines. Here the agreement – all on their own – came to be made that we should not fire at each other until after midnight tonight. The men were all fraternizing in the middle (we naturally did not allow them too close to our line) and swapped cigarettes and lies in the utmost good fellowship. Not a shot was fired all night.

There are many such stories from many places. All begin the same: a few cautious, hopeful souls, lifting their heads, calling out, then soldiers quietly coming together between the lines, often exchanging something: buttons, a bit of tobacco or coffee, in one case a haircut. Many tell of singing Christmas carols. What they were doing, in a way, was lighting a candle for peace. 

Now the first Christmas didn’t take place in a war zone and yet it also is a story of an amazing coming together. Sometimes the baby gets most of the attention, other times his mother, Mary. But if we pull pack and look, the stable seems full to overflowing. There are cows and sheep, so it’s not just human beings, it’s all creation. There are the shepherds, people working who take a break to look in; there are rich wise ones on their way, although they won’t get here for a bit. There are angels to sing, there is a poor peasant couple at the center o it all. Each in their own way is there to light a candle, a candle for Christmas.

Now it’s your turn, now it’s my turn. This is what we’ve come to do tonight: to light a candle, a candle for Christmas. Those soldiers had the courage to crawl out and do it in 1914 but then they went back to killing each other. Few truces were held the following year and none the year after. So the question isn’t just will you light the candle of Christmas tonight, but will you keep it burning?

The song with which I began has this refrain:

Don’t let the light go out,
It’s lasted for so many years
Don’t let the light go out
Let it shine through our hope and our tears.

That’s really the question of Christmas: will you keep the light of love, the candle of Christmas, burning? In a few moments, we’ll all receive a light. In a few days, will it continue to burn? 

Don’t let the light go out.

Amen 

Prepare for Arrival

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fourth Sunday in Advent/B • December 20, 2020

2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16  • Luke 1:26-38

Every journey has a moment when you spy the end. It is not the end but it’s time to make ready for the end. Flight attendants on an airplane say, “Prepare for arrival”. A train slows and announces the station. Driving home, you turn onto a familiar street. This is the end of the Advent Season, the time of preparation; we are almost there; come on, come to the stable. Every sailor knows the ring of the harbor buoy in their home harbor. Every Christian knows the sound of the Christmas bell. It’s ringing; today, it calls us, come to the stable, come to the Lord, come to Christmas. Come so you can say, with angels, with shepherds, with all creation: “Here I am, Lord”. 

Advent is about the arrival of a new way for God to be present, so I want to think about what that means today. I’m not talking about Jesus today because it isn’t Christmas yet, we aren’t there yet. I want to think about arrivals and see what God can show us as we get ready to arrive. I hope you’re ready to come along on this last little bit of the Advent journey, I hope can get ready to arrive.

Did you listen today as the Hebrew scripture was read, that part from Samuel about King David? To understand it, you have to go back a ways. What’s been happening is that God’s people settled down and prospered in the promised land. They looked around, they saw some other people around them who looked like they had it even better and they wanted to be like them. Those people had invented something called a King. So they asked God for a King. God wasn’t too interested in giving them a King but went ahead and they got one, a man named Saul who turned out to be just as bad as God thought he would be. So God sent them a new King, a guy named David, a shepherd boy. 

Now David was a success, he was everything you hope a king would be at first. He had to take over from King Saul after some fighting, some battles. But he won them and he set up a home in Jerusalem. But he didn’t feel he was finished. He didn’t feel he had arrived. Those other people all had big temples for their Gods so David decided he’d build a temple. He emailed the prophet Nathan just to get the approval of the clergy. I don’t think any clergy have ever said no to a building project. So it was on.

But he forgot to do one thing; he forgot to ask God what God thought about this plan. And when God had something to say, it wasn’t what David expected. Because honestly? — God doesn’t care about buildings. God doesn’t care about how nice the altar looks or how clean the carpet is. God cares about God’s purpose.

So there’s David, the great king, ready to arrive at the final step of greatness, the biggest thing he can imagine: a palace for him, a temple for God and God laughs and says, “Did I ever ask for a temple? Are you the one to build me one?” And then God reminded David about the wild, free part of God. “I never lived in a house”. God reminded David where he came from: “I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went…” You see? suddenly David is being told that it isn’t David who is arriving, it is God’s purpose being accomplished, God’s purpose is arriving in David. 

I’m not talking about Jesus today, I want you to see that what’s arriving at Christmas isn’t just a baby, it is a purpose that’s been going on a long, long time. This incident with David is about a thousand years before the first Christmas. A thousand years, and God is already looking ahead. Because the next thing God says is, “the LORD will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.”

Wow! What a turn around! Remember how this whole story started? David was going to build a temple for God. Now it’s God saying to David, hold on: I’m the one who’s going to build, and I’m going to build your line into a home for everyone. Now it’s God saying to David, hold on: you aren’t thinking big enough, you’re thinking about a temple that’s going to last what, a few hundred years? I’m dealing in the whole of human history. I’m going to build a house, a line of generation, that’s going to last forever. That’s where I’m going. And Christmas is where that purpose is arriving. 

Christmas is coming in a few days, it’s arriving, and I wonder if we’re ready. Do you remember when you were a kid and those last days before Christmas were so painfully long? Do you remember counting down? Do you remember special things you did? We used to go to a big department store every year at one of the country’s first shopping malls. And there, in the middle of the store, in the heart of the store they would have a big beautiful Lionel train running around and I’d watch it and it would run around and around. I’d count the days every day. 

Now if a few days to Christmas can seem like forever to us, what does it seem like to God? A thousand years from David to Christmas. 36,500 and some days, I didn’t account for leap years. That’s how long God had been pursuing that purpose at Christmas. That’s how long God had been faithful to this promise at Christmas because Christmas is the next step in the covenant God made with Dave. David wanted to build a house; God insisted on creating everything and binding together God’s people in love. David wanted a big building; God built something bigger than David ever imagined.

This is the signature thing about God: bigger than you ever imagined. We like to wrap things up, put a box around things, define them, build a house for them. This is what God says about doing that with God: “I’ve never lived in a house.” We often come to Christmas so laden with our customs that we mistake them for Christ. We’re concerned about the wrapping but we miss the most important thing, the thing Mary says: “Nothing is impossible for God.” 

This is why we’re struggling right now. We have big problems, big issues, and a lot of us have given up. We just had the highest turnout election in American history. But 30% of eligible voters didn’t vote, they didn’t think it would make a difference. It’s like the snow plow guy that came over the other night. There was so much snow in our driveway and he did what he knew to do, he backed up his truck with the big yellow plow and he pushed and pushed and the snow mounded up and eventually he got stuck. So he had to spend a half hour unsticking the truck and he looked at the big pile of snow in front of him and said, “There’s nothing I can do about that.” It was too big for him. 

Do you feel that way? Do you feel like you just can’t push anymore? Then stop pushing. Stop pushing! Well, I hear you thinking but then there’s still going to be a pile of snow. That’s true but the answer wasn’t to keep pushing, it was to find another way. The more he pushed, the more stuck he got. He needed to stop and so do we. He needed to back off and so do we. He gave up but of course the snow got moved. But it wasn’t pushed; it had to be pulled back, as it turned out. Just took backing up long enough to figure that out. Sometimes the answer isn’t to do, it’s to be quiet and wait. 

Look at the story of Mary. Mary isn’t a king, like David; she’s a peasant girl. Historians tell us an unmarried young woman like Mary might have been around 14 or so. I’ve raised a couple of 14 year old girls. They care about all kinds of things, some small, some big. Maybe she cared about the inequality in her time, her song talks about the hungry being fed and the rich being empty. At the same time, maybe she cared about the talk at the well, what some pop star you’ve never heard of said on twitter. In the midst of Mary’s day, an angel appeared. What’s an angel look like? Big enough to be scary, I think of angels as like bouncers in a bar. Big thick arms, a black t-shirt, tattoos. Every time one shows up, the first thing they say is, “Don’t be scared.” You only say that if you’re used to frightening people. 

The angel shows up and tells this kid the worst thing that can happen to a 14 year old unmarried girl in a small town is going to happen. And God’s going to do it: she’s going to have a baby. Her life is turning over. She’s going to be a mother and there is a moment where she has to make a decision, This is the biggest pile of snow, the biggest obstacle she’s ever faced. 

What makes Mary so great is that she doesn’t push. Remember what she says? “Let it be to me as you’ve said.” She agrees to be part of God’s purpose, whatever that purpose will be. And she can do that because she believes, “Nothing is impossible for God.” Because she believes that, she can say with her whole life, “Here I am, Lord”. Turns out I have been talking about Jesus all along, after all. Because what we’re preparing for, what’s arriving, what’s coming is the fulfillment of God’s purpose and his name is Jesus. And the way to respond to that isn’t to push, isn’t to say what you can do, it’s to step back and say, “Here I am, Lord.” 

Now you are like David, you are like Mary, we all are. You get to decide: are you preparing for presents or for God? Are you preparing for fun or for God’s future? Are you arriving at the end of advent at Christmas, or at a holiday? Are you building something or ready to appreciate what God is creating? That’s the difference between David and Mary: David says, “Here’s what I’m going to do”; Mary says, “Do whatever you want, God”. What are you saying? What are you ready to say?

That temple David wanted did get built by his son Solomon. It lasted about 400 years and was destroyed by the Babylonians. A century later, a new one was built. That one lasted about 400 years; the Romans destroyed it about 35 years after Jesus. A few hundred years later the ruins became part of mosque. Then the Israelis took over centuries later and it’s now a shrine—for now. David kept pushing but what he was pushing wasn’t God’s purpose. God’s purpose, on the other hand, did get fulfilled and it came about when a young woman said, “Here I am, Lord”. Just that: no push, just, “Here I am Lord,” it came about by waiting for God to accomplish God’s purpose.

Every journey has a moment when you spy the end. It is not the end but it’s time to make ready for the end. Flight attendants on an airplane say, “Prepare for arrival”. A train slows and announces the station. Driving home, you turn onto a familiar street. This is the end of the Advent Season, the time of preparation; we are almost there; come on, come to the stable. Every sailor knows the ring of the harbor buoy in their home harbor. Every Christian knows the sound of the Christmas bell. It’s ringing; today, it calls us, come to the stable, come to the Lord, come to Christmas. But preparing for Christmas is more than wrapping presents and putting out ornaments. Preparing for Christmas is taking the time to say, “Here I am, Lord.” So come to Christmas saying with Mary, with the angels, with all creation: “Here I am, Lord”.

It’s time to prepare for arrival. This is the end of advent and the question of Christmas is, are you just going to say, “Here you are, Jesus,” and go on pushing or “Here I am, Lord” and follow, as his disciple.

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.