Enlightened Hearts

Dawn at Taghanic State Park

Dawn at Taghanic State Park

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Ascension Sunday/C • May 8, 2016

Click here to listen to the sermon being preached

Morning Has Broken

“Morning has broken, like the first morning…” Singing that song this morning, I think of what a various experience waking up is. My first morning in Albany, waking up was a shock. We’d gotten in late, improvised a bed on a blow up mattress while we waited for the movers, gone to bed exhausted and excited, expecting to sleep late. We hadn’t counted on the dog walker at 5:30 AM, causing our dog to bark like a maniac. We hadn’t counted on the movers arriving early of the so we were dragged into the morning suddenly, abruptly. That’s one kind of morning. Of course, there are the slow mornings; the ones you wake up before your eyes open. If you are beyond a certain age, you take inventory before admitting morning has broken. There are the happy, excited mornings: Christmas, perhaps, or a special day. There are the mornings you dread because something you worried about is imminent.

The record of the first Christians includes a morning they woke up, like the first morning: a moment when they felt Jesus present but gone, when his ministry began to be through them, when they looked inward instead of outward for him. This is Ascension Sunday and Ascension means morning has broken, like the first morning, like a new day. What are we to do with this new time?


We read in Luke’s story of the ascension how Jesus gathered his disciples outside the city, walking and talking with him, appearing long after he had been crucified, and then leaving them, just as Elijah had left. While they are still staring, heaven asks: why are you standing around? Jesus is gone; he will return in power and glory, just as he told you. It’s a new day: morning has broken and this is the first day of the rest of your discipleship.

Many years later, Paul, or someone writing in his name, wrote to churches around the city of Ephesus. I can’t help imagining him writing to us. What would he say? What he says to them first is: thank God for you! Who gives thanks for us, for this church, this congregation? I think it is so easy for us to take this church for granted. Perhaps the first and most important responsibility of membership s to thank God for our church, for the brothers and sisters in Christ here, with us, worshipping, sharing, caring.

I know there are many others who give thanks for this church as well. Every week a long list of groups meet here, from small gatherings to the ones that fill Palmer Hall. How often someone stops me from one of the groups to say, “Thank you for letting us be here.”


Paul gives thanks for the Ephesians because they are emblems of faith and love; their love is Christ’s invitation, just as our is as well. All ll churches advertise in some way. We put things on Facebook, we occasionally put an ad in the newspaper. We invite people in a general way.

But nothing is more inviting than personal testimony. Think of yourself: what’s the difference between seeing a commercial and having a friend say, “Hey, you have to try this…”? One study years ago suggested 80% of first time visitors at churches went because someone invited them. It went on to say that invitations from lay people were far more effective than those from pastors. It may be that those of us in the profession are just not good at inviting but I think the reality is that pastors are seen as people doing their job, another kind of commercial, while a friend, a lay person, is seen as more authentic.

So as the power of Christ begins to work in churches, the first effect is that it transforms Christians into people who are known for their faith and love. It’s not an invitation to something immediate and final, it’s an invitation to a journey.

The Eyes of Our Hearts

The second point made here has made me think all week about how faith and love work, how Christ works in us. It’s a long sentence so let’s listen to it again.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. [Ephesians 1:17-19]

An Ongoing Process

Notice that the writer imagines there is an ongoing process at work here. He’s praying that these folks in Ephesus will get a spirit of wisdom, will get a revelation, will get to know Jesus. They aren’t done. They don’t have it all; there’s more to come. Isn’t there a message here for all of us? For how often we act as if we’re finished: we know what we know. How often we’ve acted as if there are hard lines in faith life: now we are converted, now we are a church member, now we know. Instead, Ephesians asks us to imagine a series of mornings breaking, over and over, offering new days each day in which we more fully know Christ, more fully receive the wisdom that helps us understand and see God working in the world.

Anne Lamott alludes to this in her book, Stitches. She says,

“Many people did help me to stand up in July 1986 when I stopped drinking.
it turned out that some of the sober people who mentored me through sobriety’s monkey mazes had not been housebroken for long… They taught me that I would often not get my way, which was good for me but would feel terrible, and that life was erratic, beautiful and impossible. They taught me that maturity was the ability to live with unresolved problems. They taught me—or tried to teach me—humility. This was not my strong suit.[Excerpt From: Anne Lamott. “Stitches.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/XS2IN.l]

Humility is the doorway to understanding God as the streak of light in the unfolding morning breaking of each day.

This is what Ephesians means by saying, “with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you”. So often we have imagined God in some hierarchy: the man—or woman!—upstairs, while we work out our lives here. Ephesians invites us to a different look, to know God instead of knowing about God. It’s a critical difference. Knowing about God is a bunch of ideas and statements that try to give us some certainty; creeds that try to define a boundary of belief. Knowing God is an experience. It is opening our eyes to the new day, imagining its possibilities. This is the hope the writer mentions: the hope to which we are called.

Knowing God Day by Day

What does this look like? A friend of mine described it well, speaking about her grandparents.

the world of my father’s parent’s was an island of calm anchored in a deep and abiding faith and I loved to go visit them. They lived in a Victorian house that had a sun porch with a swing and a view of a street lined with Maple and Chestnut trees. Even their view of the world seen from that swing seemed totally peaceful. …They faced a multitude of challenges in life, but they faced them all with a sense of peace and calm.
They lost one of their sons, and two grandchildren. One of their daughters-in-law had suffered a debilitating stroke in childbirth leaving her without the ability to speak and severely impaired. An adopted grandchild was removed from his parent’s home until the courts worked out what was best for him after the birth mother, who had put him up for adoption, changed her mind after two years and decided she wanted him back. He returned to the family, confused and hesitant to trust. Through it all the family trusted God to work it all out. [quoted from a Sermon by Nancy Bresette]

This is real hope: knowing God’s presence by seeing in each day a new day with the possibility of experiencing God’s presence in a new way.

Choosing Unfolding Hope

That doesn’t mean the day will be easy; it means that we choose, we can choose, each day between living from ourselves or from, as Ephesians says, “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe”. Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding promise of hearts that are enlightened, lit by the call of Jesus Christ to love each other, to love God. Each day, everyday, invites us to become more full emblems of faith and love

Each day, every day, invites us to the unfolding hope of knowing God, just as each day offers moments of beauty that appear and then disappear. We have this choice: we can open the eyes of our heart or blindly blunder through the day. As our hearts are enlightened, as our eyes are opened, we cannot fail to see the process of God’s presence. This is the true reality of Ascension: Christ is risen, Christ is present, no longer with a few, now with all of us. May the power of his call, may the grace of his healing, fill our lives so that indeed we may be an occasion for thanksgiving.


Thinking Toward Sunday: Ascension May 8

Ascension Sunday

Texts for Ascension Sunday

The focus on this Sunday is the moment when Christ begins to work by being present spiritually in the church. Last year on this Sunday, I spoke from the text in Acts that describes that moment; this year I want to lift up a reflection on this in Ephesians. The text for the sermon is given below.

I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.

Questions About this Text

As I begin to think about this text, the first question the occurs to me is: who are you praying for? what are you praying for them?


Paul seems to be focusing here on a process by which Christ grows in us. “As you come to know him” implies to me a process that could take a lifetime to fully embody.
I’m also wondering: what does it mean to have “the eyes of your heart enlightened”?
Finally, I am wondering about the nature of “the hope to which he has called you..”.
So three questions just to begin.


We have in the past few weeks talked a lot about a sense of Christ enacting the passion: death —> resurrection. Now a third term is added: ascension. The meaning of ascension here seems to connect with something often called exaltation. Exaltation means becoming the ultimate power. What does it mean for our lives today if Christ is the ultimate power? How is that power expressed?

Body Talk

At the end of the passage, Paul speaks of the church as the body of Christ. In what sense are we then as part of the church part of the exaltation of Christ?

Exegetical Notes

  1. There is considerable disagreement among Biblical scholars about the authorship of Ephesians and therefore its date. More seem to date this toward the end of the first century which would mean that it was written by someone using Paul’s style and authority.
  2. Markus Borg (Anchor Bible commentary) points to the role of light in Plato, Philo, and other ancient sources as a symbol of growing understanding. It’s interesting that Buddhists also see “enlightenment” as seeing the world for what it is in reality.
  3. P Perkins (New Interpreters Bible Commentary) notes that exaltation is a political act and should be understood in the context of other powers over which Christ is exalted.

Thinking Toward Sunday – May 1 – Part 1

Sunday, May 1, 2016 is the Sixth Sunday in the season of Easter; this is year C

You can find the texts for this Sunday by clicking here

The focus this Sunday will be on John, 5:1-9, in which Jesus cures a paralytic. It’s a short narrative, so I give the full text here.
After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.

5:2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes.5:3 In these lay many invalids–blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5:5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years.
5:6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?”
5:7 The sick man answered him, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.”
5:8 Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. Now that day was a sabbath.


A healing of a paralytic is recorded at Mark 2:1-12. Parallels are at Matthew 9:1-8 and Luke 5:17-26. In all three cases, the focus is not on healing but on forgiveness and controversy. Mark’s version has a paralytic lowered through the roof because of the crowd and Jesus is moved by the faith of those who are helping the paralytic (“moved by their faith”). He says, “My son, your sins are forgiven.” Opponents there question his ability to forgive sins; he asks which is easier, to heal or to forgive, heals the man, and everyone glorifies God. Luke generally follows Mark. Matthew doesn’t have the detail about the roof but generally follows Mark in other respects. The Jesus Seminar suggests the source of the story is Mark but that the John version may have a separate healing behind it as well.


This story is part of group of stories about signs. Immediately before it, Jesus returns to Galilee and reforms a healing connected the conversion of water into wine. This story finds him back in Jerusalem at the time of a “feast”. There’s some disagreement whether this is the festival of Tabernacles or Passover while still other commentators identify it with Pentecost. All three were occasions for going up to Jerusalem. John only describes it as a sabbath.

Beyond the reading, in Verses 10-15, the focus becomes the violation of sabbath. It is against the rules to move a mattress from one place to another. Jesus, we’re told, slips away and the man can’t identify him. Later, Jesus returns secretly to the man and connects the healing to a remission of sin, telling him to sin no more. This suggests some connection to the Synoptic tradition, where the focus of the healing is forgiveness of sins.


      Verses 1-3 Setting of story: Jerusalem, in the district of Bethsaida, near the sheep gate, at a pool thought to provide healing, on a sabbath and feast day.
      Verses 4-9 Healing of the Paralytic
      Verse 4a-6 Situation of the Paralytic: sick 38 years, Jesus knows he has been sick a long time
      Verse 6-8 Dialogue
      Verse 6b Jesus: Do you want to be cured?
      Verse 7 Anser: Sir, I haven’t anybody to plug me into the pool once the water has been stirred up….
      Verse 8: Jesus: Stand up / pick up your mat / walk around
      Verse 9 Situation of the paralytic: immediately cured, picks up his mat, begins to walk

Passage Notes

      Sheep Pool There is some textual confusion about whether this pool is named for the sheep gate near the temple while others identify it with the Pool of Bethesda. Either way, it’s in the northeast part of the temple where sheep are brought for sacrificeThe pool described has been discovered and excavated in Jerusalem. It was trapezoidal, 165-220 feet wide by 315 feet long, divided by a central partition. There were colonnades can four sides and on the partition. Stairways in the corners permitted descent into the pool.[per Anchor Bible Gospel of John/Brown, pp. 206-07]
      Early manuscripts and writers believed an angel occasionally came and stirred the waters, leading to healing.

Questions and Thoughts

  1. What jumps out at me is that on his day off—it’s the sabbath of a festival after all!-Jesus is visiting a pool where a bunch of sick people gather.What would that look like? Smell like? Feel like?
  2. Why pick out this particular guy?
  3. When Jesus asks if he wants to be healed, the man doesn’t answer directly yes or no. Instead, he offers an excuse about why he hasn’t been healed.
  4. If John is telling a story from an existing tradition linked to the idea of forgiving sins, why has he changed it?
  5. Why is the sabbath part important?
  6. Why does Jesus slip away and return secretly?

Breaking the Rules

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fifth Sunday in Easter • April 24, 2016 • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

You can hear the sermon being preached by clicking hereArguing God’s Rules

It’s a while after Jesus left his followers to practice what he preached on their own. Most of them were gathered up in Jerusalem but the authorities there stoned one of them and arrested others and it forced them to scatter a bit. Peter has been down in Joppa, a sea port town, but he got a strange summons to go back to his home in Caesarea Philippi. It came from a Roman centurion, a lieutenant in the occupying army and it involved traveling with the messengers he sent, Gentiles, something no good Jew of the time would do on his own. Along the way he has a strange, troubling dream. He was hungry when he went to bed and in the dream a huge sheet is let down from heaven full of animals of all kinds. “Slaughter and eat”, he hears a heavenly voice say. It’s a buffet, apparently.

Now Peter is a good Jew. He knows the rules for good Jews, the kosher rules. Those rules are ancient and they prescribe that certain animals may not be eaten. Furthermore, even the ones you can eat must be slaughtered in the presence of rabbi according to another set of rules. These animals aren’t kosher and Peter isn’t authorized to do kosher slaughtering, so when God tells him to go ahead and eat, he’s horrified. He’s not falling for that; he tells God in so many words that he’s not that kind of guy, he’s a good guy, a rule abiding guy, and he’s not about to violate those rules now. I love this, don’t you? Imagine telling God off for not being religious. Yeah: I love this part. Peter actually tells God off for not being Godly enough.

Now, I’ve had my own arguments with God, and there are a lot of others in the Bible, and one thing I can tell you: no one wins an argument with God. Try it yourself. So the heavenly voice says this: “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” Peter doesn’t seem to get the point at first, does he ever? do we? So it happens three times. Three times God has to make the point that it’s God that determines what’s Godly, not Peter. Finally he gets it, presumably gets a snack, wakes up, goes on the journey where he meets up with Cornelius.

I don’t know that I can say strongly enough how awful this is. It’s just not done: good Jews do not go to the home of a Gentile, especially a Roman, most especially a Roman officer. But there he is and it turns out the summons was because of a heavenly visitation, an angel, who told Cornelius to send for Peter. My guess is that Cornelius wasn’t any happier about the whole thing than Peter; he has his own set of rules and how would it look, inviting a Jewish peasant preacher and friend of a recently crucified guy to his home? But he’s done it and when Peter gets there, he tells them about Jesus, how he preached and healed, how he was crucified, how he rose, how he sent the Holy Spirit and suddenly the whole group there feels that Spirit there, gets filled with it, which I assume means they miraculously know how to sing, “Every time I feel the Spirit, moving in my heart, I will pray,” or “Do Lord” or something and there’s a party and everyone has that camp feeling. I guess they all join hands and sing kumbayah and Peter goes back to Jerusalem to face the music.

Confronting the Rules in Church

Because back there, the Christians in the church, all of whom are good Jews, have heard what he’s done and they’re horrified. The text says, “[They] criticized him.” Every pastor knows what this means: it’s when the people in a church start whispering about you and the Deacons get frosty and the chair sends you an email that says “People have been talking about some of your recent decisions and actions and we’re going to have a meeting to discuss this on Thursday night.” You see, Peter has broken the rules, lots of rules. I know what those Jerusalem Christians are thinking. They’re like the woman in the old declining church I served once who said to me “Pastor, I hope you will bring people into our church but I hope they will be our sort of people.” I knew what she meant. She meant people who knew how to sit in pews quietly, read the bulletin, use the hymnal to sing “Our God Our Help in Ages Past”. I’ve been to the meeting Peter’s going to because I remember when people who came into the centuries old Congregational Church crossed themselves and when some were noisy and some were children and some wanted different music. Peter was right when he argued with God: Peter knew the rules. It’s God that doesn’t seem to care about them.

The reason is that God has a purpose. Right from creation, God’s been creating a humanity fit to live with. This takes some doing even among us. From our start, God intended to make us fit companions. There have been a couple of false starts but then God starts with Abraham to bless the whole world. This is where God is going: all people are children of God and it’s time to act like it. Not even the rules we think make us Godly are as important as God’s purpose.

No one’s getting left behind. The whole story of the church is about breaking the rules that make the walls that keep us apart. What makes people mad about Jesus? He eats with sinners. What makes church people mad about Peter? He eats with Gentiles. The church is still struggling with this Gentile/Jew divisions when Acts is written but it has exploded around the Mediterranean world because on the whole, it decided early on to embrace these Gentiles even though they didn’t know who to use the hymnal or follow the liturgy. What was important?—that they were children of God and had the same gift of the Spirit as the people in the church. In other words, the church people figured out they were just as much children of God as they were.

Now this story about Cornelius and the others gets called a conversion story. Often when it’s preached, the emphasis is on how we should go talk to people we don’t know and tell them about Jesus and get them to come to church with us in our church, sit in our pews, sing our songs. It is a conversion story, of course; but who’s the convert? I think the real conversion here is the church. It’s the moment when they are converted from their rules to the reality of Jesus. For Jesus hates walls and whenever we make one, he always turns out to be on the other side. Who needs conversion? We do. Just like the song says, “It’s me, it’s me, O Lord, standing in the need of prayer.”


Our whole history witnesses to this rule breaking, this wall breaking. Congregationalists started out literally putting a wall called a fence in front of the communion table to emphasize it was too holy for just anyone; only covenanted members seen to be really good at following rules could come to the table. We got rid of the fence. Congregationalists used to think you had to be male to be a Pastor. In 1854, Antoinette Brown was the first woman ordained as a Congregationalist. More recently, we’ve had a long argument about fully, openly including gay and lesbian folks. When I read about Peter being criticized for eating with Gentiles, I can’t help thinking about the tense meetings I had early on when I preached that God was breaking this wall down. Some of us are there; some churches are a bit behind on this one. But it’s where we’re all going.

But that’s not our problem here. No, we’re fine with that one and it’s time for us to ask: what other walls are waiting to be torn down here? What rules are we invisibly upholding that keep people out, keep people from fully feeling the embrace of Jesus? Our purpose statement says we’re about building a diverse community; diversity requires doing what the early Christians did, listening to the Spirit instead of our rulebook.

This is indeed a conversion story, but the conversion at its heart isn’t Cornelius; it’s us, or more particularly people a lot like us, church folks. The conversion is this: they stop thinking it’s their church, their rules, their comfort, that’s important and realize the church doesn’t belong to us, it belongs to Jesus; the church isn’t inspired by us, it’s a vessel for the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit goes where it will, not where we’re comfortable. If we listen, if we’re faithful, we will move along to where God is going. Where is that? Why where God was going all along: to the place where there are no walls, no rules, just the love of God and the embrace of Jesus and the fellowship of knowing each other, every single one, as brothers and sisters in the love of God.

All We Like Sheep

First Congregational Church of Albany

You can listen to the church being preached by clicking here

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved

Fourth Sunday in Easter/C • April 17, 2016

It’s a cold day in Jerusalem, like some of the ones we’ve had recently. The city’s up on a mountain; winds blow like a knife there. Jesus and his friends and some others are gathered in a portico alongside the temple. Maybe they just wanted out of the wind; maybe it’s their regular place. It’s Hanukah: the feast of the dedication. The story is that after Antiochus Epiphanies desecrated the temple, a great messianic figure rose named Judas Maccabeus. He defeated the Greeks and rededicated the temple . Only a small amount of oil was available but the oil burned for eight days. So there they are in this festival season, in the cold, with that great story certainly present in everyone’s mind and some are asking Jesus, “Are you the Messiah? Tell us now!” This is his reply: my sheep know me. His sheep: that’s you, that’s me.

The Good Shepherd

The image of a good shepherd is all over the Bible. The Hebrews started out as herdsmen, people who moved with herds of sheep from one grazing ground to another. Long before they went down into Egypt where they became slaves, they were a people shepherding sheep, following them, shearing them, living off of them. Just like us, when they imagined God, they imagined someone like themselves except better, so the patriarch Israel, when he blesses his son Joseph, describes God as, “The God before whom my ancestors Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life to this day…” [Gen. 48:15]. David is a shepherd and his first victory comes using a shepherd’s weapons: a sling and a few stones. The image of a shepherd became the ideal image of a good ruler and of course in Psalm 23 as we read earlier, the Psalmist himself calls God a shepherd. Later, Isaiah will describe God’s care this way:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
 he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep. [Isaiah 48:11]

Jeremiah and Ezekiel condemn the rulers of Israel by describing them as bad shepherds.

So when Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd”, he is brought up one of the most powerful images these people know. It’s like talking about the Pilgrims here or the Founding Fathers and Mothers or Cowboys. All cultures have these pictures, these models. For this people, for this time, it is a good shepherd. Now people who oppose him and perhaps some who are just wondering ask: “Are you the messiah?” They’re trying to understand him. He says this mysterious thing: his sheep know him. Do you? Do you know him? It’s a good question because if Jesus is the shepherd—we are the sheep.

The Sheep

I don’t know much about sheep; I grew up around dairy cows but sheep are a mystery to me. So I asked friends who had more experience, “What are sheep like?” What is Jesus implying about us?The most common comment was: stinky. One of them said, “They are big. And heavy. And smelly. And loud.” When Jacquelyn lived in Spain, she remembers being awakened early in the morning…by the smell. The sheep would arrive shortly after, with bells tinkling and dogs barking and shepherds after who made sort of barking noises at them too. Sheep do, as Jesus says, know their shepherd’s voice. In fact, they will even learn the sound of their shepherd’s truck, according to one friend who replied. And they need the shepherd. They have a tendency to wander off and they need to be sheared. Sheep that aren’t sheared become a host for various pests. So in the very act of giving up their wool, the sheep is being served as well, helped, healed. All these comments are from people who know far more about sheep than I do.

Sheep can be difficult to manage. Perhaps that’s why centuries ago, people taught dogs to do it for them. This is what one of my friends had to say about his personal encounter with a sheep.

Early in my ministry, I had the brilliant idea of introducing live sheep into our annual Christmas Eve pageant. I imagined fluffy peaceful creatures that would make the pageant “come alive.” I located a small farm in a rural part of town and inquired of the availability of the sheep. The farmer said that he and his family would be away on Christmas Eve, but I would be welcome to come by the farm and borrow a sheep or two if I would return them after the pageant was over.
So, decked out in my best suit, I arrived at the farm, climbed over the stone wall surrounded the pasture, and managed to corral one of the sheep (who did not want to be corralled).   I wrestled the critter into the back seat of my small car.  I was covered with oily dirt by then (the natural state of sheep)and was dismayed that the animal didn’t know car behavior.  In trying desperately to escape, it wailed and made a mess of the basket (think urine and feces).
There was no way THIS sheep was going to be allowed into the church for the pageant.   I had to keep it in my garage and invite any of the children who wanted to see the Christmas sheep to walk across the street to the parsonage garage, but even then I was terrified it would bolt out the door and be lost in the night.
Eventually I gave up, covered my car’s back seat with a plastic tarp and delivered the sheep back to its pasture.  
I learned my lesson.   I also learned that when the Psalmist compares people to sheep, it isn’t a compliment.

That’s us. We’re the sheep. And, at least according to Timothy, it’s not a compliment.

Are you the Messiah?”

“Are you the Messiah?” That’s the question Jesus is answering and the people asking want a quick answer so they can go back to warm homes, have a glass of wine, have servants or slaves wash their feet and have light the Hanukkah candles. Their whole program is to be perfect, follow the rules, do what they’ve done before but do it better and they figure the Messiah will be the best of them, a powerful leader who will rise to the top. They’d like to rise with him. But they’re asking Jesus and Jesus is a shepherd. He’s not looking for rich donors: he’s speaking to sheep, gathering his sheep, and his sheep are stinky. They don’t have anyone to wash their feet, they don’t have homes to go to in many cases. Most powerful people don’t even see them; they’re invisible. But Jesus sees them and they hear him, that’s why the crowds gather everywhere he goes. Jesus sees them and he looks at them like a shepherd. That means he cares for them. When his disciples urge him to send a crowd of his sheep off on their own to find food, he turns to them and says, “You give them something to eat.” The most common complaint about Jesus in his own time is that he eats with sinners. He does, just like a shepherd sits down with his sheep for lunch. They know him; he cares for them.

Jesus sees his sheep; his sheep hear him. He sees them the way a shepherd sees sheep. That is, he expects them to produce. No one herds sheep for the fun of it; you herd sheep, care for sheep, towards the day they will be sheared, the day they will produce the wool others will use to keep warm. In fact, according to one person who wrote to me, if sheep aren’t sheared, parasites burrow into their skin and they get sick. So the sheep have a purpose; the shepherd cares for them so they can achieve their purpose.

All we like sheep…

I titled this sermon, “All we like sheep…” because if, like me, you grew up in certain traditions, you can hardly help saying the next few words from the prayer it begins: “All we like sheep have gone astray.” Jesus isn’t here to enjoy the richness of the successful: he’s here to gather up the straying sheep. That’s me. That’s you. That’s us.

Whenever we think we’ve gotten ahead, whenever we think we are above, or beyond, he’s there to gather us, remind us: all we like sheep have gone astray. And when we know that, when we hear his voice, then we don’t need to ask if he’s the Messiah, we don’t need to ask who he is at all: we hear his voice, we know he is our shepherd. We know because we know that having gone astray, he can lead us back to the green pastures mentioned in Psalm 23.

The Sheep go home

We read Psalm 23 at Bill Ferber’s funeral on Friday. I think it’s been read at almost every funeral I’ve ever attended. I understand how someone like Bill who was a church member and a Christian most of his life would want that read. What’s interesting is that people who know nothing else about faith, who have almost no church experience, also know it. It seems no matter who we are, no matter where we’ve been, what we’ve done, we all want to come home to this vision.

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long.

Where are you going? Where are we going? All we like sheep have gone astray. But if we listen for the shepherd’s voice, surely we will hear it; if we follow it, we will get where he means to take us.

Never Mind

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 All rights reserved

Third Sunday in Easter/C • April 10, 2016

Click here for an audio version of this sermon being preached

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

Life After the Cross – Never Mind

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

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

So the idea of someone who would stand at the head of a great movement, a military movement, was in their collective memory; it was the frame they put around Jesus. We get bits and pieces of this expectation. When Jesus asks who they think he is, Peter responds, “the Messiah”. But when he connects that to a cross, they argue with him. They themselves are found arguing about who is going to be first in his kingdom, a moment he uses to teach them servanthood. So even if they didn’t know exactly what to expect, they must have expected something great, something victorious.
Now it’s as if God said, “Never mind.” Jesus is gone, dead, buried, and even though they’ve heard the tomb is empty, even though Peter himself saw the empty tomb, every story about this time after Easter suggests they didn’t believe Jesus had risen. So many things can happen: perhaps someone stole the body, perhaps the burial wasn’t done properly. All those stories were floated later. Who cares, really? Empty tombs don’t inspire; nothing doesn’t get you something. It’s easier to just believe God said “Never mind”, one more dream dying, one more dream shattered, one more never mind in a life of never minds.

Back to the Old Plan

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

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

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

On the Beach

So there they are: in some ways it must have seemed like all their fears, all their grief has just received in its turn a great Never Mind. But then, when they’ve all had breakfast, Jesus takes Peter aside and asks him this question: do you love me? What did Peter think? Last week I talked about the song, Tradition! from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. There’s another song in the same show when Tevye, the father, is discussing a daughter’s impending marriage with his wife Golde. He says, “She loves him”, and then he asks Golde, “Do you love me?” She rolls her eyes and says,

For years, I’ve washed your clothes
Cooked your meals, cleaned your house
Given you children, milked your cow
After years, why talk about love right now?
But Tevye persists: do you love me? And Golde thinks,
Do I love him?
For years, I’ve lived with him
Fought with him
Starved with him
For years, my bed is his
If that’s not love, what is?

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

Do You Love Me?

“Do you love me?” It’s a question we all ask, one we all need answered. “Do you love me?” Jesus asks Peter. Remember Peter? Brash Peter, one moment proclaiming Jesus is the messiah, the next arguing so violently with him that Jesus calls him a devil. One moment proclaiming his ultimate loyalty; the next sitting in a courtyard denying he ever knew Jesus. “I never met the man!” Peter says. I wonder if, when Jesus asked, “Do you love me?” Peter was thinking of that moment. I wonder if he was remembering how Jesus said he would deny him three times before dawn and Peter said “never” and then indeed, not once, but just as Jesus said, three times, denied him, betrayed him. “Do you love me?” How do you come back from that guilt? How do you come back from that moment? Do you apologize? Do you grovel? What do you say?
“Do you love me?” Jesus asks. the first time, Peter says, “Yes, Lord, you know I love you.” Like a married spouse yelling, “love ya” as they walk out the door, the unthinking response: “Do you love me” sure, Jesus, whatever. Jesus responds: tend my lambs. And he asks a second time, a deeper time: “Do you love me?” I think that’s when Peter must have realized the pretense was over; I think that must have been when Peter’s front began to crumble, when the moment of betrayal came back to haunt him.

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

Now, I imagine most of us have at least one story about a time we thought we were on the way, pursuing a plan, on a mission and suddenly something happened that said, “Never mind!” and suddenly we were sitting there like a person who just slipped on a patch of ice and fell down. So perhaps you know how Peter felt. And today, this day, this very day,

Never mind: feed my sheep

Jesus is speaking to us just as he did with Peter and the others. Whatever we think about our future as a church, whatever plan we have, Jesus has this to say: “Never mind—feed my sheep”. How? He doesn’t say; he leaves that for us to figure out, just as he does with Peter. What he seems to have in mind is in that confusing little bit at the end about being bound and taken where Peter doesn’t want to go. Certainly he knows that despite all our plans, we are going to have to live when the plans fall apart. Life is full of never minds. In the midst of them, just this counts: how we answer the question Jesus asks, “Do you love me?” and whether we are every day doing something, everything, to feed his sheep.