Bound for Glory

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 020

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

Genesis 22:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call Me Ishmael

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Third Sunday After Pentecost/A
June 21, 2020

Genesis 21:8-21

This weekend has so many themes associated with it, I hardly know where to start. There’s Fathers Day today and this is the weekend we normally wold be having the Pride Parade in Albany. So we’re celebrating that even though not by parading. Last Friday was Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the final freeing of the slaves in this country. In connection with that, I have been amazed to read the stories about what’s going on in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have you? I don’t mean political rallies. I mean the way  the city is literally digging up its history and facing it. In 1921, Tulsa had become a center for Black enterprise, sometimes called the Black Wall Street. Then in three days of violence that year, whites rampaged through the streets, burning and killing. Now steps are being taken there to identify and honor mass graves as part of a wider community effort at reconciliation. And setting right what has been wrong is central to the story we read today in Genesis.

We read bits of stories every Sunday and try to understand God’s Word in them. It’s like understanding someone’s life from a dozen snapshots. One picture doesn’t tell a whole story, yo have to look at the whole group. It’s the same with these stories. So as we think about this story, let’s remember its context. Long before, Sara and Abram were called by God from their life in one of the first great cities of the ancient world, called to go forth, with the promise that God would give them a place to live and generations and that they would be a blessing to the whole world. They went, they traveled, and God confirmed the promise in a covenant that changed their lives: they became Sarah and Abraham and God covenanted to provide a child. 

But like we often do, they became impatient with God’s pace. Just like us, they decided to act instead of waiting, so they used the best technology of the time to get a baby. That was buying a servant for Sarah, in this case an Egyptian woman named Hagar, and having Abraham have a child with her. Hagar was a kind of surrogate mother and the child was meant to be the inheritor of the promise and the family. He was named Ishmael, which means “God hears”.

Then, God’s Word came again, as we heard last week, promising a child within a year. Remember the story of the feast, and the announcement and Sarah laughing, laughing because she knew it was too late for her to have a baby. Yet she did, and she named him for that moment: Isaac, which means laughter.

That catches up to the story we read today. Ishmael is 15; Hebrew mothers often weaned children at about three, so Isaac is still a toddler. Once again, like the story last week, there’s a feast, this time in honor of Isaac. The story says the boys were playing but the Hebrew word means more than a good time, it also covers teasing. Whatever the event, clearly there is a problem: who’s going to inherit? Sarah has a simple, cold blooded solution: get rid of Hagar and her son.” Notice how she phrases it: “Cast out this slave woman and her son…” The first step toward treating someone is to depersonalize them. We strip someone of their name and label them with a group or a color. That’s what Sarah does. In fact, we should notice that in this whole story, Ishmael’s name is never mentioned once. 

We all have  greeting rituals and one of the hardest parts for me of the pandemic reality has been losing those. When we see someone we know, we smile, shake hands or hug and say their name—hi Joan, hi Eva, hi Arvilla; when we meet a stranger, we do the same thing. In fact, if you want to learn to remember names, one of the best techniques is to immediately say the person’s name—“Hi John, Hi Mary”—when you meet them. Now we need to wear masks, an important protection and something that says we care about others. And we can’t shake hands or hug. We will have to invent new rituals, new ways of personalizing as we go. But here in this story it’s quite striking that from the first moment, Hagar, the alien, the Egyptian but also the once upon a time partner in the goal of getting a child for Abraham is now just the unnamed slave woman.

But the part that’s always bothered me about this story is what comes next. We’re used to people acting selfishly as Sarah does and we know she is because even Abraham is troubled about it What’s strange here is that God gives the ok. Did you hear that when it was read? Did it startle you? Did you expect God to speak up for Hagar and say, “Hey, no way, you can’t just dump Hagar and Ishmael, they’re my children too!” But that’s not what happens. God says, in effect, do what Sarah says. Then God says don’t worry; I have a plan for the boy.

So Abraham does this awful thing: he abandons Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, leaving them just enough supplies to help his conscience. Soon the water is gone, and Hagar, like every mother in every time who sees and fears the death of her child, weeps. Ishmael is a ways off and he may have been praying too, because suddenly in this scene of impending disaster, an angel is heard. God has heard the cries; an angel, which is a way of saying God in the world, asks her why she’s crying, telling her about God’s will and suddenly she sees a well of water. Was it there all the time but unseen? Did the angel make it happen? We’re not told. We only know that there, in the wilderness that can’t support life, there, in the wilderness of grief that can’t support hope, Hagar finds hope, finds water, lifts her son up and they go forward together. He grows up; he becomes the namesake forbear of a whole nation. Remember God’s original promise?—to make Abraham a blessing to all nations. Isaac may be the forbear of the Israelites but God’s blessing is too big, too huge, for just one people or one time.

This is astonishing in fact this whole story is full of surprises. Last week, we heard Sarah’s surprise in her laughter. Now we learn that people we thought could be disregarded and used for our own purposes have a place in God’s plan. The most troubling part of the story for me has always been God’s approval of Sarah’s plan to exile Hagar. Listening to this story today, I see that this was needed to get Hagar and Ishmael to a place where they could be heard. There’s another story of these same events and in that version, it’s clear that Sarah was already oppressing Hagar and making her life miserable. Now she is seen as the mother of a nation equally part of God’s plan, equally blessed. In fact, this appearance of an angel is the first time in the Bible an angel appears—and it appears in response to the cries of an oppressed, exiled, broken hearted people.

The first thing to learn here is that Black Lives Matter. Our history of racism is  this country is built on the backs of slaves who labored to create wealth others used. They even pulled quotes from the Bible to justify this violence. What we learn here is that God is guiding the destiny of all people. Jessica Grimes writes about Hagar as an emblem of colonized people.

Hagar is sent away destitute, with a child, destined to perish. As a representative of how later colonized people were treated, she has been dismissed, dispossessed, humiliated…the dismissal is like experiencing divorce without any child support….

Hagar is free, free to pursue her own calling as a child of God. 

The end of this story is a new beginning: Hagar, we’re told, got a wife for her son. This is the beginning of the next chapter of God’s plan for blessing all nations. It reminds s to notice something else in this story. The whole story results from Sarah trying to do for herself what God meant to do. But even though Sarah and Abraham didn’t follow God’s path in this way, God used their action to further God’s plan. That doesn’t justify wrong; it doesn’t mean it’s ok to sin because God will fix it. Sin, and the sin of violent oppression have consequences.

What we learn here, though, is that even when people make mistakes, God can weave their mistakes into God’s purpose. Like a potter fixing a clay vessel, like a weaver using the wrong color and then making a marvelous pattern, God’s purpose goes on. Our challenge is to understand that purpose and then, in God’s time, to have the courage to pursue it.

This story isn’t over. Ishmael will marry and become the patriarch of a new family. But things have changed. No longer will he be the son of that slave woman. From now on, when he meets someone, he will say, “Peace be unto you…call me Ishmael.”

Amen.

LOL – Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational church of Albany, NY

By Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 14, 2020

Genesis 18:1-15

Many years ago, when computers began to connect to each other, someone invented a way to have a conversation online. Of course, it wasn’t a regular conversation, there were no voices, just text that was typed in. The problem was that conversation is more than words: it’s feelings, as well. But we tend to share some of the same feelings over and over and it would be difficult to type them out each time.

Thus was born L-O-L, a term for “laughing out loud”. When your friend said something funny, you could type in LOL; when someone said something surprising, you could respond with LOL. LOL became an internet way of expressing that thing we do when someone surprises us in way that is good beyond expectation. Now, many of you know all this, and maybe you’re thinking, why are you wasting my time? I wanted to explain about LOL because I want us to all be together as we set out to understand the story we read from Genesis. You see, it’s all about an LOL moment.

In the heat of the day, Abraham and all his family are relaxing. There is a moment on really hot days when the heat itself becomes a presence, when things in the distance tremble, when mirages appear, when the world almost seems to melt. Abraham is dozing under some oaks, trying to find any bit of shade, He opens his eyes for a moment and sees three strangers approaching in the distance. At first they would have that shimmering, liquid look heat causes; at first, I think, he might assume he was dreaming. Yet from the first, I imagine Abraham waking, the way we wake if car lights flash and someone pulls in the drive unexpectedly at midnight. I imagine him watching just long enough to confirm this is no dream, no mirage, and then stirring, getting ready for strangers. 

Strangers are dangerous in the desert. They might be raiders; they might be guests. Desert culture then and now has a code of hospitality. So Abraham stirs; I think of him kicking his foreman, napping next to him, the man waking and looking, seeing the look of concern, getting up, waking the next person down the line in the pecking order and the whole camp stirring, so that by the time the strangers can be solidly seen, the camp is up. Abraham meets them at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality. “What do they want?” must be on everyone’s mind. 

Abraham offers hospitality in a humble language we understand. “Don’t get above yourself” is one of our cardinal virtues. Don’t ever announce you are the best cook, the best anything. “Let me bring a little bread,” Abraham says—and then goes back to the camp and orders preparations. Imagine the rushing around, the cooking in the heat of the day, the measures of meal  that must be kneaded by women sweating and straining, the barbecued calf on a spit. It’s not a turkey sandwich and a bag of chips; it’s a feast. If it were here, there would be deviled eggs and table decorations. If it were here, there would be sputtering about what does he expect us to do on such short notice—and then a determination to do more than anyone thought possible. it must be hours later when the feast is finally served,.

The strangers have relaxed; the people in the camp are exhausted. As is customary, women are excluded from the tent where the food is served and Abraham himself does not recline with the guests; he acts as the server. Still, people are people; this is a camp with many people. There are girls calculating the cuteness of the strangers, there is curiosity, and among the curious there is Sarah, who listens just outside, who wonders just outside the tent.

Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behavior for guests. “Don’t talk about politics or religion,” we know and it’s the same here. “Don’t bring up anything personal.” It’s the same here.  When the stranger   asks, “Where is your wife, Sarah?” it is a shocking violation of manners. Abraham tries to cover the rudeness by saying she’s off in the tent. The storyteller reminds us in delicate language that Sarah is well past menopause. And then the stranger announces, as if commenting on the unusual heat this year, in an offhand way, “I’ll be back this way in a year or so and Sarah will have a son.” It’s a birth announcement for a woman in her 90’s. I imagine all conversation stopping; I imagine a deadly silence, a conversational period occurring. 

This stranger has brought up the most painful, difficult, dark, private reality of life here. Long ago, this family, this couple set out on a life journey pushed by the promise of God that there would be children. No children have come; no babies have been born. Year after year, they waited; season after season they hoped. Time after time they must have prayed—and cried; raged, even sometimes at each other. Yet there was no child. Finally, there was no escaping the reality: the promise was broken, the time had run out. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women,” the text says: o child: no child ever. They must have grieved until their grief became one of those sadness scars one puts away; too painful to visit often, too important not to visit sometimes. So here they are, two people who have finally relaxed with the failure of the promise. And here is this stranger throwing their dashed hope in their face.

Hope is a scary thing. Hope makes us laugh and the laughter makes us vulnerable. Sarah and Abraham have stopped laughing about their hope. When the stranger makes his announcement, Sarah laughs, but it’s not the laughter of hope, it’s the laughter of derision; the deep belly laugh of all women in all times at the silliness of men who simply don’t understand things, don’t understand certainly about women and babies. Sarah laughs, laughs so hard that in the stillness of that moment, her laughter must have echoed in the tent.  “Oh my God”, I hear her saying, “Me, pregnant!” The stranger hears her and asks this simple question: Is anything too hard for the Lord?

It’s a good question and real faith depends on the answer. The truth is most of the time we are a lot like Sarah. We think lots of things are too hard for the Lord, so we do them ourselves, best we can. But our best isn’t always enough and our best comes with the certain knowledge that there’s only so much we can do. When Sarah gets too old for children, she knows it, she admits it, and she gets a young maidservant to have a child by Abraham so at least there will be an heir. We reel from a setback and try to make a new plan, we pound on the closed door of a dream until our knuckles hurt and then we give up. Sarah laughs, the laughter of despair

“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” What do you think? A folk song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.” Practical people ask, “Well, what do you have in mind?” and there is no answer because it is the point of such hope that it is not in the mind, it is not rational at all. It often involves waiting when we want to act; it often means listening when we want to speak. Yet our whole faith is precisely believing in possibilities we haven’t seen. And sometimes they happen.

About 20 years ago, I was the pastor of a church with an old building enclosing lots of space and very few children. We had a large endowment; of course, the point of a large endowment is not to use it. So when a couple of new families suggested we create a Montessori preschool, everyone knew we couldn’t afford it. I knew it wouldn’t happen; I knew that despite all the meetings and plannings, the bedrock members of the church, who were closer in age to Sarah than to the two or three young moms wouldn’t agree to use the endowment for such a thing. But we went through the process and ended up, as Congregationalists always do, at a meeting, a meeting most of us expected to turn thumbs down. Then something surprising happened. One of the oldest, most bedrock women in the whole church got up to speak. She never said much, so this alone was new. What she said was even more surprising. She said she didn’t see what the fuss was about. The church had always had schools for children, and she talked about the 19th century school the church had founded. She pointed out that the local high school was started by that church. Finally she said that she guessed we’d have to vote but she didn’t see any reason not to use the money for God’s children; that’s why it had been given. There was silence when she sat down and when the Moderator called the vote, it was unanimous. The school opened; the school grew. Some of those kids from the first classes graduated high school this year. It had to make you laugh: LOL.

Now we’re being challenged as a culture and a nation to take up the hardest, darkest hurt in our history, our fundamental racism. We know it was wrong to work Jews to death so we don’t have Nazi flags or schools named for Auschwitz. But we haven’t always understood there’s not a lot of difference between what happened there and  what happened to slaves on American plantations. Some wonder whether we can actually make progress on racism. Is anything too hard for the Lord? Is this? The thing that gives me hope is that in our history, I know that every once in a while we lurch forward. The slaves were freed and when they were re-enslaved in segregation, that fell as well. God’s justice isn’t immediate but it is relentless and like a glacier slowly moving down a mountain, it finally finely grades down everything that resists it. The violence of racism may look like a mountain but it is a mountain being turned into pebbles

Is anything too hard for the Lord? We have the capability to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. Somewhere today, a baby will be born. Maybe his forebears were slaves; maybe they came from Africa or Haiti or Santo Domingo. His mother will laugh, like Sarah laughed but she’ll worry, too. What will life be like for him? Somewhere today a black baby will be born and I hope and I believe that by the time he is grown, he will walk without fear, he will live out his promise without being bound by the bonds of prejudice. His life will matter because black lives matter. That isn’t a slogan; it is the word of God. When we hear it, we ought to hear it as a reminder from God and act like it. And if we do, the promise of the gospel and the promise of that life will be fulfilled. I have that hope; I hold onto that promise because nothing is too hard for the Lord.

I read this story of Abraham and Sarah and this laughter and I want to add something. I want to type something in at the end: LOL. Because this is a story of laughter, a story of how the laughter of despair became the laughter of hope. We need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need the LOL of Sarah’s moment. We need to imagine more and more than imagining, we need to simply believe this: that nothing is too hard for the Lord. We need to get up each day not full of what we are going to do but prepared, alert, ready to see, to really see, off in the distance, God approaching. We need to listen for God to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed,  our laughter will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow, echoing God’s delight.

Amen.

A’int No Mountain High Enough

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Trinity Sunday/A • June 7, 2020

Genesis 1:1-2:4aMatthew 28:16-20

Climbing up the mountain children
I didn’t come here for to stay
If I never more see you again,
Gonna see you on the Judgement Day

Do you know this song? It’s in the style of a spiritual. Spirituals used religious metaphors to signal slaves and call them to take the risks of seeking freedom. It’s striking how often mountains figure in our faith tradition. Ancient people looked up and believed they were looking toward God. So to get higher was to get closer to God, draw nearer divinity. Isn’t that our hope? Isn’t that why we come to worship? Today, let’s listen to these two stories from scripture and let them help us climb the mountain toward God.

Take that long, long story that open Genesis, the book of beginnings. Did you follow it as we read it this morning? When you listen to a song, there are two parts: you listen to the lyrics and you also listen to the music. It’s the same way with this story. The words are the lyrics; the rhythm and balance is the music. It starts out with what our translation calls “the formless void”; in Hebrew, the “Tohu Bohu”, absence of anything and then—light. The light is divided—night and day. There’s a place: now it’s divided, above, below—sky and world. It’s divided: Earth and seas. On the earth, plants, in the sky lights—time and fruitfulness. In the sea, creatures of every kind, in the air, birds of every kind. On the land, animals and cattle, which is to say animals that live mutually with humanity. Finally: us—humankind, gendered and made in the image of God. What we hear if we listen more to the music than the lyrics is an amazing, ultimate ordering, a place for everything, everything in its place. 

It reminds me of being a boy in the room I shared with my brother. We had closets, desks, and some storage areas. And we had, almost always, an amazing mess of toys, dirty clothes, books, magazines, half-built plastic models and what I can only describe as “Interesting Stuff”—a special rock, some shell brought back from a beach. My mom would tell us to clean up and we would, in the way boys clean up, which is to say we’d dump stuff into the closets and push it under the bed. But every once in a while, often on a summer day, my mother, in the way of mothers who are never fooled and knew exactly what we’d done, would appear in our room and tell us that today we were going to really clean. We knew what really clean meant: everything came out from under the beds, everything came out from the closet and then, bit by bit, my mother would help us put it all away, dirty clothes to the laundry, beds made without lumps, toys and models on shelves, trash thrown out and Interesting Things examined and put into a box. She brought order and even though we whined about the process, at the end we loved it. She’d stand in the doorway, arms crossed and say, “Now that’s the way this room should be. Try to keep it this way, at least for a little while.”

That’s what this story in Genesis is about. People who want to argue about it as a scientific description of how things came to be are missing the song it means to sing. This isn’t about how things came to be, it’s about how things are meant to be, all in order: night, day, animals, cattle, human beings, ordered by a loving God, everything in its place, everything dancing together to the music of God’s order, just as a choir sings together to the music of the organ. Now there are various names for this order. When it comes to everything, we call it creation; when it comes to human beings, we call it justice. It’s where God is always trying to move us, and the pathway there is the mountain we are meant to climb.

We have to climb it because, just like my brother and I, on the whole we are messy children. We are meant to be caretakers of creation; we wander off and become consumers instead. We are meant to live in the equality of mutually, equally being made in the image of God, recognizing that image in each other. Instead, we create hierarchies, we compete to be better than others and, in our pride, we use our strength to create systems that oppress some and benefit others. Hierarchy always involves coercion and coercion is violence. Violence disorders the balance, the order, God created and like the pressure under a volcano, it gets stored up until finally the coerced erupt against it.

That’s what’s going on right now. The violence of American racism has built up to a breaking point. What’s stunning isn’t that a black man was killed by a policeman kneeling on his neck, it’s that the police officer assumed he could get away with it. What’s stunning is that this wasn’t isolated but part of a a pattern that went on before and after and continues. What’s different today, this week, isn’t the violence of oppression, it is the reaction against it. The volcano has erupted but the eruption was a long time coming and it won’t be solved by better containment. No matter how many demonstrators are beaten, no matter how many people are tear gassed, no matter how many soldiers are deployed, there won’t be peace until there is justice. 

A long time ago, when May was small, she had a problem and needed to help. She seriously and carefully explained the problem and then came to what she wanted and said, “That’s where you come in.” Clearly today we need someone to stand, like a mother at the doorway of a messy room, to clean things up. And that’s where you come in. Yes: we are meant to be part of the solution to putting things back in order. Just like my mother, God has a plan and the plan is in the other story we read this morning. It begins with God seeing the disorder of the world and coming to us, like my mother coming into the room. The signature act of God in Jesus is resurrection. Resurrection is God transcending violence. The cross is all the world’s violence, all the police on someone’s neck, all the politicians refusing to help the needy and helping friends get the benefits of God’s creation. The cross is domination; the resurrection is the solution.

The other story we read today pictures Jesus with his disciples on a mountain. “Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them.” [Matthew 28:16]. Jesus tells them to do three things: make disciples, baptize, teach his commandments. Those commandments start with the power of forgiveness and what is forgiveness? It’s the intentional act of saying, “Let’s start new.” It’s the do-over after a missed opportunity, it’s the refusal to store up grievance and let it become resentment. Baptism is the symbol of this, the symbolic washing that gets rid of the dirt of the past. His ultimate command is love, loving the image of God where ever it’s found, whether in God or in God’s image, the person you meet, the person you haven’t met. To make disciples simply means to help someone else start to live this way, usually because they’ve been inspired by the example you set.

This is a disordered moment. The regular rhythms of life are off because of the pandemic and the measures we are all taking to defend against it. We can’t choose whether to live in a time of pandemic; we can choose how we live. We can understand that wearing a mask is a way of saying to others, to strangers in a store, “I care about you—you’re a child of God, I’m keeping you safe, honoring your health.” We can’t choose whether we live in a racist culture but we can choose how we live in it. We can use our politics, our money, our social media, our lives to say, to others, “I care about you—you’re a child of God, I’m going to do what I can to keep you safe.” That’s being a disciple; that’s teaching Jesus way of love by example.

Somewhere, someone is rolling their eyes at this, I’m sure. Somewhere, someone is thinking it will never work. I imagine some days my mother stood in the doorway and thought, “How will they ever clean this up?” Jesus started with 12 disciples; here he is, just a short time later, and already he’s lost one—there are only 11 left to gather in Galilee. But it doesn’t stop him. He knows the truth that our politics always forgets, the one Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so eloquently voiced when he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” In all the time since that moment in Galilee, there have been plenty of failures. Christians have busily built their own systems of domination and others have had to fight to restore justice. But God never stops trying, never stops coming to clean up. There’s another mountain song that reminds me of this. It’s meant to be a love song but I think of it as God’s love song for us and it begins, “A’int no mountain high enough, a’int no river wide enough, to keep me from you.” That’s the message of the resurrection: there is no power, no principality, nothing that can ultimately overcome God’s hope. When we live in justice, care for creation and each other, appreciate the image of God in creation and and all people, then we are part of God’s plan. Isn’t it time to clean up today?

Amen. 

All Together Now

All Together Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Pentecost Sunday/A • Mary 31, 2020

Acts 2:1-21

Today is Pentecost, a Greek word that means ’50’, a special day 50 days after Easter that was in part a Christian response to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, marking the day when God gave the Torah to Israel assembled on Mt. Sinai. It is sometimes called the birthday of the Christian Churches; it’s when Jesus’ followers began to act themselves, inspired by the presence of the Holy Spirit. You’ve just heard the story and often what gets the most attention are the fireworks: tongues of fire, whirling wind. But if we read it closely, it’s part of a longer theme we’ve been following at least since Palm Sunday, a meditation of the them of presence and absence. On Palm Sunday, Jesus was present and acclaimed as the heir of King David, the Messiah coming to reestablish a worldly kingdom. Days later, he was absent when he was crucified and killed by the Romans. On Easter he was present as the resurrected Christ. He was present to his friends for a time and then absent again, as we talked about last Sunday, after the Ascension. Presence, absence: see how they alternate? Now he’s absent but the Spirit becomes present, just as he said. It becomes present, the text tells us, when, “…they were all together in one place.” [Acts 2:1]

Just reading those words, proclaiming that message, feels ironic today when we can’t be all together in one place in our normal way. So like the story, we’re grappling with the issue of presence and absence. Some watching this will remember and perhaps wish they were present here in our beautiful worship area, as they were, as we were until a few months ago. Others have never been here and are sharing a different presence in this time. Are we present together? Are we absent?

Surely those followers of Jesus were wrestling with the same question. They’ve been through the whiplash of Jesus present, Jesus absent, Jesus back and now absent again, but absent after a promise: that they would experience a moment of feeling a spirit come upon them. It’s a holiday weekend, Shavuot, as I said. Shavuot is a pilgrimage festival, like Passover, so Jerusalem would have been full of strangers, Jews who had come from all over to celebrate. It would be noisy, crowded, perhaps the sounds of the crowds and the smells of the food wafting into the room where they  are all together. You know what those weekends are like; we all do. The smell of the neighbor’s barbecue on Memorial Day weekend, the sound of someone setting off fireworks over a block, a parade where you u get jostled and buy a balloon for a little kid. Got it in mind? That’s the setting when they are all together in one place. 

Then there is an experience we never hear about again:

…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. [Acts 2:2-4]

Suddenly, they are present with the living presence of God. They know it, they feel it, they picture it and they express it in this fiery language and in what comes next. But what was that really like? What is absence, what is presence?

I’ve been thinking about that question this whole season, thinking about my own experiences of absence and presence. Some seem routine. Most of you know Jacquelyn is a flight attendant so before the pandemic, our life was full of absence and presence: most weeks she would leave, we’d patch our absence with phone calls and then after three days come home: present again. 

But one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever felt of presence was the days just before my mother died. My mother and I were never close; I think she’d secretly hoped to have daughters and having three sons was a kind of joke on her. But as the one set of friends who knew us both said, she always worked to make sure I had what I needed. One day when Jacquelyn and May and I were having a casual dinner, I got a rushed phone call from my brother: mom was in hospice, not expected to live long, I should come quickly.  So I did: off to Florida, a quick trip to her hospice, where I sat with her for two days while her presence in this life gradually faded, alternating between consciousness and sleep. But before you wonder why I’m telling a sad story, let me say it wasn’t sad: it was glorious. Because in those times she was awake, for the first time, my mother told me about her life, her real life, growing up in the depression, having other family members come to live with them when they lost their own homes, going to college and working at a time when it wasn’t usual for women to have careers. My mother became present to me as a real person, a whole person, for the first time. When she died, she wasn’t absent; she was more present than she had ever been.

That’s what’s happening at Pentecost. Throughout Jesus’ life, Jesus’ gathered usually separate people at his table, all together. It is one of the most striking things of his ministry and perhaps the one most often criticized since it ran against the customs of his time. But Jesus gathered them all together and that happens in three other particular events. At the Last Supper, his disciples, we’re told are with him; John tells us that his friends were also together in a room when he came to them after the resurrection. Finally, the story of his ascension begins, “..when they had come together.” [Acts 1:6] In all these events, Jesus is obviously present; here, at Pentecost he isn’t. If we stop being distracted by the tongues of fire and the noise of the wind, what’s clear is that the disciples and the friends of Jesus suddenly feel the same divine presence they felt with him, just as when my mother died, I felt her presence more clearly. Pentecost is the advent of presence, not in a person but through persons, through all persons.

The “all persons” part gets lost sometimes because we are more interested in the languages than its meaning. Long ago, in Genesis, the Bible explains how ethnicity and division came to be. In their pride, human beings determined to become God like and built a tower, called the tower of Babel [Genesis 11:1-9]. When God frustrated their plans, different languages were the symbol of their failure. Now the Tower of Babel is being reversed. The amazing thing isn’t that t he disciples become multi-lingual, it’s that they speak in a way that everyone understands. What they do with that is simple and powerful: they tell people about the life of Christ and the love of God.  That’s Pentecost: in the grief of absence, they have felt the empowering, inspiring presence of God he promised and they tell people about it.

Isn’t that what we need most today —to recognize God’s presence? We’re here, all together, not in a physical way but a spiritual way. Just as our Pilgrim fathers and mothers brought about a new way of worship, we’re forging one together. The spirit of Pentecost is what the prophet Joel said centuries before Jesus, that God would pour out the Spirit on all people, even old men will have new dreams, even those marginalized will be heard. The life of Christ is present; the love of God is present. What should we do about it?

Shouldn’t we follow those first disciples and do what they did? Over the last few weeks, we’ve found a surprising fact: our in person services usually average 25 to 30 people but this online service is viewed by more than twice that number most weeks. Wow! Now there’s something you can do if it’s important to you to share the good news of a church where all people are welcome and cherished. Like the disciples going out to the crowds, you have a crowd to which you can speak by clicking on the share button on your screen. Share this service, share all the services. Do it as part of your Pentecost celebration. 

But clicking a share button isn’t the most important thing we can do. The most important thing we can do is to take seriously the Pentecost message: that God is present right now, right here, wherever here is, whoever’s life ‘here’ is. We can look at others as children of God. We can reject the division so fundamental to our culture and demand that we be treated as all together now, all children of God. For that long list of nations, you could substitute all those things that divide us up: race doesn’t matter to God, gender doesn’t matter to God, age doesn’t matter to God, party doesn’t matter to God, language doesn’t matter to God, nationality  doesn’t matter to God. We know where these divisions lead, they lead to violence. In the recent past, we’ve seen a black man lynched in Georgia and another murdered in Minnesota and an EMT killed in her home. We’ve heard about a public official in Texas saying that the only good Democrat is a good Democrat. What he really means is that he can’t stand someone different. Divisions lead to death. God’s all together now love leads to life. When the divisions don’t matter to us, we draw closer to the presence of God.

Many years ago, I was a young minister serving as a counselor at a youth camp. Someone who didn’t know me well gave me the job of leading singing at the campfire. Now, I can tie a bowline upside down lying on my back, I can preach, I can do many things. But singing isn’t one of them. Nevertheless, at the time, I got up and tried to get everyone to sing; it was a complete failure. My tuneless attempts weren’t just flat, they fell flat. Then a smart senior with some stood up and  yelled, “All together now!” The guitar player struck up “Do Lord”, and people sang and it blended together and it swelled and we were all together, and we were all together, and God was present as surely as at Pentecost and we were all together and present and the presence gave us peace. You can have that peace: God wants you to have that peace. All together now: living in the love of God.  Amen. 

Don’t Wait for Jesus

Don’t Wait for Jesus

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Ascension Sunday/A • May 24, 2020

Acts 1:1-11 • Psalm 47 • Ephesians 1:15-23 • Luke 24:44-53

We’re near the end of a four part story. The first part was the amazing entrance of God into the world in the person of a vulnerable baby born to two peasants in a small town. The second part was his life preaching that the reign of God was beginning to bear fruit, healing people, inspiring people, opening eyes, opening hearts, joining them together across lines of gender, class and nationality. Among those, 12 were chosen as emblems of a larger congregation. They splintered in the third part when he was crucified and died. His absence killed their kinship but they’ve come back, called back, by his resurrection and the every day miracle of his presence. Now they’re milling around, waiting for the next part to begin, like people waiting for the curtain to go up at a theater, waiting for Jesus to take the stage. When he does, they have one question: “What’s next?” In many ways, we’re in a similar situation today. Our church goes through a cycle every year and it climaxes on Easter Sunday, celebrating the resurrection. This year of course, that cycle has been disrupted. We stayed home on Easter; we’ve struggled to learn to share worship through video. Now we’re wondering, like the disciples, “What’s next?”

Luke wrote both a gospel and the book we call the Acts of the Apostles and he gives us two stories of this moment. If we pull back from the stories and see the whole context, we see how like us Jesus’ first followers were. Some left after the crucifixion; most didn’t believe the first reports of the resurrection. A few Sundays ago, we read the portion of scripture in which Thomas stoutly says, “Unless I see the marks on his body, I won’t believe it.” Some of the followers apparently went home to Galilee or other places. We read about two who encountered Jesus as they were leaving Jerusalem, on the road to Emmaus. Some stayed in Jerusalem and these are the ones we hear about in the story today. Luke says, “After his suffering, [Jesus] presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” [Acts 1:3]

What did he teach them? The gospel says, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” [Luke 24:45] Jesus doesn’t come out of nowhere; comes as the fulfillment of the whole tradition stretching back to Moses and Abraham, his life is the embodiment of God’s promises from the beginning. That’s why our worship focuses so fully on the Bible. That’s what Jesus does, over and over, teaching from the scripture, helping people understand how God has worked all along to make love present in the world. The fruit of that love that Jesus presents is a call to repentance and a promise of forgiveness. He says, 

Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations beginning from Jerusalem. [Luke 24:46f]

Notice that everyone is welcome here: all nations, all people are included. Notice that there is no set of rules here, instead the forgiveness is unconditional. Repentance—changing your ways—is there, but it’s connected to forgiveness, not punishment. And forgiveness is all about the future.

The future is very much on everyone’s minds in the scene with which Luke begins Acts. The disciples are together, Luke says. Jesus is present. They ask the question on everyone’s minds: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” [Acts 1:6]. That’s what everyone assumed the Messiah would do. After all, he’s supposed to be the fulfillment of King David who had pulled the tribes together and created a great kingdom, a kingdom that had not been the same since. It wasn’t the same in Jesus’ time; it was governed by people appointed by the Roman emperor and occupied by Roman troops. It’s precisely the fear that Jesus would lead a movement to violently throw out the Romans and restore the kingdom that led the Romans to crucify him. So now that he’s back, now that he’s resurrected, now that he’s present, everyone’s waiting for him to get on with it. To all these questions, he simply says, “Not your business”—“It is not for you to now the times or periods that the Father has set…” [Acts 1:7] and then, as if to make the point, POOF, he disappears into a cloud. Gone: absent, just like after the cross, just like after the crucifixion. 

I said at the beginning that we were in a similar place and I think that’s what’s driving a lot of the discussion about reopening. We are used to worshipping in a particular way. We get up, we get ready, we walk or drive to a place, a building, this building. We go in, someone greets us, gives us a bulletin, we see others and greet them. For the past few weeks, my friend Remy has been coming in to do the liturgy, and it takes a conscious effort not to hug him, because that’s a Remy greeting. I still find myself looking over to my right, to where Eva sits, back to where Joan is settled, and Joyce, wanting to greet the choir behind me. We gather; we greet, we listen to God’s Word, we pray, and then we gather for coffee and treats and more greeting. It all takes place here, in this building and that’s what church has meant. 

But now we don’t. Now we’re absent from each other. You’re at home, I can’t see you. I have to imagine your presence. I’m not in front of you, I’m on a screen and you’re probably doing other things as well; maybe having some coffee, maybe talking to someone else there. When we started this live streaming, the background assumption was that somehow we would all watch together at the same time but as I talk to people, that’s not how it works. Some watch at other times; some don’t watch at all, they just listen. It can all leave us with the same impatience: “Will you at this time, Lord, restore the kingdom?” The disciples want to go back to the past. So do we. That’s where they felt God’s presence, in the preparation for restoring the kingdom; that’s where we felt God’s presence, in the building, greeting, worshipping, meeting together. We long to restore it as they longed to restore the kingdom.

But Jesus has something bigger and more wonderful than a restored kingdom in mind: inviting all people to a loving relationship with God and with each other, a relationship founded on a mutual forgivingness and repentance that changes them, takes the grasping, jealous, angry present and turns it into a place where the fruits of the spirit—“love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” [Galatians 5:22f]—are the normal reality every day. Jesus isn’t going back to David’s kingdom, he’s going forward to the kingdom of God. He leaves the disciples there, standing, feeling his absence, but with a message as well.

So, too, if we have a feeling of absence because we can’t meet here, we should listen to the message. Long ago, I became part of the Clark family. Harry was my minister, Nora was my Sunday school teacher, their daughters were my friends. In time we shared so much and loved so much that we became family. Now in the Clark family, goodbyes take a long time. They start when I go have everything packed and Nora kisses me and sometimes gets teary. Then there’s taking the stuff to the car, more goodbyes, good wishes. And I’ve never driven away from the Clarks that I didn’t see in the rear view mirror, Nora and Harry, standing in the driveway, watching, waving. When Jesus has left, ascended, the disciples remain and I think of them just like that, standing there, staring, as if their staring could call him back. They felt his absence.

That’s when two angels appear. Remember these guys? They always show up at a critical moment. One showed up to tell Mary she was going to have Jesus; others told the shepherds about the birth and they show up again at the tomb, after Jesus’ resurrection. They’re the ones that tell the women what’s happened, they’re the ones that tell them that the absence of Jesus, his death, was a moment and that they should look for his presence. 

Now the disciples are staring, now the angels appear, now they say simply, 

“…why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way…” [Acts 1:11]

In other words, don’t stand around, looking where Jesus was; look where he’s going. He’s told them that: Just wait, he said, “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” That’s where he’s going, they just haven’t seen him there yet. They need to look in a new place. That’s the story of Pentecost, and we’ll talk about it next week.

But this week there is an important message for us. We are all talking bout reopening; we should be talking about renewal. When we talk about reopening, the assumption seems to be, “back to normal”. But simply reopening an in-person worship service will not be back to normal. We know we need to wear masks; we know we can’t do coffee hour, we know other things need to change. We know that we now have people coming to worship through the live stream for inspiration regularly and we won’t abandon this or all of you who do that. 

The message of the angels is one we need to hear as well: don’t stand around waiting for Jesus. Renewal comes from moving to make his vision a reality. Don’t wait for Jesus; don’t stand around. Wait for the power of the Spirit and when you feel it, live it. Don’t wait for Jesus, share the news that we can live for him today, loving God, living from God, loving others, letting that love blossom into those fruits of the spirit today. Our future isn’t just reopening, it’s a renewal of our life as the body of Christ. Don’t wait for Jesus: he’s already going ahead, making the way for us, loving us, inspiring us. 

Amen.

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21

There’s an old story about a church that called a new minister with a reputation as a fine preacher. Sure enough, on his first Sunday he gave an amazing sermon. People cried, people laughed at the funny parts, and many were deeply stirred. The members of the pulpit committee were roundly congratulated and everyone felt this was a great start. The next Sunday there were smiles as people arrived and quiet as the pastor began. Everyone was startled when his opening turned out to be exactly the same. In fact, the whole sermon was the same. Some people hadn’t been there the first week, and they thought it was a fine sermon, some said they were glad to be reminded of some of his points. But on the whole, there was a bit less reaction. There was even less the third week when he again gave the same sermon, some said word for word.

The Board of Deacons met that week and, of course, someone asked the question on everyone’s mind. “Pastor, that was a fine sermon you gave last Sunday and the Sunday before that and the first Sunday but do you have any others?” After a moment, the pastor quietly said, “I have lots of them and as soon as I see you are doing what I preached in this sermon, I’ll go on to the next.” How do we connect God’s Word to life? How does what is said turn into what is done? How does the vision of God’s way turn into every day decisions?

That’s the problem Jesus is facing in the passage from John we read. He knows his time with his friends is almost over and he’s teaching them about the time to come. How will what he has taught turn into how they live? How can his life and his message extend into their lives and the message those lives carry on? Over the years, along the way, he has built a relationship with them. They’ve seen him heal, heard him preach, watched him deal with individuals. They’ve learned to love him; felt him love them. Now that love becomes a bridge to the future. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” he says.

What are these commandments? Jesus isn’t Moses, he doesn’t give his followers a tablet with a nice set of bulleted commandments, he doesn’t hand them an operator’s manual. Yet according to the gospel writers, he does explicitly command some things. First and foremost, love God with your whole self and then as well, love your neighbor. Forgive endlessly. And there is the implicit command of his practice, the way he includes people his culture calls sinners, women, poor people, rich people, everyone, into the community of care at his table. There is the promise of abundance he preaches in the parable of the sower and by feeding the multitude and his own statement that he came to give abundant life. So we do have a set of commands and his own command is that living from these is the test of loving him.

This is what Christians often miss because we confuse Christ with culture. There is a content to Christ’s commands and we can see it, hear it, act on it. Racism is never Christian because it contradicts Christ’s inclusion of all people. Excluding people because of who they are, because they are gay or female or transgender is never Christian because it contradicts Christ’s inclusion of all people. Oppressing people for gain is never Christian because it contradicts Christ and destroys the abundance God gives. So when Christian churches and Christian people endorse and live this way, it’s a sign they don’t love Christ, they love the culture that supports such things.

What happens when we do live out his commands? The first thing to know is: you can succeed. We often speak of love as if it were an object or a hole in the  ground; we speak of ‘”falling in love” or being blindsided by love. But love can be an intention, a decision that we will, every day, deal with everyone we encounter with kindness. Love is a commitment to kindness and just as exercising changes our physical body, practicing love changes our spiritual self so that as we do it, we are transformed. We come to see it as natural, as needed. Paul says in Second Corinthians that he is compelled by the love of Christ. All Christians know this feeling: because we love Christ, we must love others, even when we don’t want to or it’s inconvenient. 

We can succeed at this. Years ago I led a weekly chapel service for preschool kids, I was struggling to figure out how to condense the theology of love into something three year olds could understand. I came up with this idea: one nice thing. So I started talking to them about doing one nice thing each day. I gave little stars for reports of a nice thing; I had them chant it with me: ‘”One nice thing! One nice thing!”

It probably sounds silly and simplistic. But a few months after I started the one nice thing campaign, a mother who didn’t go to church came to me and asked to talk. She said that she and her husband weren’t church people and she had been unhappy when we announced the chapel services. Her little boy liked the preschool there, though, so they kept him in class. And then she paused and said, “I hate to admit this. I don’t want to admit this. But I have to: you have made my child better.” She went on to say that suddenly he was coming to her and asking what he could do for a nice thing. He was changing. So whether you are three or 93 or somewhere in between, you can do one nice thing; you can succeed at keeping Christ’s commands. And if you try, you will.

There is another thing that will happen if you intentionally set out to keep Christ’s commands: you will fail. Maybe it’s a bad day, you didn’t sleep well, you’re growls and you’ll encounter someone who annoys you. Maybe you’re just not feeling well; maybe you’re feeling under appreciated. We all have those days. You beep at the guy in front of you who is taking two seconds too long to move after the light turns green; you say something unkind under your breath. You let your doubts dominate your thinking at a meeting.

We all fail at living out Christ’s commands. The first disciples did. One of the mysteries I’ve been thinking about most of my life is that the gospel accounts depict the first disciples as such bumblers. At the feeding of the multitude, they are worried about the budget. When Jesus announces he is the Christ, they argue with him. They fight to make a hierarchy within their ranks instead of accepting equality with Jesus. They don’t believe in his resurrection; they run away when he’s arrested. They fail.

It is when we fail that we discover the importance of forgiveness. And it’s when we experience forgiveness that we begin to give it. Forgiveness is the key, according to Jesus, and it’s endless. “How many times must I forgive?” The disciples ask. Endlessly, Jesus answers. And he demonstrates this. When Jesus is arrested, Peter denies him three times; what’s worse is that Jesus had predicted as much. Think about the shame he must have felt when he met Jesus after the resurrection. Yet what does Jesus say? “Feed my sheep”. Jesus forgives him, embraces him, sends him on a mission. He means to do the same with you, and with me.

When I was teaching Sociology, we spent a lot of time on the concept of norms. Norms are simply the invisible rules which guide our behavior moment to moment. Go into a room with a table and chairs, you know to sit on the chair. That’s normal here. Two thirds of the world doesn’t use chairs but here we do. It’s normal. We have rules for all kinds of things. Now what I love about this church most of all is that love is normal, inclusion is normal. A young woman who doesn’t speak English shows up at the door on a snowy night; what’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to take her in, spend endless hours figuring out how to talk to her, feed her, help her.

A young man shows up one Sunday, a college student, who tells us he’s headed for the ministry. What’s the normal reaction? Here, it’s to embrace him. People drive him to church every Sunday; we give him a chance to try out his preaching. We celebrate his graduation. This is from a letter I received from Bryan’s mother about the impact of this normal love.
Thank you so much for all that you and the entire Albany congregation have done for Bryan during his three years at Sienna. Your love, support and and caring have ben overwhelming.

This weekend that saame young man graduated from seminary. He’s taking the blessing and love of this congregation and others with him and who knows how many it will touch? What I love about this church is that love is normal here.

We’re in a difficult moment. Each week I call people just to check in, to say, “How are you doing?” This week I sensed a rising tide of people who said the same thing, that they were so tired of staying in where unmistakeable. I feel it too. I know I look forward to when we gather again here, in this space.

But whether we gather here or in our homes, we can still live from the commands of Christ. Sometimes Jesus’ first disciples failed; sometimes they succeeded. But they gave the world this wonderful gift: his vision of love made normal. And in that gift, they found a spirit. As Jesus said, they weren’t alone and they discovered that in that Spirit, miracles were possible. Making love normal always does this: it always draws the Spirit and incubates miracles.

I hope this week you feel that Spirit. I hope it moves you to prayer, I hope it moves you to wonder, I hope it moves you to act out the commands of Christ. I hope you see not just what’s here but what’s coming here, see the impact of normal love, see the vision of Christ. For wherever we go, we will be on the right path when we go where Christ compels us, where Christ leads us, where Christ’s love becomes our gift to the world for whom Christ gave his life.

Amen.

Where Are You Staying?

Where Are You Staying?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Fifth Sunday in Easter/A • May 10, 2020

Acts 7:55-60Psalm 31:1-5,15-16John 14:1-10

I suspect one of the little noticed casualties of the pause is the name tag. You know these: they say, “Hello” in big letters and you print your name on it so people will know who you are. At church meetings, they always make me wonder: should I put the ‘Reverend’ in front? James or Jim? What about the church name? These are bits of information that help say who I am. We all assemble a picture of a person from different aspects.

Sometimes something new surprises us. One day one of our members dropped in at the church office. I was wearing jeans and it threw her; she was used to seeing me in a robe on Sunday. “I never knew you wore jeans,” she said. Like a picture puzzle, we know someone from the things we learn about them. Now today, in the lesson from the Gospel of John, Jesus is giving his followers—the ones right there and us as well—the pictures we need to understand who he is.

The lesson is set during the last supper. Jesus has washed his followers’ feet and given them the signature command for his followers: “love one another.” The shadows are gathering; it’s Maundy Thursday. We’ve been told his spirit is troubled and perhaps his friends are as well because he begins, “Let not your heart be troubled” But they are troubled. Their journey with Jesus always potted toward Jerusalem.. Now they’ve arrived but darkness is closing in and they must have wondered, “What now?” They’re about to face the great problem all Christians face: how do we stay with Jesus no matter what the world dishes out?

He begins by telling them that in his Father’s house there are many dwellings. I know many of us grew up hearing, “In my father’s house are many mansions.” But that Seventeenh Century phrase doesn’t accurately represent what John says because today ‘mansion’ means a big, palatial house for one family. ‘Mansion’ originally meant any dwelling, a house or a hotel along a road, not an especially ornate, expensive place. What Jesus wants us to imagine is something like a condominium, a home with many places arranged around a courtyard. I know that may give you a sense of loss. The first time Jacquelyn heard me explain this, she said, “Hey, I thought I was getting a mansion and now you tell me it’s just a condo?”

But I want you to understand what Jesus is really saying here. The dwelling places he’s talking about aren’t separate; it’s not a spiritual subdivision. This is a community and the very togetherness is part of what he means to say. Jesus begins from an intimate togetherness with the Father and now he’s telling his friends he intends to include them in the community, give them a place in the community, with him and with the Father. He goes on to say: “…if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am, there you will be also.” [John 14:3] Jesus is giving his friends—Jesus is giving us—instructions on how to stay with him and it begins with believing he’s going to make a home for us.

This home is crucial to our faith life because it’s how we stay with Jesus and it’s how we hold fast to our journey with him. As we heard, Psalm 31 says,

In you, O LORD, I seek refuge; do not let me ever be put to shame; in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily. Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress; for your name’s sake lead me and guide me, take me out of the net that is hidden for me, for you are my refuge.

Don’t we all need a refuge sometimes? Remember building a fort when you were a kid?—piling up pillow or chairs or boxes to make a castle and hiding inside? We build refuges as adults out of bits and pieces the same way. Sometimes it’s our possessions, sometimes it’s a house or job or sometimes it’s simply working to make sure we are in control.

But all those refuges eventually fail, just like our pillow forts came tumbling down. One of the reasons people are so stressed today is that our home built, self-built refuges are falling apart. When our refuge falls apart, it’s scary. But Jesus is offering a permanent refuge, a permanent place with him. As he said, his mission now is to prepare a place for us. The two questions in the text are questions we ask as well. “How do we get there?” and, “What’s the Father like?”

Thomas is blunt. Jesus says, “You know the place where I am going”; Thomas says, “Lord we don’t know where you are going.” How do we get to this dwelling with Jesus and the Father? How do we find the refuge? Have you ever stopped for directions and gotten something that didn’t help? Jesus is going and Thomas wants to come along—he wants directions. And what Jesus says is simply: “I am the way.” Last week we heard him say, “I am the gate—the way in”, and “I am the good shepherd”. Just like assembling the pieces of a picture puzzle I mentioned earlier, these “I am” statements show us Jesus’ identity. They are the clues staying with Jesus.

By saying, “I am the way,” Jesus is saying that living like him is the way to dwelling with the Father and him. That’s why it’s so important to read the gospels. They tell us the story of his life, they give us the pieces to help us understand who he is. When we do that, what we find at the center is a man with an unstoppable love that always embraces, always heals, always helps. He tells us directly how to know if we’re on the right track. Just before this reading, he’s said, “By this all people will know you are my disciples, if you love one another…” So walking the way of Jesus is determining to make love the persistent, every day energy of your life.

Now when someone says, “I love you,” a good question to ask is, “As evidenced by what?” When we talk about loving someone, many of the details cluster around what some call appreciation. That means, making a conscious, dedicated effort to consider each other person as a gift from God and to praise God for that person. It can begin with a simple prayer of thanks for someone. “Thank you, God, for Jacquelyn,” is something I pray every day. I like to name the people here in our congregation consciously in my prayers with the same prayer; I thank God for each of you.

It measures me and it will measure you. It’s hard to thank God for someone if you’re angry with them; at the same time, it can help you remember why you’re friends or partners in the first place. It can connect us. Try it out in the prayer time in a few minutes. When we’re silent, think of someone in the congregation or someone you know and simply consciously in your mind picture them and thank God for them.

This isn’t going to solve all problems. But it’s a step and it’s a step along the way with Jesus. It’s a step that helps keep us connected with him by connecting with each other. If you keep up with this prayer, if you keep up walking along the way toward Jesus, he will walk with you. And you’ll know what he teaches Philip.

Remember Philip?—Philip asks Jesus to show him the Father. It’s like saying, “Hey, this is all fine but just give me the GPS coordinates for God.” Jesus simply says that if he doesn’t know the Father is in Jesus, he doesn’t know Jesus. This is what it means to say that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. It was the great celebration of an early community that yes, they had discovered how to stay with Jesus, yes, they had discovered how to find the Father, yes, they had found the refuge of faith, the truth . Professor Gail O’Day said about this passage,

Jesus doesn’t say “no one comes to God except through me” but no one comes to the Father except through me.” God is not a generic deity but the Father recognized in the life of Jesus. [John] is not concerned with the fate… of Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists, nor with the superiority or inferiority of Judaism and Christianity… These verses are a confession a celebration of a particular faith community, convinced of the truth and life it has received in the incarnation. [New Interpreters Bible, p. 745]

We can have that same joy when we make our refuge a dwelling place in the Father’s house with Jesus.

So the question for us is, “Where are you staying?” Are you staying in a fort you’ve built that will never survive the winds of the world?—or are you staying with Jesus in the place prepared for you, walking the way of Jesus and seeing the Father in him? That’s our hope; that’s our reason for being together.

Our church’s purpose statement says that our purpose

…is to celebrate God’s love and to build a vibrant and vital church through worship, fellowship, education, service and outreach in an inclusive and diverse community,

Just like the church of John’s gospel, we are meant to be a people walking the way of Jesus by connecting and loving others, appreciating others, hoping with others. That is the way to dwelling with God. That is the true refuge that has sustained Christians just like us in every time and place, in every condition, regardless of the storms and disasters.

That can be your refuge; I know it is mine. Where are you staying? Come stay in the dwelling place Jesus prepared for you, for me, for all of us, come stay with God.

Amen

Green Pastures

Green_Pastures

A_Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany_NY

by Rev James Eaton_Pastor – © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Fourth Sunday in Easter • May 3, 2020

Acts 2:42-47 – Psalm23John 10:1-10

We’ve all had about a month or so on pause here in New York. What are you doing with the time? One of our long time members posts accounts of her day most days. There is a poetic valuing of the ordinary there that often makes me smile. One thing I’ve been doing is watching videos online and I’ve stumbled across videos of guys—and they are all guys so far—making plastic models. Did you do this when you were a kid? A lot of our childhood play involves modeling, whether it’s building them, or dressing up or playing with dolls. Even as adults, we look to models. A woman who decides to change her hair will look through a book of hairstyles. So a good question to ask is, “What is our spiritual model?” What do we want to look like, what do we want to show in our daily life?

Today we read a portion of the gospel of John with a famous verse we’ve all heard: Jesus saying, “I am the good shepherd.” Now the word that’s translated ‘good’ in this passage means more than just what we mean by good. It really means: “I am the ideal shepherd”, a way of saying, in effect, I am the model shepherd. Jesus hopes to be our model and he models life in his way with his disciples.

Israel had a long history with shepherds. Abraham was a herdsman so right from the beginning, God’s people had this picture in front of them of a shepherd with a flock of sheep. Sheep aren’t raised in towns, they are raised up on the arid, rocky hillsides. In ancient times, wilderness places were full of dangers: lions, wolves, and the simple possibility of falling down and injuring yourself. Add to that the bandits who frequently roamed and you can see that being a shepherd was difficult and dangerous.

So when Jesus says, “I am the model shepherd,” he’s invoking an image that has meaning for those listening. It’s as if someone said, “I am the model cowboy”. The meanings cluster around three things. First, a shepherd and the sheep have a relationship of mutual care. The shepherd is sustained by the sheep; the sheep are nurtured and protected by the shepherd. We see these images in the what has become perhaps the most famous psalm in o ur Bible, Psalm 23. Now I know as soon as you heard this, you recognized it and may have thought, “Oh! Funeral psalm.” But it’s only recently and in our culture that the psalm became associated with funerals. It began as a song of praise.

Right from the start, the psalm establishes the singer’s relationship: “The Lord is my shepherd”, and immediately he follows that with praise for the shepherd’s fulfillment: “I shall not want” is to say that the shepherd is the source of everything the singer needs. He does this, according to the psalm, by leading to green pastures. Now I grew up where there are lawns, every house had a pasture. That, after all, is how lawns began: a bit of pasture set aside for beauty. I’ve been around cow pastures, too, and maybe you have. So what we often imagine when it comes to green pastures is that sort of expanse of grass, green, flourishing, lush.

But that’s not where sheep grazed in Israel. They were moved to high, dry, rocky slopes. On those slopes, bits of grass grow mostly around rocks because the rocks condense water out of the breeze of the Mediterranean Sea. Grass grows in the crevices and sheep feed by going from one rock to another, eating what’s there, moving on to the next. That’s the job of the shepherd: to keep them moving. The green pastures are nothing like a lawn; they are a place where you can continue to find what you need but only if you keep moving. That’s part of the shepherd’s job: to keep the sheep moving.

The other part is to keep them safe. What does safety mean? Jesus teaches that our enemy isn’t death, it is the fear of death. The psalm takes this on too. “Even in the darkest valley,” he says—more poetically but less accurately, “the shadow of death”—I will fear no evil.

The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t have to worry about where we will get what we need—he will provide it. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, promises that we don’t need to worry about the darkness of evil—he’ protecting us. The good shepherd, the model shepherd, is there so we don’t have to fear anything at all.

Jesus is the good shepherd and this is the psalm of the shepherd, a psalm we need to hear. Because this is a time when our lives are being bounded by fear. One way people are dealing with it is to deny it. The people gathered in groups on the beach in Florida yesterday, opened because of the fear of politicians, believe they can ignore a virus. The people who assaulted the capitol of Michigan with automatic weapons this week believe they can assault a virus. They’re fearful people, acting out of fear.

But the good shepherd, the model shepherd, has a different way. His way is to seek a fearless life by following him, moving at his command, living in his model. That’s what’s going on in the section we heard from Acts today. Written about 50 years later, the church is looking back to an earlier, ideal time for a model. We know that conflict existed in Christian congregations from the beginning. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are all about church fights. But here the church is looking back and remembering a different a model, a model of a church where they are all together and mutually sustain each other so that no one lacks anything. They’re looking back to a time when the church was closer to the model of the good shepherd.

So we have this model: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd, we are the flock. How do we use it to help us construct our lives day to day? Because we are in different places, different situations. One writer said,>

I heard that we are all in the same boat, but it’s not like that. We are in the same storm, but not in the same boat.Your ship could be shipwrecked, and mine might not be. For some, quarantine is optimal. A moment of reflections, of re-connection, easy in flip-flops, with a cocktail or coffee. For others, this is a desperate financial and family crisis. For some that live alone, they’re facing endless loneliness. While for others it is peace, rest, and time with their mother, father, sons and daughters. Others want to kill those who break quarantine. Some are at home spending two to three hours a day, helping their child with online schooling, while others are doing the same on top of a 10–12 hour workday. Some have experienced the near death of the virus, some have already lost someone from it, and some are not sure if their loved ones are going to make it. Others don’t believe this is a big deal. We are not in the same boat. We are going through a time when our perceptions and needs are completely different. Each of us will emerge, in our own way, from this storm. It is important to see beyond what is seen at first glance. Not just looking, actually seeing. We are all on different ships during this storm, experiencing a very different journey. — Unknown Author

We are in the same storm but in different boats.
But if we are in the same storm, we also have the same model to turn to, a single point of reference for how we should act, how we should live, how we should believe. It’s simple: Jesus is the good shepherd, the model shepherd. So each day, every day, a good way to begin, a good way to end, is with the shepherd prayer: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”

We are in the same storm, but in different boats. But we all seek the same harbor, we all seek the green pasture that will sustain us, we all seek safety. So in this time, in this storm, let us build lives modeled not on some common sense or made up idea but rather on the model of the good shepherd, who comes to give us life abundantly.

Amen.

Break Thou the Bread of Life

Break Thou the Bread of Life

A sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Third Sunday in Easter/A • April 26, 2020

Luke 24:13-25

Watch the Sermon on Youtube

A man is traveling, all alone. He happens to be walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus but he could be traveling anywhere, any time. He could be a poor man in a bus terminal: hard seats, harsh lights and a scratchy PA system. Over there, a family is rapidly speaking in a language he doesn’t understand. Down the row, an old man is staring straight ahead. Loud, angry music and choking bus exhaust come in every time the door opens and a woman is arguing over the price of a ticket to Omaha with the agent. He could be a rich man waiting in an airport terminal, sitting at a bar with a drink he isn’t really drinking in front of him. Perhaps his shirt collar is irritating his neck and as he tries to adjust it he thinks he really needs to lose a little weight. Maybe he’s lost in thought about a meeting later in the day or maybe he’s thinking that he wished he had something sweet like he meant to his wife instead of just “See you Thursday I think” when he left this morning.

A man is traveling, all alone. And on the way he bumps against two people ahead of him. You know how this happens? Traveling down the grocery store aisle, a small old woman stops and you realize she needs help reaching something on a high shelf. Maybe you’re standing in a line and just to pass the time you smile at a child’s antics or talk to a stranger.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he comes upon two other men traveling; he walks into a conversation. They’re discussing the news over the weekend, arguing about the meaning of the death of Jesus. They don’t know the man traveling alone but as strangers on the same trajectory do, they include him in the conversation. He’s trying to catch the sense of it and he asks them what they’re discussing.

Now there are two sorts of people in the world: those who keep up with the news and those who don’t. Newsy people turn on CNN when they come home, newsy people watch six o’clock and the eleven o’clock news both and read the paper. Newsy people are always amazed when they run into the other sort. They are newsy guys so when he asks, they answer with some combination of smugness and incredulity, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what happened in Jerusalem this weekend?”. He doesn’t so they fill him in, they explain that Jesus of Nazareth was a mighty prophet who was put to death over the weekend by the power structure.

Sharing Together

They tell him their hopes: that he would redeem Israel. I imagine they tell him their fear as well, at least their eyes tell him, and the fact that they’re putting as much distance between themselves and Jerusalem as they can. They fear that the same thing could happen to them, of course, but perhaps even more, they fear that the death of Jesus is the death of hope. They tell him about the women who found an empty tomb. But their steps speak too and tell him that though they once believed Jesus, they have used up their hope and don’t have any left for this strange report from the women at the tomb. After all, they are on their way away from Jerusalem.

The stranger holds up his end of the conversation. Perhaps to their amazement, once he’s got the gist of it, he has a lot to say. He tells them they’re foolish and he speaks about their faint hearts, the same faint hearts that have set them on the path out of Jerusalem, off to Emmaus. It turns out that he may not know much about the news but he has a lot to say about Moses and the other prophets.

God’s Powerful Love

What does he tell them? No one knows, exactly. But I think he must have told them this: God’s love is so wonderful, so powerful, so unlimited, it can’t be stopped by the City Council any more than the tide. That’s what you get when you start reading Moses and the prophets: over and over again they tell the story of how God loved and loved beyond loving, even when God’s people were faithless and mean and small spirited. There’s Moses wailing about the whining of the people, and God calmly ordering up manna and quail; there’s Hosea talking about the sins of the people and God using the tender language of mother love to ask, “How can I give you up?” There’s Isaiah promising a new covenant and Jeremiah proclaiming a new day. There’s Jonah sitting on a hill side smug and waiting for God to blast a bunch of Gentile Ninevites and complaining because when God has mercy and grants a stay of execution.

A man is traveling, all alone, and he talks to two other men who are also lonely, because fear is a lonely business. We hope together but we’re each frightened in our own way. All day long they talk about Jesus and the prophets and things that Jesus did and said and Moses and the love of God until it’s getting near sunset. Now the roads out of Jerusalem are dangerous after dark and so, though the man who is traveling all alone doesn’t have a reservation, the two he’s met ask him to stay with them, tell him don’t worry, we’ll get the motel to set up a trundle bed or something, just stay with us, walk with us tomorrow.

That evening after they freshen up they all get together for supper. A simple meal: some bread, some wine. They’ve been talking about Jesus all day and I suppose that they must have told the man who is traveling all alone about how Jesus would invite strangers and the lonely to his table, how he would bless the bread and break it, how he would give thanks and pour everyone some wine. And suddenly as the man who was traveling all alone is doing just these very things their eyes are opened and they see something they’ve missed all day long: Jesus is risen; Jesus has been with them all along.

Who Is The Man?

Now you listened carefully, I’m sure, to the story when I read it, so you knew it was Jesus all along. We all snicker a little at these silly people. We want to yell when they are talking on the road, “Hey, don’t you know you’re talking to Jesus?”. Some of us are thinking: “Idiots!”. Every year in Bible class someone asks, “Why don’t they recognize him? Did he look different?” I suppose death does change a person.

But that’s not why they don’t recognize him. I’m not at all certain that the man on the road with them has the earthly form of Jesus.

I think the real clue to this text is back where Jesus tells the story of people on Judgment Day. Remember them? He gathers a group of folks and says about the kingdom: “You’re in! When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me, when I was imprisoned you visited me!” and they look at each other in amazement and say, “When did we see you in such a bad way, Lord?” He answers, “When you did it for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it for me.”

They didn’t recognize Jesus; they simply acted as Jesus would have acted, they acted as love instructed them to act. And the same is true here. These men have experienced the Risen Christ by welcoming someone, by feeding him, by sharing the cup of the new covenant with him. The man traveling all alone disappears; he becomes a part of a community. Together, they have learned to embrace new selves. Together, they have become the Body of Christ because they recognized Christ in their midst: in each other. “Break thou the bread of life, dear Lord to me,” we sing; we forget that in the process, we’re meant to recognize Jesus present.

Now, I used to think this meant social action—give out food, clothes, fuel, get the government to do the same. I still think those are good things to do. But I’ve come to believe there is something deeper, something more wonderful. We can give stuff out to strangers but what God really hopes is that we will become a blessing to the people where we are, that we will do what God does, which is to make up little communities of care.

Communities of Care

That seems to be how God works. When God set out to save the world, for example, God did not create a new program, offer a policy proposal or hold an election, God went and whispered to Abram: “Come be a blessing”. When God gets to the next act and decides to come into the world, there’s no processional, no entourage and no advance at all, just a baby and a family. And even when Jesus is on the cross, he can’t help making one more family; among his last words, he turns to his mom and says, “Here’s your son”, to a disciple and says, “Treat her like your mother.”

Yes: even on the cross Jesus was making connections. That’s what happens in this story: strangers meet, share a conversation and then communion and discover he’s present and they are connected after all. So a bit of social action will not, I think, fulfill his hope for us. What he really hopes is that we will discover him in our midst, in each other. And, that by coming together, we will come to him. Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies,

When I was at the end of my rope, the people at St. Andrew tied a knot in it for me and helped me hold on. The church became my home in the old meaning of home—that it’s where, when you show up, they have to let you in. They let me in. They even said, “You come back now.”

That’s what the resurrection means to me. The resurrection is what happens when we see Jesus walking, talking and realize he’s right next to us. The resurrection happens when we take care of each other the way we would take care of him. The resurrection happens when we recognize Jesus.

Now, you can’t get this on your own schedule and you can’t get it being a consumer. I mean: if you come to church the way you go to the grocery store, picking things off the shelves and then figuring you did your bit if you pay. It’s not hard to feel sorry for strangers but it’s very difficult to see Jesus in the people nearby because they are so annoying. They fail in the same way over and over. They don’t take good advice. They don’t follow directions. It’s so easy to see how wrong they are and it’s satisfying in a way too, until somebody brings up that darn proverb of Jesus about being able to see the flyspeck in your brother’s eye but not the log in your own.

Fixed for Blessing

But there’s a reason we are here together and the reason is to get fixed up so we can be the kind of people God hoped we’d become. We don’t start out that way and along the way, we tend to wander off the path and find all kinds of ways to avoid our true identity. I’m not going to catalog all the ways we go bad because the ones that don’t affect you personally would just make you smug and the ones that did would make you mad that I’d mentioned them. The important point isn’t that we make mistakes, it’s that when we do, God is right there trying to clean up the mess and put us back together.

That’s in this story too. Remember where the guys are going when the stranger first meets them? They’re walking away from Jerusalem; they are, from the standpoint of Christians, going the wrong way. But what does Jesus do? He walks with them. He goes the wrong way in order to bring them around. He hangs in there, hangs out, until they figure it out. He’s willing to go the wrong way round, to get to the right place.

What about us? Where’s Jesus here? Look around: take a very good look. Because the whole thrust of this story is that he is right here, waiting to be discovered. He will be discovered when we take up our vocation to care the way he does. A playwright once said, “Man is born broken. He lives by mending. God’s grace is glue.”

If we take up the vocation of mending each other’s hopes and lives, comforting each other’s fears and hurts, I believe we will see Jesus, I believe we will see him right here and it won’t matter that we went the wrong way round because where he is will be our home and our heaven. It’s just what he said: “Lo, I am with you always.”

Amen.