Easter 3B – Mary and Manitude

Mary and Manitude

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Easter • April 15, 2018
John 20:11-18

A man with long legs gets on an airplane. The exit row seats have a bit more leg room and the helpful flight attendant suggests he sit in one of them. He replies, “Those seats don’t recline.” She says, “They do, actually.” He replies, “No they don’t.” She smiles and says, “Why don’t you sit down and explain why you think you know more about this plane than I do?” He just goes off—to a different seat, obviously secure in his rightness, even though in fact he is wrong. That’s manitude.

A woman driving a shuttle bus pulls up to a hotel with some passengers. She’s brought them to a side door. The hotel, she tells them, is being renovated; check-in is in a room through the door. The passengers get off; one couple heads around the building to the former lobby. A few minutes later, they are still wandering, as the man assures his wife that there must be a check-in somewhere and they finally get directions from a man. That’s manitude.

Some women come to the disciples and tell them they’ve been to the tomb of Jesus and it’s empty. But no one believes them. Luke says: “…they did not believe the women because their words seemed to them like nonsense.”[Luke 21:11] Mark’s version, as we heard on Easter Sunday, says Mary didn’t even bother to tell them; as I was discussing it that week, more than one woman said, “Oh, I understand that, they wouldn’t have believed her anyway.” That’s manitude.

“Manitude” is an attitude that diminishes and deprecates the contributions of women in favor of males, especially higher status males. These are gender-based examples but the same tendency is found in other places, the tendency to value based on gender, class, race or some other category that has nothing to do with competence.

As I said last week, I want to think with you about the resurrection experience of these earliest Christians. Because the resurrection is the ultimate recommendation of Jesus. This is what we say: believe him because he overcame death, even death on a cross. Nowhere is there any account of the resurrection itself. What we have instead are accounts of people meeting the Risen Lord, encountering him. And right from the beginning, these are conditioned by culture and Manitude and the lives of the individuals involved. Yet their accounts contain the seeds that can bloom into our own spiritual lives. Last week, I talked about how sharing our wounds, as Jesus did with Thomas, can connect us. Today I want to reflect on how we can hear more clearly the voice of the Lord speaking in our midst.

All the gospels agree that Mary of Magdala is either the first or among the first to discover Jesus has left the tomb. But the church remembered that she wasn’t believed. In some versions, she doesn’t tell the disciples; in others, as I mentioned, they don’t believe her. The critical point is that these disciples who have walked with Jesus, eaten with Jesus, listened to Jesus as he told them over and over that he would go to his death and then be resurrected did not believe him and therefore didn’t believe Mary’s story.

Now I don’t know about you, but I find this very comforting. It turns out the earliest Christians are just like me: they don’t believe what they can’t see and touch. Even when they hear the Lord has risen, their first reaction is, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Maybe you’ve had that reaction about some Christian ideas; maybe you just decided to set them aside. I know at times I’ve done that. Some I’ve come back to; some I never have.

But Mary’s experience isn’t just the absence of Jesus’ body; she also encounters the Risen, living Lord. As we read in the gospel of John, as she stands weeping outside the tomb, she meets three persons. Just as in other accounts, two of them are dressed in white, angels who tell her that Jesus isn’t there. But then,

14…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16Jesus said to her, “Mary!” She turned and said to him in Hebrew, “Rabbouni!” (which means Teacher). [John 20:14-16]

There are some details to notice here. First, Mary doesn’t recognize Jesus. The same is true in other stories, including the encounter of some disciples near Emmaus. Even when you meet the Risen Lord, you may not know it. It’s a stunning idea, isn’t it? Have you met the Risen Lord and missed him because you didn’t know who he was?

It’s when Jesus addresses her directly that the situation changes. He calls her name, “Mary”. Think of it: the Son of God, the Risen Lord, the personal, image of God remembers her name. With that one word, we know that Jesus is not seeing her through the cloudy lens of her gender or class or anything else except her true self. There’s nothing in the way. She’s not a woman, she’s not a well-off merchant, she’s not a Jew, she’s simply Mary.. She is a child of God.

The second is her response. When he recognizes her, she also recognizes him and she calls out to him, not a name, but a relationship: “Rabouni,” a Hebrew word that means something like “Teacher”. But it embraces more than a vocation: she is claiming him, naming a direct relationship in which she is already agreeing to be guided by his words, taught by his sayings. 
He isn’t just a teacher: he is her teacher.

We do not come to Jesus, Jesus comes to us, and he’s most likely to come to us when we cry. Just as he uses his wounds to summon Thomas and the others, there is something about a person crying out that summons Jesus. We see that over and over in the healing stories. The modern Protestant orthodoxy we grew up with tended to minimize the healings but in fact, Mark offers healings as the first acts of Jesus’ ministry: an exorcism, and the healing of Jesus’ mother-in-law. It’s significant that Mary is crying when he comes to her in the garden. She is not seeking him; there is no come to Jesus moment here. Instead, he comes to her.

So the whole project of evangelistic pressure to believe what cannot be seen is illegitimate. We may be called to believe what we haven’t seen but it’s a call of the heart; no genuine faith comes from the social coercion of shame. The Lord waits to be recognized, coming to us when we are ready, calling us by name, speaking into our hearts. We do not know when this will happen to someone. And this is where the issue of manitude comes in. For when we screen out the insights and visions of someone, we may be missing a genuine vision of the Lord.

We’ve just come through Passover, when God’s liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt is remembered, an act of salvation. That story really begins with a moment when Moses sees a burning bush in the distance and decides to turn aside and see this sight. When he does, he hears the call of God. The Rabbis have asked, “How long was the bush burning?” and their answer is 400 years: it started burning when the Jews were first enslaved. “What would have happened if someone had noticed the bush burning 100 years before Moses?”—to which they answer, we would have been saved 100 years earlier. [https://www.myjewishlearning.com/rabbis-without-borders/the-yearning-burning-bush/]

We cannot afford to screen out, to miss, visions and hopes; we need everyone to share because who knows which one has seen the Lord. This is a hard concept to get across. Most church organizations do not really believe it and since most of us have been somewhere else, we don’t believe it either. Early on, the church tragically adopted the Roman Empire hierarchy as its model. So it preached that there were different orders of Christians. In the west, the top guy was and is the Pope, with bishops under him, and so on. Protestants mostly took over this organization; they just replaced the pope with a king or a group of bishops. Even some Puritans, who became Presbyterians and the United Church of Christ, took over the idea that somehow clergy had a special connection to inspiration.

We don’t. I don’t. I have a graduate degree in theology, mostly in the Bible. I have lots of education in administering a church, some training in counseling. I have several decades of experience leading worship. But I don’t have any more access to Jesus and to God than you do; you don’t have more than I. This is the great insight of the first Congregationalists and it is still the heart of what makes this way of doing church so important. We know each other here as equal covenant partners in this congregation. At our best, we act without manitude, we listen to everyone, we care for each one.

That leads me to ask something of you. We need to hear from each other; we need to hear about moments of inspiration, we need to hear what this church means to you. We need to hear what others in the church need, we need to hear your insights on our next steps. We’re about six weeks from our Annual Meeting. You all know how dull these often are. Wouldn’t it be great if everyone came prepared to say a word about what makes them thankful for this church? Wouldn’t it be amazing if people came and shared their vision of what we should do next year? Wouldn’t it be incredible if people volunteered to plan and create those next steps?

I want to get in the habit of making suggestions. For almost four years I’ve picked the hymns. Some you liked, some you didn’t, some you refused to sing. That’s ok. What if we shared this? In your bulletin today there’s a card that invites you to make some suggestions about worship. Please fill it out; you can drop it off in the office, you can put it in the offering plate. You can take it home, think about it and send it back. Send a letter with it, if you wish, something to share in the newsletter.

Manitude is that human tendency, often gendered, to not hear someone because you don’t respect them. It might be because of gender, or race or class or age or appearance or sexuality. We can’t afford it. The disciples missed the first reports of the resurrection because they didn’t believe them, possibly because they came from women. Every Easter we sing, “Christ the Lord is Risen Today.” Don’t miss him; don’t miss hearing others who have seen him. When we connect as a congregation of Christ, sharing our wounds, loving each other as he commanded, he promised to be present in our midst. He is; he always is.


18th Sunday After Pentecost/A – Tarnished Treasure

Tarnished Treasure

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2017

18th Sunday After Pentecost/A • October 8, 2017

Matthew 21:34-46

To Hear the sermon preached, click below

Have you ever found a treasure? Maybe your grandparents had a house with an attic or a basement where you went and pored through things you sometimes could hardly understand. Maybe your mother draped you with costume jewelry or your father handed you a baseball and gruffly said, “Look at the signature on that, now that was a ballplayer.” Every church meeting house contains a treasure along with its congregation. Look around: many of us here think of the stained glass windows of this house as a treasure and people come to see what we see every Sunday. One congregation I served had a building that had stood since ten years before the Civil War and like a house where things accumulate, it was full of closets that held treasures.

But of all the closet treasures, the greatest was the Victorian silver. It was rarely mentioned; only once in a while someone would allude to “the valuables.” One day when I was avoiding working on the sermon and investigating closets, I found it. A full double size, floor to ceiling closet, overflowing with little soft bags which, when I opened them, contained a treasure trove of silver. There were cream pitchers and sugar bowls, large bowls for food and serving utensils. There were things I didn’t even know how to name: one I later learned was designed to hold and dispense salad dressing.

Like a child on Christmas, I shuttled back and forth, unwrapping and taking out each piece until the next door kitchen counter was full of old silver. That presented a problem, of course; it’s always more fun to take things out then to put them back. Somehow I knew that like Peter Rabbit, I had slipped into a forbidden garden and that if the farmer came along, I’d be in trouble. So I carefully wrapped each piece, put it back, closed the closet and determined to leave it alone.

I couldn’t, of course. Not long after, at a church council meeting, I mentioned as casually as I could that I happened to have found the church silver and that I thought at our next celebration we should get it out; it was too pretty to stay in a closet. Of course, I pursued the matter and when I did, I learned this: the silver was, in fact, a treasure, very valuable, very beautiful—everyone agreed—but it could not be used because it was tarnished.

For those who don’t know much about silver, as I didn’t, let me simply say that when silver sits, it acquires a dull layer of oxide, some places it turns black, and that’s called tarnished. More importantly, those in charge of the silver had pronounced it tarnished and didn’t understand why I was so dumb, so obtuse, not to realize that tarnished silver could not be shown, could not be used, could not be anything but in the closet. It was over; it was tarnished, unfit, worthless for use.

Now you and I are God’s treasure, creatures meant to reflect God’s glory. But often, just as the bright silver stops reflecting when it’s tarnished, we get tarnished and think our days of reflecting God are over. We’re not up to it; we’re not worthy to do it. Sometimes it’s something we’ve done, sometimes it’s something we’ve been; sometimes it’s something we’ve lost or added. We may be treasure but we are tarnished treasure and like the silver, we assume off in a dark closet is the appropriate place.

So Jesus tells this story, this shocking story, that we read this morning. He lived in a restless, violent world where unscrupulous bankers took advantage of people and many people worked for large farms that didn’t offer health insurance, pensions or anything else but a bare minimum wage. Restless, hungry poor people sometimes get violent and there were many instances of small peasant revolts. He tells this story. Some tenant farmers work in a vineyard and the owner lives far away; when he sends a slave to collect the profits, the tenants beat him up, in fact, they beat up several servants. Ultimately, the owner sends his son and heir, thinking this will make the tenants take the demand seriously. Instead, they beat the son up and murder him. I imagine Jesus telling this story, and brows knitting, frowns forming in the ring of listeners as he comes to his final question: “what will the owner do?”

We all know the answer, don’t we? We know what we’d do. The listeners know what the owner will do, he’ll do what owners always do: get the police, in this case, the Romans, come and get those murdering tenants and string them up. A life for a life, the judge will say, and justice will be done. “What will the owner do?”—why even ask? We all know how this ends.

The world’s answer to problems is violence. The tenants feel the injustice of sharecropping and see no way out except to kill the owner’s son. Surely the owner will reply with the authorized violence of the police forces. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Last week I watched a documentary on the Vietnam War. One of the most moving moments was watching a former North Vietnamese soldier say that in war there is only death and destruction, right and wrong don’t matter.
We’ve all seen this deadly dance. We can imagine the people hearing Jesus tell this story. Some are tenant farmers, surely, or come from that world: they know, perhaps they remember when an owner came and killed everyone after a revolt. Others are authorities, owners, and their agents. They’re already mad; Matthew sets this story in the Temple precinct, where not long before Jesus overturned the tables of the money changers.“What will the owner do?” We all know, don’t we?

Except—except Jesus is about to demonstrate the most stunning, amazing answer to his own question. In the crowd around him, there are people already plotting his death. This story is told in the days just before the crucifixion. His friends will remember the story precisely because only a few days later, just like the son in the story, the owner of the vineyard-—for hundreds of years, Israel has been described as “a vineyard of the Lord’s”-—the owner of this vineyard is God. What God does is astonishing: God does not punish the killers, God saves them.

Here is the great mystery of God’s love—that when we are tarnished treasure, even when the most tarnished among us, God yet is trying, seeking, looking for a way to love us back into acting like the treasures God made us. Maybe you don’t feel worthwhile; maybe you feel tarnished. God doesn’t care what you feel—God cares for you.

Because God cares, we are called to care. This church is a community of care. Two nights this week I was here when the whole building was full with people healing in some groups, sharing in others. I know that this week all of us have been held rapt by the violence in Las Vegas. There is no way to disconnect this violence from the violent culture in which we live and the river of guns that flows through it. To the question of violence, God offers this answer: God’s love. And the expression of that love through the way we use our lives and our treasure to extend that love.

The tarnished treasure at that church did eventually come out of its bags and back to a dinner table. A couple of years after I found it, I got tired of arguing about it. We were planning to mark Maundy Thursday communion, with a full dinner, a seder, the traditional Passover celebration. Passover remembers when God saved a people who had become slaves, a reminder of the first communion, in all its passion, darkness, hope and grace. Part of the seder tradition is that you set the table with your best stuff, best china, best cups, best silver.

We pulled the tarnished treasure out of its closet. We didn’t have the time or people to polish the silver but we set it out nevertheless, on white table clothes, with the best church china we owned. We sat down to dinner, to a dinner at the Lord’s Table, someone turned the lights down, and then the candles were lit. Suddenly, the treasure shined, reflecting the light of that moment, reflecting the love shared by a small congregation as we joined together to remember how God had first loved us. The tarnish didn’t matter; only the treasure did. In the light of the candles, in the gathering of people around the Lord’s Table, only the reflected light of God’s love mattered. It just took seeing the silver in the right light to appreciate its beauty.

That’s how it is with us. We are tarnished; God uses us anyway. We are God’s treasure. What matters isn’t our perfection but our persistence, our persistent willingness to choose love over hate, to see others as brothers and sisters, to seek to live as God’s blessing. Maybe you are tarnished; God still sees you as a treasure.

The choir is going to sing a song in a few minutes about a simple blessing. That’s us: that’s how we are meant to live, understanding that we are stewards of God’s gifts, not their owners, giving thanks for the simple blessings which sustain our lives. In turn, we have the possibility to become a simple blessing to others, to give our gifts as well. The kingdom of heaven is not fulfilled by any act of violence or domination. It is fulfilled in this exchange of blessing, bearing the fruit of the spirit.

What will the owner of the vineyard do? The ultimate answer is Easter; the answer is the resurrection. When the vineyard owner is God, the owner will look to the original purpose of the vineyard: to grow grapes and make wine. And the owner will do whatever it takes to make sure the grapes are harvested, the wine is made, the cup of the covenant is filled until it overflows, even if it takes forgiving and reusing the tarnished tenants.


Children’s Time

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016 – All Rights Reserved
Pentecost Sunday • May 15, 2016

Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
[William B. Yeats / The Second Coming]

It would be easy to imagine Yeats writing those words today instead of 1919. He captured the feeling of a culture so shattered there was no where to turn. So many feel that way today. One reaction is to fortify old values. Fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim or Jewish have this in common: they’re building castles to defend the past by preventing change. Of course, all castle walls can eventually be breached. So a better solution is to go back and find among the jumble of our past those things that truly made life vibrant and rich. I think that’s what Luke was doing when he wrote his gospel and the book we call Acts. He wrote fifty years or so after the events. Christians were in conflict in many places, some with local authorities, many with Jewish friends and family. Their world was changing. In the midst of change, Luke wanted to remind them how they started, where they started, why they started.

Birth stories can do that. It’s customary in our family to tell the story of your birth on your birthday. On our anniversary, Jacquelyn and I get out our wedding pictures and our wedding service and talk about it and laugh. So Luke tells this story about the moment the church got up and got going: Pentecost—POW!

Remember the story? The Christians are met in a room. Suddenly there a rushing, wind sound. Suddenly there are tongues of fire. Suddenly—there is the Holy Spirit and they’re full, full to the brim, with the Spirit and they begin to do something almost unimaginable: they talk to outsiders. I want to congratulate our liturgist today because this is the reading liturgists hate to get, the one with all those hard names.

Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs.

Who are all these people? They’re everyone: everyone Luke can think of, every sort of everyone and these first Christians are talking to all of them and the Christians are talking their language. POW! Surprise: isn’t it always a surprise when someone speaks yours language, really gets you, and you get them?


There’s a lot to learn here about taking a church from a little group meeting in a room to the crowds outside. The first thing, maybe the most important thing, is that it starts with waiting, not doing. Before Pentecost, before Christ’s Ascension, Jesus tells his friends to wait until the Spirit comes. There’s an old Supremes song that says, “You can’t hurry love, you just have to wait” [The Supremes/1966] Moses didn’t immediately lead the Exodus after running away from Egypt; he had to wait until the Spirit came to him. Isaiah and Jeremiah both tell stories of an experience that called them out as prophets, they didn’t start out that way. So the first thing to learn about what creates a vibrant church life is to wait: wait, prayerfully, expectantly, for the Spirit to move.

Wake Up

But waiting isn’t napping. Jesus says in many places we are meant to wait expectantly. Have you ever counted down to something? Have you ever had to deal with someone counting down? Maybe it was a special day: Christmas or your wedding or a birthday; maybe it was the birth of a child. I remember a friend who was hugely pregnant and ready to deliver once getting impatient. Holding her belly after church one day, she looked down and said, “Out! It’s time to come out!” We’re meant to wait like a runner at the start line: ready to explode into action. We’re meant to wait like a kid waiting for the parents on Christmas morning: certain something wonderful is just about to happen. We’re meant to wait like a traveler coming home, smiling already anticipating the hugs of home.

If the first lesson of the Pentecost story is Wait, the second is—Wake up! Wake up to God’s call, wake up to Christ’s command to go to all nations, all people, wake up to the Spirit blowing through your life.

That group in the room? They’ve been waiting. This is the moment they wake up and they walk out. That’s the third lesson here: Wait, Wake up, Walk out.

Walk Out

We were never meant to sit inside sanctuaries repeating Jesus’ words to ourselves. That’s not what he does, what he does is go, what he does is walk out into the world. Before Christians were called Christians, they called their new faith “The Way”. Now ‘way’ meant not a way of doing things, it meant a road, a path, a journey forward, onward. The Pentecost story moves from a little room where Jesus’ people are huddled together out into the market place where there are all kinds of people and these Christians, these first Christians, talk to them in their own language. That means they have to translate, they have to help them understand with things they already know, that God is not up there on the judgement seat but walking with them like a parent holding onto a kid doing their first bike ride, wanting them to learn, trying to prevent the worst falls, ready to bandage up skinned knees.

Wait – Wake – Walk

This story of Pentecost is a Children’s Time story. It’s a reminder in a few words, a few symbols, of the fire at the heart of Christian life. You can’t kindle it on your own: you have to wait for the Spirit to do that. It calls us to wake up and then to walk out in the world. That takes some courage; doesn’t every good thing? Today, we’re meeting in a room, just like them. Today, we’re sharing communion, just like them. Today, we’re waiting for the Spirit to kindle us, just like them. And the sign of that kindling will be when we begin to walk out and talk to people about the love of God and the immeasurable value of knowing Jesus Christ and invite them to come worship with you, right here. Wait for the Spirit: wake up to God’s call. Walk out there into your world and share God’s love this week. It’s children’s time and you and I are the children of God.


Breaking the Rules

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confronting the Rules in Church

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

All We Like Sheep

First Congregational Church of Albany

You can listen to the church being preached by clicking here

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Fourth Sunday in Easter/C • April 17, 2016

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

The Good Shepherd

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

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

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

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

The Sheep

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

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

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

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

Are you the Messiah?”

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

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

All we like sheep…

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

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

The Sheep go home

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

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

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