What Are You Wearing?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany NY

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

19th Sunday After Pentecost * October 11, 2020

Philippians 4:1–9Matthew 22:1–14

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

Wrong Shirt, Wrong Time

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

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

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

Are You Ready for the King?

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

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

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

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

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

The Urgent Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living from the Mind of Christ Now

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

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

Philippians 4:1–3

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

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

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

Now he offers a standard:

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

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

What Are You Wearing?

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

Amen.

Serious Laughter and the Evil Eye

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 20, 2020

Matthew 20:1-17

I want to begin this morning with something I read that expresses where I am, where I think so many of us are today.

I watch the news some nights, and I listen to reports about COVID…I also watch our beautiful western states burn. I watch Black lives and blue lives being taken unjustly. I watch fear-mongering and listen to … brazen lies.

It’s all so…heartbreaking.

Cameron Trible, ‘Piloting Faith”, email on September 16, 2020

Here’s my question: in these days of heartbreak, how do we find joy? How do we respond to whatever the day brings? Every day is a basket of occasions; every day has threats and opportunities and invitations to praise. Jesus’ parable of the vineyard workers is about a day when some grumbled, and some laughed. Can we join the laughter?

Let’s start with the end and work back to the beginning. Imagine these workers going home; what do you think the conversations were like? Think of the last first. All day long these sat around the dusty corner where day laborers gather. They talked, hoped, gradually gave up. They saw friends get work but they never did. Then, at the last moment, at the moment when they were hopeless and just avoiding home where there wouldn’t be anything to eat, this amazing chance. Five o’clock!—and a guy comes looking for help picking grapes. Who cares what he was offering to pay? Something is better than nothing, anything is better than nothing. So off they went to the vineyard, hoping for just a little, maybe some gleaned grapes. Imagine their surprise, imagine their “it can’t be true” joy when they walk to the pay table and the manager hands them a whole drachma, a day’s wage. I wonder if their eyes widened, I wonder if one by one they slunk away, thinking the guy must have made a mistake, wanting to get away before he figured it out. Think of them grinning as they walk in the door at home and someone looks up, eyes questioning. Think of the grin as they hold out a whole drachma, enough to pay for dinner and breakfast tomorrow both. Imagine the hug and the laughter, the serious laughter.

Now think of the first hired. Tired, hot, dirty after a long day in the fields. Farm work started then as it does not at dawn. They were smart to get down to the corner early, and their smarts was rewarded. A full day’s work but more importantly a full day’s pay, just as agreed. I wonder if they felt a little smug, seeing others who didn’t get to work until noon or later, knowing they wouldn’t get full pay. So imagine their anger, their grumbling, when—impossible!—the manger starts handing out drachmas to everyone. “How was your day?”, their families ask, and the answer is grumbling about the unfairness of the vineyard owner and the pay tossed on the table. Which home do you want to live in? Can we choose?

Go back to the beginning. It’s September; well, I know it’s September here but in this story it’s September too: that’s the grape harvest. You know what September is like? One bright, warm sunny day immediately followed by thrashing rains and cold temperatures. Harvest is a crisis because grapes all get ripe at once, the vineyard is ready now, and if you wait, even a day or two can mean you missed the moment. So this vineyard owners goes out at daybreak to hire some day laborers. Every farming community has a corner where these guys hang out. He finds a group, he contracts to hire them for a day’s wage, a denarius, paid as a drachma, a standard coin. So they go to work. Imagine the owner working with them, correcting some of them, helping and realizing it’s not going to be enough, there aren’t enough of them. So at noon he goes and hires more. The same thing happens. He’s getting more frantic so he goes at mid-afternoon, hires more and as the evening starts still more. These others don’t have a contract, he just tells them to trust him, he’ll pay what’s fair. They know they aren’t working a whole day, they’re glad to at least get a few hours.

At the end of the day, the owner’s tired but he’s happy; the grapes are picked, the vineyard is harvested and he makes a decision. He tells his manager to pay everyone, and to start with the last hired first. This is really the central point of this parable and it’s why Matthew, the only one to tell this story, has it here. It’s connected to the spiritual facts Jesus preaches, that God doesn’t play by our rules and that the last are going to be first. So the laborers line up, just as ordered. And the manager starts paying them: one drachma for you, one drachma for you, one drachma for you.

It doesn’t take long for them to figure out what’s going on. I wonder what the guys at the end of the line, the ones hired first, who worked all day, thought as they saw these others get paid. Day laborers lived day to day and a day’s pay meant just that, they got through the day, they had enough to eat for the day. One day for you, one day for you, one day for you, on and on the pay goes until the first hired, the ones who had a contract finally get to the head of the line. Did they assume they would get more? Wouldn’t that be fair? What do you think? They worked all day, they bore the heat of the day; on the other hand, they agreed to work for—one drachma, one day’s pay. And that is exactly what they get.

Around and Around

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2020

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 13, 2020

Matthew 18:21-35

Hear the sermon preached

Wow: that’s a hard parable isn’t it? Here we are back after a long recess, after the summer, after months of lives disrupted by a virus. Isn’t it time for something cheerful, something uplifting? Like a movie with a sad ending, this story ends in disaster. Two of the characters are in prison; the king is disappointed. We might just say, “What goes around, comes around,” and let it go at that, move on to something happier. But often if we stay with Jesus’ difficult sayings, we come to something profound. What can we hear in this parable that can light our way?

This is a kingdom parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”, it begins, so right away we know we’re talking about the essential order of creation, the way God intends things to be. Ancient rulers operated through servant, here called ‘slaves’, today we call them cabinet heads: Secretary of State, Interior, and others. The amount mentioned in the story is fantastic, huge, almost a parody. The servant owes 10,000 talents; King Herod’s entire annual income, as a point of reference, was 900 talents. This is a debt that can never be repaid. Did the man embezzle funds? Was he just caught out in a boom/bust economic cycle? The story only tells us he owes the debt and pictures his plea. Notice he doesn’t ask for mercy, he doesn’t question the debt, he just asks for more time to pay. He doesn’t question the system, he just hopes to avoid its consequences. He knows what goes around, comes around, he just hopes he can delay it a bit. 

But the king does something unimaginable: “…out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave the debt.” [Matt 18:27] It’s a miraculous moment. Think how the man must have worried about his debt, how frantic he was when he was summoned to account, how he must have tried to figure out something, anything. Now, in a moment, it doesn’t matter. The Lord has broken the rules: the debt is extinguished. He’s free to go. What will he do? What do you do when your biggest problem is solved? What do you feel when the thing you’ve been worrying about for moths is suddenly gone? Do you just numbly stumble out, not quite believing what just happened? Do you sing, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last??” Shout? Celebrate? Call your spouse?  

What he does is get back to business. On his way out he comes across on of his own debtors. The debt is a hundred days wages; nothing compared to what he has just been forgiven. Yet he responds with violence and has the man thrown into prison. He’s still in the system of debt and collection. The man owed him the money, the debt was good. What goes around comes around.  

But when the king hears about the incident, has him brought back, reminds him of how much he had owed and hands him over to be tortured. What a way to end: two men in prison, a disappointed king: disaster all around. What does Jesus mean by such a difficult story?

Clearly, we’re meant to understand something about forgiveness. Forgiveness is a core of Jesus message. Just before this, as we read, his disciples ask how much forgiveness, giving a large number; Jesus in effect replies, as much as it takes. In his model prayer, what we call “The Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus points to the mutuality of forgiveness. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive out debtors.” If we set this story against that prayer, we begin to understand it. The problem here is that the man who owed so much doesn’t forgive his debtor and loses his own forgiveness.

Why is forgiveness so important to Jesus? He’s preaching new life and forgiveness is the gate. Debts, sins, all of these are a system of accounting. You owe so much, you pay so much, on a schedule. It’s a contract. We all know how contracts work between us; how often do we import that into our spiritual lives? Have you ever come to a moment when you sought a bargain with God? “If you just do this for me, God, I’ll go to church, be a better person, pay my pledge,” whatever we think God wants. But as long as we deal only from contracts, we’re caught in a cycle: what goes around, comes around. Borrow more, owe more; misbehave, carry the guilt forever. How do we break out? How do we stop going around in circles and go forward? Forgiveness is the gate to going forward.

Imagine a different end to the story. What if the man with the huge debt was so stunned by the grace of the Lord that he was changed, that he stopped thinking in terms of debts and debtors? Suppose he went out, encountered his debtor as the story says and in that uncomfortable moment when they made eye contact and his debtor looked away, he said, “Hey, I know you’re having a tough time, I’ve had some good fortune recently so let’s do this: forget the debt, just consider it a gift.” No one ends up in prison; no one ends up tortured. Everyone gets to go forward with their lives. Isn’t that a better ending?

Why doesn’t Jesus tell the story this way? I think there’s a good reason. Jesus isn’t speaking about economics, he’s speaking about the whole system of contracts, the whole system of owing. And what he wants us to understand is that God’s free grace invites us to share grace ourselves. That’s when it’s truly surprising. In fact, we can only fully find our own forgiveness when we let go of the burden of things we haven’t forgiven. We all carry a bag of things with us: experiences, memories, hurts and hopes. If we let the things we are owed fill our bag, it weighs us down. If we carry resentments about hurts we’ve endured fester, we can’t be healed. One writer said, “No one was ever killed by a snake bite; it’s letting the venom circulate that does the real damage.” Our sense of what we’re owed and the anger over it keeps us frozen in past resentments.

A number of years ago, a member of a church where I was the pastor asked me to loan him $10.00. I thought it would be mean to refuse so I opened my wallet, discovered I only had a $20 and mentioned this; he said that would be fine and he’d pay me back. The next Sunday nothing was said about it; the next after, he said he was a little short but he would pay me. It went on like this and it made me angry. I started being tense before I ever got to church, knowing I’d see him, knowing he’d have a new excuse. Then Jacquelyn—who I think was tired of hearing about it—said, “Look, this isn’t worth the stress, just tell him it’s a gift.” So I did. I immediately felt better. I’d been caught in the debts and contract system; I’d found my way out. But the sad thing is that it took me so long to do it.

We like to operate from rules. They make us feel safe, they make us feel like we’re in control. But Jesus teaches God doesn’t operate from our rules. We see it everywhere in the Biblical story. Not long after the death and resurrection of Jesus, Peter was summoned by a Roman centurion named Cornelius. Imagine his fears; these are the people who recently crucified his Lord. Imagine how he must have hated the Romans. But he has a dream that the rules about who is fit for God are off. He goes and God moves and at the end, he baptizes the gentile Cornelius. Peter tells him about Jesus, and then the Holy Spirit comes on the whole group, gentile and Jew alike, male and female alike, rich and poor, and Acts tells us,

The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’

Acts 10:45-47

The greatest surprise in the whole story of salvation is the resurrection itself. We know death is certain; but in Jesus Christ, God breaks the rules of life and death and gives life where all the rules people thought they had delivered the final word with his death.

We don’t have to look far to see what happens when forgiveness blooms. Today we read another story also, the end of the saga of Joseph. Remember how Joseph’s brothers resented him and in their resentment beat him and sold him into slavery when they were all young? Remember how they told their father he’d been killed, treated him as nothing. But Joseph rose up from slavery, made a life and became an administrator in Egypt. His family fell on hard times and came begging for help. At first, they didn’t recognize him; now they have. How do you think they felt in that moment? What goes around comes around, after all. Surely they must have feared his revenge. Instead, he treats them like brothers, part of his family: “So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” [Genesis 50:21]

What goes around, comes around. But Jesus offers forgiveness as way to stop going around in circles and go forward. I think that’s why he tells this terrible story. This is the the result of going around and around, this is the story of what goes around comes around. But we don’t have to let this story be our story. The choice is clear: we can lock ourselves into circles that lead to disaster or follow him to life in the kingdom of heaven. He asks us to stop going around, holds out his hand and says, “Stop going around and around, come along with me.”  Amen.

A Pillow In the Wilderness

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/A • July 19, 2020

Genesis 28:10-19

Hear the sermon being preached

There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold
And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.
When she gets there she knows, if the stores are all closed
With a word she can get what she came for.
Ooh, ooh, and she’s buying a stairway to heaven.

—Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

There aren’t many stories that have two great songs about them. The story of Jacob and his dream has an old camp song, Jacob’s Ladder, which we’ll sing later and the Led Zeppelin song, Stairway to Heaven. We can enjoy the songs but what can we learn from the story?

To really hear the story means knowing where we are in the larger story of God’s people. Take Jacob, for example. Today we meet him in the wilderness, camping alone with a stone for a pillow. We heard the story of Isaac earlier this summer. Isaac married Rebekah and she had twins, Esau and Jacob. Esau was swarthy, hairy guy from the beginning, an outdoorsy hunter; Jacob was born second, grasping his brother’s heel, with a prophecy that he would supplant his brother. The name ‘Jacob’ literally means “The supplanter” and while Isaac loved Esau, Rebekah loved Jacob.

Early on, on a day when Esau came in hungry from hunting, Jacob was cooking but insisted his brother sell his birthright in exchange for food. Later, when Isaac is near the end of life, Rebekah helped Jacob fool Isaac into giving him the blessing meant for Jacob, so Jacob became the next in the line of patriarchs. Esau threatened to kill Jacob and Rebekah sent Jacob away to protect him. Now he’s returning from that journey. Think how he must feel; think how tense and worried he must be about what kind of reception he will receive.

Just as we look back to a line of heroic people we call the Founders, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and others, Israel had a series of patriarchs whose encounters with God were touchstones of God’s purpose. Abraham was the first, followed by Isaac, the child of promise, and now we come to the third, Jacob. The striking thing about these legendary figures is that not one of them shows up as a particularly morally upright figure.

We like to make up stories that show our founders in an idealized way—is there anyone who didn’t grow up hearing the story of George Washington and the cherry tree?—Israel remembered the good and the bad about their patriarchs. Abraham believed God but often wavered from the path of promise. Isaac is not portrayed as someone who ever understands what’s going on. Now we come to Jacob, the trickster, the supplanter, who always has an eye on getting ahead, even refusing to feed his brother until he sells his birthright, even cooperating in a fraud to fool his father and gain the inheritance.

There’s an important message here: God doesn’t just work with the good. Later this summer we’re going to hear that what God wants is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What Abraham, Isaac and Jacob have in common, what sets them apart, is that whatever their lapses, whatever their failures, they always listen to God, always pursue God’s purpose when it becomes plain. That’s grace: that’s God’s love. And it isn’t just for the perfect, it’s for all.

Later in the story, we’ll see the principle again and again. Moses is a convicted murderer but he becomes the prophet who defines God’s next chapter with God’s people. David, King David, has so many lapses it’s hard to really tell his story without embarrassment but he always loved God and God always loved him. This is the first and most important thing to take from this story: God meets us not because of who we were, but because of who we can become. You don’t need fancy clothes or a great resumé to come to God’s party, God sees our hearts and embraces us when we hope in humility.

The story begins with Jacob setting up camp in the evening. He puts a stone under his head for a pillow. Even in the wilderness, we all seek some comfort. He has a dream. In the dream, he sees something where figures are going back and forth from heaven. It’s come to be called “Jacob’s Ladder” but the figure is actually what we would call a ramp. Long ago, human beings decided God must be up above and so with that way we have of trying to use the mechanical to accomplish the spiritual, they built huge buildings with ramps so that you could literally get closer to heaven, closer to God. In the Ancient Near East, these were called ziggurats. Priests went up them to lead worship at the top; later they came down to speak about what God wanted. In Jacob’s dream, figures, angels, are ascending and descending. Stop there for a moment; think how we often imagine God as inaccessible, we even have a song that describes God as, “Immortal, invisible, God only wise, In light inaccessible hid from our eyes…” But here God is accessible and if we follow the Bible text with its ramp instead of the folk song with its ladder, heaven is even barrier free.

In his dream, Jacob sees God standing with him, and God recalls the history of the promise. “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham and your father and the God of Isaac, [Genesis 28:13a]” This isn’t a sudden intrusion; this is God reminding Jacob of the history of God’s promise. What comes next is a renewal of that promise and that purpose. Just as God promised Abraham, God promises to be with Jacob, to give him a place and descendants an to make his family a blessing to the whole earth. A lot has changed since God first announced this purpose to Abraham. People have lived, people have died; some have been faithful, some have not, there have been wars and new babies and treaties and discoveries. God’s purpose hasn’t changed; God’s purpose never changes. So if the free, forgiving embrace of God is the first lesson here, surely the second is the peace of God’s permanent purpose. 

We talk a lot these days about “getting back to normal” as if our memory of a time when schools were open, sports were played in crowded stadiums, and going to a restaurant was the way things always were. But the truth is, all that was a moment, a nice moment perhaps, but a moment. If we want to be a part of what is truly permanent, it doesn’t mean trying to get back to normal, it means going forward pursuing God’s purpose.

Jacob reacts to all this in such a human way. If you read it seriously, you have to laugh. When he wakes, the first thing he does is to say that God is in this place and name it “Bethel”, which means God’s house. Then he takes the stone, as if any of this has to do with the stone, and sets it up as a marker. Isn’t this just like us? How many things do you have that you can’t get bear to lose? We’re doing a lot of cleaning up and tossing out this summer. I have some boxes I’ve moved more than 20 times that contain notes from my high school girlfriend. I don’t know why I’ve kept them. We parted long ago, I’m sure I wouldn’t even recognize her today if we met on the street. But there they are.

It’s the same with churches. We become attached to stuff in our churches. Just like Jacob setting up his stone, we think we need things because they’ve always been here. Years ago when I was working with a committee on furnishing a new worship space, we had a long discussion about chairs versus pews. The chairs were promising, more comfortable, more flexible. But the issue was denied when most of the committee said, “It’s not church without pews.” I honor and value the historic things here. But I know this: it’s just furniture. The communion table is just a table. The baptismal font is just a baptismal font. This pulpit is just a wooden pulpit. What’s important isn’t the furniture, what’s important is the spirit. Without the people of this church, without our working together, without God’s spirit, there would be no church. Without the table and the font and the pulpit, we would still be a church. 

The final moment of this story may be the most important of all. It’s beyond what we read today but in the next verses, Jacob chooses to take his place as a patriarch, he promises to serve God, to follow God’s purpose. The stone he sets up is just a stone; the choice he makes will set his course for a lifetime. He will become the father of the tribes of Israel; his youngest son Joseph will have a dream of his own that will make the next chapter of God’s people.

What about us? So often we are like the lady in the song, trying to buy with our goods or our goodness a stairway to heaven. Jacob’s dream is here to remind us the way to God is free and waits only for us to walk humbly with God, for us to seek God’s purpose. This is a wilderness time: we’re all going through unfamiliar things. In this wilderness, instead of lashing out in anger or holding on to a memory of normal, perhaps we should find a pillow, lay down, and wait for God to come to us, so that we too, in our time, may understand how we can serve God as part of God’s purpose. For indeed, as Jacob said of Bethel, if we look closely not at this building alone but at the people it embraces, we will say, “Surely the Lord is in this place.”

Amen.

Places! Action!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

July 12, 2020 • © 2020 All Rights Reserved

Matthew 14:13-21

Places! Action! If you’ve ever been in a play or movie, you’ll recognize those commands immediately. A stage is a strange and wonderful place from behind. As an actor, you stand to the side, often hidden just behind hanging curtains, familiar props and sets arranged just over there. Then the director speaks: “Places”—and you hurry to find the exact spot from which you begin. A second command—Action!—and everything begins. Of course, the real beginning was long before. Perhaps months before you heard about the show, you noted the audition time, you showed up, read something, answered questions and then waited, the long wait until finally the list is posted and you discover you are playing—whoever. “It’s not a lead,” you tell your friend, but all the while you’re thinking how to make the part shine as if it were. You gather at the first rehearsal, read through the play, and then there comes the first day on stage, a bare stage, just a dirty, dusty stage, and it seems to take forever to get everyone sorted out. When it’s done, you gather to get directions. Then the first real rehearsal, and it begins with the director saying, “Places!  Action!” Long before those words on opening night, long before the first curtain, you have been practicing, practicing, practicing, finding the place—”Places!”—rehearsing the steps, the motions, the words  Action!”—so that when it counts, when it really counts, all it takes is those two commands to set you in motion, to create the wonderful experience of drama. Now reading the story of the feeding of the five thousand this week, what occurred to me is that this is really Jesus doing the same thing. He’s rehearsing his followers, he’s showing them their place, he’s calling them to action. Jesus is rehearsing us so we’ll be ready for our parts.

The story of feeding of the crowd is the only miracle story in all four gospels. Matthew sets it in loneliness.  Jesus’ friend and mentor John the Baptist has been killed, executed by the king after a lurid conspiracy. Imagine the fear and grief that death must have inspired. So Jesus does what we sometimes do, he withdraws. The text says that he went to a lonely place. He means to get away, to pray, certainly to grieve, clearly to think about his next steps.

But the crowd won’t let him get away. He takes a boat; they run along the shore. Finally, the text says, “He had compassion on them,” and he begins to heal and the day becomes full of touching and celebrating and people pushing and pressing. We’ve ll heard this story before and it’s easy to rush past this introduction. But stay there a moment, feel that moment. You’re tired, you’re sad, you’re overwhelmed and yet others demand your attention, your care. What do you do when you’re empty? Isn’t this the first miracle of this story, that at a low point in his life, Jesus sees the very people he meant to avoid and had compassion on them? 

Finally, late in the afternoon, his followers—you and I!—approach him. We’re good staff; we know he’s stayed too long. “Send these people away,” the disciples say. They’re smart; a hungry crowd can turn dangerous. Maybe they’re exercising some compassion too, doing it by way of planning. “Send them away to buy food.” In other words, tell them to go, and make their own way, feed themselves. 

Now Jesus, turns to his disciples, looks over their heads at the crowd, the empty crowd, and simply says to his friends, “You give them something to eat.” Think of it: imagine a crowd here, staying too long, imagine if we hadn’t planned food, hadn’t made phone calls, hadn’t assigned who would bring what, when, just imagine if I stood here and gathered the council and said, “You give them something to eat.” Wouldn’t we be like the disciples? They immediately make excuses: “we don’t have the money, we don’t have the food, we don’t have enough.” If it was now, we’d add, our insurance won’t cover this. This is the excuse of the church in every generation, in every place, “We don’t have enough.”

Of course, you know what happens. Someone—according to a different account of the same event, a small boy—someone offers up some bread and some fish and it turns into the first fish fry; French fries hadn’t been invented yet, so all they have is good rough peasant bread, the flat bread common in the area, and small fish, like chubs or sardines. I see this as the beginning of fish tacos. Somehow, everyone is fed. All week long, preachers on a mailing list to which I belong have been arguing: is it a miracle? Did they share? Was it something supernatural? If it isn’t supernatural, can it still be a miracle—is sharing itself a miracle? You’ve heard both sides I’m sure at various times. Here’s my question: does it matter? Here’s what happens: the crowd is hungry, they share what they have, Jesus blesses it, breaks it and it turns out to be not just enough but more than enough. Miracles happen when we do what Jesus commands even though we don’t understand it. He blesses what we do and it is enough.

Don’t take my word for it: look for yourself. Here’s an example. Any out three months ago, this terrible pandemic meant we had to suspend having worship services here in our beautiful building. It’s how we’d always done things since 1919 except in August when we did nothing. But   we thought, we experimented, Dave Petty contributed expertise and some equipment, Jim Dennehey found enough money in the accounts to buy a video camera and we set out to stream an online worship service. We’re still figuring it out, to be honest. But one thing is clear. Every week, this service is watched about 100 people, about four times our previous average worship attendance. Is that a miracle? 

We never think about what the disciples did after Jesus told them to feed the crowd. But what they did was simple. They went to work anyway. They hoped anyway. They had faith anyway.  They found someone with five loaves and a couple fish. These knew as well as you or I that five loaves and a couple of fish aren’t going to feed a crowd that size. But they took what they had and they began to distribute it. They hoped, they believed, they worked. That’s what happened here. We hoped, we believed it was important, we worked. We made changes, some of them difficult, and we held our breath. Today, our church is growing in ways we never imagined. For the first time in memory, we’re going to offer services in August. It’s a miracle.

What’s the point of the story we read  today? What does it have for us? This, I think: Jesus is rehearsing his followers and that includes you and I. He’s saying to them, “Places!”— “Action!”. Jesus never intended to do all the work of ministry. God didn’t set out to save the world in one strait jacket supernatural burst; instead, God starts with a family, Abraham and Sarah, as we heard last month, and history, growing them up, just the way we slowly help children to grown. Jesus doesn’t do it all himself; what he does is to teach his followers the rhythm of sharing, the rhythm of ministry, the method of being the body of Christ. This is the principle he teaches: miracles happen when we say yes to Jesus’ command, offer all we have, receive his blessing and generously share.How does it start? It starts with Jesus’ compassion. Where do you think that compassion is today? When have you felt that compassion? How does it continue? It continues when we hear him turn something over to us. What is he turning over today? What need is he telling us to meet: where is he saying, “You give them something to eat!” today? It goes on when we share what we have in faith. Faith doesn’t mean we think it’s enough; faith means we offer it believing he can make it enough. It goes on when we act at his command to share what he has blessed. Where is Jesus in your life? How is that blessing shared?

The feeding of the crowd isn’t a final event; it’s a rehearsal. “Places! Action!” didn’t stop there and it hasn’t stopped yet. Today, as then, tomorrow as today: Jesus turns to us, in his compassion, to say, “You give them something”. May we do it, Lord, may we do it in faith, in hope, in love.

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.