Third Sunday After Pentecost – A

Small, Swift Birds

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Third Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 25, 2017

Matthew 10:24-39

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If we were asked the most important thing in our lives, I suspect many of us would reply, “My family.” Families in the best sense are where we learn love: where we are accepted, where we are nurtured, where we are accepted even when we are unacceptable. In The Death of the Hired Man, Robert Frost imagines someone saying,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there, 
They have to take you in.’ 
‘I should have called it 
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve. 

That’s our dream of family. It’s a good dream and a wonderful reality when it happens.

Of course, we know not all families are like this. Families are where we are meant to love but where sadly sometimes there is violence, sometimes there is oppression. Not all families accept each other. So many of people have stories about being fearful coming out to family. My own family included a deep story about my mother’s upbringing and she never lost her bitterness and feeling that in the gendered values of her family, she was less important, less valuable, than her brother. So families are a mixed bag. And today we’ve heard Jesus say some shocking things about causing division in family. What does he mean? What does he intend us to get from this?

Putting Jesus’ Words in Context

We need to put these sayings in context. When we say, ‘family’, we really mean a mother, father, kids, perhaps a few close relatives. But the family of Roman times was a much larger unit, a whole household. It was usually headed by a senior male and included adult sons and their wives, their children, perhaps other relatives, the senior male’s wife and slaves. In well to do families or households all these would live together; in poorer households, they might occupy an apartment building.

Roman religion and Jewish practice all centered on this pyramid of power. Women were not allowed to eat with men or talk to them at meals in most places. Slaves were an intimate part of the household but had no power. Babies could be exposed and killed at birth; children were not always prized. The decision, as in all household matters, was left to the head of the family. So when we hear family here, we need to think of this pyramid of power, this household with slaves and children at the bottom, women a little higher up, sons higher still, and finally at the top an older man.

Contrast this with Jesus. We hear almost nothing about his father and he disregards his mother and brothers and sisters at various points in the gospel stories, reuniting with his mother at his death. Instead, Jesus constructs a household. When his own family tries to bring him back from preaching and healing, he says,

And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’ 
[Mark 3:34-35]

He invites a group of men and—shockingly!—women to come with him on his journey of healing and preaching. The gospels focus on 12 men but Luke mentions 70 people and lists a group of women that traveled with him. John has a set of stories that focus on Mary and Martha and makes it clear that he has a prior relationship with them. We know from a wide variety of stories that Jesus’ practice was a source of constant criticism. Over and over again, we read, “He eats with sinners”, a category that includes women, gentiles, and people who don’t observe the codes of family and religious life.

Jesus himself relates this here: he says, “If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!”. Beelzebul is a demonic figure. He understands that if he is criticized, those who follow him will be as well. His solution is simple: everything will be revealed. His solution is to give away being part of this new family: show it and share it.

…nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops. [Matthew 10:26f]

Everything is going to be revealed, everything is an open invitation.

This Is Invitation!

That is the most important thing to understand about this text: it is invitation. Just before today’s reading, Jesus teaches his disciples how to go out and spread the good news of this new household he is creating. Their mission, he says, is to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers and cast out demons. He tells them some places won’t let them do this; just go on, he says. He tells them some people will oppose them; just go on, he says. Here in what we read, he focuses on the fact that even some members of their own families will oppose them. Just go on: make this new way the most import fact of your life, make this new household, the most important relationship in your life.

Why follow Jesus, if it’s going to cause such division and heartache? Because where we follow him is into a relationship with God so loving, so intimate, so particular that nothing else compares. He says, “…even the hairs of your head are counted.” Think of this: think what it would take to count the hairs of your head, think how intimate you would have to be with someone to do that, to sit with them, listen to them talk, through that process. That’s the way Jesus is God with; that’s how Jesus invites us to be with God. It’s almost unimaginable, isn’t it? Yet this what gives life, he says. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

Following Jesus

It’s not an easy way because it means changing yourself. It means learning a new way of looking at the world. Years ago, I was the pastor of a church much like this one, a big old building needing constant cleaning. We hired an organization that employed differently abled people and every day their crew would come in. The one I remember most was a young guy with some mental challenges who liked to engage me. I wore shoes with laces in those days and when he would see me, he would say, “Tie shoe!” and then laugh hysterically. At first I would politely smile, and go on with whatever I was doing. But this was a constant thing and it began to make me wonder and to be honest, annoy me a little, because he wasn’t satisfied to just let it go; he wanted me to laugh too. Finally I mentioned it to the supervisor. He said, “Oh, he had a problem learning to tie his shoes, so we used to tease him about tying his shoes. Somewhat chastened, reminded I was supposed to be a loving Christian, the next time he said it, I forced myself to laugh too. I learned to be more patient; I learned to laugh. Finally, one day, I discovered: I got the joke. I laughed, real laughter. He had taught me to stop, laugh, be there with him for a moment. I was healed.

This is what we are about: healing people. There’s a lot of talk here about growing the church and I’m just like you, I love it when the pews fill up. Now the 1950’s model of church growth was to find a place where people were moving, open up there, and they will come. That worked—in the 1950’s. It’s not going to work here.

A more modern way of growing a church is to market it like a new kind of toothpaste, or bread or anything else. The model of these large mega churches is Bill Hybels. Bill Hybels didn’t start out by figuring out what Jesus said; he started out going around to people in an area outside Chicago and listening to what they wanted and then creating a church that would tell them what they wanted to hear. Today you do this by finding someone who will use great music, great pictures, and great words to tell people they are right and good just as they are. That might work; I don’t know, I’ve never tried it.

Because Jesus doesn’t say one word about getting a lot of people together. He says: go out and heal. And that’s what we are doing, what we are meant to do. Most of the people who visit here and come here have been hurt; some are sick. They come here with scars, they come here with the hope that we can offer something that will help them. And we can.

At the center of Jesus’ teaching in this passage is this:

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted.So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows. [Matthew 10:2-31]

Small, Swift Birds

Two sparrows: this is the food of the poor, this is the common bird no one notices, this is the little bit of almost nothing that flits and isn’t appreciated. Yet here is Jesus telling us that God cares about the sparrows. If we really believe that, if we act like it, if we live it, how can we help caring for others too? How can we not learn to laugh with the “Tie shoe!” joke? How can we not help and heal?

One of my favorite bands has a song called, Small, Swift Birds. It uses this image to teach us to appreciate how important every encounter is, to teach us to appreciate each moment.

I have heard about the lives of small swift birds.
They dazzle with their colour and their deftness through the air.
Just a simple glimpse will keep you simply standing there….
And then there’s the day we look for them and can’t find them anywhere.

The song reminds us of the value of each small moment. Each day, every day, Jesus invites us to live as members of his household. He knows it will cost us but he knows that what he offers is priceless. Each of you is so precious to God. Each other person out there is just as precious. He gathered us to share God’s love; he sends out to heal God’s people. This week, this month, every day: remember that you are on a mission from God to be the image of God’s love.


Are We Pigs or People?

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A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/C • June 19, 2016
Copyright 2016 • All Rights Reserved

It’s always the details in these stories that make me wonder. I read about the Germane demoniac, our gospel reading today and at the end I think, “What about the pigs? Who cleaned up that mess?” I think: what about the man’s family. My dad didn’t have a demon but he did have a hobby which was going to school. He went to school through my early teen years until he got a Masters of Business degree. Then he was out. It was a disaster. He didn’t know our evening routines, he didn’t know how we did dinner. We were glad to have him around but it was hard to adjust because he’d been gone for so long. After about six months, he started going to law school.

Thinking About the Details

So I’m wondering about this family. They must have had a hard, heart breaking time. Demons don’t show up all at once and I suspect he didn’t start out with so many; maybe one or two, enough to knock him off center like a top starting to lose it’s spin. Then more; surely they tried to help, took him to a doctor, tried to care for him themselves but the rages and the destruction were too much. As more and more demons moved in, he moved out, out of town, out to the solitary silence of the cemetery. I wonder how relieved that family was; I wonder if they hadn’t gotten on with things. And I wonder what they said, when he suddenly showed up, calm, hopefully clean by then, at their door. He was himself again but did they even remember who that was? Their whole family life is going to change again. I wonder if they did.

Jesus’ Journey

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Forget the details for a moment. Forget the story itself, let’s see the shape of Jesus’ journey. He’s been walking a path with a series of strange encounters. Perhaps you remember hearing about these the last few weeks but in case you don’t, here’s a list of them. He healed the slave of a Roman Centurion, possibly a gentile, certainly someone to make you uneasy. He comes to another village and while they wait for a funeral processional, he raises a widow’s son; everyone is astonished, it’s not clear whether the funeral director provided a refund. His friend Simon the Pharisee invites him to dinner; while he’s there, a disreputable woman—of course to Pharisees, most women were disreputable!—touches him, actually touches him, kisses him, pours ointment on him, wipes his feet; he forgives her sins, all of them, every single one. Have you ever gotten all your sons forgive all at once?

So if you’re keeping count, that’s a healing, a raising, a forgiving all in the space of one trip. He goes on a boat ride; there’s a storm and his disciples get scared, really scared, the way only serious sailors get when they see the sea overwhelming the boat. Jesus calms the storm and the disciples; add that to the list. When they make land, they’re in Gerasa.

Welcome to Gerasa

Gerasa is a part of an area thickly settled by gentiles, outside of Israel, which explains the pig farming. The pigs are probably a cash crop; the area was known for exports. Outside of town there’s a cemetery and that’s where Jesus encounters…well, that’s the question isn’t it? What is he meeting here? Who is he meeting?

The first actual dialogue in the story coms from a demonic presence. “What have you to do with me, Jesus of Nazareth?” Isn’t it odd how a demon knows Jesus’ name, first and last both, but people routinely ask in the gospels “who is this man?” We argue about who Jesus is; the demon knows. The demon obviously senses the power of Jesus’ presence; the greeting appears occasioned by Jesus calling out the demon, exorcising the man, a detail we only now learn about. Then there’s the moment of the demon pleading, whining, not to be tormented. Jesus asks the name of the demon and it doesn’t reply; Legion isn’t a name, it’s a number, about 5,000 Roman troops, it’s like saying “Battalion, for we are many”.

The demons enter pigs that are there and they drive the pigs run off a cliff and die because of the demons; the swineherds run away, realizing their jobs are over and someone is going to be very angry the herd is gone. Cemetery, pigs, all these details have one purpose: pigs are unclean animals, cemeteries are unclean places, gentiles are unclean people, all of this is to say that Jesus goes into the least godly place ever and reclaims someone’s life and then hands it back to him. Isn’t that what Jesus always does? Is that what he’s done, is that what he’s doing, for you?

Encountering the Demonic

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What about this demon? Most of you don’t believe in demons, so it’s hard to talk about them, easy to dismiss them. Yet there are the demons in the story and a good deal of Jesus’ work is casting out demons. What I can say about them is that they are a shorthand, personal way of speaking about something we do believe because we know it, we see it: the evil that comes into a life and twists it into something awful and dark and dangerous. This week we all saw the effect of the demonic when a young man walked into a club in Orlando and using a gun meant for soldiers on a battlefield killed 49 people, wounded so many others, including at least emotionally all of us. This was evil and in that sense it was demonic.

This person Jesus encounters in the cemetery is a man whose life has been horribly twisted by some evil grown like a thistle bush choking a garden until when a name is demanded, it can only say that it is legion, it is many. Indeed, the demonic has many faces and they scare us. Demagogues tell us, “Yes, there are real demons and they are in them,” pointing to some group easily identifiable and offer us safety if we will only get rid of them.

But the truth is the demons are in us, all of us. Abraham Lincoln spoke of the better angels of our nature and surely there are these but just as certainly we have this terrible capacity to harbor and to be consumed by demonic forces that destroy lives, sometimes violently.

Encountering Jesus

What does Jesus say? In every case, whether it is someone he heals, someone he forgives, someone he exorcises, his whole focus is to reclaim the person for the purpose God intended. That’s the result of each of the stories I mentioned, it is certainly the result here. At the end of the story, the man wants to come with Jesus; instead, Jesus tells him to go home and tell people what God has done for him. This is a gentile place; how stunning, how surprising, to imagine that this man who didn’t even have a name will now be a proclaimer of the God he didn’t know. For that is God’s purpose for each of us: that we will remember, celebrate, share, God’s goodness. At our creation, we were made to appreciate God’s handiwork. When we do that, we are most clearly, most deeply God’s people.

People or Pigs?

That’s the question the story asks us: are we going to live as people proclaiming the power and the goodness of God—or as pigs rushing off a cliff? The pigs have no power in the story; they just get used up, become vehicles for the demons who drive them to their deaths. For the final destination of the demonic is always death, just as the final destination of God’s people is life.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. Paul recognizes this stunning inclusion in the passage we read today: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Think of the sweeping breadth of this. We all make distinctions between people. We see their clothing; we see their color, we see their age and how they’re dressed and we make judgements: approach, avoid, smile, frown, one of us, one of them. But here Paul preaches this mystery: that to God none of these things matter, none of them exist. The things he lists are the most basic differences his culture recognizes. None of them matter to God.

Jesus honors the dignity of each person Jesus honors God’s purpose for each person. That’s the meaning of love your neighbor; that’s the meaning of his healing, his exorcisms. Now just a few verses on from this story he takes this work, this work of restoring people, healing people, freeing people from demons, and he gives the power to do this to his people. His people: that’s us!

<h3>Seeing Like Jesus</h3

<p>This is the the real purpose here. We do so many things that it’s easy to lose sight of this one thing that is the most important: we are meant to restore people to be people who praise God, to save them from being pigs rushing off a cliff. We do it the same way he did it: by seeing past the clothes of a demon infested man in a cemetery, seeing past the history of a woman at the margins of a feast, seeing past the sickness of someone. We do it by honestly, openly affirming each person. We do it by doing our best to see them as God sees them: a child of God. Then indeed the love of God and the grace of Jesus Christ we invoke every Sunday can and will become a reality. Then indeed we are simply people praising God instead of pigs running off a cliff. Amen.