What’s On Your Mind?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost/A • September 27, 2020

Philippians 2:1-13

What’s on your mind? Without being able to go around and ask each person, I have to guess and my guess this morning is that health is on the mind of many. This week our country passed the 200,000 deaths mark from the pandemic. The upcoming election is on the mind of many, I’m sure, and so this the sadness of the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg whose life lightened and liberated so many. Maybe individual things are on your mind: something hurts or you’re worried about catching Covid-19 or there’s a nagging problem in your life.

Asking, “What’s on your mind?”, is a little like going up to the attic isn’t it? At least at our house, the attic is full of stuff we didn’t know what to do with, so we stuck it up there. Go up to the attic and you quickly get overwhelmed by different things; I usually just end up going back downstairs. Come downstairs with me and let’s ask another question: what’s on the Apostle Paul’s mind and how can it help us?

What’s on Paul’s mind, when he writes to the Philippian Christians, is the future of the church  They’re going through a tough time. The local authorities have been persecuting them; Paul himself has been beaten by the police and jailed. So have some of the others. What makes it even worse is that their church is divided between two groups. What’s on Paul’s mind is division and conflict; doesn’t that sound familiar? That’s on the minds of a lot of us as well.

He starts out with one of the longest sentences in the whole New Testament and it’s hard to get it all when it’s read once. He asks four questions: if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any incentive of love, if there is any participation in the Spirit, if there is any affection and sympathy. Notice how these link love and spiritual life: encouragement in Christ is connected to love, participation in the Spirit is linked to affection and sympathy. Love is the mission. Sometimes we get so involved with what we are doing that we forget what we are trying to do. When I go out, I have to find my keys, find my wallet, find my glasses, find my mask. It’s easy in all that to forget I was going out on an errand. In church life, we sometimes get so involved with the details, we forget the mission is God’s love expressed through us. 

Paul doesn’t want anyone to forget what they are trying to do, the mission they’re on. Spiritual life is a rhythm of feeling and acting. He goes on to make this point by embodying these things with a ringing call to action: “Do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than yourself.” [Philippians 2:3] Spiritual life for a Christian always has a “Do” attached to it, it’s always a motivation that leads to action.  

But we can only act from what’s on our mind. So he comes back to that explicitly: “Have this mind among yourselves which is yours in Christ Jesus” [Philippians 2:5] What Paul is saying is that we are meant to live from the mind of Christ. 

What’s on your mind? What’s on the mind of Christ? What’s on your mind when you think with the mind of Christ? He’s already given us a suggestion about this and now he makes it explicit by quoting what many believe was a Christian hymn:

Christ Jesus, Though he was in the form of God,
Did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped
But emptied himself, taking the form of a servant
Being born in the likeness of humanity
And being found in human form
He humbled himself
And became obedient unto death
Even death on a cross

Philippians 2:5-8

This is the mind of Christ: instead of grasping for greatness, helping with humility, healing with humility. To think with the mind of Christ means to live in a hopeful humility.

This is hard, isn’t it? Because what’s on our mind is often little details. Fred Craddock, one of the most widely known preachers of my lifetime, was baptized in a Baptist church, where you don’t just get a couple drops of water, you get completely dunked. He says,

When I was baptized, I was fourteen years old. I know the minister was saying a lot of wonderful things about being buried with Christ and all —I’m sure he was; he was a good minister. But I was just thinking, Do I hold the handkerchief? Does he hold the handkerchief? Uh, I wonder if it’s cold…and I bet it’s deep too.

Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 30

So here we are, hearing about the mind of Christ—but wondering if it’s going to be cold or deep or what they have to eat at coffee hour and when the preacher will be done.

“Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.” That’s the mind of Christ, that’s not how we think. We grasp for more. We think if we just had the resources, which is to say enough power, we could do a lot of good. A friend of mine, one of the most genuinely loving and Christian men I’ve ever known, used to be in charge of helping churches and ministers find each other. He’s a bedrock Congregationalist. He really believes the best way to be a church is by having all the members involved and voting on important things. One day he got so frustrated with the petty, dumb things churches do in the search and call process, he yelled, “I want to be a bishop!”

I know that feeling, I’ve had it. Sometimes, I let myself have a little daydream about starting up a church, a church where there are no Boards or committees, where I can just do everything right because I know what’s right better than they do. The church of Jim: what do you think? Oh, wait: I’m a minister of the church of Christ. Any time one of us stops trying to run things and listens to all the others, we have the mind of Christ.

In the church of Christ, it doesn’t matter how long you’ve been a church member, it matters whether you have the mind of Christ and the mind of Christ always thinks about others first. I used to be the pastor of a church that had a big turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Sunday every year. We also had Sunday dinners once a month; we rotated with some other churches on where they were held. One year it was our turn to host on Thanksgiving Sunday. After a little arguing and fussing, we decided to go ahead and do it and just make more than usual. This was a church like this one, where we endlessly agonized about not having enough people. 

So the day came, the whole building smelled like turkey dinner and after worship we all went down to eat. A lot of our homeless and hungry guests came, so instead of the 30 or so church folks, we had over 200. It was a crowd and bless their hearts, our church folks thought with the mind of Christ and let those people go first. That meant the last church folks, a group of long time members, senior ladies, didn’t get any turkey. I found out and you know I didn’t much have the mind of Christ, I had the minister mind that thinks, “I’m going to be in trouble over this.” So I went to over to see them, and they were so much better than me. One of them said, “Well, we didn’t get any turkey but thank God there was plenty of potatoes.” She was thanking God for potatoes when I was worried about power. I think she had the mind of Christ.

In the church of Christ, it doesn’t matter how powerful and important you are, it matters whether you can get down off your high horse and welcome a child. Years ago, it became a fad to have children’s sermons in church, mostly little object lessons. I wasn’t very good at it. But the church wanted something, so I started doing my version, which was to get down on the carpet with some kids and just ask, “Did anything special happen this week?” One Sunday I was going to be away and the church got a minister to preach who had a reputation for great children’s sermons. After I got back, he called me. He said he’d done what he usually does, gathered the children in the front pew but when he started the lesson, the kids interrupted. One said, “This isn’t how you do children’s time, you’re supposed to get down on the floor and ask us what happened this week.” He said he’d thought about that ever since, and wished he’d done that. And he asked me to thank the kids for preaching to him. 

Are you thinking with the mind of Christ? Are you putting others first? There is so much division in our country right now and it’s seeping over into churches. A friend of mine, another minister, who is an ardent liberal was afraid her politics was seeping into her preaching. So she decided to go back to a tradition and pray for the President every Sunday. The first Sunday, during the pastoral prayer, she said, “Let us pray for our President, Donald J. Trump.” She got two calls that week: one complaining that she had prayed for President Trump at all, one complaining because they were a Trump supporters and they thought she was being praying for him as an anti-Trump message. I guess they were thinking with their political minds.

What’s on your mind? What are you thinking? Paul was thinking about division in that church in Philippi and his solution was simple: division comes when we let our own minds take charge; unity comes from thinking with the mind of Christ. That’s still true today. 

Are you thinking with the mind of Christ? A couple weeks ago, we read a parable about a guy who received forgiveness and lost it when he didn’t practice forgiveness. I said then that forgiveness was the way to deal with our past, to stop letting our past be a burden. Last week, we read a parable about some workers who grumbled and didn’t get to laugh when they got paid and I said then that gratitude was the way to deal with our present, finding something to appreciate and thank God for in each day. Now we have this letter from Paul to Christians just like us, people with a lot on their mind and he wants to help them face the future. How do you face the future as follower of Christ? You think with the mind of Christ, you live from the mind of Christ, you act from the mind of Christ. 

What’s on your mind? “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus…” God is at work in us, God is at work in you and me. We may not know it; we may not see it. Earlier, I mentioned the story of Fred Craddock’s baptism and what was on his mind while it took place. But you know, that fourteen year old boy grew up to be a man who inspired thousands, who helped so many find the forgiving, grateful spirit Christ invites us to share. He did it because he learned to think with the mind of Christ. What will we do when we let the mind of Christ control us?

Amen.

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.

Bound for Glory

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 020

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

Genesis 22:1-14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A’int No Mountain High Enough

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Trinity Sunday/A • June 7, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen. 

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

Every Time I Feel the Spirit

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020

Sixth Sunday in Easter/A • May 17, 2020

John 14:15-21

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Locked Down Hope

Locked Down Hope

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

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

Second Sunday in Easter/A • April 19, 2020

John 19:20-31

Do you remember the story of the Three Pigs? It seems like a fable for this time. Three pigs go off to seek their fortune and build houses. Not long after, a hungry wolf comes by and blows down the house of the first and then the second. The pigs run to their brother who has built out of brick and hide, safe for the moment. When the wolf fails to blow down the house, he comes down the chimney but falls into a pot of boiling water the thoughtful third pig has placed in the fire. Three pigs locked down, scared of a wolf: it seems an appropriate image of where we are today, hoping that if the wolf does come down the chimney, scientists will have discovered a vaccine, a pot of boiling water, to stop the virus threatening us. It also mirror the situation of the disciples in the portion of John’s gospel we read today. Just like the pigs, just like us, they’re locked down, hoping the closed door can keep the danger outside.

I know you can imagine them but we’re in the same place these days. They’re afraid the same authorities who killed Jesus will come after them. With us, the fear is that somehow someone will cough or sneeze or simply breathe and an invisible enemy will invade us, sicken us. I don’t know about you but we have several friends who are sick. It gives all of us a lurking anxiety: “Am I next?” Like the disciples, we heard about the resurrection, but has it really changed us? They’ve heard the same report we did. A few women have come back raving about an experience at the tomb, claiming to have seen an angel, claiming to have seen Jesus alive. Clearly they don’t believe them. Do we?

So we should pay particular attention to this story today. John sets it in the evening. The disciples are locked in. “The doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear…” [John 20:19b] That certainly sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Then something amazing happens. Jesus appears to them, coming through the door as if wasn’t there. Locked doors can’t keep Jesus out. “He stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” [John 20:19c], the common, customary greeting, the “hey there”, the “sup”, the “hello” of his time. It’s as if he’s just been out on an errand, as if the terrible days of arrest and trial and crucifixion and tomb never happened. “Hiya”: I’m here. The disciples make sure it’s really him and then they rejoice.

I think, for me, that would have been enough. Would it for you? Think: you’re grieving and suddenly you don’t have to grieve. You’re crying and suddenly you don’t have to cry. You’re angry and suddenly you don’t have to be angry. I think for me, I would have been happy to just stay in that moment of recognition. I would have wanted to get out the leftovers from the funeral dinner, I would have wanted to just celebrate and stay there and stay happy and feel glorious and not ask too many questions. What about you?

But Jesus isn’t staying there. He never does. Last week we heard Matthew’s version of more or less the same story and if you listened to that you may remember the first thing he said to the women who found him alive after “Don’t be afraid” was go. It’s pretty much the same here; it always is with Jesus. He’s got a mission and it’s why he’s there. It’s why he gathered them; it’s why he calls us. So in the next moment, before there’s even time to serve, much less eat, any cake, he says,

As the Father has sent me, so I send you…Receive the Holy Spirit…if you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them, if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. [John 20:21-23]

He’s handing out the Holy Spirit like peeps on Easter: just like that. You know, if it was us, we’d have a procedure, we’d have a form to fill out, we’d have a disclosure agreement to sign. Not Jesus: no one has to be interviewed by the Board of Deacons to get the Holy Spirit, no one has to agree to pledge or volunteer, just like that: “Receive the Holy Spirit”. And then: your mission is to forgive sins.

There’s a lot of talk right now about starting up the country. I think most of us are getting tired of being home, tired of the same walls, tired of the inconveniences of life. Of course, the people who are sick and the ones dying and the ones grieving aren’t tired of it. They’re too busy suffering to worry about the economy. Dr. Oz cheerfully said we could sacrifice two or three percent of our children to get back to making money. The lieutenant governor of Texas said we can sacrifice grandparents. I’ve done a lot of funerals over the years, I’m not sure any of those families who were crying thought it would be ok to sacrifice someone they loved. It’s wrong and it’s not the approach Christians take. We believe everyone is a child of God.

So we’re talking about starting up. But Jesus has something much more fundamental in mind: he’s talking about restarting our lives. That’s what forgiveness really means, it means recovering your life. Guilt and shame are like a terrible tomb in which we bury parts of ourselves and when we truly know ourselves forgiven, we come out of that grave like Lazarus. It’s the same for us when we forgive, because holding onto anger and resentment sucks up our energy, saps our lives, and when we forgive, we have that energy, we have that life again. Jesus comes to give life: this is one way he means to give it and we are the instruments he’s using. That’s what the part about “retaining the sins of any” really means; it means if we don’t do this, furtiveness doesn’t happen. What we do makes a difference. What he means for us to do is nurture joy by practicing forgiveness.

This time is a unique moment we’ve been given. Locked down, we have the space in our lives to listen. It’s hard to listen today. We’re so plugged into our mental to do lists, our devices, our contact inputs that we usually don’t have real quiet time. One writer said,

Noise is an inevitable aspect of civilization…Stores and restaurants pip in background music, the ceaseless rumble of traffic reverberates…Our cell phones regularly startle us with insistent bleeping and the prattle of television shoves our thoughts into oblivion.
[Rebeccas Burg, Sail With Me: Two People, Two Boars, One Adventure]

The lockdown time is offering a cure, if we will take it. Most of the errands that fill our lives are waiting. We’re no longer in the stores she mentions and the traffic is less.
Glennon Doyle talks about learning to listen. Going through a difficult time, a friend sent her a card that said, “Be still and know.” [Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” So after her kids went to school, she sat down on a towel in a closet and tried to be still. She says,

I checked my phone every few moments, planned my grocery lists and mentally redecorated my living room..” [Glenon Doyle, Untamed, p. 56]

But she kept at it: ten minutes a day. Eventually, she felt herself slip down into the silence.

Since the chaos stills in this deep, I could sense something that I was not able to sense on the surface. It was like that quiet chamber in Denmark…where people can actually hear and feel their own blood circulating. ..It was a knowing. [ibid]
She learned to listen and the listening helped her know herself as a child of God.

Are you listening? It doesn’t happen in a moment; it takes a little faith, it takes a little patience, it takes some courage to be quiet. But if we are quiet, when we are quiet, then truly we hear the spirit in the breeze of our soul. “Receive the Spirit,” Jesus says. He means you; he means me. What is the purpose? So that forgiveness can spread. It starts with us, it starts with forgiving ourselves. When we listen for God, what we will first hear is this: “Don’t be afraid.” I know this because it’s what every single angel says first thing. Every time God sends someone, that’s the message. When Jesus is raised, the first thing he says is, “Don’t be afraid.” We don’t have to be afraid because when we truly listen, we hear God loving us. We hear we are children of God.

So there’s a great hope for this time. We started out locked down because we were afraid, afraid of a virus, afraid a disease was going to overwhelm all our technology, all our noise, all our smarts. It still may. But there is hope in this locked down time, great hope. It is an opportunity to go into your closet and be still; it’s a chance to be silent and know. That’s the whole verse from the card Doyle’s friend sent: ““Be still, and know that I am God!”

When we hear God, when we know God, then we can hope. Then the lockdown is something we’re doing not in fear but as a gift, a way to help others. Then it’s passing on the hope and help of God. Yes, Lord, I’m willing to change how my life is lived because I know just as I’m a child of God, so are all the others. That’s locked down hope
I hope you will find a way to be silent this week. I hope you will find a way to see the hope beyond the fear. I hope you will be still and know and in the knowing, receive the spirit Jesus means to give, a spirit of love, a spirit of forgiveness.

Amen.

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A

Laughing With God

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor

Second Sunday After Pentecost/A • June 18, 2017

Genesis 18:1-15

This is a season of announcements. Graduation announcements suddenly open our eyes to the fact that a person we thought was still safely a child has a new address in the adult world. Wedding announcements invite us to share the joy in lighting the hearth fire of a new family and birth announcements that let us know the candle of a new life has been lit. Usually we know these people and the announcements make us nod. But suppose we received an announcement that a senior woman had just had a baby; imagine getting a message that someone in her 80’s or 90’s had just birthed a child. That would be a shock—probably most of all to her! This story has just such a moment at its core and a question: do we believe God is serious about fulfilling promises?

Abraham and his family are relaxing in the heat of the day,. There is a moment on hot days when the heat itself becomes a presence, when things in the distance tremble, when mirages appear, when the world almost seems to melt. It is just then that Abraham, dozing under some oaks, trying to find a tiny bit of shade, opens his eyes for a moment and sees three strangers approaching in the distance. At first they would have that shimmering, liquid look heat causes; at first, I think, he might assume he was dreaming.

Yet from the first, I imagine Abraham waking, the way we wake if car lights flash and someone pulls in the drive unexpectedly at midnight. I imagine him watching just long enough to confirm this is no dream, no mirage, and then stirring. Strangers are dangerous in the desert. At the same time, desert culture then and now has a code of hospitality. So Abraham stirs; I think of him kicking his foreman, napping next to him, the man waking and looking, seeing the look of concern, getting up, waking the next person down the line in the pecking order and the whole camp stirring, so that by the time the strangers can be solidly seen, the camp is up. Abraham meets the strangers at a distance—a safety measure as much as a gesture of hospitality: what do they want? must be on everyone’s mind.

Feast Time!

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

All this takes time and that’s fine. Even today in the Middle East, it’s customary to sit and drink coffee or tea and chat before doing business. So I imagine that when the feast is finally served, it is hours later. The strangers have relaxed; the people in the camp are exhausted. As is customary, women are excluded from the tent where the food is served and Abraham himself does not recline with the guests; he acts as the server of food. Still, people are people; this is a camp with many people. There are girls calculating the cuteness of the strangers, there is curiosity, and among the curious there is Sarah, who listens just outside, who wonders just outside.

A Child?

Just as custom defines the host’s responsibility for serving, it commands certain behaviors for guests. When the stranger suddenly asks about Abraham’s wife, it is a shocking violation of manners. “Where is your wife, Sarah?”, the guest asks and Abraham tries to cover it by saying she’s off in the tent. The storyteller reminds us in delicate language that Sarah is well past menopause. And then the stranger announces, as if commenting on the unusual heat this year, in an offhand way, “I’ll be back this way one day and Sarah will have a son.”

It’s a birth announcement for a woman in her 90’s. I imagine all conversation stopping; I imagine a deadly silence, a conversational period occurring. In a moment this stranger has brought up the most painful, difficult, dark, private reality of life here. Long ago, this family, this couple, set out on a life journey pushed by the promise of God that there would be children. No children have come; no babies have been born. Year after year, they waited; season after season they hoped. Time after time they must have prayed—and cried; raged, even sometimes at each other. Yet there was no child.

Finally, there was no escaping the reality: the promise was broken, the time had run out. “It had ceased to be with Sarah after the way of women,” the text says. No child: no child ever. They must have grieved until their grief became one of those sadness scars one puts away; too painful to visit often, too important not to visit sometimes. So here they are, two people who have finally relaxed with the failure of the promise. And here is this stranger throwing their hope in their face, opening their most painful wound. For the scar of hope turning into hopelessness always leaves a scar.

Is Anything Too Hard for the Lord?

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

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

Here is another plan: here is another hope. The hope is that there are more possibilities than we know. It’s never practical to announce this; practical people, people like you and I, always say to such hope, “Well, what do you have in mind?” and there is no answer because it is the point of such hope that it is not in the mind, it is not rational at all. It is the simple, deep, conviction that nothing indeed is too hard for the Lord; it is the willingness to stop knocking and wait for God to fulfill the promise. An Peter, Paul and Mary song asks, “Can you believe in something you’ve never seen before?”; often the answer is, “Well, quite honestly, I can’t.”

Yet we have that possibility; we have that capability: to believe there is more than we know, more than we have seen. The core of this, the path to it, is to understand that God does indeed deal in fulfillment. God promises and always makes good on the promise; our problem is that we assume God will do it the way we want and the way we expect and on our time-table. But a look at the Bible show is that God’s fulfillment is always more exuberant, bigger, wilder, than anything we had imagined. It doesn’t happen when we expect: it comes as a surprise.
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Believing in God’s Fulfillment

It’s not easy to believe in such fulfillment. We are much more comfortable with limits. I used to have a three-year old friend named Leah Miller whose mother owned a café. Leah liked to play cook and she had a little plastic kitchen. A standard meal at Leah’s kitchen consisted of pancakes, french fries and ketchup. Usually the pancakes had sprinkles on them; in fact, it was usual in ordering food at Leah’s kitchen to have the pancakes served and then to say, “May I have sprinkles please?”. If you didn’t ask, she would prompt: “You forgot to ask for sprinkles.” But the one day, when Leah was imagining cooking pancakes and french fries for her grandmother, and I was watching, something strange happened. Leah held out her hands—”there you go”—and served the pancakes. But when her nana asked for sprinkles, Leah looked at her sadly and said, “We don’t have any sprinkles, we’re out.” No imaginary sprinkles today.

We need to imagine more sprinkles. We need a bigger imagination; we need more laughter. We need the laughter of hope. We need to imagine more and more than imagining, we need to simply believe this: that nothing is too hard for the Lord. We need to get up each day not full of what we are going to do but prepared, alert, ready to see, to really see, off in the distance, God approaching, ready to announce what we had not even begun to imagine. Then indeed, living as faithful people, laughing people, will be as natural as a child’s laugh at an unexpected rainbow.

Amen.

Ascension Sunday

What Now?

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • © 2017

Ascension Sunday/A • May 28, 2017

Click Below to Hear the Sermon Preached

You sit in the dark, tears still drying on your cheek, the kind you don’t want to admit to having cried, just a little ashamed that something as simple as a movie could move you so. But it has moved you and now you sit still, not wanting it all to end, and everyone sits still in the darkness, as the credits roll by, still staring, as if genuinely wondering who the second grip was. You are too moved to move.

Maybe for you it was a concert: music that made your soul soar and you stand at your seat with hundreds of others cheering and clapping, hoping for a second encore, hoping the whole thing can play on just a little more because you are too moved to move toward the exits. Perhaps for you it was standing on a train platform or at the airport, catching that last glimpse of someone. We all have these moments, I think, moments that hold us and prevent us from moving on because they are too perfect, or too deep or too precious.

Too Moved to Move

So it shouldn’t be hard to understand the disciples at the Ascension. If you grew up in a church like this one, you probably didn’t grow up with this story; Protestants didn’t talk much about the Ascension for a long time. But here it is: the last stop on the trip from Easter to Pentecost.

Can you imagine the scene Luke paints? The thunder and lightning of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion by the Romans with the Jewish authorities collaborating. The fear of the disciples and then the unimaginable joy of his resurrection. Luke provides more stories of the risen Lord than any other gospel; he couldn’t get enough of them, apparently. There he is: in the upper room, walking through the door. There he is: on the way to Emmaus. There he is over and over. I imagine the disciples must have thought this time would go on and on and on.

Our family has lives that scatter sometimes, so it’s hard for us to celebrate things that happen on a particular day sometimes. We’ve solved that by extending days like birthdays. One day you get a present, another day someone has sent a card—”sorry it’s late I sent it on time”—and then there is dinner a third day. We call this Birthday Extravaganza. I wonder if the disciples thought this was Easter Extravaganza.
Clearly they expected more; they ask, for example, in the midst of the whole thing, “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel,” like a supervisor asking of a project has been finished, knowing it isn’t but using that subtle way to remind Jesus to get busy and do what they want.

There they are, altogether again, just like the old days. I wonder if they thought Jesus would preach or perform some sign or miracle, maybe heal someone—just like the old days. I wonder if they expected him to say something inspiring to lift them up, help them see God at work after all—just like the old days. They’re far enough from Good Friday that the harsh cutting edge of the cross is dull; far enough from Easter so that what once seemed miraculous is now everyday. Gathering with Jesus on a mountain isn’t new for them; it’s just like the old days.

A New Moment

But this is a new day and the Ascension is a new moment. So in the midst of asking about the restoration of the kingdom, of hoping the old days can come back, suddenly Jesus is gone. Whoosh! It’s usually imagined as ascended into the clouds, but actually that’s not what Luke says: he simply says Jesus disappeared into a cloud. We don’t have to accept Luke’s directions to understand Jesus’ intention. That is clear, unmistakable. He’s been telling them all along he means to send them out and now he tells them again. Their job is simple: go be witnesses.

When the whole scene is over, they’re left standing there, all of them, wondering, I imagine, “What now?” It takes a couple of angels to come and ask the obvious question: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” Why are you standing still standing around: Jesus has left.

Looking in the Mirror of the Story

This story is a mirror for us. And I want, I hope, you’ll take a moment to look into it with me. I want you to see here the tension between the tenses. Throughout the story, the followers of Jesus are concerned about the past. They want Jesus to restore the past; they want the old kingdom back. That’s natural; don’t we all want our best days back?

I’ve spent most of my career helping churches develop and grow and in every single congregation, I’ve asked about the best days of the church. The answer is nearly always some moment in the past and often the real hope of the church is less about growing into the future than re-enacting that past. I suspect every generation of Christians has been like this and here we see it for the for the first time: restoration Christians who just want to go back.

But all the tenses in Jesus’ preaching are future.

“You will receive power,” he tells them. It’s not here today but you will receive it.

“The Holy Spirit will come upon you.” It’s not here today but you will receive it.

“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” They haven’t been to the ends of the earth yet but they will go.

The new church is all about the restoring the past: Jesus is all about the future.

Living Now

Now the problem is we don’t live in the future or the past, we live in the present. We live connecting the past and the future. I think the key to learning to live that way is first what Jesus teaches: an abundant forgiveness. He comes back to this theme over and over and another day we will come back to it as well. Forgiveness stands where we are, at that connecting point between past and future. Forgiveness takes the past and unlocks it so that our future can be the new life, the abundant life, Jesus means to give. Forgiveness connects our past lives to a new life in Christ.

The second clue to connecting to this future is prayer. This story of Jesus’ ascension is part 1 of a two part story. They haven’t received power yet; they haven’t received the Holy Spirit yet. They aren’t ready to be witnesses yet. There is preparation required and that preparation is prayer. We are so much about doing, it’s easy for us to forget being, so much about preparing for events, it’s easy for us to forget the power of prayer. The disciples leave this moment and begin to pray together and it’s in the place of prayer that they receive power, inc the place of prayer they receive the Holy Spirit, in the place of prayer they become witnesses.

The third thing that connects the future here is faith. I wonder what these people were thinking when Jesus was lost to sight. Eventually, we do go home from that powerful movie; we do return from that ringing concert, and they are going to have to go home from this moment. Can we go home with faith in the future of Jesus? For that’s what they’re summoned to do. The angel doesn’t just ask why they’re still standing around; the angel also says—again, future tense—that Jesus will come again.

Hope is powerful. In the movie Shawshank Redemption, Andy DuFresne, a man wrongly convicted of murder serving a life sentence, is talking to his friend Red, another lifer. Red has been his guide to surviving life in prison and now Red tells him that hope can kill a man inside. But Andy replies, “Remember, Red hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

The power of hope flows through Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise” which says, in part,

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise.

Today is Ascension Sunday. It offers us two choices: we can come to the end of the Easter Extravaganza and ask, well what shall we do now that that’s over—or we can hear the powerful testimony of the resurrection, the concrete evidence of Jesus: still I rise! and ask not just what now, but what now, Lord?

Amen.