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.

Lent 5 B – The Rainbow Path 5

Clean Up

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by The Rev. James E. Eaton, Pastor ©2018

Fifth Sunday in Lent/B • March 18, 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34 • Psalm 51:1-12 • John 12:20-22

Click below to hear the sermon preached

One of the great gifts I received when I was called as the pastor of a church in Michigan was the opportunity to be present right after my youngest grand-daughter Bridget was born. There is a picture of Bridget and I, taken when she was about 30 hours old, I value beyond all the wonderful photographs hanging on all the museum walls in the world. I had just been handed her and I remember exactly what I was thinking when Jacquelyn took the shot: “She’s perfect, completely perfect.”

Of course, now I know Bridget a lot better and it turns out she isn’t perfect after all. She’s messy, for one thing; a piece of advice I’d offer is don’t stand too close when Bridget is eating chocolate cake. She has a stubborn sense of order that can drive you crazy. When she was small, one of her favorite games was to take the furniture out of the dollhouse and get me to put it back. The game goes like this: I put a piece of furniture in the dollhouse; Bridget lifts it up, says, “No, Grampa Jim, not there,” and puts it where she believes it should be. Perfect is hard to find, harder to sustain. Are you perfect?

God is perfect and working with this imperfect world. What is God doing? We’re nearing the end of Lent and it’s time to step back and ask how it all fits together. Sometimes we can miss the Word God is speaking because we get so focused on the words. A few weeks ago we read the story of Noah and God’s rainbow covenant, a promise never again to start over, wiping everything out. We read the story of how God started with Abraham and Sarah the whole long, painful promise of reclaiming the world from darkness, restoring it to a place of praise, a community of joy, a shining story of justice. We’ve read God’s attempt in the Exodus and the Ten Commandments and we know how profoundly this failed, how the community of faith God hoped went astray.

Today we read how God began again in the words of Jeremiah.

…this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. [Jeremiah 31:33-34]

In Hebrew thought, the heart was the seat of the will. The verb “know” means to experience intimately, fully. To say God’s covenant will be written on their hearts is to say they will naturally want to fulfill it; to say they will know God is to say they will have a direct, immediate connection with God. No temple, no clergy, no king, nothing else needed.

Why is God doing this? Jeremiah spoke these words to a people already defeated in their hearts, people who have already acknowledged they don’t deserve anything. They were an imperfect people and they knew it. You can hear it in the words of the Psalmist: “…I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” [Psalm 51:3] If even this people know they don’t deserve another chance, what’s going on here? Why is God trying so hard?

The answer seems to be the concluding line of the Psalm we read: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.” [Psalm 51:12] God is trying to bring about a joyful community which will naturally praise, naturally worship, naturally live out God’s justice. When we look at the whole sweep of the story, we discover God is bringing the perfect, heavenly life through a new covenant by working on the least perfect. Jesus is the method.

That is certainly what is happening in the Gospel reading. A group of Greeks are in the crowd around Jesus; they approach Philip and ask to see Jesus. What do you suppose they hope to see? What do they expect to find? Greeks worshipped through the images of a variety of Gods but the central theme of their spiritual life was the notion of the perfect. The Olympic games were a display in which the goal was to display perfect bodies doing athletic things perfectly. Greek philosophy suggests that everything in the world exists as a reflection of a perfect reality in a spiritual world. Even in their political life, it was important that a leader be beautiful; beautiful and perfect were equivalent.

Jewish spiritual life also focused on the perfect. There were hundreds of religious rules and spiritual life was built around trying to observe every one of them perfectly. But few people could or did live up to all the commandments. In Jesus’ preaching, the requirements become even more daunting; he tells them that the commandment against murder, for example, is violated when we get angry at someone. In one way or another, both understand God is perfect and both believe the answer to getting nearer to God is to be perfect also.

What are Jews hoping about Jesus? That he will act in perfect accord with the law. What are the Greeks hoping to see? A perfect man, whose perfection mirror’s God.

This is why Jesus confuses and angers them: he offers a completely different path to God. Jewish leaders are already angry; we hear over and over again about Jesus, “This man eats with sinners.” Perfect people only ate with other perfect people; it’s scandalous that Jesus will have lunch with anyone at all. He embraces God’s joyful provision and his disciples gather food on the Sabbath; he heals on the Sabbath and tells the leaders that Sabbath is a gift, not a burden. Now he turns to the Greeks and tells them something that must have left them gasping. He tells them he’s going to die.

Jesus answered them,

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [John 12:23-25]

We are so familiar with the story of Jesus’ death that it fails to shock us. But perfect people didn’t get crucified; perfect Sons of God didn’t die. When Jesus embraces his life and speaks of dying, they must have been stunned. When they hear this is how he is going to represent God, they must have been confused. But Jesus knows the truth. He says that this is the new covenant in his blood: by his death, he shows what covenant faithfulness looks like. This is the picture: a life freed from death through trust in a loving, forgiving creator God.

Jesus offers in place of perfections what the Psalmist calls “God’s steadfast love.” In his teaching about community, Jesus stresses something we talk about but have a hard time practicing: the role of forgiveness. The Greeks measure spirit by perfection; Jesus measures it by love. Here is how things work in the joyful community of Jesus: we’re equally brothers and sisters, we recognize in each other the image of a child of God, and when that child does something wrong, stumbles falls, even falls way down, we respond by encouraging repentance and offering forgiveness.

Jesus says that what we ought to do is stop trying to be perfect and start learning to forgive each other. How many times, his disciples ask? “Seventy times seven”, he responds, a way of saying: endlessly. The rhythm of life in Jesus is a constant sea of love where the waves peak and we are carried closer to God and the waves recede and we forgive and are forgiven.

This is what church life is supposed to look like. Of course, it often doesn’t, because we’ve often copied the world around. In this world, we increasingly hold out an image of perfection and then savagely attack those who seemed to embody it but fall short. We see it in politics, we see it in sports, we see it in the cult of celebrity. We see it in the screaming commentators on TV; we see it in the constant “gotcha” ping-pong of news. We have become Greeks and we use Jesus to help us look more perfect.

But what God hopes is that instead, we will let Jesus use us not to make the world more perfect but to teach it how to love, and how to forgive. God hopes we will teach the world the fundamental reality Jesus preaches here: that we can’t bear fruit except through an unfolding process, a process in which our imperfect seeds sprout and change and produce. That’s how God is working out this great purpose; that’s how God is perfecting the world, by teaching us that instead of being perfect, we can be loved as we are. Like a parent laughing at a child who has gotten dirty and summoning them to a bath, God knows we can always be cleaned up; God remembers who we really are underneath.

I’ve led a couple of churches with preschools and floating through the walls of my study, every day there would be a song signaling the end of the day:

Clean up, clean up, everybody do your share,

Clean up, clean up, everybody everywhere.

Things get messy; people get dirty. I don’t honestly know that everyone does do their part; I do know I love the song. In Jesus Christ, God is singing this same song, summoning all God’s children to clean up, clean up, asking all God’s children to do their part. If Bridget isn’t perfect, she is perfectly lovable and perfectly loved. So are you: so am I. In Jesus Christ, God is offering us forgiveness, cleaning us up, and getting us ready to sing the songs of glory in our heavenly home.

Amen.