Falling Forward

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor ©2024

Seventh Sunday After Pentecost/B • July 7, 2024

Mark 6:1-13

Jacquelyn and I like to travel to Spain. One of the benefits of her being a flight attendant is that we can fly inexpensively, so once a year we pick out a new place and pre-see it. What I mean is, Jacquelyn watches travel videos about the place, I look at suggested things to see. We get a sense of what it’s like to walk around before we ever set foot in the place. I mention all this because we’ve been reading through the first chapters of Mark’s Gospel, and that’s what he’s doing: giving us a tour, a preview, of what it looks like to walk with Jesus. So far, we’ve been to Capernaum, which is a bit like going from York to Harrisburg, we’ve been across Lake Galilee to an area that’s mostly Gentile and back again. We’ve seen him attract crowds, heal people in amazing ways, we’ve been amazed as he stilled a storm, so amazed we had to ask, with his friends, “Who is this?” Now he’s come home; now he’s back in Nazareth, where everyone knows him and his family lives. What can we learn about our life following him from this moment?

I wonder what it’s like for him to go home. Is he tired after his trip? Your mother is always glad to see you, so there’s that. It turns out he has a big family: four brothers, some sisters. Are some of them married with little kids running around? Moms always have some special thing they make for returning sons; my mother’s was coconut cream pie. The story says on the sabbath, he gets up and preaches at the synagogue. That was hard, I’m sure. I’ll let you in on a little preacher secret: it’s a lot easier to preach to a crowd of strangers than a little group who know you. I remember my first sermon at my home church. I was just 18 and they all knew me, I’d been leading the youth group and speaking in worship for years. They were proud to have one of their own going into the ministry. Everyone was very nice afterward but I heard someone say to my mother, “You must be so proud of Jim”, to which my mother replied more or less, “Well yes but you know it’s hard to listen to someone preach when you remember changing his diapers.”

So Jesus preaches in the synagogue; this is actually the last time in Mark we hear about him in a synagogue. It’s not clear what sort of reaction he gets. “Where did this man get all this?” Commentaries are divided on whether we should read this as praise or sarcasm. I think the latter and I think that because of what follows. Remember where we’ve been with Jesus: to the neighborhood, where he healed a man with a withered hand, though a storm he stilled, across the lake to Gersa, where he exorcised demons, to Capernaum where a woman was healed by just touching his clothes, and where he raised a little girl who had been thought dead. One amazing moment after another, but here at home, it says simply, “He could do no deed of power there…” Jesus is amazing until he gets home, where he fails. Right there, in front of the home town crowd, in front of all those family members, all those people he grew up with: nothing, fails, can’t do anything.

I know what that feels like. I worked in a growing church during seminary and when I graduated, I went out to a little Congregational church in Seattle that said they wanted to grow. There were about 25 of us most Sundays, a group that had split off from a large church downtown and bought a small building in the northern suburbs. I knew what to do; I’d read all the books on how to grow a church, I had the technique down. It took me a year but I convinced the church we should go out and call on people in the neighborhood. Now our neighborhood was a strange mix of everyone from single moms to retired folks to up-and-coming workers. I was sure this would work. It took hours and hours of planning, we printed up a really nice brochure, rehearsed what to say and finally off we all went one day. Our little group made about a hundred visits. I had calculated that we should expect to get a ten percent return, so figuring some of the visits would produce whole families, we got ready for 20 or 30 new people. We made sure there was extra food for coffee hour and waited. Nothing happened. No one came: not one visitor showed up on Sunday. The only immediate result was that some woman called me during the week and asked if we could help take care of her mother. It was a total failure. I was depressed for months. 

Jesus fails; we all fail. Are we failing as a church? Are we failing as churches? Last year, about 4,500 Protestant churches closed in the US. I could go on and cite statistics about church attendance and other measures, but that would just be even more depressing. What can we take from Jesus’ failure? What does he do? What Jesus does is keep teaching. “He was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about the villages teaching.” The other thing he does is send out the twelve in pairs. He gives them authority, he gives them directions. I’ll say more about that next week but for now, notice that what Jesus does about failure is to expand his ministry by sending out six pairs of healers. Notice when he sends them. It’s not after a mighty work; it’s when he fails. Jesus fails but he fails forward because of his faith in God.

That doesn’t look like failure, does it? Maybe the problem is our definition of success and failure. In Seattle, our definition of success was a lot more people sitting in pews. That didn’t happen. What did happen, though, was smaller and harder to track. The people in that church didn’t come from the neighborhood and had never cared much about it. But after some time walking around there, meeting people, they started to care. We changed some rules about membership; we learned to be grateful and welcoming when someone did show up and a few of those people stuck. We had a small choir you had to audition to join; we got rid of the audition and just let anyone sing, including a woman who couldn’t read a note of music but had a beautiful voice. The church building was next to an elementary school. We had discovered there were a lot of single parent families and after talking to the school social worker, we discovered there were a lot of kids who went home to empty houses, so we created the first latch key program in Seattle, an after school program where volunteers helped kids do homework, played games and fed them a snack. 

I’d love to say that the church took off and grew into a big, strong place, but it didn’t. When I left a couple of years later, it was still small, but it was a different place. It was a congregation where people were busy with various ways of helping in that neighborhood. At the end of this story in Mark, no deeds of power have been done. Except this one: those twelve guys who have just been following Jesus around are now off, practicing what Jesus preached. Is that success? What do you think? What is success following Jesus? Is it looking rich and powerful, or listening to him and doing what he says? This is what he says: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’  [Mark 1:15]. Every day,, we hear bad news: Jesus says, “Believe in the good news.” This is the good news: you are a child of God; so is everyone you meet. Living in the kingdom means acting like it. So does living in the neighborhood. Amen.


A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ, Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor © 2024

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost/B • June 30, 2024

Mark 5:21-43

We’ve just heard two stories about healings, and it’s tempting to just say, “Oh, that’s great, everything worked out.” But to really understand these stories, we’ve got to dig a little deeper and understand something about what’s called ritual purity in Jesus’ time. Let me explain it with a a story I heard this week about growing up in Appalachia on a farm. Sunday mornings, the storyteller and his four brothers all had a bath before church. Now keeping four boys clean while you wash the fifth had to be a chore, and his mother’s solution was to have all have them one by one as they got clean go sit on the couch. Ritual purity rules had to do with getting and staying clean in a way that made physical things an emblem of spiritual ones. These stories we read from Mark have a background we may not be aware of but would’ve been immediately obvious to any of the early Christians, all of whom were Jews. These aren’t just stories about healing—they’re also pictures of how Jesus dealt with those ritual purity rules. Those rules excluded many, many people. So let’s see how Jesus deals with these rules and these people and see what we can learn about how our lives as well.

Last week talked about Jesus crossing over to the gentile side of the Lake Galilee and this week we find him back on the Jewish side. For whatever reason, the lectionary has left out the story this year about what happened over there, but what happened is that he was casting out demons. 

Now he’s back and as he comes into town, there’s a crowd of people. Someone comes up, falls on their knees and begs Jesus to come to Jairus’ house, a leader in the synagogue. His daughter is ill, and Jesus is a well-known healer. So, Jesus and his disciples are pushing through the crowd when suddenly he stops. Have you ever done this, stopped in a crowd that’s moving? There must’ve been a bunch of them bumping into him. He turns to Peter and John and James and Andrew and says someone touched me. I think they must have rolled their eyes: they say, 5″You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

But this wasn’t just someone bumping into him. A woman who has had a hemorrhage, we’re told, for 12 years has touched his clothing. Can you imagine her? Can you feel her desperation.? Surely she had been to healers; surely she had tried everything. If it was today, she would have gone on the web, searched for a cure. There’s another underlying piece here, too. In this time, her hemorrhage made her ritually unsure. Anyone who touched her, especially a man, would become impure as well. Perhaps that’s why she doesn’t just ask Jesus. Can you see her in the crowd? I think of her as an older woman, determined, brave. Now she’s moving through the crowd, now she’s closer to this Jesus, now she reaches out her hand and touches his cloak. And the story says she is healed. Imagine her shock; imagine her surprise. 

Then Jesus wheels around. “Someone touched me.” Was she afraid? Would he take it back, could he take it back? You know, in my family, when someone said that someone had done something, especially if it was my mom or dad, my brothers and I always had one response: “It wasn’t me!” The crowd seems to be doing that: they pull back, leaving her alone, on her knees. What do you think? The story says she was fell down before him in fear and trembling. But he doesn’t take it back; he tells her to go be healed. Perhaps you heard this and thought, “What? I thought she was already healed!” The healing he means is actually like a hospital discharge; it’s a certification that she’s now pure again, it’s the gateway back to her friends and family. There’s detail here you might have mixed. So far in this story, the woman is nameless; she’s just a woman with a disease. But when Jesus talks to her, he calls her daughter. Instead of her making him impure, he’s made her pure again, part of the family. This is what Jesus does. This is what Jesus’ touch does. It heals and brings us into the family. 

Touch is a switchy thing, isn’t it? My dad was a snuggler when I was little. Those were the days of one TV in the house. He’d lie on the floor in front of it, my brother and I on either side. But when I grew up, we had a hard time touching. I didn’t see him often and when I did, we didn’t know what to do. Shaking hands didn’t seem to be enough; hugging was not in our playbook. My mother used to laugh at us, she said we were like two bears, trying not to get too close. Of course, we’ve all been through the COVID pandemic when touch was dangerous. We didn’t worry before that. In most of my pastorates, I went to the back after the benediction and everyone shook my hand. Suddenly, we couldn’t do that. Suddenly, I couldn’t touch someone in a hospital bed. We learned the fist bump. Our family says grace before dinner; we used to hold hands, but now we don’t quite know what to do: some nights it’s holding on, some nights it’s bumps.

This story goes on to Jairus’ house. People tell Jesus not to bother; the girl is too far gone, but when he gets there, he touches her and tells her to get up. This is important: touching a corpse will definitely make you impure under the rules. But Jesus never hesitates; he says that she’s sleeping and goes right on. 

Think of what that home must have been like: people weeping, people trying to hold it together, people at the end of their rope. The text says there was a commotion. There would have been food; someone always brings food. No one wants to eat, but the food is there. Jesus goes to the girl, never hesitates, touches her, and says, “Talitha cumi.” That’s an Aramaic phrase; Aramaic was the common spoken language of the time. It’s often translated, “Little girl, get up”, but that doesn’t really convey the meaning. ‘Talitha’ is a term of endearment; ‘cumi’ means get up or come on. So it’s more like saying, “Come on, sweetie”. And she does; he says, “Give her something to eat,” which might have been to show she wasn’t a ghost. Personally? I think he just thought she needed a snack. It’s also a way of saying, “You’re back to being part of the family.”

This is what Jesus does: he touches people and brings them back to life in their community. He never seems to worry about ritual purity; he never seems to pay attention to the rules of ritual purity. What seems to happen is that instead of the impurity flowing to Jesus, his purity, his love, makes people pure and heals them. The gospels have at least nine stories of healing and several summary statements where he heals everyone brought to him. All have in common Jesus touching someone and healing them. Most of the time, he sends them back to families, to communities, to their lives. It isn’t just about physical touch, either; there are people he touches by casting out their demons, people he touches with parables, people he touches by feeding them.

Now, this is a time for this church to think about its mission in the next chapter. Where do we want to go? What do we want to see happen? Every church I’ve ever served generally said, “We want to grow” but that’s not what Jesus does. Over and over in Mark, the big crowd is in the way; sometimes it’s hostile. The crowd is not the goal. What Jesus does is touch people and give them back heir lives. So if we’re going to walk with Jesus, if we’re going to live as disciples of Jesus, we’re going to have to figure out how to touch people like Jesus did, with the love of God, the love that heals souls.

I took a class on being an Interim Pastor a while back. One of the things the teacher said is that pastors are supposed to provide answers, but interim pastors are supposed to ask questions. So today, I want to leave you with some questions. How can this church touch people with the love and grace of Jesus Christ? How can we make sure our traditions aren’t barriers for others? How can we, like Jesus, leave people sure they are spotless before God, ready to share their God given gifts in loving ways?


Ohh! Woo! Wow!

A Sermon for the Locust Grove United Church of Christ of Locust Grove, PA

by Rev. James Eaton, Interim Pastor @ 2024

Fourth Sunday After Pentecost/Year B • June 9, 2024

Mark 4:26-34

“A man went out to sow.” It’s simple, isn’t it? Up in Galilee, where Jesus is speaking, most of the people are farmers. I imagine, just like us, they all have their morning ritual. What’s yours? Three mornings a week my version of going to sow is to get up early, take my daughter to a coffee place called Lil Amps. I buy her a latte, or whatever she wants; I get black coffee. We sit and talk for five minute and then announces, “Well, it’s time.” I wish her a good day, remind her I love her, and she walks off to her office in downtown Harrisburg. I take my coffee and go home, read the news, read my email and look at the scripture for the week. Jesus asks us to imagine a farmer, a regular guy, starting out his day: “A man goes out to sow.” Nothing special, nothing momentous, nothing out of the ordinary. But remember what he says first: this is an image, a parable, of the most momentous thing of all, the kingdom of God. Want to see God present? Look here, watch: a man goes out to sow.

My dad grew up on a farm, so we always had a garden. Each person grew their own crop. My job was sweet corn, and he taught me to make a little mound of dirt, put some fertilizer in the middle, then poke five holes around the edges; each one got a kernel of corn. Maybe you have a garden, and you have your own way of sowing, so let’s be clear what happens when a man in Galilee goes out to sow. He doesn’t carefully put down each seed; he doesn’t plow first and sow in the furrows. Grain was sown by walking through the field with a bag on your hip, reaching in, taking a handful and scattering it over the field In another parable, Jesus describes this. It’s what we should imagine here. A man goes out to sow, scattering the precious grain this way and that. Maybe he’s a poor man, and he’s calculated just how much he can afford to take away from the family as seed; maybe he’s worried about the harvest, maybe he’s hopeful it will be a good year. This is the kingdom, and it begins with seeds that hold a secret.

Not knowing is hard for us, I think. I had a class in biology in high school. One of the projects was to grow beans. Beans are usually pretty easy to grow but in my case, I was assigned to grow them in what was a new way, called hydroponics. Hydroponics is growing in water with nutrients dissolved. So I set it all up in a long half-tube, seeds and water and nutrients. And I waited. I waited about two days. Then I got impatient; the people who had been given little cups of dirt were seeing tiny sprouts, but I wasn’t. So I pulled the seeds up just to check. No sprouts. A couple of days later, I did the same thing. I kept pulling them out and I never saw a single sprout. At the end of the project, everyone else had little bean plants; I had seeds that had gotten stinky and molded. The teacher asked if I had any idea what happened. I told him how I’d pulled them up every day and I still remember how his eyes got wide, and he said, “Jim, you can’t force it, you have to wait.” I flunked. That’s one reason I’m here today instead of doing biology.

A man goes out to sow, and then he does—nothing. This is the part that always gets me in trouble with gardeners. “What? What about weeding? What about fertilizing? What about all the hard work?” Sorry, I don’t know. I just know what Jesus said: he sleeps and rises, night and day; he waits. He just waits. He doesn’t pull up the plants like I did; he waits. And Jesus points this out: “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” There is a process, there is a creative, God given process and the best the sower can do is wait. Waiting is hard, isn’t it? I’ve been to hundreds of church conferences over the years, times when clergy gather along with active lay people and talk about their year in the church. There are stories of successful stewardship campaigns, programs that turned out great, and things to try. I have never been to a single conference in almost 50 years when someone said, “Oh, we slept and rose, slept and rose; we waited.” 

Mark’s gospel is the closest of all the gospels to Jesus, and it alternates between two times. One is “Immediately!” When Jesus is baptized, immediately, the spirit drives him into the wilderness. When he calls his disciples, immediately they respond. When he heals, immediately the person is whole. ‘Immediately’ occurs 28 times in this short gospel, more than in Matthew and Luke put together. The other time that happens over and over again is that Jesus tells his disciples not to talk about the amazing things they see, the healings, the time on the mountain when he shines with a heavenly glow. It isn’t time to tell these things. Just like the man who went out to sow, they have to wait; they have to sleep and rise and let the unseen work of the Spirit go on, trust that God is working. 

Of course, the parable tells us, eventually the harvest comes. No sleeping then! I’ve lived in a couple of rural communities, and harvest is a time when nothing else matters. You rush and work as late as there’s light because once the crop is ripe, you only have so much time to get it in. Then, like Jesus in Mark’s gospel, everything is “Immediately!” What does the man who went out to sow do when it’s harvest time? He puts in the sickle, in other words, he uses everything he has to harvest the crop that was sown. 

What is the kingdom like? It’s a harvest, but it’s also these other times: sowing and waiting as well.  And one of the most important questions to ask in a church is: what time is it? It’s a question our consistory ought to be asking, it’s a question for the search committee, it’s a question for all of us: what time is it here? Is it time for sowing? Is it time for waiting? Is it time for harvest? Because if we wait when it’s time for sowing, we’ll never get anywhere; if we try to harvest when it’s time for waiting, we just end up with moldy beans.

Perhaps this is what Paul is trying to teach the Corinthian Christians. He says, “We walk by faith, not by sight.” That sounds like someone who understands the Spirit’s work is not always visible, like the sower who sleeps and rises while the earth produces of itself. And finally, he comes to the harvest moment.

5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
[ 2 Corinthians 5:16-17]

Wow! God isn’t just improving things, God is making a whole new creation!

Jesus doesn’t want us to miss that wow. So we have this other parable about a mustard seed. I used to think of this as a story about gradual growth, from little to big, but I’ve become convinced that it’s not about growth at all. It’s about wow. You know the wow moment? In a couple of weeks we’re going to celebrate the fourth of July and most places will have fireworks. We have a boat in a slip in Baltimore that’s just across a little water from Fort McHenry, where the “rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air” actually happened almost 210 years ago. Every year there’s the same conversation. A colored rocket shoots up giving off sparks and someone says “oooh!!!” And then another, sometimes bigger and there’s a “woooo” and finally at the end when all the rockets shoot off, someone will always say “wow!” 

Christ invites us to the same “oooh! Wooo! Wow!” With the story of the mustard seed. All over Galilee, mustard was a plant that grew wild in the ditches and along roads. Left alone, it spreads and grows up in the summer to big bushes. But this growth isn’t the point: the point is that looking at tiny mustard seeds, you’d never expect a big shrub. Look at Jesus: you’d never expect a resurrection. Look at us: you’d never expect a new creation. But there he is; here we are. The last part about the birds making nests isn’t just artistic license; it’s actually a reference to a story in the book of Daniel. The nesting birds are a symbol of God’s New Creation. They’re meant to make us go, “Wow!”

What does the kingdom of God look like? It looks like someone sowing, someone waiting, someone harvesting, each at the right time. What time is it here? 

What does the kingdom of God feel like? It feels like the unbelievable surprise of something tiny becoming the means of a whole new creation. Something small: like you, like me. 



Resurrection Now

Resurrection Now

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY

by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor © 2020 All rights reserved

Easter Sunday/A • April 12, 2020

Acts 10:34-43 Matthew 28:1-10

What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You do what you did last time. You do it whether it worked or not; you do it whether it makes sense or not. Most of our life is cooked up from a series of recipes. What should we do? Look at your handbook; look at what worked before, ask someone what worked for them. This is why this is such a difficult time: we don’t have a recipe for a pandemic. We’re trying to do the same thing but under different conditions. I understand the pastors of churches in other areas who insist on having in person services today. They’re wrong, they’re listening to the past instead of what Jesus is saying today, but I understand it. Every pastor looks forward to Easter, prepares for Easter; we all do. What do you do when something prevents you doing what you have always done? You try to do it anyway. You go back to your recipes.

No Handbook for Easter

But there’s no handbook for Easter, no cookbook for resurrection. We’ve just heard the story of two women in the midst of something unimaginable; one of those stories you read in the newspaper and wince about, one of those tales you hear and think, “Thank God that’s not me”. Their friend, their leader, the man who guided their lives and gave those lives light has been crucified. It’s a horrible, tortuous death. They don’t know what to do so they do what they did the last time someone died: they’re on the way to bury him properly. But they’re about to experience an earthquake, they’re about to come face to face with the real Easter. This is the Easter story: you start out to bury Jesus and end up proclaiming his life. You lose your friend and find the Lord.

Can you see them on the way to the tomb? They’ve come to properly bury Jesus. They wonder about the difficulty; they’ve brought the things they’ll need. Ancient Palestinian tombs were cave like places where families gathered for picnics, where they went to remember and they are going to get everything ready. They are following a map from the past, as we do. We look at its ways, we check off its steps. They are not prepared for Jesus’ death; nothing prepares us for death. But they are prepared for him to be dead. They know what to do: they do what they did last time. Matthew tells the story with care. Everything is just as expected. It’s early, just after dawn; the soldiers are guarding the tomb, the world is quiet, Jesus is dead and buried. They are doing what they did last time.

On the Way

Then everything changes. Matthew says there is an earthquake; perhaps the true earthquake is the stunning surprise when their map suddenly disappears, when last time is no guide to right now. Jesus isn’t there. None of the gospel accounts tell the details of the resurrection; all the accounts agree that the women went to a tomb, expecting the dead Jesus, and found he wasn’t there. What they did last time, what they believed from their past, what they knew about things staying the same suddenly didn’t apply. Instead, they meet a strange angelic figure; instead, they are told three things: don’t be afraid, go tell what you’ve seen, meet me in Galilee, back home. The surprise of Easter is that Jesus is not done with them; Jesus is not done with us.

New things scare us. Think of the first day in a new school, first day on new job—all the firsts of life. These women were prepared to bury Jesus, they’re not prepared to have a conversation with him. Yes, they are scared and notice how the first thing he does is care for them. There is a great lesson for us in these words. Because we are scared. We’ve encountered something new and we don’t know how to control it. When we lose control, it’s frightening so first like those women we need to hear from Jesus these words this Easter: “Don’t be afraid!” There’s a summons to faith. They ask: can you believe even in this time of quarantines and lockdowns and people sickening and dying that our lives are in the hands of God? Can we believe that God’s care really is beyond life and death and anything else in all creation? If we do and we believe God is in charge, then we really can leave our fear behind even in the face of this new challenge.

Making Sense of Go in Lockdown

When their fear is calmed, Jesus tells the women to, “Go tell my disciples to go to Galilee…” What is Christian life? Is it sitting in a pew? All the gospels speak of a Jesus who is constantly on the move, from Galilee to Samaria, from Samaria to Jerusalem, from one healing to another, from one moment to another. So following him means moving with him. Now the question is: how do we make sense of “Go” when we’re in lockdown?

The answer is to stop letting it be someone else’s job and make it yours. We all have many ways to go to others: we have telephones, we have email, we have a call across the street to a neighbor. One of problems of these days without the usual structure of work is how to make an agenda. Our family is doing that with a set of questions for each day. One of them is, “Who am I checking in with today?” Who are you calling today who needs to know through you that they are a beloved child of God? That’s how you go, that’s how you tell someone Jesus is alive.

The last thing he says to the women is that he’ll meet them in Galilee, back home. This may be the strangest thing of all. Jesus isn’t done with them. They came to a tomb. They came to bury him. They are already grieving for him because they thought he was in the past. But he isn’t; he’s out there, already on the way and hoping they will follow him. And he’s hoping the same thing about us.

This living Jesus in the world always surprises us. Think of Peter, perhaps a few years later, speaking to the same sort of Roman official who ordered Jesus’ crucifixion, saying this amazing thing: that God doesn’t show any partiality. God doesn’t love Americans better than anyone else, God doesn’t love the rich better than anyone else, God doesn’t love you any better than anyone else.

This is a new time. I don’t mean the pandemic, I don’t mean a virus, I mean Easter. This may be the truest Easter of all. We’re used to cooking up Easter from a set of recipes. What does Easter mean? Does it mean Easter baskets full of candy, colored eggs, special music in church and a great service of celebration? Does it mean lilies and a full church and an egg hunt? We can all cook from this recipe and we don’t like changing it. That’s why I understand, as I said at the outset, those who want to follow the recipe as much as they can.

But Easter doesn’t mean going to brunch and decorating eggs: it means going to the tomb. It means being so scared because things have changed that even the Lord has to tell you, only the Lord can tell you, “Do not be afraid”. It means recognizing that this is a new time and there is no going back, that the old recipes won’t work anymore and we have to find new ways. Those recipes are for how to get along in the world as it was. But the world is a tomb and our call is not of this world, our call is not in this world. We are called like the women of this story to get up and get going. Jesus is not here; Jesus is gone, Jesus is gone to Galilee, Jesus is gone to glory.

And this is what he says to us: don’t be afraid, get moving. If he could escape the tomb so can you; if he can live again, so can you, you don’t have to fear death. Get up: you’re not done, you’re not finished but you aren’t here to do what you thought, he has a new purpose and a different mission for you. Get up: go find him.

Resurrection Now!

Jesus is not done with us; Jesus is not done with you. Today, this day; tomorrow, and all the tomorrows, may you see him with you. For he is not buried long ago and if we seek him there, we will not find him. He’s not in the past; he’s not only in the future. Resurrection is not about the past or the future it is about the present. Resurrection is now. We should look where he said: going ahead of us, inviting us to follow today, where he is going today. In a way, the pandemic has done us an accidental favor. It’s stripped away all the Easter decorations so we can see the real Easter. The real Easter is embracing the new reality that Jesus is risen and setting out to find him.

We will find him where he said: in the eyes of the homeless, in the service of the hungry. “I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” We will find him when we make the resurrection of those around us more important than our own customs. We will find him when we are more interested in following him than finding our own way. We will find him when, as Paul says, we have the mind of Christ in our own mind.

Then, then indeed, Easter will come not only for us, but from us. Then, our church, our lives, will proclaim this glad news, “He is risen!” for he will be risen, risen in us, and we will have found him. All the decorations, all the baskets and other customs won’t matter. For we will be busy following him, and just like the women at the tomb on that first Easter, worshipping him.


All Together Now!

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor – Copyright 2016
Trinity Sunday/C • May 22, 2016

Click Here to Hear the Sermon Being Preached

When I was 15, I played the trumpet and my band director was Mr. Tilton. Mr. Tilton was a graduate of the University of Michigan and its marching band, the finest marching band in the world, as he constantly reminded us. We were not the finest marching band but we did try to play and walk at the same time. Eventually we would get out-of-order and Mr. Tilton would stop us, make biting comments about people who wanted to be soloists instead of part of a band, and then gather us again with the words, “All together now.” I imagine that God is a bit like Mr. Tilton, always trying to make the lines straight and the music sweet, occasionally frustrated by our wandering off out of step.


Today is Trinity Sunday and I hope to explore this with you for a few moments, because this is the heart of God’s all together now. I have to admit: the idea of talking about the trinity makes me nervous. The first time I tried, I was asked to leave a church. I was 12 and a member of a confirmation class at a Methodist church. The minister was following some outline and told us God was three in one, a trinity. This didn’t make sense to me and I said so. He said it was a matter of faith. I told him I didn’t understand it; he said it was a mystery. I said, “You don’t understand it either.” My mother was invited not to bring me to confirmation again. That’s part of how I became a Congregationalist.

Now that I’m a minister with grey hair of my own, I’m embarrassed to realize I put that poor man in such a position. What I realize is that I was probably right; he probably didn’t understand it any better than I do. Since then, I’ve learned lots of tricky ways of talking about how something can occur in three states. There’s the ice-water-steam one; there’s the fact that we all have different roles. But all those do is say what we all know, that we have different names for different occasions. How can it be that God is not just differently named but is different? And why would we care?

The Presence of God

When we look at the God of the Bible, there is such passion, such power, that it can be embarrassing. We show up and smile at each other; Jesus shows up and demons bark and groan, people get healed, governors get angry. We show up when there is trouble and say, “I’ll do what I can”; the Father shows up and slaves go free, prophets convict kings, the world is remade. We show up and hope to feel better; the Holy Spirit shows up and people there are tongues of fire and people change in amazing ways.. The trinity is important because it’s what God is doing and what God is doing is always passionate, always restless, always creative.

How should we understand this trinity? It’s common to offer one of those little metaphors I mentioned earlier to suggest all three persons of the trinity, father, son and holy spirit, are really the same thing. But a better idea of the trinity is the church itself. We are a noisy, shuffling lot. We have different opinions, other stuff gets in our way, we move forward at a pace that can seem agonizing. There is an old TV series called Seventh Heaven that centers on a Protestant minister and his family. It always makes our family roll our eyes. The minister on the show hangs around his house a lot and when someone, anyone, has a problem, he says, “We need to talk about that.” He does different things but one thing he almost never does is go to a committee meeting.

We are Congregationalists; we are all about our meetings. There are the Boards, the church council, Congregational meetings—it’s each one with a group of people, sitting around, minutes, agenda, and discussion. But that’s who we are together. And there is a personality to the whole; there is a great and wonderful loving personality to this whole church that is more than any of us together yet without each of us, it is less. God is like that, I think: a constant, eternal conversation, a constant, eternal example of loving engagement.

God Is a Talker

Why should God appear in three different persons? If we search the scriptures, the very first thing we learn is that God is a talker. God speaks: creation results. “And God said…” rolls like thunder through the opening verses of Genesis and the effect flashes like lightning on the roiling waters of chaos, turning it into a world of order where life is possible. God speaks and what was darkness becomes the ordered progression of light and night and time is the result; God speaks and what was slurry of water and dirt turns into places and farms; God speaks and the wilderness becomes a garden. From the very beginning, God is talking and all talkers want an audience. The passionate preaching of the father speaks to the spirit and the son and we overhear the conversation. And conversation takes partners. So God exists in the conversation of father, son and Holy Spirit.

Conversation and Connection

The goal of the conversation is connection. At the heart of the mystery of God is a loving, passionate pursuit of another so that God is only known through the exchange back and forth of persons. Christian faith has never been about a set of principles. Buddhism has its eight-fold path of principles; we have these three persons, father, son, Holy Spirit. Jesus did not come announcing a philosophy and he did not preach a principle: he offered himself, he presented himself. He didn’t say, look, here is a set of directions for finding your way, he said, “I AM the way.” It’s personal: it’s particular. What we have to learn over and over again is that approaching God is approaching a person, knowing a person, being known as persons ourselves.

Like all ongoing relationships, the conversation has some constant themes. One theme is the determination of the father to gather the whole world back into a garden of perfect concord and the way the son demonstrates what this looks like. Jesus is not just the bringer of a message: he is the message, you can’t get the message without living his life. And the means of that life is the invisible power of the Spirit that moves like a wind, invisible yet powerful, filling the sails of all who seek it.

Imagining the Trinity

What does the trinity look like? It looks like communion, I think. When we gather around the communion table, we remember that lives are lived in the drama of bodies and promises. We are not only creatures of spirit; we hurt, we hunger, we hope. We come as individual persons, seeking connection, and in these common elements, we join into one body. We sit silent and alone but we turn to each other and say, “the peace of God be with you, and also with you.” We know we have failures in our past but we lift the cup and promise our future faithfulness.

This is God, in us, with us, and its power is unfathomable. It is a power that breaks slavery; it is a power that does miracles. It is a power profound in its pursuit of a connection so deep, so complete, that indeed the three are one; so deep, so complete, that we ourselves, all of us, become one and in that one the love of God is bursting forth. All together now: God is a community of persons, father, son, spirit calling to us to say: you also—all together now. March!


De Nada: Learning the Lord’s Prayer 4

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Fourth Sunday in Lent • March 6, 2016

The summer I turned 14, I had an operation to remove most of my thyroid. When I woke up, I hurt every time I lifted my chin; it took all summer to heal. I was left with a bright red raised scar of which I was painfully conscious. I made up stories about it: that I’d been in a knife fight, and I wore a lot of turtle neck shirts. The scar faded but I still saw it every morning, first thing, in the mirror. I still explained about it, increasingly as I got olde,r to people who hadn’t noticed it. It’s still there. Do you have scars? Don’t we all? What would it take to heal them?

“Forgive us as we forgive,”Jesus says. Let’s start with the problem. I’m sure you noticed when I quoted Jesus, I left something out. In both versions of the Lord’s prayer, he doesn’t say “Forgive us…” He says, “Forgive us…” and then there’s a word. If you grew up Methodist or Catholic it’s trespass; if you grew up Congregational, it’s debts. If you have been around Lutherans, chances are you say ‘sins’, which is also popular in a lot of newer churches. Forgive us our debts. Forgive us our trespasses. Forgive us our sins. What does he have in mind?

This is the point where there is a temptation to wander off and show you what I know about Greek, the language the New Testament is written in. I could talk about this for a long time, long enough for you to snatch a nap. But I’m not going to. For one thing, it’s too early for a nap and for another, Jesus didn’t say the Greek word either. Jesus almost certainly spoke Aramaic, not Greek. And he used an Aramaic word here. What does it mean? That’s hard to say. Say trespass and you think, or at least I do, of going to a construction site and taking lumber to build a tree house. But I’m not sure Jesus was worried about lumber or boys or tree houses. Say debt and I think of my credit card bills; did Jesus care about credit scores? Probably not.

So we’re left with sins. That’s a tough one. Congregational ministers don’t talk about sins much anymore; we leave that to Baptists. When we do, we tend to like to talk about sins we don’t do. I remember once sitting with a bunch of ministers at a meeting. This was quite a while ago, when “a bunch of ministers” meant middle aged men who are a little too jolly and can tell you to a decimal point the average attendance at their church and who tend to be a bit fluffy. It’s not their fault. Every church has someone like Arvilla or Joanne who makes cakes and things and it would be rude not to eat them. We grow out of concern for their feelings.

So we are sitting there, munching on pieces of cake some woman in the church had prepared. It was long enough ago that the big issue was gay folks in church. I always thought this was a weird issue; I mean we’ve always had gay folks in church, the real issue wasn’t about having them it was about letting them be honest about who they were without fear. So they were discussing this and gay marriage and most of them were against it. They could really talk about the sin of homosexuality, Bible verses and all. It was impressive. I didn’t have much to say. So I just sat there eating cake and I looked around and realized every one of us was married to a woman. And every one of us was overweight.

So when it was my turn to talk, I said that I thought the cake was really good and since we were all straight there, and all overweight, maybe we should talk about the sin of gluttony, of eating too much. Then I shut up and tried to think how I could get another slice of cake and the table erupted. They did not think this was appropriate; they thought I was making fun of them. We’d all rather talk about someone else’s sins than our own. But we all have them, just like we all have scars.

What does Jesus mean? The word he uses certainly means doing wrong. In our culture, we tend to associate sin with sexual stuff but Jesus actually talks more about economic sins, that is, the sin of letting money get in our way. The word he uses also means “foolishness”. Now that’s something because throughout the Hebrew scriptures there’s a constant play between the notion of being wise—doing what God wants—and being foolish—doing whatever we want, regardless of what God says.

In fact, the original sin had nothing to do with sex, it rose out of the desire to be God like. The serpent says to Eve that she can be like God and she goes for it, inviting Adam along with her. It’s the choice of self over God that makes her stumble.

In fact, The same word also means stumble. That’s something I can understand: I stumble frequently. I mean, I’m walking along and not paying attention and POOF! ouch. Something brings me to a halt. So foolishness, stumbling. Those are part of what he’s talking about, along with scars from injuries and things that make us cover up what we’ve done because we’re ashamed. So from here on out I’m going to use the word ‘sins’ but I trust you to remember it means all these things: scars, selfishness, stumbling.

What he says then is this: Forgive us our sins as we forgive the sins of others. Look what he does here: he connects these two. That is to say, the experience of forgiveness—being forgiven—is linked to the expression of forgiving: forgiving someone else. You get both or you get neither one. Think of the story of the prodigal we read this morning. You know, I have to admit right here that there is such a temptation for me to preach on this text instead of going along with the Lord’s Prayer. I’m trying to resist but if this sermon goes over 45 minutes, you’ll know I failed. I hope you’ll forgive me. I’m going to try to resist; come back in three years, when the text comes up again, and hear a sermon on it then.

I just want you to notice one thing in the story. When the son returns, his father embraces him. Wow: would you do that? Think how angry the father must have been when the son left. That dad knew just what would happen, parents always do. And it did. So the son comes back; there must have been a temptation to say, “Ok, fine you’re home, I’ll give you one more chance.” There must have been a temptation to set a condition on that love but he never once does: he just embraces him. That’s forgiveness. We usually talk about it as the father forgiving the son but there must have been something between them, some ugliness for the son to want to leave and what his bad experience helped him do was forgive his father. The father embraces his son; but the son also embraces his father. It’s the mutuality of the moment that inspires. We can’t experience forgiveness without expressing forgiveness; we can’t express forgiveness without experiencing it.

Forgiveness is a key part of Jesus’ mission. One of the things that angers his opponents is forgiving sins. When his own disciples ask for a rule on just how much forgiveness they have to do, when they want a church policy on forgiveness, he tells them 70 times 7, meaning—unlimited, unlimited forgiveness. The reason is something we talked a bit about last week: Jesus wants us here and now, in the present, in the presence of God. We can’t get there without forgiveness, which means we can’t get there without forgiving, since the two are so tightly linked together.

We can’t get there because of what I call “the ghosts”. The ghosts are all those things in our past that influence our behavior in the present. Maybe someone hurt you in the past; you’re not going to talk to them again. Maybe someone made you angry in the past; you’re not going to have lunch with them again. Maybe someone betrayed your trust; you’re not going to trust them again. We could go on and on but here’s what Jesus knows: all these ghosts in our past are whispering in our ear who not to talk to, who not have lunch with, who not to trust. Look at the story of the prodigal again: all the elder brother at the end talks about is the past, the past where he worked, while his brother went off to play. All our stumbles, all our scars, all our sins are still there, all our past is still there, all our hurts are still there, until they are forgiven. All our guilt about the times we made someone stumble, the time we injured someone, the times we sinned against someone are still there, until they are forgiven. It’s all about the past but as William Faulkner said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” As long as all that past is still influencing us, it’s here and we’re living in the past.

How do we do this? I think many of us just assume somehow it will happen, like grass growing, like geese returning in the spring. Jesus calls us to choose forgiveness and t these are some of the choices we can make. One is simply to focus ourselves on the present and future. I mentioned last week how hard it can be to choose the present sometimes. Nevertheless, hard choices train us spiritually. When we live in the present, we choose what’s here, not what was here. A second thing we can do is to control our own internal conversation. A woman I know who was terribly hurt through the betrayal of some people she trusted said, “I wanted to stop reading the obituaries with hopeful anticipation. That turned out to be too much. So I started with just not reading the obituaries.” One person I know said about forgiveness, “Every time I got angry, I would just pray. Sometimes the prayers were angry but they were still prayers.”Prayer turns us toward God and God is love. When we let that love in, we heal.

If you are serious about praying, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done”, as we talked about a couple weeks ago, there’s no option, there’s no choice: you have to learn to forgive; you have to learn to accept forgiveness. Forgiveness, forgiving: they mean to put the past in the past. They mean to embrace the present; they mean to let us feel God’s embrace. Neither is easy.

Forgiveness comes in many flavors, from dealing with little bumps and scratches to a full on, long term process. Either one begins with a choice: I’m not going to live in the past, I’m going to choose to walk forward with Jesus, and shoo away those ghosts. Like my friend said, stop reading the obituaries, if that’s the one step you can take. Refuse to remember the hurt. Of course you will remember it—at first. But what we refuse to bring back, subsides. Like the scar on my neck, things fade and if we let them fade, we are free to move forward. We’re still going to stumble and that’s where the dailiness of this prayer comes in: every day, we need to forgive to move forward, every day we need to be forgiven, to move forward along the way of Jesus.

We can do it because we’re following Jesus; we can do it because it’s where he’s going. Remember what he said on the cross? “Forgive them.” He hopes we will do the same, when we stumble, when we sin, when we believe our scars are so obvious no one could love us. He wants to heal those scars; he wants us to feel forgiveness for our sins. He means to make us over into the people God intended. So we can choose to keep stumbling along on our own, keeping track of every hurt, every failure of hope, every time someone wronged us. We can live in that past—or we can get up, get going with Jesus, asking forgiveness and accepting it as well.

I don’t really speak Spanish but there’s a Spanish expression I love. You say it when someone says “thank you” or “I’m sorry”: de nada. It means something like “It’s nothing”. When we come to God, with all our scars, all our stumbles, all our sins, Jesus wants us to know God says, “De nada”—and embraces us. He wants us to practice that by doing it for each other. “Forgive us our debts, our trespasses, our sins, as we forgive our debtors, trespassers, those who sin against us.” If we pray it, if we do it, if we learn it, one day we discover: we know that God is hears the prayer, and we can go home to our true home.


Who’s In Charge Here? – Learning to Pray the Lord’s Prayer, Lent 2


by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Second Sunday in Lent • February 21, 2016

A fisherman and his wife lived in an old dirty hut alongside a lake in Bavaria. Every day the fisherman went out to the lake and every day he returned with his catch. One day, the fisherman’s net caught a golden fish. The fish spoke to him and said, “If you throw me back, I will grant you any wish you desire.”
The fisherman thought about it, and being of simple means he could think of no want, so he let the fish go. Upon returning to the dirty old hut that night, he told the tale to his wife.

“You should have asked him for a nice cottage,” she said. “I would love to move out of this filthy hovel.”
So the next morning, the fisherman approached the lake and called out for the fish. The water bubbled and the fish surfaced. It asked, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She would like a nice cottage to live in.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough their filthy hut was replaced with a nice cottage.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our nice cottage by the lake.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was choppy. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Princess of Bavaria and live in a fine castle.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the cottage was replaced with a castle. There were battlements and guard towers and soldiers all around. His wife greeted him splendidly dressed as a princess.
The next morning his wife said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace!”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing. Let us be happy in our Bavarian castle.”
But his wife insisted and persisted, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was boiling and turbulent. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wishes to become Empress of Prussia and live in a grand palace.”
“Your wish is granted. Go home and see.”

The fisherman returned home, and sure enough the castle was replaced with a grand palace. It was larger, with more soldiers, more battlements, and more guard towers.
He went in to see his wife and said, “Surely you are happy now. There is nothing greater than being the Empress of Prussia, and no palace greater for you to live in.”
She said, “We shall see. I want to sleep on it and discuss it on the morrow.”
In the morning, she roused the fisherman and said, “Go back and ask that fish for another wish. I want to be the Pope, and live in the grandest palace of all.”
The fisherman said, “Oh no, wife. That is too much. Do not make me ask the golden fish for such a thing.”
She said, “Why not?”
“Well, for one thing, they only let men become popes.”
But his wife insisted and persisted. He said, “Let us be happy in our Prussian palace!”

But she said, “I want to become like God, and order Nature to do my bidding, and tell the sun and moon when to rise and command the stars in the sky above!”
She extolled and cajoled, and eventually he agreed to ask the golden fish for this wish.
He went down to the lake, and the water was dark and roiling. He called for the fish and its head appeared above water. It said, “What do you want?”
“It’s not for me, but my wife. She wants to become like God.”
“Go home. She is sitting in your filthy old hut.”

So the fisherman returned home, and all was as before. He and his wife cleaned the old hut, and lived out their days in peace.
There are many versions of this story, the one here was taken from
The Story of the Golden Fish

What did you think while you heard this story? Did you sympathize with the fisherman or the wife? Can you imagine just wanting more, like she did, more space, finer things, more power? Did you know from the beginning how it would end? I went searching for stories of people who wanted to be in charge this week and there were so many I was overwhelmed. I knew from the beginning in each how it would end. So did you, I expect. Here’s my question: if we know how it will end, why do we keep doing it?

The Bible has stories of people like this. One is right near the beginning, but we often remember it wrong. Adam and Eve are newly created, without anything covered. They live in a beautiful garden doing a little weeding here and there, taking care of it and in the middle of the garden there’s a tree they’ve been told not to touch. One day a serpent points out the tree to Eve and Eve, who is the first theologian, expounds God’s Word regarding the tree. But at the end, Eve takes the fruit from the tree and shares it with Adam. Why? It’s not clear from the story exactly. But we all know don’t we? I told this story to a group of children once. One of them said, “Why did God tell them not to take that fruit, it just makes you want it more when someone says don’t eat it.” Yeah: she had it right—we just want more, until like the woman in the story we have so much that we have nothing. We fall. We live in the midst of the storms of life, and we think if we just had more, more power, more money, more something we could still the storm and sail safe.

Theologians have names for this: “original sin” is one, “total depravity” is another. Those are deep dark concepts, caves that take some time to explore, you need to put on a head light and have some equipment to go spelunking there. But you don’t need all that to know what we’re talking about; you really just have to look in your own heart. You just have to think about why we buy powerball tickets when the prize gets over a hundred million dollars. You just have to look at how we run things when we’re given the chance. Look at our own history. The Puritans are kicked around England until they finally leave and come to Massachusetts. “They came for freedom!”, our happy history teaches us. Truth is, once they got settled in, they turned around and started kicking other people out, sent them to Rhode Island. Yes, we want to be king and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

Jesus lived in a highly structured society, a hierarchy where wealth and gender and where you came from mattered. It mattered that you were male; it mattered that you had money. It mattered whether you were Roman or Jewish or Samaritan. All these things and many more were set against the human desire for more and the competition was often bloody and violent. It was a time of peasant revolts, it was a moment when Roman soldiers crucified thousands up and down the roads around Jerusalem. So we read these words in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come”, calmly, quietly. But to Jesus and to the ones who first heard them, these were fiery words, fighting words, scary words. For kingdom is a political term and kings that will tolerate wandering preachers take action when the preaching turns to kingdom.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to be raising a political movement. Instead, as he does so often, Jesus is speaking beyond politics to the deeper reality of human souls. Living in a moment when the Roman empire was worshipped as a God, he calls his people back to this one fundamental reality: we are here to serve God, praise God, worship God. All the human agencies, all the human divisions, everything human is nothing compared to the majesty of God’s rule. That’s part of the lesson in the story of the fisherman. A poor couple are given an unbelievable chance to better themselves. Imagine them waking up in the nice cottage described at the beginning: running water, a beautiful setting. But it doesn’t satisfy. So the places get bigger and better: a castle, a palace. The drive focuses on power, as it always does. What is more? Be a queen, be an empress, until finally it ends with the desire to be God. We are back to the garden at that point: seeking the thing that will make us not just more but most.

Jesus calls us back from this journey to destruction. “Who’s in charge here?”, he implicitly asks. Is it the relentless drive for more?—or can we choose to understand ourselves in a different way? “Thy kingdom come” says first and foremost that we are not living on our own; we are living in the realm of a greater power, subject to a greater command than our own desires. To honestly pray “Thy will be done” is to say my own will, my own desire is not the most important. And in that moment, all those human things matter less than that one fact, that one will, God’s will. What is God’s will? That’s easy, it’s written all over the scriptures, all over the religious traditions of thousand years. “Love God, love your neighbor as yourself.” All the human categories of Jesus’ time and ours fall apart before this great command. Gender, money, celebrity, race and where you came from—they mean nothing compared to this one great command and the desire to live not from our own wills but from the will of God. It’s hard to live this way. Yet this is the choice Jesus puts before us: live from yourself, in the world where differences matter and the great drive is more, or live in the realm of God’, the kingdom of God, asking every day, “Thy will be done.”

This week I saw a movie that expressed this thought fully. It’s called The Finest Hours and it tells the story of a group of four young Coast Guardsmen in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, who were charged in a great storm to go out into the North Atlantic and rescue men on a ship that was sinking. I’m a sailor; I stay home when the waves mound up, when the wind blows beyond a certain point. “Small craft warning” means stay in port. But I’m just sailing for myself; these men had a higher calling. So knowing they are risking their lives, they go out into the terror of the sea to redeem the lives of strangers they’ve never met. “They say you have to go out, you don’t have to come back”, is an old Coast Guard mantra. These are people living from a greater ethic than more; they know what it is to give your life to a greater cause. In the event, they were successful; 32 men were saved that day. They were saved because four men lived not from what they wanted but from what they were called to do.

“Thy kingdom come,” Jesus prays and invites us to pray: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” The transition is clear and critical. For it is when we live from God’s will, when this prayer condenses into lives that bits of heaven become evident on earth. When we lives out this prayer, we are making heaven on earth. For the true heaven comes not from miracle fishes or bigger and better palaces, not from more, not from us at all. Heaven comes when the kingdom of God appears. This is the mission of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Mark says it all:

Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ [Mark 1.14bf]

Jesus comes to bring heaven to earth by proclaiming God’s rule, living from God’s rule. And his words and his life confront us with this choice: will we make his prayer our lives? This morning we read the story of a storm he stills. We all face storms; they blow into our lives and challenge us and ask, “Who’s in charge here?” When we pray, when we live, saying indeed, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done”, the storms are stilled; heaven is brought to earth.

Wonder Wonders – Epiphany Sunday – Jan 3, 2016

You can hear this sermon preached by clicking here

A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor • Copyright 2016 All Rights Reserved
Epiphany Sunday/C • January 3, 2016

Among the figures that populated my grandmother’s nativity scene, none were more impressive than the Three Kings. Made of carved wood and painted in bright colors, the Kings sat on camels linked together by gold colored chains and they had little treasure boxes that fitted behind them, boxes which opened and could be made to contain real treasures: bits of gold from the chocolate coins my grandfather gave us or some other thing that became a treasure just by being secret. I never cared much about the cattle or the sheep or the fat little shepherd boys but my brother and I played with the Kings until their chains broke and one of the camels lost a leg. Even broken, their gold almost rubbed off, the Three Kings seemed to contain the real wonder of the nativity just as they contained our treasures. Obviously we weren’t alone in our fascination. The fascination and emphasis we put on Christmas is unique to our culture; Eastern Christianity, most European Christians and the rest of the world spend far more time on the celebration of Epiphany than on Christmas. It is their moment for gift giving and reflecting on God’s gifts. Too often for us, Epiphany comes as an after thought to Christmas: a time to finish vacuuming the pine needles and get back to normal. Today I want to call you out from the normal to a story that promises to let your heart swell with joy and invites us to wonder.
Perhaps it’s best to begin by putting the creche figures back, letting go of the stories that people have made up, and seeing what Matthew tells us about the Magi. Magi means “Wise Ones”—and that’s what they are; only later did a legend grow up that named them and called them kings. The Magi were astrologers: watchers of the sky who look for meaning in the stars, relating patterns in the planets to prophecies. Suddenly one night they see some conjunction, some stellar event in a region of the sky called the House of the Hebrews and their prophetic books tell them that there is a special king expected in the land of Judah. So they go: packing up, joining a caravan, just as settlers once crossed this continent by waiting in St. Louis for a wagon train. They take the ancient caravan route, the route that Abraham would have traveled, the route traveled by merchants and slaves and conquerors for thousands of years and about a year or so later they come to Jerusalem.
What does it feel like when you get somewhere after a long trip? Maybe you were in the car for days and the wrappers from old hamburgers and drink cups litter the back seat. Maybe your airplane finally lands and you impatiently wait for the aisle to clear, grab your stuff and hurry into the airport only to realize you’re not sure which way to go. Once arrived in Jerusalem, surely the Magi would have found rooms in some tavern, cleaned up, hired a translator, made an appointment to see King Herod. This is a small country they’re visiting, after all; they themselves are from a richer, older capital. Stil,l visiting a King is serious business. They are there, but not all the way there yet. Last October, Jacquelyn and I went to Spain. We flew for what seemed an endless time until we landed in Barcelona. But Barcelona wasn’t where we were really going; that was a little town somewhere up the coast. We just assumed we could get directions but the directions were in Spanish. Thank God for the kind woman who spoke Spanish and told us how to find the train station!
The Magi need directions for the birth place and they just assume that since this is such an important event, the King will know all about it, will know how to get there. I imagine them putting on their best robes, their finest first century version of a power tie and business suit, eager to get the final directions to complete their long trip. Now they wind through the narrow streets of the city, fending off beggars and peddlers; now they come to the palace and various staff pass them from one to another until finally they are part of a line to see King Herod. Finally they are there, called forward. There must have been some ritual greetings, like the President and a foreign leader doing a photo op. Finally, they ask: “Where is the child who has been born King of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”Silence. Herod looks at his advisors, who turn away. Some meaningless greeting, some vague words, must have been said to put them off. “Please enjoy our hospitality while I consider this question.” All we have is Matthew’s comment that Herd was frightened and called his smartest advisors together to ask the same question: where is this child? They read the prophets and tell him Bethlehem’s the place. So Herod calls the Magi back in, this time secretly. He tells them Bethlehem, tells them to find the child and come back and report.
The story offers two reactions to the birth of Jesus. The Magi come to pay homage. They don’t know Jesus, they don’t know anything about him. They just know that something about him makes heaven shine in a new way. Something about him lights up life. They want to see more of this light; they want to give thanks for it. They’re come in wonder; they come with gratitude symbolized by gifts. The most important detail about them isn’t the robes or the crowns or even the gifts. Matthew’s readers would have passed right by those things that grab us and seized on something we miss: they are gentiles. They are outsiders, people from outside the covenant of Moses, people who don’t eat kosher or observe any of the customs of good Jews. They’re outsiders and yet they come in wonder, simply seeking the light God’s shining on this moment.
Herod can think only of securing his own position. He wants to know where Jesus is so he can pursue his own plan, his own goals. The conflict that will bring Jesus to the cross is already in motion right here, right from the beginning: cross and crown are at war right from the start.Just outside the boundary of this story, Herod will do what the powerful always do: use violence to prevent change. Power always seeks to remain powerful. Herod is the ultimate insider, just as the Magi are outsiders. So right from the beginning, God is using outsiders, visitors, to shake the foundations of God’s people, to change them, to open them so God’s purpose of spreading the light of love can move on, move forward, move outward.
This story asks us the same question the old spiritual asks: Which side are you on? Put another way, What light lights your life? The word Epiphany means manifestation or showing forth, as a light shines. The light in which we walk, the light that lights our lives, does show and it does make a difference. We know this about color and light: sit in a red room, psychologists tells us, and you somehow become more aggressive. The same is true of your life: the light in which you see things is a matter of decision. One camp song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus”. What have you decided? What purpose drives your journey? The Magi and Herod both go to Bethlehem but only the Magi come in wonder, seeking God’s wonder; only the Magi see Jesus. Herod comes with soldiers, power, violence but Jesus is gone by then, escaped by God’s hand. Now today lots of people show Jesus’ name around for their own purposes. Like Herod, they have their own agenda and only see how he might fit their needs. But still, now as then, there are people, often excluded, who come in wonder, who see the light of God’s love. And God wonders: where are we going? where will we go? Amen.