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compline

3

My cousin Sloane is in the hospital tonight in Houston with COVID pneumonia. Though we are cousins, we have never had the luxury of living near each other but, particularly in our adult lives, have found ways to feel like family. She sent me a text tonight to let me know she had been hospitalized and asked me to write a prayer on my blog for her and for the other people with COVID and the doctors and nurses. My best prayers are in poetry. I am grateful my words can reach across miles.

compline

the day is ending
and I am out of words
someone I love
is spending this night
in a room full of loved ones
forced into isolation

and uncertainty
in space shared only
by masked caregivers
who cannot offer smiles
only a glance of compassion
or an embrace of listening

the day is ending
and I am remembering
that I promised
to send a copy of a
favorite book like the one
she sent last month

so when she asked
for me to write a prayer
I found my place once more
in the heartbreak church
in hopes that my words
can go the distance

the day is ending
and I join a chorus of
voices calling out names
and giving thanks for
carers wondering how
to keep on going

I trust it is praying
to admit I don’t know
how prayer works
and still say
please let her know
she is not alone

Peace,
Milton

15+

love, specifically

0

This week’s sermon wraps up three weeks in Matthew 25 with another perplexing parable. I am thankful to Netflix for providing illustrative material, and to Ginger and Kenny for bouncing around ideas. Here’s where I landed.

______________________

I read an article in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago written by a book reviewer who made the comment that they worked hard to never give away the ending of a book in their review, but that, for most people, the ending determined whether or not they liked the book. The same was true for movies.

A couple of weeks ago, Ginger, my wife, and I watched The Queen’s Gambit, a limited series on Netflix about a woman who grew up in an orphanage in the Sixties and became a chess prodigy because the janitor at the school taught her how to play. We both loved it even though neither of us knows much of anything about chess. A friend in North Carolina who is an English teacher didn’t like the ending and asked what others thought on his Facebook.

I said I thought endings were hard to do well in fiction and in real life. Maybe the same is true of scripture.

Jesus could see the gathering storm about him. He knew his days were short and his ending was not going to be an easy one at the hands of the Romans, who were known for particularly violent conclusions. So he told these three parables to his disciples to give them a sense of how God was at work in them and in the world. He had spoken more directly in passages we have talked about: love your enemies; if you want to lead, be a servant; the first will be last and the last will be first; and love God with all that you are and love your neighbor the way you love yourself.

And the disciples kept asking about the ending. The big finish. Who gets to sit next to you when we’re all said and done? Who do you like best?” They didn’t get it.

So he told them parables. In the first two, which we have looked at over the last couple of Sundays, the one with the power in the story did not represent God—but we had to pay attention to figure that out. (I’m hoping you remember.) The parable of the bridesmaids wasn’t about being prepared; it was about being awake. The servant that was cast out was evicted because he wouldn’t play the master’s crooked power game. He wasn’t lazy, he was honest—and it cost him his life. Our text for today is the last story of the three and it is about The Big Finish: the final judgment. To me it almost feels like Jesus was saying, “You want a judgment story? I’ll give. you a judgment story.”

And he said, “When the Human One comes in all his majesty . . .” That is a name he used for himself, so it does seem pretty clear that he is the King in this story. It says he looks at everyone in front of him and divides them into sheep and goats. It doesn’t say whether the split was 50/50 or 90/10, just that they were separated from each other. Then he tells the sheep they could come in because they took care of the him and he tells the goats they were out because they did not.

I have to pause here because when Jesus says anything about sheep, I think of my dad who used to say, “When Jesus calls us sheep it’s not a compliment; they are really dumb animals.” Goats, on the other hand, appear to be smart, energetic, and opportunistic. They will eat anything. They live in almost any terrain. And if you search the web for “baby goats” you will see some of the cutest videos ever.

Nevertheless, when both groups ask, “When did we take care of you?” Jesus answers, “When you did it for the least, the humblest, to someone overlooked or ignored—you did it to me.”

Not for me. To me.

Two things struck me about this story that have nothing to do with a final judgement. The first is a story from Durham—North Carolina—where we used to live. One evening Ginger and I had some folks over for dinner and two of them were a couple who co-pastored a church in East Durham, which is the most economically disadvantaged part of town and also a part of town made up of mostly People of Color. A group from a white church across town came for an all-day service trip one Saturday to help with various projects around the church. They showed up in matching t-shirts that had their church name across the front and on the back one of the verses from our reading today: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

The two pastors at our table talked about how much it hurt to feel looked down on. It felt like the white church came out of condescension rather than compassion. What they shared with both the sheep and the goats in our parable is that they didn’t know what they were doing. We have to remember there is often a big gap between intent and impact, particularly when we are trying to help.

The second thing that struck me goes back to the first parable and Jesus’ words about staying awake. The disciples wanted to know what it is going to be like with God at the ending and Jesus told them what it is like to be with God right now. What I hear in Jesus’ words is that if we want to look for God, we should not be looking into the future, or trying to figure out the Big Finish; we should be paying attention to every set of eyes looking back at us: “When you care for the least, the humblest, to those who are overlooked or ignored—you do it to me.”

Once again: not for me. To me.

I have had a hard time getting ready for Thanksgiving because I have been grieving the holiday. It is my favorite because the way the days fall means I have time to cook like crazy and gather many loved ones around the table. This year, for the first time in thirty-one years, it will be Ginger, Rachel my mother-in-law, and me. I imagine you are going through a similar thing. I know I am not alone in my sadness.

As I was just getting my pity party cranked up, Ginger started talking about people we know around us who may not have enough food for Thanksgiving or may be unable to cook for themselves. I needed her help to see more than my misery. She saw the misery, too, but she did more than offer me pity. She offered me a chance to share both my sadness and my joy. I love to cook. She showed me people who needed food.

In about a half an hour, I had my grocery list made and I was off to shop so I could come home and get ready to start cooking. As I get excited about sharing my food, I have found a deeper understanding of what it means to love my neighbor as myself. I have been offered the chance to find just as much joy in cooking for someone else’s table as I do when I cook for my own.

And I said, “Hey—this is what I’m preaching about.”

Ginger and I watched another movie on Netflix last night called The Half of It and towards the ending, one of the characters, Ellie, says, “Love isn’t patient and kind and humble. Love is messy and horrible and selfish and bold.” We might find it awkward that she added her words to I Corinthians 13; I don’t really think of love as horrible or selfish, but maybe we can think of her words like those in a commentary or a sermon: she helped connect the text to her life. And I think she has a point about love being messy and bold. Love is a risk. Love is a choice. If we are going to love, we are going to have to be awake to all the bold and messy ways we can express it right here in the middle of things, without waiting for the ending.

If I were going to add anything to I Corinthians 13, I would say love is specific. Jesus said, “I was hungry and you fed me.” That’s pretty specific. We incarnate love when we do something specific to let another person know they love them. We do something to them, not for them. Doing these things to one another will add up to a story worth telling with our lives, regardless of the ending. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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what’s the story?

4

One of Guy Clark’s lyrics says, “Somedays you write the song, somedays the song writes you.” I had a good idea for my sermon on Matthew 25:14-30 but struggled to find an ending and a title, which makes sense; the two often go together for me. I ended up asking, “What’s the story?” and found out it’s one I keep telling.

_________________________

I have a scene that replays in my life with some regularity. Some task that is occasional comes up–like picking up food for the schnauzers or getting a prescription filled–and I think, “I’ll do that when I make my regular grocery store run.” Since the two stores I like to go to most are off of the Post Road, I have developed a route that is made up of mostly right turns so I don’t have to cross traffic. I have done it so often that it is muscle memory.

You can probably see where this is going. The scene I keep replaying is I leave the house thinking, “Don’t forget to go by the vet,” make my normal stops, and then come back home without the dog food. I am so used to my route that I have trouble making room for a new destination. Every time I play this scene, I am aware of how hard it is for me to break set patterns.

Perhaps you can relate.

I had the privilege of sitting in on a webinar this week with Irish poet Pádraig ÓTuama entitled “A Poet Reads the Gospels.” One of the things he said was we become so used to what we think is there in the story rather than actually reading the words on the page.

I thought about how it takes conscious thought and intentionality for me to change my shopping route. I have a hard time seeing a new story when I’m on my way to buy bread and milk; how much harder, perhaps, to get out of my well-traveled ruts when it comes to reading the gospels.

I spent some time this week thinking about the sermons I have heard (and preached) on these parables in Matthew 25, and I realized most all of them focused on the bridesmaids without oil and the one servant who buried the money. The sermons on the bridesmaids mostly ended up warning people that we needed to be prepared or we were going to be left out. The sermons on the servants far too often have used the wordplay of the word “talent” to make Jesus’ parable an affirmation of the Protestant Work Ethic. Though both of those stories may be ways to read the parable–I mean I preached about being prepared for the unexpected last week–they are a bit like my forgetting to pick up the puppy food: they reflect more of what we are used to thinking rather than what is in the words on the page.

One of the ruts we need to get out of is to assume that the power figure in a parable always represents God. For instance, in the parable we looked at last week, all of the bridesmaids fell asleep waiting for the groom to come. When he finally showed up, only five of the bridesmaids had enough oil for the rest of the night. The others had to go find oil. By the time they got back, they wedding party was in full swing. When the women knocked on the door, the groom said, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”

Does that sound like God to you?

In today’s parable, a wealthy man is embarking on a long trip and calls in three of his servants to tell them about the trip and to issue a challenge. He gives each of them a relatively huge amount of money: a talent was the equivalent of fifteen years of wages. So the first servant was given a lifetime of riches–seventy-five years of salary; the second got thirty years’ worth, and the third got fifteen years. All the parable says is he gave them the money and left town.

The first two servants invested what they had and doubled their fortune. The man who got the least money was the most cautious. He knew his master was harsh and opportunistic. He didn’t gamble the money, or spend any of it. He just buried it and returned it as it had been given to him. And he explained to his master exactly why he made that choice: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so, I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” The rich man had the servant banished and tortured.

Again, does that sound like a description of God to you?

If these parables are not about God, what’s the story? Both of the parables are about who wins and who gets left out, and those who get left out are those who don’t follow the rules set out by those with power. The two stories also build on one another. The bridesmaids just got left out. The third servant who spoke truth to power was thrown where there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” The bridesmaids who got to go to the wedding centered on themselves. They were not willing to share their oil so everyone could go to the party. The two servants who were rewarded financially were the ones willing to play by the master’s rules so they could make as much money as possible.

It is true that five of the bridesmaids didn’t think ahead. It is true that the servant just buried the money when he could have at least opened a savings account. It is also true that the ones with oil didn’t share and the servants who were given more money, were seen as having more ability, and appeared to know more about how to invest didn’t offer to help their colleague. It is also true that those who benefit from injustice don’t want to hear the truth, which brings me to another awareness I learned from Pádraig ÓTuama. He said as we read the gospels we must learn to ask, “How do I find myself as the culprit in these stories rather than the one who is virtuous?”

What would we find in these parables if we chose to cast ourselves as the bridesmaids who wouldn’t share, or the groom who wouldn’t open the door, or the servants who took care of only themselves, or the master who was harsh and hungry for money and power?

After I wrote down that last question, my sermon sat for two or three days without an ending, until Ginger, my wife, and I were talking yesterday. She was a part of the search committee for the associate conference ministers for the new Southern New England Conference of the UCC. One of the questions they asked the candidates was, “Can you tell us about a time you failed in ministry?” The interviews were over a couple of weeks ago; the question has hung with Ginger. She spent a good bit of time this week reflecting on her thirty years in parish ministry, looking at failures and also looking for patterns to see what she could learn about herself and how she can keep growing as a person and as a pastor.

It’s easy to see the servant as a failure. The rich man thought he had less ability than the others, so he gave him less money to begin with. Then the guy did nothing with it. But it strikes me that the more compelling failure in the story is the rich man because he could not bear that the servant had not made money and, even more, he was undone by the servant’s explanation for his actions: “I didn’t do anything because I was scared of you.” His failure is more compelling because I can see myself in him, if I am willing to look beyond what I expected to find in the story. I can see myself in both of them, and that makes me want to write a new ending because I think most of our failures do not have eternal consequences. They have consequences—don’t get me wrong—but the story doesn’t end there.

I don’t know where you find yourself in the story today, but I will bet you know what it feels like to fail. And I want to remind you that the story doesn’t end there. We have words beyond failure: words like hope and forgiveness; words like love and together. Words like tomorrow and I’m sorry. What’s the story? Amen.

Peace,
Milton

3+

sausage rolls

2

Sometimes I cook things because I really want to cook something and I go get the ingredients I need. At other times, I come across ingredients and then figure out what to cook with them. This recipe falls into the second category, which is more fun for me in many ways because it is more of an adventure.

We have a wonderful store on the Green called The Marketplace at Guilford Food Center. The long name is a nod to its history. The Guilford Food Center was the town grocery store for many years, complete with deli and butcher counters. The husband of the couple who owned if for several decades died and they sold the store to someone who worked hard to keep the spirit of the place, even as it became a bit more of a coffee shop and prepared foods place. The sandwich counter expanded and the butchery stayed, staffed by one of the sons of the original owners.

I love the butcher, Ron, because he knows what he’s doing and he and Lou, his colleague, will cut what you need. They make a custom burger mix for me (half ground chuck, half ground brisket), cut the best chicken cutlets in town, and–here’s where we finally get to the recipe–keep ground lamb in stock.

The second serendipitous step in this journey was this recipe for lamb sausage rolls in the cooking section of the New York Times. I think I have made these three times over the last month. They reheat well (in the oven, not the microwave) and provide me a good nutritious breakfast for several days in a row.

Like many of my recipes, I am offering you a template more than a strict directive. The original recipe calls for almonds, which I often use, but I also have used whatever nuts I have on hand. My latest version has pine nuts because I had some. The original calls for a small onion, diced, but that doesn’t fly at my house, as you know. I mostly use fresh peppers–poblanos or jalapeños–rather than jarred red peppers because I like the extra heat and because I like fresh peppers. I don’t have currants in my pantry as a rule, but I do have dried figs, so that’s another change I made. For that matter, you could use ground beef or pork instead of lamb. Keep the ratios intact and you have lots of room to play.

lamb sausage rolls

¼ cup slivered almonds
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 jalapeño or poblano pepper, diced (and seeded, if you want less heat)
2 garlic cloves, minced (okay–I use at least three)
1 tablespoon harissa paste
1 ½ teaspoon kosher salt
1 pound ground lamb (or beef, dark meat turkey or plant-based meat)
¼ cup uncooked couscous
⅓ cup dried figs, diced
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 (14- to 16-ounce) package frozen puff pastry, thawed but still cold (see note)
1 egg, beaten, for egg wash
Poppy seeds, for sprinkling

Heat oven to 375°.

Sprinkle the almonds on parchment-lined baking sheet and roast until they just start to brown–about 5 minutes. Pour the nuts onto a cutting board or a plate to cool. Save the baking sheet and parchment; you’ll use them to cook the rolls.

In a skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the peppers and let them cook for three or four minutes until the soften a bit. Add the garlic and cook another minute, then add the harissa and the figs and cook for another two minutes. While that is cooking, coarsely chop almonds and place in large mixing bowl. Add the pepper-harissa mixture to the bowl with the nuts and let cool slightly. Then add ground lamb, couscous, currants, pepper and salt. Using your hands, mix thoroughly until well combined.

Spread out the chilled puff pastry dough into a rectangle and cut the pastry into eight equal rectangles. In the center of each pastry, put an eighth of the lamb mixture, and then form it into a long sausage that runs from side to side of the pastry strip. Lightly brush one long edge of the pastry with egg wash. Fold the side without the egg wash over the meat filling so it comes about half way and then fold the other side and seal it. (The ends will be open.) Place the rolls on the prepared baking sheet, seam sides down. Brush the top of each roll with egg wash and sprinkle with poppy seeds.

Bake until sausage rolls are golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

NOTE: Dufour and Pepperidge Farm are the two brands of frozen dough I usually find. The Fresh Market in our town has Wewalka fresh puff pastry, which I like because I don’t have to remember to thaw it the day before.)

I’m already thinking about breakfast tomorrow.

Peace,
Milton

2+

an unscripted life

1

It’s been years since I watched television news for more than a few minutes. This week I caught up, staying up late, waiting to see what was going to happen in these unprecedented days. Somehow, in the middle of it all, I managed to get a sermon written. Here’s what I had to say.

_____________________________

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn . . .

I have to tell you, working with our text for this week has made me rewrite what I wanted to say more than once. Jesus told a story about ten bridesmaids who had to wait longer than anyone expected for the groom to show up–so long that they all fell asleep. When they woke up only half of them were prepared for what came next.

Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light . . .

As this week has worn on, I have begun to feel more and more like one of the bridesmaids who didn’t have enough oil to last the night and get to the wedding. I was not prepared for what is happening and for the deep divisions that define us as a nation, not to mention COVID-19. Actually, I think if we put ourselves in a contemporary telling of this parable, all of the bridesmaids come up lacking. None of us is prepared for this, nor are we prepared for the days ahead–the years ahead—of trying to figure out how to live faithfully and compassionately–how to live together in an angry and divided world.

Jesus told the parable to his disciples, along with two others, while their world was crashing in around them. All three stories speak to how we deal with an unscripted life, if you will—how we respond to what life throws our way. The chapters that follow show how Jesus responded to betrayal, false arrest, torture, and execution, and how his disciples responded to disappointment, disillusionment, and uncertainty.

Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me home . . .

“All the world’s a stage,” Shakespeare wrote, “and all the men and women only players.” I like the metaphor a lot, except that it might lead us to believe that life has some sort of script that we can follow. In his song “Beautiful Boy,” John Lennon sings, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans,” which is another way to say that our lives are not scripted. Somewhere, probably tucked inside a book, I have a card with a quote on the front that reads, “The story of my life has a wonderful cast of characters, I’m just not sure about the plot.” Rather than a set drama, life is improvisational theater: we make it up as we live, which means we have to try and prepare for things we can’t see coming—and what matters most are everyone else with whom we share the scene.

We are all the cast of characters—the supporting actors—in the drama of life.

One of my favorite improv actors is Wayne Brady. Many years ago, I saw him live. Before he came on stage, one of his associates stepped out with a big flip chart and asked the audience to give him words. We began to shout out random vocabulary and he wrote the words down, one per page, until he had about forty of them. Then he introduced Wayne, who walked out to a hip hop beat and then began rapping using the words we have given him. Each time he used a word, his assistant flipped the page. Brady never missed a beat. He demonstrated that improv is not just “making things up,” but preparing to be able to respond to whatever he was offered by those around him.

How we respond to our current situation will reveal how we have prepared, both individually and collectively. Are we prepared to be peacemakers, or have we prepared by being one of those who brings gasoline to fight a fire? Are we committed to the long haul of building meaningful community, or have we prepared to sequester ourselves and leave others to their own devices? Have we fostered courage in our hearts or fed our fears? Have we prepared with ourselves as the center of the story or as one of a cast of supporting players?

I am not saying that it’s wrong to feel afraid or anxious. These are uncertain times and both fear and anxiety are appropriate responses. In the story that follows the parable of the bridesmaids, Jesus told about a rich man who was going on a long trip and gave three servants money to invest or use while he was gone. Two of the servants had ideas for what to do with the money–they were ready to say yes; the third was so frightened of his boss or of failing that he dug a hole and buried the money so he could return it intact when his boss came back. When the master returned, he chastised the man for being captured by his fears.

Then Jesus told a third parable that was set at the final judgment when the nations will be divided into sheep and goats. The sheep are congratulated for responding to the needs around them: “I was hungry and you fed me; thirsty and you gave me something to drink; lonely and you included me . . .” The goats are chastised for not doing those things. Both groups ask, “When did we see you hungry or thirsty or lonely?”

Jesus answered, “When you met the need in the face in front of you, you met me.”

But here’s the thing that always gets me in this story: neither the sheep not the goats knew the impact of their behaviors. They all asked, “When did we see you?” They didn’t know. The difference between the two is the sheep had prepared to notice their fellow actors who were in need. They had prepared to be able to respond with food and drink, clothing and companionship. They saw themselves as supporting actors, as part of the cast. The goats didn’t.

I was in Harvard Square one day, back when we lived in Boston, and passed a man on the street who was holding a paper cup. He asked me for spare change. I learned from Ginger, my wife, not to give money to those who ask but to offer food, so I said, “I’m happy to buy you a muffin and a cup of coffee,” and pointed at the nearby coffee shop.

He thought for a second and said, “A Coke and a brownie?”

I thought, “Why not?” and walked into the bakery. The brownies looked so good that I got two of them and the man and I sat on the curb together, ate baked goods, and talked.

I love telling that story and I am also haunted by it because I wish I could say it had happened more than once. That day, I was prepared to support my fellow actor, my fellow character in the story of our lives. I wonder how many scenes I have walked by without catching my cue to offer support—without seeing Christ in the eyes of the person looking back at me.

As Jesus said, “When you met the need in the face in front of you, you met me.”

I recorded this sermon on Saturday, which followed three days in which we set daily records for the number of new COVID-19 cases. Some states were still counting votes, so the outcome was still unclear. Many folks are worried about how their businesses will survive both the virus and the winter. We are all malnourished in our hunger for human contact and community. As the old gospel song says, we are tired, we are weak, we are worn. All of us are hungry and thirsty and hoping for a place to belong.

Jesus’ parable about the bridesmaids has a troubling conclusion. The five who didn’t have enough oil went to find some, which meant the wedding was in full swing when they finally got there, but no one would let them in. How could they have the wedding without the bridesmaids? How, too, can we grasp God’s beloved community unless we prepare to include everyone, to include all of the characters in the story of our lives?

Take our hands, precious Lord, lead us home . . .

Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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saints of diminished capacity

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I can’t remember now who I read or heard say the phrase “saints of diminished capacity” (I thought it was Nadia Bolz-Weber, then today I found this book.), but it has stuck with me, and has been a poem I keep coming back and revising. Here is the 2020 version:

saints of diminished capacity

the phrase on the page
requires me to infer tone
to decide if the poet
implied quotation marks
–“diminished capacity”–
or “saints” for that matter . . .

either way, the phrase is
fragrant with failure
infused with impairment
struggling stumbling to find
a hint of hope that failure
will not be the final word

my knees ache with reminder
of diminishment every time
I stand up but I stand anyway
a heart hobbled by grief knows
comparison offers no comfort
I am still capable of great love

Peace,
Milton

 

5+

vocabulary quiz

0

Name ______________________________

1. A word for when you’re not sure of the way out.
2. A word for losing track of time.
3. A word for the hunger for human touch.
4. A word for living through your anxieties and still feeling anxious.
5. A word for a consistent lack of adequate vocabulary.
6. A word for a closet full of broken and tired metaphors.
7. A word for how much change is going to cost us.
8. A word for the people you know you can count on.
9. A word that replaces weapons.
10. A word for finding hope in something other than circumstance.

Find ways to use these words in conversation with your classmates.

Peace,
Milton

2+

american tunes

4

On this Election Eve, I spent some time in my record collection looking for songs to carry me over the next few days. Many are songs that have carried me for years. I hope they offer some solace and solidarity as we ponder the fate of our nation.

For many reasons, I wish “America” was our national anthem. I’ll give you two right now: it is not a war song and it is way easier to sing. Ray Charles sings my favorite version of it, not only because it’s him singing, but also because he starts with this verse

oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife
who more than self, their country loved and mercy more than life
America, America may God thy gold refine
till all success be nobleness
And every gain divined

as if to say, let’s get mercy and integrity in place and then we can talk about the spacious skies.

“America” is one of my favorite Paul Simon songs (there are two on this list). I bought Bookends when it came out in 1968 (I was eleven) and the song haunted me even then.

Cathy, I’m lost, I said though I knew she was sleeping
and I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why
counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike
they’ve all come to look for America

The Avett Brothers song “We Americans” is a road song that’s also looking for America as well as trying to come to terms with the deep contradictions and paradoxes in our story.

I’ve been to every state and seen shore to shore
the still open wounds of the Civil War
watched blind hatred bounce back and forth
seen vile prejudice both in the south and the north
and accountability is hard to impose
on ghosts of ancestors haunting the halls of our conscience
but the path of grace and good will is still here
for those of us who may be considered among the living

I am a son of God and man and I may never understand
the good and evil but I dearly love this land
because of and in spite of we the people

Jackson Browne released “For America” in 1986. I don’t know that there has been a year since that his song didn’t apply.

I have prayed for America
I was made for America
I can’t let go till she comes around
until the land of the free is awake and can see
and until her conscience has been found

Feels like we are still searching.

In “All American Made” Margo Price joins the chorus of those who love America and feel heart-broken at the same time. As I heard Bruce Springsteen say from the stage many years ago before he sang “This Land is Your Land,” “Good patriots ask good questions.”

I was just a child unaware of the effects
raised on sports and Jesus and all the usual suspects
so tell me, Mr. Petty, what do you think will happen next?
that’s all American made

I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night
and if the folks on welfare are making it alright
but I’m dreaming of that highway that stretches out of sight
that’s all American made

Speaking of “”This Land is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie wrote the song as a rebuttal to “God Bless America.” Instead of “land that I love,” he started with, “This land is your land . . .” If you learned to sing it around a camp fire, you may not have learned his closing verses:

In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
by the relief office I seen my people;
as they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
is this land made for you and me?

Nobody living can ever stop me,
as I go walking that freedom highway;
nobody living can ever make me turn back
this land was made for you and me.

I found this cover by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings that knocks me out.

“American Tune” is the second Paul Simon song on the list tonight. This one came out when I was in high school. The whole lyric is amazing, but these are the particular words I keep coming back to:

I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered
I don’t have a friend who feels at ease
I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered
or driven to its knees
but it’s all right, it’s all right
we’ve lived so well so long
still, when I think of the road
we’re traveling on
I wonder what went wrong
I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong

Allen Toussaint recorded a cover of the song that ended up being the last thing he recorded before he died.

Mary Chapin Carpenter will close us out with her song, “Goodnight America.”

The recording is from her Youtube series “Songs from Home,” which she has continued during the pandemic. She wrote the following words when she posted this song in July:

Here in the US, it’s the July 4th holiday weekend – our country is undergoing a reckoning with itself, and how to feel about the traditional ways of celebrating Independence Day in the midst of so much learning and unlearning is something many are struggling with. My parents raised us to believe that protest is one of the highest forms of patriotism. And, as the great historian and scholar Ibram X. Kendi wrote last year:

“We should be celebrating our disobedience, turbulence, insolence, and discontent about inequities and injustices in all forms. We should be celebrating our form of patriotism that they call unpatriotic, our historic struggle to extend power and freedom to every single American. This is our American project.”

Amen to that.

Whatever happens tomorrow, this land was made for every last one of us.

Peace,
Milton

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uncle milty’s guinness and chocolate chili

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One of the things I learned along the way is curry is not the name of an actual dish but a description of a kind of dish. A curry can be pretty much what you want it to be. I feel the same way about chili. From region to region in this fair land of ours people are adamant about what “real chili” is, but the fact of the matter is chili is a personal expression that grows out of where you are, what you have, and what you like. Though I don’t understand vegetarian or turkey chili, that does not mean they cannot lay claim to the name.

I am throwing those pillows, I suppose, because I know I am going to get knocked down by my Texas peeps who will say, “Chili doesn’t have beans in it.” Yes, it does, or at least it can, particularly when the person I love most (and who digs my chili) is allergic to onions and I have to figure out other ways to add flavor.

The other flavor concern has to do with spices. You will notice below that I haven’t put any measurements on the spices. That is because part of the fun of making the chili is playing around with the seasonings. We like the smoky taste of the cumin, so I put at least two teaspoons. How much chili powder and so forth often has to do with how many fresh peppers are already in the mix. If you’re not allergic to onions, then I would be dicing those up as well. Perhaps I should say what I have written below is more of a conversation starter than a recipe.

uncle milty’s guinness and chocolate chili

1 1/2 pounds ground chuck
4 cloves garlic, minced
2-5 hot peppers (jalapeños, serranos, poblanos), diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
cumin
dark chile powder
sweet paprika
cayenne pepper
salt and pepper
2 15 ounce cans red beans
2 can Guinness Stout or other dark beer
2 oz unsweetened baker’s chocolate, chopped

Start with dicing the peppers. Part of the way you control the heat of the chili is by how many seeds you put in. The fewer the seeds, the lower the heat. That said, dice the peppers. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven or a deep skillet over medium heat and then add the peppers. Cook until they begin to soften (4-5 minutes) and add the garlic and cook an additional minute. Then add the ground chuck and cook until the meat is well done–about seven minutes. As the meat is cooking, add the cumin, chile powder, paprika, cayenne, salt, pepper, and whatever else you feel like putting in there. Add things gradually and taste as you go.

Drain and rinse the beans and then add them to the meat mixture. When they are heated though, add the two cans of Guinness and bring the pot to a simmer. Let it cook until most of the liquid has cooked away. Once again, how much liquid you want in your chili is up to you. At the every end, lower the heat and add the chocolate and stir until it is melted in. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

I would love to hear your variations on this theme, or what chili means at your house.

Peace,
Milton

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pulling ourselves together

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For All Saints Day, I preached at two churches, thanks to the magic of the internet and the reality of remote worship. One of the churches is working their way through the Acts of the Apostles, so I went with their scripture—Acts 6:1-7—for both groups. It is a collection of verses that isn’t in the lectionary cycle, as far as I can tell, but it had a lot to say to me. Here is my sermon “Pulling Ourselves Together” and Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart,” which felt like a good hymn for the day.

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Every time I come to the Communion table as we are today, even though we are doing it remotely, I carry with me a specific memory of a Communion service at a youth camp almost thirty years ago. My friend Kenny was preaching about the Last Supper and talking about Jesus’ words, “As often as you do this, remember me,” and asked, “What is the opposite of remember?”

“Forget,” was the answer that came from most of the young people.

“No,” he said, “the opposite of remember is dismember. Life pulls us apart. We come to the Table to remember–to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name.”

As I pondered what to say on this Sunday, which is not only Communion Sunday, but also All Saints Day and the Sunday before our Presidential election, the memory came even more alive. Remembering, by his definition, is not just about memories, but is a crucial part of our daily lives. Whether we are holding the memories of those who have died, or trying to figure out how to take care of one another, or just how to get through these crazy days, we have to spend a good deal of our time re-membering–pulling ourselves together, don’t we?

Our story from Acts 6 is a story of re-membering, of pulling together. I think this little section could be titled, “Living Together Is Hard Work.”

After Pentecost, which we remember as the birthday of the Church, the followers of Jesus began to realize they were the ones who were going to have to make the word become flesh, which meant they had to learn how to live together. The people who came to Jesus were a mixed bag. They were not all alike. Many were not well-off economically. They were not mainstream. What they all shared was their love for Jesus. And they shared that they all lived under Roman occupation.

Then they decided to share everything with each other so that no one would be in need. After all, Jesus did say, “I was hungry and you fed me . . .” But it didn’t take long for things to fall apart, or at least for the new system of solidarity to stumble.

What does it mean to share everything, to hold everything in common?

One of their practices was to make sure everyone had enough to eat, which took time, resources, and effort.

One of the dividing lines in the church was between the locals–those who spoke Aramaic and had lived their whole lives in Palestine–and those who were also Hebrew but had grown up in the larger Mediterranean world. They spoke Greek; some even had Greek names. The issue was the Greek speaking group said their widows weren’t getting the same attention as the Aramaic widows. The apostles recognized there was an issue but said they didn’t want to spend their time sorting it all out. They were the Chosen Twelve—the ones responsible for the new and growing congregation; they didn’t think they should use their time waiting tables. So, they instructed the congregation to choose seven people to handle it. To minister. The Greek word is diakoneo, from which we get our word deacon. A few verses down it’s the same word used to describe what the apostles were doing. In fact, it shows up three times in this passage, each time translated differently: it can mean to serve, to minister, or to attend to—to wait on.

But even though they were using the same word, not everyone looked at things the same way. the apostles said, “It isn’t right–it isn’t acceptable–for us to set aside the proclamation of God’s word in order to serve tables–to minister at tables.”

Now, I have to say as someone who spent a decade of his life working in restaurant kitchens and who loves to feed people as much as I love to do anything, I have struggled to understand the tone in the apostles’ response to the problem. I’m not sure it’s fair to paint them as acting superior, but if I had been one of the ones preparing the meals, I might have taken it that way. As we said at the beginning, living together is hard work. They had to deal with expectations, responsibilities, different personalities, varying backgrounds, divergent political views, and money.

Any of that sound familiar? Pulling together, as we know, is not an easy task. And it is the task to which God has called us.

The theological term we use when we talk about the life of Jesus is incarnation—as John 1 says, the word became flesh and dwelt among us. I know enough Spanish to know carne means meat. In carne sounds like “with meat,” which is another way of saying real relationships are embodied, not theoretical. Whether we are talking about a marriage, a friendship, or a church community, pulling together means putting meat on the bones of love. Words alone are not enough. We have to have some skin in the game. The early Christians committed to share everything in common, which meant they had to struggle to figure out how to make sure everyone felt like they were being treated fairly. So, they chose seven people who would be in charge of making sure everyone was fed equitably and they went on with life together.

I started off talking about Jesus’ words at the Last Supper: “As often as you do this, remember me.” In many liturgies, we interpret the first phrase as meaning as often as we share the eucharistic meal, but I think it offers a wider reading. What if we were to understand Jesus to say, “Every time you come to a table, every time you sit down to eat, take the time to pull yourselves together.”

The Greek word for table can be translated to mean a dinner table or a money table. So how about this: as often as we come to the dinner table, the conference table, the coffee counter, the checkout line, or any other chance we have to be with one another, we have a chance to re-member ourselves, to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name.

For me to say that life has a centrifugal force that throws us all to the edges is not telling you anything new. Pretty much everyone who is a part of this worship has been dismembered by circumstance, left broken-hearted by grief, struggled with disappointment and failure, wrestled with competition and comparison, even as we have opened our hearts to others and loved those around us. We know what it feels like for life to tear us apart and we know what it means to re-member. As we come once again to the Table on this Sunday filled with memories of those who are no longer here and with uncertainty about what lies ahead, let us choose, once again, to pull ourselves together in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

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