Home Blog

under repair

1

One of my favorite things to do, particularly now as spring is here, is to take the long way back to Guilford as I go home. I meander down Highway 22, through Northford and North Branford, winding through farms and houses, and I have also gotten into the habit of stopping at the Defrancesco Farm stand to get duck eggs. When the granddaughter of the family is at the register, she even tells me the names of the ducks who laid the eggs.

Just before I get to Route 80, I pass a big open field. In about six weeks or so, it will be brimming with sunflowers that feel like they go on forever. Ginger, Rachel, and I have made a small tradition of driving up there when they are in full bloom and wandering out into the field to take pictures of each other in the middle of them.

A friend in Guilford told me the farmer plants them because his wife loves them—and she has breast cancer. That field is a tangible statement of hope. I don’t have any way to verify the story, but it rings true, and it harmonizes with the heart of our scripture passage this morning where Paul says,

But this beautiful treasure is contained in us—cracked pots made of earth and clay—so that the transcendent character of this power will be clearly seen as coming from God and not from us. We are cracked and chipped from our afflictions on all sides, but we are not crushed by them. We are bewildered at times, but we do not give in to despair. We are persecuted, but we have not been abandoned. We have been knocked down, but we are not destroyed. We always carry around in our bodies the reality of the brutal death and suffering of Jesus. As a result, Christ’s resurrection life rises and reveals its wondrous power in our bodies as well. For while we live, we are constantly handed over to death on account of Jesus so that his life may be revealed even in our mortal bodies of flesh. So death is constantly at work in us, but life is working in you.

Death is constantly at work in us, but life is working in you.

Those words have been ringing in my ears all week.

It is a truism, bordering on a cliché, to say what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, that the hard things in life make us stronger at the broken places. Clichés become clichés because they hold some truth, but they lose value when we forget that truth has lots of layers. Life is not defined easily; neither is pain or even joy. Paul described us as those who carry the image of God in “broken pots of clay,” which is a rich and beautiful metaphor unless, perhaps, you are feeling particularly broken. Then it may be hard to hear, even if it is true.

As we talk about this, it’s important to remind ourselves that the pain we experience in life is not intended to be an object lesson. God does not inflict us with tragedy or hardship or grief to teach us something. The things that leave us broken didn’t happen just to get our attention. They are part of what it means to be human, to be alive.

Life is difficult. Life hurts. And life is beautiful and joyous.

When I read Paul’s words about being broken clay pots, it reminded me of the Japanese art of Kintsugi, which means “join with gold.” (And I hope I said it right.) It is a method of repairing broken pottery or glass but binding the pieces together with gold lacquer, creating something that is not simply repaired but made beautiful by the way it is mended.

One of the central ideas behind it is to fix the broken thing rather than just throw it away. Another is the idea of “wabi-sabi,” which is accepting that impermanence and imperfection are inevitable parts of our world. Wabi means “less is more,” and sabi means “attentive melancholy,” which is an interesting phrase to me because it feels almost like an oxymoron: attentive melancholy. We can hold both the significance and the sadness of our lives at once.

Again, that’s sometimes easier said than done, and that is because of a couple of things. One is that healing or repair is not an instantaneous thing. I would imagine those who practice the art of Kintsugi take a long time to put those bowls back together again. So it is with our healing. We don’t just get over things. It takes time.

And it takes others. We can’t repair ourselves; we need help. We need others to pick up pieces, to be the adhesive that repairs, to offer the love that heals. We are both the wounded ones and the healers. Paul said, “Death is at work in us, but life is working in you.” Depending on the circumstance, we inhabit both sides of that story. We live—together—in a continual state or repair because none of us gets broken only once.

Lastly, let us remember that healing does not mean making it go back to how it was before. We can’t go back. Damage done is damage done, but that damage, like most everything in life, is not permanent. Something comes after it.

The first tattoo I got was this semi-colon on my right forearm. I had it done soon after my father died. As I have told you, I live with depression. After Dad died, I had a hard time. Somewhere during those days, I learned about Project Semi-Colon, an organization begun by a woman who attempted to take her own life and failed. In the aftermath, she saw the semi-colon as a symbol that meant the sentence was not yet over. There was more to come.

The word repair means “to make ready again,” however long it takes. That also means we understand that when we are called to be the ones aiding in repair, we need to be prepared to hang in there for a good long while. The old nursery rhyme says all the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again. Maybe they just gave up too soon.

We are called to do our best to not let that be the end of any of our stories. And that is the truth of which we remind ourselves each time we come to the Communion table: We are here to remember—to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name, to heal one another, to repair the bonds between us, so that we can carry love in our lives. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

let your life preach

1

If you were looking for a sermon that includes a Hebrew prophet, seraphs, clams, and homemade pizza, you just found it.

_________________________

I did something on Friday I had never done before: I went clamming.

A man in the Guilford church named Charlie has talked to me about going for a while, but Friday around noon I got a text that was more specific inviting me to join him at low tide late that afternoon. I had to move quickly to get a license at the town hall and gather a few items he told me to bring, and then I drove out to the end of Trolley Road to begin my adventure.

A brief summary of what I did includes walking through soft mud where I almost got stuck, negotiating some rocky ground as well, raking and raking and raking, and finding a bunch of clams.

One of the big reasons I went, along with the fact that I love clams and I love doing new things, was that Charlie loves clamming and talks about it all the time. (And let me apologize in advance for this next statement.) He is a Clamvangelist. I wanted to go because he loves it so much.

Last night we had clams for dinner. When I say we, I mean Todd and I ate clams. Ginger and Rachel aren’t clam eaters. I made a clam pizza as well as stuffed clams. We ate well. (I also made a hamburger and black olive pizza for Ginger.) In the conversation after dinner, I said I needed to get back to my sermon, but before I did, I wondered how they would preach on this passage. I mean, I had two other clergy at the table; why miss the chance to get the extra input?

We talked our way through the story: Isaiah saw God sitting on a throne and the train of God’s robes filled up the whole Temple. I said I pictured an actress or model at one of those events where everyone dresses in designer gowns and one has a train that goes all the way down the steps. God was surrounded by serpahs—some sort of multi-winged angel that was on fire. That’s what the word seraph means: burning thing. And they had six wings. And they shouted so loudly they shook the place.

And the whole scene appeared to be set in motion by the death of King Uzziah. “In the year of King Uzziah’s death, I saw God . . .”

Perhaps Isaiah was simply making a calendar reference, but it feels like more—like Uzziah was important to the prophet and the death of the king threw his world into chaos. It’s a grief story.

Based on the vision, Isaiah was pretty shaken up—so much that in the face of the burning, six-winged whatevers that we shouting, he cried out as well: “I am a person with unclean lips and I live in the middle of people with unclean lips, yet I am still in the presence of God.”

As much as he was in awe of all he didn’t understand, he also found profound comfort in the middle of his grief. His king had died and now he stood in the presence of awesomeness he had never imagined—and he didn’t really know what to do with it, yet he felt surrounded by God.

Then one of the flaming angels took a live coal and touched Isaiah’s lips—the being touched the part Isaiah said was unclean—and told the prophet that he was forgiven. God followed up with a question that sounds as though it was being asked to a group, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone there but Isaiah and the seraphs.

“Whom should I send, and who will go for us?”
And I picture that Isaiah kind of looked around to see who else was there and then said, “I’m here; send me.”

God’s presence and comfort offered Isaiah a way through his grief.

As Ginger, Todd, and I bounced ideas back and forth at the dinner table, we talked about the way Isaiah saw himself as part of those to whom he spoke: “I am a person with unclean lips in the middle of a people with unclean lips.” When he said he was willing to be sent, he was speaking as a wounded healer, one who knew how hard life was.

We then noticed Isaiah preached that same sermon his whole ministry. He talked over and over about the ways in which God forgive, heals, and calls us through our grief. Skip down thirty-four chapters and Isaiah says,

Why do you declare, “My way is hidden, my God ignores my predicament”?
Don’t you know? Haven’t you heard? God is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. God doesn’t grow tired or weary. God’s understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.

Young people will become tired and weary, they will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength; they will fly up on wings like eagles; they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.

God meets us in our grief with love and forgiveness was the sermon Isaiah preached his whole life—with his whole life. At the table, we wondered aloud what we were preaching with our words and actions.

Ginger said that when she was chaplain of the Student Government Association at her high school she led a spiritual practice time that focused on the words, “Love those who seem unlovable.” After watching her care for those around her, I can say she is still preaching that sermon.

Some time ago my most enduring friend Burt, whom I have known since college gave me a handwritten manuscript of a sermon I preached while we were roommates in seminary, many years before. The whole thing focused on how what mattered most was our connection to one another. God made us to love one another. That’s still the thing that matters most to me.

My life-long theme grows out of grief as well, but it is a grief it took me years to understand. As most of you know, my parents were missionaries when I was growing up and I lived in Africa until I was sixteen. It was an amazing way to grow up and I have many great memories.

But it was also a disconnected way to live. From kindergarten to twelfth grade, I went to ten different schools in five different cities and five different countries.

Burt met in the fall of 1976. In the fall of 1986, I called him to say he was the first friend whom I had known for ten years and known where they were for all ten years. That’s why I call him my most enduring friend.

Perhaps the theme of our lives—the sermon we preach with the way we live—is not so much something we choose as something that grows out of our experiences, out of our griefs and the way we look for God (or that God finds us) in the middle of it.

Which brings me to a question I want you to ponder: What is the sermon you are preaching with your life? Sermon may be too foreboding a word, so let me ask other ways: What is the theme of your life? The connecting thread? What is the story love tells through you? How has your grief opened your heart to see new mercies?

We are all saying something with our lives. May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and the sermons of our lives be ones that point others to the enduring love of God. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

winded

1

This past Sunday was Pentecost in the Christian tradition, one of our major calendar events that has lots of layers to it. Here is what I found in the layers alongside of this story from Ezekiel.

_________________________

When we read the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on what we have come to call Palm Sunday, one of the things we talked about was that the people who lined the street and waved palm fronds didn’t really understand what the makeshift parade was all about.

As we celebrate what we have come to know as Pentecost, we would do well to see ourselves in them because this day has lots of layers to it. Most often we hear Pentecost described as the coming of the Holy Spirit or “the birthday of the Church.” I can see how those explanations have been passed down, but the Spirit of God was present long before the wind and fire lit up the crowd in Jerusalem; our story from Ezekiel tells us that. And those who followed Jesus had begun congregating before that day as well. Pentecost was not a beginning.

The stories go well together because both are filled with rich imagery. In Jerusalem, they experienced God like a rushing wind or a wildfire. As Ezekiel stood in a valley filled with corpses that had been dead so long they were dry and brittle, that same wind made a vibrant throng out of a dust bowl.

They are compelling to read and difficult to explain. I know because I have read several sermons and commentaries this week where people did their best to make sense of fire, wind, and dancing bones as images of God’s presence, and though some did better than others, I still came away feeling like you do when someone has to explain a joke: you may understand it better, but the explanation doesn’t make you laugh necessarily.

Then I spent the rest of the week trying to figure out how to talk about these stories of life without explaining them to death. They are both stories of surprise, and surprise only works for those who don’t see it coming. We have Pentecost on our calendar every year. All the explanation in the world will not give us the same experience that those in our stories had.

Nevertheless, I am going to explain one thing: The word in Hebrew for spirit, wind, and breath is the same word. In the first chapter of Genesis when our translations read, “And God said, ‘Let there be . . .’” could also have been rendered as, “And God breathed” or “And God blew.”

Those gathered at the Feast of Pentecost were on the cusp of a new thing. Ezekiel was a prophet who spoke to people who were oppressed and in exile far away from the land they called home. He didn’t know what to tell them. He could see nothing new. In both cases, the breath of God blew their hearts open.

The breath of God blew their hearts open.

Wind can be anything from a gentle spring breeze to a Nor’easter. Fires range from those that keep us warm in winter to those who devour acres and acres of forests. The spirit of God is comforting and disquieting, unsettling and life-giving. That’s a lot easier to say than it is to live with. What I mean by that is to say God is unsettling is, well, unsettling. We like feeling settled. We like to feel like we have some sense of control.

What are we to do with a God whose presence can feel like a whirlwind or a wildfire? How do we respond?

Those are question to live with, not answer.

Ezekiel had a vision of a valley full of dry bones, which is another way of saying a valley full of bodies that had not been buried well and who had been there a long time. We are not told if they were victims of war or famine. We do not know who they were. Whether it was a dream or an actual valley we don’t know because Ezekiel was a person who had a whole bunch of strange visions. He was, shall we say, colorful. Still, it was a vision of devastation.

When God asked him if the bones could live again, Ezekiel said, “You’re God; only you know.” And God took that as a prompt to breathe or speak the bones back into being in a scene that feels like something from Raiders of the Lost Ark: the skeletons assembled, then muscles reappeared, then skin, and finally the bodies themselves breathed.

What do we do with a God whose presence can feel like a whirlwind or a wildfire?

What do we do with a God who can bring life to places where death seems to have taken up permanent residence? What do we do with a God who dreams bigger than we do?

The questions are not theoretical. We spend our lives trying to meet our daily needs, surrounded by others who are doing the same thing. The swirling world around us feels like a tornado of tragedy; the bones keep piling up with news of wars and other devastations. Instead of speaking (and listening) to one another, much of our public discourse is screaming and yelling. The world feels like it is on fire, and we struggle to know how to live in the middle of it all, how to trust that God’s unconditional love can transform the way we live together.

Individually, we are our own valley of bones. We have lived long enough for the griefs to stack up on one another. Life feels like a legacy of losses at times. Collectively, we are overwhelmed by both the onslaught of information and the suffocating sameness of our broken world.

Perhaps today, as we imagine these scenes of the Spirit in both a city teeming with people and a valley layered with death, we do best to stop and pray—to breathe and listen and discern—that we might hear God speak in a language we understand, that we might feel our lives reanimated, that we might catch the breeze of blessing.

A few weeks back, I told you about the way Ginger begins her services in Guilford as she invites people to “breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God.” This feels like a good moment to do that again, so I invite you to roll open your hands, roll your shoulders back; breathe in, and breathe out. Breathe in the breath of God. Breathe out the love of God.

Let us pray.

Loving God who breathed us into being, we fill our lungs with air, over and over, and yet we forget that you live in those very breaths, that your spirit is what gives us life. We do not have to wait for you to show up. You are who keeps us alive. You are the one who puts skin on our bones and love in our hearts. Help us to breathe deeply and to speak kindly so that our lives ignite love in the hearts of others, we pray. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

first, I lobster . . .

0

It was on a summer day some thirty years ago that I sat across from my friend Billy for our fifth or sixth consecutive night of eating lobster at Nunan’s Lobster Hut in Kennebunkport, Maine. I loved lobster, so the chance to eat there night after night was heaven.

Until it wasn’t.

Towards the end of the meal the inside of my mouth swelled, along with my lips and my fingertips. When I got back to Boston, I went to see my allergist. I told her the story and she told me I had had my last lobster. I had become so severely allergic that she prescribed an Epi-pen and told me to avoid them at all costs, along with shrimp and crab. My joke became that I was an ecological threat to the lobster population so God cut me off.

A few months later, Ginger and I were in Gloucester, Massachusetts and standing in the harbor near the famous fisherman statue when a lobster boat sailed by. It wasn’t close to shore, but the wind was blowing in. My eyes began to swell shut and I made a dash for the CVS across the square to get some Benadryl. The allergy was no joke.

I have lived with the irony of having a coastal New England address, in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, and being unable to eat lobster. Thankfully, I have been able to eat clams, mussels, oysters, and scallops. Still, the summer tradition of the lobster roll has been lost on me.

Until it wasn’t–which was today.

Last week, I went to see a new allergist and in the process of telling my story and doing the testing he told me he thought my allergies had changed again and that lobster was safe for me to eat (along with shrimp and crab), but he wanted to make sure. So, today I stopped at the Glenwood Drive-In and picked up a lobster roll to go and then drove to the allergist’s office to eat it. Over a couple of hours they meted out the delicious meat every fifteen minutes, starting with a small amount and increasing it each time. For the first time in thirty years, I ate lobster, and the doctor was right: I am no longer allergic.

This summer, I will get to eat at the Guilford Lobster Pound for the first time since we moved here. Next time I go to Durham, I will get to have my first taste of real North Carolina shrimp and grits. And the next time we order Chinese food, Ginger and Rachel will have to share the Crab Rangoon.

As I drove home from the doctor’s office, I realized I never imagined this day would actually happen, and I have certainly not starved because I couldn’t eat shellfish, but, man, that lobster tasted good.

And I get to do it again and again.

Peace,
Milton

perceived stress

1

The scripture for this past Sunday was the story of Jesus’ followers trying to figure out how to choose someone to replace Judas. It is a story of grief and community.

___________________

One of the tools counselors used to help their clients evaluate what is happening in their lives is the Perceived Stress Scale. One version is ten questions that look at the changes a person has recently gone through, asking them to answer on a 4 to 0 scale, with 4 being very often and 0 being never. Listen to the questions:

    • In the last month, how often have you been upset because of something that happened unexpectedly?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt that you were unable to control the important things in your life?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt nervous and stressed?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt confident about your ability to handle your personal problems?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt that things were going your way?
    • In the last month, how often have you found that you could not cope with all the things that you had to do?
    • In the last month, how often have you been able to control irritations in your life?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt that you were on top of things?
    • In the last month, how often have you been angered because of things that happened that were outside of your control?
    • In the last month, how often have you felt difficulties were piling up so high that you could not overcome them?

Feeling stressed yet?

I thought about the survey as I read our passage and imagined what it must have been like to have been one of Jesus’ followers. In the weeks preceding our passage they had seen him ride into Jerusalem as people cheered, listened to his words about his death, seen him arrested tried and executed, betrayed and abandoned him, witnessed his resurrection, received news that Judas had taken his own life, experienced Jesus’ ascension—which meant also that he was no longer physically with them, grown in numbers as a community, and tried to figure out what to do next.

Their perceived stress score was off the charts.

I point that out because our reading today falls less in the category of “pay attention because this is the way we should do things” and more along the lines of “we can understand what they were going through, so let’s learn from them.”

This is a story about living through grief and stress, which means it is a story about living life because grief and stress are almost always in the mix.

Jesus was gone. They had seen him die and come back to life and had hardly adjusted to that new rhythm of life when he said it was time to go and he ascended into heaven, which was and is hard to fathom, but we can understand that he was no longer with them. His instructions about what to do next boiled down to “Love one another” without many specifics.

Judas was also gone. Though he was not the only one who betrayed Jesus, he was the only one who could not find his way to forgiveness and he took his own life. Whatever feelings the others had about him, he had been in their circle the whole time they were with Jesus. They must have grieved the loss of their relationship with him, the trust that was broken, and the fact that they could not reconcile with him. They could feel his absence, so they decided to find someone to take his place. In the middle of everything, that was a tangible, specific decision they could make.

So they did.

When Peter offered a theological explanation for what they were doing, he went back into the Hebrew Bible to talk about how scripture was being fulfilled by Judas’ death, making it sound like what Judas did was part of a bigger plan. Then he said they needed to choose another disciple because Jesus had chosen twelve.

As I read his words, I couldn’t help but think about the ways we as human beings look for meaning (or for explanations) in times of grief and stress. We want things to make sense. That is true of both personal grief and shared of communal loss as well.

We want things to make sense. We want to know things are going to keep going. We want to feel okay, to control something. So we do what we can.

What the nascent community of believers could do was choose another disciple. They had the first ever congregational meeting, set up criteria, they took nominations, and then they tried to figure out a procedure that honored their trust in God and in one another. Rather than take a vote, the text says they “drew lots,” which means they took some small stones (some sources say they used sheep’s knuckles), marked one for Mattias and one for Barsabbas, and rolled them like dice to see who would be the new disciple.

Mattias was chosen and is never mentioned again.

What seemed crucial in the moment appears to have had no lasting significance. That twelfth spot didn’t have to be filled for life to go on, other than in that moment it felt like it did. As other disciples died, they were not replaced. As the faith spread across the region, one of the primary movers was Paul, who never walked with Jesus. And they were just days away from the Feast of Pentecost when their understanding of who God was and how God was working among them was completely changed.

They couldn’t see any of that; all they knew was they wanted to add a twelfth disciple. They wanted to do something to give order to their grief, to their life together. As I said, it wasn’t a decision that had the lasting consequences they imagined, but it was an action that helped them move on to what’s next in the middle of their grief.

That’s an important distinction.

The fact that they didn’t keep filling vacancies among the twelve or make it where only the Original Twelve were allowed to be leaders as the church grew, gives us a sense that they perhaps understood that the choice of Mattias was an action on the way to something rather than an institutional rule that needed to be set in stone.

We can learn from them.

First, their story can remind us that life is stressful and we need to be aware of how that weighs on us.

Though the discussion about replacing Judas was important, the gathering to cast lots was not a crucial day in the life of the community like Pentecost would be—and which they had no idea was about to happen. They were figuring out how to live with the stress of being together every day. We always have choices to make. Some feel more critical than others in the moment, and all of them carry some level of stress. In the middle of it all, they figured out a process that fostered trust in both God and each other.

Second, they remind us how easily it is to do things because “that is how it has always been done.”

They filled the twelfth position because there had been twelve disciples for as long as there had been disciples. No one appears to have thought or said, “Why do we need twelve?” When we look at how things worked out, they seem to have asked it later on, which is also worth learning from, because this is where we, like many congregations, find ourselves.

We live in the creative tension between how it has been done and what we need to do now. We live in the middle of profound change. We want our congregation to continue beyond us, we have invested deeply in the structures and methods we have both inherited and created, and we must keep asking ourselves, “Why are we doing it this way?”—and then listen to our answers, and to God.

Lastly, they remind us that we don’t know what is going to happen next no matter how prepared we are. We can make choices. We can create structures and procedures. We can fill slots and dream dreams and grow endowments and do whatever we do, and life will still happen beyond our control or expectation, which brings us back to Jesus’ words of instruction: Love one another.

That always matters.

When we invest our lives in our relationships, we create the love that will sustain us, whatever the circumstance. In the middle of our grief and stress, we must cultivate the attitudes, the actions, the mindsets, the heartsets that say, “No matter what happens, we are in this together with the help of God.”

And then we love each other and roll the dice. Amen.

you’ve got a friend

0

My sermon this week was based on John 15:11-17, a passage where Jesus tells his disciples they are his friends. That set me wondering . . .

____________________________

Many years ago I was in a worship service in Texas where a visiting minister from Zambia was preaching. He began his sermon by talking about some of the differences he had noticed between his home country and the United States; some were obvious, some were humorous. Then he said, “We use our words differently. You have printed at the top of your order of service, ‘There are no strangers here, only friends.’ In Zambia, friend is a much more serious word. We would say, ‘There are no strangers here, only acquaintances. Friend means something different.”

He was on to something. When it comes to friendship, we don’t have enough words.

We use the word friend to try and define a number of different kinds of relationships. Facebook has even turned it into a verb: we friend each other, though I’m not sure any of us understand how friendship and social media work together. But what—or perhaps I should say who—is a friend? What do we mean when we use that word?

I have known my friend Burt since September 1976, when we met at college. We were in a club together, we played guitars and sang together, we went to seminary together and even shared a house there. I officiated at his wedding. I stayed with him and Julie, his wife, as both of my parents were dying. We still talk regularly. I tell him he is my most enduring friend.

For the past four years or so, I have had coffee with a group of men in Guilford and Madison who meet at 6:30 every Saturday morning. We mostly talk about what we are going to do during the day, or tell what work was like. The conversations are not intimate, necessarily. What matters most is we show up. I don’t talk to them during the week as a rule, but we all make a point to show up on Saturday. When I speak of them, I say, “I meet friends for coffee on Saturday morning.”

I had the sacred privilege of being with someone in Guilford this week as she entered hospice after a difficult struggle with lung and brain cancer. She and I had coffee together about two weeks ago before she began her last round of chemotherapy. We met through someone we mutually know a few years back and found we had a lot in common. Even though we did not spend a lot of time together, we found great resonance. I feel like my friend is dying.

I ask questions about what the word friend means not to doubt the importance of any of those relationships but to ponder how one word could apply to everyone I have described. We need more words for friend, just like we need more words for love, because how we picture a friend helps to shape Jesus’ statement to those he loved: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”

Jesus used the word as though they would understand. I couldn’t find much that talked about the nature of friendship in his time, but we can learn from the context of his statement. Remember that these verses follow Jesus’ words about being the vine and the branches, and that our section ends with him saying, “Remember the root command: love one another,” as he spoke to those he loved, realizing his time with them was short.

“You are my friend” is a profound way to say, “I love you.”

Any act of friendship, large or small, is an act of love—another word with multiple meanings. I say I love Ginger, the Red Sox, our Schnauzers, and ice cream. The word means something different each time. Being friends is an affirmation that we are connected, that we need each other. Friendship is significant because it is intentional. We decide to be friends. We invest in our friendships. We choose our friends.

Jesus was saying, “I chose you, now choose one another.”

When it comes to our relationship with God, the predominant metaphor of our faith is probably family. A healthy family. (Once again, the word may not mean the same thing to everyone.) We talk about being God’s children. The metaphor most often used when people talk about God as our parent. Jesus could have said, “You are my children,” or even, “You are my family,” as a way to express his love for his followers.

In 1 Corinthians 13—what we call the “love chapter”—the apostle Paul talks about love as something that matures and deepens.

When I was a little child I talked and felt and thought like a little child. Now that I am grown my childish speech and feeling and thought have no further significance for me.

Jesus was inviting his disciples to grow up, to mature in the love of God, to move beyond childhood dependency. H3e called them friends—those whom he had chosen and had chosen him—because a key part of friendship is the mutuality. Both sides give and both sides receive. To say, “You are my friend,” is not only to say, “I love you,” but also to say, “I need you.”

And then Jesus called them to love and be loved by each other as well.

If we match up the calendars in the Gospels as best we can, Jesus said these words on the same night he washed the disciples’ feet and then served their last supper together, the meal that we commemorate as we gather at the Communion table.

We have talked before about hearing Jesus’ call to remember as a call to put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name: to clear the air, to offer forgiveness, to befriend one another, to live into the root command to love one another. We come to this table to love one another as Christ has loved us.

The relationships in this very room cover a wide range of definitions, when it comes to friendship. Some of you have known each other for a lifetime, others are new to the mix. Our call is less about defining our relationships and more about living into Jesus call to love one another: to take responsibility for one another, to listen to one another, to attend to one another, to ask of one another, to choose to be together week after week after week.

May we take seriously Jesus’ call to friendship as we share the meal. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

the whole story

0

Since today marks Ginger and my thirty-fourth wedding anniversary, I thought I would start my sermon with a story from the early years of our marriage. It’s actually a story about Ginger and our friend Cherry, who lived with us at the time in our little row house in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston. It was so long ago, that they were watching a movie on our VCR.

You remember those, right?

The movie they were going to watch was Casino, a Martin Scorsese picture, and it took up two tapes. They opened the box, put the top tape in the machine, and the movie started without any credits or introduction. Ginger and Cherry thought it was just avant-garde film making, so they kept watching. When they got to the end of the tape, the credits began to roll. It was then they realized they had started in the middle of the movie, and became quite amused with themselves.

I tell you that story because that is exactly what we are doing this morning. For us to assume the story starts with Jesus saying he is the good shepherd is to start with the second tape. The story begins in chapter nine when Jesus and his followers come upon a blind man and the disciples ask, “Who sinned to make this man to be born blind—him or his parents?”

They assumed guilt was involved. It had to be someone’s fault. To show you how senseless the question is, how could an unborn child have done something worthy of being blinded?

Jesus answered quickly to say no one was to blame. That wasn’t the point. “Neither he nor his parents,” he said. “So that God’s mighty works might be displayed, we must do the works of God who sent me. I am the light of the world.” (another metaphor)

Then he healed the man, who then went to the synagogue to share his good news. The problem was it was the sabbath and some of those more committed to a gospel of guilt were angry that Jesus had “worked” to heal the man, and then annoyed that the man was so exuberant about the whole thing. The thing keeps swirling for the whole chapter with the annoyed ones finally asking Jesus why he thought he could offer that kind of healing, the now-sighted man becoming a follower, and Jesus speaking in metaphors—and that’s where we join the story.

To people convinced that the real power of religion was to condemn and shame, Jesus said, “I am the gate to the that opens to the sheep so they can find safety and nurture,” and then (our verses), “I am the good shepherd—or the real shepherd—whose sheep know my voice and know they belong, whoever they are.”

Instead of Jesus speaking as though he were writing text for a line of encouraging greeting cards, his words about shepherding were both incisive, speaking to a moment when a lot was at stake—and all of it said in front of the man who had gone from a lifetime of blindness and inferred shame, to the exuberance of seeing, to the pain of being excluded by those he expected to share in his joy, to coming back to Jesus who took him in as his own.

Psalm 23 has a similar context. The psalm before it begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—words Jesus quoted during his crucifixion. It begins as a prayer of desperation, even desolation, but then moves to where the psalmist could sing, “God is my shepherd,” and then on to Psalm 24, which begins, “The earth is God’s and everything in it.”

John’s gospel moves from Jesus’ words about being a shepherd to his calling Lazarus out of the tomb after he had been dead four days—another picture of hopelessness that was changed by Jesus’ words and actions. In the middle of it all, Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.”

In these three chapters, Jesus made four strong statements about himself, all metaphors:

I am the light of the world;
I am the gate to the sheep fold;
I am the shepherd;
I am the resurrection and the life.

Even for a metaphor enthusiast like me, that’s a lot to take in. Yet, seen together they present a powerful statement of love and hope and belonging. Whether our blindness is literal or figurative, whether the wolves are real or just in our minds, whether we have been ostracized or we just feel disconnected, whether we are grieving an actual death or dying inside, we are not alone: God’s love does not let us go.

Those are easier words to say than they are to trust, I suppose. How do we know we are not alone? That’s a question that is answered by stories, not by a proclamation from the pulpit. Sometimes those stories are as dramatic as the blind man being given his sight, sometimes they are as basic as getting help to get through the day—the way a shepherd helps the sheep find their way home. Perhaps one way we can hear Jesus’ metaphors is less as huge statements and more along the lines of however it is that we feel found or recognized or embraced, God is in the middle of it.

You know the stories that make it true, so I’ll say it again: We are not alone; God’s love never lets us go. That’s the whole story. Let’s tell it every chanced we get. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

what will it take?

0

I guess it makes sense that most of the lectionary passages during Eastertide deal with Jesus’ appearances, but this week’s text (Luke 24:36-43) is another version of his surprising the disciples as they gathered in a locked room, still trying to figure out what was going on. Maybe we are all still trying to figure that out. Here’s where the story took me.

_______________________

When I first looked at the Gospel passage for this morning I was puzzled. Last week, the verses from John looked at Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on what we would call Easter evening. This week’s selection from Luke looks at Jesus’ encounter with the disciples on what we would call Easter evening. Why are we looking at the same story?

Well, it’s the same event, but it’s not the same story.

John begins the events of Easter morning with Mary going to the tomb alone and finds it empty. (Peter is also there but sees the empty tomb and runs off in excitement.) Then a man Mary assumes is the caretaker speaks to her and when he calls her name, she realizes it is Jesus. Later that evening, Jesus appears to the disciples who have locked themselves in a room and they struggle to trust it is him until he breathes on them—the verses we looked at last week. Eight days later, Jesus comes back for Thomas. Then there is one more story about him meeting them on the sea shore and cooking breakfast.

Luke’s account of events following Jesus’ resurrection starts at the tomb at dawn where the women found it empty and then ran back to tell the other disciples—the men—who didn’t believe them. Then later that day Jesus appeared to two of his followers as they walked back to their home in Emmaus. They didn’t recognize him until they invited him to stay for dinner. Then they ran back to Jerusalem to tell the others and while they were talking Jesus appeared in the room. That’s where our passage for today picks up the story.

He showed them his wounds and they were joyful, but still not sure, so he asked if they had any food and ate it in front of them. And they still struggled.

John’s account made it seem as though seeing was believing. Luke is less complimentary of the disciples, or perhaps more direct. He wants us to understand that trusting the power of the resurrection—the reality of it—is not easy, even when Jesus is standing in the room.

As I said earlier, both writers are talking about the same events, but they are not telling the same story—and we haven’t even looked at Matthew and Mark. It requires a spiritual contortionist to make the stories all fit together because the details don’t match. What they hold in common is that Jesus’ followers got to see him; they had the chance to see him and touch him and trust that he was no longer dead, but alive.

At the end of our passage last week, Jesus said, “Blessed are those who don’t get the chance to see in person and still trust.”

That’s us—that’s where we join the story, which brings me to a question: What does it take to trust God?

During Eastertide, we sing hymns that make huge theological claims about Christ overcoming sin and death and hell, and then we go back into our week and struggle to get through Tuesday afternoon. Maybe that is where we find our first resonance with the disciples: we don’t know how to take it all in either.

I said “we,” but I don’t want to be presumptuous. Each of us has our own experience with how we understand and trust who Jesus was and what he did, and that reality is underlined in the variations of the gospel accounts. What they all share is all four gospels come to a close without the disciples being sure of much of anything. They knew they had seen Jesus, but that didn’t explain much. They didn’t pick up where they left off. He didn’t stay long, or do a bunch of miracles, or tell new parables. He told them to go tell others, and then he left.

And they faced the choice of whether they would trust or not—and that is a choice they had to make over and over again for the rest of their lives, just as we do.

The fact that we are gathered for worship this morning is evidence that they, along with all those who have come after them, kept choosing to trust, particularly on the days that don’t feel much like Easter. A big part of the way they continued to trust is that they did it together.

On the night before he was executed, Jesus prayed that God would unite those who followed him. Early in the book of Acts, those outside of the young church marveled at the way the loved one another. You know what I am going to say next: faith is a team sport.

Translator Sarah Ruden says Jesus was being a bit sarcastic when he asked the disciples for something to eat, as if to say, “What is it going to take to get you to trust that this is real?” Perhaps that is a question we need to keep asking one another—without the sarcasm: What is it going to take for me to help you grow in your faith, your trust of God?

May we not assume that we are all getting along swimmingly. May we not settle for letting faith be a personal thing that we all just keep to ourselves. May we have the courage to encroach on one another, to ask what it will take, and then listen closely to the answer. The reason we are here is because those who came before us were willing to risk the intimacy that fosters trust in both God and one another. May we go and do likewise. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

take this breath

0
xr:d:DAGBytEHBbk:4,j:2034925312253202072,t:24040802

It’s been a couple of weeks since I posted. Part of the reason is we have been in the throes of selling our house in Durham and buying a different house there and also dealing with Lizzy!’s recovery from her surgery to remove her eyes. Along with that I have been dealing with some sort of GI issue that has yet to be identified but has sapped my energy. All of that to say thanks for your patience and here is this week’s sermon based on John 20:19-29, verses that tell the story of Jesus’ first encounters with the disciples after his resurrection.

_________________________

I’ve always liked Thomas.

I like him because he is himself. He is honest about what is going on inside him. He must have felt like the poster boy for the Fear of Missing Out when he found out that Jesus showed up the one time he wasn’t in the room. The last time they had seen Jesus, he was dead. Now they were telling him Jesus was alive and they had seen him.

And he said, “Yeah—I’m going to need to see that for myself. I need to touch him if it’s going to feel real.”

The brevity of the gospel account doesn’t tell us if the others tried to talk him into trusting them, or if the castigated him for being a bit skeptical, but somewhere along the line he became “doubting Thomas” and the name stuck. For many, that’s the only way they know him.

But Thomas wasn’t questioning the theological underpinnings of the Resurrection; this wasn’t an intellectual exercise. The one to whom he had devoted his life had been killed—that was real—now he was being told he was alive again and doing fantastical things, and so he said, “Yeah, I’m going to have to see that for myself.”

Eight days later, they were all together and Jesus showed up again.

One of the things that is interesting is that it seems Jesus wasn’t with the disciples constantly after the Resurrection. The stories in the Gospels that precede the Crucifixion make it seem as though Jesus and his followers almost lived together. Yet over a week went by before they had contact with him. Once again, the gospel account doesn’t tell us anything about how either Jesus or the disciples spent that time. We don’t know if the others kept riding Thomas, or if they knew where Jesus was, or if they knew they would even see him again.

And then he showed up in the same room specifically, it seems, to present his wounds to Thomas. Jesus didn’t reprimand him or correct him, he just said, “Go ahead and touch me. Do whatever it takes to trust I’m really here.”

And Thomas exclaimed, “My Christ and my God.”

Like I said, I like Thomas.

But I want to back up for a moment and look at the encounter that took place without him because it seems Thomas was not so different from the others, and I’m not sure Thomas is the center of the real story in these verses.

It all took place in the evening of the day the women had found the empty tomb. In John’s account, Mary Magdelene was the only one who had seen Jesus, and they had not believed her. They had not gathered to celebrate; they were scared to death. They were hiding in a locked room when Jesus appeared among them and offered peace.

Well, that’s the way it’s translated, but poet Pádraig Ó Tuama points out that shalom is the way Hebrew people said “Hello,” much like they do today in Israel. In Arab countries they say, “Salaam.” Jesus appeared and said, “Hello.” And then, the gospel says, he “breathed on them,” which seems like an odd detail, but from what I learned this week it is the essential moment of the story.

In her new translation of the Gospels, translator Sarah Ruden that it was a folk ritual of the time to take in the last breath of a dying person in to your own mouth. When I told Ginger about it, she remembered working with a woman whose husband had died. She found a beach ball in the attic that he had blown up at the beach the previous summer and realized it was still his breath inside.

Jesus seems to have reversed the ritual. Ruden translates the verse to read, “He puffed air into them,” and then goes on to point out that the verb is the same for playing the flute.

It makes me think of how many Sunday mornings we have been moved by Valerie’s beautiful offerings with her flute and the way she can turn a piece of pipe into an instrument just by breathing into it.

Perhaps that is what inspired St. Francis to pray, “Make me an instrument of your peace.”

And then Jesus said the words about forgiveness depending on them, which feels like another way of saying that the only way anyone else will catch the melody is if you breathe it into them as well.

And then Jesus came back for Thomas, not because Thomas was a special case as much as to demonstrate how the melody of love and trust gets passed along. Jesus forgave Thomas for his fear, as he had done for the other disciples, and met him where he was.

“Go ahead and touch me.” And Thomas felt the breath of God flow through him as well. He was filled with the melody of love.

In Greek the word for breath also means spirit. Another way to think of the Holy Spirit is to think of the breath of God. The key verb in the Genesis story of creation is much the same in Hebrew: God breathed the universe into being.

At her church in Guilford, Ginger starts each service by inviting people to sit still and then to breathe in the breath of God and breathe out the love of God. Breath is at the heart of our very being, on many levels it seems.

So let us practice for a moment and focus on our breathing.

Breathe in the breath of God.
Breathe out the love of God.

Feel the presence of God inside you, the melody of creation, the holy spirit that connects us all, and trust that we are instruments of peace. We can change the world by the way we breathe. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

PS — I can’t pass up the chance to point to this old gem.