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Yesterday was Pentecost Sunday, which pretty much determines the passage for the day: Acts 2:1-21. What most people remember about the story is the gale-force winds and tongues of fire that defined the presence of the Holy Spirit, but the thing that always grabs me is that people understood each other across language barriers. Here’s my sermon.


It had been fifty days since Passover, which meant it had been fifty days since Jesus had been executed, and forty-seven days since his resurrection; even less since he had left them. Fifty days after Passover was another feast day on the Jewish calendar—Shavout, the “Festival of Weeks,” which was a pilgrimage festival (that’s why everyone was in Jerusalem) to celebrate God’s generosity by bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple. The name of the feast was translated into Greek as Pentecost, which means fifty, because it happened fifty days after Passover.

A hundred years or so before Jesus, the festival also became tied to God’s giving of the Torah to Moses. One of the scriptures read during the festival is the Book of Ruth, which is an immigrant story—a story about welcoming the stranger. Ruth comes to Israel in need of food and shelter, but she was not of Hebrew descent. To make a long story way too short, she was given space to be by Boaz and his mother Naomi, and she ended up marrying Boaz and making her home in Israel and was an ancestor of King David. At the heart of the festival were these two things: the giving of the Torah, a defining moment for the Hebrew people, and the story of Ruth, which was about including those who are not like us.

Many of the followers of Jesus had gathered in Jerusalem for the festival because they practiced Judaism. They had not gathered to wait for the Holy Spirit; they were not there in protest, or trying to set up something new; they were there to celebrate God’s generosity and inclusiveness with Jewish people from all over the known world. They were not a church. Remember, it had only been a month and a half since the crucifixion and resurrection. They were gathering and working at being together, but no one had it figured out.

When the whole thing with the wind and fire started happening, Luke says they were all together in someone’s house. We don’t know how many people were there, or exactly how things went down except that the noise from the wind and fire was so loud that it drew a crowd, and a multi-cultural one at that, and they all marveled because they knew the people talking were Galileans using the language Galileans used, yet everyone heard their words in their own language.

And there were lots of languages. Since I managed to get through the list of all the nationalities gathered in Jerusalem relatively unscathed when I read the passage, I won’t try to repeat all the names, and I know the wind and fire drew the crowd, but I think the real miracle is right here: that everyone who was listening was able to hear what they were saying in a language they could comprehend. That’s hard enough to do when we are speaking the same language. And each year as I ponder this story, I am reminded of a story my father used to tell.

As I have told you, I grew up in Africa. My parents and I moved there in 1957—I was one—and we moved to Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe). Neither of my parents had ever lived outside of Texas.

My father said soon after we moved into our house the toilet clogged up and he couldn’t get it unstopped, so he called a plumber. The man asked what the problem was and my father said, “My commode is broken.”

The plumber said, “We don’t work on commodes,” and hung up.

Dad called back and the same thing happened again. So he called a third time and this time he said, “Don’t hang up. I know what is broken at my house is something you fix. I’m just not using the right word. What do you think a commode is?”

“No,” said the plumber, “you first.”

Dad said, “It’s the thing in the bathroom that you sit on. Now it’s your turn.”

The plumber laughed and said, “It’s a bedside table. And you’re right, I do fix what is broken at your house. What’s wrong?”

My dad said, in his best Texas accent, “It won’t swallah.”

“I’ll be right there,” the man said. When he got to the house, he told my dad he usually sent one of his workers on jobs like that, but he wanted to be able to go home and tell his wife he fixed a commode that wouldn’t swallow.

Both men knew what they were talking about, and they assumed whomever they were talking to understood it the same way. But we all have to continue to remind ourselves that we way we look at and explain the world is not the way everyone else sees and understands it—and that is true even with people who grew up like we did and speak the same language.

Therapists often talk about the difference between intent and impact, which is to say just because I mean well in what I say or do doesn’t mean that is how my words or actions will be received. Because of my hearing loss, I regularly answer questions that I heard, but that weren’t the questions being asked. Most of the time, that makes for a humorous moment, but not all my miscommunications have led to funny anecdotes. That’s why I think that the real miracle of Pentecost was that everyone heard in their own language—in a way they could understand, in a way that made them feel included. And even then, not everyone got it. Some folks thought the disciples had been up early drinking—enough of them that Peter had to start his speech by saying, “We’re not drunk—it’s nine in the morning!” Then he went on to say they were experiencing the outpouring of God’s Spirit, God’s presence. They were sharing a holy moment that was available to anyone who would stop and listen. Still, some of the crowd heard him and others walked away puzzled.

Learning how to speak in a way that others can hear is hard work. So is listening in a way that opens our minds and hearts to things we might not have been expecting. Both are acts of trust and generosity, even hospitality.

Pentecost was an amazing day with the wind and fire, but it didn’t solve all the problems of the church. You don’t have to read much farther into the Book of Acts to find conflict and struggle among the young community of faith. Many of Paul’s letters were written to respond to specific issues in different congregations as they tried to figure out how to live together in Christ. Over and over, they had to keep coming back to how they listened and spoke to one another. And here we are two thousand years later still working on it—and still together, even as the world so often feels on fire around us.

Last week as I spoke to folks after the service, three of you quoted a sentence from my sermon back to me: being unified does not mean being uniform. I’m glad that stuck with you. That reality means that unified and diverse are not opposites. We are not united because we all say the same thing; we are united because we are committed to each other, and part of that commitment is listening: asking good questions, making space to think before we respond, and moving to understand rather than to judge.

Just a bit later in the Book of Acts, Luke says that when people looked at the way the followers of Christ treated each other, they said, “Look how they love one another.”

I wonder what people say when they look at us. I hope it’s the same thing.

Though the story of Pentecost, with the wind and fire, is a good one to tell, what created communities of belonging and kept the message of Christ alive in the world was the way they loved each other—the way they listened and spoke and paid attention to one another.

May we be filled with that Spirit. Amen.


show up


I was back in the pulpit this morning after having a week away to celebrate Ginger’s birthday with some dear friends. (I’m sort of blowing the intro to the sermon, but so be it.) The passage for today was John 17:1-11, which is part of Jesus’ prayer the night before he died.


As most of you know, I was not here last Sunday because I was with Ginger in Savannah, Georgia celebrating her sixtieth birthday. When we began making plans for it several months ago, she said she wanted to pick a place where some of those closest to her over the years could gather. Savannah was a geographical fit—and we could fly from Tweed on Avelo Airlines! We found a VRBO rental that could sleep up to twelve and sent out invitations. Over the course of our week there, sixteen different people came to celebrate. If you were to lay the friendships end to end, they added up to almost four hundred years of relationships.

The point of the time was to just to be together. We didn’t have a list of sights to see or anything that had to be accomplished. We ate together, walked together, cooked together, laughed and sang and stayed up late telling stories. We were not productive or efficient. We had nothing to show for the week other than the memories we made together.

We came back from the week feeling restored and rejuvenated. It was a sacred time—and it was a lot of fun, as well.

Even though I wasn’t at work, I had in my mind that this passage from John was going to be the text for today. It is John’s account of Jesus’ prayer on the night before his death at the hands of the Romans. He could see that his life was coming to an end. The disciples knew things were changing but couldn’t see the bigger picture. When they had asked questions, they asked things like who was going to sit closest to Jesus in heaven. Jesus kept telling them to keep loving people. By the time they got to the Garden of Gethsemane that night, the disciples were so exhausted that they fell asleep while Jesus prayed—and he was praying for them.

What I said about friendship was also true about Jesus’ relationships with his disciples: they were not productive or efficient. They spent three years walking from town to town without much of an itinerary, meeting people mostly by accident and interruption, and listening to Jesus tell stories. Jesus did not leave any sort of mission statement or business plan or five-year projection—and still he prayed and said to God, “I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.”

What Jesus had done was love people. That was all he came to do.

Then he prayed for his followers who would remain after he was gone and what he asked was that God would “watch over them so that they will be unified—that they will be one,” which is another way of saying that they would love one another enough to stick together.

He didn’t say anything about mass evangelism or big buildings or denominational infrastructure or doctrinal purity or political perspective or endowment funds. He said, love them so they will love one another.

Over the years, as Ginger and I have reflected on our friendships, we have commented that we (and by we I mean pretty much everybody) put up with things that our friends do that we do not tolerate as easily when people who are not our friends do them. Let me say that long sentence again: Over the years, as Ginger and I have reflected on our friendships, we have commented that we put up with things that our friends do that we do not tolerate as easily when people who are not our friends do them. We still may get irritated or frustrated, or even hurt, but we don’t bail on the relationship because we have chosen to be friends.

I have a book I bought back in the 80s by Martin Marty simply titled Friendship, and he starts the book by saying, “We have friends, and we are friends in order that we do not get killed”—another way of saying we need each other to thrive and belong.

The same dynamic works in a marriage and in a family. And in church. We come together here because we have chosen to put up with each other, to love each other, and when we do we answer Jesus’ prayer by choosing relationship over doctrine and opinion and personal preference and politics and whatever else might divide us. We choose each other over, well, pretty much anything.

As though they knew what I was preaching about, there was an essay in the New York Times this morning titled, “For People to Really Know Us, We Need to Show Up.” (NYT gift link) The author, Brad Stulberg, wrote:

For people to really know us, we need to show up consistently. Over time, what starts out as obligation becomes less about something we have to do and more about something we want to do, something that we can’t imagine living without. The spiritual teacher Ram Dass once wrote that “we’re all just walking each other home.” But that’s only true if we don’t constantly cancel our walking plans.

Not canceling plans means, essentially, showing up for one another. If we commit to certain people and activities, if we feel an obligation to show up for them, then it’s likely that we will, indeed, show up. And showing up repeatedly is what creates community.
To be together doesn’t mean we agree on everything, or that life is all sunshine and roses. Community is not efficient or necessarily productive. We are made for each other. We belong together. And when we hit rough spots, we show up, we stick together, and we get through it. The point is not to all be alike, it is to be together—and to make room for others to join us because this kind of love is hard to come by.

We lived out what I am talking about two Sundays ago when we sat down after worship and talked about the possibility of placing the Witness Stone in our church yard. I learned a lot listening to the various responses voiced as we talked together. We listened well to each other, and we didn’t make anything more important than our connection to each other. Our commitment to one another runs deeper than our questions, our anxieties, and our opinions.

I hope we keep saying that out loud to each other: Our commitment to one another runs deeper than our questions, our anxieties, and our opinions. That’s good stuff. When we love one another, we are doing what God made us to do, pure and simple. What an amazing reason to be alive.

To be unified doesn’t mean we are uniform. To be together—to belong to each other—means we start by listening and then by sharing our stories. To love one another means to pay attention to the details beyond opinions, beyond what is comfortable to share; to stick together through difficulty, through anger, through misunderstanding, through successes, through mistakes, through life; to show up. That’s what love looks like.

And when we live like that together, we are the answer to Jesus’ prayer. Amen.


Ps–It’s been a while since I added this postscript, but since Tuesday is the day I publish my free weekly newsletter, mixing metaphors I thought it was worth asking you to subscribe. I’m almost to 400 subscribers. Click the link above or the button in the sidebar. If you would like to help support my writing, you can become a sustaining member or make a one-time donation. I am grateful that you take time to read.

the whole story


One of the things about following the Revised Common Lectionary is that texts chosen weeks ago often find serendipitous connections with life events and issues in ways that would be difficult to plan if you were trying to. This is one of those weeks. The story of the stoning of Stephen ran alongside our church’s consideration of placing a Witness Stone on our grounds in memory of a man who was once enslaved in Hamden—and then there was a random connection (for me) to a childhood memory. I hope it speaks to you.


An old memory found me this week. It was a family vacation. I was ten, my brother was eight. We were driving across Zambia, where we lived, to spend some time in one of the game parks. The car was not air-conditioned, so we had the windows rolled down. It was warm and we had been in the car a long time. I was recovering from one of the ear infections that were consistent through my childhood. My brother Miller and I were both tired of being in the backseat, but I was the one who started poking at him.

We were quiet at first, but then it escalated. My brother tried to push me away and hit my sore ear—by accident–and I yelled. My dad looked in the rear-view mirror and said, “What happened?” Before my brother could speak, I said, “Miller hit me in my sore ear,” and both my parents came down hard on him, telling him to leave me alone. They didn’t ask for the whole story, they just responded to what they saw and heard.

Miller shot me a look that hit harder than his hand. I didn’t say a word. I think he’s still bitter.

The memory came back as I worked with this week’s passage because what we just read together is the biblical equivalent of my crying out when my brother tapped my ear: the scene we saw is the end of Stephen’s story—and Stephen’s life, but we didn’t read how they got to that moment. Stephen didn’t just stumble into a roomful of people angry enough to kill him.

The early church had its growing pains, not the least of which was people who were not Jewish began joining. There was a language barrier: some spoke Aramaic, some spoke Greek. There were economic, political, and cultural divisions, as well as questions about how those in need were being cared for. Stephen was one of those chosen by the church in Jerusalem to help sort things out. He is described as one “who stood out among the believers for the way God’s grace was at work in his life.”

Outside of the young congregation, in the wider Jerusalem community, which was struggling to understand this burgeoning new sect, some struggled with Stephen and the faith he proclaimed, and they began to spread rumors that he “insulted Moses and God,” which led to Stephen being brought before the religious authorities. When they asked him if he was insulting Moses and God, Stephen launched into a Hebrew history lesson, going through Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Joshua, including the recurring theme of how the people of most every generation and doubted God and ignored the prophets, and ending with a not-so-subtle proclamation that those who were charging him were the ones insulting God with their lack of faith.

This is where we picked up the story. They were so enraged that they dragged him out of town and killed him.

Good story, huh?

Stephen is recognized as the first martyr of the early church, the first one to die for his faith. The sermon most often found in these verses is a call to commitment, a challenge to give our lives to God so completely that we would be willing to die for our faith. I read an article this week that offered another perspective. Enuma Okoro is a Nigerian-American writer who was reflected on this passage and imagined a different perspective. He wrote:

With this week’s reading from Acts, I wonder if most of us automatically see ourselves as Stephen. But if we approach the text with an open and receptive spirit, where else in this martyrdom scene might we find ourselves?

What would it mean if we were among those who stone him, those enraged by a threatening word of truth? We may not literally kill people, but in what ways do we cause grave harm when we react to perspectives that threaten us, or to visions of God with which we do not agree? The mob is made up of the council of religious authorities who are charged with ensuring that people do not blaspheme against God. And they believe Stephen is doing this. But they also seem to hear his witness as blasphemy because they have already decided how God works, how God reveals God’s self and to whom. There isn’t any room left in their imaginations.

That last sentence is striking: “There isn’t any room left in their imaginations.”

I had a friend years ago who used to say, “Never trust a zealot with a clear conscience,” which was another way of saying don’t trust anyone—including ourselves—who think they have a corner on the truth. When we allow ourselves to decide that ideas or theology or whatever matters more than our relationships with one another, our fear and anger can get the best of us, and we can lose our ability to see beyond our sense of the way the world works and how we fit into the story.

Though I chose this passage a few weeks back, as I worked on my sermon over the last few days it connected to our discussion about placing one of the Witness Stones on our church property. As most of you know, we have been approached about placing a small brass plaque on our grounds in memory of Cyrus Gibson, who was enslaved by Simeon Bristol here in Hamden. Bristol was a magistrate and figured prominently in the history of New Haven and of our town.

That Cyrus was enslaved by Simeon is a matter of public record yet it has not been a consistent part of the story that has been told over the years. Our middle schoolers learned about Cyrus and others by going through primary sources: the town records. Like headstones in a graveyard, the Witness Stone is a way of naming someone so they are not forgotten, a way of remembering who he was and who we are—and a way of making room in our imaginations for us to grow and learn. Now that we know Cyrus Gibson’s name, he is part of our shared story—part of us.

We would be far from alone if we choose to place a Witness Stone for Cyrus. A couple of weeks ago First Congregational Church of Stonington placed a stone in their churchyard in honor of Cato Cuff, an enslaved man who also fought in the Revolutionary War. In Guilford, where I live, we have six or eight stones placed around town. So far they have placed almost one hundred and fifty stones across our state—and the Witness Stone Project is just one of a number of projects helping us to come to a deeper understanding of how we got to be who we are.

Last summer I watched the series High on the Hog on Netflix, which looks at the way enslaved people brought to this country shaped what we think of as American cuisine. One episode told the story of James Hemings, who was Thomas Jefferson’s chef while he was president, and who was enslaved by Jefferson. The capital of the young republic was in Philadelphia at that time, and Pennsylvania had a law that said an enslaved person who lived in the state for six months was freed by default. Every five and a half months, Jefferson would send James Hemings back to Monticello for a week or two to reset the clock so he would remain enslaved. That truth sits alongside the reality that Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”

Jefferson articulated a truth about humanity that he could not imagine himself living into. He, like us, was a citizen of the time in which he lived. The way we can imagine a larger definition of us—of who belongs—is to tell the whole story of those who have come before us and imagine what kind of world we want to pass on.

Those who stoned Stephen to death were unwilling to come to terms with their history, with their connections to the past that they chose to leave behind. As they killed him, a young man named Saul held their cloaks. Years later, he changed his name to Paul to signify his new life in Christ. In his letter to the Galatian church he wrote,

There is no longer Jew or Greek; there is no longer slave or free; there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

When we aspire to tell and hear the whole story, we can release our need to control the narrative. When we aspire to tell and hear the whole story, we are reminded that there is no “them:” there is only us. We are all a part of the family of God—we have all sinned, we have all been forgiven; we have chosen to live out our faith in Christ in this congregation right here in Hamden, and we seek to live out our faith in grace-giving and equitable words and deeds with the help of the Holy Spirit beyond these walls, beyond our town line, across every barrier—and we can tell the whole story as long as we allow God to keep making room in our imaginations. Amen.


beyond shame


I am recuperating well from my surprise gallbladder attack and consequent removal, and am grateful to be able to preach at my church this morning. The passage is from John 21, where Jesus meets Peter on the beach. It is one of my favorite stories in scripture.


One of my recurring jokes that Ginger has to hear during football season comes when a referee throws the penalty flag and then turns on his mic; “Holding. Number 89. Offense. Ten-yard penalty. Replay first down.”

Then I say, “Why does the game have to be so shamed based? Why not just move the ball and keep playing? No. Instead we have to tell everyone, ‘Things were fine until 89 had to break the rules. It’s all his fault.’”

I’m pretty sure none of that runs through the mind of the left tackle when they hear their number called, still I wonder if it isn’t a small part of why football is our most popular sport: we resonate with the shame, on both personal and cultural levels. For a lot of people, religion has been one of the chief flag-throwers. Yet, when we look at Jesus’ interactions with people who felt penalized and ashamed, Jesus offered a way to move beyond it, a way to see that we are more than the sum of our sins and shortfalls.

Jesus offered love.

So far, we have looked at three instances where people encountered Jesus after the resurrection. He spoke to Mary in the graveyard, he found the disciples and Thomas in the upper room, and he walked with the two travelers on the road to Emmaus, who then ran back to town to tell the others, so we can infer that Peter either participated in or heard about all of them, but we don’t have any record of Jesus talking to Peter until we get to this story that brings John’s gospel to a close.

We don’t know how much time had passed, but the disciples had moved from Jerusalem back to Galilee, which was home for most of them. And they had gone back to fishing, or at least those who had been fishermen previously took to their boats. Johns says seven of them went out at night. We don’t know if it was a way to pass the time or deal with their grief and questions or if they had returned to their old line of work, but they spent the night on the lake hoping to catch something and had come up empty.

It seems like we don’t know much—how much time had passed since the resurrection, how long they had been back in Galilee, what the other disciples were doing—but what we do know is, as the sun rose on their frustration, someone from the shore yelled, “Hey, guys, did you catch anything we can eat?” They yelled back that they had nothing, and the person told them to throw the net over the right side of the boat. I’m sure whatever the disciples said next was murmured out of earshot of the one on the beach, but I guess they figured, “Why not give it a try?” The worst that could happen was they would pull in another empty net.

Instead, the net was so full that it almost tipped the boat over, and in that moment something tipped in Peter’s mind and he realized who was hollering at them (“It’s Jesus!”), and he dove into the water, and swam to shore.

The others followed in the boat and hauled in 153 fish—perhaps one of the strangest details in scripture because you have to wonder who would have taken the time to sit and count the catch in the middle of all that was going on. You can find lots of speculation about the significance of the number; the greatest meaning may be simply this: they caught a lot of fish.

The last time Jesus and Peter had spoken had not gone well. Jesus said Peter would deny him three times, and that was what happened. Peter betrayed Jesus by saying over and over that he didn’t know him. He acted out of fear and confusion and despair. And now they stood face to face on the beach and Jesus was serving breakfast. After they had eaten, Jesus asked Peter, “Do you love me?” and then he asked him again, and then again.

Each time, Peter answered, “You know I love you,” and Jesus told him to feed his sheep. Well, the last time Peter sounded frustrated: “You know everything; you know I love you.” And there on the beach surrounded by fish, Jesus talked about sheep again. What I hear in Jesus’ words is this: You know what it’s like to do damage; you know what it’s like to be a betrayer. Now you know what it’s like to be forgiven, to see that love is stronger than betrayal. Go tell everyone else who needs to hear that.

Peter was not the only one who betrayed Jesus that night. Judas is the one who most often gets labeled as the Big Betrayer. He’s the one who told the soldiers they would be in the Garden of Gethsemane after dinner. He’s the one who kissed Jesus on the cheek so the soldiers would know who to arrest, who sold him out for thirty pieces of silver. But early on the morning of Jesus’ execution, as Judas realized what was happening, he went back to the people who had bribed him and told them he had betrayed an innocent man and didn’t want their money.

They were not interested in his confession nor his well-being. So Judas left in disgrace and despair and killed himself because he just could not see beyond. He could not see beyond the damage he had done. He was dead before Jesus was even crucified.

The stories of Peter and Judas are connected.

Though pretty much every one of the disciples bailed out in one way or another when Jesus was arrested, the two that get the spotlight are Peter and Judas, the denier and the betrayer. Those are harsh labels. I don’t think either one was malicious in their actions. Peter was in the courtyard because he was trying to stay close to Jesus and he outran his courage. I think Judas expected Jesus to actually take on the oppressive government and was trying to force Jesus’ hand and make him act.

The biggest difference between the two is Judas never made it to breakfast. If he had, there would have been fish and forgiveness for him as well.

Let me say that again.

The biggest difference between the two is Judas never made it to breakfast. If he had, there would have been fish and forgiveness for him as well.

Church family, whether you feel like a denier or a betrayer, or that your life is so littered with penalty flags that you can’t move beyond your mistakes, listen closely: we are all invited to breakfast. We can feel forgiven—and we can forgive. Don’t be eaten up by your shame. Look for the fire on the beach, for the friend or loved one calling out your name and swim ashore.

Shame is not the last word. Love is. Love is the last word. May we feed one another with such love and forgiveness. Amen.


caught by surprise


I was waiting to post my sermon until Sunday evening because it is tied to some big news. Yesterday I was called as the pastor of Mount Carmel Congregational Church in Hamden, Connecticut where I have been the Bridge Pastor for the last three months. We decided we liked each other so much we would seal the deal.

About an hour after our potluck lunch, I got my second surprise: my gallbladder revolted. By seven o’clock last night I was in Yale New Haven Hospital. I will have my gallbladder removed tomorrow.

I appreciate your prayers, but—for now—go back to the first surprise and read the sermon.


Many years ago, a friend of mine was walking back to his car in a shopping center parking lot when he noticed a woman standing at the door of his car trying to open it with her key. He could tell she wasn’t trying to break in, but thought it was her car. My friend was a kind person by nature and didn’t want to startle her, so he asked if she needed help.

“I don’t understand it,” she said. “My key won’t work for some reason.”

“Here,” my friend said, “try mine,” and he handed her his key. She took it and pushed it into the lock and the door opened–then she realized what she had done and the two of them began to laugh.

I’ve known that story for many years, but it wasn’t until this week that it connected to our story for this morning about the two people who encountered Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus–about a seven mile stretch.

Luke says it was the evening of the day that had begun with Jesus meeting Mary in the cemetery and calling her by name. One of the two travelers is named–Cleopas–and that is all we know about either of them, other than they appear to know those who followed Jesus closely. They were absorbed in conversation as they walked and hardly realized that Jesus had joined them until he asked what had them so enthralled. They were surprised he hadn’t heard, so they told him the story, and he responded by giving them a short history of the prophets and connecting all kinds of dots, but they still didn’t see who was with them.

When they got to Emmaus, Jesus didn’t stop with them until they invited him to dinner. As they dined together, Jesus picked up the bread, tore it into pieces–as he had done a few nights earlier–and handed it to them to eat, and then they realized who it was, much like the lady in the parking lot realized she was trying to get into the wrong car.

In each of the encounters that we have looked at over the past couple of weeks, Jesus has come alive in relational contact, in the daily details of life. He called Mary by name, he let Thomas touch his hands and side, he served dinner to Cleopas and his companion. All three encounters led to a moment of similar surprise: “Hey! It’s you!”

Luke says that once they recognized him, Jesus vanished and the two said, “Weren’t our hearts burning the whole time he was talking?” perhaps trying to convince themselves that they had a hint of what had happened, and then they ran back to Jerusalem–seven miles, remember?–in the middle of the night to tell the others.

One of the truths in the story is that, as much as we wish we knew what God has planned for the future, our best glimpse at the way the Spirit moves in our lives is by looking back and finding God in the details.

I don’t mean that God engineers our circumstances, or that we are being moved around on some cosmic game board. Even in this story, their recognition of Jesus swung on whether they invited him to dinner. What if they had not done so? What if they had let Jesus keep walking? They would have spent the evening talking about that guy that walked with them who really knew his Hebrew history, perhaps, or maybe awakened in the night and thought, “Wait! That was Jesus.”

But they didn’t let him walk off and their eyes were opened: Jesus caught them by surprise.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only [those] who see take off [their] shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

Whether we see more than blackberries has a lot to do with how we chose to look at the world around us. Mary went to the tomb. Thomas asked for a meeting. Cleopas served supper to an engaging stranger.

As I have thought about today and the prospect of our beginning a new chapter in our relationship together, I realized that I, too, have been caught by surprise in these days. When Beverly first contacted me about the Bridge Interim, I told her I wasn’t looking for a settled position. Evidently, I was more emphatic in that statement than I realized because I have heard it reflected back to me by several in the congregation when I first mentioned I was interested in hanging around on a more permanent basis.

When I look back, I see those who saw we might fit together before we did. Olivia mentioned my name to you, I believe. Jake Joseph, who supplied here a couple of times, called me and said, “I think you would really like this church.” After my being here for four or five weeks, Ginger, my wife, said, “I think this could be more than an interim for you. You seem happy there.”

As I was driving home from my interview with the Search Committee (on Good Friday, but I choose not to read much symbolism into that), I began thinking back about my ministerial career. I went back to my first call, which was in April of 1977, the end of my junior year in college. My phone rang one day and a man named J. T. Davidson said he was from Pecan Grove Baptist Church near Gatesville, Texas and someone had given him my name as a candidate for pastor.

The someone was a friend of my parents who had pastored the church when he was in college and seminary. He thought I would fit there. And I did. I pastored there for a little over four years at a church that sat between farms, in a world I knew little of, when it came to ranching, and it was good.

Since then, I have been a hospital chaplain, a youth minister, a church planter, an interim minister (several times), and an associate pastor, along with jobs that were not in ministry, but forty-six years later to the month, I am stepping into my second pastorate.

I feel like the two sitting at dinner, and a bit like the woman in the parking lot: I have been caught by surprise. And I am deeply grateful, not because God has revealed some great master plan, but because we have been walking on the road together and we have realized Christ is here in the middle of us.

Good thing we have dinner planned after worship. Amen.


no rush to judgement


After forty-seven days of Lent, I’ve been absent for a week. I needed the rest. I’ll pick back up with this week’s sermon where Jesus, Father Guido Sarducci, Garrison Keillor, Thomas, and Ted Lasso all manage to show up. The passage is John 20:19-30. Thanks for reading.


I was in college when Saturday Night Live started on NBC. One of their early characters was Father Guido Sarducci. Perhaps you remember him. One night he was promoting his Five Minute University, because he said in five minutes he could teach you what most college graduates remembered five years after graduation.

For Spanish, he taught that when someone said, “¿Como está usted?” you answered, “Muy bien.”
For economics, all you needed to know is supply and demand. You buy something and then you sell it for more.
For theology, two things: “God is everywhere” and “God really likes you a lot”–a combination of Disney and Catholic philosophies.

He also offered a twenty second spring break, a cap and gown, a picture, and a diploma–all for twenty bucks.

Besides writing a funny sketch, he hit on something that attracts most all of us: a summary. A quick sound bite that helps us think we have a handle on whatever is being discussed. Summaries and sound bites have their place, but if they are the only things we remember, we miss valuable details.

Garrison Keillor used to say a perfect novel had elements of religion, family, royalty, sex, and suspense–and he had written the perfect one-sentence novel:

“My God,” said the Queen, “I’m pregnant. I wonder who the father is.”

When it comes to the Bible, we often do the same thing with some of the people we meet there, particularly those around Jesus. We never do much more with Judas than label him as the one who betrayed Jesus, for example. And then we come to Thomas, who is a part of our story this morning, and my guess is when most of us hear his name we hear it as “doubting Thomas,” something he is never called in scripture.

With that in mind, let’s look again at the story.

Right after John tells of Jesus’ encounter with Mary in the cemetery, which we talked about last week, John describes three other appearances, two of which are in our passage today. On Easter night, even though they didn’t call it that yet, the disciples were in the room where they had last shared supper with Jesus–well, all except Judas, who had completed suicide, and Thomas. We don’t know where Thomas was, but no one seems to have questioned his absence.

John says they had locked themselves in the room because they were scared of the authorities hunting them down as well. That fear was well-founded. Suddenly, like a scene from a Hitchcock movie, Jesus appeared in the middle of the room without unlocking the door. He came through the door—literally—and said, “Peace to you.” I’m guessing that didn’t go over too well. They must have been freaked out. But Jesus stood there long enough for them to gather their wits and then he reminded them that they were called to be the messengers of God’s love. He didn’t say anything about their fear, or their cowardice during his trial and execution. The risen Christ didn’t come in judgement; he came in peace.

When they told Thomas what had happened, he couldn’t quite take it all in and said, “I need to see that for myself; I need to touch his wounds,” which got him tagged as a doubter, when, in fact, he was no different than any of the others. The men had not believed the women who were the first to see Jesus. And even those who had seen the empty tomb were still hiding in a locked room.

Even eight days later, they were still gathering in that room—this time with Thomas—Jesus showed up again without knocking. Even when they knew he was coming it still caught them by surprise. Again he offered peace and then he turned to Thomas. Jesus didn’t judge him or correct him, he simply said, “Do what you need to do to trust me.” And then Jesus said something that has also become a memorable quote and if often read as though it is the point of the encounter, though I am not sure if it means the same thing to everyone:

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”

If you are a Ted Lasso fan, it’s hard not to picture Jesus saying that and then turning around and hitting the “Believe” poster on the wall above the door as he left.

Though Thomas has become the poster boy for doubt because of this passage—there’s even a Wikipedia page for “Doubting Thomas” as someone who questions everything—the story is not primarily about him, nor is it mainly about doubt. Remember John is telling stories about Jesus.

This is an account of the Resurrection, of life beyond Jesus’ execution. In the course of a weekend, his followers had scattered at his arrest, watched his brutal death, hidden in despair, heard and seen of his resurrection, and had ended up locking themselves in a room together just to be safe. To say they doubted Jesus was alive makes it sound like an academic discussion. They were scared to death, they were ashamed of their actions, they were unsure of their future.

And Jesus showed up behind closed doors to meet them where they were.

He didn’t chide them, he offered peace, just as he did to Thomas a week later. He called them to choose trust over fear. He commissioned them: “I send you out just as I was sent.” And then he told them to receive the Holy Spirit and start forgiving people, which sounds a little like his take on the Five Minute University:

Peace to you;
Receive the Holy Spirit;
If you forgive people they are forgiven. Got it?

The way our translations read, the part about forgiving sins sounds a bit cryptic–“If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

The Message translation offers a more helpful reading.

“If you forgive someone’s sins, they’re gone for good. If you don’t forgive sins, what are you going to do with them?”

Isn’t that a great question? What are we going to do with what we won’t forgive?

Jesus wasn’t giving them special powers. He was inviting them not to rush to judgement in God’s name, but to breed trust, to help others move beyond fear and shame and anything else that breaks relationships.

We can be agents of forgiveness, trusting that God can touch others through our lives. Or not. Risking the power of forgiving others is choosing trust over fear, and hope over despair. It is an act of faith. (Here also, forgiveness is one of those words that get too easily summarized. Jesus was not saying if you are facing abuse that you just need to forgive the abuser and take it.) The question is worth wrestling with: if we don’t forgive others, what are we going to do with what we won’t forgive?

Thomas doesn’t become part of the story until the end. Eight days had passed and they were still sequestering themselves in the locked room, even after having seen Jesus. We don’t know if they had been there every night for a week, or if they just happened to be there that night, but once again Jesus showed up in the locked room and offered peace.

And then he turned to Thomas. Part of me wonders if the others thought Jesus would lower the bomb on the guy. Instead, he told Thomas to touch him and to trust him.

Then Jesus said those who trust without seeing were blessed, but I think that’s probably a pretty small group of people. Yes, we can say we trust God even though we can’t see God, that we follow Christ even though we never saw him or touched him, but we all need to see something—no, someone—who shows up in the locked rooms of our hearts and invites us to choose trust over fear and doubt, which is another way of offering forgiveness.

We are called to be people who help others see and trust. We are called to be that for one another, to incarnate forgiveness, to foster faithfulness, to be the embodied presence of Christ’s love in a locked and frightened world. If we want to summarize this story, it’s not about Thomas, or even his questioning. Let’s just say, in Jesus’ Five Minute University there’s no rush to judgement. Amen.


lenten journal: listen for your name


By the time most of you read this it will be Easter, so here is my Easter sermon, which looks at Jesus’ encounter with Mary in the garden outside of the tomb where he had been buried. Happy Easter!


Years ago, Ginger and I were in Athens, Greece on Orthodox Easter. As we were checking into the hotel, the desk person said, “Christos anesti!” When w didn’t answer, he said, “When I say, ‘Christos anesti,’ you say, ‘Alethos anesti.’ I’m saying, ‘Christ is risen,’ and you’re saying, ‘He really did it!”

His translation—and his enthusiasm—have stayed with us ever since. His exuberance was contagious and is representative of the way we celebrate Easter regardless of location or language. Christ is risen. That’s the big news—the good news; even so, the story is a lot to take in, isn’t it?

Not just the empty tomb, the whole thing: Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. In between then and now, the story has picked up all kinds of interpretations, like a snowball rolling down the slope of history, making us feel, sometimes, as though how we celebrate Easter is a test of faith, like there’s one way to do it or we’re wrong. We sing triumphant hymns and proclaim that Christ is risen. The confidence is inspiring, and not necessarily universal.

If you are here this morning and, like Mary, aren’t sure what to do with the empty tomb, you are in good company. We have talked before about trust being at the heart of faith, rather than belief—that we are not united by our doctrine but by our commitment to trust God and one another as we do the best we can to live out Christ’s teachings. What the gospel writers offer us is not an explanation, nor is it a doctrinal statement. They didn’t know how to comprehend it; we still don’t. How can resurrection be explained?

Theologian Richard Lischer wrote,

If the resurrection were meant to be a historically verifiable occurrence, God wouldn’t have performed it in the dark without eyewitnesses. . . . Not a single canonical Gospel tells us how it happened. We don’t know if it was a typically warm Palestinian morning or unseasonably cool. We don’t know if the earth shuddered when he arose or if it was preternaturally still. We don’t know what he looked like when he was no longer dead, whether he burst the tomb in glory or came out like Lazarus, slowly unwrapping his shroud and squinting with wonder against the dawn.

The gospel writers don’t go into statements of cosmic significance, and the stories they tell are not the same from gospel to gospel, but they each offer accounts of the impact of Jesus’ presence after his death. They tell small stories about Peter on the beach, about Thomas in the upper room, and about those on the Emmaus Road—all of which we will look at in the weeks to come—and about Mary Magdalene in the graveyard, whom we consider today.

Mary gets a lot of exercise in John’s account. We don’t know how far the cemetery was from where she was staying, but she walked there before daylight to mourn—to take care of the body. When she got there, the tomb was open and empty, so she ran back to where the others were and woke them up with her news. Then they all ran back again. The two men with her went inside the tomb, saw the grave clothes folded, and then went back home.

Mary looked in after they left and saw angels who asked why she was crying.

“They took my Lord and I don’t know where they put him,” she said.

The angels didn’t answer, and when she turned away from them, she saw a person she assumed to be the caretaker—the gardener—and she repeated her answer when he asked her the same thing. Her grief at his death was compounded by what she thought was a robbery or some other kind of deception. She couldn’t make sense of the circumstances, so she said, basically, “Just tell me what happened,” hoping, perhaps, that an explanation would bring some sort of comfort.

Instead, Jesus called her name—“Mary”—and she recognized him. Then, once again, she ran to tell the others what had happened.

Over the millennia since that encounter in the graveyard, Easter has become a loud and boisterous celebration in most cases, but it started small. We don’t have any accounts of Jesus preaching on the hillside after his resurrection, or healing, or anything other than a handful of personal encounters, and in every one of them those affected went looking for others to tell. They thought his death was the end of the story and it was not.

One of the ways we can talk about life is to say we live in a graveyard. We all know we are going to die. We are surrounded by the markers of those who have gone before us, of those whom we love who are not here. Death is not something other than life; it is part of it and has been from the very beginning. The promise of the resurrection is not that we won’t die. Our days here are numbered. Resurrection offers us a glimpse of another dimension beyond what we can explain. In Celtic spirituality, they talk about thin places where the barrier between what we comprehend and what we cannot opens up so that we can encounter a dimension beyond this life. In cosmology, they talk about how everything in the universe is made of the same energy—the same spirit, if you will—that connects in ways we cannot comprehend. We know from quantum physics that time and space are not as set as they seem.

Every day of our lives we are a part of things we can’t fully comprehend, and death is one of those.

When Ginger pastored in Marshfield, Massachusetts, the church had a tradition of an Easter Egg Hunt after worship that took place in the cemetery adjacent to the building. The youth group would hide the eggs among the tombstones and the kids, decorated as brightly as the plastic eggs, filled the graveyard with life as they looked for candy. I still have an image in my mind’s eye of one little girl named Gabby sitting on top of a headstone, stuffing her face with chocolate as fast as she could before her parents caught up with her.

If you need a viable metaphor for resurrection, that’s pretty good. To say we live in a graveyard is not to say life is hopeless. Life is full of joy and beauty and surprise that all ride alongside of grief and pain and sorrow. We are connected to it all. We belong here. God breathed us into being and put us here together for these beautiful and difficult days. We do not have to earn the right to be noticed by God. We do not have to be good enough to belong. All we have to do is listen for our names.

The old spiritual “His Eye is on the Sparrow” speaks to the trust that lies at the heart of faith as it leans into Jesus’ words that God knows when every sparrow falls. Jesus didn’t say anything about God catching every little bird, but he made it clear that the sparrows didn’t go unnoticed. God knew their names.

Why do I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows come?
Why does my heart feel lonesome and long for heaven and home?
When Jesus is my portion my constant friend is he
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me

I sing because I’m happy I sing because I’m free
His eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches me

We have made a joyful noise this morning and filled the sanctuary with festive flowers as we proclaimed that Jesus really did it. Hear also what is underneath the alleluias: listen for Love to call your name. Amen.


lenten journal: cross purposes


cross purposes

growing up they said
nothing but the blood
as though violence was
some kind of necessity
a cosmic payoff in a world
where blame and shame
are primary currency

we’ve lived enough
history to know that
violence isn’t redemptive
we’ve built whole worlds
based on bloodshed
we’ve organized Jesus’
execution into stations
ordered his last words
to read like a script and
still the death penalty
has never made sense

I know resurrection
requires death to work
but it does not require
violence or a scapegoat
imagine if Jesus had
lived a long life and died
surrounded by loved ones
and still rolled away the
stone a few days later
wouldn’t it still be Easter?


lenten journal: tradition


I was rummaging around in The Hedgehog Review–mostly because I love hedgehogs and it’s called The Hedgehog Review–and came across an article titled “The Living Faith of the Dead,” which was a book review and had nothing to do with hedgehogs. The site, by the way, is based at the University of Virginia and hosts an academic journal by the same name. (I’d love to know the story behind that.) The title of the article came was taken from a book by theologian Jaroslav Pelikan, “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living,”

Tradition, of course, is larger than religion, but when it comes to “the way we do things,” religious institutions large and small can get dug in emotionally, politically, and theologically on everything from communion to coffee hour. The word means “handing down” or “handing over.” The image that comes to my mind with that definition is passing tradition along like we pass favorite family recipes, but that’s not always how it works.

A sermon illustration I heard from my dad when I was young has stuck with me. (It is a well-traveled story, so I am sure many of you know a version of it, too.) A newly-married couple were preparing one of their first meals. They didn’t have much money, but they had splurged on a roast. The husband pulled out the roasting pan and then picked up the big knife to chop off about two inches of one side of the roast. The wife stopped him.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“This is how my mom did it,” he answered. That was not a good enough explanation for throwing away good beef, so they called his mother to ask why. She said it was how her mother had done, so they called Grandma with the same question.

“My roasting pan was too small.”

Much is lost when we aren’t attentive to the things we hand down. Good questions should go along with the exchange. In that spirit, I share what I learned today about the etymology of the word, tradition.

from Latin traditionem (nominative traditio) “a delivering up, surrender, a handing down, a giving up,” noun of action from past-participle stem of tradere “deliver, hand over,” from trans- “over” + dare “to give” (from PIE root *do- “to give”). The word is a doublet of treason.

When I looked up the word, treason I found this.

from Latin traditionem (nominative traditio) “delivery, surrender, a handing down, a giving up,” noun of action from past-participle stem of tradere “deliver, hand over,” from trans- “over” + dare “to give” (from PIE root *do- “to give”). A doublet of tradition.

I’m still thinking about that shared genealogy, as well as the connection between handing down and giving up. It seems to me we can find more than one example of things handed down that turned from blessing to betrayal, particularly (again) when we look at religious institutions, but my point tonight is not about those institutions (though I could write that post) as much as how crucial our questions are to how we carry on what has been handed down, and also when, perhaps, we need to give up.

Holy Week and Passover are both filled with traditions. I know the former much better than the latter. In the wake of our past and persistent pandemic, most of our traditions connected to worship were difficult to deliver. Across various denominations, I read of people struggling with how to share Communion. Did it count if all you had at home were Ritz Crackers and a Coke? Did an ordained person have to bless the elements and then hand them out somehow?

Different denominations, even congregations, answered those questions in different ways. At the heart of the struggle was a question I am not sure we always answered well: What is the heart of what we are handing down?

That question is alive, again, for me this year. We have The Things We Do Every Year, which are not automatically stale or ineffective, but it the heart of what we are handing down in the method or the meaning–or a bit of both. When the tradition is tied to method, we often hang onto it out of fear that trying something new might not work. But that definition reduces tradition to the technicalities of how we do things–we’re back to talking about roasting pans.

The real meat is in Jesus’ words: “I give you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, so you also must love each other. This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.”

Love each other just as I have loved you.

Each other means everybody. EVERYBODY. What has been handed down to us is not about protecting doctrine or perpetuating the Church, it is about love that is not confined or condemning. Like Paul said, “It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Forget how big the pan is. Invite everyone to dinner.