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lenten journal: spiritual practice

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spiritual practice

start with intent
make a promise
show up and then
miss the next day

live with failure
then deal with grace
you did not write
everyday this lent

easter will come
good friday too
the season does
not ride on you

faithfulness and
perfection are
not synonyms
saints miss the mark

write down a word
then another
remind yourself
that practice does

not make perfect
you will fail again
and love will keep
expecting you

believing you
how many times
do we need to
remind ourselves

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: foolishness

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On evening this week, I rewatched Serendipity, one of our favorite movies. At one point, Jeremy Piven’s character encourages John Cusack’s character to be a jackass—to be willing to be foolish for love. Today’s sermon centered around 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, a pasasage in which Paul admonishes the struggling church in a similar fashion: to embrace the foolishness of God’s love. Here’s how it went down.

_______________________

I learned something this week. Well, a couple of things.

The fact that February had an extra day this year sent me searching for information about how we mark time. The basis of our calendar comes from one that Julius Caesar put in place in 45 CE—named the Julian calendar—and it has the twelve months we know, but it lost time somehow. In the late 1500s Pope Gregory XIII implemented the Gregorian calendar, which is what we use now. (That’s what I learned: the Pope was powerful enough to set the calendar for the Western world.) Protestant countries were slower to implement it, since the Reformation had just happened, but, as you know, it became the way we number our days.

I tell you all of that to remind us that Christianity has not always been in a place of power. Gregory XIII might have been able to tell the world how to mark time, but Paul wrote to a small, struggling congregation in a city that either ignored it or disparaged it and under a government that oppressed it.

Our other lectionary passages for this morning carry the same tone of Paul’s letters. Lynn read about the handing down of the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew people who received them were nomads at the time, wandering the wilderness looking for home. The gospel passage we did not read this morning is the account of Jesus turning over the tables of those who had turned the Temple into a merchandising opportunity, but he had no real power to make them stop. It was a brave and courageous move that probably looked foolish to most, to use Paul’s word.

As he said, “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are involved in a dying world, but for us it is the power of God.” Foolishness. Absurdity. Which begs the questions: Have we staked our lives on nonsense? and Is it so wrong to be foolish?

“The message of the cross” is one of those phrases that sounds as though everyone should know what it means, but the definition is not that clear—like home fries. Almost every breakfast place has their own version and they use the same name, so it’s hard to know what you’re going to get.

One of the loudest definitions of the message of the cross through church history is one soaked in shame: Jesus died and it’s our fault. The depth of our sin—of our “fallen” humanity–required the blood of Christ to be shed in sacrifice. Though it is a prominent explanation, it is not what Paul was saying. That theology had not yet come into play. For Paul, “the message of the cross” was another way of saying the life of Jesus because he saw Jesus’ death as an extension of the way Jesus lived—speaking truth to power, caring for those at the margins, calling people to justice and compassion.

Paul was writing to a divided congregation that had chosen sides in any number of power struggles. After Paul founded the church, a man named Apollos picked up the ministry and people separated over which minister they liked better. In our passage we read about a clash between Jews and Greeks. The earliest followers of Christ were all Jewish. As the church grew, people from other ethnic and religious backgrounds followed Jesus as well. In Corinth, they weren’t mixing well.

People dug in on their stances. They wanted to be right, or they wanted to be in charge, or they wanted things to be done the way they thought they should be done, and so they chose ideas or doctrine or background over relationship. Remember, this is the same congregation that had divided over whether a Christian could eat meat that had been offered to idols. If there was a way to disagree about something, they found it. They wanted to be in charge, to be in control, to be the Ones Who Decided Things.

Paul wrote to say, remember our origin story: remember the message of the cross, which is God poured God’s self into human form not to stage a blazing conquest but to show us who we were created to be. Jesus showed us the extraordinary power of a life lived in love, and the love he lived out was so extraordinary that it threatened those who fought for power to the point that they killed him.

This is the absurdity, the foolishness that draws us together down all the days since then: God is love and we are God’s people, loved by God and called to love one another. We trust that love can change the world. We trust that love can save us.

The Ten Commandments read like a don’t-do-that list, but they are fundamentally about how to live in loving and trusting relationships. Jesus flipped the tables to say worshipping is about belonging, not profit margins. In a world that is obsessed with power and wealth (I’m talking about our world now, not Corinth); in our world that has become accustomed to being constantly at war; in our world that categorizes people rather than understands them; we are called to trust the foolishness of God, the absurdity of the words Paul wrote later in this same letter:

Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. Love never fails.

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who lived around the same time as Paul. He wrote, ““If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” We might paraphrase his words to say, “If we want to be faithful to our calling to love God and others we must be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”

It doesn’t make sense to say it is enough to love God with all that we are and to love our neighbors as ourselves. Living like that will not keep us safer, or make us richer, or put us in a place of power. It will give us courage to trust that to gather here each week to invest in one another’s lives actually matters.

And that is why we keep coming back to the Table—to feed one another and tell the story of the magnificent foolishness of God’s love—to trust, once more, that we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: specifically, the time . . .

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specifically, the time . . .

you left a note
you drove me home
you called to check on me
you paid my bill
you dropped by to say hi
you answered the phone
and listened

you called me out
you came to Dad’s funeral
you laughed at my jokes
you said you loved me
you said it again and again
you sat with me
and said nothing

you left a gift in my mailbox
you put food in the fridge
you called and asked for help
you let me pick the movie
you brought ice cream
you forgave me when
I forgot what mattered

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: walking my blind dog

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We are two weeks into Lent and I am finally getting to my Lenten Journal, my spiritual practice for the season. If you follow my newsletter, you know part of the reason is our little Lizzy! had to have her eyes removed to alleviate the pain caused by the glaucoma that blinded her. We are all recovering from that, or trying to. Here is part of how it feels.

walking my blind dog

we are three days post-surgery
two lines of stitches where
her eyes used to be
a soft foam circle that
looks like a lifebuoy
saves her from scratching
none of us knows
what we are doing

we take her to the yard
beyond our fence
attach the leash so
we can lead her
she sniffs and steps
as I think about the
article sent by a friend
about walking a blind dog

and it sounds like a blues song
I mean the real blues
grief-filled guitar licks
a bass line from the bottom
of life and a back beat
that keeps the rhythm
of a broken heart
something we can all sing

walking my blind dog
walking my blind dog
walking my blind dog home

Peace,
Milton

pass this along

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In churches that follow the lectionary cycle, this past Sunday was Transfiguration Sunday, which coincides with the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany before Lent begins. (Did you get all that?) It comes around every year and it is never an easy Sunday to preach for me because, one, it comes around every year and, two, it’s such an enigmatic story. So I stepped out of the supernatural and looked at it alongside of the story of Elijah being carried off by a cosmic chariot instead of dying to think about how we pass our faith along to those who come after us. Here’s what I said.

__________________________

Many years ago, Ginger and I had the chance to visit Israel and Palestine. We were with a group of people from the church where Ginger pastored, and so most of our trip had to do with visiting sites mentioned in scripture. At most of them, the guide would say something like, “This is the site where tradition tells us that Jesus . . .” did whatever it was—preached the Sermon on the Mount or fed the multitude or was baptized.

Most of those sites were marked by churches or chapels, and certainly souvenir shops, but they were not the definite places because no one put down a marker where Jesus did those things; the stories just got attached to locations over time.

But then we went to the Kidron Valley, which runs between the Mount of Olives and the Old City of Jerusalem and we came to the stone steps that climbed up out of the valley and though a city gate. As we stood there, our guide said, “Of all the places we have been this is the one place I can say with certainty that Jesus walked because these steps have been in use ever since.”

It was a holy moment to be able to climb those steps, to feel like I had walked where Jesus had walked. I could grasp the moment.

Some of the stories in the Bible are harder to understand because they describe scenes that are difficult to imagine. Both of our passages today paint those kinds of pictures: Jesus’ Transfiguration, when he appeared on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah, and Elijah’s transcendence from life to whatever lies beyond this life. He didn’t die, he just rode off in a celestial chariot.

There are layers and layers to both stories, and page after page of commentary written by people working hard to describe what the stories mean, which is a meaningful endeavor. But the main reason I chose to focus on the story of Elijah and Elisha is because I was struck by a more down-to-earth question that I heard in these fantastical accounts, and that is:

How do we pass our faith along?

From the start, Jesus gathered people around him as disciples. Followers. The point was for them to learn how God worked in the world and how they could join that work even after Jesus was no longer among them—because Jesus also knew he would die, just like we all do.

(Well, that’s sort of a spoiler for Ash Wednesday.)
Part of the reason he took Peter, James, and John with him when he climbed the mountain was to give them a glimpse of a spiritual dimension they did not grasp in hopes that it would catch hold of their hearts as well.

Elijah was coming to the end of his life and so Elisha joined him as a prophet-in-training. As things drew to a close, Elisha wouldn’t leave Elijah’s side because he didn’t want to miss any chances to learn from the old prophet. When Elijah asked what he could leave the younger man, Elisha said, “Your life repeated in my life. I want to be a holy man just like you.”

“That’s a tough one,” Elijah replied.

He was telling a hard truth. Handing down our faith, or handing it off, or passing it along—whatever phrase is most evocative for you—IS hard work because there are not “best practices” to follow that give us steps to success. Part of the problem is there is no such a thing as second-hand faith.

We can follow someone else’s steps to learn how to bake or cook. Recipes that have been handed down can be followed quite literally. We can take ballroom dance lessons and is all about following the steps of those who have danced before you. Yet even though I know I walked a path that Jesus walked, the faith handed down from then until now wasn’t so specifically choreographed.

I’m not talking about we perpetuate the institutional Church here. I’m talking about the faith in Christ that sustains us, that comforts us, that calls us to courage and justice, that tells us to love one another. And, when we talk about what gets handed down, we are both givers and receivers, teachers and learners.

Faith is not static, like most things in our lives. Our metaphors are only as powerful as they are relevant. I think about how I described my faith twenty or thirty years ago and God is not the same to me now as God was then. A scene in one of the Chronicles of Narnia says this in a way that I keep coming back to. It centers on Aslan, the lion, and Lucy, the youngest of the four children at the heart of the story.

The children had returned to Narnia for a second time and Lucy saw Aslan, the lion, and ran to meet him.

“Aslan, Aslan. Dear Aslan,” sobbed Lucy. “At last.”

The great beast rolled over on his side so that Lucy fell, half sitting and half lying between his front paws. He bent forward and just touched her nose with his tongue. His warm breath came all round her. She gazed up into the large wise face.

“Welcome, child,” he said.

“AsIan,” said Lucy, “you’re bigger.”

“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.

“Not because you are?”

“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

Peter, James, John, and Elisha all found God bigger in the encounters we read today. The stories of the rest of their lives show how they remembered to keep growing, and also how they struggled to keep growing—just as we do.

Still, both the Bible and our lives are also peopled with stories of those who chose not to grow, for a number of reasons. Sometimes we are stunted by grief or trauma, sometimes by anger or hurt or resentment, sometimes by despair. None of those has to be that last word.

I saw a meme that was shared among ministers this week as we prepare for Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day to both be on February 14. One asked, “What are you doing for Valentine’s Day?” and the other replied, “Rubbing dirt in people’s faces and telling them they’re going to die.”

As we prepare for the season of Lent to begin, we often think of the season as a season of giving things up (hopefully not just giving up!). The original intent of “going without” is more about focus: intentionally paring life down so we canpay better attention. So we can grow with God. We may not experience the amazement that Peter, James, John, and Elisha knew, but we can prepare our hearts to see a living, growing God who calls us to think beyond our limits.

Though the Transfiguration feels breathtaking when we read about it, it is not the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry, nor of the disciples’ understanding of him. When they got back down the mountain, the other disciples were frustrated because they couldn’t help others the way Jesus did. Jesus didn’t take them back up the mountain to grow; he took them back among the people to learn how to share their faith, to minister to one another. Elisha crossed the river back into the throes of his life as well—to tell others about a living, growing God.

May we be people who keep growing with God, who keep growing together, and who keep looking for ways to invite others to grow with us as well. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

sick and tired

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This week we had a crisis at our house related to Lizzy!, our little dancing extrovert of a Schnoodle who went blind suddenly, or at least so we thought. That story is still unfolding, but in the process of things, she made it into my sermon, which draws from Isaiah 40 and Mark 1.

______________________

This week I have been a part of a couple of unconnected conversations about families with multiple children who are born close together, and it made me think about my family growing up.

We were not a large family; I only have one brother who is twenty-one months younger than I am. As many of you know, both as siblings and as parents, that age gap feels both small and large depending on how old the kids are. When we were both small, it was a lot for my mother, who was the primary stay-at-home parent. She was a good mother for little kids and she loved playing with us, but there were days that weren’t quite as much fun—for any of us—and on those days I can hear her say to my brother and me, “I am sick and tired of you boys acting up.”

I thought about her as I read our scripture for this week because that’s what they are about: being sick and tired, but in reverse: the Isaiah passage is about exhaustion and the story from Mark’s gospel is about illness. They made me think about how much of the Bible is about people who are sick and tired, and about how God shows up in the middle of it all.

As Eric said in his introduction to the passage from the prophet, Isaiah was talking to people who were weary and worn down and were unable to imagine a life other than being weary and worn down. They had allowed themselves to believe that life was hard. Period. They were in exile. They didn’t think they would ever get home. Isaiah offered a word of hope, but it wasn’t all warm and fuzzy.

Have you not been paying attention?
Have you not been listening?
Haven’t you heard these stories all your life?
Don’t you understand the foundation of all things?

He understood their plight, but he didn’t have much room for them to feel sorry for themselves. He wasn’t being callous; he just wanted them to see beyond their exhaustion, to remember God was with them, even in exile. Granted, he could have used a couple of courses in pastoral care. When someone is worn out, “Quit whining” is not necessarily the most compassionate response. Even so, he called them to hear a deep and abiding truth:

God doesn’t come and go. God lasts. God is creator of all you can see or imagine. God doesn’t get tired out, doesn’t pause to catch a breath. God knows everything, inside and out. God energizes those who get tired, gives fresh strength to dropouts.

For even young people tire and drop out, young folk in their prime stumble and fall. But those who wait upon God get fresh strength. They spread their wings and soar like eagles, They run and don’t get tired, they walk and don’t lag behind.

In our story from Mark’s gospel, Jesus went to Peter’s house because his mother-in-law was sick and running a high fever. (A quick side note: Peter had a mother-in-law, which means Peter was married—something we don’t often think about.) Jesus went into the house, took her hand, helped her out of bed, and, Mark says, she got up and served them dinner. She got back to being who she was.

Sick and tired. Either way, God meets us there and offers presence and hope—which is not to say God makes everything better or that as long as we trust God everything will work out fine. Life doesn’t work that way. There are thousands of faithful people praying in Gaza every day who feel like they have more than they can handle and have no illusion that it’s all going to work out somehow. There are people living in Hamden who feel the same way. If committing our livers to God meant everything would go our way then we wouldn’t have half of our scriptures, and we certainly wouldn’t have the Psalms. They are filled with songs of the sick and tired both calling out to God for help and thanking God for God’s love and presence.

When it comes to the last verse of Isaiah 40, most of our translations say, “Those that wait upon God will renew their strength.” The Hebrew word is better understood as “those who trust in God,” or “those who put their hope in God”—those who are willing to bet their lives that love will be the last word. In reality, that is often easier said than done.

But I think it actually gets lived out something like this:

Friday morning I got up with our oldest Schnauzer, Lizzy!, who is the most joyous little creature you have ever seen, and as I opened the door to let her out I realized she was blind. She bumped into the door. We her to the vet and learned she has genetic glaucoma, which has been chipping away at her eyesight her whole life. She is fully blind in her right eye. We are still hopeful we may be able to keep some sight in her left eye, though we won’t know how much or for how long until we are able to see how she tolerates the drops.

Once we got her pain under control, she began to adjust, as the vet said she would. Not only that, on Saturday morning I got up to let the dogs out. Lizzy! made her way to the top of the stairs and waited to get her bearings. Elena, our newest rescue, passed her and then came back up beside her and brushed her shoulder as if to say, “I’ve got you; come on.” And Lizzy! bounded down the stairs behind her.

Whether we are able to soar above our circumstances, run with the tenacity of a marathoner, take it a step at a time, or simply find the strength to get up and fix dinner, we can help remind each other of the hope we have in trusting God together, a trust that lets us be something other than sick and tired.

Some years ago, I wrote a poem responding to something I saw in myself. I felt like most every time someone asked how I was doing I said, “I’m tired.” In the early versions of my poem I started with

when they ask how you’re doing

say something other than tired
say something other than busy
look for something to say
beyond the shadow of circumstance

But the longer I lived with what I had written, the more I decided that was not what I wanted to say. So I rewrote it and this is the version I kept.

when they ask how you’re doing

it’s okay to say you’re tired
to tell the story of how life
wore you out and left you here
but don’t stop there

sing a weary melody and invite
them to sing the harmony
they’ll know the song
it’s not an original composition

Sometimes life leaves us sick and tired—and when it does, may we remember we belong to a God who does not leave us alone; we belong to one another and can share the load; may we take the hand that is offered and keep going. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

choose people

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A few years ago, I was speaking at a youth camp and I began by saying, “I basically have one sermon—we are all worthy of love and here to love each other—and I just keep trying to find new ways to say it.” Well, here’s another example. The text was 1 Corinthians 8:1-13.

__________________________

For most of human history people thought the Earth was the center of the universe. We thought the sun revolved around us—well, once we figured out we weren’t on a flat surface. But it has been in my lifetime—and in most of yours—that the reality that we are not the center of things really hit home—at least that is what some cultural historians say.

When the first astronauts went to the moon, they took a picture of our planet from space. It was the first time anyone had been far enough away to have that point of view. As I remember it, one of the astronauts said it was a “big, blue marble.”

We have not been the same since. Our planet was small enough to fit in a camera lens. We weren’t the center of anything other than our lives. It is a truth we still struggle to fully comprehend, to fully engage, and it has a more profound impact on us that just our sense of our place in the solar system.

But the idea that we are not the center of everything is a profoundly personal and human truth as much as it is an astronomical one. And so we move from orbits to idols.

I don’t think the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about meat sacrificed to idols because it was a huge moral dilemma. Don’t get me wrong: it was a big deal in the congregation, but things that become big conflicts in congregations are quite often small issues.

I heard recently about a church that split—I mean broke apart—over an apple crisp recipe. There was a recipe that had been handed down and used for years. When a new generation of bakers stepped in to carry on the tradition, they wanted to tweak the recipe. Instead, they ended up with two congregations. Over apple crisp.

Like I said, I don’t think the meat was the real issue Paul was addressing, but the meat uncovered the problem. Corinth was a town known for its temples to all sorts of deities, and those deities demanded all sorts of festivals and sacrifices, which, it seems, often meant meat was served.

For many of the church members, being in places where that meat was served didn’t present a problem. The theology was straight forward: We worship the one true God, so those idols aren’t real deities, which means the meat wasn’t really sacrificed to anything and barbeque is barbeque, no matter who cooked it. Let’s eat.

But some in the church had converted from those other sects and religions. They had believed in those idols, and worshipped them. The gears were not as easy to shift. To eat that meat was to fall back into things they had left behind. Some were hurt by those who ate the meat, it seems; some were angered; some felt betrayed or ignored. For some, it was a dangerous invitation.

So Paul said, “Choose people over steaks.” Don’t let the church split over dinner. If you know what you are doing is causing damage to someone else, don’t do it. Your rights are not the most important thing; our relationships are.

Paul, as you can see, was not an American.

As Americans, we were taught early that we have “inalienable rights,” rights that cannot be taken or given away: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. (I love the last one: you have the right to try and be happy.) Over time, that has evolved into a strong sense of individual rights, which far too often is interpreted to mean something like, “I have the right to do what I want,” which is not an untrue statement, necessarily, but it is an incomplete one. Life is rarely, if ever, about just me.

As you have heard me say more than once, life and faith are team sports. How we play nicely together has to do with how we pay attention to the impact of our words and actions, regardless of our intent, or what we think we have the right to do.

In the scenario described in our scripture passage today, those who ate the meat didn’t think it was a big deal. They assumed that if it wasn’t a big deal to them, then it wasn’t a big deal, period. Paul questioned their logic, reminding them that their perspectives weren’t the center of everything. He wasn’t saying they weren’t free to eat the meat, he was asking them to consider more than just the menu. They were also free to choose not to eat the meat and strengthen the relationships within the congregation.

Why not, then, choose the option that frees someone else as well?

When we lived in Durham, North Carolina one of my favorite places to meet people to talk or hang out was Fullsteam Brewery, which was in walking distance of our house. The people that owned it created an atmosphere of belonging that just made me want to be in the room. One of my good friends there was in recovery. We got together often to talk and work on creative projects together, but when I met with her I did it at a coffee shop nearby. I chose supporting her recovery over hanging out in my favorite gathering place.

But then you get to the apple crisp and it’s a different kind of digging in. That church didn’t split because the recipe wasn’t a big deal; it was, to both sides. Now I am choosy about my apple pie (I prefer pie over crisp myself), but whatever was going on in that church was not really about apples. Truth is most every congregation has stories—maybe not as dramatic as this one—about people who have left the church because of something where people got dug in and it became a power struggle. Folks made being right or being in charge or being whatever they thought they had to be over choosing each other.

And that is what it boils down to: choosing each other.

Many years ago, I heard a work colleague trashing Valentine’s Day because, he said, “it was a Hallmark holiday made up to get us to spend money on flowers and chocolate.” He didn’t say it to start an argument, but I felt the need to respond. What I said was, “I don’t know that I need to defend Hallmark, but I figure any chance I have to let Ginger know I love her is worth taking, so happy Valentine’s Day.”

Whatever the issue, whether it’s the apple crisp, or how things are stored in the kitchen, or what color we paint the trim, or whatever might come up that we find ourselves feeling either entitled to do or somehow desperate to hang to, why not choose, instead, to find a way to say, “You matter more to me than how we clean the coffee pot.”

Life is not a battle, or even a series of skirmishes, unless we make it so.

Why not take the chance to say, “I love you,” in a tangible way?

Whether we are talking about life together here at church, or in marriages, or families, or friendships—whatever the relationship is—may we remember we are not the center of the universe. It is more important to be right, or to be first, or to be able to do whatever we think we have the right to do. So Paul wrote, “Sometimes our humble hearts can help us more than our proud minds.”

A few paragraphs later in his letter to Corinth that Paul wrote words that are more well-known:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable; it keeps no record of wrongs; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Let us love one another every chance we get. Amen.

an important small change

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I wish someone would write an account of how those who put together the Revised Common Lectionary came to their decisions as to what should be read from week to week, which passages went together, and even what should be left out of the regular three-year cycle.

I’m sure the reason no one has done that is I am a part a small niche market that would doom the book to poor sales, so the mystery will remain largely unsolved. Nevertheless, some weeks, like this one, give us an interesting juxtaposition of two passages that are telling different stories and yet have a sort of strange harmony.

The Book of Jonah is one of the more intriguing parts of scripture, and one that has seeped into popular culture. You don’t have to have grown up in church to know about Jonah and the whale. Jonah was a Hebrew person whom God called to go the town of Nineveh, which was where the modern town of Mosul, Iraq is today. That also means it was inland and west of where Jonah lived. Instead, he ran to the port of Joppa (part of Tel Aviv today) and caught a ship to Tarshish in southern Spain.

Perhaps you know the part about spending three days inside a big fish who spit him up on dry land. Exactly what dry land we don’t know, but we do know God came back and told him—again—to go to Nineveh, which he did, and that’s when the part of the story we read happened.

Despite the fact that Jonah didn’t like the Ninevites at all, they heard what he had to say and responded to God. As I heard another preacher say this week, God even uses complainers to spread the love. Good to know, I suppose. Also good to notice, that one man came to town and changed everything.

In our gospel account, we get a similar snippet of a fuller story. Mark jumps from Jesus’ temptations to John’s arrest—those things didn’t not happen directly in sequence, or at least that appears to be the case when we look at the other gospels. For Mark, what matters most is that John’s arrest seemed to call Jesus to action. It was the catalyst for him to begin his public ministry. And the way he began was to call others.

We often think of John the Baptist as Jesus’ warm-up act, but John had a bigger role that than. Some suggest we would do better to see him as a mentor more than an opener. John was preaching a baptism of repentance; Jesus began by saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives and trust this good news!”—also a message of repentance. They were both saying the same thing.

From the start, Jesus began building a community, as we see in our passage. As he walked through town, he called out to Peter and Andrew, and then to James and John, to leave what they were doing (which was carrying on the family business of fishing) and go with him so they could learn how to catch people.

Mark says all four of them dropped what they were doing and followed him, leaving their fathers and other workers a bit perplexed, I imagine. But, like the people of Nineveh, when they heard a call to change the way they were living they responded by changing. Nonetheless, it was not a Moses-on-the-mountain kind of moment; it was a conversation among friends after breakfast.

When we read either story, we tend to focus on what was happening with Jonah and Jesus, but let’s look today at those who listened to them—and really heard what they were saying.

We talked last week about the word repent, when it’s used in the Bible, having to do more with making a change in your life and less with the sense of shame and regret that the word carries in English. Our stories carry a bit of both. Jonah went to tell the Ninevites their lives were so atrocious that God was ready to destroy them, so they needed to make big changes. Jesus didn’t use the word repent when he called the boys from their boats, but he called them to a drastic change of life: drop what you’re doing and come with me.

In both cases, the people responded. They dropped what they were doing and chose a different path.

So here the questions: How do we learn to open our hearts like that? What does it take for us to change? To repent? How do we break the routines of our lives so the Spirit can flourish in us?

Perhaps the changes we are contemplating do not feel as drastic as it seemed to be for the Ninevites or the soon-to-be disciples, or perhaps they are, but both examples remind us of the consequences of important small changes, because even though both events come across huge in scripture, they are relatively small moments. Whispers. Conversations. Choices.

Let me offer a different example.

Our house was built in 1795, which means, among other things, that we have very little storage space. The early Americans may have fought for freedom, but they didn’t care much about closets. Soon after we moved into our house eight years ago, we bought a bathroom cabinet at IKEA in New Haven.

If you have shopped there, you know that means I had to put it together using instructions translated from Swedish, illustrations that are open to interpretation, and an Allen wrench, one of the banes of human existence. If Hell is a reality, it will include the distribution of Allen wrenches.

I put it together and the door wouldn’t close correctly. The sexton from the church came over and corrected my mistakes, but it the process, the small magnet that held the door closed got lost. I made one unsuccessful trip back to IKEA to see if they had a spare one and then it fell off my radar. The door has hung slightly ajar for eight years.

Until a few nights ago when we saw a commercial for (I kid you not) Monkey Magnets, which are small door magnets that are self-adhesive and install easily. I ordered them, they came in on Thursday, and I fixed the door without telling Ginger. I wanted to see if she would notice, which she did. She thanked me and said, “I feel loved when you do stuff like that.”

My call to repentance didn’t come from anyone as angry as Jonah or as inspiring as Jesus; I responded to a television announcer. Still, the impact on my life and my wife was profound, even with a small change.

The analogy may be a bit strained, but the point is the decisions that can change our lives and open our hearts to both the Spirit of God and the world are not necessarily as enormous as walking away from your job in the middle of your shift. Hearts are mended and lives are opened by important small changes, by moments when we step into God’s call on our lives.

Even our passage this morning describes a small moment: Jesus was walking by and said, “Come with me,” and they did. They could have said no, but they didn’t, and their lives were never the same. What important small changes are calling us? What will we drop, leave behind, pick up, see, hear, or find? Amen.

Peace,
Milton

listen, now

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I love that every three years the stories of Samuel and Dr. King intersect because they are both stories about listening. Here’s my sermon from this past Sunday.

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Today is the second Sunday of Epiphany if we mark time by the liturgical calendar. As we know, epiphany is a word that means “awakening,” and points us to the sages who followed the star to the manger–although they had no idea it was Epiphany with a capital E. They were simply responding to the calling they felt when they saw the star.

If we mark time by our American calendar, this is the Sunday when we honor the legacy of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Tomorrow we will celebrate him with a national holiday.

On the night of January 27, 1956, towards the end of the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott, Dr. King got a phone call at his home telling him if he didn’t get out of town they were going to blow up his house and kill him and his family. He was twenty-seven years old. He recounted later that he hung up the phone and went into the kitchen to pray. In the silence, he said he heard a voice call him by name: “Martin Luther, stand up for truth, stand up for justice, and stand up for righteousness.” His epiphany that night led him to lead us and to change how we look at and listen to one another, and, perhaps, how we listen to God.

Our text for this morning deals with another call in the middle of the night—this one to Samuel, a young boy to whom God spoke out of the darkness. Let us listen to the part of the story told in I Samuel 3:1-10:

Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.

At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was.

Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down, and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ ” So Samuel went and lay down in his place.

Now the Lord came and stood there, calling as before, “Samuel! Samuel!” And Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

The story from the life of Samuel was one that engaged me as a young boy because I imagined him at my age. I didn’t understand how his mother could have sent him to live in the Temple, but I could see him waking in the night and going to Eli, thinking the old man had called him. But the story is bigger than a little boy trying to figure out who keeps calling him.

Samuel’s mother was named Hannah. She had a hard life, to put it mildly. Her husband had two wives and the other woman had given birth to several children, but Hannah had none. As a result, the husband played favorites and discriminated against Hannah because she had not given birth. Hannah went to the temple and pleaded with God to give her a child. Her prayer was so fervent that Eli, the priest, saw her without hearing her and thought she was drunk. Hannah told him her story and Eli said he hoped she got what she asked for.

She became pregnant and gave birth to Samuel. Then she decided the best way to say thank you was to give the boy back to God. We need to understand here that even though the boy was her ticket to some equity in the way she was treated by her husband, she chose a story bigger than her own—beyond the injustice and misogyny of the time. Once the child was weaned, she took Samuel to the temple and left him there for Eli to mentor as a way of expressing her gratitude to God.

Eli was far from being an exemplary priest, to put it kindly. By the time Samuel came to live with him, Eli was old. His sons were priests alongside him, and they all used their positions as opportunities to enrich themselves and take advantage of whomever they could, and they had done so for a really long time, even before Samuel came to the temple.

Our passage noted that a word from God had become a rare thing by the time Samuel heard his name called out in the night. No one thought of Eli as much of a messenger where God was concerned. Samuel went to Eli because he didn’t think anyone else was in the building. The drowsy priest said, “I didn’t call you. Go back to bed.” It happened a second time, and then a third. By then, Samuel wasn’t the only one who was awake, and Eli had a sense that more was going on, even though he hadn’t heard from God in a long time, so he gave Samuel different instructions: “Next time answer, ‘Speak, Lord. Your servant—your follower, your disciple—is listening.’”

Samuel did just that, and his childlike response makes his response to God sound so doable, but to actually say to God, “I’m listening”—and mean it—is a brave thing to say, as we see from the life of Dr. King.

When Samuel listened, God told him to go to breakfast the next morning and let Eli know that his blindness was both a physical reality and a metaphor: he and his sons had lost sight of their calling and their humanity, and they were going to be punished for their abuse of their office. The whole house was about to come down on them. Things were not going to end well.

When they met the next day and Eli asked Samuel what God had said, Samuel didn’t hold back. He chose to tell the truth—his second act of courage and faithfulness.

I had a chance a few years ago to visit the house where Dr. King was living in Montgomery, Alabama when he got the call that threatened his life–and when he heard God’s call that followed it. Shirley Cherry, the woman who was leading our tour, told us the story and said, “He had a choice. Dr. King had a privileged life. He didn’t have to do what he did.” Her choice of words jumped out at me: he had a privileged life. Yes, he got to study at Boston University. He did have some advantages others did not. Yet, when he came to Durham, North Carolina, just days before he was assassinated, to meet with an interracial group of ministers, they had to meet in the private home of one of the pastors because there was not a restaurant in town that would allow them to eat together.

Yet, she said, he had a choice.

The night he stood up to speak to the sanitation workers in Memphis, which was the night before he was killed, Dr. King began his speech with these words:

As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” — I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. I would move on by Greece and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issues of reality.

He kept saying, “I wouldn’t stop there,” as he moved through different historical epochs and then he said,

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that [people], in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

And another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that [people] have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. [People], for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.

Samuel made a choice and rose to greatness. Martin Luther King made a choice and was murdered for it. The call to follow God is not a guarantee for everything to turn out just as we hoped, or even that things will turn out well. Not is it a promise that if we follow God we will be set for life.

It is a choice to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly. Or not. How things go from there have to do with a lot of other details and variables. What we can control is what we say and do, how we act: what we choose. Those choices are acts of faith because we don’t know what is going to happen next, or because anything can happen.

What if Samuel had chosen to not answer the voice and just pulled his blanket over his head and gone to sleep? Would Eli and his sons have repented? What if Dr. King had not gone to Montgomery or to Memphis? How would that have changed the history of our country?

I am asking for more than historical speculation here. The point is our choices matter. Our faithfulness matters. Answering a voice in the night was a small act, whether we are talking about a Martin or a Samuel, as are most of the things we do when we do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Our daily deliberateness is what makes growth and change possible. Even though Rev. Dr. King went to Memphis and made that speech, the power of the bus boycott was in the daily decisions of people to walk to work, to coordinate rides, to keep encouraging one another to keep choosing justice and kindness and hope.

And that is what is required of us as the people of God in Hamden in these days. We need to listen closely for the ways in which God is calling us to live out our faith in our daily relationships so that we are fostering justice, sowing kindness, and living humbly rather than joining the escalating choir of fear and divisiveness that seems to get louder every day. This quote from the Talmud says it best,

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly NOW. Love mercy NOW. Walk humbly NOW. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

May we be those who do the work of love and justice. May we learn—no, may we choose to be more like Samuel: to still ourselves, focus, and then to say, “Speak, God, I am listening” as we do what we can to answer the grief that surrounds us. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

it swings on a blessing

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We had our first winter storm of the year over the weekend, which meant we did not gather for in-person worship at my church this week. Instead, I recorded a “service” and uploaded it to our YouTube page—almost all of that an unseen consequence of the pandemic.

The scripture for the week was the account of Jesus’ baptism, which set me to thinking about why Jesus would participate in a “baptism of repentance,” as Mark described it. Here is where that train of thought took me.

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Several years ago, Ginger and I had the chance to go to South Africa with a group of friends. One of the things we got to do while we were there was visit a wildlife refuge where they took care of orphaned animals to try and help reintroduce them to their natural environment. One of the experiences they offered was the chance to play with lion cubs, and so we did.

The baby lions had been taken in after their mother had been killed by poachers. We saw them when they were about eight weeks old; they were growing fast. In another eight weeks they would have been too big for us to be with them and still be safe. We sat down on the ground and the cubs walked around us while the keepers kept watch. One of the cubs was fascinated with my hat. We had a great time and we stayed on edge through most of it remembering that we were playing with wild animals, not Schnauzers.

The scene came to mind as I read Mark’s description of John the Baptist—dressed in camel hide and eating locusts and honey from wild bees—because I felt some of the same tension as I read about this unique and intriguing man in the middle of nowhere attracting huge crowds because of both his wild attractiveness and his invitation to repentance. People kept coming, though I wonder if they had questions about what was happening exactly. It wasn’t like their regular synagogues.

We can see quickly that the baptism John offered was markedly different from what we do. First, it had nothing to do with connecting to a church or a congregation. Second, he wasn’t baptizing infants. (Both rituals of baptism are wonderful; this was just different.) Third, everyone was being immersed, a full-on dunking. (Also not the norm in the UCC, but not unknown; it’s just that most UCC churches are in colder climates.)

The baptism was to signify their repentance—and that is a word we need to pay attention to because what it meant to John and those who came out and how we hear it now are not the same. Our English definition is “sincere regret or remorse;” we repent because we have done something wrong. To those coming out to the Jordan, it meant “a complete change of heart” (as our translation put it), a profound life change. John was talking about creating a moment that had a before and an after.

People were willing to wander miles from town to find this wild man out by the river who helped them trust that God could change their lives, that they were not trapped in their ways, that they could change and grow.

And then Jesus walked into the scene and asked to be baptized.

It helps us to understand the scene if we remember that Jesus and John knew each other. They were cousins. Mary had visited Elizabeth when they were both pregnant. It is fair to assume the boys knew each other growing up. When John talks about the one who was coming, he knew he was talking about Jesus. They may have even talked about Jesus showing up that day. Whether it was planned or not, John was not surprised to see Jesus.

But why did Jesus need to be baptized?

Best we can tell, Jesus was about thirty years old when he went to meet John. In Mark’s gospel, this was where the story started. The others tell the birth stories, but even they drop off when Jesus turns twelve. We don’t know what he did during those years, other than live in Nazareth. Since Joseph was a carpenter, we can picture Jesus being his helper, but that’s about it.

It struck me this week that Jesus wanted to be baptized for the same reason as the other people: to repent. To make a life change. Again, lay aside our definition of repentance that carries notes of remorse and regret and hang on to the idea of creating a moment that has a before and after. Jesus walked into the river and John baptized him.

And Jesus was not the same after that.

His baptism marked the beginning of his public ministry as an adult, and it was not any tamer than John was with his wild honey and camel skin. I say his adult ministry because he ministered in the Temple when he was twelve, astonishing the priests who heard him. His parents responded by admonishing him for making them worry because they thought he was lost.

This time, as Jesus came up out of the water, the skies opened, a dove appeared, and a voice said, “This is my beloved child in whom I delight.”

The next thing that happened to Jesus was the same Spirit who delighted in him led him out into the desert to fast and come to terms with himself by facing his temptations. He came back to town to find out that John had been arrested. He began to call his followers, and then he began teaching in the synagogues. He cast evil spirits out of a man, healed Peter’s mother (among others), and then healed a person with leprosy—all before we get to the end of Chapter One.

And it all swung on Jesus hearing the Spirit say, “You are my beloved child in whom I delight”—words of not just affirmation but acceptance: you belong to me.

It all swung on that blessing.

And, at the same time, maybe it didn’t. One blessing doesn’t last a lifetime. (Does it?) We all need reminders.

The temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness were things he had to stare down his whole ministry: to use his miracles to create a following, to take advantage of his privilege, to choose power over love. Perhaps the same is true about the blessing of his baptism; he needed reminders that he delighted God.

Perhaps I’m projecting.

When we first moved to Boston, there was a billboard at the Museum of Science that we saw every time we crossed the bridge from Cambridge back to Charlestown. It caught so much of my attention that I wrote a poem about it.

daily work

The crush of afternoon traffic finds me
in an unending stream of souls staring
at the stoplight. From my seat I can see
the billboard: “Come visit the New Planetarium
You Tiny Insignificant Speck in the Universe.”
When the signal changes, I follow the flow
over river and railroad yard, coming
to rest in front of our row house, to be
welcomed by our schnauzers, the only
ones who appear to notice my return.
I have been hard at work in my stream
of consciousness, but the ripples of my life
have stopped no wars, have saved no lives––
and I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning;
I am a speck who has been found wanting.
I walk the dogs down to the river and wonder
how many times I have stood at the edge
hoping to hear, “You are My Beloved Child.”
Instead, I skip across life’s surface to find
I am not The One You Were Looking For.
I am standing in the river of humanity
between the banks of Blessing and Despair,
with the sinking feeling that messiahs
matter most: I am supposed to change
the world and I have not done my job.
Yet. . . if I stack up the stones of my life
like an altar, I can find myself in the legacy
of Love somewhere between star and sea:
I am a Speck of Some Significance.
So say the schnauzers every time I come home.

John created a moment that allowed Jesus to hear the blessing that changed his life. How do we do that for one another? How do we remind each other that we are specks of some significance? How do we call each other to trust that we are a delight to God and are capable of great love? How do we express God’s blessing so that those around us know they are accepted, that they belong? That we all belong because we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved?

May we begin this new year by repenting—by making a life change, a before and after moment—to be people committed to blessing, to accepting everyone in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Peace,
Milton