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body work

3

As someone who lives with hearing loss, depression, and two titanium knee joints, I found preaching on Paul’s metaphor of the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12:12-31) to be multi-layered. Seeing ourselves as a body—a connected organism of relationships—is more than imagining some sort of cosmic game of Operation.

Here is where the metaphor took me.

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It was a brilliant idea in the beginning. Paul found a small group of Christians who had ended up in Corinth for one reason or another, so he started a house church where they began worshipping together. They took Jesus’ call to share their faith seriously and began to invite others. As word got out, some folks came on their own and found their place in the fledgling congregation.

But a new city meant a new way of being. The churches that had started in Jerusalem and Palestine had been mostly monocultural. The Corinthian church took on the personality of its host city: diverse, questioning, even a little wild in places. Based on Paul’s words, we know rich people, poor people, free people and enslaved folks, and a variety of ethnicities were trying to figure out how to live together.

It was a brilliant idea, but it started coming apart at the seams once Paul left town. He was the one committed to the idea and maybe he thought he had the “buy in,” as we like to say sometimes, but his dream wasn’t as easily transferrable as he thought. Because he couldn’t get back to them in person, he wrote letters—probably more than the two we have—to give advice, to offer correction, to underline his affection for them, and to try and give them new ways to imagine what it meant to be church, which meant giving them new vocabulary.

One of those new images is at the heart of our passage this morning: the metaphor of the church the Body of Christ. Paul was trying to offer a metaphor that would help them move toward unity and greater acceptance of one another, so he called them the Body of Christ and then laid out what it means to be a body: looking at the different parts, learning to work together, needing each other to be healthy and whole.

I learned from the writer John Berger that in Greek the word metaphor shares a root with the word for porter, as in the porter on a train who helps you and your bags get from place to place, which is another of saying a good metaphor takes us on a journey of understanding. It’s an invitation to use our imagination.

A good metaphor is a wonderful thing because when we find new words with which to define ourselves or approach a problem, we create possibilities. But a metaphor can grow stale if we forget to keep telling the stories behind it, or we decide we know all the angles. And we have to remember that any metaphor has its limitations.

The best example I can think of is using Father as a name for God. Any name for God is a metaphor—a way of describing God that helps us catch a glimpse of one we cannot completely comprehend. If father is the only metaphor—or even the primary metaphor—we use for God, then those who have problematic relationships with their fathers really struggle to find God in that metaphor. And offering a bigger picture of God requires more imagination than just adding Mother to the list. God is more than a heavenly parent. God transcends gender. Even in scripture, God is a rock, a river, and a lion. The more metaphors we employ, the more our faith can grow.

We often talk about church as a family, or a community of faith—like we are our own little village. Paul says we are a body, and not just any body: we are the Body of Christ. Since Jesus no longer walks the earth as the Incarnation of God’s Love, we are the ones who incarnate the love of God in the world. And the metaphor is singular. We are not the bodies of Christ; together we make one body, just as all the various elements of our human bodies all work together. It is the image at heart of our UCC motto: that they all may be one.

I don’t know how people were in Paul’s day, but in our time, I think the body is a complicated metaphor because, as both individuals and as a society, we have complicated relationships with our bodies. We are bombarded with images of what we should look like, and we are offered any number of ways to alter our bodies to try and make them look like those ideals. Many of us struggle with not weighing what we wish we could, or not being able to do things we want to do or dealing with some sort of condition or disability that makes life more difficult. As one who has profound hearing loss, what it means to be an ear, for example, is a multi-layered metaphor.

On the other hand, perhaps it is precisely because none of our bodies work perfectly that we can understand Paul’s idea. He’s talking about what it takes for a body to be healthy. He was addressing a congregation that was, as we said, fairly fractured. Those in places of privilege made a point of distancing themselves from those who were not. People were quick to make sure their rights and their needs were taken care of before they thought about anyone else. The church was a body at war with itself and Paul was trying to move them beyond their self-absorption to some sense of solidarity. He hoped the metaphor of the Body of Christ would help them see how desperately they needed each other and how desperately God needed them to need each other; he wanted them to grasp what real love looked like.

Because Paul talked about the roles people played in the church in Corinth and the different gifts people had to offer, it is easy for us to think that we are valuable to God because of what we can do. That’s particularly true as Americans reading these verses because we are so immersed in a cultural work ethic that thinks the only ones who matter are those who produce. We look at bees and ants as metaphors for good workers, but we aren’t bees or ants. As Katherine May says in her book Wintering,

Usefulness, in itself, is a useless concept when it comes to humans. I don’t think we were ever meant to think about others in terms of their use to us. . . . We flourish on caring, on doling out love. The most helpless members of our families and communities are what stick us together.

We can feel God in the beauty of the sunrise, or the magic of waking up to new-fallen snow. We can catch a glimpse of the extravagance of God’s creativity we when look at the mountains, or stare out over the ocean, or play with a puppy, but we learn what love is from one another. Love is incarnated: it comes in the flesh. It has hands and feet and eyes and ears, and it shows up with soup when we are sick, and it listens when we are struggling, and it admonishes when we screw up, and it forgives.

Most of that will show up in next week’s sermon, which is on 1 Corinthians 13—the chapter after the one we read this morning that most people know as the Love Chapter—but for now let me give you a simple illustration of what love looks like.

One of the things I have learned about my hearing as I have dealt with its diminishment is–well, several things. One is that we don’t hear with our ears; we hear with our brains. If I want to hear better, I have to concentrate. One of the incarnations of love that Ginger, my wife, offers me is room to focus and find my way when I get lost in the noise of life. Often, when we are in a restaurant (remember eating in restaurants?) she will hear a song she likes and ask, “Can you hear the song?” When I say no, she will tell me what it is and then I can usually hear it. I get to be a part of her joy in that moment.

It’s a small thing, but that is what love looks like.

Much is written these days about a growing understanding of the integral connection between our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. None of it is new knowledge, mind you. Ancient cultures knew these things, but, particularly as our technology advanced, we compartmentalized them, so we are having to relearn is that everything is connected and interdependent. Whatever physical issue I have has mental and spiritual implications; what I read and think about plays out in my body. In the same way, the metaphor of the Body of Christ calls us to relearn that to see everyone as a part of the body means to pay attention to one another, not just to make room, or to make accommodation, but to offer invitations to connectedness. To incarnate love.

Earlier in the sermon, I said that when Paul called the church the Body of Christ, he saw it as the continuation of the incarnation: those who follow Jesus are God’s human expression of love.

I love that idea, but I want to add a qualifier: those who follow Jesus are one of God’s human expressions of love. Christians don’t have a corner on the love of God. In fact, we would do well to ask ourselves how expansively we are willing to hear the metaphor. Just how far a journey will we take? How big a body are we talking about? Who is a part of the body? Is it just this congregation? Is it the Southern New England Conference of the UCC? Is it all Christians? Is it everyone in the world? The rhetorical answer to all those questions is yes, but what is our honest answer? Just how far will our attention and intention reach? Are we willing to accommodate the visitor who sits in our regular pew, for instance?

In some ways, that last question is overwhelming because none of us can meet all the needs we are aware of, much less all the needs in the world. I don’t have the capacity to fully take on world hunger and human trafficking and dismantling racism and climate change. Neither do you. But as a body—a bundle of relationships working together—we can do it. When something pulls at your heart, speak up. When someone else speaks up, listen. And then work together. We all have something to offer each other, and we all have things we need from one another. But even as I say that I want to say, again, that reason we are a part of the body is not because we are useful. We are a part of the body of Christ because every last one of us is a person wonderfully created in the image of God who is worthy to be loved just because we are breathing.

Paul was right: church was a brilliant idea in the beginning. I think it still is, even as much as the Body of Christ has been through over two millennia that has left it kind of beaten up and limping along. But we said at the start that this is a complicated metaphor. A body does not have to be perfect to be alive and functioning. As the people of God, we are the human face—and hands and feet and voice and heart—of God in the world.

Let us love one another. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

let justice flow down like wine

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Every three years in the lectionary cycle, the story of the wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12) is the suggested passage for the Sunday before the MLK holiday. Since neither the gospel writers nor the lectionary committee knew anything about the King commemoration, many churches turn to King’s words in their worship. This year, as I explored the story of Jesus’ first miracle, I found a connection that fed me. Here’s my sermon for this week: “Let Justice Flow Down Like Wine.”

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We don’t know why they ran out of wine at the wedding. Perhaps people drank more than they thought. Perhaps they had planned poorly. We don’t know the relationship between Jesus and the guests. Pretty much everyone in the story remains anonymous except Jesus. Even Mary is not named; she is referred to as “his mother.”

Of all the stories in the Gospels, the story of the wedding at Cana probably ranks as one of the best known for a couple of reasons: one, it was Jesus’ first recorded miracle, or sign, as John refers to it; and two, Jesus turned water into wine to help a wedding party keep going. He didn’t heal anyone or raise anyone from the dead. He made wine for the party.

From a preaching standpoint, the story is interesting because of the various ways people interpret the details. Rebecca Solnit says, “To tell a story is always to translate the raw material into a specific shape, to select out of the boundless potential facts those that seem most salient.” Though she was not talking specifically about scripture, I think she describes well what we do when we come back to these stories again and again and find fresh understanding. What’s on the page may be the same, but we are not. What we notice about life, about the biblical accounts, about ourselves are all things that stay in motion.

We don’t know why Mary knew about the problem, or why they were even at the wedding, but she wanted Jesus to do something about it. She finds him and says, “They have no wine.” In most versions Jesus’ response is translated, “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” but in the Greek it reads, “What does that have to do with you and me?” When the question includes them both, I hear it differently: why did the wedding party’s problem have to be their problem too?

In that light, it almost feels rhetorical, but then I think of Jesus sitting at the table with his disciples and I wonder if it wasn’t a teaching moment. Perhaps I read it that way because that’s where I found myself in the story this time around sparked by one commentator in particular who turned the question on himself:

In what way are others essential to my relationship with God? In what way are they indispensably present? Other people are obviously crucially important and integral, irreplaceable. I spend most of my life with them and (hopefully) much of it for them. They enclose relationships of friendship, love, and wisdom that make up much of the richness of life. This seems obvious. But how are they absolutely essential and indispensable to my hope for a relationship with God—so much so that if they were not present, I would have no relationship with God at all? That is what I mean by “absolutely essential.

Even in the few weeks I have been here, I have said more than once that life and faith are team sports. Jesus’ question underscores that truth. We are essential to one another. The answer to his question about who the wedding party was to him and his mother was everything. So, Jesus went to work.

He told the servants to fill up the six big clay pots or pitchers that were there with water. Each one held about thirty gallons of water. Their usual purpose was to hold water for Jewish purification rituals—not just handwashing, but rituals that symbolized internal cleansing—repentance. The servants did as they were instructed and when the caterer drew from the pots he found wine. Good wine. Really good wine. And a lot of it: those six pots would have the equivalent of somewhere in the neighborhood of 750 bottles of wine as we know them. I don’t know how big the wedding was, but whatever size the crowd, that is an incredible amount of wine. The only ones who ever knew about it were the catering staff, Mary, the disciples, and Jesus. No one else knew who saved the party, only that the wine never ran out.

Another commentator focused on the extravagance of Jesus’ miracle:

This is a miracle of excess, and we’re generally more comfortable with moderation in all things. Even grace. There are rules we’d like to see God follow, actually. Jesus comes around and messes with the rules—no wonder the religious authorities wanted to kill him. He seems genuinely dangerous to almost any system, to any plans we might have intended to implement. Jesus turns the purification water into wine. Is he going to turn our laws into gushing streams, our boundaries into blossoms, our principles into feasts for everyone to attend?

Her description of the miracle being one of excess made me think about coffee hours I have seen where the kitchen is full of things people brought to share but those serving the food put it out a little a time to make sure it isn’t all eaten. It’s what we might call a hospitality of scarcity: they mean well, but they don’t know how to trust an extravagant God.

Her question—is Jesus going to turn our laws into gushing streams—helped me find a connection between the story and the fact that the lectionary lets it land on the weekend when we commemorate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In my notes I wrote, “Let justice roll down like wine.” And then when I returned to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech I heard echoes of both extravagant love and our essential connection to one another. Listen again to what he had to say:

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

As Americans, we are immersed in a culture of scarcity, sort of like the folks running coffee hour. We have been trained to expect that things are going to run out, so we had better take care of ourselves before we care about anyone else. That was true before the pandemic, and it seems to have only gotten worse. I am not saying that as a judgment as much as to say the world we live in makes this a hard story to take to heart because we are inundated with reminders that there is not enough.

It’s a lie.

One of the consistent arguments raised when people talk about living into Dr. King’s dream and creating a more just and equitable society is that there is not enough for everyone to be taken care of. Jesus’ consistent message was that God changes the world—changes us—through relationships. We—together, essentially connected—are enough if we are willing to take care of each other.

Christ calls us to look at our world, our country, our town, our church, our family and ask, “What are they to you and me?” and then to hear the answer that Jesus embodied: “Everything”—an answer that leads to lives, as Dr. King said, that are able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we—all of us–will be free one day.

John finishes the story be saying that the disciples believed in Jesus. They put their faith in him. They trusted him. But it wasn’t long before they were on a hillside covered with over five thousand people who had followed Jesus all day wanting to hear him speak. You know this story, too—about the boy with the loaves and fish. When the disciples noticed the massive crowd was hungry, Jesus didn’t ask a question; instead, he just said, “Feed them.” The disciples were incredulous. “Where would we ever find enough food—or money to pay for it?” They may have trusted him at the wedding, but they had forgotten by the time it came to take care of the crowd. Jesus took the loaves and fish and fed thousands. Even though they walked with him every day, Jesus’ followers had a hard time really trusting the extravagant grace of God that Jesus kept showing them.

In these days, what we need to remember about this story is God dreams bigger than we do. God loves bigger than we do. God welcomes bigger that we do. And God wants us to grow into all of it. God wants us to revel in the audacity of excess, in boundless love, and unfettered grace.

That’s why we keep coming back to this story, and to the life of Dr. King—to allow the Spirit of God to keep telling us that we are essential to each other, not just because we are connected but also because we are each other’s best way to experience the extravagant, unrelenting love that lets justice roll down like wine. Wine enough for every last one of us. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

a blessing story

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One of the characteristics of recipe blogs, as opposed to a recipe site, is that you generally have to read through a long story to get to the recipe, so if you are trying to find a recipe in a hurry, you have to scroll for a while to find what you want. But the front part is more than just filler. The writers tell their stories for a reason: they want to connect with their followers, to make it about more than just the recipe.

As I have been preaching more regularly, I’ve started to feel the same way about my sermon posts, since often they include stories I have told before (well, pretty much everything I say and write contains stories I have told before) and I write them for the congregation, so sometimes they are fairly specific and need a little context. This is the Sunday that commemorates the Baptism of Jesus. I love preaching from this passage because it talks about blessing: the unabashed love of God that names us all. I spent a lot of my life looking for a blessing that felt like enough. I have also spent a lot of my life telling other people they were beloved children of God that brought God delight. Embracing that blessing in my own life has made me more determined to pass it along.

Here is my latest version.

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About a month ago, on the Second Sunday of Advent, the scripture for the day pointed us to John the Baptist and we talked about his calling people to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness. During Advent, John felt a little out of place, but he helped us prepare the way of the Lord. Today, as many congregations across the wider Church commemorate Jesus’ baptism, the story fits a little better into the timeline of Jesus’ life.

Of course, the timeline is spotty, as far as the details go. We know John and Jesus were cousins, but we don’t have any accounts of how they grew up together or what brought them to this moment. Because of the connection of the families, it is a fair assumption that they were a part of each other’s lives and Jesus showing up at the Jordan was something John saw coming, even if he was surprised by Jesus’ request to be baptized. Their life stories were already intertwined.

One of the most meaningful metaphors we use for life is to say we are telling–or living–a story. Each life, like a story, has a beginning, a middle, and an end. And it is peopled with characters. One of my favorite quotes (that I never can remember exactly) says something like, “My life is filled with wonderful characters, I’m just not sure about the plot.”

The reality is life is not a story–or not a cohesive narrative–until we begin to shape it by our retelling. And when we do, we think of ourselves as the main character. Rebecca Solnit says,

We are all the heroes of our own stories, and one of the arts of perspective is to see yourself small on the stage of another’s story, to see the vast expanse of the world that is not about you, and to see your power, to make your life, to make others, or break them, to tell stories rather than be told by them. (The Faraway Nearby 29)

It is stating the obvious to say both John and Jesus are part of a larger story, but I think it matters that they both knew that. John got a lot of attention, but he knew he was not the main event. He appeared to understand that in the way he welcomed Jesus, as well as in the way he called people to forgiveness and repentance. Both those words call us to remember we are not the main character but are a part of a web of relationships. Jesus understood as well. He asked to be baptized to “fulfill the Law,” which means more than saying, “We have to obey the rules.” At the heart of the Hebrew faith was a sense of justice, as in the prophet Micah saying what God requires of us is to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with God.

His actions challenge our thinking about who he was. If he was sinless, why would he submit to a baptism of repentance and forgiveness? Perhaps because he knew the story was not about him, even if he was the Messiah. He was joining the larger story of God’s love and justice, and that opened him up to receive God’s blessing: “This is my dearly loved child in whom I am well pleased.”

Theologian Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”

In public, Jesus joined the story of repentance and forgiveness that leaned into the love of God and found blessing. We all need the blessing to be able to practice the art of perspective that reminds us we are not the main character. This is an ensemble production.

What does it mean to be blessed?

In French, the word blesser means to hurt or to wound; and in English, we could say, I suppose, that it means to heal. The two languages remind us that to love someone comes with the risk of injury. Opening ourselves to love means being willing to be hurt. Whatever brought Jesus to meet John at the Jordan led to God proclaiming, “That’s my child in whom I delight.” Those words launched Jesus into the next chapters of the story, which carried its share of pain even as he went forward with a blessing.

Who doesn’t need to hear a blessing?

One of the stories of my life is my relationship with my father. He died eight and a half years ago, but the story is still unfolding. Life with my father was not perfect; we lived through several stretches where it was difficult for both of us. I was his namesake, which often made things even more complicated. When we were living in Boston, I went back to Baylor University for Homecoming and learned that my father, who was the university chaplain, had preached that day on campus. I did not hear the sermon, but a friend told me that he had used me as an illustration.

My father said, “In life you have to learn the difference between a problem and a predicament. A problem you can fix. A predicament is something you have to learn to live with.” He paused. “I used to think my eldest son was a problem. Now I see he is a predicament.”

I told that story at his funeral and then I added, “I learned he was a predicament, too.” We loved each other and had worked hard to learn to live with and love each other as we were, which was a good thing. While he was still alive, we found a rhythm as predicaments that let us both be ourselves and be together; we were able to bless one another. Since his death, that blessing has meant my ongoing predicament is I am not going to get over missing him. And I don’t want to.

My mother, who died six years ago this coming week, blessed me in the kitchen. She is the reason I love to cook. As a young boy I asked a lot of questions about what she was doing as she prepared meals and she invited me to help. Then she would say, “You watched me do this last time. You can do it.” And I believed her. I don’t step into the kitchen without being aware of her blessing.

Many years ago, my friend Burt, who was then a pastor in Waco, Texas was preaching on this passage and asked me to write a poem for his sermon. In the way a good story comes together, I had just seen a billboard on my way home to our house in the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston that had already set me to thinking. I wrote these words.

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.

I don’t know where you find yourself in the story of our lives this morning. Maybe you need someone to bless you, to tell you that you are a child of God, wonderfully and uniquely made and worthy to be loved. Perhaps you need the new beginning offered by repentance and forgiveness, both on the giving and receiving ends. Maybe you hold the blessing someone else desperately needs. Or maybe you are just trying to figure out what the story is in these difficult and exhausting days. Whoever you are and wherever you are in life’s story, you are God’s beloved child in whom God delights. And you are not alone.

Let that sink in: you are loved, you are loved, you are really, really loved. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

follow the science

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Since we don’t have a service on January 6, I traveled with the magi today for my sermon, a passage I have looked at many times because it often comes up the Sunday after Christmas—a Sunday I often preach. Though my “go to” sermon is about learning how to go home by another way (thanks to both the magi and James Taylor), I found another way to look at the story. I hope you find something here, too. Happy New Year.

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Our season of Christmastide comes to a close this week with the celebration of Epiphany, which marks the visit of the Magi who came to visit Jesus. Like so many stories in the gospels, we only get a sketch of what happened and are left to fill in the blanks.

We don’t know much about the ones who came to find Jesus. We know they came from east of Palestine–maybe Persia, which is Iran today. We know they watched the stars, so we assume, as our translation did this morning, that they were astrologers or astronomers. In Jesus’ time, the two words were synonymous. As tradition built up around the story, they began to be referred to as kings because the gifts they bought were expensive. Not just everyone can show up with gold. Tradition also decided that there were three of them because there were three gifts, assuming, I suppose, that nobody would show up at the manger without a present. The King James Version translated the Greek word magios as “wise men” and the name stuck, even though their gender is not identified in Matthew’s account.

We have been reading this story with some imagination for centuries it seems. As I was working to see these folks in new ways this year, I came across an article written by a scientist named Roger Barlow who imagined the details differently. He said:

At this point we realise that we have a better word to translate magoi – a word not available to the translators of the Authorised Version of the Bible in King James’ reign, as it was only invented in 1833.

The word is scientists.

Looking back 2,000 years, they and we are not so different. They used their understanding of the universe to predict what would happen in the world – and, working as a group, they investigated their predictions, despite the cost and trouble and hardships. This is something any scientist today can recognise and identify with. Their understanding of the universe is crude and primitive in our eyes – but what will today’s scientific theories look like in 2,000 years time?

So, when we see pictures of the three kings at Christmas, we should spare them a thought, as colleagues who believed in their theories and followed through the consequences, despite the trouble and expense and personal effort involved. The strength of their conviction and their resolution to follow it, 2,000 years ago, can be an example to us today.

I do not have a scientific mind in the sense that I understand equations and so forth. I am drawn to the world of science because of the way scientists are trained to ask questions and to understand failure as part of the process on the way to new knowledge. In fact, when a scientist thinks they have made a discovery, one of the first things they do is put it our for peer review and ask others to help them see what they are missing. They want to know if they have made a mistake or if they failed so they can try again. Though they want to be accurate, the point is not to be right for the sake of being right, as much as it is to keep learning.

The Magi—the scientists–did not make the journey because they were sure of what they were going to find. They paid attention to the night sky and planned their actions to the best of their knowledge. Then they followed their theories and their hearts across the desert to find the child.

The shepherds, we are told, ran into town fueled by joy and amazement. They were serenaded by an angel choir in the middle of the night. What else could they do but run into town and find the baby? The Magi were a different story. They were motivated by more than impulse. What they saw in the sky was not so easily identifiable. They studied the stars nightly and noticed the changes. When they saw whatever astronomical event piqued their imaginations, they planned a journey and then they set out to see who they could find. Their decision to find the child was fueled by inquisitiveness, imagination, hope, courage, and tenacity.

This trip that has fed the imaginations of our Christmas traditions was risky and ripe for failure. They traveled to a country that was under foreign occupation and had the audacity to go ask the king for directions. They traveled on remote desert roads carrying expensive gifts. They traveled a long way without knowing what or who they would find. And then they had to flee for their lives after they saw the child because the king felt threatened by their news.

And so we mark the end of the Christmas season with a reminder that, even though our lives may not take us across the country in the middle of the night, we can learn to be inquisitive, to pay attention to details, to ask good questions, and to be willing to move in unfamiliar directions.

In a world where we have a lot that we don’t understand and so much that feels difficult, it is tempting to hold on to what we know or what feels comfortable rather than risking the journey to see what else God might have in store for us. In a world where things change so quickly and we feel flooded by information, it is tempting to decide we know what is right and dig in there. In a world where so much feels uncertain, it is tempting to decide we have to take care of ourselves first, rather than making sure everyone has enough.

In my article for the Bell Buoy this month I quoted a poem from Quaker theologian and mystic Howard Thurman that has been the benediction for Christmastide since I learned of it several years ago.

The Work of Christmas

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.

One of my favorite songwriters, Jason Isbell, wrote these words that have played in my head more times than I can recall and carry a similar tenacity:

I know you’re tired and you’re not sleeping well
uninspired and likely mad as hell
but wherever you are
I hope the high road takes you home again
to the world you want to live in

As we journey together to find Christ in 2022 may we have the inquisitiveness, imagination, hope, courage, and tenacity to take the high road to build a world we want to live in, to do the work of Christmas so that everyone belongs, and to risk being wrong in the name of Love. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

retelling the story

2

Many years ago, Ginger asked me to write a story for Christmas Eve. I wrote something called “A Faraway Christmas,” which has made an appearance on this blog a number of times. Last year, when I was the bridge pastor for United Churches of Durham, Connecticut and we couldn’t meet in person, I recorded an updated version. This year, Ginger asked me to read the story for the Christmas Eve service here in Guilford, so I tweaked it once again and retitled it “This Faraway Christmas.” I am now the bridge pastor at Westbrook Congregational Church. The story found its way into my sermon this morning.

_____________________

One of the puzzling things about the gospels for me is that they give us so little information about how Jesus grew up. How Jesus became Jesus. Luke takes Jesus from zero to thirty in fifty-two verses, with one brief story when Jesus was twelve and in the Temple. Luke even says the family made the trip every year, but we only get one story.

But none of us comes into life fully evolved, including Jesus. We are shaped by our relationships and our experiences. We become, which is another way of saying we grow and change. Sometimes we are particularly marked by our experiences in ways that alter how we grow.

The book of Isaiah begins with the prophet saying, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord,” which is to say that the death of the king changed the way he looked at God and the world. How we learn to grieve has a huge impact on how we live in the world. We can open up or we can wall ourselves off or find a mixture of the two.

With that in mind, I want to read you a story I wrote many years ago and updated around the pandemic. It was written for Christmas Eve, but you will still be able to follow along. It isn’t about Jesus in the Temple, but it is about growing through our grief.

This Faraway Christmas

Since we’re scattered about on this Silent Night,
and can’t all be together to pass candlelight,

It’s hard to find Christmas–to get in the spirit
This year did have promise, but, oh, what a year it

has been: full of sadness, of violence and virus—
how can Christmas encourage, unite, and inspire us?

If we tell the old stories, will they sadden and stress us,
if we say what we miss, won’t that just depress us?

I don’t know–maybe so–but it seems worth a try
to do more than just sit by ourselves and, well, cry,

so I’ll tell you a story, though for some it’s recorded
and hope that my effort will somehow be rewarded.

“Twas a Faraway Christmas in a Long Ago Town
of no great importance and no real renown,

filled with people who seemed fairly normal to me,
who worked and who played and seemed happy and free.

They had puppies and children, ate bread and ice cream,
they went shopping and swimming, they slept and they dreamed;

they laughed and did laundry, they danced and they dined,
and they strung Christmas lights on the big Scottish Pine

that grew in the square in the middle of town,
and when Christmas was over, they took the lights down.

They read the newspaper, the dads told bad jokes,
and some of the children put cards in the spokes

of their bicycle tires, so they made quite a din
till it came time for parents to call the kids in.

Yet for all of the things that kept people together—
that great small town feeling, the Christmas Card weather—

for all of the hope one was likely to hear,
the hearts of so many were held captive by fear.

Others always felt tired, some were down or depressed,
;nd then some–put quite simply–their lives were a mess.

Some felt pressure from not having paid all the bills,
some were keeping dark secrets that were making them ill;

some felt guilty and thought they were headed for hell,
but the town seemed so perfect, who could they tell?

So everyone kept all their feelings inside,
and wished they had someone in whom to confide,

to say, “Life is lousy,” or “I’ve made a mistake,”
or “Sometimes I’m so sad I don’t want to awake,”

or “I miss my Grandma,” or “I loved my cat,”
or “I never, no never get my turn at bat.”

Everyone kept it in, hardly ever spoke up
until one Christmas Eve, when an old man named Buck

came to turn on the lights on the tree in the square
and found no one, not anyone, I mean no one was there.

He stared up at the tree and the lights shining bright,
and alone on the square he talked back to the night,

“It’s Christmas,” he said, “when I should feel warm,
but I don’t think that this year I can conform.

It’s been hardly two months since my friend passed away;
how can I smile when he’s not here to say,

’Merry Christmas’?” And right then he burst into tears,
and all of the sadness from all of his years

Came out of his eyes and ran down his cheeks,
And he thought he would sit there and just weep for weeks.

His wailing was heard by someone walking by,
“Hi,” my name is Jenn–and I don’t mean to pry . . .”

Buck looked up at the voice and the kindness he heard
Somehow she had helped with just two or three words.

“I’m Buck,” he replied, “and I’m tired and mad,
but I think most of all I just feel really sad.”

She wasn’t quite ready for the truth that he told,
but it helped her feel brave standing there in the cold.

“Thanksgiving was lonely, my birthday was, too.
I guess I could say that I feel just like you.”

So they poured out their hearts, like a sister and brother,
then someone else joined, and then came another,

with a story to tell and feelings to free,
and they all sat and cried ‘neath the big Christmas Tree.

Can you imagine how many tears fell,
after all of the years that no one would tell

how it hurt just to live, how they felt terrified
of saying out loud what they carried inside.

How long does it take to clean out your heart,
to get it all out, to make a new start?

They cried until daybreak, till the first rays of dawn
broke over the tree tops and spread ‘cross the lawn,

in the new morning light Buck could see ‘cross the square;
he smiled up at Jenn ‘cause the whole town was out there.

They had come through the night, first one, then another
to sit down together like sister and brother,

to pour out their hearts for the first time in years,
and let out their feelings, their sadness, their tears.

Jenn started a carol, the one she knew best,
about joy to the world, and it burst from her chest.

The others joined in, not because they weren’t sad,
but because they’d admitted the feelings they had;

everyone sang along, both the sad and the scared,
Because true friends are found when true feelings are shared.

Perhaps it’s not fair to tell you this story
since we’re all kind of trapped in a strange purgatory;

the holiday’s here and we can’t be together
around a big tree in some Christmas card weather;

we can’t drop our masks to sing Silent Night,
or turn to each other to pass candlelight,

our world is no different: we’re frightened and sad,
we feel helpless and hopeless, and certainly mad,

but none of those words is the last on this Night
that we wait for the Child, that we pray for the Light,

that we hope for the best, even stuck in our homes,
and we try to remember that we’re not alone.

The virus and violence will not define us,
and our grief and our sadness will not resign us;

we’ll find ways to say that we love one another,
though we must keep our distance and our faces are covered.

The walls that surround cannot keep us apart
if we speak truth in love and we open our hearts.

We are all full of feelings, these are difficult times,
but let’s see past the sorrow and look for the lines

that connect everyone, even if we can’t touch;
let’s look for new ways to say “I love you much.”

Our hopes for this year may have turned to dismay,
but that doesn’t mean Christmas is so faraway.

There’s a scene in the second book of C. S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia that stays with me. The children had returned to Narnia for a second time and Lucy saw Aslan, the lion—who is the Christ figure in the book–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.

“Aslan,” 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.”

When we grow, God gets bigger. I keep coming back to that truth in these difficult days, because the weight of these times makes tempting to hunker down with a smaller God that sees me as the center of the universe. But God grows bigger in our grief and uncertainty when we are willing to share them with one another—because that is the way we grow: together. Amen.

Merry Christmas.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: alleluia

3

alleluia

advent this year feels
more like a season of
endurance than expectation

as though ‘we made it’
might be a legitimate
translation of alleluia

in these days of distance
the road to the manger
seems in desperate need of

repair who could believe
that Christ could be born
on a night like this

the hopes and fears of all
the years are met once
more by God in proximity

neither violence nor virus
distance disease or despair
can stop the birth of Love

the child will be born
and life will go on
one day after another

we do well to gather
each night and pray
we made it alleluia

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: still tired

3

Over a decade ago–August 2009, to be exact–I sat down to write my post for the day and began this way:

Somewhere in the middle of the afternoon today, I found what I thought would be the opening lines to a poem for my post:

when they ask how you’re doing
say something other than tired

The line came to me because of how tired I felt and I wished for the wherewithal to say something beyond the obvious when someone asked how I was doing. Answering, “I’m tired” is akin to saying, “I’m busy.” Both may be true, but they lie at the base of the hierarchy of meaning, when it comes to feelings. (Oh, are you reading this? That last paragraph was mostly talking to myself.)

As the day has drawn to its early close here in Guilford, those two lines came back to mind. I think of them often, actually, because tired is the word I use too often to describe how I feel, and it is still an unsatisfactory answer, even when i’m talking to myself.

But it’s the truth. I am tired. Exhausted. Weary. Lacking. And I know I am not alone. I guess that is part of the reason my favorite carol verse is

and you beneath life’s crushing load
whose forms are bending low
who toil along life’s climbing way
with painful steps and slow . . .

Yes, I know the verse goes on to promise rest and angel choirs, but I find comfort in the acknowledgment of the crushing load even without the angel band. I have a feeling the one who wrote the carol knew they were talking to more than just a couple of people. Life’s climbing way is well populated.

My old post notwithstanding (nor this one from last year), I would like to change my opening lines and offer some new ones to follow.

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

Rest well, my friends.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: bell hooks

4

I think I was working on my Masters in English when I first learned of bell hooks, noticing first that she chose not to use capital letters in her name. The English department at UMass Boston was full of professors who were intent on introducing us to people who changed the way we thought about language and communication. I met Pablo Freire, Toni Morrison, and Jimmy Santiago Baca on the page there as well, among others.

bell hooks died last week.

I was taking care of a sick friend and out of the news loop and didn’t find out until the weekend. Though I read a good bit of her stuff in graduate school, it was years later–in the spring of 2015–that I really dug in. I was working on my book This Must Be the Place: Reflections on Home and someone pointed me to her book Belonging: Building a Culture of Place, where she tells her story of leaving Stanford to return to rural Kentucky where she grew up to teach at Berea College. I listened as she talked about going back to her roots, to the soil–the ground–that made her. And I realized I that place did not exist for me. And yet, when she talked about home, I understood.

All my life I have searched for a place of belonging, a place that would become home . . . . Home was the place where the me of me mattered. Home was the place I longed for, it was not where I lived.

Even as she talked about the ground that grew her, she offered a bigger sense of what it means to belong.

In my childhood I dreamed about a culture of belonging. I still dream the dream. I contemplate what our lives would be like if we knew how to cultivate awareness, to live mindfully, peacefully; if we learned habits of being that would bring us closer together, that would help us build beloved community.

Some of the obituaries have painted her as a trailblazer and activist, which she was, but what is missing in many of the tributes is the tenacious love that fueled her activism. Three Christmases or so I was wandering through the Strand Bookstore booth at the Bryant Park Holiday Market and I found her book All About Love: New Visions. Her words made the train ride home go quickly.

A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers – the experience of knowing we always belong.

An exercise I learned from Pádraig Ó Tuama’s book In the Shelter is to think of the first sentence of your autobiography. We did the exercise with a group one night and the sentence I came up with was, “He was just trying to find his way home.”

bell hooks was not consumed with only finding her way home. She was convinced we need to all know we belong if we are going to survive this thing called life. She helped me feel like I belong, and helped me learn how to pass that along.

I am grateful.

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: time piece

1

time piece

The Long Island Sound faces south
so even though I’m on the East Coast
I can see sunrise and sunset over the water
today they were only nine hours apart
that’s all the daylight we got
come back six months from now
and that stretches to fifteen hours
the days in between rocking back
and forth like a cosmic carnival ride

in the middle of it all we fool ourselves
into thinking we can tell time or mark
time or make time or spend time
while nights come and days go
without regard for chronographs
standard time or smart phones
we would do better to set our hearts
to the rhythm of the syncopated sun
the incremental changes in coming

and going that show life doesn’t live
by a metronome but a heartbeat
some days take longer to complete
and some nights stretch out in comfort
there is more to life than being on time
we are not trains we are travelers
sojourners walking toward the sunset
and then resting for the night
however long that might last

Peace,
Milton

advent journal: an inconvenient time

3

When I last posted on December 8, it was not my intent to wait eleven days before I wrote again. The last couple of weeks have been a symphony of emotions from my sixty-fifth birthday to a health scare for one of our chosen family. I tried to get here, but it seems like I needed the quiet, even though it meant not keeping my Advent promises.

Today, I am here because I preached, so I have something to post. The sermon is from Luke 2:1-7 and is called “An Inconvenient Time.”

I will do my best to get here tomorrow.

__________________________

Last weekend, as many of you know, I was away because I was celebrating my sixty-fifth birthday. Ginger, my wife, took me to Durham, North Carolina, where we lived before we moved to Connecticut to spend the weekend surrounded by friends and loved ones. As we were preparing to leave town on Friday, we got word that our friend Jay–who is chosen family–was going into the hospital in Boston because they couldn’t control his heart rate.

When I say he is chosen family, I mean he has spent pretty much every Thanksgiving and Christmas with us for the last thirty years. He had planned to come to Durham as well before his heart began acting up. It felt strange for us to be getting on a plane going south as he was headed to Mass General Hospital.

Saturday night, we had a big dinner party at COPA, one of my favorite restaurants in Durham. I was surrounded by people whom I love deeply. It was such a night of joy. And in the middle of it, my phone rang. Jay was calling to say they we’re going to put him in an induced coma for three or four days. As Jay put it, they needed to quiet his brain so they could quiet his heart. The medical explanation made sense, but the thought of them putting him under sedation on Saturday night and not waking him until Tuesday morning scared me. It scared us all.

There in the middle of the restaurant, I felt love and joy and fear and sadness all at the same time.

But then, life rarely gives us one feeling at a time. Even in the Christmas story. I know the passage I read jumps ahead a bit, as far as Advent is concerned, but these verses about Jesus’ birth coming in the middle of everything else have been meaningful this week.

After we got home from Durham, I drove to Boston on Tuesday night and stayed at Jay’s place, took care of Ollie, his dog, and helped Jay get home from the hospital Friday evening. They were able to quiet both his mind and his heart. The story of what lies ahead has yet to be written, but the crisis has passed, just as the official celebration of my birth has passed as well. Yet, I continue to age daily, and Jay’s heart keeps beating—and everything that is a part of life keeps coming at us, all at once.

The verses for this morning spoke to me because of the picture that Luke paints–the setting he creates for Jesus’ birth. We talked a couple of weeks ago about how Luke introduced John the Baptist by listing all the people in positions of power before he got to the prophet on the edge of town. Luke starts the account of Jesus’ birth in the same way, naming the emperor and the governor, and underlining their power by describing how they could demand for all the world to be registered—to be counted for a census—and make people travel to do it.

It didn’t matter that Mary was days away from delivering her child. It didn’t matter that it was ninety miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They had to go to Joseph’s ancestral home to be counted, and so they did. Then comes the part of the story we all know well. When they got to town, they couldn’t not find standard lodging, so Mary gave birth to her baby in a barn and used a feed trough for a crib.

No matter how long the journey, or how inconsiderate the demands of those in power, or how inconvenient the circumstances, Love still came into the world.

The world changed because Jesus was born. God poured God’s self into human form. Divine Love became incarnate in the person of Jesus, who grew into a man who lived out that love so fiercely that the same political powers listed at the top of Luke’s first two chapters had him executed. Love is not always welcomed by those who crave control.

The world changed, yes, but most of the circumstances around Jesus did not. Life was just as full of pain and grief and hope and fear and joy as it had been. Mary was ninety miles from home with a baby and a man she had not yet married. But she held the child they named Emmanuel–God with us.

God with us—no matter what is going on.

The big stained-glass word for all of this is Incarnation–made into flesh. It’s the fancy way to say God came in human form. One writer I read said at its root the word means “with meat,” as if to say God wanted to make sure we understood that love was not an idea. For love to be real, you have to have some skin in the game.

As I have carried the story of Mary making her way to the manger this week, I have been mindful of how I have seen love incarnated in my own life. Those gathered around the tables at my birthday gatherings have incarnated God’s love to me in so many ways through job changes, address changes, the deaths of my parents, two knee replacements, as well as countless shared meals and dreams. They didn’t have to come to dinner. They came to show me that they loved me.

My driving up to Boston on Tuesday was the best way Ginger and I knew to incarnate love for Jay as they worked to quiet his heart and his mind. I didn’t have to go, but why would I miss the chance to say I love you?

When Mary climbed on the donkey to make her way to Bethlehem, I imagine her thinking the census could not have come at a more inconvenient time. I imagine they spent their days on the road wondering if the child would be born on the side of the highway. But even if they had stayed in Nazareth, there would have never been a day that was convenient for the baby to be born.

Perhaps we could also say there is never a convenient time to incarnate love.

The first Sunday in Advent, I quoted the mystic Meister Eckhardt, who said:

What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.

God is always needing to be born into the mess that is our lives. God is always needing to be born in the midst of inconvenience and struggle, in the middle of our questions and fears and dreams– right where we are. Life is not either-or. I’m not sure it’s even as simple as both-and. If we could go around the room and tell our stories this morning, we would remind ourselves that we carry all our feelings at once; we hold grief and joy and hope and sorrow all together. No matter what the circumstance, no matter what the occasion, God is always needing to be born, which is another way of saying God is calling us to incarnate love to one another: to offer one another something—someone–we can hold on to.

As we prepare to celebrate our second COVID Christmas, the wear and tear of the long road of the pandemic is taking its toll. We are all tired and exhausted. Just when we think that maybe things are getting better, the case numbers go up again, or someone close to us gets the virus. We are also feeling the social and economic impact of two years of distance and difficulty, along with the shared grief of over 800,000 deaths. And COVID is not the whole story. Each one of us carries what is going on in our families, at our jobs, here at our church.

This is the world—our world—where God needs to be born, where Love needs to be incarnated, made flesh by our choices of words and actions. Let us quiet our minds and our hearts in this inconvenient time and do all we can to make sure those around us know that Love is stronger than any circumstance. Amen.

Peace,
Milton