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join the party


My sermon this week looked at a very familiar story—Jesus feeding over five thousand people with a sack lunch—and what new things I noticed in it.


One of the (many) books I have on my shelf is one called The Art of Noticing by a man named Rob Walker, and it is exactly what the title says: it is a book about learning how to notice things, how to pay better attention. Most of the book is filled with exercises designed to help you notice what you might not have seen before, and often those exercises have to do with paying attention to the things that you see and do over and over.

One exercise says to take the same walk every day for at least a week. Go down the same streets, make the same turns, but focus on something different each time. Look at the differences in the barks on the trees, and then notice the cracks in the sidewalks, or the front doors of the houses you pass.

That particular exercise fascinates me because of how often I see something and I think, “I’ve walked by that place and I’ve never noticed that before.” When was a youth minister in Texas I walked into our church sanctuary one day while the organist was practicing. She had been at the church for over twenty years at that time; the sanctuary was only a decade old. She motioned for me to come over and she pointed to the large stained glass window in front of her.

“What do you see?” she asked.

I stared at the window for a couple of minutes, knowing I was supposed to notice something unusual. Finally, in the top bar that ran across the window, I saw a roll of painter’s tape sitting on its side.

She smiled and said, “That’s been there since the first Sunday we moved into this room and I’m the only one who has ever noticed it.”

Well, my experience with this week’s scripture was a little looking at that window. I have both heard and preached a number of sermons on what we have come to call the Feeding of the Five Thousand. It is the only story of Jesus’ life that shows up in all four gospels, outside of those events leading up to his crucifixion, which means it shows up in every lectionary cycle, which means you’ve probably heard a bunch of sermons, too.

In the years since my father died, I have read it mostly as a grief story, or I should say a story that takes place in the wake of grief. Right before Jesus fed the crowd, John the Baptist was beheaded. Jesus kept trying to get away by himself and the crowd kept following to the point that they needed to be fed. Jesus was caught in the tension between the death of someone he dearly loved and the needs of those around him. From that angle, the story has been a meaningful one for me.

Mark tells about John’s death in the verses right before the ones we read this morning, but he doesn’t say anything about anyone telling Jesus what had happened. Instead, he says the disciples returned from their paired-up journeys with stories to tell. Jesus invited them to get out of town for a little rest and relaxation, so they took a boat across the Sea of Galilee.

The ”sea” was small enough that the crowd following them could run around the edge and meet them on the other side, which they did, but that meant they were all on the other side of the lake from the more inhabited parts, out in the middle of a field. Jesus was enjoying the chance to teach them because he could tell they were kind of lost trying to figure out how to deal with life—like a sheep without a shepherd, Mark said.

The disciples were more concerned with it being dinner time and they didn’t know where the food was going to come from, much less how they were going to pay for it, and they made that known to Jesus. He asked what food they could find and they came up with five loaves and two fish. (No little boy in Mark’s version.) And then comes the part I had not noticed before.

Jesus told them to tell the people to recline like they were getting ready for dinner, that is dinner inside. To act like they were settling in at the dinner table. Except they were in the middle of a field of green grass—which is the second thing that struck me: they weren’t out in the desert; they were in a rich pasture. And then he told them to get in groups of fifty or a hundred. The Greek word there has to do with being at an outside party or banquet.

All the language abounds with hospitality in response to the disciples’ sense of scarcity. They were holding five loaves of bread and a couple of fish and Jesus was saying, “Tell everyone to get ready for a big garden party.”

What Mark described in a couple of sentences had to have taken a while. The disciples moved through the crowd telling the people to group up because the party was about to start. I wonder if that is what set the miracle in motion. Jesus blessed the food he had and the disciples started handing it out, but after noticing all the different ways Jesus talked about hospitality, I wonder if folks began pulling out what they had to share and the party really started. Whatever happened, everybody ate well and they even had leftovers. I have always noticed that part because I was raised to notice meal time.

Right before my family moved back to the States from Africa permanently, my mother said, “Our lives are about to change dramatically. What is it about what we do as a family that you would most want to keep when we get to America?”

My brother and I both said, “Having dinner together.”

My mother made a big deal out of any meal. If we were having peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, she would take the time to scoop the stuff out of the jars and into a serving bowl and invite us all to the table. Even a quick snack could be made memorable.

When we got to Houston and my brother and I immersed ourselves in American high school life, my mother worked around schedules so we all sat down to eat together. In my twenties, when I felt distant, even estranged, from my parents the leftovers of those meals were the memories that kept me connected, even when I didn’t know how to say so.

Eventually, we found our way back to each other and the stories around the table continued.

One of the ways to notice the words we say at the Communion table—“As often as you do this, remember me”—is that Jesus wasn’t just talking about the sacrament but meant anytime we gather to share food we put ourselves back together in Jesus’ name. We are invited to hear Jesus’ words of invitation and anticipation—act like it’s about to be a banquet—whether we are sharing Communion, eating lunch at Luce’s, enjoying our snacks at Coffee Hour, or heating up leftovers.

Remember that the disciples had just come back from their travels where Jesus had sent them out and told them to stay where they were welcomed and to move on if they were not. And now they stood in the middle of a green field watching Jesus tell five thousand people they had a place at the table, even when it looked like there wasn’t enough to go around.

There’s always enough love to go around.

I hope we keep noticing that—and joining the party—over and over again. Amen.


just stand there


The passage that informed my sermon this week tells of Jesus sending his disciples out in pairs, rather than just following him. It was their first such venture, and it still speaks.


When I was a high school English teacher, I did an exercise with my ninth graders where they had to write instructions for how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I had all the elements out on a table: jars of peanut butter and jelly, a couple of knives, a loaf of bread still in the wrapper, a plate. One of the main reasons behind the activity was to get them to understand the importance of details, so I told them to make sure and write down every little thing you had to do to make a PB & J.

What I didn’t tell them was the was that the way the assignment would be evaluated was how well one of the other students could make a sandwich by following their directions because they could only do what was written on the paper. It became apparent rather quickly that no one had thought of details like open the bag and take out two slices of bread, I gave their instructions back to them for revision.

We all learned that directions are hard to write.

Whenever we come across a passage where Jesus gives instructions to his disciples, it is tempting to read his words as though he was offering a sort of User’s Manual for all of us. There are parts of scripture that read that way—the Ten Commandments, for instance—but even they don’t have all the details for exactly how we live out those ideals.

In our passage today, Mark recounts the first time Jesus sent his followers out on their own. Remember, this is a continuation of the scene we looked at last week when Jesus couldn’t get his hometown folks to take him seriously. He decided to move on to other places and he told his disciples to do the same, except to do it without him.

And he gave some instructions, which we read a few moments ago. I want to read them again, this time from The Message translation:

“Don’t think you need a lot of extra equipment for this. You are the equipment. No special appeals for funds. Keep it simple. And no luxury inns. Get a modest place and be content there until you leave. If you’re not welcomed, not listened to, quietly withdraw. Don’t make a scene. Shrug your shoulders and be on your way.”

The reason Jesus’ words reminded me of the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches is because I found several sermons that tried to turn his words into a little instruction book. One preacher made a connection to Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten. Remember that book? The author took things we learned as kids and talked about how they applied to our lives, such as, “Share everything. Play fair. Put things back where you found them. Take a nap every afternoon. And when you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.”

Those words hold a lot of truth, and I am a huge fan of naps, but life doesn’t come with easy-to-follow instructions when it comes to how to live meaningfully—or perhaps it’s better to say the instructions are a starting point.

Jesus does give instructions, as did our kindergarten teachers, but he wasn’t offering a step-by-step manual of how to change the world, or even how to be a disciple. He was inviting them into a deeper understanding of what it means to love one another, whether those one anothers were people they knew or people they had just met. And so he told them to put themselves in positions where they needed the help of others, even as they were going out to try and help; to live within their means; and to meet people on their terms. If they didn’t want to engage, then give them space and move on.

He challenged them to be guests rather than experts, to act just as he had just done in Nazareth. Instead of a list of instructions, he told them to go and build relationships, to engage other people on their terms.

That’s as close as you can get, I suppose, for instructions on how to love someone: meet them on their terms and offer what you have. As The Message translated it, “You are the equipment.”

Those words made me think of the Platinum Rule, which I learned about from Ginger. The Golden Rule, as most of us have been taught, is to do to others as we would have it done to us. The Platinum Rule says do to others as they would have it done to them. Use them as the reference point rather than ourselves. Listen to them before we decide what they need.

Perhaps that is doing as we would have it done to us, in a way, since we would like to feel listened to and regarded.

Theologian Sam Wells says that often, when we think about how to care for others we think about what we can do for them. “And,” he says, “those gestures of ‘for’ matter because they sum up a whole life in which we try to make relationships better, try to make the world better, try to be better people ourselves by doing things ‘for’ people.”

But for is not the key word in the way God relates to us. When the angel tells Joseph what to name the child, they say to call him Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” “’With’,” says Wells, “is the most fundamental thing about God. . . . It is the word that describes the heart of God and the nature of God’s purpose and destiny for us.”

Jesus sent the disciples out to be with people, not just to go do stuff for them. And with is harder than for. We want to feel productive and useful, to be able to see how we helped. But sometimes the best thing we can do is to follow what the White Rabbit told Alice in Alice in Wonderland: “Don’t just do something, stand there!”

I first heard that line from my supervisor when I was a fresh-out-of-seminary hospital chaplain intern at Baylor Medical Center in Dallas. I had gone from the classroom to being in hospital rooms with dying patients and families. I didn’t know what to do and my supervisor reminded me I couldn’t do anything but stand there. Just be with people. Even when I couldn’t fix it, I could choose to stay. That is true beyond the hospital. Even when we can’t fix it, we can choose to stay. We can choose to be with each other, no matter how much it hurts and how helpless we feel.

But I am not telling you something you don’t know.

As I thought about Jesus sending out the disciples, I kept thinking, “That is kind of what we do every Sunday. We got out from here into the lives of those around us to see how we can be with them, and then we come back here to remember we are with each other.” You have been with each other for a lot more Sundays than I have been here.

I’m not telling you something you don’t know, but it’s worth being reminded that the way love changes lives is in our being with one another, is in our being together. God is with us and we are with each other. Amen.


room to grow


In Robert Frost’s poem “Death of the Hired Man,” one of the characters says,

Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.

That line came to mind as I read about Jesus’ return to Nazareth, his hometown, and left me wondering how we make room for one another to grow and change.


One of the things in my life with which I have a mixed relationship is the autocorrect on my phone and my computer. Maybe this happens to you as well. I send a text message only to find out—after I sent it—that what I thought I typed and what the computer predicted I really wanted to say weren’t the same thing. Sometimes it’s a funny mistake, sometimes it might be a little embarrassing, and most of the time it doesn’t make sense.

The technology is designed to recognize patterns in my words. It thinks it knows what I want to say and doesn’t make room for me to say something different. That’s not always helpful, but it does offer a good metaphor as we look at the scene from Jesus’ life that we just read together.

On the heels of healing the woman who had hemorrhaged for twelve years and raising a twelve-year-old girl from the dead, Jesus went back to his hometown of Nazareth, where he spoke in the synagogue. We don’t know how fast news travelled back then or what folks had heard, but it doesn’t appear that a big crowd had followed Jesus home. Just his disciples.

Mark, Matthew, and Luke all offer different accounts of Jesus’ return home. In Luke, it happened immediately after Jesus was tempted in the wilderness. Matthew describes the scene happening after Jesus had told several parables. Mark places it after Jesus had raised the little girl. What the three accounts share is that the people in Nazareth responded in two ways: first, they were powerfully struck by what (and who) they were hearing, and then they fell back into their preconceived notions of who Jesus was: “Isn’t he the carpenter’s boy? When did he get to be a big shot? We know his family.”

(Mark also gives us a brief glimpse of Jesus’ family. He identifies four brothers and then says he had sisters, so Jesus was the oldest of at least seven. They don’t show up anywhere else.)

Mark’s order of events is interesting because Jesus had just come from giving two people new leases on life, offering them the chance to see possibilities, only to have the people in Nazareth confine him with their assumptions about who he had become because of their memory of who he was.

They couldn’t let Jesus grow up, or. perhaps, they wouldn’t. As a result, Mark says, Jesus couldn’t do much. The gospel says he was amazed at their lack of trust.

The whole scene creates a picture kind of like going back to a high school or college reunion where who we were then is not who we are now. Maybe we heard an old nickname that we were happy to discard or were reminded of things we did that we have outgrown.

Or maybe it brings to mind a situation where we felt trapped in a job or a responsibility because people put us where they thought we belonged rather than asking, or we were never considered for the promotion because “we were so good right where we were.”

Maybe it’s not quite that dramatic, but we wish people would look beyond the person they think they know and give us a chance to paint a fuller picture of ourselves. You might be surprised to know, for example, I am an award-winning dancer.

(I’ll be you didn’t see that coming.)

A few years back, Ginger and I were asked to be a part of a Gala of Stars: Dancing for a Cause for Raise the Roof, a nonprofit on the Shoreline that raises money for New Haven Habitat for Humanity. We won the fundraising award and placed second in dancing; we lost by a point. Therefore, I am an award-winning dancer.

One of the reasons I love coffee hour is we get to hear each other’s stories; we have a chance to be amazed by each other as we learn things we didn’t know. The people in Nazareth asked lousy questions in response to being struck by Jesus’ sermon. Rather than asking, “Isn’t that the carpenter’s kid?” they would have done better to wonder what had happened to him since they had seen him last—and not just because he might have been able to do miracles, but also because they could have helped him feel at home.

When I was teaching high school English in Winchester, Massachusetts there was a boy who sat on the back row and never said a word. He did his work, and he didn’t cause trouble, but he seemed disengaged. I tried several things to connect, but they were my ideas; I didn’t ask him much of anything. One of his classmates invited me to watch the lacrosse team play and it was there I learned he played also—and he played well. He was a leader on the field, vocal and passionate. When the game was over, I went up to him and said, “I don’t know who the guy is that sits in the back of the room, but I would love for you to come to class. You’re amazing.”

And he did.

When I was willing to see him differently, I gave him a chance to be different.

I realize that story makes it sound as though I have had more training and teachers who helped me evolve more than the people of Nazareth, but that is not my point. I also have stories of situations where I was not quite as aware, and they remind me that, though Mark’s account makes them easy to criticize, we might do better to ask ourselves what we share in common with them and how we can grow.

How are we making room for one another to show sides of ourselves no one is expecting? Are we creating a community that gives people a safe place to be themselves? Since many of you have known each other a long time, those might sound like odd questions, but sometimes those with whom we are most familiar are the hardest ones to see with fresh eyes. We tend to autocorrect each other if we are not intentional about how we listen to and learn about how we are all growing and changing.

One of the roles rituals play is to remind us that we are still growing. Think of the shared meals at this Communion table like pencil marks on the doorframes of our lives, as we come each month to re-member ourselves in Jesus name. Who were we when we last gathered? What has happened? What new sorrows have shaped us? What new joys have found us? What has changed our view of the world and who we are called to be in it? How are we going to go from this place to help each other grow in love in the days to come? How will we grow in our trust in God and in one another?

Let us hold these questions as we keep the feast. Amen.


do not pass me by


I was back in the pulpit at Mount Carmel Congregational Church this past Sunday after my time away in and around Belfast. I am grateful I get to be in both places. Here is what I found at the crossroads.


Since I just got back from Ireland where I was the chef for two peace retreats, I assume you are expecting I would have stories to tell, and I don’t want to disappoint you. My trips there over the last three summers have given me an experience I have not had before when I have travelled, and that is being able to spend extended time in the same place more than once. If I add up all my trips, I have spent about eight weeks in Belfast and the surrounding area.

As a result, my memories have become increasingly more about people because I have had the chance to be around them more than once. The place I have visited the most is called The Larder. Here is how they describe themselves:

The Larder is a community food hub in East Belfast that believes everyone deserves good food. Our members can shop with us weekly, purchasing high quality produce for affordable prices.

They are housed in a church building that was deconsecrated by the Church of Ireland but was then resurrected by The Larder and by St. Christopher’s, the faith community from which it was born. And it began not as an idea, but as a response to a tangible request: a woman who had just moved into the neighborhood came by asking for food because she was desperate and hungry. They met a need with love in a tangible way that created trust.

And trust is at the heart of our scripture passage this morning that intertwines two stories that are otherwise unconnected, other than both people came looking for Jesus. It starts with a man called Jairus, who was a leader at the synagogue, found Jesus in the middle of a crowd and begged him to come to his house because his twelve-year-old daughter was dying.

Jesus changed whatever plans he had and went with him.

So did the crowd. And in that crowd was a woman who had been dealing with some sort of hemorrhaging for twelve years—she had been sick as long as the little girl had been alive. She had spent many of those years seeking medical attention, but things had only gotten worse. The gospel said, “She had heard about Jesus,” and so she braved the crowd to get close enough just to touch his clothes, trusting that the contact would change things.

When she did, Jesus stopped, which must have made Jarius’ heart sink.

“Who touched me?” Jesus asked.

And I love the way the disciples responded. “We’re in the middle of a giant crowd and you want to know who touched you? Everybody touched you! That’s what a crowd is.”

But Jesus kept scanning the crowd until his eyes caught hers. The gospel says she came forward in fear, but Jesus affirmed the trust she showed in her touch. “You’re faith has restored you.”

No sooner had Jesus spoken those words than another religious leader came to say Jairus’ daughter had died and Jesus needn’t bother coming to the house. Jesus looked at Jairus and said, “Keep trusting me,” and they kept moving. When they got to the house, the yard was filled with mourners, but Jesus reframed the situation: “She has not died, she is sleeping.”

He took her hand and said, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Little girl, wake up,” and she did. And Jesus told them to feed her.

The talk of food takes me back to The Larder.

When you walk into the room that was once a sanctuary, about a third of it is set up like a small grocery store. There is a wall of shelves holding various canned goods, another with a bank of canisters holding bulk dry goods like rice and lentils, some other shelves holding bins of fresh produce as well as eggs, and a table with dried herbs and spices. The back end of the sanctuary, or what was once the chancel, is storage and office space, and in between is a small kitchen and a number of tables and chairs.

Volunteers make food for those who are coming to shop, much like we do for coffee hour, and there is coffee and tea. People don’t stand in line. They sit and talk and snack until it’s their turn to shop. I sat down to talk to a woman because she had the cutest little girl who kept waving at me. They were new to Belfast, having moved from Derry a couple of months before.

“I heard about The Larder, so I came for help, and they have helped me” she said. And they gave her something to eat and a place to belong. The Larder is not solving all the problems of her life, but they are making her feel seen and they are helping her find hope.

In another conversation, someone was talking about a loved one who had been diagnosed with cancer and they said, also with some hope, “It’s treatable, but not curable.”

Those words continued to ring in my ears as I read our stories for today where both women, young and old, were healed. The older woman’s bleeding stopped; the little girl got up from her deathbed and had lunch. And they both went on to whatever the rest of their lives held until they died.

Life, it seems, is treatable but not curable. We all need to be seen, to be noticed and cared for in a way that helps us trust that Love does not let us go.

Because of my trip, I had to put the order of service together about a month ago. As I did, the song that kept coming to mind was “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” which I am going to sing in a moment. It was one of the earliest hymns written by Fanny Crosby, who went blind when she was six weeks old. She later taught at the New York School for the Blind and was involved in many ministries. This hymn grew out of a visit to a prison where she heard one of the prisoners plead, “Good Lord, do not pass me by.”

It could be the theme song for both Jairus and the woman whose name we never know; it could be the theme song for most anyone we know, depending on the situation. Part of what I love about the song is the plea is not resolved, and by that I mean that we are left to trust that God will answer, that Love will show up in a touch, or a word, or a meal. And we have to pay attention, because sometimes we are the ones who the agents of God’s love, who are reaching out, offering words of encouragement, and feeding those who are hungry so that they are not passed by.

Pass me not, O gentle Savior, hear my humble cry
While on others thou art calling do not pass me by

Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry
While on others Thou art calling do not pass me by

Thou the spring of all my comfort more than life to me
Whom have I on earth beside thee? Whom in heav’n but thee?

I’m calling Savior, Savior, hear my humble cry
While on others Thou art calling do not pass me by



PS–I know lots of folks are meeting the needs in front of their faces, much like the folks at the Larder. I also know all of them need help. Please check out what they are doing in East Belfast. If you would like to contribute, you can do it here.

One more thing: here’s an old video of me singing “Pass Me Not” as a mashup with REM’s “Eveerybody Hurts.”

under repair


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

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

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

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

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

Those words have been ringing in my ears all week.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


let your life preach


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The breath of God blew their hearts open.

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

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

Those are question to live with, not answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let us pray.

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


first, I lobster . . .


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

Until it wasn’t.

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

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

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

Until it wasn’t–which was today.

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

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

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

And I get to do it again and again.


perceived stress


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


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

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

Feeling stressed yet?

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

Their perceived stress score was off the charts.

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

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

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

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

So they did.

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

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

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

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

Mattias was chosen and is never mentioned again.

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

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

That’s an important distinction.

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

We can learn from them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That always matters.

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

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