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the whole story


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

You remember those, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


what will it take?


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


take this breath


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


I’ve always liked Thomas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said, I like Thomas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

lenten journal: friday night lights


friday night lights

at the funeral home
on a friday evening

one of the speakers
quoted Mary Oliver

“four small stones
hugging each other”

an image of love
in a roomful of loss

the one who just
lost his husband

took the words in
with the rest of us

and then stood up
to say thank you

we walked out to
an embracing sunset

mary talked about
the sun as well

she was at the beach
I was in a parking lot

same sun same love
different stones

all in need of embrace
all ablaze in gratitude

at the funeral home
is it that simple?




lenten journal: affirmation season


affirmation season

the best part of
deacons’ meeting
on the night
after the Oscars
was when one said,

“how long has
it been since
we told the staff
they were doing
a good job?’

after a short
another replied,
“it’s always
a good time
to say that”

someone else
volunteered to
send cards

none of us was
neither did we
discuss who
was doing the
best work

true affirmation
doesn’t demand
only celebration
and the intention
to say it out loud

skip the statue
the superlatives
and just say,
“thanks for
showing up
every damn day”

“I noticed”
is another way
of saying
“I love you”


lenten journal: before & after


I know I was not the only preacher who mentioned that we are close to the four year anniversary of the beginning of the Big Lockdown. That, along with the scripture passage, got me thinking about befores and afters.


Before and after.

The two words are often used together to describe a change or a transformation:

before we met . . .
before my father died . . .
before our first child was born . . .
before I finished my degree . . .
before my knee replacement . . .
before the diagnosis . . .
before the promotion . . .
before we opened our business . . .
before we moved into our house . . .
before the war . . .
before 9/11 . . . .

How about this one? Before the pandemic began . . . .

Can you remember what life was like? This week marks four years since the lockdown began and the whole world had to deal with a reality none of us had experienced. There was life before March 2020 and life after. Even though COVID is no longer the threat it once was, life will never be the same for any of us, maybe for anyone.

Our lives are filled with before and after moments, some of them more profound than others, but we continue to evolve, to grow and change, in part because of what happens and how we choose to respond—both parts of the equation are crucial.

Though we talk about before and after, we live in the afters; we don’t know we are in the befores. Things happen and we go on living, trying to figure out what to do.

Life is full of chance encounters and uncertainties, things we can’t explain or control, AND we make choices about what we do, say, and feel in the middle of it all, and those choices shape our lives.

Cosmologist Brian Swimme writes about coming to a deeper understanding of that dynamic as he watched his son chase a frog by a creek one afternoon.

Yes, the existence of our son rested on uncountably many chance events. but that was not the whole story. In the moment I became aware of a fundamental branch point, I ran down the pathway that led to Denise. [his wife] Whatever would come forth after that had for its base that conscious decision that she was my life. Thomas Ian did not come from a purely random process. He came out of a decision that transformed all of the events of our past from chance to necessity. They became necessary in that they were just what they had to be in order for us to embrace it all and make it our destiny. (269)

The phrase that caught me most in that paragraph is “a decision that transformed all of the events of our past from chance to necessity.” That’s the language of before and after. It is also the language of faith, as we reflect on how we come into relationship with God.

Do you remember your life before you began a life of faith—however you would define that phrase? Perhaps it was, as they say, a “come to Jesus” moment; maybe it was a gradual series of events, a slow turning, that led you to a moment when you realized things had moved from chance to necessity. Faith is an ongoing relationship, a continuing act of creation, a contagion of befores and afters, but do you remember how it began? Can you point to other watershed moments along the way?

I wish we had time to tell all of those stories this morning. Let’s take the time to do so along the way in the days to come. For now, I’ll tell this one.

It was by chance that I was born to parents who decided to move to Africa. By that I mean I had no choice in the matter. The month of my first birthday, we sailed from New York Harbor, around the Cape of Good Hope, to the port of Beira, Mozambique—thirty-two days on a passenger freighter—because my parents wanted to be missionaries. We left Africa for good on my sixteenth birthday.

I came to faith as a child in Africa. I grew up in African churches filled with music and rhythm, with joyful people who lived hard lives and didn’t have much, but who shared most everything.

We came back to the States on leave three times before we came back for good. The third time I was in tenth grade and was a part of the youth group at University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas—by chance. I had never been a part of a youth group centered around faith, nor had I been in an American high school. I experienced a different kind of diversity among the students at Paschal High School. All of it changed—expanded—the way I thought about God and about faith.

After Ginger and I married and moved to Boston, my faith went through another before and after as we found our way to become part of the UCC that began by chance: a colleague of Ginger’s called to say her church needed a youth minister.

Again, New England had a different vocabulary for faith and mine expanded to a wider definition of belonging that resonated with the way it felt when I was a kid in Africa, except it was even more expansive.

Those three highlights are far from the whole story, but I hope they communicate that faith is not something we possess; rather it is something we are part of, a creative process that is burgeoning and ongoing.

What is your version of that story? What is our version? How did the chance happenings of our lives bring us to choose for Mount Carmel to be a necessity in our lives? Remember we found each other because you asked Jake Joseph to preach—by chance—and he told you and me that we were a match.
Now we are necessary to each other.

How did we choose to let the fact that we met become a choice to love one another in Jesus’ name? Because that is what we are doing here; we are now necessary to each other’s lives, to each other’s stories. We are the story. The last sentence of our passage for this morning says, “God prepared for these good things to be the way that we live our lives,” or put another way, “God made us for this.”

We are built for befores and afters. We are created to grow and learn, to adapt and change, to imagine and belong, to love and be loved, just like everything else in the universe. We are made to make each other necessary. May our lives reflect our calling. Amen.


lenten journal: making stock


making stock

the air was as cold
as it was grey today
and the forecast of rain
sent me stacking the
stock pot on the stove
pulling poultry bones

from the freezer
as well as a couple of
bags of celery butts
and carrot ends
garlic fresh parsley
and a sliced lemon

its been simmering
through sermon prep
and basketball games
turning tap water
into the promise
of meals yet to come

the oldest meaning
of the word is the
trunk of a living tree
from which life spings
the rich reduction
is a soup nursery

new life will come from
the scraps and bones
of other meals
a good word as lent
boils down to its
magnificent defeat

scraps and bones
are the stuff of life
and death it seems
the rain both waters
and wearies us
come it’s time to eat


lenten journal: saving time


I am writing on Friday night, but most of you will read this on Saturday or later, which means this wa the night to write about daylight savings.

saving time

some time in the night we will be
robbed of an hour of sleep in
order that we might save daylight

the thieves will leave nothing but the
promise that the hour saved will be
kept safely and returned in the fall

but no one adequately explains
the for this sleight of hand
this spring-loaded arrogance

the sunrise I saw this morning
through the giant airport windows
took all the time it needed

perhaps we should begin a
tradition of staying up until
we think the clock springs forward

and then laugh at ourselves
for thinking we could save time
or that our clocks are of consequence

precision and perspective
keep time to different rhythms
one of the matches a heartbeat


lenten journal: rain on me


rain on me

today was a rainy day
to which the rain
never fully committed
the mist loitered
without purpose
the showers were
scattered unfocused
rather than pelting
me as i walked
the moisture wafted
like a parachutist
blown off course
putting the whether
in weather
in it all I found
in the raindrops
knowing I was not
the only who felt
a little off my game
there’s more than
one way to fall
and to land
not all clouds
speak in storm


lenten journal: spiritual practice


spiritual practice

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

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

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

faithfulness and
perfection are
not synonyms
saints miss the mark

write down a word
then another
remind yourself
that practice does

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

believing you
how many times
do we need to
remind ourselves