Home Blog

passing the peace


The first Sunday in October is World Communion Sunday for the denominations that observe it, which carries its own irony, I suppose. Any reason to celebrate more people at the table is good news to me. This year, the first Sunday in October also marked the date of my official installation as the Minister of Mount Carmel Congregational Church in Hamden, Connecticut. Though I have been there since January, and have been the minister since April, the UCC does an installation after the church and the pastor have had time to get to know each other. And it shows that we are well acquainted. The installation gift from the church was a hippo statue. Here is my sermon from Sunday.


As you probably noticed, both of our scripture passages today came from Paul’s letters—one to Galatia and one to Philippi. Both were churches he had visited, and his words to them were written to encourage them from afar. Even in the early days of Christianity, where two or three were gathered meant there were a variety of opinions and preferences. That was not a bad thing necessarily, but it did mean they had to be committed to being together. That is still true.

I am going to do the scripture reading a bit differently this morning. As we look at what Paul had to say in Philippians 2:1-12, let’s start at the end of our passage. Look at the first sentence of the last paragraph:

What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning.

Hold that tone of encouragement in your mind, and go back to the first paragraph:

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.

It sounds like he is imploring them, almost pleading—until we put it alongside of him saying, “Just keep doing what you are doing.” It wasn’t that he thought they were clueless as much as he knew they needed to be reminded, as the gospel cliché goes, “who they were and whose they were.”

What reads as our middle paragraph was most likely the text to a hymn of the early church, so think of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” or “How Great Thou Art” as we read those verses—this time from a translation that gives a better sense of the poetry:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God

Can you hear it? The language is full of big imagery, as well as Paul’s central idea: Jesus didn’t live just to get what he justly deserved; he lived to love those around him. I wish we knew the melody. Paul wanted the Philippians to hear the ways their lives sang already.

What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning. When I was living among you, you lived in responsive obedience. Now that I’m separated from you, keep it up. Better yet, redouble your efforts. Be energetic in your life of salvation, reverent and sensitive before God. That energy is God’s energy, an energy deep within you, God willing and working at what will give God the most pleasure.

It is as though Paul was saying, “You know the song by heart; keep living out the melody of love.”

For 266 years people have been singing the Mount Carmel version of that melody and passing it on to those who came after them. The surroundings of our church have changed—more than once, I assume—and people have continued to gather here to care for each other and the community. I am grateful that I get to join the chorus. I am glad to be here with you.

The pace of change feels like it has accelerated—not just here in Hamden, but all over the world. The pandemic years has left us all a bit disoriented, a bit out of sync with the melody of love that we thought we knew. We don’t have an actual way to know how the stresses of our lives compare to those who preceded us—and remember what we said last week about comparison being the thief of joy.

This church was born out of change. The folks who gathered at Bellamy’s Tavern to petition for a congregation to be established did so because they didn’t want to have to travel to New Haven or North Haven for services. Their primary concern was not that they would be here in four hundred years; they were taking care of their community.

As we come to the Communion Table together, we get a physical image of the unbroken line that runs back to that tavern, and even back to Philippi. We are participants in a legacy of love.

We don’t know what lies ahead. We can see where we have been, but we can’t see what is coming, which means sometimes our fear can get the best of us—we start worrying about ourselves and we loose track the melody of love. So Paul reminds us,

What I’m getting at, friends, is that you should simply keep on doing what you’ve done from the beginning.

One of the ways we can hear his words—Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.—is to not let self-preservation become the primary focus of our being together.

The point of life together in Christ is being together.

Today we mark World Communion Sunday. It is not an old celebration. It began in 1933 at a Presbyterian Church in Pittsburg. A minister named Hugh Kerr came up with the idea as a way to promote Christian unity. It didn’t really catch on until after World War II when we began to realize how capable we are of killing ourselves with conflict.

The name is aspirational. Not all denominations participate, so—on World Communion Sunday—a good part of the world is not joining in. And a whole bunch of people are—that’s the story worth telling. All across the globe people are sharing in this meal and reminding one another to keep doing what we have done from the beginning, which is to love one another. Come, let us go to the Table.


the scandal of generosity


The parable at the heart of my sermon this week is one that has been read a number of different ways. Here’s how it hit me this week.


Many years ago, I was on a Southwest flight from Dallas to Houston. It was back before the TSA required us to run a gauntlet of security to be able to board. In fact, in those days, Southwest had a cash register at every gate; you walked up, handed the gate agent your money, and got on the plane. The route was so popular, they had hourly flights that went back and forth between the two cities, and they had many regular customers.

I was on a flight one evening where the flight attendant stood up to give the speech that hasn’t changed since Orville and Wilbur Wright took to the air—you know the one about how to fasten your seatbelt and what to do if an oxygen mask drops down. The flight attendant said the first few words and then interrupted herself.

“How many of you have been on this flight before?” she asked, and most of us raised our hands. “How many of you know the speech?” We all raised our hands. “Good. Just say it over in your head and pretend I did it.” And she sat down.

She comes to mind because I feel like almost every time I begin a sermon where I have to start by reminding us that we are dropping into the middle of the story. None of the excerpts the lectionary designates is as free-standing as it may seem. So, though most of you have been on this flight before, and yet it is a reminder worth repeating.

The parable we read this morning is a part of a conversation—well, a sequence of events—that goes back two chapters, when the disciples asked, “Who is the greatest in the God’s realm?” Jesus began by picking up a child and saying, “You need to look at life like this little one to really get what God is doing,” and then he went on to talk about how we reconcile with and forgive one another—the passage we looked at last week. Then, after Jesus played with some more children, a person who is traditionally named “The Rich Young Ruler” came and asked what it took to have eternal life. The man asked mostly to have his assumption verified that following the letter of the Law was fine. Instead, Jesus told him he needed to give his wealth away. All of it.

Matthew said the young man walked away because he was too rich. Jesus then reminded the disciples that things get turned upside down in God’s economy: the first will be last. And then he told the parable we read this morning—and it has a lot of moving parts.

When Jesus began a parable with “the kingdom (or community) of God is like . . . ,” he wasn’t necessarily assigning the lead role to God; parables are not allegories. He was saying, “This is how God’s economy works,” or, “This is how God created us to live together.” That means we have lots of ways to find ourselves in the story. We can put ourselves in the place of the farmer or the day laborers, or we can stand outside of the whole thing and try to take it all in.

My mind’s eye took me to the corner of the market where these folks had gathered in hopes of finding work for the day. In most cities, there are those places where people hang out—maybe in front of a convenience store or near a construction site—hoping someone will drive up and offer them work. It’s a hard place to stand because it is a place with few options. You are at the mercy of your circumstance. You have to wait for life to happen to you.

When the farmer showed up the first time, early in the morning, he chose a handful of folks and offered them a silver coin for a day’s work. A fair wage. At that point, they didn’t say anything about the others who were left behind. They had work, which meant they would have money, which meant they could survive another day.

We don’t know if they were aware that the farmer went back four more times—at nine, at noon, at three, and right at five o’clock—to get more workers. We know that the last two times the farmer wasn’t specific about the wage, he just said he would be fair. No one in any of the groups hesitated.

When it came time to get paid, the farmer started with those who had barely broken a sweat, and he gave each of them a silver coin. Then he went on to hand out coins to everyone who had agreed to work his fields that day. When the ones who had been there since sunrise protested, the farmer said, “Are you jealous because I’m generous?”

What a great question. And it is not answered. Jesus ended the story there. He made the disciples imagine how the workers responded, and then he said—again—“Many who are last will be first, and the first will be last,” words full of grace and hope unless you were one of those who was counting on being first, which describes the disciples. No sooner had Jesus finished the parable than James’ and John’s mother came to him and said, “Please tell me my boys will sit on either side of you when you rise to power.”

Though Matthew doesn’t make mention of it, I picture Jesus doing a face palm at that point.

Why is generosity controversial?

Why is it difficult for us to see others benefit, even when it is not at our expense? The joy of this parable—and the joy of God’s economy—is the farmer’s generosity. Had the farmer not come by to begin with, everyone would have stood on the corner all day for nothing. Instead, everyone worked, and everyone got a fair wage for the day. It wasn’t a competition, or even a comparison.

I also love that the farmer is so straightforward about it. He is transparent in his payment. He beings by paying those who started last so everyone else would see what they earned. As far as he was concerned, they were all worthy of the wage they received. It wasn’t about timecards; it was about showing up.

The only ones who complained were the ones who clocked in first.

Teddy Roosevelt is credited with saying, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Whether or not the words came from his mouth, they are still good words—and comparison steals more than joy, I think. It steals our ability to be content, as well as some of our compassion because it leads us to believe others are getting what is rightfully ours.

The ones who were first on the job were content with what they were earning until they saw what others were making. The farmer didn’t take money away from them to pay those who were hired later. The ones who went first were not penalized in any way. They made a fair wage for their labor, but they couldn’t see what they had for worrying that others had it as well.

When the mother of James and John showed up and asked Jesus if her boys could sit on either side of him when he became king, the other disciples got bent out of shape about who was going to sit where. They completely missed the point of the parable, so Jesus tried again:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great—whoever wants to be first—must become a servant. That’s what I came to do: not to be served, but to serve.”

I wonder if the truth Jesus spoke is any easier for us to hear?

We live in a culture driven by statistics and competition. We are constantly measured against one another. Christ calls us to choose a different way of being together. Christ calls us to celebrate rather than compare, add seats to the table rather than jockey for position. God’s love is not pie; we are not going to get any less of it because God loves someone else. Let us celebrate all the ways in which the love of God sustains every last one of us—without comparison.

We are at our best when we live in gratitude together. Amen.


treat them gently


If I were to catalog all my sermons, I imagine I would find I mostly preach from the Gospels. I am fascinated by the words and actions of Jesus. I also love the stories. The letters grew out of specific situations in churches across the Mediterranean world, but most of those stories sit in the background. This week, however, the passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans read like it came in Saturday’s mail.


One of the things we often overlook is that Jesus didn’t leave a master plan for how the Church should grow and expand. He sent his disciples out into the surrounding villages a few times, but they didn’t have to follow best practices, or submit monthly progress reports, or meet yearly quotas.

After Jesus was no longer with them, his followers began to scatter, and they took their faith with them. The better part of the New Testament is made up of letters to churches all over the Mediterranean world, and as a result newcomers began to ask questions or to do things that had not been dealt with before. When the churches were still in Palestine, the members were people who had been born and raised as Jews. Jesus was Jewish, as were all of the disciples. Christianity, as we know it, didn’t exist. The churches in places like Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus began with Jewish followers of Christ and then began to attract people who had never heard of Judaism, much less followed its teachings, yet they wanted to follow Christ.

No one had planned for that, but they had to figure out how to deal with it—and food was a big part of the problem. The Jewish folks kept kosher, which meant they avoided much of the meat that those who were not Jewish enjoyed regularly. Because the general society outside of Palestine was polytheistic, much of the meat that was available had been blessed before gods of other religions, so many devout folks thought they shouldn’t eat it. The church in Rome divided into two camps over what was on the menu. Before too long, every potluck dinner was a standoff.

It makes me think of an old Bill Murray movie, What About Bob?, where Murray plays the role of Bob Wiley, a mentally unstable person, who goes to see a new psychiatrist who asks him about his divorce. Bob says, “Well, there are two kinds of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

The doctor says, “So let me get this straight—your marriage ended because she didn’t like Neil Diamond?”

Paul wrote to the church in Rome with the same kind of tone: “So let me get this straight—your church is struggling because some of you eat meat?” Then he said,

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.

Treat them gently.

One aspect of gentleness is something we talk about a lot, and that is compassion. “Be kind because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” is a saying that goes back hundreds of years and still holds up. Even Paul echoes it: Remember, they have their own history to deal with.

Another aspect of gentleness that Paul speaks to is humility—the reality that we are not always right, and, even if we are, we are not in a position to judge others by our standards. As Anne Lamott says, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” I feel like I’m pretty smart and have a thoughtful way of looking at life and faith, and I am quite sure it never crosses God’s mind to think, “What would Milton do?”

Both sides of the food fight were convinced they were right, and they were dug in. When Paul responded, he didn’t even discuss who was right and who was wrong. He didn’t weigh the merits of both sides or compel them to agree to disagree. He told them to stop judging and despising each other, and to risk seeing each other as more than the opposition; we are siblings in Christ. In life and in death, both individually and together, we belong to God. All of us. God welcomes even those with whom we disagree.

Our life together in Christ is more profound than an affinity group where like-minded people gather to shore one another up. We are called to be here to do the crucial and challenging work of learning how to live together, learning to love one another as Christ loves us, which means, yes, that everyone is welcome, and it also means that we are willing to do more than step around the issues so that life goes smoothly. Creating a space where everyone feels like they belong means creating a space that is both comforting and confrontive.

Theologian Craig Kocher writes,

The world will not know us by our perfect harmony; it will know us by our love. By mimicking God’s choosing to be with us in Christ in the way that we choose to remain with others in the body, we become church and model the unity of the gospel.

Paul says that all of us will one day stand before the throne of grace, and on that day the questions will not be: Was your theology perfect? Did you point out the sins of others? Did you win the debate? Did you get the practices exactly right? Instead God will ask us: Did you love? Did you forgive? Did you encourage? Did you build up the Body of Christ? Did you help others become holy? Did you help others serve God?

I haven’t been able to think about this passage without also thinking about the reality that we are a little over a year away from another presidential election and we are about to be inundated—no, lambasted—with all kinds of media that only know how to divide us into red and blue, and that work hard to make our differences feel intractable. The din of division is deafening. Intentionally.

Through it all, we are going to gather here, week after week, as people who have committed to life together, and, also, as people whose opinions fall across the continuum of political thought. We are going to cancel out each other’s votes. Some of us will be elated when others are devasted by the results. In between now and then, we will face a variety of instances when we have the choice to risk and deepen our relationships or to keep each other at arm’s length.

When I say risk, I don’t mean argue. I’m not trying to turn coffee hour into a reflection of the news of the week. The point of asking each other’s opinion is not so we can correct it, or so we can answer in a way that lets us feel like we won something. The point is to share what is at stake beyond the headlines—why something matters on a personal level—and to listen for ways to better understand each other.

I will risk an example of what I am talking about. I have two godchildren who are gay. Our former foster daughter is as well, as are several loved ones I consider chosen family. When our goddaughter got married, none of her fiancée’s immediate family even acknowledged the wedding, much less attended. I danced the father-daughter dance with her, and I felt both honored and heartbroken. To talk about being “open and affirming” is not a theoretical or even theological exercise for me. It’s not a political issue. I want the people I love to know they would belong here. I want anyone who walks through that door to feel like they belong.

I also know you have stories to tell about what that phrase means to you. Whatever signs we hang outside, we have to learn to talk to one another, to trust one another. To treat each other gently.

Listen again to Paul’s words, and this time as though he was writing not to the church in Rome, but to us here in Hamden.

Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.

Treat them gently. Amen.


in this mess, together


I love reading things for the second or third time for several reasons, one of which is that I see new things. The words on the page don’t change, but I do, in both big and small ways. I was reminded of that this week as I read, for the more than third time, Jesus words about two or three being gathered together and saw something I had not seen before that was worth preaching about.


Last week, we looked at the questions Moses asked of God when he was confronted with the burning bush and God’s subsequent call to go back to Egypt to free the Hebrew people. “Who am I?” Moses asked first, wondering why he was chosen, and then, “Who are you?” or “Who will I say sent me?” wondering how on earth God could pull off such a feat.

Though the excerpt we read from Matthew 18 doesn’t include it, the whole conversation from which it came began with a question—this time from the disciples: “Who is really greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?”

Jesus’ followers always seemed to be jockeying for position, even as he was talking about compassion rather than control. Jesus saw a child nearby and called them to come over. Then he turned to his disciples and said, “You won’t even understand what God is up to until you look at the world the way a child does.”

Not long after that—and immediately before the words we read—Jesus told the parable of the shepherd who leaves ninety-nine of his sheep to go back out into the pasture at nightfall to find the one who was lost.

And then he started talking about forgiveness, not as a one-and-done kind of act, but as a relational process that takes place in the context of community. I think it matters to have the parable in mind because it calls us to remember that the point is to work towards belonging, not to see how quickly we can push someone away.

We talked about forgiveness several weeks back when we were looking at the Lord’s Prayer, and since I know all of you remember everything in my sermons (that’s a joke), I won’t repeat all of that. This morning let’s look at the process Jesus described, and what that has to do with how we learn to live out our love for one another.

Jesus said, if someone hurts you, try first to work it out between you. If that works, you have deepened your relationship with your honesty. If it doesn’t, take a couple of others with you and try again. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, tell the congregation—bring it before everyone. If that doesn’t work, circle back and try again.

Then he said, “And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I’ll be there.”

That last sentence has stayed with me all week.

As far back as I can remember, I have always heard that verse used as a way to talk about the significance of community, particularly when not as many folks show up for something as had been hoped. “Well, where two or three are gathered . . .”

But Jesus said it as a part of talking about how we deal with conflict. What he described is hard to do. For many, talking frankly about being hurt to the one who hurt us doesn’t come easy, much less being willing to pursue reconciliation by involving others in the story. Yet Jesus said that is exactly the place where God shows up. God is in the middle of the messy stuff. The conflict is difficult, yes, and it is part of life. God doesn’t shy away from that, Jesus said, and neither should we.

Jesus knew not every issue would be resolved by going through the process he described. In fact, when Jesus finished talking, Peter asked if seven was a good number as far as how many times to forgive someone and Jesus said it was more like seventy times seven. He didn’t mean we should live like doormats, or that it was God’s will for us to live in abusive or dehumanizing situations. The power of community in those situations is to help those who are being abused know they are not alone and they are not trapped, even as we remember that forgiveness and trust are not the same thing.

Forgiving someone four hundred and ninety times is a way of saying, “This is what life is. When you trust one another and speak the truth in love, I’m right there in the middle of it.”

On its own, four hundred and ninety sounds like a big number. When I think about thirty-three years of marriage, I am quite sure Ginger has blown past that number in forgiving me, much like the depth and length of many of the relationships in this room. The way to live together is to trust that God is as real in the messy stuff as in the good times.

Jesus wasn’t talking about keeping score. Peter was the one looking for limits; Jesus was talking about what it takes to live together, how we develop a lifestyle of grace and compassion. Life is a bit like a roundabout where we keep circling the same road, with the same travelers. The tone with which we say, “It’s you again” makes all the difference in the world. We can say it with the resignation of George Costanza’s dad in the “Festivus” episode of Seinfeld who invited everyone to the Airing of Grievances and said, “Now I am going to go around the room and tell each of you how you have personally disappointed me,” or we can say it with the exuberance of Loretta, our Schnauzer mix, who stands on her back legs and dances every time we come in the house.

Relationships are the fabric of life. We are all we’ve got. If we are not willing to do the good and difficult work of being honest with and trusting of one another, we cannot grow in love for one another. I don’t mean we begin our conversations at coffee hour with, “And another thing . . .” I mean we live together like the thing that matters most is to live together.

And so together we move to the Table where we embody our life together as we pass the bread and the cup and re-member ourselves—put ourselves back together—in Jesus’ name. Amen.


little fires


This week’s passage was the story of Moses and the burning bush, which set me thinking about the little fires that ought to catch our attention.


Reading the account of Moses’ life as it is told in the first three chapters of the Book of Exodus reminded me of a Peanuts cartoon where Linus goes to his sister Lucy and implores her to read a book to him. She refuses not once, but twice, and then, after he says, “Pleeeeez!” she acts as if she is reading and says, “A man was born . . . he lived, and he died. The end!”

As she storms off, Linus says, “What a fascinating account. It almost makes you wish you had known the fellow.”

Our story might be a little longer than the eight panels of a Peanuts cartoon, however, the writer of Exodus moves quickly from Moses’ birth, to Miriam, his mother, saving his life by hiding him in a basket in plain sight so he would be taken and raised in the Egyptian court, and then, as a grown man, having to flee the court because he killed an Egyptian who was abusing an enslaved Hebrew man. The story moves quickly. Moses fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, which is part of Saudi Arabia—about 300 miles away—where he found work, and then found a woman who became his wife. They had children. Moses became a shepherd for his father-in-law, Laban. The Pharoah from whom Moses had fled finally died. The Hebrew people remained in slavery.

We have no real measure of how much time all of that took, other than a lot more must of have happened to Moses than the two or three things that are written down here. We, like Linus, almost wish we could have known the fellow.

As I read through the story this week, I became more aware of how far away Moses was from Egypt—the land where he was born and raised—than I had been before. When Moses fled, he ran (or walked) a long way. He didn’t go to Canaan, where his ancestors had settled. He crossed the Sinai Peninsula and ended up in Midian. He put a great deal of distance between his old life and himself. He does not appear to have spent much time thinking about the plight of those he left behind.

And then, one afternoon, he came upon a bush, there at the edge of the desert, that was burning but not burning up, and it caught his attention. As he tried to figure out what was going on, God spoke to him from the flames and called him by name. When Moses answered, God told him to take off his shoes as a sign of reverence. Then God started talking about the plight of the Hebrew people and how God was going to send Moses to lead their liberation.

Moses responded with the first of two questions: “Who am I to go and do that?”—another way of saying, “What’s that got to do with me?” or “Who am I?”

God answered with the promise of presence, to which Moses responded with his second question: “What do I say if they ask what your name is?”—another way of saying, “Who are you?”

The reply makes God sound a little like the old cartoon some may remember, Popeye the Sailor Man: “I am who I am,” but then God expands the answer:

“Go and get Israel’s elders together and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me and said, “I’ve been paying close attention to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I’ve decided to take you away from the harassment in Egypt to the land of the Canaanites . . . a land full of milk and honey.”’

Did you hear it? God said, “Tell them, ‘I’ve been paying close attention to you . . .’”

God caught Moses’ attention with the burning bush in order to call him to pay attention to those whom he had forgotten. Moses had fled Egypt in fear for his life, and then, over time, the distance of miles and years turned the fear into indifference. He wasn’t consciously working to avoid those whom he had left in Egypt, he had just gotten used to not thinking of them.

God broke into his consciousness with the burning bush and then redirected his attention.

The Elizabeth Barrett Browning quote on the cover of our order of service fits well right here:

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

It is tempting to hear her words and assume we are among the shoeless rather than the clueless, but perhaps this is a moment when we need to pay attention to what is burning in our hearts. Who needs our attention? Who are we passing by?

One of the newsletters that I read regularly is called The Art of Noticing. It is written by a man named Rob Walker. Each issue talks about ways to notice life around us, to pay attention. In one of his articles he said, “Pay attention to what you care about, and care about what you pay attention to.”

I had to sit with the circularity of that one for a minute—“Pay attention to what you care about, and care about what you pay attention to.”—but then he pointed to a friend’s writing that expanded on the idea: we don’t pay attention (or care) for people because we love them, we love them because we pay attention to them.”

Attention leads to love, not the other way around.

We have to pay attention if we want to see all the little fires that burn with the presence of God; otherwise, we will just continue living our busy lives. The burning bushes in our lives may not call us to something as monumental as leading the Hebrew people out of slavery, but they will lead us to love.

Earth is crammed full of the presence of God, whether we are standing in our gardens, or surrounded by loved ones, or in line at the DMV. Every face that looks back at us in coffee shops and grocery lines is filled with the image of God. Should we choose to notice—to pay attention—we give ourselves the chance to love someone. Ginger and I were talking about this idea and she recalled something that happened to me in Harvard Square one day.

I passed a man who was sitting on the sidewalk holding a paper cup. He asked for some change. I was going into the coffee shop behind him, so I said, “I’d be happy to get you a coffee and a muffin.”

He paused for a moment and said, “A Coke and a brownie?”

I thought, “Why not? Ginger would want the same thing,” and told him I would be back. When I got inside the coffee shop, the brownies looked amazing, so I got two. When I gave him his food, I sat down next to him on the curb and we shared our meal.

It’s a good story. I wish I had more like that—and not only about strangers, but also of people I know well. It’s worth asking ourselves how well do we attend to those nearest to us: family, friends, people at coffee hour, people at work? If paying attention grows our love for others, what are we doing to deepen our love for one another?

How are we as a church paying attention to our neighbors? What is happening around us that we are seeing? What are we missing? How can we pay better attention so that we have a chance to learn to love those nearby?

Hamden is crammed full of heaven, every corner ablaze with the glory of God. May we be those who pay attention to the sacredness all around us. Amen.


good question


As I started to post my sermon from this past Sunday, I realized I had not yet posted the one from the week before. The passage is from Matthew 16—a conversation between Jesus and his followers about who they thought he was, which was a fair question, and one we still wrestle with.


When Ginger and I first moved to Boston, I worked at the Blockbuster Video in Charlestown, where we lived. It wasn’t the most exciting job in the world, but I had a chance to talk to people about movies and I enjoyed that. Over time, I came to know some customers that would ask me for recommendations other than what was brand new. I liked being the Movie Guy.

One evening, I approached a customer who had been wandering around the store and asked if I could help her find anything. She seemed a bit taken aback and said, “Oh—no, thanks. I don’t usually talk to the help in places like this.”

I thought I was the Movie Guy, but she thought I was the help.

I had a small existential identity crisis right there in the Drama aisle. I knew I was not who she thought I was, but I had no idea how to communicate it.

I thought about that experience as I read about Jesus asking the disciples who other people thought he was. By the time this conversation took place, Jesus and his disciples had traveled about Galilee and Judea a good bit. He had preached to large crowds (and fed them), healed people of their diseases, listened to people’s stories, endured the seemingly constant badgering of some of the religious fundamentalists, and persisted with followers he had chosen, but who didn’t always seem to understand what he was trying to do.

I don’t think Jesus was having the same kind of existential crisis that I had in the aisles of Blockbuster, but one day, in the middle of it all, he asked the disciples who other people thought he was.

“Who do people say that I am?”

They said, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” People knew Jesus had some sort of spiritual power and presence, and they described him using the stories they knew. They weren’t with Jesus every day. They had heard him speak a few times, or perhaps they had seen him heal people and reach out to love those who were deemed unlovable. Who else would do that but a prophet?

In Matthew’s telling, Jesus answered their reply with a more personal question: “And what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus wasn’t testing their doctrinal orthodoxy, and I don’t imagine was he looking for some kind of personal validation; he was asking for a relational question. He wanted to catch a glimpse of how they understood who he was and what he was doing. It was a question of profound vulnerability.

I remember a pastor friend telling me that he asked his young son one day what he thought his dad did at work. “You talk on the phone and go to lunch a lot,” the boy answered.

For Jesus to ask, “Who do you say that I am?” was a risk—and a way of starting a conversation. “Who, exactly, do you think you are following?” might be another way of saying it, or “Why do you trust me enough to commit to this relationship?”

The question was less about certainty and more about possibility—about imagination.

Peter was the one who piped up: “You are the Christ (the Messiah, the Anointed One), the Son of God.”

And Jesus said, “That is the kind of trust on which I will build my church.” Then, as he often did, he began to talk about difficulty, and even about the reality that the life he had chosen was going to get him killed.

(Our lectionary divides the reading between this week and next, so we don’t get the full force of the encounter, so I think it is helpful to look at the whole scene.)

Peter’s image of what it meant to be the Anointed One didn’t have room for suffering. When he called Jesus the Messiah, he must have had a triumphant savior because when Jesus talked about being killed for who he was, Peter was emphatic: “God forbid. We won’t let that happen to you!” And then, just five verses after Jesus had called Peter a rock worthy of a foundation, he looked at him and said, “Get behind me, Satan,” which probably felt a little harsh to Peter—and they were the same words Jesus said when he was tempted in the desert and enticed to forsake his calling so he could be safe and comfortable. And Jesus had more to say:

“All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me. All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will find them.”

The conversation had taken quite a turn. As I said, Jesus’ question was less about certainty and more about possibility—about imagination.

So let’s do some imagining of our own: Who do we say Jesus is?

What we think about Jesus is a crucial question that goes beyond doctrine. Who we think Jesus is and who we think we are in relation to him shapes the way we live our lives. It is at the heart of what we mean when we say we choose relationship over doctrine. Both our sign and our stationery say we are “a United Church of Christ.” What do we imagine those words to mean in the way we live out our lives together?

Choosing relationship, whether with God or with one another, means choosing vulnerability. It means choosing to live with what we can’t control. It means choosing the pain of love over the comfort of certainty. And it means trusting one another enough to answer the question of who we think we are, not just once, but over and over as the circumstances of life invite us to deepen our connections in Christ.

If we were to go around the room this morning and each answer who we think Jesus is, we would have a variety of responses. We would learn a lot about each other, as well as a lot about Jesus, I think. And maybe, like Peter, we would get a better sense of what is at stake in our image of Christ and the way that shapes how we see ourselves.

I hope those are conversations we have at coffee hour and other gatherings. I hope we will risk talking to one another about Jesus, not as a matter of intellectual understanding but as people sharing their faith with one another. We need to risk the conversations to be better able to combine our head faith and our heart faith.

In two weeks, I am a part of a panel at the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, which is in Woodbridge. An imam, a rabbi, and I have been invited—I know that sounds like the opening to a joke, but it’s a really cool event—we’ve been asked to talk about what is most important to our faiths, and I’m pretty sure all of us are going to point to some version of “Love God with all of who you are and love your neighbor as yourself.” Christianity doesn’t have a corner on compassion or kindness, but our call to love the world comes from Christ. Jesus walked the earth as Love Incarnate, as God’s Anointed One, but instead of seeing that as something to lord over people, he loved them and included them and cared for them and changed them.

How have we been changed by Jesus? Why are we here? Who do we say that Jesus is?

Let us continue to answer those questions out loud, together. Amen.


repeat after me . . .


I concluded my series on the Lord’s Prayer this past Sunday with a look at why we repeat ourselves in worship. We have more than one reason, I suppose, but the ongoing challenge is to maintain our intentionality: to repeat as a matter of meaning and not a matter of convenience.


During the first three or four summers after we graduated, many of my college friends got married. Because I was the one in our group who was in seminary and also pastoring a small church—which meant I was ordained—I didn’t just attend those weddings, I officiated them.

Baylor University is a Baptist school, as were most of my friends, and I grew up Baptist, but one couple got married at a United Methodist Church in Austin, Texas. The church sent me a booklet of rules for weddings in their sanctuary. One of the stipulations was that the Lord’s Prayer had to be included in the service. Baptist worship did not include saying the prayer each week, though I had memorized it as a child and thought I knew it well. I made a note in the margin of my ceremony to add it to the end of a prayer, much like we do in our worship.

The congregation responded on cue, and we dove into the prayer, but after I said, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” I couldn’t remember what came next. I had a total blank. Instead of just keeping my mouth shut and letting everyone else carry the moment, I said the next line that came to mind, which was about trespasses instead of bread. I was on a microphone, so everyone heard my mistake, and it threw them off. The prayer ground to a halt. All I knew to do was cut my losses and go straight to, “And thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory.”

There was noticeable laughter after we said, “Amen.” At the end of the service, I told folks to go on to the reception so the wedding party could take pictures and practice the prayer.

I couldn’t remember the words, in part, because I didn’t have a good reason to be repeating them, other than to follow the custom of the church where we were. I wasn’t paying attention to the ritual; I thought repeating it would be enough, but it was not.

Ritual is intentional and (hopefully) meaningful repetition, a way of opening our hearts to God’s Spirit and to one another, but repeating ourselves is not always meaningful—and that goes for life beyond worship.

Repetition is one of the ways we learn, though as my opening story shows, it takes more than mere repetition to make something stick. Sometimes we do things a certain way over and over as a superstition, like baseball players do when they come up to bat. Some actors have specific routines they must do before a performance to calm their nerves. We cultivate habits, which is another word for repetition, to make sure we get things done, or perhaps just out of convenience, or even so we don’t have to think about what we are doing.

Practice is another word for repetition. We practice instruments, techniques in any number of fields. We talk about spiritual practice, which is designed to create focus and understanding.

All of these matter because they help us find our place. Our rituals, habits, and practices ground us, remind us who we are, and embody our way of looking at and belonging to the world that surrounds us. When they are alive to us and we are attending to them, our repetitions can open our hearts, animate our memories, and help us be more fully engaged with life. They can also be perfunctory, where we repeat things so we don’t have to think about them or pay attention. They become a way of getting by.

Neither of those perspectives are set in stone. We have to work to keep our repetition meaningful, whether we are in worship or out in the world.

There is good evidence that the early Christians were praying some version of what we call the Lord’s Prayer consistently in worship going back to the end of the first century, perhaps even before the gospels were written down. But, as we have talked discussed, Matthew and Luke recorded different versions, and the English translations are also varied. Perhaps what matters about praying the prayer together is that we are really praying it and not just reciting something word for word. When we use different translations we are still repeating what has been handed down, but we are also reinvigorating the words so that they are alive in us and not just filling our minimum weekly requirement.

Let me explain it another way—and this story will carry over into coffee hour. You will have a chance to taste what I am about to describe.

Soon after my parents married, my father took my mother to meet his grandmother, whom they called Ma. One of the reasons for the visit was for my mother to get Ma’s recipe for strawberry shortcake—and she did, though Ma’s instructions were not exact. She said things like, “Pour in two glubs of oil.” When my mother asked what a glub was, Ma said, “You turn up the bottle and it goes glub, glub.”

My mom took the information and figured out specific measurements so she could make the shortcakes, and they became one of our family rituals. I have lots of stories about strawberry shortcakes, lots of memories.

When I moved out of my parents’ house, I asked for the recipe. When Ginger and I married, it became one of our ritual meals as well, particularly on July Fourth. For a long time, I made them just as my mother had, but then I started to play around with them. I added fresh basil to the shortcake dough and soaked the strawberries in balsamic vinegar and a little brown sugar. I still feel like I am making my great-grandmother’s shortcakes, but my connection is not that I do it exactly as she did.

My baking is rooted in Ma and my mother, and those roots have grown deeper as I have acquired new ways of performing the ritual. When I share the recipe, which I have done many times, I don’t include a demand that anyone does it exactly like I do. I hope it feeds new practices for them as well.

Our habits, rituals, and practices help to give us a sense of place in the world. The word liturgy means “the work of the people.” It helps us all to have some sense of what to expect when we come to worship, and true worship asks more of us than saying the same things over and over. Rather than making perfect, practice makes people: our intentionality changes us and helps us to grow. It connects us. It gives us fresh eyes and open hearts.

That is why we change things from time to time in our order of service. You may have noticed that our doxology has changed from season to season. Our ritual of praising God (which is what doxology means) as we make our offering is one that calls us to gratitude, but God does not require that we sing the same song each time.

Over the summer, we have prayed different versions of the Lord’s Prayer to give us a chance to hear the ideas in different ways, and also to actually pray the prayer instead of merely reciting it. Though we will not change it every week, we will continue to pray different versions to help us draw closer to God.

I also hope we can develop a ritual (or a habit or a practice) of talking about what is meaningful in worship and what has grown stale. I would love to hear how you would adjust our worship recipe to give us a fresh taste of the Spirit of God. Amen.


lost in wonder . . .


Though the final phrase of the Lord’s Prayer isn’t in the oldest manuscripts, and when it is the words only show up in Matthew’s version, it has been part of the prayer that gets repeated so often for centuries, even millennia, which makes it worth considering. Here’s the sermon from this week.


We have been together long enough that we have begun to form patterns, ways of being. One of those is that Aren and I try to work at least a week ahead on shaping the order of service so that he doesn’t feel rushed with his limited time in the office. One of the implications of that is I choose scripture well ahead of preparing my sermon. Whey we are following the lectionary, it is not as big a deal, but with our series this summer I have tried to pick companion passages and sometimes they don’t match up quite the way I had imagined when I get to my sermon.

That is the long way of saying the scripture printed for this morning is not the one I am going to read, though the verses from Jude are good words. Instead, I want to read from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. The verses—chapter 2:5-11—were not original to Paul. He was quoting a hymn that everyone knew; he might have even sung it had he been there in person—and assuming he could sing. As we contemplate the last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer (For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever), listen first to these words:

Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus: Though he was in the form of God, he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit. But he emptied himself by taking the form of a servant and by becoming human. When he found himself in the form of a human, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Therefore, God highly honored him and gave him a name above all names, so that at the name of Jesus everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God.

May God grant us wisdom and understanding of this passage.

Ginger and I had occasion to drive to Rhode Island last week and as we returned, we passed the sign that welcomed us back to Connecticut. Across the bottom of the sign was written “Ned Lamont, Governor.” Governor Lamont is following a long-standing tradition that happens in most every state, I suppose, of putting your name on every sign you can so that people don’t forget who holds the highest office in the state.

I have often wondered how much money it takes to change the names on all the signs when a new governor is elected. I also imagine that on some back road somewhere is a sign that still has Lowell Weiker or John Rowland’s name across the bottom even though they are long gone from office.

It feels like a lot of work just to make sure we don’t forget who holds the highest office in the state. It’s a small example of the reality that most people in power generally do what they need to do to stay in power. That reality makes it difficult for us to get to the heart of the closing line of the prayer because it contains the words kingdom, power, and glory and most of the images that come to mind when we hear those words aren’t necessarily what we are praying for, or they skew our image of who God is.

Jesus was born on the edge of the Roman Empire. Palestine was an occupied land with layers of power an oppression. The God of the Jews was a threat to the emperor, who saw himself as a deity. Jesus’ gospel took it even further. The gospel writers underline his ability to disquiet those around him by saying “he spoke with authority” in contrast to the brazen political power that was doing so much damage. The emperor and his henchmen put their name on everything, even stuff that didn’t belong to them.

To say, “Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory” was doing more than ending the prayer with compliments for God. It was turning the world upside down. If you look in your worship guide at the version of the prayer we are praying this morning that is written by Manny Santiago, you will see a different phrasing that offers a different image of God’s realm. Look with me.

For ours are the eternal blessings that you pour upon the earth.

How can kingdoms and power be about blessings?

I’m glad I asked. Let’s tske a look at each of the words.

Thanks to everything from Game of Thrones to the Chronicles of Narnia to several centuries of European history, we tend to think, of kingdoms in terms of military power and conquest, but the oldest roots of the word are connected to kin, which carries a sense of family, of connectedness.

The Aramaic roots of the word carry a planting image: a field fertile and abundant, one sufficient to produce everything. A kingdom was about more than conquest; it was about providing a place to nurture those who lived in community.

The Greek word for power is the root of our word dynamic, which implies movement, energy, and change. The Aramaic word refers to the life force or energy that produces and sustains. It is relational power—the energy, the Spirit that holds everything together—rather than unilateral domination. Though we may not always name it as power, we know it in our lives.

When I try to picture this kind of power, the first person who comes to mind is Rosa Parks, who demonstrated relational power when she sat down on the bus, not just because of her courage but because she did not act on her own. She held her seat empowered by those who had planned with her and who were ready to implement the Montgomery Bus Boycott that changed not just that city but our country.

It’s also the kind of power we demonstrate when we show up for each other in times of difficulty and tragedy. It doesn’t mean everything always turns out the way we want, but it means we stick together. We hold each other up.

In the passage we read from Philippians, Paul said that Jesus sense of power was such that “he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.” Instead, he poured himself into others, into relationships. He lived the power of love.

As we talk about glory, I wish I had a big screen that could show pictures from the James Webb Telescope, because it is a cosmic word and, according to theologian Neil Douglas-Klotz, a musical one. The Aramaic word, he says, “may be translated as ‘glory’ but calls for more exactly the image of a “song”—a glorious harmony returning divine light and sound to matter in equilibrium. The roots of the word also present the picture of a ‘generative fire that leads to astonishment.’”

I love that phrase: the generative fire that leads to astonishment. God is the Source that feeds our sense of wonder, amazement, and imagination.

I read earlier in the summer that scientists have found that the universe as an “ambient hum.” The universe is humming. The writer of “This Is My Father’s World” had it right:

all nature sings
and round me rings
the music of the spheres.

We are invited to join in with the whole universe in a cosmic song of praise that sums up the whole prayer we have been talking about.

We have prayed that we would be reminded that God is the Center, the Source, the Priority of the Universe; that God’s dream for all of creation would be our dream; that in the economy of God all would be fed and nurtured; that forgiveness would flow freely among us; that we would be defined by our togetherness rather than by tragedy or temptation; and then these closing words sum it all up: God is the source of our growth, the heart of our relationships, and the melody of our imaginations.

Jesus’ instructions about prayer fell in the middle of what we know as the Sermon on the Mount. In his words that follow, he talked about how to live in a way that demonstrated trust in God’s power and love. As we noted, he was speaking to people living under an occupation of power and oppression. They had mostly experienced power as a closed fist; Jesus described God’s power as an outgrowth of God’s love.

“Therefore, I say to you, don’t worry about your life, what you’ll eat or what you’ll drink, or about your body, what you’ll wear. Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds in the sky. They don’t sow seed or harvest grain or gather crops into barns. Yet God feeds them. Aren’t you worth much more than they are? Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of small faith?”

Perhaps that last question might be read as, “If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it is alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown in the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of limited imagination?”

The grass withers and the flower fades, but God’s love endures forever. How long is that? When those in Palestine heard the word we translate as “forever,” they heard it as “from age to age,” or as one commentator put it, “from gathering to gathering.” Forever is kind of an abstraction, whereas “from age to age” says God’s presence and power travel with us from one place to the next, from one time to the next, putting God’s Spirit right smack in the middle of our daily existence.

This is not theoretical; this is real: God imagined all of creation into existence and has lit in our hearts the generative fire that ignites astonishment, if we are willing to let the wind of the Spirit bring us to life so that our words and actions can embody our trust that nothing can separate us from the love of God because God’s realm, God’s melody, and God’s imaginative Spirit are with us from age to age, from gathering to gathering, from day to day. Amen.





it doesn’t have to be a
sudden death shoot out for
the little things to matter

horse shoe nails go missing long
before kingdoms start falling
we miss most of the might have beens

and play on unaware of
all the almosts that roll by
disguised as incidentals

to see them all might be more
awareness than we could take
when ‘it all comes down to this’

it’s hard to remember that
life is a contagion of
circumstance and choices

you win some and you lose more
it would be nice if there were
more comfort in ‘we came close’

the best we can do is let
the world end for a moment
I mean world’s end every day

let’s take that seriously
and remember that almost
all of us will live through it


beyond ourselves


We are down to the next to last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, which is the one about temptation and evil, so easy stuff to describe. Here’s what I had to say.


When you watch a series on television, whether on a network or one of the streaming services, the episode often begins with a recap—“Previously on . . . whatever the show is—and then it goes on to the new stuff. Even though you have seen all of the other episodes, it is helpful to get a quick review to get your back in the rhythm of the story.

In that spirit, I will begin this morning with, “Previously in our series on the Lord’s Prayer,” mostly because I have learned as I have worked on these sermons that the phrases build on each other and are best understood in that relationship.

The whole prayer begins with the word “our,” which means we are praying together, that the whole thing rolls out in the context of relationships. Jesus told us to pray that we would grasp that God was the Center of Everything, and that God’s will—God’s intent that all of creation would flourish in relationship with one another—would be a reality in our world just as God dreamed it, which implies that we are willing to live our lives in such a way to help that happen—and that takes us to the next phrases about bread and forgiveness, as well as our phrases for today—”lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”—which are all how we live together.

The words are familiar and roll off our tongues, but what do we mean by temptation? What do we mean by evil? I’m not sure we would find standard definitions for either word if we had time to go around the room this morning and hear from everybody. Though I am the one doing the talking for the next several minutes, I hope the definitions I offer will lead to further discussion.

One of the things that struck me this week is that this phrase of the prayer is stated as a negative: lead us not into temptation. We are asking God not to do something. It reminded me of a sermon Ginger once preached on the Ten Commandments where she rephrased them as positive charges rather than negative ones. Instead of “You shall not kill,” for instance, she talked about how we foster life; “Don’t steal” might be better grasped if we said, “Be content with what you have,” or even, “Be generous.”

The version of the prayer from The Message that we used today says, “Keep us safe from ourselves.” That’s pretty good, for a couple of reasons. One is that God is not the one who tempts us. When we pray “lead us not” it can sound like we think God would intentionally do so and we are asking for God to change course. That’s not it. Theologian Neil Douglas-Klotz describes temptation as “a failure to look deeper when the situation calls for it.” Taking not so much the easy way out, but perhaps the less examined way. Temptation, in the context of relationships, means choosing what feels good for me without seriously considering the relational repercussions. A positive rendering of the prayer might be, “Help us to see beyond ourselves.”

We read the account of Jesus’ temptations this morning as a companion to our study. His choices revolved around food, control, and security. None of those is bad in and of themselves. In each case, the temptation was to make choices that made the world better for him regardless of what his choices meant to anyone else. I don’t think there is a way around that kind of temptation. Even though the gospel writers talk about Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted, he had to stare down those same temptations almost every day of his life. He never allowed himself the luxury of not looking deeper into the lives of those around him.

I spent several years working as a youth minister, and in that role one of my least favorite things was a lock-in. If you don’t know what that is, the name pretty much describes it: you lock everybody in one room—usually a gym or the like—for the night. I’m not sure who invented the idea, but I can tell you it sounds better than it is; it is exhausting. I was committed to not doing them.

One day a group of high school seniors came to me and asked me to plan a lock-in for New Year’s Eve. One of them summed it up: “Our options are to go to parties where everyone is drinking or to stay home. Give us another option,” which was her own way of asking to not be led into temptation and asking me to do more than take care of myself.

Our New Year’s Eve Lock-In became an annual event because I was asked to see beyond my own inconvenience and help others stay true to themselves and who they wanted to be. It also led me to be more creative. Instead of staying in one room all night, I rented a city bus that took us around town, and we spent a couple hours each at a bowling alley and a mini golf place, and then came back to the church to watch a movie and eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. I learned to love that night because it called me beyond myself and my temptation to choose rest over relationship. We had a New Year’s Lock-In every year I was there.

If temptation is a difficult word to define, it looks easy when compared to evil. It is cliché to point out that evil is live spelled backwards, but that does feed into what we have already said about the centrality of relationships. We might say evil is anything that fosters something other than life, other than relationships. At the same time, we must remember that evil and difficult are not synonyms. The circumstances of our lives can be brutal, but that doesn’t mean we are being besieged by evil. To ask to be kept at a distance from evil is asking for more than a pain-free existence.

Life is difficult. Life is painful. Life is often unpredictable. None of those things is necessarily evil. The pain caused by the gall stone that led to my emergency surgery a few months back, and even the dead gall bladder they found inside me when they operated were not evil. Nothing sinister was at work. Sometimes our bodies fail us, or they succumb to disease, but illness is not evil in and of itself.

Evil actions destroy our humanity, both for those on whom it is inflicted and those who inflict it. The Greek word translated as deliver carries the idea of being dragged out of trouble. The image I have is of being carried from a burning building by a firefighter. A rescue. That image takes me back to the stories around the Marathon Bombing in Boston where people noticed those who ran toward the blast when they heard it rather than away from the chaos so they could help others get to safety. In both examples, we need to see ourselves not only as those in need of rescue but also as those capable of carrying others out of the fray.

I like the way Neil Douglas-Klotz rephrases the lines about temptation and evil: “Don’t let us be deluded by the surface of life, but neither let us become so inward and self-absorbed that we cannot act simply and humanly at the right time.” Those words also make me think of another theologian, Mr. Rogers who told people to “look for the helpers” in times of crisis.

As I have said before, life and faith are team sports, not individual events. The temptation to get what I deserve and to do all I can to make my life easier is one we have to stare down daily. Our prayer is to be reminded that we are integral to one another, that we cannot survive without each other. Love is stronger than temptation and evil, if we are willing to look beyond the surface of life and dig down into the connections that God created from the beginning.

It is that connection that takes us to the Communion Table. When Jesus shared the bread and wine with his disciples, it was not so he could make all the tough stuff go away. He knew those who wanted him executed were going to be able to kill him. He knew that most of those around the table with him had no idea what was about to happen. Instead of running away he served his followers and talked about how much he loved them. That love—Jesus’ refusal to give in to the temptation and the evil around him—is what we celebrate as we gather today with all that wears us down in our lives alongside of all that is good.

May we be people who are not deluded by the surface of life but are committed to digging deeper in our relationships with God and with one another so those around us can find their way to love. Amen.