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same old song

5

I preached last Sunday at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, a church with which I have a long and meaningful connection, so my sermon is personal for me and for them. Even so, sometimes something that speaks to the particular also has a wider reach. Thanks to their awesome AV team, I have video as well.

My text was John 13:34-35: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

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For the first time in many years, I have preached weekly through the seasons of Lent and Eastertide. I have been a bridge pastor for a church a couple of towns up from ours on the Connecticut shoreline. We, like you, have followed the lectionary, and the timeline of the stories held together pretty well, telling stories of Jesus’ ministry, then his trial and death, then his resurrection, and then his appearances to those whom he loved and who loved him. But the last couple of weeks, the passages in the lectionary have jumped back to before the resurrection. Our text today takes us back to the night before his death, the night when both Judas and Peter betrayed Jesus, the night when he ate with his disciples and washed their feet.

When we gather for services on the night we have come to call Maundy Thursday–which is Latin for “Mandate or Commandment Thursday”–we can tap into the solemn nature of the service and the rich significance of our rituals, but what we can’t reproduce is the uncertainty of what it felt like to be in that upper room, with little more than an ominous sense that life as they had known it was over. For me it carries the same kind of power as Holy Saturday, the day between Jesus’ death and resurrection, when those who had walked with him had no real sense that Sunday would come.

I learned a term from the Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney, an Episcopal priest and Hebrew Bible Scholar at Brite Divinity School: Holy Saturday Christian. In a “pastoral letter” she wrote to her students after they had dealt with particularly violent biblical texts in one of her classes she wrote,

I am a Holy Saturday preacher. I wake in the aftermath— if I have slept—to the knowledge that the Beloved is still dead. And I take comfort in the God who is and has said I AM with you. And I rail and scream and curse at God knowing God hears and is there with me to hear. And I try to sleep one more night to see if it will be easier the next day.

And that is where the sermon ends. It is still too soon to talk about resurrection. But God-with-us sits in her chair grieving with us. Waiting with us, walking with us as we make our way through and make sense of our grief.

Maybe that is why we are going back in the story. Even in the shadow of the resurrection, we still have to make sense of our grief. Jesus’ words indicate that grief, like life and faith, is a team sport. Here I am this morning, second in line to fill a pulpit left vacant by one who loved you and talked to you and walked with you for a long time. Christ is risen. Christ is risen, indeed.

And the grief just keeps on coming.

Jesus was speaking to that reality when he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”

God gave the first ten commandments to the Hebrew people to help them learn how to live in the wilderness. In the upper room, Jesus offered his commandment to help his loved ones learn how to live in their own uncharted territory. But what makes it new? Isn’t loving one another singing the same old song?

As Ginger and I both worked on sermons this week, she came across an observation that what was new was Jesus called the disciples beyond loving our neighbors as ourselves and said, “Love one another: the people right here in the group. Be known for how you love each other. “Love one another as I have loved you,” he said, which begs what feels like a rather obvious question: how did Jesus love?

The first person that comes to mind when I think of how Jesus loved is Zacchaeus because the way Jesus loved him was to say, “Come down because I am going to your house for dinner.” Jesus let Zacchaeus be the host. Jesus was going to let him offer what he had.

Several years ago, I was at Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville, and learned that the way they began their services was to allow anyone in the congregation to offer whatever they wanted in the ten minutes that preceded the beginning of worship. The Sunday I was there, one of the men who was experiencing homelessness and came to the breakfast they offered each week had signed up to sing. Both his voice and his guitar were beaten up, and he sang with all his heart—and it was not good. The room was hushed and attentive. When he finished, there was a chorus of amens. “We had to learn to give up being perfect,” the pastor said.

The second thing I think about is how many people were changed by what seemed to be incidental contact with Jesus. Most of his ministry took place in the context of interruptions: people who stopped him, or called out to him, or just reached out to touch him because they knew he would listen.

Before the pandemic, I rode the train from Guilford, Connecticut, where Ginger and I live to New York City one day a week for in-person meetings. I work as an editor, so I was working remotely before the pandemic since I read for a living. On my walk from Grand Central Station to my office, I always stopped at a little stainless-steel trailer at the corner of Madison Ave and E. 35th Street to get a cinnamon raisin bagel.

From March 2020 until April 5 of this year, I didn’t go to New York. My first day back, I wondered if the cart would be there—and it was. When I stepped up to the window, the man in the cart smiled and said, “Cinnamon raisin bagel!”

He remembered me. To say I felt loved is not an overstatement.

But beyond that, I started to realize that I had bought bagels from him for a couple of years and had never stopped to learn about him. The next time, I said, “May I ask you name?”

“Caesar,” he said. “Tell me yours.”

A couple of days later, I asked about his cart and he told me more of his story. I had always assumed he was a poor guy at the mercy of someone who owned a bunch of carts and that he was probably overworked and underpaid. Turns out Caesar owns his cart and has been on that corner for seventeen years. And he bought if from a man who sold bagels and coffee from it for thirty years before that. “It’s good,” he said, “I have about 40,000 customers a year.” And he remembered me.

I have been changed by my incidental contact with Caesar, or perhaps I should say choosing to make the incidental intentional is what has opened my heart a bit more.

Another thing that comes to mind about the way that Jesus loved was that for him love was an end unto itself. Jesus was not recruiting to staff an organization or setting best practices for greater effectiveness; he was not trying to bump up the membership numbers for the annual report, or make sure there were enough giving units to meet the budget.

He loved those around him just because they were wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved.

When Paul wrote about love, he said

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Jesus said, “Love like that.” Choose relationship over doctrine; choose relationship over history; choose relationship over anxiety about the future, over uncertainty, over legacy, over comfort. Love one another like it’s what matters most.

When I started preparing for today, the biggest challenge was to not make the sermon about me because of how I feel about you. I have family connections to Wilshire. My grandmother was on staff here. Bruce McIver officiated at my parents’ wedding, just as George did at mine. The first retreat I did for Wilshire was for Neal Jeffries in 1982, as best I can remember, and I think this summer may be my twentieth camp. I tell people that Wilshire feels like my home church even though I have never been a member—I’ve rarely been inside the building for that matter.

I feel like I belong because one summer long ago a seventh-grade boy who had just lost his father let Ginger and I comfort him. I feel like I belong because I can’t hear the song “I Would Walk Five Hundred Miles” without seeing your faces. I feel like I belong because of Darren and what our friendship means to my life. I feel like I belong because of Collin and Ellen and Tyler and Anne and Marilu and Mindy . . . and I could spend the rest of the day naming names and telling stories because you have loved me like Jesus: you made me belong.

Keep doing that. Keep making room, keep growing and changing, keep taking care of each other; keep singing the same old song that never gets old. We are not going to last forever; Wilshire is not going to last forever; may our legacy be that we loved each other with all our beings. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

catching on

0

The reading for today is one of my favorite passages: Jesus cooking breakfast for Peter and the others who had been fishing all night. For all the times I have read and written about these verses, I saw new things, thanks to a conversation with Ginger. I hope you find some new things, too.

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When it comes to how Peter, James, and John ended up with Jesus, it all goes back to a day when they had just finished fishing and were preparing their nets for the next time out and Jesus stopped and said, “Follow me and I will teach you how to catch people.” One of the ways to read the gospels, then, might be to look at all of Jesus’. words and actions as lessons towards that end. Jesus didn’t come to establish a religion, or overthrow a government, or even create some sort of movement. He walked through the towns and villages eating with people, talking with people, listening to people, feeding them, and healing them.

Then he said, “Love everyone as I have loved you.”

How much the disciples truly grasped what Jesus was trying to say appears to be a little hit and miss. Over and over, Jesus said and did things to show that love–God’s love–is what catches people, and it is over flowingly abundant. “Look at the lilies,” he said. “They don’t worry about tomorrow. They are content to bloom today–and they only bloom three weeks a year. Be like the lilies.” When Peter asked how to feed the thousands on the hillside, Jesus took a sack lunch and showed them there was more than enough to go around. He told parables about fathers who embraced lost sons and banquets where everyone could eat. All the words and deeds pointed to the truth that the way to catch people is to let them know they were wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved–and nothing could change that.

There was enough love to go around. More than enough.

One moment they sounded like they had a sense of the extravagant love of God that included everyone, and then the next they were back to asking who among them was the most important. At times they seemed to grasp that the way God was going to change the world was through people who loved each other, and then their fear–fear of that love wasn’t enough–got the best of them. Though none of the gospel writers ever notes it, I imagine he must have shaken his head a lot.

This final scene in John’s gospel finds Peter, James, and John back in their boat; this time, Thomas and Nathaniel were with them. They had seen Jesus twice, but still nothing felt secure. They didn’t know what was going on. Peter was still carrying the guilt of his denial of even knowing Jesus. They didn’t know what to do, so they went back to what they knew: they went fishing. All night long. And they didn’t catch a thing.

They were still on the water at daybreak when Jesus called out to them. Our translation says, “Children, have you caught anything?” but the Greek word means something closer to, “Hey, boys, any luck?”

The nets were as empty as their hopes.

Jesus told them to try the right side of the boat and they pulled up almost more fish than they could handle. John says someone even counted: they caught one hundred and fifty three fish.

I have always been puzzled by that detail. They didn’t realize it was Jesus on the shore when he called out, and then Peter figured it out when they pulled the nets in, and then everyone rushed to shore to see Jesus, and somehow in all the commotion and excitement, they took time to count their catch?

Why does John want us to know about the one hundred and fifty three fish?

(Hold that thought.)

When they came ashore, Jesus told them to bring some fish, but breakfast was already cooking. Somehow, he had fish of his own. Whatever they brought from the boat was extra–sort of like the leftovers from the feeding of the five thousand. They ate together and then Jesus began asking Peter questions–well, one question three times:

Simon, do you love me?

After each time Peter said, “Yes,” Jesus said, “Feed my sheep,” or “Feed people.” Take care of them. Make sure everyone knows there is enough love to go around.

The metaphors of catching fish and feeding people were laying in the nets right in front of them. They were surrounded the fish they had just caught before being called to breakfast. In a time when there was no refrigeration or cold storage, a net full of fish meant they needed to get to market to make sure their catch got to the people who needed food. There was more than enough for today, but the fish wouldn’t keep. They needed to be eaten today and then they would go catch some more. Even the biggest catches don’t last forever, but what matters is people can eat right now.

If you want to catch people, feed them.

We can hear the word catch a couple of ways. You can catch a fish with a net or a hook, but we also use the word to say things like, “I’ll catch you if you fall.” Jesus was talking about the way you help someone, not how you hook them.

When Peter denied even knowing Jesus to the point of swearing about it, he went into free fall. When he heard the rooster crow, he wept. He had charged into the courtyard thinking he could do something, but his fear got the best of him. At breakfast on the beach, Jesus caught him. He kept Peter from falling deeper into despair and shame. On that beach, in front of his friends, Jesus gave Peter the chance to say out loud that he loved Jesus. He caught him.

Perhaps that image is so powerful to me because it reminds me of my favorite passage from the novel Catcher in the Rye. (I taught high school English, so I have read it far too many times.) Holden Caulfield, who is a troubled teenager and not particularly likeable, has a tender moment as he talks with his sister Phoebe about what he wants to do with his life, and it all swings on a line from a Robert Burns poem that has stuck with him: “If a body catch a body comin’ through the rye.” But Phoebe tells him he’s got the line wrong. The line was “if a body see a body comin’ through the rye,” not catch a body.

“I thought it was ‘If a body catch a body,’” Holden said. “Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around–nobody big, I mean–except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff–I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

Holden may have mis-remembered what Robert Burns wrote, but he seems to understand what Jesus was saying to Peter—and to us. The third and final time Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, Peter felt hurt. “Lord, you know I love you,” he said. Jesus’ words to feed others feels like he was saying, “You know what it feels like to mess up so badly you don’t think there is enough love to bring you back. But there is. I caught you. Your betrayal of me is not the last word. This is: I love you and you love me. Now go catch others who are falling and feed them full of love.”

Let us go and do likewise. Amen.

sing to me

3

Since I wrote my last post, I have been thinking about songs that would give melody to the symphony of emotions that accompany my decision to leave my job. As I said, I feel sad and hopeful and anxious and sad. I’ve gone through a lot of songs that have offered comfort and courage, but as I began to put the list together I began to realize that I had a song list of old guys writing, in one way or another, about making sense of life as it stretches out. Some of these are old favorites, even expected. All of them sound like hymns to me right now.

Our opening hymn is “Rewrite” by Paul Simon, mostly because of the overarching metaphor of the song and the lines that say, “Ohh, thank you–I had no idea that you were there.” Here are a few more of the words:

I’m workin’ on my rewrite, that’s right
Gonna change the ending
Gonna throw away my title
And toss it in the trash
Every minute after midnight
All the time I’m spending is just for
workin’ on my rewrite, that’s right
Gonna turn it into cash

I said
help me, help me
help me, help me
ohh thank you
I had no idea
that you were there

when I said
help me, help me
help me, help me
ohhh thank you
for listening to my prayer

Kris Kristofferson has written a lot of great songs, but this one is my favorite, in particular for the words of the opening verse and the gratitude to God “for the artist that you are and the man you made in me.

wide awake and feeling mortal
at this moment in the dream
that old man there in the mirror
and my shaky self-esteem

here today and gone tomorrow
that’s the way it’s got to be
with an empty blue horizon
for as far as I can see

God Almighty here I am
am I where I ought to be
I’ve begun to soon descend
like the sun into the sea
and I thank my lucky stars
from here to eternity
for the artist that you are
and the man you made of me

James Taylor was a much younger man when he wrote “Secret o’ Life,” but it takes on a new life to hear him sing it as he has aged so gracefully. And yes, it is a lovely ride.

the secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.
any fool can do it, there ain’t nothing to it.
nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill.
but since we’re on our way down,
we might as well enjoy the ride.

the secret of love is in opening up your heart.
it’s okay to feel afraid, but don’t let that stand in your way.
‘cause anyone knows that love is the only road.
and since we’re only here for a while,
might as well show some style.
give us a smile.

isn’t it a lovely ride? Sliding down, gliding down,
try not to try too hard, it’s just a lovely ride

“Some Dreams” is a song about dreams and baseball and the truth that not everything goes our way, but some things do. Steve Earle knows of what he sings.

when I was a little guy
my daddy told me “Mister,
don’t ever try to climb too high
‘cause it’s the fall that gets ya
and some dreams can never come true
they’ll never come true”

well, I heard every word he said
but I don’t guess I listened
but every time I banged my head
against the wall or system
yeah, some dreams don’t ever come true
don’t ever come true
but some dreams do

if you just hang on
and your heart is true
and your hope is strong

well, just because you’ve been around
and had your poor heart broken
that’s no excuse for lyin’ there
before the last word’s spoken
cause some dreams don’t ever come true
don’t ever come true
aw, but some dreams do

“Working Prayer” is one of Mac McAnally’s more recent songs. It is a prayer worth sharing.

I want to look back
and still keep on moving forward
whatever I lack
I want to make up for somehow
and when I get off track
I want to find a way back on it
I want to be smack
in the middle of here and now

when they lay me down
and put a marker on that ground
let some good things grow around me there
that’s my working prayer

The last two songs are the songs most of you would probably name if you were asked what songs I would choose. My favorite story about “Angel from Montgomery” by John Prine is about the time I was singing it and introduced the song by saying, “I think I identify with this song as much as any song I know.” Then I sang the first line: “I am an old woman named after my mother.”

there’s flies in the kitchen
I can hear ’em there buzzin’
and I ain’t done nothing
since I woke up today

how the hell can a person
go to work in the morning
then come home in the evening
and have nothing to say?

make me an angel that flies from Montgomery
make me a poster of an old rodeo
just give me one thing that I can hold on to
to believe in this livin’ is just a hard way to go

Our closing hymn is “The Cape” by Guy Clark. One of these days I’m going to get one.

he’s old and grey with a flour sack cape
tied all around his head
he’s still jumpin’ off the garage
will be till he’s dead
all these years the people said
he’s actin’ like a kid
he did not know he could not fly
so he did

he’s one of those who knows that life
is just a leap of faith
spread your arms and hold your breath
always trust your cape

Thanks for all of the words of kindness, compassion, and encouragement.

Peace,
Milton

choose to lose

14

“Choose your losses or lose your choices.”

About this time of the year in 1977 I was called to be the pastor of Pecan Grove Baptist Church, a small rural congregation west of Waco; between Oglesby and Mound, to be more exact. In early May of that year, I was ordained. The church celebrated its centennial soon after I started, and every pastor in their century of existence had been a rookie.

I pastored there for a little over four years. Soon after I started–it may have been after my ordination service–my dad said something that stuck with me in more situations than just church work. He said, “We both know you are not going to stay here the rest of your life, but if you want to have a meaningful ministry, you have to live like you are. Don’t start looking for what’s next. Be here like you are going to stay here.”

As someone who had moved his whole life, the idea of staying anywhere for long felt foreign. I was rootless in ways it would take years for me to understand. Still, I took his words to heart, not only at Pecan Grove, but in my time as a chaplain at Baylor Medical Center, as a teacher at Charlestown High and Winchester as well, in the various kitchens where I worked, and at the two Apple Stores.

Six years ago, when the opportunity came to work as an editor for Church Publishing, I settled in there as well. I felt like I had landed my dream job: playing with words, doing theology, and being an encourager for a living. I have had a chance to work with over fifty different authors, some on multiple books, that have offered the world important words about things that matter. I also got to hang around in midtown Manhattan once a week and go exploring at lunchtime to see what I could find within walking distance of Madison Avenue and E. 34th Street. My niece-in-law said, “It’s a movie job: you’re an editor in New York and you live in Connecticut.”

I started the job the summer before my sixtieth birthday and, as I had done in my other jobs, settled in to stay. I have imagined I would read and encourage well into my seventies, but, this time around, I am not going to get to stay as long as I thought. One June 30, about two weeks shy of my sixth anniversary, I will wrap up my time as an editor that works in New York.

Since I am now sixty-five, the verb that gets applied to my action is retire, but that word means something other than the choice I am making. I wrote a few weeks ago about words I had been offered from a friend that begin this post: “You either choose your losses or you lose your choices.” I am doing the former: choosing not to stay so I can see what might be.And it is a choice that brings mixed emotions–grief, hope, gratitude, sadness, and even as little anxiety.

The picture is one Ginger took as I was crossing the street after my interview. The publisher told me I had written the best cover letter he had ever read. I was full of hope about a new opportunity. That hope persists.

I have some ideas about what might come next. Writing more certainly tops the list, as well as hoping I can convince people to let me come speak about mixing the metaphors we use to define our lives, and then there’s always hoping I can cook for folks in some form or fashion. But for now, I am going to stay here on the edge of goodbye and make the best of these days and all that they hold.

Peace,
Milton

honest thomas

2

In some of my writing, I have talked about the ways I think Judas is treated unfairly in the gospels. None of the writers can mention him without reminding everyone that he betrayed Jesus. Thomas is the other disciple that gets misrepresented, I think, more by the generations that followed than by the gospel writers, perhaps, because he continues to be “Doubting Thomas,” and there’s so much more to the story.

Here’s what I found this week as I read about him again.

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When I was a kid, the family that lived next door to us had four boys. My brother and I fell in the middle of them age wise, so we spent a lot of time together. The youngest was name Richard, but everybody called him Chubbs. But he wasn’t fat. I think it had started when he was little. He grew tall and thin as a preteen, but he never lost the nickname.

He was always Chubbs.

I think about him whenever I read about Thomas because most all of my life I have heard him called “Doubting Thomas,” which I have never felt was a fair take on the guy. When it comes to gospel portrayals, Thomas and Judas are probably not treated fairly. Since the stories were written down years after Jesus had gone, none of the gospel writers can mention Judas without making sure we remember he was the one who betrayed Jesus. Truth is all the men around Jesus betrayed him in one way or another. The women were the ones who stayed true, but they got written out of the story for the most part. And then, the one story about Thomas is this one, and he ends up being called Doubting Thomas–a name that has outlived him by centuries.

This is the last story in John’s gospel. It immediately follows Mary’s encounter with Jesus that we talked about last week and then John signs off, hoping we will find faith in Christ. Because of that, I want to cut the gospel writer a little slack because I don’t think he meant to stick Thomas with the nickname anymore that Richard’s parents thought Chubbs would last for life. I say that because this is the closing scene of the book and not just another episode.

The first part takes place on the evening of the day they found the tomb empty–Easter night, if you will. Even though they knew Jesus was alive, they had not seen much of him. They were back in the upper room with the doors locked. They were still scared. They weren’t sure of anything. And Jesus came through the door–literally–and said, “Peace be with you,” and then blessed them with a calling to go and love others; actually, to forgive others.

For whatever reason, Thomas wasn’t there. When he came back, they told him they had seen Jesus and he said, “I need to see for myself to be able to trust the story.” Though John doesn’t give us details, it feels like they must have given him a hard time about not trusting what they had seen. But remember, these people had locked themselves in a room out of fear because they hadn’t trusted the story either. They didn’t have room to talk when it came to hassling Thomas about trust.

I hope you are picking up that I am using the word trust instead of believe because the distinction matters to me. The Greek word means more than what the word believe means to us. We have made belief an intellectual assent, a heady thing. I think trust is a better translation because trust is a risk. Something is at stake when we trust someone else.

Thomas wasn’t trying to make sure he was right in his belief; he wanted assurances that he could trust that Jesus was alive, so he said, “I want to see him and touch him.”

A week later–so, on this very day–all of them were back in the same room and this time Thomas was with them. Since Jesus came through the door without opening it, I am going to assume they were still locking themselves in. Nobody in the room was living into their trust quite yet. Jesus offered peace to them and then turned to Thomas. He didn’t admonish him or shame him or make a speech. He just said, “You wanted to touch me. Here I am. Trust instead of distrust.”

Thomas didn’t life a finger. He just said, “My Lord and my God.”

Jesus then said words that have taken on a life of their own, even outside the world of faith: “Blessed are those who have not seen and still believe.” I want to rephrase those words in terms of trust. Blessed are those who have not seen and are still willing to trust.”

Instead of Doubting Thomas, I think we would do better to call him Honest Thomas, if we want to give him a nickname, because trust is hard work.

If we are going to share in Thomas’ confession, “My Lord and my God,” then we have to learn how to live in trust, and the way Jesus us taught us to live teaches that to live out our trust in God means to learn to trust one another in Jesus’ name.

One of the things that strikes me about this story is that Jesus came looking for Thomas, which means Jesus had gotten word that Thomas was having a hard time. Instead of talking around Thomas, or telling someone else to tell him what he was doing wrong, Jesus showed up in the room, looked Thomas straight in the eye, and said, “Put your finger in my side. Look at my hands.”

He dealt directly with Thomas.

If we want to grow as a community of faith “passionately committed to Christ,” as we say in our mission statement, it starts right here: we commit to building trust with one another.

I want to say again that to follow Christ is not about intellectual belief in something, it’s about trusting God and one another. A faith that matters, that changes lives, is one lived out in relationships, which means one committed to building trust.

Thomas was open about what he was struggling with, and when he said he couldn’t trust without physical proof, he didn’t say, “But don’t tell Jesus I said that.” He was open and honest and he showed up in the room with the others so Jesus could find him. Jesus, as I said, didn’t send word to Thomas, he came and found him so they could talk face to face.

Perhaps you are thinking, “This is the second Sunday of Easter and he’s talking about direct communication?

Yes. Yes, I am.

If we are passionate about living out our faith, it will show in the way we relate to each other. If we don’t trust each other to speak the truth in love, then we will find it hard to trust God, too, because God is not off somewhere looking down, God is here among us. If we want to find new life in Christ, we will find it in building trust with one another. If you want to see this congregation grow spiritually and numerically as you get ready for a new pastor, then work on trusting each other. Speak directly. Don’t give or take anonymous feedback. Feedback that does not offer the possibility of conversation and understanding is sniper fire. It destroys trust, and thus destroys community.

To be a part of the Body of Christ together means to choose each other over the history of the way things have been done, over personal preferences, over opinions. To choose life together in Christ means asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions, listening first and then speaking, and assuming positive intent when we don’t understand what is happening.

The difficulty of the past couple of years has left us all tired. We are all exhausted. We are all hurting. We are all doing what we can. Locking ourselves in a room like the disciples did sounds like it might be an option worth considering. However, they hid in fear, not trust, and Jesus found them to say, “I called you to more than this.” Then he came back for Thomas so that he knew he belonged as well.

When Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen and are still willing to trust,” he was talking about us. He is not going to come barging in the room while we are all here so we can be sure it’s him. If we want to see Jesus, we are going to have to trust each other. We are going to have to incarnate the love of Christ in what we do and say and think if we want to see Jesus.

“Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. And you remember what love looks like, don’t you? We read those words again two weeks ago:

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.

Let us love one another in hope and trust. Let us speak the truth in love, but first, let us learn to listen in love, to ask compassionate questions, to do everything we can to let love burst in and chase out fear. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

it’s all in the name

2

Easter feels like it should be an easier Sunday to preach than it is. The magnitude of the day makes it feels like I should have something big to say, but the reality is the story is quite simple and, in its simplicity, profound. So here’s what I have to say this day.

______________________________

When it comes to what happened that morning, the three accounts share some details and differ on others.

The things they say in common are that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb at sunrise to find the grave opened and empty, and that she went to tell the men, who were hiding in the room where they had shared the Last Supper with Jesus.

In Luke’s gospel, Mary is accompanied by Mary the mother of James, Joanna (a woman Jesus had healed who had remained as a follower), and “the other women,” and they were greeted at the open tomb by an angel who told them that Jesus was not there and they went to tell the eleven disciples and “the others.”

In Matthew says that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary,” which is a nickname she loved, got to the tomb and there was an earthquake and then an angel who rolled the stone back and sat on it to declare that Christ was risen. If Matthew were alive today, I have no doubt he would be a screenwriter.

John’s version, which we read this morning, is the least populated and the most personal. Only Mary Magdalene is at the tomb, which was already open when she arrived. No angel is mentioned. When she saw that tomb was open she ran back to Peter and the other unnamed disciple to tell them she thought the grave had been robbed. The three of them ran back to the tomb and the men ran in. Mary stood outside, weeping. Then she heard a voice ask why she was crying and she said because Jesus had been taken and she did not know where.

She did not go to the tomb expecting life; she went expecting death and its aftermath.

She turned to face the person who had spoken to her, but did not realize it was Jesus. She implored him to tell her what had happened. Then Jesus called her name–“Mary”–and she knew who he was.

No earthquake. No angels. In the middle of the cemetery and the confusion, she heard her name and she knew he was alive.

She had come to the tomb expecting death and she found life.

One of the things we know is that it was many years–sixty or seventy–after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection that the gospel stories were written down. In the mean time, the stories were passed down orally, as important stories were in that culture. I wonder if the various gospel traditions took hold because there were some years when it came time to celebrate the Resurrection that they needed an earthquake and a cinematic angel and the reminder that sometimes God shows up big and bold. Then there were other years when they needed the reminder that the story was about more than the small group of men and women who followed Jesus, so they told the story that included the other women at the tomb and the others in the upper room as well. Then came the years when, perhaps, life had been so heavy and hard that all they needed was the story about Mary weeping alone and hearing Jesus call her name.

He called her name–“Mary”–and she knew he was alive because he knew who she was, even when she didn’t recognize him.

And it’s a good version of the story for us this year, I think, after two years of pandemic life, the war in Ukraine, the continuing rancor in our country, and everything else that feels like an earthquake and a hurricane and a nor’easter all blown into one. We have come to expect death, or something like it, on a regular basis, even as we have tried to practice resurrection. it isn’t hard to identify with Mary: “They have taken my Lord and I don’t know where they have laid him.”

We are here this morning to hear God call our names, to offer life where we have expected death.

One hymn writer tried to imagine what it was like to be Mary in the story and wrote

I come to the garden alone
while the dew is still on the roses
and the voice I hear calling on my ear
the Son of God disposes

and he walks with me and he talks with me
and he tells me I am his own
and the joy we share as we tarry there
none other has ever known
(*in the service, I sang the hymn from the pulpit)

The only thing the hymnist got wrong is that the joy of resurrection wasn’t limited to Mary in that moment. On this resurrection morning, God is calling your name, my name, every name who will stop and listen to say love is stronger than death, to say nothing can separate us from the love of God. Absolutely nothing.

Christ is risen. Christ is risen indeed. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: chipping in

3

I worked from home today because there wasn’t time to get back from New York and make it to the Maundy Thursday service in Westbrook, where I am interim pastor. I met a friend for coffee and as I was walking home I noticed a crew taking down a dead tree next to the coffee shop across the street. Then I noticed they were also working on two trees that stand between our house and our neighbors. They are–well, were–big trees, probably sixty feet tall. We’ve heard talk for a couple of years that they needed to come down, but nothing happened until today.

As I worked I could hear the hum of the chain saw and the grind of the wood chipper that made me want to quit work and watch Fargo again–except if the guys in Fargo had had this chipper they wouldn’t have been caught. The tree guy was loading limbs that were six or eight inches in diameter and the chipper ate them right up.

Though we are still a ways from really planting, our garden crew is getting things ready. Tom, the one who actually knows what we are doing, is growing seedlings at his house. We are making plans to put up a rabbit-proof fence so we can enjoy the green beans this year, and we have plans this weekend to mark the beds and begin to wake things up a bit. As I watched the chips fly into the back of the big truck, I thought I might as well ask if they would be willing to let us use them for the garden. And they were. By late afternoon, our side yard felt strangely expansive and I had a huge pile of wood chips next to the garden.

On Saturday, we will begin to line the paths between the beds in our garden with the wood chips, but more than that, they will, over time, turn back into soil. We also have plans the spread mushroom spore on the chips so we can harvest even from our pathways. The trees are gone and they live on, even though they will be forgotten, for the most part. We will miss them, and we will get used to the space between our houses, or we will plant new trees that will grow beyond our time here–because we will live on and be forgotten as well.

In the middle of his amazing poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” Wendell Berry writes,

Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.

And then the poem closes with this line:

Practice resurrection

Perhaps to live and die and live again has more to do with wood chips than banking on eternal life. Resurrection isn’t our ticket out, it is a statement of solidarity with all that is, all of creation, all of life. We are stardust. We are compost. We are created in the image of God, resurrection practitioners.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: touch screen

1

Since I get on the train around 5:30 in the morning, most of us riding into New York use the time to sleep–until the train stops at 125th Street, and then we start to move about. Some get their stuff together but stay seated, and others (like me) stand up near the door just to stretch out legs for the last fifteen minutes of the ride, and to be able to leave the train quickly. As we stand there, almost everyone passes the time by staring at a screen.

No one makes eye contact or dares attempt a conversation.

It has not always been that way (the part about staring at a screen), but it’s hard to remember those days. I say that more as an observation than a criticism; it is hard to remember life before our handheld computers that we continue to call phones. I can remember always having a book in my bag when I rode the subway regularly in Boston. I looked around this morning and no one I could see had a book. Only a screen.

We are being changed by our technology, but that is not a new thing.

When I got to my desk, I pulled out the book I had with me and Ilia Delio had this to say:

Our addiction to technology is causing us to unmake the world at an alarming rate. Perhaps most important, we are losing the capacity to love by way of forgiveness and reconciliation; that is, we are losing the ability to transcend our partial lives by way of love in order to create a new future together. Political, economic, and social unrest continues to spiral, thanks to technology, and we cannot find a means to slow down or turn in a new direction.

Her words made a rather gruesome connection in my brain, taking me back to my classroom at Charlestown High School in Boston and a presentation by folks from Facing History and Ourselves, an amazing group that helps students understand what it means to be a compassionate participant in life. The presenter talked about the Battle of the Somme, a horrendous event in World War I that marked the first use of machine guns by the Germans–a change in technology.

In one day, almost 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 57,000 injured–the worst day in the history of the British Army. Part of the reason they died was they didn’t understand the implications of the technology they faced and they walked right into the bullets.

Since then, how we wage war has become more and more distanced so that now someone operates something akin to a video game somewhere and bombs the hell out of someplace else on the other side of the world and then goes home for dinner. The disconnect belies the impact of their actions.

The same is true, it seems to me, when it comes to hitting send or retweet.

I know that analogy is overstated, but when I think about the escalation in division and rancor in our country, about our struggle to listen with intention or to focus our attention, I wonder if our lack of ability to communicate is tied to the rapid changes in technology that have us living through our devices, or at least allowing the disconnect they bring to belie the impact of our words.

I have many reasons in my life to be thankful for social media, not the least of which is the chance to reconnect with people from all the different addresses of my life. It’s not all bad. It’s just too much too quickly for us to understand how it is changing us.

After the 2016 election, we were shocked that Trump chose to tweet rather than to make speeches. Now that is how world leaders make announcements, and reply to them. Are we starting to think that Twitter is actual communication?

The question is rhetorical.

What I wanted to get to in this post is more than a cautionary tale. As I continued reading Ilia Delio, she asked,

But if love is our truest nature, and technology is changing that nature, how can we renew our deepest reality of love? This is a question for our age and an important one to engage. For the type of love that mends broken hearts is not superficial; it cannot be controlled electronically by the touch of a button. It is a decision to love beyond what is beneficial or satisfying to one’s ego; it is to love by way of sacrifice. . . . It requires our utmost attention, our hearts and our wills; this type of love requires total self-gift.

One of the things I know about myself is I rarely do one things at a time when I am on a screen. Put me in a Zoom meeting and I am answering email and writing texts while I am watching those on camera. It is hard for me to give my utmost attention, which means I am not offering my best. I am not making my best self-gift.

Ilia says there is more riding on that than I thought.

God will not mend our broken hearts without us, but God will continue to be with us, challenging us with the question: What do you want? How we choose to love in a world of distrust will affect our future, a future that we will create together or not at all.

May our hearts break and heal together.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: paper cuts

0

Back when we were youth ministers, my friend Burt had a metaphor about relationships (talking to young people about relating to their parents and vice versa) that I have not forgotten. He said building trust was like a savings account: you have to build it up by making small deposits in the way you deal with everyday interactions. If there comes a time when that trust is tested–when you have to make a withdrawal, so to speak–you have something to withdraw from.

I thought about those days because I read this article from The Atlantic that caught me with its title:

The Marriage Lesson That I Learned Too Late

and then the teaser:

The existence of love, trust, respect, and safety in a relationship is often dependent on moments you might write off as petty disagreements.

In the heart of the article, Matthew Fray says,

The reason my marriage fell apart seems absurd when I describe it: My wife left me because sometimes I leave dishes by the sink.

It makes her seem ridiculous and makes me seem like a victim of unfair expectations. But it wasn’t the dishes, not really—it was what they represented.

Hundreds, maybe thousands of times, my wife tried to communicate that something was wrong. That something hurt. But that doesn’t make sense, I thought. I’m not trying to hurt her; therefore, she shouldn’t feel hurt.

We didn’t go down in a fiery explosion. We bled out from 10,000 paper cuts. Quietly. Slowly.

His discussion of dishes reminds me of how my mother and father used to joke that what was going to split them up was one rolled the toothpaste up from the end and the other squeezed it out of the middle, but it really was a joke. They cared for each other well.

This post, however, is not about marriage; it’s about how the same principle of paper cuts applies to relationships in general, much like the trust bank wasn’t just about kids and parents.

Fray talks about the longterm impact of having the Same Fight, which I feel like I see happening a great deal in the relationships that make up life in families, marriages, congregations, work places. It’s when we keep doing the same thing, or not doing the same thing, even when we have been told it punches someone else’s buttons.

When we’re having The Same Fight, positive intent, or chalking up any harm caused as accidental, can be just as much of a trust killer as more overtly harmful actions. It doesn’t matter whether we are intentionally refusing to cooperate with our spouse or legitimately unable to understand what’s wrong—the math results are the same. The net result of The Same Fight is more pain. Less trust. Regardless of anyone’s intentions.

In the exhaustion of the ongoing pandemic (it ain’t over yet!), it too often feels like Groundhog Day, and we, in our grief and exhaustion, keep having the Same Fight, maybe because we feel too tired to listen well. Or maybe, pandemic or not pandemic, we too easily fall into mansplaining when someone tries to tell us how they feel and we decide to explain why they shouldn’t feel that way instead of taking them seriously.

But we have to learn to take each other seriously because the only way we survive is together. We have to avoid the paper cuts and make deposits in the trust bank instead–pay attention to the little things and, as Walt Whitman said (and Ted Lasso quoted), be curious and not judgmental.

In that spirit, the closing words of the article are ones I will keep close.

If I had to distill the problems in failed relationships down to one idea, it would be our colossal failure to make the invisible visible, our failure to invest time and effort into developing awareness of what we otherwise might not notice in the busyness of daily life.

If I had known that this drinking-glass situation and similar arguments would actually end my marriage—that the existence of love, trust, respect, and safety in our marriage was dependent on these moments I was writing off as petty disagreements, I would have made different choices.

I could have communicated my love and respect for her by not leaving tiny reminders for her each day that she wasn’t considered. That she wasn’t remembered. That she wasn’t respected. I could have carefully avoided leaving evidence that I would always choose my feelings and my preferences over hers.

Grief and exhaustion are inflationary, which means it costs more to live these days, which means those trust bank deposits–the pocket-change gestures that add up–are crucial to our survival together. Listen hard. Pay attention. Ask good questions. Let folks around you know you see them and it matters right now–not when it’s too late. No one wants to die by paper cuts.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: red floppy shoes

5

Some days I can deal with the world and some days I struggle.

Tonight is a struggle. Today I read stories about how many states are pushing legislation similar to Florida’s homophobic (in this case, I think we need to redefine homocidal) “don’t say gay” law and another story about Russian troops carrying mobile crematoria into eastern Ukraine to burn evidence of their war crimes before human rights activists can document anything. But the president of France made an angry phone call and most every other Western country keeps trying to figure out how to make sure standing up against Russia doesn’t derail their economies, which means we are doing nothing. Oh, sorry–the US said we would take 100,000 refugees.

And we said it with a straight face.

Years ago, David LaMotte wrote a children’s book called White Flour that told the true story of a group in Knoxville, Tennessee who were trying to figure out how to respond to a Klux Klux Klan march in the city. They dressed as clowns and when the marchers yelled, “White power,” the clowns said, “Oh, we get it! White flour!” and they pulled out bags of flour, ripped them open, and threw them in the air. The Seussian poem goes on with the marchers continuing to yell and the clowns responding with imagination: white flowers, tight showers, wife power until . . .

The men in robes were sullen, they knew they’d been defeated
They yelled a few more times and then they finally retreated
And when they’d gone a kind policeman turned to all the clowns
And offered them an escort through the center of the town

The day was bright and sunny as most May days tend to be
In the hills of Appalachia down in Knoxville, Tennessee
People joined the new parade, the crowd stretched out for miles
The clowns passed out more flowers and made everybody smile

David wrote the book as a way to teach children about ways to respond to violence other than to be violent in return. The last verse says,

And what would be the lesson of that shiny southern day?
Can we understand the message that the clowns sought to convey?
Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use!
So here’s to those who march on in their big red floppy shoes

War destroys imagination. Well, first it shrinks our vocabulary and then it destroys our imagination, until we end up sitting in front of a computer, as I am, writing about feeling helpless. The next sentence that comes to mind as I read what I just wrote is:

HELL, NO.

Not necessarily expansive vocabulary, but you get my point. What will it take to think imaginatively about what is happening in our world? Perhaps a better way to ask that question is, who is thinking imaginatively about our world and how can I get in touch with them? How can we all connect?

Ilia Delio says, “If we want a different world, we must be different people.”

One way to read that sentence is to say we must change. The other is to decide to be odd-balls, as in the Southern understanding of the word: well, he’s different.”

I wondered aloud to Ginger tonight what would happen if, instead of refugees fleeing Ukraine, everyone in the bordering countries or whoever could get there would flood the place, inhabit the war zones, and make the Russians kill them too if they were so intent on genocide. I know it’s a long shot, but it seems like it would feel a lot like the clowns in Knoxville, doing something that was an invitation to humanization for everyone involved.

We can’t take the high road as a nation when it comes to war crimes. Pick a war and we have aimed our guns and bombs at civilians. We may not have carried crematoria, but to take a sanctimonious posture at this point is not imaginative. Neither are the sanctions, since too many of the countries involved are still buying Russian fuel. And the financial channels that run through banks and multinational corporations will make sure that the money gets to where it needs to be so everyone can still get richer. Greed doesn’t have much imagination either.

If we want a different world, we must be different people.

My ranting aside (since anger is easier than despair), this post is much less a manifesto than it is a question: How can we imagine a different world? How can we be different in a way that will matter to Ukraine? (Which is not the only place in the world where such atrocities are taking place.)

Seems that when you’re fighting hatred, hatred’s not the thing to use!
So here’s to those who march on in their big red floppy shoes

Where do we find our big red floppy shoes?

Leave your answers in the comments, he said with a smile.

Peace,
Milton