caught by surprise


I was waiting to post my sermon until Sunday evening because it is tied to some big news. Yesterday I was called as the pastor of Mount Carmel Congregational Church in Hamden, Connecticut where I have been the Bridge Pastor for the last three months. We decided we liked each other so much we would seal the deal.

About an hour after our potluck lunch, I got my second surprise: my gallbladder revolted. By seven o’clock last night I was in Yale New Haven Hospital. I will have my gallbladder removed tomorrow.

I appreciate your prayers, but—for now—go back to the first surprise and read the sermon.


Many years ago, a friend of mine was walking back to his car in a shopping center parking lot when he noticed a woman standing at the door of his car trying to open it with her key. He could tell she wasn’t trying to break in, but thought it was her car. My friend was a kind person by nature and didn’t want to startle her, so he asked if she needed help.

“I don’t understand it,” she said. “My key won’t work for some reason.”

“Here,” my friend said, “try mine,” and he handed her his key. She took it and pushed it into the lock and the door opened–then she realized what she had done and the two of them began to laugh.

I’ve known that story for many years, but it wasn’t until this week that it connected to our story for this morning about the two people who encountered Jesus on the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus–about a seven mile stretch.

Luke says it was the evening of the day that had begun with Jesus meeting Mary in the cemetery and calling her by name. One of the two travelers is named–Cleopas–and that is all we know about either of them, other than they appear to know those who followed Jesus closely. They were absorbed in conversation as they walked and hardly realized that Jesus had joined them until he asked what had them so enthralled. They were surprised he hadn’t heard, so they told him the story, and he responded by giving them a short history of the prophets and connecting all kinds of dots, but they still didn’t see who was with them.

When they got to Emmaus, Jesus didn’t stop with them until they invited him to dinner. As they dined together, Jesus picked up the bread, tore it into pieces–as he had done a few nights earlier–and handed it to them to eat, and then they realized who it was, much like the lady in the parking lot realized she was trying to get into the wrong car.

In each of the encounters that we have looked at over the past couple of weeks, Jesus has come alive in relational contact, in the daily details of life. He called Mary by name, he let Thomas touch his hands and side, he served dinner to Cleopas and his companion. All three encounters led to a moment of similar surprise: “Hey! It’s you!”

Luke says that once they recognized him, Jesus vanished and the two said, “Weren’t our hearts burning the whole time he was talking?” perhaps trying to convince themselves that they had a hint of what had happened, and then they ran back to Jerusalem–seven miles, remember?–in the middle of the night to tell the others.

One of the truths in the story is that, as much as we wish we knew what God has planned for the future, our best glimpse at the way the Spirit moves in our lives is by looking back and finding God in the details.

I don’t mean that God engineers our circumstances, or that we are being moved around on some cosmic game board. Even in this story, their recognition of Jesus swung on whether they invited him to dinner. What if they had not done so? What if they had let Jesus keep walking? They would have spent the evening talking about that guy that walked with them who really knew his Hebrew history, perhaps, or maybe awakened in the night and thought, “Wait! That was Jesus.”

But they didn’t let him walk off and their eyes were opened: Jesus caught them by surprise.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote,

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.

Whether we see more than blackberries has a lot to do with how we chose to look at the world around us. Mary went to the tomb. Thomas asked for a meeting. Cleopas served supper to an engaging stranger.

As I have thought about today and the prospect of our beginning a new chapter in our relationship together, I realized that I, too, have been caught by surprise in these days. When Beverly first contacted me about the Bridge Interim, I told her I wasn’t looking for a settled position. Evidently, I was more emphatic in that statement than I realized because I have heard it reflected back to me by several in the congregation when I first mentioned I was interested in hanging around on a more permanent basis.

When I look back, I see those who saw we might fit together before we did. Olivia mentioned my name to you, I believe. Jake Joseph, who supplied here a couple of times, called me and said, “I think you would really like this church.” After my being here for four or five weeks, Ginger, my wife, said, “I think this could be more than an interim for you. You seem happy there.”

As I was driving home from my interview with the Search Committee (on Good Friday, but I choose not to read much symbolism into that), I began thinking back about my ministerial career. I went back to my first call, which was in April of 1977, the end of my junior year in college. My phone rang one day and a man named J. T. Davidson said he was from Pecan Grove Baptist Church near Gatesville, Texas and someone had given him my name as a candidate for pastor.

The someone was a friend of my parents who had pastored the church when he was in college and seminary. He thought I would fit there. And I did. I pastored there for a little over four years at a church that sat between farms, in a world I knew little of, when it came to ranching, and it was good.

Since then, I have been a hospital chaplain, a youth minister, a church planter, an interim minister (several times), and an associate pastor, along with jobs that were not in ministry, but forty-six years later to the month, I am stepping into my second pastorate.

I feel like the two sitting at dinner, and a bit like the woman in the parking lot: I have been caught by surprise. And I am deeply grateful, not because God has revealed some great master plan, but because we have been walking on the road together and we have realized Christ is here in the middle of us.

Good thing we have dinner planned after worship. Amen.



  1. All good thoughts for your new position!! They’re lucky to have found you! As far as the gallbladder…you’ll feel even better than you imagine!! being lifted!

  2. Hurray for the HAPPY surprise. The church is indeed lucky! And best wishes for a happy outcome in your other surprise. Gall bladder removal has become no-big-deal in many cases (unless it’s YOURS). Just three little bandaids to show for it.

  3. What wonderful news Milton! What an amazing path you continue to travel with your open mind and heart. Will be thinking of you tomorrow.

  4. I am so happy for you, Milton. And hopefully your surgery was very successful. I love reading your essays. Hugs to you, Ginger & Rachel. Love, Liza

  5. Your new church is so fortunate to have you as their pastor. Congratulations, Milton! I am happy for you. Blessings,

    Julie Cochran

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