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sing a song of the saints . . .


Because I am going to be in Houston on All Saints Sunday, we celebrated a week early at my church. (Here’s hoping the Liturgical Police don’t catch wind of it.) The sermon includes a reference to a cookie recipe that I was commissioned to create which you can find here, and a poem that I wrote for the same event. The service was rich and meaningful, even if we were a little early.


I can remember the first time I heard—and sang—our last hymn.

I was a child sitting in the pews of the Argyle Road Baptist Church in Lusaka, Zambia. I even remember the pastor’s name: Basil Medgett. It was a congregation not much bigger than ours made up of mostly English people who had moved to Zambia for one reason or another. We were the only Americans, and we were welcomed there.

The line that got me from the very start was the one about meeting saints at tea, which seemed an odd place for a saint to be in my young mind. I had heard Bible stories, so I imagined saints as those who put their lives on the line—the ones in the first verse who were prophets and priests and killed by a fierce, wild beast—but what were saints doing in shops and at tea?

Didn’t they have more important things to do?

Perhaps that is why Lesbea Scott, the hymnwriter, wrote this song for her children. You may already know this story, but this hymn was a part of a collection she wrote called Everyday Hymns for Little Children that she composed to help her own kids understand more about faith. The sequence of the verses follows the way our understanding of the word “saint” has grown over time.

The oldest meaning is much like the first verse: saints are ones with devotion that goes beyond what seems normal, if you will. But as we mark All Saints’ Day, our understanding is much more like verse three: we are remembering those who ate with us, who talked with us, who loved us—and who are no longer physically with us. Saints are those who are loved, and that is every last one of us.

Celebrating All Saints’ Day is another way of reminding ourselves that we are not alone. We call the names, and we open the memories, we honor the grief of their loss, and in all of that we assure ourselves that the ties that bind cannot be broken by death, or anything else for that matter. We are not alone. We are together and they are still with us.

We sing our own song of the saints of God—the saints we knew, the saints we loved, the saints that sat around our breakfast tables, or worked alongside us, or went to school with us—and we remember that to be a saint is not to be perfect but to be present.

To become a saint, officially, among those denominations that grant sainthood is an arduous and lengthy process that always happens after the person has died. Their words and deeds are examined, and those examiners have to prove that the life of the would-be saint was not just your average life.

That’s exactly why I love this little hymn—because the road to sainthood is wider and filled with fellow travelers and not just those who have gone before. Sainthood is present tense rather than posthumous. The hymn begs us to write our own verses:

they lived not only in ages past
they are walking through Hamden still
our streets are filled with joyous saints
who all love to do God’s will,
you can meet them for donuts, apizza, or wine
at tai chi, the tag sale, the grocery line
for the saints of God are around all the time
and I want to be one too

We don’t become saints; we are saints, which is another way of saying we are wonderfully and uniquely created in the image of God and worthy to be loved, and also capable of great love delivered in daily doses.

Journalist David Brooks has a new book called How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen. I started reading it this week, alongside of preparing today’s sermon, and the timing was perfect because his ideas about how we invest in one another’s lives—how we really see each other—go right along with how we live into our calling as the saints of God.

One of the things he talks about is how much of life is about accompanying one another. He says,

Ninety percent of life is just going about your business. It’s a meeting at work, a trip to the supermarket, or small talk with another person dropping off the kids at school. And usually there are other people around. In the normal moments or life, you’re not staring deeply into one another’s eyes or unveiling profound intimacies. You’re just doing stuff together—not face-to-face but side-by-side. You’re accompanying each other.

He says accompanying one another requires four things: patience, playfulness, other-centeredness, and presence. It is less about grand gestures and more about showing up and paying attention, about singing harmony to someone else’s melody, about letting life be about something other than our agenda.

The other phrase he uses is that it is about bearing witness. And he quotes the poet David Whyte who said the ultimate touchstone of relationship “is not improvement, neither of the other or of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another’s, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, some-times just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.”

We named those this morning to whom we bore witness as they lived with us and loved us, and as we loved them. We named them because they bore witness to our lives, which is part of why we grieve; they don’t do that any more. One of the profound gifts we give each other as we gather together is attending to the daily details of life. The small conversations—the small acts of witness—create the space for deeper expressions of love when the time comes.

It is this wonderful mixture of accompaniment that fills our life together with love—I started to say with the flavors of love because of the story I want to tell.

I brought cookies for coffee hour this morning. They are a recipe I created for an event at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston, where I will be next weekend. They commissioned me to create a cookie for All Saints’ Day. Since the church is in Houston, I started thinking about Texas flavors. Pecans are the state nut (well, one of them), and the prevalence of Mexican food led me to add some corn meal. The other big culinary influence in Houston is from Vietnamese residents, so I also added crystallized ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon. Then, because of its mystical qualities and because I always wanted to put it in a cookie, I added fresh sage. It’s a big mess of ingredients that turned into a really great cookie—and that is the review from Ginger (who doesn’t like nuts or the spice, ginger) and Rachel, my mother-in-law. Rachel, in fact, called them “Amazing Delights.”

When I sent a text to Sid Davis, the Minister of Music at the church in Houston who commissioned the cookie to tell him what she said, he wrote back, “They are both amazing and delightful.”

I answered, “As are we, my friend, as are we.”

That is true of not just Sid and me, but of every last one of us. We are amazing delights. We enrich and flavor each other’s lives—that’s why it hurts when one of us dies. The love continues, but their absence is profound. And so we accompany one another—with singing, with stories, with quiet presence, with meals, with laughter, with tears, with uncertainty, with hope—all in Christ’s name, not to replace loved ones, or to explain away the sadness, but to remind ourselves we are not alone. Love is stronger than death. And we are really, really loved.

And it is that love that brings us to the Table this morning . . .


amazing delights


The best recipes tell a story.

This one starts with my friend, Sid Davis, who is the Minister of Music at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Houston. He called awhile back and invited me to come to his church to do two things. One was to read a poem for All Saints Sunday (that I needed to write first) and the other was to create a cookie that would be a part of an All Saints gathering we decided to call “This Tastes Like a Memory,” where people would bring cookies that held the stories of loved ones.

The poem is in another post—and it turned it out well. As far as the cookie goes, my first thought was to use pecans, since that is the state nut of Texas. As I was getting out of my car one afternoon, I saw the giant sage bush that graces the flower bed next to the driveway and began working on a pecan-sage cookie, which, thanks to the internet, sent me down some wonderful culinary rabbit holes.

The Houston connection pulled me in two cultural directions, as far as flavors go: Mexican and Vietnamese. I decided to add some cornmeal to the cookie, as well as some cinnamon, on the Mexican side. The Vietnamese connection was the ginger, turmeric, and also cinnamon. I also decided to use lemon extract instead of vanilla to add a citrus layer.

I made a couple of test batches, both of which were sampled by Ginger and Rachel. When Rachel smelled the second batch, she said, “Are you making more of those amazing delights?”—and then I knew what to call the cookie.

They are a story worth tasting.

amazing delights

3 sticks of butter, room temperature (1 ½ cups)
1 cup brown sugar (8.5 oz)
2 eggs, room temperature
2 oz. lemon extract
2 cups flour (11 oz.)
1 cup corn meal (4 oz.)
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 cup fresh sage, chopped
8 oz. crystallized ginger, chopped
8 oz. pecans, chopped
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 375°.
Cream the butter and brown sugar together in a stand mixer. I let the mixer run for 8-10 minutes to really emulsify the two ingredients. Then add the eggs and lemon extract and mix until well combined.

In a separate bowl, mix the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, salt, and turmeric. Take about a cup of that dry mix and put it in the bowl of a food processor along with the sage. Process until sage is almost unnoticeable. Then add the crystallized ginger and the pecans and pulse until they are very small pieces. Add the contents to the remainder of the dry ingredients and mix them well. Then add the dry mix to the bowl of the stand mixer and mix until that, too, is combined well.

Mix the sugar and cinnamon together in a separate bowl.

Scoop the cookies on to a parchment-lined baking sheet. (I use a 2 oz. scoop.) Shape them in to discs—like a little hockey puck—and dip the tops of the cookies in the cinnamon sugar and place them back on the baking sheet about three inches apart.

Bake for 13-15 minutes. I let them cool on the baking sheet on a rack. Makes about three shy of three dozen cookies.


all saints


all saints

we move too quickly to
divide the                    world
that’s a complete sentence
but it’s not the whole story

we move too quickly to
divide the world into saints
and sinners as though life
is a contest that demands
winners and losers so that
some can feel significant

we are all saints
our worthiness is not
created by comparison
even the distinction between
the living and the dead
doesn’t feel so definitive
when it comes to love

on all saints day we make
of our hearts thank-you notes
as grief and grace swirl
in a dance of gratitude
for those we hold dear
but can no longer hold

we read their names in the
presence of their absence
they are not here and
we do not know where
they have been taken
other than to trust that
they are not so far            away

the life that lies beyond
this life is not another world
but a dimension we can’t see
the clouded pane of glass
clears when we tell the stories
the veil gets thin when
we talk about belonging
about everyone belonging

you know the stories
we too easily forget to
that’s re-member
as in putting ourselves
back together again

but memory and nostalgia
are not the same thing
anymore than wishing and
hoping are synonyms
remembering is not for
the faint of heart
love and heartache
go together because
some stories are
not easy to tell even
when told in love

still we call the names
of all saints and we tell
our stories of loss to say
that love is stronger than
death and disappointment
deeper than wounds or
weariness wider than
any breach any               breach

love bears all things
believes all things hopes
all things endures all
things love never ends

we are all saints
because of that love
that love will not let us go

we are all saints
because of who we are
not what we have done
or left undone

we are all saints
that’s the whole story


think on these things


More Sundays than not, I choose one of the passages from the Revised Common Lectionary for my sermon text. I also do it a couple of weeks ahead of time to help our part-time office administrator use his time efficiently, so the verses had been chosen a good bit before it came time to prepare the sermon. As I stood last Sunday morning, feeling the brokenness of our world, here’s what I had to say.


Our reading this morning is Philippians 4:4-9.

These words come at the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church. The fourth chapter begins with some personal messages and then moves to a series of admonitions. As we read, remember that Paul was writing from prison.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is nearby. Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. As for the things that you have learned and received and heard and noticed in me, do them, and the God of peace will be with you.

These words are some of my favorites from Paul’s letters. Yet, sometimes they hit me in an odd way. I hear them as hyperbolic and overstated—usually when I am frustrated by life, or depressed, or unnerved by what is happening in the world. “Rejoice in the Lord always” How is that possible? It can sound a little too much like Peter Pan: “You just think lovely, wonderful thoughts and they lift you up in the air.”

That’s why it is good to remember he wrote his letter from prison where he was facing the strong possibility of being put to death. Not only that, he had also been beaten, had survived a shipwreck, had fled for his life, not to mention that he had a past as one who had treated others violently—and still he wrote about living with gratitude and hope and joy.

Paul was not an optimist. I don’t think he was humming, “The sun’ll come out tomorrow” while he sat in his cell. He was a realist. He knew life could chew you up and spit you out. He knew the young congregation was living in tough times and was in for some tough days ahead, even without the oppression of the Roman government.

He was not writing a feel-good letter that was the New Testament equivalent of a greeting card, nor should we hear his words in the voice of the parent of an adolescent—you know what I mean: the cautionary tone of “make good decisions” as the kid shuts the door behind them. Paul was writing for his life and for the life of those he loved. He knew, as we do, that life has a centrifugal force that throws us all to the edges of our existence at times, that drowns us with grief and worry. And for those reasons he told the Philippians to rejoice, to trust, and to focus on things that were life-giving and life-sustaining.

In modern parlance we might say his words were a call to spiritual practice—a call to do the inner work it takes to strengthen our hearts and minds and our connections to God and to one another. Joy doesn’t just happen. Being able to see what is true and just and honorable isn’t something we simply stumble upon. It is a choice, a commitment. We do, in fact, have to make good decisions. We have to learn to see those things. We have to choose to do the tough work of trust and compassion and joy.

Paul’s list of things brought to mind one of the poems I keep in a file called “Poems to Remember. It is called “Next Time” by Joyce Stulphen.

next time

I’ll know the names of all of the birds
and flowers, and not only that, I’ll
tell you the name of the piano player
I’m hearing right now on the kitchen
radio, but I won’t be in the kitchen,

I’ll be walking a street in
New York or London, about
to enter a coffee shop where people
are reading or working on their
laptops. They’ll look up and smile.

Next time I won’t waste my heart
on anger; I won’t care about
being right. I’ll be willing to be
wrong about everything and to
concentrate on giving myself away.

Next time, I’ll rush up to people I love,
look into their eyes, and kiss them, quick.
I’ll give everyone a poem I didn’t write,
one specially chosen for that person.
They’ll hold it up and see a new
world. We’ll sing the morning in,

and I will keep in touch with friends,
writing long letters when I wake from
a dream where they appear on the
Orient Express. “Meet me in Istanbul,”
I’ll say, and they will.

What makes the poem poignant is the reality that there is no next time. We only have this time. This life. These days in this place. In this world where so many keep choosing to do damage to one another. We have much around us that fosters fear and anxiety. The world is dangerous. All of us are afraid—maybe not of the same things, but we are all afraid. And that is where the spiritual work begins. What Paul is talking about is what lies beyond fear, what supersedes it, or at least what lives alongside it in our hearts so we can choose to do something other than be anxious and afraid.

Rejoice. Trust in the presence of God. Focus on what is true and just and kind and hopeful and honorable and excellent. Do those things this time. Right now. While the news is blaring and the stock market is struggling and our hearts are hurting and life feels uncertain, think on these things. Remind one another that we are wonderfully created in the image of God and worthy to be loved. Keep telling each other that we are not alone. Remember that love is stronger than death and fear and anything else that may come. Remember that God is with us, whether we feel it or not, and trust—while all of these things are true—that life will still be hard.

In most of his letters, Paul wrote similar words of hope and encouragement to those we have read this morning. Some of my favorites come from Romans. As I read them, I want to read them as I heard them read as I stood at the graveside of a friend’s father at a cemetery in Georgia many years ago. The Southern pastor’s tone of tangible trust in these words left a deep impression on me as he quoted Paul:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will affliction or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? . . . NO. No, in all these things we are more than victorious through Christ who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

We spend our lives going in circles, both literally and physically. Our planet both rotates and orbits in the middle of a solar system of other celestial objects doing the same thing. Those of us who inhabit this world go in circles as well—circles of family and friends, circles of thought and behavior. To quote one more musical, we are a part of the circle of life, which often feels like a circle of violence and destruction.

As our thoughts circle the globe, our feelings circle as well. We cannot live unaffected by what is happening in other places. We are more connected than we realize. The prophet Micah said that what God requires of us is to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God and with one another, which is another way of saying what Paul said to the Philippians who lived in their own circles of hope and uncertainty.

Let us hold on to the words of the old Southern gentleman, even if the world is overwhelming, even if it feels like the circles of violence are engulfing us. When we focus on the love of God and embrace the love that will not let us go, as followers of the living Christ, we can hold on to what is good and right and true, what is just and kind and welcoming, not in desperation, but in hope. We are not alone. We belong to God.

Can anything separate us from the love of God? NO. Amen.


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.