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lenten journal: the scent of a funeral

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The way the story unfolds in John’s gospel, I think the disciples got increasingly nervous every time Jesus went to Jerusalem because each trip seemed to up the ante, as far as those in power were concerned. As long as he stayed in Galilee, the crowds didn’t matter so much. But when he came to Jerusalem he was right in the face of those intent on control and oppression. They couldn’t ignore him. It also appears that most all of them were beginning to realize that things were escalating, as far as the official response to Jesus’ words and actions. I mean, he had always talked about dying, but it began to feel more real. In John 11, the chapter just before our passage for today, Jesus gets word that his friend Lazarus had died and decides to go to Bethany, which is walking distance from Jerusalem, and Thomas says to the other disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Death was in the air.

As I mentioned, Jesus had been in Bethany–at this same house that belonged to his friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus–because Lazarus had died. Actually, the sisters sent word that their brother was sick, but by the time Jesus go there he had already been buried. When Jesus asked them to open the tomb, they were quick to say, “He’s been in there four days; he is going to stink!” (This is one of the places I still love the King James Version: “He stinketh!”) But Jesus was undaunted. He called Lazarus by name and Lazarus walked out of the tomb, still wrapped in the cloth they used to cover bodies.

The incident created publicity, which set the authorities on edge, so Jesus and the disciples left town for a while (we don’t know how long), but the next thing it says in the gospel is that it was time for Passover, so they returned to Bethany so they were close to all that was going on in Jerusalem. This time Mary, Martha, and Lazarus hosted a dinner for him and the disciples. Based on this and other stories, their house must have been known as a place of hospitality because they seemed to always have a crowd gathered there.

We might even assume the last time a crowd was there was when Jesus called Lazarus back to life. Several commentators I read this week noted that if Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days he would have already started to decompose and there is nothing in the story that alludes to Jesus healing those scars, so he would have looked like he had been, well, to hell and back.

As I said, death was in the air.

In the middle of it all, Mary came in with a big clay jar of perfume, broke it open, and washed Jesus’ feet in it. The Roman measure used means she poured about twelve ounces of perfume on his feet. To say the smell went everywhere would be an understatement. It brings to mind the lesson I had to learn as a teenager about how much cologne it took to make me smell good. And then she let her hair down and used it like a towel to wipe his feet, which means that she probably carried that aroma for several days after this happened.

My guess is the room got quiet as people caught wind of the perfume and began to realize what was happening. Then Judas critiqued the whole scene by saying she would have done better to spend the money feeding poor people than pouring a Costco-sized bottle of perfume on Jesus’ feet, and Jesus responds by saying, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

In the next verse, John moves on to people gathering palms to wave at Jesus as he entered Jerusalem. He doesn’t wrap up the story or tell us what anyone else said, he just moves on.

On the surface, Jesus’ words sound almost callous, as though he is saying, “You can help poor people any day you want,” but there’s more going on here. Those gathered would have been familiar with Deuteronomy 15, which talks about the year of jubilee when all debts were forgiven–every seven years. God said, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’”

Jesus was saying the two expressions of compassion were not mutually exclusive. Generosity is not an either-or proposition, but a pervasive way of life. Extravagance is God’s calling card. What Mary did resonated with the three hundred bottles of wine Jesus made from water for the wedding, or the parable the four hundred cups of flour that were transformed by the yeast that Jesus told to illustrate the extravagance of God’s presence, or the prodigal love of the father we saw in last week’s parable of the two lost sons.

Mary got it. The proper way might have been to wash Jesus’ feet and then put a light rub of perfume on them afterwards, but she poured it all over him and her. Evidence of her compassion ran across the floor and got on everyone’s sandals. The aroma filled everyone’s nostrils. She had prepared herself to respond to the moment when she saw the chance.

To celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday this year, Rachel, my mother-in-law, decided to put together bags to hand out to those experiencing homelessness. As she and Ginger planned what to do, they thought about more than handing out a bottle of water or a snack. They really thought about things people need. They got some large Ziplock bags and filled them with granola bars and other healthy snacks, but also a wash cloth, a pair of socks, toothbrush and toothpaste, and a bottle of Gatorade.

Thursday, I was coming out of the Big Y parking lot and a man was standing at the traffic light holding a cardboard sign. Because of Rachel’s preparation and compassion, I had something to offer him. I was ready for the moment.

What Judas was talking about was hypothetical: “Well you know what you could have done . . .” To follow his logic means that neither Jesus nor the poor people around them would have been taken care of.

One other things strikes me in this story. Our passage this morning was the first twelve verses of John 12. The first twelve verses of chapter 13 are John’s account of Jesus’ last night with his disciples before his execution. Instead of the last supper, John says that Jesus got up from the table, much like Mary had done a few nights before, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed the feet of his disciples–even Judas; and then he asked, “Do you know what I have done to you?”

Mary’s actions did more than just make Jesus cared for, more than foreshadow his death. We have no idea how much Jesus had that last evening planned out, but I wonder if what she did affected how he thought about the ways he would show his love for his followers that last night as, once again, the smell of death was in the air.

We seem to end up here each week, reminding each other that life is temporary and death is sure. At the start of Lent we talked about “practicing resurrection” as our theme for the season, and the reality is resurrection requires death. We can’t have one without the other.

One of the benedictions I have heard often in UCC services is attributed to a French philosopher named Henri-Frédéric Amiel who said, “Life is short. We don’t have much time to gladden the hearts of those who walk this way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind.” I will admit that I have heard it so many times that it has started to sound more like something on a greeting card rather than a benediction, but Mary’s extravagant generosity gave me fresh ears for those words.

Death is in the air. We don’t have much time. But to be able to respond to the moments where we have a chance to show our love, we must prepare to be generous, to be extravagant, whether we are caring for friends or helping strangers. We will not always have each other. Let’s not miss our chances to love one another. Amen.

lenten journal: not alone

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We have had a grey and misty day around here, with a few moments of sunlight, but not many. The dampness in the air makes it feel colder than it is. When I sat down to write, it felt like a good night to share some songs that have found me over the past weeks, which is probably as close to a theme as I’m going to get tonight except that I would say all of the songs are about what it means to be here together in one way or another.

After my post about being exhausted, a friend reminded me of Nick Drake’s “‘Cello Song,” which then sent me on a Nick Drake afternoon and I landed on this song, “The Time of No Reply,” that seems like a good subtitle for Lent.

time goes by from year to year
and no one asks why I am standing here
but I have my answer as I look to the sky
this is the time of no reply

Another friend sent me a CD that is a collaboration between Art Garfunkel, Buddy Mondlock, and Maia Sharp. The title track is “Everything Waits to Be Noticed,” which is a title begging for a sermon.

twenty-eight geese in sudden flight
the last star on the edge of the night
a single button come undone
the middle child, the prodigal son
everything waits to be noticed
a trickle underneath a dam
the missing line from the telegram
everything waits to be noticed

Vance Gilbert’s latest record is called Good, Good Man and he is. Ginger and I first saw Vance at Club Passim when we first moved to Boston in the early nineties. His voice, his guitar playing, and his songwriting have only gotten better. His take on our mortality is “Pie and Whiskey.”

you can live on pie and whiskey
but you surely won’t live too long
one is as sweet as your very first kiss
the other gonna go down strong
neither one will sustain you
when the other make your belly lame
and go all wrong
you can live on pie and whiskey
but you surely won’t live too long

Kathleen Edwards’ debut record, Failed, made me a fan long, long ago. She’s another one that has kept up the good work. “Options Open” is the tale of a well-worn love, a beautiful reminder of the power of keeping our promises.

you do, you say, you speak, you wear, it just works for me
but I blame it on the weekly flyer
that took me down to Crappy Tire
‘cause you were smiling when I looked up
I guess we’ll always have a parking lot
tor thirty-nine years I’ve been keeping my options open
I’ve been keeping my options open

I just realized I came upon some great singer-songwriters in the eighties and nineties who have remained musical companions because Billy Bragg is next on my list. I think I saw him at Poor David’s Pub in Dallas in the mid-eighties when he was promoting his record Talking to the Taxman about Poetry. He, too, is still at it. “I Will Be Your Shield” is a powerful anthem of love and friendship.

In the notes on the YouTube page he says, “To me, ‘I Will Be Your Shield’ is the heart and soul of the album. I’ve come to the conclusion that empathy is the currency of music – that our job as songwriters is to help people come to terms with their feelings by offering them examples of how others may have dealt with a situation similar to that in which the listener finds themselves. After what we’ve all been through, the idea of being a shield – physically, emotionally, psychologically – resonates beyond the pandemic.”

when things start to unravel
and days fill you with dread
when commenced in your confidence
confiding me instead
when every little setback
just makes you want to cry
when the whole world seems against you
and you don’t know why

in the battle against your demons
I, I will be your shield
when the world has lost all meaning
together, we’ll stand for our love
is the one thing that’s real

The Infamous Stringdusters are a new band to me, but they are not new and they are really good. They will sing us out with something we all need to keep saying, or singing, out loud: “I’m Not Alone.”

am I just the sum of all my wondering?
will I see the beauty of the years?
can I peel away the layers of longing?
can I learn to live with all my fears?
I have painted all these walls
trim to ceiling
I have waited for so long
still the feeling that I’m
not alone
I’m not alone
I’m not alone
I’m not alone

Whatever the weather is at your house, we are not alone.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: outside the frame

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It’s an odd connection, I suppose.

I was reading Rebecca Solnit’s Orwell’s Roses and she was describing a painting of one of his English ancestors–a painting of “gentility”: an English country house and the men clothed in their privilege–and then went on to talk about what was “outside the frame of the painting,” which was that the money that got them their houses and finery was made through the slave trade. To leave all that outside the frame meant they could see themselves as gentle men rather than brutal ones.

Her point notwithstanding, I kept seeing frames in my head and the edges of photographs that define the picture. And I thought of this picture, one I keep coming back to when it comes to thinking about who I am. It was taken in the front yard of our house in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). I have no idea how old I was, except that I lived there between the ages of one and five. I’m guessing this is somewhere in the middle of all of that.

I wrote about this picture in my book This Must Be the Place: Reflections on Home. Here is part of what I said after I wrote, “The history we construct doesn’t use facts for bricks.”

Before my beginning, my parents had stories of their own and their parents before them. My family across generations, however, have not been good record keepers. One of my mother’s uncles joined the Mormon Church and did a good deal of genealogical work as an expression of his faith, but beyond that none of us has explored much of our family tree. From the time I was small, I can recall my father telling the story of how his mother died in childbirth. He recounted how his father said the doctor offered his parents a choice: Either the mother or the child could live. She chose her son. I was in my thirties and my father in his sixties when the woman I knew as “Grandma C”—his stepmother—gave him a binder full of newspaper clippings and other things about his birth mother that she had saved over the years. From what I could tell, Dad knew nothing of the notebook until that moment. There in the brittle black and white of the aging newsprint was her obituary—she had died almost a month after he was born. After six decades, his creation story changed. How he came to be happened differently than the story he had trusted with his life. I’ll never forget the look on his face.

My parents and my birth certificate say I was born in Corpus Christi, Texas, but I had my first birthday on a trek from Texas to New York City, on our way to Africa; my first memory of myself is the picture of me standing in the front yard of our house at 15 Dale Carnegie Road in Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia. I was about two. I don’t remember the photograph being taken, or standing in the yard, or even much of living in Bulawayo. I hold the memory because I have seen this snapshot so many times—the shorts, the striped T-shirt, the white hat, the little sneakers, the one lifted foot—to the point that I feel like every picture I remember of that house on Dale Carnegie Road had me standing in the front yard as though I were some sort of yard art. I’ve imagined people driving by and thinking, “There’s that little boy again. Don’t they ever let him go inside?” The moment is so specific it has become timeless: I am always in the yard on Dale Carnegie Road. Milton starts here.

I remain fascinated that the photograph catches my left foot in the air. I wonder where I was going.

Outside of the frame were my mother, my father, my baby brother, Nina, my nanny, and a big Collie whose name I can’t remember. Far outside the frame and across the ocean were grandparents and an aunt and uncle I knew nothing about, along with a nation that called me a citizen but wasn’t home.

These days, we talk about reframing issues or situations as a way of getting a fresh look at them. It creates an image of taking off the fancy gold frame and replacing it with a more modern acrylic one, or vice versa. Perhaps a fresh look is changing the frame, or looking beyond it; moving the borders to include a larger view that makes visible connections that had been cut off.

Like I said, it’s an odd connection between a painting of an English country house and a picture of little Milton in the front yard, always on his way to somewhere outside the frame.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: exhausted

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exhausted (adj.) mid-17c., “consumed, used up; of persons, “tired out.”

So says the etymological dictionary. The verb exhaust (“to use up completely”) goes back to the 1530s, but I think it is probably more than coincidence that the use of the adjective lines up with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, along with the Enlightenment, European colonization, and the general growth of the acceptable level of greed we have come to know as capitalism.

That’s not exactly how I thought this post was going to go, but once I looked up the root of the word I couldn’t help but notice the connections.

Three hundred years later, perhaps its not such a far-fetched connection. My company goes back into our offices next week, which means I start going back to New York, except now the expectation is that I go in three days a week instead of one. Door to door, my commute is three hours each way. When I asked about the reason for the change, I was told they were seeking uniformity.

Again, not the direction I thought I was going with this post.

My sister-in-law’s mother has spent her whole life in Kansas and Oklahoma. She is a wonderful woman who looks like Ms. Claus and has her own way with words. She and her husband stayed with Ginger and me once when they were vacationing. After a long day trip, she came in one evening and said, “I’m so tired I feel like I’ve been hit in the back with a dead rabbit.” Somehow, I knew just how tired she was.

I’ve thought a lot about her lately, not just because I am weary but because exhaustion feels so pervasive. We are all worn out, hit with dead rabbits, HR manuals, pandemics, grief, supply chain issues, family struggles, wars, bills, questions . . . the list goes on and on.

If you’re tired, you go to sleep. If your exhausted–depleted, used up, consumed–how do you get re-hausted? Even more, how do we live these days without being eaten up by them?

Man, I wish this next paragraph had words that offered some sort of meaningful response to that question. In the same way I didn’t know where the post was going to go, now I am not really sure how to wrap things up, so I tell a story, or at least, I’ll borrow one.

I have been reading The Hours of the Unviverse: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey by Ilia Delio (whose name is awesome to say out loud). In it she tells of being in a DC Metro station, running to catch a train, when she fell on some concrete steps and busted her chin open. She was by herself. A young man stopped to see if she was alright and then, when he realized she was bleeding, he called for help and then sat with her until the paramedics arrived. She says,

He looked at my bruised face and asked, “Are you hurt?” It was not so much what he said but how he said it, as if in that moment I was the sole concern of his entire life. I was deeply touched by his compassion and care. . . . He helped me up and brought me into the Metro police quarters ; he waited with me until the ambulance arrived, assuring me I would be properly cared for. The hands of time because the hands of love; he ditched his plans and waited with me for about forty-five minutes before I was whisked off to the emergency room.

The hands of time became the hands of love.

Whether we are exhausted by bunnies or bosses or bad news or something else that starts with a b, we have a chance to let the incidental contact of our lives translate time into love, to create room for one another to rest, to replenish, to re-haust (who knows, maybe that word will catch on.

The talk about time brings me to a musical close for this post–a Tom Waits song called “Time.” That is fitting because, based on his amazing lyrics, I think he would completely understand what it means to be hit in the back with a dead rabbit. He wrote, in part,

and the band is going home it’s raining hammers it’s raining nails
and it’s true there’s nothing left for him down here
and it’s time time time
and it’s time time time
and it’s time time time that you love
and it’s time time time

Yes. Yes, it is.

Peace,
Milton

PS–Here’s a beautiful cover of the song from the Tom Waits tribute record, “Come On Up to the House: Women Sing Waits”.

lenten journal: performative

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performative

it seems like a cute reflex
when a kid realizes they
are on the stadium screen
and they start to dance

without the camera they
would have stayed caught
up in their cracker jacks
or dreams of a foul ball

but tell me there’s a chance
my tweet could go viral
and the dance turns to
damage, derision, and fame

what makes us think every
thing requires a response
just because the camera
is always on watching

this is not a luddite’s lament
but a reminder to myself
that the camera hopes we
will try to be more interesting

than we are in real life and
that rarely works out well
the old song says dance like
there’s nobody watching

look, it’s not about being
remembered or retweeted
quoted or even cancelled
but you already knew that

enjoy your cracker jacks wait
for the person who never
knows they’re on camera
no wait–be that person

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: emotional support books

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emotional support books

for umberto eco
unread books were of more
value than the read ones

best for a library
to hold what you don’t know
reading is not conquest

an exercise of trust
page after page but what
then of unreading

the books that sit around
in stacks or on shelves
standing or lying down

unopened perhaps held
brought home with intention
possibilities in paperback

some find places next to
well-worn favorites
and those read more than once

I used to think I had to
justify their presence or
stop adding to the pile

Still I hear eco’s echo
reading is not conquest
I am not collecting

I am surrounding
myself with the comfort
of all I do not know.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: be a prodigal

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Comedian Steve Martin had a routine in his early days where he talked about how much names matter. He said, for instance, you wanted you bank to be named First Amalgamated Federal National Bank so you felt like your money was safe. If it was called Bob’s Bank you would be less likely to invest because it sounded like you were going to keep their money in your pocket.

When I was in high school, my mother was reading a novel called Christy and she was sure I would like it, but I wasn’t willing to give it a chance. In frustration, she said, “I’ll bet if it was called Joe Fang and His Gang you would read it.” I laughed and said, “I probably would.” When I got home from school that day, there was the book with a handmade cover titled Joe Fang and His Gang.

And she was right: I loved it—once I got past the name.

Jesus never named his parables. The titles were added later by translators and preachers. I’m not actually sure when the names were added. Our passage today is part of three “lost and found” parables that are all named after the thing that was lost and found: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son.

I’ll come back to that word prodigal later.

The names set our vision before we even start reading. We are led to believe that the stories are about the sheep, the coin, and the son, but we need to work hard to see past that filter because it’s not that simple; there’s so much more going on.

Our passage started with some religious leaders, who were people of privilege, criticizing Jesus for welcoming “sinners.” Well, actually, the chapter starts with Luke saying that “tax collectors and sinners” kept coming to Jesus. Even Luke had a hard time grasping Jesus’ love for all humanity, perhaps.

And Jesus did not ignore or shun people of privilege. He hung out with them as well. In Luke 14, the chapter just before our passage, he is eating dinner at one of their houses, which happened quite often. But they couldn’t figure him out, and when they asked questions, he answered in parables, which, as we know, don’t explain anything.

A shepherd loses one of his hundred sheep and doesn’t sleep until he finds it, and then wakes up all the neighbors to celebrate with him. A woman loses one of ten coins and tears up the house looking for it, and then spends who knows how much to throw a party to celebrate. And then, a son asks for his inheritance way ahead of schedule, while his older brother keeps doing what he thinks his father wants so he will get all that is coming to him and maybe more. The younger sibling takes off with his fortune and blows it so badly that he ends up feeding pigs.

The young man then plots a scheme to come home and play humble—just let me be one of your servants; I know I don’t deserve to be a son—because he imagines his father has been angry at him since he left and that’s the only way to get back in the house. But the dad has been watching the road every day, hoping he would come home. As soon as he sees his boy, he welcomes him home without waiting for an explanation.

Before we go on, I want to notice two key difference between this parable and the two that preceded it.

The first two started with questions: Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it?—which inclined the readers to see themselves as the shepherd and the woman—sort of a “if you were in this situation . . .”

Then our parable begins, not with a question, but with, “Once there was a man who had two sons . . . ,” which was a familiar way to start a story, sort of the Aramaic equivalent of “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar . . .” But Jesus doesn’t point them to which role to play.

The second thing is that the father doesn’t go looking for the boy the way the shepherd and the woman went looking for what they lost. And the boy was not really lost, for that matter, at least not like the sheep and the coin. He left on purpose and lost sight of himself.

That points me to a third difference. This parable has two lost boys. The older brother might have never left home, but he certainly didn’t feel found. While his brother was away, the older son went to the field every day, made sure things were done right, and worked hard to stay in his father’s favor. When he saw his dad go so completely overboard with his brother came home, he couldn’t take it.

Much like the father had gone out the front door to embrace his youngest son, he went out the back door to find the oldest one when he didn’t show at the party.

The older son had his own ways of trying to manipulate the father: “I’ve been here the whole time and you never let me have a barbeque with my friends.” And the father said, “This is not about you. This about us. Your brother came back. Why wouldn’t we throw a party?”

And that brings me back to the word prodigal. It means “given to extravagance, wasteful, giving on a lavish scale, spending recklessly.”

The word gets attached to the younger son who wastes his life and his fortune, but I think the father is the real prodigal in this story. He is the one who offers extravagant, we might even say reckless love.

Because of the names we have given these parables, we often read them as though they were fables or analogies: the shepherd, the woman, and the father all symbolize God–and God is recklessly extravagant in the way God loves us–but if we look at the context of Jesus telling the stories in response to questions about why he hung out with tax collectors and sinners, I think he wanted us to imagine what life would be like if we were the prodigals: if we were the ones who loved extravagantly.

When we put ourselves in the story—well, I’ll speak for myself. When I try to put myself in the story, the most attractive roles are those of the sheep, the coin, and the kid who got to run wild and then was welcomed back because they are on the receiving end of that crazy kind of love. In real life, I am an older brother, though I was the more experimental one in some ways, but in others I have been true to the role working hard to earn love, to earn a sense of self-worth instead of trusting I was worthy of being loved because I was breathing.

That said, I will make a we statement now.

I think for most, we want to picture ourselves as the younger boy at the end of the story, but
we are, more likely, the older one. I don’t mean that we all wish we would run off and do anything we want until we run out of money. I mean we picture ourselves as the one someone is waiting for, the one who gets celebrated no matter what, but we live like the older brother, acting as though the truth is that love is earned.

But the truth is God’s love is not earned. Real love is not earned.

That is great news that is sometimes hard to take because we work hard and we would like all that work to mean something—and it does mean a great deal, but it doesn’t earn us love.

The parable reminds us that life is not about getting our due. The younger son wanted his inheritance and the older one wanted his recognition. If we direct our gaze away from the brothers to the father, we see that he went out to both. He went out the front to meet the wanderer and he went out the back to find the dutiful one. He was pouring out love, regardless of circumstance.

Jesus’ response to those who questioned the kind of people he cared about was to tell parables about a shepherd who dropped everything to find the lost lamb, or the woman who spent half her budget celebrating the change she found in the couch cushions, and a father who loved his children with reckless abandon. That is where we are invited to find ourselves in these stories: as the one who is looking for every reason to love prodigally, to welcome outlandishly, to drop everything to look for those waiting to be found.

In that sense, to be a prodigal sounds like a pretty good way to live. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: anything can happen

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To reference the Mark Knofler song that shows up at the end of this week’s sermon, this has been a week when I felt like the bug rather than the windshield. I’m hanging in there, and I found helpful insights in Jesus’ parable about the fig tree (Luke 13:1-9). Perhaps they will help you, too.

__________________________________

One of the persistent questions that followed Jesus had to do with who was responsible for the bad things that happened. When the disciples saw a man who had been blind from birth, they asked Jesus, “Who sinned that this man should be born blind?” In our passage this morning, people wanted to know what certain Galileans had done that caused great tragedy to befall them.

Jesus responded by asking them if they thought the world really worked that way. Then he said, “Repent,” which is one of those words that doesn’t sit easily on our ears. What it means is to “turn around:” to intentionally change your mind, your actions, your heart.

Though I’m sure if we went around the room most of us would say that we do not think that suffering is some kind of judgment, that notion lives all around us. Do you remember the fundamentalist preachers who said AIDS was God’s judgement on gay people? That’s not just crazy talk, it’s damaging and destructive. We don’t live in a cause-and-effect world when it comes to tragedy and difficulty, or even when it comes to blessing and good fortune.

Maybe our experience of the pandemic is the chance to put that kind of damaging thinking out of our minds for good. COVID is not a result of someone’s sin. Let’s let that ripple out a bit more. People are not poor because they did something wrong and God is punishing them. Suffering is not payback. Bad storms are not indicators of God’s disdain. Being rich doesn’t mean we are Jesus’ favorite.

As I said, the human tendency to want to explain suffering by blaming or shaming someone–usually someone else–comes through in this passage. It’s a hard habit to break. The folks around Jesus were talking about some Galileans who were victims of Pilate’s power. The assumption of the non-Galileans was that those folks must have done something to incur his wrath. Jesus stepped in to say that we don’t make meaning out of suffering by blaming or gossiping. What is worth talking about, rather than who is at fault, is how we can participate in grace, so repent: change your heart.

Then he said, basically, “Face it: you are all going to die just like the Galileans did.”

After that rather startling truth-telling, he told a parable about a fig tree that had not grown any figs for three years. The landowner saw the tree as useless and told the gardener to cut it down. The gardener asked him to let the tree grow for another year and he would tend to it. And that’s where the story ends. We don’t know the landowner’s response or if the tree finally grew figs.

When Ginger and I first moved to New England, I wanted to plant a fig tree, mostly because we had one in our yard in North Carolina and I love figs. I talked to gardeners who either said it a fig tree couldn’t survive the winter or gave me a detailed list of the things I would have to do to help it survive. We had friends in Guilford who lived down by the water and they had one, but the problem was the summer here is so short that the figs never had a chance to ripen. Nevertheless, I planted a fig tree our first spring here and did some of the things people told me to do to help it survive the winter, but it died.

One day, I will, too. And so will all of you. Like Mavis Staples sings, “Death is slow, but death is sure. Allelu, allelu.

Aren’t you glad you came to church today?

What can I say? How about: since life is short, let’s use some of the time we have left to look a little more at the parable. One of the ways to look at a story like this is to imagine ourselves as each of the characters in the story.

Let’s start with the fig tree. It was alive. It was growing. But it wasn’t producing figs. It wasn’t that old of a tree, so perhaps it was still getting settled in. Maybe it had dealt with some sort of disease. My fig tree in North Carolina grew big and had lots of figs and for five summers the squirrels came the night before I was going to pick them and took all the fruit off the branches.

In the parable, the landowner was frustrated that the tree was not bearing fruit. He had expectations and things didn’t turn out like he planned, so he told the gardener to chop the tree down. His perspective is not unwarranted. Sometimes we need to let things die; we need to move on–to clear the ground and plant something else. It is healthy to remember that nothing lasts forever–not even us. We are all going to die. The man had waited three years for the tree to bear figs and it had not. He was ready to dig it up and plant something else.

The gardener said, “Give it one more year.” He said he would tend to the tree–fertilize it, work the soil, take care of it. “Let’s see what happens.” The way the parable unfolds, it doesn’t appear that the gardener is new, so he would have been a part of planting the tree and would have been the one caring for it. While the owner was ready to do away with it, the gardener still had hope.

Jesus ends the story without a resolution. We don’t know what happened a year later. Perhaps the tree was laden with figs. Maybe it died like mine did. We aren’t told if the landowner’s heart was softer a year later, or if he had the day marked on his calendar to show up with his saw. The gardener didn’t offer a cause-and-effect solution or make any promisers of figs. All he knew was the only way the tree had a chance was for someone to care for it. We don’t know what happened. We aren’t told how to feel about the characters in the story or what to do as a result of hearing about them, only to repent, maybe to replant.

Where then, can we find ourselves in the parable?

Maybe you feel like the tree. You feel rooted and you’re doing the best you can, but you are not bearing the fruit you feel expected to bear. You keep doing what you are doing, you keep working to do what you think is right, and life isn’t turning out like you thought.

Maybe you feel like the landowner. You’ve had enough of things not going like you expected, so you’re cutting your losses. Time to shed the things and the people who have let you down. Time to dig things up and plant something else. Life is not working the way it is. It’s time to make drastic changes.

Or maybe you feel like the gardener. Life isn’t what you hoped, but you don’t want to give up. If you keep trying and helping and taking care of those around you, there’s always a chance things will start to grow.

The reality is we are all the characters in the parable, depending on the day or the situation–sort of like the Mark Knofler song that says,

sometimes you’re the windshield
sometimes you’re the bug
sometimes it all comes together
sometimes you’re just a fool in love
sometimes you’re the Louisville slugger
sometimes you’re the ball
sometimes it all comes together
sometimes you’re gonna lose it all

Yup. Someday we’re going to lose it all. The fact that life is short is not anyone’s fault. In fact, the reality that life is temporary is what infuses it with meaning. Rather than look for someone to blame (including ourselves) let us repent—turn in a new direction, change course, trust God. We are not defined or trapped by our circumstances. By the grace of God, life is full of surprises. Grow. Replant. Nurture and hope.

Because anything can happen. Amen.

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: night vision

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night vision
for Nathan Brown, Poet Laureate of the Apocalypse, on his birthday

the moon was up
before darkness
fell round and bright
like the Pixar lamp
that turns and looks

then it made room
for a night-sky filled
with tiny desk lamps
casting light for one
tired poet and another

or maybe they are
street lamps on milky
ways of metaphors
not to chase the dark
away but to dance

most of those lights
died out long ago
but the news has
not reached us yet
more grief to come

so the poets work
late into the night
to find the words
the names of what
has been lost

Peace,
Milton

lenten journal: evening prayer

4

evening prayer

the world is quiet in our town
the moon shines through clouds
as if God is under the covers
reading with a flashlight

I can hear no bombs
or see any tracer rockets
no buildings are burning
no one has to hide to be safe

I have done nothing to earn
this quiet peaceful night
that I am here and not there
is an accident of lineage

perhaps of privilege
is a better way to say it
so I pray for the Ukrainians
as if it makes a difference

but the longer this goes on
I feel my prayers expand
to wish our leaders had
Zelenskyy’s courage

I don’t have much hope
that prayer will be answered
then I feel my anger rise to
say I wish Putin would die

I would rather him die
than those who were doing
nothing more than living
when the bombs hit

the world is quiet in our town
and I am sad and angry and
bitter and disappointed
in our leaders, our country

we need to do more than
wait till things are over so
we can build a memorial
that God can read in the dark

Peace,
Milton