Magic Words

2mhane

Painting by Jacob Hane

‘Twas the week before Christmas
And all through the house,
The children were screaming –
And they’d frightened the mouse.

Well, I’m afraid that’s as far as my memory will let me get with rhyming. So I’ll have to tell you the rest as a story. OK?

Sometimes, when children are screaming, it’s good screaming. Sometimes you’re just so happy or full of energy or overflowing with good feelings that they come out at full voice. And if everybody else is doing the same thing, well, it just gets louder and louder, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, on this day, in this house, the screams weren’t happy screams. The kids were screaming with anger.

They’d reached the point – you’ve been there, right? – where they’d forgotten what they were mad about. It was all just yelling and name-calling and sorrow and rage now. Lots and lots of screaming.

One of the children went in search of the mother, who had sought a place at the far side of the house in the (forlorn) hope of escaping the screaming din. The child, with some difficulty because of the way tears and indignation combine to disrupt a coherent story, demanded that the mother come and stop all the rest of the children from being jerks.

“Well,” said the mother, “why don’t you just use the magic word?”

The child had some experience of this, however, and would not be put off by this ploy. With folded arms, a tossed head, and (I’m afraid) rolling eyes, the child informed the mother that “Please” had already been tried and the other children were still jerks.

“All right,” said the mother. “Why don’t you try this one?”

Leaning over, she whispered softly and briefly in the child’s ear. The child’s face went through the contortions of surprise and puzzlement, but recognizing that this step had to be taken before anything else happened, the child made the trip back to the other side of the house and the screaming room.

The screaming, I have to admit, continued.

But a few minutes later, one of the other children appeared before the mother with the same complaint. Once again, she whispered a few words into the ear, and the child exited her room, with a face filled with surprise and doubt.

The screaming continued, but with somewhat less volume.

One by one, all the children made their way to see the mother, and one by one returned with the same whispered instructions. Finally the last and littlest one seized her hand and would not let go until she, too, made her way to the surprisingly quiet screaming room.

The children were no longer screaming. They were repeating their magic words, sometimes one after another, sometimes overlapping each other, sometimes all at the same time. Their faces held the surprise that had overwhelmed them some time ago when the screaming faded away.

They were all saying, “I love you.”

I can’t promise that those words will magically end any of the screaming matches you find yourselves in. I can definitely tell you that it’s worth trying: It’s worth trying to say them, and it’s definitely worth trying to live up to them.

As for the mother, she smiled.

This story takes its inspiration from one told in my hearing some years ago by the Rev. Dr. Ronald Brown, senior pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Southington, Connecticut. I haven’t found that story available online, but you’ll find Ron’s wit, wonder, and wisdom on his blog.

“Breakfast” – Sermon for Apr. 10, 2016

Preached at
Church of the Holy Cross UCC
Hilo, Hawai’i
April 10, 2016

Text: John 21:1-19

Some of you have, I suspect, had a question on your mind for half hour or so:

Is he really going to wear a tie every Sunday?

Some of you may have followed this question with another, more personal one:

Is he going to expect me to wear a tie every Sunday?

I can answer the second question immediately: No. I have no intention of introducing a new dress code for worship at Church of the Holy Cross. That’s a mistake the early missionaries to Hawai’i made, and I don’t care to repeat it. The important thing is to worship God, and clothes should not be a barrier to that. Wear what makes you worshipful. That might be what makes you comfortable, but it might not. Wear what helps you focus on the love of God.

As for myself: that’s one of the things I’ll be learning as time goes on. I’ve worshiped wearing a jacket and tie, or a pastor’s robe and tie, for over forty years. I’m pretty sure that’s going to change now, but I’ll be frank: I don’t know what I’m going to look like in worship next week, let alone next year.

Which brings us to the disciples. Jesus had been crucified, which left them terrified and paralyzed. Then Jesus had been raised, which left them exalted and amazed. They hardly knew what to believe.

This week finds them not knowing what to do. When Jesus appeared to all his disciples, including Thomas, who must really have regretted missing that earlier gathering, he’s startlingly vague about what they’re to do next. They’re joyful, they’re exultant, they’ve renewed their courage – but they’re not committed to any particular direction. So they return to Galilee, which had been home for many of them, and the fishermen among them take up fishing again, with no great success until Jesus appears. This time he’s got a commission, and they won’t use nets to fish ever again.

Gathered for Thanksgiving in 2014

Gathered for Thanksgiving in 2014

They’re on the road to change.

So are we. You and I, the faith community of the Church of the Holy Cross in Hilo, and Eric Anderson born in Middletown, Connecticut. We have met, and we have committed to follow the leadership of Christ together. Christ will change us, and we will change each other. Just what we will look like, and how it will all happen, is still ahead. God knows, but I do not.

I do know that there are more of you than there are of me, and that means I’ll change more than you.

But this is where I come from:

Shirley Anderson

Rev. Shirley Anderson

Lynn Anderson

Rev. Lynn Anderson

This is my family gathered for Thanksgiving a couple years ago at my brother’s house in New Haven. My father, Lynn Anderson, worked as a public school educator for over 30 years, retired early, and entered the ministry. My mother died quite some time ago, and around twenty years ago, while in seminary, my father met and married Shirley Anderson. Both of them have served churches in New England, and they’ve both reached their second retirement. So there are three ordained ministers in my immediate family. I’m the youngest, and I’ve also been ordained the longest.

Rebekah and Brendan Anderson

Rebekah and Brendan Anderson

It was my cousins who bought this tie for me, in celebration of my call to Hawai’i. They made the selection for the bright colors, of course, which can be found in the aloha style, but I don’t think that a large paisley pattern is really Hawaiian – and, of course, it’s a tie. We don’t really know a great deal about Hawai’i back east. I come to this ministry aware that I have a lot to learn!

Incidentally, one of those things is how often to water the plants in the parsonage. They’re all new varieties to me, and I’d value some pointers!

These are my adult children. Brendan on the right is twenty-three, a graduate of the University of Vermont, and has been volunteering in a 3rd grade classroom in Boston this school year. Rebekah is in her third year at Hampshire College, and she wants to be a writer. They are simply two of the most wonderful people I know.

Glastonbury Choir

The choir at First Church in Glastonbury

Rev. Kate VanDerzee-Glidden and Rev. David Taylor

Rev. Kate VanDerzee-Glidden and Rev. David Taylor

David Taylor and Kate VanDerzee-Glidden are the pastors of First Church of Christ Congregational UCC in Glastonbury, Connecticut, where I’ve worshiped for the last ten years or so. They gathered people together to present me with this stole, which celebrates both New England and Hawai’i. On the back, church members and friends wrote their blessings and best wishes for me, and I’ve been reading them with tears in my eyes.

This is the choir at First Church in Glastonbury singing at the service the Connecticut Conference held to celebrate my ministry. You’ll notice that they all donned leis for the occasion – and had one for me. What you can’t see in the photo is the gift certificate they gave me for a music shop here in Hilo, to purchase an ukulele and start to learn to play it.

And I’ve even gone out to buy it!

Eric and Paul Bryant-Smith

Eric and Paul Bryant-Smith

And this is my friend Paul Bryant-Smith. He’s pastor of a church in Danbury, Connecticut, and also a hospital chaplain. The two of us have made music together for twenty years. In this picture, also from that farewell service, I’m playing him wearing heavy winter clothing, and he’s being me, playing ukulele. We are, of course, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

And then there’s this photo. I took it at the Hilo airport. Because my flight was early, which I gather isn’t common, some of you who came to greet me hadn’t arrived yet when I took this picture. I think I was also wearing at least two more leis when I left the airport.

This picture has been liked 235 times on Facebook. I’m pretty sure that’s the most affection any photo has ever received on my Facebook account.

I’m showing you all this to make sure you know something very important about me: I know what it is to be loved. I have been blessed to live among loving people. In these smiles and waves and leis, I know that I am blessed to live among loving people again.

Church of the Holy Cross members welcome Eric Anderson to Hilo.

Church of the Holy Cross members welcome Eric Anderson to Hilo.

Jesus asked the impulsive, jump-into-the-water Peter this question: “Do you love me?”

It’s a tough question for him, and in fact Peter does some linguistic gymnastics with words for “love” that don’t translate from Greek to English.

That’s for another time. It doesn’t matter what kind of love Jesus asks about, and it doesn’t matter what kind of love Peter declares, because every time Jesus insists: “Feed my sheep.”

“Do you love me? You do? Feed my sheep.”

Or he might have put it this way: “Do you love me? You do? Love those around you.”

Feed my sheep.

There are a lot of ways to be hungry in the world: the hunger of the stomach, the hunger of the mind, the hunger of the soul.

The hunger of the stomach seems simple, doesn’t it? I get hungry. I eat. Problem solved. But the hunger of the stomach is not so simple, not by half. For one thing, food alone won’t do. I need to drink water as well, and my officemates back at the Connecticut Conference are still telling stories about my need for coffee.

Yet there’s another important question to ask: When people are hungry, why are they hungry? Why don’t they have access to food, or water, or work, or support? How can we prevent today’s hunger from becoming a pattern, or an apparently permanent condition?

Feed my sheep.

The hunger of the mind, likewise, may not be satisfied by the delivery of books or the establishment of schools. People learn differently, and techniques that work well for vast numbers of people may be utter failures with some others. You can see the frustration build when someone’s trying to learn in a way that doesn’t work well for them. If you’re trying to learn something from me, and it’s not working, let’s try it again, but this time, let’s try something different. And if I’m trying to learn something from you, and it’s not working, let’s try it again, and this time, we’ll try something different.

Pastor Eric in his tie and stole - and first Sunday lei.

Pastor Eric in his tie and stole – and first Sunday lei.

And there’s the hunger of the soul. When it comes right down to it, confronting this human need is my calling. My place among you is to help you satisfy the hungers of your soul.

Most of the time, I will not be able to meet that need myself. It would be lovely if I could do it in a sermon, but no. Not in one sermon, and most likely not in twenty years of sermons either. If I’m doing well, from time to time I’ll say something that feeds you just a little, and on the days when I don’t, hopefully I’ve said something to feed someone else.

The sermon isn’t the only source of spiritual food, however, and it’s my role to help you try things that might feed you. There are many different approaches to prayer, and some might bring you closer to God than others. Music has astonishing power to fill the soul. I’ll do my best, and work with the leadership, to lead worship that is authentic and engaged. We can study the Bible and other spiritual works. We can take retreats. We can engage in public service and public witness. We can sit together and talk about baseball, or your grandchildren, or your job. If your soul hungers, let’s work together, and find ways to fill your spirit.

The risk of having a satisfied soul is that Jesus summons them. He says, “Feed my sheep.” We’re not the only ones who hunger in body, mind, or spirit. There are others, near and far.

Our work together as the Church of the Holy Cross United Church of Christ in Hilo, Hawai’i, is to answer the call of Jesus, and labor to see that those who hunger – in body, mind, or spirit – are fed.