Impossible, Too

Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16, The Second Sunday in Lent

Scott Dickison · February 25th, 2024 · Duration 16:29

In the biblical story, the covenant between God and Abram and Sarai marks a turning point in human history. Last week, our reading from Genesis told of a different, earlier covenant, that God made with all of creation following the flood. But here, God makes a more targeted sacred promise, not with all of creation, but one couple, one family, who will be the primary vessel of God’s blessing to the world.

And to mark how this covenant will change Abram and the course of his life from this time forth, he is given a new name. He will now be Abra-ham, which may mean something like “father of a multitude.” This new name is forward-looking. Abraham is to live up to and into his new name.1

Likewise, Sarai, too, is given a new name. She will now be Sar-ah, possibly meaning “princess,” but also linguistically linked to the name “Israel,” for Sarah will be the mother of God’s future people. She, too, is given a new name to mark this new identity, this new trajectory of her life as a vessel of God’s purposes in the world. And it’s worth noting that while tradition has focused on God’s covenant with Abraham, all of these promises are restated for Sarah. She is not simply included in Abraham’s covenant, but is presented as an equal partner in this sacred promise with God.

I.

Names are powerful things in scripture. They are vessels of identity and even destiny. The names of places memorialize important events that happened there, and people are named to lift up certain qualities, or even foreshadow the shape their life will take. Abraham and Sarah’s boy will be named Isaac, meaning “laughter,” remembering how Sarah laughed when she was told she would conceive in her advanced age. We’re told in the gospels that Mary’s baby will be named Jesus, Yeshua, in Hebrew, which means “God saves,” for he will save God’s people from their sins.

And name changes, too, are especially powerful symbols in scripture. Later on in Genesis, Jacob, which means “one who supplants,” foreshadowing the trickery by which he would take his brother Esau’s blessing, will be given the name Israel, which means “one who struggles with God,” after wrestling with God by the river at night. This new name becomes a powerful testimony to the change in course in his own life, but also to what it means to be the people of God—we are those who struggle with God.

In the New Testament, we can think of the Pharisee and enemy of Christians, Saul, taking on the name Paul after his experience meeting the risen Christ on the road to Damascus, marking a dramatic shift in his life and the life of the church.

Of course, names can be important today, too. Naming a child is one of joys of becoming a new parent, often rich with meaning, and a way to connect generations of family with the passing down of names. I never met my grandfather but always felt a special connection to him through my middle name, Howard, which was his—or Howie, as he was known.

And the changing of a name remains a powerful symbol of a turning-point in one’s life. I remember on the drive with my parents to drop me off at my freshman year at college, sitting there in the backseat and contemplating going by my middle name as a way of starting fresh. Scott was a good enough guy, but Howie, well, he could be anything! When we arrived I was greeted by an upperclassmen offering to help unload the car, and when he extended his hand and asked my name, I told him…Scott.

Some make a name change in marriage, others to mark and make a new identity, a break from their families or their childhood or a part of their past they feel is dead and gone, in ways that can be tender or difficult, but also life-affirming.

Other times our new names are given to us. It’s traditional for those hiking the Appalachian Trail, especially thru-hikers aiming to hike the whole 2,200 miles, to be given a “trail name.” This is not a name you can give yourself, it is given to you by others you meet along the way. Many of you know that our own Lesley Ratcliff will be spending a month on the AT for her sabbatical later this spring and when we discussed this upcoming adventure at the deacons meeting last week, we all agreed we will look forward to hearing what name she comes back with. We can even add it to the website.

You may have the perfect grandparent name picked out, but it will pale in comparison to whatever garbled, adorable, phonetic mess that first grandchild spits out, GeeGee or Gaga or Peepaw, which will be its own special blessing, signaling a new season in life—a far greater blessing than you could ever give yourself. And that’s exactly what this name change is meant to be for Abraham and Sarah: a blessing that will usher them into who they are to become.

II.

But what is not so obvious in this story is that Abraham and Sarah are not the only ones who claim a new name. God, too, takes on a new name as part of this covenant, marking an important change in God’s relationship with the couple and all of humanity, and God’s commitment to this new covenant of blessing.2

God claims for the first time the name “God Almighty”—El Shaddai in Hebrew, meaning “God of the Mountain.” El Shaddai is among the most ancient names for God in scripture, and is often used in Hebrew poetry, calling to mind how God often appears, on mountaintops, wrapped in fire and smoke.

But here when God introduces this name to Abraham and Sarah, the precise meaning of “God of the Mountain” doesn’t seem to be as important as the fact that God, too, takes on a new name to mark this new season in their life together. Or rather, that Abraham and Sarah are given a new name to know God by at this turning point in their life.

And this is how it often is with us, that at critical times of change or transition in our lives, as we come to see ourselves in a different light, we too experience and come to know God in new and different ways. We might even come to know God by different names.

Like many, I was first introduced to God as Father, and in my own prayers still find myself reaching for that name and the relationship it points to. Yet this name has come to mean new and different things for me through the years. When my own father passed, the name Father took on a weight of sadness and memory. And then our sons were born, it took on a measure of joy and responsibility and even fear I didn’t know before. It was the same name for God I knew as a child, but now means something much more.

Many years ago I was also introduced to God as Mother, which opened up surprising new ways for me to understand who God has always been for me—God as nurturer and comforter and creator.

In fact, motherhood provides some of the most powerful images for God in all of scripture. The prophet Isaiah when he tells the people who are in exile, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or not show compassion to the child of her womb? So too I will not forget you, says the Lord.” Or Jesus, as he cries over Jerusalem, says how he longs to gather the people “like a mother hen” gathers her brood under her wings.

III.

There are other times when learning new names for God can mean letting go of old ones.

For instance, I used to know God by names like Perfection or Accomplishment. I thought these were what God demanded of me. Or names like Correct—being right was so essential to my faith. Or Fear—which seemed to follow close behind the name Correct. These names introduced me to others; names like Shame or Judgment, because I thought these were to define my relationships with others, or even myself.

There were times when I knew God by all of these names, though looking back now I can’t say that God ever gave these names to me. I’m not sure who did.

But while I believe now those names gave me a diminished and inaccurate understanding of God, I can say that in the end they led me to learn new names: names like Doubt and even Unbelief—imperfect names, too, but these names can be very useful and even comforting names for God, for a season. They’re often exactly where we come to know God more. Where God meets us, and hopefully leads us to other, even richer, truer names.

Names like Tenderness and Gentleness. Names like Kindness and Compassion and Acceptance. Vulnerability and Forgiveness and Joy. And it’s funny, as we said last week, I learned the name Joy about the same time I learned that Sorrow, too, can be a name for God, out there in the wilderness. God is mysterious that way. In fact, Mystery has become one of my favorite names for God. Like El Shaddai, “God of the Mountain,” it reminds me there is so much of God that is beyond me, and that it’s often in the parts of life and my relationships with others that are out of my reach or beyond my understanding that God waits to be found.

It’s so essential that we find these new names for God to mark the growth we come to know in our lives and in our faith. To mark new insights, but also struggle. Even suffering. In fact, if we have not learned any new names for God over the course of our lives, we might ask if we’ve been listening when God reveals them to us, and the testimony of scripture is that God does reveal them.

There are hundreds of names and images for God in scripture, each lifting up a different quality or characteristic of God, or different experience with God. And when we add to these the names for God that have been revealed to us in our own lives, it must be true that there are at least as many names for God as there are people who have encountered the power and presence and mystery of the divine in their life.

Language is so powerful, as we tell our boys all the time, as a way to remind ourselves. Words are the most powerful things in the world. But even words are so limited, so insufficient when directed to the One who is beyond words, or in describing those transcendent moments of encounter we pray to have from time to time. No name for God is complete. But the more names we learn ourselves or share with each other, the more we are opened to a richer and fuller understanding of who God is and can be for us.

IV.

This season of Lent we find ourselves within is the perfect time to learn new names for God and let go of others.

It’s likely there are some names for God we find we don’t use as much any more. Names that may have served a purpose at a time, but have lost their meaning for us. Maybe this is an invitation to put those aside.

But likelier still, through the years, new ways to understand who God is for us and where God can be found have been revealed to you. Often in places and experiences we may at one time have thought it was impossible for God to be.

This may be just the season to take hold of those. After all, it’s in the early light of Easter morning, and the coolness of the empty tomb, that we learn Impossible, too, is a name for God.

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1Terrance E. Fretheim, The Book of Genesis, in the New Interpreter’s Commentary. Fretheim’s commentary was helpful in shaping this sermon. 458-459
2Fretheim, again

God of the Wilderness

Mark 1:9-15, The First Sunday in Lent

Scott Dickison · February 18th, 2024 · Duration 14:19

Several years ago I had an opportunity to travel to Israel and Palestine with a combined group from the church I was serving at the time and the local reformed Jewish temple—similar to trips I understand our church has taken in years past. It was a transformational few weeks of learning and seeing and discovering that I have thought about a great deal over these past months.

It was during that trip that I learned of a Palestinian Christian organization called Musalaha, which is Arabic for “reconciliation.” For years this group has worked with Israeli and Palestinian youth to heal the divide between their people. One of the things they’ve learned in their work is that the first step toward reconciling, which is to sit down and talk to people on the other side and get to know them on personal level, is perhaps the hardest.

At first they tried just to bring the youth from both sides together in classrooms or some other setting in their hometowns, but they found that even if they could get these kids together in the same room — which was difficult enough — they wouldn’t engage each other. They were too close to home, too close to their friends, their parents and all the other voices from so many directions that closed their minds and their hearts to each other. There was simply not enough space for the Spirit to move, we might say. And so they decided to go someplace where space would not be an issue.

They began taking groups of Palestinian and Israeli youth on what they call “Desert Encounters,” out into the area of wilderness near the Dead Sea. Their mode of transportation is camels, of course. The youth ride two-by-two, paired with someone from the other side. There’s usually some friction at first, and even some occasional aggression or posturing, but the further they get into the wilderness and away from their world at home, the closer they get to each other, or perhaps what they share in common, and maybe, we can say, closer to God. And before long, to an outsider, it would be difficult to tell who is who.

Out there in the desert wilderness, with all the comforts and trappings that shape our world stripped away—the homes and neighborhoods, but also the prejudices and histories—it’s only when all that is gone that these youth are able to see things as they really are, painfully and beautifully.

And this has been true for the people of God in the wilderness for generations.

I.

It was from the wilderness of Mt. Horeb that the prophet Elijah witnessed God pass by him not in the wind, or the earthquake, or the fire, but in the sound of sheer silence—or the “still, small voice.”

Or Jacob, returning home after years away, spends the night by himself in the wilderness before reuniting with his brother Esau, whose birthright he stole, and finds himself wrestling with the angel of God until the sun peaks over the horizon, and the angel tries to escape and Jacob says those haunting words of wilderness faith, I will not let go until you bless me.

And of course, Moses and the Israelites, after being delivered from bondage in Egypt make their way through the wilderness for 40 years, where they are tried and tested, and fail repeatedly—it was one thing to get the people out of Egypt, but quite another to get Egypt out of the people. But it is in this wilderness that they receive God’s covenant and truly become God’s people.

Time and time again in scripture, usually at some time of transition, or change, or even loss, the people of God find themselves out in the desert, in the barren, open wilderness, where their interior is mirrored in their exterior, and in their vulnerability are able to experience the presence of God in a new way. And of course these two are directly related: it’s when our hearts and our spirits are left exposed that God finds a way in. It’s when we’re no longer sure of who we are, that God reveals who we might become.

II.

And now here is Jesus, still dripping wet with the waters of his baptism, when the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness. It drove him, Mark says, the same way Jesus will soon drive out evil spirits. Jesus is sent out into the desert by the same Spirit that blessed him in his baptism, as if this season in the unknown was a kind of prerequisite to begin his ministry, for him to truly be the face of God in the world.

Richard Rohr says we are only able to be a guide for others as far as we ourselves have gone. Was it that in order to feed the hungry Jesus would need to know hunger himself? In order to cast out demons in others would he need to face his own? To truly be present to others, would he need to know for himself what it feels like to be alone? Maybe it was true that in order for Jesus to be who we needed him to be, he needed to know something of the wilderness, the wilderness that is an unavoidable part of every human life.

It’s worth noting, too, that Jesus was faced with this time of testing not before his baptism, but after it, a reminder that there is no promise that our lives will be easier after we accept the call to follow. In fact, in many ways, we’re promised quite the opposite. My mentor, George Mason, who for many years was senior pastor at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, at each baby dedication, after he had walked the child around the sanctuary, introducing her to her church family, pointing to the people who would love her and care for her and teach her the story of our faith, would pray on behalf of the church that this beloved child of God would have a good life, not an easy life. We know there is a world of difference between the two, but this is perhaps too hard a prayer for a parent to pray for their own child. So this is a prayer we need the church to offer on our behalf.

A life of faith, a life following in the way of Christ, is almost guaranteed not to be easy—there are too many crosses. But our prayer, and our deep hope is that this life we claim and would pass on to our children, would be good, in the richest, truest sense of the word. And one of the surest ways we have to make it so, is the promise that we need never live this life alone. In fact, it may be that the true gift of the wilderness for Jesus is the same for those youth on the backs of camels, and the same for us, that it is out in the wilderness that we find each other.

III.

Isn’t it true that it’s our own wounds that allow us to tend to the wounds of others with care and understanding.
It’s only when we have known the depths of heartbreak and loss that we can truly offer a light to someone else in her own.
It’s only when we know defeat, or disappointment, or honest to God failure, that we are we are able to offer a hand capable of holding, that we have a grip strong enough to lift them up.

It is a mystery of life and faith, Paul tells us, that in time and with patience and intentionality, our place of weakness can become our place of strength; that it’s our seasons of brokenness that allow us to be made whole, because they open us to others, broadening our lives in a way that we alone and intact are incapable of living.

The poet and essayist Ross Gay, puts it this way,

Among the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say came from my student Bethany, talking about…how she wanted to be as a teacher, and what she wanted her classroom to be: “What if we joined our wildernesses together?” [she said] Sit with that for a minute. That the body, the life, might carry a wilderness, an unexplored territory, and that yours and mine might somewhere, somehow, meet. Might, even, join.

And what if the wilderness—perhaps the densest wilder in there—thickets, bogs, swamps, uncrossable ravines and rivers (have I made the metaphor clear?)—is our sorrow?…It astonishes me sometimes—no, often—how every person I get to know—everyone, regardless of everything, by which I mean everything—lives with some profound personal sorrow. Brother addicted…Dad died in surgery. Rejected by their family. Cancer came back. Evicted. Fetus not okay. Everyone, regardless, always, of everything…

Is this, sorrow…the great wilderness?
Is sorrow the true wild?
And if it is—and if we join them—your wild to mine—what’s that?…

What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying.
I’m saying: What if that is joy?1

IV.

This is the journey we make each year in this season before us; the journey from sorrow to joy. We begin with Jesus in the wilderness and end with the light of Easter morning, light that is only possible because of the darkness of Good Friday. The long hope of Lent, which is the miracle and mystery of resurrection—of love that is stronger than death—is that the wilderness of sorrow, when navigated together, can be a gateway to joy. In fact, there may not be another.

We’re not driven out into a place that is foreign or remote, but instead are invited to open ourselves to the wildernesses we all have deep within us. Wilderness we perhaps have closed off, that we have pushed down and all but forgotten.

The invitation is to stand before it, to live within it, through prayer or reflection or simple quiet, or even a commitment to small acts of self-love and gentleness, with the promise that the further we explore our own depths, the more we will find each other, and the God who promises to meet us there.

________________________
1Ross Gay, “Joy Is Such a Human Madness,” from The Book of Delights, 49-50

Youth Sunday

Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

George Watson and Kennedy Cleveland · February 11th, 2024 · Duration 9:29

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

To Be Determined...

Mark 1:29-39, The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

Rabbi Joseph Rosen · February 4th, 2024 · Duration 9:34

Peace be with you.

I am grateful for the tremendous opportunities our congregations have created through these regular interfaith exchanges. I thank Revs. Dickison, Ratcliff, Poole, and Treadway for our friendship, support, and guidance. How wonderful it is for spiritual relatives to be present with one another, to sanctify these moments in time together.

During the pandemic, I discovered one of my new favorite bands, AJR. A line from their song, 100 Bad Days, says, “Maybe a hundred bad days made a hundred good stories. A hundred good stories make me interesting at parties.” AJR’s line on cashing in on the tough times in life for some attention is undoubtedly opportunistic. Yet, recognizing that opportunity is how we endure the bad when those hardships grow from burdens to tools of our resiliency. When we share our stories of perseverance, we can celebrate the attributes that brought us to the other side: having tough skin, finding creative solutions, being fast on our feet, or showing unwavering compassion and love.

One of my favorite stories of endurance comes from Chuck Yeager, the pilot who flew the Bell X-1 and broke the sound barrier for the first time. Two days before the test flight, Yeager was riding a horse when he fell and broke his ribs. Fearing that this injury would disqualify him from the mission and a shot at history, Yeager kept the injury a secret, telling only his wife and a close friend on the project. He went to a civilian doctor off the base to save it from his superiors. On the day of the flight, when he was in great pain from his accident, he broke off a broom handle, smuggled it with him aboard the B-52 that would drop the Bell X-1, and used that to leverage the hatch of his cockpit. God only knows how well the victory of supersonic flight served as Chuck Yeager’s painkiller that day.

These stories of resilience that capture our attention provide an avenue to gratitude. Rather than just hunger for attention, we can share these moments as meaningful for all when we convey how we gain new perspectives and provide lessons to each other. Our sacred text embraces this attitude when offering prophecy in peril. The theology of the Israelite experience is grounded in struggle when Jacob receives the name Yisrael, which translates to “he who wrestled with things human and divine.” Our reading from Isaiah 40 this morning speaks to the Jews in exile after God delivers them into the hands of the Babylonians.
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told to you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is God who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.1

God admits some agitation in response to allowing our grief to overcome us. We’re challenged not to let anguish distract us from the wonders of the natural world, our most accessible source of encouragement. Where our troubles are framed to be so minute compared to the cosmic drama unfolding around us, we are asked to witness miracles of creation as a humbling experience. We’re reminded of what little control we have, and we marvel at the rest, a grand mystery that invites constant curiosity.

We’re put in our place when we marvel at the universe. We recognize certain privileges that enable us to feel that sense of wonder. Thank goodness the airbags went off so that I’m still breathing after the crash. I'm thankful the insurance came through to help me. I'm grateful I have family and friends to lean on when the going gets tough. And we remember not everyone has the resources to overcome obstacles. So, when we feel gratitude for the gifts of life with each breath, we also see our obligation to use our abilities wherever possible.

Jesus exemplifies devotion to this attitude in Mark’s Gospel after he performs exorcisms and healing miracles at Simon and Andrew’s house, where the whole city had gathered to watch at the door. Early before daybreak the following day, Jesus seeks solitude for prayer, which he is forced to conclude when Simon and his companions come along, saying, “Everyone is searching for you.”2 Jesus’ ability to sacrifice personal parts of his life is remarkable. Even in prayer, he is vulnerable to interruption and compelled to resume his ministry. We’re not brought into Jesus’ private thoughts, only his public-facing persona. It’s a lonely task he pursues selflessly, eventually magnified when he accepts the meaning behind the terrible fate at the end of his life.

Paul similarly exhibits this devotion in 1 Corinthians: “For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them.”3 He reflects on Jesus’ self-sacrifice, acknowledging how he sets aside his sense of self to become a living embodiment of Gospel teachings. He willingly chooses the burden of constantly adjusting his persona to build trust in new relationships.

Jesus and Paul's triumphs are eternally tethered to communal transformation. These revered teachers understand the power of self-sacrifice when bringing presence to others' lives motivates them. Likewise, sharing our captivating episodes of endurance can be done similarly. We want to grab each other’s attention when we share our hardships, but that’s only the surface. The true transformation from such experiences happens when we exchange new perspectives.

Every Thanksgiving, I spend time driving from Mississippi back home to Minnesota. This year, on the way back from Minnesota, one hundred miles from home, outside Grenada, my drive was cut short when a deer jumped from a ditch in the median and straight into the bumper on the driver's side. I don’t remember much of the impact, just that suddenly I was hyper-alert when I saw that the airbags had deployed, and the hood of the car flipped up, blocking the windshield and a 200-pound doe from crashing through it. Two strangers pulled over to help me while we waited for police and a tow truck. My insurance came through; my dad drove down his Hyundai to give it to me. This was the most dangerous I’ve ever lived, and it was padded with privilege. I walked away with a new car, no dent in my bank account, and a slight headache. When I spoke with my dad, he said you could use this for a sermon someday. So here I am now telling you.

“Maybe a hundred bad days made a hundred good stories. A hundred good stories make me interesting at parties.” But it’s nothing more than clickbait if I can’t find something more significant to do with it. For the past few months, I’ve defined those subsequent actions as to be determined. And I found meaning in the Jewish blessing for surviving a life-challenging experience. When recited in the congregation, the language is not personal; it is communal.

Mi shegmalchem kol tov, Hu yigmolchem kol tov. Selah

May the one who has bestowed goodness upon us continue to bestow every goodness upon us.

And let us say: Amen.

__________________
1 Isaiah 4:20-21
2 Mark 1:37
3 1 Corinthians 9:19

A Healing Word

Mark 1:21-28, The Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

Scott Dickison · January 28th, 2024 · Duration 15:01

Several years ago, just after I graduated from seminary, I worked for a summer in the chaplaincy office in a large hospital in Boston. I have so many memories from that hard and holy summer, in which I gained incredible admiration for chaplains. But I think of one patient more often than most. She was in the later stages of ovarian cancer and I was first called by the nurses to go and visit with her after she learned the severity of her diagnosis. We sat together several times over the next few weeks as she made her way around the various units of the hospital.

I remember easing into her room that first time and introducing myself, my body language almost apologizing for being there, and finding my way to a chair at her bedside. I tried to talk to her about her diagnosis and how she was feeling about everything, but she made it clear that all she wanted to do was pray and read scripture, and so that’s what we did. I turned to the psalms, thumbing first to Psalm 27, and read:
The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?—
but before I could go much further she waved me off, “No that’s no good.”

So, I turned to another one, Psalm 121,
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth—
“No. No good either.”
So, I started looking for another psalm that might bring comfort, when she said, “Why won’t you read to me from the Gospels? I want to hear a story about Jesus healing someone because that’s what I want him to do for me.” “Of course,” I said. So that’s what we did.

I.

And as I’ve thought about this exchange since, I don’t believe I’d been consciously avoiding those stories that are so plentiful in the Gospels, and especially in the Gospel of Mark, like ours this morning of Jesus healing the man with an unclean spirit, the first public act in his ministry. But I also know that either through my training or my own sensibilities I hadn’t thought those scriptures were what was needed in that moment. Might it do more harm than good to focus on such a narrow understanding of physical healing in the face of such a serious diagnosis? Might it be better to focus instead on divine comfort and presence? The promise that God is with us no matter the trial? Maybe.

But the farther away I’ve gotten from that day, the more I’ve come to understand that my hesitancy to read from those gospel stories of healing in that moment and so many others had a lot to do with my own discomfort with them. My own struggle to know what to make of them, and how to incorporate them not only into my understanding of who Christ was but who we can expect Christ to be for us, now.

And I don’t think I was alone. I think it’s natural to wonder how to square these miracles and even the supernatural worldview that they happen within, one filled with demons and unclean spirits, with what we know of modern science and medicine. One approach has been to try and explain these stories through our modern lenses. Perhaps what the scriptures call demon possession we would call epilepsy, or some other clinical diagnosis. And this may work to a point, but it doesn’t get us much closer to understanding what happened when those afflicted get in the presence of Jesus and are healed. But more importantly, I think, nor does it take seriously the “demonic” forces in our midst.


I remember another encounter, years later, listening over the phone to a friend who was calling from the hospital where is teenage daughter had been admitted with a very pronounced eating disorder. He described the pain and helplessness of watching his daughter at war with herself, one minute seeing her there in the bed before him, and the next someone who was not her. He said, “If that isn’t the demonic, I don’t know what is.”

What word could better describe addiction? Or the throes of severe mental illness or the lingering effects of trauma? From an even wider lens, can’t fear and hatred take on almost supernatural qualities? Aren’t they all “demonic,” in a sense—how a fever takes hold of us and we become something are not? The world is a mysterious place, and perhaps more mysterious still is the human mind and heart. Scripture honors this mystery, and we dismiss it at our own peril.

II.

Of course, to dismiss these stories would also be to dismiss a major part of Jesus’ ministry and who the gospels understood him to be. Jesus was a healer. This is why so many crowds gathered around him: the hope that he would relieve suffering, heal infirmities, for them or those closest to them. In fact, when we read them slowly, aren’t some of the most moving stories in the gospels those of long-suffering people finding relief, or of parents bringing their sick kids to Jesus, hoping to God he can save them? Healing is at the heart of who Jesus is, and the promise of a relief from suffering in this life or the next is the very essence of the good news.

In fact, the Greek word for “salvation,” sozo, literally means “to heal,” or “to be made whole.” Which leads me to wonder how much hurt could have been avoided in the church through the years if we’d understood “salvation,” or our need to be “saved,” less in terms of being “rescued”—from hell or eternal punishment—and more in terms of “being healed?” If salvation wasn’t so much about being right and more about being restored, being made whole again.

What would change about our approach to faith and discipleship if these were our goals? For one thing, I think faith and discipleship would seem more natural to the shape of our lives and how we continue to grow and change over a lifetime. Outside of the gospels, healing doesn’t come in an instant. In fact, few things of value do. Wholeness is not immediate. Life is lived over the long haul. Newly planted seeds don’t immediately pop out of the ground as mature plants. The sun doesn’t appear overhead at midday and disappear at night. It slowly rises and slowly sets, with each moment in between offering some new and different light for us to live by. To notice this is so incredibly healing. I believe it can even save your life, one breath, one day, at a time.

III.

I’m not sure I could tell you the moment I was saved. That is not a category that I can speak to.

But I can tell you how after many years there now are days when I am able to see my former self with more compassion and less embarrassment. Not every day, but some days. I can tell you about how at different times my wounds have been tended to by the kindness and compassion of others, who have been Christ to me. I can tell you how there was a time when grief had hollowed me out, but in time, love and memory and life have filled me up again.

I can tell you I have seen people who thought their life was over, whether from loss or misfortune or their own mistakes, who in time and with tears and the humble, persistent presence of others have been astonished to find that they are alive again. These resurrections take longer than a weekend—Jesus was special in that way. But haven’t you seen it?

When the good news is that healing and growth and wholeness are possible—the hope for change that’s not cheap and fast, but precious and slow—then salvation isn’t a box to check, it’s bulb to plant. It’s not a race to run, but a journey to savor. And we are not competitors trying to get there first, but fellow pilgrims helping each other along.

And if salvation—the reason for Jesus’ coming—is really about being healed, then doesn’t that clarify who we’re called to be for each other and the world? What would change if we understood the church’s purpose in the world as being a place and a people of healing? A place committed to the healing of our community? Isn’t that a crucial difference: not saving our neighbors, but healing our community? A place committed to the healing of families? The healing of people? What would this look like? What would it involve? What would it demand of us?

Would it soften our hearts toward our neighbor, remembering that everyone has their own wound somewhere, whether they have found it yet or not?
Would it make us more attentive to the suffering of others, often quiet?
What new relationships and partnerships would it open up if we created a space to find each other in our most tender place?
What conversations would be possible?
What change might come—slowly?

IV.

Mark tells us the crowds coming out to Jesus were amazed by the authority of his teaching, that it was unlike anything they’d heard before—and we are told the content of his good news. He was preaching the love of God that was wider and deeper and longer than anything that would keep us apart from it.
He was preaching the radical welcome of the Holy Spirit capable of dissolving any barrier between people.
The nearness of God’s Kingdom that is so close we can touch it, or it us.
The promise of abundant life now that shows us something of how it will be in the world to come.
This is what he was teaching—this was the authority he claimed. Such an ancient message that still feels so new.

But in my experience it is also true that the ones who speak with the most authority about matters of the heart are the ones who have plunged its depths themselves. So I wonder what pain Jesus carried that made him so attentive to the suffering of others? Was it some portion of the tenderness God must feel watching the harm we inflict on each other?
Or did even the Son of God, even in the life he had before the the story of his ministry begins, know loss or hardship, or even regret? I don’t know.

But what I do know is that if we as the church are to speak with the same authority about the nearness of a God who is capable of healing the world’s suffering, great as is, then we must be a people at home with the truth of our own need. And when we commit ourselves to that holy work, I believe we will find that God is even closer than we imagined.

Leaving Our Nets

Mark 1:14-20, The Third Sunday After Epiphany

Scott Dickison · January 21st, 2024 · Duration 11:12

In the biblical imagination there are at least two different ways that time is spoken of, two Greek words: Chronos and Kairos.

I.

Chronos is time that we experience in minutes and days and weeks and years—time that we measure with clocks and calendars, and we try our best to organize to the point of mastery with new daily planners and productivity systems and strategies that promise to change your life—I love my bullet journal. Chronos time is important, and even essential.

But Kairos time is different. Kairos time is hard to measure; it’s time that we feel.

Kairos time is what Bob Dylan meant when he sang, “The times, they are a changin’,” or what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant when he said, “The time is always ripe to do what’s right.”

It’s what your grandmother means when she says to call her “whenever you have the time.” The time is now!

Kairos time is what you mean when her water breaks and you look at each other and say, It’s time.

Or when you sit someone down and tell them, I think it’s time we talked.

Or what the nurse who’s been sitting with your father means when she calls late at night and says, It’s time you come. It’s what you mean when you hang up the phone and say to yourself, I thought we had more time.

Kairos time. It can be revealed in a moment, but it’s often a moment that marks a new season, when we sense something more is happening. That something is different now, and there can be no going back.

II.

Kairos is the word Paul uses in the passage from 1 Corinthians we read earlier, when he says, “I mean, children of God, the appointed time, (the Kairos) has grown short” and goes on to say how now that Christ has come, life will be different. And not just different, but turned on its head—“the present form of the world is passing away.”

And it’s the word Jesus uses here in Mark when he emerges fresh out of the wilderness, where he’d been driven after his baptism—that he’d received from John in the Jordan River after he must have sensed in his own mind and heart that the time had come for him to accept the calling that had been given to him at birth—and he began to preach the sermon that would be his life, saying, “The time (the kairos) is fulfilled! The Kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe the good news!”

The time is fulfilled. Things are different. Jesus announces that we have left one season in the life of the world and entered another. The Kingdom of God has come near—literally it says the Kingdom of God is “at hand,” it’s so close you could touch it, or it could touch you. For people of faith, to understand the Kairos of time is to feel God's presence within our lives at a particular moment or in a particular season. It's sanctified time, time in which God's purposes are revealed and experienced, or can be if we are open to them. Kairos is what we mean when we have a sense that some larger intention has been uncovered. When we tap into something deeper. It's when we find ourselves to be on holy ground.

And the Christian witness is that Kairos is not so much something from the outside that is interjected into particular moments or seasons. The Kairos, the holiness of time, is always happening just under the surface of our Chronos. God’s purposes are always alive and being carried out whether we’re aware of it or not; time and life and the ground we walk on are always holy, whether we are attuned to it or not, the Kingdom is always so close. So we give thanks for the times when it reaches out and touches us.

III.

I am not the Broadway lover in our home (I feel like most households have at least one—it is not me). But I do think of Meredith Wilson’s classic, The Music Man, the story of Harold Hill, a con-artist who weasels his way into the town of River City with a plan to sell band instrument to the naive townsfolk’s before skipping town with the cash. And everything goes according to plan until he starts to fall in love with Marian, the town’s librarian and piano teacher, who at first is skeptical but starts to fall for Harold, too. And this moment when she professes her love to him is captured in the production’s most enduring song, and one that Harold sings back to her later in the story, “Till There Was You.”
There were bells on the hill
But I never heard them ringing,
No, I never heard them at all
Till there was you.

There were birds in the sky
But I never saw them winging
No, I never saw them at all
Till there was you.

And it continues with music and roses and fragrant meadows of dawn and dew, until finally,
There was love all around
But I never heard it singing
No, I never heard it at all,
Till there was you.

The Kairos of things, the Kingdom of God revealed—by love—within the Chronos of life. The bell on the hill was always there, same with the birds in sky, the music and roses and fragrant meadows—it’s a little cheesy, this is Broadway after all! There was love all around, so close, but she never heard it singing, until it touched her and then suddenly it was everywhere.

I think the same is true for us at different moments of our lives, maybe in ways that are less sentimental, but maybe not. When something happens—some measure of love or joy or sorrow or the joy that can only come from sorrow— and something is revealed, and you can’t unsee it. Birth, death, diagnosis. A defeat, an unexpected blessing. But it’s not always these big moments either. One of my favorite memories of my father is of him sitting on the couch at my aunt’s house and absolutely losing himself in laughter watching the movie Wayne’s World. I was a teenager and I’d never seen my dad laugh like that. Tears, running down his face, his body just limp and useless. It’s not an exaggeration to say it completely changed who I knew him to be, that he was a man capable of that kind of joyful abandon. He’d always been that way, I’m sure it was always there, so close. It was just that I’d never seen it “‘till” then.

It’s what we hope happens in baptism, that we’ll see things anew, as we hadn’t seen them before. See people as we’ve never seen them. See ourselves. It was always there, we were always God’s beloved…Or maybe it’s this new sight that leads us to those waters. It’s what we hope to do in some small way in the time we set aside each week to gather in this room with these people, saying these words, singing these melodies, holding this silence. We hope through these movements to reveal the Kairos of life within the Chronos of this hour. To learn how to see and feel these things in here so that we might better see and feel them out there. To build our muscles of attentiveness to the presence and purposes of God in our lives.

IV.

So that when Jesus walks by, on a day that began like any other, and issues a call from the lakeshore into the routine of our lives to come and follow, and begin something new, reaching out to us, we too will be found ready to leave our own nets behind.

The Most Beautiful Word

Mark 1:4-11, Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Scott Dickison · January 7th, 2024 · Duration 10:42

Of all the beautiful words in the Bible—and the Bible is a book filled with beautiful, beautiful words—there is perhaps none more beautiful than the word “beloved.”

It’s a word so beautiful, so holy, we scarcely find it outside of Scripture. The way it rolls from the tongue, the way the voice lilts at the end; not “beloved” but “belov-ed.” Something ancient, something mystical. But of course, what makes this word so beautiful is not simply how it is said, but what it means, what it declares, which is that you are loved. How powerful that is? Is there anything more powerful?

Scripture tells us this is the word the early church used to address each other: as “beloved,” or “God’s beloved.” It’s how Paul addresses the church in almost every one of his letters: “To God’s beloved in Rome,” “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immoveable, always excelling in the work if the Lord.”

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, pure, pleasing, commendable, if there is anything of excellence or worthy of praise, think on these things.”

And in the letters of John: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God…Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.” And we should—the word “beloved,” after all, first comes to us in the New Testament not on lips of John or Paul, or any of the disciples, or even the lips of Jesus—no, the word beloved first comes to us upon the lips of God. Matthew, Mark and Luke all agree that as Jesus was coming up out of the waters of the Jordan River, a voice comes down from the heavens and rests upon him saying, This is my Beloved Son, of whom I am well-pleased. They’re the first words God speaks to Jesus, and even more than this, they’re the first words God speaks to anyone in the Gospels, and so they are God’s first words to us: You are my Beloved, you make me so happy. (My translation.)

I.

How powerful, how beautiful, how necessary it is to know that you are God’s beloved. That this is who you are in the eyes of God, and so this is who you are. Before you are anything else, and despite what you do or what is done to you, this is who you are first: you are “beloved.” This is the promise of Scripture, the promise of faith—the promise, in fact, upon which all the other promises rest. Forgiveness of sins, communion of saints, life everlasting—it all begins here with the truth of our belovedness.

Philosophers have a theory that there is a certain kind of love that has the capacity to bestow worth on the beloved. “Love as attachment,” it’s called—Miroslav Volf writes about this beautifully.1 He says for example, in The Velveteen Rabbit, that classic children’s story, what makes the little rabbit, inexpensively made as he is, so much more valuable than just any ol’ stuffed animal sitting on the shelf, is the love of the little boy. The little boy who takes to it, and holds it, cherishes it. It’s a love, we’re told that has the power even to make this toy bunny rabbit “real.”

God’s love is this way. It is an “attachment” kind of love, a love that rubs off on the beloved and makes it something special, something valuable, something real. And since God’s love is for the whole world, for all people and all of creation—all the plants and animals and all the creepy things that creep upon the ground—then there is no thing or no person to whom God is not attached. And so all are “God’s beloved," and so all are simply “beloved.” All are worthy of love. And in the Christian faith, baptism is when we claim this truth of our belovedness for ourselves.

II.

You see, we’ve missed the point of Jesus’ baptism and ours if we think it has to do with him or us becoming something different. Yes, we may use it as a marker to change how we live. Yes, something may change in how we see ourselves and how we see God—but not in how God sees us. For God, baptism is much more about us accepting who we have been all along.

Jesus didn’t become God’s Beloved Son in whom God was well pleased at his baptism—no! He had been those things since that silent night we celebrated just two short weeks ago when Mary and Joseph and however many farm animals welcomed him into this world. It was in his baptism, in his coming forward to accept his calling, that Jesus embraced who he already was. And the same is true for us.

You don’t become God’s beloved in baptism. You are that long before you enter the waters. God will not love you any more once you are sprinkled or dowsed or emerge dripping wet—God cannot love you any more than God already loves you, because God’s love is complete. In baptism we say before God and the people of God that we accept this love, that we embrace our own belovedness, and promise to do our best to remember it and live in light of it, and see it in others, as Jesus saw it, all our days.

III.

And so while we will surely say it many times in the year ahead, this Sunday is good reason for us to say it here at the beginning: Church, you are Beloved. You are beloved of God.

God is attached to you, to us, and to all people—impossible as it may seem at times and despite the many voices in the world that would tell us otherwise. But the Christian promise to the world is that it’s true. This is our testimony. A testimony of which we routinely and painfully fall short, but it is our testimony nonetheless.

And so it isn’t up to anyone to convince us, or persuade us of their belovedness before God. No, beloved people of God, it is up to us to see it in them. To look for what God sees, for what God loves, and at times to name it for them, so when the time comes and the Spirit moves in such a way, they will come to know it in and of and for themselves. That they will know they are Beloved, that most beautiful word. Amen.

_____________________
1Miroslav Volf, Ryan McAnnally-Linz, Public Faith in Action, p. 201

Holding Together

Luke 2:22-40, The First Sunday after Christmas Day

Major Treadway · December 31st, 2023 · Duration 15:10

Today’s gospel lesson has a liturgically familiar feel to it. Though, outside of the two turtle doves, it doesn’t really fit with the Christmas season as laid out in the Hallmark version of the church calendar, we do here find Jesus going to his family of faith for the first time – still a baby. And just like good Baptists, Mary and Joseph are bringing Jesus for a baby dedication – of sorts.

I expect that the swaddled baby Jesus was in his family heirloom white baby dedication gown, smock, shirt, dress – what do you call those things? I should probably know by now. But you know the one I’m talking about, baby Jesus is likely wearing it in a nativity set in some of your homes.

As Simeon offers the greeting, he tells everyone that Mary and Joseph are bringing their child forward to be dedicated to God in the presence of the people of God. A few moments later, after Mary and Joseph have brought Jesus to the front of the Temple, Simeon takes him and carries down the middle aisle. After saying all the things that one might expect, “this child’s name is Jesus Josephson…. I am bringing him out among you as a sign and symbol that just as he is a child of his parents he is also a child of this congregation…,” there is a shift. Where it might be expected that he would talk about all the ways Jesus might be cared for and be involved in the life of the congregation, Simeon, instead, offers a song to God about the child Jesus: “you are dismissing your servant in peace,” “my eyes have seen your salvation,” “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

Mary and Joseph are still standing at the front, nervous about what mischief little Jesus might get up to while he has such a large audience, prepared to jump in and rescue Simeon should the need arise – though it never does, he’s practically a baby whisperer. When Simeon returns to the waiting parents and hands Jesus back to Mary, rather than offering the customary kiss of peace, he turns to Mary and says that Jesus “is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed – and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Words so dark and harsh, that the long-time prophet Anna, rushes in to offer praises to God and to speak about Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Every time I read this passage, I am struck by the quick and harsh words from Simeon to Mary. I don’t know if I somehow manage to forget them between readings because of the beauty of his earlier song or because of the delightful reminder that the religious leader in this passage, the prophet, is a woman. But it is always there, joy and peace side by side with grief and hardship.

This juxtaposition is not new for Mary. She’s been through a lot already. Remember last week, when she was visited by an angel who told her that she would bear the son of God and she was “perplexed” and “pondered.” An announcement to which she responded, “Here am I… let it be….” I do not think that Mary was surprised by Simeon’s joy nor even by his dark words. In the story she is silent. No crying she makes.

Instead, we find her right where we expect to find her, going to the temple at “the time for their purification according to the law of Moses.” They offered a sacrifice according to what is stated. And they found themselves among the people of God engaging in the practices of their faith community when these words were spoken. One assumes that there has been a lifetime of preparation that has led her to this point – a generations long faith that has demonstrated for her what it means to be a part of a family of faith.

There were many parts of her coming experience with Jesus that she could not anticipate and there were many that she could, but there seemed to be an understanding, based on a lifetime of practice, that it was in the practices of her faith and among her family of faith that would allow her to go through that which she could not go around, that it would be gathered with her family of faith where she would share her greatest joys and deepest sorrows.

Here, at Northminster, our rituals draw us similarly together, as together we draw nearer to God. In baby dedications, first grade bible presentations, mentor Sundays, and baptisms we speak promises to one another. When we fill out pledge cards and give offerings to the church, we make promises to this place. The caregivers find ways to draw close to those in our circles of collective awareness who are in need of extra care and compassion. The widernet committee seeks to find ways to build on the twenty-year friendship this congregation has begun with the folks who live in MidCity. When people marry in this sanctuary, promises are made, families and communities are linked. And when members of our congregation pass into God’s nearer presence, one more time we come together to remember the life lived and to surround those who remain with love and community.

A lifetime of holding together, making promises to one another. A lifetime, that for some of us, if not many of us, began even before we were born, carrying forward for generations a faith that we learned to embrace as our own. A faith that we extend to the generation that will follow us and live on after our names join the long list of names we remember and call on All Saints Sunday.

This kind of holding together takes a lot of work. It takes time and dedication. It takes sacrifice and presence. It takes openness and vulnerability. It takes all of these things and more. It takes learning the rhythms of this community, submitting to them, and eventually questioning them and finding where the rhythms might benefit from an expanded measure.

I suspect that Mary knew that when she said “here am I” that she would need her community. She knew that she would need to go to the temple on the appropriate days, to make the appropriate sacrifices, to allow her child to be carried by the community and raised in the faith. She knew that it would probably take more than just the appropriate days, and the sacrifice days, and the high holy days. She knew that there was something about being together that made the holding of this child, this child that would “be a sign that will be opposed” that would be a “sword to pierce [her] own soul,” a burden that would easy. Though, not easy in the sense that it is light and takes no effort to carry, rather easy in the sense that it fits right, easy in the sense that at the end of the day, makes you that satisfying kind of tired. Mary knew that holding this child would take a community.

She knew this instinctively the way that each of knows it when we come up against a great difficulty. My family learned what this kind of holding together meant more deeply when we came to Northminster just before hearing those dark and terrifying words, “it’s cancer.” Here, we were held, as you all helped shoulder the burden of those difficult days. The daily, weekly, and annual rhythms of the life of this place providing structure and comfort, when the rhythms of our daily life had to shift dramatically.

This kind of holding together that allowed Mary and those gathered at the temple that day to hear and overhear Simeon’s words among them and to Mary, was the same kind of holding together that allowed this community to weather the COVID pandemic, making room for many types of responses, adapting the ways we interacted, worshipped, fellowshipped, scattered, and gathered holding tightly to the togetherness that was being threatened – trusting that the togetherness would hold.

Throughout the many years of the life of this congregation are countless stories of burdens held collectively, of joys spread out and multiplied. You each have stories of when you have been a part of the sharing – though it is possible you were not aware of the meaning of your presence. And if you cannot remember a time when you had a difficulty that you needed to share, if you stick around here long enough, you will. Not because this is the kind of place that attracts wounded people who need to share their burdens. But because that is the story of being human. No life is lived without some hardship that would not benefit from being shared.

And I believe it is also true that when we hold together long enough and strong enough, our capacity to hold together across time and distance increases as well – allowing us to be apart but still together, creating opportunity to draw, not just individuals, but communities together, further expanding the limits of what we can hold.

Dear family of faith, it is only when we hold together that we can embody Dr. Waley’s prophetic charge to and description of this place: “We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.” And it is only together that we can hold both the joy of Simeon’s song and the weight of his words of truth to Mary. Holding together. Together holding.

Amen.

Courage and Love

Luke 1:26-38, The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Scott Dickison · December 24th, 2023 · Duration 17:01

She was likely a younger girl, as was the case with betrothals in those days. Promised to Joseph but not yet married, still living in the house of her parents, thinking ahead, preparing for the new life she thought was on the way, the plans she thought God had for her. When suddenly the angel of the Lord appears and shares with her something far different, something far…more. And when we look closely at this “Annunciation” story in Luke, it’s clear that Mary herself was something far different and someone far more than we often remember.

I.

Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you, the angel greets Mary.
And then Luke tells us, with typical understatement, “But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.”

Excuse me?!
An angel of the Lord appears out of thin air and this girl is perplexed and pondering?!
Even the angel seems a bit confused by her response—maybe a little caught off guard—assuming messengers of the divine can be caught off guard. He tells her, Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

And of course, scripture is littered with these words of divine reassurance. The people of God are called, over and over again, not to be afraid. And most every other time this command, this invitation, not to fear is found in Scripture, the person it’s said to is afraid.
Moses was terrified when he saw the burning bush.
The disciples out there stranded in the sea of Galilee were scared to death.
Even the shepherds watching their flocks by night just one chapter later in Luke were “sore afraid,” as Linus put it. But Mary, here when the angel of the Lord descends upon her was…not afraid. At least not as far as we’re told. “Much perplexed,” but not afraid.

The angel goes on to tell her what is to happen, how she will conceive and bear a son and name him Jesus. How he will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David, and he’ll reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end—and Mary, not overwhelmed with all this talk of the Messiah, instead wonders about the mechanics of her role in it.

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the angel responds, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you—the same word used here as in the opening chapter of Genesis to describe the Spirit hovering over the waters of the earth at creation. The angel tells her about Elizabeth who in her advanced age will bear a son, letting us know this is part of a bigger story, and closes this whole annunciation—a churchy word for announcement—by saying another divine promise we’re told over and over again in Scripture, which is directly linked to the command not to be afraid, which is, For nothing will be impossible with God.

It’s true. Whenever the people of God are told to “not be afraid” in scripture, it is almost always coupled with some version of this promise: “for nothing will be impossible with God.”
Do not be afraid, we’re told, for God is up to something.
Do not be afraid because there is more to this moment than you can see.
Do not be afraid because there is more to you than you can see, and if you could see it you would know you have nothing to fear.
Do not be afraid, the angel tells Mary, for nothing will be impossible with God. And Mary—much perplexed, inquisitive, captivated, but so not afraid—responds with another classic biblical refrain,
Here am I. Let it be.

II.

Denise Levertov, in her poem, “Annunciation,” considers the weight of this scene, focusing her gaze on a moment we often rush past, for it’s no bigger than the space between two sentences in our Bibles. That moment in between the angel’s invitation and Mary’s response, a moment, she points out, that was so critical, because it could have gone either way:
…This was the moment no one speaks of, when Mary could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
Spirit, suspended,
waiting.1

It’s quite a scene to imagine: the announcement, full of pageantry and grace, issued in confidence just off the angel's lips, now hanging there as the young girl Mary takes it all in, ponders her situation, perhaps weighs her options, content to let the silence expand in the space between them—is that where Jesus got it, his comfort with silence?

What if Mary’s response was not predetermined? It’s a possibility that opens this story up for us in a new way. Of course, scripture doesn’t say and so we’re in the realm of holy imagination here, but for me, it somehow means something more to consider that Mary had a choice in the matter, and that this wasn’t something that was simply thrust upon her, to bear the incarnate Son of God into the world. It somehow means more, to me, if she could have said “no.” Because that means that her “yes” was truly a “yes”—that considering all the angel presented her, she found it within her to shake off what would have been a very understandable “no,” and find room in her heart to truly say “yes.”

And without taking anything away from the singularity of Mary’s annunciation and the invitation offered to her to bear God’s Son into the world, I believe when we consider and celebrate the choice she had, and her ability to say yes or say no, that her story can become our story in a new way.
Denise Levertov continues,
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another
in most lives?
Some unwillingly
undertake great destinies,
enact them in sullen pride,
uncomprehending.
More often
those moments
when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman, [they are]
are turned away from

in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair
and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.
God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.


Isn’t this true, as well, in a way that on most days may come to us like cold water in the face, but perhaps on this day, this fourth Sunday of Advent that is also Christmas Eve, we might have ears to hear: that perhaps the annunciation to Mary was not really so out of the ordinary. If perhaps there aren’t annunciations of one sort or another in most lives? Critical moments when we’re given an invitation to participate in God’s dream for our lives, even to bear God into the world—if in much smaller ways. Most of these annunciations, of course, come without the clear presence of an angel standing before us, telling us plainly what is to happen and how we fit into it all and why this is all good news. But all the same, don’t these invitations come?

How many young girls did the angel Gabriel appear to before Mary?
Were there other annunciations that were—naturally, understandably—declined before the angel found this one who found within herself the courage and the love, to say, Here I am. Let it be?
III.

And the bond between these two—courage and love—is worth considering on this of all Sundays.

There is, without question, a sweetness to the Christmas story, the story of Jesus’ birth, as there is about the story of any and all births. A “pinch-your cheek-ness,” a “touch your chest, curve your shoulders, raise your voice-ness.” Of course there is. But not far underneath that sweetness—that presenting quality of love—there is something much bolder. Much stronger. Something, as Krista Tippett likes to say, much more “muscular” about this love.

There’s a courage, here, in the story of Jesus’ birth, as there is in the story of any and all births, as there is in the story of any and all love. In fact, without courage, I think we can say, there can be no love, because love always involves some risk. Always. In romanic love when we open our heart to another there is always the risk that it will be broken, that our vulnerability will be exposed or exploited. There is always the risk we will lose them. Isn’t grief the cost of love?

In the love of a parent for a child there is so, so much risk. I remember when Billy, who is now 10, was still a baby and we were still so overwhelmed with it all, so utterly helpless before our love for this little one, Audrey looked at me one night after putting him to bed and said, Love is terrifying.

Still other loves. The kind of love that occurs beyond the bonds of kinship and family, the love we are called to have for our neighbors—which is a word that when we say it means one thing, implying a closeness: the people with whom we share a zip code or a street or a fence. But neighbor is a word that when Jesus says it means quite another thing, which is the people with whom we feel a distance, the people we would rather not love, or the people whom the world tells us we need not love. In short, Jesus means the people who are hard to love. Love your enemies, he says elsewhere, famously, which hardly seems like good news. There is rarely sweetness in this kind of love. Precious little “pinch-your-cheekness.” Which means that when it comes to those times and relationships we must look to and lean on those other parts of love to sustain us: the strength, the boldness the conviction. This is when love absolutely must be muscular, to hold us there in that moment when we would rather be anywhere else. To focus our gaze, to pry open our heart and our hands, that we didn’t know were clinched so tight. This, too, is when love must be courageous: when we don’t want any part of it.

IV.
How many annunciations will there be in this year ahead?
How many invitations given to participate, even in some small way, in the bearing of God’s love into the world. For you, for me, for us?

How many times will a messenger of the divine descend or, perhaps more likely, steal upon us, issuing an invitation, revealing a chance that presents as a dilemma, maybe not telling us how it will be, but sparking our imaginations to how it could be, what good could come, what blessing could be shared—should we consent to let God come and dwell among us, grow within us?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But here is what I believe:

I believe angels will come, because I believe they do come, though we know them not as such.

I believe they bring holy invitations, divine annunciations to bear God’s love into the world as with Mary, or like Joseph to participate in the unfolding of God’s purposes, or Elizabeth or Zechariah for that matter—there are many annunciations in the story of Jesus’ birth, reminding us we’re never asked to bear God’s love alone.
What will come this year?
Who will come?
What answer will we give?

Will this be the year we let old wounds heal?
Will we let new possibilities grow?

Will this be the year when we commit to breathe deeply,
when we stand squarely,
when we look brightly,
when we speak kindly,
when we hold dearly,
when we imagine wildly,
when we love—when we love— courageously?

Will this be the year?
The good new is that it will be.
It will be, if we let it be.
____________________
1“Annunciation,” by Denise Levertov

Like Those Who Dream

Psalm 126, The Third Sunday of Advent

Scott Dickison · December 18th, 2023 · Duration 1:01

Sermon begins at 33:46

For Christians, the 126th Psalm is perhaps not one of our more well-known psalms. It certainly is not in the pantheon of, say, the 23rd Psalm, which so many of us can recite or at least mumble through by memory, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want”—always in the King James.

And it may not even be in the realm of others we have written upon our hearts: “Be still and know that I am God,” from Psalm 46, or Psalm 121: “I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come?”

But in parts of Judaism, Psalm 126 is among the most beloved and well known psalms, recited at the end of meals during the sabbath and other regular times through the year. And it’s so special because it describes one of the most profound moments in the history of Israel, when the exiles in Babylon returned home to Jerusalem, in ecstasy and joy:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

It wasn’t real, it was too good to be true. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”

I.

But it’s interesting, there’s some disagreement about when, exactly, this psalm was written. Some believe it was written as it appears to be from the opening stanza of the psalm, which is after the return from exile, looking back in thanksgiving on what God had done.

But others believe this psalm of deliverance may have been written while the Israelites were still in exile, and in its poetic imagination it looks ahead to describe what it will feel like when they are finally delivered and return home, whenever that will be.

And both are possible. Verb tenses are fluid in Hebrew and it’s not always clear if something is happening in the past tense or present or future, especially in poetry or song. And so you may have noticed that our translators change the tense mid-psalm, beginning in the past tense and moving to the present:

The opening reads:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter…

And then there’s a break, marked in most Bibles by a space between these two stanzas, that almost invites us to catch our breath and brace ourselves as we return from the warmth of future hopes to the coldness of the present:

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, the seed for
sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

It could be that the first stanza, remembering when those in exile returned home and how they felt like they were in a dream, is actually a dream, and in reality they’re still waiting in exile for God to make things right. Which in some ways intensifies the hopefulness of this psalm: to speak as if God has already done these things, to allow oneself to fully rest in that feeling of return and wholeness, while sitting in an uncertain present.

II.

The “in-betweenness” of this psalm makes it a perfect psalm for Advent, for Advent is a season in which the church acknowledges and sits in the tension of “here, and not yet.” It’s a season in which we wait in anticipation for things that have already happened: the story of Christ’s birth, the miracle and mystery of incarnation. And yet we also look ahead to a time when Christ will come again, when wrongs will be righted and tears wiped from our eyes, when crying and pain and death will be no more. Yes, Christ has come, but our world is not yet perfect. Yes, Christ is here, but also, not yet.

And even more, this psalm speaks in particular to this Third Sunday of Advent in which we lift up joy, because it knows that deep and difficult truth that joy is found only on the other side of sorrow. The two are linked in that way. And it may be that the depth of our joy is determined by the reaches of our sorrow. As the poet Marie Karr has put it, “However deep the wound is, that’s how deep the healing can be.”—and those words, “can be” are so important, for there is no promise that it will be. That depends on so much time, and tears, and not a small amount of grace. Whichever side of exile they were on, the psalmist knew the hard relationship between sorrow and joy. The psalmist knew it, and so do you. You know the relationship between these two, sorrow and joy, and so often it is this time of year that we feel it so deeply.

This is a season of memories, which makes it a season of tenderness. I think it’s important that we say, maybe especially in church, maybe especially on this Sunday of joy, that this time of year can be hard. It can be hard, and that’s okay—the tenderness, the sorrow, the longing. It’s very often this time of year when we find ourselves closer to the “not yet” than the “here.” In so many ways this is the good news of this season: that the story we tell over the coming year begins here, waiting in the dark for the light to come.

And so we light these candles on our wreath for hope and peace and joy and love not because they’re what we feel in the moment, but because they’re what we long for. What we wait for.

It is because we’ve been given so many reasons for despair and cynicism that we light a candle of hope.

It’s because we’ve witnessed so much violence that we light a candle of peace.

It’s because we’ve known so much sorrow that we light a candle of joy.

And it’s because there’s so much to fear that we light the candle of love.

This is the posture, and in many ways the challenge of Advent: to imagine a world that has not yet come to pass, at least not completely, and to speak of it as if it’s so close that in some ways it is already here. As if in our speaking we make it so.

And it’s been that way since the very first Advent. It’s the posture Mary took when she sang her song of unbridled joy when she was finally able to share in this thing that had happened to her with her cousin, Elizabeth. What we now call the Magnificat:

My soul magnifies the Lord, she sings, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior…for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. The Lord has shown strength and scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts and brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Remember, Mary sings of all of this before Jesus has even been born! None of these things had happened when Mary, her womb still growing with the wild possibilities of God, sang them. In so many ways, they still haven’t. But for Mary, the truth of God’s nearness was so powerful it was as if they had already come to pass. Now, I believe Mary, like all expectant mothers, did not need to be reminded that the child had not yet been born. But I also believe, like all expectant mothers, that didn’t make the child’s presence any less real. That didn’t keep her from being among “those who dream” of what is to come. There are some blessed times when we find ourselves closer to the “here” than the “not yet.”
III.

Jim Wallis, the great preacher and speaker, tells a story from years ago before the fall of Apartheid in South Africa when he was part of a US delegation that went to support the religious opposition to that oppressive system, led by archbishop Desmond Tutu.

They were at a worship service at the Cathedral of St. George, in Cape Town, this beautiful Anglican church, when the African Security Police—that branch of the government charged with enforcing the brutal apartheid—stormed into the church during the archbishop’s sermon.

He stopped preaching as the intruders lined the walls of the cathedral, surrounding the congregation. Many were armed with guns, but some of them also held writing pads and tape recorders to capture what any bold prophetic utterances he might dare to speak, that could be used as evidence against him. The archbishop and others within the faith community had already been arrested just weeks before.

Tutu met their eyes and after a few moments said to them, “You are powerful, very powerful, but I serve a God who cannot be mocked!” And then he looked at the armed men and his stern gaze softened into a smile, with his typical warmth, and he said to them, “Since you have already lost, I invite you today to come and join the winning side!”

The people went ecstatic. Wallis says the crowd was literally transformed by the bishop’s words of imagination and hope. They had been cowering in fear at the sight of the heavily armed security forces that greatly outnumbered the worshipers, but in that moment they found themselves leaping to their feet, shouting praises of joy to God—and they even began to dance. They danced past the police that lined the sanctuary, out the doors of the cathedral to meet the military forces waiting outside, who hardly expected a confrontation with a group of dancing worshipers. Not knowing what else to do, the security forces backed up to provide space for those people who had sewn in tears to erupt in shouts of joy as they “danced for freedom in the streets of South Africa.”1

IV.

Since you have already lost! The Mighty One has done great things for me. When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

The first blooms of joy rooted in the soil of sorrow and hardship. Glimpses of light shining in the darkness, which, it turns out, is the place light shines best.

Visions of what could be, so close it is as if it is already there, already here—here, and not yet.

There will be moments this season, and likely there already have been, when we find ourselves closer to one than the other.

There will be moments when we find ourselves sitting in the “not yet” of things. Not yet hope, not yet peace, not yet joy, not yet love—and where we must be at times. And so in those moments the invitation of this season is be at home where you are, trusting that the light we wait for is strong enough to find you.

And there may be other times, praise God, when we find ourselves closer to the “here” of it all. Hope is here, peace, joy, love—all here. And in those moments the invitation of this season is to hold that light for others. Gently, tenderly, warmly—a simple candle will do. But just hold it, bearing witness that it is there, that it is coming.

Wherever you find yourself in this season—and it may change, perhaps many times—know that you are still a part of the story we tell, not just in these few weeks but throughout the year. Know that all of it is needed—the here and the not yet and everything in between—for us to speak the truth about Christ’s coming, and God’s great dream that, in the end, somehow and someway, all will find their way home.

____________________
1As told by Jim Wallis in God’s Politics, adapted.

Now. Here. This

Mark 13:24-37, The First Sunday of Advent

Scott Dickison · December 3rd, 2023 · Duration 11:09

No matter how many Christmas lights we see up around town, or how many of us have already trimmed our tress—which the Dickisons plan to do today— we can always count on the lectionary to keep us from slipping too far into the holiday cheer here on the First Sunday of Advent, with these words from Jesus near the end of the Gospel of Mark.

I.

“Keep awake—for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake!”

This is not exactly a message for holiday cards:
Keep awake this holiday season, love the Dickisons.
May you and yours be gathered among the elect when the Son of Man comes!

We may have thought we’d gotten through these apocalyptic visions over the past few weeks as we brought the previous church year to a close in the Gospel of Matthew, but just as every end is also a beginning, so it is here—a reminder that we will be telling a different story and keeping a different time from the world around us not just in these weeks leading up to Christmas, but in the year ahead.

And as we have been saying over these past weeks, these challenging passages about the end times that come in the gospels as Jesus was nearing the end of his own life make the most sense when we hold them alongside the Jesus we know from the gospels as a whole, and remember what he spent his life and ministry to this point doing: opening people, opening us, to the life that’s around them in the present. The birds of the air, the lilies of the field, the children running around him and the disciples, the children running and laughing and passing notes in church. The tiny mustard seed, the bread rising on the counter. The sheep we’ve lost, or the coin, or the son. The wound we would hide, or the woundedness in others we might rather not see. Life, all of it, all around us.

You don’t know the time or the seasons, he says, no one does. There is no use trying to predict the future. The best we can ever do—and it turns out it is quite a lot, in fact it may well be everything—is to be as alive as we can now, in this moment, this breath, this beating of our heart. This is the value and even the necessity of considering things to come, maybe even final things: their capacity to awaken us to the present, and the life we know and could know deeper, now.

II.

In the 4th and 5th centuries, still early on in Christian history, there came to be a movement of people discouraged by all the many distractions of modern, city life, who believed the only way for them to live out their faith and be present to God was leave it all behind. And so they went out into the desert to seek God through a life of prayer and solitude, and so Christian monasticism was born, in the people we now know as the desert fathers and mothers.

And I’m told that when times were particularly difficult for these early monks, and they weren’t sure how they would make it out there—on those days when they were particularly in need of God’s presence, or feeling especially vulnerable or distracted—they would focus their attention and their prayer to one word, and repeat it over and over. And the word they repeated over and over was not Jesus, or Christ or Spirit. The word was today.1 Today. Today. Today. Today is where they directed their focus and hoped to find God.

This is what scripture means, what Jesus means, when he tells us to “keep awake.” It is a command to be present. The sweeter part of this season we begin this morning is looking back and remembering the birth of Christ, with the shepherds and the angels and farm animals and the holy family there among them. The harder edge of Advent is the part that looks ahead to Christ’s return, to a time when swords will be beat into plowshares and we’ll study war no more, when wrongs will be righted, when tears will be wiped from our eyes. But between these two, the looking back and the looking ahead, Advent begins by inviting us, prodding us, perhaps even warning us, to be here, in this moment, today.

To not let your mind wander to the past, to all the things you wish you’d done or hadn’t done. Imagining the person you wish you’d been. Or wandering too far into the future—and not just the very distant future but the nearer future: your list of things to do, errands to run, gifts to buy and wrap, food to prepare, linens to change. Or even more, your list of things to be: Someday I’ll be generous or patient or kind or understanding. Those things don’t exist anywhere but the present; life does not happen on any day other than today. The poet Philip Larkin asked, “What are days for?” His answer, “Days are where we live.” But he was only half right. Today is where we live. This day. Calling our attention to this truth of life and of faith is perhaps the first gift this season brings.

III.

Near the end of his life, Thomas Merton, the great 20th century writer, thinker and Trappist monk, is said to have kept a rule for life rooted in the wisdom of the desert, and certainly in line with these Advent words of Jesus. It was a simple phrase that he repeated to himself in the same manner as those early monks. The phrase was: Now. Here. This. Now. Here, H-E-R-E, This.2

Now—today, this moment, which is really the only moment we ever have.

Here—this place, the place we find ourselves in this moment, and perhaps the wider community of which we are a part.
This—the task or the people at hand, what and whom we have given ourselves to for this time: the work, the rest, the meal, the stroll, the book, the child, the partner, the friend, the face and body and life in front of me, and next to me and behind me.

IV.

Now. Here. This.
Today.
Keep awake!

All different versions of the same song, different translations of the same truth, different directions to the same place, which is the only place we will ever find each other, the only place we will ever find God: the place where we are.

Be here, now, Jesus says, and discover just how much all the things for which you wait and all the things for which we wait in this season are already present among us and within us: hope, peace, joy, love. Maybe not completely, or perfectly—certainly not. But partly and imperfectly, and we may find that these things grow more fully when we tend to them as they are, and nurture them, and help them grow, like we would (can we say here even on this first Sunday of Advent?) a baby.

This is the great hope of this season: that here at the beginning of our year together we would start the long, slow work of training our eyes not simply for the light that is coming, but for the light that is already here, already now, already this.

______________________
1From Fr. Greg Boyle on On Being with Krista Tippett. http://www.onbeing.org/program/father-greg-boyle-on-the-calling-of-delight/transcript/5059#main_content
2Christine Smith, The Ethical Spectacle, July, 2008. http://www.spectacle.org/0708/smith.html

Where Christ Is

Matthew 25:31-46, Christ the King Sunday

Scott Dickison · November 26th, 2023 · Duration 16:32

At first blush this teaching of Jesus from the 25th chapter of Matthew would seem to be a harsh choice for this final Sunday of our church year together, especially just after Thanksgiving when we’re still sluggish on carbs and football and 40% off sales.

And yet the wisdom of the lectionary sees these words of Jesus as fitting because they’re the final words of instruction Jesus leaves his disciples in Matthew before the Last Supper and all that would follow. So in a sense, everything he’s said and done and taught them over the course of the gospel has led up to this story, this “apocalyptic drama,” of the end of days, where “the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him,” and gathers all the people of the world and separates them as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.

But there’s no getting around that some of these images are shocking— it’s difficult to hear Jesus speak of eternal fire. And we may find ourselves asking, “Are we to take these things literally?” But when this is the case, I have found it is almost always more helpful to ask instead, “How can I take these words of Jesus seriously?” And if we’ve been paying attention in the Gospel of Matthew up to this point, what should come as no surprise at all is what Jesus is most serious about—what Jesus says is most important and where and to whom we should focus our attention and energy in the time we are given— because he’s been saying it the whole gospel.

I.

Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

Give to everyone who begs from you, and don’t refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your own family, what more are you doing than others?

In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a bad tree bear good fruit…Thus you will know them by their fruits.

Whoever becomes humble like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your servant just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.

If we’re to take these words of Jesus seriously, we must consider that what truly matters is what he’s been saying all along: acts of loving kindness shown to people in need.

II.

Give generously, show mercy and compassion, be humble, serve others—these are the things that matter in the end. In fact, not just in the end—these are the things that matter in the here and now. These are the things Jesus says are the marks of true discipleship. And so it’s also worth noting what isn’t included.

Jesus doesn’t say anything about a creed or a confession of faith or even the confession of sins. Nothing about baptism and whether sprinkling babies is permissible or if full-immersion is the only way to really make it count. None of what has tended to be the focus of the church’s many councils and conventions through the generations: the nature of the Trinity, or Christ’s humanity or divinity—whether the Son proceeds from the Spirit or from the Father. Nothing about the bread or the cup and what’s happening within them or not.

No denominations or tradition. Nothing about a perfect Sunday school record, or deacon service, or ordination. No choir robe, certainly no clerical collar, no tithe, no purity, no perfection. None of that. In fact, nothing about this scene is what we would consider specifically Christian at all.

I remember years ago being asked by my friend Imam Adam Fofana of the Islamic Center of Central Georgia to come and speak at one of their Friday evening services. Seeking to start from some common ground, and knowing the good work they did in our community, I quoted from this story, and said how this is what our tradition says is most important. A hand went up from a man in the back, and when I called on him he said, “Yes, we’re familiar with this story, it is in our scriptures too.”

Did you give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty?

Did you welcome the stranger and clothe the naked?

Did you care for the sick and visit the incarcerated?

Did you act with love and kindness and compassion to people in need—people who Jesus calls “members of my family.”

That’s it.

And even more, did you notice how the sheep in this story have no idea they were serving Jesus when they did these things? They didn’t know it was Jesus they were serving, and yet here they are in what we can only describe as being in relationship with him all the same.1 Which raises the question of the difference between being a Christian and living a Christ-like life.

Now, it’s not that those other things and all the rest of what we do as the church are bad or unimportant. They’re deeply important things. It’s just that it turns out what’s most important are all the things we have a tendency to think are secondary, or perhaps take for granted: caring for people in need with no expectation of reward or without a litmus test of who’s deserving or not. Just people, fellow bearers of God’s own image, the work of God’s own hand, same as us. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is.

III.

And maybe this is the real shocker in this hard story, that once again the focus isn’t on what happens in the end, but what we should be doing now with the time we’re given. The real point of this story isn’t where we’re going, but where Christ already is.

“If you did it for the least of these, you did it for me,” Jesus says. This isn’t a story about what happens when Christ comes back, it’s a story to remind us—as we stand at the edge of Advent and the story of Christ’s arrival—that Christ never really left. Not completely. We are told where Christ already is.

Christ is with the hungry and the thirsty. Christ is with the stranger—the Greek her is xenos, which is usually translated “foreigner.” Christ is with the sick, Christ is with the incarcerated. And not just that Christ is with all of these. Christ is all of these, it says. If you did it for the least of these, you did it for me.

If you’ve looked in their eyes, you’ve looked in my eyes. If you’ve held their hands, you’ve held my hands—we know those soothing and empowering words of St. Teresa of Avila,

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands and feet but yours, yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

They’re beautiful and absolutely true and good for us to be reminded of again and again—you are Christ’s presence here on earth. You are the ones who will bring compassion and peace and love—this is a good thing. But I wonder sometimes if we’ve become too convinced of Christ’s presence with and even in us, and if on occasion we shouldn’t turn these words around:

Christ has no body now on earth but theirs, no hand and feet but theirs, theirs are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.

And this changes things, doesn’t it? Because then it’s not us being challenged to bring Christ to others, but us being invited to see Christ in others.

Then it’s not just us being the presence of Christ for the families to whom we’ll provide assistance, as we should, for Christmas this year. It’s us being invited to see the presence of Christ that’s already there in them.

Then it’s not just us being the presence of Christ by delivering Meals on Wheels, or preparing bags of gifts and baked goods for residents of personal care homes—something we’ve done each Advent for the past 40 or so years, I’m told.

It’s preparing these things and delivering them with care so that when we do we can receive the presence of Christ that’s spilling out of the homes from them.

It’s not just us bringing Christ into hospital rooms or nursing homes or care facilities, or prison cells or shelters, but us going to these places to find the Christ we might never encounter otherwise.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours—I believe that’s true. Christ has no hands and feet but yours, no eyes but yours—all true. I believe Christ lives inside you and me and all of us. But I believe it’s just as true that Christ lives outside us in others, and maybe especially in certain others. And in those seasons when my spirit has been weak, and I realize I haven’t seen or felt Christ’s presence in some time, I realize it is almost always because I haven’t been looking in the right place.

IV.

Here at the end of the church year and the end of the gospel, after all the teachings, all the parables and instruction, all the healing and miracles to show us what is possible, in the end it turns out there’s no secret to discipleship. No hidden wisdom or hoops to jump through, no secret handshake to learn, or prayer to pray, or song to sing or sermon to hear or give. There are only people. There is only, as the writer Annie Dillard puts it, “the heart’s hard turning, the heart’s slow learning of where to love and whom.”2

No, before this is a story about where we’ll be in the end, this is a story about where Christ is right now. Where Christ has been all along. And so perhaps the question for us now and in this year ahead is where and with whom will we be?

—————————
1 Douglas R. A. Hare, Matthew, Interpretation Series, p. 291
2 Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm



Risking Good News

Matthew 25:14-30, The Twenty-Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · November 19th, 2023 · Duration 15:23

We continue this morning in the latter chapters of Matthew looking at what would be Jesus’ final teachings to his disciples, which, beginning with the parable of the ten bridesmaids last week, are presented as answers to questions the disciples have about the end times and what is to come. But Jesus responds to these questions about the future by focusing our attention on the present, as if to say the best way to prepare for what is to come is to live lives of purpose and meaning and intention now.

This morning’s parable, or at least it’s outline, is surely among Jesus’ most well-known. And chances are when we’ve studied this parable in the past, the talents entrusted to the slaves have been identified as metaphors for the talents or skills or gifts that God has given each and every one of us, “according to our abilities.” In fact, the meaning of the English word “talent” has it’s root in this parable, as something highly valued that’s entrusted to us by God.

And so, as this telling of the story goes, some of us have many talents and others perhaps not as much—but we all have at least one, the parable assures us! So we pray that it’s something virtuous like patience or a nurturing spirit and not just being able to shoot water out of your nose. But the lesson is to use these talents, whatever they may be, for the good of the Kingdom. “Don’t hide your light under a bushel,” Jesus says elsewhere, but “let it shine before others so they may see your good works and give glory to God in heaven.”

And this is good and true, and something we can’t be reminded of enough, especially in a world that in so many ways would have us believe we have little to offer. And if this is as far as we go in this parable, we would not be wrong, but we would have missed something important.

I.

Some have pointed out it’s actually unfortunate that the word “talent” has come to mean what it does in English because it distracts us from the scale and depth of this story.1 You see, a talent was an incredibly large amount of money in those days. One talent represented anywhere between 15 to 20 years worth of typical wages. So if we say the average salary in the US today is around $60,000, then a talent would be the equivalent to roughly $1 million, 2 talents $2 million, and five talents $5 million—this is a lot of money we’re talking about here, which is important. Jesus is reminding us that we’ve been entrusted with something great. So this has to do with more than what we typically think of as our “talents”—playing an instrument or a sport or having a beautiful singing voice or even shooting water through your nose. Jesus is talking about something more. He’s talking about not just your light, but your whole life.

The real gift in this story, the talents with which we’ve been entrusted, is “all of it:” the whole span of life and all the incredible depth of personhood and potential that make up any and all human life, blessings that are new every morning. “This is a wonderful day,” Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve never seen this one before.” The opportunity to drink deeply from it all, to render as much out of this time you have been given as you can—and not just for yourself, but also for others. This, too, is at the heart of a life well lived: that it’s lived always with others in mind, doing what you can to make sure others have every opportunity to render as much as they can too, because their life, too, is worth a great deal.

We’ve missed something in this parable if we don’t marvel at the sheer generosity of theses gifts given by the master. The first two servants get it. They receive their gifts with thanksgiving and in gratitude and then do all they can to make something of it, with imagination and hope and industry, and are rewarded for it.

II.

But then comes the third servant who took his one talent—still and incredible gift entrusted to him—and he does nothing with it. He hides it in the ground where it serves no one, not even himself. And notice his reason why: he comes forward and blames it on his master, saying, “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground.”

Now, does this sound like the master we’ve observed to this point in the story? The one who’s given indescribable gifts to those under him, entrusting them with this vast fortune? You could even make a case that he’s been a little too trusting, maybe even reckless to do such a thing. But harsh? Reaping where he does not sow? Gathering where he did not scatter? Does anything done to this point lead us to believe he is someone who would induce fear?

The root of the problem, it seems, is that this poor servant’s perception of the master is off.2 He’s somehow missed the qualities of generosity and trust that the others so plainly see, and instead sees someone fearful enough to hide from and wait out.

He sees this incredible gift he’s been given not as something to receive in gratitude, but as a burden to bear; not an invitation to grow but a trap to fall into. And this is where I find myself having some compassion for this third servant because the sad truth is that there are too many people who are taught something more like his vision of God than the others’.

The tyrant God who’s always trying to catch you doing wrong.

The petty God who holds grudges and keeps score eternally.

Even the outwardly polite God who nonetheless would keep you at arm’s length.

The truth of this parable, it seems, is that it’s up to us which God we will choose to believe in and order our lives by. And it’s also true that we tend to find the God we look for.

If we meet the world with our minds and our hearts and our arms closed, we will see and receive very little and may come to believe very little is out there to be received. But if we can summon enough courage to straighten our backs, lift our gaze, pry open our arms, and unclench our fists, we will find ourselves ready to receive a world of beauty and possibility and the fullness of the God who created it—all that we may not have even known was there.

And it’s true, and it must be said, this posture assumes a bit of risk. More than a little vulnerability. It will leave your heart exposed, a bit, and there’s no way of denying that. But such is the risk of faith. There was an element of risk to what the first two servants did with what was entrusted to them, no question. They could have lost some of it, or lost everything. But that chance of loss was acceptable to the master. What was unacceptable was doing nothing—simply protecting what was given. “Here is your gospel,” José Pagola puts it, “[here is] your project of the reign of God, your message of love for those who suffer. We have kept it faithfully. We haven’t used it to transform our life or to introduce your kingdom in the world. We didn’t want to take chances. But here it is, undamaged.”3

III.

I heard a story once about the late Donald Coggan, former Archbishop of Canterbury in the Church of England, who was traveling by train through the English countryside, when a young Anglican seminarian noticed him across the aisle. The young student was thrilled, introduced herself, and began to engage the Archbishop in conversation. They spoke for the length of the trip about life and ministry, as the student sought to soak up as much as she could. When the train reached the station, they prepared to part. They exchanged the usual pleasantries: “Dr. Coggan, she said to him, "this was such a thrill. Take care." Then, as she turned to leave, she felt his hand catch her arm. “My dear,” he said, “Not take care. Take risk.”

Take risk, church!

Isn’t this the gospel of Jesus—Jesus who cared deeply, but who risked even more, because of that care? Jesus, who showed us what it means to “risk something big for something good,” as you have heard it put in the benediction on the chapel wall? Isn’t the good news, in this present time as in all times, that in Christ we are free to risk the imagination and hope and love that faith demands—which in the end is no different from the risk of life—abundant, open-hearted, open-handed life.

Next week is Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of our Christian year together. The following week will be the start of Advent when we’ll begin to tell this whole story again, and so we are on the cusp of this season of giving thanks for what has been, and looking ahead to what is to come—which means it is the season of taking stock. What would it mean to ask ourselves—in the most generous terms possible—where and when over the past year we have most lived from this posture of imagination and hope? When have we risked this kind of open-hearted approach to living?

And that sounds grander than I mean it. I mean, where and when did you offer simple kindness in a moment when the alternative is within reach? I mean extending patience just past the point when you realized you needed to be patient—usually by the time you realize you need to be patient, it’s over. I mean unexpected generosity. I mean changing your mind, about something or about someone. Teaching your children something you wished you’d learned earlier.

Forgiveness—there is nothing that requires more imagination and hope than forgiveness, both extending it and accepting it.

Was it letting go of old grievance and hurt, finally? Was it giving yourself another chance? Was it, in so many ways, choosing to invest yourself in the things and the people and the ideas that really matter, that are rooted in God’s great dream for the world? The God you truly believe in?

IV.

This is perhaps the question before us as we approach the end of the year, that is always a beginning: In what God do we believe, truly?

Which Christ will we follow?

Is it the protectionist, tight-fisted God who would have us bury the treasure of our lives in the dirt so as not to lose it?

Or is it the one true God, the God of creation, of mysterious, miraculous abundance, who has given us much and stands ready to offer even more, if we would receive it, and use it?

___________________
1Tom Long’s treatment of this parable in his commentary on Matthew from Westminster John Knox was immensely helpful.
2Tom Long, again
3José A. Pagola, The Way Opened Up By Jesus: A Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew, found in Anna Case-Winter’s wonderful commentary on Matthew in the Belief series.

Prepared By Hope

Matthew 25:1-13, The Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · November 12th, 2023 · Duration 17:40

I was informed several weeks ago that this would be the Sunday of our business meeting to approve the budget for the coming year, and so it would also be the Sunday in which the yearly stewardship sermon is to be delivered. I was also informed that it needed to be an especially good one since we are running a bit of a deficit this year. And so you can image how relieved I was to see that the lectionary has given us this parable of Jesus about the end times, so we also can be even more uncomfortable!

Would we rather talk about money or the apocalypse? Well, it doesn’t matter because we get both.

I.

“The kingdom of heaven will be like this.” Ten bridesmaids take their lamps to go meet the groom, five are wise and five are foolish. The wise bring oil enough to make sure their lamps will be ready when the time is right, but the foolish do not. As it happens, the groom is delayed and they all become drowsy and fall asleep, only to awake at midnight with the shout that the groom is on his way. They all go out with their lamps, but the five foolish bridesmaids realize they’re running out of oil and when the wise ones tell them there’s none to spare they go into town to buy more. But of course, while they’re away, the groom comes and when they return they find that they’re too late to greet him. Keep awake, we’re told, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

This ominous warning for vigilance for fear of missing Jesus when he comes has of course captured the church’s imagination, at least in recent generations. I remember being a youth and coming of age during the rise of “Christian rock music” and listening to song after song about the rapture. They were some good tunes—but questionable theology (Though I’ll confess I still get nervous when I suddenly find myself alone in the house.).

But notice that the issue here in the parable isn’t so much the bridesmaids staying awake—after all, they all fell asleep, the wise along with the foolish. The issue is being prepared. What separates the wise from the foolish bridesmaids is that they were prepared for the groom to take longer than expected. They brought extra oil with them, so when the groom is delayed and the lamps are going dim, the wise are able to replenish theirs and keep their light burning through the night, while the foolish are left without. The wisdom here seems to be not to anxiously and fearfully keep watch, but to be prepared to settle in for the long haul. To be prepared for God’s timing to be a little different from our own. For when it takes longer than we would want for God to heal the world, or for God to mend our own broken hearts. To make things right again, or for the first time. The wisdom, it seems, is to take on rhythms and practices that will allow us to keep our lamps burning for the long haul.

II.

I will confess that these days Christ’s eminent return does not factor much into my decision making—I hope to the relief of my teenage self. But I suppose I have reached the age when it’s become more natural to think about the future, and what I’m doing now, or should be doing now, to be ready for the long run. In fact, that’s why I picked up running some years back. After a couple of relatively minor health scares I remember looking in the mirror, literally, and asking what I was willing to do to make sure I would be here for my family and my boys for as long as possible.

Most of us are not wired this way, to think in this future tense—to see the ways what we do now shapes who we will one day be. Or, rather, to be compelled enough to make the changes we should. But these things often come more clearly into view when we take time to imagine a future we want. When we have an image—the clearer the better—of the kind of people we want to be, or bigger than that, the kind of world we want to make, then we can begin to meaningfully ask what we should do now to make that future possible.

Some years back I heard a story about the great dining hall at New College, one of the oldest colleges of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. It was built not long after the college’s founding in the year 1379 and features a towering ceiling supported with huge oak beams, some two feet across and 45 feet long—think Hogwarts from Harry Potter.

As the story goes, nearly one-hundred years ago the roof of the dining hall at New College was found to be overrun with beetles. These giant oak beams would need to be replaced, which was something of a problem since beams of this size are not easy to come by. Impossible, you would think. At some point it was suggested that they might look on the college’s endowed lands, acres of woodlands scattered across the country and run by the college forester. Seeing few other options, a call was placed to the long-tenured forester, presenting him with the problem. He responded, to their great surprise, “Well sirs, we was wonderin’ when you’d be askin’.”

It turns out that not long after the college was founded, back in the 14th or 15th century, a grove of oak trees had been planted with the purpose of one day supplying wood to replace the beams in the dining hall. And these trees had been nurtured and protected, and this plan had been handed down from one generation to the next, from one forester to another, for hundreds of year, each one of them saying, as the story goes, “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”1

Now that is long-range planning. It’s foresight and discipline and not a small amount of luck. But every time I’m reminded of this story I think, what faith. What incredible faith to assume the college, let alone the dining hall, would still be there all those generations into the future. What wild hope to prepare for it in that way. It was that vision of the future they wanted that revealed what needed to be done in the present.

To live by faith is to live from the future back instead of from the present forward.

We begin with the great Christian hope that all of history is moving toward a future of God’s dreaming. A world where tears are wiped from eyes. A world where crying and pain and death will be no more. A world where wrongs will be righted, where what is broken has been made whole, what is lost has been found. A world where everything has been made new and all people are welcomed home—a world that Jesus calls here in Matthew "the Kingdom of heaven.”

In a sense, as people of faith, we start with the end. We believe that God’s vision of healing and wholeness for the world is where we are headed—somehow and someway—and it’s from this hope-filled vision of the future that we live our lives. It’s from this vision that we find courage enough to risk living a life of faith in the present. This hope in the future is why we can risk things like compassion in a world where cruelty often seems to have the upper hand. It’s why we can risk laughter and joy when things can feel so bleak, generosity and understanding in a world of tight fists. It’s why we can risk investing in people and in our community and the gifts of creation when the smart money says to hold onto what you have, or find a way out.

When we live by faith, we live from the wholeness we anticipate back, not the pain and disappointment we have known forward. It’s from this hope that we’re able to meet the trials of life that invariably come. And it’s from this vision of the future we want that makes what’s needed from us in the present more clear.

III.

I haven’t been here very long, but it is clear to me that Northminster has a long history of living from this vision of hope for the future. I haven’t heard of any groves of oak trees planted to one day replenish these rafters—though it wouldn’t surprise me. But just last week on All Saints Sunday we planted another dogwood in the garden behind us, a tree that grows slowly but in time blooms beautifully—a symbol of what we hope for our grief and the new life we believe is always out ahead of us.

This beautiful campus was build in sections through the years, but I understand was designed decades ago as a whole with the hope that it one day would come to be as it is, more or less. And more than simply the physical spaces, so much of what we do and how we organize ourselves, where we invest our time and energy and resources, is rooted in a clear vision of the future we will one day know—that kingdom of heaven Jesus keeps talking about, keeps insisting upon.

The design of our worship and the reverence and joy that opens us to the God we’re told is as transcendent as eminent, the maker of the cosmos who is as close as our next breath.

The shape of our leadership, where women and men alike serve and lead, and all have a voice in our planning, all having been made in God’s image. Or the width of our welcome, which we pray is ever widening, as God’s circle of love and concern is infinitely so. Or the depth of our giving, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands each year to organizations and people doing good work or who are in special need in our community, because we believe if we all belong to God then we must also belong to each other.

Behind all of these things, or rather, way out in front of them, is a vision of where we are going. A vision of where God is leading us. An image of the future God promises us and all people: of wholeness and of home.

For all the things Northminster is, maybe first all of all we are a people of hope. A people of hope bound by a shared vision of the future. And it’s a vision that’s been kept alive with each passing generation because when we live from this vision of what’s to come, that future has a way of becoming a reality in our lives now, however imperfectly. Much has already been planted here for us to care for and help grow, but I believe we’re not done planting either.

IV.

So here’s the ask. And it’s not so different from the invitation I offer at the end of every worship service, which is to respond. In a few minutes we’ll present the plan this church has made for how we will live from this hope in the year ahead, and we’ll we’ll all be invited to affirm it. But the real response will come in the days and weeks ahead as we each make plans for ourselves and our families for the people we want to be in the year to come.

So as we all do these things I invite you to think of the ways you have seen and known and felt this hopeful future in the present in this place and among these people, and to ask how you can be a part of it—remembering the image of God we hope to bear among us would not be as complete without you.

Maybe for you responding in this way is a practice you’ve taken on through the years and it’s come to be a sacred time of thanksgiving. Maybe this is something you have hoped to do for a while but just haven’t made that step. Maybe this is the year. Maybe this is something you never expected to do, to commit yourself to a congregation in this way (and a baptist one at that!), but here you are, having found something you didn’t know you were missing.

Maybe you can do more this year than thought. Maybe you can do less than you’d like. The important thing is do what we can and feel good about it. We can feel good about it because we believe God holds the future. And if that’s true, there is no telling what might grow here among us.

______________________
1“Oak Beams, New College Oxford,” https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/oak-beams-new-college-oxford

Where the Church Is

Matthew 5:1-12, The Twenty-Third Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · November 5th, 2023 · Duration 9:57

These verses from Matthew’s Gospel, traditional for All Saints’ Day, and often known as the “beatitudes,” come at the very beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This is the sermon, as Matthew tells it, that kickstarted his ministry and in which he outlines how this new community of God’s people that would come to be known as the church is to conduct themselves—what will define them, and animate them, and guide them.

But before he gets to the “how” of these things, Jesus begins his sermon with the question of “who.” Who will be in this new community? What kinds of people? How will we know when we've found the church—how will we know when we truly are it.

You’ll find the church, he tells them, wherever and whenever you find these kinds of people.

I.

You’ll know it’s the church when you find people who are poor in spirit—which is maybe not where we’d expect this roll call to begin. But to be spiritually poor, the way Jesus means it here, doesn’t mean to not have much of a spiritual life. It doesn’t mean being downtrodden or deflated, necessarily. To be poor in spirit means to be aware of your own spiritual need. It might include the literally poor, as Luke puts it in his gospel. But Matthew takes it more broadly to mean all those who understand their lives are not in their own control.1 It just happens that when you’re literally poor this lack of control over your own life is quite clear to you. Jesus says the church is made up of people who are aware of the extent to which they depend on God and others.

At the heart of this new community will also be people who mourn. People who mourn not simply the losses in their own life, but who mourn the losses of others. People who “weep with those who weep,” as Paul would later put it. He just as easily could have said “Blessed are the compassionate,” compassion meaning, literally, “to suffer with.” Blessed are those who mourn the suffering they see in the world—and there is so much suffering. To some this may seem strange, that a community rooted in “good news” would put mourning at the center, but that’s just what Jesus does. And so it’s what the church does, on days like today especially, because we know that tears water the ground where hope can grow.

The meek, too, will have a part in the church, and this is an another difficult one. Jesus doesn’t mean those without a backbone or who lack courage to do what’s right—that’s actually the opposite of what he means. This is meek in the sense of being grounded and secure, not feeling the need to play the game of climbing or advancing, or taking or grasping or clinging so tightly. This is having one’s hands open. It’s these people, Jesus says, who will inherit the earth: not those who take it, but those who receive it.

And he goes on in this way:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—which is just a fancy church word for justice, which is just another word for working for what’s right. Blessed are the merciful—the ones who take forgiveness seriously; the ones who give second chances, and third.
Blessed are the pure in heart—the ones who find a way to hold cynicism at bay; the ones who are able to keep their hearts open despite so much evidence to the contrary. Blessed are those who make peace—not sowing more conflict and distrust and resentment. Blessed are the diffusers—blessed are the Enneagram 9s!

Blessed are those who suffer, Jesus says. Especially those who suffer for my sake, for the sake of what must be right, no matter the costs. Jesus says these all are the kinds of people who will be at the heart of this new community called the church. When you see these people you will know the church is present.

II.

And I think Jesus is onto something here, because when I think of the times in my life when I have been most sure I was in the presence of the church, I don’t think of the different sanctuaries I have been in, beautiful as so many have been. I don’t think of the children’s Sunday school classes or the youth rooms where I was taught so much. I don’t think of the fellowship halls and the meals I’ve shared there, or even the columbaria or cemeteries, and the tears I have shed in those places. When I think of the times I have been most sure I’m in the presence of the church, while it has often been in those places, it has been because I was in the presence of certain people.

People, some who have gone before and some who are still with us, who have in different ways embodied the blessings that Jesus names here. People who showed me how to make peace amid conflict and who kept their hearts pure amid bitterness. People who taught me how to forgive and how to encourage. People who always seemed to know what was right, or at least the next right thing to do. All those people who taught me how to grieve—who showed me how necessary it is, how life-giving it can be. People who had such spiritual wealth but who insisted there was so much they still lacked. All those many, many people whom the church through the generations has called saints—the people in whom and through whom we all have found the church. The people without whom there is no church.

III.

And today perhaps more than most, we’re reminded that in order for us to stay the church, the church must regenerate itself, replenish itself with each passing generation or season or year, and so it’s necessary to make sure that the bearers of these particular and peculiar blessings do not pass away without someone coming up from behind to take the baton. Someone to make sure these blessings continue to be embodied, however imperfectly, however improbably, for those of us today and those still to come to see and believe.

And understand that none of them who came before were and none of us has to be all of these things all the time—praise God. This isn’t a checklist we each must meet at the end of each day. Jesus is describing an inventory of the community as a whole.2 He simply means that among those who would call themselves the church of Jesus Christ, these people must be found, from one generation to the next.

And I know what you’re thinking, as you look at these candles and the saints they represent. I know what you’re thinking because I hear it to. It’s that voice inside your head that says, It’s me.

It’s us.

Thanks be to God.

___________________
1 Eugene Boring’s commentary on these verses were helpful here, The Gospel of Matthew,
New Interpreters.
2 Boring’s reflections here were, again, helpful.

Harmonic Love

Matthew 22:34-46, The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · October 29th, 2023 · Duration 20:19

Over these last several weeks we have been making our way through the latter chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, staying close to Jesus and the disciples as as he teaches and preaches about the coming Kingdom. We’ve watched and listened as Jesus has been locked in a confrontation with the religious leaders at the temple. They argue about a number of things, but behind all of them is a fundamental disconnect between what the religious leaders seem to be most concerned with, and where Jesus says our hearts should be.

They want to know why he eats with tax collectors and people of ill repute, to which he responds, Who will produce the fruit of God’s kingdom—compassion and generosity, and gentleness?

They want to know where he stands on paying the tax to Caesar, to which which he responds, Give Caesar what bears his image, but be careful not to give him what bears the divine image, which is you—your life, your love.

All of which has been leading to this final exchange. Seeing how Jesus has silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees huddle together to figure out what to do next, and produce one from among them to ask him a final question:

Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?

I.

And it’s hard to know exactly what their angle is here. Perhaps they were hoping he would pick something obscure so as discredit him. Or perhaps they wanted to see if he would dare pick just one of the 613 commandments identified in rabbinical theology, when some insisted all were expected to be followed and observed equally. Or maybe they had simply run out of questions and were starting to wonder for themselves what Jesus was really about.

Whatever their motive, Jesus answers them, and begins by quoting a verse from Deuteronomy that is so important to the Jewish faith there's a special name for it, the Shema, which means "hear," from the first word of verse:

“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”

And if you were to pick just one commandment to lift up as the most central, the most important, everyone gathered there at the temple would have agreed this was a good place to start—a verse central to Jewish teaching and identity they would have learned as children. But then Jesus continues, and quotes another verse from the Torah, well-known but not as much as the first, this time from Leviticus, saying, “The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.”

Love God and love your neighbor, Jesus tells them, saying in a few sentences what he has been doing his best to live and illuminate throughout his ministry, what he would soon bring to completion, which is that the heart of God does not beat in rules—in do’s and don’ts, in this and not that. The heart of God beats in love, and so love is at the heart of the law and love is the heart of the gospel. Love that goes up ad down between God and us, and side to side between us and each other. Love is the greatest commandment. And if you miss that, you miss everything. But if you start there, you’ll never be on the wrong path.

II.

St. Augustine said love is the goal of all scripture—the lens through which we’re to read the Bible, the only way we can read it clearly. He said if you’re reading a passage of scripture and don’t understand it to tell you to love God and your neighbor, then you’ve read it wrong. You need to go back and read it again. He even said that if you’re reading a passage of Scripture and don’t understand it completely, but assume
that it’s teaching you to love greater, then you can’t be too far off track. He said you’re like someone out walking who leaves her path by mistake but reaches her destination anyhow by “cutting through a field.” Love is a shortcut to the heart of God.

And again, these two verses Jesus lifts are not new or obscure. But like elements that react when put together, or colors that are beautiful on their own but when combined create a work of art that is wholly unique, or two people who by themselves are lovely but when they come together in relationship with each other become something or someone altogether different, Jesus takes this central teaching of the tradition and places it beside this other very important verse from the tradition, and when heard together they become something entirely new.

It’s like in music when you take a melody that’s beautiful in it’s own right, but then you add to it a harmony that complements the melody perfectly, and when you play them together you have something deeper, something richer and more complex and more complete. It's almost as if harmony reveals something new within the melody.

Bluegrass harmonies are a perfect example of this—we’re not too far from the mountains, are we? Harmonies in bluegrass, and really so much Americana music, aren’t complicated, but they’re often right on top of each other, and they’ll cross over or under each other—almost weaving themselves together. Sometimes they’re so close it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other begins, and that’s entirely the point.

There’s a kind of music that’s created in the interplay of these two verses. They do more than complement each other; they inform each other, they make each other richer and more textured. In fact I think it’s difficult to understand one without the other.

The first commandment is so big that it can be overwhelming. Love God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength—with all that you are. Beautiful. But how does one begin to do this? What does it mean to love God? If we’re not careful this can devolve into a kind of churchspeak that we hear so often but rarely ask what it means. How do you begin to love something or someone you can’t see, or touch or hold? Which is why this harmony that Jesus adds is so important. It clarifies things a bit—it grounds us and gives us some direction. How do you love God with all your heart? You start by loving the things that God loves. Or more to the point, you love the people that God loves. Jesus puts some flesh and bones on this abstract call to love—he incarnates it, you might say. He gives us a face to focus our attention toward. Jesus gives God a body—not simply his own, but so many others.

God has no need for decent, affordable housing, or some one-on-one attention to help him pass the third grade or just to let him know that somebody cares.

You can’t make sure that God has food to eat or clean water to drink, or a winter coat to wear when the weather turns.

God has no need for healthcare, or an advocate in the system, a way out of poverty and violence, or a vision and a hope for what life could be.

God doesn’t have a sick kid, or parents who are aging, or a family she’s estranged with, or a biopsy he’s waiting for, or a marriage that’s failing, or a spouse who’s dying, or a child she fears she’s losing, or…

This isn’t God’s story, but it is our neighbors’, and even more than that, this is our story, isn’t it?

I believe this is what Jesus means when he says to love your neighbor as yourself. It’s not just that we should love them in the same way that we love ourselves—I think God knows as much as anyone that we don’t always love ourselves like we should. The commandment is to love your neighbor as you love yourself because in some small but essential way they are you. Or a part of you, and you’re a part of them and we’re all a part of God.


And when we begin to see and feel this intimate relationship between loving God and loving those around us and loving ourselves, the truth and the possibility and the challenge of the gospel comes into view. And when we’re doing it right, church is a place where we practice this type of dynamic, incarnated, harmonic love.

III.

There are few places where we are taught to care about the life of another as much as we do our own. Or as we were reminded last week, that it is not simply us and those who look like us or think like us who bear the divine image, but all people, everywhere. Where we're given opportunities to come in contact with those we might never otherwise see, offer help to those in need and in doing so have our own need revealed. Where we’re challenged to think beyond ourselves and our own experiences and impulses and instincts, and hold them alongside another’s.

There are few places where we are invited to share in life deeply and intimately. Where babies are held and blessed and kissed and called God’s beloved in the same room in which saints are sent home, blessed, kissed, and called God’s beloved. Where else do we sing together, as adults, in public? Where making music is not just for children and professionals, and we’re opened to all the joy and intimacy and vulnerability it brings?

Where we are invited in so many small ways to come close to others, so close that we at times stumble upon that great truth of life that Jesus uncovers here, which is that in God’s holy imagination it is impossible to live wholly alone. And so we should do our best to make living together as holy as we can.

As many of you know, Audrey and I grew up at church together back in North Carolina. Both of our families were very active in the church, and so the wedding was a big one and all of our parents’ closest friends were there. It was beautiful and we wouldn’t have had it any other way.

That next summer, we happened to be back home and staying with Audrey’s parents for a while, and we received a message on their answering machine. It was from John Spikes—known to most simply as Spike, the tall, gangly, slightly eccentric distance runner who was one of these dear church members who had attended our wedding just a year before. In the message he said he had heard we were back in town and was calling to wish us well on our anniversary.

But then he paused and said something we didn’t expect. He said he wanted to thank us for inviting he and his wife, Yvonne, to our wedding. Yvonne, who had been our first grade Sunday school teacher years ago, had passed away not long after our wedding after a long and difficult road with cancer. He said he wanted to thank us for all the memories we had given him.

He said our wedding was the last time he and his wife appeared together in public. It was the last time they had their picture taken together, and our reception was the last time they danced.

And here we were thinking our wedding, and our love, was just about us.

IV.

On these two hang all the law and the prophets: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

And what if the whole idea of church is to show the world that this type of love, and this type of life together, is possible? And that this coming Kingdom of which Jesus speaks isn’t just a place we hope to one day go, but a relationship we are invited into now? Not just with God but with each other?

Where the melody of love that comes from God and the harmony we add when we share that love with each other—where this music turns into dance.

The Things That Are God's

Matthew 22:15-22, The Twenty-First Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · October 22nd, 2023 · Duration 15:39

I remember hearing a story about a little boy some years ago who was told in Sunday school that no prayer goes unanswered, and being an precocious child he prayed to God for $100. He prayed and prayed for two weeks but nothing happened, so he decided to write God a letter requesting the $100. When the postal authorities received the letter addressed to “God, U.S.A.,” they were amused by it, and passed it up and up the line, until it finally found its way to the president’s desk—so I’m told.

The president was so amused by the the letter that he had his assistant send the boy $50 along with a note from God saying to use it well.

The little boy was delighted with the $50 and immediately sat down to write a thank you note to God that read: "Dear God, thank you very much for sending me the money. However, I noticed that for some reason you had to send it through Washington, and, as usual, those devils took half of it.”

This is the Sunday that comes every three years when pastors all over the world get to tell jokes, for better or worse, about “Giving to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s.

Of course, the situation then in 1st century Jerusalem was far different than ours here in 21st century Jackson. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed much in the 2,000 years in between, which is that questions about paying taxes are never just about paying taxes. There’s always something more personal at stake.

I.

It is still the Monday of Holy Week in Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus has been locked in debate and confrontation with the religious leaders there at the temple all day. First it was the chief priests and the elders of the temple, and now it’s the Pharisees, and another curious group in the Jewish landscape of the day: the Herodians—and this was an odd alliance.

The Pharisees we know well and were a kind of lay-movement in 1st century Judaism, mostly made up of working class people who abhorred their Roman occupiers. The Herodians we don’t know much about, other than they were Jews who supported the Roman occupation, which means they were most likely pretty well-heeled and at home at the top of the very rigid social hierarchy of the day. That these two groups would find a common adversary in Jesus should tell us something: that the gospel Jesus preaches rarely cuts along clean lines.

These interrogators have been sent to trap Jesus into saying something either at odds with the law of Moses, or at odds with the law of Caesar, and their plan is savvy. After a lengthy introduction with more than a little flattery, they get to their question, and it’s a brilliant one that taps into some of the thorniest politics of their day: Tell us, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

II.

And this question would have been far from hypothetical; this was a genuine dilemma for Jews in living in the Roman Empire.1 Ever since Rome had conquered the Jewish homeland some 70 years before Jesus’ birth, they had required an annual tax on the Jewish people. It was required of every adult male, and was burdensome—not simply because of the economic pain it caused, but because of its painful symbolism. It was a tangible reminder that their land and their livelihoods, if not their very lives, were not their own. They belonged to Caesar. So this wasn’t just a question of paying taxes, it was also a question of honor, or more accurately, a question of shame.

And even more, the first of the 10 Commandments is very clear that God is Lord alone, and so the question of paying taxes to a foreign, pagan power was also a question of faithfulness. But then again, in the eyes of Rome, not paying taxes was seen as an act of rebellion and they could be killed, so this was also a question of survival.

And aside from the principle of paying taxes at all, there were also questions about the actual currency it was to be paid in. There were two types of coins in circulation in those days. One was used by Jews, and again, in accordance with the commandment prohibiting graven images, had no markings on it. And the other was the currency of Rome, which, as Jesus points out, was imprinted with a picture of Caesar along with an inscription declaring him to be the divine Son of God. Because of this, many Jews wouldn’t use the coin for anything other than the tax, and certainly wouldn’t want to be caught carrying it around—let alone on the temple grounds—so this question of paying taxes was also a question of piety.

Which leads us to Jesus’ response. Now remember, these were leaders at the temple, well aware of the commandment against graven images, who advocated resistance to Rome, and yet when Jesus asks them to bring him one of these idolatrous Roman coins in question, they produce one easily, and so as some have pointed out, before he’s even had a chance to get to his punch line, Jesus has already won the argument by revealing the compromise they’ve made.2 This is like the dear church lady who’s mortified when she runs into someone she knows while coming out of the package store…two counties over. (Which is why Audrey’s grandmothers used to make sure to go 2 states over!)

Now, Jesus could have stopped there. He’s revealed where they are in these things, but he takes it a step further and answers their question. Holding up the coin, he says, Who’s head is this and who’s title?

The emperor’s, they reply.

Then give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and give to God the things that are God’s.

Beautiful. One of those prefect responses you wish you could think of in the moment but never do. But what does it mean?

Now, you don’t have to get very far into the gospels to learn that Jesus was very short on quick fixes or easy answers. Jesus rarely intended to settle much of anything once and for all, in fact, his aim was usually to unsettle—to stir the pot, to put bees in the bonnets or ants in the pants, especially of those who would see themselves in the right or on the inside. So it’s no surprise that in answering their question he offers another one, and turns it in such a way that gets to the heart of the matter, what’s really at stake, and it’s not what’s owed to the emperor and all the things bearing his image.

For Jesus, the real question is what belongs to God. And if we follow the same logic then we need to look for God’s image, and Scripture is pretty clear about where that can be found.

III.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in God’s image, in the image of God God created them; male and female God created them.

The first verses of poetry in the Bible, I’ll point out, right there in the opening chapter of Genesis when God creates humans and says they, we, bear the imago dei, the image of God. And not just some, but all—name the full spectrum of male and female would have been surprising and radical in ancient times. It’s really shorthand for, “all of us.” There is no one whom is not created in God’s image.

Give to Caesar what you must, Jesus seems to say—the coins, the tax—fine. Give him the things that have his face on them, but don’t let him have the things that reflect God’s.

And of course Caesar is more than some dead emperor. He’s any lesser power who would claim to be Lord, who would claim your allegiance, but even more, your heart, your mind, your soul and your strength. Yes, Caesar can be the government, or a political party, a social identity—yes. Caesar often bears down on us from the outside in. But Caesar can also be that force that seems to come from somewhere deep inside you, that compels you to work endlessly. That tells you you are only worth as much as you can produce. Caesar is the voice of anxiety, the voice of shame—that voice that comes, at least for me, about 3am, and asks if you’re worthy of love, really?

Caesar is whatever would have you believe you’re anything less than what God says you are, which is beloved. Called by name by the one true God. Created with beauty and purpose. Imprinted with the image of God in a thousand different ways. Caesar is anything that would have you question whether that’s true.

And especially in this season when life feels so fractured, and has for so long now, and the reality of war and unspeakable violence and intractable historical divisions have invaded our collective conscience and utterly destroyed the lives of so many, and left waves of fear and anger and hopelessness that reverberate across the span of the earth, it feels crucial to say that Caesar is also whatever would have you believe anyone else is anything less than a bearer of God’s image. Made with beauty and purpose, whose lives are precious.

This is a line—now as much as ever—that we simply must hold. In the end, it may be the only line.

IV.

They come to Jesus with a question meant to trap: should we pay the tax or not, is it this side or that. And Jesus gives them an answer. But then he reveals a more pressing question: the question of what belongs to God. And this really isn’t a question at all. It’s a promise. It’s a posture.

Jesus isn’t sidestepping politics. He knows the questions of how we will live together are always important. But he’s offering a different politics. A politics that suggests our lives and our loves and our allegiances need not be dictated by those other worldly authorities, whose power is rooted in their ability to divide and defame.

Our politics can be, if we let it, dictated by our shared humanity. By this central theological and spiritual commitment, which when we fully appreciate its implications and demands is finally revealed to be among the most radical, most disarming, most confounding, but most life-affirming claims in all of scripture.

That, “in the image of God” we were created—every last one of us. That we belong to God—all of us. And, church, if that’s true, doesn’t it just change everything?

____________________
1The Last Week, by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan
2Borg and Crossan again

Jesus Is a Banquet, Not a Courtroom

Matthew 22:1-14, The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

Ed Bacon · October 15th, 2023 · Duration 25:21

This past Friday, the day before yesterday, I lost my wallet.

It was the day I was to drive from our home in Birmingham to come to Jackson to spend the weekend with you good people – yes, that Friday, I got up and after my kitchen duties, including feeding the cats, and then meditating for an hour, I began packing. It was time to go pick up from the printer the teaching journals I like to use when teaching with the PowerPoints I have created.

I moved toward my car and I couldn’t find my wallet. Yes. That wallet – containing my credit cards and my driver’s license. I started searching high and low. It was not on my bedside table, where I normally put it. As I continued to search, I began wondering how I could pay for the freshly printed journals I needed to pick up right then to bring for yesterday’s teaching and the one I will offer at today’s lunch. But then as frenzy overtook the nature of my searching, I realized that I could not drive to Jackson without my driver’s license. I left my humanity and became a search party, an anxious, non-thinking seeking machine. Then after rehearsing the worst case scenarios, it occurred to me to look in the pants pockets of the suit I had worn to a prayer service at our Alabama cathedral to pray for peace in the Holy Land. After 30 minutes of frantic searching, there the wallet was. Sanity serenity returned, I yelled to my wife Hope that I had found it. I did a little happy dance and went on my way, late by only 30 minutes.

As I drove to the printer’s I smiled, thinking that the saga of the lost wallet was the starting story for this sermon on Jesus being a banquet person rather than a courtroom person.

Scholars tell us that most of Jesus’s stories end in a party or Jesus’s stories are about banquets, as does this morning’s readings. And many of those stories about finding what was lost. The woman finding her lost coin. The shepherd finding his lost sheep. The father who lost his prodigal son. The Bapto-Epsicopal preacher from Birmingham losing his wallet. In every case, Jesus ends his story by saying that the person who found what was lost then gave a party – bring the finest cloak and a ring and bar-b-q some steaks.

The wonderful teacher of alternative orthodoxy perspective on Christianity, first brought this to my attention in his fantastic book, Things hidden. The 10 overarching themes of the Bible. In what for me has become the most important chapter of the book, a chapter named, “The Resented Banquet,” he reminds us that not all parties Jesus celebrates are embraced.

For instance, in the parable of the Prodigal Son, the older brother who never left home and had been a good boy all his life, comes to his father to complain about the party he’s throwing for this dysfunctional second born son of his. He resents that his father is a banquet person. Because, he, the older son is a courtroom person. He keeps score all the time. Filled with his own egoistic list-keeping, he cannot comprehend what God is all about. God is all about unmerited love. The word for that is grace. And we all have a place inside us that can give energy to our courtroom mentality where we see that life is often not fair, according to our courtroom logic. No, life is about love and grace. The only thing with the power to heal, transform, impower, and make things come alive is unmerited love. Grace.

Richard Rohr calls parties and banquets, “Jesus’s most common audiovisual aid for his message. Banquets have all the elements of community, equality, joy, nurturance, delight, generous host and open invitation to the ‘good and bad alike’” (Matthew 22:10; Luke 14:21) Things Hidden, p. 157

Rohr goes on to write, “The central positive theme of the Bible is the Divine Unmerited Generosity that is everywhere available, totally given….. It is called grace and has been rightly defined as “that which confers on our souls a new life, that is, a sharing in the life of God.…Grace is the key and the code to everything
transformative in the Bible. …. People who have not experienced the radical character of grace will always misinterpret the meanings and the direction of the Bible. The Bible will become a burden and obligation more than a gift.”

And then, perhaps my favorite sentence in this chapter I have been quoting, Rohr write, “I believe grace is the life energy that makes flowers bloom, animals lovingly raise their young, babies smile, and the planets remain in their orbits – for no good reason whatsoever – except love alone.” Things Hidden, p. 156

The ego does not know how to receive things free or without logic. It prefers a worldview of scarcity, or at least quid pro quo, where only the clever and correct win. It likes to be worthy and needs to understand. Richard Rohr, Things Hidden, p. 156

The flag words for the theme of grace are banquet and food.”

And I believe that we can be walking banquets or walking courtrooms. And depending on how much inner work we have done – whether we think at any given time that God is about separate self-individuals along with heaven or hell OR whether God is about ALL of humanity as a whole within the Whole of the UNI-verse and about caring for the earth – all of creation --- making choices that are about heaven ON earth – we can be walking banquets or walking courtrooms.

Oh, Lord, here comes Uncle Earl, the family’s “walking courtroom” with all his judgmentalism and condemnations. OR here comes Aunt Elizabeth, the family’s “walking banquet,” ready to accept everyone unconditionally, dripping with forgiveness, reconciliation, inclusion, and joy. I just feel different when Aunt Elizabeth comes into the room. You can feel it in her atmosphere, in her force field.

Which one are we?

In the midst of the horrors of the brutally evil Hamas terrorist attacks of last weekend, I have been learning from one of my rabbinic friends who has been a consistent Walking Banquet in my life. Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR synagogue in Los Angeles, is her name. I’ve read all her statements and listened to all her sermons and was delighted that National Public Radio interviewed her along with a Muslim Imam on Friday.

Rabbi Sharon knows the importance of the word, “simultaneously.” She knows nuance and complexity and simultaneity and abides in Banquet consciousness. When asked on the radio what she was saying to her congregation she mentioned the pain and isolation of this nightmarish time. She had earlier written, “Added to the pain “as so many of us await word from our loved ones—is the failure of so many people of conscience to condemn these horrific attacks. Some have even celebrated the assaults, in the name of human rights. But kidnapping, abusing and disappearing civilians, targeting civilians for murder—these are not the way of a liberation movement. These are crimes against humanity.”

Then she said that, “When we close our hearts to one another’s, we create a moral vacuum that only violent extremism can fill. What I am asking is for us to dare to hold the humanity, the heartache, and the need for security of the Jewish people while also holding the humanity, the dignity, the need for justice of the Palestinian people. For too long, these two have been set up as a false binary. In fact, the only liberation will be a shared liberation. The only justice is a justice for all.
“We can gather, again and again in this time of heartache. In the Talmud we learn that in times of sorrow, even when our instinct is to retreat from one another, the most humanizing thing we can do is step closer to each other’s pain.

“Let us be tender with ourselves and each other. Call your family and friends in Israel and let them know you stand with them in sorrow and solidarity. Call a Palestinian friend and share your hope for a better future. We can’t take each other’s pain away, but we can make sure none of us navigates the pain alone. Let us hold each other with love and grace-https://ikar.org/writings/holding-this-impossible-moment/ Holding This Impossible Moment October 9th, 2023—Sharon Brous

Then on the radio interview she said, “I was on a briefing yesterday, and there was a Bedouin doctor from Soroka Hospital in the south, Dr. Yasmeen Abu-Fraiha. And she's been treating many of the people who came in from the massacre site. And she said the real dividing line is not between Israelis and Palestinians but between those who believe violence is the answer and those who believe there is another way. And I believe there's another way. And Imam Herbert believes there's another way. And most of us believe that there's another way. So together, we have to reject the very reductive idea that Jews and Palestinians must be enemies eternally and instead create a different way of finding one another in relationship and lifting up and affirming our own humanity and one another's. (https://www.npr.org/2023/10/13/1205855983/a-rabbi-and-imam-on-how-theyre-counseling-their-communities A rabbi and imam on how they're counseling their communities, October 13, 2023 4:38 PM ET Heard on All Things Considered By Ari Shapiro)

Rabbi Brous said in her sermon yesterday, “One of the most important questions in life is ‘When the darkness comes, who will see you and sit by your side and weep with you. Who will come close?’” AND, weep with those who weep and maintain a banquet consciousness not a courtroom consciousness. https://ikar.org/sermons/lets-not-lose-our-minds-rabbi-sharon-brous/

Last Friday morning after I found my wallet, my preacher brain filled with a question. What has God lost and is frantically searching for right now?

I think God is frantically, persistently, vigorously looking for Peace, for non-violence, for de-escalation of all conflict either in the family or in faith communities or in the world between nations. And while God is searching, searching, searching, God, whose real name is Love and Grace is trying to get your attention and my attention asking, “Will you pour your soul into helping me find Wholeness in the here and now with the people you live with?”

AMEN.

The Fruits of the Kingdom

Matthew 21:33-46, The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · October 8th, 2023 · Duration 18:17

These few weeks we’re spending in the latter chapters of Matthew are one of those occasions when the lectionary doesn’t quite match up with the church calendar. This is the prescribed gospel text for this the 19th Sunday after Pentecost in the church year, but in the Gospel of Matthew this scene of the chief priests and elders confronting Jesus takes place on the Monday of Holy Week.

He’s ridden triumphantly, if not ironically, through the streets of Jerusalem on the back of a donkey. He’s caused a scene at the Temple, turning over tables and driving out the folks selling animals for sacrifice. Later, upon seeing that a certain fig tree on the side of the road is without fruit and instead is filled with nothing but leaves, he curses it and causes it to wither right in front of him, as a kind of metaphor for the question he raises here for the religious authorities of his day, and for us in the church today: where is the fruit?

I.

On the surface this parable is a fairly straight forward allegory for the relationship between God and the people of Israel. The setting is a vineyard, a common image in Scripture for the land of Israel. God is the owner of the vineyard, the people of Israel and especially the religious authorities through the years are the tenants who have been entrusted with this vineyard. The slaves who come to retrieve the harvest only to be seized and killed are the prophets of Israel who were rejected through the generations, and of course the vineyard owner’s son, who meets the same fate, is Jesus. Finally, the new tenants given charge over the land are understood to be the followers of Jesus.

But we have to be careful here, because many readings of the parable through the years have tended to take a troubling anti-Jewish tone that’s not there in the parable itself, and that hits differently even today in the wake of the terrible war that broke out in Israel this weekend.

To begin with, Jesus was Jewish and never claimed otherwise. And his quarrel in the gospels was never with the people of Israel as a whole, but certain religious authorities whom he saw as corrupt and misguided, and who saw him as a threat to their power. Even more, the church for whom Matthew wrote this gospel was very likely a congregation of Jewish Christians, who would have understood their following of Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, not as a rejection of their Jewish identity and heritage but as a completion of it.

So it would be wrong to understand this parable as anti-Jewish. It was told and written by Jews for Jews. It was, however, an internal critique meant to draw attention to the disobedience of the people of Israel and especially their leaders through the generations, and God’s welcome of a new people, the followers of Jesus Christ—be they Jew, Gentile or otherwise. This is a widening of the circle.

And here’s the tricky part that the church has tended to miss through the years as we’ve insisted on wagging our fingers at the Pharisees. If we, as the followers of Jesus, claim to be these new tenants in the parable, the ones now in charge of the vineyard, then the responsibility turns to us to bear this fruit. And that part of the story remains open ended. Jesus doesn’t reveal whether or not these new tenants were any more successful than the last. That is yet to be seen, and is entirely up to us.

II.

So if we really do understand ourselves to be the ones charged with bearing this fruit of the Kingdom of God, it would serve us well to consider just what this fruit is. Like the vineyard, fruit is another common image in Scripture. In the Old Testament, especially the prophets, the image of fruit tends to call to mind the goodness and abundance that comes from ordering our lives after God’s command, specifically in economic terms, which the prophets thought to be the clearest barometer of spiritual health in a community. Are you treating people fairly and caring for the poor and vulnerable? For the prophets, aligning our actions with God’s dream for wholeness and provision for the whole community results in abundance for everyone.

In the New Testament, the way Jesus speaks of fruit is similar: they’re tangible signs of the Kingdom of God. Signs of the abundance of the world to come that can and should be cultivated now—things like generosity and compassion and humility. “Do to others as you would have them do to you,” Jesus says earlier in Matthew when talking about the kinds of fruit we’re to bear. And of course, Paul probably has the most memorable words on fruit in all of Scripture when he writes in Galatians about the “fruit of the Spirit.” You know them—you probably even learned a song about them in Vacation Bible school: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These things, these postures, these habits, these virtues, Paul says, are signs of the presence of the Holy Spirit. And so, we can say, they’re signs of the Kingdom of God. For Paul and for Jesus, this side of Glory, the Kingdom of God is not so much a place, but something that happens—something that blooms, that breaks through, right where we are, whenever we align our living with God’s dreaming.

Fruits are really remarkable things. Biologically speaking, the purpose of fruit, you probably know, is to protect the seed of a plant and allow it to reproduce, to spread, and flourish. The flesh acts like a kind of bedding for the seed. Everything about a fruit serves this purpose—even that the fruit tastes good. The taste attracts animals to come and eat the fruit and thus disperse the seeds when they take it with them.

These fruits of God’s Kingdom work in a similar way, I think. Yes, they’re sweet when you taste them in the moment, but under the surface they also reproduce themselves. An act of love leads to another act of love. Joy leads to more joy, peace to more peace, and so forth. They’re generative; they spread and live and grow in ways that are at times beyond our control. And thus the Kingdom of God is let loose in the world to grow and spread, like wild blackberries or pawpaw or mayhaws or whatever grew in the fields next to your grandmother’s house.

But bearing fruit is not always a passive process, either. Ask any farmer, orchard owner, or migrant laborer and you’ll learn there’s more to the growth process than just putting seed in the ground and waiting for the fruit to overflow from the basket. Producing fruit takes time, attention, commitment, and effort. You have to work the soil, provide the right amount of water and fertilizer, find the right balance of sunlight and shade, remove all the pests. Sometimes you have to wait years before a plant or a tree will bear fruit. It’s hard work. Which is the part the tenants of our story failed to grasp. Instead of working to produce these fruits, they sought to seize them. They tried to skip the important but hard steps of growth and jump straight to the fruits. But this isn’t how it works. They didn’t understand that the fruits of the Kingdom aren’t accomplished in a moment, but over time, with a steady hand, and an open heart.

And this, I believe, is where the church can come into this story. It’s true that you need not be a part of a spiritual community to practice the kinds of habits of the Kingdom we’re talking about. The church isn’t the only place where you’ll find people of kindness or gentleness or self-control—not hardly. Praise God you will find people of great love and joy and peace outside the church. You don’t need the church to be these things or find these kinds of people. But where you may need the church, and where I know I do, is when I think about what it takes to practice these things, and bear these fruits, and be the kind of person I hope to be over the long haul. There are very few places in the world where you’ll find people committed to living these kinds of lives and bearing this kind of fruit, over time. Planting themselves in a community and seeing it as their purpose, their calling, to do whatever they can to offer as much kindness as they can, as much generosity, as much patience, right where they’re planted.

Very few places claim this as their purpose in the world, the reason they exist: to bear this kind of fruit, and make sure they continue to grow and flourish through the generations—a blessing I’m reminded of when I walk through the house and hear one of our boys singing the Gloria Patri or the Doxology. Or when one of them, some years ago, came up to me while I was sitting on the couch and said, out of the blue, Daddy, did you know that God made me? And I got to tell him, Yes, yes I did know that. God made you with beauty and with purpose and I love you.

Of course, the church routinely falls short of these intentions—every tree has good seasons and bad—but there aren’t many places in the world, or collections of people, who claim to try, week after week, season after season, year after year.

III.

A few years ago, just before the pandemic, the tree that stood on the green space in the middle of the main parking lot at our church in Macon died. We cut it down and left the stump until we got around to deciding what to plant as it’s replacement. Then the world shut down and that task was put on the back-burner, until we started to spend more time as a congregation in our parking lot, which served as our sanctuary for a season before we made it back into our building. Gathering for “parking lot church,” as we called it, suddenly the stump went from being an afterthought to an eyesore, but then from an eyesore to an opportunity. What if we chose it’s replacement then planted and dedicated it in remembrance of this long season of separation, and most of all, the people we’d lost, who we’d not been able to mourn and celebrate and send home how we would want. We had many options before us—perhaps a maple with it’s richly colored leaves in fall, or another holly like we had elsewhere on the grounds. In the end we settled on a local favorite, a peach tree. A Belle of Georgia, I believe it was. We planted it and dedicated it on All Saints Sunday as we read the names of all those who had passed but who’d left seeds among us that we hope, too, would bloom and bear fruit.

May its roots run deep, we said as we blessed it, grounding it in its place among us.
May its trunk stand firm against the winds and rains.
May its branches stretch far, that the birds of the air would rest in them.
May its leaves cast shade to those who would find rest beneath them.
May it bear fruit in its time, and may its flesh be sweet.

Fall turned to winter, winter turned to spring, and it came to pass that on Holy Week, of course, we saw the first buds start to break through the stem, and in the weeks that followed, as we re-entered our buildings and the congregation began, in so many ways, to come back to life, our new little peach tree started to put forth its first fruits in its first year, as if it knew we needed them. A couple dozen peaches, skins dusty and flesh sweet. The birds indeed came to rest in the tree’s branches and enjoy it’s fruit, as did the children after worship on Sundays, and others who would seek out the church through the week in need of shelter and sustenance.

We had blessed the tree that fall, but as it so often happens, the blessing had gone both ways, and we saw in the fruit it produced a reflection of what had been growing among us in that time we were away, and what we hoped we would be for each other and our community. And each summer since, I am happy to report, the fruit has been more and more abundant. Praise be to God for all that grows among and within us.

IV.

“When the chief priest and the pharisees heard his parables, they realized that he was speaking about them,” it says. And isn’t this the challenge in such of scripture: to remember it’s speaking about us.

You will know a tree by the fruit it bears, Jesus says earlier in Matthew. Bear good fruit, he says. Get your hands dirty in the soil. Bend your knees, steady your back, and breathe deeply, for the work is long and sometimes hard. But the fruit, the fruit is so sweet.

By What Authority?

Mathew 21:23-32, The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · October 1st, 2023 · Duration 10:34

As the story goes, when Pietro Bernadine returned home to the Italian village of Assisi in the year 1182 from one of his regular business trips to France, he found that his wife had given birth to their son. He was furious to find, too, that she had named the boy Giovanni, or John, after John the Baptist. No man of the church himself, and a successful cloth merchant who traveled the Mediterranean, Pietro instead nicknamed the boy Francesco, or Francis, in honor of his business interests.

I.

As a young man, Francis was known around town as something of a playboy—popular, flamboyant, charming, frivolous with his father’s vast wealth. He longed for heroism and glory and so when a call went out for knights to join in the crusades, Francis implored his father to buy him the most expensive and magnificent cloak and armor anyone had seen. He road his grand horse out to meet the troops in battle, only along the way he came upon a nobleman who had fallen into poverty laying on the side of the road, and seeing the disparity between them, or perhaps the very thin line that separated them, he came down off his horse to give the man his cloak. Suddenly disillusioned, he turned around and went home, never making it to the crusade.

Not long after, he was riding around his father’s lands when he came upon a leper—an outcast, sick and disheveled—and once again found himself coming down from his horse. He knelt beside the man and reached for his purse to give him some money. When the the man lifted his hand to receive it, Francis, overcome with compassion for the man, kissed his hand, covered in sores, and put all the money he had in it.

He began visiting hospitals and others who were sick. He spent more and more time walking in the woods and praying at a small dilapidated church just outside of town. It was there he heard a voice from heaven tell him, “Francis, repair my house, which is falling to ruin.” Francis took these words literally and ran back to his father’s storeroom where he gathered up rolls of fine cloth. He went and sold them and brought the money to the priest, who wouldn’t accept it, but agreed to take Francis in. When his father found out, he was furious, and dragged Francis before the bishop there in the town square. The bishop told Francis to return all that was his father’s and trust in God to provide, so Francis gave his father the money, only he didn’t stop there—he proceeded to take off the clothes from his back and handed them to his father, too, who was stunned, as his son stood there naked in the middle of the town square.

From that day on Francis lived a life of poverty, praying at the church, spending much of his time in woods. He was said to walk among the flowers, preach to the birds, and even speak with the animals. His poverty opened him to the deep connection in God between all things, which is most visible when we free ourselves of all that would separate us. Sometime later while in worship he heard the words from Matthew chapter 10 where Jesus commands the disciples to “take no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff.” And so again, true to form, Francis dropped his staff, took off his belt and replaced it with a simple cord, and kicked off his sandals, from that day forward walking barefoot—so there would be no barrier between him and God’s creation, as my teacher once observed.

Word of him and his commitment to poverty and the closeness with creation and with God that sprung from it grew, with many coming to join him. Eventually the church founded an order in his name, who came to be known as the Franciscans, and were at the heart of a season of renewal in the church—or some might say repair. Francis declared that their rule would be simple, that they would commit “to live the gospel.” His legend and impact grew and grew, and in many parts of the Christian world, this coming Wednesday, Oct 4, is celebrated in his honor as the Feast Day for St. Francis of Assisi.

II.

The religious leaders ask Jesus, as he stood preaching and teaching at the temple, By what authority do you do these things? And Jesus does what he does so well and turns the question on them: Answer me this, was the baptism John the Baptist offered of God, or merely of himself?

They’re suddenly trapped. On the one hand they do think John is a fanatic, calling people out to the wilderness to be baptized. But they can’t say so because they don’t want to offend the crowds that are now gathering round them. So they defer, saying they do not know.

With their divided intentions revealed, Jesus tells them this parable about a man with two sons—a classic Biblical setup. The man asks both sons to go out to work in the vineyard. Son number one at first answers, I will not, but later changes his mind and does. The second son says, Yes, I’ll go, but in the end never does.

Which of these two did the will of the father?, he asks them.

The first one, they answer, of course.

Truly I tell you, Jesus says, all the people who you think could never be close to God, but who know their own need and repent, they’re like the first son. But all of you who think you have no need for repentance, you’re like the second son, who said one thing but did another.

In other words, this is where true authority comes from: not saying the right things or even having the right things said about you, but doing the right thing, in the end.

III.

There’s one kind of authority that is conferred by power. Who has the most money or the most guns or the most knights, the most political or social capital—the finest clothes, sharpest tongue or the shrewdest wit. The root of this authority is fear. And this side of Easter morning, this is the authority that so often seems to rule the day. But, fear being at its heart, this authority, deep down, is terrified of its own weakness, and so does everything it can to project strength. This type of authority always fails, in the end. There’s too much space between what it says and what it actually does.

But there’s another kind of authority. It’s an authority rooted not in fear but in love. It’s not taken by power or force but freely given by admiration and trust. This authority isn’t enforced at all—it does’t need to be because its truth is self-evident. In fact, it is dis-arming, inviting others to lay aside distractions and take serious the things that really matter. This authority is ultimately derived from what we do, the degree that our actions align with our deepest commitments—leaving as little space as possible between them. Call it authenticity, or integrity, or even eccentricity when pushed to the limit. But in the church some have called it simply “living the gospel.”

IV.

When he was nearing the end of his life, Francis requested that his body be laid not in a tomb, but directly in the ground and without any clothes on. Just a simple cloak draped over top of him, so there would be nothing between him and dirt from which we come in death as there had not been in life. No space between.

For the Kingdom of Heaven is Like

Matthew 20:1-16, The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · September 24th, 2023 · Duration 16:44

I’m not sure what it is about a beach vacation, but it’s about the only week of the year I have this strong urge to put together a puzzle. It’s the first day of fall and I guess I’m already nostalgic for summer.

I observed this past June that everyone in our family has their own approach to putting puzzles together. Some, like my wife and middle son, find all the like colors and then build out from there. My father taught me to find the corners then work the perimeter. But the one skill we all have to learn at some point is how to stick with the piece you know is right but just won’t fit. If you’re like me, your instinct is to get frustrated and either toss it aside and try another one, or force it in, leaving you with a distorted image and a bunch of puzzle pieces with frayed edges. It takes time to learn that the best thing to do is to slow down and keep turning it until the piece fits into place. Just keep turning it and turning it until you see how the image comes together.
I.

A similar wisdom is helpful when reading some of the more challenging passages in the Bible, such as this one from the 20th chapter of Matthew. It’s tempting to cast these passages aside or settle for a distorted, frayed image of the Kingdom. So instead, we need to take extra care to slow down and keep turning these stories until we can see the image of the Kingdom of God that emerges. And often this turning begins by asking a simple but powerful question: For whom is this good news?

This is an important question to ask this morning because I suspect most of us find ourselves reflexively standing among those for whom this parable appears to be bad news. In fact, not just standing among them, but working beside them—this is entirely the issue: some of these workers have been laboring all day while others, we imagine, have been simply standing around.

Here these hard-workers are, having gotten to that street corner bright and early to give themselves the best chance of being hired. Every town has this corner—in Macon the scene was just down the street from our church at the corner of Fifth and Poplar. Often it’s the Home Depot parking lot, or some nondescript place in the industrial part of town— every town has one, probably several. They’d been there early and were fortunate enough to be the first ones chosen, and had gone out to the vineyard to labor in the scorching heat, every three hours or so having to stop what they’re doing to bring new workers into the fold, including a group at the very end of the day. Only to find that, when time comes for all to be paid, everyone receives the same daily wage—the ones who worked the whole day receiving no more than the ones who came right at the end.

I heard someone say once that this was the parable that got Jesus killed. Not the Prodigal Son and its message of unconditional love and forgiveness. Not the Good Samaritan, and its challenge to be neighborly even to those who would do us harm. Certainly not the sheep or the mustard seed—no, it was this story in which some folks seem to get more than they deserve that did Jesus in. And Jesus seems to know it! Immediately after this parable, in the very next passage Jesus tells the disciples, We’re going to Jerusalem, where I will be handed over to the authorities to be mocked and flogged and crucified and on the third day will be raised. Jesus seems to know that this part of his message in which he complicates and even undermines our bedrock notions of fairness and deserving will be offensive enough for the powers to say, Enough!

And we feel this, don’t we? It doesn’t sit well with all of us who would identify with these workers who’d been hired early. It feels unjust. But is it?
II.

Were those early workers cheated? Did the landowner not pay them what both parties agreed would be fair, “the usual daily wage?” They got what they agreed to, which was a fair wage. And yet something still smells off. It’s that stench of…generosity. Bernard Brandon Scott, in his classic book on the parables, says what we have here is “not injustice, but justice with generosity,”1 and when we’re being honest, that can be a bitter pill to take. Generosity is a wonderful thing when you’re on the receiving end of it, or even admiring it from a safe distance. But when it just misses you, generosity can feel cold. It can feel unfair.

But of course, we don’t need this parable to remind us that the world isn’t fair—we know that’s true. What makes this parable hard to swallow is that it suggests God isn’t fair. But in this way it stands squarely within a long Biblical tradition.

If the Bible is to be believed, God, in the end, isn’t fair. God, we learn in so many different places, isn’t much for tit for tat or straight lines or neat and tidy transactions. God does funny math—known to add an extra mile, or give a second chance, or third, or fourth. And this isn’t solely a New Testament thing, it’s right there in the Psalm we heard earlier. It doesn't say, “The Lord is fair and disinterested.” No, it says, “The Lord is gracious and merciful.” The whole notion of grace that we see across the story of the Bible from beginning to end is that we don’t get what we deserve, at least not finally.

Now, this isn't to say that God doesn’t demand justice of us—if scripture is clear about anything it’s clear that God requires all people at least be treated fairly by each other. But God doesn’t stop at justice. Yes, God is just, but God is much more than just. God is just + generous, which is to say that God is merciful. And God’s mercy doesn’t infringe upon God’s justice. It doesn’t diminish God’s justice, or negate it. We confuse this sometimes, as if offering mercy somehow undoes whatever justice is required. Mercy doesn’t fall short of justice, mercy is what lies beyond justice. Mercy takes wrongs and hurt and injury seriously. But it takes love and forgiveness and life even more seriously. Mercy recognizes that healing comes not through punishment, but through patience.

And standing there among the day-laborers hired early that morning this is something that’s difficult to see. The good news doesn’t seem very good to them in that moment. But if we keep turning it, and turning it, and find ourselves standing among those other workers—maybe especially the ones who were hired last—our vision begins to change.

Here they are, having gotten there at the same time as the others, but with the rotten luck of not having been chosen. They’ve waited around all day looking for work in a tough economy. Children at home, pantry empty, rent due, debt mounting. They went out that morning praying to God there will be work to be done, but as the hours pass, hope turns to doubt, doubt to disappointment, disappointment to despair. When all of the sudden as they’re about to head home (they should have gone home long ago, who would be hiring this late?) a man comes, asks them if they need work, and tells them to hop in the truck and go with him. They figure an hour’s pay is better than nothing—they don’t want to go home empty handed, again—and so they jump in and get to the vineyard just in time for wages to be handed out. Just when the pit in their stomach is about to drop, thinking they surely will not be paid at all, they find that they’re given not an hour’s pay, or a half-day’s pay, but a full day’s pay.

Can you feel that? That loosening in your chest? Jesus says, that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like. The good news in this story is found there, among the ones who didn’t expect it. The ones whose time is running out, tired and frustrated and half-panicked—the ones at the end of their rope, with no where else to turn. The good news is always with them.

And so the good news is with us whenever we stand with them. Which leads us to another piece to this puzzle.

III.

In our rush to spiritualize this parable, and make it about life in the world to come—grace “in the end” or mercy “in the end,” the first becoming last and the last first “in the end”—we have to be careful not to rush past the here and now; the story on the surface, about a scene that happens every morning in a parking lot or in a field not far from here, that’s part of a network of people and families and shadows that we know are there but don’t often have reason to think about. Hired first, hired last, they’re still in the same leaky boat, and who’s to say the tables won’t be turned tomorrow? “The first becoming last and the last first” is a hard reality for many every morning—for some, it may even be their prayer. Until here comes our landowner, who seems determined to find work for them to do. We focus on the wage the landowner pays all the workers, but the real surprise in this story isn’t the wage the workers received, but that they were hired at all! Bernard Scott again, “the generosity isn’t in the wage but in the need—the landowner’s urgent and unexplained need for workers.”2

Why does he need these workers? It’s almost as if his concern wasn’t hiring more workers so he could get more work done, but finding work to be done so he could hire more workers! He just hires, and hires—Here, you come and you and you. What a strange piece in this puzzling Kingdom of God.

Against a dark background of fear and scarcity comes unexpected generosity that throws the whole arrangement up in the air. All the other questions we might ask about what’s fair and just and who deserves what who’s in and who’s out—Jesus brushes all of these things to the side and moves a new set of gospel concerns to the front. Things like:
Will everyone’s children eat tonight?
Will these workers go home with dignity, having been hired and paid?
Are we not responsible to each other in this way?3

IV.

This is the piece of the puzzle we so often miss. The one that would have us not simply be grateful for the grace we’ve received, or even imagine a kingdom of heaven that is measured not by transaction but invitation, but that calls us to do what we can to make God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven—as we pray every Sunday. The piece that reminds us daily bread is something you eat.

But when we do insert this piece—better yet, when we insert ourselves—and ask who we are willing to stand with, the image of the kingdom God dreams for us comes into view. Suddenly this hard news becomes good news for us, too.

This is how it so often is with the gospel. You spend all this time pressing, trying to make it fit, but then you turn it and turn it, and realize the missing piece is you.

___________________

1Bernard Brandon Scott, Hear Then the Parable, p.282
2Scott, 297
3I’m indebted to Amy-Jill Levine, who in her wonderful book, Short Stories by Jesus, provocatively reminds us the most pressing questions to Jesus in this parable and others are those grounded in the here and now.

A Different Kind of People

Matthew 18:21-35, The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · September 17th, 2023 · Duration 18:21

We pick up the story again here in the middle chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, when Jesus pulls his disciples close and tells how this new community to be founded in his name that we know as the church should be. Or rather, how the church should be different.

Last week we looked at the verses just before our passage today where Jesus describes how the church is to handle conflict after he’s gone. Jesus assumes conflict in the church, just as in any human institution, but says the way the church will be different is how it handles its conflict—reconciliation and restoration are always, always, to be the hope. We hold relationship as sacred, because the Christian life is best lived with others. Where two or three are gathered, he says, I will be with them. Which brings us to our passage this morning, where St. Peter once again plays the part he does so well. And it's really an essential role in any group, to be that person who will say aloud what everyone else is thinking but is too afraid to ask. They’re all listening as Jesus tells them these things about community and relationship, and you can almost imagine Peter pulling Jesus aside and saying, Listen, this all sounds wonderful—direct communication, restoration of the offender, two-or-three are gathered. But just as a point of clarification—because I know Thomas will ask—how many times do I have to forgive this person? I’m thinking, like, seven times would be good. What do you think?

I.

Now, two things here. First, Peter gets part of it right. He understands that the goal, the hope, is restoration—which in his mind is radical enough. After all, restoration is not the goal in most justice systems outside the church. Most systems usually seek punishment first of all and then some baseline measure of justice, which is that the rest of us feel that folks get what they deserve (and then maybe just a little more, to deter others). Even in our personal relationships popular wisdom often tells us simply to walk away. Don’t waste your time, cut your losses, focus on yourself. Which is tempting, and may be good and right for a time, but this approach ultimately proves thin, and falls short of the demands of Christian community Jesus lays out. Peter sees what Jesus is doing, this radical idea that our first priority should always be reconciliation. But he doesn’t see how far Jesus is willing to take this.

Which leads to the second point, which is that Peter thinks he’s being generous! And by most standards he is. Seven times forgiving someone?! In most any case—short of parenting—that’s a lot. In parenting, that might be an afternoon. But in most cases, forgiving someone seven times is incredibly generous, generous to the point of being unadvisable, especially if we’re talking about serious wrongs. Jesus tells him it’s not enough. Not seven times, he says. Seventy-seven times. Some translations say “seventy times seven”—the exact number isn’t what’s important. Jesus seems to be saying that when it comes to forgiveness, if you’re counting at all, you’re missing the point.1

II.

And so he tells this parable about a king who wishes to settle his accounts with his workers. One man brought before the king owes 10,000 talents—which is an obscenely large sum of money. I did the math this week, and in today’s terms, with exchange rates and inflation as it is, this translates to roughly a bazillion dollars.

Jesus is exercising some hyperbole here. This is a tremendous amount of money—more money than any king in that time would have had, let alone someone who worked for him. But all the same, when faced with his debt the man gets on his knees and begs the king, saying, Have patience with me! I’ll repay everything—which of course he knew he could never do. The king would have known this too, but nonetheless has pity on the man, and instead of doing what in those days he had every right to do, which was throw him in prison, or even taking an incredibly generous path and reducing the amount of the debt, the king simply forgives his debt. Just like that. And that’s worth lingering on.

Debt is one of those things that you can’t quite understand until you have it. As a child you hear Jesus’ words about forgiving debt and it doesn’t make sense. But as an adult? I remember after graduating college years ago receiving the statement booklet in the mail for my students loans. Actually, there were several booklets. Seeing those astronomical numbers on the page and feeling that weight for the first time. Financial anxiety is a special kind of anxiety, isn’t it? Debt is wrapped up in so much judgment, so much shame.

The king forgives his debt, we’re told. Just like that.

And so this man, who’s received an almost indescribable gift of mercy, decides to celebrate by promptly going to find another man who’s in his debt, owing a much smaller sum than what he owed the king. He takes this man by the throat and says, Pay what you owe! The other man cannot, and so the first has him thrown into prison—which was his right to do in those days. And yet, especially knowing what we know, it doesn’t feel quite right. Not to us, and I suspect not to the disciples listening back then. The other workers witness this and report back to the king, who brings this unforgiving worker before him, tells him what-for, and in anger hands him over to be punished until he could repay this astronomical debt in full. And then, as Fred Craddock puts it, the door of this parable slams shut behind us, as Jesus says: The same will be true of you, if you don’t forgive others from your heart.

The mood has shifted quickly, like those ominous cool breezes that come just before big storms. Instead of giving Peter a number to shoot for when forgiving another, Jesus does what he does so well and turns the issue back on him, back on us. He reminds us, as someone put it, “to be unforgiving is to be either forgetful or ungrateful.”2 In other words, it’s when we remember and appreciate the mercy and grace and forgiveness we’ve received not only from God, but so many different people who act godly to us, that we find the strength—and it is a strength—to offer the same grace and forgiveness to others.

These things are generative; they build on each other. Mercy has a way of begetting mercy. Love begets love, compassions begets compassion, forgiveness begets forgiveness. In the same way that violence begets violence, hate begets hate, fear begets fear, and all the rest of it— these are all cycles that build on themselves. The cycle we most often find ourselves in, the cycle the world takes as a given, is the vicious cycle of retaliation which always leads to escalation and where the end is always annihilation. But Jesus offers another cycle. A virtuous cycle that seeks wholeness and healing, of which forgiveness is the central, most offensive but most necessary part, and where life is always the goal.

And this virtuous cycle is so often kickstarted when the vicious cycle we’re caught in is interrupted by a gift of kindness or grace or generosity—usually something simple that feels extraordinary—which then dislodges us from that doomed loop and reorients us toward God and our neighbor. And so we first come to see ourselves as God sees us: as beloved children, made with purpose and filled with potential, who aren’t worth giving up on, until the cycle slowly comes to completion as we begin to see each other in the same way. And suddenly everything looks different.

III.

I heard a story sometime ago about a famous monastery that had fallen on hard times. They were receiving fewer and fewer guests, and only a handful of monks remained. Its buildings and grounds were in disrepair, and the monks themselves had lost their sense of mission and purpose. In the woods beside the monastery, the rabbi from a nearby town had built a small hut where he would go from time to time to be alone and pray. The monks didn’t speak to him often, but they always seemed to know when he was near.

One day it occurred to the abbot, the leader of the monastery, that he might visit the rabbi and seek his wisdom about the troubles the monastery faced. As he approached the hut, the rabbi came out to greet him and embraced the abbot like a long-lost friend. He brought him inside the hut and and the abbot began to share his concerns about the monastery. The rabbi listened intently, and when the abbot had finished, the rabbi offered great sympathy, saying, I know how it is. Fewer and fewer people come to the synagogue each year. I have no wisdom to share with you. But I know that you and the monks are holy men and do good works, and so because of this, he leaned in, I also know that the Messiah is among you.

The abbot was stunned by this insight and walked back to the monastery in a kind of daze as he pondered what the rabbi had said. When he arrived there, the monks surrounded him asking what wisdom the rabbi shared. The abbot said sorrowfully, The rabbi had no wisdom to help us. But as I was leaving he said something strange that I don’t understand. He said, The Messiah is among you. And with that he went to his cell. The monks were also confused by the rabbi’s words and they, too, went to their cells for the night.

Over the days and weeks to come, they all pondered the words of the rabbi. Who could possibly be the Messiah in their midst? Could it be the abbot, who was such a wise leader? Or perhaps it was Brother John—often disagreeable, but always there when you needed help. Or could it be Benedict who had a way of tending the garden and caring for the animals? And to themselves they went through the entire brotherhood, making a silent case for why each could be the Messiah. And then a disturbing thought came to them: Surely the rabbi couldn’t have meant me! How could I be the Messiah? But what if it is me? What would God have me do? None of them could solve the rabbi’s riddle, but each in his own way silently vowed to treat the others with reverence and respect since anyone of them could be the Messiah. And in time, a gentle, warm-hearted, loving concern began to grow among them, which was difficult to describe, but impossible not to notice.

Soon as more visitors came to the monastery they found themselves deeply moved by the example of the monks; the warmth of their community was palpable. Slowly the monastery once again became a place of light and learning and love, and as a community it grew and prospered.3

IV.

The church should be different, Jesus seems to say. It should think different an act different. It should feel different—different and distinctive, we might say. It should live and move by a different way. A way rooted in the promise of Christ’s presence among us. It isn’t a way of counting, of numbering faults or debts. It’s a way of standing, which results in a way of seeing, which leads to a way of acting, which over time amounts to a way of living, that’s marked by a way of loving.

Who was it, I wonder? Who did it turn out to be in the monastery?
Or better yet, Who is it, right here among us? You would know better than me—I’m still learning everyone’s name. But I’ve got some ideas. It’s not who you’d expect. But then again, maybe you would.
________________
1 Anna Case-Winters, Matthew, from the Belief series, 227
2 Ibid., 228
3 The Rabbi’s Gift, adapted. A well-known story, the earliest version may have been written by Francis Dorff, O. Praem, of the Norbertine Community of Albuquerque, New Mexico, March 1979.

Where Two or Three

Matthew 18:15-20, The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · September 10th, 2023 · Duration 17:39

The peace of the Lord be with you!

Well, here we are. I can tell you this is a moment I have been imagining and planning for and perhaps slightly obsessing over for some time, and it feels a bit surreal for it to have finally arrived. But it feel so right.

It was so good to be among you last week in worship, and experience the reverence and warmth I have observed online in person, finally. I also rarely get to sit with Audrey and the boys during worship and that was…stressful. I did my best last week to pay attention to the movements and flow of worship so I wouldn’t embarrass myself too much today—so far so good, as best I can tell. Although I’m told those calls usually don’t come in for a a day or two!

There are so many people to thank for their part in bringing our family here to Jackson and me to this place and time. We’re so grateful for Kelley Williams, Jr. and the rest of the search committee, who were incredible ambassadors for this congregation and have showed us limitless hospitality over these past few months. I went back and watched the conference some weeks ago in which I was officially “voted in,” and I have to say, I have to squint pretty hard to just barely make out the pastor and the person who has been described to all of you. But it is a standard I will endeavor to meet.

To those of you who have brought meals and sent emails and notes, and everyone who was able to be with us at the reception last Sunday, we have been overwhelmed in the best possible way by your warmth and embrace. Some of you have even recognized us out in town and come up and introduced yourselves, which has been wonderful. I asked someone how they recognized me and they said, “Well, we did receive an 8.5”-11” picture of you and your family in the mail.”

And finally, I want to thank Lesley and Major, first for your generous welcome over these past weeks, which has been so humbling, but also for your tremendous efforts not just this past year, but especially in this past year to minister to this congregation.

Church, this transition for our family and for me professionally has gone so smoothly, more than I ever could have reasonably hoped, and we are so grateful.

Which is why the lectionary gospel reading for this Sunday from the 18th chapter of Matthew comes as something of a drag. Church conflict? Today?! Can’t the honeymoon last at least through the first sermon! But rarely are we offered the gospel we want; Jesus is insistent on giving us the gospel we need, and so even on this morning he dismisses any idyllic or uncomplicated images of communal life we might wish for, and instead reminds us that the joys of living in Christian community cannot be separated from the challenges of doing so.

I.

It sounds strange to say, but the church is not something Jesus talks a lot about in the gospels. In fact, Matthew is the only gospel in which the church is directly mentioned at all. And I’m sure Jesus knew something of all the joys that would come within this new community to be founded in his name: the fellowship, the deep, lasting friendship, the intergenerational bonds, the Labor Day potlucks and Monday morning Caregivers, Wednesday night suppers and services, Sunday nights in the youth house, and without question Jesus would have known of the Catechism of the Good Shepherd. Jesus surely would have known of the richness of weekly Sunday school classes—those content to sit in the folding chairs provided and those who need a little more cushion. Christmas Eve candlelight services, Good Friday Tenebrae, Women’s retreat, and of course, weekly worship with beautiful music and the choir and Austin organ and morning sun pouring in through the clear glass windows, time for prayer and silence and of course gripping, life-changing sermons.

I’m sure Jesus anticipated all of these things, these blessings, that would be a part of this new creation to be called the church. But he doesn’t spend much time talking about all of that with the disciples. When Jesus describes the church he tends to focus on two things: suffering—which he did in the gospel lesson last week when he told his disciples that to follow him was to take up a cross—and, as in our passage this morning, conflict.

And we should note that Jesus assumes conflict here. This is not an “if” but a “when.” And not just conflict—plain old disagreements—but out and out wrongs. And he assumes these things not because he anticipates the church will be made up of an especially troubled group of people, but simply because he knows they’ll be made up of a group of people. Jesus knows that even while the church will aspire to point to something beyond itself—something greater, something higher, something holy—it will still be made up of humans. And so it will be bound to the same limitations of any other human institution. Mistakes will be made, wounds will be inflicted. There will be disagreement and unrest and fractures and pain and hurt and all the rest of it—he knew this is just the way of things.

But he tells the disciples what will set the church apart is how they’ll deal with it.

II.

In the church, conflicts and wrongs won’t be ignored or swept under the rug where they can fester or spread. They’ll be addressed head on. There will be direct communication with the offending party—always face to face. No gossip or triangulating, or behind the back angling. One on one to begin with, but if that doesn’t work, then you take someone else with you. And if that doesn’t work, then it comes to the church, all the while with the imperative that everyone listen to each other—did you hear that refrain? Listen, listen, listen. If after all that the offending party still won’t budge, only then are they removed from fellowship, to become like “a Gentile or a tax collector.” But remember, Jesus ate with tax collectors and reached out to Gentiles. Exclusion isn’t the last word, it can’t be. Reconciliation and restoration is always the hope in the church.

And yet, there’s no getting around the fact that this passage is difficult. It can leave us feeling a bit cold. But at this point in his ministry, Jesus is not mincing words. He wants to prepare the disciples as best he can for what he knows they will learn eventually, and the hard way: that church is not a high-minded thought experiment. It’s real, and practical and hard. Community is hard. Relationships are hard—they’re complicated and fraught and painful and above all fragile—at times, it feels, especially in the church.

When church is working as it should we’re bound together by the deepest bonds there are: the bonds of love and hope and a shared vision for what’s good and right and true. But this makes it all the more painful when church relationships are ruptured. Jesus knows this is a delicate balance, of fragility and power. He says on the one hand church is as fragile as human relationships, with our egos and insecurities. But on the other hand it’s as powerful as the presence of God in the world. It’s fragile enough that its health must be vigorously defended, but powerful enough that whatever we ask will be done for us. Actually, you may have noticed it says, “whatever we can agree on will be done for us,” which is a remarkable check on our more grandiose or idealistic plans. You can almost see the wink in Jesus’s eye when he said it.

But there are no qualifiers on the promise of Jesus’s presence among us. Where two or three are gathered, he says, I will be there among them.

Where two or three, he says. Which I think was Jesus’ way of saying that the Christian life is not best lived alone.

It’s possible, I suppose, in the same way it’s possible to eat spaghetti with your hands—sadly still a regular practice in our house. One day I’ll learn. Or the way it’s possible to see a sunrise and not stand in awe of the gift of another day, or hold a baby and not feel like you’re holding life itself in your arms.

It’s possible to live the Christian life unto yourself, it can be done, but that’s not how it was designed. That’s not what will reveal its sweetness or uncover its richness or open you to “the dearest deep down freshness of things,” as Hopkins put it. No, the Christian life, the life of faith, is best lived with others. It’s how Jesus lived, not walking around the Galilee by himself, preaching to his own reflection in the sea. His ministry took shape when he found others to walk with him. And the gospel he preached came to life not when it left his mouth as he spoke it, but when it entered the ears and the hearts of those who received it, those who didn’t know just how much they needed it, who didn’t know just how much they needed each other—do any of us? All those people who didn’t know “each other” is why we are here in the first place.

III.

The ancient rabbis asked from time to time why it was that God chose to create the universe. Why would God call this world into being, with all it’s suffering and death, or even more, we humans with all our hatred and greed and oblivion. They wondered if God knew the risks involved in creating the world.

Wouldn’t it have been better, they asked, for God to just be perfect and complete in divine oneness, instead of opening up all of the madness we know of creation—a question you may have asked yourself from time to time. And the answer the rabbis came up with is that for God the risk of creation was worth one “righteous person”—one tzaddik, in Hebrew—to share it with. If God could share in the goodness and blessing of creation with just one other, they thought, then all the risk would be worth it.1

In other words, the rabbis determined that for God, the possibility of relationship, and the chance at community was worth all the rest of it. It was worth all the disasters and pain, all the dysfunction and disappointment, all the hurt and heartache. For God, the hope of sharing in life fully and deeply with others, was worth it.

IV.

Can we not say this morning that the same is true for us? That this is why we have come here to this place and to be with these people? Because we believe the promise of a life that is richer and deeper and sweeter and harder and more complete—a life that can only be lived with and for others—is worth all that must come with it. Because we believe that love is worth it, in the end.

Put another way: “We agree to differ, we resolve to love, we unite to serve,” I read somewhere recently.

Northminster, I am new here, and I still have much to learn about this place and its people and its traditions and loves and history and commitments—and I want to learn it all. But one thing I do know, that already has been made abundantly clear to me in so many beautiful ways is that you, too, believe deeply that the Christian life is best lived with others.

You believe the church has something vital and joyous to offer this world.

You believe Christ when he says where two or three are gathered he is there among us, which means you, too, believe Christ is here now, as close as the person sitting next to you, as real as the breath we share, as alive as the hope we have for what is yet to come among us.

Which is why I am so grateful to be here with you.

——————————
1Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire: Reflections on Genesis, 35-36





How We Hold Our History

Exodus 3:1-15, Matthew 16:21-28, The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Major Treadway · September 3rd, 2023 · Duration 28:47

Our worship together this morning is what some might call a threshold moment – a moment that stands like a doorway between two chapters of our life together; a moment clearly identifiable and in which our momentum will not let us linger long. But while we find ourselves in this moment, eagerly anticipating today’s lunch and the beginning of Scott’s ministry among us, the nature of a threshold moment involves considering what is behind us as well as what is ahead. This morning, I invite you to pause, between our future and our past, and to think with me for a few minutes about how we hold our history and what that means for our future.

In today’s gospel lesson, Peter was just trying to protect Jesus. All he said was, “This must never happen to you.” And in response, Jesus offers that familiar, often decontextualized phrase, “Get behind me, Satan!” These words were spoken to the man whom Jesus had just declared would be the rock upon whom the church would be built. The church which, nearly 2,000 years later, can be found in just about every corner of this planet – including the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover.

How we hold our history is important. Remember the way that Matthew begins his gospel. There is a miraculous birth, an escape to Egypt, a massacre of infants, Jesus is baptized, and then is led into the wilderness where he wanders and is tempted for forty days.”

As Matthew narrates Jesus’ back story, there is an unmistakable caricature of Moses. It seems that for Matthew, Jesus is the “prophet like Moses” spoken of in Deuteronomy 18. Moses, we know, had a similar beginning. Born among a royal decree to massacre Hebrew infants, he escapes Egypt to come back and lead his people through the wilderness on a journey that famously took forty years.

It seems to me that Peter may have had Moses in mind when he confessed Jesus as Messiah. And yet, no sooner had Jesus affirmed Peter’s confession, than he began to teach the disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed.”

That is not the story of Moses. We know the story of Moses. Moses, as we read today, encounters God in a burning bush. He submits to God’s calling to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He parts the Red Sea. He meets with God on the mountain. He receives the ten commandments – twice. He smashes idols, institutes the law of God, and eventually dies on top of a mountain overlooking the promised land. If Jesus is, as Matthew has led us to believe, a sort of New Moses, shouldn’t he follow the path laid out by the first Moses? Peter finally confirms that Jesus is the Messiah – the anointed one of God. He looks back to his history and pictures perhaps the most influential leader in the history of his people and writes a script in his mind for what the future will hold – a script Jesus quickly rewrites.

“You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things,” Jesus says to Peter.

Greg Jones tells the story that his father, a Methodist pastor, “used to say that every church he served or was a part of had a ‘back to Egypt’ committee in it.”

From your own reading of the book of Exodus, you will remember that in addition to the leadership highs of the story of Moses, there were times when the Israelites lamented their decision to leave Egypt – going so far as to say they would rather go back to Egypt, back to slavery, than to continue on in the uncertainty of their present journey.

Perhaps, Peter was having a “back to Egypt” moment of his own when he heard from Jesus about the direction that he was planning to go.

While Peter was holding the past as aspiration for Jesus, it seems that Jesus was also looking to the past, but Jesus was holding the past as inspiration. Jesus, like the voice in the burning bush, could hear the cries of the people. Jesus saw a present and past filled with people who would gain the whole world if they could, even if it would cost them their lives; Jesus heard the cries of those on the suffering end of inequality – those who suffered at the hands of the ones in power, even, if not especially, religious power.

Peter held his history as an aspiration for the ministry of Jesus. Jesus held his history as an inspiration for the vision he created for a new future.

Jennifer Riel and Roger Martin, in their book Creating Great Choices make the important point that an aspirational view of history “rests on a massive and flawed assumption: a belief that what we do now will continue to produce the same outcomes in the future. This is only true if the future looks exactly like the past.”

If there is one thing about which we can be certain, it is that the future will not look exactly like the past. And because we know that the future will not look like the past, we have a decision to make. As we think about our history, the long history of the Church and the shorter, but no less relevant, history of Northminster, we get to decide how we hold our history.

We do not need to do things just because we have always done them that way. That is holding our history as an aspiration. But neither do we need to forget our history and run wild into the future untethered. We have a rich history that has shaped and formed who we are as a community of faith. Holding that history as inspiration for how we move into the future will require us to spend time considering why we do things the way we do them and how we can hold tightly to the core of that “why” as we move into the future with fresh vision and new leadership. As we pass through this threshold, we do not need to aspire to recreate our past, rather, we should be inspired by our past, to embody a fresh and relevant faith as the people of God in the world today.

Amen.

Who Do You Say I Am?

Matthew 16:13-20, The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · August 27th, 2023 · Duration 11:59

“Jesus said to them “Who do you say I am? And Simon Peter answered, “The Messiah, the son of the living God.”

With those words, Matthew’s gospel finds its central question. We have slowly made our way through much of Matthew’s gospel, the primary gospel for Year A in the revised common lectionary, which started with the genealogy of Jesus and the visit of the Magi, Jesus’ wilderness visit and baptism, the calling of the disciples and the sermon on the Mount. Lately, we have been following Jesus around from town to town, listening to his teaching, watching him perform miracles, wondering exactly who Jesus might be. Then we follow him into Caesarea Philippi, he ask “who do people say the Son of Man is?”

We often gloss over locations in the scripture, not having a lot of context for ancient cities or even the biblical portions of our modern day world. But we should pay attention to this location. Caesarea Philippi, a city of the empire, a city in which there was a shrine to Pan, god of the wild, god of shepherds and flocks. Jesus chooses this city to pose the question – who do people say that I am? Jesus, the one who proclaims God’s kingdom, opposite in almost every way of the empire, Jesus, the good Shepherd who knows every sheep by name and goes looking for them one by one.

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Maybe he’s John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah or one of the prophets. The people recognized that Jesus was a prophet, one who brought difficult words to the rulers of the day, performed miracles, stood in opposition to the empire and brought hope from God. But there was more.

“Jesus said to them “Who do you say I am?” And Simon Peter answered, “The Messiah, the son of the living God.”

With those words, Matthew’s gospel finds its central question, and the disciples find clarity. Kind of. We know that Peter, as Peter is wont to do, as we are wont to do, paints his understanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah onto Jesus and in just a few verses is chastised for it. But for one glimmering moment, Peter stands proud, the foundation of the church, handed the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

Peter had heard Jesus’ teaching. Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Blessed are the poor in spirit, and those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Not everyone who says Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven but those who do the will of my father. The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed – the smallest of all the seed but it grows to become a great tree so that all the birds of the air can make their nest in it, the kingdom of heaven is like treasure, one might sell all that they have to take hold of it. Do you think that Peter heard the echoes of Jesus’ teaching?

“Jesus said to them “Who do you say I am?” And Simon Peter answered, “The Messiah, the son of the living God.”

With those words, Matthew’s gospel finds its central question, the disciples find clarity and we find our identity – to proclaim the good news of the Messiah, the son of the living God. In Mitzi Smith’s commentary on this passage, she states:
“A living God is a dynamic God and not a static God whose clearest communication happened in the past. Jesus is the Messiah of the living God. Jesus, as Son of Man, means that God continues to speak and to act. God does not have to resurrect John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or any other prophet to speak. God never ceases to exist and to create and to anoint.”

This is good news for the disciples and good news for us.

From the earliest ages, we teach our children that they are joining God in building the kingdom of heaven. This year, in Children’s Sunday School, our theme is “Be Salt and Light.” Our children have been learning how they are salt and light. Downstairs in the hallway, the bulletin board says “You are the salt and light of the world,” and it has pictures of all the children, reminding them that Jesus has called them just as he calls each of us, as children of God, invited to join God in creating, anointed by God for building the kingdom of heaven.

If you look at the back of your bulletin, right under the Ministry of the Church, it says “every member a minister.” We don’t just give that lip service. We heard last week about the ministries of many in our congregation who shaped and formed this place and its stories, and I can look around this room and tell the stories of the ways that each of you minister within and beyond these walls. One of my favorite job descriptions comes right underneath “every member a minister.” It says, the following persons have been called by this congregation to serve as enablers in such ministry.

In just a couple of weeks, our new Senior Pastor will be added to the list of enablers, and there will be ways in which his ministry among us enables us to do new things for the kingdom, ways in which we will all be called to participate in the ministry of the gospel, of the good news, in ways that we may not have before.
I hope that we will be open to new ways of living the way of our living God in the world, ministering together, all of us bringing the kingdom of heaven on earth.

“Jesus said to them ‘Who do you say I am?’ And Simon Peter answered, “The Messiah, the son of the living God.”

With those words, Matthew’s gospel finds its central question, the disciples find clarity and we find our identity – to proclaim the good news of the Messiah, the son of the living God. And then Jesus “sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.” Jesus knew that declaring himself the Messiah was a good way to get himself into trouble, but what if he also wanted the disciples, what if he wanted us, to build a church whose actions speaks louder than words? What if Jesus knew that our actions would define us, that the church would be more of who God called the church to be if we didn’t just claim our identity but lived it?

That of course invites the question: are we living in such a way that proclaims the good news? The good news that Jesus is the Messiah, the good news that the kingdom of heaven is a place for the poor in spirit, a place where every kind of bird can make a nest in its limbs, a treasure beyond what the world imagines a treasure to be? The good news that the living God hasn’t ceased to create and to anoint, the good news that the circle of God’s love is as wide as the circle of all of creation?

“Jesus said to them “Who do you say I am?”

And all of God’s beloved children said “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”

And then they went and lived like it.

Amen.

I Will Provide for You There

Genesis 45:1-15, The Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · August 20th, 2023 · Duration 11:15

Today marks the end of our summer journey in Genesis. With breaks for the sermons of guest preachers, Major and I have preached our way through the lectionary texts from Creation to Joseph. It would be impossible to read all the way through Genesis in this hour even over all the worship hours of the summer, but we have heard major portions of the Creation story, the Noah story, and the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And we came last week to the story of Joseph.

Last week's reading left Joseph being raised up from the pit his brothers threw him in, sold into the hands of the Ishmaelites for 20 pieces of silver, and taken to Egypt. Since then, Joseph has been sold to Potiphar, then wrongfully imprisoned. In prison, he has interpreted the dreams of a cupbearer to the king and the chief baker in the palace. Two years later, the cupbearer remembers Joseph to the king, and Joseph interprets the King's dream. As thanks, the King places Joseph in a high position of power.

Joseph settles down, as they say, marries and has children with an Egyptian woman, and works to ensure that Egypt is ready for the famine that Joseph has seen in Pharoah's dream.

After seven years of plenty, the famine begins, and Joseph's brothers re-enter the story. They are hungry. Jacob, Joseph's father, learns that there is grain in Egypt and sends 10 of the brothers to Egypt. They unknowingly encounter Joseph, who provides them grain but also accuses them of being spies. To prove they aren't spies, Joseph demands that they leave one brother behind and go get their youngest brother, Benjamin, and bring him back to Egypt. The brothers bring Benjamin back and they have a meal at Joseph's house but they still do not know that Joseph is their brother, and they leave again for home. This time Joseph frames Benjamin by placing a goblet in his bag that does not belong to him. Joseph sends guards out to catch the brothers and bring them back to Egypt.

The brothers appear before Joseph. Benjamin is accused and Judah pleads for Benjamin to be released and we arrive at today's passage where:

Joseph exacts revenge, Benjamin is killed, Jacob dies of a broken heart and the brothers parish from the famine because Joseph will not give them any food. Joseph puts on his amazing technicolor dream coat, climbs to the top of a pyramid and sings "there is nothing I do better than revenge." The end.

I was just seeing if you were paying attention.

Joseph could have exacted revenge. That story could very much be in our Scriptures. Not only would we not fault Joseph because of the pain and anguish his brothers have caused him, but there are other examples of this kind of revenge in our very own scriptures so we must be very careful with these texts.

Let's get back to the rest of the story. Judah pleads for Benjamin to be released and Joseph, unable to control himself any longer, sends away the crowd, and weeping loudly, declares himself to his brothers.

He tells them how what they meant for evil, God has made good. Joseph chooses mercy over revenge.

Joseph's words here - "God sent me before you to preserve life" and "it was not you who sent me here, but God" – those are words that can only come from the mouth of the person who has been harmed. We don't get to interpret the harm we have caused. We must repent. God's mercy is boundless, but it doesn't give us permission to walk away from the pain we have caused without seeking to restore those whom we have harmed.

Joseph instructs his brothers: Go get my father. Settle in the land of Goshen. You and your children and your flocks and your herds and all that you have shall be near me. "I will provide for you there." Instead of scarcity, there is provision. Joseph, now in a position of great power, provides for his brothers and sets an example for all of us.

It could not have been easy for Joseph to forgive his brothers. He must have had to dig deep to find what he needed in those moments. When we look back across the Genesis text, the ones we have explored in worship and the many that the lectionary does not give us time to explore in this space, we can see the ways in which God has provided. Knowing the rich oral tradition of our scriptures, one might wonder if Joseph heard these stories as a child, stories about Great Grandfather Abraham, and Great Grandma Sara, Grampa Isaac and Granny Rebecca, stories about his dad and his uncle, his mother and his brothers' mothers, stories that shaped and formed his life, so that he might live God's kind of provision, stories shaping and forming our lives so that we might live out God's kind of provision.

When we look back across our lives together as a family of faith, we have similar stories of provision. Like the story from 1966 when Leland Speed, John Palmer, Bob Guyton and Rubel Phillips stood on a street corner and decided "to stop talking and do something, that something eventually becoming Northminster Baptist Church. Stories like the one from 1975 when Jan Purvis because the first female deacon here, providing for visible church leadership by both men and women, which would become a hallmark of this family of faith. Stories of pastors like Dudley Wilson and John Claypool leading us beyond these walls, even once on an Easter Sunday, so that we might provide for the needs of our community. Stories like the one where Barry Barr and Suzanne Boone and Alan Perry and pastor John Thomason proposed a program to train laity to be caregivers, caregivers who would provide for church members and others in our community across these last 40 years. Stories like those of Dot Taylor and Elizabeth Dean who went to the deacons and proposed a partnership with Spann Elementary school, providing a rich friendship with that school that has carried across 35 years.

Stories like the ones of Annette Hitt and Betsy Ditto who faithfully welcomed the children of our church every Sunday morning for decades, receiving children from parents whom they received as children, providing for generations of our family of faith to be shaped and formed by the work of our Sunday School teachers. Stories like those of Roger Paynter and Brian Brewer who through their pastorates lead this place to be more of who God has called us to be. Stories like the ones of our choir who work week in and week out so that we might overhear their worship of God each week and so that our worship might rise up from theirs. Stories like the ones of Chuck Poole, who pastored in such a way that drew the circle of his welcome as wide as the circle of God's welcome.

Our stories of provision are abundant, both the ways in which we have been provided for and the ways in which we have been led to provide. Like Joseph, our stories have flawed characters, because all human beings have flaws. Like the stories of Genesis, we have to be careful with our own stories.

But as we turn the page on a new chapter, we have opportunity to hear the words of Joseph in today's story. "I will provide for you there." May we hear those words in the voice of our God. "I will provide for you there" May we hear those words in our own voice. "I will provide for you there."

Amen.


Who to Believe about Belief?

Romans 10:5-15, Psalm 85:8-13, The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Jason Coker · August 13th, 2023 · Duration 21:12

Inclusion. Who belongs? Who is on the inside, and who is on the outside? Insiders and outsiders, those who belong and those who don’t belong? Who is included and who is excluded? This dividing line is such a major issue in our moment of polarity. It may be even truer for the church, especially in Mississippi. Who belongs in church and who doesn’t belong? Or, maybe, what does one have to do to belong? What are the rules of inclusion? What do we have to do, or who do we have to be, to be welcomed, included, embraced?

Inclusion is not a unique issue in our modern moment. Inclusion was one of the defining issues of nascent Christianity. As this Jewish, Jesus movement grew out of Palestine, one of the primary issues about which almost all the New Testament writers wrote was who’s in and who’s out? For centuries this was clear from the Bible. To become part of Jewishness, there were very specific things one needed to do. First of all, you needed to be born Jewish—that was a great start. But if that wasn’t the case, and there was something appealing about the oddity of Judaism, and it was wildly odd in the first century, then there were specific religious ceremonies that you had to go through. What made Judaism so odd for an ancient religion was its insistence on one God. We cannot fully appreciate how odd this was. Only one other monotheistic religion in antiquity existed that we know of—Zoroastrianism. So, the Shema, was the first tenant of Judaism—this passage from Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is one.” This is still the core tenant of nearly all forms of modern Judaism. It is a song that still rings in synagogues all over the world.

Non-Jews, or Gentiles, in the first century could believe in this one God and still not fully convert to Judaism, because the next step in the conversion process was pretty invasive—especially if you were a man. Circumcision was the religious ritual that any Gentile man had to accept if he was to convert to Judaism. If you wouldn’t commit to that religious ritual, you could still believe in the one God, but you weren’t part of the community. This group of Gentile’s had a name. They were called God-fearers. We are down with the belief part, but not the practice part!

This “Gentile issue” was a massive moral issue for the early Jewish, Jesus movement. Before this movement was even called “Christianity”, the followers of Jesus were writing about this issue of inclusion. What did Gentiles have to do to be part of the Jewish, Jesus movement? Specifically, did the men have to be circumcised? If you don’t want to take my word for it, read Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is one of the first writings of the New Testament and most scholars date it to the late 40s or early 50s of the Common Era. The whole Letter to the Galatians deals with whether Gentiles need to follow the Law, or the Bible, to be included into the Jesus-believing community. In his first letter, in the first written words that would become part of the New Testament, Paul boldly says, Gentiles don’t have to follow the Bible. They don’t have to be circumcised to be included. Daniel Boyarin, a Jewish New Tesament scholar, calls Paul a “Radical Jew” for his stance on Gentile inclusion.

Paul wasn’t the only New Testament writer who radically includes Gentiles. The Gospel of Matthew goes to lengths to include Gentiles, but with much more hesitation. The Gospel of Matthew includes Gentiles, but reluctantly—not as radically inclusive as Paul. Remember Matthew tells story after story of how Jesus encounters Gentiles, is reluctant to include them, but eventually gives in because of their faith or belief. Even the Gospel of John says, “God loved some of you so much…” No, we know John says, “For God loved the whole world so much…”

If Paul’s writing career started with Galatians, it most likely ended with Romans. Paul’s Letter to the Romans was his last letter that he wrote—maybe as late as the mid 60s. In this last letter, he speaks to this issue again—twice, in fact. Earlier in Romans 3 and now in Romans 10 where we find our passage from today’s lectionary reading. If you read Paul’s letters chronologically, you can see how his ideas change from his early career to the end of his career (like his view on Jesus’s second coming), but one thing remains consistent throughout his career—Paul’s radical inclusion of Gentiles. Throughout Paul’s ministry, he feels called to the Gentiles. He self-proclaims as the “Apostle to the Gentiles.” The legendary New Testament scholar Paul Achtemeier says of Paul, “The chosen people ha(ve) been broadened, by the same means it was originally created, namely God’s choice, to include gentiles as well.”1

For Paul, Gentiles didn’t have to follow the Bible and be circumcised to be included in the Jesus movement. Paul defended this Gospel—this Good News of Jesus Christ—throughout his career. And that’s what we hear in Romans 10:12: “Therefore, there is no difference between a Jew and a Greek, for the same one is Lord of all, generous to all who call him.” For Paul, all Gentiles had to do was have the same faith that Jesus had, or all they had to do is believe the same things that Jesus believed. This was not, as many modern Bible translations have, “faith in Jesus,” but the more accurate translation: “the faith of Jesus.” Gentile inclusion was not based on believing things about Jesus, but believing like Jesus. Believing the Great Commandment to love your neighbor. In fact, Paul would say in Romans 13:8-10, “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law (or the Bible). The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law (of the Bible).”

So what? Paul is a non-biblical, radical Jew! What’s that got to do with us? We’ve always been told this is the Roman Road and if you didn’t believe x, y, and z, you were out. This was a line of exclusion. In fact, Paul is telling the Roman Gentiles that they have been included in the most radical way… by having the faith OF Jesus—the faith that says love your neighbor. In our historic moment, when identity plays such a role in whether someone is included or excluded, it is vitally important for us to hear Paul’s message with clarity. Gentiles were everyone who wasn’t Jewish. It was everybody who was historically outsiders. Paul says they are now insiders if they love their neighbors, which is Jesus’s faith.

It would be very much in keeping with Paul’s gospel to say, “To all of you who have been traditionally marginalized by the church, to all of you have never felt like you belong in church because we’ve been so exclusionary, to all of you who have felt pushed out and excluded, to all of you who never thought you could come to church much less join a church because of whatever—sexual identity, gender, race, class, etc.—in fact, Paul says, you already belong.” All you have to do is have the faith that Jesus had, and love your neighbor as yourself.

Make no mistake, the good religious people of his time did not like Paul’s gospel. He got in trouble for it all the time. He got in trouble for it within the Jesus movement and outside the Jesus movement, but he remained consistent and clear throughout his career regarding his radical inclusion of Gentiles. For many, Paul was too much to bear and too liberal to accept. If you read his letters, he’s always defending his position and seems to be pretty controversial. So, to accept Paul’s Gospel of inclusion, even today, probably means to accept the push back, too.

Are we willing to follow Paul into this space of radical inclusion based on the love command that Jesus demonstrated? We don’t have to. We can cross our arms and say no. Even worse, we can hold out hands out in caution and say to the world, “You don’t belong here.” We can hold on to centuries of church tradition and tell people all the things they need to do before they come into our sacred spaces. We can do that. But wherever that has happened in the church, there is a wake of devastation, trauma, and pain—because there is no pain like church pain. History is littered with churches like that.

I’m sure there are people in Jackson and across Mississippi who could tell stories of being excluded and maybe even “kicked out”. Those are painful stories. Those same people may be looking for a church that practices radical inclusion. This morning, let’s throw our arms out wide. Let’s stretch them out as wide as the love of God in Jesus Christ, and say with truth and conviction that the Church of Jesus Christ is here for all. Bring your whole self, your authentic self, to this place and feel the embrace of the Holy One. And if you have ever been loved, love. If you have ever been given grace, give grace. If you have ever been forgiven, forgive. If there is a place in the whole world where this can happen and should happen, it is this place. May it be so.
Amen.


1Paul Achtemeier, Romans (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1985), p. 167.

Seeing God Face to Face

Genesis 32:22-31, The Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · August 6th, 2023 · Duration 7:18

Change. Sometimes it happens quickly – you go from having little babies to little children and though it took a few years, it feels like the blink of an eye. Sometimes it happens slowly, Jesus is born in a tiny stable and now we gather in this sacred space, celebrating his life, death, burial, and resurrection, with song, and word, and the table of communion in ways that have been shaped by shifts in theology and ecclesiology over 2000 years.

Change. Sometimes it happens with the still, small voice of God speaking to one person in an otherwise empty room. And sometimes it happens in a community, like that first Pentecost, God speaking to many all at once. Change. Sometimes it happens in the quiet space of the human heart, and sometimes it takes a wrestling match, outside under the stars.

“You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

With those words in this morning’s lesson from Genesis, the course of Jacob, now Israel’s, life, and the course of human history are changed.

Jacob meets God face to face, and he walks away limping. He walks away with the grief of change, and he walks away into forgiveness from Esau. He walks away blessed so that he might go and be a blessing. Jacob meets God face to face, a human, and walks away a nation, a whole people marked by God. A people out of which Jesus is born. A people out of which hope is born. Jacob meets God face to face and eventually incarnation and resurrection follow.

Change is inevitable. Our world rotates on its axis every 23 hours and 56 minutes. Babies are born. Beloved people die. Relationships are made and broken and restored.

Change impacts us directly as individuals and as a family of faith. We might walk away limping from the changes we experience in our own lives and in our community. We might experience grief, but we might also experience forgiveness. We might walk away blessed to go and be a blessing. We might meet God face to face, and walk away a people marked by God, a people out of which hope is born, a people behind whom incarnation and resurrection follow.

Last week, Major invited us to say the quiet parts aloud as we prepare for our new Senior Pastor to come.

A new Senior Pastor will inevitably bring about change, even in a place as lay lead as Northminster. Scott will shepherd our family of faith, in ways that may be a change from what we have previously experienced.

The quiet part about change is that we typically don’t like it. We like to be in control, we don’t like uncertainty or surprise, we like the way things are, we aren’t sure that change will be for the better.

Change is uncomfortable. Sometimes it leaves us feeling disjointed, as if we have been struck by a powerful God, as if our connections are separated.

The other out loud part about change is that we get to choose, whether to resist it or to embrace it. But if we are unwilling to change, we might not get to walk the bumpy blessed road ahead. It might be a road that looks different, but it is the road we have been walking.

Change. It is inevitable, but like Jacob, we can be blessed by all that has been, and go live into all that will be. We can be struck by a powerful God, our connections separated, so that they might be reformed into the ever-widening circle of God’s embrace, the embrace of forgiveness and hope, and incarnation and resurrection.

As we live into our future, may we see God face to face and may we be changed.

Amen.

Expectations

Genesis 29:15-28, Romans 8:26-39, The Ninth Sunday After Pentecost

Major Treadway · July 30th, 2023 · Duration 16:25

Expectations have a way of shaping our experiences that often go unnoticed. One of the ways we can see this shaping clearly and somewhat insignificantly is in how we engage with entertainment.

Have you ever been to see a movie that was hyped way up, one where you had been persuaded that it would be an amazing cinematic experience? Maybe it happened to you last weekend and you were part of the fourth largest weekend in movie theater history with complementary offerings mashed together to be called Barbenheimer. Perhaps, you left the theater awed by your experience. But, perhaps, when the lights came on, you found yourself disappointed, and reflecting that if you had not had such high expectations, then you may have enjoyed it more.

Then there are other times when the expectation is that the movie, meal, class, or sermon will be awful. You know those times when you go along because a friend or family member really wants to go, and you have psych yourself up to endure what is to come. And then, somehow, you find that you have enjoyed your experience. But, upon further reflection, if you are like me, you wonder, if my expectations had not been so low, would I have enjoyed that as much?

Expectations. They have a way of shaping more than just our extra-curricular experience. Look at Jacob in today’s Genesis reading, which includes one of the most incredulous scenes of the Bible. Every time I read this passage I find myself wondering, “How could Jacob not know until morning?”

Jacob expected that his uncle Laban would honor their agreement and give his daughter Rachel to him when he had worked for seven years. It’s hard to know what Laban expected. And we learn nothing of the expectations of Leah and Rachel – not to mention Zilpah and Bilhah.

For seven years, Jacob worked, dreaming of the day when he would marry Rachel, only to wake and find that he had married Leah. There are obviously many things happening here culturally, that we cannot possibly hope to parse out in the course of this sermon, but Laban sums it up with some expectations of his own in the form of a simple explanation, “This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the first born.”

Leah was older, she should be given in marriage before her younger sister Rachel. So to any of you out there dating or engaged to the younger sister of an unwed older sister: read the fine print.

Somehow, Jacob trusts Laban to keep his word the second time, enamored as he is with Rachel. He keeps on working for another seven years, expecting that this time, Laban would be true to his word.

One has to suspect that he asked for a few more candles and a little less wine at his second wedding feast.

Further, one has to wonder how a few more questions and a few less expectations might have changed the situation for Jacob.

Back in late 2008, just after Karen and I had gotten married and accepted an invitation to move to Indonesia, we had and were asked a lot of questions about what our life would be like when we got there. People (including us) wanted to know if we would have running water, air conditioning, internet, a car, which side of the road people drove on, if we could learn the language, drink the water, how often we could come home, if it was safe, what kind of visa we needed, how the government felt about foreigners. So many questions. Some of these had easy answers, more did not. Eventually, we started ending each answer about what our lives would look like in Indonesia with the words, “but I really don’t know.”

I think we’ll have running water, but I really don’t know. I assume there’s internet, at least at our office, but I really don’t know. I hope it’s safe, but I really don’t know. And for many questions, that was about as honest and true as we could be.

But expectations aren’t always as easy and clear as when you’re going to see a new movie, or moving half way around the world. Sometimes they slip in unnoticed until it’s too late. Like with Jacob and Laban.

For many of us at Northminster, we began to form expectations of what life at Northminster might be like under a new pastor all the way back when we first heard from Chuck that he was retiring. I heard many and voiced some of them.

“No one will ever be able to follow in his footsteps;” “the next pastor will have big shoes to fill;” “Northminster will not be the same without him;” “following Chuck will be a near insurmountable challenge.” These expectations are ones that we can face and talk about. We can assess their validity and how they should shape our outlook. We can do these things because these are expectations that we have already named.

But there are likely others, some we know, and some that we do not yet know, that are lurking in our minds waiting to reveal themselves at an unhelpful moment. One of the most predictable and damaging expectations about which we will all need to be mindful, is that of comparing Scott on day one to Chuck on day 8,000.

I do not mean to diminish the memory of Chuck nor the hopes for Scott. And forgive me as I venture into the territory of the “so obvious there is no need to say it out loud.” Chuck’s ministry here was long, storied, beloved, and formative for individuals and this family of faith in much the same way that the pastors who preceded him were – only longer.

Scott is not Chuck and he will do things differently. It is likely that Scott’s facility with computers and flip phones will diverge greatly from his predecessor, and we should not count either of those things against him.

As a community of faith, we can and should have high hopes for the bright future into which Scott will lead us, but we should not fall into the trap of expecting him to fit exactly the mold of his predecessor.

I know you all know this. I know that it seems so obvious as to be unnecessary to be said out loud – especially from the pulpit in a sermon on Sunday morning. I know. But there is something about saying the silent part out loud that helps to shed light on the silent part and reveal it that we might be able to consider it more fully.

When Karen and I started ending all of our answers about what life would be like in Indonesia with the obvious and true words, “but I really don’t know,” it changed the answers in our minds. It left room for the mystery that was out there. It prevented us from cementing a picture in our minds that we could not possibly know would be true.

Part of our work in Indonesia was helping people prepare for and adjust to living in a culture that was not their own. Of the hundred or so folks with whom we worked, perhaps, the most common predictor of how intensely someone would experience culture shock, was how certain they were about what they would experience. In other words, how steadfastly they held to their expectations.

It seems so obvious, right? Of course, it is not possible to be certain what life will be like on the other side of the world. Especially, when someone else is setting up your housing, your work, your church community, your transportation methods, your food, and everything that is not coming in your two fifty-pound pieces of luggage. Of course, there is much that cannot be known. Saying the obvious part out loud helps.

This morning, as we celebrate and anticipate the coming of a new Senior Pastor to Northminster, let’s remember the silent and obvious part. Scott is not Chuck and we should not expect him to be.

Let’s go back to Jacob and Laban again. But as we go back, let me be clear on one point, I am in no way trying to make this story into an allegory. I am not comparing Leah to Scott, one, because that would be poor theological thinking, and two, because to do so would be to draw a further comparison between Laban and the Pastor Search Committee, and that gets us to an equally unhelpful place. What I do want to think about it is the expectations of Jacob.

With that said, let’s think about how Jacob approached his two periods of seven years of labor with good ole Uncle Laban.

For seven years, he worked, smitten with dreams of what life would be with his dear Rachel. When seven years were complete, he celebrated with his uncle, the celebration ended, it was the darkest part of the night, he was married. Then morning came, and he realized that his wife was not Rachel, but her older sister Leah. Jacob confronted his uncle. He got a lesson in the local culture – and in what it felt like to be on the receiving end of some trickery.

But then he had a decision to make. A series of decisions, rather. He had to decide what to do about Leah, what to do with Laban, and what to do about Rachel.

Each time I read this story, there is a part of me that expects Jacob to hop on a camel, scoop up Rachel and ride away to live a happily ever after, Disney storybook kind of ending. But that’s not what happens. Each time I read the story, it’s the same, Jacob, recognizing that his wife is not the person he had dreamed she would be for seven long years of labor, choosing to stay married to Leah, choosing to enter into another bargain with the uncle who deceived him, and choosing to work another seven years so that he can eventually marry Rachel.

In the relatively short span of just a few verses, all of Jacob’s expectations, known and unknown have come crashing down around him. His faithfulness and reorienting himself to his new circumstances are helpful for us as we wrestle with our own expectations about our life together as a community of faith as well as in our individual lives out there beyond these walls.

There is little about the future about which we can be absolutely certain. On this point, Paul’s words to the church in Rome in today’s Epistle are helpful: “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.” Paul’s argument here is that the “love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” is one expectation that we can hold closely and confidently.

In each of our lives, there will be many expectations about which it is necessary to think or say “but I really don’t know.” There are potential expectations that we can name as future cautions. And there may even be some tricky Uncle Labans out there lurking shadily in plain sight, waiting to give us an unwelcome lesson in culture. All of these expectations have the capacity to impact negatively our experience as individuals and as a community.

Our challenge today, and each day, is to loosen our grip on our expectations about the things which we have little real and actual control, and tighten our grip on Paul’s affirmation of the love of God – trusting that the God whose love cannot be separated from us, will accompany us as we encounter all of life’s experiences, those that align with our expectations, and those that do not.

Amen.

The Spirit of Hope

Romans 8:12-25, Psalm 86:11-17, The Eighth Sunday After Pentecost

Jason Coker · July 23rd, 2023 · Duration 19:41

All of Romans 8 is Paul’s theological exposition of the Spirit. How does the Spirit function in our lives? What does it do? What does it lead us to do or not do? Paul invites these questions as he asks and answers them. How do we answer these questions in our own context?

Hope! It is not for the faint of heart. Hope sits at the intersection of the “already” and “not yet.” In other words, in Paul’s words from Romans today, hope is that Christian experience of both all of God’s glory and, paradoxically, human suffering: “I consider the suffering of this present time not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). Paul goes on and tells us about the first fruits of the Spirit. We have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, but it is only the first fruits—the best is yet to come. We have already experienced the power of God’s salvation, but our salvation is not yet complete.

This paradox of salvation between the “already/not yet” runs throughout Paul’s letter and the rest of the New Testament. The earliest followers of Jesus experienced complete transformation. Paul himself tells of his conversion. In Acts, Paul encounters the risen Christ and is literally blinded by the experience. One story after the next in the New Testament are these powerful encounters with the Spirit of Christ that changes and transforms individuals. There was a life before Christ and a life after Christ and those two lives were different. This is also the story of Jesus’s ministry in the four Gospels. One may be blind, but once Jesus comes into the scene, all the sudden there is sight. One may be lame, but once Jesus comes into the scene, there is strength. Over and over again, Jesus transforms people’s lives—both their physical health and their spiritual health.

But this transformation never rescues them from the pains and sufferings of our own humanity. I think your former pastor Chuck Poole captured this tension, this paradox of Christianity, in a sermon he preached here many years ago—still one of my favorite sermons on prayer I think I’ve ever heard. Chuck’s whole sermon, which may have been 10 minutes focused on two points: Sometimes prayer changes our lives—we pray for a miracle, and we received a miracle. Our prayer changed our life. But the opposite is also true and truer: Sometimes our lives change the way we pray. We pray for healing, and when it doesn’t come, we change the way we pray. We begin to pray for strength and then acceptance and then… Chuck then told us about how he sat at the columbarium and read all those names and life situations that changed the way he prayed for the departed as they were departing.

That’s the paradox of our faith: we have already experienced the life changing, soul altering power of God in Christ, but we are still here in a world that seems so hostile to the same God who changed our lives. How do we characterize our lives on the in-between in this liminal space between what has already happened and what will happen? The liminal space between the first fruits of the Spirit and the consummation of time and the fullness of salvation?

On Dec. 14, 2012, I was in a meeting with our deacons at Wilton Baptist Church in Wilton, CT. It was a Friday and as we were finishing up, people’s phones started going off. Everyone started getting messages. I think I still had a Blackberry. Tim Boyle, one of our deacons who lived in Bethel, CT, just ten minutes up the road and right beside Newtown, CT, told us all that there was an active shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Within minutes, I received a call from our elementary school, where my oldest son was in first grade. They told us that the school was on lock-down because there was an active shooter at another local elementary school. By the end of the day, we went to pick up Liam from school—he was safe and sound—and we started to hear about what had happened at Sandy Hook. Our local clergy group came together and planed a prayer vigil, our church hosted meetings to help the helpers, and Northminster, some of you sent a box of Chuck’s book A Church for Rachel, to get that book into the hands of some of those families who had lost their first graders.

I can’t really describe what it was like being so close to such a tragic event—especially having a child the exact same age as the twenty children who were brutally murdered that day. While we didn’t lose anyone in that event, we all lost something. My closest friends at the time were the retired Presbyterian minister in our town and the Rabbi at the local synagogue and we were meeting every week during that time period instead of our regular monthly lunches we had at the Georgetown Saloon. It was Rabbi Leah Cohen that said something to me that was a pivot point in my life and has been a solid foundation for me since. It was so simple and true and profound. She said, “Guys, we believe that good wins. We have to be the one’s who believe that. We’re clergy. Good wins over evil. God triumphs over evil. Right? If we don’t believe that, what hope does our religions offer the world?”

What hope does our religions offer the world? Does God triumph over evil? Hearing that from my Rabbi, my friend, helped me preach after that tragedy. It helped me stand before my congregation with a real offering of something to hold on to. There is always HOPE. Despair is real, human suffering is vividly true, we make the world a mess, we get terrible diagnoses, relationships break apart, and THERE IS ALWAYS HOPE.

The cross is real, Jesus was murdered as a treasonous radical, AND in the shadow of the cross there is an empty tomb. Our faith is rooted in God’s miraculous power to save and redeem. We confess that Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried and on the third day he arose from the grave. These are foundational for all those who call themselves Christians all over the world and over the past two millennia.

Our faith does not lessen human suffering, our faith doesn’t stop wars from happening, our faith doesn’t prevent evil from having its way. Our faith promises us that our God knows what that feels like in the cross of Jesus and our faith promises us that our human suffering does not have the last word—no matter how bad it gets. Or, maybe, that our human suffering does not have to have the last word. There is another last word and that last word—if we can just get there—is that the Spirit of God can and will usher us through all this. We are not alone in our loneliest moment. When all seems lost, we have a God who loves us still.

And with that, how do we return our gaze to the world? Do we look at human suffering and shrug our shoulders and say, “God’s in control?” No! With a hope that comes from this God who doesn’t abandon us, who loves us through tragedy, who delivers us, who wins over evil, we cannot sit by and watch the injustices of the world run through the headlines and into our lives and do nothing. To look on the world and do nothing is blasphemous. It is to deny the power and love of God.

What can we do? I think we can answer that fairly easily if we answer another question that precedes that one. Before we ask “What can we do?” let’s answer this: Who are we? Who are we? Paul says, “for all who are led by the Spirit of God ARE Children of God.” Children of God. Are we children of God? Are we the Church of God? Are we the community of the redeemed? Are we? If we are, the question is never, “What can we do?” The real question is “What can’t we do?” What can we do in Jackson? What can’t we do in Jackson—if we remember who we are? What can we do in Mississippi? What can’t we do in Mississippi—if we remember who we are?

Years ago, I was in charge of a project on the border of Kenya and Uganda working with AIDS/HIV orphans. When I first arrived, it was like getting punched in the face. A nine-year-old girl as head of the household because her parents had died. Because of the stigma of AIDS, she and her small siblings had to drag their mother’s body from their home and bury her themselves. We were working with about 50 orphans when we started. At one point, I was angry with God and humanity. How do we let this happen? How does God let this happen? So, in my room one night, I said out loud, “God, what are you doing? What are you doing about this?” No sooner as I had said it, a word came to me. It’s as close to anything I’ve ever experienced of having God speak to me. As soon as I said, “What are you doing about this?” This came to me: “I’ve sent you from halfway around the world. You are what I’m doing.” What a terrible plan is what I thought.

Northminster, you are what God is doing in the world. You are God’s plan because you are God’s church, you are God’s people, you are God’s children. That’s who we are. And if that’s who we are, what can’t we do? That is a powerful hope. That’s a powerful hope for this world, for Mississippi, for Jackson. This is the Spirit of Hope.

Amen.

Beginnings

Genesis 25:19-34, The Seventh Sunday After Pentecost

Major Treadway · July 16th, 2023 · Duration 24:26

Do you know a great story teller - someone who you know that within seconds of them beginning a story, that you will be hooked and definitely listening all the way until the end?

These storytellers know that great beginnings take work and intention. Great beginnings stretch to all sorts of genres of entertainment. They are in obvious places like movies and novels, but they are also in some, perhaps, less obvious places like pod casts, songs, commercials, even board meetings and sermons.

Beginnings are so important to the movie industry that one critic has developed a metric by which one might judge a beginning. This critic proposes considering the “Grab Factor: how bad do I wanna keep watching?” Then there’s “Memorability: Do I have to remind you of it, or does the scene instantly come to mind when I say the film’s title?” And finally, “Sets the Stage: How well does it work for the movie? Is it part of a bigger picture?”

The phenomenon of the importance of beginnings is not new. More than 400 years before the birth of Jesus, the Greek philosopher Plato declared, “the beginning is the most important part of the work.”

As we read the Bible, if we pay close attention to beginnings, we can anticipate and understand more deeply what follows in the stories that unfold.

We know that the stories in the Bible were not dictated in real time. Rather they were told and retold, passed on from community to community. They were considered in retrospect, meaning that in order to get to the important parts in the middle and end, the stories were crafted in such a way that the beginnings would introduce all of these parts.

You might say that the Bible storytellers were thinking along the same lines as a modern day movie critic, thinking how can I best begin this story that it has a high grab factor, memorability, and sets the stage for what is to come.

The story of Job is a great example. Chapter one is made for Hollywood: We are introduced to Job in the first five verses, then the scene shifts to a conversation between the Lord and Satan, a conversation which includes the Lord saying, “have you considered my servant Job?” Hooked, memorable, stage set.

There’s also the introduction of David: David is so young and scrawny that his dad did not even invite him to meet with the King of Israel search committee chair, the prophet Samuel. But Samuel anoints young David in the presence of his seven older brothers. Hooked, memorable, stage set.

And if ever there is a candidate for chief display of the importance of the beginning of a story in the Bible, it is the story of Jesus. We have four gospels, which each beginning in significantly different ways. Each of them has their own hook, their own way of being memorable, and their own way of setting the stage for the way that each will tell the story of Jesus throughout their own gospel.

“The beginning is the most important part of the work,” says Plato.

This morning, as we continue our summer of Genesis, we come to a new beginning. This time in the form of a birth.

It seems appropriate, for on this Sunday, we have just crossed the halfway point of our summer of Genesis. The last five Sundays have followed Abraham. Today, we begin the story of Jacob, who will, of course, come to be known as Israel, for whom the nation of Israel gets its name.

Today, we stand at the threshold. Today, we get our first glimpse of who this person, Israel, is and will be.

The birth of Jacob, Israel, is as significant for what will follow as it is for what it follows. Abram was promised that God would make of him a great nation. At the time of his death, Abram has become Abraham and, according to Genesis, has fathered at least eight sons, but Genesis 25:5 says that “Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac.” A few verses later Abraham dies at the age of 175 and is buried by Isaac who has inherited everything and his older half-brother Ishmael whom Abraham and Sarah sent away into the wilderness.

The promise to Abraham, that he would become a great nation has not happened in his lifetime. He hasn’t even become a neighborhood association, much less a great nation. And he has bet everything on Isaac. Now, the becoming of a great nation is up to Isaac. And today’s reading indicated that we are to learn of the great number of descendants of Isaac, who we are to expect will fulfill God’s promise to Abram. And what is the first thing that we learn? His wife is barren.

Isaac prays for his wife and she conceives. She is pregnant – with twins. Now, I have never been pregnant. I have only been near to people who have been pregnant. And to say that I am perpetually in awe of every human who has been the host to the miracle that is the development of a single cell into a living breathing human would be an understatement. For me, it borders on unfathomable how one cell can become more than one human.

To read today’s story of Rebekah’s experience sounds to me what it must be like for each mother who carries multiple infants in a single womb. “The children struggled together within her and she said, ‘If it is to be this way, why do I live?’”

God responds to Rebekah, not with encouragement: “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”

Hooked. Memorable. Stage Set.

In the span of two verses, we went from the hopes of God’s covenant with Abraham to make of him a great nation hanging on a single son married to a barren wife to, not one, but two nations struggling within the womb of that same wife. I hope you got the big bucket of popcorn so you can get a free refill.

This story of beginning continues to build in today’s reading from Genesis with Esau being born first, but born with Jacob gripping his heel on the way out of the womb. One a hunter, one a mama’s boy. One loved by Isaac, one by Rebekah. And then Jacob swindles Esau out of his birthright for a bowl of soup.

[whistle]

What are we to think about this boy, adolescent, man Jacob, who will become the namesake for the people of God? What can we hope to come to understand about God’s covenant with Abraham? And what does it mean that Esau and Jacob will be not one great nation, but two nations?

That’s a solid beginning.

Beginnings in the lived human experience are rarely as well choreographed as they have a way of being in stories, even when the stories are about real-life humans. Because in real life, our beginnings are not lived in retrospect. We do not get to plan our beginnings based on how the story has unfolded and where it ends. Many times, we do not even know when a new story is beginning.

I expect that if you think back over the course of your life, there are significant moments in your story, that were not significant when they happened to you, but have grown in significance because of what happened after.

For me there was the time I invited a friend to go with me to visit Wake Forest Divinity School while I was in college, to which he replied, I don’t care about visiting Wake Forest, I want to visit Duke. To which, I replied, well, I don’t care about visiting Duke, but they are relatively close to each other and both about a twelve hour drive from here, so why don’t we go together and visit both schools?

Or there was the time I accepted the curious recommendation to visit a Baptist church in a suburb thirty minutes away because the recommendation came from the atheist fiancé of a Catholic friend. I could not have known that on that on the first visit to this church, I would meet my wife.

While we cannot know when some beginnings are happening, there are some beginnings that we can anticipate. We know that the first day of school, or the first day of a new job, or the first days in a new community or country will be a new beginning, and so on those days, if you are anything like me, you pay a little bit more attention to the details that are important to you.

Maybe you pick out the right clothes, the right shoes, or wash your car the day before. Perhaps, you check out the syllabus before the first class. Whatever the beginning, there is extra attention given when we know it is coming. It is almost as though we are trying to find a way to live out a hook, to make the day or experience memorable, trying to set the stage for a positive experience for what is to follow.

Today, we are on the threshold of one of those predictable types of beginnings – one in which this community of faith has the opportunity to move forward with intention in this way aiming to live out a hook, to make this new experience in the life of our congregation memorable, and to begin setting the stage for a positive experience for what is to follow.

And while this prospective beginning is significant, it is important to remember that beginnings are happening in our lives and the lives of those around us every day, some of the anticipated kind and likely more of the unanticipated kind.

Because we cannot always know when a beginning is upon us, we cannot always live in such a way that there is a hook, we cannot always live in such a way that we are certain will be memorable, but we can live in such a way that sets the stage for what is to follow. To live in this way is to live each day as though it were a beginning of sorts. This is the every day kind of setting the stage to which we are called as Christians – the loving God with all that is in us, and loving our neighbors as we long to be loved kind of setting the stage. It is each of us ministering to each other inside of these walls and all of us ministering to the community beyond these walls. Setting the stage for what is to come requires each of us to live the kind of life about which we pray each week – one which anticipates and participates in the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.

So, dear children of God, how will you begin?

Amen.







What the World Needs

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Jason Coker · July 9th, 2023 · Duration 21:06

I love numbers, always have. Sometimes I think in numbers. I like sequences, I like patterns, I like even numbers better than odd numbers unless they are divisible by five—stuff like that. Math people understand. Math is concrete. Math is factual. Two plus two equals _________--every time. So, I geek out with spreadsheets. And we have a lot of spreadsheets in Together for Hope. Out spreadsheets, in many ways, define our work and tell us where to go. And in this case, our spreadsheets are devastating. Just recently I was looking at a spreadsheet of childhood poverty in Mississippi. In one county in Mississippi, the childhood poverty rate is 72.9%. Nearly 3 out of 4 children live below the poverty line in Claiborne County, MS. The number 72.9 has been seared, scorched, branded into my brain. Only 27.1% of children in that county live above the poverty line. 72.9%--what is the future for all those children?

That number—72.9—started making me think: How many children are we okay with living below the poverty line? We know 72.9% is absolutely unacceptable. But what percentage of children living in poverty is ACCEPTABLE in the United States of America? 3/4ths is too many, but how about half? Let’s be honest, half is too much, isn’t it? We can’t accept half of all our children to live in poverty, can we? What about a quarter of all our children? 25% That’s so much lower than 72.9, isn’t it? But 1 our of 4 kids living in poverty—that’s too much too isn’t it? We can do better, can’t we? Let’s say 10%! Just 1 out of 10 kids. Is that acceptable? How many children can we accept living in poverty in the wealthiest, most powerful country the world has ever known? What is an acceptable poverty rate for us?

As a people who follow God Almighty and testify to God’s love for the world through Jesus Christ, how many people can we accept living in poverty? A poverty that destroys their promise, their life, their future? What’s that number?

We should be ashamed, but this isn’t about shame. These numbers aren’t about us, who are not poor, feeling bad about ourselves. That would only make our situation worse. Let’s look at these numbers, these real numbers that represent real people, real children, and do something about it. These numbers are a call to action, not a call to shame. Shame is a terrible strategy! No, this is a call to action!

What’s the larger number in Mississippi? 31.3% of children in Mississippi live below the poverty level. Nearly 1 in every 3 children in this state lives in poverty. If you counted them it would sound like this: one, two, THREE; one, two, THREE; one, two, THREE. That’s how many children are being swallowed by poverty. That 31.3% turns into 225,150 children in Mississippi.1 I hope the number 225,150 burns in your heart. Those children would be the largest city in Mississippi if they all lived in the same place. In fact they are more than the two largest cities in Mississippi combined—Jackson at 145,995 and Gulfport at 72,236.

So, what do we do with Jesus’s words from our Gospel passage for today? “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentile and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.” Jesus tells his disciples over and over again throughout Matthew and the other Gospels that they are to “take up their cross and follow him.” How is the yoke of the cross easy? How is the way of the cross light?

Chiquikta Fountain is the executive director of Delta Hands for Hope, our flagship Together for Hope site in Shaw, MS. This summer she’s been running summer camp for the kids in Shaw. They’ve had Young Entrepreneur Day where the kids have been making things and selling them to the general public—things like Kool-Aid pickles, lemonade, candy bars, etc. Chiquikta’s job is not easy. She raises money all the time, she plans all the programming, and she manages the facilities. That job is not easy or light, but everyday she wakes up, Chiquikta has a clarity of purpose that is crystal clear.

Kenny Magee is the executive director of Boots to Beyond, which is one of our Together for Hope coalition partners in Greenville, MS, that helps veterans know what their benefits are and helps them sign up for them so that they can get the services that their service is promised. They run “stand downs” which are large events for public health where they invite the VA and other veteran’s groups to come together in a health fair. The pain and suffering that Kenny sees is not easy and light, but the work that Kenny does transforms people’s lives and lets them know that someone loves them and appreciates the time they gave defending this country.

Right now here in Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina, Together for Hope is partnering with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network to expand Medicaid in these states. We were working with them in North Carolina, but we don’t have to anymore because North Carolina expanded Medicaid, which will provide access to health care for over 600,000 people. If we can be successful in Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina, we will have helped over a million people get access to health care. This is the continuation of Jesus’s healing ministry in our modern times. This is advocacy. This is easy and light because we know this is right. It is crystal clear.

But, we need more help, don’t we? We need more people to get involved in poverty abolitionism—this is a term I just learned in Matthew Desmund’s latest book Poverty, By America. Poverty in America is not inevitable, it is not inescapable, and it is not necessary; but it is designed. Our system is not broken. Our system is running as it has been designed. Our economic (and political) systems are designed to create this kind of poverty. And if it has been designed this way, we can participate in changing the design, creating a new design, or intervening in the design. Those are our three strategies at Together for Hope—interventions, innovations, advocacy. Advocacy is where we change the system. The work is not easy or light. This yoke of poverty abolitionism is heavy and hard, but the clarity of purpose is so simple infants can see it and know that it is right.

It is easy to get overwhelmed by the need. 255,150 children—that’s a lot of kids for a family. Not only is this work overwhelming at times, you also get your fair share of critics. Look at what Jesus says in the beginning of this passage: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon;’ the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.” Even Jesus and John the Baptist had real critics. So much so that both were killed—on my the Judean King and the other by the Roman Governor. That’s not easy and that burden wasn’t light, But Jesus and John knew exactly what they were supposed to be doing and they did it.

Jesus is not inviting us into something easy and light. Jesus knows that the work of the Gospel—to heal the sick, feed the hungry, care for the poor, set the prisoner free, look after the stranger and immigrant—this work is hard. It is difficult. To do this work, the work of a poverty abolitionist, is heavy and it attracts mean spirited critics.

But it’s also easy because Gospel work is soul work and when you know you’re doing the right thing and truly sharing the Gospel—the Good News—there’s no amount of opposition that can muddy the clarity of God’s call to us to do the right thing. And it’s always right to do the right thing.

So, Northminster, take this yoke upon your shoulders. This hard work of poverty abolitionism, the hard work of the Gospel. Use your time and resources to absolutely change the world. Leverage what you have—your influence, your networks, your power—to let our 255,150 children know that they have a state that loves them and cares for them. The work is too big and the scope is too large not to have everybody involved. So tell your friends, get your family involved, talk about it at the water fountain at work, if they won’t listen, go out into the highways and byways!

What does the world need? What do the 255,150 children living in poverty in Mississippi need? The world needs, these children need YOU. They need you because the harvest is great but the laborers are few. The world needs you.

Amen.


1See ruraldataportal.org/search.aspx (visited on July 9, 2023).




On Knowing

Genesis 22:1-14, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · July 2nd, 2023 · Duration 12:26

I don’t know.

These three words are perhaps the most true and least satisfying words that we can say about some of the biggest theological questions that humanity has ever considered.

They are, of course, not the only words that we can or should say. It is important that we spend time struggling with questions about God – applying that which we do know to the questions about God as we seek to move deeper into relationship with God.

On the question of creation, we can say that God created the heavens and the earth, we can say that God created light and life, but to the question of how, beyond saying that God spoke and creation happened, the more deeply we get into the details, sooner or later we will arrive at the words, “I don’t know.”

Some questions draw these words faster, like the question: how can evil exist in a world created by a good God? We can appeal to human freewill, we can find comfort in God’s promise of enduring presence with us; but to the root of the question come the same words “I don’t know.”

For the last couple of months, as I have found myself thinking about this morning’s reading from Genesis and wrestling with an unending litany of questions, I have had to answer an uncomfortable number of times these three familiar words.

Genesis 22, the Binding of Isaac. To me, this story is one of the most troubling in all of the Bible. This story lacks a hero. It is neither tragedy nor comedy. No human dies. There is no celebration or grieving. Only relief and angst, frustration and, somehow, faithfulness.

The God who created all of everything that has been created, the God who created humans out of dirt by giving them the breath of life, the God who promised aging Abram and barren Sarai that they would be the ancestors of a great nation, the God who saw fit, twenty-five years later, to see Abraham and Sarah become first time parents at the ages of one hundred and ninety, this God, in today’s reading, calls on Abraham to take his and Sarah’s son Isaac up the mountain and offer him as a sacrifice. In this story, before I can even formulate the questions, I already know the answer, “I don’t know.”

How could God… I don’t know.

How could Abraham… I don’t know.

How could Isaac… I don’t know.

Why, why not, how, wasn’t there some other way, did this really come from God? Wasn’t… couldn’t… shouldn’t… why? And the only words I have to offer are “I don’t know.”

It’s as if this story doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit the character of the God that I have come to know, worship, and proclaim. It doesn’t fit the narrative arc of the Bible. It even seems to contradict the smaller narrative of the book of Genesis.

Didn’t the same God who called for the sacrifice of Isaac also promise that Isaac would be the source of the great nation to which Abraham and Sarah would be the ancestors?

But maybe there is some hope. In this story, in the midst of all of our and Abraham’s and Isaac’s unknowing, when we look back, past the outrage and the tears, we find that even in this story, just as God has always been, God is with us – even in our unknowing.

At the end of the story, just after Abraham has raised the knife and the angel of the Lord stops him, as we, the readers and hearers of the story let out an audible sigh of relief, God says to Abraham, “now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” “Now I know” says God.

These unsettling words take us back to the beginning of the chapter that are even easier to read past, “God tested Abraham.” Ellen Davis, in her book, Getting Involved with God, argues persuasively that there is a sense in which there is some uncertainity in the grand bargain between Abraham and God, after Abraham and Sarah twice choose deception and expedience over truthfulness and trust.

Davis wonders if these choices by Abraham and Sarah have raised questions in the mind of God, questions to which God must answer “I don’t know.” And so, to know for sure, God tests Abraham.

I can’t speak for you, but I get a little upset when I read the words “God tested Abraham.” It is the same way I get upset when I read Job chapter 1 which attributes to God words spoken to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job.” And it is the same way I get upset when I read in Matthew 4 that “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.”

I had a college professor who would often refer to tests, with a knowing mischievous twinkle in his eye, as “opportunities.” He would remind us that exams in his class were opportunities to demonstrate what we had learned in his class. More often than not, I was pretty sure they were going to be opportunities to demonstrate something else.

In Abraham’s case, the story begins with God testing Abraham – without Abraham’s knowledge by the way. And the story ends with God saying “now, I know.” To say “now, I know” is to say, before now, I didn’t know. Before this moment, when you were standing here, I didn’t know, I wasn’t convinced, I couldn’t be quite sure, that you feared, revered, and trusted me.

Begrudgingly, it seems I must agree with that college professor, that tests are opportunities to demonstrate something. In his case, it was mastery of course material. In Abraham’s case, God’s test for Abraham contradicted God’s promise. And while many commentators argue that Abraham misunderstood God’s command, there is no getting around God’s statement that “now, I know” – a statement that reveals that in the midst of our unknowing, when there is much we do not understand, that even there God is with us – loving us enough to be with us, loving us enough to continue to learn to know us, and inviting us, to sit with all our “I don’t know’s about God, and continuing to ask questions that we might continue to learn to know God.

Amen.

Family Feud

Matthew 10:34-39, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

David Carroll · June 25th, 2023 · Duration 17:56

It’s good to be with you again today. I thank you for this second invitation. But I do note Jeff Wilson’s absence. I suppose he wasn’t ready to risk it twice!

I again give thanks for Northminster Church – the wonderful spirit and values which you display, the valuable ministries that you provide and support.

Of course, I give thanks for my friend Tim, for Cheryl and their family, his good work amongst you, and for the fact that I might never know where my golf ball went if he weren’t accompanying me on the golf course. My first drive on the golf course is always preceded by the words, “Spotters ready?” My eyesight is only good for about 150 yards! But Tim is always there to help me find the result of the rare (ahem) wayward shot.

There was a gentleman who had the same problem as I who approached his golf pro asking if there was anyone who could help him keep track of his ball on the course. “Oh, I have just the fellow for you. He’s a little bit older, a mere 86 years old, and he’s lost a step, doesn’t play much anymore, but he LOVES to walk the course.

His name is Harry Hanberry. We call him Harry the Hawk because he has the eyes of an eagle.” The next day the golfer met Harry the Hawk at the first tee. The golfer made a powerful swing and felt the crisp contact of an excellent shot, but it was quickly out of sight. “That felt like a good one. Did you see it?”
“Got it,” said Harry. “Just follow me.”
Proceeding down the fairway, they passed 150 yards, 200 yards (with Harry slowing down a bit), 250 yards (the golfer getting excited). At 300 yards Harry came to a stop and began to look around.
“I thought you saw my ball,” said the golfer.
“Oh, I did,” said Harry, “but for the life of me I can’t remember where it went!”

I suppose you’ve seen today’s sermon title, "Family Feud." Maybe it brought some things to mind …
• Richard Dawson hosting the TV game show by that name
• Hatfields & McCoys
• Dishes flying across the kitchen
• I once had a young woman describing her family and how she had once ducked just in time to dodge a block of cheese that her mother had thrown at her!
Face it; families aren’t perfect.

A number of years back two young men, who had each been married about a year, were discussing how things were going in their marriages.
"I'm the head of the house," said one, "I think I should be; after all, I earn the money." (You may BOO if you’d like!)
"Well," said the other, "my wife and I have a perfect arrangement. I decide all the major matters and she takes care of all the minor matters."
“And how is that working out?"
The other replied, "Well, so far, no major matters have come up."

Feuds don't just take place between husband and wife, though:
The little young lady of the house, by way of punishment for some minor infraction, was forced to eat her dinner alone at a little table in a corner of the dining room. The rest of the family paid no attention to her presence until they heard her saying Grace rather loudly over her own meal. It went something like this, "I thank Thee Lord for preparing a table before me in the presence of mine enemies."
And you might think of the Bible when it comes to family feuds...
- Jacob was particularly adept at family feuding
-Conflict over the birthright with his older brother Esau
-Facing the deception of his father-in-law as he married first Leah then Rachel
- Jacob’s 12 sons – Jealous enough to sell their brother Joseph into slavery
- And then there’s always the Twelve …

But the scripture for today brings us to Jesus and the Twelve as Jesus prepares to send them out into ministry and mission; AND it brings me to my first point for today...

A. SOMETIMES WE WILL BE ISOLATED, REJECTED, OR ESTRANGED BECAUSE OF OUR FAITH CHOICES; BUT GREAT IS THE REWARD.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus warns us - "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all manner of evil against you falsely on my account. [Even if it’s your family!] Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

Sometimes family feuds occur when a family member bucks established family traditions and values. As Christian missionaries found their way into the Far East, they found that many of their new converts ran afoul of their families, sometimes even to the point of death.

Closer to home and nearer in time, a young woman at Columbine was asked by one of the young disaffected gunmen, “Are you a Christian?” Cassie Bernall’s answer was simply, “Yes.” And it was her last word.

But even in those times and places when one would think we would be in agreement with those around us, we find that we occasionally disagree. It happens in families; it happens in churches; it happens in the workplace; most anywhere you go.

It is helpful at that point to realize that we each look at life, at faith, at the world through different lenses and with different blinders.

As a teenager, I was so taken by the profound kindness of the Good Samaritan and so captivated by the profound grace of the Prodigal Son’s loving Father that these two “lenses” changed the way I looked at and interacted with the world.

There are all sorts of lenses
WWJD or What would Jesus do?
Biblical literalism
National pride or patriotism
Universalism
Globalism
Conservatism
Liberalism

All of these serve as PRISMs that reshape the light, that change the way we see and interpret the world. And it’s important for us to know what our lenses are that are shaping us and affecting our perspective.

But they can also serve as blinders – limiting the view of things that God would show us, leaving us in circumstances where the best that we can do is to agree to differ … and that’s all right.

B. A second point - There is no question - the tone of the passage seems harsh, but in it CHRIST PRESENTS HIMSELF AS AN ALTERNATIVE TO THE BEST IN OUR SOCIETY -- THE FAMILY.
The call to love Christ more than one's family is a way of paying honor to the family. Loving Christ more than family compares that relationship with him not to the weakest of our society, but to the strongest.

These days with all the challenges to the understanding of what a family is, some might think that the institution of the family is dreadfully weak. Well, let me tell you, the family may be weakENED, but it is still the best our society has to offer from a purely secular standpoint. And when you add God's presence and blessing in a family, it's an AWESOME place to be!

But Christ offers to make the best even better. What would I be without Christ? What would our families be without the presence of God?

John Bergland -- Most times, we believe that devotion to Christ and the cause of Christ will bring a blessing. We may even reason that the more one gives to Christ, the more one will be blessed.
This scripture lesson speaks about the reward of the righteous, but it begins with a radical claim. One's foes will be from his or her own household. One who loves "father or mother more than me is not worthy of me."

Persons who seek a comfortable religion that will make no demands won't hear these words. Still discipleship worthy of the name Christian means desiring Christ more than any other relationship, possession, honor, or position. Even family devotion is subordinate to devotion to Christ.

Suppose a young person joins the Marine Corps with this reservation, "I'd still like to be a Marine, but I don't want to forsake my family. I want to be home for Christmas. I want to be there for the family reunion and for my mother's birthday."

That's simply not the way things are. The reality is that an insensitive and uncompromising drill sergeant demanding obedience tells new recruits, "I'm your mother and your father. I'm your brother and your sister. I'll tell you when to relax and when to stand tall. I'll tell you when to eat and when to sleep. And maybe when to die." If that demand sounds uncompromising, it only lasts for four years for most recruits. It's all tame compared to the radical demand placed on any man or woman who joins the corporate structure of many companies and is required to put family matters second.

Make the FULL commitment – and life will be more blessed, more meaningful, more full of love. Make the FULL commitment to Christ – and find that your family will be stronger, healthier, and more able to withstand the onslaughts of modern life.

C. Thirdly, ENCOURAGE THE ONE WHO SERVES THE CAUSE OF CHRIST.

The day is coming when you will welcome a new pastor, Christ’s representative to occupy the strange glass house that is the dwelling of pastoral leadership. It will be your job to lavishly welcome those who are estranged in many ways because of their allegiance to Christ, daring the new adventure to which Christ has called them.

Strengthen the one who takes a difficult stand for the cause of Christ. Strengthen the one who answers the call of God in this place, and encourage their family because a glass house can be a lonely place to live.

We know the stories of the Martyrs – Stephen, Paul, Jesus. But most of the feuding and sacrifices that we see are much less costly.
What can YOU do?
If you cannot serve … support the one who does serve.
If you cannot teach the child, bring the sandwiches.
If you cannot swing the hammer, hold the nail.
If you cannot sing his praise, hold the music.
If you cannot go the second mile, go the first.
If you cannot wash the feet, fill the basin and hold the towel.
If you cannot bear the cross, honor the One who did.

… and don’t forget to pray for your preacher … from time to time.

There are a lot of people hurting out there, people whose faith has moved them to places of loneliness, heartache, and sacrifice, even in their family life.

And families feud for all sorts of reasons. Some are noble reasons, some are not so noble. I pray that the presence of God blesses your family and mine; and that each of us moves forward from strength to strength … toward that reward … by his grace ... together.

God Has Brought Laughter

Genesis 18:1-15, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · June 18th, 2023 · Duration 14:14

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

You Are What You Eat

Genesis 1:1-2:4a, Trinity Sunday

Major Treadway · June 4th, 2023 · Duration 31:34

You are what you eat. If you have ever spoken these words, or had them spoken to you, you likely recognized the clear message behind them. Be mindful of what you are putting in your body, because it is what you are consuming that will shape and form who you are becoming.

On Trinity Sunday, we celebrate one of the greatest mysteries of the Christian faith – that the God we worship and serve is three and one, one and three. Each member of the Trinity – God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – is fully God, and particularly distinct. I can’t speak for you, but for me, those words are easier to say than they are to understand. Even so, on this day, the first Sunday after Pentecost, on the cusp of the longest season of the church year, we celebrate the Holy Trinity.

And on this particular Trinity Sunday, because it is the first Sunday of the month, we also will celebrate communion – a sacred ordinance of the church, rich in symbolism and mystery.

And on this particular communion and Trinity Sunday, we are kicking off “A Summer of Genesis” where Lesley and I, and, perhaps, a few of our guest preachers, will preach from the Old Testament lessons, which, for the next twelve weeks are all found in the book of Genesis, beginning today, at the beginning.

You are what you eat.

There exists no shortage of things to say about the creation narrative that I read to you a few minutes ago. “In the beginning…” the Bible begins. But Genesis is not the only book of the Bible that begins with these words. The Gospel of John also begins this way. In the beginning.

“In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth…”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

The Word, John will soon reveal is Jesus. So there in the beginning, we have God and Jesus. And if you turn the page to Genesis 2, there we find another account of creation that gives another account of how to think theologically about where everything that is came from. In this account, rather than starting with a formless void and darkness, there is earth, but no plants or animals, or even rain. In this account, God starts with humans, and after God forms a person out of dust, God breathes the breath of life into the first person.

Now, we need to be clear here, that this text does not name the Holy Spirit the way that Acts 2 does. Further the Hebrew word for breath here is not even the word we reminded you about last week “Ruach.” Here it is a synonym that carries similar meaning. Here, the breath of God, animates the dust of the earth.

God, Jesus, and the Spirit, what we Christians call the Trinity, engaged in what Richard Rohr calls the divine dance, all the way back in the beginning. The Holy Trinity in relationship, creating all that we know, as three and one.

Still in that second creation story. After God created that first human, the very next things God created were trees “pleasant to the sight and good for food.” And the very first command of God is “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.”

You are what you eat.

Every tree good for food available, and God says there’s only one that if you eat it will cause you to die, don’t eat that one. I find it interesting that in this story, after the creation of the first human, God’s next creation and first commandment are both about food.

In my office, are two pieces of artwork that both depict a group of people sharing a meal Rueblev’s “Hospitality of Abraham” and a Papuan take on da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” Both paintings reflect a table from the Bible through the lens of a local artist.

They have another similarity that I only recently realized. The Rublev painting, depicts the scene from Genesis 18, when “the Lord appeared to Abraham” in the form of “three men standing near him.” Abraham and Sarah rush to set up a tent and a table and serve a meal. The painting of this meal is sometimes called “The Trinity.” The figure representing the Holy Spirit in the painting, according to Richard Rohr appears to be pointing to an open seat at the table.

The other picture, the Papuan rendition of da Vinci’s “Last Supper,” includes Jesus, eleven disciples, and an open seat. Jesus holds his hands invitationally. The people at the church where the original can be found would be quick to say that the twelfth disciple is you.

Two paintings, two meals, two open places at the table. The Hospitality of Abraham and the Hospitality of Jesus.

You are what you eat.

The cells of our body are in a constant state of death and generation, and the generation of new cells requires energy and substance, both found in the food we consume. In a very literal sense, we are what we eat. The cells that make up our existence are made up of what we consume.

It kinda makes you wonder if Jesus was a cellular biologist, breaking bread and telling the disciples that the bread was his body, and that the cup was the new covenant of his blood. Jesus invites the disciples to consume his body and his blood in the form of bread and wine - by their consumption becoming that which they have eaten, the very body of Christ – a body committed wholly to God and wholly to their neighbors.

Jesus invited his disciples and invites you to join him at the table of the Lord, to feast on the body of Christ, that you might become the Body of Christ. The Holy Trinity extends an invitation to you to join in the Divine Dance, to know and enter more deeply into relationship with God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit – who have existed for all time and who have for all time existed in relationship, a relationship of invitation to you and to all.

Amen.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday

Lesley Ratcliff and Major Treadway · May 28th, 2023 · Duration 13:34

Today is Pentecost!

Ten days have passed since the disciples heard a word from Jesus. “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high,” Jesus told the eleven before he ascended to heaven.

Now they are twelve, but still they are waiting. Together. In one place.

The house where they found themselves was suddenly filled with a sound like the rush of a violent wind. And there was fire. A tongue of fire resting on each of them. “Until you have been clothed with power from on high,” Jesus had told them.

Wind and fire hold special places in the stories about God. Wind, unseen, of unknown origin, unrestrainable, and uncontainable, brought famines and plagues, separated the waters of the red sea that the Israelites might cross on dry land, and brought quail for a hungry people. It cannot be tamed or controlled. But there is more to wind. In Hebrew, the word for wind is the same as the word for breath and is the same as the word for spirit. We read and understand these words as different and distinct. But those who wrote the first stories about God, about the breath of God, about the spirit of God, wrote about the Ruach – the wind/breath/spirit of God.

It is this ruach, that made mud into living breathing humanity. So, it is hard to imagine that when we read “from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind” that images of breath and spirit were not also close at hand.

“Until you have been clothed with power from on high,” Jesus told them.

On the heels of the wind came fire. Fire was a purifying agent for the Jews. With it, they made sacrifices and offerings to God. But before that, fire was the very presence of God. It was fire that lead the Israelites by night through the wilderness toward the land flowing with milk and honey.

The gathered disciples, with wind and fire, were clothed with power from on high.

After the wind and fire came, the disciples started preaching. Only, there was something strange about their speaking. All those gathered were able to hear and understand – in their own languages! There were “Parthians, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, Romans. There were Jews and Proselytes, Cretans and Arabs. And they were all hearing the words the disciples were speaking – in their own languages!

All were amazed – and confused. And it seemed as if everyone was asking the same question: What does this mean?

People from the whole known world were gathered. The people gathered that day must have looked something like the World Cup or the Olympics. Whenever people gather from places where different languages are spoken, power is revealed and starts to create interesting disparities. This power is not the power of the Holy Spirit. This power is the power that corrupts, manipulates, and elevates some groups over others.

Have you ever been in a room with someone who was not a native English speaker and was having trouble understanding or being understood, and there was a spoken or unspoken sense about the tone of the conversation that conveyed a sense of cultural and/or intellectual superiority?

I have. Have you ever been in a room filled with people who spoke a language you had not yet mastered and were engaged in conversation but you did not have the words to understand all that was being asked and you did not have all the words to ask for help and were left feeling misrepresented, inferior, and out of place?

I have. On days like those, I remember this story with a longing that I want to say is righteous.

What if this short story, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the birth of the church, is, in fact, a snapshot of the Kingdom of God? A place where we can all speak. A place where we can all be understood. A place where we all are valued. A place where we all are seen. Language, meaning, value, and understanding dance like flames, and we take the time to engage in the process of communication in such a way that we are drawn into a community marked by the capacity for mutual transformation. The power of the Holy Spirit clothes the community and displaces the lesser power which is limited to its capacity to separate and discriminate.

The wind and the flame enable those present to speak and understand a unified message: You belong here.

The disciples, clothed in power from on high, speaking a message that does not need translation, communicate clearly: You are welcome here.

The whole world is divided by imaginary lines that have tangible results. International borders affect the languages people speak, the clothes they wear, the foods they eat, their marriage rituals, their religion, and more. But it’s not just the world. Right here in our country, and even in our state and city, imaginary lines divide us. Here, our language is affected, though it’s more in the words we choose to use and how we use them. Here, the lines determine where our children go to school, where we vote, who patrols our streets, and more. All of these tangible differences result from imaginary lines – lines which divide us, and if we are not careful, lure us into believing that they are impenetrable.

They can even, at times, cloud our ability to see that the humans on the other side of those invisible lines are human just like we are. They feel the same emotions as we do. They have the same needs that we do. They dream the same dreams that we do. And just as we reminded each other on Ash Wednesday, that we are dust and to dust we shall return; so are they.

Dust, animated by the Ruach of God. The wind of God. The breath of God. The Spirit of God. They and we, breathing the same breath – the very breath of God.

So, what does this mean?

A few weeks ago, we celebrated the birth of Northminster. We remembered together Harvey Whalen’s first sermon where he said: “If we could not agree to differ, we have no freedom, if we do not resolve to love, we have no Christianity, if we do not unite to serve, the Kingdom of God and the world suffer.”

Today, we celebrate the birth of the church and the gift of the Spirit. And just as that first sermon continues to influence and guide the congregation that has come to be known as Northminster, so too, the church of Jesus, the church that began with the gift of the Spirit, continues to yearn to be “clothed with power from on high.”

And just like Northminster carries the spirit of the message of Dr. Whalen, even 56 years after he spoke those words, this church, and the global church, continue to be marked by the Spirit, gifted with the knowledge that each human has value and worth.

We remember that in the great diversity of the human race, that the image of God is upon all. And in the words of Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth: “If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it.” When we all have the opportunity to speak, when we all take the opportunity to listen and understand, when we all see the diversity of humanity that surrounds us, when we choose the power of the Holy Spirit over the power to separate and discriminate, then we, like that first church gathering, will see the beginning of the Kingdom of God, and we will marvel at the wind and the flame. We will be clothed with power from on high. And we will see and know the Spirit of God moving in our midst and in our hearts.

Today is Pentecost. You have heard the words of Jesus: “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high”

But today is Pentecost! And the Holy Spirit is upon you.

Amen







Better Together

Acts 1:6-14, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Amy Finkelberg · May 21st, 2023 · Duration 17:59

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Suffering for Good

I Peter 3:13-22, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Lesley Ratcliff · May 14th, 2023 · Duration 12:23

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

The Way, the Truth and the Life

John 14:1-14, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Major Treadway · May 7th, 2023 · Duration 29:56

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” For the first ten or so years of my life, I read these words as a line in the sand – a clear choice and test to know who was in and who was out. This was, for me, an important point in my argument for why people should become Christian.

However, over the last twenty or so years, my reading of scripture, my understanding of God, and my experience among a broad array of humanity have led me to reexamine and reconsider this interpretation of this text.

Each of the four gospel authors tell the story of Jesus a little differently. Matthew, Mark, and Luke, follow a very similar narrative pattern as they develop their stories. John’s gospel does not follow this narrative. He begins, not with a genealogy or birth narrative, but with the creation of the world, connecting Jesus to the God who spoke the world into existence. The unique features of John’s gospel continue, one of which is the way that John understands Jesus’ engagement with humanity.

In John 1:9, John says of Jesus, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” In 4:42, Jesus is referred to as the “Savior of the world.” In 12:32, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” The Jesus of the gospel of John, “who enlightens everyone,” the “Savior of the world,” who “will draw all people to [himself]” suggests to me that perhaps there is something I have missed.

Similar to the ways that John talks about Jesus, there are important moments throughout the whole of the Bible that reveal God’s longing for all of humanity to be reconciled to God. The God who creates all of everything, keeps showing up, making a way for humans to know and live the righteousness of God, engaging with humanity – humans of great knowledge, power, and wealth and humans whose need and/or depravity continue to surprise us.

And, of course, there are also people in our lives, people we know who are not Christian, yet in whom we see God at work. Already this year, here at Northminster, we have had a lovely pulpit swap with our friends from Beth Israel and an interfaith dinner learning about fasting in the Christian and Muslim traditions. Both of these opportunities enriching our knowledge of God by the ways we can so clearly see the hand of God at work in the individuals we have met and the communities of faith they represent.

So what do we do with this verse? I think we must do with this verse what we do with all scripture. We need to sit with it. We need to hold it in the context of chapter 14 and in the context of the entire Gospel of John. And we need to put it in conversation with the whole of scripture as well as what we know to be true of God.

When we engage this scripture in that way, we will find that the words of Jesus, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me,” can take on new meaning in our lives.

It is important to note that in chapter 14, Jesus is talking with people who already believe in him, people who are already following him. In a sense, Jesus is talking to us. To us, not to all those other people who do not or do not yet believe, Jesus is talking to me, to you, to the church gathered with one heart. To us Jesus says, “do not let your collective heart be troubled.”

“I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” These words of Jesus come as a comfort and a challenge to his followers as he nears his arrest and execution.

“I am the way,” says Jesus. To follow after Jesus is a journey. The road is long, sometimes hard, often uncomfortable, but we know that from reading about the life of Jesus.

“I am the truth,” says Jesus. Jesus, the word of God, in the beginning with God, and made flesh, has spoken and embodied truth in fresh and startling ways, helping his followers to refocus their understanding of scriptures and reorder their lives accordingly.

“I am the life,” says Jesus. Calling to mind his recent encounter with the death of Lazarus and looking ahead to his soon coming death, Jesus reminds his followers that he is life. It was the word of God that breathed life into creation, Jesus later proclaimed that he came that they might have life and have it abundantly, and after restoring life to Lazarus, he boldly proclaimed “I am the resurrection and the life.”

This is the way for those who would follow Jesus. It is not up to them, nor us, to judge anyone’s eternity, our task is in the present. Our task is to follow. These words of Jesus are the truth his followers will need to cling to when they see his body limp on the cross. They represent the life they will need to hold in their hearts as they see him buried in the tomb. Jesus, who enlightens everyone and will draw all people to himself, this Jesus is the savior of the world, he is the way we know God.

I am convinced that these words are also words for the church today. They are words that speak to us who have committed to following Jesus. They are words to give us comfort that by knowing Jesus, we know God more clearly. And they are also words that call us to action. For us to claim the name of Jesus, to wear the mantle of Christian, is to follow, with heart, mind, soul, and strength, this man Jesus, who is the way, and the truth, and the life.

Amen.

New Pasture, Same Shepherd

John 10:1-10, The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Major Treadway · April 30th, 2023 · Duration 14:01

“The only thing constant in life is change,” says the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. First written 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus seems to have been on to something. Just in the last three-and-half years, we have seen a global pandemic shape the goings and comings of our day-to-day lives, Jackson has had paradoxical water crises of flooding and water shortage, Northminster has seen the retirement of the longtime constant guiding presence of Chuck Poole. So much has changed. And yet, we press on.

In the midst of these unanticipated changes, today we draw ever nearer to one long anticipated change. Ivey, Lucy, Owen, Roger, and William, since the first time you came through the doors of this church, we have been looking toward this day and your approaching graduations. Some of you have been here long enough, that you were once held by a parent in front of this congregation, as we pledged to you, that “[you] belong to us as well” as your parents. Later, some of you walked here, where you had once been carried, received a red Bible with your name on it, and stood as we promised to “make a place for [you] for [you] belong to us just as we all belong to God.” Still later, as you prepared to move from the children’s department to the Youth House, once again, the congregation made promises to you as you stood here, this time we promised that we “your family of faith will be with you every step of the way.” And one more time, for those of you who have been baptized, we, together, “pledge[d] to you our encouragement and all the resources of our congregation as you continue to grow in Christ.”

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus says that “when the shepherd has brought all the sheep, the shepherd goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow, because they know the voice of the shepherd.” Further, Jesus says, the sheep “will not follow a stranger, but they will run from a stranger, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” There is something about voices that immediately registers as familiar or foreign. Have you noticed that you can hear just a phrase, or even a word, of a close friend or family member, and without question know not only who the person is but even some things about how they are doing?

Something about the pitch, the pace, or the volume of the voice can let you know if the person speaking is happy or sad, angry or exhausted. And sometimes, a change to a person’s voice will even reveal changes to the speaker’s health.

If all of these things are true about our capacity to hear a voice and know the speaker, that sometimes subtle and sometimes less subtle changes to the voice do not cloud our knowledge of the speaker, but, rather, reveal more information about the speaker, then one has to wonder what it is about a voice that allows one to so quickly connect the voice to the speaker. Yet even as we wonder, even though we don’t know how, we still recognize voices immediately, if not instinctively.

It is this remembering that Jesus is calling his disciples to imagine as they think metaphorically about following after the voice of God.

Over the course of the last 18 or so years, among the many things that has happened at Northminster, in this space and the many other spaces on this campus, we have explored together listening for the voice of God. Sometimes we listen for guidance. Sometimes we listen for comfort. Sometimes we listen to know that we are not alone.

It’s possible that you did not realize what we were doing. It’s not like listening to a Taylor Swift song on repeat while cruising in your pick-up truck trying to learn every note and modulation of her voice. The kind of exploration of the voice of God that we have been practicing together here occurs in the ways “we agree to differ, we resolve to love, [and] we unite to serve.” From there, we practice hospitality to and with one another inside of these walls and beyond these walls. As a congregation, we try to remember the question of Jesus “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor?” as we continue to expand our understanding of who our neighbors are and how we interact with them.

For you, seniors, this exploration has taken on a variety of forms, it began as you were welcomed into the children’s area, it expanded as you aged and began learning more through Sunday School, atrium, and children’s retreats. As you moved to the Youth House, the explorations of learning the voice of God may have shifted to experiments in listening as we engaged in building community, acts of service, and learning. And all along the way, the adults who were guiding you were also listening to you and watching you-your questions, explorations, and revelations giving shape to our understanding of the voice of God.

Seniors, in some ways, it’s not fair to call this an 18-year exploration. For, for some of us, it has been much longer. And for others of us, it has been much shorter. But regardless of how long the journey has been, it is our collective hope, that after your time downstairs in the children’s area, over in the Youth House, in the Great Hall, occasionally in the Adult Education Building, and many years in this sanctuary, that you (and we) have a better grasp on how to know and follow the voice of God.

Ivey, Lucy, Owen, Roger, and William, for you, especially, we pray that when you find you have changed locations, when you are far from Jackson and Northminster, that all of the time you have spent here will have formed you in such a way that you can recognize the voice of God no matter where you may find yourself.

I feel like this is a good point to make a confession. I do not know what the voice of God sounds like. I don’t know if it is pitched low or high. I don’t know if God speaks in Old English or with a southern drawl. The Bible records God saying things, audible to human ears. But my confession to you, today, is that I have not yet been so fortunate to hear an audible voice of God.

But, in the same way that you or I might hear a phrase and say something to the effect of “I could hear her say that” or “that just doesn’t sound like something he would say,” I fully believe that by spending time together exploring the acts of God, through worship, community, reading scripture, singing, prayer, and service, we prepare our souls to hear the voice of God speaking to us through the words and lives of humans in our midst; we encounter the voice of God in nature and community; we see what God is saying when, by our lives, the Kingdom of God is made manifest in our lives and the lives of those to which we are connected.

And so, wherever you go from here, to Holmes and Ole Miss and beyond, when you, like sheep, enter a new pasture, a new place, with new friends and voices, let the voice of God be your constant. Trust what Jesus says in today’s gospel, that you will know the voice of the shepherd. When you hear it, when you see it, when you encounter it, there will be a familiarity to it, even as you experience it in a new place.

We know that this is true, for even as so much about our lives changes, the voice of God remains with us, guiding us and calling us. It is the voice that calls us to an abundant life – an abundant life where God’s abundance is sufficient for all of humanity and for each human. The abundant life of God is the result of a life lived according to the voice of God. It is, as you have been learning all of your life here, a life lived loving God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and it is a life spent loving your neighbor as yourself – continually expanding your understanding of who might be considered neighbor. The abundant life of God is also a life spent ensuring that the abundance our lives does not impoverish the life of anyone else.

The voice of God that calls you, that calls all of us, to this kind of abundant life, will still be calling wherever this life might take you. So when you soon find yourselves having changed pastures, keep on listening for the voice of the Shepherd you have learned to know, trusting that the voice of God will be the same there as it is here, that your experience in this place learning to know and respond to God’s calling, will have prepared you to do the same in all your new places.

Amen.


Back to the Rough Ground

Luke 24:13-35, The Third Sunday of Eastertide

John Meadors · April 23rd, 2023 · Duration 17:02

In the summer of 1799, the artist and poet William Blake exchanged a series of letters with the Reverend John Trusler.  Trusler was an influential priest, writer, and publisher who had commissioned Blake to work on a series of paintings representing human virtues and vices.  The two men disagreed sharply about the merits of Blake’s work, particularly a painting that depicted the vice “malevolence.” Blake’s financial well-being depended on the commission Trusler would provide him, so it couldn’t have been easy for Blake speak combatively with his benefactor.  Perhaps because of his genius as a poet or a painter, the uniqueness of his vision, Blake recognized that he and Trusler experienced the world in profoundly different ways.  Their separate faculties of vision framed the world in narratives that could not in the end be reconciled.  In his second letter to Trusler, Blake linked imagination and vision together in such a way that the latter is shaped by the former:  We see what our imagination allows us to see.  This is what William Blake said to the Reverend John Trusler:  I know that this world is a world of imagination and vision.  I see everything I paint in this world, but every body does not see alike. To the eyes of a miser a guinea is more beautiful than the sun and a bag worn with the use of money has more beautiful proportions than a vine filled with grapes.  The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.  Some see nature all ridicule and deformity and by these I do not regulate my proportions, and some scarce see nature at all.  But to the eyes of the man of imagination, nature is imagination itself.  As a man is, so he sees.

Let us pray:

Lord God our merciful Father, we long to be people who see You everywhere.  So we ask you to take your rightful place at the center of our imagination.  Heal our thinking, sharpen our awareness, purge and rebuild our vocabularies, and so restore our capacity for seeing You, even in our neighbor.  Amen.

Today’s gospel passage from Luke also speaks to the notion of seeing.  Seeing, or more properly, the inability to see, is a significant theme in some of Luke’s most cherished passages.  There is the willful refusal to see in the Parable of the Good Samaritan when the priest and the Levite notice the wounded traveler on the side of the road, but proceed on their journeys as if he was not there.  For all practical purposes, he was invisible to them and certainly no neighbor.  And then there is the selfish blindness of the prodigal son, who is so distracted by the romance of distant lands and profligate living that he cannot see the goodness of his own place.  Once removed to that distant land and finding himself in dire distress, the prodigal son “comes to his senses”, his sense of sight in particular is restored as he can see at last the beatitude of life with his father.  And here on the road to Emmaus, two travelers from Jerusalem who were part of Jesus’ band of followers, perceive their traveling companion, but do not recognize they are walking with their Lord.  The sense data is there, they are aware of his presence, but they don’t know who it is that walks and speaks with them.  Given all they have experienced and all they are feeling, their imaginations are not yet ready to entertain the risen Lord.  Luke uses the passive voice to tell us “their eyes were kept from recognizing him,” perhaps implying that God had prevented them from recognizing Jesus.  The passage also lends itself to the more modest conclusion that these two travelers are convinced that Jesus is dead and gone, and that therefore this man now walking and conversing with them cannot be him.  Their well-worn paths for making sense of their lives, will not allow them to countenance a Jesus who yet lives. 

When the unknown traveler joins Cleopas and his companion, he asks them what they are talking about.  This question gives them pause and they stop in their tracks, looking sad, Luke tells us,  or perhaps even angry.  Cleopas is shocked, “Are you the only stranger in Jerusalem who does not know the things that have taken place there in these days?’ “What things?” the stranger who is Jesus asks.  And so Cleopas tells the story of the mighty prophet who was crucified, is dead, and was buried.  They had hoped this man would redeem Israel, restoring the kingdom to its glory.  On the very day of this encounter, Cleopas explains, some women had found the tomb empty and told a fantastic story of visions of angels who said that Jesus was alive.  Men from their group went and confirmed the empty tomb, but Cleopas and his companion are clearly unconvinced, reckoning falsely that they know more than the stranger with whom they speak.  Jesus responds abruptly, calling them foolish or dim-witted, “Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared.”  Then Jesus begins with Moses and all the prophets, interpreting to them the meaning of his life as set out in the scriptures.  At this point in the story, we might expect Cleopas and his companion to recognize Jesus, the stranger’s narrative having all but made it explicit that Jesus’ suffering and death were precisely what they should have expected in light of his teaching and the scriptures.  But still they are blind, and still Jesus maintains the ruse.  In verse 28, he walks ahead of them, as if, he were going on.

Then, at last, the two sad travelers from Jerusalem, overwrought and distracted by the trauma and grief of their last few days, extend a glimmer of hospitality to this stranger who has joined their trek.  They invite him to come in with them to the place where they are staying.  And Jesus does, but now he is finished with words:  The stranger just acknowledged as guest instantly becomes the host.  As he did on the night of his last meal with his disciples, “he took bread, blessed and broke it, and give it to them.”  At the accomplishment of this simple act, so familiar and intimate, so necessary to life, Cleopas and his companion recognize Jesus, and he vanishes from their sight.

In his commentary on the Gospel of Luke, Richard Vinson points out that it was not abstract theologizing or even the exegesis of scripture that delivered these disciples from their blindness.  They did not see Jesus as a result of the teaching delivered on the road.  No creed or confession shook the scales from their eyes.  As Vinson puts it,
Their recognition of Jesus came from the events themselves, from his repetition of a familiar act in a plausible setting, and the moment of recognition was also a reversal of their state of mind.  They go from deep grief to joy, from confusion to understanding, and most importantly from disbelief to faith, and the crucial moment is the breaking of the bread.  What a brilliant pastoral theologian!  Had Luke put the moment of recognition on the road, when they saw Jesus, or at some point in his exposition of the Scripture, then subsequent believers could only wish they could have been present.  Like those who went to look at the empty tomb after hearing the testimony of the women, we might have been able only to testify to what we had not seen.  But instead, Luke says, “he had been made known to them in the breaking of bread:” all of us who repeat the meal as he commanded can have this experience.” 

Taking our cue from William Blake, we might say this morning that the disciples’ imaginations were transformed by simple embodied experience:  in this case the experience of hospitality, the provision of sustenance, and the sudden realization of friendship.  The reconfiguring of their imaginations allowed them to see the Lord.  If we wish to have our imaginations similarly transformed, transformed so as to make it possible for us to recognize the risen Jesus, how might we proceed?  One step must be recognizing that like Cleopas and his companion, we walk well-worn paths when it comes to engaging our world.  These paths are shaped by all we have been taught and everything we have experienced and certainly by an overconfidence in ourselves.  Ever since Plato we have been taught to generalize about our experience of the world.  To say more than we know.  To make sense of the particular things we encounter, we are taught to understand them in reference to the larger categories or classes of things of which they are a part.  Knowledge of the world seems to require that we understand the particular in terms of the general.  Plato advises this policy because particular things, temporal things, are constantly changing or even ceasing to exist, while idealized descriptions of categories of things, what he calls the Forms, are eternal and unchanging.  Real knowledge or real understanding on this view is always abstract, set at a distance from the rugged hurly burly of ordinary life.  Modern science has further estranged us from the particular and immediate contexts of our life together.  It builds on Plato’s “craving for generality” by reducing everything taken as real to a few basic laws and increasingly simple packets of matter and energy.  We experience none of those things directly, but proceeding through the world by means of abstraction and reduction is what it means to be a rational person, what it means to understand, what it means to see.  But do we really see persons if we follow this scheme? 

Cleopas and his companion understood the man who walked with them in terms of simple categories:  he was a stranger, an uniformed man, a traveler, and something of a gadfly.  And at the moment of their encounter with this figure, they understood Jesus in terms of simple categories as well:  he was a prophet, the bearer of dashed hopes, he was for them a disappointment and a cause of sadness, and to their knowledge he was dead and he was gone.  Taken together these labels miss the mark of identifying the one who walks beside them, for in the wholeness of his being and the richness of all his relations, Jesus is much more than all these things, but they cannot see him.  Their view of Jesus is a bird’s eye view, or we might say, a view from thirty thousand feet.  There is a person down there, and we know a few things about him, but we cannot see him. 

And so it is in our encounter with our neighbors.  We generalize about them on the basis of obvious things like their appearance or education, their relative affluence and employment or their level of achievement.  And, of course, there are the easy categories of politics and theology and personal failure.  If I ask you about a certain Jane Doe, and you tell me she is a teacher and she lives in Mississippi and she’s got this theology and that politics and she likes to dress casually, she drives a Toyota and drinks too much and Italian food is her favorite, does a real person emerge?  A person I can see?  What you have given me is string of generalities, a shadow person or a list of labels, and every label is a sweeping generalization that obscures at least as much as it reveals.  Everything you have told me may be true, really true, there is a person down there somewhere and I know some stuff about them, but I cannot see them.  The British novelist Iris Murdoch seems to have had this idea in mind when she said “You may know a truth, but if it’s at all complicated you have to be an artist not to utter it as a lie.”

A project and a hope emerge from this reflection.  From now on, let’s engage our neighbors as flesh and blood--real individuals--and assume as little as possible about them. Let’s meet them on terra firma, the rough ground that is the earth we share.  Let’s engage them in the fullness of their being, study their style and trace their multiple engagements.  Let’s take note of their real concerns, loves, hopes, and disappointments, maybe even share a bit in their suffering.  Let’s look them in the eye and acknowledge the mystery of their visage.  If we are fortunate enough, we might sit at their table or welcome them to ours for the breaking of bread.  Let’s be truthful about what we do not know about them, because that acknowledgement is the beginning of seeing.  And in all of this, let’s acknowledge our Easter hope, that the encounter with our neighbor brings us into the presence of the living Christ, Jesus himself resurrected.  Such is our confidence in the resurrection, such is the testimony of our Baptism.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Don't Let the Gospel End

John 20:19-31, The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Steven Fuller · April 16th, 2023 · Duration 21:21

Don’t Let the Gospel End. Don’t put a bow on it. Don’t wrap it up. Don’t put your pencil down. Don’t stop the clock. Don’t turn out the lights. Don’t shut the door. We’re not done. Don’t let the Gospel end. Let’s go where we’re sent. Don’t let the Gospel end. Receive the Spirit and let go of sin. Don’t let the Gospel end. Believe.

Like any story, it’s hard to write the ending. The author looks for an event to bring all the characters together and wrap things up: a wedding, a funeral, a victory, a dinner, a luau, a fish fry, an epilogue at platform 9 3/4, setting the scene for the story’s denouement, saying and doing what needs to be said and done to tie up all the loose ends. John tries really hard. In fact, most modern scholars think the end of this morning’s Gospel lesson was the original ending of John. The last two verses certainly sound like an ending, saying how Jesus did a bunch of other signs he didn’t include, but he wrote these down so that you may believe Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing have life in his name. It would make a good ending. Of course, as we know, it’s not the ending, at least not the last ending of John’s Gospel. The story wasn’t over. It needed another chapter. And I don’t mind if he planned it that way from the beginning or chose to add it later. I sympathize with the difficulty of ending a story. Haven’t we all had the feeling that a story....a life... needed one more chapter? It ended wrong: too quickly, too soon, when we wanted, needed to see how it played out, how the characters developed. We were desperate to see all the loving-goodness that could grow if given one more season.

I don’t blame John for taking a couple shots at the ending because there’s something about a Gospel that isn’t meant to end. The Gospel’s meant to go on, to pass from chapter to chapter, person to person, generation to generation, around the table, down the aisle, across the street, from parent to child, neighbor to neighbor, even to enemies actually, like a 24-hour Good News cycle of God’s everlasting love.

And so that’s the challenge I bring before us today. Don’t Let the Gospel End. Don’t put a bow on it. Don’t wrap it up. Don’t put your pencil down. Don’t stop the clock. Don’t turn out the lights. Don’t shut the door. We’re not done. Don’t let the Gospel end. Go where you’re sent. Or, as Jesus said in chapter 20, “As the Father sent me, so I send you.”

If John had wrapped up his Gospel with the 31st verse of chapter 20, it would have ended with the disciples sitting behind the same closed doors Jesus sent them out of a week before. A week had passed between verse 21, when Jesus sent the disciples out, and verse 26, when the disciples were back behind those closed doors again.

Go. You’re sent. It’s our job to go. Don’t let the Gospel end with you still sitting inside. And I don’t mean literally leave this room right now or move to another city. That would be awkward and hurt my feelings. I don’t know exactly what you’re called to do, but don’t let your Gospel end without us at least giving it a shot. Too often the church goes back behind closed doors because we’re scared of losing what we have if we take it outside the building. We let fear define our faith by keeping it inside, but our faith was meant to go outdoors. That’s why we cast a “Wider Net.”

Outside these doors, the world is at war. People are languishing in poverty. There are teenage girls whose self-worth is regularly assaulted on social media. There are people whose days and lives are lost to drugs that can’t do what they want them to do. There are people who are transgender being persecuted because of who they are. There are families who won’t talk to one another. There are people who believe their fear can only be satisfied with an assault rifle. There is a centuries old racist veil of sin draped over the eyes and outcomes of our nation. There are also people, young and old, who are just lonely and need a friend or, like, an apple or a new pair of underwear. Big things, small things, a million million things outside this room that need the Gospel of God's love and forgiveness, peace, hope and hospitality that we proclaim inside this room. I know Northminster has more flavors than Jelly Belly’s jelly beans. I don’t know what you’re called to do, and you can’t do it all. Plenty of the things I’ve listed you could spend a whole lifetime working on without making a measurable difference. But in the name of Jesus, go! God will make something of it. Don’t let the Gospel end with us still inside the building.

You don’t want your mom coming back 20 minutes after telling you to brush your teeth, put on your shoes, and get in the car, to find you still sitting on the couch. I’ve seen it. No one enjoys that. Get out of the house.

Don’t let the Gospel end. Receive the Spirit and let go of sin. Or as Jesus says in chapter 20, “Receive the holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” Be forgiven. Forgive. Receive the Spirit and let go of sin.

If John had put his pencil down after writing the 31st verse of chapter 20, the last words we would have heard from Simon Peter’s mouth would be him denying Jesus, saying, “I am not” one of Jesus’ disciples. Sure, Peter raced the beloved disciple to the empty tomb on resurrection morning and was in the room when Jesus appeared to them both times in chapter 20, but he was still speechless at the end of this morning’s lesson, which, considering he wasn’t the quiet type, makes me think the guilt of his denial held his tongue.

Actually, if you keep reading, the next thing Peter says after denying Jesus those three times is “I am going fishing.” It isn’t until after a miraculous catch, a dive into the sea, and a beachfront fish fry with the risen Lord in chapter 21 that Jesus asks Peter, “Do you love me?” and Peter finally tells Jesus he loves him.

What if the Gospel had ended with Peter speechless and ashamed because he had denied Jesus, and he never got to tell Jesus he loved him again? What if the Gospel ended too soon, and Peter never really felt the forgiveness he kept asking Jesus about? If we let the Gospel end too early, we may not have enough time to loosen our tongues, receive the grace we need, and speak the love we have for one another.

Because we need to receive the Spirit, receive forgiveness. Like really receive it. We don’t have enough by ourselves to do any of the things we’re called to do. We have to receive the Spirit, this divine and transcendent, intimate and interdependent person to mediate between us. We have to receive the gift of grace. We have to learn how to hold onto things like love and humility, patience and peace. We have to receive them and hold on to them. And in order to hold on to them, we have to let go of other things, like sin and resentment, pride, and power. We have to let them go. It’s like when Peter asked Jesus about forgiveness in Matthew 18. Peter was wondering how many times do we forgive? How many times do we have to let go of the sin that’s put in our hands? How many times? Like 7 times? No, 7 times 70 times. You have to let go of sin and debt a lot, over and over again. We get the Holy Spirit. We get to receive grace, to know the peace of Christ, to hold on the steadfast love of our ever living God. And to really hold on to it, to really get a grip on God’s love, we have to let go of sin, other people’s sin, our sin. Be forgiven and forgive.

And let’s be honest, for some sin, we can’t just let it all go at once. We need time. We need the Gospel to last a little longer, go on for a few more chapters, to give us the time we need to loosen our grip on the sin that has wounded us and take hold of the Spirit who loves us. We may need a long time to let go of all that we have to let go of. Look at all the sin still gripped tight, unreconciled in this world. Don’t let the Gospel end. This isn’t how it ends. God’s not done with us yet.

And lastly, don’t let the Gospel end. Believe.
Believe. Jesus died on the cross and rose from the dead. We get to believe that. I want you to hear me. I know it sounds kind of weird, but we get to believe. Like, we get to. John says this was all written down so that we can believe. The additional story of Thomas, where the disciples go back to the house, shut the doors, and Jesus appears to them a second time: John tells that story so that we can believe.
I’d even say the reason Jesus appeared to them that second time was so that Thomas could believe. Jesus showing up and then showing up again, as many times as necessary, so that we get to believe!
I know Thomas has a bummer of a reputation, associated with doubt, but Jesus showed up again so that Thomas could believe. It’s clear that Thomas, like all the other disciples, struggled to believe in the resurrection before he saw the risen Lord; even so, I’m sure Thomas wanted to believe. He wanted to believe his rabbi had risen. He wanted to believe his Lord was alive. He wanted to believe that the darkness that held him since his savior died would erupt in heavenly light so that he could see hope beyond the grief, rise through the sorrow, and say what he so desperately wanted to be true: “My Lord and my God!”

We want to believe. Like the fictional Futbol coach Ted Lasso says, “I believe in believe,” but even more than that, we get to believe that the Lord of all creation knows us, loves us, and was revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, who lived, died, and rose from the dead so that we may believe.

I haven’t been a professional pastor for over seven months now. It’s been really weird. In some ways it’s freed my faith, but it’s also been really really hard. I’ve been angry at God; I’ve been really angry at the church, and specifically some of its members. I’ve had moments when I felt so cynical about the church and Christianity in general that I wanted to not believe, thinking it would be easier, but it wasn’t. It was harder, darker, lonelier.

One day, a dear friend of mine who was once a minister but more recently does not believe in God asked me why I still read my Bible every day. I had what I thought was a smart answer ready to go that even an agnostic could appreciate about culture and history: when I read my Bible, I read the same book my mother and father, grandmother, great-grandfather, and great-great grandfather read every day to make sense of their lives. A collection of texts written over centuries, it allows me to enter an ancient conversation about life and faith with people who collectively have endured every historical struggle and persevered. Then, as the question continued to sit on my soul, I realized the simple answer that I keep reading my Bible every day is because I get to believe.

When I experience grief and loss, I get to believe.
When I experience professional failure, I get to believe.
When I’m sent hateful letters meant to steal my faith, I get to believe.
When friends who previously praised me turn against me because the Gospel I bare isn’t what they want anymore, I get to believe that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth reveals the ever living nature of our ever loving God.

When we encounter the depths of sin and death in ourselves, our friends, our enemies, and this world, we, sisters and brothers, we get to believe that the one who was crucified rose from the dead and “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 Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 8). We get to believe that.

The Gospel isn’t over yet, so don’t let the Gospel end.
Don’t put a bow on it. Don’t wrap it up. Don’t put your pencil down. Don’t stop the clock. Don’t turn out the lights. Don’t shut the door. We’re not done. Go where you’re sent. Receive the Spirit and let go of sin. Don’t let the Gospel end. Believe. Amen.

Suddenly!

Matthew 28:1-10, Easter Sunday

Lesley Ratcliff · April 9th, 2023 · Duration 14:20

In the fall, I arrived at the church early one Sunday morning, one might say, “as the first day of the week was dawning.” I got out of my car, and as I walked across the back parking lot to the children’s area entrance, I noticed a lot of feathers. There’s a large black cat that lives in the drain back there and so I assumed it had gotten a bird. But when I got to the children’s area door, I looked to my right, and out in the grass behind the youth house, there was a fox, with a rooster in its mouth. When the fox saw me, it ran away, which was good because I don’t think I ever learned what to do when confronted with a fox.

But the rooster just lay there. Dead. I knew I was going to have to figure out how to bury a rooster before anyone else arrived, something I hadn’t learned in seminary, but I had all my stuff with me for a long Sunday at church and decided to go set it down and come back.

About the time that I opened the back door, the Deacon of the Week, Ginger Parham was coming down the stairs into the children’s area. I passed along the news of the dead rooster and we decided to tackle the burial together. Ginger was pretty sure she had seen a shovel in the youth house so we walked over to get it, and the rooster was still just lying there, but we noticed that it was still breathing, and we moved more quickly so that we could put the rooster out of its misery. When we came back out with the shovel, we walked out to where the rooster lay. It was indeed still breathing, and it seemed clear that it would not recover. Ginger started to put the shovel to the roosters neck, and just as the shovel pressed to the rooster’s neck, the rooster hopped up and walked off, right into the trees at the back of the parking lot, ready to keep living it’s one “wild and precious life.”

Resurrection happens in unexpected places.

In this morning’s gospel lesson, as “the first day of the week was dawning,” Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. They had been at the tomb, they had watched Jesus die. They had helped Joseph of Arimathea lay Jesus’ body in the tomb and roll the stone across the door. And then, presumably, they left the tomb to go and prepare for the Sabbath, returning as quickly as they could after the Sabbath, at sunrise the next day.

And suddenly, there was a great earthquake! An angel of the Lord descended, rolled back the stone, and sat on it! And that was the moment their whole world changed, our whole world changed, everything changed!

The angel tells Mary Magadalene and the other Mary, “Do not be afraid.” Even when the news is the very best possible news (in the history of the world,) it is still earth shattering. We’ve heard this story so many times that we may have grown desensitized to it, but fear is the natural response.

“Do not be afraid. Jesus is not here. He has been raised. Come and see where he lay. Go, tell the disciples!” And they went with fear and great joy. Just as at the cross, sorrow and love flow mingled down, so at the tomb, fear and joy float up and out. We must examine our fear, so that we might live the good news. But we also must be careful, especially on this day, to recognize that the joy of the resurrection is not some kind of Pollyanna optimism, it’s not a “check your grief, despair and fear at the door” kind of joy. It is the kind of joy that lives alongside every human emotion, it is the kind of joy that tells us that even in the midst of grief and despair and fear, the risen Christ is with us. It is the kind of joy born in hope. An earthquake and an empty tomb are not what the women expected. They were expecting a crypt, but instead they found a crib, a crib where hope was birthed.

Resurrection happens in unexpected places.

The women run to tell the disciples, and suddenly, Jesus meets them. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary fall at his feet and worship him. One imagines there were tears and laughter, expressions of fear and joy. Jesus tells them himself “Do not be afraid.” And then he sends them on their way to tell the disciples to go to Galilee, some 40 miles away, where they will see him.

Matthew doesn’t tell us much more after that. There are not numerous resurrection appearances like in some of the other gospels. There is only this brief appearance to the women, and then the disciples do as they are told and meet Jesus in Galilee where they too worship him, even though some are doubtful. The joy of the resurrection can live alongside our doubt.

At this gathering in Galillee, Jesus speaks familiar words, the Great Commission some have come to call them.

He tells the disciples to go and make more disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded them. We know from John’s account that the last time the disciples were all with Jesus, before many of them scattered in fear, was the night when Jesus washed their feet, and shared the Passover meal, and gave them a new commandment. “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another. As I have loved you, love one another.” Perhaps this was on their minds as Jesus told them to obey everything he commanded. After all, he had taught them to love one another with his very life. Much has been made of making disciples and baptizing them, and teaching them to obey Jesus’ commandments, and sometimes Jesus’ final words in the gospel of Matthew get lost, but they are the root of our hope, the reason we make disciples. “And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The hope of the resurrection is not just an after we die promise of being with God. That promise would be enough if we didn’t have to live over on this side. The hope of the resurrection is rooted in the presence of God with us, now AND even to the end of the age.

Resurrection happens in unexpected places.

My sometimes Sunday practice is to sit in the sanctuary as the sun rises. The sun comes up in these windows and spreads across the pews. Sometimes there is a rooster that crows. As the sun spreads, I can imagine the light spreading over each of you, beloved Children of God, in the places where you have sat, many of you year after year, some of you for the first time today, some of you not in some time but still here in my memory, and in my heart.

I can imagine the new mercies that spread over you, over all of us, mercies that come with the rising of the sun, with a new day that some of us get to face and that others of us have to face, the mercy that mingles with joy and fear, with grief and despair, with the hope that rises with the sun.

On this Easter Sunday morning, I pray that you might rest, not just for today, but for today, and for the next, for this hour, and the next, for these moments, and the next, and even unto the end of the age, that you might rest in hope, the hope that comes from knowing that resurrection happens in unexpected places.

Christ the Lord is risen. Alleluia.

Amen.



Who Is This?

Matthew 21:1-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Lesley Ratcliff · April 2nd, 2023 · Duration 1:04

Sermon begins around 32:42.



In today’s gospel lesson, Jerusalem is in turmoil.

Jerusalem, a small but significant city, with a population of about twenty-five thousand, swelled to a number in the millions just before and during Passover, and that doesn’t include the sheep. In the old city of Jerusalem, the streets are narrow and uneven. One can imagine the crowd would be stumbling forward, bumping into one another, losing sight of those with whom they traveled as they attempt to see this spectacle that has heightened the level of turmoil.

Tensions would have been high. As professor of New Testament, Greg Carey puts it, “Passover, after all, celebrates Israel’s deliverance from captivity, and occasional outbreaks of sedition attended the season. Thus, the Passover season brought crowded and somewhat tense conditions to the city.”

There may have been anxiety, confusion, unrest. The city moved at a frenzied pace. And then comes Jesus, riding on a donkey (and possibly it’s colt too) and the people, waved their palms, shouted “Hosanna,” and simultaneously asked “Who is this?”

We know all that is about to happen--the betrayal, the crucifixion, the burial, the resurrection--but just for a moment, just for today, let us sit with their question.

Who is this?

“The Son of David.”

“The one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

There were expectations. We see it in the word that the crowd shouts. “Hosanna,” a cry for help, meaning “Save us!” Jesus rides into the turmoil like a war hero, and the crowd expects that the One who comes in the name of the Lord will bring power and security.

But expectations ruin things.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus goes straight to overturning tables in the temple. And there is power in that moment, but it’s not the kind that invites security. It is the kind that invites death, even death on a cross. In his commentary on this passage, Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow says, ”That Jesus, the one who is turning over tables, challenging power, and sitting with sinners in order to heal and love, that’s the one worthy of a parade.”

The Jesus who enters Jerusalem in Matthew’s gospel is ready to challenge the systems that marginalize people, to see through the traps set before him and proclaim that what is most important is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. The Jesus who enters Jerusalem in Matthew’s gospel is ready to receive the anointing of the woman from Bethany and defend her to his disciples, and then a few days later to wash the disciples filthy, sandal-laden feet, taking the form of a servant.

Who is this?

This is the Jesus who calls us to examine our own expectations. What do we expect Jesus to do for us? Where do we expect security but need to challenge power instead? Who have we pushed to the margins by placing imaginary boundaries around God’s love? Where is our power being used to oppress the weak? Where must we turn over tables for others? In what places should we be taking on the form of a servant?

In light of these big questions, I am so thankful for the quiet, reflective space of Holy Week, so that we can examine our souls. I’m even more grateful that we do not walk this road alone, but together with the God who calls us to this sacred path, who invites us to ask the question, Who is this? This Jesus, who is headed to the cross?

This is the One who turns the other cheek. This is the One who helps us. This is the One who tells stories so we can seek to understand. This is the One who became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

This is the One whose death caused the ground to shake and the rocks to split. This is the God whose death leads to...

We know where it leads, but for today, with the whole city of Jerusalem, we join the glad hosanna. We wave the palms at the triumphal entry. We experience the sense of whiplash as Holy Week’s shadows gather. We walk the purple path of Lent, the anger, and the agony, the darkness and the finality.

Who is this?

This is the One who travels the path with us.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Transforming Life and Death

John 11:1-45, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Courtney Allen Crump · March 26th, 2023 · Duration 18:44

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

The Sight of a Blind Man

John 9:1-41, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Major Treadway · March 19th, 2023 · Duration 22:29

Nine years ago, Karen and Edward and I had recently moved to Vietnam where we facilitated the work of the Mennonite Central Committee for a little over four years. Having just arrived, we had much to learn – language, culture, where and how to get groceries, how to cross the street, where to go to church, among other things.

It was in our first months in Vietnam that today’s gospel lesson became inextricably linked to an experience for me in such a way that I cannot think of the experience without thinking of this gospel lesson, nor can I hear the gospel without being transported back there.

A significant part of our work in Vietnam was with persons who had been affected by Agent Orange, a chemical defoliant sprayed during the Vietnam War. This chemical was sprayed to make it more difficult for Vietnamese soldiers to hide in jungle foliage. It was believed that the chemical, while wildly effective and efficient at killing plant life, did not affect humans. However, since the spraying more than fifty years ago, all the way until today, people, Americans and Vietnamese who were present, or remain present, in areas where the spraying occurred have experienced a significantly higher than normal rate of occurrence of skin disease, cancers, and physical abnormalities. Unfortunately, these effects remain at a higher than normal rate among children and grandchildren of those who were directly exposed.

Karen and I had been reading and learning about Agent Orange as a part of our orientation to Vietnam and our work there. When the time came for our first visit to Central Vietnam where our organization worked with people affected by Agent Orange, the gospel reading for the week was today’s reading. So when we approached the first home where we would for the first time meet a family affected by Agent Orange, the question of Jesus’ disciples “who sinned, this man or his parents?” transformed for me into “who caused this woman’s ailment, this woman or her parents?” And the only answer in my mind, was “it was caused by my country.”

Without making any judgment about the politics, the military, or the government, I was there sitting with the knowledge that my country was responsible for the spraying of a chemical that correlated with this woman’s illness. As I was processing these questions, twenty-month-old Edward, who was as filled with energy, curiosity, and zeal for life then as he is now, shook free from my hands and ran to the woman with whom we were there to meet.

She was walking toward a cow that our organization had provided her family as a means of income. Before I could respond, she had bent down, taken Edward in her arms, and continued walking toward the cow. Moments later, she had placed some long grass in Edward’s hands and was helping him to feed the cow. In an instant, this woman flipped my anxiety over this meeting into a casual offering of hospitality. Her actions suggesting that, despite the language barrier, she knew what interested this little boy, and she knew how to care for him and the object of his interest. She wrapped Edward in her arms, she and he fed the cow together, and our meeting progressed.

The temptation of the disciples in today’s gospel lesson to connect one’s morality to their station in life is one that we know well. While we may no longer look at someone who has a physical ailment that has been with them since birth and try to connect it to their sins or their parents’, how easy is it for us to see a person on the television or on the side of the road and wonder to ourselves what they did to get where they are.

People who live on the margins are most often not there by choice. A multitude of circumstances exist that can result in a person moving to the outskirts of society. We know who these people are. Some of them we know, or we once knew. Some of them we may have met. Sometimes, we may wonder if we will, one day, meet them in the mirror.

When we encounter folks whose lives we see as being on the margins, we have options for how we might respond. We might engage in conversations about the cause of their circumstance. This type of conversation can be a part of potentially transformative change. It might lead to the discovery of systemic patterns that perpetuate the kind of marginalization that we have just encountered. It could also be the kind of conversation that pacifies our want to give attention to the person but prevents actually engaging with them.

We might also offer some sort of help, money, food, socks, a ride. All of these are good and important. They can save a life. They can also be a way for us to do something that is easy and seems like it is an answer, but avoids engagement in similar ways that just talking about the person does.

I’m sure there are other ways we could join the host of witnesses in today’s text. The religious leaders in the text, for example, work very hard to not listen to the man who had been blind. They do not want to believe that he is the same man. They do not want to believe that Jesus healed him. They do not want to believe that his healing came from God. Perhaps, it is an unfair reading, but it seems to me that they are working very hard to avoid hearing the story that this man is trying to tell them. I suspect, if I’m honest, I would have been with the Pharisees on this one.

But in our Gospel reading today there is another route. Jesus shows us another way. Jesus sees the man born blind. He refuses the question of morality offered by his disciples. He puts some mud made from spit and dirt on the man’s eyes and tells him to go and wash. Miraculously, the man can see. The blindness he has known from birth gives way to the light of the world. If the story ended here, that would be enough. Jesus refuting the idea that one’s station in life is representative of their morality would be enough. Jesus giving sight to a man who has been blind since birth would be more than enough for this story. But it keeps going.

After all of the denials. After the Pharisees clearly expose that though they have been blessed with not-blindness from birth, they cannot see that which is so evident before them, the man whose lifetime of blindness has enabled him to see and know Jesus, finds himself no longer stricken by that which he believed had kept him on the margins. And yet, he is still marginalized and ostracized by the religious leaders, the very people he must have been sure would be ready to rejoice with him.

Jesus reenters the story here. Jesus reengages this nameless fellow. He introduces himself fully to the man.

What brings people in from the margins, be they blind from birth, living with the effects of Agent Orange, or any of the myriad ways you and I encounter them on a daily basis? What brings them in is people who care enough to see them, to engage with them with an openness that has the capacity for mutual transformation.

Pastor and Theologian, Sam Wells, argues that the most important word in the whole of Christian theology is “with.” The God we worship created humanity to be with God. Jesus came to earth as Emmanuel – God with us. It is in community that we are able to be with one another, embodying that essence of God that we understand of the holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit being with one another in what Richard Rohr calls the divine dance. But this dance is one that invites us to join – to be with God.

And here, this “with-ness” of God, is the challenge offered by the gospel reading today. Our challenge is as much what do we do at the sight of a blind man as it is what do we do with the sight of a bind man.

There is no clean and easy answer to this challenge. In fact, I suspect that there are far more wrong ways to respond than right. However, on one point, I believe we can be sure. If we are to base our lives and our engagement on the life and engagement of Jesus, then our response to folks who find themselves on the margins will involve finding ways to be with them to hear their story, to share ours, to know them and be known by them.

In a society that specializes in walls and windows and locks that are designed for maximum security, this kind of with-ness can sound like pie in the sky reckless abandon. And maybe it is. But maybe, it is just this kind of reckless abandon, the kind we can learn from energetic, curious, and fully alive twenty-month-old children that will teach us how to stretch the circle of our embrace until those on the margins have become a part of the beloved community – replacing questions of moral determinism with the healing welcome of Jesus.

Amen.

 

 

Water in the Wilderness

Exodus 17:1-7, The Third Sunday in Lent

Courtney Stamey · March 12th, 2023 · Duration 16:04

Good morning. Thank you for the invitation to preach this morning just a quick drive away from my usual place just up the street on Northside drive. I confess that there are some of you who know me better than most of my own congregation. I met Mark and Rebecca Wiggs seven years ago. And in a providential carpool, Mark suggested that I be open to the idea of God calling me to Mississippi. And some of us have done the thing that will bond you like no other…gone on youth trips. So, youth and chaperones, try to keep an open mind as I preach. And so I am grateful to be here today and know that this sermon is not preached in a vacuum.

Two weeks ago Pastor Major preached about when a good choice may not be the right choice at that time. Last week, Pastor Lesley preached about beginning again.

Today’s scripture in Exodus has a bit of both elements as Moses, Aaron, and the whole wander the wilderness and countless choices in this new beginning press in on them again and again and again.

Let's put a little context around this text. The people have been freed from captivity in Egypt. They have crossed the Red Sea, and then the murmurings begin. First, they arrive at a place with bitter water. The people complain to Moses, Moses brings it to God, God tells Moses to throw a log in the water, and then the water is potable. They move on and camp near a place with 12 springs of water and 70 palm trees. Not too much later they move from that place and go to the wilderness and there is no food. The people complain to Moses, Moses goes to God and God provides quail and manna. They are instructed not to hoard it. Some still do and when they do, the manna and quail, gets moldy and had worms. The people learn to take only what they need, nothing more or less.

Perfect, they have what they need. Until they move again. This time there is no water again! I mean c’mon Moses, did you bring us out here to kill us, and our livestock and our children. Moses, under the direction of God and witness of the elders strikes the rock with the staff used to split the Nile. Provision comes, water flows. But this stream of thought of God’s provision doesn’t end there. You see, right after this scripture. God provides a victory in a military battle and then after that Jethro, father-in-law of Moses suggests that Moses delegate the leadership of the people. Sometimes you need someone else to point you to the existing provision of God. And then, in chapter 19, God provides something that would change the course of the lives of the Israelite people and more than that have an impact on world culture, to this day, God provides the law at Mount Sinai.

Here is why the context is important. The water from the rock is not the first provision or the last in the wilderness. We are somewhere in the midst of the tumult. If crises’ come in threes, no one told Moses, because in a wilderness filled with uncertainty, each stage of the journey also seems marked one crises after another. And while we know God will provide in retrospect. Moses didn’t know then, the people didn’t know then. At this point the people were ready to stone Moses, by his estimation, and we know this isn’t even the last challenge they will face!

But as Lesley reminded us last week, we begin again, and again and again, and I believe that the truest constant in this start and stop life of ours is that God is with us through it all. Frederick Niedner writes that when crises hit we need to be reminded that “God dwells in a moving fragile home not made with stones.” “But, even though I say I believe that, and I believe I believe that, sometimes I like the Israelites find these words on my lips, “Is the Lord among us, or not.”

Each week when I prepare a sermon, somewhere in my commentaries I find space to write, the place I am preaching, the date, sermon title (if I know it yet), and I write what was going on in the world, and in the church.

So as I opened my favorite commentary this week, I looked at the note from the last time I preached from this scripture. Where? Northside Baptist Church. Title: Is the Lord with us or not? (when in doubt quite scripture for a title, it’s never a bad idea) When? March 15, 2020 (My heart starts to race because I see where this is going.) Notation: Coronavirus (Covid-19) outbreak, worship livestreamed.

The last time I preached from this scripture, was the very first time we live streamed a service because we could not gather for worship safely. And in God’s providence the scripture that Sunday asked the question, Is the Lord with us or not? I wondered, “will God provide water for a rock, here in central MS 2020 because we are afraid and thirsty for the living water”. At that time, I was convinced we would be back for Easter Sunday in just a few weeks. And while we did worship Easter Sunday virtually, we would not return to in-person indoor worship until the following Easter 2021.

Here is what I know now. It was clear to me in those early months of the pandemic how much God was with us. As we had to begin again and again and again as we had to discern was something of a good choice or a wise choice. The clarity of God’s presence in those days, of the provision of the living water to thirsty and afraid believers, was unlike anything I had ever experienced and perhaps, unlike anything I will experience again.

Like the Israelites wandering in the wilderness of Sin, the world was wandering in the wilderness of the coronavirus pandemic. The wilderness as a location has rich meaning in our scriptures. Most notably, it is a thin-liminal place where one meets God. It’s where Hagar names God as the one who sees her as she is in her most desperate moment. It’s where God appears to Elijah in the sound of sheer silence. It is where the spirit drives Jesus immediately after his baptism, and closer to today’s scripture its where God guides by pillar of cloud by day and fire by not. If we are seeking God we have a better chance to experience God in the wilderness than on the mountaintop.

I imagine some of you can relate to the wilderness this year. An interim can be a wilderness place. You have left what is familiar and ventured out into the unknown. There are Moseses, Aarons, and Miriams to guide you. It can be an uncertain place, however, it is in it’s uncertainty that beckons us to rely more fully on God.

I wonder how you all have seen God’s provision with fresh eyes this year, already. What problem surprised you that a leader in your congregation found a solution to? How has the Holy Spirit moved new believers to a place of placing their trust in Jesus? How have you learned the depth of Christian love, by grieving the move of the Poole family you all have come to love so much? How has God challenged your prayer life to pray for the pastor search committee, the pulpit supply committee and your capable ministers? Can you see God’s provision at work in this wilderness already?

In our scripture, the people quarrel with Moses, he redirects them. Saying why do you test the Lord? Commentator Donald P. Olson writes that the Israelites demand to Moses was an act of idolatry. He writes, “As surely as they poured molten gold to fashion a calf to worship, they tried to gold-leaf Moses with the paradox of praise and protest–the idolatry of leadership, the habit of misplaced authority.” Like the Israelites in the wilderness, there may be a temptation to gold-leaf your current leaders or your future leaders in this wilderness. Resist that urge, friend.

In your wilderness season, who are the people who can keep pointing you to God?

I know your instant response may be your pastors, chair of deacons, but also look for the others who lead in such a way. They may be the ones you least expect…I often find they are children.

Just this last Wednesday night, we were engaging in liturgy writing as a congregation. While waiting on my group writing the offertory prayer, I engaged two young siblings about 5 and 6 years old. In discussing the purpose of the offering prayer and how we give thanks to God for all God has given to us, I asked what was something God gives is. The first thing one of the children said was hope…maybe because giving an offering shows our belief in hope for the future. But of all of the concrete things God gives us, this six year old, said…hope. Something he cannot see, something we adults cannot understand.

The Israelites had a real tangible and legitimate concern. They had real thirst…AND there is something we overlook in verse three. They were concerned about the next generation. I imagine, you like most churches in interim periods have that concern too. You have real needs, real legitimate concerns. Concerns that stretch beyond you, to children and children’s children believing that God has called your church to minister here in Jackson. So, please do not hear me delegitimizing your concerns. But do here me say this. God does not wait for you to be out of the wilderness to act.

Back in 2013 my husband Michael was hired at First Baptist Church of High Point, NC as the minister to youth and children. I started attending there while I was in seminary, and while I still had no thought of serving in a congregational setting. I taught middle school Sunday school, still one of the greatest and most fulfilling spiritual challenges I have ever had. When Michael was hired, and when I joined, the church was in an interim period. The interim minister, Tom Warrington, believed that God acted in the wilderness, and I think Tom was one of those folks who was great about pointing to the work of God. So, Tom pointed the church to the movement of the Holy Spirit in Michael and I’s lives. The church began to call out our distinctive gifts. And the church decided to ordain us in an interim period. Probably the most “Baptisty” thing you could ever do—ordained by the people, without a senior pastor. It was a water in the wilderness moment. The church believed God was still working through them in the wilderness.

God is still at work here, Northminster. God is splitting open rocks, and living water is flowing. Testify to this great and good provision of God. Call out the gifts in those God has blessed. May it be so in our lives.
Amen.







Beginning Again Again

John 3:1-17, The Second Sunday in Lent

Lesley Ratcliff · March 5th, 2023 · Duration 9:44

In today’s lessons from Genesis and John, the books of the Bible that begin with “In the Beginning,” Abram and Nicodemus find themselves beginning again.

Abram and Sarai and Lot leave their country and their kindred, to pursue the land that God will show them.

Nicodemus leaves behind the certainty of his belief, to pursue his questions.

Abram is promised blessing and a great name. Nicodemus is promised either condemnation or no condemnation depending on his choices.

They both witness the work of God and must begin anew.

Sometimes we witness the work of God, and we must begin anew. Sometimes we are forced to begin again; sometimes we begin again because God calls us to do so; sometimes we begin again because of our own mistakes; sometimes we begin again because of someone else’s mistakes; sometimes we begin again because we cannot ignore our questions any longer; sometimes we begin again because we have found different ways of being, of seeing, of living our one wild and precious life.

No matter the circumstance or cause, beginnings are usually scary. Whether you choose to begin again or if it is forced upon you, the uncertainty, the grief, the judgement of others, the judgement of ourselves, the fear, the sometimes-painful hope, beginnings often hold that which would stop us from ever starting if we had the choice.

Abram begins again, and we know a good bit about what happens afterwards: his triumphs and his failures, his lineage in the birth of at least three faiths, his change of name from Abram to Abraham, and his descendants whose number outnumber the stars.

Of Nicodemus, other than his late-night conversation with Jesus, we know only that he asked for a fair process when Jesus found himself, as Jesus often did, in another argument with the leaders of his day. And we know that Nicodemus returned to help with Jesus’ burial after the crucifixion. And yet, Nicodemus’ questions are tied to one of the most, if not the most well-known scripture reference of the New Testament, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only Son.”

For God so loved the world. God’s ultimate beginning again. God sending God’s self into the world to show us how to see, and how to be, and how to live.

In the faith of my childhood, this verse was all about the future, about what God had done and how it could give us a some-day, far off hope of joining God in heaven. And yet the God of today’s lessons walked with Abraham, sat with Nicodemus, filled the shoes of Jesus. When we are forced to begin again, the God who called Abraham, the friend of Nicodemus, the God made flesh in Jesus is our help, our shade at our right hand, the one who keeps our going out and our coming in.

Lent is a time for starting over. The purple path is filled with those who are beginning again, trying to let go of that which weighs us down, trying to take up that which recognizes God’s nearness to us. It is a season that helps us to recognize where we might begin again, where we need to begin again. It is a season that helps us
know where we need to take up the “God so loves the world” kind of love in our own lives, to love others the way God loves us.

Lent is a season big enough to hold all who are beginning again. The purple path is big enough for those who come to it after the fall, after getting back up again, after the move, after the divorce, after the marriage, after the death, after the birth, after the loss, after the gain, after the vote, after the disaster, after the miracle. Lent is a time for us to recognize that God is with us on the path, no matter how many times the path comes back around to the beginning.

When we come to the table, we begin again. We remember the work of Christ; we remember our place in that work. We come to the table together to remember that we surround and support one another, that we are surrounded and supported by one another, in all our beginnings. The table is open to everyone to remind us that we are God’s beloved children, and so are all those whom God created. The table is open to everyone because it is God’s table.

It reminds us that God so loved the world, it reminds us that we are called to look beyond the small world that we have created, to the great big world that God created to determine the size of our love. And when we look again, we might need to begin again.

When we come to the table we begin again. It might be a new season, or a new month, or a new week, or a new day. Sometimes its just a new hour. But we carry the God whose supper we celebrate with us. We walk with the One who neither slumbers nor sleeps.

When we begin again, when we walk the purple path, when we come to the table, we remember that our help comes from the Lord, the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth. In the beginning.

Amen.

When Good Things Aren't The Right Things

Matthew 4:1-11, The First Sunday in Lent

Major Treadway · February 26th, 2023 · Duration 12:47

Food for the hungry. A safety net for those who are falling and have no one to catch them. Wealth, authority, governance. These are the things with which Jesus was tempted by one interchangeably called the tempter and the devil, one whom Jesus addresses as Satan. Are these not among the very things that Jesus will encourage people toward throughout the rest of his ministry?

Jesus will take a small amount of bread and fish offered by a boy, enough for a simple meal for a small family, and break it and share it and break it and share it and break it and share it until thousands of people have been able to eat, enough so that none of them go hungry, and there remain an abundance of leftovers that far outstrips the meager amount the boy first offered to Jesus.

There is the story of Jesus teaching in a house full of people, and being the hands that are present to catch a paralyzed man being lowered through the roof in need a healing. It is Jesus who heals this man, telling him to “stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”

And Jesus had plenty to say on the topics of wealth, authority, and governance. Though, on these topics the position of Jesus had a way of being considerably different than those of the people with whom Jesus often found himself engaged. He tells the rich young ruler, to sell all his possessions and give the money to the poor. Jesus observes a widow putting in the offering plates two small copper coins and commends her gift, one of sacrifice, over the larger gifts born out of abundance. Another time Jesus is recorded to have said “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly.” And, of course, Jesus expends a significant amount of effort trying to communicate the nature of his Kingdom, the Kingdom of Heaven.

And yet, here is the tempter in the wilderness with Jesus, dangling these temptations, presumably hoping, expecting, that Jesus just might reach for them.

I guess I have always heard and read this story under the title of the section in every Bible I have ever owned: “The temptation of Jesus.” And since each week, we pray as Jesus taught us to “lead me not into temptation,” I have just begun with the assumption that it was all bad. Somewhere along the way, I began to consider that in this story of temptation, there were not just ends with which Jesus was tempted, there were means too. The kinds of means and ends that cause people to sit around and argue if the means justify the ends, if the ends justify the means, and which of the two is more important.

Looking at all the parts of this temptation narrative individually, though, there are some that cannot conclusively be labeled as intrinsically bad – means or ends. Some are clear – “fall down and worship” the devil. That one, a means, clearly bad. The end, though, all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor, it is hard to define whether possessing them would be of an inherent nature of good or bad.

The first temptation causes the most confusion for me, because, temptations are supposed to be bad, right? “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” Jesus hasn’t eaten anything for forty days. What evil could come of turning stones to bread? Afterall, Jesus’ first miracle in the Gospel of John is turning water into wine, and not because people are thirsty, but because his mother asked him to. Further, the author of the Gospel of John tells us that it was upon seeing this that the disciples believed in Jesus. The story is not a direct parallel, yet it bears sufficient similarity that makes me wonder.

The second temptation, the devil telling Jesus to throw himself off of the highest point of the temple because the angels of God would catch Jesus and he would not get hurt. I’m not sure how this one is even a temptation. But for the sake our discussion, throwing oneself off of such a high place seems to land clearly on the bad side of things. But angels of God catching Jesus doesn’t seem so bad.

This story, the temptation of Jesus, reminds us one more time, that the Bible does not have the answers to all our questions. In this case, as in others, for me, it creates more questions the more I read it.

While I have lots of questions in this reading and others throughout the Bible, there are some things about which I am increasingly certain. Among them, that our faith is a twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year kind of faith. It is not a one hour on Sundays and sometimes on Wednesdays kind of faith. Our faith influences the whole of our lives and affects all of the decisions we make – the decisions we make in church and the ones we make out of church; the decisions we make in private and the ones we make in public; the decisions that have clear right answers, and the ones where it seems there might be two good answers and we’re not sure which one is right.

But, how does our faith inform our decision making process when things aren’t clear? How can we know when something is good and when something is right?

Sometimes, thinking of decisions in parts helps. We can think in terms of means and ends. Are the means good? Are the ends good? Or perhaps it is helpful to consider the process itself. One way to get down in the weeds of whether a decision is good or not, if it is right or not, is to ask these questions – particularly when our decisions affect more than just ourselves – and if the answers are not that the means are good, the ends are good, the process is good, for us and others whom the decision impacts, then it just might be that, like Jesus in the wilderness, we are being tempted toward something that seems good, but isn’t right.

This kind of thinking and discerning fits well with the season that has just begun, Lent. Lent is the season of fasting and prayer, of penitence and preparation. We tend to associate Lent mostly with fasting, or as the Today show captioned it this week “Mark Wahlberg’s 40-day challenge.” But we know that the fasting of Lent is not a one-time easy decision, and it is more than a 40-day challenge. It is a daily commitment to a fast that will continually call us deeper into prayer and deeper into relationship with God.

The fasting of Lent removes from our lives some of the stuff that is taking up time, space, energy, and/or resources, and that deprivation leaves space for something new. Traditionally, that something new has been prayer and contemplation – practices which draw us ever closer to God, turning our focus toward the cross that waits at the end of the journey of Lent.

Decision making. It is just like any other discipline. It takes practice to get better. If we start with the easy decisions, the ones that have a clear good and right option, and consistently choose what is right each time we come to those easy decisions, they get easier. But something else happens too, our practice of choosing what is right begins to spill into questions that might otherwise take more effort to understand and choose. But even with practicing choosing what is right, there remain some decisions that just take time and discernment– some even that require calling on the community of God to join in the process to help us to understand if the ends we are considering are good, and if the means to get to that end are good, and if the process is good. Even more, the community of God can help us to discern what is right.

As we together enter this season of Lent, and as we choose fasts that will help us draw near to God as we journey toward the cross, let us also find healthy practices to fill the space left by our fasting. And as we journey deeper into Lent, all the while drawing near to God, let our decisions be marked by discernment that it might be ever more clear that we are leaning toward making decisions in which the ends are good, the means are good, the whole process is good, and even more than good, that we are striving toward making decisions that are right.

Amen.

Youth Sermon - Ivey Yelverton and Lucy Elfert

Youth Sunday, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Ivey Yelverton and Lucy Elfert · February 19th, 2023 · Duration 14:55

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Does God Laugh With Us?

Deuteronomy 30:15-20, I Corinthians 3:1-9, Matthew 5:21-37, The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Joseph Rosen · February 12th, 2023 · Duration 11:29

Peace be with you.

Again, I want to express gratitude on behalf of Beth Israel Congregation for the strengthening of spirit provided by your attendance at our houses of worship this weekend. Revs Treadway, Ratcliff, and Poole have been great clergy friends for me ever since I came to Jackson. And I feel confident speaking for all of us when I say how great it is to sit together as spiritual kin, where our destinies share the hope of a better world, despite religious differences.

For the past few weeks leading up to the pulpit swap, I’ve been conveying the connection between our congregations, telling the story about how a Northminster member approached a Beth Israel Board member about using our sanctuary for a small Baptist congregation in formation.

But I had a gut punch moment when Arty Finkelberg emailed me this week and reminded me how the relationship between our congregations began when Beth Israel was transitioning from our Synagogue on Woodrow Wilson to our Synagogue on Old Canton. I read those lines of the email a few times because I’m just now processing how I’ve been telling the story wrong since I learned it almost four years ago. I had been under the impression that the relationship between our congregations began in the 80s, and I have been relaying that ever since I learned of Northminster. Instead, as Rev. Treadway reminded us Friday night, our story began in ’67, when the Woodrow Wilson Synagogue still stood.

Now, nobody had corrected me before about this discrepancy. So maybe it wasn’t noticed. Still, I could not help but feel a bit embarrassed. But there’s nothing to do about it now other than to share what I’ve learned. So, I relied on humor, laughed at myself to get past the mistake, and sat down to write.

I’m an advocate for using humor to move on from mistakes. Laughing with yourself is a quick way to ensure some levity and easy happiness to support carrying the many burdens of life. But, of course, humor can be a tricky tool to use. Although levity is the reward for its use, we don’t want to risk taking away from the importance of a given moment. Experience, more than anything else, can teach us when a playful demeanor would work.

We are created in the image of God, meaning that the need for levity must also be a divine attribute. And that brings me to my question today: Does God laugh with us too?

What a powerful question to ask, given the lectionary readings this week. From Deuteronomy 30, from Moses’ final speech to the Israelites, “if your heart turns away and you give no heed and are lured into the worship and service of other gods, I declare to you this day that you shall certainly perish.”1 In Matthew 5, the Sermon on the Mount, “If your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.”2 Bringing humor to these verses feels inappropriate, especially given their place to inspire us as we sit in a worship service. And although the more profound message in these passages is to choose life over death, to build a just society, and to express reverence for the One greater than us, we should wonder how the Israelite and Jesus’ congregation transitioned from listening to these heavy words.
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1 Deuteronomy 30:17-18
2 Matthew 5:30

In the second Lord of the Rings movie, The Two Towers, the Fellowship of the Ring is separated, and some of our heroes go to aid the kingdom of Rohan. Facing the impending evil forces from Isengard nearby, Rohan evacuates their capital city to find refuge in the mountain fortress of Helm’s Deep. In a scene between terrified people fleeing their homes and being attacked by Orcs riding monstrous wolves, we are treated to a humorous encounter between Gimlee the Dwarf, and Eowyn, niece of Rohan’s king. Gimlee rides high on his horse with fantastic dwarf tales before accidentally egging his horse onward a bit too much, and he is tossed from the saddle. Other refugees laugh, and the scene gives a break from the impending evils that threaten. It’s hard to imagine that refugees and warriors found humor in their endeavors, yet, the laughs still echoed in the field, even if only for a moment.

Rewatching that scene from the Two Towers reminded me of a fateful Christmas Eve celebration on the Western Front of World War I. A British machine gunner, Bruce Bairnsfather, recalled December 24, 1914, in his memoirs,
Here I was, in this horrible clay cavity…miles and miles from home. Cold, wet through and covered with mud. [There didn’t] seem the slightest chance of leaving – except in an ambulance. At about 10 p.m., Bairnsfather noticed a noise. “I listened,” he recalled. “Away across the field, among the dark shadows beyond, I could hear the murmur of voices.” He turned to a fellow soldier in his trench and said, “Do you hear the [Germans] kicking up that racket over there?”3

The German soldiers were singing Christmas carols. The British and Germans met in No Man’s Land to trade holiday greetings, songs, tobacco, and wine. Another solder, Ernie Williams, described a soccer game. “The ball appeared from somewhere, I don’t know where…They made up some goals, and one fellow went in goal, and then it was just a general kick-about. I should think there were about a couple of hundred taking part.”4 German Lieutenant Kurt Zehmisch remembered, “How marvelously wonderful, yet how strange it was. The English officers felt the same way about it. Thus Christmas, the celebration of love, managed to bring mortal enemies together as friends for a time.”5

Joy, humor, and companionship provide levity from the more solemn aspects of life. And in those moments of relief, new perspectives can be gained. Throughout the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the heroes often refer to their enemy as an evil that never sleeps. It’s hard to imagine not sleeping at all. Yet, perhaps that lack of rest allows their cruel and violent intentions to persist.

True evil, therefore, festers from the lack of perspective gained from levity and rest, where there is no moment to take reflective action. In First Corinthians 3, Paul writes, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly – mere infants in Christ.6 When considering how we bring humor and levity to provide relief in life, we can identify with the Corinthians as striving to better ourselves. Compared to the Eternal, our mortality and innate flaws make us infants who grow into children. Unable to grasp the complete and mature wisdom represented in the Divine Presence, how can we hope for anything more?
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3 https://www.history.com/news/christmas-truce-1914-world-war-i-soldier-accounts
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 I Corinthians 3:1-9

When our children laugh and babble, we can’t help but share that happiness with them. And the Eternal is our ultimate parent when we crave levity. So even amongst the more sober and daunting instructions we are tasked to take to heart, we must allow ourselves to laugh when needed. The theology we experience in worship and a sacred text can often be overwhelming, so levity is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Or, in the case of Moses and Jesus, I hope they provided a nice spread for their congregants after sitting through these monumental sermons — nothing like some physical nourishment to help us digest such forceful teachings.

Our texts from Deuteronomy and Matthew each have their way of asking us to choose life. Yet, even with these teachings’ solemn and sober tone, life demands space for processing, for the transition from task to task. In this sacred obligation, humanity is united as beings created in the image of the Divine. And in our reflections, when we weren’t at our best, we pray for mercy and grace, the helping hand to pull us up when we fall. And when we laugh, purposely, or even masking discomfort, may we look inwards to feel the smile of the Eternal, that we may be encouraged to reorient our attention to a world that needs it.

זָכְרֵנוּ ה' אֱלהֵינוּ בּו לְטובָה. וּפָקְדֵנוּ בו לִבְרָכָה. וְהושִׁיעֵנוּ בו לְחַיִּים

This day, remember us for well-being. Bless us with your nearness. Help us to a fuller life.

And to these prayers, let us say, Amen.


There's No Hiding on This Hill

Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 5:13-20, The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Major Treadway · February 5th, 2023 · Duration 1:06

Sermon begins at 34:43

Today’s readings from Isaiah and Matthew each feel a bit like a sermon in and of themselves. And, in a way, each of them was.

Isaiah hears from God, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet!” And then he does: Isaiah preaches “you serve your own interests on your fast days and oppress all your workers.” In his preaching, he mocks what the people to whom he is preaching call worship, pointing toward a different kind of fasting as a more genuine representation of worship: loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry, bringing the homeless into their houses and more.

Then there is a shift in his sermon to say, if you do these things, then God will do these other things. It is almost as though there is a bargain to be struck. You shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail, says Isaiah.

And then there’s Jesus. In the midst of his longest recorded speech, the Sermon on the Mount, he speaks clearly and directly to those around him. “you are the light of the world, a city on a hill cannot be hid.” He does not mince words. He does not appeal to the past. He does not offer conditions or options. He states simply and clearly: “you are the light of the world.” He does not say, “you might be.” He does not say, “if you do this, you could be.” He does not say, “because of that you may one day become.” None of that. Jesus says: “you are.”

Now, at this point, we must acknowledge the great disservice that has been done to the English-speaking Bible reading community of the world, that disservice, is, of course, that all evidence would suggest that, so far, in the history of English Bible translation, those who do the translating have yet to consult a southerner on the proper way to write the plural of “you.”

King James gets an excuse. Back in 1611 when he was translating the Bible, folks had not yet figured out how to say “y’all.” But since 1856, when the word “y’all” first made an appearance in print, there is really no excuse. English Bible translators know enough Greek to know when the word “you” is singular and when the word “you” is plural, and if they had just consulted a southerner, then many of the Bible’s second person pronouns would be clearer.

For example, in today’s gospel lesson, we would not have to wonder if Jesus was looking to an individual and saying to one person “you are the light of the world” or if he was saying “y’all are the light of the world.” We would know. Jesus was talking to the whole gathered listening congregation. “Y’all are the light of the world,” says Jesus. “A city on a hill cannot be hid.”

There is something gripping about these statements from Jesus. “Y’all are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hid.” It is as though the truth of what Jesus says rests entirely upon who Jesus is and what he has said. Because Jesus has pointed to this gathered community and claimed them, it must be true. They must be the light of the world. They must be the city on the hill that cannot be hid.

Jesus, the light of all people, the light that shines in the darkness, and darkness did not overcome it. That Jesus claims unto himself, the gathered congregation: “y’all are the light of the world.” In naming and claiming y’all, Jesus proclaims with Isaiah “your light shall break forth like the dawn… the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.”

And in the city of God, the city on the hill that cannot be hidden, all engage in the fasting of the Lord: loosing the bonds of injustice, letting the oppressed go free, sharing bread with the hungry and homes with the homeless.

Having these claims of Jesus and Isaiah draped over us, binding us to Jesus, can feel uncomfortable. It might be easier to pick and choose which parts of Jesus’s calling and Isaiah’s reading to aspire to. And yet, it is precisely when we hear and understand that “y’all” as “you” and we individualize our faith that we lose the fullness of the community of God.

In this community called Northminster we are each and all welcomed into the community of faith and claimed by the abundant love of Jesus. Our calling is more than individual. Our responsibility in the Body of Christ extends further than our responsibility as citizens of any city, or state, or nation. For in the Body of Christ, I am bound to you and you to me, in such a way that for you to feel pain is for me to feel pain and for me to feel pain is for you to feel pain, for one of us to celebrate is for all of us to celebrate, and when any of us suffer, all of us suffer.

“Y’all are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hid.” On the last page of your order of worship each week, you will find the words “every member a minister.” There again, taking a cue from Jesus, everyone who is a member of this community of faith has been claimed as a minister. There is no hiding on this hill. If y’all are here, if y’all are a part of this community, y’all are ministers.

Y’all are the light of the world.                                                    

Amen.

What Does the Lord Require?

Micah 6:1-8, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Major Treadway · January 29th, 2023 · Duration 11:17

In January of 2021, nine months on from the first recorded cases of COVID in Mississippi and in the midst of the time when deciding how we would do what we would do consumed much time and thought for many folks around Northminster, the deacons gathered in the Great Hall for their annual Deacons’ Retreat. Twenty-one chairs, enough for the eighteen deacons and three pastors were spread in a circle around the Great Hall – you know that room over there capable of holding over a hundred folks sitting around tables. We were spread out. Many of us were in masks. And as a result, we were probably shouting at one another to be heard. At that meeting, then Deacon Chair Jeff Stancill called on the deacons that day to consider what were the largest questions facing Northminster at the time.

It was at this meeting that Chuck gave the first indication to the deacons that he felt like the time was coming when he would retire from Northminster, and as a result, one of the questions for Northminster that day would be to consider what none of us were ready to consider – a Northminster without Chuck Poole as the Senior Pastor. While this question may have been the one that registered most clearly from that day, none of you who know this place well will be surprised to hear that the questions raised that day were the kinds of questions that do not have fast and easy answers.

There were questions about the financial present and future, the aging lighting system in the sanctuary and the trees growing on the roof. And there were questions about how COVID would impact our family of faith and how we would respond. There were questions about the shape and make up of the staff and the ongoing ministries of the church. Overall, the deacons, on that day, were asking the question, in response to the prophet Micah: How do we do good? How do we do what the Lord requires of us? What does it mean for Northminster in the 2020s to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?

Fast forward in time to another deacon’s meeting. At this meeting, the conversation was concerning the interim period, the time and space where we now find ourselves. One deacon put words to the anxieties that many in the room and in the congregation were feeling. What this deacon said can be summed up as: “it is in interim periods when congregations have a tendency to lose their vision, and when they lose their vision, they lose their momentum, and when they lose their momentum the whole of the community of faith suffers.”

These fears and anxieties, to me, felt like a summing up of what I had heard in and among the congregation. They are also truths that we have all observed in many other spheres – companies, sports teams, other congregations. Perhaps, the clear naming of such broadly held concerns is why this moment has held such a clear resonance in my mind.

This morning, we are five months into the interim, in a season of undetermined length between senior pastors, and these words of concern still find their way into meetings and planning sessions. In this interim period, what does it mean to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?

The truth is, this is an important question to ask at any time, and to keep asking, imagining, and plotting for the near and distant future opportunities that wait.

Since that deacons’ meeting back in January of 2021, that long list of questions was boiled down into a more concise list. An ad hoc Long Range Planning Committee was appointed and given those questions and a charge to draw up a plan.

By now, you have, I hope, had an opportunity to read through the planning document that the Long Range Planning Committee has developed. After this worship service, we will convene as a congregation to consider this plan in a more formal way.

What this proposal and the actions of this congregation over the course of the last five months suggest is that through careful attention, collective action, and communal buy-in, Northminster will emerge from this period between Senior Pastors with a renewed sense of identity and purpose, still hearing Micah’s call, and still asking together what that call means in the present and near future.

You should know, that it is not a generally recommended practice that congregations begin building projects when a Senior Pastor is retiring. General consensus among congregational consultants would be that this is a bad idea. However, as you no doubt read on Friday in an email from Finance and Stewardship Committee Chair, Jeff Davis, Not only did this congregation exceed the budget for the fiscal year 2022, but also raised more than 75% in pledges and contributions toward the cost of the building project, A Renewal of Stones and Light. And while that’s worth celebrating, I’m sure that Jeff would also want me to remind you that there remain about 600,000 opportunities to participate with pledges and contributions.

Despite what might be recommended, Northminster has continued to lean into its commitment to be a lay led congregation where every member is a minister and bears responsibility for the discernment and direction of this community of faith.

Much in the same way, those same consultants who might advise against starting building projects when this one started, they would also likely advise against forming a long range plan in an interim period. Yet, the questions that were given to the long range planning committee are not questions that are going away. They are not questions that will wait for a new Senior Pastor, nor are they questions that any of us would expect a new Senior Pastor to be able to answer, no matter how much we might want for them to be answered.

In response to concerns about momentum, where finances are one (though certainly not the only) indicator, this community of faith has met the opportunity of the interim. Today, we have opportunity to meet the question of vision. In order to maintain our momentum, in order to continue to thrive as a community of faith, we will need to follow the wise council and example of our deacons and ask hard questions. We will need to remember the words of Micah. “What is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

The Long Range Planning Committee has sat with these questions, with members of the congregation, with the deacons, and discerned the questions and how we as a community of faith might respond.

In just a few minutes, we will consider their recommendations and how these recommendations might become the vision that will carry this congregation through the interim period, how these recommendations might become the response to those anxieties and fears that weigh on our hearts as we wait and anticipate in this season between senior pastors.

“It is in interim periods when congregations have a tendency to lose their vision, and when they lose their vision, they lose their momentum, and when they lose their momentum the whole of the community of faith suffers.”

What if during this interim period, as a community of faith, when we consider together what it means to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God, we embrace a new vision, and lean into that vision to create new momentum, so that at the end of this interim period the whole of the community of faith will not have suffered, but will have found new ways to thrive?

Amen.


Dropping the Nets

Matthew 4:12-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Jason Coker · January 22nd, 2023 · Duration 21:50

How many disciples did Jesus call? This is a real question. You have permission to say it out loud. If you said 12, you are absolutely right. I think most of us know how many disciples there were in the New Testament. All four of our Gospels say so. Twelve. But, my question was definitely a trick question, so you were right in being hesitant. While it is true and biblically correct that there were 12 disciples, we actually don’t know how many Jesus actually called. We only know how many said yes to that call. In today’s passage he heard of four resounding yes’s! James, John, Peter, Andrew—yes, yes, yes, yes. Peter and Andrew dropped their nets. James and John got out of their boats. And they followed Jesus. They have been known for this for over two thousand years. Here’s the lesson: Drop your nets, get out of your boats, and say YES to Jesus.

There’s no mistaking this passage today as anything other than a passage for the Season of Epiphany. This is the season when the church universal pays close attention to all those passages that emphasize a revelation of sort. “This is my son, the beloved” That was a revelation that you know doubt have already heard by now in the Season of Epiphany. Today, Jesus calls these four dudes. It’s a revelation for them; an epiphany. I wonder how their families heard this story told time and time again over meals and at parties. “I’ll never forget when Jesus showed up and called us out of the boat…” Epiphany moments! I hope this morning is one for you. I hope you never forget this moment. This is a moment when Jesus is calling to us. If there is a season within the Christian calendar when Jesus is calling, it is now—and what a moment for his voice to act like a dawning light shining out over the shadow of death. What a moment.

What will it take for you to drop your nets? Sit up from your desk and close your laptop? Get up and get out of your boat? What epiphany is Jesus bringing you? First, a cautionary tale. What happened to all the people that Jesus must have called that did NOT follow him? We actually know a powerful story from all three Synoptic Gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell a terrible and devastating story of one young man that said no. In fact, he didn’t even say no. He just walked away sad—walked away from Jesus.

It comes to us from Matthew 19:16-22, Mark 10:17-22, and Luke 18:18-23. It’s the story of The Rich Young Ruler. Here’s Matthew’s version of that story: 16 Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” 17 And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.” 18 He said to him, “Which one?” And Jesus said, “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; 19 honor your father and mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 20 The young man said to him, “I have kept all these; what do I still lack?” 21 Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”

Let’s sit with the end of this passage ringing in our ears for a moment: “ ‘Then come, follow me.’ When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions.” He could not let go of his nets. He could not get out of his boat. He could not sell all his many possessions. He could NOT follow Jesus. Let’s make no mistake about it, this is a calling story every bit as much as James and John’s and Peter’s and Andrew’s. It’s actually the exact same words—even in the Greek: Follow me. Four men followed; one walked away. How many countless others walked away?

We all have these moments in our lives when we are standing on a threshold. We are at the point of a decision, or even at the cusp of an epiphany. When I was a religion major at William Carey College (back when it was a mere college), all of us religion majors came up to something called “The Line.” It was that point in your theological education that when you crossed it, your faith would never be the same. Some students got there, saw the line, looked at what was past that line, and recoiled. Nope! I’m not going to doubt anything that I was ever told by my pastor, Sunday School teacher, mama, or grand maw. I’ve got all the answers I need and I’m not crossing that line. In fact, to cross that line would be a sin.

Others took a step of faith and crossed the line into the unknown. What else could we learn? Some of those who crossed that line lost their faith. They found out that everything that they had built their faith one was as flimsy as sand and they couldn’t trust anything after that. Others took a step of faith and crossed the line into the unknown, but kept it as a deep secret. They became pastors and never spoke of the line again—certainly never challenged their church members to think differently—or even think at all. And then there were still others, that took a step of faith and crossed the line into the unknown, and found that there was deep meaning in real questions, that life was not as simple as they always were told, that there was a depth that was deep but God was in the depths—and so were the epiphanies.

Those lines exist in religion and they are real. Those lines exist in politics, too. When you get to a point, a line, when you start thinking that the politics that you’ve inherited from your mama and grand maw and pastor and Sunday school teacher, might not be exactly what you think may be right. You’re standing on that line looking over and wondering, what do I do?

Here we are in the middle of a legislative session when our elected officials are making the real decisions about how we are structuring our society—what is law and what is not. How we will spend money, and how we won’t. It is exactly in moments like these when our religion and our politics intersect—as they should, as Dr. King would probably remind us. Our faith in an all-loving God, a God who would come to us as a child, our faith in a sacrificial God is calling us. Calling us to participate in justice, participate in mercy, participate in our society as though we actually wanted God’s will to be done on earth even as it is in heaven. Our politics should definitely follow that.

Jesus is calling us to follow, calling us to drop our nets, calling us to get out of our boats, calling us to cross that line into the depths of God’s love. So, here are our choices in this season of Epiphany: Come, follow me. Immediately they left their nets and followed him. Come, follow me. When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving…

Jesus has called you to follow.
You have heard Jesus’s voice of light breaking through the darkness.
Standing in the light of God’s gracious love,
Your free will sits in your gut.
As you leave this sacred space may each set out be a step toward Christ
Following our LORD to the most prescient needs of our world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Singing the Servant's Song

Isaiah 49:1-7, The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Major Treadway · January 15th, 2023 · Duration 15:09

This morning’s reading from Isaiah is one of four songs in Isaiah that are called the “Servant Songs.” These songs typically show up in Holy Week readings as a part of the final procession from Palm Sunday to Good Friday, calling us to remember what it means for Jesus to have been a living, breathing human and servant of God.

This week though, we are not in the midst of Holy Week, we are in Epiphanytide. Last week, the reading from Isaiah was the first Servant Song. There are two more that only show up in the lectionary during the Holy Week readings. All of them giving a vision of what it means to be a servant of God.

The song that sings forth from Isaiah this week unfolds in three movements:

The servant recognizes with other voices throughout the Bible that in some certain and incomprehensible way the call of the Lord was on the servant’s life even while still in the womb. This idea sounds wild, yet it is consistent with scripture: Psalm 139 reminds us “for it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Paul claims in a letter to the Galatian church: “God… set me apart before I was born and called me through God’s grace.” Again, to the Ephesian church, Paul writes: “God chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before God in love.”

These scriptures also sound a bit strange. Though, in more modern times, doctors and psychologists encourage expectant parents to read to their not yet born child, nurturing a bond between parent and child even before the child is born. This too sounds strange, but maybe if we can believe that a parent and an unborn child can bond, then perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to believe that God can know us even before we know ourselves.

This first movement of the song seems to be as much an acknowledgement of the call that is upon the life of the servant as it is about the difficulty of believing when that call was placed there.

The second movement of the song is the one that feels most natural to me. The servant says to God, channeling all of the cynical parts of Ecclesiastes that can be channeled: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” This impatient complaint to God is about results that have not yet squared with the expectations that the servant has concerning the ways that effort and call will come together and materialize.

In the third movement, Isaiah records God’s response to this complaint. Only, God does not respond the way we might expect. God conveys to the servant: the way you understand your calling is too small. Further, God says to the servant: “I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” Lastly, God reminds the servant of where this relationship began. It began with “the Lord, who is faithful, the Holy One of Israel, who has chosen you.”

If you are anything like me, after reading or hearing these words from Isaiah many questions spring to mind. As happens frequently with Isaiah, the first question for me is: can we read that one more time? After wrapping my head around all that is being said and sung, I have several other questions, chief among them – who is this servant? And what does it mean to be called by God while still in the womb?

Like so many questions that seem to our twenty-first century minds easy to answer, there is no broadly agreed upon answer to these questions. Instead, there is strong scriptural evidence, in this passage and others supporting it, that suggests any one of three identities as the servant in the songs. It could Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel. It could be Israel, the nation. It could also be that the servant is Isaiah, the prophet who recorded these words. Who can say with absolute certainty?

There is comfort in the ambiguity, for whether the servant is the person of Jacob who became Israel, or the nation of Israel, or even the prophet Isaiah, there is a point of connection. If the servant is Jacob who became Israel, there is the long and turbulent, very human, very flawed, approachable story of Jacob. A story which is as inviting as it is hard to take in. A story that feels like it could be about someone I know or even about one of us if a few details were changed. If the servant is the nation of Israel, there too, we can find ourselves – not because we are of Jewish heritage, but because of the wideness of the welcome of God, because in Jesus, we have been welcomed into the family of God and the family of faith, and as a result we journey together on this long and winding path. And if the servant is Isaiah, there too is hope, for if the servant is Isaiah, there we can find ourselves, as did Isaiah, using the gifts with which he was blessed, in the places he found himself, to do the work of God.

And about the being called while still in the womb question. Well, there are many who might read these words and say that they are clear evidence for predestination or something like it, and as the words on the page read, it seems they may have a point. But I also think if we read them in the context of Psalm 139 and Paul’s letters to the churches in Galatia and Ephesus, that there is comfort in being known by God and also, there is a calling. The calling of God that comes to us while still in the womb is a calling of grace. It is a calling to “be holy and blameless before God in love.”

With these two questions addressed, even if not fully answered, let’s go back to the servant’s song in today’s Isaiah reading and see if we might be able to join in singing it with Isaiah.

In this song that unfolds as a conversation between the servant and God, a problem arises that is in no way due to the faithfulness of the servant or the effort of the servant, but rather because the servant has developed expectations around what God might do with the effort that the servant is putting forward.

God responds by clarifying that the servant’s plans are not God’s plans. And God has plans.

As a community of faith, Northminster is marked by its willingness to take up the servant’s song, singing alongside the servant, leaning on God’s calling to “be holy and blameless before God in love.” Historically, Northminster has sung this song by leaning on the gifts and passions of the individual members that make up this place. It is because of these leanings that as a community, we have gotten involved with so many initiatives. If you have been coming to Wednesday night suppers this year, you have had the opportunity to hear about some of the endeavors to which individuals and groups have connected Northminster. And if you’re available tomorrow morning, you can be one of those individuals joining the song and sustaining Northminster’s good and important friendships in MidCity.

And there is also something beautiful about the way that Northminster sings the servant’s song. Northminster sings it together, becoming stronger than just a gathering of individuals leaning on their individual callings. In a way, being a part of this community, singing the song in this way, is like being woven into a multi-colored tapestry, where there are times when one thread or color is featured, and other times where that same thread is hidden behind other colors, where to pull on one thread is to pull on many, where it is only by taking a step back that one can see the picture that we are all together weaving.

And yet, even with the individuals using their gifts to respond to the calling of God to be holy and blameless before God in love, and with the tapestry we are weaving together, we still have a way of finding ourselves, at times, frustrated with God and/or with our progress.

But, I wonder if God might hear our singing the servant’s song with Isaiah and respond to us as God responded to the servant. I wonder if God might hear our dissatisfaction and call us to remember that our dreams do not limit God’s dreams. I wonder if God might call us to dream a different dream – one that somehow incorporates all that we have been dreaming all along, but more as a piece of a much larger whole.

If the servant’s song that we are singing is only a piece and not the whole, it just might be that we can really only sing the servant’s song when we are a part of God’s great big choir. The kind of choir that enjoins “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing” the same song – a song of salvation for the whole earth, a song of salvation for this nation, this state, and this community, a song of salvation that we sing “because the Lord, who is faithful, … has chosen you.”

Amen.

New Year, Old Us

Isaiah 63:7-9, The First Sunday after Christmas Day

Lesley Ratcliff · January 1st, 2023 · Duration 7:09

On Christmas Day, in the early hours when the only creatures who had stirred were me and the cats, I was sitting on my sofa, in the glow of Christmas tree light, our Advent wreath, and a computer screen preparing for worship. As I was working, an email popped up in the corner of the screen and the title of it was “New Year, New You.”

It was 5am on Christmas Day.

In this morning’s lesson from Isaiah, we hear the prophet proclaim “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the Lord.”

When we move so quickly from one celebration to the next, we often miss the opportunity for gratitude. When we consider the Christmas message, God with us, there is much for which to be grateful. This week, in the holiday haze when many do not know what day it is, we are encouraged to move from the celebrations of Christmas to the resolutions of the New Year, but let’s not miss the opportunity to remember what God has done and who we are in the light of the Christmas message.

We are the ones who stand up and count the gracious deeds of the Lord. We, with the prophet, notice God’s mercy, and the abundance of the Lord’s steadfast love. We rest ourselves in the truth that we are God’s people. We recognize that God’s presence saves us, that we are redeemed and lifted and carried all our days.

What if we had a “New Year, Old Us,” one in which we remembered who God says we are, instead of trying to shape ourselves into what the world demands?

Pope John Paul II famously said, “we are an Easter people.” We are also a Christmas people. We are a people of resurrection and a people of incarnation.

What if our new year’s resolution isn’t to try something new but to try to be who we’ve said we’d be all along?

We are people who tell the story of the incarnation. We tell it with our voices when we speak with mercy and love. We tell it with our bodies when we are present to those who need God’s presence most, and when we go about creating God’s kingdom here on earth. We tell it with our lives when we give ourselves fully to loving God with all that is in us and to loving people as God loves us.

Our culture, and even our own liturgical calendar will tell us to move along quickly. There is good in the rhythms of the church year, the seasons of preparation, and celebration and growth, that help us to see our own lives in the light of the life of Jesus, the early church, and that which is to come, when God will be all in all. And there is good in the inflection point of a New Year, a fresh start, a chance to look with gratitude on what has been, and to look forward to what will come.

Coming to the table of our Lord on New Year’s Day is a practice of remembering. What if our new year’s promise isn’t to redefine who we are but to remember who we are?

We are an Easter people, and a Christmas people. We are a people of a resurrection, and a people of incarnation. We are a people who speak of a Christ who is with us, and a people who embody the One who created us.

When we remember who we are, we remember whose we are and that is the kind of truth we want to carry into a New Year. Happy New Year, Old Us!

Amen.

And the Word Became Flesh

Christmas Day

Major Treadway · December 25th, 2022 · Duration 15:40

And the word became flesh.

The Word that was in the beginning; the Word that was with God; the Word that was God; the Word, through whom all things came into being; the Word that was the light of all peoples; the Word that is a light which darkness cannot overcome.

This is the Word that became flesh. The Word that was God. God became flesh.

Today, we have gathered to celebrate this moment – the moment that everything in the world changed, and almost nobody knew it.

This is my favorite Christmas story. John cannot be bothered with trying to piece together whether Matthew was right and Jesus was born in Bethlehem in a house, or Luke was right and Jesus was born in a barn in Nazareth. John is not concerned with the wise people and their gifts, nor shepherds and songs. John gets right down to it.

Channeling the first words written in Genesis, the first book of Torah, the sacred scriptures of the Jews (which was, of course, the religion of Jesus and his parents), John begins his Gospel with these famous words of creation, immediately pulling our consciousness back to the beginning, linking the Word that was in the beginning, with the words spoken by God in creation. In the beginning was the Word. And the word became flesh.

John brings the full force of the significance of the moment to bear. He does not bother with seemingly trivial details. He doesn’t just skip the birth of Jesus altogether like Mark, but he wants to communicate the theological significance of the moment. And the Word became flesh.

To read this beautiful introduction from John alone, one might get the idea that somehow, Jesus’ birth was a large and celebrated event – on par with the upcoming coronation of the King of England – television crews standing by, the paparazzi close at hand vying to get the first picture of the baby Jesus, the mothers of Mary and Joseph having a nice-off over which would hold baby Jesus first and for how long.

But thanks to Matthew and Luke, we have some details, and we know that this single birth of cosmic proportions and significance, was small and normal. Of course, it’s not just Matthew and Luke that we have to thank. We can also thank every nativity scene everywhere. They all feature approximately the same cast of characters, you know them – they’re probably in your house: Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus; three wise people, a variable number of shepherds, some animals, and a star.

The stories around how the Magi and the shepherds arrived to bring gifts and greetings to Jesus are nothing short of Hallmark-level-spectacular. The story of Herod’s massacre, a clear parallel to the tenth plague in Exodus 12, is equally devastating. And yet, there is also a sense in which the birth of Jesus was otherwise unremarkable. John tells us the Word became flesh, and Matthew tells us he was born in a house, Luke tells us he was placed in a feeding trough.

There was no medical team standing by, there were no sonograms, blood tests, or epidurals. It just happened the way births had always happened for ordinary folk. Young Mary gave birth to Jesus. And then, after all the exiting details of the build-up and aftermath in Matthew and Luke, and even with the cosmic introduction in John, outside of one story about Jesus going to temple as an adolescent, the Gospels are silent on the next thirty-or-so years of the life of Jesus.

This silence should not surprise us. At least not any more than the relative silence of the Gospels on the last one to three years of the life of Jesus. It is the nature of storytelling to highlight the parts of the story that are either interesting, contribute to the overarching narrative, or both.

And the Word became flesh.

We get these snippets of the story from Matthew and Luke, they take up a page, maybe two. And we have John pulling all the grandeur from Matthew and Luke and making a sweeping theological statement that the Word became flesh. And somehow, I find myself thinking and questioning all the unwritten details of these events. Why Mary? Why Joseph? After Mary hears the proclamation from the Angel and after Joseph’s dream, why do they still have such apparently modest accommodations for the birth of the Word who caused all things to come in to being? Why the long silence on the infancy, childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood of Jesus?

There must be something to the silence. The most obvious answer, of course, is that these details were unremarkable. The same way that if you were telling someone from Northminster about the Christmas Eve service last night, you might not describe color of the carpet, or position of the organ pipes, or the smell of the air in the Narthex. These details fade into the background, not because they are unimportant to the service, but rather, because to describe them to someone who has been here many times would feel unnecessary and run the risk of your story becoming boring.

The truth is these questions that swim in my mind cannot be answered, at least not at present. There is no way to know with certainty the answers to any of these questions. And, while admittedly failing to satisfy my curiosity, there is comfort in the not knowing. In many ways what we do know about Mary and Joseph parallels those storied places in our lives that we love so much. We don’t know why Mary or Joseph. All we know is that Mary and Joseph lived their unremarkable lives in such a way that Mary found favor with God and that God knew Joseph to be one who would trust an appearance of an angel in a dream.

This might not seem like a lot, but it says to me that what has gone unseen because of its unremarkability has created lives that are truly remarkable.

When I think about this place, Northminster, and the things that make it remarkable, I know that it is the things that are unseen, the things that might not in and of themselves be noteworthy for a single story, are the things that accumulate to make it what it is.

We gather here in this space on a weekly basis, and we regularly tell of the great music in worship. What doesn’t often make it into the story is the hours upon hours of commitment and practice of the choir, nor does the lifelong dedication to their craft of the musicians. When we talk about the community of Northminster, we note the ways that support is given and received. What sometimes goes unseen are the Monday morning gatherings of folk to share what they know, the prayers offered throughout the week, the cards and meals, prepared and delivered.

Unseen in this space this morning (and every time we worship) are the hands that receive and hold the youngest in our community while we are gathered here. Unseen in this space are those who join us virtually each week, faithfully journeying with us even when they cannot be in the room with us.

There are more than thirty committees that undergird the shared life of this community. Each committee performing important functions, often in the background, a few people gathered around a table, on a Zoom call, or in an otherwise vacant room of the church – individual meetings unremarkable, but making this place, this community, into the place we know and love.

Similarly, it was the unmentioned parts of the lives of Mary and Joseph that prepared them to be the kind of people in whom God would find favor and entrust with the awesome task of parenting the Christ child. The silence around the life of that same Christ child growing and becoming the adult about whom read about in eighty-four of the eighty-nine chapters of the combined four Gospels, we can assume, exists as a result of it having a similar unremarkable nature as the lives of Mary and Joseph.

Following the birth of Jesus, his life became the sum of its parts, each day slowly forming him shaping him into the adult he would become, the adult who would, at the age of about thirty, step off into the waters of baptism and begin his short but powerful ministry, a ministry that would culminate with his execution and resurrection.

With the newborn baby Jesus, on this holy day in the church year, we sit and we celebrate, and from here we reenter a world in which it is the routine, mundane, everyday goings about of our lives that will continue to form us into the person each of us is becoming. And the same is true for Northminster. In order for Northminster to continue to be the kind of remarkable place that it has been in each of our lives, it will require that each of us engage in the unseen, behind the scenes, mundane work of growing into the body of Christ.

Sometimes, the connections between the little things we do and the way it contributes to making this place remarkable are obvious – like when there is a gathering to make palm crosses the week before Palm Sunday. And sometimes, the connection is more behind the scenes, like the months the Finance Committee spends working putting together the budget. The truth is, all of us, each of us, have something to contribute, and much of it, will be in a small group, out of the spotlight, in a way that few will notice immediately, if at all. But that is not the only truth. It is also true that it is these very contributions to this community that are shaping and forming Northminster into the place it is becoming. Each of us finding a way to use our talents, our time, and our resources. Each of us responsible for embodying the Word in the world today.

And the Word became flesh.

Amen.


Be Born n Us

Matthew 1:18-25, The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Lesley Ratcliff · December 20th, 2022 · Duration 22:13

Much like Northminster, the church I grew up in had a wonderful choir, and each year we had a big Christmas worship service led by that choir. Like that old Johnny Cash song, in my family of origin “Daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor,” so with my sister on alto and I on soprano, we could put together a duet, a trio, or quartet. We were often asked to sing in the service in some combination. One year, my dad and I sang “Mary, Did You Know.” I remember standing on that stage, my legs shaking, like they always did, like they still sometimes do, and being so moved by the melody and the message of that song that song that it settled me, and I was able to sing.

When I listen to the song today, I hear it in the context of the Magnificat, that song of Mary, recorded in Luke:

 

”Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is the Might One’s name.

The Lord’s mercy is for those who fear the Lord
   from generation to generation. 
The Lord has shown strength;
   and has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 
The Lord has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly; 
the Lord has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty. 
The Lord has helped the Lord’s servant Israel,
   in remembrance of the Lord’s mercy, 
according to the promise the Lord made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants forever.’

 

Yes, Mary knew. When she spoke those words to the angel, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word,” she stepped into God’s holy disruption and became precisely who God called her to be.

But we’re in Year A of the Lectionary which leads us through the gospel of Matthew instead of Year C which leads us through the gospel of Luke. Which means that the birth story of Jesus is told from Joseph’s perspective.

“When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” Maybe here one could sing “Joseph, did you know?”

But the Scriptures quickly take a turn. Joseph gets his own angel. I think if I were in Joseph’s shoes, I would probably need an angel too. The angel tells Joseph that he should not be afraid. The angel restores Joseph’s faith in Mary. And the angel tells Joseph that she will bear a son who will be called “God with us,” a son that will save his people from their sins.

 

“When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.”

 

Joseph too steps into God’s holy disruption and becomes precisely who God has called him to be.

Our gospel lesson today leads us right up to the precipice of Jesus’ birth. Matthew skips over the manger and the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night and moves straight to the Magi and their gifts. Another angel appears to Joseph and the holy family flees to Egypt, as refugees from Herod’s wrath. Another angel. Another holy disruption.

After the death of Herod, the Holy Family returns to Israel, although in fear, they settle in Nazareth instead of Judea, two more angels, two more holy disruptions.

I’ve done a little research this week, and I’m not sure who coined the phrase “holy disruption.” It’s sometimes attributed to Thomas Long, the man who literally wrote the book on preaching, “a” book anyway, the one we used in my main preaching class in seminary. I don’t know for sure who coined the term but I’m grateful they did. It’s the kind of phrase we need, a lens through which to view life’s disruptions.

A holy disruption is an opportunity to become more of who God has called us to be. As Joseph did in today’s gospel lesson. As Mary did in Luke. When the whole world gets turned upside down, when your world gets turned upside down, it is a comfort to consider that it might be a holy disruption, not caused by God, but used by God, to help you become exactly who God has called you to be.

We are standing on the precipice of holy disruption. On this fourth Sunday of Advent, just a week from Christmas Day, just a week from the birth of that tiny baby in Bethlehem. How will we respond to that holy disruption? How will we allow the Christ child to be born in us? As our children have reminded us each week, we can let the candle reveal the glory of Christ’s birth. As we approach the end of this Advent journey, we look to its lessons to help us make sense of the holy disruption for which we wait.

We have lighted the candle of hope.  We thrive on the hope of the coming incarnation, and we seek to be the kind of people who live in that hope bringing hope to all those around us. This week as I was preparing for a funeral, I read through some correspondence of a beloved church member who was facing challenging days, holy disruption. They wrote about how meaningful it was to come home from the hospital and to meet some of Northminster’s caregivers on their front porch, folks who were brought them a meal and prayed with them. That is what it looks like when Christ is born in us. We embody hope to others.

We have lighted the candle of peace, and while it is easy for doubts and fears to rise, we look to God for the strength to live with our doubts and fears and the peace to live faithfully through them. When I think about this place called Northminster, the broad range of theological thought that gathers under this roof, the ways in which we love each other around and through disagreements, working hard not to compromise how we see God calling us to be God’s people in the world, while continuing to care for one another when those callings lead us in different directions, I can see Christ being born in us. We embody peace to one another.

We have lighted the candle of joy, and we carry God’s joy, the joy of knowing that God is with us in all things, to our own weary hearts and to all those who grieve, or hurt, or need.  We have learned in this sacred space how to carry grief and joy at the same time. When one of us is in the midst of grief, we remind them of God’s presence with them through our presence with them. We show up for the folks in our family of faith and beyond. We hold the truth that God is with us for one another when someone cannot hold it for themselves, and the Christ child, Emmanuel, is born in us. We embody joy.

We have lighted the candle of love. We embrace one another and the stranger in love, knowing that we are all God’s beloved children. On Wednesday nights this fall and continuing into the spring, we have been hearing from organizations that we support through local and direct missions. I have been struck by how we meet needs throughout our city through our giving, and also by the number of people from our family of faith who serve in those places. It is one example of how the Christ child is born in us. We embody love.

When we embody hope, peace, joy and love, we allow the Christ child to be born in us. When holy disruption comes, we can allow the Christ child to be born in us. Our whole lives are about living from the gratitude for the love of the one who created us, for the gift of love that will be born to us, born for us, born in us.

 

It reminds of another song:

 

O holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us, we pray,

Cast out our sin and enter in,

Be born in us, today.

 

As we walk to the end of this Advent road, as we meet with holy disruption, may we embody hope and peace and joy and love. May we embody the Christ Child, born in us, today. May we, like Mary, like Joseph, like our family of faith before us, like the Christ child, be exactly who God has called us to be. Amen.

 

 

What Kind of Messiah

Matthew 3:1-12, Second Sunday of Advent

Major Treadway · December 4th, 2022 · Duration 10:54

It seems like each year, it gets a little harder to disentangle the season of Advent from the commercialized season of Christmas. Perhaps it is because I see Christmas decorations and sales beginning earlier and earlier each year and hearing Christmas music earlier and earlier each year. This year, I think it started on the way home from a Halloween party – maybe you’ve experienced something like this. This disentanglement is further complicated by the commercialized Christmas season, each year seeming to move closer and closer to the point where the only thing shared with the church season of Christmas is the name. Christmas.

Before this sermon turns into a war on Christmas, and let me assure you that it’s not, let’s get to the disentangling, let’s see just what the second Sunday of Advent holds for us.

Last week, of course, we began this journey at the end, resting ourselves in the hope of the final advent of the Christ, even as we celebrate the first advent of the Christ. Last week, Lesley called us to stay awake and to embody hope as we live into our apocalyptic imagination, embodying Christ as light and love in a world in desperate need of both.

This week, as if in response, John the Baptist appears in the wilderness of Judea. To give us a little context Matthew informs us that this John the Baptist is “the one whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’” Further, Matthew tells us about his clothes and his diet, both of which sound more like a TikTok challenge than real life.

With all of this strangeness, John the Baptist is somehow attracting people from quite a long way to come out to him in the wilderness. But that’s not the way that the flow of traffic was supposed to go. Traffic was (and still is, really) supposed to move people toward the city, towards civilization and structure. It was civilized space, where the Romans and their stewards wielded power. And it was here, in the city, where one might find the most sophistication, the most wealth, the best education, the best healthcare, the seats of power, even the best churches and seminaries.

Everyone knows that the closer one gets to the city, the wider the roads, the more housing, the more schools, the more commerce. It’s why traffic flows toward urban centers. But not in today’s gospel. In today’s gospel, people are following a different pull. They are finding a way to move away from all the certainty that modernity provides. And they’re doing it without motorized transportation and GPS. It’s all word of mouth; and, presumably, following the river.

This John the Baptist, was sent to “prepare the way of the Lord.” This John the Baptist, today, is calling to us, reminding us that the season of Advent is one of celebration, but it is also one of preparation – a twofold preparation preparing our hearts for the coming of the Christ, but I think also, there is a sense, at least in John the Baptist, of preparing the world around us for the coming of the Christ.

John the Baptist saw the world as it was. While he may have been a spectacle to some and a fascination to others, he anticipated that Messiah that would come would not be bound by the established centers of power. His ministry was not concerned with wealth, power, prestige, getting ahead, or getting close to the right people. His ministry was about preparing the way for the Messiah.

It is at this point, I expect some of you might be thinking: if his ministry was focused on preparing the way for the Messiah, but clearly not on all those other things, what was it focused on?

Matthew skips a portion of this story, at least as Luke tells it. In Luke, the crowds as John the Baptist, “What then should we do?” He answers them: “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” To Tax Collectors he said “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” To Soldiers: “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusations, and be satisfied with your wages.”

Those last two might need a little unpacking to fully understand, but what we don’t need help to see is the direction John the Baptist is directing his listeners attention. Their bodies have been moved from the centers of commerce and accumulation, now he calls for their minds to move as well. He asks each person/group to forgo excess that other might have enough.

And here it seems that maybe John the Baptist is calling on us all to try to disentangle the season Advent from the season of commercialized Christmas – to recognize that to prepare the way for the coming of the Christ will be for us to find ways large and small to prepare our hearts and to prepare our places – including this one.

We have a long history of finding was to prepare this place for the coming of Christ. This afternoon, we will gather in the Great Hall to pack bags to distribute around the city to folks who might benefit from a blanket, gloves, socks, toiletries, and homemade cookies. Yesterday, the some members of the Youth prepared and served lunch at Stewpot, many of you regularly support institutions that are engaged in important work – turning our perspective from accumulation to righteousness. These activities, of course, are not exhaustive. Neither were four that John the Baptist shared.

The way of the Lord that John the Baptist was preparing, that Jesus would eventually travel, and which is now a part of our journey and opportunity, is a way marked by such a strong regard for the physical, spiritual, psychological, emotional wellbeing of others that it just might appear as disregard for the systems the lure people to centers of civilization, commerce, and power.

Living in this way just might seem that we are preparing the way for the coming of the Messiah.

Amen.

The Hope of the Present

The First Sunday in Advent

Lesley Ratcliff · November 27th, 2022 · Duration 12:13

“To pay attention is the rare and purest form of generosity.”

As I arrived this morning, I was met at the doors with wreaths adorned in purple ribbons. I walked the halls and felt the cloth advent wreaths in our youngest children’s classrooms. I noticed the empty cradle in the wooden manger scene that greets our children downstairs, and another one in the Narthex, with Mary and Joseph waiting expectantly. I brought the bulletins around from the office to the Narthex and noticed their purple ink, and the empty trough inside the Northminster window that is printed on the front. As I walked pass the Angel Tree, I took note of the Advent Devotionals that our Worship and Music committee have written.

A little later, as I walked the halls, I heard children’s voices singing as they practiced for the living nativity, and the orchestra playing as they prepared for this morning’s service. I smelled the matches as they were struck to light the advent wreaths in Sunday School classrooms, told a class of children about the Boarding homes project next week, heard some of our adults discussing today’s first Sunday in Advent readings in Sunday School, and saw people sporting their purple clothes, while the sanctuary sports her purple paraments. The signs and symbols of this first hope-filled day of Advent always seem to call out to me, centering my feet on the purple path, as we begin a new liturgical year, beginning this year as we do each year anticipating the birth of hope.

“To pay attention is the rare and purest form of generosity.”

A dear friend handed me a notecard with that quote from Simone Weil on it, one afternoon, about a year ago.

Most days, I consider myself the absolute worst at paying attention, so I grinned at the card as I took it assuming that they were trying to remind me to do better.

“This quote reminds me of you,” they said.

And what followed was a discussion of the nature of paying attention. Even those of us who think we are bad at paying attention, are paying attention to something – maybe to the distractions, maybe to the many needs of the people around us, maybe to our own needs, maybe to our own racing thoughts, maybe to our work, maybe to our long lists, maybe to the people we love, maybe to the changing of seasons.

I taped that card to my desk to remind me to pay attention to what and to whom I am paying attention.

“Keep awake,” Jesus says in this morning’s gospel.

Every year on the first Sunday of Advent, we talk about hope, and because it’s Advent, one would think that it would be the hope of the Christ child born in just a few weeks. But the lectionary draws our attention to Jesus’s arrival, not as a tiny baby but as the Son of Man, arriving on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. Each year, Advent “begins at the end” some preachers like to say. It is as our children sang this morning, the fire of our hope – Christ coming again. We are exhorted then by the scriptures, by Jesus, by the Epistle writers, and by the prophets to stay awake, and lean into our apocalyptic imagination, to dream about the triumph of good over evil that will one day come with the return of Christ. We are called to pay attention to what God is doing in our world and to whom the hope of Christ’s reign is being proclaimed.

And that, my friends, is not just a call to imagine what will be. It is a call to see what is, to look at where God is showing up in our world, to stay awake to the work of God today, so that we might live into the hope of the coming Christ now, not just after the babe in swaddling clothes is born, not just once Christ has arrived on the clouds, but today. We must pay attention to the hope of the present.

With the prophet Isaiah, we must ask “Where are the ways and paths of the Lord being lived?”
With the Psalmist “Where is the good of everyone being sought?”
With the letter to Rome “Where is the armor of light being worn?”
And with the gospel writer “Where is the Son of Man appearing in power and glory?”
Where is the hope of the present?

If we ask where, we must ask what. What are the ways and paths of the Lord? What does it mean to seek the good of everyone? What does the armor of light feel like? What does the appearance of the Son of Man in power and glory look like?

The hope of the present is that we know the answer to those questions. The ways and paths of the Lord, are the ways and paths of compassion and courage, which seeks the good of all God’s beloved children and we are all, within and beyond these walls, God’s beloved child.

The most important way that Christ sees, lives and acts in the world is to love neighbor as self. So when we put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we love our neighbor as we love ourselves and we help others to do likewise.

Matthew Skinner says “Wakefulness is a lifestyle, a way of living with a posture of embodying Jesus, his restless attentiveness, and his merciful solidarity. Christian hope is an active force.”

In 1 John 1:15 we hear that God is light. And in 1 John 4:8 we hear God is love. God is light and God is love. Paul calls the church in Rome to put on the armor of light, and just a few verses later he tells them that the sum of all the law is to love your neighbor as yourself. To put on the armor of light is to live a life of God’s kind of love. The kind of love that reaches across every kind of human barrier to carry each other’s burdens. The kind of love that rejoices with those who rejoice and weeps with those who weep. To live that kind of love is to pay attention, to stay awake to what God is doing in the world, to recognize the hope of the present.

If you are paying attention, then you have probably noticed the scaffolding outside our windows. Our church is literally under construction. It is also figuratively under construction as we look for a new Senior Pastor. This season of Advent, this season of waiting, is filled with the hope of what will be, the hope of a new roof that will last. The hope of a new Senior Pastor that will shepherd us through the next season of the church’s life. The hope of the Christ child born in just four weeks. The hope of resurrection. We must wait with hope. It is the very nature of our faith.

But on this first Sunday of Advent, we cannot just wait. We must also live in our hope, our hope that calls us to pay attention to what God is doing in the world. The hope of carrying bags to folks who need a little holiday cheer, the hope of providing gifts for a child to celebrate Christmas, the hope of teaching our children the rhythms of the church year, the hope of worshipping God in the sounds and silences of this hour, and in all the hours that fill our days,
the hope of drawing the circle of our welcome as wide as that of God’s welcome, the hope of embodying Jesus here and now, the hope of the present.

On this first Sunday in Advent, we are invited to consider hope. We are invited to live into our apocalyptic imagination, the hope of the coming Christ, but also to live into the embodying of Christ, the hope of the present. May the fire of our Advent hope lead us to pay attention. Amen.

King's Cross

Luke 23:33-43, Christ the King Sunday

Stan Wilson · November 20th, 2022 · Duration 13:40

If it’s unusual to be at the cross in November, and it is, we should note that it’s unusual to have preaching at all on a day we read from the story of the cross event. On Good Friday, you generally ask your preachers to remain silent. Which I understand. But then, it’s unusual that we don’t hear many sermons about this event because this is the crucible of the gospel stories. This is where all gospel stories lead. There’s no better place to go to sum up all you’ve heard this last Sunday of the year.

But, be advised: It’s a hard story. Real human beings get hurt and die in this story, and others do cruel and inhuman things. And be aware as you hear it that some people have heard this preached a lot, only it’s been twisted and used in manipulative ways. But here’s the thing: as awful as this story is, there’s beauty here, too. And there’s truth here. And good news.

But before we enter this story, I think we need to make one thing clear: There’s no angry deity lurking in this story, requiring death in order to be satisfied. If there’s an angry entity, it’s the people. God is not the angry one here.

The story begins at a desecrated place called The Skull. This is holy land that the Romans have desecrated by making it a site of crucifixion. Crucifixion was a public execution designed to send a signal to the world about who is in charge. That’s what a cross is. It’s a reminder of who rules. The Romans used crosses to send a message to subjugated people, but we need to be honest that they weren’t barbarians. They thought they were doing what was necessary. They thought they were acting out of noble intentions. And they were not the only people to use such an instrument.

Last week I was in Montgomery, with 150 other Baptists trying to get down to the bottom of our own disorder, and we went to the National Memorial of Faith and Justice, otherwise known as the Lynching Memorial. There, every county in the country where a lynching happened, is represented by a hanging pillar, in the shape of a casket. Buncombe County NC, where I live, is there. Dekalb County, GA, where I grew up, is there. Hinds County, MS, where I’ve spent more time than any other county, is there. So much depends on telling this story truthfully. We can’t live truthfully without telling the story of the cross.

“When they came to the place that is called the Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.” There’s a revealing word in that sentence, and it’s the word “they.” Luke doesn’t pinpoint anyone for this injustice. Instead, he says, “they did it.” One reason for being careful who you preach about the cross is the temptation to blame someone. We so badly want to know who we can blame, but that only repeats the logic of crucifixion itself. It’s not the Jews, it’s not the Romans, it’s not the state, it’s not the people. They all had a hand in this, and nobody is to blame. Luke doesn’t blame anyone; and it’s a very small signal, but it’s such a big deal. You cannot point fingers here. The only way to enter this story is by your own repentance and recognition.

And this is where something beautiful happens. “Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’” Again, them. They crucified Jesus, and they are the ones for whom Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

We’ve heard this so many times that it’s almost hard to recognize how plaintive and beautiful this is. This is a human being. He’s alone, abandoned by his people and his friends, an innocent man, hanging between two criminals on a garbage heap outside of
town. And in that moment, he reaches for the abundance of God’s love.

The ancients believed that you can tell a great deal about a person’s life by the way they die. Their last words summarize their whole life, and this is traditionally considered the first of Jesus’ last words: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” And sure enough, Jesus’ death is a window into his life. This is what he’s been about from the start.

Jesus’ whole life has been about reaching into the deep abundance of God’s love. In a world that tells us there is not enough for everyone, a zero sum world, Jesus reaches over and over into the deep abundance of God’s love. There is enough bread for everyone in the desert and then some. There is enough grace for everyone in the prodigal son story we heard only in Luke this year, and then some. There is more grace than we know what to do with in the story of his life, more than we know how to handle.

Jesus is true to himself in his death. He follows his own teaching, which is its own rare thing. He practices what he preached in Luke 6: “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.”

Jesus’ teachings only really come into focus when we read them through the cross, which is why he tells us over and over, not to follow him if we’re not ready to pick up our own cross.

His teachings are not about how to live safely in this world. They’re all a gamble on the abundance of God’s love. And they all lead us to this story; they culminate here, which is why we read it on the last Sunday of the year.

I get why we don’t preach it often because it is so easy to distort this story. But this is where the depth of God’s love responds to the absurdity of our sin - and that is to love us even when we have no idea how much damage we’ve done. Jesus’ reign is revealed here, and it’s a kingdom of redemption and forgiveness as Paul said in Colossians. This is where we reach “the bottom of the disorder.”1 It is a hard story to tell, but where would we be without this story?

On our way out of Montgomery last weekend, four of us drove by the Dexter Avenue parsonage. It was here, on this porch, in this front yard, after that house was bombed, that Dr. King launched the nonviolent part of the movement. Here is where he told people to put away their guns. “No more of this,” he said, like Jesus to his disciple after he pulled out his sword. This was the holy place where he determined that the only way to stop the killing and live in truth is to love. He paid for that with his own life, but he got the idea from Jesus.

Where would we be without this story? You can’t tell the good news without it. But if you’re careful, you can see it, even here, in this hard story. Amen.


______________
1 Quaker preacher and abolitionist, John Woolman, quoted in Dan Snyder’s book, Praying in the Dark:
Spirituality, Nonviolence, and the Emerging World, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2022

Not a Hair of Your Head

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Joey Shelton, Dean of Chaprl and Dir. of Church Relations, Millsaps College · November 13th, 2022 · Duration 31:55

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Go, Seek and Make Room for Salvation

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Kasey Jones · October 30th, 2022 · Duration 25:16

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Front End Alignment

Luke 18:9-14, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

David Carroll · October 23rd, 2022 · Duration 22:53

First of all, thanks to Jeff Wilson whom I came to know as part of a pledge class of dynamic Jackson young men for whom I developed great respect, even as I served as their pledge trainer in the Pi Kappa Alpha Fraternity at Millsaps College. But if you catch Jeff and Cindy headed for the exit, we must be headed downhill fast.

Another couple I simply must acknowledge is Tim and Cheryl Coker. When I entered retirement seven years ago, I laid out some guidelines for how that would look:
1. Remember how to say ‘no,’ at which I have been largely successful,
2. Pursue only the things that I was passionate about. Those pursuits have been mostly related to Camp Lake Stephens near Oxford which serves as my spiritual “hometown,” Ministry Architects of Nashville, TN, with which I have been associated since 2006, and Millsaps College which I have served in a number of capacities through the years, currently as Chaplain of the Millsaps Majors Football Team (and yes, they are not a bunch of choir boys) and as a Trustee of the college.
3. Visit a different church every week - After all, I spent 35 years listening to myself; it was time to hear from some others. I have found to be true what Bishop Nolan Harmon once said. Asked if he had ever heard a sermon he didn’t get something out of, Bishop Harmon said, “No … but I’ve had some pretty close calls.”That was NOT the case when I attended Northminster and heard Chuck Poole’s sermon “Be Careful What You Think You Know.” Afterwards, I told him that it was a fine Methodist sermon, to which he replied, “I get that a lot.”
4. Play golf on a weekly basis, which I have done religiously, extending that to three times a week.

I was playing golf by myself at Canton Country Club as I entered retirement seven years ago when I came across another gentleman playing alone at the 14th tee. I extended a greeting without noticing. He replied, “David? It’s Tim!”

There he was, my high school chorus teacher and Minister of Music of my home church as I graduated from Tupelo High School in 1974. And there he was - always as gifted an athlete as he was a musician, spiritually formed having explored pastoral ministry himself, an encourager, Mr. Positivity. Tim has been enduring my poor golf game three times a week ever since that day that we ran into each other.

One thing you need to know about Tim the athlete, though. While he is always positive and encouraging, and (and he would say this) he’s juuuuuuust a bit competitive.

One day in June we had started a round at Lake Caroline, and my putter was failing me as is often the case. Missing a short putt on the first hole, in frustration I complained to myself, “Good God Almighty!” Tim didn’t say anything.

At the second hole it was a similar story - missed short putt, I once again complained more audibly this time, “Good God Almighty!” Tim, once again - nothing.

Third hole? Yep, same missed short putt followed by my rather LOUD, “Good God Almighty!” But sensing a potential teaching moment and being the spiritual man that he is, Tim spoke to calm me down. “Now, David, you’re getting all worked up for a man of God. Next time if you miss the putt, I want you to say, “Praise the Lord.”

“Praise the Lord,” I muttered to myself as I returned my putter to its resting place and pulled my pitching wedge for the par 3 number four hole. “Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, praise the Lord.”

Tim had hit a nice ball to the green. And as I prepared to swing, I marveled at the day around me - perfect sunny day, perfect early summer temperature. I aimed just left of the hole and let fly. There was a little whisper of wind. With crisp contact the ball flew high and straight, landed softly, bounced twice, and rolled into the hole. I turned to Tim and exclaimed, “Praise the Lord!” And Tim replied, “GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY!”

Totally not a true story … except for the hole-in-one.

It wasn’t long after meeting Tim and Cheryl back in the early 70s, though, that I had the chance to make my first car purchase - a 1974 Toyota Celica - a white hardtop 5-speed beauty that I found at a Tupelo dealership in 1975. Finding it not long after it had been traded, I asked to take it for a test drive. I must confess that I felt wrapped in “cool” as I pulled away from the dealership. But at about 30 mph I noticed a shimmy that got progressively worse as my speed increased, the steering wheel shaking almost violently. But it disappeared completely at 50.

Returning to the dealership, I asked about it, and they mumbled something about having the front-end alignment checked and that maybe the tires might be unevenly worn. But did I buy that 1974 Toyota Celica? Why of course I did! And I endured the shimmy until the third repair shop took care of the problem. Oh, and I got to replace two tires.

That’s the way it goes when things get out of line.

Some Christians think that Jesus is a line drawer, that Jesus draws lines in the sand and tells us not to cross them. But I rather believe that Jesus is much more the artist, a drawer of big circles that gather people in and a sketcher of lines that show us pathways to follow …

I find that to be true in this Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. Jesus describes the two first - the Pharisee looking down his nose at those around him, then the tax collector (sometimes called the publican) the picture of humility before God. Given Jesus’ proclivity to deride the Pharisees, one can see where the parable is headed, and Jesus draws a pathway leading straight through the humble tax collector’s repentant heart, a line for us to follow.

But this is not the only instance in which Jesus tells us that we have a choice, that there are values to live by if we would like to walk with Him. The Gospel of Luke is full of value-laden passages pointing us to the ways of Christ …
Question About Another Exorcist - Luke 9: 49-50
Parable of the Good Samaritan - Luke 10
Story of Martha and Mary - Luke 10: 38-42
Parable of the Rich Fool - Luke 12: 13-21
Parable of the Prodigal Son - Luke 15
Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus - Luke 16: 19-31

Luke’s Gospel is full of the ironies of reversed fortunes, that the first shall be last, and here that the contempt of even the righteous pales in the light of penitent humility. As much as we hate to admit it, in Luke we find that the gospel which comforts the afflicted is just as likely to afflict the comfortable.

Maybe that’s why we like Luke’s gospel so much, particularly Luke’s parables. But why? I think it’s because we are instinctively drawn to the values of Jesus which Luke reflects.

I find that reflected in today’s psalm, Psalm 84:
“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of Hosts.
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord.
My heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.”

The psalmist celebrates, in essence saying,
We want to live where you live!
We want to do the things you do!
We want to go where you go!
We want our lives to be aligned with your Life!

In preparing for today I spent some time reading through materials on Northminster’s website, things like the Northminster Covenant, the church’s history, as well as descriptions of its worship and ministries.

What I found, I thought was striking, a church seeking to state its mission and values, something around which its people could unite, something that could describe for the world what it was seeking to be and do - a church aligned with the cause of Christ, simply stated by former pastor Harvey Whaley, “We agree to differ. We resolve to love. We unite to serve.”

John Wesley put it similarly, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.”

The words draw a picture, like the picture on the front page of blueprints.

As we built a house almost ten years ago, the blueprints conveyed what was important to us and how we wanted to live - natural building materials, a home engaging the outdoors.

The pages that followed fleshed it out - plumbing, framing, electrical…

Northminster’s statements convey what is important to you and how you want to live in faith together and in the world.And those things are expressed in things like ministry organization, budget structure, physical plant, etc.

This worship space reflects important things in Northminster’s worship life:
• The vertical space leading the eyes heavenward,
• The table as the central piece - the place we meet God,
• The middle aisle leading to it - the pathway to God and the road leading us back into the world,
• The baptismal font elevated and highly visible through its tree symbolizing new life,
• The highly visible presence of the Austin organ - As psalms were the hymnody of the Hebrews, Northminster values music and sound as a distinctive pathway to heavenly places. As Robert Lowry put it in his beautiful hymn, “How Can I Keep from Singing!”
• The elevated pulpit expressing a great respect for proclamation of the Word, and
• Over it all hangs the cross, the symbol of our faith and the ultimate expression of God’s sacrificial Love.

But the congregation’s mission and values are also expressed in its staffing and leadership structure:
• Every member a minister, yes
• But how do those values get expressed in a pastoral search?

Tim asked me a couple of months ago what I would be preaching on today. I told him I thought I would preach a sermon entitled, “Preacher Pickin’ 101.” NOT that I know a lot about Baptist preacher picking, mind you, and so Tim laughed. I mean, you know the Methodist preachers all jump on a moving merry-go-round at the same time and all jump off somewhere else … all on the same day!

But let me meddle for a minute. In my work with Ministry Architects over the last 16 years, I have seen a number of churches that so desperately wanted a pastor, that they would have been satisfied with a pastor who could just keep their church “between the ditches.” “Just keep us from running off the road again!” they would say.

And I’ve seen pastors questioning their “fit” in the congregations where they were serving.

One associate pastor led his large congregation in prayer one Sunday introducing those moments with the words, “Let’s pray.” The pastor bee-lined to him following the service with this admonition, “Do not EVER use a contraction in our worship again!” He began to wonder if his understanding of ministry and worship was out of line with the church within which he was serving.

Face it, some people want particular things, some unconsciously, when the church is seeking a pastor:
Some want “preacher hair.”
Some want “preacher prayers” dripping with syrup.
Some want a “preacher voice,” “Gawd” spoken in three syllables.
Some want a preacher that sings.
Some want a preacher that uses an expository style … or exegetical style … or an inductive style …
Some want a preacher that tells you what to do … or doesn’t.
Some want a preacher that tells you what to think … or one that helps YOU to think critically.
Some want a preacher that tells jokes … or doesn’t.
Some want a preacher that tells stories … or doesn’t.
Some want a caring pastor, some want a dynamic preacher, some want an organizer, some want a visionary …
When it comes down to it, some folks want the repentant humble tax collector, but there are still some folks who want the pious Pharisee … go figure.
Some are so scrambled that they have no idea WHAT they want!

The question is - What do YOU want? Better yet, what does GOD want for and from Northminster?

Friends, pray first that, on the front end, Northminister is in alignment with the pathways of Christ, the values that Jesus teaches through simple yet profound little stories.

Then find a pastor who is aligned with Christ, who has a sense of ministry that is aligned with the vision for mission and ministry true to this church, but one who will tell you the truth even when you don’t want to hear it, one who will love you through the ups and downs of life together, one who will walk beside you as you grieve and as you grow. One who years later will cause you to say, “You remember old Rev. So and So? I think we got that one right.”

I will be praying for you and for the one who will answer the call to this magnificent church, and I’ll be checking in from time to time hoping that I can hear another good “Methodist” sermon.

Let us pray: Take these words, oh God, inadequate though they may be, to speak the Gospel of Love that it may be written upon our hearts. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.



To Be Blessed

Genesis 32:22-31, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · October 16th, 2022 · Duration 16:23

I won’t let go unless you bless me.

These words from Jacob in today’s reading from the book of Genesis are at once the culmination of a life spent searching for a blessing that belonged to someone else and a turning point toward a new life, a life that Jacob had never imagined.

You will remember from your own reading of the book of Genesis that Jacob, twin brother to Esau, son of Isaac and Rebekah, was born clinging to the heel of Esau. Even before his first breath was drawn, Jacob was already holding on, refusing to let go. Later in life, Jacob would swindle from Esau his birthright. Still later, Jacob would trick his father Isaac into giving him a blessing that, it would seem, should have been for his brother, Esau.

All throughout the narrative of Jacob to this point, he is struggling for a blessing, and even now, when he has received the blessing that should have been given to his older brother, when he has been tricked into working for his father-in-law for an extra seven years, when he has many children, great riches and livestock, and is making his return to a land that was promised to him, he is still struggling for a blessing.

I won’t let go unless you bless me.

The scene unfolds somewhat strangely, Jacob seems nervous about his upcoming encounter with his brother, so he decides that he will overwhelm him with generosity so that when the two finally meet, perhaps, the animosity of Esau will have had time to settle. Jacob has had twenty years to wonder what shape this reunion might take – twenty years he has been absent from his brother, while he went to find a wife in the homeland of his mother; twenty years Esau has been in the home of their father, in the land that was promised to Jacob because of Jacob’s trickery. For twenty years, the two of them have known that they would one day meet again. And they have known that the land on which Esau lives has been promised to Jacob.

So Jacob sends gifts, and servants, he divides his camp into two parts, and finally he sends his children and his wives ahead of him until at last, somehow, Jacob finds himself alone, separate from his family beside the river Jabbok. And it was here that Jacob encounters a stranger in the night with whom he wrestles until daybreak.

Jacob, so consumed with the struggle of his life, the struggle for a blessing, will not be bested by this stranger, nor any other human, until finally, the stranger mysteriously strikes Jacob on the hip and puts his hip out of socket. But still, Jacob will not relent. He struggles on, it is as if Jacob has once more come up against the deceitfulness of his father-in-law, who tricked Jacob into marrying his older daughter, though he had agreed that Jacob could marry the younger. Then, as in his present struggle, he did not look back. Then, he agreed to work for another seven years. Now, he continues his struggle to not be bested by this stranger in the night.

Finally, the stranger says to Jacob, “let me go, for the day is breaking.” Only to have Jacob offer his famous reply, a reply that could be the slogan of his life, “I won’t let go until you bless me.” Jacob is as committed to struggling for a blessing as he ever has been. It is as though he is holding onto the heel of the stranger, withholding the nourishment needed for life, wearing woolen skin, and agreeing to work another seven years all over again. And all for an unspecified blessing.

I won’t let go, unless you bless me.

The struggle continues. And the stranger asks Jacob for his name. Jacob gives it and the stranger, curiously, gives Jacob a new name, Israel. So, naturally, as one might do after an evening of intense combat, Jacob asks for the stranger’s name. And it is at this point that, in response, the stranger blesses Jacob.

And, then, the stranger is gone. The immediate struggle is over. Jacob has not overcome the stranger, but he has come away with that which he had wanted – a blessing.

However, this blessing was not the first Jacob had received. The blessing Jacob receives from the stranger in the night includes something that the ones before did not. This blessing, included the giving of a new name, Israel – so given, according to today’s text, because Jacob had striven with God and with humans, and had prevailed.

Jacob becomes Israel. The blessing after which Jacob had struggled his whole life, the blessing which had been foretold while in the womb, stolen from his brother, and spoken by his father, finally culminates with the giving of a whole new identity – an identity which will require him to change from his wrestling, conniving, thieving ways, and which will allow him to live into the promise of God – a promise first given to Abram, then to Isaac, then to Jacob – now to be fulfilled in the person of Israel.

Blessings sometimes are like that. Sometimes we struggle so hard to obtain a blessing that when we finally realize that we have achieved that for which we have struggled, we realize that we what we have achieved is nothing like what we thought we were after in the first place.

Today, when we think of someone who is blessed, we tend to think in a different way. When we think or speak of someone as blessed, we think/speak of someone who has no struggles, someone who has all that they need and more, someone who has overcome a great hardship, someone who has had an unanticipated success.

Jesus, though, had a few things to say about people that were blessed that seem to be different from this contemporary understanding of what it means to be blessed.

Jesus said in Matthew in his “Sermon on the Mount:” “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” “blessed are those who mourn,” “blessed are the meek,” “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” “blessed are the merciful, blessed are the pure in heart,” “blessed are the peacemakers,” “blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”

Luke remembered these sayings of Jesus a bit differently. In Luke, Jesus says in the “Sermon on the Plain:” “blessed are you who are poor,” “blessed are you who are hungry now,” “blessed are you who weep now,” “blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”

When was the last time you were scrolling on social media and saw a picture or a post about any of the people Jesus just described with the hashtag “blessed”?

We have something that Jacob did not on that night on the other side of the river Jabbok. Or rather, we have some hindsight that Jacob had not chosen to embrace. We also have these words of Jesus describing for us in uncomfortable detail what it means to be blessed in the Kingdom of God.

Maybe Jacob in his singularly focused quest for a blessing had it easier. He knew that he wanted, he needed, a blessing. So strong was his determination, that even after his hip was dislocated, he struggled on with the stranger in the night, refusing to quit without a blessing.

Jacob’s blessing of a new identity allowed him to live into the blessing that God had already promised over Jacob and his ancestors. Dear children of God, just like Jacob, the blessing of a new identity has already been promised and given to us.

Our struggle is not with a stranger in the night. Our struggle, here on this side of the river Jabbok, at the corner of Eastover and Ridgewood, or in whatever space we might find ourselves, is to hold onto God long enough, that we might also find that which we need to live into our blessing. Our struggle might also be, that we know what Jesus says about what it means to be blessed. Our struggle might be that that identity is not one we are yet ready to embrace. Our struggle might be that we are not yet ready to cross the river Jabbok and face the difficulty ahead.

But for us, like Jacob, a new day is coming, and with it come new beginnings, new opportunities to embrace the life to which Jesus has called us to live, a life spent with our face turned toward the living God, with eyes open to the lives lived by the humans around us, loving, supporting, embracing, and being with them. This is the identity with which Jesus has blessed us. 

Jacob says to the stranger in the night, I won’t let go unless you bless me.

We, like Jacob after this struggle, have the blessing of a new identity, what remains for us, as it did for Jacob, following his struggle, is to live this new identity, this everyday fresh blessing. Like Jacob, the blessing of our new identity has also been made plain for those willing to hear and see. So, we do not have to struggle to hold on, demanding a blessing with singular determination. We have the opportunity to embrace the blessing of our new identity. But that does not mean that our path is without struggle. Far from it. There is great depth in the struggle to embrace the kinds of blessing which Jesus spoke on the mount and on the plain.

Perhaps our plea will not be like that of Jacob, I won’t let go unless you bless me. Perhaps, our plea will be, I won’t let go, because you have blessed me.

Amen.

 

Sympathy for the Other Nine: Why the Good News Can Be So Hard to Accept

Luke 17:11-19, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Gene Corbin · October 9th, 2022 · Duration 15:06

It is so good to be back at Northminster Baptist Church. Someone asked me how long it has been since I last stood in this pulpit--not enough fingers!

One of the many things that I carry with me from this place is your tagline “every member a minister.” So many people in this community of faith ministered to me when I was here, and some of you continue to serve as the go-to persons that see me through the unexpected twists and turns of life. So, this is an important place for me, and it is good to make new friends here as well.

And I’m glad to be here on this date due to the Gospel reading assigned for today in the lectionary. The story of the ten lepers has always intrigued me. As you know and just heard again, Jesus heals ten lepers, and only one returns to say thanks. So yes, it’s a story about the importance of living a life of gratitude. But one senses that there is much more to this story. Plus, you didn’t bring me all the way down from Boston to deliver a message you’ve likely heard many times before.

And I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I tend to feel some sympathy for the all-too-human characters in most stories, like these oft-maligned other nine, rather than the protagonists. The developmental stages of my adult life often seem something like the following: 

 

●      In my teens and 20’s, I wanted to save the world.

●      In my 30’s and 40’s, I wanted to save myself.

●      More recently, I’ve started thinking that the trick might be to save the world from myself.

Therefore, the really interesting question is the one posed by Jesus towards the end of our text: “But the other Nine, where are they?”

There are many plausible theories, but, Luke, as our narrator, leaves a clue dangling for us: The one who returns to thank Jesus is a Samaritan, and the other nine, presumably, are not.

Let’s try to answer this question by starting at the beginning of the story and working our way forward. Luke sets the stage by informing us that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem going through the region between Samaria and Galilee.

Some background information: Although the people of Samaria, the Samaritans, were Israelites, due to variations in ancestry and religious practices, they were viewed as outsiders by the Jews of Galilee, the Judeans. For this reason, Jesus refers to them as “foreigners” in our text. Outsiders and foreigners were the nice terms that found their way into our Bibles, as terms such as half-Jews, or, more bluntly, half-breeds, or even Gentiles were also used. In fact, the Samaritans were so despised that the common practice at the time was to travel south to Jerusalem by crossing the Jordan river many miles to the east rather than taking the shorter direct route through Samaria. You know, kind of like driving from Memphis to New Orleans by way of Alabama.

So, to understand this story, we must recognize from the outset that the leper who will return to thank Jesus is double-marginalized: Shunned not only due to having a disease of the skin that is feared to be contagious, but also because of belonging to a scorned ethnic group. Our story is one of many in the Gospels that reminds us that Jesus, rather than avoiding such places, is attracted to borderlands where privileged people are unable to avoid rubbing elbows with outcasts.

It’s interesting to try to bring this setting to life by thinking of contemporary analogies. Jesus travels to the border of the U.S. and Mexico is one example which seems to come to the minds of many commentators. But, if we’re true to the text, here’s what it is also saying that doesn’t often get repeated. It’s the migrants, rather than the U.S. Citizens, who would respond appropriately to Jesus.

How about this one closer to home. Jesus takes a circuitous route from Eastover to the MS State Capital by way of Stewpot Community Services. And it’s the guests in the soup kitchen line, rather than the volunteers from a congregation such as Northminster, who recognize and praise him.

I know, you were glad to see me, but now I’ve clearly gone from preaching to meddling. But the connection between Jesus and the marginalized is undeniable and permeates the Gospels, especially in Luke.

So, one lesson, highlighted again in our text, is that if we want to be followers of Jesus, we must seek to be in community with people marginalized by society. But here’s the real kicker--at least for me: Not because we can help, or even worse, save such people. But because they are more likely to understand things that, those of us with more privilege, often can’t seem to comprehend.

Maybe that’s what is going on with the other nine.

You’ve likely seen or even participated in one of these presentations on dominant versus marginalized groups that are increasingly being utilized to help organizations become more equitable and inclusive. Based on identity categories such as race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, mental and physical abilities, socio-economic status, etc., we either belong to the groups that are viewed as the norm in society or the ones that are often discriminated against both subtly and, sometimes, not so subtly. The point is to challenge people with dominant identities to recognize their privilege and their responsibility to be allies to people with marginalized identities. But I wonder if these exercises don’t expose our spiritual challenges as well.

I know, these workshops are not always comfortable, such matters are often more complicated that either/or categories can capture, and, besides, some people in those dominant identity groups have achieved status in society because they’ve also worked hard. Believe me, I know. Because I check the dominant box in most every category.

However, rather than being resistant, maybe we should be asking ourselves whether our Gospel reading is not trying to tell us that Jesus was leading a form of these trainings over 2,000 years ago. It’s really not a reach to interpret “Samaritan” as a metaphor for whatever identities are out of favor in any given society, whatever groups of people are likely to feel that they don’t belong. And they seem to be the people Jesus often seeks.

The problem with privilege is not that there is anything inherently wrong with any of those dominant characteristics, that’s decidedly not the problem. The problem with privilege is that when society centers our identities, it makes it harder to recognize our need for anything beyond ourselves. Stated another way, when everything is about us, it makes it more difficult to make room for God and others. Stated yet another way, it’s hard to believe in anything bigger than ourselves when we’re being led to believe that there is nothing bigger than ourselves.

The spiritual life Jesus is offering is hard to accept because there’s this voice reverberating in our heads that is incessantly screaming one word: me, me, me, me. And society further amplifies that voice, at least for some of us.

I’m not suggesting that spiritual life doesn’t take some effort, but when we are able to recognize and rely on a power greater than ourselves, doing the things God would have us do gets easier. The hard part is getting ourselves out of the way.

Maybe it’s not about us.  Maybe we’re special because God loves us, we’re part of what God is doing in the world, we’re interconnected with the family of God. Such a reorientation lifts the horrible anxiety of always trying to prove ourselves, always wondering if we’re really measuring up.

It’s not something we do or earn. That’s what makes it so hard to accept. As Henri Nouwen says so eloquently on the cover of our worship bulletins, it’s about opening our clenched fists so we can experience the unconditional, everlasting love of God. The addiction community refers to this state as surrender, reaching that point where you recognize that you can’t do it on your own.  

But I grew up hearing that God helps those who help themselves. Maybe it’s a useful message, but it’s not the Good News Jesus is offering. God helps those who know that they can’t help themselves.

Jonathan Walton, who I know preached here a few weeks ago, signs his emails with the message “one love.” It’s a succinct way of saying that the love that flows from God to us makes it possible for us to extend love to others.

So, what blocks this flow in your life? What makes it hard to accept the miracles that God offers to you?

One of the many answers I could give is that it’s a privilege to have too many degrees listed next to your name. Especially in a society that is nowhere close to extending equitable educational opportunities to all. You’re prone to start thinking, however subtly, that you’re a little smarter than others. You don’t need God or anyone else. You can figure it out on your own.

So, when I think about our question, I picture nine, yes white men, sitting around a table somewhere in Harvard Square, having a heated intellectual argument about which one of them discovered the cure for Leprosy and gets to publish the paper in some obscure academic journal. 

The Samaritan in our story doesn’t have the barriers that tend to come with such privilege. He is ready to believe that there might be something more and, when it comes, is ready to live a life of gratefulness for God’s transformative role in his life.

But there’s one more puzzle left in our story.

Jesus says to the Samaritan, “Get up and go on your way; your faith has made you well.” But didn't Luke previously tell us that all 10 lepers had been healed?

There’s a distinction here between being made clean or being physically healed and the word used only to describe the state of the Samaritan, being made well or, as several other versions translate this passage, being made whole. In short, as we all know, one can be okay physically without being spiritually well or whole. Everything can appear to be great while we live with the gnawing sense that we are lost spiritually. 

Perhaps a case in point, the other nine apparently returned quickly to the mainstream of society. Likely trying to convince themselves that whatever happened back there was not such a big deal. We can handle things on our own now.

For the Samaritan, everything has changed.

But let’s not be so hard on the other nine.

And let’s not be so hard on ourselves.

Instead, let’s make space for God to work such miracles in our own lives.

May it be so.

 

God Is With Us

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4. The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · October 2nd, 2022 · Duration 8:28

God is with us.

These four words are among the most important in the Christian religion. All throughout the Bible, we are reminded of these four words: in Genesis, just after creation, God is with Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden; in Exodus God tabernacles with Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness; in the gospels, God takes on flesh in the form of Jesus and is with humanity in a new way; and in Acts, and all throughout the epistles and even until today, God, the spirit descends and accompanies us on life’s journey. And it’s not just the Bible, these four words are also commonly the last words spoken in a funeral homily from the Northminster pulpit – a reminder that just as the person whose life we are celebrating and mourning is with God that God is also with us. This weekend, the children of Northminster have been on their annual fall retreat, this year studying the life of Moses, following the children’s ministry theme this year, "God is with us". Rainbows on bulletin boards, book shelves, t-shirts, stoles and even socks calling us all to remember that God is with us.

Sometimes though, when we remember that God is with us, we remember the phrase almost with a question mark. We turn on the news or scroll on social media, we hear of coastlines ravaged by hurricanes, senseless acts of violence, catastrophic accidents, and terminal illness – unexpected and life changing circumstances turning our sure and certain declaration that God is with us into the pleading question, "God is with us?”.

Today’s Old Testament reading from Habakkuk, a minor prophet, just three pages long, tucked back in the latter part of the Old Testament between fellow prophets Nahum and Zephaniah, begins with the prophet looking out over the people of God, his certainty (if not his sanity) seemingly wavering as he shouts at God: “how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen?” How long, oh Lord. With these words, Habakkuk joins a long list of similar lamentations in the Bible – cries to God of those faithful who have found great difficulty in their circumstances.

With their cries, and with ours, when they come, there is hidden behind the words and emotions, a gentle burning ember of hope. It is there in the midst of the pain and anguish, it is that smallest of hope that pulls the lament from the mouth of the lamenter and propels it to God. I know this hope is there, otherwise, where we see, read, and hear lamentation would be silent. If hope was truly lost, if the prophet Habakkuk really believed that God would not hear his cry, that God would not save him, then he would not expend the energy to shout his frustrations at God. Nor would I. Nor would you.

But we do. We join with Habakkuk in our pain, in our grieving, in our loss, in our uncertainty. We join together with one another from this community, and we cry “how long, oh Lord, how long?”. And when we can shout no more, when we have no more tears, we return to that ember that burns deep down at the center of our being and remember that God is with us.

This process is often not a fast one. It can take days, weeks, months, years, even longer. Sometimes, remembering these four words and embracing them feels like the doing of a thing and waiting on the believing of it to follow. One has to wonder if the prophet Habakkuk felt that way in the second part of today’s reading where the prophet says: “I will stand at my watchpost and station myself on the rampart; I will keep watch to see what the Lord will say to me, and what the Lord will answer concerning my complaint.”

Habakkuk has not forgotten his complaints and questions of God. The pain, sadness, and anger from the first chapter have not gone away, but his actions have changed. He resolves to wait and see, faithful that the God who has been with him until this point will continue to be with him in the future.

In this lamentation from Habakkuk and in others throughout the Bible, we find the freedom to bring our whole selves to God, including our pain and frustration and anger and grief. But that’s not all we find with the prophet Habakkuk. We also find the same reminder that we have heard so many times before. We find that even in the midst of our most unfiltered emotions, God is with us.

Amen

By and By, Today!

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Jonathan Walton · September 25th, 2022 · Duration 24:39

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

When the Answers are Questions

Luke 16:1-13, The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · September 18th, 2022 · Duration 12:33

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

When 99+1 Equals Joy

Luke 15:1-10, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · September 11th, 2022 · Duration 12:11

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 it is found?

I’ve heard this parable maybe a bit more than other parables, because combined with John 15, it is the centerpiece of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the method we use for teaching our 3 year old through 3rd graders on Sunday evenings in the atrium.

I’ve never been asked this question by a child, but when I study this parable with adults, especially if they read a version where the rest of the sheep are left in the wilderness, someone usually asks “what about the 99?” They find themselves in a liminal space, the threshold of having been with the shepherd and then finding themselves on their own.

I heard the explanation once that the shepherd going to look for one sheep is good news for all the sheep. If the shepherd shrugs and let’s one sheep go, then how do the other 99 know that the same wouldn’t happen to them if they got lost. The shepherd going off to find the one sheep reminds the other 99 that each one is important. The one belongs to God and so do the 99.

But I also think it matters that the 99 have each other. If you’ve ever seen a herd of sheep or even a picture of a herd of sheep, you know that they surround one another, coming alongside one another to provide warmth and security. During the story, the uncertainty of this liminal space between the shepherd leaving and returning, the sheep surround and come alongside one another.

The 99 belong to the shepherd, and the 1 that is found belongs to the shepherd too. The Bible says there is great rejoicing when that one is found.

In the atrium, the children gather in two rooms specifically prepared for them to practice being with God. The children are taught that the room to which they have come is prepared especially for them to spend time with the Good Shepherd. The Montessori style setup means that the children choose what work they will do there. The children discover parables and narratives in the Bible by reading the words and working with figurines.
They concentrate on pouring, sorting and sifting water and rice and beans, giving their hands something to do while their minds are focused on listening. They draw and color words and images drawn from the pages of Scripture. They pay attention. Maybe they don’t always pay attention to the adults who come alongside them in the atrium, but they are listening and watching for the Good Shepherd. They will learn to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd and to know that they belong to the Good Shepherd.

We have placed these red bibles in the hands of these 1st graders today for similar reasons. We want them to have the word of God to help them learn and grow. We want our children to read the stories that will teach them that they belong to God, and that God knows them, each one, whether in a group of 99 or all alone.

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?

Susan Beaumont writes of Scripture that many of its stories are “liminal tales, with an ending, followed by a disorienting season of transition and finally a reorientation to something new that is substantially different from what was left behind.” These parables in Luke 15 are stories of liminal space for the 99 with a missing shepherd, and for the 1 who is lost. For the woman who loses a coin and then finds it again. Beaumont says that “Through liminal experiences human beings are transformed and brought into deeper relationship with God.”

As I was making the final edits to my sermon this morning, I sat right back there, on one of the back rows, and watched the sun rise out of the sanctuary’s great big windows. There’s a rooster that lives near enough to our sacred space that you can hear it crowing with the rising of the sun. There are people who arrive here just as the sun is coming up most days, some who tend the columbarium, some who tend flowers, some who practice so they might tend worship, all of them tending the soul of this sacred space.

Sunrise is a liminal time, between the night and the day. A space where the soul is tender, tender with grief and gratitude for what has been, and tender with joy, joy in the hope that comes with the certainty of the rising sun.

Richard Rohr calls liminal space “the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.” That is the hope in the spooning of rice from one bowl to another by our preschoolers in the atrium. And that is the hope of placing shiny red bibles in the hands of our first graders. And that is the hope for the 99 as they wait for their shepherds return. And that is the hope for the 1 whom the shepherd seeks.

When the shepherd has found the sheep, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. When the woman has found the coin, she invites her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her.

There is a moment where these parables become problematic. It is exactly at the point where the sheep become too invested in their security and stop allowing all God’s sheep to join the herd. That’s why it’s so important for us to remember that we belong to each other, that Jesus taught often about sheep, and that in John, Jesus reminds his friends that he has other sheep that are not of this herd.

Ninety-nine sheep plus ONE equals joy. Nine coins plus ONE equals joy.

There is hope in the joy that comes on the other side of the liminal space. Ninety-nine sheep plus one sheep equals joy because of that hope. Nine coins plus one coin equals joy because of that hope.

But there is also joy in the liminal space. Look out these great big windows and imagine the wonderful colors of a sunrise. That is joy in liminal space. Look in your bulletin at the things that will take place this week – the places this congregation will serve, the opportunities for spiritual formation that this family of faith will provide. There is joy in learning and living the good news of our Good Shepherd. Look around at the people gathered in our sacred space. There is joy in coming alongside them. Look at your heart and imagine the joy of discovering more of the gifts of God. There is joy in being more of who God created us to be. Look at our great big world and imagine the joy of God breathing God’s spirit into it. There is joy in the Holy Spirit’s work in our world.

Dear family of faith, there is joy in this liminal season, the one we find ourselves in now as a family of faith, the one we live between our birth and our death, the one in which the world lives between creation and that final day of resurrection. What a day of rejoicing that will be! Let us rest ourselves in the hope of that joy.

Amen.


On the Potter’s Wheel

Jeremiah 18:1-11, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · September 4th, 2022 · Duration 9:03

One Sunday, some years back, I showed up at First Baptist Church in Clinton for what I expected would be a standard Sunday evening service. When I walked in the sanctuary, though, I noticed that all the ornamentation had been removed from the platform, leaving only a single column that had on top of it what looked like a large cylindrical mound of mud about two feet high. Not long after my confusion had fully settled, the lights dimmed, and a man, who I would later learn was internationally renowned sculptor Dr. Sam Gore, stepped onto the platform, and walked up to that formless mud.

For the twenty minutes that followed he used his hands to squeeze, pull, press, and form the mud, which turned out not to be mud, but clay. He pressed on some parts and pulled others. He found ways to smooth some places and make others sharp. He pressed his thumbs deep into the clay, and he scooped some of it out. He placed parts of it from one place onto others. And as he worked, and the rest of us watched, that mound of mud started to take shape. Before our eyes the clay with which he was working transformed into a face. First it had a nose, and then a chin. Soon after, there began to be a hairline – for which I was jealous. Then eyes and a mouth started take form. And finally, to help reveal the subject of his sculpting, Dr. Gore placed a crown of thorns on top of the head.

In just twenty minutes, this master sculptor took a formless mound and formed it, carefully and intentionally into the head of Christ.

For years, I have remembered watching in awe as he worked – carefully, meticulously, confident of his craft. I had the good fortune to see Dr. Gore sculpt the head of Christ on at least one more opportunity. Again, he started with the same column of clay, and using only his hands, he shaped and molded that clay over the course of twenty minutes into the head of Christ. Each time, slightly different. Each time, clearly the head of Christ.

This morning’s reading from Jeremiah always calls to mind for me sitting and watching Dr. Gore transform that clay. This week, in this season of our life together at corner of Eastover and Ridgewood, I find myself feeling in some way linked to that clay on the potter’s wheel. Here we are, four days into our life together following the retirement of Chuck Poole. If you are anything like me, there is a space in your heart that hoped that maybe this morning, Chuck would be in the narthex when bells chimed. But, he wasn’t there. His absence has the capacity to create for me, for you, for all of us a larger than normal sense of uncertainty – an uncertainty that, if we let it, will hang around us like a cloud and consume us.

It is that sense of uncertainty that causes me to identify with the clay on the wheel – particularly in the moment when the potter, Dr. Gore in my mind, walks up to the clay, walks around the column looking it over with a seasoned eye, seeing, sensing what I cannot. Then, he takes a position, slowly turns the wheel on which the clay is resting, still looking at the clay, not yet having touched it, and then he puts his hands on the clay, not yet shaping it, only touching it, as though he first needed to get to know the clay – all before he could begin, to use his words, “singing with my hands.”

It is this moment of tension, the moment when the sculptor’s mind is at work, but before the hands have set to motion, it is this moment with which I most identify with the clay this morning. The moment before the new work has begun, the moment when the uncertainty is at its peak.

When I saw Dr. Gore sculpt the head of Christ after the first time, the experience was different for me. When I saw the platform bare aside from the column supporting the potter’s wheel and the clay, I anticipated what would come. I knew Dr. Gore to be a master potter. Rather than the confusion that had threatened to consume me at my first experience, I was prepared to be awed by what Dr. Gore would reveal from the lump of clay.

Northminster, we are the clay. Unlike the clay that Dr. Gore would approach, we are not without shape or form. Indeed, we have fifty-five years of rich and strong history. We have been shepherded by six strong pastors, including Chuck Poole, whose impressions will mark us all for years to come. We have also been guided and nurtured by faithful members – members who show up ready to dream, ready to do, ready to be shaped and formed by the living God to be the people of God.

In our pain, we grieve. We are rightfully sad at Chuck’s departure. And we are rightfully uncertain about the future. But we can be confident as well. Because if we are the clay, we can be confident that God is the potter. If we will submit ourselves to God, to God’s careful examination, to God’s creative imagination; if we will submit ourselves to be turned by God on that potter’s wheel, to be pulled, pressed, and squeezed, to be formed and reformed, we can be confident that God, the master potter, will continue to shape us into something new and beautiful.

Amen

A Summing Up

Luke 14:1, 7-14, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 28th, 2022 · Duration 13:54

Tucked away in a quiet corner of  Marilynne Robinson’s remarkable  novel Gilead, there is that tender moment when the old preacher, John Ames, looks back across his long pastoral life and says, “I wrote all my sermons out, word for word; fifty sermons a year for forty-five years, not counting funerals...Two thousand two hundred and fifty sermons; sifting my thoughts and choosing my words.  Trying to say what was true.” After which, he concluded, “I have been boring a lot of people for a long time.”

All of which is true, as well, for me.  Forty-five years, two thousand and something sermons; roughly half of which happened here; a thousand Northminster sermons, all of which now come down to a single, simple summing up of the handful of big ideas which have occupied much of our time together. 

One of which is the wide circle life of love and welcome which we find in this morning’s epistle lesson, which calls us to a life of empathy and solidarity with those who are suffering and struggling, which, when joined to today’s crowded table gospel lesson from Luke, reminds us that the closer we get to Jesus, the wider we draw our circle of hospitality and welcome; sitting down with and standing up for whoever in our world is most marginalized and ostracized, stigmatized and dehumanized, vulnerable and voiceless, ridiculed and oppressed, left out and alone; which is how we live, not because we have made a political decision to be liberal or an ideological decision to be progressive, but because we have made a spiritual decision to follow Jesus, and the closer we get to Jesus, the wider we draw our circle of  welcome; which has been one of the central concerns of our life together.

Another of which has been the spiritual discipline of careful speech; speech which is intentional, mindful, truthful, careful and kind.

Kindness being another fundamental virtue which we have sought to practice; all of us longing to become the sort of people Naomi Shihab Nye described when she said that there are some persons for whom kindness is the only thing which ties their shoes in the morning and sends them out into the day, following them everywhere like a shadow or a friend.

The sort of mindful, thoughtful, gentle kindness we all need to give and to receive, because all of us are at least a little broken, in ways known and unknown, and many of us are hurting in one way or another. Which has been another frequent theme during our now long life together; the fact that so many are hurting so deeply, and are in need of the comfort and courage we draw from one another in the family of faith. 

How many times have we said, and heard, across our thousand Sundays together, that “There is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life, and, while none of us will go through all of them, all of us will go through some of them,” the spirit of God, and the people of God, helping us to go through things so painful that if someone had told us ahead of time we were going to have to go through them, we would have sworn that we would never make it.  But we do.  We do go through.  Surrounded and supported by the spirit of God and the people of God, we somehow have the strength to stay on our feet, keep moving, and go through what we did not get to go around.

Which may be the thing about which we have thought the most across the past thousand Sundays; except, of course, for that one thing which Jesus said matters most, which is that we “Love God with all that is in us and love all others as we wish all others to love us;” the cross-formed life, we like to call it; our lives stretched up to God in centering prayer, and stretched out to others in welcome and hospitality, empathy and compassion, solidarity and justice; the central standard by which Jesus said, in Matthew 22:40, all scripture and tradition must be judged and measured; our central standard and anchor, the lens of love through which we read all scripture and see all persons.

Which brings us back to where we started; to the simple, central truth that the deeper we go in our life with God, the wider we grow in our love for the world, until the size of the circumference of the circle of  our welcome becomes the same as the size of the circumference of the circle of welcome around God, which, according to Revelation 5:13, is a circle of welcome as wide as the whole human family and all creation.  “Every creature,” says the writer of the Revelation, “In heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, singing together, forever, around the throne of God,” God’s final and eternal summing up, by gathering up, the whole human family and all of creation, because this is God’s world, and in God’s world, God gets the last word, and if the last word said is going to be God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good; not for some, but for all.

Beyond which there isn’t much more for me to say, other than “Thank you.”  On behalf of Marcia, Josh, Maria and myself, thank you for welcoming us into your care twenty-five years ago.  And, twenty-five years later, thank you for all the grace and kindness you have shown to our once small, now large, family, throughout our now long life together.

Which, as simple as it seems, is, perhaps, the best word to be our last word; Thank you.

                                                                                                                        Amen.   

Concerning the Future of Northminster

Jeremiah 1:4-10, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 21st, 2022 · Duration 18:59

On this next to last of our over a thousand Sundays together, I thought it might be helpful for us to think, for a few moments, concerning the future of Northminster.

In the most near and knowable future, just ten days from now, we will enter another interim between Senior Pastors, the seventh such season in Northminster’s fifty-five years of life. Previous Northminster interims have been as brief as seven months and as long as twenty months, so, how long this one may last, no one can know. What we do know is that our Personnel Committee, Pulpit Supply Committee and Deacons have put in place an excellent “Stage One” interim plan for September, October, November and December, which, if need be, can be extended or revised; a four month plan which will bring occasional visiting preachers to join the preaching of Lesley Ratcliff and Major Treadway, both of whom will also be hovering over the day to day life of the church; two pastors, Lesley and Major, who are true persons of integrity and empathy, wisdom and insight, kindness and compassion; all the virtues which matter most in ministers.

Of course, the Fall will also see the arrival of scaffolding and hydraulic lift machines, pallets of construction supplies and lots of daily activity as we begin the necessary work of replacing our roof and all of our exterior wood work.

As you know, the cost of the work is very great, 2.8 million dollars, of which we now have about eight hundred thousand. So, here is what we need to do: All of us, who can give, need to give, together, over and above our regular budget giving, about two million dollars to undergird this necessary work. Careful congregational speech requires us to say that some cannot give, but most can, and many have the capacity to give very large gifts. If, for example, you have the capacity to give a five or six-figure charitable gift, this would be a very important year for you to make that kind of gift to Northminster.

Those who cannot give should not give. The rest of us need to give what we can, large or small, to help raise the roof and restore the walls of this sacred and significant place where all of us have been comforted and challenged, shaped and formed, called and sent in beautiful and powerful ways.

All of which will make for an important interim autumn at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover; an interim season which will lead into the next new year when, hopefully, at some point in 2023, we might have our next new Senior Pastor.

Needless to say, no one knows who that person will be. But, what we do know is that, whoever they are, she or he will need to have the same opportunity to become your Senior Pastor which I was given when Marcia, Joshua, Maria and I first came here, exactly twenty-five years ago, in August of 1997. Which means that when pastoral moments arise; weddings, funerals, special occasions, hard crises, it will be important for the present and future pastors who will be serving here to fill the pastoral roles those moments require; something which can be so important that the Episcopalians even have a special rule for it, which is that a retiring priest cannot return to the church for a full year. Lacking such a rule, we will all need to exercise a mindful kind of boundary keeping, which may, at times, be difficult, but which will be made less difficult by the fact that, in Lesley and Major, we have such kind and true, thoughtful and mindful pastors, which will also be true of whoever is called to be Northminster’s next Senior Pastor.

While we do not know who that person will be, we do know how they will be. They will be kind and true, thoughtful and mindful; a wide-circle soul with an embrace of welcome for all who gather within these walls and all who live beyond these walls; a person with the same sort of calling which we find described in this morning’s Old Testament lesson, that inescapable calling to, in the words of today’s scripture, “build up
and tear down,” another way of saying that every pastor’s calling and responsibility includes comforting us all in our brokenness and grief, while also speaking the truth, even when that truth is hard to hear.

Speaking the hard truth has always been difficult for pastors, but never more so than in these days when so many people spend so much time in social media echo chambers which often serve to polarize positions and harden differences, leading too easily to any challenging word of truth being characterized as “partisan” or “political.” You will need to guard against assigning partisan political intent to prophetically moral truth; because your pastors, all of them, past, present and future, have the same calling Jeremiah had in today’s Old Testament lesson; what Martin Luther King, Jr. used to call a vocation of agony, the calling to speak truth which both comforts and challenges; something those of us who are called to be pastors can’t not do, but which we must strive to do in the way that William Sloane Coffin so wonderfully captured in his wise old adage, “When you have something to say that is both painful and true, try to say it softly.”

Thank you for allowing me to “Try to say it softly” in this most beautiful place with all you most wonderful people for over a thousand Sundays past. For the next thousand Sundays to come, remember that we are all broken in ways known and unknown, that we are all loved, and that we all need to be more mindful, thoughtful, gentle, generous and kind tomorrow than we were yesterday, which will make for an even more beautiful future for Northminster, and for us all.

Amen.

New Math

Luke 12:49-56, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · August 14th, 2022 · Duration 19:16

I’m not sure if you’ve heard, but the math that is being taught in schools today is not the same as it used to be. If you are more than about ten or fifteen years older than me, you may have missed this evolution of mathematics. If you are more than about ten or fifteen years younger than me, you may not have known that you were being taught something new. I learned about this new math, when my friends’ kids entered elementary school, which resulted in these same friends posting to social media complaints that they neither understood nor could help their children with their math homework. The answers were the same, but the path to get to them was sufficiently different to result in enough weeping and gnashing of teeth to cause a national tissue shortage and significantly increased dental bills.

When I read this morning’s gospel lesson in preparation for worship this week, and read Jesus saying that he had not come to bring peace, but division, I thought, “oh no, not Jesus too.” Even Jesus is trying to mix things up and try out some of this new math.

When Jesus asks, “do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?”, my first thought is, “yes! Of course, you came to bring peace to the earth. You are the ‘Prince of Peace!’ And we, Christians, sometimes greet one another with the ‘Peace of Christ.’” When Jesus responds, that he has come to bring division, I cannot keep myself from thinking of verses in the Bible like Colossians 3:15 which instructs the church to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” or the fruits of the spirit in Galatians which lists peace prominently, or Ephesians 2:17 which says that Jesus “came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”

The Gospel of John records Jesus saying “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you” and “I have said this to you so that in me you may have peace.” Even in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus says to people twice before today’s reading “go in peace” and to another “peace to this house.”

But not today. Today Jesus wants to talk about division.

What kind of division does Jesus want to talk about? The kind of division that rocks families to their core. The kind that sets fathers against sons and mothers against daughters; the kind of division that sees houses split as near down the middle as they can be split. And here we have Jesus, on the road to Jerusalem – where he will be crucified. He is tired, weary, and worried, not offering words of comfort and care, but words of caution that cause concern. “Do you think I have come to bring Peace?”

There are many texts throughout the Bible that feel far away and like someone needs to sit down with them and think on them for a long time to understand and connect to them, but this description of division feels all too close to our present. It feels as if Jesus might be describing some of us. Here Jesus seems to be looking into our lives that exist beyond these walls and inside of other walls that we think or that we hope protect us from onlooking eyes. It seems like Jesus sees the divisions that cause us deep pain, the ones that cause us to lay awake at night and wonder if anybody knows and if they did if they would still love us.

It is this kind of raw and tender pain that Jesus touches on as a description of the division that he says he is bringing in Luke’s gospel – a far cry from the kind of peace that we will sing about during Advent, “peace on earth and mercy mild,” “peace on earth, good will to all,” “his gospel is peace,” “sleep in heavenly peace.” To this Jesus says, “do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No,” says Jesus, “I tell you, but rather division.”

I wonder if Jesus’ words here, as he is on the road to his death, might be a painful description of what he has seen in response to his gospel rather than a description of his intentions.

After all, Jesus’ ministry begins, as Luke tells it in chapter 4, with Jesus teaching in his home town synagogue. Those who knew him and his family were initially excited about his ability to understand and teach the scriptures. Yet, only a few verses later, those same home congregation members, congregants who may have included some of his extended family members, try to throw Jesus off a cliff. Pain and division, in response to Jesus’ teaching that he has come to bring Good News.

There was also that time in chapter 5 that some guys made a hole in the roof of the place where Jesus was teaching so that they might lower their friend through it to meet with Jesus. The first thing that Jesus says to the lowered, paralyzed friend is “your sins are forgiven.” This greeting upsets the gathered religious folk to the point that they accuse Jesus of “speaking blasphemy.”

Jesus’ disciples did what was unlawful on the sabbath in chapter 6; also in chapter 6, Luke tells us that Jesus pronounced woe to the rich, the well fed, those who are laughing, and those of whom all speak well.

In chapter 7, Jesus, a Jew, says of a Gentile Roman Centurion, that he has not found such faith anywhere among the Jews in Israel. In Chapter 8 when Jesus rids a man of a legion of demons, the kind people of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave. In Chapter 9, The Samaritans didn’t want Jesus even to pass through their village on the way to Jerusalem. And in Chapter 10, Jesus makes the hero of a parable, not the pastors and priests, but the Samaritans (those same ones that only one chapter earlier didn’t even want Jesus in their town).

As I read the gospel of Luke to this point in Jesus’ journey, it seems to me that the message of Jesus was not one of division, but rather as we heard from Chuck last week, “while many things may matter much to God, nothing matters more than that we sit down with and stand up for whoever in our world is most voiceless and vulnerable, suffering and struggling, marginalized and ostracized, embarrassed and excluded, left out and alone.”

This overarching message of Jesus, which started in that first sermon that led the residents of his hometown to try to throw him off a cliff, was good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. The ministry of Jesus continues as it began with a focus on those the furthest from power and privilege: the poor, the imprisoned, those whose health prevents them from engaging in a world built for able bodied folk, and those who for one reason or another are incapable of experiencing the fullness of freedom that other humans enjoy.

This is a mission that we know and have heard preached and witnessed lived throughout the pastorate of Chuck Poole and throughout the history of this good church. When this kind of ministry starts to cause the kinds of division that Jesus describes in today’s reading is when there is conflict between the groups about whom Jesus spoke in his first sermon, and the groups that more traditionally hold power and privilege – notably the not-poor, those with a clean police report, those who are able bodied and neurotypical,  and those who live life without a concern for how the essence of their being might result in their persecution in the midst of otherwise everyday activities.

Jesus did not set out with the intention of dividing, but reconciling. Only, for Jesus, peace begins with a focus on those in need and those in pain. For Jesus, peace has a full range of life implications. For Jesus, peace looks like everyone having enough; so that no one is hungry. For Jesus, peace looks like a world without prisons, because in the peace of Jesus, the principles that govern human interaction are love, redemption, and reconciliation; for Jesus, peace looks like a world where physical and neuro-divergent limitations do not exist, because, in the peace of Jesus, there is space for all, room for all, and time for all – whatever the cost; for Jesus, peace means that all know freedom because where the peace of Jesus exists people know that to diminish the humanity of another through oppression and discrimination is to diminish the humanity of everyone. For Jesus, this is what peace looks like.

In the world into which Jesus came, this kind of peace did not exist, and today it still does not yet exist. And so, talking like this, creates division. It causes heated and passionate arguments where words get thrown around like, possible, pragmatic, and political. Particularly, when the people in the room are people like me, people with wealth, people who have never seen the inside of a police car, much less a prison, people who are physically able and neuro-typical, people who have never known oppression.

Jesus, stands in the midst of this division, in the midst of this pain and hurt, pain that his message of peace and reconciliation has caused, and he does not ignore it. Jesus continues on with his mission. He continues to preach love, repentance, forgiveness, and healing. He continues to seek out the faithful, believing that his message has a chance in the world if people will give it a try.

Dear children of God, the world in which we live is not so different from the world in which Jesus offered this message. Tensions and pains exist, many right here in this room. Many more outside of this room. Some of them related to the peace and reconciliation of Jesus, which has the power to divide even as it seeks to draw together.

In the midst of that pain, be it the pain of not having enough to eat, the pain of broken relationships, the pain of losing a loved one, or the pain of feeling like Jesus is causing significant discomfort, in the midst of any of these pains, and any more that don’t fit into these categories, the message of Jesus remains the same. Our task as Christians, our task as Northminster Baptist Church is to love God with our whole selves, and to love our neighbors like we want to be loved.

We have heard these words often enough, that it is easy to forget how hard they are to live. Loving someone like you want to be loved, can cause pain. And it can even cause division. Look at Jesus, it nearly got him thrown off a cliff and it did get him all the way crucified. Learning to know a person, and to know their pain, requires a special kind of time, attention, and care. And it requires a response.

In order to live in the world about which Jesus preached, we must choose love. In order to live into the peace of Christ, we must seek out the pain, be ready to share it, and offer love and reconciliation as a salve to it. We must offer love. Otherwise, we are destined to be described in the same way Jesus described the world into which he came – a world in which his message brought division.

If you are anything like me, thinking about ideas like peace and division on large and small scales between Jerusalem and Jackson can leave you wondering, well what do I do? Where do I begin? I propose to start here. Ask yourself this question: what is one thing that I can do today to bring about the peace of Christ. What is one thing – that I can do – today – to bring about the peace of Christ? Answer that question, then go do it. Today.

 

Amen.

 

Concerning What Matters Most

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20. The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 7th, 2022 · Duration 1:54

“Until you seek justice for the oppressed, I will not welcome your worship or hear your prayers.” With those words, this morning’s lesson from Isaiah raises the possibility that, while many things may matter much to God, nothing matters more than that we sit down with and stand up for whoever is most voiceless and vulnerable, suffering and struggling, marginalized and ostracized, left out and alone; what Isaiah calls “seeking justice for the oppressed.”

One imagines that many things must matter much to God, but, according to this morning’s reading from Isaiah, nothing matters more than that.
Amen.

A Sermon on the Subject of God

Hosea 11:1-11, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 31st, 2022 · Duration 13:16

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

You Are Loved

Colossians 2:6-19, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 24th, 2022 · Duration 6:45

As you have already seen, and heard, Bible Camp 2022 has been a most remarkable weekend here at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover; all of our Bible Camp children and grownups thinking, learning and singing together about that big beautiful Biblical image of the family of God as a massive, expansive tree, where every kind of bird is anticipated, celebrated, wanted, welcomed and loved.

My assignment for Bible Camp this year was to play the part of St. Francis, who, of course, was known to preach, not only about the birds, but even to preach to the birds. 

While preparing to play my part as Bible Camp St. Francis, I found myself revisiting, a number of times, that remarkable poem by the late Galway Kinnell, “St. Francis and the Sow,” in which Kinnell says, “Everything flowers from within, of self-blessing, though sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness, and to retell it that it is lovely, until it flowers, again, from within.”

That is the church’s job; to keep telling us that we are loved, until we actually, eventually, gradually, finally believe it; and flower, again, from within. 

The church has many jobs, one of which is to tell us that we are loved, until we hear that truth at a place so deep in our spirit that, someday, we might even suspend, for a moment, all of our old coping mechanisms; dropping our defenses low enough, for long enough, to let ourselves float, if only for a moment, in the boundless sea of God’s limitless love; not unlike Jordan, Kaylee and Celia, suspended helplessly for a glorious moment in the water of baptism;  all of us floating helplessly, with the three of them, in the gentle sea of the love of God; letting it be enough, for once, just to know that God is love, and we are loved.

Truth which can be hard to hear over all the other voices which clamor for our attention; shame and guilt, regret and remorse, self-loathing and self-doubt; the incessant inner-chorus conducted by our relentless inner-critic.  Against which it is the church’s job to say, as Paul said to the Colossians in today’s epistle passage, “Do not let anyone condemn you, do not let anyone disqualify you.”  You are loved. 

That is the church’s job; to keep telling us that we are loved, until we actually, eventually, gradually, finally believe it; and flower, again, from within. 

Until then, as Paul said in today’s epistle lesson, “Do not let anyone condemn you, do not let anyone disqualify you,” because you are loved.  As that most amazing anthem of inclusion, “Crowded Table,” says, “The door is always open, your picture’s on the wall.  We’re all a little broken, but everyone belongs.”

Which, if you think about it, might actually land somewhere in the neighborhood of what God says all day every day at the gates to heaven.  After all, the book of Revelation says that there are twelve gates to the city of God, each made of a single pearl, and all twelve are stuck open, forever, never to be closed.  So, it isn’t hard to imagine God, waiting at the gate, saying something like, “The door is always open.  Your picture’s on my wall.  Everyone’s a little broken, and everyone belongs.” 

Until then, as Paul said to the Colossians, do not let anyone condemn you, and do not let anyone disqualify you.  We are all anticipated and celebrated, wanted, welcomed and loved by God; every kind of bird and every kind of us.                                                                                                                                       

Amen.

              

Concerning the Centered Life

Luke 10:38-42, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 17th, 2022 · Duration 10:41

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

You Have Given the Right Answer

Luke 10:25-37, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 10th, 2022 · Duration 7:11

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read today’s words from Luke’s gospel, they call to mind, for me, that wonderful story President Carter used to tell about a summer mission trip he went on with his church from Plains, Georgia.  It was sometime in the 1960’s, not long after Jimmy Carter had been defeated in his first run for governor of Georgia.  Plains Baptist Church sent a group to work for a week in Boston, where Mr. Carter was assigned to assist an urban minister named Eloy Cruz.  Reverend Cruz was so genuinely joyful and peaceful that, on the last day, just before boarding the church van for the long journey back to Georgia, Jimmy Carter took Eloy Cruz aside and said, “You are the most centered, contented, kind person I have ever met, and I am not leaving here until I know your secret,” to which Reverend Cruz replied, “I don’t know.  I guess I just get up every morning and love God and whoever is in front of me.”

Which, according to this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus would call “the right answer.”  When the inquirer asked Jesus the way to eternal life, Jesus asked the inquirer what was written in the law, and when the inquirer said, “Love God with all that is in you and love all others as you wish all others to love you,” Jesus said, “You have given the right answer.  Do that and you will live.”  Or, as Eloy Cruz said to Jimmy Carter, “Get up every morning and love God and whoever is in front of you.”

That’s it.  That’s all.                              

Amen.

 

All the Resources of Our Congregation

Galatians 6:1-6, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 3rd, 2022 · Duration 1:17

Needless to say, that was a very big promise we all made a few moments ago, joining our voices to promise Chesley Quinn “all the resources of our congregation.”

The most important of which is the congregation; all of you dear and good souls, from whom we all draw so much strength, in whom we find so much courage, and with whom we now make our way, together, to the table of communion.

Amen.

Our Anchor is Our Sail

Galatians 5:1, 13-25, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 28th, 2022 · Duration 12:16

The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

Those words from today’s epistle lesson are among the great summary passages in scripture; a short list of big verses which sum up, sometimes in a single, simple sentence, what matters most; passages such as Micah 6:8, “What does the Lord require of us, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with God?”, Matthew 7:12, “Treat others as you wish to be treated; this is all the law and the prophets,” Matthew 22:34-40, “Love God with all that is in you, and love your neighbor as yourself.  All the law and the prophets hang on this,” Romans 13:9, “All the commandments are summed up in one, Love your neighbor as yourself,” and, from today’s lesson, Galatians 5:14, “The whole law is summed up in a single commandment, You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” passages of scripture in which travels the kind of truth which has long served as our anchor here at Northminster.  “Love all others as you wish to be loved,” the central standard by which we long to live, within these walls and beyond these walls; the kind of truth which, when we are at our best, is our moral compass and guiding light, a solid, centering anchor which has remained, and will remain, through all the changes which have come, and will come; including the one which is coming to us all on August 31, when our time with you will come to its close.

Last September, we mailed a letter to all of you, sharing our sense that it was time for someone else to sit in the Senior Pastor’s chair here at Northminster; something which Marcia and I had been talking about at home, by then, for over a year, and which I had raised with the Deacons nine months earlier, at their annual retreat in January of 2021.

Needless to say, it isn’t simple, or easy, to know when it is time for a change in pastoral leadership, but I think I began to sense that need, for Northminster, as early as the summer of 2020.  We have, after all, been here a long time, and, very long pastorates have not been the rhythm of life here at Northminster.  Dudley Wilson, our first pastor, served here for nearly eight years, after which came John Claypool, for five years; John Thomason, for five; and Roger Paynter, for seven.  My first time with you was for six years, Brian Brewer was here for  two years, and now, our second season with you has lasted nearly fifteen years.

 So, by Northminster standards, we’ve been here a long time, during which the world has changed in ways which, even in a church as lay-led as Northminster, call, I think, for a different voice and vision from a new Senior Pastor.

 I’m a little young to be retiring, and the call of God to serve the world is not the sort of thing from which one can exactly “retire,” so Marcia and I will be looking for what and where the next chapter of life might be for us.  For you, there will be an interim period of some time, how long, no one can say, the initial four months of which, September through December, have been planned by our Pulpit Supply Committee, Personnel Committee and Deacons, with a convergence of some visiting Sunday preachers, along with the very capable and thoughtful preaching of Lesley Ratcliff and Major Treadway; our two kind, wise and gifted pastors who will also be shepherding, together, along with the Caregivers, Deacons, and support staff of the church, the day to day pastoral and institutional life of the church, along with the work Lesley and Major already do. 

And, then, there will also be all of you, stepping in to do the good work which Northminster folk always do, only more so.  To the extent that you are able, it will be important, during the interim period, especially, for all of us to give more time and more money.  And, to the extent that you can, it will be important for all to be present at Sunday School and worship more consistently than ever. 

And, all will be well.  In some ways, things may actually be better and more exciting during the upcoming interim season, while our Pastor Search Committee, which you elected  back in March, continues searching for the next Senior Pastor, who will, at some point, join the thoughtful, mindful, generous congregation at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover, a congregation birthed fifty-five years ago with a centering sense of what matters most; love for God and love for others, our North Star, central standard, guiding principle, moral compass and anchor. 

An anchor which, remarkably enough is the only anchor in the history of the world ever also to serve as a sail, because the more anchored we are in the life of love, the further we travel in our embrace of the world; the deeper our anchor, the higher our sail, catching the wind of the Spirit; our anchor, also, our sail. 

Amen.

Concerning Galatians 3:28

Galatians 3:23-29, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 19th, 2022 · Duration 12:27

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer servant or free, there is no longer male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

Every three years, when the lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words on this Sunday, I am reminded that, in the world of first-century Galatia, if, instead of Paul, a woman had said, “In the baptized family of faith there is no longer male and female,” it would have been just as true, but people might have dismissed it by saying, “Well, of course you would say that, you need more rights.” Or if, instead of Paul, a servant had said, “In the baptized family of faith, there is no longer servant or free,” it would have been just as true, but people might have dismissed it by saying, “Well, of course you would say that, you need more freedom.” Which is why it was so important for Paul, a free, male, Jew, to say that, in the baptized family of faith, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, servant or free, male and female,” because, in first-century Galatia, Paul was speaking from the more privileged side of that list of human differences.

All of which takes me back to some of my own moments of similar responsibility. For example, in the religious world in which I grew up, the voices of women were not welcome in the pulpit of the church. So, since that was all I had ever been taught as a child, it was all I knew to think or say when I was a young adult.

But then, slowly, slowly, little by little, I came to see that, as Peter proclaimed on Pentecost, God pours out God’s spirit on all flesh, sons and daughters, with no regard for whether they happen to be sons or daughters. But, even after I knew better, I went for the longest time without saying so because I didn’t know how to defend the new light I had seen. And then, one day, while reading today’s epistle passage, it occurred to me that, if we were not going to ordain women we never should have started baptizing girls because, according to Galatians 3:28, in the baptized family of faith, there is no male and female. So, of course, we ordain women because we baptize girls.

And, like Paul in first-century Galatia, once I came to see that, I had a special responsibility to say that; for the same reason that, as a white person, I have a special responsibility to say that white supremacy is sin, and, as a straight person, I have a special responsibility to say that homosexuality is a human difference, not a spiritual sin. The family into which I was born in Macon, Georgia sixty-six years ago had no social standing or financial advantage. And, yet, because I happen to have been born white, straight and male, I, like Paul, was born on the privileged side of every human difference you can name, which means that, like Paul, I live with a particular responsibility to speak from the side which has long held too much power for the side which has long held too little power until all these human differences which will not exclude in heaven do not exclude on earth; a kind of sacred, human solidarity which our Lord Jesus embodied throughout the four gospels by consistently sitting down with and standing up for whoever was most marginalized and voiceless; which is what Paul did in today’s epistle passage, and which, in my experience, is what all of us do, too, in those moments when we are most filled with the Holy Spirit, because the deeper we go in our life with the Spirit, the wider we grow in our embrace of the world.

There is a lot of pain in this world; from a store in Buffalo to a church in Sacramento, from a school in Uvalde to a war in Ukraine, from Bailey Avenue in Jackson, where five-year-old Mariyah Lacey was slain at the beginning of this week, to St. Stephen’s Church in Vestavia, where Jane Pounds, Bart Rainey and Sarah Yeager lost their lives at the end of the week.

The church can help lift a little of the world’s pain by forming people who work for a more gentle and welcoming world. As our dear friend Glenda Curry, Episcopal Bishop of Alabama, said in the aftermath of the unspeakable tragedy at St. Stephen’s, “We open our lives and our hearts to the world. We welcome everyone, because we are followers of Jesus.”

Because we are followers of Jesus, that is how we live. And the deeper we go in our life with Jesus, the wider we grow in our embrace of the world. The deeper we go, the wider we grow, until the size of the circumference of the circle of our welcome is the same as the size of the circumference of the circle of the welcome of God.

Amen.

Concerning the Trinity

John 16:12-15, Trinity Sunday

Chuck Poole · June 12th, 2022 · Duration 13:18

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, the Spirit will guide you into all the truth...The Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

Every three years, on Trinity Sunday, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from today’s gospel lesson. And, every time they roll back around, they seem to me to be the best possible passage for Trinity Sunday; the second part of the trinity, Jesus, preparing to return to the first part of the trinity, God, by handing us off to the third part of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, to take us the rest of the way by telling us the rest of the truth.

Which, for many, myself among them, raises the question, “But isn’t that awfully subjective? How do we know if what we think is the truth is actually coming from the Holy Spirit?”; the kind of question Jesus anticipates in today’s gospel lesson, when Jesus says, “The Spirit will not speak on the Spirit’s own, but the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

That is the central standard against which we measure what we think the Spirit might be telling us: Is it true to the spirit of Jesus? That is the question. Because the Spirit does not speak on the Spirit’s own, the Spirit will only tell us more of what Jesus told us some of; the Spirit, taking us further and further along the same path down which Jesus got us started.

So, we measure what we believe the Holy Spirit is leading us to say and do by the Jesus we find in the four gospels. Like the rest of the Bible, the four gospels are not inerrant or infallible. “Inerrancy” is a seventeenth century category imposed on the Bible by well-meaning folk looking for an infallible authority. However, while they may not be inerrant or infallible, the four gospels are our most trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, and to read the four gospels is to see that Jesus spent his life sitting down with and standing up for whoever was most voiceless and powerless, ostracized and marginalized, left out and alone, and the Holy Spirit will only lead us further along that same path.

For example, in Matthew 22:34-40, the Jesus of the four gospels said that nothing matters more than loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we wish others to love us, and the Holy Spirit will only take us further along that same path. In Matthew 12:7, the Jesus of the four gospels said that if we understood the way God really is we would stop condemning things God does not condemn, and the Holy Spirit will only take us further along that same path. In Matthew 7:12, the Jesus of the four gospels said that all scripture, tradition and religion can be summed up in a single sentence, “Treat all others the way you want all others to treat you,” and the Holy Spirit will only take us further along that same path; a path of growth and change to which Jesus pointed when Jesus said, in today’s gospel lesson, “I have more to say to you, but you cannot bear it now. When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will guide you into all truth,” the Spirit, taking us further and further along the same path down which Jesus got us started; a path of growth and change with which we are never finished; growing and changing, never smaller, always bigger; bigger in our kindness, our courage, our welcome, our embrace, our celebration of human difference and our longing for human diversity.

How can I say that with such confidence? Partly because of the way today’s gospel lesson talks about what the church eventually came to call “the trinity”: The Holy Spirit will only lead us further in the ways of Jesus, who came to reveal the one God who created the universe, the God who is waiting and working toward the day when every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea will sing together forever around the throne of God, which may help explain why Jesus was always redrawing the circle of Jesus’ welcome to embrace whoever was on the margins, because Jesus was revealing the size of the circle of God’s welcome and joy, and the Holy Spirit will only lead us further and further along that same path down which Jesus got us started. So, of course, if we are walking in the Spirit, we will be following Jesus into the never-ending, ever-expanding bigness of God, the life Rainer Maria Rilke described with that singularly beautiful testimony, “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not finish the last one, but I give myself to it.”

May it be so, may it be so; for each of us and all of us, may it ever be so.
Amen.

Better a Wind Chime

Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · June 5th, 2022 · Duration 1:31

When the day of Pentecost had come, suddenly there came a sound like the rush of a mighty wind, and all of them were filled with the Holy Spirit.  Every year, when the lectionary asks the church to read those words on Pentecost Sunday, they call to mind, for me, that verse in John chapter three where Jesus is reported to have said that the Spirit is like the wind, blowing wherever the Spirit wishes, beyond our capacity to capture or control.

And, ever since, we have been busy building religious boxes in which to capture and control the wind of the Spirit; all the while, God, one imagines, would have preferred for us just to hang out a windchime.

Amen.

 

Jesus’ Prayer for Jesus’ Friends

John 17:20-26, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 29th, 2022 · Duration 10:31

“To live in solidarity with the pain of the world is what it means to be a Christian.”  At this moment when there is so much pain, throughout our nation, our city and the world, those words of Richard Rohr’s call forth that which is deepest and widest in each of us. 

“To live in solidarity with the pain of the world is what it means to be a Christian,” is Richard Rohr’s more eloquent version of my more cornbread and peas belief that the most inclusive Christian confession of all is that “All is not fully well for anyone until all is finally well for everyone.”  Or, as Glennon Doyle so beautifully and concisely put it, “There is no such thing as other people’s children.”              

Though Uvalde, Texas may be a long day’s drive from here, Rojelio, Nevaeh, Jacklyn, Makenna, José, Eliahna, Uziyah, Amerie, Xavier, Tess, Jayce, Maranda, Alithia, Annabell, Maite, Lexi, Layla, Jailah and Eliahana, their teachers, Irma and Eva; and, yes, also, Salvador, are as much ours as Adrian McDouglas, a twelve year old child who was killed by gunfire on Ventura Street here in Jackson this week, Kiante Scott, a child of our church who was slain on Bailey Avenue twelve years ago next month, and Yeslin Mateo Romero, killed last August while waiting in the parking lot at the grocery store in Canton.

For Christians, there is no such thing as other people’s children, because to live in solidarity with the pain of the world is what it means to be a Christian.

Perhaps it is in that sense that Jesus’ prayer for Jesus’ friends in today’s gospel lesson someday will be answered; Jesus’ as yet unanswered prayer for all of Jesus’ friends to be completely one with one another.  Though that may never mean “one” as in agreement, perhaps it might mean “one” as in solidarity; the whole Church, all of Christianity, every person ever baptized in the name of Jesus, finding the courage and the kindness, the kindness and the courage, to sit down with and stand up for those who are most vulnerable, even when that means standing up against those who are most powerful, because that is the moral obligation of Christians; not special Christians, or some Christians, but all Christians, because to be a Christian is, in Paul’s words, to be crucified with Christ; to join the Wide Armed One, who carries us all, in carrying the weight of the world; all of us, together, as one, living in solidarity with the pain of the world.

Amen.

Who Are We to Hinder God?

Acts 11:1-18, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 15th, 2022 · Duration 11:09

Mary Laurel, Blaine, Parkes, Watts, Anna Mitchell, Charlotte, Celia, Slates and Elise, to see each of you standing at the altar today with your mentor was, for the rest of us, a powerful reminder of all the ways we form and shape one another’s lives in the family of faith; all of us learning from one another.

Not unlike Peter and Cornelius in today’s lesson from the book of Acts, a friendship which started out with Peter as the mentor, but ended up with Peter learning at least as much as he taught; Peter’s life, changed, perhaps, even more than Cornelius’ life; a change in Peter which is what got Peter called on the carpet by the religious leaders in Jerusalem; Peter, criticized by the church for drawing the circle of his welcome too wide, a wide embrace which, at first, was a stretch, even for Peter.  In fact, in his “step by step” report on how he came to be so liberal in his welcome of Gentiles, Peter reminded his critics that he, himself, was, not so long ago, as conservative as they when it came to the size of the circle of the welcome around God.  But, then, Peter had that dream, in which the Spirit of God took a reluctant Peter past the place where both scripture and tradition would have told Peter to stop, which was “step one” in Peter’s “step by step” story of the spiritual journey which led to Peter’s wide welcome of his new Gentile friends.

Step two came soon after, when Peter arrived at the home of the Gentile, Cornelius, where, in Acts 10:28, Peter told Cornelius that he had come only because of the dream, because it was actually against the rules for Peter, a Jew, to be visiting Cornelius, a Gentile; followed by step three, which was Peter’s recognition that the Gentiles had, in them, the same Holy Spirit which Peter had in him; prompting Peter to ask his critics, in today’s passage from Acts chapter eleven, “If God has given them the same Holy Spirit God has given us, who are we to hinder God?”

All of which, while I cannot speak for you, is, for me, a lot like looking in a mirror.  Like Peter, I grew up in a religious world with clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders.  But, then, there came a time in my life, when, like Peter, I met people who became, for me, what Cornelius became for Peter; their lives an undeniable argument that the circle of welcome around God was wider than the circle of welcome I had learned to draw in the church of my childhood.

First, it was Melvin Kruger, the first of many Jewish friends in whom I saw the Spirit of God so beautifully and fully embodied.  Mr. Kruger and I were just like Peter and Cornelius, only in reverse.  This time, instead of the reluctant Jew, Peter, seeing God in the Gentile, it was the reluctant Gentile, me, seeing God in the Jew.  Later, it was Sababu and Okolo Rashid, and Sabri Agachan, the first of many Muslim friends in whom the Spirit of God is so clear and so dear, and Seetha Srinivasan, a Hindu friend in whom the Spirit of God is so unfailingly generous, gentle, healing and kind that Seetha causes the rest of us to want to be better, simply by being exactly who she is; like Peter’s theology chasing his friendship with Cornelius, my theology chasing my friendship with each of those dear and good souls, their lives redrawing the circle of my life to more nearly match the size of the circumference of the circle of the welcome of God, the kind of ever-expanding life Rainer Maria Rilke described with that unforgettable image; “I live my life in widening circles which reach out across the world.  I may not finish the last one, but I will give myself to it.”

I wonder if that might be part of the meaning of that sentence Jesus is reported to have said in this morning’s gospel lesson, “A new commandment I give you, that you love one another.”  The commandment that we love one another is as old as the Torah, so why would Jesus call it a new commandment?  I wonder if it might be because, as long as we live, there may always be another someone to meet and know who will redraw the circle of our lives the way Cornelius redrew the circle of Peter’s life and love and welcome; that old commandment to live a life of love for others as new as the next time we have to redraw the circle of our welcome, until the size of the circle of our welcome is as expansive as the size of the circle of the welcome around God.

After all, even if, as Revelation 5:13 says, God intends, ultimately, to embrace every creature, in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and in the sea, inside the circle of God’s welcome, who are we to hinder God?

Amen.    

Full, and Running Over

Psalm 23, The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 8th, 2022 · Duration 15:48

“Even though we walk through life’s most difficult valleys, we will not be immobilized by our fears, because we know that God is with us.” I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, that single, simple, sentence from the center of this morning’s psalm has long been the part of Psalm 23 to which I most often have been drawn; that tender old promise that God is with us and for us to hold us and help us; the arms of God carrying us through what we did not get to go around; the spirit of God, and the people of God, helping us to stumble our way through sorrows so difficult and devastating that if someone had told us ahead of time we were going to have to go through them, we would have sworn we could never make it. But we do; with the help of God and the people of God, we do go through, not only the valley of the shadow of death, but, also, the often even harder valleys of the shadow of life.

All of which has long been, for me, the most beloved part of the most beloved psalm. But, across the past few months, I have found myself drawn, deeper and deeper, into another corner of today’s psalm, that familiar phrase from the old King James Bible, “Our cup runneth over;” an image which, whatever else it may have meant on the psalmist’ lips, in my ears has become a nearly daily way of thinking about the ways the love of God, which comes down to us, goes out through us; our lives, like a cup which is so full of the love of God that whenever anything is dropped into the cup of our lives, the love which has come down to us from God flows out from us to others.

Once the cup of our life is filled full with the love of God, then anything which is dropped into our lives; any moment or conversation, any crisis, stranger, encounter or friend, will cause our filled-up cup to run over with kindness, gentleness, courage, justice, truth and grace; our cup running over and spilling tenderness, kindness, truth and love, the same on all sides.

All of which we must say with only the greatest of care. After all, there are some things in this world which are hurtful, harmful, oppressive, exclusive and wrong, about which the truth must be spoken; moments when “same-on-all-sides” neutrality is not an option. Sometimes, the only way to stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for is to stand up against the same things Jesus would stand up against.

Thinking of all that this week took me back to a moment in my life, well over twenty-five years ago, when Marcia, Joshua, Maria and I were at the church in Washington D.C. I had walked to Capitol Hill to visit a member of our congregation, and, as I was walking away from the Capitol, I encountered a group of persons, chanting slogans and carrying signs which said, “GOD HATES _______ (a profane and hurtful name for persons who are gay) LEVITICUS 18:22. I started to walk on past, but found that the Spirit would not let me. I turned around, went back, and said, as softly, gently and quietly as I could, “You are taking the Lord’s name in vain, and you are taking the Lord’s word in vain. In the name of Jesus, I call on you to repent;” one of those moments when the cup of my life was sufficiently full of truth and love that, when those signs and slogans were dropped into the cup of my life, my cup ran over with truth and love, love and truth.

Sometimes, we must stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for by standing up against the same things Jesus would stand up against. But, even then, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we can, as Martin Niemoller once said, “Let love flow out.” No sarcasm, snarkiness, or eye-rolling. No exaggeration of other people’s opinions in an effort to make them look foolish. None of that. Just truth and love, love and truth; what Walter Rauschenbusch called, “The truth, dressed in nothing but love,” kindness and clarity, gentleness and justice, grace and truth; our wingspan as wide as our moral compass is true; our moral compass as true as our wingspan is wide; our cup, running over, with truth and love, equally, in every direction.

All of which calls to mind, for me, Rainer Maria Rilke’s verse, in which Rilke says, “God is a wheel at which I stand, whose spokes sometimes catch me up and revolve me nearer the center. After which, everything I put my hand to widens from turn to turn.” Drawn nearer and nearer into the center of God’s love, the circle of our love grows wider and wider. The deeper we go, the wider we grow; our lives, so filled with the Holy Spirit, our cup, so full of the love of God, that any moment, however large or small, dropped into our lives, causes our cup to run over the same on all sides with kindness, tenderness, truth and love; all the love which has come down to us from God, going out through us to others; spilling over, in all directions, further and further, wider and wider, more and more, for as long as we live.

Amen.

Eastertide Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

John 21:1-19, The Third Sunday of Eastertide

Lesley Ratcliff · May 1st, 2022 · Duration 8:47

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

In the Room Where it Happened

John 20:19-31, Second Sunday of Eastertide (Senior Recognition)

Major Treadway · April 24th, 2022 · Duration 13:20

Can you imagine? Thomas, mourning with the men with whom he’s spent the last year of his life wandering throughout Israel. All of them in disbelief as the one on whom they had hung all their hopes had been executed. They had watched as Jesus was hung on the cross. They had watched as he was placed in the tomb. They had watched as the stone was rolled into place. Jesus was dead and buried, and they had watched.

As all of his friends were gathered, Thomas was not with them. Who knows why Thomas wasn’t in that room with his friends that night? No one can say for certain. Perhaps it was his turn to go buy eggs. Maybe he needed to use the restroom. He could have just needed a break from his friends. But while he was away, the resurrected Jesus came to visit.

And Thomas wasn’t there. What misery he must have felt when they told him the news. Not altogether different from how Aaron Burr seemed to feel in Lin Manuel Miranda’s telling of the story of when the decision was made to move the US Capitol from New York City to Washington D.C. Burr was dismayed, angry, and jealous – not necessarily about what happened in the room, but that he was not in the room where it happened, the room where his political colleagues and adversaries were negotiating and making decisions. Miranda’s Burr sings mournfully of wanting to be in the room where it happens. As the song progresses, his tone changes from mourning to fierce determination, from I want to be in the room, to I’ve got to be in the room.

Could it be that there is a hint of that same dismay, anger, and jealousy in Thomas’s reply to his friends: “unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”? I’ve got to be in the room where it happens, or I’m not believing. His mournful longing becoming fierce determination in the span of a single sentence.

This feeling is not unfamiliar to us. Feeling left out or like something has been missed. It is the realization of the “fear of missing out” – a fear so common it has been shortened to the acronym “FOMO”. But these disciples were not in the upper room because of FOMO, they were in the upper room, because they were afraid that the misfortune that had befallen Jesus might befall them as well.

And then something amazing happened, and they were in the room where it happened. And Thomas, well, Thomas wasn’t. How must it have felt to be Thomas? How must it have felt to be his friends? How must it have felt to be Jesus?

Thomas’ friends, realizing that one of their squad was not with them, ran out to find him and tell him what happened in that room. Thomas, realizing that he had missed out on something amazing, responds with what we have come to know as “doubt.” And Jesus, how does Jesus respond? In two ways it seems. First, Jesus shows up one more time in that same room, and confronts Thomas with answers to his “doubts.” But then, after he confronts Thomas’s doubts and fears, as though speaking well beyond him, to all of those others, to us, who would not get to be in the room where it happened. Jesus says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

Kristian, Marilee, Caroline, Eli, Logan, Molly, Sam, Madyson, Luke, Ozzie, you all have had the good fortune to be in the room where it happens many times. You have been here, many of you from the time you were born, carried right down that aisle as an infant as this congregation promised share in your growth, claiming that you belong to us [as well as your parents]. You grew up downstairs in the children’s department, in Sunday School and Atrium, Children’s Chapel and Bible Camp. And then, having spent all the time in those rooms that one is allowed, you moved over to the Youth House, where many other things happened. Along the way, some of you ventured into the waters of Baptism, where this congregation made you more promises, this time “our encouragement and all the resources of our congregation as you continue to grow.”

As this congregation cultivated an environment for your faith to develop, something happened to us as well. For one’s faith development never happens strictly according to schedule. Just like Thomas didn’t plan for Jesus to show up in his absence, we could not have planned for any one of you to develop just as you have. And so, as you have developed, we have watched with awe and gratitude at the ways that Jesus has shown up in your lives. And as we have watched, we have been challenged, by your questions and by your faith, to follow Jesus more faithfully.

Seniors, you have had to endure longer periods of absence from the rooms in which you wanted to be than perhaps any others before you. The COVID pandemic has kept you from the rooms where you wanted to be. Yet, you pressed on. You kept working, you kept trying, you kept growing, academically, physically, spiritually. Your endurance has been inspiring. And now, you are ready to graduate and move on to the next chapter of your lives – diploma in hand.

This next chapter of your lives will be marked by many adventures – some exciting, some mundane. This chapter will also undoubtedly be marked by experiences where you will have missed something you wish that you had not, or where you will notice that one or more of your closest friends has missed something that you know they will wish they had not. This event might be a big game. It might be an important study session. It could even be a particularly moving worship experience or service opportunity. Almost without doubt, those of you who move away from the Jackson area, will miss what happens here, in this room. And you will be missed.

And just as when Thomas was not in the room when Jesus came to visit, and Aaron Burr was not in the room when Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison agreed to move the capitol, some version of the story will eventually make it out. Rather, than basing your response on Thomas’ (and Burr’s) reaction, focused on not being in the room where it happened, remember instead, Jesus’s response to Thomas.

Jesus says to Thomas blessed are those who believe even though they were not in the room. There is no way that we can go back to the room where Jesus was with the disciples. Similarly, after you graduate, and you begin all of your new adventures, it will more often than not, not be possible for you to be here. And even the live stream, as good as it is, cannot replicate being in this room. So, we will tell you the story of what has happened in your absence.

But remember, too. That we will be absent from the rooms where you find yourselves. We will not be present to continue being formed by your forming faith in the same ways we have until now. We will long to hear your stories of all that you are learning and all that you are experiencing. And when we do, that longing to be with you will grow. I anticipate that your growing faith will continue to help ours grow. When you tell us of the ways that you are able to apply in other rooms the faith that has developed in this room, we will marvel, and celebrate with you.

There is too much life to be lived to fill our thoughts with the want to be in rooms where we are not or to wish we had been in rooms where we were not. This morning, we are here. No amount of wishing, longing, or regret will cause us to be somewhere else. All of life is this way. Our presence, our greatest gift. There is time for planning and preparation. There is time for storytelling and reflection. But more important is the life lived in the present, in whatever place you find yourself. It is the present where you will be able to utilize what you have learned in the place where you have been formed. It is only in the present that you can sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for. It is only in the present that you can practice careful speech. It is only in the present that you can widen the circle of your embrace until your arms are stretched wide like the arms of Jesus. It is only in the present moment where your faith can be lived.

And so, as you leave this place to go to all your other places, and as you leave this room to enter other rooms, know that you will miss some of the good and surprising things that are happening here. Know that, like the disciples who ran to tell Thomas, we will tell you as soon as we can. Know also that we will be eager to hear what exciting and surprising things are happening in your lives that we have missed. Come home and tell us so that we can all celebrate together. And let our and your faith grow stronger as we marvel at what God has done, that we have not seen.

Amen

Concerning the Resurrection

John 20:1-18, Easter Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 17th, 2022 · Duration 13:46

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Cross

Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 10th, 2022 · Duration 10:43

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Where Do We Go to Begin Again?

Isaiah 43:16-21, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · April 3rd, 2022 · Duration 1:39

“Thus says the Lord; Do not let yourself get stuck in the past, for I am about to do a new thing.” Those words from today’s lesson from Isaiah, joined by Paul’s words in today’s epistle passage, “Forgetting what lies behind, I reach forward to what lies ahead,” help us all to remember that, while none of us can ever start over from the beginning, all of us can always start over from here.

Amen.

The Prodigal God

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Lesley Ratcliff · March 27th, 2022 · Duration 12:59

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

By This Time Next Year

Luke 13:1-9, The Third Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 20th, 2022 · Duration 14:42

So the owner of the vineyard said to the gardener, “For three years I have been looking for fruit on this tree, and still I find none. Cut it down!” But the gardener replied, “Give it one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; and if not, then you can cut it down.”

Every time the lectionary places in our path that parable from today’s gospel lesson, I think of that well-worn old cliché, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.” As long as the tree in the parable is allowed to live, there is always the hope that, by next year, things may have changed. Given a little more time, and a little more cultivation and fertilization, what the gardener in the parable calls “digging and manure,” who can say how much this tree might change by this time next year?

A parable which, in the mouth of Jesus, is, one imagines, less about the way trees grow than it is about the way we grow; as in, “Who can say how much any of us might grow and change between now and this time next year?” As long as there’s life, there’s hope. As long as we are alive, there is always the possibility that our hearts will be opened, our minds changed, our lives transformed. By this time next year, we could become so thoughtful and gentle, clear and true, centered and mindful, welcoming and kind that those who have long known us might actually wonder what has happened to us; the kind of change we long for, not because we hope to avoid a punishment or gain a reward on judgement day, but because we don’t want to underlive the one and only life we are ever going to have.

God’s got the next life. What we have is this life, and this life is going to end someday. And, as far as we know, we aren’t going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time. Someday will be the last day, which is the truth which travels in the first part of today’s lesson from Luke; Jesus, reminding the disciples that life is fragile, and can end at any moment. That’s why we long to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can; because, as far as we know, this is it. Someday is going to be the last day. Some year, there won’t be a next year.

How we have spent whatever is over of our one and only life, nothing and no one can change. How we will live whatever is left of our one and only life is up to us.

For us, as for the tree in today’s parable, real change and growth take work; what the gardener in the parable called “digging and manure;” the daily work of centering prayer, mindful thinking, listening for the Holy Spirit; the discipline of walking in the Spirit and opening our hearts to new light on old truth. It may not be easy or automatic, but if we open our hearts to the Spirit, who can say how different we might become by this time next year? Who can say how much more kind and gentle, big-spirited and welcoming, any of us might become by this time next year?

As Rainer Maria Rilke said, “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not finish the last one, but I give myself to it.” Which is exactly how we want to live; in ever-widening circles of love, and, also, how we want to die; unfinished, still growing wider in our welcome; a life of expansive piety which keeps redrawing the circle of our welcome until the size of the circle of our welcome becomes the same as the size of the circle of the welcome of God.

One of my favorite images for that kind of growing and changing is what Mary Oliver once called, “swimming inward and floating outward.” The hard work of prayer and contemplation, repentance and resolve is “swimming inward,” what the gardener in the parable called “digging and manure.” If we swim inward long enough, carefully enough, we will, eventually, begin to float outward, redrawing the circle of our life and love to the same as the size of the circle of the welcome around God.

That happened in my life, in part, as a result of reading, prayerfully, over and over, all four gospels. To read the four gospels over and over takes time and work, what the parable calls “digging and manure,” the hard work of swimming inward, into the gospels, which led, in my life, to floating outward, into the world, because, to follow Jesus around in the gospels is to see Jesus consistently sitting down with and standing up for whoever is most on the margins and at the edges. In my experience, to regularly, prayerfully follow Jesus around in the gospels, is to slowly, eventually start following Jesus around in the world; all that swimming inward causing us to start floating outward, to sit down with and stand up for whoever is most marginalized; living our lives in ever-widening circles of love.

If we give ourselves to that kind of life and love, who can say how much we might grow and change by this time next year? Where there’s life, there’s hope. Thanks be to God that for us, like the tree in the parable, there is always next year.

Until, of course, there isn’t.

Amen.

Nevertheless

Psalm 27, The Second Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 13th, 2022 · Duration 9:20

“Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.”

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I cannot hear those words from today’s psalm without thinking of the people of Ukraine, and how those words might land on their ears, on this Sunday, “Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident;” words which rise from a psalm so wide- ranging in its emotions that some scholars of the Hebrew Bible believe it must once have been two separate psalms which were later merged into one; verses one through six, mostly trust and confidence, verses seven through twelve, largely uncertainty and fear; causing some to say that Psalm 27 cannot always have been only one song.

But, I say “Why not?” Why shouldn’t one psalm be home to so much trust and so much fear? Aren’t most lives? I sometimes feel every ounce of everything in every corner of Psalm 27, all in a single day; hope and fear, joy and pain, uncertainty and trust; Psalm 27, with all its hope and all its fear, the soundtrack of my life. (And, perhaps, of yours, as well.)

All of which calls to mind, for me, that passage in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Lila, in which the old preacher, John Ames, says to Lila, “Life on earth is difficult, grave and marvelous. Our experiences are so fragmentary, so much sorrow and so much joy, that sometimes it is hard to believe that the joy and the sorrow are parts of the same life.”

Such is the nature of life for many of us; so much worry and trust, doubt and hope, confidence in God and anxiety about life; not unlike Psalm 27, with all its hope and fear, fear and hope.

For the two million Ukrainians who are now refugees, and the forty-two million who remain in harm’s way, for the one who wrote Psalm 27, and for all of us who read it, Psalm 27 speaks to us of a nevertheless kind of hope: Even when life is frightening, devastating, exhausting and hard, nevertheless we trust that God is with us and for us to hold us and help us. Even when we are immobilized by uncertainty and crushed by tragedy, even when we are weary from getting up every day of our lives to face the same fears and fear the same faces, even when we are surprised and angry at the way our life has turned out, nevertheless, we trust God to hold us and help us, seeing us through what we did not get to go around.

And, not because we are upbeat, positive thinkers. I cannot speak for you, but life long ago bruised all that sunny-side-of-the street optimism off of me. No, this is something else; something I call “hard hope.” As in, “the deeper the pain, the harder the hope;” that kind of hard hope which stares with clear-eyed realism into all the worst that life can bring; guilt, shame, bitterness, resentment, disappointment, despair, uncertainty and fear, and says, “My life may be a struggling brokenness, but it’s also a living, breathing nevertheless, because I know that the God who is with us and for us is the God who has a long history of wringing whatever good can be wrung from the hardest and worst that life can bring, the God who can’t not take what looks like the end of everything good and, nevertheless, turn it into the edge of something new.”

Amen.

On Mortality and Opportunity

Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Luke 4:1-13, The First Sunday in Lent

Major Treadway · March 6th, 2022 · Duration 25:22

The season of Lent, which stretches from Ash Wednesday until Good Friday, is bounded by practices which bring us directly into contact with human mortality. Just Wednesday, we gathered here in this space where we encountered the words from Genesis 3:19, “you are dust and to dust you shall return” as ashes were made into the sign of the cross on our foreheads. The words and the symbol, either by itself is enough to call to mind the limits of this life, together even more so.

The season of Lent ends with the remembrance of Jesus’ crucifixion. On Good Friday, we will, once again, gather in this space and remember the day that Jesus was executed. We will remove from this space all of the ornamentation and symbols that add to life of our worship until all that remains is the light of the Christ candle. And at the end, even that light will be extinguished.

We begin Lent with a reminder of our mortality and we end with Jesus, the light of the world, having experienced his mortality. In between we have a season of penitence and preparation.

In some circles, including ones in which I have occasionally found myself, Lent has been reduced to some form of the question, “What did you give up for Lent?” – with the expected response being some small excess that has become more normal than maybe it should have, something like chocolate or coffee. Lent becomes a diet or self-help exercise.

I don’t know about for you, but for me, when the ashes are being made into the sign of the cross on my forehead, with just enough of the residue falling to obscure my vision momentarily while the pastor says the words “you are dust and to dust you shall return,” moments of my life flash through my memory. With my memories, my plans for the rest of the day and for the days ahead come into my mind. I think about those memories and plans through a new lens, through the lens provided by the ashes now on my head and settling on my eyebrows and nose. And I am left to wonder in that moment, and the moments that follow, what this Lent might hold for me.

The Lenten journey is one of forty days, of course to get to forty days, you have to use the kind of math that only pastors and fishermen have fully mastered, for there are 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. So, officially Lenten fasts allow for the six Sundays of Lent to be mini-Easters and a rest. For those of you who may not count like pastors, you may be comforted to known that there are 40 days from today until Good Friday.

The number forty is significant in the Bible. In today’s Gospel reading, we encounter this number with Jesus being led into the wilderness where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. Also in the Old Testament lesson for today, we encounter the number forty, though it’s not mentioned explicitly. The whole book of Deuteronomy is a collection of the words of Moses to the Israelites at the end of their journey in the wilderness from Egypt to the land flowing with milk and honey – a journey which famously took forty years.

In both stories, the focus is on the end of the journey. The Israelites just across the river from the promised land with Moses instructing them on what they will offer to God. Jesus, enduring three final temptations. Also in each case, the end of their journey is the beginning of a new journey. Israel preparing to begin their new life in a land that they will claim as their own. Jesus preparing to begin his public ministry. Endings and beginnings. Forty days and forty years.

What opportunity might there be within these next forty days for us?

Faced with our mortality, we have decisions to make. Namely, are we living the life God would have us live? What are the excesses in our lives that keep us from experiencing all that God has for us? What are the things that are missing that are keeping us from experiencing all that God has for us? How are we using what remains of this life to live the abundant life which Jesus has made available? How are we using what remains of this life to enable others to live the abundant life?

These are heavy and important questions. Any one of these could easily fill the time for a sermon, or even a serious forty day meditation. Maybe thinking of the end of the journey is helpful in this way. Not dissimilar to the way that thinking of the end of our lives can help to crystalize our thoughts about the life that we are living, thinking of the end of the journey can help us think about the direction we are going.

Some people think of the end as a goal to strive to meet. Some people think of the end as the destination of a journey. Either of these are helpful in thinking about how what we do now matters in the end.

James Clear suggests that one of the most effective ways to form new habits is to imagine the type of person you want to be and then to ask yourself, “what would that type of person do in this situation?”

How would a people brought out of generational slavery into a land they could possess as their own show their gratitude? Perhaps, by offering the first fruits of their harvest as an offering of thanksgiving and retelling the story of their salvation.

How would Jesus, the would-be Messiah, respond to offers of things that he wanted but might conflict with the message he would soon begin preaching? Perhaps, by reminding himself of who he was and who he was to be.

Perhaps, there is something for us there too. Who is it that you want to be in 40 days? What kind of person do you want to be in the Kingdom of God in 40 days? Think about it. What does that person do? How does that person talk? How does that person spend their money? With whom does that person spend their time? Once you know who that person is, once you know who you want to be at the end of this Lenten journey, then making decisions about what kinds of new (or renewed) practices are needed in your life becomes easier and more meaningful than considering whether to give up chocolate or coffee for Lent.

I wonder too, if this Lenten season should not also offer just such an opportunity for the community of faith that is Northminster Baptist Church. I wonder if the same types of questions could be helpful for us as a community. Who is it that we want to be in 40 days, or maybe like the Israelites in 40 years? What kind of church do we want to be in the Kingdom of God then? By what do we want to be known? What does that church do? What does that church not do? As we travel the purple path of Lent for these next 40 days, what are the new (or renewed) practices that are needed in the life of our community to enable us to embody that reality?

The season of Lent begins with ashes and a reminder that we are only dust and that one day will be our last day. This annual reminder of our mortality provides us tremendous opportunity to recalibrate our direction. To rethink the end of our journey and examine our present.

Perhaps this is the posture of lent. The eyes of our hearts focused on God, mindful of the end, that we might live the abundant life in our present.

Amen.

 

Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

Luke 9:28-36 (37-43a), Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Lesley Ratcliff · February 27th, 2022 · Duration 10:06

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Youth Sermon - Luke Williams

Youth Sunday, The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Luke Williams · February 20th, 2022 · Duration 7:11

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Youth Sermon - Caroline Crisler

Youth Sunday, The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Caroline Crisler · February 20th, 2022 · Duration 5:08

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Concerning the Sermon on the Plain

Luke 6:17-26, The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 13th, 2022 · Duration 15:56

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Now That This Has Touched Our Lips

Isaiah 6:1-8, The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 6th, 2022 · Duration 7:30

“Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips.”  With those words from today’s first lesson, Isaiah confesses the sin he assigns to what he calls his “unclean lips.”  After which, Isaiah reports that, in response to his confession, One of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar...The seraph touched my mouth with the live coal and said, “Now that this has touched your lips your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 

Needless to say, none of that was written to us or about us.  However, that phrase the seraph said to Isaiah, “Now that this has touched your lips,” is one I have found helpful to repeat, silently, on Communion Sundays, a practice I would like to share with you, in the hope that you, too, might find it to be a helpful spiritual practice.

Here is how it works.  Often, when I eat the bread and drink the cup of Communion, I ask myself a version of what the seraph said to Isaiah, concerning the coal, when the seraph said, “Now that this has touched your lips.”  Concerning the bread, I will ask myself, “Now that the body of Christ has touched my lips, how should I speak?”  And, concerning the cup; “Now that the blood of Christ has touched my lips, what can I talk about, laugh at, repeat, tease, tell or say?”, the Holy Communion which comes into our mouth guiding and governing the conversation which goes out of our mouth.  “Can I repeat rumors with the same mouth which has eaten the body of Christ?  Can I continue to be relentlessly sarcastic with the same mouth which has tasted the blood of Christ?  Can I speak in ways that are manipulative, controlling, insensitive and unkind with the same mouth which has chewed this bread and sipped that cup?”

Needless to say, this spiritual practice, like all spiritual practices, is not magic.  But, in my experience, practiced faithfully enough for long enough, it can help us to slow down, remember who we are, and speak in ways that are more thoughtful, mindful, gentle and kind.

The problem, of course, is that our friends will expect us to continue to post, tweet, text and talk the same as we always have, and, when we decline to join in the usual banter and gossip at the expense of others, they may ask, concerning our newly careful speech, “What’s wrong?”  To which we might say, “Oh, nothing.  Nothing’s wrong.  It’s just that we had Communion at church on Sunday, and, now that the bread and cup of Communion have touched my lips, my lips are no longer free to say just anything and everything.”

Amen. 

Love Never Ends

I Corinthians 13:1-13, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 30th, 2022 · Duration 11:53

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One Body, Many Members

I Corinthians 12:12-31, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 23rd, 2022 · Duration 5:57

“The body does not consist of one member, but of many...If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”

Those words from today’s epistle lesson never fail to call to mind, for me, that powerful observation of Stanley Hauerwas’ that, in the face of life’s hardest struggles and greatest losses, what we need is not an answer capable of explaining our grief, but a community capable of absorbing our grief; another way of saying that, in the body of Christ, if one member suffers, all suffer together; the church into which we just plunged Lucy Elfert, an outpost of the globe-circling, centuries-spanning, body of Christ, where, when any member suffers, all members suffer together.

 All of which I cannot think of without remembering Mary Oliver’s testimony, “That time I said I could not go any deeper into grief without dying, I did go deeper, but I did not die.  Surely,” she concluded, “God had a hand in this, as well as friends;” the God and the friends which so many of us have found in the church; the body of Christ, where, when one member suffers, all the members suffer together; a community capable of absorbing one another’s grief and carrying, together, one another’s heaviest and hardest burdens.

Sort of like that old story about the time someone said to William Sloane Coffin, “The church is just a crutch,” to which Coffin replied, “Yes. The church is a crutch.  And what makes you think you aren’t limping?”

To which I always add, “If the church is a crutch, I’ll take two.”

 Amen.

Concerning the Water-to-Wine Sign

John 2:1-11, The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 16th, 2022 · Duration 10:56

Despite the fact that an abundance of wine can cause so much sorrow and pain, an abundance of wine, in the Bible, most often serves as a symbol of joy; as in Isaiah, chapter twenty-five, verse six; Joel, chapter three, verse eighteen; and Amos, chapter nine, verse thirteen; all places where an abundance of wine serves as a sign of joy, which is why so many see the water-to-wine miracle in this morning’s lesson from John as a beautiful sign of surprising joy.

Watch the movement in the story. Verse three says, When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” But then, at the end, there is so much wine, and wine so fine, that the wedding planner declares, “You have saved the best for last.” From no wine at the start of the story to the most and best wine imaginable at the end, the water-to-wine sign, perhaps a promise of joy to come.

And when did this happen? When did the water-to-wine sign happen? Go back to the first verse of today’s lesson from John and see that it says, “On the third day there was a wedding in Cana.” The third day; which, as you will remember from your own life with the Bible, is the Bible’s name for what we now call “Easter.” Ten times in the four gospels, the day God raised Jesus from the grave is called “the third day;” which is the way today’s gospel lesson describes the day of the water-to-wine sign; “the third day,” the day which started with the wine running out, and ended with the wine running over, not unlike the third day when God raised Jesus from the grave, the day when, as Carlyle Marney used to say, “God took what looked like the end of everything good and turned it into the edge of something new;” the deepest joy somehow rising from the deepest pain.

Joy and pain, pain and joy. Isn’t it a wonder how much of each can live in the same life? The same life which starts out as a sea of joy, punctuated by occasional islands of pain, becoming, at some point, a sea of pain punctuated by occasional islands of joy.

In Marilynne Robinson’s novel Lila, the old preacher, John Ames, says, “Life on earth is difficult, grave and marvelous. Joy and loss exist in the same life, and each must be recognized for what each is. Our experience is fragmentary,” he continues, “The joy parts and the sorrow parts don’t add up. Sometimes it is hard to believe they are even parts of the same life...Joy can be joy, and sorrow can be sorrow,” he concludes, “With neither of them casting either light or shadow on the other.”

Or, as Mrs. Soames says in Act III of Our Town, looking back across her life from the land of the dead, “My, wasn’t life awful. And wonderful.”

Indeed. Sometimes the wine runs out, sometimes the wine runs over. Pain and joy. Joy and pain. Both of which we all will know some of in this life.

There is a lot of pain in this life, which is why it is so important for us to be kind, gentle, thoughtful, careful, forgiving and patient with ourselves, and one another, until the time when our pain turns, at last, to joy, and we, at last, are heard to say with the wedding planner in today’s gospel lesson, “Jesus, you have saved the best for last.”

Or, as one wise soul once said, “Things will not always hurt the way they do now.”
Amen.

Concerning the Mystery of God's Will

Ephesians 1:3-14, The Second Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · January 2nd, 2022 · Duration 7:05

This Thursday, January 6, will be, for the church throughout the world, the day which has been known, since the fourth century, as “Epiphany”; the day the church celebrates the arrival of those gift-bearing strangers who came from afar by the light of a star; their visit, a sign that the Jewish child, Jesus, was God’s gift to all the world, even the most far-flung Gentiles from the most unknown lands; the universal embrace of God, embodied in those whom we have come to call “the Magi.”

A universal embrace of grace which travels, also, in today’s epistle lesson, where the writer of Ephesians says that, “God has made known to us the mystery of God’s will; a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ; things in heaven and things on earth,” words which belong to a deep, wide stream in scripture, including Colossians 1:20, “Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things on earth and in heaven; I Timothy 2:4, “It is God’s will for all to be saved,” Titus 2:11, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” and I Peter 3:9, “God wants all persons to come to repentance,” verses which leave no doubt that the ultimate will of God is the eternal welcome of all, what Acts 3:21 calls, “The universal restoration.”  Concerning that, there is no mystery.  The only mystery is whether or not God’s will will be done. 

The Bible’s most expansive verses all point to the beautiful truth that the ultimate and eternal will and plan of God is what the writer of the Revelation glimpsed when the writer of the Revelation wrote that “Every creature, in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea will someday sing together, forever, around the throne of God,” or, as this morning’s epistle lesson says, “God has made known the mystery of God’s will; a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ.”

There is no mystery concerning what God wants.  The only mystery is whether or not God will ever get what God wants.  We pray each week for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  But, if all are not ultimately reconciled and redeemed, healed and home, then God’s will will never be done, not only on earth, but, also, not even in, of all places, heaven.

I have friends who are dear and devoted Christians who believe that everything which happens in this life is part of “God’s plan,” assigning everything from a convenient parking space to a good business deal to the will of God, but who cannot bear the thought that the ultimate and eternal will of God will be done in the next life, because that would mean the eventual salvation of all.

But, the eventual salvation of all, no matter how long it takes, is clearly the will and plan of God, which may be why the early church theologian Origen said, “Christ remains on the cross as long as one sinner remains in hell.”  God has all the time in the world for the ultimate, eventual, eternal fulfillment of the will and plan of God. 

I cannot speak for you, but as for me, I believe that eventually, ultimately, eternally, no matter how long it takes, God will get what God wants, because I believe that this is God’s world, and that, in God’s world, God gets the last word.  And, if the last word said is going to be God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good; for every soul God ever loved, which is every soul who ever lived.  Because, in God’s world, all is not fully well for anyone until all is finally well for everyone.                                                                                                                                          

                               Amen.

Thank you, Beth Israel

Luke 2:41-52, The First Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · December 26th, 2021 · Duration 11:38

It seems like only yesterday that Jesus was a helpless baby in Bethlehem.  But, in this morning’s lesson from Luke, Jesus is already old enough to wander away from Mary and Joseph when they take him to Jerusalem for the festival of Passover; one of several passages in the opening chapters of Luke which underscore the fact that Jesus belonged to Judaism.

Luke 2:22 says that Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to Jerusalem to dedicate Jesus to God, according to the Law of Moses.  Luke 2:24 says that they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the Law.  Luke 2:27 says that Joseph and Mary did for Jesus what was customary under the Law, and Luke 2:39 says that Mary and Joseph did not leave Jerusalem until they had done for Jesus everything required by the Law.  Then comes today’s gospel lesson, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to Passover, after which, in Luke chapter four, Jesus preaches his first sermon, in the synagogue on the Sabbath.

All of which is to say that Luke’s gospel works overtime to be certain that no one can miss the Jewishness of Jesus.  Jesus belonged to Judaism, and almost all of Jesus’ first followers did, too; the church, which eventually became separate from Judaism, originally belonging to Judaism, the church birthed within the synagogue.

Which is what makes Northminster such a fortunate congregation, to have once been housed, before we had a home of our own, at Beth Israel.  All churches were birthed, theologically and historically, in the synagogue, but our church was birthed, literally and actually, in a synagogue.  When Northminster was first being formed, one of our founders, Leland Speed, approached his friend, Maurice Joseph, a member of Beth Israel, to ask if Northminster could rent Beth Israel’s sanctuary on Sundays, to which Mr. Joseph replied, “No.  We will not rent our space to you.  But we will give it to you.”

Thus began a beautiful friendship between our two congregations.  We are happy today to have with us Rabbi Rossen from Beth Israel, along with several congregants; glad to be able to say “Thank you, Beth Israel,” for giving us a home when we were without a place of our own. 

The world needs the witness of friendship between people of all faiths; Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Jews.  Sadly, one of the biggest obstacles to interfaith friendship has been Christian onlyism; Christianity’s claim to be the only religion God recognizes or believes in, as though the God who created the world thirteen billion years ago could be captured inside a two thousand year old religion.

Christians have often turned to John 14:6 to support Christian onlyism, the passage where Jesus is reported to have said that “No one comes to the Father except through me,” popular Christianity interpreting, “No one comes to the Father except through me” to mean, “No one gets to God except through Christianity.”  But, if we were going to assign a religion to those words, “No one comes to the Father except through me,” that religion would be not Christianity, but Judaism, because the one who is reported to have said those words was not a Christian, but a Jew.

So, thank you Beth Israel, not only for giving us a place to meet all those years ago, but, also, for giving us Jesus; not to mention Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael, King David and Queen Esther, Psalm 23 and Psalm 121.

And, thank you, also, for that Hebrew scripture passage we Christians read every Easter, Isaiah 25:6-9, which says that, someday, the Lord will make a great feast for all people; and the whole human family, all of us, will eat and drink and rejoice together forever; words which we borrowed from you, and believe with you. 

                                                                                                         Amen.

                       

Luke's Jesus

The Fourth Sunday of Advent, Luke 1:39-55

Chuck Poole · December 19th, 2021 · Duration 6:21

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Lessons and Carols

Lessons and Carols, The Third Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 12th, 2021 · Duration 72:06

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On Holding One Another in Our Hearts

Philippians 1:3-11, The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 5th, 2021 · Duration 6:16

“I thank my God every time I remember you...And it is right for me to think this way about you, because you hold me in your heart.” Every three years, on the second Sunday of Advent, the lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words from this morning’s epistle lesson; Paul’s gratitude to the Philippians for “holding Paul in their hearts.”

At least, that is what some Bible translations say. But, other translations interpret that same verse to say, not that the Philippians are holding Paul in their hearts, but that Paul is holding the Philippians in his heart; Bible scholars divided on what the ancient text intended. Was it Paul who was holding the Philippians in Paul’s heart, or the Philippians who were holding Paul in their hearts?

All of which may be a problem for Bible translators, but not for us. For us, to leave open the possibility that Paul is holding the Philippians in Paul’s heart and the Philippians are holding Paul in their hearts sounds exactly the way life works in the family of faith; everyone holding everyone in our hearts, which is just another way of saying that we are thinking about one another, praying for one another, and walking with one another; all of that, and more, traveling in that single, simple, beautiful phrase, “holding one another in our hearts”

There is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life. None of us will go through all of them, but all of us will go through some of them, and for us to say to one another that we are holding one another in our hearts may be the most tender and beautiful way we have to give a voice to our solidarity with, and love for, one another.

In my most Spirit-filled moments, I sometimes even let myself wonder if holding one another in our hearts might extend beyond this life, over to the Other Side; we, who are still here, holding in our hearts those who have died, and, dare we say it, they holding us in theirs; all of us who are still here, coming to the table; all of those who are already over on the Other Side, with us at the table; everyone holding everyone in our hearts.

All of us giving courage to, and drawing strength from, one another; calling forth that which is deepest and best in one another, all of which, and even more, which we have not the words to say, traveling in that single, simple, beautiful phrase, which all of us should add, today, to the lexicon of our lives, “I am holding you in my heart.”

Amen.

On Staying Ready for the Last Day

Luke 21:25-36, The First Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · November 28th, 2021 · Duration 16:18

As you may have noticed, Advent always begins at the end. In the perpetually repeated three year cycle of the Common Lectionary, the first Sunday of Advent always asks us to read one of those urgent sounding gospel lessons which call on the people of God to wake up, and get ready, because the end of time is near; Advent, always beginning with the second coming of Christ, before working its way, week by week, wick by wick, back to the first coming, just in time for Christmas.

Last year, on the first Sunday of Advent, it was Mark’s urgent alarm, “Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” Next year, it will be Matthew: “You must stay ready, for the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour.” And, this year, it is the passage we read a few moments ago, from Luke; “Be on guard, so that that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”

Whatever those words of warning may have meant to those who first heard them, they have become, for the church throughout the world, Advent’s annual urging for us to wake up, and stay ready; our annual Advent reminder to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can, because we do not have forever. Someday is going to be the last day, because even if Christ does not come, we will go.

To wake up to that truth is not morbid or depressing. To the contrary, there is, in my experience, nothing more life-giving than finally coming to see that someday is going the last day. And, as far as we know, we are not going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time. As far as we know, this is it. To finally come to see that truth at the center of our soul can be to finally, actually decide to live whatever is left of our lives as though someday really is going to be the last day; paying attention to people and moments, looking until we see, and listening until we hear; growing and changing in ever-widening circles of welcome and love, letting the love of God which has come down to us go out through us; sitting down with and standing up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for, because we know that all cannot be fully well for anyone until all is finally well for everyone; living whatever is left of our lives that way each day until the last day.

Amen.

Truth, Power and Kingship

John 18:33-37, Christ the King Sunday

Major Treadway · November 21st, 2021 · Duration 15:17

Today’s gospel lesson seems a somewhat strange reading on a Sunday when the sanctuary is draped with white paraments. When I think about the Sundays of the year when we worship with white paraments, the occasions which our bulletins tell us “magnify the person and work of Jesus,” I think of Christmas and Christmastide, Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, Easter and Eastertide, Trinity Sunday and All Saints Sunday. I guess it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that we would celebrate Christ the King Sunday with the white paraments.

Yet, there is something a bit odd about celebrating Christ’s kingship by reading of his interrogation following his arrest. Jesus has had a very long night. He was betrayed by one of his inner circle, while being arrested there was the incident with Malchus’ ear which, Luke’s gospel tells us, needed some quick messianic surgery, Jesus is questioned by Annas, father-in-law of the high priest, by Caiaphas, the high priest, and then taken to Pilate, though those who took him would not enter Pilate’s headquarters because to do so would mean that they would not be able to eat the coming Passover meal. Pilate tries not to take Jesus into his custody, but eventually calls him in to be questioned.

And then, here we are, Christ the King Sunday, sometimes called Reign of Christ Sunday. Jesus, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings being carted around from one would-be judge to another. People angry and unsettled enough with Jesus that they want him punished and killed, but they don’t want to be the ones to do it themselves.

Finally, with Pilate, we get some questions and answers. Pilate asks Jesus “What have you done?” Jesus responds, “my kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate pounces, “So you are a king?”

At this point, for Jesus to claim to be a king would be to place himself legally at odds with the ruling government. But Jesus does not agree. Instead, he responds, “You say that I am a King.” Something which Pilate could never say, lest he lose his position, and likely his life. Then Jesus says something very interesting.

Jesus says: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In this short exchange, Jesus, the unacknowledged king, verbally and nonverbally, acknowledges the power dynamics at play in his situation, and then sidesteps them to call upon those hearing him, then and now, to recognize a different power structure – one that begins with telling the truth.

These words from Jesus were so threatening and confusing to Pilate, the person with the most power, that the verse that follows this morning’s lesson records Pilate asking, “what is truth?” Then, he moves on to distance himself from offering a judgement over Jesus.

I wonder if Pilate’s confusion came from being in the presence of someone who so clearly saw the world as it was, that the power Pilate had accumulated and the lies that were its foundation failed to manifest in Jesus’s presence and Pilate didn’t know what to do.

Truth is like that. It has the capacity to disrupt and destabilize. Oscar Romero is said to have attributed the underdevelopment of his home country of El Salvador to the “institutionalization of intolerance to truth.”

Can you imagine saying that about a whole society, that its underdevelopment was the result of an intolerance to truth that has become so normal and expected that it becomes the foundation upon which injustice is built?

Come to think of it. Maybe that’s not so hard to believe after all. We barely expect the people charged with leading local, state, and national governments to tell the truth. There are organizations that turn a profit from rating politicians’ statements on a range of untruth from 1-4 Pinocchios or from true to pants-on-fire.

Perhaps, worse are the lies that we hear a little closer to home, from friends, teachers, or colleagues at work.

Worst of all, are the lies we tell ourselves. Some of them seem innocent enough, I’ll have enough time if I just press “snooze” one more time. Some seem to hurt only ourselves: “5 mph over the limit isn’t really speeding.” And then there are others that have a veneer of truth, but to scratch the surface is to see the truth beneath: “hard work is the key to success.”

I know all of these to lack the fullness of truth. The snooze button has led to far too many tardies (not to mention broken roommate relationships). A cursory look at traffic laws will indicate that any speed over the posted limit, is speeding. And there are too many people working multiple jobs while living in poverty for hard work to be the key to success.

And Jesus said: “I came into this world to testify to the truth.”

Yes, truth has the capacity to be uncomfortable and disruptive. If truth can be uncomfortable and disruptive with just these few things, I wonder if that means if we have some of that intolerance to truth Romero referenced.

The truth that got Jesus in so much trouble though, was not the stuff about alarm clocks and riding a donkey over the speed limit. With Jesus, it was a resistance to systems of power that were built on an intolerance to truth.

Jesus recognized God as the true source of power. It was God who created the earth. It was God who breathed life into dirt and called that breath filled dirt humanity. It was God who caused the whole earth to flood and made a century old couple parents. It was God who spoke to Moses in a burning bush, and led the Israelites through the red sea on dry land. It was God who held that kind of power – the power to create and destroy, the power to make and bend the very laws of nature.

Holding to that knowledge, what kind of power did Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate have?

They only had the kind of power which humans agree to give to a person, or more often to keep from a person. Leadership is this way. As long as people agree to follow, the leader has a limited amount of power. Sometimes a board gives power to a leader, a CEO or Executive Director. If the leader loses the board’s confidence, then the leader stands to lose the power that had been given.

This very human power that Pilate and the others possessed was pressed when Jesus said to Pilate, “you say that I am a King.” To put those words on Pilate’s lips threatened Pilate’s power.

Jesus knew the truth about power. Human power fades. It does not last. It can change hands quickly. Jesus also had to have known that human power has limits in terms of what it can do to a human. Humans have found ever increasingly cruel ways to exert power over other humans: slavery, torture, trafficking, terrorism, and more; and all that before just taking a person’s life. Not to diminish the horror of any of those things – but that’s about the extent of human power wielded negatively.

Meanwhile, what kind of power does God have? God has the power to create from nothing, and presumably to make nothing out of creation. Whereas human power is power given, there is nothing to suggest that humans are capable of giving God power. Jesus knew about both of these types of power when he was brought to Pilate.

And Jesus said: “I came into this world to testify to the truth.”

And the truth that Jesus must have seen in his interrogation by Pilate is that Pilate’s power paled in comparison to the Kingdom of God. That even if Pilate should execute Jesus, the Kingdom of God would remain. And if we keep reading, that’s just what happened. Pilate and the mob clamored for Jesus to be executed, even though he was found not guilty.

Jesus had not broken any of the ten commandments. He had not broken any Roman laws. But he had threatened the power of those in leadership, by telling the truth. Jesus worked to extend the Kingship of God by telling the truth.

What does the kingship of Christ require of us? Well, Jesus offered us a glimpse of that in this passage as well.

Jesus says: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

What does it mean for us that we belong to the truth?

Romero’s words about El Salvador could have been said about the United States – that there is an institutionalization of intolerance to truth. From the information we read, hear, and watch to the words we think, speak, and write.

Perhaps one place to start belonging to truth is with ourselves. Leaning into the power of God, rather than the power of humans, might mean that we try harder to always tell the truth. Some might call that using careful speech. It may sound like a small thing, but like so many lessons we learn in life, until we learn the small things, until we master the basics, until we are fluent in the fundamentals, we will never be able to move on to the more complex things. We must first learn to speak true words before we can effectively uncover truths that are external to ourselves.

Belonging to the truth also requires us to develop a sense of curiosity that is not satisfied with an answer just because it sounds like what we want to believe is true; but presses further and deeper until all that remains is truth.

Jesus understood well the truth of power, who had it and what kind they had; and he understood the power of truth and just how disruptive and destabilizing it can be.

And with all of this knowledge, Jesus said: “I came into this world to testify to the truth.”

Amen.

Concerning Money and the Church

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 14th, 2021 · Duration 14:39

As you may have noticed, this morning’s epistle lesson encouraged us to “provoke one another to love and good works,” the ancient writer’s way of saying that we should challenge, stretch, beckon and bother one another to do our best and be our best, what the writer of the book of Hebrews calls, “provoking one another to love and good works.”

Which is not a bad verse of scripture for Stewardship Sermon Sunday at Northminster; an annual autumn effort at asking us to do our best to give our most, something which, even after all these years, has never stopped feeling awkward to me, partly because of my never ending struggle to reconcile the needs of the institutional church with the Jesus of the four gospels, who did not share our North American assumptions about what churches should own, have, look like, and offer. So, it’s awkward, trying to involve Jesus in our words about how much money we need to maintain and sustain church as we know church and do church.

Not to mention the awkwardness of asking people who are already giving so much to give even more. Have you ever thought about all the ministries and institutions, helping agencies, schools, universities and hospitals which depend on Northminster members for financial support? As someone who grew up in a household where my parents were barely getting by, living payday to payday, I don’t have a good sense of how much more people have available to give, so I find it awkward to ask people who are already giving so much to give some more; especially when me and mine are among the beneficiaries of the budget I am asking you to support.

But, awkward or not, we need to do a better job, I need to a better job, of asking for the money the church needs. For example, we need a new roof here at Northminster. All of the estimates we have received indicate that the only thing harder than saying cedar shake shingles is paying for cedar shake shingles; about $500,000 to re-roof our church buildings, not counting another few hundred thousand dollars to repair and replace all of our church’s external wood trim. I’ve been wondering for months if someone in our congregation might want to fund a part of that, or all of that, for the church; a generationally important gift, enormously helpful to the church for her next fifty years.

Aside from those really big one-time facility needs, there is the annual, perpetual need for us to give generously to the budget of the church, to support the day to day life of the church.

I sometimes hear people say that it is “more exciting” to give to a specific cause than to a general budget which pays light bills and salaries. Plus, we now live in a post-institutional world, when many people no longer find as much meaning as they once did in supporting the work of the institutional church.

All of that I understand. But, honestly, the most exciting giving Marcia and I do is the financial support we give to the budget of Northminster Baptist Church. Look, for example, at these children and their chaperones, home from their annual autumn retreat, seated here together, in their wonderful new “Growing Together” retreat t-shirts. And, last week, it was the Youth Group, on their annual autumn retreat. Our children have spent this weekend learning the family stories in Genesis, from Abraham through Joseph. Our youth spent last weekend studying the theology and practice of prayer. Who is not excited about paying for that? What could we possibly be more excited about than giving as much as we can, year after year, to a church budget which undergirds that kind of spiritual formation; serious theology being taught to our children, youth and adults, within these walls, which equips us all to live lives of courage and kindness, empathy and integrity, beyond these walls; this church, forming us into the kind of people who get up every morning and go out into the world to let the love of God which has come down to us go out through us. I want to help pay the bills which make the lights come on in all the Northminster spaces where those kinds of lights come on in all our lives.

Northminster, like all churches, has its limits, faults, blindspots and flaws. We all know that the same church which fills your heart can bruise your heart. But, Northminster is a strong and true home to many dear and good souls, a church which is serious about, and committed to, what Jesus said matters most; loving God with all that is in us and loving all others the way we want all others to love us. Northminster has been that way from the day we were started, and, if a church can “earn the right” to be supported in the most generous ways of which we are capable, Northminster has.

Northminster would never want any of us to give what we cannot, but Northminster will always need all of us to give what we can. And, then, when we all have given what we can, we all will have given what we should.

Amen.

Concerning the Book of Ruth

Ruth 1:1-18, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 31st, 2021 · Duration 4:49

As you may have noticed, the writer of the book of Ruth does not want us to miss the fact that Ruth is a Moabite.

Five times in the first six verses of today’s lesson from Ruth, the writer of Ruth tells us that Ruth is from Moab, after which, in the remaining three chapters of the book of Ruth, we will hear Ruth identified as “a Moabite” five more times; the writer of the book of Ruth making certain that no one misses the point that Ruth is a Moabite.

Which might not matter so much were it not for the fact that, back in the book of Deuteronomy, Moabites were declared off-limits, perpetually excluded from the  family of God, Deuteronomy 23:6 going so far as to prohibit the people of God from ever welcoming any Moabite; a prohibition which the book of Ruth completely sets aside, even going so far as to name “Ruth the Moabite” an ancestor of King David, thereby erasing the Bible’s earlier exclusion of Moabites from the family of God; the Bible, itself, growing, before our eyes, from the exclusion of Moabites in Deuteronomy to the inclusion of Moabites in the book of Ruth; the book of Ruth, reaching past the place where the book of Deuteronomy told the people of God to stop. 

All of which is a small sign of the way life moves when we are walking in the Spirit, the circumference of our embrace growing and changing until it matches the size of the circle of the boundless welcome around God; all of us walking prayerfully in the Spirit until we  grow so near to God that we can never again, for as long as we live, be glad about any exclusion God is sad about, or sad about any inclusion God is glad about, because the deeper we grow in our life with God, the wider we grow in our    welcome of all.

When our time together is done, if you remember only one thing from our many years together, let it be that:  The deeper we grow in our life with God, the wider we grow in our welcome, embrace and love of all.  

Amen.

 

 

Concerning the Ending of Job’s Story

Job 42:1-6, 10-17, The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 24th, 2021 · Duration 13:35

“And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, and gave Job twice as much as Job had before.”  Every time the lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words from the end of the book of Job, they call to mind, for me, that beautiful old sentence, “Things will not always hurt the way they do now.”

Which, perhaps, was the case for Job.  Once Job made it as far as this morning’s passage; his sores healed, his fortunes restored, and his new children born, perhaps things did not hurt as deeply as they did back in chapters one and two, when so much pain and loss broke Job’s heart, and crushed Job’s spirit.

Perhaps, by the time we make it to the end of the story, things do not hurt, for Job, the way they once did.  Perhaps.  But, who can say for sure?  After all, the children Job loved and lost, back at the beginning of the book of Job, would never, for Job, be less lost or less loved.  So, who can say how much of Job’s pain has settled and eased by the time we read today’s happy ending; Job, emerging from his long struggle, with what today’s lesson calls “twice as much.”

A happy ending to a sad story, but a happy ending with which we must take great care, lest the church create the “sunny of the street” expectation that the ending to every sad story will be as happy as the last chapter of Job’s story.

Which is not to say that sorrow never leads to something good.  To the contrary, sorrow and loss often lead us to a more thoughtful, mindful, kind and gentle life than ever we might have known without our sorrow or trouble, tragedy or loss; a truth which leads some to say that God sends us trouble to make us better, and that God allows tragedy to break our hearts so we can emerge from the darkness more gentle and kind; all suffering, a part of the plan of God 

You encounter that kind of theology nearly everywhere you turn in our corner of the world, and, while I do not share it, I understand why so many are drawn to it as a way of making sense of life.  I, myself, once embraced that way of thinking.  But, then, it occurred to me, one day, that, to continue to say that all suffering was either sent to us, or allowed for us, in the will and plan of God, would require me to assign unspeakably tragic, violent, sinful things to the will and plan of God, and, for me, that was to sacrifice too much of the goodness and love of God on the altar of the sovereignty and control of God. 

However, while I do not believe that everything which happens is always in God’s plan, I do believe that all of us are always in God’s hands, and that God is always at work in our lives, in joy and in sorrow, to bring us into a deeper, more thoughtful, mindful, kind and gentle way of being in the world; pain and struggle opening us up to God and others in ways which often leave us, like Job, with “twice as much;” not twice as much security or power, comfort or success, but twice as much empathy and understanding, kindness and  compassion.

Rarely has anyone captured that possibility more beautifully than Naomi Shihab Nye, in her poem “Kindness,” in which she writes, “Before you can learn the tender gravity of kindness, before you can know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must first know sorrow as the other deepest thing.  You must wake up with sorrow.  You must speak to it until your voice catches the thread of all sorrows, and you see the size of sorrow’s cloth.  Then,” she continues, “It is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day...going with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.”

Pain and sadness can do that in us, and for us.  Because pain is as surgical as surgery is painful, pain and sorrow, struggle and loss can, indeed, open us up that deeply. 

It isn’t guaranteed, of course.  We don’t all always emerge from sorrow twice as thoughtful and gentle, empathetic and kind.  But we can. And, more often than not, we do.  Somehow, the Spirit of God finds a new opening  in our brokenness, and, as Ernest Hemingway once famously said, we become “strong at the broken places;” our own version of Job’s twice-as-much ending; our arms twice as open, our words twice as gentle, our embrace twice as wide, our spirit twice as patient, welcoming, understanding and kind as we were before the sorrow and the pain; emerging from our worst and hardest struggles with what Howard Thurman called “the quiet eyes” of those who have suffered, what Mary Oliver called “the resolute kindness of those who have eaten the dark hours;” twice as much of a person of grace than ever we would have been without the pain; not because God planned or sent our greatest sorrows, but because God holds and carries, with us and for us, our greatest sorrows; wringing whatever good can be wrung from the hardest and worst that life can do; the God who raised Jesus from the grave bringing whatever is best from whatever is worst, until that far off  someday when things will no longer hurt the way they do now.

Amen.

A Sermon on the Subject of God

Job 38:1-7, The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 17th, 2021 · Duration 13:18

Then the Lord answered Job; “Who is this who speaks words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

Those words from today’s lesson from Job are only the beginning of a long speech, from God to Job, in which Job is confronted with mysteries and wonders so unknowable and great that, by the time God’s sermon is finished, Job’s response, in Job chapter forty, is to lay his hand over his mouth, and say, “I have said too much. I have said, about God, more than I know, about God.”

All of which might help us remember to take great care when we speak of the ways of God, lest we too easily slip over into what the writer of today’s lesson from Job calls “words without knowledge;” saying more about God than we know about God.

Of course, when we are talking about God, it is easy to say more than we know. After all, when the subject is God, there is so much that is so unknowable. As Isaiah 55:8 says, “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts,” not unlike Paul’s question in Romans 11:34, “Who can know the mind of the Lord?”

But, still, we can’t not try; building entire religious systems around what we think and believe about God. As Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “For at least five thousand years, we have been lowering the leaky buckets of our religions into the deep well of God’s truth;” sometimes even saying, with certainty, that our religion is the only one God believes in and accepts, while, above, and beyond, all the world’s religions, ours included, stands the God who created the universe, perhaps asking of us what God asked of Job, “Who is this who speaks words without knowledge? Where were you when I created the universe?”

One of the simplest, but most important, epiphanies I have had in my adult life is the revelation that the God who created, roughly thirteen billion years ago, a universe which, apparently, is still expanding, cannot be captured inside anyone’s religion; including ours. And, for any faith to claim a monopoly on the truth about God is to join Job in saying more than we know. All of our religions, important as they are, are only interim arrangements. As Tennyson said, “Our little systems have their day. They have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O Lord, art more than they.”

So, we have to take great care when it comes to speaking of God. But, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be said about God.

I cannot speak for you, but, because I am a Christian, I believe that the best look we have ever had at God is Jesus; not the only look, but the best look. And, if the best look we have ever had at God is Jesus, and the best look we have ever had at Jesus is the four gospels, then we can know something of the way God is by looking at what the gospels tell us about Jesus.

To read the four gospels is to see that Jesus lived a walls-down, arms-out life of love, intentionally sitting down with. and standing up for, whoever was most marginalized and ostracized, demonized and dehumanized, suffering, struggling, left out and alone, and that Jesus called his followers to live and love with that same wide wingspan. That is how we can say with confidence that, whenever we draw our circle of welcome wider, we are leaning, living and loving in the direction God wants us to lean, live and love, because that is the way Jesus was, and Jesus is the best look we have ever had at God.

I think that is why we feel a deeper spiritual connection to a kind and loving person of another faith than we feel with a harsh and hard person of our own faith, because that of God which we feel between us is not one faith tradition or another, it is love.

“God is love.” I believe that is what we can know about God. Richard Rohr once said, “The mystics know some things,” but you don’t have to be a mystic to know that, because God is love, the closer we grow to God the wider we grow in our love for all persons; you just have to let down your guard and open your life to the work of the Holy Spirit.

The poet Li Young Lee gave us that powerful sentence, “All light is late,” not unlike Paul’s, “We see through a glass darkly.” All of which is true, as far as it goes. But, the rest of the truth is that we have all already seen enough of the truth about God to live lives of empathy and compassion, welcome and justice, kindness and love.

Amen.

Concerning Job’s Wish to Vanish

Job 23:1-9, 16-17, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 10th, 2021 · Duration 0:0

“If only I could vanish into the darkness.”  Every three years, the Common Lectionary places in the path of the church throughout the world those words from the last verse of today’s lesson from the book of Job.  And, every time they roll back around, they present us with one of the Bible’s more vexing translation enigmas; scholars of the Hebrew Bible so conflicted over the original intent of that verse that, while our New Revised Standard Version translates Job 23:17 as, “If only I could vanish into the darkness,” the New International Version translates the same verse, “I will not be overcome by the darkness.”

 As for which way is the best way to translate Job 23:17, who can say?  After all, life can become so difficult, for many of us, that some of us might actually someday say, with Job, “If only I could vanish;” joining Job in his wish to vanish because life is just too painful to live, too hard to face, too heavy to bear. 

Many of us operate on the assumption that everyone gets to live until they have to die.  But, it is important for us to remember that, for some of the children of God, it is the other way around.  They don’t get to live until they have to die, rather, they have to live until they get to die; not unlike Moses, in Numbers chapter eleven, praying to God, “I cannot go on.  If you love me, you will let me die,” or Elijah, in I Kings chapter nineteen, “O Lord, take away my life; I cannot do this anymore,” or Job; so depleted and exhausted by life that he is reported, in some translations of today’s passage, to have prayed, “If only I could vanish into the darkness.”

But, then, there are those other translations which say that what Job really said was not, “If only I could vanish into the darkness,” but “I will not be overcome by the darkness;” an apparently unresolvable Hebrew ambiguity which might, at first, seem to be a problem, but which, upon further reflection, may actually be sort of a perfect convergence of despair and hope, resignation and resolve, for those many souls who find themselves, on the one hand, wishing to vanish into the darkness and, on the other hand, refusing to be overcome by the darkness; our lives captured in the linguistic ambiguity of Job 23:17, where some say Job says, “If only I could vanish into the darkness,” while others say Job says, “I will not vanish into the darkness.” 

 All of which calls to mind, for me, the Irish novelist Samuel Beckett’s anguished lament, “I cannot go on, I will go on.” 

Which is, after all, what we do.  Even when, like Job, we are most certain that we cannot go on, like Job, we do go on; held and carried by the Spirit of God and the people of God, while we carry and hold whatever it is that we must face and bear. 

Held and carried by the Spirit of God and the people of God, we find our way through things so difficult that if someone had told us ahead of time we were going to have to go through them we would have sworn we could never make it.  But, we do.  We do go through.  And, not only do we go through what we did not get to go around, we come out on the other side, to eat again and sleep again, to laugh again and smile again, to actually even want to be alive again.  Though we may have wished, at one time, with Job, that we could vanish into the darkness, we do emerge, eventually, out into the light.

May it be so.  May it be so.  And may it somehow, someday, be so for everyone in the whole human family.  Because all cannot be fully well for anyone until all is finally well for everyone.

Amen.

On Loving God Unconditionally

Job 1:1, 2:1-10, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 3rd, 2021 · Duration 8:09

Today is the first of four consecutive Sundays when the Common Lectionary will ask the church throughout the world to read passages of scripture from the book of Job; beginning with today's lesson, in which God says to Satan, "Have you noticed my servant Job, how faithful and devoted he is?" to which Satan replies, "Why wouldn't Job love and serve you? You've blessed Job with everything any person could ever hope to have. Take away the blessings, and we'll see what Job is really made of. " A conversation which reaches its culmination when Satan asks, in Job chapter one, verse ten, "Does Job love God for nothing?"

Obviously, Satan assumes the answer is "No, Job does not love God for nothing. Job loves and serves God in exchange for being rewarded and protected." But, after losing all that he holds dear, in the depth of his sorrow, from the depth of his spirit, Job says those words we find at the end of today's lesson, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?", not unlike what Job is reported to have said in Job 2:20, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord;" a kind of love for God which is not tied to the circumstances of our lives; our love for God as unconditional as God's love for us.

Which in my experience, is what keeps us always prayerful and incurably hopeful; our unconditional love for God. If the best outcome for which we pray does not come to pass, we don't give up on God, we just adjust our praying and hoping from the first best thing to the next best thing. And if the next best thing doesn't happen, we don't become disillusioned with God, we just hope and pray for the next next best thing, our prayers chasing our lives even, sometimes, until, as I once heard someone say, "There's nothing left to want."

And, even then, we don't give up and walk away. Even then, still we pray; trusting God to hold us and carry us, as we stumble our way through what we did not get to go around, until there is nothing left to hold onto but the quiet confidence that God is with us and God is for us; which, somehow, is enough; when our love for God is as unconditional as God's love for us.

A beautiful, centered, settled way to live; loving God the way God loves us, unconditionally.

Amen.

Careful Speech Concerning Hell

Mark 9:38-50, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 26th, 2021 · Duration 12:18

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Psalm One

Psalm 1, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 19th, 2021 · Duration 15:05

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Words Shape Worlds

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, James 3:1-12

Chuck Poole · September 12th, 2021 · Duration 15:50

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Theology Chasing Friendship

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 7:24-37

Chuck Poole · September 5th, 2021 · Duration 8:38

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Psalm Eighty-Four

Psalm 84, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 22nd, 2021 · Duration 13:06

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the house of the Lord...One day there is better than a thousand anywhere else.”

In another one of those occasional convergences of lectionary and life, the Common Lectionary has asked the church throughout the world to read, today, those words, from Psalm 84, concerning the psalmist’ longing for the psalmist’ sanctuary, at the very moment when so many are so longing for the same; children of God throughout the world yearning, in the midst of a long pandemic, for the same sort of gathering about which the psalmist sings in today’s lesson from Psalm 84.

Some say that Psalm 84 is a glad song, sung at the sight of the temple, by excited pilgrims, on their way to the temple. Others say that Psalm 84 is a sad song, sung by homesick souls unable to get to the house of God. Either way, it is a song all of us know by heart because, like the ones who first sang Psalm 84, we, too, long to gather with the people of God at the house of God for the worship of God; never more so than now, when, for so many, the time to return to large gatherings in familiar ways has not yet arrived.

But, though that time is, for many of us, not yet here, someday it will be. And, when it comes, none of us will welcome it more gladly than those of us who have missed it most deeply.

Like the one who wrote this morning’s psalm, we love the sacred space which is our sanctuary. But, for us, it is the gathering, not the building, which matters most. The thing we miss the most is the comfort and courage we draw from one another when we are together; the people who surround us here, calling forth that which is deepest and best in us; the people we see, and the truth we hear, at church, slowly, slowly, transforming our lives.

In one of his poems, Wendell Berry says, “The water, descending in its old groove, wears it new;” the same stream running through the same groove in the same stone, year after year, eventually wearing the old groove to a new depth, which is not unlike what happens across a lifetime in church; the same truth, heard over and over and over again, opening, eventually, a new depth in our lives.

I think, from time to time, about a conversation I had with a college student who grew up in our church, home for the Northminster Christmas Eve service several years ago, telling me about a night when he was hanging out with friends, when the conversation turned to church. Our young person told me that he said, to his friends, “My church back in Jackson changed my life;” to which they said “How?”, to which our young person said, “They just kept saying, over and over, that since God loves everyone, we should too. And, somehow, hearing that over and over, year after year, sort of changed me.”

A simple, beautiful example of the sort of thing which happens in church. Rarely all at once or once and for all, but slowly, slowly, little by little, “The water descending in its old groove wears it new;” a lifetime spent in the presence of the kind of people who make us want to be better, helping us, actually, eventually, to become better than ever we would have been, all by ourselves.

But, in order for that to happen, we actually have to be together, which, for many, because of the pandemic, has not been safe to do for a long time, leaving us to say, with the psalmist, “My soul faints, and longs, for the house of the Lord.”

But, someday it will no longer be that way. Someday, we will be able to gather in the ways we once did, shaping and forming one another’s lives; saying and hearing, over and over, that same old truth, “Since God loves every person, so should we,” until that same old truth is finally heard often enough, long enough to change our lives; the same simple truth, running through the same path in the same heart until, someday, it opens up a new depth in us and, all of a sudden, everything changes. Except it wasn’t all of a sudden. It was a lifetime spent gathering with the people of God for the worship of God.

Which, someday, many of us will again be able, safely and wisely, to do. Until then, each of us will need to be especially mindful and thoughtful, gentle and patient, compassionate and kind; all of us singing, with the psalmist, those familiar old words from this morning’s psalm; Psalm 84, the most perfect song of all for a season such as this, “My soul longs for the house of the Lord...One day there is better than a thousand anywhere else.”
Indeed.
Amen.

On Making the Most of the Time

Ephesians 5:15-20, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 15th, 2021 · Duration 12:13

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning David and Absalom

II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 8th, 2021 · Duration 9:47

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.”

Few words in all of scripture are more filled with regret and grief than those words from today’s Old Testament lesson; David’s crushing sadness over Absalom’s tragic death.

The story of David and Absalom is as complex a family story as one can imagine; a parent and a child who end up literally going to war with one another, which makes the story of David and Absalom unlike anything any of us have ever known in our own families.

And yet, there is a dimension of their story with which many ordinary families can identify; which is the mutual helplessness which bound David to Absalom and Absalom to David; David and Absalom, helpless to manage one another’s choices and decisions, but, also, helpless to distance themselves from the pain of one another’s choices and decisions.

As it was for them, so it is for us; for children and their parents, and for parents and their children; as well as for siblings, spouses, and friends; all of us as helpless to manage one another’s lives, and as helpless to distance ourselves from the pain of one another’s lives, as David and Absalom, Absalom and David.

The kind of helpless love which calls to mind that unforgettable sentence of William Blake’s, “We are put on earth for a little space to learn to bear the beams of love;” the beams of love, sometimes as joyful and bright as beams of light, and, other times, as heavy and hard as beams of lumber; the hardest and heaviest of which Jesus carried until those same hard and heavy beams carried Jesus. Jesus, stretched out in vulnerable, helpless love; joining us in the depth of love’s pain and in the pain of love’s depth; the kind of love which lets go of power and control, and is content to be helpless.

Which may be love’s last frontier, the final step along the path to depth, the ultimate work of the Holy Spirit in our lives; to be content to love those we love without needing to hold the levers of control, content to take care of what we can take care of; the kind and truthful life to which today’s epistle lesson calls us when it urges us to be forgiving, tenderhearted, truthful and kind, and beyond that, content to love helplessly.

Amen.

On Speaking the Truth in Love

Ephesians 4:1-16, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 1st, 2021 · Duration 9:39

“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Every time the lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words from today’s epistle passage, the lectionary places in our path one of several calls for the unity of the church which we find in the letters attributed to Paul; placing this passage from Ephesians in the same stream with other Pauline passages such as Romans 15:6, “Live in harmony with one another,” I Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement,” and II Corinthians 13:11-12, “Agree with one another, and greet one another with a holy kiss,” passages of scripture which join today’s lesson from Ephesians chapter four in calling for the family of faith to be of one mind and one spirit.

All of which, needless to say, is harder to live out than to talk about. In fact, the same Paul who is reported to have issued all those calls for unity and agreement is also reported, in the same Bible, to have parted ways with Barnabas over an irreconcilable disagreement in Acts chapter fifteen, and, in Galatians 1:9, to have called those who disagreed with him “accursed,” not to mention Paul’s public rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:14. Even Paul, who so longed for the unity of the church, knew that, while everyone may be entitled to their own opinion, every opinion is not equally right and true, and that, at some point, the truth must be spoken; spoken in love, but, also, spoken with clarity.

All of which calls to mind, for me, our Northminster founders, who so wonderfully embodied that early Northminster creed, “Agree to differ, resolve to love, unite to serve.” Yet, when they birthed this church, in 1967, while they birthed our church for several reasons, one of those reasons was that they could no longer “unite to serve” in churches which were denying entrance to persons of color at their places of worship; a fifty-four year old example of the timeless truth that spiritual agreement ends where human exclusion begins, a local example of the global complexity of longing for unity while also having to speak the truth; which may explain why “unity” sounds so much like work in verse three of today’s lesson, where the Ephesians are admonished to “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Having called us to the hard and good work of unity, the writer of Ephesians gives us the tools we need to do that hard and important work, first by calling us, in verse two of today’s lesson, to lead a life of “Humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another in love,” and, then, by admonishing us, in verse fifteen, to “Speak the truth in love.”

To speak the truth in love may be the most precise, and difficult, practice in the orbit of careful speech. No spinning, or exaggerating, to make our case or win an argument; no tactics or strategies, flattery or sarcasm; nothing but the truth, spoken in that way the Quakers call “gentle and plain,” what Paul calls “Speaking the truth in love;” a way of speaking to, and being with, one another which is as clear as it is kind, and as kind as it is clear; never sacrificing love on the altar of the truth, while also never sacrificing the truth on the altar of love; what Walter Rauschenbusch called, “The truth dressed in nothing but love,” which has always been the church’s best hope for the true and honest, kind and gentle unity to which today’s epistle lesson beckons us, and in which Holy Communion binds us, together.

Amen.

On Standing in Oceans with Thimbles

John 6:1-21, The ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 25th, 2021 · Duration 8:04

“There is a child here, with five loaves and two small fishes. But what is that among so many?” Those words from today’s gospel lesson, about the little lunch which fed five thousand people, land very near to the big truth which has been at the center of Northminster Bible Camp all weekend; the big truth that, when it comes to letting the love which has come down to us from God go out through us to others, no kind word or good deed is too small to matter.

When Andrew said to Jesus, in response to Jesus' question concerning how they might feed five thousand people, “There is a child here with five loaves and two small fish,” Andrew immediately backpedaled, saying, “But what is that among so many?” But, once it was placed into the hands of Jesus, the little lunch became more than enough, a small sign of the big truth with which we have been sitting, and about which we have been singing, all weekend in Bible Camp; the truth that, when it comes to loving God and loving our neighbor, the little things are the big things; no word or deed too simple or small to matter and make a difference.

In fact, we might even say that, of all the miracles Jesus is reported to have done, none is more frequently repeated than the one about which we read in today’s gospel lesson; the miracle of the way the biggest difference sometimes travels in the smallest gifts.

One example of which is what happens each week with the caregiving cards which are signed and sent by the Northminster Caregivers. Signed and sent, those simple cards start out as the little loaves and fishes of ordinary paper and ink. But, received and read, those little loaves and fishes of paper and ink become the comfort and courage of strength and hope; not unlike the little lunch which miraculously became the big meal.

That sort of thing happens all the time, doesn't it? The kind note, the encouraging call, the welcoming word, the gentle touch; all so small when they are written, sent, given or said, but, oh, so big when they are heard, felt, received and read. Like the little lunch which became the big meal, no act of kindness, or word of love, too small to matter.

During those four years when we were away from here, from 2003 to 2007, people would occasionally ask, “Don’t you get discouraged, teaching all those little Bible classes in all those empty parking lots, spending all your time on efforts which show no measurable results of any kind?” But, honestly, I never felt that way, because I knew that, by doing what I was doing, I was in on what God was up to. Plus, I had that verse from First Corinthians playing in my head, “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain,” so I was content to get up every morning, go out into the world, and hand over the loaves and fishes of whatever words or deeds I had to offer, and then trust the Holy Spirit to multiply it into what it needed to be, not unlike the little lunch which became the big meal in today’s gospel lesson.

I think of that sort of thing as standing in an ocean, dipping out water with a thimble; content to make the small difference we can make, eliminating from our lexicon not only the word failure, but, also, the word success; content to live a life of love for God and neighbor, and, then, stand back, and prepare to be amazed at what God might make from our smallest and simplest words and deeds of kindness, solidarity, welcome, compassion, empathy and love; content to get up each morning, take up that day’s thimble, wade into that day’s ocean, and start dipping, knowing that the little that we can do will be multiplied by the much that God will do.

Amen.

Concerning Boundaries

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 18th, 2021 · Duration 16:14

The disciples gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done. And Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest a while.”

Every time the lectionary places, in our path, those words from today’s gospel lesson, we get to listen in as Jesus tries to help his first followers establish some healthy boundaries between work and rest, activity and stillness. The disciples have just reported to Jesus on where they have been, who they have helped and what they have done, after which Jesus encourages them to practice what we would now call “self care,” inviting them to stop, be still and rest; today’s gospel lesson reminding us that it is important for us to draw boundaries.

After which, today’s gospel lesson also reminds us that it can be as difficult to keep boundaries as it is important to draw boundaries. No sooner does Jesus help the disciples establish some boundaries around the limits of their energy than those same plans for rest get set aside.

The plan started out well enough, in verse thirty-one, where Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” In verse thirty-two, the disciples did exactly that, “They went away, in a boat, to a deserted place by themselves.” But, then, their boundaries had to be redrawn, when, in verses thirty-three and thirty-four, “Many saw them going and recognized them, and hurried there on foot and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd and had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And, right back to teaching and healing and helping they all went; Jesus, asking the same disciples to whom he had just given the day off to come up with a plan for feeding the five thousand who were gathered on the shore.

All of which is a wonderfully real world picture of the complexity of boundary keeping. We know the wisdom of what Jesus told his disciples in today’s gospel lesson when he told them to stop, go away and rest a while. We know that humans have limits, which requires setting boundaries, which includes sometimes saying “No,” even to good and important things, and not feeling guilty about it, because No can sometimes be as sacred an answer as Yes.

That is how we establish boundaries; by owning our limits, and by embracing the fact that sometimes “No” can be as sacred a word as “Yes;” important steps toward a more centered life, a life with the kind of boundaries Jesus drew for his disciples in today’s gospel lesson when he told them to stop and rest; but then redrew when they looked up and saw the hurting hungry multitude, the kind of need they couldn't not respond to.

All of which is a snapshot of real life in the real world; thoughtful boundary making and compassionate boundary moving, both a part of our lives as followers of Jesus; saying “No” to some good things and real needs, because we have to learn to be content to live within our limits, while, also, responding with compassion to needs we can’t not respond to.

For example, in the nearly two years since the events of August 7, 2019 in Canton, Carthage, Morton and beyond, I’ve made about forty trips to the Hispanic community in Canton, not because I needed to add something to my life, but because the immigrant community is a community to which I can’t not go.

We all have those things we can’t not do; things our inner moral compass won’t let us not do, which can, sometimes, make our already full lives too full, raising, for us all, the “boundary” question.

We want, in the words of Mary Oliver, to “walk slowly and bow often,” to live centered lives, fully present where we are, and paying full attention. And, yet, in addition to all we are obligated to do, we all also have a handful of things we can’t not do; each new situation and circumstance calling forth from us the most mindful, thoughtful, prayerful response we can make.

Amen.

Plumb Line People

Amos 7:7-15, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 11th, 2021 · Duration 11:31

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Prophets

Ezekiel 2:1-5, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 4th, 2021 · Duration 6:29

And the Lord said to Ezekiel, “I am sending you to the nation of Israel, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord’...Whether they listen to you or not, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from the book of Ezekiel, they call to mind, for me, an old article from the Charlotte Observer, in which, on the death of Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney, the paper’s editorial board wrote, concerning Marney’s unrelenting calls for racial justice, “Marney gave us no peace.  But, then, we didn’t deserve any.”  Or, as this morning’s lesson from Ezekiel puts it, “Whether they listen to you or not, at least they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”

A prophet is one who speaks the kind of truth which sometimes can be hard to hear.  I’ve long loved that simple, powerful sentence of William Sloane Coffin’s, “When you have something to say that is both painful and true, try to say it softly;” wise counsel, it seems to me, for those who must speak a word of prophetic truth.  And, though anger is sometimes the most right response to injustice, and, thus, the emotion most often assigned to the prophets, Richard Lischer wisely observes, in his book, The End of Words, that the central emotion of the true prophet is not anger, but sadness; as in Jeremiah and Jesus, both of whom wept over the spiritual blindness of the people of God.

Spiritual blindness into which the prophets are called to speak the truth.  Which, for Christians, is the truth which was most fully embodied in the life of Jesus, which is why the most prophetic Christian voices are the ones which are most clearly and consistently on  the side of those who are most vulnerable and least powerful, because that is where Jesus always could be found; the true voices of the true prophets saying the same things, over and over and over again:  “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”… “Love God with all that is in you, and love all others as you want to be loved”…”God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  If you understood this, you would not condemn the guiltless;” all of which the four gospels place on the lips of Jesus, and which the Holy Spirit places on the lips of the prophets, whose calling it is to say the same to all of us, over and over and over again, until we begin actually to live that way.

Amen. 

 

When Things Do Not Go That Way

Mark 5:21-43, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 27th, 2021 · Duration 15:26

Every three years, the lectionary places in our path this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Mark. And, every time it rolls back around, things work out wonderfully well; twice, first, for the unnamed woman with the debilitating, isolating, flow of blood; and, then, for Jairus, who had lost his daughter, only twelve years old. Two great sorrows, both relieved by the touch of Jesus.

Which is the way things go sometimes. Sometimes, our deepest sorrows become our highest joys, because our heaviest burdens are lifted away. That which we fear the most does not come to pass, the sadness we have lived with the longest is lifted, the disease is healed, the pain is relieved, the conflict is resolved, the worst is behind us, and the best is before us. As it was for the suffering woman and the grieving man in today’s gospel lesson, so it is for us. It’s a miracle. Sometimes things work out that way.

And, sometimes, things do not work out that way. Sometimes, the burden is not lifted, the struggle is not resolved, the disease remains, the sorrow stays. Things do not always work out for us the way they worked out for the people in today’s gospel lesson.

Such is the nature of life. To say as much is not to be negative, or pessimistic, but, rather, to be truthful. People do not come to church to be told cheerful sounding things which will not prove true in life’s toughest arenas. Anything we say concerning suffering and loss must ring true on the saddest ears in the room.

The truth is, there is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life, and, while none of us will go through all of them, all of us will go through some of them; sometimes, one hard thing after another, sometimes more than one difficult thing at the same time, not because God wills it for us or sends it to us, but because that is the nature of life in the world.

To speak of the unresolved struggles and unrelieved sorrows of life often leads to questions about “unanswered prayers,” a way of thinking about prayer which measures the worth of our prayers by whether or not they “worked,” a way of thinking about prayer which sees prayer as a transaction in which we may be able to persuade God to give us what we need if we can show God enough faith, or persistence, or prayer partners, a way of thinking about prayer to which we are naturally and understandably drawn, partly because it leaves us with some control: If we can just pray harder or have more faith, perhaps we can get God to do our will.

There are, of course, some things in this life over which we do have that much control. Are we kind? Are we thoughtful? Are we truthful? Do we live lives of integrity? Do we practice careful speech? Do we treat all others as we wish all others to treat us?

Beyond those things, over which we do have some autonomy and control, there are all those things which lie beyond our power to manage; sorrows and struggles, burdens and losses, diseases and injuries, some of which turn out amazingly well, as happened twice in today’s gospel lesson, others of which do not turn out that way.

But, still, we pray; as C.S. Lewis said, “Not because we are trying to change God, but because we can’t not pray.” Once, we may have thought Paul’s admonition in Philippians that we should “pray without ceasing” was impossible to obey, but, the longer we live, the more we find it impossible not to pray without ceasing; breathing in whatever news life brings, of joy or sorrow, and breathing out either, “Thank you, Lord” or “Help us, Lord”; prayer, becoming our life, until, eventually, our life becomes a prayer; sometimes, our prayers changing our lives, and, other times, our lives changing our prayers, from the first best hope, to the next best hope, to the last best hope.

But, never no hope. Because we love God as unconditionally as God loves us, we never stop believing that God is with us and for us, when life could not be better and when life could not be harder.

Which is why, if we say, when we do get the miracle, “Isn’t God good!”, we also say, when we don’t get the miracle, “Isn’t God good!”, because we know that the goodness of God is not tied to how well things go for us. Sometimes, things turn out as well for us as they did in today’s gospel lesson. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, God is good, and, either way, we love and trust God the same.

On a Sunday morning in 1927, at a church in Aberdeen, Scotland, a pastor named Arthur J. Gossip, suffering through an enormous crisis in his own life, preached the now famous sermon, “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” We know the answer to that tender old question. When life tumbles in, we still get up every morning and take care of what we can take care of, our own kindness, gentleness, truthfulness and integrity, and we still love and trust God, praying the same as ever, only harder, for God to help us go through the wonderful thing God might have done but did not do.

Or, as one wise soul once said, “Faith is what you have left when you don’t get the miracle.”
Amen.

In the Same Boat

Mark 4:35-41, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · June 20th, 2021 · Duration 12:48

I was a fairly tame high schooler so my first brush with death didn’t come until the summer after my sophomore year. Some friends and I went to Lake Martin for the 4th of July, and we took a tiny pontoon boat out into the middle of the lake to watch the fireworks. Our trip out to the middle of the lake went well and the fireworks were wonderful, but just as they ended, a storm blew up. Other boats were around us, mostly speed boats with much larger motors than ours. The wake of the bigger boats coupled with the wind from the storm created a very scary situation. And when we already thought for sure that we were going to capsize, the only one of our friends who could drive the boat lost a contact. We were clearly doomed. Then, suddenly, the storm stopped, and the other boats cleared out, and with one eye shut, our friend was able to drive us home.

I have some idea of how the disciples felt in today’s gospel story.

“On that day,” the passage begins, connecting us to that which has happened the rest of that day in Mark, primarily Jesus’ telling of parables about the Kingdom, and making us mindful of how this story might impact our understanding of the Kingdom of God. So after Jesus has spent the day teaching, he and the disciples head across to the other side of the sea.

“And other boats were with them.” I had never noticed this passing phrase at the end of verse 36. Were these other disciples – Jesus had more than just the twelve who were regularly with him – or were these people who had been listening to Jesus teach that day, seeking answers for the meaning of Jesus’ parables? We learn in the next passage that Jesus and the disciples were crossing from their Jewish community to the Gentile community of the Gerasenes, so could some of the folks in the boats have been gentiles?

Clearly not everyone was in the same boat, but it didn’t matter when a great windstorm arose. The waves beat into the boat and water began to flood in and fear began to dictate action.

At least four of the disciples were fisherman who worked on the sea of Galilee, which is 680 feet below sea level, surrounded by hills and prone to storms, so if they were afraid, it seems their fear of the storm would be justified. The disciples woke Jesus up, hysterical that he hasn’t risen to address the situation already, their fear turning to accusation. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” The disciples seem to know that Jesus can do something about the storm but are still surprised when Jesus does.

Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind and says to the sea “Peace! Be still!” The word “rebuke” makes me imagine a Jesus who yells “Peace! Be Still!” and I see this cinematic bolt of lightning that represents Jesus’ power moving over the sea. But the fact that the disciples woke Jesus up, makes me imagine Jesus rubbing sleep out of his eye, and yawning as he says “Peace. Be still.” The divine and the human, speaking power over the sea, no action, just words, and the wind and the waves stop. They aren’t all in the same boat, but when the disciples go to Jesus for peace, the same peace comes to all the boats.

Notice that Jesus waits until after the wind and the waves have stopped to ask his question “Why are you afraid?” In an essay in Feasting on the Word, Michael Lindvall points out that Jesus does not tell the disciples that there is nothing to be afraid of. Jesus asks why they are afraid. This is not a scolding but an invitation to tell Jesus what is making them afraid. We don’t hear the disciples answer to these questions, but we do hear their response to Jesus’ actions.

Their awe and wonder are recorded in the final verse of today’s gospel lesson – they were filled with great awe and wondered “who then is this?” When the waters calmed, did they remember the words of this morning’s Psalmist? “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and the Lord brought them out from their distress, the Lord made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Or did they think of that moment in Genesis when God hovered over the water and then created order from it? Have they finally started to recognize the divine in their presence? They have been learning of the Kingdom but now its Creator is clearly in their midst. They aren’t all in the same boat, but God is in the boat with all of them.

This was probably not the first trip across the Sea of Galilee that Jesus made with the disciples, and we know it was not the last. Just a couple of chapters later, the disciples are again crossing the sea to Gennesaret when Jesus decides to walk across the sea to meet them. As Jesus passes the disciples, he sees that they are straining against an adverse wind and joins the disciples in their boat, ceasing the wind and leaving the disciples astonished once again. The author of the gospel of Mark uses these stories of crossing over in the storm to display his Christology. The reader recognizes that God is fully present in Jesus, even if the disciples do not, and Jesus’ disciples both then and now recognize Jesus’ invitation to cross over to something new.

In her essay “Crossing to the Other Side,” Debie Thomas says “Our work is always to cross over from fear to awe, from suspicion to trust, from certainty to wonder.  No matter how high the storm waves in our lives, may we always rest in God’s presence as we cross to the other side.”

We have some idea of how the disciples felt in today’s gospel story. Some of us have crossed from the shore of what was to what will be and faced the storms of grief and sorrow. Others have crossed from the shore of certainty to the shore of mystery and faced the storms of fear and doubt. Some have crossed from the shore of one deeply held belief to the shore of another and faced the storm of rebuilding. Sometimes we get in the boat because we want to and sometimes because we have to and sometimes because getting in the boat will bring peace to others. Sometimes we don’t get in the boat because we are afraid of the storm that will arise, and Jesus invites us to wonder what we are afraid of? Sometimes we get in the boat and amid the storm we wonder if Jesus really cares? And sometimes the storm stills, and we are just in awe of our Creator, because even though we aren’t always in the same boat, God is in the boat with all of us. When God calls us to do the hard work of crossing over to a new or deeper or wider understanding of God’s Kingdom here on earth, God is with us.

I cannot speak for you but when I think about the shores that the 15-year-old version of myself has crossed to since I survived that storm on Lake Martin, from this side of all those seas, I’m grateful for every boat I’ve willingly, and sometimes not so willingly gotten in. But if I had known all the storms that would blow up then, I might not have gotten in any of those boat and my life would not be as rich, or as deep or as filled with all of you and the wonderful gift of doing life together in this sacred space.

In Chuck’s incredible sermon “Every Kind of Bird” from last week, he shared a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete the last one but I give myself to it.” I’ve thought of those words often in the last week. I’ve thought of the tiny seed held in Love’s hand that grows into the beautiful, expansive, ever-widening circle of love that is the Kingdom of God. We don’t know when our next crossing of the sea will be our last but I hope we’ll get in the boat. I hope we’ll even help one another in, because eventually, we will all be in the same boat and God will be with us there too.            Amen.

 

Every Kind of Bird

Ezekiel 17:22-24, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 13th, 2021 · Duration 15:49

Thus says the Lord, “I myself will take a sprig from the top of a cedar, and plant it on a high mountain...Under it every kind of bird will live; every kind of bird will nest in the shade of its branches.”

According to those who study ornithology (the science of birds), those words from today’s lesson from Ezekiel, concerning God’s great tree where every kind of bird will someday find a home, taken literally, would mean that God’s great tree would need to have room for as many as one hundred billion birds belonging to over 10,000 species.

But, needless to say, literally is not the way those words from Ezekiel were intended to be interpreted. (Indeed, to take any of the Bible’s words literally is, more often than not, to send the Bible on an errand the Bible was not written to run.)

However, to take seriously Ezekiel’s vision of God planting a tree where every kind of bird will have a nest in which to rest might be to see that image from Ezekiel as one of the many small signs in sacred scripture which point to the ultimate will and eternal plan of God; Ezekiel’s tree, which will someday be home to every kind of bird, not unlike Isaiah’s promise, in Isaiah 25:6-9, that God is preparing a great feast at which all the world will someday be present; not unlike Psalm 36:6, which says that God saves humans and animals alike; Old Testament promises which find New Testament echoes in I Corinthians 15:22, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” II Corinthians 5:19, “In Christ, God was reconciling the whole world to God’s self,” Ephesians 1:10, “God’s will and plan is to gather up all things in Christ,” Colossians 1:20, “Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things on earth and in heaven,” I Timothy 2:4, “God wants everyone to be saved,” Titus 2:11, “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all,” and, last, best and biggest, Revelation 5:13, John’s vision of “Every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and in the sea, singing “Glory to God” together forever;” every kind of bird and creature and human, together, forever, with God, in what Acts 3:21 calls “The universal restoration of all things.”

Thinking about all of that this week called to mind, for me, a sentence in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Holy Envy” in which Reverend Taylor says that she reached a point in her life when she found herself wishing she knew where the Bible verses were which drew a wider circle of grace than the more exclusive faith so many of her friends so often supported with passages such as John 14:6. Well, here they are, the verses which tell us that God’s will, and plan, is for every soul who has ever lived to someday be healed and home with God; Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 36:6, I Corinthians 15:22, II Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:20, I Timothy 2:4, Titus 2:11, Revelation 5:13, and, don’t forget Ezekiel 17:23; that tree God is planting which will hold a place for every kind of bird; the ultimate will and eternal plan of God; every kind of bird, ultimately, eternally, healed and home with God, the whole creation reconciled to God, just as God has always wanted, chosen and planned.

Many years ago, when Ted Adams retired from a very long pastorate at the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, he began a second career as a Professor of Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where, one day, a student asked Dr. Adams, “How long does it take you to prepare a sermon?” To which Ted Adams replied, “All my life, up to now.” It has taken me that long, all my life, up to now, to come to see, and say, the truth that the deeper we go into our own particular faith, the wider we grow beyond our own particular faith, because to go deeper into Christianity is to grow closer to the Christ through whom God was reconciling the whole creation to God’s self.

To grow closer and closer to Christ is to grow wider and wider in our joyful embrace of “every kind of bird;” the whole human family in the whole wide world; what Rainer Maria Rilke called, “Living our lives in widening circles that reach out across the world. We may not complete the last one,” said Rilke, “but we give ourselves to it.”

To walk in the Spirit is to give ourselves to a life of love and welcome lived in ever-widening circles; circles which slowly grow to share the size of the circumference of the love and welcome of God, whose eternal will and plan is the universal restoration of all things; the whole human family, and all creation, finally, fully, healed and home.

After all the truth has been told, all the responsibility has been owned, all the injustice confronted, all the victims faced, all the sin judged; no matter how many millions of years it takes, the ultimate and eternal will of God finally, ultimately, eternally done; the whole human family of every time and place, healed and home, at last, with God, no matter how long it takes, because God has all the time in the world to finally have what God has always wanted, which is every soul healed and home; every kind of bird.
Amen.

The Reason We Do Not Lose Heart

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 6th, 2021 · Duration 2:14

“So, we do not lose heart...For we know that if this earthly tent in which we live is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

               With those words, today’s epistle lesson captures the hope which lives at the center, and waits at the bottom, of our faith; that relentless and incurable hope which can help us not to lose heart, no matter how difficult or disappointing, hard or heavy, life may be; the sure and certain hope and promise that, as long as we live, God is with us, and then, when we die, we are with God. 

               Amen.

A Sermon on the Subject of the Trinity

John 3:1-17, Trinity Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 30th, 2021 · Duration 10:10

Every year when Trinity Sunday rolls back around, it never fails to call to mind, for me, my all-time favorite Trinity Sunday story, about a centuries old church, in England, now a village tourist attraction, with a sign out front which says, “Here, the Bishop preached every Lord’s Day, except Trinity Sunday, owing to the difficulty of the subject;” the Bishop, annually, preemptively, wisely throwing in the towel, rather than venture a sermon on the notoriously difficult subject of the church’s eternal, communal, theological triangle; the trinity.

Although, sometimes I wonder if, when it comes to the subject of the trinity, the Christian centuries may have made things more complicated than they actually are.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I have a very practical, perhaps overly simple, way of thinking about the trinity; a way of thinking which rises from one of last Sunday’s lectionary lessons, that part of John chapter sixteen where Jesus is reported to have said that, since it was time for him to go back to God, God was going to send the Holy Spirit to take Jesus’ followers further along the same path down which Jesus had started them; all of which is my “cornbread and peas” version of John 16:5-13, where Jesus is reported to have said, “Now I am going back to the One who sent me...I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.”

In a Bible where the word “trinity” never appears, that may be the most trinitarian passage of all; Jesus came from God, and when the time came for Jesus to go back to God, Jesus said that God would send the Holy Spirit to guide Jesus’ followers further and further along the same path down which Jesus had gotten them started; the practical, spiritual, living trinity; the trio, a quartet; the triangle, a square; Father, Son, Holy Spirit and us; at work in the world, together.

I cannot speak for you, but, in my experience, a person can believe in the trinity as a Christian doctrine all day long and still be as hard-hearted, narrow-minded, reckless, impulsive, exclusive and unkind as if they had never so much as heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. But, to live in the trinity; ever open to what the Holy Spirit is revealing about what Jesus was revealing about God, is to be transformed, to become what today’s gospel lesson calls “born again;” growing and changing in ever wider ways, the Holy Spirit’s life-transforming work so quiet and strong that we can’t tell if we are drawing a wider circle of love, or if a wider circle of love is drawing us.

The world has never been changed by right belief, because people are not changed by right belief. The world will always be changed by the life of love, because people are changed by the life of love; the Holy Spirit taking us further and further into, what Jesus took us deeper and deeper into, about God; the trinity, once an ancient triangle we only believed in, now a living circle we always walk in; wider and wider, bigger and bigger, until the size of the circle of our love and welcome matches the size of the circle of the love and welcome of God.
Amen.

Concerning the Spirit

John 15:26-27, 16:4-15, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 23rd, 2021 · Duration 10:50

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Nine Words

Nine Words 2021

Chuck Poole · May 17th, 2021 · Duration 0:0

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which  commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

                                                                                                   -Matthew 22:34-40

Homosexuality is a human difference, not a spiritual sin. It has taken me a lifetime on the path to a deeper life with God to learn to say that single, simple sentence; nine words which, at the risk of sounding naïve and simplistic, I believe hold the answer to the religious world’s long struggle concerning those who are drawn to persons of their same sex.

There isn’t any spiritual difference between gay people of God and straight people of God. We all worship, sing, pray, serve, try and fail the same. Whether we are straight or gay, we have the same capacity to be moral or immoral, kind or mean, careful or reckless, righteous or unjust, generous or selfish. In all those ways, we are all the same. 

All of this finally came clear to me, nearly two decades ago, while sitting by the bed of a dying man in a nursing home; a man who had lived a long life of integrity and fidelity, prayer and devotion, who happened to be gay. As I sat near his bed in the last weeks of his life, it occurred to me that he and I were different from one another only in that he was a gay person; a human difference, not a spiritual one.

Of course, given our long history of turning to scripture to support what we believe, that raises the important question, “But what about what the Bible says concerning homosexuality?”

The Bible includes several passages which are often assumed to address same sex attraction and love. There appear to be seven such passages.  (I say “appear to be” because it is not clear how many of them actually address a committed relationship  between two adults of the same sex.)

Take, for example, the first of those seven passages; the story of the city of Sodom in Genesis chapter nineteen.  Often pointed to as a story about God’s judgement against homosexuality, Genesis 19:1-11 recalls the story of a group of men who attempted to sexually assault Lot’s angelic visitors; an attempt at sexual violence which everyone on the planet condemns, but  which has nothing to do with a committed relationship between two people of the same sex.

In the Old Testament, there are two more passages which are often  invoked to condemn same sex relationships; Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination,” and Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination, they shall be put to death.”  Those words belong to a Levitical “holiness code” which also prohibits the eating of pork (Leviticus 11:7-12), forbids rough beards (Leviticus 19:27), and excludes from worship leadership anyone with blemished skin, failing eyesight or poor posture (Leviticus 21:16-20); verses to which no Christians I know assign any continuing authority. 

That leaves the four New Testament passages which are often assumed to indict same sex relationships.  One is Jude 1:7, which refers to the aforementioned passage in Genesis chapter nineteen.  Two more are I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:10, both of which are on the list of possible passages, because they contain the word “sodomite,” which could be a reference to what we think of as a same sex relationship, but which also may refer to the sexual exploitation of boys by men; something everyone condemns, but something which has no more relation to a same sex relationship between two adults than the heterosexual exploitation of children has to sexual intimacy between a man and a woman.

Of the seven Bible passages often assumed to be about same sex intimacy, those are six; which leaves one; Romans 1:25-31, which says, “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another . . .  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness and malice . . .  Full of envy, murder, strife . . . They are gossips, slanderers, God haters.” 

Because of the part of this passage which refers to those who have exchanged their natural sexual inclination for “a way of intercourse which is not natural” this passage is sometimes assumed to be Paul’s indictment of  homosexuality, which it may be.  But, to read the full paragraph is to see that it also describes those of whom Paul speaks as being “God-haters”, who are full of envy, murder and malice, which does not describe any of the gay persons I have known, who are no more or less likely to be God-haters who are full of envy, murder and malice than any of the straight people I have known.  Whoever Paul is describing in Romans chapter one, he is not describing the prayerful, thoughtful child of God who happens to be a gay person. 

All of which is to say that, of the seven passages in the Bible which are often assumed to be about same sex sexual intimacy, it isn’t clear which ones address committed same sex  relationships.  The words, and spirit, of the Bible, with the very troubling exception of Numbers 31:13-35, condemn all forms of sexual violence, promiscuity and exploitation; heterosexual and homosexual.  The question is whether or not the Bible addresses, or even anticipates, committed same sex relationships.

But, even if some of those seven passages were intended to address committed same sex relationships, most of the Christians I know would not be able to say that it was because of their commitment to the authority of the Bible that they held a religious objection against gay and lesbian persons, because most of the Christians I know continue to own possessions, resist evildoers, and wear jewelry, in spite of what the Bible says in Luke 14:33, Matthew 5:39 and I Timothy 2:9. That is not to say that there is something wrong with owning possessions, resisting evildoers or wearing jewelry, but it is to say that there is something wrong with using the Bible on others in ways we would never apply the Bible to ourselves. 

I believe that most popular religious judgments about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons have less to do with the Bible than with the way we were raised; what we’ve always thought and been taught.  One very large factor, especially for many men who grew up, as did I, in the deep south Bible Belt of the twentieth-century, is that much of our thinking about gay persons was shaped more by immature masculinity than by mature Christianity. At school, at work, and even in the church, we emphasized our masculinity by ridiculing those who were drawn to persons of their same sex; calling them names and making fun of them. (The sin, in that case, not the sexuality of those who are gay, but the meanness of those who are straight.)

 In the religious world of my origins, we talked a lot about Jesus, but, when it came to how we treated those who were born beyond the comfortable majority, we  often failed to embody the spirit of Jesus, which is one reason why people in our part of the world who had a gay or lesbian son or daughter often encouraged them to move to New York or San Francisco, where they might be more safe from hurt and harm than in the Bible Belt.  Ponder, for a moment, the irony of that: The part of the country which claims the most followers of Jesus is one of the most difficult parts of the country in which to be different; a sad commentary on how far the popular Christianity of the  Bible Belt has strayed from the Jesus of the four gospels.

As far as we know, that Jesus, the Jesus of the four gospels, never said anything about same sex relationships.  He did, however, have something to say about what matters most in life.  When asked, in Matthew chapter twenty-two, what matters most, Jesus is reported to have said that what matters most is that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves; reading all scripture, and seeing all persons, in the light of, and through the lens of, love.  Which is not unlike what we find in Matthew 7:12, where Jesus is reported to have summed up all the law and the prophets in a single simple sentence of nine simple words:  Treat others as you would have others treat you.

One small example of which I heard described in an interview shortly after the death of President George Herbert Walker Bush. In early December of 2018, as the world mourned the death of President Bush, National Public Radio aired a conversation in which two women, Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalson, who own a store near the Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, remembered, with much affection and gratitude, the gladness and warmth with which their longtime friend, George H. W. Bush, had served as a witness at their wedding; a small example from President Bush concerning how to relate to gay and lesbian loved ones and friends; as loved ones and friends, without making one part of their life, their sexual orientation, the most interesting or important part of their life, seeing that human difference for what it is; a human difference, not a spiritual sin.

To learn to discern the difference between a difference and a sin is an important step along the path to spiritual depth; which, for me, has meant coming to see, and say, the truth which travels in those nine simple words, Homosexuality is a human difference, not a spiritual sin; truth it has taken me a lifetime to see and say, truth which many dear and good people of faith do not embrace,  but, truth which many others have always instinctively known.  And, truth which many more might someday come to see, and say, not in spite of the fact that they are prayerful, Spirit-filled, serious Christians, but because of the fact that they are prayerful, Spirit-filled, serious Christians.

- Charles E. Poole, 2021

 

 

 

 

Into the World

John 17:6-19, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 16th, 2021 · Duration 13:15

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from today’s gospel lesson, we get to listen in as Jesus did, then, what the church does, now. Just as Jesus sent Jesus’ first friends into the world, then, so the church sends us into the world, now, but not without first helping us, within these walls, to get ready for the world which waits, beyond these walls.

Here at Northminster, the annual Mentor Class, which Bess, Will, Andrew and Chesley are completing today, is an important part of that life-long work of the church to prepare us, within these walls, for the world which waits, beyond these walls. That kind of spiritual formation doesn’t happen all at once or once and for all, but little by little, week after week, year upon year; in Sunday School, Atrium, Girls of Grace and Guys 456; at Bible Camp, Word Search Wednesdays and Passport Kids; on children’s retreats and mission projects, at worship class, play dates and book studies; in the Mentor Class which Bess, Will, Andrew and Chesley have just completed, and, soon, in the Youth House, which they are about to enter, not to mention the countless little conversations with church folk, which happen in the parking lot and hallways almost every week. The church, little by little, helping to shape and form all of our lives for God and the gospel; all of us, together, calling forth that which is deepest and best in one another, helping each other, within these walls, get ready for the world which waits, beyond these walls, not unlike what we watched Jesus do in this morning’s gospel lesson when, in Jesus’ prayer for his first followers, Jesus said, to God, “As you have sent me into the world, so I am sending them into the world.”

Bess, Will, Andrew and Chesley, we wish we could send you out into the world with an air-tight guarantee of protection from the hardest and worst that life can bring. But, needless to say, even the most faithful lifetime lived in the care of the church does not build a bubble of protection around our lives.

However, while a lifetime lived in the care of the church cannot promise us protection from life’s most difficult moments, a lifetime lived in the care of the church can promise us strength for life’s most difficult moments. It is as though there is a container somewhere down there in our souls; something like a spiritual bucket, a reservoir which gets filled with the kind of truth which can give us strength and hope, courage and clarity, just when we need it most; the reservoir of our soul, filled with the kind of truth we all hear, over and over, year after year, in every corner of the church at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover.

The truth that God is with us, no matter where we go or what we face. The truth that every person in the whole human family is a child of God who bears within them the image of God. The truth that God calls us to treat all others as we want all others to treat us. The truth that in the life of Jesus, we Christians get our clearest glimpse of who God is, how God acts and what God wants, and that in the death of Jesus we see most fully the relentless, boundless love of God, and that in the resurrection of Jesus we find our ultimate hope; the ultimate and incurable hope that this is God’s world, and in God’s world, the worst thing that happens is never the last thing that happens, because, in God’s world, God gets the last word, and if the last word said is going to be God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good.

A lifetime lived in the care of the church fills the reservoir of our soul with that kind of truth; preparing us for those moments in life when we will need to be able to reach down into the reservoir and come back up with something which will give us the strength and courage we need; the strength we need to go through some great sorrow we did not get to go around; the courage we need to sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for if Jesus was here; the church, helping us to get ready for those moments in life when, as one wise soul once said, “Courage is doing the right thing, even when you’re scared to death.”

Those moments will come. No one can say when or how, but they come to us all, at some time or another. And, when they do, those of us whose lives have been formed and shaped by the church have a reservoir of truth into which we can reach; our lives rooted in, centered on and anchored by a small list of big truths: God is with us. God is for us. The Spirit of God and the people of God, together, will give us the strength we need to go through what we don’t get to go around. God is love; and God calls us, and helps us, to let the same love which has come down to us from God go out through us to others.

The church, slowly, slowly filling the reservoir of our soul with that kind of truth; forming us, little by little, year after year, to live lives of kindness and courage, truthfulness and goodness, empathy and integrity, mercy and grace; out there in the world, to which Jesus once sent the church, and the church now sends us.
Amen.

This Is How We Grow

Acts 10:44-48, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 9th, 2021 · Duration 13:16

Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Every three years, the lectionary places in the path of the church those words from this morning’s lesson from the book of Acts; the end of the story of Peter and Cornelius, which begins much earlier in Acts chapter ten, with Peter’s famous dream, in which Peter sees a sheet full of odd animals, all on the forbidden foods list in the book of Leviticus. But, much to Peter’s surprise, the voice of the Lord tells Peter to rise and eat the forbidden meat from the off-limits sheet. To which Peter responds by reminding God that the book of Leviticus prohibits the people of God from eating what the voice of God is inviting Peter to eat; Peter, reminding God what the Bible says about the subject.

About that time, Peter was surprised by visitors at the door, inviting him to come to the home of Cornelius, who, because he was a Gentile, may have been as off-limits for Peter as the food in the dream. In fact, once Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, Peter realized that his recent dream about eating off-limits food was actually a vision about welcoming off-limits people; saying to Cornelius in Acts 10:28, “You know that it is unlawful for me, a Jew, to associate with a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone unclean or profane.”

All of which brings us to today’s passage, at the end of chapter ten, where Peter says, “Who can withhold the water for baptizing these Gentiles who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”; Peter’s decision, at the end of Acts chapter ten, to say “Yes” to Cornelius; a “Yes” which, at the beginning of Acts chapter ten, Peter might never have dreamed that ever he would say.

As you will recall from your own life with the Bible, the story spills over into Acts chapter eleven, where Peter gets called on the carpet for welcoming and baptizing Cornelius. The Bible says, in Acts 11:4, that, confronted with the questions of his critics, Peter explained, “step by step,” how he grew into his Spirit-filled “Yes;” the Holy Spirit, taking Peter past the place where both scripture and tradition might have dropped him off, all of which ends in Acts 11:17 with one of the greatest sentences in all the Bible, “If God has given them the same Holy Spirit God has given us, who am I to hinder God?”

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, those words from the story of Peter’s spiritual journey are among the most important in all the Bible, perhaps because, in my own life, I, not unlike Peter, have had to outgrow my original “No” on nearly every important issue and question you can name; the Holy Spirit pushing and pulling me along by the hardest and the slowest.

For example, based on the religion I learned in the church of my childhood, I was so sure, at one time, that God did not, would not, could not call women to be ministers; absolutely, immovably certain. But, slowly, slowly, I came to see and say the same truth Peter came to see and say, “Who am I to make distinctions God does not make?” It was hard. Having been so wrong for so long, it was hard to be right. Like Peter, I even quoted scripture to God to defend my “No” against God’s “Yes.” Until, finally, because of the patience of the Holy Spirit, I came to see, and say, with Peter, Who am I to say “No” to anyone God has said “Yes” to?

It has been, for me, a long journey. The same journey Peter covered in a chapter has taken me a lifetime. And, while it has not been easy, if there was one gift I could give to each and every one of you, it would be the gift of that kind of growth and change; walking in the Holy Spirit until, step by step, we all grow bigger; which, I believe, is the kind of growing which God wants for all of us, and from all of us.

Amen.

Concerning Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Acts 8:26-40, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 2nd, 2021 · Duration 5:00

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Every three years, the lectionary asks the church, throughout the world, to read, on the Fifth Sunday of Eastertide, those words from Acts chapter eight. And, every time they roll back around, I wonder if the Ethiopian eunuch’s request to be baptized might have created, for Philip, one of those moments in life which our own William Faulkner once described as, “The human heart, in conflict with itself.”

After all, on the one hand, Philip has those words in his head from Deuteronomy and Leviticus which specifically exclude eunuchs and foreigners from the welcome of the family of God. (And the Ethiopian eunuch, needless to say, is both.) But, on the other hand, there is that passage in Isaiah chapter fifty-six which specifically includes eunuchs and foreigners in the full welcome of God. The Bible, in a tie, with itself; these verses versus those verses. What will Philip do? Will Philip interpret the Bible’s larger verses in the light of the Bible's smaller verses, or will he interpret the Bible's smaller verses in the light of the Bible’s larger verses? Which way will Philip go? Will Philip say “Yes” or will Philip say “No”?

However uncertain, or fearful, Philip may have been, Philip followed the nudges and whispers of the Holy Spirit, all the way down into the water with the Ethiopian eunuch. And, while I cannot speak for you, as for me, every time we get to the end of today’s passage, the part where Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch come up out of the water, together, to go their separate ways, I always wonder who of the two has been more unshackled, transformed, born again and set free; Philip or the eunuch, the baptizer or the baptizee?

Amen.

By What Name? (Senior Recognition Sunday)

Acts 4:5-12; I John 3:16-24, The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Major Treadway · April 25th, 2021 · Duration 15:35

I want to tell you a secret. Seniors, I am speaking to you with this secret, so if you would do me a favor and not tell any of the other Youth or children, I would appreciate it. This secret is one that is communally held by this family of faith.

For the last 18 or so years, and truthfully, for many years before that, we have all been working together (mostly) to form you into the people who will carry the faith of our ancestors to those who will one day call us ancestors. Almost every adult in your life is in on this plan. I don’t know all of the adults in your life, but I know many of the adults at this church and I have had many conversations with them about this very thing.

Did you know that there are full committees (plural) filled with adults of all ages whose only purpose is to think about your formation? All of these people, gathered in this sanctuary, and on the live stream – dreaming, imagining, praying, and working together to see that you are formed in such a way that when your moment comes to lead and carry the mantle of Christianity to the next generation, you are ready.

In the reading from Acts this morning, two of the disciples of Jesus had recently been met with a moment where they had a decision to make. Peter and John were going to the temple to pray. When they got there, they met a man who, the scriptures tell us, had been “lame from birth.” The man asked Peter and John for some money. They had a conversation with the man and told him that they did not have any money, then they spoke to the man in the name of Jesus, and told him “to stand up and walk.” And the man did. This event led to preaching and the preaching led to lot of people (5,000) believing. Somewhere in the midst of all the preaching and believing, Peter and John were arrested.

This is where today’s lesson picks up. Peter and John were brought before all of the important religious leaders of the day and asked “by what power or by what name did you do this?”

This question could have been asked out of awe or appreciation. It could have been asked out of curiosity or interest. Instead, it was asked out of jealousy and rage. These leaders saw their influence fading and not just fading, leaving them and being gained by, what must have seemed to them, rival religious leaders. They were operating out of a mindset which viewed the world, the people, and all that was in it as though there were not enough, as though the resources available were scarce and anyone gaining resources meant that someone was losing them.

But Peter and John had been formed to see the world differently. They were beholden to a master that had once given them the instructions to “take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic.” The same master famously told a group of lawyers that the second greatest commandment in all the Bible was to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

It is, of course, no surprise to us that the disciples of Jesus would see the world through different eyes. Jesus, who had the benefit of being both fully God and fully human, also had the benefit of knowing that the world in which we live, the world which was created with words, is not a world of scarcity, but a world of abundance. It is only in a world of abundance, that we can hear and know the answer to the question in the epistle reading today: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

Because of the ways which we have been formed, we can know the answer that will come even before we read it: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Just like we have all be conspiring to form you, seniors, Jesus worked hard enough to form his disciples so that they would be able to see this man asking for alms, and not be deterred by what they lacked, money, but be able to perceive the abundance that they did have and offer him health even though he had asked for money.

So when the council of religious leaders asked them, “by what name did you do this?”, the disciples were ready with their answer. Before the question was finished being spoken, before the question had ever been asked, even before they had encountered the man whom they healed resulting in their arrest, they knew the answer to the question.

They knew what they would say to the council, and anyone else who asked, “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…, whom God raised from the dead.”

Kaylee, Kimberly, Hawthorne, Noah, Sarah Beth, Milton, Rosie, Andrew, Katie, Samuel, Jeremiah, Leflore, Lesean, Ella Jane, Gibson, Betsy, and Katie, the community of faith that is Northminster has been conspiring to form you from before the first time you ever entered these doors all the way until now. Betsy Ditto and Annette Hitt were ready and waiting to receive you in the nursery and wrap their loving arms around you. Many of you were walked out down that aisle there in Pastor Poole’s arms as the congregation promised to “share in your growth” and in unison told you and your parents that you “belong to us as well.”

Amy Finkelberg and Lesley Ratcliff and Holly Wiggs between them rallied a fierce cadre of Northminster adults to steer you through Sunday School, Atrium, Children’s Worship Hour, Girls of Grace, Guys 456, and Bible Camp.

Steven Fuller, Rebecca Wiggs, Christian Byrd, and Ginger Parham offered opportunities to join in your adolescent formation, by joining Dabbs and Woody in the Youth House on Sunday nights, or Kelley Williams, Jr., Neva Eklund, Chris Wiggs, Bryan and Christine Bridges, Ken Cleveland, Doug Caver, and Pastor Poole teaching Sunday School. Still more people have chaperoned trips, hosted you in their homes and yards and pools. Others have prepared meals, provided transportation, and coached basketball teams. And even more have prayed for you in rooms throughout this church and in the privacy of their own homes.

All of these people and programs have been focused on your formation in hopes that one day, when you are faced with a situation where doing what is right and doing what fits well socially, culturally, legally are not the same thing, that you will choose what is right. The goal of all this formation is that when the moment comes, you will instinctively sit down with the person whom Jesus would have, that you will stand up for the person Jesus would have, that you will stand up against the person Jesus would have.

Sometimes, doing such a thing will result in various forms of the question that was asked to Peter and John. The question might sound something like, why would you do that? Don’t you know that’s not how we do things around here? Are you sure that person is worth it? By what name did you do this?

The type of formation, into which we have all conspired to mold you, and our ancestors before us conspired to mold us, is the type that also has a ready answer: “by the name of Jesus…, whom God raised from the dead.” It is the type of formation that has prepared us to answer: “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This type of formation names the risen Lord Jesus as its cornerstone. It is because of Jesus, the one who stood against social custom, cultural practice, and even, at times, against the law of the land that we can live and grow into this form. For, Jesus sat down with and stood up for the persons in the most need, the persons who social custom, cultural practice, and the government were leaving behind. And Jesus had some pretty harsh words about how we treat these people. You remember them, of course, in Matthew 25, Jesus says that just in the same way that you treat the least of these, that’s just how you have treated me.

Eighteen or so years of conspiring have brought us to this day where we as a church body look at you seated here, confident that you have been filled up with all that you need to respond to each situation in such a way that someone might ask “by what name do you do this?”; further, we trust that you are ready to answer them.

But there is another secret that is hidden in this conspiratorial practice of formation. All of those people, who are really all of the people that are sitting behind you with tears of pride in their eyes, all of those people, because of their commitment to your formation, have entered into a relationship with you; and relationships are tricky. In relationships, all parties are subject to change. In this journey, each person who has engaged in your formation, each person who has conspired to influence you and shape you into the person you have become, each of us has been influenced by you.

It’s true. You have already been a part of the formation of Northminster Baptist Church, just as Northminster Baptist Church has been a part of your formation.

Because of your presence, your questions, your commitment to this place, to these people, and to each other, we as a community of faith are better able to respond when we encounter situations which place us in the space where what is right and what is socially, culturally, legally appropriate do not align. And we are more ready for the question “by what name did you do this?”

Kaylee, Kimberly, Hawthorne, Noah, Sarah Beth, Milton, Rosie, Andrew, Katie, Samuel, Jeremiah, Leflore, Lesean, Ella Jane, Gibson, Betsy, and Katie, as you go from this place to all of your new places, go knowing that this community of faith is continuing to conspire about you, for you, and with you as you continue this journey into the abundant life that Jesus declared for us. 

We cannot all go with you, and you don’t need us to. I imagine it is possible that some of you might not want us to. You are ready. You are ready to lean on Jesus. You are ready to draw forth from the abundance that Jesus has provided you and all of us to live your life in such a way that those who don’t know you might see you and ask you “by what name have you done this?”

 

Amen.

At the Corner of Sadness and Gladness

Psalm 4, The Third Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 18th, 2021 · Duration 10:15

“Answer me when I call, O God...You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.”

Every time the lectionary asks us to read those words from today’s psalm, they call to mind, for me, that familiar old adage that there are really only two kinds of prayers; one is “Help me! Help me! Help me!”, and the other is, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

In this morning’s psalm, “Help me” and “Thank you” come so close together that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins; “Answer me when I call, O God,” a “Help me!” prayer, followed immediately by, “God gave me room when I was in distress,” a “Thank you!” prayer, followed immediately by another “Help me!” prayer, all of which happens before we even exit the first verse of Psalm 4; the busy intersection of the psalmist’ “Thank you” prayers and the psalmist’ “Help me” prayers, making today’s psalm a timeless picture, back there on the page, of life as it is, down here on the ground.

Life, for most of us, is part “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” for all the times we have been helped, healed, saved, spared, and comforted, and part “Help me, Help me, Help me,” for all the uncertainty and anxiety, disease and pain, disappointment and resentment we still struggle to carry and manage; many of us getting up every morning to face the same fears and fear the same faces, all over again; calling out to God with the psalmist, “Help me, help me, help me;” until the next time we say to God with the psalmist, “Thank you, thank you, thank you;” until the next time when it is “Help me, help me, help me,” all over again.

As Fred Buechner once said, “Here is the world. Beautiful things and terrible things will happen.” And both, the beautiful and the terrible, happen more than once in nearly every life. The person who faces only one great difficulty in life is as rare as the one who knows only one great joy. We live in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen, and if any of those things can happen to anyone, all of those things can happen to everyone, more than once.

Like the psalmist, we all live at the corner of gladness and sadness, relief and grief, joy and pain, beautiful and terrible, wonderful and awful, praying “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” in one breath , and “Help me, Help me, Help me” in the next.

Or, sometimes, even in the same breath, because, sometimes, the sadness and the gladness converge. The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to dance and a time to mourn, and, sometimes, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.

Many years ago, I watched a young family dancing away at a Christmas party. Their life together was being changed, forever, by a crushing sorrow. But, there they were, dancing away to Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” as though they hadn’t a care in the world; dancing on broken legs, at the busy intersection of sadness and gladness.

Which is, in some ways, what the church was built to be; a ballroom for dancing on broken legs, a choir room for singing “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” while simultaneously sighing, “Help me, Help me, Help me;” the corner of sadness and gladness disguised as the intersection of Ridgewood and Eastover, where, every Sunday, whether in the sanctuary or on the lovestream, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” meets “Help me, Help me, Help me,” week after week, year after year, from one generation to the next.

Amen.

On Dreaming and Doubting

John 20:19-31; Acts 4:32-35, The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Major Treadway · April 11th, 2021 · Duration 17:00

Today marks the second Sunday of Eastertide – a season that will last for fifty days. On the fortieth day of Eastertide, we will mark the ascension of Jesus to sit at the right hand of God. On the fiftieth day, Pentecost, we will mark the coming of the Holy Spirit. For fifty days we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – making this celebration the longest and most significant one on the church calendar.

Today, on the second Sunday of Eastertide, one week since the women found the empty tomb, one week since God raised Jesus from the grave – robbing death of its final word, we find the disciples in a room, the doors locked in such a way that all of their fear is trapped in the room with them. Their fears wear many faces, though we are only given the brief description “the Jews.” Of course, this cannot mean all Jews, or they would not be in the room with each other, maybe not even with themselves, since they were all Jews. Their crucified and resurrected Lord, Jesus, was also a Jew. So, we cannot read this and think that their fear was of a whole group of people. Their profound fear was of particular Jews. They were afraid that the same people that killed Jesus might try to kill them – this is the same fear that led at least one of them to thrice deny any relationship with Jesus. Fear. Their fear locked them up as tight as if someone had rolled a stone in front of the door to that room. But one of the disciples wasn’t there.

Thomas was not in the room with them. Where was Thomas? There is no indication anywhere in the Bible where Thomas might have been that day – only that he was not in the room. When the disciples finally break free from their fear locked room, they run to Thomas, maybe like the women had run to them last week, and told him that Jesus had appeared to them and then Thomas gives his infamous reply, that he will not believe them until he sees Jesus with his own two eyes, touches the marks in his hands, and puts his hand in Jesus’ side.

For this remark, we all know Thomas as “doubting Thomas.” This designation marks Thomas in a negative light. If we listen to Bryan Stevenson and believe that “each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done,” then perhaps, we would do well to look a bit closer at Thomas and think a little bit longer on his life, his words, and his actions.

There is remarkably little about Thomas in the New Testament. But he is listed by all four gospels as one of the disciples. He speaks only three times. All of them in the Gospel of John. Before Thomas speaks in today’s passage, he had also spoken when Jesus was preparing to go and see about waking up Lazarus. When Jesus told the disciples his intention to go back to Judea, it was Thomas who replied to Jesus “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas, so dedicated to Jesus, that he could already see that Jesus was going to die, so dedicated to Jesus that he could already see that he would also die for his dedication to Jesus.

Later, as Jesus foretells his betrayal, and Peter’s denial, Jesus also tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them so that they might also be with him. Thomas, sure that he wants to be with Jesus, still strongly dedicated to following Jesus, says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Perhaps, I am biased, but I think I agree with Martha Spong, that when taken in the context of all that we have to look at in the Gospel of John, Thomas sounds a bit like an Enneagram 8. Maybe he isn’t the doubter history has made him out to be. It seems, rather, that he is aggressively loyal and lacks a filter between his brain and his mouth.

Let’s reconsider today’s Gospel lesson in this light. The disciples lock themselves in a room with their fear, but Thomas is not with them. He has already declared that he is ready to die with Jesus. And once you are ready to die, you do not go locking yourself in a room because of fear. Fiercely loyal, when Thomas hears the story that Jesus appeared to those fearful disciples, he says the first thing that comes to his mind, the first thing that might have come to any of our minds, “but why not me?”

Fast forward to when Jesus comes to visit the group again, this time with Thomas present. Jesus immediately presents himself to Thomas with the invitation to touch Jesus’ wounds, but there is no mention of Thomas actually doing it, instead we get the most powerful statement of faith offered in the Gospel of John. Thomas says to Jesus, “My Lord and My God.”

But we still have to deal with these last words of Jesus to Thomas: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

These words, written by John near the end of the first century and spoken by Jesus about sixty years earlier, have proven to be the great crux and question of countless thinkers and theologians for nearly two thousand years. How is one to believe without seeing? Isn’t it a blessing when one can?

This question is no more limited to Christianity than it is to any other field in existence. Believing without seeing is what sets some people apart from others. In the early 1960s, long before any humans had set foot on the moon, John Houbolt, dreamed about the most effective way to land a manned spacecraft on the moon and get it back to Earth safely. An outsider, resolutely dismissed by insiders who had their own ideas about how to get the job done, Houbolt could see the fruition of his dream so clearly, that he kept pressing. He kept pressing until his idea got a fair consideration. And on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used his idea to land on the moon. Houbolt watched from Mission Control in Houston. While Armstrong and Aldrin were still on the moon, Houbolts’s chief rival turned to him and said “Thank you, John. It is a good idea.”

Another example a little closer to the orbit of our lives: consider that on a street corner in downtown Jackson in 1966, five men had a dream of a church where any human could be welcomed to join in the practices of worship and ministry. Fifty-five years later, here we are at the corner of Eastover and Ridgewood. These five men were able to believe, without seeing, that this church could be the kind of place that could extend the welcome of Christ to any human, without consideration for what any other church might do or what common practices throughout the city and region might be. Their vision ensured that this place would be a place that could promise to children and their parents that they belong to us and we will share in their growth – without fear of what that growth or that promise might require of us.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What are the dreams that we have yet to dream? What are the ways of being and doing in the world that we have yet to believe are possible because we have not yet seen them? What are the fields of our faith that remain untilled because we have unhesitatingly chortled that we will not believe it until we have been able to put our hands on it and touch it and know it to be true?

The community of disciples who first heard these words of Jesus started dreaming of what shape life must take now that everything had changed. Today’s Acts reading gives some idea of what their dreams were: the whole group were of one heart and soul, everything they owned was held in common, great grace was upon them all, there was not a needy person among them.

That does sound like a dream – a nearly impossible dream. It may be that this is one of those stories from the bible that we believe is too impractical to consider for the life of our faith community. This is what I am tempted to think and believe each time I read this story from Acts. Sometimes though, I pause long enough to imagine what shape this might take.

I wonder if it might look like the South African idea of Ubuntu – the idea that “I am because we are.” A community living in such a way that their actions are guided by Ubuntu is a community that RESISTS the idea that each individual should be the best individual possible in hopes of having the best society possible. In Ubuntu thought, in the place of the individual, the community takes priority, and the whole is always considered before the individual.

I wonder if this call from Acts might, in some way, be the best attempt that the disciples could imagine of the year of Jubilee. As you remember, the year of Jubilee was to occur every fifty years. It was to be a year when all debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, all lands returned to their ancestral owners that they might be redistributed. The year of Jubilee also featured prominently in the scriptures to which Jesus made reference immediately upon his return from journeying for 40 days in the wilderness.

These wonderings of mine seem to me to be outlandish fiction, the sort that I might find on Audible and to which I might listen as I drive between my house and the church. These wonderings seem the sort that I might be able to believe were possible if I could find a good modern large-scale example, for there is no way that I can believe that they are possible unless I can see them with my own eyes and experience them in person.

Now, I sound like I am doubting. Perhaps I should join Thomas and get my filter examined.

When Jesus comes to visit the disciples the second time, he doesn’t chastise them, or talk down to them. He invites them to see that it is ok to dream that which has not yet been seen. Further, he says that those who have not yet seen and still have believed are blessed.

So, Northminster, let’s dream dreams of the Kingdom of God that have not yet been seen. Let’s imagine the world that we pray for each week – a world where the will of God reigns on earth as though it were heaven. Let’s not lock ourselves inside this building with our fears – for the savior we follow has defeated death. We are in the season that celebrates the most unimaginable truth of all – that death is not the end. We are a people of incurable hope because of Easter.

As we continue this Eastertide celebration for another six weeks, let’s dream. Let’s not be discouraged by a group of people with ideas that are different from ours. Let’s not stand around on street corners just talking. Let’s do something! And let’s do it together – remembering that when any member of our community suffers, we each suffer as a result.

Let’s dream jubilee sized dreams! Let’s dream resurrection sized dreams! And then, Northminster, let’s live like death has been defeated.

For Jesus has been raised from the grave!

Amen.

God Raised Jesus

Acts 10:34-43, Easter Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 4th, 2021 · Duration 12:03

“Jesus was put to death, but God raised Jesus from the grave.” With those words, today’s lesson from the book of Acts may come as close as any words ever can to capturing the mystery and meaning of Easter: “Jesus was put to death, but God raised Jesus from the grave.”

And, ever since Jesus’ first followers discovered that sunrise surprise on the original resurrection morning, the rest of us have been living on the leftovers, all the way to this very day, when countless twenty-first century Christians, all around the world, have added our own “Christ is risen, indeed!” to the daybreak whispers of a handful of first-century Jews who came, as soon as the Sabbath would allow, to better embalm the hastily buried body of their dear Jesus, only to be met, in today’s gospel lesson, by a stone-rolling Easter angel arrayed in sunrise seersucker saying, “Jesus is not here. Jesus has been raised.”

News which today’s gospel lesson says that Jesus’ first friends at first told no one, but which the other gospels say they did whisper to a few; their quiet first word, “Jesus has been raised,” like the first bird heard at every sunrise, every day.

Every morning, at sunrise, there is a first bird heard, soon joined by so many more than that the solitary first bird can no longer be heard; the first bird heard joined by countless others coming later; not unlike those first, early, all Jewish whispers, “Jesus has been raised,” which eventually became this morning’s, “Christ is risen, indeed!” on the lips of countless Christians.

All of which today’s lesson from the book of Acts captures in that single, simple sentence, “Jesus was put to death, but God raised Jesus;” the resurrection of Jesus, by God, becoming, for us, the ultimate sign of the ultimate hope that this is God’s world, and in God’s world, God has the last word.

And, if the last word said is going to God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good. And finally, eternally, eventually; somewhere, somehow, some way, someday, all will be well, and all will be welcome, at that wonderful feast which today’s lesson from Isaiah describes as happening on a mountain; a mountain where, according to the one who wrote this part of Isaiah, God will destroy death forever, wipe every tear from every face, and set a place at the table of grace for all. All these years, while we’ve been busy making a guest list for some, God has been busy setting a table for all, where, according to today’s lectionary lesson from Isaiah, all will be welcome, and, somehow, somewhere, some way, someday, up on Easter Mountain, all will be well.

I cannot speak for you, but, in my experience, to live in that great hope does not spare us from the hardest and worst which life can bring, but it does help us through the hardest and worst which life can bring.

There is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life. And, while none of us will go though all of them, all of us will go through some of them; sorrow and struggle, hurt and harm, disease and death, all having a word with us. But, not the last word, because this is God’s world, and in God’s world, God gets the last word.

And, if the last word said is going to be God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good; the ultimate sign of which is what happened on that long ago resurrection morning, just when it seemed that so much was so over that too much was too over for life ever to be good or happy again. Just when hope seemed most gone and joy most unthinkable; just when life had done the worst that life could do, God did the best that God could do. God raised Jesus.

And, ever since, even in our hardest struggles and worst sorrows, we have been living on the leftovers of that long ago resurrection morning; going through what we did not get to go around, with a hope so incurable and relentless that, even at the grave, we make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Because God raised Jesus from the grave; and, we believe, as one wise soul once said, that the God who raised Jesus from the grave will do as well in the future as God has done in the past.

Amen.

In Accordance With a Single Certainty

Isaiah 50:4-9, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · March 28th, 2021 · Duration 20:39

As you may have noticed, while most of the lectionary lessons come around only once every three years, this morning’s lesson from the book of Isaiah appears on the Palm Sunday lectionary list every year, year after year, perhaps because parts of it sound so much like what happens to Jesus every year at the other end of Holy Week: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” Holy Week echoes from Isaiah, followed, shortly, by those odd sounding words, near the end of today’s Isaiah passage, “My face is set like flint.”

“My face is set like flint” is Bible shorthand for a centered, grounded, clear, courageous, undistracted, all-in, no turning back life, the kind of life which Mary Oliver captured so well when she spoke of those who live their lives “in accordance with a single certainty,” their faces set like flint.

An image from today’s Isaiah passage which, when read through the lens of our Christian eyes, sounds a lot like the Jesus of Palm Sunday and Holy Week; Jesus’ face, set like flint to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, go to Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday and bear the cross on Good Friday; so much so that, later this week, as people are weeping while watching him carry the cross, the gospel of Luke will say to us that Jesus will say to them, “Don’t weep for me. This is what I came here to do.” The face of Jesus, set like flint.

Pondering all of that this week took me back to that moment in Memphis when, fifty-three years ago this week, on April 3, 1968, the night before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Dr. King closed his final sermon by saying, “Like anyone, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. So, I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything, and I’m not fearing any man.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face, set like flint.

To say that someone’s face is “set like flint” is not to say that they are set in their own ways. To the contrary, in today’s lesson from Isaiah, those who are said to have their face set like flint are also said to have their ears open, morning by morning, day by day, to listen for the voice of God. The same is so for us. To live with our face set like flint is not to be set in our ways, it is to walk in God’s ways; to live with our ears and eyes ever open, our face always set like flint to go wherever new light leads, measuring any new light we think we see by the single certainty Jesus gave us when Jesus told us that the one thing which matters most is that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love all others as we want all others to love us; love for God as inseparable from love for others as the vertical beam of a cross is inseparable from the horizontal beam of a cross.

With that as the single certainty by which we live, we set our faces like flint, to practice letting the love which has come down to us from God go out through us to others until it becomes the muscle memory of our soul; what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction,” the single certainty by which we live the one Jesus gave us when Jesus told us that everything else, all scripture, all traditions, all questions and issues, all matters great and small, are to be measured against one single central standard: “Love God with all that is in you, and love all others as you wish all others to love you.”

While my life is as fractured and flawed as any, when it comes to this one thing, I can say to you, “Do as I do.” I decided, years ago, to let what Jesus said matters most, matter most; and you should do the same. You should decide to let loving God with all that is in you, and loving all others as you wish to be loved, become the central standard of your life.

And, then, get up every morning and set your face like flint to live that way; your face as set like flint to live a cross-formed life, up to God and out for others, as Jesus’ face was set like flint to die a cross-formed death, up to God and out for others.
Amen.

Heart Writing

Jeremiah 31:31-34, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 21st, 2021 · Duration 16:18

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, says the Lord. This time, I will write it on their hearts.”

Every three years, the lectionary asks the church to read those words from the book of Jeremiah. And, every time they roll back around, we know, instinctively, that we are in the presence of one of the Bible’s great tipping points; the moment when God is reported to have said, to Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming when I am going to make a new covenant with my people. But, this time, I am going to write it on their hearts.”

Days which, by that time, were not only surely coming, but, also, already arriving. By the time Jeremiah told the people of God that God was going to write a new covenant on their hearts, the heart writing Jeremiah was promising was already happening.

For example, back in the book of Deuteronomy, both eunuchs and foreign-born persons were excluded from the covenant of God with the people of God, but in Isaiah chapter fifty-six, Isaiah says, “Of course immigrants and eunuchs are welcome in the family of God.” In fact, in Jeremiah chapter thirty-eight, it is a foreign-born eunuch who is the hero; an Ethiopian eunuch named Ebedmelech, rescuing Jeremiah from a pit into which Jeremiah had been thrown to die. And, in that same part of the Hebrew scripture which says “No” to the eunuchs to whom Isaiah and Jeremiah say “Yes,” Moabites are also specifically, and permanently, excluded from ever being a part of the family of God, but the book of Ruth not only makes a Moabite the hero of the story, it weaves her into the family tree of David, making a previously permanently excluded Moabite the grandmother of Israel’s greatest king.

Something is happening; not between Judaism and Christianity, Old Testament and New, but even as Jeremiah speaks. Even as Jeremiah is dreaming of a day when God will rewrite God’s law on human hearts, God is already doing it; the children of God, following their hearts past the place where the letter of the law once would have dropped them off.

A new law of love which begins in the Old Testament, and continues in the New, where Joseph has a dream in his sleep which becomes a feeling in his heart that, all indications to the contrary, Joseph should marry Mary, despite his assumption, at the time, that to marry Mary would take them past the place where the written law would have told them to stop.

Then, of course, there is that moment in the gospel of John when Jesus follows his heart past the place where his Bible would have dropped him off, in the face of a crowd with rocks at the ready to stone a person found in adultery; that moment at which John chapter eight reports that when the crowd reminded Jesus that it was written in scripture that the person should die, Jesus bent down, not once, but twice, to write, and then rewrite, something in the sand.

John does not let us see what Jesus writes in the sand. Which means, of course, that, since no one knows what Jesus wrote, then rewrote, we all get to wonder. I wonder if Jesus may have been writing in the sand a new law of love that will, from time to time, like all words written in sand, need to be rewritten; the lines we draw in the sand, needing to be redrawn from time to time, to meet the growing demands of a living law of love written, by the finger of God, not on paper pages, but on pounding hearts, something to which Jeremiah points in today’s scripture lesson, and to which Jesus points when Jesus says, in Matthew 22:34-40, that the central standard by which all the law is to be measured is the commandment to love God with all that is in us, and to love all others as we love ourselves; not unlike Paul’s declaration in Romans chapter thirteen that all the laws and commandments can be summed up in one, “Love others as you love yourself;” New Testament echoes of Jeremiah’s First Testament promise, “The day is coming when God will lay down a new law for the people of God. And, this time, God is going to write it on human hearts.”

The church has a name for that kind of heart writing. We call it the Holy Spirit. When we open our lives to the Spirit of God, what God wants for us and from us moves, more and more, into our hearts until, eventually, we become so completely born again and so deeply filled with the Spirit of God that we no longer need any external law or rule, chapter or verse, incentive or motivation, reward or punishment. All we need is what we have; the law of love, written on our hearts.

In fact, if we live prayerfully enough for long enough, intentionally open to the Holy Spirit, we can actually reach a place in our lives at which if, for some tragic reason, someone were to come around and take up all the Bibles, while that would be to us an enormous loss, it would not change the way we live or what we do, or how we treat others, because the Holy Spirit has already written what matters most all over the walls of our hearts; the walls of our hearts covered in the graffiti of God; the law of love, just as Jeremiah promised, written on our hearts.

Amen.

One Year Later

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 14th, 2021 · Duration 13:11

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Lenten Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22, The Third Sunday in Lent

Lesley Ratcliff · March 7th, 2021 · Duration 16:23

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On Letting Jesus Be Jesus

Mark 8:31-38, The Second Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · February 28th, 2021 · Duration 11:26

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read this morning’s gospel lesson, it takes me back to a conversation I had half a lifetime ago.

I was in my early thirties, sitting in the office, at Mercer University, of my dear friend Kirby Godsey. I had recently read all four gospels, all the way through, in a single week; feeling, for the first time, the full weight of that experience. Struck by the distance and difference between the Jesus of the four gospels and the institutional concerns of the church, I said to Kirby, “I cannot reconcile the institutional ambitions, obligations and anxieties of the church with the Jesus of the gospels,” to which Dr. Godsey replied, “Chuck, I’m glad you have that tension inside you, between Jesus and the church. But, I’m afraid that someday it might just tear you in two.”

And it has, and does, and probably always will; this tension between the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of Christianity; a tension never more clear than in this morning’s gospel lesson, where, unlike the more manageable, reasonable, Christ of Christianity, Jesus speaks of rejection and suffering, self-denial and a cross, first for himself, in Jerusalem, and then, for us, in Jackson; a Jesus so severe that Peter actually takes Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus.

And, while, unlike Peter, we would never rebuke Jesus, we have, across the subsequent twenty centuries, remade Jesus; the church, remaking the Jesus of the gospels, who never indicated that he planned to start a new world religion, into the Christ of Christianity; a composite of what twenty-first century evangelicalism likes about what nineteenth-century revivalism kept about what Martin Luther and John Calvin said about what Anselm wrote about what Augustine thought about what Paul taught about Jesus; a powerful, successful Christ who is beautiful and wonderful in so many ways, a Christ of Christianity twenty centuries in the making, the Christ of a Christian religion which does more good in the world than can ever be properly named and praised.

But, a Christ who is different from the Jesus of the gospels; not just bigger than, but different from, the Jesus who seeks, not to draw a crowd and build a powerful, impressive religion, but who calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus; the cross, once a place for Jesus to die, now, a way for us to live; a cross-formed, stretched out life of vulnerable love, our lives as cross-formed as Jesus’ death was cross-shaped.

That is the call of the Jesus of the gospels; a clear call to a life stretched up to God and out to others in vulnerable love; the clear call of the real Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels.

It is the church’s job to help us remember that behind, before and beyond the manageable, measurable, powerful, wonderful, composite Christ of Christianity, there is the real Jesus. It is the church’s job to help little Wills Byrd, and all of us, to grow up with a clear, unmuddled-up theology which knows that before there was the Christ of Christianity there was the Jesus of the gospels, who called us, not to be impressive, successful, safe or secure, but to live a life of cross-formed, stretched-out vulnerable love.

Amen.

Every Lent

Mark 1:9-15, The First Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · February 21st, 2021 · Duration 21:32

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Concerning the Final Thin Place

II Kings 2:1-12, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · February 14th, 2021 · Duration 14:51

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New Strength for Each New Day

Isaiah 40:21-31, The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 7th, 2021 · Duration 11:52

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Youth Sermon

Youth Sunday, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Youth - Rosemary Hicks & Katie White · January 31st, 2021 · Duration 8:14

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Concerning Repentance

Mark 1:14-20, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 24th, 2021 · Duration 16:55

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A Sermon on Psalm 139

Psalm 139, The Second Sunday After Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 17th, 2021 · Duration 10:44

As we all know, we are living through different, and difficult, days; an uncertain season in our life together, into which the lectionary has placed, today, the beautiful, gentle gift of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm.

As is true of all the psalms, before Psalm 139 became a chapter in the Bible, it had an earlier career as a Hebrew hymn. On loan to Christianity from Judaism, borrowed by Northminster from Beth Israel, all the psalms in the Bible started out as tunes in the temple; poetry, which is why none of the psalms are to be taken literally. But, sacred poetry, which is why all of the psalms are to be taken seriously.

Taken seriously, today’s psalm says that God is intimately, actively, constantly with us. “You know when I sit and when I stand,” says the psalmist. “You read my mind from far away.” “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” “You have a book where the number of my days has already been determined.” Image upon image, none of which should be taken literally, but, all of which, taken seriously, points to how intimately the God who created the universe thirteen billion years ago is with us in the smallest moments of daily life.

Including one which never fails to stop me; that image in verse four where the psalmist says that God not only knows our thoughts before we think them and our steps before we take them, but God also knows our words before we say them; the literalist in me wishing that, if God knows what we are about to say before we say it, God would take a more active role in helping us to be more mindful and thoughtful with our words; maybe even stepping in and stopping us before we say, send, text or post some of what we say, send, text, and post.

As Nicholas Lash says, “The first casualty of sin is careful speech.” It’s true. You know how it goes. We start out trying to impress people with our cleverness or our toughness, so we begin by being snarky and sarcastic. And, maybe it stops there. Or, maybe it moves from that to being mean and bullying. And, maybe it stops there. Or maybe it doesn’t.

And, of course, careful speech applies not only to what we should not say, but do, but, also, to what we should say, but don’t. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The day we fall silent about things that matter is the day our life begins to end;” a hard truth with which to sit.

As one wise soul once said, “Words shape worlds.” It is true; one example of which is the extent to which what we believe about everything from the pandemic to the violent assault on our nation’s capitol is shaped by how many hours a week we spend watching OAN or CNN, MSNBC or FOX; a sad but true commentary on how powerfully words shape worlds; the words we should not say, but do, and the words we should say, but don’t.

Words matter. Which is why, when it comes to that verse in Psalm 139 where the psalmist says that God knows what we are about to say before we say it, I used to wish that God would step in and stop us from using words in such hurtful and harmful ways.

But, then, it occurred to me that God does. God does step in and stop us. All we have to do is give God an opening. Before we speak, send, post or text, we just have to say, “God, not to be a literalist, but, according to Psalm 139, you know our words before we speak. So, is what I am about to say or send something with which you are going to be pleased once it has been said or sent?

And, then, all we have to do is wait; wait to speak, until we have some sense of clarity concerning what the God who created the universe thirteen billion years ago thinks about what we are thinking about saying.

Amen.

Concerning the Work of the Deacons

Acts 19:1-7, Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · January 10th, 2021 · Duration 21:14

Here at Northminster, Deacon Installation and Ordination Day comes, each year, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday; a convergence of two of the great gestures of the church; baptism with water, and ordination by the laying on of hands.

Because of our current public health circumstances, the laying on of hands will, of necessity, be postponed. But, though we must fast, for now, from that beautiful, powerful, physical gesture, we are, today, setting aside these six souls, Smith Boykin, Thomas Elfert, Skipper Jernigan, Susan O’Mara, Ginger Parham and Jennifer Stribling, for service to the church as Deacons; Smith and Thomas having previously been ordained, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer installed, today, as a down-payment on the day when they will kneel before the congregation at the altar of the church to receive the sacred sign of ordination by the laying on of hands.

Smith, Thomas, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer are embarking on their deaconship at a moment of great challenge for the church, our nation and the world; people of every perspective, opinion and party angered and saddened by Wednesday’s violent assault on our nation’s capitol, which left many injured and five dead.

To speak of that day in that place on this day in this place is not to be political in church, it is to be moral in church.

What happened on Wednesday was a tragic moral moment for our nation, and, also, a personal moment for us. People we know and love, with whom we worship God, were there; one, serving on the floor of the Senate, another, working in a building a stone's throw away. We give thanks for the brave law enforcement persons who helped protect all who might otherwise have been harmed; remembering, especially, the officer who lost his life in the service of our nation, on a day when we reaped the tragic harvest of a now decades long season, called by many, “the culture wars,” a long, sad season in our national life in which we have not only normalized, but incentivized, the kind of reckless speech which demonizes and dehumanizes those who hold a different view of things than we hold; decades of sowing to the wind, and reaping, now, the whirlwind.

Over against which, I would like to place a small, simple story, one which I have long said I was going to save for my last sermon at Northminster, but which, though it is small and simple, seems important to say today. It is my favorite Northminster story, but it begins before we even arrived here, in the summer of 1997, between the time you all voted to call us, in May, and the time we moved here, two months later.

I was at my desk at the church in Washington, one day in June, when the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “This is Rubel Phillips. My wife, Margaret, and I are going to be in Washington next week, and we would like to meet you. We’re members of Northminster, and are looking forward to your coming to join us.” At the appointed day and time we met, at Rubel’s suggestion, at the Army Navy Club, not far from the White House, for a delightful lunch, during which Rubel said, “I guess you have gotten to know George Purvis,” to which I replied that I had, indeed, come to know Dr. Purvis through his work on Northminster’s Pastor Search Committee, to which Rubel replied, “I’m the most conservative member you have, and George is the most liberal. We cancel each other’s vote, no matter the subject. In fact,” Rubel concluded, “George’s only hope at the pearly gates is that I go first and put in a good word for him.” To which Margaret replied, “Rubel, dear, I doubt George Purvis is going to need any help from anybody getting into heaven, least of all you.”

Once we arrived here, I learned that Rubel’s characterization of the differences between his view of things and George’s was only slightly exaggerated. But, more importantly, I learned how deeply and truly those two, so different from one another, loved and respected one another. George and Rubel died, appropriately, within two weeks of one another, in the summer of 2011, not long before which, I sat by Rubel’s bed, holding his hand, and said, “Rubel, George Purvis is not well.” Upon which, Rubel turned his face to the window, gazed into the sky and said, through a great and glistening tear, “George Purvis. Finest man I ever knew.”

I call that story, “The Spirit of Rubel and George.” That’s the kind of church you want to belong to. And, that’s the kind of America you want to live in; one that says “No” to the careless speech which demonizes and dehumanizes those with whom we disagree, and “Yes” to kindness and gentleness, truth and love.

Smith, Thomas, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer, that’s where you come in. When you were baptized at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, First Baptist in Greenwood, First Baptist in Jackson, Central Presbyterian Church, St. Richard’s Catholic Church and Maranatha Bible Church in New Orleans, whether by sprinkling at a font or plunging in a pool, the church claimed you for a life of kindness and integrity, gentleness and generosity, truth and love. As you begin, today, your term of service as deacons, we will look to you to help us all to live up to our own baptism, the way you already have been living up to yours.

Smith, Thomas, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer, the world may never have needed a good deacon more than now. What a great time to be a serious, thoughtful, prayerful, truthful, gentle servant of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Concerning the Meaning of the Incarnation

John 1:1-18, The Second Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · January 3rd, 2021 · Duration 13:50

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

With those words, this morning’s gospel lesson takes up the great mystery of the incarnation; the God no one has ever seen, embodied in the life of Jesus; the God who created the universe, roughly thirteen billion years ago, fleshed out, for about thirty years, in a single, local, physical, human life; the life of Jesus.

Across the Christian centuries, what that might mean has been one of Christianity's most important questions, spawning church councils and official creeds in the fourth and fifth centuries, and inspiring one particularly important, and influential, book in the eleventh century, by a theologian named Anselm of Canterbury, who, in a book called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) gave the church an understanding of the incarnation which has shaped the church from then to now.

Anselm’s basic idea went something like this: Jesus was born to be the sacrifice God gave to God’s self to satisfy God’s requirement for a perfect human sacrifice, so that God would then be free to forgive sinful humans without compromising God’s holiness; a way of explaining the incarnation which, a thousand years ago, took root in the church, and, a thousand years later, continues to dominate popular Christianity; a way of explaining the incarnation which is often summed up in the simple saying, “Jesus was born to die.”

All of which may be true. There is, after all, some Bible to support Anselm’s explanation of the incarnation, and it is believed, by many dear and devout souls, to be the truth concerning the coming of Christ we celebrate during this sacred season of Christmastide.

But, for other Christians, myself among them, it is a way of thinking about the incarnation which raises more questions than it answers. Indeed, while I cannot speak for you, as for me, I wonder if it might be more true to the Spirit of God to say that the incarnation is primarily about, not a problem, our alienation from God, and how to fix it, a human sacrifice to God, but about a life and how to live it, and about a love, and how to give it; Jesus, embodying the grace and truth of God in a way which gave us our best look at who God is, how God acts and what God wants for us and from us. God, coming into the world in Jesus, not because God’s hands were tied by a sacrificial system of God’s own creation which kept God from forgiving and welcoming sinners until God could give God’s self the sacrifice God required, but, perhaps, because God is relentlessly determined to be with us, in the best and worst of life; no mess so big, sin so bad, or humiliation so embarrassing that God won’t join us in the absolute hardest and worst of it; signs of which are that Jesus, the ultimate incarnation of God, was born poor and vulnerable in a barn, and that Jesus, the ultimate incarnation of God, died naked and humiliated on a cross.

And, between Jesus’ birth in a barn and Jesus’ death on a cross, Jesus could always be found keeping company with those who were on the hard margins and despised edges of life, which, since Jesus was the ultimate incarnation of God, must be a sign of the boundless embrace and expansive empathy of God. Jesus, sitting down with and standing up for the outsiders often enough that it made the insiders fearful enough that they decided to silence Jesus; which, according to the four gospels, is what got Jesus killed. The body of our Lord broken for us all, the blood of our Lord poured out for us all; Jesus, dying as he lived; arms out as wide as the world.

But, though the incarnation of God was killed, the incarnation of God did not stay dead, because that one life was the one life that cannot, and, ultimately, will not, be defeated, not even by death.

Which is why I believe that the most true thing we can say about the incarnation of God in Jesus, is that Jesus was born to live; with us, in us, for us, and through us; the embodiment of God’s goodness and love, born again, in Bethlehem, every Christmas; and, in us, every day.
Amen.

Concerning 2020

Luke 2:22-40, The First Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · December 27th, 2020 · Duration 14:20

Today brings us to the first Sunday in the sacred season of Christmastide, and the last Sunday in the long year of 2020; a momentous year, in many ways, some of which it might be important for us to ponder, before turning the page, this week, to next year. 

Several days ago I looked back to the January 1, 2020 entry in my daily prayer journal, and saw where I had written, on the morning of New Year’s Day, 2020, these words: “Who can know what this now new year might bring of joy or sorrow, gladness or pain?”  By February, I was writing, in that same prayer journal, of the rising waters of the Pearl River, and the widespread flooding to which our congregation, along with many others, was seeking to respond with help and hope, comfort and relief.

Then, on March 13, there appears, in that same prayer journal, the first mention of a strange new virus which was bringing much of life to a crawl; a subject which, needless to say, would show up many more times across the coming months, joined in May and June by numerous prayer journal entries concerning a national season of   reckoning around racial justice; for many, myself among them, a surgical season of introspection and repentance, embodied, for us, in the eventual lowering of the 1894 Mississippi state flag. 

All of which is to say that 2020 was quite a year; a year which was, in some ways, unlike any year any of us have ever known.

But which, in other ways, was just like every year all of us have always known.  There is, after all, even in the absence of normalcy, a certain constancy about life; the natural constancy we see in today’s psalm, where the psalmist speaks of the boundaries God has established for the seasons and for the sea; and the spiritual constancy we feel in  today’s gospel lesson when it speaks of Anna, “living in the temple”; worshiping God in the same place, in the same way, week after week, year after year, across a lifetime.

Constancy which is constant, even when normalcy is not normal.  In March of 2020, much of what we generally consider to be “normal life” was changed by the novel coronavirus; normalcy altered in the second week of the sacred season of Lent.  But, though we had to do many things differently, and even fast, for a time, as we continue to, from some of the most beloved gestures of the church, still the Lenten journey took us, as always, to Holy Week, and, right on time, to the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday morning.  After which, we kept the sacred season of Eastertide, just as we always do, for seven weeks, until, just as always, the paraments blushed Beth Israel red on Pentecost Sunday, before turning Northminster green for the summer and fall, until we set our feet, one more time, to the church’s other purple path to depth, Advent, and, once again, just as always, we lit the candle of Hope one week, joined by the light of Peace the next, then Joy and, finally, Love; wick by wick, week by week, until, sometime late Thursday night, Jesus was born again, the coming of Christ opening another twelve day season of Christmastide, of which today is day three, and Sunday One; the unaltered constancy of the sacred seasons, with no regard for the absence of normalcy from March to now, 2020.

Constancy; impervious to the presence or absence of normalcy, not only in the rhythms of the sacred seasons, but, also, in the disciplines of the spiritual life.

My daily prayer journals are, by no means, the measure of such matters, but, as a simple sample and small example, throughout the decidedly not normal year 2020, I wrote, just as I did in 2019, 2018, 2017, and on and on, year upon year, almost every day, at the start of each day, the same simple prayer to get on, and stay on, the path to depth; to live each day in a Quaker-quiet way, mindful, thoughtful, prayerful and kind; practicing the discipline and restraint of careful speech; “soft and serious,” to borrow a phrase from Marilynne Robinson, “gentle and plain,” as the Quakers say; as many words as necessary, as few as possible; a life as kind as it is clear, but, also, as clear as it is kind; failing at it, each day, of course, usually before noon, always by dark, but making the yearning for it the muscle memory of my soul by longing for it out loud, in ink, on paper, everyday, no matter what; a simple sample, and small example, of the kind of constancy which is unaffected by the absence or presence of normalcy.

 A constancy captured nowhere better than in that memorable prayer of Mary Oliver’s, “Another day, and I wake, with thirst, for the goodness I do not have”; in  normal times and pandemical times, in 2020, and, soon, in 2021, no matter how normal, or not, the year may be, each day, just another day to rise and pray to live in a way that is kind and gentle, thoughtful and mindful, courageous, uncluttered and clear, no matter what else may or may not be happening in the world around us; constancy constant, even when normalcy is not.

                                                                                                                        Amen.

 

Do Not Be Afraid

Luke 1:26-38, The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 20th, 2020 · Duration 12:31

And the angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” I cannot speak for you, but every time the lectionary asks the church to read that verse from today’s gospel lesson, it never fails to make me think about how often those words, “Do not be afraid,” appear on the pages of scripture, beginning all the way back in the book of Genesis, where God says to Abraham, in Genesis chapter fifteen, what Gabriel says to Mary in this morning’s gospel lesson, “Do not be afraid.” Then, not long after, in Genesis 21:17, an angel says to broken-hearted Hagar, concerning her ostracized and stigmatized child, “Do not be afraid, for God will make a great nation from Ishmael.” Later, when Joshua takes over from Moses, God says to Joshua, “Do not be afraid,” and when Gideon cannot believe that God is calling him to lead the people of God to freedom, an angel says to Gideon, “Do not be afraid.”

And that’s only a few of the “Do not be afraids” in the Bible. We don’t have enough bandwidth on the livestream to mention all the other “Do not be afraids.” In Isaiah 41:10, for example, the voice of God says to the people of God, “Do not be afraid,” in Jeremiah 1:8, God says to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid,” and in Ezekiel 2:6, God says the same to Ezekiel, “Do not be afraid.” Crossing over from the First Testament to the Second, when Zechariah learns, in Luke chapter one, that Elizabeth is expecting the baby who will be John the Baptist, an angel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid,” and when Joseph learns that Mary is expecting the baby who will be Jesus, an angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” And, of course, when Mary is asked, in today’s gospel lesson, to open her life in a unique way to the wonder and risk of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid.” Not to mention this Thursday evening, when a night-shift angel will say to the third-shift shepherds what that same angel says to those same shepherds every Christmas Eve, “Do not be afraid.”

An invitation to not be afraid which is, perhaps, easier for some to hear than for others. After all, for some of us, fear and anxiety of one kind or another are our nearly constant companions. I liken living with fear and anxiety to getting up every morning, getting in a car, and driving down the interstate, sixty miles an hour, with the emergency brake on, all day, every day. If I sound as though I know whereof I speak, I do. In fact, if that tiny almond-shaped brain gland called the amygdala is, as they say, where our fears are stored, then I imagine that my amygdala looks more like a coconut than an almond.

The same is so for many; countless lives weighed down with self-doubt and fear; not to mention all the “worst case scenario” thinking which shadows the steps of so many. Concerning which the angels say, “Do not be afraid”; the messengers of God, saying, over and over again, to the people of God, “Do not be afraid.”

Which is not to suggest that, in this life, there is nothing to worry about or fear. To the contrary, there is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life. None of us will go through all of them, but all of us will go through some of them, and no one can say, with certainty, what any of us might someday have to face or bear, adjust to or accept. But, with the Spirit of God and the people of God, we will have the strength we need as we need it.

So, do not be afraid. Speaking on behalf of the real angels, which most of us have never seen, let all of us ground-bound, walk-on angels without wings keep saying to ourselves, and to one another, “Do not be afraid. God is with us and for us. We are all the loved and cherished children of God; every soul in the whole human family, of every human difference and distance, loved the same by the love of God, loved and cherished as we are.”

Even in a world where there is plenty to worry about, and to fear, “Do not be afraid,” say all the angels all the time; those with wings, which we cannot see, and, more importantly, those without wings, who we can see.

After all, not many of us have ever seen or heard an angel, but, for all of us, as one wise soul once said, “Courage is just another name for friends.” So, let us all say, to one another, what all the angels always say to all of us, “Do not be afraid.”
Amen.

Gathered and Carried

Isaiah 40:1-11, The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 6th, 2020 · Duration 7:58

We often hear it said that, when we read any of the New Testament epistles, we are “reading someone else’s mail”; letters which, while they have a message for us, were not written to us or about us.

The same is so when we read this morning’s lesson from Isaiah; a beautiful word of comfort, written originally to, and about, the people of God in exile in Babylon; their lives disrupted by forces beyond their control; exiles to whom the writer of this part of Isaiah said, “Prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord our God is coming, to gather you up and carry you home.”; a promise which may not have been written to us, or about us, but which certainly holds a wonderful word of comfort for us.

After all, this Second Sunday of Advent finds us in something of an exile of our own; a season of life when we are all living in exile from so much of what we hold so dear; an uncertain season in all our lives, for which we have the promise that God is with us and for us, to hold us and help us, to “gather us and carry us” as the writer of Isaiah said to those long ago exiles; the arms of Isaiah’s God, and ours, long enough to gather us all in the same embrace, even when we cannot gather in the same physical space, and strong enough to carry us through times so hard that if someone had told us ahead of time we were going to have to go through them, we would have sworn we could never make it.

But, we do. We do go through, not just one difficult season in exile, but every season in exile which comes to us across a lifetime; gathered and carried by the strong and tender arms of God, and by the courage and comfort we find in the people of God; they, gathering and carrying us, and we, gathering and carrying them; all of us, who are always being gathered and carried by God, gathering and carrying one another.

All of which calls to mind, for me, that familiar verse of Mary Oliver’s, in which she says, “That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer, but I did not die. Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends.” After which, the rest of that powerful poem says, “It’s not the weight you carry, but how you carry it, when you cannot, and would not, put it down.”

There is so much of that in so many of us; the weight we cannot, and would not, put down. Earlier this week, as I prayed my way through our church roll, A to Z, Ackleh-Tingle to Zeigler, I thought of the little I know of the weight we all cannot, and would not, put down; the weight of life which we cannot, and do not, carry alone, but with the help of friends and God, God and friends; unable to know, at times, where one ends and the other begins; only that we are all always both carrying and being carried.

Praise God.

Amen.

It's a Great Year for Advent

Mark 13:24-37, The First Sunday in Advent

Chuck Poole · November 29th, 2020 · Duration 9:42

I read somewhere, many years ago, that on an Easter Sunday in the midst of the worst of World War II, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon called “It’s A Great Year for Easter,” Easter’s word of hope never more welcome than in that global season of sorrow and pain.

What Dr. Fosdick said concerning Easter, then, we might say about Advent, now; it’s a great year for Advent. Rarely have we needed the quiet light of Advent hope more than we need it now, in a year when we have never needed to be together more, and have never gotten to be together less. In a year when we need, more than ever, to sit together and eat together as a family of faith, to gather for book studies and Bible studies, play dates and prayer groups, weddings and funerals, dinners and parties; in a year when we need, more than ever, to see one another’s full faces and to feel one another’s kind touch, we have had to restrain and refrain, postpone and cancel, distance and mask.

Add to all of those pandemical changes, which have come to the entire world, the particular losses and sorrows which have come to so many of us in so many ways in 2020, and this year becomes an especially great year for Advent; many of us never needing the quiet light of Advent hope in any year more than we need it this year; the inextinguishable light of the incurable hope that the God who is with us and for us will hold us and help us, giving us the strength to go through what we did not get to go around.

Needless to say, this present pandemic will eventually come to an end, and we may never see another. But, we will see other sorrows and uncertainties, struggles and losses, disappointments and pain, not because it is God’s will or plan, but because we live in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen. And, if those beautiful and terrible things can happen to anyone, they can happen to everyone.

This is important: The difference between being a person of faith and not being a person of faith is not that being a person of faith gives us protection from the worst, but that being a person of faith gives us hope in the worst; not the optimistic hope that everything will work out for us because we believe, and not the narcissistic hope that, because we believe, we have an advantage, over others, with God; but the strong, quiet, incurable hope that the God who came once to be with us in Jesus, and who will someday come again, to gather, from the four winds, the whole human family home, is the God who is with us and for us, in the best and worst, easiest and hardest of life.

That is the hope which opens Advent every year, year after year, which makes every year a great year for Advent, but, especially, this year.

Amen.

Concerning Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46, Christ the King Sunday

Chuck Poole · November 22nd, 2020 · Duration 14:37

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Counting the Days

Psalm 90:1-12, The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 15th, 2020 · Duration 14:10

“The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and we fly away… So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from today’s psalm, they help us to remember that there is a limit to our days, and that someday is going to be the last day.

I cannot speak for you, but, on my ears, that is not morbid news, or depressing. To the contrary, to be reminded that someday will be the last day is to hear the truth which awakens us, and urges us to long to live each day as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.

Whether the life we have is the life we planned, hoped, dreamed and imagined, or, as the psalmist said, a life of “Nothing but toil and trouble,” the only life we can have is the one life we do have. And the most, and best, we can do with that life is to live whatever is left of it as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.

As one poet put it:
I was on my way to becoming
The one I was going to be.
But then something happened,
And so much changed,
That instead I became this me.

We all start out with an empty page,
Our horizons as wide as the sea.
But when what happens happens,
Life narrows down,
Until all we can be is this me.

When what happens happens,
The best we can be,
Is the most kind and gentle,
Truthful and tender,
Not who we dreamed we would be, me.

It’s true. The life we have may not be the life we wanted, but it is the life we have. And, as far as we know, we are not going to get another one. As far as we know, we are not going to get to come back around, do this over, and get it right next time. This is it. And, it is passing. We may get seventy years, says the psalmist. Or, if we are strong, eighty. But, either way, someday is going to be the last day.

So, “Teach us to count our days,” says the psalmist, “so that we might gain a wise heart;” wise enough to want to live each day as though someday will be the last day; seeing each day, even the most ordinary and routine, depleting and exhausting of them, as the never-to-be-repeated, soon-to-be-gone gift that it is.

I don’t know why, but, in my experience, there is nothing more transformative than that one thing. To sit with the truth that, as far as we know, this is the only life we are ever going to have, and it will someday come to an end, is, in my experience, to become, not death-obsessed, but, to the contrary, more fully alive, and more intentional about living each day as gently, generously and tenderly as we can.

Some of us will get to live until we have to die, while others of us will have to live until we get to die. Either way, all of us will someday be a memory at a Thanksgiving, a story at a Christmas, a spirit in a room, and a picture in a frame, because, for each of us, someday will be the last day. In the meantime, we may have our best chance at becoming a little more thoughtful, gentle, courageous, clear, big-spirited and kind when we begin to pray, each day, with the psalmist, for God to help us count the days.

Amen.


Concerning Justice and Righteousness

Amos 5:18-24, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 8th, 2020 · Duration 15:12


“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.” Those words from the book of Amos belong to a long line of Bible verses in which the words “justice” and “righteousness” sit close and hold hands; including Genesis 18:19, which says that the way of the Lord is justice and righteousness; Psalm 33:5, which says that God loves justice and righteousness; Psalm 99:4, which says that God acts with justice and righteousness; Proverbs 21:3, which says that God cares more about justice and righteousness than sacrifices and offerings; and Jeremiah 22:3, which says that God calls us to live lives of justice and righteousness.

Those two words, justice and righteousness, which appear together so frequently in our English language Bibles, most often come from the same Hebrew root, a word which means “to make things right,” which can actually make it difficult to differentiate justice from righteousness. My best effort at distinguishing one from the other is, admittedly, sort of “cornbread and peas” in its simplicity, but it goes like this: Righteousness names the inside part of our life with God; and justice the outside part of our life with God. Righteousness, the inner life of truth and integrity; justice, the outer life of kindness and compassion. Righteousness, the True North moral compass of our soul; justice, the stretched out wingspan of our spirit. Righteousness, our deeper life with God; justice, our wider life with others; the public work of justice growing, most often, from the inner work of righteousness. As our longing to live a righteous life keeps drawing us closer to Jesus and deeper with God, that ever-deeper devotion to righteousness results in an ever-wider commitment to fairness and equality, hospitality and welcome, inclusion and justice for all persons.

I read, recently, a sentence from a sermon which said, “Jesus is social justice, and social justice is Jesus,” which sounds as though it might have come from a sermon in the summer or fall of 2020, but which, in fact, was spoken by the great theologian Karl Barth in a sermon he preached on December 17, 1911. And, while Barth’s summary may be a bit of an over-simplification, if you have read the four gospels, you know that it does land in the neighborhood of the truth. This week, I read, again, all four gospels; Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, and saw, again, the truth that the closer we get to the Jesus of the four gospels the more serious we become about justice for whoever is most marginalized, ostracized, stigmatized, demonized and dehumanized. When we truly have Jesus in our heart, standing up for the same people Jesus would stand up for by standing up against the same things Jesus would stand up against becomes one of those things we can’t not do.

As the great Methodist preacher Peter Storey says, When we ask Jesus to come into our heart, Jesus always answers, “Only if I can bring my friends.” And, if you have ever read the four gospels, you know that when Jesus brings Jesus’ friends into our hearts, Jesus brings the least and the last first; whoever is most outcast, vulnerable, shunned, slighted, lonely, left out, and alone all piling in with Jesus. Otherwise, Jesus won’t come, because, if the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, Jesus is all about that public, visible, clear, courageous kind of righteousness the Bible calls justice.

That kind of life, the kind which begins in righteousness and ends in justice, is the kind of life I call “conservative in the mirror and liberal through the window.” When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we hold ourselves to the most rigorous demands of righteousness, and when we look at others through the window, we embrace the world in a welcome of justice which is as liberal as the boundless embrace of God.

Which is true of every great soul I have ever known. In fact, when we came to Northminster twenty-three years ago, I had to create that sentence, “Conservative in the mirror and liberal through the window” so I would have a way to describe all the great souls I found in this good church; all of you great souls who hold the self you see in the mirror to the most conservative demands of righteousness, while simultaneously holding the world you see through the window in the most liberal embrace of justice and grace.

Watch the greatest souls you know. They all have their flaws, limits, blindspots and failures, of course. But, the more conservative they become about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the more liberal they become about issues of social justice and human equality; a life of expansive piety; piety, because it is a life grounded in righteousness; expansive, because it is a life stretched by justice.

What a way to live; walking prayerfully in the Holy Spirit until we go so deep with God and grow so close to Jesus that, in our ordinary, everyday lives, justice does roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; our longing for righteousness taking us ever deeper into God and our passion for justice taking us ever wider into the world.

And, the great good news is that it isn’t too late for us to become that way. I actually know people who, beyond retirement age, have changed what will be in their obituary, and who will be at their funeral, because they decided to let the water of their baptism, whether a sprinkling at a font or a plunging in a pool, become an ever-flowing stream of righteousness and justice, justice and righteousness.

Amen.

The Great Commandment

Matthew 22:34-46, The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 25th, 2020 · Duration 19:01

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Fields and Forests, Seas and Trees

Psalm 96, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 18th, 2020 · Duration 17:51

“Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice; let the sea roar and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”

When those words from today’s psalm speak of fields and forests as though they were choirs and congregations, they join a Bible-wide chorus which includes Psalm 148:7, “Praise the Lord, sea monsters and fruit trees, fire and hail, snow and frost, creeping things and flying birds,” Isaiah 55:12, where the mountains raise a concert to which the trees give a standing ovation, and Psalm 150:6, where everything that breathes, animals and humans, praises the Lord; choir practice for the grand finalé in Revelation 5:13, where every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, sings glory to God together forever; all creation, fields and forests, seas and trees, singing praise to God.

All of which calls to mind, for me, that simple but powerful observation from the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “We start with a big story, and then it shrinks.”

The story with which we start is as wide as the world and as big as all creation; “The trees of the forest singing for joy; the sea and all that is in it.” A story which starts out as big as all creation, before eventually shrinking to the size of the world’s religions; religions which make better gates to God than fences around God, because the God who, thirteen billion years ago, created a still expanding universe, cannot be corralled inside any religion, or all religions; a five thousand year-old Hinduism, a four thousand year-old Judaism, a two thousand year-old Christianity or a fifteen hundred year-old Islam.

As Tennyson wrote, concerning our efforts to capture the God of fields and forests, seas and trees inside our creeds, confessions, doctrines and religions: “Our little systems have their day, they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of thee, and thou, O Lord, art more than they.” The God of fields and forests, seas and trees, greater than all our little systems; the God of fields and forests, seas and trees, as much out there as in here; as real beyond the walls of the church as within the walls of the church.

I cannot speak of such things without thinking of Mary Oliver’s testimony, “The church could not tame me, so they would not keep me. I wanted to be as close to Christ as the cross I wear; to read, and serve, and touch the linen altar cloth. Instead I went to the woods, where no tree ever turned its face away.” Oh, the boundless welcome, and judgeless embrace, of field and forest, where no tree ever turns its face away; the creation of God sometimes more true to the nature of God than the limited embrace of any religion or every religion. Little wonder Jesus urged our attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or that St. Francis preached to a tree full of swallows in Assisi, and John Lewis to a yard full of chickens in Troy. And, little wonder that those who go the deepest into their own particular religion often reach the farthest beyond their own particular religion; longing for that of God which beckons beyond the boundaries which creed and confession, doctrine and religion have drawn too soon around the God of fields and forests, seas and trees.

Which makes us even more thankful that our Northminster mothers and fathers, all those years ago, built us a house with such well-windowed walls; these long, tall, sun-lit, see-through windows never letting us forget that the God of altar and parament, pulpit and pew is first, last and always the God of fields and forests, seas and trees. And, that any words we say in here about God are only windows on God, not walls around God. Amen.

Concerning Gentleness

Philippians 4:1-9, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 11th, 2020 · Duration 0:0

Let your gentleness be known to all.”  I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, every time the lectionary asks us to read those words from today’s epistle passage, I am struck by the fact that, of all the virtues Paul might have hoped for the Philippians to be known for, the one Paul named was gentleness, perhaps because the Philippians were in some sort of conflict, for which gentleness was the one thing everyone most needed to give to, and receive from, one another.

Paul seems to suggest as much at the beginning of today’s passage when he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be “of the same mind,” not unlike what Paul says earlier in the letter, admonishing the Philippians to “be of one spirit and one mind” in chapter one, and, again, in chapter two, to “be of one mind and in one accord,” and, again, in chapter three, to “be of the same mind.”  All of which would suggest that the Philippians are struggling with some sort of disagreement or conflict, which may explain why, of all the virtues Paul might have hoped for the Philippians to be known for, the one he chose to lift up and underscore was gentleness, saying, in today’s lesson, “Let your gentleness be known to all.”

A plea for gentleness which may be as needed now as it was then; the world around us as polarized by disagreement and conflict as the Euodians and Syntychians in Paul’s letter to the Philippians; subterranean fault lines which usually sit silently beneath the surface, exposed in the year 2020 by a highly politicized pandemic, a significant season of reckoning around race, and a looming national election; all making Paul’s call for gentleness at least as important for us, now, as it was for them, then.

One possible first step toward practicing the spiritual discipline of gentleness is to decide whether or not we want to be that way; to pose to ourselves the serious spiritual question, “Do I want to be known as a gentle person?”  We may have so long learned to make our way through life by being manipulative, controlling, unforgiving or mean, that we honestly cannot imagine making it as someone whose gentleness is known to everyone.  Do we want to be gentle?  If the answer is “No”, then, the answer is “No”.  If the answer is “Yes”, then we have a long, slow, complex, beautiful, spiritual adventure before us.

For starters, what does a gentle life look like in a world where there are moral issues to be addressed and gospel stands to be taken?  In order for gentleness to be genuine and true, gentleness cannot become, to quote Fred Craddock, “An embarrassed tolerance which stares silently at the ground in the face of injustice.”  To the contrary, sometimes the only way we can stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for is by standing up against the same things Jesus would stand up against.

Gentleness cannot become a baptized avoidance of the great moral and gospel issues of justice and truth which confront us at seemingly every turn these days. Rather, true gentleness is what I call “Jesus gentleness,” the gentleness of Jesus, who never sacrificed grace on the altar of truth, but who also never sacrificed truth on the altar of grace; the Jesus gentleness which is as kind as it is clear, while also being as clear as it is kind; an impossible way for us to live, apart from the Holy Spirit.  But, a way of life which is altogether possible with the Holy Spirit.

Practically speaking, to become what Paul called “famous for gentleness” would mean practicing the skills of gentleness until we get better at them.  Not unlike learning to lay bricks, play tennis, paint, bake, write calligraphy or remove gall bladders, the more we practice being gentle, the better we get.  As Wendell Berry said, “The heart’s one choice becomes the mind’s long labor.”  We make the choice to become gentle, and, then, we get to get up every morning and work at it; relinquishing all tactics and strategies, renouncing exaggeration, no more playing gotcha, no more trying to destroy someone else’s position by creating the false choice of the exaggerated option. Choosing, instead, to listen carefully and speak softly; remembering, as Marilynne Robinson said in the novel Gilead, that, “A little too much anger at the wrong time, or too often, can destroy more than any of us can imagine,” reminding ourselves of Philo’s great admonition, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” all of which may require us to fast, for a season, from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as whichever partisan news source has become our idealogical echo-chamber of choice.

With all such disciplines faithfully practiced, and with much daily prayer, slowly, slowly, little by little, much of our loudness and stridence, vitriol and sarcasm may fall away, until, at last, we might become known for the only thing Paul hoped for us to be famous for in today’s epistle lesson.

Gentleness.

Amen.

Trapped

Matthew 21:33-46, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · October 6th, 2020 · Duration 15:35

You would think that the Pharisees would have learned by the time they got all the way to chapter 21 in the Gospel according to Matthew, that they need to be extra careful when verbally sparring with Jesus. But, not yet. Here in chapter 21, Jesus lays out rhetorical trap after rhetorical trap, and, if you are anything like me, and sometimes read with background music and sound effects in your mind, you can almost hear the music sounding as the traps go off right on cue.

Jesus comes into the temple. The music stops as he surveys what is taking place. Suddenly there is a dark crescendo as he leaps into action - turning over tables and chairs and driving people out of the temple. It is in response to this act that the pharisees question Jesus about his authority to act in such a manner.

If the gospel of Matthew is an accurate account, Jesus responds with a question and a series of parables, the second of which is our gospel lesson today, “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” The commercial practice of a landowner renting his land to tenants in exchange for a portion of the harvest would have been common. As would there being a dispute between the landowner and the tenant about rent collection. The pharisees must have felt that, for once, they were tracking with Jesus. And then, as Jesus lays his trap, the music subtly changes – noticeable to us the readers, imperceptible to the Pharisees. Jesus asks them what will happen when the landowner returns. Trap set.

The pharisees, just like you and I might, tried to imagine themselves in the parable. And just like you do, the pharisees would have remembered that in Isaiah 5, there is a vineyard, carefully prepared, complete with choice vines, a watch tower, and a winepress. They would have recognized and remembered that in Isaiah 5 the vineyard is the people of God. Because Jesus was careful to lay on his allusion about the vineyard pretty thick, they could be relatively confident they were not the vineyard. They must have been thinking, are we the landowner, the tenants, or the messengers?

When Jesus asks the pharisees, what will the landowner do to the tenants. It seems clear that they have made their choice. The pharisees understand themselves to be the landowners. The pharisees, after all, are the ones who are the leaders of the Jews, the people of God. If the vineyard is the people of God, surely the pharisees, the leaders, the ones with the keys to the temple, with offices, and fancy robes and stoles. They must be the landowner. So they seize the opportunity and come down strong with the type of retribution that would be expected from the landowner.

Their implication is that Jesus is the wicked tenant. It is Jesus who has driven out people who had workspaces approved by the temple leadership. It is Jesus who has destroyed this livelihood, damaged this property, and likely caused some of the merchandise to be lost. Surely, Jesus is the wicked tenant.

“[The land owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time,” say the pharisees.

And right on cue, the music in the background gives way for a loud and emphatic clash of cymbals – CLANG!!

Jesus flips the parable on the pharisees. They fell for his allusion to Isaiah 5. They misidentified themselves in the parable. When they fall for his trap, Jesus directs them to another familiar scripture: Psalm 118. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” You can almost see the realization starting to come over their faces, reminiscent of when the prophet Nathan stood before King David after David proclaims judgement to a hypothetical scenario and Nation says to David: “you are the man.”

Jesus affirms their answer, just like Nathan did, but he directs the force of the parable (and their answer) back at them. “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Through the fog of realization that they have been trapped, Jesus steps back into the parable. Remember, the vineyard is the people of God. Jesus says “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” In the parable, the fruits the vineyard has produced are oppression, death, and deceit. These are not the fruits that the land owner was hoping to get in payment for leasing his property.

We are left imagining what people might inherit the vineyard, what people might inherit the Kingdom of God?

I have a confession to make. Whenever, I read about Jesus trapping the pharisees, I want to cheer him on – as if Jesus is the great underdog and sparring with the powerful religious elite. And every time that happens, at some point, I pause, hear the music in the background, and remember, that I, as a pastor, resemble the pharisees more closely than I would like to admit. And it’s usually only after I have started cheering Jesus and jeering the pharisees that I realize, a moment too late, that the music has stopped and a cymbal is about to crash as I have stepped right into the trap set by the author of the Gospel of Matthew – this trap set for me.

I feel the snap, and try not to get angry like the pharisees. Yes, Jesus traps me in this parable too. I don’t mean that I have knowingly engaged in producing the fruits of oppression, death, and deceit. But I do wonder what kind of fruit I am producing and if it is the fruit of the kingdom.

Here in this vineyard, at Northminster Baptist Church, at the corner of Eastover and Ridgewood, there are a lot of tenants. We have pastors and deacons. We have committees, you probably got a letter about them a couple of weeks ago. We have Sunday School teachers, nursery workers, Youth leaders, Atrium facilitators, ushers, and musicians. All tenants of this vineyard, entrusted to our care to produce the fruit of the kingdom. And just in case anyone is feeling left out, on the last page of your bulletin are four words that have a powerful influence over how we, as a vineyard of faith, operate and go about producing fruit.

“Every member a minister.” All of us. Each one of us who call this place home. We are all charged with tending this vineyard, and producing the fruits of the kingdom.

I wonder if we can press this fruit analogy just a little bit further. Have you ever been to a farm where you get to pick your own fruit? These are especially fun with fruit loving small children – so long as you pack a change of clothes. Sometimes, when adventuring to one of these farms, if you’re an amateur fruit picker, you might pick some bad fruit. It might be unripe. It might be over ripe. A bug might have gotten inside of the fruit and ruined it. It’s not that all the fruit is bad. It’s not even that all the fruit on the one plant is bad. The plants don’t get to choose which fruit you pick.

If we are to be the tenants of the vineyard of God, if we are to be the vineyard of God, we must reckon with the truth that we are always producing fruit of some kind. That fruit may be the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. There are days that it also might be none of those things. Of course, we are all doing our best to stay away from producing the fruits of oppression, death and deceit. Yet, even when we put our best efforts into producing good fruits, we still don’t get to decide how that fruit will be perceived. No more than I get to decide what you will take from this sermon, do you get to decide how people will interpret the words you say to them, or what you intend your actions to do.

So what do we do? How can we be good tenants? How can we produce the fruits of the kingdom?

Tod Bolsinger, Vice President of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, suggests that churches and organizations must rely on having focused, shared, and missional purpose against which to measure all decisions. Well, Jesus gave us more than a few of those kinds of ideas. Love God with all that is in you and love your neighbor like you love yourself. If we are living a life with those two ideas as our mission, then I think, we are going to be producing the fruit of the kingdom. Certainly, it will be better than if we are trying to hoard all of the fruit for ourselves like the wicked tenants in the parable. Certainly, it will be better than if we are sitting back laughing at the Pharisees for having gotten caught in another of Jesus’ traps.

Yes, as we sit here trapped by Jesus’ parable, considering how we might be a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom, let’s commit to wrapping our minds around how we can better live into those ideas. Depend on the Holy Spirit to reinterpret the memory of each day through the lens of loving God and loving neighbor. Let’s imagine anew what opportunities lie ahead for us each next day.

What fruits might we produce if we imagined how we might love God and neighbor at work? What fruits might we produce if we imagined how we might love God and neighbor when we make purchases? What fruits might we produce if we imagined how we might love God and neighbor when we are in conflict, when someone interprets events differently than we do, when we post on social media, when we are in public, when we are in private, when everyone is looking and when no one is looking? What fruits might we produce?

The kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Amen.

 

 

On Working Out Our Salvation

Philippians 2:1-13, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 27th, 2020 · Duration 16:08

“Work out your own salvation, with fear and trembling.” Whatever those words from today’s epistle lesson may have meant on the ears of those who first heard them, for us they are a reminder that the same salvation which we sometimes make mostly about where we will live in the next life is also about how we will live in this life.

Whenever we make salvation more about being with Jesus in the next life than being like Jesus in this life, we open the door to the widespread Christian contradiction of those who accept Christ, for the next life, but do not follow Jesus, in this life; a contradiction which Richard Rohr captures in his observation that once we turned Christianity from a way of life into an established religion, we created our current situation, in which a person can be as self-centered and unkind as they wish and still say that Jesus is their “personal Lord and Savior”; the answer to which, I believe, is to recover the truth that salvation is not primarily about a problem, eternal damnation, and how to fix it, but about a life and how to live it, and a love and how to give it; what today’s epistle lesson calls, “Working out our salvation, in fear and trembling.”

Fear and trembling, not because we are afraid God will reject us if we don’t get life right. Fear and trembling, not because we’re worried that God will love us less if we remain complicated and complex. We know better than that, because we know, as William Sloane Coffin so beautifully put it, that “There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.” No, the reason we continue working out our salvation “in fear and trembling” is that, as far as we know, this is the one and only life we are ever going to have. As far as we know, we are not going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time. That is why we continue working out our salvation with fear and trembling; because we do not want to under-live the one and only life we are ever going to have being petty and small-minded, shallow and narrow, manipulative and controlling, deceptive, hard, harsh, unforgiving, suspicious, jealous, envious, reckless and unkind. That’s why we continue to work on working out our salvation with fear and trembling; why we get up, every morning, living the prayer the late Mary Oliver left us when she said, “Another morning, and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have”...“Working out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul puts it in the next to last verse of today’s epistle lesson.

Which, as you may have noticed, is followed immediately by the last verse of today’s passage, where Paul, having told us, in verse twelve, to work out our salvation, tells us, in verse thirteen, that God is working in the same salvation we are working out. Which must mean we have not been left to work out our salvation all by ourselves. Rather, the Spirit of God is with us to help us; the Spirit of God, working in what we are working on. And, if that is true, then, perhaps, it is more possible than we might first have thought for us to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we long and yearn and ache to live.

If God is working in what we are working on, then, perhaps, we have given up too soon on someday becoming luminous with holiness, what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “see through with light.” If God is working in what we are working on, then perhaps we might yet become persons of careful, truthful speech who are quick to listen and slow to speak, renouncing all of our old tactics, strategies, exaggerations and cleverness, for a way of being in the world, and in the room, which Marilynne Robinson calls “soft and serious,” what the Quakers call “gentle and plain.” If God is working in what we are working on, then perhaps the mind of Christ might someday be so fully formed in us that the cross of Christ will, at last, become, not only a place in Jerusalem for Jesus to die, but a life in Jackson for us to live; our lives stretched up to God and out to others in a cross-formed life of love, our moral compass of integrity as true as our wingspan of welcome is wide, and our wingspan of welcome as wide as our moral compass of integrity is true.

God working in what we are working on until the Holy Spirit and the human spirit become so fully integrated in our ordinary, everyday lives that we can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins. God working in what we are working on until, eventually, we reach that place in our lives where, as Naomi Shihab Nye says, “The only thing which ties our shoes in the morning and sends us out into the day is kindness;” however much, or little, is left of the one and only life we are ever going to have, in this world, made more strong and true, gentle and tender, brave and kind, because we decided to keep working out the same salvation God is working in.

Amen.


The Journey Jonah Never Took

Jonah 3:10-4:11, The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 20th, 2020 · Duration 10:31

“When God saw that the people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind concerning the calamity God had said God would bring upon them, and God did not do it. This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”

With those words, today’s lesson from the book of Jonah reminds us that, though Jonah traveled many miles in the small book which bears his name, there is one journey Jonah never took. Jonah fled to Tarshish at the beginning of the book of Jonah, sailed to Nineveh near the end, and, between those two journeys, traveled to the bottom of the sea in the belly of a fish. But, those many trips taken, and miles amassed, notwithstanding, there was, apparently, one journey Jonah never took; never going far enough with God to get close enough to God to rejoice over God’s wide welcome and boundless grace; God’s wide welcome and boundless grace making Jonah as angry as the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, who were as offended by the generosity of the landowner to the last-minute workers as Jonah was offended by the grace of God for the Ninevites.

In fact, God’s grace for the Ninevites made Jonah so angry that Jonah said he would rather die than watch God be that good to the Ninevites. Upon which, in the next verse, God is reported to have said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because I am good?” not unlike the question the landowner asks the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, “Surely you are not envious because I am generous, are you?” Jonah, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, and countless souls ever since, sad about the same big grace God is glad about.

I often wonder where that comes from, that need for some to be excluded from the welcome of God in order for us to be happy with our inclusion in the welcome of God. Where I come from, we would say that we have to feel that way because the Bible teaches us to feel that way, especially in John 14:6, which limits the size of the circle of the welcome of God to those who have earned their grace the same way we earned ours, by believing what we believe about Jesus. But, the limits we place on God’s boundless grace are not as simple as “the Bible says it and that settles it,” because the same Bible which is home to John 14:6 is also home to Colossians 1:20, Titus 2:11 and Revelation 5:13. The response to which is often, “Well everybody knows that verses such as Colossians 1:20, Titus 2:11 and Revelation 5:13 are not as important as verses like John 14:6.” To which I have long wondered, “Yes, but who decided that? Who made the decision that the verses which support the boundaries we have placed around the grace of God are more important than the verses which stretch the boundaries we have placed around the grace of God?” Back there, somewhere, someone had to make that decision, otherwise all of us would have grown up knowing Colossians 1:20, “In Christ, God was reconciling the whole creation to God’s self,” Titus 2:11, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” and Revelation 5:13, “I saw every creature, in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, singing to God around the throne,” as well as we know John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

(Indeed, I found myself wondering, earlier this morning, how different the spirit of Christianity might be if, instead of interpreting the verses which make God’s grace embrace all (Isaiah 25:6-9, I Corinthians 15:22, II Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:20, Titus 2:11, Revelation 5:13) in the light of the verses which make God’s grace more small (John 3:18, John 14:6, Acts 4:12, II Thessalonians 1:8-9), we had spent the Christian centuries interpreting the verses which make God’s grace more small in the light of the verses which make God’s grace embrace all. Why do we interpret the Bible’s bigger verses in the light of the Bible’s smaller verses, instead of interpreting the Bible’s smaller verses in the light of the Bible’s bigger verses?)

All of which is to say that, the reason why we, like Jonah in today’s Old Testament lesson, and the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, have such a strong need for God to limit God’s grace to those whom we believe deserve it, is not as simple as “the Bible says it and that settles it.”

I cannot speak for you, but in my own case, it probably had more to do with where I grew up than anything else; surrounded by the dearest and best people one could ever hope to know, who taught me to believe what they were taught to believe about the size of the circle of the welcome of God, which left me, for much of my life, like Jonah in today’s Old Testament lesson, and the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, grumbling at the thought of too much grace for too many others. The grace God gave to them did not take an ounce of grace from me, but, even so, I would have rather God be left with leftover love than for anyone to have it who didn’t get it the way I got it.

But, then, somewhere along the way, I moved beyond that. I cannot say exactly when that happened, but I do have an idea how it happened. I believe it was the daily practice of praying to get on and stay on the path to a deeper life with God, the daily practice of walking prayerfully and intentionally in the Holy Spirit, until we go so far with Jesus and so deep with the Spirit that we get so close to God that we can no longer be sad about the same boundless grace God is glad about; staying on the path to depth so carefully for so long that we eventually reach that wide and wonderful place where we draw our circle of welcome as wide as God draws God’s circle of welcome; a long, slow, quiet journey Jonah never took, but which any of us can begin any time we choose.

Amen.

In Accordance With a Single Certainty

Romans 13:8-14, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 6th, 2020 · Duration 15:13

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What Do We Know?

Romans 12:9-21, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 30th, 2020 · Duration 12:21

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Transformation

Romans 12:1-8, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 23rd, 2020 · Duration 13:11

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Northminster Stories

Psalm 133, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 16th, 2020 · Duration 13:59

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Concerning Matthew's Boat

Matthew 14:22-33, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 9th, 2020 · Duration 15:36

“When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped Jesus.”

With those words from today’s gospel lesson, Matthew’s boat sounds a lot like a metaphor for the church. Beyond the boat, Peter was in over his head and sinking fast. But, once Jesus got Peter back into the boat, where he belonged, with the others, the storm stopped, and all was well; Matthew’s boat, perhaps, a stand-in for the church, and, today’s gospel lesson, a reminder, to Matthew’s late first-century family of faith, and ours, that “in the boat”, Matthew’s image for the church, is where we all belong.

Which is not to suggest that the church is the only place to find God. To the contrary, as Barbara Brown Taylor has wisely written, “The work of God gets done in the world not only because of, but, also, in spite of, the church.” Not unlike Fred Buechner’s observation, “If the church is Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, then Jesus often is all thumbs and has two left feet”, and Mary Oliver’s testimony, concerning the church, “They could not tame me, so they would not keep me...I wanted to be as close to Christ as the cross I wear; to read, and serve, and touch the linen altar cloth. Instead, I went back to the woods, where no tree ever turned it’s face away.”

But, for all the church’s limits, blind spots and flaws, still, for many of us, it is in the church that our lives have been most powerfully formed and shaped for truth and love, compassion and justice, courage and kindness; not all at once or once and for all, but little by little, week after week, year after year; a lifelong journey which Cecil Sherman once described as “more sandpaper than dynamite”; dynamite changing things all at once, in one big, loud, dramatic moment; but sandpaper changing things slowly, quietly, little by little.

Which is most often the way our lives are formed by the church; singing the same songs, praying the same prayers, reading the same scriptures, saying the same words, hearing the same truth, week after week, year after year; all that repetition shaping our lives slowly, quietly, little by little, until we someday discover that we are a little more kind, a little more careful with our words, a little more gentle and patient, truthful and brave. Have you ever noticed what a difference it makes when a person becomes even a little more kind; just a little more open to, welcoming of, and excited about the beautiful diversity of the whole human family? That is the kind of slow growth and gradual change which can happen to anyone, and should happen to everyone, in Matthew’s boat, the church. Our life together in the church, slowly, slowly, little by little, making our spirit more expansive and welcoming, gentle and kind, redrawing the circle of our embrace to more nearly match the boundless reach of the welcome of God.

That is what can happen to us in Matthew’s boat, the church. In the boat, where we belong, we get to know the kind of people whose moral compass of integrity is as true as their wingspan of welcome is wide, and whose wingspan of welcome is as wide as their moral compass of integrity is true; the kind of people who make the rest of us want to be better just by being exactly who they are.

Staying in the boat where we belong; whether in person in the pew, or, at this present moment, on couches and porches, iPads, Chromebooks, laptops and phones, calls forth, and confirms, that which is deepest and best in us.

For example, two days ago, on Friday, August 7, I went to Canton, Mississippi to remember and mark the events of August 7, 2019 in Canton, Carthage, Morton and beyond, by walking prayerfully through the immigrant community adjacent to the Peco processing plant; singing, softly, in Espanol, to no one but the poor howling perros, a small hymn, “La Cancion de Bienvenidas” (The Welcome Song); a gesture of Christian love so small that, thirty years ago, I would have dismissed it as pointless, at best; silly, at worst. But, now, after more than two decades in the boat with you, I know that no act or word of kindness and love is too small to matter or make a difference; an incurable hope, and quiet confidence in the Holy Spirit, which I did not bring here, but which I found here, in the version of Matthew’s boat which came ashore, all those years ago, at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover.

And where, all these years later, we are all in the same boat; from those whose birthdates, death-dates and names are etched in stone in the columbarium behind us, all the way up to little Lawson Elizabeth Sams, whose welcome rose shines happily on the table before us, and all the rest of us in between, sailing the sea together; in Matthew’s boat, and ours, the church.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Concerning the Journey

Romans 9:1-5, The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 2nd, 2020 · Duration 14:46

“I have great sorrow in my heart, and could wish that I myself were cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, the Israelites; to whom belong the promises and from whom comes the Messiah.” Thus begins this morning’s epistle lesson; with Paul in such anguish over the future of those Jews who do not believe what Paul believes about Jesus that Paul goes so far as to say that he would give up his own salvation if it would transfer his share of God’s grace to God’s people.

A passage which calls to mind, for me, that moment in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Lila, when Lila, having realized that her childhood protector, Doll, might not be saved, goes down to the river to wash off her baptism; preferring to be lost forever with Doll than saved forever without her; Lila’s anguish over Doll as severe as Paul’s anguish over Israel.

Paul’s anguish over Israel comes at the beginning of that section of the book of Romans which I call “the Roman parenthesis”, a self-contained unit unto itself, which begins at Romans 9:1, with Paul’s anguish over Israel, and ends, two chapters later, with Paul declaring, in Romans 11:26, “All Israel will be saved”, to which Paul adds, in Romans 11:32, “God has included all in sin so that God can include all in mercy”; Paul’s movement from the onlyism of chapter nine, where he feared that only those who believed what he believed were safe in the hands of God, to the allism of chapter eleven, where Paul declared that all Israel would be saved, because, since God had included all in sin, God would include all in mercy; Paul’s journey from onlyism to allism, all in the space of Romans chapters nine, ten and eleven.

All of which seems to have moved quickly enough, back there on the page. But, if you have ever taken that sort of spiritual journey, you know that to move from the onlyism where Paul began to the allism where Paul ended can be something more like that great struggle of which we read in today’s lesson from Genesis, the battle which left Jacob not only with a blessing, but also with a limp.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, the journey from onlyism to allism has been at least that hard; growing up, as did I, in a world where so much about our faith depended upon our faith being the only faith where God could be found. It was not hard for us to guard that core belief in onlyism, because most of us did not know anyone who did not believe what we believed. For Christians, in the Macon, Georgia, of my childhood, to decide whether or not others could be embraced in the grace of God, was to speak from a place of unchallenged authority, not unlike a Hindu in Calcutta, a Jew in Jerusalem, or a Muslim in Tehran, deciding whether or not Christians can be embraced in the grace of God.

Looking back across my life, I think I always had my doubts about onlyism, but I learned, early on, to keep them to myself; which I continued to do, even long after I knew that something more must be true. But, then, one evening, a little more than twenty years ago, Marcia and I went to Beth Israel (where I went, this past Friday, to write these words). And, following the evening worship service, once we were back home, I completed the same journey Paul started in today’s epistle passage; saying to God, out loud, something I had long known but never said. “God”, I said to the night sky, “In order for me to be an honest man, I need for you to know that I believe that those dear souls with whom we worshipped you tonight are as much your people as the dear souls with whom we worship you on Sunday.”

Which sounds so simple to say. (And, in a way, a bit arrogant; the late limb saying the original tree is safe with God!) But, if you’ve grown up with nothing but onlyism, it can be so hard, because it can open up so many other questions; good and important questions, all of which ultimately have the same answer, which is that, as Paul said, “God has included all in sin, so that God can include all in mercy.”

After which, in the very next verse, Paul closed “the Roman parenthesis” by singing, “Oh the depth of the riches of God! The judgements of God are unsearchable, the ways of God unknowable. To God be the glory forever.”

After which, lost in wonder, love and praise, Paul fell silent.

Amen.


Concerning the Love of God

Romans 8:26-39, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 26th, 2020 · Duration 13:16

“Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship or distress, persecution or famine, peril or sword? No. In all these things we are more than conquerors through God who loves us. I am convinced that neither death nor life, things present nor things to come; 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.”

Concerning the love of God, one could hardly hope to hear more hopeful words than those from today’s epistle lesson; Paul’s great and sweeping affirmation that nothing, no kind of sorrow or failure, distress or despair, life or death, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A hope-filled affirmation which never fails to make me wonder, “Who is us?” When Paul says that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, who is us?

No one can say, with certainty, who Paul’s us is, but, as for me, it is my deepest and highest hope that when Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, “us” means all. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, my hope is that when Paul says, in today’s passage, that, “Those whom God foreknew God predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s likeness, so that Christ might be the firstborn in a large family”; that “large family” is the whole human family of every time and place. Which would mean that when Paul speaks, in today’s passage, of “those whom God foreknew and predestined” to be included in God’s grace, that would include everyone; everyone God ever loved and wanted, predestined, chosen, elected, and embraced by God, so that when Paul says, in today’s lesson from Romans, that “If God is for us, no one can condemn us”, us means all.

That is my deepest and highest hope, which is not the same as hoping that there is no judgement. To the contrary, before love can redeem all, love must judge all. Truth must be told, victims must be faced, responsibility owned, forgiveness asked and, if possible, amends made; otherwise grace becomes, as Fred Craddock once said, “A timid tolerance which stares silently at the ground in the face of injustice.” No condemnation is not the same as no judgement. To the contrary, truthful love requires honest judgement; but, judgement in the service, not of retribution, but of redemption; not unlike the final parable in today’s gospel lesson where the good and the bad, which lives in each of us, is identified and judged, so that the bad can be burned away; the fires of hell, burning away all that is hurtful and harmful, unjust and oppressive, deceptive and untrue; a fire of judgement, in the service, not of endless, pointless punishment, but of eventual, ultimate, redemption; the love of God; not rejection, separation or sin, but the love of God, having the last word; nothing in all creation separating any of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

I cannot speak for you, but as for me, that is my great hope. Once, it was not. Once I needed for Paul’s us, as in “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God” to be only us. But, the more I travel the path to a deeper life with God, the less I need for Paul’s us to be only us, and the more I hope for Paul’s us to be all of us. The further I travel along the path to depth, the more carefully I walk in the Holy Spirit, and the closer I get to Jesus, the less I need for anyone to be eternally excluded from the ultimate triumph of the love of God, and the more deeply I hope that, ultimately, once all the judgement which must be gone through has been gone through, ultimately, finally, eternally, nothing in all creation will separate any of us from the love of God.

Amen.

Concerning Jacob's Dream

Genesis 28:10-19a; The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 19th, 2020 · Duration 11:21

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

An Alternative Cosmos

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · July 12th, 2020 · Duration 13:24

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Becoming Who We Want to Be

Romans 7:15-25, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 5th, 2020 · Duration 11:45