Dancing Before the Lord

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Scott Dickison · July 14th, 2024 · Duration 16:00

Dancing Before the Lord

II Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

When we pick up the story here in the sixth chapter of 2 Samuel, David has just been crowned king of Israel and begins to consolidate his power by bringing the ark of the covenant on a long tour through Judah en route to Jerusalem, his new capital city.

Along the way, as the ark passes through different towns, there are great celebrations. And we'e told that, caught up in the fervor and excitement and gratitude for God's presence and provision, David and all the house of Israel "dance before the Lord"--a passage that's probably caused more heartburn for Baptist preachers through the years than any in Scripture, maybe outside of the Song of Solomon.

And not just did they dance, but they danced. They "danced with all their might," it says. It was fervent dance, a wild dance, even a risqué dance. We're told how during this dance, David himself was "girded with a linen ephod," what we would call today a "loin cloth." And wearing this loin cloth he nonetheless proceeded to leap and dance before the Lord--which all the people loved, as you might imagine. Everyone save for his wife the queen, who, when she saw David "leaping and dancing," we're told, "despised him in her heart." Later, after David had arrived in the palace, she approached him and said, "My, how the king of Israel honored himself today, uncovering himself before the eyes of his servants' maids, as any vulgar fellow might shamelessly" do.

I.

And she may have had a point. Dance leads much up to interpretation, an ambiguity that is, I believe, part of its appeal. It can mean many things, sometimes all at once, in ways we're not even fully aware while we're in the midst of it. Was this simply a spontaneous eruption of gratitude and joy, or was David maybe showing off a bit? Was he allowing himself a moment of release after so many years of turmoil, or was he giving the people "bread and circuses?"

The answer is probably, "yes."

Dancing is powerful that way, and even subversive. It muddies all our prescribed codes of conduct and decorum. It can be rebellious, maybe even thought a little reckless, a little wild. Who knows what it might lead to. If a person will dance there's no telling what he'll do, a truth that lands differently depending on where you are in the dance.

Annie Dillard tells of a Jewish congregation in Sudbury, Massachusetts back in Cold War times that held an annual celebration on Simchat Torah, when the synagogue completes its yearly reading of the Torah. And people would come from all around to be a part of this great celebration, where they would dance in front of the synagogue well into the night.

The rabbi there once asked a newly arrived Soviet Jewish immigrant what he thought of their Simchat Torah celebration here in the states, and the man said that it was fine, but it was better in Leningrad. The rabbi was a little insulted and asked just how it was better. In Leningrad, the man explained, if you dance in front of the synagogue on Simchat Torah you must assume that the secret police will photograph everyone. This means that sooner or later your employer will be notified. And since such a dance is considered anti-Soviet, you must be prepared to lose your job, or even worse! And so you see, he went on, to dance on such an occasion, this is a different kind of dance.1

Dancing says to the world, "You don't control me. Not all of me." There's an inhibition required to dance, a shamelessness, a freedom. It's why Juke Joints were so necessary in the Jim Crow South. It's why every new generation from the beginning of time has asserted itself before their elders through dance--it didn't start with TikTok, I'm sorry to report. I've seen footage of the Twist, the Bump, Swing, and don't get me started with the Shag, I'm from the Carolinas! The old rabbis used to say that to dance is an "achievement." They said it was an achievement to struggle with your sadness or embarrassment or pride enough to "bring it into the joy." They even said, "by means of dance one can transform evil forces."2

II.

Some years ago Audrey and I went to a party that a friend of ours was throwing for his mother who had recently been diagnosed with ALS. The disease was moving quickly and this party was part fundraiser for her treatments and part fulfillment of her wish that they recreate her wedding reception. And so friends and family all gathered in a big ballroom in downtown Boston, and we had a wonderful catered dinner around tables with linen cloths. There were toasts, and tears and the raising of glasses, and then there was dancing. And the first dance, of course, was reserved for the bride and groom. They made their way out to the dance floor, the loving husband pushing his dying wife in her wheelchair. Upon reaching the center, he stopped, pushed down the brakes, and moved in front of her to lift her up. But as he did, she waved him off, and began to slowly lift herself up. She took hold of his hand and his shoulder, and they danced. It was an achievement.

Children, we should say, have no idea what this means that dancing is an achievement, because children dance instinctually--which is to say, of course, that people dance instinctually. I'm convinced of this. We come into the world hardwired for dance, maybe not so unlike the way we come hardwired for things like wonder and miracle.

We took the boys to New York City a couple of years ago for Spring Break and had an incredible time. It was the first time they'd been to a big city like that and so maybe more than any of the things we did or the sights we saw, they enjoyed riding the subway or just walking up and down the city streets--and by walking I mean dancing. Mac in particular, so caught up in the spirit of New York, danced his way up and down the sidewalks right outside of Madison Square Garden. Someone tossed him a dollar! There he was, flailing his body around out in front of everyone, not caring a bit.

Of course, part of the sweetness was knowing a day will come when that will end. Come to think of it, that's part of what makes any dancing, all dancing, special: that we know it will end.

David and all the house of Israel danced before the Lord with all their might. All their might, it says. And I wonder what it would it look like for us to do the same? Not in a literal sense, with all of us filing out of the pews and dancing in the aisles of this sanctuary--that would never happen! But then again, what would it take? What would have to happen in our lives, in the world for us to be so overcome with joy or wonder or gratitude that we saw no other way--remembering there are plenty of churches where this happens nearly every Sunday, and God bless them for it, for dancing for the rest of us!

Or if that is too much to consider: What would have to happen in your life for you dance before the Lord with all your might, anywhere at all?

What has happened for you to dance in that way--to achieve that kind of joy?

You know that dancing isn't reserved for dance floors. Some of the most powerful dancing I've seen happens with no dance floor in sight. I've seen dancing happen in hospital waiting rooms. I've seen it happen at airports and heard it from the other end of the telephone. I've seen slow, near-silent dances happen in nurseries to the hush of a lullaby. I've seen dancing at graduations and anniversaries. On kitchen floors at the sight of a car in the driveway. Dancing happens wherever life does. Not life as we usually experience it, but life that's just under the surface of that life. Life that's always there but rarely exposed. Abundant life, it's been called.

III.

Truth is, in the nearly 12 months that I have been among you here, I've seen you dance quite a lot, actually.

The dance begins every Monday morning at 8:30 sharp, when the Caregivers make their way to the library, to pray and share concerns and thanksgivings and sign cards. To some it might just look like people sitting around a room, but there is so much dancing--so much is brought into the joy.

It continues through the week. All those who dance in the kitchen making food for Meals on Wheels and then those real free-spirits who dance out to their cars and then off to deliver it, dancing up to doorways all around town.

I've seen dancing in support groups, such an intimate dance. I've seen it in committee meetings--even the finance committee lately, praise God! In Bible studies, and on Wednesdays when we gather for supper and to pray--it look me all spring to learn the steps to our midweek Vespers service, but near the end I finally picked it up. I hope I didn't step on too many toes.

There is dancing, too, in the youth house, I feel I must tell you. And when we gather the children to teach them the stories of our faith, or share with them how the Christian life calls us deep within ourselves and just as deeply out into the world around us--is that "Sunday school" and "Atrium," or aren't these really dance lessons? And don't we teach them to dance so they can one day teach us, soon, if we'll let them?

I see so many of you dancing when you clean up the grounds or plant flowers, or prepare communion, or do any of the innumerable tasks that allow us to gather here as we do. Or when you sing so the rest of us can dance along in our heads. All of you, each of you, a lilt in your step as you move about this place. And I see you dancing, of course, when we gather in this room. Especially on those Sundays when your knees ache, or your hearts, your spirit. I see you dancing on those Sundays when the kids are going nuts, and it would be easier to do just about anything else than drag them up to church, or even when you find your way to your computer screen or iPad or TV and join in the dance wherever you are. When you sing along with the hymns, and bow your head in prayer by yourself. When you pick people out from the back of their heads on the screen and say a prayer for them. I know those mornings may feel about the furthest thing from dancing, but dance it is.

IV.

It's a dance, this life we live together as the church. It's not always an easy dance. Sometimes we just can't get in sync with each other. Some want to go this way when others want to go that, to the point that sometimes we wonder if we're hearing different music. But it's a dance we decided a long time ago is better to do together. Maybe one that can only be done together.

And so this is my prayer for us. That together we would take our tiredness and frustration, our sorrow and worry, and all the things we all carry with us that would keep us from dancing, and I hope together we would find strength enough to bring all of it--all of you--into the joy.

I see you dancing, church, and I hope every now and again you see it too. I hope you see how you dance before the Lord.
____________________
1 As told by Annie Dillard in her powerful book, For the Time Being, p.144-145
2 Ibid.

The Holiness of Now

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Scott Dickison · July 7th, 2024 · Duration 11:45

The Holiness of Now

II Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

In her poem, "The Gate," Marie Howe tells of her younger brother, John, whom she lost to AIDS many years ago. She writes,

I had no idea that the gate I would
step through
to finally enter this world

would be the space my brother's
body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man

but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded
every sheet,

rinsed every glass he would ever
rinse under the cold
and running water.

This is what you have been waiting
for, he used to say to me.
And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This--holding up my
cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I'd say, What?

And he'd say, This, sort of looking around.

In an interview some years back, she described how she was with him and his partner Joe those last few weeks of his life, and what a gift they were. She said of their large Catholic family, he was that sibling who was the best of them all. He had a way about him--a spark. He was her "spiritual teacher," even in those final days of his own life directing her focus--to simple things. The cheese and mustard sandwich she was eating. The sheets they folded together, that dance that is so much easier to do with another, taking the ends, holding them tight, then bringing them to. Doing the dishes, the glasses rinsed under cold and running water--all the mundane, ordinary tasks and events that make up so much of a life.

This, he tells her, opening his arms to the moment they shared, that moment before them, is what you've been waiting for. This.1

I.

Over 35 chapters in 1 and 2 Samuel, the story of David's rise unfolds, with every critical moment of his life seemingly recorded in detail, all leading us to this moment--the culmination of so much prophecy and divine intervention, the hand of God pulling, at times even dragging the story toward this end result. Finally, David is crowned king in all his glory, a moment of ecstasy and rapture described in these few verses we heard earlier, which can only be described as...underwhelming.

So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel.

Then a few verses of retrospective clearly written after David's reign noting his age, how long he was king and ending with a summary statement: And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

And then on whatever comes next--another battle with the Philistines, same as before.

It reads almost like a tersely written obituary, like the ones in the newspaper where you have to pay by the word. The reign of Israel's greatest king, the one "after God's own heart," summarized in a few sentences, same as the rest of us.

II.

What are we to make of this?
Perhaps the ancient historians here are capturing something of David's own mood. It may be that this is how he experienced this culmination, this literal coronation. The last 15 years of his life, give or take, all moving toward this moment, this triumph, and when it arrives...it just arrives, and then it is gone.

Of course, one doesn't need to be a king to learn that this is often how it goes: these culminating moments--moments we have anticipated and worked toward and sacrificed for--when they finally arrive, can feel somehow different from how we expected them. The satisfaction can be somehow less potent than we imagined, the euphoria more fleeting. The dream job, the promotion, the deal that will change everything. The degree, the appointment. The graduation, the victory. The kitchen renovation. This is the reality of mountain tops or summits: once you reach them there is literally no direction to go but down. And so it's perhaps only natural for our minds and hearts and imaginations to turn toward the next one, and the next one...

What if this is what we've been waiting for?

This.

This moment, and then the next one. The gift of this point in time--instructively called "the present," I would add.

In full view of where we've been, and in anticipation for what is to come. Centered between them, but not dependent on either of them--the past or the future, which are really inventions of our memory and imagination. This is the only place we can truly be, truly live--where we can come alive. Where we can find each other, where we will know God.

I wonder if David had someone in his life, in his court, who would tell him this. Who would lift up that cheese and mustard sandwich. Someone along the way, before he was crowned, who would call to mind the beauty of the grass beneath their feet as they marched over the hills and fields. Who would give thanks for the friendships that sustained them through so many hard times. Who would tell him to go take a nap, or read a book, or maybe, just maybe, even as God's anointed, to not take yourself so seriously. We all need one of these people.

Someone to remind us as we climb, as we work, and improve, and achieve, and go and go and go--as we make something of ourselves, as we do our part to make a better world--someone to tell us, again, as we try our best to squeeze all the life that we can out of the days we are given, that every moment is holy. That every breath is sacred. That, in fact, it is not the apexes or singular achievements that make for a good and full life, but the joy and delight and contentment we find in all the moments in between. The holiness of now.

III.

And wasn't this the gospel Jesus was teaching and his preaching, and what he sent his disciples out to proclaim--wasn't he trying to get them to see what was right there before them? This new world breaking forth within the old one, like a flower's bloom? Saying to his disciples and anyone else who would listen along the way, This is what you've been waiting for.

And they'd say, What?

And he'd say, This--holding up a mustard seed, a bit of yeast.

And they'd say, What?

And he'd say, This--lifting a child to his lap.

This--telling stories of lost sheep and lost coins and lost brothers. Of outsiders and religious folk and the space between them. How God meets us there.

As they made their way through the towns and villages, dusting off their feet when necessary. To the tables of Pharisees and tax collectors. As he touched people right at the place of their wound and said, This is where your new life begins.

And then with a wisdom only the dying have, when he gathered them around a table and said, This--as he broke the bread and lifted a cup.

And they'd say, What?

And he'd say, This, looking around at their faces.

IV.

So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel.

This is the story we are told. But just before they did, just before David felt the oil drip down upon his head and his life change forever, I hope he looked up and saw just how perfectly blue the sky was above them.

________________________
1 Marie Howe discusses this poem in a beautiful interview with Krista Tippett on On Being, https://onbeing.org/programs/marie-howe-the-power-of-words-to-save-us/

Who We Are In Grief

II Samuel 1:1, 17-27, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Scott Dickison · June 30th, 2024 · Duration 17:08

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Between David and Goliath

I Samuel 17, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Scott Dickison · June 23rd, 2024 · Duration 15:58

Between David and Goliath

I Samuel 17

In our sermons this summer we're tracing one of the major story arcs in the Old Testament and in the history of ancient Israel, which is the rise and fall and eventual redemption of King David.

Last week we met David, the young shepherd boy from Bethlehem, called in from the fields to his father's living room where he would be anointed by Samuel as God's new choice to be king of Israel. But in the process, we were given an insight into the heart of God, a truth that extends beyond that scene and this story and out through all of scripture, and we hope the whole of our lives, that "The Lord does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

We might have those words echoing in our heads this morning when we pick up the story one chapter later with this showdown of truly biblical proportions.

I.

David and Goliath.
Among the pantheon of stories from the Bible that have worked their way into popular consciousness, this may be chief among them. It's the classic underdog story, having transcended biblical history and entered the realm of myth: stories that don't just tell us what happened, but tell us who we are.

One the one side there's mighty Goliath: the pride of the Philistines, a monster of a man, shouting and waving and mocking the Israelites and challenging them to send someone out for a one on one fight for all the marbles--a classic villain if there ever was one.

And on the other side there's David, with his youthful naiveté to offer himself to this battle. His force of character and maybe the slightest touch of arrogance, as he describes for the king all the animals he's slayed while out watching his father's sheep, then shrugs off the king's generous offering of armor and weapons in favor of his own sling and smooth stones. Shrugging off the king! Who would do such a thing?! We love it!

We love an underdog story. We love the charm and inspiration. We love to imagine ourselves as the little guy, the "nobody" who deep down really is "somebody," scrapping and clawing against all odds and prevailing in a glory that borders on miracle. Isn't this how we imagine ourselves and understand our own success, no matter our path in life?

I remember Sam Wells, the former dean of the Chapel at Duke University reflected on this story of David and Goliath at the baccalaureate service for all the new Duke graduates. He observed at one point, We want our movies to be about David, but we spend our lives trying desperately hard to be Goliath.

We think it's quaint and clever, he writes, that David got by with five smooth stones and a sling, but we spend our own energies stockpiling swords and spears and javelins...You've just spent four years of your time and energy, he told all the new graduates, the academic world's best facilities, books and teachers, and a large swath of someone else's money acquiring the prestigious social and economic entry ticket known as a Duke degree. But think for a moment. Why is a Duke degree so coveted? Because it gives you a chance to be Goliath. It gives you the armor. It gives you the weaponry. It gives you the respect. It gives you the acclaim. All the things Goliath had. All the things David didn't have.1

II.

Nobody wants to be Goliath in this story because we know how the story ends. But in the story of our own lives, the twists and turns of which we don't know, we nonetheless choose the path of Goliath more times than not. And of course we would.

Goliath is the path of power and security. The size, the strength, the armor--Lord, the armor! Did you notice the attention scripture gives to Goliath's armor and David's lack of it? We're told precisely what Goliath was wearing, how big it was, how heavy: He had a helmet of bronze on his head, and he was armed with a coat of mail; the weight of the coat was five thousand shekels of bronze. He had greaves of bronze on his legs and a javelin of bronze slung between his shoulders. The shaft of his spear was like a weaver's beam, and his spear's head weighed six hundred shekels of iron; and his shield-bearer went before him.

We're told, too, of Saul's armor that David was to wear: his bronze helmet, his coat of mail. How much do we celebrate and even idolize--literally, do we make an idol of-- security and protection advantage? We want all the armor we can get, for ourselves and those close to us.

There is something to the armor in this story. David is surrounded by it. He's up against it and those around him are pushing it on him.

And yet, the irony--or perhaps the lesson--is that in the end it was Goliath's armor that was his downfall. Goliath must have thought he was invincible. Armor can make you feel that way. All of it covering him, protecting and making his sizable frame look even bigger--save for one obvious spot, right there between the eyes.

And then there is Saul, the old king, once a warrior himself, now in decline physically, morally, spiritually, trying to drape David in his own armor. The boy isn't fighting off animals in the field anymore--this is the armor David will need to prevail here in the real world. All of which Saul seems to offer unwittingly as a symbol of his own downfall. All the accumulated weight of years and compromises and regrets and secrets. All the world-weary and cynicism, compressed into so much mail draped over his shoulders like a yoke, like prison chains.

If this story were a parable Jesus told in the gospels, he might close with some pithy maxim: Be careful the armor you choose, what you would clothe yourself in for protection, lest it press you into the dirt, let it keep you from feeling the gentle breeze of the Spirit against your skin it when it blows.

David refuses the armor, which may be the critical moment in the story. He sees through it. Stays true to himself, stays close to God--and this is really where the story leads us. Will we choose the world's armor, heavy and burdensome, and seductive in its promise of protection? Or will we trust the God of creation, who promises to stand by us, to be our strength and our shield, to provide for us everything we need?

This may be the true conflict in this story, and one that continues long after this battle in through as the shape of David's life unfolds, which is that David eventually becomes Goliath.2 David himself becomes a bully, using military strength and imperial command to manipulate things and people--even leading to the death of vulnerable people under his rule and his own family's ruin. David would, in time, become Goliath, and it would one of the great tragedies of scripture.

It's always a tragedy when we become the things we once fought against. And yet, it happens so often. Success, maybe especially unexpected success, has a way of changing things, changing people. It's so easy to put on that armor, to think we can carry it. Maybe not all at once, but one piece at a time until suddenly we covered in it, and we can't even feel how heavy it is.

III.

In David, God was doing something new: calling someone from outside the normal circles of power to be God's king for the people. A nondescript, un-credentialed shepherd boy from some backwater town. Someone, we learned last week, whose potential only could have been seen by a God who look doesn't look where humans look, a God who "looks upon the heart."

And it was so: scripture tells us in David God found "a man after God's own heart." Someone whose heart is like God's heart. Which is kind of a remarkable thing to say. This is, after all, the hope of living a life of faith: that our heart might be like God's heart. And it raises the question: what is God's heart like?

We can probably think of many attributes: God's heart is generous and kind. God's heart is full of wonder and imagination. God's heart is patient and courageous and loving and utterly creative--God's heart is wide, as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians, so wide as to hold the whole world. But if we were pressed to pick just one word to describe God and God's heart in the Bible, I think it might be "compassion."

Over and over the refrain we hear describing God in scripture, from the Psalms, to other characters we come across, to the voice of God speaking through the prophets, is that the Lord is "gracious, and full of compassion."

And of all the words we could think of to describe Jesus, who we claim is God in the flesh, compassion may be at the heart of it. Compassion literally means "to suffer with." To see another's pain and suffering and vulnerability and to share in it, somehow. To take something of it on as our own. Compassion is what reminds us of the ways we share in this life, how we are never truly unto ourselves. How our lives are all wrapped up in the lives of others, in ways that are as confounding as they are beautiful.

This is how we know God's heart to be, a heart that beat in the chest of Jesus of Nazareth, whose life and death and resurrection is one long, mysterious compassionate act. Which reminds us that compassion, like love, is not just a feeling--a feeling of care or concern or shared hurt. Compassion may start in the heart, but it eventually moves to the hands and to the feet and leads us to real action; to do something on behalf of others.

Here, standing between those armies, facing down the symbol of violence and protection--all that compassion is not, we're told David's heart was like God's heart.

And it's years later when David, the shepherd boy now become king, is hidden, protected, separated from others behind the impenetrable armor of his palace walls, that his heart begins to change. His wide heart contracts. His sense of compassion is dulled, a sense that is accessed through and kept sharp by an awareness of our own need, our vulnerability, and perhaps most of all our proximity to others in their need. And his situation begins to unwind before him.

In the end, the only thing out there on the battlefield between David and Goliath was armor. But it it may be that the only thing that separates the Davids of the world from the Goliaths is compassion. It's compassion that keeps us close to the heart of God, that let's us know we're seeing how God sees, looking where God looks.

IV.

How do you think David felt when he shook off Saul's armor--heavy and ill-fitting as it was--and headed out to meet the challenge before him? Did he feel vulnerable?
Did he feel helpless?
Or did he remember again what it's like to feel free?
Amen.

_______________________
1 Sam Wells, "Five Smooth Stones," delivered May 14, 2010, accessed on Faith and Leadership, https://www.faithandleadership.com/five-smooth-stones
2 Grateful for Sam Wells here, again.

Where God Looks

I Samuel 15:34-16:13, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Scott Dickison · June 16th, 2024 · Duration 16:07

Where God Looks

I Samuel 15:35-16:13

Regular attenders of worship will have noticed that for our sermons this summer we've been staying close to the Old Testament texts assigned for these weeks, which trace an important arc in early history of ancient Israel.

The story starts before Israel became a kingdom and were a loose confederation of tribes bound by a shared story of the Exodus from Egypt and a covenant with the God who delivered them. Over these past two weeks we've seen how the prophet Samuel arrived on the scene as God's messenger to the people in dark times, and how the people, in their fear of the challenges that faced them--which were quite real, but scripture contends were no match for the God of creation--demanded that God appoint for them a king, so they can compete with and, as they put it in our text last week, "be like all the other nations." This is the people of God in their insecure pre-teen phase, God love them. A phase we all access from time to time.

Samuel relents and anoints a king for them, Saul--a strapping lad, a king if you ever saw one. In fact, scripture can't help itself describing Saul's physical beauty. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he, it says, he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

Saul is Prince Charming you know from Disney movies. Flowing locks, chiseled jaw, eyes you could just get lost in. He's tall and handsome and comes from a wealthy, prominent family--he has all the trappings of royalty. And yet in time it becomes clear Saul is not up for the task and we learn a valuable lesson in discerning the will and movement of the God of creation. Saul was the obvious choice to be God's anointed, but God's choice is almost never the obvious one. And so we find ourselves here in Bethlehem.

I.

Now for us today as 21st century Christians, Bethlehem might appear to be at the center of things. It's the birthplace of Jesus, with the manger and the animals and the star, "the hopes and fears of all the years" and so forth. But in those days Bethlehem was about as far from the center of things in Israel as one could get. Bethlehem, in the time of Jesus and all these many generations before, was a sleepy backwater town out on the margins.1 just some 5 miles from Jerusalem, but culturally and socially and economically a world away. Which, one gets the feeling, is precisely why God looked there. God has found a new king in a new, unexpected place. Not only is it the tiny town of Bethlehem, but in the house of a modest sheep herdsman named Jesse. There are no credentials to be found here in this living room, as his sons are paraded in front of Samuel.

Jesse's oldest son, Eliab comes down, and, just like Saul, he is tall and kinglike, and Samuel again is smitten. But we can imagine how as he reaches for his anointing oil, the voice of the Lord comes to him and delivers a truth about the ways and means and heart and eyes of God that extends far beyond this Bethlehem living room, out through the whole of scripture into this sanctuary and our own lives and ears: Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature...for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."

And so each of the sons come by, and each are passed over until Samuel asks if there are any more and Jesse tells him, almost waving his hands in desperation, there's just the youngest who's out in the fields, almost an afterthought in his own family it seems, to not be called in with the rest. David is his name. He's sent for, and when the young man appears, the voice of God is clear to Samuel, telling him: that's the one--this is where my blessing for the people will be revealed, and we're off.

Now, it is true that scripture almost can't help itself and assures us that David, too, is "ruddy," and "handsome," and has "beautiful eyes." But that's not why God chose him! He just happened to be a little dreamy, too. The center of this story--the heart of this story you could say--is this insight into the heart of God, which is that God doesn't see how we see.

II.

In fact, the Hebrew is a little more direct than that. It literally says God doesn't look at the things we look at. Which is an important distinction. What scripture seems to point to here is not how God has better vision than us, or that God is able to see what we cannot--like the way it's said Michelangelo could look at the chunk of stone and see the sculpture that was already inside it.

If this was the case then we might be tempted to let ourselves, not being persons of artistic geniuses, off the hook. But that's not quite what scripture is saying. It's not so much that God sees differently from us, but that God looks in different places. And if that's the case, then it opens up the possibility that we can too. It opens up the possibility that we might one day--through practice and intention, and not just a little bit of failure and missing the mark, begin to change our usual habits of looking, our typical field of vision. We might widen our perspective and sharpen our focus, and begin to look where God looks.

Perhaps we too might learn to look beyond the center of things, the small world of people and places in which we spend most of our days, and see the ways the Spirit moves among those out there on what to us may seem to be the margins, but to them who call it home is simply their life and world. One need not go even 5 miles to enter another world here in Jackson, 2 miles will do, maybe less. Is it possible that's where seed of God's Kingdom in our community is germinating? Is it possible that is where God's anointed would be found?

Perhaps we too can learn to look beyond the surface of things, or the ultimately narrow list of qualities or characteristics that we have come to sort each other by as determinative, and learn to look instead to the heart of things, the heart of people; the things to which the heart of scripture consistently directs our attention. "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just and pleasing and commendable or excellent or worthy of praise, think on these things," Pauls tells us. Look here, in other words, at these things. This is what's important. Scripture is always widening our lens when it comes to people, and refocusing it when it comes to gifts.

add in whatever is said!

III.

In our gospel lesson from Mark this morning, Jesus speaks of one of his favorite images for the Kingdom of God and the faith we're to have in it. The tiny mustard seed--smallest among the seeds--that grows into "the greatest of all shrubs."

The kingdom is small, we're told so small that if you're not looking in the right place you could miss it. But if you're paying attention, if you know where to plant it and how to water it and nourish it, then it will grow and grow and give shelter to the birds.

Elsewhere Jesus tells the disciples that if they have faith the size of a mustard seed then they will be able to move mountains--to say to the peaks and ranges "move from here to there" and they will move. Faith is that powerful, we're to believe. It's that potent.

And yet the poet Denise Levertov wonders if we're also to believe that faith is also that rare--miraculous, even.2 After all, mustard seeds don't grow into shrubs large enough for birds to nest in. They're no bigger than weeds that might grow long the side of the road. And so many mountains remain where they've always been. Not once in human history has a person spoken to a mountain and seen it move.

And I think she has a point--faith in it's purest form is rare, exceedingly so.

But then again, my mother is from the Florida panhandle--the tiny old mill village of Historic Bagdad, Florida, just on the other side of the Escambia Bay from Pensacola, and just a few miles from any number of beautiful beaches there on the gulf--beaches so many of you will be visiting in the weeks to come or by the looks of the healthy glow around the sanctuary this morning may have already been. And so while she has lived most of her adult life on the East Coast and has visited the beaches of North and South Carolina a hundred times, for her, a beach, the real beach must always have bright, brilliant, white sand that squeaks when you walk on it.

Some years ago I learned just where this remarkably white sand comes from. It is mostly white quartz crystal, washed down over millennia and millennia from the Appalachian mountains. Grain after grain after grain, year after year after year, as the mountains, slowly, slowly, move from here to there. And for all we know it's still happening. I don't know how you could keep track of these things--most of these grains of sand arrive at their destination without fanfare. But one by one they do, until after a while there is a beach, home to seagulls and sea turtle eggs and hermit crabs and sand-fleas, those skittering creatures of a child's sunset imagination.

Mountains do not move at our command, no. And maybe that means faith is that rare.

But in God's creative imagination they do move, eventually, slowly. And if we know where to look, we can see it. We can see how God most often moves and acts in the world, which is not in bolts of lightning or eruptions of the earth, but in the slow, weathered imprint of water striking against a rock, day after day, week after week, year after year, for as far back as faith allows. And we learn that this is how the Christian life works, too. What Eugene Peterson has called the "long obedience in the same direction." And how the world will be reconciled to God's dream of wholeness, one by: grain by grain by grain.

This gives me hope. It give me hope somehow each day we are given opportunities to adjust our vision, to look someplace different, to find some trace of the Kingdom that we couldn't see looking in the places we usually look. That slow water against the rock is the only change happens, in the world our own spirits.

IV.

The Lord doesn't look where we look, we're told.

We look at the surface of things as they appear there before us.
God looks at the heart that's all around us--one giant heart. A heart that's so often, too often, just outside our view. And tells us: This, this is the one. Here is where my blessing will be revealed. Do you see it?

_____________________________
1 Walter Brueggemann, 1 and Second Samuel, Interpretation series, 120
2 "On the Parables of the Mustard Seed," by Denise Levertov

A Peculiar People

I Samuel 8:4-11, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Scott Dickison · June 9th, 2024 · Duration 16:43

A Peculiar People

I Samuel 8:4-20

"We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations."

These words of the people of God, arguing to Samuel to have God anoint a king over them, haunt me.

They haunt me because there's no bluster, no euphemism, no claimed piety--just a moment of almost refreshing honesty: the people of God are insecure in the face of the challenges that surround them, and they admit to Samuel and to God what we all want deeper down than we would like to admit. They just want to be like everyone else.

I.

Admittedly, it is a unique situation they have found themselves in when we pick up the story. Maybe even a bit quirky. The people of God in those days were unique in the region in that they were not ruled by a king. Instead, from the time Joshua, the successor to Moses, had led them into the Promised Land the people had been guided by a group of elders and occasionally what the Bible calls "judges," these leaders from within the elders who in times of crisis would intervene, discern God's will, and lead the people through it, and then recede to the background.

As Walter Brueggemann puts it, this relationship between the people of Israel and their God was "peculiar."1 But the way scripture remembers it, this peculiarity is by design. Their system of leadership was different because their relationship with their God was different. They were in no need of a king because God alone was king.

Where other nations worshipped bloodthirsty deities who they believed created humankind as their slaves--a figure embodied by their king who lorded over them ruthlessly--Israel proclaimed a God known by steadfast love and tenderness, who created them in love to bear God's image on earth, to be partners in this great divine hope of redeeming the world.

Where other nations worshiped gods of war, and ordered their society accordingly, Israel proclaimed a God of shalom, of deep and natural peace--of "right relationship" with each other, with God, and with all of creation--and they ordered their community accordingly. This commitment to shalom was outlined in the law of the covenant, the torah, rules for living that can only be described as peculiar, guiding them in how to live together in a community of love and forgiveness and compassion and fairness. A community committed to caring for the most vulnerable among them, the widow and the orphan, the stranger in their midst--care for the stranger in your midst, it said, because you were once a stranger in a strange land, always reminding the people of where they had come from. Not pumping them up with memories of triumph, but grounding them in the fact of their own vulnerability. Peculiar.

They had peculiar instructions to forgive debts--every seven years all debts were to be forgiven, everything wiped clean. They had peculiar laws like the Sabbath that demanded that they rest every seventh day, as a way of keeping rhythm and balance and a reminder that God would provide. And this sabbath was to be kept by any who happened to be in their community--the people who worked in their fields, even the animals they raised on their farms, they were to rest, too. No milking the cows, give them a break, it says! Utterly peculiar, we might say. A God who demands rest!

And you might think, this all sounds wonderful--too good to be true! Rest! Forgiveness of debts! Caring for the vulnerable! But of course, as scripture tells it, the people of God never quite get used to it. They never quite settle into this arrangement, never quite embrace their peculiarity. In fact, this is an effective lens through which to view the whole of scripture: God outlining ideals, setting principles and ordering practices to ensure these ideals, and the people constantly pushing against them. Limiting them. At times, outright ignoring them.

II.

Any this isn't just an "Old Testament thing" either, its a dynamic that extends well into the New Testament and beyond. Jesus comes preaching a gospel of boundless compassion and forgiveness and acceptance, throwing the doors wide open, whosoever would come, you, and you, and you--yes, yes, yes. And then the early church, almost from the time they lower their heads from watching Jesus ascend into heaven, begins wondering, Well, is that really what he meant? Jesus came and flung the doors of God's Kingdom wide open and ever since then it's like the church has been trying to pull them back closed. Grace is peculiar. Forgiveness is curious. Generosity and sacrifice and humility and simplicity are all strange. It's much easier, it seems to us in the moment, to choose something else.

I remember some years back a prominent preacher in one of our country's flagship churches--if there is such a thing anymore--decided to scrap the sermon she had prepared for the next morning which was to be on the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, should would simply preach the Sermon on the Mount itself. And so as the faithful in Christ assembled that morning, she climbed into the pulpit and proceeded to read from the Gospel of Matthew, chapters 5 through 7, and then sat down without any commentary.

At the coffee hour following worship she was somewhat surprised at the number of folks who came up to her--a higher number than usual--to tell her that they really did not care for or agree with certain parts of her sermon that morning.2

That was a little harsh, pastor, someone said.
We don't need that much politics from the pulpit, said another.
Turn the other cheek?
Love your enemies?
Bless those who wish who harm? Heck, Don't worry about your life, what you'll eat, or drink, or wear? Peculiar. So very different from what we see around us--in fact, so often the teachings of Jesus and the even the law of the covenant seem to describe the exact opposite of life in the world today. What's valued, what's revered. What everyone seems to be concerned with. It is hard to take a different path. Especially when it seems like it may cost us something.

III.

And it may. Our world is not always organized to reward the things that scripture prioritizes. I remember when we lived around Boston years ago the New Englanders liked to say that "no good deed goes unpunished." It is simply a fact of the world as it is that kindness is not always met with kindness. Compassion can be abused. Generosity cheated, mercy exploited. And it's not hard to imagine how the people of God in those days might have looked around and seen these other nations, following different gods and prioritizing different things seeming to "get ahead."

Was it that this strange covenant they made with this peculiar God is to blame for their struggles? Was it keeping them behind? Were all these commandments to care for the vulnerable and welcoming the stranger putting them at a disadvantage? How can we rest every seventh day when the Philistine economy is out there booming?

And was it really enough to simply have God's will written down on those tablets for all to read and hear and discern together? That's a lot of responsibility. Not always clear and easy. In fact, it was probably very often a headache. Wouldn't it be more efficient to have one person figuring all these things out for them? A king to mediate God's will on their behalf? Were all these peculiarities to blame for their struggles, or was it like Samuel tells them, and that the real problem is that they're not being peculiar enough? They're not keeping the covenant enough--they're not caring for the widow and the orphan, they're not treating each other fairly, they're not trusting in God to provide for them. And trust is really what this is about.

All these things we talk about so much, all that the covenant commanded and all that Jesus embodied. All that defines this kingdom that we seek and are told is even already alive among us--all of it leaves us a little exposed. There is no getting around this, it's simply what happens when you open yourself to others. And so living a life before God can only be rooted in trust.

Trust that on balance kindness will beget kindness. Generosity will beget generosity. Compassion will lead to more compassion, mercy to more mercy, one forgiven transgression will lead to another and then another until finally--though we'll likely never know it or enjoy the fruits of it in this life--there will be, somewhere, a cascade of forgiven acts, an array of healed people, a panoply of once-broken relationships and families and communities now put back together. It takes trust to live as if the Spirit really is moving around us and within us leading us, as often as we would let it, to someplace wider, someplace more spacious, where there is room enough for everyone to live as God made them to be.

So much of faith is trust. Trust that in the end things will turn out how God says they will. It's trust that allows us to risk all the other inefficiencies in the present. And so trust is really rooted in imagination. When we trust, we imagine how things might be different, how these small acts of kindness, how this posture of openness, how this insistence on second chances, and this assumption that people are infinitely more complex and wondrous than we often take them to be, might result in a world far different from the one we know. It takes a different kind of thinking, a different field of vision to see this.

Father Greg Boyle is a Catholic priest who runs Homeboy Industries, the nation's largest gang intervention center based out of East Los Angeles. It's an incredible ministry and Father Boyle is an almost mythic figure, how he moves within these communities, offering counsel and support and most of all limitless compassion and grace as he tries to help people leave that harsh and deadly world behind to start a new life. Some years ago, Anderson Cooper visited him there in LA to do a feature on him and his ministry. At one point Cooper asked Father Boyle how he would respond to critics who say these gang members are just taking advantage of him. And I'll never forget, he said, How can they take my advantage when I'm just giving it to them?

IV.

The people of God were afraid. They looked around and saw every reason to doubt this covenant they made with this God they were only still beginning to know. And we can understand that, surely. Fear is a powerful motivator. Scarcity is an intoxicating mindset. And it may be true that they occasionally they lead us to some efficient solutions. Some understandable compromises.

But so often over the course of a life, heck, a week, a day, we will be asked in so many ways: Which way we will choose?

We will be asked to choose if we will live by fear and scarcity, with a vision of the world that's so small, and a mind that is more comfortable and safe being closed.

We're given this choice: will we stake our lives on that? Or are we willing to stake our lives on something else?
_________________________
1 Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel, Interpretation series, 62
2 Amy Butler, "The Sermon on the Mount is Counter-cultural. That's the Point." Baptist News Global, 2/7/17. https://baptistnews.com/article/the-sermon-on-the-mount-is-counter-cultural-thats-the-point/#.WJ3Yw7GZOV4

Speak, Lord

I Samuel 3:1-10, The Second Sunday After Pentecost

Scott Dickison · June 2nd, 2024 · Duration 12:34

Speak, Lord
I Samuel 3:1-10

As the story goes, the old, revered scholar pastor was late coming into the sanctuary for worship. He was known to emerge about halfway through the service from a door in the back of the chancel and make his way to his chair not long before the sermon, when he would then climb the spiral staircase that led to the pulpit.

But something was different this morning. It was almost time for his weekly ascent and he had not yet emerged from the bowels of his study. Then, just seconds before it was his time--and seconds before the minister of music had a heart attack--the door opened, and out stepped the preacher. He carried himself up the steps of the spiral staircase to the pulpit, where he opened his folder and arranged his notes. The congregation stared at him, afraid to breathe. He stood there looking back at them, his eyes heavier than usual, until he finally broke the silence that covered all of them and said, I have no word from the Lord this morning.

He then gathered his notes, closed his folder, turned, and walked down the stairs, sat down in his chair, and after a few beats the closing hymn began.1

I.

"Now the word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread."

This is the state of things when our story opens here in 1 Samuel. The people of God are struggling. Not yet a kingdom but simply a loose confederation of tribes, under constant threat by their regional rivals the Philistines. Internally, they're a community in chaos. Corrupt leadership, moral decay--they're a people on the decline, rudderless, and close to slipping away altogether.2 It's a bleak state of affairs Scripture can only summarize by saying the word of the Lord--the heartbeat of God's people--is no where to be found.

Until, in our passage this morning, it reappears. And as is so often the case in scripture, it falls on unexpected ears, the young boy Samuel, as he lay asleep in the temple.

II.

There is an archetypal quality to this story of the "call of Samuel," the voice of God coming down from the heavens to address us, audibly, clearly, decisively. And so I remember as a child listening so hard as I prayed in my bed each night for the voice of the Lord to call back to me as it did Samuel. Or as a teenager when the world stopped making sense how it once did, and I felt I didn't have anyone else to talk to other than the God of my silent prayers. And I became discouraged, as perhaps you have, and even a bit distressed at times, when I didn't hear the voice of God come to me like I expected it.

And so it came as a relief some years later--as I hope it has for you--when I learned that this is not the only way God speaks to us. In fact, save for perhaps a few blessed saints among us, it is not likely how we will hear the call of God upon our life. The voice of God comes to us in so many other ways, almost too many to name, beginning even before we can speak ourselves, I believe.

Have you ever seen a child look out over the ocean for the first time? How they stand there, or perhaps you're holding them, and their eyes are drawn out to something bigger than they've ever seen. The movement, the smells, the sounds all around them. Their center of gravity begins to move them toward it. Isn't that the voice of the Lord speaking?

I drove through the plains of North Dakota one August years ago and saw from the highway fields of sunflowers in every direction as far as you could see. Have you stood at the edge of a mountain, looking out over the earth laid out like a sheet? Or seen the sunrise squeezed within the small box of an airplane window? Any nighttime sky when it's clear and dark. Call it transcendence, or the numinous, there are so many words we give to it--the feeling that that is beyond words where we become aware we're in the presence of something holy, something beyond, which calls us to be something more, ourselves. Speak, Lord.

Other times the voice of the Lord finds us at a particular moment in our life--a season of transition or change, where the scaffolding that use to hold us up is suddenly rickety or is gone for good. A season of loss, a death, a divorce, a diagnosis. An unexpected career change, a breakdown in who we thought we were. And suddenly through those fresh cracks the voice of God creeps in as the tug toward something different, something new. At times it may even feel like being drawn, or being summoned by our imaginations to what could be, possibilities that are only now visible, spoken in words we are only now able to hear.

There are other ways. Certain writers or thinkers or artists we encounter, whose work speaks to us as the voice of God. Or moments of inspiration when something deep within us has been touched. Robert Frost said a poem begins "with a lump in the throat." Frederick Buechner said the same is true of faith.

Other times we hear the voice of God through our conscience. That voice inside us that says, That's just not right, or Someone should do something, and often eventually, It's you. You have to do something. It's usually not the voice that tells you to do what you want to do. It's the voice that tells you what must be done.

You've heard the voice of God before, probably many times, though you may not have thought of it as such--and this is the danger of the call of Samuel and other places in the Bible where God breaks into the lives of people in ways that feel so obvious or incontrovertible--angels in the sky, people once dead walking out of tombs. We begin to think these are the ways God only or most often speaks to us.

III.

But maybe most often the voice of God comes to us in the voice of others. People in our lives who are able to see us and our situation and the possibilities before us better than we can. Trusted mentors, parents, or friends. Or if they are not the voice of God themselves, as with the case with Eli, they are able to teach us what the voice of God sounds like, or confirm for us that the voice we hear summoning us really is who we suspect it is, and give us the courage and even the words to answer it for ourselves.

We all need these people in our lives, and this is so much the work of the church. It's what we hope to do first of all for our children: to tune their ears to the voice of God--or as the old hymn puts it, "tune their hearts, to sing God's praise." We tell them, in so many ways, That's it--that's the voice. The one you feel resonating down in your chest. The one where your heart feels full and broken at the same time. The one that tells you to reach out to the stranger and stand with the vulnerable. That voice inside you telling you to say yes to compassion and understanding and imagination, and no to fear and judgment and cruelty and cynicism. The one that says there's always another way, even if you can't see it at the time. That words matter, that forgiveness is hard but worth it. That you never really own something until you give it away. The voice that tells them, that tells each of us, You are God's beloved.

We teach the sound of this voice to our children, yes. But the truth is we all need help hearing this voice from time to time, remembering how it sounds, how it feels. It's why we gather every Sunday. It's why some of us have to dress up in robes--to remind us to listen.

And church, while there will be plenty of times when we find ourselves as Samuel, listening for the voice as it comes to us, there may be many more times over the course of our life where we find ourselves as Eli: the one in the story meant to help others hear the voice that's speaking to them. To receive them, and tell them, Go, and when it calls, answer it. Say, Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.

And then, for the love of God, tell us what it says.

1 I've heard this anecdote told with a number of pastors in the starring role: Reinhold Niebuhr, Carlyle Marney
2 Walter Brueggemann, 1 and 2 Samuel, Interpretation series, 10

The Same Mystery

Romans 8:12-17, Trinity Sunday

Scott Dickison · May 26th, 2024 · Duration 15:02

The Same Mystery
Romans 8:12-17

It's certainly easy to get lost in the Doctrine of the Trinity, or cynical about its origins, or skeptical that it's anything more than some kind of ancient theological riddle that has little practical bearing on our lives today. But the mystery we celebrate that gets lost in the fuzzy math is really very simple, and when weighed against our own experience, I believe, is quite true, which is that the life of God is not so different from human life in that they're both defined by relationship.

I.

Humans are social creatures. We thrive in relationships and communities--we're wired for connection. I read once that the human brain can recognize the face of someone it's met in less than a quarter of a second. Not just a familiar face but any face it's seen before.1 Now, their name is another thing...

But you don't need scientific evidence to know we're at our best and within our fullest potential when we live in relationship with others. There's something generative that happens among people. There's energy and growth. It's one of the great mysteries and paradoxes of human life how in the company of others we become most fully ourselves.

Yet, relationship is at the heart of human life because it's at the heart of all life. Our world is literally held together by connective forces, most of which are hidden from our view. In recent years scientists have learned more about the deep interconnectedness of trees in forests.2 It turns out that there is a subterranean network of fungi, called a "mycorrhizal network," that connects different trees in the forest, allowing them to communicate and even cooperate with each other. When we think of fungus, we think of mushrooms popping out of the ground, but these mushrooms are actually the "fruit" of the fungus. The bulk of fungus lives in the soil, interwoven with tree roots, in the form of tiny threads called mycelium.

These threads wrap around the roots of trees and function almost like an internet of sorts--the "wood-wide web" I've heard it put--a tremendous dad joke. A tree in need of water, for instance, can send out a distress signal through the fungus, and other healthier trees--usually larger, older trees whose roots can extend down further and tap water sources, called hub trees or mother trees--these trees will receive the distress signal and send back nutrients in response.
For years we've imagined that competition is at the heart of the natural world, and yet more and more we're learning it is not competition but connection and even cooperation that defines the deepest, most fundamental levels of life.

Aspen trees take this even a step further. Aspens do not exist as solitary trees. A group of aspens, known as a clone, is actually one singular organism. What appear as individual trees are actually connected beneath the surface by a common root structure. And this manner of living is quite effective. Aspens are the most plentiful trees in North America, and an Aspen clone in Utah's Fishlake National Forest is the oldest known organism on earth, having lived more than 80,000 years.3 It's a fair question to ask, not just for trees but for any of us, where does one life end and another begin? Aren't we all tied together on some subterranean level?

II.

But for me, the real mystery of all this begins at the subatomic level. Since the apple fell on Isaac Newton's head we've conceived of the universe as a collection of objects floating around in air, like billiard balls moving around a table. But physicists now believe the universe is better understood as a field of energy we merely perceive in different forms. It's "a world of happenings, not of things," as some have put it.4 Where Newton imagined a perfectly ordered cosmos governed by fixed laws that were "universal and irrevocable," physics now leans toward the story of a cosmos with randomness and probability at its heart--religious folks might say "mystery."

Our best models now teach us that everything we can touch is made up of atoms and that these atoms are made up of smaller particles still-- that model you may remember from your middle school science class: a nucleus made of protons and neurons, all surrounded by electrons. Protons and neutrons are made up of even smaller particles, called "quarks," which, mysteriously, exist only in threes. There can be no single, solitary quark, just three quarks at a time, and these little triune particles are something like "the glue that holds all things together," as someone put it.5

But it gets even spookier--which is a scientific term Einstein was known to use. There's a point in both science and theology when our language starts to fail us. We speak of subatomic "particles," but these particles are not "pebble-like" things floating around. The closer you look, these particles are not really things at all, they're interactions. Electrons, for instance, only exist--in the way a book or a pulpit exists--when someone or something is looking at them, or when they're interacting with something else.6 Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli says of these mysteries, "What does this mean? That the essential reality of [our] system is indescribable?...Or does it mean...that we must accept the idea that reality is only interaction?"7 We might say, that reality is only relationship.

What does this mean, for us?

If this is who we are and what every thing is, at the subatomic level--not distinct objects as much as a collection of interactions, different vibrations along a field of existence, then how should that affect and inform how we live? How we think of and treat each other and our world?

III.

Connection, interdependence, relationship. You could say the Trinity is simply the church's way of insisting that the creator is best known by the creation. That God, just like all of creation, is defined by communion--that God is "with" as much as God is "one." That relationship is at the heart of the divine.

There's a certain mystery in all this, of course--just like there's a certain mystery in describing what's happening in the expanse of the universe, or the base of creation on the subatomic level, or networks of fungi underneath the earth--or even what happens when two people touch hands for the first time, or for the last time. And yet throughout its history when the church has sought images to help understand this mysterious and confounding doctrine, they have reached for the most elemental components of life in the world.

Tertullian, the great North African theologian in the early church who may have been the first to coin the term "Trinity," described it as being like a kind of plant, where God is the root going deep into the ground, the Son is the shoot that breaks forth into the world, and the Holy Spirit is that which brings beauty and fragrance into the world.8 I'd love to know what he would do with fungal networks!

The Eastern Church has long described the work of the Trinity as perichoresis. which literally means "dancing around." And you can see this is mo much of Eastern Art, how the three figures of the Trinity dance with each other. God isn't just Lord of the Dance, they claim, God is Dance--God is the interplay of moving bodies set to music. And the goal of the Christian life, they say, is to join in the divine dance, sometimes moving in concert, and other times in tension--both of which, it turns out, are essential to dance and faith. It takes a kind of faith to dance, and faith is a kind of dance.

But the image of the Trinity perhaps most tethered to the Christian tradition comes from one of the great mothers of the medieval church, Catherine of Siena, who imagined the Holy Trinity as a supper to which we've all been invited. She says that at this dinner party, God is the table and chairs: where we gather and what's underneath all that we're doing, supporting us, giving us a place to rest our weary bones.

Christ is the food we eat, that nourishes us and brings us together, the bread broken for us, the cup poured for us. And the Holy Spirit, she says, is the host who's prepared a place for us, who greets us at the door, who invites us in and brings us to the table, who serves us the food, carries the conversation, makes us feel welcome and at home in this dinner party of the Holy Trinity.9 Of all the mysteries in life, the mystery of what happens around a table filled with food has to be among the most fulfilling--at least the most filling.

How much of life takes place around a table? Do something for me: picture your childhood dinner table--maybe the one in the house you grew up in, or your grandparents, or wherever home is or has been for you. Can you see it?

Can you feel it? The grooves, the worn places. The marks of pen and paint from school projects. You can hear the creaks and cracks. You can smell the smells, too--the rolls burning in the oven halfway through the meal--or was that just my family? You can taste the food. You can see the faces. You can hear the things that were said. The nightly check-ins, the celebrations, the laughter. The hard news. The tears.

And there are so many other tables. So many other meals. So many hosts.

IV.

What if all the meals you ever ate and all the people you ate them with, and all the tables at which you sat-- what if the mystery of what happened there in the midst of those things was the same mystery as the God we worship? The mystery of your grandmother's biscuits and the expanse of the cosmos? Peas and carrots and space and time? Grooved wood and creaky legs and the love that will not let us go?

What we celebrate this Sunday each year--what we marvel at even though we do not fully understand, or perhaps marvel at because we do not fully understand--what we proclaim even if only in a whisper, is that they're all the same mystery.

"The mystery beyond us, the mystery among us, and the mystery within us are all the same mystery,"10 Frederick Buchner writes. They're all the same God. It's all the same love. It's all the same food, and we're invited simply to gather around the table, to sit down and eat our fill of it, trusting that the God that holds us together with all people and all things, will be there among us and within us as we do.

___________________
1 As found in Gary Gunderson, Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life, 67
2 "Underground Networking: The Amazing Connections Beneath Your Feet," Britt Holewinski, Nation Forest Foundation, https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/underground-mycorrhizal-network
3 "Tree Profile: Aspen--So Much More Than a Tree," Hannah Featherman, National Forest Foundation, https://www.nationalforests.org/blog/tree-profile-aspen-so-much-more-than-a-tree
4 Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics, chapter 2
5 Kathleen Norris, Trinity, in Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 290
6 Rovelli.
7 Rovelli.
8 Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith, 291
9 Catherine of Siena, from Pneumatology, by Veli-Matti Karkkainen, p.55
10 Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark

The Spirit We Have

Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday

Scott Dickison · May 19th, 2024 · Duration 15:33

The Spirit We Have
Acts 2:1-21

In another story, about a different Spirit, sent by some alternative Christ, to animate and empower a hypothetical church, things may have happened differently at Pentecost that day in Jerusalem.

I.

In that story, the Spirit, when it came to the disciples, may not have spilled them out into the streets, but instead kept them inside, behind closed doors, separate and protected from the community around them. And in that story, the gift of language this Spirit gave them may have been a secret tongue that only the initiated could understand. Or perhaps this Spirit wouldn't have come in the form of language all all--the primary way we communicate and connect with others. Maybe in this other telling, the gift of the Spirit would have come in the form of some esoteric knowledge or insight, or a state of consciousness each of the disciples would receive quietly and independently of each other, let alone all the unwashed outside.

And in that story, of that different Spirit, sent by an alternative Christ, perhaps there is no church at all, at least as we know it. Perhaps the story ends with those gathered in that room behind closed doors, and the gift they received and no one else. And so the disciples themselves are better for having received this Spirit, but the world around them goes on as if nothing has happened, because in the end, nothing had. Maybe in some other telling the Pentecost story, this is what happened.

But fortunately for use and all the countless others through the generations who have called themselves the church, and the innumerable more whose lives we hope have somehow been touched by the church for the better, this is not the Pentecost story we are given, or the Spirit we have.

II.

In the story we are given, as told by Luke, the disciples and other followers of Jesus have done as the risen Christ commanded them as he ascended into the clouds, and have stayed in Jerusalem to await the coming Spirit. They're waiting behind closed doors, praying, and deliberating, and organizing themselves. But one also gets the sense they've been hiding. Word has gotten out that Jesus's body is missing and now there are reports and rumors or resurrection. It's not difficult to imagine that the disciples may feel the threat of reprisal bearing down on them from the same forces that put Jesus to death. So they're gathered there inside, when suddenly, interrupting their silence, from heaven there comes a sound like a rushing, violent wind and it filled the house where they gathered. And as this wind was blowing and circling, this Spirit filled them and suddenly, miraculously, mysteriously, they find they are able to speak in other languages.

They find themselves speaking, and loudly it seems, maybe even shouting--maybe even singing--to each other at first, but no sooner do they realize what's happening there among them when the doors to the house are thrown open and they're outside. No longer in hiding, kept to themselves, but suddenly, and I would imagine, alarmingly, out there in the middle of the crowds that have now gathered around them.

And in this story as we have it, these crowds, too, hear the commotion coming from the group spilling out from behind the doors of this house, and though they have come from so many distant locations, they hear, miraculously, mysteriously, this small group of Galileans--simple fisherman and other common folk who until recently hadn't been more than a day from home--speaking to them, each in their own language. Parthians, Medes, Elamites. Folks from as far as Asia and Egypt and Libya--all of them, each of them, hear in their native tongue the disciples speaking to them about "God's deeds of power"--almost as if all of this commotion, whatever it was, wasn't just something they happened to overhear, but was in fact intended for them.

Some were intrigued. Others dismissed them as having perhaps started the weekend early. Then Peter, sensing that the moment had come, clears some space there in the town square and speaks, for the first time in public, of the good news of Christ's resurrection and the coming kingdom of God, and the gift of this Spirit that marks the beginning of something new and irreversible God is up to in the world. And so in this story the church is born--not unto itself, but in and around and for the world of which it is a part.

But when we speak, in the church, of matters of "the spirit" or "spirituality," or our "spiritual life, I often worry we have that other, alternative, hypothetical Spirit in mind. Something interior and private, something we keep to ourselves and that doesn't have much to do with anyone else. Because if there's one thing this Pentecost story is clear about its that the Spirit has no interest in leaving us to ourselves. The Spirit is, by definition, that part of God that seeks to connect and bring us in relationship with others.

The words "spiritual" and "spirituality" have a tendency to feel squishy, or esoteric--sometimes deliberately so, if seems. So I think this Pentecost story can help us ground these things. I believe when we speak of the "spiritual" or "spirituality" we're talking about those things that make us aware of the deep connective tissue of life and the world. Those parts of ourselves that connect us with others, and with God, and with all of creation. This is the model of the world we are given time and time again in scripture: one of deep interconnection and relationship. A universe created in love and with purpose, by the moving of God's Spirit, which comes in the form of the wind the moves the leaves and the air that fills our lungs and becomes the words we speak to each other.

And so to have a "spiritual life," I think, is to cultivate our awareness of these things. To train our muscles of perception so we can live from a deep sense of the ways our lives are not our own, but wrapped up in the lives of others, and the life we share in God. And in a similar way, I fear the vision of too many churches is concentrated too much on what happens within their own walls and the people who gather here, at the expense of everyone and everything beyond them. In the story of Pentecost we have, the disciples begin behind closed doors but are taken, swiftly and deliberately beyond them--it happens in one fell swoop with the gift of the Spirit. It's why the Spirit came in the gift of language in the first place--language and speech, these primary modes of impersonal connection are also God's preferred mode of creation. Communication is creation. Holy speech--kind, generous, hopeful words--can literally create new worlds.

The church was not given the Spirit to keep it to ourselves--to hide it under a bushel, no! We were given the Spirit to share it with the world. To reveal God's nearness, bear God's love, demand God's justice, imagine God's mercy. The Spirit did not come for us to navel-gaze and celebrate ourselves or our own blessedness or worry about our own future. In fact, it seems to have come to pull us out of these things. And if in the church we ever find ourselves struggling to discern our next step, the Pentecost story that we have suggests we will find it out there.

III.

Which brings us to this group of sixth graders--and I want to talk just to you all for the next few moments, though everyone else can listen in if they'd like.

I want so badly for each of you to have a spiritual life that is rich and complex and grows with you, and maybe most of all is durable enough to see you through the inevitable challenges, disappointments, failures, and losses that are a part of every life well-lived. And for some of you, you may find you're able to cultivate this kind of spiritual life through going inward: through prayer and study and reflection and silence and all those wonderful things we talk a lot about. But even if this journey, for you, begins by going inward, I hope that in the end it will lead you outward. That as you come to see and know the Spirit as it moves in you, you will find yourself better able to see and know and love the Spirit in others, and will then come to know something important about the God that is so often found between you.

But for some of you, this path will not feel as natural. And it may feel for a time as if the problem is with you--that prayer is hard, silence is confusing, and study alone is unfulfilling. But hear me now that the problem is not you, for the Spirit is not one-size fits all. It is not mechanized like some automatic dishwasher--wash, rinse, repeat. There are many paths into the spiritual life. And so for you, it may be that you have to first start outward. You will need to involve yourself in the lives of others, through acts of service, which may lead you to acts of solidarity--standing alongside others in real and sometimes risky ways. It may be that you will become an advocate from others--what Jesus says the Spirit will be for us in our gospel verse from John.

And you will find that through starting out there, you will in time start your journey inward, and see how the closer you get to your neighbor, the closer you are to God, and even more mysteriously, the deeper you will come to know yourself. And however you find your way into the spiritual life, I hope you will share it with us, with the church. With this church for the time you are here among us, and in years to come, with another church, maybe many others. Because wherever path you take to find your own life in the Spirit, the church needs you to find and complete its own; the life we share together.

IV.

Perhaps in some other story about a different Spirit, sent by some alternative Christ, the church could exist solely for and unto itself, and we ourselves could live and thrive and and enjoy lives of purpose and meaning and wholeness without anyone else to complicate it or challenge or even confuse it. But thank God this is not the story we're given. Thank God this is not the Spirit we have.

Is Now the Time?

Acts 1:1-11, Ascension Sunday

Scott Dickison · May 12th, 2024 · Duration 16:54

Is Now the Time?
Acts 1:1-11

Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?

This is the question the disciples ask of the risen Christ as they all stand there on the Mount of Olives just before Jesus is lifted into heaven. Is this the end, finally? The culmination of history, the once and for all defeat of death and darkness, and the reign of God in full bloom?

Standing where we are, some 2,000 years after the fact, this question may seem almost laughable. But it's not hard to imagine why the disciples that day would have thought, "This is it." After all, Jesus has been raised from the dead! They had seen and touched his wounds. They heard him explain the scriptures, how all of this had to happen, how it would change everything--and so must be the time for this change to happen. For God to "lift up the lowly and fill the hungry with good things." When the last will finally be made first and the first last. Now must be the time when God will "wipe away every tear" from our eyes, when "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more," when all wrongs will be righted, all prayers will be answered--now must be the time when God's Kingdom will come to be "on earth as it is in heaven." Jesus has been raised, miraculously, mysteriously, so now must be the time. Please, Jesus, they seem to say, tell us now is the time.

Do you hear the weariness in this question? The exhaustion, and even the slightest bit of sorrow; their own wounds as fresh as Jesus's? Please, let now be the time.

I.

It's a familiar question, isn't it? A question you've asked before and I have asked before: Lord, after all that's happened, is now the time?

We've done the treatments, we've fought and worried and kept a brave face-- Please, Lord, is now the time when the scans come back clear?
It's been two years and three miscarriages. Lord, is now the time when we'll have a baby?
Lord, I've buried her and don't know what's left for me here. Is now the time when you'll call me home?
Is this when it will happen?
When I find my purpose?
When they will finally find their way? When the weight will be lifted?

The disciples want what we all want, which is for God to act--faithfully, powerfully, decisively, finally--just as we're promised God will. But the answer they get from Jesus in response is also familiar: It's not for you to know the times and the periods God has set.


Now, interpreters of this exchange between the risen Christ and the disciples have at times tended to read a scolding tone onto Jesus here, as if he's slapping them down for asking a question they should know better to ask. But that's not how I hear it. I can't imagine Jesus would let that be the last thing he said to his friends before leaving them for good--after all they'd been through? Don't go to bed angry, my parents always told me, let alone go off to heaven. No, if anything, there must have been just a touch of grief behind his words. Maybe more than a touch.

My dear friends, I hear Jesus say with a lump in his throat, I wish I could tell you these things, but they're not for you to know. In the end, you might be glad you don't know just how long it will take for the Kingdom to come...But--and we must always pay attention in Scripture to what happens after this word.

But--you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.

II.

It's such a critical turn Jesus makes, here. In their exhaustion and deep longing the disciples ask Jesus to bring all these final things to pass, to fulfill these promises of new life and restoration and reconciliation: Lord, is now the time when you will do these things? And Jesus--as he loves to do--turns their question around to them: Only God can know just when this Kingdom will come, but in the meantime, you will receive power in the Holy Spirit and be my witnesses that this Kingdom is coming; in fact, that it is already here.

And this is the great tension of the story of Christ's Ascension: Christ is no longer here among us, casting out demons, healing the sick, raising the dead, showing us the way. No longer here to tell us just how to navigate the chaos of these times, or repair the tears in the fabric of our common life. Christ is no longer here among us in that way. But the story of the Ascension is not one of abandonment as much as it's a story of empowerment. Yes, Christ has ascended and left us to finish the work. But we have not been left unprepared or ill-equipped to meet our moment, for a part of him remains here with us. And we know something of this, too.

I think of parents dropping children off at the first day of school--or maybe even more, taking them off to freshman year. Sending them off to begin this new chapter of their life. Giving up some control and entrusting them, in some way, to others. But also trusting them--the child or young adult. Or rather, trusting that something of what you have instilled in them up to that point has stuck, and will guide them--that they will be somehow prepared.

That first day of kindergarten can feel like an abandonment--to you and to them! But wasn't it necessary? Didn't you tell them, when you got down on one knee and looked at them, one teary, bleary eye to another, You can do this. You have what you need. You know your colors and numbers and animal sounds. You know how to be kind and forgiving and generous. You know so much already but you still have so much to learn and it will be so much fun and sometimes scary, but remember I'm not far away. A part of me will be right here with you. And I love you.

Isn't this what you told them? Isn't it what you told yourself?

This is the way of things. It's how anything good lives on in the world: it must be handed down one generation to the next. The younger being reassured that they are more ready than they feel. And the older trusting that God has something in mind, and that we're all entrusted with nothing more and nothing less than our own part to play in it. We cannot know the times and the periods God has set. But we can live in confidence that God does.

III.

Sam Wells, the pastor and theologian, writes that living faithfully in the present requires that we remember we're part of a larger drama.1

The Christian story, the story of what God is up to in the world, he says, is like a five act play. The first act was creation: God calling all things into being with beauty and purpose. The second act was the ancient Kingdom of Israel, God focusing on this one people to carry out divine purpose in the world. The third act was the life, death and resurrection of Jesus--this decisive turning point in the story. And the fourth act is where we are now: the church. The people of God living as faithfully as we know how in light of what's happened in the previous acts. And the fifth act is what's next--the culmination of God's story: life in the world to come.

He says it's crucial that we remember where we are in the story. Too often we think and live as if we're in a one-act play, where we're all there is--nothing before us and nothing after, and so whatever is to happen in the story is all up to us. This may be the story of secular society, but it's not the Christian story. It's what's been called "the tyranny of the present." It ignores all that God has already done to get us to this place, but just as importantly, all that God promises is on the way.

What a relief to remember it's not up to us to be and do everything in the story! To know that the salvation of the world or even ourselves or those close to us doesn't depend on us. That the end is secure and we don't have to worry about sorting out all the details and making sure that everything winds up how it should, because that's God's job. We're called simply to be faithful here in "act four." To be witnesses to the story that's been revealed to us thus far, which we're told will prepare us for what we are living through and living into. Living in the way of Jesus, telling the story of God's grace and forgiveness. Modeling, as best we can, the Kingdom of God--this radical reign of compassion and abundance and peace we're told is at hand.

And the beauty of all this is that, since the end is secured and God holds the future and it is good--since this is true, we know that God is able to work even with our mistakes, and Lord knows we have made a few--we ourselves and how much more the church. So the challenge, as the people of God, in the words of Stanley Hauerwas, is to make "interesting mistakes."2

I love that. It reminds me of the words of Martin Luther, "When you sin, sin boldly, but have faith bolder still." "Make your sins strong," is another translation, "but your faith in Christ stronger." In other words, as I hear it, don't be afraid to live. If you err--and you will--err boldly on the side of grace, on the side of love. On the side of opening our hearts, not closing them. Perfection is a lie, and God will sort it out in the end anyhow, so live as faithfully and as fully as you can in the time you are given, erring on the side of Jesus.

Make interesting mistakes in the name of the one who came to make all things new, anyway.

IV.

How would it free us up--as people, as a church--to remember that Christ has ascended and continues to live and breathe in the world through us, but that the end is secure?

That Christ has ascended, and has left us here, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to find our way as best we can forward into God's future, but that success is already guaranteed, somehow and someway--and so we just need to relax and have some fun making interesting mistakes for God to do something infinitely more interesting with? Where would that kind of thinking lead us, I wonder? To whom would it take us?

What would that kind of assurance do for us in our own lives, to know that the Kingdom of God will come no matter what we do or fail to do? Not to say what we do or don't do in life doesn't matter--of course it does. We've been empowered to do much good in the world, but we're just as capable of doing much harm or inflicting great pain. Our choices have consequences, absolutely they do. But these consequences are not absolute.

So what would it mean, as a friend of mine puts it, "to live as if it's all up to you, but sleep as if it's all up to God?"3

To live each day as if Christ has been raised into heaven and has empowered you to be his presence in the world, but sleep each night as if Holy Spirit is as close to you as your next breath?

To live as if all those who suffer in the world are looking to you to ease their pain, but sleep as if God is working in ways beyond your understanding?

To live as if our questions of God's timing will one day be answered, but sleep as if they already have been?

What would it mean to live as if what you do in this life or what we do together as the church matters eternally, but sleep as if God has the final word, and that word is "Yes?"
________________________
1 Sam Wells: Improvising Leadership, interview with Faith and Leadership, https://www.faithandleadership.com/multimedia/samuel-wells-improvising-leadership
2 Quoted by Wells
3 A good friend and wonderful pastor, John Jay Alvaro.

I Have Called You Friends

John 15:9-17, The Sixth Sunday of Easter

Scott Dickison · May 5th, 2024 · Duration 14:25

I Have Called You Friends
John 15:9-17

This probably goes without saying for someone we claim took on the sins of the world, but I imagine it was hard, at times, to be Jesus.

And I don't mean just at the end, but throughout his life. Surely being the Son of God took a toll on one's human relationships. The gospels offer us precious little about what Jesus was like as a youngster. There's the one story from Luke when on a pilgrimage to the temple his parents lose him--or more accurately, it seems, he loses them--and they finally find him with the scribes who "were amazed at his questions and understanding." I don't know that we can extrapolate too much out from this one story--was he precocious or a prodigy, or something in between?--but it does make me wonder if perhaps the child Jesus was always more at home with adults. If he was an "old soul," or had such a depth of empathy or perception that made relationships with kids his own age a challenge.

And I wonder how it was for him as a young man when everybody else, it seemed, was pairing off and getting married--the expectation and pressure to do so in 1st century Jewish Palestine would have been tremendous. Did he know, even then, the shape his life would take, and decide it would be unfair to put a family through that? Or would having those attachments make it harder for him to be who he needed to be? All the same, I wonder if it was still lonely at times. And what was the dynamic between him and his disciples, close as they must have been? For all that time they spent together, was it something like that of a teacher and students? Mentor/mentee? As Jesus was pouring into them, lovingly, generously, did they find it hard to know just how to pour back into him? He was close with everyone, but was anyone really close with him?

So that final night together, here in John, when he gathered at the table with his disciples one final time, I can't help but wonder if it meant something more when he said he loved them for the first time, and called them, for the first time, his friends.

I.

Theologians often say that in the "incarnation," Jesus took on human life from birth to death and everything in between. Every emotion and struggle, every trial or triumph, every embarrassment or regret, he experienced all of it, so as to redeem it; to bring it closer to the heart of God. And it would be impossible to imagine human life without friendship.

Family has their place, of course--a special place all to their own. But friendship is something different. These are the family you choose, as it's so often put. And maybe even more powerfully, the family who chooses you. The ones who love you because they want to; because something in you speaks to something in them. Friends, in so many ways, make us who we are. It is a mystery of life and relationships how we become most ourselves in the company of others, certain other in particular. So this must have been true in some way between Jesus and the disciples. Did they pour into him more than they knew? And did Jesus need to tell them this while there was still time? Was friendship the final piece of the human puzzle he had to have in place before he could meet what was to come?

This also tells us something important about ourselves as the disciples of Jesus today. It tells us the love we're to share as the church is to look like the love between friends. Or to put it another way, the love between friends may be the closest thing we have to the kind of Christ-like love to which we're called. Love one another in this way, he keeps telling them, keeps telling us, over and over. This is how church should feel: it should feel like friendship. Friendship marked by at least three qualities.

II.

First of all, it will be intimate. "Abide in me," Jesus says. There's a closeness here. Intimacy is a word we often associate with romantic love, but how intimate the love between friends can be. Friends know us in ways others don't or can't. In fact, it's our friends who probably know us the way we would most like to be known. Friends know the ways we have changed and grown through the years--the ones "who have seen the hairstyles," I've heard it put (Or simply "seen the hair!"). The very good friends are the ones who have changed and grown with us, and in the end what greater intimacy is there?

If we're doing it right, church should be a place of intimacy. Where we talk about things that matter, and speak of matters of the heart. Where we help each other grow and change. Deepen our understanding. Where we raise each other's babies and when the time comes, when we send each other home. Where we lay hands on each other's shoulders. Lift prayers together and cry real tears together. I've cried more in church sanctuaries than just about any other place.

With this intimacy, Jesus says there will be sacrifice; we will be called on to give up something of ourselves for the good of others. "There is no greater love than this," he says, "than to lay down ones life for one's friends." Very rarely in life will we be called upon to lay down our lives all at once in a literal and final way. But what is friendship and life lived in communion with others if not the laying down of something of our own wants and needs and desires, from time to time, for the common good? For the good of others, whose lives we understand to be wrapped up in our own. Learning to listen and not just wait to speak. To disagree but love anyway. To forgive, to assume the best until given good reason to do otherwise. And then go on assuming the best anyway. Is it a coincidence that all the things the world needs most right now are the same things we aim to practice in here?

And finally Jesus says this holy friendship of the church will be marked by joy. Joy may be the most under-appreciated virtue of the church--and under-practiced, I fear. If you polled the general public and asked them what qualities church folk are known by, where would joy be on the list? Would it be above or below things like self-righteousness, or anger or judgment? What would it take to be known for our joy, and all that comes with it? If we are not joyful, underneath everything else--all the reverence, all the prayerful concern and compassion, all the service and serious work of the church, and it is serious--if joy is not the soil in which all of these things are planted, then the vine will invariably wither. And if joy is not the fruit we hope to bear from these things, then we will have missed the point. "I say these things that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete," Jesus says. Joy, in it's completeness, in its abundance, is the purpose of it all.

III.

The great baptist preacher Carlyle Marney once called the deep friendships we have in life, of which most of us can have but a few, "friends for the long road." Which is just right, I think. And knowing how much of his ministry was spent out there on the road with this friends, walking from town to town, village to village, spreading the good news of a love that would bind us all together as God's beloved, it's something of which I think Jesus would approve. And it may be a word for us on this anniversary Sunday at Northminster. Life is short, but the road is long. We need others to walk with along the way, intimately, mutually, joyfully. In the end, is it our buildings and our campus that holds us together, beautiful and immaculate as it is? Is it our rhythms and rituals? The ministry and missions? Yes--it's all of those things, in part. But most of all isn't it the people we find here? The friendships we make, that in turn make us. That take us to places and people and perspectives we could not have found on our own. Isn't that worth at least a potluck and a slice of cake each year? Isn't it really all there is, in the end?

"I have called you my friends," Jesus says on that final night. Let the church not wait that long.

Growing In Love

John 15:1-8, The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Scott Dickison · April 28th, 2024 · Duration 15:22

Growing In Love
John 15:1-8

We pick up the story here in the 15th chapter of John's Gospel on the Thursday of Holy Week, the last week of Jesus' earthly life and the last night he will spend with the disciples.

Now, you'll remember that John tells the story of that last night together differently than the other Gospels. There's no breaking of bread or lifting of cup in John. Instead we're told how Jesus washes his disciples' feet. And where in the other gospels the meal is the focus and little else is described, in John the story of this evening lasts several chapters, recording in detail Jesus's parting words to his disciples.

I.

It's a long and winding conversation, which is really more like a monologue. Scholars call it his "Farewell Discourse," which gives it a kind of official air, but the words themselves reveal something much more intimate. Earlier in this last supper we're told Jesus is in anguish sitting there among them. He tells them his "soul is troubled," and John reports he was " "very troubled in spirit" when he says to them, "One of you will betray me."

Jesus has a lot on his mind that final night and his words to the disciples are at times beautiful, at times rambling, but underneath all of them is a deep tenderness that I worry we don't often appreciate. It's there at that last supper that he calls them, for the first time, his friends. It's there at that last supper that he tells them, "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you"--not so different from the dying wishes of any number of loved ones.

Each of the gospels takes a slightly different angle in describing the purpose or shape of Jesus's ministry. In some places they focus on caring for the poor and vulnerable. At other times its the call to repentance and the forgiveness of sins, or entry into the coming kingdom of God. But in John's Gospel, more than any of the others, the purpose of Jesus's ministry seems to be to reveal the love of God in a new way. And it's on the final night that Jesus tells the disciples they will come to know this love of God best and most completely in the love they have for and show each other.

So it's in this spirit of intimacy, as he's searching for words and images to adequately express to them how he feels about them and what it will be like for them when he is gone, that he tells them, "I am the vine, and you are the branches."

II.

Now, similar to the image of the shepherd we looked at last week, Jesus is drawing on a rich biblical tradition here. Vineyards and vines are common images in scripture for the Kingdom of God and the people of God, dating back to the prophets. Ancient Israel was an agrarian culture, and the area of the Galilee where Jesus grew up, even to this day is covered in lush farmland. Here, on the eve of his death, his soul troubled with grief, Jesus looks at his disciples who have become his friends, and says to them, I may be going away from you, but a part of me will stay with you. He'll remain connected to them and they to him, intimately and organically, like branches on a vine.1 Vines and branches are distinct parts of a plant, but they share what we could call "a common life,"2 one that is complex and full of life.

I remember in the backyard of our home in Macon we had a beautiful live oak that must have been at least as old as our house, a Craftsman from the 1910s. Its leaves fell throughout the year and were a nightmare to rake, but in the spring and summer we lived in its shade. And there was for a time, growing up the trunk of this old tree, a thick vine. Its leaves practically covered the trunk and had made their way up into the branches.

Now, in some ways this was a beautiful vine and added even more greenery to the tree, but it's also not good for trees to have such vines growing on them, and so one fall, we cut the vine at its base, and over the winter we watched as the vine died and turned brown. But when all the leaves had fallen off you could finally see the intricate weavings of its growth. From this one vine, all these innumerable branches had grown and wrapped around this tree and each other, so close, so interwoven, that it was impossible to tell where one ended and one began. There was just wild, untamed growth everywhere.

What a beautiful image for the church: this wild, green overflowing plant, rich with life, with branches interweaving in such a way that you can't tell where one ends and one begins, they're just growing together every whichaway. It's a beautiful vision, but in some ways it's also a radical one--it cuts against some of the dominant values of the world around us, things like competition and achievement.

Some have pointed out there is little room for individualism in this image for life in Christ--all the branches blend into each and become one.3 Nor is there hierarchy--there's no preferential place or status. All the branches are defined solely by their connection to the vine. It's also pretty anonymous--no distinct gifts or roles in the community are defined, as in other celebrated New Testament visions of the church, as when Paul imagines the church as a body with different members, each with different abilities. There is really only one spiritual gift here, which is to bear the fruits of love, and anyone can do that.

Like so many images of the church we find in the New Testament and in the teachings of Jesus, this one has less to do with what the church is to "do" in the world, and more to do with simply how the church should "be." Whatever purpose the church might serve in the world is secondary to the manner in which it lives. Or rather, Jesus seems to say that the manner in which we live, which is with love and care and relationship, this is our purpose. This, more than anything else, he tells them, is how they will know you: by your love. The good we do, the people we serve, the change we hope to make, the kingdom of God we spread: all of it must be rooted in the love we have for one another. Later on, the writer of 1 John will expand and clarify this image, and tell us that if we are not rooted in our love for one another, then the rest of it will all be for naught. The medium is the message, we could say: the love we show each other, that grows and moves and changes us, that draws us in: this is the Kingdom we seek.

III.

It's so telling, I think, that Jesus' favorite images for the church and how our common life should be, what life should look like for the people of God, are things like vines and vineyards or even gardens--it is here, after all where scripture tells us all life began. Places of growth and abundance. Of beauty and even spontaneity. Where something deep in our DNA tells us how to grow toward the light, how to take hold of those things that will ground us.

Where we see so clearly the mystery of life and death and the fruit that's born and savored and shared in the time in between.

It seems important to Jesus that we understand the church as a living, breathing thing, and so like all living things it will, it must, even, continue to grow, which is to change in a kind of continuity. In this way the garden perpetuates itself, always becoming something new, but rooted in what has come before. Seeds are nurtured with care until they're strong enough to take up roots in their own soil. The garden bears fruit, the fruit is eaten and shared and this fruit holds the seed for the next generation. The seasons change and the process begins again--it's the most natural thing in the world for a plant to grow and yet ask a child if there is anything more mysterious than a simple shoot of green finding it's way up from a pile of warm dirt.

And in the same way, is there anything more miraculous than a group of people coming together, covenanting with one another to share their lives with each other, their time, their gifts, their prayers--their voices? Tell me where else people from different generations sing together. In fact, tell me where else people sing together at all?!

Where else do we covenant to bless each other's children and grandchildren, and watch as they grow into children and then teenagers, and adults that we send out into the world. Or where people feed each other in so many different ways. Where we commit to learn and to grow--tell me where else this kind of growth happens. This is how I understand the "pruning" of which Jesus speaks. Ask any gardener and they'll tell you pruning is for the health of the plant, a tending-to, a trimming back and taking in for the sake of new growth, more abundance, so that each branch may bear all the fruit it can. Doesn't a church of any depth commit to do this for each other, to encourage this kind of new growth, the kind of abundance that can only happen over the long haul?

I remember years ago when we were forming a new Sunday school class for young adults, one of the couples we invited to be a part asked, "Now is this going to be a class we age out of after a while, or are we going to grow old together?" Tell me where else that question wold be asked? Where we would expect to grow old together? Where people share in life in this way, and when the time comes, where people share in death. Tell me where else in the world this happens.

IV.

And the most remarkable part of it all is that the only thing holding this all together, the only reason that any of this happens--for no one has to live in this way, we aren't required to share ourselves so deeply and intimately with others. With apologies to my children, no one is forcing you to go to church, to be a part of this odd and wonderful thing growing on the side of the road. The only thing holding any of this together is love.

No bond of family or blood. No contract or compensation. None of that would be strong enough, in the end, to sustain the church. It can only be love. A love we proclaim came first from God. A love that brought us and all things into existence. A love that has called us by name, and claimed us as it's own, but through a voice we come to know first in the voices of others. A love we experience and feel most completely in the presence of others.

It was love that called us together. Love that keeps us here. Love that changes us and helps us to grow, at times in ways we could have hardly expected.
And it is love that we take with us each time we leave from this place, and it is love that connects us for however long we are away. It is love, Jesus promises, that makes sure we are never truly apart.
________________________
1 The SALT lectionary commentary was immensely helpful in teasing this out. http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/lectionary-commentary-for-easter-5

2 Gail O'Day makes this point beautifully in her commentary on John in the New Interpreter's series, p. 760.

3 Gail O'Day again, 760-761

On Shepherds, and Where to Find Them

Psalm 23, The Fourth Sunday of Easter

Scott Dickison · April 21st, 2024 · Duration 16:37

On Shepherds, and Where to Find Them
Psalm 23

It occurred to me sometime ago when reading this morning's Psalm, the 23rd Psalm, this most familiar and perhaps most beloved of psalms, with it's beautiful and evocative pastoral images, that I don't believe I've ever actually met a shepherd.

I.

The pages of scripture are filled with images of shepherds and sheep. So many of the psalms imagine God as a shepherd, with Israel the sheep. It's possible they were written by King David, who was famously the shepherd boy turned war hero turned king. In our gospel lesson this morning from John, Jesus calls himself "the Good Shepherd," drawing on these deep biblical resonances. His sheep know the sound of his voice and answer when he calls. He leads them, lead us, gently, lovingly. One of the most memorable parables imagines lost sheep being searched for and found. Jesus comes into the world while shepherds keep watch ore' their field by night, the first to hear the angels' tidings of great joy that first Christmas morning.

So for someone who has read and heard scripture for most of his life, and even worn a bathrobe or two and a dishcloth on my head in the church Christmas pageant, these images are familiar.

And yet as a child of the suburbs and in the age of fences and barbed wire, this idyllic scene of a shepherd with his crook out there in the field with his sheep, well, I'm not sure it's something I've ever witnessed firsthand.

But I do love animals. And we always had pets growing up, and have for most of my adult years.

I remember the first dog I had that was truly mine, the first living thing I was personally responsible for and accountable to. His name was Jackson, coincidentally, a rescue border collie mix I got as a pup my senior year of college. He lived with me and my roommate and we would walk him around campus--if want to be popular on a college campus, I learned, bring a puppy.

He came with me after graduation and into young adulthood. Moved in with Audrey and me and endured that first year of marriage with us, offering much comfort, and another place for us to practice our love for each other. He was a wonderful companion--and protective! I remember once during a tornado warning how, sensing the danger, he herded us, shepherded us you could say, into the closet in our back bedroom.

So when he came down very sick, suddenly and surprisingly, one summer, it was devastating. We did what you do. We went to doctors and then specialists. We ran tests. We had procedures. We spent more money than we had. We let him sleep in our bed those nights. We told him it would be okay, believing he would somehow understand our words and not the shake in our voice.

And I remember on what would be the last day of his life, we were at the animal hospital and they asked us if we wanted to spend some time with him first, and we said yes. And so they told us there was some grass in an empty lot next to the building, and there may have been a little creek off to the side that was probably more a drainage ditch. And so we put on his leash, which seemed to be a comfort, and we lead him out there, and he went slowly, until, as dogs do, he hit the grass, and then he had a boost in his step as he put his nose to the ground and smelled the dandelions, those beautiful weeds, and the three of us walked again, one final time in what was suddenly a green pasture, beside still waters. And it restored our souls and seemed to confirm that this was the right decision, that we were on the right path, which is often so hard to see..

And as I think about it now it occurs to me that those green pastures in verse two of this beloved psalm can be and very often are the same dark valleys of verse four. The promise is that because we are never alone, even the darkest valley can be awash with life.

II.

I think about the poem by the Chinese American poet, Li-Young Lee, "From Blossoms." He paints a familiar scene to those of us in the southern United States of stopping at a roadside peach stand. He writes,
"From blossoms comes
this brown paper bag of peaches
we bought from the boy
at the bend in the road where we turned toward
signs painted Peaches.

From laden boughs, from hands,
from sweet fellowship in the bins,
comes nectar at the roadside, succulent
peaches we devour, dusty skin and all,
comes the familiar dust of summer, dust we eat.
O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.

There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom."

"There are days we live as if death were nowhere in the background"-- the shadow truth of this statement being that so many days we do live knowing death is in the background. Not always front and center, but present.
A diagnosis.
An aging parent.
Our own lines and wrinkles in the mirror, our thinning hair and aching joints. A child's nighttime questions about where we all go, if we will always be.

Or the blossoms, be they peach or dogwood or azalea, that bloom for a time and then just as quickly fall to the earth, their impermanence essential to their beauty.
And so we treasure the days when we are given reason to forget, in the welcome of roadside produce, the sugary dribble of peach juice anointing our chin. Or the gift of shade in afternoon sun, and more, to share in this bounty, this goodness and mercy, with another--when our cup overflows.

III.

It also occurs to me, in reading the final stanza of this psalm, that I cannot say with confidence I have every had true enemies, as this psalm imagines, and so many others. This is a persistent theme in the psalms, of enemies circling, always a looming threat. I'll confess these images tend to leave me cold or bewildered. And yet I also understand how much of a privilege this is not to have enemies that I know of.

Many people have a different experience. I saw this week that the number of reported acts of both antisemitic and Islamophobic hate have surged in recent months, of course the result of the actual war being fought in Israel and Gaza and now, perhaps, the broader region.

There are others. One can imagine how many on the margins here in our own communities might feel pressed down upon, even targeted in some way--as if the deck were stacked against them to such an extent that it feels personal, feels intentional.
Or so many others who by circumstance or accident of birth are made to feel somehow "less than."

Ellen Davis, one of my very favorite biblical scholars, says that when reading these more difficult passages in the psalms in which enemies are named and especially those where harm is wished upon them--which, importantly we should say, ask God to act and give no indication the psalmist has taken matters in his own hands--if we nonetheless cannot relate to these psalms ourselves, she says it can be an act of spiritual courage and humility to turn these words 180 degrees and ask, who might say them about us?

I was reading in the Northminster history book this past week and came upon the chapter describing how the church engaged the tumultuous and often volatile years of the Civil Rights Movement in the late 1960s, just as the church was starting. I saw how it was Northminster members, including our first pastor, Dudley Wilson, who were among the first to arrive at the home of Rabbi Nussbaum of Beth Israel after it was bombed by the KKK in the middle of the night. This was just a few weeks after the synagogue itself had been bombed--the synagogue that had been our church's first meeting place.

Rabbi Nussbaum and the congregation at Beth Israel expressed gratitude for Northminster's presence and support in those days, and the two congregations worked alongside each other in many important ways during those early years. And yet the relationship was not uncomplicated.

In the heat of the bombing, our history book notes how Rabbi Nussbaum challenged our church to be more active and vocal in opposition to the violence that was happening in Jackson and so many places in opposition to the desegregation of schools, saying to one of our church leaders who worked alongside him with the Anti-Defamation League, "You're a white Christian--a Baptist, the worst kind for Jews. You've got a responsibility for what happened too. It's the Sunday-school lessons from the New Testament in Baptist churches that lead people to commit such terrible acts." 1

IV.

I think finally of a children's picture book, by Tim Ladwig, where he reimagines Psalm 23 not in a pastoral setting, but in a city, where parks and front yards become green pastures, and puddles in the sidewalk and potholes become still waters. And then a kitchen table where the family gathers each night against all that else, that hides in the darkness behind the window's glass. There amid the plates and bowls and heaping food, a cup is filled, overflowing, maybe with chocolate milk. And later in the bathtub a child's body is scrubbed and washed and rinsed, her head anointed with soap, and then clothed in a towel and held close. And how within and among all these nighttime routines and rituals, conducted in so many houses in so many communities and neighborhoods, and maybe even our own, a simple home is revealed as a "house of the Lord." And of course it is. And I think of how sacred that is. How sacred a home can be. Our homes. There is so much out there in this world--so much that would do us harm.

And maybe this is the beauty, and why we read this psalm in difficult times, why we recite it over the grave, why without even trying we have committed so many of its lines to memory. You may not have ever seen a shepherd. Never held a crook in your hand and brought stray sheep back into the fold. You may not have enemies that you know, though very likely, you know someone who does. You may not have experienced so many of these images personally, and yet they feel so familiar, so true, because when you look, this Psalm and the God of which it speaks, and the world it imagines, are everywhere.
____________________________
1 Quoted in Different and Distinctive, But Nevertheless Baptist: A History of Northminster Baptist Church, 1967-2017. 49

The Humanity of it All

Luke 24:36b-48, The Third Sunday of Easter

Scott Dickison · April 14th, 2024 · Duration 19:20

The Humanity of it All
Luke 24:36b-48

Like many new parents, years ago after Billy was born, Audrey and I started to get more intentional about creating our own family holiday traditions, and so I thought it would be nice to do something special for that first Easter dinner after church as a family of three.

I learned that it's traditional in the Eastern Church to prepare a whole, spit-roasted lamb on Easter Day--in honor of Christ, the "Lamb of God," the Passover lamb, and so forth. So I pitched to Audrey that we could roast at least a good rack of lamb, which she agreed to...until she went online to find a local farm where we could buy the meat, and on their website was greeted with pictures of little baby lambs playing in the fields and enjoying their young life, and found herself unable to order one of these precious ones to the slaughter. I was informed we would have to find a different Easter tradition.

So I combed through the resurrection stories in the gospels looking for inspiration, and lo and behold here are these verses from Luke describing Jesus' first meal after he was raised from the dead.

I.

It's the evening of the resurrection and the disciples are about to sit down at the table together for supper. Earlier that morning the women had found the tomb empty and in the hours since there have been reports of the risen Christ appearing to Simon and then two others who met him on the road and invited him in, where he appeared to them in the breaking of bread.

Now around this table, which may well have been the table where he shared his last meal with them, the risen Christ again appears out of nowhere, and then, as Luke puts it--and this has become one of my favorite verses in all of scripture: While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, "Do you have anything to eat?"

Still startled and dumbfounded, someone hands him a piece of broiled fish, and he takes it and eats it in front of them, and when he's finished, opens to them the scriptures, explaining how all of this had been foretold, how it had to happen, and the Dickison family arrived at their traditional Easter dinner of fish, all the better if shared with an unexpected guest.

I don't know that Luke intended this resurrection encounter between the disciples and the risen Christ to be funny, exactly, but he clearly meant it to be human, and so I think humor is on the table, so to speak.

II.

First the disciples, human as ever in this story. Each of the gospels affirm that when the risen Christ appeared to Mary and the disciples and others, they didn't recognize it was him. And even when they do see that it's him, they don't know what's going on or how to feel about it, and certainly not what it all means. And in some ways this seems to be a continuation of who the gospels describe the disciples to be throughout Jesus's ministry: well-meaning, sure, but ultimately a little bumbling and simply unable to comprehend who Jesus is or what's happening around them.

And that may be true. But when I imagine these first resurrection encounters recorded in the gospels, and how it must have been to see this one who just days before had been crucified, and whose body had been wrapped and tucked inside a tomb, suddenly and mysteriously standing before them--how could they be anything but exactly what each of the gospels says they were: some confused combination of terror and amazement. Or as Luke puts it, some mixture of "joy and disbelieving and wonder." Of course they were.

Isn't that how it is when we brush up against the holy? Ot when we're ambushed by the transcendent? We don't know just how to feel.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, calls this the "blurriness of joy."1 Pain can be precise, he says. Even young children can tell you just how their pain feels: it's a sharp pain, a burning pain. This one throbs, this one gnaws, it's here, right here. But joy somehow blurs everything. What words do we have to describe our wedding day or the birth of a child, or standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or hearing news so good it seems impossible:
--The tumor is gone
--I can hear two two-heartbeats
Blurry joy.

I was taken by William Shatner, of Star Trek fame, and what he said, or tried to say, upon coming back to earth from a flight on Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin spacecraft just a few years ago.

I quote: "The covering of blue was...the sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around us...And then suddenly you shoot through it all...as though you whip...a sheet off you when you're asleep, and you're looking into blackness, into black ugliness, and you look down, there's the blue down there, and the black up there and it's just... there is Mother Earth and comfort, and there is -- is there death? I don't know...Is that the way death is?...I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now, I don't want to lose it."2

Joy and disbelieving and wonder...

The gospel writers are in agreement that the first response to the resurrection by those nearest to it was not some static "belief," but a dynamic combination of amazement and not knowing, and joy at what could be. And this is still probably the most honest reaction to the resurrection.3

Some measure of awe and wonder and imagination is critical to faith.

They open us and keep us open, so we can continue to be attentive to what new thing God is doing, now. Or what God might do. If God raised Jesus from the dead, what else might God be capable of? What new alternative have we not considered? What healing, what recovery, what forgiveness? What other tomb might we find emptied?

This is the real challenge when we have these experiences of transcendence: to hold onto that feeling, that sensation we "hope never to recover from," so our faith can stay a living, breathing thing. Which is not only what the disciples of course were in that moment, but what the gospels want us to know Jesus is too.

III.

As in the Gospel of John last week, here in Luke, Jesus wants the disciples to know it is really him standing before them, in the flesh. It was important to say that he was not some kind of disembodied spirt or ghost, but a living, breathing person again. He shows them the wounds in his hands and his side. He says, Come, touch me and see. Of course, Luke takes it a little farther and says Jesus ate something in their presence--apparently it was widely known even back then that ghosts can't eat!

The message it seems we're to receive in these things is two-fold. First, as we said last week: there is a continuation from crucifixion to resurrection. The promise of resurrection is not that things will return to how they were before. The promise is that life can continue despite whatever has happened. If even the risen Christ still has wounds then so can we, in our own healing.

And second, which flows from the first: resurrection faith is not simply a matter of the spirit and life in the world to come, but a matter of the body and the life we live in it now, in this world.

Resurrection faith, we learn, is not merely a set of beliefs or moral principals; it has flesh and bones on it. Whatever teachings and instruction we receive from scripture or the life of Jesus--whatever we believe about the resurrection and what it means for life in the world to come--doesn't mean a thing if it doesn't take shape in the lives of people in this world. If it doesn't direct us to the needs and hopes and sufferings of others in this this world. If it doesn't inspire or even implore us to clothe the naked, to give shelter to those without one, to make sure people have access to all the marks of what we know to be abundant life in this world, not in the world to come--some measure of safety and dignity and opportunity. If the risen Christ can ask the disciples to give him something to eat, surely this means we should be asking who around us is hungry? Surely we should be feeding them, and see that as an expression of our faith in the resurrection. There is a spirituality to Christian faith, without question. Something that connects us to each other and to God in some deep, subterranean way. But there is also a materiality to faith; something that calls us to embody it in our actions.

The arc of Christian history bears witness to the fact that reducing faith to merely an inward, spiritual thing has contributed to great deal of actual pain and suffering. And thinking of abundant life as pertaining only to life in the world to come has made life a lot more difficult for many in this world. It has permitted us to treat creation as if it were meant to be disposable or that extreme poverty is simply inevitable. It's allowed us to see our neighbors and their lives and situations as something foreign to us and disconnected from the decisions we make, when in reality our lives are woven, if not sometimes tangled, together. And our faith is meant to touch all of it.

And how important is touch in these resurrection stories?4 Touch me and see, Jesus says. Are we not becoming more aware of the real harm that comes from a life devoid of touch? The isolation of a disembodied, digital world? The loneliness of life devoid of community and shared stories and understanding? It's a kind of death, isn't it?

IV.

On Christmas Eve we stand in this room amid candlelight and declare the miracle and mystery of incarnation: that the Word has been made flesh, and has come to dwell among us. And not simply that God would come, but that God would be born; that God would come as an infant, who must be held, must be fed; God--we're told--with a soft spot. The holiness is wrapped up in the intimacy, the humanity of it all.

And so the resurrection comes as a kind of bookend; a completion to what began at Jesus's birth.

Christ standing there in a human body. The same body he lived in and died in. A body still in need of touch, same as us. A body that still needs to be fed, same as us. A body still with soft spots, same as us. A body that despite it all, God has made whole again, same as us.
________________
1 Yehuda Amichai, "The Precision of Pain and the Blurriness of Joy: The Touch of Longing is Everywhere," translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld. Found in, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited by Robert Alter.
2 Téa Kvetenadze, 'Whoa, That's Death!' Here's Everything William Shatner said to Jeff Bezos After Returning from Space, Forbes, Oct. 13, 2021
3 Grateful to my mentor from divinity school, Matt Myer Boulton, and his SALT Project commentary for this and other insights. https://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/2018/4/10/faith-and-doubt-salts-lectionary-commentary-for-easter-3
4 SALT, again

By the Marks

John 20:19-31 The Second Sunday of Easter

Scott Dickison · April 7th, 2024 · Duration 13:29

By the Marks
John 20:19-31

History has not been kind to Thomas, whose story we encounter each year on this second Sunday of Easter. He appears in each of the four Gospels but it's only here in John where he is giving a speaking part, and it's more than just this exchange with the risen Christ near the end.

Earlier in the gospel when Jesus tells the disciples they must travel back to the area around Jerusalem to tend to their friend Lazarus, the disciples express some reservations that this might not be such a safe place to go--and they were right; the raising of Lazarus would put into motion the events of Jesus's own death. But it's Thomas who speaks up and tells the rest of them, "Let us also go that we may die with him." And that settles it.

Later on at the Last Supper, when Jesus describes to them how he must leave and says those beautiful words of comfort that he's going to prepare a place for them and that, "you know the way to the place I am going," the rest of the disciples are silent, but it's Thomas who speaks for the rest of them, saying, "Lord, we don't know where you are going. How can we know the way?" To which Jesus responds, "I am the way, the truth, and the life."

But we know him best from the scene in our lesson this morning, when after missing Christ's first appearance to the disciples, Thomas declares, unless I see the mark of the nails in his hand, and I put my finger in the mark of the nails, and my hand in his side, I will not believe.

A week later Christ appears again and this time Thomas is there. Christ tells him to touch his hands and reach out and put his hand in his side, and says, Do not doubt, but believe. And believe he does. In fact, his response, My Lord and my God, is among the most powerful testimonies in all of scripture.

We've been conditioned to read this exchange between Thomas and Jesus as a kind of scolding--as if Thomas' resurrection confession was somehow tainted because he had to see the risen Christ for himself, as if his demand was unreasonable, or even more than the other disciples had needed, when really all of them needed their own encounter with the risen Christ to believe. Thomas, it seems, was again just speaking for the rest of them, which he had done so many other times. And in many ways I believe he speaks for the rest of us.

I.

In recent times Thomas has become a source of hope of many. The patron saint of doubt and skepticism, granting us permission to not rush into faith too quickly, but with care and resolve. Thomas' simple request to see and to touch for himself, or the idea that someone so close to Jesus would need still a closer look, or even that Jesus didn't give up on him despite his reservations--that doubt, too can be a vehicle for faith. This can be a spiritual life raft. And I count myself among those who have found and continue to find comfort and community with Thomas.

Doubt can be such a critical part of faith. It's often what enlivens faith, what gives faith room to breathe and grow. After all, the opposite of faith really is not doubt, but certainty. When we're certain about something we have no need for faith--these are different categories. Faith only lives in the places where certainty is impossible; the places and times and seasons when we are forced to choose between unknowns, and cast our lot with what we cannot be sure of, but somehow come to know deeply is true. This is how it is with all of the most important decisions we will make in life.

And granting permission to doubt or ask questions or simply find your own way to faith, well, this is among the most crucial, honest, and hopeful things we can do as a church--for our children and youth, but really for all of us.

Do you remember when you were first given this permission--to doubt, to ask questions, to claim a faith that is authentically your own? Do you remember the loosening in your chest, that you didn't know was so tight.

Have you been given this permission? If you haven't, consider this the granting--there is no formal ceremony, no certificate. There's only hearing these words said from this pulpit with all the honesty and compassion and hope I have to offer.

Hope is really at the heart of this permission, isn't it? And trust, which flows from hope. Hope that God's imagination is greater than our own. Trust that given the space and grace and promise of a home to return to, we all will find our way. That the Spirit is working in ways we cannot know.

It's why the witness of Thomas is so critical to the resurrection story. He reminds us what faith is and what faith isn't. Faith can be, and very often needs to be, the hard-nosed but largehearted pursuit of what is true and right and good.

But Thomas is also so critical because he reminds us of who Christ is and isn't. Or rather, how we will know it is the real and true Christ being described to us. We will know it is truly Jesus not by the sound of his voice or the look in his eye, but by the presence of his wounds.

II.

Have you considered this, what it means that even the risen Christ still has wounds?

That Jesus, upon being raised from the dead, did not come back to life unblemished, but bearing the marks of his struggle? That God did not see to it that Jesus's body would be pristine or even scarred over, but is still tender? That Easter comes to the disciples with Jesus, standing there before them less triumphant and more vulnerable. Or maybe the lesson we are to learn is that these two--triumph and vulnerability--are not the opposing forces we imagine them to be.

In fact, it is Jesus' wounds that are the focus of these shadowy scenes from John--not Thomas or his doubt. Jesus even tells us, twice, Look here, and here. This is important. This is how you can know it is me. It is important. It's important because if even the risen Christ can have wounds, then we can, too.

We say through the resurrection God made "all things new," but in jesus's wounds we learn that doesn't mean "just like new." Resurrection doesn't mean, "Like it never happened." Resurrection means, it happened, and here I am despite it. The promise of our faith--that we wait for in the end but can experience now at different points in life--is not that things will return to how they were before. It's a promise that life can continue despite whatever has happened. The promise of Easter is not that the clock will magically turn backwards. It's that time, combined with care and community--for resurrection never happens alone--will miraculously and mysteriously bring us forward, out of the darkness of how things have been, the pain we have suffered, the loss we have known, and into the gentle light of God's new morning.

III.

Doubts and wounds. These are the parts of the Easter story we receive from Thomas each year, and I thank God for it. I thank God for it, because it turns out you cannot have Easter without them.

For They Were Afraid

Mark 16:1-8, Easter Sunday

Scott Dickison · March 31st, 2024 · Duration 19:01

For They Were Afraid
Mark 16:1-8

The poet Christian Wiman tells of an evening sometime ago when about an hour after he had put his "blond-haired, blue-eyed scarily intelligent sprite of a daughter" to bed, he suddenly saw her standing in the doorway.

Daddy, I can't sleep, she said, Every time I close my eyes I'm seeing terrible things.

Wiman says he was sympathetic, as a lifelong insomniac, who used to freak his parents out when he was small by creeping quietly into their room and opening their eyelids with his fingers so he could "see what they were dreaming."

Why don't you pray to God, he advised her, in what he described as a moment of either "great grace or great hypocrisy"--as he is not a devout pray-er himself.

But in that moment, seeing her in distress, he suggested to his little girl that she bow her head and close her eyes and ask God to give her good thoughts. Perhaps to remind her of "the old family house in Tennessee that they'd gone to just a couple of weeks earlier...the huge green yard with its warlock willows and mystery thickets, the river with its primordial snapping turtles...the buckets of just-picked blueberries and the fried Krispy Kreme's and the fireflies smearing their alien radiance through the humid Tennessee twilight"--it must be exhausting to have a poet for a parent.

He suggested all of this to his young daughter, who could not sleep for the terrible things that lurked behind her eyelids, that she would "let the force of her longing and the fact of God's love coalesce" to see her through her fear on into morning light.

Oh, I don't think so, Daddy, she said.

What do you mean, Eliza, why not?

Because in Tennessee I asked God to turn me into a unicorn and...look how that's worked out.1

I.

Each of the gospel writers remembers that first resurrection morning in a slightly different way, each pulling forward some moment, some detail that seems to illumine something important about that morning that even after all these years, still lies far beyond description. And for Mark, that illuminating wrinkle to the miracle and mystery of resurrection is the presence of that companion we each have known in different ways since childhood and in our hardest of hearts today: the presence of fear.

As Mark tells it, the women had come to give Jesus' body a proper burial. They came early in the morning to avoid suspicion, only when they get to the tomb they find that suspicion has beat them there: the stone is rolled away and the tomb is empty. They enter and see a young man dressed in white, an angel we presume, sitting where Jesus should lay, and they're "alarmed," it says--and who could blame them! Dead bodies can be alarming, but dead bodies not where they're supposed to be are even more alarming!

Sensing this, the young man tells them, You are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. There's the place they laid him. Now go and tell the others.

Hallelujah!, we want to sing. Strike up the chorus and let it ring through the sanctuary: Jesus has been raised!

Only in the moment, no hallelujahs were uttered. In fact, far from it. Mark tells us that seeing this angel and hearing these words, the women went out and fled from the tomb, "for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid."

And in the oldest manuscripts we have of the Gospel of Mark, this is not only where the story of that first resurrection morning ends, it's where the entire gospel ends. The book is closed. In later editions of the gospel it appears that more was added to bring Mark's version in line with the other three: with Jesus appearing to Mary Magdalene and then the other disciples, and then ascending into heaven. But in the earliest manuscripts we have of Mark, which itself is thought to be the first gospel written, the story of the resurrection ends with no such resolution, no encounter with the risen Christ, no "see my hands and my side," or dramatic ascension into the clouds. What we're left with is those earliest witnesses to the breadth and length and height and depth of God's love running away terrified, and the final word in this good news as we read it is, literally, "afraid."

In the story as we receive it, Death has been overcome, but Fear is still very much alive. And so we might say that Fear, even more than Death, was the enemy of faith then, just as it is now.

II.

The Bible, from cover to cover, it must be said, is not clear on a great many things. But it is strikingly clear on a few absolutely crucial things, and one of them is that the people of God are not to be afraid.2 The command not to fear is at the very heart of our faith.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for thou art with me."
"A light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it."
"There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear."
Or simply the refrain, "Be not afraid," which I saw some social media post claim occurs 365 times in scripture, one for each day of the year--which is a beautiful idea, but I'm sorry to report is not true. It's more like 70 times, so about every 5 days or so. But that's still plenty to get the point across.

The people of God are called, over and over again, not to be afraid. They're not to be afraid because God is with them, God has called them by name, God has claimed them, God has the final word and God is good.

But of course, the reason this refrain "not to be afraid" appears so often in scripture, and that the people of God must be reminded again, and again, is that we continue to be afraid. In fact, in this battle between Fear and Faith, you could be forgiven for feeling, at times, that Fear is winning, for there seems to be so much of which to be afraid. The world feels more wobbly than we may have thought just a short time ago. In fact, in a time of seemingly unresolvable cultural division, among the few things on which we seem to agree is that there is so much to fear.

Marilynn Robinson, the novelist and person of deep faith, reflected some years back that fear has a "respectability" she's never seen before.3 Never before has fear been such an acceptable excuse for bad behavior or poor judgment. "No one seems to have an unkind word to say about fear these days"...but "Fear," she writes, "is not a Christian habit of mind."4

This is not to say that there are not real dangers in this world, which of course there are, and Scripture is clear-eyed about those as well. The promises of God in Scripture are made in full view of the world's perils.

But to live by faith is to commit to live not from our worse fears, but from our deepest hopes. The divine command not to fear is the command--come what may--not to let our fear keep us from being the people we are called to be. From doing the things we must do. For it to get in the way of us loving, as best as can, the way that we are loved.

III.

Which brings us back to the women who came to prepare Jesus' body for burial, but ended up running away terrified that he was gone.

This would seem to be an embarrassing defeat of the people of God at the hands of Fear. A hole, as empty as the tomb, at the heart of our story. But this not where the story ends. Even when the gospel was written, they knew it was not how the story ends. They knew, just as we know now, that these women, these disciples of Christ, these first witnesses to the miracle and mystery of resurrection, these preachers of the first Easter sermon, eventually found a way to overcome their fear, to move through it, to lay it to the side like the linens that wrapped Jesus's body, and do the hard thing that simply had to be done. And we know they were able to do this because here we are.

Here the gospel of Mark is! Had they never told a soul what they had found or had not found that morning at the tomb, the story would have ended then and there. But it didn't. They did tell it.

And so like a child standing before her parents at night seeking to a way through the terrible things, I find myself asking how?

How did they make it through? Which is to ask, how do we make it through? What part or practice of faith can we turn to, that is stronger than our Fear?

As they were running from the tomb, did they stop and pray? Bowing their head and closing their eyes and asking God to give them good thoughts, perhaps from a week ago, when Jesus was alive and riding through the streets of town, laughing, on the back of a donkey? Maybe. Prayer in its many forms has often seen the people of God through our fears.

But my suspicion is that even before these prayers would have been lifted, what finally allowed the women to speak their resurrection truth and thus let the risen Christ loose in the world, is the same gift, the same grace that allows children, finally, to return to their beds at night. Which is the same grace you'll find in oncology units at hospitals, or around the circle of folding chairs and styrofoam cups of coffee at AA meetings, or in women's shelters. The same grace you feel in the wrinkles of a loved one's bruised tissue-paper hand as they tell you, I'm not afraid, and you don't need to be either. When they tell you, before their final breath is taken, The worst is over, and you believe them--which is the promise, the holy, gospel promise, that we can "be not afraid," because whatever should come, we are not alone.

"Perfect love casts out fear," scripture tells us. But when I remember the times in my life when I have seen this to be true--when I've witnessed and even on occasion felt for myself how fear can dissolve into love, it has not been some abstract or philosophical knowledge of the love of Almighty God that has done it. It has been the physical, embodied love, shown, generously, perfectly, even, by imperfect people.

Did they look as they were running from the tomb and see from the corner of their eye the person running next to them? Did it start slowly and then suddenly all at once, how they stopped and saw for the first time in each other's faces how much they looked like Christ?

IV.

It was the love of God that raised Jesus from the grave--that defeated Death, that recreated life, that issued a final "yes" to the world's chorus of "no's."--it was the perfect love of God that did that.

But the part of the resurrection story we cannot forget is how that love came alive not only in Jesus's broken and bruised body, but those who went to find him. Those who then found each other in their moment of distress, in their terror and amazement, in their fear. Those who made good on that promise of God we are told in so many ways throughout scripture and finally, finally in the risen Christ: that we are not alone in this life, that we are not alone in death. That we are not alone.

And so, we too, whenever we find strength enough to do these things: to be present to pain, to care for the suffering, to walk--or even run--with each in our fear, to be each other's comfort, to be each other's strength and mercy and grace, to simply be with each other--whenever we do these things, there is a little Easter that happens around us. Something is resurrected in this world, something comes alive in the people around us. Something is reborn inside us.

This is the part of the story we simply cannot forget, especially on a morning like this morning, which is that so much of the Easter story, the story of our faith, the story of the risen Christ loose in the world, depends on you.
__________________
1Christian Wiman, Zero to the Bone: Fifty Entries Against Despair, "I will Love You In The Summertime."
2Marilynne Robinson writes beautifully and powerfully about these things in her essay, Fear, from, The Givenness of Things, 2015
3http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/05/magazine/the-revelations-of-marilynne-robinson.html?_r=0
4Fear

Two Parades

Mark 11:1-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Scott Dickison · March 24th, 2024 · Duration 17:19

Two Parades
Mark 11:1-11

Palm Sunday comes as a kind of threshold each year between the long Lenten road, marked by a certain solemnity--worship with no alleluias, a communion table with no flowers--and the action and passion of Holy Week. Like the false spring that likes to come before the last frost, it's a kind of false Easter; remembering and reenacting a celebration on the streets of Jerusalem that, however earnest and well-meaning, was premature.

And yet it is good and right for us to celebrate. After all, while the crowds gathered may not have known how the road would twist and turn to get there, they were right to welcome Jesus as the "one who comes in the name of the Lord." They were right to know this moment demanded a parade.

I.

It begins with Jesus and his disciples and the crowds that have gathered in the outskirts of the city preparing to enter Jerusalem from the east, down from the Mount of Olives. And it must have been quite a scene: Jesus is there, of course, as the grand marshal, riding, famously, upon what Mark tells us is colt, and the other gospels fill in as the colt of a donkey--harkening back to the prophet Zechariah, writing some 500 years before Jesus, who imagined the future king "triumphant and victorious...humble and riding on a donkey." As they make their way, those gathered begin waving leafy branches from the trees and laying their cloaks on the ground before him and shouting, "Hosanna," and "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord"--all signs and symbols from the history of Israel of how to welcome a triumphant king.

There must have been children there, too--children almost can't help but find parades. They must have been weaving in and out of the crowds, finding trees and other high ground to see, some even climbing on their parents shoulders. It was a celebration, however modest, brimming with hope that soon things would be different. That somehow this donkey-riding prophet, who was known to heal the sick, and was rumored to have raised the dead, and who told stories about mustard seeds and lost coins and treasure hidden in a field, and a world that would soon be turned upside down, would somehow be the one to make all things new.

But Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem that spring day perhaps not so unlike this one, was not the only parade in town. On the other side of the city another procession was underway, and it had a very different feel--and, no, I'm not talking about the St. Patrick's Day parade in downtown Jackson, which we attended for the first time yesterday. Certainly a different vibe from our Palm procession earlier. No leafy branches, but plenty of green beads, and I may have seen a few folks take their cloaks off.

Marcus Borg and John Dominic Cross in their book, The Last Week, tell us that from the west that day in Jerusalem, opposite of Jesus and his crowds, was Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, entering the Holy City surrounded by the armies of Rome.1

II.

For most of the year, Pilate lived in a magnificent palace on the coast, some 60 miles west of Jerusalem, but he was known to come back into the capital city for the major Jewish festivals--not to celebrate them or show reverence to the God of his subjects, but quite the opposite: to remind the people gathering there, which could have numbered in the millions, who was really in charge, which was Caesar and the powers of the Roman Empire. And you can bet he would not have missed Passover in particular, this festival that remembered and celebrated and in many ways reenacted and relived how God had liberated the people from a previous empire--delivering the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.

Pilate would have been on horseback, or perhaps in a chariot pulled by many steeds--no donkeys in sight. Around him a cavalry of horses, soldiers in full battle gear, helmets, shields, breastplates of metal, weapons in hand. The sound of hundreds of feet marching in step, horns and drums thundering through the town and across the hillsides--a breathtaking, and deliberately overwhelming display of imperial glory and power and domination--and theology. After all, Caesar was not only ruler, but claimed to be the Holy Son of God.

All of which puts the parade Jesus had planned in much starker relief. This was not simply a parade but a kind of demonstration, counter to the parade everyone knew was happening on the other side of town. A rival parade, led by a very different king, telling a very different story of a very different kingdom.

On the one side of the city was Pontius Pilate and his uniformed legions embodying the kingdom of Rome. And on the other side was Jesus and his humble, barefoot followers, embodying, in ways as subversive as they are confrontational, the Kingdom of God. A kingdom built not on violence and fear and domination, but on humility, peace, and laughter.

Both Kingdoms, both visions, laid out there as plain as day. And the question for the people around them would have been clear: Whose parade will you join?

And you can imagine for those in Jerusalem watching this scene unfold, this question, on some level, would have been laughable. Given the choice between the two, who in their right mind would hitch their cart to this peasant's donkey? We like underdog stories--David and Goliath, Harry Potter and Voldemort, heck, we're in the middle of March Madness; this is the season for underdogs!--but we tend to like them in the Old Testament, or in fairy tales or sporting events, not when we're planning for retirement or buying a home, or in need of medical care. No, then we're very much for the proven commodity, the established neighborhood, and the board certified physician. No one wants an underdog doctor.

On a certain level, Jesus' affront to the empire was ridiculous. But it was no more so than the rest of the gospel he was preaching: Love your enemies? Pray for those who persecute you?--not just tolerate them, or try to avoid them, but think of how you can best pray for them. Sell all you have and give it to the poor, then come follow me? Deny yourself and pick up your cross? Do not worry about your life?

There's a certain absurdity to each of these things. They challenge the world as we know it be, the life that deep down we would want for our children. Taken as a whole, these teachings of Jesus offer a vision so remarkably different but so surprisingly life-giving that they offer us a glimpse, as someone put it, of this "odd new creation breaking forth in the world," that we call the kingdom of God.2

Put another way, Jesus takes the myths of the world, the stories and assumptions and conventional wisdoms, the foundations that lie beneath so much of what we know and do, and offers, instead, parable.

III.

Parable, the gospels tell us, was Jesus's most enduring tool for teaching. And the goal of parable is to offer an alternative vision of the world. To illuminate through short, potent, surprising story what is possible.

The word parable in Greek means "to hold two things up beside each other"--it shares a root with the word parabola, the u-shaped curve that results in two divergent lines you remember from high school Trigonometry. In his parables Jesus would hold two things up side by side for his listeners so they could see the difference. On one hand there the way of the world--all those things we come to learn in so many ways over the course of a lifetime that take on a certain inevitability: the zero-sum way of winners and losers, of might makes right, the way of shame. Even the common sense way of tit of tat, an eye for an eye, of getting what we deserve.

This is the prodigal son sitting filthy and despondent in the pig pen wondering how it had come this far, and if his father will let him come home, not as his son--that would be absurd--but as one of the hired hands. This is the most he could imagine, probably more than was possible. The way of the world.

And on the other hand, there is the way of God. A way so ridiculous, so surprising and even offensive, it could never be true. This is the father looking over his shoulder to the hillside each day, and sitting by the window at night, imagining he's seen his son on the horizon. And when he finally beholds the silhouette of his son returning home, running out into the middle of the road and embracing him, face red with tears, and then calling for a celebration in his honor. This is a different parade, of a different kingdom, both held up beside each other. It couldn't be true, until suddenly it is.

There in the streets of Jerusalem, nearing the end of his ministry, Jesus doesn't tell the crowds gathered around him another parable, he invites them into one. Against that parade happening on that other side of the city--a statement of "the way things are" if there ever was one; a world of domination and fear and death--he lifts up an alternative vision of how things could be. How our hearts, deep down, tell us they should be. How scripture tells us, one day, they will be. A world of peace in the end, and of compassion in the present, and new life that--if we look--is always springing up from the ground.

There are plenty of times, I think we can admit, when we choose that other parade. Life is long and the world is complicated and dangerous, the distractions and temptations are many. One way we know the story we tell this week is true is that many within the crowds who joined Jesus on Sunday by Friday would have found a different parade to join.

But the most important decisions we make in life are not made once and for all, but over time, and in the long run, more often than not, incrementally, in decisions that after a time don't feel like decisions.

And so we pick up our palms whenever we choose patience and understanding over rash judgment or hostility. When we sit with a question instead of rushing for an answer. Or when we look at the world in it's complexity and mystery, and wonder if there is more to it than we can see now; if maybe death is not the end; if may God really does have something more in mind, for the world, for you, for the people you love. And then we start living and loving and grieving as if that were true.

We lay our cloaks on the ground whenever we consider that all people are children of God, and ask what harm it would be to love them just as they are? Or whenever we put the concerns of others equal to or even over our own--when we realize there's really no such thing as other people's children, or water or health, and begin to see the ways our lives cannot help but be wrapped up in each other's, whether we share a fence, a zip code, a community, a country, a world. Of course we do.

We shout Hosanna when we choose engagement over passive acceptance, or when we say enough is enough, and find strength enough to put something of ourselves on the line.

Choices that don't always feel like choices. Parades that don't feel like parades. Just one path taken over another, and then another, and another, that over time amounts to a life lived walking, with others, in a certain direction.

IV.

And the hard part of this story we have thrust ourselves into this morning and will tell in so many ways for the rest of this week, is that for a time, the other parade wins. This week ends with Jesus in the tomb, and us thinking that fear is stronger than love, that death really is the end, and that nobody remembers your name.

But one thing that does separate us from the crowds that gathered back then, is that we know what begins with Caesar's myth finally ends a week from today in God's parable: God's vision for the world that seems so good, so impossible, that it cannot be, until suddenly it is.

Like bursts of green against brown stalks, like first light breaking through cold darkness, like a gasp of air--suddenly, mysteriously, miraculously--filling empty lungs.
__________________
1Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan outline this story in their wonderful book, The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Final Days in Jerusalem, which helped shape this sermon.
2 Charles L. Campbell, Principalities, Powers, and Fools: Does Preaching Make an Ethical Difference?, Homiletic: The Journal of the Academy of Homiletics, published 11/13/2008

Upon the Heart

Jeremiah 31:31-34, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Scott Dickison · March 17th, 2024 · Duration 16:07

Upon the Heart
Jeremiah 31:31-34

Much of the book of Jeremiah has to do with the time leading up to and immediately following the sacking of Jerusalem by the armies of Babylon, some nearly 600 years before the birth of Christ. It's uncompromising, with prophecies of the coming disaster, followed by scathing interpretations of why all these calamities have fallen upon the people.

But tucked here near the end of the book, there are a few chapters with a decidedly different feel. These chapters, from which our lesson today comes, are often collectively called the "Book of Hope." They seem to have been written a little further down the road following the exile, as the acute trauma of that world-shattering event has given way to the reality that home as they know it is gone and will never be again. And so Jeremiah turns from his prophecies of destruction and takes on a posture of compassion and hope for the future.

Speaking from the midst of exile, Jeremiah assures the people that despite all that has happened, God is still with them, and though it will take longer than they would want, God will bring them home.

And as part of this return, Jeremiah assures them that God will establish "a new covenant" with them. And this covenant which is to come won't be like the old covenant, which was written on stone so that it could break and crumble or be looted by their enemies. This new covenant will be written upon their hearts.

The promise is that after this long season of exile and loss and bitterness, God's love and presence will be as close to them as that warm, constant beating in their chest.

I.

Pain and loss and trauma can write many things upon our hearts. They can write fear or hopelessness about the future. They can write cynicism or distrust, anxiety or distress. The prophet tells the people that in the season to come, in their healing, God will write something new upon their hearts: a covenant, a promise of love and shelter and return. A promise that God is with them even through their worst disasters. A promise of home.

And this promise is still good. It was good for the people of Judah in their exile, who did return home some 80 years after they were taken away. And it has been good for every generation of God's people since, and it is good for all of us who will at one point or another--maybe even more than one--find ourselves far from home; the things or the beliefs or the people that once grounded us suddenly gone. Exile comes in many forms.

And the good news is that we don't have to wait until it befalls us for God to take our broken hearts and write something new upon them. This is something, with the help of God and a community of faith, we can do now. In fact, it is something we're doing right now, together in this hour of worship.

II.

There's an old story in Judaism reflecting on this passage, of a rabbi who always told his people that if they studied the Torah, it would put the word of God upon their hearts. After some time, one of them asked, "Rabbi, why upon our hearts, and not in our hearts?" The rabbi answered, "Only God can put the word inside your heart. But studying God's word can put it upon your heart, so that then when your heart breaks, the holy words will fall inside."1

This is so much of why we gather here as we have again this morning, as we do each and every week in this hour, and earlier in Sunday School, or on Wednesday nights or other times during the week. To hear the words of scripture so they would be written upon our hearts.

Or to take on the rhythms of the liturgy or the lectionary or the calendar we keep, knowing they are designed to bring us home. It's why we pray together, in worship or in the Great Hall, or any other time we gather: to teach our hearts and our minds and our bodies how to slow down, and be attentive to silence and the presence of God within and among us.

It's why we teach these things to our children, isn't it? There are so many other things, so many other false promises that over the course of a week, a lifetime, a childhood, try to write themselves upon our hearts; that seek to imprint themselves upon us: messages of shame or rejection, of inadequacy or comparison, division and fear.

So much of what we hope to do in our time together as the church is to make sure the right things are written upon our hearts. The promises of God, that are true and good: that we are bearers God's image. That love is stronger than fear, and that life is longer even than death. So that when our heart breaks--and beloved, it will--it's these things that fall inside.

III.

Isn't that why when we stand at the graveside and look down at that hole in the earth, we find upon our lips the words to the 23rd Psalm, and know in new ways the promise that God is with us "even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death?"

Or in our times of distress we find upon our lips, mysteriously, miraculously, the hymns our mother would sing about the house. And we hear in them the voice of God, who came to us through her voice for so many years?

I heard once of a priest celebrating the Eucharist with a woman in his congregation in the late stages of Alzheimer's who he hadn't seen in some time. He did his best to visit with the woman for a while, though her mind struggled to focus, and her speech often failed her. As he moved into communion he turned to the liturgy and planned to read both the celebrant's part as well as her's, not thinking she would be able to participate. So he read the opening words, saying,

The Lord be with you--and as he began to read the response, the woman jumped in, whispering out softly but clearly, And with thy spirit.
And this continued throughout the whole liturgy, to the final, Thanks be to God.

Alzheimer's had ravaged her body and her mind, but those words of comfort and of hope and home had remained untouched, written upon her heart.

I heard Tom Long tell the story once of a confirmation class's graduation ceremony at the Presbyterian church. All the children were lined up at the front of the sanctuary and their teacher was at the lectern and went down the row, one by one asking the children to repeat what they had learned from Paul's great words of comfort and encouragement and strength in the eighth chapter of Romans: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not 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.

And so the teacher asked the first little boy: Johnny, What can separate you from the Love of God? And Johnny responded on cue: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, not 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.

And Johnny had a big smile and Johnny's parents were so proud and the teacher nodded with approval, and then went to on to the little girl next to him. Sarah, What can separate you from the love of God? And Sarah, on cue, said the same as Johnny: Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, and so on.

And this continued with each child in the class. One by one they recited these lofty words from Paul. But as they got closer to the end, the congregation started to get a little uneasy because the final child to be quizzed in the class was Rachel. Rachel was a sweet child, with a bright and beautiful smile. But Rachel was also a child with Down Syndrome, and the church knew she would not likely be able to memorize and repeat these words from Paul. And so the tension built until finally the teacher came to Rachel and said to her, Rachel, what can separate you from the love of God? And Rachel, with that big, beautiful smile on her face, looked up at her teacher and then out to the congregation, and with a confidence that would make the Apostle Paul himself blush, said: Nothing!2

One word, written upon her heart.

Hobson United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tennessee is a diverse congregation that includes, I'm told, "people with power and PhDs and folks who have never gone past the third grade; folks with two houses and folks living on the streets. As one congregant who struggles with mental health declared, 'those of us who are crazy and those who think they're not.'"

As the story goes, years ago, a woman named Fayette found her way to this church. Fayette lived with mental illness and chronic health issues and at the time was without a home. She joined the new member class, and the conversation about baptism especially grabbed her imagination.

During the class, Fayette would ask again and again, "And when I'm baptized, I am, what? And the class would respond as they had learned in their catechism, "You are Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold.'" And Fayette would say, "Oh, yes!" and the discussion would continue. Finally, the day of Fayette's baptism came. Fayette went under the water, came up blowing water from her lips, and cried, 'And now I am...?' And the church called back to her, "You are Beloved, precious child of God, and beautiful to behold." And Fayette called back to them, "Oh, yes!" and suddenly they were all awash in God's love.

Two months later, Janet Wolf, the pastor of the congregation and the one who had plunged Fayette down into the water and brought her back up again, received a phone call. Fayette, vulnerable as she was, had been attacked and assaulted and was at the county hospital. Janet went down to the hospital to see her. When she came to her room, she saw Fayette from a distance, pacing back and forth. When she got to the door, she heard as Fayette softly repeated something to herself over and over. She got a step closer and heard what she was saying, "I am beloved, I am beloved, I am beloved..."3

IV.

"But this is the covenant that I will make with my people after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people."

There are so many things, so many other things, that would write themselves upon our heart. So many words of pain, of helplessness, of want--so much that would have us believe we are something other than beloved, precious children of God.

So it important, it is absolutely crucial, that we say these promises that are true, over and over again. That we teach them to our children "when we are at home or away." That we speak them to each other as often as we can, so we will learn them, and know them and feel them, so when the time comes when we will need them, we will find that we have them, deep within us. We will find that they are close to us--so close. As close as our beating heart.
___________________
1Anne Lamott tells this story in, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith
2Tom Long shared this beautiful story at the Mercer University Preaching Consultation in the fall of 2015, Chattanooga, TN
3As told by Jan Richardson at her blog, The Painted Prayerbook, http://paintedprayerbook.com/2010/01/03/epiphany-1-baptized-and-beloved/. Original story told by Janet Wolf in The Upper Room Disciplines, 1999 (Nashville: The Upper Room.)

Good News Dark Places

John 3:14-21, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Scott Dickison · March 10th, 2024 · Duration 21:08

Sermon begins at 6:36.
Good News for Dark Places
John 3:14-21

We pick up the story very early on in John's Gospel. As John tells it, Jesus has just kickstarted his ministry in about the most provocative way one could imagine in first century Judea, flipping over tables at the temple in Jerusalem and driving out the money changers. The city is abuzz with this new teacher come up from the Galilee, and among those who found themselves captivated or unsettled or confused but wanting to hear more, is Nicodemus, a leader from among the Pharisees.

But to approach Jesus during the day would raise too many suspicions, perhaps even be too dangerous, so Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cloak of night, and quickly finds himself in a mysterious and at times confounding conversation that our passage today picks up about halfway through.

I.

And it's interesting, this story of Nicodemus and his clandestine encounter with Jesus here in the third chapter of John has been of special importance within the Black church tradition, beginning generations ago in the time of slavery when it was illegal for Black Christians in the South to gather without white supervision. Black church services in particular were viewed as suspicious because on several occasions they had birthed rebellion and revolt, presumably inspired by the God they found in scripture who keeps setting people free.

So many Black Christians in those days would instead gather outdoors in secret, often under the cloak of night. They saw in Nicodemus a kind of model for how to come to Jesus outside the traditional power structures, or even proof that it was possible to do so.1

It's a tradition described so evocatively by Toni Morrison in her classic novel, Beloved, where the character Baby Suggs, a formally enslaved woman of uncommon wisdom and courage, was the preacher in one of those woodland sanctuaries. When warm weather came, Morrison writes, Baby Suggs, holy, followed by every black man, woman, and child who could make it through, took her great heart to the Clearing--a wide-open place cut deep in the woods nobody knew...

After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently. The company watched her from the trees. They knew she was ready when she put her stick down. Then she shouted, 'Let the children come!' and they ran from the trees toward her.

Let your mothers hear you laugh,' she told them, and the woods rang. The adults looked on and could not help smiling.

Then 'Let the grown men come,' she shouted. They stepped out one by one from among the ringing trees.

Let your wives and your children see you dance,' she told them, and groundlife shuddered under their feet.

Finally she called the women to her. 'Cry,' she told them. 'For the living and the dead. Just cry.' And without covering their eyes the women let loose.

It started that way: laughing children, dancing men, crying women and then it got mixed up. Women stopped crying and danced; men sat down and cried; children danced, women laughed, children cried until, exhausted and riven, all and each lay about the Clearing damp and gasping for breath. In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart.

II.

We don't know if there was dancing or laughing or even tears that night when Nicodemus made his secret way to Jesus, but we do know there was risk involved, and we do know that the gospel Jesus revealed to him there in the dark was equally thorny, marked by both ecstasy and pain--the hope that can only spring from knowledge of the world's failings and real evils. But most of all we know Jesus offered up to Nicodemus his great big heart.

Which is an element of this scene I worry we lose sometimes, when we pluck out the punchline from the larger story of which it is a part. You know the verse I'm talking about, John 3:16:

For God so loved the world, he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.

We might say this verse has suffered from "over-exposure." Which is a shame, because it's a powerful and important word of scripture. Martin Luther declared it to be "the gospel in miniature." The problem is that when we plaster it on billboards or signs at sporting events or quote it at people, lifted apart from from its context, we lose something important. We lose the depth, we lose the empathy--we lose much of what might make it the gospel in miniature.

Without the story that surrounds it, this verse risks becoming a blunt object that can be used to bludgeon people to belief, when in fact it's intended to be a word of comfort offered by God's Love in the flesh.

For instance, rarely have I seen John 3:16 quoted alongside this obscure reference to Moses and the serpent from the book of Numbers we heard earlier.

That would be difficult to communicate along the highway. I'm imagining one billboard that says, "Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so was Jesus lifted up." And then the next one says, "For God so loved the world," and so forth. And then another says, "Maybe just forget about that stuff about the snake."

Jesus didn't yell these words out to crowds trying to hear him over the wind and waves of the sea of Galilee, or sling them at a group of his enemies come to challenge him in the temple square. No, he whispers them over candlelight to Nicodemus, who has come to him in his hope and fear and curiosity and need. He says them in the dark. And it turns out that the Christian faith makes the most sense in the dark.

III.

It's like the stars overhead at night. Of course, they're up there in the sky all the time, it's just that we can only see them when it's dark. It's the same way with faith, I think. These things we speak of in the day, love and hope, and especially in this season, life that is longer even than death--they're good and beautiful when it's light outside, when the world is sunny and fresh and new. But it's not until the light fades, when the shadows come, or even when the darkness covers us that things truly shine brightest. It's then when we're able to see them for what they're intended to be, which is a light to guide us through and beyond the darkness. And when we've made it through ourselves, a light to shine back for others.

It may be why so much of the story of our faith happens in the dark.

From a cold, dark nothing God speaks and calls forth the light and creation begins.

The gospels report that Jesus was born at night, maybe in a stable, maybe in a cave, maybe just out in the open under the light of an unusually bright star.

The Last Supper where Jesus washed his disciples' feet and spoke to them of the love they would be known by was not a luncheon, but an evening meal. It was over an evening meal that he would later appear to them risen from the dead. And in just a few weeks, John will tell us that Mary comes to the tomb early on the first day of the week "while it was still dark outside."

In fact, if we were to be true to the earliest Christians, we would gather as they did, not here at midday but in the first light of Sunday morning, in memory of how Mary found the tomb, but also because it was not always safe to gather as the church in the Roman Empire out in the open and in the light of day. So the church would gather as they had to, in the dark.

It's at night that Nicodemus comes, with his questions and his doubt and his hope and his fear. And it's there in the dark where Jesus welcomes him and sees him and speaks to him about the love of God and how it extends to the whole world. About how the light has come, a light that is longer than any night we might know. Jesus knew what you know, what we know, that there are some things that are best said at night, things that simply sound different in the day. Just like there are some things that when said in a whisper are true, so deeply true. But when shouted from the hills become something different.2 And matters of faith, matters of the heart, well, they are almost always meant to be whispered.

IV.

And then the scene goes dark. Chapter three ends abruptly. We're not told how Nicodemus responds to Jesus' words or how their conversation continues or ends. Like most midnight conversations I suspect it was left open-ended. After all, while much can be experienced and learned and known at nighttime, very little can be decided.

And so it happens that we hear from Nicodemus a few more times in the Gospel of John. A little bit later on when he tries to vouch for Jesus and tells the other leaders who are gathering in opposition not to rush to judgement, and he gets smacked down mightily.

And then near the end, just a few weeks from now, on Good Friday at the crucifixion, Nicodemus appears someplace we might not expect. It was not Jesus' disciples, the ones who had walked with him for so long, but Nicodemus, "who had first come to Jesus by night," as John puts it, who took Jesus' body down from the cross. It was Nicodemus who washed him, and covered him in spices and aloes in preparation for burial. And as the sun faded on that sabbath, it was Nicodemus who laid Jesus in the darkness of the tomb.

We're not told if they met again. Nicodemus is not named among those whom the risen Christ appeared to after the resurrection, nor is he known to have been a leader in the early church. But I like to think they did meet. I like to think it was Jesus, this time, who came to find Nicodemus. Jesus, raised and living, but with wounds still in his hands and in his side. Perhaps his breath not fully back in him. Jesus, who found him that first resurrection night, and whispered just the words Nicodemus was ready to hear.
______________
1Gail O'Day, The Gospel of John, in the New Interpreter's Commentary, 555
2Borrowing from from Fred Craddock here in his seminal work, As One Without Authority, who warns about the risks of preaching. He says when God speaks to us, it is usually in a whisper, so in preaching we are really "shouting a whisper." We must be attentive to what might get lost in this kind of translation.

Foolish Wisdom

I Corinthians 1:18-25, The Third Sunday in Lent

Scott Dickison · March 3rd, 2024 · Duration 11:41

Foolish Wisdom
I Corinthians 1:18-25

I can still remember encountering CS Lewis's classic, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for the first time as a child. It's a magical book, in the way this world unfolds before you that on the one hand is ancient and mysterious--with kings and queens and animals that talk--but also so familiar. Children coming of age, siblings fighting and then finding each other, and through it all, discovering the things that matter most in the world, real or imaginary: love, sacrifice, redemption, the common good.

There are too many scenes to name, but the one that has remained close to me as an adult is the same one that gripped me as a child: when Aslan, the mighty lion-king of Narnia, hands himself over to the White Witch in exchange for the boy Edmond, who's betrayed his siblings and thrown the whole kingdom into danger.

I.

It happens like so many suspicious transactions, under the cloak of night, as Aslan slips away from the camp where the citizens of Narnia are preparing for battle. Susan and Lucy see and follow him, noticing the heavy look in his eyes. They follow him to the Great Stone Table, where all the dark armies of the Witch have gathered. She thinks she's won, having outsmarted the mighty lion and begins carrying on about the "deep magic from the dawn of time" that says all betrayers belong to her. She can't believe Aslan would be so foolish as to hand himself over in place of some petulant little boy--and if we're honest, we can't either; Edmond is hardly the sympathetic character! He's selfish and even cruel. Aslan comes forward and lays down on the table, where he is then tied down and muzzled, his wild mane shaved. When the humiliation is over, the Witch makes the final blow and the dark armies howl in their triumph.

But the story isn't over.

After the gathered hoard have dispersed, Lucy and Susan are there at the Table weeping over what had transpired and trying to make sense of it all. They unmuzzle Aslan's body and watch as mice come and gnaw away at his binding. They turn to leave, when all of the sudden there's a loud cracking sound. They look up and see that the table is broken in two, and standing there before them is Aslan, his mane greater and wilder than before. They wonder how this could be, and he explains that though the Witch knew the deep magic from the dawn of time, there was a deeper magic still from before the dawn of time, that she did not know. This deeper magic says that when true, self-giving love is lived out, "Death itself starts working backwards."1

II.

Many years before CS Lewis would write of a "deeper magic from before the dawn of time" the Apostle Paul would write to the church in Corinth about the "wisdom of God" that makes foolish the "wisdom of the world." "God's foolishness," he writes, "is wiser than human wisdom, and God's weakness is wiser than human strength."

Of course, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe draws heavily on the story of Jesus, and the scene at the Stone Table is a retelling of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection. And that this story of CS Lewis meant for children would be such a powerful vehicle for the story of the cross tells us something important about the cross and children.

Children, much more than adults, have a sense of this "deeper magic," or this "foolish wisdom," if you like. It seems to come innately to them, which means of course, it comes innately to us. We see it in the way children trust. The way they feel. The way they stand open to learn and receive the world. How they still expect the best of others and can speak plainly about what is good and right, what hurts and what can make it better.

Jesus knew all of this, of course. It's why children never seem to be far from him in his ministry. It's why he tells the disciples they need to be like children, and that "heaven belongs to such as them." Children seem to have something figured out that we don't when it comes to the Kingdom of God and what it takes to find it. Or perhaps they still have something we have lost.

Perhaps it's that children have not yet been taught to suppress their imaginations, which is our natural sense to the divine. For a child, the world itself is full of magic--this is why so many enchanted forests show up in children's literature. For a child, the world itself is enchanted. The world itself is charged with possibility and potential--it's alive in so many small and wonderful ways, ways so small that children, being closer to the ground, can see much easier.

I remember a few years ago I had the boys outside on a day like we had here yesterday, when it was unseasonably warm in the middle of winter. The other two were running around together and I brought Mac out with us and placed him down on the ground in the backyard--he was just a baby. Our grass was brown and dormant from the winter with a smattering of fallen leaves, but for him it was magic.

And I watched as his eyes looked down and he carefully extended his arm and his hand felt the cool grass, and he took a handful of dried leaves and listened as they crackled in his fingers. And a while later, as I was working on the fence that needed mending, I looked and saw he had crawled over to our red and yellow Little Tikes car that everyone has or has had. He'd pulled himself up on it and found water collected in the grooved space behind the seat and he put his hand in it and was lightly splashing the water, his eyes locked on what he was doing, his mind churning to take in all the newness he was seeing and feeling--this whole world he was coming to know.

I don't know what a prayer is, writes Mary Oliver.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to
kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed...

Which makes me wonder if I had witnessed my son's first prayer.
Which makes me wonder if I know what prayer is at all.

III.

And if the grass in winter is worthy of that kind of surprise and wonder, how much more a person? Anne Lamott tells a story about an eight year old boy whose sister was diagnosed with a blood disease. He was told that without a blood transfusion she would die. His parents told him his blood was probably compatible with hers, and, if so, he could be the donor. They asked if he could test his blood and he agreed, and it turned out they were a match. So they asked him if he would be willing to give a pint of his blood to his sister so she could live. He told them he would have to think about it overnight.

He came to his parents the next day and told them he was willing to give his sister his blood. So they took him to the hospital where he was laid out on a gurney next to his little sister, they were both hooked up to IVs. A nurse drew a pint of blood from the boy, which was then dripped into his sister. The little boy lay there until a doctor came to check on him and ask him how he was doing. The boy opened his eyes and asked the doctor, "How soon until I start to die?"2

IV.

Where is the one who is wise? Paul asks. Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

Has not God revealed the deeper magic from before the dawn of time that teaches us what is finally true and good, something so true and good that with it and through it, death itself starts working backwards?
And wasn't there a time when we knew it by heart?
What would it take to relearn the way there?
And where are the wise ones who could lead us?
________________
1CS Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Ch. 13
2Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 205

Impossible, Too

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

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

Impossible, Too
Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

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.
____________________
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

God of the Wilderness
Mark 1:9-15

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

To Be Determined...
Isaiah 40:21-31, Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Mark 1:29-39

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

A Healing Word
Mark 1:21-28

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 his 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

Leaving Our Nets
Mark 1:14-20

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

The Most Beautiful Word
Mark 1:4-11

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

Holding Together
Luke 2:22-40

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

Courage and Love
Luke 1:26-38

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 17th, 2023 · Duration 1:01

Sermon begins at 33:46

Like Those Who Dream
Psalm 126
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

Now. Here. This.
Mark 13:24-37

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

Where Christ Is
Matthew 25:31-46

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

Risking Good News
Matthew 25:14-30

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

Prepared By Hope
Matthew 25:1-13

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

Where the Church Is
Matthew 5:1-12

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

Harmonic Love
Matthew 22:34-46
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

The Things That Are God's
Matthew 22:15-22

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, p. 61-65
2Borg and Crossan again, 63

Jesus Is a Banquet, Not a Courtroom

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

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

Jesus Is a Banquet Not a Courtroom
Matthew 22:1-14

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 theTalmudlearn 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 onAll Things Considered ByAri 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

The Fruits of the Kingdom
Matthew 21:33-46

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

By What Authority?
Matthew 21:23-32

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

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like
Matthew 20:1-16

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

A Different Kind of People
Matthew 18:21-35

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

Where Two or Three
Matthew 18:15-20

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

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Youth Sermon - Caroline Crisler

Youth Sunday, The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Caroline Crisler · February 20th, 2022 · Duration 5:08

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Sermon on the Plain

Luke 6:17-26, The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 13th, 2022 · Duration 15:56

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

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

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

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

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Lessons and Carols

Lessons and Carols, The Third Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 12th, 2021 · Duration 72:06

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

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

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Concerning Psalm One

Psalm 1, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 19th, 2021 · Duration 15:05

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Words Shape Worlds

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, James 3:1-12

Chuck Poole · September 12th, 2021 · Duration 15:50

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On Theology Chasing Friendship

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Mark 7:24-37

Chuck Poole · September 5th, 2021 · Duration 8:38

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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

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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