SERMONS

Fields and Forests, Seas and Trees

Psalm 96, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 18th, 2020 · Duration 17:51

“Let the heavens be glad, and the earth rejoice; let the sea roar and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.”

When those words from today’s psalm speak of fields and forests as though they were choirs and congregations, they join a Bible-wide chorus which includes Psalm 148:7, “Praise the Lord, sea monsters and fruit trees, fire and hail, snow and frost, creeping things and flying birds,” Isaiah 55:12, where the mountains raise a concert to which the trees give a standing ovation, and Psalm 150:6, where everything that breathes, animals and humans, praises the Lord; choir practice for the grand finalé in Revelation 5:13, where every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, sings glory to God together forever; all creation, fields and forests, seas and trees, singing praise to God.

All of which calls to mind, for me, that simple but powerful observation from the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, “We start with a big story, and then it shrinks.”

The story with which we start is as wide as the world and as big as all creation; “The trees of the forest singing for joy; the sea and all that is in it.” A story which starts out as big as all creation, before eventually shrinking to the size of the world’s religions; religions which make better gates to God than fences around God, because the God who, thirteen billion years ago, created a still expanding universe, cannot be corralled inside any religion, or all religions; a five thousand year-old Hinduism, a four thousand year-old Judaism, a two thousand year-old Christianity or a fifteen hundred year-old Islam.

As Tennyson wrote, concerning our efforts to capture the God of fields and forests, seas and trees inside our creeds, confessions, doctrines and religions: “Our little systems have their day, they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of thee, and thou, O Lord, art more than they.” The God of fields and forests, seas and trees, greater than all our little systems; the God of fields and forests, seas and trees, as much out there as in here; as real beyond the walls of the church as within the walls of the church.

I cannot speak of such things without thinking of Mary Oliver’s testimony, “The church could not tame me, so they would not keep me. I wanted to be as close to Christ as the cross I wear; to read, and serve, and touch the linen altar cloth. Instead I went to the woods, where no tree ever turned its face away.” Oh, the boundless welcome, and judgeless embrace, of field and forest, where no tree ever turns its face away; the creation of God sometimes more true to the nature of God than the limited embrace of any religion or every religion. Little wonder Jesus urged our attention to the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or that St. Francis preached to a tree full of swallows in Assisi, and John Lewis to a yard full of chickens in Troy. And, little wonder that those who go the deepest into their own particular religion often reach the farthest beyond their own particular religion; longing for that of God which beckons beyond the boundaries which creed and confession, doctrine and religion have drawn too soon around the God of fields and forests, seas and trees.

Which makes us even more thankful that our Northminster mothers and fathers, all those years ago, built us a house with such well-windowed walls; these long, tall, sun-lit, see-through windows never letting us forget that the God of altar and parament, pulpit and pew is first, last and always the God of fields and forests, seas and trees. And, that any words we say in here about God are only windows on God, not walls around God. Amen.

Concerning Gentleness

Philippians 4:1-9, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 11th, 2020 · Duration 0:0

Let your gentleness be known to all.”  I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, every time the lectionary asks us to read those words from today’s epistle passage, I am struck by the fact that, of all the virtues Paul might have hoped for the Philippians to be known for, the one Paul named was gentleness, perhaps because the Philippians were in some sort of conflict, for which gentleness was the one thing everyone most needed to give to, and receive from, one another.

Paul seems to suggest as much at the beginning of today’s passage when he urges Euodia and Syntyche to be “of the same mind,” not unlike what Paul says earlier in the letter, admonishing the Philippians to “be of one spirit and one mind” in chapter one, and, again, in chapter two, to “be of one mind and in one accord,” and, again, in chapter three, to “be of the same mind.”  All of which would suggest that the Philippians are struggling with some sort of disagreement or conflict, which may explain why, of all the virtues Paul might have hoped for the Philippians to be known for, the one he chose to lift up and underscore was gentleness, saying, in today’s lesson, “Let your gentleness be known to all.”

A plea for gentleness which may be as needed now as it was then; the world around us as polarized by disagreement and conflict as the Euodians and Syntychians in Paul’s letter to the Philippians; subterranean fault lines which usually sit silently beneath the surface, exposed in the year 2020 by a highly politicized pandemic, a significant season of reckoning around race, and a looming national election; all making Paul’s call for gentleness at least as important for us, now, as it was for them, then.

One possible first step toward practicing the spiritual discipline of gentleness is to decide whether or not we want to be that way; to pose to ourselves the serious spiritual question, “Do I want to be known as a gentle person?”  We may have so long learned to make our way through life by being manipulative, controlling, unforgiving or mean, that we honestly cannot imagine making it as someone whose gentleness is known to everyone.  Do we want to be gentle?  If the answer is “No”, then, the answer is “No”.  If the answer is “Yes”, then we have a long, slow, complex, beautiful, spiritual adventure before us.

For starters, what does a gentle life look like in a world where there are moral issues to be addressed and gospel stands to be taken?  In order for gentleness to be genuine and true, gentleness cannot become, to quote Fred Craddock, “An embarrassed tolerance which stares silently at the ground in the face of injustice.”  To the contrary, sometimes the only way we can stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for is by standing up against the same things Jesus would stand up against.

Gentleness cannot become a baptized avoidance of the great moral and gospel issues of justice and truth which confront us at seemingly every turn these days. Rather, true gentleness is what I call “Jesus gentleness,” the gentleness of Jesus, who never sacrificed grace on the altar of truth, but who also never sacrificed truth on the altar of grace; the Jesus gentleness which is as kind as it is clear, while also being as clear as it is kind; an impossible way for us to live, apart from the Holy Spirit.  But, a way of life which is altogether possible with the Holy Spirit.

Practically speaking, to become what Paul called “famous for gentleness” would mean practicing the skills of gentleness until we get better at them.  Not unlike learning to lay bricks, play tennis, paint, bake, write calligraphy or remove gall bladders, the more we practice being gentle, the better we get.  As Wendell Berry said, “The heart’s one choice becomes the mind’s long labor.”  We make the choice to become gentle, and, then, we get to get up every morning and work at it; relinquishing all tactics and strategies, renouncing exaggeration, no more playing gotcha, no more trying to destroy someone else’s position by creating the false choice of the exaggerated option. Choosing, instead, to listen carefully and speak softly; remembering, as Marilynne Robinson said in the novel Gilead, that, “A little too much anger at the wrong time, or too often, can destroy more than any of us can imagine,” reminding ourselves of Philo’s great admonition, “Be kind, because everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” all of which may require us to fast, for a season, from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, as well as whichever partisan news source has become our idealogical echo-chamber of choice.

With all such disciplines faithfully practiced, and with much daily prayer, slowly, slowly, little by little, much of our loudness and stridence, vitriol and sarcasm may fall away, until, at last, we might become known for the only thing Paul hoped for us to be famous for in today’s epistle lesson.

Gentleness.

Amen.

Trapped

Matthew 21:33-46, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · October 6th, 2020 · Duration 15:35

You would think that the Pharisees would have learned by the time they got all the way to chapter 21 in the Gospel according to Matthew, that they need to be extra careful when verbally sparring with Jesus. But, not yet. Here in chapter 21, Jesus lays out rhetorical trap after rhetorical trap, and, if you are anything like me, and sometimes read with background music and sound effects in your mind, you can almost hear the music sounding as the traps go off right on cue.

Jesus comes into the temple. The music stops as he surveys what is taking place. Suddenly there is a dark crescendo as he leaps into action - turning over tables and chairs and driving people out of the temple. It is in response to this act that the pharisees question Jesus about his authority to act in such a manner.

If the gospel of Matthew is an accurate account, Jesus responds with a question and a series of parables, the second of which is our gospel lesson today, “The Parable of the Wicked Tenants.” The commercial practice of a landowner renting his land to tenants in exchange for a portion of the harvest would have been common. As would there being a dispute between the landowner and the tenant about rent collection. The pharisees must have felt that, for once, they were tracking with Jesus. And then, as Jesus lays his trap, the music subtly changes – noticeable to us the readers, imperceptible to the Pharisees. Jesus asks them what will happen when the landowner returns. Trap set.

The pharisees, just like you and I might, tried to imagine themselves in the parable. And just like you do, the pharisees would have remembered that in Isaiah 5, there is a vineyard, carefully prepared, complete with choice vines, a watch tower, and a winepress. They would have recognized and remembered that in Isaiah 5 the vineyard is the people of God. Because Jesus was careful to lay on his allusion about the vineyard pretty thick, they could be relatively confident they were not the vineyard. They must have been thinking, are we the landowner, the tenants, or the messengers?

When Jesus asks the pharisees, what will the landowner do to the tenants. It seems clear that they have made their choice. The pharisees understand themselves to be the landowners. The pharisees, after all, are the ones who are the leaders of the Jews, the people of God. If the vineyard is the people of God, surely the pharisees, the leaders, the ones with the keys to the temple, with offices, and fancy robes and stoles. They must be the landowner. So they seize the opportunity and come down strong with the type of retribution that would be expected from the landowner.

Their implication is that Jesus is the wicked tenant. It is Jesus who has driven out people who had workspaces approved by the temple leadership. It is Jesus who has destroyed this livelihood, damaged this property, and likely caused some of the merchandise to be lost. Surely, Jesus is the wicked tenant.

“[The land owner] will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time,” say the pharisees.

And right on cue, the music in the background gives way for a loud and emphatic clash of cymbals – CLANG!!

Jesus flips the parable on the pharisees. They fell for his allusion to Isaiah 5. They misidentified themselves in the parable. When they fall for his trap, Jesus directs them to another familiar scripture: Psalm 118. “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.” You can almost see the realization starting to come over their faces, reminiscent of when the prophet Nathan stood before King David after David proclaims judgement to a hypothetical scenario and Nation says to David: “you are the man.”

Jesus affirms their answer, just like Nathan did, but he directs the force of the parable (and their answer) back at them. “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”

Through the fog of realization that they have been trapped, Jesus steps back into the parable. Remember, the vineyard is the people of God. Jesus says “The Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.” In the parable, the fruits the vineyard has produced are oppression, death, and deceit. These are not the fruits that the land owner was hoping to get in payment for leasing his property.

We are left imagining what people might inherit the vineyard, what people might inherit the Kingdom of God?

I have a confession to make. Whenever, I read about Jesus trapping the pharisees, I want to cheer him on – as if Jesus is the great underdog and sparring with the powerful religious elite. And every time that happens, at some point, I pause, hear the music in the background, and remember, that I, as a pastor, resemble the pharisees more closely than I would like to admit. And it’s usually only after I have started cheering Jesus and jeering the pharisees that I realize, a moment too late, that the music has stopped and a cymbal is about to crash as I have stepped right into the trap set by the author of the Gospel of Matthew – this trap set for me.

I feel the snap, and try not to get angry like the pharisees. Yes, Jesus traps me in this parable too. I don’t mean that I have knowingly engaged in producing the fruits of oppression, death, and deceit. But I do wonder what kind of fruit I am producing and if it is the fruit of the kingdom.

Here in this vineyard, at Northminster Baptist Church, at the corner of Eastover and Ridgewood, there are a lot of tenants. We have pastors and deacons. We have committees, you probably got a letter about them a couple of weeks ago. We have Sunday School teachers, nursery workers, Youth leaders, Atrium facilitators, ushers, and musicians. All tenants of this vineyard, entrusted to our care to produce the fruit of the kingdom. And just in case anyone is feeling left out, on the last page of your bulletin are four words that have a powerful influence over how we, as a vineyard of faith, operate and go about producing fruit.

“Every member a minister.” All of us. Each one of us who call this place home. We are all charged with tending this vineyard, and producing the fruits of the kingdom.

I wonder if we can press this fruit analogy just a little bit further. Have you ever been to a farm where you get to pick your own fruit? These are especially fun with fruit loving small children – so long as you pack a change of clothes. Sometimes, when adventuring to one of these farms, if you’re an amateur fruit picker, you might pick some bad fruit. It might be unripe. It might be over ripe. A bug might have gotten inside of the fruit and ruined it. It’s not that all the fruit is bad. It’s not even that all the fruit on the one plant is bad. The plants don’t get to choose which fruit you pick.

If we are to be the tenants of the vineyard of God, if we are to be the vineyard of God, we must reckon with the truth that we are always producing fruit of some kind. That fruit may be the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. There are days that it also might be none of those things. Of course, we are all doing our best to stay away from producing the fruits of oppression, death and deceit. Yet, even when we put our best efforts into producing good fruits, we still don’t get to decide how that fruit will be perceived. No more than I get to decide what you will take from this sermon, do you get to decide how people will interpret the words you say to them, or what you intend your actions to do.

So what do we do? How can we be good tenants? How can we produce the fruits of the kingdom?

Tod Bolsinger, Vice President of Fuller Theological Seminary in California, suggests that churches and organizations must rely on having focused, shared, and missional purpose against which to measure all decisions. Well, Jesus gave us more than a few of those kinds of ideas. Love God with all that is in you and love your neighbor like you love yourself. If we are living a life with those two ideas as our mission, then I think, we are going to be producing the fruit of the kingdom. Certainly, it will be better than if we are trying to hoard all of the fruit for ourselves like the wicked tenants in the parable. Certainly, it will be better than if we are sitting back laughing at the Pharisees for having gotten caught in another of Jesus’ traps.

Yes, as we sit here trapped by Jesus’ parable, considering how we might be a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom, let’s commit to wrapping our minds around how we can better live into those ideas. Depend on the Holy Spirit to reinterpret the memory of each day through the lens of loving God and loving neighbor. Let’s imagine anew what opportunities lie ahead for us each next day.

What fruits might we produce if we imagined how we might love God and neighbor at work? What fruits might we produce if we imagined how we might love God and neighbor when we make purchases? What fruits might we produce if we imagined how we might love God and neighbor when we are in conflict, when someone interprets events differently than we do, when we post on social media, when we are in public, when we are in private, when everyone is looking and when no one is looking? What fruits might we produce?

The kingdom of God will be given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.

Amen.

 

 

On Working Out Our Salvation

Philippians 2:1-13, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 27th, 2020 · Duration 16:08

“Work out your own salvation, with fear and trembling.” Whatever those words from today’s epistle lesson may have meant on the ears of those who first heard them, for us they are a reminder that the same salvation which we sometimes make mostly about where we will live in the next life is also about how we will live in this life.

Whenever we make salvation more about being with Jesus in the next life than being like Jesus in this life, we open the door to the widespread Christian contradiction of those who accept Christ, for the next life, but do not follow Jesus, in this life; a contradiction which Richard Rohr captures in his observation that once we turned Christianity from a way of life into an established religion, we created our current situation, in which a person can be as self-centered and unkind as they wish and still say that Jesus is their “personal Lord and Savior”; the answer to which, I believe, is to recover the truth that salvation is not primarily about a problem, eternal damnation, and how to fix it, but about a life and how to live it, and a love and how to give it; what today’s epistle lesson calls, “Working out our salvation, in fear and trembling.”

Fear and trembling, not because we are afraid God will reject us if we don’t get life right. Fear and trembling, not because we’re worried that God will love us less if we remain complicated and complex. We know better than that, because we know, as William Sloane Coffin so beautifully put it, that “There is more mercy in God than there is sin in us.” No, the reason we continue working out our salvation “in fear and trembling” is that, as far as we know, this is the one and only life we are ever going to have. As far as we know, we are not going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time. That is why we continue working out our salvation with fear and trembling; because we do not want to under-live the one and only life we are ever going to have being petty and small-minded, shallow and narrow, manipulative and controlling, deceptive, hard, harsh, unforgiving, suspicious, jealous, envious, reckless and unkind. That’s why we continue to work on working out our salvation with fear and trembling; why we get up, every morning, living the prayer the late Mary Oliver left us when she said, “Another morning, and I wake with thirst for the goodness I do not have”...“Working out our salvation with fear and trembling,” as Paul puts it in the next to last verse of today’s epistle lesson.

Which, as you may have noticed, is followed immediately by the last verse of today’s passage, where Paul, having told us, in verse twelve, to work out our salvation, tells us, in verse thirteen, that God is working in the same salvation we are working out. Which must mean we have not been left to work out our salvation all by ourselves. Rather, the Spirit of God is with us to help us; the Spirit of God, working in what we are working on. And, if that is true, then, perhaps, it is more possible than we might first have thought for us to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we long and yearn and ache to live.

If God is working in what we are working on, then, perhaps, we have given up too soon on someday becoming luminous with holiness, what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “see through with light.” If God is working in what we are working on, then perhaps we might yet become persons of careful, truthful speech who are quick to listen and slow to speak, renouncing all of our old tactics, strategies, exaggerations and cleverness, for a way of being in the world, and in the room, which Marilynne Robinson calls “soft and serious,” what the Quakers call “gentle and plain.” If God is working in what we are working on, then perhaps the mind of Christ might someday be so fully formed in us that the cross of Christ will, at last, become, not only a place in Jerusalem for Jesus to die, but a life in Jackson for us to live; our lives stretched up to God and out to others in a cross-formed life of love, our moral compass of integrity as true as our wingspan of welcome is wide, and our wingspan of welcome as wide as our moral compass of integrity is true.

God working in what we are working on until the Holy Spirit and the human spirit become so fully integrated in our ordinary, everyday lives that we can no longer tell where one ends and the other begins. God working in what we are working on until, eventually, we reach that place in our lives where, as Naomi Shihab Nye says, “The only thing which ties our shoes in the morning and sends us out into the day is kindness;” however much, or little, is left of the one and only life we are ever going to have, in this world, made more strong and true, gentle and tender, brave and kind, because we decided to keep working out the same salvation God is working in.

Amen.


The Journey Jonah Never Took

Jonah 3:10-4:11, The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 20th, 2020 · Duration 10:31

“When God saw that the people of Nineveh turned from their evil ways, God changed God’s mind concerning the calamity God had said God would bring upon them, and God did not do it. This was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry.”

With those words, today’s lesson from the book of Jonah reminds us that, though Jonah traveled many miles in the small book which bears his name, there is one journey Jonah never took. Jonah fled to Tarshish at the beginning of the book of Jonah, sailed to Nineveh near the end, and, between those two journeys, traveled to the bottom of the sea in the belly of a fish. But, those many trips taken, and miles amassed, notwithstanding, there was, apparently, one journey Jonah never took; never going far enough with God to get close enough to God to rejoice over God’s wide welcome and boundless grace; God’s wide welcome and boundless grace making Jonah as angry as the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, who were as offended by the generosity of the landowner to the last-minute workers as Jonah was offended by the grace of God for the Ninevites.

In fact, God’s grace for the Ninevites made Jonah so angry that Jonah said he would rather die than watch God be that good to the Ninevites. Upon which, in the next verse, God is reported to have said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry because I am good?” not unlike the question the landowner asks the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, “Surely you are not envious because I am generous, are you?” Jonah, in today’s Old Testament lesson, the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, and countless souls ever since, sad about the same big grace God is glad about.

I often wonder where that comes from, that need for some to be excluded from the welcome of God in order for us to be happy with our inclusion in the welcome of God. Where I come from, we would say that we have to feel that way because the Bible teaches us to feel that way, especially in John 14:6, which limits the size of the circle of the welcome of God to those who have earned their grace the same way we earned ours, by believing what we believe about Jesus. But, the limits we place on God’s boundless grace are not as simple as “the Bible says it and that settles it,” because the same Bible which is home to John 14:6 is also home to Colossians 1:20, Titus 2:11 and Revelation 5:13. The response to which is often, “Well everybody knows that verses such as Colossians 1:20, Titus 2:11 and Revelation 5:13 are not as important as verses like John 14:6.” To which I have long wondered, “Yes, but who decided that? Who made the decision that the verses which support the boundaries we have placed around the grace of God are more important than the verses which stretch the boundaries we have placed around the grace of God?” Back there, somewhere, someone had to make that decision, otherwise all of us would have grown up knowing Colossians 1:20, “In Christ, God was reconciling the whole creation to God’s self,” Titus 2:11, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,” and Revelation 5:13, “I saw every creature, in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, singing to God around the throne,” as well as we know John 14:6, “No one comes to the Father except through me.”

(Indeed, I found myself wondering, earlier this morning, how different the spirit of Christianity might be if, instead of interpreting the verses which make God’s grace embrace all (Isaiah 25:6-9, I Corinthians 15:22, II Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:20, Titus 2:11, Revelation 5:13) in the light of the verses which make God’s grace more small (John 3:18, John 14:6, Acts 4:12, II Thessalonians 1:8-9), we had spent the Christian centuries interpreting the verses which make God’s grace more small in the light of the verses which make God’s grace embrace all. Why do we interpret the Bible’s bigger verses in the light of the Bible’s smaller verses, instead of interpreting the Bible’s smaller verses in the light of the Bible’s bigger verses?)

All of which is to say that, the reason why we, like Jonah in today’s Old Testament lesson, and the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, have such a strong need for God to limit God’s grace to those whom we believe deserve it, is not as simple as “the Bible says it and that settles it.”

I cannot speak for you, but in my own case, it probably had more to do with where I grew up than anything else; surrounded by the dearest and best people one could ever hope to know, who taught me to believe what they were taught to believe about the size of the circle of the welcome of God, which left me, for much of my life, like Jonah in today’s Old Testament lesson, and the all-day workers in today’s gospel lesson, grumbling at the thought of too much grace for too many others. The grace God gave to them did not take an ounce of grace from me, but, even so, I would have rather God be left with leftover love than for anyone to have it who didn’t get it the way I got it.

But, then, somewhere along the way, I moved beyond that. I cannot say exactly when that happened, but I do have an idea how it happened. I believe it was the daily practice of praying to get on and stay on the path to a deeper life with God, the daily practice of walking prayerfully and intentionally in the Holy Spirit, until we go so far with Jesus and so deep with the Spirit that we get so close to God that we can no longer be sad about the same boundless grace God is glad about; staying on the path to depth so carefully for so long that we eventually reach that wide and wonderful place where we draw our circle of welcome as wide as God draws God’s circle of welcome; a long, slow, quiet journey Jonah never took, but which any of us can begin any time we choose.

Amen.

In Accordance With a Single Certainty

Romans 13:8-14, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 6th, 2020 · Duration 15:13

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

What Do We Know?

Romans 12:9-21, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 30th, 2020 · Duration 12:21

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Transformation

Romans 12:1-8, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 23rd, 2020 · Duration 13:11

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Northminster Stories

Psalm 133, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 16th, 2020 · Duration 13:59

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Matthew's Boat

Matthew 14:22-33, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 9th, 2020 · Duration 15:36

“When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. And those in the boat worshipped Jesus.”

With those words from today’s gospel lesson, Matthew’s boat sounds a lot like a metaphor for the church. Beyond the boat, Peter was in over his head and sinking fast. But, once Jesus got Peter back into the boat, where he belonged, with the others, the storm stopped, and all was well; Matthew’s boat, perhaps, a stand-in for the church, and, today’s gospel lesson, a reminder, to Matthew’s late first-century family of faith, and ours, that “in the boat”, Matthew’s image for the church, is where we all belong.

Which is not to suggest that the church is the only place to find God. To the contrary, as Barbara Brown Taylor has wisely written, “The work of God gets done in the world not only because of, but, also, in spite of, the church.” Not unlike Fred Buechner’s observation, “If the church is Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, then Jesus often is all thumbs and has two left feet”, and Mary Oliver’s testimony, concerning the church, “They could not tame me, so they would not keep me...I wanted to be as close to Christ as the cross I wear; to read, and serve, and touch the linen altar cloth. Instead, I went back to the woods, where no tree ever turned it’s face away.”

But, for all the church’s limits, blind spots and flaws, still, for many of us, it is in the church that our lives have been most powerfully formed and shaped for truth and love, compassion and justice, courage and kindness; not all at once or once and for all, but little by little, week after week, year after year; a lifelong journey which Cecil Sherman once described as “more sandpaper than dynamite”; dynamite changing things all at once, in one big, loud, dramatic moment; but sandpaper changing things slowly, quietly, little by little.

Which is most often the way our lives are formed by the church; singing the same songs, praying the same prayers, reading the same scriptures, saying the same words, hearing the same truth, week after week, year after year; all that repetition shaping our lives slowly, quietly, little by little, until we someday discover that we are a little more kind, a little more careful with our words, a little more gentle and patient, truthful and brave. Have you ever noticed what a difference it makes when a person becomes even a little more kind; just a little more open to, welcoming of, and excited about the beautiful diversity of the whole human family? That is the kind of slow growth and gradual change which can happen to anyone, and should happen to everyone, in Matthew’s boat, the church. Our life together in the church, slowly, slowly, little by little, making our spirit more expansive and welcoming, gentle and kind, redrawing the circle of our embrace to more nearly match the boundless reach of the welcome of God.

That is what can happen to us in Matthew’s boat, the church. In the boat, where we belong, we get to know the kind of people whose moral compass of integrity is as true as their wingspan of welcome is wide, and whose wingspan of welcome is as wide as their moral compass of integrity is true; the kind of people who make the rest of us want to be better just by being exactly who they are.

Staying in the boat where we belong; whether in person in the pew, or, at this present moment, on couches and porches, iPads, Chromebooks, laptops and phones, calls forth, and confirms, that which is deepest and best in us.

For example, two days ago, on Friday, August 7, I went to Canton, Mississippi to remember and mark the events of August 7, 2019 in Canton, Carthage, Morton and beyond, by walking prayerfully through the immigrant community adjacent to the Peco processing plant; singing, softly, in Espanol, to no one but the poor howling perros, a small hymn, “La Cancion de Bienvenidas” (The Welcome Song); a gesture of Christian love so small that, thirty years ago, I would have dismissed it as pointless, at best; silly, at worst. But, now, after more than two decades in the boat with you, I know that no act or word of kindness and love is too small to matter or make a difference; an incurable hope, and quiet confidence in the Holy Spirit, which I did not bring here, but which I found here, in the version of Matthew’s boat which came ashore, all those years ago, at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover.

And where, all these years later, we are all in the same boat; from those whose birthdates, death-dates and names are etched in stone in the columbarium behind us, all the way up to little Lawson Elizabeth Sams, whose welcome rose shines happily on the table before us, and all the rest of us in between, sailing the sea together; in Matthew’s boat, and ours, the church.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Concerning the Journey

Romans 9:1-5, The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 2nd, 2020 · Duration 14:46

“I have great sorrow in my heart, and could wish that I myself were cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, the Israelites; to whom belong the promises and from whom comes the Messiah.” Thus begins this morning’s epistle lesson; with Paul in such anguish over the future of those Jews who do not believe what Paul believes about Jesus that Paul goes so far as to say that he would give up his own salvation if it would transfer his share of God’s grace to God’s people.

A passage which calls to mind, for me, that moment in Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Lila, when Lila, having realized that her childhood protector, Doll, might not be saved, goes down to the river to wash off her baptism; preferring to be lost forever with Doll than saved forever without her; Lila’s anguish over Doll as severe as Paul’s anguish over Israel.

Paul’s anguish over Israel comes at the beginning of that section of the book of Romans which I call “the Roman parenthesis”, a self-contained unit unto itself, which begins at Romans 9:1, with Paul’s anguish over Israel, and ends, two chapters later, with Paul declaring, in Romans 11:26, “All Israel will be saved”, to which Paul adds, in Romans 11:32, “God has included all in sin so that God can include all in mercy”; Paul’s movement from the onlyism of chapter nine, where he feared that only those who believed what he believed were safe in the hands of God, to the allism of chapter eleven, where Paul declared that all Israel would be saved, because, since God had included all in sin, God would include all in mercy; Paul’s journey from onlyism to allism, all in the space of Romans chapters nine, ten and eleven.

All of which seems to have moved quickly enough, back there on the page. But, if you have ever taken that sort of spiritual journey, you know that to move from the onlyism where Paul began to the allism where Paul ended can be something more like that great struggle of which we read in today’s lesson from Genesis, the battle which left Jacob not only with a blessing, but also with a limp.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, the journey from onlyism to allism has been at least that hard; growing up, as did I, in a world where so much about our faith depended upon our faith being the only faith where God could be found. It was not hard for us to guard that core belief in onlyism, because most of us did not know anyone who did not believe what we believed. For Christians, in the Macon, Georgia, of my childhood, to decide whether or not others could be embraced in the grace of God, was to speak from a place of unchallenged authority, not unlike a Hindu in Calcutta, a Jew in Jerusalem, or a Muslim in Tehran, deciding whether or not Christians can be embraced in the grace of God.

Looking back across my life, I think I always had my doubts about onlyism, but I learned, early on, to keep them to myself; which I continued to do, even long after I knew that something more must be true. But, then, one evening, a little more than twenty years ago, Marcia and I went to Beth Israel (where I went, this past Friday, to write these words). And, following the evening worship service, once we were back home, I completed the same journey Paul started in today’s epistle passage; saying to God, out loud, something I had long known but never said. “God”, I said to the night sky, “In order for me to be an honest man, I need for you to know that I believe that those dear souls with whom we worshipped you tonight are as much your people as the dear souls with whom we worship you on Sunday.”

Which sounds so simple to say. (And, in a way, a bit arrogant; the late limb saying the original tree is safe with God!) But, if you’ve grown up with nothing but onlyism, it can be so hard, because it can open up so many other questions; good and important questions, all of which ultimately have the same answer, which is that, as Paul said, “God has included all in sin, so that God can include all in mercy.”

After which, in the very next verse, Paul closed “the Roman parenthesis” by singing, “Oh the depth of the riches of God! The judgements of God are unsearchable, the ways of God unknowable. To God be the glory forever.”

After which, lost in wonder, love and praise, Paul fell silent.

Amen.


Concerning the Love of God

Romans 8:26-39, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 26th, 2020 · Duration 13:16

“Who will separate us from the love of God? Will hardship or distress, persecution or famine, peril or sword? No. In all these things we are more than conquerors through God who loves us. I am convinced that neither death nor life, things present nor things to come; height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Concerning the love of God, one could hardly hope to hear more hopeful words than those from today’s epistle lesson; Paul’s great and sweeping affirmation that nothing, no kind of sorrow or failure, distress or despair, life or death, will ever be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

A hope-filled affirmation which never fails to make me wonder, “Who is us?” When Paul says that nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, who is us?

No one can say, with certainty, who Paul’s us is, but, as for me, it is my deepest and highest hope that when Paul says that nothing can separate us from the love of God, “us” means all. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, my hope is that when Paul says, in today’s passage, that, “Those whom God foreknew God predestined to be conformed to the image of God’s likeness, so that Christ might be the firstborn in a large family”; that “large family” is the whole human family of every time and place. Which would mean that when Paul speaks, in today’s passage, of “those whom God foreknew and predestined” to be included in God’s grace, that would include everyone; everyone God ever loved and wanted, predestined, chosen, elected, and embraced by God, so that when Paul says, in today’s lesson from Romans, that “If God is for us, no one can condemn us”, us means all.

That is my deepest and highest hope, which is not the same as hoping that there is no judgement. To the contrary, before love can redeem all, love must judge all. Truth must be told, victims must be faced, responsibility owned, forgiveness asked and, if possible, amends made; otherwise grace becomes, as Fred Craddock once said, “A timid tolerance which stares silently at the ground in the face of injustice.” No condemnation is not the same as no judgement. To the contrary, truthful love requires honest judgement; but, judgement in the service, not of retribution, but of redemption; not unlike the final parable in today’s gospel lesson where the good and the bad, which lives in each of us, is identified and judged, so that the bad can be burned away; the fires of hell, burning away all that is hurtful and harmful, unjust and oppressive, deceptive and untrue; a fire of judgement, in the service, not of endless, pointless punishment, but of eventual, ultimate, redemption; the love of God; not rejection, separation or sin, but the love of God, having the last word; nothing in all creation separating any of us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

I cannot speak for you, but as for me, that is my great hope. Once, it was not. Once I needed for Paul’s us, as in “Nothing shall separate us from the love of God” to be only us. But, the more I travel the path to a deeper life with God, the less I need for Paul’s us to be only us, and the more I hope for Paul’s us to be all of us. The further I travel along the path to depth, the more carefully I walk in the Holy Spirit, and the closer I get to Jesus, the less I need for anyone to be eternally excluded from the ultimate triumph of the love of God, and the more deeply I hope that, ultimately, once all the judgement which must be gone through has been gone through, ultimately, finally, eternally, nothing in all creation will separate any of us from the love of God.

Amen.

Concerning Jacob's Dream

Genesis 28:10-19a; The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 19th, 2020 · Duration 11:21

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

An Alternative Cosmos

Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · July 12th, 2020 · Duration 13:24

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Becoming Who We Want to Be

Romans 7:15-25, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 5th, 2020 · Duration 11:45

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

How Long?

Psalm 13, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 28th, 2020 · Duration 11:52

As you may have noticed, there is a lot of sadness, anger, uncertainty and pain to be found in the book of Psalms. In fact, of the one hundred and fifty psalms in our Bible, more than sixty belong to the category called “laments”; questions and complaints which rise from the depths of disappointment and anger, grief and pain.

One of the most familiar of which is Psalm 13, which begins with those words we read a few moments ago, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget us forever? How long must we bear pain in our souls and have sorrow in our hearts?”

While we have no way of knowing what made the psalmist raise that prayer of lament, we do know what makes us ask, “How long, O Lord, how long?” Whenever life becomes so hard for so long that life becomes too hard for too long, we lift the lament the psalmist raised when the psalmist said, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

A question many of us have asked many times concerning the time of Covid-19. How long before we can gather for Sunday School and choir rehearsal? How long before the church can safely offer childcare and open the nursery? How long before we can gather for worship the way we once did, instead of the way we now must? How long before we can have funerals and weddings in the ways to which we are accustomed? How long until we can safely shake hands and hug, share communion, baptize and offer the kiss of peace? How long before there might be a vaccine? How long until school will be fully, normally open? The countless “How longs?” of Covid-19; the answers to which none of us can know.

And, layered onto that global lament is our present national lament over the sins of xenophobia, tribalism and racism, and the countless indignities and injustices, suspicions and shuns, suffered for so long by so many; indignities and injustices, suspicions and shuns, which people who look like me can never understand, and must not let stand. How long, O Lord, until the ground beneath all our feet is truly as level as the ground at the foot of the cross? How long until those of us who have held most of the power for most of the time use that power to make things right? (A moral, racial, leveling-out toward which our state took a significant symbolic step this week.)

And, layered onto those two layers of lament; a global physical illness and a national sickness of the soul, are all the personal struggles and individual sorrows which leave us all, at some moment or another, asking God, with the one who wrote this morning’s psalm, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Concerning illness and injury, “How long, O Lord, until we can be well again, feel good again, walk, drive and leave the house alone again? Concerning work and income, “How long, O Lord, before we will be able to find a job?” Concerning fractured friendships, “How long, O Lord, before we will be reconciled to one another?” Concerning the great inner struggles of the soul and battles of the mind, “How long, O Lord, must I get up every morning to face the same fears and fear the same faces? How long must I bear this guilt and feel this regret? How long until I learn to live without this crippling self-doubt? There is a long list of ways that 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; which means that most of us will, at some time in our lives, join our voices to the voice of the psalmist, and raise to the heavens the psalmist’ lament, “How long, O Lord, how long?”

Needless to say, for most of those anguished “How longs?”, the answer is beyond our knowing. Only God knows how long most of what we wait for will take to come to pass.

Some “How longs?” only God can answer. But, some “How longs?” only we can answer. If the question is “How long until we become more kind and gentle, thoughtful and clear; how long before we stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for by standing up against the same things Jesus would stand up against, how long before we begin letting the love which has come down to us more freely and fully go out through us, then the answer is not a mystery at all. If the question is, “How long until we become more kind and gentle, thoughtful and clear; how long before we stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for by standing up against the same things Jesus would stand up against, how long before we begin letting the love which has come down to us go out through us, then the answer is, “As soon as we decide that there is nothing that is more important to us than to speak and act and live that way.” That’s how long.

Amen.

What We Hear In a Whisper

Matthew 10:24-39, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 21st, 2020 · Duration 16:55

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Everyone Is Someone’s Other

Matthew 9:35-10:8, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 14th, 2020 · Duration 11:16

             “Go nowhere among the Gentiles or the Samaritans, but go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from today’s gospel lesson.  But, no matter how often they roll back around, they always land at an odd angle on our ears; the same Jesus who, later in Matthew’s gospel, will tell his disciples to go to all nations, telling them, here, to go only to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

               All of which may be a reflection of the tension in the community of faith for which the writer of the gospel of Matthew wrote the gospel of Matthew, probably about forty years after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  Matthew’s community of faith, located, perhaps, in Antioch, a once mostly Jewish congregation, now a mostly Gentile congregation; the Jewish members, seeing the Gentiles as “the others”, and the Gentiles, seeing the  Jews as “the others”, everyone an “other” to someone, and the writer of the gospel of Matthew trying to turn all those “others” into “one anothers”; reminding them, at the other end of the gospel of Matthew, that the same Jesus who originally instructed his disciples to go only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, eventually sent those same disciples into all the world and every nation; an originally only Jewish movement eventually embracing the whole Gentile world. 

               All of which turns on the hinge of Matthew chapter fifteen; where the gospel of Matthew says that Jesus refused to help a hurting Gentile woman for no other reason than that she was a Gentile, saying, concerning her plea for help, the same thing he is reported to have said in today’s gospel lesson, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  Upon which, the Gentile woman reminded Jesus that, though she was a Gentile, and he was a Jew, her life mattered, too.  Upon which, Jesus withdrew his earlier “No”, and redrew the orbit of his welcome, to take in the Gentile woman.  Not unlike that great tipping point in Acts chapter ten, when Peter starts out assuming he should not welcome Gentiles, but ends up saying, “Now, I know that God has no most favored nation, race or religion;” Peter’s epiphany, another one of those many beautiful moments in scripture when insiders make the right decisions about outsiders. 

               But, all of which, it must also be said, is always written from the perspective of the insiders, who are trying to decide to what extent they are willing to redraw their circle of welcome to include “others” who are, to  them, outsiders;  the kind of question which is only ever asked by those who have the power to say “Yes” or “No” to someone who is, to them, “the other”, which is why the way insiders answer that kind of question, once they ask it, matters so much.   

               Think, for example, of that moment in Galatians chapter three, when Paul made the great declaration, “In Christ there is neither Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free; but all are one.”  If a first-century woman or slave, fighting for dignity and equality, had said that, those who were holding all the power might too easily have dismissed their call for justice.  That’s why it was so important for Paul, speaking from the more powerful side of human difference, to say it.  Paul was the insider, which made Paul responsible for saying that the lives of others mattered the same as his life mattered.

               Pondering all of this through the lens of our nation’s racial reckoning of the last three weeks, took me back to a moment from a morning two or three years ago.  In the aftermath of a tragic act of racial violence, not knowing what to do, but not able to do nothing, I had made a sign on a piece of poster board, which I was carrying, silently, on the sidewalk outside the Mississippi State Capitol, when, out of the blue, I was

joined by two African-American men, one walking on either side of me.  After reading the words on my home made sign, which said, “White Supremacy Is Sin”, one of them said to me, “What about black supremacy?  Wouldn’t that be a sin, too?”  To which I said, “That would be your sign to carry.  This sign is mine to carry.”

               To the extent that everyone is “the other” to someone, they were “the other” to me, and I was “the other” to them; each of us “the other” to one another, but I the one with the particular responsibility which goes with being born on the majority side of human difference.

               The fact that there is an advantage to being born on my side of human difference is not because God planned it, willed it or wanted it that way.  To the contrary, it is xenophobia, tribalism and the sin of racism which have made it that way; and it is the holy work and moral responsibility of those of us who have been helped by that advantage to stand in solidarity with those who have been hurt by it; all of us “others”, to each other, working prayerfully, to become “one anothers”, with each other.

 

                                                                                                         Amen.  

 

Concerning the Trinity

II Corinthians13:11-13, Trinity Sunday

Chuck Poole · June 7th, 2020 · Duration 18:21

(Audio begins at :36)


I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, while I know that our nation’s sorrows and struggles of the past two weeks are about more than race, still they have taken me back, over and over, to childhood memories which are woven from the threads of racial struggle; the day my grandfather chased from his yard, with curses and threats, the African-American child I had met at the store around the corner and brought home to play; the day I got in trouble for inviting an elderly black woman to sit next to my mom and myself on the front seat of a city bus in Macon, Georgia; the day I got in even more trouble for trying to drink from the Colored water fountain at the J.C. Penney's Department Store on Hillcrest Avenue.

All of which came home to me in a quiet but powerful way, earlier this week, when I received a message from a young man who grew up here at Northminster. Baptized in this sanctuary and formed by this family of faith, but now living many states away, he had called to ask if I had anything to share concerning the intersection of Christian faith and our nation’s present moment of reckoning, to which I replied with the simplest truth I know to say, which is that, even though I grew up in a home with absolutely no financial status or social standing, still, because I happened to have been born white, I was born on the powerful and privileged side of human difference, not because God willed it that way, but because sin made it that way. And, since folk like myself have held most of the power for most of the time, we bear most of the responsibility for the way things are, and for changing things.

A way of thinking I learned from the trinity we are celebrating with the church throughout the world today, on Trinity Sunday. Every time I say to the first part of the trinity, God, “Why do I have this burden about racial justice, and this relentless calling to be in solidarity with whoever is most marginalized in our society?”, God invariably hands me off to another part of the trinity, the Holy Spirit, who reminds me that the other part of the trinity, Jesus, said, “To whom much is given, much is required”; God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus, joining voices to remind me that to be born on the powerful side of human difference is to live with a moral responsibility to work for racial justice and equality, healing and peace.

None of which is simple. To the contrary, there are great complexities about our long national history with race and our present national moment of reckoning, made worse by those who engage in acts of violence and destruction, and not helped at all by the relentless newsfeeds which constantly present us with the false choice of the exaggerated option, as though one must choose between gratitude for law enforcement and solidarity with minority communities, which is absolutely not true.

In the face of all that complexity, this much is clear: To be a follower of Jesus is to be called to live a life of kindness and clarity, clarity and kindness; offering to the wide world around us our best efforts at what Paul called, in today’s epistle lesson,“the holy kiss of peace”; a life of empathy and gentleness, careful listening and sensitive speech; words and actions of ordinary Christian kindness in a time of extraordinary human pain.

Amen.

What Does This Mean?

Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 31st, 2020 · Duration 11:49

All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Every year, on Pentecost Sunday, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from Acts chapter two; the bewildered Pentecost crowd asking the annual Pentecost question, “What does this mean?” What does this mean, this way of speech which embraces us all the same; Parthians, Medes, Elamites...Phrygians, Pamphylians, Egyptians and Libyans-no border or barrier between us? A bewilderment so great that some said, “They must be filled with wine.”

And, every year, on Pentecost Sunday, Peter responds to that annual Pentecost question, “What does this mean?”, with his beautiful Pentecost reply, This is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: “In the last days, God declares, I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy. Even upon slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit.”

That is what this means; the answer, in Acts, to Moses’ wish, back in the book of Numbers, that God would pour God’s Spirit on all God’s children.

Which, perhaps, could be one reason why God chose to send the Spirit in a new way on that day; the Jewish festival of Pentecost, which drew, to Jerusalem, all kinds of people from all kinds of places; so no one could miss the point that God’s Spirit is being poured out on all flesh, with no regard for any human difference.

Which may be why, the more filled with the Holy Spirit we become, the wider the reach of our welcome grows, until what once was our toleration of human difference becomes, instead, our celebration of human difference; a life of expansive piety, in which the closer we get to the spirit of Jesus, the wider we grow in our love and longing for the rich diversity of the whole human family, a life of prayerful piety which leaves us with a wingspan of welcome so wide that some might someday say of us what some said of them, then, “They must be full of wine.”

To which, we, then, might someday say, with Peter, “No. Not wine, but the Holy Spirit, which will not let us love less.”

Amen.

Concerning Prayer of Jesus

John 17:1-11, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 24th, 2020 · Duration 10:46

“Holy Father, protect them in your name; so that they may be one, as we are one.” Those words from today’s gospel lesson are one of four times in John chapter seventeen when the writer of the gospel of John says that Jesus prayed for his followers to be one; leaving us to wonder what Jesus may have meant by “being one” when he prayed for his followers to be as fully one with one another as Jesus was one with God.

If by “being one” Jesus meant being “of one mind”, then, by the time the gospel of John was written, Jesus’ prayer had been unanswered multiple times. By the time the gospel of John was written, sometime around 90 A.D., Paul and Barnabas had parted ways in Acts chapter fifteen, the Corinthians had been fragmented by divided loyalties and competing opinions, Euodia and Syntiche were in some sort of dispute in Philippians 4:2, and the Galatians were torn between Paul’s message of salvation by grace alone and the more conservative theology of the preachers who came to Galatia after Paul moved on; all of which had already happened before the gospel of John reported the prayer of Jesus for all his followers to be one.

And, from there, the divisions only grew greater; doctrinal disagreements among Christians in the second, third and fourth centuries fueling the formation of the official canon of the New Testament, and the emergence of church councils where creeds were written and declared Christian orthodoxy by majority vote; none of which, one imagines, is what Jesus had in mind when Jesus prayed that all of Jesus’ people would be as fully one with one another as Jesus was one with God.

Whatever Jesus meant when Jesus prayed for Jesus’ followers to become as one with another as Jesus was one with God, it must have been something deeper than agreeing with one another. We all have people in our lives with whom we are one, in love and friendship, with whom we do not agree; sometimes, on very important issues. I have had many such friendships in my life; people with whom I don’t agree on very important matters, but with whom I am one in loyalty, respect, love and delight; the kind of friendships which embody that beloved Northminster mantra, “Agree to differ, resolve to love, unite to serve.”

All of which, it must be said, can be easier to say than to live; particularly when those with whom we wish to be one say words and take actions which are so hurtful and unjust to others that we can no longer be one with them, because we must stand up for those who are being injured, excluded or marginalized by their words and actions. So, please don’t hear me saying that for Jesus’ people to be as united as Jesus prayed for us to be is simple or easy. To the contrary, it can sometimes be difficult beyond words.

Having acknowledged that complexity, we are then ready to say that there is a way for all of Jesus’ people to become as one with one another as Jesus prayed for us to become, which is for all of Jesus’ people first to become more completely one with Jesus.

Of course, not everyone will even agree on what it means to be one with Jesus. But, to me, what it means to be one with Jesus is clear. If the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, then what it means to be one with Jesus is not a mystery. Read the four gospels, and what you find is a handful of summary statements; moments in the gospels when Jesus sums up what matters most, places such as Matthew 7:12, “Do to others as you want others to do to you, this is the law and the prophets,” Matthew 12:7, “I desire mercy not sacrifice,” Matthew 22:37-40, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind. This is the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets,” and John 13:34-35, “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are mine, if you have love for one another.”

To read the four gospels is to see and know that the life of love is what mattered most to Jesus, which means that to be one with Jesus is to get up every morning and choose, all over again, the one thing which mattered most to Jesus; the life of kindness, clarity, courage and love which never says or does anything to anyone that we would not want said or done to us.

Those who live that way are those who are one with Jesus, and, when we become one with those who are one with Jesus, then the prayer Jesus prayed in this morning’s gospel lesson will, at last, be answered. Imagine that; Jesus’ prayer, answered by us.

Amen.

On Going Through

Psalm 66:8-20, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 17th, 2020 · Duration 13:50

“We went through fire and through water, but God brought us out to a spacious place.” Every time the lectionary asks the church to read that verse from today’s psalm, many of us recognize our lives in the psalmist’ words, “We went through fire and water, but God brought us out to a spacious place.”

When the psalmist says, “We went through fire and water, but God brought us out to a spacious place”, the psalmist is probably talking about the people of God, going through the dangers of the Red Sea and the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land. But, whatever those words may have meant in the psalmist’ mouth, on our ears, they sound a lot like the story of our lives. We keep going through whatever comes next, and God keeps bringing us out. Or, as the psalmist says, “We went through fire and water, and God brought us out to a spacious space.”

Needless to say, life is not all “fire and water.” To the contrary, life is often simple and easy. But, for many of us, life is also a lot of going through difficult moments we did not get to go around. As Fred Buechner once wisely wrote “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen,” not unlike what Mrs. Soames, a character in Our Town, said, upon looking back across her life from the land of the dead, “My, wasn't life awful...and wonderful.”

The same life which starts out as a sea of joy, punctuated by occasional islands of pain, can, sometimes, become a sea of pain, punctuated by occasional islands of joy; most of us, like the psalmist, going through fire and water, not once, but several times in our lives. And, like the psalmist, coming out on the other side, hopefully, as the psalmist said, “in a spacious place”; psalmist shorthand for emerging from our struggles in a better way; with a bigger, more spacious spirit.

Pondering all of that this week caused me to think of how often I have wondered, during the time of Covid-19, when things might “get back to normal”, even though, like you, I know that life rarely goes back to anything. “Back to the way it was” is not the direction in which life generally moves. As C.S. Lewis once said, “The one prayer God will never answer is the prayer for an encore. God’s creativity is much too vast for that. God will not give us back the good old days,” concluded Lewis, “But God will give us good new days.”

What C.S. Lewis called “the good new days” may be something like what the psalmist called “the spacious place” which waits on the other side of the many fire and water moments and seasons of struggle and pain through which most of us must go in this life; most of us, going through whatever it was we did not get to go around, and hopefully, emerging from it with a more gentle and generous spirit; less arrogant, sarcastic, petty and small; more empathetic, patient, quiet and kind; the fire and the water having burned away and washed away that which was most shallow about us, leaving us with a new depth of spirit we did not have before we went through the fire and water of struggle and pain.

All of which we must say only with the greatest of care. After all, there is no guarantee that we will emerge from our “fire and water” struggles with a more gentle and generous spirit. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “I have seen pain twist people into exhausted rags with all the hope squeezed out of them. But, I have also seen people in whom pain seems to have burned away everything trivial, petty and less than noble, until they have become see-through with light”; going through fire and water and coming out more gentle and generous, luminous and kind; not always, but often, the most gentle and generous spirits emerging from the most difficult and painful struggles.

As Naomi Shihab Nye once wisely wrote, “Before we can know kindness as the deepest thing inside, we must first know sorrow as the other deepest thing;” going through fire and water bringing us out into a more spacious place with a more gentle and generous spirit; not because God sent the sickness or sorrow, disappointment or loss, pandemic or pain to us, but because God used it for us; the Spirit of God, bringing us out better, each time; the cumulative total of all the fire and water we have gone through, transforming us, little by little, into more and more.

Amen.

Glimpses of God

John 14:1-14, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 10th, 2020 · Duration 14:45

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Another Valley

Psalm 23, The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 3rd, 2020 · Duration 10:51

“Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, no matter how many times the lectionary places, in our path, those wonderful old words from the twenty-third psalm, I never fail to be struck by the way the sentence at the center of Psalm 23 promises us support in trouble, not protection from trouble.

Some psalms do appear to promise protection from trouble; among them, Psalm 91, which says, “God will protect those who love God and know God’s name”; Psalm 121, which says, “The Lord will keep us from all harm”; Psalm 12, which says, “The Lord will protect us and guard us;” and Psalm 5, which says, “God covers the righteous with a shield of favor;” all beautiful promises of protection, but all, also, leaving us, at times, with much mystery, and hard questions, when we watch those who love God and know God’s name suffer so in this life; the dearest people we have ever known, bearing the hardest burdens we have ever seen; promises of protection for the children of God, notwithstanding.

Which is not to say that no one is ever protected or spared. Most of us can look back on close calls with disaster or trouble; sorrows from which we are certain we were spared and protected. It’s just that we also know of times when we, and those we know and love, were not protected; in some cases, the finest and most prayerful people we have ever known going through the hardest and most painful valleys we have ever seen.

Which, of course, is where the sentence at the center of Psalm 23 comes in; promising us, not protection from trouble, but strength in trouble. “Though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff they comfort me;” a promise, not of protection from the longest, lowest valleys, but of strength for the longest, lowest valleys; God, not always leading us around the worst, but always joining us in the worst, and seeing us through the worst.

Thinking about all that this week called to mind, for me, a sentence from the novelist, Pat Conroy, who, in his memoir, My Reading Life, said, “Sometimes I think I should sit down and write a letter to the boy I once was.” Needless to say, not all of us can do that, especially now, because while, for some, the season of Covid-19 may have freed up more time, for others, it has eaten up more time. But, someday, when we have the time, that might be an important spiritual discipline; to find a quiet space and write a letter to the child we once were: Dear Me at Twelve, we might begin, Here’s what has happened in the twenty, or forty, or eighty years since I was you and you were me…

The report which might follow for most of us might include the memory of near misses and close calls, sorrows from which we were protected, along with great struggles and deep losses from which we were not spared, but for which we were given the strength to stay on our feet and keep moving; the strength to go through those long, low valleys we did not get to go around; valleys from which God did not spare us, but in which God did join us, to comfort and help us.

One of which is our present season of uncertainty; the time of Covid-19, also sometimes called “novel coronavirus” to differentiate it from other, previous coronavirus strains. But, while the virus may be different, and the responses to it unprecedented, there is nothing novel or new about the anxiety and sadness, uncertainty and loss, which this present season in our lives has brought to so many; another long and low valley, thick with shadows and dense with pain, but one in which God is with us and for us; the Spirit of God and the people of God, seeing us through another valley we did not get to go around.
Amen.

New Beginnings

Luke 24:13-35, The Third Sunday in Eastertide

Major Treadway · April 26th, 2020 · Duration 16:37

        New beginnings come about throughout the lives that each of us live. Often, these new beginnings can be anticipated: Marriage, starting a new job, the adoption or birth of a child, moving to a new place, starting college. There are so many new beginnings for which we can try to prepare. We dream and anticipate. We talk to friends or relatives who may have some special insight about our next adventure. We read books, scour the internet, look at pictures, and even try to get a taste of what this new endeavor might be like – with internships, extended visits, or babysitting (for the record, babysitting is nothing like parenting). We anticipate and prepare as best as we can until that long-awaited moment, when we are swallowed up by the new beginning, and the new beginning becomes our present.

        But there are also other new beginnings that come about throughout the lives that each of us live. There are new beginnings that start in ways that we do not anticipate, that do not follow our plans. This is the kind of new beginning in which the travelers on the road to Emmaus find themselves in this morning’s gospel lesson.

        Cleopas and his friend are walking the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They are lamenting that the New Beginning that they were starting to believe might be true, was not turning out the way that they had hoped. They had hoped that Jesus would be the one to redeem Israel – after all Jesus had stood in the temple at the beginning of his ministry and proclaimed “the year of the Lord’s favor,” before sitting down and telling everyone that “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

        This same Jesus, preached and taught with unusual authority. He healed people, lots of people. He fed thousands of people with just a few loaves bread and a few fish. He knew just where to cast fishing nets. He once spoke to a raging storm and it stopped. Another time, he walked across the surface of a lake – on top of the water. He always commanded the attention of any gathered group, whether they be tax collectors, lawyers, religious folk, or just ordinary sinners like us.

        But then he died. I can almost hear Cleopas and his friend kicking themselves for having believed. I imagine them to be just on the cusp of swearing to never fall for another messianic pyramid scheme again, when a stranger approaches them and interrupts their conversation.

        These two men, it would seem, were ready for a new beginning. They had spent time with Jesus, or at least hearing about him enough to believe that he was the messiah. They were ready for a new beginning that would have flown in the faces of some of the religious leaders of their day. They may not have been quite sure what this new beginning would be, but they had at least chosen that path and begun to imagine and dream of what life would be like following Jesus; but then Jesus was killed and their new beginning was suddenly different. Not like they had imagined.

        Ellie, Raeonna, Katie, Andrew, Thaddeaus, Trey, Kelsey, Ross, Connor, Ainsley, Jackson, Jon-Sanders, and Noel, just over a month ago, you all were finishing up your third semester of your senior year of high school, preparing for entry into the next new beginning of your life as a high school graduate. Readying yourself for life’s next steps. This readying included one more semester with your peers, managing the baseball team, winning a state championship, going to prom, planning a senior trip, a host of graduation parties, gathering here today, walking across a stage to receive your diploma while your friends and family celebrated this accomplishment. This readying included well thought out and planned goodbyes and see-you-laters. It included good and appropriate closure – opportunities for one last hug, one more apology, one last walk out of school and ride off of campus.

        And while it was spring break, all of these preparations that you had planned were cancelled without your input or consultation. Thrusting you into a kind of odd liminal space where you can see your friends and experience your last semester of school – virtually, but not tangibly – in a space where we are all finding that though we are just as connected digitally, that the physical presence we took for granted had more meaning than we had ever known.

        And so your new beginning has been thrust upon you in ways that do not allow you to have the kind of preparation that you would have planned. While the rest of us have also been shaken by this new reality; most of us are not on the cusp of the next phase of our lives.

        All of us, though, are on this journey toward a new beginning that we cannot quite get our minds around. We are all eager to be together, to hug one another, to be with our family of faith, to gather in this space and many other spaces; but for now, we cannot. We are on a journey toward a new beginning that feels like we aren’t going anywhere.

        I imagine that this feeling is a bit what Cleopas and his unnamed friend felt when their conversation was interrupted by a stranger, who invited himself into their conversation. As readers of the Gospel of Luke, we know that this stranger is Jesus, but Cleopas and his traveling companion don’t know. Down as they are, when this stranger asks “hey, what are you guys talking about?”, they welcome him into their conversation and they continued their journey together.

        Their journey together is not long. Though they manage to share enough that when their journey is at what should be its natural conclusion, and Jesus begins walking ahead as though to leave them, these weary travelers, perhaps reminiscing the Deuteronomic command to “love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” perhaps subconsciously leaning into Jesus’ chilling tale that to welcome “one of the least of these…” is to welcome Jesus, these weary travelers welcome the stranger into their home to stay the night and to share a meal.

        As they sit down to eat, somehow it is this stranger, the guest in the house, who takes on the role of host and breaks the bread, and when he does, suddenly, as though they had known all along, but were not ready to believe that it could be so, Cleopas and his unnamed friend recognize Jesus.

        The next line in the story says that Jesus vanishes. Amazingly, they do not get hung up on Jesus vanishing, instead, the gospel of Luke says that before one hour had passed, they got up and returned to Jerusalem to tell the disciples of Jesus what they had seen, learned, and experienced.

        Seniors, the road that you and we are all on at this moment in history is strange and taking us in directions that none of us could have imagined were even possible just two months ago. We all take comfort in the knowledge that the place where we find ourselves is not the end our collective journey, but just a part of the journey on which we are traveling.

        When you arrive at your new place, be it Jackson, Oxford, Starkville, New Orleans, Missouri,  North Carolina, or somewhere you are not yet anticipating, you will meet strangers – strangers who may overhear your conversation and ask you what you were talking about; strangers who may be from Jackson or may be from some place far away and weird like Portland; strangers who may hold the keys to the all the important social circles or strangers who may have been kept outside of all of the important social circles; strangers who are searching for the perfect church or strangers who have long ago given up on church. Whoever these strangers are, whatever their story, because of the ways that you have been formed in your time here among us, when I imagine you meeting that stranger, I imagine you welcoming him/her into your conversation.

        And later, somewhere down the road, you and someone who was once a stranger will sit in a room, perhaps like this one, and you will hear familiar words and a familiar story. Bread will be broken and passed around, and you will find that you are among a people that you do not presently know, but somehow at that time all will be familiar to you once again.

        The act of breaking the bread. The words that are spoken. The cup. The ritual. It will all come together in such a way that will bind you in that moment to all of the moments that you have been formed by the breaking of the bread in this space, bread that would have sat where your pictures now sit. You will remember not only the experiences that have formed you here and in which you have formed Northminster, but you will remember the words that your new friends, your new community of faith, have spoken to you and how those words have burned within you – shedding new light on old truths.

        Somehow, in the breaking of the bread, you will see before you a lifetime of experience and formation that has prepared you for this new beginning and for the greeting of a stranger. In that moment, as the circle of your embrace continues to broaden, I hope that you will come back to the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover, and tell us all that you have seen, learned, and experienced.

        Come on home and tell us how the words of Jesus are burning inside of you, words that you have heard and studied in the youth house and will have taken on new flesh in your new context. Come on back and tell us about the exciting ways that you are able to translate how your experiences at passport and cooking smiley face chicken sandwiches have prepared you for your new beginnings in all your new places. Tell us how what you are learning there can inform what we are doing here.

        And be confident of this: as certainly as those disciples in Jerusalem would have been excited to hear the story that Cleopas and his friend had to tell about their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus, and as assuredly as we all now await the days when we are able again to safely gather back here in this space and share all that has transpired since the last time we were together, we will be enraptured by your stories of what you are learning and experiencing.

         Yes, we will be excited. We will be excited because for as long as you have been a part of this community, this family of faith has been pouring its life into yours – holding you in the nursery, guiding you in children’s church, corralling you through Palm Sunday processionals and Living Nativities, creating nurturing experiences in Atrium, teaching you in Sunday School, chaperoning trips, preparing meals, hanging out in the Youth House, buying your desserts – all the time, watching you, encouraging you, and praying for you.

        We will also be excited to hear what you have learned, because as long as you have been a part of this community, this community has been learning from you – trying to answer your innocent and profound questions, watching as you care for one another, learning from you on Youth Sundays in Sunday School and worship, seeing how you serve, how you love, how you minister to all of us.

        Each Sunday night for the last year, we have closed our gatherings standing in a circle and praying together a prayer adapted from Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Ellie, Raeonna, Katie, Andrew, Thaddeaus, Trey, Kelsey, Ross, Connor, Ainsley, Jackson, Jon-Sanders, and Noel, my prayer for all of Northminster, and especially for each of you today as you continue to prepare for your upcoming new beginning, is that prayer:

May the peace of the God go with you wherever God may send you;

May God guide you through the wilderness, protect you through the storm;

May God bring you home rejoicing at the wonders God has shown you;

May God bring you home rejoicing once again into these doors.

Amen.

Concerning Our One Another Faith

John 20:19-31, The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 19th, 2020 · Duration 16:04

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Easter in Exile

Jeremiah 31:1-6, Easter/Resurrection of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 12th, 2020 · Duration 14:45

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

This Week

Matthew 21:1-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 5th, 2020 · Duration 12:59

               Needless to say, this week will be different from any other Holy Week we have ever known.  And, it will be the same as every other Holy Week we have ever known.

               Unlike any other Holy Week most of us have ever known, we will not be able to be together, this week; an inability to gather which will mean the loss of some dimensions of our life together, among them, serving one another the bread and cup of Communion, a sacred act which can happen anywhere, needing neither sanctuary or pastor, but one which does need a way for all to serve and be served.  And, so, for this week, at least, we fast from the feast we so love to serve to one another; bound, to one another, this time, by our hunger for the bread, our thirst for the cup, and our deep longing for the sacred practice of Holy Communion.

               A Holy Week made different, also, by the absence of the Palm Sunday procession of palm-waving children; but made beautiful by the palms, which our children crafted and created, which cover and carpet the aisle and altar of our sanctuary.  Add to those Palm Sunday differences the fact that our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services will, of necessity, be livestreamed instead of in person, and, needless to say, this Holy Week will be different from any Holy Week we have ever known.

               And, yet, in ways which nothing can ever alter, this Holy Week will be the same as every Holy Week we have ever known; Jesus, making his way, today, into Jerusalem, welcomed by the hopeful “Hosannas” of the expectant crowd; followed, later this week, by the anointing with perfume by Mary, the preparation and celebration of the Passover meal, the agony in Gethsemane, Judas’ kiss, Peter’s tears and Pilate’s reluctant verdict; all the gathering shadows of this Holy Week, the same as every other Holy Week we have ever known.

               Bringing us, at last, to the most dense and deep Holy Week shadows of all, as Jesus, once again, this Friday, will carry his cross to the place of his death; climbing up onto the cross to climb down into the worst we have ever inflicted or endured, spoken or heard, caused or felt, given or received; our Lord Jesus, taking it all on, and taking it all in; dying, as he lived, arms out as wide as the world; completing the life he came to live, by dying the death he came to die.

               In all those ways, this Holy Week, though different from any Holy Week we have ever known, will be the same as every Holy Week we have ever known.

               And, next week, the same will be so, again.  Next Sunday will be unlike any Easter we have ever known, but it will also be just like every Easter we have ever known; the whole Holy Week cast of characters, those who were glad Jesus was gone, and those who were sad Jesus was gone, all discovering the same great Sunrise Surprise, next week.

               But first, there is this week.

                                                                                                         Amen.

 

The Church in the Time of Covid-19

John 11:1-45, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 29th, 2020 · Duration 13:36

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

The Next Right Thing

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Lesley Ratcliff · March 22nd, 2020 · Duration 63:56

The sermon begins at 38:15.

The Hour Is Coming, And Is Now Here

John 4:5-42, The Third Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 15th, 2020 · Duration 0:0

                I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I find this morning’s gospel lesson from John chapter four to be among the most important passages in all the Bible; a corner of scripture which captures the passion, and measures the wingspan, of Jesus.

                Jesus, in John chapter four, transcending human boundaries to embrace human differences; going to Samaria, a place many first-century Jews avoided; drinking after a Samaritan, a race many first-century Jews disdained; and talking to a woman in public, which scandalized Jesus' disciples in verse twenty-seven of today’s gospel lesson.  Jesus, in John chapter four, saying “No” to the xenophobia, racism and misogyny of his world, and ours.  Jesus, transcending human boundaries to embrace human differences.

                Which is why I always say that the deeper we go in our life with Jesus, the wider we grow in our embrace of the world.  After all, there isn’t another Jesus for us to be like, get close to, or follow.  The only Jesus there is for us to get close to is the one who transcends all human boundaries to embrace all human differences.  So, of course, the deeper we go in our life with Jesus, the wider we grow in our love for the world.  Until, eventually, we get so close to Jesus that all the human differences which won’t matter to God in heaven don’t matter to us on earth.

                That’s when we know we’re going deep with, and getting close to, Jesus; when we can honestly say that all the human differences which won’t matter to God, then, don’t matter to us, now.

                Which is not unlike what Jesus was saying to the woman at the well in today’s gospel lesson.  When the woman reminded Jesus that her people, the Samaritans, had one place for, and way of, worship, and Jesus’ people, the Jews, had a different place for, and way of, worship, Jesus replied, “Believe me, the hour is coming when we will worship God neither on your mountain or mine.  The hour is coming, and is now here, when we will worship God in spirit and in truth”. 

                “The hour is coming, and is now here, when all these differences which matter so much to so many will no longer matter at all to any”, said Jesus to the woman. 

                “The hour is now here” means that we don’t have to wait until we get to heaven to transcend all the human boundaries of our time and embrace all the human differences in our arms.  “The hour is now here” means that we don’t have to wait until we're over on the Other Side to move from tolerating the diversity of the whole human family to celebrating the diversity of the whole human family.  “The hour is now here” means that we don’t have to die before we can live big, beautiful, strong, gentle lives of welcome, hospitality, justice and grace. 

                Whenever we get close enough to Jesus to say that all the human differences which won’t matter to God, then, don’t matter to us, now, the grace-filled hour, which is coming, is now here.

                                                                                                                Amen.

Concerning the Life of Faith

John 3:1-17, The Second Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 8th, 2020 · Duration 13:10

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Temptations of Jesus

Matthew 4:1-11, The First Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 1st, 2020 · Duration 4:15

                Every year, on the First Sunday in Lent, the lectionary places in our path one of the gospel accounts of the temptations of Jesus; temptations, not to be sinful, but to be successful; not to do something bad, but to do something big; temptations to be powerful and impressive, to do God’s work the world’s way.

               And, every year, on the First Sunday in Lent, Jesus says “No”, to the temptation to be powerful and successful; choosing, instead, to live a life of vulnerable love; sitting down with and standing up for the most vulnerable people often enough that it made the most powerful people nervous enough that, at the other end of Lent, Jesus will die on a cross; stretched all the way up to God, and all the way out to others; the cross Jesus said “Yes” to when Jesus said “No” to the temptation to be powerful and successful, safe and secure, and chose, instead of a life of institutional ambition, a life of vulnerable love. 

               Which is the life to which Jesus calls the church; a cross-formed life of vulnerable love, stretched all the way up with love for God, and all the way out with love for others; saying “No” to what Jesus said “No” to, so  that we can say “Yes” to what Jesus said “Yes” to; a cross-formed life of kindness, courage and vulnerable love.                                                                                                                                                             Amen. 

                                                                          

Moses, Elijah and Jesus

Matthew 17:1-9, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · February 23rd, 2020 · Duration 8:21

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

A Sermon on the Sermon on the Mount

Matthew 5:21-37, The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 16th, 2020 · Duration 0:5

               This morning’s gospel lesson from the Sermon on the Mount is a painful one for any of us to read, and for many of us to hear, because of what it says concerning divorce.

               Of course, we all know that one cannot draw a straight line from the first-century to the twenty-first century, concerning either marriage or divorce, and that this gospel lesson’s use of the word “adultery” is as extreme as its call for us to tear out the eye and cut off the hand.  But, the words on the page don’t take that into account; ink-marks forever fixed in first-century words which land on twenty-first century ears in ways which can be so painful that, were it not for the lectionary, we might never read them in church.  But, because we follow the lectionary, every three years we do read them, and, once we have read them, it seems irresponsible not to talk about them.

               I grew up in a church, in Georgia, and regularly drive past churches, in Jackson, where today’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, concerning divorce, are taken literally, and, thus, are used in ways which add to the pain of those who have already endured one of life’s most complex griefs; all in the name of the timeless authority of the infallible Bible.  But, the same churches which apply timeless authority to those words in the Sermon on the Mount have no qualms about arming themselves against potential intruders, despite the fact that the same Sermon on the Mount says “Do not resist an evildoer”; and, no hesitations about asking if the poor who seek aid from the church are “deserving of help”, despite the fact that the same Sermon on the Mount says “Give to everyone who begs from you”. 

               Let’s be as honest as we can bear to be.  The way much of popular North American Christianity manages the Bible has turned much of the popular church into something like a cruise ship, where all the first-class cabins are reserved for folk like myself; white, straight, once-married, males; with plenty of second-class accommodations for everyone else.  And, any church which doesn’t follow that same path is suspected to be loose and liberal about the Bible.

               All of which makes me feel a little like Willie McCoy, from that classic ballad by the famous twentieth-century American poet, Jim Croce, “You Don't Mess Around with Slim”.  The more musically erudite and culturally sophisticated members of the congregation will recall that, after having been sorely hustled by “Big Jim” in a contest of billiards, Willie, a.k.a. “Slim”, returned, looking for a rematch, declaring, “Last week he took all my money, and it may sound funny, but I’ve come to get my money back.”

               With apologies to Jim Croce, I would like to say that “It may sound funny, but I've come to get my Bible back.”  The Bible has been used too freely to cause too much pain for far too long; including, even, the Sermon on the Mount; and, especially, today’s paragraph about divorce; a part of the Holy Bible which, apart from the Holy Spirit, only adds to the pain of those who have already suffered through one of life’s most complex losses. 

               But, with the Holy Spirit, that part of the Holy Bible ceases to be a crushing burden to those who have suffered the grief of divorce, and becomes, instead, a reminder for us all that marriage is to be entered into with great care, and lived into with much gentleness and long kindness.  Marriage, at its deepest and best; two less than perfect people sharing a less than perfect life, with patience and courtesy, realism and respect, forgiveness and grace; all of which is true for every marriage, be it an only marriage or a subsequent marriage. 

               With the Holy Spirit, that’s the way today’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount makes meaning which doesn’t hurt and harm, but helps and heals.

               Which is true, not only for the Sermon on the Mount, but for all of scripture.  We Christians need to worry less about how inspired the writers of scripture were, and worry more about how inspired the readers of scripture are.  Because, without the Holy Spirit, the Holy Bible can hurt us.  But, with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Bible can heal us.

                                                                                                         Amen.

This Much Is Clear

Isaiah 58:1-9, The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 9th, 2020 · Duration 13:40

            “Is not this the worship I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, and to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless poor into your home?”

               With those words, today’s lesson from Isaiah takes its place in a Bible-wide stream of verses which call the people of God to embody the spirit of God by taking specific, practical actions on behalf of, and in solidarity with, those who struggle on the hard margins of life; a Bible-wide stream which flows all the way from Leviticus 19:10, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall leave the edges for the poor and the immigrant” to I John 3:17, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has this world’s goods, sees someone in need, and yet refuses to help?” 

               Between those words from Leviticus and First John, other verses in that Bible-wide stream include Deuteronomy 15:7, “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor”, Deuteronomy 15:11,“The poor will always be with you; therefore, open your hand to the poor”, Proverbs 31:8,“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, and defend the rights of the poor”, Isaiah 1:17, “Seek justice,  rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”, Amos 8:4, “Hear this, you who trample on the needy, and bring pain to the poor, God will not forget what you have done”, Malachi 3:5, “God will bring judgement against those who oppress workers, widows, orphans and aliens”, Matthew 5:42, “Give to everyone who begs from you”, Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you”, Luke 14:13, “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind”, and Hebrews 13:3, “Remember those who are in prison as though you were in prison with them”.

               Add to all those verses and voices the parable in Matthew chapter twenty-five in which Jesus says that the big question on judgement day will be how we responded to the hungry, the poor, the sick, the stranger and the prisoner, not to mention the parable in Luke chapter sixteen where the one who had more than enough in this life is in     torment in the next life because he failed to care for the needs of poor Lazarus, and it is clear that, when this morning’s lesson from Isaiah says that what God wants from us is for us to loose the bonds of injustice and let the oppressed go free, today’s lesson from Isaiah is not an isolated voice in scripture, but part of the cumulative weight of scripture; part of a Bible-wide stream of verses and voices, all of which call the people of God to embody the spirit of God by entering into friendship with those who struggle on the hard margins of life.

               The cumulative weight of scripture is clear:  God has a preferential concern for whoever is most vulnerable in this world, and God expects those of us who claim the name of God to embody that same concern in our words and in our deeds.  Whatever else we may, or may not, be able to say with certainty about God, that much is clear.

               I sometimes think of it this way:  If you take a perfectly smooth Bible, and place it on a perfectly flat table, on a perfectly even floor, in a perfectly level building, that Bible will still tilt, turn, slope and lean in the direction of whoever is most vulnerable, outcast, marginalized, ostracized, demonized, dehumanized, stigmatized, powerless, voiceless, overlooked, left out, excluded, poor and alone, because that is where the cumulative weight of scripture tilts, turns, slopes and leans; the cumulative weight of scripture, calling us to get in on what God is up to in this world by sitting down with and standing up for persons in need of help and hope, justice and welcome, friendship and love; persons we need in our lives as much as they need us in theirs, so that the boundaries which separate neighbor from neighbor can dissolve, so that God’s kingdom can come and God’s will can be done on earth as it is in heaven.

               Needless to say, there will always be complexities and uncertainties concerning how to go about embracing the most vulnerable and marginalized persons in the orbit of our reach.  But, if the cumulative weight of scripture is to be believed, then there is no doubt that the will of God for all of us is for each of us to open our lives in friendship to, for and with those who live on the hardest margins of life.

               Whatever else we may, or may not, be able to say, with certainty, concerning God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit and the Holy Bible, that much is clear.

                                                                                                         Amen.

What Is God's Will For Our Lives

Micah 6:1-8, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 2nd, 2020 · Duration 5:37

             “What does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?”

               With those words, today’s lesson from the book of Micah tells us what God’s will is for our lives.  According to those words from Micah 6:8, the will of God for the people of God is for us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God; steps which, for many of us, come in the reverse order from the order in which Micah 6:8 names them. 

               Many of us begin with what Micah 6:8 ends with.  What Micah lists last, walking humbly with our God, most of us do first; practicing each day, all through the day, living a prayerful and centered life, the kind of walking with God which slowly forms us into the kind of people who love nothing more than we love kindness; walking humbly with God until, as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye says, “It is only kindness which ties our shoes in the morning and sends us out into the day;” a life of loving kindness which first causes us to sit down with those who are hurting and alone, but eventually compels us to stand up against injustice, exclusion, discrimination, oppression, meanness, bullying, hurt and harm; a life spent walking humbly with God, until we become people who love kindness so deeply that we can’t not get out there in the world and work for justice.

               Which, according to today’s lesson from the book of Micah, is the will of God for the people of God; what God wants most from, and for, each of us and all of us; for us to walk humbly with our God until we love kindness so deeply that we can’t not do justice.

                                                                                                                        Amen.

              

Youth Sunday

Matthew 4: 12-23, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Youth · January 26th, 2020 · Duration 51:41

The audio begins at 1:35.

Concerning the Open Ear

Psalm 40:1-11, The Second Sunday After Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 19th, 2020 · Duration 12:51

“God has given me an open ear.”  Every time the lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words from today’s psalm, we hear the psalm say that God has opened the psalmist’ ear.

But, according to students of the Hebrew language, those words, “God has given me an open ear”, may not be as gentle in the original Hebrew as they sound in our Bibles.  In the Hebrew text, that sentence says something more along the lines of “God has dug out my ear” or “God has bored a hole in my ear”; painful sounding images which, for those who have actually lived an open-eared life, make perfect sense, because, to keep our ears ever open for the voice of the Holy Spirit can cause us to grow and change in ways which, while wonderful and true, can, also, be painful.

In fact, to hear and see new light on old truth can sometimes feel something like going through stages of grief.  First, we become angry at whoever has shown us new light on old truth, because we don’t want to have to change our minds about things we thought were certain, settled and finished.  Then, eventually, we may come to know, at the deep down center of our soul, that the light we have been shown is, in fact, more true to the spirit of God than what we have always thought and been taught.  But, we can’t bring ourselves to say so out loud because it’s not what our family and friends expect us to believe.  At which point we move from anger to denial; “hiding our light under a bushel”, knowing better than we are willing to say, perhaps because we do not want to appear disloyal to, or ungrateful for, those who first formed us for God and the gospel.  Or, perhaps because, for us, and for those whose agreement and approval we want and need, the way things have always been has always worked, especially if we were born on the powerful, comfortable side of human difference. 

They say that “the winners write the histories.”  Unfortunately, the winners also write the theologies, doctrines, creeds, prayer books and rules.  And, more often than not, all those words we put in God’s mouth work best for those of us who were born on the powerful, comfortable, majority side of human difference.   So, of course, change is difficult for us, which is why to live with the open ear can be as painful as the Holy Ghost ear-piercing this morning’s psalm describes; the ear dug out and opened up.  As W. H. Auden once said, “We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.”

But, on the other side of those moments of truth, there waits a whole new life which we cannot get to without first “climbing the cross of the moment,” and being honest about the truth we have come to see and know concerning what does and does not matter to God. 

Moments of truth which begin with the digging out of the ear, and end with the stretching out of the arms; our arms stretched out so far that, with one hand, we can reach back and bless the best of what is behind us, and, with the other hand, reach out and take hold of the truth we have come to see and must come to say; the Spirit-filled life of the open ears and the open arms; the more dug out the ear, the more stretched out the arms.

                                                                                                                        Amen.

 

Concerning Kindness and Clarity

John 1:10-18, The Second Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · January 5th, 2020 · Duration 9:51

Audio Note: The sermon begins after the choir solo

          “And the Word became flesh and lived among us...full of grace and truth.”  Of all the words in sacred scripture, few come closer to capturing the life of Jesus in a single summarizing sentence than those from this morning’s gospel lesson; words which describe the life of Jesus as being full of both grace and truth; grace which was kind and gentle in its welcome, and truth which was clear and severe in its demands; an expansive wingspan of grace which kept Jesus sitting down with sinners and strangers, and a crystal clear moral compass of truth which kept Jesus standing up against injustice and hypocrisy. 

               Follow Jesus around in the four gospels, and that is what you see; a life full of both, grace and truth; a way of life which, without the Holy Spirit, none of us could hope to live, but, one which, with the Holy Spirit, all of us can try to live; a life which is as kind as it is clear, and as clear as it is kind; a life of kindness and clarity at which we get better by faithful daily practice; praying, each day, all through the day, to be kind and clear in our words and actions; cutting back on the sarcasm, exaggerating and teasing; renouncing the passive-aggressive behavior which says one thing in a person’s presence and something else in their absence; repenting of all those less than mindful ways of speaking and living which are full of neither, grace or truth, so that we can grow into a way of life which is full of both, grace and truth; that beautiful kind of life which the Quakers call “gentle and plain”; a life which, like the life of Jesus, is full of nothing but the kindness of grace and the clarity of truth.                                                                                                                                                                            Amen.

The World Into Which Jesus Was Born

Matthew 2:13-23, The First Sunday of Christmastide

Major Treadway · December 29th, 2019 · Duration 20:38

     I love a good story, don’t you?

           A good story has a way of drawing you in and taking hold of you and keeping hold of you until it is ready to let go. A great story will stick with you long after the telling has finished. Storytelling is an art. For great storytellers, the story itself is only a vehicle for what they are really hoping to communicate. If they have been successful in their telling, the story will take on a new life in the minds of its hearers.

          Today is the first Sunday of Christmastide – a twelve-day season that will take us from Christmas day until Epiphany, when the wise people will visit Jesus and present him with gifts.

          Before we get ahead of ourselves, we need to follow the story as the Lectionary has laid it out for us.

           Today’s gospel lesson presents a series of movements, dreams, places, and characters that all help set the stage for who this child, Jesus, is and is to become. I don’t want to get too technical with details, but I think that some of them are instructive. This reading comes from the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew. The first chapter is made up primarily of the genealogy of Joseph, followed by Joseph deciding not to divorce Mary – thanks to a visit from an angel – and then, Jesus is born.

          Chapter 2, where we find ourselves today, begins with the visit of the wise men – we’ll come back to that in a couple weeks. Then, today’s lesson. By the end of chapter two, Jesus is probably 2-4 years old – not yet in kindergarten. The next chapter of Matthew will skip ahead to Jesus’ baptism and the start of his ministry – when scholars think that Jesus was about 30 years old. The 26 chapters of Matthew’s Gospel that follow today’s reading will cover less than 3 years of time. The whole of what the author of the gospel of Matthew wants to introduce about Jesus before his ministry begins is found in the first two chapters – about half of which is a genealogy and story of the wise people’s journey to Jesus.

          All that to say that if we believe that introductions are important, and I do, then we must believe that there is a lot that the author is hoping to communicate in these eleven verses as a means of introducing Jesus.

          The author seeks to connect Jesus to the Jewish story in significant ways. Joseph, named for that other famous Joseph in the Bible – the one who was the favorite son of his father, Jacob, grandson of Abraham, Jacob whose name would later be changed by God to Israel. Joseph, the dreamer. Joseph, who was thrown into a well, then sold into slavery and taken to Egypt. Joseph, who would dream dreams and interpret dreams and eventually call his father Israel and all of his children into Egypt to live. For the father of Jesus to bear the name Joseph carries a lot of weight at the outset – when Matthew tells of Joseph having dreams, immediately all of the first century Jewish hearers of this story would think of that other Joseph and his dreams.

          Sometimes, though, a storyteller will not think that mere allusion is enough. Sometimes a storyteller will need to lay it on really thick, just to drive home the point. In Joseph’s dreams, he is told to flee to Egypt to avoid death. Now, Joseph is firmly connected to that other Joseph.

          But the connection of Jesus to the story of the Jews does not stop there. Young children are killed in Bethlehem, calling to mind Exodus chapter one when the new king over Egypt commands that all newborn males should be cast into the Nile. And then one more time Joseph has a dream. The angel of the Lord calls upon Joseph to get up and lead his family out of Egypt to the land of Israel. Of course, you don’t need to be reminded that another significant character in the Old Testament once had an encounter where he was told to lead the people of God out of Egypt into what would become the land of Israel. You don’t need reminding, and neither did the people for whom the story was originally written.

          For an introduction, I think Matthew succeeds. I think that he has successfully crafted the story of the early days of Jesus in such a way that first century Jews, or anyone familiar with the story of the Jews will be interested to hear more about this child, Jesus.

          Those first century hearers would also have remembered Herod. They would likely have heard of the killing of children in Bethlehem. They may have heard of the visit of the wise people and their deception of Herod. They would have known about Archelaus, and why that would have led Joseph to immediately correct his course and settle in Nazareth. And they would have known that nothing good can come from Nazareth.

          This is the world into which Jesus was born. At the outset, his earthly father is dreaming dreams that take him and his family on a long journey to Egypt and back to avoid his killing. He is born to an ordinary man and woman who have extraordinary faith. He is born to a craftsman. He is born in a small town, forced to flee, then eventually settles in another small town.

          In some ways, all of this story of Jesus seems so foreign. In twenty-first century America, babies are not often born in such circumstances. We rarely hear a story about a father having a dream in the middle of the night that leads to him taking his wife and newborn child to another country.

          In other ways, if we change just a few of the details of this story it could fit very well into today’s world. Jesus is born into to a family of little means. Their wealth is so small that they cannot afford to get to the hospital on time to have the baby in the hospital. So they go into the bathroom of their cousin’s apartment, and there, a child is born. The noise of the birth causes enough commotion that someone calls reports the noise. The family, exhausted, decides that they need to go somewhere else, for they fear that child protective services might come and take the child away.

          This is a scene I can imagine. And while I want for the scene about Herod ordering that the children in Bethlehem be killed to be too far away, it comes close too. Just last night, in New York City, a man broke into the home of a Rabbi who was hosting a small group in celebration of Hanukkah – that great festival commemorating the rededication of the second temple in Jerusalem. The man who entered the home of the Rabbi attacked those gathered, leaving five seriously wounded. It seems that he was intent on killing them – because they are Jews. That attack along with several others against Jews in New York City in the last week make this part of the story all too relatable. A little too close for comfort.

          And we certainly don’t have to use our imaginations to imagine a family not wanting to return to their home for fear of the ruling party. Just months ago, in Canton, Forest, Morton and beyond, the US government arrested 680 people who were at their place of employment, making these places ones to which a small family might not feel comfortable returning.

          And who is this Jesus, born to Mary and Joseph all those years ago – this Jesus whose birth we celebrate?

          The next 26 chapters of Matthew will reveal that to us, but I’ll give you a preview. This Jesus, as the Hebrews lesson tells us today, is God with us. God, the creator of everything – from the dirt beneath our feet, to the sand beneath the ocean. Creator of the stars in the sky, so far away that we cannot even comprehend the distance to them to the air that we breathe in each day that provides life in ways that are so normal to us that we fail to realize the miracle of each breath. The creator of the little bitty tiny animals like ants and gnats and mosquitos to the big animals like elephants, rhinos and even the sea monsters. This God, becomes a human. This God joins the humans which were also among the things created. This is Jesus.

          Jesus, from his birth, comes to know what it means to face adversity - to be snatched from the jaws of oppression that he might have opportunity to achieve that which he was born to achieve.

          This Jesus will go on to be baptized by a strange man in the wilderness. He will be tempted by the devil. He will call disciples. He will gather followers and teach them on a mountainside. He will cleanse lepers. He will heal Jews and Gentiles. He will befriend men and women.  He will dine with sinners and tax collectors. He will cast out demons. He will give sight to the blind. He will be a man of God in the midst of the people of God. He will understand the scriptures of God and find ways to live them out creatively and beautifully. He will challenge the government of his day. He will push the religious elite (the pastors of the day) to be better. He will boil down all of the words of the scriptures that we know as the Old Testament into a simple pair of statements: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. He will then push everyone who nods approvingly to expand their understanding of what it means to be neighbor.

          Jesus will also push the authorities of the day to the point that they will kill him. He will be buried in a tomb. And then, three days later, he will be raised from the grave, triumphant over death.

          In all of this that Jesus will do, he will do it as a human. He will have flesh like my flesh, though his would not have been colored like mine, unless he was the first white guy to be born in the middle east. He will have hair – also not like mine. He will have blood running through his veins. He will have lungs that need the air just like mine and yours. And he will have feelings and emotions. He will laugh, and hope, and play, and tell jokes, and stories, and he will cry. He will feel pain and lament. He will feel hunger and thirst. He will get tired and need sleep.  He will think that there is no way that he is going to be able to make it through this day. He will be ready to give up. But he won’t. He doesn’t. He didn’t.

          This Jesus whom we celebrate was one of us. This Jesus whom we celebrate came to be with us. Emmanuel – God with us. And because he came to be with us then, we know that he is with us now. And because he is with us now, we know that when we reach the point where we feel like we aren’t going to be able to make it through this day, that we are not alone – for God is with us.

              Amen.

On Reading Between the Lines

Matthew 1:18-25, The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 22nd, 2019 · Duration 11:09

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Not Being Offended By Jesus

Matthew 11:2-11, The Third Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 15th, 2019 · Duration 14:04

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Our Immigrant Neighbors

Concerning Our Immigrant Neighbors

Chuck Poole · December 4th, 2019 · Duration 0:0

“The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself.”

               Those words from Leviticus 19:34 belong to a larger, longer cluster of verses in sacred scripture which recall the commandments of God to the people of God concerning their immigrant neighbors; passages such as Exodus 12:49, “There shall be one law for the citizen and the alien”, Exodus 22:21, “You shall not oppress a resident alien”, Leviticus 19:10, “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall leave the edges for the poor and the alien”, Leviticus 19:33, “You shall not deprive a resident alien of justice”, and, my favorite one of them all, Leviticus 25:23, where the writer of the book of Leviticus says that, since God owns all the land in every country, in the eyes of God, we are all immigrants.

               Needless to say, we cannot draw a straight line from those words to our world.  However, we can draw, from those words, for our world, the obvious conclusion that God has a special concern for immigrant persons, and that God expects us to share that concern, which is why it is no wonder that people of so many faith traditions have come together to help, in ways large and small, our immigrant neighbors, in the aftermath of the events of August 7 in Canton, Carthage, Morton and beyond.

               As I write these words, three months have passed since August 7, 2019; the day Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 680 persons at their places of employment in Mississippi, for not having the proper documentation to live and work in the United States of America.

               While I do not have a simple public policy answer to the complex issues around immigration, I do have enough of the Bible in my head and the Spirit in my heart to know that the events of August 7, 2019 placed before us another moral moment for Mississippi; a moment of moral decision concerning how we would respond to our immigrant neighbors.

               Did our immigrant neighbors without legal documents have the option to stay in their country of origin?  Yes.  But, the vast majority of them made the difficult choice to come here out of desperation.  And, while there are undeniable exceptions, in my experience the majority of our immigrant neighbors are among our best neighbors.  We often hear it said that immigrant persons do the kind of work not everyone wants, which is often true.  But, the deeper truth, I have learned, is that immigrant persons not only often do the jobs not everyone wants, they also often bring a spirit not everyone has; making our communities stronger and better, not only by the jobs they do, but, also, by the goodness they bring. 

               Are there exceptions to that?  Of course.  But, those exceptions are rare in the community of families I have come to know since the events of August 7, 2019; including, for example, one immigrant person who had held the same job for over twelve years, supporting their family with no private or public assistance.  But, since August 7, “no mas trabajo”, no more work, which  means no more income, which, without help, would mean no more shelter or food or medicine; one of hundreds of immigrant families in Mississippi for whom the same is so.

               All of which takes us back to where we started:  You shall love the immigrant as yourself… You shall not oppress an immigrant...You shall not deprive an immigrant of justice.  Add to those words, from the Torah, Jesus’ haunting words from the Gospel of Matthew, “I was a stranger, and you did not take me in”, and it is not hard to see why people of every faith group and political perspective have come together to respond to the hundreds of immigrant families who, already vulnerable before August 7, are even more vulnerable since; not because we know, with certainty, what the government should do concerning immigration, but because we do know, with clarity, what we should do concerning immigrants; remembering those powerful words from Leviticus chapter twenty-five, verse twenty-three, where God reminds the people of God that, since God owns all the land in every nation, in the eyes of God we are all immigrants.1 

               And remembering, also, those simple words in Leviticus 19:34, which call us to love our immigrant neighbors as we love ourselves.

                                                                           Charles Poole                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     November 7, 2019

1)      “La Cancion de Bienvenida”  (The Welcome Song) is a small hymn which rises from the truth which travels in Leviticus 25:23, and which can be sung to the hymn tune GIFT OF LOVE; a traditional English melody which appears in several hymnals with the hymn “The Gift of Love”.

“La Cancion de Bienvenida”

 En los ojos del Dios,

Todas personas son immigrantes.

En los ojos del Dios,

Nosotros todos son immigrantes.

 

Todo el mundo, una familia;

Todas personas, son bienvenidas:

Bienvenido, todo el mundo,

En corazon y brazos del Dios.

 

Bienvenidas, todas personas.

Bienvenidos, todo aqui,

Por en los ojos, del Dios,

Nosotros todos son immigrantes.

 

English Translation:

 

“The Welcome Song”

In the eyes of God,

All persons are immigrants.

In the eyes of God,

Immigrants all, are we.

 

All the world is one family,

All persons are welcome.

The whole world is welcome,

In the heart and arms of God.

 

All persons, welcome;

All are welcome here.

For, in the eyes of God

We are all immigrants.

One Will Be Taken, One Will Be Left

Matthew 24:36-44, The First Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 1st, 2019 · Duration 6:29

            “Two will be in the field; one will be taken, and one will be left...Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming”.

               Sometime in the late 1930’s, a traveling evangelist stopped at Red Bluff Baptist Church, in Soperton, Georgia, where he preached a sermon on those words from today’s gospel lesson, which so convinced the congregation that, at any moment, Christ might come again, that a young mother of three, named Effie Mae Cammack, sat up all night long, watching the sky until sunrise, so fearful was she that  one would be taken and another left; a long and sleepless night which is part of my story because one of Effie Mae Cammack’s three children was my mother.  And, for as long as I can remember, I have known that story about the night Mommy, as we called her, sat up all night to guard against one being taken, and the other left.

               But it happened, anyway.  Not that night, but, eventually, fifty something years later, when Mommy was taken and my grandfather was left; not because Christ came down, but because Mommy went up.

               Which happens to someone somewhere every day.  Two are in a marriage; one is taken, the other is left.  Two are in a cherished friendship, a beloved relationship, or a long partnership; one is taken, the other  is left.  It happens to someone somewhere every day; not because Christ comes, but because we go.

               Someday is going to be the last day.  And, as today’s epistle lesson says, that day is nearer now than it once was.  So, it is time for us to wake up, to repent, to decide to change; time for us to make an intentional choice to practice living whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can, because someday is going to be the last day.  We may have forever in the next life, but, not in this life.  This life is going to end, 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.

               So, if our highest and deepest hope is to live the one and only life we are ever going to have with kindness and courage, empathy and integrity, gentleness and justice, truth and grace, the First Sunday of Advent would  probably be a good day to begin.                                                                                                                                                                                    Amen.

 

Thank-you

II Thessalonians 3:6-13, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 17th, 2019 · Duration 12:02

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Life on the Other Side

Luke 20:27-38, The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 10th, 2019 · Duration 13:24

          “Some Sadducees, who do not believe in the resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him to say to whom a woman, who had married seven brothers, would be married in the resurrection.” 

               With those words, this morning’s gospel lesson describes an effort, on the part of some Sadducees, who did not believe in life beyond the grave, to confound Jesus, and, perhaps, also, their religious rivals, the Pharisees, who, like Jesus, did believe in life beyond the grave; the Sadducees, learning, the hard way, not to play “stump the preacher” with Jesus, whose answer to their little riddle was that their question is not applicable to the next life, because the next life is not a continuation of this life.  So, the Sadducees’ hypothetical person who had seven spouses in this life may not have any spouses in the next life, because the next life is not just more of the same of this life.  “Those who belong to this age may be married,” said Jesus, “But the same is not so in the next life.”

               Which is not only more of an answer than the Sadducees bargained for, but, perhaps, also, more of an answer that we bargained for. After all, we tend to gravitate toward ways of thinking about the next life which are based largely on the assumption that the next life will be a longer, better, more perfect version of this life.  We look forward to seeing those who have preceded us into God’s nearer presence, anticipating being reunited, at death, with those from whom we have been separated, by death; thoughts about the next life which are, for some, a source of comfort, for others, a source of anxiety, but, for all, a way of thinking about the next life which sees it as something of a continuation of this life.  Which may ultimately turn out to be true, but which would be different from what Jesus seems to be saying in today’s gospel lesson, where Jesus seems to suggest that the hypothetical person who had seven spouses in this life won't have any spouses in the next life, because, over on the Other Side, everything will be different from the way things are here.

               I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I long ago made peace with the fact that whatever we believe about the next life is what we choose to believe about the next life. “Will all persons eventually be in heaven?” “If not, will those who are there be sad, because of those who are not there?” “Will we know one another in heaven?”  “Will we be reunited with our loved ones in heaven?” “Will there be pets in heaven?” What we believe about the answers to those questions about life on the Other Side is what we choose to believe; what rings most true in the deepest corners of our spirit.

               I, for example, choose to believe that ultimately, eventually, once all the necessary judging and redeeming is done, no matter how long it takes, all persons, the whole human family and all creation, will be at home, together, with one another and with God, over on the Other Side; the whole human family of every time and place, all creatures and all creation gathered up into that glorious reality which Revelation 5:13 describes as “Every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth and in the sea, singing together forever around the throne of God.”

               All of which takes me back to a moment I experienced on Sunday morning, March 10, 2019.  As I drove to church that morning, I was listening to a CD of instrumental music by a friend who serves on the music faculty at the University of Mississippi.  A pianist of international renown, and a Jewish person, my friend had included, on this, his most recent CD, a stunningly beautiful arrangement of “Amazing Grace”.  As he came to the great crescendo of that familiar final verse, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, then when we’ve first begun”, I heard, from somewhere far above, or deep within, I cannot say, the glad and joyful truth that those words concerning life over on the Other Side are as at home in his Jewish hands as they are in my Christian mouth.  

               Can I prove that that is so?  No.  Like everything which everyone believes about life over on the Other Side, that is what I choose to believe, because nothing else rings true to the deepest, highest, best and most that I believe about God.  Which is the way it is with all our thoughts about the next life.  What we say we believe about life on the Other Side is what we choose to believe about life on the Other Side. 

               Which is why, when it comes to life on the Other Side, it is often best to be content only to say, “As long as we live, God is with us.  And then, when we die, we are with God;” trusting, to the love and goodness of God, the many mysteries we cannot yet know concerning life on the Other Side.                                                                           

                                                                                 Amen.   

The Boundless Spirit of God

Joel 2:23-32, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 27th, 2019 · Duration 9:05

              Then I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.  And your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.  Even on male and female slaves I will pour out my spirit.

               With those words, today’s lesson from the book of Joel places before us the boundless reach of the spirit of God; the spirit of God poured out on all flesh, male and female the same; a reminder that, when it comes to the calling of God, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the human differences which have always mattered to many have never mattered to God. 

               Needless to say, many things do matter to God.  It matters whether we are kind or mean, gentle or harsh, truthful or dishonest, welcoming or exclusive, mindful or reckless, humble or arrogant, forgiving or graceless.  One imagines that the list of things about which God cares is long. 

               But, if  this morning’s lesson from Joel is any indication, who, how, where and what we were born is not on that list.  Righteousness is.  Integrity is.  Kindness, loyalty, truth, grace, faithfulness and thoughtfulness are, too.  The list is long of things which matter much to God.  But, according to this morning’s lesson from Joel, when it comes to pouring out the Holy Spirit, human difference makes no difference to God.  Rather, God pours out God’s spirit on all flesh, without regard for who, how, where or what we were born.

               To our children, and middle-school and high school students; as you grow older you may have more and more occasions to visit other churches, to go to various Christian camps and to join campus religious groups; places in which you will meet many dear and good souls, some of whom will believe, and say, that it does matter to God who, how, where and what people are born.  But, when you hear people say that, always remember that, in an obscure corner of a tiny Bible book no one can find, there is a verse of scripture, Joel 2:28, which says that God pours out God’s spirit on all flesh the same.  Others will have smaller Bible verses to support their conviction that human differences do matter to God, but you will have a verse so large it carries in its arms the whole human family; God’s spirit poured out on all flesh, without any regard for any human difference.

               Which is why all of us have noticed that the people in our lives who are closest to God are the people in our lives who care the least about the human differences which matter the most to much of the religious world.  The most thoughtful, prayerful, Spirit filled, close to God, people we know care the least about human differences, because the closer you get to God, the more you care about what God cares about; and the less you care about what does not matter to God.

                                                                                                                                Amen.

Concerning the Parable of the Persistent Widow

Luke 18:1-8, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 20th, 2019 · Duration 15:36

              Every three years, the lectionary places, in our path, this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Luke.  And, every time it rolls back around, it leaves me wondering what we should say concerning the parable of the persistent widow.  Given the fact that the Bible calls, more than a dozen times, for widows, orphans and immigrants to be the recipients of special compassion and care, the pleas of the persistent widow might make this parable one of the Bible’s many calls for social justice for the marginalized and the oppressed; a central concern of sacred scripture.  But, given the location of the parable in Luke’s gospel, on the heels of a long passage concerning the second coming, it may be, as the last line of the passage suggests, a parable about faithful waiting for the return of Christ.  Or, on the other hand, the parable may be about what the first verse of today’s gospel lesson says it is about, the need for us to pray always, and never to lose heart.

               If that is, in fact, what the parable of the persistent widow is about, then two things we might say concerning the parable are that, when it comes to prayer, the judge in the story is not the way God is, and the widow in the story is the way we are.

               I grew up in a religious world which said that God is like the judge in the story; always waiting for us to pray harder, or have more faith, or recruit a few more prayer partners, before finally giving in; as though prayer is a transaction in which God must be offered enough faith or persistence or voices to get God to do what God already knows we need for God to do.     

               Because that is what I grew up hearing, that is what I grew up believing.  But, I no longer believe that God must be worn down by our persistence, or impressed by how many prayer partners we assemble to join us in our petitions; a way of thinking I once embraced which did make God sound a lot like the judge in this morning’s parable, reluctantly persuaded by relentless persistence.

               However, while God is not like the stubborn judge in this morning’s parable, we are like the persistent widow.  As Walter Brueggemann says, “When it comes to prayer, like the widow, we keep coming back, because, like the widow, we have nowhere else to go.”

               Day after day, all through the day, like the widow in the parable, we keep seeking, asking, knocking; seeking, asking, knocking.  Where else can we go, but to God, to seek the healing, deliverance, relief and strength we need?  Like the widow in the story, we keep coming back, not because we think we need to wear God down by our constant coming and calling; but because we can’t not keep coming back.  As C.S. Lewis once said, “Our prayers pour forth from us by day and by night, waking and sleeping.”

               Sometimes our prayers change our lives.  Things change.  We get the miracle we want.  And, when that happens, our hearts are thankful, joyful, relieved and glad.  Other times, our lives change our prayers; we don’t get the first, best thing we prayed for, so we pray for the next best thing.  And, if that doesn’t happen, we pray for the next best next best thing; our lives changing our prayers until, sometimes, we are left, at last, with nothing more to pray for than the strength to go through the wonderful thing God might have done but did not do.

               But, even then, like the persistent widow, we do not lose heart, give up, or go away, because we don’t think of prayer as something that works or doesn’t work, because we know that prayer is not a transaction between us and God, in which if we only offer God enough words or faith or prayer partners God will come around and do our will.  Rather, prayer is our constant conversation with God; all through the day, day after day, telling God the truth concerning what we want and need, hope and fear, love and hate; the praying life, not a transaction which succeeds or fails, but the breath we breathe in from God and breathe out to God.

               “I know a lot of fancy words.  I tear them from my mouth, and then, I pray”,  said the poet Mary Oliver.  Which is exactly what we do, too; praying, praying and praying some more.  Like the persistent widow, never losing heart or giving up; always believing, ever the same, no matter what; our hope, incurable; our love for God, as unconditional as God’s love is for us; and our faith, unchanging, not only when our prayers change our lives, but, also, when our lives change our prayers. 

               Because, as one wise soul once said, “Faith is what you have left when you don’t get the miracle.”

                                                                                                                                 Amen.

 

On Living the Life We Have

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 13th, 2019 · Duration 15:50

               Every three years, the lectionary places in our path this morning’s lesson from the book of Jeremiah.  And, every time it rolls back around, I find myself incapable of turning to the gospel, epistle or psalm of the day for the subject of the sermon; the Jeremiah passage always edging out the others because it captures, so simply and beautifully, the intersection where all of us live; the corner where clear-eyed realism meets wide-eyed hope.

               Jeremiah’s letter to the exiled people of God, carried away captive to Babylon, ends, as does our faith, in wide-eyed hope; those hope-filled verses beyond the boundaries of the lectionary lesson where Jeremiah says to the exiles, Thus says the Lord, “I know the plans I have for you; plans for good, not harm, to give you a future with hope;” one of the most beloved verses in all of scripture, and rightly so, filling our hearts and minds with the hope and promise that God, not despair or tragedy, disease or death, but God will have the last word; “a future with hope”.

               But, the same letter which ends in wide-eyed hope begins in clear-eyed realism.

               As best we can tell, Jeremiah had been left behind in Jerusalem when the people of God were carried away captive to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, nearly 600 years before the birth of Jesus.  Back in Jerusalem, Jeremiah had heard that there were some preachers among the people of God in Babylon who were telling them that the exile would soon be over; that, soon, they would be going back home and getting back to normal, a message which, needless to say, the exiled people of God were happy to hear.

               But, once the news of those optimistic sermons got back to Jeremiah, he wrote the people that letter from which we read in today’s lesson, in which Jeremiah said, to the people of God in exile in Babylon, “Do not believe those sunny-side-of-the-street preachers with their rosy promises that the exile will soon be over and you will soon be home.  The exile will end only after seventy years, which means that where you now are is where you will be, for the rest of your lives.  So, settle in.  Build a house, and plant a garden”, Jeremiah said to the exiles, “Because, for the rest of your life, this is your life.”

               “Come to terms with the life you have,” said Jeremiah, “Because, otherwise, you’ll end up sacrificing the only life you do have on the altar of a life you cannot have.”

               All of which calls to mind Wendell Berry’s wise observation, “We live the given life, not the planned.”  For many of us, the life we have been given is different from the life we had planned; many of us, not unlike those long ago exiles, having to learn to adjust to realities that will not adjust to us.  As one wise soul once said, “Sometimes our soul has to reach a settlement with our life.”

               As it was for those to whom Jeremiah wrote his letter, so it is for us.  The life we have may not be the life we dreamed, hoped, imagined or planned, but it is the life we have, which makes it the only one we can live deeply, fully and faithfully; getting up every morning as though each new day of our life is the next new day of creation, deciding, all over again, with each new day, to, in the words of the great Quaker, Thomas Kelly, “Make our life a miracle”, choosing, all over again, with each new day, to live a life of kindness and courage, clarity and compassion, hospitality and welcome, gentleness and empathy, grace and truth; living the life we have with equal parts clear-eyed realism and wide-eyed hope.                                                                                        Amen.

We Have Done Only What We Should

Luke 17:5-10, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 6th, 2019 · Duration 4:20

             When you have done all that you were commanded to do, say, “We have done only what we ought to have done.”

               I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, those words from the last line of today’s gospel lesson sound a lot like True North on the Christian moral compass:  When we have done all that Jesus commanded us to do, we have done only what we ought to have done.

               As followers of Jesus, for us to do all that we have been commanded to do would mean that we would treat all others as we want all others to treat us, and that we would love all others as we want all others to love us; following Jesus so carefully and prayerfully that, in each new situation and circumstance, we would instinctively sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for; which, according to what we can see of Jesus in the four gospels, will always be whoever is most marginalized, ostracized, oppressed, excluded, fearful, poor, left out and alone.

               A way of life which, if we ever actually live it, may cause some to say we are courageous and others to say we are radical, some to say we are too conservative about the Jesus of the four gospels, and too liberal about the issues of the day.

               But, because we have read the last line of today’s gospel lesson, we will know that, actually, the only thing to be said by us, or about us, is that we have done only what we should.                                                                                                                                                                           Amen.

 

Concerning the Protection of the People of God

Psalm 91, The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 29th, 2019 · Duration 11:20

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

The Way We Do Anything

Luke 16:1-13, The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 22nd, 2019 · Duration 12:14

           “Whoever is faithful in a little is faithful also in much.”  Because those words from today’s gospel lesson are nestled between a parable about bookkeeping and a proverb about wealth, they are often assumed to be about money, which may very well be true.  But, the longer I live, the more I find it to be true, in every area of life, that whoever is faithful in a little is faithful also in much. 

               To practice being faithful in the smallest of moments is to prepare to be faithful in the biggest of moments.  We prepare to speak the truth when it matters most by resisting the temptation to exaggerate in the small, everyday conversations of life.  We prepare to be gentle and kind with strangers and friends by declining to tease or belittle our family members in our daily life together.  We prepare to be people of careful speech in public by practicing careful speech in the privacy of our own home.

               As Richard Rohr once said, “The way we do anything becomes the way we do everything”; another way of saying what Jesus is reported to have said in today’s gospel lesson, “Those who are faithful in a little will be faithful also in much.” 

               We prepare to be kind and courageous, compassionate and clear in life’s biggest moments by practicing being kind and courageous, compassionate and clear in life’s smallest moments; a daily discipline we impose on ourselves, not because we are trying to work our way into heaven or earn our salvation, but because we don’t want to under-live the one and only life we are ever going to have. 

               We’re all going to die someday, 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.  That is why we long to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can, preparing to be kind and courageous, compassionate and clear in the big moments, by practicing being kind and courageous, compassionate and clear in the countless small moments of our everyday lives; walking prayerfully in the Spirit all through the day, day after day, practicing the skills of kindness and courage, courage and kindness.

               As with all skills, no amount of practice at living lives of courage and kindness can guarantee success.  For example, I have been writing in a daily prayer journal for well over twenty years now, praying, nearly every day, for the same thing; to live a Quaker-quiet life of careful speech, walking in the Spirit further and further along the path to spiritual depth; praying, in the words of Mary Oliver, to “walk slowly and bow often”, seeking a life of unfailing kindness and courage, without ever sacrificing one on the altar of the other.

               And yet, I continue to fail at it, even after all these years.  What we are talking about here is a never finished, ever evolving, lifelong practice; slowly, slowly, little by little, becoming the kind of people who are predictably clear, courageous and kind, people whose God is love, whose creed is kindness and whose instinctive, predictable, default position is empathy.

               A way of life which, it should be said, is not the same as becoming more tolerant.  In fact, the deeper we grow in our life with God, the less relevant tolerance becomes.  If something is harmful, hurtful, dehumanizing or unjust, it should not have anyone’s tolerance.  If something is not harmful, hurtful, dehumanizing or unjust, it does not need anyone’s tolerance.

               The life of kindness and courage, compassion and clarity for which we long is not a life of tolerance.  It is, instead, a life of “Our God is love, our creed is kindness, our default position is empathy.”  And, the more we practice being that way in every small moment, the more prepared we are to live, speak and act that way in every big moment.

                Faithful in small things, we become faithful in big things; the way we do anything, becoming, eventually, the way we do everything.                                 

                          Amen.              

Concerning the Gladness of God

Luke 15:1-10, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 15th, 2019 · Duration 9:39

            “Now all the sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus.  And the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

               As you will, no doubt, have noticed, those words from today’s gospel lesson set in motion a trio of parables; the first two, which the lectionary assigned to us to read today, setting the stage for the more widely known Parable of the Prodigal Son; not unlike the gospel quartet to which I belonged during my college years, opening at Saturday night gospel singings for the Lamplighters Quartet.  We had double-knit, look-alike leisure suits, not to mention a near-miss for the Hayloft Jamboree on steel guitar.  But, even so, the Lamplighters were always the headliners, and we, the way-paving warm-ups, not unlike the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin, paving the way for the larger, longer Parable of the Prodigal Son.  All three parables, lost sheep, lost coin, lost soul, set in motion by the religious insiders’ criticism of Jesus for drawing his circle of welcome too wide; a trio of stories concerning the relentless love, and ultimate gladness, of God.  God, in the first story, a shepherd who cannot rest until the last lost sheep is safe; God, in the second story, a woman who will not stop until the last lost coin is found; and God, in the third story, a father who is not glad until the last lost child is home; the details different in each story, but the subject the same; the relentless love of God which will not give up, and the ultimate gladness of God which will not come up, until, at last, every soul God ever loved and longed for is reconciled and redeemed, healed and home, no matter how long it takes.  Jesus, telling the stories of the lost sheep, lost coin and lost soul to help the religious insiders see that the same size welcome they were mad about is the only size welcome God is glad about.

               Thinking about all that this week took me back to a moment about six months ago when, as I watched, with interest and empathy, another wonderful denomination have another painful conversation concerning what might be the proper size of the circle of their full institutional welcome, from somewhere deep within, or far above, a small prayer formed within me; a simple prayer always to have enough of the Holy Spirit at work in my life so that I will never be sad about any inclusion God is glad about, or glad about any exclusion God is sad about.

               Given the world from which I come, for me to pray such a prayer is a miracle of grace.  When it comes to drawing a small, fearful, exclusive circle of welcome, I was, at one time, as Paul said in today’s epistle lesson, “The foremost of sinners.” But, as it was for Paul, so it has been for me, “To the foremost of sinners, Jesus showed the utmost of mercy”; mercy enough to transform me from someone who once believed that God’s circle of welcome should shrink to match mine into someone who now believes that my circle of welcome should grow to match God’s.

               And if that can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.  And when it does, when we start wanting our circle of welcome to match God’s more than we want God’s circle of welcome to match ours, then we are on our way to becoming so deeply born-again and Spirit-filled that we will never again be sad about any inclusion God is glad about, or glad about any exclusion God is sad about, which is the point of the three stories Jesus told to those dear and good people in today’s gospel lesson, who were afraid that Jesus was making God’s welcome too wide, and God’s grace too amazing.

                                                                                                                                  Amen.

 

When We Come to the End

Psalm 139, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 8th, 2019 · Duration 4:48

            “It was you who formed me when I was being made...And when I come to the end, I am still with you.”

               With those words, today’s psalm sings the simple, beautiful truth that, from beginning to end, God is with us; with us, when we are as small and new as little Dan Stancill, and with us, still, when we come to the end.  Indeed, says the psalmist, we can go up as high as heaven, or down as low as hell, and, no matter where, no matter what, as long as we live, God is with us.  And then, when we come to the end, we are with God.

               As long as we live, God is with us; with us in the best and with us in the worst; with us when we are thrilled with delight, and with us when we are crushed by despair; with us in our most Spirit-filled moments of courage and kindness, and with us in the hidden shadows of our most secret shame; with us when life is going our way, and with us when we are absolutely certain that we just cannot go on; with us to give us new strength for each new day.

               For as long as we live, God is with us.  And then, when we die, we are with God.

               Not content to let the good news be that good, we have wrapped that simple, beautiful truth in layer upon layer of creeds and religions, doctrines and denominations; what Barbara Brown Taylor calls “The leaky buckets we have been lowering into the well of God’s truth for thousands of years;” some of which is helpful and important, but all of which will someday be set aside, leaving us, at last, with the simple, beautiful truth that, as long as we live, God is with us, and then, when we die, we are with God; the gospel of God, to which our most faithful and truthful response is to let that relentless love which has come down to us, from God, go out through us, to others.

               That’s it.  That’s all.

                                                                                                                                                Amen

A Jesus-Shaped Hospitality

Luke 14:1, 7-14, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 1st, 2019 · Duration 5:35

           “When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.”

               Of all the verses in the four gospels, few capture more clearly the spirit of Jesus than that one from this morning’s gospel lesson; Jesus, calling us to welcome, into our circle of friends, whoever is most marginalized, vulnerable, powerless, voiceless, left out and alone.

               Which is why the most prayerful, thoughtful, Spirit-filled people we know are always sitting down with and standing up for whoever is most marginalized, vulnerable, powerless, voiceless, left out and alone; because that’s the way Jesus was, and they have been walking in  the spirit of Jesus so prayerfully, and so thoughtfully, for so long, that the way Jesus was has become the way they are; their lives, stretched into a Jesus-shaped hospitality which makes them very predictable; in each new moral moment of decision, they can be counted on to sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for if Jesus were here, which is whoever is most marginalized, vulnerable, powerless, voiceless, left out and alone. 

               All of which is to say that the deeper we go in our life with Jesus, the wider we grow in our empathy for, solidarity with, and embrace of whoever is most in need of help and hope.

                                                                                                                        Amen.

 

Concerning The Way We Read Our Bibles

Luke 13:10-17, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 25th, 2019 · Duration 16:09

               To have the Bible on our side is not necessarily the same as having Jesus on our side.

               Nowhere is that more clear than in this morning’s lesson from Luke.  When the religious leader became angry at Jesus for healing the bent over woman on the sabbath, and said, to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured; not on the sabbath day”, the religious leader had the Bible on his side, Deuteronomy 5:13 and Exodus 20:9-10, to be exact. 

               However, as you will, no doubt, have noticed, having the Bible on his side did not mean that he had Jesus on his side.  To the contrary, for using the Bible literally on the bent over woman, while applying the Bible loosely to himself, Jesus called the   religious leader a hypocrite:  “You hypocrite”, Jesus said.  “Don’t you, on the sabbath, loose your donkey and give it water?  Then ought not this woman be loosed from her bondage on the sabbath?”  Jesus, calling out the hypocrisy of those who use scripture literally on others in ways they would never apply scripture literally to themselves.

               Which remains the most common hypocrisy in popular Christianity; the practice of using Bible verses on others in ways we would never apply them to ourselves, and expecting to do so with impunity because so many of our friends do the same thing. 

               One imagines that  if Jesus were as present here, as he was at the synagogue in today’s gospel lesson, he might say to us, here, what he said to them, there:  “You hypocrites, using the Bible on others in ways you would never apply the Bible to yourself; taking a stand on the verses which work for you, and taking a pass on the ones which don’t.” 

               After which, because Jesus is Jesus, he would help us to make a new beginning, as though we were starting first grade with a brand new Bible we had never used to hurt or exclude anyone.

               In fact, if I had thought about it in time, I might have called the Chairman of the Finance Committee to ask if there was enough money in the budget for us to buy everyone in the church a shiny new Bible like the ones we gave Mary Phillips, Iyanu, Graham, Hallie and Vaughn, this morning, so we could all start over with a brand new Bible which had never been misused.

               But, of course, it isn’t really a new Bible we need,  just a new way of reading the one we already have; reading and using our Bible the way Jesus read and used his; in ways which make the pain of life lighter, not heavier, less, not worse.

               We all pick and choose our way through the Bible; whether we’re at Fondren Pres. or First Pres., Galloway or Pinelake, St. Andrews or St. James, First Baptist or Broadmoor, R.U.F. or Young Life, Northside or Northminster.  No one assigns equal authority to every word of scripture, and we need to be honest about it.  How many people do you know who have dismantled their security systems because Matthew 5:39 says, “Do not resist an evildoer?”  Do you know anyone who has given away all their surplus because II Corinthians 8:15 says that those who have much should not have too much, while those who have little have too little?  How many people actually believe Luke 14:33, where Jesus says that no one can follow him who does not give up all their possessions?

               The truth is, everybody picks and chooses their way through the Bible. We should all be honest about it, and then do our picking and choosing based on the spirit of Jesus; having enough of Jesus in our heart to know which Bible verses to embrace as true to the spirit of Jesus.

               For example, when I read, while on the sabbatical this summer, in Numbers chapter thirty-one, that God told the Israelites to kill all the Midianites, including infants, but to spare the virgins to distribute among the soldiers, I didn’t need a commentary to tell me that that is not true to the spirit of Jesus.  On the other hand, when I read, on July 3, a full month before the events of August 7 in Canton, Carthage and Morton, Leviticus 25:23, where God is reported to have reminded the people of God that, since God owns all the land in the world, in the eyes of God all of us are immigrants, I knew, instinctively, that that is true to the spirit of Jesus.

               We just have to have enough of Jesus in our heart to measure what we read in the Bible against the spirit of Jesus, reading and using our Bible the way Jesus read and used his; in ways which make the pain of life lighter, not heavier; reading our Bibles in the light of, and through the lens of, love, so that, going forward, our Bibles don’t come between us and Jesus.

                                                                                          Amen

By Faith

Luke 12:49-56, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · August 18th, 2019 · Duration 15:47

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Learning to Do Good

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20, The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · August 11th, 2019 · Duration 15:48

          “Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Moments after reading these words from this morning’s reading from Isaiah, Lesley stopped by my office to talk about how we were going to respond to the ICE raids from the day before. I told her that I had not yet heard about the raids. She briefly described and I subsequently read about the raids that happened around the state of Mississippi on Wednesday.

               With this new knowledge, I sat in my office with the image of two of my children starting their first day of school. When I pulled away from their schools on Thursday morning, I had a mix of excitement for them and anxiety about how their day would go. I was eager to return home and hear how it went. After hearing this news, it was all I could do not to feel for the children who would get off of the bus, eager to tell their parents about their day, only to find an empty house. It was all I could do not to feel for the children who would be waiting at the school for a ride that wouldn’t come.

               With all of these thoughts and many more swirling in my mind, as I began to ponder standing in this space this morning, the clearest thought in my mind was “I can’t not talk about this.”

               Sitting with a lot of hazy thoughts and one clear one, I turned back to Isaiah chapter 1 – the Old Testament reading appointed for today by the Revised Common Lectionary.

               Isaiah does not mince words. He forcefully, and perhaps antagonistically, calls upon the people of God, addressing them as “rulers of Sodom” and “people of Gomorrah.” Isaiah groups all of the people of God, those who have power and are capable of leading and those who are just ordinary folk in with Sodom and Gomorrah.

               Everyone hearing these words would have known that Sodom and Gomorrah were cities that had met the wrath of God in the form of the cities being consumed by fire from God. Many biblical writers refer to Sodom and Gomorrah suggesting that their fate was well known. Ezekiel notes a short list of the sins of Sodom as having “pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

               Those hearing these words would also have known that before Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, Abraham bargained with God. Abraham dissuaded God from an outright destruction. He convinced God that if there were just 10 righteous people in the cities, that God would not destroy them.

               Since the cities were destroyed, it is safe to assume that not even ten were found.

               This is how Isaiah addresses his listeners. It doesn’t get any easier. Speaking on behalf of God, Isaiah says to the people of God. I’m not interested in your offerings. Your well curated services of worship are meaningless. When you raise your hands in prayer, all I can see is the blood on your hands.

               It is the God who yearns to be reconciled with all of humanity who looks upon the people of God and says if all you have to offer is one hour a week, then you have missed the point. It is the God who created all the heavens and the earth and all who inhabit it who longs to draw near to all of humanity.

               As I read these words on Thursday morning, I pictured myself standing here and you all sitting there and I imagined families separated, wondering when or if they would be together again, and in addition to being certain that this event was one about which I could not not talk, I found myself asking, "What are we doing? What are we going to do?"

               Thankfully, Isaiah doesn’t stop there. He continues in verse sixteen: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the

orphan, plead for the widow.”

               I think Chuck Poole might sum this up by saying that “we need to sit down with and stand up for the same people that Jesus would sit down with and stand up for.”

               These words from Isaiah and from Chuck Poole have a strange way of seeming simultaneously incredibly simple to do and nearly impossible to figure out the who what when where how.

               When we hear a story that 680 people in our state have been taken into custody with futures uncertain, it can be hard to know how to "learn to do good."  It can seem like the problem is too big or too complex. It can seem too political or too public. It can seem all of these things.

               Let me let you in on a little secret: the body of Christ is well equipped to handle this crisis.

               We know that all humans are created in the image of God. We know that the circle of Jesus’ welcome can never be drawn big enough. And we know that we are a community of faith that is continuing to learn to do good.

               For 18 years, Northminster has been learning to do good in Mid-City. Folks who are seated in this room have found a way to use what they have to see the face of God in the eyes of those they encounter there. People who are gathered here to worship have spent hours upon hours tutoring children, picking up trash, building houses, providing food, giving rides, attending city council meetings, visiting prisons, buying clothes, celebrating life’s precious moments, and grieving life’s difficult moments.

               Our learning doesn’t stop at Mid-City. People in this room gather weekly to pray for people connected to this community of faith and figure out ways to care for them – sometimes it’s calling to check in, sometimes it’s visiting the hospital, sometimes it’s just going to sit and talk for a while. Other times, it’s attending a funeral and grieving with a family.

               There are still other people in this room who find creative ways to work among people in need as their job or as a volunteer. Other people in this room spend time praying for all of the things that are happening.

               And, we can never forget, that there are people who are in this building, but not in this room, who are ensuring that we and the youngest of our family of faith can all worship.

               In this family of faith, we don’t’ always get it right, but we keep learning to do good. We keep learning what it means to seek justice. We keep learning how to rescue the oppressed. We keep learning how to defend the orphan. We keep learning how to plead for the widow.  We keep learning to do good.

               In many ways, the needs that are now present in Canton and Morton and Forrest (and in some places a bit further away) are very similar to opportunities with which we all have experience interacting. Some needs are specialized, some are not. All the needs are very human.

               If you find yourself wondering, but what could I do in a crisis like this, let me tell you. If you are a lawyer or a counselor, if you speak Spanish or indigenous languages local to lands south of the American border, if you are capable of driving to Memphis or New Orleans, if you can watch children, if you can clean or sort, if you can purchase some specific items from a list, if you can donate funds, if you can volunteer your time, if you can do any of these things or if you know someone who can, then you can help.

               And if you find yourself thinking, I really want to help, but I just can’t right now, no problem. The needs of the families affected by the raids on Wednesday will be ongoing for some time.

               After the service, Lesley and I will be standing in the narthex where we will have a sheet with more specific information about how you can be involved. We’ll leave information with the church office and also provide it electronically to anyone who would like it.

               As you ponder the ways in which you might get involved, I’m afraid I must warn you of something. Learning to do good in this way, caring for those who are among the most vulnerable in our midst, standing up for and sitting down with the same folks whom Jesus would stand up for and sit down with, it changes you. It makes you see the world differently.

               And it makes you want to find a way that the most vulnerable among us might no longer be vulnerable. It makes you want to join with Martin Luther King, Jr. who stood in the pulpit at Riverside Church in New York City and said: “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers [and sisters].”

               Since the raids on Wednesday, something beautiful has happened. My horror and anger surrounding these raids have been soothed by the balm of seeing the body of Christ spring into action. People organizing, advocating, feeding, caring, loving, coming together, joining hands in solidarity – Southern Baptists and Catholics,     Evangelicals and Unitarian Universalists, English only Speakers and Non-English Speakers.

               It has been a visual representation of Paul’s image of the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. Notably, Paul says in verse 26 that “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it.”  The suffering of those affected by the raids on Wednesday affects all of us. Most of us have friends, if not relatives who live in one or more of those towns.

               Seeking justice. Rescuing the oppressed. Defending the orphan. Pleading for the widow. Learning to do good.

               Perhaps, Paul had Isaiah 1 in mind when he wrote to the church at Rome: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual act of worship.”

               Not burnt offerings, not blood, not even solemn assemblies, but a living sacrifice – a spiritual act of worship.

               Learning to do good.

                                                            Amen.

No Secrets?

Luke 12:13-21, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Paul Baxley · August 4th, 2019 · Duration 12:36

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

A Sabbatical Report

Charles Poole's Sabbatical Report

Chuck Poole · August 1st, 2019 · Duration 0:0

            “We never step in the same stream twice” is a familiar old colloquialism which came to my mind more than once as I worked my way through the Bible during our sabbatical season this summer.

               Northminster has had pastoral sabbaticals as part of the rhythm of the church’s life since our founding over fifty years ago; at first, every three years, then, every four, and now every five years; seasons of rest and renewal which also always include a plan for learning and growth which, hopefully, helps the sabbaticalizing minister return with new insights.

               Part of my work plan for this sabbatical was to read the entire Bible, which is where that old saying, “We never step in the same stream twice” comes in.  On each of my two previous sabbaticals (Summer of 2001 and Summer of 2013) I had read the whole Bible as a sabbatical discipline, and yet, this time, I saw things I had either missed before, or had seen then and since forgotten.  Or, perhaps, with the passage of time, my spiritual eye has changed.  For whatever reasons, reading the entire Bible was, this time, one of those “We never step in the same stream twice” kind of moments; the Holy Spirit shining new light on old truth on a return trip through the Good Book.

               Since our church is generous enough to make that kind of “only on sabbatical” experience possible, I would like to offer, as an expression of gratitude for your kindness, the following report on some of what I saw, for the first time, or in a new way, in the pages of scripture during this summer’s Sabbath season.

               First of all, I was reminded, during this sabbatical season, of how helpful it is to read the entire Bible in as brief a period of time as possible; a luxury possible only on a sabbatical from normal work responsibilities.  Week after week, we put small, lectionary-length, sermon and Sunday School sized pericopes of scripture under a microscope, which is helpful and important.  But it helps, occasionally, to look at the whole Bible through a telescope, so that we can better understand the Bible’s many parts in their relation to the entire landscape of sacred scripture.

               Secondly, reading the whole Bible all the way through in a brief span of time reminded me of how human much of the Bible makes God sound.  In the First Testament, for example, God feels regret  (Genesis 6:6-7), has a change of mind (Exodus 32:14), is subject to outbursts of temper (II Samuel 6:7-8), and gets so angry that Moses has to talk God out of acting in a way that would hurt God’s reputation (Exodus 32:9-12).  (This is called anthropopathism; assigning human feelings to God, not unlike anthropomorphism; assigning human form to God, both of which happen a good bit in the Bible.)

               Something else I knew already, but saw in a new way on this trip through the Bible, is how ruthless and violent the Bible can make God sound and seem.  In Exodus 32:27, for example, God is reported to have instructed the people of God to “strap on their swords” and kill brother, neighbor and friend.  In Deuteronomy 20:16-18, Joshua 8:18-26 and Joshua 10:28-11:15, the people of God are instructed to slaughter entire communities; killing everyone, young and old, no exceptions.  In Numbers 15:32-36, God commands Moses to have a person executed for picking up sticks on the Sabbath. And, most troubling of all, in Numbers 31:1-35, the people of God are commanded to kill every Midianite; men and women, young and old, “except the virgins”, who are to be taken captive as spoils of war. 

               All of which is one reason why I do not embrace the popular evangelical idea of an inerrant and infallible Bible.  The Bible is powerful, beautiful, comforting, challenging, amazing, intriguing, inspiring and inspired.  But, to say that the Bible is the “inerrant and infallible Word of God” is to leave us with a violent God for whom human life is expendable, which, to me, does not ring true to what we see revealed of God in Jesus.  (And which, in the wrong hands, can actually be dangerous.)

               Needless to say, this is part of the difficulty of reading the entire Bible, all the way through.  To read the entire Bible, skipping nothing, is to be forced to face hard truths and ask hard questions, and to make serious interpretive decisions.

               Other passages of scripture I had previously missed, or had read and forgotten, include Leviticus 25:23, where, in the midst of numerous passages (Exodus 12:49, 22:21, 23:9; Leviticus 19:10, 19:33, 19:34, 23:22, 24:22; Numbers 9:14, 15:15; Deuteronomy 24:17) in which God calls God’s people to be mindful of immigrant persons, God reminds God’s people that since God owns all the land there is, everyone is “an alien and a tenant” in the eyes of God; a sentence the Holy Spirit brought to my attention for the first time a full month before the events of August 7 in Canton, Carthage, Morton and Forest, but about which I have spoken countless times since; sometimes in English, “In the eyes of God, all of us are immigrants”; more often in Spanish, “En el ojos de Dios, todos de nosotros son immigrantes”. 

               Another passage I had forgotten since my last time through the Bible is Jeremiah 38:7-13, where an Ethiopian eunuch is remembered for saving Jeremiah’s life.  We’re all familiar with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts chapter eight.  But, few remember that, not only in the New Testament, but also in the Old, the ultimate “outsider”, the racially and sexually different Ethiopian eunuch, is a part of the family of God.

               And then, there is the story of Cozbi, which I had either previously missed, or completely forgotten, in Numbers 25:6-17.  Cozbi was a Midianite woman who had been brought into the congregation of the Israelites by a man named Zimri, a relationship for which both of them were executed, because of the hatred which separated Israel from the Midianites.  Fast-forward four Bible books to the tiny book of Ruth, where a Midianite woman is the star of the story, and even becomes an ancestor of King David; a snapshot of the Bible’s long internal debate between the exclusive onlyism which demands Israel to separate itself from all others, in the books of Numbers, Ezra and Nehemiah, and the inclusive embrace of all, which we find in the books of Isaiah, Ruth and Acts.

               Another verse I had either missed before, or forgotten, is Proverbs 31:8, “Speak up for those who cannot speak”, which sounds, to me, like a First Testament way of saying, “Sit down with and stand up for those whom Jesus would sit down with and stand up for.”  And, also, Ecclesiastes 7:18, “It is good that you should take hold of one, without letting go of the other,” a helpful Biblical image for the kind of spiritual maturity which holds onto the best of our spiritual past with one hand, while taking hold of the most challenging new light we have seen with the other; the long, slow, sometimes painful story of my life, so far, “Taking hold of the future without letting go of the past”.

               I could go on, but I found another verse during my summer sabbatical sojourn through scripture, this one from Proverbs, which says, “Only fools go on and on.”  So, I will close this sabbatical report by saying that, as I worked my way through the Bible this summer, the one thought I most often found myself thinking is that there is a lot of pain in this world, and, depending on how we use it, the Bible can add to that pain, or subtract from it. 

               May we all always be content to use the Bible only in ways which make the pain lighter, not heavier; less, not worse.

The Words We Pray

Luke 11:1-13, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · July 28th, 2019 · Duration 15:50

             Each week, as we are gathered in this space, a pastor offers a prayer which concludes with all of us joining together to pray what we commonly know as the Lord’s prayer.

               Today, those of you who were listening but not reading when I read the gospel, may have thought I misread the text. Being people who are exceedingly generous and knowledgeable about biblical translation, you may have thought that the Lord’s prayer that we all know and love is in the King James (KJV), but because we read the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) at Northminster, there must just be some translation differences.

               While I appreciate the generosity I have just ascribed to you, even that would be misplaced. I just read what is written. True, it is the NRSV and not the KJV, but the real difference is that it is Lord’s Prayer as recorded by Luke, rather than by Matthew. And like other stories, sermons, and sayings throughout the gospels, Matthew and Luke record the words differently.

               While we could get bogged down in a lengthy diatribe about the origin of the differences and what those mean for the authenticity of the prayer, I would rather us consider the prayer as Luke records it, in the context in which Luke has placed it.

               The previous chapter includes Luke telling the parable of the Good Samaritan and visiting Martha’s house. Today’s reading begins with the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. He suggests that they should “pray like this”. Then, Jesus, in his best King James English, offers an abbreviated version of the prayer that we have prayed and heard sung this morning. Then Jesus poses two hypothetical situations to the disciples.

               In the first, a man goes to his neighbor late at night to ask for some bread for an unexpected visitor. In the second, a child asks a parent for some food.  These two hypothetical situations and the two parables that precede the prayer that Jesus offers as a model to the disciples can help to cultivate creativity in our minds as we engage with this prayer – Luke’s NRSV prayer and even Matthew’s King James Version.

               In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus places the salvation for a half-dead man in a ditch on the donkey of a despised, other – the least likely person of all to bring salvation to a down and out Jew. Then, Jesus honors Mary as she rests at the feet of Jesus even as he reminds Martha that her dignity and worth lie not in what she does, but who she is.

               These things we know, thanks, in part, to Jason Coker’s and Lesley Ratcliff’s sermons last week and the week before, if you missed out, go to the church website and listen or read.

               Luke then records Jesus offering this prayer, all of which is familiar.  One line, though, sticks out to me more than the others: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…” Luke modernizes and summarizes these words into “Your kingdom come”.

               "Your kingdom come."

               The other lines of the prayer make more immediate sense to me.

               In our prayers, we need to name, honor, and praise God. We need to take forgiveness seriously. In our supplications to God, we need to be mindful of what things we need to sustain life, and what things are luxuries. But then there is this “your kingdom come” line, that is exceptionally difficult to read and not hear the Matthew parts: “your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

               It is in this line, where I need the imaginative help offered by the preceding parables and the subsequent hypothetical situations offered by Jesus. I need help, in part, because I have no real-life concept of what a kingdom is. There is, of course, the United Kingdom. But from this side of the ocean, the influence of the monarchy feels symbolic at best. The royal family seems to make the news most for marriages, births, fashion, and potential disagreements, much more than setting policies or placing limitations on the lives of those living under the reign of the Queen. Somehow, this type of kingdom does not seem to fit with that about which Jesus was teaching his disciples to pray.

               If Jason was right in his interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan, that we are called to be neighbors in a new way, in a way where everyone matters, “from the brigands and robbers to the priest and Levites and even the Bible scholars;” and if Lesley was right in her interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha that they both “had value by being precisely who they were… [–] beloved children of God,” this kingdom, for the coming of which Jesus is teaching us to pray is going to be something very different than the United Kingdom, where colonies that have become countries still pay homage to the crown, even while remaining free to be as selfish as they want to be on a day to day basis.  This kingdom is going to simultaneously free us to engage in unexpected relationships of mutual transformation and require that we recognize the image of God in ourselves and in those who inhabit this kingdom with us.

               The stories that follow this prayer continue to create some imaginative space in which our creativity might be unleased. In one an unexpected host needs bread for his guest. He goes to ask for some from his neighbor. If this man is knocking on his neighbor’s door loud enough to wake up his neighbor, the open windows of everyone in the neighborhood would have been able to hear the interaction. All of the neighbors were bound by the same communal expectations of hospitality – hospitality which just might rival the “Hospitality State.” The man in the middle knew this. Though he stood empty handed between his guest who had need, and his neighbor who had provisions, he knew if he asked long enough, and loud enough, he would eventually shame his neighbor into giving him the bread he needed in order that he might be appropriately hospitable to his guest.

               Jesus follows this story with a summary statement, to which I must join Hal in David Foster Wallace’s tome Infinite Jest in having “administrative bones to pick with God.” Jesus notes: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

               Who among us hasn’t prayed diligently (if not desperately) for something that just never came about? I don’t mean winning the lottery or going on a date with that certain someone. I mean truly altruistic things. Cure of a terminal disease. One last chance to see a loved one before they pass. For the abuse to stop. For the medication to work. For enough money to pay the mortgage. To get pregnant. To get married. For people to stop asking how one can be happy not being married. For equal protection under the law – or in the church.

               When these prayers are unfulfilled, quoting Jesus saying “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find, knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened,” seems to become more of an indictment of the one who quotes Jesus, rather than the one praying prayers that feel as though they are going nowhere.  It almost feels like the message is, "if you just prayed harder or longer, or if you just had more faith, then everything would be ok."  Perhaps, “administrative bones to pick” is not quite strong enough.

               When Jesus makes this statement, that we have for too long made about prayer to God, that enough asking, searching, and knocking will get the righteous person exactly what they want, perhaps, Jesus is describing something different. Perhaps, Jesus is describing what it will mean to be in the kingdom of God.

               When the Kingdom of God comes, we will live with a new sense of neighborliness. We will recognize and celebrate the worth and dignity of every person – the be-ers and the do-ers. We will with confidence be able to step into the night to ask for the help we need to host an unexpected visitor confident that the community that dwells within the kingdom will see this unexpected visitor as a visitor of all of us, rather than just a problem that one family or household must host without any outside help.

               After all, who among us when facing our own mortality or that of a loved one does not have need of community to care and support and do those things for which we just cannot do for ourselves? Who among us would not want help if we were in an abusive situation? Who among us would not welcome help to pay our bills in the    moments when the demands on our resources outpace the capacity of those same resources? Who among us does not want to be valued and celebrated for our inherent worth?

               These are not things that we need to spend time praying about. If we truly want for the kingdom of God to come. If we truly want to experience God’s will on earth as it is in heaven. We need to live in such a way that makes it possible that when people ask, it is given; when people search, they find, when people knock, the door is opened. We need to be a community that comes together when diligent and desperate prayers continue to feel unfulfilled, outcomes less than desired – sitting together, grieving together, loving together. That is what the kingdom of God looks like.

               Don’t hear me saying that we do not need to pray. What I am saying is that while we are picking our administrative bones with God about not receiving the things that we are asking for – altruistic and selfish alike – we need to examine whether we are laying the groundwork for the Kingdom of God to come or if we are helping to prevent the Kingdom of God from being made manifest among us.

               The way we live will influence the way that we pray. The way that we pray will influence the way that we live. It is my suspicion that Jesus and the author of the Gospel of Luke were up to a little trickery with this arrangement of teaching and praying. For you see, we will not be able live in a way that everyone matters if we fail to pray in a way where everyone matters. And we will not be able to celebrate the worth of every human if we do not pray in such a way that celebrates the worth of every human.

               When we pray the words “your kingdom come” and when we pray the words “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” these words call us to more than waiting on God. They call us to action – depending on God, being inspired and empowered by God. They call us to get to work, as we have ability. These words of prayer call us to change the way we live, so that when we pray them again, they inspire us to imagine how we might go about living our lives in such a way that we see just one more glimpse of what God’s coming Kingdom looks like. And this glimpse will call us back to prayer in new and fresh ways.

               Our prayers influencing our lives. Our lives influencing our prayers.

               Our Father in heaven, your kingdom come.

 

                                                            Amen.

 

On Mary and Martha

Luke 10:38-42, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · July 21st, 2019 · Duration 13:30

   

           “Mary has chosen the better part” feels like a bee sting to me. The kind of word from Jesus that makes me suck in my breath and flinch. Like many of you, I have always been like Martha. It’s not that I’m all that great in the kitchen (I’m actually quite terrible), but it is the fact that I often feel more spiritually grounded in the kind of practices that involve doing rather than being.

           The same may be true of Martha. The Greek word here is “diakonian,” the origin word for deacon, someone who serves by connecting needs with resources. So while hosting Jesus probably did entail cleaning the kitchen, preparing a meal, making sure there was a comfortable, clean space for everyone to rest, it also might have meant many other tasks that weren’t necessarily domestic. So Martha is going about all the work of ministry and is so distracted by it that she cannot pay attention to what Jesus has to say.

The next part of the story is where I really relate to Martha. I can imagine her, doing ALL THAT WORK, and looking around at everybody else enthralled with Jesus, and thinking to herself, WHY IS NO ONE HELPING ME? This is the point where I, I mean Martha, starts slamming cabinets a little harder, makes a bed with the kind of strength usually reserved for the weight room, talks to the people she is helping just a little bit louder than necessary, writes the item she has just finished on her to do list just so she can cross it off, the pencil lead tearing a hole in the paper from the sheer force. And then when none of that gets the attention of Mary, the person who should be helping her, instead of asking Mary for help, she takes the passive aggressive route, you know the one she’s been taking for the last hour that hasn’t been working, and goes to Jesus. I’m sure she made quite the kerfuffle, interrupting his conversation to ask why he hasn’t fixed her problem.

           I can see Martha so clearly and I can feel her anger rising up in my bones because I have fallen into the same trap. Just ask Brock Ratcliff. Actually, don’t because that is not how I want to be remembered. In writing. For all of time.

           Martha, Martha, Mary has chosen the better part. Still makes me flinch because of all the ways that Martha has been pigeon-holed and caricatured by well-meaning preachers through the years. I don’t think it is disdain in Jesus’ voice, rather the kind of sadness that recognizes Martha’s inability to recognize her worth beyond what she can do. The service she is doing is important. In his commentary on this passage, Brian Peterson points out that “later in Luke’s gospel, when the disciples are arguing about which one of them is the greatest, Jesus defines “great” discipleship and even his own ministry in terms of serving others, using the same vocabulary that here describes Martha.” I know that many of you are like Martha is described to be in this story, the kind of people who do the kind of ministry that produces the kind of place like this one, Northminster Baptist Church. The kind of people without whom I would not be standing here to preach.

           Sometimes, beloved children of God, we are like Martha in this particular moment, and we need to hear that we are valuable simply because of who we are, not just because of what we can do.

           “Mary has chosen the better thing” feels like bee’s wax on dry lips, a balm to my soul. Like many of you, I have always been like Mary. It’s not that I’m all that great at sitting quietly in prayer, in fact many of the prayer aids I offer to our children have been born from the needs of my own prayer life, but it is the fact that I often feel more spiritually grounded in the kind of practices that involve being rather than doing.

           The same may be true of Mary, or she may just be showing hospitality in a different way that Martha. In his commentary on this passage, Richard Swanson points out that Mary is practicing the kind of hospitality that is “expressed through the drive to learn something deeply from another, to think more deeply together than either could think alone, the kind of hospitality that welcomes strangers who just might be able to teach us something.”

           The next part of the story is where I really relate to Mary. I can imagine her, sitting there soaking in this conversation between Jesus and Martha, absorbing the peace that comes from the blessing Jesus speaks of her. I can feel that peace deep down in my bones, the kind of peace found sitting around a table discussing a book we have all read together, the kind of peace that settles over a hospital room when one of us should be resting and the other should be, oh I don’t know, writing a sermon but we both just can’t stop talking about all that we’ve learned in a recent bible study, the kind of peace offered in those moments of quiet each week in this hour.

           And yet, that is not the only memory of me that I want people to hold onto for all of time.

            As this story is positioned in Luke immediately following the Good Samaritan, Mary’s willingness to sit listening at the feet of Jesus is an example of love for God that serves as the balance to love for neighbor, and just as the Samaritan in Jesus’ story surprises everyone by practicing compassion with the stranger on the road, Mary may have surprised everyone by taking a seat at the feet of Jesus. Rather than assuming the role expected of women in her culture, Mary is sitting learning from the rabbi, a learning posture traditionally reserved for men.

           Sometimes, beloved children of God, we are like Mary in this particular moment, and we need to hear that it is wise for us to push past the boundary of expectation in order to listen to Jesus.

           Mary and Martha. Be-er and do-er. Contemplative and Activist. Better and Worse. They had value by being precisely who they were. One pushed past the boundaries of expectation in order to listen to Jesus and the other did the work needed to offer hospitality. They’ve been pigeon-holed by preachers for centuries. They are beloved children of God.

           We have value by being precisely who we are. We can push past the boundary of expectation. We are be-ers and do-ers. We are contemplatives and activists. We are better and worse. We are sometimes pigeon-holed by our own selves. We can offer hospitality to all. Sometimes, beloved children of God, we need to hear that our God, through whom all things hold together and in whom all things have been created, has reconciled all things to Godself so that we might know the riches of the glory of the mystery of Christ in us, the hope of glory. And we must not recognize that hope only in our own selves but in every single other person whom we meet.

           Our children sing a song to one another. “I see the light of God in you, the light of Christ come shining through and I am blessed to be with you, O Holy child of God.” It is simple to say and to sing and so hard to live. How do we let the truth of those words sink deep down into our bones so that how we live our lives, what we dream about, where we go and what we say reflects the light of God in one another?

           We do that by choosing the better part. Sitting at the feet of Jesus to learn that the thing that Jesus wants most is for us to love God with all that is in us and to love others as we love ourselves. We must learn like Mary so that we can do like Martha.

           Amen.

 

The Jericho Partnership

Luke 10:25-37, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Jason Coker · July 14th, 2019 · Duration 17:10

Luke 10:25-37

Have you ever been half dead? And I'm not talking about the feeling you have when you come back from Passport youth camps as an adult chaperone - not that kind of half dead. Although, that was a lot of fun to be with the youth of Northminster and Northside last month - and yes, I felt half dead upon return. I'm actually talking about the real half-dead - the dangerous kind - the kind we find in our passage for today. This anonymous, fictional man who is robbed, stripped, beaten, and left half-dead. Dangerously vulnerable. Brutalized, victimized, violated, and left for dead. The word for his wounds in this passage is where we get the origin for our word trauma. Half-dead.

When I was in college in the 90s, I was a serious BSUer! I didn't simply participate in the Baptist Student Unions of my colleges, I was the president of both colleges and then the president for the state of Mississippi BSU. So BSU that I was a summer missionary twice. At the end of my freshman year, I went to the Pacific Northwest as a revival preacher. It’s okay, this is not one of those sermons. After my sophomore year, I went to the Philippines as a summer missionary. Just after the midpoint of that summer, I contracted a mosquito born disease called Dengue Fever. We were so far in the jungle that we didn't have direct access to medical treatment, so I was either going to make it or not. Without any form of air conditioner, the coolest place I could lay was on the concrete slab in our small flat; and that's were I laid for about three days. I was in and out of consciousness and there's really only two things I remember besides the pain that I felt in my body. One was a deep sense of sadness for my parents because I thought about them having to receive my body at an airport or something like that. The other thing I remember was Pastor John Oraza. It seemed like every time I woke up he was sitting on the floor with my head in his hands and he was praying for me in Pangasinan - the local language. Spoiler alert! I made it! If you've ever been half-dead, you never forget who or what helped you survive.

We know this story of the Good Samaritan so well it nearly loses its impact on us. It's like a shiny brass foot of an icon. But that half-dead imagery gets me every time. There's lots of interesting things about this passage. It's unique to the Gospel of Luke - found nowhere else. But, Luke bases this story on Mark's "The Great Commandment" passage - a passage that Matthew also borrows from Mark. Luke does something wildly different! In Mark we have a simple scribe who asks Jesus what the first commandment is. Jesus responds: "The first is 'Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength.' The second, 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' " After that, the scribe basically says, "You're right!" and Jesus basically responds, "I know!"

Luke takes the Great Commandment - to love God and neighbor - and tells a different story. Here, it's not a simple scribe. In Luke, it's a Bible thumbing Pharisee! Most translations have "lawyer," which makes us think of Rebecca Wiggs or Cliff Johnson. That's not exactly what the term means. A better translation would be Bible Scholar, which makes us think of Ed Mahaffey. Except this Bible Scholar isn't nearly as nice as Dr. Mahaffey! And Luke has the Bible scholar ask a completely different first question. Instead of asking Jesus what the first commandment was, the Bible scholar asked Jesus "What must I do to inherit eternal life." Jesus answers, "What’s written in the Bible? How do you read it?" And here is where Luke is completely different. The Bible scholar tells Jesus the Great Commandment: "Love God and love neighbor." Jesus then says, "Yes! Do it and you will live." This is the end of the story in Mark and Matthew's version of Mark, but not Luke. Luke keeps the story going. The Bible scholar leans in: "And who is my neighbor?" Jesus tells a story - the story!

There are at least seven characters in the story. The man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, the robbers - we don’t know how many there are but it's plural; let's say five, the priest, the Levi, the Samaritan, and the innkeeper. Who’s going to be the neighbor? Before we get to the neighbor part, it's important to know that the "Man" here is totally anonymous. We don't know a thing about him - we are left to assume all sorts of things. The robbers, however, are more than they appear. The word Luke uses is better translated brigands. This is an organized group and Josephus, the Jewish historian from the first century, uses the same term to describe the rebels that ended up causing the Jewish revolt against Rome. So these aren't just robbers, they are rebels and revolutionaries, which makes us wonder now about this anonymous guy! Well, they take everything - even his clothes - and leave him half-dead.

In that condition, a priest comes by. It's worth noting that the Bible scholar who started this whole thing would have looked down on a priest. These are the quintessential Pharisees versus the Sadducees—temple versus Torah! So, the Bible scholar probably bristles to hear a priest coming. Is this the neighbor? No, he passes by as far on the other side of the road as possible. Of course he does, says the Bible scholar. Then comes a Levite - another Temple worker. Is this the neighbor? No, he passes by as far on the other side of the road as possible - just like the priest. Of course he does, says the Bible scholar - those guys are basically all the same. Then, a Samaritan! What? Is the Samaritan going to hurt him even more - is he going to finish him off? Everybody knows about Samaritans! The Samaritan came near him, and saw him and had compassion for him. He bandaged the man and cleaned his wounds and took him to a safe place and provided for his recovery. Didn't see that one coming at all - says the Bible scholar. Jesus then asks the last question: Who's the neighbor to this destitute man? The one who showed mercy. The Bible scholar couldn't even say "the Samaritan!" Go and do likewise.

There are throngs of people who are half-dead walking around Jackson and all through Mississippi like zombies among us. Many of you work with them as social workers and nonprofit managers and doctors and lawyers and ministers. Northminster, you are the neighbor. You, Northside Baptist in Clinton, University Baptist in both Hattiesburg and Starkville, you are all known as neighbors in the state of Mississippi. But let's act a little like Luke this morning and expand the story. Just like he rearranged Mark a little and developed the story even more. Let’s be biblical like Luke.

Let's go back to those "robbers," those organized rebels that nearly killed that man. Let's expand the story this morning and ask what creates those guys? How can we create a road to Jericho that is safe for everybody? Not by catching these guys and locking them up and being tough on crime, but by building a social structure where everybody matters from the brigands and robbers to the priest and Levites and even the Bible scholars. A society where we care enough to take care of the powerless with both direct services like Stewpot and systemic change at the policy level that begins to create a more equitable place to be. Let's join with all the other Good Samaritans in Jackson and Mississippi and create a Samaritan Partnership so there will be fewer and fewer half-dead and less and less pot holes on that road to Jericho. If we can do that here in Jackson and across Mississippi we may move from the ministry to the half-dead to a ministry of the resurrected. That would be Good News! May Jesus' words ring in our ears:
"Go and do likewise." May it be so.
Amen.

What We Can Do

II Kings 5:1-14, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Major Treadway · July 7th, 2019 · Duration 13:03

             In my experience, the hardest time to be a foreign missionary starts about one week after arriving in one’s new country. For many missionaries, it is about one week after arrival that a long arduous journey begins.  This journey is known as language study.  It may sound trivial, but it’s true. Missionaries arrive with big dreams and    excitement for what they will do in a new country. The churches and individuals here that are supporting them are eager to hear all about their new place. The organization there that is receiving them is eager to receive what they have come to offer.

               Yet, in those first few weeks, months, or even years, the new missionary, has to focus on the simple and basic task of learning language. This means repeated embarrassment trying to remember the difference between numbers like “fifty” and “fifteen”. It means desperately trying to remember whether to yell “awas” (meaning “beware”) or “sawa” (meaning “rice field”) in the event that the missionary sees a motorcycle that is about to crash into a rice field. Language study also means weeks, months, or years, of trying to find exciting ways to tell supporting individuals and churches about how interesting it is to sit in a classroom for four to six hours a day being tutored, only to go home and study for another two to four hours.

               It is in this long trudge, that dreams can fade. One can forget the anticipation they brought with them to this new place. It is boring. It makes one feel stupid. And it doesn’t make for good stories. It does not feel like a difference is being made. It is decidedly not the purpose for which the missionary was called. However, it is necessary. Without that time spent in language study, all of that interesting work about which the missionary will write home later, would not be possible. Visits to remote places with no motor vehicles and the cleanest water in the world would not happen. Long conversations that lead into relationships of mutual transformation would not happen.

               Naaman knew what he wanted and needed. He needed healing. He was desperate. Afterall, he was acting on the word of an immigrant slave girl. After a long series of conversations and letters and collecting lots of money to pay for an expensive treatment, Naaman doesn’t even get to see the doctor. Elisha sends out an assistant, a messenger. This messenger tells Naaman to do something ridiculous.

               At this point, it is important to note that the act which is prescribed to Naaman is only ridiculous because of the context that Naaman has built up around his ailment. His expectations are that his problem is so great that it can only be solved by some difficult and/or expensive task. Had the servant instructed Naaman to climb Mt. Everest backwards and at the summit to eat a bowl full of sliced and pickled gizzards, Naaman would have responded “is that all?”. He then, would have dispatched chefs and servants to find the gizzards to slice, pickle and package them perfectly for his journey. He would have bought camels and elephants to take him to the base of Mt. Everest, and he would have hired the twelve best Sherpas around to escort him up the mountain and required that they also climb the mountain backwards.

               But that is not the message that Naaman receives. His message is cheap, simple, easy: “go bathe in that river over there, the one that is a little muddy.” Naaman protests. The task does not measure up to the problem as he has defined it.

               A few thousand years later, not so much has changed. We find problems that we identify as big or significant or both. Then, we look for solutions that are at least equal in their elaborateness to how we have framed the problem. Any solution that does not balance out the problem as we have built it up becomes problematic and insufficient.

               In Mississippi, forty-two out of eighty-two counties have been listed among counties plagued by persistent rural poverty by the United States Department of Agriculture. This designation means that at least twenty percent of the population of the county has been living in poverty at every census since 1980. There are 301 such counties in the United States. Which means that nearly 15% of rural counties listed as persistently poor in the US are in MS. It also means that more than half of the counties of MS are considered persistently poor. Mississippi is regularly regarded as the poorest state in the US.

               This is a big problem. It must require a big solution. We can complicate this problem by talking about education, race, food insecurity, health care, incarceration, and a host of other issues.

               If we talk about the problem long enough, it will get too big to be able to do anything about. It’s too big. It’s too deep. It’s too complicated.

               I suspect that if we were to take some advice from one of the children downstairs and went to ask Elisha what to do about it. We might hear back some news that would seem dismissive. We would, of course, want to hear a fully formed and detailed multi-year strategy for how we were going to turn our state around.

               Those kinds of approaches are important. We need people to think about coordinated efforts to combat poverty that incorporate the voices and ideas of those whom the enacted programs will serve. We need education professionals and funds pumped into our education system if we want to see improvement. We need creative and macro-level integrated solutions to complex and complicated problems. But that’s not what we would hear from an assistant to a prophet of God.

               No, I fear the directive would be much more simple, much more doable, for anyone in this room. I anticipate that the message would be that when we see someone who we suspect is in need, to go and be with them. We would not be tasked with solving the problems that we have identified that they have. But to sit with them, to share a table with them, to learn their names and their stories; and to share with them our names and our stories.

               Learning someone’s name, learning to know their story – the good parts and the hard parts – takes time and effort, and won’t rapidly bring about the kind of systemic change that has trapped generations of Mississippians in poverty. Building relationships that have the capacity for mutual transformation takes time. Weeks, months, years.

               This kind of relationship take effort. It requires showing up repeatedly. It requires learning to know a person and culture without assuming that everything is the same for each person or each family.  This kind of relationship requires withholding judgement. It requires showing up repeatedly. It requires showing up repeatedly.    Because trust has be built. While relationships can sprout up and flourish quickly between strangers, more often than not, they take time and effort. They take showing up repeatedly – when things are good, when things are less than optimal. They require vulnerability, honesty, and patience.

               In this act of showing up repeatedly, something holy, mysterious, and predictable happens. Over the course of weeks, months, and years, the lives of those in these new relationship begin to be woven together. When threads are woven together, each thread lends itself to create something new and beautiful.  Red and blue, when they are woven together, become shades of purple. Blue and yellow, when they are woven together, become hues of green. Black and white, when they are woven together, become beautiful silver.

               But that’s not all, when threads are woven together something else happens. The threads become fabric. They move together and are affected by each other, and they are connected to more than just each individual thread. They become connected to all of the threads to which each one is connected. What pushes and pulls on a single thread causes all of the other connected threads to feel the pushing and pulling and to be moved.

               Learning to know someone’s name and story, is not always exciting. But in this simple, close, and accessible act – an act that requires time and attention, much more than effort and dollars – in this simple, close, and accessible act, we will find somewhere in the midst of this relationship, the beginning of healing to the biggest ailments we can imagine.

                                                            Amen.

The Life We Can’t Not Live

Galatians 5:1, 13-25, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 30th, 2019 · Duration 14:43

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Elijah’s Prayer and God’s Answer

I Kings 19:1-15, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 23rd, 2019 · Duration 10:12

I Kings 19:1-15

Elijah went a day's journey into the wilderness, where he asked that he might die: "It is enough; O Lord, take my life."

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from today's Old Testament lesson. And, every time they roll back around, God answers Elijah's prayer, for a way out, with a way through.

Elijah is so weary, empty, hopeless and afraid that he just wants out, praying for God to let him die; not unlike Moses, in Numbers chapter eleven, so exhausted that he prays, "O God, if you love me, you will let me die", and Job, who, in the depth of his despair, prayed for God to let him die, asking God, "Why do you give life to those who don’t want it, while taking life from those who do want it?", a reminder that, while most people get to live until they have to die, some people have to live until they get to die; death, for some, not a defeat, or a giving in, or a giving up, but the relief and release for which they have prayed; like Elijah, praying in this morning's passage, "I've had enough Lord; let me go."

A prayer which God did not answer, at least, not in the way that Elijah, in that moment of despair, was hoping. Instead of giving Elijah the way out he wanted, God gave Elijah the way through he needed; sending Elijah an angel who brought Elijah something to eat and drink, and who said to Elijah, in verse seven of today's passage, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you."

All of which, while it may belong to a rarely read corner of the Bible, sounds a lot like real life in the real world for those for whom the journey has, at times, been too hard, too heavy, too messy and too much to bear.

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. And, sometimes, it can all feel so heavy and hard that, like Elijah, we can reach that place at which we have had enough; at which point what we need is what Elijah got, the strength to go through what we cannot go around.

For Elijah, the strength he needed came from an angel, who brought him a meal, and told him to eat and drink because, otherwise, said the angel, "The journey will be too much for you."

Which, more often than not, is where we get our strength, too; from angels. Only, more often than not, ours don't wear wings or have halos. The angels through whom God gives us the strength to go on, when we cannot go on, do not, as a general rule, wear wings or have halos, but they do send notes, mail cards, write checks and make calls. Like Elijah's angel in today's scripture lesson, they show up, bring food and offer encouragement; or, sometimes, just stand silently by, their prayers for us becoming God's arms around us, helping us to find, like Elijah, a way through when there is no way out.

All of which calls to mind that unforgettable witness from the late poet/priest Mary Oliver, who spoke for us all when she said, "That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer, but, I did not die. Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends."

Indeed. With the help of God and the people of God, we do go through what we did not get to go around; surrounded and supported by friends and God, God and friends; one, so like the other, that, sometimes, we cannot tell where one ends, and the other begins.
Amen.

Further

John 16:12-15, Trinity Sunday

Chuck Poole · June 16th, 2019 · Duration 11:23

John 16:12-15

Trinity Sunday

"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."

I, like many of you, have read and heard those words from this morning's gospel lesson more times than I can count. But, this week, for the first time, it occurred to me that, in addition to giving us a snapshot of the Trinity (Jesus, handing us off to the Holy Spirit, before going home to God), there is, also, a way in which those words from John's gospel are, for many of us, the story of our life; the Holy Spirit, taking us further and further into truth which, at one time in our life, we could not bear to hear; slowly, slowly, little by little, across a lifetime of praying and thinking, thinking and praying, the Holy Spirit taking us further and further along the path of spiritual maturity, until, eventually, the same truth we once could not bear to hear, we now cannot bear to hide.

Because of where I started out in life, there was a time, for example, when I could not bear the truth that God calls people to ministry without regard for whether they are male or female; a time when I could not bear the truth that going through the grief of divorce does not disqualify anyone from any role in the church; a time when I could not bear the truth that homosexuality is a human difference, not a spiritual sin; a time when I could not bear the truth that the God who created the universe thirteen billion years ago can never be fully captured in anyone's religion, including mine.

I believe that all of that has always been true, but, for the longest time, it was truth I could not bear to hear. But, a lifetime of walking in the Holy Spirit has slowly taken me from not being able to bear to hear any of that, to not being able to keep from saying all of that.

I imagine that something similar might be true for many of you, the same truth we once feared so greatly, we couldn't bear to hear it, we now believe so deeply, we cannot keep from saying it; our experience, a living, breathing echo of what Jesus described to his first friends in today's gospel lesson, where Jesus is reported to have said, "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."

But, of course, that raises the question, "How do we discern whether or not what we are seeing or hearing is the leadership of the Holy Spirit?", a question to which the answer is waiting in the next verses of today's gospel lesson, where Jesus is reported to have said, "The Spirit will not speak on his own, but will take what is mine and declare it to you." I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, that is the measure of whether or not a nudge or whisper is from the Holy Spirit: "Is it true to the spirit of Jesus? Is what I believe the Holy Spirit is leading me to say or do anchored in, tethered to, aligned with and rising from the Jesus of the four gospels, the Jesus who said that what matters most is that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love all others as we want all others to love us?"

The Holy Spirit will always only take us further along that same path, the path down which Jesus got us started; not a wide and easy way of tolerance, but a steep and narrow way of truth; the path of truth and grace, integrity and love, justice and mercy, courage and kindness down which Jesus got us started, before he handed us off to the Holy Spirit to take us further.

Amen.

Concerning the Work of the Spirit

John 14:8-17, 25-27, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · June 9th, 2019 · Duration 10:55

John 14:8-17, 25-27

"The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you."
Every time the Common Lectionary asks the church, throughout the world, to read those words on Pentecost Sunday, they remind us that one of the ways the Holy Spirit works in our lives is by calling, to our minds, the words, and ways, of Jesus.
For example, we encounter someone who is in need of help, and the Holy Spirit reminds us that, in Matthew 5:42, Jesus is reported to have said, "Give to everyone who begs from you." Or, we are about to say something hurtful to, or harmful about, someone, and the Holy Spirit reminds us that, in Matthew 12:36, Jesus is reported to have said, "On the day of judgement, you will have to give an account for every careless word you have ever said." We feel our spirit turning bitter toward someone who has hurt us, and the Holy Spirit reminds us that, in Matthew 6:15, Jesus is reported to have said, "If we do not forgive others, God will not forgive us." We wonder why those of us who were born on the comfortable, powerful, majority side of human difference must always be ready to sit down with, and stand up for, those who were born on the minority side of human difference, and the Holy Spirit reminds us that, in Luke 12:48, Jesus is reported to have said, "To whom much is given, much is required."
And on and on it goes, day after day, all through the day. The Holy Spirit doing, down here on the ground, what Jesus said the Holy Spirit would do, back there on the page; reminding us of the words, and ways, of Jesus.
Of course, even the Holy Spirit cannot remind us of something we have never known, or learned. Which is why it is so important for us to get the words of Jesus tucked away, down there in the reservoir of our soul; so that, in those critical moments of decision, when so much can be at stake, the Holy Spirit can reach down deep into the reservoir of our soul and lift up some word of Jesus which might give us the courage, clarity and kindness we need to speak and act like a child of God, in that critical moment when so much hangs in the balance.
Which is one reason why, week after week, year after year, we will be so intentional about helping little Mary Gilbert Wylie, and all her friends in the nursery and children’s department and youth group, and all of our adults, young and old, to learn the ways and know the words of Jesus; so that the Holy Spirit will have something to remind us of in life’s moments of decision, large and small.
Needless to say, this isn’t magic. Having the words of Jesus tucked away down there in the reservoir of our soul, so the Holy Spirit can call those words to our minds, all through the day, day after day, does not guarantee that we will always live a life of clarity, courage and kindness. It can, however, make a real, and true, difference in our lives, if we fill the reservoir of our soul with the words of Jesus, and then live, each day, all through the day, prayerfully, intentionally open to the Holy Spirit, whose work is to remind us of the words and ways of Jesus, so that we might, eventually, actually learn to think, act and speak with clarity, courage and kindness.
Amen.

The Last Word?

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · June 2nd, 2019 · Duration 4:59

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

As you may have noticed, this morning's lesson from the Revelation carried us all the way down to the last line on the last page of the last book of the Bible. "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all the saints" is the way some of the most ancient manuscripts preserve that last line of sacred scripture, while other equally ancient manuscripts say, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with all." And, even after all these years, no one can say, for sure, whether the Bible ends with grace for all the saints, or grace for all. An unresolvable ambiguity which, at first glance, might seem to be a less than perfect way for the Bible to end, but which, upon further reflection, might actually be the most amazingly perfect ending imaginable. After all, "Grace for some, or grace for all?" is a question which winds its way like a quiet stream across the long landscape of the whole Bible. In Deuteronomy 23, some are not welcome in the family of God, but in Isaiah 25, everyone is. In John 3:16, only those who believe in the Son of God will be saved, while in Colossians 1:20 the whole creation is reconciled to God. In Romans 10:9, only those who confess Jesus as Lord will be saved, while in Romans 11:32, it is all who receive mercy. In Matthew 13:49, only some are with God in the end, but in I Timothy 4:10, God is the Savior of all. Over here, there is Bible in support of onlyism; only those who do right or decide right will receive the grace of God. Over there, there is Bible in support of universalism; the whole creation eventually, ultimately redeemed and reconciled, healed and home; a Bible-wide conversation between onlyism and universalism which is still going on all the way down to the last word of the last line on the last page of the Bible; some ancient manuscripts ending with grace for some, and others ending in grace for all; the perfect ending to the Bible’s never-ending conversation with itself. Amen.

Concerning the City of God

Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 26th, 2019 · Duration 11:26

Revelation 21:10, 21:22-22:5 And the angel carried me away to a great high mountain and showed me the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God . . . The gates of the city will never be closed by day, and there will be no night . . . And they will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from the Revelation, they call to mind, for me, something I stumbled across several years ago, from a book by New Testament scholar Beverly Gaventa, in which she said, If you had to sum up the whole book of the Revelation in a single sentence, that single sentence would be, "Things will not always hurt the way they do now." Which does seem, to me, to be as good a one sentence summary of the Revelation as one could ever hope to have; "Things will not always hurt the way they do now." When what we now call the Revelation was first written, it was, as best we can discern, a pastoral letter written to encourage a cluster of churches enduring pressure and persecution from the Roman emperor Domitian. Most of the best scholarship we have tells us that Domitian didn’t care how many gods his subjects worshipped, as long as Domitian himself was one of them. So, when Christians declined to participate in the culture of emperor worship, they ran the risk of being seen as poor patriots and suspect citizens. "What's the harm," their neighbors wondered, "in mixing a little emperor worship with Jesus?" But, of course, the Christians couldn't, and, when they didn't, they often became seen as suspect citizens, which sometimes led to arrest, imprisonment or even death, but, more often, in the late first-century reign of Domitian, to being socially ostracized and economically penalized; their businesses boycotted and contracts cancelled. To which the writer of the Revelation said, "Stay strong. I know it's hard. I, myself, am in prison for my faith. So, I know how costly and difficult, even dangerous it can be to live a life of clarity and courage. But, you stay strong, because this is God's world, and in God's world, God, not Domitian or any other earthly ruler or power or problem, but God has the last word, and if the last word said is going to be God's, the last thing done is going to be good. I know it is so because I had this vision where an angel took me on a tour of the future, and, ultimately, eternally, after all this struggle and trouble and pain is done, there is going to be a new Jerusalem; a city of God like nothing you can imagine; streets of gold, gates of pearl. You may be losing your livelihood today because of your refusal to worship Domitian, but you be strong, because someday you'll be walking on gold and leaning on jasper. This new city I saw is so filled with the presence of God that it has no temple, and so full of light that it needs no lamp. And, best of all, the city I saw has twelve gates, three on the north, three on the south, three on the east, and three on the west, and all of them are always open and none of them will ever close; so it won't just be us there, it will be all there; people from every nation, tribe and tongue; just like Isaiah said it would be; the whole world and all creation finally healed and home. So, you stay strong; because, ultimately God is going to have the last word, and things will not always hurt the way they do now." That is what the writer of the Revelation said to those late first-century Christians who first read the Revelation. It was, for them, a pastoral letter to encourage them to stay strong, and not to lose hope, no matter how hard or bad things became because, ultimately, eventually, someday, God is going to have the last word, and things will not always hurt the way they do now. And, what the Revelation said to them then, it says to us now. Across the Christian centuries, we've let all the apocalyptic images and metaphors about beasts and dragons in the Revelation trip us up and sidetrack us. We've gotten lost in the numbers and the colors and all the odd literary devices the writer of the Revelation employed. As late as the sixteenth century, Martin Luther questioned whether such an odd book should even be kept in the canon of scripture, and John Calvin, when he wrote his commentary on the New Testament, intentionally left the Revelation out, so uncertain was he of its value. And, then, in the nineteenth century, came historical premillennial dispensationalism with its literal rapture and tribulation and millennialism, which turned the Revelation into a bewildering puzzle to be solved instead of a hopeful word to be heard; a hopeful word originally written as a pastoral letter to some late first-century Christians who were living with a lot of sorrow and struggle, fear and pain, to encourage them to stay strong. And, what it was then, for them, the Revelation is now, for us. Not a puzzle to be solved, but a hope to be held; the hope that, ultimately, eternally, 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. And if the last thing done is going to be good, then things will not always hurt the way they do now. Amen.

Our Mentor, Peter

Acts 11:1-18, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 19th, 2019 · Duration 9:50

Acts 11:1-18

The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and daughters will prophesy. Even upon slaves, both male and female, I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.
Every year, year after year, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words, from the book of Acts, to be read, by Christians throughout the world, on Pentecost Sunday. When they rolled around this year, they called to mind, for me, something that happened a few weeks ago here in Jackson, when Calvary Baptist Church called Linda Smith as their senior pastor. Calvary did not turn to Linda because she is a woman, but neither did they turn from her because she is a woman; a congregational decision which put Calvary Baptist Church squarely in the heart of the message of Pentecost, the Pentecostal message that God calls God's sons and daughters, with no regard for whether they happen to be sons or daughters.
That is what Acts chapter two says, which, needless to say, is different from I Corinthians 14:34, which says that women should be silent in the church, which sounds sort of like I Timothy 2:12, "I permit no woman to teach a man," which is decidedly different from Galatians 3:27-28, which says that, in the baptized family of faith, there is neither male or female, which sounds like today's lesson from Acts, where God pours out the Holy Spirit upon men and women with no regard for whether they happen to have been born women or men, all of which leaves us with varied voices, in the same Bible, on the same subject; which is where the Holy Spirit comes in. Because the Bible speaks with varied voices, we have to have the Holy Spirit to show us which of the Bible's varied voices matter most to God, and, thus, should matter most to us.
Take, for example, the Bible's varied voices about the role of women in the church. When it comes to those varied voices and verses, the path to truth goes something like this: The life of Jesus is the best look we have ever had at God, and the four gospels are the best look we have ever had at Jesus, and the Jesus of the four gospels lived his life drawing an ever wider circle of welcome and embrace; transcending his culture's religious barriers to fellowship and service. So, when I find some voices in scripture which exclude some of God's children from some of God's service, and other voices in scripture which include all of God's children in all of God's service, the Holy Spirit makes it clear to me that the verses and voices which matter most are the verses and voices which draw the widest circle of inclusion, because those are the verses and voices which most nearly resemble Jesus, who most fully resembles God.
That's the Pentecostal way of reading the Bible; a way of reading scripture for which Jesus himself prepared us when he said, in this morning's gospel lesson, "When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will guide you into all truth." Needless to say, it would be simpler if Jesus had said, "The Bible will be your chapter and verse authority, with every answer to every question spelled out and nailed down in clear and certain black and white." But Jesus warned us that it wouldn't always be that easy when he said, "The Spirit will guide you into all truth," which means that we don't get to abdicate, to the finished authority of chapter and verse, our lifelong responsibility for thinking and praying.
And this Pentecostal way of reading the Bible is not only something we have to do with scripture, it is also something we get to see in scripture. Take, for example, Acts chapter eight. In Acts 8:26, the Holy Spirit sends Philip to baptize an Ethiopian eunuch,
but there's a Bible verse blocking the path down to the water. The verse is Deuteronomy 23:1, which excludes eunuchs from being welcomed into the family of God, but the Holy Spirit is pushing Philip past the place where those words on that page would have told him to stop. And then, there's Acts chapter ten, where God calls Peter to go and baptize the Gentile, Cornelius. Peter says, "But God, what about what the Bible says? You know, in Leviticus 11:44, all about clean and unclean?" But the Holy Spirit pushes Peter past the place where a Bible verse might have made him stop; which sometimes happens, after Pentecost.
A few days ago I was driving up Highway 25, somewhere between Carthage and Noxapater, when I saw, off to my left, a small church with a big sign out front that said, Pentecostal Bible Way Church. I almost turned around, crossed the median, went back and joined up, because that phrase, Pentecostal Bible Way, pretty much says it all. Here is the Pentecostal Bible way to live: You root your life as deeply as you can in the Bible's clear call for all of us to live lives of holiness, truthfulness, gentleness, compassion, kindness, contentment, careful speech and utterly pure, absolutely transparent, completely agendaless innocence, while also leaving wide open every window of your soul for the wind of Pentecost to blow through and take you to people and places which some of the Bible's verses and voices might never have caused you, or allowed you, to go.
That's the Pentecostal Bible way to live. Get up every day of your life and decide to live that way, and you will be living the life for which you are being saved; the life for which you were both born and baptized.
Amen.

Concerning the Kindness and Goodness of God

Revelation 7:9-17, The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 12th, 2019 · Duration 9:16

Revelation 7:9-17

The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

"And God will wipe every tear from their eyes." Those words, from today's epistle lesson, like all the words in the Revelation, were probably originally written to a late first-century community of faith, located in western Asia Minor, struggling to resist the demands of the Roman emperor, Domitian. In that sense, the Revelation's original audience was as specific and local as the recipients of Paul's letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Philippians and Galatians. All of which is to say that, as one wise soul once observed, "Whenever we read the Revelation, we are reading someone else's mail."

However, just because the Revelation wasn't written to us or about us, that doesn't mean that it doesn't hold an important message for us. To the contrary, we regularly find, in the last book of the Bible, comfort and hope, for our lives, just as the original readers of the Revelation found comfort and hope for theirs; perhaps never more so than when this morning's lesson places in our path one of the Bible's most tender, gentle images of the kindness and goodness of God; the image of God wiping every tear from every eye, over on the Other Side.

That beautiful image of the kindness of God first appears in the book of Isaiah, chapter twenty-five, verse eight, which says that, someday, God will prepare a banquet for all people, at which God will wipe away all tears from all faces; one of many images in the Bible for the kindness and goodness of God.

The most familiar of which, of course, is the twenty-third psalm, which says that God is with us and for us, not in ways that spare us from the worst, but in ways that see us through the worst. And then, of course, there is Psalm 100, which says that "God's steadfast love endures forever," and Psalm 145, which says that "The Lord is gracious and merciful, good and kind," and Isaiah 66:13, which likens God to a mother who carries and comforts her children; the kind of mother who, in today's lesson from the Revelation, will someday dry the tears from our eyes, and all eyes; just a handful of the Bible's many images for the kindness and goodness of God.

Which is not the same as saying that God is sweet and nice. Given all the evil and harm which happen in this world, God, one imagines, must be kind and good in ways which are more true and clear than sweet and nice. Violence, abuse, injustice, oppression, deception, manipulation, discrimination, ridicule, meanness, unkindness; the list of sins which bring hurt and harm to people's lives is long, and no one should ever confuse the kindness and goodness of God with a sweet, nice tolerance of that which needs to be confronted and changed.

Our task, as the children of God, is to learn to know what the sins are; and, what the human struggles, complexities and differences are. One of the most important journeys any person ever takes, along the path to spiritual depth, is to walk in the Holy Spirit prayerfully enough, for long enough, to eventually learn to discern the difference between a difference and a sin. And, then, to respond to each the way God would, with clarity and courage in the face of the real sins, and with kindness toward all else, and all persons; letting the kindness and goodness of God which has come down to us go out through us, until, as the poet Naomi Shihab Nye says, "It is only kindness which ties our shoes every morning and sends us out into the day," drying more tears than we cause, until we reach that far away Someday when God will wipe them all away.
Amen.

The Largest Verse in the Bible

Revelation 5:11-14, The Third Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 5th, 2019 · Duration 5:10

Revelation 5:11-14

The Third Sunday of Eastertide

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!"

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from today's epistle lesson, it places, in our path, the largest verse in the whole Bible . Not the largest as in the longest, a distinction which belongs to Esther chapter eight, verse nine, but the largest as in the biggest; a single verse of scripture, gathering every creature on the earth, under the earth, in the sky and in the sea, around the throne of God, singing praise to God; together, forever.

Beautiful words from the book of Revelation, but words which, like all of the words in the Revelation, are not to be taken literally, because the Revelation is a book of symbols and images, parables and pictures. Not to mention the fact that, taken literally, Revelation 5:13 would mean that every creature in all creation would have a place in the eternal heavenly choir; lions and llamas, manatees and muskrats, eels and seals, moose and mice. Not even Tim Coker could coax a coherent chorus from that kind of choir.

So, the question is not what Revelation 5:13 might mean taken literally, but, what it might mean taken seriously.

No one can say with certainty, of course, but, perhaps, it means that someday God will get what God has always wanted; the whole creation, and the whole human family, redeemed and reconciled, healed and home. After all the necessary judging and punishing, purging and redeeming is done, no matter how many millions of years it takes, at long last, God, finally getting the one thing God has always wanted most; every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, redeemed and reconciled, healed and home.

Amen.

Unless

John 20:19-31, The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Major Treadway · April 29th, 2019 · Duration 14:13

John 20:19-31

The Second Sunday of Eastertide

There they sat, the disciples, in a familiar room. Maybe even a room in which they had previously sat with Jesus. Only this time, it was after Jesus had been crucified. It was after they had heard the story from Mary Magdalene and Peter and John. They were afraid. When Jesus had been crucified their world had been turned upside down and inside out. Then there was this report of an empty tomb and a resurrected Jesus. Again, their world was turned upside down and inside out. But it wasn't as though this news of resurrection had set everything right. Everything was even more different for them than it had been when Jesus was dead.

They finally had proof that they had chosen right. Their choice to leave behind their nets and their tax collecting had been the right choice. But now what?

Have you ever had a moment like that? A moment where you made an audacious claim or did something that seemed so far outside the realm of what was acceptable only to be proven right? It doesn't happen very often, of course, our society operates on a set of prescribed rituals. Changes to these rituals are not typically welcome. The more deeply engrained the ritual, the less welcome the change - it doesn't matter if the change makes sense.

Here the disciples sat with the notion that the most certain thing in life - death - had been overcome. They had watched Jesus die. They watched him breathe his last. They watched as the soldier made sure that he was really dead. They watched as he was laid in a tomb. They watched as the stone was placed over the opening. Jesus had died. They had watched.

But now, there was news that all that they had watched had been undone. They were afraid. So they did what any of us do when we are afraid. They gave their fear a face and tried to find a way to keep safe from that face. John tells us the face they gave their fear was "the Jews." These were the people who had killed Jesus, after all. Who could blame them for giving their fear this face? The only way they knew to keep safe from that fear was to go into a safe room and lock the door behind them. So there they sat, together, afraid, in a locked room.

And then it happened. That calm and familiar voice. The one that had called out to them not so long ago with those life changing words: "follow me." "Peace be with you" the voice called out. Can't you see them looking to each other with tear laden eyes crying out to one another as they had before in recent days, "did you just hear that?" Slowly, each of them realizes that the others had heard it too. They look around and see Jesus. Their grieving transforms. Their tears of sorrow and fear becoming tears of joy.

Knowing their fears, Jesus showed them his hands that bore the scars of nails and his side, where the soldier had placed his spear.

Jesus stays with them a short time and then is gone. One of their group was not among them - Thomas. Those who had seen Jesus go to find him, eager to share with him the good news that the stories were true. They had seen Jesus - alive.

All of their eyes (Thomas' included) still bore signs of too many tears shed. Only there was a difference in the eyes of those who had been in the locked room.

Thomas had to have heard the story from Mary Magdalene, from Peter, and from John. And now Thomas was hearing this story from the small circle of Jesus' closest followers. He had been with them. He had been with Jesus. He had responded to Jesus' call to "follow". He had watched all of the same events transpire that the rest of the disciples had watched. He saw Jesus put in the tomb. In the tomb!!!

Then Thomas utters the words that have long made him the punching bag for pastors and Sunday School teachers needing someone about which to say "don't be like that guy." Thomas says to his friends, words pregnant with yearning hope waiting to burst free and give him the peace he needs. Thomas says, "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."

These are to me, perhaps, the most human words recorded in the Bible. "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."

Carter and JW, it is a blessing to be able to be here to celebrate with you today. Your time being a part of this community of faith - taking part in both being formed by Northminster and forming Northminster - means that you have been surrounded with important ideas, practices, and rituals that are now common and familiar to you. You know the importance of careful speech. You know what it means to stand up for and sit down with the same people that Jesus would stand up for and sit down with. You know what it means to be with your neighbors, those who look like you and talk like you and those who don't. You know about being at the Yellow Church and packing bags for boarding homes. You have many times heard the same familiar words the disciples heard inside the locked room: Peace be with you.

As you go from this place to your new places, if you listen carefully, you will hear in conversations of your soon to be friends and classmates, professors and neighbors, administrators and fraternity brothers (and sorority sisters), their words may not be the same, but you will hear them say "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."

When you hear this message conveyed, it will likely not be with the same yearning hope of Thomas, but it might be. We live in Mississippi, where nearly every person you will meet has heard of Jesus, can tell you some bible stories, and can tell you something about the resurrection. They may not believe it, but they know about it.

In Mississippi, the words of Thomas can come when there is a national political dispute between a democrat and a republican both professing to be Christians, and both making public statements that fail to measure up to Jesus' command to love your neighbor as yourself.

The words of Thomas can come when a hurricane decimates the coastline, killing people, destroying property, and forever altering lives and the people watching the news footage ask "how can a good God allow this?".

The words of Thomas can come in discussions about the role of the church in international conflict.

The ways the sentiment of Thomas can be conveyed are endless. They may come in a classroom, when a student or professor will start a sentence, "if Christians really believed in "x", then....

They may come on a Sunday morning when you want to go to church and your roommate will say, "nah, that's not worth getting up for"

They may even come at a football game when people on both sides of the field will pray for the same football to fly in different directions off of the foot of the kicker.

It may even come when you look in the mirror and try to decide what you want your major to be or who you want to become.

These very real conversations, thoughts, and prayers fit right here with Thomas and his statement to his friends.

It is important and instructive to note the story of Thomas does not end with his statement of what he needs to believe. A week later, Jesus comes to the group again - only Thomas is with them this time. Jesus offers the same familiar refrain "Peace be with you," then walks over to Thomas. He meets Thomas' conditions.

Jesus says to Thomas: "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe."

Sisters and Brothers, Carter and JW, we are the body of Christ. When someone offers the sentiment of Thomas, that they cannot believe unless they see and feel, that is an invitation. I do not mean to suggest that you or I or anyone else will be able to prove them into faith. Nor do I mean to suggest that anything that you or I or anyone else does should be for the purpose of showing off one's faith in front of another.

However, if someone wants to see the scars in the hands of and side of Jesus, he or she needs only see or hear of your stories, of our stories, being the Body of Christ at Northminster Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi and beyond. You have the language, the faith, and experience to answer.

You know that each human you meet bears the image of God - whether or not you agree with their religion, their politics, or their life choices. You are a part of a Christian community that cares deeply about its neighbors, the Christian ones and the not Christian ones, the ones whose theology lines up with ours and the ones whose does not. You are a part of a community of faith that is not afraid to talk about difficult issues like race, sexuality, and inequality AND admit that there is still much to learn about these topics and others (including how to talk about them). You have formed and been formed by a church that values the voices and talents of each person present. You know this because you have lent your voices and talents in the formation of this family of faith.

Carter and JW, I can't tell you when or where you will hear Thomas' plea, but I can tell you, that if you listen, you will hear it. When you hear it, know that you can say back to that voice, when it's appropriate, "come and see. Look at these hands of Jesus, let me tell you about what they have done." You can say this, in part because of the way that you and your faith have been formed as a part of this community.

And, Carter and JW, because of the way that you have taken part in the forming of this community of faith, even when you have gone from this place to all your other places, when we hear Thomas' plea, and we will hear it, just as assuredly as you will hear it, we can also say: "come and see. Look at these hands of Jesus, let me tell you what they have done."

Amen.

God Raised Jesus from the Grave

Luke 24:1-12, Easter Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 21st, 2019 · Duration 8:54

Luke 24:1-12

Easter Sunday

As you may have noticed, the details surrounding the discovery that God had raised Jesus from the grave vary from gospel to gospel. In today's lesson from Luke, for example, several women went to the tomb, while, in John, it was one woman; but, two in Matthew and three in Mark.  In Luke, the stone was rolled away before the women arrived; in Matthew, afterward. In Luke, there are two angels at the tomb, resplendent in their Easter seersucker; while, in Matthew, only one stands guard. And, while, in Luke, the women go and tell the disciples that the tomb is empty, in Mark, they go home and tell no one.

But, however different from one another the gospel accounts of the resurrection might be, when it comes to the single, central point of the story, all four gospels say the same: "God raised Jesus from the grave."

God raised Jesus from the grave, and, ever since, we have been living on the leftovers of that sunrise surprise; that long ago daybreak discovery, a sign, for us, of hope; the hope that, while suffering and pain, despair and death, will have a word with us, they will not have the last word, because this is God's world, and, in God's world, God gets the last word. And, if the last word said is going to be God's, then the last thing done is going to be good; the ultimate sign of which is that God raised   Jesus from the grave.

Whatever else it does or does not mean, the resurrection of Christ from the grave has meant that kind of hope for countless children of God; the kind of hope which gives us the kind of courage which carries us through the struggles we did not get to go around, the kind of hope  which keeps us hoping, even when our life, which was once  a sea of joy punctuated by occasional islands of pain, becomes, instead, a sea of pain punctuated by occasional islands of joy; a hope so incurable that, as the Book of Common Prayer says, Even at the grave, we make our song "Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia."

Needless to say, we can be, and sometimes are, as full of doubt as the disciples in today's gospel lesson, who dismissed the initial reports of the resurrection as "an idle tale." But, even with all our uncertainties and doubts, still, we gather every Easter to say and sing the glad good news, that God raised Jesus from the grave, not because it is something we have to believe about Jesus, but because it is something we get to believe about God.

We get to believe that the God who raised Jesus from the grave is the God who is with us and for us; not in ways which always spare us from the worst, but in ways which always see us through the worst, holding us near and holding us up; with us and for us, in this life and the next, world without end.

Amen.

What Should We Say About the Cross?

Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 14th, 2019 · Duration 14:37

Philippians 2:5-11

Palm/Passion Sunday

Of all the mysteries of the Christian faith, few are more difficult to ponder than the one of which our choir just sang so beautifully, the mystery to which this now new Holy Week soon will take us; the wonder and mystery of what was happening when Jesus was dying on the cross.

Of course, on one level, we know what was happening when Jesus was dying on the cross.  Because we have read the four gospels, we know that Jesus was crucified because he stood up for the wrong people often enough that he made the right people nervous enough that they killed him in an effort to silence him.  To read the four gospels is to know that, on one level, that is what was happening when Jesus was dying.  That much is clear.

But, across the Christian centuries, many Christians have needed to say, and hear, more than that about what was happening when Jesus was dying on the cross; more, especially, about how Jesus' death on the cross served as a sacrifice Jesus made to God on our behalf, paying the price for our sin so that God would then be free to save us from our sin, if we make the right response to Jesus' sacrifice; a way of speaking about the cross which was most fully articulated by an eleventh-century thinker named Anselm of Canterbury, who said that God could not forgive sin without compromising God's holiness unless God was first offered a perfect human sacrifice for sin.  However, because all people are flawed by sin, no perfect human sacrifice was available.  Therefore, Anselm concluded, God had to send Jesus to live a perfect human life so that Jesus could satisfy God's requirement for a perfect human sacrifice so that God would then be free to forgive sin without compromising God's holiness.

All of which may be true, and for which one can find support in scripture, especially in Hebrews 10:10 and I John 2:2, but, some of which  does raise large, and deeply spiritual, questions.  For one, if God cannot forgive sin unless God first receives both a perfect sacrifice for sinners, and the right response from sinners, then what room is left for grace?  And, for another, is the idea that God can't forgive sin unless blood is shed actually true about God, or is that a carry-over from the sacrificial system of Judaism into early Christianity?  And, for another, does it ring true to say that God would require a human sacrifice to satisfy God's need for a price to be paid for sin, when, back in Deuteronomy chapter eighteen, God told the people of God that human sacrifice is, itself, a sin. In other words, while it may be true to twenty centuries of evolving Christian doctrine to speak about what happened at the cross as a sacrifice God had to receive so that God could forgive, is it true to the nature and character of God to speak in that way about what happened at the cross?

Needless to say, I do not have the answers to those questions, but, because, they are, to me, as truthful, prayerful and deeply spiritual as they are unanswerable, for many years now, when it comes to the cross, it has been enough, for me, to say, concerning the cross, that, when Jesus died on the cross, Jesus entered fully into the worst of human suffering, humiliation, shame, sorrow, rejection and death; embracing all persons, and all pain, of every time and place, in a wingspan as wide as the whole creation; as Paul said to the Colossians, the whole creation, reconciled to God, through the cross.

Of course, according to today's epistle lesson, from Philippians chapter two, it is not as important for us to solve the mystery of the cross, as it is for us to assume the shape of the cross, to let the same cross-formed mind be in us that was also in Christ Jesus; we, as cross-shaped in our living, as he was cross-shaped in his dying.

Cross-shaped as in simultaneously vertical and horizontal; vertical with love for God, and horizontal with love for others; the cross which was, for one day, in Jerusalem, a place for Jesus to die, now, for each day, in Jackson, a way for us to live; loving God with all that is in us in a vertical life of worship, righteousness, prayer and truth; and loving all others in a horizontal life of kindness, courage, compassion, gentleness, justice, welcome and grace; a life which is simultaneously up for God and out for others; our lives as cross-shaped, living, as our Lord was cross-shaped, dying.

Amen.

Pressing On

Philippians 3:4-14, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · April 7th, 2019 · Duration 4:39

Philippians 3:4-14

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

"I have not yet reached the goal, but I keep pressing on, toward the prize, to make it mine." With those words, today's epistle lesson captures our never-ending longing for a deeper life with God; what Evelyn Underhill once called, "Reaching for what we do not have by the faithful practice of what we do have," what Paul calls, "Pressing on toward the prize."

We don't press on toward the goal of a deeper life with God because we are hoping to gain a reward or avoid a punishment, or because we're trying to work our way into heaven or out of hell.  Rather, we keep pressing on to a deeper life with God because we don't want to under-live the one and only life we are ever going to have.

Someday is going to be the last day for all of us, 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.  Which is why we want to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully, as possible.  Which is why we keep pressing on to the goal of a more mindful, gentle, thoughtful, prayerful life of kindness and courage; a Spirit-filled, cross-formed life which is simultaneously vertical with love for God and horizontal with love for others, the kind of life which is guided by a clear moral compass of integrity, and stretched by a wide wingspan of welcome; a life which we, like Paul in today's epistle lesson, may not yet have, but, toward which, like Paul, we keep pressing on; reaching for the deeper life with God we do not yet have, by the faithful practice of the passionate longing for it which we do have.

Amen.

Concerning Reconciliation

II Corinthians 5:16-21, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 31st, 2019 · Duration 14:25

II Corinthians 5:16-21

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

"In Christ, God was reconciling the world to God's self."  With those words, today's epistle lesson takes its place alongside Colossians 1:20, which says, "Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile, to God's self, all things, on earth and in heaven," Ephesians 1:9-10, which says, "God's will, for the fullness of time, is to gather up all things in Christ, things in heaven and things on earth," and Revelation 5:13, which says, "Then I heard every creature, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, singing to the one seated on the throne, and to the Lamb, blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever"; verses of scripture which imagine the whole human family, along with all creatures, and all creation, eventually, ultimately, eternally reconciled to God and one another.

After all the guilt has been confessed and all the responsibility has been owned, after all the victims have been faced, all the sin has been judged and all the truth has been told, not without a long, hard hell of judgement, but through a long, hard hell of judgement; at long last, the ultimate will of God, ultimately done, which, according to today's passage, was, and is, the reconciliation of the world, to God, through Christ.

A possibility which is nothing but joy to many of the world's Christians, but which is as troubling to others as the father's welcome of the undeserving younger brother was to the bigger, better brother in this morning's gospel lesson.

Like the bigger brother in the parable, we fear that a welcome too wide makes reconciliation too easy; turning grace into a timid tolerance which allows those who do the worst to get away with the most; what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called "cheap grace."

And, for many, not even a long, hard hell where sin is judged, evil is purged, responsibility is owned and victims are faced is judgement enough.  The only judgement which is enough for much of popular Christianity is a hell which is endless and eternal; perhaps because we don't like the idea of grace beyond the grave.  As C.S. Lewis once said, sounding a lot like the older brother in the parable, "No one should get to decide for God after they discover they have no other choice."  The rich man can't escape the flames, to go and be where Lazarus is.  It is appointed unto us once to die, and after that the judgement.  Those who do not believe are condemned already.  No one comes to God except through Christ.  It's in the Book.

But, it is also in the Book that in Christ, God was reconciling the whole creation to God's self, and that, ultimately, eternally, every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea will sing together forever around the throne of God; the whole human family of every time and place, plus all creatures and all creation, reconciled to one another and to God; no one coming to God except through Christ, because everyone, eventually, comes to God, through Christ; which is what this morning's epistle passage says that God had in mind all along, the reconciliation of the whole world, to God, through Christ.

To which, at one time, I would have said, " If God was going to reconcile and redeem the whole creation, then what was the point of Jesus' death?"  To which today's epistle lesson would say, "That was the point of Jesus' death.  The point of the crucifixion was the reconciliation of the whole creation."  What happened at the cross was that big, that powerful, effective and universal; the whole creation, reconciled to God, through Christ.

Which, if it ever actually comes to pass, will, one imagines, make God as glad as the father in the parable of the prodigal son, while also making many of the children of God as mad as the bigger better brother in the story, who found, in his father's boundless grace, as much grief as the other brother found relief.

A reminder for us all that one of the most simple, basic prayers that any of us can pray is for God to give us enough of the Holy Spirit in our lives, so that we will never be sad about any inclusion God is glad about, and that we will never be glad about any exclusion God is sad about; our hope for the reconciliation of the whole creation as deep and as wide as the hope and will and plan of God.

Amen.

On the Other Hand

Luke 13:1-9, The Third Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 24th, 2019 · Duration 11:05

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Another Second Chance

Isaiah 2:1-5, The First Sunday in Advent

Chuck Poole · March 18th, 2019 · Duration 79:58

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

These Verses Versus Those Verses

Luke 4:1-13, The First Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 10th, 2019 · Duration 13:48

Luke 4:1-13

The First Sunday in Lent

Then the devil took Jesus to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'God will command the angels to protect you, and on their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" And Jesus answered the devil, "It is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'"

Every three years, the Common Lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words on the First Sunday in Lent. And, every time they roll back around, we get to watch while Jesus and the devil face off in a contest of these verses versus those verses; the devil, quoting Psalm 91:11-12; "God will command the angels to protect you, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone," and Jesus, quoting Deuteronomy 6:16, "Do not put the Lord your God to the test"; the devil, actually using a verse of scripture to tempt Jesus to do God's work the world's way; quoting the Bible accurately, but using the Bible wrongly.

Which, needless to say, wasn't the last time a Bible verse was quoted accurately, but used wrongly.

In the world of my origins, for example, we quoted I Corinthians 14:35 accurately, but used it wrongly, to exclude women from ministry. We quoted Mark 10:11-12 accurately, but used it wrongly, to penalize those who had suffered through the sorrow of divorce. We quoted Leviticus 18:22 accurately, but used it wrongly, to marginalize those whose sexuality was different from ours; like the devil in today's gospel lesson, sending the Bible on errands the Bible wasn't written to run; quoting the Bible accurately, but using the Bible wrongly.

Because that way of using the Bible was what I had known as a child, it was all I could know as an adult.  Which means that, for a time, I participated in that way of using the Bible; a way of handling scripture which created second-class citizens in the family of faith; a sin for which I can be forgiven, but from which it is too late to undo the harm done to dear and good people who were turned away from some of the sacraments of the church because of folk like myself, who used the Bible on others in ways we would never apply the Bible to ourselves.

All of which reminds me of William Sloane Coffin's unforgettable sentence, "Hell is the truth, seen too late," to which I would add, "Heaven will be, too." Whenever I read, in the book of Isaiah, and in the Revelation, that, over on the Other Side, God is going to wipe all the tears away, I sometimes wonder if some of those tears may rise from the eyes of folk like myself, when we learn how much pain we caused when we were using the Bible on others in ways we would never apply the Bible to ourselves.

The remedy for which is for us to decide to be content to use our Bible only the way Jesus used his.  If I belonged to another faith, I'm sure I would have a different measure for how to interpret scripture. But, because I'm a Christian, my measure for the interpretation of scripture is Jesus. That is why I keep saying that the most important passage in the Bible is Matthew 22:34-40, because that's the passage where Jesus says that all the law and the prophets are to be interpreted in the light of two commandments; "Love God with all that is in you" and "Love others the way you want others to love you."

"All the law and prophets" is all the Bible Jesus had. So, when Jesus said, "All the law and the prophets are to be read in the light of love for God and love for others," that tells us how Jesus handled his Bible.

In John chapter eight, for example, Jesus reached past the place where Deuteronomy 22:22 told him to stop, and sent the woman caught in adultery home, to begin her life again. And, in Mark chapter three, Jesus reached past the place where Exodus 20:10 would have dropped him off, and healed the man with the withered hand, without requiring him to wait until the Sabbath had passed; Jesus, clearly not living his life by a scripture here and a scripture there, but, rather, as Mary Oliver once wonderfully said, "In accordance with a single certainty." And, for Jesus, that single certainty by which he read all scripture and saw all people appears to have been the single certainty that nothing matters more than loving God with all that is in us and loving others the way we want others to love us.

There are many things Jesus did which we cannot do, but we can handle our Bible exactly as Jesus handled his; reading the whole Bible in the light of love for God and love for others, even when that means going past the place where a Bible verse might have dropped us off.

I think of it as lowering an anchor and raising a sail. We lower our anchor into the Bible by reading and studying the Bible, getting its words down deep into the muscle-memory of our soul; dropping our anchor deep into the well of scripture, while, simultaneously, keeping our sail always up for the wind of the Spirit.

We keep our sail ever up for the wind of the Spirit because we know that, when the Bible was canonized in the fourth-century, the Holy Spirit did not go into retirement.  When the Bible was finally finished and settled on by the church at the end of that long process called "canonization," the Holy Spirit did not buy a condo in Destin and retire.  Rather, the Holy Spirit continues to nudge, tug, reveal and speak, which means that the wind of the Spirit can still send us sailing; never farther than Jesus would go, but, sometimes, past the place where a verse of scripture might have dropped us off.

Amen.

While Praying

Luke 9:28-36, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · March 3rd, 2019 · Duration 2:25

Luke 9:28-36

Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

"While Jesus was praying, the appearance of his face changed," says this morning's gospel lesson, a moment we recall every year on Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday; Jesus' face, changing, "while he  was praying."

Which is not unlike what happens to us; a lifetime of daily prayer, day after day, all through the day, eventually making us more thoughtful and mindful, forgiving and welcoming, truthful and gentle, courageous and kind; our gradual, eventual transformation coming to us, as Jesus' dazzling, dramatic transfiguration came to him; while praying.

Amen.

Concerning Judgement

Luke 6:27-38, The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 24th, 2019 · Duration 15:00

Luke 6:27-38

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

"Do not judge, and you will not be judged."  With those words, today's gospel lesson calls us to show all others the same grace we want all others to show us, by being as judgeless toward others as we want others to be judgeless toward us; which places "Do not judge, and you will not be judged," in a wider Bible orbit with Romans 14:13, "Let us no longer pass judgement on one another," James 4:12, "Who are you to judge your neighbor?", John 8:7, "Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone," and Matthew 7:13, "Why do you see the speck in your neighbor's eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?"; a chorus of Bible verses, and voices, all of which call us to be as judgeless toward others as we want others to be judgeless toward us.

And yet, in this life, there are judgements which we must make; not about   people, which is God's work to do, but about dangerous and destructive words and   actions, harmful and hurtful systems and symbols, and unjust and oppressive policies and practices.

A life with no judgements would be a life which is not angered by the injustices about which all Christians should be angry. Sometimes, the only way we can stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for, is by standing up against the same  injustices Jesus would stand up against.

Take, for example, the Quakers; among the first to call for the abolition of slavery, because they made the judgement that slavery was sin. Or, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who helped lead a resistance movement against Hitler, because he made the judgement that anti-Semitism was sin. And, our own Medgar Evers and Vernon Dahmer, calling for equality under the law for all persons, because they made the judgement that discrimination was sin.

All of which is to say that when today's gospel lesson says "Do not judge," it doesn't relieve us of the responsibility of making real judgements; not about people, which is God's responsibility, but about hurtful and harmful words and actions, which is our responsibility.

Needless to say, every personal failing, reckless moment and careless word does not need to be confronted or judged. Rather, it is those truly dangerous and destructive, harmful and hurtful words and actions, systems and symbols, policies and practices which need to be confronted,  so that they can be changed.

It is our responsibility to make those kinds of judgements, while also being judgeless about people, because making judgements about people is God's job, but making judgements about hurtful and harmful words and actions is our job.

To be judgeless, while making judgements, may sound impossible; and, might be impossible, if there were no Holy Spirit at work in our lives. But, because there is the Holy Spirit, it is completely possible for us to make clear judgements about hurtful words and actions, while also being as judgeless toward the persons behind those words and actions as we want them to be judgeless toward us.

In fact, in my experience, if we walk in the Spirit prayerfully enough, for long enough, the judgeless life of clear judgements we once found impossible to live, we will, eventually, find impossible not to live. Our moral compass will eventually become so clear that it will not allow us to remain unbothered by, neutral toward or silent about the abuses, inequities and injustices which bring hurt and harm to others, while our gentleness will grow so deep and our kindness so wide that we will make those judgements, which must be made, judgelessly.

Amen. 

Luke's Jesus

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

Chuck Poole · February 17th, 2019 · Duration 11:22

Luke 6:17-26

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.  And blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled."

As you may recall from your own reading of the four gospels, those verses from today's gospel lesson recall Jesus' words in ways which are unique to the gospel of Luke.  The writer of the gospel of Matthew says that Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit" and "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness."  But, the writer of the gospel of Luke says that Jesus said, "Blessed  are the poor," and, "Blessed are you who are hungry."  Not "poor in spirit" or "hungry for righteousness," as we find in Matthew; but poor as in economically, and hungry as in physically; an early indication in the gospel of Luke of the preferential concern Luke's Jesus has for whoever is most poor, hungry, voiceless, powerless, left out and alone.

Something we see, over and over again, in the gospel of Luke, starting in chapter one, where Mary, the mother of our Lord, sings that the hungry are going to be filled, but the rich sent away empty; the lowly lifted, but the powerful brought low; a song sung only in Luke, followed, a few chapters later, by Jesus' announcement in the synagogue that he has come to bring good news to the poor; also, only in Luke.  Then, there is Jesus' exhortation that, when we give a dinner, we should invite the poor; once again, of the four gospels, recorded only in Luke.  And the parable of the once rich man who is tormented in flames, while once hungry Lazarus is at ease in Abraham's arms; a story which appears, also, only in Luke; not to mention Zacchaeus, also, only in Luke, whom Jesus declared well on his way to salvation when Zacchaeus said, "Half of all I have I will give to the poor."

And, then, there's the story popularly known as the parable of the Good Samaritan, also, only in Luke, in which Jesus makes the marginalized stranger the beloved neighbor we need.  And, of course, also, only in Luke, the most famous story Luke's Jesus ever told; the parable of the prodigal son, the grace-filled father and the angry older brother; the point of which is that we should never be mad about any inclusion God is glad about, and never glad about any exclusion God is sad about.

Because Luke's Jesus has such an unfailingly preferential concern for whoever is most poor, hungry, marginalized, ostracized, oppressed, left out, hurting and alone, every now and then, you will hear people call Luke's Jesus "the radical Jesus."  But, Luke's Jesus is actually the ordinary Jesus; the only Jesus there is.

Across the Christian centuries, we've created a more manageable Jesus than the one we find in Luke; a Christian Christ who is sort of a composite of what Luther and Calvin taught about what Anselm thought about what Augustine believed about what Paul said about Jesus; a Christ people need only to accept so they can become Christians; a way of thinking which has produced countless fine people and created the largest world religion on the planet, but which has created an option Luke's Jesus might not have recognized; the option of a Christianity which gets us into heaven in the next life, but which requires no change in our economics, our politics, our public policy, what we say, do, laugh at, post, text, email and tweet in this life; a Christianity which, somewhere along the way, made  being born again more about living with Jesus in the next life than living like Jesus in this life; a way of thinking which has produced many fine people and done much good in the world, but which is very different from Luke's Jesus; a Jew who never mentioned starting a new world religion called Christianity, but who went about confronting injustice, calling people to lives of righteousness and truth, sitting down with and standing up for whoever was most hungry, poor, marginalized, overlooked, left out, sad, ashamed, and alone; and inviting all, who would, to join him in  seeing all people as God sees all people.

That's Luke's Jesus; not a radical Jesus, just the ordinary Jesus.  And, following Luke's Jesus doesn't make us radical Christians, either; just ordinary Christians who get up every morning and go through the day walking in the Holy Spirit; sitting down with and standing up for the same people Luke's Jesus would sit down with and stand up for if Luke's Jesus was here.

All of which is just ordinary, basic, cornbread and peas Christianity; the spirit of Luke's Jesus, embodied in our kindness and courage, gentleness and compassion, integrity and truth.

Amen.

What Happened There Happens Here

Isaiah 6:1-8, The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 10th, 2019 · Duration 9:11

Isaiah 6:1-8

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

If you take away the billowing smoke and trembling pillars, what happened to Isaiah, in the temple, happens to us, in the church.  Subtract the flying seraph, scalding lips with glowing coals, and, what happened there happens here; the worship of God, the confession of sin, the assurance of forgiveness, and, at the close of Isaiah's hour, and ours, a time of response, when the question comes, "Whom shall we send, and who will go for us?" to which the answer rises, "Here am I, send me."

What happened there, suddenly, happens here, slowly; our lives formed and shaped, not all at once, or once and for all, but week by week, year after year, across a lifetime.

As my old friend Cecil Sherman once said, "A lifetime in church is more sandpaper than dynamite."  Dynamite changes everything all at once, in a single big moment, while sandpaper changes things slowly, slowly, little by little; rubbing, rubbing, shaping, shaping, gradually, eventually; what happened there, for Isaiah, in a single, big dynamite moment, at the temple, happening here, for us, across a sandpaper lifetime, in church.

Of course, careful speech requires us to say that our lives can be, and often are, formed and shaped, for God and the gospel, in places other than the church, especially in today's world, when so much theology, good and bad, is a livestream, blogpost or podcast away.

But, still, there is no substitute for gathering, with the people of God, for the worship of God.  Being in the same space at the same time, week after week, year after year, with people we love and care for, many of whom do not think, vote or believe the same, but all of whom sing the same, "Holy, Holy, Holy" and pray the same, "Our Father, who art in heaven," is its own kind of life-lifting miracle.

Not to mention what may be the deepest mystery of the worshipping community; the strength we draw from, and the courage we find in, one another's presence when we are together in the sanctuary.  I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, there's nothing in all the world quite like the strength we draw from, and the courage we find in, the people of God gathered for the worship of God.

Strength and courage which we find in here, and take out there; coming in here, over and over again, so we can go back out there, over and over again, to let the love which has come down to us go out through us.

We live that way beyond these walls, partly because that is the life for which we have been formed within these walls.  We live lives of kindness, courage and clarity beyond these walls, partly because we have learned, within these walls, to read all scripture, and see all people, through the lens of, and in the light of, love; our hearts and minds, formed and shaped, across a lifetime, in the Children's Department, the Youth House, Sunday School, Adult Studies; and at Wednesday evening suppers and Sunday morning worship, to know and understand that what matters most is what Jesus said matters most; that we love God with all that is in us and that we love all others the way we want all others to love us.

As a result of hearing that said and sung, week after week, year after year, within these walls, we have become people who, when we are scattered beyond these walls, live thoughtful, mindful, prayerful lives of kindness and courage, because our church has formed us into people whose God is love, whose creed is kindness and whose default position is empathy.

Unlike Isaiah, in the book which bears his name, that does not happen for us all at once or once and for all.  For us, it's more sandpaper than dynamite.  And, even after all these years, we still fail at it.

But, that's why we keep coming back; because what happened in one big moment for Isaiah, in the temple, happens, across a lifetime, for us, in the church.

Amen.

On Not Being Mad About What God Is Glad About

Luke 4:21-30, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 3rd, 2019 · Duration 4:00

Luke 4:21-30

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

As you may have noticed, in this morning's gospel lesson the people of God were mad about what God was glad about.  God was glad to reach beyond the boundaries of Israel's insiders to embrace in grace those outsiders from Sidon and Syria.  But, when Jesus reminded the people of God that the reach of God is that wide and welcoming, they became so angry that they tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.

And, what once made them angry, then, can still make us angry, now.  Which I, of all people, can understand. For much of my life I suffered from that same kind of onlyism which made the people in the synagogue that Sabbath so angry at Jesus.

"Onlyism" is my name for our need for God's grace to operate only within the boundaries which our religion has established for God. For much of my life, that way of thinking formed the foundation of my faith. So, I understand how unsettling it can be to hear what the people of God heard that Sabbath in the synagogue; the truth that our boundaries are not God's boundaries.

But, if we walk in the Spirit prayerfully enough, and stay on the path to depth carefully enough, for long enough, we can, eventually, move beyond onlyism, and come, not only to tolerate, but, actually, to celebrate, the boundless reach of the grace of God; at which time we will come out into that wide and wonderful place in life where we are no longer mad about the boundless grace God is glad about; redrawing the map of our welcome, to more nearly match the wide embrace of the expansive grace of God.

Amen.

Youth Sermon on Youth Sunday

1 Corinthians 12:12-31, Luke 4:14-21, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

J.W. Caver · January 27th, 2019 · Duration 9:43

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Sign of Water to Wine

John 2:1-11, The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 20th, 2019 · Duration 10:39

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Star

Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · January 6th, 2019 · Duration 3:40

Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany of the Lord Sunday

The Spirit of God is as public as a star which anyone can see from wherever they are.

That might be the main point of the familiar passage we read this morning from the gospel of Matthew; the annual Epiphany Sunday story of foreign strangers and absolute outsiders, drawn to Jesus, from someplace far, by the guiding light of a distant star.

A story which, interestingly enough, appears nowhere in Mark, Luke or John, but, only in Matthew; a gospel many students of scripture believe was written sometime around eighty A.D., for an originally Jewish community of faith, still struggling to redraw the circle of their welcome to make room for Gentile newcomers.

Which may explain why, of the four gospels, only Matthew reports the arrival of those Gentile strangers who followed a star from some place far to worship the Jewish Jesus; perhaps, the writer of the gospel of Matthew's way of reminding his congregation that their boundaries were not God's boundaries; a reminder, for us all, that, while we belong to God, God does not belong to us.

Rather, God is as active and present "out there" as God is active and present "in here"; the main message of the familiar story of the Wise Men from afar; that the God we know in Jesus is as public as a star.

Amen.

All That We Say, All That We Do

Colossians 3:12-17, The First Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · December 30th, 2018 · Duration 12:17

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Mystery of the Incarnation

Hebrews 10:5-10, The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 23rd, 2018 · Duration 12:43

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Joy

Luke 3:7-18, The Third Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 16th, 2018 · Duration 16:03

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Lessons and Carols Service

The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 9th, 2018 · Duration 71:11

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Another Advent Journey Begins

Psalm 25:1-10, The First Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 2nd, 2018 · Duration 56:02



"Another Advent Journey Begins"

Psalm 25:1-10

The First Sunday of Advent

Note: This is the whole service for December 2, 2018.

A Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

John 18:33-37, Christ the King Sunday

Lesley Ratcliff · November 25th, 2018 · Duration 12:25



"A Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff"

John 18:33-37

Christ the King Sunday

The Annual Stewardship Sermon

Hebrews 10:19-25, The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 18th, 2018 · Duration 14:34



"The Annual Stewardship Sermon"

Hebrews 10:19-25

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Concerning the Bible’s Conversation With Itself

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17, The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 11th, 2018 · Duration 14:15



"Concerning the Bibles Conversation With Itself"

Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17

The Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

So, Boaz took Ruth, and she became his wife . . . And when Ruth bore a son, the women of the neighborhood named him Obed; and Obed became the father of Jesse, who became the father of David.

Every three years, when the lectionary asks the church, throughout the world, to read those words from todays Old Testament lesson, the announcement that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David seems not to be particularly eventful news, until we remember that Ruth has already been identified, no less than seven times, in the book of Ruth, as a Moabite. Which would not matter so much, were it not for the fact that the book of Deuteronomy says that under no circumstances are Israelites to associate with Moabites. So, when todays passage makes a Moabite the great-grandmother of Israels greatest king, it places one book of the Bible, Ruth, beyond the boundaries which another book of the Bible, Deuteronomy, established to keep Israelites separate from Moabites.

Which is one example of the Bibles conversation with itself concerning the size of the circumference of the circle of the welcome of God. In addition to the books of Deuteronomy and Ruth talking to one another about whether or not Israelites should welcome Moabites, theres a similar conversation going on in the Bible concerning whether or not the people of God should welcome eunuchs; Deuteronomy 23:1 saying that eunuchs are not welcome in the family of God, while Isaiah 56:5 says, Oh, yes, eunuchs are welcome in the family of God. Then, there is Ezra 9:1, which commands the people of God to exclude foreigners from their lives, while Isaiah 56:7 singles out those same foreigners for a special welcome to the house of God; the book of Ezra circling the wagons to keep some people out, the book of Isaiah opening the door to let all people in, another layer of the Bibles conversation with itself concerning the size of the circumference of the circle of the welcome of God; a conversation which continues in the New Testament, where Matthew 15:24 limits the orbit of Jesus embrace to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, while Acts 15:17 says that to make that kind of distinction between Jews and Gentiles is to oppose the work of the Spirit of God.

Its a Bible-wide conversation; these pages talking to those pages, these verses versus those verses. Over here, Moabites and eunuchs are out; over there, they are in. Over here, Gods embrace is only as wide as the Jews; over there, the circle of Gods welcome takes in Gentiles, too. The Bible, in conversation with itself, a conversation between fear of the other and love for the other; here, fear casting out love; there, love casting out fear, the Bibles long, difficult, beautiful, spiritual journey, from did mind to dont mind.

In Deuteronomy, the Bible did mind if Israelites welcomed Moabites, but, by the book of Ruth, the Bible had replaced its original did mind with its eventual dont mind. Same with eunuchs, Gentiles, Samaritans, and every other human difference you can name; the Bible, taking down the same barriers it once erected, until, at last, we get over near the end, where, in Revelation 5:13, the Bibles welcome finally catches up to the welcome of God, which, according to Revelation 5:13, is a welcome as wide as the whole creation; Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, eventually, ultimately, finally at home with God; the Bibles long spiritual journey, at last, complete; from, once upon a time, saying No to Moabites, eunuchs, Gentiles and Samaritans, to, eventually, saying a Yes as wide with love and welcome as the Yes of God.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, there is no greater sign of the Holy Spirits work in the lives of the writers of the Bible than the way the Bible keeps redrawing the map of its embrace to more nearly match the size of the circumference of the circle of the welcome of God, because that is the direction in which the Holy Spirit always leads; never inward, always outward.

And, more importantly, what happened, then, in the lives of the writers of the Bible, happens, now, in the lives of the readers of the Bible. The longer we walk in the Spirit, the wider we draw our circle of welcome; the arc of our spiritual journey matching the trajectory of the Bibles spiritual journey, from fear casting out love, to love casting out fear, until the size of the circumference of the circle of our welcome measures the same as the size of the circumference of the circle of the welcome of God.

Amen.

 

Until We Lose Our Voices

Job 42:1-6, The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 28th, 2018 · Duration 14:05



"Until We Lose Our Voices"

Job 42:1-6

The Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost

Then Job answered the Lord, saying, I have spoken about what I do not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I do not know.

Every time the lectionary places those words in our path, they remind us that, when it comes to our efforts to explain God, there will always be a place where words run out; a place at which, with Job, we will, eventually, lose our voices; falling silent because, like Job, we realize that, We have talked about things we do not know; things too wonderful for us to understand, a moment when, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, We stop trying to say what cannot be said.

I wrote some about all that earlier this week, but, thought more about it, in a different light, earlier this morning, on a long walk in the pre-dawn darkness, my heart as heavy as yours over yesterdays mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh; the worst known single act of violence ever committed against Jews on American soil.

Concerning the mystery of why God does not step in and stop such things, we must, at some point, with Job, lose our voices, and, like Job, fall silent. Whether its the tragic assault on the Sikh temple in Oak Park, Wisconsin, the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, the country music concert in Las Vegas, or the A.M.E. Church in Charleston, one sometimes wonders, Could not God have intervened? Could not the God who filled the sky with stars at least have caused the gun to jam? Is it that God could, but wouldnt? Or that God would, but couldnt? To speak of such things is, eventually, with Job, to lose our voice, and fall silent in the face of questions and mysteries we will never be able to answer or resolve.

Silent, for a moment, but not for long. As surely as we must, eventually, lose our voice for the mystery which is beyond us, we must, eventually, find our voice for the truth which is within us; speaking, with courage, kindness and clarity, what we know to be true.

Concerning yesterdays massacre at Tree of Life Synagogue, we know, from all available reporting, that the person who committed the crimes was motivated by anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism, which means hatred of Jewish persons, is a form of xenophobia, which means fear of the other, for no reason except their otherness. That dreadful sin of anti-Semitism has a long, tragic history, some of which, it must be said, has, at times, been embraced by the church.

In fact, it is ironic that today is, for much of the church throughout the world, Reformation Sunday, when we remember the courage and conviction of Martin Luther, nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany on October 31, 1517. Luther; a great voice for the reformation of the church, but, also, a tragic voice for the sin of anti-Semitism; preaching a sermon, in 1543, so venomous in its condemnation of Jews that it called for the burning of synagogues as punishment for the Jews; a way of thinking in which Luther was not alone, but which was, sadly, shared by a wide stripe of the church, a Christian anti-Semitism based, partly, on those verses in the gospel of John which speak so harshly of the Jews (despite the fact that Jesus, himself, was a Jew) and, partly, on the aforementioned, ever present, sin of xenophobia. Even the ghettos into which Hitler forced Jews were not an invention of twentieth-century Europe, but of the sixteenth-century church. (And, some say, even earlier.)

Having owned, with repentance, that long history of anti-Semitism, it is our responsibility to speak, with as much kindness, courage and clarity as the Spirit has placed within us, concerning our sorrow for, and solidarity with, those who are suffering so deeply today, in the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, in Jackson, across the country, and around the world. And, to live and speak as people whose God is love, whose creed is kindness, and whose instinctive, default position in each situation and circumstance is empathy for whoever is most in need of a voice and a friend. (Not unlike that time, over twenty years ago, when one of our Northminster kids, now an adult, but, then a high school student, spoke out against his teachers statement, to the class, that an author the class was reading would be forever in hell, solely because the author was a Jew.)

All of which is to say that those of us who are followers of Jesus need to renew our deepest commitments to live and speak as those whose God is love, whose creed is kindness, and whose default position is empathy for whoever is most in need of help and hope; speaking the truth with as much courage, kindness and clarity as the Spirit of God has given us; speaking up for the same people Jesus would speak up for, by speaking out against the same things Jesus would speak out against, until we lose our voices.

Amen.

 

An Important Question from the Book of Job

Job 38:1-7, The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 21st, 2018 · Duration 13:44



"An Important Question from the Book of Job"

Job 38:1-7,

The Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost

Then the Lord answered Job, saying, Who is this, who keeps speaking words without knowledge? Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those words from the book of Job; that long awaited, much anticipated, moment when, at long last, God answers Jobs questions.

By this point in the book of Job, by my count, Job has asked one hundred and fourteen questions; from Why wont God let me die? to Why has God made me Gods target? to Why do the wicked prosper, while the innocent suffer? Question upon question, one after another, a hundred and fourteen in all; during all of which, God remains silent.

Until, at last, we get to todays lesson from the book of Job, where, finally, God responds to Jobs questions with, much to Jobs dismay and ours, more questions; sixty of them in all, so many questions for Job, from God, that they consume three chapters of the book of Job; the book which bears Jobs name, like the life which bears Jobs pain, just one hard question after another.

One of the most important of which rarely receives much attention; a question Satan asks God all the way back at the beginning of the story, when God points out to Satan what a model citizen Job is, going so far as to say that there arent many souls in this world who love God as deeply, or serve God as faithfully, as Job, to which Satan replies, Does Job love God for nothing?

Why wouldnt Job love you? asks Satan. Youve given him everything anyone could ever want. Lets send Job some trouble, and, then, well find out what your star student is really made of. Surely, concluded Satan, You dont think Job loves you for nothing, do you?; a question which is large enough, back there on the page, but which grows larger, still, when we cross the hermeneutical bridge from Job to Jackson, and pose the same question to our life with, and love for, God. Do we love God in exchange for some hoped for blessing or reward or protection? Or, to borrow the language of the book of Job, do we, Love God for nothing?

For many of us, the answer to that question changes, and evolves, as life goes by. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, there once was a time when I would have said, No, I dont love God for nothing; I love God for something. I love and serve God in exchange for blessings, in this life, and rewards, in the next; the idea being that, if I love God deeply enough, and serve God faithfully enough, then, in exchange for my loyalty and devotion, God will protect and bless me and mine.

But, its been a long time since motivations such as those incentivized my life with God. Somewhere along the way, how or when I cannot say, I actually learned to love God without any thought of a blessing, or a reward.

I think it happens that way for many of the children of God. At first, we see our life with God as a transaction; operating on the assumption that, if we love God deeply enough, and serve God faithfully enough, then, in exchange for our devotion, God will answer our prayers, protect our loved ones and guard our well-being; a transactional approach to our life with, and love for, God, where everything is a transaction: If we do this for God, God will do that for us.

Then, somewhere along the way, we come to see that life does not always work that way, and that we cannot do enough good, attend enough church or give enough money to obligate God to guard our happiness or protect our family. Rather, as Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, The rain falls and the sun shines on the good and the bad.

And, once we come to see that, once we come to see that we live in a world where wonderful things happen and terrible things happen, and if any of them can happen to anyone, all of them can happen to everyone, then we begin to know the freedom and the joy which come with what the book of Job calls, Loving God for nothing; what I call Loving God as unconditionally as God loves us; loving God, and serving God, with never a thought about reward or punishment or any other external motivation or incentive; loving God, exactly the same, in good times and bad, happy and sad; content to know that, no matter what, God is with us and God is for us; sometimes taking us around the worst, and sometimes seeing us through the worst, but always with us and always for us, no matter what; the same way we are always with God and for God, no matter what.

If we can stay on the path to depth with God long enough, prayerfully enough, that is the place at which we might eventually arrive. Stay on the path to depth long enough, prayerfully enough; walking in the Holy Spirit carefully enough, and, eventually, we might come out into that deep, wide, wonderful place where we are completely content to get up every day and love God the same way God loves us; unconditionally, no strings attached, no matter what.

Amen.

 

From Why? To How?

Psalm 22:1-15, The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 14th, 2018 · Duration 10:41



"From Why? To How?"

Psalm 22:1-15

The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?

With those words, todays psalm raises the kind of question which lives in the spirit of many dear and good souls, who, in the face of much sorrow or long struggle, wonder, with the one who wrote this mornings psalm, why God doesnt relieve more suffering, stop more tragedy, heal more disease and protect more people from more pain.

The kind of question which is a sign, not of doubt, but of faith. After all, if we thought God was lacking in either love or power, we wouldnt wonder why God doesnt do more. (Lacking love, God could do more, but wouldnt. Lacking power, God would do more, but couldnt.) But, since we believe that God has an abundance of both, love and power, some of us do, sometimes, wonder, and ask, Why?; a spiritual question which actually places us in the best of spiritual company, from Moses, in Numbers chapter eleven, asking, Why is my life so unbearable?, to Job, wondering, in the book which bears his name, Why wont God give me some relief?, to the prophet Jeremiah, lamenting, Why is my pain unceasing, and my wound incurable?, to, of course, Jesus, himself, quoting, from Good Fridays cross, this Sundays psalm, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

All of which is to say that no one should ever feel badly about asking why God does not always step in and stop the pain, cure the disease, reconcile the relationship, fix the brokenness and save the day. In fact, in lifes worst moments, Why? is, sometimes, the question we cant not ask; like Jesus, on the cross, asking, with the one who wrote this mornings psalm, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

But, while Why? is a question we sometimes need to ask out loud, knowing why we are suffering is, generally speaking, not as helpful as knowing how to live the life which is ours to live, while bearing the pain which is ours to bear. More often than not, How? matters more than Why?.

As Frederick Buechner once wisely observed, concerning poor Job and the tragic loss of his ten children and his own health, Even if God had given Job the answers to all his questions about why so much suffering had come his way, Job still would have been staring at the same empty chairs and clawing at the same itching sores. What Job needed, Buechner concluded, Was not answers to explain his suffering, but courage to face it.

Which is often true for many of us. Knowing why what happened happened, and why God didnt do more to stop it from happening, is almost always less important than knowing how best to go forward. As Stanley Hauerwas once said, What we need is not an answer capable of explaining our grief, but a community capable of absorbing our grief.

Which, for most of us, is how we go through what we did not get to go around; with the help of a community capable of absorbing our grief; the people of God, surrounding us and supporting us; their prayers for us, Gods arms around us; their kindness to us, Gods presence with us.

A truth to which the poet Mary Oliver bears a beautiful witness when she says, That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer, but I did not die. Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends.

Indeed, that is how most of us go through things so hard that if someone had told us ahead of time we would have to go through them, we would have sworn we could never make it. But we do; we do go through, with the help of God and the people of God.

We may never know why we go through what we go through, but we always know how we go through what we go through; with the strength-giving Spirit of God, and the care-giving, phone-calling, note-sending, visit-making, check-writing, meal-delivering, card-mailing, prayer-lifting, burden-bearing, sorrow-sharing, grief-absorbing, people of God.

Amen.

 

Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

Mark 10:13-16, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · October 7th, 2018 · Duration 15:30



"Like a Child"

Mark 10:13-16

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

In this mornings gospel lesson, people are bringing little children to Jesus in order that Jesus might lay hands on them and pray. The disciples speak sternly to them. Jesus rebukes his disciples. Let the little children come to me! Do not stop them! The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these! Jesus resolutely welcomes the children into his presence, and unwaveringly welcomes the children into Gods kingdom.

Jesus goes on to say Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it. Mark Hoffman, a biblical studies professor at Luther Seminary, points out that the Greek can be understood in two ways here. The NRSV translates this as a nominative case noun, Welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it, but it can also be translated as an accusative case noun Welcome the kingdom like you would welcome a child.

In the nominative form, we hear the importance of a simple, child-like faith. Simple and child-like does not mean saccharine or sentimental faith like we sometimes associate with this passage. I say simple, because often children are able to boil theology down to its essence, even when adults might get bogged down in the details. And I say child-like, because children can accept the mystery of faith in ways that adults often have trouble accepting. Children have much to teach us about faith. When I went through the training for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, the curriculum for our Sunday evening atrium, I learned to respond to many questions with Im not sure. What do you think? Hearing the answers to that question from our children over the years has been clarifying and life giving on so many occasions. When we dedicate our children, we often hear Chuck say something like who can say what all this child will learn from us, and who can say what all we will learn from this child. That is not just a promise for the future when the child becomes an adult, but a promise for here and now. We splash in the deep, wide ocean of faith when we welcome the kingdom, like a child welcomes it.

One Sunday morning, I was in one of our children's Sunday school classes. One of the children was playing with Nativity nesting dolls and I sat down beside her to play. She took apart the Joseph doll, looked at me and said This is Jesus dad. Then she took apart the Mary doll, looked at me and said this is Jesus mom and then she arrived at the tiniest doll, which was the baby Jesus in swaddling clothes and said this is baby God. It was the clearest presentation of Jesus dual nature that Ive ever heard. She was 4.

We must welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it.

If we look at verse 15 in the accusative form, we hear the importance of welcoming children. If we were reading Mark in one sitting, when we read about the people bringing the children to Jesus in verse 13, we would likely be drawn back to Mark 9, where Jesus takes a child in his arms and calls his disciples to welcome the child in his name, because as Jesus says welcoming a child, is welcoming Jesus, and welcoming Jesus is welcoming the One who sent Jesus. Northminster welcomes children in many wonderful and beautiful ways we visit new babies in the hospital and honor them with a rose on the table, we take meals to families, we promise ourselves to families as helpers on childrens faith journeys; we offer loving childcare as often as the doors are open and provide excellent opportunities for spiritual formation, we help provide after school and summer care for children at the Yellow Church, we provide opportunities for the children at Spann School, we welcome our first graders into worship, help them learn to participate in worship and honor many major milestones as they grow.

We teach our children that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed; it starts small and is always growing. Our welcome too, should always be growing. We plant ourselves firmly in a grounded faith, when we welcome the kingdom like we welcome a child.

A few weeks ago in Girls of grace, the girls worked on the concept of the Kingdom of God. I normally teach Girls of Grace but I was out of town on this particular Sunday evening, and gave them the assignment of creating a book that described Gods kingdom. On Monday morning, I went downstairs to the Childrens area to look at their work and was overwhelmed by the beauty of thought I found represented there." The kingdom of God belongs to everyone. The kingdom of God is beautiful. The kingdom of God has many different people. The kingdom of God is like a castle where everyone on earth can live." Those are the thoughts of our fourth through sixth graders.

We must welcome the kingdom like we would welcome a child.

Ive found many a childrens books to be helpful in thinking through big theological constructs. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written some lovely childrens books. Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his lifelong struggle to bring equality, justice and peace to his native country of South Africa. In 2008, he wrote a childrens book called Gods Dream.

Dear Child of God, what do you dream about in your loveliest of dreams? Do you dream about flying high or rainbows reaching across the sky? Do you dream about being free to do what your heart desires? Or about being treated like a full person no matter how young you might be? Do you know what God dreams about? If you close your eyes and look with your heart, I am sure, dear child, that you will find out. God dreams about people sharing. God dreams about people caring. God dreams that we reach out and hold one anothers hands and play one anothers games and laugh with one anothers hearts. But God does not force us to be friends or to love one another. Dear Child of God, it does happen that we get angry and hurt one another. Soon we start to feel sad and so very alone. Sometimes we cry, and God cries with us. But when we say were sorry and forgive one another, we wipe away our tears and Gods tears too. Each of us carries a piece of Gods heart within us. And when we love one another, the pieces of Gods heart are made whole. God dreams that every one of us will see that we are all brothers and sisters yes, even you and me even if we have different mommies and daddies or live in different faraway lands. Even if we speak different languages or have different ways of talking to God. Even if we have different eyes or different skin. Even if you are taller and I am smaller. Even if your nose is little and mine is large. Dear Child of God, do you know how to make Gods dream come true? It is really quite easy. As easy as sharing, loving, caring. As easy as holding, playing, laughing. As easy as knowing we are family because we are all Gods children. Will you help Gods dream come true?

Tutu knew that we welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it. We welcome the kingdom like we would welcome a child.

I dont know about you, but this week growing Gods kingdom hasnt seemed easy to me. There has been trauma, and name calling, pain and hurt, and a whole lot of un-careful speech. We have a wide umbrella in this congregation, and there are people who sit in this room on every side of every line that has been drawn this week, and in all the weeks before it. That is a large part of what makes us Northminster. All are welcome. Dr. Whaley, our first interim pastor suggested this creed in Northminsters early days, We agree to differ, we resolve to love, we unite to serve. Northminster is the church where people from every part of every spectrum can love one another.

Sometimes thats really hard, and its almost never simple. Its definitely too much to solve in a sermon. But thats what we have, a sermon, and then a table set before us. This table, where we commune with God, and with one another. This table of repentance, and forgiveness. This table that represents the kingdom of God.

Jesus took the little children in his arms and blessed them. There is no one on any side of any line that is beyond Gods reach. While we all have work to do, deep and meaningful and difficult work, soul work, there is no one who is not welcome at Gods table. We come, not because we are whole, but because we are broken.We come because we are hungry for Gods love and grace. We come with questions and wonder.

We come because there is enough. The table of the Lord is a table of abundance, so as we gather at the table this morning, may we find a way to live out of that abundance. There is enough peace to share across the lines that divide us. There is enough forgiveness to find our way forward. There is enough compassion to reach across the aisle or around the world.

Its going to take time to make Gods dream come true. Its going to take all of us examining our deepest selves to make Gods dream come true. Coming to the table represents our willingness to do the work, our willingness to let Gods kingdom come.

May we welcome the kingdom like a child welcomes it. May we welcome the kingdom like we would welcome a child. Every child.

Amen.

 

What Might Be True About Hell?

Mark 9:38-50, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 30th, 2018 · Duration 13:21



"What Might Be True About Hell?"

Mark 9:38-50

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

As you may have noticed, this mornings gospel lesson, from Mark, chapter nine, is home to more appearances of the word hell than any other passage in the entire Bible.

The word hell appears only thirteen times in the Bible, three of which are clustered, together, here, in todays gospel reading.

Which, I suppose, explains why, every time the lectionary places, in our path, that passage, it never fails to make me wonder what might be true about hell.

I know, of course, what popular Christianity says is true about hell; that those who do not respond with faith, to Jesus, will, for their refusal to believe in him, spend eternity in the perpetual punishment of hell.

(Remember, I am the one who, in the summer of my eighteenth year, got myself re-baptized, after being convinced, by an evangelist at Camp Zion, in Myrtle, Mississippi, that my previous salvation experience may not have been sufficient to spare me from hell. And, I am also the one, who, that same summer, left a revival meeting at Log Cabin Baptist Church, late one night, went straight to my grandfathers house, and promised to give him the entire two hundred and eleven dollars I had saved from my summer construction job, if only he would ask Jesus into his heart, because, otherwise, according to the revival preacher, he would burn in hell forever.)

But, while many millions of truly wonderful people have built their belief system around that way of thinking about hell, and look to it as the most important incentive for people to convert to Christianity, and, thus, see it as central to the success of institutional Christianity, in general, and Christian missions, in particular, other equally serious Christians have, across the Christian centuries, found that way of thinking about hell difficult to reconcile with what they see in scripture, and, more importantly, with what they believe about God.

For example, while John 3:16-18 and John 14:6 are often turned to, to support the idea that those who do not believe what Christians believe about Jesus will be eternally separated from God in hell, in other passages, such as todays gospel lesson, plus Matthew 5:22, Matthew 25:46, Luke 16:24 and Revelation 21:8, people go to hell, based, not on what they believe, but on how they live. So, in the Bible, who goes to hell, and why, is not nearly as simple as it often sounds in popular Christianity.

And, then, of course, there is the question of how to reconcile a perpetual punishment, in which people are endlessly in agony, with the Bibles vision, in Revelation 5:13, of every creature, and person, in all creation, singing praise to God, forever and ever, which is not unlike Isaiahs vision of a great far-off someday when all people will sit down at the banquet table of God, a vision Paul embraces when he says, in Ephesians 1:10, that Gods plan, for the fullness of time, is to gather up all things, in Christ.

All of which is to say that if anyone is in hell forever, then that would mean that the ultimate will of God will never be done, which is what prompted John Calvin, once to say, that Christians are obligated to pray for the ultimate salvation of all.

Which would be a way of thinking about hell which would actually be true to the most, and best, that we know about God; a hell where judgement is in the service of redemption. Hell, not a place of torment for people to go to, but a path of purging for people to go through, so that every injustice gets confronted, every victim gets faced,every evil gets judged, and every person gets eventually, ultimately, redeemed, no matter how many millions of years it takes, because, on the other side of the grave, God has all the time in the world, to heal every soul God ever loved, which is every soul who ever lived; finally, eternally, redeemed, healed and home; a way of thinking about judgement which is more true to the best and most we know of God, than a hell with no point but perpetual punishment.

No one, of course, can speak of such mysteries with sure and settled certainty, but it does seem right to require what we believe about hell to match what we believe about God, instead of bending what we believe about God to match what we believe about hell. Amen.

Way Leads On to Way

Psalm 1, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 23rd, 2018 · Duration 14:09



"Way Leads On to Way"

Psalm 1

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Another Hard Saying of Jesus

Mark 8:27-38, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 16th, 2018 · Duration 13:42

Another Hard Saying of Jesus

Mark 8:27-38

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

The Way the Spirit Leads

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

Chuck Poole · September 9th, 2018 · Duration 12:47



"The Way the Spirit Leads"

Mark 7:24-37

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

 

Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak

James 1:17-27, The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 2nd, 2018 · Duration 4:30



"Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak"

James 1:17-27

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Another Day

Ephesians 6:10-20, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 26th, 2018 · Duration 11:46



"Another Day"

Ephesians 6:10-20

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Put on the whole armor of God. Every three years, the Common Lectionary asks the church, throughout the world, to read those words from todays epistle lesson. And, every time they roll back around, it is important for us to remember that putting on the whole armor of God is not something we do all at once, or once and for all, but, rather, over and over, day after day; getting up every morning and preparing ourselves to face another day, which is what it means to put on the whole armor of God.

To put on the whole armor of God is to get ready, to prepare ourselves to face whatever is coming next, to center ourselves spiritually, so that we might actually go through an entire day in a thoughtful, mindful, prayerful way; ready to live deeply, fully and faithfully into each new moment and conversation; paying attention to, and seeing the image of God in, every person who crosses our path that day.

Which is why putting on the whole armor of God is something we have to do all over again, with each new day. Some people do that by reading from scripture each morning, some by going on a long, slow prayer walk, others by sitting silently for a few moments in centering prayer. Some turn to a favorite daily devotional guide, such as Henri Nowens Bread for the Journey, or Richard Rohrs amazing book, Yes, And . . . Others find writing in a daily prayer journal to be a helpful centering discipline.

Some do all of the above. And, some do none of the above, because they cant, because the minute their feet hit the floor, their household is an incessant blur of family responsibility which leaves little space for any stillness of any kind.

In her book, Eat, Pray, Love, the writer Elizabeth Gilbert tells about renting a small cabin on the isolated island of Gili Meno, and embarking there on a silent retreat; a spiritual retreat Gilbert launched with the vow that she was closing her mouth, and would not open it until something inside her had changed; the kind of retreat many of us might love to take, but a luxury few of us can afford. Rather, most of us have to build the airplane while we are flying it; putting on the whole armor of God, each day, a little here and a little there, when and where and how we can.

But, for even the most hurried and breathless of us, some kind of daily centering of the soul is so important, because that is how we get ready to face whatever we might face, that day, in a mindful, thoughtful, prayerful way.

All of which is to say that what this mornings epistle passage calls putting on the whole armor of God is a spiritual discipline as daily as waking up and getting up, to start, all over again, another day; a dailyness which the poet Mary Oliver captures with her simple sentence, Another morning, and I wake, with thirst, for the goodness I do not yet have.

Which is a truly beautiful, deeply spiritual way to live; waking each morning with thirst for the goodness we do not yet have; our daily longing to take another step along the path to depth; each new day, tied to, and yet free from, every day which came before, like the days of creation in the book of Genesis, each day building on, but going beyond, the day before, each day another day bent with the weight of every day already done, but free from the weight of every day yet to come; each new day, another day to practice living in a mindful, thoughtful, prayerful way; putting on the whole armor of God; getting ready to live deeply, fully and faithfully into, and through, whatever is coming next.

Amen.

 

On Being Careful How We Live

Ephesians 5:15-20, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 19th, 2018 · Duration 15:12



"On Being Careful How We Live"

Ephesians 5:15-20

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Concerning David and Absalom

II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 12th, 2018 · Duration 12:53



"Concerning David and Absalom"

II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

The Truth, Dressed in Nothing But Love

Ephesians 4:1-16, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 5th, 2018 · Duration 5:08



"The Truth, Dressed in Nothing But Love"

Ephesians 4:1-16

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

(audio begins about :30)

Concerning Integrity and Courage

II Samuel 11:1-15, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 29th, 2018 · Duration 16:53



"Concerning Integrity and Courage"

II Samuel 11:1-15

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

To Build A Home for God

II Samuel 7:1-14, The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 22nd, 2018 · Duration 18:31



"To Build A Home for God"

II Samuel 7:1-14

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Concerning the Plumb Line

Amos 7:7-15, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 15th, 2018 · Duration 16:08



"Concerning the Plumb Line"

Amos 7:7-15

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

At the Intersection of Light and Pain

II Corinthians 12:2-10, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 8th, 2018 · Duration 14:57



"At the Intersection of Light and Pain"

II Corinthians 12:2-10

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Whenever I am weak, then I am strong. Those words from todays epistle lesson never fail to call to mind Ernest Hemingways unforgettable sentence, The world breaks everyone, and, afterward, many are strong at the broken places; which certainly seems to have been the case for Paul, who said, in this mornings epistle passage, that he was stronger with his painful thorn in the flesh than ever he would have been without it.

Which is so often true, not for all who suffer and struggle, but, certainly, for many. Think, for example of Frederick Buechner, his life forever changed by the sadness of his fathers suicide, but, a sadness from which Buechner has given so many so much light by which to live. Or, think of Anne Lamott, who, through her own battles with brokenness, has given so many weary souls so many words of grace. And Parker Palmer, whose most healing words have risen from his most crippling despair. And Henri Nowen, who, from the depth of his own self-doubt, has given the rest of us light for the journey. And, of course, Mother Teresa, whose unparalleled empathy rose from a depression so deep that she once said, If I make it into heaven, and they let me say only one sentence to Jesus, I know what it will be: All my life, I loved you in the darkness.

Fred Buechner, Anne Lamott, Parker Palmer, Henri Nowen, Mother Teresa; all, like Paul, strong at the broken places, their greatest light shining from their deepest pain. Which is also true for many of us, too; our strongest kindness shaped by our hardest struggles; our most gentle empathy, rising from our most difficult grief; our deepest pain, the source of our deepest insights.

And, on the other hand, sometimes, it is the other way around. While it is often true that our deepest pain is the source of our deepest insight, it is also sometimes true that our deepest insights can lead to our deepest pain.

When I was a seminary student, for example, in my mid-twenties, discovering the truth that the Bible, inspired and inspiring, beautiful and wonderful as it is, was never intended to be Gods inerrant, infallible, literal, last word, plunged me into an uncertainty so deep I can still only describe it as emotional paralysis, not because what I had discovered wasnt true, but, to the contrary, because it was so obviously true, but so very different from what I had always thought, and been taught.

As the years went on, and a life of prayerful walking in the Holy Spirit revealed to me more and more spiritual light and insight, there would be more and more spiritual growing pains, as I discovered truths which, to many, are basic and fundamental, but which, to me, were altogether new; revelations such as the truth that, in the eyes of God, suffering through the grief of divorce does not disqualify anyone from anything in the church, or the truth that God calls people to ministry without regard for whether they happen to have been born male or female, or the truth that homosexuality is a human difference not a spiritual sin, or the truth that the God who created the universe thirteen billion years ago cannot be completely captured in any one religion, including my own; each new revelation true to the spirit of Jesus, but, each one becoming, for me, what Pauls revelations in todays epistle passage were for him; not only another source of light, but, also, another source of pain; to borrow Mary Olivers image, the pain of walking upstream while the world of my origins kept walking downstream.

The poet W.H. Auden once said, We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die, which is something I understand. I understand why people would sometimes rather go to their grave with less truth than go through their life with more truth, because following new light on old truth and letting our long held assumptions die can, indeed, feel, if not like dying on a cross, at least like living with a thorn.

Not unlike what happened to Paul, in todays epistle lesson; a painful new thorn in the flesh the price of admission to whatever those revelations were which Paul said Paul saw on his journey to paradise; new light bringing pain as surely as pain brings new light; none of the pain sent to us from God, but all of it is used for us by God, to help make us deeper, kinder and stronger, more clear and true followers of Jesus and children of God.

Amen.

 

A Sermon on the Subject of Grief

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

Chuck Poole · July 1st, 2018 · Duration 5:44



"A Sermon on the Subject of Grief"

II Samuel 1:1, 17-27

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

 

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; for your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

Every time the lectionary places those words in our path, they call to mind Wayne Oates powerful old observation, Grief is the aftermath of any deeply felt loss.

In this mornings lesson from Second Samuel, David has lost both Saul, with whom he had a profoundly complex relationship, and Jonathan, who was, apparently, Davids nearest and dearest friend; the news of their death plunging David into that grief which Wayne Oates calls, The aftermath of any deeply felt loss; the kind of grief which all of us have known, or will know, at some point in our lives; most of us more than once.

And, not always because of death. Sometimes it is death which plunges us into grief, as was the case in todays lesson when David heard that Saul and Jonathan had died. But, sometimes, it is something other than death which sends us into grief. The loss of a relationship, the loss of our physical mobility or mental clarity, the loss of a cherished dream or a familiar home, the loss of a pet, the loss of a job, the loss of financial security, the loss of our most basic assumptions about how life would turn out for us; not to mention the anticipatory grief we sometimes feel concerning the way things are likely to be in the future; what I call grieving forward. All of which is to say that the list is long of reasons why all of us, at some time in our lives, will feel the waves of grief washing over us; sometimes, when we least expect it.

Which, of course, is one reason why we need one another, why we so deeply need the family of faith. As the poet Mary Oliver once wrote, That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer. But, I did not die. Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends.

Indeed, isnt it so? That we are able to bear our worst grief without being crushed beneath it, or finished by it, is a miracle that God surely has a hand in, as well as friends, including our family of faith friends, who keep walking beside us, over and over again, through the depth of grief, and to the table of communion.

Amen.

A Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

I Samuel 17:32-49, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · June 24th, 2018 · Duration 14:07



A Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

I Samuel 17:32-49

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

We Do Not Know How

Mark 4:26-34, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 17th, 2018 · Duration 12:20



"We Do Not Know How"

Mark 4:26-34

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

We Do Not Lose Heart

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 10th, 2018 · Duration 13:39



"We Do Not Lose Heart"

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

How Jesus Read Scripture

Mark 2:23-3:6, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 3rd, 2018 · Duration 4:15



"How Jesus Read Scripture"

Mark 2:23-3:6

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

As you may have noticed, the same sort of thing which happened in this mornings gospel lesson happens all around us all the time; good people, all of whom truly love God, reading the exact same scripture and coming to completely different conclusions.

Jesus critics in todays gospel lesson from Mark were Pharisees; good people, who were deeply committed to living truthful and righteous lives. But, when they read scripture, they saw what scripture prohibits on the Sabbath, while Jesus, reading the same scripture, saw what scripture allows on the Sabbath.

Which, needless to say, comes to us as no surprise. Because we have read the four gospels, we have seen Jesus, over and over again, get in trouble for interpreting scripture in the most generous and expansive of ways; always reading scripture through the lens of, and in the light of, love.

To read the four gospels is to see that, while Jesus loved scripture, he loved people more. And, he didnt apologize for it. To the contrary, when Jesus encountered, in todays gospel lesson, some very good people who seemed to love scripture more than people, He looked at them with anger, and was grieved at their hardness of heart; which may be the only time in the whole Bible when we see Jesus that mad and that sad in the same sentence. An indication, perhaps, of how important it is for all of us, always, to read, and interpret, scripture as Jesus did; through the lens of, and in the light of, love.

Amen.

A Sermon on the Doctrine of the Trinity

John 3:1-17, Trinity Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 27th, 2018 · Duration 13:03



"A Sermon on the Doctrine of the Trinity"

John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from, or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

That verse from todays gospel lesson may not make any mention of the trinity, but it is, nonetheless, a good word for us to hear on Trinity Sunday; reminding us, now, as it did Nicodemus, then, that the mystery of God is as inexplicable and unmanageable as the wind, and can never be captured in any creed or defined by any doctrine, not even one as big and beloved as the trinity.

Most of the best scholarship we have indicates that the word trinity was given to the church by the second-century church father Tertullian, and reached its full development as a Christian doctrine at two fourth-century church councils; the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D., and the Council of Constantinople, in 381.

The issue which prompted Constantine to convene the council of Nicea was actually not trinitarianism, but binitarianism; the question of whether or not Jesus is co-equal to, and co-eternal with, God. Some of the bishops who gathered at the council of Nicea said, Yes, Jesus is the same as God, while others said, No, Jesus is the Son of God, but not the same as God. Appeals to the Bible were not particularly helpful, because, in the New Testament, there are around eighty verses which seem to say that Jesus is the same as God, and about one hundred and twenty which seem to say that Jesus is the Son of God, but not the same as God. So, everyone on both sides of the debate had plenty of Bible to back them up; these verses versus those verses. In the end, they took a vote, and the side which said that Jesus is the same as God prevailed, declaring those who believed otherwise to be heretics.

Nearly sixty years later, in 381, another church council was convened, this time at Constantinople, where the Holy Spirit was also officially declared to be co-equal to, and co-eternal with, God, which is what the council of Nicea had declared about Jesus in 325. And, with that, the doctrine of the trinity, as we now know it, was more or less settled; a doctrine which, needless to say, became very important for countless millions of Christians across the centuries, giving us some of our most beautiful symbols, inspired art and wonderful hymns.

But, beautiful and wonderful though the idea of the trinity is, long before Tertullian spoke it, and the bishops adopted it at Nicea and Constantinople, we already had our best picture of the relationship between God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, in those familiar old words we read last Lords Day from the gospel of John, where Jesus said, I came from the Father, and, now, I am returning to the Father. And, when I go, I will send the Spirit to you, and the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you; the most important, and practical, truth about God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit: Jesus came as the human embodiment of God, the best look weve ever had at who God is and what God wants. Then, when Jesus time with us was over, the Holy Spirit picked up where Jesus left off, telling us more of what Jesus told us some of; Jesus, the temporary revelation of God to us, and the Holy Spirit, the permanent presence of God with us.

Thats the practical side of the trinity; the trinity in work clothes, a way of thinking about the trinity which actually makes a difference in the world. For example, the other day, I was working on this sermon about the trinity when it came time for me to stop, so I could keep an appointment I had to go visit a person in prison; the Holy Spirit, reminding me that Jesus, who was the embodiment of God in the world, once said that if we forget the prisoner it is as though we have forgotten Jesus; the Holy Spirit, one third of the trinity, calling to mind something which Jesus, another third of the trinity, revealed about God, the other third of the trinity.

It happens that way all the time to all of us. We may not think of it in specifically Trinitarian terms, but, day after day, all through the day, the Holy Spirit reminds us of what Jesus, the ultimate revelation of God, would do if Jesus was here, and, before we know it, we are out there in the world; in lunch rooms and locker rooms, classrooms and courtrooms, conference rooms and waiting rooms, sitting down with and standing up for the same people Jesus would be sitting down with and standing up for if Jesus himself was in Jackson; carrying casseroles and carrying signs, taking meals and taking stands, mailing cards and mailing checks.

And, when we obey those nudges and whispers of the Spirit and live our lives as Jesus would live his life if Jesus himself was in Jackson, then, in a way, Jesus himself is in Jackson. And not just Jesus, but God and the Holy Spirit, too; the whole entire trinity, all four of them, counting you.

Amen.

 

Concerning the Work Jesus Left for the Spirit

John 15:26-27, 16:4-15, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 20th, 2018 · Duration 12:39



"Concerning the Work Jesus Left for the Spirit"

John 15:26-27, 16:4-15

Pentecost Sunday

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will guide you into all the truth, because the Spirit will take what is mine and declare it to you.

With those words from todays gospel lesson, Jesus assigned the Holy Spirit the task of saying more of what Jesus said some of; leaving the Holy Spirit to take up where Jesus left off, and take us farther along the same path Jesus started us on.

Thats how we discern whether what we feel led to do or say is the Holy Spirit, or just the echo chamber of our own fears or desires, politics or opinions. We measure what we think the Holy Spirit is leading us to say or do by how nearly it aligns with what we know of Jesus, because, according to todays lesson from John, the Spirit will only take us farther along the same path Jesus started us on; the Spirit, saying more of, what Jesus said some of.

Which requires us, of course, to have some knowledge of what Jesus said, and how Jesus lived, when Jesus was here; which most of us learn best by reading the four gospels. To read the four gospels, over and over, across a lifetime, is to develop a clear sense of what mattered most to Jesus, which is how we then recognize the leadership of the Holy Spirit, because the Spirit will only say more of what Jesus said some of.

I think of it as anchor and sail. We get ourselves anchored in the words and works of Jesus by reading the four gospels, all the way through, over and over, across a lifetime. And, then, anchored in the gospels, we are ready for the wind of the Spirit to send us sailing, farther along the same path Jesus started us on; the Holy Bible, our anchor, the Holy Spirit, our sail; the Spirit saying more of what Jesus said some of.

Thinking about all that this week took me back to some of the conversations we had with our friends at the Mississippi Baptist Convention back in 2015 and 2016. In my occasional meetings with our friends at the convention office, more than once I said that, while Northminster has as many flaws as any other church, one thing I know for certain is that, to the extent that we long to welcome all persons without regard for human difference, we are being true to the Holy Spirit.

The reason I know that that is so is because the Holy Spirit only says more of what Jesus said some of. And, when you read the four gospels, you see a Jesus who, in Matthew 7:12, said that all the law and the prophets can be summarized in a single saying, Treat others as you want others to treat you, and who said, in Matthew 22:34-40, that nothing else in all of scripture matters more than loving God with all that is in us, and loving others as we love ourselves.

According to the four gospels, that is what Jesus said matters most when Jesus was here. So, whenever we actually live that way, we can know, with confidence, that we are walking in the Holy Spirit, whose assignment, according to todays gospel lesson, was to say more of what Jesus said some of; to lead us farther along the same path Jesus started us on.

That is why, once you get serious about staying open to the Holy Spirit, you will find yourself reaching out to, sitting down with and standing up for the same people Jesus would reach out to, sit down with and stand up for if Jesus was here; because the Holy Spirits job is to tell us more of what Jesus told us some of, and to take us even farther along the same path Jesus started us on. So, the more open we stay to the Spirit the more likely we are to live and love as Jesus lived and love

Live that way long enough, intentionally enough, and, eventually, a day will come when you will no longer have to try to live a Spirit filled life. Instead, you will become one of those truly Pentecostal people in whom the human spirit and the Holy Spirit are so seamlessly integrated that no one will any longer be able to tell where one ends and the other begins.

Amen.

 



 

Concerning the Prayer of Jesus

John 17:6-19,The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 13th, 2018 · Duration 14:01



"Concerning the Prayer of Jesus"

John 17:6-19

The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

As you may have noticed, twice in this mornings gospel lesson, Jesus prayed for his followers to be sanctified in the truth; the kind of phrase few of us use, but the kind of life many of us live. Whenever we see new light on old truth, and follow that new light into a deeper life with God, we are slowly, slowly, little by little, becoming the people Jesus prayed for his friends to become in this mornings gospel lesson, when Jesus prayed for us to be, sanctified in the truth; growing into a deeper life with God, as we see more clearly the truth about God.

A way of growing which is rarely easy, and, sometimes, can be very hard. In fact, growing into a deeper life with God as we see more clearly the truth about God can be so difficult and demanding that we sometimes decide that being sanctified in the truth isnt worth the trouble. So, while we may see new light on old truth, we dont let on; fearful that if we are truthful about all that the Holy Spirit has revealed to us, it might place an awkward space between ourselves and our loved ones and friends.

If they ever open a Hall of Fame for that, Ill be inducted on the first ballot. I spent many years of my life knowing better than I let on, afraid to say out loud what I knew deep down, for fear that if I was honest about the new light I had seen on old truth it would make me seem disloyal to the church and home of my origins. I did not know how to reach back with one hand and bless the best of what was behind me while simultaneously reaching forward with the other hand to embrace new light on old truth. So, I hid my light under a bushel. I was growing deeper and deeper into the truth about what truly does, and does not, matter to God, but I wouldnt say so out loud, because being sanctified in the truth left me petrified by the truth. Which is why, to this day, I feel so much sympathy for, and solidarity with, those who do the same. I know how hard it can be to speak truth which reaches beyond the boundaries of what you have always thought and been taught.

Thinking about all of that this week called to my mind one of my last visits with my mother, as she lay dying last summer. As I sat, one day, by my mothers bed, I thought about how, across the years, she and I had come to hold different views of the truth about God and scripture, theology and people. But, we each had enough of the Spirit in us that neither of us had any interest in changing the others mind. There was a space between us, but we just filled that space with grace, and loved each other exactly the way we were; she, me, and I, her.

But, while we were fortunate in that way, not everyone is. In fact, sometimes the risk of being honest about the new light youve seen on old truth just isnt worth it. So, you dam up the truth you have come to see, sort of like damming up a moving stream. Someday, the dam may crack a little and let the truth leak a little. Or, maybe, someday, the dam breaks open and the truth comes pouring out. Or, maybe, someday, we die, and go to our grave, never once having spoken truthfully about the new light we have seen on old truth.

All of which is to say that, when Jesus prayed, in todays gospel lesson, for his friends to be sanctified in the truth, he wasnt praying for our life to be a stroll down Easy Street. He was, however, praying for our life to be one of growing deeper and deeper into the truth; a life made more and more strong and gentle, upright and honest, forgiving and kind, slowly, slowly, little by little, across a lifetime of being sanctified in the truth; a prayer Jesus prayed for all of his friends, and one which, one imagines, will surely, someday, be answered; if only part of the way in this life, then, the rest of the way, in the next.
Amen.

 

 

 

What Peter Said About What Peter Saw

Acts 10:44-48, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 6th, 2018 · Duration 2:30



"What Peter Said About What Peter Saw"

Acts 10:44-48

The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Then Peter said, Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these Gentiles, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?

One imagines that those words, which Peter said at the end of Acts chapter ten, would never have crossed his mind at the beginning of Acts chapter ten, when Peter would not even enter the house of a Gentile, until he was persuaded to go by a vision from God.

But, once Peter went, and saw the Holy Spirit in his new Gentile friends, Peter had to change what he said to match what he saw; a small reminder of the simple truth that theology chases friendship.

It happens all the time. Like Peter, we meet someone whose life or faith is different from ours in a way which we had always assumed meant that they were on the outside of the family of God. But, like Peter, once we get to know them, we discover that they have just as much of the Holy Spirit in their life as we have in ours.

And, then, like Peter, we get to change what we say to match what we see.

Amen.

When Love Casts Out Fear

Acts 8:26-40, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 29th, 2018 · Duration 6:41



"When Love Casts Out Fear"

Acts 8:26-40

The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide, Mentor Sunday

As they were going along the road, they came to some water. And the eunuch said to Philip, Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, throughout the world, those words from Acts chapter eight. And, every time they roll back around, whichever way Philip goes, whether he says Yes to the eunuchs request for baptism, or No, Philip will have Bible for, and, Bible against, his decision. If Philip says No to the eunuch, he can turn, for support, to Deuteronomy 23:1, No one who has had the surgery which makes a person into a eunuch shall be allowed into the house of God. On the other hand, if he says Yes to the eunuch, he can turn, for support, to Isaiah 56:3, Thus says the Lord, To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath I will give, in my house, an everlasting name which will never be cut off. Either way, there will be Bible to back him up, and Bible to trip him up; another one of those these verses versus those verses kind of moments; the Bible, in a tie, with itself.

So, which will it be, Yes or No? The eunuch is waiting. Here is water! he says to Philip, What is to prevent me from being baptized?

And, in that moment, when Philip had to decide either to get wet with the love which includes, or stay dry with the fear which excludes, Philip, the Bible says, went down into the water; a first baptism for the eunuch, but, for Philip, a second; a further, deeper plunge into what todays epistle lesson from First John describes as love casting out fear.

And, then, the next verse, the first verse after the baptism, says that, when they came up out of the water, the Spirit carried Philip away, and he found himself at Azotus.

The writer of Acts says that Philip found himself at Azotus, but, one imagines that Philip might say that where he really found himself was in that pond, by that road, at that moment, with that eunuch, when love for the other cast out fear of the other.

Or, as Barbara Brown Taylor once said, Salvation is not something which happens only at the end of life. Salvation happens every time someone who is holding a key uses it to open a door they could have closed.

Amen.

As You Go

Psalm 23, The Fourth Sunday in Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 22nd, 2018 · Duration 12:24



"As You Go"

Psalm 23

The Fourth Sunday in Eastertide, Senior Recognition Sunday

As Thomas, Lindley, Michaela, Ben, Zo, Sydney, Katie, Nevin and Madeleine prepare to close one chapter and open another, I would like to take this opportunity to thank each of them for all the ways they have lifted and blessed this family of faith across the years.

Those of you who are graduating this year have often heard it said that the church has formed and shaped your lives, which is true. But, as surely as the church has formed you, you have formed the church. And, once you open the next new chapter of your lives, Northminster will miss you.

We will miss you. But, in quiet, strong ways, we will also be with you. As you go, from this place to all your other places, there are some things which you have learned in, and from, your church, which will follow you, and be with you, in lifes next new chapter.

For example, across your many years at Northminster, you have learned that, when Jesus was asked what matters most, Jesus said, What matters most is that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love all other people as we love ourselves. That will follow you, and stay with you; the north star on your moral compass, the measure for how you live your life, the central standard which Jesus said matters most; loving God with all that is in you, which will help you to be a person of integrity, and loving others as you love yourself, which will help you to be a person of compassion.

Across your years at Northminster, you have also learned that how we use words matters, and that, too, will follow and stay with you. Careful speech is first of all truthful speech; no spinning or lying, no exaggeration or flattery, no speech designed to put down or embarrass anyone. In an increasingly reckless world of boundariless texts and posts, emails and tweets, you have been equipped, by your church, to set, for others, an example of careful speech. You learned that, in here, and you know how to live that, out there.

Across the years, here at Northminster, you have also learned the importance of both kindness and courage; the kindness and courage it takes to sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for; kindness and courage which will follow you as you go.

Finally, you have learned, across a lifetime here at Northminster, that, no matter where, no matter what, God is with you. As the sentence at the center of todays psalm says, Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we will fear no evil, for God is with us. As you go, hold that truth deep in your heart. It will not protect you from every sorrow, but it will support you in every sorrow; the deep and abiding assurance that God is with you and for you, giving you the strength you need to go through what you did not get to go around.

Todays psalm ends, of course, with that familiar promise, Surely goodness and mercy will follow us all the days of our lives. Which is true. And, we will too. Gods goodness and mercy will follow you as you go, and, so will we, your Northminster family of faith; following you all the days of your life; showing up in the muscle memory of your soul, which, in some critical moment of decision, might give you the courage and clarity you need to do the right thing . . . . Or, in some painful moment of failure, the grace you need, to let go of the guilt and start over . . . . Or, in some heartbreaking moment of sadness and loss, the strength you will need to go through what you did not get to go around.

Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, said the one who wrote this mornings psalm, And I will live in the house of the Lord my whole life long.

Yes, and, also, the house of the Lord will live in you, too; your Northminster family of faith, with you and for you, deep down inside you, as you go. Amen.

Concerning Christianity and Judaism

Acts 3:12-19, The Third Sunday in Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 15th, 2018 · Duration 14:14



"Concerning Christianity and Judaism"

Acts 3:12-19

The Third Sunday in Eastertide

Though Pilate had decided to release Jesus, you Israelites rejected him, and killed the author of life.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from Acts chapter three. And, every time they roll back around, it is important for us to remember that Peter, on whose lips the book of Acts places those words of accusation against the Jews, was, himself, a Jew, as was Jesus.

Which is to say that, when we read those severe sounding words from todays lesson in the book of Acts, we are reading them as outsiders; listening in on a conversation between Jewish people, some of whom believed Jesus was the Messiah, and some of whom did not.

Which is true, not only in this case, but, throughout much of the New Testament. Take, for example, last weeks gospel lesson, which said that the risen Lord came to see the disciples, who were hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews. Everyone in that story was a Jew; the disciples who were hiding, those from whom they were hiding, and the risen Lord, too.

The truth is, in the early years of the church, while everyone who was in Judaism was not in the church, everyone who was in the church was in Judaism. Which is not surprising, given the fact that Jesus, himself, was a Jew, who never converted from Judaism to anything, but who died a Jew, just as he was born a Jew.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I think about all this, from time to time; about the ties that bind Christianity to Judaism. Baptism in water, for example, which is so important to us, is a sacred gesture we borrowed from Judaism, where Gentiles who joined the synagogue had to be fully immersed. And, the bread and cup of our communion table, needless to say, we adopted, and adapted, from Judaisms Passover. The Holy Spirit we count as part of our Trinity is the same Spirit of God which hovered over the creation in Genesis, and animated that orthopedic hoedown in Ezekiel. Even the resurrection of the dead is not a new Christian innovation in God, but a hope held first in Judaism. And, our Lords Prayer, the one we pray each week, bears a strong family resemblance to a Jewish prayer which includes the words, Hallowed be the name of the Father. May your kingdom come on this earth.

And, most importantly, of course, there is Jesus, himself, who, when asked by an inquirer to say what mattered most, did not offer a new Christian answer, but quoted two verses from the Hebrew scripture, the two great central truths of both Judaism and Christianity: Love the Lord your God with all that is in you. And, love others as you love yourself.

I cannot think of those great and wonderful connections between Christianity and Judaism without recalling Amy-Jill Levines unforgettable image in which she said that one way to imagine the relationship between Judaism and Christianity is to picture yourself standing on a railroad track, where the rails are separate from, but parallel to, one another. Now, imagine yourself turning around, she said, and looking as far back in the past as you can see, until the two rails merge into one at the horizon. And, then, imagine yourself turning back around and looking the other way, as far as you can see, to the horizon in the future, where the two will merge, again, as one. Indeed.

All of which is why I so often say that Northminster is one of the most fortunate churches in the entire world, because of the fact that, before we owned our own building, we actually worshipped in the synagogue. In fact, every now and then, I will hear some of you who were here in those days say, I joined the church at the synagogue. Which, even after all these years, never fails to stop me in my tracks.

It all came about in the simplest of ways. We were searching for a temporary home, so, a Northminster member, Leland Speed, asked a Beth Israel member, Maurice Joseph, if Beth Israel might rent us their old sanctuary. To which Mr. Joseph replied, No. We will not rent our space to you. We will, however, give it to you. And, with that, Northminster became the most fortunate church imaginable. In a world full of churches, every one of which owes their origins, and traces their beginnings, to the synagogue, we actually got to meet in a synagogue.

That story, the story of our temporary home at Beth Israel, is one we will never let fall to the ground; a distinctively Northminster story our high school seniors will carry with them when they leave us in a few months, a story little Annabeth Taylor, and all of our children, will learn and know; the story of a Christian church, which, once upon a time, lived, for a time, in a Jewish home; a snapshot of the whole history of Christianity and Judaism, and a small sign of the great truth that we are all, together, the beloved children of the one true God; the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus. Amen.

Concerning Our Life Together

Acts 4:32-35, The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 8th, 2018 · Duration 12:43



Concerning Our Life Together

Acts 4:32-35

The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, throughout the world, those words to be read on the second Sunday in the sacred season of Eastertide. And, every time they roll back around, the communal way of life they describe sounds, at first, very different from our life together. And yet, in some ways, our life together, now, does bear a strong resemblance to their life together, then.

For example, todays passage from Acts chapter four says that the early church was of one heart, which is also the way we are with one another.

Which, one imagines, is not the same as being of one mind. This mornings lesson from the book of Acts does not say that the early believers were of one mind, and neither are we. We cannot know how diverse they may have been in their thinking, but we do know how diverse we are in our thinking. When it comes to what we think about the various political and public policy questions of our time, for example, our congregation has never been of one mind, which is probably why our first interim pastor, Dr. Whaley, admonished us, all the way back in 1967, to agree to differ, resolve to love and unite to serve; the Northminster version of what todays scripture lesson calls being of one heart.

But, while we may never have been of one mind, but we have always been of one heart; loyal to, respectful of, grateful for and in love with people who do not all think, vote or say the same; which is part of the wonder and beauty of our life together. In fact, for some of us, in this increasingly partisan and polarized world, the church may be the last place left in our lives where we get to be of one heart with people without having to be of one mind with them.

In that way, the of one heart way, we are like the church this mornings lesson from Acts describes. And, also, we are like the original early church in the way we share, with one another, our possessions.

Needless to say, unlike the early church, we have not relinquished all we own to be redistributed. But, we do something similar, in miniature, when we pool our resources by giving our money to support the work of the church through the budget of the church.

I found myself thinking about all that Wednesday evening, as I watched dozens of basket-wielding children hunting Easter eggs throughout Northminsters backyard. All of us who give to the work of the church through the budget of the church helped buy the burgers, paint the faces and rent the train that made the night so magical and fun for so many little ones. Not to mention the new playground which soon will be finished; paid for by all of us sharing our resources, with one another, in the family of faith; which is also how we fund the presence of the deputy who slows the Sunday morning traffic on Ridgewood Road, and the nursery workers who keep our babies safe and well, as well as the breakfast we prepare each week for Billy Brumfield, the sixteen chocolate chip cookies we serve every Thursday morning at the Yellow Church Bible Class, the thirty-five pizzas we purchased for the Spann school children on Friday, the one hundred and ten chicken sandwiches our youth group served at Stewpot yesterday and the tiny, shiny, silver dove Lesley placed over the head of little George Smith a few moments ago. All of that happens because all of us, together, pool our resources to help undergird and support everything our church does, within our walls and beyond our walls; our faint, distant echo of the egalitarian economics of the early church, where, according to this mornings lesson from Acts chapter four, no one thought of anything they owned as theirs to keep, but everyone held everything in common.

All of which calls to mind, for me, something Anne Lamott once said. When asked why she made her son go to church even when he didnt want to, the famous writer replied, I make Sam go to church because I want him to grow up around people who live by a larger light than the glimmer of their own little candle.

Which is exactly what happens in a family of faith. It doesnt happen perfectly anywhere, including here. But, a lifetime spent breathing in the Spirit we breath in together in the family of faith, listening to and learning from one another, holding in our hearts people we do agree with and dont agree with, and loving all of them, and each of them, so much we would gladly lay down our lives for any of them; and, giving our money, together, to causes which transcend our own personal opinions or self-interest; all of that does shape and color and stretch our lives, in powerful and wonderful ways, for God and the gospel.

And, it happens here, in the family of faith, Northminster Baptist Church; our life, together.

Amen.

A Sermon on the Subject of the Resurrection

Mark 16:1-8, Easter Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 1st, 2018 · Duration 23:54



A Sermon on the Subject of the Resurrection

Mark 16:1-8

Easter Sunday

Concerning the Cross-Formed Life

Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · March 25th, 2018 · Duration 11:58



Concerning the Cross-Formed Life

Philippians 2:5-11

Palm/Passion Sunday

(audio begins at 30 seconds)

With the waving of the palms at the opening of this hour, our children have led us across the threshold of another Holy Week; the churchs annual journey to the cross.

Needless to say, no one can speak with certainty concerning the mystery which surrounds the cross. Orthodox Christian doctrine says that Jesus had to die on the cross so that Gods requirement for a perfect sacrifice could be satisfied; the idea being that God could not forgive sin without compromising Gods holiness unless a perfect sacrifice was first given to God; a sacrifice Jesus became when he died on the cross, thus paying the price for our sin and freeing God to forgive people, if they respond in the right way to the perfect sacrifice.

That is Christianitys most prevalent teaching concerning the cross. And, it may be true. But, while I cannot speak for you, on my ears, and in my heart, it sounds more like something people would say about God than something God would say about people.

Add to that the fact that the New Testament writers who assigned that sacrificial meaning to Jesus death on the cross were people whose lives had been shaped by a Judaism which taught that sacrifices were necessary to receive Gods forgiveness, and its hard to know what the ultimate truth might be concerning what was happening when Jesus was dying on the cross. Was Jesus dying on the cross to satisfy a need in God for a sacrifice to be made and a price to be paid? Or, was Jesus dying on the cross, not to rescue us from Gods wrath, but, to join us in our pain? Or, was Jesus dying on the cross because he sat down with and stood up for the wrong people often enough that he made the right people nervous enough that they crucified him in order to silence him? Or, was it all of the above? Or something else?

When it comes to the cross as the place for Jesus to die, there is much unknowable mystery. But, not when it comes to the cross as a way for us to live. As a place for Jesus to die, the cross may be wrapped in layer upon layer of mystery, but, as a way for us to live, the cross-formed life is actually, surprisingly, clear.

To live a cross-formed life is to live a life which is formed by, and shaped like, the cross; a life which, like the cross, is simultaneously vertical and horizontal; vertically, stretched up to God; horizontally, stretched out to others. Loving God with all that is in us is the vertical life of worship and devotion, song and prayer, and loving others as we love ourselves is the horizontal life of kindness and compassion, forgiveness and grace, confrontation and truth, gentleness and hospitality; sitting down with, and standing up for, the same people Jesus would sit down with, and stand up for, if Jesus lived in Jackson.

That is the cross-formed life; a life which is simultaneously vertical with love for God and horizontal with love for others.

That, my sisters and brothers, is the last conversion; the final frontier on the path to depth; a cross-formed life, a life lived up to God and out to others, which is not another religious something to add to our already over-burdened lives, but, rather, a life that flows from us as naturally as breathing, the kind of life we cant not live, once we want it enough to embrace it, by praying for it, day after day, all through the day.

Amen.

 

Concerning Suffering

Hebrews 5:5-10, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 18th, 2018 · Duration 15:01



"Concerning Suffering"

Hebrews 5:5-10

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I never know quite what to do with those words from this mornings epistle passage; probably because I grew up believing that Jesus was so perfect that he didnt need to learn anything, because he already knew everything. But, according to this mornings epistle lesson, Jesus learned through what he suffered.

Which is, perhaps, one way in which we, and Jesus, are most alike. More often than not, we, too, do most of our growing and learning where todays epistle lesson says that Jesus did most of his; in the school of suffering.

Like Jesus, we learn things, through suffering, we might never have known apart from the pain of our hardest, and worst, struggles. For us, as for Jesus, the path to depth most often goes through darkness.

All of which we must always say with only the greatest of care, lest we lapse over into the popular theology which teaches that, if we learn our deepest lessons from suffering, that must mean that God sends us our suffering to make us better.

I know many dear and good souls who believe that, but I do not. I dont believe God sends us trouble to make us better, or that God allows tragedy to come to us to accomplish some unseen purpose, or that human suffering is part of a divine plan. Rather, I believe that we live in a world where beautiful things happen and terrible things happen, and, if any of them can happen to anyone, all of them can happen to everyone, including you and yours, and me and mine.

But, though God does not aim sorrow at us, God does use sorrow for us. Like Jesus, in this mornings epistle lesson, we learn things in pain that we would never know in comfort. As surely as surgery is painful, pain is surgical; our deepest struggles and worst sorrows opening us up to God, and helping us become deeper, stronger, kinder, less arrogant, more empathetic people than ever we would have been without the pain.

But, even such hopeful words as those we must always say with more restraint than we might want to use, being careful to acknowledge the undeniable truth that, while many of us do emerge from pain and suffering with new insights and a deeper spirit, not everyone does. As Barbara Brown Taylor once wisely observed, I have seen pain twist people into exhausted rags with all the hope squeezed out of them, and, on the other hand, I have also seen people in whom pain seems to have burned away everything trivial and petty, until they have become see-through with light. (I would add the additional possibility that sometimes pain does both to the same person; leaving us squeezed out like exhausted rags, and so beautifully luminous that we become absolutely see-through with light.)

All of which calls to mind something a wise old rabbi is reported once to have said about todays Old Testament passage from the book of Jeremiah. When asked why the prophet Jeremiah said God will write Gods law on our hearts, instead of in our hearts, the rabbi replied, God writes Gods words on our heart, but in order for Gods words to get down in our heart, our heart must first be broken open. Or, as Joanna Macy once wrote, Only the heart which has been broken open can hold the universe. Which is not unlike that unforgettable sentence from the poet Naomi Shihab Nye, Before we can know kindness as the deepest thing inside, we must first know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

Which does seem, so often, to be true; that the pain which comes into our lives, while it was not sent to us from God, is used for us by God, in an amazing alchemy of the Holy Spirit and human sorrow, which helps us become more thoughtful and mindful, understanding and welcoming, compassionate, patient, gentle and kind; through suffering.

Amen.

When We Return John 3:16 to the Bible

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

Chuck Poole · March 11th, 2018 · Duration 9:18



"When We Return John 3:16 to the Bible"

John 3:14-21

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

For God so loved the world that God gave Gods only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.

That verse from this mornings gospel lesson is, needless to say, one of the most widely known, and frequently quoted, verses in all the Bible. Having appeared in venues as various as billboards and bumper stickers, t-shirts and tattoos, John 3:16 has been turned to more often than any other verse of scripture to serve as the single sentence which most completely captures one of Christianitys most widely held assumptions; that eternal salvation or condemnation hinges, entirely, on one thing; whether a person does, or does not, believe in Jesus.

But, when we take John 3:16 off the billboards, and return it to the Bible, what we discover is that John 3:16 is one verse in a Bible-wide chorus of verses and voices, some of which say the same as John 3:16, and some of which do not.

John 3:18, for example, says the same as John 3:16, that all will be saved or condemned based on what they believe about Jesus, as do First John 5:1, First John 5:12 and Romans 10:9.

But, then, you have Luke 10:25-28, and Matthew 7:21, 12:37, 13:41 and 25:46, all of which make salvation contingent, not on what we believe, but on how we live, and what we do.

Then, of course, there are other Bible verses in which salvation is not about what we believe or what we do, because, in those verses, salvation is more about what God wants, than how we respond; verses such as II Corinthians 5:19, In Christ, God was reconciling the world to Gods self, Ephesians 1:10, Gods plan for the fullness of time is to gather up all things in Christ, Romans 11:32, God has included all in sin so that God might include all in mercy, and Colossians 1:20, which says, Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile the world to Gods self, by making peace through the blood of the cross; a verse of scripture which makes what happened at the cross so effective that the cross doesnt need our cooperation to accomplish Gods work of reconciliation; unlike John 3:16, where what happened at the cross is effective only for those who respond to it in the right way with the right belief.

All of which is what we see when we return John 3:16 to the Bible. Lifted from the Bible, and read all by itself, John 3:16 has helped generations of dear and sincere Christians to say, with unwavering finality, and unassailable certainty, Only those who believe what Christians believe about Jesus can have eternal life with God. But, returned to the Bible, and read alongside the Bibles other 31,239 verses, John 3:16 turns out to be only one of many varied voices concerning the subject of salvation, some of which say the same as John 3:16, and some of which do not, requiring all of us, no matter what we believe, to be content to say, I believe what I believe about salvation because it rings true to what I believe about who God is, how God acts and what God wants. I can point to some scripture which supports what I believe. But, there is also some scripture which does not support what I believe. Which is why, at the end of the day, all I can say is that I believe what I believe about salvation, because it is what rings most true to what I believe about God.

I call that reading the Bible until we lose our voices. If we read the whole Bible long enough, we will eventually lose our loudest and most strident voice, which will then be replaced by a less certain, more gentle, one.

Amen.

Remember the Sabbath

Exodus 20:1-17, The Third Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 4th, 2018 · Duration 5:43



"Remember the Sabbath"

Exodus 20:1-17

The Third Sunday in Lent

Remember the Sabbath may be the only one of the Ten Commandments which people sometimes feel more guilty about keeping than breaking, because, to remember the Sabbath requires us, sometimes, to say No, not only to bad things, but, also to good things, as in, No, I cannot serve on another board. No, we cannot help with another fundraiser. No, I cannot attend another committee meeting. No, we cannot say Yes to one more really worthwhile mission or important activity.

Which is why many of us feel more guilty about keeping the fourth commandment than we feel about breaking it, because keeping the commandment to remember the Sabbath requires us to set healthy, realistic boundaries, and setting healthy, realistic boundaries requires us, sometimes, to say No to good and important things, because we cannot live a Sabbath shaped life which is centered and mindful, and, also, say Yes to everything as though we have no limits, and need no Sabbath.

Perhaps one small step in the direction of a more Sabbath shaped life would be to decide to practice the spiritual discipline of saying silently, as a prayer, day after day, all through the day, Remember the Sabbath . . . Remember the Sabbath . . . Remember the Sabbath.

Needless to say, there is nothing magic about that, but, that very small spiritual discipline, practiced faithfully enough, long enough, might eventually slow the pace of our movements, lessen the number of our words, lower the volume of our voices and help us, someday, to live more centered, mindful, thoughtful, less is the new more, Sabbath- colored lives.

Amen.

 

 

On Letting Jesus Be Jesus

Mark 8:31-38, The Second Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · February 25th, 2018 · Duration 17:07



"On Letting Jesus Be Jesus"

Mark 8:31-38

The Second Sunday in Lent

Then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering and rejection . . . And Peter took Jesus aside and began to rebuke him.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from todays gospel lesson. And, every time they roll back around, they remind us, all over again, of how hard it can be to let Jesus be Jesus.

In fact, the way of the cross which Jesus foresaw for himself, and his followers, in todays passage, was so troubling that it caused Peter to rebuke Jesus, and Christianity to remake Jesus.

It isnt easy to identify exactly when Christianitys makeover of Jesus began, but it is clear that by the end of the fourth century, the vulnerable, suffering Jesus of the gospels had been remade into the powerful, successful Christ of Christianity.

Like Peter, we just could not bear to let Jesus be Jesus. And, like Peter, we meant well. We wanted to be big and successful, powerful and influential for Jesus, and it was clear that there were not many people out there who were going to line up to join up with a Jesus who called his followers to let go of their possessions, make themselves vulnerable, put themselves at risk and embrace in friendship whoever was most ostracized and marginalized. That sounded as unreasonable and unworkable, to us, as it did to Peter. So, across the centuries, we took the unreasonable Jesus of the four gospels, and remade him into the more manageable Christ of Christianity, which has left us with a powerful, useful, helpful, successful, very influential, world religion which has done much good for many people throughout the world, but which, also, sometimes, bears little resemblance to the true spirit of the real Jesus.

All of which came home to me in a powerful way a couple of years ago when one of those studies by Gallup or Barna or some similar polling organization came out with a list of the most Christian cities in America; with places such as Jackson, Birmingham, Chattanooga and Shreveport all at, or near, the top.

When I heard that, I had a Holy Spirit moment, when I recalled the several times, across the years, when I have heard people, who live in the most Christian part of the country, who had an adult son or daughter whose life left them outside the comfortable majority, say that they had encouraged their son or daughter to move out of the Bible Belt, to New York or Los Angeles, or someplace where they might be less likely to face the unkindness and discrimination which they might be more likely to encounter if they stayed in the most Christian part of the country; a powerful commentary on how far popular Christianity has wandered from the Jesus of the gospels. You know that Christianity has strayed far from the Jesus of the gospels when the parts of the country which are known to have the most Christians are known to be the least Christian when it comes to the very things Jesus said matter most; loving all others as we love ourselves, and treating all others as we want all others to treat us.

Which is one example of how Christianity sometimes finds it as difficult to let Jesus be Jesus as Peter did, which is as understandable as it is ironic. This week, I read every word of all four gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, one more time. When you take the time to do that, you can see why Peter rebuked Jesus, and Christianity remade him. After all, Those who try to save their life will lose it . . . Deny yourself . . . Take up your cross . . . Give up your possessions . . . Love your neighbor as yourself . . . Do unto others as you want others to do unto you . . . That is not the sort of thing that draws crowds, fills buildings and meets budgets. One of the biggest obstacles to the successful church can be the real Jesus, because too much of the real Jesus can empty a church faster than the best marketing effort can fill it.

But, every now and then, at least once in every generation, in the interest of being as honest as we are capable of being, and, as a guard against self-deception, it is good and right for the Christian religion to acknowledge the fact that, across the Christian centuries, we have remade the real Jesus, and, to say, out loud, that, while we have done, and always will do, much good in the world, the path we have taken to success is a different way than the path to which Jesus called us when Jesus asked us, in this mornings gospel lesson, to take up the cross and follow him; something Jesus asked us to do, not because he wanted us to die the way he died, but, because he wanted us to live the way he lived, and love the way he loved.

Amen.

 

Is There Grace Beyond the Grave?

I Peter 3:18-22, The First Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · February 18th, 2018 · Duration 16:26



"Is There Grace Beyond the Grave?"

I Peter 3:18-22

The First Sunday in Lent

Christ Jesus was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the Spirit, in which he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those intriguing words from todays epistle lesson, words which seem to say that, sometime between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Jesus went to hell to preach a sermon; a passage which, when coupled with I Peter 4:6, which also says that Jesus descended to the depths To preach the gospel to the dead, never fails to resurrect in my spirit the hope that, perhaps, there might be grace beyond the grave.

Of course, even the possibility of grace beyond the grave has long been so troubling to so much of official Christianity that large stripes of Christian orthodoxy have said that, if Jesus did go to hell, it was to say, See, I told you so; the Christological equivalent of a victory lap.

And, in the world of my religious origins, any hint of a hope that there might be grace beyond the grave was always rebuffed by references to Luke 16:26, where Father Abraham consigns the rich man to eternal torment, with the announcement that, once one is in Hades, there is no escape; quashing any conversation concerning grace beyond the grave with the confident finality of the Bible says it and that settles it.

(Except, of course, we cannot, with integrity, resort to the Bible says it and that settles it to close down conversations and shut down questions, because Matthew 5:39 calls us to a life of pacifism, II Corinthians 8:15 invites us to a life of socialism, Luke 14:33 requires of us a life of voluntary poverty and I Timothy 2:9 does not allow us to have jewelry, hairdos and nice clothing; just some of the many ways the Bible saying something to us does not settle something for us.)

I never have been able to understand why Christianity has been so eager to believe in judgment beyond the grave and so reluctant to believe in grace beyond the grave. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I believe in both; judgment beyond the grave, and grace beyond the grave.

Because so much evil goes un-confronted in this life, without judgment beyond the grave, all sorts of injustice would go eternally un-confronted; responsibility never owned, victims never faced and truth never spoken, which doesnt sound like God, at all. So, there must be judgment beyond the grave.

But, on the other hand, if there is no grace beyond the grave, then, not only does God never get what God wants; the redemption, reconciliation and salvation of all, but people go to hell forever for no purpose other than endless retribution, and perpetual torment, which sounds even less like God.

What does sound like God is judgment beyond the grave which leads, eventually, to grace beyond the grave; the whole creation ultimately redeemed, but not without sin being judged, truth being spoken, responsibility being taken, victims being faced, guilt being confessed and wrong being purged; a hell, not for people to go to, but for people to go through, on their way to ultimate, eternal redemption.

As the great British preacher Leslie Weatherhead once said, We Protestants have rejected the only view of hell that makes any sense; punishment with a point, judgment in the service of redemption. Or, as the Methodist theologian Gregory Jones says, Just because the fires of hell will always be burning doesnt necessarily mean they will always be populated. Indeed, no less a luminary of orthodoxy than John Calvin himself is reported once to have said, Christians are obligated to pray that hell will someday be empty.

All of this came home to me in a very practical, personal way about a month ago when, late one cold January Saturday afternoon, I took Ansley, Emma Kate and Charlotte to the new Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. After our visit, as we walked through downtown Jackson to our car, the girls (whose permission I have to tell this) asked if I thought the people who killed Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King, Jr., and those who committed the other acts of violence about which we had just read in the museum, would be in heaven. I said that, while it is not my place to say who will or will not be in heaven, I do believe that those persons who committed those terrible acts of violence will be in heaven, not because what they did wasnt awful and evil, but because I believe that there is so much judgment beyond the grave and so much grace beyond the grave, that, ultimately, God will get the one thing God has always wanted most; the redemption, reconciliation and salvation of all.

I was careful to tell the girls that my belief that there is grace beyond the grave is different from what many Christians believe. But, as for me, I cannot think of anything more Christian than believing that there will be enough judgment beyond the grave, and enough grace beyond the grave, for God to finally get the one thing God has always wanted most; the redemption, reconciliation and salvation of all; a hope which is always resurrected in my spirit by that visit Jesus made to hell on the last day of Lent; a journey Jesus took to say, not, See, I told you so, but, See, I love you so.

Amen.

 

They Are With God and God Is With Us

II Kings 2:1-12, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · February 11th, 2018 · Duration 16:27

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

When We Cannot Go On

Isaiah 40:21-31, The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 4th, 2018 · Duration 5:30



"When We Cannot Go On"

Isaiah 40:21-31

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

God gives power to the faint, and strength to the powerless. Even the young will fall down exhausted, but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Those words from this mornings lesson from Isaiah were originally written for the people of God who were living in exile in Babylon, nearly six hundred years before the birth of Christ. However, though they may not have been written to us or about us, they have always held an important word of hope for us; the hope that, no matter how overwhelmed or exhausted, depleted or defeated, weary or empty we may be, the God who is with us, and for us, will give us new strength for each new day; the strength we need to go on, even when we are sure we cannot; what this mornings lesson from Isaiah calls, the strength to walk, and not faint.

Which, as you will, no doubt, have noticed, is the strength which came in last on Isaiahs list. At the top of Isaiahs list was the strength to fly like an eagle, followed closely by the strength to run like the wind, followed lastly by the strength to walk and not faint; just enough strength to stumble forward, go through what we did not get to go around, and keep moving, even when we are most certain that we cannot.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I believe that when Isaiah put that kind of strength, the strength to walk and not faint, at the bottom of the list, he was actually saving the best for last. In my experience, when life is at its hardest and worst, there is nothing better, in all the world, than the strength to walk and not faint.

Somehow, in those moments, when the strength to walk and not faint is all the strength we have, the strength to walk and not faint turns out to be all the strength we need. In the hardest and worst, most paralyzing and unbearable moments of our lives, strength turns out to be the new joy, and, walking, the new running.

Amen

Where Truth Meets Love

I Corinthians 8:1-13, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 28th, 2018 · Duration 15:59



"Where Truth Meets Love"

I Corinthians 8:1-13

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Now, concerning food sacrificed to idols . . . Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. With those words from todays epistle lesson, Paul takes up a subject which, apparently, was a significant source of conflict for the community of faith in the city of Corinth; the question of whether or not it was sinful for followers of Jesus to eat meat which was leftover from animals sacrificed in pagan temples; a question of such significance in Corinth that it will consume all of chapters eight, nine and ten of First Corinthians.

It would appear that, in his heart, Paul knows that whether or not one eats meat from animals offered to idols is not something that matters to God as a moral issue. Paul says as much in verse eight of todays scripture lesson, where he says, We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. So, apparently, this question about eating meat from animals offered to idols is just not an issue, as far as Paul is concerned. In fact, over in chapter ten, still talking about this same subject, Paul says, Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. And, if an unbeliever invites you to a meal, eat whatever is set before you, without raising any question on the ground of conscience.

Add to that the fact that, in todays passage, Paul referred to those who thought it was a sin to eat meat which had been offered on a pagan altar as the weaker brothers and sisters, while calling those who knew better the stronger brothers and sisters, and it seems clear that Paul believed that those who were worried about the meat-eating question were holding onto something they needed to let go of.

And yet, in that same section of First Corinthians, Paul said other things which seemed to support those who thought eating meat from animals offered to idols was a moral matter. For example, over in chapter ten, in one verse, Paul said that food sacrificed to an idol means nothing, because the idol means nothing. But, then, in the next verse, he said that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and that Christians cannot eat at the table of the Lord and at the table of demons, which sounds as though he thinks eating meat associated with pagan sacrifices is a moral, spiritual issue, after all.

Add all of that together, and it appears that, while Paul knows, in his heart, what is true about this issue, he is trying to be mindful of the less spiritually mature believers in the Corinthian congregation, and, as an act of love, to be sensitive to the limits of the weaker brothers and sisters. In fact, Paul says as much, when, at the end of First Corinthians chapter ten, he says, I try to offend no one, and to please everyone.

All of which is a first century snapshot of the every century complexity of trying to be a person of both love and truth, without sacrificing one on the altar of the other.

Paul makes it clear that if we have to choose between the two, love and truth, love is the more important of the two. Knowledge puffs up, he says in todays passage, but love builds up.

But, of course, it isnt always that simple. Sometimes, speaking the truth is what builds up others lives. There have been a number of times in my own life when what I have needed most was someone who loved me enough to tell me the truth. For example, because of the religious world in which I grew up, I entered adulthood with both the blessings and the burdens of popular Bible Belt fundamentalism; the blessing of a rigorous moral compass, and the burden of a fear based way of looking at others, which had little of the Spirit of Jesus in it, because one of its primary concerns was protecting the power and control of those of us who already held most of the power and control, because we happen to have been born on the easy side of every human difference you can name. As a result, when it came to the way I looked at those who were unlike me, I was spiritually immature, and far from the Spirit of Jesus. To use Pauls words in todays passage, I was the weaker brother. The last thing I needed was for the stronger, more spiritually mature, brothers and sisters who came into my life to pretend I was right, so they wouldnt offend me. (If that was the way we lived in the church, then no one would ever grow deeper in the faith than what the most shallow members ears could bear to hear.) To the contrary, what I needed was someone who loved me enough to tell me the truth.

Which is always our job, in the church. Our job, in the church, is never to sacrifice truth on the altar of love, while also never sacrificing love on the altar of truth.

Our job, in the church, is to spend our lives practicing the skill of speaking the truth, to the extent that we know it, never with glibness, cleverness, arrogance, sarcasm, exaggeration or unkindness, but, always, in every case, with Quaker-quiet gentleness, what the poet Naomi Shihab Nye calls the tender gravity of kindness; a skill so difficult and demanding that none of us will ever be able to practice it apart from the help of the Holy Spirit.

All of us need something in our lives that is so difficult, and so important, that we could never do it apart from the help of the Holy Spirit. This is one of those practices; the practice of speaking, and living, what Walter Rauschenbusch once called, the truth dressed in nothing but love; a sacred skill which none of us will ever finish practicing, for as long as we live, because, even with the help of the Holy Spirit, no matter how long we live, we will never finally, fully, always get this right; this challenging, demanding, complex, world-changing, kingdom-bringing life of truth and love, love and truth.

Amen.

 

Youth sermon with Ben Oakes and Madeleine Wiggs

Psalm 62:5-12, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Youth - Ben Oakes and Madeleine Wiggs · January 21st, 2018 · Duration 17:18



Youth sermon with Ben Oakes and Madeleine Wiggs

Psalm 62:5-12, I Corinthians 7:29-31, Mark 1:14-20

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Concerning the Voice of the Lord

Psalm 29, Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · January 7th, 2018 · Duration 6:10



"Concerning the Voice of the Lord"

Psalm 29

Baptism of the Lord Sunday

(audio begins at about 21 seconds)

The voice of the Lord roars like thunder. The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon and shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the Lord flashes forth fire, and strips the forest bare of bark.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, every time the lectionary places in our path those words from todays psalm, I find myself longing for the voice of the Lord to sometimes speak as publicly and powerfully, down here on the ground, as it did, back there on the page.

But, for most of us, the voice of the Lord lands less loudly on our ears than it seems to have sounded in this mornings psalm, when the voice of the Lord was busy starting strong storms, toppling tall trees and felling full forests.

And, even when we do believe we have discerned the voice of God from all the other voices which clamor for our attention, how can any of us say, with certainty, whether what we have felt in our spirit is, indeed, the voice of the Lord, or only the echo chamber of our own desires?

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, this is the sort of thing I think about very often. Because I am a very Pentecostal kind of person, the kind of Christian who believes that the Spirit still speaks, I am almost always listening for the voice of the Lord. As a result, across the years, I have changed my mind concerning some of the most important ideas one can name; significant changes which I have made in response to what I believe, in the depth of my soul, to be the Holy Spirits leading; the voice of the Lord.

But, how can I know for certain? How can I know that what I have felt in my spirit is truly the voice of the Lord, showing me new light on old truth, and not just the echo chamber of my own desires?

Perhaps the best any of us can do in the face of such questions is to measure any nudge or whisper we believe to be the voice of the Lord against the standard Jesus gave us when Jesus said that the most important commandment of all is the one which tells us to love God with all that is in us, and, the second most important commandment is the one which calls us to love all other persons as we love ourselves.

If we make that our moral compass and north star; always only testing what we believe to be the voice of the Lord by that standard; the standard of love for God and love for others, then, while we may not always get the voice of the Lord right in ways that are perfect and flawless, we will never get it wrong in ways that are hurtful and careless.

Amen.

 

Concerning What Simeon Said to Mary

Luke 2:22-40, The First Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · December 31st, 2017 · Duration 18:39



"Concerning What Simeon Said to Mary"

Luke 2:22-40

The First Sunday of Christmastide

(audio begins at about 22 seconds)

And a sword will pierce your own soul, too. With those words from todays gospel lesson, Simeon placed a small cloud over a big day. In keeping with the traditions of Judaism, Mary and Joseph had brought the baby Jesus to the temple for his dedication, at which the prophet Simeon had said some beautiful words over Marys infant son. But, then, the tone took a turn when Simeon said that this child would grow up to cause conflict, and that, because Mary was Jesus mother, a sword would pierce her own soul, too.

All of which came to pass, just as Simeon said. Jesus did grow up to cause much conflict, and a sword of sorrow did pierce Marys soul when she suffered the sadness of watching her son die on the cross.

But, while Jesus death may have been the worst of the sword Simeon saw in Marys future, it wasnt the first of the sword Simeon saw. That may have come some years earlier, when, as an adolescent, Jesus left his parents when they took him to the temple, without telling them where he would be, about which Mary, once said she found him, said, We have been looking everywhere for you! Why have you treated us this way?; a very human moment for the very holy family, and, perhaps, a first small wound from the sword Simeon said would pierce Marys soul.

Then, of course, there was that time when Jesus was teaching his followers and someone said to Jesus, Rabbi, your mother and your brothers are outside. They need to speak to you, in response to which we expect Jesus to say to his audience, Excuse me. My family needs me. Ill be right back. But, as you will recall, rather than responding as we would expect, Jesus said, Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters? My family members are those who do the will of my Father in heaven. And, one imagines that the sword Simeon said would pierce Marys soul wounded her spirit a little more.

And, then, of course, came the cross. Jesus sat down with and stood up for the wrong people often enough that he made the right people nervous enough that they had him arrested, convicted and crucified, and the sword Simeon said would pierce Marys soul did, indeed; just as Simeon said it would.

Making Marys family, for her, a source, of both joy and pain; a quiet reminder, for all of us, of something many of us already know, which is that the family which loves us most dearly can also be the family which wounds us most deeply; what Simeon called a sword in the soul; what I, somewhere along the way, came to call helpless love.

We are helpless to manage the lives of those we love, which is as it should be. But, we are also helpless to distance ourselves from the pain which can sometimes come to, and from, those we love. And, no matter how hard we work at establishing healthy boundaries between our lives and the lives of those we love, boundaries in families are, as one wise soul once said, less like a never-changing brick wall than an ever-changing row of crepe myrtles.

None of which is news to any of us, and, all of which leaves many of us to do some of our most careful thinking, and most ardent praying, around the often complex questions of how best to love one another in families: When does supportive love become unhealthy enabling? On the other hand, when does tough love need to lighten up? When do difficult conversations need to be had, straight on? On the other hand, when is the difficult conversation which needs to be had not worth the risk of the rupture it might cause? And what about holding on and letting go? The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time for both, but it doesnt offer any guidance concerning how, or when, to do one or the other.

Families take almost as many different shapes in our world as they took in the Bible. But, one thing almost all families, of every shape and size, hold in common, is a perpetually repeated, never ending, convergence of joy and pain, simplicity and complexity; not unlike Marys life with her unusual son, Jesus; a life of joy, no doubt, but, joy bruised by the sword Simeon saw, which makes the holy family just like every ordinary family, in that, for all of us, the family which loves us most dearly can also be the family which wounds us most deeply.

Which is why it is so important for all of us, no matter what shape or size our family, to practice, in our families, the daily virtues of kindness, patience, respect, courtesy, gentleness and truthfulness; accepting those we love for who they are without requiring them to become who we think they should be, which means relinquishing whatever leverage we like to hold over those we love.

To practice, in our families, the daily virtues of kindness, patience, respect, courtesy, gentleness and truthfulness might also mean to choose to refuse to talk about our family members in their absence in any way other than we talk about them in their presence, and, to decide to renounce the relentless teasing which, in so many families, causes so much needless pain, and, to practice paying mindful attention to one another by looking at one another more frequently, carefully and intentionally than we look at the screens on our phones.

None of which will make our families perfect and painless, but, all of which will make our families more safe and healing; a strong and true gift of grace in a world which sometimes seems to grow less that way with each passing day.

Amen.

Concerning What Gabriel Said to Mary

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

Chuck Poole · December 24th, 2017 · Duration 6:05



"Concerning What Gabriel Said to Mary"

Luke 1:26-38

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

(audio begins at about 25 seconds)

Nothing will be impossible with God, said Gabriel to Mary in this mornings gospel lesson; a beautiful and hope-filled promise, but, one which, in my experience, does not always turn out to mean what we might like for it to mean.

We would like for Nothing will be impossible with God, to mean that every prayer will be answered, every disease cured, every tragedy averted, problem fixed, despair lifted, and relationship healed. We would like for Nothing will be impossible with God, to mean that God will always step in and stop things before they go too far and get too bad.

But, needless to say, for most of us, that is not the case. For most of us Nothing will be impossible with God most often turns out to mean that, with the comfort and courage of the spirit of God and the help and support of the people of God, nothing is impossible for us to face or bear or go through. We know that that is so because so many of us have already lived through things so painful that, if someone had told us ahead of time that 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 what we did not get to go around, and, wonder of wonders, sometimes we even emerge from our hardest struggles and greatest disappointments with a bigger spirit and a deeper soul; more kind and gentle, thoughtful and mindful, empathetic and understanding of the whole human family; almost as though the Christ who will, tonight, be born, again, in Bethlehem, is also being born, again, in us; the kind of transformation which can only be explained by the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, a transformation so beautiful that it makes true, down here on the ground, what Gabriel said to Mary, back there on the page, Nothing will be impossible with God.

Amen.

Concerning Joy

Psalm 126, The Third Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 17th, 2017 · Duration 13:45



"Concerning Joy"

Psalm 126

The Third Sunday of Advent

(audio begins at about 20 seconds)

Those who go out weeping will come home with shouts of joy. Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from todays psalm; a single, simple sentence which captures one of the most fundamental hopes of the Christian faith; the deep and abiding, strong and enduring, hope that, someday, God will wipe all the tears from every face, and joy, not pain, will have the last word. Or, as this mornings psalm says, Those who go out in tears will come home in joy.

All of which is beautiful to ponder, and hopeful to believe, but all of which must be spoken in ways that are so careful to be so truthful that they ring true, not only on the happiest ears in the room, but also on the saddest ears in the room. The rest of the world can lapse into a glib and easy way of speaking of joy if it chooses, but we are not the rest of the world. We are the church of Jesus Christ; so we dont get to wander off into that sunny side of the street optimism which races to embrace joy without first stopping to sit truthfully with the pain which is so deep for so many.

We live in a world where joyful things happen and terrible things happen, and, if any of those things can happen to anyone, all of those things can happen to everyone; not because God planned it or sent it or allowed it, but, because, as our Lord Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, The rain falls and the sun shines on the good and the bad the same.

And, in most lives there is plenty of both; rain and sun, laughter and tears, joy and pain. As Mrs. Soames said in Act III of Our Town, looking back on her life from the vantage point of heaven, My, wasnt life awful . . . And wonderful.

Truer words have rarely been spoken. Almost every life is both, awful and wonderful; some times a sea of joy, punctuated by islands of pain; other times a sea of pain, punctuated by islands of joy, a convergence of joy and pain which the poet Mary Oliver captured in her verse; We shake with joy, we shake with grief. What a time they have, those two, housed, as they are, in the same body.

Indeed, isnt it so? Earlier this week, I prayed my way, one more time, through our church roll, A to Z; Abell, Adams, Aden, Alexander, Aldridge, Allen . . . Wooley, Worley, Wyatt, Wylie, Yates, Yelverton, Zeigler. In most of those four hundred and something homes, there has been, and will be, plenty of both; pain and joy, because that is the way life is for all of us. We shake with joy and we shake with grief.

I cant think about all this during the sacred season of Advent without remembering my late friend Bobby McCord. Bobby, like myself, grew up in a decidedly non-liturgical religious world. So, the first time he walked into his church over in Georgia and saw an Advent wreath adorned with three purple candles and one pink, he declared, with no small degree of indignation, Can this church not afford a matching set of candles? Newly initiated into the ways of the liturgical church myself, I took Bobby aside and explained to him that three purples and a pink is a matching set of Advent candles; purple, in Advent as in Lent, a reminder of the bruising pain of repentance, and, pink, the liturgical color for joy; a circle of bruises, interrupted by a flash of joy, which Bobby and I agreed was, in fact, a perfectly matched set, not only for Advent, but, also, for life; some pain and some joy.

But, the last word will be joy. There will be no lack of sorrow and trouble, struggle and pain; not because God is that way, but because life is that way. And, we will have to have one another, and the family of faith, to face it, bear it and make it through. But, finally, ultimately, eternally, those who went out weeping will come home laughing.

As one wise soul once said, Things will not always hurt the way they do now. God will someday wipe every tear from all the faces of the whole human family, and every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea will sing glory to God, and hallelujah; all of us, together, warming our hands at the same flame; the stubborn, relentless, unquenchable, endless, eternal, everlasting light of joy.

Amen.

 

A Service of Lessons and Carols

A Service of Lessons and Carols, The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 10th, 2017 · Duration 1:01:11



"A Service of Lessons and Carols"

The Second Sunday of Advent

When God Comes Down

Isaiah 64:1-9, The First Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 3rd, 2017 · Duration 7:59



"When God Comes Down"

Isaiah 64:1-9

The First Sunday of Advent

A Sermon on the Subject of Judgment Day

Matthew 25:31-46, Christ the King Sunday

Chuck Poole · November 26th, 2017 · Duration 16:33



"A Sermon on the Subject of Judgment Day"

Matthew 25:31-46

Christ the King Sunday

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, this mornings gospel lesson from Matthew chapter twenty-five. And, every time it rolls back around, it calls to mind James Forbes memorable observation, Nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.

In todays gospel lesson, nobody gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the hungry, the sick, the stranger, the prisoner and the poor. All the people of

every nation are gathered before Christ the King, and those who have shown kindness to those who are most in need of help and hope go to eternal life, while those who havent go to eternal punishment; a salvation by works kind of judgment day, which lands at an odd angle on our saved by grace ears, but which actually fits the pattern of Matthews gospel, where judgment day is almost always more about how we lived, than what we believed. The gospel of John is the favorite gospel of popular evangelical Christianity because, in Johns gospel, what we believe about Jesus is the critical question on judgment day. However, in the other three gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke, judgment day is almost always more about how we live, than what we believe.

Not unlike the four gospels, the letters of Paul are also home to varied voices concerning the subject of judgment day. In Romans 10:9, for example, it is those who confess that Jesus is Lord and believe that God raised him from the dead who will be saved; putting the salvation decision in our hands. But, in Romans 11:32, Paul says that God included all in sin so that God could include all in mercy; putting judgment and salvation back in Gods hands. After which, I Timothy 4:10 strikes the ultimate compromise; God is the Savior of all people (Romans 11:32), especially those who believe. (Romans 10:9)

Then, there is the book of Revelation, where judgment day excludes, from the city of God, those who failed to be strong in the face of persecution. However, the gates to the city are left open, never to be closed, leaving open the possibility that those originally excluded might, eventually, get to come in, especially since Revelation 5:13 envisions an eternity in which all creatures and all people sing glory to God, together, forever; an outcome which Colossians 1:20 anticipates when it says that, in the cross of Christ, God was reconciling to Godself the whole creation. (Which is why every time I drive past that 100 foot tall cross in front of Berrys Catfish Buffet on Highway 49, I think to myself, Too small.) According to Colossians chapter one, what happened at the cross was so enormous, and so effective, that it reconciled, to God, the whole world, and every person in it.

All of which is to say that, when it comes to judgment day, the Bible speaks with varied voices; none of which should be taken literally, but all of which should be taken seriously.

Including this mornings gospel lesson, where no one gets into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor; a judgment day when our eternal destiny will hinge on whether or not we have shown kindness to those who are most in need of food and clothing, shelter and safety, hospitality and welcome; friendship, help and hope.

The point of which is that, to decide to follow Jesus is to be called to a life of kindness.

Or, as the poet William Blake said so many years ago, We are put on earth for a little space, to learn to bear the beams of love. That is our great calling in this life; to learn to let the love which has come down to us go out through us, in specific acts of kindness and compassion; feeding the hungry, visiting the prisoner, welcoming the stranger, and giving care to the sick, the sad, the left out, marginalized, ostracized, lonely and alone.

Just to be clear, if we are not living that way, if we are not living lives of welcome and friendship, kindness and compassion, generosity and hospitality, that will not cause us to go to hell on judgment day. To say that would be to take literally todays gospel lesson, which would be as wrong as taking literally John 3:16-18, John 14:6, or any other Bible passage which seems to say, with settled certainty, who will be let in, and who will be left out, on judgment day.

However, not taking this mornings gospel passage literally does not mean not taking it seriously.

To take todays gospel passage seriously is to know, at the deep down center of our soul, that every day is judgement day; each new day, another day when we get to decide, all over again, whether or not we will live lives of kindness and compassion; deciding, in each new situation, and conversation, whether we will, or will not, sit down with, and stand up for, the same people Jesus would sit down with, and stand up for, if Jesus was in that same situation or conversation. Each new day, another judgement day, when we get to decide, all over again, to live a life of courage and kindness; letting the love which has come down to us go out through us, to whoever is most in need of help and hope.

Which, according to this morning gospel lesson, is like being kind to Christ the King himself, who is reported, once to have said, Inasmuch as you showed kindness to the least of these, you showed kindness to me.

Amen.

Careful Speech About Money and the Church

Matthew 25:14-30, The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 19th, 2017 · Duration 15:01



"Careful Speech About Money and the Church"

Matthew 25:14-30

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Concerning the Last Day

Matthew 25:1-13, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 12th, 2017 · Duration 11:29



"Concerning the Last Day"

Matthew 25:1-13

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

(audio begins at 31 seconds)

As you may have noticed, all three scripture lessons we have read this morning have left us leaning forward; looking to the future, thinking about what Amos calls the Day of the Lord, what Paul describes as the second coming, and what Jesus points to as the last day.

In Amos fierce sermon, he tells the people of God that if they think that judgment day is going to be good for them and bad for everyone else, they are going to be as disappointed as someone who has escaped a lion, only to look up and see a bear!

Then, in Pauls letter to the Thessalonians, Paul does the opposite. Amos tells Israel they need to be more worried about the last day, but Paul tells the Thessalonians they need to be less worried about the last day. Dont worry about who will and wont be left behind, says Paul to the Thessalonians. Those who have died, and those who are alive, will all be gathered up to be together forever.

And, then, in todays lesson from Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about the last day, which he concludes with that urgent admonition for us to keep awake, and stay ready, because, while everyone knows that some day will be the last day, no one knows which day will be the last day.

The last day will come for all of us, because death will come for each of us. For some, death will come suddenly and tragically; for most, slowly and naturally. For some, death will come as an enemy to be resisted; for others, as a friend to be welcomed, because, while most of us will get to live until we have to die, some of us will have to live until we get to die.

But, whenever and however death comes, the one thing we know for certain is that it will. Some day will be the last day; which is why it is so important for us to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can; with that quiet sense of urgency to which Jesus calls us in this mornings parable, when he says, Stay awake and be alert, because you do not know when the last day will come.

Of course, careful speech requires us to say that to live each day as though that day will be the last day would be unsustainable. No one can maintain that level of urgency day after day. However, everyone can live each day as though some day will be the last day.

And, that alone is enough to make us new people. To say to yourself, on a regular basis, Some day is going to be the last day. And, as far as I know, Im not going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time, is to come alive, and to begin to live whatever is left of life as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.

To get up each day and decide to live that day as though some day is going to be the last day is like being born again, all over again, every day, until the last day, when the door will close on this life, and open to the next; over on the Other Side.

Amen.

 

Another Reformation

Matthew 22:34-46, The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 29th, 2017 · Duration 17:30



"Another Reformation"

Matthew 22:34-46

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Throughout the world today, churches large and small are marking the five hundredth anniversary of the Protestant Reformation; remembering that moment, five hundred years ago, this Tuesday, when, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther is reported to have nailed his ninety-five thoughts about the church to the door of a chapel in Wittenberg, Germany; launching a movement which eventually divided the church into Catholics and Protestants; the Protestant Reformation.

Five hundred years later, perhaps it is time for another reformation; a new reformation which might unite what the last reformation divided; a reformation grounded in, and rising from, this mornings gospel lesson, where Jesus, when asked which of the commandments in scripture mattered most, said, There are two commandments which matter more than any others, and all the others are to be interpreted in the light of those two, which are, Love the Lord your God with all that is in you and, Love your neighbor as yourself.

That is the ground from which another reformation might rise; a reformation which might unite what the last reformation divided, because all Christians, Catholic and Protestant, who are walking in the Holy Spirit, want nothing more than for what mattered most to Jesus to matter most to us. And, according to this mornings gospel lesson, what mattered most to Jesus is that we love God with all that is in us, and love others as we love ourselves.

That is the ground from which the next reformation might rise; a reformation which is already uniting Catholics and Protestants. Indeed, just this morning, I began this Reformation Sunday by calling Father Mike OBrien to express my deep gratitude for the Catholic church. Where would we be without Mother Teresa, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, Pope Francis, and countless other Catholic spiritual guides and friends?

And, truthful speech requires me to say that I believe that this reformation, the new one, rising from love for God and love for neighbor, might ultimately unite, not only Catholics and Protestants, within Christianity, but, also, people of other faiths, beyond Christianity.

When E. Stanley Jones, the great evangelical Christian missionary, said that Gandhi, a Hindu, embodied more of the spirit of Jesus than any Christian he had ever met, it was because Gandhi was living a life of love for God and love for neighbor. That is why, when you are in the presence of people of other faiths who are living lives of love and kindness, you feel a more intimate spiritual connection, to them, than you feel to harsh, hard, graceless people of your own faith; because all persons who are living lives of love for God and love for others are bound to one another by the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit recognizes no denomination or religion, but flows into, and out through, all souls who live to embody the love of God.

In fact, I am so optimistic that a new reformation might be ready to rise from love for God and love for neighbor, that, this Tuesday, October 31, 2017, on the five hundredth anniversary of Luthers door nail, I am going to find some doors in Jackson, Mississippi, where groups, ministries and congregations are daily striving to embody love for God and love for neighbor, and nail to as many of those doors as I can reach (or, attach to those doors with that kind of tape that wont peel paint) the two commandments which Jesus said matter most; Love God with all that is in you, and Love your neighbor as yourself, along with a word of thanksgiving for their ministry, because I believe that, five hundred years after the first reformation, another reformation, built on nothing but gratitude and love, might be ready to rise.

Needless to say, it isnt that simple. We all know how complex and complicated loving the world can become. As Stanley Hauerwas once wrote, To be a Christian is to be called to a life of love, but that calling is a lifelong task which requires our willingness to be surprised by what love turns out to be.

But, difficult or not, this is the life for which God is redeeming us, and to which the Holy Spirit is beckoning us; an up-to-God, out-to-others, simultaneously vertical and horizontal, cross-shaped life of love for God and love for others; the life Jesus himself said matters most, loving God with all that is in us, and loving all others as we love our own selves; the ground from which the next reformation is ready to rise.

Amen.

 

 

All That We Can See of God

Exodus 33:12-23, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 22nd, 2017 · Duration 17:54



"All That We Can See of God"

Exodus 33:12-23

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

And the Lord said to Moses, I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand , and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, every time the lectionary places, in our path, those words from the book of Exodus, they seem to me to be a parable of our life with God, because, like Moses in this mornings lesson, we never get to see as much of God as we want to see.

Early in todays passage, Moses asks to see Gods glory and Gods face, to which God replies, You can see my goodness, but not my glory, my back, but not my face.

And, just to be sure, God tells Moses to hide behind a rock while God passes by. And, as a further precaution against Moses seeing too much of God, God says to Moses, I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then, after I have passed by, I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but not my face; leaving Moses able only to see where God had been after God had passed on by; a moment from Moses life with God which is a parable of our life with God.

Like Moses, most of what we can see of God is only afterwards; where God has been. Or, as one wise soul once said, Life has to be lived forward, and understood backward.

The famous novelist, Pat Conroy, once said, I sometimes think I should write a letter to the boy I once was. We should all probably do the same. And, if we ever do take the time to write a letter to the child we once were, going back over all that has come into our lives since we were nine or ten, we will, in all likelihood, see many moments when God was with us in ways we couldnt see then, but can see now.

Sometimes, life works out that way, and, years and years later, we can see where God has been leading, guiding and protecting us in ways which, at the time, we simply could not see. Like Moses, we couldnt see Gods face in the moment, but now, like Moses, we can see Gods back. Like Moses, we can see where God has been; where God has been protecting us when we did not even know we needed protecting.

Sometimes. But not always. When we are tempted to say, in the church, that we will someday be able to look back and see how everything was part of Gods plan, we must exercise much restraint and great word care, because, in those moments, it is too easy to say too much. To say that, in retrospect, we will someday see that everything was a part of Gods plan would require us, for example, to say that, in retrospect, the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Charleston, Orlando and Sandy Hook will someday be revealed to be part of Gods plan, along with the thousands of kidnappings which feed the horrors of human trafficking, as well as the slaughter of six million Jews in the Holocaust.

No. Lets be clear; to suggest, as much popular Christianity does, that, eventually, we will see that everything was pre-ordained by God and, ultimately, part of Gods plan, sacrifices too much of the love and goodness of God on the altar of the sovereignty and control of God. (As one wise soul once observed; Gods friends say things about God that even Gods enemies wouldnt say.)

The truth is, things happen which are not Gods will or Gods plan, and, when they happen, as William Sloane Coffin once said, Of all hearts, Gods heart is most broken.

And, I would add, in those moments, not only is Gods heart most broken, Gods help is most near. When we look back across our lives, at our own worst moments and greatest sorrows, we, like Moses, can see where God has been; where God has been helping us through what we were not protected from.

As the poet Mary Oliver so beautifully says, That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer, but I did not die. Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends.

Indeed. Isnt it so for all of us? We can all look back on times we thought would absolutely do us in. But, here we are, all these years later, having gone through what we would have sworn we could not survive.

And, like Moses, and Mary Oliver, looking back, we can see where God was. God was in the faces and voices of friends, the community of support which showed up and stayed near. Looking back, that is what we can see; the back of God, in the faces of the people of God.

Perhaps, for us, that is what the church is; what todays lesson from the book of Exodus called the back of God; the part of God we can always see afterwards; the part of God that carried us through what we did not get to go around.

Amen.

 

God is God

Exodus 32:1-14, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 15th, 2017 · Duration 16:09



"God is God"

Exodus 32:1-14

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

(Begins at 25 seconds)

The Lord said to Moses, Now leave me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against my people. But Moses said, O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people? Why should the Egyptians say, Their God brought them out of Egypt to kill them? Turn from your wrath and change your mind. And God changed Gods mind.

With those words, this mornings lesson from the book of Exodus lets us listen in as Moses persuades God to change Gods mind about the punishment God had settled on for Gods people, partly by reminding God that if God went forward with Gods plan against Gods people, it would damage Gods reputation. Just think what the Egyptians would say about you, said Moses to God, after which the last verse of todays passage says, So God changed Gods mind; a conversation between Moses and God which is an example of anthropopathism; the practice of assigning human feelings to God.

A close cousin to anthropomorphism, which assigns human form to God (the hands of God, for example) anthropopathism assigns human feelings to God; something todays lesson from Exodus does when it says that God is so angry that God is going to destroy Gods people, until Moses changes Gods mind.

All of which makes God sound very human; something which, if we are going to talk about God at all, is inevitable, because we dont really have any other way of speaking of God, than to assign to God human feelings and emotions.

For example, I often find myself quoting William Sloane Coffins powerful observation that, whenever a young person dies in a tragic way, Of all hearts, Gods heart is most broken; which is, obviously, a case of assigning a human emotion, broken-heartedness, to God.

Or, take the widely held idea that the larger the number of people who are praying for someone, the more likely God is to answer the prayer. That is an idea which is embraced by many very wonderful people, but it assumes that God is so human that God, like us, is more likely to be swayed by many voices than a few.

Or, take the Christian doctrine which teaches that Jesus had to die on the cross because God could not forgive sin unless a perfect sacrifice was offered to God. Think of how human that makes God. (And, not even the best of being human, either. I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I know many humans who have forgiven those who have sinned against them without requiring, or even wanting, anyone to sacrifice anything.)

The truth is, throughout the Bible, and in every religion, including ours, God gets assigned all sorts of human motives and emotions. That sort of anthropopathizing is inevitable. But, while it is inevitable that we will speak of God in human terms and assign to God human motives and emotions, we need to be careful, lest we end up with a God of our own creation; a God who thinks what we think, and believes what we believe.

Which includes, of course, being careful always to remember that God is not a Christian. It is hard for us to resist the temptation to create God in our image by enlisting God on our side. But, the truth is, to say that God is a Christian would be not only to anthropopathize God, but to anthropobaptize God. Just as God is not a Muslim, Hindu or Jew, God is not a Christian. God is God.

But we are Christians, and because we are Christians, we believe that the clearest witness we have concerning the true nature of God comes from the life of our Lord Jesus, who told us, in one place, that every commandment God ever gave could be summed up in a single sentence, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and, in another place, that nothing matters more to God than that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love others as we love ourselves; all of which converges to say that God is love, and our creed is kindness.

God is God, and the God to whom we give our lives is love, and the creed by which we live our lives is kindness.

Amen.

A Sermon on Psalm Nineteen

Psalm 19:1-14, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 8th, 2017 · Duration 12:38



"A Sermon on Psalm Nineteen"

Psalm 19:1-14

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I pray some version of that prayer, from psalm nineteen, more than once a day, almost every day.

Almost every morning, before the day begins, I pray to live, throughout the day, a life of careful speech. Then, from time to time, throughout the day, especially before meetings and conversations, I pray to have good thoughts and good words; a smaller, simpler version of the last verse of todays psalm, Let the words of our mouths and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.

But, while I cannot speak for you, as for me, all that praying notwithstanding, I dont think Ive ever yet made it all the way through a full day, thinking thoughts , and saying words, all of which meet the standard, and pass the test, of the final verse of psalm nineteen, May the words of my mouth and the thoughts in my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

Words that would be acceptable to God would be words that are true and clear, while also being gentle and kind; words that dont run from confrontation, but, rather, strive to be as straight as possible, while also being as thoughtful as possible; words that will not exaggerate anything in order to close a deal, gain an advantage, make a point or win an argument.

Those are the kinds of thoughts and words which meet the standard of the psalmist prayer for the words of our mouths and the thoughts of our hearts to be acceptable in the sight of God; the kinds of thoughts and words which are sensitive to, and respectful of, those who are in any minority which is likely to be ostracized, stigmatized, marginalized, bullied or teased because they are different from the comfortable majority; the kind of thoughtful, mindful speech which is the particular responsibility and special obligation of those of us who, like myself, were born on the comfortable side of every human difference you can name.

(The kind of speech which, for about the past thirty years, has come to be called, by some in popular culture, politically correct speech, but, which is, in fact, biblically correct speech, gospel correct speech, living up to your baptism correct speech.)

That is the kind of mindful, thoughtful, prayerful, careful speech to which we are called as children of the most high God and followers of Jesus. But, it isnt easy for us to unlearn and set aside all the less thoughtful strategies and tactics by which we have learned to make it through life; all the shading and spinning, the exaggeration and sarcasm, the passive-aggressive talking about people in their absence in ways we would never talk about them in their presence. It isnt easy or simple to unclutter our thinking and speaking, to unlearn and set aside all of that.

In her best-selling memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert tells about going on a spiritual retreat to an isolated island called Gili Meno. Weary of years of trying and failing to become a more deeply spiritual person, Gilbert began her twenty-day retreat by saying, I am going to close my mouth, and I am not going to open it until something inside me has changed.

Which is exactly the sort of thing many of us need to do, and few of us can do. Who of us can leave everything behind for twenty days, close our mouth, and not open it until something inside us has changed? Rather, we have to try to change while going to work and school each day, surrounded by people who expect us to continue to be exactly as we always have been. We dont get to escape to a spiritual retreat to change. Rather, we have to try to change while going to the same breakroom or boardroom, classroom or locker room, Facebook and Twitter where everyone expects us to continue to be who we always have been, while we are trying to change; praying, with the psalmist, May the words of my mouth and the thoughts in my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.

But, what else can we do? What else can we do but pray each day, all through the day, to become a person of good thoughts and good words; reaching, each day, for an unfailingly clear and careful, gentle and true, way of speaking which we will never stop wanting until it is, at last, ours. Amen.



 

On Working Out Our Salvation

Philippians 2:1-13, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 1st, 2017 · Duration 8:06



"On Working Out Our Salvation"

Philippians 2:1-13

The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Work out your own salvation, for it is God who is at work in you.

Few words in all the Bible capture more clearly, than those, the simultaneously vertical and horizontal life which is ours to live; God, at work in us is the vertical dimension of our lives; the love of God coming down to us. And us, working out our salvation, is the horizontal dimension of our lives; the love of God going out through us.

Work out your own salvation, for God is at work in you, is the simultaneously vertical, horizontal story of our lives; the Spirit of God coming down to us and going out through us; God putting kindness and courage in us, and, us, working that kindness and courage out in our daily lives; the love and goodness of God coming down to us and going out through us.

To work out our own salvation is, in the words of the poet, Mary Oliver, To wake, each morning, with thirst for the goodness we do not yet have, and, then, to work toward that goodness we do not yet have by making intentional decisions about how we will live and what we will say; deciding to live up to our baptism by actually changing what we text, e-mail and post on Facebook; making intentional decisions to actually get into our car, turn the key and literally go stand up for the same people Jesus would stand up for, if Jesus was here, by actually standing up against what Jesus would stand up against, if Jesus was here; praying, each morning, to live a life of kindness and courage, each day, until making that prayer our life eventually makes our life that prayer.

That is working out our salvation; what Evelyn Underhill once called, Reaching for what we do not have by the faithful practice of what we do have. Because, while we may not yet have the goodness for which we thirst, we can practice wanting it until, more and more, we do eventually have it; what Paul called, Working out our own salvation with fear and trembling.

But, not on our own, or all alone, because, while we are working out our salvation, God is working in our lives; giving us the wind of the Spirit to help us to be better and stronger than ever we could be apart from the Spirit of God, which is endlessly, relentlessly coming down to us and going out through us; the Spirit which comes down to us from God going out through us to others; grace in, grace out; God working salvation in us, us working salvation out; the simultaneously vertical and horizontal life; a life which is shaped like a cross, because it is being formed by the cross.

Amen.

On Not Being Envious Because God Is Generous

Matthew 20:1-16, The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 24th, 2017 · Duration 12:55



"On Not Being Envious Because God Is Generous"

Matthew 20:1-16

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A Sermon on the Subject of Forgiveness

Matthew 18:21-35, The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 17th, 2017 · Duration 17:20



"A Sermon on the Subject of Forgiveness"

Matthew 18:21-35

The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Then Peter came and said to Jesus, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to Peter, Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from todays gospel lesson. And, every time they roll back around, they remind us of the spirit of forgiveness which followers of Jesus are called to embody; the kind of forgiveness which never keeps score but always gives grace; the grace which has come down to us, from God, going out through us, to others, including those who have wronged us.

To embody that kind of forgiveness is easier for some than it is for others. In my own experience, I have so rarely been wronged that forgiveness has almost always come easy to me, sort of like the man in the novel Gilead, who said, If someone knocked me down the stairs, I would have worked out the theology for forgiving them before I hit the bottom. But, that may say more about the ease of my life than the depth of my faith. Maybe my capacity for forgiveness has never really been tested, because I have so rarely been wronged.

Which, needless to say, is not the case for everyone, which is why the church must always take great care to speak as carefully and truthfully as we can concerning the complexity of forgiveness.

On the one hand, we are called to forgive others as fully and freely as God has forgiven us. That is clearly the point of the parable in this mornings gospel lesson. On the other hand, for those who have been the victims of life-changing violence or injustice, there are clear judgments which must be made before honest forgiveness can be given, because, if clear judgment is never made about violence, injustice, oppression, deception, manipulation, discrimination and other such sin, then responsibility is never taken, amends are never made and grace becomes a license for those who do the worst to get away with the most.

It is that convergence of grace, on the one hand, and judgment, on the other, which can sometimes make forgiveness one of the most complex of all the spiritual disciplines, especially for those who have the most to forgive.

Though I speak as one who, so far, has had very little to forgive, I have found, in my limited experience, that, when it comes to forgiveness, one thing which helps, in addition to walking in the Spirit and living a life of daily prayer, is the passing of time.

Please do not hear me saying that time heals all wounds. It does not. However, sometimes, with the passing of time, what once felt like a wound becomes something more like a sadness, and, once that happens, in my experience, questions about forgiving or not forgiving cease to matter. On those occasions when we think about whatever it was that happened that hurt us, it may make us feel sad, but questions about forgiveness, which were once so loud and large, have somehow disappeared into what I call the gray layer of life; that quiet, gray, grief layer of life where all of our sadnesses reside; whatever we once needed to forgive, but couldnt, now somewhere down there in the gray layer; a kind of letting go that can bring healing to our spirit.

Of course, even to use the phrase letting go returns us to the complexity of forgiveness, because, for those who have been wronged, it can sometimes seem too soon for letting go. (Not to mention the fact that not everyone wants to let go of their wound, because our wounds give us power over those who wounded us, and that kind of leverage can be hard to give up.)

And, as if all that complexity wasnt complex enough, there is the inescapable fact that, over the course of a lifetime, we will all find ourselves on both sides of the forgiveness equation; sometimes needing to forgive and sometimes needing to be forgiven.

Or, as the king said to the servant, in this mornings gospel lesson, After all I forgave you, you could not forgive someone else?, a gentle reminder, for us all, that, not only have we all been wronged somewhere along the way, but, somewhere along the way, we have all also done wrong; which means that we all need both to be forgiven and to forgive; to breathe in grace, and breathe out grace; to breathe in mercy and breathe out mercy.

Needless to say, it isnt that simple. The life of forgiveness to which we are called is infinitely more complex than a simple breathing exercise. And yet, the truth is, breathing in and breathing out is how we live through lifes most painful moments and difficult conflicts; breathing in healing love from God and breathing out healing love to others, breath by breath, and day by day, until that glad day comes when all the wrong which has been done to us, and all the wrong which has been done by us, will, at last, be lost in the bottomless well of the grace of God; before whom, as Paul said, in this mornings epistle passage, we shall all someday stand to give an account for our own lives.

Amen.

 

A Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

Romans 13:8-14, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · September 10th, 2017 · Duration 14:10



A Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

Romans 13:8-14

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

From Solid Rock to Stumbling Block

Matthew 16:21-28, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 3rd, 2017 · Duration 6:06



"From Solid Rock to Stumbling Block"

Matthew 16:21-28

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Then Jesus turned, and said to Peter, Get behind me, Satan. You are a stumbling block to me.

With those words from this mornings gospel lesson, Peter took a fast, far fall. In last Sundays gospel passage, Jesus declared Peter the rock on which the whole church would be built. Now, just seven days later, Peters approval ratings have plunged all the way from solid rock to stumbling block.

Which, needless to say, is not the only time this sort of thing happened in Peters life. Most notably, there was all that pain on the last night of Holy Week, when Peter promised to support Jesus to the end, only to abandon Jesus at the end. Not to mention Acts chapter eleven, where Peter stood up, with courage, for the full inclusion of Gentiles in the church, only to back down, under pressure, in Galatians chapter two.

All of which makes all of us feel nothing but empathy for Peter, because we all know how it feels to fail.

None of us are strangers to the complexity of the human condition. The wisest people we know have blind spots and limits, and the brightest and best of people sometimes make the poorest and worst of choices. None of which surprises us, because we all know that we all have our own subterranean fault lines and flaws running beneath the surface of our soul.

Perhaps that is why so many love, so deeply, that sentence at the center of the burial benediction from the Book of Common Prayer; Acknowledge, we humbly beseech thee, a sheep of thine own fold, a lamb of thine own flock, a sinner of thine own redeeming.

Sheep of Gods own fold. Lambs of Gods own flock. Sinners of Gods own redeeming. Indeed, arent we all, all of the above? Amen.

 

Binding and Loosing

Matthew 16:13-20, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 27th, 2017 · Duration 15:25



Binding and Loosing

Matthew 16:13-20

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

The Deeper We Go, The Wider We Grow

Matthew 15:21-28, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 20th, 2017 · Duration 10:09



"The Deeper We Go, The Wider We Grow"

Matthew 15:21-28

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Of all the verses which Sasha, Betsy, Meili Grace, Walker, Anders and Madyson might someday read, from those shiny new Bibles we just gave them, few could be more bewildering than those we read, this morning, from that corner of Matthews gospel where Jesus refuses to help a Gentile for no other reason than that she is a Gentile; placing her beyond the reach of his responsibility when he says, in response to her plea for help, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

Because that sentence sounds so far from the spirit of Jesus, Bible commentators work overtime in their efforts to soften the blow of Jesus words; usually by speculating that, when Jesus refused to help the Gentile woman simply because she was a Gentile, Jesus was only kidding, or, that, perhaps, he was just testing the womans resolve by first saying, No, while planning, all along, to say, Yes.

None of which sounds much like Jesus, to me; teasing and testing someone in need of help and hope. And, all of which, though well intentioned, diminishes the power of one of the most significant moments in the entire New Testament; a moment when we actually get to watch while Jesus changes his mind; redrawing the circle of his welcome, to say Yes to someone to whom he first said No.

Of course, it may be helpful to recall that, for the writer of the gospel of Matthew, this story of Jesus, a Jew, being slow to welcome a Gentile stranger into his circle of care, may have been a parable of what was happening in the congregation for which the gospel of Matthew was written. Most of the best scholarship we have tells us that Matthew was probably written sometime in the seventies or eighties A.D., for a community of faith, probably in Antioch, which had begun as a mostly Jewish congregation, and now was struggling to embrace Gentile strangers; which is exactly what we see happening in this mornings gospel lesson, where the ultimate Jew, Jesus, at first says No to the Gentile stranger, but, then, says Yes to the same person to whom he once said No; not unlike Matthews once predominantly Jewish congregation, eventually saying Yes to their own Gentile strangers, after first saying No to them for no other reason than how, and who, they were born.

Which, though it pains us to say so, is, apparently, what Jesus did at the beginning of this mornings gospel lesson. It may be nearly impossible for us to say out loud, but, according to the words on the page, when Jesus said No to the woman in this mornings gospel lesson, he said No to her because she was a Gentile; because of how, and who, she was born.

But then, if the story means what the story says, Jesus changed his mind; redrawing the circle of his welcome to take in this Gentile, letting down his hard guard to take in his new friend; a powerful picture for us all of the way life moves, and changes, when we are living and walking, praying and thinking, in the Spirit of Jesus.

My sisters and brothers, there is a reason why the people in our lives who are walking most consistently in the Spirit of Jesus, are also the people in our lives whose circle of welcome, friendship and love is the most inclusive, and that reason is that when we are living and walking, praying and thinking in the Spirit of Jesus, the arc of the trajectory of our life will always, and ever, be moving outward.

There are many things about this world, and the next, which I do not know, but this one thing I do know with utter and absolute certainty: Walking in the Spirit of Jesus will keep us always drawing a wider circle of love and welcome, because, when it comes to walking with Jesus, the deeper we go, the wider we grow.

Amen.

 

A Sermon on the Subject of the Church

Matthew 14:22-32,The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 13th, 2017 · Duration 13:49



"A Sermon on the Subject of the Church"

Matthew 14:22-32

The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

A Sermon on the Subject of God

Psalm 145: 8-9, 14-21, The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 6th, 2017 · Duration 3:33



"A Sermon on the Subject of God"

Psalm 145: 8-9, 14-21

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

According to this mornings order of worship, what comes next is A Sermon on the Subject of God, which sounds like the sort of sermon which certainly could be long . . . But which probably should be short.

After all, how much can any of us say, with certainty, concerning the God we have always loved, but never seen?

For centuries, we have made an industry out of saying more than we know about God, doing exactly what Paul encouraged us not to do when Paul said, in his letter to the Romans, Do not claim to be wiser than you are.

Perhaps the most and best we can say, concerning the subject of God, we have already heard this morning, in that sentence from the psalm, which says, The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, holding up all who are falling, and raising up all who are bowed down.

All of which is just a more beautiful, lyrical way of saying that God is with us, not away from us; for us, not against us.

The most truth we can say about God is the first truth we learned about God, and the last truth we will ever know about God: God is with us, and God is for us.

Amen.

A Sermon On the Subject of Prayer

Romans 8:26-39, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 30th, 2017 · Duration 11:53



"A Sermon On the Subject of Prayer"

Romans 8:26-39

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

With those words, this mornings epistle lesson reminds us how little we know about how to pray. (A particularly sobering thought, given the fact that, a few moments ago, when Lesley asked who would help Cy and Natalie teach Stetson to pray, we all said we would, despite the fact that, according to Paul, we dont really know how to ourselves!)

When it comes to prayer, all we can do is tell God the truth; the truth about what we want and need, what we are thankful for and worried about, what we regret and what we hope, what we love and what we hate, our greatest dreams and deepest fears, and, then, trust the Holy Spirit to finish saying what we could not capture with our praying, because, as Paul said in this mornings epistle lesson, We do not know how to pray, but the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.

But, while it is true that we dont know how to pray, it is also true that we dont know how not to pray.

We cant not pray. Prayer is our life. Prayer is how we hope while were waiting, and how we wait while were hoping. Prayer is not another religious obligation to add to our already over burdened lives; prayer is our life. Its how we hope while were waiting and how we wait while were hoping. Prayer is how we hold one another in our hearts across distance and time; our prayers becoming Gods arms; holding one another up, holding one another near.

I was reading, this week, one of my favorite books, by one of my favorite preachers, Barbara Brown Taylors An Altar in the World, when I came across a sentence in which Reverend Taylor said, There are probably people of such faith that they pray without ever thinking about results, but I do not know any of them. When I read that, I thought to myself, I do. I know people who have traveled the path to depth with God so far for so long that they pray all the time, without ever thinking of results. They dont think of prayer as succeeding or failing, working or not working, answered or unanswered, because they no longer think of prayer as a transaction in which God gives us what we want if we give God what God wants. Rather, they just pray all the time because they cant not. Its their life; its been what they do for so long that it has become who they are.

And then, what might happen next is truly amazing. After we live long enough with prayer being our life, our life may, eventually, become a prayer.

If we make prayer our life for long enough, someday our life may become a prayer. Our every response to every person, situation, success, failure, sorrow, challenge, frustration, betrayal, insult, victory, defeat, change and struggle might become so mindful and thoughtful, clear and true that it can only be described as a prayer; our whole, entire life, a prayer.

What started out as our decision to make prayer our life, may, eventually, lead to our life becoming a prayer.

Amen.

 

A Sermon On the Subject of Judgment

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 23rd, 2017 · Duration 16:17



"A Sermon On the Subject of Judgment"

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

A Sermon On the Subject of the Bible

Psalm 119:105-112, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 16th, 2017 · Duration 15:52



"A Sermon On the Subject of the Bible"

Psalm 119:105-112

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

 

All Conversions are Approximate

Romans 7:15-25, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 9th, 2017 · Duration 13:13



"All Conversions are Approximate"

Romans 7:15-25

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

I do not understand my own actions . . . I do not do the good I want, but the wrong I do not want is what I do.

Bible scholars have long debated whether those words from this mornings epistle passage describe Pauls life before, or after, his baptism; some saying that it seems unlikely that, at the time of the writing of Romans, Paul would still be struggling to do the right thing, so long after his conversion and baptism.

But, what Paul describes here sounds, to me, like the life of every baptized person I have ever known; perpetually longing for a deeper goodness we do not yet have, reaching, day after day, for a deeper life with God.

My phrase for that lifelong struggle is holy discontentment; discontentment, not with what we have, but with who we are; not with where we live or what we drive, but with what we say and how we act; the kind of discontentment Paul describes when he says, I do not understand my own self. I do not do what I want, and I do what I dont want; the biblical equivalent of the poet Mary Olivers powerful sentence, Another morning, and I wake, with thirst, for the goodness I do not have.

We keep striving for that deeper goodness we do not yet have, not because we think we must do better in order to be loved by God, and not because we think a more centered, thoughtful, prayerful life will win us a reward, or spare us a punishment. Rather, we, with Paul, long to live mindful, thoughtful, centered lives of goodness, kindness and righteousness because, as far as we know, this is the only life we are ever going to have, and we want to live it as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.

If we were going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time, perhaps it wouldnt matter so much how we live this life. But, as far as we know, this life is the one and only life we are ever going to have in this world, which is why we keep striving for a deeper life with God, because we dont want to waste the one and only life we are ever going to have being reckless and careless, hard and harsh, narrow and graceless, glib and shallow, deceptive and manipulative, sarcastic and unkind.

No one wants to spend their one and only life that way. What we want is what Paul wanted in this mornings epistle passage; to get on, and stay on, the path to depth; the path to a deeper life with God, a thoughtful, prayerful, mindful, gentle life of courage, compassion, theological depth and careful, truthful speech.

But, like Paul in todays passage, our deep desire for genuine righteousness notwithstanding, we often fail. Like Paul, we want to live lives of unfailing goodness and truth, but we often end up doing what we dont want to do, and failing to do what we do want to do, after which comes the inevitable self-loathing and self-doubt, until, in our frustration with our own selves we say, with Paul, O wretched soul that I am, who will deliver me from this complex, complicated, contradiction of a life I am living?

One answer to that holy discontentment is found in Evelyn Underhills memorable sentence, We must reach for what we do not have by the faithful practice of what we do have. We reach for the unfailingly thoughtful, mindful, prayerful, life we do not have by the faithful practice of our desire to be that way. And, the more we practice being thoughtful, mindful, prayerful, truthful, gentle, generous, agendaless and kind, the better we get at it until, eventually, we begin to become more that way than we once were.

It doesnt happen all at once, or once and for all. But, little by little, step by step, we can actually go further and further on the path to depth; reaching for the unfailing goodness we do not have by the faithful practice of the spiritual longing we do have.

All of which calls to mind, for me, an article I once read about a minister in an Episcopal church in London, who, before entering the ministry, had served as an auctioneer at Sothebys. Near the end of the article, the reporter who was interviewing the auctioneer-turned-pastor asked if he had noticed any similarities between the auction house and the church, to which the minister replied, Actually, there is one way in which they are the same: Back in the pre-computer days when I worked at Sothebys, he said, we would write, each day, on a big chalkboard, the currency exchange rates; British pounds to American dollars, and other conversion rates relevant to our customers. However, since those currency conversion rates would sometimes change during the day, we would always write across the bottom of the board, ALL CONVERSIONS ARE APPROXIMATE. Which, he concluded, I have found to be true, as well, in the church.

Indeed, all conversions are approximate; never complete or perfect, a life-long journey of falling down and getting up, reaching for what we do not have by the faithful practice of the desire for true holiness that we do have; never satisfied with who we are, always longing for, and reaching for, a deeper life with God.

Amen.

 

The Lord Will Provide

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

Chuck Poole · July 2nd, 2017 · Duration 5:47



"The Lord Will Provide"

Genesis 22:1-14

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

So Abraham named that place, The Lord will provide. With those words from the last line of this mornings Old Testament lesson, Abraham gave a beautiful name to a terrible spot; naming the place of the most frightening crisis of his life, The Lord will provide.

And, while I cannot speak for you, I can say that, in my own experience, I have found what Abraham said, concerning his own life, to be true as well, for myself, and many others; in the darkest and most difficult of lifes struggles and battles, the Lord does provide.

Which is not to say that God will always step in at the last minute with a miraculous rescue, as God did in this mornings lesson from the book of Genesis. However, while God does not always give us the protection we want, God does give us the support we need; the strength to keep going, the courage to do the next right thing, the people we need to comfort us, support us, and keep us on our feet until we can make it through what we did not get to go around.

The Lord does, indeed, provide; if not rescue, then courage, if not healing and relief, then new strength for each new day; the strength we need to live into, through and beyond, struggles so difficult that, if someone had told us ahead of time we were going to have to face, we would have sworn we would never make it through.

All of which calls to mind that unforgettable sentence of William Sloane Coffins, who, in his first sermon after the tragic death of his son, said, This time, God gave us minimum protection, and maximum support.

Which is, so often, the case. So often, what we get in this life is not protection from sorrow, but support in sorrow; the strength, the courage, and the people we need to help us go through what we did not get to go around; all gifts from God, who, as Abraham said, does provide; if not what we hoped to have, then, what we have to have to see us through the wonderful thing God might have done, but did not do.

Either way, whether it is the protection we hoped to have, or the support we have to have, thanks be to God, the Lord does provide.

Amen.

 

Fill the Space with Grace

Matthew 10:24-39, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 25th, 2017 · Duration 13:02



"Fill the Space with Grace"

Matthew 10:24-39

The Third Sunday after Pentecost

What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, that admonition from this mornings gospel lesson is one I have always been slow to keep; slow to say, in the light, what the Holy Spirit has whispered, in the dark; hesitant to say, out loud, what I know, down deep, is true; hearing the Spirits whisper, but, then, instead of hauling it to the housetop, burying it in the basement.

Which isnt always an altogether bad thing. To the contrary, when we see what we believe to be new light on old truth, it is wise to sit with it prayerfully, for a while, and test it against the central standard which Jesus gave us when Jesus said that what matters most is love for God and love for others, and all other ideas must be measured against that single central standard. (If what we think we have heard in a whisper from the Spirit passes that test, and embodies, in deep, wide ways, love for God and love for all other persons, then, it might be new light. If not, it is more likely just a dispatch from the echo chamber of our own desires and opinions.)

But, across my adult life, I have been slow to say out loud what I know deep down, less out of wise discernment than anxious fear; the fear that new light on old truth, clearly, plainly spoken, might bring what Jesus called, in this mornings gospel lesson, not peace, but a sword; placing space between myself and my loved ones or friends who have not seen the same light or heard the same whisper.

I believe that many of us struggle with similar tensions in our spiritual lives; we see new light on old truth, and, then, we dont know how to embrace that new light while also holding onto what we have always thought, and been taught, so we spend our lives not saying, out loud, what, deep down, we know to be true. Instead, we just bury it, and pretend we didnt hear that whisper of the Spirit, because to speak the truth about what we have come to believe might create space between ourselves and those whose approval or blessing we crave.

I thought about all this a lot last week, as I sat with my mother in this fragile chapter of her life. In fact, one day, I slipped away for a while and went to the church where I grew up, and was ordained to be a minister; Log Cabin Baptist Church on Napier Avenue in Macon, Georgia. Finding an unlocked door, I slipped into the empty sanctuary and made my way up to the pulpit where I preached my first sermon. Looking out on that familiar old room, I could still see those dear and good people who first formed my life for God and the gospel; all of whom I yet love, but, very few, if any, of whom, would embrace the truth about people, God, the Bible and life which I have come to believe.

In fact, lets be honest; saying in the light what I have heard in the dark does, in some way, create the kind of division Jesus said it would in this mornings gospel lesson; it creates a space between myself and my original family of faith; a wide space of real difference, but, a space full of nothing but love and grace. Standing in that sanctuary, surrounded by the ghosts of all those saints who first formed my life for God and the gospel, I could feel the space which had grown between us. But, in no way, did it come between us. It was just a space filled with grace.

I am a flawed and limited sinner; still in the process of being redeemed. But, in this one area of life, I can encourage you to do as I do: Listen for the whisper of the Spirit, say in the light what you have heard in the dark, and, if following Jesus in that way creates space between you and the world of your origins, between you and those you love, then let the Spirit of God fill that space with nothing but grace.

Amen.

 

Stay Until You Leave

Matthew 10:5-20, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · June 18th, 2017 · Duration 15:26



"Stay Until You Leave"

Matthew 10:5-20

The Second Sunday after Pentecost

The Community of God

Trinity Sunday

Lesley Ratcliff · June 11th, 2017 · Duration 16:12

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

A Sermon on the Subject of the Holy Spirit

Acts 2:1-21, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · June 4th, 2017 · Duration 7:17



"A Sermon on the Subject of the Holy Spirit"

Acts 2:1-21

Pentecost Sunday

Even after all these years, every time Pentecost Sunday rolls back around, I am struck, all over again, by the fact that Northminsters red Pentecost paraments were given to us by Beth Israel; a powerful sign of the biblical truth that everything about Pentecost was Jewish before it was Christian.

Not only did Acts chapter two borrow the day of Pentecost from Exodus chapter thirty-four, the whole New Testament borrowed the Spirit of God from the entire Old Testament, where David prayed, in Psalm fifty-one, not to lose the Holy Spirit, Isaiah prayed, in Isaiah chapter sixty-three, not to grieve the Holy Spirit, and, in Ezekiel chapter thirty-seven, the wind of the Spirit transformed a graveyard full of dry bones into an orthopedic square dance revival.

All of which is to say that the Holy Spirit which blew into Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost was not a New Testament invention, or a Christian innovation, but, rather, the same Spirit of God which was present on the first day of creation, and has been at work, each day since, in the lives of the people of God.

We have made an industry out of making the Holy Spirit more complicated than the Holy Spirit actually is. The truth is, the Holy Spirit is another name for the Spirit of God, which has always been at work in the people of God. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of God; present with us, speaking to us and working through us.

Several years ago, I was attending an interfaith dinner at the Hilton Hotel on Countyline Road, when a person who is a member of Fondren Presbyterian Church approached the podium to offer greetings to a ballroom full of Jews, Christians and Muslims. As he made his way to the microphone, I thought of all the ways this one man had embodied the Spirit of God across a lifetime of courage and kindness, and it occurred to me that here was a person in whom the human spirit and the Holy Spirit had become so seamlessly integrated that one could no longer tell where one ended and the other began.

And, needless to say, if anyone can be that way, everyone can. The more prayerfully, and intentionally, we stay open to the Spirits nudges and whispers, the more deeply, and fully, the Spirit of God will transform our lives; until, eventually, the human spirit and the Holy Spirit will become so seamlessly integrated in our lives that we will no longer be able to tell where one ends and the other begins; a whole human life, filled with the Spirit.

Amen.

Jesus’ Prayer for Jesus’ People

John 17:1-11, Ascension of the Lord Sunday, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 28th, 2017 · Duration 14:32



"Jesus Prayer for Jesus People"

John 17:1-11

Ascension of the Lord Sunday, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Jesus looked up to heaven and said, Father, I am asking on behalf of those you have given me . . . that you will protect them, so that they may be one, as we are one.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those words from this mornings gospel lesson. And, every time they roll back around, Jesus is still waiting for Jesus prayer for Jesus people to be one to be answered.

As you will, no doubt, have noticed, even in the New Testament, we were not exactly one, if one means united to, and in harmony with, one another. Remember the rift in Rome over whether or not we should eat meat, and the conflict in Corinth over speaking in tongues? (Not to mention those fractious disputations which tattered Pauls relations with his once beloved Galatians.)

And, those divisions were only harbingers of greater battles yet to come. Take, for example, the Council of Nicea in the year 325, where a roomful of bishops chose up sides behind Athanasius or Arius; Athanasius insisting that Jesus was the same as God, Arius contending that Jesus was the Son of God; a conflict so fierce and public that the emperor Constantine convened a council of bishops at Nicea to settle the matter, once and for all; Athanasius with eighty-something Bible verses in support of his view that Jesus was the same as God, Arius armed with more than a hundred in support of his view that Jesus was the Son of God; these verses versus those verses; bishops taking sides and hurling charges of heresy back and forth, until, in the end, Athanasius won because, while Arius had the most verses, Athanasius had the most votes.

And then, in the fifth century, came another great Christian conflict; this one over the question of what constitutes a valid and proper ordination and baptism. Known as the Donatist controversy, this debate actually escalated to violence and bloodshed; as marauding bands of Christians attacked the churches of those who did not share their views; a crisis which prompted Augustine to develop what we now know as the just war theory; an effort, on Augustines part, to give otherwise peace-loving Christians theological permission to take up arms against their Christian brothers and sisters who were physically attacking them.

I could go on, but you get the point; division among Christians is not a modern development, but rather, a perpetual condition. (Jesus prayer for Jesus people to be one, notwithstanding.)

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I think about all that, a lot. On the one hand, our many divisions and denominations probably bear witness to our failures at achieving the oneness for which Jesus prayed. And yet, on the other hand, what are we to do with real differences, not of style, but of substance, conviction and belief?

Differences of style are not dividing lines among Christians. To the contrary, they give the church the beautiful gift of true diversity. For example, in my four years away from you, 2003 to 2007, my ministry on the streets of our city included a weekly worship service at the now demolished Maple Street Housing Project. We met at three oclock on Sunday afternoons, in an abandoned apartment furnished with twenty metal chairs and two mostly missing windows. We sang and prayed and preached, and though it could not have been more different from this beautiful space and liturgical pace, I experienced the presence of God as powerfully there, as here, because, in both places, the thing that mattered most was what Jesus said matters most; that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love others as we love ourselves.

Which, in my experience, is where the oneness, for which Jesus prayed, is to be found. People who have given their lives to that which Jesus said matters most; loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we love ourselves, do become what Jesus prayed for Jesus people to become; we become one, because loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we love ourselves eventually comes to determine everything else; our ethics, our welcome, how we see the world and how we look at all people, especially those who are most different from us.

Being content to let what Jesus said matters most, matter most, makes us one with Jesus, one with God and one with one another; which was, as you will recall, Jesus prayer for Jesus people.

Amen

 

When the Only Way Out Is Through

Psalm 66:8-20, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 21st, 2017 · Duration 14:17



"When The Only Way Out Is Through"

Psalm 66:8-20

The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

We went through fire and water; but God brought us out to a spacious place.

We cannot say with certainty if the one who wrote those words from this mornings psalm was speaking of the literal fire and water through which Israel had gone in the exodus from Egypt and the exile to Babylon, or, if the psalmist was using fire and water as images for some difficult struggle in the psalmist own life, or both. But, in either case, when the psalmist said, We went through fire and water, but God brought us out to a spacious place, the psalmist captured the way life often is for many of us.

Most of us have found, or, someday, will find, ourselves going through what the psalmist called fire and water; struggles which threaten to overwhelm us, sorrows which take from us our energy and delight, changes which leave us exhausted, depleted, empty, angry or afraid; great struggles which come to us, not because they were sent to us from God or aimed at us by God, but, rather, because we live in a world where bad things happen, and if those bad things can happen to anyone, they can happen to everyone.

I understand the need so many truly wonderful people have for everything to be Gods will, to fit into a grand plan or a divine blueprint. It is a need I once had, myself. But, I am now content simply to know that we live in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen, and, if the worst of those things can happen to anyone, they can happen to everyone, including me and mine; not because God is that way, but because life is that way. Some of life is just life; not part of a grand plan or Gods will; just life, in a world which is, to quote the famous 20th century American writer, Thornton Wilder, awful and wonderful.

And, when life is awful; when, in the words of todays psalm, we are going through fire and water, the Spirit of God is with us to help us; giving us new strength for each new day as we go through the disappointment, loss, sorrow, struggle or complexity we did not get to go around; the Spirit of God, with us, and for us; embodied, most often, in the kindness and care of the people of God; the Spirit of God, speaking and working through our sisters and brothers in the family of faith.

When we live into, through and beyond the hardest and worst that life can bring, and emerge from it all deeper, kinder, stronger and better, it is almost always by that mystical alchemy of the Spirit of God, beside us, and the people of God, around us; the Spirit of God flowing through the people of God who, in their calls, cards and casseroles, embody the Spirit of God.

All of which takes me back to that wonderful story Mrs. Inola Hearn told several years ago, one Thursday morning, at the Yellow Church; a small story which I have Mrs. Hearns permission to repeat; a story about a Sunday school class which was one day discussing how much we all need one another when we are going through the fire and water of struggle and sorrow. One of the class members disagreed with that perspective, saying, I dont need people, because Ive got King Jesus in my life. To which Mrs. Hearn replied, Ive got King Jesus in my life, too. But, when you get sick, King Jesus is not going to show up at your door with some chicken soup and a pecan pie.

But, the people of God will. And, when they do, their kindness and care, their simple showing up, will embody the Spirit of God, and the Spirit of God, embodied in the people of God, will help us to go through the fire and water of pain and struggle, and we will come out on the other side; perhaps even into what the psalmist called a spacious place; emerging from the pain with a deeper, kinder, more thoughtful and gentle spirit.

And, not just once, but over and over, again. As you know, almost no one goes through only one hard thing in life. Most of us go through fire and water more than once. And, every time we find ourselves in one of those great struggles, going through what we did not get to go around; living in one of those fire and water moments when the only way out is through, we do go through.

With the help of the Spirit of God, and the people of God, thanks be to God, we can, and do, go through.

Amen.

 

“What Should We Say About John 14:6?”

The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide, John 14:1-14

Chuck Poole · May 14th, 2017 · Duration 15:23



"What Should We Say About John 14:6?"

The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

John 14:1-14

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.

Those words, from John 14:6, have become, to popular Christianity, what the ninth inning closer is to a baseball bullpen; the one you can always count on to shut down the other team.

Specifically, whenever anyone raises the possibility that the grace of God might embrace persons who are not Christians, the verse most often quoted to shut down the conversation is John 14:6, No one comes to the Father except through Jesus, more often than not, with a kind of The Bible says it and that settles it finality, which is why, every time the lectionary places John 14:6 in our path, I feel an obligation to help us think about what we should say about John 14:6.

For starters, careful speech requires us to acknowledge the fact that it is difficult for any of us to say, with integrity, The Bible says it and that settles it, about anything, because we dont believe it about everything. If we believed that the Bible saying something settled something, we would sell all our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor, disable our alarm systems at home and at church, stop wearing jewelry, and embrace the redistribution of wealth as our guiding economic principle; all of which is what the Bible says, but, apparently, does not settle, in Luke 14:33, Matthew 5:39, I Timothy 2:9 and Acts 2:45.

Lets be honest; there might be a Quaker, Mennonite or Amish person out there somewhere who can say, with integrity, The Bible says it and that settles it, but no Baptist, Methodist or Presbyterian I have ever met in Jackson, Mississippi. The truth is, we dont live that way, so we dont get to talk that way, not even when it comes to John 14:6.

And, anyway, when John 14:6 says that, No one comes to the Father except through Jesus, John 14:6 probably isnt even talking about what people are talking about when they talk about Christianity as the only way to heaven.

John 14:6 is one of several verses in John which appear only in John, all of which appear to be more about the incarnation than salvation:
The Son has made the Father known.
If you knew me you would know my Father also.
I did not come on my own, but the Father sent me.
The Father knows me and I know the Father.
The Father and I are one.
No one comes to the Father except through me.
The Father is in me and I am in the Father.
All that the Father has is mine.
All of which is to say that, when John 14:6 is used to shut down conversations about the size of the circumference of the reach of the grace of God, John 14:6 is probably being sent on an errand it wasnt written to run.

John 14:6 gets used that way a lot, and, one imagines, it always will. Its everybodys closer; the verse most often counted on to shut down any conversation which raises the possibility that the embrace of God might reach beyond the boundaries which Christianity has placed around the grace of God.

Which is understandable to me. I used John 14:6 that same way for more than half my life. And, the many people I know who use John 14:6 that way today are dear and good souls.

But, I dont use John 14:6 that way anymore. And, I would encourage others not to, also, because, one thing the Spirit of God has revealed to me across a lifetime of walking and praying in the Spirit, is that, any time we use any Bible verse to place our conditions on Gods grace, we are probably sending that Bible verse on an errand it was not written to run. Amen.

 

50th Anniversary Celebration Service

The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 7th, 2017 · Duration 77:56



50th Anniversary Celebration Service

The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Concerning the Church

The Third Sunday of Eastertide, Mentor Sunday, Acts 2:14, 36-42

Chuck Poole · April 30th, 2017 · Duration 10:22



"Concerning the Church"

The Third Sunday of Eastertide, Mentor Sunday

Acts 2:14, 36-42

Those who welcomed Peters message were baptized, and that day about three thousand persons were added. And they devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer.

With those words, todays lesson, from the book of Acts, gives us the Bibles description of the birthing of the church, which happened, according to Acts chapter two, when Jews from near and far had come to Jerusalem, as they did every year, to keep the festival of Pentecost. But, this year, while the crowds were in Jerusalem on their annual Pentecost pilgrimage, the Spirit of God came in a way so new and different that some asked Peter what they should do, to which Peter replied that they should open their lives to the Holy Spirit, repent and be baptized.

And, according to todays lesson, about three thousand of them did, after which they began to meet together and eat together; pray, study, learn and grow together; the birthing, and beginning, of what we now know as the church; at first, a frequently persecuted, mostly poor, largely powerless, fringe group; until the fourth century, when the Roman emperor Constantine made Christianity a government tolerated religion, and, then, a government endorsed religion, which some Christians celebrated because it gave the church political influence and economic power, but which other Christians did not welcome because they knew that every time Jesus had the opportunity to say Yes to that kind of power, he said No to that kind of power. They knew that Jesus was not about that kind of power; so they separated themselves from the powerful post-Constantinian church, choosing to follow Jesus from the edges of the church; groups of believers on the margins of institutional Christianity, saying that the way of the church had strayed too far from the way of Jesus; a tension which became a constant within the Christian church across the Christian centuries.

Including, of course, our century; the seventeenth, when one of those radical marginal groups in England, called Separatists, (because they had separated themselves from the powerful institutional church) stumbled across a group of Mennonites in Europe, joined forces with them long enough to hold a baptismal service in a horse trough, and, then, returned to England in 1611 to birth what we now know as the Baptist church.

Several years later, some of them boarded a ship for New England, where they quickly got in new trouble for their radical religious views, whereupon they headed north to Maine, and, then, south, to Charleston, where they started the first Baptist church in the south in 1699, after which some of them eventually wandered west to Mississippi, where, a couple of centuries later, a handful of them were standing on a street corner in downtown Jackson, talking about the possibility of starting a new church, and, quicker than you can say, fifty years later, Owen Carter, Keagan Croom, Lucy Elfert, William Seymour, Roger Stribling, William Walker and Ivey Yelverton are leading, in worship, the same church that was being imagined, on that downtown street corner, fifty years ago.

And it all started back there in this mornings lesson from the book of Acts, when a group of people, still wet from the water of their baptism, started eating and praying, learning and growing together, on the original birthday of the church.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I never know how closely what the church has become, two thousand years later, resembles what Jesus had in mind, two thousand years ago. Careful speech requires me to say that I struggle with all that, a lot.

The truth, as Barbara Brown Taylor once said, is that, The work of God gets done in the world both because of, and in spite of, the church. Or, as I once heard one of my friends say, The same church which can be the source of our greatest joys can also be the source of our deepest disappointments; what the poet Mary Oliver once called, The strange, difficult, beautiful church.

But, while all churches, this one included, are less than perfect, each with its own blind spots, limits, failures and flaws, the church is, also, in my experience, the place where our lives are most profoundly shaped and formed for God and the gospel.

There is something mystical, and wonderful, about the way the Spirit of God is embodied in the people of God in a congregation; the way the people we know at church call forth that which is deepest and best in us, the way they mentor us without even meaning to; making the rest of us want to be better, just by being exactly who they are; shaping, lifting, coloring, stretching, and, little by little, transforming our lives.

It happens in church; our anchor and our sail; the anchor which centers us within these walls, and the sail which sends us beyond these walls; the strange, difficult, beautiful church, for which all of us can only say, Thanks be to God.

Amen.

 

Take Us With You

John 20:19-31,The Second Sunday of Eastertide, Senior Recognition Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 23rd, 2017 · Duration 16:51



"Take Us With You"

John 20:19-31,

The Second Sunday of Eastertide, Senior Recognition Sunday

Jonathan, Ben, Stone, Latisha, Shaun, Smith, Rose, Moesha, Meredith, Elijah, Will, Claire, Chris, Blair, Ally, Anna Kate and Shelby, all of us gathered here at Northminster today want you to know that, as you prepare to say a different kind of goodbye, and open the next new chapter of your life, your church will be with you, and for you.

Your next new chapters will take you places near and far; Oxford, Starkville, Ellisville, Hattiesburg, Spartanburg, New York, Paris Island, and Jackson, and, though we cannot go with you, we will, nonetheless, be with you; tucked away down there in the reservoir of your soul.

Some of you, I carried in my arms, up and down this aisle, on the day of your dedication. Others of you came to Northminster in your childhood or adolescence. But, all of you have been here often enough, long enough, in Sunday School, sanctuary, Bible Camp and youth house, to have had a lot of good strength tucked away down there in the reservoir of your soul, waiting to be brought up and put to work when you need it most in the next new chapter of your life.

Much of what Northminster puts down there in the reservoir of our souls has to do with living our lives in a thoughtful, prayerful, intentional way; a way of life which is summed up really well in Ephesians 5:15, (page 183 in your Youth House Bible) Be careful how you live. To be careful how you live includes careful speech, which includes being thoughtful about what you post or say on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where it is too easy to say too much too quickly. To be careful how you live also includes establishing clear boundaries around your own bodies, and being intentional about maintaining those boundaries, which requires keeping your judgement clear and unimpaired, because impaired judgement puts so much at such risk.

Be careful how you live is one great Bible verse to have down there in the reservoir of your soul, as is Romans 6:3-4 (page 146 in your Youth House Bible), the passage we read from the water at every Northminster baptism, the one which says that to be baptized is to buried with Christ and raised with Christ to walk in newness of life; the idea being that, the baptism which takes a moment, lasts a lifetime. So, be sure to take the memory of your baptism with you into lifes next chapter, tucked away in the reservoir of your soul; a memory which might actually cause you to ask yourself, from time to time, What should a baptized person do in this situation? What does my baptism require of me in this moment?

And then, of course, there is Matthew 24:34-40 (page 26 in your Youth House Bible), where someone asked Jesus to name the most important scripture passage of all, to which Jesus replied, Love God with all that is in you and love others as you love yourself, what we sometimes call, around here, the cross-formed life; a simultaneously vertical, up to God, and, horizontal, out to others, life; a life of prayer to God and care for others; the kind, courageous cross-formed life which, in every chapter of life, calls us to sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for if Jesus was in Oxford, Starkville, Ellisville, Hattiesburg, Spartanburg, New York, Paris Island or Jackson.

Take all of that with you, and you will be taking some of Northminster with you.

It wont be magic, but it will matter, because, while a lifetime in church doesnt guarantee success for anyone, it does give strength to everyone.

Remember, for example, Thomas, in this mornings gospel lesson. When Thomas was separated from the community of faith, out there all by himself, in verse twenty-four, he found it impossible to believe in the risen Lord. But, surrounded by the others, in verse twenty-six, Thomas was able to see, remember and believe what, alone, he could not; a small reminder, for each of us, of how much all of us need one another; how much we all need the church.

All of which is to say that, as youre gathering your things for this next new chapter, dont forget to pack the church. Take us with you where you go. And, always know that your church will be with you and for you, no matter where, no matter what; with you and for you, not as perfectly as God will be, but as passionately, and prayerfully, as people can be.

Amen.

 

Easter Hope

John 20:1-18, Easter Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 16th, 2017 · Duration 10:35



"Easter Hope"

John 20:1-18

Easter Sunday

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb . . . And Jesus said to her, Mary! And Mary said to Jesus, Rabbi! And Jesus said to Mary, Do not hold on to me, making Mary the first, but not the last, to try to hold on to the risen Lord.

We have two thousand years invested in holding on to the risen Lord; turning the unspeakable wonder of the resurrection into a doctrine of the Christian religion, and making the right belief in that doctrine a prerequisite for becoming a Christian and going to heaven, which is the ultimate holding on to the risen Lord.

Which is understandable. When we get to heaven, we may all discover that all the worlds religions, as important as they are, were interim arrangements, and that our faith traditions were never Gods eternal divisions. But, were not there yet, so its understandable that we would want to try to hold on to the risen Lord, as though the risen Lord belonged to us.

But, it wont always be that way. In the book of Revelation, Johns vision of eternity is that the ultimate and eternal Hallelujah Chorus will be sung by every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and even in the sea; aardvarks to Anglicans, manatees to Methodists, a brief and beautiful glimpse of the way it will be over on the Other Side.

Which is why I believe that, once we get over on the Other Side, we will discover that while, in our eyes, the cross was always a uniquely Christian symbol and the resurrection a uniquely Christian hope, in the eyes of God, the crucifixion and resurrection, like the creation, have always belonged to the whole human family the same; God, in the crucifixion, entering into all the suffering and sorrow, pain and death of all people of every time and place, and, God, in the resurrection, prevailing over all that pain and suffering, sorrow and death, for all people of every time and place.

That is the ultimate Easter hope; the hope of the resurrection, the hope and comfort which came to Mary at her most broken moment on that resurrection morning, and which comes, to us, in our most broken places, on this resurrection morning; the risen Lord, calling us by name, giving us the strength to go through the worst we must face, with the sure and certain hope that the God who is with us and for us is the God who, in the words of Carlyle Marney, can take what looks like the end of everything good, and turn it into the edge of something new.

Which is exactly what God did on that first resurrection morning. When Jesus body was removed from the cross and placed in the tomb, it looked as though everything was over. But, then, when God raised Jesus from the grave, God took what looked like the end of everything good and turned it into the edge of all things new.

And, ever since, we have been living on the leftovers of that one great, sunrise surprise; finding, in the resurrection of Jesus, the hope that keeps us always leaving room in the room for God, even in the hardest and worst of life, because we take the resurrection of Jesus to be a sign of the way God is; relentlessly taking what looks like the end of everything good, and turning it into the edge of something new.

That is the hope of Easter. And, while I cannot speak for you, I can tell you that, in my experience, the deeper we go into that hope, the wider we go with that hope until, eventually, we no longer have any need to hold on to the risen Lord; content, instead to know that the risen Lord is holding on to us.

(And knowing that, even if we tried to hold on to the risen Lord, we couldnt. In fact, as recently as two days ago, Friday afternoon, to be exact, others tried to nail Jesus down, but, with no success, thanks be to God.)

Amen.

Concerning the Cross

Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 9th, 2017 · Duration 12:47



"Concerning the Cross"

Philippians 2:5-11

Palm/Passion Sunday

Though he was in the form of God, Jesus emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death; even death on a cross.

Every year, on Palm Sunday, those words from todays epistle lesson are read in churches throughout the world; ushering believers of every language and nation into the gathering shadows of another Holy Week, by pointing us in the direction of the cross.

Because the cross has become, across the Christian centuries, the central symbol of the Christian faith, and, because, as we enter Holy Week, the crucifixion of Jesus is, once again, now so near, it seems right, and important, for us to ponder, together, the cross, about which our choir and organ have so beautifully sung and sounded today; all of us, thinking together, concerning the cross.

What many millions of dear and good Christians believe, concerning the cross, is that Jesus died on the cross to give to God the sacrifice God had to have so that God could forgive us of our sin.

Behind that understanding of the cross, which is so central to so much of Christianity for so many people, is the basic belief that, our life with God is primarily about a problem and how to fix it; the problem being that, because Adam and Eve sinned in the garden of Eden, all subsequent people were, and are, alienated from God, by sin; a problem which could only be fixed by the offering of a perfect sacrifice, to God, for sin. But, because all persons are born in the same sinful condition, no person could offer God a sacrifice sufficiently perfect to satisfy Gods requirement, which was why God sent Jesus, who, because he was perfect, could, himself, become the one and only sacrifice sufficient to satisfy God, which Jesus became, by dying on the cross.

But, even that sacrifice, perfect though it was, was still not enough to reconcile God to people and people to God, unless people responded to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross by believing the right things about Jesus; making the right response to the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross the only way for people to be reconciled to God.

All of which is what countless millions of dear and good Christians believe, and say, concerning the cross. And, there is scripture which seems to say the same. But, the longer I live, the more I have come to see that, to say that God cannot be reconciled to people unless God is offered a perfect sacrifice, and, even then, the right sacrifice is effective only if it is responded to in the right way, sounds more like something people would say about God than something God would say about people.

There is, needless to say, much sin in the world, and many sins in our lives; from genocide and violence on a global scale, to the reckless acts and graceless words with which we bring hurt and harm to those we love the most. There is so much from which we all need to repent, and for which we will all have to answer and make amends.

But, even so, I believe that our relationship with God is more about a life and how to live it, and a love and how to give it, than it is about a problem and how to fix it. In fact, I believe that even if there had been no sin, God still would have come to us in Jesus, not because God had to have a perfect sacrifice of innocent life before God could be reconciled to us and we could be reconciled to God, but, because God is that determined to be with us; drawing us near and holding us close; healing our broken spirits and reconciling our broken relationships, calling us to live lives that are so filled with the Spirit of God that they become absolutely luminous with holiness; lives of courage and kindness; innocent, harmless, gentle, generous, truthful, transparent lives which instinctively sit down with and stand up for whomever is hurting most.

Which is the kind of life Jesus lived; which, according to the four gospels, is what got Jesus crucified. The life Jesus lived was such a judgment on, and indictment of, the way people with power had decided the world worked best that they crucified him.

And, on that cross, in ways we will never begin to understand, Jesus joined us in our deepest depths of pain and rejection, betrayal and humiliation, suffering and death; over which all of which he will triumph and prevail for all of us, one week from today, at the other end of Holy Week.

Amen.



 

Out of the Depths

Psalm 130, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · April 2nd, 2017 · Duration 8:37



"Out of the Depths"

Psalm 130

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. Lord, hear my voice. Because todays psalm begins with those words, we know, from the start, that the one who wrote the psalm was going through some sort of sorrow or pain, fear or despair.

What we, at first, do not know is from which kind of depth the psalmist was calling out for help. After all, there are many different depths through which one can go in this life. Was the psalmist down in the depth of exhaustion or depression? Bitterness or resentment? Fear or despair? Was it physical pain, or some great upheaval of the soul?

At first, we do not know. But, then, once we get to verse three, we begin to see what the nature of the psalmist depth might be, when the psalmist says, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand?, an indication that the depth from which the psalmist cried was the complex, complicated grief of guilt; a sadness in which so many of us spend so much of our lives.

Which is why it is so important for all of us to hear, again, what the psalmist said, when the psalmist said, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, who could stand? But, there is forgiveness with you; a powerful reminder that, while it is always important for us to face our guilt, and truthfully own it, it is also always important for us to know, in our depths, what the psalmist knew in his, which is that, even the deepest of our failures is no match for the depth of Gods redeeming love.

Which is why we are always careful to say that, while no one ever gets to start over from the beginning, everyone always gets to start over from here, because we, at our worst, are no match for God at Gods best.

Amen.

Through the Valley of the Shadow of Life

Psalm 23, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 26th, 2017 · Duration 13:41



Through the Valley of the Shadow of Life

Psalm 23

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

 

The Way Jesus Was

John 4:5-26, The Third Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 19th, 2017 · Duration 9:32



"The Way Jesus Was"

John 4:5-26

The Third Sunday in Lent

A Samaritan woman came to draw water, and Jesus said to her, Give me a drink. She said to Jesus, How is it that you, a Jew, ask a drink of me, a woman of Samaria? (Jews do not share things in common with Samaritans.)

Every three years, the lectionary places those words in our path, and, every time they roll back around, they take me back to the J.C. Penneys department store on Hillcrest Avenue in Macon, Georgia. I was about seven years old, so it must have been about 1962. I had wandered away from my mother, and found myself standing in front of two water fountains, one marked White, the other, Colored; two options, from which, for reasons I can no longer recall, I chose the one marked Colored. But, then, much to my surprise, as I leaned in for a drink, I felt my shirt collar being pulled backward, followed by a stern reprimand which sounded a lot like that moment in todays gospel lesson, when the Samaritan woman reminded Jesus that Jews do not drink after Samaritans.

Two moments; one, at a well in John, the other, at a store in Georgia; both about water, and, both about xenophobia; fear of the other; fear of whomever does not look or sound or seem like me and mine.

The xenophobia in this mornings gospel lesson was the fear which separated Jews and Samaritans from one another; a story of prejudice and division which went all the way back to the separation of the Hebrew people into two kingdoms; the northern kingdom, called Israel, and the southern kingdom, called Judah; both of which were eventually defeated and carried into captivity; Judah in 589 B.C. by the Babylonians, and Israel, by the Assyrians, in 722 B.C.

When the Assyrians conquered Israel, they took some, but not all, of the people of Israel into exile; leaving most of the Israelites behind, after which the Assyrians brought in people from other places they had conquered; resettling them in the area of Samaria, which was a city in Israel. So, now, Samaria becomes home, not only to the Israelites the Assyrians left behind after defeating the northern kingdom, but also to all of these new people of various backgrounds, who have been transplanted into Samaria by the Assyrians; which eventually led to a convergence of races and religions which many of the people of Judah looked upon with disdain; talking about their Samaritan neighbors as inferior, and treating them as outcasts.

All of which helps explain why, when Jesus, in todays gospel lesson, asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water, the Samaritan woman reminded Jesus that for a Jew to ask a Samaritan for a drink is something that is just not done.

Which, of course, is why Jesus did it. We have read enough of the four gospels to know that when Jesus crossed that long-standing racial and religious divide between Jews and Samaritans by asking the Samaritan woman for a drink from her cup, he was just being exactly who he was.

We sometimes ask, in various circumstances and situations, What would Jesus do? as though we dont have a clue. But, if the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, more often than not we know what Jesus would do, in our world, because we know what Jesus did do, in his.

If the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, Jesus lived a life of love and welcome which kept him constantly reaching beyond the assumed and accepted barriers and boundaries of his time and culture; getting up every day to sit down with and stand up for whomever was most voiceless, powerless, marginalized, ostracized, demonized, dehumanized, left out, hated, hurting, and alone; a life that was never more fully embodied than in that moment in todays gospel lesson when Jesus asked the Samaritan woman for a drink of water.

That is the way Jesus was, which means that, if we are following Jesus, that is the way we will be.

Theres a reason why the deepest Christians we have ever known have the widest embrace we have ever seen; because thats the way Jesus was, and the closer a person gets to Jesus the more a person becomes like Jesus, who lived as he died and died as he lived, arms out as wide as the world.

Amen.

 

Careful Speech Concerning John 3:16

John 3:1-17, The Second Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 12th, 2017 · Duration 14:25



"Careful Speech Concerning John 3:16"

John 3:1-17

The Second Sunday in Lent

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

Every three years, the lectionary places those words in the path of the church, and, every time they roll back around, it seems important to speak about them as carefully as we can, because, across the centuries, they have come to occupy such an enormous place in the hearts and minds of so many Christians.

For many millions of dear and good souls, those words, For God so loved the world, that God gave Gods only Son, so that whosoever believes in him will not perish, but will have everlasting life, are the words which most clearly draw the line between Christians and the rest of the world; which, in the minds of millions, is the line between those who will go, forever, to heaven when they die, and those who will go, forever, to hell.

For countless millions of dear and sincere people, that is the clear and plain truth of John 3:16: Whosoever believes what Christians believe about Jesus will go to heaven; whosoever does not, will not. And, for many years, it was, as well, for me; until I actually began to meet real people, and make real friends, who did not believe what I believe about Jesus, but whose lives embodied, in clear and undeniable ways, the Spirit of God; Jews, Muslims, Hindus; people whose lives so fully embodied the Spirit of God that to believe they were going to eternal torment when they died, for no other reason than believing what their parents and grandparents believe, the same way I believe what my parents and grandparents believe, eventually became something I could no longer pretend to believe. I knew better, and, in order to be an honest man, I had to say better.

For me, that long spiritual journey has been more about the Holy Spirit than the Holy Bible. But, it has helped that, along the way, I have come to see that the gospel of John, with its powerful verses such as John 3:16-18, Those who believe in Jesus will not perish, but those who do not believe are condemned already, and John 14:6, No one comes to the Father except through Jesus, was not written about our modern, massive, powerful Christian religion in opposition to other faiths, but, rather, for a small minority community of believers within Judaism; Jews who, by the time the gospel of John was written, in the eighties or nineties A.D., had been put out of the synagogue for believing in Jesus; which means that we have to be very careful about how we use Johns words in our world; lest we make them mean, in our time, something they did not mean, in their time.

And, anyway, lets be honest; what we believe usually has less to do with Bible verses than with what rings most true in the deepest corner of our soul. Lets be honest; if what we believe was really all about what the Bible says, wed put as much weight on Luke 14:33 as we put on John 3:16. But then, in order to be saved, we would not only have to believe the right thing about Jesus, but, also, give up all of our possessions; which we all know we are not going to do, no matter what the Bible says.

Which is not necessarily a bad thing. We dont need to give up all our possessions, but we do need to be honest, and say what we all already know is so; that everything we say is about the Bible is not really about the Bible. Rather, the truth is, we believe what we believe because we believe it, and, more often than not, what we believe is what rings most true in the depth of our soul.

And, even that can sometimes change, because of who we meet, and come to know; theology chasing friendship.

Which may be part of what God had in mind, anyway. After all, when God sent that angel choir to light up the night sky over Bethlehem, it was to announce, not the binding of a book, but the birthing of a baby; God, in person, in a person.

Or, to quote John 3:16, God so loved the world, God gave Gods only Son. God; in person . . . in a person.

And, still, it happens, over and over again. What happened once in a big way in Bethlehem happens still in small ways in Jackson; the Holy Spirit comes to people through people; as inexplicably, unpredictably and undeniably as the Wind.

Amen.

 

"All the Resources of the Congregation"

Matthew 4:1-11, The First Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 5th, 2017 · Duration 2:00



"All the Resources of the Congregation"

Matthew 4:1-11

The First Sunday in Lent

As you will, no doubt, have noticed, every time there is a baptism here at Northminster, the entire congregation promises the one being baptized what we promised Ella Jane Simmons this morning; all the resources of our congregation.

The most important of which is the congregation. The greatest resource of our congregation is our congregation; all of these dear and good sisters and brothers who call forth that which is deepest and best in all of us; making us want to be better, just by being exactly who they are.

Of all the resources of our congregation, the deepest and dearest is all of you; the people of God in whom the rest of us see the face of God, every time we make our way, together, to the table of our Lord.

Amen.

 

What the Catholics Got Right:The Ascent of the Mountain

James 2:14-18, Matthew 17:1-9, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Walter B. Shurden · February 26th, 2017 · Duration 17:06

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Annual Winter Lecture Series 2017 Part Three Q and A

"What Both the Protestants and the Catholics Got Right (Eventually and Episodically): The Descent into the Valley by Walter B. Shurden Minister at Large, Mercer University

Walter B. Shurden · February 26th, 2017 · Duration 54:48



Five Hundred and Fifty: The Reformation and Northminster "What Both the Protestants and the Catholics Got Right (Eventually and Episodically): The Descent into the Valley"
by Walter B. Shurden, Minister at Large Mercer University

 
Winter Lecture Series
February 25-26
Five Hundred and Fifty:
The Reformation and Northminster
Led by Dr. Walter Shurden
Minister at Large, Mercer University
Saturday, February 25 Sunday, February 26
Lecture I followed by reception Worship Hour-Sermon
Great Hall ~4:306:00 p.m. Sanctuary ~10:30 a.m.
Lunch followed by Lecture 2 and Q and A
Great Hall ~ 11:45 a.m.
Cost of lunch: $5 (adults) and $3 (children)

Annual Winter Lecture Series 2017 Part One

"What the Protestants Got Right: The Flight of the Dove" by Walter B. Shurden, Minister at Large Mercer University

Walter B. Shurden · February 25th, 2017 · Duration 60:07



Five Hundred and Fifty: The Reformation and Northminster "What the Protestants Got Right: The Flight of the Dove"
by Walter B. Shurden,
Minister at Large Mercer University

 
Winter Lecture Series
February 25-26
Five Hundred and Fifty:
The Reformation and Northminster
Led by Dr. Walter Shurden
Minister at Large, Mercer University

Saturday, February 25 Sunday, February 26
Lecture I followed by reception Worship Hour-Sermon
Great Hall ~4:306:00 p.m. Sanctuary ~10:30 a.m.
Lunch followed by Lecture 2 and Q and A
Great Hall ~ 11:45 a.m.
Cost of lunch: $5 (adults) and $3 (children)

A Different Kind of Perfect

Matthew 5:38-48, The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 19th, 2017 · Duration 13:54



A Different Kind of Perfect

Matthew 5:38-48

The Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those words from this mornings gospel lesson. And, every time they roll back around, they sound, at first, unreasonable and impossible.

But, then, when we read the entire paragraph to which that impossible sounding verse belongs, what we see is that when Jesus says, in Matthew 5:48, Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect, Jesus isnt calling us to live flawlessly; which is something none of us can do. Rather, Jesus is calling us to love completely; which is something all of us can do.

The paragraph which ends with Jesus saying, Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect, begins with Jesus saying, You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, who sends rain and sun on good and bad. It is at the close of those words about the indiscriminate love of God, who gives, to all people, sun and rain, without regard for whether they happen to be good or bad, that Jesus says, Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect; a call for us, not to live flawlessly, which none of us can do, but, rather, for us to love completely, which all of us can do.

In fact, though it may sound hard and heroic, to love as God loves is neither; heroic or hard. In my experience, to love all people as God loves all people really just requires us to see all people as God sees all people. And, the way to see all people as God sees all people is to pray, every day, all through the day, for God to help us to walk in the Holy Spirit. Live that fully open to the Spirit of God long enough, and, eventually, to love all people as God loves all people, which once seemed impossible to do, will become impossible not to do. Stay open to the Spirit of God long enough, and what once sounded like Jesus most unreasonable demand will become our most instinctive response, because the daily prayer and practice of walking in the Holy Spirit will cause us to come to see all people as God sees all people, which will cause us to love all people as God loves all people.

(Of course, here, we must be careful to be clear about what we mean when we say love. To love all people as God loves all people does not mean to approve of, or tolerate, anything and everything. There is real evil in the world, which requires us to make real judgements, and to stand up for those who are most marginalized and vulnerable by standing up against injustice and oppression. This is love, not as the warm and fuzzy noun of Valentines Day, but, rather, love, as the clear and courageous verb of Good Friday.)

As I was sitting with all of this earlier this week, my mind wandered back to my hometown. Like Jackson, and most other cities in the American South, Macon, Georgia was, and still is, home to many churches and, per capita, as many Christians as any city in the country. And yet, despite all those churches and Christians, or, perhaps, sadly, because of all those churches and Christians, if someone in our town had an adult child whose life left them outside the comfortable majority, they would often be heard to say, We hated to see them go, but, honestly, we encouraged them to move to New York or San Francisco, where it might not be as hard for them to be who they truly are as it is down here, in the Bible Belt; a sad commentary on the Christianity which filled the air and the water in my hometown, because, the truth is, if the Christianity which filled the air and the water in my hometown, and, which remains so dominate in our part of the world, had embodied the spirit of the Jesus of todays gospel lesson, the opposite would have been true. Families in New York would have been saying to their loved ones who were different from the comfortable majority, You should probably move down to Macon or Birmingham, Tupelo or Jackson; any of those cities in the Bible Belt where there are all those churches and Christians because, since those folk follow Jesus, they see all people as God sees all people, which means they love and welcome all people as perfectly as God loves and welcomes all people.

That is the kind of life to which Jesus calls us when Jesus says, in Matthew 5:48, for us to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect; a life which loves all people as God loves all people because it sees all people as God sees all people.

I heard that life captured in a single, simple sentence a couple of months ago, here at Northminster, at sunset on December the twenty-fourth. I was out in the narthex, waiting for the Christmas Eve service to begin, when a young man who grew up here at Northminster and was home for Christmas came up to me, and said, A few weeks ago, I was hanging out with some friends one night, and, somehow, the subject of church came up. I started telling them about Northminster, and how going to church here all my life had made such an impact on my life; like, it really changed my life. So, somebody in the group said, What do you mean, it changed your life? To which, the young man replied, Being at Northminster changed my life because that is where I learned that, if God loves everyone, then so should we.

That is the life to which the Jesus of todays gospel lesson is calling us when he tells us to Be perfect, therefore, as your Father in heaven is perfect. That isnt Jesus calling us to live flawlessly; something none of us can do. It is, rather, Jesus calling us to love completely; something all of us can do.

Amen.



 

The Most Careful Speech of All

Matthew 5:33-37, The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 12th, 2017 · Duration 14:11



"The Most Careful Speech of All"

Matthew 5:33-37

The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany

Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No; anything more than this comes from the evil one.

With those words from this mornings gospel lesson, Jesus called us to the most careful speech of all; speech that is so careful to be so truthful that it never needs any extra anything to punctuate it, no swearing or vowing or promises or oaths or anything; just Yes, Yes and No, No; a way of speaking which is the most careful speech of all; the simple, clear truth; plainly, clearly spoken.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I sometimes write those words, Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No, in my daily prayer journal, as a way of reminding myself to keep practicing the ever elusive skill of careful speech; speech which is content to operate within the boundaries Jesus established for his followers when Jesus said, Let your word be Yes, Yes, or No, No. Anything more than this comes from the evil one; speech which is, in all moments, situations, circumstances and conversations, what the Quakers call gentle and plain.

In my experience, that way of life and speech is a difficult discipline; one at which I continue to fail more often than I succeed. And, I think I know at least one of the many reasons why that kind of careful speech is so elusive for so many, myself included. Perhaps, one reason why careful speech is such a difficult discipline is that many of us learned, early in life, to make our way through life by using words in ways which work to our advantage. For as long as many of us can remember, we have been making it through life by using the tactics and strategies of exaggeration, sarcasm, flattery, relentless teasing, smooth spinning and verbal bullying; just one strategy after another, which is how we learned, early on, to make our point, advance our agenda, win our argument, and just generally make it through life.

And, then, along comes Jesus, in this mornings lesson from Matthew, with his simple words about words; Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No.

That kind of speech is a spiritual discipline at which we get better the same way we get better at playing the piano, hitting a baseball, cake baking, brick laying, chemistry, surgery, calligraphy, crochet, croquet, and ballet; by practicing. As the great thinker Evelyn Underhill once said, We must reach for what we do not have by the faithful practice of what we do have. We do not have a life of always thoughtful and mindful speech, but we reach for that life, which we do not yet have, by the faithful practice of what we do have; which is the longing to live, and speak, and be that way.

One small way to begin the long, slow journey to the most careful speech of all might be to memorize Matthew 5:37, Let your word be Yes, Yes or No, No. Anything more than this comes from the evil one.

If we can get those words down there in the reservoir of our memory and spirit, we may discover that they might eventually, actually start getting in our way. Not always, of course, but, at least, sometimes. So, were about to jump into a conversation with our juicy bit of information which is going to impress our friends, but then it hits us that what we are about to say is graceless speech, so we dont say it; sometimes, even, stopping in mid-sentence. Or, were about to make our contribution to that wireless world of boundariless speech, Facebook, and we pause long enough to wonder, Am I about to release into the world a word of grace and truth, or just more syllables of sarcasm which will only add to the already over-wrought volume of the vitriol?

It isnt easy, of course, making those kinds of changes, partly because our friends have grown accustomed to us having a less thoughtful and careful way with words; so now, its almost impossible to change.

If, for example, we start challenging the exaggerated choice of the false option, which fills the airwaves, confronting things that are not true, refusing to talk about people in their absence in ways we would never talk about them in their presence, being careful not to over-sell, spin or exaggerate even when it would work to our advantage, and, eventually, someone may say to us, You seem different. And, then, we might have to say something awkward, like, Well, actually, Ive recently decided to try to practice becoming a person of more mindful, thoughtful, careful speech, because I have come to believe that to live that way is part of what it means to live as a Christian in this world. And, then, they might say, Isnt that difficult? To which we will say, Yes, Yes. And, then, they might say, Well, then, if its that difficult of a discipline, do you think you might eventually give up on it?. To which we, of course, will say, No, No.

And thats all.

Amen.

 

What Might God Want Most From Us

Isaiah 58:1-9, The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 5th, 2017 · Duration 4:17



"What Might God Want Most From Us?"

Isaiah 58:1-9

The Fifth Sunday after Epiphany

Is not this the worship I choose; to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to share your bread with the hungry and to bring the homeless into your house?

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from todays Old Testament lesson. And, every time they roll back around, they remind us that the worship which matters most to God is the kind which sends us out into the world to live other-minded lives; sitting down with, and standing up for, whomever is most in need of help and hope.

Which, as you know, is not a novel notion in sacred scripture. Rather, Isaiahs voice belongs to a Bible-wide chorus which calls the people of God of every time and place to live other-minded lives; from Leviticus 19:9, When you reap the harvest of your fields, you shall not reap all the way out to the edges; you shall leave the edges for the poor, to Deuteronomy 15:18, Do not be hard-hearted toward your neighbor in need, to Luke 14:13, When you give a dinner invite the poor, to I John 3:17, How does Gods love abide in anyone who has this worlds goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help them?

Little wonder that more than twenty percent of our churchs budget leaves these walls for the wider world, helping support ministries such as Stewpot, Shoestring, Habitat for Humanity, Grace House, and a long list of others which lift the lives of those who are most in need of help and hope. Little wonder we embraced A Wider Net fifteen years ago, opening our hearts and arms, doors and lives, to a neighborhood in need. And, little wonder we give so much time and energy to Meals on Wheels, Adopt-A-School, Boarding Homes, Angel Tree, Caregiving, and so many other channels of grace which take our lives beyond our walls.

We do those kinds of things, and we live that kind of life, because we know enough about the Holy Bible, and we have enough of the Holy Spirit, to know that what God wants from us, and for us, is an other-minded life; a life of expansive piety; the kind of life which lets the love which has come down to us go out through us.

Amen.

 

On Being Saved

I Corinthians 1:18-31, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 29th, 2017 · Duration 13:11

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Youth Sermon Rose Daniels

Youth Sunday, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Rose Daniels · January 22nd, 2017 · Duration 6:34

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Youth Sermon Will Hicks

Youth Sunday, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Will Hicks · January 22nd, 2017 · Duration 6:21

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Youth Sermon Anna Kate Williams

Youth Sunday, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Anna Kate Williams · January 22nd, 2017 · Duration 9:17

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Youth Sermon Anna Kate Williams

Youth Sunday, The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Anna Kate Williams · January 22nd, 2017 · Duration 9:17



Youth Sermon Rose Daniels

Youth Sunday

The Third Sunday after Epiphany

Too Light a Thing

Isaiah 49:1-7, The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 15th, 2017 · Duration 13:30



"Too Light a Thing"

Isaiah 49:1-7

The Second Sunday after Epiphany

On Taking Care Of What We Can Take Care Of

Matthew 2:13-23, The Second Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · January 1st, 2017 · Duration 5:49



"On Taking Care Of What We Can Take Care Of"

Matthew 2:13-23

The Second Sunday of Christmastide

In these first and early hours of 2017, who can say what this now new year might yet bring?

What will have changed about us and around us by the time 2017 is over and done? What challenges might we face in this now new year? What moments will arise which will call for clarity and courage in speech and action? What joys, yet unseen and unknown, will lift our hearts? What great sorrows might settle over our souls?

Perhaps the most we can safely say about the coming year is that, if it is like every other year which has come before it, it will be, to borrow a phrase from Thornton Wilder, Awful and wonderful. Every year, so far, has been both awful and wonderful because life is both awful and wonderful; not unlike this mornings gospel lesson, where, across the wonderful story of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, there falls the awful shadow of the death of all those other little ones; joy and sorrow, gladness and sadness, beauty and terror, life and death, hope and despair, all on the same page, at the same time.

And so it is, always and ever. Life is both awful and wonderful, in ways which none of us can predict or control.

In the face of all that is beyond our knowing and our control, all we can take care of is what we can take care of. We can take care of whether or not we act and speak with courage and clarity. We can take care of whether or not we live in ways that are gentle and kind. We can take care of whether or not we get up every morning and practice, day after day, all through the day, speaking the truth without exaggeration or sarcasm. We can take care of whether or not we embody the spirit of Jesus by sitting down with and standing up for those whom Jesus would sit down with and stand up for if Jesus lived in Jackson, which, according to the four gospels, would be whomever is most voiceless, powerless, marginalized, fearful, hurting and alone.

In the face of all the things we cannot know or control, predict or manage about this now new year, we can take care of whether or not we live lives of integrity and compassion, truth and grace. And, if we do that, if we take care of what we can take care of, then, we will be more ready to face and embrace the rest, whenever and however it comes.

Amen.

 

Concerning the Incarnation of God

John 1:1-14, Christmas Day

Chuck Poole · December 25th, 2016 · Duration 9:15



Concerning the Incarnation of God

John 1:1-14

Christmas Day

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.

Those words from this mornings gospel lesson are among the most familiar, and beloved, in the Bible, concerning the incarnation of God; the Spirit of God embodied, fleshed out, revealed most fully, in the human life of Jesus; a life which todays gospel lesson describes as being full of both grace and truth.

And Jesus was that way, wasnt he? Because he was full of grace, he gladly sat with sinners, and, because he was full of truth, he turned over the tables of those in the temple who exploited the poor. Because he was full of grace, Jesus refused to condemn the woman in John chapter eight, and, because he was full of truth, he told her to go and sin no more. Because he was full of grace, Jesus told the story of the prodigal son to show how wide is the welcome of the love of God, and, because he was full of truth, he told that story to confront the mistaken theology of those who were offended by, and grumbling about, Jesus wide welcome and liberal grace.

That is the kind of life Jesus lived, a life which embodied the Spirit of God; full of grace and full of truth.

To live a life which is full of grace is to live a life which is gentle and kind, a life of hospitality and welcome, patience, understanding, and forgiveness. To embody the spirit of God is to act and speak and be that way; full of grace.

And full, also, of truth; confronting what needs to be confronted, making real judgments about things which are harmful and hurtful, standing up for victims of injustice and standing up to those who perpetrate injustice.

It isnt easy, or simple, to live that way. After all, when is speaking the truth just an excuse for being reckless and careless with our words? On the other hand, when is giving grace an excuse for avoiding the confrontation I lack the courage to have?

Theres nothing simple about living a life of grace and truth; a life which so faithfully embodies the Spirit of God that our every conversation is full of nothing but grace and truth, truth and grace.

This is yet another one of those areas of life where Wendell Berrys wonderful old observation applies: The hearts one choice becomes the minds long labor. If, on Christmas Day in the morning, we decide that our hearts one choice is to live a life full of grace and truth, then, it is altogether possible that before Christmas Day in the morning becomes Christmas Day in the evening, our hearts one choice will become our minds long labor; because in some conversation or moment we will probably have to ask ourselves, What will grace allow me to say about this? What does truth require me to say about that?

And, so it will go for the rest of our lives; each new conversation and moment, another opportunity to discover what it would mean, in that conversation or moment, to live up to our hearts one choice to live a life which is full of nothing but grace and truth, truth and grace; a life which sometimes embodies the Spirit of God, which was always embodied in the life of the One whose birth we celebrate today.

Amen.

 

God Is With Us

Matthew 1:18-25, The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 18th, 2016 · Duration 11:0



"God Is With Us"

Matthew 1:18-25

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.

Every three years, on the fourth and final Sunday in the sacred season of Advent, the lectionary places, in the path of the church throughout the world, those words from todays gospel lesson; along with that passage we read earlier from the book of Isaiah, Behold, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel; which is the verse in Isaiah to which the writer of the gospel of Matthew is referring when he says, in todays gospel lesson, concerning the birth of Jesus, All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the prophet.

Of course, careful speech about the Bible requires us to say that, actually, when Isaiah said a young woman would bear a son and name him Immanuel, Isaiah wasnt making a prediction about the birth of Jesus. If you go back and read all of the passage in Isaiah to which the writer of Matthews gospel referred when he said, All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, what you will find is a story about the time when two rival kings from nearby nations were conspiring to defeat King Ahaz of Judah. As Ahaz worried about that looming problem, God sent Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to be afraid, because God was with him. In fact, said Isaiah to King Ahaz, God is going to give you this sign: A young woman, who is already pregnant, will soon have a son and name him Immanuel. And, before that child named Immanuel is old enough to know right from wrong, those two kings you so greatly dread and fear will be gone and forgotten.

Thats what the passage in Isaiah is about; not the birth of Jesus, but Gods promise to help King Ahaz through a frightening and dangerous time, which probably means that, when the writer of the gospel of Matthew connected that story from Isaiah to the birth of Jesus, the writer of the gospel of Matthew was doing with his Bible what we do with ours; assigning a new spiritual meaning to an old Bible story.

Careful speech about the Bible requires us to acknowledge all of that about Matthews use of Isaiahs story, so that we can embrace, in a truthful way, the point of both the Matthew and Isaiah passages, which is that God is with us.

God is with us is the central point of the Isaiah passage and the Matthew passage; and it is also the central message and meaning of the Christmas we will celebrate one week from today.

Pondering that most simple, basic, fundamental truth of all, the truth that God is with us, called to mind for me that beautiful old testimony of the great Quaker writer, Elton Trueblood, who, near the end of his life, said, The longer I live, I find myself believing fewer and fewer things, but believing them more and more deeply. That certainly is the case for me, and, one of those fewer and fewer things I find myself believing more and more deeply is the truth which travels in that beautiful old word, Immanuel; God is with us.

God is with us; if not to protect us from the worst, to see us through the worst, a truth of which I was reminded this week, as I prayed my way through our church roll, reading all those names by the light of our Christmas tree at home; Abell, Adams, Aden, Aldridge, Alexander, Allen . . . Wooley, Worley, Wyatt, Wylie, Yates, Yelverton, about four hundred and fifty households in all, pausing over each name to ponder prayerfully the little I know of all the great struggles and disappointments, battles and losses from which God has not spared us and did not protect us. All of which, ironically enough, is one of the ways we know that God is with us. If God was not with us to give us new strength for each new day, we could not have lived through the wonderful things God might have done but did not do.

But, God is with us. God is with us, not because we are good, but because God is good. God is with us, not because we belong to the right religion or profess the right faith. God is with us, not because of a decision we have made, but because of a decision God has made; a decision God has made always to be with us, the ultimate sign of which is something that is going to happen one week from today, when Jesus will be born again; Immanuel, God with us.

Amen.

 

 

Lessons and Carols Service, The Third Sunday of Advent

Lessons and Carols Service, The Third Sunday of Advent

Choir, Orchestra, and Congregation · December 14th, 2016 · Duration 67:43

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

As Christ Has Welcomed You

Romans 15:4-13, The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 4th, 2016 · Duration 4:50



"As Christ Has Welcomed You"

Romans 15:4-13

The Second Sunday of Advent

(Sermon begins after about 39 seconds)

Welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you. Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from todays epistle lesson. And, every time they roll back around, we know, instinctively, how wide is the welcome to which they beckon us, because we know how Christ has welcomed us; with nothing but boundless grace. All of our hypocrisy and complexity, pretense and sin, notwithstanding, Christ has welcomed us with nothing but love. So, we know what welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us will mean. Welcoming others as Christ has welcomed us will mean living a life with wingspan; the reach of our welcome as fully open to others as Jesus arms were, and are, completely open to us.

While I cannot speak for you, I can tell you that, in my own experience, to live with a welcome that wide; a welcome so wide that we welcome others as Christ has welcomed us, is not a burden. To the contrary, in my experience, it is lifes greatest joy.

My sisters and brothers, this is where the joy is; letting the love which has flowed down to us from God flow out through us to others.

If you want to find the true joy of the Christian life, the joy which no one can take from you, this is it; the joy which comes from getting in on what God is up to, by welcoming and embracing the whole human family, not out of tolerance or obligation, but with joy and celebration; just as Christ has welcomed us.

Amen.

A Sermon by Jill Buckley

Isaiah 2:1-5, The First Sunday in Advent

Jill Buckley · November 27th, 2016 · Duration 17:10



A Sermon by Jill Buckley

Isaiah 2:1-5

The First Sunday in Advent

Concerning the Budget of the Church

Colossians 1:11-20, Christ the King Sunday

Chuck Poole · November 20th, 2016 · Duration 11:32



"Concerning the Budget of the Church"

Colossians 1:11-20

Christ the King Sunday

Today is the day of the annually awaited, joyfully anticipated, stewardship sermon, and the day of little Jeb Snyders dedication. Which, needless to say, wasnt planned that way, but which, if you think about it, is, actually, a beautiful convergence; baby dedication and budget exhortation!

After all, it would be difficult for us, as a church, to keep those promises we just made to teach Jeb all about Moses and Miriam, Abraham and Sarah, Jesus and God, without rooms which are clean and lit, furnished and staffed, and heated and cooled; a Northminster network of nurture, care and spiritual formation, all of which is undergirded by the church budget, and, without which, it would be difficult for us to do all that we just promised to do for Jeb, and for all the others who are being watched over in our nursery, as we speak.

Of course, the most rigorously careful speech of which we are capable requires us to be careful to say that, while it would be difficult to form the lives of our children without a strong church budget, and all the infrastructure it supports, it would not be impossible.

The truth is, we could all learn about Jesus and God gathered in an open field, or a public park, or in someones living room. We have to be careful to be clear about that, lest we recruit God into our twenty-first century, middle-class, North American assumptions about church budgets and the programs, activities, and facilities they support. The God we worship, the God about whom we read in todays epistle lesson, who was embodied in the life of Christ, created a universe which is, apparently, approximately thirteen billion years old in one direction, and still expanding in the other direction, so we have to be very careful about tying that enormous, transcendent, inexhaustible God too closely to any religious or institutional structure, including our own.

We have to keep our thinking clear about all this, and say what we know to be true; which is that, our lives could be formed for God and the gospel without a large church and a strong budget; but not in the way we do it, because the way we do it requires spaces to gather, material to study and ministers to help; not to mention facility maintenance, copy machines, sound systems, choir robes, laptops, insurance, mustard, ketchup, animal crackers, cheese straws, wireless capacity and all sorts of institutional infrastructure which most of us never think about until something runs out, breaks down or goes wrong; all of which supports a way of forming lives within our walls, and reaching lives beyond our walls, which needs and deserves the financial support of every one of our members.

Six months from now, in May of 2017, we will celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of our church; a church birthed as a less than perfect place for less than perfect people. And, while Northminster continues to be a less than perfect church, we are also a more than wonderful place in which to be comforted and challenged by God and the gospel from cradle to grave. And, while we dont do that holy work perfectly, it does happen here in ways which strive to be clear and truthful, including, even, being careful not to blur the lines between the budget and God, not even on stewardship sermon Sunday.

Thats the kind of church where you want your children to grow up, and your life to be formed; a church which strives for clarity and truthfulness, because a lifetime in that kind of church will help form us into people who are truthful and clear in our words and actions.

And, that kind of church, which is this kind of church, needs, and deserves, to be supported financially by all of us to the full extent that each of us can.

And, then, when we have all given what we could, we will have all done what we should.

Amen.

 

An Exercise in Biblical Interpretation

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost, II Thessalonians 3:6-13

Chuck Poole · November 13th, 2016 · Duration 12:12



"An Exercise in Biblical Interpretation"

The Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost

II Thessalonians 3:6-13

Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. Across the years, from time to time, I have heard those words from todays epistle passage enlisted in support of the idea that the Bible teaches that anyone unwilling to work should not eat.

Which is, in fact, what those words say, when you look at them, on the page. But, then, after we look at those words, if we look behind them, we remember that, in all likelihood, those words were written to the church at Thessalonica to help clear up their confusion about the return of Christ; a confusion which had, apparently, resulted in some members of the church stopping working, to watch and wait for the return of Christ, because they thought Christ was coming again any day. So, when Paul said, to the Thessalonians, Anyone unwilling to work should not eat, Paul was probably trying to correct that eschatological idleness, as in, Get back to work. You cant just sit around waiting for Jesus to come back. In fact, those who are unwilling to work should not eat.

Thats what you find when you look behind those words, Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. Needless to say, we all struggle with complex questions about how best to help those who are in need. But, those words from todays epistle lesson are not a neat and tidy The Bible says it and that settles it resolution to the complexity of compassion in twenty-first century Jackson. Rather, those words are Pauls effort to address a specific situation for a specific congregation in first-century Thessalonica.

Thats what you find when you look behind those words, Anyone unwilling to work should not eat, And, then, if you read the rest of the Bible and look around those words, you see, in the same Bible where one verse says, Anyone unwilling to work should not eat, another verse which says, Give to anyone who begs from you, an example of the fact that the Bible often speaks with varied voices, on the same subject; which is why, as much as we might like to, we dont get to shift our responsibility for thinking and praying in the Holy Spirit to chapters and verses in the Holy Bible.

Rather, serious, thoughtful, Biblical interpretation requires us to look, not only at the words on the page, behind the words on the page and around the words on the page, but, also, beyond the words on the page; opening our lives to the wind of the Spirit; asking the Holy Spirit to lead us into the truth which will most closely align our lives with Gods love.

That is how to interpret scripture. Its actually very simple. First, we look at the words on the page. Then, we look behind the words on the page, to see what they may have meant to those to whom they were written. Then, we look around the words on the page, to see how they match up with all the other words on all the other pages in the Bible. And, then, finally, we look beyond the words on the page to the Spirit of God, which is ultimately what matters most. What matters most is that we embody the Spirit of God in the world, even when the Spirit of God takes us past the place where the words on the page might have dropped us off, because, as important and wonderful as scripture is, the Holy Spirit is more important than the Holy Bible.

Take, for example, those words from this mornings passage in First Thessalonians, Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. Every time the lectionary places them in our path, I find myself thinking about my grandfather, Eugene Poole, progenitor of what we call, in our family, the Gene Poole gene pool.

Daddy Gene was a local legend in Kite, Georgia for his ragtime piano playing, his amazing gift as a street-corner comedian, and, sadly, for being, in the words of todays epistle passage, unwilling to work.

My dad once told me about a time when people from the church came to help them, when he was a boy, and how, even though he was a child, he could sense that the folks who brought the food to their door were resentful about helping them, because everybody knew that the Pooles were hungry, not because Daddy Gene was unable to work, but because he was, in the words of todays epistle passage, unwilling to work.

But, they came anyway. Even though they could have used that Bible verse we read this morning to leave my family off their list, they didnt. They could have just looked at the words on the page and said, Anyone unwilling to work shall not eat. The Bible says it and that settles it. Instead, they kept going past the place where a Bible verse might have given them permission to stop, had they chosen to use it that way; a small, simple example of how life looks when love looks beyond the words on the page; a way of reading the Bible which Barbara Brown Taylor once captured when she said, I love the Bible, but I hope never to love the Book more than I love the people the Book calls me to love.

Which, no matter what the issue or question may be, is always the right way to read and interpret the Bible; through the lens of love, in the light of love, for the life of love.

Amen.

 

Where the Life of Faith Meets the Pain of Life

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 30th, 2016 · Duration 13:39



"Where the Life of Faith Meets the Pain of Life"

Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? With those words, Habakkuk joins his voice to a Bible-wide chorus of questions and complaints; complaints and questions which travel about in verses and voices such as Psalm 13:1, How long, O Lord, will you forget me? Jeremiah 15:18, Why is my pain unceasing and my wound incurable? Lamentations 3:8, Though I cry for help, God shuts out my prayer; Psalm 22:1, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?, and, of course, Habakkuk, in this mornings lesson of scripture, O Lord, how long shall I cry for help and you will not listen?; a Bible-wide chorus of questions and complaints, all rising from the place where the life of faith meets the pain of life, each asking their own version of the same question, If God cares, and if God can, then why doesnt God do more? If God cares, and if God can, then why doesnt God step in and stop things before they go so far and get so bad?

In the popular Christianity which is so dominant in our part of the world, the most frequently repeated answer to, and for, those questions is that when God doesnt step in and stop the agonies, miseries, tragedies and injustices in this world, it is because God is planning to use those agonies, miseries, tragedies and injustices to accomplish Gods purposes.

Many of the best people I know embrace some version of that as the reason God doesnt always step in and stop things. And, for all I know, they may be right, but I find it hard to believe that the same God who could create a universe of such vast wonder and unspeakable beauty as the one in which we live cannot accomplish good purposes in one life without utterly destroying another.

The answer to that objection, most often, is that God doesnt send tragedies, terrors and troubles, God just allows them, which is something I, too, used to say, many years ago. But, then, it occurred to me, one day, that the difference between God sending a tragedy, disease or devastation and allowing it, even though God saw it coming and could have stopped it, is not enough of a difference to matter.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I have come to believe that, when it comes to those questions which rise from the place where the life of faith meets the pain of life, it is almost always better for us to ask them than it is for us to answer them.

Theres never anything wrong with asking those questions; but sometimes it might be best for us to be content to let the questions stand; in the words of Rainer Maria Rilke, to love the question, without feeling the need to answer it; content to know that God can be trusted, even when God cannot be explained or understood; trusted to give us the strength to go through the terrible loss we did not get to go around.

Amen.

The Democracy of Prayer

Luke 18:9-14, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Steven Fuller · October 23rd, 2016 · Duration 22:33



The Democracy of Prayer (And the Heavy Doors of Northminster)

Luke 18:9-14

The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

While the Temple of Jerusalem was built on a high and holy hill, the floor is level where the Pharisee and Tax Collector stand to pray to God.

Jesus presents a kind of democracy in our parable today, a levelness that attends the prayers we bring to God, a sacred space for saint and sinner, Pharisee and Tax collector alike, to stand before God and be heard. the world beyond these walls, there are mountains and valleys, ladders to climb up and ditches to fall down, thrones to reign over and shadows to hide under. But when we walk into this sanctuary, we pray on a level floor.

Like most democracies, the democracy of prayer can make us uncomfortable, especially when we dont approve of the people standing beside us. I see why Jesus would take some time in his teachings on prayer to express the equitable order of life before God. Like our Pharisee, its too easy for people like me who work hard to build lives of righteousness to think weve raised a high bench upon which we can sit and judge others. He prays, Thank you God that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income. Pharisees may build towers of religious justification, but Jesus reminds us of that Gospel paradox that the path upward to God has a downward slope. There is no priestly pulpit, political platform, or moral mantle with which we can raise ourselves above our neighbors when we go before God. The floor is level where we come to pray.

But that is not news to Northminster. Such truth is laid in the floors of our sanctuary, kept in the silences of our worship, and opened to all through the heavy doors of our welcome. first time I walked into this sanctuary, six years ago, Doug Boone opened the doors for me. Looking in from the narthex, he explained the theological foundation for the structural formation of the sanctuary. After pointing out the many ways in which the cruciform sanctuary expresses Northminsters pursuit of a cruciform life, he also pointed to the floor. his finger trailed the aisle from the narthex to the chancel, he said that the back of the sanctuary is intentionally level with the chancel.You see, while the floor has a slight downward slope, the back of the sanctuary is level with the front so that those sitting on the back pew sit at the same height as those who sit in black robes at the front of the sanctuary. sanctuary was built to embody the theological conviction that the floor is level where we come to pray. Sure, we lift the word of God, raise our voices in praise, and hold high the cup of salvation, but we worship God on a level floor.

The democracy of prayer is built into the bones of our sanctuary, and then every Sunday, when we gather to worship God, we honor the democracy of prayer in our worship when we keep silence. This may sound weird, but what is more democratic than silence? In a world where words travel faster and farther than anything, and are so often flippantly flung or violently voiced, what is more democratic and prayerful than keeping silence? Sure we can all hold high the cup or voice an individual vote in democratic unity, but to keep silence together...Silence has a most democratic reign, which we must all respect or else it is lost. we keep silence, each of us has a hand on this holy moment, this fragile fragment of a holy hour, keeping it, holding it, in a world where words and noise are always ready to rush in and take it from us. We respect one anothers words, affirm one anothers faith, and echo one anothers prayers when we keep silence on one anothers behalf.

We dont just stay silent at Northminster, we keep it. And in one of those intentional silences here at Northminster, we keep that space open for confession. We keep that space open for the tax collector in all of us as we go before God and ask for mercy individually...together. I love to sing, and I love to preach, and I love to take communion, but there is nothing we do together as a congregation more vulnerable and intimate than keeping silence for confession together. In that moment, we are silent together, but we are also vulnerable together and repentant together, opening our eyes to the sin of our lives as we open our souls to the mercy of God. We honor the democracy of prayer in the common silence of confession.

The democracy of prayer is a conviction we built into our sanctuary and keep in our silences, and its with this same democratic conviction that we open wide the doors of our welcome. While only one of the parables two characters went home justified, they were both given a place to stand and be heard. Despite the loudness of our world, keeping doors open can be just as hard as keeping silence. The Pharisees response to the Tax Collectors presence proves that feeling contempt for others is nothing new. Humans have always searched for heights from which we can look down at others. And yet it seems that Facebook, Twitter, and the 24-hour news cycle give us far more opportunities to cultivate contempt for others than ever before: surrounding us with merciless stereotypes and turning real and complex human persons and situations into reactionary headlines meant to grab us and incite us. When have human hearts been so overwhelmed with contempt for people weve never known, touched, stood with, or prayed beside? It seems we know just enough about too many people to have contempt for them, and yet we dont know enough about them to have compassion for them. Nasty or deplorable, contempt is contagious. It can make us want to shut our doors to those we dont want to find praying beside us, those whom we dont feel are worthy of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with us before God.

But thats not Northminster. And this isnt new. When this church was founded almost 50 years ago, it was founded with the explicit intent of opening its doors to everyone at a moment history when other churches intentionally shut some out. In the middle of that wide open welcome is the conviction that we all need a place to stand before God, a level floor from which to voice our prayers, and a common silence in which to confess our sin. You see, the democracy of prayer at Northminster starts from the floor, moves up through our worship and out through our doors, inviting all who are in need of a savior to come and worship, sit and pray before God, surrounded by a community of sinners all in the process of being redeemed.

Our duty as faithful porters of Northminsters wide open welcome should not be taken lightly, because our doors are heavy. This edifice was not constructed with screen doors that flap open with a breeze and slap against the siding. You gotta want to open these doors. And some of you may not be aware of this, or at least you were unaware of it until you found yourself trapped in the narthex after lingering a little too long, but our big ol doors have magnets on them...really strong magnets set on timers. More times than Im proud to admit, I have run my face right into one of our big ol doors because I didnt time it right while pushing that little green button of deliverance.

It takes two hands to open our doors. The heavy wood and strong magnets may imply stubbornness, a criticism that can be leveled at most any institution, but theres something good and true about the heavy doors of Northminster. You gotta want to open them. The heavy doors of Northminster do not open haphazardly. Like the floors of our sanctuary and the silences of our worship, we open the heavy doors of our welcome with intent. And it takes real effort, doesnt it, to keep the doors of our welcome open? But just like the pathway to our Lords table, we take the time and put in the work to open them wide, because the democracy of prayer, the holiness of worship, and the wide welcome of our impartial God that we built into our bones and keep in our silences is honored when we take the time and make the effort to open wide the doors of our welcome, the heavy doors of Northminster.

Most of you have heard by now that December 11 will be my last Sunday as Student Pastor at Northminster, after which my family and I will move to NC to follow my calling as Senior Pastor of FBC of Gastonia. As someone who first walked through these doors 6 years ago and will go from this place to another place in a couple months, I want to bear witness before God and all who are gathered here to the wide welcome with which you have received me, Chase, Wake, and Beckon into your doors and into your life together.

As a disciple, I have been challenged by the Gospel of Jesus Christ and carried by this congregation throughout my life here.

As your student pastor, I have been given the freedom to lead with my conscience and the support to do it well. Its been such a gift to my life and my ministry, to worship with you, serve beside you, and learn from you. Your youth are my youth. That is a point of pride for me, one which grows ever tender as I anticipate our move.

And as a dad to two of your members, I have not only known the joy of handing my boys off to the church as Chuck walked them down these aisles, Ive also known grace of handing my boys off to Annette Hitt, Mlee Williams, Valerie Linn, and many others in this house and at the Fuller house when, literally or figuratively, my arms were too full, and I needed help.

You see, we are not only stewards of floors, silences, and doors on behalf of others as a selfless act of Gospel conscience. But, like our love for God, the love and welcome we give to others is inextricably connected to the love we receive for ourselves. We not only keep these doors opened wide for others, we keep them opened wide so that no matter where we go or what we do, we can always get back in. The floor is level where we come to pray, the silence is shared when we confess our sin, and the doors of Christs church are opened wide, ever inviting us into the presence of God and the grace of Christ Jesus our Savior.

Thank you, Northminster, for letting me in. And thanks be to God.
Amen.

 

Toward a More Truthful Relationship With the Bible

II Timothy 3:14-4:5, The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 16th, 2016 · Duration 13:30



"Toward a More Truthful Relationship With the Bible"

II Timothy 3:14-4:5

The Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost

But, as for you, continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it, and how, from childhood, you have known the sacred writings.

Based on those words from this mornings epistle lesson, it would appear that someone had done for Timothy, when he was a child, what we all just promised to do for Davis Frame, when we said that we would teach Davis about Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Jesus and God; all of whom we find in our version of what this mornings epistle lesson called, the sacred writings.

Of course, the sacred writings Timothy had learned in his childhood would not have been the same as what we call the Bible, because the sixty-six books we call the Bible were not officially declared by the church to be the Bible until about three centuries after Second Timothy was written. But, while the books are not the same, the point is, and the point, then and now, is this: Sacred scripture holds a large and important place in our lives.

To be content to say that about the Bible; Sacred scripture holds a large and important place in our lives, might be, for many of us, a step in the direction of a more truthful relationship with the Bible.

Here in our corner of the world, it can be hard to be content only to say, Sacred scripture holds a large and important place in our lives, because so many people with whom we work and go to school talk about the Bible in ways that sound so much bigger and better than that. To say, Scripture holds a large and important place in our lives, seems less impressive than saying, The Bible is the perfect revelation of God, in which every word is authoritative for all times and places.

That sounds like a bigger, better compliment to pay the Bible than simply to say, Scripture holds a large and important place in our lives. But, to be content to say, Scripture holds a large and important place in our lives would be, for most people, a more truthful way to speak of our relationship to the Bible, because almost all of the many wonderful people who say that each word in the Bible is perfect and authoritative for all times and places, apply that standard of perfection and authority in a highly selective way. They have no problem, for example, with protecting their home with burglar alarms, despite the fact that Matthew 5:39 says, Do not resist an evildoer, and they continue to need walk-in closets, despite the fact that Luke 3:11 says that if you have two coats you should give one to someone who has no coat, and they are not socialists, despite the fact that II Corinthians 8:15 affirms the principle that those who have much should not have too much so that those who have little will not have too little, and they continue to shop, despite the fact that, in Luke 14:33, Jesus says, You cannot be my follower unless you give up all your possessions.

Confronted with all of that, the most common response is, Well, everybody knows you cant take those verses literally. They have to be interpreted. Which is true and right; those verses do have to be interpreted. But, if those verses have to be interpreted, so do all the other verses in the Bible. We dont get to interpret the verses which we are afraid to apply to ourselves, and then take literally the verses which we are eager to apply to others, while simultaneously claiming to take every word of the Bible as the perfect and authoritative Word of God.

I know a good bit about that way of using the Bible, because it is a way of using the Bible with which I, and millions more, grew up. The Bible verses which would have challenged our consumerism and materialism, comfort and security, we found ways to interpret, so we could continue to talk about the perfect authority of scripture without having to rearrange our lives, while we took literally those verses which made those of us in the comfortable majority feel superior to those who were different from us; picking and choosing our way through the Bible, while simultaneously claiming to believe that every word in the Bible was perfect and authoritative for all time. (And, heres the amazing thing about all that; none of us ever called out any of us. It was as though we had all entered into some sort of unspoken agreement that none of us would ever point out to any of us how hypocritical we were when it came to the way we used the Bible.)

Think of how much more truthful our relationship to the Bible would have been if we had been content not to use the idea of the perfect authority of the Bible to prop up our lives and hold down others, but, instead, simply to say, Sacred scripture holds a large and important place in our life.

Think, for a moment, of how much more truthful everyones relationship to the Bible would be if we all just read the Bible, studied the Bible, loved and learned from the Bible, and said, Sacred scripture holds a large and important place in our lives. Period. Thats all.

Amen.

 

Adjusting

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7, The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 9th, 2016 · Duration 10:36



"Adjusting"

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Sooner or later, everyone has to adjust to something, which may be one reason why todays Old Testament passage has come to be so beloved by so many; it just might be the ultimate Bible passage on adjusting; coming to terms with the life we have, even when the life we have turns out to be very different from the one we planned or dreamed, wanted or wished.

The lesson we read this morning from the book of Jeremiah is an excerpt from a letter the prophet Jeremiah wrote the people of Judah who had been carried away captive into exile in Babylon. Life, for them, was turning out in ways they never would have dreamed. But, at this point, it was still early in the exile, so they were still hoping that their present struggle would soon be over, so that they could return to their homes and get on with their lives.

And, there were, apparently, some preachers who were encouraging the people of God to hope that hope of a soon return. In Jeremiah chapter twenty-eight, for example, a prophet named Hananiah told them that this would all be over in two years, and, then, everything could get back to normal.

The exiled people of God liked the sound of that sermon. But, then came Jeremiah, throwing the cold water of careful speech on Hananiahs optimistic prediction of a brief exile and a soon return: Dont listen to those preachers who are telling you what you want to hear about the tenure of your trouble and the date of your return, says Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 29:9, Only when Babylons seventy years are complete will God visit you and bring you home.

Of course, we all know what seventy years means in the Bible. Psalm 90 says, The length of a life is seventy years. So, seventy years is Bible shorthand for a lifetime, which means that what Jeremiah was saying to the people of God in exile was that life in exile was the only life they were ever going to have.

Which may explain why, in that part of Jeremiahs letter which the lectionary asked us to read this morning, Jeremiah said, to the people of God, in exile, in Babylon, Build a house and plant a garden. If they didnt build a house and plant a garden in Babylon, they would never build a house and plant a garden anywhere, because this was it. This is your life for the rest of your life said Jeremiah, The only one you are ever going to have. So, build a house and plant a garden, because, if you put your life on hold until you get out of Babylon, the life youll be putting on hold will be the only life you are ever going to have. Build a house and plant a garden; settle in, adjust to, and make peace with, the life you have, because this is it. This is your life.

Those words of Jeremiahs may not have been written to us or about us, but, they certainly do carry a powerful word for us; a strong and true word about the hard and holy work of adjusting to those realities which will not adjust to us; learning to live deeply, fully and faithfully the life we have, even when the life we have is different from the life we planned or dreamed, wanted or wished.

All of which might not matter so much were it not for the fact that we are all going to die someday, 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. This is it. This is our life. And, even though it may no longer bear much resemblance to the life we had always assumed we would have, the life we planned and dreamed, wanted and wished, it is the one and only life we are ever going to have in this world.

So, let us choose, today, while there is still time, to get up every morning and, with the help of the Holy Spirit, live whatever is left of the life we have, as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.

Amen.

 

Courage

II Timothy 1:1-14, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 2nd, 2016 · Duration 7:51



"Courage"

II Timothy 1:1-14,

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from Second Timothy, and, every time they roll back around, they remind me of William Sloane Coffins memorable observation, Courage is doing the right thing, even when youre scared to death.

Its true. Having courage is not the same as being fearless. In fact, if you dont have fear, you dont need courage. Courage is doing the right thing, even when youre scared to death.

I, myself, am not an expert when it comes to courage. In fact, there are few things in this life I want more of, and have less of, than that one thing; courage. But, one thing I have learned about courage is that courage, like love, is a verb disguised as a noun. Courage is not something you feel instead of fear, courage is what you do in the face of fear.

You decide to have that painful conversation. You decide to seek the help you know you need. You decide to shout from the housetops the truth God has been whispering to you in the closet, but you have been too afraid to say out loud. You decide to go to a new place with all its uncertainty. Or, you decide to stay in the old place with all its difficulty. You decide to sit down with, and stand up for, the people you know Jesus would sit down with, and stand up for, if Jesus lived in Jackson, Mississippi in 2016.

Thats courage; not a feeling that feels courageous, but, ironically enough, a decision that feels frightening; doing the right thing, even when youre scared to death.

And, while Im no expert at having that kind of courage, I do, at least, know where to go to find it. And, the good news is, you are already there, because you are already here.

Thats right. It happens here. We find courage in the people we find in church. You can actually catch a case of courage just watching the line that forms for communion; seeing the faces, hearing the voices and remembering the stories of all these dear and good souls who live lives of quiet courage every day.

All of which is to say that courage is contagious, and we have come to the right place to catch it; eating and drinking after all these good sisters and brothers who make us want to be better than we are just by being exactly who they are.

Amen.

A Sermon on the Subject of Hope

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 25th, 2016 · Duration 14:18



"A Sermon on the Subject of Hope"

Jeremiah 32:1-3, 6-15

The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

What Might Jesus Have Meant by That?

Luke 16:1-13, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 18th, 2016 · Duration 12:30



"What Might Jesus Have Meant by That?"

Luke 16:1-13

The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Until

Luke 15:1-10, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 13th, 2016 · Duration 11:31

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Between Jesus and Christianity

Luke 14:25-33, The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 4th, 2016 · Duration 8:21



"Between Jesus and Christianity"

Luke 14:25-33

The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Now large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and he turned and said to them, Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and life itself, cannot be my disciple . . . . None of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, every time the lectionary places those words in our path, I am struck by the difference between the Jesus of this mornings gospel lesson and the popular Christianity which is so dominate in our part of the world.

Even after we cushion the blow of Jesus words by reminding one another that, while the Bible is to be taken seriously, it is not to be taken literally, still, we can tell that there is a difference between the Jesus of this mornings gospel lesson, and the popular Christianity which fills the air and the water in our part of the world.

The difference between popular Christianity and the Jesus of this mornings gospel lesson is that, unlike popular Christianity, Jesus did not have any institutional anxiety, because he did not have any institutional ambition. Unlike popular Christianity, the Jesus of this mornings gospel lesson wasnt trying to draw a crowd, or see how big and powerful he could get, or make as many converts as he could as quickly as he could. To the contrary, in this mornings gospel lesson, Jesus encouraged the crowd he had drawn to stop and count the cost before they decided to follow him, because he knew that truly fully following him would mean being willing to let go of safety and security, popularity and comfort.

Not able to bear all of that, somewhere back there, between Jerusalem and Jackson, we created a more user-friendly Christianity, which, unlike Jesus in this mornings gospel lesson, allowed for a category of people like myself, and millions more; Christians who have accepted Christ, but who do not follow Jesus in anything like the way Jesus described following him in this mornings gospel lesson.

I imagine Jesus looks on that kind of Christianity, now, the way he looked on Judaism, then; with gratitude for all the good intentions behind all our institutional ambitions, but wishing for Christianity now what he wished for Judaism then; that we could somehow learn to be content to love God with all that is in us, and to love others as we love ourselves; which would, more than anything else we can name, shrink the distance and close the gap between Jesus and Christianity.

Amen.

As Though We Were

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 28th, 2016 · Duration 13:40



"As Though We Were"

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

On Not Mishandling the Bible

Luke 13:10-17, The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 21st, 2016 · Duration 16:13



"On Not Mishandling the Bible"

Luke 13:10-17

The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

The leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, There are six days on which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered him and said, You hypocrites!

Every three years, the lectionary places those words in the path of the church throughout the world. And, every time they roll back around, they remind us that having a Bible verse on our side is not necessarily the same as having Jesus on our side.

The man who was angry about Jesus healing the bent over woman on the Sabbath definitely had a Bible verse on his side. When he said, There are six days on which work ought to be done, he was quoting a verse which appears twice in the Bible; once in Exodus chapter twenty, and again in Deuteronomy, chapter five. But, apparently, having a Bible verse on his side was not necessarily the same as having Jesus on his side, because, as you will, no doubt, have noticed, despite the fact that the angry man in this mornings gospel lesson had some Bible to back up his opinion, Jesus called him a hypocrite.

What made the man in this mornings gospel lesson a hypocrite was the way the man was using scripture on other people; applying the Sabbath prohibition in Exodus and Deuteronomy literally when it came to the bent over womans life, but applying it loosely when it came to his own; a way of handling scripture which Jesus called hypocrisy; a form of hypocrisy which is with us still; the hypocrisy of interpreting the Bible literally when it comes to others, but interpreting the Bible loosely when it comes to us; the most commonplace, wide spread and unchallenged hypocrisy in Bible Belt Christianity; taking a stand on the verses of scripture which work for us, and taking a pass on the ones which dont.

It happens all the time. People will take a stand on John 3:16 and John 14:6 because they like what they think those verses say about Christianity being the only way to God, and on Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26 because they like the way those verses seem to condemn someone elses sexuality, but the same people will take a pass on Luke 14:33 and II Corinthians 8:15 because they fear what those verses say about their own materialism and consumerism; interpreting the Bible literally when it comes to someone elses life, but interpreting the Bible loosely when it comes to their own; using verses such as John 3:16, John 14:6, Leviticus 18:22 and Romans 1:26 on other people, but never applying verses such as Matthew 5:39 (Do not resist an evildoer) or I Timothy 2:9 (No more fancy earrings) to their own lives; taking a stand on the verses which work for them and taking a pass on the ones which dont.

One way to avoid falling into that way of mishandling the Bible is to decide that we will not use any verse of scripture on anyone elses life until we have firstapplied every verse of scripture to our own life.

Several years ago I decided to make that my Bible-handling rule. I decided that I would not use any verse of scripture on anyone elses life until I had first applied every verse of scripture to my own life. As you might imagine, I continue to fail at that from time to time. But, I can report that the more you practice, the better you get at the spiritual discipline of not using any verse of scripture on anyone elses life until you have first applied every verse of scripture to your own life.

Of course, we could skip that. We could skip the small spiritual discipline of being careful never to use any verse of scripture on anyone elses life until we have first applied every verse of scripture to our own life and, instead, go straight to the big, main Bible-handling rule which was given to us, and modeled for us, by Jesus himself. As you may recall from your own reading of the four gospels, when a man in Matthew asked Jesus which words of scripture were the most important scripture words of all, Jesus said that the most important words in scripture are the words which command us to love God with all that is in us and to love our neighbor as ourselves, after which he said that every other word in scripture hangs on those two commandments; love for God and love for others.

That was Jesus Bible-handling rule; love God with all that is in you and love other people as you love yourself, and all the other verses in the Bible will just have to get in line behind those two.

Our next step along the path to depth is to learn to be content to handle our Bible the way Jesus handled his; reading, interpreting and applying every word and verse in scripture through the lens of, and in the light of, love.

Amen.

Is That Really In the Bible?

Luke 12:49-53, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 14th, 2016 · Duration 2:54



"Is That Really In the Bible?"

Luke 12:49-53

The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

As you may have noticed, the Bible is full of surprises. Theres a talking snake, for example, in Genesis, and a talking donkey in Numbers; a man who eats a book in Ezekiel, and one who eats bugs in Mark; not to mention this mornings gospel lesson, where Jesus, of all people, the Prince of Peace himself, is reported to have said, Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; just a few of the many surprises waiting inside each of these bright and shiny new Bibles we are about to place in the hands of our first graders; the kinds of surprises which sometimes cause us all to wonder, Is that really in the Bible?

When it comes to the Bible, the main thing for all of us, young and old, to remember is that, while the Bible is often surprising, occasionally bewildering, and sometimes speaks with varied voices, it is always where we find the glad good news and deep strong truth that God is with us and for us, to love us and help us, all the time, everywhere, no matter what.

Amen.

The Life of Faith

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 7th, 2016 · Duration 5:26



"The Life of Faith"

Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

All of these died in faith without having received the promises.

Those words from todays epistle lesson come at the close of a roll call of Bible heroes; Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob . . . each of whom lived the life of faith; but all of whom died, according to this mornings epistle passage, without having received the promises; a quiet reminder for all of us that, no matter how much faith we have, having faith does not guarantee that things will always turn out the way we want or wish or plan or pray.

Sometimes, of course, we do receive the miracle we want; the clear report, the good outcome, the healing, the reconciliation, the protection, the relief.

Other times, instead of the miracle we want, what we get is the miracle we need; the miracle we would not have needed had we received the miracle we wanted, the miracle of enough courage and strength to stay on our feet, keep moving and do the next right thing, no matter how difficult or disappointing life has become.

And, in those times when we dont receive the news or relief or outcome for which we had hoped and prayed, we dont lose faith in God. We just pray for the next best thing. And, if that doesnt come to pass, we pray for the next next best thing; the arc of our prayers following the trajectory of our lives, until, sometimes, theres nothing left to pray for but the courage and strength we need to make it through the wonderful thing God might have done, but did not do; loving God, all the while, as unconditionally as God loves us; no strings attached, never giving up on God, but always leaving room in the room for God to do all that God can do in every circumstance and situation.

At its deepest and simplest, that is the life of faith; us loving God exactly the way God loves us; unconditionally, no strings attached, no matter what.

Amen.

Because God Is God

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Hosea 11:1-11

Chuck Poole · July 31st, 2016 · Duration 10:39



"Because God Is God"

The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Hosea 11:1-11

To Live from a Quiet Center

Luke 10:38-42, The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 17th, 2016 · Duration 15:57



"To Live from a Quiet Center"

Luke 10:38-42

The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Concerning What Mattered Most to Jesus

Luke 10:25-37, The Eighth Sunday after Penteost

Chuck Poole · July 10th, 2016 · Duration 14:17



"Concerning What Mattered Most to Jesus"

Luke 10:25-37

The Eighth Sunday after Penteost

Just then, a man said to Jesus, Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus said to him, What is written in the law? What do you read there? He answered, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself. And Jesus said to him, You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live.

Those words from this mornings gospel lesson sound a lot like another moment from the life of Jesus, when, in Matthew chapter twenty-two, an inquirer asked Jesus, Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest? To which Jesus replied, The first and greatest commandment is, Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. Which is not unlike what happens in Mark chapter twelve, where Jesus is asked to name the most important commandment, to which he replies. The number one commandment is Love the Lord your God with all that is in you. And, Love your neighbor as yourself is a close second.

So, by the time we get to todays lesson in Luke, we are not surprised to hear Jesus response to the man who wants to know what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. The inquirer asks, What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus replies, What does the Law say? The man answers, The Law says love God with all that is in you, and love your neighbor as yourself. To which Jesus says, You have given the right answer. Do this and you will live. Which doesnt surprise us, because we already know that, if the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, loving God with all that is in us and loving our neighbors as ourselves is what mattered most to Jesus.

I cannot think about all of that without remembering a story Jimmy Carter once told about a mission trip he went on with his church in Georgia, several years before he became President Carter.

Mr. Carter wrote about helping an urban minister named Eloy Cruz each day for ten days, following him around in a huge apartment complex in Boston. He said that, on the last day of the trip, as they were loading the vans to head home, he took Reverend Cruz aside and said, I have to know your secret. I have never been around anyone as patient, gentle, and joyful as you. I cannot leave here without knowing how you have come to be that way and live that way. Reverend Cruz, somewhat embarrassed, stumbled around for an answer, and finally said, I dont know. Ive never really thought about myself in that way. I guess I just get up every morning and love God and whoever is in front of me.

Which is another way of saying what Jesus said matters most; that we love God with all that is in us, and our neighbor as our self.

Of course, careful speech requires us to say that all of this is simple to say but difficult to do. Just ask the man in this mornings gospel lesson. He and Jesus were in full agreement about Loving God with all that is in us and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves. But then, things became more complicated when the man asked Jesus to define the term neighbor. Wanting to justify himself, says verse twenty-nine, The man asked Jesus, Who is my neighbor?

As one New Testament scholar has observed, in this case, Who is my neighbor? actually means, Who is not my neighbor? Where do I get to draw the line? And, of course, Jesus being Jesus, answers with a parable, in which he intentionally makes the hero of the story a Samaritan; a racial and religious enemy whom the man who asked the question would probably want to boundary out.

Even Samaritans are your neighbors, said Jesus, You have to love even Samaritans as you love yourself. Even those you most despise, you are called to love as you love yourself.

Thats the point of the parable, which is why Jesus made a Samaritan the star of the story. It was Jesus story, so he could have made anybody he wanted the hero, but, he made the hero a Samaritan because he was trying to stretch the mans heart to draw a wider circle of welcome and love. The man, wanting to justify himself, asked, Who is my neighbor? and Jesus gave him a bigger answer than he wanted.

And still he does the same for you and me. What mattered most to Jesus was love for God and love for neighbor. And, when Jesus says neighbor, no one is boundaried out. Which is why becoming a Christian is, as Stanley Hauerwas once wisely observed, A lifelong task which requires our willingness to be surprised by what love turns out to be; a lifelong journey of growing and changing, changing and growing; until, someday, what mattered most to Jesus becomes what matters most to us.

Amen.

 

Together

Galatians 6:1-10, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 3rd, 2016 · Duration 4:47



"Together"

Galatians 6:1-10

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

As you may have noticed, in this mornings epistle passage, Paul told the Galatians that they should bear one anothers burdens; after which, in the same paragraph, he said that everyone must carry their own burden; a pair of sentences which, at first glance, may appear to be a bit divergent, one from the other, but, both of which, in my experience, are true.

On the one hand, it is true that each of us must bear our own burdens. Because no one can know the full weight of another persons disappointment, resentment, anger, failure, regret, remorse, grief, guilt or fear, the full weight of any life can only be fully felt by the one who is living it.

In that sense, it is true that we do all have to bear our own burdens. However, on the other hand, it is also true that we are called to bear one anothers burdens. By prayer and kindness, note and visit, gift and touch, food and flower, word and thought, we bear, with and for one another, burdens which, borne alone, would be so much more difficult to bear. By prayer and kindness, note and visit, gift and touch, food and flower, word and thought, we become what Stanley Hauerwas called, A community capable of absorbing one anothers grief; all of us, together, holding one another in our hearts; bearing one anothers burdens, so that, hopefully, none of us has to bear the full weight of our own, alone.

Amen.

Life in the Spirit

Galatians 5:1, 13-25, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 26th, 2016 · Duration 14:31



"Life in the Spirit"

Galatians 5:1, 13-25

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

For freedom Christ has set us free . . . Only do not use that freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.

Every three years, the lectionary places in our path those words from Pauls letter to the Galatians, and, every time they roll back around, they take me back to a conversation Barbara Brown Taylor once had with a librarian at the Divinity School at Yale University. After searching for some books which were nowhere to be found, Reverend Taylor approached the librarian and said, Why are so many of your books unaccounted for? To which the librarian replied, Theft. In fact, he continued, Here at the Divinity School, our annual library losses by theft are higher than at the Medical School or the Law School. To which Barbara Brown Taylor replied, But this is the Divinity School! How could that be? To which the librarian replied, Its that grace thing. You people think youre already forgiven, so you just take whatever you want.

Which is exactly what Paul is trying to guard against in this mornings epistle passage. After four chapters of reminding the Galatians that we are saved, not by our works, but by Gods grace, it occurs to Paul that people might take that grace thing too far, and interpret their spiritual freedom as a license to live any way they please; prompting Paul to say, in this mornings epistle lesson, For freedom Christ has set us free . . . Only do not use that freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but, through love, become slaves to one another.

With those words, Paul describes a Spirit filled, Spirit led, Spirit guided, Spirit governed life; the life of those who know they are free from the law with all its restraints and requirements, but who live a life of holiness and righteousness anyway, not because they have to, but because they want to; holding themselves to the sternest of standards in what they say and do, while simultaneously looking at other people with nothing but boundless love, understanding, welcome and grace. That is the life to which Paul calls us when he says, Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but, through love, become slaves to one another.

My cornbread and peas name for that kind of life is conservative in the mirror and liberal through the window. Looking at ourselves in the mirror, we hold ourselves to the sternest of standards, and require of ourselves the daily struggle for holiness, integrity and careful speech. But, looking at others through the window, we love, understand and welcome others the way we want to be loved, understood and welcomed.

We have all known some people who live that way; people who know that they are free in Christ, but who do not use that freedom for self-indulgence, but choose, instead, to become slaves to one another; people who will not use any verse of scripture on someone elses life until they have applied every verse of scripture to their own life; people who demand nothing but holiness from themselves and give nothing but love to others; people who get up every morning and live the kind of life which is so beautiful that the rest of us have to have God to explain how they got that way; living, without any need for any external regulation or motivation, a life of holiness and righteousness, while, simultaneously, loving all others as generously as God loves all others; a life which sounds impossible, and which would be impossible, without the Holy Spirit.

But, with the Holy Spirit, it is not only possible for us to live that kind of life, but, if we get up every day, day after day, and ask God to help us walk and live in the Spirit, it can eventually become impossible for us not to live that kind of life.

If we intentionally, prayerfully walk in the Spirit, day after day, all through the day, the fruit of the Spirit will become the habit of our life; truthfulness, kindness, generosity and gentleness will gradually become the muscle memory of our soul, until, eventually, the life we once thought was impossible for us to live becomes impossible for us not to live.

We become truthful, gentle, generous and kind, not because we have to be that way, but because we cant not be that way, because were walking in the Spirit. Our words change, and our voice. Our movements change, and our pace. Not all at once, or once and for all, but slowly, slowly, little by little, our texts, emails and Facebook posts change, as well as what we laugh at and joke about, and who we sit down with and stand up for.

And all this transformation comes about, not because of any law or rule, threat of punishment or hope of reward. We no longer even think in those terms. Weve been walking in the Spirit so intentionally for so long that slowly, quietly, little by little, the life we once could not have imagined ourselves living, has become the life we cant not live; a life so thoughtful, mindful, gentle, generous and kind that other people will have to have God to explain how we got that way; a life which, without the Holy Spirit, we could not live, but which, with the Spirit, we cant not live.

Amen.

 

To See as God Sees

Galatians 3:23-29, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 19th, 2016 · Duration 17:00



"To See as God Sees"

Galatians 3:23-29

The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

As many of you as were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female, for all are one in Christ Jesus. With those words from this mornings epistle passage, Paul told the Galatian Christians that, for those who had been baptized into Christ, the human differences which once mattered so much no longer mattered as much.

It wasnt that the differences were less different than they once were. The human differences among the Galatians were still as different as ever. The Jews were still Jews, the Gentiles still Gentiles. The slaves were still slaves, the free still free. The males were still males, the females still females. The differences were still differences. Its just that, in Christ Jesus, those human differences could no longer be allowed to divide or separate, marginalize or exclude. No more second class citizens, said Paul to the Galatians. There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

The lectionary places those words in the path of the church every three years. But, this time around, I saw something I had never before noticed. This time, for the first time, it occurred to me that, if a woman or a slave had said those same words, to the church at Galatia, they would have been just as true, but those who had a vested interest in keeping things the way they were could have too easily dismissed their words, because, of course, those who were living on the marginalized side of the equation; a slave or a woman, would say that, in Christ, there is no longer slave or free, male or female. There had to be someone like Paul, a free, male, Jew, speaking from the side which held so much power, for the side which held so little power, to say that all those human differences which have always mattered so much to us have never mattered that much to God.

In my experience, that is where the path to depth, carefully followed, will eventually take us. To get on, and stay on, the path to spiritual depth is, eventually, to come to a place where, like Paul, in this mornings epistle passage, we begin to see the truth that our human categories were never Gods divisions; the truth that the human differences, which have always mattered so much to us, have never mattered that much to God.

All of which is not about tolerance. Not at all. Things which are evil, violent and destructive dont need to be tolerated, they need to be confronted. This is not about tolerating what needs to be confronted, this is about getting on, and staying on, the path to depth until we someday come to see all people as God sees all people; staying on the path to depth until we someday come to see, and to say, in the spirit of our Lord Jesus, that the human differences which have always mattered so much to us have never mattered that much to God.

One thing the Holy Spirit has been revealing to me, more and more, in recent days, is that, like Paul, in this mornings epistle passage, those of us who, like me, live in the comfortable, powerful majority, bear most of the responsibility for speaking that truth.

I say that knowing, of course, that, for the past twenty or thirty years, popular culture has been quick to dismiss that way of thinking, by calling it political correctness. But, I dont call it that. I cannot speak for anyone else, but, as for me, owning my responsibility, as someone who was born into every comfortable majority of human difference you can wear in the American south, (race, religion, sexual orientation) to sit down with, and stand up for, whomever is most marginalized in our world, is not being politically correct, it is being gospel correct; following Jesus correct; walking in the Holy Spirit correct; living up to our baptism correct; looking not to our own interests, but to the interests of others; striving, seeking, praying and working to see all people as God sees all people.

That is where the path to depth will take us. The path to depth is a narrow way which leads to a wide place; to a place where, like Paul in this mornings epistle passage, we begin to see the truth that our human categories were never Gods divisions, and our human differences, which have always mattered so much to us, have never mattered that much to God; a wide and wonderful place where we actually have moments in which we see all people as God sees all people.

Amen.

Concerning the Cross-Formed Life

Galatians 2:15-21, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 12th, 2016 · Duration 14:39



"Concerning the Cross-Formed Life"

Galatians 2:15-21

The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

Every three years, the lectionary places in the path of the church those words from this mornings epistle lesson. But, no matter how often they roll back around, each time may as well be the first time, because one can never say with certainty what meaning we should make of that mystical, powerful image, I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, what I hear, in those words, is an image of the cross-formed life; an image which takes the cross, which once was a place for Jesus to die, and makes it, now, a way for us to live; you and me and all of us, crucified with Christ; crucified with Christ in the sense that, like Jesus on the cross, we are stretched up to God and out to others; not protecting ourselves from the world in fear, but opening ourselves to the world in love.

That is the life to which those who have decided to follow Jesus are called; a cross-shaped, cross-formed, up-to-God, out-to-others crucified with Christ, life; the life for which we are formed, in, and by, the church; the community of the cross.

No church, of which I am aware, embodies the way of the cross perfectly. And, the more institutional a church becomes, the more difficult it can be for the church to live as a community of the cross. After all, once churches become institutions, they have to think and act institutionally so they can sustain and maintain their institutional life; which means that the institutional church, the church with buildings and budgets, employees and land, has to think about its own success and security, while simultaneously trying to embody the spirit of One who called his followers to deny themselves and take up a cross; which is to make ourselves vulnerable, to put ourselves at risk, to look not to our own interest but to the interests of others, with no thought to our own comfort, security or success.

If all that sounds difficult, thats because it is. What can a cross-formed life be but demanding and difficult? We can no more follow someone who is going to a cross without getting ourselves into some discomfort than we can follow someone whos going to the Dairy Queen without getting ourselves into a blizzard.

But, because we are the church, we dont have another story. The church doesnt have a story which doesnt have a cross. We are the community of the cross; called to struggle with what it means to sit, each week, in a cross-shaped sanctuary and reach, each day, for a cross-formed life.

We dont do that flawlessly here at Northminster, but we do reach for the cross-formed life in very intentional ways; one of which we will celebrate at our Wider Net luncheon, after worship today. When we built our balcony, columbarium and education building fifteen years ago, we were sufficiently serious about seeking to embody the cross-formed life that we made a community-of-the-cross decision to transcend our walls while enlarging our walls, was one of many cross-formed moments in the fifty year history of our church.

We dont always get that right, of course. Like all churches, we sometimes fail to embody the cross-formed, crucified with Christ life to which we are called. But we do always, at least, long to be cross-formed, and we never stop yearning to let love flow out through a cross-formed life which is opened up and stretched out in love for others; loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we love ourselves; the up-love, out-love; vertical, horizontal, cross-formed life which we learn to live by watching our sisters and brothers with whom we worship God, follow Jesus and walk in the Spirit at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover; all of these dear and good souls, with whom we sit and sing, pray and think, laugh and weep, give and serve, and live and die, in the cross-formed family of God.

Amen.

 

Faith Beyond the Boundaries

Luke 7:1-10, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · May 29th, 2016 · Duration 15:22

 



"Faith Beyond the Boundaries"

Luke 7:1-10

The Second Sunday After Pentecost

It isnt often that we get to see Jesus surprised and amazed. But, as you may have noticed, in this mornings gospel lesson, when the Gentile centurion said that, if Jesus would just say the word, his servant would be healed, Jesus was so amazed that Jesus said, Not even in Israel have I found such faith.

It isnt that there was no faith among those of Jesus own religious tradition; its just that Jesus never expected the people in his own family of faith to be out-faithed by an outsider. But, in this Gentile stranger, Jesus had met someone whose faith was so deep, that Jesus said, Not even in Israel have I found such faith as this.

That small snapshot of Jesus, amazed by the faith of a Gentile stranger, rolls around every three years in the lectionary cycle of gospel lessons, and, every time it comes back around, it reminds us that we never know where, or in whom, we will find faith in God, and the love of God.

The evangelical Christian missionary E. Stanley Jones, in his biography of Mahatma Ghandi, said that, in Ghandi, a Hindu, he had found more of the spirit of Jesus than in any person he had ever known; not unlike Jesus in this mornings gospel lesson, saying that, even in his own Judaism, he had never seen such deep faith as he found in that Gentile stranger.

I had a similar experience about six months ago. Back in December, I went to visit a friend who is a Muslim. As we sat together, he said, I know that, for you, this is the season of Advent, when Christians wait for Jesus to come again. I dont know as much about Jesus as you, he continued, But, based on what I do know about Jesus, I believe that every time anyone reaches out in love and kindness, Jesus does come again. To which I said, Not even among Christians have I heard anyone speak in such an amazing way of the coming again of Christ. (Not unlike Jesus, saying, concerning that Gentile, in this mornings gospel lesson, Not even in Israel have I found such faith.)

All of which is to say that we never know where, or in whom, we will find the Spirit of Christ and the love of God. Just as Jesus, in todays gospel lesson, found deep faith in a person beyond the boundaries of his religious tradition, we find deep faith in people beyond the boundaries of ours.

Which, if you think about it, should not be so surprising. After all, Jesus himself said that the Spirit of God is like the wind; blowing where it will.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, that has been a lesson long in the learning. It has taken me all my life, up to now, to let God be that free; free as the wind, to stir and blow and move and go beyond the boundaries of my faith tradition. That doesnt make my faith tradition any less important to me; it just acknowledges the truth that my boundaries are not Gods barriers; the truth that our traditions are not Gods divisions; the truth that God is free; free to be with, live in and speak through any person and every person.

In my experience, that is truth which is best learned, not from hearing sermons or reading books, but from meeting people; from actually getting to know someone who loves God from beyond our boundaries. Theology chases friendship; the wider our circle of spiritual friends grows, the deeper our grasp of spiritual truth goes.

Thinking about all of that this week called to my mind an experience my father had during his long combat duty in World War II. My dad grew up in a very rural corner of Georgia where anti-Catholic preaching was common in Baptist churches; a formof theology which actually said that Catholics were not Christians. Since that was all my dad had ever heard, that is what he believed. But then he went away to war; driving a tank in fierce battles from Northern Africa to Italy; fighting alongside soldiers from all across the United States, including a lot of Catholic boys, from New York and Miami and such.

Reflecting on that experience, my dad said, What I learned back home about Catholics was not true. Those Catholic boys were a whole lot closer to Jesus than I was. I sat with one as he died; calling to Jesus, and going to Jesus. Those Catholic boys were more Christian than I am.

Theology chases friendship. Which should come to us as no surprise. After all, ours is an incarnational theology. God dispatched an angel choir to Bethlehem on that night long ago, to announce, not the binding of a book, but the birthing of a baby; God, revealed in a Person. And, now, in people.

All of this came most fully home to me one day when I was in the presence of a person of another faith whose life was so luminous with the love and goodness of God that, as I was walking away from our brief conversation, it occurred to me that I had experienced more of what I call the spirit of Christ in their presence than I sometimes find in the presence of some Christians; one of those moments which I imagine many of you have experienced, too; one of those moments in life when you find a deeper spiritual connection with a kind, gentle, loving person of another faith than you feel with some people of your own faith.

Which can be a surprise, at first. But then, you think to yourself, Why should I be surprised to encounter God in someone who is, to me, an outsider? After all, my boundaries are my boundaries, not Gods. Just because someone is an outsider to me, that doesnt make them an outsider to God. All of God was in Christ, but all of God is not in Christianity. God is free to be with, live in and speak through any person,anywhere, anytime.

One reason all of this matters so much is that, once we free God that way, God frees us that way. Once we free God to be God beyond our boundaries, God frees us to see God beyond our boundaries. And that, my sisters and brothers, is a whole new life. I cannot tell you how deeply that changes the way you see the world. It changes you so deeply that it really is like being born again.

Amen.

 

Reflecting the Image of Our Triune God

John 16:12-15, Trinity Sunday

Jill Buckley · May 22nd, 2016 · Duration 15:09

 

 

"Reflecting the Image of Our Triune God"

John 16:12-15

Trinity Sunday

Have you noticed, over the many years we as a church have followed the liturgical calendar, that Trinity Sunday is the only Sunday of the year on which we celebrate a doctrine of the church? Advent, Lent, Christmastide and Eastertide are seasons which frame the events of Christmas and Easter. Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration of the Lord, Ascension of the Lord Sundays...all mark events in the life of Jesus. Pentecost celebrates the event that birthed the church.

But Trinity Sunday...Trinity Sunday lifts up for our attention a way of thinking and believing about God that is rooted in Scripture, but that only began to come to articulation late in the 2nd century. And as an official teaching of the church, the doctrine of the Trinity was not adopted until the late 4th century. Since that day, if not before, attempts at understanding, much less explaining or describing the Trinity, have confounded almost everyone, including theologians... and preachers. Earlier this week, Chuck told me the story of an old monastery in England, which has been closed since 1539, whose guidebook for tourists reads: "Here the monks gathered every Sunday to hear a sermon from the Abbot, except on Trinity Sunday, owing to the difficulty of the subject.

In trying to explain how God can be Three-in-One (Father, Son, Holy Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer), we quickly encounter the limits of our language and of our understanding. Perhaps, then, it would be better to say not that Trinity Sunday celebrates a doctrine but that Trinity Sunday celebrates our limits...the limits of language and the limits of our comprehension of the immense mystery and majesty of God. In that case, Trinity Sunday does something few Sundays on the liturgical calendar can do: it inspires restraint and humility...which are good practices for all who follow Jesus...at least according to James 1:19, where we are encouraged to be quick to listen and slow to speak.

What, then, are we to say about these things? Fortunately, we can exercise restraint and humility and still say what may be the most important thing about the Trinity both for our life with God and for our life together. And that is this: over and over, the Scriptures insist that God is NOT a solitary, unmoved and immovable Being...a monad, as the philosophers say...instead, the Scriptures show us that God's very existence is social...communal...relational. Sisters and brothers, that is what is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity.

Consider Jesus' baptism. As Jesus comes up from the water, the gospels tell us that the Spirit of God descends on him like a dove, and a voice from heaven is heard, saying, 'This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." God and God the Spirit together blessing God the Son.

Or look at last Sunday's gospel lesson and today's gospel lesson. In both places, Jesus comforts his disciples by assuring them that the Holy Spirit, who shares in the life of the Father and the Son, will come and will continue the work among them that he started... and guide them just as he has.

And consider Matthew 28:19, which contains one of the two explicitTrinitarian references in the New Testament. In Matthew 28:19, Jesus instructs his core group of disciples to go and "make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit." Friends, as much as I value (and use)"Creator-Redeemer- Sustainer" to name the Triune God, naming God as Father-Son-and Holy Spirit underscores their relationality, one that Jesus tells us is marked by love and intimacy.

In reflecting this week about how and why all of this heady stuff matters for "life on the ground where we are," I couldn't help but think about a group I led about five years ago at the Yellow Church called "Circle of Friends." Circle of Friends was modeled after a group in Iowa called Beyond Welfare, whose goal was to create spaces where people who live in poverty - which they defined broadly as lack of money, friends, or meaning - could find support, build friendships, and share knowledge and resources.

As for our Circle of Friends meeting, which met twice a month for about 18 months, the group included residents of Mid-City, North Midtown and South Jackson as well as people from Northminster and other congregations. Regardless of the make-up of the group each meeting, the common sentiment expressed at our meetings over and over was the joy and relief and encouragement people found in being part of a positive, supportive and non-judgmental group. Leading this group opened my eyes to how isolating poverty can be but it also underscored for me the life-giving power of communities where people can meet each other as human beings and not just as the labels we "wear."

I also thought about a retreat series - called Courage to Lead - in which I've been participating through the Center for Courage and Renewal. In those retreats, we practice a particular way of doing soul work called a Circle of Trust. As part of the agreements for being in a Circle of Trust, at each meeting we vow not to try to fix or save each other, not to give advice, and not to set each other straight. Instead, we do our best to honor the soul of each person through reverent listening and by asking open and honest questions intended to help each person explore his or her inner terrain. What this has created for all of us is a community of extraordinary gentleness and compassion...a community that respects each person's individual journey but that does leave him or her to journey alone. In that sense, it too has been life-giving...and grounding.

And I thought about you...about this family of faith...both the large community and the smaller communities within which people have found and are finding friendships, support, care, growth, strength and perhaps even healing. You and I have been together for a long time, and I have seen this community love and serve people both within these walls and beyond these walls in remarkable ways.

What connects these for me is the recognition that each of these communities - Circle of Friends, Circle of Trust, Northminster - is a reflection of the God who exists as Three-in-One. I don't mean to idealize them; all human communities are limited and imperfect...but good communities - communities that honor the soul, that cultivate caring, that allow expressions of giftedness - can help us live into who we were created to be . In the same way that creating art, or music, or food, or order out of chaos makes the image of our Creator God shine within us, sharing in community can make the image of our Triune God shine and shimmer within us.

Friends, over time - and through experiences like these - I have learned that I have a tendency to isolate and guard myself against the perceived threats of vulnerability... and not to rely on the riches that community has to offer. Since realizing that about myself and being able to name and recognize it, I am constantly reminding myself that I am made in the image of a God whose very essence is relationship, community... mutuality... and when I am not offering myself to community or letting community offer its gifts to me, I am not living fully into who God created me to be.

Of course, that is a growing edge that is specific to my life. I can only speak for myself. You may be on a different side of things. You may be the soul waiting for people like me to come out of hiding so you can initiate and cultivate those bonds of relationship. If so, you and I need each other...and that is something we can learn from the Trinity, too. We need each other, if we are to live fully into the image of God. We need each other, if this family of faith is to live fully into the image of God!

Here on Trinity Sunday, we indeed celebrate a doctrine of the church...but for all its complexities, we see that it also carries important insights about the nature of the God in whose image we are made. We celebrate the limits of our language and comprehension...and yet, we realize there are a few things we can say and see that do not at all diminish our awe at the mystery of God. But most of all, we celebrate the power of life-giving, soul-deepening Community, found eternally in the godhead, overflowing into our lives, bubbling up out of our lives if we let it, inviting even (or maybe especially) the most reticent of us into life together.

I guess you could say, then, that - on Trinity Sunday - there's a lot to celebrate. Which is pretty good for one of the most perplexing teachings of the church. We should think about that, just in case, like that monastery in England, we ever consider cancelling the sermon on Trinity Sunday.

 

 

Concerning the Holy Spirit

John 14:8-17, 25-27, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 15th, 2016 · Duration 8:53



Concerning the Holy Spirit

John 14:8-17, 25-27

Pentecost Sunday

 

In the gospel lesson which Eli read for us a few moments ago, Jesus told his disciples that, after he was gone, the Holy Spirit would remind them of all that he had said while he was here; which, as I am sure you will have noticed, is exactly what the Spirit does in all our lives, all the time; reminding us of what Jesus said while Jesus was here.

When I encounter someone who is asking for assistance, the Holy Spirit will often remind me that Jesus said, Give to anyone who begs from you. When I am eager to jump into a conversation with my contribution of sarcasm or cleverness, the Holy Spirit will sometimes remind me that Jesus said, Let your Yes be Yes and your No be No, anything more than this comes from sin. If Im about to speak in a glib, flippant or exaggerated way, the Holy Spirit will sometimes remind me that Jesus said, On the day of judgement, you will have to give an account for every careless word you speak.

Im sure its the same with you. The Holy Spirit, which, in Old Testament and New, is a wind, a breath, a dove and a flame, is also, in our lives, a bridge; a bridge back to Jesus, reminding us of what Jesus said when Jesus was here, which is exactly what Jesus promised in this mornings gospel lesson, when Jesus said, After I am gone, the Holy Spirit will remind you of all that I have said to you.


Take, for example, Matthew 7:12, something Jesus said which we often call The Golden Rule. I cant tell you how many times a month the Holy Spirit reminds me of those words, In everything do to others as you would have them do to you. I dont always live by those words, but I do always live with them, because thats one of those things Jesus said which the Spirit keeps calling to my mind, over and over and over again, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Thinking about all that this week called to my mind that powerful old story about the 17th century Anabaptist, Dirk Willems. Willems was in prison, awaiting execution for his Anabaptist heresies, when, on a cold winter day, he saw an opportunity to escape, and ran for his life, a prison guard in hot pursuit. As he ran, Willems came to a creek which had frozen over. He crossed the ice safely, but the pursuing deputy crashed through, into the freezing water, whereupon Dirk Willems, hearing the mans desperate cries for help, turned around, went back and pulled the man from the water; saving his life, which resulted in Dirk Willems being re-captured, and, subsequently, executed.

Were it not for the Holy Spirit in our lives, we might say, I cant believe he went back. Id have kept running. But, of course, because we do have the Holy Spirit in our lives, it makes perfect sense to us that someone would do something as radically selfless and loving as that, because the same Spirit which, in that moment, reminded Dirk Willems what Jesus would want him to do, reminds us of the same things, too.

And, of course, the wonderful thing about all of this is that, when it comes to the Holy Spirit, the more we listen the more we hear. The more open to the Spirit we stay, the more guided by the Spirit we become, until, eventually, responding to the Spirits nudges and reminders becomes the muscle memory of our soul. We see the new person in the lunch room at school, or the Great Hall at church, and we instinctively invite them to join us at our table. We see someone who has been embarrassed, bullied, marginalized or ostracized, and we instinctively sit down with them or stand upfor them, because the Holy Spirit keeps reminding us of what Jesus said about treating others exactly as we want others to treat us, and we are listening to what the Holy Spirit is saying, and the more we listen the more we hear.

Live that way, and listen that way, long enough, carefully enough, and, eventually, you will become one of those people whose ordinary, everyday, human life is so filled with the Spirit of God that, when other people look at your life and listen to your words, they will not be able to tell where the human spirit in you ends, and the Holy Spirit in you begins, because you will have become a person in whom the human spirit and the Holy Spirit are so seamlessly entwined and fully integrated that your whole life is all about nothing but loving others as you love yourself. (Which is another one of those things Jesus said which the Holy Spirit will not let us forget.)

Amen.

 

 

A Sermon on the Book of Revelation

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 8th, 2016 · Duration 13:41

 



"A Sermon on the Book of Revelation"

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

The one who testifies to these things says, Surely I am coming soon.

With those words from this mornings epistle lesson, the lectionary placed in our path the last words on the last page of the last book of the Bible; the closing lines from the Bible book which is sometimes seen as the most bewildering book in all of scripture.

But, actually, the message of the Revelation is not as difficult to discern as its reputation might lead us to believe. One key to unlocking the meaning and message of the Revelation is to be content to let the Revelation be what it is; a pastoral letter written to encourage a group of late first-century congregations to stay strong in the face of persecution; probably under the Roman emperor Domitian.

As best we can discern, persecution for the church, under Domitian, was not as violent as it was under some of the other emperors, but his empire did, apparently, pressure Christians to worship the emperor as Lord. Failure to do so occasionally resulted in imprisonment, but, most often, in social exclusion and economic repercussions, because refusing to call the emperor Lord was sort of like refusing to pledge allegiance to the nation; making one look unpatriotic, at best, and treasonous, at worst.

But, Christians have only one Lord, and that Lord is not the nation, it is Jesus, so those first-century believers to whom the Revelation was written were living in a difficult, and, sometimes, dangerous, situation.

It appears that those are the circumstances which prompted John to write the letter which eventually became the last book in the Bible; a pastoral letter to encourage his sisters and brothers in the family of God to be strong; to not give in, give up or lose hope, because, ultimately, the goodness and grace of God would triumph over all that was hurtful, harmful and wrong, and the kingdoms of this world, including Domitians kingdom, would eventually be swallowed up into the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.

Thats what the Revelation was; a pastoral letter of encouragement to Christians in difficult circumstances. But, because it was written in the vivid language of apocalyptic literature, full of strange images and bewildering metaphors, it has captured imaginations and fueled speculations across the centuries; spawning an industry of seminars, conferences, books and movies which have taught us to treat the Revelation as an end-times puzzle written to mystify twenty-first century Christians, instead of what it actually was; a hard-times letter written to comfort first-century Christians.

To see the Revelation as a letter, it helps to read it as a letter; all in a single sitting, without taking any breaks, which is exactly what I did, earlier this week. In fact, at the beginning of the Revelation, in chapter one, verse three, it says that this is a letter which should be read out loud. So, last Wednesday morning, while no one else was around, I came over here to the sanctuary, and read the whole thing, all twenty-two chapters, out loud, non-stop, while walking up and down the center aisle. Its scary to think, but, that same aisle where, moments ago, I was walking with little Beckon Fuller, was, for over an hour, just four days ago, crowded with seven-headed monsters and dragons. Stars fell, the earth shook, and blood ran in the streets, high as the heads of horses, until the heavens opened, and a city came down; all a-glitter with streets of gold and gates of pearl; a city where they need no candle, neither light of the sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and God will wipe all tears from their eyes, and sorrowand crying will be no more, because all the hurtful, painful, oppressive kingdoms of this world will be swallowed up into the Kingdoms of our God and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.

And thats not all. While I was walking up and down the center aisle of our sanctuary reading the whole book of Revelation out loud, something amazing happened. When I first began to read, I found myself envisioning that first-century congregation; hearing, for the first time, Johns letter read out loud; envisioning their faces and imagining how hungry they must have been for the letters hope and encouragement, even if it did come wrapped in all that obtuse and bewildering imagery. But then, at some point, (when and how, I do not know) I ceased to envision them and began to see us; all of us, in these pews, and to think about how hungry we, too, are for hope and courage, encouragement and strength; which we, too, find in the Revelation, because, while it may not have been written to us, or about us, the Revelation does hold a powerful message for us; the same message it held for those who first heard it; the hope-filled message that God, not pain or sorrow, injustice or oppression, death or despair, but God, will have the last word, and, if the last word said is going to be Gods, then the last thing done is going to be good.

That was the message of the Revelation for those who first heard it, and that remains its message for all of us, here today. As one wise soul once said, the whole bewildering book of the Revelation can be summed up in one single simple sentence: Things will not always hurt the way they do now.

May it be so. And may it be soon.

Amen.

 

Scripture, Tradition and Jesus

John 5:1-9, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 1st, 2016 · Duration 5:37

 



"Scripture, Tradition and Jesus"

John 5:1-9

The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Now that day was a Sabbath. Those words, Now that day was a Sabbath, came at the ending of this mornings gospel passage, but they come at the beginning of a conflict which consumes the remainder of John chapter five; the conflict and controversy Jesus created by healing the man at the pool on the Sabbath.

The religious tradition of Jesus faith allowed for helping on the Sabbath in cases of urgency or emergency, but the man Jesus healed in todays gospel lesson had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years, so his healing could have, and, therefore, should have, waited until another day, argued the religious leaders.

And, on their side, they had, not only tradition, but scripture, as well; that sentence in the book of Exodus, which says, Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but, on the Sabbath, you shall not do any work, giving the religious leaders who confronted Jesus for healing a non-life threatening disease on the Sabbath both scripture and tradition on their side.

Scripture and tradition which Jesus knew well and loved deeply. It isnt that Jesus didnt know and respect scripture and tradition, its just that, for Jesus, loving a living person was more important than following a verse or keeping a tradition.

Which, of course, does not surprise us, at all, because we remember that moment in the gospel of Matthew when someone asked Jesus which commandment matters most, and Jesus said, There are two which matter most. One is Love God with all that is in you, and the other is, Love others as you love yourself, after which Jesus said, On those two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Because we remember that moment in Matthew, when Jesus said that everything in scripture is to be interpreted and applied in the light of love for God and love for others, we are not at all surprised when we see Jesus, in this mornings gospel lesson, reach beyond a verse of scripture and a religious tradition to love someone the way he would want to be loved. To the contrary, because we know Jesus so well, thats exactly what we expect Jesus to do.

And thats what Jesus expects us to do, too.

Amen.

Listen Long Enough to Be Silenced

Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Steven Fuller · April 24th, 2016 · Duration 16:17



"Listen Long Enough to Be Silenced"

Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35

The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

The Good Shepherd

Psalm 23, John 10:22-30, The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Lesley Ratcliff · April 17th, 2016 · Duration 16:14



"The Good Shepherd" by Lesley Ratcliff

Psalm 23, John 10:22-30,

The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Choir Practice

Revelation 5:11-14, The Third Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 10th, 2016 · Duration 12:53



"Choir Practice"

Revelation 5:11-14

The Third Sunday of Eastertide

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.

Every three years, the lectionary places, in the path of the church, those words from the book of Revelation, and, every time they roll back around, I hope that what they say is so. Even though I know that nothing in the Revelation was written to be taken literally, still I hope that this mornings passage turns out to be a sign of things to come, because that would mean that someday; after all the terrible injustices of this life have been confronted, after all the necessary judging has been done, after all the victims have been faced and all the responsibility has been owned; after all the purging and purifying fire of hell has been gone through, no matter how long it takes, eventually every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea will be singing glory to God around the throne, forever and ever, Amen.

Except, of course, Revelation 5:13 is not the only verse in the Bible. The Bible is also home to other verses; verses and voices which draw the circle of Gods eternal welcome smaller than the universal embrace we saw in this mornings epistle passage.

In Revelation 5:13, God ultimately welcomes every creature into the eternal choir of endless praise, but in John 3:16-18, God will ultimately welcome only those who believe in the name of Jesus. Same for Romans 10:9, I John 3:12 and II Thessalonians 1:8-9, all of which draw around God a much smaller circle of eternal welcome than those words we read this morning from Revelation 5:13.

On the other hand, Revelation 5:13 is not alone in its vision of all creation ultimately redeemed. I Corinthians 15:22 says, As in Adam all die, so, in Christ, all will be made alive. II Corinthians 5:19 says, In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, and Colossians 1:19 says, Through Christ God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things on earth and in heaven, all of which draw the circle of Gods redeeming love as wide as the whole human family and all creation.

All of which is to say, when it comes to the size of the circle around God, the Bible speaks with varied voices, which means that no one gets to say, concerning even this most eternal of questions, The Bible says it and that settles it. Rather, all anyone gets to say is, I believe what I believe because I believe it.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I believe that when this mornings passage envisions a day when every creature and person of every place and time sings to God around the throne together forever, it is a sign of things to come, not because the Bible says it and that settles it, but, because I believe that, when all is said and all is done, the last thing done will be good because the last word said will be Gods. This is Gods world, and, in Gods world, God gets to have the last word, and, if God is going to have the last word, then I believe that means that the goodness and grace of God will ultimately triumph over all sin and separation, rejection and pain; which means that, ultimately, every person and creature of every place and time will sing to God around the throne together forever.

Because I believe that, I also believe that, once we get over on the Other Side, we are going to discover that we spent our lives assigning eternal significance to temporary categories; temporary categories and human divisions with no eternal significance.

Once we get over on the Other Side, well all just be There; all of us, together; every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth, singing, together, around the throne of God, forever.

That is why, the deeper we go in our life with God, the wider we grow in our embrace of the world. The longer we walk in the Spirit, the more clearly we see the sacred beauty in human diversity, and the more we long for, and love, those moments when were in a room with every kind of people; because we recognize those moments as small glimpses of eternity; choir practice for that glad and glorious day when every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth will sing to God together forever.

Amen.

 

Word Care

John 20:19-29, The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 3rd, 2016 · Duration 7:31



"Word Care"

John 20:19-29

The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Every year, on the second Sunday in Eastertide, the lectionary gives to the church throughout the world the same gospel lesson; the one we read a few moments ago from John chapter twenty. And, every time it rolls back around, when we get to that part where it says that the disciples were hiding behind locked doors for fear of the Jews, I find myself wanting to say, But, the disciples were Jews. And, not only that, the risen Lord who was about to slip into their tightly locked room was also, himself, a Jew.

So, when the writer of the gospel of John said the disciples were afraid of the Jews, what he must have meant was that the disciples were afraid of a specific group of Jewish religious leaders who were so threatened by Jesus that they had helped arrange for his arrest, trial and crucifixion.

All of which Johns original readers, in late first-century Ephesus, would have known. But, because many of Johns later interpreters did not take the time to make that distinction in a careful and thoughtful way, across the centuries, some have, at times, used Johns words, the Jews, to stir up hatred toward Jews, when a more intentional effort at careful speech would have explained that phrase, the Jews, in a true and clear way that might have saved a lot of people a lot of pain.

All of which is an example of why word care matters. Less than careful speech has consequences, which is why thoughtful, mindful, careful speech is worth the work and restraint it requires.

In fact, I am so certain of the importance of word care as a spiritual discipline, that, almost every time I receive communion, I find myself thinking, Now that this bread has come into my mouth, what words can I allow to come from my mouth?

It isnt magic, of course, but I have found that small practice helpful in my own daily battle for a life of Spirit-filled word care. You may wish to try it yourself; asking yourself, as you chew the crumb and sip the cup, What kind of speech can rightly come from a mouth into which the body and blood of Jesus have gone?

Amen.

Concerning the Resurrection

I Corinthians 15:19-26, Easter Sunday

Chuck Poole · March 27th, 2016 · Duration 11:10



"Concerning the Resurrection"

I Corinthians 15:19-26

Easter Sunday

One thing for which I try to save some time every year during Holy Week is the practice of praying my way through the Northminster church membership; every name, A to Y; Abell, Adams, Aden, Aldridge, Alexander, Allen . . . Wooley, Worley, Wyatt, Wylie, Yates, Yelverton.

This year, as I prayed my way through those roughly four-hundred and forty homes, I tried to be particularly mindful of those who have faced, or are facing, struggles, disappointments, uncertainties and pain. Of course, there is much about every family in our congregation which I do not know, but, based on the little I do know, at the end of all that praying through I found myself returning, once again, to the simple truth that 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 the resurrection of Jesus from the grave which we celebrate today apparently does not protect any of us from any of them, but it certainly does help each of us through each of them, because the resurrection of Jesus from the grave gives us hope; hope for the death we all must die and hope for the life we all must live.

Concerning the resurrection, that may be both the least and the most that we can say. The resurrection gives us hope; hope for the death we all must die and hope for the life we all must live; the hope which tells us at the deep down center of our soul that this is Gods world, and in Gods world, God, not death or despair, but God, gets to have the last word. And, if the last word said is going to be Gods, then the last thing done is going to be good.

That is the hope of the resurrection; hope for the death we all must die and hope for the life we all must live. When Jesus friends took his body from the cross to the tomb at sunset Friday, it looked for all the world as though death and defeat, disappointed and despair had had the last word. But, then came sunrise Sunday, and, it turns out that what death and despair said at sunset Friday was the next-to-last word, but the last word belonged to Someone Else.

Across the Christian centuries, we have made of that resurrection hope a Christian doctrine; something people have to believe so they can become a Christian so they can go to heaven when they die. But thats just a Christian fence we have built around the resurrection. Easter is a Christian holy day, but the resurrection does not belong to us, the same way God does not belong to us. When God raised Jesus from the grave, God wasnt thinking, Ill add this to the list of things people must believe in so they can come to heaven when they die. When God raised Jesus from the grave, that was just God being God, God doing what God always has done and always will do; having the last word; bringing unimaginable good from unspeakable pain.

We have to be careful, of course, when we speak of the resurrection in such hopeful and hope filled ways, lest the hope of the resurrection became confused with a glib and easy, sunny side of the street optimism which promises that everything will always turn out fine. We all know better than that. People dont get up on Easter Sunday morning, put on their seersucker, get in the car and go to church so they can be told cheerful sounding things that they know are not true. The hope of the resurrection isnt a glib and easy optimism, rather, it is a deep, quiet, grave hope that, ultimately, finally, when all has been said and all has been done, the last thing done will be good because the last word said will be Gods.

Believing that makes us people of incurable hope, the kind of people who, even at the grave, and, even in the midst of things worse than the grave, make our song, Alleluia, because the resurrection has given us hope; hope for the death we all must die, and hope for the life we all must live.

Amen.

 

Concerning the Cross

Philippians 2:5-11, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · March 20th, 2016 · Duration 11:17



"Concerning the Cross"

Philippians 2:5-11

Palm/Passion Sunday

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross.

Those words from this mornings Palm Sunday epistle passage point us to the cross which waits at the other end of Holy Week.

Once we get there, once we make it to Good Friday, we will ponder, with believers throughout the world, the cross as the place where Jesus died.

But, for now, at this end of Holy Week, our Palm Sunday epistle passage reminds us that the cross is not only a place for Jesus to die, but, also, a way for us to live.

When our Palm Sunday epistle passage says, Let the same mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, who emptied himself and humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross, it makes the cross not only a place for Jesus to die, but, also, a way for us to live. It calls us to think as Jesus thought, to have the same mind in us that was also in Jesus, so that we can live a life which is as cross-shaped as the death Jesus died; the cross, not only a place for Jesus to die, but, also, a way for us to live.

The world is full of people who believe in the cross as a place for Jesus to die, people who believe what popular, orthodox Christianity teaches about the doctrine of the atonement; a composite of what Calvin and Luther said about what Anselm wrote about what Augustine taught about what Paul thought about Jesus, but whose lives do not embody the mind of Christ. They may embody good citizenship and traditional values and the American way, but Im talking about Jesus. (If your church has never helped you differentiate between the American way and Jesus, you should ask for a refund.) Im talking about the cross-formed life which has the same mind in it which was also in Christ Jesus.

It is the cross-formed life; a life shaped like a cross; loving God with all that is in us, and loving others as we love ourselves; a life which, like a cross, is simultaneously vertical and horizontal; a vertical life of prayer and devotion, and a horizontal life of compassion and kindness; a mindful, thoughtful, gentle life which is intentionally sensitive to the feelings of others, so much so that it changes how we see others and treat them. What we say and how we say it, what we post, tweet, email and send, all transformed, because we have taken in the mind of Christ and, as a result, we have become as cross-shaped in our living as he was in his dying.

This week would be a wonderful week to practice living a mind-of-Christ, cross-formed, cross-shaped life; a simultaneously vertical, horizontal, up-to-God, out-to-others life. That way, when we get to the other end of Holy Week and fix our gaze on the cross as a place for Jesus to die, we will have spent our Holy Week days with the cross as a way for us to live.

Amen.

 

Again

Isaiah 43:16-21, The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 13th, 2016 · Duration 10:12



"Again"

Isaiah 43:16-21

The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea . . . Behold, I am about to do a new thing. One time, I made a way in the water. This time, I will make a way in the wilderness.

Those words from this mornings Old Testament lesson, like all the words in the book of Isaiah, were first spoken to the people of God who had been taken captive, and carried into exile, by the Babylonian army in 589 B.C.

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, was a reminder to the people of God in exile that this was not the first time they had faced a hopeless situation; a reference to that desperate moment, centuries before, when they were trapped between Pharaoh's army and the Red Sea; squeezed on all sides; an inescapable enemy behind them and an impassable obstacle before them, until God made a way through the sea.

And now, here they were again, in another difficult circumstance; their lives turning out in ways they never would have imagined, again. To which God says, I am about to do for you, again, what I have done for you, before. Once upon a time, I made a way for you in the water, and now, I am going to make a way for you in the wilderness.

Once again, the people of God are in a hard place. And, once again, God is going to make, for them, a way where there is no way; a way to go through what they did not get to go around.

Which is where their story, back there on the page, intersects our story, down here on the ground. The people of God to whom Isaiah wrote needed for God to make a way for them more than once, and so do we. Just as most of us have more than one joy in a lifetime, most of us also face more than one crisis in a lifetime, not because it is the plan of God, but because it is the nature of life. From time to time, we face struggle, disappointment and pain, most of us more than once; not because thats the way God is, but because thats the way life is; joy and happiness, again and again, and sorrow and trouble, again and again.

It was the twentieth-century Irish novelist Samuel Beckett who wrote that simple, but unforgettable, sentence, I cannot go on, but I will go on. Some of us have been there, more than once; in a sorrow so immobilizing, a dilemma so paralyzing, a battle so exhausting or a sadness so severe, that we cannot go on . . . But we do. Wonder of wonders, even when we cannot go on, we do go on. Somehow, the Spirit of God, which lives in us, and the people of God, who walk with us, conspire to make a way for us; the life-giving Spirit of God and the care-giving people of God, conspiring against despair; conspiring and converging to make a way where there is no way; the prayers of the people somehow becoming the arms of God; holding us up and holding us near, making a way for us to go through what we did not get to go around.

And not just once, but again and again.

Amen.

Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 6th, 2016 · Duration 5:51



Grace

Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

As you may have noticed, in the parable of the prodigal son, the same grace which gave the younger brother a thrill gave the older brother a chill.

The older brother thinks the father has given too much grace too freely to the reckless younger brother, and he resents it so much he refuses to go into the party which the father has given to celebrate the younger brothers return.

Its just a story of course, so we mustn't read too much into it or try to take too much from it, but, it does seem to capture so much of what so many of us struggle with when it comes to grace.

On the one hand, we know that grace is the unconditional love of God, to which we do not get to attach conditions. But, on the other hand, if grace is completely unconditional, where are the boundaries? What about justice? What about truth? If truth is never faced, responsibility is never owned and amends are never made, then does grace become a license for those who do the worst to get away with the most?

Those are questions for which I do not have answers, but questions we should probably ask out loud whenever we talk about grace in church, lest people assume that grace is an exercise in denial; God, looking the other way, and expecting us to do the same.

The truth of course, is that grace is the opposite of looking the other way. To the contrary, the grace of God sees the best and the worst in all of us, and loves us anyway. Once we know that God has given that kind of love to us, we are more able to give that kind of love to others. And, eventually, not all at once or once and for all, but, eventually, someday, the grace which has come down to us from God will go out through us to others.

Amen.

Sermon on Religious Freedom

Part of the Winter Lecture Series: "Religious Liberty in the World Today"

Holly Hollman, General Counsel and Assoc. Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Washington, D.C. · February 28th, 2016 · Duration 17:04

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Annual Winter Lecture Series Lunch Lecture with Q&A

"Religious Liberty in the World Today" Led by Holly Hollman, General Counsel and Assoc. Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Washington, D.C.

Holly Hollman · February 28th, 2016 · Duration 57:41



Winter Lecture Series
February 27-28, 2016
Religious Liberty in the World Today
Led by Holly Hollman
General Counsel and Assoc. Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, February 27
Lecture 1 followed by reception
Great Hall
4:306:00 p.m.
Sunday, February 28
Worship Hour-Sermon
Sanctuary ~ 10:30 a.m.
Lunch followed by Lecture 2 and Q and A
Great Hall ~ 11:45 a.m.

Annual Winter Lecture Series Part One

"Religious Liberty in the World Today" Led by Holly Hollman, General Counsel and Assoc. Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Washington, D.C.

Holly Hollman · February 27th, 2016 · Duration 60:06



Winter Lecture Series
February 27-28, 2016
Religious Liberty in the World Today
Led by Holly Hollman
General Counsel and Assoc. Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, Washington, D.C.
Saturday, February 27
Lecture 1 followed by reception
Great Hall
4:306:00 p.m.
Sunday, February 28
Worship Hour-Sermon
Sanctuary ~ 10:30 a.m.
Lunch followed by Lecture 2 and Q and A
Great Hall ~ 11:45 a.m.

On Leaving Room in the Room for God

Psalm 27, The Second Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · February 21st, 2016 · Duration 12:57



"On Leaving Room in the Room for God"

Psalm 27

The Second Sunday in Lent

Wait for the Lord. Be strong, and let your heart take courage. Wait for the Lord. With those words, the one who wrote this mornings psalm invites us all to hold on to hope. In every circumstance and situation, Wait for the Lord, says the Psalmist. Of course, as is always the case when we are reading the psalms, it is important for us to remember that the psalms were not written to be taken literally. The psalms, after all, were originally Hebrew hymns; synagogue songs set to temple tunes; chants and choruses to be sung in the house of God by the people of God; all one hundred and fifty of them on loan to Northminster from Beth Israel; borrowed songs for battered souls.

And this one is one of the best ones, with its confident first verse, The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear? and its hopeful last verse, Wait for the Lord.

But, between its confident first verse and its hopeful last verse, Psalm 27 is not all sweetness and light. To the contrary, it appears that the one who wrote this mornings psalm had been going through something frightening, dangerous, sad and hard. The one who wrote Psalm 27 speaks of enemies and adversaries; pleading with God not to forsake him, but to protect and shelter him from trouble and harm, which seem to be pressing in on every side.

In fact, there is, in this one psalm, so much of both faith and fear, trust and trouble, that some scholars have wondered if, perhaps, Psalm 27 was originally two separate psalms which were later merged into one; a speculation based on the rather awkward back and forth in the psalm between faith and fear, trouble and trust.

But, it seems to me that that somewhat awkward intersection of faith and fear, far from being a flaw, is what makes this psalm such a good fit for our lives. There is, after all, 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; not because it was Gods plan for us to suffer, and not because God sent the trouble to us or put the misery on us in order to accomplish some hidden, unseen purpose; but because we live in a world where beautiful things and terrible things happen every day, and, if those beautiful and terrible things can happen to anyone, they can happen to everyone, including you and yours and me and mine.

There are no exemptions for good behavior. There is just life; life in a world which, as Thornton Wilder once said, is both awful and wonderful.

When the wonderful comes to us, and those we love, we rarely wonder why, but, when the awful comes, we often do, which is completely understandable. But, the greater question, the one that might actually help us live more deeply, fully and faithfully into whatever is left of life, is not Why? but How? How are we going to go through what we did not get to go around? Now that life has taken a turn we never would have dreamed or imagined, how do we come to terms with life as it now is, and always will be? Everyone is adjusting to something; how will we adjust to the reality that is not going to adjust to us?

Those are the kinds of questions for which there are no quick and easy answers. But, while no one has all the answers for how best to make it through what we did not get to go around, many of us have learned that part of the answer is found in the people who are with us, and part of it is found in the faith which is in us.

We go through things that are 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 make it through, partly because of the people who are with us; people who show up, even when they dont know what to say; and come back, even when they dont know what to do; their calls, cards and casseroles, small but clear embodiments of Gods love and care, holding us up and holding us near; their prayers for us becoming Gods arms around us, in ways that none of us can begin to explain or understand.

Thats a part of how we go through what we did not get to go around; its the people who are with us. And, its the faith which is in us; what this mornings psalm calls waiting on the Lord; the faith which keeps us waiting because it keeps us hoping because it keeps us believing that the one thing God will never do is nothing; the faith which keeps us hoping and believing that God always has something more and new yet to do.

I call that leaving room in the room for God; no matter how thick with despair the room may be, leaving room in the room for God to do what only God can do; waiting on the Lord; believing that, if God doesnt give us the gift we want, God will give us the strength we need; the strength we need to make it through the wonderful thing God might have done but did not do.

That is the life of faith. As one wise soul once said, Faith is what you have left when you dont get the miracle. Like this mornings psalm, the life of faith isnt all buttoned up and buttoned down, neat and tidy, seamless and smooth. Rather, like this mornings psalm, the life of faith is more like the awkward intersection of trust and trouble, pain and hope. Thats the life of faith; our life, with God, and one another, in this occasionally painful, mostly wonderful, highly uncertain, unspeakably beautiful world.

Amen.

 

 

The Path to Depth Is a Narrow Way

Luke 4:1-13, The First Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · February 14th, 2016 · Duration 13:49



The Path to Depth Is a Narrow Way

Luke 4:1-13

The First Sunday in Lent

Jesus cannot do everything, so, every year, on the first Sunday in Lent, he has to choose. He can draw a crowd by leaping from the steeple of the temple into the arms of the angels, or, he can stay with the way of the cross, but he cannot do both. He can succumb to the subtle temptation of religious triumphalism, rationalizing about all the good he could do in the world if he had all that power, or he can stay with the way of the cross, but he cannot do both. He can say Yes to the temptation to succeed on the worlds terms, or he can stay with the way of the cross, but he cannot do both.

The path God has given Jesus to walk is a narrow way. Jesus cannot do everything and follow the path God has given him. Saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else. Jesus has to choose.

Which is also true for all of us. Just as Jesus could not do everything and stay on the way to the cross, neither can we do everything and stay on the path to a deeper life with God.

Like Moses before him, Jesus defined that path, the path to a deeper life with God, as a life of love for God and love for others. To practice living that way is to travel the path to a deeper life with God; a path to depth which is a narrow way.

Once we begin saying a prayerful, intentional, daily yes to that narrow way, practicing each day, all through the day, loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we love ourselves, there will no longer be room for some of what once was a part of our lives. Like Jesus in the wilderness in this mornings gospel lesson, there are Nos which we will have to learn to say, because, once we begin to practice, each day, all through the day, saying a prayerful and intentional yes to a life of love for God and love for others, all the room on the path to depth will be taken; all the space in our lives claimed by love for God and love for others.

The love for God part is the life of prayer and devotion, a life of talking to God, listening for God and staying ever open to the nudges and whispers of the Holy Spirit. That is the vertical part of life on the path to depth; the Loving God with all your strength part. The horizontal part of life on the path to depth is the Loving others as you love yourself part of life; the justice and mercy, compassion and empathy, kindness and gentleness, generosity and patience, thoughtfulness and mindfulness part of life which is both necessary for, and created by, the daily practice of Loving others as you love yourself.

By the time we embrace and practice both, loving God with all that is in us and loving others as we love ourselves, the path to depth is full. It is such a narrow way, there just isnt room, anymore, in our lives for all those things we used to practice, but which cannot be reconciled with love for God and love for others.

Its a narrow way, the path to depth; but a narrow way which leads to a wide place, where your whole life eventually becomes nothing but love for God and love for others; a world-embracing life, not of tolerance, (to say that I tolerate those who are not like me is to suggest that I am superior to them, something for which there is no room on the path to depth) but of love; love as wide as the love of God, love and care for the whole wide world; the final destination on the path to depth; a narrow way which will always lead to a wide place.

Amen.

 

 

Little by Little

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · February 7th, 2016 · Duration 9:07



"Little by Little"

II Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

We are all being transformed from one degree of glory to another.

Those words from this mornings epistle lesson remind us that the transformation of our lives, more and more into the image and spirit of our Lord, is a long, slow process of growth and change, change and growth. God, who began a good work in us, is still bringing it to completion. We are all in the process of being redeemed; little by little, from one degree of glory to another.

So says Paul in this mornings epistle lesson, and, while I cannot speak for you, that has certainly been my experience. Every now and then, I will look back through my many boxes of prayer journals; twenty years worth of spiral notebooks of every color and size, filled with nearly daily prayers about many different things, but almost every one of which, sooner or later, ends with something like, Lord, help me to live this entire day in a thoughtful, mindful, intentional way, or, Lord, help me to live this one day of my life as a person of unfailingly careful speech, or Help me Lord, to get on, and stay on, the path to depth . . . Twenty years worth of nearly daily praying for, and failing at, a Spirit-filled, Quaker-quiet, cross-formed life of clarity, courage, kindness and holiness; nothing but love for God and whoever is standing in front of me.

And yet, all that failure, notwithstanding, still, I commend to you, with my whole heart, such daily spiritual practices, because, little by little, across a lifetime, the daily practice of that kind of deep yearning somehow becomes something like a sail; a small, simple sail which, lifted up often enough and left up long enough, catches enough of the wind of the Spirit to move our lives along at least a little; which is exactly the way todays epistle passage said it would happen; by degrees.

For most of us, that seems to be the Spirits pace; our lives transformed by degrees, not so much a sudden and dramatic Damascus Road Conversion, as a gradual, eventual Ridgewood Road Conversion; little by little, from one degree of glory to another.

So, do not lose heart, and do not give up. Be patient; patient with God, and patient with yourself. At the Spirits pace, we are being changed; transformed, little by little, across a lifetime, into people whose lives will soon be so filled with the love and Spirit of God that we might even someday discover, much to our surprise, that our badly bruised, highly complicated, frequently compromised, occasionally broken souls have become so mended and whole that when other people look at our lives and listen to our words they will not even be able to tell where the human spirit in us ends, and the Holy Spirit in us begins.

Amen.

 

Through the Midst

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, Luke 4:21-30

Steven Fuller · January 31st, 2016 · Duration 16:25



"Through the Midst"

Luke 4:21-30

The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Sermon by Youth: Graham Eklund and Nate Caraway

The Third Sunday After Epiphany/Youth Sunday

Graham Eklund and Nate Caraway · January 24th, 2016 · Duration 14:01



Sermon by Youth: Graham Eklund and Nate Caraway

John 16:33 and Luke 4:14-21

The Third Sunday After Epiphany/Youth Sunday

A Psalm on the Size of God

Psalm 36:5-10, The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 17th, 2016 · Duration 18:55



"A Psalm on the Size of God"

Psalm 36:5-10

The Second Sunday after Epiphany

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faith- fullness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,your judgements are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

Every three years, the Lectionary places in the path of the church those words from this mornings psalm, and, every time they roll back around, they never fail to remind me of Elvis, singing that great old gospel song, So high you cant get over it, so low you cant get under it, so wide you cant get around it . . . Thats the size this mornings psalm assigns to God when it says, Gods love reaches as high as the farthest cloud in the sky, Gods judgment reaches as low as the deepest depths of the sea, Gods mercy reaches so wide that God saves humans and animals alike.

I cannot speak for you, but, as someone who has long been picking and choosing his way through the Bible, latching onto the verses which ring most true at the center of my soul, I have long loved those words from todays psalm, because they make God sound so big.

(We all do that, by the way; we all pick and choose our way through the Bible, latching onto the verses which, on our ears and in our hearts, ring most true. I know many wonderful people who say that they assign equal authority to every word of scripture, but I dont know anyone who actually relates to the Bible in that way. Most of the people I know who speak of the Bible in that way are dear and good souls, but, they still lock their doors at night, despite the fact that Matthew 5:39 says that we should not resist evildoers. And, they still want to know if people are truly deserving before they help them, despite the fact that Matthew 5:42 says we should give to anyone who begs from us. Most of them are not pacifists, despite the fact that Matthew 5:44 says we should love our enemies; or socialists, despite the fact that II Corinthians 8:15 says that those who have much should not have too much, so that those who have little will not have too little. And, they still wear jewelry and nice clothes and get their hair done despite the fact that I Timothy 2:9 prohibits all the above. And, they still like to own the things they like to own, despite the fact that, in Luke 14:33, Jesus says that those who follow him must give up all their possessions. All of which is not to say that we shouldnt lock our doors or that it is wrong for us to own things, but, which is to say that we should all be truthful about the fact that all of us read, and relate to, the Bible in highly selective ways; explaining away the verses we dont like, and latching onto the verses and voices in scripture which, on our ears, and in our hearts, sound most right and ring most true.)

Which is why I so deeply love this mornings psalm. Nothing in the Bible sounds more right or rings more true, to me, than the size this mornings psalm assigns to God; steadfast love as high as the sky, righteous judgment as deep as the sea, and saving grace as wide as the world.

Once you begin to think of God as being that big you begin to see the world, and look at other people, in entirely new ways. You begin, not only to tolerate, but to celebrate, the fact that God is not obligated to operate within the boundaries that we have established for God, but that, rather, God is big and God is free; free to love as high as the sky and judge as deep as the sea and save the whole world, humans and animals alike; with, or without, our approval.

Ironically enough, the church is often the last place to let God be that big and free. Across the centuries, we have built ourselves into a massive and powerful institution, partly by keeping God in a corner and keeping a corner on God; so that those who want to get to God have to come through us.

Needless to say, there is some Bible to back that up. But, then, there are those massive passages such as this mornings psalm which say that Gods love is as high as the sky, Gods judgment is as deep as the sea and Gods grace is as wide as the world.

I cannot speak for you, but those are the Bible passages which ring most true to me; passages such as this mornings psalm, and Pauls enormous declarations, in Ephesians and Colossians, that Gods plan has always been to gather up all in Christ, and that, in Christ, God was reconciling the whole world to himself, and Johns equally enormous vision, in Revelation 5:13, of every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea singing praise to God around the throne forever; passages of scripture which sometimes make me wonder if the verse we most often use to reinforce our boundaries around God, No one comes to the Father except through Jesus, might actually mean that, ultimately, everyone will come to the Father through Jesus, because Jesus is the incarnation, the full embodiment, of the God who is as big as this mornings psalm says; a love so high no one can get over it, a judgment so deep no one can get under it, a grace so wide no one can get around it.

Amen.

 

The Line Is Long

Acts 8:14-17, Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · January 10th, 2016 · Duration 3:56



The Line Is Long

Acts 8:14-17

Baptism of the Lord Sunday/Deacon Ordination and Installation

Max and Marty, in a few minutes you will experience what Betsy, Gloria,Wilson, Kelley and Dudley, and many others, have experienced before you; that ancient gesture, which spans the centuries, circles the globe and predates, even, the Christian church; the beautiful, powerful, gentle gesture of the laying on of hands.

Because Northminster welcomes all to participate in the act of ordination, the hands which soon will be pressing the blessing of the church upon you will come in every shape and size; the hands upon your head, and the whispers in your ear, all sending you forth into your life as deacons; a life of helping the church embody the spirit of Jesus in the clearest and truest, kindest and best ways of which sinners, in the process of being redeemed, are capable.

Northminster deacons have a long history of doing exactly that; a nearly fifty year history of serving the church with mindful, thoughtful, patient, prayerful wisdom and discernment.

And, now, the two of you will take your place in that long line of deacon service, as your sisters and brothers press upon you, with their hands, and offer to you, with their words, the blessing and encouragement of the family of faith you have been called to serve.

Amen.

 

 

 

A Sign of Things to Come

Matthew 2:1-12, Epiphany Sunday

Chuck Poole · January 3rd, 2016 · Duration 7:24



"A Sign of Things to Come"

Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany Sunday

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?

Every year, year after year, on the Second Sunday of Christmastide, also known as Epiphany Sunday, the Lectionary places in the path of the church those words from Matthews gospel; our annual reminder of the size of the reach of the grace of God.

The wise men are always the last to arrive in Bethlehem because they had the farthest to go to get there. They came from the East, says this mornings gospel lesson; Bible shorthand for some place distant, strange, foreign and far.

Which is the point of the story. The point of the story of the Wise Men coming to worship the Christ child is that the reach of the grace of God is as wide as the world. Those visitors from the distant and mysterious, far and foreign East were the strangest of strangers and the most outside of outsiders; which made their presence in Bethlehem a sign of things to come; a sign of that great and wonderful day of which we catch a glimpse in the book of Revelation when every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea will sing together around the throne of the Lord our God.

Thats the point of the story of those late arriving visitors who came from who-knows-where to Bethlehem. Those far-flung, long-traveled strangers are there to remind us that the Jesus we love and serve is a Jesus with wingspan; a walls-down, arms-out Jesus who lived as he died, and died as he lived, arms out as wide as the world; and who expects, and empowers, those who claim his name, to love and live the same.

Amen.

Jesus’ Family, and Ours

Luke 2:41-52, The First Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · December 27th, 2015 · Duration 15:01



"Jesus Family, and Ours"

Luke 2:41-52

The First Sunday of Christmastide

I dont know about you, but it seems to me as though its only been a couple of days since Jesus was a baby, no bigger than Krishawn Shields, and now hes already wandering away from his parents in a crowd. (Nursery one day, Youth House the next.)

Every three years, the Lectionary places in the path of the church that moment from this mornings gospel lesson, when Jesus and his parents were separated from one another; a moment of uncertainty and fear; which you can hear in Marys voice, when she finally finds Jesus and says to him, Child, why have you treated us like this? Your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.

One imagines that that was not the first moment of worry for Mary about Jesus, and it certainly was not the last. Marys son was different; different in wonderful and amazing ways, but also in ways which cast many shadows across his life, and hers. As William Sloane Coffin once said, Jesus would rather be hated for who he was than loved for who he wasnt. As a result, he was almost always in trouble with someone about something; so much so that, eventually, it got him crucified. Jesus sat down with, and stood up for, the wrong people often enough that he made the right people nervous enough that, in an effort to silence him, they killed him; a life of struggle and pain from which Mary, Jesus mother, was helpless to protect him. Jesus had to be exactly who he was, which left his mother Mary to live a life of helpless love; helpless to manage Jesus life; and helpless, also, to distance herself from the pain of Jesus life.

Which actually makes the Holy Family a lot like our ordinary families. The Holy Family had to embrace the fact that they were helpless to manage Jesus life, and helpless to distance themselves from Jesus pain; a helplessness which eventually comes to each generation of every family.

All of which can be difficult to embrace. To own our helplessness and relinquish control; to practice helpless love, is never simple or easy.

A couple of years ago, I heard, on National Public Radio, a segment of Story Corp in which a man told about growing up on a dairy farm in the Midwest. He was the only son of the current owner of this large farm, which had been in the family for several generations. But, though he was the assumed successor to the land, he had a different spirit; a passion to be a writer and a poet. At last, as a young adult, he found the courage to go to his dad one day and say, I dont want to be a farmer. I want to get a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, and see if I can, indeed, make it as a writer, to which his father replied, You cannot think those thoughts in this house. His father, probably motivated by very legitimate concerns for his son, and for his familys future, couldnt bring himself to let go.

I had a different experience. When Marcia and I were off at seminary, we went home to Georgia one Thanksgiving and, while Marcia and one-year-old Joshua stayed in Augusta, I met my dad in Wrightsville, Georgia to go hunting for the day. That evening, as we sat on the front seat of my dads rusted-out old Ford Comet, preparing to say Good-bye and go our separate ways, he reached over and grasped my knee, and, with his strong hand wrapped around my leg, he said, to his budding young seminarian son, Son, your mama and me and the folks back home taught you everything we knew about God and the Bible and such. But theres a lot we dont know. Now, I dont even know what all it is that we dont know, but, whatever it is, you go learn it.

Helpless love, at its best; no guilt, no leverage, no control; just unconditional love, turning loose and letting go, with no way to know, or manage, where it might lead. I was thinking about all that this week, thinking about my dads hand on my knee as he said those words to me that day, when it occurred to me that it was with that same hand that my dad had hit me with his fist ten years earlier when, as a sixteen year old, I wanted to let my hair grow long. We had a big argument, which ended when my dad hit me with his fist so hard that I landed, on my back, in the bottom of my parents closet. Ten years later, my dads closed fist of rage had become my fathers open hand of blessing; the hand once closed for holding on, open wide for letting go.

To speak of all that all these years later makes it sound simple. But, needless to say, when it comes to families, nothing is ever quite that simple. The truth is, were all struggling along, stumbling forward, as best we can. As long as there are families, families of every kind, shape and size, the family which loves us most dearly will be the family which wounds us most deeply, because no one outside our family has as much access to the deepest, and most vulnerable, corners of our soul as do those inside our family.

All of which means that we will never outgrow the need to embrace helpless love, and call it, out loud, exactly what it is; helpless love. Helpless love; a phrase every family, sooner or later, will need to have in the lexicon of their life together; a complicated and necessary gift, for Jesus and his family, and, also, for us and ours.

Amen.

Concerning the Incarnation of God

Micah 5:2-5, The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 20th, 2015 · Duration 12:45



"Concerning the Incarnation of God"

Micah 5:2-5

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

On Holding One Another in Our Hearts

Philippians 1:3-11, The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 6th, 2015 · Duration 5:44



On Holding One Another in Our Hearts

Philippians 1:3-11

The Second Sunday of Advent

Tucked away in the middle of this mornings epistle lesson, there is that beautiful moment when Paul thanks the Philippians for holding him in their heart.

At least, thats what Philippians 1:7 says in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible. But, the King James version says that what Paul said to the Philippians, in Philippians 1:7, was not, You hold me in your heart, but, I hold you in my heart. The New International Version of the Bible agrees with the King James. But, the New English Bible sides with the New Revised Standard Version, to say that its the Philippians who hold Paul in their heart, not the other way around.

The discrepancy rises from a disagreement among Bible translators concerning the most accurate way to handle the Greek text from which our translations are derived, and arent we glad? After all, what could possibly be better than for some translations to say that Paul holds the Philippians in his heart, and others to say that the Philippians hold Paul in their hearts? What could possibly capture more perfectly our life together in the family of faith than everybody holding everybody in their hearts?

That is what we do. By day and by night, all through the year, year after year, we prayerfully, tenderly hold one another in our hearts.

And, all the more so, during the sacred season of Advent, when our cultures assumptions about Christmas happiness can leave those for whom life is most difficult feeling most left out; on the outside of Christmas, looking in. So, as the slowly growing circle of Advent light spreads its quiet flame from wick to wick, week by week, we hold one another in our hearts, even more mindfully and prayerfully than usual.

And, not only all the wounds within these walls, but, also, all the pain beyond these walls, we hold in our hearts. The violence and oppression, injustice and evil which tear asunder the lives of countless people we will never know, but to whom we are forever bound in the great and vast human family of God; all of that, and all of them, we hold, too, in our hearts.

That is what we do, because that is who we are. We hold one another in our hearts because we are Christians, and Christians are people whose hearts are broken open big enough, and wide enough, to hold one another, and the world.

Amen.

 

On Living an Intentional Life

Luke 21:25-36, The First Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · November 29th, 2015 · Duration 16:44



"On Living an Intentional Life"

Luke 21:25-36

The First Sunday of Advent

"What Jesus Said About Why Jesus Came"

John 18:33-37, Christ the King Sunday

Chuck Poole · November 22nd, 2015 · Duration 15:18



"What Jesus Said About Why Jesus Came"

John 18:33-37

Christ the King Sunday

Careful Speech about Stewardship

Hebrews 10:19-25, The Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 15th, 2015 · Duration 13:26



"Careful Speech about Stewardship"

Hebrews 10:19-25

The Twenty-fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Last Sunday, our congregation adopted the 2016 Northminster budget, which means that the 2016 pledge cards went in the mail this week, which means that, yes, today is the day we all look forward to all year every year; the Sunday of the annual stewardship sermon.

This year, as stewardship sermon Sunday began to draw near, I found myself wondering what the most specific and careful speech of which we are capable might allow, and require, a stewardship sermon to say about money and the church.

Because we are a church, careful speech about stewardship leaves us somewhat limited in what we can say. Unlike businesses, or even other non-profit institutions, we are bound by the spirit of Jesus, which means that when it comes to talking about money, there are restraints on what we can say, and how we can say it. Its actually a bit of a dilemma: On the one hand, our church has a large institutional life which makes a real and wonderful difference in our lives, our city and the wider world; a large and far reaching institutional life which takes nearly two million dollars a year, year after year, to sustain and maintain. On the other hand, because we have all read the four gospels, we know that the Jesus of the gospels probably would not exactly share our middle class American assumptions about church facilities, salaries, programs and activities. So, both despite the fact that we are the church of Jesus Christ, and, because of the fact that we are the church of Jesus Christ, we have to be careful about how we recruit Jesus into our stewardship sermons. Plus, we have to be careful about what we say about the blessings that come to those who give, or we will too easily take a gospel which calls us to deny ourselves, and turn it into a religious version of consumer capitalism; The more money you give to God the more blessing you get from God. Plus, careful speech wont let us use fear or guilt to motivate people to give, because we know better; we know that how much God loves us is not contingent upon how much or how often we give to the church.

Those are some of the things which careful speech about stewardship requires us to say; along with, needless to say, one more thing, which is, Thank you. Careful speech about stewardship requires the church, every now and then, to just say, Thank you. For all you give to support the life and work of this church, Thank you. You dont have to do it, but you do, and you do it with great generosity; motivated by nothing but a deep sense of gratitude, and love, for the work of this church, within and beyond these walls.

One Sunday morning back in September, I was out in the courtyard waiting for the beginning of the morning worship service when, at about 10:27, young Roger Stribling (whose permission I have to tell this story) came sprinting across the courtyard, headed for the church officeon an emergency run to the peppermint jar. At roughly 10:28, he sprinted back toward the sanctuary, newly acquired peppermints safely in hand. Just before he disappeared through the courtyard doors to weave his way through a narthex full of choir-robes and ushers, I called out, Hey, Roger. Thanks for being here. To which he responded, over his shoulder, as he raced to beat the bells, No problem. I like being here.

Im with Roger. I like being here, too. And most of you would say the same. We like being here, not because Northminster is perfect. It isnt. And not because we always get everything right. We dont. We like being here because, though we sometimes fail at it, our church strives to be serious about theological truth and clear thinking and gospel ministry. We like being here because this is where we find rest for our weariness, strength for our struggles and comfort for our sorrow. We like being here because, in the words of this mornings epistle lesson, being here sometimes even provokes us. Being here, at Northminster, surrounded by all of these dear and good souls who follow Jesus with such courage and hope, sometimes even provokes us to live more deeply and love more widely. In fact, every time we read this mornings epistle lesson with its admonition for us, Not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together, I always think to myself, Are you kidding? Dont stop going to church? Id never stop going to church. Id crawl across broken glass to get into this room with these people from whom I draw so much strength and in whom I find so much joy.

And, many of you would say the same. So, of course we want to support the daily life and work of this church with our money. We wouldnt give less if we could, we would give more if we could. After all, this is the place that marries and buries people we love, dedicates new babies and baptizes new believers, and speaks to us of mercy and judgment, sin and forgiveness, eternity and hope. And, when we are sick or sad or dying, it will be these people, and this place, that will hold us close, see us through and walk us Home.

So, of course, we all want to give all we can to support the life and work of this good and dear, less than perfect, more than wonderful place. And, if we all give what we can, then we will all have given what we should.

Amen.

Concerning the Size of the Circle

Ruth 3:1-5 and 4:13-17, The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 8th, 2015 · Duration 12:26



Concerning the Size of the Circle

Ruth 3:1-5 and 4:13-17

The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Concerning the size of the circle of the welcome of God, the Bible speaks with varied voices; which is not to say that the Bible is in contradiction with itself, but which is to say that the Bible is in conversation with itself; this page talking to that page, these verses versus those verses; some drawing a small circle of welcome around God, while others draw around God a circle of welcome as wide as the world.

Take, for example, this mornings lesson from the book of Ruth. When the book of Ruth rejoices that Boaz, who was an Israelite, married Ruth, who was a Moabite, and that they produced a child who would grow up to be an ancestor of King David, the book of Ruth draws a much wider circle of welcome than the one we find in the book of Deuteronomy, where the Bible says, No Moabite shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. With those words, the book of Deuteronomy draws around God a circle of welcome too small to take in the greatly despised Moabites. But, then comes the book of Ruth, which redraws the circle of Gods welcome by embracing a Moabite, and making her, not only a beloved member of the family of God, but an honored ancestor of David, Israels greatest king; one small example of the Bibles conversation with itself concerning the size of the circle of the welcome of God.

Then, not unlike the Bibles varied voices concerning the Moabites, there is the case of the eunuchs. In Deuteronomy 23:1, the Bible says that eunuchs are not welcome to enter the house of the Lord. But, in the same Bible, Isaiah 56:3 says that eunuchs are not only welcome, but wanted, in the house and family of God; another example of the Bibles conversation with itself concerning the size of the circle of Gods love and welcome; some verses drawing the circle of Gods welcome too small to take in eunuchs, while other verses draw the circle of Gods welcome too large to leave them out.

Then, of course, there is Jesus, himself. In his encounter with a Gentile woman in Matthew chapter fifteen, Jesus at first drew the circle of his welcome narrow and small, saying, Send her away . . . I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But, two verses later, Jesus redrew the circle of his welcome; taking the circle of his love wide enough to include the same person he had previously excluded.

All of which is to say that, here and there, and now and then, the Bible gets into a conversation with itself concerning the size of the circle of the welcome of God. Moabites are excluded from Gods family on one page of scripture, but welcomed into Gods family on another.

In one corner of the Bible, eunuchs are not welcome, but, in another, they are. In one verse, Jesus circle of grace is limited to Jews, but in another verse he draws his circle wide enough to take in the strangest of strangers. Back and forth goes the Bible between the small-circle particularity which leaves some out and the big-circle universality which takes all in.

Interestingly enough, that Bible-wide conversation makes one last appearance in the last verse of the Bible, where the last chapter of the book of Revelation ends with the words, The grace of our Lord Jesus be with all the saints. At least, thats how some ancient manuscripts recorded the last verse of the last book of the Bible, The grace of our Lord Jesus be with all the saints. But, other equally ancient manuscripts say, The grace of our Lord Jesus be with all.

Some manuscripts end the last sentence of the Bible with grace for all the saints, while others end the last sentence of the Bible with grace for all. Its just a small, obscure, ancient manuscript discrepancy, but, what could be more perfect? Is the circle of grace limited to the size of the circle of the saints, or is the circle of grace as wide as the world? Which is it? Grace for all the saints? Or grace for all? The last verse of the Bible leaves us less than certain, which is the perfect ending to the Bibles never ending conversation with itself.

What do you think about the size of the circle of the welcome of God? Did Gods love ever really exclude from Gods welcome Moabites, eunuchs and non-Jews? Are those verses a reflection of the prejudices of the writers of the Bible, or are they a reflection of the heart of the God of the Bible? Does God draw Gods circle so small that some must be left out, or so large that none can be left out?

Because I believe that the most basic, fundamental, central and eternal reality of the universe is the bottomless, boundless love of God, I believe that the big-circle verses more accurately measure the embrace of God than the small-circle verses, which is why I also believe that the deeper with God we go, the wider our love will grow, until we, like God, draw our circle of love and welcome as wide as the world.

Amen.

 

On Not Saying More Than We Know

Job 42:1-6, 10-17, The Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 25th, 2015 · Duration 15:44



"On Not Saying More Than We Know"

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

The Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost

 

A Song of Trust

Psalm 91:9-16, The Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 18th, 2015 · Duration 14:45



A Song of Trust

Psalm 91:9-16

The Twenty-first Sunday After Pentecost

God will protect those who love God and know Gods name. Those words from todays psalm are luminous with confidence and beautiful with hope, so we always love to see them making their way down lectionary lane to the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover. But, every time they cross our path, it is important for us to remind ourselves that all the psalms started out, not as chapters in a Bible, but as music in a sanctuary; which means that, though all of the psalms are beautiful and powerful, none of them were written to be read as actual or literal. Rather, each of the psalms was composed to be chanted or sung as an anthem or chorus; Hebrew hymns, synagogue songs, temple tunes.

All of which is particularly important to remember when we come to this mornings lesson from Psalm 91. Otherwise, we might take words which were originally written as a song of trust, and interpret them, instead, as a guarantee of safety.

That is, after all, how the psalm sounds. When the psalm says, Because you have made the Lord your refuge, no evil shall befall you, it does sound like a guarantee of safety. And, when it says, God will protect those who love God, it does sound like a promise of protection.

All of which can make this mornings psalm as bewildering for some as it is beautiful for others, because, while God does protect some people from some terrible things sometimes, God does not protect everyone from every terrible thing all the time.

This mornings psalm says, God will protect those who love God and know Gods name, but, the truth is, we have all, at times, watched the most wonderful people we have ever known bear the most crushing sorrows we have ever seen. God does sometimes do what this mornings psalm says; God sometimes does spare some people from some things, but God does not always spare everyone from everything.

Because this is so undeniably true, we reach for explanations that are designed to resolve mystery, explain suffering, and defend God; explanations which often come down to something along the lines of, Its all part of Gods plan. God didnt send this terrible thing, but God allowed it so that God could use it to accomplish Gods plan.

I think that most of the best people I know believe that way, because most of the best people I know talk that way. And, as Barbara Brown Taylor has so wisely written, The final human freedom is to assign whatever meaning we choose to assign to our own experience, so it certainly isnt my place to question someone elses comfort. But I, myself, dont talk that way because I dont believe that way. I used to,but, somewhere along the way, it occurred to me that, in order to say that everything which happens is part of Gods plan, I had to be willing to assign, to the will and plan of God, not only all sorts of natural tragedies, diseases and catastrophes, but, also, unspeakable acts of violence and crime. And, all the usual theological speculation about the difference between the absolute will of God and the permissive will of God just doesnt take with me. It sounds, on my ears, like creating loopholes for God, as does the idea that there is a difference between God sending a tragedy or a disease or a heartbreak, and God allowing it. That way of thinking says that God sees something devastating and destructive coming, and has the power to stop it, but chooses, instead, to allow it; an idea which may be true, but which I am not able to embrace, because it seems, to me, to be unworthy of the goodness of God. (At some point, we have to decide how much of the goodness of God we are willing to sacrifice on the altar of the sovereignty and control of God.)

Thats why all those answers to tragedy which assign everything to the plan of God do not ring true to me. What rings more true to me is simply to say something like this: We live in a world where beautiful things happen and bad things happen, and, if the beautiful things and the bad things can happen to anybody, they can happen to everybody; including you and yours, and me and mine. We cant do enough or give enough to get God so deeply in our debt that God will be obligated to spare and protect us and ours from the hardest and worst life can bring. But, no matter what life brings, God is with us and God is for us, giving us the strength to go through what we did not get to go around.

Which is actually what this mornings psalm eventually says, down there in verse fifteen, where it says, God will be with us in trouble. Earlier, the psalm says, in verse fourteen, God will protect us from trouble. But then, just in case, verse fifteen says, God will be with us in trouble.

Of course, we have to remember, Psalm 91 isnt a carefully worked out theological explanation of suffering. Like all of the psalms, its a song. Its a song of trust, sort of like It is Well with My Soul or O God, Our Help in Ages Past; a song of trust in the presence and goodness of God, the good and loving God who will either spare us from sorrow or carry us through sorrow, but who will never abandon us in sorrow.

Amen.

A Sermon About Jesus

Mark 10:17-31, The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 11th, 2015 · Duration 18:23



"A Sermon About Jesus"

Mark 10:17-31

The Twentieth Sunday After Pentecost

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up to him, and asked, What must I do to inherit eternal life? Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said, Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then, come follow me. And when the man heard this, he was shocked.

Every three years, the lectionary places in the path of the church those words from Marks gospel, and, every time they roll back around, the man in the story is shocked by Jesus answer to his question about how to enter into eternal life.

The man in the story is shocked, and, so are we. To tell someone to sell their possessions and give the money to the poor as a prerequisite for inheriting eternal life just doesnt sound like Jesus. At least, it doesnt sound like our Jesus. If someone were to ask our Jesus what they had to do to inherit eternal life, our Jesus would answer, as any good Christian would, Just accept Christ as your savior. Just believe in Jesus.

Thats what our Jesus would say. But Marks Jesus, the Jesus of this mornings gospel lesson, is different from our Jesus. Our Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible Belt, the Christ of Christianity; a composite of twenty centuries of evolving church doctrine; what were supposed to believe about what popular Christianity says about what Martin Luther and John Calvin thought about what Augustine believed about what Paul wrote about Jesus. That Jesus, our Jesus, would never say to someone who asked how to inherit eternal life, Go, sell what you own, give the money to the poor, then come follow me.

So, theres a difference between Marks Jesus and ours. And, there is a popular answer for that difference; an explanation which is embraced by many dear and good Christians. It goes something like this: When Jesus said such radical sounding things as he said to the man in Mark chapter ten, about giving all your money to the poor in order to inherit eternal life, Jesus was actually only underscoring the impossibility of our ever being able to be good enough to enter the kingdom of God, so that people would recognize their helplessness and embrace his sacrifice on the cross as their only hope for making it into the kingdom.

Many people embrace that view, but it doesnt quite take with me. I dont believe that when Jesus said such things as he said to that man in this mornings gospel lesson about selling his possessions and giving the money to the poor that Jesus was just setting things up for the cross by highlighting our need for his sacrifice. To the contrary, I believe that the most radical sounding, life-stretching words Jesus said are words to be taken seriously as Jesus call for us to live a cross-formed, turned-outward life of material contentment and sacrificial compassion; a life of charity, justice, hospitality, welcome, friendship and love. To say that the most demanding words Jesus said were only preparing the way for the cross makes the words Jesus said matter so much less than the death Jesus died that it makes it too easy for us to assume that, because we are justified by the blood Jesus shed, we dont have to be bothered by the words Jesus said, which is how we have ended up with a world full of Christians like myself; people who have accepted Christ saving death, but who dont follow Jesus demanding words. (Which is fine. That wont keep us out of heaven, but we just need to be honest about it, and say, out loud, that while we have accepted Christ, we dont follow Jesus; at least, not the real Jesus; Marks Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels.)

But, every time we read the four gospels, there he sits; the real Jesus, Marks Jesus, the Jesus of this mornings gospel lesson, looking up at us from the page, just as he looked at the man on the page; Jesus, looking at him, loved him.

Thats the good news which travels in the hard words: Looking at the man in the story, Jesus loved him. And, we know enough about Jesus to know that, looking at us, he loves us too. Even with all our superfluous stuff, unnecessary things, questionable theology and repeated failures to truly follow Jesus, looking at us, he loves us.

And we, looking at Jesus, love him, too. We may not always follow him, but we do always love him. (Even though he does scare us when he talks the way he did this morning.)

Amen.

 

Concerning Mark 10:2-16

Mark 10:2-16, The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 4th, 2015 · Duration 6:23



Concerning Mark 10:2-16

Mark 10:2-16

The Nineteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Every three years, the lectionary places in the path of the church this mornings lesson from Marks gospel, and every time it rolls back around, it leaves us not quite certain what to say.

For one thing, this mornings passage speaks of marriage and divorce from the perspective of the first-century world; in some ways the same, but, in other ways, very different from what we think of when we speak of marriage and divorce. So, when we draw lines of connection from marriage then to marriage now, we must do so with great care and restraint.

And, for another thing, this mornings gospel lesson has a long history of being used, by the church, in ways which only add to the pain of those who have endured the complex grief of divorce. That was the case in the church of my childhood, and, also, to my shame, in my first pastorate, thirty-something years ago, where we interpreted this mornings gospel lesson in ways which often left wonderful men and women at the edge of the church for the rest of their lives, solely because they had been divorced.

So, when it comes to this mornings lesson from Mark chapter ten, perhaps we should be content to say only what we know to be so, which is that the message in the passage is this: Marriage matters. In ways which are deeper and higher, longer and stronger than any words can ever say, marriage matters.

So, when the time comes for you to think about marriage, think prayerfully and carefully, deeply and seriously. And, if you are in a marriage, get up every morning and live a life of kindness and integrity, courtesy and respect, gentleness and patience, forgiveness and grace.

And, if you have ever lived through the sorrow of divorce, please forgive folk like myself who, once upon a time, only added to the pain with our misguided use of the Bible.

And, finally, always remember this one simple truth: No matter what shape our family takes, God loves and values each of us, and all of us, the same.

Amen.

 

 

 

God’s Answer to Moses’ Prayer

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-17, The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 27th, 2015 · Duration 10:36



Gods Answer to Moses Prayer

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-17

The Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost

So Moses said to the Lord, Why have you treated me so badly? I am not able to carry all this alone. If this is the way things are going to be, then let me die at once.

That was Moses prayer in this mornings Old Testament lesson. When we caught up to Moses in Numbers chapter eleven, Moses spirit was collapsing beneath the weight of his life. He had all those unhappy people to care for and all those competing opinions to manage, and he had finally had all he could bear. Moses had sacrificed so much of his soul on the altar of his role that he was no longer interested in going on with life. So he prayed for God to do him a favor and let him die. Why have you laid the burden of all these people on me? I am not able to bear this alone, said Moses in his prayer. If this is the way life is going to be, then please Lord, do me a favor, and let me die today.

Gods answer to Moses prayer came quickly, but it wasnt the answer for which Moses prayed. What God gave Moses was not the relief from life Moses wanted, but the strength for life Moses needed. Moses prayed to die, but Gods answer to Moses prayer was not a way out of his pain, but a way through it.

In verse fifteen, Moses said to God, If you love me, youll let me die. And in verse sixteen, God said to Moses, Gather seventy of the elders of Israel, and they shall bear the burden with you so that you shall not bear it all by yourself.

Gods answer to Moses prayer was not the way out Moses wanted, but the way forward Moses needed. Gods answer to Moses prayer was people; people from whom Moses could draw strength, and with whom Moses could carry the weight of the burdens which were crushing his spirit.

Its an obscure story from a rarely read corner of the Old Testament, but the lectionary is kind to place it in our path every three years, because it is such a true snapshot of where we find our strength. Just as Moses needed people from whom he could draw strength, so do all of us. When life is at its hardest and worst, we, like Moses, need people; people of God from whom we draw strength and in whom we find joy; what Stanley Hauerwas called A community capable of absorbing our grief.

That is what we need, and that is what we have; its called a congregation; a family of faith, a church. Its what we all promised ourselves to be for little Louis Boteler a few minutes ago, and what we all always have been, and always will be, for one another; the people of God, embodying the love of God with, and for, one another.

Thinking about all of this takes me back to something I read several years ago which Kay Shurden said to her husband, Walter. One day the Shurdens were talking about how much they needed the strength they found in the people at their church, when Kay said, Buddy, even if we woke up some Sunday morning and discovered that the atheists were right, wed still get dressed and go to church, because we need those people that much.

Which is true. We all do need the strength we draw from the faces and voices, support and kindness, understanding and grace of the people of God in whom we find the embodied presence and goodness of God.

Amen.

 

The Spirit of Jesus

Mark 9:30-37, The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 20th, 2015 · Duration 15:48



"The Spirit of Jesus"

Mark 9:30-37

The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

The Spirit of Jesus is the spirit of humble service.

That is the truth which travels in todays gospel lesson. In this mornings lesson from Mark, when Jesus overhears the disciples arguing among themselves about which of them is the greatest, Jesus tells them that the worlds standards of greatness, power, popularity, success, are not his standards of greatness. Rather, Jesus says, for his followers, true greatness is found in humble service. Whoever wants to be first of all, he said, Must be last of all, and servant of all.

All of which is to say that the spirit of Jesus is the spirit of humble service. That is why, for example, when we remember Mother Teresa, who gave her life to, and lived her life with, the sick and the poor, something inside us instinctively recognizes the spirit of Jesus in her life and work. Or, take that moment when Pope Francis washed the feet of prisoners of every faith and no faith; no one had to tell us that that small gesture embodied the spirit of Jesus. Or, when Henri Nouwen left his highly visible Ivy League teaching post to live and serve as a fulltime caregiver in a group home for severely disabled adults, we recognized, in that downwardly mobile act of self-emptying love, an embodiment of the spirit of Jesus.

Because we have read the four gospels, we know what the spirit of Jesus is. Not only in this mornings lesson from Mark, but throughout the gospels, the spirit of Jesus is the spirit of humble service. Whatever else we may not know about Jesus, we do, at least, know that Jesus called his followers to a life which is guided and governed, not by the worlds measures of success and greatness, but by a spirit of humble service.

It is the job of the church to form people who understand that spirit, and who embody it in our ordinary, everyday lives. That is one reason why, every time you open a Northminster newsletter, you see something about opportunities for service; opportunities for service within these walls; teaching stories, making music, singing songs, rocking babies, loving children, folding newsletters, arranging flowers, serving meals, passing the plate, counting the offering, welcoming the stranger and burying the dead. And, opportunities for service beyond these walls; through Meals on Wheels or the Stewpot Food Pantry, at Operation Shoestring or Billy Brumfield, at Grace House or Spann School, with Salt and Light or Habitat for Humanity, or by helping with Boarding Homes or the Angel Tree, or serving as a Northminster Caregiver of the Week, or showing up as a Northminster friend at the Yellow Church on Wood Street.

Think about what that might someday mean for little James and Dowling Guyton, who were carried out among you a few moments ago. Theres an excellent chance that, once those boys get old enough to go places and do things, they might be traveling with Lesley to sing at a nursing home, riding with Steven to serve lunch at Stewpot, and going with Jill to help in the work of A Wider Net, because were a church, and thats what churches do, because the church is in the world to embody the spirit of Jesus, and the spirit of Jesus is the spirit of humble service.

Several years ago, the British Broadcasting Service interviewed several world leaders, asking each of them to name some of the defining moments in their lives. Desmond Tutu was among those to whom that question was posed, to which he replied, When I was a small boy, my mother and I were entering a building in our home town in racially divided South Africa, when a white man stopped, held the door for us, and respectfully tipped his hat to my mother. Though it sounds like such a small gesture, I can still remember that moment as a defining moment in my life, a moment which gave me hope for the future.

That is the power of humble service. No wonder Jesus said Those who would be great must be servant of all. It is through such small, simple acts of gentle, humble service that the love of God flows out through us.

The world around us may not understand that, but it is the churchs job to form us into people who do understand, and embody, the spirit of humble service, which is the spirit of Jesus.

Amen.

On Following Jesus

Mark 8:27-38, The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 13th, 2015 · Duration 16:57



"On Following Jesus"

Mark 8:27-38

The Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost

If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.

Sitting with those words, this week, made me think, again, that, oddly enough, one of the biggest obstacles to the successful church is the real Jesus. If the Jesus of the four gospels is the nearest Jesus we have to the real Jesus, then, oddly enough, the biggest obstacle to the successful church might be the real Jesus.

As Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, the successful church is a church which, Makes it easy for people to come, and rewarding for them to stay. Talk to any of the church growth experts, she continues, And they will tell you that the basic idea is to find out what people are looking for and give it to them, so that they will decide to stay put instead of continuing to shop for a church down the street.

None of which is bad, or wrong, necessarily, and all of which would make perfect sense, were it not for the fact that the church is in the world, not to succeed on the terms of American consumerism, but to follow Jesus. And, if the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, then Jesus did not appeal to people on the basis of their own comfort, security or self interest. Rather, the Jesus of the gospels, when faced with a crowd of potential new members, said, You all might want to stop and think about this. You need to understand that those who join with me must deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me. (And thats the soft and easy version we get in Matthew and Mark. In Luke, Jesus adds, for good measure, that to follow him will require us to love him more, even, than we love our families, and to give up all our possessions.)

Little wonder we so quickly created the Christ of Christianity, who is more manageable than the Jesus of the gospels. By the fourth century, the Jesus of the gospels had become the Christ of Christianity. Soon enough, the Jesus who said that those who tried to save their lives would lose them, had armies marching at his command. Then, with the passing centuries, the Jesus who promised his followers no place to lay their head was safely ensconced in cathedrals and castles, enjoying the influence which comes with material wealth and political power. Add to all that our modern American contributions of consumerism, capitalism and civil religion nationalism, and what you have is a Christ of Christianity we can all live with; a manageable, marketable Christ who bears only the slightest of resemblances to the Jesus of the four gospels who greeted crowds by saying, You all might want to stop and think about this. To follow me will mean to deny yourself, take up your cross daily, make yourself vulnerable and leave yourself open. Im going to a cross, so you probably cannot follow me without ending up in some discomfort yourself. (Which is why I say that one of the greatest obstacles to the successful church is the real Jesus. The real Jesus can empty a church as fast as the Christ of Christianity can fill one.)

I often wonder, when churches market themselves to people on the basis of how comfortable and convenient they are, at what point do they tell their new members that the truth is, the gospel is not a call to comfort and convenience, but, rather, to a vulnerable and open life, a life as vulnerable and open as the nailed and naked body of Jesus stretched all the way up and all the way out on the cross. If churches succeed by appealing to peoples self-interest, at what point do they break to them the bad news about the good news; the truth that the real Jesus said that in order to follow him we must live beyond our own self-interest and comfort, deny ourselves and take up the cross?

(Of course, who am I to raise such questions? Lets be honest; the real Jesus would not accept a large salary to preach the gospel, either.)

My sisters and brothers, every now and then, we just have to remember all this. We have to remember that the real Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels, is not the same as the manageable, marketable, institutionally successful Christ of Christianity.

This is what Wendell Berry called the burden of the gospel, the burden of knowing that beneath, behind and beyond our wonderful, helpful, important institutional Christianity, (and it is wonderful, helpful and important in many ways) there is the real Jesus, who calls us to a life of courage and compassion; a life which is formed by, and shaped like, the cross; stretched all the way up to God and all the way out to others.

And, every time we embody that cross formed life of love for God and love for others, every time we act the way the real Jesus acted in the four gospels by sitting down with and standing up for whomever is most voiceless and powerless, marginalized and mistreated, broken and embarrassed, humiliated and hurting; every time we do that, we are following Jesus; the real one.

Amen.

Crumbs

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

Lesley Ratcliff · September 6th, 2015 · Duration 8:10

 



"Crumbs"

Mark 7:24-37

The Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Words Matter

James 1:17-27, The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 30th, 2015 · Duration 13:43



"Words Matter"

James 1:17-27

The Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost

 

Let everyone be quick to listen and slow to speak . . . If any think they are religious, but do not bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless.

With those words, the one who wrote this mornings epistle lesson assigns enormous weight to what we say and how we say it. (A subject which will come up again in James chapter three, which goes so far as to call the tongue, A restless evil, full of deadly poison.)

While James severe assessment of how much words matter may seem a bit harsh and over-stated, he is actually in good Bible company when he assigns that much significance to what we say and how we say it. Take, for example, Proverbs 18:21, which says, Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and Matthew 12:36-37, where Jesus is reported to have said, On the day of judgment, you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

All of which is to say that words matter. Their potential to give comfort and strength is enormous, as is their capacity to inflict deep wounds and do great harm; a capacity to hurt and harm which is so great that, in James chapter three, the Bible actually refers to the tongue as, a fire, kindled in hell.

The problem, of course, is not the tongue, from which the words fall, but the heart, from which they rise. Jesus says as much in Matthew 12:34, when he says, Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. If the heart is full of bitterness and resentment, then, out of that abundance, the mouth may speak reckless gossip, hurtful sarcasm, small-minded prejudice and graceless judgment. If, on the other hand, the heart is full of the Spirit of God, then, out of that abundance, the mouth may speak kindness, gentleness, truth and love. Either way, Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks, and, according to what Jesus is reported to have said in the book of Matthew, what the mouth speaks actually matters so much that, on the day of judgment, it will be by our words that we will be justified or condemned.

Or, as this mornings epistle passage puts it, If any think they are religious, but do not bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless.

That might be a good verse for all of us to memorize. (Its only sixteen words, so perhaps we can.) If any think they are religious, but do not bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless.

If we could all tuck that away, somewhere down there in the reservoir of our soul, then it might help us to practice, more faithfully, the spiritual discipline of careful speech. If any think they are religious, but do not bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless. If we could get those words tucked away down there in the reservoir of our heart and soul, memory and mind, then, who knows, the next time we are about to spread a rumor, tease a classmate or judge a friend, it might actually stop us. If any think they are religious, but do not bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless. Get something like that rolling around inside our mind, and, the next time we are poised and eager to forward that Facebook post, group text, Twitter tweet or e-mail, we might actually stop long enough to ask ourselves if the words we are about to say or send will embody the grace and goodness of God, or show our hearts to be full of something other than the love and Spirit of God.

My sisters and brothers, there is nothing at all wrong with taking brief, momentary vows of silence, off and on, all through the day; waiting to speak until our heart is so flooded with the love of God that nothing but grace can come up from there because nothing but love is left down in there.

It may not be easy, of course, partly because our friends, who have come to expect us to speak, and act, in certain ways, will not understand our hesitation to leap into the conversation. But, thats alright. If they ask why you are not joining in with your usual reckless abandon, just tell them that you are trying to learn to be quick to listen and slow to speak, waiting to speak until your heart is so flooded with the love of God that nothing but grace can come up from there because nothing but love is left down in there.

I realize, of course, how impossible all of that sounds; how impossible it sounds to suggest that we might actually live that way in the real world. And, it would be impossible, if we did not have the Holy Spirit.

But, we do.

Amen.

 

 

No Final Victories

Ephesians 6:10-20, The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 23rd, 2015 · Duration 15:37



No Final Victories

Ephesians 6:10-20

The Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost

Earlier this summer, while driving to Northminster one morning, I heard a radio reporter interviewing a man who had spent most of his adult life working to help renew the crumbling core of a large American city; focusing on lifting the lives of people in poverty and breaking cycles of violence and despair. The person conducting the interview observed that some of the neighborhoods where this man had spent his long and noble career were still struggling, after which she asked, Does that ever make you want to give up?, to which the community worker replied, Oh, no. Not at all. We dont get discouraged. We just get up everyday and do what we do all over again, because we know that, in our line of work, there are no final victories.

That phrase, no final victories took me straight from the frontage road, where I heard it, to this mornings epistle passage, which calls us to put on the whole armor of God so that we can get ready for battle, the daily battle for righteousness; a battle we must get up and fight all over again with each new day, because, in the daily battle for righteousness, there are no final victories, just new opportunities to intentionally embody the Spirit of God in our ordinary, daily lives.

Of course, we have to be careful about how we handle this mornings epistle lesson, with its metaphors of armor to wear and battles to fight. We do follow a Jesus, after all, who sent his followers into the world without so much as an extra set of sandals, much less a suit of armor; calling them, and us, to a life so vulnerable that to try to save it is to lose it, but to be willing to lose it is to save it. So, we have to handle this mornings metaphor of shield and sword with care. Plus, we have to be careful lest we enlist this mornings epistle lesson into the us-against-them kind of thinking which has become so wide spread in modern Christianity; a way of thinking in which people see nations, religions, world-views and political parties other than their own as the powers of evil to which todays epistle passage alludes. There is no shortage of evil in this world. Fierce, violent, oppressive powers of darkness have always been with us, but the battle lines are seldom as simple and clear as the culture war pundits like to draw them.

So, we have to be careful with this mornings epistle lesson, lest we send it on errands it wasnt written to run. Its almost as though we cant speak of what it might mean until we have first been careful to say what it probably doesnt mean.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I think the metaphor of putting on the armor of God is a call for us to get ready for whatever battles or challenges we must face in a way which is as intentional as a soldier who gets up, and suits up, in the same way everyday; putting on the armor for battle, piece by piece; shoes, shield, helmet, sword, day after day.

At the risk of sounding simplistic and nave, I would say that the way we do that, the way we put on the whole armor of God, is by practicing the discipline of intentional daily prayer.

At least, thats how I do it. I get up every morning and put on the armor of God by writing in a prayer journal. Ill miss a day or two a month, but, basically, every day, I pray on paper, because that has proven, for me, to be a helpful discipline. It is how I put on the whole armor of God and get ready for whatever is coming next. Not unlike a soldier putting on the same armor, everyday, I pray pretty much the same prayer, everyday: Dear God, help me to live a centered, thoughtful life today. No matter how full or busy the day becomes, help me to move through the day in a Quaker quiet way; gentle, patient and mindful of those around me. Help me to live this one day as a person of careful speech; as many words as necessary, as few as possible. I pray to live an uncluttered life; sensitive and open to the nudges and whispers of the Holy Spirit. Help me Lord, to get on, and stay on, the path to depth, throughout this one day of my life.

Something like that is how I put on the whole armor of God every morning. You may already have a better way, but, if you dont, I recommend mine to you. Ive been doing it pretty much every day for the past twenty years. Its a great way to face the day, like a soldier putting on the same armor, every morning, to face the same enemies and fight the same battles, all over again.

Only, I guess I should tell you that, in my experience, this isnt magic. In fact, despite twenty years now of praying for more or less the same strength, more or less every day, I still frequently fail at winning the battle for a life of mindful, thoughtful holiness and unfailingly careful speech. Apparently, these are the battles in which there are no final victories, just new opportunities to suit up and show up; facing whatever is coming next, and praying, all through the day, to become a person who embodies the Spirit of God in our everyday lives, every day.

Amen.

 

 

From the Depths

Psalm 130, The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 9th, 2015 · Duration 14:36



"From the Depths"

Psalm 130

The Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

If God should mark iniquities who could stand? But, there is forgiveness with God. With the Lord there is steadfast love, and the Lord will redeem us from all our sin.

Those bright and shiny Bibles we just gave to Bess, Will, Lennon, Presley, Andrew, Watson and Chesley are full of wonderful words of comfort and hope, among the most hopeful of which are those words we just read from this mornings psalm; words which capture, as fully as any passage in scripture, the grace-filled truth which travels at the center of the gospel of God; the truth that there is forgiveness with God, and steadfast love to redeem us from all our iniquities.

So says the psalmist, but not in a glib and easy, sunny-side-of-the-street kind of way. To the contrary, the psalmist song of boundless grace rises from a deep and troubled place. From the depths, I cry, says the psalmist, in verse one; Bible shorthand for the overwhelming anguish of a crushed and broken spirit.

There are, of course, many reasons why people find themselves in the depths from which the psalmist called out to God; most of which are out of our hands and beyond our control. More often than not, we find ourselves in the depths of anguish and grief, not because of anything anyone could have or should have done differently, but because that is just the way our life has gone. Indeed, it is often the finest of people who struggle in the deepest of depths.

But, in todays psalm, it appears that the psalmist may be in the depths of overwhelming anguish, not because of some sorrow beyond his control, but, rather, because of some sin for which the psalmist himself is partially responsible. Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord, says the psalmist. And then, in the very next breath, the psalmist says, If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand? which is why most of the best commentaries agree that the psalmist is calling to God from the depths, not because of a general sense of sadness or despair, but, instead, because of the specific grief of guilt: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, Lord, who could stand?

But, then, the song shifts from guilt to grace. Not in a glib and easy, anything goes kind of way; but in a voice which rises from the depth of the grief of guilt, the psalmist song shifts from guilt to grace: If you should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But, there is forgiveness with you, and steadfast love, and great power to redeem; so much love, and so much power, that God will redeem us from all our sin.

It is often said, and popularly believed, that the Old Testament is stern, harsh and legalistic, while the New Testament is full of mercy, grace and unconditional love. But, sometimes, the Old Testament out New Testaments the New Testament. Take for example, this mornings psalm. Oddly enough, across the Christian centuries, the New Testament church has often found it hard to let the love of God be as utterly unconditional as it is in this mornings Old Testament psalm.

With only the best of intentions, institutional Christianity has long attached conditions to the unconditional love of God; conditions about what a person must believe or confess or do in order to meet the requirements for receiving the unconditional love of God; making especially central the condition that a perfect sacrifice had to be offered before God could be forgiving, and a right response to that perfect sacrifice has to be made before sin can be forgiven; conditions we have placed on the unconditional love of God, primarily because that is the way we have historically interpreted some passages of scripture, both Old Testament and New, and, perhaps, partly because we do

not know how to incentivize people to come to Christianity without those conditions we have so long assumed must be applied to the unconditional love of God.

But, every now and then, we come across a passage such as this morning's psalm, which makes the love of God unconditional. And, while there are many other things for the church to teach and say, every now and then, the church needs to be at least as New Testament as this mornings Old Testament psalm, and, with the psalmist, be content, and happy, to say, God is not keeping score on us, God is giving grace to us. Even in all our complex and complicated brokenness, God knows, understands, forgives and loves us, no strings attached.

We sometimes fear saying that out loud. It makes the unconditional love of God a little too unconditional. We fear that, if we let grace be as amazing as it really is, people might lose their incentive to do right and believe right because they will assume that anything goes, nothing matters and sin isnt really all that serious after all.

But, difficult though it may be, we have to reach for, and speak, the truth, as best we can; the truth, as best we know it, about both the seriousness of sin and the relentlessness of grace. And, the truth is, God does not turn a blind eye to injustice or sweep evil under the rug. To the contrary, God is the one who judges and purges sin and evil through the fire of redemption. And then, when all that is done; when all the sinning, judging, purging, redeeming and reconciling is done, and, when all the religions are done, what will be left at the end, will be what was there at the beginning; the steadfast love of God, of which this mornings psalm sang from the depths.

As T. S. Eliot once wisely observed, We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started, and to know the place for the first time. After all our exploring, thinking, speaking and theologizing is done, what we will end with will be that which was at the beginning; the steadfast and unfailing embrace of the one eternal God, whose name and nature is Love.

Amen.