SERMONS

On Holding One Another in Our Hearts

Philippians 1:3-11, The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 5th, 2021 · Duration 6:16

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On Staying Ready for the Last Day

Luke 21:25-36, The First Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · November 28th, 2021 · Duration 16:18

As you may have noticed, Advent always begins at the end. In the perpetually repeated three year cycle of the Common Lectionary, the first Sunday of Advent always asks us to read one of those urgent sounding gospel lessons which call on the people of God to wake up, and get ready, because the end of time is near; Advent, always beginning with the second coming of Christ, before working its way, week by week, wick by wick, back to the first coming, just in time for Christmas.

Last year, on the first Sunday of Advent, it was Mark’s urgent alarm, “Keep alert, for you do not know when the time will come.” Next year, it will be Matthew: “You must stay ready, for the Son of Man will come at an unexpected hour.” And, this year, it is the passage we read a few moments ago, from Luke; “Be on guard, so that that day does not catch you unexpectedly.”

Whatever those words of warning may have meant to those who first heard them, they have become, for the church throughout the world, Advent’s annual urging for us to wake up, and stay ready; our annual Advent reminder to live whatever is left of our lives as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can, because we do not have forever. Someday is going to be the last day, because even if Christ does not come, we will go.

To wake up to that truth is not morbid or depressing. To the contrary, there is, in my experience, nothing more life-giving than finally coming to see that someday is going the last day. And, as far as we know, we are not going to get to come back around, do this over and get it right next time. As far as we know, this is it. To finally come to see that truth at the center of our soul can be to finally, actually decide to live whatever is left of our lives as though someday really is going to be the last day; paying attention to people and moments, looking until we see, and listening until we hear; growing and changing in ever-widening circles of welcome and love, letting the love of God which has come down to us go out through us; sitting down with and standing up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for, because we know that all cannot be fully well for anyone until all is finally well for everyone; living whatever is left of our lives that way each day until the last day.

Amen.

Truth, Power and Kingship

John 18:33-37, Christ the King Sunday

Major Treadway · November 21st, 2021 · Duration 15:17

Today’s gospel lesson seems a somewhat strange reading on a Sunday when the sanctuary is draped with white paraments. When I think about the Sundays of the year when we worship with white paraments, the occasions which our bulletins tell us “magnify the person and work of Jesus,” I think of Christmas and Christmastide, Epiphany, Transfiguration Sunday, Easter and Eastertide, Trinity Sunday and All Saints Sunday. I guess it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that we would celebrate Christ the King Sunday with the white paraments.

Yet, there is something a bit odd about celebrating Christ’s kingship by reading of his interrogation following his arrest. Jesus has had a very long night. He was betrayed by one of his inner circle, while being arrested there was the incident with Malchus’ ear which, Luke’s gospel tells us, needed some quick messianic surgery, Jesus is questioned by Annas, father-in-law of the high priest, by Caiaphas, the high priest, and then taken to Pilate, though those who took him would not enter Pilate’s headquarters because to do so would mean that they would not be able to eat the coming Passover meal. Pilate tries not to take Jesus into his custody, but eventually calls him in to be questioned.

And then, here we are, Christ the King Sunday, sometimes called Reign of Christ Sunday. Jesus, the Lord of Lords and King of Kings being carted around from one would-be judge to another. People angry and unsettled enough with Jesus that they want him punished and killed, but they don’t want to be the ones to do it themselves.

Finally, with Pilate, we get some questions and answers. Pilate asks Jesus “What have you done?” Jesus responds, “my kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate pounces, “So you are a king?”

At this point, for Jesus to claim to be a king would be to place himself legally at odds with the ruling government. But Jesus does not agree. Instead, he responds, “You say that I am a King.” Something which Pilate could never say, lest he lose his position, and likely his life. Then Jesus says something very interesting.

Jesus says: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

In this short exchange, Jesus, the unacknowledged king, verbally and nonverbally, acknowledges the power dynamics at play in his situation, and then sidesteps them to call upon those hearing him, then and now, to recognize a different power structure – one that begins with telling the truth.

These words from Jesus were so threatening and confusing to Pilate, the person with the most power, that the verse that follows this morning’s lesson records Pilate asking, “what is truth?” Then, he moves on to distance himself from offering a judgement over Jesus.

I wonder if Pilate’s confusion came from being in the presence of someone who so clearly saw the world as it was, that the power Pilate had accumulated and the lies that were its foundation failed to manifest in Jesus’s presence and Pilate didn’t know what to do.

Truth is like that. It has the capacity to disrupt and destabilize. Oscar Romero is said to have attributed the underdevelopment of his home country of El Salvador to the “institutionalization of intolerance to truth.”

Can you imagine saying that about a whole society, that its underdevelopment was the result of an intolerance to truth that has become so normal and expected that it becomes the foundation upon which injustice is built?

Come to think of it. Maybe that’s not so hard to believe after all. We barely expect the people charged with leading local, state, and national governments to tell the truth. There are organizations that turn a profit from rating politicians’ statements on a range of untruth from 1-4 Pinocchios or from true to pants-on-fire.

Perhaps, worse are the lies that we hear a little closer to home, from friends, teachers, or colleagues at work.

Worst of all, are the lies we tell ourselves. Some of them seem innocent enough, I’ll have enough time if I just press “snooze” one more time. Some seem to hurt only ourselves: “5 mph over the limit isn’t really speeding.” And then there are others that have a veneer of truth, but to scratch the surface is to see the truth beneath: “hard work is the key to success.”

I know all of these to lack the fullness of truth. The snooze button has led to far too many tardies (not to mention broken roommate relationships). A cursory look at traffic laws will indicate that any speed over the posted limit, is speeding. And there are too many people working multiple jobs while living in poverty for hard work to be the key to success.

And Jesus said: “I came into this world to testify to the truth.”

Yes, truth has the capacity to be uncomfortable and disruptive. If truth can be uncomfortable and disruptive with just these few things, I wonder if that means if we have some of that intolerance to truth Romero referenced.

The truth that got Jesus in so much trouble though, was not the stuff about alarm clocks and riding a donkey over the speed limit. With Jesus, it was a resistance to systems of power that were built on an intolerance to truth.

Jesus recognized God as the true source of power. It was God who created the earth. It was God who breathed life into dirt and called that breath filled dirt humanity. It was God who caused the whole earth to flood and made a century old couple parents. It was God who spoke to Moses in a burning bush, and led the Israelites through the red sea on dry land. It was God who held that kind of power – the power to create and destroy, the power to make and bend the very laws of nature.

Holding to that knowledge, what kind of power did Annas, Caiaphas, and Pilate have?

They only had the kind of power which humans agree to give to a person, or more often to keep from a person. Leadership is this way. As long as people agree to follow, the leader has a limited amount of power. Sometimes a board gives power to a leader, a CEO or Executive Director. If the leader loses the board’s confidence, then the leader stands to lose the power that had been given.

This very human power that Pilate and the others possessed was pressed when Jesus said to Pilate, “you say that I am a King.” To put those words on Pilate’s lips threatened Pilate’s power.

Jesus knew the truth about power. Human power fades. It does not last. It can change hands quickly. Jesus also had to have known that human power has limits in terms of what it can do to a human. Humans have found ever increasingly cruel ways to exert power over other humans: slavery, torture, trafficking, terrorism, and more; and all that before just taking a person’s life. Not to diminish the horror of any of those things – but that’s about the extent of human power wielded negatively.

Meanwhile, what kind of power does God have? God has the power to create from nothing, and presumably to make nothing out of creation. Whereas human power is power given, there is nothing to suggest that humans are capable of giving God power. Jesus knew about both of these types of power when he was brought to Pilate.

And Jesus said: “I came into this world to testify to the truth.”

And the truth that Jesus must have seen in his interrogation by Pilate is that Pilate’s power paled in comparison to the Kingdom of God. That even if Pilate should execute Jesus, the Kingdom of God would remain. And if we keep reading, that’s just what happened. Pilate and the mob clamored for Jesus to be executed, even though he was found not guilty.

Jesus had not broken any of the ten commandments. He had not broken any Roman laws. But he had threatened the power of those in leadership, by telling the truth. Jesus worked to extend the Kingship of God by telling the truth.

What does the kingship of Christ require of us? Well, Jesus offered us a glimpse of that in this passage as well.

Jesus says: “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

What does it mean for us that we belong to the truth?

Romero’s words about El Salvador could have been said about the United States – that there is an institutionalization of intolerance to truth. From the information we read, hear, and watch to the words we think, speak, and write.

Perhaps one place to start belonging to truth is with ourselves. Leaning into the power of God, rather than the power of humans, might mean that we try harder to always tell the truth. Some might call that using careful speech. It may sound like a small thing, but like so many lessons we learn in life, until we learn the small things, until we master the basics, until we are fluent in the fundamentals, we will never be able to move on to the more complex things. We must first learn to speak true words before we can effectively uncover truths that are external to ourselves.

Belonging to the truth also requires us to develop a sense of curiosity that is not satisfied with an answer just because it sounds like what we want to believe is true; but presses further and deeper until all that remains is truth.

Jesus understood well the truth of power, who had it and what kind they had; and he understood the power of truth and just how disruptive and destabilizing it can be.

And with all of this knowledge, Jesus said: “I came into this world to testify to the truth.”

Amen.

Concerning Money and the Church

Hebrews 10:11-14, 19-25, The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 14th, 2021 · Duration 14:39

As you may have noticed, this morning’s epistle lesson encouraged us to “provoke one another to love and good works,” the ancient writer’s way of saying that we should challenge, stretch, beckon and bother one another to do our best and be our best, what the writer of the book of Hebrews calls, “provoking one another to love and good works.”

Which is not a bad verse of scripture for Stewardship Sermon Sunday at Northminster; an annual autumn effort at asking us to do our best to give our most, something which, even after all these years, has never stopped feeling awkward to me, partly because of my never ending struggle to reconcile the needs of the institutional church with the Jesus of the four gospels, who did not share our North American assumptions about what churches should own, have, look like, and offer. So, it’s awkward, trying to involve Jesus in our words about how much money we need to maintain and sustain church as we know church and do church.

Not to mention the awkwardness of asking people who are already giving so much to give even more. Have you ever thought about all the ministries and institutions, helping agencies, schools, universities and hospitals which depend on Northminster members for financial support? As someone who grew up in a household where my parents were barely getting by, living payday to payday, I don’t have a good sense of how much more people have available to give, so I find it awkward to ask people who are already giving so much to give some more; especially when me and mine are among the beneficiaries of the budget I am asking you to support.

But, awkward or not, we need to do a better job, I need to a better job, of asking for the money the church needs. For example, we need a new roof here at Northminster. All of the estimates we have received indicate that the only thing harder than saying cedar shake shingles is paying for cedar shake shingles; about $500,000 to re-roof our church buildings, not counting another few hundred thousand dollars to repair and replace all of our church’s external wood trim. I’ve been wondering for months if someone in our congregation might want to fund a part of that, or all of that, for the church; a generationally important gift, enormously helpful to the church for her next fifty years.

Aside from those really big one-time facility needs, there is the annual, perpetual need for us to give generously to the budget of the church, to support the day to day life of the church.

I sometimes hear people say that it is “more exciting” to give to a specific cause than to a general budget which pays light bills and salaries. Plus, we now live in a post-institutional world, when many people no longer find as much meaning as they once did in supporting the work of the institutional church.

All of that I understand. But, honestly, the most exciting giving Marcia and I do is the financial support we give to the budget of Northminster Baptist Church. Look, for example, at these children and their chaperones, home from their annual autumn retreat, seated here together, in their wonderful new “Growing Together” retreat t-shirts. And, last week, it was the Youth Group, on their annual autumn retreat. Our children have spent this weekend learning the family stories in Genesis, from Abraham through Joseph. Our youth spent last weekend studying the theology and practice of prayer. Who is not excited about paying for that? What could we possibly be more excited about than giving as much as we can, year after year, to a church budget which undergirds that kind of spiritual formation; serious theology being taught to our children, youth and adults, within these walls, which equips us all to live lives of courage and kindness, empathy and integrity, beyond these walls; this church, forming us into the kind of people who get up every morning and go out into the world to let the love of God which has come down to us go out through us. I want to help pay the bills which make the lights come on in all the Northminster spaces where those kinds of lights come on in all our lives.

Northminster, like all churches, has its limits, faults, blindspots and flaws. We all know that the same church which fills your heart can bruise your heart. But, Northminster is a strong and true home to many dear and good souls, a church which is serious about, and committed to, what Jesus said matters most; loving God with all that is in us and loving all others the way we want all others to love us. Northminster has been that way from the day we were started, and, if a church can “earn the right” to be supported in the most generous ways of which we are capable, Northminster has.

Northminster would never want any of us to give what we cannot, but Northminster will always need all of us to give what we can. And, then, when we all have given what we can, we all will have given what we should.

Amen.

Concerning the Book of Ruth

Ruth 1:1-18, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 31st, 2021 · Duration 4:49

As you may have noticed, the writer of the book of Ruth does not want us to miss the fact that Ruth is a Moabite.

Five times in the first six verses of today’s lesson from Ruth, the writer of Ruth tells us that Ruth is from Moab, after which, in the remaining three chapters of the book of Ruth, we will hear Ruth identified as “a Moabite” five more times; the writer of the book of Ruth making certain that no one misses the point that Ruth is a Moabite.

Which might not matter so much were it not for the fact that, back in the book of Deuteronomy, Moabites were declared off-limits, perpetually excluded from the  family of God, Deuteronomy 23:6 going so far as to prohibit the people of God from ever welcoming any Moabite; a prohibition which the book of Ruth completely sets aside, even going so far as to name “Ruth the Moabite” an ancestor of King David, thereby erasing the Bible’s earlier exclusion of Moabites from the family of God; the Bible, itself, growing, before our eyes, from the exclusion of Moabites in Deuteronomy to the inclusion of Moabites in the book of Ruth; the book of Ruth, reaching past the place where the book of Deuteronomy told the people of God to stop. 

All of which is a small sign of the way life moves when we are walking in the Spirit, the circumference of our embrace growing and changing until it matches the size of the circle of the boundless welcome around God; all of us walking prayerfully in the Spirit until we  grow so near to God that we can never again, for as long as we live, be glad about any exclusion God is sad about, or sad about any inclusion God is glad about, because the deeper we grow in our life with God, the wider we grow in our    welcome of all.

When our time together is done, if you remember only one thing from our many years together, let it be that:  The deeper we grow in our life with God, the wider we grow in our welcome, embrace and love of all.  

Amen.

 

 

Concerning the Ending of Job’s Story

Job 42:1-6, 10-17, The Twenty-Second Sunday After Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 24th, 2021 · Duration 13:35

“And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, and gave Job twice as much as Job had before.”  Every time the lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words from the end of the book of Job, they call to mind, for me, that beautiful old sentence, “Things will not always hurt the way they do now.”

Which, perhaps, was the case for Job.  Once Job made it as far as this morning’s passage; his sores healed, his fortunes restored, and his new children born, perhaps things did not hurt as deeply as they did back in chapters one and two, when so much pain and loss broke Job’s heart, and crushed Job’s spirit.

Perhaps, by the time we make it to the end of the story, things do not hurt, for Job, the way they once did.  Perhaps.  But, who can say for sure?  After all, the children Job loved and lost, back at the beginning of the book of Job, would never, for Job, be less lost or less loved.  So, who can say how much of Job’s pain has settled and eased by the time we read today’s happy ending; Job, emerging from his long struggle, with what today’s lesson calls “twice as much.”

A happy ending to a sad story, but a happy ending with which we must take great care, lest the church create the “sunny of the street” expectation that the ending to every sad story will be as happy as the last chapter of Job’s story.

Which is not to say that sorrow never leads to something good.  To the contrary, sorrow and loss often lead us to a more thoughtful, mindful, kind and gentle life than ever we might have known without our sorrow or trouble, tragedy or loss; a truth which leads some to say that God sends us trouble to make us better, and that God allows tragedy to break our hearts so we can emerge from the darkness more gentle and kind; all suffering, a part of the plan of God 

You encounter that kind of theology nearly everywhere you turn in our corner of the world, and, while I do not share it, I understand why so many are drawn to it as a way of making sense of life.  I, myself, once embraced that way of thinking.  But, then, it occurred to me, one day, that, to continue to say that all suffering was either sent to us, or allowed for us, in the will and plan of God, would require me to assign unspeakably tragic, violent, sinful things to the will and plan of God, and, for me, that was to sacrifice too much of the goodness and love of God on the altar of the sovereignty and control of God. 

However, while I do not believe that everything which happens is always in God’s plan, I do believe that all of us are always in God’s hands, and that God is always at work in our lives, in joy and in sorrow, to bring us into a deeper, more thoughtful, mindful, kind and gentle way of being in the world; pain and struggle opening us up to God and others in ways which often leave us, like Job, with “twice as much;” not twice as much security or power, comfort or success, but twice as much empathy and understanding, kindness and  compassion.

Rarely has anyone captured that possibility more beautifully than Naomi Shihab Nye, in her poem “Kindness,” in which she writes, “Before you can learn the tender gravity of kindness, before you can know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must first know sorrow as the other deepest thing.  You must wake up with sorrow.  You must speak to it until your voice catches the thread of all sorrows, and you see the size of sorrow’s cloth.  Then,” she continues, “It is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day...going with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.”

Pain and sadness can do that in us, and for us.  Because pain is as surgical as surgery is painful, pain and sorrow, struggle and loss can, indeed, open us up that deeply. 

It isn’t guaranteed, of course.  We don’t all always emerge from sorrow twice as thoughtful and gentle, empathetic and kind.  But we can. And, more often than not, we do.  Somehow, the Spirit of God finds a new opening  in our brokenness, and, as Ernest Hemingway once famously said, we become “strong at the broken places;” our own version of Job’s twice-as-much ending; our arms twice as open, our words twice as gentle, our embrace twice as wide, our spirit twice as patient, welcoming, understanding and kind as we were before the sorrow and the pain; emerging from our worst and hardest struggles with what Howard Thurman called “the quiet eyes” of those who have suffered, what Mary Oliver called “the resolute kindness of those who have eaten the dark hours;” twice as much of a person of grace than ever we would have been without the pain; not because God planned or sent our greatest sorrows, but because God holds and carries, with us and for us, our greatest sorrows; wringing whatever good can be wrung from the hardest and worst that life can do; the God who raised Jesus from the grave bringing whatever is best from whatever is worst, until that far off  someday when things will no longer hurt the way they do now.

Amen.

A Sermon on the Subject of God

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

Chuck Poole · October 17th, 2021 · Duration 13:18

Then the Lord answered Job; “Who is this who speaks words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?”

Those words from today’s lesson from Job are only the beginning of a long speech, from God to Job, in which Job is confronted with mysteries and wonders so unknowable and great that, by the time God’s sermon is finished, Job’s response, in Job chapter forty, is to lay his hand over his mouth, and say, “I have said too much. I have said, about God, more than I know, about God.”

All of which might help us remember to take great care when we speak of the ways of God, lest we too easily slip over into what the writer of today’s lesson from Job calls “words without knowledge;” saying more about God than we know about God.

Of course, when we are talking about God, it is easy to say more than we know. After all, when the subject is God, there is so much that is so unknowable. As Isaiah 55:8 says, “God’s thoughts are not our thoughts,” not unlike Paul’s question in Romans 11:34, “Who can know the mind of the Lord?”

But, still, we can’t not try; building entire religious systems around what we think and believe about God. As Barbara Brown Taylor once said, “For at least five thousand years, we have been lowering the leaky buckets of our religions into the deep well of God’s truth;” sometimes even saying, with certainty, that our religion is the only one God believes in and accepts, while, above, and beyond, all the world’s religions, ours included, stands the God who created the universe, perhaps asking of us what God asked of Job, “Who is this who speaks words without knowledge? Where were you when I created the universe?”

One of the simplest, but most important, epiphanies I have had in my adult life is the revelation that the God who created, roughly thirteen billion years ago, a universe which, apparently, is still expanding, cannot be captured inside anyone’s religion; including ours. And, for any faith to claim a monopoly on the truth about God is to join Job in saying more than we know. All of our religions, important as they are, are only interim arrangements. As Tennyson said, “Our little systems have their day. They have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O Lord, art more than they.”

So, we have to take great care when it comes to speaking of God. But, that doesn’t mean that there is nothing to be said about God.

I cannot speak for you, but, because I am a Christian, I believe that the best look we have ever had at God is Jesus; not the only look, but the best look. And, if the best look we have ever had at God is Jesus, and the best look we have ever had at Jesus is the four gospels, then we can know something of the way God is by looking at what the gospels tell us about Jesus.

To read the four gospels is to see that Jesus lived a walls-down, arms-out life of love, intentionally sitting down with. and standing up for, whoever was most marginalized and ostracized, demonized and dehumanized, suffering, struggling, left out and alone, and that Jesus called his followers to live and love with that same wide wingspan. That is how we can say with confidence that, whenever we draw our circle of welcome wider, we are leaning, living and loving in the direction God wants us to lean, live and love, because that is the way Jesus was, and Jesus is the best look we have ever had at God.

I think that is why we feel a deeper spiritual connection to a kind and loving person of another faith than we feel with a harsh and hard person of our own faith, because that of God which we feel between us is not one faith tradition or another, it is love.

“God is love.” I believe that is what we can know about God. Richard Rohr once said, “The mystics know some things,” but you don’t have to be a mystic to know that, because God is love, the closer we grow to God the wider we grow in our love for all persons; you just have to let down your guard and open your life to the work of the Holy Spirit.

The poet Li Young Lee gave us that powerful sentence, “All light is late,” not unlike Paul’s, “We see through a glass darkly.” All of which is true, as far as it goes. But, the rest of the truth is that we have all already seen enough of the truth about God to live lives of empathy and compassion, welcome and justice, kindness and love.

Amen.

Concerning Job’s Wish to Vanish

Job 23:1-9, 16-17, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 10th, 2021 · Duration 0:0

“If only I could vanish into the darkness.”  Every three years, the Common Lectionary places in the path of the church throughout the world those words from the last verse of today’s lesson from the book of Job.  And, every time they roll back around, they present us with one of the Bible’s more vexing translation enigmas; scholars of the Hebrew Bible so conflicted over the original intent of that verse that, while our New Revised Standard Version translates Job 23:17 as, “If only I could vanish into the darkness,” the New International Version translates the same verse, “I will not be overcome by the darkness.”

 As for which way is the best way to translate Job 23:17, who can say?  After all, life can become so difficult, for many of us, that some of us might actually someday say, with Job, “If only I could vanish;” joining Job in his wish to vanish because life is just too painful to live, too hard to face, too heavy to bear. 

Many of us operate on the assumption that everyone gets to live until they have to die.  But, it is important for us to remember that, for some of the children of God, it is the other way around.  They don’t get to live until they have to die, rather, they have to live until they get to die; not unlike Moses, in Numbers chapter eleven, praying to God, “I cannot go on.  If you love me, you will let me die,” or Elijah, in I Kings chapter nineteen, “O Lord, take away my life; I cannot do this anymore,” or Job; so depleted and exhausted by life that he is reported, in some translations of today’s passage, to have prayed, “If only I could vanish into the darkness.”

But, then, there are those other translations which say that what Job really said was not, “If only I could vanish into the darkness,” but “I will not be overcome by the darkness;” an apparently unresolvable Hebrew ambiguity which might, at first, seem to be a problem, but which, upon further reflection, may actually be sort of a perfect convergence of despair and hope, resignation and resolve, for those many souls who find themselves, on the one hand, wishing to vanish into the darkness and, on the other hand, refusing to be overcome by the darkness; our lives captured in the linguistic ambiguity of Job 23:17, where some say Job says, “If only I could vanish into the darkness,” while others say Job says, “I will not vanish into the darkness.” 

 All of which calls to mind, for me, the Irish novelist Samuel Beckett’s anguished lament, “I cannot go on, I will go on.” 

Which is, after all, what we do.  Even when, like Job, we are most certain that we cannot go on, like Job, we do go on; held and carried by the Spirit of God and the people of God, while we carry and hold whatever it is that we must face and bear. 

Held and carried by the Spirit of God and the people of God, we find our way through things so difficult that if someone had told us ahead of time we were going to have to go through them we would have sworn we could never make it.  But, we do.  We do go through.  And, not only do we go through what we did not get to go around, we come out on the other side, to eat again and sleep again, to laugh again and smile again, to actually even want to be alive again.  Though we may have wished, at one time, with Job, that we could vanish into the darkness, we do emerge, eventually, out into the light.

May it be so.  May it be so.  And may it somehow, someday, be so for everyone in the whole human family.  Because all cannot be fully well for anyone until all is finally well for everyone.

Amen.

On Loving God Unconditionally

Job 1:1, 2:1-10, The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 3rd, 2021 · Duration 8:09

Today is the first of four consecutive Sundays when the Common Lectionary will ask the church throughout the world to read passages of scripture from the book of Job; beginning with today's lesson, in which God says to Satan, "Have you noticed my servant Job, how faithful and devoted he is?" to which Satan replies, "Why wouldn't Job love and serve you? You've blessed Job with everything any person could ever hope to have. Take away the blessings, and we'll see what Job is really made of. " A conversation which reaches its culmination when Satan asks, in Job chapter one, verse ten, "Does Job love God for nothing?"

Obviously, Satan assumes the answer is "No, Job does not love God for nothing. Job loves and serves God in exchange for being rewarded and protected." But, after losing all that he holds dear, in the depth of his sorrow, from the depth of his spirit, Job says those words we find at the end of today's lesson, "Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?", not unlike what Job is reported to have said in Job 2:20, "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord;" a kind of love for God which is not tied to the circumstances of our lives; our love for God as unconditional as God's love for us.

Which in my experience, is what keeps us always prayerful and incurably hopeful; our unconditional love for God. If the best outcome for which we pray does not come to pass, we don't give up on God, we just adjust our praying and hoping from the first best thing to the next best thing. And if the next best thing doesn't happen, we don't become disillusioned with God, we just hope and pray for the next next best thing, our prayers chasing our lives even, sometimes, until, as I once heard someone say, "There's nothing left to want."

And, even then, we don't give up and walk away. Even then, still we pray; trusting God to hold us and carry us, as we stumble our way through what we did not get to go around, until there is nothing left to hold onto but the quiet confidence that God is with us and God is for us; which, somehow, is enough; when our love for God is as unconditional as God's love for us.

A beautiful, centered, settled way to live; loving God the way God loves us, unconditionally.

Amen.

Careful Speech Concerning Hell

Mark 9:38-50, The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · September 26th, 2021 · Duration 12:18

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Concerning Psalm One

Psalm 1, The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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Words Shape Worlds

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

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

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On Theology Chasing Friendship

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

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

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Concerning Psalm Eighty-Four

Psalm 84, The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 22nd, 2021 · Duration 13:06

“How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts. My soul longs, indeed it faints, for the house of the Lord...One day there is better than a thousand anywhere else.”

In another one of those occasional convergences of lectionary and life, the Common Lectionary has asked the church throughout the world to read, today, those words, from Psalm 84, concerning the psalmist’ longing for the psalmist’ sanctuary, at the very moment when so many are so longing for the same; children of God throughout the world yearning, in the midst of a long pandemic, for the same sort of gathering about which the psalmist sings in today’s lesson from Psalm 84.

Some say that Psalm 84 is a glad song, sung at the sight of the temple, by excited pilgrims, on their way to the temple. Others say that Psalm 84 is a sad song, sung by homesick souls unable to get to the house of God. Either way, it is a song all of us know by heart because, like the ones who first sang Psalm 84, we, too, long to gather with the people of God at the house of God for the worship of God; never more so than now, when, for so many, the time to return to large gatherings in familiar ways has not yet arrived.

But, though that time is, for many of us, not yet here, someday it will be. And, when it comes, none of us will welcome it more gladly than those of us who have missed it most deeply.

Like the one who wrote this morning’s psalm, we love the sacred space which is our sanctuary. But, for us, it is the gathering, not the building, which matters most. The thing we miss the most is the comfort and courage we draw from one another when we are together; the people who surround us here, calling forth that which is deepest and best in us; the people we see, and the truth we hear, at church, slowly, slowly, transforming our lives.

In one of his poems, Wendell Berry says, “The water, descending in its old groove, wears it new;” the same stream running through the same groove in the same stone, year after year, eventually wearing the old groove to a new depth, which is not unlike what happens across a lifetime in church; the same truth, heard over and over and over again, opening, eventually, a new depth in our lives.

I think, from time to time, about a conversation I had with a college student who grew up in our church, home for the Northminster Christmas Eve service several years ago, telling me about a night when he was hanging out with friends, when the conversation turned to church. Our young person told me that he said, to his friends, “My church back in Jackson changed my life;” to which they said “How?”, to which our young person said, “They just kept saying, over and over, that since God loves everyone, we should too. And, somehow, hearing that over and over, year after year, sort of changed me.”

A simple, beautiful example of the sort of thing which happens in church. Rarely all at once or once and for all, but slowly, slowly, little by little, “The water descending in its old groove wears it new;” a lifetime spent in the presence of the kind of people who make us want to be better, helping us, actually, eventually, to become better than ever we would have been, all by ourselves.

But, in order for that to happen, we actually have to be together, which, for many, because of the pandemic, has not been safe to do for a long time, leaving us to say, with the psalmist, “My soul faints, and longs, for the house of the Lord.”

But, someday it will no longer be that way. Someday, we will be able to gather in the ways we once did, shaping and forming one another’s lives; saying and hearing, over and over, that same old truth, “Since God loves every person, so should we,” until that same old truth is finally heard often enough, long enough to change our lives; the same simple truth, running through the same path in the same heart until, someday, it opens up a new depth in us and, all of a sudden, everything changes. Except it wasn’t all of a sudden. It was a lifetime spent gathering with the people of God for the worship of God.

Which, someday, many of us will again be able, safely and wisely, to do. Until then, each of us will need to be especially mindful and thoughtful, gentle and patient, compassionate and kind; all of us singing, with the psalmist, those familiar old words from this morning’s psalm; Psalm 84, the most perfect song of all for a season such as this, “My soul longs for the house of the Lord...One day there is better than a thousand anywhere else.”
Indeed.
Amen.

On Making the Most of the Time

Ephesians 5:15-20, The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 15th, 2021 · Duration 12:13

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Concerning David and Absalom

II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 8th, 2021 · Duration 9:47

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would that I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son.”

Few words in all of scripture are more filled with regret and grief than those words from today’s Old Testament lesson; David’s crushing sadness over Absalom’s tragic death.

The story of David and Absalom is as complex a family story as one can imagine; a parent and a child who end up literally going to war with one another, which makes the story of David and Absalom unlike anything any of us have ever known in our own families.

And yet, there is a dimension of their story with which many ordinary families can identify; which is the mutual helplessness which bound David to Absalom and Absalom to David; David and Absalom, helpless to manage one another’s choices and decisions, but, also, helpless to distance themselves from the pain of one another’s choices and decisions.

As it was for them, so it is for us; for children and their parents, and for parents and their children; as well as for siblings, spouses, and friends; all of us as helpless to manage one another’s lives, and as helpless to distance ourselves from the pain of one another’s lives, as David and Absalom, Absalom and David.

The kind of helpless love which calls to mind that unforgettable sentence of William Blake’s, “We are put on earth for a little space to learn to bear the beams of love;” the beams of love, sometimes as joyful and bright as beams of light, and, other times, as heavy and hard as beams of lumber; the hardest and heaviest of which Jesus carried until those same hard and heavy beams carried Jesus. Jesus, stretched out in vulnerable, helpless love; joining us in the depth of love’s pain and in the pain of love’s depth; the kind of love which lets go of power and control, and is content to be helpless.

Which may be love’s last frontier, the final step along the path to depth, the ultimate work of the Holy Spirit in our lives; to be content to love those we love without needing to hold the levers of control, content to take care of what we can take care of; the kind and truthful life to which today’s epistle lesson calls us when it urges us to be forgiving, tenderhearted, truthful and kind, and beyond that, content to love helplessly.

Amen.

On Speaking the Truth in Love

Ephesians 4:1-16, The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · August 1st, 2021 · Duration 9:39

“I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility, gentleness and patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Every time the lectionary asks the church throughout the world to read those words from today’s epistle passage, the lectionary places in our path one of several calls for the unity of the church which we find in the letters attributed to Paul; placing this passage from Ephesians in the same stream with other Pauline passages such as Romans 15:6, “Live in harmony with one another,” I Corinthians 1:10, “I appeal to you, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement,” and II Corinthians 13:11-12, “Agree with one another, and greet one another with a holy kiss,” passages of scripture which join today’s lesson from Ephesians chapter four in calling for the family of faith to be of one mind and one spirit.

All of which, needless to say, is harder to live out than to talk about. In fact, the same Paul who is reported to have issued all those calls for unity and agreement is also reported, in the same Bible, to have parted ways with Barnabas over an irreconcilable disagreement in Acts chapter fifteen, and, in Galatians 1:9, to have called those who disagreed with him “accursed,” not to mention Paul’s public rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:14. Even Paul, who so longed for the unity of the church, knew that, while everyone may be entitled to their own opinion, every opinion is not equally right and true, and that, at some point, the truth must be spoken; spoken in love, but, also, spoken with clarity.

All of which calls to mind, for me, our Northminster founders, who so wonderfully embodied that early Northminster creed, “Agree to differ, resolve to love, unite to serve.” Yet, when they birthed this church, in 1967, while they birthed our church for several reasons, one of those reasons was that they could no longer “unite to serve” in churches which were denying entrance to persons of color at their places of worship; a fifty-four year old example of the timeless truth that spiritual agreement ends where human exclusion begins, a local example of the global complexity of longing for unity while also having to speak the truth; which may explain why “unity” sounds so much like work in verse three of today’s lesson, where the Ephesians are admonished to “Make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Having called us to the hard and good work of unity, the writer of Ephesians gives us the tools we need to do that hard and important work, first by calling us, in verse two of today’s lesson, to lead a life of “Humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another in love,” and, then, by admonishing us, in verse fifteen, to “Speak the truth in love.”

To speak the truth in love may be the most precise, and difficult, practice in the orbit of careful speech. No spinning, or exaggerating, to make our case or win an argument; no tactics or strategies, flattery or sarcasm; nothing but the truth, spoken in that way the Quakers call “gentle and plain,” what Paul calls “Speaking the truth in love;” a way of speaking to, and being with, one another which is as clear as it is kind, and as kind as it is clear; never sacrificing love on the altar of the truth, while also never sacrificing the truth on the altar of love; what Walter Rauschenbusch called, “The truth dressed in nothing but love,” which has always been the church’s best hope for the true and honest, kind and gentle unity to which today’s epistle lesson beckons us, and in which Holy Communion binds us, together.

Amen.

On Standing in Oceans with Thimbles

John 6:1-21, The ninth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 25th, 2021 · Duration 8:04

“There is a child here, with five loaves and two small fishes. But what is that among so many?” Those words from today’s gospel lesson, about the little lunch which fed five thousand people, land very near to the big truth which has been at the center of Northminster Bible Camp all weekend; the big truth that, when it comes to letting the love which has come down to us from God go out through us to others, no kind word or good deed is too small to matter.

When Andrew said to Jesus, in response to Jesus' question concerning how they might feed five thousand people, “There is a child here with five loaves and two small fish,” Andrew immediately backpedaled, saying, “But what is that among so many?” But, once it was placed into the hands of Jesus, the little lunch became more than enough, a small sign of the big truth with which we have been sitting, and about which we have been singing, all weekend in Bible Camp; the truth that, when it comes to loving God and loving our neighbor, the little things are the big things; no word or deed too simple or small to matter and make a difference.

In fact, we might even say that, of all the miracles Jesus is reported to have done, none is more frequently repeated than the one about which we read in today’s gospel lesson; the miracle of the way the biggest difference sometimes travels in the smallest gifts.

One example of which is what happens each week with the caregiving cards which are signed and sent by the Northminster Caregivers. Signed and sent, those simple cards start out as the little loaves and fishes of ordinary paper and ink. But, received and read, those little loaves and fishes of paper and ink become the comfort and courage of strength and hope; not unlike the little lunch which miraculously became the big meal.

That sort of thing happens all the time, doesn't it? The kind note, the encouraging call, the welcoming word, the gentle touch; all so small when they are written, sent, given or said, but, oh, so big when they are heard, felt, received and read. Like the little lunch which became the big meal, no act of kindness, or word of love, too small to matter.

During those four years when we were away from here, from 2003 to 2007, people would occasionally ask, “Don’t you get discouraged, teaching all those little Bible classes in all those empty parking lots, spending all your time on efforts which show no measurable results of any kind?” But, honestly, I never felt that way, because I knew that, by doing what I was doing, I was in on what God was up to. Plus, I had that verse from First Corinthians playing in my head, “In the Lord, your labor is not in vain,” so I was content to get up every morning, go out into the world, and hand over the loaves and fishes of whatever words or deeds I had to offer, and then trust the Holy Spirit to multiply it into what it needed to be, not unlike the little lunch which became the big meal in today’s gospel lesson.

I think of that sort of thing as standing in an ocean, dipping out water with a thimble; content to make the small difference we can make, eliminating from our lexicon not only the word failure, but, also, the word success; content to live a life of love for God and neighbor, and, then, stand back, and prepare to be amazed at what God might make from our smallest and simplest words and deeds of kindness, solidarity, welcome, compassion, empathy and love; content to get up each morning, take up that day’s thimble, wade into that day’s ocean, and start dipping, knowing that the little that we can do will be multiplied by the much that God will do.

Amen.

Concerning Boundaries

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56, The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 18th, 2021 · Duration 16:14

The disciples gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done. And Jesus said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves, and rest a while.”

Every time the lectionary places, in our path, those words from today’s gospel lesson, we get to listen in as Jesus tries to help his first followers establish some healthy boundaries between work and rest, activity and stillness. The disciples have just reported to Jesus on where they have been, who they have helped and what they have done, after which Jesus encourages them to practice what we would now call “self care,” inviting them to stop, be still and rest; today’s gospel lesson reminding us that it is important for us to draw boundaries.

After which, today’s gospel lesson also reminds us that it can be as difficult to keep boundaries as it is important to draw boundaries. No sooner does Jesus help the disciples establish some boundaries around the limits of their energy than those same plans for rest get set aside.

The plan started out well enough, in verse thirty-one, where Jesus said, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.” In verse thirty-two, the disciples did exactly that, “They went away, in a boat, to a deserted place by themselves.” But, then, their boundaries had to be redrawn, when, in verses thirty-three and thirty-four, “Many saw them going and recognized them, and hurried there on foot and arrived ahead of them. As Jesus went ashore, he saw the great crowd and had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” And, right back to teaching and healing and helping they all went; Jesus, asking the same disciples to whom he had just given the day off to come up with a plan for feeding the five thousand who were gathered on the shore.

All of which is a wonderfully real world picture of the complexity of boundary keeping. We know the wisdom of what Jesus told his disciples in today’s gospel lesson when he told them to stop, go away and rest a while. We know that humans have limits, which requires setting boundaries, which includes sometimes saying “No,” even to good and important things, and not feeling guilty about it, because No can sometimes be as sacred an answer as Yes.

That is how we establish boundaries; by owning our limits, and by embracing the fact that sometimes “No” can be as sacred a word as “Yes;” important steps toward a more centered life, a life with the kind of boundaries Jesus drew for his disciples in today’s gospel lesson when he told them to stop and rest; but then redrew when they looked up and saw the hurting hungry multitude, the kind of need they couldn't not respond to.

All of which is a snapshot of real life in the real world; thoughtful boundary making and compassionate boundary moving, both a part of our lives as followers of Jesus; saying “No” to some good things and real needs, because we have to learn to be content to live within our limits, while, also, responding with compassion to needs we can’t not respond to.

For example, in the nearly two years since the events of August 7, 2019 in Canton, Carthage, Morton and beyond, I’ve made about forty trips to the Hispanic community in Canton, not because I needed to add something to my life, but because the immigrant community is a community to which I can’t not go.

We all have those things we can’t not do; things our inner moral compass won’t let us not do, which can, sometimes, make our already full lives too full, raising, for us all, the “boundary” question.

We want, in the words of Mary Oliver, to “walk slowly and bow often,” to live centered lives, fully present where we are, and paying full attention. And, yet, in addition to all we are obligated to do, we all also have a handful of things we can’t not do; each new situation and circumstance calling forth from us the most mindful, thoughtful, prayerful response we can make.

Amen.

Plumb Line People

Amos 7:7-15, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 11th, 2021 · Duration 11:31

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Prophets

Ezekiel 2:1-5, The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · July 4th, 2021 · Duration 6:29

And the Lord said to Ezekiel, “I am sending you to the nation of Israel, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord’...Whether they listen to you or not, they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.”

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from the book of Ezekiel, they call to mind, for me, an old article from the Charlotte Observer, in which, on the death of Baptist preacher Carlyle Marney, the paper’s editorial board wrote, concerning Marney’s unrelenting calls for racial justice, “Marney gave us no peace.  But, then, we didn’t deserve any.”  Or, as this morning’s lesson from Ezekiel puts it, “Whether they listen to you or not, at least they will know that there has been a prophet among them.”

A prophet is one who speaks the kind of truth which sometimes can be hard to hear.  I’ve long loved that simple, powerful sentence of William Sloane Coffin’s, “When you have something to say that is both painful and true, try to say it softly;” wise counsel, it seems to me, for those who must speak a word of prophetic truth.  And, though anger is sometimes the most right response to injustice, and, thus, the emotion most often assigned to the prophets, Richard Lischer wisely observes, in his book, The End of Words, that the central emotion of the true prophet is not anger, but sadness; as in Jeremiah and Jesus, both of whom wept over the spiritual blindness of the people of God.

Spiritual blindness into which the prophets are called to speak the truth.  Which, for Christians, is the truth which was most fully embodied in the life of Jesus, which is why the most prophetic Christian voices are the ones which are most clearly and consistently on  the side of those who are most vulnerable and least powerful, because that is where Jesus always could be found; the true voices of the true prophets saying the same things, over and over and over again:  “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you”… “Love God with all that is in you, and love all others as you want to be loved”…”God desires mercy, not sacrifice.  If you understood this, you would not condemn the guiltless;” all of which the four gospels place on the lips of Jesus, and which the Holy Spirit places on the lips of the prophets, whose calling it is to say the same to all of us, over and over and over again, until we begin actually to live that way.

Amen. 

 

When Things Do Not Go That Way

Mark 5:21-43, The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 27th, 2021 · Duration 15:26

Every three years, the lectionary places in our path this morning’s lesson from the gospel of Mark. And, every time it rolls back around, things work out wonderfully well; twice, first, for the unnamed woman with the debilitating, isolating, flow of blood; and, then, for Jairus, who had lost his daughter, only twelve years old. Two great sorrows, both relieved by the touch of Jesus.

Which is the way things go sometimes. Sometimes, our deepest sorrows become our highest joys, because our heaviest burdens are lifted away. That which we fear the most does not come to pass, the sadness we have lived with the longest is lifted, the disease is healed, the pain is relieved, the conflict is resolved, the worst is behind us, and the best is before us. As it was for the suffering woman and the grieving man in today’s gospel lesson, so it is for us. It’s a miracle. Sometimes things work out that way.

And, sometimes, things do not work out that way. Sometimes, the burden is not lifted, the struggle is not resolved, the disease remains, the sorrow stays. Things do not always work out for us the way they worked out for the people in today’s gospel lesson.

Such is the nature of life. To say as much is not to be negative, or pessimistic, but, rather, to be truthful. People do not come to church to be told cheerful sounding things which will not prove true in life’s toughest arenas. Anything we say concerning suffering and loss must ring true on the saddest ears in the room.

The truth is, there is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life, and, while none of us will go through all of them, all of us will go through some of them; sometimes, one hard thing after another, sometimes more than one difficult thing at the same time, not because God wills it for us or sends it to us, but because that is the nature of life in the world.

To speak of the unresolved struggles and unrelieved sorrows of life often leads to questions about “unanswered prayers,” a way of thinking about prayer which measures the worth of our prayers by whether or not they “worked,” a way of thinking about prayer which sees prayer as a transaction in which we may be able to persuade God to give us what we need if we can show God enough faith, or persistence, or prayer partners, a way of thinking about prayer to which we are naturally and understandably drawn, partly because it leaves us with some control: If we can just pray harder or have more faith, perhaps we can get God to do our will.

There are, of course, some things in this life over which we do have that much control. Are we kind? Are we thoughtful? Are we truthful? Do we live lives of integrity? Do we practice careful speech? Do we treat all others as we wish all others to treat us?

Beyond those things, over which we do have some autonomy and control, there are all those things which lie beyond our power to manage; sorrows and struggles, burdens and losses, diseases and injuries, some of which turn out amazingly well, as happened twice in today’s gospel lesson, others of which do not turn out that way.

But, still, we pray; as C.S. Lewis said, “Not because we are trying to change God, but because we can’t not pray.” Once, we may have thought Paul’s admonition in Philippians that we should “pray without ceasing” was impossible to obey, but, the longer we live, the more we find it impossible not to pray without ceasing; breathing in whatever news life brings, of joy or sorrow, and breathing out either, “Thank you, Lord” or “Help us, Lord”; prayer, becoming our life, until, eventually, our life becomes a prayer; sometimes, our prayers changing our lives, and, other times, our lives changing our prayers, from the first best hope, to the next best hope, to the last best hope.

But, never no hope. Because we love God as unconditionally as God loves us, we never stop believing that God is with us and for us, when life could not be better and when life could not be harder.

Which is why, if we say, when we do get the miracle, “Isn’t God good!”, we also say, when we don’t get the miracle, “Isn’t God good!”, because we know that the goodness of God is not tied to how well things go for us. Sometimes, things turn out as well for us as they did in today’s gospel lesson. Sometimes they don’t. Either way, God is good, and, either way, we love and trust God the same.

On a Sunday morning in 1927, at a church in Aberdeen, Scotland, a pastor named Arthur J. Gossip, suffering through an enormous crisis in his own life, preached the now famous sermon, “When Life Tumbles In, What Then?” We know the answer to that tender old question. When life tumbles in, we still get up every morning and take care of what we can take care of, our own kindness, gentleness, truthfulness and integrity, and we still love and trust God, praying the same as ever, only harder, for God to help us go through the wonderful thing God might have done but did not do.

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

In the Same Boat

Mark 4:35-41, Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32, The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Lesley Ratcliff · June 20th, 2021 · Duration 12:48

I was a fairly tame high schooler so my first brush with death didn’t come until the summer after my sophomore year. Some friends and I went to Lake Martin for the 4th of July, and we took a tiny pontoon boat out into the middle of the lake to watch the fireworks. Our trip out to the middle of the lake went well and the fireworks were wonderful, but just as they ended, a storm blew up. Other boats were around us, mostly speed boats with much larger motors than ours. The wake of the bigger boats coupled with the wind from the storm created a very scary situation. And when we already thought for sure that we were going to capsize, the only one of our friends who could drive the boat lost a contact. We were clearly doomed. Then, suddenly, the storm stopped, and the other boats cleared out, and with one eye shut, our friend was able to drive us home.

I have some idea of how the disciples felt in today’s gospel story.

“On that day,” the passage begins, connecting us to that which has happened the rest of that day in Mark, primarily Jesus’ telling of parables about the Kingdom, and making us mindful of how this story might impact our understanding of the Kingdom of God. So after Jesus has spent the day teaching, he and the disciples head across to the other side of the sea.

“And other boats were with them.” I had never noticed this passing phrase at the end of verse 36. Were these other disciples – Jesus had more than just the twelve who were regularly with him – or were these people who had been listening to Jesus teach that day, seeking answers for the meaning of Jesus’ parables? We learn in the next passage that Jesus and the disciples were crossing from their Jewish community to the Gentile community of the Gerasenes, so could some of the folks in the boats have been gentiles?

Clearly not everyone was in the same boat, but it didn’t matter when a great windstorm arose. The waves beat into the boat and water began to flood in and fear began to dictate action.

At least four of the disciples were fisherman who worked on the sea of Galilee, which is 680 feet below sea level, surrounded by hills and prone to storms, so if they were afraid, it seems their fear of the storm would be justified. The disciples woke Jesus up, hysterical that he hasn’t risen to address the situation already, their fear turning to accusation. “Do you not care that we are perishing?” The disciples seem to know that Jesus can do something about the storm but are still surprised when Jesus does.

Jesus wakes up and rebukes the wind and says to the sea “Peace! Be still!” The word “rebuke” makes me imagine a Jesus who yells “Peace! Be Still!” and I see this cinematic bolt of lightning that represents Jesus’ power moving over the sea. But the fact that the disciples woke Jesus up, makes me imagine Jesus rubbing sleep out of his eye, and yawning as he says “Peace. Be still.” The divine and the human, speaking power over the sea, no action, just words, and the wind and the waves stop. They aren’t all in the same boat, but when the disciples go to Jesus for peace, the same peace comes to all the boats.

Notice that Jesus waits until after the wind and the waves have stopped to ask his question “Why are you afraid?” In an essay in Feasting on the Word, Michael Lindvall points out that Jesus does not tell the disciples that there is nothing to be afraid of. Jesus asks why they are afraid. This is not a scolding but an invitation to tell Jesus what is making them afraid. We don’t hear the disciples answer to these questions, but we do hear their response to Jesus’ actions.

Their awe and wonder are recorded in the final verse of today’s gospel lesson – they were filled with great awe and wondered “who then is this?” When the waters calmed, did they remember the words of this morning’s Psalmist? “Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and the Lord brought them out from their distress, the Lord made the storm be still and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Or did they think of that moment in Genesis when God hovered over the water and then created order from it? Have they finally started to recognize the divine in their presence? They have been learning of the Kingdom but now its Creator is clearly in their midst. They aren’t all in the same boat, but God is in the boat with all of them.

This was probably not the first trip across the Sea of Galilee that Jesus made with the disciples, and we know it was not the last. Just a couple of chapters later, the disciples are again crossing the sea to Gennesaret when Jesus decides to walk across the sea to meet them. As Jesus passes the disciples, he sees that they are straining against an adverse wind and joins the disciples in their boat, ceasing the wind and leaving the disciples astonished once again. The author of the gospel of Mark uses these stories of crossing over in the storm to display his Christology. The reader recognizes that God is fully present in Jesus, even if the disciples do not, and Jesus’ disciples both then and now recognize Jesus’ invitation to cross over to something new.

In her essay “Crossing to the Other Side,” Debie Thomas says “Our work is always to cross over from fear to awe, from suspicion to trust, from certainty to wonder.  No matter how high the storm waves in our lives, may we always rest in God’s presence as we cross to the other side.”

We have some idea of how the disciples felt in today’s gospel story. Some of us have crossed from the shore of what was to what will be and faced the storms of grief and sorrow. Others have crossed from the shore of certainty to the shore of mystery and faced the storms of fear and doubt. Some have crossed from the shore of one deeply held belief to the shore of another and faced the storm of rebuilding. Sometimes we get in the boat because we want to and sometimes because we have to and sometimes because getting in the boat will bring peace to others. Sometimes we don’t get in the boat because we are afraid of the storm that will arise, and Jesus invites us to wonder what we are afraid of? Sometimes we get in the boat and amid the storm we wonder if Jesus really cares? And sometimes the storm stills, and we are just in awe of our Creator, because even though we aren’t always in the same boat, God is in the boat with all of us. When God calls us to do the hard work of crossing over to a new or deeper or wider understanding of God’s Kingdom here on earth, God is with us.

I cannot speak for you but when I think about the shores that the 15-year-old version of myself has crossed to since I survived that storm on Lake Martin, from this side of all those seas, I’m grateful for every boat I’ve willingly, and sometimes not so willingly gotten in. But if I had known all the storms that would blow up then, I might not have gotten in any of those boat and my life would not be as rich, or as deep or as filled with all of you and the wonderful gift of doing life together in this sacred space.

In Chuck’s incredible sermon “Every Kind of Bird” from last week, he shared a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Book of Hours. “I live my life in widening circles that reach out across the world. I may not complete the last one but I give myself to it.” I’ve thought of those words often in the last week. I’ve thought of the tiny seed held in Love’s hand that grows into the beautiful, expansive, ever-widening circle of love that is the Kingdom of God. We don’t know when our next crossing of the sea will be our last but I hope we’ll get in the boat. I hope we’ll even help one another in, because eventually, we will all be in the same boat and God will be with us there too.            Amen.

 

Every Kind of Bird

Ezekiel 17:22-24, The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 13th, 2021 · Duration 15:49

Thus says the Lord, “I myself will take a sprig from the top of a cedar, and plant it on a high mountain...Under it every kind of bird will live; every kind of bird will nest in the shade of its branches.”

According to those who study ornithology (the science of birds), those words from today’s lesson from Ezekiel, concerning God’s great tree where every kind of bird will someday find a home, taken literally, would mean that God’s great tree would need to have room for as many as one hundred billion birds belonging to over 10,000 species.

But, needless to say, literally is not the way those words from Ezekiel were intended to be interpreted. (Indeed, to take any of the Bible’s words literally is, more often than not, to send the Bible on an errand the Bible was not written to run.)

However, to take seriously Ezekiel’s vision of God planting a tree where every kind of bird will have a nest in which to rest might be to see that image from Ezekiel as one of the many small signs in sacred scripture which point to the ultimate will and eternal plan of God; Ezekiel’s tree, which will someday be home to every kind of bird, not unlike Isaiah’s promise, in Isaiah 25:6-9, that God is preparing a great feast at which all the world will someday be present; not unlike Psalm 36:6, which says that God saves humans and animals alike; Old Testament promises which find New Testament echoes in I Corinthians 15:22, “As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive,” II Corinthians 5:19, “In Christ, God was reconciling the whole world to God’s self,” Ephesians 1:10, “God’s will and plan is to gather up all things in Christ,” Colossians 1:20, “Through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to God’s self all things on earth and in heaven,” I Timothy 2:4, “God wants everyone to be saved,” Titus 2:11, “The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all,” and, last, best and biggest, Revelation 5:13, John’s vision of “Every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, and in the sea, singing “Glory to God” together forever;” every kind of bird and creature and human, together, forever, with God, in what Acts 3:21 calls “The universal restoration of all things.”

Thinking about all of that this week called to mind, for me, a sentence in Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Holy Envy” in which Reverend Taylor says that she reached a point in her life when she found herself wishing she knew where the Bible verses were which drew a wider circle of grace than the more exclusive faith so many of her friends so often supported with passages such as John 14:6. Well, here they are, the verses which tell us that God’s will, and plan, is for every soul who has ever lived to someday be healed and home with God; Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 36:6, I Corinthians 15:22, II Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:20, I Timothy 2:4, Titus 2:11, Revelation 5:13, and, don’t forget Ezekiel 17:23; that tree God is planting which will hold a place for every kind of bird; the ultimate will and eternal plan of God; every kind of bird, ultimately, eternally, healed and home with God, the whole creation reconciled to God, just as God has always wanted, chosen and planned.

Many years ago, when Ted Adams retired from a very long pastorate at the First Baptist Church of Richmond, Virginia, he began a second career as a Professor of Preaching at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where, one day, a student asked Dr. Adams, “How long does it take you to prepare a sermon?” To which Ted Adams replied, “All my life, up to now.” It has taken me that long, all my life, up to now, to come to see, and say, the truth that the deeper we go into our own particular faith, the wider we grow beyond our own particular faith, because to go deeper into Christianity is to grow closer to the Christ through whom God was reconciling the whole creation to God’s self.

To grow closer and closer to Christ is to grow wider and wider in our joyful embrace of “every kind of bird;” the whole human family in the whole wide world; what Rainer Maria Rilke called, “Living our lives in widening circles that reach out across the world. We may not complete the last one,” said Rilke, “but we give ourselves to it.”

To walk in the Spirit is to give ourselves to a life of love and welcome lived in ever-widening circles; circles which slowly grow to share the size of the circumference of the love and welcome of God, whose eternal will and plan is the universal restoration of all things; the whole human family, and all creation, finally, fully, healed and home.

After all the truth has been told, all the responsibility has been owned, all the injustice confronted, all the victims faced, all the sin judged; no matter how many millions of years it takes, the ultimate and eternal will of God finally, ultimately, eternally done; the whole human family of every time and place, healed and home, at last, with God, no matter how long it takes, because God has all the time in the world to finally have what God has always wanted, which is every soul healed and home; every kind of bird.
Amen.

The Reason We Do Not Lose Heart

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1, The Second Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · June 6th, 2021 · Duration 2:14

“So, we do not lose heart...For we know that if this earthly tent in which we live is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.”

               With those words, today’s epistle lesson captures the hope which lives at the center, and waits at the bottom, of our faith; that relentless and incurable hope which can help us not to lose heart, no matter how difficult or disappointing, hard or heavy, life may be; the sure and certain hope and promise that, as long as we live, God is with us, and then, when we die, we are with God. 

               Amen.

A Sermon on the Subject of the Trinity

John 3:1-17, Trinity Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 30th, 2021 · Duration 10:10

Every year when Trinity Sunday rolls back around, it never fails to call to mind, for me, my all-time favorite Trinity Sunday story, about a centuries old church, in England, now a village tourist attraction, with a sign out front which says, “Here, the Bishop preached every Lord’s Day, except Trinity Sunday, owing to the difficulty of the subject;” the Bishop, annually, preemptively, wisely throwing in the towel, rather than venture a sermon on the notoriously difficult subject of the church’s eternal, communal, theological triangle; the trinity.

Although, sometimes I wonder if, when it comes to the subject of the trinity, the Christian centuries may have made things more complicated than they actually are.

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, I have a very practical, perhaps overly simple, way of thinking about the trinity; a way of thinking which rises from one of last Sunday’s lectionary lessons, that part of John chapter sixteen where Jesus is reported to have said that, since it was time for him to go back to God, God was going to send the Holy Spirit to take Jesus’ followers further along the same path down which Jesus had started them; all of which is my “cornbread and peas” version of John 16:5-13, where Jesus is reported to have said, “Now I am going back to the One who sent me...I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit comes, the Spirit will guide you into all truth.”

In a Bible where the word “trinity” never appears, that may be the most trinitarian passage of all; Jesus came from God, and when the time came for Jesus to go back to God, Jesus said that God would send the Holy Spirit to guide Jesus’ followers further and further along the same path down which Jesus had gotten them started; the practical, spiritual, living trinity; the trio, a quartet; the triangle, a square; Father, Son, Holy Spirit and us; at work in the world, together.

I cannot speak for you, but, in my experience, a person can believe in the trinity as a Christian doctrine all day long and still be as hard-hearted, narrow-minded, reckless, impulsive, exclusive and unkind as if they had never so much as heard of Jesus or the Holy Spirit. But, to live in the trinity; ever open to what the Holy Spirit is revealing about what Jesus was revealing about God, is to be transformed, to become what today’s gospel lesson calls “born again;” growing and changing in ever wider ways, the Holy Spirit’s life-transforming work so quiet and strong that we can’t tell if we are drawing a wider circle of love, or if a wider circle of love is drawing us.

The world has never been changed by right belief, because people are not changed by right belief. The world will always be changed by the life of love, because people are changed by the life of love; the Holy Spirit taking us further and further into, what Jesus took us deeper and deeper into, about God; the trinity, once an ancient triangle we only believed in, now a living circle we always walk in; wider and wider, bigger and bigger, until the size of the circle of our love and welcome matches the size of the circle of the love and welcome of God.
Amen.

Concerning the Spirit

John 15:26-27, 16:4-15, Pentecost Sunday

Chuck Poole · May 23rd, 2021 · Duration 10:50

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Nine Words

Nine Words 2021

Chuck Poole · May 17th, 2021 · Duration 0:0

When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which  commandment in the law is the greatest?” Jesus said to him, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

                                                                                                   -Matthew 22:34-40

Homosexuality is a human difference, not a spiritual sin. It has taken me a lifetime on the path to a deeper life with God to learn to say that single, simple sentence; nine words which, at the risk of sounding naïve and simplistic, I believe hold the answer to the religious world’s long struggle concerning those who are drawn to persons of their same sex.

There isn’t any spiritual difference between gay people of God and straight people of God. We all worship, sing, pray, serve, try and fail the same. Whether we are straight or gay, we have the same capacity to be moral or immoral, kind or mean, careful or reckless, righteous or unjust, generous or selfish. In all those ways, we are all the same. 

All of this finally came clear to me, nearly two decades ago, while sitting by the bed of a dying man in a nursing home; a man who had lived a long life of integrity and fidelity, prayer and devotion, who happened to be gay. As I sat near his bed in the last weeks of his life, it occurred to me that he and I were different from one another only in that he was a gay person; a human difference, not a spiritual one.

Of course, given our long history of turning to scripture to support what we believe, that raises the important question, “But what about what the Bible says concerning homosexuality?”

The Bible includes several passages which are often assumed to address same sex attraction and love. There appear to be seven such passages.  (I say “appear to be” because it is not clear how many of them actually address a committed relationship  between two adults of the same sex.)

Take, for example, the first of those seven passages; the story of the city of Sodom in Genesis chapter nineteen.  Often pointed to as a story about God’s judgement against homosexuality, Genesis 19:1-11 recalls the story of a group of men who attempted to sexually assault Lot’s angelic visitors; an attempt at sexual violence which everyone on the planet condemns, but  which has nothing to do with a committed relationship between two people of the same sex.

In the Old Testament, there are two more passages which are often  invoked to condemn same sex relationships; Leviticus 18:22, “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman, it is an abomination,” and Leviticus 20:13, “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination, they shall be put to death.”  Those words belong to a Levitical “holiness code” which also prohibits the eating of pork (Leviticus 11:7-12), forbids rough beards (Leviticus 19:27), and excludes from worship leadership anyone with blemished skin, failing eyesight or poor posture (Leviticus 21:16-20); verses to which no Christians I know assign any continuing authority. 

That leaves the four New Testament passages which are often assumed to indict same sex relationships.  One is Jude 1:7, which refers to the aforementioned passage in Genesis chapter nineteen.  Two more are I Corinthians 6:9-10 and I Timothy 1:10, both of which are on the list of possible passages, because they contain the word “sodomite,” which could be a reference to what we think of as a same sex relationship, but which also may refer to the sexual exploitation of boys by men; something everyone condemns, but something which has no more relation to a same sex relationship between two adults than the heterosexual exploitation of children has to sexual intimacy between a man and a woman.

Of the seven Bible passages often assumed to be about same sex intimacy, those are six; which leaves one; Romans 1:25-31, which says, “Because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator . . . God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another . . .  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.  They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness and malice . . .  Full of envy, murder, strife . . . They are gossips, slanderers, God haters.” 

Because of the part of this passage which refers to those who have exchanged their natural sexual inclination for “a way of intercourse which is not natural” this passage is sometimes assumed to be Paul’s indictment of  homosexuality, which it may be.  But, to read the full paragraph is to see that it also describes those of whom Paul speaks as being “God-haters”, who are full of envy, murder and malice, which does not describe any of the gay persons I have known, who are no more or less likely to be God-haters who are full of envy, murder and malice than any of the straight people I have known.  Whoever Paul is describing in Romans chapter one, he is not describing the prayerful, thoughtful child of God who happens to be a gay person. 

All of which is to say that, of the seven passages in the Bible which are often assumed to be about same sex sexual intimacy, it isn’t clear which ones address committed same sex  relationships.  The words, and spirit, of the Bible, with the very troubling exception of Numbers 31:13-35, condemn all forms of sexual violence, promiscuity and exploitation; heterosexual and homosexual.  The question is whether or not the Bible addresses, or even anticipates, committed same sex relationships.

But, even if some of those seven passages were intended to address committed same sex relationships, most of the Christians I know would not be able to say that it was because of their commitment to the authority of the Bible that they held a religious objection against gay and lesbian persons, because most of the Christians I know continue to own possessions, resist evildoers, and wear jewelry, in spite of what the Bible says in Luke 14:33, Matthew 5:39 and I Timothy 2:9. That is not to say that there is something wrong with owning possessions, resisting evildoers or wearing jewelry, but it is to say that there is something wrong with using the Bible on others in ways we would never apply the Bible to ourselves. 

I believe that most popular religious judgments about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons have less to do with the Bible than with the way we were raised; what we’ve always thought and been taught.  One very large factor, especially for many men who grew up, as did I, in the deep south Bible Belt of the twentieth-century, is that much of our thinking about gay persons was shaped more by immature masculinity than by mature Christianity. At school, at work, and even in the church, we emphasized our masculinity by ridiculing those who were drawn to persons of their same sex; calling them names and making fun of them. (The sin, in that case, not the sexuality of those who are gay, but the meanness of those who are straight.)

 In the religious world of my origins, we talked a lot about Jesus, but, when it came to how we treated those who were born beyond the comfortable majority, we  often failed to embody the spirit of Jesus, which is one reason why people in our part of the world who had a gay or lesbian son or daughter often encouraged them to move to New York or San Francisco, where they might be more safe from hurt and harm than in the Bible Belt.  Ponder, for a moment, the irony of that: The part of the country which claims the most followers of Jesus is one of the most difficult parts of the country in which to be different; a sad commentary on how far the popular Christianity of the  Bible Belt has strayed from the Jesus of the four gospels.

As far as we know, that Jesus, the Jesus of the four gospels, never said anything about same sex relationships.  He did, however, have something to say about what matters most in life.  When asked, in Matthew chapter twenty-two, what matters most, Jesus is reported to have said that what matters most is that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves; reading all scripture, and seeing all persons, in the light of, and through the lens of, love.  Which is not unlike what we find in Matthew 7:12, where Jesus is reported to have summed up all the law and the prophets in a single simple sentence of nine simple words:  Treat others as you would have others treat you.

One small example of which I heard described in an interview shortly after the death of President George Herbert Walker Bush. In early December of 2018, as the world mourned the death of President Bush, National Public Radio aired a conversation in which two women, Bonnie Clement and Helen Thorgalson, who own a store near the Bush’s home in Kennebunkport, Maine, remembered, with much affection and gratitude, the gladness and warmth with which their longtime friend, George H. W. Bush, had served as a witness at their wedding; a small example from President Bush concerning how to relate to gay and lesbian loved ones and friends; as loved ones and friends, without making one part of their life, their sexual orientation, the most interesting or important part of their life, seeing that human difference for what it is; a human difference, not a spiritual sin.

To learn to discern the difference between a difference and a sin is an important step along the path to spiritual depth; which, for me, has meant coming to see, and say, the truth which travels in those nine simple words, Homosexuality is a human difference, not a spiritual sin; truth it has taken me a lifetime to see and say, truth which many dear and good people of faith do not embrace,  but, truth which many others have always instinctively known.  And, truth which many more might someday come to see, and say, not in spite of the fact that they are prayerful, Spirit-filled, serious Christians, but because of the fact that they are prayerful, Spirit-filled, serious Christians.

- Charles E. Poole, 2021

 

 

 

 

Into the World

John 17:6-19, The Seventh Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 16th, 2021 · Duration 13:15

“As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from today’s gospel lesson, we get to listen in as Jesus did, then, what the church does, now. Just as Jesus sent Jesus’ first friends into the world, then, so the church sends us into the world, now, but not without first helping us, within these walls, to get ready for the world which waits, beyond these walls.

Here at Northminster, the annual Mentor Class, which Bess, Will, Andrew and Chesley are completing today, is an important part of that life-long work of the church to prepare us, within these walls, for the world which waits, beyond these walls. That kind of spiritual formation doesn’t happen all at once or once and for all, but little by little, week after week, year upon year; in Sunday School, Atrium, Girls of Grace and Guys 456; at Bible Camp, Word Search Wednesdays and Passport Kids; on children’s retreats and mission projects, at worship class, play dates and book studies; in the Mentor Class which Bess, Will, Andrew and Chesley have just completed, and, soon, in the Youth House, which they are about to enter, not to mention the countless little conversations with church folk, which happen in the parking lot and hallways almost every week. The church, little by little, helping to shape and form all of our lives for God and the gospel; all of us, together, calling forth that which is deepest and best in one another, helping each other, within these walls, get ready for the world which waits, beyond these walls, not unlike what we watched Jesus do in this morning’s gospel lesson when, in Jesus’ prayer for his first followers, Jesus said, to God, “As you have sent me into the world, so I am sending them into the world.”

Bess, Will, Andrew and Chesley, we wish we could send you out into the world with an air-tight guarantee of protection from the hardest and worst that life can bring. But, needless to say, even the most faithful lifetime lived in the care of the church does not build a bubble of protection around our lives.

However, while a lifetime lived in the care of the church cannot promise us protection from life’s most difficult moments, a lifetime lived in the care of the church can promise us strength for life’s most difficult moments. It is as though there is a container somewhere down there in our souls; something like a spiritual bucket, a reservoir which gets filled with the kind of truth which can give us strength and hope, courage and clarity, just when we need it most; the reservoir of our soul, filled with the kind of truth we all hear, over and over, year after year, in every corner of the church at the corner of Ridgewood and Eastover.

The truth that God is with us, no matter where we go or what we face. The truth that every person in the whole human family is a child of God who bears within them the image of God. The truth that God calls us to treat all others as we want all others to treat us. The truth that in the life of Jesus, we Christians get our clearest glimpse of who God is, how God acts and what God wants, and that in the death of Jesus we see most fully the relentless, boundless love of God, and that in the resurrection of Jesus we find our ultimate hope; the ultimate and incurable hope that this is God’s world, and in God’s world, the worst thing that happens is never the last thing that happens, because, in God’s world, God gets the last word, and if the last word said is going to be God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good.

A lifetime lived in the care of the church fills the reservoir of our soul with that kind of truth; preparing us for those moments in life when we will need to be able to reach down into the reservoir and come back up with something which will give us the strength and courage we need; the strength we need to go through some great sorrow we did not get to go around; the courage we need to sit down with and stand up for the same people Jesus would sit down with and stand up for if Jesus was here; the church, helping us to get ready for those moments in life when, as one wise soul once said, “Courage is doing the right thing, even when you’re scared to death.”

Those moments will come. No one can say when or how, but they come to us all, at some time or another. And, when they do, those of us whose lives have been formed and shaped by the church have a reservoir of truth into which we can reach; our lives rooted in, centered on and anchored by a small list of big truths: God is with us. God is for us. The Spirit of God and the people of God, together, will give us the strength we need to go through what we don’t get to go around. God is love; and God calls us, and helps us, to let the same love which has come down to us from God go out through us to others.

The church, slowly, slowly filling the reservoir of our soul with that kind of truth; forming us, little by little, year after year, to live lives of kindness and courage, truthfulness and goodness, empathy and integrity, mercy and grace; out there in the world, to which Jesus once sent the church, and the church now sends us.
Amen.

This Is How We Grow

Acts 10:44-48, The Sixth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 9th, 2021 · Duration 13:16

Then Peter said, “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Every three years, the lectionary places in the path of the church those words from this morning’s lesson from the book of Acts; the end of the story of Peter and Cornelius, which begins much earlier in Acts chapter ten, with Peter’s famous dream, in which Peter sees a sheet full of odd animals, all on the forbidden foods list in the book of Leviticus. But, much to Peter’s surprise, the voice of the Lord tells Peter to rise and eat the forbidden meat from the off-limits sheet. To which Peter responds by reminding God that the book of Leviticus prohibits the people of God from eating what the voice of God is inviting Peter to eat; Peter, reminding God what the Bible says about the subject.

About that time, Peter was surprised by visitors at the door, inviting him to come to the home of Cornelius, who, because he was a Gentile, may have been as off-limits for Peter as the food in the dream. In fact, once Peter arrived at Cornelius’ house, Peter realized that his recent dream about eating off-limits food was actually a vision about welcoming off-limits people; saying to Cornelius in Acts 10:28, “You know that it is unlawful for me, a Jew, to associate with a Gentile, but God has shown me that I should not call anyone unclean or profane.”

All of which brings us to today’s passage, at the end of chapter ten, where Peter says, “Who can withhold the water for baptizing these Gentiles who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?”; Peter’s decision, at the end of Acts chapter ten, to say “Yes” to Cornelius; a “Yes” which, at the beginning of Acts chapter ten, Peter might never have dreamed that ever he would say.

As you will recall from your own life with the Bible, the story spills over into Acts chapter eleven, where Peter gets called on the carpet for welcoming and baptizing Cornelius. The Bible says, in Acts 11:4, that, confronted with the questions of his critics, Peter explained, “step by step,” how he grew into his Spirit-filled “Yes;” the Holy Spirit, taking Peter past the place where both scripture and tradition might have dropped him off, all of which ends in Acts 11:17 with one of the greatest sentences in all the Bible, “If God has given them the same Holy Spirit God has given us, who am I to hinder God?”

I cannot speak for you, but, as for me, those words from the story of Peter’s spiritual journey are among the most important in all the Bible, perhaps because, in my own life, I, not unlike Peter, have had to outgrow my original “No” on nearly every important issue and question you can name; the Holy Spirit pushing and pulling me along by the hardest and the slowest.

For example, based on the religion I learned in the church of my childhood, I was so sure, at one time, that God did not, would not, could not call women to be ministers; absolutely, immovably certain. But, slowly, slowly, I came to see and say the same truth Peter came to see and say, “Who am I to make distinctions God does not make?” It was hard. Having been so wrong for so long, it was hard to be right. Like Peter, I even quoted scripture to God to defend my “No” against God’s “Yes.” Until, finally, because of the patience of the Holy Spirit, I came to see, and say, with Peter, Who am I to say “No” to anyone God has said “Yes” to?

It has been, for me, a long journey. The same journey Peter covered in a chapter has taken me a lifetime. And, while it has not been easy, if there was one gift I could give to each and every one of you, it would be the gift of that kind of growth and change; walking in the Holy Spirit until, step by step, we all grow bigger; which, I believe, is the kind of growing which God wants for all of us, and from all of us.

Amen.

Concerning Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch

Acts 8:26-40, The Fifth Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · May 2nd, 2021 · Duration 5:00

And the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip, “Here is water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Every three years, the lectionary asks the church, throughout the world, to read, on the Fifth Sunday of Eastertide, those words from Acts chapter eight. And, every time they roll back around, I wonder if the Ethiopian eunuch’s request to be baptized might have created, for Philip, one of those moments in life which our own William Faulkner once described as, “The human heart, in conflict with itself.”

After all, on the one hand, Philip has those words in his head from Deuteronomy and Leviticus which specifically exclude eunuchs and foreigners from the welcome of the family of God. (And the Ethiopian eunuch, needless to say, is both.) But, on the other hand, there is that passage in Isaiah chapter fifty-six which specifically includes eunuchs and foreigners in the full welcome of God. The Bible, in a tie, with itself; these verses versus those verses. What will Philip do? Will Philip interpret the Bible’s larger verses in the light of the Bible's smaller verses, or will he interpret the Bible's smaller verses in the light of the Bible’s larger verses? Which way will Philip go? Will Philip say “Yes” or will Philip say “No”?

However uncertain, or fearful, Philip may have been, Philip followed the nudges and whispers of the Holy Spirit, all the way down into the water with the Ethiopian eunuch. And, while I cannot speak for you, as for me, every time we get to the end of today’s passage, the part where Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch come up out of the water, together, to go their separate ways, I always wonder who of the two has been more unshackled, transformed, born again and set free; Philip or the eunuch, the baptizer or the baptizee?

Amen.

By What Name? (Senior Recognition Sunday)

Acts 4:5-12; I John 3:16-24, The Fourth Sunday of Eastertide

Major Treadway · April 25th, 2021 · Duration 15:35

I want to tell you a secret. Seniors, I am speaking to you with this secret, so if you would do me a favor and not tell any of the other Youth or children, I would appreciate it. This secret is one that is communally held by this family of faith.

For the last 18 or so years, and truthfully, for many years before that, we have all been working together (mostly) to form you into the people who will carry the faith of our ancestors to those who will one day call us ancestors. Almost every adult in your life is in on this plan. I don’t know all of the adults in your life, but I know many of the adults at this church and I have had many conversations with them about this very thing.

Did you know that there are full committees (plural) filled with adults of all ages whose only purpose is to think about your formation? All of these people, gathered in this sanctuary, and on the live stream – dreaming, imagining, praying, and working together to see that you are formed in such a way that when your moment comes to lead and carry the mantle of Christianity to the next generation, you are ready.

In the reading from Acts this morning, two of the disciples of Jesus had recently been met with a moment where they had a decision to make. Peter and John were going to the temple to pray. When they got there, they met a man who, the scriptures tell us, had been “lame from birth.” The man asked Peter and John for some money. They had a conversation with the man and told him that they did not have any money, then they spoke to the man in the name of Jesus, and told him “to stand up and walk.” And the man did. This event led to preaching and the preaching led to lot of people (5,000) believing. Somewhere in the midst of all the preaching and believing, Peter and John were arrested.

This is where today’s lesson picks up. Peter and John were brought before all of the important religious leaders of the day and asked “by what power or by what name did you do this?”

This question could have been asked out of awe or appreciation. It could have been asked out of curiosity or interest. Instead, it was asked out of jealousy and rage. These leaders saw their influence fading and not just fading, leaving them and being gained by, what must have seemed to them, rival religious leaders. They were operating out of a mindset which viewed the world, the people, and all that was in it as though there were not enough, as though the resources available were scarce and anyone gaining resources meant that someone was losing them.

But Peter and John had been formed to see the world differently. They were beholden to a master that had once given them the instructions to “take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic.” The same master famously told a group of lawyers that the second greatest commandment in all the Bible was to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.”

It is, of course, no surprise to us that the disciples of Jesus would see the world through different eyes. Jesus, who had the benefit of being both fully God and fully human, also had the benefit of knowing that the world in which we live, the world which was created with words, is not a world of scarcity, but a world of abundance. It is only in a world of abundance, that we can hear and know the answer to the question in the epistle reading today: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?”

Because of the ways which we have been formed, we can know the answer that will come even before we read it: “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

Just like we have all be conspiring to form you, seniors, Jesus worked hard enough to form his disciples so that they would be able to see this man asking for alms, and not be deterred by what they lacked, money, but be able to perceive the abundance that they did have and offer him health even though he had asked for money.

So when the council of religious leaders asked them, “by what name did you do this?”, the disciples were ready with their answer. Before the question was finished being spoken, before the question had ever been asked, even before they had encountered the man whom they healed resulting in their arrest, they knew the answer to the question.

They knew what they would say to the council, and anyone else who asked, “by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth…, whom God raised from the dead.”

Kaylee, Kimberly, Hawthorne, Noah, Sarah Beth, Milton, Rosie, Andrew, Katie, Samuel, Jeremiah, Leflore, Lesean, Ella Jane, Gibson, Betsy, and Katie, the community of faith that is Northminster has been conspiring to form you from before the first time you ever entered these doors all the way until now. Betsy Ditto and Annette Hitt were ready and waiting to receive you in the nursery and wrap their loving arms around you. Many of you were walked out down that aisle there in Pastor Poole’s arms as the congregation promised to “share in your growth” and in unison told you and your parents that you “belong to us as well.”

Amy Finkelberg and Lesley Ratcliff and Holly Wiggs between them rallied a fierce cadre of Northminster adults to steer you through Sunday School, Atrium, Children’s Worship Hour, Girls of Grace, Guys 456, and Bible Camp.

Steven Fuller, Rebecca Wiggs, Christian Byrd, and Ginger Parham offered opportunities to join in your adolescent formation, by joining Dabbs and Woody in the Youth House on Sunday nights, or Kelley Williams, Jr., Neva Eklund, Chris Wiggs, Bryan and Christine Bridges, Ken Cleveland, Doug Caver, and Pastor Poole teaching Sunday School. Still more people have chaperoned trips, hosted you in their homes and yards and pools. Others have prepared meals, provided transportation, and coached basketball teams. And even more have prayed for you in rooms throughout this church and in the privacy of their own homes.

All of these people and programs have been focused on your formation in hopes that one day, when you are faced with a situation where doing what is right and doing what fits well socially, culturally, legally are not the same thing, that you will choose what is right. The goal of all this formation is that when the moment comes, you will instinctively sit down with the person whom Jesus would have, that you will stand up for the person Jesus would have, that you will stand up against the person Jesus would have.

Sometimes, doing such a thing will result in various forms of the question that was asked to Peter and John. The question might sound something like, why would you do that? Don’t you know that’s not how we do things around here? Are you sure that person is worth it? By what name did you do this?

The type of formation, into which we have all conspired to mold you, and our ancestors before us conspired to mold us, is the type that also has a ready answer: “by the name of Jesus…, whom God raised from the dead.” It is the type of formation that has prepared us to answer: “let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.”

This type of formation names the risen Lord Jesus as its cornerstone. It is because of Jesus, the one who stood against social custom, cultural practice, and even, at times, against the law of the land that we can live and grow into this form. For, Jesus sat down with and stood up for the persons in the most need, the persons who social custom, cultural practice, and the government were leaving behind. And Jesus had some pretty harsh words about how we treat these people. You remember them, of course, in Matthew 25, Jesus says that just in the same way that you treat the least of these, that’s just how you have treated me.

Eighteen or so years of conspiring have brought us to this day where we as a church body look at you seated here, confident that you have been filled up with all that you need to respond to each situation in such a way that someone might ask “by what name do you do this?”; further, we trust that you are ready to answer them.

But there is another secret that is hidden in this conspiratorial practice of formation. All of those people, who are really all of the people that are sitting behind you with tears of pride in their eyes, all of those people, because of their commitment to your formation, have entered into a relationship with you; and relationships are tricky. In relationships, all parties are subject to change. In this journey, each person who has engaged in your formation, each person who has conspired to influence you and shape you into the person you have become, each of us has been influenced by you.

It’s true. You have already been a part of the formation of Northminster Baptist Church, just as Northminster Baptist Church has been a part of your formation.

Because of your presence, your questions, your commitment to this place, to these people, and to each other, we as a community of faith are better able to respond when we encounter situations which place us in the space where what is right and what is socially, culturally, legally appropriate do not align. And we are more ready for the question “by what name did you do this?”

Kaylee, Kimberly, Hawthorne, Noah, Sarah Beth, Milton, Rosie, Andrew, Katie, Samuel, Jeremiah, Leflore, Lesean, Ella Jane, Gibson, Betsy, and Katie, as you go from this place to all of your new places, go knowing that this community of faith is continuing to conspire about you, for you, and with you as you continue this journey into the abundant life that Jesus declared for us. 

We cannot all go with you, and you don’t need us to. I imagine it is possible that some of you might not want us to. You are ready. You are ready to lean on Jesus. You are ready to draw forth from the abundance that Jesus has provided you and all of us to live your life in such a way that those who don’t know you might see you and ask you “by what name have you done this?”

 

Amen.

At the Corner of Sadness and Gladness

Psalm 4, The Third Sunday of Eastertide

Chuck Poole · April 18th, 2021 · Duration 10:15

“Answer me when I call, O God...You gave me room when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer.”

Every time the lectionary asks us to read those words from today’s psalm, they call to mind, for me, that familiar old adage that there are really only two kinds of prayers; one is “Help me! Help me! Help me!”, and the other is, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

In this morning’s psalm, “Help me” and “Thank you” come so close together that it can be hard to tell where one ends and the other begins; “Answer me when I call, O God,” a “Help me!” prayer, followed immediately by, “God gave me room when I was in distress,” a “Thank you!” prayer, followed immediately by another “Help me!” prayer, all of which happens before we even exit the first verse of Psalm 4; the busy intersection of the psalmist’ “Thank you” prayers and the psalmist’ “Help me” prayers, making today’s psalm a timeless picture, back there on the page, of life as it is, down here on the ground.

Life, for most of us, is part “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” for all the times we have been helped, healed, saved, spared, and comforted, and part “Help me, Help me, Help me,” for all the uncertainty and anxiety, disease and pain, disappointment and resentment we still struggle to carry and manage; many of us getting up every morning to face the same fears and fear the same faces, all over again; calling out to God with the psalmist, “Help me, help me, help me;” until the next time we say to God with the psalmist, “Thank you, thank you, thank you;” until the next time when it is “Help me, help me, help me,” all over again.

As Fred Buechner once said, “Here is the world. Beautiful things and terrible things will happen.” And both, the beautiful and the terrible, happen more than once in nearly every life. The person who faces only one great difficulty in life is as rare as the one who knows only one great joy. We live in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen, and if any of those things can happen to anyone, all of those things can happen to everyone, more than once.

Like the psalmist, we all live at the corner of gladness and sadness, relief and grief, joy and pain, beautiful and terrible, wonderful and awful, praying “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” in one breath , and “Help me, Help me, Help me” in the next.

Or, sometimes, even in the same breath, because, sometimes, the sadness and the gladness converge. The book of Ecclesiastes says that there is a time to dance and a time to mourn, and, sometimes, you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.

Many years ago, I watched a young family dancing away at a Christmas party. Their life together was being changed, forever, by a crushing sorrow. But, there they were, dancing away to Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” as though they hadn’t a care in the world; dancing on broken legs, at the busy intersection of sadness and gladness.

Which is, in some ways, what the church was built to be; a ballroom for dancing on broken legs, a choir room for singing “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” while simultaneously sighing, “Help me, Help me, Help me;” the corner of sadness and gladness disguised as the intersection of Ridgewood and Eastover, where, every Sunday, whether in the sanctuary or on the lovestream, “Thank you, Thank you, Thank you” meets “Help me, Help me, Help me,” week after week, year after year, from one generation to the next.

Amen.

On Dreaming and Doubting

John 20:19-31; Acts 4:32-35, The Second Sunday of Eastertide

Major Treadway · April 11th, 2021 · Duration 17:00

Today marks the second Sunday of Eastertide – a season that will last for fifty days. On the fortieth day of Eastertide, we will mark the ascension of Jesus to sit at the right hand of God. On the fiftieth day, Pentecost, we will mark the coming of the Holy Spirit. For fifty days we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus – making this celebration the longest and most significant one on the church calendar.

Today, on the second Sunday of Eastertide, one week since the women found the empty tomb, one week since God raised Jesus from the grave – robbing death of its final word, we find the disciples in a room, the doors locked in such a way that all of their fear is trapped in the room with them. Their fears wear many faces, though we are only given the brief description “the Jews.” Of course, this cannot mean all Jews, or they would not be in the room with each other, maybe not even with themselves, since they were all Jews. Their crucified and resurrected Lord, Jesus, was also a Jew. So, we cannot read this and think that their fear was of a whole group of people. Their profound fear was of particular Jews. They were afraid that the same people that killed Jesus might try to kill them – this is the same fear that led at least one of them to thrice deny any relationship with Jesus. Fear. Their fear locked them up as tight as if someone had rolled a stone in front of the door to that room. But one of the disciples wasn’t there.

Thomas was not in the room with them. Where was Thomas? There is no indication anywhere in the Bible where Thomas might have been that day – only that he was not in the room. When the disciples finally break free from their fear locked room, they run to Thomas, maybe like the women had run to them last week, and told him that Jesus had appeared to them and then Thomas gives his infamous reply, that he will not believe them until he sees Jesus with his own two eyes, touches the marks in his hands, and puts his hand in Jesus’ side.

For this remark, we all know Thomas as “doubting Thomas.” This designation marks Thomas in a negative light. If we listen to Bryan Stevenson and believe that “each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done,” then perhaps, we would do well to look a bit closer at Thomas and think a little bit longer on his life, his words, and his actions.

There is remarkably little about Thomas in the New Testament. But he is listed by all four gospels as one of the disciples. He speaks only three times. All of them in the Gospel of John. Before Thomas speaks in today’s passage, he had also spoken when Jesus was preparing to go and see about waking up Lazarus. When Jesus told the disciples his intention to go back to Judea, it was Thomas who replied to Jesus “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Thomas, so dedicated to Jesus, that he could already see that Jesus was going to die, so dedicated to Jesus that he could already see that he would also die for his dedication to Jesus.

Later, as Jesus foretells his betrayal, and Peter’s denial, Jesus also tells the disciples that he is going to prepare a place for them so that they might also be with him. Thomas, sure that he wants to be with Jesus, still strongly dedicated to following Jesus, says to Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Perhaps, I am biased, but I think I agree with Martha Spong, that when taken in the context of all that we have to look at in the Gospel of John, Thomas sounds a bit like an Enneagram 8. Maybe he isn’t the doubter history has made him out to be. It seems, rather, that he is aggressively loyal and lacks a filter between his brain and his mouth.

Let’s reconsider today’s Gospel lesson in this light. The disciples lock themselves in a room with their fear, but Thomas is not with them. He has already declared that he is ready to die with Jesus. And once you are ready to die, you do not go locking yourself in a room because of fear. Fiercely loyal, when Thomas hears the story that Jesus appeared to those fearful disciples, he says the first thing that comes to his mind, the first thing that might have come to any of our minds, “but why not me?”

Fast forward to when Jesus comes to visit the group again, this time with Thomas present. Jesus immediately presents himself to Thomas with the invitation to touch Jesus’ wounds, but there is no mention of Thomas actually doing it, instead we get the most powerful statement of faith offered in the Gospel of John. Thomas says to Jesus, “My Lord and My God.”

But we still have to deal with these last words of Jesus to Thomas: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

These words, written by John near the end of the first century and spoken by Jesus about sixty years earlier, have proven to be the great crux and question of countless thinkers and theologians for nearly two thousand years. How is one to believe without seeing? Isn’t it a blessing when one can?

This question is no more limited to Christianity than it is to any other field in existence. Believing without seeing is what sets some people apart from others. In the early 1960s, long before any humans had set foot on the moon, John Houbolt, dreamed about the most effective way to land a manned spacecraft on the moon and get it back to Earth safely. An outsider, resolutely dismissed by insiders who had their own ideas about how to get the job done, Houbolt could see the fruition of his dream so clearly, that he kept pressing. He kept pressing until his idea got a fair consideration. And on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin used his idea to land on the moon. Houbolt watched from Mission Control in Houston. While Armstrong and Aldrin were still on the moon, Houbolts’s chief rival turned to him and said “Thank you, John. It is a good idea.”

Another example a little closer to the orbit of our lives: consider that on a street corner in downtown Jackson in 1966, five men had a dream of a church where any human could be welcomed to join in the practices of worship and ministry. Fifty-five years later, here we are at the corner of Eastover and Ridgewood. These five men were able to believe, without seeing, that this church could be the kind of place that could extend the welcome of Christ to any human, without consideration for what any other church might do or what common practices throughout the city and region might be. Their vision ensured that this place would be a place that could promise to children and their parents that they belong to us and we will share in their growth – without fear of what that growth or that promise might require of us.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

What are the dreams that we have yet to dream? What are the ways of being and doing in the world that we have yet to believe are possible because we have not yet seen them? What are the fields of our faith that remain untilled because we have unhesitatingly chortled that we will not believe it until we have been able to put our hands on it and touch it and know it to be true?

The community of disciples who first heard these words of Jesus started dreaming of what shape life must take now that everything had changed. Today’s Acts reading gives some idea of what their dreams were: the whole group were of one heart and soul, everything they owned was held in common, great grace was upon them all, there was not a needy person among them.

That does sound like a dream – a nearly impossible dream. It may be that this is one of those stories from the bible that we believe is too impractical to consider for the life of our faith community. This is what I am tempted to think and believe each time I read this story from Acts. Sometimes though, I pause long enough to imagine what shape this might take.

I wonder if it might look like the South African idea of Ubuntu – the idea that “I am because we are.” A community living in such a way that their actions are guided by Ubuntu is a community that RESISTS the idea that each individual should be the best individual possible in hopes of having the best society possible. In Ubuntu thought, in the place of the individual, the community takes priority, and the whole is always considered before the individual.

I wonder if this call from Acts might, in some way, be the best attempt that the disciples could imagine of the year of Jubilee. As you remember, the year of Jubilee was to occur every fifty years. It was to be a year when all debts were cancelled, all slaves set free, all lands returned to their ancestral owners that they might be redistributed. The year of Jubilee also featured prominently in the scriptures to which Jesus made reference immediately upon his return from journeying for 40 days in the wilderness.

These wonderings of mine seem to me to be outlandish fiction, the sort that I might find on Audible and to which I might listen as I drive between my house and the church. These wonderings seem the sort that I might be able to believe were possible if I could find a good modern large-scale example, for there is no way that I can believe that they are possible unless I can see them with my own eyes and experience them in person.

Now, I sound like I am doubting. Perhaps I should join Thomas and get my filter examined.

When Jesus comes to visit the disciples the second time, he doesn’t chastise them, or talk down to them. He invites them to see that it is ok to dream that which has not yet been seen. Further, he says that those who have not yet seen and still have believed are blessed.

So, Northminster, let’s dream dreams of the Kingdom of God that have not yet been seen. Let’s imagine the world that we pray for each week – a world where the will of God reigns on earth as though it were heaven. Let’s not lock ourselves inside this building with our fears – for the savior we follow has defeated death. We are in the season that celebrates the most unimaginable truth of all – that death is not the end. We are a people of incurable hope because of Easter.

As we continue this Eastertide celebration for another six weeks, let’s dream. Let’s not be discouraged by a group of people with ideas that are different from ours. Let’s not stand around on street corners just talking. Let’s do something! And let’s do it together – remembering that when any member of our community suffers, we each suffer as a result.

Let’s dream jubilee sized dreams! Let’s dream resurrection sized dreams! And then, Northminster, let’s live like death has been defeated.

For Jesus has been raised from the grave!

Amen.

God Raised Jesus

Acts 10:34-43, Easter Sunday

Chuck Poole · April 4th, 2021 · Duration 12:03

“Jesus was put to death, but God raised Jesus from the grave.” With those words, today’s lesson from the book of Acts may come as close as any words ever can to capturing the mystery and meaning of Easter: “Jesus was put to death, but God raised Jesus from the grave.”

And, ever since Jesus’ first followers discovered that sunrise surprise on the original resurrection morning, the rest of us have been living on the leftovers, all the way to this very day, when countless twenty-first century Christians, all around the world, have added our own “Christ is risen, indeed!” to the daybreak whispers of a handful of first-century Jews who came, as soon as the Sabbath would allow, to better embalm the hastily buried body of their dear Jesus, only to be met, in today’s gospel lesson, by a stone-rolling Easter angel arrayed in sunrise seersucker saying, “Jesus is not here. Jesus has been raised.”

News which today’s gospel lesson says that Jesus’ first friends at first told no one, but which the other gospels say they did whisper to a few; their quiet first word, “Jesus has been raised,” like the first bird heard at every sunrise, every day.

Every morning, at sunrise, there is a first bird heard, soon joined by so many more than that the solitary first bird can no longer be heard; the first bird heard joined by countless others coming later; not unlike those first, early, all Jewish whispers, “Jesus has been raised,” which eventually became this morning’s, “Christ is risen, indeed!” on the lips of countless Christians.

All of which today’s lesson from the book of Acts captures in that single, simple sentence, “Jesus was put to death, but God raised Jesus;” the resurrection of Jesus, by God, becoming, for us, the ultimate sign of the ultimate hope that this is God’s world, and in God’s world, God has the last word.

And, if the last word said is going to God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good. And finally, eternally, eventually; somewhere, somehow, some way, someday, all will be well, and all will be welcome, at that wonderful feast which today’s lesson from Isaiah describes as happening on a mountain; a mountain where, according to the one who wrote this part of Isaiah, God will destroy death forever, wipe every tear from every face, and set a place at the table of grace for all. All these years, while we’ve been busy making a guest list for some, God has been busy setting a table for all, where, according to today’s lectionary lesson from Isaiah, all will be welcome, and, somehow, somewhere, some way, someday, up on Easter Mountain, all will be well.

I cannot speak for you, but, in my experience, to live in that great hope does not spare us from the hardest and worst which life can bring, but it does help us through the hardest and worst which life can bring.

There is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life. And, while none of us will go though all of them, all of us will go through some of them; sorrow and struggle, hurt and harm, disease and death, all having a word with us. But, not the last word, because this is God’s world, and in God’s world, God gets the last word.

And, if the last word said is going to be God’s, then the last thing done is going to be good; the ultimate sign of which is what happened on that long ago resurrection morning, just when it seemed that so much was so over that too much was too over for life ever to be good or happy again. Just when hope seemed most gone and joy most unthinkable; just when life had done the worst that life could do, God did the best that God could do. God raised Jesus.

And, ever since, even in our hardest struggles and worst sorrows, we have been living on the leftovers of that long ago resurrection morning; going through what we did not get to go around, with a hope so incurable and relentless that, even at the grave, we make our song “Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.”

Because God raised Jesus from the grave; and, we believe, as one wise soul once said, that the God who raised Jesus from the grave will do as well in the future as God has done in the past.

Amen.

In Accordance With a Single Certainty

Isaiah 50:4-9, Palm/Passion Sunday

Chuck Poole · March 28th, 2021 · Duration 20:39

As you may have noticed, while most of the lectionary lessons come around only once every three years, this morning’s lesson from the book of Isaiah appears on the Palm Sunday lectionary list every year, year after year, perhaps because parts of it sound so much like what happens to Jesus every year at the other end of Holy Week: “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard. I did not hide my face from insult and spitting,” Holy Week echoes from Isaiah, followed, shortly, by those odd sounding words, near the end of today’s Isaiah passage, “My face is set like flint.”

“My face is set like flint” is Bible shorthand for a centered, grounded, clear, courageous, undistracted, all-in, no turning back life, the kind of life which Mary Oliver captured so well when she spoke of those who live their lives “in accordance with a single certainty,” their faces set like flint.

An image from today’s Isaiah passage which, when read through the lens of our Christian eyes, sounds a lot like the Jesus of Palm Sunday and Holy Week; Jesus’ face, set like flint to enter Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, go to Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday and bear the cross on Good Friday; so much so that, later this week, as people are weeping while watching him carry the cross, the gospel of Luke will say to us that Jesus will say to them, “Don’t weep for me. This is what I came here to do.” The face of Jesus, set like flint.

Pondering all of that this week took me back to that moment in Memphis when, fifty-three years ago this week, on April 3, 1968, the night before Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Dr. King closed his final sermon by saying, “Like anyone, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. So, I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything, and I’m not fearing any man.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s face, set like flint.

To say that someone’s face is “set like flint” is not to say that they are set in their own ways. To the contrary, in today’s lesson from Isaiah, those who are said to have their face set like flint are also said to have their ears open, morning by morning, day by day, to listen for the voice of God. The same is so for us. To live with our face set like flint is not to be set in our ways, it is to walk in God’s ways; to live with our ears and eyes ever open, our face always set like flint to go wherever new light leads, measuring any new light we think we see by the single certainty Jesus gave us when Jesus told us that the one thing which matters most is that we love God with all that is in us, and that we love all others as we want all others to love us; love for God as inseparable from love for others as the vertical beam of a cross is inseparable from the horizontal beam of a cross.

With that as the single certainty by which we live, we set our faces like flint, to practice letting the love which has come down to us from God go out through us to others until it becomes the muscle memory of our soul; what Eugene Peterson called “a long obedience in the same direction,” the single certainty by which we live the one Jesus gave us when Jesus told us that everything else, all scripture, all traditions, all questions and issues, all matters great and small, are to be measured against one single central standard: “Love God with all that is in you, and love all others as you wish all others to love you.”

While my life is as fractured and flawed as any, when it comes to this one thing, I can say to you, “Do as I do.” I decided, years ago, to let what Jesus said matters most, matter most; and you should do the same. You should decide to let loving God with all that is in you, and loving all others as you wish to be loved, become the central standard of your life.

And, then, get up every morning and set your face like flint to live that way; your face as set like flint to live a cross-formed life, up to God and out for others, as Jesus’ face was set like flint to die a cross-formed death, up to God and out for others.
Amen.

Heart Writing

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

Chuck Poole · March 21st, 2021 · Duration 16:18

“The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with my people. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors, says the Lord. This time, I will write it on their hearts.”

Every three years, the lectionary asks the church to read those words from the book of Jeremiah. And, every time they roll back around, we know, instinctively, that we are in the presence of one of the Bible’s great tipping points; the moment when God is reported to have said, to Jeremiah, “The days are surely coming when I am going to make a new covenant with my people. But, this time, I am going to write it on their hearts.”

Days which, by that time, were not only surely coming, but, also, already arriving. By the time Jeremiah told the people of God that God was going to write a new covenant on their hearts, the heart writing Jeremiah was promising was already happening.

For example, back in the book of Deuteronomy, both eunuchs and foreign-born persons were excluded from the covenant of God with the people of God, but in Isaiah chapter fifty-six, Isaiah says, “Of course immigrants and eunuchs are welcome in the family of God.” In fact, in Jeremiah chapter thirty-eight, it is a foreign-born eunuch who is the hero; an Ethiopian eunuch named Ebedmelech, rescuing Jeremiah from a pit into which Jeremiah had been thrown to die. And, in that same part of the Hebrew scripture which says “No” to the eunuchs to whom Isaiah and Jeremiah say “Yes,” Moabites are also specifically, and permanently, excluded from ever being a part of the family of God, but the book of Ruth not only makes a Moabite the hero of the story, it weaves her into the family tree of David, making a previously permanently excluded Moabite the grandmother of Israel’s greatest king.

Something is happening; not between Judaism and Christianity, Old Testament and New, but even as Jeremiah speaks. Even as Jeremiah is dreaming of a day when God will rewrite God’s law on human hearts, God is already doing it; the children of God, following their hearts past the place where the letter of the law once would have dropped them off.

A new law of love which begins in the Old Testament, and continues in the New, where Joseph has a dream in his sleep which becomes a feeling in his heart that, all indications to the contrary, Joseph should marry Mary, despite his assumption, at the time, that to marry Mary would take them past the place where the written law would have told them to stop.

Then, of course, there is that moment in the gospel of John when Jesus follows his heart past the place where his Bible would have dropped him off, in the face of a crowd with rocks at the ready to stone a person found in adultery; that moment at which John chapter eight reports that when the crowd reminded Jesus that it was written in scripture that the person should die, Jesus bent down, not once, but twice, to write, and then rewrite, something in the sand.

John does not let us see what Jesus writes in the sand. Which means, of course, that, since no one knows what Jesus wrote, then rewrote, we all get to wonder. I wonder if Jesus may have been writing in the sand a new law of love that will, from time to time, like all words written in sand, need to be rewritten; the lines we draw in the sand, needing to be redrawn from time to time, to meet the growing demands of a living law of love written, by the finger of God, not on paper pages, but on pounding hearts, something to which Jeremiah points in today’s scripture lesson, and to which Jesus points when Jesus says, in Matthew 22:34-40, that the central standard by which all the law is to be measured is the commandment to love God with all that is in us, and to love all others as we love ourselves; not unlike Paul’s declaration in Romans chapter thirteen that all the laws and commandments can be summed up in one, “Love others as you love yourself;” New Testament echoes of Jeremiah’s First Testament promise, “The day is coming when God will lay down a new law for the people of God. And, this time, God is going to write it on human hearts.”

The church has a name for that kind of heart writing. We call it the Holy Spirit. When we open our lives to the Spirit of God, what God wants for us and from us moves, more and more, into our hearts until, eventually, we become so completely born again and so deeply filled with the Spirit of God that we no longer need any external law or rule, chapter or verse, incentive or motivation, reward or punishment. All we need is what we have; the law of love, written on our hearts.

In fact, if we live prayerfully enough for long enough, intentionally open to the Holy Spirit, we can actually reach a place in our lives at which if, for some tragic reason, someone were to come around and take up all the Bibles, while that would be to us an enormous loss, it would not change the way we live or what we do, or how we treat others, because the Holy Spirit has already written what matters most all over the walls of our hearts; the walls of our hearts covered in the graffiti of God; the law of love, just as Jeremiah promised, written on our hearts.

Amen.

One Year Later

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22, The Fourth Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · March 14th, 2021 · Duration 13:11

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Lenten Sermon by Lesley Ratcliff

Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22, The Third Sunday in Lent

Lesley Ratcliff · March 7th, 2021 · Duration 16:23

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Letting Jesus Be Jesus

Mark 8:31-38, The Second Sunday in Lent

Chuck Poole · February 28th, 2021 · Duration 11:26

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read this morning’s gospel lesson, it takes me back to a conversation I had half a lifetime ago.

I was in my early thirties, sitting in the office, at Mercer University, of my dear friend Kirby Godsey. I had recently read all four gospels, all the way through, in a single week; feeling, for the first time, the full weight of that experience. Struck by the distance and difference between the Jesus of the four gospels and the institutional concerns of the church, I said to Kirby, “I cannot reconcile the institutional ambitions, obligations and anxieties of the church with the Jesus of the gospels,” to which Dr. Godsey replied, “Chuck, I’m glad you have that tension inside you, between Jesus and the church. But, I’m afraid that someday it might just tear you in two.”

And it has, and does, and probably always will; this tension between the Jesus of the gospels and the Christ of Christianity; a tension never more clear than in this morning’s gospel lesson, where, unlike the more manageable, reasonable, Christ of Christianity, Jesus speaks of rejection and suffering, self-denial and a cross, first for himself, in Jerusalem, and then, for us, in Jackson; a Jesus so severe that Peter actually takes Jesus aside and rebukes Jesus.

And, while, unlike Peter, we would never rebuke Jesus, we have, across the subsequent twenty centuries, remade Jesus; the church, remaking the Jesus of the gospels, who never indicated that he planned to start a new world religion, into the Christ of Christianity; a composite of what twenty-first century evangelicalism likes about what nineteenth-century revivalism kept about what Martin Luther and John Calvin said about what Anselm wrote about what Augustine thought about what Paul taught about Jesus; a powerful, successful Christ who is beautiful and wonderful in so many ways, a Christ of Christianity twenty centuries in the making, the Christ of a Christian religion which does more good in the world than can ever be properly named and praised.

But, a Christ who is different from the Jesus of the gospels; not just bigger than, but different from, the Jesus who seeks, not to draw a crowd and build a powerful, impressive religion, but who calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus; the cross, once a place for Jesus to die, now, a way for us to live; a cross-formed, stretched out life of vulnerable love, our lives as cross-formed as Jesus’ death was cross-shaped.

That is the call of the Jesus of the gospels; a clear call to a life stretched up to God and out to others in vulnerable love; the clear call of the real Jesus, the Jesus of the gospels.

It is the church’s job to help us remember that behind, before and beyond the manageable, measurable, powerful, wonderful, composite Christ of Christianity, there is the real Jesus. It is the church’s job to help little Wills Byrd, and all of us, to grow up with a clear, unmuddled-up theology which knows that before there was the Christ of Christianity there was the Jesus of the gospels, who called us, not to be impressive, successful, safe or secure, but to live a life of cross-formed, stretched-out vulnerable love.

Amen.

Every Lent

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

Chuck Poole · February 21st, 2021 · Duration 21:32

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning the Final Thin Place

II Kings 2:1-12, Transfiguration of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · February 14th, 2021 · Duration 14:51

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

New Strength for Each New Day

Isaiah 40:21-31, The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany

Chuck Poole · February 7th, 2021 · Duration 11:52

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Youth Sermon

Youth Sunday, The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

Youth - Rosemary Hicks & Katie White · January 31st, 2021 · Duration 8:14

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Concerning Repentance

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

Chuck Poole · January 24th, 2021 · Duration 16:55

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

A Sermon on Psalm 139

Psalm 139, The Second Sunday After Epiphany

Chuck Poole · January 17th, 2021 · Duration 10:44

As we all know, we are living through different, and difficult, days; an uncertain season in our life together, into which the lectionary has placed, today, the beautiful, gentle gift of the one hundred and thirty-ninth psalm.

As is true of all the psalms, before Psalm 139 became a chapter in the Bible, it had an earlier career as a Hebrew hymn. On loan to Christianity from Judaism, borrowed by Northminster from Beth Israel, all the psalms in the Bible started out as tunes in the temple; poetry, which is why none of the psalms are to be taken literally. But, sacred poetry, which is why all of the psalms are to be taken seriously.

Taken seriously, today’s psalm says that God is intimately, actively, constantly with us. “You know when I sit and when I stand,” says the psalmist. “You read my mind from far away.” “You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” “You have a book where the number of my days has already been determined.” Image upon image, none of which should be taken literally, but, all of which, taken seriously, points to how intimately the God who created the universe thirteen billion years ago is with us in the smallest moments of daily life.

Including one which never fails to stop me; that image in verse four where the psalmist says that God not only knows our thoughts before we think them and our steps before we take them, but God also knows our words before we say them; the literalist in me wishing that, if God knows what we are about to say before we say it, God would take a more active role in helping us to be more mindful and thoughtful with our words; maybe even stepping in and stopping us before we say, send, text or post some of what we say, send, text, and post.

As Nicholas Lash says, “The first casualty of sin is careful speech.” It’s true. You know how it goes. We start out trying to impress people with our cleverness or our toughness, so we begin by being snarky and sarcastic. And, maybe it stops there. Or, maybe it moves from that to being mean and bullying. And, maybe it stops there. Or maybe it doesn’t.

And, of course, careful speech applies not only to what we should not say, but do, but, also, to what we should say, but don’t. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “The day we fall silent about things that matter is the day our life begins to end;” a hard truth with which to sit.

As one wise soul once said, “Words shape worlds.” It is true; one example of which is the extent to which what we believe about everything from the pandemic to the violent assault on our nation’s capitol is shaped by how many hours a week we spend watching OAN or CNN, MSNBC or FOX; a sad but true commentary on how powerfully words shape worlds; the words we should not say, but do, and the words we should say, but don’t.

Words matter. Which is why, when it comes to that verse in Psalm 139 where the psalmist says that God knows what we are about to say before we say it, I used to wish that God would step in and stop us from using words in such hurtful and harmful ways.

But, then, it occurred to me that God does. God does step in and stop us. All we have to do is give God an opening. Before we speak, send, post or text, we just have to say, “God, not to be a literalist, but, according to Psalm 139, you know our words before we speak. So, is what I am about to say or send something with which you are going to be pleased once it has been said or sent?

And, then, all we have to do is wait; wait to speak, until we have some sense of clarity concerning what the God who created the universe thirteen billion years ago thinks about what we are thinking about saying.

Amen.

Concerning the Work of the Deacons

Acts 19:1-7, Baptism of the Lord Sunday

Chuck Poole · January 10th, 2021 · Duration 21:14

Here at Northminster, Deacon Installation and Ordination Day comes, each year, on Baptism of the Lord Sunday; a convergence of two of the great gestures of the church; baptism with water, and ordination by the laying on of hands.

Because of our current public health circumstances, the laying on of hands will, of necessity, be postponed. But, though we must fast, for now, from that beautiful, powerful, physical gesture, we are, today, setting aside these six souls, Smith Boykin, Thomas Elfert, Skipper Jernigan, Susan O’Mara, Ginger Parham and Jennifer Stribling, for service to the church as Deacons; Smith and Thomas having previously been ordained, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer installed, today, as a down-payment on the day when they will kneel before the congregation at the altar of the church to receive the sacred sign of ordination by the laying on of hands.

Smith, Thomas, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer are embarking on their deaconship at a moment of great challenge for the church, our nation and the world; people of every perspective, opinion and party angered and saddened by Wednesday’s violent assault on our nation’s capitol, which left many injured and five dead.

To speak of that day in that place on this day in this place is not to be political in church, it is to be moral in church.

What happened on Wednesday was a tragic moral moment for our nation, and, also, a personal moment for us. People we know and love, with whom we worship God, were there; one, serving on the floor of the Senate, another, working in a building a stone's throw away. We give thanks for the brave law enforcement persons who helped protect all who might otherwise have been harmed; remembering, especially, the officer who lost his life in the service of our nation, on a day when we reaped the tragic harvest of a now decades long season, called by many, “the culture wars,” a long, sad season in our national life in which we have not only normalized, but incentivized, the kind of reckless speech which demonizes and dehumanizes those who hold a different view of things than we hold; decades of sowing to the wind, and reaping, now, the whirlwind.

Over against which, I would like to place a small, simple story, one which I have long said I was going to save for my last sermon at Northminster, but which, though it is small and simple, seems important to say today. It is my favorite Northminster story, but it begins before we even arrived here, in the summer of 1997, between the time you all voted to call us, in May, and the time we moved here, two months later.

I was at my desk at the church in Washington, one day in June, when the phone rang and the voice on the other end said, “This is Rubel Phillips. My wife, Margaret, and I are going to be in Washington next week, and we would like to meet you. We’re members of Northminster, and are looking forward to your coming to join us.” At the appointed day and time we met, at Rubel’s suggestion, at the Army Navy Club, not far from the White House, for a delightful lunch, during which Rubel said, “I guess you have gotten to know George Purvis,” to which I replied that I had, indeed, come to know Dr. Purvis through his work on Northminster’s Pastor Search Committee, to which Rubel replied, “I’m the most conservative member you have, and George is the most liberal. We cancel each other’s vote, no matter the subject. In fact,” Rubel concluded, “George’s only hope at the pearly gates is that I go first and put in a good word for him.” To which Margaret replied, “Rubel, dear, I doubt George Purvis is going to need any help from anybody getting into heaven, least of all you.”

Once we arrived here, I learned that Rubel’s characterization of the differences between his view of things and George’s was only slightly exaggerated. But, more importantly, I learned how deeply and truly those two, so different from one another, loved and respected one another. George and Rubel died, appropriately, within two weeks of one another, in the summer of 2011, not long before which, I sat by Rubel’s bed, holding his hand, and said, “Rubel, George Purvis is not well.” Upon which, Rubel turned his face to the window, gazed into the sky and said, through a great and glistening tear, “George Purvis. Finest man I ever knew.”

I call that story, “The Spirit of Rubel and George.” That’s the kind of church you want to belong to. And, that’s the kind of America you want to live in; one that says “No” to the careless speech which demonizes and dehumanizes those with whom we disagree, and “Yes” to kindness and gentleness, truth and love.

Smith, Thomas, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer, that’s where you come in. When you were baptized at St. Andrew’s Cathedral, First Baptist in Greenwood, First Baptist in Jackson, Central Presbyterian Church, St. Richard’s Catholic Church and Maranatha Bible Church in New Orleans, whether by sprinkling at a font or plunging in a pool, the church claimed you for a life of kindness and integrity, gentleness and generosity, truth and love. As you begin, today, your term of service as deacons, we will look to you to help us all to live up to our own baptism, the way you already have been living up to yours.

Smith, Thomas, Skipper, Susan, Ginger and Jennifer, the world may never have needed a good deacon more than now. What a great time to be a serious, thoughtful, prayerful, truthful, gentle servant of the Church of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Concerning the Meaning of the Incarnation

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

Chuck Poole · January 3rd, 2021 · Duration 13:50

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”

With those words, this morning’s gospel lesson takes up the great mystery of the incarnation; the God no one has ever seen, embodied in the life of Jesus; the God who created the universe, roughly thirteen billion years ago, fleshed out, for about thirty years, in a single, local, physical, human life; the life of Jesus.

Across the Christian centuries, what that might mean has been one of Christianity's most important questions, spawning church councils and official creeds in the fourth and fifth centuries, and inspiring one particularly important, and influential, book in the eleventh century, by a theologian named Anselm of Canterbury, who, in a book called Cur Deus Homo? (Why Did God Become Human?) gave the church an understanding of the incarnation which has shaped the church from then to now.

Anselm’s basic idea went something like this: Jesus was born to be the sacrifice God gave to God’s self to satisfy God’s requirement for a perfect human sacrifice, so that God would then be free to forgive sinful humans without compromising God’s holiness; a way of explaining the incarnation which, a thousand years ago, took root in the church, and, a thousand years later, continues to dominate popular Christianity; a way of explaining the incarnation which is often summed up in the simple saying, “Jesus was born to die.”

All of which may be true. There is, after all, some Bible to support Anselm’s explanation of the incarnation, and it is believed, by many dear and devout souls, to be the truth concerning the coming of Christ we celebrate during this sacred season of Christmastide.

But, for other Christians, myself among them, it is a way of thinking about the incarnation which raises more questions than it answers. Indeed, while I cannot speak for you, as for me, I wonder if it might be more true to the Spirit of God to say that the incarnation is primarily about, not a problem, our alienation from God, and how to fix it, a human sacrifice to God, but about a life and how to live it, and about a love, and how to give it; Jesus, embodying the grace and truth of God in a way which gave us our best look at who God is, how God acts and what God wants for us and from us. God, coming into the world in Jesus, not because God’s hands were tied by a sacrificial system of God’s own creation which kept God from forgiving and welcoming sinners until God could give God’s self the sacrifice God required, but, perhaps, because God is relentlessly determined to be with us, in the best and worst of life; no mess so big, sin so bad, or humiliation so embarrassing that God won’t join us in the absolute hardest and worst of it; signs of which are that Jesus, the ultimate incarnation of God, was born poor and vulnerable in a barn, and that Jesus, the ultimate incarnation of God, died naked and humiliated on a cross.

And, between Jesus’ birth in a barn and Jesus’ death on a cross, Jesus could always be found keeping company with those who were on the hard margins and despised edges of life, which, since Jesus was the ultimate incarnation of God, must be a sign of the boundless embrace and expansive empathy of God. Jesus, sitting down with and standing up for the outsiders often enough that it made the insiders fearful enough that they decided to silence Jesus; which, according to the four gospels, is what got Jesus killed. The body of our Lord broken for us all, the blood of our Lord poured out for us all; Jesus, dying as he lived; arms out as wide as the world.

But, though the incarnation of God was killed, the incarnation of God did not stay dead, because that one life was the one life that cannot, and, ultimately, will not, be defeated, not even by death.

Which is why I believe that the most true thing we can say about the incarnation of God in Jesus, is that Jesus was born to live; with us, in us, for us, and through us; the embodiment of God’s goodness and love, born again, in Bethlehem, every Christmas; and, in us, every day.
Amen.

Concerning 2020

Luke 2:22-40, The First Sunday of Christmastide

Chuck Poole · December 27th, 2020 · Duration 14:20

Today brings us to the first Sunday in the sacred season of Christmastide, and the last Sunday in the long year of 2020; a momentous year, in many ways, some of which it might be important for us to ponder, before turning the page, this week, to next year. 

Several days ago I looked back to the January 1, 2020 entry in my daily prayer journal, and saw where I had written, on the morning of New Year’s Day, 2020, these words: “Who can know what this now new year might bring of joy or sorrow, gladness or pain?”  By February, I was writing, in that same prayer journal, of the rising waters of the Pearl River, and the widespread flooding to which our congregation, along with many others, was seeking to respond with help and hope, comfort and relief.

Then, on March 13, there appears, in that same prayer journal, the first mention of a strange new virus which was bringing much of life to a crawl; a subject which, needless to say, would show up many more times across the coming months, joined in May and June by numerous prayer journal entries concerning a national season of   reckoning around racial justice; for many, myself among them, a surgical season of introspection and repentance, embodied, for us, in the eventual lowering of the 1894 Mississippi state flag. 

All of which is to say that 2020 was quite a year; a year which was, in some ways, unlike any year any of us have ever known.

But which, in other ways, was just like every year all of us have always known.  There is, after all, even in the absence of normalcy, a certain constancy about life; the natural constancy we see in today’s psalm, where the psalmist speaks of the boundaries God has established for the seasons and for the sea; and the spiritual constancy we feel in  today’s gospel lesson when it speaks of Anna, “living in the temple”; worshiping God in the same place, in the same way, week after week, year after year, across a lifetime.

Constancy which is constant, even when normalcy is not normal.  In March of 2020, much of what we generally consider to be “normal life” was changed by the novel coronavirus; normalcy altered in the second week of the sacred season of Lent.  But, though we had to do many things differently, and even fast, for a time, as we continue to, from some of the most beloved gestures of the church, still the Lenten journey took us, as always, to Holy Week, and, right on time, to the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday morning.  After which, we kept the sacred season of Eastertide, just as we always do, for seven weeks, until, just as always, the paraments blushed Beth Israel red on Pentecost Sunday, before turning Northminster green for the summer and fall, until we set our feet, one more time, to the church’s other purple path to depth, Advent, and, once again, just as always, we lit the candle of Hope one week, joined by the light of Peace the next, then Joy and, finally, Love; wick by wick, week by week, until, sometime late Thursday night, Jesus was born again, the coming of Christ opening another twelve day season of Christmastide, of which today is day three, and Sunday One; the unaltered constancy of the sacred seasons, with no regard for the absence of normalcy from March to now, 2020.

Constancy; impervious to the presence or absence of normalcy, not only in the rhythms of the sacred seasons, but, also, in the disciplines of the spiritual life.

My daily prayer journals are, by no means, the measure of such matters, but, as a simple sample and small example, throughout the decidedly not normal year 2020, I wrote, just as I did in 2019, 2018, 2017, and on and on, year upon year, almost every day, at the start of each day, the same simple prayer to get on, and stay on, the path to depth; to live each day in a Quaker-quiet way, mindful, thoughtful, prayerful and kind; practicing the discipline and restraint of careful speech; “soft and serious,” to borrow a phrase from Marilynne Robinson, “gentle and plain,” as the Quakers say; as many words as necessary, as few as possible; a life as kind as it is clear, but, also, as clear as it is kind; failing at it, each day, of course, usually before noon, always by dark, but making the yearning for it the muscle memory of my soul by longing for it out loud, in ink, on paper, everyday, no matter what; a simple sample, and small example, of the kind of constancy which is unaffected by the absence or presence of normalcy.

 A constancy captured nowhere better than in that memorable prayer of Mary Oliver’s, “Another day, and I wake, with thirst, for the goodness I do not have”; in  normal times and pandemical times, in 2020, and, soon, in 2021, no matter how normal, or not, the year may be, each day, just another day to rise and pray to live in a way that is kind and gentle, thoughtful and mindful, courageous, uncluttered and clear, no matter what else may or may not be happening in the world around us; constancy constant, even when normalcy is not.

                                                                                                                        Amen.

 

Do Not Be Afraid

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

Chuck Poole · December 20th, 2020 · Duration 12:31

And the angel said to Mary, “Do not be afraid.” I cannot speak for you, but every time the lectionary asks the church to read that verse from today’s gospel lesson, it never fails to make me think about how often those words, “Do not be afraid,” appear on the pages of scripture, beginning all the way back in the book of Genesis, where God says to Abraham, in Genesis chapter fifteen, what Gabriel says to Mary in this morning’s gospel lesson, “Do not be afraid.” Then, not long after, in Genesis 21:17, an angel says to broken-hearted Hagar, concerning her ostracized and stigmatized child, “Do not be afraid, for God will make a great nation from Ishmael.” Later, when Joshua takes over from Moses, God says to Joshua, “Do not be afraid,” and when Gideon cannot believe that God is calling him to lead the people of God to freedom, an angel says to Gideon, “Do not be afraid.”

And that’s only a few of the “Do not be afraids” in the Bible. We don’t have enough bandwidth on the livestream to mention all the other “Do not be afraids.” In Isaiah 41:10, for example, the voice of God says to the people of God, “Do not be afraid,” in Jeremiah 1:8, God says to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid,” and in Ezekiel 2:6, God says the same to Ezekiel, “Do not be afraid.” Crossing over from the First Testament to the Second, when Zechariah learns, in Luke chapter one, that Elizabeth is expecting the baby who will be John the Baptist, an angel says to Zechariah, “Do not be afraid,” and when Joseph learns that Mary is expecting the baby who will be Jesus, an angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid.” And, of course, when Mary is asked, in today’s gospel lesson, to open her life in a unique way to the wonder and risk of the fullness of the Holy Spirit, Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid.” Not to mention this Thursday evening, when a night-shift angel will say to the third-shift shepherds what that same angel says to those same shepherds every Christmas Eve, “Do not be afraid.”

An invitation to not be afraid which is, perhaps, easier for some to hear than for others. After all, for some of us, fear and anxiety of one kind or another are our nearly constant companions. I liken living with fear and anxiety to getting up every morning, getting in a car, and driving down the interstate, sixty miles an hour, with the emergency brake on, all day, every day. If I sound as though I know whereof I speak, I do. In fact, if that tiny almond-shaped brain gland called the amygdala is, as they say, where our fears are stored, then I imagine that my amygdala looks more like a coconut than an almond.

The same is so for many; countless lives weighed down with self-doubt and fear; not to mention all the “worst case scenario” thinking which shadows the steps of so many. Concerning which the angels say, “Do not be afraid”; the messengers of God, saying, over and over again, to the people of God, “Do not be afraid.”

Which is not to suggest that, in this life, there is nothing to worry about or fear. To the contrary, there is a long list of ways things can go wrong in this life. None of us will go through all of them, but all of us will go through some of them, and no one can say, with certainty, what any of us might someday have to face or bear, adjust to or accept. But, with the Spirit of God and the people of God, we will have the strength we need as we need it.

So, do not be afraid. Speaking on behalf of the real angels, which most of us have never seen, let all of us ground-bound, walk-on angels without wings keep saying to ourselves, and to one another, “Do not be afraid. God is with us and for us. We are all the loved and cherished children of God; every soul in the whole human family, of every human difference and distance, loved the same by the love of God, loved and cherished as we are.”

Even in a world where there is plenty to worry about, and to fear, “Do not be afraid,” say all the angels all the time; those with wings, which we cannot see, and, more importantly, those without wings, who we can see.

After all, not many of us have ever seen or heard an angel, but, for all of us, as one wise soul once said, “Courage is just another name for friends.” So, let us all say, to one another, what all the angels always say to all of us, “Do not be afraid.”
Amen.

Gathered and Carried

Isaiah 40:1-11, The Second Sunday of Advent

Chuck Poole · December 6th, 2020 · Duration 7:58

We often hear it said that, when we read any of the New Testament epistles, we are “reading someone else’s mail”; letters which, while they have a message for us, were not written to us or about us.

The same is so when we read this morning’s lesson from Isaiah; a beautiful word of comfort, written originally to, and about, the people of God in exile in Babylon; their lives disrupted by forces beyond their control; exiles to whom the writer of this part of Isaiah said, “Prepare the way of the Lord. The Lord our God is coming, to gather you up and carry you home.”; a promise which may not have been written to us, or about us, but which certainly holds a wonderful word of comfort for us.

After all, this Second Sunday of Advent finds us in something of an exile of our own; a season of life when we are all living in exile from so much of what we hold so dear; an uncertain season in all our lives, for which we have the promise that God is with us and for us, to hold us and help us, to “gather us and carry us” as the writer of Isaiah said to those long ago exiles; the arms of Isaiah’s God, and ours, long enough to gather us all in the same embrace, even when we cannot gather in the same physical space, and strong enough to carry us through times so hard that if someone had told us ahead of time we were going to have to go through them, we would have sworn we could never make it.

But, we do. We do go through, not just one difficult season in exile, but every season in exile which comes to us across a lifetime; gathered and carried by the strong and tender arms of God, and by the courage and comfort we find in the people of God; they, gathering and carrying us, and we, gathering and carrying them; all of us, who are always being gathered and carried by God, gathering and carrying one another.

All of which calls to mind, for me, that familiar verse of Mary Oliver’s, in which she says, “That time I thought I could not go any closer to grief without dying, I did go closer, but I did not die. Surely God had a hand in this, as well as friends.” After which, the rest of that powerful poem says, “It’s not the weight you carry, but how you carry it, when you cannot, and would not, put it down.”

There is so much of that in so many of us; the weight we cannot, and would not, put down. Earlier this week, as I prayed my way through our church roll, A to Z, Ackleh-Tingle to Zeigler, I thought of the little I know of the weight we all cannot, and would not, put down; the weight of life which we cannot, and do not, carry alone, but with the help of friends and God, God and friends; unable to know, at times, where one ends and the other begins; only that we are all always both carrying and being carried.

Praise God.

Amen.

It's a Great Year for Advent

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

Chuck Poole · November 29th, 2020 · Duration 9:42

I read somewhere, many years ago, that on an Easter Sunday in the midst of the worst of World War II, Harry Emerson Fosdick preached a sermon called “It’s A Great Year for Easter,” Easter’s word of hope never more welcome than in that global season of sorrow and pain.

What Dr. Fosdick said concerning Easter, then, we might say about Advent, now; it’s a great year for Advent. Rarely have we needed the quiet light of Advent hope more than we need it now, in a year when we have never needed to be together more, and have never gotten to be together less. In a year when we need, more than ever, to sit together and eat together as a family of faith, to gather for book studies and Bible studies, play dates and prayer groups, weddings and funerals, dinners and parties; in a year when we need, more than ever, to see one another’s full faces and to feel one another’s kind touch, we have had to restrain and refrain, postpone and cancel, distance and mask.

Add to all of those pandemical changes, which have come to the entire world, the particular losses and sorrows which have come to so many of us in so many ways in 2020, and this year becomes an especially great year for Advent; many of us never needing the quiet light of Advent hope in any year more than we need it this year; the inextinguishable light of the incurable hope that the God who is with us and for us will hold us and help us, giving us the strength to go through what we did not get to go around.

Needless to say, this present pandemic will eventually come to an end, and we may never see another. But, we will see other sorrows and uncertainties, struggles and losses, disappointments and pain, not because it is God’s will or plan, but because we live in a world where beautiful and terrible things happen. And, if those beautiful and terrible things can happen to anyone, they can happen to everyone.

This is important: The difference between being a person of faith and not being a person of faith is not that being a person of faith gives us protection from the worst, but that being a person of faith gives us hope in the worst; not the optimistic hope that everything will work out for us because we believe, and not the narcissistic hope that, because we believe, we have an advantage, over others, with God; but the strong, quiet, incurable hope that the God who came once to be with us in Jesus, and who will someday come again, to gather, from the four winds, the whole human family home, is the God who is with us and for us, in the best and worst, easiest and hardest of life.

That is the hope which opens Advent every year, year after year, which makes every year a great year for Advent, but, especially, this year.

Amen.

Concerning Matthew 25:31-46

Matthew 25:31-46, Christ the King Sunday

Chuck Poole · November 22nd, 2020 · Duration 14:37

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

On Counting the Days

Psalm 90:1-12, The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 15th, 2020 · Duration 14:10

“The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble. They are soon gone, and we fly away… So teach us to count our days, that we may gain a wise heart.”

Every time the lectionary asks the church to read those words from today’s psalm, they help us to remember that there is a limit to our days, and that someday is going to be the last day.

I cannot speak for you, but, on my ears, that is not morbid news, or depressing. To the contrary, to be reminded that someday will be the last day is to hear the truth which awakens us, and urges us to long to live each day as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.

Whether the life we have is the life we planned, hoped, dreamed and imagined, or, as the psalmist said, a life of “Nothing but toil and trouble,” the only life we can have is the one life we do have. And the most, and best, we can do with that life is to live whatever is left of it as deeply, fully and faithfully as we can.

As one poet put it:
I was on my way to becoming
The one I was going to be.
But then something happened,
And so much changed,
That instead I became this me.

We all start out with an empty page,
Our horizons as wide as the sea.
But when what happens happens,
Life narrows down,
Until all we can be is this me.

When what happens happens,
The best we can be,
Is the most kind and gentle,
Truthful and tender,
Not who we dreamed we would be, me.

It’s true. The life we have may not be the life we wanted, but it is the life we have. And, as far as we know, we are not going to get another one. As far as we know, we are not going to get to come back around, do this over, and get it right next time. This is it. And, it is passing. We may get seventy years, says the psalmist. Or, if we are strong, eighty. But, either way, someday is going to be the last day.

So, “Teach us to count our days,” says the psalmist, “so that we might gain a wise heart;” wise enough to want to live each day as though someday will be the last day; seeing each day, even the most ordinary and routine, depleting and exhausting of them, as the never-to-be-repeated, soon-to-be-gone gift that it is.

I don’t know why, but, in my experience, there is nothing more transformative than that one thing. To sit with the truth that, as far as we know, this is the only life we are ever going to have, and it will someday come to an end, is, in my experience, to become, not death-obsessed, but, to the contrary, more fully alive, and more intentional about living each day as gently, generously and tenderly as we can.

Some of us will get to live until we have to die, while others of us will have to live until we get to die. Either way, all of us will someday be a memory at a Thanksgiving, a story at a Christmas, a spirit in a room, and a picture in a frame, because, for each of us, someday will be the last day. In the meantime, we may have our best chance at becoming a little more thoughtful, gentle, courageous, clear, big-spirited and kind when we begin to pray, each day, with the psalmist, for God to help us count the days.

Amen.


Concerning Justice and Righteousness

Amos 5:18-24, The Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · November 8th, 2020 · Duration 15:12


“Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.” Those words from the book of Amos belong to a long line of Bible verses in which the words “justice” and “righteousness” sit close and hold hands; including Genesis 18:19, which says that the way of the Lord is justice and righteousness; Psalm 33:5, which says that God loves justice and righteousness; Psalm 99:4, which says that God acts with justice and righteousness; Proverbs 21:3, which says that God cares more about justice and righteousness than sacrifices and offerings; and Jeremiah 22:3, which says that God calls us to live lives of justice and righteousness.

Those two words, justice and righteousness, which appear together so frequently in our English language Bibles, most often come from the same Hebrew root, a word which means “to make things right,” which can actually make it difficult to differentiate justice from righteousness. My best effort at distinguishing one from the other is, admittedly, sort of “cornbread and peas” in its simplicity, but it goes like this: Righteousness names the inside part of our life with God; and justice the outside part of our life with God. Righteousness, the inner life of truth and integrity; justice, the outer life of kindness and compassion. Righteousness, the True North moral compass of our soul; justice, the stretched out wingspan of our spirit. Righteousness, our deeper life with God; justice, our wider life with others; the public work of justice growing, most often, from the inner work of righteousness. As our longing to live a righteous life keeps drawing us closer to Jesus and deeper with God, that ever-deeper devotion to righteousness results in an ever-wider commitment to fairness and equality, hospitality and welcome, inclusion and justice for all persons.

I read, recently, a sentence from a sermon which said, “Jesus is social justice, and social justice is Jesus,” which sounds as though it might have come from a sermon in the summer or fall of 2020, but which, in fact, was spoken by the great theologian Karl Barth in a sermon he preached on December 17, 1911. And, while Barth’s summary may be a bit of an over-simplification, if you have read the four gospels, you know that it does land in the neighborhood of the truth. This week, I read, again, all four gospels; Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, and saw, again, the truth that the closer we get to the Jesus of the four gospels the more serious we become about justice for whoever is most marginalized, ostracized, stigmatized, demonized and dehumanized. When we truly have Jesus in our heart, standing up for the same people Jesus would stand up for by standing up against the same things Jesus would stand up against becomes one of those things we can’t not do.

As the great Methodist preacher Peter Storey says, When we ask Jesus to come into our heart, Jesus always answers, “Only if I can bring my friends.” And, if you have ever read the four gospels, you know that when Jesus brings Jesus’ friends into our hearts, Jesus brings the least and the last first; whoever is most outcast, vulnerable, shunned, slighted, lonely, left out, and alone all piling in with Jesus. Otherwise, Jesus won’t come, because, if the four gospels are a trustworthy record of the words and works of Jesus, Jesus is all about that public, visible, clear, courageous kind of righteousness the Bible calls justice.

That kind of life, the kind which begins in righteousness and ends in justice, is the kind of life I call “conservative in the mirror and liberal through the window.” When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we hold ourselves to the most rigorous demands of righteousness, and when we look at others through the window, we embrace the world in a welcome of justice which is as liberal as the boundless embrace of God.

Which is true of every great soul I have ever known. In fact, when we came to Northminster twenty-three years ago, I had to create that sentence, “Conservative in the mirror and liberal through the window” so I would have a way to describe all the great souls I found in this good church; all of you great souls who hold the self you see in the mirror to the most conservative demands of righteousness, while simultaneously holding the world you see through the window in the most liberal embrace of justice and grace.

Watch the greatest souls you know. They all have their flaws, limits, blindspots and failures, of course. But, the more conservative they become about Jesus and the Holy Spirit, the more liberal they become about issues of social justice and human equality; a life of expansive piety; piety, because it is a life grounded in righteousness; expansive, because it is a life stretched by justice.

What a way to live; walking prayerfully in the Holy Spirit until we go so deep with God and grow so close to Jesus that, in our ordinary, everyday lives, justice does roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream; our longing for righteousness taking us ever deeper into God and our passion for justice taking us ever wider into the world.

And, the great good news is that it isn’t too late for us to become that way. I actually know people who, beyond retirement age, have changed what will be in their obituary, and who will be at their funeral, because they decided to let the water of their baptism, whether a sprinkling at a font or a plunging in a pool, become an ever-flowing stream of righteousness and justice, justice and righteousness.

Amen.

The Great Commandment

Matthew 22:34-46, The Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Chuck Poole · October 25th, 2020 · Duration 19:01

Sorry, no text is available for this sermon.

Fields and Forests, Seas and Trees

Psalm 96, The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Concerning Gentleness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gentleness.

Amen.

Trapped

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

 

 

On Working Out Our Salvation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


The Journey Jonah Never Took

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

In Accordance With a Single Certainty

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

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

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What Do We Know?

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

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

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Concerning Transformation

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

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

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Northminster Stories

Psalm 133, The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

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

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Concerning Matthew's Boat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Concerning the Journey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.


Concerning the Love of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amen.

Concerning Jacob's Dream

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

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

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An Alternative Cosmos

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

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

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On Becoming Who We Want to Be

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

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

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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

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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 Bible�s 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 today�s 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 today�s passage makes a Moabite the great-grandmother of Israel�s 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 Bible�s 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, there�s 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 Bible�s 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.

It�s 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, God�s embrace is only as wide as the Jews; over there, the circle of God�s 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 Bible�s long, difficult, beautiful, spiritual journey, from did mind to don�t 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 don�t 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 Bible�s 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 Bible�s 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 Spirit�s 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 Bible�s 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 yesterday�s 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 it�s 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 wouldn�t?� Or that God would, but couldn�t?�� 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 yesterday�s 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 teacher�s 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 Job�s questions.

By this point in the book of Job, by my count, Job has asked one hundred and fourteen questions; from �Why won�t God let me die?� to �Why has God made me God�s 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 today�s lesson from the book of Job, where, finally, God responds to Job�s questions with, much to Job�s 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 Job�s name, like the life which bears Job�s 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 aren�t 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 wouldn�t Job love you?� asks Satan.� �You�ve given him everything anyone could ever want.� Let�s send Job some trouble, and, then, we�ll find out what your star student is really made of.� Surely,� concluded Satan, �You don�t 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 don�t 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, it�s 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, today�s 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 morning�s psalm, why God doesn�t 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 wouldn�t wonder why God doesn�t do more.� (Lacking love, God could do more, but wouldn�t.� Lacking power, God would do more, but couldn�t.)� 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 won�t 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 Friday�s cross, this Sunday�s 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 life�s worst moments, �Why?� is, sometimes, the question we can�t not ask; like Jesus, on the cross, asking, with the one who wrote this morning�s 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 didn�t 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, God�s arms around us; their kindness to us, God�s 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 morning�s 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 God�s 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 �I�m 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 I�ve 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 children�s 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 God�s kingdom. On Monday morning, I went downstairs to the Children�s 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.

I�ve found many a children�s books to be helpful in thinking through big theological constructs. Archbishop Desmond Tutu has written some lovely� children�s 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 children�s book called God�s 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 another�s hands and play one another�s games and laugh with one another�s 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 we�re sorry and forgive one another, we wipe away our tears and God�s tears too. Each of us carries a piece of God�s heart within us. And when we love one another, the pieces of God�s 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 God�s 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 God�s children. Will you help God�s 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 don�t know about you, but this week growing God�s kingdom hasn�t 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 Northminster�s 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 that�s really hard, and it�s almost never simple. It�s definitely too much to solve in a sermon. But that�s 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 God�s 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 God�s table. We come, not because we are whole, but because we are broken.We come because we are hungry for God�s 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.

It�s going to take time to make God�s dream come true. It�s going to take all of us examining our deepest selves to make God�s dream come true.� Coming to the table represents our willingness to do the work, our willingness to let God�s 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 grandfather�s 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 today�s 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 Bible�s vision, in Revelation 5:13, of every creature, and person, in all creation, singing praise to God, forever and ever, which is not unlike Isaiah�s 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 God�s 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 today�s 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 Nowen�s Bread for the Journey, or Richard Rohr�s 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 can�t, 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 morning�s 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 today�s epistle lesson never fail to call to mind Ernest Hemingway�s 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 morning�s 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 father�s 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 God�s 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 wasn�t 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 Paul�s revelations in today�s epistle passage were for him; not only another source of light, but, also, another source of pain; to borrow Mary Oliver�s 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 today�s 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 morning�s lesson from Second Samuel, David has lost both Saul, with whom he had a profoundly complex relationship, and Jonathan, who was, apparently, David�s 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 today�s 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, isn�t 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 didn�t apologize for it.� To the contrary, when Jesus encountered, in today�s 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 today�s 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 Lord�s 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 we�ve 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.

That�s 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 today�s 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.

That�s 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 today�s 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 today�s 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 Spirit�s 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 morning�s 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 morning�s 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� isn�t worth the trouble.� So, while we may see new light on old truth, we don�t 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, I�ll 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 wouldn�t 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 mother�s 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 other�s 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 you�ve seen on old truth just isn�t 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 today�s gospel lesson, for his friends to be �sanctified in the truth,� he wasn�t 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 eunuch�s 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 today�s 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 life�s 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 today�s 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.

Today�s 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.� God�s 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 week�s 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 Judaism�s 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 Lord�s 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 Levine�s 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, today�s 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 morning�s 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 Northminster�s 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 morning�s 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 didn�t 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 doesn�t 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 don�t 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 church�s 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 God�s requirement for a perfect sacrifice could be satisfied; the idea being that God could not forgive sin without compromising God�s 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 Christianity�s 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 God�s forgiveness, and it�s 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 God�s 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 can�t 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 morning�s epistle passage; probably because I grew up believing that Jesus was so perfect that he didn�t need to learn anything, because he already knew everything.� But, according to this morning�s 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 today�s 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 don�t 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 morning�s 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 today�s Old Testament passage from the book of Jeremiah.� When asked why the prophet Jeremiah said God will write God�s law on our hearts, instead of in our hearts, the rabbi replied, �God writes God�s words on our heart, but in order for God�s 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 God�s only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life.�

That verse from this morning�s 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 Christianity�s 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 God�s self,� Ephesians 1:10, �God�s 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 God�s 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 doesn�t need our cooperation to accomplish God�s 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 Bible�s 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 today�s 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 today�s passage, was so troubling that it caused Peter to rebuke Jesus, and Christianity to remake Jesus.

It isn�t easy to identify exactly when Christianity�s 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 doesn�t 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 doesn�t 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 wasn�t 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 morning�s 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 morning�s 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 Isaiah�s list.� At the top of Isaiah�s 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 it�s 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 today�s 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 today�s 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 today�s 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 today�s passage, �but love builds up.��� �������������

But, of course, it isn�t always that simple. Sometimes, speaking the truth is what builds up other�s 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 it�s 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 Paul�s words in today�s 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 wouldn�t 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 today�s 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 morning�s 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 Spirit�s 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 today�s 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 Mary�s 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 Mary�s 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 Mary�s future, it wasn�t 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 Mary�s 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. I�ll 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 Mary�s 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 Mary�s soul did, indeed; just as Simeon said it would.

Making Mary�s 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 doesn�t 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 Mary�s 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 morning�s 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 don�t 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, wasn�t 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, isn�t 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 can�t 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 haven�t 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 Matthew�s 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 John�s 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 God�s 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 Berry�s 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 morning�s gospel passage literally does not mean not taking it seriously.

To take today�s 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 Paul�s 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.� �Don�t worry about who will and won�t 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 today�s 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 morning�s 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, I�m 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 morning�s 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 morning�s 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 O�Brien 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 Luther�s 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 won�t 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 isn�t 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 morning�s lesson, we never get to see as much of God as we want to see.

Early in today�s passage, Moses asks to see God�s glory and God�s 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 couldn�t 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 couldn�t see God�s face in the moment, but now, like Moses, we can see God�s 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 God�s 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 God�s 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 God�s 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.� Let�s 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 God�s 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; �God�s friends say things about God that even God�s enemies wouldn�t say.�)

The truth is, things happen which are not God�s will or God�s plan, and, when they happen, as William Sloane Coffin once said, �Of all hearts, God�s heart is most broken.�

And, I would add, in those moments, not only is God�s heart most broken, God�s 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.� Isn�t 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 today�s 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 God�s mind.

With those words, this morning�s lesson from the book of Exodus lets us listen in as Moses persuades God to change God�s mind about the punishment God had settled on for God�s people, partly by reminding God that if God went forward with God�s plan against God�s people, it would damage God�s reputation.� �Just think what the Egyptians would say about you,� said Moses to God, after which the last verse of today�s passage says, �So God changed God�s 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 today�s lesson from Exodus does when it says that God is so angry that God is going to destroy God�s people, until Moses changes God�s 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 don�t 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 Coffin�s powerful observation that, whenever a young person dies in a tragic way, �Of all hearts, God�s 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 today�s 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 don�t think I�ve 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 don�t 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 isn�t 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 isn�t 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 don�t 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 today�s 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 morning�s 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 couldn�t, 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 wasn�t 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 morning�s 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 isn�t 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 life�s 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 morning�s 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 morning�s gospel lesson, Peter took a fast, far fall.� In last Sunday�s gospel passage, Jesus declared Peter the rock on which the whole church would be built.� Now, just seven days later, Peter�s 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 Peter�s 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 God�s own fold.� Lambs of God�s own flock.� Sinners of God�s own redeeming.� Indeed, aren�t 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 Matthew�s� 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 woman�s 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 morning�s 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 Matthew�s 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 morning�s 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 morning�s 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 morning�s 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 morning�s 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 don�t 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 morning�s 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 don�t know how to pray, it is also true that we don�t know how not to pray.

We can�t not pray.� Prayer is our life.� Prayer is how we hope while we�re waiting, and how we wait while we�re hoping.� Prayer is not another religious obligation to add to our already over burdened lives; prayer is our life.� It�s how we hope while we�re waiting and how we wait while we�re hoping.� Prayer is how we hold one another in our hearts across distance and time; our prayers becoming God�s 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 Taylor�s 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 don�t 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 can�t not.� It�s their life; it�s 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 morning�s epistle passage describe Paul�s 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 don�t want�; the biblical equivalent of the poet Mary Oliver�s 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 wouldn�t 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 don�t 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 morning�s 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 today�s 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 don�t 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 Underhill�s 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 doesn�t 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 Sotheby�s.� 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 Sotheby�s,� 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 morning�s 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 life�s 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 morning�s 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 Coffin�s, 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 morning�s� 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 Spirit�s whisper, but, then, instead of hauling it to the housetop, burying it in the basement.

Which isn�t 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 morning�s 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 don�t 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 didn�t 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