Welcome to BCOC!


Baptist Church of the Covenant is a vibrant church on the corner of University Blvd. & 22nd Street in Southside.  The congregation is comprised of all ages, groups, interests & identities.  We were chartered as a church on December 20, 1970, in Birmingham, AL.  We are a place of faith & action where all are welcomed.

This blog will provide a copy of weekly sermons along with updates about activities and events occurring at BCOC.  Also here is a link to our Facebook & web page where we post updates & photos and a link to our website where audio sermons are available for download.

Please visit us and see how you could add to our congregation with your individual talents and abilities. As Baptists we believe in….

  • A membership that is open to all persons who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
  • A caring fellowship that seeks to express the love of Christ.
  • A faith community that experiences worship as central to its life.
  • A prophetic proclamation of the Christian faith.
  • A creative and flexible ministry to our community, both local and global.
  • An innovative and bliblical program of Christian education.

Visit with us at 9:00 on Sunday mornings to learn more!

A Sower Went Out to Sow

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor 

on Sunday, July 13, 2014

 Isaiah 55:10-13; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9


“Let’s take a walk around the yard,” he would say at day’s beginning and ending.  It was pretty remarkable, really that each walk was different…some flower would open as a result of the day’s sunshine, or some budding fruit would make its appearance overnight.  Through the years, he taught me which plants could stand full sun and which were drought resistant.   He tuned my eye to recognize the difference between a Daffodil and a Daisy, between Binca and Impatiens, between a Camellia and a Rose.  I initially thought that these walks about the yard were a set-up for me to brag on the work that Dad had done to tame the vines and branches that so easily overtake an Alabama yard.  Close to the end, I realized that these strolls were more about being together, sharing awe and wonder at what God can do, and sowing seeds in one another’s souls by just being available.  For you see, that sower, when he went out to sow, he sowed seeds of love, and the seeds grew.  They grew into love for family and a good story to share.  They grew into love for the church and for its people.  They grew into love for scripture, sacred music and worship.  They grew and grew until I could own the prayer of, “In my life, Lord, be glorified.”


Today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel presents the overly-familiar parable of the sower.  There are several options for interpretation.  We can focus on the seed that suffers at the sower’s indiscriminate sowing.  But then the parable doesn’t begin with seed, it begins with “a sower went out to sow.” We can focus on the soils:  the hard packed road, the rocky ground, the shallow field, the fertile rich soil.  But then the parable doesn’t begin with soil.  It begins with “a sower went out to sow.” We can focus on the dangers:  the scorching sun, the choking thorns, the insatiable birds.  But then, the parable doesn’t begin with the dangers.  It begins with “a sower went out to sow.” We can focus on the amazing, miraculous harvest:  thirty, sixty, a hundredfold!  But then the parable doesn’t begin with the harvest, does it?  It begins with “a sower went out to sow.”


How a parable begins is immensely important.  The beginning tells the listener on whom to stay focused.  For instance, we call it “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” yet, the first line of the story reads “a father had two sons.”  The very first line informs us that the real prodigal is the father who because he loves both sons with unequivocal love possesses enough blessing for both.  So in today’s parable, even though contained within are vast descriptions of good and bad soil, threats and dangers to the seed, and a miraculous harvest, the real character to watch is that Sower who went out to sow.


This Sower is not fazed by concerns about the soil or the seed.  This Sower welcomes the birds and the sun.  This Sower is oblivious to the thorns and could care less about the odds of success.  This Sower flings seed everywhere with no apparent concern.  This Sower sows, wasting with holy abandon.  This Sower feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks a way through the thorns, shouts “hallelujah” over the good soil, and just keeps right on sowing.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Extravagant Sower,” The Seeds of Heaven)  This high-risk Sower is confident that there is more than enough seed to go around.  This Sower is relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed on all soil, as if it were all potentially good.  Which leaves me to wonder:  is there any place or any circumstance in which God’s seeds of grace cannot sprout and take root?  (Theodore J. Wardlaw, “Homiletical Perspective,” p. 241, Feasting on the Word)


To turn this story around, then, and focus on the Sower gives a fresh perspective.  This is a story about a prolific Sower who does not obsess over the condition of the field, who is not stingy with the seed nor is the Sower practical in the planting.  This Sower seems perfectly content to keep reaching into the seed bag for all of eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seeds of grace and truth.


Now we, of course, wouldn’t dare to open up our garden or our church or our personal lives this way.  We live by the law, so that when we are put in charge, we plan and plot.  We remove stone and thistle.  We lay out our rows in the richest dirt with the best light.  We weed out the unsavory plants that volunteer, and we use poisonous insecticides to keep the unruly in line.  We carefully place the counted-out desired seed into the ground with precision and measured stingy efficiency.  We might even add in a little Miracle-Gro in order not to leave too much of the process up to chance or up to God.  We will maximize our yields, minimize our waste, and with the opportunity to control more and more, to know more and more, we run the risk of forgetting just how small we are in comparison to how BIG God is and that God has been busy cultivating all along.  This is a parable about the Sower, remember?  And if we are to follow this sower’s example, then Jesus seems to suggest that there is another way to go about things.  Paul tells us it is the way of living according to the Spirit where there is life and peace!  It is a way that is less concerned with productivity than with plentitude.  It is a way that is defined by a gracious invitation to join in the sowing.  It is the way of generosity which is intent on cramming earth with as much heaven as possible.


Our youngest son, Dannelly, is spending the summer in Tuscaloosa.  He has a job in the Advancement Office and has picked up a couple of extra academic hours.  He has also taken on the task of visiting a different church every Sunday that he is not here at Covenant. I have been pleased at his observations about the use of musical instruments.  A true child of Covenant, he much prefers the organ!  He takes note when there is only one prayer offered in an entire service, and he looks to see how the clergy represent the mix within the congregation.  Perhaps I should not confess to you that I offered him $50 NOT to visit one church in particular.  It was, of course, the first church he chose to visit!!  His response?  “I got out before my head spun off my body.  No harm, no foul.”


Maybe it is because I still have children who are in need of the church’s cultivation, or maybe it is because I simply love the church that I am often perplexed by the decline of today’s church.  Some are quick to blame the threatening birds and thorns that reduce men and women, boys and girls to apathy and cynicism.  But can we blame their distrust of the church considering the news headlines reporting the misconduct of clergy or the battles within denominations that express mistrust of and disgust over fellow members of the human race?  Some say that the church has hardened itself into well-worn paths of tradition.  Churches are too often rocky places that are inhospitable to seeds of faith.  Sometimes there is shallowness of soil where preachers simultaneously appear on video screens at multiple satellite locations, but the congregants never sit in his/her office to pray or confess, cry or celebrate.  Without incarnational pastoral care, is it any wonder that individual believers wither to nothing when the scorching sun comes out?  (“The Sower’s Lesson, Joseph Evans, 7-10-11, Day!.org)


My friends, we hold in our hands wild, unexpected seeds!  And if we can summon up the courage, we are called to sow them as extravagantly as the Sower in the parable.  We are not called to worry over the birds or the thorns.  We are not called to take soil samples to see which fields are most fertile.  We are not called to be selective over which seeds get sown.  We are not called to worry about the harvest.  That is all up to God!  We are not called to worry about how the seeds will be received, except when it comes to our own field…where I pray we will continue to work and clear in order that the seeds sown of love and grace, mercy and forgiveness, hospitality and encouragement will grow in such abundance that God is glorified by our lives.


The Iona community was founded in 1938 in Glasgow, Scotland.  It is an ecumenical group that is committed to the integrity of creation, justice, peace, the rebuilding of community, and a renewal of worship.  Should you attend one of their conferences in the Abbey, you commit yourself to five things:  daily prayer and Bible reading; sharing and accounting for how you use resources; planning and accounting for your use of time; taking action for justice/peace; and meeting with others to be held accountable.  Because they are serious about being generous sowers, being good seed, and making themselves available to be fertile soil, I am inviting you to join me in praying one of their prayers.  There are directions in your bulletin.  As we pray together, seek after the ability to not only be available to receive God’s good seed, but to also receive the courage to be a generous sower as well.  Let us pray together.

A Sower Went Out To Sow

A sower went out to sow,
and on some ground he sowed the gift of welcoming,
and the seed grew,
and strangers lost their strangeness,
and foreigners found a friend,
and closed doors became open,
and hospitality overtook suspicion.,
and Jesus was embraced incognito.

A sower went out to sow,
and on some ground she sowed the seed of listening,
and the seed grew,
and hard problems began to be solved, because there was time to unravel them,
and fears were released, because the fearful one was not judged,
and forgotten people were heard, because someone paid attention,
and the truth was separated from gossip, because there was time.

A sower went out to sow,
and on some ground he sowed the seed of caring,
and the seed grew,
so that hungry people were fed with more than food,
and ignored people were attended to,
and guilty people were forgiven,
and those who seemed untouchable found themselves embraced,
and the compassion of Christ was known again on earth..

A sower went out to sow,
and on some ground she sowed the seed of encouraging,
and the seed grew,
and shy people lost their reticence,
and quiet people found their voice,
and those who thought they were worthless discovered their value,
and hidden talent was revealed.

A sower went out to sow,
and on the ground he sowed the seed of telling,
and the seed grew,
and stories were told to children,
and history was told to the young,
and jokes were told in cheerless places,
and the good news was told to those who were despondent,
and the Gospel of the Lord of Life
was told through the lives of God’s people.

A sower went out to sow,
and on some ground she sowed the seed of imagining,
and the seed grew,
and young people saw visions,
and old people dreamed dreams,
and some drew or wrote or danced or sang, who never thought they had it in them
and some stopped revisiting their past, in order to visualize God’s future.

A sower went out to sow,
and on some ground he sowed the seed of changing,
and the seed grew ,
and people moved from prejudice to truth,
and from despair to hope,
and from apathy to faith,
and old churches became radical communities,
and old people became midwives of God’s coming kingdom.
(From the Iona Community)

The choir sings “In My Life, Lord, Be Glorified” from the hymnal.  The congregation joins on the last stanza.  


Rhythms of Grace

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor 

on Sunday July 6, 2013

Song of Solomon 2:8-13; Romans 15-25a; Mt. 11:16-19, 25-30


At age 13, I was still sitting with my mother in church.  As I climbed over her knees to my place on the fourth center pew, I overheard the conversation she was having with the young mother in front of us.  Vacation Bible School was coming up, and they were brainstorming ideas.  Their focused attention, however, left me free to spy some dark brown eyes peering over the pew in front of me.  He was all of four, and he had tight, blond curls all over his head.  Little did I know that in the timid game of peek-a-boo that followed that Scott and I were forming a bond for years to come that would be characterized by rhythms of grace.


There was an established history with this family.  I took piano from Scott’s grandmother.  We all called her “Honey,” because she loved people with a great, big ferocious type of love.  She’d patiently listen to my efforts to play the piano every Friday afternoon.  How it must have pained her, because I was rarely appropriately prepared.  But every now and again, she would reach around me to add some special rhythm to the bass or she might waltz over to the second piano in the room and let loose in grand style.  Her rhythms were never forced.  They flowed right out of her soul onto the keyboard.  She felt those melodies so intensely, she could not keep herself from making music, and to see her joy at combining our efforts was a great gift of grace.


My father officiated at the marriage of Scott’s parents.  In fact, at their wedding reception, Dad volunteered to be the get-away car so that all of their friends’ efforts to decorate the couple’s car were spoiled!  With a hat pulled low over his eyes and a big cigar in his mouth, he squealed the tires as he pulled away from the curb with the bride and groom in the back seat.


By the time I graduated from Southern Seminary and returned to Birmingham to serve as a youth minister, this family had moved to the suburbs and there in my youth group were Scott and his older brother.  Let me just tell you:  they were so very bad!  They were the only two youth that I ever sent home from a youth beach retreat!  And while I know that young people often make poor decisions that are in need of limitless grace, what broke my heart was that it grieved Honey so much that she wrote me a letter of apology.


Late one night, I got a call.  Scott’s mother was being taken to the Emergency Room.  “Would I come to the house?  Scott is there alone.”  What I found, however, was an empty house with a foyer mirror smashed into a million pieces.  I began to clean up.  The pastor called to tell me that the mother had died.  It seems she had been drinking, passed out in the tub, and slipped under the water.  Scott had found her, and after the paramedics took her to the ER, Scott left the house never to return the same.  


I helped to bury Scott’s mother.  I officiated at Honey’s memorial, and one month ago, I buried Scott at Elmwood Cemetery.  Scott was 44 years old.


We had kept in touch through the years just ever so slightly.  Like Honey, Scott was wide open all the time.  Years might go by, but his grin always welcomed me in as if no time ever passed between us.  He was a poet at heart who felt things so intensely, that he often pushed the boundaries of appropriateness that always come with a price.  There was a small discreet wedding.  The marriage failed.  He wasn’t cut out for college, but Scott was trained by some of the best chefs in this city—even named as a Top Chef in Birmingham—but he couldn’t quite keep his own places open.  So he was living back at home when he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver one day and then, three days later died at St. Vincent’s Hospital.  When his father talked with me about the arrangements, his voice broke as he said, “You’re the only one Scott would ever acknowledge as his minister.” I was humbled as the rhythms of grace washed all over me.


You need to know that I am haunted by Scott’s story.  I’m haunted because he was invited to the playful dance that Jesus’ rhythms of grace offer.  Just like when children play in the market, an amusing game may be offered, but unless we choose to play, the game is wasted effort.  The people of Jesus’ day refuse to play with John the Baptist and then they refuse Jesus.  They are not looking for help from Jesus no matter what gifts He desires to give.  


To receive grace as a gift is similar to our ability to agree to play the game.  Scott couldn’t find it within himself, couldn’t believe himself worthy enough, to hear the melodies, to give himself over to the rhythms, to hum the tunes.  Now don’t get me wrong, I know that Scott was a believer.  I know that he is resting for all of eternity finally free of all his ghosts and thankfully at peace in the arms of Jesus, but in this life, Scott did not understand his own actions.  Paul puts it this way:  “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”


This inner struggle; this inner battle characterizes so many of our daily lives.  I would love to believe, at some point, we conquer it, but alas, I am afraid we just get better at covering it up.  Jesus refers to it as “burdens” that “weary” us, especially in response to the insatiable demands of religious practice, but we can also view these worrisome burdens as quotas from employers, or a client’s stinging criticism, or a spouse’s disloyalty, or a parent’s endless expectations, or a child’s constant demands, or the inner motor that runs at unspeakable speeds in order for us to “make it” in this world, whatever that means to you.  (Walter Brueggemann, “Sabbaticals for Rats,” p. 133, Collected Sermons)


It is a delicate balance to live by grace while existing in a world that values and rewards work.  I fear that while we say we live according to grace, our actions testify to a faith by works that portrays us to be like busy scouts collecting merit badges for recognizable accomplishments.  I know that my time (and I suspect your time as well) is dictated by a long list of things I need to do, or ought to do, or should do or had better do OR God will not love me anymore.  To sing and dance in the market would be great if only I could check off my “to do” list and find some time to play.  I believe that my life depends on God’s grace, but I act as if it depends on me and how many good deeds I can perform to win not just God’s blessing but the approval of those who often stand in judgment of or in positions of authority over me and mine.  It is as if every day were a talent show for the entertainment of others with God standing by to give me a score while I tap dance, sing and juggle plates on sticks.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Open Yoke,” The Seeds of Heaven)


Plenty of us labor under the illusion that our yokes are single ones.  We think we must go it alone; that the only way to please God is to load ourselves down with the heavy requirements that others say are necessary like good deeds, pure thoughts, blameless lives, perfect obedience.  Like beasts of burden, we whip ourselves to do, do, do…to be, be, be…to try, try, try.  We tell ourselves that we must do more, be better, and try harder to prove ourselves worthy enough to earn God’s love and the approval of others.  


It is the most tiring work in the world.  It is never finished, and it is entirely unnecessary. Jesus says, in one of Scripture’s most comforting passages, plainly and simply:  “Come to me.  My yoke is light.”  There is, to be sure, a burden with Jesus.  We must be joined to Him in the yoke.  But just like with oxen, when the yoke is shared, the work is not so hard, the burden is not so heavy, the job is not so overwhelming, for there is Another who is pulling equally and walking with us to endure whatever comes our way.


The day after Scott’s funeral, I was to officiate at a wedding for another young adult who I have known since she was in grade school.  It was to be an outdoor wedding on the fields just behind her grandmother’s house.  When I arrived a couple of hours before the service, a thunderstorm was wreaking havoc.  We waited.  We watched.  I assured the betrothed that they would be just as married if we said the vows in the living room.  But they never lost hope.  Instead, with sweet assurance, they watched the clouds roll away, and a clear blue sky appear.  Aunts, uncles, friends, even Grandmother herself got busy with the salted nuts, cupcakes and punch.  Tables and chairs sprung up like wildflowers.  Quilts were hung across the garage.  A wooden door frame was erected to mark an entrance to the freshly washed “sanctuary” that God was decorating with nature’s best offerings.  No one got anxious.  No one got testy.  Everybody just had a job to do, and they went about it with such joy that the rhythms of grace could be felt as naturally and keenly as my pulse.  


After two panels of stained glass were hung from an enormous oak tree, I stood with the couple as they repeated their vows.  I wish that at that moment, I had thought of the verses from chapter two of Song of Solomon.  For the deep happiness that the couple was so obviously displaying, echoed the love song that God has for God’s people:

Arise my love, my fair one, and come away;

For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone.

The flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come,

And the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.

My beloved is mine and I am my beloveds.

So, arise, my love, my fair one, and come away with me.


This is the love song of God that promises rest and sharing, restored relationship and balance, beauty and desire.  Jesus stands right in front of us, half of a shared yoke across his own shoulders and the other half entirely wide open and available to us.  It is a yoke that offers companionship, team work, and shared responsibility.  It is a yoke that requires nothing save our willingness to step into it.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Open Yoke,” The Seeds of Heaven)


Like the unrequited lovers in the Song of Solomon, this Jesus who loves us profoundly pursues us with many invitations until we finally hear and see, understand and enter into relationship with Him.  It is the most loving invitation we will ever receive.  So hear it once more with the hope that we might not just truly believe it, but we might find genuine reassuring comfort.


“If you are tired, worn out, burned out, then come to me.  Get away with me and you will recover your life.  I’ll show you how to take a real rest if you will walk with me and watch me.  Watch how I do it, so you can learn the unforced rhythms of grace.  I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you.  My yoke is easy.  My burden is light.”  Thanks be to God!


With Fear and Great Joy

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

On Sunday, April 20, 2014

Acts 10:34-43; Colossians 3:1-4; Matthew 28:1-10

She had three granddaughters of whom she was very proud. Jane Claire, was about 7, and in her usual big sister bossy way, Jane Claire often said of Annie, who was only 5, that Annie never told the truth. The youngest was Mimi. So proud of her granddaughters was this grandmother that she learned how to make chocolate bunnies for the granddaughters’ Easter gifts. The only problem was that her efforts resulted in really big bunnies that were solid chocolate and probably too rich for such small granddaughters. So she attached a note that warned the parents that maybe the grandchildren should eat them in more than one sitting. (This story was told to me by Dennis Wilson. It is about the Boshers’ grandchildren.)

The granddaughters were appropriately impressed with the chocolate rabbits. The dutiful parents warned that they should only eat half now and save the rest for later. It wasn’t long before little Mimi toddled over to hand her mother an earless bunny. Not too far behind, was Jane Claire who had obeyed her parent’s request to eat only half, and then she had carefully wrapped hers back up in its paper. But when Annie finally emerged, she had no rabbit. “Where is your rabbit, Annie?” the mother wanted to know. “Oh, ummmm, I put it in the refrigerator.” “Show me,” was this mother’s wise response. So with her mother and sisters looking over her shoulder, Annie rummaged through all the bottles. No rabbit. She pushed her way through the casserole dishes. No rabbit. She even opened the vegetable bin. Still there was no rabbit. “Huh,” was Annie’s response. “It’s in there somewhere.” To which, she shut the refrigerator door and went about her business.

That night, when the father returned home from work, the girls lined up to give him kisses. “How were grandmother’s bunnies?” he wanted to know. After rave reviews, he suggested “Let’s call her on my cell phone and thank her. But before we call her, let me show you a new app on my phone. I can put it over your tummy and see what you have eaten today.” There were giggles and excitement from the girls at his suggestion. He pulled Mimi over to him, placed his cell phone on her tummy and said, “Just as I thought. There are bunny ears in your stomach!” He pulled Jane Claire over to him, placed the cell phone on her tummy and said, “Aha, there is half a bunny in your stomach!” And Annie, realizing where this was going, confessed: “I ate the whole thing!”

It seems that the gospel writers want us to be like Annie. They want us to consume the whole story…to take into ourselves the unbelievable possibility that Christ is resurrected from the dead. It feels like a bite too big to chew much less to swallow. It feels like a lie too big to believe. It feels like a fantastic fish tale where the best catch got away. It feels this way because our fear outweighs our joy. We are not alone in that feeling of fear. It is prevalent throughout today’s gospel reading.

The same old men who so desperately wanted Jesus dead, come to visit Pilate after the crucifixion. Can we imagine Pilate’s irritation at being disturbed again about the very person over whom he has already publicly washed his hands? Exasperated that this matter seems to have no end, Pilate meets with them. The old priests, bowing and scraping and leaning in a little too intensely, make a request for guards at the tomb. Their faded eyes are wide with bewilderment. They appear to be dazed and tremulous with fear. (Frederick Buechner, “The End is Life,” The Magnificent Defeat, pp. 75-76) They say, “Excellency, his disciples are still at large. They could steal the body and claim he rose from the dead. Then we would all have a real problem on our hands. Assign a cohort of soldiers to stand guard at the tomb.” Pilate reminds them that they have their own guards to use to secure the tomb “as best they can.” So believing that they are experts at Homeland Security, the Jerusalem authorities take their guards and seal the tomb. They are feebly attempting to secure the world against a miracle. Somehow their fear informs them that it isn’t so much what the disciples might do that has them afraid as it is the possibility that what Jesus said would really happen does, i.e., that on the third day, Jesus would stand up and with God’s own breath in Him, walk out of the tomb.

I find it amazing that the Jerusalem authorities thought the disciples capable of stealing Jesus’ body and fabricating a story of resurrection…especially since they are hiding behind locked doors. This was surely an embarrassment to the early church that their leaders were such cowards. Once resurrection became real, however, the disciples refused to stop talking and singing about what happened with Jesus, even when faced with persecution and arrest. Men and women do not give up their lives for self-made myths. No, you only give up your life when resurrection is powerfully real. The only plausible explanation for the dramatic change we see in the disciples as they preach Jesus Christ crucified as found in the book of Acts is that Jesus is resurrected and reconciled with His friends. Conversion from cowardice to courage is only possible through conviction over something larger and more powerful than our own imaginations.

The significant role of women in the story also adds to the credence of the resurrection. (William Placher, Mark) Women were not considered capable of a credible testimony in court in that time and place, so why would the gospel writers’ invent and record a story with women as the primary witnesses? Their involvement would also have been an embarrassment to the early church. Is the whole future of Christianity based on the testimony of some grieving, hysterical women? What if they got it wrong? What if Christ was not risen? What they are saying is too good to be true! It is why Luke’s gospel says their news is no more than “an idle tale.” It may be why Mark’s gospel ends with the women, so full of fear, that they say nothing to anyone. And yet, the fact that their role remains dominant in the story speaks to its truth. So scholars say the only plausible explanation is that resurrection happened just as the gospels tell us, in other words, the women came to the tomb despite their grief, despite their fear. They witnessed the resurrection before anyone else, and were the first to tell the good news.

The events on that early Sunday morning read like a Stephen King novel. The setting is a graveyard with an ominous mist hovering over the ground. It is the first day of the Jewish week, and the women, already terrified by the past week’s events, leave for the tomb before life and work resume. The women’s intention to anoint Jesus’ body with oil informs us that they expect to find a body. There is no hope that Jesus might be alive. As they trespass into the cemetery, everything seems to break loose. There is a violent earthquake. Extra-terrestrial beings roll back the stone, and the guards are so filled with fear, they pass out. The tomb is empty! It is important for us to remember, however, that an empty tomb, all by itself, is not evidence of resurrection. An empty tomb just means that what we expected to find isn’t there. It takes an angel confirming their suspicion that what is afoot is resurrection. In one of the greatest understatements of all time, the Angel says: “Do not be afraid!”

If Christianity can be summed up in two words, it would be “Fear not!” It is the consistent thread that runs throughout the gospel tapestry. An angel accosts the old priest Zechariah with the news that his wife Elizabeth will have a son, and the first thing the angel says is “Do not be afraid.” When Gabriel appears to young Mary with the news of becoming the mother of God’s son, the first words out of that angel’s mouth are “Fear not” To the terrified shepherds on the hillside outside of Bethlehem, the angels harken with “Do not be afraid. I am bringing news of great joy!” And now, outside an empty tomb where women and soldiers alike, tremble in fear, come the words, “Do not be afraid.”

We have a lot to be afraid of these days and not just global issues like war without end, unimaginable debt, guns in the streets, hunger on every corner, political and religious extremism. We have fear strike our hearts when we discover that strange lump under our arm in the privacy of our own shower. Fear strikes when your loved one’s blood pressure reaches stroke proportions! Fear strikes when the supervisor at work makes a mysterious comment about the future of your department. When friends prove untrustworthy or dreams evaporate or families disintegrate, fear takes up residence. It too often paralyzes us. (John Buchanan, “Let Us Walk Through the Door,” 4-24-11, and Samuel Wells, “The Discipline of Joy,” be not afraid of death) Because there is plenty of which to be afraid, we can, without even realizing it, begin to be such captives that we are never fully alive. Fear causes us to choose: will we live half-alive and preserve the illusions of a Good Friday world? Or will we live fully alive with the Easter truth that Christ is risen, love never dies, and God’s love is stronger than death? Because Christ is risen, can we live lives based on the joyful news that we are risen too? (William Sloane Coffin, Collected Sermons: The Riverside Years)

The good word to the women standing in the cemetery, to the disciples behind locked doors, and to us in our various stages of dying is that death is not what it seems to be. Because of Easter, death no longer has dominion; death no longer has the last word. God does! Because of Easter, we can live with the sure and certain hope that the ultimate reality in life is God’s everlasting love. Easter is a peek through a keyhole into a world changed completely by Jesus Christ and His sacrifice for our sakes. Jesus has thrown everything off-balance. Nothing is as expected. God’s grace is not dependent on our ability to earn or understand it. The powerful are brought low; the lowly are lifted up. Spears are turned into pruning hooks. The righteous are not only saved, but sinners are too. Easter is the greatest of all joy.

My brother learned about the thrill of joy one day. You will remember, back in the day that the University of Alabama and Auburn University played all their big games in Birmingham at Legion Field. On occasion, my father would receive tickets. It was his custom to ask my mother (also an Alabama alumna) to accompany him. If it were not too cold and if she were confident of a victory, mom would go with him. But if there was any question in her mind about either, she would step aside so that my brother, Jim could share this experience with Dad.

As best I remember it, it had been a winning season for both Alabama and Auburn. So as the game approached, there was exceptional hype. Newscasters, editors, and fans all had strong opinions about who would win this the biggest game of the year. In an unbelievable act of generosity, a church member offered tickets to Dad. He wasn’t sure, however, if Dad would like the location of the seats, but perhaps he could still enjoy the game. Dad looked at the tickets. Was this a joke? Those seats were on the 50 yard line! So Dad enthusiastically took the tickets and ignored his host’s warning.

Since there was some uncertainty about the game’s outcome, Mom declined and Jim, who was about 11 years old, was not only pumped with rules about sportsmanship but was also taught how to use the old cow bell that was in the basement.

As luck would have it, a church member died. Every minister’s family knows that the world stops momentarily when there is a death in the congregation, so all plans were suspended until the service times were set and confirmed. The graveside was set within the hour prior to kickoff, but Dad insisted that a plan was in place. They would make it to the game for kick off.

On the day of the big game, they dressed in their Sunday suits and headed for Elmwood Cemetery. Dad arrived early to explain his plan to the funeral director who nodded in understanding and then moved Dad’s car in front of the hearse for a quick get-away. Then Dad put the fear of God in Jim. “Stay low in the car son or else we won’t make it to the game in time for kick off.” So Jim watched from the car as family members were comforted. Scriptures were read. Prayers were said. With the final “amen” pronounced, the funeral director opened the car door, Dad jumped in and they were off…burning rubber for Legion Field. The church janitor saved a parking place, so that Jim and Dad walked into the stadium with The Million Dollar Band.

The air was alive with fan fever. When the usher pointed to their seats, Dad could see that yes, they were on the 50 yard line, but they were also in the President’s box for Auburn University! Their seats were surrounded not only by the President but by distinguished trustees and influential alumnae. Dad grabbed Jim by the shoulders and once more struck the fear of God in to his heart. “Now look, son,” he said. “You know how much I love to see Alabama win, but here’s the deal—our tickets are right in the middle of some of the most powerful men in our state. They are all Auburn fans. The most we can do is clap politely when Alabama scores and clap politely when Auburn scores.” But Dad forgot all about the cow bell resting in Jim’s coat pocket.

Jim was introduced all around the President’s box, and just before kick-off, they settled in their seats. Jim remembered Dad’s warning to clap politely when Auburn scored and to clap politely when Alabama scored. But as these games often go, the intensity of the game, as well as the emotions of the fans, grow with each play. There was keen competition right up until the fourth quarter, and it appeared that the last play of the game would determine the victor and a year’s worth of bragging rights. The score was tied. Alabama had the ball. Aware of the clock, the quarterback leaned back for a long pass. The receiver was wide open. He ran into the end zone for an Alabama victory, at which point Jim could not be contained. He jumped up out of his seat cheering, and in his utmost joy he pulled that cow bell out and began to ring! No more fear…only joy…and joy in abundance over their victory!

Our Episcopal friends have a vigil service on Holy Saturday. In the dark sanctuary, the priest circles the congregation three times before lighting congregants’ candles from the back pew. The light spreads throughout the sanctuary (much like our Christmas Eve service) and then, the priest walks a Christ candle to the front. As it is placed on a stand to symbolize the return of the Light of the world, the priest announces in a loud voice, “Dearly beloved, I bring you all news of great joy. Our Lord Jesus Christ has resurrected from the dead and defeated His enemies.” Then, the congregation takes out bells and rings them in celebration of and joy over the victory of the resurrection. They say three times, “Truly we believe the whole thing! We believe He is risen! We believe He is risen!” So as we sing the word “Alleluia” in the hymn of commitment this morning, you are invited to ring the bells you have brought or shake the keys from your pocket as an act of sheer confident joy that Jesus is victorious and risen from the dead. I will be here at the front to receive any public decisions of faith as stand and sing #165, “Hail the Day that Sees Him Rise.“

The Second Sunday of Easter

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

On Sunday, April 27, 2014


While this Sunday is traditionally known as Low Sunday, in other words, the let-down after the big celebration of Easter, we are resisting the normal trend. Instead, we are daring to invite and encourage you to this service that will highlight celebrations and new beginnings which we believe is more reflective of the Easter season. Following the example of the early church wherein new believers were officially welcomed into the church on Easter, we will baptize a believer and dedicate a baby in recognition of the newness that comes to all who believe in and hold dear the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Dedication of Jarret Reed Stinnett
Psalm 16
Jarret Reed Stinnett is five months old today. He is joined by his parents Karen and Matt, and by his big brother Andrew. In addition to his gathered church family, his grandmother, aunt and grandfather are here as well.

It is not uncommon for new parents, even in the midst of their joy over a birth in the family, to experience concern about the world into which they are bringing their child. As believers, we often have to stop to remind ourselves that God has been steadfast in the past, and will give guidance for the future while keeping us secure in the present, even in the worst that life sometimes offers to us. The Psalm just read confidently expresses that even in the midst of trials and suffering, there are reasons to trust in and be confident over God’s presence that is with us. Because of God’s willingness to “show us the path of life,” even young parents can acknowledge that “in God’s presence there is fullness of joy.”

Jarret, you have a “goodly heritage” in your parents, in your extended family and in your church family. We are pledging this day to do our part so that you will personally know the presence of the Lord and in that presence, the fullness of joy that God does not ever abandon us but instead has rescued us from death and landed us within boundaries that will create for you pleasant places.

+As Jarret’s family of faith, will you join me in providing guidance and instruction in the ways of the Lord with the sure and certain belief that if we train up a child in the ways that he should go, then he will not depart from it?
+Will you join me in the commitment to tell Jarret the stories of our faith so that he will, one day, be moved by the Spirit to profess his faith and accept Jesus as his Lord and Savior?
+As Jarret’s extended family, will you lend encouragement to Jarret and Andrew, Matt and Karen as they strive to balance the weight of their heritage with the importance of their own traditions and convictions?
+As Jarret’s parents, will you, Matt and Karen, acknowledge Jarret as a masterpiece of God’s creation and accept the responsibility of helping him find his place as a child of God’s?
+Will you promise to keep yourselves, and your sons, faithful in the life of the church so that you all might grow in “wisdom and stature and in favor with God and mankind?”

Let us pray:
We are grateful for the gift of life, oh God. Jarret reminds us of new beginnings and fresh starts, of hope and innocence, of possibilities and renewal. So we are bold to ask that You open our eyes, so that together we might see this world as being promising and trustworthy. Open our hearts so that together we might receive Your counsel and instruction so that we are ever aware of your presence beside us guiding, protecting and saving. Open our spirits so that together we might give witness to the miracle of Easter and as a result be living examples of joy for this small baby with whom you have entrusted to us. Bless Matt and Karen. Give them an extra portion of your patience and grace. Instill a generous spirit in Andrew as he grows in his role as big brother, and may we act as family reminding one another of Your goodness in every circumstance of life. For we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, the one who held and blessed the children, Amen.

Baptism of George Stephen Fisher
I Peter 1:3-9

This past Friday, I celebrated 32 years of ordained ministry. In all of that time, I have never had happen to me what happened the day that you walked into this church. Stephen, you arrived after our worship service. We did not know one another, but you were emotionally shaken. In fact, you fell into my arms sobbing under the recognition of what you called “sin in my life.” You were compelled to come to this church, and you were on a mission to find me to confess your need to re-dedicate your life to the ways of Christ. You were, as some would say, “under the conviction of the Holy Spirit.” And so, we came to the front of the sanctuary. We knelt and prayed in the presence of Dennis Wilson and George Crear, and the very next Sunday you presented yourself to this congregation as a born again believer. So we stand in these waters today to mark a fresh start, to give you a date and a time, with the support of a new family of faith, that you have claimed a faith that is more precious than gold. It is, in the words of Peter, “an inheritance” that is “imperishable, undefiled and unfading.” Its reality is such a new birth, such a living hope that even when you suffer various trials, the genuineness of your faith will give you the strength and courage to offer praise and glory and honor to Jesus. Like the disciple Thomas, even though you have not seen Jesus, you love Him and you believe in Him. We join you in rejoicing with an indescribable and glorious joy that because outcome of your faith is the salvation of your very soul.

So in obedience to the commands of our Lord and Savior, and upon your public profession of faith in Him, I baptize you, George Stephen Fisher, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Locked In
John 20:19-31

Just before this scene from John’s gospel, we learn that, on the very same day, just as dark was turning into dawn, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been rolled away from the front of Jesus’ tomb. She remains in the Garden, weeping, when Jesus appears. She takes His good news to the disciples. In fact, scripture says she ran, saying, “I have seen the Lord!” And to this amazing news, the disciples respond by huddling behind locked doors. We love to read the story of Thomas and put the whole load of blame for doubting on him, but the presence of all those disciples behind locked doors tells us that they all doubted. They all found the news too amazing to believe. They were all terrified over the possibility of resurrection AND over being found as followers of Christ’s.

They had plenty of which to be afraid. Historians tell us that the Romans were incredibly cruel. Just a few years after the crucifixion, and about the time John wrote this gospel, Emperor Nero blamed the Christians for the fire that consumed Rome. William Barclay (Daily Study Bible) records that Nero would roll Christians in pitch and light them, while still alive, to be used as living torches to light his gardens. He was also known for sewing them in the skins of wild animals and then letting his hunting dogs loose to attack. And so these brave souls who had survived storms on the sea, confronted demons and evil spirits head on, and watched as Jesus raised the dead to new life, did not dare to believe that resurrection might be in the sustaining air that they breathed.

When have you been so afraid or so full of doubt that you shut the door and turned the bolt so that you are locked in?

Locked in is when we give in to guilt and self-loathing. Locked in is when culture can’t look beyond the stereotypes of skin color or gender or sexual orientation. Locked in is when addiction reigns, jobs compromise or illness consumes. Locked in is when our relationships smother any creativity we have left or threats carry more validity than grace and forgiveness. Locked in is when we know all the right answers and can support them with empirical data. When have we been so afraid that we hid? When has sorrow had us huddled up with others in search of consolation? When has knowledge isolated us with elitism? When has our disappointment been so great that we were immobilized? Locked in fear and disappointment is where the disciples sit on that Easter night.

Now Thomas was not there when Jesus returned. While some are critical of his absence, I find that it speaks to me of his personal courage. He was not going to be locked in by his fear, but his response to the day’s news tells us that he is locked in by something else: his need for certainty. Just because his friends give witness to a resurrected Lord, their testimony is not good enough for Thomas. “Unless I see him with my own eyes, and touch him with my own hands, I will not believe,” he declares to his friends. Thomas stands firm for all of us who must see for ourselves, who must touch for ourselves, who must smell and taste for ourselves before we can believe. For like Thomas, we have also experienced terrible things like the death of a child, or divorce, or cancer. These cause us to sit on a pew week after week just hoping and praying that our haunting questions of faith will be answered without our having to unveil them. It makes me wonder if there is a believer anywhere who, if given the chance to see Christ’s face, to hear His voice, and to touch those ruined hands and feet wouldn’t take it.

So here’s what I love about this story: being fearfully locked in behind closed doors doesn’t keep Jesus from coming to his friends. Nor does being locked in by doubt and the need for certainty keep Jesus from coming to Thomas! Jesus comes. His presence mysteriously fills the room. He offers peace when He could have questioned them about their disappearance after the Garden of Gethsemane and their lack of presence at the crucifixion. Instead, Jesus extends peace, and He breathes the Spirit on them.

When Jesus breathed on the disciples, they, in turn, breathed Jesus in. And when they did, I wonder if they caught a whiff of the expensive nard from the alabaster jar. I wonder if the scent of the Sea of Galilee lingered in the air; or if, by chance, they could still smell the fish from the little boys’ lunch. The disciples breathed in Jesus and remembered his hands being placed on the crooked bodies of the lame, on the eyes of the blind, and on the children in blessing. The disciples breathed in Jesus and remembered his feet on the dusty roads to Mary and Martha’s and to the Garden of Gethsemane. They breathed him in and found that they believed!

When you breathe Jesus in what do you smell? What speaks to you so powerfully of love and grace that your senses come alive with the certainty that Jesus loves you? …died for you? …comes to you still? It is what moves young parents to seek a congregation’s dedication to raise their child; it is why believers stand in baptismal waters to re-enact the resurrection after making a personal decision of faith; it is why we extend an invitation every week in worship, for our hope and prayer is that we will be led beyond locked doors and into the presence of Christ who loves us still.

We come to this part of the service every week and I often say “The doors of the church are open to receive any decisions of faith.” In light of today’s scripture, to be reminded that “the doors of the church are open” takes on new significance. For no longer huddled inside locked in by fear, the doors of the church are open so that Spirit might rush in and move among us. The doors of the church are open so that we may leave in boldness to tell all that we have seen the Risen Lord. The doors of the church are open so that we may move beyond fear and beyond doubt to receive the gracious love of Christ. Will you do this? The doors of the church are open to receive personal decisions of faith, membership and vocation as we stand and sing hymn number 167, “Christ is Risen.”

Separation Anxiety

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

On Sunday, May 25, 2014

Acts 17:22-31; I Peter 3:13-22; John 14:15-21

It was said of me, just a few weeks ago in this very sanctuary that underneath all this white hair there is a bossy red head! I claim being bossy but a red head? This was a troublesome accusation to me even as a child. Why, I don’t know, but I do remember that my mother would comfort me with words like this: “You can’t have red hair, because if I had had a red headed child, I would have put them up for adoption!” I was never put up for adoption, which, in my mind, proved that I was not a red head. However, I did wonder what other thing, totally out of my control, might move my mother to place me for adoption!

When I was almost 4, my parents went on an extensive overseas trip. We were told that great adventures were in store for us too. Mary Helen would go to grandmother’s house in Montgomery. Jim would go to Americus, Georgia to be with our Uncle Jack and Aunt Leewyn. And Betty Lou and I would journey to Mobile to stay with family who were affectionately known as Uncle Willy Willy and Aunt Dopie. Inevitably, the question arose: but what if you don’t come back from your trip; will we just stay with these family members, separated forever? That was when we were told, “Oh no, if something ever happens to us you will be taken to the Alabama Baptist Children’s Home.” This did not sit well on my preschool ears that had only negative associations with orphans and orphanages, and so I sought the solace of my sisters. Mary Helen, ever the sophisticate and knowledgeable about the ways of the world at 15, informed me, with confidence, that I had nothing to worry about. “Our parents will be just fine,” she said. “They will come home to us. We are not going to The Alabama Baptist Children’s Home.” (And she was right.) But my sister Betty Lou went one step further. She assured me that she would be with me in Mobile, and that if it came to going to The Alabama Baptist Children’s Home, that she would insist that we be together forever, which of course, was the comfort for which I was looking.

In the 14th chapter of John, this is the same message of comfort that Jesus is giving his disciples: “I will not leave you orphaned. I will come to you.”

(The following paragraphs are taken from Barbara Brown Taylor’s “Good News for Orphans,” Gospel Medicine) If we read the gospel of John straight through, things slow to a crawl around chapter fourteen. The last supper is over. Judas has left the room like a hive of yellow jackets is after him. Everyone’s feet are clean, and Jesus’ fingers are still puckered from washing their sandy toes. He begins to talk: “Love one another, do not be afraid; believe in God, believe also in me. Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but I will not leave you orphaned. I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, so that where I am, you may be also.”

Jesus goes on like this for four whole chapters, which is a sure indicator of the anxiety in the room. Jesus just kept talking trying to calm their confusion, fear and emotional fragility. We learned last week that these chapters are called “The Farewell Discourse,” because Jesus is trying to tell the disciples everything they need to know before He leaves them. There seems to be some confusion about where He is going exactly. We know that He is going to die, but that is not how He presents it to the disciples. The way He tells it, Jesus is heading off to a family reunion with His Father that no one else is invited to attend. Jesus is leaving the disciples in charge until He returns. But even after four chapters worth of instructions, they are still anxious about how long He might be planning to be away. Jesus, like a good parent with a preschooler who has separation anxiety, reassures them with, “I’ll just be gone a little while, and then, you will see Me.”

A few of them did see Him after the resurrection. He came twice to the room where the disciples gathered behind locked doors; He walked with others on the Emmaus Road; and some enjoyed a fish fry with Him on the shores of the Sea of Galilee one morning for breakfast. But then, Jesus was gone again and “a little while” became a lifetime. Ten years turned into a hundred years, then five hundred years, then a thousand. As a moderate church of the twenty-first century, we seem resigned to the fact that Jesus has not returned, and quite frankly, we don’t waste a lot of energy on “last things” speculation. The early church, however, watched carefully, and all the signs seemed right for Jesus to make His return. The disciples had died. The Temple was destroyed. So when Jesus still did not return, they felt pushed to the very edge of despair. Recognizing the danger signs of such despair, the gospel writer got busy pulling together a collection of Jesus’ teachings and compiled them into these chapters. It feels a bit like The Last Lecture Series that some colleges promote with their faculty when they are asked to compose a lecture with the thoughts they would most want to say if it were to be their last lecture ever. And so giving His last lecture, Jesus finds different ways to say the same thing over and over again, while using the central theme word of “love.” (Barbara Lundblad, “I will not Leave You Orphaned,” day1.org/936-i_will_not_leave_you_orphaned.print)
​If you love me, you will keep my commandments.
​A new commandment I give you that you love one another as I
have loved you.
Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.
I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Jesus seems to be calling His disciples to live and love in ways that are impossible. How can they do what He is asking without someone to help them? So Jesus introduces them to Spirit. It is the other theme consistently repeated around the table on that eventful night. Jesus calls the Spirit, “Advocate,” or someone who stands beside you in a court of law. He sometimes calls Spirit “helper” or “Spirit of Truth.” Mainly, He wants the disciples to know that He isn’t going to return to them like a friend coming home after a long journey. Instead, Jesus will be fully present, at all times, through the Spirit. (Lundblad)

It is the same Spirit that blew like a wind over the face of the deep in creation. It is the same Spirit that took on flesh and now sits with them around the table. It is the same Spirit that will come at Pentecost and blow through their room in such a mighty way that they are filled with enough courage to go out into the streets and preach a gospel that sets the world on fire. Jesus is very clear. Just as God breathed Spirit into lifeless clay to create a living person, so Jesus breathes the presence of Spirit into us to create living faith. It is the presence of Spirit that keeps us from being orphaned. We feel His presence in us at all times.

Now, it is understandable if that all seems a bit fuzzy. It is helpful to me to think about it this way: My father has been dead for nine years, but when I am feeling particularly blue, I can still hear him call me “Baby girl” from somewhere deep inside. My mother has been gone for 32 years, but when I am unsure of myself, I can, from deep inside, still hear her tell me, “You are as good as gold.” While I have lost their physical presence, they are still IN me, and it lends me courage. This is what Jesus is saying to the disciples! “You are not being left alone or orphaned. I am in you. I am abiding in you.” This word “abiding” means that Jesus is dwelling in us…making His home in us. It is a kind of cherishing where heart, mind and will all merge to inspire deep commitment and stubborn loyalty. (Mark Ralls, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, May 14, 2014.) It is a presence that stays with us at all times.

This is what first century missionary Paul is trying to tell those gathered in Athens at the Areopagus. It is the only recorded sermon we have in scripture where the listeners are totally pagan. Their response is curious. Rather than the riotous disturbances in which Paul’s preaching normally results, these skeptical seekers invite him to speak a second time. Surrounded by idols to every known god, including the “unknown god,” Paul lets his listeners know that the God who made the heavens and earth is “not far from us, for as we live and move and have our being, God is with us. We are God’s offspring. We are not orphaned.”

So what if we were to take Paul’s advice to look for God who is close by? What if we looked inward and not only cherished the places in our souls where God has already been at work but gained courage from them to nurture our relationship with God more diligently? What if in our outward search we not only focused on the places where we see God at work but we gained the necessary strength from them to work for justice in new places? And what if we began to give such a blessing to the happiness, acceptance and belonging we have already experienced, that these practices are gifted to others rather than pushing them further away?

Michael Lindvall was the pastor of a small Presbyterian church in rural northern Minnesota and had baptized a baby in the morning service. (Good News from North Haven) It was one of those lovely affairs where the baby is surrounded not only by both parents but by generations of aunts and uncles, grandparents and cousins. So he was surprised to find Mildred Cory sitting in the sanctuary after the service. She was crying when she told Michael that her 18 year old daughter was pregnant with no husband. If the daughter baptized this baby, there would not be anyone to stand with her and the whole community would know the shame of her situation.

Now this was a time and place where the daughter’s pregnancy would raise eyebrows and be the conversation of many a dinner table. In fact, it was so controversial that Michael felt compelled to take it to his administrative board to be sure that he wasn’t going too far out on a limb. The lively discussion resulted in approval of the baptism but everyone knew that it would be problematic when it came time for the liturgy to ask that the whole family stand with the baby.

The baptism date fell on the last Sunday in Advent, which, of course, meant that the church was packed. It was announced, “Tina Corey presents her son for baptism,” and down the aisle she came carrying the baby with a big blue pacifier in his mouth. Michael met her at the baptismal font and asked the question he always asked, “Who stands with this child?” and Mildred, the child’s grandmother stood. In the pause that normally follows a question, Michael noticed some additional movement in the pews. The McDowells, an older couple in the church, also stood. The sixth grade Sunday School teacher stood. A new young couple stood, and soon, every single person left the comfort of their pew to stand with the baby being baptized and his mother.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” Jesus promised. “I am coming to you to give you courage to love one another as I have loved you.”

The summer that my parents traveled, the day came that we would all go our separate ways. When they took Jim to the train station to make his way to Americus, they made sure he was tucked into his seat with a boxed lunch by his side. There was a travel bag that had his favorite comic books, never before used crayons, a fresh coloring book and a new drawing pad. As the last kisses were being planted firmly on his cheek, Jim reached up to hold our mother’s face in his hands. Looking deeply into her eyes, he said soulfully, “Don’t forget where am I.”

As we consider our faith this day, Jesus is doing the same thing. Holding our faces in His hands, he wants us to never forget “where am I.” For he is in us; He is with us; He is for us. He will not leave us orphaned. If this is good news that you wish to claim, then make a profession of faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior or join with this fellowship of believers in its ministries and fellowship as we stand and sing “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” #208.

The Gift of Absence

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

On Sunday, June 1, 2014

Acts 1:6-14; I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11; John 17:1-11

Many of you have kindly asked Lloyd and me about how we are doing as empty nesters. We like not enforcing curfews and not supervising homework. There is less laundry to do, and my scissors stay right where I left them last. We enjoy having flexibility with the dinner hour, and we are especially fond of making as much noise as we like without concern for the sleeping habits of our sons. However, I would be misleading if I also didn’t say just how much we miss both David and Dannelly. When Lloyd works late, I miss David’s presence at the kitchen island telling me every single detail of his day as I fix dinner. And when Lloyd attempts a discussion with me of the latest winning streak of the Yankees or how recruiting is going for the Crimson Tide, I can’t provide the informed and impassioned opinions that Dannelly can offer.

One thing is for sure: absence is keenest when there has once been a powerful sense of presence. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Looking Up Toward Heaven,” Gospel Medicine) What makes absence hurt, what makes absence ache, what causes us to long and pine is the memory of what used to be but is not any longer. Absence is the arm flung across the bed in the middle of the night. Absence is the child’s room now empty and hung with silence. Absence is the look in your parent’s eyes whose once brilliant mind is now ravaged by Alzheimer’s. Absence is the overgrown lot where the old house once stood. The house where laughter and happiness with loved ones was supposed to last forever. Absence is the phone that never rings; the inbox that stays perpetually empty; the resume that is repeatedly returned.

The only redeeming truth about absence is the fact that you cannot miss what you have never known. This is what John Claypool taught so many of us through his daughter Laura Lou’s death: that he ever had her present in his life at all was a gift. And so in times of absence, especially God’s absence, we gain hope from the sense that if we miss God, ache for God, long for God, seek after God, it means that we knew God once in some sort of shape and fashion. It is a gift…undeserved, unmerited; a gift to be cherished. And if we knew God once, then we can know God again—perhaps differently—but because it has happened once, we have hope that it just may happen again.

I have been suspicious for some time that what brings us back to church week after week is NOT our confidence in the readily available presence of God, but we return in a constant search for whatever God’s illusive presence among and within us might be. I am guessing we realize by now that we baffle our unbelieving friends and neighbors, family and co-workers. They don’t understand why we seek after this pie-in-the-sky religion for a deity that feels consistently absent. It feels more satisfying to them to sleep in a little later, to linger over a cup of coffee, to pay the bills, and catch up on the news. But rather than give in to God’s seeming absence, we come seeking presence: the presence of other believers that lends courage AND the presence of God that we experience here in one way or another at one time or another. Barbara Brown Taylor puts it this way: (pp. 72-73)
Those of us who worship…”begin to count on it. This is how we learn where we fit. This is how we locate ourselves between the past and the future, between our hopes and fears, between the earth and the stars. This is how we learn who we are and what we are supposed to be doing: by coming together to sing and to pray, to be silent and to be still, by peering into the darkness together and telling each other what we see when we do. We may baffle our unbelieving friends and neighbors… Half the time we baffle ourselves, proclaiming good news when the news is so bad, trusting the light when the sky is so dark, continuing to wait on the Savior in our midst when all the evidence suggests that packed up and left a long, long time ago.”

Luke ends his gospel and begins the Acts of the Apostles with the story of how Jesus takes His leave of absence from the disciples. Technically, it is known as “The Ascension.” Jesus leads the disciples to a mount called Olivet, just outside of Jerusalem. He spoke with them for a little while and then is lifted up and disappears into a cloud with only promises that He will return. Luke reports it so matter-of-factly; it leads us to hear it like a newscast. But the awed response of the disciples, for they stand still simply staring up at the sky, lets us know what a moment of wonder it truly is. Interestingly, just like with the women at the tomb, two men, dressed in white, stand with the disciples and ask the question: “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” This question implies the same message as was given to the women: “He is not here any longer. He has risen right before your very eyes.”

This question brings our focus quickly from heaven to the realities of earth. We tend to think that Jesus’ departure is what should capture our attention, and so we fail to realize that the most astounding event occurs once the disciples take their eyes off of the sky and begin to look at one another. On the surface, it appears to be a disappointing sight: eleven abandoned disciples now afloat without their leader; attempting to understand His absence when they crave His presence. But the days and weeks, months and years that follow give testimony to this moment as being when the church began. When the disciples finally look at one another long enough to recognize the presence of Jesus within each one, they suddenly become leaders instead of followers, preachers instead of listeners, missionaries instead of converts, healers instead of those in need of healing. It is probably not what they had in mind at all. Their preference would have been to hog-tie Jesus and keep Him fully present for years to come, but when He is taken away, they have to look to one another to be the presence of Christ in the world. (Barbara Brown Taylor) It would seem that there are times when Christ has to leave us so that we can figure out how we are to carry the Light ourselves. Sometimes we need absence over presence to discover that the power of Easter and resurrection is within us too! (Bradley Schmeling, Christian Century, “Living by the Word,” 5-28-14)

The late Don Benedict was the director of the old Chicago City Missionary Society. This was an urban ministry organization committed to ministry with the most powerless, voiceless residents of Chicago who did not experience much in the ways of justice or kindness. (John Buchanan, “Don’t Just Stand There Looking Up,” 6-5-11) His personal mission statement was something like this: “The mission of the urban church is to keep alive the rumor that there is a God.” Amid the ambulances that speed by on University Boulevard with their sirens blaring, police cars, buses and trolley, the lonely and troubled, the anxious and depressed, the hungry and the homeless, I wonder if we at Baptist Church of the Covenant realize our business—our mission—our calling—is to take our eyes away from gazing at the heavens and look into the eyes of those sent our way in order to keep alive the rumor that God is not absent, but that God is very present and alive. I believe we do this every time we leave the comfort of our pew to welcome the stranger at the gate; when we move from our friends, with whom we may gather at any time, to sit with neighbors who we only see on Wednesday nights at 5:30. We do it when we share the wealth of knowledge we possess about living in the south with an international who can barely speak English; when we provide a safe venue for Halloween. We do it when we leave the luxury of our own beds to sleep on a cot overnight with families who are homeless; when we forego our own errands on a Saturday morning to insure that the Highlands Manor residents get their groceries. We do it when we tell a story to children in SouthTown’s gym or provide consistent leadership to teens who need additional role models.

So the next time that God feels absent and you wonder about divine presence, ask yourself: “Why are you looking up at the sky when Jesus is right here in and among us!?”

As we receive communion today, don’t be caught looking up at the sky, stuck in pondering the absence of Jesus, instead, look at one another. Look at one another to see Jesus and to feel His presence encouraging us, in His absence, to be the church, His presence in the world.

Prayer: We take these tangible and testable elements of bread and juice into our bodies as reminders of Your presence in and through us, O Lord. We admit our unworthiness, for we too often gaze at the heavens when there is work to be done, people’s lives to touch and resources to share. Keep us hopeful that because we have known You, we will know You again: because we have experienced Your presence, that we can be that presence to others; and because we have beheld Your glory, we can more easily see it in the faces of those around us. Now bless this meal we are about to receive that it will strengthen us to keep the rumor alive that You are very present with us even while being absent. Amen.
Perhaps having experienced the presence of God, you desire to make a public profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, or wish to unite with this body of believers in whom you witness the presence of Christ. We invite you to make these public decisions of faith as we stand to sing, “Let Others See Jesus in You,” number 571.

Made Known In The Blessing

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

On Sunday, May 4, 2014

Acts 2:14a, 37-41; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35

It is a strange thing to grow up in one house your whole life and then discover that it is not yours. You see, I grew up in a pastorium and there was a “gentleman’s agreement” made between Dad and his calling committee that the house we lived in was to be ours when he gave the pulpit up for another place of service or retirement. Maybe they didn’t expect him to stay for 22 years so that all those “gentlemen,” who were on the calling committee, were buried along with their knowledge of the agreement. Maybe they could not have predicted the enormous surge in real estate values. Maybe they were just so tired of one another that it just didn’t matter whose feelings were hurt. It had to sting when the realization finally hit that the church was keeping the house, and my parents did not have a home after 22 years of yard work and maintenance, birthdays and holidays, memories dear and tender.

They retired, instead, to my mother’s family’s home in Evergreen. Already filled with three generations of memories and mania, the walls in that Victorian house, to this day, breathe with the presence of old haunts. My parents, however, were happy there. They gloried in the improvements made and enjoyed the challenge of taming a yard that had been allowed to grow up and over every boundary. They did not share it for long, however, because mother died of a sudden heart attack in 1982. When the will was read, we were surprised to find that the house was given to us, the four children, but with the provision that Dad could stay as long as he desired to live there. So Dad continued faithfully on, and we did our best to make new memories.
Most of you know that Dad remarried. Again, we gave our best efforts at relationship, but it did not take long before new rules were put into play and our presence, in our own home, was a source of anxiety and outright disagreement for the bride. These were new emotions for our family system. In fact, we were so ill equipped for emotional game playing that when Dad entered the last stages of cancer, we were banished. He died and not once in the entire time we were in Evergreen for the funeral were we invited into our own home.

Frederick Buechner says: (“The Longing for Home,” Secrets in the Dark)
The word “home” summons up a place…that you have rich and complex feelings about, a place where you feel, or did feel once, uniquely at home, which is to say a place where you feel you belong and that in some sense belongs to you, a place where you feel that all is somehow ultimately well even if things aren’t going all that well at any given moment. …[home] is a place inside yourself that you spend the rest of your life searching for even if you are not aware you are searching.

Home is the destination of the two disciples walking to Emmaus. (Exegesis from dancingwiththeword.com, “Home to Emmaus”) Apparently, they are not a part of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, but, they are close enough to know all the astonishing and essential details, right down to the witness of the women at the tomb early that very morning. They, however, have apparently heard and seen enough, because they leave Jerusalem to walk the seven miles home. They leave in search for that which is familiar, safe and comforting. They desire a reunion with people who knew them before their world was turned upside down and inside out. They are looking for that place where they know that ultimately, all things will be well. They are walking home.

Jesus, however, meets them “on the way.” He doesn’t come to them in Jerusalem. He doesn’t wait for them to arrive home. He doesn’t require a holy pilgrimage or some pious act. No, Jesus meets up with them right where they are—on the road, amid a quest for understanding, right smack dab in the middle of overwhelming pain, frustration and despondency. Jesus meets them, even though they don’t recognize Him. (David Lose, “Our Road to Emmaus,” workingpreacher.org) It reminds me of C. S. Lewis when he wrote (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer): The world is crowded with God. He walks everywhere incognito.

So Jesus asks them: “What’s going on? What are you talking about?” Their response is more accurately translated: “Are you out of your mind? How can you not know what is going on? Everybody is talking about it! It’s front page news in The Jerusalem Herald and Brian Williams has it as his lead story for the evening news.” And then, Jesus just simply listens. He listens as they pour out their hearts about what they had hoped and how it is now all gone. Then He talks to them, giving them an Old Testament overview from Genesis to current day, about how what happened to the Messiah is all a part of God’s big plan.

The conversation and the teaching help the trip go by so quickly that they reach Emmaus before they know it. Afraid that their traveling companion will continue on, the disciples extend gracious hospitality and invite him into their home. Now strangely enough, while it is their house, their table, their food, Jesus, the guest, acts as host. He takes the bread, gives a blessing, breaks the bread and hands it out. And when the blessing is given, they recognize that it is Jesus and run all the way back to Jerusalem to let the others know that they too have seen the risen Lord.

I find it humorous that no one ate the bread or drank from the cup that night. Instead, the disciples receive a blessing that they are compelled to share immediately. It is similar to the blessing of Jesus’ presence we have felt when disappointed, doubtful and disconsolate. He comes to us whether we know the Bible or not; whether we recognize Him or not; whether we spend hours in prayer or not. He comes to us when we have given up and are heading out to search for a family home that may have dissolved years ago. He comes to us when we have given up on a church home that closed its doors when we needed gracious hospitality. He comes to us when we have given up on ever finding a home that is loving and accepting and we are left to wonder if home only exists in our hearts and minds. So, instead of staying in their house, they run to where home is now. They retrace their path in order to be united with those who share the same hope, the same regret, and who are willing to stake their lives and hearts and minds on the life and death of Jesus. Their home is no longer in Emmaus. Their home instead becomes wherever they will meet Jesus next. Their home is Christ’s Kingdom which exists both within us and among us. It is where blessing is given and received with such genuineness that our eyes are opened to recognize one another, and we are able to love one another earnestly from the heart, as I Peter says. And wouldn’t our world be a different place if this were the case?

Stanley Hauerwas, ethics professor of Duke University’s Divinity School, recently published an article (“Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War”) in which he proposes that the Christian’s alternative to war is worship. He says:
We were created to be at peace with one another and God. We were not created to kill one another. We were created to be in communion with one another. … [So] if Christians leave the Eucharistic table ready to kill one another, we not only eat and drink judgment on ourselves, we rob the world of the witness necessary for the world to know there is an alternative…

For me, the alternative we offer as Christians is to give and receive a blessing at this table. Blessing is, after all, what opens the disciples’ eyes and speaks into being something so powerful that it cannot be contained. So it makes me wonder how the world might be changed if instead of judgment, we offered blessing; if instead of strategizing politically, we simply broke bread together; if instead of rhetoric about how much we care about the poor and lowly, the marginalized and outcast, that we broke bread with the strangers in our midst?

It is why gathering at this table is so important, for it is a homecoming, a reunion of those who recognize one another as those who belong to Christ and therefore, we belong and are bound to one another as a family of faith.

When my family of origin gathered around the dining room table every night promptly at 6:00, we would reach to take the hands of those on either side of us, bow our heads and Dad would pray something like: “Make us grateful, O Lord, for all our many blessings. Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies and us to Thy service. Protect our loved ones wherever they are. Amen.” In similar fashion, as family about the table, let us reach over and hold the hands of those nearby. As we pass the plates to one another, speak aloud the reminder that “This is the body of Christ broken for you.” Let us bless this meal saying together:
God is great, God is good and we thank Him for this food. By His hands, we all are fed. Thank you Lord for daily bread. Amen.
I Corinthians 11:23b-25
Pray with me: God our father (repeat) we thank Thee (repeat)
for our many blessings (repeat) Amen (repeat)

Rachel Naomi Remen tells a story about her grandfather. (My Grandfather’s Blessings) He was a scholar of the Kabbalah, the mystical teachings of Judaism. While her highly educated parents and aunts and uncles took a dim view of his study, Rachel was fascinated. As a child, she would go to her Grandfather’s house every Friday afternoon. They would have tea and then he would have a word with God. She would sit patiently and wait for him to finish because the best part of her week was coming.

He would call her by a pet name, which meant “beloved little soul,” and she would stand in front of him. He would rest his hands lightly on the top of her head. He would begin by thanking God for her and for making him her grandfather. She tells: (pages 22 and 23)
He would specifically mention my struggles during that week and tell God something about me that was true. … If I had made mistakes during the week, he would mention my honesty in telling the truth. If I had failed, he would appreciate how hard I had tried. If I had taken even a short nap without my nightlight, he would celebrate my bravery in sleeping in the dark. Then he would give me his blessing and ask the long-ago women I knew from his many stories— Sarah, Rachel, Rebekah and Leah—to watch over me.

These few moments were the only time in my week when I felt completely safe and at rest. My family of physicians and health professionals were always struggling to learn more and to be more. [What I did] was never enough. If I brought home a 98 on a test from school, my father would ask, “And what happened to the other two points?” I pursued those two points relentlessly throughout my childhood. But my grandfather did not care about such things. For him, I was already enough. And somehow when I was with him, I knew with absolute certainty that this was so.

What Rachel Naomi Remen is describing is a blessing; a blessing that awakens the divine spark in the receiver; a blessing that offers refuge from an indifferent and sometimes cruel world; a blessing that enables others to remember who they are as a child of God’s created in God’s image; a blessing that communicates worth…worth in the one who receives and worth in the one who blesses; a blessing that affirms who we are just as we are as being enough; a blessing that takes the knots of disbelief and fear and self-doubt and separates them, straightens them out so that we are freed to give and receive blessings of such magnitude that the world is repaired and moves ever closer to wholeness.

I believe this is what happened to those disciples so many years ago: Jesus not only blesses the meal, He blesses who they are so profoundly that they could find home anywhere Jesus could be found. Buechner says: I believe that home is Christ’s Kingdom, which exists both within us and among us as we wend our prodigal ways through the world in search of it.

You know where I am going, right? I am going to say that our communion together as a community of faith is not finished until we have our eyes opened to recognize those who are seated near us. We have held hands. We have prayed. We have offered praise. We have spoken the words that remind us about the broken body of Christ. Now, what is left for us is to recognize one another by imparting a blessing. So turn to the one sitting next to you, step across the aisle or lean to reach whoever is behind or in front of you…ask their name if you don’t know it…and then place your hand upon them and speak words of blessing, like, “You are a child of God’s;” “You are fearfully and wonderfully made;” “You are enough just like you are;” “Receive God’s blessing.” If you feel a little funny, it is ok. It is just your heart burning with the recognition that this brother or sister in Christ is a child of God’s, our neighbor whom we love. Let us remind one another of Easter’s good news: that instead of death, there is blessing for a life worth living.
Impart blessings

If there are those who wish to affirm the blessing they have received by professing Christ as Lord, or desire for this church house to be their home or giving their life to a Christian vocation, the doors of the church are open to receive you as we stand and sing #16, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”