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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!

Presence

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

from Sunday, July 20, 2014

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24; Romans 8:12-25; Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

 

It was common practice in my family of origin that if we had weekend or evening plans with friends that we had to be able to voice to our parents what the plans were, who we intended to be with, what their fathers did for a living, what church they attended, what time we could be expected home, and if we had a dime in our shoe to call for help if necessary.  I had already jumped through most of these hoops when I used the argument that all my friends were going, and I was a junior in high school after all.  But when I informed my parents that our plan was to see the movie The Exorcist, my father came unglued.  Did I know what this movie was about?  Had I read anything about this movie?  In spite of my assurances, he would not be moved from his decision that if I was to see this movie, I would have to turn in to him a written review with cited references AND that I could NOT, under any circumstances, disturb his rest in the future just because I was having bad dreams.  This only served to fuel my fire!  So I dutifully went to the Emmett O’Neal Library and read reviews, looked at promotional pictures, wrote the required paper with cited references (!) and continued to move ahead with plans to watch the movie.

The movie, of course, was terrifying, and as my father predicted, I awoke in the middle of the night for weeks only to see that tormented child sitting on the bed opposite of mine.  She watched me sleep in the dark with her eyes that glowed red and her hair that was matted with what I later learned was split pea soup.  I, however, was determined to keep my end of the bargain.  In spite of this maleficent presence, I never told of these nightly visitations.  Instead I piled things up on the bed opposite of mine so that she would find no place to sit.  I also became adept at using my covers as a shield of protection through which no amount of evil could penetrate as I repeated that verse learned as a preschooler:  “What time I am afraid, I will trust in Thee.”

What has you pulling the covers over your head in fear?  What visits you in the dark?  What lurks beneath your bed or hides in the darkest recesses of your closet or waits to grab you when you descend to the gloomy basement?

We are taught as children to be inside when darkness falls at the end of each day.  Our parents call to us, “Come on inside now.  It is getting dark.”  What is it about the dark that is so ominous that we give up quiet, clean houses to rambunctious children to be sure they are safely gathered within the sheltering light of 60 watt bulbs?  Oh, when night falls, we gather inside, front porch lights are turned on, curtains are drawn, and doors are locked.  Of what are we so afraid?  It makes me wonder:  Is it the darkness “out there,” or the darkness “in here?”

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor has a new book that explores darkness.  (Learning to Walk in the Dark)  She says:

When, despite all my best efforts, the lights have gone off in my life (literally or figuratively, take your pick), plunging me into the kind of darkness that turns my knees to water, nonetheless I have not died.  The monsters have not dragged me out of bed and taken me back to their lair.  The witches have not turned me into a bat.  Instead, I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion:  I need darkness as much as I need light.

Taylor points out that the Christian faith rarely has good things to say about darkness.  Perhaps it is because we worry so about the church’s finances in order to keep the lights turned on that we have, as a result, turned darkness into a synonym for sin, ignorance, spiritual blindness, and death.  Think about how often we pray things like:  Deliver us, O Lord, from the powers of darkness.  Shine into our hearts the brightness of your Holy Spirit, and protect us from all perils and dangers of the night.  Or, more simply, we say like the Quakers, “I’m holding you in the Light.”

So in an attempt to reclaim lunar spirituality, Taylor learns how to hike the rural mountains of Georgia in the dark; she explores a cave’s total darkness; she spends the night in a small cabin in order to watch the various shades of civil twilight and nautical twilight; she climbs a high hill that affords her and her husband an unobstructed view of a full moon’s ascent; she chronicles sounds heard in the dark and she begins a garden in which the flowers bloom only at night.  She concludes:

God does not turn the world over to some other deity [when darkness falls].  Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone.  There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it…the testimony of faith [is that] darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as day.

These confessional words are taken straight from Psalm 139.  (James Mays, Interpretation:  Psalms)  It is a doctrinal classic as it portrays the multi-dimensions of human existence in terms of God’s knowledge, presence and power.  In verses 1-6, the Lord knows whatever the psalmist thinks and does.  A more accurate translation of “O Lord, you have searched and known me,” is “O Lord, you have excavated me!”  Or in even more hip language, “You dig me, O Lord!” (Jeremy Troxler, “Hemmed In,” faithandleadership.com) In verses 7-12, the Lord is present regardless of where ever the psalmist might be.  In verses 13-16, the Lord is even present at conception; and in verses 17-18, with awe, it is declared that God’s thoughts of us number more than the grains of sand near the sea.  It would seem that the psalmist is never free of God in any part of his entire existence, but the relationship is described in such a way that neither God nor the psalmist is a prisoner of or a mere function of the other.  The psalmist is free for and to God, and God is free for and to the psalmist…which is what inspires awe and wonder.  It is such wonderful and lofty knowledge that we are incapable of understanding it.  So instead of full comprehension, we experience presence.  When we go to heaven, God is there.  When we lay down in dangerous places, God is there.  When we fly off in all sorts of directions or dwell in deep places like the ocean, God is there.  In God, even the darkness is not dark.  Instead, the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with God.

This is a description of the height, breadth and depth of the love of God.  It seems that God’s right hand holds us by the scruff of our necks when we pull down the shades, when we turn off the lights, when we hide under the bed covers or beneath the shadow of our self-deception.  We might as well stand in a spotlight, for even in our self-imposed darkness, God is still present with loving concern.  (Troxler)

Now we often assume that if God is only paying attention to us when we have obviously done something so wrong that we have attracted God’s interest for the purpose of judgment and punishment.  The good news of this psalm is that we live our entire lives within the presence of a Reality that is larger than we can comprehend or imagine.  This Reality is, of course, God and God will keep us and protect us and be present with us wherever we go and in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

The parable of the wheat and weeds seems to speak of this too.  You know this story:  a farmer prepares a field and the farm hands plant good seed.  When the plants begin to sprout, however, it is apparent that somehow, some way, weeds are all mixed within.  There is danger involved—darkness, if you will– for these very weeds, if their seeds are harvested with the grains of wheat and crushed for baking, they will place deadly poison in the bread.  The field workers, therefore, are motivated to remove the weeds.

They wonder:  where did the weeds come from?  Their explanation:  an enemy must have done this.

They wonder:  when did this happen?  Their explanation:  when our attention was most diverted…while we slept.  It feels like a formula for disaster:  weeds + an enemy + the dark of night = evil.

And so they wonder:  should we go ahead and pull the weeds up?  And the farmer says “No!”  The roots are all bound together.  To pull up a weed damages the wheat.  Let them grow together under his watchful eye.  He is not leaving this field to chance.  It has his full attention, and he has a plan that will, in time, be revealed.

Again, this is the wonderful, good news of God’s presence.  When we are in our fields, individually or collectively…fields that are full of challenges, full of weeds, full of darkness, full of what is disposable and not of eternal significance, there are also—growing side by side– redeemable elements that contribute fully to the Kingdom of God.  It isn’t so much that we are so great, but that the One who watches over us is so good and generous.

Jesus tells his disciples that this parable can be translated as if the field were the world in which God and the Devil enact their sowing of good and evil.  While I can name how this works in our world, I can also name how it works in my own life that possesses as many weeds as it does harvestable grains of wheat.  How can I separate wheat from weed?  How do I carefully pick apart the roots?  And what if I leave them to grow together in the hopes that God’s patient redemption just might help me grow a stronger strain of wheat?  Can’t we define faith as being when God comes into our secret, messy fields in unlikely and unexpected ways so that we experience God’s comforting and undeniable Presence?

When I took Biology at Mountain Brook Junior High School, I was assigned a lab partner.  Her name was Lindy and I soon discovered that she was Jewish, because we often maneuvered religious holidays that might interrupt the dissection of a worm or frog.  She asked me one day if I had a whole Bible that she could have.  She was curious to read one.  So I went home and asked my mother for a Bible to give to Lindy.  My mother was concerned that it might cause Lindy’s parents to take offense, so I never gave her a Bible, and it nagged at this Baptist girl’s heart…for years.

We lost touch after High School, but one day in the grocery store, each of us with children in tow, Lindy and I discovered one another again.  We had a sweet reunion and talked just briefly enough that whenever I preached at the Southside Community Thanksgiving service or took part in a service at her temple, Lindy was there.  At some point, I confessed my guilt to her about never giving her a whole Bible.  She laughed and admitted that she had gotten one eventually.  She had even read it!

Well, Lindy called me this week.  “My husband has ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease.” She said, “I drive him everywhere he needs to be.  His office is being very kind to find meaningful work for him that he can do until December when he can retire with full benefits.  We are just hoping he will make it that long because the dementia has started.  What I am wondering, Sarah, is if we can meet with you.  He is a Christian, but he has no church.  He wants a Christian funeral service and not my rabbi.  Because of my connection to you, I know that you will not take this as an opportunity to condemn me, a Jew, to hell, but that you will be the presence of Christ to us.”

My friend Lindy is looking for the assurance of Presence in her field of wheat that has suddenly sprung up with weeds.  I realize that this is why so many of us gather here week after week.  Our weeds look different.  Our darkness feels different, but the amazing good news of scripture is that God does not vary.  No, God’s presence is ever sure and secure.

Presence:  the ability to stand tall in your field of wheat and weeds because of the Presence of God that gives courage and stamina until the harvest.  Sowing seeds like the extravagant sower, but leaving the results to the Lord who watches over our fields, who is wise about how the roots get enmeshed, and how the presence of something hideous or scary, full of darkness or life-threatening also has the capacity to turn into something that is redemptive and harvestable for God’s Kingdom.  Paul tells us:  These unseen things are what we hope for as we wait with patience.  (Romans 8:25) And Jesus?  He says that the righteous will shine like the sun in the Kingdom of Heaven.  May we have ears to hear.  (MT. 13:43)  Amen.

The Kingdom of Heaven is Like …

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

on Sunday, July 27, 2014

Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-27; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

One of the things I love about Baptist Church of the Covenant is that you play along.  I throw a suggestion out, like get off of your pews to prayer walk the block or don’t receive communion until you have made amends with whoever you are angry with or if I cue you with this, will you respond back with that, and you do it!  I really love this about you!  So this week when I sent out about 80 emails asking you to finish this statement:  “The kingdom of heaven is like…” I got almost 80 responses back!

The first group I sent to was my family.  You might be able to guess who wrote some of these.  The Kingdom of heaven is like…

…a Barney’s warehouse sale.

…the smell of a Cuban cigar on a south Alabama veranda.

…dancing and singing.

…a national championship for the Crimson Tide.

Our deacons had some loftier ideas about the kingdom of heaven.  They said the kingdom of heaven is like…

…the feel of someone’s arms wrapped around you keeping you close and safe.

…the sound of someone saying “thanks” after receiving a Sunday sack lunch.

…a bird flying in complete freedom, giving up the fetters of this world that hold us back.  There is only joy, ecstasy and bliss

The Kingdom of Heaven is like…having a place saved at a table where all those we long to commune with are seated, but for the first time, there is invitation and room where there has never been invitation and room before.

Others said that the kingdom of heaven is like…

….Camp Birmingham with grandparents.

…DisneyWorld with free unlimited fast passes.

…a roll of masking tape.  The more it unravels the stickier it becomes, so that even the undesirable lent and fuzz stick to the edges of the roll.

The Kingdom of heaven is like…an open church door with a warm welcome.

…a hospice nurse pulling into your driveway at 3 in the morning.

…clean, drinkable water for the thirsty.

…a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza.

The Kingdom of heaven is like a river, even though we wish it were a dock.

…finally coming home when you’ve been kept away by snow.

…seeing your healthy baby for the first time.

…being on the top of a high mountain with wild flowers and a view that lasts forever.

…like a big family reunion or a birthday party or a great Southern feast with food enough, love enough, laughter enough.

The Kingdom of Heaven is like…don’t worry, be happy.

…sitting on my grandmother’s front porch swing, and while we wait for the watermelon to cool in the creek, we sip cold sweet tea as all God’s children play in the fields around the house.

Richard Vinson says that “God’s kingdom—this place where God’s love is stronger than any other power, human or cosmic—doesn’t look powerful, doesn’t have tanks or armies. God’s kingdom is small and ordinary; it’s full of peace-lovers and people who feed the poor.”  Which, to me, sounds an awful lot like Baptist Church of the Covenant.

Now the English professors of our congregation could instruct us on how to build stronger metaphors and similes.  They might tell us that these figures of speech are used to talk about one thing by referring to another.  It is a way to talk about something so high and lofty and illusive that language is often inadequate and so we resort to ordinary words about ordinary things although these ordinary things are often unexpected and surprising.  To write and speak this way, however, our understanding is expanded due to the triggering of our imaginations.  When the comparisons catch us by surprise, then our ordinary understanding of things is broken open to new possibilities.  It is like receiving an invitation to explore in fresh ways in order to see what speaks to us that has never spoken to us before.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven,  “The Seeds of Heaven.”)

Jesus did this all the time when he taught by using parables.  Throughout the Gospels, He makes comparisons like sinners as lost sheep, God’s Word as seed sown on different kinds of ground, and the Kingdom as a wedding feast.  In the 13th chapter of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus launches a volley of such comparisons.  He heaps parable upon parable like a madman.  Usually His stories are so compelling that the ant lays down her crumb to listen.  (Frederick Buechner, “The Kingdom of God,” Secrets in the Dark)  The stars hold their breath, and the people settle down for a good story.  But rather than the engaging stories that begin with “There once was a landowner…” or “There once was a king…” or “A father had two sons…” Jesus zings His listeners with one comparison right after another.  He is almost breathless after saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.  The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.  The kingdom of heaven is like buried treasure, like a fine pearl, like a net cast in the sea.”  The images come quickly like scenery that flashes before our eyes from a car window.  They come one right on top of another with no preparation, no explanation, no time for questions and answers or opportunity to absorb their meaning.  It is not like Jesus to be in such a rush, but perhaps this speaks to the immediacy of the Kingdom that He is trying so hard to define.

While we enjoy a thick spread of mustard on our yeasty sandwich rolls, the truth is that neither of the examples of mustard or yeast were thought of positively in Jesus’ day.  To hear that the Kingdom was like yeast in a culture of unleavened bread or that the  Kingdom is like the dreaded mustard plant that overtakes a cultivated field overnight, would have been like hearing nails on a chalkboard to those first century listeners.  Jesus used these negative examples to talk about something positively magnificent.  It is a hook to grab the attention of His audience, for if the bane of their existence could serve as a reminder of God’s Kingdom, then the surprise and potency of the Kingdom’s possibilities is vividly apparent.

All of the images—the mustard seed in the ground, the yeast in the dough, the treasure in the field, the valuable pearl among all the other pearls, the nets down in the depths of the sea—share an element of hiddenness.  If the Kingdom is like these, then it is not something readily apparent to the eye, but something that requires a discerning eye.  The Kingdom seems to be just below the surface of things waiting to be discovered.  (Taylor)

When Lloyd’s sisters and I went through their mother’s personal effects after her funeral, we discovered that mixed in with the stainless was the occasional sterling silver spoon.  Tangled up in baubles and rhinestones was the occasional piece of “real” jewelry.  Within the overgrown flower beds, was the occasional rose or hydrangea.  It was the extraordinary mixed in with what was mundane and ordinary.  It seems that when it comes to the Kingdom, God uses the oldest trick in the book, mainly that the Kingdom is not hidden at all, but present in all of the ordinary, dull circumstances of our everyday lives if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear.

A time I learned about the Kingdom of Heaven came at the end of a week’s trip to Cuba.  While it was a lovely trip without many complications, we were ready to return to the normal rhythms of our lives.  The first leg, from Havana to Miami, was uneventful.  We made it through customs just fine, but when we had to go through American security, the lines were long.  Some lines went more smoothly than others, and so our group got separated.  Half of the group made it through in time to arrive at the next flight’s gate on time.  However, once they went through the gate door, it was shut and locked behind them.  Even though the airplane’s door was still open to receive the long line of boarding passengers, those of us who arrived at the gate a little late were denied entry.  We were told that we had missed our flight.  We were not going home.  The disappointment of that had us pleading our case.  We argued that the plane was still boarding, surely they would let us through.  We played the sympathy card:  we’ve been on a mission trip all week and this is the last leg of our trip.  But the ticket takers would not be moved.  We were not going to be allowed to walk through the door to board the plane.  So when the ticket agent came around the desk with walkie-talkie in hand threatening to call security, we gave in.  We had been to Cuba after all.  We knew that when we were told to sit, we should sit.

What we did not know, however, was that on the other side of the locked door was a certain Bart Grooms.  In ways that only Bart can, Bart was telling anybody who would listen that our group was separated and that we needed to be reunited.  To the man changing out the trash liners, Bart sang the blues.  To the security watchman, Bart expressed his displeasure.  To the stewardess and to the pilot, Bart demanded that we be allowed to board the plane.  And because Bart’s voice is so quiet and diminutive (NOT!), all the passengers were overhearing the plight of our situation.

Now back at the gate, oblivious to what was happening on the tarmac, we began to gather our thoughts about how we might get home.  So we were surprised when the ticket agent walked over to our discouraged little group and said, “So, are you friends of Bart’s?”  “Yes,” was our tentative reply, as if this were some secret code language for espionage.  “Well, if you are friends of Bart, you may pass through the doors.”  Quickly we gathered our things.  She handed us boarding passes, and we ran to make the flight.  We were curious about what Bart had done.  This curiosity was only fed by the fact that the trash man applauded as we ran by.  The security watchman said with a big smile, “Ahhh, Bart’s friends!”  The stewardess and pilot reminded us, “You have a friend in Bart.”  And when the passengers saw us slide into our seats, they cheered:  “Hooray for Bart’s friends!”

The apostle Paul tells us that this is what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.  It is having an advocate on the other side of things who takes our concerns to the throne of God.  When we have no words, when we are lost in darkness, when we are discouraged and without a plan or personal resources, when all we can do is cry and moan and sit paralyzed by fear and grief, the Holy Spirit searches our hearts.  The Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, so that when we make the last leg of our trip, we are not left behind at the gate, but welcomed into the Kingdom with a celebration as friends of Jesus.

Oh, my friends, the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.  It is so close that we can reach out and touch it.  It is so close that sometimes it reaches out and touches us.  It is so close all we have to do is receive it like a gift.  Do you have eyes to see and ears to hear?  All over the world we can hear it stirring if we will but stop to listen.  Good things are happening in and through all sorts of people like compassion and hope, tolerance and justice, mercy and forgiveness.  Beautiful scenes of nature, loving relationships, inspiring music and good books all point us to the Kingdom’s presence.  And while we cannot force the Kingdom of God, we can make ourselves available to it.  We can be kind to one another, and we can be kind to ourselves.  We can drive the darkness back even if just a little.  We can make our souls into green places so that the holy place inside of us is nurtured and tended and cultivated.  So believe in the good news that we are loved by God.  It is, after all, the gladdest thing of all. (Buechner)

The Kingdom of heaven is like…a bowl of butter pecan ice cream…watching the waves at the beach…a good night’s sleep…a deep breath following a final exam.

The kingdom of heaven is like…Christmas morning when the gift we receive or give is so much better than we deserve or hoped for or imagined.  The anticipation of the gift is over, but it is exchanged for revelry and celebration.

The kingdom of heaven is like the believers at Baptist Church of the Covenant…the saints of God…that if you would like to be a part, then join us by making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord or by becoming a member of this congregation or giving yourself over to a full-time Christian vocation as we stand and sing of heaven, #514.

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.
IN MY LIFE, LORD, BE GLORIFIED.

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.
IN MY LIFE, LORD, BE GLORIFIED.

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..
IN MY LIFE, LORD, BE GLORIFIED.

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.
IN MY LIFE, LORD, BE GLORIFIED.

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.
IN MY LIFE, LORD, BE GLORIFIED.

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.
IN MY LIFE, LORD, BE GLORIFIED.

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.
IN MY LIFE, LORD, BE GLORIFIED.
(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

Welcome

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.