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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!

God-Neighbor

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

On Sunday, October 19, 2014

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; I Thessalonians 2:5-6; Matthew 22:34-40

After my graduation from seminary, I got in my car and drove to Birmingham where I was to serve as Youth Minister. In the next couple of years, a Samford student began attending the church. She was from Connecticut, and her sharp blue eyes sparkled with her unabashed passion for justice. Her love for God was evident in her love for the marginalized. I remember that she was asked to give her testimony about stewardship. It was the most unusual one I had ever heard, for she talked about stewardship as a practical way of living. In fact, one of the ways she said we could begin was to simply take our shopping carts back up to the grocery store and not leave them to roll freely in the parking lot.

Now, years later, not only do I take my grocery cart back to the store, but Suzanne Martin continues to influence me to do even bolder things…not just because of stewardship, not just because of justice, but sometimes just because it is the right thing to do. And so, I wrote all four of our elected officials in Washington D.C. this week. Seeking their influence on behalf of the hungry, I reminded Bachus, Sewell, Sessions and Shelby that Baptist Church of the Covenant is actively involved in feeding the hungry. I want to remind you of these involvements too. We:
+Participate in food drives with Greater Birmingham Ministries
+Make and take Sunday sack lunches with Community Kitchens
+Partner with Highlands United Methodist Church to provide breakfast
6 days a week
+Provide 50 adult dinners and 15 children’s dinners on Wednesday nights through the U+1 Fund
+When funds are available, we fill daily requests for food vouchers at a local grocery store
+Feed teens every Thursday night in order for them to be at their best to learn about leadership
+Provide housing and meals for families with Family Promise quarterly
+Take mentally challenged adults grocery shopping every Saturday
+Partner with UAB’s 1917 Clinic for cooking classes
+Participate in the annual CROP walk
+Advocate for the hungry with Alabama Arise and Bread for the World
+Volunteer with the Weekenders Backpack Program through the Food
Bank

While that may seem like a lot, may I also remind you that it barely scratches the surface of the needs in our neighborhood and state? According to Bread for the World, Alabama is the 7th hungriest state in our nation. 49.7% of Alabama households receive SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Lest we fall prey to assumptions and stereotypes, these are all working households! One half of the recipients are either elderly or children.

Two past Wednesday nights ago, John Barncastle of The Community Food Bank, told us that there are 300,000 children in our state who experience food insecurity. Food insecurity means that there is a limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods. 32,000 children in Jefferson County alone experience food insecurity. The Weekenders Backpack Program currently works with 33 schools in the 12 central counties of Alabama. They provide food for 1400 students every weekend so that they have meals when school is not in session. Does it surprise you to know that there are 100 students in the Vestavia School System who receive this assistance? We will vote about including this program as a funded and an active participation option here at Covenant this coming Wednesday night.

Few of us have to worry about food security in our homes. In fact, most of us qualify for “The Rich and Famous” as compared to the world’s population. The per capita income of most families in the developing world is between $50 to $200 per year. For a typical American family to reduce its standard of living to this level, we would need to: (Victoria Curtiss, “Letting Loose,” 10-23-11, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago)
+Take out all the furniture except for a kitchen table and chair.
+Remove all clothing, except for the oldest dress or suit for each family member. Keep one extra shirt, and leave one pair of shoes for the head of the household.
+Empty the refrigerator and pantry, leaving only a small bag of flour, some sugar and salt, a few potatoes for dinner and a dish of dried beans.
+Dismantle the bathroom by turning off the water and removing the electrical wiring.
+Move the family into a tool shed.
+Remove all the other houses in the neighborhood and set up a shantytown in its place.
+Cancel all subscriptions to newspapers, magazines, and book clubs. Your family is illiterate.
+Move the nearest medical clinic 2 to 4 hours away.
+Throw away the bank books, stock certificates, pension plans, and insurance policies. Leave your family a cash hoard of $5.
+Give the head of the family 3 tenant acres to cultivate.
+Subtract 25 to 30 years off the life expectancy of each family member.

This is a stark picture, but this is the level at which millions of people live. You may be asking yourself by now, “Well, Pastor, what is the right thing to do? Give us a long list of concrete do’s and don’ts so we know where to show up and what we are supposed to do. Guilt us one more time into bringing some canned goods or writing a check or scavenging personal toiletries or collecting loose change for a week so that we can put salve on our conscience.”

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus boils down the Christian life into two rules that can guide us in doing the right thing. The Pharisees have decided to take control by asking Jesus prepared and pointed questions that will silence Him once and for all. It is quite a brave thing to do since the Pharisees are often the targets of Jesus’ ire, stirring up the crowds who will also witness this public confrontation. Keep in mind that the Pharisees are among Israel’s brightest and best. They are lay people, like you, who have a burning desire to be champions of truth and decency in the face of government tyranny and priestly corruption. Oh, the Pharisees are good people! They are out to clean up their world, and so they write letters to their congressmen and senators. They advocate through established lobbying groups. They do their part in community service, because they are determined that every one of the 613 laws of Torah are followed to the letter because this is how they believe the world can be set right; this is how purity can be lived; this is how the Kingdom of God will arrive; obeying the law is how believers do the right thing. (William Dols, “Loving Half-Heartedly,” Just Because it Didn’t Happen…)

What the Pharisees fail to remember, however, is that life in the Kingdom is not about keeping rules and making long lists of things to do and not to do. No, Kingdom living is about loving God so much that we cannot help but love our neighbors too. Citizens of the Kingdom are motivated by the privilege of serving one another not duty.

So, instead of Jesus telling parables that indict the Pharisees at every turn, the Pharisees come prepared to paint Jesus in a corner with their questions. They begin with: “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” Then, they give him a case study about a woman who marries brother after brother, as the law dictates must happen. And so they ask, “In the resurrection, after having been married to all seven brothers, whose wife will she be?” And lastly, “Of all 613 laws, which one is the greatest?”

None of these questions is offered to build mutual understanding. Instead, they are wired to explode like tiny terrorists…blowing Jesus to Kingdom come, discrediting him before the masses and giving the Pharisees, at long last, firm evidence with which to convict Jesus. (Anna Carter Florence, Lectionary Homiletics, October/November 2008) Jesus, however, refuses to allow the questions and the issues they raise to be confused with the overarching goal, and so He answers, “We must love God with everything we’ve got…our hearts, our souls, and our minds.” And they all nod in agreement. Only Jesus doesn’t even pause before He keeps going: “There’s also a second commandment. It’s like the first one, in a manner of speaking, because it is the practical side of loving God, which is to say, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself.’ It is on these two commandments that the whole law and the messages of the prophets hang.”

(The following is from John Buchanan, “To Make a Life and Not Just a Living,” 10-27-02, Fourth Presbyterian Church. He cites Walter Brueggemen from The Covenanted Self)
Theologian, Walter Bruggemann observes that people are inclined to affirm the first commandment without the second. As believers, we sign on to be people of the covenant. We like it when God claims us: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” But there is some fine print, and the fine print is not just about the believer and God. It is not just about the believer and God’s law. The fine print is about the believer and the believer’s neighbor. Like many who are marrying these days and hyphenate their names to show the mutuality of the commitment that is being made, Bruggemann suggests that we cannot say “God” without saying “neighbor” as well. He suggests a hyphenated version: “God-Neighbor.” It is the major theme of the Bible, articulated most eloquently in Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees’ question and put simply in the First Epistle of John, which reads: “If a person says that they love God but they hate their brothers and sisters, then that person is a liar.”

Jesus forever changes the religious landscape when He combines God and neighbor in the Christian moral imperative. The task of keeping both present and in appropriate tension is our greatest challenge, for if we are not loving our neighbor, whoever that may be, we best be asking ourselves just how much are we loving God!

My high school algebra teacher was Ann Walker. She was a stickler for details. The main one being if you did not show your work OR circle the answer, you got the whole problem wrong. (Even if the answer were correct!) I loved the logic involved in algebra…that it was up to me to make things equal on both sides of the equation, working it down until X or Y was equal to some number. I think this is what Jesus is hinting at here. Love of God is on one side of the equals sign and love of neighbor is on the other side, and it is up to me to bring the equation in balance. When we leave neighbor out of our faith, religion has a way of becoming self-righteous and exclusive. Brueggemann calls this “graceless obedience.” And if we leave God out of the equation, then Christianity becomes just another scheme for personal improvement. But when we bring God-neighbor together, the equation balances. We should circle that answer, for it is the right one.

Through other texts, Jesus reminds us that our neighbor is anyone who is need of us. It can be our literal next-door neighbor who is lonely or the person on the next street who has experienced some sort of crisis. It can be your family member, your child, mother or father, who needs you in new, poignant ways. It can be a global neighbor touched in small but important ways by the love of Christ living in the lives of His followers. We have no lack of neighbors to love. We have no lack of opportunities to do good acts, and in the process, we are privileged to experience the blessing of Kingdom living as defined by Jesus.

Monday afternoon, when the rain storms passed through Birmingham, I had a church member in my office. With the rain pouring down, they needed a ride home. In the time it took me to settle them under the porte cochere, retrieve my car from the University Blvd. parking lot and drive around the building, our church member was joined by another person. I immediately recognized her. She is a faithful attender to Highlands’ breakfast in our fellowship hall and frequents our Wednesday night supper and prayer service. Always clean, profuse in her thanks, appropriately behaved, I was not afraid to offer her a ride home and get her out of the elements. She was hesitant. She was dripping wet. But when I asked her a second time, she climbed in. I drove her through town two blocks north of the Civic Center to a small sedan that had no license plates. She thanked me, and I waited until she was safely in her car. Our church member said, “Where’s her house? She’s going to drive that car to her house, right?” And you have already guessed my answer. “No, that car is her house.”

I would like to tell you that I saved the day—got her into a shelter, found a way to reconnect her to family, procured a job or any other innumerable ways that I might be able to apply resources to her need. After talking with Deb Welsh of Highland’s United Methodist’s Community Ministries, I found out that all of these things have already been offered. Deb gently looked at me and said, “Sometimes all we can do is offer small acts of kindness and pray that it will match the need in some way.”

My friends, Jesus calls us to lives whose horizons are not confined to the contours of our own selves, but are expanded by the love of God; a life of love for neighbor; a life whose purpose and meaning are found in that love; a life, at the end of the day that is good and full and joyful. The Pharisees asked Jesus, “What is the greatest commandment of all?” And He replies ”You must love God-neighbor with all your heart, mind, and strength, and you must love God-neighbor as yourself.” Amen.

Crazy Love

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, October 6, 2014

Isaiah 5:1-7; Philippians 3:4b-14; Matthew 21:33-46

Do you remember what it is like to be crazy in love?

I asked some of you to purposefully remember this week.  I promised not to tell who sent what, so as you listen, have some fun guessing who might have behaved in such a way or take note for use in your own special relationship.

+One person, who was crazy in love, filled their loved one’s car with gold Gingko leaves.

+One couple enrolled in trapeze lessons.

+One wrote on the other’s car with white shoe polish:  “You can run, but you can’t hide.”

+One showed up with a broccoli bouquet, because the grocery store had run out of flowers.

+One discovered that their loved one had never had a birthday party as a child, so on the first birthday that they celebrated together, an Incredible Hulk party was thrown complete with hats, streamers, noise makers and party games.

+One young woman couldn’t wait for her boyfriend to “pop the question,” and so, a ring was presented to him with Ruth 1:16 inscribed in it.  The passage reads:  “Entreat me not to leave you for where you go, I will go.  Where you lodge, I will lodge and so forth and so on.”

+Another couple could not afford an engagement ring, so when the prize in a Cracker Jack box was a ring, she wore it instead.  But on their 30th anniversary, nestled in a pile of cracker jacks on a silver tray was a diamond ring.

+One put hearts everywhere in the house…inside the refrigerator, in the car, under the toilet lid and in their shoes.

+One said that their church organ was in a balcony above the pulpit area and that the organist had a mirror so he could see what was happening in the service and his music would occur appropriately.   The youth choir sat on the front pews of the sanctuary and the boy of this couple sat on one end and the girl sat on the opposite end.  It did not take them long to discover if they sat just right, he could send her a wink through the mirror that was above the organ.  They thought it was their little secret until the girl’s mother confessed that she and all her friends watched for the wink before they could engage in the sermon!

+Some have special words they use to express their love, like:  “You’re a chicken,”  “I owe you,” and “I live you.”

+And one said that after 27 years of marriage, they still dance every morning in the bathroom as they get ready for work.  One cranks up the music while the other uses the vitamin bottle as a maraca!  (And you just thought you saw all of Big Mama’s moves at the Variety Show last week!!)

Now folks, you can’t make this stuff up!  Oh, when we are crazy in love, the sun is a little brighter, our steps a little lighter and the presence of the one we are crazy in love with is intoxicating.  Van Morrison, M.J. Cole, Michael Bolton, Paul Anka, Frank Sinatra, Vandross Luther and a host of others all have songs entitled, “Crazy Love,” but my favorite lyrics come from Michael Buble’s version:

I can hear her heartbeat for a thousand miles.

And the Heavens open every time she smiles

And when I come to her that’s just where I belong

I’m running to her like a river strong.

She gives me love, love, love, love, love crazy love.

Today’s parable talks about someone who is crazy in love with each one of us.

You will remember from last Sunday that after Jesus makes the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, He goes to the Temple and basically throws a gauntlet down before the Scribes and Pharisees.  They immediately question Him about His authority.  In response, Jesus tells the parable about the two sons of a land owner.  One agrees to work the vineyard for the father, but never shows up.  The other refuses to work initially but does so later.  Jesus puts the question to the Temple’s scholars:  “Which one does the will of the Father, the one who SAYS all the right things or the one who DOES all the right things?”

As if this is not a strong enough indictment, Jesus continues with yet another parable.  This vineyard has a land owner who extravagantly cares for it.  The land owner himself plants the vineyard, places a protective hedge row around the vineyard, digs the wine press, builds a look-out tower and personally selects the tenants who will care for the vineyard in his absence.  The tenants’ only job is to care for the vineyard in-between the planting and the harvesting, because the land owner will send servants to collect the fruit.  But when the servants come, the tenants beat one, kill another and stone the third.  When the land owner hears about it, he sends more servants.  The same is done to them by the wicked tenants.  And so this land owner does a very questionable thing.  He sends his very own son, thinking that the tenants will surely have respect for the son.  But when the son arrives, they kill him too.  They do so in hopes that they will receive his inheritance, in other words that they will reap the harvest not just that particular season but every season yet to come.

Now do the actions of the land owner make sense to you?  How can the tenants get away with repeatedly mistreating and even killing the land owners’ emissaries without any reprisal?  (Alyce McKenzie, “Who Are the Wicked Tenants?”  9-25-11) Why would the vineyard owner risk sending additional servants after the first group is attacked and killed?  And why would he send his only son when both sets of servants have already been killed?  It doesn’t make sense!  It is absolutely crazy.  Who would do such a thing?  No one!  …except for a crazy land lord who is so desperate to be in relationship with the tenants that he will do anything, risk everything, in order to reach out to them.  This landlord is no business person.  No, he acts like a desperate parent willing to do whatever it takes to reach out to a beloved yet wayward child.  It’s crazy—the kind of crazy that comes from being in love.  (David Lose, “Crazy Love,” 9-28-14)

Remember that Jesus begins this whole section of lessons with “The Kingdom of God is like…”  And after hearing about fathers and sons, land owners and vineyards, we are slowly realizing that the Kingdom of God is not like anything we know or understand as being even slightly similar to how we might do things.  When Jesus asks the Pharisees, “What will the Landlord do when he, himself, comes?” they indicate that they believe he will give the tenants a miserable death.  This doesn’t sound unreasonable to our ears, for it is likely that we would send armed troops to reclaim the vineyard and our authority over it, thus indicting ourselves.  Like the Pharisees listening that day in the Temple, we can see ourselves easily in the parable, for we are so like those wicked, greedy tenants.  We forget our place as merely care keepers and NOT owners.  We talk about OUR money, OUR time, OUR church as if we are the owners of these things, when the only owner is God.  We are just mere tenants for the in-between time and yet, we do everything we can to place a claim on what is not rightfully ours.

So what does God do when we forget our rightful place?

What does God do when we are mischievous and in trouble, wretched and wicked, undeserving and undesirable?

Listening carefully to the teachings of Jesus, we know this answer, for we have met the likes of this landlord before.  This landlord forgives seven times seventy.  This landlord welcomes the prodigal home with a celebration.  This landlord leaves the other 99 in order to search for the one.  This landlord looks high and low for the one dowry coin that is lost.  This landlord pays those who came at 5 in the afternoon to work in his vineyard the exact same amount as those who have worked since day break.  Remember that this landlord is not fair, this landlord is gracious, and so this landlord sends his son.  Yes, this God is so crazy in love with us that Jesus dies for our misunderstanding of who we are and then is raised from the dead to continue to bear the message of God’s desperate, crazy love.  It is what we celebrate around this table as we receive God’s love into our very souls.

Communion:  I Corinthians 11

Oh Lord, as we receive this bread and this cup into ourselves, we remember You and Your sacrifice of love.  While we rarely understand such love, we are grateful.   Fill us with the assurance and joy of being your children, forgiven, loved and free.  For we pray in the name of Jesus, who, in love, laid down His life for us.  Amen.

The Revised Sarah Version of Buble’s last verse of “Crazy Love” reads like this:

And when I’m returning from so far away

God gives me some sweet lovin’; brighten up my day

Yes, it makes me righteous; it makes me feel whole

And it makes me mellow, down to my soul

God gives me love, love, love, love, crazy love.

God gives me love, love, love, love, crazy love.

If you would like to respond to the love of this God who is crazy in love with us, then come as we stand to sing together the hymn of commitment that is printed on your bulletin insert:  “I Come With Joy.”

Imagining a Divine Economy of Grace

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

on Sunday, September 21, 2014

Jonah 3:10-4:11; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Imagine that as you came into church today, everyone with green and blue eyes was given a lovely buttoner for their lapel and was directed to sit in the center section.  Everyone with brown eyes was directed to sit in the balcony.  Once in the balcony, the brown eyes find that the air conditioning is turned off, there are no hymnals, no bulletins and no pew Bibles.  A screen prevents visual participation in the service.  The microphone is spotty.  The amplifier is full of static.  The nursery is available only for children with blue and green eyes.  So, also in the balcony are the babies, preschoolers and children who are born, by no fault of their own, with brown eyes.  At the time for the children’s sermon, no brown eyed child is allowed to leave the balcony, and all the green and blue eyed children receive gift cards for Toys R Us.  At coffee fellowship time, all the brown eyes are told to wait while the green and blue eyes are served fresh cinnamon rolls and Starbuck’s coffee.  If any coffee is left, the brown eyes are welcome to serve themselves along with some stale cookies.  Sunday School is only for green and blue eyed persons, because by that time, don’t you imagine that all the brown eyed individuals have left?

Imagine being in the 10 item line at the grocery store.  You have waited patiently for your turn to check out with only 3 items, when the check-out person tells you that you will have to step aside so the person behind you, who happens to have a loaded buggy, may move on through the line.

Imagine that it is your birthday.  You have longed to go to a new trendy restaurant in town.  They do not accept reservations, so when you arrive, you are handed one of those blinking pagers.  You wait patiently for 30 minutes and then begin to realize others, who arrived after you, are being seated.  You ask the hostess if your pager is working.  She assures you that she has your name and that the pager is fine.  Another 30 minutes go by.  Again, you observe others being seated and still your pager has not blinked once.  When you ask the hostess a second time, she smiles broadly and quotes:  “The first shall be last and the last first.”

Imagine that your favorite musical artist is coming to town.  The only way to get tickets is to go to the venue, wait in line and purchase your ticket.  Although totally out of character, you appear the night before, camp out, along with others, because you so want to hear this artist.  There is a guard who makes sure that each person has a place in line and that that place is maintained.  The morning dawns and as the opening hour approaches, you notice that the line now extends around the block.  A lot of people want tickets to this concert!  It will surely be a sell-out.  Excitement builds.  At last the manager unlocks the doors but rather than inviting the customers in, the manager steps out.  He announces that the artist requires that those last in line be allowed to purchase tickets first.  The tickets will be sold in reverse order.

Imagine being the employee who consistently arrives early to answer the phone, because your coworkers are always late.  You skip lunch to be sure your inbox is current.  You stay late to be sure the supervisor has what they need for the next day’s meeting.  But at your annual review, even though your supervisor recognizes that you go over and above the call of duty, they explain that raises are going to be across the board this year.  The hope is that morale will be boosted if everyone receives the same amount.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Beginning at the End,” The Seeds of Heaven)

Imagine having an elderly parent.  You bring the frail parent into your home absorbing all the financial costs involved.  You have siblings, but they are not available to assist in the care.  They rarely call to speak with the parent.  But when the parent suddenly dies, the whole family appears.  They grieve as if they have been there all along.  At the lawyer’s office, they listen with rapt attention.  You sit beside them, heavy with genuine grief and worry, for your assets are now about gone.  Then the lawyer reads, “I leave my estate to be divided equally among my four dear children because I love them all the same.”  (Taylor)

Imagine the Israelites set free from Egyptian slavery.  They wander in the wilderness just long enough to find rations running low and so God sends manna, crumbs of “daily bread” to sustain them for the journey.  With manna, everyone has what they need.  The leaders and the servants all receive the same amount.  The people who work all day and the people who do very little, all receive the same amount.  The able and the disabled all receive the same amount.  The young and old, all receive the same amount.  The manna is just enough.  All receive the same, because the manna is a gift in the divine economy of grace.

Imagine a preacher called to deliver a prophetic proclamation of the Christian faith that is responsible and free, fervently evangelical, socially concerned and possesses a relevant message of repentance.  She tries to be faithful but cultural conservatism often has her silenced.  She is swallowed by a few enormous fish which causes her to challenge God and God’s fairness:  “All these years I’ve served you in the church and still I have no pulpit.  OK God.  If you want me to preach, You will have to get off Your throne to make it happen, because I quit.”  One more time, she gets vomited up on dry land and this time, God not only gives her a congregation with ears to hear but a congregation whose faith convictions continue to put her in the path of conservatives and fundamentalists in order to challenge the largeness of her heart.  She marches around the city preaching a message of grace.  The response is remarkable.  The leaders of large, mainline denominations repent and put on sackcloth and ashes as a sign of their repentance.  But the preacher?  Rather than rejoicing in these who turn towards God, rather than rejoicing that God will now spare the denominations, rather than rejoicing that she too has been spared, the preacher goes to the outskirts of town, sits down and pouts.  She’s angry because God enacts a divine economy of grace.  The preacher rants:  “The reason I didn’t want to come to Nineveh is because I know You, oh God, to be gracious, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, so that when the Ninevites repented from their evil, I knew that You would change Your mind and spare them!  I’m so angry with You that I wish I were dead!!  I would rather all the good possibilities be destroyed by divine retribution than give up on my ideas, my prejudice, my feelings of superiority.  Let me die angry and alienated rather than go into Nineveh and try life based on a divine economy of grace.”  (Bill Dols, Just Because it Didn’t Happen…, “Angry Enough to Die”)

Imagine gathering on a hillside to hear a great teacher.  The day goes long, and no one thought to bring provisions for meals.  A young boy steps forward with only a sack lunch.  The boy places it in the hands of the teacher trusting that if he gives it away, that he will not go hungry.  Miraculously, even though thousands are present, each one receives enough to satisfy their hunger.  Even though they did nothing to deserve it, all receive bread.  All receive fish.  Each one has just enough, and in the end, when the inventory is made, there are 12 baskets left over.

Imagine a father who has two sons.  The oldest is faithful to work the fields and harvest the crops.  He never leaves his father.  But the youngest son asks for his inheritance early and goes to a far country to squander his inheritance on riotous living.  But when the money runs out, with his tail between his legs, the younger son returns home and his father not only receives him, the father throws a celebration in his honor.  All this, while the older brother works faithfully in the fields.

Imagine disciples who are constantly keeping score, jockeying for position, and in competition with one another.  James and John want the privileged seats on Jesus’ left and right hand sides when the Kingdom of Heaven arrives.  It is such a public question that the other disciples overhear it and are “indignant” over their presumption to ask for special treatment.

Imagine a rich young ruler leaving Jesus disappointed because he will not sell everything in order to be a disciple.  This prompts Peter to pull out his spread sheet to verify with Jesus that he and the other disciples have left everything in order to follow.  He asks the bottom line question:  “OK, Jesus, so we did leave everything.  What is our reward for being loyal?”  And Jesus tells them a story.

“Imagine,” Jesus says, “that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a land owner who needs help harvesting his vineyard.  This land owner is no typical guy.  He does some pretty unusual things like going to the market place to hire laborers at dawn, at nine, at noon, at three, and again at five.  The very first laborers hired are promised a denarius, a fair wage in return for a day’s work.  All the hirings that follow, however, are only told that they will be paid whatever is right.  And so they work, side-by-side trimming the vines and harvesting the grapes until the sun begins to set.

The land owner again acts unusually.  He sends his manager to pay the workers, only the manager is to begin payments with those who came at 5 in the afternoon rather than those hired at dawn.  The white payday envelopes are handed out and lo and behold, each worker, regardless of when their labor began, receives the same pay…a full denarius…a fair wage for a FULL day’s work.  And a riot almost breaks out.  Those who labored all day are incensed, because the pecking order is totally upset:  “You have made them equal to us!” they say.” 

That’s the rub isn’t it?  “You have made them equal to us!”

In every story I have recanted this morning, each one is looking to be treated with a little specialness, to get what is deserved, some compensation that sets us apart as good, valued, superior.

“I have slaved for you all these years,” says the older son to his father, “but this son of yours—who has wasted his inheritance on riotous living, comes home and what do you do?  You honor him with a party!”

“You have made him equal with me!”

“I put in my time to earn a deserved raise!”

“I sacrificed everything in order to care for Momma!”

“I waited my turn in line for those tickets, that table, this check out!”

“I earned my degree!”

“I pay for my Wednesday night meal!”

“I scrimped and saved and worked hard to have a roof over our heads and food on the table!”

“It’s not fair that they receive the same reward that we receive.  You, oh God, have made them equal to us!  And I am so angry about it, I am going to sit on this hillside and pout.  I would rather die alone with only my feelings of superiority than have to live as an equal with them!”

Can you imagine anyone who might feel this way?

So imagine the Kingdom of Heaven, for that is what Jesus is shaking us up to do here.  He says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…”  He does not say, “2117 University Boulevard is like…;” He does not say “the city of Birmingham is like…” He does not say “the state of Alabama is like…;” He doesn’t even say “the United States of America is like…”  No, Jesus is inviting us to use our imaginations, to employ our fantasies when He says, “Imagine what the Kingdom of Heaven is like.”  And so we imagine a landowner who is relentless in searching for us coming to employ us at nine, and noon and three and five because the fields that are white with harvest.  Imagine the Kingdom of Heaven where there is no jockeying for position, no competitive comparisons, no winners, and no losers.  Imagine a place where there are no debts or payments; no liabilities or assets; no spread sheets that have to balance at the bottom of the page.  Imagine the Kingdom of Heaven as possessing a divine economy of grace where there is enough love for each one, enough healing for each hurt, enough mercy for each failure;  a Kingdom of joy and celebration, grace and love. 

The best news is that this Kingdom is not some far away pie in the sky.  No, the Kingdom of Heaven is right here, right now, but be aware that its ruler is not fair.  No, God is not fair; God is generous.  (Taylor)  God is generous at day break.  God is generous at nine, at noon, at three, and God is generous at quitting time.  And that my friends, is not imaginary.  It is as real as it can be.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Perhaps there are those here today who have so experienced God’s generosity that they have decisions of faith they wish to make public.  Whatever your decision, please respond as we stand and sing of God’s Amazing Grace, #330.

A Question of Authority

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

on Sunday, September 28, 2014

Exodus 17:1-7; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

I have been in the mountains of North Carolina this week for a continuing education class.  The conference was held at the Presbyterian center, Montreat.  Perhaps some of you have been there.  The air was crisp, the leaves were just beginning to think of turning and I found an easy rapport with our Presbyterian brothers and sisters.  They were, however, curious about me, the only Baptist in the group of 40.  “How did you hear about this conference?”  “Really, you serve a Baptist church in Birmingham as senior pastor?”  One even dared to say, “I bet you brought your own Bible!  Baptists are always bringing their Bibles!!”  I found their curiosity to be agenda-less.  They were just initiating me into their Presbyterian presence.  No one was questioning my authority.

Such is not always the case.  Just this last Sunday, a young, first time guest walked out my door.  His seemingly positive enthusiasm for our service let me know that he had found the worship hour meaningful.  However, he asked if he could put a personal question to me.  I felt relatively secure in saying “sure.”  He was, after all, on my turf and a deacon just happened to be to my left and to my right.  And so he asked:  “How do you justify what you just did from the pulpit with Paul’s words in I Timothy 2?  Do you know what I Timothy 2 says?”  I thought about being insulted for just an instant, but chose instead to quote it back to him:

Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness.  Let no

woman teach or have authority over men.  Instead, she is to

be silent.

That’s the question, isn’t it?  Who has authority and from whence does that authority come?

(Exegesis from John Buchanan’s “By What Authority? 9-29-02, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago)

Authority is certainly an ongoing issue for Jesus.  Just the day before He is encountered by the Chief Priests and elders in the Temple, Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem, the crowded capital of His nation.  It is a bold, brazen challenge to the established political authorities of the day, because it is the exact way that a promised king is supposed to take over.  It makes the Roman troops and politicians very nervous to watch from the Fortress Antonia as Jesus is heralded in the streets by the crowds with acts reserved for royalty, for they wave palm branches and shout “Hosanna!”

To increase the concern, the noisy and disorderly street demonstration continues until it reaches the Temple, the very symbol of religious authority.  Jesus walks right into the Court of the Gentiles where Temple vendors set up shop and sell animals to religious pilgrims for sacrifice.  With His entourage looking on, Jesus overturns table after table.  He rips flimsy fabric down that designates where one booth stops and another begins.  Coins roll off tables and clang on the stone floor while animals awaiting sacrifice skittishly bray.  It is quite the challenge to the religious authorities.

So I imagine those priests and scribes stroking their beards in disbelief at the effrontery inflicted by this young upstart.  I feel confident that they gather in secure corners of the Temple with others of like mind pontificating about the disrespect Jesus shows and the challenge to their authority that His actions propose. 

If they were a credentialing committee, they might say something like:  (Gracia Grindal, “Says Who?” The Christian Century, 9-11-01)

The candidate seems to have trouble with authority.  We recommend that he be sent to a counselor to work on these issues, for there have been repeated instances of this problem in his history.  He is known to have been impertinent to his elders as far back as age 12, when he argues fine theological points with them in the temple, without any consideration for the feelings of his parents.  In his first sermon in his home congregation, he made outrageous claims for his ministry.  Furthermore, he has anger issues with which he needs to learn to deal.  It is reported that he entered a church and threw out the people selling souvenirs and candles.  He never answers questions directly, but responds to questions with more questions.  Worst of all, he has a way of telling jokes that are blasphemous and inappropriate for religious people.  Perhaps he would benefit from a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education.

I feel it only fair, before we criticize the priests, to pause just long enough to point out that these are good men.  They believe in what they are doing.  They hold holy the authority of their religion, its sacred rituals and the trust of those who invest each scribe and Pharisee with the authority to be a religious leader.  (It is not unlike what you have done with me and Valerie and Dan.)  They regard a challenge to their personal authority to be a challenge to their very way of life.  This is why they are stunned and angry over the presumptuousness of this young man from Nazareth.  So they wait for Him to return to teach in the Temple.  They wait armed with righteous indignation and questions such as, “By what authority are you doing these things?  And who gave you this authority?”

This question is similar to those raised by the Israelites about Moses and his leadership.  They have no water to drink in the wilderness and rather than asking how to find a solution, they murmur against Moses.  They make long lists of all his faults and question his authority as their leader.

Now we understand how much easier it is to grumble and murmur than to work together to find solutions.  The vast majority of us still remember Volkswagen vans that had on their bumpers, right next to a tie-dyed peace symbol, another sticker that read “Question Authority.”  It seemed appropriate at the time for Rosa Parks was sitting in the front of Montgomery buses, the Viet Nam war was raging and Watergate was soon to follow.  The conventional answer of “Because I said so!” was sure to illicit push back if not outright rebellion.  It is similar to Jesus’ stand with the authorities of His day.  Refusing to succumb to their control, He raises more questions and then tells a story that exposes the ineffectiveness of their righteous talk because they are lacking in actions to support it.

Rather than answer their questions, Jesus tells about a man who has two sons.  He asks one to work in the vineyard.  This son refuses initially, but later changes his mind and works.  The man asks his second son to work.  This son agrees but never shows up to work.  “Which son does the will of the father?” Jesus asks.  The answer is obvious, the son who shows up to work.  So, Jesus is clear.  Authoritative faith does not just talk about God.  Authoritative faith shows up to do God’s work in the world.

Eileen Linder is a Presbyterian pastor in New York City.  When 9/11 happened, she had four families in her church that lost loved ones, and those four families represent 11 children.  One of them was four-year-old Billy and his mother, Debbie.

Debbie knew that her husband was at work in The World Trade Towers on that eventful day.  So afterwards, she kept telling Pastor Eileen that she knew he would be helping others to survive, that the responders would find him in a stairwell assisting others.  But days went by and still there was no word from the husband.  Debbie moved from “He’s helping someone,” to “He must be lost.”

Concerned over her denial, Eileen called a help line for pastors and rabbis.  They not only insisted that Eileen bring Debbie down to “the pile,” but they authorized them to make the journey.  Eileen drove them to about 72nd street where the barricades prevented anyone but first responders to continue.  Two policemen, with semi-automatic weapons, met them, put them in a police car and following the Hudson River, drove them to “the pile.”

When they got out of the car, the smell overwhelmed them.  Eileen and Debbie stood behind a barricade to look at the enormous wreckage.  And when Debbie put her hands on the barricade to steady herself, her hands were immediately covered in ash.  She showed her hands to Eileen and asked, “So is this my husband?”

Back in the police car, Eileen held Debbie as her grief became real for the first time.  Eileen also watched out the window and was amazed to see that individuals, who had crossed barricades with no authority, lined the street to simply offer what they had.  An Asian had a table set up to serve hot dumplings and tea.  Another New Yorker stood with a basket that said, “Dry socks.”  One person sat with a sign that said, “Prayers,” and another’s sign read, “Hope,” while others clapped or waved flags to lend encouragement.  Each one was doing what they could even though they had no authority to be there.

On the way home, Debbie asked Eileen to please tell her son, Billy, that his father was dead.  “I’m afraid he will hold it against me if I tell him,” she said.  “We have a long road ahead to walk together.”  Eileen agreed as long as Debbie would be present to comfort him.  And so, once back home, Eileen asked Billy to come sit on her lap.  He climbed up and snuggled in her arms.  She told him, “You know, I held you like this another time because I baptized you.”  “Yes, I know,” he replied looking up into her face.  She continued, “Now Billy, look something really terrible has happened.”  …and before she could continue, he said, “I know Pastor Eileen.  I know my Daddy is dead.  My mother thinks he is lost, but I know he is really smart and would have found his way home by now.  So I know.  I know he is dead.”

Now fast forward to just a few weeks ago when Billy asked Pastor Eileen for permission to speak in the morning worship service.  He was leaving for college the next day.  So at the appointed time, Billy stood and said something like this:

Before I leave for college, I want to say thank you.  When my Dad died in the events of 9/11, there were huge gaps in my life.  But Mr. Jones, you took me to every soccer practice.  When I got an award at Scouts, Mr. Smith, you came.  When it was father-son day at school, Mr. Johnson, you were there to sit with me.  As I go off to college, I want you to know I don’t hate anybody, because of you and who you are.  I want you to know that I am not afraid, because of you and who you are.  I want you to know that I have respect for all people, because of you and who you are.

Now my questions are: who told those people that they could do that?

Who empowered them to ignore the physical and emotional barricades?

Who gave them the authority to not just make a bunch of promises but to DO the right thing?

Paul tells us that those who share the mind of Christ, which is another way of saying that those who place themselves under the authority of Jesus, will count others as better than themselves.  Under the authority of Christ, when we enact compassion and sympathy, love and humility, encouragement and consolation, we are working out our own salvations as well as creating a community of faith that is in common accord.  It is true that to live this way means you just might find yourself turning over tables in the marketplace, or debating with chief priests, or attending soccer games of children who are not yours, or offering dry, clean socks to those in need, or any number of activities that call our motivations into question.  “By what authority are you doing these things?  And who gave you this authority?”

Under whose authority do you live your life?  And how do we know except by the things you do?

May we find our answer to this question as we bow our knees and confess with our tongues that Jesus Christ is Lord during the time of commitment to which we are now called.  May it be so to the glory of God, Amen.

What are you wearing?

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

from Sunday, October 12, 2014

Isaiah 25:1-9; Philippians 4:1-8; Matthew 22:1-15a

The Center for Pastoral Excellence of Samford University provides female pastors with a day of continuing education about two times a year.  We gather at The Botanical Gardens for a “Day Apart” to study and pray and lend courage.  Outstanding speakers are invited to lead the conversation, and so I have heard the likes of Phyllis Tribble and Barbara Brown Taylor, and perhaps my favorite, Anna Carter Florence.  As an aside, Anna is coming from Columbia Theological Seminary to be our guest preacher for The School for Christian Living during Lent of 2015.  You will like her.  She is edgy and genuine and pulls you into Scripture in ways that are surprising.  That day at The Botanical Gardens was no exception.

You probably need to know that I am not a very good group participant.  I go to meetings like this and take a quiet, introverted seat in the back where I can observe.  I rarely volunteer to do or say anything.  I like to watch and take notes, be unassuming and draw my own conclusions.  So when Anna began by announcing that we were going to spend the entire day studying I Timothy 2…yes, here they are again…those wretched verses of Paul that tell women to learn in silence with all submissiveness and have no authority over men…I thought to myself, “I gave up a perfectly good day to come for this?”  I promised myself that I would leave at lunch if it was all too much to bear.

We began with what you might imagine, i.e., with a cultural and historical context that is dramatically different from our own.  We talked about Paul and what his motivations might have been to write something that has caused women, centuries later, to suffer unnecessarily. And we talked about women.  Women like Euodia and Syntyche, who Paul mentions in today’s Philippians’ passage.  Who with newfound freedoms in the Christian community, the women, sometimes, overstepped appropriate boundaries or stirred the pot resulting in disagreement in the fellowship of believers.

After lunch, the meeting room was rearranged to accommodate a large circle.  There was a seat for each individual in attendance, and my antennae went up immediately.  I reluctantly took a seat.  Anna asked two women to act as outside consultants to our “troubled church.”  We were role playing, and “our church” was troubled because of all of us women seated in the circle.  We were the women that Paul was addressing in Timothy’s letter!  We were to keep quiet.  We were to have no authority, and boy, those two acting the part of the consultants were fully enjoying their role to put us back in our places.  They pointed fingers.  They repeatedly told us how bad we were to be talking out; that we must gain our self-control and stay in our place by remaining quiet.  To be quiet was what the Lord wanted after all.

And before I knew it, I stood up and turned my chair around so that I did not have to see them and could cover my ears to not hear them any longer.  The whole circle moaned.  I tried to defend myself:  “You want me to be silent?  This is the only way that I can be quiet and still stay connected to you.  I am trying to find a way to cooperate with your request.”  The leaders used it as an opportunity to heckle me.  They used me as a bad example before my sisters, and so I eventually picked up my chair and moved across the room.  Sitting all by myself felt better than enduring what I have invested my life to defend.

Now Jesus, following his entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey with the crowd’s accompanying shouts of “Hosanna,” has been teaching in the Temple and defending himself to the chief priests and Pharisees who definitely question his authority.  They want Jesus to be submissively silent.  This is the real deal.  There is no role playing going on here.  And Jesus cannot contain himself!  Once He begins, He just keeps going.  He tells one story after another, each becoming more pointed as he speaks. 

If you are counting, this makes the third Sunday that we are studying these stories.  Remember, we began with the father who had two sons.  One agreed to work in the vineyard but never showed up.  The other son refused to work, but ended up working the vineyard.  Jesus ends by asking, “Which one does the will of the father?” i.e., which is more important, what we do or what we say?

Then, last week, we heard about a land owner who hired tenants to care for his vineyard.  When it is time to harvest the grapes, the servants sent are killed by the tenants, as are another group of servants.  The ultimate insult comes when the tenants also kill the land owner’s son.  When Jesus asks what the land owner will do when he comes to investigate, it is the priests and Pharisees who answer:  “He will put those tenants to a miserable death!”  And you can hear the moan rise as the reality dawns that they themselves are the wicked tenants for refusing Jesus as God’s Son.

And so today, we move out of the vineyard and into the king’s palace for the marriage feast of his son.  The preparations are lavish…linen tablecloths, lovely cut flowers, polished silver and monogrammed china all adorn the tables.  The food is perfectly prepared by Frank Stitt, and the wine has been poured into Waterford crystal.  In spite of the Save-the-Date notices, which were followed by engraved invitations, when the servants come to each guest to announce that the feast is ready, the invited guests decline. Each is given a choice to attend.  And yet, each declines.  And so, the king sends out servants a second time.  It is a different set of servants and they extend the king’s invitation one more time to come to the feasting table.  “But they made light of it and went off, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized the servants and treated them shamefully before they killed them.”  Upon hearing it, the king is so angry, he sends out his troops, destroys the murderers and burns their cities.  Then the king gathers his remaining servants and sends them out into the streets for a third round of invitation.  This time, however, he tells them to invite anyone they encounter to the feast so that his house is full.

Now this is where Luke’s gospel ends the parable (14:16ff).  It is a marvelous ending because if we end here, we can emphasize how God has a place for each of us at the feasting table.  God wants the house to be full!  The banquet table is open.  It is not reserved for those with correct beliefs.  It is not restricted for those who uphold particular moral standards.  It is not saved for those with certain political philosophies, ideologies or theologies.  The King’s table is radically open.  All are welcome here regardless of race, religion, political affiliation, gender, geography, sexual orientation, tribe, or economic status.  The point is to include everyone, especially since all the provisions are made.  We are not only invited, we are expected.  This is exceptionally good news for those who live in states like ours. Alabama is the 7th hungriest state in the USA, and more than 1 in 4 children in the state of Alabama are living in poverty.  50% of Alabama households, even though they are working households, receive the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and so this parable, as Luke tells it, assures us, even though it seems a little too late to me, that one day, in the Kingdom of Heaven, there will be enough for all.  (Bread for the World)  We will all eat and be filled.  Glory!  Alleluia!

But this is not how Matthew’s gospel ends the parable.  No, Jesus, in Matthew, takes it a step further. 

The newly invited guests assemble in the banquet hall.  The king enters and is so pleased that they are there.  But he spies a person, sitting over in a corner.  I imagine this guest to have his arms folded across his chest.  He makes no attempt to engage in the festivities, much less conversation about the table.  Like a cartoon character, the bubble above his head looks like a storm cloud.  And so the king asks him, “What, no wedding garment to wear?”

Now I gave birth to a fashionista.  I know the difference between business, casual, cocktail, formal and sports attire. And while some commentators want to supply an explanation here that the host was to provide his guests with appropriate garb for the occasion and that this man made a faux pax by not wearing the offered wedding garment, I think it speaks of another more important choice that this man makes. 

Here he has been invited to the most glorious occasion one can imagine.  The room is lovely.  Friends are present.  There is an abundance of food.  The music is lively, and the host is someone who is held with respect.  But for whatever reason, there is no joy on the guest’s part. There is no awareness of the privilege he has received to just be included.  He is a boor, and his presence demeans the celebration.  So when the king sees his unappreciative countenance, the king takes action.  The king is determined that no one’s joyless attitude will ruin this wedding feast, and so the guest is thrown out to a place where there is only weeping and gnashing of teeth.

We don’t know this guest’s set of circumstances.  Perhaps there is good reason for his gloomy and impassive response to the banquet.  But even if he had a multitude of concerns weighing on him, Paul explains to us what it is to have joy even in the worst of situations. 

In the letter to Philippians, Paul finds himself completely isolated from his colleagues in a Roman jail.  There are no more missionary journeys on his itinerary, and he is facing the possibility of martyrdom.  Additionally, the Philippian church is facing persecution, and the church itself is staggered by strong divisions, as evidenced by Paul’s words of advice to Euodia and Syntyche.  Paul, rather than waiting on things to calm down, rather than pitching a fit that things aren’t as he had hoped, rather than whining and complaining, finds that even in these terrible circumstances, he has an inner peace.  This inner peace comes from remembering the best things about the Philippians.  So, he encourages them to rejoice, to pray, and to find things of good report to fill their thoughts.  It is obvious that his peace is not going to be based on what happens to him nor will it be based on his circumstances.  No, Paul’s peace is based on the unchanging Christ in whom their relationship is based.  (Charles Bugg, “Philippians 4:4-13,” The Review and Expositor, 1991)

Frederick Buechner puts it this way:  (“Anxiety,” Whistling in the Dark)

[Paul} does not deny that the worst things will happen finally to all of us, as indeed he must have had a strong suspicion they were soon to happen to him.  He does not try to minimize them.  He does not try to explain them away as God’s will or God’s judgment or God’s method of testing our spiritual fiber.  He simply tells the Philippians that in spite of them—even in the thick of them–they are to keep in constant touch with the One who unimaginably transcends the worst things and also unimaginably transcends the best.    He does not promise them that as a result they will be delivered from the worst things any more than Jesus himself was delivered from them.  What he promises them instead is that “the peace of God which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

And that this is cause for rejoicing.

John Claypool told a story about his son.  The son had a birthday approaching, and so the family planned a big celebration.  Balloons and ponies, face painting and clowns, cake and ice cream, family and friends…all invited.  All coming.  His son could not contain his excitement and then the day of the party arrived.  For whatever reason, the birthday boy got up on the wrong side of the bed.  Gone was his excitement.  No present was satisfying.  No party game held any fun.  Family and friends alike tried to coax him into the festive spirit of the party, but he just could not bring himself to join in.  I believe this is what Jesus is getting at when the King asks his guest about his wedding garment.  He doesn’t care about his actual physical garb, but oh, how He cares about the attitude we wear as citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven.

When people look at us, what do they see?  Do they see confidence in the face of death?  Do they observe joy in spite of grief?  Do they meet love instead of fear?  Do they experience grace instead of judgment?  Is there peace in the midst of chaos?  Is there welcome in spite of risk?  What are you wearing that speaks to the joy you feel because you know that Jesus loves you?

That day at the Botanical Gardens, we were finally brought to a positive conclusion. I found, however, that when I got to the car, I was still wound up.  I began a text to Elizabeth Lott, who I knew would stir my righteous indignation, but the message was too complicated and so I quit.  I started to call Valerie.  I knew she would cry with me, but it was time for her to pick up her children.  I dialed Lloyd’s office number, but hung up thinking that I would save it for our dinner conversation.  And so, I sat very still to determine just what was going on.  I had learned something new about exclusion.  I had learned something new about the use of power.  But I was surprised to find that underlying it all was an overwhelming sense of gratitude… thanksgiving for the people of God who are brave enough to allow me the privilege of serving and who have also taught me the same lessons over and over again.

One Sunday, one of our senior adults came out my door and said, “I think you have too high of an opinion about us!”  If I do, it is because I make the conscious choice to “think only about whatever is true and honorable; just, pure and lovely; gracious; the things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”

My friends, if we understand God as a feast giver who invites and prepares for us with joy, then we have some choices to make.  Will we show up when God’s invitation arrives?  Will we be dressed properly, adorned with joy in spite of our circumstances because God is gracious to us?

This is the invitation:  God loves you.  God forgives you.  God has a place for you at God’s feasting table.

How will you respond and what will you wear?

By All Rights of the Law

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor 

on Sunday, August 24, 2014

Exodus 1:8-2:10; Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-20

 

Like most seven year olds, Kenneth Castellanos enjoyed riding his green bicycle.  He lived in La Pradera, a neighborhood of San Pedro Sula, which is on the eastern border of Honduras.  This town is known for having the world’s highest homicide rate.  So when Kenneth’s older brother, Anthony, disappeared, Kenneth went looking for him.  Knowing that his brother had recently told the local gangs that he would no longer serve as their lookout, Kenneth rode his green bicycle to the gang’s hangout called “the crazy house.”  Days later the brothers are found. Anthony, a thirteen year old, had been shot in the head.  Kenneth’s body gave evidence of torture and beatings with rocks and sticks.  (Frances Robles, The New York Times, “Fleeing Gangs, Children Head to US Border, 7-9-14)

The local morgue has become accustomed to receiving the corpses of children under the age of 10 and as young as 2.  On the day that Frances Robles, reporter for The New York Times, visited, the morgue had received the bodies of a fifteen year old, shot fifteen times, and an eleven year old whose throat had been slit because the child could not pay a fifty cent extortion fee.  A mother from the community is quoted as saying:  “Do we want our children killed?   Do we want our children sent to prison?  [No!]  We would rather risk sending our children unaccompanied to the United States!”  

Between January and May of this year, 2200 children have arrived in the United States.  By all rights of the law, these children are illegal immigrants and must be deported to their home towns.

By all rights of the law, shop lifters across the nation, but specifically in Missouri, are subject to the authority of the police.

By all rights of the law, no child is to be left behind educationally, but in the state of Alabama, 83% of fourth grade Latino children and 87% of Blacks cannot read at grade level, nor do they meet the requirements for math.  (Children’s Defense Fund, Cradle to Prison Pipeline Fact Sheet, March, 2009 was the most current information they had)

By all rights of the law, American citizens may carry weapons regardless of the fact that 8 children die a day from gun violence.  (Children’s Defense Fund)

By all rights of the law, Westboro Baptist Church is free to take to the streets declaring how God hates homosexuals and Islamic people.

By all rights of the law, baby Moses should have been dead.

You see, after the wise rule of Joseph, four centuries pass and the Hebrews are still living in Egypt.  A new Pharaoh comes into power.  He is insignificant enough that the storyteller doesn’t even share his name, but he has enough power to invoke our dread, because he has no knowledge of Joseph, this also means that Pharaoh has no respect for the Hebrew people.  He does, however, recognize that the Hebrews have grown so significantly in number that they have the ability to overtake Egypt should they partner with any enemy of the nation.  So Pharaoh decides to work the Hebrews so hard that they will be broken physically and emotionally.  He sets task masters over them to insure that their work is rigorous, and he gives them the heavy burden of building the cities of Ramses and Pithom out of brick and mortar.  But incredibly, the Hebrews just grow stronger.

Pharaoh, therefore, comes up with a second plan that involves wiping out a generation or two.  He calls the midwives, Puah and Shiphrah, and puts before them Plan B.  Now, you might be interested in knowing that midwifery was a recognized female occupation in ancient Egypt dating back to 1900 years before Jesus.  Their skill included calculating delivery dates and often employed a variety of birthing chairs.  The fact that these women are named should cue us in to the significant role they are about to play not only in the field of obstetrics, but in the history of the Hebrews.  

Pharaoh’s Plan B is to kill all the male babies born to Hebrew women.  “While the Hebrew women are still on the birthing stool, if it is a son,” Pharaoh says, “kill it.  But if it is a daughter, let her live.”  Does this strike any of you as a lack of foresight on Pharaoh’s part?  He allows the daughters to live when it is the sons who give strength to his work force to complete the buildings in progress. He allows the daughters to live, and it is the daughters who have the unique ability to grow the Hebrew population.  He allows the daughters to live, and it is the daughters who will undermine his schemes at every turn.

Puah and Shiprah determine that they fear God more than they fear Pharaoh, and so, with every Hebrew delivery, they place the babies safely in the arms of their parents.  They tell Pharaoh that the Hebrew women are so strong, that they deliver their babies without any assistance.  “By the time we arrive, oh Pharaoh,” they say, “the baby has already been born and our opportunity to enact your plan has passed us by.”  Their statement not only exposes the gullibility of Pharaoh, it pokes fun at the laboring Egyptian women who require attention and assistance.  And so sounding a lot like Herod in Jerusalem some two thousand years later, Pharaoh orders that all male infants be thrown into the Nile River to drown.  It is a continuation of the interplay of the themes of life and death, for the Nile River, the giver of life to all of Egypt, is now to be the place of death for all Hebrew boys.  

The story then shifts from the royal palace to the Hebrew refugee camp where a couple realizes they are expecting a child during one of the hardest times in ancient history, and their choices for that baby to survive are incredibly limited.  (Scott Hoezee, “Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A,” The Lectionary Commentary)  I cannot begin to imagine the fear that this Hebrew family faced, but I suspect I see pictures of something similar every night on the news from around the world.  They must have worked diligently at keeping their secret from their neighbors whose own male children had been snatched from their hands and thrown into the waters of the Nile.  Think about their fear as Pharaoh’s soldiers wander through the Hebrew refugee camp listening for the cry of a baby in the still of the night.  With the least bit of a whimper, every member of this family would have responded to the baby’s needs to keep him quiet.  But after three months of secrecy and hiding and denying, the inevitable truth has to be faced.  They cannot keep him hidden any longer.  The mother—Jochabed by name, the daughter of a Levite–resorts to drastic measures.  She makes a basket, waterproofs it as best she can and puts the baby in the basket to float it down the very river that has taken the lives of the children who should have been his playmates.

The baby’s sister, Miriam, also a daughter, watches from nearby.  Pharaoh’s daughter comes to the river with her entourage of servants to bathe.  We can hardly imagine what she has been told about the Hebrews.  Perhaps it was something like “They are course foreigners who multiply like rabbits in their filthy ghettoes.”  Perhaps she has seen them at a distance as they work on the many building projects, but has she ever had a conversation with a Hebrew girl her own age or eaten with a Hebrew family?  (Anna Carter Florence, “At the River’s Edge,” Best Sermons, vl. 5)

So when the Princess of Egypt comes to take her daily dip at the river’s edge, she hears a sound coming from the bulrushes.  There is a basket floating among the reeds, and it is retrieved by one of her maids.  Inside the basket is a baby.  I would imagine that it is her first real encounter with the Hebrew’s miserable dilemma.  And to her credit, she immediately recognizes the sort of desperation that would force a parent to do such a thing as put their baby in a basket and let him float away into dangerous waters.  Inwardly, she must have said, “Enough!  Enough fear!  Enough hatred!  Enough ignorance,” because outwardly, this princess of Egypt, this daughter of Pharaoh, displays courageous compassion. (Florence)   To see this baby…to hear it…to hold it…to drink in its smell, creates such a powerful connection that she cannot walk away.  No law was more important than the bond that grew between them at that moment of encounter.  

Miriam steps forward to suggest a wet nurse.  It is because of Miriam that the daughter of a Levite and the daughter of a Pharaoh get so connected that they will also share a son.  And in a gracious humanitarian act, Pharaoh’s daughter not only sends for the Hebrew woman to nurse the baby, she pays her to care for this child until he is old enough to live in the palace as a privileged child of royalty.  We watch as the future liberator of the Hebrews grows up in the house of the Hebrew’s oppressor.  (J. Cheryl Exum, “You Shall Let Every Daughter Live,” Semeia)

It is a huge risk for her to take, and I wonder if she is punished for it.  She is not only disobeying her father’s law, she is bringing her disobedience into the royal palace to confront Pharaoh every day of his life, for baby Moses became the great liberator of the Hebrews from the Egyptians.  I would suggest to you, however, that Moses began his role of liberator long before he accepted God’s call at the burning bush, for he began it that day in the river Nile within the very heart of Pharaoh’s daughter…freeing her from her fear, her hatred, and her ignorance just through his presence as a baby in need.

It seems to me that we all sit at the river’s edge almost every day of our lives.  Sometimes it is to discern of what we must let go—a habit, a relationship, a job, a worn out prejudice or emotional baggage that is too heavy to carry any longer.  But sometimes, down by the river’s side, we are confronted with a basket that is caught up in the bulrushes and there are cries for help coming from within.  So beware:  if you look in the basket, the love of God will melt your heart and there will be no turning back from whoever stretches out their begging arms to be held by you.

The beauty of this story is that it does not take exceptional, well-connected, highly financed, degreed, saintly persons to bring about this revolution.  The characters of this story are ordinary women… daughters…whose faith, love, and compassion make them more than they knew they were able to be while enduring horrific circumstances.  The promise given in Romans is that we are all given the gifts we need to act with integrity as we are guided by basic ethical principles of love.  And the story of Peter, from declaring Jesus as Messiah to complete denial to discovering that God shows no partiality to founder of the church, should keep us hopeful that God continues to use bumblers like us to bring about merciful justice just as Jochabed, Miriam, Puah, Shiprah and Pharaoh’s daughter did too.

These women, found in the first chapters of Exodus, with their quiet acts of civil disobedience, defy oppression by continuing to protect life.  They are resourceful with their discernment and practical in their judgment.  But knowing the rest of the story, we recognize that they are only the beginning of liberation.  (Exum)  The baby they protect, Moses, grows to adulthood.  He kills a task master for beating a Hebrew slave.  This forces Moses into exile.  In that exile, he encounters God in the form of a burning bush, so that he returns to Pharaoh’s courts to demand that the enslaved Hebrews receive their freedom.  They cross the Red Sea.  They wander through the wilderness, and on top of Mt. Sinai, Moses receives the Ten Commandments…the law.

And by all rights of the law, we are sinners in the hands of an angry God.

By all rights of the law, we stand condemned.

By all rights of the law, there is no hope.

By all rights of the law, we are unworthy of God’s consideration.

But in the midst of these dark realizations, another baby is born…a redeemer, a liberator, a Savior.  It is Christ the Lord, and He continues to save us from the law with grace and love, mercy and forgiveness so that we might, in turn, join Him in saving others.

Perhaps you have experienced this salvation.  If so we invite you to respond to the good news of the gospel by making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ, by joining this church or giving your life to a full-time Christian vocation as we stand and sing the hymn of commitment that is inserted in the bulletin.

Doggin’ Jesus

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor 

on Sunday, August 17, 2014

Genesis 45:1-15; Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

With two boys in our house, we have had a variety of family pets.  Our golden retriever, Hercules, was so big and lovable that he was more popular than I could ever hope to be.  He was not particular in the least.  All living creatures: dogs, cats, lizards, moles, chipmunks and squirrels were on the receiving end of his genuine interest.  No matter who you were, Hercules wanted to love you.  He wanted to sniff you.  He wanted to lick you.  And regardless of his 120 pounds, he wanted to sit in your lap.  But the day came when the Vet told us that his pancreas had torqued.  There was nothing that could be done, and Hercules died.  Heart broken, we stood beside his final resting place in our back yard to tell stories about Hercules.  When it came to four year old Dannelly’s turn, the best he could muster was, “He was a dog.”

The contractor who renovated our home, discovered the container with Hercules’ ashes in it, and not knowing what it was, he put it in the back of his pick-up truck.  After several weeks of driving around town, he thought to ask if its contents were important.  When I told him that what he had was our dog’s cremains, he simply said, “He’s probably had a pretty good time riding around back there in my truck!”  And then he carefully put the container back.

We distracted the boys with turtles and a multitude of hermit crabs over the next several years.  But one Mother’s Day, with the determination that only red heads possess, Dannelly proceeded to announce that I was getting a puppy.  And so we brought home some sort of terrier, Chihuahua, billy goat mix-up and named her Cleopatra.  She immediately lived up to her name and established rule in our home.  To this day, she sits enthroned on the back of our sofa in order to look out the kitchen window.  Should anyone walk down the street, she goes into protection mode barking wildly, knocking off sofa pillows, and turning all the rugs askew.  There are fireplace screens in several doorways to keep her out of the dining room which happens to be her favorite depository, if you know what I mean.  If she is not ready to go outside (even though I am late for work), she will hide under our bed and refuse to come out.  

While I am often frustrated by her behavior, Cleo does have some endearing qualities.  I have caught her sitting in the hallway outside of the boys’ empty bedrooms.  She looks from one to the other and then lays down in quiet resignation that her buddies are no longer in the house.  And when Lloyd and I sit down for dinner, she hops into the chair normally occupied by David, to rest her head on the table while we talk about our day.  So whether at the dinner table, under the bed or buried in the sofa cushions, I have started to allow Cleopatra the freedom to choose whatever space suits her at any given moment, rather than forcing her into particular places based on my preference, comfort or convenience.  

Somehow I think that this is what church is supposed to be like, i.e., a place for anybody who needs one.  I worry that the church is better at making others conform to a list of requirements rather than adapting space to meet individual spiritual need.  Too often the church practices, “No shirt, no shoes, no spirituality.”  When we are on the receiving end of this practice, it feels a little like living in the “which one doesn’t belong” portion of a kindergarten workbook.  Given a picture of a pear, an apple, a banana, and a goat, which one are you sometimes singled out to be by the nice people of faith?

Episcopal priest William Miller writes about his childhood Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Mylie.  (The Gospel According to Sam, p. 91) He describes her as a pedagogical dream for she was a serious teacher, well-prepared, and pious.  He remembers, “We received a star each week for attendance, punctuality, participation, memory verse, and bringing visitors.  We could also get credit for attendance even if we attended another church on a given Sunday.  However, it wasn’t until she refused to give Bruce Briscoe a star because he had attended a Methodist church, and said, ‘We all know the Methodists are going to hell,’ that I realized just how sweet such narrow-minded intolerance could sound.  ‘Nice’ people can sometimes be the carriers of the most deadly diseases.”

This is my struggle with today’s gospel reading.  If ever there was a religious person we like to think of as “nice,” it is Jesus.  Didn’t He welcome the children in His arms and give them a blessing?  Isn’t He the one who waxes eloquently about the lilies of the fields and the birds of the air?  Wasn’t Jesus the one that spoke with the Samaritan woman at the well and dared to eat with sinners so that the Pharisees and Sadducees accused Him of being a drunkard and a glutton?  And yet, His response to the Canaanite woman exposes that even Jesus is a carrier of nice church people’s most deadly disease.

In His only trip outside of Israel’s borders in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus and the disciples leave Galilee for Tyre and Sidon.  (Exegesis from Cynthia Campbell, “Crumbs,” 8-18-02, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago)  Tyre was a Roman port city and the gateway for trade that came to Damascus and beyond.  This is foreign territory for Jesus and the disciples.  They are outside their comfort zone.  These are not His people.  The accent isn’t right.  The skin coloration is just enough different.  The practices of culture are unfamiliar.  Jesus doesn’t belong here.  He is way out of His comfort zone, but instead of just trying to blend in, He takes a “holier than thou” attitude in an attempt to set this screaming Canaanite woman in her rightful place.

She “comes rushing out,” and like a bull dog on a bone, the Canaanite woman accosts Jesus with, “Have mercy on me.  My daughter is possessed by a demon!”  The scripture is clear that Jesus does not respond at all.  He doesn’t answer her request.  He doesn’t even acknowledge her presence.  But she will not be silenced.  She dogs Jesus and His followers with her cries.  Her persistence is such that the disciples, careful watch dogs that they are, come to Jesus and beg Him to please send her away.  And Jesus, in a rare moment of elitist pedigree, makes it abundantly clear, “I am only sent for the lost sheep of Israel.”  She, apparently, is not worthy of His time or attention.  Three times she approaches Jesus with requests for her daughter’s healing.  Each time she is either ignored or belittled.  

How embarrassing!  Where is the Savior who marches to a different beat and breaks all the rules of the established order?  Where is our Jesus who stands up for the weak and outcast?  Where is the Jesus who willingly responds when others have uttered, “Lord, help me”?  His social snub causes the woman to summon up her wit in order to match Jesus line for line as she kneels before Him in a position akin to that of a dog beaten into submission.

This makes me so uncomfortable that I want to immediately smooth over Jesus’s faux pox with a softer interpretation.  I want to explain away Jesus’ rudeness by reminding us that the writer of Matthew’s gospel was intent on presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel.  Remember that this gospel begins with a lineage that traces Jesus’ roots to King David.  Only to Israel, God’s chosen people, has Jesus come.  The good news that the gospel is open to include others will not come until the last verses of Matthew when followers are told to “make disciples of all nations,” and this is after the clear rejection by the Jews takes place in the crucifixion.  So because Jesus (by all accounts a devout and faithful Jew) finds Himself in a foreign land and is accosted by an enemy of the Jewish faith who is also female, Jesus not only ignores and rebuffs her, He succumbs to all the cultural noise embedded in His humanness and calls her a “dog.”

I wish that there was some translation “trick” that I could use to appropriately interpret this offensive slur.  Not one contemporary paraphrase that I read was willing to accurately translate it, but knowing your imaginations and extensive vocabularies, I will trust you to supply the horrific insult that Jesus hurls her way.  A kneeling woman does not have far to fall after all, and by all rights this insult should have floored her on the spot.  What choice does a desperate Canaanite woman have after such a slap but to slink off into the crowd, take her rightful place within a pack of flea-bitten, mangy mongrels, and go back to a daughter who is still in a demon’s grip?  (“Dogging Jesus,” Peter Hawkins, Christian Century, 8-9-05)  

But instead of tucking her tail, she begs for a tasty morsel.  The irony that she begs for a crumb when Matthew places her story directly in-between two stories of Jesus miraculously feeding multitudes should capture our attention.  Jesus will feed His people with abundant sufficiency, but He does not have a crumb to give this Canaanite woman.  She doesn’t back away.  Instead, she barks at the hand from which she wishes to be fed. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs from their master’s table.” I wish she had also whispered, “checkmate.”  It is the only place in scripture where someone engages Jesus in debate and wins.  (Brett Younger, “Kicking down Walls,” 8-17-14, Lectionary Homiletics)

This story is so out of character…so shocking…that it leaves us to wonder why it is included.  Maybe the writer could not erase it from his memory.  Some interpreters say it is included to remind us that prayer has to be this persistent in order to get the Divine to perform the miraculous; or maybe Jesus is testing the disciples; or maybe He was tired and stressed; or maybe Jesus was kidding around making parodies with words.  My friends, not a one of these explanations resonates with me.  The truth is that Jesus has never been more politically incorrect in His life.  Like Shirley McClain in “Terms of Endearment,” He is dealing with a distraught mother begging for her daughter’s relief.  And to hear Jesus respond in such a racist chauvinistic manner, may make it the most disturbing story in all of the gospels.  (Younger)  Therefore, I believe that the story is included because it reminds us that the circle of God’s friends is constantly widening, and that Jesus, in all of His failed humanity, has to expand His perception of who He has come to save.  It makes me wonder:  of which then was God most pleased:  the persistent faith of the woman or the Savior who finally opened His heart to the whole world?

John Bell, Scottish hymn writer and preacher, writes:  “I don’t doubt that God’s love and mercy are unchanging in their intention and intensity, but I don’t believe that this precludes God’s mind from changing.  Indeed, I believe that the Bible is the record of God’s mind changing with regard to human beings.  It is the record of how God’s mind changes as to who will be the beneficiaries of God’s love, thereby gradually widening the circle of God’s friends.”  We can follow this concept of God’s widening circle of friends beginning with Abraham to the 12 tribes of Israel to the recipients of the prophets’ proclamations.  In particular, remember Jonah, and God changing God’s mind to spare the Ninevites and Jonah’s pouting anger in response.  Think about the story of Joseph read earlier in our service and the vivid picture it paints of how we can widen the circle of God’s friends within our own lives even to those who have betrayed us, through forgiveness and mercy…and of Peter standing in the Centurion’s home pronouncing, “I perceive that God shows no partiality.”

Too often we listen to the voices of our upbringing and culture that fear there is not enough grace to go around, and so they say there are some who are not entitled to mercy.  Thus, the ongoing debates of who receives the death penalty and who does not.  Who gets medical care?  Who gets mental health assistance?  Who gets a job?  Who gets a place to live or something to eat?  When released from jail, who gets a chance to start a new life?  We ask ourselves: are all Muslims terrorists? Are homosexuals predators? Are transgendered perverted? Are the poor all lazy? Are the 57,000 children from Central America who have illegally crossed into the U.S. refugees or criminals?

Who’s on your personal list?  Oh, now, let’s be honest.  We all have a list and while mine may be different from yours, about whom do we hold prejudicial elitist thoughts?  Who do we actively work to keep under the table and not share even a crumb with?  Who are the people we avoid?   Who do we consider to be above us or beneath us, too poor or too rich, too young or too old?  Who makes us uncomfortable?  …a mother who nags, a father who yells, a child who won’t listen, the in-law you wish your sibling had not married, the person at work who slacks on their responsibilities?  Who would we rather leave out?  …People who aren’t funny, who are always angry, who waste our time, who talk about things we don’t care about, who don’t like us, who aren’t like us, who aren’t as smart?  (Younger)

Jesus had a full load of reasons as to why His response to the Canaanite woman was acceptable, but something, somehow, finally moved inside of Jesus and His disciples as they listened to this heartsick mother’s anguished plea.  I wonder, if at long last, they realized that God is bigger and better than their own personal theology and biases?  (John Ortberg, “True Grit,” Christian Century, 8-23-03)  Jesus says to the woman, “Great is your faith.”  It can be translated as “You have MEGA-faith!  A faith that is super-sized!  You!  You are a Super Faith Woman!”  (“Faith like a Dog’s Breakfast,” The Listening Hermit, 8-9-11)  And because of the mother’s faith, the daughter is healed, but even more, so is Jesus.

In rare moments of trust, Cleopatra will roll over on her back and beg us to rub her belly.  It is quite a position of vulnerability and if we find the sweet spot, she will jiggle her back right leg in absolute delight.  It seems that what Jesus learned that day with the Canaanite woman is that it takes a lot of courage to roll over on your back, stick your paws up in the air, and expose your vulnerable belly in hopes that you will get a rub, a pat, a crumb, some acknowledgement that you are accepted as a child of God’s even with your dirty side up.

I am discovering that most seekers are not overly concerned about what we believe.  What they most want to know is that when they muster the courage to expose their belly in our presence that we can be trusted NOT to laugh, NOT to get nauseated, NOT to strike, NOT to demand a nutritious diet, but that, instead, we will lovingly, patiently, tenderly scratch and rub until their hind legs jiggle with the delight of the Lord.  And if we can do that, my friends, not only will they be healed, but we will be healed too.

It is to this healing faith that we invite you this day…professions of faith, church membership or a Christian vocation…come as we stand and sing #392, “Stir Thy Church.”