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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!

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.”

Community

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor 

on Sunday, September 7, 2014

Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

 

She was already a few months along when I got the word in the church office.  Debra had grown up in the church.  She was from a nice family, creative, good student, well-liked.  She attended Sunday School faithfully, sang in the youth choir, and re-dedicated her life to Christ on every youth retreat, which was, at least, two to three times a year.  And yet, as a sophomore in college, she was not only pregnant, she had decided to keep the baby even though the young man with whom she was involved refused to marry her.

As it turned out, the pastor was on Sabbatical when the baby was born.  It fell to me to follow the custom of the church which was to have a red rose on the communion table the following Sunday.  I should have guessed the response of the congregation when the church secretary balked at the birth announcement I requested for the bulletin.  It seemed that by publicly acknowledging this baby’s birth, some in the congregation believed that I was also “condoning the unwed mother’s behavior,” which, to my surprise, was apparently license for all the young people of the church to go and do likewise!  At least, that is what the former chair of deacons confronted me with, and true to his word, he reported it to the missing pastor, who, upon his return, assured me that he would not have handled this situation in the same manner.  To which, by that time, I had nothing left to say but “I know.” 

Now, I tell you this story, not to say “Boy, I really showed them!” but to simply put before us an example that to live in community is often difficult.  Who was it who said, “Community would be great, if it weren’t for all the people”?  The gospel of Matthew assures us that God is certainly among two or three people who gather in God’s name, but, I would add, so is conflict and misunderstanding, bridge burning and character assassination, grudge holding and passive aggressive behavior.  All three passages of scripture for today give us strong direction for living in community.

Now we know the prophet Ezekiel for his visions of spinning wheels way up in the middle of the air and dry bones that come to life in the valley of death, but here Ezekiel is appointed to be God’s spokesperson to provide insurance for those who have been listening to the “turn or burn” theology of the Babylonian exile.  Ezekiel speaks to those who have lost everything, who are steeped in hopelessness, and who are burdened by guilt.  He speaks of the deep themes of God’s desire to embrace them and show them what is good, if they will but choose to be in relationship with God and with one another.  Ezekiel sets a high standard for the community of faith, for he models the defining characteristic of our relationship to God as being our sense of concern and responsibility for the welfare of others.  (Ronald Peters, Feasting on the Word, p. 30 of Year A, vl. 4)  In fact, he brings the point home by telling us that if we do not speak to one another about the damaging behaviors we display, then the consequence is that the one acting out will die in their sin and that God will hold us accountable for it.

Paul, in Romans, moves from preaching to meddling when he emphasizes our personal habits and behavior as giving a stronger testimony than any feeling we might possess.  Paul seems to say that our neighbors know that we love them by the ways we treat them and not by our glib greeting card type blessings.  (Rochelle Stackhouse, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vl 4, pp. 40-42)  

Therefore, our love has no mystery to it, for love is how we act in God’s name.  And because it is how we live, then everyone can see clearly who we are.  Paul calls it living “honorably.”  Peter Gomes says it is living in such a way that if your mother knew what you were doing, she would not be disappointed!  Paul mentions such matters as drunkenness and sexual immorality, but then, just when we might be feeling safe, Paul adds such things as quarreling and jealousy as being on equal footing, reminding us that the whole body of Christ is damaged whenever we participate in any of these things.

Jesus, in Matthew’s gospel, reminds us that we are going to fight, disagree and wound one another, but how we go about addressing and resolving these differences is more important than whether we engage in conflict or not.  And so Jesus gives us some methodology for resolution.  He tells us to honor the other person by taking the initiative to speak the truth in love.  Pour your whole self into the process for the sake of the relationship AND for the sake of the faith community.  Only after we have exhausted ourselves and are still unable to break through do we invite others into the conversation for discernment and guidance.  (Jin Kim, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vl 4, pp. 48)  

Atlanta’s Central Presbyterian Church has recorded in the minutes of the church a story about a young man who settled in Atlanta after the Civil War to seek his fortune. (The Church that Stayed, John Robert, Atlanta Historical Society, 1976)  He did well as a business leader in the city and was soon elected an elder of Central Presbyterian Church.  After his installation, however, reports came to the church that the man had been seen publicly drunk on Whitehall and Pryor Streets.  He was, therefore, called before the Session and confronted with his behavior.  He shrugged it off.  He explained that he had merely overdone his physician’s advice “to partake a measure of ardent spirits for reasons of health.”  The Session found this to be an unsatisfactory explanation.  Being a matter of church discipline, they ordered that he appear for trial where witnesses would give testimony, and his pastor was the prosecutor.  The young man was found guilty.  Rather than excommunicate the man, the Session offered that if he would, before the entire congregation, make a full and public confession of his sin, and pledge to reform, then he could remain a church member although he would have to give up his leadership role as an elder.

This story is hard for us to imagine.  Our attitude is often that if our brother sins, we just look the other way; if our sister sins, we talk about it to anybody but her or we shrug it off saying it’s her life and not our business.  Central Presbyterian, however, follows Matthew account that invites us to take each other seriously.  If our neighbor sins, act like a neighbor and go to the individual to talk.  Of course, you don’t know what to say, and it is never convenient.  If you knew exactly what should be said and if you were clearing your calendar to set up this meeting, then I would probably tell you to hold off.  That sounds more like you are angry and just wanting to put the neighbor in his/her place or exhibit your own self-righteousness or play a little one up-man-ship.  But if you know you can go to your neighbor with all humility…with all sincerity…completely out of love…then, take the assurance that where two or three are gathered in the name of Christ, Jesus will supply the courage and confidence required to reach out and care for one another.  (Patrick J. Willson, “Taking People Seriously,” Lectionary Homiletics, 9-7-14, p. 42 ff)

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann writes in his book The Open Church that the church is not the place to come together just to confirm for each other the same eternal stories, jokes, and opinions.  Rather, the church is to be “an open and hospitable community which would bring friendliness into the unfriendly corners…the church affirms that no one is alone with his or her problems, that no one has to conceal any disabilities, that there are not some who have the say and others who have nothing to say.  That neither the old nor the little ones are isolated, that one bears the other even when it is unpleasant and that finally one can leave the other in peace when the other needs it.”  

Ultimately, that is what happened at Central Presbyterian Church.  Just twenty years after the official minutes record the resignation of a young man from being an elder of the church, a curious entry reads:  “Lest the records of 1872 make an entirely erroneous impression on anyone now reading it as to the Christian character of this man, [let it be known] that he now enjoys the unqualified respect and confidence of all his brethren.” I wonder who took it upon themselves to share a little community with him.

Our community of faith comes together this day to share in receiving the body and blood of Christ.  Scripture tells us that it is a time to examine ourselves.  It is a time to be sure that all is right between yourself and others in the larger community.  So as we move from our seats and come to the front, we have time to outline a conversation that needs to occur or to compose a letter that needs to be sent.  You are also free to seek out a member of the community to say, “I am concerned about you,” or “I am grateful for you,” or “Let’s get together this week to talk.” As we remember the love of Christ for each of us, it is the perfect time to express your love for neighbor.

Serving of Communion by intinction

Philip Gulley (Hometown Tales) tells that he was fired from his first church because he answered honestly a question about the end of time.  His Quaker congregation told him that if he would just change his mind, he could stay as their pastor.  His response was to ask them why they would want a pastor who surrendered his convictions just to keep his job.  He started to resign, but wasn’t quick enough.  They fired him.

By the next weekend, however, another Quaker church asked Philip to preach in view of a call.  He did not want to be their pastor, because they were known as a fundamentalist church.  So he purposefully preached a very liberal sermon in hopes that they wouldn’t hire him.  The congregation sat in the pews and visibly squirmed.  All, that is, except for one dear, elderly lady.  She smiled broadly and consistently shouted, “Amen!”  Later Philip discovered that she was hard of hearing!

After worship, the calling committee went down to the fellowship hall to discuss if they would hire Philip.  Here is how Philip remembers it:

I sat upstairs [alone] in the meeting room and listened through the heating vent.  Their initial comments were not promising.  I was grateful that my mother wasn’t there to hear what they were saying about me. Things quieted down after someone mentioned that maybe God had sent me their way so I could learn a little something.

And so while they agreed that none of them liked his sermon, they also agreed that Philip should be called as their pastor.

The chairman of the committee, Dick, called that very afternoon to invite Philip to a round of golf the next day.  Philip figured he could pay Dick back for bashing his sermon by thrashing him in golf.   They played nine holes and Dick beat Philip by ten strokes.  As they loaded their clubs into the trunk, Dick said, “A preacher who can’t preach or golf.  What have we gotten ourselves into?”  Then Dick took Philip to his house for lunch.

They played golf once a month for the next four years.  When Philip preached a sermon that Dick did not like, Philip was the first to hear about it.  But when Dick’s mother died…when Dick’s wife died…Philip did the memorial services.  And somewhere in that time, Dick began to like Philip’s sermons.  Who was changing:  Philip or Dick?  So when Dick died, Philip talked about how Christians, in general, can’t seem to get along.  They fuss and fight and draw theological lines in the sand.  He told about how Dick and he were poles apart sometimes, but they had made up their minds that disagreeing about God was not going to keep them from loving each other or any other of God’s children.  Philip said of it, “It’s good to know where you stand, but it is even better to have your heart turned toward [community].  (Gulley uses the word [gentleness])  Dick ended up changing me in ways I needed to be changed.  I’d like to think I did the same for him.  Maybe that’s what God has in mind when [God] brings different folks together—that we each bring our scraps of truth and piece them together into this radiant quilt that is so much finer than anything we could have ever made alone.  And if I hadn’t been fired, I might never have learned that.”

We don’t always agree at Baptist Church of the Covenant, and I am good with that as long as we keep piecing together a radiant quilt that speaks to the higher calling of being a community stitched together with love for one another so that each person is valued as a child of God’s.

Perhaps you want to bring your scrap of a life and add it to Baptist Church of the Covenant’s community quilt.  You do this by making a profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, or by moving your letter of church membership or giving your life to a full-time Christian vocation.  We invite you to respond as we stand and sing the hymn provided on the bulletin insert.

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!