Welcome to BCOC!

Featured

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!

To Be the Neighbor

Sunday, July 10, 2016

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor 
Amos 7:7-9; Colossians 1:9b-14; Luke 10:25-37

We have a dog. Her name is Cleopatra. Her pedigree is of questionable origin. She is not very smart, and she has an attitude. For instance: should we toss a ball or throw a treat, Cleopatra will just sit and stare at it. She gradually will look at us as if to say, “Really? You expect me to chase after that?” She does not enjoy closeness, but she does like to be within eye sight. So she is companionable but not affectionate. Whoever is the last to leave for the day, is left with the challenge of how to trick Cleopatra into going outside. Our back yard is spacious and fenced. Any other dog would delight in chasing the squirrels and birds. She, instead barks at them and when we call her, she hides. She is partial to a shadowed corner of our deck where she can lay on her back, prop her paws on either wall and enjoy a nap. She will never earn the title “World’s Greatest Dog,” but she is ours, and we love her…well, we love her most of the time.

 

New neighbors have moved in. We share a property line that divides our back yards. I did the neighborly thing and took them a cobbler when they moved in. They seemed to appreciate it. But recently, the father of the new family walked through the small clearing in our shared bushes and knocked on our back door. “You really must do something about your dog,” he said to me. “Oh?” “Yes, your dog is on my wife’s last nerve!” “Oh?” “Yes, she barks incessantly.” I was tempted to introduce some levity into the conversation and ask, “Who barks incessantly, your wife or our dog?” But I did not ask, because his face was dark with anger. He continued. “We had to move from our last house because the neighbors would not control their dog’s barking.” “Ohhh!” I said. Then, I apologized and said that we would try to do better.

 

I confess to you that my thoughts have been less than neighborly since that encounter. Should I be baking and find that I am an egg short, I would rather go all the way to the grocery store than walk across the driveway to knock on their door and ask to borrow an egg. I find myself running to the garbage can and back for fear that we will have an encounter. All the while, I wonder if this is how I really want to feel about and relate to these people who happen to be our neighbors. I wonder because of the model found in the story of The Good Samaritan where Jesus wants to know:  

 

Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

One day, Jesus is asked a question by a lawyer: What must I do to inherit eternal life? Because the lawyer is a student of the law, Jesus points him to an answer that is found within his very own area of expertise: The law says we are to love God with all of who we are, and we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus affirms this answer, but the lawyer is intent on testing Jesus. It is important to remember that this is not a conversation. It is a contest. So the lawyer continues with: Who is my neighbor? The scripture says he asks this question to justify himself. We are left to wonder if he is an exceptional student of the law or is he just like the rest of us in search of wanting to know the bare minimum required by the syllabus to pass the course? (Alyce McKenzie, “Active Neighbors,” Edgy Exegesis) And so Jesus launches into telling a parable that describes not just the surprise of who our neighbor might be but also what it means to be a neighbor. It’s a story that highlights not just knowing what God requires, but our willingness to do it.

 

So the story goes something like this:

A family is traveling south on Interstate 65. They are heading to the beach for vacation. They have Alabama stickers on the car. They are wearing matching Championship t-shirts, their drinks are in Alabama koozies, and an Alabama football is packed in their gear for tossing around on the sand. Over the stereo speakers, the Million Dollar Band is playing when they lose control of their car, flipping over several times. Some Tennessee fans see the accident, but they have an appointment to keep in Montgomery. They drive on by. The next passersby are LSU fans. They are so sad to see what happened that they offer up prayers of concern. But the car that stops; the car that calls 911; the car that carefully bandages cuts and goes to the nearest hospital with the passengers in order to pay for the Emergency Room visit…that car is full of Auburn fans.  

 

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

A homeless person stops at Baptist Church of the Covenant looking for assistance. They have been beaten and left for dead not just from the terror of living on the streets, but from political systems weighted with indifference. It is a busy work day and yet, they dare to interrupt the work of the Kingdom to ask for help. The pastor asks: “Have you been to other agencies seeking assistance? We have policies here about how often we can help. The Rogers’ Fund is dangerously low!” The Minister for Christian Formation says, “Sorry, no time! I have camp to prepare for.” The Organist/Choirmaster says, “I’m on my way to choir rehearsal.” But the intern, the lowly intern, his heart fills with compassion. He sits and talks and listens while the person eats a sack lunch and tells his story.  

 

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

Some soldiers are deployed for a mission traveling from Tal Afir to Baghdad. Along the way, a mine explodes and the soldiers are left for dead. But when the Muslim residents of a nearby Iraqi village come to investigate, they find that the Americans are still alive, and their hearts fill with compassion. They bandage their wounds, carry them into their village, care for them, and nurse them back to health.

 

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

In a predominantly white suburb of America walks an African American teenage boy. His pants ride low on his hips. He wears a black hoodie. He hears sirens and so, out of curiosity, follows their sound to the local convenience store. Two white policemen have been shot and left for dead. The teenager’s heart fills with compassion. He holds the hand of one wounded officer. He offers presence and speaks encouragement into the officer’s fear. He stays until the paramedics arrive.

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

Now Jesus says the story happens like this:

There was a road that led from Jericho to Jerusalem. The terrain was rough and barren, and thieves often hid along the way in order to rob passersby. On this particular day, as a man walked the road, the thieves jump him, rob him, beat him up and leave him for dead. A Samaritan happens by after a priest and Levite have already passed by without stopping. The difference is that the Samaritan’s heart fills with compassion when he sees the man. He extends such extraordinary care to the man that Jesus challenges us to do the same.

 

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

It has always bothered me that the religious professionals pass by. Jesus, however, does not blame the priest or the Levite for not stopping. Jesus doesn’t accuse them of being heartless. They are, after all, on their way to work and given what they do, they cannot properly serve if they are even temporarily rendered unclean by contact with a dead body. While their lack of action is not acceptable, it gives me some comfort to know that Jesus does not judge them. (Patrick Willson, “Who We Are,” 7-26-07, Christian Century)

 

In contrast, what exactly makes the Samaritan “good?” Samaritans were “bad” because they were half-breeds, and because they had once scattered the bones of the dead on the floor of the Jewish Temple, defiling it and preventing a Jewish Passover from occurring. (Brett Younger, Review and Expositor, “Preaching like a Good Samaritan,” 1993) It would be like someone breaking into our columbarium and spreading cremains all over this sanctuary on Christmas Eve or Easter Sunday. So, if that is “bad,” what makes this Samaritan “good?” Is it his compassion, the highway triage, the accommodations at the inn, or is it more basic than that? Basic like: the Samaritan simply had the courage to come near to one in need. He dared to bridge the chasm and come near just as Jesus bridges the gap between us and God. God comes near through Christ to extend mercy to us. For, who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

Jesus uses over half of the parable to discuss the actions of the Samaritan. He feels pity. He bandages wounds. He pours wine and oil. He lifts the man up on his animal. He cares for him in the inn. He secures the innkeeper’s hospitality. These excessive descriptions point us to Jesus’ emphasis of it is not so much about WHO the neighbor is as it is about the importance of WHAT the neighbor DOES. We are to imitate the neighbor’s doing. Thus, Jesus’ command for us to “Go and do likewise.” (Willson)

 

The parable casts a different meaning when viewed as one in the ditch as opposed to being on the road. We have all been in the ditch at one time or another, both literally and figuratively. The parable prods us to consider: “despite our privilege, education, wealth and power, do we understand how God might be using someone totally unexpected, someone totally surprising, something never imagined to bring healing and wholeness into our life?” (“The View from the Ditch” Faith and Leadership, 2-7-11)

 

The story becomes even richer when we consider the things that Jesus does not tell. For instance, we do not know if the beaten man was a Jew or not. We assume he is Jewish because the presence of the Samaritan is so surprising, but we are never told his nationality. While the lawyer seems to be intent on WHO our neighbor is, Jesus’ intent is on WHAT a neighbor does. It begins with compassion. A neighbor comes near enough to see a need, and then takes concrete action. (McKenzie)

 

The sequence of seeing, having compassion, and acting is a common theme throughout the gospels. In Luke’s gospel when Jesus “sees” the woman weeping at the death of her only son, he “has compassion for her” and brings the son to life (Luke 7:13). When the father “sees” the prodigal son “still afar off…he has compassion on him” and runs to embrace him (Luke 15:20). Matthew and Mark repeatedly tell us that Jesus, when he “sees” the crowds, has compassion on them and heals, feeds and teaches them (Mt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32: Mk 6:34; 8:2) In the parable of the last judgment, what makes some blessed is the fact that, though they didn’t realize it, in seeing the poor and helping them, they see and help Jesus. By contrast, what makes others cursed is that they never really see Jesus suffering and in need, because they never see the poor. (MT. 25:31-46) It is the seeing, having compassion and acting that Jesus commends.

 

The parable also does not tell us if the lawyer did as Jesus told him to do. Jesus says “Go and do likewise,” but we do not know if the lawyer did or not. So the story begs the question: As contemporary people who are often characterized by the same combination of sincerity and shallowness as the first century lawyer, what actions will be on display in our lives when we are asked, “Who is the neighbor?” Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

I believe that this story pricks our heart because it is the unexpected person who shows up and acts as our neighbor. It is not so much about the person injured and left for dead as it is about the surprising one who shows up to do mercy. This neighbor is different for each of us: the Muslim refugee or the undocumented worker from Mexico or a high school drop-out or a fundamentalist or a transgender person. I wish sometimes that Jesus had clearly defined who our neighbor is, then we could also say who our neighbor is not and live safely within the strong walls that keep most out and only a select few within. Jesus is clear, however, about how being a Good Samaritan is NOT about what one thinks, nor one’s vocation, religious affiliation, social status, class or race. We are defined and ultimately judged by if our actions are kind and merciful, because a neighbor is anyone who sees another’s suffering, allows their heart to be moved and acts to do something to help. (Victoria Curtiss, “Neighbor Come Near,” 7-14-13, Fourth Presbyterian Church)

 

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

The violent events of this week in our own country are tied to this story from scripture. Their common thread unravels from the basic human emotion of fear. Jesus’ story is not just about one man responding graciously to another man in need. This story powerfully reminds us that it matters a great deal if we condition ourselves to respond to others as strangers to be feared or as neighbors to be embraced. When we act out of fear, the potential for things to go wrong increases exponentially. As people of faith, we are challenged to resist the temptation to fear the other and instead, to approach others, particularly those who are different from us, with openness and trust. The decision to approach others in fear and defense or in openness and willingness to help shapes everything else that follows in our lives and in the lives of those we encounter. (Adam Fronezek, “And Who is My Neighbor?” Fourth Presbyterian Church, 7-14-13)

 

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

The text of Sydney Carter’s hymn sums it up well:

When I needed a neighbor, were you there?

When I needed a listener, were you there?

When I was cold and naked, hungry and thirsty, sick and in prison, were you there?

When I needed a healer, were you there?

When I needed a neighbor, were you there?  

Were you there?

 

Pastor: Who is the neighbor? Congregation: The one who shows mercy.

 

Before we “go and do likewise,” we are meant to know the care and compassion of the stranger who finds us abandoned, lifts us up and provides hospitality for us. Far beyond providing instruction in practical morality, the actions of the Samaritan stranger open a window for us to recognize nothing less than the care and compassion of God. So should you wish to know the compassion of God who sees you in your need and comes near or you desire to find a place of meaningful membership here in this Inn of Compassion, come join me at the front as we stand to sing, hymn #323, “Come, Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy.”

 

The Tension of Peace

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, July 3, 2016

II Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:1-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Many of you know Jim Barnette.  He is a professor in the Religion Department at Samford University, and he is the preaching pastor of Brookwood Baptist Church.  Jim is the youngest child of Helen and Henlee Barnett.  Helen was an 8th grade English teacher, and Henlee was a renowned Christian Ethics professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  In addition to Jim, there were three other children in the Barnette family.  The oldest were John and Wayne.  These brothers shared a room.  They attended the same high school and played sports under the same coaches.  They were raised by the same parents within the same household, and they went to the same church every Sunday.  When the draft was issued for the Viet Nam war, however, John and Wayne sought after peace in very different ways.  John dutifully enlisted.  He was a First Lieutenant in the Air Force, but Wayne sought residence in Sweden.  His decision to be a Conscientious-Objector was not done lightly.  There was tension about his decision to refuse combat for his convictions regarding peace.

 

There were late night conversations around the kitchen table in which vast varieties of options were discussed.  In the end, however, Wayne felt he must leave, meaning he would be in exile from this country for the remainder of his days.  While this would mean not returning even when his parents were ill or dead, Wayne said that his greatest grief was that he would not be there to watch Jim and Martha, his younger siblings, grow up.  So one day while Helen was teaching school, Henlee drove their son to the airport.  The FBI came looking for him.  They questioned Helen and Henlee, not just once, but periodically over three years’ time.  Younger brother, Jim, questioned his parents about where Wayne had gone and why.  “Were his actions right or wrong?  Will he ever return?  Does he still love us?”  Jim never asked “Do we still love him?”  That answer he knew.  Helen said he knew it because they, as a family, would pray for Wayne in Sweden and for John in Vietnam every single day.  Sister Martha was asked by her friends which brother was she “for.”  Her firm reply was:  “I’m for both of them.”

 

The Courier-Journal carried the story of Wayne’s defection on the front page of the paper.  Now that their personal news was public, Helen was unsure of what she would face at her school.  She went in early and went directly to her homeroom.  Even before she turned on the lights, she saw on her desk a vase of exquisite roses.  They still had the early morning dew clinging to their leaves and petals.  Beneath was a note from a fellow teacher.  A veteran of World War II and the ninth grade teacher of both John and Wayne, her co-worker simply wrote, “You have four wonderful children.”  Helen said this act of immeasurable kindness caused her to weep.  (Christian Ethics Today published Helen Barnett’s plea for amnesty in December 27, 2010)  Jesus says that it is these acts of kindness and grace that cause Satan to fall from his throne like lightning in the sky creating space for peace on earth and in our hearts.

 

The gospel reading begins innocently enough.  It tells us that Jesus sent out seventy missionaries in pairs.  Their job was like John the Baptist’s.  They were preparing the way for Jesus to go into every town and place.  Now just where was that?  It was everywhere.  Jesus’ intentions were to go everywhere, to every nation and every tribe.  “Repentance and forgiveness,” the risen Christ announces at the end of Luke’s gospel, “is to be proclaimed to…all the nations.”  (24:47) (Most of the following ideas come from Tom Long’s “Today is…”  A Sermon for Sunday, July 4,” Journal for Preachers, 2004)

 

New Testament scholar Alan Culpepper tells us that it is no accident that there are 70 missionaries.  Genesis 10 lists 70 nations on the earth, and so it is believed that the 70 missionaries are to reach out to the full number of nations.  There will be no stopping at borders and no division in respect to race or clan. It is clear that right from the very beginning, Jesus’ mission includes the whole wide world of all people from all cultures.  (Culpepper says in “The Gospel of Luke,” that the manuscripts of Luke are almost evenly divided on the number of those Jesus sent out, some saying 70 were appointed and others saying 72.  Likewise the evidence for the numbers of nations in Genesis 10 is divided.  The Hebrew text lists 70m while the Septuagint lists 72.)

 

Jesus acknowledges that this is no easy mission.  He warns those being sent out that their mission is like sending lambs into the midst of wolves.  And so He encourages His emissaries that wherever they find themselves, and with whoever will listen that they are to speak peace…peace to the entire house.  This, in and of itself, creates tension with those whose nationalism is vested with armament budgets, the rhetoric of defense, and heightened homeland security that guards against the enemy.  Jesus’ command is to fear nothing, and to purposefully place ourselves in dangerous company by heading right into the presence of those we consider our enemies in order to bring a message of peace.  It is a dangerous mission should you decide to accept it.

 

It is particularly dangerous when we consider that Jesus sends them out without one thing with which to protect themselves.  “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals,” says Jesus.  “Do not even travel with what you might pack for an ordinary trip—no money, no extra pairs of shoes, nothing extra.  Instead, take only your dependence on God.  Receive only the hospitality of those you encounter.  Carry only the gospel and words of peace.”

 

Tim O’Brien writes of his experiences as an infantry soldier in Viet Nam in “The Things They Carried.”  The entire piece is filled with descriptions of the things soldiers pack in their gear and thus carry as they march into battle.  They carry pocketknives, letters from girlfriends, cigarettes and c-rations.  They carry diaries, photographs, binoculars, socks and foot powder.  They carry fatigue jackets, radios, compasses, batteries, maps and codebooks.  And, they carry weapons:  M-60s, M-16s, and M-79s; plastic explosives, grenades and Claymore mines.  The things these soldiers carry are often determined by their rank and function.  Mainly they carry what they know they will use on a combat mission.  O’Brien writes:

They carried all they could bear and then some, including a silent

awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

 

Jesus tells His disciples to not take anything with them.  Having carried nothing, the disciples stand in awe of what happens on their mission trip.  They find that they can heal the sick and cast out demons!  Their surprise erupts into joy as they tell Jesus about all they have done.  He joins in their elation by claiming that because of their good deeds, because of their acts of compassion that brought the gospel to forgotten places, because of their willingness to touch neglected lives and because they spoke peace to the troubled corners of the worlds, He saw Satan fall like lightning in the sky.

 

How many times have we been involved in small deeds of ministry only to remain convinced that our acts of compassion go unnoticed or they make no difference or they change nothing in the world?  Think about Arts Camp at SouthTown just this week; grocery ministry just yesterday; partnership with a Cuban congregation of about 15; cooking a meal for a shut-in; sending a card to the bereaved; working in a thrift store while at Passport…what is the good of these things?  Do they really make a difference or are they just a drain on our personal energy and financial resources?  Jesus promises us that it is these very deeds of mercy and grace that (a) we are sent out into the world to do, and (b) that will bring evil to its knees creating space for peace.  “The world may see a bunch of do-gooders working for peace,” Jesus says, “but what I see is Satan being thrown down from his throne.”

 

When the founding fathers lined up to sign The Declaration of Independence, they had no illusions.  They were not simply doing a good deed.  They were pledging their fortunes, their sacred honor, and their lives as they put their names on the dotted line.  They knew they were committing treason against the British government and yet they willingly signed their names to a document that could serve as their death warrant if the experiment of a free nation failed.  So convicted was John Hancock that he wrote his name boldly and then said, “There!  I guess King George will be able to read that!”

 

Across our country on this Sunday, many Christians will be celebrating America’s Independence Day.  In worship, they will say pledges to The American Flag, choirs will sing “I’m Proud to Be an American,” and red, white and blue bunting will adorn sanctuaries.  There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but it does raise the question: who are we worshipping?  I confess that I am always a little torn when the Fourth falls this close to a Sunday. Don’t get me wrong.  I am proud to be an American.  I find great satisfaction and swell with patriotism when I place my hand over my heart as I sing the National Anthem.  I have flags at my house and the kitchen has had a red, white and blue tablecloth on it for weeks.  But, if forced to choose between love of God and love of country…well, let’s just say that I am grateful that most days I do not have to make a choice.  This, of course, not only speaks to the generous portion of religious freedom that we receive as residents of the United States, but it also speaks to the already existing tension between the Lord’s Day and the Nation’s Day.

 

That is why on this Lord’s Day, we dare to light a candle against the darkness of evil and for the purposes of peace.  That is why on this Lord’s Day, we gather at this table, for to eat the bread and drink from the cup, we are reminded to whom we ultimately belong.  We are reminded of the One that we worship, and we are reminded of our calling to speak peace wherever we may find ourselves.

 

In many denominations, it is customary to “Pass the Peace.”  As you come forward today, I would encourage us to begin fulfilling Jesus’ mission to speak peace.  Simply say:  “The peace of Christ.”

 

Let us pray:  (Based on the prayer of St. Francis.)

Make us instruments of your peace, Lord.

Where there is hatred, use us to bring love.

Where there is wrong, use us to bring the spirit of forgiveness.

Where there is discord, use us to bring harmony.

Where there is despair, use us to bring hope.

Where there are shadows, use us to bring light.

Where there is sadness, use us to bring joy.

Give us the courage to give comfort rather than to always be the one comforted; to seek after understanding rather than to be understood; to be loving rather than the one loved; to be forgiving rather than being the one forgiven.

 

Awaken us to your ways of peace that we too may see Satan fall from the sky as peace takes its place in the reign of your Kingdom.  For we pray in the name of Jesus Christ,

Amen.

 

Communion table:  On the night that Jesus gathered with his friends, he took the bread.  He blessed the bread.  He broke the bread.  He shared it with His friends.

 

Invitation:

Tomorrow!  The Fourth of July!  Offices are closed; friends and family will gather; maybe some watermelon and bar be que will be served; do you play baseball?  …or get your bikes out and weave crepe paper through the spokes or attach little cards to the spokes so your bike goes clank, clank, clank?

 

The concerns of this world and its need for peace will feel far away, so here’s my challenge:  As you watch the fireworks, just imagine seeing what Jesus saw:  Satan falling from the sky, falling from his throne, falling because we dare to speak peace, falling because we dare to be the presence of healing in the midst of chaos, falling because we dare to hold out for reconciliation, falling because we dare to live by grace.

Should you desire to personally experience that grace, we invite you to respond in faith that Jesus is Lord of all as we stand to sing our hymn of commitment, #631, “We Utter Our Cry.”

 

Precious

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, June 26, 2016

II Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62

The congregation is invited to participate in the sermon by singing “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”

When NBC news anchor John Chancellor retired in 1993, he was asked to recall the most memorable moment from his 43 years of reporting.  Chancellor did not mention Vietnam, Watergate or even the Kennedy assassinations.  Instead, he began to describe an experience from the 1964 Republican National Convention.  Barry Goldwater was the presidential candidate.  If you will recall, Goldwater was opposed to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, so there were, not surprisingly, very few black delegates on the floor of the convention.  Chancellor, however, happened upon an older African American man at the back of the assembly hall.  He was weeping and holding on to a pillar.  At first, Chancellor thought the man had fallen, but when he leaned in closer, Chancellor saw that the man’s sport coat was riddled with cigarette burn holes.  A racist delegate had decided that this man would be his personal ashtray and, adding further insult and cruelty, the other delegates nearby had joined in.  “The pain and anguish on that man’s face is something I will go to the grave remembering,” said Chancellor.  In over four decades of reporting, it was this image of one black man’s face that endured. (Peter W. Marty, “Who Matters to Us?”  The Christian Century, March 16, 2016)

 

The power to empathize with the feelings of people whose lives do not match our own is unique to the human experience.  Armadillos and grasshoppers do not have this capacity, but we humans do.  Moral concern usually begins when one person makes an effort to place him/herself inside the shoes of another person, aiming to become, in some measure, one with the other.  It is what we are called to do as Paul reminds us, in Galatians, of Jesus’ command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

 

(The following is from Walter Brueggemann’s “Follow in Freedom,” vl. 2 of his collected sermons.)

By Luke’s ninth chapter, Jesus has healed and cast out demons.  He calms storms at sea and with each event we realize that a new path in the world is being created.  It is a path that welcomes the outcast, seeks after wholeness, and acts towards one another with loving respect.  Wherever God’s power moves, business as usual does not return.

 

The transitional verses for today clue us in that everywhere Jesus goes, He is constantly recruiting, inviting others to take their place in pursuing and creating space for the Kingdom of God.  The Old Testament lesson also gives us a picture of what this calling looks like.  The old prophet, Elijah, abruptly interrupts Elisha as he drives twelve oxen to prepare a field for planting.  There are no eloquent words, no lovely service of commissioning.  No, Elijah just throws his mantle, or coat, over Elisha.  It is an abrupt and urgent recruitment, and so unprepared does Elisha feel that at Elijah’s death, Elisha begs for a double portion of Elijah’s spirit.

 

Jesus’ technique also has rough edges.  Over and over again He says, “Follow me.”    There are no negotiations about benefits or vacation days. “Follow me,” he says. There is no time to bury the dead or say good-bye.  Simply “Follow me.” So urgent is the summons to move into new possibilities of living that Jesus and Elijah both say, “You don’t even have time to kiss your parents good-bye.”  Both Jesus and Elijah feel the urgency of refusing any practice that does not offer wholeness, because the transformation necessary for the Kingdom of God requires im-mediate attention.

 

Jesus is trying to bring everyone along.  He invites and heals.  He busies Himself with the outcasts and marginalized reminding each one that they are the beloved sons and daughters of Abraham, precious in the sight of the Lord.  Understandably, this message meets with resistance by those who feel their power threatened, and by those who are held hostage by tradition or cultural stereotype; bound by fear or loyalties, even love and commitment.  Oh Kingdom resistance happens when we are mesmerized by old worlds or more in love with—more comfortable with—more satisfied with the way things are, the way things have always been, than the ways they could be if we would but follow Jesus.  Met with resistance, the disciples give us an honest look at ourselves.  They say, “Let’s call down fire from heaven to consume them!”  “Let’s buy a semi-automatic weapon and blow them all to pieces!”  “Let’s show them who’s boss and bomb the whole country!”  “Let’s get our revenge and destroy their character and reputation!”

 

Any review of current events points to our tendency to be reactive like the disciples.  Paul lists our choices so clearly in his letter to the Galatians that we squirm a bit in our pew.  Paul points the proverbial finger at the ways we console and comfort our personal appetites when we don’t get our way.  We engage in “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex,” he says.  “Mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.”  (Eugene Peterson, The Message)  We hear and see it so often that we become cynical and hardened.  We give in to it saying, “Well, I guess this is how it must be in order to get along in this world.”  Then today’s scripture shouts, “Oh, no it does not have to be this way!”

 

Elijah, Jesus and Paul all seem to speak with one voice, saying, “Follow me!  Follow me to a life lived in freedom.”  “Follow me, in freedom, to choose love, joy, and peace!”  “Follow me, in freedom, to view each person as created in the image of God, for who is precious in the sight of the Lord?”

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in God’s sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

After the Orlando tragedy, a man named Paul Garrard spoke at a candlelight vigil in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.  He said:

I am a 61 year old man who happens to be gay.  I don’t remember when my application was approved, I don’t even remember submitting one, but I must have, because here I am, gay.  When I was growing up, being gay for me meant the men’s underwear section of the Sears catalogue.  It came out every three months and was the highlight of my year.  That for me was being gay.  I had no idea that 50 years later someone would want to kill me for it.  He continues:

Americans have a wonderful capacity to rally and help when disasters and tragedy strike.  But in this circumstance, there is not much we can do…except to stand shoulder to shoulder and side by side with someone you may not like, may have next to nothing in common with, may not understand, someone you might even get into a heated argument with about politics but find SOMETHING bigger than all that that you can both focus on together.  Seek someone out… [Remind them that they are precious in the sight of the Lord and that they are precious to you.]  Romans 14:19 says:  Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.

Who is precious in the sight of the Lord?

 

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in God’s sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

I had lunch this week with Mary Bea Sullivan.  She is the priest of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Spirit in Alabaster, and she is the wife of Malcolm Marler.  Mary said that her congregation has struggled with what to do for the Keystone Mobile Home Park that backs up to the church’s property.  Almost by accident, the Alabaster City School System asked if the church could be a feeding site to offer free lunches to grade-age children over the summer.  Her congregation said “YES!”  It was just what they were looking for.

 

They spruced up the fellowship hall.  Every volunteer slot to serve lunch for the entire summer was taken almost immediately, and the diocese provided grant money so that each child in attendance could also receive a free book and back pack.  All the preparations made, the first day arrived.  The parishioners waited with excitement.  One child came.

 

Mary got in her car with Spanish and English flyers.  She drove through the Keystone Mobile Home Park handing the flyers out to anyone who would take them.  She was greeted by smiling mothers, and she fell in love with the children.  She was convinced that day two would have a better response.  Sure enough, the numbers increased.  Two children came.  “We are called to be faithful, not to be successful,” Mary told her deflated volunteers.  “We are not in control of the outcome, God is.”

 

On day three, Mary had to be away.  She left the parish hall in the capable hands of Cheryl Dominguez who is bi-lingual and familiar with the culture of the Keystone Mobile Home Park.  Cheryl asked her fellow volunteers, “Why are we sitting here?  We need to take the food to them.”  And so they did.  They packed up the food.  They packed up the books.  And they drove it all next door into the park.  Twenty five lunches were distributed.  On the fourth day, 50 lunches were distributed.  They are now up to 90 lunches a day at the park and with a story time in the choir room at the church.  Why does any congregation make a choice for gentleness and kindness, self-control and goodness?  Because they recognize that we are all precious in the sight of the Lord.

 

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in God’s sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

In 1968, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was making its way to the top of the charts for children’s television.  Rogers had decided that the show needed a new cast member, and so he asked Francois Clemmons to act as a police officer.  Officer Clemmons played this role for 25 years.  For this story to make sense, you need to know that Francois Clemmons was an African American.

 

They were filming a summer episode, and while Fred still had on his famous cardigan, he had rolled up his trousers and slipped his bare feet in the water of a child’s wading pool.  Officer Clemmons made his appearance on the set and in a time when public pools were being paved over to prevent integration, Fred Rogers invited Officer Clemmons to take off his shoes and socks and join in the fun.  Clemmons did.  Both men sat in full view of their TV audience with their bare feet soaking…dark and white skin, side by side as friends.  But here’s the deal.  When they were finished, Fred Rogers got on his knees and dried Officer Clemmons’s feet with a towel.

 

Now Rogers was famous for ending each show by saying, “Remember, you are special just the way you are.”  So after this experience, Clemmons approached Rogers to ask what this had all meant, was Rogers trying to speak to him somehow.  Rogers replied that he had always been speaking to him, it is just on this day, Clemmons heard him…heard him about being chosen for the cast; heard him about the police uniform; heard him about the child’s pool, the bare feet, the towel, everything.  In Rogers’ eyes, Clemmons was special just the way he was.

 

Are you listening so that you hear and you know that you are special just the way you are, precious in the sight of the Lord?

 

Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.

Red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in God’s sight.

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

Passport video:  https://www.facebook.com/passportcamps/videos/10153729552393333/

In such a complex world, it seems very simplistic to offer a solution that only involves recognizing our personal worth and the worth of others if for no other reason than the fact that we are precious to God.  But I think, no, I believe, the answer is that when we live guided by the Spirit to impart love, joy and peace; patience, kindness, gentleness and self-control then at last the Kingdom of God will be at hand.  It begins with our own recognition that we are loved by God and in need of God’s help to love our neighbor.  And it extends to decisions of affiliation with a community in which encouragement and acceptance and faith are practiced together.  So if you have a decision of faith to make this day, take advantage of the privacy of your pew or come join me here at the front to make public decisions as we stand to sing “Jesus Loves Me.”

 

We Are Legion

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Psalm 65, Galatians 3:23-29; Luke 8:26-39

Orlando.  The mere mention brings to mind Mickey Mouse ears and Harry Potter wands; magic kingdoms and magic spells; runaway mine trains and flights on Hippogriffs.  Orlando conjures up fantasy vacations with chocolate frogs at Hogsmeade or princess punch in Cinderella’s castle…all these things until last Sunday.  The victims came from all walks of life:  a nurse, a TV producer of a children’s show, the National Guard, a Puerto Rican folk dance performer, a recent graduate of a Catholic prep school who scored a thousand points for her basketball team, a lab supervisor.  They were 20-somethings who worked in nearby amusement parks.  They were tourists from out of town, and they were regulars meeting up with friends.  They were people like you and me looking for and finding community.  In took only moments, and 49 are dead.  Others are injured, and our absolute shock over it all has had us go a little bit crazy.

 

We are crazy with grief for the families left behind, for first responders and their courage, for our nation that flounders in the face of crisis exposing its lack of moral courage.

We are crazy with anxiety:  where will it happen next?  Will it happen to us?  Is there any place that is safe?

We are crazy with anguish:  how does this happen?  Why does God allow it to happen?  And just where is God when this happens?

We are crazy with regret:  why haven’t I spoken out before for the LGBTQ community?  Might my friendship with a Muslim serve as a model?  Maybe my refusal to allow bathrooms to be turned into battlefields or to not laugh at an unseemly stereotype or to fly my American flag at half-mast would create a sanctuary, a sacred space, in which kindness and grace and love might grow and flourish.

 

Just as Orlando is no longer solely associated with theme parks, the most recent events in Orlando cannot be solely associated with just the issue of mass killing or just with the issue of immigration or just with the issue of acceptance or just with the issue of gun control or just with the issue of a fear-filled anxiety-driven culture.  Like the demons in today’s scripture, the problems of this world are legion.  They are many, and they occupy us making us all just a little bit crazy.

 

The psalmist describes us at these times as “people in tumult.”  Tumult:  a violent agitation of mind or a violent agitation of feelings.  (The Merriam-Webster Dictionary)  So some translations of Psalm 65 read:  it is the tumult of the nations or the world’s clamor or mobs in noisy riot or the madness of the people.  My favorite is:  when the people go crazy, then what?  The psalmist answers his own question with:  when the people go crazy, God is still God.  (Michael Willett Newheart)  We know this because of the story from Luke’s gospel.

 

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell this story.  In Luke’s accounting, Jesus and His disciples are crossing the Sea of Galilee.  They are on journey from the Jewish side of the lake to the Gentile side of the lake.  There is a “this side of the sea,” that is, Galilee, and there is the “other side of the sea,” that is the Gerasenes.  This “other side” is strange and foreign.  The journey in-between, which is over the water, erupts into an enormous storm alerting us to the dualism invovled of clean vs unclean, Jew vs. Gentile, insiders vs outsiders, this side vs the other side.  One, obviously, is better than the other.  So for Jesus to leave the familiar territory of “this side of the sea,” to go to “the other side of the sea,” we should take note.  Jesus has had success over here, but what will happen over there, and what does that mean for us as His followers?  (Michael Willett Newheart, “My Name is Legion”, pp. 41 ff.)  While the disciples are powerless and unknowing, Jesus rises above the chaos of unruly storms and unruly persons to show that He is Lord of it all, the natural order of things as well as the human spirit.  Stories like these answer the question of “When the world is crazy, when we are crazy, then what?”  And the answer comes strong and sure:  “God is still God.”

 

So Jesus and the disciples safely arrive in the country of the Gerasenes which is opposite of Galilee, and as soon as Jesus steps on land, a man with demons meets Him.  We know he has demons because he is naked, because he lives in isolation from the community in the graveyard, and because he tells us “I am many.”  Luke tells us in a parenthesis that the community tried keeping him under guard, chained and locked up.  But so strong is this man that he breaks the chains in order to roam into the desert.  The gospel of Mark tells us that he uses stones to cut and bruise himself, and that he howls from on top of the hills.  He fascinates me because I know I could be him with very little struggle.  New Testament Professor Michael Willett Newheart says it best:

He is the wild man.  I am the good divinity school Bible professor.  Through him I live my wildness, my shadow…But I also long for the healing he experienced.  I have my own demons…  I suffer from generalized anxiety disorder and depression, for which I am medicated and participate in psychotherapy.  As I read of his exorcism, I experience vicariously being ‘in my right mind.’  (p. xxi)

 

Jesus asks for the man’s name.  It is a primary question that goes to the core of a person’s identity.  He replies with, “I am legion.”  Yes, it is a direct reference to the Roman army.  The man is occupied by a league of thousands just as the land is occupied by a legion of Romans.  But “I am legion” is also a way of saying “I don’t have a name any longer.  My only identity is what I am captive to.”  So what a wild Sunday it would be if we decided to be honest and claim the identities to which we are captive!  “Hello, my name is pornography.”  “My name is Jack Daniels No. 7.”  “My name is heroin.”  “My name is ______” and you fill in that blank.  How devastating to be known only by what we are captive to!  Our habits may not be “demonic” in the strictest sense of the word, but they harm us just as the unclean spirits did the demoniac when they isolate us from community, cut us off from ourselves, and send us to reside in places of death.  (Stacey Simpson Duke, “The Truett Pulpit,” June 19, 2016)  This man is completely defined by what assails him, by what robs him of joy and health, by what hinders him and keeps him bound, by all those things that keep him from experiencing life in its abundance.  (David Lose, “Working Preacher:  Legion, 6-16-13)

 

Incredibly the demons recognize Jesus.  The disciples never quite know who He is, but the demons, oh, the demons always know.  They repeat the question put to Jesus by the demon in Capernaum’s synagogue at the beginning of Mark’s gospel:  “What have you to do with me?”  They plead with Jesus not to cast them into the abyss.  They say, “Jesus, just put us in those pigs grazing over there.”  And so He does.  When the people of the town come out to see what has happened what they find is the man perfectly sane and peacefully sitting at the feet of Jesus.

 

Now let us not get hung up on whether there were demons or exorcisms or possessed pigs and the effect their drowning would have on the water supply for the city.  Isn’t it enough to know that this broken and rejected man, after an encounter with Jesus, is transformed?  It isn’t enough for the townspeople.  They see him and are filled with a new fear.  Their plan to isolate him and use him as their scapegoat:  “Little Johnny, you better behave or you’ll end up like that man in the cemetery” is no longer available.  There is no more comparison of “As long as we aren’t like him, then we know we are all right.”  Instead, there is fear.  Fear that now that he’s whole, Jesus will see something in them to be healed!   And so they demand that Jesus leave.  To add insult to injury, Jesus leaves this reformed gentile behind as an apostle commissioned to tell everyone he meets how Jesus changed his life.  The least acceptable turns out to be the most accepting of what Christ has to offer.  (Alyce MacKenzie, “Edgy Exegesis”)

 

On Wednesday night, many of you joined me in the far country on the other side of the lake in Avondale at Beloved Community Church.  We went there to pray in community, to be still in community, and to seek understanding in community.  While I have thought of a hundred things I wish that I had prayed for, there is one thing I said in my prayer that I want to offer to you this morning, because I believe it to be the answer that Jesus offered the Gerasene demoniac, just as He offers it to us.  (It is based on the text of Carolyn Gilette’s hymn text, “To a Place of Celebration.”)

Give us love to change our vision.

Give us love to cast out fear.

Give us love to speak with wisdom that works for justice.

Give us love that welcomes difference.

Give us love that no hatred can destroy.

 

My childhood bedroom was directly off of my parents’ bedroom.  I could lie upside down in my bed, position my head just so and fall asleep watching the two adults I loved and trusted most in the world. Mom sat at her typewriter in the corner of their bedroom and over her right shoulder, I could see Dad stretching his long legs across his desk as he read and studied.  There was great comfort in listening to the chair squeak under his weight and hearing Mom tap away.

 

In my room, I had a cavernous closet that fit up under the eaves of the roof.  And on this particular night, I had not shut the closet door.  It was a terrible mistake on the part of this five year old who had spent the afternoon watching old horror movies on TV with her brother.  For when I woke up in the middle of the night, I was convinced that the creature from the black lagoon or werewolves or some other demon lurked within.  I tried not to breathe so I would not disturb them.  I tried laying perfectly immobile, so that they would think I was still asleep.  I knew, however, that sooner or later, I would have to make a plan of action that would involve escaping my room without being grabbed and possessed by one of them.

 

Now my parents’ bedroom was dark, which meant that my mother was asleep, but I could see my father.  He was deep into a stack of reading materials with a cigar clenched between his teeth.  Afraid to call for help (for it would surely wake the lurking demons), I mustered all of my courage to climb over the footboard so that nothing could grab my leg from beneath the bed or reach out of the closet.

 

I ran to stand in the bright light of Dad’s study.  It took a long time for him to notice me.  When he finally did, I said, “Mom’s asleep.”  “Right,” was his response.  He waited.  I dreaded admitting to him that I was afraid, so I thought if I said it fast enough, it wouldn’t sound like such weakness.  “There-are-monsters-in-my-closet-and-under-my-bed.” “Would  you like for me to look?”  “Yes!”  So he took my hand and led me back into my bedroom.  He was ever so brave.  He never even turned on one light.  Instead, he placed me safely on the bed and went into the closet.  He secured the closet door.  He tucked me into the covers before he looked under the bed.  And do you know, there wasn’t even one monster in either place.  He kissed me gently and said “good night.”  No judgment about too many movies.  No teasing about being a little sissy girl.  No lecture about “we don’t believe in such things as monsters.”

 

Now, I don’t know what my dad went on to do that night, what he thought or what he prayed.  But I do know that when my children were awoken by thoughts of monsters and demons, I would assure them just as my dad had for me, but then I would silently pray:  “Oh please, God, do not ever let their demons get so large that they cannot be dispersed with a little light and the fearless presence of love.”

 

I am not sure that we ever outgrow this fear of demons.  Like moths drawn to a flame, however, I also believe that we grow bold in the engagement of our demons.  So I find myself praying for you when you call me to say that your court date is looming, or you went to AA but the meeting ended early enough for you to stop by the liquor store on the way home, or your spouse knocked you around, or b/c you are gay or black or Hispanic you live in fear of being hunted down and shot much like the people in Orlando, or your grief is overwhelming, your depression paralyzing…or…or…or…  “Oh please God,” I pray.  “Do not ever let the demons get so large that they cannot be dispersed with a little light and the fearless presence of Your love!”

 

This loving fearless presence is what we invite you to respond each Sunday.  So if there are decisions of faith to be made this day, we invite you to respond to the good news of the gospel as we stand and sing, “One Day as Jesus Traveled,” which is printed in your bulletin.

Each Other’s Business

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, June 12, 2016

I Kings 21:1-16; Galatians 2:20; Luke 7:36-8:3

It was in the heat of mid-summer that they gathered at the ball park.  Lloyd was the catcher for the Mountain Brook All-Stars, and his father, David Shelton, was the coach.  An only child who grew up playing street ball on the avenues of Central Park, Coach Shelton was not only serious about his baseball, he expected his players to be serious about it as well.  Coach Shelton played to win.  So even though his team consisted of nine year olds, if Coach Shelton drafted you for his team to catch, that was your position.  If you were a pitcher, that is what you did and all you did.  If you were a first baseman, then first base was the site of play for you.   This was not regular season play with rules requiring every player to rotate into every game.  This was All Stars, and it was weighty with importance.

 

Now Coach was all of 5’5” and weighed about 260 pounds.  His nickname in the Air Force had been “Butterball.”  He had brilliant blue eyes that would spark with indignation with a pop up foul or if a player did not run for the next base when they were given the signal to move.  The fastest I ever saw him move was from the dugout to the pitcher’s mound to correct an umpire’s bad call.  He kept copious notes so that his roster was specific with strategy.  His number one rule with parents was that if you had a problem with him, then you should approach him directly.  He promised that if they would not talk about him around their dinner tables, he would not talk about their children around his.

 

And so, in the heat of mid-summer, 1971, the opposing teams gathered at the field of Cahaba Heights’ Elementary School.  It was a touch-and-go game.  The Mountain Brook All Stars would earn a two run lead only to have the Cahaba Heights All Stars outdo them in the next inning.  Not wanting to give up any more runs than was necessary, Coach Shelton kept only his best pitchers in the game.  And while the game ended with The Mountain Brook All Stars ahead, a mother of a pitcher was livid.  Her son had not seen any game time.  She waited for Coach Shelton to finish his after-the-game talk with the players.  She waited for the other parents to wander away into the night, and she waited while Coach packed up his gear.  But the longer she waited, the more intense her anger became.  So at the fence closest to third base, she pitched her anger to Coach.  She got up in his face about the fact that her son had not been put in the game.  Coach explained the rules, but she continued to express her dissatisfaction.  As she brought her tirade to a close, she sent one last fast ball.  “And you, “she said, “should lose some weight!”  To which Coach retorted, “And you shouldn’t rub off any of your long nose sticking it in my business!”  She looked to her husband for defense.  He shrugged his shoulders as if to say, “You got what you deserved.  You should mind your business.”

 

Mind your own business!  How many times have we heard this expression?  Maybe you have the habit of eavesdropping on the table next to yours at a restaurant:  Mind your own business!  Maybe you find it your duty to “tell” on a sibling:  Mind your own business!  Maybe you thought you were helping a co-worker when you corrected their work:  Mind your own business!  Or you spy a child misbehaving at Wal-Mart.  You know if you could only engage the child, share some lint dusted mint from your pocket, distract with a pen and paper that the child could be spared what is coming.  Instead, the frustrated parent jerks them up while eyeing you, sending a silent, but clear, message:  Mind your own business.

 

It’s tricky isn’t it?  What is the fine line between appropriate boundaries and stepping over the line to meddle in something that really is not any of our concern?   Oh, I suspect that I am preaching to myself this week.  After all, my vocation is one that is to set the example of healthy relationships, but my calling is to be your pastor.  I am often torn between what is a prayer request and minding another’s business!  It is, however, my job, my business, my privilege to mind your business:  to know when you are wracked with grief or scurrying to summon up hopeful courage when the job is lost, the spouse has left, the child has disappointed,  you are too deep in the bottle, or your loved one has died.

 

Poet Gwendolyn Brooks is close to the gospel when she writes:  we are each other’s harvest:  we are each other’s business:  we are each other’s magnitude and bond.

 

When I read the biblical story about Naboth’s vineyard, I long for someone to make Naboth’s predicament their business and come to his aid.  He inherited ancestral land.  It had passed down from generation to generation to generation until it fell to Naboth.  I feel that same sense of ancestry when I serve food out of dishes that I know were handled by my great grandmother, my grandmother, my mother and now me.  While they hold no monetary value, I find that they are invaluable because of the ways they bring my ancestors to our dinner table to experience generational hospitality through the use of this dish or that platter.  It is a link to my heritage just as Naboth’s plot of land had been passed down to him from generation to generation.

 

Did I remember to mention that Naboth’s land is located right next to the palace of King Ahab and Queen Jezebel?  Ahab as a Middle Eastern king is responsible to look out for the good of the kingdom.  Kings, supposedly, had a connection to the divine and so surely, one placed in the role of king would act with integrity especially as it relates to his citizens.  But Ahab wants Naboth’s land.  Ahab wants the land to make a vegetable garden.  Mind you, this is not to be a community garden in which those experiencing food insecurity may work to bring food home for their families.  No, this land, if it becomes Ahab’s, will be used to make side dishes for the royal family when its purpose, for generations, has been to sustain a heritage.

 

Now to Ahab’s credit, he does offer Naboth another plot of land in return or money in exchange for the desired property.  But Naboth, because this land has a special place in his heart and in his family’s story, refuses.  The king returns to the palace so morose over not getting his own way, quits eating, and ends up in bed with his face to the wall.  Queen Jezebel asks of her pouting husband, “Are you not the king of Israel?”  It’s a loaded question.  Yes, Ahab is the king, but he, supposedly, governs on behalf of God.  Both the king and queen forget the trust that God has placed in them, and as a mirror image of bad politics in every time and place, Jezebel enlists scoundrels to frame Naboth on false charges.  No one makes it their business to stand up for Naboth.  No one testifies on his behalf.  No one pickets the royal palace with signs that say “Justice for Naboth!” It seems that the very power that is corrupting the King and Queen is also corrupting the people who want the benefits of that power.  And so with false evidence and bribed testimonials, Naboth loses his property to a previously determined outcome.  He is put to death because he refuses the King, and no one, no one, says a word about it.  (Adam Fronczek, “One of the Worst Stories I know,” 6-16-13 Fourth Presbyterian Church; Laird Stuart, “God’s Justice,” 6-16-13, Fourth Presbyterian Church)

 

Oh, I know, like us, they are so busy.  They have to-do lists.  Their schedules are exhausting.  Confrontation is uncomfortable.  Besides, I’ve learned my lesson.  Let me put on display the scars left behind from times when I dared to involve myself in someone else’s business.  So we avoid disruption at all cost, recounting that minding our own business is plenty enough to keep us occupied.  We do not need to borrow anyone else’s trouble.  That’s when the gospel of Luke reaches out to pluck our conscience.

 

Every gospel tells about a woman who anoints Jesus while He is at table.  (The following paragraphs from Michael Lindvall, “Scandalous Behavior,” The Christian Century, June 1, 2004)  She is imagined differently by each gospel writer, but each were so shocked by her expensive extravagance that the details are etched permanently in their memories.  In each telling, someone sharply rebukes her for her action and all, except for Luke, place the story as occurring just prior to Jesus’ death.  So it is seen by most as a preparation for his death and burial.  Luke, however, highlights hospitality and table fellowship and forgiveness as expressions of minding one another’s business.

 

The woman enacts radical (and offensive) hospitality as she crashes the party.  She incarnates an extravagantly gracious (and scandalous) welcome to Jesus as she washes His feet with her tears, dries them with her hair, kisses them with her lips and finally anoints them with oil.  Luke identifies her as a “woman of the city” and as “a sinner.”  These two comments, along with the sensuousness of her actions, have led many a scholar to speculate that she engages in survival sex.  Without a name or voice, she falls into the biblical collection of women whose courage and desperation are her sole identity.  In a culture where the chips of injustice are stacked against her, she takes this enormous risk to approach Jesus in the only way she knew.  There is no guarantee of personal healing or forgiveness.  There is no one to make a way for her, no one who would dare mind her business much like the friends who lower the paralyzed man from the roof.  She has to make her own way in hopes that Jesus’ power will match her risk of faith.  The way that Jesus and Simon, the Pharisee, treat the woman is noticeably different.  Simon is immediately judgmental; Jesus is gracious.

 

The richest comparison, however, is probably between Simon and the woman and the ways that they treat Jesus.  Simon is the very caricature of respectable religiosity, a Pharisee who is no doubt good and honest, as well as curious and open-minded enough to invite Jesus to dinner.  As listeners, we are set up to determine if Simon is a paragon of virtue or the epitome of a hypocrite.  The woman is, well, a woman, and a “woman of the city” at that.  She is “a sinner” in everybody’s estimation, even of Jesus’. She’s forward, uninvited and outrageous.  She breaks all the rules about how women and men are to relate to one another in that time and place.  Yet it is the woman, and not Simon the host, who offers Jesus the appropriate hospitality.  Simon is parsimonious and guarded.  Either he does not know how to welcome someone like Jesus into his home, or he limits his hospitality by an outright refusal to extend customary social graces.

 

It is easy to imagine Simon at the table.  He sits with his arms crossed.  He is bright and curious and interested in religious ideas.  For what other reason would he have invited a traveling rabbi to dinner?  Well informed, he inquires eloquently about this intriguing spiritual question or that religious debate.  Simon appears to be more caught up in his own particular interests than in Jesus himself.  Simon doesn’t need Jesus as Messiah or Savior.  He is just curious about what Jesus might say.  With dinner only half eaten, he watches what is occurring on the other side of the table.  With a bubbling, foul smelling stew of judgment, he leans over to his other enlightened guests to say in a rather large stage whisper:  “If He were really a prophet, Jesus would be able to recognize her for what she is.”

 

And so Jesus launches into telling a parable about two debtors in order to indirectly engage Simon with thoughts of forgiveness.  Their conversation comes to a critical apex when Jesus simply asks:  “Do you see this woman?”  Of course Simon sees the woman!  He has been loathing this sinner’s presence and her handling of Jesus ever since she entered the room.  Of course Simon sees the woman!  She’s an embarrassment to the sanctity of his table.  Simon isn’t blind, Jesus.  Simon is puffed up with judgment!  (Mark D. Davis as quoted on onemansweb.org/the-healing-of-smell-feet)

 

What Jesus really wants to know is if Simon sees that this woman, this woman whose provocative expression of brokenness and love, is someone greater than her nametag, which reads “sinner?”  Does he see past the reputation, the notorious scarlet letter, to the person whose life stands in need of wholeness?  Does he see the woman who is not secretly debating whether Jesus is a prophet or not (as he is), but who is, instead, pouring herself out to Jesus in adoration and worship?  Kathleen Norris adds to this conversation when she says:  God can look right through whatever evil we have done in our lives and get to the creature made in the divine image…  Simon sees but does not see.  It is the “not seeing” that is tragic…for Simon and for us.  (Davis)

 

The recent release of the movie, The Lady in the Van, raises the question of who we really see.  Writer, Alan Bennett moves into the northern borough of London called Camden Town.  He lives there in order to write in peace and quiet, in calm and without interruption.  What he hasn’t bargained on is that a woman, Mrs. Shepherd, also lives in the neighborhood.  (Shepherd is played by Maggie Smith, which makes the movie worth the watch even if the story doesn’t touch you.)  She lives in a dilapidated van.  She takes her mobile residence up and down the street, parking in front of different townhomes until either the family insists she move or the authorities ticket her van.  The police ask her, “What are you doing here?”  And her reply?  “I am minding my own business!”  When asked how she selects her parking locations, Shepherd says, “I receive guidance from the Virgin Mary.  I spoke to her yesterday.  She was outside the new post office.”

 

Shepherd eventually ends up on Bennett’s curb.  In addition to being an eyesore, her odd behavior prompts the normally shy Bennett to confront her.  Bennett refers to her as having a “multi-flavored aroma, an odoriferous symphony!”  He tells a social worker that Shepherd is “bigoted, blinkered, cantankerous, devious, unforgiving, self-serving, rank, rude, car-mad cow!”  (I watched the movie after reading the review in Christian Century by Win Bassett, “Each Other’s Business,” June 8, 2016)  But after witnessing cruel behavior from passersby, Bennett invites her to park her van in his driveway.  He intends for this to be temporary, three months or so.  Instead, it turns into fifteen years!  Fifteen years of garbage collecting in his yard, disturbances of his peace, mess spilling out everywhere.

 

While his neighbors maintain a patronizing patina of niceness, Bennett is frustrated by Shepherd.  He is so frustrated that Bennett’s character is played by two people to represent the internal debate he possesses in regards to the complex woman.  He slowly begins to put pieces of her life together.  And as he does so, he is convicted about her humanness.  He sees her, and ever so slowly, he minds her business.  He visits the convent in which she served as a nun and is told that her dedication to music had to be stopped in order for her dedication to God to begin.  He not only converses with her brother, but listens to recordings of her classical piano performances.  Her brother slips her money from time to time to salve his conscious over admitting her to a mental institution for being “difficult.”

 

Bennett seems to be the only person who allows her space to pain and speak French, visit the market and enjoy solitude.  He is her intermediary with the neighbors and social workers.  And because he sees her, he notices when she stops her daily routine.  With paramedics, she is removed from the van to be taken for a day of medical testing, personal hygiene, and new clothes.  Even Bennett, who has minded her business carefully, grieves that he cannot touch her with the ease and gentleness of the paramedics.  Which makes the closing scene even more poignant.  For when Shepherd returns to the van, she and Bennett discuss the day.  She reaches out to him and says, “Hold my hand, Mr. Bennett.  It’s clean.”

 

Whose hand are we holding?  Whose need do we see so clearly that we are minding their business?

 

Jesus tells the woman, “Your sins are forgiven.  Your faith has healed you.  Go.  Live.  Exist in peace.”

May we receive and send this same message as we busy ourselves with one another’s business.  Amen.

 

Commitment:  Theologian Paul Tillich says:  “The history of humankind is the history of men and women who…wasted themselves out of the fullness of their hearts.  People are sick, not only because they have not received love, but also because they are not allowed to give love, to waste themselves.  Do not suppress in yourself or others, the abundant heart, the waste of self-surrender.”

 

Jesus says of the woman, “Her sins, which are many, have been forgiven.  She has shown great love.”

The good news for us is that our sins, which are many, have been forgiven.  We are forgiven, accepted, loved.  We are recipients of God’s good grace through Jesus Christ.  So be grateful in the receiving of this love.  Be extravagant in the giving of this love.  And be responsive to this love as we invite you to respond to the good news as we stand and sing together, “The Servant Song,” #613.

Faith Like This

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, May 29, 2016

I Kings 19:1-3a; Proverbs 3:1-8; Luke 7:1-10; Galatians 1:10-12

As my sabbatical approaches this Fall, Lloyd and I have been making priority lists of things to do, places to go and people to see.  While some plans are still up in the air, we are confident that we will spend the first two weeks of November in Paris.  Lloyd’s only request is that we take a day for a train trip to Normandy, walk the American cemetery and see the battle fields that loom large in the history of World War II.  Upon hearing of our plans, Kathy Grissom passed us Winston Grooms’ book The Generals.  It gives the biographies of Generals Patton, MacArthur and Marshall.  In it, Grooms relates that at one part of the war, so much rain had fallen that Patton wrote home referring to the battle fields as “hell holes.”  His words were “There is about four inches of liquid mud over everything and it rains all the time.”  He concludes that only divine intervention can break the stalemate, and so he calls in the Third Army chaplain, James O’Neill, for a conversation about praying for the weather to stop so that the war can continue.  It is December of 1944, and Patton says, “Chaplain, I’m tired of these soldiers having to fight mud and floods as well as Germans.  I want you to publish a prayer for good weather.”

 

The chaplain responds, “Sir, it is going to take a pretty thick rug for that kind of praying.”

 

“I don’t care if it takes a flying carpet.  I want the praying done!” Patton tells the startled clergyman.

 

“Yes, sir,” says the chaplain, adding as clarification, “May I say, General, that it usually isn’t customary among men of my profession to pray for clear weather to kill our fellow men.”

 

“Chaplain,” Patton says with a big frown on his face, “are you trying to teach me theology or are you the chaplain of the Third Army?  I want a prayer!”

 

“Yes, sir,” the chaplain replies, and the next day an entreaty was produced and circulated among Third Army personnel.  It read:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy Great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend.  Grant us fair weather for Battle.  Graciously harken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the opposition and wickedness of our enemies, and establish Thy justice among men and nations. Amen.

 

The day after the prayer is published, the weather turns crystal clear and remains that way for a week.  Patton is exuberant and calls in one of his aides.  “Expletive! Expletive!  Look at that weather!  That was some potent praying.  Get that chaplain up here.  I want to pin a medal on him!”  The chaplain is duly produced and Patton awards him the Bronze Star.  Shaking his hand, Patton tells the chaplain, “You’re the most popular man in these headquarters.  You sure stand in good with the Lord.”

 

Now our gospel reading is about another soldier, a centurion in the Roman army.  Like Patton, we do not look to this legionnaire to be an example of piety.  He is a commander, so that when he says “do this,” his order is carried out.  When he says “go,” those within his command go, and when he says “come,” they come.  He is under the authority of his superior officers, and he, himself, has authority over his soldiers.  He is also a Gentile and one of many who are directly responsible for Israel’s oppression.  The Centurion, however, is also smart enough to have given the Jews some privileges that keep their relationship in good order.  He is a patron of the building campaign that established a synagogue in Capernaum, which, in my opinion, is a strategic military decision in order to keep those over whom he holds power feeling ingratiated to him.

 

Unlike other miracle stories where Jesus lays his hands on people in blessing, spits in the mud, raises them up or declares the individual, because of their display of faith, to be a son or daughter of Abraham, Jesus never lays eyes on the person who is sick NOR on the person requesting help in the reading for today.  Rather, the Jewish leaders relay the message that the Roman Centurion has a slave who is at the point of death, and because the Centurion loves the Jews and is the primary benefactor behind the building campaign for the Jewish synagogue, the elders beseech Jesus to heal the Centurion’s slave.  The Centurion has done favors for the Jewish community, now it is their turn to do the Centurion a favor.  Does anyone find it amazing that the elders put aside their criticism of Jesus to (1) request this miracle, (2) to encourage Jesus in going to a gentile’s home and (3) to provide a miracle to an official who is a part of the same system that put tax collectors in place?  Jesus has already been scolded for eating with tax collectors and sinner (see 5:30), and, yet, here, He is led by those very ones who criticized Him to enter a gentile’s home in order to heal the sick and partake in a meal of celebration for the guaranteed restoration.  It is done without so much as a second thought by the religious authorities, which points to the complex dynamics of hypocrisy.

 

Now there is a translation dilemma associated with this passage.  It has to do with the Greek words that are used to refer to the servant and the esteem with which the Centurion holds him.  Various translations say that the Centurion “prized him highly,” or “valued him.”  Some say that the servant is “precious” to the Centurion.  The most often stated translation is that the servant is “dear to him.”  While any of these translations could point us in the direction that this servant had come at a high monetary cost, many recent commentators say that it is an emotional cost that has captured the Centurion. Additionally, much attention has been given to the translation of pais.  It can mean “adolescent” or “child,” but if it is used to reference a servant, then it is considered a term of endearment.

 

The best summation of the discussions around this text is not written by a Biblical scholar.  It is written by contemporary author, Alex Ross, in The New Yorker magazine.  He says:

The centurion is effectively saying “my boy,” and some pro-gay theologians have jumped to the conclusion that the relationship was sexual, and that Jesus implicitly blessed the union.  From what is known of the private lives of centurions, the speculation is not outrageous; in Plato’s Symposium and many other sources, a pais is a boy beloved by an older man.  Then again, it’s perfectly possible that, as conservative commentators insist, this boy is nothing more than a servant; the word pais is entirely ambiguous.  What is striking is that Jesus shows no interest in resolving the ambiguity.  He asks nothing about the relationship.  His eye is elsewhere.  Only the centurion’s faith matters <to Jesus>.  (Nov. 12, 2012)

 

The centurion has apparently heard about Jesus.  What he has heard, of this we are not sure.  But if Luke’s gospel is of any help, prior to this encounter in Capernaum, Jesus heals a leper (5:15), He holds Himself superior to the Sabbath (6:11), people from all over are seeking after Him for healing (6:17-19), and Jesus teaches on the plain with beatitudes and discourses on love for enemies (6:1 ff).While we do not know exactly what the Centurion has heard, we know that it is enough for him to think of Jesus as someone who is able to help his dying slave.  (Richard Vinson, Smyth and Helwys Commentary on Luke, pp. 203 ff.)  The Centurion recognizes that there is a difference in Jesus’ power.  He knows that military might cannot heal the sick or raise the dead.  An army cannot heal his faithful servant.  Jesus’ power is unlike that wielded by Rome or any other empire.  Jesus’ power heals people and communities; it brings the powerful down from their thrones and lifts up the lowly.  This power is what the Centurion recognizes as being essential to faith.  Faith that sees a world renewed by God’s love and God’s grace through Jesus Christ.  (Rev. Dr. Eric Barreto, “An Unexpected Faith,” Day1.org)

 

So when Jesus starts for the Centurion’s house, he is intercepted by friends.   They do not order Jesus, as the centurion orders.  They are not clients of Jesus or the Centurion or of the Jews.  They just believe that Jesus can help their friend.  So they say, “This man is a soldier. He knows about taking and giving orders.  If an order is given, it is followed.  He, therefore, does not want to presume on you to come to the house.  This Centurion knows that if you will just speak the word… (This phrase harkens back to the creation story in Genesis where God just speaks and vast universes are created.) …if you will just speak the word, Jesus, the servant will be healed.”  Just speak a word.  The request is not one in which all the favors are being called in.  It is not a request that pulls manipulative strings.  It is simply a favor…a tiny favor…just speak a word.

 

On hearing this, Jesus is “amazed.”  In all four gospels, this is the only time that this word is attributed to Jesus.  Jesus is usually the one amazing the crowds or amazing the Pharisees or amazing the disciples.  Here, Jesus is stunned by the faith that is placed in His ability to bring about a miracle, and so He declares that He has never seen anything like it in all of Israel.  Such amazement seems a little unfair, doesn’t it?  After all, the elders, thinking that Jesus can and will heal the servant, are bringing Him to the Centurion; the crowd has brought a message of “just speak a word;” the disciples have left everything in order to follow Jesus.  So what is unique here?  Why this praise for the centurion?  It must be that he has the combination of humility—“Lord, I am not worthy”—with confidence—“Lord, you can do this.”  The centurion’s request has no conditions, no ifs, ands, and buts attached.  He simply asks:  “Don’t trouble yourself.  Just say a word.”  And so we watch as Jesus practices what He preaches.  He “Give(s) to anyone who asks.”

 

Now I like to believe that if I were to place myself in this story that I am a part of the community that brings the Centurion’s need into focus before Jesus.  For individuals who have no real voice in their Jewish or Roman world, they are the ones who bring the news and present the need.  Following the Centurion’s lead, they trust that Jesus will move beyond any distinguishing human barrier that keeps anyone away from being made whole.  It is what we witness often in this community of faith, isn’t it?  Think about the many threads that connect us to Jesus that have been woven by friends.  It is never just me and Jesus.  It is me and Jesus and this community that keeps the connections of faith vibrant.

 

I am a little more hesitant to put myself in the shoes of the Centurion.  He has belief without seeing…an echo of the Thomas story that comes right after Easter.  It is the definition of all believers who are on this side of the resurrection:  we believe without having seen.  The Centurion’s faith is so great, he asks and gets what he asks for.  I, on the other hand, feel more like the Moses I saw in a cartoon this week.  The caption reads:  Moses in prayer.  With his beard, staff, and long flowing robes, the artist has Moses looking into heaven with great expectation.  But all that is there, coming from a large cloud, is a balloon with the same 3 dots that blink on my phone when I know a text message is being read but there is no response, and so Moses waits…like me…hoping, trusting that some answer will come.  The Centurion, however, has full confidence in Jesus’ response.  That is a remarkable expression of faith.  But what is even more amazing is his expression of personal unworthiness:  “Do not trouble yourself, Lord, for I am not worthy of the honor of your company.  I am not worthy to come and meet you.”

 

Tied to this is the response of Elijah in the I Kings passage.  Elijah, like the Centurion, is powerfully gifted.  He organizes 850 prophets of Baal and Asherah to meet him on top of Mt. Carmel to enter into a dual.  They will dual to the end to determine whose God is the most powerful.  Elijah’s faith in God is certain.  He is not hoping that God will show up.  He is convinced of it.  You know this story:  altars are built, sacrifices are made, the name of Baal is called upon to consume the sacrifice with fire.  But nothing happens.  Not one thing!  And so Elijah adds insult to injury.  He mocks them, shouting, “You’ll have to shout louder for Baal to hear you.  Baal must be daydreaming or maybe he is away on a trip or maybe he is sleeping.  Cry louder so that you can awaken him!”  The scripture says that they raved all afternoon, but again, nothing happens.

 

So Elijah, builds his own altar with 12 stones to represent the 12 tribes of Israel.  He builds a trench around the altar.  He piles wood on the altar, places the sacrifice on top and then, he drenches the offering and the wood with water…not just once, mind you, but three times.  (He’s got a lot of nerve!)  Then he prays, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant.”  And the fire from heaven came immediately to consume the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the dust.

 

Now as if this isn’t enough, Elijah stays behind with King Ahab.  They look towards the sea seven times until they notice a small cloud rising above the sea.  Elijah tells the King that they must hurry home because the rains are coming to end their drought.  So full of adrenaline is Elijah that he runs before the King’s chariot all the way back to the city of Jezreel.  This is the believer I want to be!  I want this guy to be my mentor for ministry…bold and daring with just a little sarcasm on the side!

 

Once inside the palace, the King tells his Queen, Jezebel, everything that happened.  He, after all, has just been a part of miracle upon miracle, and so with amazement in his voice, he tells her how Elijah challenged the prophets, how the prophets of Baal could do nothing but Elijah?  Elijah called down fire from heaven and now has brought rain to their land.  And Jezebel, a worshipper of Baal, sends a message to Elijah that he is done for.  She put a contract out on his life to be killed.  And Elijah is so afraid that he flees.  Where is his moxy now?  Where is his confidence in God?  Where is his assurance that God will continue to work through him now just as God did on Mt. Carmel?

 

My faith is so much more fleeing in the face of adversity than it is centurion confident.  I preach a great sermon, stir hearts to serve and the church finance committee raises its eyebrows incredulously.  I am called to the hospital only to discover that the member has died, and the family looks to me for all the right words, prayers of comfort and explanations of what to do next.  I hold a baby to dedicate knowing that its only hope is the larger church family or while at the grave, the new widower lingers in order to hold my hand.  And every Sunday, I don my vestments, stand behind this pulpit and look out at your expectant faces praying that there will not be those three little dots hovering between us, but that there will be a message of conviction and hope to bring sense to the realities with which we live.  Why am I… why are you … allowed such holy moments?  Sometimes my sense of gratitude is so humbling that I wonder how I can continue.  Wouldn’t it be easier to flee, like Elijah, rather than make a stand of courageous faith like the Centurion?

I Sing Because…

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21; Acts 16:16-34; John 17:20-26
The Hallmark celebrations of Father’s Day and Mother’s Day are dreaded by preaching pastors.  There is no way to win.  Should you preach about your dear, loving mother who set a godly example for your life, someone on the way out of the sanctuary angrily reminds you that not everyone had mothers that were kind and thoughtful and paragons of virtue.  You go home defeated knowing that unintentionally an emotional pot was stirred.  If you preach about the joys of your own parenthood, mid-sermon, you spy the church members who were just told that they cannot have children of their own or you see the young mother who is weeping from the exhaustion of caring for a special needs child or there sit the parents of a teen in jail for drug possession or the parents who, out of the natural order of things, just buried their child.  These complications are why I don’t preach Mother’s and Father’s Day sermons. I support my argument by reminding folks who ask that the lectionary doesn’t cooperate.  I do believe, however, that we spend a lifetime trying to understand what it means that we slept beneath the heart of another person, safe and warm for almost a year.    Maybe if only for that common journey, I feel a need to tip my hat.

 

Ever since my mother’s death in 1982 and my father’s death in 2004, I find that there are times that I still need my parents as individuals and as a couple.  How grand it would have been to sit with them under those big oaks on The University of Alabama’s campus (their alma mater and place of courtship) as Dannelly was recognized on Honors Day.  What fun to take them to New York City to visit with David, take in a show and walk Central Park.  Most of the time, however, it is the small things for which I long:  like how much buttermilk to put in the biscuit dough or how to separate the day lilies. So I cook with my spice cabinet open to invite my mother to join me in the kitchen.  Since I don’t chew tobacco or smoke cigars, I take delight in caring for the flowers that (thanks to Mary Helen) I can trace back to another day when they were giving glory to God in dad’s flower beds.  I tend to grow only the flowers that he grew, so if you have shared daisies or day lilies, irises or daffodils, it is a double gift.  I give thanks for you as I imagine him walking with me about the yard to see what grew overnight!

 

I do not visit my parents’ graves.  What is the point of that?  They aren’t there.  They are here, in me, with me…all the good and all the bad.  I still hear my mother’s voice telling me that I should wear my overcoat, as it is the coldest day of the year; or that if I sit around with wet hair, I will come down with a sore throat; that no matter how tired or busy I may be, I should always-always-return the scissors to their rightful place so I will know where to find them the next time; and I hear Dad’s booming bass admonish me to stand up straight and speak from the diaphragm, for after all, I am a Jackson.

 

As I approach 60 this summer, I know that my doctor and I have a date to look at my heart to be sure some dreadful surprise is not lingering there as it did for my mother.  Should I be caught off guard, I am charging you with the task of being parental models to David and Dan who are about the age that I was when my mother died.  How thankful I am for the women and men who stepped into my life as models of encouragement at the time of my parents’ deaths.  Because they have made all the difference, I am depending on you to do the same.  Cushion our children with additional years of love and shared wisdom.  Let them know that they will never recover from grief; they will simply learn how to live with the loss.  Assure them that they have everything they need, and that they should resist over-achieving if their subconscious motivation is only to keep looking for me in the front row to cheer them on. They already have my blessing.  In my mind and heart, they are so very fine just as they are.  (Anna Quinlan, “On Losing Your Mom,” I do not have the source information, just a copy of the article.)

 

Zelma Pattillo tells the story about a little boy named Jim.  He is playing on the front porch of his home while his mother sits peeling potatoes.  He notices a ray of sun shining through an opening in the leaves of a nearby tree.  It appears to highlight a spot on the porch as a spotlight would on a stage.  Pointing to the spot of sunshine, Jim asks his mother, “What is that?”  She replies, without looking up, “That is the smile of God.”  Jim moves so that he is standing in the ray of sunshine.  “Look Mom,” he announces, “I am standing in the smile of God!”

 

Years pass.  Jim’s mother dies.  He and all his siblings return to the “old home place” to sort through things.  In a drawer, Jim finds a small box with his name on it.  He slowly unties the string.  He opens the box.  There is a small pair of shoes within and a note that reads, “These are the shoes you wore when you walked in the smile of God.”  (Zelma Pattillo, “In the Smile of God,” The Alabama Baptist, May 6, 1993.  This article is in Zelma’s personal file in the office.)  It is all we really need to know, isn’t it?  Whether it is our mother or father, aunt or uncle, friend or teacher, pastor or grandparent who tells us doesn’t really matter.  What matters is that we receive a blessing from someone so that we know:  as we walk, we are standing in the light of God’s smile.  It is following that Light and sharing that Light, I believe, that took Paul and Silas to Philippi.

 

Thwarted by their desire to take the gospel to Asia, Paul and Silas make their way to Philippi.  They go outside the city gate, down by the river, in search of anyone who might have gathered to pray.  They discover a group that is led by Lydia, a successful merchant of purple cloth.  After hearing their words, Lydia and her entire household are baptized as believers. Lydia takes Paul and Silas into her home.  Because of her hospitality, Paul and Silas continue to stay in Philippi for several more days.  Their presence becomes more and more obvious as a slave girl follows them from place to place, crying out, “These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation.”  We would say she was mentally unbalanced.  Scripture plainly says she is possessed by a demon.  So she is doubly bound.  She is possessed by owners, and she is enslaved to some “demon” or mental illness that holds her its victim.  (William Willimon, “Captivity and Release in Philippi,” Interpretation, pp. 136 ff.)

 

This girl, however, possesses an unusual gift.  She can tell fortunes.  If she is asked a question, she always has an answer.  Sometimes she is funny, but mostly she tells the future and remarkably, she is usually right.  Thus, her success.  Because she is a slave, her owners decide to put her gift to work to their advantage.  The arrangement works well for them, because people are willing to pay lots of money to find out their future and receive assurance to soothe their anxiety.  They hire her out to read palms at parties and to provide entertainment at business conventions.  Ohhh, there is money to be made in thousands of enslavements—drug addiction, consumerism, trafficking to name only a few.  And this girl, she earns her owners a lot of money.  They are completely happy with the arrangement until Paul and Silas come to town.

 

For whatever reason, she is fascinated with Paul and Silas.  Everywhere they go, every conversation they attempt, she is there, interrupting, shouting.  After a few days, her constant presence is annoying. So finally, one day, Paul has enough.  He shouts back at her.  It reminds me of a morning that Lloyd and I were with David in New York.  He was walking us from our hotel to his college.  The streets were crowded and as we walked by a store front, I heard my well-mannered, even-tempered son begin to audibly growl.  He shouted at a woman who was lingering in a doorway.  “David, what are you doing?” I asked.  “Oh Mom, she’s crazy, and if you don’t shout at her first, she gets in your face and chases you down the street screaming things at you the whole way to school.”  Paul, likewise, decides to give this woman a dose of her own medicine, because he is “greatly annoyed.”  The only other time this phrase is used in Acts is to describe the agitation and consternation of the Jewish leaders over the apostles’ preaching that indicts Israel and its leaders for killing Jesus.  (Acts 4:1-1)  (“Paul in Philippi,” https://bible.org/seriespage/paul-philippi-purveyor-purple-purveyor-pain-acts-1611-40)  So Paul, greatly annoyed, shouts at her, BUT he does so in the name of Jesus Christ.

 

You would think that celebration would break out when the girl shows evidence of wholeness and healing.  But remember, her owners are hustlers, pimps, men who chase after the mighty dollar with a vengeance.  While they might give a dollar to The Mental Health Association every now and then, this is incredibly personal.  Religion is infringing on their economics, and so her owners do what vested interest groups do when their particular interests are threatened:  they haul Paul and Silas into court.  (Willimon)

 

Paul and Silas are accused of disturbing the peace.  The exact charges are threefold:  (Walter Brueggemann, “One Exorcism, One Earthquake, One Baptist…and Joy,” VL 1 Collected Sermons and “At Midnight,” vl. 2)

  1. “These men are Jews.”  Yes, please do hear the same anti-Semitism that we might just hear, with add-ons like “These men are Hispanic.”  “These men are black.”  “These men are Muslim.”  They point out that Paul and Silas are Jews as if being a Jew would explain everything.  It stings of bigotry.
  2. “They are disturbing the city.”  They disturb the peace by setting people free to be whole and healed.  They disturb the city by upsetting the established social structure.  They disturb the city by refusing to participate in oppression and, instead, they practice emancipation!
  3. “They advocate customs that are not lawful for Romans.”  Well, won’t everyone be surprised when in verses 35-39, Paul reveals that he and Silas ARE Roman citizens!  The magistrates then have to come apologize for the ways they have been mistreated.

 

The slave girl’s owners, who make these accusations, are quick to say to the judges, “We are not against a little religion, as long as it keeps to its place.”  “Its place,” apparently, is right behind the mighty dollar.  Then, the crowd that gathers joins in with their complaints.  So Paul and Silas are stripped, beaten and thrown into jail.  Their feet are shackled and the cell is deep within the jail house—like solitary confinement–because they are perceived as so very dangerous.

 

Now if we take all the characters mentioned thus far:  the fortune teller, her owners, the magistrates and the crowd; all their drama flows towards the largest symbol of keeping the status quo:  the prison.  The prison is the safe place to put trouble-makers.  The prison will keep a lid on trouble if by no other method than by intimidating any who even question the status quo much less change it.  Don’t we realize that a prison is supposed to make us feel safe and taken care of?  Why else has the building of new prisons been the hot topic within our state legislature this term?  Multi-million prisons proposed in order to keep teen-agers with hoodies and immigrants from Syria off of the streets!  I feel safer, don’t you?  (Please forgive my sarcasm!)

 

The anxiety of all the story elements:  the fortune teller, her owners, the magistrates, the crowd, the jail—provides a mirror for us to observe our own society filled with fear and anxiety.  Sometimes what we fail to remember is that deep within our faith tradition is the conviction that God cares very much not only about the state of our individual souls (like the slave girl) but also about the life of the community (like the businessmen, the magistrates and the gathered crowd) and all of their fears, both founded and unfounded.  It is from the beginning, not either-or, but both-and.  Faith is both personal and corporate, a personal gospel and a social gospel.  Anglican bishop and scholar N.T. Wright writes:

The point of following Jesus isn’t simply so that we can be sure of going to a better place when we die.  Our future beyond death is enormously important, but the nature of Christian hope is that it plays back into the present life.  We’re called, here and now, to be instruments of God’s new creation, the world-put-to-rights which have already been launched in Jesus and of which Jesus’ followers are supposed to be not only its beneficiaries but also agents.  (Simply Christian, Introduction)

 

And so Paul and Silas, agents sent to put the world-to-rights, are beaten and thrown in jail, but they are not defeated.  As we peek inside, we find that neither Paul nor Silas is afraid.  They are not upset about their mistreatment.  They are not angry nor are they licking their wounds.  No, instead, they are praying!  They are singing!  …and not just a little bit of humming to themselves.  They are singing so robustly that the other prisoners are listening with fascination.  It is a wonderful testimony to how powerful our response to adversity can be!  Paul and Silas, even though imprisoned, are transforming the jailhouse.  They are turning it into a revolutionary community by witnessing to the Easter power that brings freedom even when restrained.  It is midnight, pitch black, long after the candles have been extinguished and in that dark, terrifying place comes their singing.  Paul and Silas are overturning yet one more institution of enslavement.  It has me wondering:  What song do you sing when you are in need of transformation?  What song do you sing that brings courage to others?

 

William Sloane Coffin was the pastor of Riverside Baptist Church in New York City.  His sermons remain today as beacons for preaching social justice.  He was constantly in the streets involving himself in protests for what he believed to be right and Christian, especially in regards to the Viet Nam war.  As a consequence, he spent many a night in jail.  Of one of those nights, James Carroll, a Catholic priest writes:  (Foreword to Credo)

A steel wall separated your cramped space from that of the man in the adjoining cell of the D.C. lockup.  It was an overnight incarceration after being arrested for trespassing at the U.S. Capitol.  The year was 1972.  On the cell block, in separate cells, were another two dozen prisoners who had been part of an antiwar demonstration.

It was eerily quiet and dark.  Raised and educated as a priest to respect authority, Carroll says that he felt disoriented, alone and afraid in jail.

[While no one knew what prompted Coffin,] at some point in the night, he began to sing, softly at first.  His resolute baritone gradually filled the air as he moved easily into the lyric of what you soon recognized as Handel’s Messiah:  “Comfort, comfort, ye my people.”  …Coffin sang as if he were alone on earth, and the old words rose through the dark as if Isaiah himself had returned to speak for you to God—to speak for God to you.  Others in the cell block soon joined…”The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

 

When Paul and Silas sing in Philippi, the earth heaves, the prison shakes, the doors fly open, and everyone’s chains fall off.  The jailer awakes and seeing the prison door open, he prepares to fall on his own sword knowing that he will be held accountable for the escape of his prisoners.  Keep in mind, just because he possesses the key to all the doors does not mean that the jailer is free.  Prisons come in all shapes and sizes.  (Willimon)  So Paul assures the jailer that they are all there—every last one of the prisoners.  They live out the truth that serving God doesn’t mean escaping dangerous places.  Being followers of Christ means we are given the opportunity to be the voice and hands of Christ right where we find ourselves.

 

Coming to grips with his personal bondage, the jailer realizes that freedom is determined by something greater than chains and prison cells.  So the jailer asks, “What must I do to be saved?  What must I do to be free?”  Upon hearing about Christ, the jailer and his entire household are baptized.  They bring Paul and Silas into their home to feed them and to bandage their wounds.

 

Now you may be thinking that this story doesn’t really have anything to do with you.  After all, not many of us have disturbed the peace so significantly that we spent a night in jail.  Not many of us have been saved by an earthquake or disturbed by a troublesome spirit.  So maybe Easter and its resurrection power are not about us, unless…unless… (Brueggemann)

Unless something inside nags at us of which we long to be free.

Unless fear so overtakes us sometimes that we listen to and join in with the

crowd.

Unless, like the jailer, we go to sleep at night expecting NOTHING.

Unless we find ourselves drawn to the singing of others and yearn to have

our own song to sing.

Unless we know that we are on the edge of an earthquake and are filled

with fear.

These are times when the desire to stand in the light of God’s smile as a blessing is foundational to personal faith.

 

My parents loved being Baptists.  They attended every meeting and held offices on committees of influence within the Convention and Woman’s Missionary Union.  They attended a state convention one year at which The Alabama Baptist Children’s Home gave their annual report by inviting some of the orphans in their care to tell their stories.  One waif stood at the microphone and without seeming anxiety over the hundreds of persons who listened, she told about her life and then burst into singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow.”  My parents were moved.  They were so moved that they could not talk about it without their voices cracking and tears coming into their eyes.  My parents were so moved that up into his last days, Dad would still just suddenly burst into “I sing because I’m happy…I sing because I’m free…for his eye is on the sparrow and I know he watches over me.”

At his request, we asked the soloist of the Evergreen Baptist Church to please sing this song at his funeral.  She was doing her best, but somewhere in the second verse, a large moan came from within the midst of our family.  It wasn’t a moan that made you afraid, it was a moan that said let me draw you to my bosom and comfort you.  It was visceral and raw and it swelled to such a crescendo that we found we were all singing…singing in gratitude that in Jesus we are free, unbound by all that tethers us to this earth and free to be alive in Christ for all eternity.

 

If this is the type of freedom for which you long, I hope that you will respond, in faith, as we stand to sing “His Eye is on the Sparrow,” which is provided on the bulletin insert.