Welcome to BCOC!


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

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

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

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

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

I’ve Got Spirit

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Acts 10:44-48; I John 5:1-6; John 15:9-17

In our role as parents, Lloyd and I have spent a fair amount of time sitting in the stands watching school sports and listening to the cheers of highly energetic young people with pom poms in their hands shout:  “We’ve got spirit, yes we do!  We’ve got spirit, how about you?”  And then they point and turn toward their opponents expecting an answer.  The cheer keeps going back and forth asking the same question:  “We’ve got spirit!  How about you?”  Which, of course, is the question that today’s text seems to point at us to ask:  Have you got Spirit?

Today is Pentecost Sunday, and traditionally, it is understood to be the birthday of the church.  It is the day that we celebrate the Holy Spirit making its presence known to the first believers as a mighty wind blew through a house on a back street in Jerusalem.  Pentecost is the next biggest day in Christendom following Christmas and Easter, because Pentecost introduces us to a God that is not so much concerned about what God can do for us as God is interested in what we can do for the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.  Interestingly it isn’t money or a brick and mortar structure or ordained leadership that God gives the disciples in order to create the church.  It is the Holy Spirit, the most elusive and least typecast person of the Trinity. 

Barbara Brown Taylor says that the Holy Spirit is the “muse and soul of Christ’s church.”  (“God’s Breath,” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2003)  Popular books like The Shack, by William Paul Young, have also given rise to illusive concepts of the Spirit.  He portrays Spirit as a wispy, artsy, Asian.  It raises the question of how do we think of Spirit.  Mysterious?  Hokey?  Baffling?  Obscure?  If we had to define Spirit, how would we?

Former United Methodist bishop, Will Willimon, in a tongue-in-cheek address to pastors, is quoted as saying:  (“Overcoming Pentecost in Our Preaching:  Proclamation Without Spirit,” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost, 2001)

The Holy Spirit, in my dealings with him or her, tends to be pushy, assertive, antagonistic and imperialistic.  It is the nature of the Holy Spirit to want to take over wherever he, or she, intrudes.  …so [preachers] beware of any empty spaces in worship!  Keep talking, keep people going through the motions, and keep their noses in the bulletins, so that there is a minimum of open space, gaps, or “dead air,”… the Holy Spirit likes nothing better than to take a perfectly decent and decorous service of worship and transform it into some sort of heart-happy out of control hootenanny.

It seems that the trouble with Spirit is that if we leave a window cracked open for it to enter on a gentle breeze; Spirit is more likely to blow the doors off their hinges!  The Spirit we are introduced to in Acts is wild, assertive, pushy, upending everything that lies in its path.  We can be sure that it will turn our lives, our church, and our world upside down and inside out.  What do we think about such a Spirit who can unbalance our carefully thought out, educated, enlightened, moderate views of God, Christ and the church?  What do we think about a Spirit that can undo every understanding we humans construct about who’s in and who’s out, who’s clean and who’s not, who’s of the Spirit and who is not?  What do we do about a Spirit that seems to favor stirring things up over letting them lie peacefully?  Our passages today assure us that the Spirit will do anything in order to set things right by uniting us so that God is served and loved.  And we can be assured that no matter how sophisticated and well thought out we may think we are, the Spirit will prove to us that we are always too confined and narrow to ever hold the fullness of our wild and wonderfully free-Spirited God.  (Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, NYC, “The Wind that Blows the Doors Off” Journal for Preachers, Pentecost 2003)

The texts present two very different views of Spirit.  John’s gospel, which occurs on Easter evening, presents the 11 disciples as locked inside a house in Jerusalem.  They are suffocating with fear.  Fear that the authorities are coming to get them.  Fear that they have uncertain days ahead without their leader.  Fear that all their weakness and insecurities will keep them behind locked doors forever.  Jesus, however, makes His way into their prison of grief without even so much as a knock.  He just simple “came,” John says.  He stands among them.  He says, “Peace be with you,” not, “You failed me,” or “Shame on you for hiding,” just “peace!”  Then He pulls out His identifying marks:  his damaged hands and side.  And amazingly, peace invades them as the word becomes flesh once again in their sight.

Now the next thing Jesus does, in my opinion, is creepy and awkward.  Jesus breathes on the disciples.  As I consider what that must have felt like, I remember being an older child and singing “Breathe on me Breath of God” as I stood in the balcony of Southside Baptist Church.  Ooooo, was that something I really wanted…for God to breathe on me?  So repulsed was I that I begged Dan to please not select that hymn for today’s service!  Barbara Brown Taylor, however, gives us a different way to think about it:

[Jesus] commissioned them by breathing on them, opening His mouth and pouring what was inside of Him into them so that their bangs blew and their eyelashes fluttered and they could smell where He had come from—not just Golgotha and Galilee, but way before that—back when the world itself was being born.    They could feel their own lungs fill as they breathed in what He breathed out.  What their fear had killed [off] in[side of] them, His breath brought back to life.  It was Genesis Redux, as they were created all over again by the power of the Spirit that was coming out of His mouth.

This explanation of how the Spirit came to the disciples creates a certain view of church.  Gentle breath conveys a fragile Spirit that must be protected and guarded so that the locks are rarely undone on all the doors.  Even though Jesus tells them that He is sending them into the world, the account makes it appear that they like being breathed on so much that they are content to continue right where they are, praising God for the breeze, and that it is only inside the safe confines of church walls that God can be encountered.

Luke, however, has a different idea.  The disciples are still in that house in Jerusalem but it is now 50 days since the resurrection of Jesus.  There are about 120 people in the room and the doors and windows are wide open.  Nothing is locked because the people inside know they are waiting on something.  They aren’t confident about what they are waiting on.  They just know that whatever it is will be obvious and that it will come from outside of themselves, because Jesus said, “Stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

“It” turns out to be something that even Luke struggles to describe.  “It” starts with the sound of violent wind.  “It” fills the entire house where the followers are sitting.  “It” bursts into tongues like flames above the believers’ heads.  When they open their mouths to warn one another about the fire, “it” comes out in languages none of those Galileans learned at school.  Perfect strangers, from the four corners of the world, are able to understand what comes out of their mouths.

Just about every year, I ask those in our congregation that I know speak a foreign language to be present to help us experience a little of what this miracle of speaking and understanding must have been like on that first Pentecost.  During our Scripture reading you heard Spanish, Portuguese, French, Indonesian, Parsi, Chinese, and even Latin.  Yes, I know Latin is a “dead language,” but did you know that the Medes and Elamites (listed as being present on Pentecost) were already extinct cultures?  So are we to believe that the Spirit came to even those already long dead?

Why not?  For in Jerusalem those days were old and new converts with budding theologies that will shake the status quo.  In that room were disciples who would never on their own, think that women, children, slaves and gentiles from all nations were worthy enough to respond to the gospel.  As the mighty wind rips through that room, it is as if God announces:  “You ain’t seen nothin’ yet!  Just look at what the possibilities are for the church to be community!  Here is power for ALL believers so that my Good News can be carried to the uttermost parts of the earth!”  (Tisdale)

Then, those standing by recognize the wonder of what is occurring.  The only way they could make sense of it is to sneer and judge.  “They must be drunk,” the scoffers say!  It is always easier to poke fun and be sarcastic than to say “I will go,” or “I want this power.”  Who wants to admit that they don’t have any passion or energy or are too filled with fear to do what God is asking?  Jesus knows this about us.  He knows that on our own terms, given our own resources, we will not go anywhere that matters.  Likewise, the church cannot go anywhere important on its own steam.  And so God sends a Pentecostal Spirit to move us beyond ourselves, beyond our intentions, beyond our habits to do the things that God intends.  (The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann) 

This is how Peter has enough courage to protest that it is only nine o’clock in the morning and then goes on to preach eloquently. He quotes the prophet Joel that God’s Spirit is poured out on all flesh—not just chosen ones, not just 11 male disciples, not just church people, but ALL people:  on the young and old, male and female, slave and free, straight and gay, black and white, rich and poor.  Peter’s pronouncement of this prophecy recruits every person that the Spirit just entered to spread the word that God’s fiery, transforming Spirit is loose in the world.

Now, this is not necessarily good news to those who like to huddle in solidarity.  It is quite a threat to those who post sentinels to guard the church doors and who develop theological credential committees to interview prospective members and to rescind baptisms of members who dare to be honest about who they are.  These fragile Spirit congregations lock their windows and bolt the doors so that no troubling wind can blow.  I wonder if they install seat belts in their pews so that when hurricane-force Spirit blows through they remain unmoved, safe and sound.  (Adams) Believers are way off course when the word “church” is reduced to mean a building or even one group of people who belong to a specific denomination.  This reeks of speaking of “us” as over against “them,” and it even sets us up to believe that God surely sees things the same way that we do!  (Taylor)  Maybe this is why Spirit has to come with such force!  We have to have our carefully constructed concepts blown apart from time to time in order that when we begin again, only the essentials remain to be picked back up from the debris after the tornado rumbles through.

This is hard, tedious, and often heart wrenching work that has to occur to build community.  So we find ourselves sitting in committee meetings and having to compromise.  It might mean swallowing our pride to say, “I don’t agree with you, but look at all these other things we have in common on which we can agree.”  It pushes us out of our comfort zones to be in fellowship with those that don’t share a common background or who cannot relate to our experiences or who don’t dress or smell like us, or even who sit on the same pew but obviously have different worship habits from our own.  Pentecost shakes us out of the illusion that THE church must be made up of those who are just like me or who believe like me or who act like me.  Our preconceived ideas about insiders and outsiders and even about God’s very own self are always subject to the dynamic movement of Spirit.

On the front of your bulletin is a copy of John August Swanson’s serigraph entitled “Celebration.”  (Tisdale)  As I look at the men, women and children dancing in their multi-colored robes, I realize that this is what I long for church to be.  The doors and windows are completely open.  They hold flames just as the disciples received them on the day of Pentecost.  Their sense of community appears to be joyful, loving and warm.  Rather than promoting withdrawal and isolation, the dancing flames light fires of faith, hope and love in the hearts of believers that draw countless others to the warmth and light.  Rather than fear and judgment, the Spirit of God creates liberating joy.  I want a church like that, yes I do.  I want a church with Spirit, how about you?

(Donald David, Festival of Homiletics, 2015, Denver)  I spent last week in Denver listening and observing the best of the best preachers.  One captured me immediately.  His name is Donald Davis.  He is a retired pastor from North Carolina and is now a professional storyteller.  He wears a big bow tie, has endearing mannerisms, and he made me homesick for Katherine Tucker Windham.  He said that one pastorium in which they lived was three levels.  Their piano had been left by the movers in the basement and the plan was to place it on the top floor.  Realizing his challenge, Donald asked the next door neighbors if they could help.  They had two strapping sons and were church members.  But when the boys saw the piano, they decided that yes, they would help but they would need their Momma Ray to help.  Donald said he understood why when Momma Ray appeared.  She was every bit as big as her sons and together they got the piano moved.

The father was the town butcher, and he was also a raging alcoholic.  So on the day he turned up missing, Momma Ray said she knew where she would find him.  And sure enough he was at the shop.  He had committed suicide.  Donald watched the family carefully.  The children remained in school…in fact, they all went to college even though Momma Ray only had a minimum wage job.  They did not lose their house.  Their bills were paid on time.  They had sweet and happy dispositions.  And so, one day, working side by side with Momma Ray in the garden they shared between their houses, Donald asked Momma Ray, “How do you do it?”  And out of her pocket came a piece of paper…well-worn, greased at all the edges, and Momma Ray said, “Every day at the breakfast table, we get to vote.  We vote on whether we will be happy or sad, rich or poor, healthy or sick, whether we will live or die.  We get to vote every day.”

My friends, every time we come in the doors of Baptist Church of the Covenant and every time we go out, we get to vote.  Will we be healthy or sick, open or closed, hospitable or rigid, live or die?  Will we welcome the wild, creative Spirit or will be a fragile Spirit people who are satisfied with the status quo?  We get to vote, and my vote is that we will reflect:  I’ve got Spirit, yes I do.  I’ve got Spirit, how about you?

Little Resurrections

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

from Sunday, April 26, 2015

John 10:11-18; I John 3:16-24; Acts 4: 1-31

It is a game we started when our children were very young.  We wanted to teach them about how to speak to people when meeting in public places.  So on the way to Sunday lunch, we would talk about standing when adults come to the table, of how to shake someone’s hand and to look the other in the eye as you ask about the news of the week.  We call it “Playing Mayor,” and whoever speaks to the most people is declared the winner.  Timid Dannelly was unsettled when the game first began.  Now as an official host of The University of Alabama, he has taught us a few things!  David, ever the social butterfly, found it great fun, but Lloyd…oh, he can work a room without a falter…calling names and being hailed.

It took us a while to realize this is no game for Lloyd.  He loves to schmooze!  He enjoys it so much that he likes to sit in restaurants where he can see who is coming in and out so he can be ready with a handshake or a pat on the back.  We were, therefore, not overly surprised when he told us that he would like to run for City Council.  After serving on some strategic committees, Lloyd ran unopposed and thus was elected.

Now this position affords a few perks.  He received a complete tour of all the city’s facilities, and he gets a weekly email from the chief of police enlightening us about arrests and current crime rings.  He is asked to walk in the Christmas parade, and, annually, there is a breakfast with the elected representatives of our state.

It was at this year’s breakfast that a statesman stood to talk about the challenges Montgomery would like to address this calendar year.  The teacher retirement system was mentioned as was the funding of public education, but then the politician said that the biggest challenge needing the greatest attention and strongest financial backing is the governance of UAB and the reinstating of UAB football!  And my sports loving, conservative, Republican husband guffawed!  He laughed out loud when no one else in the room made a sound.  They all turned to stare at him.  And so he began:  “You have got to be kidding me!  UAB football!?  You have a super majority in Montgomery.  You have the power to effect lasting change for our state!  It is your chance to address issues affecting the hungry, homeless, and illiterate; the transit system, affordable health care and pay day lending!  And you think the greatest challenge is UAB football??”  The representative was taken aback.  He gathered himself and said that they were anticipating UAB protestors in front of the capital when the session opened.  To which Lloyd replied, “And will they need one bus or two?” 

It is this same sort of bravado that Peter and John display when they are taken before the religious authorities in Jerusalem.

You will remember from last week that Peter and John are going to the Temple to offer praise to God.  A lame beggar, at the Beautiful Gate, asks Peter and John for alms.  They, in turn, say that they have no gold or silver, but they will give him what they do have.  Peter takes him by the hand, and stands him up.  The man’s ankles and feet are suddenly made so strong that he can leap and dance and jump for joy.  This, when he does, creates such a stir on the porch of the Temple that the crowds assemble around Peter.  He preaches and they respond.  Scripture says that about 5000 are added to the community of the believing.

Now, the priests, Sadducees and captain of the Temple guard are also present to hear Peter’s sermon as well as see the response of the masses.  Still trying to put a lid on resurrection power, they seize Peter and John and jail them overnight.  The next morning, not only do the rulers, elders and teachers of the law assemble to deal with the disciples, but they are joined by the entire high priest’s family.  So, Annas, Caiaphas, John, Alexander and others are also present.  And if these names sound familiar to you, they should, for they are also present at the hearing of one Jesus of Nazareth.  Interestingly, they ask Peter and John the exact same question that they asked Jesus prior to His crucifixion.  It is the biggest concern that those in power always have:  “By what authority…by what power…in whose name…do you do this?”  It is a reference back to the beginning of chapter 3, for when the beggar asks for money, he is told “we will do better than what you are asking, stand and walk.”

When the lame beggar stands and walks and leaps for joy, we are immediately aware that the apostles perform a mini resurrection.  They rehabilitate a disabled man and invite him back into the stream of social life.  But this little resurrection is a huge threat to the superpowers.  They claim and imagine that this sort of authority is theirs and theirs alone.  A healing in the name of Caesar or in the name of any of the other recognized government authorities or board of directors, or trustees, or deacons or legislators or accrediting agencies would not have created such a stir because these are the expected and authorized sources of power.  And so their inner alarm system goes off when they realize that power is loose in the world other than their own or in which they are not in collusion.  Even worse, it is a power over which they have no limiting control.  And so they ask:  “By what power and in whose name do you do this?”  (Walter Brueggemann, “Little Resurrections,” vl. 2 of Collected Sermons)

When Peter answers, the writer of Acts clearly states that Peter is “filled with the Holy Spirit.”  This means Peter has a surge of energy and courage to speak without intimidation even when in the presence of mighty imperial authorities.  He is, as some old timers like to say, “Beyond himself” in how he responds.  Maybe his remarks to the court that sent him to jail sound a bit like this: 

Oh, dear Power Structure!  We did a good deed to a man who is sick.  Does a good deed make you nervous because you did not authorize it?  The man standing before you is in good health now because the source of our action is Jesus Christ of Nazareth.  You remember Him, don’t you?  You should, because you executed Him as an enemy of the state!  He threatened your status quo.  He is the One whom God raised from the dead.  This is the Easter guy whom even imperial execution could not limit.  This is the One through whom God unleashed life and health and well-being into the world.  Easter resurrection is an act that defies the control of the super powerful.  And so what we have done is to take this BIG resurrection of Jesus that transforms the world into a venue for life, and performed a little resurrection for this disabled beggar by restoring him to a full, healthy life.  Talk about health care!  If you want to talk about health care and health reform and extension of benefits to the unqualified with pre-existing conditions, then let’s talk about Jesus because His power may be our only hope!  (Brueggemann)

And they are stunned into silence.  In order to gather themselves, they send Peter and John out of the room.  Then, they make their assessments.  “They are idiotai!  Idiots!  Common men!  Uneducated!  They should cower in our wake, but instead they speak with bold eloquence!”  Perhaps this is a little resurrection as well, because Peter, just a few days before, was silently tongue-tied when the slave girl, around the fire in the courtyard, asked if he were a follower of Jesus.  And he could say nothing for fear!  And John, he was among those disciples who hid out in the room with the door locked for fear of what the authorities would do to them.  And yet, both are now standing up boldly to defend the risen Christ!  This Jesus, then, in yet another little resurrection, has awakened common, ordinary people—idiotai– who have never before sensed their power and now stand courageously in the very jaws of the oppressive system in which they find themselves in order to denounce it.  (Walter Wink, “Those obstreperous idiots,” Christian Century, April 13, 1994)  Oh, the authorities killed the instigator, but now His disciples appear to be stronger than ever.  They do not plea bargain.  They do not reassure their captors that they are harmless.  Instead, they “stick it to the man” by reveling in their newfound power.

Peter and John are warned not to speak or teach of Jesus ever again.  But Peter, in all honesty, replies that they cannot help themselves.  They must speak about all that they have seen and heard.  They leave the religious authorities to meet with a body of gathered believers.  They pray together that they will be enabled to speak God’s word with great boldness, and the earth moves.  Their meeting place is shaken as the Spirit inhabits each one with a little resurrection power.  For you see, from that BIG resurrection comes the power for Easter people,  like you and me, to enact little resurrections with the poor, the lame, the disabled, the marginalized, and the broken hearted.  It falls to us to disturb and disrupt the status quo in order to infuse life with the powerful surges of resurrection.

Have you ever been a part of a little resurrection?  Would you like to be?

Upon becoming the pastor of Baptist Church of the Covenant, it was abundantly clear that most things would not be easy here:  we need to cuss and discuss our decisions; who we are does not make for an easy pitch to prospects for membership; and money comes through sacrificial giving, not as an easy toss into the collection plate.  And yet, we continue to be people of vision.  We believe that God is faithful and that our efforts to serve God will be honored.  And so, together, we have moved ahead to conquer great challenges.  Cat Haven came down, parking lots were re-worked, the columbarium was put in, a playground erected and a Noack pipe organ was installed.  We received unexpected gifts to establish the Bock-Mayse Ministry Center.  All of these have made a marked positive difference to our commitment to remain active in ministry as a faith community.  All of this, however, came at a literal price: specifically a loan with Regions Bank and a loan through a magnanimous church member.

After my tirade from this pulpit last fall regarding personal stewardship, you are well aware of the angst I carry regarding NOT just our annual budget but the burden of the debt that exists from the aforementioned capital campaign.  We are in that holding pattern of owing where we must stay the course and patiently make the monthly payment for yeeeeaaaarrrrrsssss.  This is the problem with debt.  It holds us hostage so that with uncharacteristic discipline we must delay wants and needs.

For over two years, I have found myself to be in the uncomfortable role of disciplinarian when it comes to money for needs.  The complaints are well-founded:  the walls of the sanctuary are water-stained; the pew fabrics are ripping with frequency; and yes, the carpet is three different colors.  I have repeatedly told those who bring these things to my attention, that when there is money, we will act.  A special designated fund was even established so that those who wanted to put their money towards these projects could feel proactive.

The Council on Mission recently discussed our dilemma with great passion.  It was decided that something must be done.  It was reasoned:  “We replace worn out items in our homes all the time.  Is the church any different?”  And so, with the guilt that only a pastor can dole out on her beloved members, I began to wax eloquently about just where did they think this money was going to come from?  I was already berating the congregation about their faithfulness to the general fund (which by the way, is running behind and we haven’t gotten to summer yet).  And I reminded them that we have members still paying remaining Capital Campaign pledges.  Were they expecting me to ask the congregation to come up with additional funds for an update in the sanctuary?  “There is only so much blood in one turnip,” I found myself thinking!  The room went silent with the reality, and we all went home frustrated.

And so on the following Monday, with a bad case of ministerial hangover, I was working in my office with the door securely closed.  (If you catch a similarity to the disciples following the crucifixion, it feels similar to me as well.)  A gentle knock revealed one Susan Palmer with a letter in one hand and a check in the other.  An attorney was writing to inform us that the will of a recently deceased church member had listed Baptist Church of the Covenant not just once but twice as a recipient of major gifts from their estate.  As I looked at the check in my hands, it was written for more than the estimated amount needed to update the sanctuary.

The trustees listened carefully to the verbiage of the member’s intent.  They agree that these gifts will be more than enough to address the update of the sanctuary without having to solicit funds from the membership or add additional debt.  There also appear to be some funds in the designated accounts that may be put against the principal of our indebtedness.  The Council on Mission will bring a clearly defined motion at the business meeting the last Wednesday night in May for which you will want to be present.

Now, my friends, these kinds of things are not normal occurrences at Baptist Church of the Covenant.  I find myself standing in awe of this precious legacy entrusted to us.  I find myself amazed by a brush with Spirit that leaves me with goose-flesh.  I find that I am humbled by the generosity of another who so obviously knew the power of resurrection.  I find that this vote of confidence has me in love with hope again…believing that yes, we can not only move ahead but we can do so as a reflection of God’s power and not our own.  For you see, this check came not because we deserve it, and not because the donor agreed with our every decision.  It came like grace comes, as a gift.  This money came not because we did anything to earn it, or because we are so good.  Like grace, it is a gift.  This gift came to provide a way to live out of gratitude and wonder over God’s goodness to us and to encourage us not to quit, but to keep on touching the lives of the disenfranchised, to keep welcoming all who enter our doors, to endure in teaching the stories of scripture to children, to continue to highlight the gifts of those who feel called to full time ministry, and to be faithful to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to young and old, black and white, rich and poor, male and female, gay and straight, for we are all one in Jesus Christ, in whom there is no partiality.

So thanks be to God for grace that keeps showing us the power of the resurrection and the reality of the Kingdom of God.  May we live into this invitation to joyful courage as we continue to experience resurrection after resurrection after resurrection.  Amen.

Giving What We Have

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

from Sunday, April 19, 2015

I John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48; Acts 3:1-4:4

Each gospel tells very different post-resurrection stories.  On Easter, we read Mark’s gospel where the women leave the tomb and because they are so afraid, they say nothing to anyone.  Last week, we read the gospel of John.  John has Jesus appear twice in one week to the disciples.  The only problem is that Thomas is not present when Jesus appears.  And in an act of extreme graciousness and patience, Jesus comes again in order for Thomas to see and touch the evidence of crucifixion.

Then today, we read Luke’s gospel.  Just prior to the selected text, we have the story of Cleopas and an unnamed disciple who leave Jerusalem so filled with grief that they do not recognize the third person who joins them as they walk to the village of Emmaus.  They recount the events of the past several days:  how the chief priests and rulers deliver Jesus to be crucified; how the women go to the tomb early but do not find the body; and how the other disciples verify the truth of the women’s testimony.  They extend hospitality by asking the stranger to stay with them in Emmaus as it is “toward evening.”  But at the table, when the stranger blesses the bread, breaks the bread, and then hands the bread to them, the disciples suddenly recognize that the stranger is Jesus.  He immediately disappears, and they, the Scriptures say, leave immediately, which means in the dark of night, when the danger is the greatest.  They run all the way back to Jerusalem, a full seven miles uphill, in order to find the assembled disciples.  They tell how Jesus walked with them and broke bread with them.  Then our scripture for today begins.

As they are talking, Jesus appears.  They all think that a ghost has arrived!  He invites them to “handle” Him or touch Him.  They, in turn, (and I love this phrase) disbelieve for joy and are filled with wonder!  And so Jesus eats a piece of broiled fish.  Have you ever wondered why so many of the post-resurrection stories involve food?  In Luke, Jesus is breaking the bread in Emmaus and now He is eating fish in Jerusalem.  In John’s gospel, Jesus prepares a resurrection breakfast on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Their life together as rabbi and disciples ends with a meal and these stories point us to the fact that their new life together is beginning with a meal!  Maybe it is because Christ is as necessary for life, as is eating.  Maybe it is because sharing food is what makes us human.  Most other species forage alone, so that feeding is a solitary business, but human beings seem to love eating together.  Even when we are alone with a frozen dinner, most of us will open a book or turn on the television just for company.  It is, at any rate, one of the clues to where we continue to find His presence, because there is always the chance that when we are eating together that the risen Lord is in our midst.  (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The First Breakfast,” Gospel Medicine)

That, of course, is what the Emmaus disciples realize and come to tell the eleven in Jerusalem.  Jesus is among us even in the middle of the night when we think everything has come to an end and have no idea about how to begin again.  These post-resurrection stories make it abundantly clear that wherever we are the Spirit of the living Christ has been set loose in the world.  There is, therefore, no hopeless heart, no barren relationship, no bruised or hurting place that is off limits for the resurrected Christ.  Poet John Dunne puts it this way:  All occasions invite His mercies, and all times are His seasons.  It is the most encouraging of thoughts when God seems far away and the shadows are deep.  (Joanna Adams, “Resurrection and Responsibility,” Fourth Presbyterian Church, May 4, 2003) 

So hiding away in that room together, we can only begin to imagine the fear felt by the disciples when Jesus is suddenly present.  Scripture says they are “startled and terrified.”  So full of doubt and fear are these disciples, it is like they have all come down with the spiritual flu!  How would you feel upon seeing a ghost appear next to you?  Jesus is so fully present that He asks for a bit of fish to eat.  No ghost that I know of eats food!  Nor do ghosts speak of prophets and prophecies.  I wonder if they realize they should be just as afraid of what is happening in that room as they are afraid of what might be coming their way outside of the room!

Before Jesus gives them a commission, Luke says that Jesus “opened their minds.” I am intrigued by this thought that Jesus opens their minds!  I am intrigued because it seems that too many of my peers in ministry are more prone to live out a Christianity that does exactly the opposite, i.e., they promote a faith that closes minds, hardens hearts and shrinks imaginations.  But here, Jesus opens their minds regarding the preaching of repentance and forgiveness of sins to every nation…and this is to be done by each of them specifically.  “You shall be my witnesses,” He says, “I am entrusting this entire enterprise to you.”  This surely is the most astonishing thing Jesus has yet to say.  He is entrusting the betrayers, the doubters, the fearful, those with very limited credentials with the privilege of proclaiming the Kingdom of God!  (Adams)

Then Luke shows us how the disciples find a way to live out the commission that Jesus gives.  When we read Acts, Luke writes that the disciples are continually in the Temple blessing God.  A lame man, known for begging, is being carried to his spot at the Beautiful gate.  If he consistently begs at this gate that is the entrance to the Temple, he must recognize Peter and John as they go to pray at the ninth hour.  The passage says that the lame man asks for money.  Like good Baptist Church of the Covenant members, however, Peter and John tell the lame man that they cannot give him money.  “We aren’t even supposed to give you a gift card to Arby’s!” they say.  “It is the policy of the church that we do not give anyone money!  Come back on Monday when the church office is open and they can give you a voucher if you bring your photo ID.”  Oh, that’s what we would say having developed a wary, street-wise protective shell.  It is not, however, what these disciples say or do.  Instead, they say, “We will give you what we have.”  What does it mean to give what we have if it doesn’t mean money?

There is a new church plant in Jacksonville, Florida called “The Well at Springfield.”  In order to connect with and serve the residents of the neighborhood, members of the church go to the local laundromat.  They arrive prepared with quarters, soap and listening ears in order to assist 30 families with their laundry.  They even take activities with which to occupy children who wait for their parents.  As the church members listen, they become aware of needs both great and small, and so they collected 73 gently used and new children’s coats for the local elementary school.  They met a heartbroken woman whose brother had been murdered.  She needed a way to properly honor him.  With the help of their pastor, the members gathered at the site where the body had been found and held a memorial service.  They are showing God’s love during the spin cycle as they give what they have…a few quarters, yes, but time and availability for relationship (Herald, March-April 2015, “Showing God’s love in the Spin Cycle”)

Lauren Winner is a professor at Duke Divinity School. (Wearing God) She quotes fourth century preacher, John Chrysostom, as saying:  If we desire to be God’s friends, then we must be friends to those God already considers to be God’s friends, mainly the saints and the poor.  So Winner, desiring to be God’s friend, decided that she not only could but should teach one of her classes at the local women’s prison.  Additionally, she took her female students with her to attend class in the prison.  The Duke students, however, are denied access to computers.  All papers are hand written.  The women from Duke are also asked not to use Google search to find out information about their classmates’ criminal justice histories.  And so for two hours every week, the students, led by their professor, attempt to create a sense of community and equality between women clearly marked by deep political, economic and social distinctions.  Winner is giving what she has…knowledge, awareness, time, relationship.

The sharing of what we have to give and having enough to go around with leftovers is gospel truth.  (These ideas are from Tracey Lind, “Sally’s Feast,” Interrupted by God)  Jesus demonstrates this truth over and over again in His teachings, healings and feeding of all those He meets along the way.  Think about what Christ did with a boy’s simple lunch or what He teaches about the widow’s mite or the new life he brings to the lepers and the Samaritan woman at the well.  His encounters with people, where He gave whatever He had, are all examples of how our faith is lived.  When Jesus has us share what we have, we do so trusting that there is enough, in other words, that we can live with a mindset of abundance giving up any thoughts of scarcity.  The kicker is that Jesus always asks more of us than we think we have to give!  Isn’t more love always needed when our emotional tank is empty?  Aren’t there more tests to take when we are already exhausted?  Doesn’t someone always need groceries when the food pantry shelves are at their barest?  And aren’t utilities still being cut off when the Roger’s Fund has a $0.00 balance?  Even at those times, Jesus still says, “Offer what you have.  Offer your skills and weaknesses; offer your strength and fear; your burdens, challenges and responsibilities; your hopes, dreams and conviction; your past, present and future.  Offer it in my name and I will make it more than adequate.”

It is what Peter and John do.  They offer what they have and the lame man’s feet and ankles are made so strong that he doesn’t just walk, he leaps while praising God. This, of course, attracts attention and so the people crowd around Peter, who never misses a chance to preach.  He reminds them that they bear fault in the crucifixion of Jesus and must repent of it.  The response is better than any Billy Graham crusade.  Over 5,000 believe.

Now, I wish the story ended here so positively.  The story, however, ends with a reality that should be printed on the spine of every Bible.  Like a pack of cigarettes, it should read:  “WARNING:  Practicing the beliefs within are hazardous to your health.”  While Peter is preaching, the lame man clings to him, and the priests, captain of the Temple, and the Sadducees see the crowds gathering.  They listen to the preaching and they are ANNOYED…not baffled…not curious!  They are ANNOYED!  They are ANNOYED because the disciples are not just preaching; they are indicting the religious authorities for their part in Jesus’ death.  They are ANNOYED because Jesus will not go away.  They put Him on trial; they crucify Him; and they bury Him to put an end to the matter.  But here are His followers proclaiming Him as a hero.  And so, to put the fear of God into His disciples, the religious authorities arrest Peter and John and put them in jail.  They use the only thing they have to contain resurrection, but who can contain such power?  I believe this is ultimately why they are ANNOYED:  They are up against something the likes of which they have never seen before.

You see, resurrection is not only about the dead coming back to life, but resurrection is about the power to bring new life to all the failed places!  (Walter Brueggemann, “The Surge of Dangerous, Restless Power,” The Collected Sermons of Walter Brueggemann)  Resurrection is about a newness that lets full humanness come even into a world filled with disabilities.  Resurrection is a surging of power that touches all of life even now.  It is not just an ancient oddity.  Resurrection is power unleashed.  It is a generous alternative, a dangerous chance, and we are invited to be a part of this newness that God is now working on by offering what we have.  No more fear.  Instead, with hearts alive, our bodies, our families, and our communities have the ability to be restored, just like the lame man, as he jumps and leaps, sings and praises God.

When we went to Mt. Meru University in Tanzania, one of the things we were prepared to do was to administer oral HIV/Aids tests to those on campus and in the surrounding community.  Dan, who was in the fourth grade, was my partner, and he was privy to all the questions and answers that came with receiving a person’s sexual history.  They are questions that caused this pastor to blush with frequency. 

One Sunday, we took off to a church where we worshipped for the better part of a day and then had a few hours for the HIV tests.  The Massai made up the majority of this congregation.  They are proud warriors, but even proud warriors are put into exile from their village or are killed outright if they are infected with HIV.

We had been testing quite a while when a Massai warrior sat on the bench before us.  He was about 6’10”.  He carried a large stick, which I later learned is used to fight off lions.  He was wrapped in a red blanket with black stripes, and he wore beautiful bead work from his shoulders to his chin.  In spite of his majestic appearance, his anxiety was very evident.  Dan swabbed his mouth and I began the questions.  “Have you had sexual intercourse with multiple partners?”

“Since I married, only with my wife.”

Because this is a disease that does not respect marital status, I asked, “What about before you married?”

He grinned sheepishly, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Oh, well…”  And I began to understand why he was so worried!

By the time we finished, Dan was ready with his results.  He was absolutely clear.  When I told him, he had to see the swab to be convinced!  He jumped up off the bench and began to shout for joy.  It created such a commotion that the others looked and began to celebrate with him with laughter and clapping and more shouting.  He ran out of the hut and told his good news to every person waiting in line.  It is the closest I have ever come to what it must have been like that day in the Temple when the disciples, giving what they had, healed the lame man who jumped and shouted and praised God because of resurrection power.  It is a power that is ours to give and to receive.  Will you?

Jesus Is Not Make Believe

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor
Sunday, April 12, 2015

Acts 4:32-35; I John 1:1-2:2; John 20:19-31

My Lenten project this year was to create a new work space for Lloyd in our house. It involved cleaning out cabinets and consolidating furniture. I started several sorting piles: trash, give away, important, and things to ask Lloyd about. I was relieved when there was only one drawer remaining. In that last drawer, however, was a file whose edges were stuck between the joints of the drawer. When I finally freed the file, I recognized it as being from my father’s filing cabinet that had been my duty to dismantle some years back. The only thing I can figure is that I brought the file home and then promptly forgot all about it. Inside the file are letters that my mother wrote. Some date back to when I was four years old! You will understand why this file began a treasure pile when I remind you that my baby book does not even have my name written in it!

My Mother was notorious for writing family letters. Long before computers, she used carbon paper with ease, and so in triplicate form with single spaced block paragraphs, she wrote one page letters almost every Wednesday. She rotated the original copy among family members. Because we were all still living at home at the time of most of these letters’ writing, I realized immediately that these letters were copies of those she mailed to her mother in Montgomery and her brother in California. They are full of news about church events, WMU meetings, menus for meals, and, of course, stories about us.

When I was four, she wrote:
Sarah got a letter yesterday from a shoe factory wanting her to be a salesperson. I guess they got her name from all the entries the children filled out at the State Fair. Betty Lou said, “Let’s write and tell them, ‘Since I’m only four years old, I believe it will be best for me to learn how to read and write before peddling your product.’” Sarah said, “I just can’t go to school if I’m going to sell shoes.”

Then, when I was a freshman in college:
Sarah brought home a young man for Sunday lunch. He is the choir director of the Baptist Student Union choir on the University of Alabama’s campus. He was delightful. I told Sarah after lunch what a nice young man he was and her reply was, “Oh mother, he is much too religious for me!”

I admit that I have not read all the letters nor have I shared them with my siblings yet. I am debating with myself about if some of the events Momma relates are best left forgotten or at least that we are left unaware that she chose to share with our grandmother and uncle any stumble we may have made along our journey to maturity. It might be best to cling to the ways we choose to remember her. I have been surprised to find that there are just simply days where I can barely touch the letters so tender are my memories and how keenly her absence is felt still.

What has all of this to do with Thomas? Well, it may not have anything to do with him, but then again, it may have everything to do with Thomas! As followers of the lectionary, we come to this particular passage in John every single year on the second Sunday of Easter. It is one of the few stories, other than the birth and crucifixion narratives, that is included in every rotation of the lectionary. It is as familiar as the family Sunday pot roast, but it is also a powerful post-resurrection story in which Jesus appears not just once, but twice. An identifying statement of who Jesus is is made with definite clarity. It is a transitional story in which we see the disciples moving from behind locked doors of fear to being courageous enough to claim that Jesus is not only their Lord, but their God. It is like reading an old letter in which the events are imprinted on our memories, but about whom we know the individuals grow beyond their current stage of faith development that is now embarrassingly funny.

Frederick Buechner says that “we really can’t hear what the stories of the Bible are saying until we hear them as stories about ourselves. We have to imagine ourselves into them.” (“The Seeing Heart,” Secrets in the Dark) And so we are the prodigal returned home and barely able to breathe while held in the father’s strong embrace. We are the demoniac healed of the legions of identities that pull us in thousands of directions, so that at last, we are in our right minds when we sit in the presence of Jesus. We are the thief on the cross begging Jesus to remember us in paradise. And we are the disciples sitting behind locked doors announcing that we will have to see and touch His wounds for ourselves in order to believe.

Christian tradition has dubbed him “Doubting Thomas,” making him a kind of universal character with whom we identify. Theologian Serene Jones writes that “Thomas is the incredulous, nonbeliever who hides inside every believing Christian.” Scripture identifies Thomas as “the twin,” in which many find their entry into the story, because we know ourselves to be his companion twin in need of seeing and touching.

The story is set over two Sundays, Easter Sunday and this, the Second Sunday of Easter. On Easter Sunday, in John’s gospel, Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene after she arrives at the tomb. She leaves to tell Peter and John, who run to find the tomb empty. They do not encounter the risen Christ until later that evening when the disciples meet in secret. The room is full of shadows and longings, doubts and ambiguities. The door is bolted tightly because these men are petrified. They are afraid that the very ones who seized Jesus in the night will come and arrest them next. So with every sound they hear…the creak of the stair, the swaying of the trees, a child playing in the street, or the dog that barks from across the way, they flinch and question if what they hear is indeed the dreaded sound of footsteps that are coming to take them away to their doom. If they speak at all, it is almost too quiet to hear. The room is small and crowded. The air is acrid with the smell of perspiration and fear. (Buechner)

Suddenly, Jesus is there with them. He speaks the word they most need to hear, “Shalom.” “Peace.” In their shocked amazement, Jesus shows them what has been done to him. Remember, they were not present earlier to see His torture when it occurred. So in showing them His hands and His side, Jesus gives them the only proof that He has to assure them that He is real. At last, they recognize Him, and Jesus breathes on them.

Can we imagine ourselves into this part of the story, I wonder? When has fear put us in hiding? When has sorrow had us huddle with others in search of consolation? When has our disappointment been so great that we are immobile? At what times have we breathed in the breath of Christ in order to be restored? My intuition tells me that we may be closer to these disciples’ experiences than we realize. In our fear or sadness, our sorrow or disappointment, we too have breathed in Jesus so that we were inexplicably filled with courage and emboldened to do that which we thought was impossible…namely to believe!

The only disciple not there when Jesus appears is Thomas. We do not know why he is not with the others, but we do know that when he reunites with his fellow disciples, they all tell him in unison, “We have seen the Lord!”

Now Thomas is a pragmatist. He is not an automatic follower. He is not willing to take another’s word. He is literal-minded and wants to make his own decisions based on what he knows to be factual. And so when his friends tell him, “We have seen the Lord,” he does not put them down for their testimony, he simply says, “Well, for me to believe, I will have to see the scars for myself.” Thomas wants the same experience that the other disciples have already had.

What is amazing to me is that this same Lord, who previously refuses to perform miracles in order that others might believe, appears to the disciples again just eight days later for the sake of Thomas’ faith! Now it is disappointing to find the same disciples who have already experienced the glory of the risen Christ still meeting behind doors securely closed against the outside world, but it is consistent with who we know them to be! This time, however, Thomas is present and in an act of enormous kindness, Jesus shows Thomas His hands and feet. He encourages Thomas to use his finger to see the scars. This is how poet Denise Levertov imagines that encounter. Thomas is speaking.
…when my hand
led by His hand’s firm clasp
entered the unhealed wound,
my fingers encountering
rib-bone and pulsing heat,
what I felt was not
scalding pain, shame for my
obstinate need,
but light, light streaming
into me, over me, filling the room
as I had lived till then
in a cold cave, and now
coming forth for the first time,
the knot that bound me unraveling

The Biblical text does not ever say if Thomas actually touched Jesus. To be invited to the touching place all by itself is powerful enough, for think about how touch is used in Jesus’ healing ministry. He touches the eyes of the blind and they see. He touches the lame and they walk. He touches the demon possessed and they become whole in spirit. The woman with the issue of blood only has to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, and she is made well. So when Thomas is invited to touch Jesus’ wounds, what possibilities does it open up? Poet Kate McIhagga speaks of the healing possible in the world if we will continue to pursue Christ’s invitation to touch others with the reality of resurrection. Referring to all believers as Thomas, she says:
Put your hand, Thomas,
on the crawling head of a child
imprisoned in a cot in Romania.
Place your finger, Thomas,
on the list of those
who have disappeared in Chile.
Stroke the cheek, Thomas,
of the little girl
sold into prostitution in Thailand.
Touch, Thomas,
the gaping wounds of my world.
Feel, Thomas,
the primal wound of my people.
Reach out your hands, Thomas,
and place them at the side of the poor.
Grasp my hand, Thomas,
and believe,
when you feel me in the world’s pain
and in the world’s glory.

If Thomas does not actually touch Jesus, I wonder if he, then, is like me with my mother’s letters. Are the memories too tender…the grief of Christ’s absence too profound…the reality of all Jesus endured for our sakes too fresh? By seeing and being invited to touch, Thomas doesn’t have to take anyone’s word. Maybe, for the first time in his life, Thomas grasps the truth about Jesus and believes. Then Jesus asks Thomas, our twin, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” My guess is that Thomas believes not because of what his eyes see, but because of what his heart sees. (Buechner) He confesses, “My Lord and my God!”

The last thing Jesus says to His disciples that night is a beatitude. It is as if Jesus looks straight through Thomas and down the centuries to the believers and doubters yet to come and says: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” Upon hearing it, we know that, among others, He is referring to you and me, the twin siblings of Thomas. For like Thomas, we long for proof of Christ’s existence and validation for our faith. And while we may never touch His scars, we are likely to receive an occasional glimpse of His face on someone who loves us or in the expressed gratitude for a hot meal or the humble acknowledgement of being welcomed to Bible study instead of being turned away or the personal satisfaction that comes from knowing children we will never meet will have food to eat over a weekend or the thanksgiving of being allowed the privilege of being completely honest about personal identity. In these things, we see the risen Lord and touch others with His resurrection.

This overly familiar story calls us to remember the grace that God through Christ embodies not just to His disciples, but to us. To hear it almost feels like we are receiving a letter written long ago that brings forgotten events freshly to mind. It is like a letter that speaks of how Jesus will be in our midst no matter how much we doubt or are afraid. It is like a letter that invites us to examine the proof before our very eyes as God is present in the world and in others. It is like a letter that reminds us of our responsibility to touch others with the saving grace of faith. And it pronounces a blessing so that when we believe without seeing, without touching, without hearing, we are simply blessed for the faith we do have.

In February of 1961, my mother wrote:
At the Sunday dinner table, Sarah said: “You know what? Pop-eye is make believe. Bugs Bunny is make believe, and Quick Draw McGraw is make believe.” After a pause, I asked, “What’s not make believe?” and she said, “Jesus, Jesus is not make believe.”

It is the conclusion that Thomas came to after being presented with the scars on Jesus’ body. Jesus is not make believe. Jesus is real! If you can believe this without the benefit of seeing or touching, we invite you to respond to the good news of the gospel as we stand and sing the hymn of commitment, which is printed in your bulletin.

What a Friend

Palm Sunday

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; John 12:1-19

My tendency with scripture is to take the reading of the day and look ahead to the events to which it leads. Today’s reading certainly leads to big events. In fact, we could say that the events of Holy Week that begin with Palm Sunday and lead to Easter Sunday’s celebration are at the essential center of the Christian faith. It is even what today, Passion Sunday, demands of lectionary preachers, so that our congregants who skip straight from the excitement of a palm parade to resurrection day get exposed, however briefly, to the dark events of Holy Week. Today, however, I want to take a different approach. Instead of just looking forward, could we look at the events leading up to Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem? Specifically, how does the friendship between Jesus, Mary, Martha and Lazarus give substance to the actions of Jesus? I would suggest to us that a very tender human side of Jesus can be known if we pause to do this.

Jesus is friends with Mary, Martha and Lazarus who reside in Bethany, a community just outside of Jerusalem. Their home is the site of many meals and much conversation. It is in Luke’s gospel (10:38ff) where we read the familiar story about the banter between Mary and Martha. Interestingly, there is no mention of Lazarus, their brother, being present. It is just the two women who obviously have different gifts and priorities, but who are equally devoted to Jesus and desire to follow Him.

Just prior to the women’s domestic squabble, Jesus appoints 70 disciples to go into towns that He is about to enter. They are like the pre-revival team that works the crowd until Billy Graham arrives on the scene. And they do remarkable things! They heal, cast out demons, and even raise the dead. They bring the Kingdom of God ever close. In Mark’s gospel, upon the disciples’ return from their mission trip, Jesus tells them that they need to go to a lonely place in order to rest, but they are immediately interrupted. In Luke’s gospel, the interruption comes in the form of a lawyer seeking to know the greatest commandment, and Jesus’ answer is the story of the prodigal son. Then, suddenly, Jesus is at the home of Mary and Martha. I do not think is by chance.

I wonder if the Bethany house is the only place where Jesus could find personal comfort. When He went there, did it feel like the prodigal father’s welcome—one where your arrival is always being watched for in order that you are greeted with open arms? Was Martha frying up some chicken, baking yeast rolls, and brewing sweet tea? Was this the only house in which there was enough space for Jesus to be completely human and completely divine with Mary feeding her eternal soul while Martha fed His mortal body? Was this home the only place where others would deal honestly with Jesus…treating Him as a real friend and not the Son of God by saying exactly what was on their mind, for Martha quips: “Lord, don’t you care that I am doing all the work? Tell my sister Mary to get up off her lazy self and help me!”

Then we come to John’s gospel that has almost two chapters of Mary and Martha stories. Chapter 11 introduces Lazarus, and he is ill. The sisters send word to Jesus that “the one you love” is ill. To return to a geographical area that is so close to Jerusalem, however, is not wise for Jesus at this time. He so angered the Jews while standing in the Temple that they took up stones to put Him to death. They accuse Him of blasphemy, try to arrest him, but He escapes. These threats, coupled with a lack of urgency in Mary and Martha’s message—for there is nothing recorded like “Lazarus has been put in intensive care,” or “Hospice has been called,” or “We are taking him off the ventilator,” Jesus delays going to Bethany. By the time He arrives, Lazarus is not only dead; he has been in his tomb for four days. This is an important detail because the Jews believed that a soul hovers over the deceased’s body for three days. By the fourth day, the soul leaves. In other words, Lazarus is not just a little dead. There is no longer any danger that he is in a coma or has fallen asleep. No, Lazarus is so dead that the King James says “his body stinketh!”

Once again, Martha and then Mary are quick to meet Jesus with the reality of their emotions. Separate of one another, they both say the same thing: “If you had only been here, my brother would not have died.” The Scripture says that when Jesus saw Mary and those with her weeping that “He was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” While these are the words that we read, the Greek expresses a more visceral response. Literally, Jesus snorts. His bowels turn over inside of Him while outwardly He weeps. The others are wailing, but the tears of Jesus are quietly rolling down his cheeks while he attempts to keep his bodily functions in check. He is sad about Lazarus, yes, but he is also grieving that those assembled have given up. The finality with which they view this situation informs Jesus that even those who love him do not always get it. Even those who say that they believe, do not understand that Jesus really is the “resurrection and the life.” It never occurs to any of those present that Jesus may have come to say “hello” to Lazarus rather than “goodbye.” (Taylor, “The Dress Rehearsal”)

It seems to me that this is often true in our personal circumstances. Think of the times we have chosen death over life; the times we have heard the voice of Jesus calling us to make different choices, to rely on our faith, to receive encouragement from the community of saints; to walk out of the tomb, set free from what binds us and experience the grace of God. Instead, we fear the presence of Jesus at our dead places, because we suspect He has come to judge and condemn us. His presence at Lazarus’ tomb, however, speaks to us of new life, second chances, and promise fulfilled. So when we turn our backs on these possibilities, when we choose to remain in the dead places, the tears of Jesus flow.

My instincts tell me that the tears of Jesus are for the whole world. They are tears so full of anger and sadness that it is hard to tell where one emotion leaves off and the others begin. He weeps tears for his friends Martha and Mary in their grief; tears over the personal loss of his friend Lazarus; tears about the frailty of life and the randomness with which it is often snuffed out; tears that no one seems to understand what He is about, much less believe it; tears over the enormity of what He has been given to do and how alone He is in doing it. (Barbara Brown Taylor, “Without a Net,” Mixed Blessings)

And so, with the intensity of a woman who screams during childbirth, Jesus calls: “Lazarus, come out!” (Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dress Rehearsal,” Teaching Sermons on Suffering) It is so loud that it literally wakes the dead! Lazarus is wrenched away from the bosom of Abraham. There is no more glory, no more music from the celestial choir, no more glare from the shine off the streets of gold! What must it feel like to be asked to give Heaven back? What would it mean to come back to his human existence? How far had Lazarus traveled along the heavenly way of clarity, truth and reality in those four days? How transformed had he become as eternity separated his soul from the prison of blood, bone and brain? (Suzanne Guthrie, “Back to Life,” Christian Century, March 8, 2005)

I choose to believe that Lazarus had a choice at this point and incredibly, his loyal friendship moves him to give up eternal bliss in order to come back to change places with his friend, Jesus. Lazarus crawls back through the dark tunnel of transformation toward the sound of that voice and emerges, blinking and stumbling, into the light of day with the full recognition that he would have to experience death all over again. (Taylor, “The Dress Rehearsal”)

This brings us finally to today’s text. It is only a few days after Lazarus’ resurrection, and six days before Passover. Pilgrims are flooding to Jerusalem and among them is one Jesus of Nazareth. He comes to Bethany where Martha is, of course, cooking and Mary is acting out her spirituality by anointing Jesus with expensive perfume and then wiping his feet with her hair. It is an extremely intimate act done in a public setting, and Judas, for one, is indignant over such a display. Like any good chairman of a Ministries Committee, he asks why the money used to buy the perfume isn’t used instead to care for the poor which, of course, deflects from the act of adoration.

It is mentioned, almost in passing, that Lazarus is one of those at the table with Jesus. It frustrates me that Lazarus does not say anything in scripture. He appears to always be in the background. So if you will continue to allow me my imaginings, I can’t help but wonder if Jesus didn’t take Lazarus aside to ask: “What can you tell me? This dying thing, what is it like? Is there really a bright light or is there only a dark tunnel? Will I know my loved ones? Does it hurt to die? Will it be worth it in the end?”

One last time, Jesus stops at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus before he has to face the last week of His life. Were His farewells slightly longer, more tender, coded with words of love and friendship? Did He fill His emotional tank with the certainty of their loyal devotion? In the entire world, were these the three whose love lent Him the courage to finish His mission? Because they “got it” did it make it easier to face all those who did not have a clue?

You see, the same crowd of Jews that had been present to see Lazarus walk out of the tomb, also heard that Jesus was in town. They decide to put both Lazarus and Jesus to death, because too many Jews believe in Jesus. In their words, the crowds are making a stampede to get to Jesus, and if the next day is any indicator, they are right.

Word spread quickly that Jesus was coming into Jerusalem, and so the pilgrims line the streets waving palms, waiting with anticipation. In John’s gospel, there is no repartee about how to select a donkey. Jesus just gets on one and rides into Jerusalem. It is a disappointing sight. The Jews expect a Messiah—a Savior—a powerful figure who will take a stand against the Romans who have been in control for 100 years. The Jews are tired of being a subjected people, and they long for an anointed King to rise up and re-establish Israel’s glory days. To make matters worse, most of the Jewish leaders are pawns in the Roman’s pockets. They collect Roman taxes from their own people while turning a blind eye to the injustices occurring. Neither the Romans nor the Jewish leaders have any desire for the status quo to change, and so they keep their eyes on this Jesus of Nazareth, this King of Israel, that rides into Jerusalem in the name of the Lord.

His entrance on a donkey put Jesus at eye level with those who greet Him with hosannas. It is yet one more message to the star struck crowd that Jesus has no desire to be high and mighty, but that He is in this mix we call life as one with us. And so he rides an agricultural tool not a weapon of war. Jesus approaches the city from the east, down the Mount of Olives, while from the west, the Roman governor Pontus Pilate, leads a procession of imperial cavalry and soldiers. He is probably mounted on a powerful steed with an observation vantage of being high and lifted up. Pilate looks more like a messiah than Jesus. The two of them are on a collision course of massive proportion.

If the parade of palms is not enough, Jesus, on Monday, goes to the Temple, turns over the tables and then accuses that the House of Prayer is now a hideout for crooks. The chief priests determine to destroy Him. On Tuesday, there is an open debate between Jesus, the Pharisees, and the supporters of Herod. Jesus tells them to “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to give to God what belongs to God,” and they are overcome with wonder. By Wednesday, the authorities realize that they should delay Jesus’ arrest, because there is too much popular support. They do not want to incite riots. Judas Iscariot, however, promises to give Jesus up to the Chief Priest for a reward. On Thursday, Jesus assembles the disciples in an upper room. He washes their feet. He breaks the bread. He shares a cup. They sing a hymn and go to Gethsemane to pray. He is arrested there; put on trial before the Jewish leaders, and then the Romans, for only the Romans possess the authority to execute. And on Friday, Jesus is crucified. Darkness descends. The curtain covering the Holy of Holies in the Temple mysteriously rips down the middle, and Jesus’ body is taken to a tomb that is sealed shut by an enormous boulder.

Why must it end this way? There is certainly truth in knowing that sometimes we have to stretch and risk and go where we have never gone before. We recognize that this is true of Jesus’ calling, and of ours. Sometimes we have to put our faith on the line even if it means that there is a cross in our near future.

But I think there is something more personal here, especially in light of Jesus’ relationship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. They are His friends. He loves them, and in order to experience all of eternity with them, He must die to make it so. Perhaps it is what He means when He says, “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

In the novel, The Soldier’s Return, by Melvynn Bragg, the story of a soldier named Sam is told. It is the Second World War and hundreds of soldiers gather in a large clearing to rest after several hard days of fighting. They are smoking, repacking their gear, swapping stories and cleaning their equipment. They are reorganizing to return to battle. Sam is sitting with his friend Ian who, by too casually cleaning a grenade, accidentally pulls the pin out before removing the fuse. So all of a sudden, he has a count of five before the grenade blows up. There is nowhere to throw the grenade without killing many, and so Ian, throws himself to the ground, flattens his body over the grenade and takes into himself the full blast in order to save his friends.

This is what Jesus does. He takes into Himself the full blast of our human folly and failure because He loves us so. He did it for you. He did it for me. And He did it for Mary, Martha and Lazarus, His friends.

Perhaps you wish to have such a friend. If so, please respond as we stand and sing #183, “I’ve Found a Friend.”

A Forgetful God

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

from Sunday, March 22, 2015

Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 5:5-10; John 12:20-36

She had been in skilled care just long enough to be wheelchair bound.  She had begun that curled over posture since the last time I visited.  This once vibrant person, a teacher with a Ph.D., was slowly diminishing right before my eyes.  Her children phoned:  “Momma doesn’t know us anymore,” they said.  “We won’t be back to visit until the funeral.”  And so I went to visit.  I knew it wasn’t enough, but just shy of the miraculous, it was the best I could do.  (While not one visit in particular, this story is based on a combination of visits with a variety of persons.)

It turns out that she did not know me either, but she nodded in the affirmative when I asked if I could read scripture.  She responded appropriately when I prayed.  Then, I babbled on and on about events at church, the weather, the pictures of her children on the bedside table.  She almost sighed with the boring confusion of one-sided conversation.  So I finally just sat still.  I reached to hold her hand, but remained silent.  (Pause)  She cut her eyes at me.  Slowly, she lifted my hand to her lips and kissed it.  Then she said, “I don’t know who you are, but I know that I love you.”

The Jews have a Midrash—a story—for Yom Kippur that invites us to imagine God as an aging woman.  (Margaret Wenig, “God Is a Woman and She is Growing Older,” Pulpit Digest, March/April, 1992)  It reads, in part:

Sarah Shelton:  God is a woman, and she is growing older.

Don Sandley:  She moves more slowly now;

Barry Austin:  she cannot stand erect;

Lynette Sandley:  her hair is thinning;

Don Sandley:  :  her face is lined;

Lynette Sandley: her smile no longer innocent;

Barry Austin: her voice is scratchy;

Don Sandley: her eyes are tired;

Barry Austin: sometimes she has to strain to hear. 

Sarah Shelton:  God is a woman, and she is growing older.

God sits down in her kitchen alone.  She opens the Book of Memories on her table and begins turning the pages and God remembers.

Lynette Sandley: There is the world when it was new and humanity when it was young…”

Sarah Shelton: She turns each page of the book.  She smiles, as she sees before her all the beautiful colors of our skin and all the varied shapes and sizes of our bodies.  She marvels at our accomplishments:  the music we have written and sung, the gardens we have planted, the skyscrapers we have built, the stories we have told and the ideas we have spun.

Lynette Sandley:  They now can fly faster than the winds I send, and they sail across the waters that I gathered into seas.  They even visit the moon that I set in the sky.  But…they rarely visit me.

Sarah Shelton:  God is lonely.  She longs for her children.  “Come home,” she wants to say to us.  “Come home.”  But she won’t…she won’t even call because she is afraid that we will say “no.”

Barry Austin:  We are so busy.

Lynette Sandley:  We’d love to see you, but we just can’t come.

Don Sandley:  Not tonight.  Not now.  Too much work to do.

Barry Austin: Sorry, Mom.  Sorry, God, I just have too many other responsibilities to juggle.

Sarah Shelton:  Even if we don’t realize it, God knows that our busy-ness is just an excuse.  She knows that we avoid returning to her because we do not want to look into her age-worn face.

Don Sandley:  It’s hard for me to face God.  She doesn’t look the way she looked when we were children.

Barry Austin:  It’s hard for me to face God.  She disappointed me.  She did not give me everything I asked for.  She did not defend me against my foes.  She did not make me triumphant in battle or successful in business or invincible when faced with pain.

Lynette Sandley:  I’m not going home in order to protect myself from her disappointment in me.  Her disapproval was always just beneath the surface.  And I don’t want her to see the disappointment in my eyes of Her.

Sarah Shelton:  Oh, God knows that disappointment, failure and disloyalty define our relationship, but God desires a new beginning defined by God’s love written on our hearts.  In spite of everything, God would have us come home anyway.

This seems to be where God and the Israelites find themselves.

Like other prophets before him, Jeremiah has spent ample shrill time and energy on the claim that Israel has systematically violated the covenant made at Mt. Sinai.  God employs some tender images to describe Her dashed hopes for the relationship with Israel.  God says that She led them by Her hand, like a parent does with their children.  And that God considers their relationship to be like a married couple’s bound by holy vows and characterized by fidelity and mutuality. But Israel ignores the Ten Commandments.  Their economic policies abuse the poor; their foreign policy depends on arms; their worship practices offend God; and they live with personal illusions of privilege and grandeur.  (Have we come very far?)  Completely exhausted by the recalcitrant children of Israel, God enacts severe sanctions.  Thus, Jerusalem is conquered.  The Temple is destroyed and the leading residents of Israel are deported to Babylon in shame, defeat and fear.  (Walter Brueggemann, “ON Scripture,” October 30, 2011)  In bewilderment and humiliation, the Israelites sit beside the waters of Babylon and find that they cannot sing their old songs in a new land.  They weep and grieve, just as we do when relationships are so broken that home is no more and family restoration appears to be impossible.

Jeremiah is clear that the peoples’ disobedience to the Sinai covenant is why they are experiencing their current hardships.  The communal guilt is so heavy; we wonder how any of them can bear up under it.  It is in the midst of this despair that God decides to give a genuine new beginning.  This starting over is characterized not only by forgiveness but by forgetfulness…real forgetfulness…moving our sins as far as the East is from the West…never brought to mind again.

My earliest remembrances of forgiveness-that-also-forgets center around my mother.  I have told you before that when I willfully hid the iron tonic, she defended my disobedience by telling my brother to quit hoping for my punishment.  She followed it up with that infamous statement that I was as good as gold!  She not only forgave me, but she forgot the incident.  Not so much my siblings, but my mother, yes!

Another time, my parents employed a church member to be my baby sitter.  Her name was Mrs. Godwin and her apartment was located just above where Zydeco’s currently exists.  Mrs. Godwin was prone to generous applications of ruby red lipstick, and I discovered that her care for me, while babysitting, consisted of kissing me each time I happened by.  There was no game playing, no book reading, not even coloring in a coloring book—just kisses that made me look like I had hives.  So, the second time she came to our house, I was not very cooperative.  In fact, I was downright mean and difficult.  (I know it is hard to believe, but I really can be that way!)  So when my parents came home, Mrs. Godwin, with me in tow, commenced to list all of my iniquities.  My parents listened.  They nodded sympathetically.  I could feel the shame rising up in me, a wretched child who had dishonored my family with willful disobedience!  When Mrs. Godwin finally finished, my father drove her home…but not before we exchanged kisses all around!  My mother and I stood in the driveway watching them pull away.  I steeled myself for what was coming.  My mother eyed me from the soles of my feet to the top of my head until finally, she put her arm around my shoulders and said, “You are too old for a babysitter anyway.”  And that was that.  Over.  Forgiven.  Forgotten.  And to be honest, her ready trust in me grew within my heart an inclination to act in such a way that this trust was not purposefully broken again.

When the Greeks came to see Jesus, Jesus resorts to a quick parable.  “A grain of wheat cannot grow unless it dies.”  He is referring to His own death, of course, but is it too far removed from what God proposes through Jeremiah?  …of what Jesus speaks to Nicodemus?  …and of what Jesus enacts on the cross?  The seed cracks open to send up a shoot that matures into wheat.  Does the stalk of wheat go back in the seed pod?  Does it keep an ongoing list of debts that must be repaid OR does it shed the pod, and grow to maturity leaving the pod behind forever?  Isn’t this a picture of what God does to bring us close for reconciliation?  The old stuff is left behind and the new growth matures into wholeness.  What if we could do this not only in our relationship with God but in our relationship with one another?  What if we left the hard core resentments, bitterness and grudges behind—forgiven and forgotten—might we, then, at last, be able to grow into wholeness?  Here, God is promising to crack open our closed lives with light and air!  Here, God is promising to crack open our hard hearts with forgiveness!  Here, God is promising to be purposefully forgetful in order that we might belong wholly and completely to God.

It is not such a far stretch from the old lonesome mother-God in the kitchen after all.  For imagine what might happen if we finally broke down and went to visit.

Don Sandley:  I’m afraid of what she might say!

Barry Austin:  What if we don’t have enough to talk about?

Lynette Sandley:  Come in!  Come in!  Let me pour some tea!

Sarah Shelton:  She has been alone so long that there is much she wants to say to us, but we barely allow her to get a word in edgewise.  We fill up an hour with chatter.  Finally, she touches her finger to her lips.

Lynette Sandley:  Shh.  Be still.  Shhhh.  Let me have a good look at you.

Sarah Shelton:  And she looks.  In a single glance, God sees us both newly born and as dying; coughing and crying; turning our head to root for her breast and fearful of the unknown realm that lies ahead.  In a single glance, she sees our birth and our death and all the years in between.

Barry Austin:  God sees me when I was young.  How I idolized her!  I trustingly followed her anywhere.  My scrapes and scratches healed quickly because of her kisses.  She was there when I was filled with the wonder of hitting a baseball, riding my bike, wearing my first suit, and getting my driver’s license.  God sees me as I was when I was young, when I thought there was nothing I could not do.

Don Sandley:  God sees me in my middle years:  when my energy was unlimited, when I kept house, cooked, cleaned, cared for the children AND held down a job and volunteered when others needed us.  There was no time for sleep then.

Lynette Sandley:  And God sees me in my later years; when I no longer feel so needed.  Chaos has disrupted the bodily rhythms on which I have relied, and God sees me sleeping alone in a room that once slept two.

Sarah Shelton:  God sees things about us even we have forgotten and things we do not yet know.  For nothing is hidden from God’s sight.  When she is finished looking at us, she asks how we really are.  This increases our anxiety for do we really want to open our mouths and tell Mother everything?  …who we love, where we hurt, the dreams that fell to the wayside …what we have broken…what got lost.  If we tell her these things, we will begin to cry.  It is time to change the subject!

Don Sandley:  I’m sorry that I…

Lynette Sandley:  That’s all right.  I forgive you.

Barry Austin:  I didn’t mean to…

Lynette Sandley:  I know that, I do.

Don Sandley:  I was so angry that you hit me!

Lynette Sandley:  I’m sorry that I ever hurt you, but you would not listen to me!

Don Sandley:  You are right.  I would not listen.  I should have.  I know that now, but at the time, I had to do it my own way.

Lynette Sandley:  I know.  I know.

Barry Austin:  I never could live up to your expectations.

Lynette Sandley:  And I always believed you could do anything.

Sarah Shelton:  At last, there are no more words.  No more words to say or hear and God begins to hummmmmmmm.  Hearing her, we are transported back to a time before memory:  when our fever would not break and we could not sleep.  When we were exhausted from crying but unable to stop and she picked us up.  We remember…she picked us up and held us against her bosom and supported our head in the palm of her hand.  She walked with us.  We could feel her heart beating and hear the hum from her throat.  (A tune is hummed for a brief time.)

Lynette Sandley:    You will always be my child.  Do not be afraid.

Sarah Shelton:  It has been a good visit.  But before we leave, it is our turn to look at her.  Time has marked her face, but it is not frail.  It is wise.  God knows all those things that the passage of time teaches:  that we can survive the loss of a love; that we can feel secure even in the midst of an ever changing world; that there can be dignity in being alive even when every bone aches.

Then God reaches for our hand.  She tenderly brings it to her lips and kisses it in such a way that our thoughts are confirmed:  God remembers a lot, but God has purposefully forgotten our sins in order to place a loving relationship in our hearts. 

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Lifted High

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

on Sunday, March 15, 2015

Numbers 21:4-9; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

In her book, The Preaching Life, Barbara Brown Taylor tells:

One evening, my mother missed me in the house and found me [outside] calling “Nino!” at the top of my lungs.  No one knew who Nino was, least of all me, but for some time I called him every day at dusk, singing his name across the dark field with the west wind in my hair and the setting sun at my back.  He was not an imaginary playmate, apparently, because he never answered my call.  I played alone during the days that I called him at night…We are born seekers, calling strange names into the darkness from our earliest days because we know we are not meant to be alone and because we know that we await someone who we cannot always see.  (p. 13-14, The Preaching Life)

I am wondering if this is what had Nicodemus coming to find Jesus in the night.  Was he calling into the dark a name for someone he could not see but knew was there? 

Perhaps Nicodemus had been present earlier that day when Jesus overturned the moneychangers’ tables and then predicted the destruction of the Temple.  He was a Pharisee, after all.  He knew all about the Temple and how it was believed that God resided within its Holy of Holies.  He knew all about God and God’s laws.  But on that night, was his faith at such a critical point that he, like a child scared of the dark, needed to see and experience a God who had on skin?  …God in the flesh…walking and talking…promising salvation, not judgment and condemnation.  Like the others gathered in Jerusalem to remember the exodus from Egyptian bondage and all of its accompanying signs and wonders with a Passover feast, was Nicodemus looking for release from his personal bondage of sin and sorrow and so he came to Jesus, under the protective cover of night, seeking answers to the riddles of sin and salvation that plagued his heart?

For whom do we cry in the darkness?  What nags at our souls pushing us to seek faith and forgiveness?

In the beginning with Genesis all the way to the last Revelation, we encounter story after story of the human struggle with sin or that which separates us from being in relationship with God.  Now, I just did what preachers are often guilty of.  Namely, I said the word “sin,” and immediately softened it.  We much prefer to hear “poor decision” or “misstep” or “mistake,” even “transgression,” rather than “sin.”  Moderates are much more inclined NOT to use the word “sin” at all and go instead straight to grace.  It is so much easier, not to mention less painful, to rely on God’s forgiveness of our sins than it is to believe that God might be more inclined to support us in stopping them altogether!  (Barbara Brown Taylor, Speaking of Sin, p. 5)

The very first story about Adam and Eve in the garden gives us an archetype for how sin enters the picture.  It ssslides into our lives as sssneakily as a ssssnake and ssssteals away our innocencccce.

+You discover your father’s loose change on the desk and slip a quarter in your pocket.

+You sneak peeks at the magazine stuffed under your sibling’s mattress.

+The taste of that first beer shared with peers around a campfire.

+The door ajar that provides opportunity for free admission.

To think of these things as sin, not as developmental rites of passage, makes us so uncomfortable that we get busy downsizing all the activities previous generations have called sin:  suicide, divorce, addiction; cohabitation, giving birth without marriage.  Lying is now considered to be “spin,” “greed” is “motivation,” and sarcastic disrespect is considered fashionable humor.  Sexual relations before marriage are so routine that virginal brides and grooms are as rare as comets.  “What is to be gained from condemning such things,” we ask?  “People are going to do them anyway!  Why not respect the individual’s freedom to choose since it is the individual who has to bear the consequences of their actions?”  (Taylor)

Scripture meddles further by dealing with sin that is far beyond the individual realm.  There are sins so endemic to certain places that they are called the sins of Sodom and Gomorrah, Ninevah and Judah.  There are specific sexual sins, such as Amnon’s rape of Tamar (II Samuel 13), or David’s affair with Bathsheba (II Samuel 11), and there are also the sins of the rich against the poor (Amos 4:1), as well as those who have more faith in military might (Amos 3:11) than they do in God.  (Taylor, p. 48)

The Israelites fall prey to sin in today’s passage from Numbers.  The first 25 chapters of the book of Numbers recount incident after incident of the Israelites’ encounters with hardship.  In each case, they throw up their hands in despair and pine for the known days in Egypt even if they were miserable and in bondage.  The commentators refer to the collective whole of these stories as “the murmuring stories.”  The Israelites’ long lists of complaints include the lack of food and water, the monotony of eating manna day after day and the ineffective leadership of Moses and Aaron.  In all fairness, the Israelites do not usually complain directly against God, but in today’s text, they do.  This may explain why this is the last of the murmuring stories.  Complaining against Moses and Aaron is one thing, but to complain against God is something else altogether.  Complaints against God bring consequences.  So in response to their murmurings, God sends poisonous snakes as a judgment against the people.  And these snakes not only bite, they kill.

Can’t you just hear those Israelites?

We’re tired of manna.  And God sends a snake!

There’s no fresh water.  And God sends a snake!

Just who does Moses think he is?  And God sends a snake!

The choir is singing in Latin again!

The pew upholstery is ripping!

I got pan handled in the parking lot!

There are typos in the bulletin!

Need I go on or shall God send a snake?!

Now most Old Testament scholars protect their reputations by ignoring this story, because it presents an image of God that is unsettling.  Who wants to believe that God zaps us with snakes?  I, on the other hand, enjoy its drama.  Like Harrison Ford in an Indiana Jones movie, imagine standing on the desert sands with snakes coiling at our feet, crawling inside our pants leg, winding around our necks, sinking fiery fangs into our flesh!!  These serpents literally bite the people into their senses.  Being brought close to death, the Israelites remember how much they appreciate the gift of life.  They are shocked into recognizing that they owe much to God and to Moses.  They are poisoned into their senses.  So they apologize to Moses.  They admit that they are sorry sinners.  And then, they plead with Moses, “Please intercede for us and ask God to call off these snakes.”  (Will Willimon, Pulpit Resource, March 2006)

So Moses prays on their behalf, but God will not remove the snakes.  The slithering ones, the death dealing and the life giving ones, the good and the bad snakes…they all belong to God and God chooses to leave them among the Israelites as a reminder of who is God and who is not, thus making the double-edged side of God’s character obvious.  God is serious about the people’s need to have faith in the fulfillment of divine promise no matter how long it takes to deliver it.  So when the fulfillment of promise is long overdue; when our faith falters; when we rail at God; when we can determine what is better for us than God can; when we whine and grouse and stomp around to get our way; when we murmur…there are consequences.  God sends a snake.  And YET, God cannot seem to withhold graciousness either, for God provides a way for healing as well.

God tells Moses to create a brass serpent and put it on a pole so that the people might look at it in order to be healed.  Can you imagine walking around, in public, with a pole that has affixed to it some visible reminder of your sin?  What if for the remaining days of Lent, we posted the death dealing serpents that are coiled tightly in our hearts and lifted them up on a stick, carrying it before us in the light of day for all to see?  Would it save us from speaking with sarcasm and cruelty?  Would it save us from the lure of just “one more for the road?”  Would it save us from the escape that pills in the medicine cabinet provide?  Would it save us from the lies that we live because they so easily slip from our lips?  …from the grudges we constantly massage?  …the grief that excuses us from personal responsibility?  …the boundaries that are no longer healthy but are instead rigid and brittle?  Take your pick.  Create your own.  Believe me, the bite of a snake is nothing compared to the ways we bite and devour one another.

So when Jesus references this story of snakes in the wilderness to Nicodemus, Jesus is saying that this is His purpose too.  He has come—the Son of Man, this Holy one of God, this Messiah—He has come to be lifted up for everyone to see.  He will hang there, in the light of day, to represent and die for our sin.  Why?  …Because God loves us.  God can’t stand for anything to be in the way of our relationship and so, out of love for the whole world, God lifts Jesus up as the saving remedy for our sin.

And there stands Nicodemus, in the dark, his face contorted with the confusion that overwhelms him after hearing Jesus’ words.  This conversation with Jesus is not religious rhetoric nor is it conversational phlegm that he can wipe away later.  This is truth, but it is truth bound up in mystery.  From the same God who sent serpents in the desert, there is now birth a second time; wind blowing where it will; Spirit; eternity; darkness; light; and perhaps most confusing of all, love, not judgment and condemnation by the law that Nicodemus has spent a lifetime learning…but love.  In the presence of such mystery, no wonder Nicodemus remarks, “How can this be?”

Few of us are comfortable with mystery.  We check the Weather Channel to verify that the unusual gusts of wind outside are only due to a cold front approaching from the north.  While Jesus may say that the wind comes at will, we know better.  We have solved this mystery!  We have also solved the mystery of birth.  No longer do we guess at the baby’s gender, we have an ultrasound and the mystery is solved.  The phone rings, and rather than wonder who it is, we check caller id.  Mystery solved!  We set appointments, save for retirement, plan itineraries…but have you heard that expression “when we plan, God laughs?”  God laughs because God would rather invite us to mystery.

So imagine yourself standing there in the dark with Nicodemus listening as Jesus recalls familiar stories of your faith ancestors, recounts the promises of God and then, out of the blue, offers something completely unfamiliar and confusing.  Like the snakes in the wilderness, Jesus will also be lifted up on a pole, willingly giving His life for all the world to see our sin—our gluttony, our swearing, our dishonesty, our indiscretions, our gambling, our empty bottles, our anger…you keep that list running in your head…OUR SIN…in order that we might be saved.  And with our heads hanging in shame along with Nicodemus, we ask, “How can this be?”

Without rejection, without judgment, without condemnation, Jesus encourages and beckons us to keep looking, to keep growing, to keep calling into the dark with the wind in our faces until we are convinced of God’s love not just for us, but for the whole world…the whole world…so that we might be saved.  It is by grace that we have been saved.  It is not our own doing.  Our salvation is God’s gift.

In a previous church, the staff took turns about twice a year to meet with the church’s children.  Our purpose was to present the plan of salvation.  We tried a variety of activities to make mystery understandable.  We stacked large cardboard boxes with sins attached to each one.  Once the wall was built, one child, designated as Jesus, would come busting through to demonstrate how sin was conquered.  I found that the children enjoyed being a super hero more than thinking of Jesus, so I came up with another teaching technique.  Instead, I came with small gifts for each child.  I asked, “This gift was selected with you in mind.  See, it has your name on it!  Now, what do you have to do to make it yours?”  “You have to receive it, that’s right!”  And I would hand them a gift.  They opened it and inside was a note that read:  “I love you, God.”

I’m offering that same gift today.  If you would like to make it yours, respond as we stand and sing, “Lift High the Cross,” #594.