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!

Just Because of Who You Are

The 2016 State of the Church Address 
A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

On Sunday, January 24, 2016

Psalm 19; I Corinthians 12:12-31a: Luke 4:14-21

His mother called to set the appointment. It seems that he had been working on his “God and Family” badge for Scouts, and he needed the pastor to sign off on his work. So we sat in my study as he presented his project with the finesse of a corporate partner making a pitch to a prospective client. He was equipped to answer my questions as we went through his scout booklet page by page. On page 4, he had listed those in his family he knew he could trust. The names there were no surprise: my mother, my father, my brother. But on the next page, another list was asked for: “Besides your parents, who are the people you can depend on?” I expected to see the names of grandparents or aunts and uncles, but this list consisted of names from another family: Pastor Sarah, Pastor Valerie, Dan and Sherrie, and my Sunday School Teachers. I was touched. I was moved, and because I am not sure that I have ever spent any significant amount of time with this child, I began to wonder: How is the trust of a third grader won? Perhaps it happens just because of who we are.

These thoughts were confirmed by a letter I received over the holidays. The back story is that one of the children raised in this church, grew up and moved away. They went to work one day and upon returning home, found that everything in the house was stolen. Uninsured, they not only needed replacements, they were also facing start-up fees for all utilities because they wanted to move to a safer neighborhood. Upon hearing about it, I felt that Bill and Marie Rogers would certainly do something if they were still among us, so I tapped into our Benevolence Fund and sent a check. It wasn’t much, but it could support a small run to Wal-Mart or make a deposit at one of the utility companies. And so I received a note written to all of you. It says in part:

Thank you so much for your support in my time of need. It is an amazing feeling to be hundreds of miles away and still get a metaphorical hug from my church family. After the robbery, I owned nothing, but I was able to start to rebuild thanks to Baptist Church of the Covenant. Thank you for your continual support in my life …and for living the words of Christ; not just preaching them.

When you give to the Bill and Marie Rogers’ Benevolence Fund, I doubt that you think very long or hard about where that money goes or whose life might be touched or how that gift speaks to others about the love of Jesus. You give without question just because of who you are.

At our annual Bread for the World worship service, we happened to have many guests in attendance. Not only did they hear about our commitment to address issues of justice in our nation’s capital, but they heard the chairs of our Ministries Committee talk about the variety of community ministries in which we, as a congregation, participate, and our long standing desire to hire additional staff whose responsibility would be ministries.

After the service, one of these guests approached me. We both grew up at Southside Baptist Church, and it felt good to re-connect. Before leaving, he gave me his business card and said that I should call. “Let’s go to lunch,” he said. “I have something I would like to talk over with you.”

So we met. For an hour and a half, we talked about our fathers and their friendship. We talked about growing up at Southside, and what we have been doing since those days. Then he asked about our church’s history. And so I told him of our beginnings. I even went so far as to say that as a fledgling congregation, we had not had the support of Southside’s pastor, one J. Lamar Jackson (better known to me as “Dad”). We laughed about the irony of my being your pastor now and how things often come full circle. Then, he said, “Maybe I can be of help too.” In three minutes or less, he told me that only twice in his life has he recognized the call of God. One was in the church he currently attends, and the other was in our sanctuary on Bread for the World Sunday. He said:

I would like to make three matching gifts to Baptist Church of the Covenant for the purpose of hiring a Minister of Ministries. No reports or heavy accountability required. This will be a personal gift from me. My offer is $15,000 in year one, declining to $10,000 in year two and $5,000 in year three. Hopefully, you can find an energetic individual who sees $30,000 as an acceptable starting salary and BCOC can prove to itself that the person and the role are worth supporting. … Obviously, accepting this gift is an act of faith in yourselves as well as in God, and from what I saw on my one Sunday in attendance, there is faith in abundance at BCOC.

While I would like to remain anonymous, I hope you can reveal that these gifts come from a friend who grew up with you at Southside and who hopes that the proximity that created ill will in the beginning can now be capitalized on through cooperation in ministry and in the furtherance of God’s Kingdom.

No strings attached just cooperation. No accountability just ministry. No judgment just the furtherance of God’s Kingdom. A gift. A gift given just because of who you are.

These stories are evidence of the remarkable years Covenant has already experienced. They prime us for even greater things in 2016. If I have learned nothing else in my tenure as your pastor, I have learned that the Spirit moves in surprising ways. Spirit rarely moves when I expect it OR when I try to coerce it. No, Spirit comes when I quit over-functioning and trust that in God’s good time, the Spirit will move us forward with gracious generosity.

Our 2015 financial records certainly reflect this. Even though we approached the end of the year with expenditures exceeding revenue, you gave enough money to cover any shortfall plus provide a small nest egg with which we are beginning 2016. Your faithful giving also kept us from passing the hat when unexpected expenses popped up during the year…things like security doors and large power bills and computers. These sorts of challenges will continue to present themselves, but your faithfulness in consistent giving keeps us able to meet these surprises without panic. This is who you are Baptist Church of the Covenant. You are generous and faithful.

We paid cash for the renovations of the sanctuary and foyer. We paid cash for the renovation and creation of a youth suite. We will pay cash for the purchase of new paraments for the sanctuary. Rod Davis has graciously offered to purchase new hymnals. The Worship Committee will lead us through a selection process this year, just as the Ministry and Staff Committees are already working on sources for matching our donor’s gifts to create an additional position for ministries.

In 2015, we invested $125,000 in order to put any earned interest towards indebtedness. Against an indebtedness of $823,000, we paid $100,000 in 2015, so that on December 31, we have a remaining debt balance of $723,000. Now, I am hesitant to tell you that the Capital Campaign officially ended in December, because many of us are still giving to its retirement. If you can continue to contribute, even if just every now and again, please do. The more we can address the principal this year, then we reduce future payments to interest, and we keep from incorporating large note payments into the annual budget beginning in 2018.

While we handled the inconvenience of meeting in the funeral home with minimal murmuring, we did hit a bump in the road this past fall with the vote surrounding membership in Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. Feelings were hurt; statements of conviction were misheard; fingers were pointed. A passionate people, this too is an example of “just because of who we are.” I am enormously grateful for the spirit of forgiveness, understanding and unity that has been exhibited. Most of us have moved ahead with our arms around one another. Todays’ scriptures point us to other congregations that ran into similar circumstances.

Luke’s gospel presents Jesus as a celebrity right from the start. He has gathered a group of disciples and large crowds are so attracted to Jesus that His fame is already spreading far and wide. So when Jesus comes home to Nazareth, the folks that raised Him are mighty proud. It is the place where He worshipped week after week as a youngster doing who knows what. It is the place where He, along with other boys, learned to read and write Hebrew and perhaps made life difficult for some patient, nameless rabbi who dedicated himself to teaching boys in the way of faith. It is the place where everybody knew Him, even if it was only as Joseph and Mary’s boy. So as He is handed the scroll of Isaiah, they whisper to one another, “I taught Him in mission friends.” “I taught him in preschool choir.”

Jesus selects a favorite passage from Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord is upon me…and has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. The Jews love this passage because they see themselves as the poor, the oppressed, and as captives of Rome. They wait eagerly for the day that a savior, liberator, will come to rally the nation, throw out the occupiers, and establish the integrity and freedom of their nation once again. So Jesus picks the perfect passage and those who listen nod their heads in agreement and with pride over this hometown boy made good.

If Jesus had only stopped with the reading, Luke’s story could have a happy ending. But Jesus continues, providing interpretation. He says: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. That is when those listening begin to murmur: “Surely, He doesn’t mean that He is the liberator, the savior for whom we wait?!” They are willing to pass His comment off as youthful enthusiasm, as seminary induced confidence, and so they affirm, “He’s not the savior. He is just Joseph’s son, our little Jesus. We knew Him when…” It’s always a bit precarious to preach in your home church!

The story takes a dangerous turn as Jesus continues to talk about Naaman, the Syrian army officer who has leprosy, and about the widow of Zarephath who is not only poor but a pagan and a woman. Both illustrations concern non-Israelites, non-Jews, outsiders but each one receives the grace of God with abundance. If we had been present, we might have been the small minority that shouted “amen” to His exegesis that extends God’s grace to all, not just one people, not just one race, not just one religion. But the majority present that day shudder to even consider that God’s welcoming grace extends to those considered unclean, marginalized, and shut out. And the fact that Jesus is one of them—raised in the heart of their community, speaking with the same accent, knowing the inside jokes and their personal stories—because Jesus is one of them, the offense feels even greater. And so this friendly, hometown congregation turns into a lynch mob. They unceremoniously kick Him out of town and move to throw Him over a cliff.

What a picture of a congregation simply being who they are! They are happy one minute, enraged the next; excited over one thing and disappointed over another; fully engaged and then fully absent. Jesus is trying to challenge their limited understanding. He wants them to see that there is something grander and more urgent. What Jesus does not bargain for is that their traditions are more loved than He is, and it is always a problem when we love anything more than we love Jesus.

Now, the church at Corinth is also worried about who is in and who is out. Enough time has passed that they have developed a variety of theological ideologies. In fact, their diversity of thought creates theological division among the liberals and conservatives, the moderates and fundamentalists, the Jews and Greeks, those from the East and those from the West, people of need and people of privilege. To top these divisions off, some within the church break out in glossalia or speaking in tongues. The problem is not with the practice of glossalia. The problem is that those experiencing this spiritual enthusiasm are using it to create an attitude of spiritual elitism. So Paul writes them a carefully worded letter about how there is room for all within Christ’s church. He uses the metaphor of a human body as an example of the unity that Christ’s church is to experience. “Think of what we would miss out on if we were only two eyes,” Paul writes. “The body of Christ, the church, is connected. We are in relationship with one another where no one part is more important. It takes us all working together.” Paul’s argument is rooted in the very character of God’s reality that there is room for everyone, a job for everyone, gifts for everyone, and to refuse this grace, for whatever reason, is an affront to God.

Experience tells me that this body of Christ’s known as Baptist Church of the Covenant has a deep understanding of this connection with one another to be a gift from God. I know this because of your actions. For from his hospital bed in intensive care, George Crear’s question to me was, “So how is Tex Hawley?” I visit with Tex and realize that six other members of our congregation are gathering with the family to lend courage while others are lining up meals and still others making calls to alert the congregation of the seriousness of Tex’s illness. You do these things not for recognition; not for some sort of divine scorekeeping; it happens just because this is who you are…a deeply connected family of faith resting in the amazing grace of God.

I believe that appreciation and respect for one another best defines this body of Christ’s. After all, it is who you are. This is the assurance that I will take with me on sabbatical in October, November and December. I am grateful for your allowing me a bit of separation so that rest and renewal do their work to nurture my deep appreciation for the privilege of serving with you—not as one over you; not as one out in front of you; but as one with you in the good and bad, in the challenges and in the celebrations; in the conundrums as well as the certainties, in the sitting still as well as the moving forward. Until then, and upon my return, I anticipate singing words similar to what Bill Joel wrote:

Don’t go changing to try and please me

You never let me down before

Don’t imagine you’re too familiar

And I don’t see you anymore

I wouldn’t leave you in times of trouble

We never could have come this far

I’ll take the good times; I’ll take the bad times

I’ll take you just the way you are.

I said I love you and that’s forever

And this I promise from the heart

I could not love you any better (for)

I love you (because of who) you are.

Grace and Truth

A sermon by Reverend Sarah J Shelton, on Sunday January 3, 2016. 

Scriptures: Jeremiah 31:10-14; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

Perhaps you have seen the television commercial highlighting the superstitions of football fans. They must sit in the same places where other victories were experienced; hold their drinks in the correct hand; and if this doesn’t help put their team ahead, then it all gets changed around at half time. While we had several invitations for New Year’s Eve celebrations, the truth is we were busy enacting this commercial. We donned our game day attire, (complete with lucky socks and underwear), laid out tail gate snacks, held our shakers high, called the New York crew to make sure they were tuned in and paying attention, and settled in to watch the Alabama game. This was not a game to mess around with mojo magic!! 

And so it began. Quarterbacks were sacked. There was a fumble or two; a quick pass for a touchdown and the players jumped up from the turf to celebrate their moment of glory. Some are quick to put their finger in the air; some do a little dance in the end zone; others chest butt, while some jump into another player’s arms. It’s all about receiving glory from the applause and accolades of the crowd.   

Now the referees sometimes throw a penalty flag when the boasting is extreme. Considered poor sportsmanship to strut your stuff, call attention to your power and prowess and success, the refs can deflate you with an “excessive celebration” penalty. When this happens, Lloyd always asks me, “You know what Coach Bryant said don’t you?” And before I can answer, he says, “Act like you have been there before!” 

The season of Christmas, in which we are still, and the season of Epiphany, which is rapidly approaching, are both about God receiving glory. As humans, it is all too easy to compare God to a star player that waves to the crowd, invites applause, and struts in triumph. After all, a child has been born! There is light in the darkness as the Word is made flesh! (Walter Brueggemann, “On Not Winning the Heismann Trophy,” The Collected Sermons) We, the church, just like faithful fans in the bleachers, are glad to stand and applaud, cheer and chant conceding that to God belongs all glory, power and praise. Like the prophet Jeremiah says, we are “radiant” over the goodness of the Lord.

But when we read further into John’s first chapter, we are introduced to a different type of player. It is a different definition of glory that fits God so much better. This player is not motivated by personal attention and personal fame. This player is more concerned with the relationship and commitments off the field that never get mentioned on ESPN or written about by Sports Illustrated. This player would be more likely to make his play with flair but before the crowd can shower him with accolades, he leaves the field to be sure his elderly parent can manage the stadium steps or that his beloved three year old makes it to the bathroom with time to spare.

It seems that Christmas and Epiphany are something of a dilemma for God, as it is for any lineman who has deep connections off the playing field. (Brueggemann) The cheers and applause are gratifying, but they are not the priority. In fact, God redefines the source of glory to be the place where genuine and precious connections are made. Glory is not just received when Pharaoh gets sacked or oceans are parted. Glory is not just received when manna drops from heaven or enemies are defeated. Glory is given when others receive new life because of fidelity and reliability.

John is aiming for this in his first chapter. It is more than the Word made flesh. It is more than a light against the darkness. It is glory—the glory as of a father’s only son. We see how good He is. We see that He is a winner. We see that He is a number 1, a Heisman hopeful, but then John’s poetry adds: He is “full of grace and truth.” These words are hesed and ‘emeth or “fidelity” and “reliability.” In other words, because this Son is so full of grace and truth, so defined by what we can really count on, He will spend more time off the playing field than on it. In fact, when the scouts show up, He is rarely found because He so eagerly gives Himself over to precious commitments with the needy, the helpless and the grieving. The stadium crowd doesn’t quite understand it, but oh, how grateful are those who receive new life like the widows and the orphans, the outsiders and the outcast, the broken and defeated, you and me. (Brueggemann)

It’s an odd way to receive glory, for glory, ultimately will be cross-shaped. It is not the sort of thing that gets applauded. Rather it is a glory that is dedicated to endless commitment and relentless connection.

In the This I Believe series sponsored by National Public Radio, a Vietnam veteran, Steve Banco, tells his story. For his courageous actions in battle, he was honored with a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts. There was enough glory to go around, but Banco learned about hesed and ‘emeth, “grace” and “truth,” on the Christmas Eve of 1968 in a military hospital. The cots were lined up one after the other. Banco had a shattered leg and badly burned hands, but the man next to him was covered in a white body cast with cutouts only for his eyes, nose, mouth and finger tips. From time to time, he let out a low moan. So when the nurse came by, Banco asked if she could move his bed a little closer to the man in the cast. “We spoke no words,” Banco wrote. But when “Silent Night” was played over the PA system, Banco reached over and took his new friend’s hand in his. It was a moment of glory made by genuine, precious connection.

It is why we come to this table. We come to remember the genuine and precious connection with God who became flesh to be present with us in all of life’s challenges. Whether the good or the bad, on the field or off, God, through Christ, steps in with hesed and ‘emeth, “fidelity” and “reliability,” “grace” and “truth,” glory. Glory as of His only begotten Son.


Famous anthropologist Margaret Mead was once asked what the earliest sign of civilization was for any given culture. Was it a tool or weapon, some shard of pottery that spoke to domestication? Mead’s answer was surprising for she said, “The earliest sign of civilization was a healed femur bone.” You see, a healed femur shows that someone took care of the injured person. Someone had to step in and do that person’s share of the work in order for the leg to heal. Someone had to have compassion. Someone stepped in with hesed and ‘emeth, fidelity and reliability and grace and truth. Someone shared glory!


Perhaps this is what you desire to do with your life in this New Year: to redefine glory as grace and truth for yourself and for others. You do this by accepting Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and then connecting with this congregation as we attempt together to live grace and truth within our world. These decisions of faith may be made as we stand and sing “Amazing Grace,” #330.


Assembly Required

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

on Thursday, December 24, 2015

Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20

Truth be told, the nineteenth-century author who bequeathed us the image of a fat, jolly, white-bearded St. Nicholas was himself a dour, straitlaced academician.  As a professor of classics at the General Theological Seminary in New York City, Clement C. Moore’s most notable work prior to “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” was a two-volume tome entitled A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language.

Fortunately, for us, the man had children.  In fact, he had six!  Legend has it that on Christmas Eve of 1822, during a sleigh-ride home from Greenwich Village, Moore wrote the poem.  It was not written for publication because of its obvious lack of academic worth.  Moore, however, had to finally acknowledge his authorship of “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” when a family member submitted it to an out-of-town newspaper.  It became an overnight sensation.

The headlines from that year sound pretty calm:  James Monroe was elected for his second term of office, Maine was admitted as a 23rd state, the tomato was proven to be non-poisonous and part of Florida was sold to the United States by Spain for five million dollars.  Most of the world’s unrest found its source in overseas revolts:  the Greek Freedom Revolt occurred against the Ottomans; Portugal had a constitutionalist revolution and the 1820 Radicals were sent to Australia.  The news of our own recent days from around the world, within our nation and the grief within this family of faith, left me in a quandary of how to reach out to you with the hope that Christmas offers and that we so often find in the reading of Moore’s fanciful poem.  Whether inspired or delirious, the only way I found words was to pay attention to the meter, rhyme and form of Moore’s poem in order to compose my own.  So with apologies to Moore and a plea for your patience to listen all the way through, I will begin without further ado!

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the church

Each listener sat quietly upon their pew perch.

They left behind stockings hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that prayer would ease family tension so easily aired.

The children were dressed in their holiday best,

And all sat so stilly, down to the last guest.

The preacher was ready with stole, robe and verse,

But something was nagging, some small little curse.

Once home, the children asleep in their beds

With visions of Brooks Brothers and hunting gear in their wee, little heads.

Big Momma donned his kerchief and I my night cap

We hoped to settle in for a long winter’s nap.

But as we pulled from hiding, the last present out

We both stood in terror.  There was not one doubt

That there on the box were the most dreaded words.

They were the worst words that parents have ever heard.

“Assembly required” the words read so proudly

“Assembly required!” we said all too loudly.

Tossing aside the written instructions

We were left to make misinformed deductions.

Then in the garage there arose such a clatter,

I sprang from my seat to see what was the matter.

There stood my dear husband, so kind, yet incapable

To watch him use tools is a matter so laughable.

We fussed and we fumed.  We were tired and frustrated.

Not using a drill, my hands were lacerated.

At last we did manage to finish our work.

We fulfilled our commitment, no duties were shirked.

Our lesson, so well learned, that even this season,

The question gets asked for a very good reason:

“Is assembly required for this great big ol’ task?”

There’s only one answer in which we will bask.

“No assembly required,” is the best answer yet.

“No assembly required” is surely the best bet

To insure peace on earth and good will to all people

As we assemble once more beneath Covenant’s steeple.

We gather each year to hear the same story,

Of shepherds and wise ones and angels in glory

Ox, ass and sheep were there in the stable

To welcome parents so timid, yet so very able.

Surely Mary—that mother so young and naïve—

Knew nothing of how this child was conceived.

And Joseph, so silent and yet very present

Took her to Bethlehem, yea, on a donkey they went

No room in the inn.  No bed, bath or bottle.

Yet hay in a manger gave the right model

For a King of the lonely, sick and poor.

His love for all people would surely endure.

The shepherds heard the angels’ glad song.

The wise men had a star to guide them along.

They assembled about a crude stall at his birth

To know the real meaning of God’s peace on earth.

You see, assembly’s required.  Not for gizmo or gadget

Assembly’s required…not to dabble in magic

Assembly’s required to break out in mirth

That this baby named Jesus has been given birth.

Not just long ago, but right now and right here

To fulfill the promises we hold so near

Of peace on earth, good will to all,

Of loving forgiveness to both the great and small.

Like them, we live in a world gone hysterical.

We assemble in search of a mighty big miracle

To combat angry politicians, and news full of fear

As Isis threatens those we hold ever so dear.

Shootings in schools, riots in streets,

Whole towns being bombed, wounding the meek.

Immigrants denied access to free and strong nations.

Have we forgotten our common relation?

Darkness and gloom are so all-consuming

In a culture that assigns worth by what we’re producing,

And so we assemble to know otherwise

Claiming exceeding joy just like those orient guys

Let’s raise a candle against the dark night.

Let’s raise a candle to spread love through Light.

Let’s raise a candle to remind us of the One

Who came to live on earth as God’s only begotten Son.

This Christmas Eve receive a great gift

A gift that is sure to give spirits a lift

For to assemble right here in this most sacred space

Speaks to all of God’s unconditional grace.

So receive a warm wish in this holiday season

That Jesus the Christ child is indeed the best reason

To require assembly in order to remember the babe

Who loved us so much His own life He gave.

This table spread with a sacred, holy feast

Is for those who desire to replace fear with peace.

And while you are at it, take some courage to share,

Because the love of God provides enough joy to spare.

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.