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

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

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

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

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

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.

An Unlikely Pilgrimage:  The State of the Church Address

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Jonah 1:1-4, 15-17, 3:1-5; Psalm 62:5-12a; Mark 1:14-20

I am only 150 pages into Rachel Joyce’s bestseller, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so please don’t tell me the ending!  While Harold is a simple, ordinary man, I often catch myself during the day wondering about who he is going to meet next on his journey and what insight they will pass on to him.  You see, Harold is recently retired from a safe and predictable job.  Harold doesn’t consider himself to be different from anyone else.  He does not think he is unique in any way.  But as the story unfolds, we are confronted with the truth that even small, ordinary people often find themselves at extraordinary points if they will but pay attention. 

One ordinary morning in mid-April, a letter arrives for Harold.  It is in a pink envelope and bears the news that a former co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, is dying of cancer.  Harold writes a cryptic two sentence response, leaves his house to take his letter to a mail drop, but he never mails the letter nor does he return home.  He continues to walk from post to post to post until he is miles away.  In what is probably his first impulsive act in his life, Harold embarks on a journey for which he is unprepared and over which he has no understanding.  It is a story of a small, ordinary person finding themselves in an extraordinary moment.

When I read the story of Jonah and of the fishing disciples, I realize the same is true for each of them.  None of them start their day thinking that they will receive an invitation from the Lord to do good work for the Kingdom.  Instead, their ordinary lives are interrupted with something extraordinary and a redemptive pilgrimage ensues.

Jonah is told to go to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.  But being a Jew whose prejudice is to hate the Assyrians, Jonah sets sail for Tarshish, the farthest port available.  You know this story:  there’s a storm; the sailors discern that Jonah is the cause; and they throw him overboard.  An enormous fish swallows Jonah, putting him in “time out” to consider his rebellion against God.

While this may all seem far-fetched, I am guessing that each one of us can think of a time in our lives when we would not listen to anyone but ourselves.  We heeded no warnings and heard nothing but our own wants and desires.  We embark on a life journey toward the Tarshish that we decide is what we are all about in this world.  And on the way, the storms come.  The seas rage, and even after we have thrown off excess baggage, not to mention dumping a few people overboard as well, we end up in deep waters, drowning, only to find ourselves in the belly of a big fish.  We do time there…three days and nights, or three months or three years…poking around in the darkness until we “get it”—come to ourselves—sober up–and are, in the end, vomited up on the shore exhausted and broken and lost, but with a second chance, which is in reality, the gift of repentance. 

At last, we begin to listen as we have never listened before.  We listen to hunches and intuitions.  We listen to the pains in our necks and backs and stomachs as well as the deep ache of our souls.  We listen for voices in unusual places.  We begin to heed the dreams that will not dim, and we begin to wonder about the tears that seem to come from nowhere for no apparent reason.  (William Dols, “Angry Enough to Die,” Just Because It Didn’t Happen…)

Yes, my guess is that every one of us in this room has said “no” to God and headed to Tarshish at least once or twice.  We have had the ship of our career, our marriage, our health, our hope and dreams, our sanity and self, come apart in a raging storm, done time in the dark belly of the fish and been spewed out with a different idea of who we are and what life is about and just what God may want from us.  (Dols)

So when this happens to Jonah, he heads for Nineveh and preaches so convincingly that the Ninevites repent, God repents, even (so scripture says) the cows and goats repent.  It is the same message that Mark records as being the content of Jesus’ first sermon:  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel.” 

Now I don’t know about you, but this well-worn, often abused Baptist term, “repent,” is not appealing to me.  It conjures up all sorts of images of evangelists and preachers and well-meaning parents who feel free to tell us how rotten, selfish and deeply defective we are.  Just yesterday morning, my doorbell rang at 9:00.  In my bath robe and bed hair, I went to the door to find two church ladies.  Their Bibles were big.  Out of the top of one, I could see a brochure with the question:  “Do you know why there is so much suffering in the world?”  The other held a piece of paper that simply said, “Repent!”  Now I wish that I had been brave enough to do what my Dad did.  He invited those witnessing from door to door into our living room, heard them without argument, and thanked them for coming.  But then, the next night, he would show up at their houses, interrupting their family dinner and request the same courtesy!  I wish that I had had enough presence of mind to tell these women that if they were looking for sinners, I knew of notorious ones:  the Halls and Patillos live just down the street!  I already knew that hearing their message of repentance does not compel me to immediately leave all my responsibilities behind, like Simon and Andrew, and follow Jesus.  I respond most typically like father Zebedee and the hired servants.  I remain in the work of the boat that demands my immediate attention.  However, in doing so, I also delay the gift of repentance, in other words, a second chance, a new beginning, that Simon and Andrew receive immediately with their impulsive response.

I find it interesting that neither Nathaniel, last week, nor Simon and Andrew, this week, are asked about what they believe, their dogma or doctrine or morality.  There is no “Orientation to Discipleship” class or communication workshop or even a class in pastoral care.  There is no professional guidance, career counseling or salary package with benefits.  Something just happens.  Something from beyond grabs these small, ordinary people and invites them to impulsively join in what will be an extraordinary pilgrimage.  What is important is that when Jesus calls them, they drop what they are doing in order to follow.  It is a testimony of sheer impulsiveness.  (John Buchanan, “Called,” 1-15-12)

The other encouragement I think the disciples provide is that they don’t always get it right.  They repeatedly stumble.  They are unsure of who Jesus is and what it is exactly that He wants of them.  The disciples try pathetically to keep children away.  They worry that there is not enough food to feed the multitudes.  They argue among themselves about who is the best and brightest.  Two even have the nerve to ask to be elevated above the rest.  And while Jesus is arrested, interrogated, and tortured to death, Peter soundly denies knowing Jesus while the others—every last one of them—flee for their lives and hide in a room with the doors locked.  Oh, they are ordinary, small people and because they are, it gives us pause to realize we are called to follow as best we can, wherever we are, with whatever abilities we possess.  To follow Jesus is to go wherever He calls us to love God and to love our neighbor.  (Buchanan)

Now this is the Sunday set aside for the annual State of the church address where we review how well we are following Christ in order to love God and love our neighbor.  We can continue to use the traditional measures of church health for they are strong indicators:

+We have received 32 new members and have 5 candidates waiting.

+Attendance in worship continues to grow, hovering just at an average weekly attendance of 240.  Interestingly, our highest attended worship service was not Easter but Christmas Eve with 355 people present.

+The median age of the congregation continues to grow younger with the birth of babies and young couples joining.

+We have participated in two international mission trips and experienced a nativity play that was a testimony to diversity.

+We have on the drawing board some walls that need to be taken down before this next educational year so that Preschoolers and Youth have the space that they need.

+We came back from a critical, financial crisis with a vengeance.  Some of you say it is because I threw a tantrum in the pulpit and beg that I please not do that again.  My response to these requests is:  don’t put me in a position where I have to!  Continue to be the generous people I know and believe you to be.  In the one month of November, you gave over $100,000 making it the largest month in the history of the church.  Therefore, we ended the year in the black, and we are beginning the New Year with 86% of the budget pledged and an entire month’s expenses squirreled away in the general fund.

+Our partnerships have expanded to include St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and with Highlands United Methodist Church right here on the Southside.  The hungry and the homeless, the transients and disenfranchised continue to attend not just Breakfast each day, but Wednesday night suppers as well.  I am so thankful for your hospitality, which I know is tested and tried, but how can we turn people away when that sign out there on the corner says, for all the world to see, “Where all are welcomed?”

Now all of these numbers are one way that we can measure the health of the church.  But there is another way.  We can gauge our well-being by remembering that our service to the community is not just about putting food in front of a guest or delivering groceries or paying a power bill or teaching leadership to a teenager.  The health of our congregation is also determined by just how our hearts and the hearts of those with whom we serve are changed so that we keep hearing God’s call.  God’s call has to do with receiving the gift of repentance so that we experience new beginnings in second chances.  Service is often the way that calling comes to ordinary people like you and me.  The healthiest churches keep providing opportunities for small, ordinary people to find themselves at an extraordinary point of following Jesus through service.  So let’s try a different way of evaluating the state of the church.

For instance, last week, we were all privileged to hear and see Elizabeth Lott in her role as pastor of St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church.  Her words gave testimony as to how Baptist Church of the Covenant helped to mold her into a minister AND how this congregation, specifically, opened her ears to the possibility of a preaching ministry.  She is not the only one. 

Daniel Mitchell has recently been named the executive director of Valley Interfaith Promise in Columbus, Georgia.  It is a nonprofit sheltering program for homeless families.  He tells the reporter from The Columbus Ledger Enquirer: “I had no idea I would end up doing what I am doing.”  But then he credits Baptist Church of the Covenant in Birmingham, AL as the place where his commitment to help the needy grew.

Take Alisha Damron Serungye.  She is totally immersed in the Ugandan culture:  teaching, recruiting and raising her family there.  My favorite memory of Alisha as a Samford student was the day she did the children’s sermon here at BCOC.  Never one to shy away from dramatics, she came rushing down the aisle carrying about six suitcases.  And while I’ve forgotten the children’s sermon itself, I have often thought of all the items we packed in her figurative luggage that helped her hear God’s call.  I’m referring not just to teaching aids or financial support but to encouragement, hope, prayers, presence and confidence.

Then there is Brittany Stillwell Krebs.  She visited our congregation for a full month—brought her parents, her husband, professor and friends—in order to assess the appropriateness of her being an intern here for only one semester.  Well, Brittany left us after two years to go to seminary and now she is the Minister of Music and Youth at First Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee.  On the Baptist Women in Ministry blog, “This is What a Minister Looks Like,” Brittany says, “Before joining Baptist Church of the Covenant, I told people that I felt called to the ministry but that I was not called to pastor.  ‘Don’t tell me women can’t be pastors,’ I would say, ‘it’s just not my call.’  After spending a few years experiencing Sarah Shelton as my pastor and seeing what it can look like when a woman pastors a church, I began to realize that maybe, just maybe, God could use me as a pastor someday.”  She continues to mention the mentor she found in Valerie Burton at a time when Brittany was trying to discern the call to ministry.  She says:  “Valerie asked me, ‘Do you love the church?  If you love the church—truly love the church with all her beauty and craziness—then you’ll be just fine.’”

There are others:  Elizabeth Evans Hagan, Meg Lacy, Chad McGinnis, Matt Rich, and I have recently written recommendations for Will Yarborough, Anna Lautenschleger, and Zeke Stephenson for entry into seminary this fall.  Still being called out from among us for vocational ministry are the willing and able.  Do they have all the answers?  No!  Do they express hesitation and doubt?  Absolutely.  God isn’t looking for those who have it all figured out, or who have remarkable skills in their kingdom kits.  God just wants small, ordinary people who are aware enough to realize that God’s ways are extraordinary and we are welcome to join in.

It is true that we aren’t all called to vocation.  Most of us stay behind to mend the nets, tend the fire, and care for the church that provides a place where God’s voice can be heard and Spirit can move in hearts.  We do not all have to drop our nets and leave home.  This was the calling to Peter and Andrew.  It was the calling of Jonah.  But if these stories are about the great flow of God’s extraordinary call in our small, ordinary lives for unlikely pilgrimages, then we each have a story to tell. 

Jesus says, “Come and follow,” and at some level, it is why we are each here today.  God has been calling us.  God is calling us, and God will continue to call us.  The question is:  how will you respond?

The Light that has not been Overcome

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

My sister, Mary Helen, was living in the graduate dormitory at The University of Alabama and had befriended international students from India.  With the upcoming Christmas holiday, Madhu and Vyas had no place to go.  If they made the long trip home, they would be faced with meeting the individuals that their families had arranged for them to marry in spite of their great affection for one another.  Madhu and Vyas were from different castes and so they were not eligible to be married to one another in India, but here, in the states, this was a different matter.  The dorms were closing for the holidays, and they had no plans.  Mary Helen, therefore, invited Madhu and Vyas to our house for the holidays.  Joining the crowd was her roommate, Wanda, who was also an international student but from China.  The three arrived in Birmingham to experience a typical Southern Christmas.  I was as curious about them as I am sure they were curious about what they were getting themselves into.

My parents were not thrown off their game by the presence of these exotic aliens.  Just like everyone else, Madhu, Vyas and Wanda had stockings hung by the chimney with care.  They each had gifts under the tree.  They willingly stood in the assembly line to decorate sugar cookies.  My eleven year old eyes took in their wonder over the decorations, the complete relief they felt being in a home with a family, and even observed a shy kiss exchanged under the mistletoe between Madhu and Vyas.  Mahogany skinned and coal black hair that she patiently braided all the way below her waist, Madhu wore brilliantly colored saris, and Vyas showed his appreciation for our mother’s cooking in the manner of his culture.  He burped loudly and satisfactorily at the dinner table.  (We feared our exceptionally genteel grandmother would experience apoplexy!) 

Wanda giggled a lot behind her hands and had enormous eyes that were further magnified by the thick lensed glasses that rested on her nose.  We discovered that her fascination with our merrymaking focused on the loving effort it takes to pull off such a celebration.  She had never even had a birthday cake as a child, so our family’s nonsense was intriguing. They were an odd trio, but they made our home their destination as if led by a star.  They came as if seeking the Light of truth, just as those men of old did in Matthew’s gospel.

The exotic presence of persons from the East is an intrinsic part of Matthew’s story.  (Thomas Long, “Reflections on the Lectionary,” Christian Century, 12-24-14)  It is included so that we will read of gentiles who come from afar to bow down before the King of the Jews.  These, however, are not just any gentiles.  These are not the sort of down-the-dormitory-hall gentiles who may get invited home for the holidays. These are not even the sort of next-door gentiles who might slip over the border to help out with the wheat or grape harvest.  These are magi, astrologers, mysterious magicians from the East.  They carry gold and perfumes and track their journey by the stars.  These are gentiles who turn the volume up to eardrum bursting proportions, so that their presence cannot be ignored.  They are intent on being an unavoidable presence.  They will not be denied the information they seek.  They are determined to be acknowledged, and so they sashay into Jerusalem and ask for the newborn king of the Jews who they believe to be in the royal nursery.  King Herod and the Pharisees and scribes could not be more shocked and perplexed than if Lady GaGa and her clan of Little Monsters had appeared on the palace doorsteps.

These magi, priestly astrologers who observe and record the movements of the stars, were often the consultants to kings and other powerful persons.  It was widely believed that they had secret knowledge because of their scholarship.  And so when they spy a magnificent star in the western sky, they know an event of significance has occurred.  Could it be that a new king has been born?  They investigate to verify their “religion” and to pay homage.  While they bring three gifts, there could have been as few as two magi or as many as we can imagine.  What we know, however, is that these outsiders are non-Jews in a very Jewish story.  Matthew, from the opening chapters of his gospel, wants to make it very clear that this baby in the manger, from his first drawn breath, is present among us to shatter religious tradition and rules, cultural mores and customs as He reaches to bring outsiders in.  And so Matthew introduces Jesus by telling about Gentiles, Arabs to be specific, who take a trip of great risk and meet with those who pose grievous threats all in order to follow a star.  (John Buchanan, Fourth Presbyterian Church, “With Faces Shining,” 1-8-12)

King Herod was specifically the King of the Jews.  And so when these wise men walk into his fortress asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews,” Herod’s paranoia is tapped. Historians describe King Herod as a “hysterical megalomaniac.”  (Buchanan)  He was known for his incredible cruelty that was enacted on anyone or anything that he regarded as a threat to his own authority and position.  He ordered the execution of two of his own children, his wife, and upon his death, he left behind execution orders for prominent citizens of every town in Judea to insure that mourning would occur one way or another.  It is said that Caesar, back in Rome, remarked that he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.

Knowing this, it is understandable that all of Jerusalem is troubled, simply because Herod is troubled.  There was no telling what he would do as later witnessed by his rampage through Jerusalem to kill all the male children two years of age and under.  Herod is troubled because he is the King of the Jews and these foreigners are not only asking about the birth of a new king, but they want to bow down and worship him!  In his panic, Herod consults with his own wise counsel to see what insight they might offer.

Please do catch the irony here that there are two sets of wise men…one set from the East who risk everything to follow a star and another set who are fully aware of Isaiah 60 and of what Micah 5 prophetically announce will occur in Bethlehem.  Note that the Biblical scholars do not bother to personally go to Bethlehem to discover the new king.  There appears to be no need on their part to validate their religion’s prophecies.  They either don’t want to travel with foreigners, or they no longer take their own scriptures seriously enough to pursue their validation!  (R. Alan Culpepper, Feasting on the Word)   It takes exotic foreigners and an unknown infant to shake up the status quo.  It is all so frightening, so unbelievable, so threatening that Herod’s wise men remain in the comfort of what they already know.  Herod asks the eastern sages to bring word back on their return trip so that he too might go and bow before his replacement.  Don’t you know he gagged on those words!?

And so the sages set out for Bethlehem.  No doubt, they are a little confused.  They missed their mark by about nine miles.  They’ve dealt with a character who should be in the know, but isn’t, and who should be rejoicing over an heir to the throne, but isn’t.  Their assurance comes, however, when the star reappears in the sky.  Verse 10 says, “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”

New Testament professor, Joe Scrivner, says that to understand scripture we must think imaginatively and not scientifically.  The stories of scripture all predate any sort of renaissance or age of enlightenment, and so the star appears without explanation, without prediction, without a scientific culture to provide justification.  It is by faith the wise men come and upon seeing the baby—upon a visit to the manger—they know in their hearts that what holds that star up in the sky is the great love of God who sent His Son.  Let me try to explain with the help of the poets for they rarely think scientifically. Instead, they think imaginatively which may be the only way we can understand how that star got in the sky and motivated those eastern sages to come at all.

This fall, it was my turn to present a paper for discussion to The Minister’s Discussion Group.  This is a group of clergy and chaplains, professors and denominational leaders that meet nine months out of the year for a “scholarly paper” with questions and answers to follow.  I chose to do a book review of Barbara Brown Taylor’s book, Learning to Walk in the Darkness.  Taylor carefully discusses her experiences with darkness as opportunities to encounter God differently.  She describes intentional visits to caves in Virginia, the Black Madonna in France, and walks through the mountains of north Georgia at night in order to put some substance to her theory.  Now, I like Barbara Brown Taylor.  For many a sermon, she has helped this pastor to find just the right phrase to turn in order to make a sermon complete.  I found, however, this book lacked her usual finesse, but there was enough of a challenge that I decided to create some of my own “in the dark” experiments.

I turned off most of our night lights.  I dimmed the clock radio.  Then Lloyd and I spent a week at Lake Martin during particularly clear and crisp weather.  At night, we sat on the dock wrapped up in old quilts and leaned back to observe the endless night sky.  There were not just stars punctuating the darkness, there were constellations and galaxies that wisped across the great expanse.  I thought of Abraham being shown a night sky full of stars in order to trust God enough to enter into a covenant.  And I thought of the Psalmist:  “What are men and women that You, oh God, are mindful of them?”

When we went to Nantucket, I tried this same experiment.  I explained to my family what I was attempting, but true to form, they had their own ideas about how this experiment should take place.  We had our faces turned to the night sky, when Dan suggested music.  It was soft at first but somehow it got switched to Broadway tunes.  Outright rebellion broke loose when Wicked’’s soundtrack began to play.  David and Lloyd jumped up—keep in mind all we could see were their silhouettes—and they began to dance and sing.  They reached out to grab hands just as these lyrics came:

I’ve heard it said

That people come into our lives for a reason

Bringing something we must learn

And we are led

To those who help us most to grow

If we let them

And we help them in return

Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true

But I know I’m who I am today

Because I knew you…

…you’ll be with me

Like a handprint on my heart

It was a remarkable moment.  It began with silliness and ended in embrace.  Considering all that goes into 25 years of parenting and being parented, God’s presence was surely stirring around us with healing and grace and love under the stars in the dark.

As I have remembered these nights, the words of e.e. cummings’ poem, which the choir sang today as our anthem, began to marinate in my soul.  In professing his love, Cummings says:

here is the deepest secret nobody knows

(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud

and the sky of the sky of a tree called life, which grows

higher than the soul can hope or the mind can hide)

and this is the wonder that’s keeping the stars apart

     I carry your heart.

To know that God carries each of us in the divine heart is an Epiphany!  It is such a great big love that it keeps the stars above so that we can follow the ways of the Lord with only a small amount of light regardless of all the darkness in which we find ourselves.  It is what we watch the wise men do, and it is to what these deacons are committing.  As light bearers, they are committing to sit with us in dark times, to share wisdom for guidance along the path and to be joyful as we celebrate the awareness of Christ within our lives.

Billvia Henderson is being ordained.  All are invited to impart a blessing on her.  The other deacons are here that you may express appreciation for or affirm their gifts.  Will you come?

Ordination

The Wednesday night before Christmas, we gathered in this sanctuary to watch as the children who attend our Wednesday night programming, enact for us their version of the nativity story.  It wasn’t hard to engage my imagination when I saw unicorns, elephants and lions make their way to Bethlehem, and it was delightful to see baseball players, Wonder Woman, ninjas and many others surround the manger as a reminder that Jesus came for all…came for shepherd and wise ones from the east…even kings…came for whoever will receive him as their Lord and Savior…a love so deep and vast, wondrous and miraculous that it keeps the stars in their place, lighting a path so that we may find our way to the Christ child over and over again.  Perhaps you are aware that you are carrying the heart of God within you.  If so, make your decision to be a star follower public, by making a profession of faith, by joining this church or by giving your life to a fulltime Christian vocation as we stand and sing, “Hark, the Herald Angels,” which is printed in your bulletin insert.

Epiphany: Week 6 Day 38

Day 38

January 6

Matthew 2:1-12

 

Matthew’s account of the Magi’s journey to Jerusalem, to the “King of the Jews’” birthplace in Bethlehem and beyond, brings a sudden halt to our own anticipation and wandering through the Advent season.  The “epiphany” of Jesus is what these nomadic Wise Men have come to witness.  And while their expedition’s discovery is a glimpse of hope in an ongoing Drama of chaos and brokenness for today’s Christian, it was not always so.  Scripture says that those who had power to lose by the prediction, discovery and recognition of a “new king,” were frightened or disturbed (2:3).  Matthew’s word choice here, also used later on to describe the disciples’ emotion when they saw Jesus walking on water (14:26), helps us understand the radical repercussions of Jesus’ birth.  It is worthy of awe and fear; filled with uncertainty, insecurity, and desperation no matter how well we know and believe in the baby in the manger. 

So, let it change you.

Let it transform you. 

The three Magi had to take a different road home, because it was in fact the Messiah they found under that star.  May the gift of Christ leave you rather transformed this Advent, so that you must journey from here on out, by way of a different road…

 

                                                                                                            Lyndsay Cogdill

Love: Week 4 Day 23

December 22
Luke 1:46b-55

My brother was born in December when I was four years old. I was born in December too, and his birthday is only eight days before mine. I remember us getting ready for him to be born, so we bought a lot of new stuff to put in our room. I even helped pick out his name.

On the day my baby brother was born, I felt a little nervous and excited at the same time. I was excited that I got a baby brother, but I was nervous that I would drop him when I was holding him. I bet Mary felt the same way: excited and nervous. Mary was excited she was going to be Jesus’ mother and nervous when she got the news. Mary had faith she could care for Jesus and protect him.

Logan Hawley

Looking into the Light

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

from Sunday, January 4, 2015

Isaiah 43:16-19; Ephesians 1:3-14; John 1:1-18

There is an Italian parable that dates back to about the thirteenth century.  (John Shea, Starlight:  Beholding the Christmas Miracle all Year Long, pp. 47 ff.)  It takes place in the small city of Gubbio which was nestled in the foothills of a mighty mountain.  It was a town of great beauty with piazzas that hosted lovely fountains and restaurants with wonderful food.  The churches had magnificent spires, and art work adorned all the public administration buildings.  Whenever anyone from this city traveled, others would ask, “Stranger, where are you from?”  The citizens of Gubbio would pull themselves to full stature, stand their ground and say:  “We?  We are from Gubbio!”  They were a proud, defiant people.

It just so happened, however, that one night out of the woods just outside of the town of Gubbio, a shadow emerged.  The shadow went through the streets, going up one and prowling down another.  It moved through the streets until it came upon a person, and then, it pounced.  It left only broken bones and shredded clothing behind for the other citizens to find the next morning.  “How could this happen in Gubbio,” they wondered?  They reasoned, “It must have been a stranger.  Only someone passing through would do such a horrible thing.”

So that night, the people of Gubbio locked their doors and stayed inside.  No one left their homes to walk the beautiful streets.  No one, except for a woman.  Again the shadow came and the following morning, the people of Gubbio found her mangled body, gnawed bones and shredded clothing.  This time, a witness stepped forward.  “It was no stranger,” she said.  “I could not sleep and so as I was watching from my window.  I saw a large, lean, gray wolf loping down the street with blood dripping from its mouth.”

The citizens buzzed with this new information throughout the day. In the piazzas, in the fields, in the shops, in the restaurants, in the churches, in their homes, the people of Gubbio discussed their various options about how to deal with the wolf.  Two men finally volunteered to find the wolf and kill it, but as fate would have it, the following morning, their two bodies were found.  Their bones were gnawed and their clothes were shredded.  The wolf had found them before they found the wolf.  Now the people were truly terrified.

They gathered in the piazza to collectively find a solution.  One citizen suggested that the army be brought in.  The army, after all, had experienced soldiers who would surely know what to do with a wolf.  Others countered that such an action would hurt the prestige of the city.  Commerce and tourism would suffer.  Then a young girl spoke up.  She had heard of a holy man in a neighboring city that could speak to animals.  Maybe he would come and speak to the wolf.  And while the people laughed at such a silly idea, they finally realized that they had no better plan and so perhaps they should invite this holy man to talk to the wolf specifically about the commandment that we should not kill and then ask the wolf to take up residence with Gubbio’s competitors and enemies.  After all, they deserved a wolf in those places.

And so a delegation went from Gubbio to Assisi to find the holy man.  The holy man listened to the delegates’ requests and promised that he would do what he could.  When there was no sun at all, the holy man entered the forest.  He stopped in the heart of the woods where there was no light.  He waited until he could feel the presence of the wolf and began their conversation by addressing the wolf as “Brother.”

The next morning, the people of Gubbio found the holy man in the piazza.  He told them a simple solution.  “You must feed your wolf.”  Then he walked through the gathered crowd and returned to his own city.

The people were FURIOUS!  They shouted to one another, “What does he mean our wolf?  This is not our wolf!  We did not ask this wolf to come to Gubbio.”  And so, all day long—on the streets, in the churches, in the fields, in the shops, in the restaurants, in their homes—people talked about their wolf.  But as night fell, they locked their doors and remained inside.

With the darkness, the shadow came out of the woods.  It prowled down this street and up that alley.  It loped across a square, disappeared through an archway.  It turned down a narrow street where lo and behold, a door opened.  Light streamed out from inside the home and illuminated the dark street.  A hand pushed a platter of food into the light.  The wolf looked up into the light and then ate the food.

The next night, the wolf again came out of the forest. It prowled down this street and up that alley.  It loped across a square, disappeared through an archway.  It turned down a narrow street where lo and behold, a different door opened.  Light streamed out from inside the home.  It illuminated the dark street.  And when a hand pushed a platter of food into the light, the wolf looked fully into the light.  Then he ate.

It was not long before every man, woman, and child in Gubbio had fed their wolf.  So well-known became the events around the wolf, that when the people of Gubbio travel, they are told, “We hear you have a wolf in Gubbio!”

This parable speaks to us on many levels and my hope is that perhaps you will talk about this story with your friends to discover what it means to you.  And while I am tempted to leave it for you to work through, I also find that I need to guide our thoughts somewhat so that we arrive at the Lord’s Table together.  For you see, I believe we are a lot like the people of Gubbio:  proud and fearful that our prestige will be hurt if it is found out that we too have a wolf, some fear, or some disability, or that we are found lacking in any way.  Like those people of Gubbio, we are all too willing to blame our difficulties on others.  We make sure that our holy persons participate in our denial by spewing judgment on other communities of faith so that ours remains superior, never losing its place in the larger context of God’s Kingdom.  Hope, however, lies in those among us who call us not to fight against our wolves or hide in fear from our wolves,  but to embrace and feed them, pointing out that we are healthier when we incorporate into the very center of who we are that of which we are most afraid or despise or neglect.  I believe that the only way we can do this is to look fully into the Light of God’s grace, just as the wolf looked into the Light of each home in Gubbio.

Ann Weems speaks of this in her poem “Toward the Light.”  She writes:  (Kneeling in Bethlehem)

Too often our answer to the darkness

is not running toward Bethlehem

but running away.

We ought to know by now that we can’t see

where we’re going in the dark.

Running away is rampant…

separation is stylish:

separation from mates, from friends, from self.

Run and tranquilize,

don’t talk about it,

avoid.

Run away and join the army

of those who have already run away.

When are we going to learn that Christmas Peace

comes only when we turn and face the darkness?

Only then will we be able to see

the Light of the World.

The gospel of John begins by talking about Jesus as the Light.  John’s gospel has no genealogy, like Matthew.  He has no birth narratives, like Luke.  He has no John the Baptist proclaiming in the wilderness, like Mark.  No, John’s gospel is written to help a faith community whose ideas about Jesus have evolved, and so John describes his gospel as the work of the Holy Spirit and focuses on the belief that in Jesus God enters into human history to save us.  He uses all sorts of symbols and paradoxes to make this point and so we often refer to John as a theological gospel rather than a historical one.  (Jocelyn Cadwallader, “Track Lighting,” 1-4-09, Fourth Presbyterian Church)

He begins with references that take us back to the first chapter of the Old Testament.  Jesus is the Word made flesh, he says, and we remember that God spoke the world into being with just a Word.  John says Jesus is the Light of the world, and we remember that as early as verse three of chapter one in Genesis that God says, “Let there be light, and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good.”

We talk about light in a multitude of ways:  You light up my life or your smile lights up a room.  There are traffic lights, starlight, night lights, city lights, candle light, spot lights, head lights and overhead lights.  We ask:  Can I get a light?  Or Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?  Sometimes we demand:  Turn on the lights, or more likely, turn the lights off when you leave the room!  But I would suggest to you that Light is not just about seeing well.  Light has life-giving properties to it.  Remember that grade-school science experiment project where eggs were places in an incubator?  Lights are used to warm the eggs to life.  It is the light that makes all the difference.

That’s the thing about the light.  God came into being, and this Life is the Light, and the Light makes all the difference.  This Light broke into the darkness like a single candle burning in a windowless room, like a shining star on a bleak midwinter night, like a brilliant smile that fills the very core of your being.  And it fills us.  It fills us, so that we too shine as we walk along streets, by loving one another, in our everyday doings of the day at work, at school, at play.  The Light—the Light of Christ that makes all the difference—fills us and shines through us.  It is not something that is simply seen; it is something more alive than that, like a spotlight exposing fear and prejudice; or like the energy of a genuinely accepting hug.  The life of Jesus came into this world to shine the Light of God among us.  It is in and through this life, and in and through our lives that God’s Light continues to shine.  And so we bring food to the hungry.  We care for one another and the widows and orphans.  We seek justice and strive for a peace that brings reconciliation.  We also come to this table, just like the wolf at the doors of the citizens of Gubbio, to receive tasteable and tangible reminders of the Light of the World that we too might shine.

As we receive the elements today, consider what fear has control of you as you face this New Year.  Gather your courage to open the door of your heart and allow the Light of Christ’s love to illuminate and surround what haunts you with hope and healing as we take into ourselves what the Lord has prepared for us.

Communion

I began with a story.  Let me take it full circle.  The holy man, of course, was Francis of Assisi.  He not only taught the people of Gubbio to feed their wolf, but he began the tradition of an outdoor nativity and celebrating midnight Mass around it.  Francis, known for his love of animals, had sheep, cows, dogs, and a donkey or two beside the manger.  Some even say that on that first year, there was even a wolf, a wolf from the town of Gubbio.

Perhaps you wish to give testimony to the Light that fills you by making a public profession of faith, or making Baptist Church of the Covenant your church home.  I will be here at the front to receive new members as we stand to sing.