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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!

Inverted Hospitality

Sunday, August 28, 2016

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor
Genesis 18:1-8; Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16; Luke 14:1, 7-14

Jean Louise Finch, better known as Scout, had a thing or two to learn about hospitality.  It was the first week of school and the first grade teacher was surveying her students to be sure that all were prepared with lunches.  The teacher notices that one child, Walter Cunningham, does not have a lunch and so she offers to loan him twenty-five cents so that he can buy a lunch.  It is a difficult moment, because the Cunninghams are so poor that they cannot afford to send a lunch with young Walter, much less pay the teacher back with twenty-five cents.  Jem, Scout’s older brother, steps in to invite Walter Cunningham to come home with the two of them for lunch.  It was 1930 in the small town of Maycomb, Alabama.  Children were allowed to return home for lunch.

 

When they arrive at the house, Calpurnia, beloved housekeeper and cook, sets another place at the table.  More than likely, she is giving up her own lunch so that Walter Cunningham can sit at the Finch’s dining room table.  The children, their father, Atticus, and Walter sit down at the table.  Walter asks if there is any molasses in the house.  Calpurnia brings a pitcher of syrup and Walter pours molasses over everything his plate holds…on the vegetables and on the meat.  In the book, Scout’s thoughts are recorded as this: “And [he] would probably have poured it into his milk glass had I not asked him what [in] the samhill he was doing.”

 

Atticus shook his head at me.  “But he’s gone and drowned his dinner in syrup,” I protested.  “He’s poured it all over.”

 

It was then that Calpurnia requested my presence in the kitchen.  She was furious…She squinted down at me.  “There’s some folks who don’t eat like us,” she whispered fiercely, “but you ain’t called on to contradict ‘em at the table when they don’t.  That boy’s yo’ company and if he wants to eat up the table cloth, you let him, you hear?”

 

“He ain’t company, Cal, he’s a Cunningham.”

 

“Hush your mouth!  Don’t matter who they are, anybody sets foot in this house ‘s yo’ company, and don’t you let me catch you remarkin’ on their ways like you was so high and mighty!  Yo folks might be better ‘n the Cunninghams but it don’t count for nothin’ the way your disgracin’ ‘em—if you can’t act fit to eat at the table you can just sit here and eat in the kitchen.” (Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird)

 

 

“He’s not company.  He’s a Cunningham.”  “He’s not company; he’s a democrat.”  “He’s not company; he’s homeless!”  “She’s not company; she’s an immigrant.”  “She’s not company; she’s Trans.”  He’s not company; he’s an LSU fan.”  She’s not company; she’s…” and you fill in the blank.

 

Hospitality is easy when we only extend it to those who look like us, think like us, smell like us.  But Jesus is pushing the plate here in Luke’s gospel when He challenges us to change up the guest list to include the lame, the poor and the blind.  This inversion of hospitality, where those from the margins are placed front and center at the table, reminds us that community is only as strong as its weakest member.  (Powery)  This is certainly surprising because to do so means the guests are served without expectation of reciprocity to the host.  Instead, hospitality is given freely with no strings attached.  Jesus Himself sets this example of hospitality that is “self-giving and other-receiving” (Volf) when He sits at a table with would-be deniers, betrayers and a whole hosts of Cunninghams.  The hospitality of Christ risks everything in order that the Kingdom of God is not diminished.  It is the thematic ribbon that ties all three of today’s scriptures together.

 

In Hebrews, we find the reference that we, unaware sometimes, entertain angels when we extend hospitality.  It is a direct lead to one of the oldest stories in scripture.  It refers to the story of Abraham and Sarah, who extend typical Mid-eastern hospitality to three strangers who happen by Abraham’s tents under the great Oak trees of Mamre.  Abraham and Sarah graciously bring water to wash the guests’ feet, slaughter a calf, bake cakes, and provide drinks.  It turns out that the three guests are on a mission from God…they are angels! … and they arrive to tell Abraham and Sarah that they will have a child.  Even in their old age, they will have a son, Isaac, whose name means laughter.  Would the message have gotten through if Abraham and Sarah had thought of their guests as “only a Cunningham”?

 

Abraham and Sarah remind us that the table is not just where we say grace.  No, hospitality is the space into which we extend grace.  Tables in the ancient world were places where philosophers and teachers could impart wisdom.  Tables were also the place where a community could mark their identity.  A Near Eastern proverb declares: “I saw them eating and I knew who they were.”  It is not a reference to how they chewed their food or cut their meat.  It is a clear reference to the fact that the people we eat with, the people with whom we are willing to keep company also says something about us.  (Luke Powery, “The Welcome Table,” Duke University Chapel, 9-1-13)

 

To the gospel writer, Luke, “nothing is more serious than a dining table.”  (Fred Craddock, Interpretation:  Luke, p. 175) Both the Eucharist and revelations of the risen Christ occur at the table (24:28-32).  It is while eating together, literally, “sharing the salt,” that Christ gives the disciples the promise of the Holy Spirit and their commission (Acts 1:4-8). The table is taken so seriously that Jesus gets into trouble because of those with whom He chooses to sit and eat, in particular the tax collectors and sinners.  In scripture, inviting others to a table could be a sign of affluence or status, but it may also be a sign of service or a sign of acceptance as equals, creating egalitarian fellowship through the breaking of bread.  Extending hospitality at the table means full acceptance of one another and the inclusiveness that Jesus reveals in the company He keeps, especially of the socially ostracized, is suspect.  Remember that even Simon Peter is held with suspicion because he chooses to go into the home of the Gentile Cornelius.  The Jerusalem Council asks: “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?”  (Acts 11) My friends, our table fellowship does not lie.  The table sends a strong message about who’s in and who’s out.  (Powery)

 

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is in the home of a Pharisee for a wedding banquet.  From the very beginning, we should not be surprised that Jesus is a guest of a Pharisee.  Jesus did not find it necessary to exclude the religious in order to also include publicans and sinners.  Jesus’ spirit is inclusive in the broadest possible sense.  (Craddock) He hangs out with the liberals and the fundamentalists—with the republicans and the democrats—with Alabama and Auburn fans!

 

While at dinner, however, Jesus observes the social behavior of both guests and host.  He is a master at observing the small, apparently trivial acts of our everyday activity in order to achieve an accurate picture of our character.  Then, He uses the event to reveal the way life will be in the reign of God.  And so, He watches as guests vie for seats of importance around the table.  The longer He watches, the harder it is to remain quiet.  And so He launches into a lesson about table manners.  “When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honor…rather, go and sit at the lowest place.  If you humble yourselves, you will be exalted and if you exalt yourself, you’ll be humbled.”  It is still a lesson being learned even today.

 

Letitia Baldridge worked as Chief of Staff for First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy at the White House.  She had a quick learning curve in order to become an expert in social protocol.  To avoid giving offense, she explains in her book The Complete Guide to Executive Manners, a host must know how to rank the guests on any guest list:  senators outrank congressmen and even then, consideration must be given to seniority and major positions held.  She once sat the French ambassador in a seat that he felt was beneath his proper rank, and so he refused to be seated and stalked out of the White House.  She says things get really complicated when individuals drop off or on the guest list.  Which is what seems to be happening in the gospel lesson.  Guests are being randomly placed and instead of saying “thank you” for any seat at all, they say, “I don’t want to sit next to him.  He’s a Cunningham!”

 

What Jesus proposes is an inversion of hospitality.  Rather than basing our human community on social custom, intellectual affinity, or economic reciprocity, what if our only criteria for creating community was the simple recognition that God is the Creator of every person?  Each one valued as a precious child of God’s?  It is what Yale theologian Miroslav Volf calls “the drama of embrace.”  This embrace is “the will to give ourselves to the other and ‘welcome them, to readjust our identities to make space for them…prior to any judgment about others, except that of identifying them in their humanity.  The will to embrace precedes any ‘truth’ about others and any construction of their ‘justice.’”  (Powery)

 

Henri Nouwen, Catholic writer, issues the call for hospitality as he observes that contemporary Americans have become nomads.  He says we live as a “world of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture and country; from their neighbors, friends and family; from their deepest self and their God.”  The problem with this nomadic existence is that what we feel about strangers is so controlled by fear, anger and hostility that we build walls that “chip away at communal soulfulness.”  So Nouwen proposes that restoring hospitality to its original depth and potential is the solution.  He says: “Hospitality is not to change people, but to offer them space where change can take place.  Hospitality is the creation of a …space where strangers can become friends.”

 

Do not underestimate the space you create at Baptist Church of the Covenant so that strangers can become friends.  Just this week, I have heard from three guests of our church.  One said that they have never been welcomed by so many people.  Another said that the people of the church where his membership exists are not saying a word to him about his absence, while his visits to Covenant affirm him for his presence.  And another said, “I usually know someone in the churches I visit.  I expect them to come and speak, but we were bombarded by people we had never seen before who told us how glad they were that we had come to worship.”

 

Looking at it from another angle, do not underestimate what you are teaching our children about hospitality by what they witness here.  There is a certain red head that I know well who happened to grow up in this congregation.  It just so happens that he went off to the big city of Atlanta this summer in order to complete an internship.  He worked hard.  He learned a lot and as his responsibilities came to an end, he and all the other interns were invited to dinner with the CFO’s.  They were placed around tables, and Dan, our son, happened to be seated next to a female CFO.  After ordering, there was a slight lull in the conversation, and so Dan, who had quizzed us for a variety of conversation starters, asked the CFO if she had had any vacation over the summer.  Had she traveled, did she have a favorite destination…you know…just conversation.  Her answer was: “Why, yes, my partner and I took our children…”  Dan says he doesn’t remember all that she said because the tension around the table became so intense.  The other interns had no experience in these waters and began to panic.  So Dan, trying to figure out what to do to salvage the experience for his fellow interns thought to himself, “Oh, this is just a Covenant moment!  It is no different from being at church!”  With a slight change of tone without fear in his heart, Dan could use Scout’s response as well: “Oh!  She’s just a Cunningham.”

 

Lloyd and I recently spent a week at The Chautauqua Institution in New York State.  My major role there was to be the chaplain of The Baptist House, which meant I preached twice and represented the Baptists at several events.  One of those was a Tuesday afternoon open house.  It is a time where anyone can visit the house to see if they would consider staying in these particular accommodations.  Now, The Baptist House is located on the main pedestrian street, so I stood at the door, as instructed, and waited.  No one came!  So I took Lloyd’s hand and led him away from the cookie table to walk out to the curb.  When he asked what we were doing, I said, “We are being Mr. Bill Bennett.  Welcome to the Baptist House!  We ‘d love for you to stop in!”

 

We got some interesting looks that afternoon.  We were refused time and again with statements like “I’m not Baptist,” and even, “I’m not religious.”  But here is when things began to change.  Two grade-age girls, as a part of their missions education, had come with their mothers.  And when no one came in to eat their cookies, they brought the trays out to the curb.  They wouldn’t stand with the loud couple from Alabama, so they stood on the other side of the sidewalk, quietly offering cookies.  And do you know, people began to stop, to chat, to rock on the porch, to go inside for punch.

 

It is the main rule of the Kingdom of God.  It is so simple, that it is almost scandalous.  God loves us all deep down, deep down beneath the polite, beautiful faces that we all like to wear.  God loves us beneath the surface of our pride, our accomplishments, and our trophies.  God loves us beneath the surface of our guilt, our mistakes, and our regrets.  God loves us all and wants each of us to be seated at the table…not because of our position in the world, but because of the attitude in our heart.  How can we extend hospitality in such a way that both the angels and the Cunninghams know that they are not just welcome, but expected?  And just in case you missed it, there is a place prepared for you, will you take it?

 

A Partial View

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Hebrews 12:12-15, 28-29: Luke 13:10-17

When church members die, it is my practice to spend time with the family to offer hope and encouragement, help and advice.  At Seminary they tell us our presence represents the presence of Christ to a family in grief.  This seems, oh, so lofty to me especially since I am often struggling as much as the remaining family members!  Such was the case when Gene Brill died.  I sat quietly and held Bill’s hand while their daughter, Tracy, was forced to be in direct relationship with me.

Tracy, 52 years old, was buried yesterday.  You will please forgive me if I use this opportunity to bring some closure to her life for my own selfish need, as well as some of yours.  You see, Tracy was a member of this church.  John Sims baptized her as a child, and I became her pastor when you called me here.  Through the years, she let me know, in no uncertain terms, that while she loved me, she hated THE Church, and this church in particular.  She never gave me a reason, but I watched as she removed herself.  At first, she only attended business meetings and worship on Easter and Christmas Eve.  After her mother died, she swore she would never return to this sanctuary for any reason.  And true to her word, she did not return, not even to attend her father’s memorial service.

But just because Tracy wasn’t here on Sundays or Wednesdays, did not mean I did not hear from her.  She called with such regularity that the office staff would announce: “It must be a full moon, Tracy Brill is on the line.”  And so I’d listen to searing judgment and language so colorful that it turned my hair gray.  The deeper in the bottle she was, the more offensive her language became.

It was during one of those phone calls that I told Tracy we were going to New York City to celebrate David’s graduation from college.  “It is my favorite place in all the world,” Tracy said.  To be honest, I was never quite sure what registered with Tracy and what did not, but this casual remark about New York stuck with her.  It resonated so powerfully that she came to my office to give me a gift.  She said it was an honorarium for her mother’s funeral, but the note attached to the check said it was so we could have a blankety-blank good time in New York.

It was just enough to finance three tickets to a Broadway show.  Not seats in the orchestra, mind you, but partial view seats.  Do you know what these are?  They are discounted seats because you only get a partial view of the stage.  Your sight might be ever so slightly obstructed by a structurally supporting pole or a section of the set.  Sometimes it means that the action occurring on one side of the stage is difficult to see because of the theatre’s shape or maybe the audio is a bit inferior because of the mezzanine overhang. (Alyce McKenzie, “Partial View Seats,” 8-15-13, patheos.com) These were our tickets, and we rejoiced over them…a gift from Tracy Brill, a woman who was living her own life from a partial view seat.

In today’s gospel reading we are introduced to a woman who is also living her life from a partial view seat.  Luke presents her as if she is on a routine trip to the local synagogue.  I imagine that she moves in slow and careful ways, for hers is a world of quiet resignation.  She comes to worship without an expectation that her life will change that very day.  She had been to worship many times, and nothing was ever changed for her physically.  She is practically bent in half by the curvature of her spine, her scoliosis or broken back.  (Gretchen Ziegenhals, The Christian Century, 4-5-89) Feminist theologians offer that like many women in our world, this woman’s physical infirmity probably came from carrying jugs of water too heavy for her frame while she also bears and raises children, prepares food, weaves and makes clothes.  She is burdened, laid low, by the endless jobs that define her life.  (Ziegenhals)  Because these tasks make women little more than beasts of burden, I have to wonder if the feminists aren’t correct, because Jesus likens her situation to that of the ox and ass, beasts of burden that men automatically untie in order to water them on the Sabbath.  Jesus asks: “Ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, also be loosened from her bondage on the Sabbath day?”

Her disability would make her unemployable.  She has no beauty.  Her sight is limited to only what is on the ground so that trees are known by their roots and people by their feet.  For eighteen years, she has been cut off from community.  She is deformed by her loneliness.  Her lack of power within society is emphasized by her silence; she has no language.  Not only can she not straighten herself, she cannot lift her head to even look at Jesus.  All she has is a partial view—some side-long glance.  So she does not call out to get Jesus’ attention.  She does not touch Jesus.  She does not even approach Jesus.  And while I am tempted to say she is MERELY there—ONLY present—the truth is she exemplifies incredible courage to be a visible reminder to all those church people that she is still one among them, still claiming faith and her place as a beloved child of God’s just by being present in the synagogue.  She isn’t there because she is curious about Jesus.  She is there because it is her habit.  It reminds me of the millions of persons around the world who have learned to live with the burden of sexism, racism, economic inequity ad so much more.  In spite of the horrendous injustices that are practiced upon them, they have discovered freedom in their spirits because of the strength that faith provides.

Think of the times you have attempted to be invisible in church.  Not wanting anyone to know your pain or grief, your disappointments or failures, you slip silently into your place burdened, weighted down by a poor decision or a frightening diagnosis.  Maybe you carry the disruption that jobs and relationships inflict or the burden of all those bills that await payment on your desk.  We become this woman when our personal pain is such that our sight is limited and our view of God’s goodness is only partial.  But it works the other way around too.  If we flip our point of entry into the story, think about when we have been present and so full of righteousness or judgment that we fail to see the anguish that another carries.  This is partial view seating as well, and this is what the angry synagogue leader exemplifies.

You see, when Jesus sees the woman, He immediately calls to her.  “Woman, you are freed from your infirmity!”  He lays His hands on her, and she is able to stand tall.  Immediately, she begins to thank God.  All present join her in praising God, all except for the ruler of the synagogue.  The ruler of the synagogue is indignant!  He is furious that work has occurred on the Sabbath.  But rather than approach Jesus, he says to those gathered, “There are six days to do work.  If you want to be healed come on one of those days.  This is the Sabbath!  We are not supposed to work today.”

In wondering why he is so afraid and threatened, I feel some sympathy towards the leader of the synagogue.  These are “his people,” after all.  He is the faithful churchman who labors over the order of worship, who supervises the set up and promotion of this visiting teacher who is the wonder of Galilee.  He has a seminary degree, and possesses a lifelong understanding of what is supposed to happen in church and what is not.  And now, this visiting rabbi has hijacked his service and his people.  Jesus leaves his own lecture to give special attention to one of this synagogue leader’s flock.  I can feel the minister’s panic rising as he realizes he is losing control of the service and that all of his preparations are unraveling right before his very eyes!  So this leader of the synagogue does what we so often do when we feel our precious truths are being compromised.  He becomes rigid and reactive, and so he repeatedly quotes the law to the crowd: “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath day!

Here is Phillip Gulley’s take on it:  You know what I think (about the religious leader)?  I think the woman had shown up those other six days to be healed.  In fact, I think she’d been showing up for eighteen years hoping to be healed, but this religious leader had never even noticed her.  The compassion of Jesus stands in stark contrast to the preacher’s indifference and neglect.  (“Things Jesus Taught Us 6”)

Jesus addresses the religious leader directly by calling him a hypocrite.  Hypocrite is the Greek word for “actor.”  This man only acts likes like he is spiritual.  This man only acts like he loves God.  This man only acts like he loves God’s people.  Jesus is making it clear that this religious leader is no midwife of joy; he would rather promote joyless, loveless, hopeless adherence to law.  So the woman is not the only one with a partial view in this story.  The religious leader, so concerned with rules and regulations, represents an entire system of faith that is crippled, bent over, more concerned with rules, oughts and shoulds, with its treatment of donkeys (!) than with the daughters of Abraham.

What gets lost in this rhetoric, what is missing in the synagogue, what is absent in the religious leader’s right-eous ministry is a sense of God’s love for all; a love that includes all and reaches out to all.  It lacks deeply embedded love within the community so that it extends beyond the synagogue’s doors.  It misses out on love that refuses to diminish or restrict, confine or deny anyone.  (John Buchanan, “Expansive,” 8-26-07) With this in mind, maybe a partial view seat is not such a bargain after all.  For when anything obstructs our view of the fullness God intends for our lives, God invites us to healing so that we can stand upright and claim joy within a community that celebrates with us.

So my favorite part of this story is a small detail attached to the ending when the narrator says: “The entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things Jesus was doing.”  They didn’t listen to the leader of the synagogue.  They didn’t listen to their culture.  They let Jesus define their reality and as a result, they rejoiced.  These ordinary people, living their lives as best they could, caring for their families, trying to make the best of every day and gathering once a week with other believers to be reminded that there is purpose to all of this; that each small life matters—all of it, mine and yours; this child’s and that old woman’s; the red and yellow, black and white; those under the rainbow flag; on the street or over the mountain—all of it matters.  All of it is precious to God who loves us passionately, whose love will not be confined and restricted, and who will find a way to embrace each one of us.  “The entire crowd was rejoicing,” because they knew love when they saw it.  What are you able to see from where you sit?

In a church I once served, we had two Sunday morning services.  The pastor was out of town and so Dr. Tom Corts had been asked to move out of his pew to stand behind the pulpit to bring the sermon at both services.  Tom and I found ourselves alone in that awkward span of time between the services, so I thanked him for his sermon.  He asked me how it had been helpful, and then he listened carefully as I spewed uninformed righteousness that revolved around “once saved always saved” and how can someone whose life shows little evidence of belief still think that they will go to heaven?  (I was young once too!)  Tom just smiled, and the way he answered has powerfully influenced me.  He said that he believed each person’s salvation gets worked out one way or another, but that the great gift of faith and the advantage of living a Christian life is that those who actively practice their faith in the here and now get to live within the heavenly realm before they die.  It comes down to our choices, he said.

With the price paid, do we choose a seat, in this life of ours, with only a partial view or do we want a life with a full view of all the joy and goodness that God offers?  Do we want, as the writer of Hebrews offers, “A Kingdom that cannot be shaken?”  If so, then we have some choices to make:  choices for peace and healing, choices for holiness while refusing bitterness; choices for gratitude and freedom so that all people everywhere are empowered to stand tall, rejoicing over the things that Jesus does.

Tracy Brill made choices, my friends.  She made choices that delayed the experience of heaven that, I believe, she now enjoys fully and completely.  But the woman found in Luke’s gospel, even before she was restored to physical wholeness, was faithfully seeking the Kingdom of God.  Her joy and the faith community’s joy, speaks to what can be ours if we will but choose a seat in the full view of God’s love.  Thanks be to God, Amen.

 

Treasuring

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

from Sunday, July 31, 2016

Hosea 11:1-11; Colossians 3:1-11; Luke 12:13-21

We stopped by every year when we were coming home from the beach.  The old home place sits (still) on the corner of US 31 and North Main Street in Evergreen, Al.  The house had been a showcase when my grandmother lived there as a teen.  The wide veranda made the perfect gathering place in the cool of the evening.  My grandmother and her twin sisters, Aline and Augusta, would sing.  Passers-by would stop to listen and visit.  Before the time of cell phones and the internet, these evening visits between neighbors were the way that news traveled each day.  It was also how young people met, and so, the new, single elementary school principal made a point to stop by often to hear Mary Farnham sing.  He would then ask her father’s permission to walk Mary the one mile into town to watch the evening train come through.

 

My grandmother, Mary, agreed to marry this young principal, Clarence Dannelly.  The young couple left Evergreen so that he could be the president of Kentucky Wesleyan College.  Eventually, they landed at Yale where he earned a Ph.D. in theology.  With various teaching appointments and four children, Mary and Clarence had full lives.  But back in Evergreen, the twin sisters remained.  They remained until their siblings and their parents died.  They remained bound to one another, rarely courted and never married.  They were a pair, these two. When Aline would moan and groan and say “Oh, Lord!”  Augusta would bark, “Why don’t you call on somebody you know!”

 

Eventually, the house became too much.  Kudzu overtook everything:  climbing over the house, breaking through windows and making that wide veranda into a cave without a promise of a breeze or a song.  Aline became sickly and so Augusta was left with most of the responsibilities.  She found it easier and easier to stack the newspapers and magazines on the furniture, on the hearth and mantel of each room’s fireplace, and along the edges of the walls.  When a stack was as tall as she, she simply started another.  And when the room was full, she closed the door and never went in again.  By the time I came along, they had reduced the house to the bedroom they shared, one bathroom and the kitchen.

 

So on our way home to Birmingham after a week at the beach, we would stop.  Dad would spend the better part of a day hacking through the kudzu to make a path from the back door to the mailbox.  Jim, despite every adults’ warning, escaped to uncover an old well, and all the girls, young and old, were left to visit on the veranda.  I could not keep my eyes off the windows and doors.  I wondered about, imagined over what treasures might lay within.  Forbidden to snoop, we were allowed only in the house to use the restroom.  And even then, the paper towels we used to dry our hands were collected to air dry and be used again!  As I look back on it, it was like stepping into a William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor short story.

 

My great aunts’ hoarding could have been on that wildly famous A&E network series, Hoarders, but I doubt it would have made it on to American Pickers.  There was plenty of stuff, but I’m not so sure it was treasure.  By any culture’s definition, the man in today’s parable believes he has treasure.  He works hard for it.  There is no dishonesty involved.  And he has so much treasure, that he must build bigger and better barns.  This material wealth guarantees his security so that now he can eat, drink, and be merry.  The unspoken question, however, is just who can he eat, drink and be merry with especially since his time to die comes with appalling swiftness.  It is over this that God speaks directly to the man.  It is the only time God speaks to a character in one of Jesus’ parables, and God’s words are hard to hear because God quickly calls the man “a fool.”

He is called a fool, because the man misses the genuine delight that comes from profound gratitude.  He fails to realize that what he receives is utterly beyond his deserving.  He fails to recognize and give credit to the Primal Grace that is behind all things:  the Divine hand that brings the sun and creates rain, the gift of fertile seed and rich earth, the orderliness of the seasons and the ability to perform meaningful tasks.  (John Claypool, Stories Jesus Still Tells)

Mainly, he is called fool, because after all that work, the farmer has no one with whom to share his good fortune.  This is most evident by his use of the words “I” and “my.”  They occur over 10 times in his brief conversation—not with another farmer, not with his wife, not with an agricultural consultant from Auburn—his conversation with the most important person in his life, himself!  He talks with himself.  He thinks to himself!  He decides: “I will do this!”  And so while he misses talking about his “great dilemma” and sharing his joy with the Divine One who gives it, he also misses sharing it with anyone else in word or deed.  It seems he has won an empty game.

In Susan Howatch’s novel Ultimate Prizes, the sister of Archdeacon Neville Aysgarth scolds him for his empty chase of worldly success.  “You and your prizes!”  she says.  “The only prize worth winning is love—and just you remember that when you’re a lonely old man trying to comfort yourself with your bank balance and you’re fading memories!”  Fulfilling her prophecy, the Archdeacon later reflects on the sadness of sitting alone in his grand house.  “I look around at all the mementos of my past, all my prizes, and I think: ‘What a success I was!  …But after a while I begin to hear that silence, that long, long silence…and I know with a terrible certainty that the only prize worth chasing is the prize I’ve managed to lose.’  (Peter Marty, “Winning an Empty Game,” The Christian Century, 8-3-16)

Martin Copenhaver (“Building Barns, Postponing Life”) brings this point to life when he imagines himself as the pastor to the widow left behind when the farmer dies.  He asks the widow what was important to the farmer, and she says:

I would frequently ask him when it would all end and we could get on with our lives.  And he would always try to reassure me, mostly by using worlds like tomorrow or soon and phrases like this won’t last forever and some day and I promise.  …He often promised me and himself that as soon as he finished his work and gathered all of his goods together, he [would be satisfied.  Then he] could say to himself, ‘You now have plenty of goods laid up for many years; now you can go to that house on the shore, take your ease, eat, drink, be merry, and do all the things you always talked about.’  But now?  [Well, we didn’t think he would die so soon.]

It is easy for me to believe that the farmer had good intentions about the relationships closest at hand, because I do too.  How is it that doing the laundry, paying the bills, running errands, preparing for exams, building bigger barns all take precedence?  Oh, someday soon, I will stay in closer touch with my friends.

Someday soon I will devote myself to prayer and Bible study.

Someday soon I will be more available to my family.

Someday soon I will give to the church.  I will sing in the choir.  I will teach preschoolers in Sunday School.

Someday soon I will work to bring justice to those without food or shelter.

Someday soon I will visit in the nursing home.

Someday soon…and then our soul is required and someday soon never comes.

 

So Jesus warns, “Be careful.”  Know the difference between possessions and treasure.  (The Christian Century, “Overstuffed Barns,” 3-30-16)  Moth and rust go after possessions, but they cannot touch treasure.  For instance, I possess my house; but I treasure my home.  I possess food in the refrigerator; but I treasure the table hospitality that nourishes me.  I possess a cell phone; but I treasure the people with whom it connects me.  I possess a car; but I treasure the freedom it offers.  I possess a heart; but I treasure love.  I possess a faith; but I treasure the joy it brings.  Full barns do not equal full souls, and so Jesus invites us to be rich towards God; which means Mary and Martha receive the better portion by extending hospitality to one another; the Samaritan sets the example with mercy by having compassion on another who is wounded; we pray to “our Father/our daddy” in such depth of relationship that we can make all of our requests known.  Think back to the prelude of today’s parable.  A man steps forward to request Jesus to make right the disagreement in his family about an inheritance, things, stuff, all that is rightfully MINE.  And Jesus, without hesitation, tells this parable so that the message is clear:  possessions and things are not the priority in God’s Kingdom.   They only create an environment for greed where our focus on self is the sole concern.  Instead, Jesus says, over and over again:  where your heart is, where your relationships are sure and strong, where your hospitality is generous there you will find your treasure.

 

My great aunts remained in the Evergreen house until Augusta fell and broke her hip.  Once settled in the nursing home, my parents enlisted the help of the city to clean things up.  It took three rounds of bulldozing to reclaim the yard.  Dump trucks parked under the windows so that my parents could make a path from the hallway to the window before throwing out most all of the stuff that was packed in the rooms.  It was a strong lesson in what one considers treasure is often defined differently by others.

 

From that point forward, my grandmother spent summers in the house.  Mother and I would go down the day after school ended to help her open up the house.  It sometimes took a week or more for the stale air to move out, so at night, my mother and I would pull mattresses into the great hallway.  We placed them in front of the double screened doors in hopes of catching a breeze.  On the nights when it was too hot to sleep, Momma shared memories of family and heritage, and of the unhappy years that she lived in the house during the depression.  My heart would swell to the point of breaking to hear her say that she was never her own mother’s favorite, never the chosen niece nor was she the apple of her grandmother’s eye.  Her retelling on those nights, however, faithfully filled my storehouse with treasure, binding me ever more strongly to her with the security of a relationship in which, regardless of anyone else’s opinion, we felt treasured by the other.  But I was not the only one.

 

You see, my mother did uncover physical “treasure” in the house.  It was in the form of three canvases that her grandmother, Hermione Stoudemyer Farnham, had painted.  My mother did not tell anyone about what she had found until the Christmas morning that she unveiled the paintings and presented them to her mother as a gift.  We all focused our attention on grandmother.  She was speechless and in an unusual display of emotion, she cried.  She cried over this treasure of immeasurable worth: a connection to those she loved and who loved her still.

 

This, I believe is what Jesus is teaching us.  Fill your barns with the things that endure…not what moths and rust will corrupt but with treasures of the heart, treasure that is eternal, treasure that is graced with God’s love.  Nothing else—not wealth, not success, not fame—nothing else is as important or as enduring as the love we are invited to share with one another through Jesus Christ.  What is stored in your heart?  Who is your treasure?  How are you rich toward God?

 

Invitation to commitment:

The Old Testament lesson speaks of God as the parent who tenderly lifts us to God’s cheek because we are treasured.  This time of commitment provides us an opportunity to respond to this divine love that reaches out to embrace us.  So should you have a decision of faith which you wish to make public, please respond as we stand and sing the hymn of commitment that is printed on the bulletin insert.

 

To Be the Neighbor

Sunday, July 10, 2016

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So the story goes something like this:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

Now Jesus says the story happens like this:

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

When I needed a neighbor, were you there?

When I needed a listener, were you there?

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

When I needed a healer, were you there?

When I needed a neighbor, were you there?  

Were you there?

 

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

 

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

 

The Tension of Peace

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, July 3, 2016

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Make us instruments of your peace, Lord.

Where there is hatred, use us to bring love.

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

Where there is discord, use us to bring harmony.

Where there is despair, use us to bring hope.

Where there are shadows, use us to bring light.

Where there is sadness, use us to bring joy.

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

 

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

Amen.

 

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

 

Invitation:

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

 

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

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

 

Precious

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, June 26, 2016

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

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

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

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

Who is precious in the sight of the Lord?

 

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

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

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

Jesus loves the little children of the world.

 

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

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

 

We Are Legion

A message by The Reverend Sarah Jackson Shelton, Pastor

Sunday, June 19, 2016

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Give us love to change our vision.

Give us love to cast out fear.

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

Give us love that welcomes difference.

Give us love that no hatred can destroy.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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