The Kingdom of Heaven Is Like Good Fried Chicken: Rev. Susan Sparks

Hi y’all, welcome to the Shiny Side Up! A journal of infectious inspiration that will lift you up, make you smile and leave you stronger.

Recently in Atlanta, Georgia, I discovered that the Kingdom of Heaven is like great fried chicken. This realization came after a dinner with my roommate from college.

Atlanta, if you don’t know, is a foodie heaven. Every major chef — every James Beard award winner is down there. So I was excited about what new edgy restaurant we might explore!

My friend picks me up from my hotel and after a bit of a drive, we turn into the parking lot of a sketchy motel with a neon flashing sign across the street advertising “The Onxy Strip Club.”  Nestled in the middle of all this glory was the Colonnade Restaurant, circa 1927.

I wanted to turn to my friend and say “you have GOT to be kidding me.” But like the good southerner I said, “well how lovely” (still thinking you have GOT to be kidding).

Here’s where the lesson shows up. About a half an hour later, the waitress arrives with our food. Brothers and sisters I kid you not – the heavens opened up, and a flock of angels came down with the keys to the kingdom because there in front of me was a big ole plate of fried chicken that was so good it’d make your tongue jump out and lick the eyebrows off your head.

That evening I learned that the Kingdom of Heaven is like good fried chicken because often times we find it in places we might not otherwise choose to go.

Appearances are fooling – whether it’s a building, or a neighborhood, or a nation or a person, you can never judge based on how something or someone looks. The book of John 7:24 says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”

Besides the fact that judging is wrong, it’s also dumb. We miss the best things in life by focusing only on what’s shiny and beautiful, popular and hip. Had we gotten scared off by the sketchy motel and the Onyx Strip Club, we would have missed experiencing the Kingdom through that fried chicken. And the same is true for all of us.

Right now, today, something or someone around you is offering YOU a beautiful gift. The question is: will you judge the appearance of the giver or will you accept and enjoy the gift?

Below you will find more inspiration via photos, articles and sermons. Until next time, keep the shiny side up and the rubber side down!   –Susan

The Invisible Woman – www.ethicsdaily.com

Wednesday, August 23, 2017 4:47 am

'The Invisible Women' | Mitch Carnell, Baptists, Catholics, Women in Ministry, The Invisible Women, Sandra Makowski

Too often, we study the men [in the Bible] and ignore the women, Carnell observes.

“The Invisible Women: Naming and Proclaiming the Forgotten Women in Scripture and Church Law” is a book of great consequence.

Through Sister Sandra Makowski’s superb writing, research and scholarship, the poor treatment of women in the Bible, lectionary and local church is brought to new light.

Of course, Makowski writes from a Catholic perspective, but that does not mean there is no food for the rest of Christianity. As a Baptist, I was surprised by the number of things I did not know.

For example, I have never read a book or heard a sermon on Hagar and yet Makowski’s book helped me to see how Hagar becomes more and more important as international conflicts continue to unfold.

Similarly, I knew almost nothing about Huldah, the prophet who lived during the time of Jeremiah. I have been saturated with knowledge about Jeremiah and his teachings and that is Makowski’s point. Too often, we study the men and ignore the women.

In the beginning of the church, women and men shared equal status and roles. However, as the church became more and more structured it took on the cultural characteristics of the society around it. Women gradually were stricken from the leadership and their voices disregarded.

In the Catholic Church, this pattern continued unchallenged until after Vatican II, where no Catholic women were originally invited.

However, a major shift began that indicated that the laity share equally in being gifted with the Holy Spirit, being called to holiness and being engaged in the mission of the church.

Although women play major roles in the Bible, their importance is mainly marginalized by the male-dominated church, Makowski asserts. When women are mentioned, it is most often in relationship to the male figures.

Jesus reverses this practice; however, the church downplays the extraordinary recognition Jesus gave to women.

The role of women has often been described as the sleeping beauty fairytale. Women are simply to wait until Prince Charming arrives, awakens them and gives meaning to their lives through him.

It would be nice to think that that notion has been put to rest; however, we know that this isn’t true.

The Baptist Faith and Message statement of the Southern Baptist Convention in the year 2000 states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Another section states, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ.”

As a result, in many Southern Baptist churches, women cannot be deacons or teach men.

One of the major new ideas to me from Makowski’s book is that there were women at the Last Supper. The Scriptures do not restrict the possibility. Yet, in my life in the church this possibility has never been remotely suggested.

At the end of each chapter, Makowski includes a short story that places the reader in a situation and then asks the reader to answer several questions. These questions are very important in helping personalize the impact of what has gone before.

The concluding paragraphs of “The Invisible Women” are powerful.

“If we fail at being our best selves, or if we are not invited to the banquet, that doesn’t mean we give up. It simply means that tomorrow is another day. And tomorrow we try again with God’s grace,” Makowski writes. “It is God who has the final answer, and in the end, it is God who does the inviting. God has already extended the invitation to women and men alike. No one is excluded from the banquet.”

She continues, “Let us remember that it is God who has the last word, and in God we trust because God loves us, God sees us, God calls us by our name. We are God’s beloved – male and female alike. And nothing and no one can take that away. What more is there to say!”

Mitch Carnell is a member of First Baptist Church of Charleston, South Carolina. He is the author of “Our Father: Discovering Family.” His writings can also be found at MitchCarnell.com and ChristianCivility.com.

Give your tongue a rest and listen with your heart, Sparks says

“Is there anywhere in the Bible that shows Jesus laughing?” asked the Rev. Susan Sparks at the beginning of the 9:15 a.m. Thursday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Chautauquan Susan Hughes had stopped Sparks after her presentation at the Interfaith Lecture Tuesday and asked the question.

“The short answer is no, not in the Gospels; there is nothing about joy,” Sparks said. “But in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, there is a phrase used several times, ‘and the Savior laughed.’ ”

Sparks took a short diversion from her sermon topic, “Check Your Weapons at the Door.” The theme was angry words and the Scripture readings were James 3:3-5, Proverbs 18:21 and Psalm 141:3.

Sparks and her husband were on a motorcycle trip near Yellowstone. She was wearing an open face helmet and momentarily took off her glasses, and a bug hit her in the eye. It hit her eyelid, but “it felt like a meteor coming at me. I was not pleased and I am sure the bug was not happy either,” she said.

They stopped at a Cody, Wyoming, hospital to get her eye looked at and she noticed a large sign at the front door: “Check Your Weapons at the Door.”

“Is that sign for real?” she asked the nurse looking after her,

“Honey, this is Wyoming,” the nurse said. “You have no idea what people come in packing.”

The sign was important to keep people safe in the hospital, Sparks said.

“There is a lot of talk about weapons today — nukes, drones, WMDs, AK-47s — that we need to seriously consider checking at the door,” she said. “But there is a more dangerous and equally scary one that each of us has. We are all packing heat with our personal WMD — the human tongue.”

In Proverbs 12:18 it says “rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” We are all familiar with the damaging power of words, Sparks said, that can sting like bugs at 70 mph. They tear apart families, cause jealousy and anger, and lead to prejudice and racial slurs.

“Fifty-two percent of young people have been bullied online,” she said. “These words are spoken and written because the fingers are the extension of the mouth. Hurt-filled words that are spoken, written, texted or tweeted are part of an arms race that must stop.”

In the letter of James, he tells his readers that a bridle in the mouth of a horse can control it, and that a great ship is guided by a small rudder.

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits,” Sparks added. “There has to be a way to bridle the tongue, to check our weapon at the door along with other, dangerous, human-made weapons.”

The first way she suggested to check the weapons is to take responsibility for what you say or write.

“I know that pasta is done when I throw it against the wall and it sticks,” she said. “When we treat words like that, they always stick. I wish we had autocorrect for the tongue.”

One day Sparks was texting a parishioner and thought she had sent: “Our prayers are with you. You have family in NYC.” When she checked the message, it read, “Our prayers are with me, you have family here not.”

The parishioner had a sense of humor and wrote back, “I pray my pastor will master autocorrect.”

There is no autocorrect in life; we can’t take things back and we will be held accountable, Sparks said. As baseball player Willie Davis said, if you step on people in this life, you are likely to come back as a cockroach.

The second way to check our tongues, Sparks said, is realizing there is power in shutting up.

“We need to take a Shabbat, a rest, for our mouths and listen,” she said. “We think by the inch, talk by the yard and show people the door by the foot.”

Author Stephen Covey said that we don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply.

“I know that from my training as a trial lawyer, I was always looking for something to say that was sparkly, intelligent or would win the argument,” Sparks said. “But we do this naturally in our own lives.”

If we only listen to reply, we are only listening with our mouth, she said. If we listen to learn, we are listening from the heart.

“Let’s give our mouths a Shabbat,” she said.

The third suggestion was that words can change the world for better or worse. As an example, Sparks told a story of being in a pre-operating room with her husband, who was awaiting back surgery. A doctor entered the cubicle of the patient next door who was waiting for surgery and said: “You are going to hate me after this operation. This is the most painful surgery I do.”

In contrast, her husband’s surgeon came in and said: “Let’s do this. You will be taller and stronger because of me.”

She also shared the story of a father playing catch with his son in a local park. The small son had a glove about the size of his head. The dad would throw the ball and it would drop to the ground. The father kept moving closer and throwing the ball, and it kept dropping to the ground. Finally, he walked up and put the ball in the glove.

“That was great, good for you,” he said to his son.

“What an indelible footprint that dad made on the flexible psyche of his son,” Sparks said.

People are hungry for love and affirmation and every word has an impact on them. We can change them and the entire world with our words, she said.

“Do your words lift up and leave people better than you found them or are they WMDs?” Sparks asked. “We can get all worked up packing heat, making the tongue a destructive weapon, or we can make it a tool for healing and change the world for the better. Check your weapons at the door.”

Morning Worship: Put trash in mulch pile and let new, beautiful things grow

by MARY LEE TALBOT on 

“Humor and laughter are the most powerful gifts in life,” said the Rev. Susan Sparks at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. “The congregation this morning is a visual reaffirmation of faith in the church, in that the numbers here this morning rival the numbers at a screening of ‘Harry Potter.’ ”

Senior Pastor Susan Sparks Delivers Her SermonDuring The Sunday Morning Worship Service . PAULA OSPINA / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Her sermon title was “The Mulch Pile,” and the theme was letting go. The Scripture reading was Colossians 3:1-2, 8-14.

Sparks said she and her husband were traveling across the country, and to the west of Minneapolis they saw a billboard that had a picture of a casket “Minnesota Cremation Society — Think Outside the Box,” it read.

“That is what humor does — helps you think outside the box, see in fresh ways, and it builds community and bridges,” Sparks said.

Sparks quoted theologian Karl Barth, saying that humor is the closest thing we have to God’s grace.

“We can feel hope in our hearts,” she said, “because humor is there even if the world tries to beat it out.”

Sparks recently ended a three-month sabbatical. For the first month, she and her husband rode their Harleys around the country.

“That’s right, you have a biker chick and a comedian for a chaplain this week,” she said.

The second two months they spent in their cabin in Wisconsin — a place they visit regularly. It is near a town much like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon: 2,000 people and 17 Lutheran churches.

They have a ritual for their first morning — first, making “really bad coffee,” and then fishing for bluegills and other small fish and then cooking breakfast. During one visit, they threw the fish guts and egg shells into the trash after breakfast and went out to run errands. They had no air conditioning and the day was 93 degrees — “you can see where this is going,” Sparks said. When they got home, they were hit with the smell.

“I made a small gas mask out of wet paper towels and went in and got the trash and ran it out to the mulch pile,” Sparks said. “As you gardeners know, the trash turns into rich, dark soil that grows daylilies or tomatoes.”

In the Scripture reading, Paul tells the Colossians to get rid of their anger and malice and clothe themselves in a new self.

“Paul was writing in 60 A.D. and the danger he was writing about was gnosticism,” Sparks said. “He urged the Colossians to clothe themselves in the teaching of Christ. Paul is reaching out to us in the same way today and asking two questions — What trash are you carrying that needs to be put in the mulch? And what beautiful new thing can grow in its place?”

This is the arc for the week in her sermons: to look at what the trash is that needs to be put out on the mulch pile and, on Friday, to sum up what beautiful new thing might grow in its place.

“What trash are you carrying?” she asked. “Do you even know? Are you carrying anger, resentment, fear or self-doubt? Are you carrying racism, homophobia or other hatreds?”

Sparks said that sometimes when we are in denial, we don’t know that we are carrying trash or we have lived with generations of disregard for the problems. As an example, she said she threw her back out once and had to lie on the floor for almost a week. On the fourth day, after having read every newspaper and magazine in the house and binge-watched reruns of “Dr. Phil,” she was bored and her only view was under the furniture.

“I saw dust balls the size of ferrets, some leaky pens and paper and a strange orange square thing. It turned out to be a cheese appetizer from a cocktail party two years before,” she said. “I would not have known it was there unless I had been forced to look. You can’t take out the trash if you don’t know it is there.”

The second action in taking out the trash is letting go, and that is easier said than done. There are many things that we are used to but are useless to us.

“My father had a big old Buick boat of a car and he kept two spare tires, food, water, blankets and a foil space blanket in his trunk — in case there was a blizzard — to drive the 0.1 mile to from our house to his office in Charlotte, North Carolina,” she said.

We, she told the congregation, need to let go of privilege, apathy and ego as much as a foil blanket. She told the story of a man who fell off a cliff and was dangling from a tree, calling for help. A voice came from the heavens, saying, “Let go, my son, I have you.” The man thought for a moment and said, “Who else is up there?”

It can be hard to let go, but if we carry this trash too long it begins to define us. Ralph Waldo Emerson said what we worship, we become.

“I have a friend who calls it the 3Bs — believe, behave, become,” Sparks said. “What we believe drives our behavior and what we believe drives who we become.”

Sparks cited the first part of the Serenity Prayer, attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr, which reads: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.”

She prefers the Senility Prayer: “God, Grant me the senility to forget the people I never liked anyway, the good fortune to run into the ones that I do, and the eyesight to tell the difference.”

“We have got to let go and throw things onto the mulch pile and in that moment, greater forces will take over,” Sparks said. “When we hand things over to a greater power, to Jesus Christ, it fades and changes into something beautiful and new.”

For instance, she said, we have to throw out our judgmentalism of others in order for mercy, empathy and forgiveness to grow.

“We judge people by the craziest things, like color, language or religion that have nothing to do with their being a child of God and our brother and sister,” she said.

She told a story from Jack Kornfield about two prisoners of war. The first one asked the second if he had forgiven their captors. The second one said no. “Then they still have you in prison,” the first one replied.

“We have more in common than we think and we have to start living like it,” Sparks said. “We have to begin with ourselves and forgive ourselves so we can forgive others. We have excuses for why we can’t do that, but if we have any lesson for today, it is that this body is our house, this heart is our house, this country is our house, this world is our house and it is our responsibility to take out the trash even if someone else brought it in.”

Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

“If you care about this gift, don’t waste it on what weighs you down,” Sparks said. “Fling it on the mulch pile and clothe yourself in something beautiful and new.”

Morning Worship: God is holding you and all this beautiful, broken world  o

by MARY LEE TALBOT on   The Chautauqua Daily

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The Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli Presents Her Sermon During Sunday Morning Worship In The Amp On Sunday, July 23, 2017. ERIN CLARK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

When the Rev. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli was serving as a youth minister, she was asked to preach one Sunday. One of the youth, Phil, wanted to see her before the service.

“I knew Phil liked me and he had been on mission trips and retreats and was aloof, as fitted a 16-year-old,” she said. “He asked if I was preaching and I said yes. He said, ‘Make it interesting.’ ”

Gaines-Cirelli was preaching at the 9:15 a.m. Monday morning worship service in the Amphitheater. Her sermon title was “Hear and See,” and the Scripture reading was Isaiah 30:8-18.

“That is such good counsel if you have ears to hear,” she said. “To invite people to receive God’s love and liberating grace, to share God’s life.”

This message has always been a challenge to be truly received.

Hearing is more than physical; it is not just intellectual assent or an emotional response. To truly hear “adjusts the core of our being and we are changed from the inside out.” Gaines-Cirelli said the most difficult journey is from the head to the heart and it is a round trip — a quote she attributed to 20th-century preacher William Sloane Coffin.

The prophet Isaiah had fully received God’s message and a vision had taken root in his heart of a community living in covenant faithfulness. It would be a community that rescued the oppressed, beat swords into ploughshares; it would be the vision of the peaceable kingdom.

“This vision of peaceful living and interdependence guided all he did; it was his grounding and he invited others to live it,” Gaines-Cirelli said of Isaiah. “He looked at Judah in crisis and saw it rejecting the vision and turning toward oppression and cunning that brought increased suffering and the presumed necessity of violence.”

It is only in quiet and trust that Judah could remember who was able to liberate them.

“In response to this blessed assurance, they said, ‘No thanks, we are good with oppression and cunning,’ ” Gaines-Cirelli said.

Jesus lamented over Jerusalem, calling it the city that killed the prophets and stoned those sent to it. Jesus longed to gather the people of Jerusalem under his wings like a mother hen, but they were not willing.

“Why? Why did they reject the words of God’s prophets?” she asked. “They were unwilling or unable to receive the word and change course.”

The prophet could see the writing on the wall if things did not change, but his announcement of destruction made no impact. The people told Isaiah to stop telling the truth, to quit speaking of God all together and “tell us what we want to hear.”

“Why?” Gaines-Cirelli said. “What is your answer?”

She imagined that for some, in a message-saturated culture, they want to keep their illusions because they are tired. People just want to get through the day; they have enough to do and are not interested in doing more, or learning more or caring more. They are on information overload.

Others “prefer to keep their illusions about their life, relationships, country, world or culture because the truth is too painful, too overwhelming.”

“They grow complacent and think things aren’t so bad and that it will all work out,” she said.

This is only possible, she continued, for those who live in relative safety or ease.

“They will resent those who threaten their relative comfort,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “This is called privilege, and it works overtime to prove those who are suffering wrong, even in the face of data. What would be required of the privileged would be too costly if the vision took root.”

Prophets tell inconvenient truths that require real change.

“There are things in my life I need to change, that if left uncared for will have negative consequences,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “I know I need more rest and exercise, so I decided to do ‘vigorous sitting.’ I don’t have a primary care physician because I don’t want to deal with the insurance company.”

She said that there are difficult conversations she needs to have, and her husband tells her to do what needs to be done.

“I could kill him, metaphorically,” she said. “But exhaustion, guilt and regret are things that keep me from doing what needs to be done and when I don’t want to see, I lash out.”

Smart, accomplished people who care can inadvertently miss what God is trying to do or say, she said, because “they think they understand the situation and can handle it themselves, with no assistance from God, because they know what the problem is and it is up to them to solve it.”

She gave the example of the statue of Atlas in front of Rockefeller Center, holding up the world on his shoulders.

“He is the most powerfully built man in the world, and he can barely stand,” she said. “That is one way to live.”

Across the street, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is a statue of Jesus as a boy holding the world up with one hand.

“We have a choice,” Gaines-Cirelli said. “We can try to carry all the injustices, hurts, doubts, confusions, fears and anxiety — that is, it is up to us, we know best — or we can let God help us. I can just see Atlas saying ‘no thanks’ to God’s offer of help.”

She told the congregation “our overactive sense of knowledge keeps us from seeing God’s saving love and mercy.”

“The prophets made the message interesting and painful to get our attention,” she said. “We have heard God’s call to love, serve, give, live with the creation. We know this stuff, right?”

We cannot do it by ourselves, she continued. It is one thing to know something intellectually and “another to change our lives. Where are you on the round trip journey from head to heart? God is with you on that journey and holding you and all this beautiful, broken world.”

God’s love is at work in, through and all around you in quietness and trust, she said.

“God is waiting to help grant you mercy and grace in what work is yours to do in the living of these days,” she said. “Hear. See. Receive. God bless you, amen.”

The Rev. Robert M. Franklin Jr. presided. The Rev. Susan McKee, founder and executive director of Knitting4Peace, read the Scripture. She is a United Church of Christ minister, working on interfaith relations in Denver. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Motet Choir, which sang “We Shall Walk Through the Valley,” arranged by Undine Smith Moore. The Geraldine M. and Frank E. McElree Jr. Chaplaincy Fund and the Randell-Hall Memorial Chaplaincy provide support for this week’s services.


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