What Do You Want to Grow?

Rev. Sonya Gravlee’s sermon from Sunday, July 16, 2017 on Matthew 13:1-10 and 18-23

Back when I taught at the University of La Verne, a Biology professor and I co-created and co-taught an interdisciplinary course called Women and the Environment. One of the documentaries we always showed in that class features an architect and designer named William McDonough.

McDonough advises business and political leaders about good design, design built around abundance rather than scarcity, around good instead of around less bad or just plain bad. When he talks to these leaders, he often begins by asking them, “What do you want to grow?” Do you want to grow prosperity or poverty? Do you want to grow sickness or health? What do you want to grow? Decide that, then design around it.

I think it’s a good question to ask ourselves. What do I want to grow in my life? What do I want to grow today? Right now? Do I want to grow abundance or scarcity? Peace or conflict? Love or apathy? Goodness or greed? What do I want to grow? What do I want my life to be about?

In Jesus’ parable about the sower, we often focus on the kinds of soils described. And those are important, for sure. But this time when I read this text—and I’ve read this text a lot in my 50+ years—I was struck by the behavior of the Sower. Look at him. He sows everywhere he goes!

He’s throwing out seeds left and right—in the middle of the road, on some rocky ground, in a bunch of thorns and weeds, and then where you’d expect a hard-working sower to sow: the good soil. Not surprisingly, he gets the most yield—and really abundant yields at that!—in the good soil, the fertile soil, the well-tended, nutrient-rich, plowed soil where the seed has the best chance to grow. And it does. It grows and grows and grows, producing yields of 100 fold, 60 fold and 30 fold. That’s a pretty good crop!

So why bother with the other soils at all? Why waste his time sowing where there’s little to no chance of a high yield? Well, why not?

I don’t know about you, but I’m not always good soil. Sometimes I’m a bit hard-headed and maybe even a little hard-hearted. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed with my own stuff that I don’t pay much attention to what’s going on with anyone else. Sometimes I’m just not, you know, in the best of places.

But you know what? God keeps loving me. And God keeps loving you when you’re not in the best of places, when your soil isn’t exactly the best it’s ever been. God keeps sowing good stuff, working good stuff, and sending good stuff extravagantly out into the whole world, whatever the condition of the soil where it lands. Thank God.

And the cool thing is, that even when my soil isn’t the best, God’s love can still take root. The fruit may not last forever in me, but it may last long enough until I’m in a better place. It may last long enough for me to reach out and help someone else, even if the effort does me in. It may last long enough for me to catch that glimpse of hope I need to take me a step farther along the path.

Do you know what I mean? It’s important for us to keep growing and learning and improving as we can. As Maya Angelou says, Do the best you can until you know better. And when you know better, do better. I don’t know about you, but that’s really freeing for a perfectionist like me. I mean, I’m a Virgo, for pete’s sake. And a redhead! I was raised believing there wasn’t much room for failure in my life. So on those occasions when I did fail? That was a bitter pill to swallow. Sometimes, I got lost in the failure, even though most folks probably would’ve seen it as no big deal.

Once upon a time, I would’ve felt guilty about not being super good soil 24/7, for not yielding crops 100-fold all the time. But I think that might be missing the bigger point here. As we say in the UCC, wherever you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here. And we mean it.

There may be times when your soil is like the road—busy and weighed down and hard. There may be times when your soil is kinda rocky—when tough days far outnumber the good days. There may be times when your soil is just plain overwhelmed by sharp edges and feels like it’s choking you. And there may be times, I hope and pray there are lots of them, when life is good, the path is easy, and you have more than you need.

Whatever condition your life, your soil, the Sower keeps sowing. God keeps loving you. And loving me. And loving the whole big bad beautiful wonderful frustrating hard harsh brilliant gorgeous extravagant stingy world.

That’s good news. Not just for me. Not just for you. But for all the yous and mes in our world.

There are people who will tell you that you are not enough. That there is something fundamentally wrong with you. There are leaders who will tell us that there is not enough to go around, that we must do without, give up, let go, in order to survive. There are frenemies who will begrudge good things in your life as if that robs them of good things in their own lives.

All of those messages are bad news. And they do not reflect the nature of God, the teaching of Jesus who said he came that we might have life, and have it more abundantly—not life that is carefully measured and parceled out one morsel at a time. Abundance. Extravagance. Plenty.

That is the nature of God and God’s love for us—it gives even when we are not the best receivers because God’s nature is love. That’s just who God is. That’s what God does. We don’t need to earn love or show we’re worthy of it or prove we should have it. We just don’t. God loves me. God loves you. Here. Now. Then. Past. Present. Future. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Because that is who God is. Thank God.

I don’t know about you, but accepting that love whatever condition the rest of my life is in frees me to learn better and do better. It frees me to choose what it is that I want to grow. If there is more than enough for all of us, then how will I live? How will I love and share and grow and do and be and live and move and have my being in this world?

What do I want to grow? Then that’s what I must plant—not just in worthy soil or good soil but everywhere I can.

Do I want to grow love? Then I will love: myself, others, God, creation, everything and every one. I will want the best for others as well as myself. Do I want to grow joy? Then I will practice gratitude, say thank you, count my blessings, even when I have to work hard to remember them.

Do I want to grow peace? Then I will work for justice, for fairness, for a better life for all. I will try to resolve interpersonal conflicts peaceably rather than always insist on my own way. (I should clarify that I by no means manage all of this—it’s aspiration more than reality, most days.)

Do I want to grow faithfulness? Then I will show up when I say I’ll be there, I’ll do what I say I’ll do. And if I can’t? I’ll let those counting on me know and do what I can to make it right.

Do I want to grow patience? Then I will take my time, be present in each moment, learn to value waiting. Full disclosure: I may never actually grow this one. But I can keep sowing as much as I can where I can. And when I’m impatient, I can keep trying to grow patience on other occasions.

Do I want to grow kindness? Then I will be kind, give the benefit of the doubt, give that cup of cold water or coffee or tea or whatever helps another. And I will be kind to myself, even when I don’t think I deserve it. Do I want to grow goodness? Then I will treat others as I want to be treated, I will join God’s project of working good out of every situation. At the very least, I will try not to cause harm or make it worse.

Do I want to grow gentleness? Then I will care for the least of these, be careful of the fragile within me and others. Do I want to grow self-control? Then I will take a breath, count to ten, think of consequences and injury to self and others before acting out of frustration or anger. This one is tough for me as well.

As God’s people, we have so many gifts, such freedom because God loves us so extravagantly. That extravagance gives us the grace to sow, and grow, and fail, and go again. Learn better. Do better. Nurture. Care. Protect. Love.

Does this mean life will be smooth sailing and good soil for each of us every day? Not even a little bit. Matthew’s gospel also tells us it rains on both the just and the unjust. I guess like seeds, we need both sunshine and rain in order to grow.

I suspect that you and I both think there are some folks whose lives are much much harder than they should be. Together, perhaps, we can make life a little better and easier and kinder for everyone if we focus on growing good in ourselves and in our world.

What do you want to grow? Then plant those seeds, nurture those seeds already planted in and around you.

Friends, may you revel in the abundance of God’s love. And may we all know and share God’s grace with ourselves and one another.

(image from http://csuhort.blogspot.com/2013/05/free-xeriscape-garden-tour-in-pueblo.html)

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Independence or Interdependence

The sermon from Sunday, July 2, 2017 on Romans 6:12-23

This passage from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Roman church is layered.  

That’s good because I sat down to write one sermon and ended up writing another. The Holy Spirit will do that to you.

Let’s start with this line from the middle – I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.

That sounds a little obnoxious, but I’d argue what Paul is saying here is that he’s trying to put things in terms that his audience will understand. He’s speaking their language.

Since our language and our context is different than Paul’s, we end up needing a little translating.

It’s always important when slavery comes up in Scripture to note that Paul is not endorsing slavery or saying anyone should be a slave.

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness?

The point is this, I would argue: we choose whom we follow. We devote ourselves to many things – and that can be to all that is good and loving and compassionate and just – or not.

We can make ourselves slaves of consumerism and fear and oppression and meanness.

Or we can fill ourselves with the goodness of God.

Paul says – Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.

According to Paul, we who follow Jesus reclaim ourselves from the forces of wickedness in this world, so that we might live in righteousness, live as if God is working through us.  

Here’s where this sermon took a turn. I was going to explain why I wasn’t going to preach about Independence Day. Then I realized that in explaining why I wasn’t preaching about Independence Day, I was ending up preaching about Independence Day. So we’re just going with it . . .  

Other churches do.  I’m not looking to argue with any given church or pastor about the practice.

However, it’s tied into the same reason you won’t find an American flag here in the church – and why I tend to stay away from discussion of secular holidays in general.

It’s not because I don’t love this country. As a citizen, I love this country and I believe in the ideals to which it professes – even as I understand that it often fails to live up to them. I believe that we together continue the journey of making it better.  I was born in this country and I choose to remain here because it’s my home.

I vote. I turn up for jury duty when I’m called. I give blood. I call my elected officials about things that matter to me.  I am grateful for those who serve in the armed forces and respect how we need a professional military. I try to be dutiful.

Yet this is not supposed to be a church holiday. We as Christians don’t worship the flag. We  don’t worship the United States of America – or at least we’re not supposed to.

That would be idolatry.

We can respect the flag, but we ought not confuse it with God. We respect our civil society, our shared life together as a country, but we also remember who we, as Christians, are called to follow.

Some people make of themselves a slave to so-called patriotism. This is not about Republicans or Democrats. We can all fall victim to this.  It does not make sense to attempt be a slave to patriotism and a liberated, devoted follower of Jesus at the same time.

Jesus was a critic of state power used badly, a challenger of Empire. Then and now and all through the centuries, religion has been used as an instrument of state power. That is deeply problematic because the church is supposed to be an instrument of God’s love.

And God loves us all. We believe in a God who loves all.

We can say God bless America, but if we do, it might rightly be followed by God bless Belgium and God bless Nicaragua and God bless Madagascar and Japan. God doesn’t love just us, nor are we due the sole measure of God’s blessing. We humans are the ones in competition for everything.

God’s love is vast enough for all of us. That is the vastness of God. Because we all dwell within the vastness of God and God’s love, this isn’t just about us.

It makes for a complicated narrative because we also have these truths.

We celebrate freedom and independence on Independence Day and yet on July 4, 1776 and for more than 80 years after, chattel slavery – the actual enslavement of black people bodily ripped from Africa – remained the law of the land.

There were churches who walked lock-step with the existence of slavery in this country. And there were those who resisted it, who worked tirelessly for abolition and human freedom.

So whose Independence does this day celebrate? And how do we as Christians relate to that?

We celebrate freedom and Independence on Independence Day – and yet on July 4, 1776 and for decades hence, this country slaughtered indigenous people, seized their lands for settler colonizers, and destroyed the living vestiges of their culture.

There were churches who justified that genocide in this country. And there were those who resisted it.

So whose Independence does this day celebrate? And how do we as Christians relate to that?

We celebrate freedom and independence on Independence Day – and yet believe that we have the right to bomb sovereign nations at (our) will, prop up brutal dictatorships, and impose the hegemony of capitalism to the ends of the planet.

There are churches that prop up state power and those that critique it.

So whose Independence does this day celebrate? And how do we as Christians relate to that?

We celebrate freedom and independence on Independence Day – and yet we consume and destroy the living Earth.

So I ask: whose independence? whose freedom? who benefits from these masks of ideology and our full plates of nationalism?

There are many ways in which the path of being an American and the path of being a Christian can be the same. But a nationalism that fails to see the harm that we’ve caused and that we continue to cause – even and perhaps especially when it’s wrapped in the flag – is not Christian. It’s an idolatrous worship of militarism, vain superiority, and the accumulation of power.

So you can have Independence Day.

I believe in the vastness of God and the vastness of God’s love.

As all living people and creatures are connected in our being and our well-being, I will celebrate Interdependence Day.

It too comes with good friends and good meals and celebrations and risks.  It’s got no problem with a day off by the lake or fireworks or cook-outs.

An acknowledgement of our interdependence means we have to look at the cost of our rhetoric and the sins of our history – and after we have faced up to that we have to do something about it.  That is how we might become obedient from the heart to the form of teaching to which you were entrusted.

That is Interdependence Day.

You can find that on your calendar on any day that ends in a “y”.


Image credit to  Be Freedom: Movement Strategy for Activists and Organizers


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All God’s People: 17th Anniversary Sermon

The sermon from Sunday, June 25, 2017 on Matthew 10:40-42, when we celebrated Beloved’s 17th Anniversary

Statistics will tell you that many new church starts fail. Conventional wisdom runs that the most successful ones appeal to a particular target demographic – and they end up being pretty homogeneous. Having a group of people who are very much alike works relatively well as a substantive basis of community.

Even under those circumstances it’s not an easy task to build community and connection in this world. It’s especially not an easy task to build community and connection among people who are quite different from one another.

Yet the realm of God is populated by all God’s people.

I think about this congregation and find for all our diversity we have something that makes us alike: we want to be a part of a community that looks like the realm of God, that is indeed populated by all God’s people.

We are alike in our embrace of our differences – and we as a congregation embody – literally embody – so many of these differences.

We really are black and white and gay and straight and poor and affluent and cis- and transgender. We are young and old and in-between. We are physically disabled and mentally ill – and not. We are from different parts of the state and the country and outside of the country. We come from all sorts of church and non-church backgrounds.

And we are glad of it. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It is often not comfortable.

When I say to people that we are not a mega-church, nor are we trying to be, that emerges from the fact that we invite people into discomfort – especially in the ways in which we ourselves embody relative cultural privilege – whether that’s through being white or male or straight or relatively affluent or nondisabled or just the right age or body type for society’s conventions or cisgender or non-immigrant.

We invite one another into accountability and relationship and something beyond the glorified individualism of our culture. We do so as a holy act.

That is bold, but it is not always popular.

That is our journey. Beloved Community Church has been on a 17-year ongoing journey of welcoming all in the name of Jesus, for in doing so we welcome Jesus and the gracious and loving God who sent Jesus.

You see several components in this short scripture, right? It invokes the prophet, the righteous person, and the merciful soul who shares a cup of cold water. Our work as Christians requires us to strive for prophetic justice, for sacred justice, for a world that recognizes the inherent dignity of all human beings.

A world where none would be denied access to healthcare or nourishing food or decent shelter because they are not among the wealthiest people on the planet.

A world where none would be denied loving and supportive relationships with family and friends and colleagues because they are queer or trans.

A world where none would be denied basic respect for their full humanity and intrinsic worth because they are black or non-English speaking or disabled.

A world where the Earth would be treasured rather than exploited.

A world that is decolonized in body, mind, and spirit because Jesus resisted empire NOT in the name of recreating another empire, but with the intent of making manifest the realm of God.

A world where of course we will offer a cup of cold water to the little ones.

A cup of clean, cold water to the little ones of Flint, Michigan.

To the little ones of Uniontown, Alabama and Union Springs, Alabama.

To the little ones of Niger and Mali and Bangladesh and Thailand and El Salvador and Bolivia.

A cup of mercy in the name of Jesus because we follow Jesus. Because it is the due right of all God’s people – and we are all God’s people.

Seeing this reality is not easy on the journey of life in this world. That is why we gather here to do the work of righteousness.  For to be righteous in this day and age is to be humble and confident and joyous and grieving, all in the name of Jesus as we strive to set aside our egos and allow God to work through us.

It is not easy to live this way in a world that soaks us in fear and greed, scarcity and meanness. That is why we do the work of spiritual formation in community together, so that we have the strength and the courage and the tenacity and the hope to keep walking in the ways of Jesus, striving for a world where no one is an outcast and no one is a stranger.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, whom I quote here from time to time, suggests that it is the condition of alienation and loneliness, the absence of conversation and connection with others and even with our own selves, that fosters the rise of totalitarianism in our world.

Let us affirm that the work of moral imagination requires us to hear the cry of the world’s deepest needs, to bear witness to its most whole-hearted joys, and to nurture compassion and wisdom wherever we can.

To do so, we continue to open our hearts and our minds to one another and to our own souls.

This is the work of the Church. This is the commitment of this congregation, past, present, and future. This is the calling of God upon our lives.





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Living our Covenant

We hope you will join us through advocacy, prayer and action this month to support the realm of God on earth.

This is our Covenant: “With the help of God, We will walk together in the ways of Jesus, creating a community and striving for a world where no one is an outcast and no one is a stranger

Speak out for Sanctuary policies in Birmingham

“Where all people are celebrated as precious children of God

Speak out against LGBTQ discrimination in Birmingham

“Where we joyfully share with one another: Hope for the living…”

Write letters to support summer feeding and child nutrition programs

Comfort for the dying.. Dignity for those in struggle…”

Ask our Senators to protect healthcare for low-income, elderly and sick people

“And the freedom to ask, and to seek, and to grow
more fully into the 
persons we were created to be.”

(Above photos show Beloveds at the March for Sanctuary, Pride Parade, Brown Bag Ministry and the healthcare sit-in this month.)

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Brown Bag volunteers needed Wednesday, July 19th

Volunteers are needed to help with brown bag hospitality on  Wednesday, July 19th and Saturday, July 22nd for our neighbors who stop by for food assistance. This program provides a bag of non-perishable food to 48 local neighbors in need. Bag packing lasts from 5-6 pm Wednesday, and hospitality lasts from 10-11 am Saturday. We serve food and fellowship with guests as they arrive.

Contact Molly Merkle to volunteer!

2017 schedule Wednesday pick-up Saturday distribution
July 19 22
August 16 19
September 20 23
October 18 21
November 15 18
December 13 16

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Happy Anniversary, Beloved!


Shown above: LeNard Brown, Rev. Jennifer, our celebration meal, and performances from The Murray Family, Christ Will Enter In (CWEN) and D’Marie

Thanks again to our anniversary sponsors:

A.G Callins Home Inspection – First Congregational Church UCC – Hope Central Church –Pilgrim Church UCC – Radical Hope Church – Risk Consulting Expert Services – S&W Electric – Birmingham Friends Meeting – Birmingham Progressive Christian Alliance – The Cooperative New School – Kelsey Weeks Photography – The Abbey Coffee Shop – Beautiful Rainbow Cafe & Catering – JC Services – The Juke Joint – Just Love Weddings – Mentone Vacation Cabin

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The Work of Healing

The sermon from Sunday, June 18, 2017 on Matthew 9:35-10:8

Christians are called to be healers.  Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. 

To be a follower of Jesus is to accept that we are tasked with healing.  It’s one of the foundational aspects of the Gospels. Jesus heals and he tells those who would follow him to do the same.

There is much work to be done. The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. 

We as followers of Jesus are called to the work of healing as a primary commitment – the work of healing ourselves, the work of shared healing with those around us, and the work of healing the world.

This world where we glorify guns, but deem it okay for a police officer in Minneapolis to shoot and kill a black man who lawfully has one. We grieve tonight for the death of Philando Castile – and for a world that perceives blackness as threat.

There is a need for healing.

Continue reading The Work of Healing

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The Work of Pentecost

The sermon from Sunday, June 4, 2017 on Acts 2:1-21

I want to tell 4 stories tonight. None of them is long, but they all speak to the Pentecost moment.

The first takes place not so long after the actual event of Pentecost. Nero was emperor of Rome for 14 years – from 54-68 AD. History remembers him as cruel and tyrannical, vain and corrupt.  He executed his own mother. He slaughtered Christians – then still a minor, troublesome sect in the empire –  for sport. He spent far more money than the imperial coffers could sustain. He was obsessed with his own popularity.

In the year 64 AD, there was a massive fire in Rome. It is said to have burned for 5 days. It destroyed 70% of the city and left half of Rome’s population homeless. It was massive. There were rumors that Nero had had the fire started to clear way for a new planned palace – 1st century gentrification and redevelopment – and to deflect those rumors, Nero instead blamed the Christians. Christians then were still widely persecuted, but this imperial finger-pointing ignited a whole new wave of the killing of Christians. Continue reading The Work of Pentecost

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PRIDE 2017 at Beloved

This week, we’ll have many opportunities to celebrate PRIDE with our Beloved Community! All people are welcomed to celebrate…

Thursday, June 9, 6:30-8 pm – PRIDE Reading at Beloved

RSVP/more information on Facebook


Continue reading PRIDE 2017 at Beloved

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Kingdoms Come and Kingdoms Go

The sermon from Sunday, May 28, 2017 on Acts 1: 6-14

When was the last time you rolled your eyes at something somebody said? Might I guess that happens pretty often with most of us?

The lectionary has sent us back near the beginning of the book of Acts. We’ve got the apostles gathered around the resurrected Jesus who is preparing to ascend to heaven. This kicks off the action in Acts.

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”

Continue reading Kingdoms Come and Kingdoms Go

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