It was one hell of a sermon, I’ll grant the minister that, but not the kind I was expecting.
Not that I have anything against brimstone. At our small Baptist church, I was hearing those sermons three times a week before I could even walk. Even then, my folks feared the lesson wouldn’t stick.
I dreaded whenever we had to go to Birmingham, for instance, because that involved passing over the First Avenue viaduct where the old Sloss Furnace was making steel and you could look down and see the bright flames. Rarely did whoever was driving miss a chance to observe, “Ain’t it sad? Sloss ain’t nothing compared to what hell’s gonna be like.”
(The flame imagery even permeated our everyday conversation. If you were going to insist somebody followed through on an obligation, you were said to “Hold his feet to the fire.”)
But our church pastors always gave equal billing to Jesus, and that’s why this radio sermon threw me for such a loop.
This preacher started by saying that he wasn’t going to mix his politics in with his gospel, but if anybody wanted to see him afterward, he could prove to them by the Bible why the Tea Party was the only way to go. This got a laugh from the crowd, and several “amen”s.
He said his theme for the message was “God’s mercy,” and the problem we humans have in understanding it. We ask ourselves, he said, where is the mercy of God in prisons and electric chairs? When actually, he said, those things are the very PROOF that God’s mercy is real, because He created the criminal justice system to ensure that His people are kept safe from harm.
The preacher said there are folks among us, that he wouldn’t mention any political persuasion (laughter from the crowd), who are trying to keep God’s justice from being done in the courts, and that this is the work of the Devil.
Unlike one of the preacher’s personal heroes, he said, a sheriff somewhere in Texas that told his deputies if they ever felt threatened, to shoot first and ask questions afterward. When they responded to a report of an armed robbery at a 7/11, they killed the robber on the spot with their shotguns.
And surprise, surprise, he told the audience, suddenly store robberies went down dramatically in that one part of Texas. (This part really scored a laugh from the crowd, along with a “Praise the Lord.”)
The sermon repeated in this vein for a while, but my mind drifted as I tried to picture Jesus giving high-fives to the SWAT team as they came out of the 7/11 afterward. In the preacher’s defense, he might have mentioned the words “Jesus” or “grace” before the hour ended, but by that time I’d switched off the broadcast and was feeling a little sick at my stomach.
For some reason, I recalled a coffee-table sized book my grandparents owned, which was an illustrated version of the Book of Revelation. The drawings were just as gruesome as you might imagine, but it wasn’t those that my grandfather, a Sunday School teacher, dwelt on: it was a chart at the end of the book with the heading “Historical Dispensations,” and a timeline of human history.
The two dispensations that really mattered, he told anybody who would listen, were the ones on either side of the crucifixion of Jesus: before, the chart said, was “Dispensation of Law”; afterward was “Dispensation of Grace.” As my grandfather argued, “Either Jesus changed everything, or he didn’t change nothing. You pick.”
I can’t read the radio preacher’s mind, but I’d guess his shotgun theology is very different than my grandfather’s book, and that there are millions of people in our country right now —maybe a majority — who share it. I may be wrong. If you hear of a politician somewhere campaigning to bring “Grace and Order” to government, let me know.
All I know is that when I drive by Sloss Furnace these days, I still remember the flames but I see them now in a very different light.
To paraphrase the great Pogo cartoonist Walt Kelly, “I have seen hell. And they are us.”
Dale Short is a native of Walker County. His columns, photos, and radio features are available on his website, carrolldaleshort.com. His weekly radio program “Music from Home” airs each Sunday at 6 pm on Oldies 101.5 FM, streams live online at www.oldies1015fm.com, and is archived afterward on his website. His first book, the collection of columns “I Left My Heart in Shanghi, Alabama” will be reprinted in an anniversary edition this summer by NewSouth.