APCE preacher pulls out ‘a mental photo album’ of her family of faith
June 7, 2022
During opening worship at the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators annual gathering, the Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner asked some 500 participants gathered in person and 200 joining online to put on “their glasses of imagination.”
Preaching from Hebrews 11, the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago confessed that even though she rarely take pictures — she’s always too late to capture the moment — she had a few she wanted to share with the gathering.
“So, let me pull out my mental photo album,” she said.
Then she began to describe the photos on the first page, the faces of homelessness in Chicago, taken by a retired professor of photography.
- Thomas, now middle aged, first experienced homeless at 14 when his uncle kicked him out of the house when his father died.
- Cecelia with two young children. Leaving an abusive marriage, she had nowhere to go — no one to trust.
- A Bulgarian refuge with health issues, which led to him losing his job and an eventual eviction.
“Now imagine the next snapshot,” she said. “The 2021 gathering for APCE, in this very space, the room and streets [in the background] are empty.”
For Kershner, the emptiness and loneliness of each of these images express long and deep grief, which can still be all-encompassing in this third year of the pandemic.
“But something is missing from my photo album,” she said. “The text in Hebrews might give us a clue. For the preacher is giving hearers visual pictures. Jesus as a reflection of God’s glory. Jesus as the head of God’s house. Jesus as our high priest.”
And then at APCE’s “Circle of Faith: 50 + 1” gathering — a celebration of the organization’s 50th anniversary — Kershner showed “snapshots from her family faith album” of Abraham and Sarah, the parents of our faith.
In Hebrews, there’s an impressive shot of them, showing how they left everything to follow God’s command to get up and go, she said. But look back in Genesis. There’s one of Abram, as he’s known then, telling everyone in Egypt that Sarai is his sister to avoid being killed. And another of Sarah standing in front of Hagar and Hagar’s child Ishmael, sending them to the desert where they could die.
“Her cruelty and indifference were fueled by mistrust that God was not going to do as God promised,” Kershner said. “These older pictures are of doubt, fear and brokenness.”
Referring to Hebrews 11:11, which states that “faith is the reality of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen,” she said, “We’ve only been looking at things the world can see.”
What would it look like, she wondered, if we considered things unseen in these pictures?
“What would happen if we let our holy hope define reality, instead of only our eyes?” she asked.
Then there were more pictures to show, to remind those gathered of their connections to the circle of faith — and to their larger shared story.
- A baby picture of Isaac, showing God bringing life out bareness.
- Hagar in the wilderness, where she named God for the first time as “the God who sees.”
- Abram looking at the stars, hearing God promising that he and Sarai will be a blessing to every generation.
For Kershner, these snapshots remind us to frame our lives in God’s promises and mercy, and show us that God can still be God in the midst of our doubt and fear.
Kershner’s final picture was of Friendship Presbyterian Church in Chicago’s Northwest Side — of a building under construction, with big colorful letters making up the word W-E-L-C-O-M-E outside of the first floor.
Friendship Presbyterian Church has never had its own building. The faith community first met in a train depot and then a theatre. Now the church is creating space, but it’s not just for members and friends to worship.
Friendship is creating a community center with their most vulnerable members and neighbors in mind, to share resources, build community and develop skills and knowledge.
“It’s for those experiencing housing and food insecurities, for those with physical disabilities or experiencing mental illness, for veterans and LGBTQIA+ folks,” Kershner said.
Paul Seebeck, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Association of Presbyterian Church Educators annual gathering
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Dear God, we praise you and give thanks for all you have given us. May we share our abundance with others in your mission to this world. May we welcome and share with all and celebrate the richness of your love and mercy. Amen.