Sunday, September 17, 2017

Sermon: Absurd Love - Absurd Community

Matthew 18:21-35
Absurd Love – Absurd Community
James Sledge                                                                           September 17, 2017

The problem of needing to know more about a scripture passage’s context in order to understand it has showed up so frequently of late that I wonder if we don’t need a Bible version of that real estate adage, “What are the three most important things in real estate? Location, location, location.” Except our answer would be “Context, context, context.”
Take today’s reading. It’s not a stand-alone parable. Our verses are the final lesson in a larger set of teachings, the last big teaching moment Jesus has with his disciples prior to Jerusalem and the cross. That says something about their importance. And because Matthew uses private moments with the disciples for Jesus to speak directly to the Church, that says something about how important these words are for us.
There is an interesting ebb and flow in these teachings. They start with Jesus saying that we must become like children to be part of God’s kingdom, that those who are humble like a child are called greatest in the kingdom. Jesus then shifts from actual children to “little ones,” a phrase that speaks of those new to faith. Here the emphasis is about how terrible it is to cause a little one to stumble, and about the great lengths we must be willing to go to avoid stumbling ourselves. Jesus goes on to say how important these “little ones” are to God, telling the parable of a shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the single lost one.
Jesus then shifts gears, insisting that this community also be a place that holds its members accountable. He lays out a method for confronting those who sin. Meet privately first. If that doesn’t work, a few members should speak to the person. If that fails the entire congregation gets involved, and finally, the offender is to be cast out.
It is in this context of holding community members accountable that Peter speaks in our reading this morning. Quite likely Peter is thinking of the elaborate process Jesus has described of confronting offenders alone, then with a few members, then before the congregation. Perhaps Peter has in mind some difficult folks he worries will abuse this process. They’ll cause trouble and resist correction until they’re on the verge of being thrown out. But later they’ll go back to their old ways, and the process would start over again. Surely there have to be some limits to this. “Is seven times enough, Jesus?”

Monday, September 11, 2017

Mixed Feelings

Like most Americans born prior to the early 1990s, I can recall where I was and what I was doing when I first heard that an airliner had struck one of the twin towers in New York City. Now comes another 9/11, and people are remembering. My Facebook feed is filled with posts of pictures labeled "Never Forget," tributes to first responders and those who died, and calls for God to bless America.

I must confess that I experience mixed emotions as I remember. Some 9/11 memories are horrific and terrifying, but they are not the cause of my mixed feelings. It is important to remember failures and sufferings in order to prevent their happening again. My jumbled feelings are more about what happened in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Take the frequent refrain of "God Bless America." I hope God does bless America, but in a 9/11 context that request often seems to include an unspoken corollary. "And curse our enemies." We might well expect God to be against those who commit horrendous acts of terror, but that's different from God being pro USA. As a verse from this morning's psalm says,
         The LORD is good to all,
             and his compassion is over all that he has made
. (Ps. 145:9)
The God becomes a flag-draped, star-spangled God, we have abandoned the God of Jesus, of the Bible, and embraced a tribal idol.

On a more positive note, many recall the days after 9/11 and wistfully remember the pause in the bitter partisanship that has come to dominate American politics and life. For a brief moment, the shared crisis overcame division. In similar fashion, the desire to help recent hurricane victims can momentarily bring disparate folks together in common cause for good.

Our coming together post 9/11 did feel good, but it had an element not found in response to natural disasters, an enemy. Having a common enemy can be tremendous unifying force. Osama bin Laden was as much the enemy of Democrats as he was of Republicans, of liberal as conservatives, and the threat he posed dwarfed the enmity between political parties, making it seem trivial for a time.

Sometimes we humans seem to need enemies. They provide an "against" by which to define our group, and enemies are often a more powerful, unifying force than anything our group is "for." Fear is a powerful motivator, and enemies merit fear. But fear is also a great manipulative tool, especially when used to inflate a true enemy or even to create one where none exists.

Following 9/11, some felt the need to make an enemy out of all Islam. It made things simpler, neater, and for Christians it had the added benefit of making our group the "good guys" and theirs the evil enemy. Creating such an enemy proved so compelling that many embraced the idea despite a complete lack of logic of facts to support it.

Enemies, especially those deemed mortal enemies, lose their humanity to some degree. Their deaths become necessary, even a good thing to be celebrated. When all of Islam becomes the enemy, the death of civilians ceases to matter so much. The same thing happened with Nazis and Japanese during WWII. Wholesale slaughter of civilians was seen as acceptable.

I wonder if Jesus' commands us to love our enemies because he wants to undermine our ability, our apparent need and desire, to demonize "the other." If we took Jesus seriously and truly saw our enemy as another neighbor to love, how might things look different? Put another way, if America actually were a Christian nation, how might our post-9/11 response have been different?

And so, on 9/11, I will engage in somber remembrance and reflection. I will mourn for those who died, for those who continue to die from terrorist attacks, and for the many more civilians who have become "collateral damage" in our war on terror. I will hope for lessons learned that may prevent future 9/11s, and I will pray for peace in the world. And I will wonder if the world, or Christians for that matter, will ever actually embrace the way of Jesus.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Sermon: Wearing Jesus

Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Wearing Jesus
James Sledge                                                                                       September 10, 2017

The first church I served as a pastor was in Raleigh, North Carolina. It was part of New Hope presbytery, and I served on the presbytery’s mission committee. One of the issues facing us was a call to participate in a boycott of the Mt. Olive Pickle Company.
The cucumber growers in eastern North Carolina used immigrants in the “quest worker” program to harvest the crops Mt. Olive used to make pickles. These migrant workers moved from place to place, following the harvest seasons up the coast. The wages were low, and the conditions in the camps that the growers provided were often appalling. But the workers had little recourse other than to return to their home country.
The boycott emerged through the efforts of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, or FLOC. They wanted to Mt. Olive to buy only from growers who paid a decent wage and provided minimal working and living conditions. But Mt. Olive said they couldn’t do that. They did not buy cucumbers directly from the growers. In a system that seemed to serve little purpose other than to provide for such an excuse, growers sold cucumbers to grading stations that in turn sold to Mt. Olive. They could then say, we don’t deal directly with any growers. How can we tell them what to do?
And so FLOC called for a boycott. The National Council of Churches, which many mainline denominations belong to, got on board, and so New Hope Presbytery’s mission committee met with representatives from FLOC, Mt. Olive, and others in order to make a recommendation to the presbytery about whether or not to join the boycott.
We held a Saturday event in the town of Mt. Olive, at Mt. Olive Presbyterian Church, where various folks spoke for or against the boycott. One of the stronger voices against was the pastor at Mt. Olive Presbyterian. Pickle company managers and executives were faithful members there, and their pledges kept the church going. This, he claimed, meant the church had no right to criticize their employer. The denomination, he said, had no business judging their employer or them. They were people of faith who supported their church. What right did the church have to turn around and criticize their means of earning a living?
The presbytery didn’t agree and ended up supporting an, ultimately, successful boycott. But Americans often do view faith as a private matter of the heart, not open to judgment, even from the church. This idea showed up in last year’s presidential election. Pope Francis commented on a proposed border wall, "A person who thinks only about building walls... and not of building bridges, is not Christian.” Candidate Trump fired back. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith,”[1]
I suspect a lot of Americans, even ones who don’t like President Trump, tend to agree, but Jesus and the Apostle Paul do not. Jesus makes clear in today’s verses that the faith community should confront members who live contrary to his teachings. It is to be done as kindly as possible, seeking reconciliation and restoration, but it must be done. Previously, in his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that calling him Lord does not matter if you don’t do God’s will. “By their fruits you will know them,” he says. That raises an interesting question. What is it that Christians are known for?

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Justice in Our Hearts And Souls

I marched in the Minsters March for Justice yesterday in Wasthington, D.C. I nearly didn't. It had popped up on my social media, but so did a lot of other marches and events. Plus this one had Al Sharpton's name attached to it, and I'm not a huge fan. Fortunately, someone reminded me of the event yesterday after worship, and that got me to thinking about why I has so easily forgotten it.

Strange how easy it is to think God only works through people I like, who agree with me, share my politics, or don't rub me the wrong way. I also wonder if I didn't appreciate an excuse to forget the event. Pastors getting mixed up in events deemed "political" can have a downside. It's safer to stay at church, to confine my "witness" to the pulpit. Unfortunately, my own sermon yesterday called me out on this. In it I wondered if I would have been one of those white, moderates Martin Luther King was so disappointed in, quoting from his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." So when someone at fellowship time after worship asked if I as going...

I'm glad I went. There was a diverse group of Jews and Christians of various sorts. I did not notice any Muslims, but a Sihk spoke from the podium. Martin Luther King III led us as we walked from his father's memorial to the US Justice Department, tying up traffic and inconveniencing a couple of Segue tours.

As we gathered in front of the Justice Department, I noticed the inscription high up over the building's entrance. "Justice in the life of the state is possible only as first it resides in the hearts and souls of the citizens." (Thanks to Mary Ward Logsdon for reminding me that the quote is from Plato.) And I found myself wondering about the hearts and souls of people in our country today.

The Bible calls us to "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." These words from the prophet Amos follow immediately on words on how God hates the people's worship, their claims of faith. Let me see justice and righteousness, says God. (Righteousness is one of the religious sounding words that may confuse people, but it simply means things set right, judged by the standards of God.)

I often find it odd that so many Christians, those who say they follow Jesus, are so concerned with matters of right belief but largely unconcerned with matters of justice and righteousness. Jesus stood firmly in the tradition of prophets like Amos, and his most basic proclamation was of God's approaching kingdom, the day when justice and righteousness would envelope the earth. Jesus even teaches us to pray for that day when the kingdom arrives, when God's "will is done on earth as in heaven."

Yesterday's march reminded me how badly the Church has lost its way on this, but it also showed me how many people long for the Church to hear Jesus' call, to love neighbor, to reach out to the least of these, to work for justice and righteousness, to do these and more even if it is hard or costly or dangerous. That is what it means to take up the cross.

The Church in modern America lost its way in part because it went along with notions of faith as a private, personal thing, divorced from matters of justice, lifting up the poor, and revealing God's love to the world. But that is not to minimize the significance of faith as a heart matter, to ignore the need for internal conversion. Justice needs to reside in hearts and souls. Love needs to cast out hate and fear. As the Apostle Paul would say, the old self needs to die and be replaced by a new creation in Christ. And that's not so much about getting one's ticket punched for heaven as it is about living a new life now, one that shows the world God's new day of justice and righteousness and love and hope.

One of the morning psalms today is 146, and it picks up on both the internal trust and hope of faith, along with what it is we hope and trust for, that Christ calls us to work for.

   Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
          whose hope is in the LORD their God,

   who made heaven and earth,
          the sea, and all that is in them;
   who keeps faith forever;

          who executes justice for the oppressed;
          who gives food to the hungry.

   The LORD sets the prisoners free;
          the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
   The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down;
          the LORD loves the righteous.
   The LORD watches over the strangers;
          he upholds the orphan and the widow,
          but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.

I'm indebted to yesterday's march, and yes, to Al Sharpton, for helping me to experience that connection between faith and hope and justice in the heart and the work Christ calls me, calls the Church to do.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sermon video: Seeing the Face of God.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Sermon: Jesus Is Lord, But I Have Others

Exodus 1:8-2:10
Jesus is Lord, But I Have Others
James Sledge                                                                                       August 27, 2017

In one of his letters to the church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul tries to straighten out some confusion there. The Corinthians were enamored with being spiritual and saw speaking in tongues as the proof that a person had the Holy Spirit. But Paul flatly rejects that idea. Writes Paul, No one can say, “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
I’m not so sure. Anyone can speak those words. All manner of people do while acting completely contrary to Jesus’ teachings. White supremacists profess him. Jesus knew this sort of thing would happen and said, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father I heaven.”
But Paul isn’t talking about mouthing the words. He’s talking about a risky, subversive statement, one counter to another statement of Paul’s day, “Caesar is Lord.” Roman emperors were called “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Augustus, emperor when Jesus was born, was called “savior of the world, son of God, bringer of peace.”
To say “Jesus is Lord,” to call him Savior, Son of God, Prince of Peace, and lots of other things early Christians called Jesus, was to say “Not Caesar, but Jesus.” We might be able to say “Jesus is Lord” with little thought as to what it means or requires of us, but not so when Paul wrote, No one can say, Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit.
You’ve noticed the banner I hung I hung behind me, one of many in the back of our sanctuary representing the faith statements of our denomination. This one goes with the Theological Declaration of Barmen, written by Lutheran and Reformed Christians in 1930s Germany who said “Jesus is Lord of all,” and our ultimate loyalty and allegiance is to him, not the nation, not the Nazis, not Adolf Hitler. It was a dangerous, subversive statement, not unlike when the first Christians said “Jesus is Lord.”

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Privilege and the Way of the Cross

In the wake of the alt-right and Nazi gathering last week in Charlottesville, many have challenged  the "white church" to do more to combat white supremacy and white privilege. It is true that we are often "allies" in little more than name. I hope that will change, and I say that as one who has too often been a nominal ally.

And so I've been heartened by a conversation that has begun among the leaders in this congregation about what we will do. One of those leaders, Kerry Searle Grannis, was in the regular rotation to offer the "Prayers of the People" last Sunday in worship. Here is what she said. You can find it and some more of her thoughts on her blog.

Come quickly, Lord, and bring your peace. We pray for this world, for the leaders of all the nations, and especially for our own leaders. Bless them with wisdom and forbearance. Help them to seek the wellbeing of all their people, even at the expense of power. Convict them with the full weight of the responsibility of leadership—that they use it to seek peace and to avoid war.

Come quickly, Lord, and heal us. We pray for those with special needs—especially those who can not rest at home because of fear of violence. We pray for all those who fear for their safety and dignity because of the color of their skin. We pray for those injured in Charlottesville. We pray for all those in need of your healing—for those who are sick, and who mourn.

Come quickly, Lord, and empower your church. We pray for your church—give it the courage and strength to proclaim your word to a fearful, broken world. Remind your church that while so many things seem so dark, that we tell the story of a light that is never overcome by darkness. Strengthen and uphold your church to stand up for justice, to stand up for peace, to work to end white supremacy.

Come quickly, Lord and help us to repent. Forgive us for the ways we have been complacent. When we have benefited from systems that oppress our brothers and sisters, when we have looked the other way because we weren’t directly affected. For all the ways we have failed to act, both individually and collectively, to end systems that harm people of color. Fill us with your sacrificial spirit—that we may gladly give up our own comfort for the sake of our brothers and sisters who suffer.

Come quickly, Lord, and renew us. We pray for the courage to proclaim the holy truth that racism and white supremacy are incompatible with your good news of love, justice, and inclusion. We give thanks for the faith leaders who sang and preached and prayed in Charlottesville yesterday. We pray for the day to come where all people recognize that each and every human being is created in your image, and we pray that you motivate and embolden us to work to hasten that day.

For all these things and all the ways our hearts are breaking, we pray. Fill us with your spirit and send us to build your kingdom.

I also encourage you to take in today's sermon by Diane Walton Hendricks, based on the conclusion of the Joseph story in the book of Genesis. (It should be posted on the church website soon.)  She does a splendid job of examining Joseph's own journey from privilege to the bottom and back to privilege, including the seldom mentioned part where Joseph then uses his privileged place in Pharaoh's court to enslave the people. It seems to be inevitable that privilege exploits others to its own advantage. That is unless it embraces the way of Jesus, the self emptying way of the cross.


Especially in the gospel of Luke, there is a theme of the lowly being lifted up while the rich and mighty and powerful, the privileged, are brought down. In the typical human, pattern this might simply lead to new groups at the top and bottom. But in the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, those at the top voluntarily give up their privilege in order to live into God's new day, that alternative community Jesus called "the Kingdom of God."

And that brings me back around to the question of what we will do, we of privilege. How will we in this congregation live out the way of the cross? How will you?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Stumbling Blocks and Off-Course Christians

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me..." So says Jesus in the opening verse of today's gospel reading. The word translated "put a stumbling block" is the basis for the English word "scandalize," Indeed you could easily hear the word "scandalize" if someone were to speak the Greek word to you. Jesus seems to be especially concerned that nothing happen to trip up "little ones," which refers not to children but to those learning to follow Jesus.

I suspect that Jesus' concern arises from the ease with which followers can be tripped up. Following Jesus is hard. His teachings are themselves scandalous. "Love your enemy... Blessed are the poor... Take up your cross... How hard it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven... Whoever wants to save their life will lose it..." The path Jesus walks and also calls his followers to walk involves self-denial and sacrifice. It involves giving oneself for the sake of the other, even when that other is enemy. No wonder Jesus knew that stumbling would be a problem.

All too often, church and society have worked together to create stumbling blocks. Nations and empires almost always desire power, and church has often been willing to legitimate the power of the state in exchange for safety. And so the Christianity of the church is often mostly about morality,  personal faith, respectability, and the status quo. The scandalous life of a disciple gets traded for believing the correct things and keeping your nose clean.

If you doubt that churches and Christianity often constitute the stumbling blocks Jesus condemns, look at churches' and faith leaders' stands against the poor or preferring "law and order" to justice for African Americans mistreated by police,  White Christians have used their "faith" to justify slavery, to oppose the Civil Rights Movement, and to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement. Just last week a prominent Baptist pastor said God had authorized Donald Trump "to take out Kim Jong-un."

More recently, President Trump, who was elected with huge support among professed Christians, who has been prayed over and had hands laid on him by evangelical pastors, has found it nearly impossible to call out white nationalists whose core beliefs deny that all human beings are created in the image of God. Mr. Trump, this one spoken of in Messiah-like terms by many Christians, speaks of those protesting the presence of Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville as though they are somehow as much to blame for the death and carnage as the white supremacist who deliberately killed and maimed those standing against evil, against his decidedly unChrist-like views.

All this brings me to the banner pictured above. It is the banner of "The Theological Declaration of Barmen," written by Christians, mostly from Germany, who objected to the rise of Hitler and to German state church's willingness to embrace Hitler. The state Lutheran church actually required its pastors to swear a loyalty oath to Hitler, despite strong objections from many pastors such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Confessing Church movement that arose among the Christians opposed to Hitler produced this faith statement that is part of my denomination's Book of Confessions. The declaration insists that Christians have no Lord but Jesus, that there is no segment of life that must be given over to some other Lord.

These Confessing Christians were more interested in following Jesus than being respectable, secure, safe, or participants in the prosperity and greatness that Hitler initially brought to Germany. They would walk the difficult, scandalous path of Jesus, despite the cost. They would not be tripped up or pulled off course by their church's willingness to become the stumbling block Jesus warned of just so it could preserve the life of that institutional church.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote, “Christianity stands or falls with its revolutionary protest against violence, arbitrariness and pride of power and with its plea for the weak. Christians are doing too little to make these points clear rather than too much. Christendom adjusts itself far too easily to the worship of power. Christians should give more offense, shock the world far more, than they are doing now. Christian should take a stronger stand in favor of the weak rather than considering first the possible right of the strong.” I wonder what Bonhoeffer would think of the state of the Church in our day.

Is the Christian Church in America leading people into discipleship, into the difficult work of following Jesus, or is it trafficking in stumbling blocks that simply bless their members’ biases, beliefs, desires, loyalties, etc? The answer will vary from church to church, from congregation to congregation. But it behooves every congregation, and every Christian, to carefully consider whether their Lord, the one they follow, is Jesus or something else.

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Sunday, August 13, 2017

Sermon: Trusting God with Our Stories

Genesis 37:1-34
Trusting God with Our Stories
James Sledge                                                                           August 13, 2017

I’ve likely shared before how my father read Bible stories to me and my siblings when we were young. I can still see that big, Bible Story book with its colorful illustrations, including one from our reading for today. It showed Joseph in his “coat of many colors,”  translated a bit differently, a probably more accurately, in our verses.
(Genesis 37:1-4) Jacob settled in the land where his father had lived as an alien, the land of Canaan. 2This is the story of the family of Jacob. Joseph, being seventeen years old, was shepherding the flock with his brothers; he was a helper to the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives; and Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. 3Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves. 4But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him.
In my childhood memories of the Joseph story, I had the impression of Joseph as a good kid mistreated by his mean, older brothers. I don’t know if the Bible Story book told it that way, or if I just assumed that Joseph, being the hero, had to be a good guy. But when you read the entire story, it’s obvious that Joseph’s brothers had good reason not to like him. And it was more than their father’s blatant favoritism, as the story makes clear.
(Genesis 37:5-8) Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers,  they hated him even more. 6He said to them, "Listen to this dream that I dreamed. 7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf." 8His brothers said to him, "Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?" So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.
If I had ten older brothers who already hated me, I think I’d have the good sense not to tell them such a dream. Surely Joseph had to know that this would only make them madder. Perhaps he figured they wouldn’t do anything to him because he was Daddy’s favorite. But why tell them at all. If the dream were really true, they would see it soon enough. No, Joseph must have enjoyed this. He was a total brat or cruel or, more likely, both. Which probably explains why he went and did the same thing again.