Sunday, February 19, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling Our Purpose

Matthew 5:33-48
Fulfilling Our Purpose
James Sledge                                                                                       February 19, 2017

What are some of the groups or organizations you belong to? I’ve never been a big “joiner,” but over the years I’ve been a member in good standing with a number of groups. I once was a member of the AWSA or American Water Ski Association. I’m a member of alumni associations at two universities and one seminary, and the AARP has sent me multiple invitations to become a member, but I always throw them away.
What does it mean to be a member of a group or organization? Why join the AARP or Water Ski Association or Chamber of Commerce or a club at school? Why are you a member of the groups you belong to?
Reasons for joining groups and organizations vary. I had to join the AWSA in order to enter waterski tournaments. I didn’t really ask to join the alumni associations, and the AARP promises me discounts on products and services along with various other benefits.
I’m not a member of the Smithsonian, though I could become one for $26.00. But I did recently have the chance to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. You can’t really see it all in a day, but it is a remarkable experience.
The history portion is designed so that you start at the very bottom floor, well below ground, moving through dark exhibits about slave ships and the early slave trade. As you continue you, you move up through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow and segregation, the Civil Rights movement, ending at the inauguration of our first African American president.
As I worked my way through sections focused on the Civil Rights movement with exhibits on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Freedom Riders, and the March on Washington, the term “member” was largely absent. There were certainly organizations that one could join that supported the movement, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) or the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), but the big moments of the Civil Rights Movement weren’t about membership. They were about active participation.
I’m not sure how it was that the Church came to use the term “member” to speak of the participants in a local community of faith. After all, we already had a perfectly good word: “disciple.” It’s the word used for the first followers of Jesus and the word Jesus uses when he commands those disciples to begin building the Church. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”
The Church’s job, according to Jesus, is to make disciples, something that happens by baptism and by obedience, by learning to obey the commands Jesus gives us. And the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ first big discipleship lesson.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Sermon: Fulfilling the Law

Matthew 5:21-32
Fulfilling the Law
James Sledge                                                                                       February 12, 2017

Today’s Old Testament reading is part of a covenant renewal ceremony. Moses has led Israel for decades in the wilderness, but before they finally enter the land of promise, Moses reminds them of the covenant with God made at Mount Sinai, That includes the Ten Commandments, some of which Jesus recalls in our gospel reading. You shall not murder. Neither shall you commit adultery. Neither shall you steal. Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor. Neither shall you covet your neighbor’s wife.
Notice there’s nothing about coveting your neighbor’s husband. That’s because women were thought of as property. To covet a man’s wife was to think about stealing his property. Similarly, adultery was a property crime in that it damaged another man’s property.
Things had not changed much by Jesus’ day. Wealthy Roman women enjoyed a bit more freedoms, but by and large women were subordinate to and dependent on men. When a man divorced a woman – which could be done easily – she could quickly find herself in poverty and danger. We live in very different times, but residue of those ancient views is still with us.
I recently read a book by local colleague Ruth Everhart. It’s a memoir that begins with a home invasion at the place she and her college roommates rented in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Two intruders held the women for hours at gunpoint and raped them repeatedly. The rest of the book is about the long, long struggle to put her life back together, to become whole again. The title of the book is telling: Ruined.[1]
Perhaps some of you saw Ruth’s column in The Washington Post just before Christmas. She spoke of a religious “culture of purity” that celebrates the virgin Mary in ways that only add to the pain of those like her.[2] Religion has often enforced and encouraged standards of sexual purity that weigh much more heavily on women, echoes, no doubt, of a time when women were reduced to property.
So what to do with religious rules from ancient times and cultures? Christians have sometimes viewed this as an Old Testament problem that gets fixed by Jesus and the New Testament, but there are multiple problems with such a view.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Sermon: A Place for the Little People

Matthew 18:1-14
A Place for the Little People
James Sledge                                                                                       February 5, 2017

It’s not clear that anyone actually ever said it at the Academy Awards, but the phrase is closely associated with the Oscars. “I’d like to thank all the little people who helped me win this award.” I searched the internet and found times when it was parodied. Paul Williams, on sharing a win for best song with Barbra Streisand said, "I was going to thank all the little people, but then I remembered I am the little people."
Paul Williams’ self-deprecating humor aside, most of us do not want to be one of the little people. Somebody has to be the third string guard on the football team, the janitor on the movie set, or the mail room clerk at the company headquarters, but most people don’t aspire to such positions. We want to be the starter, the star, the big wig.
In the world Jesus lived in, children would have been numbered among the little people, and not just in stature. Unlike in our world, first-century children did not enjoy much in the way of status or rights. Childhood was short and hard. Until they could begin to take on adult roles, usually early in puberty, children were not regarded as full persons. No one tried to get in touch with their inner child, nor did they point to children as examples to be followed. All of which makes Jesus’ words more radical than we may realize.
Like many of us, the disciples don’t aspire to be one of the little people, and they ask Jesus what makes someone a star in God’s coming new day. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Perhaps they expect it will be the one who can do miracles or who has the strongest faith or who understand the scriptures inside and out. But Jesus places a child, one of the unimportant, little people, in their midst and says, “Unless you change and become like this, you can’t be part of the kingdom at all.”
Ever since he first called the disciples, Jesus has been teaching them about how different the kingdom is from the world, how the first will be last, how those who mourn and are persecuted are considered blessed. Still, I suspect they were stunned by Jesus’ words.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Church or Jesus

Psalm 15

1   Help, O LORD, for there is no longer anyone who is godly;
          the faithful have disappeared from humankind.
2   They utter lies to each other;
          with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
3   May the LORD cut off all flattering lips,
          the tongue that makes great boasts,
4   those who say, “With our tongues we will prevail;
          our lips are our own — who is our master?”
5   “Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan,
          I will now rise up,” says the LORD;
          “I will place them in the safety for which they long.”
6   The promises of the LORD are promises that are pure,
          silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
          purified seven times.
7   You, O LORD, will protect us;
          you will guard us from this generation forever.
8   On every side the wicked prowl,
          as vileness is exalted among humankind.

I've not read the Newsweek article featured on the cover picture. I stumbled onto the picture doing a Google search from something else, but it's an intriguing title: "Forget the Church - Follow Jesus." Not having read it, and can't really weigh in on what the article says. I do think it is nearly impossible to follow Jesus without a church community of some sort. That said, quite a few instititutions that call themselves "church" don't seem terribly interested in following Jesus.

I suppose that is why the Church must be reborn from time to time. 2017 will mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517, the date Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to door of the church in Wittenberg. That would lead to a long period of upheaval, conflict, and change that would help usher in the modern era.

I wonder if many churches in our day aren't just as detached from the teachings of Jesus as Luther thought the church of his day was. We have associated church with our political views, our nation, our agendas and issues, and those things guide us more than anything Jesus says or commands. In the past, Mainline denominations have gotten into bed with the powers that be. In the most recent election, many evangelicals cast their lot with Donald Trump in the hope he would further issues dear to them. In neither instance does Jesus seem to have been the primary driving factor.

Such problems are hardly unknown to the people of Old Testament times. Israel's history is filled with stories of their falling away from the way of God. Often they continued to maintain the religious rituals and offer their worship and prayers to Yahweh. But, as a cursory reading of the prophets will show, they did not live in ways that were pleasing to God.

Today's psalm seems to address such a time. Surely the psalmist would have no trouble writing some of those same words in our day. "They utter lies to each other; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak." Our "post-truth" world with its "alternative facts" is far removed from Jesus' command that our truthfulness be so sure that we need never swear an oath. (Matthew 5:33-37) And I'm not sure that is any less true inside the church than outside.

Is there a way to undo this, to do church in such a way that people don't see a disconnect between church and following Jesus? If so it will surely require the church to focus its life more on Jesus and the way that he teaches. For Mainline churches like my own, that may mean less talk of a generic God and more attention on the person of Jesus. For more conservative churches that already insist on the centrality of Christ, it may mean letting go of a Christ who functions as part of a salvation formula and recovering the Jesus of the gospels. But regardless of what sort of church, there is much work to be done.

Church will always have its failings. It is filled with humans after all. But if its central purpose is not to embody the way of Jesus, then that Newsweek title cease to be a provocative, eye-catching statement and become the conventional wisdom accepted by many.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Sermon: What Does God Want from Us?

Micah 6:1-8
What Does God Want from Us?
James Sledge                                                                                       January 29, 2017

I feel confident in saying that this congregation has more lawyers in it than any congregation I’ve served or been a part of. I mention that because it means many people here should recognize what’s going on in our scripture passage. Rise, plead your case… The scene is a courtroom, a cosmic one. Mountains and hills and the foundations of the earth are seated as a jury. Israel is subpoenaed to testify, for God has a case against her.
I’m not sure why our translation says the Lord has a controversy with Israel. Better, Yahweh has a lawsuit. But what is it that has caused God to take this step, to take God’s own people to court?
Here, once more, we encounter the problem of dealing with short snippets of scripture in worship. God’s lawsuit makes little sense without what comes before. The evidence against Israel is already before the court, but we don’t know it if we’ve not read the book of Micah. There Micah rails against the wealthy who enrich themselves at the expense of the poor, pushing families off ancestral lands in order to expand vast holdings. He condemns politicians who have sanctioned such activities and religious leaders who have invoked God’s blessings on an economic boom for the wealthy built on the suffering of the poor.
This was not appreciated by the wealthy and powerful. “One should not preach of such things…” they complain. I’m reminded of the old joke about parishioners complaining when the pastor leaves the expected confines of faith, belief, and the spiritual. “He’s stopped preaching and gone to meddling.”
The rich and powerful are not much different in our day than in Micah’s. They still want religious sanction without religious critique. Donald Trump, like every president before him, invited religious figures to pray at his inauguration, to associate God’s blessings with his presidency. At this inauguration and others, those asked to pray are chosen and vetted to ensure that they know and appreciate their proper role, as Micah clearly did not.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Beloved Daughters of God

That's me on left wearing red stole.
When you remember that Jesus and the gospel writers who tell his story were products of a patriarchal society that thought of women as less than fully human, it is remarkable how well women fare in the gospel story. (That women are primary witnesses to the resurrection is astounding considering that women could not serve as legal witnesses.)

Today's gospel reading is a good case in point. Jesus is headed to the home of Jairus, an important synagogue leader, to tend to his sick child. But Jesus is interrupted by an unamed woman. Not only is she unamed, she is unclean. Under one of those laws that only makes sense to patriarchy, women were considered unclean during their menstrual flow. And this woman has been bleeding for 12 years. For 12 years she has been deemed unfit to participate in community life.

This likely explains why she approaches Jesus as she does, not speaking to him but using the crowd as cover so she can get close and touch his clothes. It's a great plan until Jesus notices and demands to know who touched him. Caught, the woman comes forward in fear. Surely Jesus will be angry that his important mission has been interrupted by a destitute woman, and an unclean one at at that.

Instead, Jesus calls her "Daughter." He commends her faith and, declares her healed, and says she is "saved" or "made whole." (The word can mean "made well," but that seems a bad translation when Jesus uses a different word to speak of her being "healed.") Jesus embraces her and restores he to life in the community, not at all what the woman, or anyone else, had expected.


I participated in the Women's March on Washington on Saturday. It was an incredibly uplifting event, and despite suffocating crowds and difficulties finding a place to see or hear the speakers because of unexpectedly large turnout, the spirit of the day was remarkably upbeat, light, and joyful. Not that everyone appreciated that. Yesterday one of my Facebook "friends" posted a meme with a crowd picture and this caption. "In one day Trump got more fat women out walking than Michelle Obama did in 8 years." 

Jesus may have responded to an unimportant, unclean woman with surprising kindness, insisting on her worth as a child of God, but patriarchy dies slowly. The author of the meme seems to view "women" as a derogatory term, one made worse when combined with "fat." That is not unexpected considering that patriarchy values women largely as sexual objects.

In the gospel stories, Jesus has many encounters with women, and never does he dismiss them or speak ill of them. He saves his ire for those who criticize his interaction with women and others considered sinners.  It is religious leaders who draws lines of exclusion and keepers of patriarchy whom Jesus condemns. But we still seem not to have fully learned the lessons Jesus teaches.

Sermon video: Choosing the Right Arc

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Sermon: Choosing the Right Arc

Matthew 4:12-23
Choosing the Right Arc
James Sledge                                                                                       January 22, 2017

I did not get down there for Martin Luther King Day last week, but his memorial is one of my favorite spots. I especially like walking along and rereading his quotes carved into the granite walls that arc along the memorial. One of my favorites is, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
Dr. King was a pastor, but his status as civil rights icon means that many don’t appreciate how much Christian faith drove his civil rights work. It was about much more than people of color gaining the same fundamental right enjoyed by whites. It was also a deeply Christian activity that sought to embody God’s kingdom, God’s new day.
For Dr. King, the hope that all people would someday be one was not rooted solely in  what is possible if human beings strive hard enough. It was also rooted in the certainty of his faith that glimpsed a day when all divisions were ended, when what the Apostle Paul wrote came fully to pass. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.
My fondness for Dr. King, and for his quote on “the arc of the moral universe,” caused me to do a double take when I happened upon an online column in The Washington Post with this quote.  “The arc of the political universe is long, and it doesn't have to bend toward progress or justice or anything else good. It can point backwards if that's where we aim it.”[1]