Sunday, March 18, 2018

Sermon: Rejecting the System

John 12:20-33
Rejecting “The System”
James Sledge                                                                                       March 18, 2018

The first church I served was in Raleigh, North Carolina, and a member happened to be the clerk of the House of Representatives. Occasionally she would ask me to offer the opening prayer when the House went into session. One of those times was when then President Clinton addressed a joint session of the General Assembly in the House chambers.
I said my prayer and took my designated seat on the podium right up front. Then members of the Senate came in, and the pastor who opened their session came and set next to me. Guests and dignitaries then came in and were seated in extra chairs added for occasion.
It seemed a bit odd to be seated up front while important dignitaries sat far away in folding chairs. I could look over the President Clinton’s shoulder and see his notes. I wondered if someone had made a mistake seating us, but apparently there is a designated place for the chaplain, right next to the Sergeant at Arms, a vestige from an earlier time when religion played a more prominent role in public life.
Even as religion becomes less central, rituals such as my opening prayer persist. Our culture still wants a bit of religion here and there. Governing bodies, football games, and such still enjoy a hint of religious sanction, a little like parents with no interest in church who still want their children baptized.
My colleague and I both understood our role in this. We offered bland, generic, prayers that offended no one. If either of us had decided to be prophetic and speak truth to power, I don’t know that anyone would have stopped us, but I’m certain we would have never been invited back. And we both behaved and did what was expected of us.
From the beginnings of society, the powers that be have wanted religion to play a support role, to promote public morality, give divine sanction to rulers, and generally support the status quo. In the modern version, pastors, rabbis, and imams are supposed to provide chaplaincy services for their flocks, to care for souls and stay out of politics.
To make matters worse, American Christianity has become excessively personalized and individualized. It’s about my getting into heaven, my personal relationship with Jesus, my personal spirituality, or my salvation, things far removed from a biblical faith.
In the synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – Jesus’ central proclamation is about the coming of God’s kingdom, God’s new day where the world is set right. John’s gospel rarely speaks of the kingdom, preferring to speak of the conflict between Jesus and the world. But as so often is the case in John, this term is symbolic, not literal. The world is not a place but rather a situation or condition where creation is at odds with its creator. The world is a culture that prefers to live in opposition to God’s ways, an outlook, a way of living, that draws us away from God.
I once read a commentary on John that suggested translating the world as the system. That might help understand what Jesus says in our gospel reading. Jesus calls his followers to “hate their life in this (system).” Speaking of his coming death on the cross, Jesus says, “Now is the judgment of this (system); now the ruler of this (system) will be driven out.”
In John’s gospel, the cross is not a sacrifice or Jesus taking our punishment on himself. Rather it is Jesus’ glorification, an event that both judges the system and breaks its power. To be a believer, to follow Jesus, is to recognize this, to reject the ways of the system and embrace the way of Jesus. Oh but how hard that can be.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

February 25 sermon video: Cross-Shaped Mindsets

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sermon: Mechanics, Logistics, and Deep Faith

John 2:13-22
Mechanics, Logistics, and Deep Faith
James Sledge                                                                                       March 4, 2018

I assume that many of you have seen the QR code printed in the announcements section of the bulletin. For those not familiar, these are a kind of barcode that can be scanned with a smartphone app. Scan ours and it lets you use a credit card to pay your pledge or make a contribution to the Hunger Ministries offering that we do the first Sunday of each month.
We added that QR code to address a problem that increasingly impacts church giving. Many people no longer carry checkbooks and rarely carry much cash. If they want to donate to our Welcome Table ministry, they have to use a credit card, debit card, iPay, etc.
In an increasingly cashless, paperless economy, offering plates passed down the aisle may soon become relics replaced by new technologies. Some churches have added kiosks so that worshippers can make a credit card contribution more effortlessly than with QR codes.
Some people do think that offering plates and a giving ritual are an important, but not many think them absolutely central to Christian faith. They’re mechanics and logistics, and the same could be said of the money changers and animal sellers in today’s gospel.
Jewish pilgrims journeyed long distances to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem. Many traveled on foot, with no way to bring animals for sacrifice. And they carried Roman coins which weren’t allowed in the Temple because they had images of emperors on them, graven images considered idolatrous. They couldn’t be used for offerings or to pay the Temple tax.
Booths for buying an animal or swapping Roman coins for Jewish shekels addressed a practical problem. They were necessary logistics for the Temple to operate, little different from offering plates, QR codes, or payment kiosks.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sermon: Cross-Shaped Mindsets

Mark 8:31-38
Cross-Shaped Mindsets
James Sledge                                                                                       February 25, 2018

Imagine for a moment that a political candidate has caught your eye. The office doesn’t matter. It could be school board, state legislature, Congress, anything You’re incredibly impressed, and the more you hear, the more you read, the more your admiration grows.
You decide to get involved in the campaign, and your tireless efforts are noticed. You’re invited into meetings about strategy, policy, and advertising purchases. You become a part of the inner circle and see things the public doesn’t, Yet even here, you admiration only grows.
But then one day in a strategy meeting, your candidate insists on taking a position that everyone knows is political suicide, a position so unpopular with the voters that defeat is inevitable. Everyone is stunned. Jaws drop, mouths hang open, a pall descends on the room.
Something similar happens in our gospel reading this morning. Up to this point, the gospel of Mark has largely focused on the question of who Jesus is. The disciples have heard teachings and seen healing and other miracles that witness to Jesus’ identity. Following one spectacular miracle, these disciples ask the very question Mark is focused on. “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
In Mark’s gospel, no human realizes that Jesus is Son of God prior to his death. But the disciples have seen enough to know that Jesus is no ordinary guy. Clearly God’s power is with him, and so when Jesus asks them directly, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter quickly answers, “You are the Messiah,” a term that means God’s anointed.
Peter gives a correct if incomplete answer, and Jesus takes this as a cue to begin teaching about what lies ahead. “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”
Jaws drop, mouths hang open, and a pall descends over the group. At first, no one speaks, but finally Peter decides he had to do something, has to make Jesus rethink this. Peter is discreet and pulls Jesus aside to rebuke him, to warn him what a huge mistake he’s making. Jesus responds by making sure all the disciples are listening when he calls Peter “Satan”
Then Jesus calls in the crowds. These words aren’t just for disciples. They’re for anyone thinking about following Jesus. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.” The gospel does not say, but I would be surprised if many in the crowd did not pick up and head home right there.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Sermon: The Gospel of Noah

Genesis 9:8-17
The Gospel of Noah
James Sledge                                                                                       February 18, 2018

My mother-in-law collects Noah’s arks, and she gave me a wooden one that sits on a bookshelf in my office. The little animal pairs are typically lying on their sides because children who accompany a parent into my office can rarely resist playing with them. Like those animals on my bookshelf, the animals in the Noah story have proved irresistible to people over the years. That’s just one of the reasons the flood story in Genesis is so misunderstood, even by those in the Church.
Many know the broad strokes of the story: a wicked world, the good and faithful Noah, and a plan to start over fresh. The whole idea seems rather primeval or primitive. It’s an entertaining story in a way, but it has little to say to us, or so many believe.
Many cultures in the ancient Middle East had some sort of flood story. Some scholars speculate that a catastrophic flood centuries earlier provided the raw material for such myths, and it’s safe to say that people of ancient Israel were familiar with more than one version of the story. If you read the story in Genesis with any care, you will notice parts of at least two different accounts included there.
The writers and editors who pull together the book of Genesis are happy to include these sometimes conflicting accounts because they are only peripherally interested in reporting what happened. Their real interest is to use the story, along with other stories in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, to address deep, theological questions about the nature of God and about God’s relationship to creation, especially the human creature. It is this primary purpose of these stories that gets missed when we imagine them to be primitive, ancient tales.
The Noah story begins, some three chapters prior to our reading, with this comment. Yahweh saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And Yahweh was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  Or perhaps, it grieved her to her heart. Men wrote down the stories after all.
A heartbroken God may seem strange to us, but the Hebrew Bible has no problem portraying a God emotionally impacted by humanity. And so the flood story begins. You’ve surely heard it. A great ark is constructed and animals of every sort are brought on board. Subterranean springs burst forth and rain falls for forty days and nights. Creation returns to its pre-creation chaos where the Spirit of God moved over the waters. But finally, after months, God remembered, and the waters begin to subside. Now, as the story is often understood, creation and humanity can start fresh.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Self-Denial, Guns, and "My Rights"

Compared to most of my colleagues, I'm something of an oddity when it comes to sermon preparation. I try to stay a week or so ahead in preparing them. That means that I was working on a sermon from Mark 8:31-38 when I heard the news of yet another school shooting.

This passage in Mark occurs immediately following Peter's confession of Jesus as Messiah. Jesus then begins to teach his disciples that he will suffer, be rejected, and finally be killed, but be raised on third day. This is too much for Peter, who pulls Jesus aside to straighten him out. In return, Jesus calls Peter "Satan" in front of all the disciples. Then he calls in the crowds and teaches them.

Jesus' words are deservedly famous in Christian circles. "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it."

Self-denial is not all that popular in our culture. We're all about acquisition and freedom, and we bristle at the notion of any curbs on those freedoms or our ability as consumers to acquire whatever we want. Many Americans are drowning in credit card debt because they cannot even deny themselves those things they cannot afford.

Yet Jesus insists that being his followers requires denying ourselves, and it requires a cross, a willingness to take up voluntary burdens and suffering for the sake of others. Jesus' words are at totally at odds with the American ethos, which perhaps explains why American Christians are so often raving hypocrites.

Nowhere is the hypocrisy greater than on the issue of gun rights. For reasons I cannot fathom, many Christians have somehow linked their faith to a love of guns and an absolute right to defend themselves, Jesus' pacifist teachings be damned. But the insistence that protecting "my rights" are more important than the lives of young children runs completely counter to Jesus' absolute demand for self denial and cross bearing. This core teaching of Jesus demands that as his follower, I must be ready and willing to give up things dear to me, no matter how costly to me, for the sake others.

I am perfectly willing to concede that it is easy for me to call out this particular hypocrisy because I am not a gun owner (although I did grow up hunting and shooting). And no doubt I am prone to other hypocrisies that are harder for me to see because impact me personally in a way that gun rights do not. But Jesus does not provide for any sort of "Everyone is doing it" loophole. If we cannot give up things dear to us for the sake Jesus' message, if we cannot endure suffering that could be avoided, then we cannot call ourselves followers of Jesus. And I'm quite sure that this is what it means to say "I'm a Christian."

It is popular in some circles to speak of America as a "Christian nation," a dubious claim at any point in our history. But as long as our knee-jerk reaction to any event is to worry about "my rights" and "my privileges," Jesus certainly won't claim us as his followers.

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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Sermon: Healing Spiritual Amnesia

Isaiah 40:21-31
Healing Spiritual Amnesia
James Sledge                                                                                       February 4, 2018

Over the past year, I have  heard numerous calls for the Church to find its prophetic voice, to “speak truth to power.” At a time when some Christians are willing to excuse the most hateful, misogynist, racist behavior to gain or keep political power, it is incumbent on us to proclaim the way of Christ, a way that has special concern for the weak, the poor, the despised, the oppressed. Yes, we do need to speak God’s truth to power.
The biblical prophets often did exactly that, condemning kings and ruling class for policies that benefited the wealthy and injured the poor, blasting outward religious show that was uninterested in matters of justice and a rightly ordered society. But there is more to prophetic speech than this.
Prophets are about getting people aligned with God. Sometimes that means chastising them or warning what will happen if they don’t straighten up. That explains why some think that prophecy is about predicting the future, but such prophecy is rarely meant to be predictive in an absolute sense. It is, rather, a call to change and create a different future.
But prophecy need not be warning. Such is the case in our reading today. Here the prophet speaks to exiles in Babylon, people who’ve been defeated, Jerusalem and its great Temple have been destroyed, and these exiles struggle to maintain their religious traditions in a strange, foreign land. Some conclude that the Babylonian gods are stronger than their God. Or perhaps God has simply abandoned them. If only they had heeded the words of prophets in the past, but now it is too late. God pays no attention to their prayers any longer.
In this situation, the prophet’s job is not to call the people to straighten up. Rather it is to call them out of their spiritual amnesia. They have forgotten who this God called Yahweh is. Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Memory has failed them. They cannot see beyond their loss and suffering, and so faith and hope evaporate. Is such a moment, the prophet’s work is to help the people remember.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Sermon: LIfe Changing Words

Mark 1:21-28
Life Changing Words
James Sledge                                                                                       January 28, 2018

I’ve been delivering Sunday sermons for over twenty years now. Some people like them; some don’t. Now and then a sermon may touch folks, and I’ll hear more comments than usual. Now and then one touches a nerve ,and I hear more complaints than usual. But if I ever had any illusions to the contrary, one thing I’ve learned over these twenty plus years is that preaching has limited power actually to change people.
Even when I preach a sermon that folks love, it doesn’t mean that it makes a great difference in their lives. It has its moment, then it evaporates. Other pastors tell me much the same. We have a scant examples of a sermon making a big difference in someone’s life.
Perhaps it wasn’t always so. A word from the pulpit likely carried more weight and influence long ago, had more of “Thus sayeth the Lord” quality to it. But as individualism grew stronger and trust in institutions grew weaker, messages from the pulpit were taken with a grain of salt. People need to be convinced.
In one church I served there was a member who would often say to me, “I enjoyed the lecture today.” He meant it as a compliment, but I suspect the only authority my “lecture” had was found in how good an argument it made. It had no intrinsic authority because it came from a pastor or was based in Scripture.
The Bible itself has suffered a similar fate. People will accept what it says if it makes sense to them, if it seems reasonable, but it isn’t assumed to be correct, true, or life-giving just because it’s the Bible.