Friday, April 18, 2014

God's Absence

I just returned from our local, ecumenical Good Friday service. We followed the same format as last year (my first at the service) where pastors from various congregations reflected on the "seven last words of Christ." We each were assigned a verse relating something Jesus said from the cross. My verse was the one where Jesus quotes today's  morning psalm, Psalm 22. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

I can only imagine that what Jesus experienced was a terrifically amped-up version of something many of us have felt, the absence of God. I've certainly experienced it, as have many I've talked to: those moments when life seems to be falling apart, when everything has gone wrong, when the world seems hopeless and hell-bent on self destruction, and God is nowhere to be found. When it happens to me with enough force, it can make me doubt my previous experience of God and make me wonder about the faith I profess. But how about Jesus?

Jesus' sense of God's presence, his intimacy with God, surely made the experience of God's absence even more terrifying. Given who he was, could he doubt God's very existence? And if he could not, what conclusion did that leave. Had God abandoned  him? Was he now alone and on his own? As I said, I can only imagine what might have gone through Jesus' mind, and I don't care to experience such depth of suffering myself.

Who wants to suffer or wishes suffering on themselves? Certainly much suffering is pointless and destructive, but by no means all of it. I've been touched of late by David Brooks' NY Times column "What Suffering Does," as well as Barbara Brown Taylor's recent work on darkness. Add to that  books such as Richard Rohr's Falling Upward and the writings of other spiritual giants who do not wish suffering on anyone but who also know its potential to be grace filled. As Julian of Norwich once wrote, Firsts there is the fall, and then we recover from the fall. Both are the mercy of God!"

As David Brooks says, we live in a culture obsessed with happiness, yet we know, deep in our bones, about the power of suffering to shape and mold us, to help us "fall upward." I don't know if any of this applies to Jesus on the cross, but I find such a notion much more palatable than some of the brutal, substitutionary atonement posts by some of my Facebook friends. If Jesus had to suffer and die - and it seems he did - I hope it was not because God had to kill someone. Even if Jesus did jump up and take the bullet for us, we're still left with a terrible sort of God who must have blood.

And so I find myself looking upon Jesus, reflecting on the abandonment he felt, the suffering he endured, and wondering about if or how it changed him, wondering about its necessity and if that is so far removed from the fact that all human life entails suffering.


We'll have our own Good Friday Tenebrae service at this church tonight. We'll hear once more the story of betrayal, arrest, trial, and execution. We'll sing mournful songs and sit in silence, reflecting on the deepening darkness. ...And we'll hope, as does the psalm Jesus quotes from the cross, that all this leads somewhere good.

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Part of Salvation History

This evening our congregation will gather for a Passover meal, a Seder, something that has become rather popular in churches, though not everyone is happy about it. A blog post entitled "No 'Christian Seders,' Please!" has popped up a good bit on Facebook lately. At the same time, there is a book on my desk subtitled A Passover Haggadah for Christians that is co-authored by a rabbi and a pastor. There is no clear-cut guidance on such things it would seem.

Christian Seders or not, all the gospel accounts want to connect the events of Holy Week to the Passover. But I do not think they do so in any attempt to take over or supersede Jewish faith or practice (something the aforementioned blog post worries about happening with Christian Seders). Rather they want to connect the events of Jesus' death and resurrection to God's saving acts, and number one on that list is God rescuing slaves from Egypt in the Exodus.

To my mind, a grave mistake made by many Christian traditions is spiritualizing "salvation," transforming it from concrete, historical acts of rescue into a ticket to heaven when you die. The salvation of Exodus rescues the Hebrews in order to form them into the people of Israel, a peculiar community ordered very differently from the kingdoms of the world. And Jesus' own teachings about the kingdom of God are very much in keeping with this, about God's continuing work within history to create a community that reflects the ways of God rather than those of "the world."

One of the reasons I am okay with "Christian Seders" (done with care and sensitivity) is that we need to locate Christian notions of salvation within the larger scope of salvation history. Doing that is not about taking over or superseding Jewish practice. It is about letting such practice reeducate us on just what salvation is about. (I got this notion of being "reeducated by Judaism" from Walter Brueggemann in his book Sabbath as Resistance, where he says, "As in so many things concerning Christian faith and practice, we have to be reeducated by Judaism that has been able to sustain its commitment to Sabbath as a positive practice of faith." And I think salvation is one of those "so many things.")


Presbyterians don't use the language of "personal salvation" as much as some other Christian groups, but the idea has profound impact on us nonetheless. Many of us think of salvation as a personal, individual thing, even if we never speak of "being saved." But neither the Exodus nor the kingdom of God can happen to individuals. Such events in salvation history are profoundly corporate. God rescues people, not individual souls, and it would do Christians a world of good if our understanding of salvation was, in large part, defined by Passover and the events of the Exodus.

I take it that the gospel writers share such notions. That may explain why "Passover" is spoken four times - with "Unleavened Bread" thrown in for good measure - in the opening of today's reading from Mark. Jesus' salvation must be a lot like that one.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Serving the Owner

Today's lectionary readings contain Jesus' last parable in the gospel of Mark. The parable itself is told to opponents of Jesus, in this case chief priests, scribes, and elders, on the day after Jesus has "cleansed the Temple." Following an exchange with them about the nature of his authority, Jesus tells of a man who planted a fine vineyard and added all that was needed for producing wine. He then leased it to tenants. This lease involved the owner receiving a percentage of the wine the tenants produced. This would have been typical practice in the ancient Middle East, but in the parable, the tenants refuse to pay up. They beat or killed servants sent to collect the rent. They even killed the owner's son.

The meaning of the parable is painfully obvious to Jesus' opponents, maybe more so than it would have been to us. After all, the Temple functioned very much like the vineyard in the parable . Priests kept a share of the offerings of money and animals for their own use. Nothing wrong with that. Most church congregations function is a similar manner. Pastors and other employees get a portion of people's offerings. And the offerings also provide members with things they like, which may or may not have anything to do with serving God.

Jesus clearly thinks this sharing of the offerings has gotten out of whack at the Temple. No doubt there were faithful people who came to it and had profound religious experiences, who brought sacrifices and offerings from deep, religious motives. But on balance, Jesus seems to think that things have become hopelessly corrupted, about something other that God and God's will.

I wonder what sort of parable Jesus would tell to the congregations you and I frequent. The parable in today's gospel seems to expect that we will get something out of our work in such congregations, but it also expects that God will get something as well. To push the metaphor a bit, the Church belongs to God, and while we receive something for our service, we worship and work in it for the sake of the owner. Or at least we are supposed to.

Where is the boundary line that separates good tenants from wicked ones? At what point does church become so much about us and what we want that we have stopped serving the owner? It's probably less a bright, clear line than it is an ill-defined transition zone, but at some point a congregation moves out of that zone into the "Well done, good and faithful servant" side or to the wicked tenant side.

I have a sneaky suspicion that figuring this out is largely about who a congregation exists for. What part of what we do is purely for us, and what part is for others, for those Jesus sought out and ministered to? And I am all too aware of how tempting it is to do church for me and others like me. This takes many forms. It is worship designed to please me and my friends and children, programs meant for me and my friends and children, activities for me and my friends and children, etc. And church budgets often provide hard numbers on how much a congregation serves me and mine and how much it serves the owner.


One of the lessons young children must learn in order to grow up and become reasonably well adjusted adults is discovering that they are not the center of the universe. Children who do not learn such lessons are often quite miserable themselves, and they almost always make everyone around them miserable.

When it comes to faith and life with God, I often feel like a child who is still learning what it means to be a mature member of God's household. I'm stubborn and hard-headed, and I've still not quite gotten that I'm not the center and it's not all about me. But deep down I know that in reality, first and foremost, it's about serving the owner, and serving the other.

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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sermon: A Parade from the Underside

Matthew 21:1-11
A Parade from the Underside
James Sledge                                                                                       April 13, 2014

Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! There are no waving palms in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but that’s a minor detail. Waving our palms seems perfectly fitting when we join the parade as the king, the Son of David, enters into the holy city.
It is a parade, but there are all sorts of parades. We have inauguration parades in DC when a new president takes office, sort of like a new king. But for a modern day example of an ancient king’s coronation parade, I picture a first century version of one of those elaborate military parades in North Korea, where Kim Jong-un watches all the tanks and missiles and high-stepping soldier march by. In Jesus’ day it would have been horses and chariots and Roman legions in finest attire, but it’s the same idea.
But Jesus’ parade looks nothing like that. There is no official entourage. There are no soldiers, no weapons. There are no colorful banners or elaborate decorations. Matthew tells us without question that God is involved, that Scripture is being fulfilled. But beyond that, the whole thing feels impromptu. The crowd, which functions in Matthew’s gospel as a single character, a kind of 13th disciple, covers the road with branches and their own clothes as they loudly proclaim the arrival of this one long promised.
This is parade from the underside, the sort of parade likely to cause trouble because it frightens the powers-that-be. A new king challenges the present rulers and the status quo. In a sense, this parade may feel a bit like an early civil rights march in the deep south. Many of us have vivid memories of how those marchers were greeted with fire hoses and beatings. It was even worse for those who marched against apartheid in South Africa. And so we should know that things will not end well for Jesus.
Jesus’ parade is a counter cultural one because he is a threat to all earthy powers. He is a threat to the powers that many of us serve. This king is a threat to military powers and to those who trust in such power. He is a threat to economic powers that concentrate wealth in the hands of a few, nations or people. He is a threat to the consumerism that rules many of our lives, telling us, “You cannot serve two masters… You cannot serve God and wealth,” but still we try. Jesus is a threat to our overly competitive, 24/7 culture, commanding us, “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear,” yet we still do.
Jesus is a threat, and so the Jerusalem powers-that-be must deal with him, as powers-that-be must still do. In Jesus’ day, they used a cross. Today, we’ve grown more sophisticated, enlisting even the Church to minimize the threat by saying that Jesus’ kingdom is only a spiritual one, only about your eternal soul, with no designs on lifting up the poor, releasing the captive, or freeing us from our slavery to possessions, success, money, and more.
Jesus is a threat to all earthly power, but for the moment, the crowd in Jerusalem embraces him anyway. They recognize that this one, so different from the conquering-hero Messiah people were expecting, is indeed the promised Son of David.
The crowd, like the other disciples, will abandon Jesus when he is arrested. Like Peter, they will deny him. Neither disciples nor crowd can yet envision that this humble Messiah’s power is greater than the powers-that-be, greater than the cross and  even death itself. They have not yet encountered the power of resurrection.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! We wave our palms and join the parade, this countercultural parade from the underside that threatens all powers-that-be. We know this parade frightens those powers, and that it leads to a cross. But we also know of the power of resurrection, power far greater than anything the world knows.
Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  As his followers, let us continue to march, to proclaim, to agitate, and to work for God’s new day, where love will triumph over all the powers-that-be, and God’s will shall rule, in our hearts and in all the world.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What We Lack

I read a newspaper article this week about how competitive America's elite universities and colleges have become. These top schools accepted only 5% of their applicants this year, a new low. In this hyper-competitive process, there are winners and losers, lots and lots of losers. And this seems to be a general trend in our society, a world of endless competition and anxiety with fewer and fewer winners.

I increasingly see our 24/7, never slow down, competitive and anxiety-filled world as antithetical to God's notions of community. Whether it's the new community God seeks to create at Mt. Sinai from those brought out of slavery in Egypt, or the community of the Kingdom that Jesus proclaims, the basic mode of modern life is at odds with and counter to God's dream of true community.

I am hopeful that increasing numbers of Christians are beginning to recognize this. For centuries, we forgot. We turned Jesus' message of the Kingdom, of a world transformed by God's will, into one of private salvation after death. This is the distorted faith Marx correctly critiques as the "opiate of the masses." (The full quote reads, "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people".) Opium here is more about pain relief than illicit drug, and it speaks of faith as something that keeps people in awful straights from trying too hard to escape. After all, there is heaven to come.

But Jesus doesn't teach about heaven when you die. He proclaims a new day that is breaking into history, one that lifts up the poor and oppressed, that elevates the "losers" of this world. And all of this is uncomfortably on display in today's gospel.

I've long felt this passage was one of the most unsettling in the Bible. In Mark's version of this story, there is nothing at all unvirtuous or hypocritical about the rich man who approaches Jesus. He is a man of deep faith who has tried diligently to keep the God's commandments. His comment about keeping all the commandments from youth is not a boast or a claim of perfection. It simply means he has tried his best and has asked forgiveness when he has failed. (The Apostle Paul can speak of himslef in precisely the same manner. "... as to righteousness under the law, blameless." - Philippians 3:6)

Jesus' reaction to this rich man is entirely positive. "Jesus, looking at him, loved him..." Jesus sees a person of faith on a genuine spiritual quest, and so he seeks to guide him. "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me." It is, of course, more than the man can do. He has too much to give it all away.

I'm struck by Jesus' words, "You lack one thing." We live in a world that is all about acquiring what we lack. The universal answer to all problems is "More." More of something will cure what ails us, make us happy, get us ahead, provide us security, make us popular or successful, etc. But Jesus tells this man, a man not so different from many of us, that what he lacks is a willingness to let go. The answer he cannot seem to find is one of less rather than more.

It's difficult to think too badly of this fellow. The idea that we need less rather than more is as foreign to us as it was to that first-century, well-to-do suburbanite. We cannot believe that creating the world God envisions is about a great sharing and leveling, with no winners and losers. Just like Jesus' first disciples, we are stunned when he says, "How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" (If you think I'm reading too much into today gospel, take a look at Acts 2:43-45 and its description of the first Christian community.)

It is unsettling to realize that the thing that motivates so much of what we do with our lives is the very thing Jesus says separates us from God's dream for a transformed world. And that brings me back round to where I began, an anxiety-filled world of winners and very many more losers, as well as an emerging awareness by some Christians that this is counter to God's ways.

This rediscovery of a gospel of the Kingdom, of God's new day, as opposed to a gospel of evacuation, of heaven when we die (to borrow from Brian McLaren) is profoundly hopeful to me even if it seems an impossible battle. What possible chance does a message of God's new community, a message of less and of sharing, have against our culture's faith in possessions and acquisition and competition? Very little it would seem.

But it's not as if this conflict is anything new. Jesus carried this impossible battle straight to the religious and political powers-that-be of his day, and they showed him what they thought of such a message. His talk of  God's new community, of a kingdom where God's will is done on earth, was no match for imperial power and for a cross. Or so it seemed.

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Bricks! More Bricks!

But the king of Egypt said to them, "Moses and Aaron, why are you taking the people away from their work? Get to your labors!"  Exodus 5:4

In the Exodus story, when Moses first goes to Pharaoh, he relays this word from God. "Let my people go, so that they may celebrate a festival to me in the wilderness." I'm not sure if this original request, time off for a festival, was a ruse of sorts. Would it all have ended right here if Pharaoh had said something different? "Sure, take a few days off to worship. The bricks can wait."

Of course Pharaoh says no such thing. He's not about to give the Israelites a day off, much less several for a festival in the wilderness. The demand for bricks is too great. "Bricks, more bricks," is the never ending cry. And for even suggesting a day off, Pharaoh demands the same productions quotas with less raw material. It sounds a bit like modern factory systems that demand greater and greater efficiency, more and more production from fewer and fewer workers.

One of today's morning psalms praises the God "who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free." In the biblical story, and in my own experience, God can be excruciatingly slow to act, but God does act on behalf the oppressed, the hungry, the poor, the prisoner. However, the poor, oppressed, and prisoner aren't always amenable to God's intervention. In the Exodus story, the people of Israel struggle to trust this God who frees them. At every sign of difficulty, they long for their old slavery, where they had shelter and knew where their next meal came from. That seems preferable to becoming dependent on the provision of God.

It strikes me that the modern "rat race" is not so different. People speak of being caught up in it, being captive to it, but rare is the person who works very hard to break free. God, both in the Old Testament story and through the words of Jesus, speaks of a relaxed trust in the surety of divine provision. At Mt. Sinai, God command Sabbath, a break from the rat race. But anxious people can't stop. "Bricks, more bricks," the cry continues. Or perhaps, "Stuff, more stuff. Never enough stuff."  Jesus tells us not to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear, but we can't stop worrying. And so we cannot stop at all. We prefer the voice of Pharaoh, "Get to your labors!" over the voice of the one who calls us to Sabbath.

But "the LORD sets the prisoners free." Please, Lord. A lot of us could use a little freeing.

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(My own spiritual reflections on this are much influenced of late by Walter Brueggemann's book, Sabbath as Resistance.)

Sermon video: Absurd, Impossible Endings

Audios of sermons and worship are available on the FCPC website.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Resurrection, Individualism, and Community

Strictly speaking, the problems that the Apostle Paul faces with his Corinthian congregation have little contact with my church work. Speaking in tongues is not much practiced in the Presbyterian churches I've known, and so I have little cause to warn folks about it. Yet despite my unfamiliarity with speaking in tongues, I think Paul has some important insights.

Paul's concerns with tongues is not about right and wrong religious practices. Instead it is about the impact such practices have on the good of the community. The problem with tongues is its individual focus. It does not build up or instruct the church.

Paul is not against private spiritual practices that help draw one closer to God, but his understanding of faith is very much rooted in community. Any faith that does not get lived out in love toward the other, in a community of mutual love and support, is not the new life in Christ that Paul has found.

I wonder what Paul would think of American Christianity, especially some versions' tendency to focus on a personal, individual relationship with God/Jesus. I also wonder what he would say about the current fascination with meditation, prayer techniques, and spirituality that has emerged in many congregations. I don't know that he would have any objections to them per se, but I do suspect he would add a caveat about their needing to build up the body of Christ.


Today I began to think seriously about what I might say on Easter. The story is so familiar. The women go to the tomb early in the morning only to find it empty, to hear that Jesus is risen. Should I even preach? Why not simply read the story and sing that Christ is risen? But as I've thought about this, I've found myself thinking a bit along the lines of Paul. If the proclamation, "He is risen!" does not build up the community, if it does not make a difference in the world, then have we perhaps misunderstood the meaning of the empty tomb and Jesus' resurrection?

Paul says that his encounter with the risen Christ changes everything. It makes him an entirely new person. What he was has died. What he has become is a new creation. Paul's faith is not about a vague hope for something better when he dies, and it is not about personal spiritual fulfillment. It is about God entering into history in a manner that has creation itself groaning in anticipation, that creates a new community, the church, that bears God's love into the world. The resurrection has profound social dimensions. God's reaching out to the world in Jesus requires a reaching out and a reconciliation between neighbors. God's love cannot simply be savored for its own sake. It must be shared.

So then, how do Easter and the power of resurrection transform and direct the work of the community where you live and worship?

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Sermon: Absurd, Impossible Endings

Ezekiel 37:1-14 (John 11:20-45)
Absurd, Impossible Endings
James Sledge                                                                                       April 6, 2014

“Can these bones live?” The question would seem to be absurd. The scene in Ezekiel’s vision is one of utter and awful devastation, a valley filled with sun-bleached bones. There is only one possible explanation. A horrible massacre of some sort had occurred. An army had totally annihilated an enemy. No one was left to bury the dead, an appalling fate for a Jew. The fallen had been stripped of anything valuable and then left to the birds and the elements. In time there was nothing left but bones, dried out bones.
“Can these bones live?”  What an absurd question, but it seems the prophet knows better than to dismiss the absurd when God is involved. “O Lord God, you know.”
The prophet Ezekiel has blasted Israel for their total failure to be the people they were called to be. He says their defeat and exile by the Babylonians is God’s doing, and it appears God is done with them. Their story is over, and yet… “Can these bones live?”
Ezekiel tells exiled Israel that they are these dry bones. But what about us? Can we speak of dry bones?
Some see the Church in America “in exile” and facing death. Some predict a European landscape where churches are more museum than body of Christ, and all across our country, individual congregations and denominations are facing death.
Many in our country are worried about the decline of the middle class or the demise of the American dream. Is the promise of a better life for any who would work hard simply dead?
In politics and in world events, there are countless problems and conflicts that seem endless and hopeless. And surely most of us have experienced our own moments when all hope seems lost. There are relationships that are beyond repair, estrangement that cannot be healed. There is faith that is lost, dead and gone forever. “Can these bones live?”
“Can these bones live?” Perhaps I could ask another way. Is resurrection possible? Is new life possible? It would seem that one could not be a Christian without some sort of hope in resurrection, but too often this gets confined to “What will happen when you die?” But that’s a different question than, “Can these bones live?” And Jesus is talking about something different when he says, “I Am the resurrection and the life.”
Jesus speaks these words just before raising Lazarus from the dead after four days in the tomb. He’s talking to Martha, Lazarus’ sister, who already believes in a resurrection on the last day. But he tells Martha that he is something more, something bigger than heaven at the end. “I Am the resurrection and the life. These bones can live now!”
It is easy to forget that the power of God is about more than heaven when you die. You would think church would be the last place people would forget that God can do what seems absurd, even impossible, but most of us do forget at times. We see stories where we cannot imagine any ending but a bad one, and we think, “That’s it. There’s no hope,” without ever stopping to consider that God might imagine a different, improbable, impossible ending. We forget, even though our Christian story is about an absurd, impossible ending.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

We're All in This Together

If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.  1 Corinthians 12:26

I saw an article this week describing how Americans are increasingly divided and distrustful of one another. Humans have always been good at creating divisions, but we seem to be getting even better at it. Think of all the ways we divide ourselves. There are Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, haves and have-nots, black and white, young and old, "makers and takers," religious and non-religious, young and old, the 99 percent and the 1 percent, and on and on and on. In fact, it seems increasingly difficult to find things where most Americans feel commonality or unanimity.

When Paul writes the Christians in Corinth, he is concerned about divisions there as well. There are divisions of rich and poor, divisions around degrees of theological sophistication, and divisions over who has more impressive spiritual gifts, to name a few. In today's reading, Paul undermines these divisions using the metaphor of a body, a body that, in tomorrow's reading, he explicitly names as "the body of Christ." And so when the Corinthians fail to care for each other or they injure one another because of their divisions, they do damage to this body of which they are a part.

(It is worth noting that Paul's instructions about the Lord's Supper that come shortly before today's verses reference the same body. It is common for people to hear Paul's words, "For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves," as referring to a mystical presence of Christ's body in the elements of the meal. But the context and the situation Paul seeks to correct indicate that Paul speaks of "the body of Christ" formed by the community of faith.)

Paul is addressing a church congregation, and so his words are perhaps not so easily applied to a larger society such as ours in 21st century America. And yet many of the voices in our divided America make much of their Christian faith. And some of the loudest voices seem remarkably unable to discern a body of any sort. Those who do not agree with them, and who do not seem likely to be converted to their point of view, are "the enemy," an obstacle to be overcome and any cost.

This inability to make the good of the entire body paramount is not restricted to any particular group or viewpoint. Whether the fight is within a Christian denomination or within the body politic, we routinely act at odds with what Paul proclaims. "If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it." We do sometimes attempt to justify ourselves by insisting that those we oppose aren't really Christian, aren't true Americans, etc. We declare them not part of the body, thus making them fair game.

As Paul's situation makes clear, this problem of divisions is nothing new. I do wonder, however, if the individualistic nature of our society doesn't make it even more problematic. I wonder if there is not some point beyond which individualism makes impossible the sort of community Paul envisions, the community God seeks to form via the Law and the prophets, and the community of love Jesus calls those who follow him to build.

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Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Too Anxious to Worship

I read another article the other day about how American teenagers are terribly stressed out and anxious, and not without good reason. If they are going to "make it," they need to get into a good college, and that means they need to get good grades in top tier classes. They also need to score high enough on the SAT or the ACT, but that alone isn't enough. They need to stand out in other ways: sports, arts, leadership, and so on. And so they are often over-scheduled for one "enrichment activity" after another.

Of course these teenagers didn't create the demands that cause all that stress and anxiety. They got them from their parents, from our culture, from the hyper-competitive world we live in. They've simply acquired, at a much earlier age, the same sort of anxieties and stresses that many of their parents carry around with them.

In America, we have become slaves to a culture of acquisition. We need more and more, and we must run ourselves ragged to get it. We are driven by fear of not having enough, but there are always more unfulfilled wants. And there are always those with more than us to make us fell bad about what we don't have. We are never quite able to make it, and so we are left with endless, 24/7 striving. We are captives to the market, to an anxious system that values only production, more and more production.

The Bible insists that this is distortion. It is a fundamental misunderstanding of God's good creation and of the meaning of human life.
Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving;
          make melody to our God on the lyre.
He covers the heavens with clouds,
          prepares rain for the earth,
          makes grass grow on the hills.
He gives to the animals their food,
          and to the young ravens when they cry.
His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
          nor his pleasure in the speed of a runner;
but the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
          in those who hope in his steadfast love.   
Psalm 147:7-11
Anxious, stressed out people have no time for worship. Worship is not productive, it does not create any more. It is a waste of time that could be used to get ahead, to strive and produce, to take one more extra course or one more piano lesson.

Not only do anxious, stressed out people  have no time for unproductive worship, but neither can they afford to trust in or wait on the provision of God. The god of consumerism and production demands endless striving. It tells us that we will fall behind otherwise. To wait on a God who makes grass grow and who gives food to hungry creatures is too big a risk. We must secure blessing on our own. We dare not leave such things to God.

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the Church is filled with the same anxiety that pervades our culture. There aren't enough religious folks to go around. If we aren't careful, we won't have enough and we may die or, at the very least, be failures. We had better scurry about trying to devise new programs and attractive activities that can be seen as good products, as something worth consuming. And so we must out-compete all the other churches. We must be better producers of religious commodities.

Strange how unlike God all this is. The picture of God in the Bible, from the God seen at creation to the God imaged in Jesus, is the polar opposite of our striving. God takes Sabbath and rests, not worried about what may have during this time of inactivity and no production. Jesus tells us not to worry, to trust in the providence of God who clothes the flowers of the field in splendor that unmatched by Solomon's temple. And Jesus was surely the most un-anxious person who ever lived.

The first of the Bible's creation stories says that the human creature, both male and female, in some way bears the image of God. That suggests that our true human identity is one that permits rest, that is not overly anxious, and is not captive to endless striving. No wonder that our stressed out, anxious world takes such a toll on our health. We are living at odds with our true identity.

But Jesus comes to save, and he invites all who are weary and weighed down by heavy burdens to come to him, promising to give us rest. He offers to free us from our captivity to acquisition, to endless striving and production. Surely we want to be free. But, to paraphrase Walter Brueggemann, like the Israelites who escaped slavery in Egypt, most of us are much better trained as captives in the anxious production systems of Pharaoh than we are in trusting the gracious provision of a loving God.

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