Sunday, April 24, 2016

Sermon: Transformed by Love

John 13:31-35
Transformed by Love
James Sledge                                                                                       April 24, 2016

“I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.” But exactly how new is this commandment? Love your neighbor as yourself is in the Old Testament book of Leviticus. And haven’t parents been trying to get siblings to love one another since the beginning of time? Isn’t a mom yelling, “Why can’t you two just get along?” an exasperated version of “Love one another!”?
At first glance, this command to love one another also seems a lot less noble, a lot less impressive than some of Jesus’ other commands such as, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Now that’s an extraordinary accomplishment, surely something much more difficult than loving those around you, than loving one another.
Then again, “one another” presumably refers to those we spend a lot of time with, those who have ample opportunities to annoy us, hurt us, disagree with us, get under out skin, and disappoint us. And if our enemy is nameless and faceless, some group way over there, they may not stir our emotions nearly so much as that family member we can’t abide, or that member of the congregation who seems to go out of his or her way to be difficult and cause trouble
There’s an old Peanuts cartoon that I think captures this well. (I’ve updated the language a bit.) Lucy has told Linus that he can’t be a doctor because he doesn’t love humankind. Linus yells back, “I love humankind… It’s people I can’t stand!!”
Humanity… nameless, faceless others in general, even some who are enemies, perhaps we can love them on principle. But those people that we encounter on a regular basis, who irritate and annoy and cause us all manner of problems… that’s another matter entirely. “Love one another,” may not sound all that noble or impressive, but doing it isn’t very easy.
That doesn’t really make it a new commandment though. What is new about love one another?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Strange Blessings

As a pastor, it is not unusual for me to hear people speak of their blessings. They may comment to me that they have been "blessed," usually referring to tangible things they appreciate such as possessions, wealth, position, children, etc. In prayers people sometimes refer to their "many blessing," often with similar meaning. What I've never heard is someone including the items on Jesus' list in today's gospel passage, one usually labeled "The Beatitudes."

These Beatitudes (from the Latin for "blessing") have suffered from a fair amount of trivializing over the years. They frequently get referred to as the "Be Happy Attitudes," as though Jesus was here offering some tips for self-improvement or success. But any self help guru who suggested mourning, anguished longing for the world to be set right, or persecution as a prescription for happiness would not last long in that role.

Jesus/God clearly has different priorities than most of us do. Jesus has little interest in possessions, and he regularly invites people to leave what they have behind and follow him. Many of the things we call blessings involve acquisition and getting, but Jesus says that the path to life goes through giving, self-denial, and concern for "the other."

My own Calvinist tradition is largely responsible for the so-called "Protestant work ethic." In its origins it equated hard work and success with signs that you were a member of God's "elect." Yet Jesus' beatitudes speak of God's favor being on people most of us would not list as paragons of success. And in Luke's gospel, a similar set of beatitudes says, "Blessed are you who are poor..." And it later adds, "But woe to you who are rich..." The same pattern follows for those who are "hungry" and those who are "full." Not sure how that fits into a hard work + success = God's blessing.

Our culture often blames those who are poor for their fate. They are presumed to be lazy or without initiative. Yet God seems to be quite taken with the poor. It's a theme that recurs regularly in Old and New Testaments. Whether that poverty is spiritual or literal, God looks with favor on those who are too often despised for their "failings." And I'm pretty sure that Jesus' teachings are encouraging us see things more from God's point of view.

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Left to Our Own Devices

Today's lectionary gospel reading features John the Baptist calling people to prepare for the coming Messiah. According to John, getting ready involves a change of direction or mind, repentance. That got me wondering about what sort of repentance is required for me or a congregation to embrace Jesus fully. This wondering was intensified because I had been thinking about an upcoming sermon that deals with miracles.

The context for my wondering is a secular mindset in a secular age. The stories of the Bible, of Jesus, of healings and miracles do not sit easily in our world. I'm not Thomas Jefferson, taking a razor and carefully removing all the miracle stories associated with Jesus in order to produce a pure collection of Jesus' teachings without foolish superstitions about demons and evil spirits and healings and exorcisms. But I do struggle with miracles. When I hear of a televangelist or other religious figure offering healings or other miracles, I assume he or she is a con and a fraud.

But do such secular assumptions create problems for following Jesus? Is there a change of mind, a repentance required of me and those like me if I am to be properly oriented for following Jesus?

I'm unsure of the exact connection, but the rise of a secular worldview seems to parallel the development of individualism. In its best forms this has encouraged everyone to recognize his or her own intrinsic value and worth. In its worst forms it has transformed us into free agents, each of us responsible for self alone, no overriding loyalties, allegiances, debts, or commitments. If one is wealthy, it is because she had done well for herself. If one is poor, it is because he has done poorly.

The message of Jesus certainly seems compatible with notions of intrinsic value and worth for every individual. But it seems totally at odds with being free agents. In the alternative community Jesus proclaims, there are profound commitments and obligations to the neighbor, to the other. And Jesus expands the neighborhood to include outsiders and enemies. It is a worldview that allows Jesus to die for the sake of others, even for enemies.

But central to Jesus' proclamation is the certainty that the power of God to transform, the bring life out of death, to make all things new, is active and at work in the world. God is shaping things, bending the arc of history toward particular outcomes. And if the power of God is at work in the world, then surely miracles must at least be a possibility.

Possibility and control are two very different things, and I suspect that much modern skepticism around religious miracles has roots in issues of control. Think of televangelists who offer healing for a donation or, more commonly, the notion of being healed if you pray hard enough or have sufficient faith. This is less about the power of God moving in surprising and life giving ways and more about formulas to harness such power. And one thing the Bible makes clear over and over is that the God of Jacob, the God we meet in Jesus, will not be harnessed. The God of Sinai and of the cross is radically wild and free.

But if God will not be harnessed, what does it mean to follow this Jesus who could trust his very life to the power of God to make new and give life? Surly it requires, at the very least, being open to the power of God at work in the world. And I'm not always open to such things.

Very often the Christian faith practiced by Presbyterians and other Mainline/Oldline denominations can be a mix of "believing in Jesus" and trying to follow some of his teachings (at least those we like). But this often includes no expectation that anything other than our own devices are involved. We're not inclined to claim any ability to control the power of God. We seem to think that only power involved is the power we possess. At least I often seem to operate from such a point of view.

And that is why I'm wondering about repentance, about a change of mind.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sermon: The Story Continues

John 21:1-19
The Story Continues
James Sledge                                                                                       April 10, 2016

When I go to the movies, I’m one of those people who sit there as the credits roll. I’m not sure why. Sometimes I’m actually looking for something such as song that was in the movie. Other times it’s just what I do. And every once in a while, something pops up after the credits, a blooper from the filming, an epilogue, a teaser about a sequel.
Something similar happens in today’s gospel reading, though given the way we use scripture in worship, reading a few paragraphs each Sunday morning, it’s easy to miss such things. But go back a page or so and you’ll see it. John has told us of the empty tomb and the risen Jesus speaking to Mary Magdalene early on Easter morning. Then we read of Jesus appearing that night to the disciples, and then appearing again when Thomas, who missed the previous appearance, is present.
Then the gospel seems to conclude saying, Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and through believing you may have life in his name. The End. Let the credits roll.
If you’d been listening to an audio version of John’s gospel in the car, you might well turn it off at thispoint. You might leave during the credits and completely miss our reading for today. Jesus reappears, after the credits, after the gospel is over, after the story has been told.
This reappearance has sparked much discussion as to why. Had some problem arisen in the congregation for whom John is originally written? Might some of them have thought that Peter was unfit to be a leader because of denying Jesus on the night of his arrest? Had a different author attached this new ending? Scholars debate such questions endlessly, and they are interesting questions. But I wonder if they miss a bigger point.

Monday, March 28, 2016


There's an old Beatles song that begins, "I'm so-o-o tired..." with music that perfectly echos the feeling. With a lot of my clergy colleagues, I'm so-o-o tired today. The religious busyness of Holy Week and an extra service for Easter are a part of that. (There's a reason many pastors take vacation right after Easter.) But the tiredness seems deeper this year.

I suppose it could be a matter of getting older. I do notice the impact of the years. I'm a slower runner than I once was. I injure more easily and heal more slowly, the typical stuff. But I do not think age explains my tiredness.

I wonder if the problem is not related to Easter, but not with regards to all the energy expended because of the season. I wonder if my tiredness does not come from a nagging sense that the victory of Easter feels hollow.

I say that out of a my understanding of just what the victory of Easter actually entails. I realize the this victory often gets reduced to little more than personal immortality.  Believe the right things and get your ticket to heaven. But such a reduction requires ignoring a great deal of what Jesus said and did and commanded.

Jesus came proclaiming God's rule, the kingdom. This very political term speaks of a society arranged according to very different values and principles than those of most societies. This kingdom is especially concerned with those at the bottom and those who are outsiders. It is rooted in an ethic of radical love, one that loves even enemies. It calls for self giving and self denial, behavior clearly seen in Jesus' own willingness to give his own life.

The way Jesus teaches is thought to be foolish and ridiculous by the world. (See 1 Corinthians 1:18ff.) Anyone who fully embraces the way of Jesus will be torn apart by the world, which is precisely what happens to Jesus. The world won and Jesus lost. Yet the resurrection insists otherwise.

And so we celebrate that Christ is risen, risen indeed. We sing our Alleluias. And then we continue to live as though the world had triumphed. We hate our enemy and pray for victory against them. We build a society that celebrates wealth and goes to great lengths to protect it. We imagine that our ease and comfort matters more than the life and death struggles of those who are different from us or have the misfortune to live in other lands.

I do not say such things meaning they are someone else's problems. I too celebrate Easter and then live as though it never happened. I worship at the idol of wealth and possessions. I'm a willing participant in our consumerist culture of "more." And my life has more than a few people that I cannot seem to love or pray for as Jesus commanded.

Sometimes I think my tiredness is a matter of despair, and I want God to do something about it. I want God to straighten me out, straighten the Church out, straighten the world out. And I'm tired of waiting,.. Tired of waiting.

When I find myself experiencing this sort of tiredness, I sometimes find comfort in knowing that my longing for God to act is a not uncommon refrain in the Bible. The phrase, "How long, O LORD" occurs over and over in the psalms. Indeed the psalm of lament is the the most common form in the psalter.  (Ps 13 How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? Ps. 35 How long, O LORD, will you look on? Ps. 89 How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?)

Jesus goes so far as to announce God's favor on those who are tired of waiting, saying that those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who long for the world to be set right, are blessed. And Easter proclaims that Jesus' view of things is correct. Yet the world, and I, keep living in ways that suggest otherwise.


In the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus begins his ministry with a call to "Repent."  There is change required if we are to be part of the new thing Jesus is doing. But I cling to the ways of the world. I resist the ways of the kingdom Jesus proclaims, even if those ways triumphed over death itself. I struggle against the new life Jeasus invites me to enjoy. Maybe that's we I'm so tired.

Sermon video: Light in the Darkness

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Sermon: Light in the Darkness

John 20:1-18
Light in the Darkness
James Sledge                                       March 27, 2016 – Resurrection of the Lord

The first church I served as pastor did an Easter sunrise service with four other churches, though the term “sunrise” was a bit of a misnomer. Only one of the five pastors wanted to make it a true sunrise event. Every year he would argue for a location and a time where worshipers would experience the sun rising above the horizon mid-service. And every year the rest of us would shoot him down. None of us really liked getting up that early to begin with, and we always scheduled the service as late as practical.
I suppose that sunrise services are to be expected considering that the first Easter happens early in the morning. Interestingly, however, there is no mention of sunrise in John’s gospel, quite the opposite. The gospel tells us that Mary went to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and presumably, the entire story takes place in darkness.
Of course darkness has featured prominently in John’s gospel from the beginning. John’s gospel has no Christmas story. Instead it goes all the way back to Creation for its start. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (By the way, if you know the Genesis story that starts, In the beginning… you know that darkness covered the face of the deep. But to continue with John’s beginning.) He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him is life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
In the darkness, Mary heads out for the tomb. She’s distraught at having lost Jesus, and now that Passover and Sabbath are over, she can go and visit his tomb. A body is all she has now. But then she discovers that even that is gone.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Superhero Jesus for Good Friday

My Facebook page is full of Good Friday posts. Many are simple recitations of scripture verses. Some are thoughtful reflections on the meaning of the cross and Jesus' death. But on Facebook, you have to take the good with the bad, and there is plenty of bad theology on Facebook during Holy Week.

One post in particular caught my eye. It had a picture of flowers with these lines superimposed over it. "Death couldn’t handle Him, and the grave couldn’t hold Him." Just below the picture was a piece that begin with, "He is indestructible." Apparently death came after Jesus like a bad guy fighting a superhero, and Jesus took him out with one punch. Except, of course, that is not at all what happened.

I suppose there is no religious significance to the much hyped release of the movie, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, opening on Good Friday. That said, Americans do seem to like a superhero styled Jesus. The cross is just a technical issue to be dealt with on the way to Easter. In this model, even Jesus' suffering is superhuman, something no one else could have done.

Such notions fit nicely with American appreciation of power and success, but they bear little resemblance to the Jesus seen in scripture. That Jesus does not take on death and win. He is executed and he dies. According to the gospels, he dies quicker than others on a cross typically did. The is a model of power Americans often cannot fathom, one Paul describes as power made perfect in weakness. God's love took human form and gave everything, even life itself. This is no superhero, at least not as we use the term, who takes on death and wins.

This is the Jesus of whom Paul writes, "though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, take the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross."

Superhero notions of Jesus that see him as "indestructible" cheapen the self-giving of Jesus who risks all. Worse, superhero images of Jesus/God too easily mistake the Divine for an angry crusader, doing battle with all who oppose God or who oppose us. But the God we meet in Jesus loves all the world so much that God gives Jesus, and Jesus gives himself. God/Jesus does not punch death or evil in the nose. Instead self-giving love overcomes evil and death. No punching involved.

Superheros may be indestructible. They may overcome bad guys with brute force, but that is not the way of Jesus. Jesus demands that we love our enemies, even says that doing say makes us like God. And Jesus does not change his tune when he faces the cross. He prays for his enemies as he dies.

And he dies, and is laid in the tomb, just like any other human being... Until God's love overcomes even death with life, with resurrection.

Click to learn more about the lectionary.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Idolatrous Terror, Idolatrous Responses, Idolatrous Politics

I suppose the horrific bombings in Brussels this week, as well as the responses to it, were depressingly predictable. Another terror attack was not a matter of if but of when. Terrorists of all stripes have an appalling disregard for others. Commuters in Brussels or shoppers in Istanbul are merely targets, not fellow human beings. When terrorists are religious, as they so often are, they have concluded that the people they kill are hated by God, and if hated by God then not of any real worth.

This clearly happens when Islamic terrorists believe that they are killing enemies of God rather than fellow humans. The victims are not people with whom terrorists disagree. They are "evil" and less than human because they are God's enemies. Of course such a conclusion requires collapsing God
into the terrorists' particular understanding and interpretation of God, and of Islam's sacred texts.

Deciding that God is exactly as I envision God is clearly an act of creating God in my own image. Such notions are typically referred to as idolatry in Jewish and Christian tradition. I'm no expert in Islamic theology, but I feel reasonably safe in assuming that such behavior is idolatrous for Islam as well. Yet such idolatry seems remarkably popular in our day, and not just with terrorists.

You see this idolatry in the all too predictable responses to the bombings in Brussels. Ted Cruz called for police to "patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods" in the US. Donald Trump chimed in that this was a great idea. Cruz surely knows that such actions would be unconstitutional, but he is not speaking of real possibilities. Rather he is appealing to those who view Muslims as God's enemies.

Cruz and quite a few other Christians engage in an idolatry that works very much like that practiced by terrorists. It assumes God and God's view of things is virtually indistinguishable from their views of God and of the world. And while some might object that Cruz and those like him do not advocate bombs in airports or shopping malls, they do advocate torturing people who may be innocent and bombing and killing women and children whose only crime is being related to a terrorist.

Assuming that God favors Americans over others, or even Christians over others, is an idolatrous act that presumes God to be like me. But for Christians at least, the God we meet in Jesus says that loving enemies and praying for those who hurt us makes us more like God. (Matthew 5:43-48) And this same Jesus lifts up a despised, foreign heretic (a Samaritan) as an example of the love for others God demands. (Luke 10:25-37) Thus to insist that we can hate or hurt certain others because we fear them or because they are the "wrong" religion is to refashion God in our image.


It strikes me that the idolatry of terrorists and of some reactions to their acts has a parallel in the bitter political partisanship of our day. It may not be connected to particular religious traditions. It may even be practiced by agnostics or atheists, but it follows the same idolatrous pattern. My view is equated with goodness and righteousness while the views of others are seen, not as differences of opinion, but as evil. And so people can speak of those who differ with them of hating America, being against freedom, etc. Political opponents cease to be fellow citizens and become enemies of the good. And such demonizing even takes place within political parties. Some of the rhetoric in the race between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton embraces the idolatrous language of divine enemies, simply replacing enemy of God with enemy of good.

We Presbyterians trace our theology back to John Calvin, and Calvinists have always been particularly concerned about the sin of idolatry. When my denomination's Book of Order outlines the central theological themes of our tradition it includes this one. "The recognition of the human tendency to idolatry and tyranny, which calls the people of God to work for the transformation of society by seeking justice and living in obedience to the Word of God." Idolatry and tyranny go hand in hand because the moment we mistake our desires and purposes for God's (or for that of truth or goodness), we will find it very easy to tyrannize those who disagree with us or oppose us.

For Christians, the problem of sin, of idolatry, calls for confession, but the language of confession, contrition, and repentance is rarely encountered in our public or political discourse. Such language is viewed as a sign of weakness. When questioned on whether he'd ever asked God for forgiveness, Donald Trump replied, "I don't think so." Trump is surely an extreme example, but he is far from unique. When politics turns idolatrous, real confession becomes impossible.

Nor do I come away unscathed from this problem of idolatry. There are commentators and politicians whose words I presume to be false before they are spoken. After all, they speak on behalf of all that is wrong with the world, so I needn't listen at all. They are excommunicated from being legitimate conversation partners.


In the gospel lection for today, Jesus tells  a parable that entraps the religious authorities. In this "Parable of the Wicked Tenants," an absentee landowner sends servants to collect his share of the vineyard's produce, only to have them beaten, abused, or killed. Finally, he sends his son saying, "They will respect my son." But they kill the son as well. Jesus then asks the religious authorities what the landowner will do. They answer that the landowner will "destroy" the tenants and give the vineyard to others, after which Jesus quotes verses from Psalm 118 that speak of a rejected stone becoming the cornerstone.

This parable is often understood as an allegory with Judaism as the tenants, Jesus as the son who is killed, and Christians as those now given the vineyard. Yet Jesus never says anything of the sort. It is the religious authorities who speak of the landowner destroying old tenants and finding new one. The parable clearly does indict the religious authorities (not Judaism), but they alone speak of destruction. And as the events of Holy Week and beyond unfold, the destruction those authorities imagined does not come to pass.

Instead, Jesus prays for forgiveness from the cross. Following Pentecost, Peter also extends the same forgiveness to those who "crucified and killed" Jesus. (Acts 2:14-42) God turns out to be little like the authorities' expectations of the landowner. Hardly surprising for this God whose ways are not our ways. Yet we keep presuming they are.

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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Preaching Thoughts for Palm/Passion Sunday

Our choir is presenting John Rutter's Requiem today in our primary worship service, and so I did not actually write a sermon. In our early, informal service, I did reflect a bit on the king who enters Jerusalem in a royal procession of sorts, particularly as that king is presented in the hymn from Paul's letter to the Philippians that serves as one of the Passion readings for today.

Over the years, I've heard the occasional grumble from someone upset at Palm Sunday now having to share billing with the Passion. I don't actually know when this change occurred. In my own childhood, the day was almost exclusively about the Palm side. That may mean that Palm/Passion Sunday had not yet been instituted by that time, or that the churches my family attended had not yet embraced the idea. Either way, I understand why people who grew up with Palm Sunday might be a bit bummed at the inclusion of the Passion. It does take some of the joy out of the celebration.

Of course going directly from Palm Sunday "Hosannas!" to Easter "Alleluias" creates problems of its own. My childhood notions of Holy Week and Easter went straight from palms to "Christ is risen!" I knew the story of what happened in between, but that seemed to be something of a footnote. This footnote status may be one reason the Jesus of Church and popular culture has so frequently been depicted along the lines of the king he refused to be after his royal entry to Jerusalem.

Jesus and God are often invoked as the champion of this group or that culture. Jesus was at the head of the Crusades and Jesus was at the head of a missionary movement that was very much a part a 19th century missionary movement that was one element of Western imperialism. And that colonial enterprise often understood Jesus to be aligned with Western, white culture. In many people's minds, Jesus became the king the those who celebrated on the first Palm Sunday had hoped he would be, a hero who would help them triumph.

Such distortions of Jesus' kingship are reason aplenty to make today, at least in part, Passion Sunday, and the Christological hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (the Passion epistle reading for today) may be of help with this. The hymn seems likely to have been an existing one that Paul borrowed for his purposes. That purpose was less about describing Jesus and more about calling the Philippians (and us) to a certain way of living.

The verses immediately prior to the hymn say, "Do nothing form selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus..." Paul clearly thinks that those who follow the king who processes into Jerusalem will look vastly different from the rest of the world, precisely because the king they follow is so unlike earthly rulers.

Following this king draws us into a completely different ethic, a completely different way of living than that of the world. The ethics of the world can and do encourage good behavior, things such as helping out the less fortunate. But these ethics are rooted in notions of scarcity. There is not enough, and so I must get mine first, prior to worrying about others. There is a natural progression that emerges from this: Me and mine, then those who are close to me, then my community, and so on. And within this notion of scarcity is always the need to preserve and protect mine, my community's my nation's, etc. 

But the ethic Paul says reflects the rule of Jesus is quite different. It starts with the other. Indeed Jesus teaches the very same thing. "Those who seek to save their own life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will find it." Jesus' ethic starts with giving because it is not rooted in notions of scarcity, rather in the promise of God's abundance. So Jesus can call for love of others, even for enemies, because God's abundance showers blessing indiscriminately on all (God makes rain to fall on just and unjust). Finally, Jesus does not even need to defend his own life, so sure is he of God's abundance.

And so while we are right to celebrate Jesus' royal entry into Jerusalem today, we must be clear about just what sort of king this is. And when this "mind of Christ" lives in us, when we are "in Christ," as Paul writes in other places, we are transformed. We become new creations who begin to embody and live by the ethics and standards of that new day, that alternative community, the kingdom that Jesus proclaims. And when our faith communities truly embody kingdom ethics, when they are communities of abundant generosity and blessing for all, even for our enemies, then the world will glimpse the new day the Jesus promises will one day envelope all the earth.

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Monday, March 14, 2016

Trump, Servant Leaders, and Christian Formation

I'm feeling a bit down in the dumps today. Feelings of depression are not necessarily rational things, but the state of politics in America is surely an adequate reason for such feelings. There's a lot of yelling, anger, and histrionics from many of the candidates, and televised "debates" look more like an episode of The View than a logical competition of ideas.

Donald Trump occupies a special place in this depressing scenario. In a time marked by the loss of civility, Mr. Trump sinks to lows that would surely have doomed any previous presidential candidate during my lifetime. Even more depressing, large numbers of Trump supporters proudly claim to be Christians while voicing that support.

I was bemoaning such things as I looked at today's gospel passage. It didn't do much to cheer me up, but it did strike a jarring chord. Jesus has just made the second prediction of his impending death. Once again, the disciples do not understand but are afraid to seek clarification. They also seem to have more pressing matters on their minds. When Jesus questions them about what they had discussed as they traveled we read, "But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. (Jesus) sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, 'Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.'"

The term "servant leader" is popular in church circles, though it's not always clear exactly what it means. But surely Jesus' call to be "last of all and servant of all" cannot possibly speak of the self-aggrandizing narcissism of Donald Trump. In fact, very little that Trump says or does sounds remotely compatible with the teachings of Jesus.

As I've struggled to understand how people can speak of their Christian faith and support for Donald Trump in the same breath without brain circuits shorting out over the total incompatibility, I've read a number of articles and op-ed pieces attempting to explain such support. Many have provided some insight, but this editorial from The Christian Century really struck a nerve with me. It noted Trump's support from those claiming the label "evangelical" even as a large number of evangelical leaders have denounced Trump.

The editorial then drew from a poll done by the Barna Group, a evangelical, Christian research firm, which "found that those whose beliefs align closely with evangelical Christian teachings have a lower view of Trump than do Americans generally. Where Trump does better is among more nominally religious people, those who identify themselves as evangelical—or, like Trump himself, as mainline Christian—but lack deep formation in faith."

I know nothing of the reliability of Barna's polling, but their findings make a lot of sense to me. People who, for whatever reason, apply the label "Christian" to themselves without ever being profoundly shaped by Christ's call to costly discipleship, simply don't realize the incompatibility of Trump's presidential campaign and Christian faith. But this explanation is no cure for my depression. That's because this nominal belief that lacks "deep formation in faith" is very much the product of congregations and denominations like the ones I grew up in and have served.

Jesus may have 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 in heaven." He may have gone on and on about bearing fruit and being known because of our "love for one another." But in practice, we have made faith about belief, affiliation, and occasional attendance. Check off the Jesus box and get on the heavenly guest list.


Not too long into my first pastorate, one of the elders on the congregation's governing council suggested that it was time to do a review of the church rolls. I don't recall what motivated this, but I suspect is was largely administrative, a desire to insure our rolls were fairly accurate (and that we weren't paying the denomination's per member assessment for folks who were no longer around). In the discussion that followed, another elder offered a rule of thumb for the project that I've heard many times since. "If they've attended once in the last year or sent us a check, they are members in good standing."

I don't know that such a rule ever existed, but it's easy to understand why people would think it did. While the churches I grew up in and have served offered encouragement and a variety of ways for deep formation as Christian disciples, this formation was typically seen as optional. We have said, by actions if not actual words, "We'd love for you to become disciples, but become members and give a little money and that will be fine."


In Matthew's gospel, Jesus speaks to his disciples a final time following the resurrection, words sometimes called "The Great Commission." He tells them - and by extension, the Church - "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 I have commanded you." 

Everything I have commanded you... As "Christian" support for Donald Trump makes clear, we've got a lot of work to do.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Preaching Thoughts on a Non-Preaching Sunday

In our early, informal worship service, the scripture reading is printed in the bulletin. It is typically read by a volunteer worship leader, and so the preacher doesn't have an opportunity to contextualize the passage in any way prior to the reading. Because of this, whoever is preaching often puts a paragraph in the bulletin explaining something about the passage's background or context. This is what Diane put in this morning's bulletin to accompany the gospel reading from John 12 where Mary anoints Jesus.

The final verse of this reading has sometimes been misused to belittle efforts to eradicate poverty, because, it is argued, Christ ordained that poverty should always exist. But in fact, as Jesus’ followers would have been well aware, Christ was quoting from Deuteronomy. It is found in the midst of the instruction that God gives to observe a jubilee year every seventh year, where all who have debts are to be forgiven and released from those debts, in order to break cycles of poverty. In verse 8, Jesus quotes the first part of Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verse 11, which states in its entirety, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’” Far from belittling efforts to eradicate poverty, Jesus is acknowledging the need to indeed constantly be fighting the forces of poverty, while at the same time acknowledging that Mary’s extravagant act, offered in love, is appropriate in its context. 
As I read these lines prior to worship this morning, I reflected on how common a problem this is, this need to correct a popular understanding of the Bible or of Jesus' words. Preaching itself sometimes contributes to the problem. We preachers too often pull sermons out of short scripture readings with little consideration of a passage's context, totally misconstruing the text's meaning. And so Paul's words in 1 Corinthians about not eating the Lord's Supper without "discerning the body" are imagined to be about mystical presence in the bread when in fact they are about the gathered congregation, the body of  Christ. I could go on and on.

I learned this quote from my father, but it didn't originate with him. I've been unable to find a definitive source, but its truth is unmistakable. "A text without a context is a pretext." There is a kind of circular logic that often lies behind this problem. It runs something like this: "I was raised a good Christian, and so my beliefs are Christian. And so the Bible surely must support my notions of (you fill in the blank)." Indeed there are people who will cite the Bible to support their right to bear arms, often distorting some poor scripture passage beyond recognition in the process.

This problem is so obvious and so pervasive, surely any serious student of Bible or faith must have encountered it. One might expect that this would give people of faith a tendency toward humility and self-examination. Yet this seems far from the truth, and while readers of this blog might think I'm talking about conservative fundamentalists, the truth is that more liberal Christian often have their own set of unquestioned certainties that they assume are 100% compatible with Jesus' teachings.

1 John 1:8 says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." And indeed we humans are skilled at self-deception. We cling to our assumptions as though they were gospel. American individualism seems to have exacerbated this. My belief is a private matter, and whatever I believe is correct and unassailable. Much of our toxic political climate emerges from this sort of thinking. It reaches its zenith in the way Donald Trump's campaign and his supporters are totally impervious to truth, but it can be found in much of the political rhetoric on both sides.

One of the fundamental absolutes of Christian faith is that we are followers of a way shown us by another. Jesus is the one who shows us how we are to live, and his ways are often at odds with the ways of the world and with our ways. He calls us to follow and learn his way, a new way. But that requires some personal truth telling, a willingness to repent and change. But we seem less and less able to do so. Lord, help us.

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