Sunday, November 19, 2017
Entrusted with a Great Treasure
James Sledge November 19, 2017
If you’ve ever explored the buildings here at Falls Church Presbyterian, you’ve no doubt noticed that things have been added onto many times over the decades. The back of the sanctuary, the narthex, and steeple date to the first construction in the 1880s. Since then there’ve been a number of additions, expansions, and renovations, the last being the new Fellowship Hall, kitchen, and classrooms added less than fifteen years ago.
As with many congregations, these building and renovation projects involved stepping out on faith. Would there be enough money to pay the mortgage? Was the hope that the church would grow well founded? Prior to seminary, I was on the Session of a church that decided to build a new sanctuary. It’s now clear that was a great decision, but at the time, it was a difficult one. Many were worried about the cost and the risk the congregation was taking on, not to mention worries that growth might change the character of the congregation.
I was not here for any discussions about whether to build or renovate, although I was here for the discussion on hiring a full time youth director. That’s not permanent like a building, but it also involved stepping out on faith, of saying this is an investment in the future and we trust that the money will be there.
When you’re part of a church that isn’t brand new, you inherit a treasure from those who came before you. You’re entrusted with structures, a music program, children’s programs, Christmas Eve and Easter traditions, and so on. That means that most churches have to decide how to take good care of their treasure and how to utilize it well, But decisions about utilizing treasure sometimes run afoul of the desire to care for and protect it.
In the first church I served as pastor, the Mission Committee wanted to find a significant, ongoing project that would engage a lot of volunteers on a regular basis. Such an opportunity almost fell in our lap. A local homeless ministry was building a day center not from us that would allow them to accommodate more people, and they were seeking additional churches to host five homeless families for a week at a time, multiple times a year.
It was quite a system. On Sunday afternoon, a truck arrived with portable beds and mattress that had been taken out of another church early that morning. Volunteers would set up five bedrooms for families who arrived that evening and left around seven each morning. Supper and breakfast were provided, along with bag lunches for the day. The following Sunday morning, volunteers would turn bedrooms back into classrooms and put the beds back in the truck that would move on to another church later that afternoon.
It seemed a perfect fit. We had a number of classrooms that were not used during the week. The day center was less than a mile away, making transportation back and forth easy to manage. It needed a lot of volunteers to set up and tear down, serve as hosts, make supper and bag lunches, spend the night, tutor children, etc. It was exactly the sort of opportunity the Mission Committee was looking for, and so they brought a recommendation to the Session that we become an Interfaith Hospitality Network congregation.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Like Staying Woke
James Sledge November 12, 2017
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” So says Jesus to his disciples in a final round of teachings just prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Our reading is part of a larger section sometimes referred to as a second sermon on the mount. It takes place on the Mount of Olives, and just as happened in the previous mountain sermon, Jesus sits down, the pose of a rabbi who is teaching, and his disciples come to him.
They ask about the timing of God’s coming new day and the signs to look for. Jesus speaks of suffering and difficulties, but nothing that will allow anyone to predict the event. When it gets here, you will know it, says Jesus, but don’t listen to anyone who claims to know the date.
Then Jesus tells a series of four parables, each addressing some aspect of his return and a final judgment. The first two speak of wisdom and foolishness in regards to awaiting Christ’s return, with our reading is the second of that pair. It features wise and foolish bridesmaids, but exactly what sort of wisdom Jesus is recommending is not immediately obvious. He says, “Keep awake,” but both the wise and foolish bridesmaids fall asleep.
Parables typically are not allegories, but this one may well be. Jesus is the bridegroom who appearance is delayed, and the bridesmaids, all of them, are followers of Jesus who have made plans to be there for the great banquet, the glorious feast of God’s new day.
That makes this a parable about and for insiders, followers of Jesus. That makes it a parable addressed directly to us, challenging us to think about whether we are wise or foolish. But what exactly does that mean? Both wise and foolish fell asleep. So what does Jesus mean when he says to us, “Keep awake.” ?
There may be a couple of hints found in Jesus’ earlier Sermon on the Mount. Two issues from that sermon seem to reappear in this parable. In both, Jesus speaks of those who call him “Lord, lord,” expecting to be embraced when the kingdom arrives, only to be told that Jesus does not know them. In the first sermon, these people are ones who did not do God’s will. Does the foolish bridesmaids lack of oil somehow speak about this?
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Sunday, October 29, 2017
Passionate, Fearless Love
James Sledge October 29, 2-17
A version of today’s gospel reading appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which all follow the same basic timeline. But only Matthew has the question about the greatest commandment as part of Jesus’ final confrontation with his opponents. In Matthew, this is the last effort to catch Jesus in some mistake, to outwit him in some way.
Perhaps Matthew wants to highlight two issues for his Jewish congregation before he gets to Jesus’ final teachings and then his arrest and crucifixion. Perhaps he wants to highlight Jesus as the faithful and reliable interpreter of the Law and the Prophets, the chosen successor to Moses, and who Jesus is as Messiah, the anointed one of God.
Using a quote from the Psalms to talk about Jesus as Messiah probably doesn’t grab us like it might have people in Jesus’ day. The way Jesus uses scripture to prove his point was typical of rabbis in his day, but it doesn’t sound all that convincing to me, or perhaps to you.
But Jesus’ words on the greatest commandment have resonated down through the centuries. People with little connection to church may well be familiar with, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus of course quotes from what we call the Old Testament. After all, he’s been asked which commandment from there is number one. Jesus names his choice, calling it “the greatest and first commandment,” but he’s unwilling to stop with just one, adding a second that is “like it.” Taken together, says Jesus, obeying these two commandments will keep you in line on pretty much all the rest.
In my experience, many people tend to move quickly past the greatest and first commandment, turning the focus on loving neighbor. That happens in the gospel of Luke, where the person questioning Jesus has an immediate follow-up. “And who is my neighbor?” To which Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But we’re in Matthew, not Luke, and there is no follow-up to Jesus’ statement on the greatest commandment. There are simply the two commandments, and one of them is the greatest and first commandment. It is also the longer commandment, with more elaborate language. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And so I wonder if we wouldn’t do well not to be in a rush to get to the one about loving neighbor. I wonder if we wouldn’t do well to linger here a bit and consider what it means to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.
Monday, October 23, 2017
Sunday, October 22, 2017
Whose Image Is This?
James Sledge October 22, 2017
In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a colony under Roman rule. Rome allowed a certain level of self-governance, but they retained ultimate power. They levied heavy taxes, a burden that often fell especially on the poor. Many Jews resented the Romans, their armies and taxes. Open rebellion had broken out around the time of Jesus’ birth, and would break out again 30-some years after his death.
At the same time, many Jews found Roman occupation beneficial. It brought peace and stability to an unstable region. Commerce benefited from Roman presence. Besides, except for brief periods here and there, Israel had been occupied by some power for centuries.
In our gospel reading this morning, pro-Roman Herodians become unlikely partners with Pharisees in an effort to trap Jesus. Normally you wouldn’t expect these two groups to have anything to do with one another, but here they join forces against Jesus, hoping to force him into either a pro-Rome or anti-Rome statement. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The question is more difficult and volatile than it may appear. These taxes could only be paid with Roman coins such as the one pictured on the bulletin. Its inscription says “Caesar Augustus, son of God, Father of His People” on one side and “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Augustus, High Priest” on the other. For Pharisees, who meticulously tried to keep the Commandments, this coin, with its divine pretensions and graven image, violated a couple of them. They objected to using such coins at all. Perhaps that’s why they needed the Herodians’ help, but our scripture simply says they brought (Jesus) a denarius, and “they” seems to include the Pharisees. Strange that they appear unfazed by this idolatrous coin.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks. That is not in dispute; it is the emperor’s. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or as some of us learned from an earlier Bible translation, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
Speaking of Bible translations, I’m not sure why our Bible translates Jesus’ question, “Whose head is this?” The word Matthew uses is the same word in his Bible’s creation story where God says, “Let us create humankind in our image.”
When the Emperor Augustus or Tiberius put their image on coins, it is an explicit statement about whose coins they are. It’s not unlike the branding that companies practice today when they emblazon their names and logos on their buildings and equipment.
“Whose image is this?” asks Jesus. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But as so often happens when people try to trap Jesus, he does not really answer their question. He doesn’t say what things are the emperor’s and what are God’s. Does the emperor’s image on the coin really make it his? And what of the image of God that we bear?
Tuesday, October 17, 2017
O you who are enthroned in the heavens!
As the eyes of servants
look to the hand of their master,
as the eyes of a maid
to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the LORD our God,
until he has mercy upon us.
Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud. Psalm 123
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Our soul has had more than its fill
of the scorn of those who are at ease,
of the contempt of the proud. Psalm 123
If you've been online at all the last few days, you can't have missed the "Me Too" posts, women letting the world know that they too have been sexually assaulted or harassed. My own Facebook page is filled with friends, family, and colleagues who've added their "Me Too" to the growing list. And I can only assume that many others have chosen not to go public with their own experiences.
My initial response to the posts is a mix of sadness and anger. But if I am honest with myself, I also must admit to a reflexive reaction that attempts to soften the impact of all those "Me Too" posts. "Exactly how is 'harass' being defined," I thought to myself. Then I recoiled at my own (male?) reflex that wanted to find a way to make the problem less terrible. No wonder women don't feel safe calling out male behavior. They know from experience that even "allies" may be inclined to dismiss them.
My own male, knee-jerk reaction didn't make it out of my head, but I saw others that did, sometimes from people I assume to be very sympathetic to those posting "Me Too" online. "Women sometimes harass men," read a comment to one "Me Too" on Facebook. Likely a true statement and perhaps not offered with bad intent, but if not then surely another reflexive reaction that softens the impact, that makes the problem seem less terrible. Just as a culture of white supremacy finds it easy to believe African Americans exaggerate the bias, prejudice, and danger they face, so too male supremacy finds it easy and convenient to believe it isn't really all that bad for women.
The psalmist uses words that perfectly capture how easily those with status and power dismiss those who do not share that status and power. "Our soul has had more than its fill of the scorn of those who are at ease, of the contempt of the proud." In addition, the psalmist is quite sure that God will respond with mercy to the cry of those dismissed and scorned.
Jesus seems to agree, publicly proclaiming that he has come "to bring good news to the poor... release to the captives... to let the oppressed go free." Jesus spends much of his ministry with those who are dismissed, scorned, and held in contempt by the privileged, the powerful, the religious, the comfortable. And so one might well assume that the followers of Jesus, that the Church, would be the champion of all who are scorned and held in contempt. But alas...
From time to time, I find myself deeply disillusioned with Church. It's not that I expect the Church to be perfect. It is made up of sinful people, all who are profoundly shaped and influenced by culture and society. My own reflexive minimizing of "Me Too" is a perfect example. But while any church will be imperfect and caught up in the larger sins of its society, surely the Church should still offer hope, should still be a beacon for those scorned and held in contempt.
At times we are. We do engage in mission and ministry with those the society dismisses and abandons. But as anyone who has ever worked in a church will tell you, we spend a lot more time and energy worrying about ourselves than we do worrying about those Jesus said he came to help.
My own "progressive" congregation is part of a denomination that has ordained women for decades and now ordains LGBT folk. We have a wonderful Welcome Table program that feeds hundreds and provides financial assistance for those in need. But we also have a white, male lead pastor (me) and a female associate pastor. I can count on my hands the members of color, and discussion about becoming more diverse can run into a fierce allegiance toward the white, Western forms of worship and music most prefer, even claims that these are "superior."
In ways sometimes intentional and sometimes not, we continue to model the white, male structures of our society. And if someone points this out, we have our own reflexive reactions that minimize the problem or absolve us of blame.
Perhaps I and many others in the Church could use a different sort of "Me Too" hashtag, one that says, "Yeah, me too. I'm a part of the problem." Perhaps that could help us better embody the words from my denomination's "Brief Statement of Faith."
In a broken and fearful world
the Spirit gives us courage
to pray without ceasing,
to witness among all people to Christ as Lord and Savior,
to unmask idolatries in Church and culture,
to hear the voices of peoples long silenced,
and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
Sunday, October 15, 2017
Discovering Our Christ Identity
James Sledge October 15, 2017
Back in the late 80s there was a hit song by Bobby McFerrin entitled “Don’t worry, Be Happy.” It was the first a cappella, number one song, with all words and accompaniment voiced by McFerrin. It was infectious, and many resonated with the words. “Ain't got no place to lay your head; Somebody came and took your bed, Don't worry, be happy. The land lord say your rent is late; He may have to litigate; Don't worry, be happy.”
Perhaps this is good advice, an antidote for our anxious, worried age. Perhaps being happy can be a discipline, like the practice of gratitude that has become popular of late. Some say that keeping a gratitude journal changes their perspective and helps them to see the good in the world. Perhaps we can find happiness and get rid of worry in similar fashion.
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul sounds a bit like McFerrin. He speaks of not worrying about anything and rejoicing always. He is in prison when he writes, but no matter. Don’t worry, rejoice.
But does that really work, especially in the face of the news of late. Horrible fires in California. Many areas of Puerto Rico still cut off from help and aid. People still are hospitalized in Las Vegas with terrible wounds, and many more grieve loved ones lost there. Surely none of us would dare say to any of these folks, “Don’t worry, rejoice.”
But Paul is not recommending rejoicing as a pastoral care technique or a strategy for dealing with trouble. His rejoicing is not so that something will happen. His rejoicing is something that he cannot help because of what he experiences in his relationship with the risen Christ, because he is “in Christ.”
Sunday, October 8, 2017
Sunday, October 1, 2017
Fearless Living and Nominal Christians
James Sledge October 1, 2017
I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture twice since it opened a year ago. I know that many of you have been, and I hope all of you will take the time to see it at some point. On both my visits there I was struck by a quote etched into the glass covering one of the displays.
It’s by Olaudah Equiano who, along with his sister, was kidnapped as a child in Africa and sold as a slave in America.. Equiano gained his freedom prior to the American Revolution, left the colonies, and settled in London. There he wrote his memoir and became something of a celebrity and important figure in the British abolitionist movement.
He had become a Christian while still in the colonies, but he must have struggled to reconcile his faith with what he had seen done by Christian slave owners. In 1789 he said, “O, ye nominal Christians! Might not an African ask you—Learned you this from your God who says to you, Do unto all men as you would men should do unto you?”
In the little research I’ve done, I found nothing to suggest that Equiano ever abandoned his Christian faith, but his lament is commonly echoed by those in our day who have given up on the church. They see little difference in those inside the church and outside it, other than the claim of faith. Like Equiano, they might ask what exactly we learned from our God, from this Christ we say is or Lord, our Master.
This problem of faith existing more in name than in action is apparently nothing new. Jesus addresses it in this morning’s gospel reading. He is teaching in the temple on the day after his big, parade-like entry into Jerusalem. Jesus had caused a ruckus then by coming to the Temple, driving out those selling animals for sacrifice, and turning over the tables used to exchange foreign, profane coins into those that didn’t violate the commandment on images and could be used for offerings. Now Jesus is back, no doubt attracting the same sort of sick and poor and sinners and riff raff he always does, and the leaders approach him.
“What gives you the right to do all this?” they ask. But Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, he asks them about what authority they do recognize. “Answer that, says” Jesus, “and I’ll tell you where my authority comes from. Did the baptism of John comes from God?”
They do not recognize John the Baptist as having divine sanction, but they are unwilling to say so publically. So Jesus moves on, telling a parable of two sons told by their father to work in the vineyard and then asking, “Which of the two did the will of his father?”