Sunday, August 2, 2020

Sermon: Assaulted by God

Genesis 32:22-31
Assaulted by God
James Sledge                                                                                                   August 2, 2020

When I was a child, my father would read Bible stories to us before bed. I can still see the big Bible Story book he used. It had stories about Jesus, but as a child, the Old Testament stories stood out more. There were a lot of “hero” type stories: David fighting the giant Goliath with only a sling, Samson, the Hebrew version of Hercules. And then there were all those stories about Abraham and Sarah and their offspring: Isaac, Esau and Jacob, and then all of Jacob’s sons, including Joseph.
The characters in those Bible stories didn’t seem much like real people to me. Perhaps that was just how far removed they were historically and culturally. Or perhaps it was because the Bible stories themselves had a kind of comic book quality to them.
Whatever the reasons, I was well into adulthood before it dawned on me what a messed up, dysfunctional family Abraham and Sarah’s clan was. It starts with the half-brothers Ishmael and Isaac and only gets worse from there.
Rebekah and Isaac have twin boys, Esau and Jacob. Esau is the first born by a few seconds, and the sibling rivalry is off and running. Not that the parents help matters much. Dad likes Esau, and Mom likes Jacob. Esau is an outdoorsy, hunting and fishing sort of guy,  and Dad plans to pass on the family business to him. Jacob is a Momma’s boy who likes hanging out in the tent. He’s also sneaky and manipulative, a scoundrel who takes advantage of Esau’s tendency to act first and think later. And his mother is happy to assist.
Jacob and Esau are born when Isaac is quite old, and he is feeble and blind by the time the boys are fully grown. Sensing that his time is short, Isaac calls Esau and asks him to go out hunting and bring back some savory game they can enjoy together. After the meal, Isaac will formally sign over the family business. In the language of the Bible, he will bless Esau.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Sermon: Red Socks: Dare We Be Christians?

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Red Socks - Dare We Be Christians?
James Sledge                                                                                       July 26, 2020

Have you ever done a load of white laundry, and something dark got mixed in? A single, red item somehow went unnoticed, and you open the washer to discover that everything has turned pink. It’s amazing the way one, unseen thing can give you a new wardrobe.
Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven, the coming rule of God, is a little like that. Jesus speaks of yeast and mustard seeds rather than red socks, but the meaning is much the same. Mustard plants weren’t typically grown as crops in Palestine, but the tiny seeds did find their way into the grain farmers sowed. The minuscule, dust-like seeds were easy to miss amidst the grain. Only later would the farmer realize that a fast growing mustard plant was transforming his field into something quite other than he had intended.
And the yeast in Jesus’ parable is not the packaged product we buy in stores for baking. This leaven is dough that has soured, begun to go bad. Bread makers know it as starter. It is added to a new mix of dough to make it rise in baking.
In the Bible, leaven is almost always a symbol of corruption. Leavened bread could never be used as an offering to God. At Passover, not only was leavened bread forbidden, but no trace of leaven was allowed in people’s homes. And Jesus himself speaks of the teachings of the Pharisees as leaven, something that corrupts and distorts the good gift of God’s Law.
But in the parables we heard this morning, Jesus speaks of God’s hoped-for new day as like a mustard seed that unexpectedly sprang up in the field, like leaven that has transformed the bread into something that is no longer fit to be offered to God, like a red sock that has turned white dress shirts pink.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Sermon: New Life as Exiles

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
New Life as Exiles
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 19, 2020

Back in March when the stay-at-home order was first announced, I don’t think any of us could have imagined that we would be holding worship today in an empty sanctuary, live streaming it into people’s homes. And even now, in mid-July, we still don’t know when we might have anything resembling worship as it used to be.
COVID-19 has turned the church world upside down. No one knows exactly what church is going to look like in the coming years. No doubt, livestreaming is here to stay, even when we can have some sort of in person worship. But it also seems highly likely that many congregations will never recover. Unlike FCPC, many churches have no real financial reserves and operate on extremely tight budgets. Some who study religious institutions are predicting large scale church closings in the coming years.
But what about church in general? Will worshiping from home open church up to new people, or will it accelerate an already established trend of church decline? Will people start to treat church like Netflix, watching a little worship when they have time or the mood strikes them? Will church move further and further from the center of people’s lives and from the center of the culture, further diminishing the prominent place church once held?
Over twenty years ago, long before COVID-19, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann suggested the metaphor of exile as a good way to describe where the Church finds itself in America.[1] He said that we had been deported from our comfortable homeland of the mid-20th Century into a world that no longer works in ways we fully understand. The stores stay open and youth sports teams play games during our sacred worship times. Neither public schools nor the culture at large encourages church participation as they once did. The landscape of America has changed dramatically since the 1950s, and institutions like the Presbyterian Church, which had their heyday then, find themselves aliens in a strange land.
If exile was an appropriate metaphor at the close of the 20th century, surely it is even more so today. The forces that led Dr. Brueggemann to speak of the Church in exile are still with us, perhaps even stronger. And now COVID-19 could push church even further to the edges of society and daily life, increasing the sense of exile.
In the Bible, when Israel is carried off into literal exile in Babylon, it created a crisis. As exiles in a strange land, nothing supported their religious life. The Temple was gone, the Ark of the Covenant lost, and no altar existed where offerings could be made. The Babylonian culture around them had different ways, different gods, different religious practices. It would be easy, even tempting, simply to adopt the ways of the prevailing culture.
Exiles are always in danger of disappearing, of being absorbed into the culture where they find themselves. Countless cultures have simply disappeared over the centuries as a result. To prevent this, exiles must cultivate a distinctiveness, a peculiarity. They must live in ways that set them apart, allowing them to maintain a distinct identity different from the surrounding culture. For the Hebrews in Babylon, Sabbath keeping and synagogue emerged in exile as crucial elements that marked them as different and distinct. But what about us?

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Sermon: The Hard Work of Unity

Philippians 2:1-8
The Hard Work of Unity
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 12, 2020

Recently I was discussing our sermon series on the Confession of Belhar with Diane. I was wondering whether we should have a fourth installment or stop at three. Two of the primary themes from Belhar, reconciliation and justice, would get covered fairly thoroughly in the first three sermons. That left only the theme of unity.
I suspect I grimaced a little at the thought of preaching about unity. I think I said something to Diane along the lines of, “I don’t know. I hate to do something trite.” The phrase, “Can’t we all just get along?” popped into my head. Unity often gets spoken of as something that should be simple if only we all just worked together, if we all just realized that we’re basically the same, if we all just loved one another. Unity isn’t all that hard, such words seem to say. We just have to do this. We just have to do that.
Diane first suggested of a sermon series on Belhar in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Because Belhar addressed apartheid in South Africa, it seemed particularly well suited to the most profound and persistent source of division in our country, that of race.
Despite the intransience of racism in America, we still want to believe we could be rid of it if only we just did this or just did that. Despite decade after decade where corporate boardrooms remain largely white, where “better” neighborhoods and “better” schools are largely white, where everything from wealth to education to job opportunities to pay to home ownership to medical care and more are skewed in favor of whites, we want to believe that there is just one more little thing we need to do, and it will go away.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Sermon: Justice at the Center?

Amos 5:18-27
Justice at the Center?
James Sledge                                                                                                   June 28, 2020

I recently read an article by a Black, Baptist minister entitled, “Why I’m Skeptical of New Christian Allies.”[1] His target seems to be more evangelical churches, but I don’t think progressive, mainline churches are completely spared. Pastor Lavarin is encouraged that so many Christians, including large numbers who’ve not previously been active in issues of race, are speaking out against police brutality in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But these feelings are tempered by worries that the change doesn’t go deep enough.
He writes, “Although numerous Christians have finally chosen to name racism, I am woefully skeptical of new allies who have rushed to protest without examining the ways in which their own theologies continue to nurture it. The failure to address theological racism will cause new allies to come to this moment believing that the fight for justice is merely theologically adjacent to their brand of evangelism as “the real work of ministry”. For some, this is still just a societal issue, and not a theological one.”
As I said earlier, this doesn’t seem to target us Presbyterians. We tend not to have evangelism high up on our list of “the real work of ministry,” but I’m not sure justice is much higher for us than evangelism. For many Presbyterians, the real work of ministry is holding good worship, educating and nurturing children, and perhaps engaging in some charitable acts in the community. And so some of Pastor Lavarin’s critiques may apply equally to us.
He continues, “Prior to this moment, new allies have preached a gospel of Jesus devoid of justice. They failed to make the theological connection that Jesus and justice are, in fact, mutually inclusive. To invoke Jesus and then to invoke justice is redundant. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we commit ourselves to the ministry of justice. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we declare the Psalmist’s decree that justice and righteousness are the foundations of God’s throne. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we summon the Messianic prophecy that the Spirit of the LORD was upon Jesus, to preach the good news to the poor, to set the prisoners free from the Roman industrial complex, and to proclaim liberty to those who were oppressed. Every time we invoke the name of Jesus, we remember that Jesus was convicted of a crime he did not commit, received an unfair trial, and was sentenced to a state-sanctioned lynching on a tree. We cannot divorce our theology from the ministry of justice, for to do so, is to divorce ourselves from Jesus, himself. The ministry of justice is the ministry of Jesus.”

But this pastor saves his most pointed barb for the end of his article. “Before your church decides to go out and protest, consider protesting your own theology that continues to intentionally and unintentionally do harm to Black and Brown bodies. Before taking a knee and holding a prayer vigil, consider this: there is no real substantive difference between a racist bigot holding a Bible in front of a church, and a Christian holding up a #BlackLivesMatter sign with no plans to parse out the practical implementation of the holy truth of justice.”
Ouch. Even if we are not the intended target of this arrow, it still has a sting for we have often viewed justice as a good thing, but not necessarily something central to our faith. It’s one of those extras like joining a prayer group or volunteering at Welcome Table. It’s optional, an elective in the walk of faith curriculum.