Sunday, March 22, 2020
Here Is an Astonishing Thing
James Sledge March 22.2020
I want to tell you a story. It isn’t really a “true” story, at least not in the sense modern people tend to use the word. The story doesn’t report actual events, but what the story talks about has happened and does happen. In our own denomination, it happened only a decade ago. In other denominations, the “truth” of this story is still on display.
As graduation neared, a young seminary student searched for a position as solo pastor of a small church. But being female and single, many churches seemed hesitant to consider her. She preached well, but didn’t fit the image that many seemed to have for a pastor.
Finally, she accepted the call of a tiny, struggling – most would say dying – congregation in a small Alabama town. Thirty people on Sunday was a big crowd, and finances were always a problem. In three years without a pastor, they had saved up some money, but even paying her the minimum salary the denomination allowed, they worried about being able to afford her for more than a few years.
It wasn’t exactly what she had dreamed of when she entered seminary, but it was where God had led her, and she threw herself, heart and soul, into the work. She embraced and loved her congregation, people very different in culture and background from herself. Despite their small numbers and paltry finances, she acted like they and their church mattered. She not only loved and comforted them, she boldly proclaimed God’s word and challenged them about where and how they would minister to their community.
Sunday, March 15, 2020
Tuesday, March 10, 2020
Sunday, March 8, 2020
James Sledge March 8, 2020
I have a love-hate relationship with today’s gospel reading. It is a beautiful passage, filled with all manner of imagery and symbolism and nuance. But it also has been much abused and so has a fair amount of baggage. For too many these words are read as a litmus test. “Have you had a born again conversion experience?” If not, you’re on the outside looking in.
This passage is the rainbow wigged guy who used to go to sporting events and hold up his John 3:16 sign. But that verse also gets reduced to formula. “Believe in Jesus and you are saved.” Yet Nicodemus clearly believes in Jesus, believes he is from God, but he leaves the scene more befuddled than when he first arrived.
Nick is an interesting fellow. He comes in for his share of bad press, this guy who can’t understand what Jesus is talking about. But Nick may be a lot like many of us. He is a respected, educated member of his community, a leader in his church. He’s a bright, rational fellow who is impressed by Jesus. Clearly Jesus is someone special, and the wonderful things he does couldn’t happen if God was not with him, could they?
Churches, especially Mainline churches, are filled with people like Nick, people who are drawn to Jesus but who also struggle to embrace him completely. We’ll listen to him up to a point, but we’re often not quite sure what he’s saying, and so not quite ready to go all in.
Nick comes to see Jesus at night. That’s more than the time of day. Light and dark are symbolic categories in John’s gospel, and Nick is not ready to step into the light. Like some of us, he is drawn to Jesus but prefers to remain on the periphery, in the shadows.
I’m not entirely sure why Nick comes to see Jesus. If he has some question to ask he never gets the chance. He barely gets the chance to make his introduction. “Hi, Jesus. Great to meet you. Really impressed with what you’re doing. No doubt, God is with you.” But before he can say more, Jesus speaks. He says that no one can see the kingdom of God, can see God’s new day, without being born anothen. (a[nwqen)
Sunday, March 1, 2020
Discovering Who We Are
James Sledge March 1, 2020
Jesus began his ministry in a world that was anxiously awaiting a Messiah. For a variety of reasons, expectations of a savior were high. One group, the Essenes, had withdrawn from society and set up an alternative community in the wilderness so they would be ready. From some of their writings, popularly called The Dead Sea Scrolls, we know that they expected a Messiah, or perhaps a pair of Messiahs, who looked nothing like Jesus.
In fact, ever since Israel had returned from exile in Babylon some 500 years earlier, and the hoped for glorious revival of the kingdom of David had failed to materialize, people had been looking for the One who would change all that.
People carefully examined Scripture, finding those passages that seemed to offer clues about where the Messiah would come from, how he would act, and what he would do. But there was no single image that everyone agreed on. Even today, Christian have many different images of Jesus. We agree that Jesus was Messiah, and yet we still have a warrior Jesus, a hippy Jesus, a blonde-haired blue-eyed Jesus, a meek and mild Jesus, a wise sage Jesus, a personal Savior Jesus, and so on and so on.
So if we can’t agree on the exact nature of Jesus, imagine how difficult it was for people who only had verses from the Old Testament. How did they know which verses were about the hoped for Messiah? How were they supposed to reconcile verses that seemed to suggest different sorts of Messiahs?
Messiah simply means “anointed one.” That title, along with “Son of God,” had long be used to speak of Israel’s kings. So it’s hardly surprising that many expected the Messiah would revive the days of King David. He would throw out the hated Romans and their puppet, Herod. He would restore Israel to greatness.
Jesus knew well the varied images and expectations of a Messiah. And if Jesus is genuinely human, as Christians insist he is, then he must have wrestled with just what it meant to be the Messiah. He must have prayed and struggled to discern just what sort of Anointed One God wanted him to be.
Monday, February 24, 2020
Sunday, February 23, 2020
Listen to Him!
James Sledge February 23, 2020
Lately I’ve been thinking about quitting Facebook. Too much nastiness there, too many conspiracy theories, too much political manipulation. And maybe Mark Zuckerberg might address some of the damage Facebook does to our society if enough people quit using it.
But then some colleague or notable person that I follow posts something wonderful that I would never have seen otherwise. That happened the other day when Frederick Buechner posted something on his page. I may yet ditch Facebook, but I’m glad I saw Buechner’s post.
For those who don’t know of him, Buechner is a Presbyterian pastor who’s probably better known for his novels, essays, and short stories. The other day he posted something from an old book of his. It’s a bit longer than the typical sermon quote, but I hope you’ll indulge me.
PREPOSITIONS CAN BE VERY ELEGANT. A man is "in" architecture or a woman is "in" teaching, we say, meaning that is what they do weekdays and how they make enough money to enjoy themselves the rest of the time. But if we say they are "into" these things, that is another story. "Into" means something more like total immersion. They live and breathe what they do. They take it home with them nights. They can't get enough of it. To be "into" books means that just the sight of a signed first edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland sets your heart pounding. To be "in" books means selling them at B. Dalton's.
Along similar lines, New Testament Greek speaks of believing "into" rather than believing "in." In English we can perhaps convey the distinction best by using either "in" or no preposition at all.
Believing in God is an intellectual position. It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud's method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet.
Believing God is something else again. It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It doesn't leave you cold like believing the world is round. It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle. It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.
We believe in God when for one reason or another we choose to do so. We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice to do otherwise.
When Jesus says that whoever believes "into" him shall never die, he does not mean that to be willing to sign your name to the Nicene Creed guarantees eternal life. Eternal life is not the result of believing in. It is the experience of believing.
Sunday, February 16, 2020
Catching the Dream
James Sledge February 16, 2020
As baseball fans are probably aware, Derek Jeter, longtime short stop for the New York Yankees, was voted into the Hall of Fame last month. In other recent news, Major League Baseball announced the results of its investigation into sign stealing by the Houston Astros, including some of the harshest penalties ever handed down by MLB. Many thought the penalties too lenient, and the scandal has raised larger questions about cheating in baseball.
These two, seemingly unrelated bits of baseball news reminded me of an episode from Derek Jeter’s playing days. He was batting and squared around to bunt, but the pitch was way inside. Jeter turned away as the pitch struck the bat right on the knob at its base. He threw the bat away and began shaking his hand in pain. The trainer ran out to examine his “injury,” and the umpire awarded him first base. Jeter trotted down the base path still shaking off the pain.
But replays showed that the baseball never came anywhere near Jeter’s hand. Jeter himself later admitted as much. A debate ensued as to whether Jeter had pulled off a savvy play or if he was a cheater, a debate that landed Jeter’s at-bat on the evening news.
In some ways, this debate depends on your view of rules. What are they for? Are they simply meant to define limits and boundaries, or do they mean to create an ethos, a way of doing things? Those who saw Jeter as a consummate competitor understood winning as the ultimate goal which is to be pursued by whatever means not actually prohibited, while those who thought him a cheater understood the rules to create something bigger than winning.
All of us function in a world filled with various sorts of rules. I remember going into my daughters’ elementary school classrooms and seeing the “Class Rules” listed on a poster. Every day most of us see speed limit signs that we sometimes obey and sometimes don’t. And questions about whether speeding is wrong or if it’s okay as long as you don’t go too much over or get caught perhaps mirror questions about whether or not Derek Jeter cheated.
And what about religious rules? The Bible is full of rules. There are well known rules like the Ten Commandments. (At least their existence is well known; most people can’t actually name them.) Then there are more obscure rules. Flip through the pages of Leviticus or Deuteronomy some time. There’s a rule against eating shellfish. And you’d better not be wearing clothing made of a blended fabrics. If that label says “cotton/polyester” or “wool/cotton blend,” you’re breaking the rules.
Of course most of us don’t get too worried about those rules. We’re Christians, and so we don’t have to obey all those Old Testament rules. As long as we believe in Jesus, as long as we have faith, we’re okay.
Yet in the portion of the Sermon on the Mount we heard last week, Jesus said that he didn’t come to call off the Law but to fulfill it, that not a single letter of the Law would pass away. And today, far from calling off rules, we hear Jesus seeming to add to them. Don’t murder is doable for most of us, but Jesus stretches the rule to include not getting angry. And in Jesus’ new version of the rules a middle aged man going through a mid-life crisis needn’t have an affair. He can just think about it, and it’s pretty much the same thing.
Sunday, February 9, 2020
On Being Salt and Light
James Sledge February 9, 2020
“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. You make me happy when skies are grey. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you. Please don't take my sunshine away.” For some reason this song popped into my head when I was thinking about salt and light in our gospel reading. I was wondering whether those words have the same impact they did in Jesus’ time. They’re both rather mundane.
“Turn on the light,” someone says, and we flip the switch. Light is everywhere. You can’t see the stars very well at night in the DMV because there is so much light. As long as the power doesn’t go out, we take it for granted, which may be why I thought of the song. You are my sunshine sounds pretty impressive. I get the metaphor of “You are the light of the world,” but it doesn’t sound as impressive as sunshine
So too with salt. A lot of us get too much of it. There’s nothing special about salt. It’s nothing precious. No one would ever think of salt as an extravagant, Valentine’s gift.
Yet in ancient times, salt was often literally worth its weight in gold, one of the most important commodities of the ancient world. It was used not only to season food but to preserve it so it could be stored. It was used as an antiseptic; it was required in the offerings made at the Jerusalem Temple. In some areas, slabs of rock salt were used as coins.
Light was also precious. In a world of candles and torches, oil lamps were cutting edge technology. You had to buy oil to use them, and so no one lit a lamp and put it under a bushel basket.