Monday, August 22, 2016

Don't Take It Literally (or historically)

There are times, especially in John's gospel, when Jesus seems to go out of his way to be misunderstood. "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life." These words are spoken early in his ministry, long before any Last Supper, which doesn't appear in John's gospel anyway. How could anyone have made sense of this?

Over and over, John's gospel makes clear the hazard of taking Jesus literally. If you read through the the gospel, you may notice a pattern of Jesus saying things which are misunderstood when they are taken literally. This provides an opening for Jesus to speak at length on a particular subject. It happens with his "I AM the bread that came down from heaven" statement that happens a few verses before today's reading.

It happened with his "born again/from above" statement to Nicodemos a few chapters earlier, a word play that cannot be reproduced in English, or in Jesus' own Aramaic tongue for that matter. That deliberately confusing statement could only happen in Greek, which Jesus and Nic would not have been speaking. Turns out that the truth John's gospel hopes to convey is hard to find reading it literally or historically. The writer is perfectly happy to tell events that could not actually happen as told, and where Jesus says things that are impossible to understand unless you're reading the gospel from this side of Easter. His concerns are not with historical or literal accuracy.

I'm not entirely sure why this has caused such problems for modern day Christians. I suppose it grew out of an Enlightenment reverence for logic and scientific fact which imagined truth was a matter of getting all the details correct. (I'm unclear how this will change if the post-modern trend of thinking my opinion is more valid that facts continues.) Yet the Christians I've found most compelling, most Christ-like, are not the ones who are most certain of the facts (or their opinions). They are the ones who have hearts that are more expansive, more gentle, more loving than most. And while studying Scripture does help shape, refine, and direct such people's behavior, I don't think anyone's heart was ever enlarged simply by learning more facts.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon: Fear, Deep Gladness, and God's Call

Jeremiah 1:4-10
Fear, Deep Gladness, and God’s Call
James Sledge                                                                                     August 21, 2016

There’s a famous quote from writer and Presbyterian pastor, Frederick Buechner about calling, one I’ve used myself on a number of occasions. “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.” I love this idea, the notion that discovering your true purpose in life both deepens your own joy while making the world a better place. Still, the quote has always left me a little uneasy.
No doubt there is truth to it. Many people have found vocations or callings that bring them much happiness while doing good, helping others, benefitting society. But the quote still makes me uneasy for a couple of reasons. First, in our individualistic culture, the focus on my deep gladness tends to overshadow the world’s deep hunger. And second, the quote isn’t always true.
I first encountered Buechner as I explored my call to become a pastor. The quote is often trotted out at discernment weekends held by seminaries and by pastors and others advising would be pastors. However, there is another pearl of wisdom often shared by the same people. This one comes from Charles Spurgeon, a famous preacher from the 19th century, who said of becoming a pastor, “If you can do anything else do it. If you can stay out of the ministry, stay out of the ministry.”
I don’t know about you, but I detect a certain tension between the Buechner and Spurgeon quotes. The latter sounds like a warning. It suggests, to my ear at least, that being a pastor may be more difficult, less rewarding than one might imagine. Be really sure about this calling, it says. It may not be non-stop, deep gladness.
Now like any calling, being a pastor features good and bad. It can be very rewarding, although those rewards may not mirror our society’s idea of reward. But it should not surprise anyone if a calling from God isn’t loaded with non-stop joy and gladness. After all, at the very core of Jesus’ calling is the cross, a cross he prays that he might not have to endure, a cross he does not want.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sermon: Wearying God - Finding Hope

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
Wearying God – Finding Hope
James Sledge                                                                                       August 7, 2016

In spring of 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian, had been in a Nazi prison for a year because of his ties to the German resistance. Later that year, things grew more dire as the Nazis discovered his role in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, and he would be hanged in 1945 at a Nazi concentration camp just two weeks before US soldiers liberated it.
Previously, Bonhoeffer had been a prominent leader in the Confessing Church movement, Christians from both Lutheran and Reformed churches who protested Nazi intrusion into church affairs, and the church’s willing to cooperation. Bonhoeffer was appalled by a requirement to expel any church member with Jewish ancestry.
Bonhoeffer spoke out against the Nazis from the beginning, arguing publically that Christians’ ultimate allegiance was to Christ and not to the Fuhrer. Although he was not involved its actual writing, these ideas became part of the Theological Declaration of Barmen, approved in May of 1934 by the Confessing Church. Barmen is in our denomination’s Book of Confessions, and its banner hangs in the back of our sanctuary, notable for the crossed out swastika on it.
Bonhoeffer could have safely ridden out the war as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, but in 1939 he returned to Germany, convinced that he had to be there to have any say in some dimly glimpsed, hoped for future.
Even in from prison in that spring of 1944, Bonhoeffer was thinking about the future. From his cell, he penned a letter to a colleague’s infant son who was being baptized. The many-page letter includes these words near its end.
Today you will be baptized a Christian. All those great ancient words of the Christian proclamation will be spoken over you, and the command of Jesus Christ to baptize will be carried out on you, without your knowing anything about it. But we are once again driven back to the beginning of our understanding. Reconciliation and redemption, regeneration and the Holy Spirit, love of our enemies, cross and resurrection, life in Christ and Christian discipleship – all these things are so difficult and remote that we hardly venture any more to speak of them. In the traditional words and acts we suspect that there may be something quite new and revolutionary, though we cannot as yet grasp or express it. Our church, which has been fighting in these years only for its self-preservation, as though that were an end in itself, is incapable of taking the word of reconciliation and redemption to mankind and the world. Our earlier words are therefore bound to lose their force and cease, and our being Christian will be limited to these two things: prayer and righteous acts among men. All Christian thinking, speaking and organizing must be born anew out of this prayer and action.[1]
As he wrote his letter, churches all over Germany were still holding regular worship services, but Bonhoeffer clearly did not think such actions meant much. They had become too detached from the gospel, from the words Jesus spoke, and from the hope for that new day Jesus proclaimed –  the kingdom, the reign of God.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Visible Faith

I try not to engage in every Facebook debate that comes down the pipe, but I give in to temptation with some regularity. I have a terrible time leaving falsehoods or misunderstandings unchallenged, more so when these occur in my area of "expertise."

I recently felt compelled to comment on a "friend's" post where James Dobson vouched for Donald Trump's Christian faith. The post spoke of the disposition of his heart, which some reminded us, cannot be seen. Trump himself has used this argument in objecting to the pope's statements about him. And in these and other instances, Trump's heart is apparently supposed to negate (I was going to say "trump") his words and actions.

I struggle to understand how some Christians can defend this divorce faith from action. I too come from the Protestant tradition that emphasizes faith over works, but this emphasis never meant actions are unimportant. In fact, the model for faith and action is on display in today's reading from Acts.

Today's verses are part of the larger Pentecost narrative. After receiving the Holy Spirit, Peter addresses the crowd. He argues convincingly that the risen Jesus is the Messiah they have longed for, ending his address with a final dagger, "this Jesus whom you crucified."

The crowd is "cut to the heart" and pleads, "What should we do?" Peter tells them to repent and be baptized. In good Protestant fashion he says their former actions do not prevent God from embracing them, but that is hardly the end of the story. Not only is the call to repent a call to change (the basic meaning of the word), but we are shown the changed behaviors of the newly converted. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of the bread and prayers." This leads to even more radical change. "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

The letter of James highlights this relationship of faith to works. If faith in the heart does not lead to new behavior, it is not real faith. "So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead."

The American notion of faith as a private, personal affair seems indefensible when measured against the words of Jesus and his early followers. Yet the divorce of faith from action appears equally popular among all political persuasions and church denominations. My own faith too often flits about in my brain, at times provoking the best of intentions that never take on much substance.


When Jesus began his ministry he said, "Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near." Put another way, "Change, for a new day is coming." Yet we persist in our old ways even as we profess our faith.

There's a famous quote from G.K. Chesterton that speaks to this. "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried."

I wonder what might happen if enough of us actually tried it.

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Sunday, July 31, 2016

Sermon: God's Inner Turmoil

Hosea 11:1-11
God’s Inner Turmoil
James Sledge                                                                                       July 31, 2016

Church hymnals are usually organized into sections that cover topics, themes, special seasons, and so on. It’s helpful for people who plan worship services. If there is a baptism that Sunday, you can go to the section on baptism and look at the different hymns. Same with the Lord’s Supper.
When the Presbyterian Church came out with a new hymnal in the early 1970s, someone had the bright idea simply to put all the hymns in alphabetical order. Predictably, most people hated it. When you’re using the hymnal to plan the Christmas Eve service, no one wants “Angels We Have Heard on High” at the very front of the hymnal, “What Child Is This” at the very end, and other carols scattered throughout. You want to open to the Christmas section and find all of them in one spot.
The Presbyterian Hymnal in our sanctuary came out in 1990, once again featuring sections for Advent, Christmas, Lent, Easter, and so on. There are section for baptism and the Lord’s Supper and a section of Psalms. Right after the Psalms are about sixty hymns organized around the persons of the Trinity. That makes some sense. If you want to find a hymn about the Holy Spirit, you can turn to that section and see what’s there. Or you can find hymns about Jesus.
But I’ve always had a problem with how they labeled the Trinity sections. As I mentioned, there’s “Holy Spirit” and “Jesus Christ.” No problem with those. But then there’s a section simply labeled “God.” God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit; but that’s not the Trinity. The Trinity is God the Father (or Mother perhaps), God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. It’s not God and then something else called Jesus and the Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is truly God.
This idea that Jesus and the Spirit are somehow subordinate to God is probably the most common version of something called “functional Unitarianism.” It’s not true Unitarianism because we say that we believe in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But in practice, functionally, we often speak of God and then, on a slightly lower level, there’s Jesus and the Spirit, important but not really God.
I blame Greek philosophy for this problem. That may be overstating things, but Greek, philosophical notions of God predominated in much of the Greco-Roman world before Christianity ever showed up. And these Western ways of thinking didn’t always fit easily alongside the non-Western understanding of God from Judaism and most of the Bible, the understanding shared by Jesus and his followers.

Sermon video from July 24: It Starts with Water

On the day before Vacation Bible Camp began, this sermon was done as an extended children's time. The Creation story was told using "Godly Play," with the sermon itself spoken to the gathered children.

Audios of sermons and worship available on the FCPC website.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Sermon: It Starts with Water

Genesis 1:1-10, 26-27, 31-2:3 (Matthew 3:17-17)
It Starts with Water
James Sledge                                       July 24, 2016, start of Vacation Bible Camp

When I first became a pastor at a church in Raleigh, North Carolina, a more experienced pastor was very kind to me. Her name was Wylie, and she gave me a lot of good advice. She also invited me to be a part of group of pastors who gathered each week to discuss Bible passages for upcoming sermons. But before we talked about the Bible, we socialized, ate lunch, and talked about being pastors. One day, Wylie told us a story I’m going to share with you. I think I’ve shared it before, but it’s a good story and worth hearing more than once.
Wylie had gone to a big gathering of pastors from all sorts of denominations and traditions. She found a seat at one of many tables, and there the pastors introduced themselves to one another, telling their denomination, the church they served, how many members it had, and so on. One pastors asked the rest of them, “What day do you take off?” Because pastors work on Sunday, we often take a weekday off instead.
The pastors answered saying, “I take Monday off,” or “I take Friday off.” But one pastor thought taking any day off was a bad idea. “I never take a day off!” he shouted. “The devil never takes a day off.” My friend Wylie replied to him, “God does.”
That’s what the story we just heard says. God finishes with all the work of creation, and then God rests. God takes a day off. What’s more, God gives everybody the day off. The seventh day, the Sabbath, is “hallowed” the Bible says, which means it’s set apart for special purposes. And the main purpose is rest.
But we humans are not always good at resting. I recently read a story in the newspaper about people not using all their vacation time, working instead of resting. And even when we do vacation, we don’t always rest. We cram our vacations with travel and theme parks and activities, so much so that we’re often worn out when we return.

Monday, July 18, 2016

To What End?

The world would be a bigger mess than it already is without rules. Imagine if no one stopped at intersections. It's bad enough because a few don't follow the rules of the road. But rules are not an end in and of themselves. They are in service to some larger purpose, or at least they should be.

"Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy." This commandment or rule is one our society has disregarded to its detriment. The need for sabbath, for rest, is part of what makes us human. Many of us are frazzled and burnt out because we've not realized this, because we've imagined that this rule does not apply to us. This commandment is not simply some arbitrary rule. It is meant to safeguard our humanity.

Sabbath keeping as a rigorous, religious requirement seems to have developed during the time when the Babylonians carried off much of Jerusalem's population into exile nearly 600 years before the time of Jesus. In exile, with their Temple destroyed, Sabbath keeping became a way for the Hebrews to maintain a distinct, Jewish identity. The rule may have always been there, but during the Exile, it came to occupy a central place in what it meant to be a Jew.

The Sabbath rule is also one where Jesus regularly found himself in conflict with Jewish religious leaders. Most often it was when he healed someone on the Sabbath, but on at least one occasion the issue was Jesus' disciples plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath day, grabbing a bite on the move, if you will. But this constituted "work" and so was against the rules. But Jesus, who clearly kept the Sabbath himself, reminds his critics that the Sabbath (like all God's rules) is made for the sake of humanity, and not the other way round.

Many of us are prone to thinking of rules as constraining us and getting in our way as opposed to things that help us. The actress Katherine Hepburn supposedly said, "If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun," but I wonder if that observation doesn't arise from the sort of rule keeping that has forgotten the true purposes of the rule.

Religion seems particularly prone to confusing our rules for the larger purposes behind them. (We're certainly not the only ones with this problem. The Second Ammendment seems to have become an object of worship for many people in our day.) Perhaps this is because we are unsure of what our larger purposes actually are?

A favorite theology professor of mine was fond of saying that the true purpose behind all divine activity in the Bible was "true communion with God in true community with others." That sounds like as good a synopsis as any, and that raises the question of how our rules and required ways of doing things serve that larger end.

Very often we in religious communities seem far more interested in preserving our ways than we do in serving those larger purposes. We live in a time when true community is desperately needed, when our society is fractured into camps, each eyeing others with suspicion, fear, and sometimes hatred. My own, more liberal branch of Christianity often imagines that this is not a problem for us, and it's true that we are not as prone to certain sorts of rule-keeping legalism. Yet we often look down on what we suppose are "less sophisticated" versions of the faith, and we sometimes assume that our carefully thought out, high-brow forms of worship are inherently better.

For that matter, Christians of all stripes are depressingly prone to worrying more about their worship style than they are about true communion with God or true community with others.

I suppose I find myself thinking of such things because the congregation I serve is currently doing some intentional looking at who we are and what we are about. I have some real hopes for this process. Most of all, I hope we can find ways to focus more on how things we do as a church help create true communion with God and true community with others.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Sermon: Famine

Amos 8:1-12
James Sledge                                                                                                   July 17, 2016

We’re celebrating the baptism of Aemon Cashin today, something I love doing. It’s the same sacrament whether for infant or adult, but most baptisms here are young children. Along with the cute factor and joyfulness that goes with such baptisms, they also highlight our covenantal understanding of what it means to be the Church.
Our baptismal covenant mirrors Israel’s covenant with God in the Old Testament. Israel’s treaty or agreement, like other covenants, had expectations of all parties involved. God would be with Israel, help her and protect her. Israel, in turn, would abide by the Law, a gracious gift meant to create true community.
There is similar covenant language in the sacrament of baptism. We make promises to turn from sin and toward Jesus, to follow him as faithful disciples. We recite the Apostles’ Creed and make covenant commitments to one another. Parents “promise to live the Christian faith, and to teach that faith to (their) child?” We as a congregation promise “to guide and nurture Aemon by word and deed, with love and prayer, encouraging him to know and follow Christ and to be a faithful member of his church?”[1] And God embraces Aemon, making him a brother of Jesus
In baptism, parents, child, congregation, and God become covenant partners. Down the road, Aemon will get to decide if he wants to be part of this covenant and make his own profession of faith, but God is fully committed to Aemon already, just as his parents are fully committed to him before he is really able to love them back.

The biblical notion of covenant with God was rooted in the covenants or treaties common to the ancient Middle East. Larger kingdoms or empires often entered into covenants with less powerful kings or chieftains, promising to come to their aid in exchange for tribute, providing soldiers when the bigger kingdom went to war, and so on. If the smaller kingdom failed in its obligations, the larger likely would punish it, even take it over entirely. If the larger kingdom failed to keep its obligations, the smaller might seek alliances with another.
Israel could describe its relationship with God in such treaty terms, at times sounding almost contractual. Be good and get God’s blessings. Break the rules and get punished. Some Bible verses say just that, and you can find people in our day who say the same. Be good, believe the correct things, and God will bless you and admit you to heaven. Break the rules and God will punish you, maybe eternally.
But Israel does not picture God solely as a powerful king with whom they have a treaty. The covenant is also relational with God seen as spouse, shepherd, or loving parent. This loving God may punish Israel for failing to keep covenant, but it is always in hopes of restoring the covenant, of reconciliation and restored relationship.