Tuesday, November 6, 2018
Sunday, November 4, 2018
Big Rocks First
James Sledge November 4, 2018
As seminary student, I did my summer internship at a small town church in eastern North Carolina. They provided housing for me in a mother-in-law suite attached to the home of a widowed, Jewish grandmother named Reba. As far as I know, Reba, her son, and his family constituted the entire Jewish population of that town.
Reba’s house and my suite shared an enclosed porch, and she and I would sometimes sit out there and chat. On one occasion she offered that differences between faiths didn’t really matter. As long as people believed in God and tried to be good, that was enough.
Now I don’t know that Reba actually thought there were no significant differences between Jews, Christians, Muslims, and so on. Her statement may have been a mixture of her being very hospitable to me combined with a tactic she had long used to blend in as a religious minority. I don’t really know. But there are many people who see the “All faiths are basically the same” idea as a good way to bridge religious differences.
Given the problems some religious folks cause, it’s tempting to think that blurring the distinctions between groups might help. But a vague, blurry, Christian identity turns out to be difficult to pass on new generations of believers. It doesn’t require liturgies, worship services, or institutions. And I wonder if the widely held notion of Christianity as intolerant, anti-gay, pro-Republican, and so on, isn’t partly the result of more liberal Christians having blurred our identity to the point that the Christian part isn’t really visible to others.
If someone who had not grown up in a church walked up to you and asked, “What does it mean to be a Christian? What’s non-negotiable?” how would you respond? What would you tell them beyond, “Believe in God and try to be good”?
When Jesus is asked about what is non-negotiable, he answers by quoting from Scripture, our Old Testament. He starts with the Shema from Deuteronomy. “Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and will all your soul (or life), and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He was asked for the commandment that is “first of all,” but he adds as second, from Leviticus, “You shall love our neighbor as yourself.”
Monday, October 29, 2018
Sunday, October 28, 2018
What Do We Want from Jesus?
James Sledge October 28, 2018
Along with The Apostles’ Creed, Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession of Faith, and others, our denomination’s Book of Confessions includes something called A Brief Statement of Faith. Written in the 1980s, it has three, distinct sections, one for each person of the Trinity. The section on the Holy Spirit contains these words. “In a broken and fearful world the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples 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.”
The Spirit gives us courage to live as disciples. If we are the Church, if we are followers of Jesus, the Spirit will help us to do these things. And today’s gospel has me thinking specifically about courage “to hear the voices of peoples long silenced.”
In recent years, the Black Lives Matter movement and the Me Too movement have tried to lift up voices long ignored, silenced, and disregarded. Some folks have listened, have become more aware of the systemic ways that black voices, female voices, and other voices from the margins have been ignored and discounted.
In our gospel reading, a blind beggar named Bartimaeus demands to be heard, but “many” among the crowd and disciples insist that he be quiet. His voice is an intrusion that they do not want to hear, although the gospel story isn’t clear on why. Jesus has made a name for himself by healing people. It’s a big part of the show that crowds come to see, so why shut down Bartimaeus?
Monday, October 22, 2018
Beloved and Invited to New Life
James Sledge October 21, 2018
I read an column in The Washington Post the other day entitled, “As Jesus said, nice guys finish last.” It quoted a tweet from Jerry Falwell, Jr., president at Liberty University. “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys’. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”
The column went on to note that it is hardly a new thing for religious folks to want powerful politicians to support their agenda. For much of European and American history, faith and power have had something of a symbiotic relationship. Rulers made sure that the population participated in the faith, and the faith gave spiritual blessing to the ruler.
This sort of deal almost always ends up compromising and cheapening the faith. In our American experience, Christianity ended up being used to buttress slavery, sanction the genocide of Native Americans, and support imperialism in Africa and Asia. More recently, evangelical leaders were singing the president’s praises on the very day that thousands of migrant children were moved, under the cover of darkness, to a detention facility in Texas.
Wednesday, October 17, 2018
Sunday, October 7, 2018
Fake Questions and Kingdom Ways
James Sledge October 7, 2018
I don’t think we’ve done it here during my time as pastor, but both of my previous congregations did a stewardship program called the “Grow One Challenge.” This challenge was based on the fact that very few church members tithe. Never mind how often a pastor calls for the offering with “Let us bring our tithes and offerings…” statistics show that tithers are as rare as liberal Republicans.
And so the “Grow One Challenge” is a plan both to help church members move toward the biblical notion of the tithe, giving the first ten percent, the first fruits, to God. Recognizing that the typical Presbyterian gives something closer to two percent, this challenge knew that asking people to jump from one or two percent to ten was an impossible task. And so people were encouraged to grow one, one percentage point that is, toward the tithe. The pledge cards accompanying the program even had little charts on the back that would help you do the math.
The program seemed to work pretty well. We had some pretty big jumps in giving when we first used it. But I also had a rather experience. It happened in both churches and it happened repeatedly. People asked me, “Am I supposed give ten percent of my income before or after taxes?” They almost always grinned as they asked.
I don’t think there was ever I time where this was a real question. They weren’t filling out their pledge card and wanting to know if it was this amount or that. More often it was just a joke, but sometimes it was a way of muddying the waters, of charting loopholes.
The Pharisees in our scripture aren’t making a joke, but they may well be grinning. Their question is not a real one. They already know what the law says. They’re merely hoping Jesus’ answer will make some folks angry. There were disagreements in Jesus’ day, not about whether divorce was legal, but about valid reasons for it. The Pharisees hope Jesus will come down on one side and upset those on the other.
Tuesday, October 2, 2018
Sunday, September 23, 2018
Getting Our Mojo Back
September 23, 2018 James Sledge
I spent much of my childhood and youth in Charlotte, NC, back in the days when TV had a total of six or seven channels. Of these, the CBS affiliate dominated the local market and also owned the largest radio station. It had a number of high profile, charity events each year, but the one I recall the most vividly was an annual on air blood drive.
They advertised it heavily. Corporate sponsors provided food, refreshments, and gifts. Radio and TV personalities worked the event. CBS sent in stars from various shows, and all during the day they would have live broadcasts interviewing donors, talking about how easy is was, how almost painless it was.
The event was always a huge success with more than a thousand people donating blood. The Red Cross blood bank would be as full as it ever got, but this blood drive never seemed to convert many into regular donors. Year after year, most of those interviewed were first time donors, and year after year, it wasn’t long before the Red Cross was making pleas to the public about critically short blood supplies. The gifts, glitz, celebrities, and chance to be on TV drew in lots of people, but when it was all over, they went back to old patterns, ones that didn’t include giving blood.
A similar pattern showed up in the early Jesus movement. The gospels report huge crowds coming out to see this miracle working, charismatic, teacher-prophet-messiah. But by and large, the crowds saw the show, perhaps got a healing, and then went home to their old lives.
The early reflected this. It was a small movement, and you see that in the New Testament. In his letters, the Apostle Paul deals with questions about what parts of normal, civic participation are out of bounds for followers of Jesus, questions that arise because the Christians are a tiny minority. So too some of the gospels address communities struggling to remain faithful when doing so may get them ostracized from polite society.
We tend to think of the Bible as a public book, but the individual components of the New Testament – which didn’t really exist as we know it for a few hundred years after Jesus – were not understood that way. They were not used to spread the Christian message but to help existing Christian communities deal with issues that they faced. The books that would become the New Testament weren’t for the masses, but for the dedicated few.
It’s easy to see why the early Jesus movement tended to be small. While Jesus might have made a big splash and attracted a lot of gawkers, people hoping for a healing, or a political messiah to take on the Romans, many of Jesus’ teachings were not real crowd pleasers. The teachings we heard this morning are no exception.