Sunday, January 21, 2018

Sermon: Insane Discipleship

Mark 1:14-20
Insane Discipleship
James Sledge                                                                                       January 21, 2018

At our session meetings (Session is the discerning and governing council for a Presbyterian church.) we always spend some time discussing a passage of scripture. At the January meeting, we discussed our gospel passage for today.
For this particular discussion, I had primed the pump a bit by including some discussion questions in the agenda. “What differences do you see between the two sets of brothers? Do those differences make it harder for some to follow Jesus? What gets in the way of our following Jesus? In the way of the church following Jesus?”
We started with the first question, quickly noting what many of you may have also noticed. The two sets of brothers appear to come from different circumstances. Simon and Andrew have only casting nets to toss from the shore, meaning they are likely subsistence fishermen. James and John, on the other hand, are part of a family business that has employees. The gospel writer emphasizes this for us by saying precisely what these two sets of brothers leave behind when the go with Jesus. Simon and Andrew leave only their nets, but James and John leave their father in the boat with the employees.
We discussed the impact that having a little or having a lot has on being able to follow Jesus. There were a variety of thoughts on this, but most of us agreed that it gets harder to let go of what you have the more that you have. Jesus says as much in his teachings, pointing out what a hindrance wealth is to becoming part of God’s new day.
But then one of our elders observed that for both sets of brothers, what happens is “insane.” They drop everything and go off with this Jesus fellow who just happens by and calls to them. As far as we know from the story Mark’s gospel tells, they’ve never met Jesus, perhaps never even heard of him.
That is insane, and the relative wealth of the different brothers seems not to make any difference at all. We might have expected James and John to struggle a bit more. They were leaving a lot more behind. The gospel writer has made a point of describing the different circumstances of these sibling pairs, but then it plays no role in what happens. Both pairs drop everything and go with Jesus. What on earth accounts for such insane behavior?

Monday, January 15, 2018

Undomesticating Jesus and MLK

Yesterday I preached a sermon from 1 Samuel 3 that wondered how prophets such as Martin Luther King, Jr. are able to hear God speak, able to catch divine visions or dreams. The sermon was written well before President Trump made his remarks about immigrants from sh**hole countries.
Those remarks made me contemplate a different sermon using the gospel reading for the day instead, John 1:43-51, which includes a comment about how Jesus’ hometown was considered a sh**hole country. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” But in the end I decided I didn’t want to do an entire sermon on Donald Trump’s racism.
Still, the confluence of Trump’s comments, the MLK holiday, and the president’s own proclamation honoring Dr. King on Friday, still has me feeling that I need to say something more than I did in worship yesterday. (I did note the gospel reading and its implications prior to the 1Samuel sermon.) I cannot imagine the prophet Martin not speaking out when immigrants of color are disparaged while ones from Scandinavia are lauded.
The strange contrast of President Trump honoring Dr. King on the day after the president’s racist remarks makes me worry about King’s legacy. That Trump could honor him while consistently acting in ways that would have appalled King says something about how King has become a revered image with much of his prophetic speech conveniently removed. Increasingly Dr. King is known by a few pithy and uplifting quotes. His scathing words against moderate whites, his resistance to the Vietnam War, and his outcry against police brutality are rarely mentioned. King has been sanitized and domesticated.
There are too many photographs and too much TV footage for King to be stripped of his blackness. Were that not the case, he could perhaps be made blonde and blue-eyed, totally domesticated in the manner of Jesus. Have you ever seen a depiction of Jesus as African and been jarred by it? But a fair-skinned, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus seems fine?
There is no better way to rob prophets and Messiahs of their power than by domesticating and honoring them. I fear that is happening to Dr. King, and I know it has already happened to Jesus. That people can profess to be Christian, followers of Jesus, and still loudly support Donald Trump, who so often stands diametrically opposed to Jesus’ teachings, reveals a Christianity that honors and celebrates Jesus without taking seriously anything he says.
Jesus reserved his most scathing remarks for wealth and for smug, respectable religious leaders. He came from a sh**hole part of Palestine and was happy to spend much of his time hanging out with those whom respectable people thought were sh**holes. He had special concern for the poor and oppressed, insisted that his followers not defend themselves when struck, demanded love of enemies as well as friends, and required disciples to give up their own good and willingly embrace suffering for the sake of his ministry. That Christians so seldom look like this is an indictment of the Church and of the religion that claims the name Christ.


Last year I saw the Oscar nominated, 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin. (If you’ve not seen it, it will be airing soon on PBS.) Baldwin has never become enough of an icon that there’s been much need to domesticate him. He remains a figure of his own telling, his own words, unlike King, who is being transformed into a comfortable, benign Negro who is no threat to the white, American status quo.
The real Dr. King terrified much of white America, and many of his words would terrify people still if they were spoken aloud and celebrated. So too Jesus terrified the powers that be in his day. Jesus was no sweet, saccharine Savior interested only in granting tickets to heaven for those who “believed in him.” He proclaimed the coming reign of God, a new day when the poor and oppressed would be lifted up and the rich and powerful pulled down. And he warned those who would follow him about honoring him without doing as he said. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
If Christians are to wear that name in any meaningful way, and if America is to honor Martin Luther King in any real sense, we will have to un-domesticate them. We must listen to them speak. We must let them startle and challenge us. We must let them change us, or they have become little more than empty symbols. They are neither prophet nor Messiah. They are idols, pocket talismans we expect to bless us on demand.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Sermon: Listening for God

1 Samuel 3:1-10
Listening for God
James Sledge                                                                                       January 14, 2018

The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  When I was young, and even sometimes as an adult, I’ve thought that it would be great to have lived in biblical times. How much easier faith would  I’d been there to see God act, to hear Jesus teach, to encounter a prophet filled with God’s Spirit and speaking directly to me.
But the opening of our Scripture reading this morning doesn’t sound much like that.  The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.  Sure, people knew stories of God acting in the past, but there wasn’t much current activity. I wonder if people at the time of our reading wished they had lived in an earlier time, when God’s activity had been more vivid and obvious. But for them, God’s word was rare. No dreams or visions to share. No prophets speaking God’s word directly to them.
The opening of our scripture doesn’t sound so different from today, although many of us were alive when one of God’s prophets did speak. I was just a child, but I remember. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet if there ever was one. God called him and gave him a vision to share. If Dr. King had lived in biblical times, I suspect his famous speech at the Lincoln Memorial would have been written down with an introduction something like, “The vision that the prophet Martin was given about the things to come.”  
Dr. King used the term dream instead of vision Perhaps he thought that would work better with both religious folks and more secular types who don’t think much of prophetic visions.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Sermon: The View from Our Bubbles

Isaiah 9:2-7
The View from Our Bubbles
James Sledge                                                                                       December 24, 2017

Recently I was talking with someone about how we American increasingly live in little bubbles of our own making. Our Facebook and Twitter accounts are often echo chambers of like-minded people passing around articles and statements that nearly everyone there already agrees with. Because of the high cost of housing around here, many of our children attend schools filled with people just like them.
Churches often reflect these bubbles. Martin Luther King once said that 11:00 on Sunday mornings was the most segregated place in America. It’s changed, but only a little. And in the identity driven politics of our time, churches are increasingly segregated by where members fall on the political spectrum. One more echo chamber. We also tend to be financially homogeneous. Even churches that do a lot of social justice work and advocacy on behalf of the poor often have no poor members. They just don’t fit into the church’s bubble.
Many of us spend much of our time in an affluent, privileged bubble. We have contact with people who aren’t part of our bubble, but it tends to be sporadic and at the edges of our lives. We can volunteer at our Welcome Table meal program and spend part of our afternoon with people from a different world, but we can step back into our bubble whenever we wish.
Our Welcome Table guests aren’t part of our world, and can be easy to imagine that the bubble they occupy is at least partly of their own choosing. So too, we like to think we earned a spot in our comfortable, well-off bubble, our bubble that insulates us and makes it easier to ignore those outside it.
Inside our cozy, comfortable bubble, I wonder if we can really hear the Christmas story, hear it in the way the author intended. Neither the Christmas story nor our Isaiah prophecy are written for comfortable, secure people. Only shepherds attend Jesus’ birth. If these shepherds lived in our time, they would occupy a very different bubble from ours. Some of us would likely joke about their being from West Virginia or living in a double-wide. They would probably like hunting, love their guns, and consider us snobby elites.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sermon: Savoring Old Stories

Isaiah 35:1-10
Savoring Old Stories
James Sledge                                                                           December 17, 2017

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find it hard to watch the news these days. O I’ll watch the network news if I’m home in the evening. And I’m one of those dinosaurs who still goes out to pick my newspaper from the driveway every morning. I look at every page most mornings, but I don’t always read all the articles. It’s too depressing.
I can only read so much about the latest shooting, or the terrible wildfires and devastating hurricanes and how both will likely become  more common with climate change. I can only stomach so much information about racial hatred going mainstream, or about legislation that benefits the wealthy at the expense of the poor.
I see many online who respond to all this with a visceral anger. I can still feel anger, but I’m probably more inclined toward despair.
I’m reasonably certain that others are struggling with today’s news as well. Over the past year, I’ve frequently seen a cartoon from The New Yorker’s David Sipress posted on social media. A well-dressed man and woman walk on a city sidewalk, and the woman says, “My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to stay sane.”
I assumed that the cartoon was drawn for our current situation, but turns out it’s from the 1990s and Sipress can’t even remember what events inspired it. He did republish it in a New Yorker article earlier this year about how he’s trying to stay sane these days. A prominent strategy is rationing his intake of news.
Of course other people have more personal reasons for anger or despair, from those facing terrible disease or tragedy to those who constantly must navigate the institutional racism of our culture to those who’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted but felt they could do nothing for fear of losing their jobs, healthcare coverage, and respectability.
A time with the news being troubling and depressing, when people feel anger or despair, is the setting for the prophecy we just heard. So too, Mary’s Magnifcat is spoken into a time when Israel was under the thumb of Rome, when being poor or disabled or widowed or orphaned was often a death sentence, when hope for the future seemed grim.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon: Countercultural Preparation

Isaiah 11:1-9
Countercultural Preparation
James Sledge                                                                                       December 10, 2017

How many Christmas shows have you seen so far? Many that I grew up with have already made their annual appearance. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas have all run at least once. It’s amazing their staying power. Rudolph first ran in 1964, and Charlie Brown the following year.
I’ve seen these programs so many times that I can easily recall scenes from them. In A Charlie Brown Christmas, Linus explains the true meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown, reciting from the gospel of Luke. “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.”
The story Linus tells is well known to many of us. Like the Christmas shows themselves, we encounter it every season. It is warm and familiar. For me it evokes memories of long ago Christmas pageants and my father reading it before bed on Christmas Eve.
The story is nostalgic for many of us, and so we may overlook how odd and subversive it is. In the midst of imperial Roman might, in the shadow of a Caesar called “Lord, Savior, Son of God,” a rival king is born, a different Savior and Son of God. Amidst the pageantry and royal finery of empire, the birth of a competing Lord is witnessed only by shepherds.
The contrast is absurd. Caesar, with all the might a of superpower at his disposal versus a baby, his parents, and a small entourage of dirty shepherds. What chance does this new king have? Why tell such a ridiculous story? Why would anyone choose to align themselves with Jesus rather than the emperor and all his vast wealth and power?
Our reading from Isaiah this morning has its own fanciful, absurd scenario. Wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, lion and calf, and children playing with poisonous snakes. It’s lovely and all. It makes for a great painting, but if anything, it is even more ridiculous than Jesus as an alternative to Caesar. It can’t really happen. It’s against the natural order of things.
But there is another scene in our reading that is much less absurd. It speaks of one from the house of David who will have God’s spirit, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. This one will truly discern the will of God and so bring justice for the poor and weak. Yes, the scene lapses into a bit of hyperbole at the end, but the core of it is not at all fanciful, not at all ridiculous. Indeed we claim these very things for those we baptize.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Sermon: Sheep, Goats, Identiy Politics, and the Way

Matthew 25:31-46
Sheep, Goats, Identity Politics, and the Way
James Sledge                                                   November 26, 2017 – Christ the King

In the past, I’ve questioned whether it might be time to retire the term “Christian.” To my mind it has become a meaningless label that anyone can bestow on themselves. The label tells little about how a person acts. Quite often it does not mean that the person diligently seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus. It’s simply a label that wants to claim some bit of divine blessing for that person and their views. Hillary Clinton says she is a Christian. Donald Trump says he is one. Some members of the alt-right insist they are Christian. And Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore claims to be a champion for Christians.
Speaking of Roy Moore, the recent controversies around charges that he preyed on high school students when he was in his thirties, along with ardent support for him from some evangelical Christians, have prompted a number of articles and blog posts about the term “Christian” losing its usefulness. Moore helped this process along when he was the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice. He insisted on a display of the Ten Commandments, even after the US Supreme Court ruled that unconstitutional. In so doing, he only drug the term “Christian” further from any notion of doing what Jesus said, instead coopting the term as one more label in the identity politics that have so divided our culture.
When you think about it, the Ten Commandments are a rather odd choice for a Christian symbol, Yes, the commandments are in our Bible, but there is nothing distinctly Christian about them. They don’t come from any teaching of Jesus. Why not the Beatitudes? Why not “Love your enemies.”? Why not, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of  my Father in heaven.”?
We seem to have reached a point where “Christian” is such an empty label that we have to modify it to give it any real meaning: Evangelical Christian, Mainline Christian, progressive Christian, and so on. And even then, these labels likely tell us more about people’s politics than about how serious they in actually following Jesus.