Sunday, December 17, 2017
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
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, December 3, 2017
Sunday, November 26, 2017
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.
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Entrusted with a Great Treasure
James Sledge November 19, 2017
If you’ve ever explored the buildings here at Falls Church Presbyterian, you’ve no doubt noticed that things have been added onto many times over the decades. The back of the sanctuary, the narthex, and steeple date to the first construction in the 1880s. Since then there’ve been a number of additions, expansions, and renovations, the last being the new Fellowship Hall, kitchen, and classrooms added less than fifteen years ago.
As with many congregations, these building and renovation projects involved stepping out on faith. Would there be enough money to pay the mortgage? Was the hope that the church would grow well founded? Prior to seminary, I was on the Session of a church that decided to build a new sanctuary. It’s now clear that was a great decision, but at the time, it was a difficult one. Many were worried about the cost and the risk the congregation was taking on, not to mention worries that growth might change the character of the congregation.
I was not here for any discussions about whether to build or renovate, although I was here for the discussion on hiring a full time youth director. That’s not permanent like a building, but it also involved stepping out on faith, of saying this is an investment in the future and we trust that the money will be there.
When you’re part of a church that isn’t brand new, you inherit a treasure from those who came before you. You’re entrusted with structures, a music program, children’s programs, Christmas Eve and Easter traditions, and so on. That means that most churches have to decide how to take good care of their treasure and how to utilize it well, But decisions about utilizing treasure sometimes run afoul of the desire to care for and protect it.
In the first church I served as pastor, the Mission Committee wanted to find a significant, ongoing project that would engage a lot of volunteers on a regular basis. Such an opportunity almost fell in our lap. A local homeless ministry was building a day center not from us that would allow them to accommodate more people, and they were seeking additional churches to host five homeless families for a week at a time, multiple times a year.
It was quite a system. On Sunday afternoon, a truck arrived with portable beds and mattress that had been taken out of another church early that morning. Volunteers would set up five bedrooms for families who arrived that evening and left around seven each morning. Supper and breakfast were provided, along with bag lunches for the day. The following Sunday morning, volunteers would turn bedrooms back into classrooms and put the beds back in the truck that would move on to another church later that afternoon.
It seemed a perfect fit. We had a number of classrooms that were not used during the week. The day center was less than a mile away, making transportation back and forth easy to manage. It needed a lot of volunteers to set up and tear down, serve as hosts, make supper and bag lunches, spend the night, tutor children, etc. It was exactly the sort of opportunity the Mission Committee was looking for, and so they brought a recommendation to the Session that we become an Interfaith Hospitality Network congregation.
Sunday, November 12, 2017
Like Staying Woke
James Sledge November 12, 2017
“Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” So says Jesus to his disciples in a final round of teachings just prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Our reading is part of a larger section sometimes referred to as a second sermon on the mount. It takes place on the Mount of Olives, and just as happened in the previous mountain sermon, Jesus sits down, the pose of a rabbi who is teaching, and his disciples come to him.
They ask about the timing of God’s coming new day and the signs to look for. Jesus speaks of suffering and difficulties, but nothing that will allow anyone to predict the event. When it gets here, you will know it, says Jesus, but don’t listen to anyone who claims to know the date.
Then Jesus tells a series of four parables, each addressing some aspect of his return and a final judgment. The first two speak of wisdom and foolishness in regards to awaiting Christ’s return, with our reading is the second of that pair. It features wise and foolish bridesmaids, but exactly what sort of wisdom Jesus is recommending is not immediately obvious. He says, “Keep awake,” but both the wise and foolish bridesmaids fall asleep.
Parables typically are not allegories, but this one may well be. Jesus is the bridegroom who appearance is delayed, and the bridesmaids, all of them, are followers of Jesus who have made plans to be there for the great banquet, the glorious feast of God’s new day.
That makes this a parable about and for insiders, followers of Jesus. That makes it a parable addressed directly to us, challenging us to think about whether we are wise or foolish. But what exactly does that mean? Both wise and foolish fell asleep. So what does Jesus mean when he says to us, “Keep awake.” ?
There may be a couple of hints found in Jesus’ earlier Sermon on the Mount. Two issues from that sermon seem to reappear in this parable. In both, Jesus speaks of those who call him “Lord, lord,” expecting to be embraced when the kingdom arrives, only to be told that Jesus does not know them. In the first sermon, these people are ones who did not do God’s will. Does the foolish bridesmaids lack of oil somehow speak about this?
Wednesday, November 8, 2017
Sunday, October 29, 2017
Passionate, Fearless Love
James Sledge October 29, 2-17
A version of today’s gospel reading appears in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, which all follow the same basic timeline. But only Matthew has the question about the greatest commandment as part of Jesus’ final confrontation with his opponents. In Matthew, this is the last effort to catch Jesus in some mistake, to outwit him in some way.
Perhaps Matthew wants to highlight two issues for his Jewish congregation before he gets to Jesus’ final teachings and then his arrest and crucifixion. Perhaps he wants to highlight Jesus as the faithful and reliable interpreter of the Law and the Prophets, the chosen successor to Moses, and who Jesus is as Messiah, the anointed one of God.
Using a quote from the Psalms to talk about Jesus as Messiah probably doesn’t grab us like it might have people in Jesus’ day. The way Jesus uses scripture to prove his point was typical of rabbis in his day, but it doesn’t sound all that convincing to me, or perhaps to you.
But Jesus’ words on the greatest commandment have resonated down through the centuries. People with little connection to church may well be familiar with, “Love God with heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus of course quotes from what we call the Old Testament. After all, he’s been asked which commandment from there is number one. Jesus names his choice, calling it “the greatest and first commandment,” but he’s unwilling to stop with just one, adding a second that is “like it.” Taken together, says Jesus, obeying these two commandments will keep you in line on pretty much all the rest.
In my experience, many people tend to move quickly past the greatest and first commandment, turning the focus on loving neighbor. That happens in the gospel of Luke, where the person questioning Jesus has an immediate follow-up. “And who is my neighbor?” To which Jesus responds with the parable of the Good Samaritan.
But we’re in Matthew, not Luke, and there is no follow-up to Jesus’ statement on the greatest commandment. There are simply the two commandments, and one of them is the greatest and first commandment. It is also the longer commandment, with more elaborate language. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And so I wonder if we wouldn’t do well not to be in a rush to get to the one about loving neighbor. I wonder if we wouldn’t do well to linger here a bit and consider what it means to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind.
Monday, October 23, 2017
Sunday, October 22, 2017
Whose Image Is This?
James Sledge October 22, 2017
In the time of Jesus, Palestine was a colony under Roman rule. Rome allowed a certain level of self-governance, but they retained ultimate power. They levied heavy taxes, a burden that often fell especially on the poor. Many Jews resented the Romans, their armies and taxes. Open rebellion had broken out around the time of Jesus’ birth, and would break out again 30-some years after his death.
At the same time, many Jews found Roman occupation beneficial. It brought peace and stability to an unstable region. Commerce benefited from Roman presence. Besides, except for brief periods here and there, Israel had been occupied by some power for centuries.
In our gospel reading this morning, pro-Roman Herodians become unlikely partners with Pharisees in an effort to trap Jesus. Normally you wouldn’t expect these two groups to have anything to do with one another, but here they join forces against Jesus, hoping to force him into either a pro-Rome or anti-Rome statement. “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”
The question is more difficult and volatile than it may appear. These taxes could only be paid with Roman coins such as the one pictured on the bulletin. Its inscription says “Caesar Augustus, son of God, Father of His People” on one side and “Tiberius Caesar, Son of Augustus, High Priest” on the other. For Pharisees, who meticulously tried to keep the Commandments, this coin, with its divine pretensions and graven image, violated a couple of them. They objected to using such coins at all. Perhaps that’s why they needed the Herodians’ help, but our scripture simply says they brought (Jesus) a denarius, and “they” seems to include the Pharisees. Strange that they appear unfazed by this idolatrous coin.
“Whose head is this, and whose title?” Jesus asks. That is not in dispute; it is the emperor’s. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Or as some of us learned from an earlier Bible translation, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…”
Speaking of Bible translations, I’m not sure why our Bible translates Jesus’ question, “Whose head is this?” The word Matthew uses is the same word in his Bible’s creation story where God says, “Let us create humankind in our image.”
When the Emperor Augustus or Tiberius put their image on coins, it is an explicit statement about whose coins they are. It’s not unlike the branding that companies practice today when they emblazon their names and logos on their buildings and equipment.
“Whose image is this?” asks Jesus. “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
But as so often happens when people try to trap Jesus, he does not really answer their question. He doesn’t say what things are the emperor’s and what are God’s. Does the emperor’s image on the coin really make it his? And what of the image of God that we bear?